Archive for the ‘not-writing’ Category

Yellowstone Park

I grew up in Montana, in an area usually called either Four Corners or Bozeman Hot Springs. It’s a wide spot in the road about 10 miles outside of Bozeman and about 80 miles north of West Yellowstone, the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park, and about the same distance from Gardiner, the north entrance. We didn’t have a lot of money for entertainment, so one of our favorite things for a Sunday was to pack a lunch in the car and head to the park for the day.

Back then the Gallatin Valley was mostly ranch and grazing land and there was a thriving dairy industry. We’d stop at Heap’s Cheese in Gallatin Gateway on the way south to get fresh cheese curds to go with our spam and crackers, then drive down Gallatin Canyon looking for deer and sometimes mountain sheep. Back then there wasn’t any Big Sky, just Soldier’s Chapel framed against the distant Lone Mountain (photo by Jeff Clow).

Usually we’d go down to Old Faithful to catch an eruption, then drive north via Norris or Canyon to Mammoth to visit the Terraces (an essential part of the trip was listening to my mother lament how the terraces had become much dryer since the 1959 earthquake). If we were lucky, we’d see a moose, or a few elk. When I was very young we’d often see a black bear begging for garbage, but after they took steps to separate the bears and the people, sightings were rare. Mostly we went for the thermal features and the scenery; animal sightings couldn’t be counted on except in winter in the Lamar Valley, where the buffalo and elk herds retreated.

All that changed after the massive fires the late 80’s. Dense lodgepole pine forests turned into piles of charred smoking timber, black as far as the eye could see.

And the eye could see pretty far with the lodgepole desert no longer blocking the view. Spring came, and with it new grass, new trees, new vistas — and most of all, vastly expanded habitat for the animals. Grizzlies, black bears, wolves, mountain sheep and goats, coyotes, sandhill cranes, eagles, ospreys, and of course buffalo, elk, and deer.

Last weekend while I was back visiting family, my brother and I went through the park again, accompanied by his wife. We saw a wolf gorging on a freshly killed elk (probably roadkill) just across the river from the road outside of Mammoth. We saw a grizzly only just out of hibernation, and a herd of male mountain sheep who were apparently killing time while waiting for the females to give birth. We were hoping to see newborn buffalo, but they were just starting to appear. The ranger said they’d seen three in the park. We saw one female clearly in labor, but she was going to be a while and we didn’t wait. We even saw a gorgeous black-and-white raptor we couldn’t identify sitting above the river waiting for a fish. The pictures aren’t great because I took them on my cell phone. The animals were that close.

And as I sat there watching the bluebirds flash above the sagebrush and the snow sparkling in the sun, I thought, “No matter where I live, this place is where my heart is home.”

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They tell me I’m supposed to be feeling lighter by now, with all the junk and extra possessions gone. I’m supposed to be feeling new clarity, openness to new ideas, resurgent energy. And there are a few things I was glad to see the last of. Clean is good.

But mostly I feel naked and deprived and cold. The rooms feel bare and unwelcoming. My mind is as blank as the walls. I feel like I’m camped out in an empty building. I feel like all my supports have been pulled out from under me and I’m about to crumble into a heap of rubble.

I reach for Zenlike serenity, but I’m not finding it.

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from Erin’s reply to “Habit-forming”:

“So I stop trying to be good because Iā€™m afraid if I am, I have to be perfect.”

That really nails one of my biggest issues. To paraphrase the WBMason detectives, Good enough is never ever ever ever! good enough (official W. B. Mason video). I didn’t learn this attitude from my family. My family has always been encouraging and supportive without being pushy. It wasn’t until I hit school that I learned I wasn’t good enough.

Having learned to read so young I don’t even remember when it happened was a problem because I wasn’t following the rules. I was ahead of everybody else and that caused problems for the teachers. When it came time for recess, that was a problem too, because I wanted to stay inside and read (a whole wonderful library! With BOOKS! AND MORE BOOKS!) instead of playing with the other children.

Mrs. Chesnover called my mother in to discuss my problems. How I was too far ahead of the other kids and wouldn’t socialize with them and thought I was better than they were (that last is probably true and probably was a problem) and what were we going to do to keep me from turning into a houseplant? I didn’t mind that so much. What hurt was that my mother didn’t defend me. I think I knew even then that she couldn’t. She’s a very shy and private person and standing up to a determined authority twice her age was just not in her. (And it should be noted that Mrs. Chesnover was a lovely person, very kind and helpful to all of us kids, and I adored her — if it had been the hard-boiled Mrs. Olson who taught the upper grades talking down to Mom, I’d have reacted with the six-year-old’s version of “Fuck you.”)

So it wasn’t exactly betrayal I felt, although there was an element of that. It was confusion. Because basically I had just learned that as far as the rest of the world was concerned — in the eyes of someone I respected and cared about, and who cared about me — everything about my family and my life was wrong, because they had raised me this way and that wasn’t how they should have done it. And that no matter how good I was and how strong my progress in many areas, if it wasn’t the areas everybody else wanted me to be good at, it wasn’t good enough.

And the only way to figure out what those other areas were was — still is — to guess. I imagine they seemed quite obvious to nice kind well-intentioned middle-class Mrs. Chesnover, but I was a wild kid from the boonies with only the faintest idea of what civilization meant. I’ve learned more over the years, gotten better at anticipating what I’m supposed to do, but it’s still a learned thing. I didn’t grow up in this middle-class world and I’m still not fully comfortable here. I still don’t know what the standards are. I only know that it takes only a very small screwup to send me plunging back to being that shy scared confused second-grader again. Anything less than perfect is failing. And for far too much of the time, it’s easier to just fail in the first place without bothering to try first.

But I can’t go home any more either, not really. I’m not comfortable there and never was — never would have been. It’s possible that I had already discovered a fault line between my cozy childhood world and the possiblities of outside. I think it’s very likely that the fracture would have developed gradually instead of ripping open like that as I was exposed more and more to school and books and new ideas, but that in the end I would have ended up in the same place with the same feelings. But I think if it had happened that way, I would also have had more resources to cope with it and keep bridges across the gap, at least.

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I was reading an article a while back about some of the science behind the formation and maintenance of habits: “A dopamine-rich part of the brain named the striatum memorizes rituals and routines that are linked to getting a particular reward, explains NIDA’s Volkow*. Eventually, those environmental cues trigger the striatum to make some behaviors almost automatic.”

That makes sense from a functional point of view. If routine behavior becomes automatic, that leaves more of the brain to deal with the non-automatic, the dangerous and threatening, the creative and new. When the habits and routines function in the service of productive living, they let you get more done with less effort.

But what about bad habits? They keep us from getting things done. Shouldn’t the reward system guarantee that behavior like that doesn’t become entrenched? If I’d write when I sit down to write, if I’d work when I need to work, if I’d exercise when I said I’d exercise, I’d get things done, and I’d still have time to rest, relax my brain, enjoy spousal time, and watch the Red Sox.

But I don’t have those good habits. Instead I surf the web, play video games, and whine about how I’m not getting any writing done. The bad habits seem to be stronger than any benefit I’m getting.

Except — those habits must be giving me some benefit. What positive benefit am I getting from NOT writing, NOT exercising, NOT getting things done around the house? What does it think it’s protecting me from? If I start to be an efficient, competent, productive writer, and think of myself as an efficient, competent, productive writer, isn’t that better?

Well, maybe not. If I’m efficient, competent, and productive, I’ll make my friends who are struggling feel bad because they’re stuck and I’m not. If I’m efficient, competent, and productive this week, people will expect me to be like that all the time, and then they’ll push all the work on me, and I’ll be the responsible one in the kitchen working while everybody else plays, and I’ll never have any fun ever again. (There are family reasons why I think this; it’s not just random fear.) And since writing is part of the fun — it’s a cycle. If I write, I jeopardize my ability to write in the future.

The kicker is that the situation that causes me to feel this way has long since ceased to exist. Looking back on it with the eyes of an adult, I’m not sure it ever existed the way I perceived it. The differences I attributed to power and control were probably personality and preference. So I’m stuck in a defense that doesn’t work against an enemy that never existed, and still acting like everything in my life depends on maintaining that defense.

I think it’s going to take a long time to unwind that negative cycle. I’m going to have to start with small steps. If I get a little more done, I’ll feel a little better about myself, and if I feel a little better about myself and my situation, that will mean a positive reinforcement that contributes to the new habits. And so on.

It’s not the only issue going on, but at least now that I’ve recognized it, I can start to work on it.

* = Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and an authority on the brain’s pleasure pathway. Full article has aged out, but if you Google Volkow’s name you can find more of her research.

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The recent National Hockey League playoffs caused me some confusion. I kept getting confused about which Canadian team Boston was playing — I know they’re from Vancouver, but I always get the team name wrong.

My mother raised me by rather strict standards, and one category of words I wasn’t permitted to use included ethnic slurs. Over the years I’ve thrown off most of those rules. I drop f-bombs, take the name of the Lord in vain, and use sexual crudities with the best of them. But no ethnic slurs. I was floored when I found out an athletic team had actually chosen to call themselves by a name that I had learned was not to be used. And every time I start to say the name, my mind does a quick translation —

— and half the time I call them the Vancouver Canadiens. I mean, that’s the polite form of Canuck, right?

I suppose if I was a hockey fan, I’d get over it soon enough. But until I do, confusion will reign…

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Yesterday was the big appointment to discuss the issues related to my slightly elevated blood sugar. I was tense and worried, of course — because I knew exactly what she was going to say and I just didn’t want to face it.

Gotta pay more attention to my diet. Gotta lose the rest of this weight, or at least a good chunk of it. 40-45 pounds over the course of 8-12 months, basically. That won’t get me down to svelte but it will be down into a healthier range.

It shouldn’t be that hard. I lost almost 40 pounds a few years back, to get down to this size. I know what needs to be done and how to do it. But somehow this time, it’s hitting me in my insecurities and fears, down in the places where eating has been a source of pleasure and comfort over the years. It’s social glue. It’s a way to give and share love. A beer after a good golf match, a hot dog at the ball game, a brown toasty turkey for Thanksgiving dinner with all the family around, a wine country tour. And they’re telling me that all this is the enemy? (Note I’m not talking about things like pigging out at a buffet or eating an entire carton of Ben and Jerry’s at midnight after a bad day. I’ve done that, and it has its role, but I mean the ordinary pleasures of sharing meals and enjoying tastes.)

Well, no, the food is not the enemy and eating is not the enemy. There are things I used to eat freely that I have to think about and plan for, or maybe avoid because they’re not worth it. As I get older, there will be more of those things. That’s okay, there are plenty of good things left. The world is full of wonderful foods and flavors.

It’s not about giving anything up. It’s about finding the things I know are good for me, that build up my health and enhance my life. I know what many of those are, but I’ll have more to discover. As I focus on health and fitness, the rest will come.

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wet hiking

The early summer forest is beautiful in the rain — glossy and green, with the raindrops whispering secrets to the leaves and the streams gurgling more heartily from the extra runoff. Most of the spring flowers are gone and the summer ones aren’t here yet; the only contrast to the green and gray was the occasional big old white birch and now and then a white bunchberry flowers in the low foliage beside the path (bunchberry -- photo from Northeast Photo Journal).

We also saw one cluster of what I think were trout lilies, in an especially moist little valley full of puffy moss and rotting logs. Pretty bright yellow things.

Photo via Northeast Photo Journal — we only took a couple of photos because it was too wet to take the camera out. Too wet to stop to sketch. Too wet and slick to climb the granite slabs to the summit, but a wonderful hike anyway.

Tired, sore, with a bruised foot, but who cares?

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I’ve been copying the family recipes to give to the kids (specifically middlest in CA, who we visited recently). Trying to copy them, I mean. If all I had to do was copy them, I could have taken it to Office Max and used the photocopier.

The trouble is, I don’t really cook from recipes, exactly. They’re more like guidelines, or suggestions. In some cases they’re archaeological remnants of a recipe that used to exist somewhere, back in the days before blenders and slow cookers and in some cases even before electricity, modified and then modified again for modern use. But was the recipe ever updated? Of course not. I know how to make it — the actual text on the card is more like notes for a performance than an actual recipe.

So for each dish, I have to look at the ingredients list and see whether it even lists the ingredients I usually use, in the amounts I use. Then figure out whether I make it the way the directions say. If there aren’t directions, what do I need to add to make it make sense for somebody who hasn’t cooked much before? And how much does it make, anyway? Oh, and I suppose I’d better mention what baking dish or kettle to use. And what substitutions you can make. And how long to cook it. I mean, “until done” probably isn’t obvious to somebody who hasn’t made a cake before. And what about the family history that goes with, say, my grandfather’s recipe for chili (that I think is really Basque baked beans) that he got from the other sheepherders back when he was herding sheep in Colorado?

I got more done than I expected to, but not nearly as many as I had hoped. And Steven now has the only existing copy of that chili recipe with the directions and the story.

And I now have significantly more respect for anybody who has gone to all the work to actually put together a decent cookbook, no matter how uninspired.

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Perfect beach day

Yesterday a friend and I played hooky and went out onto the Cape for the day. Technically it wasn’t hooky for her since she had to do some work at the place she owns to rent out, but the beach time and the ice cream and the lovely lunch on the patio at Linx restaurant — definitely hooky šŸ˜€

Very relaxing, but it did not leave me energized and ready to work the way I thought it would. All I want is another beach day…

And then last night I had weird dreams. It was a very steampunk setting, which I suppose isn’t surprising considering what I’ve been writing, and people kept giving me things. My son gave me groceries and some of his stuffed animals. And a guy in topcoat and hat gave me a handful of different magnifying glasses. Very weird…

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art class 28 April 2011

Today’s painting. I like this one.

From misc stuff

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