Sunday, August 30, 2015

A List (Because I Have Run Out of Ideas)

Schwartz and the Parking Ticket

1. There is no such thing as an idea
2. I might be wrong about number 1.
3. Words were invented by people to represent ideas.
4. Numbers were invented by people to represent quantities.
4 ½. Sometimes people mistake the symbol we use to represent a number for the actual quantity itself.
5. Not every thing I write down needs to stay on a list.
6. Cherry is getting old, and some days it’s more noticeable than others and today was one of those days.
7. Not every thing I write down in an effort to be funny turns out to be funny
8. Cats might be good at accounting but we’ll never know because who would let a cat handle their books?
9. People really liked my tweet the other day comparing Donald Trump to cat shit.
10. I lost my list of the missing stuff
11. Sometimes when I need to sing something I sing “Acres of Clams.”
12. On August 21, 2009 I watched six episodes of Hannah Montana and liked them. I think I was running a fever. The only reason I know this is because I said it on Facebook.
13. Cats remember how many kittens they have, so they probably have an idea of number.
14. I think about numbers all the time, both in the sense of numerical quantity and in the sense of the symbol for a number.
15. Whenever I see a parking ticket in the gutter in New York City, I feel sad for the person who got the ticket and doesn’t know because the ticket fell off and the fines go way up over time if you don’t pay them.
16. Sometimes I feel like writing is always going to be a struggle.
17. When I wake up really early and can’t get back to sleep I worry about things like whether I got a parking ticket that blew off my car and I don’t know it and the fines are going up right now as I lie here in the dark not sleeping and worrying about it.
18. My mom didn’t realize she was allergic to our cat until after he died and as her house got clean she started to feel better.
19. I had lots of favorite numbers as a kid, including 16, but I do not have one now. I like the number 8 for a variety of reasons but I still wouldn’t call it my favorite.
20. My friend had a cat with terrible allergies and it always struck me as kind of funny.
21. This other list said, “Find my pajamas,” and I don’t know if I ever did.
22. I don’t even have a favorite color.
23. Once I got a parking ticket on my car when it was parked in front of my own house in Seattle and I’d forgotten to put the new registration sticker on the license plate.
24. When I was a kid I was allowed to watch as much TV as I wanted and so I watched a lot of TV. I almost never watch TV now but I waste a lot of time on the Internet which you probably knew anyway.
25. This other time, I got a parking ticket on my car when it was parked in front of my own apartment building in New York and I was going in to check the mail and get the new registration sticker.
26. I am so easily distracted.
27. Once, I was house-hunting in Bedford, New York and got a parking ticket in a paid lot, and they issued the ticket about ten minutes after the time expired and the car had been there for like four hours or something so I definitely got the feeling that some police officer sat there the whole day waiting for my paid parking to expire in the town’s one public lot and the only thing he did that whole day was slap that ticket on my windshield and when I got that ticket about ten minutes after it had been written I was like, Oh, hey, guess I don’t actually wanna live here in Bedford, huh? But, maybe, in retrospect, having cops with absolutely nothing whatsoever to do is a good sign and meant that I should have come back and looked at more ranch houses. Maybe that was my error.
28. I can’t decide if cats would give parking tickets or would just piss on anything you left in a place they considered against the rules.
 29. I thought about making a list of advice for college sophomores but once I thought about it I was like, “You got this.”
30. Some lists aren’t really necessary, but they do manage to help organize one’s thoughts.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Back to School

Last week, we were busy with those last minute doctor’s and dentist appointments, scheduled just in time before our youngest went back to school. He is a college sophomore this year, and though he was quietly grumpy in the last days before I dropped him off, I will miss him.

Mostly I listen to books in the car, but the latest update to the Audible app is so bad I have to trick it into playing. My hack involves playing first a song using Apple’s Music app, and then interrupting it (without stopping it) to play the book (yes, I’ve tried other things, including uninstalling/reinstalling). This hack has meant finally I’ve had to put a couple of songs I like on my phone, and one song provided me with the just right whatever I needed to drive off campus and towards home without having to stop to cry.

Stopping in at the barn to avoid coming home to an empty house, I found the barn staff tiptoeing around because, they said, the owner’s wife had to say goodbye this morning to her daughter who just went back to school.

Captain is sad, too

This is a difficult time of the year for me for another reason, as I am now entering my fifth year of joblessness. Fall has a sting for me. Way back when I landed my first teaching gig, I was delighted to be back in the rhythm of the school year, with beginnings in late summer/early fall, and endings in late spring/early summer. When I quit my last job to get another masters degree, in the hope of starting a new career, my year was still organized around the dictates of the Thanksgiving break, winter break, and spring break of several educational institutions.

So sad

A couple of lifetimes ago, I was teaching at the University of Vermont, and I had a class of fifty-four students including five named Michael. I had learned which Michael was which and I don’t think it was the Michael who wore the ROTC uniform who raised his hand in class to say, with a declarative tone and not a querying one, “Why do we need to know this?!” ROTC Michael was not to be confused with the two Michaels in the back who seemed to be up to no good, came infrequently to class, and tried to cheat on tests. I think the question came from one of them.

I might have been going over the quadratic formula, or simplifying a gloriously messy complex fraction with fractions in the numerator and in the denominator. I taught many sections of Finite Math back then, in which case it would have been a counting problem, like, How many ways can we arrange 10 people in a group of chairs in a circle?  Had it been Business Calculus, I might have been writing out the limit definition of a derivative when he asked, because that was something the college freshmen would ask, especially those who already took calculus in high school, last year as seniors, and hadn’t done very well. 

When students ask, “Why do I need to know this?!” teachers have options. They can ignore the question. They can stop and raise their eyebrows as high as they can and say, unblinkingly, “Because it’s on the next quiz!!” like the next quiz is something concrete and specific and as unchangeable as the red, yellow and green of a traffic light. They can ask, “Don’t you want to be a rocket scientist?!” They might say Lincoln taught himself Euclidean geometry, and came up with his own proof of the Pythagorean Theorem, even though maybe it wasn’t Lincoln but it was Napoleon. Sometimes I would shout, “Because it’s awesome,” without turning around. I didn’t think any of my freshmen were on track to become rocket scientists, or math teachers, or Lincoln, or Napoleon. I didn’t make the curriculum; I was only responsible for teaching it. I wasn’t even sure why algebra students needed to be able to solve every possible quadratic equation they would ever see, because most people never need to solve any quadratic equations, ever. And if they do, there’s WolframAlpha.

At the University of Vermont, I was able to tell my Finite Math students that they needed to pass my class to get a B.A. This is the trump card in the college setting. In a high school classroom, saying, “Because you need to know this if you want to pass my class” may not have the same power.  The thing is: some of their parents, maybe even many of their parents will look you in the eye and say, “I’m really not a math person, either.” Because “I’m not a math person,” is a thing lots of people say to math teachers. 

Years later, I taught high school math at a school where we had two evening events for teacher conferences. These teacher conference nights were set up like speed dating. Parents would show up with their daughter’s schedule and follow it, making the rounds to meet her teachers. We had two nights for this, with the alphabet split so we could meet everyone. Two teachers sat in each classroom, desks pushed out of the way, a cluster of chairs for waiting in the middle, and a desk and three chairs in each corner.  The first year I had to do it I had the chairman of the department in my room; which I assumed meant they didn’t trust me not to say something stupid. It was a reasonable suspicion on their part.

Teachers were only supposed to spend 5 minutes with each family, though if no one was waiting we would spend more. T.’s parents always came, and you’d know them because they were each just as tall and gorgeous as she was. C.’s mother was relieved to know she wasn’t quite as rude and withdrawn at school as she was at home. G.'s parents just wanted to say hello. Mostly we said reassuring things, about progress and interest: “T. is a pleasure to have in my class!”

Jaclyn R.’s parents came, and her mother looked just like a 40-year-old version of her. Jaclyn was a cheerful young woman, nice to her friends, chatty in class, and funny, but not especially interested in geometry. “You’re her favorite teacher,” said her mother. Leaning in, she went on, “And she hates math. So that’s saying something.” There was an awkward silence. She shrugged. “It’s ok! I’m not a math person either,” she said. 

I told her I understood.  I said, “I am used to it. It’s like being the dentist; no one is all that happy to see me, especially not first thing in the morning.”

Dr. and Mrs. R. now had odd expressions. I turned to Dr. R., and as I blushed with recognition, I asked, “You’re a dentist, aren’t you?” They gave me a slow nod in unison.

“Well,” I said, “So you know.”

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Red Dog, Red Dog, Red Dog

Writing every day doesn’t get easier, and to be honest I don’t get around to it when I’m busy, or upset, or tired, or frustrated, or traveling, or distracted, or busy. Some days I try to write and wind up making lists of the things I can hear that are distracting me, and these lists include mowers and trucks and robins and crows and titmice. I had a bad case of writer’s block for about thirty years, so my default is not writing.   

Giving myself a weekly deadline means I have a deadline, so I feel bad when Wednesday slips by and I haven’t posted to this blog. The past few weeks my solution has been to go digging in the archives, and I’ve found a couple of old things I wrote, revised them, and been pleased with the result.

This is a long way of saying I came up dry this week.

Errands in the city meant I had to stay an extra day, too, so instead of having Tuesday to moan and squint and thumb through old writing, I hung out in the city, counted my blisters, ordered take-out, creeped on people on LinkedIn, watched TV, and spent too much time on Twitter. When I got back to the farm, there was no food, so I had to run to the store before riding, and then there was riding, and after that the dogs needed to be walked, and it was looking, as we headed out, like I’d be putting off the moaning and squinting until nightfall, when there was supposed to be a good showing of Perseids.

As I let the dogs out the door to go circumnavigate the property, Schwartz made his usual dash for freedom. Our shorthand for this is to call, “Black dog!” Our red dogs come one, two, red dog, red dog, and then, sometimes, the black cat jogging along, right after. He’s not an outside cat, but he likes to have an adventure. I got the door closed just in time.

Out on the walk it was business as usual: Captain running ahead, and Cherry not taking any more steps than necessary. I take “Your DailyCaptain” pictures and stick them on Instagram fairly often; all I have to do is crouch down with my phone ready and Captain will usually come running for me. Yesterday, Cherry came right away, but Captain was looking at something in the bushes and I had to call him. He came, eventually, and as I snapped away, in the non-optimal light, it seemed something was coming with him.

Cherry (right) is a photo-bomber
It was a buck, with thin, velvety antlers. He really seemed to want to keep chasing Captain.
Third Red Dog
I missed young, wild turkeys flying over my head this spring, not because I didn't have my phone in my hand, but because I stood agog and amazed, watching their fluffy, unfeathered bodies flapping just above my head.  I guess those pictures would have been blurry, too, as most of these turned out to be.  
Changes his mind about joining us

Captain: "Come Back!"


Wednesday, August 5, 2015


This past Sunday, Mars and I competed at our second rated show together. The judging was harsh. This week I’m wondering when and if I’ll ever have a more independent seat, softer elbows, and a more elastic connection. The one positive comment was, “Attractive pair.” It’s not nothing.

Last summer, just before I moved out of TriBeCa, I went to visit Vogel Custom Boots, in SoHo, to be fitted for my first pair of dress riding boots. I changed riding disciplines in the last few years, moving sideways from the hunter/jumper world to the other, even more froufrou, dressage. The tiny Vogel store front sat on a narrow, quiet street in a neighborhood of exquisite historic cast-iron buildings now bustling with high-end retail stores; it fit in nicely with its carved wood sign with gilded lettering, and custom shoes in the window, displaying the full spectrum of English riding boots.

My trainer likes to remind me that the word “dressage” is from the French, meaning “training.” It’s the flatwork, the not-jumping part of riding. At the Olympic level, the horses seem to dance, and they perform freestyle choreography to music.  At my level, you learn a test, in advance, that is written out on paper, with different gaits and figures performed at the letter-labeled points of the ring. The test takes 5 or 6 minutes, a long time for an athlete (horse or rider) to concentrate and really give a peak athletic performance. It looks like plain old horseback riding, and it’s judged by a person with a scorecard, giving you marks for the different movements and then a written score at the end. You can read where the judge thought your horse hollowed or fell in or bulged or hurried, where you needed more bend or impulsion, and you are welcome to use it to become a deranged and obsessive perfectionist about your riding and your horse’s way of going. Or, you can use it to reflect on those things you need to work on, and get to work improving.

The way a test is written, “3. K-X-M Change rein; 4. Between C &H Working canter left lead. 5; E Circle left 20m,” is not how it always rides. At a recent (unrated) schooling show, for example, my 6-year-old horse Mars whinnied violently at M, beginning at step 3 of the test, and then again, each time he passed the corner marked M or even got close to it: at step 5 when we circled at E, between step 8 & 9, at step 11 when we circled at E again, and then, again after step 13. I think another horse somewhere on the property was answering him.

A horse can whinny gently and quietly, almost under his breath. This wasn’t that kind of whinnying. This was like the horse equivalent of screaming. You can feel it emanating from the bowels of the horse, rumbling up under the saddle, vibrating through his chest, and then erupting from his great jaws. What are horses saying when they whinny? Maybe the horse version of, “WHERE YOU AT?” and the reply, “WHERE YOU AT, BRO!?” Whinnying during a test does not do much to earn a horse “submission” points, added to the end of one’s dressage score, for “willing cooperation, harmony, attention and confidence, acceptance of bit and aids, straightness, lightness of forehand and ease of movements.” Alas.

Coming from the hunter/jumper world, where flatwork is to prepare a horse and rider for jumping courses, it was my experience that trainers had limited patience to teach me flatwork in a way that I understood what I was doing, or why I was doing it, and how I might do it better. I was vaguely aware that I was bad at it, that flatwork, with my stiff, arched back and turned-out toes, my unforgiving arms and hands always at odds with the horse. But I didn’t have the slightest clue how I was supposed to get better at it until I started serious dressage lessons. And I’m still working on it, every ride.

Dressage was also a way to use my older, semi-retired horse, whose old injuries have meant that she will only be sound for trail riding and light work. Soon, though, I had ordered a new, black custom saddle, made in France, of course, specifically for dressage. And I had a new, young horse; a project we named Mars. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know.

Of course, I owned tall boots for riding already, but they are field boots, with laces at the top of the foot, going a short way up the ankle. The subtle and not-so-subtle distinctions in equestrian disciplines start with big, expensive things like boots and saddles, but also include variations in show apparel, and fundamental differences in the rider’s position. A dressage rider will wear a white stock tie, with a pin, as a foxhunter would; a showhunter wears a backwards collar called a rat-catcher. A dressage rider has a long stirrup and an open hip angle; a hunter jumper will run her stirrups up and crouch in the tack. It will take me years to develop new riding instincts.

Now, I had been to Vogel before this visit, when I had my trusty old field boots serviced the previous year, getting new soles and heels and having a ripped boot loop replaced. But it’s such a small shop with only a few chairs for customers that it can be quite awkward to walk in. The Vogel showroom was a few steps above the street, and smelled intensely of leather and leather dyes. I stood there in the small showroom, my messy, dirty hair going in strange directions, my wrinkled shirt untucked, and asked the first person in the back who noticed me if I could be fitted for some dressage boots, please.

“Do you have your riding pants?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

She took me through the crowded work area to a small changing room in the back, where I put on my riding pants. When I returned to the front room, there
were two customers being measured for custom shoes. Both were sizable men, with shiny, combed back, black hair. One wore a suit and tie. They were peppering the salesman with questions.  “Why would it take so long? Why didn’t they make a mold of your feet? Why are the soles leather? Which pair is the most comfortable?”

Somehow, in New York City, there are still people who aspire to dress and talk and comport themselves publicly like mobsters. They purposely ask dumb questions, demand to know why everything is so expensive, excessively quote mob movies, and constantly assess whether others are with them or against them. For the purposes of this story, I am going to call these guys in the custom boot shop mobsters.

The younger mobster of the two asked, “How long do these shoes last?”

And the salesman said, “Well, it depends how much walking you do.”

The older mobster pointed to his fat stomach and said, “If I did a lot of walking would I look like this?”

I was introduced to Jack, the guy who fits the equestrian boots. He asked me if I’ve had boots made by them before, and I said I have. We reminisced about Olson’s, near Seattle, where I bought my boots a number of years ago, and Mike, who he’s known since he was a young employee there, long before he was manager or owner. I go back that far with Mike, too.  Jack went to look up my earlier order, and came back out with a clipboard, pencil and tape measure. I was still standing.

Jack sat in a chair next to the coatrack; one of the mobsters had left his coat draped over the seats, instead of hanging it up. Jack took down my address and email, perched on the edge of the seat so as not to crush the coat.

The mobster grandly offered to move the coat, and now that Jack had their attention he was able to find me a place to sit. Jack took a lot of measurements, all with me sitting, tracing my foot onto a piece of paper. We talked about my bunions, and the scary surgeries suggested by the two podiatrists I’ve seen. He told me no one he knows is happy with their bunion surgery. I concurred. He made me pull up the leg of my breeches, over my knee. Underneath my legs were really hairy, of course. 

The mobsters were still discussing leathers and soles. They were not coming to a decision. They said they’d call with their final decisions, but it seemed they’d be making no purchase that day. Though they’d said nothing to me, as they left the younger mobster called, “Good luck with your horse.”

He didn’t even say it like he believed I have a horse. He said it like he thought I made up the horse, the way that a kid in elementary school who didn’t believe your uncle was an NFL kicker would say, “Yeah right, sure.” Also, tucked under the “Good luck with your horse,” was, of course, that scene in the Godfather movie, where revenge came in the form of a horse head in a guy’s bed.

I learned my left calf is bigger than my right, and I’d have to have an elastic gusset if I didn’t want a zipper. I chose a squared toe, and a spur rest. I didn’t want mine as stiff as the sample he brought me, though I liked the stiff souls and the ribbed bottoms. As I paid (a sobering $1366 with tax), I asked how long it would take. I was told 10 to 12 weeks. I didn’t say that I wouldn’t even live in the neighborhood anymore in 10 to 12 weeks because I couldn’t face that at all. Moving in New York City is another tale of mobsters; with complicated rules of daily tipping and separate insurance and the always suspicious requirement that the whole thing be transacted in cash. I promised to lend Jack my orthotics for a few days without a word about my move.

Only six weeks later, I got a call that my boots were finished, and was told Vogel was two days away from packing up the place and closing. They were moving to Brooklyn. Someone made them an offer for their location; it was an offer they couldn’t refuse.