Saturday, January 30, 2010

Combining negatives for a positive

I've been thinking recently about which forces have been most instrumental in shaping me over the years.

I am (somewhat but not terribly) surprised to report to you that the majority of shaping has been a direct result of primarily negative examples.

This has been especially true in my work. I once, long ago, was a high school English teacher. I came to this path because I was not too strong at math, and didn't particularly care for sciences other than biology and earth science, and I didn't really want to fix hair, and had no military dreams or technical prowess. After blacking out many other possible careers, I was eventually left with English, which is where I felt most at ease. And teaching, which at the time seemed a no-brainer when I considered job opportunities in the field of English. But think about it: I had to make my way to that path by eliminating all those other possibilities.

Then, since I'd focused on education, I considered teachers I had liked. I had blurry memories of my favorite teachers, their adorable mannerisms, their very tough standards which they explained firmly (and with a wink,) the way they genuinely listened to and considered what you said. But honestly? The sparklingly clear memories of teachers, in my mind anyway, were all the teachers I had abhorred. The teacher who addressed the class while facing the board, the teacher who spoke down to us and belittled our individual and collective abilities, the gossipy teacher who spoke inappropriately of others, and especially the teacher who played favorites. Those are the teachers I remember best, because I was daily affronted by their poor performances, their unfair and ineffective practices. The substandard or smug teachers are the ones who made me the teacher that I was; their voices and faces were the ones I saw in my mind—the images and memories that caused me to face the class when speaking, to hide the fact that I liked some students better than others (if a teacher denies this, he is a liar). Those disrespectful teachers are the ones who indirectly helped me bite my tongue when another instructor made me want to speak unkindly.

It was, and continues to be, true in my office work as well. There have been fellow workers who were admirable and dedicated...but they pale in my memory when compared to the silly colleague, the lazy or sloppy worker, the incessant talker who was merely tolerated by coworkers. The slackers were the people who helped me develop my office persona, because I could see so clearly why they fell short; those lackluster employees made it easy to strive to do the opposite of what they did. Even now, I listen to my bosses when they fume about annoying or frustrating employees; I note quietly to myself exactly which behaviors have driven the boss over the edge. I can try to avoid a behavior once I know it's a trigger.

Most often these days, though, it is pathetic parenting that helps me stay on track—in my role as a mother. I observe some moms and dads and the way they struggle to control and follow through with a toddler. I go to work and encounter the often sad results of neglectful parenting—and I see mouthy 'tweens and hear the unimaginable comments made to parents' faces. I am also witness to many well-to-do and weak-willed parents...and the monsters they've created; I watch, shaking my head in disbelief, as kids break rules and fail classes yet are consequently rewarded with technological toys and prizes. I see it all happening around me, and I continue to believe in more discipline and fewer privileges; I stand firm in my mantra that it's always easier to ease up than to crack down.

I've still managed to do a lot of things wrong in every job I've ever held. I'm certain I'm screwing up my son royally. We all are (or so the therapists would have us believe). Yet, I am regularly presented with really feeble examples—of workers, of parents, of people in general—and all of those shortcomings give me something to avoid, a wall from which to steer away. I suppose that many of us are better at remembering the negatives in life—periods of illness, of pain or suffering, of poverty—just as mean and hurtful comments stick with many of us better than kind ones. Yet, two negatives when multiplied make a positive.

I hope that people can make something positive from my less-than-stellar examples in life. Perhaps the indelible and bad impressions we've all left, and have seen others leave, can still multiply in a good way and become positives instead.

Or maybe I really am terribly pessimistic. Your call. ; }

Thursday, January 21, 2010

You paint with your eye

I had a college painting prof who annoyed his students regularly by telling us, "You paint with your eye, not your hand." It seemed ludicrous to me then. Yet, I've quoted him more than any other instructor I've had.

He was right. The best painter, the best artist in general, never trusts his brain. He looks again and again at the subject. He squints at it, studies it, steps away and comes back, but he does not trust his mind's memory or interpretation of that object, that scene, whatever it may be. The artist knows that his brain lies. The brain fills in details that aren't really there, details that it has imagined to make a picture more attractive, more exciting, more like another picture it's already seen, more bright or more dark or more—you get the idea.

The paintings I've done with which I've been most pleased are the paintings where I've been scrupulously, meticulously loyal to the true image before me. Those paintings challenged me more than others, because they forced me to question my existing internal photo album. My favorite cow painting troubled me at first, because the cow's ears seemed too low. But they really were that low. And when I accepted their actual location on the beast's head, and represented them the way they really look, I was happier with the finished result. Similarly, I did a flower painting last year that bothers me to this day. I didn't follow the real image; I made the petals too small, because in my mind, there were so many petals. In the photo? Not so many. But they were densely packed together, and my brain created far more than actually existed, and I got carried away...and then I was too emotionally committed to the existing half-finished painting to go back and start again from scratch.

I keep finding that life is like that, too. That's why I keep on quoting that darned professor. You really do paint with your eye. You see with your eye. And when you shut your eyes, or simply stop looking, you are certain to misrepresent the things before you, even those things upon which you've gazed more times than you can count. Your brain will happily conjure inaccurate detail after inaccurate detail, and your brain will like it. But it will not be truth. It will be what you wish were true.

I think back over my life, and I ponder situations that don't make me proud, periods of time I try to avoid recalling. I consider decisions that I've made—most of which have consequences that remain. I remember warning signs that were there all along, the same clear signs I stepped over and around in order to reach my destination. I saw those signs, registered them, and then I pushed them out of the way to grasp only what I wanted from the picture before me. I let my brain blur and darken the parts of the image that bothered me, that didn't seem right, the parts that did not quite match the ideal I'd already created inside my head. And down the road, when I could no longer deny what was quite clear, I was too committed to start over.

I need to embrace the "wiping of the canvas" mentality. I need to understand that my eyes will grow sharper when I admit to what they show me—even if it means wiping clean the canvas over which I've labored. It's hard to do, but liberating as well. At least, I've heard that it is. Now, please excuse me while I avert my gaze.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A little insulation, not just in winter

I don't watch the news. I haven't watched it for a long time now.

This is partly because I have a small child who sees all and who asks many questions. I am not eager to expose him to all the horrific events in the world. We do discuss the events of the world on a simplified surface level; he knows that a few years ago, some confused, angry men flew planes into buildings and hurt and killed many people. He doesn't understand it any better than I do. He knows that very recently, there was an earthquake far away and that it, too, hurt and killed people. He doesn't grasp how many; how could he? I don't even grasp how many. He knows that there are lots of fires on the news, and police cars, and robberies. He likes the flashing lights, and that usually distracts him sufficiently and he asks no questions about those things.

But he doesn't need to know yet that children are raped and beaten, starved even. He will have his entire life to learn about the cruelties that people impose on each other, not just on smaller ones but on other adults, too. He can go many more years without realizing that any object in the hands of an evil person can become a weapon. He doesn't need to know that sometimes, people take each other's lives. That sometimes the fire on TV has been intentionally set—that sometimes, it is set on the back of another human being. There is no need for such information to enter his impressionable, imaginative mind.

I don't want to shield him from reality. I suppose I just want to delay it a bit, until he's better able to handle it. (And when would that be, I wonder?) It doesn't help that all the local newscasts—and the national news broadcasts and weekly news magazines and semi-fictional police shows to boot—all of them delight in violence and gruesome detail and the apparent viewers that such gore rakes in. When they're all competing to see which one can shock the most, we are the losers. And as long as ratings rule the airwaves, I will continue to keep the box off far more than on.

I feel out of touch sometimes, but happily so. I read the news online, I skim the more conservative local newspaper on Sundays, and I listen to the radio sometimes; for now, those outlets will have to suffice. I don't know if I'll ever be a regular viewer again. It just doesn't fit too well with the mindset I'm striving to achieve. I know all those awful things occur; I won't insulate myself so much that I forget how fallen we really are. But I refuse to wallow in it, either. Our grown-up minds are no less impressionable and imaginative than my child's, after all.

..Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
-Philippians 4:8

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"Ma" is short for martyr

I'm talking here about the generalized definition of martyr, the "constant sufferer" definition. And the Ma in reference is poor Ma Ingalls, wife of Pa Ingalls, mother of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the woman who so famously penned her memoirs in the Little House series of books.

When I read these books years ago, I was amazed at how different Laura's life was from my own, and also amazed at how similar we were. There she was, living out of covered wagons and spending her days quilting, seeing very few other people, traveling to so many different homes in so few years. And yet, we both had pigtails, we both had sisters, we both loved to go barefoot and wade in creeks, we both got tired of being well-behaved. It was uncanny how our experiences could be so dissimilar and so parallel at the same time. I loved those books.

For years, I carried a happy, glossy memory of the entire series, the characters described therein, and the exciting events each title regaled.

Now, I'm re-reading the books aloud with my son. We'll see whether we finish the series; he may become bored near the end, as the main characters (girls) grow older and more of the story is about social interaction instead of howling wolves and screaming panthers. So far, he's liking them, even though there is much he doesn't understand yet. I explain some of the finer details, and other times we just keep reading; he gets the gist of the story, enough to maintain continuity and make sense of what's happening. I'm enjoying it as much as he is. Sort of.

What I don't recall from my first, childhood reading is the sadness and anger—mostly anger—that I'm feeling for Ma's sake this time around. When I was a kid, packing everything and moving across the country, stretch by stretch, seemed fun and enticing. Pa's enthusiasm and exuberance won me over time and again, as he described the great opportunities that always lay just out of reach, a few months into the future, a few miles down the road. Every day in the Ingalls home must have been an adventure, I'd think. People sang and played and never got hung up on material things the way they do now. It seemed romantic and dreamy, moving and building new homes and furniture and getting new work animals and finding out about new environs. Never a dull moment.

Now, I read the stories and I am Ma. I am the woman who is trying to care for three little girls, the youngest a toddler, without a washing machine or a microwave. I am the poor wife who must sew the family's clothes, the maidservant who is expected to cook meals and wash dishes with only an open fire and some water in a washtub, I am the unrecognized head of the household who must hold it together when Indians walk into my home uninvited, the adult who must stay calm when Pa's been gone five days instead of the expected four and the war whoops are thick and fierce in the wind outside. I am the one who must drive the horses through a flooded creek, who must help to build a house because no one's found any neighbors yet, who must put out chimney fires because Pa's away.

And I, Ma, am getting rather pissed.

Because now, instead of Pa's musical charms and frontiersman spirit and boundless hope, I hear only the emptiness of his promises: next season the crops'll be huge, any day now the government will grant the settlers permission to be where they already are, those Indians are no threat at all. Yes, he provides for his family. Yes, he works his tail off. Yes, he loves Ma and his girls and appreciates them and delights in them and does all he can do for them. Sort of.

But I am Ma. And I just want to be in my home, in a familiar place, with a few friends nearby, and some family within reasonable calling distance. I want help around the house, not adventure. I don't even have a mailbox nearby, let alone a cell phone. I am alone, isolated, overworked, and I'm really getting angry at being dragged across the vast plains, leaving days and weeks of hard work and roots put down, all to satisfy some stupid man's wanderlust. I'm a frontier wife. I don't have a choice. And that, my dear reader, really is not right.

I hope my annoyance doesn't show when I read those parts out loud to my boy. But I'll bet it does. I never was much of a poker face.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Not much to say, but seeking input

Sometimes these posts practically write themselves. Other times, they must be dragged, kicking and screaming, from whichever cortex handles verbal production. There are a few posts that gave me such fits, they simply did not made the cut. For your sake, be glad. Be very glad.

This one? It's putting up quite a fight. Digging in heels, pulling back on the leash, resisting in pretty much every way possible. I just don't have much of value to offer this week. Therefore, I'll solicit your advice on a matter I've been mulling.

I go back and forth about the whole blog thing. One of the reasons I began blogging in the first place was because I wanted to see whether I had pertinent, meaningful things to say, and whether I could create the time to say them. Well, I've managed to carve out some time. Pertinent? Meaningful? Whether or not I've met those content-related goals is your call. I do seem to keep coming up with things to say... However, I also must constantly read back over what I've written to make sure I'm not kvetching about the same old stuff week in and week out. I tend to do that, I've been told. I deny it hotly, but privately acknowledge there may be some truth to the observation.

I started to blog, all the time wondering if I had things to say and time to say them, because deep down, I thought I would have written a book by now. At one point in my life, I thought I had several books in me. Of course, that was when I was steeped in literature (teaching and studying it), before I had a child and my brain started to degenerate. Now, I think I'd be lucky to extract a single, slim volume from somewhere in that bumpy gray mass. And it, too, would likely need to be coerced into the light with some force.

I'm not even not sure what I'd write about. I seem to lean toward the sort of writing I do here: personal expression, the occasional remembrance or anecdote. But could I make a book out of this? Perhaps, but it's doubtful. I have lots of interests, but none in which I'd consider myself an expert. To further complicate things, my acceptance of Christianity as fact in the past decade has introduced the additional consideration that whatever I write should be, must be, of overall positive moral significance. It should not be a piece of work that will further degrade the populace, but something that will hopefully help them—something that might ultimately deliver them. Not to be lofty and highfalutin or anything, but it's good to have goals, right?

You can see my dilemma. Trash sells. Sappy fiction sells. Expert advice from real, live experts sells. I don't really fall into any of those profitable categories.

So, what's left? Does anyone out there have a suggestion? I have some potential story lines, based loosely on events in my own life and the lives of friends...but am I really cut out to write about "un-real" subject matters? Could real stories be successful? Is there a better direction? Does anybody have a lead on the future of publishing? (Other than it's likely to eventually become paperless?) I could use some feedback. If you know me and feel funny commenting here, just email instead.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Resolutions? We don't need no stinkin' resolutions

Hey, everyone, my resolution for 2010 is to be a slacker blogger. As evidenced by my lack of presence here lately.

Okay, that's not really my resolution.

My real resolution is to learn to use power tools. Even just one power tool. A nail gun, an electric screwdriver, a Dremel for cryin' out loud. Anything. I must conquer my fear of power tools, thus enabling me to be a better fixer-upper without always having to consult the power-tool-operating member of my team (husband). Yes, it'll be tough, and nerve-wracking (for him as well), and somebody might get hurt. But I think it's time. I'm 40 now; it's not going to get any easier. And it's either this, or learn to ski, or take another geometry class. And those last two? Not happening.

My other resolution is to stop apologizing for being a loner. It's part of my system of religious beliefs to be social (I think I've already touched on that point in other posts—and if I kept a tidier blog, I could probably locate them...but I don't, so I can't). So, I'll try to cultivate a love of social behaviors and occasions. But truly? Deep down? I can be a bit misanthropic. It's who I am. I need to stop being sorry that I'm not a "people" person. I like people, like spending time with some of them, even find a few of them to be delightful and inspiring. But they tire me; they make me weary. In the end, the only thing that really fuels me is time alone. Especially time spent creating things: paintings, necklaces, meals, a tidy and organized room. That's what gets me going. I'm not sorry, and I'm not going to pretend any longer that I am. All of us can't be talented athletes, all of us can't be mathematicians, all of us can't be model-gorgeous, and all of us can't be social butterflies. Imagine how annoying a world of social butterflies would be. Who would keep things going while all those chatty kathies* were busy networking? The misanthropes, that's who. I mean, we're all necessary cogs in the big wheel. But that's my point: we're all necessary. Even the loners.

So there you have it. It would seem that I do, indeed, have some stinkin' resolutions. What are yours? Go ahead, spill 'em. I'd love to hear!

* I by no means meant to imply that only girls are chatty. I've met quite a few male butterflies in my many years, too.