Thursday, July 30, 2009

Escaping the heat.

Yesterday was one of those days that made me wish that I was a better writer, a better poet. In the middle of a freakishly abnormal heat wave, I decided to drive over to the coast rather than melt and whine at home. It's only about 90 miles to the ocean. So close that I wonder why I don't go more often. I took off early in the morning with no plan other than to drive west until I saw the Pacific.

Not far past the outskirts of the metro area, one starts climbing the hills that lead into the Coastal Range. The range is small, as mountain ranges go. The summit is only about 1600 feet. But it is beautiful. With a few gaping exceptions. Sailing past the farmland that lies just below them, I felt my spirit lift as the trees began to close in behind and over the car. Frequently when driving in the hills here, it resembles nothing so much as entering a leafy green tunnel with the branches joining over the road allowing only random patches of sunlight to land directly on the road. I don't know that it was actually cooler there, but it certainly gives the mental impression of feeling cooler. Whether it is the unrelenting green or the sense of being sheltered by all of those trees, I do not know, but it never fails to improve my outlook.

What never fails to dampen my elevated mood are the clear cut areas. Driving through forests here always carries the possibility of coming across those areas leased to lumber companies, which have stripped entire mountainsides of everything taller than two feet in height. The devastation is sickening with stumps and branches strewn every which way and, all too frequently, no seedlings planted to replace what has been taken. The feeling is one of witnessing violence and there are no words adequate to describe it. Sometimes the companies leave a thin line of trees near the road in a futile attempt to mask what has happened beyond them. I know all of the 'rational' arguments about jobs and the need for lumber, but it leaves such scars. I don't get physically ill at the sight as I used to, but it still mutes the shine of an otherwise perfect day.

About an hour out from the city, deep into the mountains, there is a restaurant that we always stop at. Discovered it when the kids were little. It isn't a great gourmet place, it is a funky place modeled on a logging camp motif. (I know, ironic after the last paragraph.) The food is good and the feeders outside of the windows provide a variety of birds to watch while you wait. It's hard to imagine driving this way to the beach without stopping there. It's just part of the package.

Finally, I come out of the mountains and almost immediately there is the Pacific. Or rather, there should have been the Pacific. There were low-lying clouds covering the entire coastline. With no particular destination in mind, beyond not going to the usual places, I turned left to see what would present itself. Only occasionally did the sun power through to reveal blue ocean below. And I noticed that it is quite unnerving to drive down the coast highway, on the edge of cliffs that should be overlooking the ocean, and only see thick clouds below. On curves especially, it felt as though one wrong move and I could fall off the edge of the world entirely. There are many 'Scenic Outlook' sites along the coast and every one of them yielded a wide vista of clouds and nothing else. So I kept driving south.

I sped past all of the beaches and towns that I had stopped at before, still not sure where I was going to end up. The tiny little harbor towns seem much more appealing driving through them than they probably are to live in, but my fantasy of having a place by the ocean was running rampant. Little places like Garibaldi and Hebo which basically have one street, one grocery, one theater, etc. let one imagine a simpler and, perhaps, more real type of existence. Never mind the certainty that the reality might drive one quite mad.

When I had had just about enough driving for one sitting, I saw a sign that read "Nestucca Beach, next right." So right I went and drove the 3 or 4 miles to the beach. While there were occasional splashes of sunlight peeking through the clouds on the highway, down by the ocean there were none. The fog was so thick that the sun was nothing more than a hazy little ball overhead.

I walked about a mile up the beach and did a little people watching. Since it was 65 degrees on a weekday, there weren't too many people to watch which is why the ones who were there caught my attention. I wondered about the two teenage girls lying on towels in swimsuits attempting to get a tan. They must have been freezing. I watched a couple of chocolate Labs dashing into the water chasing a stick, which they then proceeded to carry together down the beach. I don't believe I've ever seen two dogs carrying opposite ends of a stick before, but it seemed like usual behavior for those two. There were a few intrepid souls in wet suits with boogie boards braving the frigid water. My favorite was a grandmother with a toddler. The toddler was running for all he was worth, collecting rocks and passing them on to his grandmother. Then, when she had enough, he would take them one at a time and attempt to throw them into the water. More often than not, he missed the ocean.

The beach itself was littered with the remains of the gulls' breakfast. Crab had been on the menu and I had to watch my step for a ways so that I didn't step on shells and pincers. There were also tire tracks despite the fact that I was far past the sign that said motor vehicles were not allowed on the beach. All the usual beach debris could be found, partial shells, bits of seaweed and the odd cigarette butt.

As I walked, I noticed that the tide was coming in, so I picked a spot and planted myself, waiting for it to come to me. I gazed out watching the variations of the waves tumbling in for the better part of an hour before the ocean caught me. The water was slate gray with only the white bubbles at the top of the waves relieving the color. I watched the near approach of the water for awhile until my focus shifted to the furthest waves I could see coming in. They couldn't have been more than a thousand yards away, the visibility was so short. Those tunnels of water collapsing in on themselves gave the barest glint of green near their crests before resolving back to gray. I continued to look outward, waiting for the water to reach me, with a fairly blank mind. Just watching. Just noticing. Once or twice, my mind skipped back to other times, other beaches, other companions, but for the most part it was just me, the ocean and nothing more. Or rather, nothing less.

At long last, the water reached out and slapped me. Nothing quite prepares one for the first touch of the cold water. It came up and captured my feet up to my ankles before it pulled back. It must have been undecided about wanting to play because it took another 10 minutes before another wave was brave enough to reach me again. I shifted my focus to the place where the water was striking and wondered with each new wave if this one would be the one that really got me. Childish musings perhaps, almost as if I was daring it to tag me. As the water became more consistent in its approach, I planted my feet more firmly, braced for the big one. No truly big ones arrived, at least not while I stood there. But I did enjoy standing in the low surf, comparing and contrasting the sensations.

After awhile, the grandmother and child came back up the beach. Their adventure apparently over because now the child was being carried. Too much excitement for one day, most likely. A woman bounced past, walking her collie. And one of the guys in the wetsuits had had enough and made his way past me and away. I walked back down the beach, more slowly than I had walked up it and made the climb over the dune that would lead back to my car.

I half thought that I'd go in search of another place, but I found that I was done for the day. I got all of the sand off my feet and pointed the car back towards the highway. I always tell myself when I go to the beach that I'm going to stop and get some saltwater taffy. And, as usual, this time I didn't do it either. I apparently like the idea of taffy more than I actually like taffy. So I brought no physical souvenirs from the excursion, unless I can count a sunburnt nose and aching calf muscles from the climb up the dune. Yet, somehow, it feels as though this particular day will be with me for quite some time.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Assumptions and labels

If you ever want to see the entertaining sight of steam coming out of my ears, start slapping some labels on me. It never fails to get me hot under the collar and has ever since I was quite young. Whether it is a good label or a bad label, it almost never fails to chafe. I've known this about myself for a very long time, but I never parsed out the reasons why. It always leads to assumptions, which frequently are incorrect and can in turn lead to very unwelcome outcomes.

My first memories around this came from when I was 5 or 6 years old. I was introduced to someone, who leaned over and talked to me as if I were the village idiot simply because of my age. I don't remember who it was or what they said precisely, but I do remember fuming at the way I had been patronized. I'm sure that I couldn't have described it then beyond the fact that I didn't like being treated like a baby, but I clearly remember feeling insulted. Now the person obviously hadn't planned to insult me. It would have never occurred to them that it was even possible. They were merely acting out of their assumptions based on the label 'little girl' that I was carrying at the time. The same sort of things have happened throughout my life as the label has changed from 'girl' to 'young woman' to just plain 'female.' Depending on what assumptions are attached to the labels, my resultant response has ranged from slight annoyance to extreme irritation, especially if it has led to my being disregarded because of them.

At a slightly different angle, I find that I bristle when confronted with the assumption that I don't know my own mind or mean what I say. For the life of me, I can't figure out what purpose this might serve. In fact, I can't see anything but difficulties arising from that. Real fireworks can be seen whenever I hear the words, "you don't mean that." Given that I generally don't say things that I don't mean, this feels like it has to be some sort of self-serving position taken by the speaker. (Don't want to assume that, however.) This one rose up again recently when I decided to stop seeing someone. I meant what I said about not wanting to see him any more the first time I said it. And every time I repeated it for almost 5 months. And it makes me wonder why some people assume that 'A' means 'B' when 'A' is the only thing that has consistently been said. It seems like a sort of deliberate miscommunication, which kind of boggles the mind. It's difficult enough to communicate without making it more so.

I think my allergic reaction to labels increased in adulthood because of all the assumptions that were hung on labels that I more or less had accepted. I ran headlong into one of those right after I got married. All the people that I had hung out with, went to movies with, or just did regular things with, all assumed that I was no longer available. It blew my mind. I was immediately dropped from standing invitations and I had to chase folks down to clear up the matter. Apparently, I was supposed to be fused to my husband and not do anything on my own. This only increased once my sons were born. I had apparently disappeared and could not have a separate identity. That was an extremely difficult labeling assumption to dodge and, at times, I let myself get buried under it, which was truly unfair to everyone. Similar labels and assumptions came attached to my choice in jobs, education and spirituality. And they almost always missed the mark. The labels were too broad and the assumptions too all-encompassing to have any real meaning.

I have no clear idea why most of us, if not all, compartmentalize others based on assumptions. Perhaps it is nothing more than a sorting function in our brains to help us make a semblance of order out of the overwhelming possibilities that exist in our world. But the outcome of it can move well beyond the realm of irritation and cause real damage to our relationships and unnecessary stress in our lives. This can happen based on the labels we attach to others, or based on how we connect assumptions between different people. If one of our parents employed disapproving silences to control our behavior, we might assume that similar silences mean the same thing in other relationships. If someone in our past abused our trust with lies, we might assume that either no one is to be trusted or perhaps that everyone lies. If we have been manipulated in the past, we may believe that others are trying to do it to us again. The examples could go on and on. And how sad that is for all parties involved.

But what's to be done about it? I suspect a lot of it is done unconsciously, based on past experiences. And I imagine that a portion of that is done out of self-preservation and fear of repeating a bad experience. Perhaps the only thing we can try to do is to slow down and consider those around us, recognizing that they are unique in our experience. By being slow to assume, we don't need to risk ourselves unnecessarily, merely allow enough time for the other to reveal themselves in more depth, which in its turn could allow for more depth in the relationship we have with them. If we look at each new person with an active curiosity as to who they are, rather than quickly labeling and pigeonholing them, we open up new possibilities. And if we look at older relationships without the filter of assumptions, we give others the opportunity to reveal pleasant surprises about themselves. And, should we find things that we'd rather not see in them, at least we have a firmer basis for any decision we make.

"Assumptions are the termites of relationships." -- Henry Winkler.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Back when I was in undergraduate school, after we had solved all the problems of the world over lunch, several of us had quasi-serious discussions about which book we would memorize if books were banned a la Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. I had no trouble at all deciding on which one; Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. It has been a favorite of mine for a long time and I still go back and re-read it every few years.

I do have my issues with Jane. I was thoroughly disgusted with her for abandoning Rochester the way she did, but I eventually gave her a pass on that, partly because she did eventually return and partly because of the mores of the time. I preferred to think that she would have behaved differently if she lived later than the 19th century. In my latest re-reading of the book, however, I came across something that made me want to shake her until her teeth rattled. When little Adele asks her if they will be happy, she replies that they will work hard and be content. What the...? What an insipid thing to say to the child! I was outraged! I was livid! I know, I know, over-reaction. Acknowledging that it had more to do with me than with what Ms. Bronte wrote in her book, I gave it some thought.

I found dozens of quotes advocating contentment as a noble goal for life and I even agreed with a few. The quotations that cautioned about wanting more and more things seemed to parallel my views. I've never been inclined to focus on the acquisition of things. It always seemed like it took too much effort away from other things that I was interested in. But the other quotes annoyed me. They generally came from religious or political sources and they seemed to attribute a high sense of virtue to contentment that I simply cannot see. It was as if they were promoting contentment as the opiate of the masses.

To my mind, this sort of contentment equals settling for less. Jane offered Adele contentment as a goal and not the happiness that she desired. It is true that neither Adele nor anyone else has a guarantee of each and every happiness they desire. But by eliminating the possibility of reaching for some of the more important, life-enhancing things that are available, it seems to me that even contentment is not possible. Contentment may end up being the end result, but as an all encompassing goal, it seems terribly inadequate.

It also seems as though it requires a certain amount of self-deception a la the fox in Aesop's fable. The fox wanted the grapes and tried everything he could think of to get them. When he failed, he walked away having decided that the grapes were probably sour and he didn't want them anyway. Our society reinforces this view on all sides. We tell others that what they wanted isn't worth it, or wouldn't make them happy, or that it is the wrong thing to want. When the fact of the matter is someone else simply doesn't know if it is worth it or not to you. And, at one time or another, most people agree and stop striving for whatever it is. The pressure is exerted to do what is 'acceptable' and 'reasonable' until we frequently relax into a vanilla pudding type of existence and give up on our fondest dreams, hopes and desires.

After having been a big fan of the vanilla pudding club when I was younger, I find that I've lost my taste for it entirely. Not only did I not reach for other flavors, I barely acknowledged their existence. And in that way, I committed what I consider to be the most unforgivable of sins; I wasted a lot of time and did not live my life. I don't plan on making the same mistakes in the future. I'll be trying every unusual flavor that crosses my path. I'll be reaching for every scrap of joy that life offers. And I'll be doing so without the overly excessive concern I had for society's approval that I had in my youth. I'll have to pick another book and heroine than Jane Eyre. She's been reduced to a cautionary tale for me. I'm going to be browsing on the adventure shelves for something else entirely.

"Be happy while you're living; for you're a long time dead." -- Scottish proverb

Saturday, July 11, 2009


As most knitters know, 'frogging' is when you rip out what you have been working on. It can happen when you discover a very obvious mistake in the work. It can be an admission of defeat. Or it can be simply because your tastes or interests have changed and you wish to do something entirely different. Whatever the reason, knitters are generally reluctant to do it. I've been known to abandon a project for a year before succumbing to the need to frog it. And, after having frogged half of a sweater the other evening, I found myself wondering not just about frogging knitting, but the role that frogging has in other areas of life.

As I sat there unraveling the knitting and winding the yarn back into a ball, I began to think about the reluctance to do it. This sweater had been sitting for months with a huge mistake staring at me from near the beginning. I've known for all those months that it would have to be frogged, but I still dragged my feet about actually doing it. Why?

One possibility might be that I had invested so much time in the knitting that I felt like I had wasted time and effort which could only be redeemed by the myth that I would eventually fix the mistake and finish the sweater. It was as if only the outcome could justify the process it took to get to that point in the sweater. This seemed a bit wobbly to my thinking. Don't get me wrong; I like a successful outcome just as much as the next one. But I also enjoy the process while it is happening. I don't tend to focus on finishing an item until I'm about three quarters done and my mind has started mapping out the next thing. The hundreds of thousands of stitches made over hours and hours are not somehow less enjoyable when an anticipated outcome doesn't come about. This applies to other areas of our lives. Careers, relationships, personal goals, anything we aimed for does not lose its authenticity or value when we release it in favor of something else. It was valuable while it was valuable and that doesn't change when the goal changes.

Similarly, there is sometimes a sense of failure. We have missed the mark of the original goal and therefore must be less than what we thought we were. This too seems wrong somehow. There are lessons to be learned in the process that could very well be valuable on the next project. We might have learned a new way to do something. We might have learned that we never want to use a particular technique again. We may even have learned the difficult lesson of walking away because it no longer suits us. There doesn't seem to be any virtue in continuing to the end of some project simply because it was started. Our society, of course, frowns on this attitude whether in the micro or the macro. But rather than failure, there is a wisdom in not continuing with things for no other reason than we started them.

Another possibility is that it simply does not suit us for some reason. Our tastes change. Our needs change. Heck, even our sizes change. If we discover half way through the sweater that something about it no longer suits us, where is the virtue in finishing it? If it is finished, the result would be a sweater that we will never wear. Wouldn't it be better to reclaim the basic materials and turn it into something else?

Obviously, society condemns frogging when it moves beyond the realm of knitting. No one wants to be labeled a quitter/failure/what-have-you. Which is probably why knitters are reluctant to frog a project. But society condemns all sorts of things for the sake of enforcing conformity. There is a need to examine that condemnation. Generalized norms do not take into account individualized needs or interests. There is no accommodation for living in the moment and responding to what appears before us. Seemingly once something is begun, it must be continued no matter what. The yarn that I recovered from the frogged sweater is happily becoming a different sweater with a different design. And other things that I have frogged from my life are being knitted into much better things as well. How much richer our lives might be if we learned to frog as needed.