Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Memories

In the last two days, I’m pretty sure I’ve eaten my weight in homemade ice cream, cupcakes, hot dogs and ribs.  Two Memorial Day weekend parties in two days.  Evenings filled with poolside gatherings of friends and family.  Good times and good food I wouldn’t trade for the world, because it all reminds of just how much good stuff I’m surrounded with.  But as I sit here, trying to digest strawberry shortcake, I started thinking about what I did to celebrate Memorial Day last year.  Some of the same players were present, but the plan, just a little bit different.  And I’m thinking that maybe, just maybe it was the right way to celebrate, or perhaps the better word is commemorate, all along.

In 2011, an event came to Dallas.  It was called Carry the Load.  In early May, as I’d walk around White Rock, the lake down the street from family home, I kept seeing large signs for an event happening on Memorial Day.  Curious, I looked up the website.  It was a walk.  A 20 hour and 11 minute walk, starting at 4pm on Sunday and ending at 12:11pm on Memorial Day.  You could participate in the entire night, or as much as you could manage, in a continuous loop around the lake.  The idea was to give a community a way to share in honoring America’s military heroes and to carry the load of the men and women who gave America their last full measure of service.  You could walk a mile or 50, carry a weighted pack or not, go for an hour, or all night.  I was entranced by the idea of actually celebrating this important holiday appropriately, not with burgers and beer, but with an opportunity to stretch out of my comfort zone.  I’ve known more than a few members of every military branch, and I couldn’t do what they do, but I could do something.  I called my friend Alika.  Luckily, she’s as crazy as I am.  And as it turns out, so is her mom.  So we all signed up.  Even my parents jumped on board.

My idea was to walk for as long and as far as I thought I could go.  And then, when I had reached what seemed to be my limit, to go farther.  To walk longer.  A loop around White Rock Lake is a little over 9 miles.  Alika, her mom Ruth and I started at the Bath House, a building about a third of the way around from my home.  Base camp operations were set up there.  Aid stations around the lake had extra water, snacks, glow sticks and first aid.  Base camp had real food.  A wristband got us meals all night.  We started with the opening group.  You could jump on or off at any place in the course.  Our first 9ish mile loop brought us back to base camp in time for dinner.  It was definitely the longest walk I’d taken in a while, but the company made it ease by, despite the warm afternoon.  We met my folks there for a burger and a rest, and then started off again, loop two.  Mom made it about six miles, impressive with the amount of titanium and artificial joints in her body.  The going got a little harder for all of us.  I’ve never walked 19 miles in less than a 24 hour period, let alone in an evening.  A beautiful sunset helped.  So did denial.  We hobbled into base camp at around 11 or so.  We called in the rescue car and my dad came to get Ruth.  He had agreed to come out and pick any of us up whenever we were ready to quit. 

I was ready to quit.  So was Alika.  We nursed sore feet with other walkers and propped them up to drain get some of the blood to drain away from our swollen toes.  And then we knew this was the moment.  The limit we had to go beyond.  Because somewhere overseas, someone was beyond their limits.  And they were still walking, still fighting, still hanging in there.  So would we.  We hauled ourselves up and began a slightly delirious march away from the comforts of base camp.  Chairs.  More chairs.  The dark night rose up around us and the moon reflected off the lake, but not enough to shed the kind of light that might actually keep two exhausted girls on the right path.  We were maybe only a quarter mile out of the way when we realized we had to double back, but that’s a lot of distance when you can’t feel your toes and chafing is starting to happen in unpleasant places.  Not to mention the swelling in my hands from hanging them down.  I carried them over my head as much as I could during that last circle.  We planned to cut off when we reached my street and as we counted down the last mile, half mile, quarter mile, I concentrated on just putting one foot in front of the other.  It was sometime after one in the morning.  I’m pretty sure running 26 miles is actually easier than walking it.

The next day, some sensitive skin was raw.  Walking was a challenge.  My fingers had thankfully turned from sausages back into fingers, but every bit of me was exhausted.  My mom and I drove over to the closing ceremonies at noon.  There would be no more walking for me for a few days.  I saw the guy who put the whole thing together, the one we passed on our second loop.  He’d walked all night and all morning, carrying a thirty pound pack.  Then I saw the 76 year old woman who made the whole 20 hours and 11 minutes too.  I didn’t feel chagrined.  Maybe a little envious, but mostly just honored to be among them.  Among those who’d tried to remember what Memorial Day is really about.  This year, they moved the walk to the Katy Trail.  I didn’t relish walking up and down that dark, foresty stretch all night.  So I went back to hot dogs and ice cream, and a float in the pool.  And that’s perfectly okay too.  Because I spent time with good friends and remembered that the things we fight for are also things worth celebrating.  But my full stomach is making me wish I had a few miles to cover, and I’m thinking maybe next year, if the venue is right, and my friends are still crazy enough, we might just try to do both.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Thanks, Teach.

By learning you will teach;
by teaching you will understand.
Latin Proverb

This is not an essay about me.  Or about me as a teacher.  But it is about a teacher.  And teaching something for the first time is the thing that reminded me of him.  So here’s the back story.  On Saturday, I taught my first photography class.  It was a Composition in the Field class, and I shepherded five students in and around Deep Ellum to explore the world through our lenses, finding new and interesting ways to compose images, learning the rules and then learning how to break them.  I was humbled by the difference between using the tools and techniques that are so ingrained after eight years of shooting I take them for granted, and actually teaching them to someone else.  Teaching them in a way that makes sense.  It’s not easy.  I think I did a pretty okay job, at least as evidenced by the shots I glimpsed on the backs of their cameras during the day.  And they all seemed to get what I was saying.  No head scratching or funny looks, except maybe when I struck some strange poses to prove a point here and there.  At the end of three sweaty hours in the sun, I had an empty water bottle (or juice pack, as one student jokingly called my metallic water pouch) and a class with full camera cards. 

Last night, as I was falling asleep.  I thought about writing a blog about teaching for the first time.  And then I thought about my teachers.  And then I remembered him. 

The very best teacher I had during my school years was a man named John Killion.  He taught sophomore year high school English.  Taught it with the kind of exuberance and enthusiasm I’ve never seen since, outside of the fiction John Keating in the movie Dead Poet’s Society.  The odd similarity between their names is not lost on me.  The first day I sat in Mr. Killion’s class, amidst my female classmates, we didn’t know what to expect.  He was new to the school, we would be his first students at the all girls prep school I attended.  An overstuffed arm chair with hideous upholstery sat wedged up against the teacher’s desk.  This was something new.  And then in he strolled.  With a football in his hand.

“I’m going to throw this at you, when you catch it, say your name, then toss it back to me.”  We all looked a little aghast, I think.  Football?  Did he not see the room full of girls before him?  The ball was in the air before we had time to think, and in this way, we went around the room and introduced ourselves to this strange new teacher.  The methodology would continue throughout the school year – he would throw the ball at you when he wanted you to answer a question.  We learned a lot of English, not to mention we became pretty adept at catch.  Smarter and more athletic, all at once.  This guy knew what he was doing.

The arm chair, we would come to learn, was his favorite perch for lecturing.  He’d sit in sometimes, but would usually be up on an armrest or the back of the chair, his feet wedged into the seat cushion that could only be improved in appearance by some shoe scuffing.  When really excited about a subject, Mr. Killian was prone to standing on the chair, and he would practically vibrate with enthusiasm, rallying the class better than Tom Cruise on Oprah.  If you had something to say – an idea, an essay to present, you might get invited into the chair.  And in between classes, we all hung out there, because it was the coolest classroom in the whole upper school hallway. 

Mr. Killion had a pet pot-bellied pig.  His name was Bob B. Q.  He often came to class to visit us, dressed in a sweater striped in our school colors of green and white.  I think that was his attempt to pass Bob off as a student, despite his gender and lack of adherence to proper uniform code.  He’d sit in his cage and snort when he didn’t like your opinion of the latest short story. 

Mr. Killion’s class was electric.  You couldn’t help but want to learn, want to do well, want to say something interesting.  As students we wanted to be so inspiring that we made him jump onto that chair.  But one of the things I most remember is his quiet statement he made every test day.  Over the rustle of paper and we passed exams back down each line of desk and amidst the shuffle of skirts in seats as we got comfortable and settled in to the task at hand, he would stand still, hold out his hands as if holding something imaginary on them and smile.

“Ladies, I have a tray full of A’s for you.  Have one, on me.”

It was an invitation to do our very best.  It was an encouragement to try just a little harder that we thought we could.  It was an assurance that we had the tools we needed to succeed that day.  It was a reminder that this was just a test, something concrete, something simple.  It was not life, it was just one moment of one day.

Mr. Killion was haunted by personal demons.  And during my senior year, he took his own life.  But he never brought those demons into the classroom, he only brought light, humor, creativity and encouragement.  He taught us to be better students and I think, most importantly, he taught us that learning should be fun. 

Now I understand.  So thank you, Mr. Killion, wherever you are now, for inspiring me to always find joy in learning, to be the first person I think of when the word teacher comes to mind and I can only hope that your wisdom stays with me through any teaching opportunities that I may come across in the years ahead. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Read the Signs

Okay, I'm cheating this week. This is an advice essay I wrote for a dating blog a couple of years ago.  In lieu of enough time to write something new today, I thought I'd share this instead.  I don't claim to be an expert in body language by any means, but I did spend a lot of time, thankfully not anymore, in the nightclubs in Los Angeles.  Enough said.  

It’s Friday night.  You’re at the latest and greatest club with your buddies, ready to toss back a few drinks, groove to the beat, if you’re into that sort of thing, and most importantly, get a little face time with a pretty girl.  The odds look good – the female to male ratio is high, and you’ve already spotted an attractive blonde at the other end of the bar.  Hold on there, Tiger.  Before you head in for the kill, put down the Jack & Coke, take a step back and get a good look at her body language.  Say she gives you a quick glance, maybe even half a smile and then looks the other way.  If you have no idea what it means, think she’s just being coy, or are planning to ignore it altogether and make your move anyway, then it’s time to bone up on your foreign languages.  Or just one in particular.

We all use body language to convey unspoken messages to those around us.  I can’t speak to men’s expectations but I can tell you that as women, when we are out at a club, or a bar, or even a party – anywhere where we are meeting men – we expect you to be able to understand what we mean, and respond accordingly.  Failure to do so on your part could result in either a missed opportunity or an unfriendly rebuff, depending on the girl in question.  Neither of those sound like good options, so don’t let them happen!  Here are some basic pointers to get you through a night at the club without a stiletto through your shoe, and maybe even help you head home with some new digits in your phone.

The Approach
I will tell you right now, that one of the worst things you can do at bar/club/party is approach a girl who has attempted to give you a non-verbal signal that she does not want to talk to you.  When you see a girl you want to talk to, look at her.  Repeatedly.  Eventually, she’ll notice you looking at her, unless you’re way across the room or hiding behind a ball cap or something.  If, once she notices that you are noticing her, she looks away from you and does not make any further eye contact, she is telling you politely and silently, to please leave her alone.  I’m asking you, if that happens, to please leave her alone.  If you go over anyway, you do so at your own peril.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.  And don’t take it personally, there could be a million reasons why she doesn’t want to talk to you.  Move on, there are lots of pretty girls at the club, remember?  Go find one who wants to meet you.  You’ll know, because when you catch her eye, she’ll smile.  She might look away for a bit, but give it a minute.  Because if she’s interested, she’ll look back.  And possibly smile again.  Even if she doesn’t, you got the double look.  And that’s your clue.  Go say hi.  I can’t promise what’ll happen when you get there, but you should at least get a friendly greeting. 

The Conversation
So you got the smile, the nod, maybe even the wave, and now, after the introductions have been made, the small talk has started.  If, while you are talking, she is constantly looking away from you, or at her watch or at the bartender, she does not have a lazy eye.  She is just not interested in the conversation.  Same goes if she keeps turning her body away from you.  If that happens, tell her how nice it was to meet her and take your leave.  If, however, she keeps eye contact, leans in towards you, reaches out to touch you as she’s talking, well, then you’re golden.  Pat yourself on the back for your stellar conversation skills and your wicked ability to read women, and keep the banter going. 

The Dance Floor
Do not, and I repeat, do not EVER assume that because a woman is on the dance floor and is dancing next to you, that her body language means that she is dying to dance with you.  And do not, I repeat, do not EVER take that as an opportunity to sidle up next to her and get your freak on.  When that happens to me, I usually respond with unkind words, and will use any means necessary to shove or push the offending leech off of me.  If the girl of your dreams is next to you on the dance floor, smile, look her in eye and keep on dancing, at a respectable distance.  It might also be a good time to throw in your best moves.  If she likes what she sees, she’ll continue to face you while you’re dancing.  If she then starts to mirror your moves, or get closer to you, it’s an invite.  When in doubt, it is always acceptable to ask politely, just don’t give her a hard time if she says no.  Move to another part of the dance floor and test out that moonwalk on someone else.  And remember, as a general rule, if a girl is dancing with her back to you, unless she thrusts her booty into your pelvis and pulls your arm around her, she does NOT want to dance with you.

The Fail Safe
If you’re still having trouble figuring out what she’s trying to tell you with that shrug of her shoulder, or you can’t seem to catch her eye to give her a chance to smile or turn away, then you can always resort to a little trick that rarely backfires.  Ignore all body language, head straight towards your dream girl, tell her you think she is pretty/beautiful/has great eyes/is a smokin’ hot dancer/insert compliment of your choice here.  Then tell her you hope she has a great evening, and then, here’s the most important part, WALK AWAY.  If she’s interested, she’ll come and find you.  And if she’s not, she’ll still be flattered by the random compliment and you won’t have made an ass of yourself. 

Enough said.  Now pick up that Jack and Coke and go get ‘em Tiger.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

LA Love Affair

Sometimes I feel/Like my only friend/Is the city I live in/The city of Angels…I drive on her streets/'Cause she's my companion/I walk through her hills/'Cause she knows who I am…
-Red Hot Chili Peppers

For eighteen and a half years, I had a love affair with Los Angeles.  It started when I was young, just out of high school and headed to college at UCLA.  I was nervous.  This city was different from the one I was used to, bigger, more mature.  LA was sexy, mysterious, maybe even a little dangerous.  I was hooked on the idea of it, what it represented.  A world of promise and opportunity for a na├»ve eighteen year old with dreams of stardom, fantasies of a Hollywood career.  The first day of college, on my way to my very first class as a theater major, John Lithgow casually jogged by me as I crossed through the heart of campus.  Mine beat a little faster.  I was already mingling with talent.  This was a place where magic could happen.    

Over the next few years of college, and the couple of years after that, the honeymoon phase would continue.  With a car and an off-campus apartment, I would begin learn more about my beloved angel.  I would finally drive her windy streets.  I would discover her sandy beaches, her nightlife, her friends - neighboring cities like Santa Barbara and San Diego.  After college I would dive into a colorful approximation of the real world.  Days on television shows, nights on movie sets.  I was only an extra most of the time, or maybe a stand-in, but it didn’t matter.  Everything was a big adventure.  All of my friends were actors.  I was living the life. 

Until it couldn’t pay the bills and the necessity of a real job came rushing at me.  Honeymoon phase over.  So I tried to reinvent my relationship with LA.  I moved to the Valley.  I went to grad school.  A new direction was just what we needed to keep things fresh, interesting, moving forward.  I would still be in film and television, but this time I would produce, maybe do a little entertainment marketing.  The angels spread their wings as if to say, “We have so much more to offer.”  My sister came to LA.  I made new friends. 

In late fall of 2000, Los Angeles and I had our first real fight.  We almost broke up.  The angels had folded their wings over their closed eyes one night, and when their guard was down, my sister was taken.  I blamed the city, I blamed myself.  I even left for a little while.  But I came back.  I believed that my very survival resided in my ability to succeed in this relationship.  I needed to be in Los Angeles.  I needed to prove to myself that I could be there and be okay.  It was shaky for a while,  the emotional earthquakes deeper than any ground tremor I had ever weathered.  But I needed the familiarity, the place where my sister and I had spent the last two years together.  The streets, the restaurants, the beaches.  As I explored, I discovered, yet again, new places.  I found hiking, and wandered the canyons of the Hollywood Hills, the Santa Monica Mountains.  Sure there was traffic, and smog and crime.  But there was also so much nature, so much beauty.  I remembered why I’d fallen in love in the first place.

But it wouldn’t last.  The traffic, the smog, the high price tag on everything would take its toll.  The gilding would start to wear off.  Slowly at first, years in the making.  Towards the end, it picked up speed.  Good friends left the city for far away places, rent went up and business went down.  The economy crumbled.  I wasn’t happy in the relationship.  I wanted out. 

In 2010 I would decide it was over.  It was a slow breakup, a few months of planning and packing and arrangements.  In early 2011, I said my goodbyes and made my way towards a new life in Texas. 

I’ve been back several times over the past year.  And when I visit, it’s like seeing an old love.  This past week I spent several days back in the arms of the angels, and after a conversation last night about relationships, I realized that though I no longer live in LA, and the love affair is definitely over, there is something important that remains.  It is the friendship.  For eighteen and a half years, the City of Angels was my best friend.  I knew her streets almost as well as the lines on my own palm.  I knew her moods, sad and rainy in February, gloomy in June, angry with heat in late September.  I knew the things I loved, the hikes in the hills, the great sushi, the beach.  And I knew the things I hated, the traffic, the smog, the cost of gas.  In the end, we weren’t meant to be together.  But when I visit, like I did last week, I can remember the good times and I can celebrate what is still a lovely friendship.  And so I hiked my favorite canyon, took a cardio barre class.  I ate at my favorite restaurants and caught up with the people I love who still live there. 

When I left yesterday morning I was ready to go.  I had seen enough of the things that reminded me we didn’t belong together.  But I had also seen the good stuff, the things that make me happy the angels and I are still such good friends.  And as the wheels of the plane touched down on Texas soil and I realized I was home, I also realized that I was looking forward to a return visit sometime soon.