10 Minutes in the Forest

When people asked about the show I was in, I would say to them, “It’s part theater, part game, part haunted house.” The show was called 10 Minutes in the Forest, produced by my friend Casey Middaugh. It was an immersive theatrical experience, where audience members would enter alone or in pairs and be the protagonist in their own fairytale, based on the Slavic folk tales about Baba Yaga and the Firebird. This is how it would go:

In the lobby right before your scheduled time, a man in a black suit tells you in a deep voice:

Firebird lightenter the deep forest, stranger

where Firebird hides her eggs from danger

three attempts are all you’ve got

you are safe: the eggs are not

beware, take heed, keep watch, look out:

Baba Yaga is about

You go through the door and into the black box theater. Sitting in a pool of orange light is the Firebird, a dancer wearing red, yellow, and orange wings. She looks up and coos curiously at you. She looks you up and down – her new friend(s). Behind her and taking up the entire rest of theater space is a large, messy forest made of PVC pipe, plastic wrap, and tulle. It’s dark. A disconcerting sound is heard from within the forest and Firebird begins to panic. An orange light comes up on the far side of the room, and Firebird gestures towards it. She needs her eggs. They are in the forest. But she can’t get them herself. It’s too scary.

You have to get them.

Pulsing green lights come on as you enter the forest, and you slowly move side-to-side to avoid the big, flat, plastic trees and low-hanging tulle branches. A few simple drum beats or some high harps are heard overhead, but it’s not enough to cover up the sounds from inside the forest – a tapping click, a low growl, maybe some hideous laughter. You notice a figure darting through the trees. She stays low to the ground. It’s Baba Yaga, the old, witch-like woman you were warned about. You get to the corner and find the nest, raised up on a large platform. It’s made of knotted plastic and inside are three balloons – the eggs.

Baba Yaga on floorYou reach for a balloon and notice that Baba Yaga doesn’t seem to like this at all. She’s holding up a large knitting needle, ready to pounce and pop a balloon the moment you grab it. You take your chances, grab the balloon, and make a run for it. Baba Yaga chases you through the forest, scurrying around and catching you between trees. If you make it out with the balloon, Firebird is overjoyed and spins around in delight. If Baba Yaga gets you, the balloon is popped and Firebird lets out a wail of sorrow. Either way, you have to go back for the other two. The music is louder and the lights are flashing. And now you only have eight minutes.

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The original game mechanic was simple: there were three, bright red eggs in a nest in the back of the forest, and the audience members had to recover all three and bring them to the Firebird. In an ideal scenario, Baba Yaga would pop one or two eggs but always let them get the last one. Unfortunately there’s really no way to rehearse a show where the audience is the main character. Our opening night was filled with unintentional play testers, and it was immediately clear that our game was too easy. The show was called 10 Minutes in the Forest, and people were getting out in 4-6 minutes. One group did it in three.

Because both roles are so physically demanding (especially Baba Yaga), we had two actors to play each part every night. After each run that first night Casey and the four actors (myself included) would quickly throw out ideas for how we could extend the experience. Each run gave us a new idea, which meant each audience member was seeing a slightly different game than the last. Our changes in order of implementation:

Firebird - back1) Add more story

Originally the audience came in to find an already panicked Firebird. Instead, we had her start happy and allow the participants to see the panic grow in her. This was a good element story-wise, though it added at most 20 seconds to the adventure.

2) Leave only one egg in the nest

The first egg was in the nest, the second we hid in the other back corner of the forest by sticking it into a sort of tulle hammock that draped just above eye level. The third we stashed behind the nest, with the intention that Baba Yaga would bring it out when the time was right. This helped a little, but once people found the hidden egg they were bolting out too fast for Baba Yaga to catch them. And one group found the third egg that we thought people wouldn’t see.

3) Seriously, hide the last egg

We moved the final egg to an area behind a black curtain where audience members were extremely unlikely to find it. Even if you started poking around in the curtain, it was easy to miss. Therefore the only way to get the final egg was to somehow get it from Baba Yaga.

4) Make the forest more difficult to navigate

After about five groups there was a big break in the time slots, and we used it to add more tulle to the forest. There was no time to secure it, so we just threw it everywhere. Anything to make it harder to move around. Before the second night of performances we came in early to hang even more. I made it my personal mission to block off the route out from the second egg.

Hammock5) Add black eggs

With only one egg in the nest, people knew right away to look for more. The second night we added two black balloons with the red one, so when you first approach it seems like these are the three eggs you’re supposed to get. However if you tried to give a black egg to the Firebird she would recoil and motion for you to go back for the red one.

6) Swaddle the second egg

We started wrapping the hidden hammock egg in tulle before placing it, so you’d only realize what it was if you were looking right at it.

The more we ran the piece, the more we realized how different each experience could be, and how our attempts to draw out the game ended up adding a much richer story. People now had to go through three trials, just like one would expect from a fairytale. The first was to figure out their task (red eggs, not black eggs). The second was to venture deeper into the forest (find the second egg). The third was a direct confrontation with Baba Yaga herself (she is holding the final egg).

What may not have been clear to the audience members is that they really were informing the whole story. If you came in with fast energy, Baba Yaga would be running around and jumping out at you. If you were really scared, Baba Yaga would be quiet, slow, and creepy. This wasn’t something we discussed with Casey ahead of time, but something all of us who played Baba Yaga naturally did. Baba Yaga is not always the villain in the original folklore, and we loved playing with that idea. If you treated her like an evil witch that’s how she would act. If you were respectful and unthreatening, she might decide to trust you.

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A handful of the things that happened in the forest:

Baba Yaga eating balloonsA young couple came in, and before I had a chance to present myself as the Firebird the woman loudly announced, “Alright, we’ve got to get some eggs.” They were ready for the game. Once inside the forest I heard her tell her partner, “We gotta get them for my friend Feeny” (as in Phoenix). They found the hidden hammock egg first, Baba Yaga began to chase them, and from somewhere in the forest I heard the woman yell, “Move, move, there’s a witch, bro!”

One young woman, after getting the second egg down from the hammock, held the black one out in front of her to ward me off like a human shield. I decided to play along with her idea, decided I didn’t want the black ones harmed. When it came time for the final egg she approached me with the black one, lowered it near the floor, and lifted her foot. It was a threat. Give her the red egg or she’ll pop the black one. It was brilliant. We traded.

Nest in lightAn older couple came in and took the longest time figuring out they needed to get the eggs. The wife realized it first, and she noticed that I (as Baba Yaga) would respond to her movement, and even chase her around if she got my attention. I heard her whisper to her husband to “get the eggs!” before getting me to follow her away from the nest. In response, he stood there. He stood right next to the unguarded nest and did nothing. She and I did this twice more before he finally caught on. They got the second egg without much trouble, and I held the third one close thinking they might offer a trade. Instead she started approaching me and making noises to see how I’d react. For a minute I thought she was going to simply ask for the egg, but instead she tried to startle me and I recoiled. The husband was standing nearby, and after watching her interact with me for a while he held his hands up slowly as if to say “I’m unarmed.” He then gently lowered and extended them, asking without words for the egg. I ignored the woman and handed it to him. If you were nice to Baba Yaga, she would give up the final egg.

When all three eggs were either found or destroyed, a white light would come up over the second lobby door and Firebird would stand by it, bowing in gratitude and showing audience members the way out. One man didn’t get this at all and rather than going out the correct door or even back through the entrance, he walked out a third door over by the booth that was only for actors.

A young woman and her boyfriend came in, him in casual street clothes and her in full Lolita fashion attire. I don’t know if it was the wedge heels or just the way she always walked, but she moved very slowly and didn’t want to run. He was able to get the first egg out without trouble, and I staked out my usual threatening spot near the second egg. He came over and stood on the other side of a plastic tree, right between me and the egg. He grabbed the side of the tree and moved it back and forth, using the plastic to block my path. No one else had thought to “trap” Baba Yaga like this, and I started clawing at the shrink-wrap like a bear. I shifted to the side and he grabbed another tree, blocking me again. The whole time, Lolita was slowly pulling the second egg down from its nest and quietly making her way out of the forest.

Forest with tulleWhen the actors were taking a break from performance we would usually sit in the booth with Casey. You could see the whole forest from up there and watch the story play out. When watching from the booth, nothing was better than the Narrators – that was the nickname we gave to anyone who narrated their own experience out loud. When Narrators talked to Firebird it was like playing charades.
“So we need to go in there and bring back the eggs.” Firebird would nod. “Will you go with us?” Firebird would shake her head.
Once inside they would talk about Baba Yaga. “There’s some kind of witch or something in here,” they yelled loudly. We loved Narrators because we could go on the whole journey with them – mistaking the black eggs, looking for the hidden one, trying to decide what to do at the end.

Casey in TulleMy friends Kristina and Joe came through when I was Firebird. Kristina was startled every time Baba Yaga made a move toward them. Once they were deep in the forest I heard the following.
Joe: “We could use the buddy system.”
Kristina: “What do you mean the buddy system?”
Joe: “You know, you don’t have to be faster than the Baba Yaga, you just have to be faster than your buddy.”

In terms of absolutely precious things people did to convince Baba Yaga to give up the final egg, no one beats my friend Brandon. I was Firebird the night he went through, and I crouched down low to watch the final interaction from between the trees. Brandon first tried to bargain, but he didn’t have a black egg so there wasn’t much he could offer. He handed Baba Yaga a bit of broken balloon, but she didn’t seem to care. He grabbed a bit of the plastic wrap from the nest and offered it, but she just laughed and gestured to the forest around her, filled with plastic. He patted his pockets for a moment, looking for anything else he could offer her. Finally he started to lower himself to the ground. It was pretty common for people to lower their stance when attempting to make a deal with Baba Yaga. At first it seemed like Brandon was just trying to mimic her movements – maybe to trick her, maybe to make fun of her. But Brandon kept going. Slowly, steadily, he went all the way to the floor until he was completely prostrate. He was lying flat on his belly, chin on the floor. Baba Yaga rose up a bit, enjoying the respect he was showing to her and the forest. She gave him the balloon.

Whispered between a young couple:
“Should we split up?”
“No, no, we should never split up.”

A woman came out of the forest in the middle of a particularly energetic run and looked up straight up at the booth. “I lost my shoe in there!” We never spoke to audience members from the booth, but in this case we assured her that we’d go get it once they were done. She nodded and started back towards the forest to join her friend, who was still inside chasing Baba Yaga. She then stopped, took off her remaining shoe, and threw it on an open shelf near the exit.

FirebirdSome people would temporarily give up. They’d go see the eggs, see Baba Yaga guarding them, then come back out to Firebird and say, “We tried, but there’s this woman there.” As Firebird, some runs you had to work harder than others. Yes I need the eggs. No I don’t want black ones. Yes I mean the red ones. Yes there are more to find. No I can’t come help you.
As Firebird, communicating ‘yes’ and ‘no’ without words is easy, but telling someone ‘I have no opinion on that idea’ is rather difficult. So questions like “Should we put the black ones back in the nest?” or “What should we do next?” were difficult to respond to. Next time you’re looking at yourself in the mirror, try expressing the sentiment “I don’t care, you do what you want,” through a series of balletic shrugs.

Forest - Setting up with LadderThe last run of the show I watched from the booth. Two young men came in and the taller of the two immediately demonstrated that he was a Narrator. He started talking rapidly to the Firebird, asking her questions and explaining to her how they needed to find some eggs. While he was asking real questions, there was humor in his voice. He was being good natured and playing along, but he wasn’t really invested. Baba Yaga began to rustle in the forest. Firebird pointed toward her eggs and the tall man said, “We should probably enter this…scary forest.” Wink wink. They approached the edge and he nudged his friend forward. “You go first,” he said, “I got you though.” Wink.
The next few minutes were fast and chaotic and full of laughs as they went through all the normal steps of the show. Each time the tall man let us know exactly what he was thinking. They found the black eggs and were confused about why she didn’t want them; they found the hidden egg and tried to get it away from Baba Yaga (they lost that second egg; it got popped in the struggle and Firebird cried). But they made it through in the end and recovered the last one by trading the black eggs. As they were walking out and Firebird was giving her thank you bows, the tall man yelled into the forest, “Goodbye misunderstood old lady! I hope you enjoy your black eggs!”
Because it was the last run of the night, we all went out to talk with them afterwards. The tall man explained that in situations like this, he uses humor to deflect so he doesn’t have to worry about things getting too scary or too intense. But when the second egg popped and he saw how sad the Firebird was, he really started to go on an emotional journey. Then at the end, seeing that Baba Yaga wasn’t just some crazy killer took him to a whole different emotional place. He said that being in the forest made him drop his usual defenses.

ForestI loved every night of the show and many people managed to get all three eggs, but if I had to pick a true winner it would be my friend Jillian. She ran the show with her fiancee Jake, and their experience was mostly typical. They each grabbed a black egg only to find they were worthless. Like most, they left them on the floor near the Firebird and went to retrieve the first two real eggs. When we got to the end I held the third egg close, thinking Jake and Jillian were the kind of people that would think to trade. Sure enough Jillian disappeared and came back with a black balloon. She held it out in front of her with a stern look on her face, pulling back slightly when I reached for it. It was a gesture I’d seen a lot from audience members: ‘you hand me yours and I’ll hand you mine.’
Slowly I gave up the red egg and grabbed for the black. Jillian disappeared with her prize and I began my usual end routine of making scary laughing noises while Firebird escorted the audience members out. I went back to the nest but when I turned around, Jillian was there again. She had the other black balloon, and was holding it out for me. I’m not sure what face I made, but it was probably one of shocked gratitude. When you’re Baba Yaga you take the way people treat you to heart. Jillian already had what she came for. All three red eggs were safe. She didn’t have to come back into the forest, but she did. After the show I told her how surprised I was that she brought me the second black egg even though she had already won.
“We had a deal,” she told me.

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What you get from the forest is what you bring into it. It was such a joy to see the excitement, confusion, creativity, and fear. Everyone is precious. Humans are great. Thank you to Casey, my fellow actors, the Pocket Theater, and everyone who helped make this show possible. Let’s keep making weird things happen.Wasabi Peas!

A Book That Scares You

When I was first reading over the list of 50 challenges in the Pop Sugar 2015 Reading Challenge, there was one book I knew I had to read. It fit with:

book that became a movie
a book you were supposed to read in high school
a book you started but never finished
a book based on a true story

and most importantly of all:

a book that scares you

on-the-road-jack-kerouac-front

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In 11th grade English we had a vibrant assistant teacher. She was a movie character come to life: the optimistic young white women sent to get the kids to realize their potential. She wanted to get us excited about learning, excited about English literature. She wanted us to try new things and experiment. So we didn’t just write book reports – we made art and journals and brought in songs and did all sorts of insanity none of us really appreciated at the time. And we didn’t really appreciate her either. I think at most I had a sort of objective appreciation. I felt like I knew who she was – the dreamer who hadn’t yet had her spirit broken by a thousand terrible school board decisions. I somehow felt like I knew more about how the world worked than she did, like I had already outgrown the naiveté that causes a person to believe they can change humanity through education. I was cynical and sixteen, and I respected her for being something else.

I remember talking a lot about the supposed American Dream in that English class, and at some point in the year we were assigned On The Road by Jack Kerouac. We learned about Stream of Consciousness writing and fell in love with it, as I assume all 16-year-olds do. We got our copies of Kerouac and we all underlined that same beautiful passage near the beginning of the book. The one I assume is underlined in every used copy of On the Road in existence.

because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!””

I wrote in books back then. I didn’t when I was young, but my best friend Sarah did all the time and somehow she convinced me it was something free spirits did. Sarah convinced me of a lot of things that free spirits did, because that’s what we both powerfully needed to be at that time. We were middle-class white girls who didn’t do drugs or have sex. But we were smart, and we had to use our minds to form our rebellion. We liked making jokes no one else understood. We liked being obsessed with things other people found old or dull. We listened to lyric-intensive songs and wrote our own poetry and once tried to convince our whole 10th grade English class that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was about Santa Clause.

We were outright brats.

I always had trouble finishing books in school. From elementary through college, I struggled with getting my reading done on time. This was strange, since as a child I always tested above my grade in reading. But as I grew older I never wanted to read what they assigned in class. And I quickly learned that I didn’t have to. I had perfect attendance, good notes, and I picked things up fast. I finished few books, but received many As.

Sarah loved On the Road, I think because part of her longed to be a drug-addled madman. There was something exotic and enticing about being a true deviant, not just playing one from the back of the class. I liked the idea myself. The drugs didn’t hold much fascination, but the dangerous and winding jog across the country did. What an amazing thing to do, being free like that. Freedom is all that matters when you’re in high school and oppressed by everything at once yet nothing in particular.

I started to read On the Road. I really loved it. I loved the way Kerouac could start a sentence with monotony and end it with poetry. I loved the way the whole thing flowed, never telling the reader what was and was not important, and glossing over what felt like monumental events. It was beautiful. I got through 72 beautiful pages.

I can’t tell you what interrupted me the first time. School work I suppose. Watching TV late at night. Being in a play. Whatever it was, I wasn’t able to finish the book before whatever test or paper concluded the unit (I did fine on that test or paper by the way. I don’t remember it of course, but I know I did fine because I was an honor student and I always did fine).

With the pressure from class gone, love of the text wasn’t nearly enough of a reason for me to keep reading. It never was. Life went on and other books I never finished came and went. That summer Sarah and I went on vacation together and I brought along my copy of On the Road with the intention of finishing it. Months had passed so I had to start at the beginning. This time I got through 98 pages.

There was a third attempt about a year later. Another vacation, another chance to convince myself I could read a book in my free time. When Sarah saw me pull out the same beat-up copy of our high school text, she laughed.

“You are never going to finish that book,” she said.

I don’t know what it was. Something about her tone. Something about being high school girls and by definition as much friends as we were enemies. Something about her expectations of me and her expectations of herself. Something. She was so sure of my failure. And she was right.

I made one more attempt a few years later before finally taking Sarah’s curse to heart. I was never going to finish this book. And if I did, it would most certainly kill me. My ignorance of the ending had turned into some demented horcrux – if I destroyed it I would destroy myself.

Years went by. Sarah and I became closer friends. Then roommates. Then things got difficult. She had troubles I couldn’t save her from. I loved my friend so much I thought maybe I could fix it all if only I stuck around long enough. It took me months to realize our relationship didn’t exist anymore. I left. It was terrible and I felt like a monster. It tore her apart and I knew it would, but I had to get out. I had to get out before it got me.

I moved into a new apartment, then a house, then a studio, then another apartment. I still had the book. The book with my notes in it. It had her notes, too. She used to scribble on my copy in class when she wanted to make it clear she wasn’t paying attention to the teacher. Alongside the underlined passages were our inside jokes. Stupid, immature, inside jokes that don’t make me laugh anymore. And that one dumb line about falling in love with the mad ones.

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The beginning of On the Road was just as captivating this time around as it had always been. As narrator, Sal Paradise is the best mix of idiotic and wonderful. He does the stupidest things, the bravest things, the strangest things. And with each paragraph you meet a new and unusual character, the mad people that populate his life on the road. And the whole time you’re feeling that same anxious desire he feels: you can’t wait to see Dean and the gang.

But then you meet Dean. You meet the gang. And after some time with them and California you go back across the country, away from the mysterious West. And you’re outside New Jersey for awhile, and then back driving across the country, and the whole thing has so little purpose, no course to pin your anxious desires to. You start to wonder what Sal’s problem is, why he never seems to want anything enough to go after it.

As I read through the endless travels, I was driven by my own benchmarks: the old bookmarks that I’d left between the pages. There was a receipt with nothing itemized, a sad letter I’d received from a friend, an old ticket to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from 1999 that was in the book when I first bought it. With each piece of paper I got one step closer to my goal of reaching the end of this damn book. With each piece of paper, I had done just a little bit more than I’d done before.

It was difficult. Every time I sat down to read it felt like a slog. I couldn’t get into it. I wasn’t fascinated like I was when I was young, like I was when I read those first glorious chapters. I told my boyfriend about my sneaking suspicion.

“I’m starting to think maybe I just don’t like this book,” I said.

He laughed at me. “I could have told you that,” he said, “It’s taken you ten years to read it.”

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As I muscled through the last 100 pages, it was becoming very clear what I couldn’t stand about On the Road. Dean and Sal aren’t just unsympathetic, they are the poster children for oppression nostalgia. It’s that feeling you get sometimes when you read about how things used to be and find yourself looking back with longing, completely forgetting how grateful you are to live in a world without polio. If you want to look back at the 1950s with affection then On the Road is the perfect book for you. If you want to remember a time when people were free and loved life and roamed the land and weren’t all stuck up in cubicles, then Sal Paradise has a story for you. But a requirement for reading it is forgetting that one man’s rebellious youth often comes at the cost of another man’s liberty. To enjoy On the Road you need to be willing to overlook the powerful stack of inequalities that allowed Dean Moriarty to blow through life like a petulant three-year-old while the rest of the world suffered for his benefit. You have to assume that the 1950s were just a safer time, rather than acknowledging that men like Sal Paradise could go wherever they liked, wrapped in the secure embrace of unspoken privilege. You have to do that to enjoy On the Road. And I can’t do it anymore.

I can’t feel for Sal when he wishes he were born a ‘negro’ because they apparently live such simple and beautiful lives, while he’s stuck having to actually think about who he is and what he’s supposed to do in the world. I can’t sympathize with Dean when he goes from one woman to the next, making promises only slightly faster than he can break them, and leaving in his wake a trail of broken marriages and fatherless children. I just can’t be on their side.

I could do it back in high school because in high school I didn’t really know oppression. I didn’t know systematic injustice. In high school sexism was on the way out and racism was defeated sometime around 1959. But the person I am now has trouble revering a story about pushing the limits of human decency in the name of celebrating the straight white man’s freedom. I can’t enjoy Sal’s story because all I can see are the “colored girls” he fetishizes and abandons, all the times when he should have ended up in prison instead of my high school classroom. Liking On the Road required a certain ignorance on my part – an ignorance I am anxious to outgrow.

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On an unassuming Saturday morning more than 12 years after I first read the opening lines, I finally finished Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. In the very back of my copy was a post-it note, folded in half so it wouldn’t stick to the pages. On it were the words “You were right Sarah, I never finished it.” I’d signed my name at the bottom. This note was my insurance policy in case I died without telling my dear friend that she was right all along. I took the note out from between the pages and threw it in the trash. Not all dreams are meant to be admired. Not all prophecies will come to pass.My Copy of On the Road

Time Off

Yesterday I forgot to write for the first time in 89 days. There was no reason, no excuse, I just completely forgot about it and then went to bed.

I’ve got a lot going on right now, all of it good, but writing hasn’t been the creative joy that it normally is. I’ve put a lot of interesting things on my plate, and I’m sure to write about many of them eventually, but the burden of getting in my words every day is getting to me. So I’m letting that go.

I’m going to take some time off. I’m not sure how much, but I know that I’ll be back to writing every day by November at the latest (to participate in NaNoWriMo) and eventually to blogging (stay tuned for the exciting adventures of Rob and Katrina in Utah). I may surprise myself and find that I don’t need much time off at all, but I have to give myself permission to stop for awhile. That’s how it works when you’re an enneagram one: you have to give yourself permission, even when what you want is what’s best for you.

 

Life Update

You may have noticed I haven’t posted anything new in almost a month. That’s because I’ve been putting all of my energy into preparation for my Great Utah Adventure, which consists of two parts.

In Part One, Rob and I drive down to southern Utah and tour through the national parks. Utah was a part of the country I missed entirely on my big trip, so I’ve decided to make up the oversight. I waited too long to plan which means we don’t have any reservations. I REPEAT, I’M GOING ON A TRIP AND I DIDN’T MAKE ANY RESERVATIONS. I’ll admit it’s stressing me out. Rob seems unconcerned.

Part Two is the General Convention for the Episcopal Church. General Convention is held once every three years, and this will be my fourth time going as an elected deputy. The convention itself is in Utah, and lasts 11 days (they’ll try to convince you it’s only nine days, but many of us have to arrive two days early for committee meetings).

I’m not sure I’ll have the time and head space to blog Part One as it happens, so I think whatever I end up writing will be posted in July or August. However blogging General Convention is something I’ve been doing for years, and will do again this time. My General Convention blog can be found here, and I try to do a post every day of the convention.

With my travels already begun and daily blogging at a different site on the horizon, this is likely to be the last post you see here for yet another month. I encourage you to check out the convention blog even if (especially if) you have no prior knowledge or interest in the Episcopal Church. I try to write it with the layperson in mind, so no matter what your background you should be able to follow it.

I’ll see you in Salt Lake City!

Sit Up Straight, Part Four: Keys to Creativity

I never learned how to type properly. I went from hunt-and-peck to 50 words per minute on my own. I started by staring at the keys. I still stare at the keys.

Let’s be clear about one thing: I have the keyboard memorized. I don’t have to look at it to find the letters. What I have to do is face it. My muscle memory for typing is so strongly tied to looking at the keys, it shuts down if I try to face the screen. I’ve tested a few different positions, with the following results:

Can Type Just Fine:

  1. hunched over the keyboard and staring at it (natural resting state)
  2. hunched but with my eyes purposely unfocused
  3. hunched with my eyes closed
  4. sitting up but with my head still tilted down

Still Works But Slower and with More Mistakes:

  1. sitting up with my head down but eyes closed
  2. facing the screen with eyes unfocused
  3. facing the screen with eyes closed

Get Stuck After Two Sentences:

  1. facing the screen and watching as I type

The profound connection my brain has made to my neck is amazing. Somehow I’ve managed to tie a physical posture, a dexterity-based task, and creative imagination together like a Gordian Knot . When I try to change one, the others shut down.

KeyboardI tried taking online typing courses, hoping I could re-learn by being taught properly. I got better at typing while looking at the screen, and thought fixing my typing posture might be simple. But when I tried keeping that posture during my daily writing session everything fell apart. I couldn’t do it. I would write a sentence or two and my brain would just stop. Normally I can write an entire post in one sitting without stopping. The words flow naturally and uncritically and I can come back to edit later. But when I was typing properly I found my internal editor could not shut up.

After much trial and error I determined the problem. When I type hunched over and facing the keys, I know the words because I am listening to them. Some voice in the back of my head starts talking, and the fingers follow. This is probably why I have such a problem with typing the same words twice or replacing words I mean to say with ones that look or sound similar. My fingers are just playing catch-up, like a personal assistant following my brain around and scribbling furious dictation.

But when I watch the words on the screen, I hear them twice. I hear them first in my head when they come to me, and again as my eyes read them on the screen. There’s an echo. Watching what I’m typing is like having that assistant quietly repeat everything I say right after I say it. It’s maddening.

So far I’ve been focusing on just losing the hunch. I still look at the keys, but I focus on keeping a soft tilt in my neck instead of rolling my whole back over. When I’m doing really well I’ll try to soften my focus and reenforce the fact that I don’t need to see the keys. This doesn’t seem to slow me down, but I keep unconsciously re-focusing my eyes and having to purposely bring the softness back.

In addition to the typing techniques, I looked up a few stretches designed for office workers who hunch over their keyboards. When I remember to do my stretches they seem to work well, but the effects are temporary and I always forget about them. I even tried putting the stretches on my task list at work, but I keep glossing over the task. At least I can soft-focus with some things.

The more research I do in my goal to correct my posture, the more I hear that general stretching and exercising are where I need to start. I’m still working on moving more, though it’s hard. I’ve had to resort to finding more challenges and schedules in order to keep myself motivated to exercise. Sometimes I look back with longing at my college days majoring in drama and dance, when exercise was a part of my grade and half my classes required me to wear yoga pants. I used to eat giant cinnamon rolls for breakfast without gaining any weight. I probably had terrible posture but I never noticed. My calves looked amazing. Sometimes I find my mind drifting off and I hear a familiar tune I’m finally starting to understand…

Sit Up Straight, Part Three: Ariel Yoga

Not long after I published my first post on learning to correct my posture, a friend told me I should try Ariel Yoga. She said the inverted postures allowed your spine to hang freely and your head to be “loose and bowling-ball-y.” She said she left the classes feeling taller and straighter, and suggested it might improve my walking posture. There was a studio she’d been going to that was only a few minutes’ walk from my apartment. I was sold.

The first class was expectedly awkward. Like any form of yoga, I spent my first day turning my neck around trying to look at the other people and confirm I was doing everything right. Ariel yoga is done using a large silk hammock to support and alter typical yoga stretches and postures. The hammocks are mostly opaque, but just see-through enough that if you press your face against them you can still see what the teacher is doing. We started class by sitting in our hammocks and doing basic stretches normally meant for the floor. Sometimes the hammock versions seemed less helpful than the standard poses, while others were leagues better in the hammock. I’ve never known a pigeon pose to stretch my hips quite as well as a pigeon pose suspended two feet off the ground.

Ariel YogaAfter a few starter stretches to get us comfortable with the hammocks, the inversions began. The most basic is called the Spiderman, in which you hang upside-down with the soles of the feet together and the knees bowed out. You know, like Spiderman. The first moment I did it I felt the effects. Because the hammock holds you up by the pelvis and not the waist or the legs, nothing is straining or yanking. Your entire spine is allowed to relax against the pull of gravity, all the way up to your tailbone. It was amazing. I felt like my lumbar spine was massaging itself.

We did a few more inversions that first day, and a few more stretches. Like any yoga class, we ended with the savasana relaxation pose. It was so amazing to be floating in the air with every part of the body evenly supported by a silk hammock. While I still I wasn’t sold on the concept, it was worth trying again. Besides, I’d bought the beginner’s two-class pass.

My second class made more sense and involved less peeking through the hammock to see what I was doing wrong. I was still in the beginner level, full of students just as clueless as myself. I already felt more confident in the hammock, and was able to try a few things I hadn’t done the first time. I bought another set of three classes, and started to move on to the All Levels classes. I did a Flying Dog series that was pleasant murder on my hip flexors. I did a one-legged balancing Sun Salute that made all other Sun Salutes seem like child’s play. And in each class I got to flip upside-down and feel the weight of my entire existence empty out of my coccyx like an hour glass. It was great.

Unfortunately, Ariel Yoga didn’t seem to have any direct effect on my posture. I still slouched, even on the short walk home from class. I did notice some positive, indirect effects. I was stronger, and there was more movement in my life. Holding myself up at the computer was getting just a bit easier, because my body didn’t feel so stuck in itself. The individual postures and inversions in Ariel Yoga didn’t matter as much as the fact that I was exercising again. I was building muscle again. I had been trying to strengthen my glutes and abs after reading about Anterior Pelvic Tilt, but my yoga practice was working out my whole body. Being inverted felt good on my back while it was happening, but the real benefit was the ab strength I used to get back up.

After a couple weeks of classes I decided that Ariel Yoga wasn’t a complete cure for my posture, but it was a fun, easy, and most importantly convenient way to increase my strength and flexibility. I loved that it took less than 10 minutes for me to get dressed and walk to the studio, and that it was challenging but never made me sweat enough to require a shower. Then I heard the news. My precious studio was moving to “a great new space” in Belltown. I’d either have to pay for the bus or pay for parking, and both would require at least a 20 minute travel commitment to ensure I got to class on time. My perfect little yoga situation was gone.

And so the search continues.

Living Adjacent to Depression

I am not living with depression in the typical understanding of the term. I am not living my life while depressed. Instead, I am living in an apartment with a man who is sometimes depressed. This depression comes and goes in waves, but because depression can take hold of someone so completely, when it takes hold of him I stop living with the man, and start living with Depression.

While it may be difficult to believe, with an unwelcome visitor like Depression you’d rather the intrusion be big and obvious. When Depression first came into our lives, it was so quiet we didn’t even notice anything was wrong. Like a cat burglar who replaces all your valuables with cheap knockoffs, Depression can take so much without you realizing what is happening. But over time it became forceful and loud. It would grab the man I love and hold him down on the couch. He couldn’t get up, even when he was dressed and ready for work. Depression would cover the man’s body in molasses so he couldn’t move fast, if at all. Depression would put a hand over the man’s mouth so he couldn’t speak. Depression tried to keep itself secret, but I could tell. It was obvious. I knew there was an intruder in my house.

Depression ran away for awhile, and it didn’t come back much. Occasionally it would surprise us, showing up suddenly one Monday morning, but we would act quickly and get it out of the house within a day or two. We were on to it. We knew its weaknesses. We were winning. Depression had to make a new plan.

These days Depression doesn’t break down the door and wrestle the man to the floor. Instead, it sneaks in quietly while I’m away at work. It does its work in tiny batches, never being too obvious. That’s when Depression goes from a guest to a roommate. And Depression is a terrible roommate.

Unlike the man I love, Depression doesn’t do the dishes. The man and I divvied up chores when we first moved in, and part of the agreement was that he was fully in charge of the dishes. However Depression wasn’t present during that discussion, and it never agreed to do any dishes. Normally the man does his chores on a daily basis; he stays on top of it. But Depression doesn’t care about dishes in the sink. Depression lets them pile up until one whole sink is full, then the other. And when Depression does finally get around to doing some dishes, it only does a few. The dry rack isn’t even full and Depression stops working.

Depression never wants to talk about anything exciting that may have happened to you. Oddly enough, Depression is very good at being polite, and will say all the words a person is supposed to say when someone relates good news. But there’s no substance when Depression congratulates you. It’s like telling a good story to one of your customers, only to realize she just wants her coffee.

Unlike the man I live with, Depression can’t really get mad at me. It’s a trade off Depression has to make in order to never be happy about anything I’ve said – it can’t be unhappy either. It can be polite, responsive. But that’s it. It sounds like living with a robot but it’s not. A robot would be programmed to try its best, even though it will fail. Depression never tries.

The man I love creates things, some big and some small. But Depression hates to create. Depression only wants to consume. Depression likes reading forums online, even the ones where everyone is just being nasty to each other. Depression can read a single forum for hours on end, while most of the other users have come and gone. Depression never writes comments. It only reads. It only consumes.

Depression doesn’t encourage you when you’re struggling. Depression doesn’t do things when you ask. Depression doesn’t kiss you on the forehead to be sweet. Depression doesn’t kiss you at all.

When Depression breaks through the window I know what to do. I know how to fight back. I know how to defend my home. It’s like seeing a baby that’s fallen into the river. I don’t blame the baby and I don’t wait for it to figure something out. I just jump in head first and know that whatever happens it was worth trying. But when Depression crawls in during the daylight, I don’t recognize it. I see the baby in the river and I just think, “You’re going to get your clothes all wet, don’t you know any better?”

There is no way to compare my experience with the suffering of the man himself. I am lucky in that regard. I don’t know what it’s like to be Living With depression, I only know what it’s like when you are living with Depression. Once I know it’s there I can help chase it away, but by the time I realize it, so much damage has already been done. And I can fight and claw and lock the doors all I want, it doesn’t matter. Depression never really dies. It is not cured, it is not defeated. It knows where we live. It will always find its way back in our house.

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NOTE: The above piece was posted with both permission and encouragement from man in question. I hope this post helps to open up the conversation so often left in silence.

Intro to Decluttering

Some time ago while working as an executive assistant I coordinated my boss’s move. He was married with a toddler and a very pregnant wife. I arranged for the movers, set up the appointments with the condo, called for internet installation, the usual. On the day of the move I sat around as his old Condo was packed up and put into the moving truck.

After many hours I got a message from my boss that there were two storage areas in the parking garage that also had to be emptied. He forgot about them when we originally brought the movers out for an estimate. I took two of the movers downstairs and we opened up the units to reveal bicycles, bins, and the other sorts of things one stores in a condo garage unit. One of the movers turned to me with a smile on his face.

“This makes more sense,” he said. “It didn’t seem like they had a lot of stuff. I was like, ‘Where are the golf clubs and ski equipment and stuff?’” He laughed.

I’m sure the mover thought nothing of it, but his words really stuck with me. This is what he does for a living, and it was finally making sense to him right as it was becoming astounding for me. Obviously it made sense that a family of three should have more stuff than I do and I don’t begrudge them their possessions, but after hours of packing it already felt like a lot to me. But not to this guy. He knew exactly how much there would be.

Most of us find it easy to justify what we own in aggregate, or justify any item individually. Recently I started a document called “Why I Have Everything I Own.” I turn to it when I need to get in my daily words and don’t have any ideas. I look towards any section of my apartment and list every item. I’ve started with the things that are in and around my desk, and may one day make it through the whole apartment. It’s dull writing and it’s unlikely to produce anything worth sharing, but as an exercise it’s been helpful. It’s easy for me to justify having purses in general, but to justify each individual bag by itself, defending its merits and explaining why none of the other bags could fully replace it – that’s a struggle worth attempting. Every so often I end up throwing a few things in the giveaway bin before I’m done with my word count for the day.

I have this dream of one day owning very few things. It’s a weird dream when you think about it. I could have it right now if I wanted. A couple trips to Goodwill and the dump and I could get down to only what would fit in my car. But that’s not the struggle of course. I’ve been slowly minimizing my belongings for several years now, and I’m starting to hit a wall. It’s easy to get rid of the broken and stupid and useless things in our lives. It’s harder to get rid of the good-but-too-much and if-I-just-wait-long-enough things.

In the coming months I’d like to write more about the art of paring down and my personal struggles with it. It’s more complicated than most people realize, and the problems are more universal than most people think. When I went on vacation in February and told people I did work as a professional organizer, I ended up in a lot of mini-counseling sessions with the people around me. I always thought I’d have to see a clutter problem to fix it, but you can learn a lot from how a person describes their situation. If you have a specific problem you need help with, feel free to leave it in the comments. You’ll help me to know which topics to focus on, and you may just find a solution to your problem!

Like/Don’t Like

One of the benefits of obsessively keeping everything is the creation of unintentional time capsules. Recently I found a word document on my computer titled “like don’t like.” On it were two lists: 1) What Don’t You Like About Yourself? and 2) What Do You Like About Yourself? According to the file info, I made the list in the fall of 2008, almost six years ago. A lot has changed since then.

Many of the things I used to dislike about myself have been fixed and turned into points of pride. I wrote that my “room is always messy” in 2008, where now I almost never let a piece of clothing touch the floor and rarely let dirty dishes sit for more than 30 minutes. I said that I was always “eating the same processed foods,” and now nearly everything I eat is homemade – including the sandwich bread.

Some things haven’t changed, but I see them differently these days. There was a time when I was ashamed of “always dressing the same.” It took a few years to realize the problem wasn’t the sameness, but what I was wearing. I didn’t feel stylish or put together, I was just safe and kinda comfortable. These days I am more confident in my clothes, but I make a concerted effort to limit my wardrobe to a small number of things.

I said that I didn’t like “my hips,” and while it’s true that they probably look better now than they did then, the real reason I love them now is because of how many people have complimented me on my figure. I guess sometimes the easiest way to love yourself is to let someone else do it for you.

Other list items are still works in progress. In 2008 I was frustrated because “I have a bunch of useless crap in my room.” I would never say that now, but I still wish I owned less. I’ve already gotten rid of everything I consider to be “useless crap,” now it’s a matter of learning what perfectly good possessions I can live without.

I wouldn’t say that I’m “tired all the time” anymore, but I still struggle with my sleeping habits. I remember one fantastic summer back in junior high. I stayed home every day, dictating my own schedule by what I wanted to do. It turned out that part of what I wanted to do was stay up until just after midnight watching Star Trek:Voyager in syndication, and wake up just in time for old Matlock reruns at nine. Once I got used to the schedule, I was consistently falling asleep moments after hitting the pillow, and waking up without an alarm right before 9AM. It was beautiful, and maybe one day I’ll figure out how to get back to that blissful sleeping schedule.

Finally there are the things I still don’t like about myself: I still have terrible posture – in some ways it’s even worse. I still never change my hair, despite always wishing it looked different. I still wish I had flexible hamstrings. I still check Facebook too much.

There were twenty items listed for what I didn’t like about myself, and only eight for what I did. But there was a qualitative difference between the Like and Don’t Like lists. The Like items were larger, more meaningful, less petty. More importantly, seven out of eight of the things I liked are still true. I still like my eyes. I still like that I’m articulate and independent and that I don’t flake out on people. I still like that I’m doing a lot. I still like my singing voice. I still like my writing.

I think one of the best things we can do is look back honestly on who we used to be. It’s a reminder that we haven’t always been right about everything, which means we might be wrong about something right now. It keeps us humble, it forces us to put more faith in others despite their flaws. That’s why I updated my Like/Don’t Like list, added a date, and stored it away again. Perhaps a future self will look back and find me laughably ignorant. She’s probably right.

The Nine Stages of Grief

Stage One: Staring Out the Window

The first stage of grief begins immediately after you realize loved ones have flown up from Florida to be with the dying person. It is a little known fact that when death is anticipated, grief begins before death occurs. This stage involves going to work and acting like everything’s fine, but staring out the window at nothing in particular while doing nothing of consequence at your job. Symptoms include clicking back and forth between tabs on your computer, and continually checking your Facebook to see if any of your family members have posted something new since this morning.

Stage Two: Hysterical Weeping

Because death is anticipated, an overwhelming sense of futility and hopelessness takes over. You want to share your anger with the world, but the only Facebook status you can come up with is “Fuck Cancer” and it doesn’t seem appropriate. Instead you go home to your apartment and hold your phone up in front of your boyfriend so he can read the text message you got from your sister. He needs to hear the news but you can feel the tears pooling inside of you and you know if you tried to explain it with your own voice the message would dissolve into howling.

Weeping begins slowly in the kitchen before moving to the couch. You want to say a lot but your words feel callous because rather than dwelling on your own relationship with the dying man, you’re flooded with a sense of cosmic injustice. There is something objectively terrible about what is happening. He has five kids and a loving wife and the whole family has been through so much already. Each suffered through a divorce. They’ve seen death and abuse and for years there was no light in her eyes until he came along and they only had seven damn months of marriage before cancer came to take it all away again.

Stage Three: Distracting Nostalgia

After an hour of crying you realize that you can’t keep this up all night, and you pick a movie off the shelf that you used to love. It’s a superhero film and it’s more than a decade old. It’s nice to see practical effects for a change but you remembered being more impressed with the film back in high school. When it’s over you put the DVD back in the case and put the case in the box of stuff headed for Goodwill.

Stage Four: Memory Flashes

You ruminate on the last time you saw him, and the time before that. You remember hearing how one doctor said he had no hope, and another said this cancer would never kill him. For some reason you remember that day in stage combat class ten years ago. You were practicing how to safely drag a person across the floor. The teacher told you that as the victim you were supposed to look like you were fighting against it while actually helping your partner calmly pull you to the other corner. Fighting on the outside while internally accepting the inevitable.

Stage Five: Death

You’re at work when you get the message that he’s gone. His wife and kids were there, so were his parents and her parents. You don’t cry this time, but you briefly revert back to Stage One and stare out the window for the next 20 minutes.

Stage Six: Shower Crying

You realize that if you cry in the shower there’s no mess and no one can hear you. Your shower is long and you waste a lot of water and you don’t care.

Stage Seven: Bridezillas

You eat chocolate chips and watch people be awful to each other.

Stage Eight: Sad Cleaning

You ferociously clean your desk and the surrounding areas because at least it’s something you can do. You cleaned the living room just six days ago, so nothing’s actually dirty. You choose to vacuum the same patch of carpet over and over again, imagining that if you do it enough now you won’t have to do it ever again.

Stage Nine: Detachment

You sit down and write down 600 words of how you’re feeling. You put it in the second person in the hopes that maybe it didn’t really happen, and it’s just an abstract idea you once had. No one died today. There’s no 11-year-old girl who just lost her dad. There are no funerals to attend and no phone calls to make. Thanksgiving will be the same as always. There are no empty seats at the table.

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