September 25th, 2011 :: Traveling Days
Damn bears.I think it is perfectly fair to blame the bears, although they weren’t the only roadblock--literally or otherwise---that day. One morning about a month ago, my best friend Lora and I had set out early, before it was fully light, and drove to the East Mountains with the intention of doing a particular hike we had done several years before. This hike, comprising of a loop, is a difficult one for sure. It involves several miles straight up the mountain, then a half mile across the top and then several miles back down to the starting point, totalling something like 6 miles. The first piece of the triangle is particularly brutal in fact, but we knew what were getting into, and besides, thanks to a summer of swimming countless laps on my part and working with a personal trainer on Lora’s, we were feeling strong and fit. To get to the trail head, one must park about three quarters of a mile away at the entrance of private property and then walk along the driveway to the beginning of the national forest. This has never been a problem in the past, but on that day we got to the parking area only to discover that the road had been blocked off and unnecessarily mean notices were posted warning against trespassers. The notices were directed specifically at hikers, and they threatened prosecution, dismemberment, and death. We contemplated ignoring them, but they did seem serious, so instead we left and drove on down the highway to another trail head.This spot was new to both of us. Instead of a triangular loop, this potential hike was a square, or rather more like a trapezoid. Like our intended hike, it involved several miles straight up the mountain, a mile and a half across the top, three miles down and 2.5 miles back to the start for a total of 9 miles. At the parking lot, we were greeted by a nice old woman who was about 110, who apparently lived in the camper and handed out maps. “Have you seen any bears?” we asked Marge. “Yes,” she replied. “They are certainly around, but they aren’t aggressive. If you see one just go the other way.”
This sounded a bit worrisome, but we were determined to hike anyway. We set off, passing a fellow hiker who was also well versed in bear stories. “They are moving sticks and rocks around on the trails,” he warned us. “Looking for food.” In hindsight, this was a statement of foreshadowing, but we couldn’t have known this at the time. Instead, being the strong half-mountain goats that we are, we trotted on up the mountain. At the top, we ate some nuts and discussed strategies. Having just done 2.2 steep miles straight up the mountain (an increase of several thousand feet in altitude) in right at an hour, we thought we could whip through the rest of the hike and still be eating pancakes by 11:00am. “Let’s do it,” we decided. “The worst is behind us.”The worst is behind us. Those are regrettable words in retrospect. We did indeed whip through the cross section at the top of the mountain, scampered (OK, maybe not “scampered” but I like the idea) down the mountain and arrived at the last leg in no time at all. Pancakes were in our near future.Remember the bears? Remember the hungry bears moving things on and off the trails? Well.....One of the challenges to hiking in the Sandias is the lack of good signage. There is very little. At times, depending on the water run-off and various bear activity the trail can actually be rather confusing. Sometimes it seems to split and you have to make a judgment about which path constitutes the actual trail. Hikers are, by their very nature, good people, and often times in these confusing spots, there will be a log to warn you away from the decoy trail, or a pile of stones next to the good trail to help guide you along. We arrived at just such an intersection and I said to Lora, “Huh, what do we do here?” One trail led down next to a trickle of a stream, the other headed up the mountain. “I don’t think we would go back up the mountain at this point,” Lora said quite convincingly. I agreed and so we headed down. Soon we passed a marker (A marker! this is always cause for celebration) that said something about a trail we had never heard of. However, scratched into the surface of the wooden post someone had written, “The trails merge here.” “We must be on the right track,” I said confidently and away we went. Away we went for another hour until we hit private property and an electric fence. At this point, we are starting to think that perhaps we didn’t make such a good choice some time back (“We made bad choices,” we began wailing at each other.). But we think that nevertheless we must be fairly near the car. Maybe there is a way to cut through. “I’m calling the forest service,” Lora announced.We found a patch of land the size of a walnut where I had half a bar of cell phone service. Lora stood on one foot as to not disturb the signal and made the call. A friendly person answered the phone. “OK,” Lora said, “I need some help figuring out where I am.” She began describing our hike up to that point. The person on the other line sounded impressed. “You’ve come that far! Wow!” he exclaimed. We don’t want praise, we want help. “I have never heard of that trail,” he said finally when Lora told him the name of the trail we had stumbled upon. “Let me transfer you to someone else.”
At this point, I must stop and list all the reasons this represents bad behavior on the part of the forest service. First of all, anyone answering the phone ought to know every single trail out there. There should no transferring the call. They should be well aware that cell phone service is spotty at best and that keeping a lost person on the line (“Don’t hang up! Don’t hang up!”) was of paramount importance. Finally, they should ask a serious of questions, none of which did they ask. Instead, this guy was wasting our time being impressed with the scope and ambition of our hike. Here are a list of questions he should have asked instead:
Are you alone? (Well not exactly, but we haven’t seen another soul in about three hours.)Do you have water? (We live in a desert!)Do you have food? (The answer at that point was “no”. We ate all the nuts at the top of what is now being referred to as “the blankity-blank mountain”. We had assumed by this point in time we would be eating pancakes.) Are you scared? (Not really, just annoyed as all get-out.)Is anyone hurt? (Our legs hurt. Does that count?)
How long have you been out? (Although the answer was not that long, given our mountain goat-like speed, he didn’t know that. We could have been there for days.)
What is your physical and mental condition? (Deteriorating quickly.)But none of these things were asked. Instead, we got transferred to someone else who also acted way too impressed with our hiking ability and didn’t know where we were. Even worse, she said, “Let me call you back.” (Given our lack of cell phone coverage, let’s just say we got that voice message about three days later.) I knew one solution, albeit a painful and sad one. We could turn around to the point where we had made the bad choice and then make a different, hopefully better, one. After some debate, this was what we did, thereby increasing our total hiking time to 5.5 hours and our total distance by perhaps as much as 4 or 5 miles. “I’m going to be so done with hiking,” Lora pronounced as we trudged along (Yes, trudge would be the word). Arriving back at the crucial point, we discovered a big log that had clearly been dragged off the trail. Had it been in place we would not have been tempted down the wrong path. Damn bears.“Yep, me too,” I responded wearily and promptly stubbed my toe for at least the umpteenth time that day. ***Given this history it is puzzling to imagine how it was that merely two weeks later we were hiking La Luz. Short-term memory problems, clearly.Now, La Luz is the hike to bring up at dinner parties if you want to impress someone besides the folks at the forest service. Everyone has heard of (and feared) La Luz, reputed to be the toughest hike in the state. It is 7.75 miles straight up the western side of the mountain, dumping you out at the top of the tram which you can take back down and spare your knees. The problem is the base of the tram isn’t the beginning of the trail, so one either has to have someone waiting to drive you to the trail head where your car is parked, or you must be willing to hike over from the base of the tram adding 1.6 miles to the total distance.This is what we did the Sunday morning of Labor Day weekend. Lora picked me up at 5:45am, we parked our car at the base of the tram and by 6:15am began hiking just as it started to get light. This time we had a plan, of sorts.We would hike hard for an hour and then take a break and eat snacks. This plan is code for the fact that I sometimes get ahead and this guaranteed that we would meet up at least once every hour. It was also psychological, as we rationalized that we could do any amount of torture for 60 minutes. Turns out, it wasn’t tortuous at all. It was a dream hike. The weather was cool. We were in the early morning shade of the mountain the entire time. A fog drifted in towards the top, which was magical. While La Luz is relentlessly uphill, it simply is not as tough as some of our shorter but steeper hikes on the east side of the mountains. We had good snacks. We had the promise of pancakes by 11:30 if we kept moving. We didn’t get lost. There were no bears making mischief on the trail. It might have been the best hike of our lives. “How was La Luz?” Friends later asked me. I suspect they were mocking us, fully expecting after our last misadventure another long tale of wandering in the woods. “Great,” I answered. “9.3 miles in 4.5 hours. Uphill. We pretty much rocked.” They looked at me like I might be lying. They have so little faith in the two of us. “We kicked that mountain in the ass,” Lora had declared, as we pulled into the parking lot of the breakfast place at exactly 11:30am, already smelling the pancakes. At the time I agreed, but both my short and long term memory are working just fine these days. I am so done with hiking for awhile. The damn bears can have the mountain all to themselves.
(This post lacks photos. That is because my computer is on its last legs, and no longer can handle much of anything. It's rather amazing we are managing to post this blog. Come back later when my new laptop has arrived to see visuals....)
September 18th, 2011 :: Teaching Days
Yesterday little Noah came into his lesson. He is young, tow-headed and freckled, a generally happy kid. Yesterday, however, he was despondent. “What’s up?” I asked him. At this question, Noah burst into tears. “I made bad choices,” he told me sobbing.
This kid clearly lives in a political correct world defined by choices, good or bad. While I was sorry the poor kid was crying, it was hard not to smile over what was so obviously a direct imitation of adult-language behavior modification. “OK,” I responded calmly, “what were the bad choices?”
Quickly it became clear that over the recent semester break between lessons he didn’t complete all his assigned practice days, “choosing” to play some days rather than practice and had lost track of how much time he had before his next lesson. When we examined his practice chart together, he only had eight out of ten required practices completed. I immediately thought, “Hey! I can live with this,” but of course I didn’t want Noah to think I don’t take my own assignments seriously. “So, how can we make better choices in the future?” I asked him, parodying his choice of vocabulary.
He suggested, and I agreed, that it would now be easier because school had started and we would be back to regular weekly lessons with the expected 5 practice days in between. “I get confused when it is too long between lessons,” he wailed at me, “I want to come to piano every week.”
I want to come to piano every week. This statement was music to my jaded ears. Not only because it demonstrated Noah’s commitment to piano and our relationship and practice routine, but because it reminded me how much the rituals and routines of our lives bring us comfort and assurance. Watching kids come in my door these last few weeks, excited about new teachers and new schools, new backpacks and new tennis shoes, I can almost hear their sigh of relief: Oh yeah, everything at Miss Amy’s house is the same. I know what to do here.
I echo their relief. I am equally anxious about new classes and new routines every semester, and breathe easier in the places in my life where I can keep on keeping on. As I take up the rituals of fall--the practice of planting pansies and collecting pumpkins by the front door, the cooler nights and shorter days requiring me to water in the dark every evening, the upcoming performance classes and recitals to organize and plan, the annual October get-away to Taos to anticipate, the books and music needing to be bought---I am thankful for the familiar: the Noahs of my world that I understand and know and love: breakdowns and bad choices and all.
September 11th, 2011 :: Ordinary Days
First of all, Pang is dead.
Which is only one of many strange and somewhat disconcerting things going on around here. In fact, I am beginning to wonder if the lines between the natural world and our man-made artificial one are now officially blurred.
This summer I was visiting a friend in her home. Sitting on a windowsill in her kitchen was a glass jar with a little blue fish swimming in it. “That’s charming,” I said. “How long have you had that fish?” (thinking that the answer would be 5 minutes.) “Five years,” my friend replied.
Immediately I went home and announced to Matt and everyone I knew that I was going to get a betta fish to swim in my own pretty vase. “I think the cats would be amused,” I said to anyone who would listen. “And it’s so lovely, a fish swimming in a beautiful glass jar. So very Matisse-like.”
My husband and all my friends declared that they were going to turn me into the Animal Humane Society. “You can’t get a fish to entertain your cats. That’s not very nice to the fish.” Harrumph, I thought to myself, buying time.
At our house we have what we call “house meetings,” a time set aside every few weeks to discuss household kinds of things, like who should be taking out the trash (Matt), who should keep the study clean (Matt), who should be better about picking up his socks (Matt). We talk about money issues and compare calendars. We discuss major purchases and future plans. Friends have started sending us agenda items for the Greer house meeting. “Find a date when we can have dinner together,” friends will say. “You can talk about it at the next house meeting.”
I did not think the purchase of three betta fish needed to be brought up at the house meeting.
Instead, one day I simply rode my bicycle over to the nearby pet store and bought three betta fish---a gold one, a blue one, and a red one. I put them in three lovely glass vases (turns out they are aggressive and won’t tolerate co-habitation) and set two of them on the mantle and one on the wall between the sun-room and the dining room. They seemed very happy, and relieved not to be living at the pet store anymore. My cats could not care less about the presence of fish in the house.
“You can name the fish,” I generously said to Matt, who, unlike the cats, wasn’t at all sure fish were a good idea. “Ping, Pang and Pong,” he decided, after a few days of careful consideration.
For several weeks, all was well. My students LOVED the fish. It was truly delightful to be sitting on the couch reading and to look up at the mantle and see a fish swimming by. They hardly ate a thing and didn’t need their litter boxes scooped out, making them even more low-maintainence than the girls. It seemed we had struck a nice balance with the universe.
Then one morning when I looked in on the fish I discovered that Pang was missing. Gone. Not in the bowl at all.
There he was lying on the floor, clearly a victim of his own suicidial act of leaping out of the pretty vase. “See,” my husband reprimanded me. “That was not a happy fish after all.”
I disagreed. Clearly, Pang has misjudged his space. That was unfortunate, but not reason to give up this plan of owning fish. Besides the kids had grown very attached to the fish. I was going to have to replace Pang and hope no one noticed.
No one did. We named the second generation blue fish “2Pang”. 2Pang seemed a bit more lethargic than his predecessor, but perhaps that would be a good thing, as he would be less likely to try jumping to his death. I was content, liking the symmetry of living with ONE man, TWO cats, and THREE betta fish.
And then about a month later, I woke up late one Sunday morning, and 2Pang was dead, floating listlessly in the water.
I had played a concert the night before that had left me particularly exhausted. Sleeping in until 9 o’clock was unusual behavior for me. I felt groggy and confused. And then 2Pang was dead. It was a disconcerting start to the day.
Later that morning, I was sitting at the computer when I heard a “meow” outside my window. I went out, and there was a tiny kitten stuck in a tree. This seemed a sign from God. Clearly the message is that when God takes away a betta fish, She gives you a kitten instead. Perhaps I was meant to live with ONE man, TWO betta fish, and THREE cats.
Having no other recourse but to rescue the kitten, I did so and brought the adorable white and orange creature indoors. My cats were not amused.
In fact, Godiva went into hiding and didn’t come out for three days.
I determined that the kitten was one of two offsprings of a stray calico that my neighbors had been feeding. It needed a home. It was growing increasingly obvious as time went on that it would need a home that wasn’t ours.
Not that the little guy was unhappy in anyway. Nonplussed by the reaction of my older cranky cats, he was the most cheerful little kitten on the planet. He LOVED piano lessons. (“Hey! Did you hear that? The door is opening again. Maybe there’s someone I should go meet.”) He followed me from room to room. He slept on Matt’s feet while he shaved. I started calling him “Gimlet.” We were in serious danger of falling in love with the little guy.
Coming to our good senses, we had an emergency house meeting. “We can’t keep him,” Matt told me firmly. “Look how it is affecting the girls.” “I know, I know,” I said, as Gimlet sat on my lap and purred contentedly.
We sent out a plea to everyone we knew. “Free adorable kitten!” we emailed. “Come and see.”
Within no time at all, we had a response, and soon Gimlet was gone, scampering out of our lives as carelessly as he had scampered into them.
Meanwhile, TrePang is swimming merrily on my mantle, restoring balance in the universe.
September 3rd, 2011 :: Reading Days
Eight-six degrees, high tide.
We were arguing about suicide.
Me, safe from the sun under the umbrella;
you, propped on your elbows in the sand,
your arms, recently iron-pumped, bronzing smoothly,
your short gold curls and strong nose almost
Roman coinworthy as you scanned
the water with restless air and announced
you'd kill yourself, you really would,
if you weren't a coward.
While I maintained the wish to die
itself was cowardly.
And I didn't believe you:
you didn't really want to die.
What about speed and wind--
your long bike rides, tracing the harbor
on unknown roads? What about your pencil
setting a line on a clean sheet of drafting
paper? Women with small breasts
and certain customs you were said
to love in bed? At the very least,
the kind of happiness that's purely physical.
The person who wants to die,
you snapped, doesn't care about
any of that. He'd give it all up
for a moment's peace. Peace from
striving, from endless dissatisfaction
with a self that's less than idea.
I'd do it, you insisted, if I weren't
shit-scared of pain.
If it's pain you don't like
you'd take pills, I said.
But I hadn't won, and added lamely;
Aren't you curious how your life
is going to Turn Out? That's not
a question of being brave--
just mildly vain, which you are,
or so you claim.
You didn't answer for a while,
and half-enraged (or was it half in love)
I watched your critic's eye alight
on a black haired figure clad in white
bikini as she ran lightly down
the hard-packed sand and dove
into a creamy wave.
A Working Girl Can't Win
Contact Amy Greer at: email@example.com