Judgement

I was recently hired to work in the tasting room of a local winery. My job entails speaking with customers about wine, informing them of the history of the winery, talking about the winemaking process, and handling other aspects of customer service in the tasting room.

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Summer job, New Mexico, 2012

Since being hired last week, I’ve delved into the training materials. On the first day of training I was given a large binder stuffed with information to read, study, memorize, interpret, and regurgitate—and it must be done well. This is a task I have no small amount of skill at. My summer job requires me to undergo an overwhelming six days of training before I’m shipped off into the electricity-less backcountry, where I’m expected to provide world-class programs for people who have paid thousands of dollars to come see me provide world class programs about things I’ve just learned with no Wikipedia to back me up.

During training, there was an afternoon where we walked through the production areas of the winery with the Winemaking Coordinator. There were rooms with towering stainless steel tanks reeking of fermenting grapes, rooms with every square foot stacked high with rows of oak barrels with dark purple streaks along the seams, rooms full of complex machinery that performed unknown tasks absolutely essential to the winemaking process. The Winemaking Coordinator filled the entire time with a passionate, informed monologue about the field of winemaking and the particular philosophy of such followed by the winery. He had a wealth of information, and he was more than eager to share with us.

At some point during the tour, he stopped between two short steel tanks near a doorway and turned to us, saying: “It just occurred to me that I haven’t told you anything about myself.”

He was a medical student who was hired to work part-time in the tasting room. The next summer, he worked doing production: harvest, crush, and fermentation. He eventually dropped out of medical school to work full time at the winery as the Assistant Winemaker, then as the Head Winemaker, and eventually as the Winemaking Coordinator (a bit of corporate gobbledygook that I still don’t quite understand).

This story has remained with me and struck me with a series of thoughts: if a med student can become a winemaker, what could become of me? Who will I be? Who can I be?

This is something I’ve always struggled with. I’ve considered many careers and trajectories for myself, with a major factor of my indecisiveness residing in my ability—or tendency, or desire—to mold my own interests into my circumstances quite well. I can find interest in a great number of things. As I scroll through the list of my university’s “areas of study” webpage, I can find myself thinking things like yeah, I have a knack for spatial reasoning and artistic design, perhaps Landscape Studies is the right field for me and I’m really missing out over here in the Psych Department. This is the thinking that has taken me down a garden path of majors, from Political Science to English to Physics to Astrophysics to Math, back to English, and eventually to Psychology.

In all honesty, I don’t even want to be in school. I just want to work—and that’s where the indecision stems from. The lines of work that have continuously resurfaced for me are the ones that I am more concerned with: clinical psychology, academic research psychology, nursing, medicine, education, politics…but the important question is: how do I become these things? What choices must I make? A Ph.D in Psychology, a bachelor’s in Nursing, a Medical Doctorate, a master’s in Education, a law degree, not to mention hours of time, years of experience, and exceptional talent. How can I be firmly confident in my pursuit of a Psychology B.A. when I might decide to be a doctor? I would still need to complete a couple semesters-worth of undergraduate coursework before I could even think about medical school—that is, if I can get into med school, since I’ve failed many courses due to my lack of commitment to coursework in areas that ended up being of little or no interest to me. Even more importantly: do I like the job well enough to succeed?

Without a degree these days, my dreams are just dreams, as far from reality as angels and ghosts, but even with a degree, some dreams are just as far.

Why is this inefficient method the status quo that society has settled upon? What about the line of best fit, or cultural/social Darwinism? I could bring down Dawkins’ memetics theory with four simple words: “the american education system”.

I am not fond enough of any of these careers to invest the necessary time (read: money) to achieve them, at least, not without knowing for sure. I don’t want to make a bad investment. I wish I had the opportunity to experience these things before I decide, to create a buffer between myself and the Wrong Choice; I want to know for sure that I won’t fail. It’s not a fear that’s been warped into some weird potential reality: I’ve done this, I failed at Political Science and Physics and Math and English. I’ve dedicated myself to things that turned out to be wrong for me, so what good is my judgement?

I know this is such a young fear, and such a privileged fear, but the comfort for me would come in the form a job that I like. Just that. No degree necessary. I just want to do good work and that’s it. If I could guarantee that I could become an ER Nurse in a place that I want to live, or an educator at a school that properly funds me, or that I could find regular work in politics, I would jump in a heartbeat.

Perhaps my fear resides more in whether or not I can succeed in general, at anything. I really do fear that (who doesn’t?), and I think that failure could very well happen (self-imposed). Then again, what good is my judgement.

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Saved

The story of the past 24-hours is the story of my ass just barely being saved.

With an ominous Statistics exam set to take place on Friday, I organized a study group to take place in the Wells library. I had no idea if anyone would show, but I figured that at least I could try to figure things out by myself. I was completely lost with the material, just because our professor is difficult to follow and I had put off the homework a bit too long. Exams comprise the totality of our grade in this class, so this study session was the only hand that could pull me back from the precipice of failure.

3:30 PM, THURSDAY 9/25
At this point on a thursday, I’ve been in classes for over five hours straight. I’ve been running around campus all day, climbing stairs, being scholarly, often skipping lunch, and at 3:30 I burst from the business building with a special smile on my face that only means I’m going to eat half the contents of my fridge and watch Netflix for at least three hours.

This day would give me no such joy.

4:00 PM
By the time I get to my apartment, I have enough time to set my stuff down, think about dinner, and realize that I have no time to prepare dinner. I wolf down an apple and some raw veggies and run right back out to catch a bus.

5:00 PM
I arrive at the library and set up camp. I stare into the abyss while I gather the courage to open my textbook for the first time.

5:20 PM
At this point, other lost souls have begun to trickle over to my forlorn corner of the group study floor. We compare notes, set up a game plan, and I finally open my textbook.

6:00 PM
I do a stats problem on my own for the first time. All previous joy in my life is insignificant in comparison.

8:00 PM
“Guys, do you realize we’ve been here for 3 hours already? Hahaha…”

9:00 PM
At this point, another stats group has merged into our own. We form a loose government and apply for admission to the United Nations. A few people have left us to nourish their bodies with food and/or sleep, or maybe political reasons. Those of us still left are slowly making our way through every problem in the workbook. “Lean On Me” has become more than an anthem; its lyrics are our battle cry, our holy text, the core philosophy of this small group of reluctant statisticians.

10:00 PM
The group dissolves. I have never known such a hunger as this. I get fried rice at Fortune Cookies and check the bus tracker. 25-30 minutes for a bus? Looks like I’m walking.

10:30 PM
I gross out my roommates with my voracious eating.

11:00 PM – 12:00 AM
I think about homework. I don’t do homework but thinking about it is as close as I’ll come tonight. Sleep takes me eventually.

8:07 AM, FRIDAY 9/26
I awake violently and sit up in my bed. Is this a nightmare? No, I actually did forget to set my alarm, it’s actually one hour until my psych lab, I haven’t showered in two days, I have a two-page essay due at the start of class, and a “meeting” (AKA INTERVIEW!!!) immediately after class today at a place I’ve been trying to work at. I consider skipping lab to shower and eat, but then I remember how much I pay in tuition and I slide out of bed reluctantly.

8:15 AM
I finish the research for my paper and begin furiously typing. I pray to David Foster Wallace to give me strength and verbosity.

8:40 PM
Essay complete, I put on acceptable clothing, sort of come to terms with the way my hair looks, and run out the door. Too late for a bus. I take the bike.

9:30 AM
My lack of breakfast begins to wear on me. My stomach aches and my head hurts. I am having those weird hollow empty burps that you get when you’re crazy hungry (or maybe that’s just me??). My attention wanes.

10:00 AM
I might fail a field sobriety test at this point.

10:15 AM
I realize that in my haste to leave this morning, I forgot the calculator I need for my stats test at 11:15. I try not to panic. I send a text to my roommates and try to pay attention in class.

10:18 AM
I also realize that I will have no time to shop for appropriate shoes before my meeterview (©). My standard interview shoes were discarded in my recent move because they were actually pretty jank. I text a stylish friend of mine and try to pay attention in class.

10:30 AM
My roommate decides to bring me my calculator. I promise to make it rain cupcakes and cookies later.

10:45 AM
Michelle has shoes for me. I try not to cry tears of joy. I’m not paying attention in class.

11:00 AM
I get my calculator from Hannah, gather composure, and enter the stats classroom to get in some last minute cramming with the study group.

12:00 PM
The test went pretty well, so I’m riding high. Who needs food when your body can run on confidence!? I bike home relieved, but not complacent. No, not yet…

12:30 PM
I assemble myself in a professional manner. Necklace, tasteful makeup, tons of deodorant, baby powder in the hair, classy blouse/skirt combo. I run up to the fourth floor to meet Michelle. We pick out some snakeskin flats and I’m on my way.

12:57 PM
After a 20-minute car ride with blasting A/C (I’m sweating profusely from hunger and stress), I park my car at my employer and compose myself. 20140926_160233_1I was expecting to start working at the beginning of the summer, but due to classes and commitments to work in New Mexico, I was unable to be trained. They wanted to re-interview me before they started training me, presumably to make sure I didn’t become a creep or loser in the past few months. I walk into the building right at 1 PM, looking fresh as heck with a smile on my face.

1:45 PM
I leave the interview with a job guarantee. I have a blissful drive home. I change (still no shower though) and meet Matt for lunch.

3:30 PM
Burgers, beer, back to Matt’s apartment for some time playing with his adorable cat, then back to my place. I preserve the story in blog form (for posterity), and retire to my bed for a much-needed nap. I now better understand the limits not only of myself, but of the human body, the human psyche, and the human spirit.

 

Until Next Year

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(Originally published on 25 August, 2014 on ummwhat.)

I recently had the opportunity to return to my summer job for a few weeks to help finish out the season. I left after my last class on the first of August, tearing out of the parking garage with no place to live but New Mexico. The drive was long, bad but not too bad, and over much too quickly. I arrived onsite early morning on August 3rd, parked at the HQ office, stepped out and breathed in the soft scents of infinite joy—hot canvas tents, quartz dust, ponderosa pines, the old band-aid smell of the infirmary, the sour muddy smell of burst earthworms drying out in the mid-morning sun. I could even smell the thinness of the air, a “sweet, lucid” taste as Edward Abbey called it, like synesthesia scents of clarity, reassurance, and navajo blanket patterns. I saw sights and heard sounds seared into my memory by overexposure: the iconic ridge over base camp, the rows of tents, the squish and scratch of ranger feet over that precise gravel in tent city, velcro, belt buckles, pack clips, carabiners, velcro, velcro. The language came back to me and flowed from my mouth as if I’d never been away. The sounds were mine, the sights were mine, the scents were mine, the coldwarm air was mine, the dialect was mine, the fine cardboard taste of the food was mine. It was as real as in my memories, as in the fantasies I’d had in the weeks leading up to my return, almost as if it had never really left me. It had never not been mine.

(I always get this feeling returning to the west. The first time I saw the Pacific Ocean as a child I remember thinking finally, I’m here. Every return has been a homecoming.)

Coming at this point in the season, my arrival lacked the larger-meaning zen profundity I’ve always felt in years past—I had a focus, a specific job, there was little time to do anything but good work. Finally, I’m here. I was whisked into the backcountry in a matter of days and then it was work work work, it was the rejuvenation of a burnt-out staff, it was the put-off and handed-down tasks that needed to be done. It was the tender, intimate end-of-life care necessary to prepare the place I love for a winter in the Rockies. Between the laborious work and customer service detail with visitors, I managed to get (most of the way) up the big mountain once, knock out a few smaller ones, walk some new trails, bag some ridges and unforeseen pleasures, make new friends, and visit old friends as close as family.

It ended quickly, and it ended well. I added new scents to my registry (coal smoke, paydirt, the cold must of the mine) and enriched my memories. It was a great, strange ordeal, like high-intensity-interval-training for the soul. There’s no better therapy than nature, no greater teacher than the need for self-reliance, no greater insight than that found on the trail. There is an essence to the west—from the big sky, over the rockies to the rainforest, down the ocean to the borderlands, around the big bend and back out to the high plains—that fosters rich thought, lucid insights, and a deep and unfocused love that fills you brimming. My hope is that I have managed to abscond with some of that essence inside my own heart, that I can hold onto that love for at least nine more months.

Until next year.

Separation Anxiety

(This is a post recovered from MS Word Autosave, 6/8/14)

I’m a neat person—well, I try to be a neat person. I try to get myself on a regular exercise routine, I try to allocate time in my day to writing and music, I try to be social, I try to read real books instead of internet articles, I try to be neat. Of all of these, I have the most consistent success in neatness. I think neatness is quite the praiseworthy virtue, and though I’m not a capital-G “God” person, I do believe cleanliness is the only thing I’ll ever call godly, and the strongest evidence that mankind is capable of creating perfection is peer-reviewed and published in the pages of Dwell magazine.

My neatness isn’t tied to my spirituality, nor to a deity, nor to a desire for praise. My neatness is directly tied to my feels at a given moment. My emotions are painted on the canvas of my home, in the medium of items and food splatters. In sadness I sulk, wallow, fester, dishes go undone, clothes pile in the bedroom, LPs stack up next to the turntable, desktop files pile haphazardly at the edges of my browser. This doesn’t last long. My frustration simmers until eventually, in a fit of rage (usually at myself, for eating cereal out of a ziplock container with a butter knife), I clean everything. Clothes are folded, papers are sorted through ruthlessly, books are returned to their shelves, my mind is cleared and calmed, and my time of sorrow ends. I’m fortunate enough to longer be inclined to longer periods of major depression, so these periods typically last for a few days at most.

Anger, anxiety, excitement, frustration—these states yield order. I secretly and cautiously treasure these times. I argue with my boyfriend while I ready the entire kitchen for hospital surgery. I reorganize my furniture in the bleary confusion of returning home late at night after a week’s vacation. The whole bathroom is scrubbed during finals week. My teeth grind and my heart beats and when I behold my work, I smile and move on. These are not frantic states, but thinking states, processing states, focused busywork given to the wild mind to tame it.

The fruits of happiness are as amorphous and vague as the state itself. In happiness, work is done with robotic regularity and creative control; I clean the dishes, fold every article of clothing, make the bed, and reconstruct the disassembly of the day’s happenings, all more or less with the attitude of a Roomba. I just do these things. There’s no compulsion or revulsion, no whys or hows, no laters or not nows, they’re just done because they should be done. Happiness is a state of maintenance: when we’re happy, our brains will do anything to ride the train as far as it goes. We take more risks, we spend more money, we seek more pleasure, we enjoy more. I do those things, and I also clean. If I were to stop cleaning, let the apartment slide a bit into disarray, my happiness would recede with it. So I clean automatically, without thinking, as one would nod to a stranger, or sing along to a Ke$ha song. Maintenance is the easy part of emoting. Any lazy asshole could sit in a dark room and listen to Radiohead and go down the never-ending pit of darkness and despair. For others it’s easy and natural to go outside, run around, tidy up, eat well, and think positively.  Some people are good at maintaining sadness, some are good at maintaining happiness, I’m good at both but prefer to do what I can to stay happy. If that means doing the dishes I guess we’ll go with that.

So I notice a pattern: my boyfriend just moved to New Mexico to have an Adventure. I’m in Indiana, unable to reach him by much more than snail mail while he reaches enlightenment and oneness with the world through hard work changing lives in the mountains. I helped my boyfriend move away in the most literal of fashions, driving 7 hours to help him haul his life to a different time zone, and I returned the next day the lovely crossroads state to do the one thing I hate most in the world: school. I’m wallowing a bit there, yeah, but I’m really not happy about any of it. The whole situation is less than ideal, but I’m rolling with it and making the best of it. Hey—no one wants to hang out at the bars? Great! More money for my bougie wine, more time for satisfactory completion of homework, and and I don’t even have to sacrifice my Netflix binges. The whole thing with the boyfriend being 20 hours away is rough, but I’m confident the situation will resolve itself. I’m drinking wine in moderation, eating well, going to class, engaging in leisure, taking to people with sanity, watching television, doing homework, existing well.

But the dishes are undone.
LPs are stacked next to the turntable.
The floors are dirty.
Piles of clothing have formed nations in my bedroom and are engaged in a territory war.

Even more telling: my overnight bag from our trip to Iowa last weekend is overflowing at the foot of my bed. Now, this is the mundane thing in Sherlock that we all overlook until for some dumbass Moffat-esque reason it becomes the central plot point to the whole season sometime in the last five minutes of episode three. I was taking out the garbage today, feeling sorry for myself, thinking about the heartbreaking futility of my efforts to keep myself alive and happy with fresh, healthy foods in the face of my crushing and infinite futility, when I became hyperaware of this cycle of negative thinking. Why would I feel sad? I’m taking out the trash, I cooked a complicated, tasty, healthful meal and enjoyed it, I did my homework and completed my tasks for the day. Why why why? Sure, there were some back dishes and clothes issues in the bedroom, but nothing too extreme, I’ve just been a bit down lately about the boyf and the separation anxiety.

Except the clothes in the bedroom aren’t any clothes, they’re the clothes I brought with me to see him off into the wild yonder. The clothes and items I put into a bag, knowing fully that these would be my offerings for my last time with him for many months—possibly, forever—the items I arranged carefully, hoping that maybe folding the shirts right or putting the makeup in the right zipper compartment would somehow make things run more smoothly, make him stay, make him want to stay—but what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices? The clothes and items packed into the bag that, upon arrival back home, was dumped at the foot of the bed and sorted through carelessly to grab deodorant, hairbrush, underwear. The clothes and items that bring back the memory of sitting in his parents’ living room folding our laundry and laughing with his mother as she stitched up a rip in his swim trunks. The clothes and items in the bag that I bought in Taos on our first date. The clothes and items in the bag that I would throw thoughtlessly down in the kitchen when I went to visit him in Columbus before embracing him and laughing because he brought me a happiness more powerful than an organized closet. The background noise from our last brief weekend together in Iowa.

I’m not sure what will happen with our relationship—I’m not concerned about it, really—but I know I really don’t want to unpack that bag. I don’t want to put the clothes away. I don’t want to do the dishes, I don’t want to put everything in order, I want to cherish every item and the memories it holds, because unpacking the bag and putting the clothing away signifies the end, the acceptance, the acknowledgement that my trip to Iowa is over, as as a consequence, my in-person acquaintance with him is temporarily over—he is gone in New Mexico, unreachable, and life must go on back home with the requisite maintenance. It also means change and uncertainty, which is difficult for me to grab onto.

I don’t want to be here. I want to shove everything back into that bag and savor our last moments in Iowa again and again and forever. I want to go to New Mexico and be with my friends, I want to go anywhere where anything is better. The bigger issue is that I’m mentally just fed up with college and Bloomington, and this home stretch is a real push for me. I foresee adventure at the finish line, a beautiful uncertainty where possibilities are bountiful and rich.

Acceptance will come, in whatever form it takes, and life will go on. But with my apartment in disarray and my heart breaking and aching, I couldn’t say when.

(Temporal note: I’m doing fine and kicking butt in my classes. No mercy.)

today was bland

i need sugar to live.

this is not a tenuous need
that in my typical american haste
i gush loudly about to those nearby
“oh my gosh, i need sugar”

i really need sugar, don’t you see?

i’m made of skin and sex drive
and sharp angles of emotion
i have fire in my eyes and sugar in my veins
it says it all right there: blood sugar

this is not a test.

fill the rivers with hawaiian punch and caramel syrup
stack high the boxes of pancake mix and brownie powder
line basket after basket with warm banana breads
stuff my thighs with strawberries; pump the lemonade intravenously

i want it now!

i am more than what i eat
and i am more than what
my mouth goes wet for
but i need sugar to live

i won’t say it again.

thanksgiving break

home is where
the ghosts come out at night
and where teen dreams go to die
in the secrecy of night you came to my window
the flames of our youth burning secretly
we stayed up all night and slept all day
we chased the sunsets way out west
away from the city and out to the farms
you must have known it would go that way
that i would go west to stay someday

the waves of the west washed my heart
made me clean
gave me joy
gave me a fresh start
of course i still remember
oh i remember

oh friend
i see your eyes in the back of my head
and i see our love in the stoplight red
who do you think you are?
with my windows rolled down in march
i am free as the howling wind
up the coast and down again
the coast, the beach, but never east
at least, not often enough for us each

but would you do it?
would you leave?
would you go?
how would you know?
you blame me for leaving home
and the strangeness that i sowed
forget it though
forget it though
i’m just another thing that grows

oh friend
don’t you see?
the way you’ve stayed with me?
if you ever bring up that crabapple tree
i might melt and then where will we be?
i know you keep a tab of all the
things i say
and i keep a box
of all the shit you toss my way
and i know one day
i will sell it or throw it away

but for now be well and do good work
and i’ll see you at thanksgiving break