25 September 2003

Tonight I learned a very important lesson: cockroaches eat poop. How did I learn this lesson, you ask? Well, when I was out in my backyard hunting for dog poop with a flashlight and a shovel, I noticed that nearly every pile of poop I found was crawling with brown roaches, their exoskeletons glinting like deer eyes in my light. It didn’t take too many piles of cockroaches to convince me that poop hunting is an activity that should be reserved for daylight.

There are a lot of differences between Iowa/Wisconsin and New Mexico, of course. The “no ten-gallon hats” sign at the movie theater, the green chile and cheese bagels (which are so great!!), the large number of people who’ve never heard of Michael Feldman, the fact that Hardees is called “Carl’s Jr.” and a “patio” is a small open courtyard in the center of a house...but these are all relatively minor differences. They have no real impact on my daily life. However, there are some major differences as well, and one of these is the Poop Problem.

In the midwest, most people have yards full of lovely, thick, green grass and soft, rich dirt. It rains a lot, and yards are full of dandelions and flowers and clover. When a dog poops in this garden paradise, the poop hides between the lush foliage and then magically disappears when it rains. In the southwest, most people have yards full of rocks and dirt and cacti. It never, ever rains, and yards are full of rocks. And dirt. And cacti. When a dog poops in this desert world, the poop sits out in full view of everyone, drying up in the sun into petrified poop that will never go anywhere. For this reason, it’s necessary to go shovel the poop up about once a week. I usually do it on Tuesdays, because Wednesday morning is garbage pickup. This is why I found myself tonight wandering through my backyard in boxers and a tee shirt, carrying a shovel and flashlight, looking for poop.


Another thing to file under “things that are different in NM” – kids can get high school credit for being in the ROTC, and spend a whole class period marching around the school parking lot yelling “left, left, left right left”.... when we pulled up at Moriarty High School today, one such group marched past us and Jennie said, “You know who that is, don’t you?” I couldn’t hear them, so I shook my head. When she said, “The ROTC,” I thought she was kidding. Also, the school has a big pasture out in back of it, full of sheep for the ag kids. Moriarty makes Oregon seem ultra cosmopolitan in comparison, which is pretty scary.


Today was a good day overall – we taught our first class out at Crossroads, Moriarty’s alternative high school, and all the kids were just great. Crossroads is located in some trailer classrooms out behind the school (near the sheep pasture). After class, I walked across the parking lot to throw some boxes in the dumpster, marveling at the vast Moriarty sky (Moriarty’s on the east side of the Sandias, far enough from the mountains that it’s flatter than Iowa), when I was struck with a pang of the teacher/artist divide... I love kids, and being in a classroom like the one at Crossroads or like Holly’s 6th grade classroom at Roosevelt always makes me think about how I would decorate my classroom, and sometimes – like today – makes me think that I should have a classroom, like what am I doing dicking around with these lizards? I’m supposed to be teaching scansion! (And the big 6th grade team at Roosevelt is teaching The Giver! Today when we were there, the teachers were filling out Ceremony of Twelve certificates in team meeting, and I got geekishly excited.)

And then tonight after work, I went to the Jonson Gallery on UNM’s campus to see a presentation by Susan Ressler, whose new book Women Artists of the American West features a chapter written by Tiska, who spent some time talking about the focus of her chapter, artists Agnes Pelton and Florence Miller Pierce of the Transcendental Painting Group (late 1930s/early 1940s). As art history presentations always do, this one made me question the way I just turned my back on painting when I went to college, made me wonder why or how I could give it up when it meant so much to me. Afterward, I said something along these lines to Tiska, and she said, “But writing is an art, too – you’re an artist!” But it’s not the same. I told her that if I could do college over, I’d be an art history major. (Which is a lie, of course. If I, Molly-Backes-who-already-graduated-with-an-English-degree could start as a freshman, I’d be an art history major for sure, but only because I’ve taken enough literature classes that I can take them for granted.... And to be honest, there are certain lit class experiences I would not give up for anything, including Broe’s post-colonial class and Cavanagh’s Milton seminar, and even Andrews’ women/writing/nature seminar – though I rolled my eyes through much of it at the time, it ended up making a huge impact on the way I think about a lot of things....and each of these significant classes required all the hoop-jumping of the many trads classes....)

After the presentation, Tiska kept introducing me as her friend (or sometimes as Diane’s cousin) Molly, who just moved to Albuquerque and is working on her first novel! At one point, I laughed sheepishly, or bashfully, or maybe doubtfully, and Tiska said, “I just love how that sounds! It’s so pure, and so inspiring!” I said, “Jennie always tells people I’m a novelist, too. I think she does it to convince them that I’m really as great as she says, because in her mind someone with my skills should not be working for such low pay at an npo, but she can justify it by telling people I’m writing a novel in my free time.” Tiska said, “Maybe it’s just that we can see you in a way that you can’t see yourself.” I love her!

Tiska took Susan and me out for dinner, to a restaurant called Gyros behind the Frontier. The food was less greasy, and the atmosphere a little more refined, than that of the famous Olympia CafĂ©, but it’s not necessarily better than the OC, which seems more authentic, more sloppy and weird and human. Comfortingly dirty. Danielle says that children who grow up in obsessive-compulsively clean households are actually more prone to illness than kids who grow up in normal houses that walk the line between cleanish and dirtyish. Or like our house, I guess, which long since crossed the line from hairyish into grossish, thanks to Zeke.

After dinner and grocery shopping, I finally got to talk to Dave Skogen and tell him about the Shins. As I predicted, he freaked out, and I almost convinced him to get in his car and start driving. He kept saying, “Man, if only I had known yesterday, I totally would have come.” Too bad, but I promised I’d tell James et al that my friend Dave loves them so much he was this close to driving forty hours round trip just to see them play one show. Done and done. Happily, D reports that YB was hob-nobbing with the likes of Beck and the Foo Fighters on their last tour, playing to crowds of thousands. And then they came back to the states, and played for eight people in a bar in Des Moines. Somehow that imbalance reminds me of a recent quote from a certain Josh Blue: "well...guess who was within FIVE FEET of JACKIE CHAN tonight!?!?!!....its almost as cool as the time I met Mr. Rogers and Mr. McFeely....." Vintage, Josh, vintage.

24 September 2003

11:45 pm, Home

Today was one of those “If I find one more goddamn cockroach in my shower, I am going to kill myself!” kinds of days. In the midwest I called these my “If I drop one more pencil....” days, as in:

24/25 April 2002
1017 High Street, Dining Room with mint tea and Todd’s CD mix

Ugghh. I have just been in the worst mood all day. I can’t shake it, and I can’t figure out what’s going on. It was just one of those days when it’s like – if you drop one more pencil, you are seriously going to lose it. And of course I kept dropping pencils all damn weekend. I mean day. I am distracted and distressed....

That’s how today was – if not for my weird mood, it would have been a great day. Jennie brought me a latte this morning as I struggled with the ancient (donated, of course) computer, and we had nice talks to & from Moriarty, I got to play with Robert’s beast of a weimaraner, Spook, and with his sweet little girl April (also a weimaraner, “the dyke queen of dogs”), I got to talk to funny middle-schoolers, Maddie and I were in hysterics in the two hours it took us to make two copies of the bully-proofing curriculum, Danielle and I went out to dinner at a nice Chinese restaurant.... These are all good things, and yet ––

I’m tempted to dwell on the bad parts of the day (the first of TEN YEARS worth of student loan bills, for one), but instead....

Good things:

1. The Shins!
(Saturday afternoon, at the bookstore with Lisa)
Me: (picking up a copy of a CD by a totally obscure group -- The Shins -- who Dave Skogen got me hooked on in November or December...) Oh, the Shins! I love this band! Do you know them?
Lisa: Well, just Marty.
Me: What?
Lisa: I don't know all of them too well, just Marty.
Lisa: ... um?
Me: You know Marty?
Lisa: (looking worried, like I might suddenly attack) yeah?
Me: (suddenly realizing I've picked said CD off table labeled "Local Music") Wait, are they from Albuquerque?
Lisa: Yeah, didn't you know that?
Me: WHAT! No! I only have a burned copy of their CD, no liner notes. Are you serious??
Lisa: ...?
Me: In the midwest, NOBODY's heard of them. Just Dave.
Lisa: I'll introduce you to Marty if you want. I was just thinking that I should call him, actually.

2. Lisa.
She’s great!

3. My first talking talons paycheck!
More than enough to cover my first student loan payment... oh....

4. Dream interpretation.
Sunday morning before I woke up, I dreamed that Ali and I were starting a school in the mountains (implicitly around Albuquerque), and we were trying to get people to help us raise money and support for it. I got a call from a band who said they’d play a benefit concert for the school, and I was really excited about it, and kept telling Ali that they were “really big, like the Beatles!” – and maybe they WERE the Beatles... it was unclear in that dreamy kind of way. And then I got a call from Winnie and Nelson Mandela, who said they’d like to come help us garner support for our school, but only if I took them mountain climbing first. They said, “We know the world thinks of us mainly as advocates of human rights, but in our minds we’re mountain climbers first and foremost.” I was kind of surprised, because I’m no sherpa, but I agreed (of course!) and then spent the rest of the dream trying to arrange schedules to see if the Beatles-like band and the Mandelas could come the same weekend, but it seemed like they couldn’t.

On the way to Moriarty today, I told Jennie this dream, and she said it seemed like a really positive dream, and we talked about the fact that it’s really about balance. Trying to juggle the band and the Mandelas (art & education, perhaps?), and the whole mountain climbing/advocacy thing. Jennie said, “You’re not defined by any one thing... and before you can open your school, before you can save the world, you have to climb the mountains.” Also, she said the fact that the Mandelas showed up to support Ali’s and my school says that there’s something really good and true about it – either the actual school, or the fact of us as a team....

Often my dreams are full of weird symbols of other things (like the dream I had that OHS had been put on trucks and driven to Fitchburg and set down at the bottom of Ledgemont Court, so as I sat in math class I could watch my dad getting into his van and driving off to work — helped me realize that my idea of what school was, as I was looking at colleges, was moving closer to home – and then I decided to go to college in Iowa), but these symbols all seem pretty straightforward. After all, the educator/artist balance is one I’ve been struggling with for at least seven or eight years now.

5. Zeke.
He’s stretched out across my bed with his orange Desert Dog neckerchief on, sniffing and kicking in his sleep.

6. Tea
Tonight Danielle and I got sucked into Wild Oats on our way home and I found two of my favorites: Almond Sunset & Irish Breakfast. Hooray!

7. When life gives you sour grapes, make wine?
Okay, so my back yard and front yard and side yard are all full of speedy cockroaches, and okay, when I ran out to the truck just now there were four on the exterior wall, each longer than two inches, and yeah, so Danielle said that once or twice a year the city flushes out the sewer system and all the roaches start climbing up through the drains and end up in sinks and showers and toilets like crazy (if we hadn’t been in Home Depot and surrounded by old people looking at faucet handles, I would have screamed at this news) . . . . . and my closet and bathroom are both full of magic death-resistant spiders, and Robert said he killed a SIX INCH LONG centipede in his garage last night . . . . . . . but it could be worse, right? At least my house isn’t full of tarantulas, and the cockroaches in the yard could be scorpions or maggots or centipedes or. . . crocodiles . . . or . . . .Republicans . . . . . . .

12 September 2003

10:00 am, Home

Happy Birthday, CJFO!

I had every intention of writing a long description of my day when I got home from work last night, but I was so exhausted that I had just enough energy to make myself a grilled pepperjack cheese sandwich, call mom, and fall into bed. Twelve hours later, after a full eight hours of sleep, my usual breakfast of toast & tea (Celestial Seasoning's "Devonshire English Breakfast" - I looked for Irish Breakfast, but though Smith's has more tea than Hy-vee & McNally's combined, they don't have I.B.), having just brought Zeke in from the backyard where he was happily guarding the one large bush from the threat of a full-fledged Sparrow Invasion, I can attend to the chronicles of daily life.

When I woke up yesterday morning, it was cold by NM standards: 63° F! I turned on NPR and jumped into the shower immediately, but though the water was hot, I kept getting goosebumps because NPR kept cutting to the voices of children reading names of people who died in the WTC two years ago. Hard to believe it's been two years already; I kept thinking about the wonderful people with whom I shared that terrible day -- most significantly my fellow Fun Nuns (Nadia, Mary, Juleah, & Ali) -- and hoping that they're all well, safe, and happy in their various corners of the world.

I had about two hours to kill before I needed to get ready for work, so I spent some time with the web page. I decided that I would be happier if the plans archives were listed in chronological order, and so spent nearly 45 minutes cutting & pasting the code for the sophomore year table into the correct order. Kevin fixed the front page of my site for me, so now the background behind my name doesn't look like it's melting. Thanks, Kevin!

Excited that it was chilly enough to warrant my jean jacket, I thought of Carrie, who has shared the thrill of the first jean jacket day of fall with me for the last two years. It's getting colder here, but the other signals that tell me it's getting on to autumn are missing -- the trees are all either green or brown, no splendid oranges, roses, or yellows lighting up the hillsides; no Vs of Canada geese heading south; no bright merlot barns sharply defined against tawny fields of corn & brilliant blue skies; no prairie grasses waving yellow and orange in the afternoon sun; none of those goddamn little white bugs that swarmed campus every year in Grinnell.... I miss that huge tree above Darby with its thousand tiny yellow leaves, all winking together in a faint breeze like a shower of gold coins; I miss my autumn clue walks at Rock Creek where every red berry was a gift and a promise; I miss the smell of burning leaves.

Whenever I start thinking of how absolutely stunningly beautiful autumn in the midwest is, and when I start to feel a little bit sad that I'm not there to sit under a flock of geese flying so low and quiet that the only hint of their presence is a faint stirring wind and the distinctive sound of thirty pairs of wings pushing against the evening air, not there to be the only witness to a blue heron's soft descent into a tiny alcove of Rock Creek, I think of this time five years ago:

21 September, 1998 -- 1:24 pm -- Fire Escape with Kevin

Fall turned on today. It was that sudden. This weekend we were still snoozing
on Mac field in the warmth of the late afternoon sun, and then this morning
I stepped outside and it was cold. I love it. The chill in the air,
the smell of leaves... the need to wear sweaters... make me feel alive again.
I felt like I was really in school for the first time today, as I hiked across
campus in my brown flannel and my backpack saying thup thup with every step I took.
I will need to learn how to love Autumn in Iowa. In Madison, this day
would prompt me to drive to the arboretum after school, and crunch through
the leaves by the lake. I would drive with the windows wide open and inhale
the coming season, raping it of its shyness, forcing it into myself.
This chill breeze through these crisping leaves would set me longing for
apple cider and early mornings at the Farmer’s Market. Raking. Long
railroad track walks with the dog. Simon & Garfunkel -- campfires.
Jazzfest. Football games. Hot apple juice. Anne of Green Gables....
How can I make this Iowa oncoming autumn my own? I must find myself in
these autumn fields, these autumn streets.
I must create new rituals. This fire escape afternoon writing escape
from school is a good start. I am wearing socks for the second time all
school year...."

Surely it won't be long before I develop a hundred little fall rituals here, and then one day I'll find myself in an autumn far from New Mexico, missing the early morning mist across the foothills of the Sandias, missing the smell of roasting green chiles floating into my house from the little corner store across the street, missing whatever it is that will come to define autumn in New Mexico for me.


Anyhow, yesterday morning driving to work, I was just stunned by the mountains. They were all wrapped in mist, hung with clouds, so much so that I could only see the peaks of the Sandias, and I had to look long at the range to the south before I convinced myself it was really there. What is that southern range? It's marvelous, sloping farther down the horizon, green like Brigadoon.

And so I drove up into the mountains, up into the clouds, relishing the weight of my jacket on arms that have been bare for a month. I drove with my window open just enough to let in the morning air, with the radio tuned to the new station I found the other day -- Radio Free Santa Fe! -- and had nothing in my head but the physical pleasures of shifting gears and morning mountains.

Driving home, the mountains were blue in shadow, and their silhouettes clearly defined against the gray evening sky. I listened to the last song on YoungBlood's "center:level:roar" album again and again, feeling that its rise and fall of gentle horn & percussion voices -- like a rainstorm -- matched perfectly the mountains in the soft light of dusk. And then I came around a long curve, around the last large crest before town, and the sky was suddenly a warm tangerine all along the far western horizon. I had forgotten how sunset works in the mountains -- unlike Iowa, here the sunset can be a full hour later just twenty miles west, depending on where you are in relation to the mountains.

The descent from the Sandias was just amazing as the setting sun backlit the rippling mountains on the western horizon, far beyond the west mesa. To my left, the strange southern range was all violets and blues, once again proving itself the most elegant of the ranges. Accustomed to the wild magenta sunsets of Iowa, I was enchanted by the way the sunset here faded neatly from a bright tangerine to a pale dandelion down at the lowest edge of the sky, but the oranges and yellows of sunset faded so cleanly into the blues of the upper sky that the whole thing seemed to be one color, a color that was blue at the top and yellow at the bottom, with all subsequent hues between.

Last weekend Danielle and I drove west on 1-40 one night, just for the pleasure of conversation in a dark car and the feeling of motion. We turned around out by the Route 66 Casino, and as we approached Albuquerque from the high western plateau, the sky was bright and starry enough to see the contrast of the Sandias against the sky, and the wide spread of city lights against the foothills looked very familiar. It wasn't until I was home later that night that I found a painting of the very same scene -- the lights of habitation against the dark peaks -- and realized why it looked so familiar. The painting was my own, done when I was 16 or 17 years old, and I've had it hanging in my (many) bedrooms ever since.


This morning, I did a quick google search for any articles about the big art event Kevin's running in Maple Grove this weekend -- he was hired to organize and oversee the whole event, in which a ton of artists are taking shifts over four days to paint "sidewalk paintings" at the Shoppes at Arbor Lakes -- and though I found no news about the event, I did find this: "Kevin Cannon, 17, described his friends this way: 'Even if they're moralistic idealists and I'm a nihilistic Nietzschean existentialist, we can still get along just fine.'" It made me laugh.

10 September 2003

5:05 pm Mountain Time, Home

This morning I drove into the mountains again and spent a while at the store and then at the center, talking to Jennie and filling out paperwork. Jennie believes very firmly in the power of intuition, and said that she even reads... well, something... for people. What did she say? Oracles? Something esoteric and hippy-ish like that. The thing about Jennie, though, is that she comes across as being so matter-of-fact and real that she could probably tell you she'd been abducted by aliens and you wouldn't start questioning it until a few hours later, so when she says she reads oracles (or whatever), you believe that she probably does a great job of it.

Anyhow, at one point we were talking about how the major drawback of this job is the lack of cash, and I said that I didn't really care about money -- that the only thing I should be saving for is a trip to Africa in the summer of 2004. When I said that, her eyes got wide and she said, "Who's in Africa? It's someone important to you, isn't it? I have a feeling that you are in some way tied up with Africa. I just got goosebumps."

I was mostly speechless, but finally shook my head and said, "Yeah, my best friend is going there to teach, at a girls' school in Lesotho."

Jennie asked, "Is it a man? The two of you are very close...." She twisted her first two fingers around one another to illustrate two intertwined lives.

I said, "No, it's not a man -- it's my college roommate, my best friend. We're like sisters."

Jennie nodded. "I think you'll go to Africa. I think it will be an important time for you."

I didn't know what to say, so I just smiled and said, "Okay!"

Later, I called Ali and tried to explain it to her -- how strange it was that this woman I had just met, my new boss, both sensed how important Ali was to me and also predicted that I'd go to Africa -- but I think that I failed to convey the weight of the conversation over the phone. In the retelling, I know, Jennie sounds like some crazy old tea-reading hippy, but in person she's so down-to-earth that you just think, "of course!" no matter what she says.

09 September 2003

4:55 pm, Mountain Time, Home

As I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert's The Last American Man this weekend, I kept thinking about how far I've been living from nature here, and the thought made me unhappy. New Mexico, to me, has always been the mountains first and foremost. The MOUNTAINS!

"I do not know the names of the trees rising on either side of us, do not know any words majestic enough to describe the glimpses of the Santa Fe valley we catch through the trees as we round the curves, cannot explain how perfectly happy I am just to drive in these mountains, and so I gesture toward the windshield and say, 'This! This! Amazing!'"

Of course it's the culture too, but what drew me to New Mexico, what arrested me in the first place, is the land. I am in love with this land. It's the quality of the air, it's the texture of these foothills, the patterns the shrubs make on the mountains, that green lace across these brown hills. It's the coyote I saw on the runway when my plane landed in 1995. It's the peace of the Taos River. The stillness of the woods high in the Sangre de Cristos last year, all swooping wings and birdsong. The stunningly blue skies with their majestic towers of white clouds. The indigo shadows of dawn and dusk across the rounded crests, the spines of the cacti, the brilliance of the sunlight....

So what am I doing in the city?? Though the Sandias define the eastern border of Albuquerque, and though I love to see how they change in every light, I live in the city, where there are no coyotes (though I saw one dead on the side of 1-40 today) and no stillness and the strange, almost luminescent clarity of air is compromised by the pollution. I've been here less than a month, but already I've found myself wondering how long I have to stay in the city before I can move to the mountains. I've been feeling a little like I did the summer in Boston, when I ended up begging Ali to drive until we could smell some dirt and some trees. Every night I fall asleep promising to take myself up to the mountains tomorrow, but too many days the chores and tasks of daily life interrupt my planned mountain time.

Today I went to the mountains -- drove east on I-40 until the peaks I can see from the corner of our block were surrounding me, until I was too close to hold the whole mountain in an unbroken gaze. An hour later, I was standing in a small, crowded courtyard, surrounded by shed-sized bird cages, each home to a different species of majestic bird. Some of the largest of the hawks and owls were literally breath-taking. I had a moment of absolute peace, surrounded by these beautiful birds. Over the rooftops rose the peaks of the mountains I love so well, not off in the distance, but across the street. I felt better -- healthier and more real -- than I have in weeks.

I spent the afternoon trying to come to terms with the sudden turn my life is taking, trying to digest the fact of this new job. Since I had no idea of what I was getting into until my interview with Jenny, I had no time to imagine myself in this position until after the fact, and so all afternoon have been explaining it -- to myself and to Ali, Cam, and Tiska -- in order to try to understand it.

This job is quite literally "beyond my wildest dreams," as I have never, ever imagined a position that combines so much of what I hold sacred: education, kids, violence-prevention & peace training, conservation, animals, social commitment, mountains, and stillness. It would all be far too good to be true if it weren't for the terrible pay -- it's a reassuringly low-paying job, in the grand tradition of almost all jobs that actually seek to make the world a better place. I'm going back tomorrow morning, and though I haven't officially made my decision, I think I knew what my answer would be from the first moment I saw the red-shouldered hawks blinking silently from their dark perches.