How to Go to College without Going Broke, Part Two: How to Get the Most Education For Your Money

22 Mar

In part one of this series, How to Go to College without Going Broke, I talked about How to Chose a School. I also gave some homework for you to do, so you could start on your journey to making wise education choices. If you haven’t already read that part, I suggest you mosey on over there, but to recap, the questions I had you answer were these:

– WHAT you want to go to school for. Be really specific.

–Talk to people who are already doing what you want to do and find out where they went.

—Figure out how you would attend school. Do you have the ability to go full time, at regular hours? Can you only take night classes?

—What schools are local to you? What schools have friends, family, and co-workers attended? What schools offer a degree in exactly what you want to do (i.e. nursing home nurse)?

Okay, now we can get started on the part I love the most: cheating the system. Now bear with me, I’m not talking about cheating on tests or sneaking into Harvard, instead I am talking about how to get an amazing education for the least amount of money.

You don’t have to go to an ivy league school to get a great education, you just need to pick a school with good, caring teachers that has a good local reputation for the major you have chosen. The one upside about this economy is that there are so many incredibly brilliant teachers out there, looking for work, that even your local community college has a fantastic teaching staff. You don’t have to pay Harvard prices to get where you want to go. Internships and making connections are just as important these days as where you went to school, so be aware, no matter how much you pay for your degree, if you can’t have work experience alongside it, it’s not worth much.

A little back story: I didn’t do well in high school, I found my classes to be pretty boring and I preferred sneaking out to get curly fries from Arby’s (the special sauce!) and hanging out in the art room to doing my French homework or showing up for math class. I didn’t take my SATs or GREs because of course, I was going to be a punk rock artist, living with my boyfriend and his band in a shared house in Boston. Duh. Ahem.  After graduation, I moved out of my parent’s house and worked full time. I decided a year later that I knew what I wanted to go to college for and that’s when I had to start thinking about how I would do that.

For anyone who is reading this that is a non-traditional student, or even a traditional student who didn’t have great high school experience, know this: you are not academically defined by what you did as a teenager. I promise.

My choice? Enter into the local community college because all you need is a high school transcript or a GED. Grades don’t matter and you don’t need to have taken any tests. So I spent two years at community college, taking all my pre-requisites and general classes. I had a plan, so I really focused on my work and I ended up having really excellent grades. I was able to commute from home and juggle part time jobs, so I ended up not having any debt from my two years there. I graduated with an Associates Degree, which, at the time, was $1,000 a semester. Nowadays, it’s more; I looked up my old school and they estimate with books to be around $3,000 per semester or $6,000 a year.

Next, I transferred to a state college for my 4 year degree. In NYS, if you graduate from a NYS community college, state schools generally let you come in, as long as you have a specific GPA.   Living off campus, as I did, comes in at less than $4,000 a semester, so not much more than the community college.

You can get a full, four year degree for around $23,000. That is a large chunk of change, yes, but here is what you COULD be paying for your education:

Devry University is going to set you back over $100, 000 for a communications degree.

South University will charge you $541 per CREDIT HOUR (each class is about 3 credit hours) for a Criminal Justice degree. They fail to clearly outline online how many credit hours you will need to graduate. Compare to my community college that was $141 a credit hour (if you were going part time and needed to break it down that way).

Boston University, assuming you are out of state and will need to live on campus will run you a whopping $58,000 a YEAR. And that’s not including books or supplies.

Think about that for a minute.

Now think about the questions I asked you. Is what you want to go  to school for going to justify being in debt for 100k or more? If you plan on being a rocket scientist, maybe, but if you want to be a hospital nurse, most likely not.

Look at what you want to do and search for options that will work best for you. I absolutely understand that there are huge gaps in this country where there are not good community colleges around and relocation is not an option. But I implore you, read up on where you are thinking about attending school, and ask for a Graduation Plan before you sign up for anything. A Graduation Plan will list out every single class you will need to take to graduate with a degree and give you a timeline of how long it will take. It will also allow you to break down, yourself, how much money it will cost you to gain a degree.

Here’s the take away for today:

*You don’t have to take standardized tests to go to a brick and mortar school.

*You don’t have to get your entire education from one school.

*Don’t sign up for the first school you talk to. Like I said in part one, admission reps are sales people and they will make all sorts of promises. Ask for a graduation plan and step away.

*Use your graduation plan to help you budget. It lets you know how long you will need to be in school and what sort of loans and sacrifices you will have to have to make school work for you.

*Ask other people who have the degree you want if this seems reasonable to them. Bear in mind, tuition fees go up every year, so what someone paid 10 years ago will not match up with what you will be paying. However, that said, knowing people who paid $32,000 for a SUNY Cortland Communications degree in 2008, would make me think twice (at least!) about paying $100k for one in 2013.

*Decide how much you are willing to spend, based on your anticipated STARTING salary (you never know in this economy what the future holds, so be cautious in what kind of debt you are willing to be in) and search for schools and programs that will fit into what you are willing to pay.

Get out that notebook from last time and start taking notes. Here are the questions for you to work on:

–Get online and start googling. Put in your degree, your area, you major. Whatever questions you have, start googling. Don’t call anyone yet, not until you have some solid facts.

*Hot tip: if you can’t find clear information online, it isn’t a school you want to go to. If you have to call a person to get information, be cautious: if it’s not in print, publicly, it isn’t trustworthy.

*If you get a call from anyone, asking you if want a job, telling you they can help if you sign up for their classes, find out what school they work for, and hang up. Reputable schools do not call you like this.

*Be aware that if you fail a class you will have to pay to retake it and financial aid will often not cover the cost. So if you think you can only pass one class per semester because of your work schedule, only take one. (We’ll talk about this in more depth next time).

—What is the cost for full time? Part time? Per credit?

—Do the fees include books or supplies? If not, what do they estimate it will cost?

—If you aren’t going to live on campus, what are your living expenses? Commuting costs?

—What is the registration fee? Graduation fee? (Schools charge these, and you need to factor that in so you aren’t caught unaware).

Next time, we will take all the answers you have here and start to really understand where your tuition and living expense money is going to come from and how to get as much free money as possible.

Rabbit Greens Part Deux: My new home, a tour

13 Mar

I might have mentioned I bought a house. And that  it might have been an all consuming project.

I have been working hard on the house for quite some time. As I was going along, I thought that  it might be nice to take pictures as I went along, talk about my daily struggles, and let people into the process.

But I realized, I am just not a DIY home renovation blogger. I don’t want to spend hours pulling up floorboards and then another day uploading the pictures of my efforts. I applaud people who do, they gave me lots of inspiration and a map of how to do all the things I was dreaming of. For me, I want to collapse on the couch with my dog and eat a cookie and close my eyes, not write a blog entry. I am much more likely to decide to spend an extra three hours painting a room just to get it done than I am to do it half way and tell you about why I am too tired to paint the ceiling. It’s tiring, fixing up a house. And frankly, I don’t want to talk about it every inch of the way.

So instead, I watched episode after episode of Monk and Psych and The Only Way is Essex and did project after project. It felt endless, but also amazing to spend every single weekend and most weeknights scraping and painting and hammering and tiling. My apologies to Dave who I woke up once, at 6 am on a Sunday morning, when the mood struck me to build an 8 x 4 foot frame for some homemade art out of left over moulding. A hand saw was employed in that process….

I will admit, my house is still not “done”, but I get the distinct impression that you are never “done” when you own a house. I still want to re-tile the kitchen floor, rip up all the carpets upstairs and put wood laminate floors down (Sorry wood fanatics: I have a dog, she would ruin real wood and we live in a townhouse, so we’d never get that money back when we sell), put nicer molding around the house…you know, all the nice things. But in all honesty, I’m a happy gal. My needs are simple: My house feels warm and inviting, I have a huge butcher block on which to make pies, and my dog can crawl over anything she wants and I know she won’t break it.

As I was taking pictures of my house, I realized I’m not a photographer of any skill, so I apologize…I think my home looks better in person! Anyway, it’s a very photo heavy post so please, click on through if you want to, or skip to something else and save your download speeds :)

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How to Go to College Without Going Broke, Part One: How to Choose a School

12 Mar

I have a lot of experience with education. I’ve graduated from three colleges, taught in high schools and primary schools, tutored children from around the world, and these days, I work in academics still.

It seems important, when people are going bankrupt from students loans, to think about what school is right for you, how to get the most education for your buck, and how to pay for college *smartly*. And since I work with students all day long AND have minimal student loans, I want to share with everyone what I know. And as usual, I want to tell you about all the stuff other articles don’t tell you. Because I want traditional and non traditional students to stop getting scammed.

Would I be a writer without education? Sure, I would probably still be writing short stories and spending a huge chunk of my day daydreaming. But I also think being a student made me a better writer: I know how to handle deadlines, I know how to self-edit, I know how to take criticism and know that every critic allows me to slough off the dead words and re-grow a better story in its place. I made great friends who are also writers (and really good ones! they push me in ways I could never push myself). I traveled to amazing places. I read books and articles and papers on all manner of subjects. I learned about the world, which I hope has helped me understand a lot about people and in that , be able to write characters that are not just carbon copies of myself.

So let’s start off here: How to decide if school is right for you and if so, which one.

I think this is a good place to start because before you start taking tests and spending money, you should check and see *why* you are going to school, *how* long you’ll be in the, and *what* it is going to cost, and the better question, *what* are you willing to be in debt for.

1. Should you be in college? I am asking you this because while I believe everyone has a right to get whatever of education they want, it’s still up to you if you actually want to go to college. No really, it is.

I’m going to use my dad as an example. My dad went straight from high school to the Air Force, where he learned all about being an electrician. After he finished his tour of duty overseas (where I was born!), he and my mom settled in Upstate NY and he went to our local community college for an AA in mathematics  because my dad loves math. He then worked for a really long time as an electrician at a generator company, at one point taking over the training, until he retired. I don’t think my dad got his job because of his college degree, he got it because he spent 20 years as an electrician in the military. He didn’t need to go to college, but the government said he could, and he wanted to study math and that meant he also had English and Science and History classes and I think he enjoyed it. My dad values education for education’s sake, but he also knew that he was interested in an apprenticeship and working with his hands. So, if that’s you, look into seeing how to get an internship or apprenticeship, going to a community college, or am *on campus* tech school.  Ask at businesses that you would like to work for “What education/work would I need to have completed on my resume to work for you?”

*Hot Tip: Don’t let a school’s admission rep tell you what education you need to get a job. Their job is to get you enrolled and sign over your money/ financial aid. They have diplomas and certificates and degrees set up for just about everything, but you need to know what the businesses in YOUR area are looking for. The internet DOESN’T know. Pop up ads have NO idea what local businesses are looking for, they just know how to get your attention. Ask people in your area, potential employers, friends who just got hired. These people know.

2. What kind of college should you be looking at?

It’s not all ivy league or bust. I promise. But it is still really important to choose a reputable school, otherwise your degree isn’t worth the paper i’s printed on. Harsh? Yes, but it is totally true. The good news, a reputable school can cost a lot, lot, lot, less than a bad school.

I’ll use me for example here. Back when I was 18, I had some big choices to make. I was offered a place and a partial (aka, MEAGER) scholarship to Savannah School of Art. I really really wanted to go to Tufts (clearly, back in 2000, we all had delusions of how it was okay to spend a bajillion dollars a year on school, because we were all like, going to totally earn it all back, duh). So, yeah, I wanted to go to art school.

Let’s say that again: I wanted to pay $40,000 a year to go to art school. This is something I would advise against to anyone who grew up like me: first generation college student from a blue collar family. We weren’t rich and that school would have run me $160,000 by the time I graduated, art supplies and books, not included.

OMG.

Worst idea ever. Really. And here’s why:

Being an artist is not tied to what school you graduate from. You’ll learn a lot by being around talented people in a vibrant city, but you don’t actually need to pay 40k for that. If I had gotten into Cooper Union, I would have taken that, of course, but I realized paying huge sums of money to paint an orange over and over again, was not something I was into.

So here’s the thing, what makes an art school especially awesome is the community, so move to the city a great art scene is in, enroll in community college there, and you can get the best of both worlds. If you have the money to burn, then by all means do it, it has it’s perks. But the perks are not enough to go in to debt for.

Same goes for teaching degrees. I took a year off between high school and college to save money and live on my own, and during that time, I decided I wanted to be a teacher. I enrolled in community college, graduated with an AA in Humanities and then moved along to a state college, where I secured a BA in another 2 years. I could have recieved my MA in teaching in just one more year (that’s another story). Any high school in NY would have accepted my teaching degree, plus pretty much any southern state without any further certification (thanks NY!). No fancy school on my degree, but reputable and with a good solid history of turning out teachers.

Community colleges are a great way to get basic classes that EVERYONE is required to take at low prices. I paid about $1,000 a semester at community college. Not per class or per credit. For all the classes I needed to graduate a two year school in two years. Fantastic!

Then I went to a state school. I lived off campus and paid $8,000 a year for tuition alone. With housing, it would have made it about $14,000 a year.

So, a breakdown: in 2005, when I graduated, I spent a grand total of $18,000 for a four year degree. And I had worked multiple jobs (and my parents helped out), making my student loans much less than that. We’ll talk about how to not take out loans in part 3, but my point here is: these inexpensive schools gave me a degree that was good enough to get me into the grad school of my choice. They don’t have ivy league names, but I got a great education.

*Hot Tip: Find a school that is reputable for the degree you want. My school was/ is known throughout NYS for turning out excellent English and History teachers (our program has some amazing teachers!), whereas there are other SUNY schools known for their art program or math program. Choose a school that people in your area have graduated from and found success with their degrees. Again, check with people who work in the field you want to where they got their degrees. I bet they didn’t all go to Harvard.

3. On-line or On-campus.

So, this is a huge question going around these days. Here are some facts:

A. Online classes can be just as fun and interesting as traditional classes. I actually really enjoy watching online lectures by top teachers and feel like I get a lot out of them.

B. Online classes are not easier than traditional classes. They are, in fact, HARDER. I know a million students who thought they would take online classes because, “It will work with my work schedule!” “I can do my class work whenever!”.

Reality check: that is not true.

The reality of online classes is that you will have to post discussion topics, questions, and answers every single day. You will have to converse with your classmates in a meaningful and substantial way in order to get participation points and pass your class. It’s not like a traditional classroom where you slink in late twice a week, slump in your chair, and pretend to take notes while you doodle in the back of your notebook. A computer monitors whether you have entered the classroom, it checks to make sure you have read every page of your book, and you get quizzed at the end of every chapter you read. You’ll have essays  to write and not a lot of access to tutors. And the deadlines and “semesters” are at the school’s discretion. They don’t always make a lot of sense with your work week or your kid’s vacations. And your teachers don’t see your face, so they may be less likely to help you out when you have an emergency.

C. Not every online school has a degree that will help you out. For example, a nursing school that is online isn’t going to get you the job you want right away because you still will need practical experience to  get a job. You might be better off to choose a school that you can do the exams and practical experience all together because of the next reason…

D. Not every school helps you create a building block of education. What I mean by this is: if your ONLINE school is Nationally accredited, it’s NOT a good thing. Really, it’s not. Sorry. What you want to look for are Regionally accredited schools. Those are the ones other schools accept transcripts from.

However, if you attend a traditional college that is nationally accredited, it is probably a vocational or tech school and then it is fine to be nationally accredited.

The main issue can be summed up like this:

“Coursework and degrees may not be widely accepted for professions that require licensing after degree attainment, which might affect those in licensed careers such as teaching, accounting, engineering and healthcare.”

So, bear this in mind.

In my next post, we’ll talk about how to get the most education for your dollar and in the third post, I’ll tell you how to search for free money to pay for it all.

So your homework before then is to

–find out WHAT you want to go to school for. (Be specific. If you want to be a nurse, what kind of nurse? ER? Children’s? Elder care? Do you want to work the day or night shift?)

–Talk to people who are already doing what you want to do. If you want to be a nurse, I bet you know someone, even if they work in an ER and you want to work in a nursing home. They’ll get you started. Find out where they went.

—Figure out how you would attend school. Do you have the ability to go full time, at regular hours? Can you only take night classes? Is it okay to attend part-time and graduated in 5 years? Or do you really need the degree and you want to try and get it done at an accelerated speed?

—What schools are local to you? What schools have friends, family, and co-workers attended? What schools offer a degree in exactly what you want to do (i.e. nursing home nurse)?

Write this all down. You should actually get a notebook and write all the stuff down we are going to talk about. Trust me, you’ll forget it all later. The human brain can only juggle 7 bits of information at a time and later on, there’s going to be a Grumpy Cat meme you’ll want to tell your friends about.

 

 

Serial Writing: Stanimir, an Introduction

15 Feb

I love Stanimir, so I thought I would start sharing my shorts about him. A little background: Stanimir is the secret lead singer of The National. However, since he is a vampire, he has hired a fake lead singer to do all the press and concerts. He’s not really happy about not being able to take credit for being a rockstar. His long suffering personal assistant Meredith spends a lot of time sighing.

yes. I am often bored at work, listening to the national, thinking of silly vampires eating ice cream.

Ventura Blvd, June 26th

“Meredith? Yes, it’s me, Stanimir. Oh, Meredith, I’m on Ventura Boulevard. Yes, it happened again.  I was on my way back from Trader Joes. Well, you know, I just really love those little Japanese ice cream balls they carry. Mere-dith. I had a *craving*. “

Stanimir kicked the tire on his now un-moveable Jaguar.  He knew it frequently broke down, sometimes even in the line for Taco Bell, which resulted in an awful lot of angry people yelling and honking at him. Strangely, that angry mob-lite actually made him feel a bit more at home. But that was not now. This was the dead silence of Ventura Boulevard at 10 o’clock at night. He should not have stopped to look into the window at American Apparel. He didn’t even like v-neck t-shirts. And now his squishy Japanese balls of ice cream were going to melt.

“Can you come and get me? I’m so close to home. It won’t take you but a minute. I promise, we can go straight home. I’ll put some money in the meter. I’m just right near the Starbucks near Canyon. “

There was silence on the other end of the phone. Stanimir knew Meredith was annoyed.  He waited.

A long sigh cut across the uncomfortable chasm his idiocy had created.

“Fine. But next time you have a craving, you must take the Prius. I have a lot of work to do and you always end up stuck in strange places.” Meredith’s voice was even and neutral. It made him feel even worse.

“I’m close this time. I didn’t go into Hollywood.” He disliked the way his voice sounded like a child’s. He slid his tongue over his front teeth and silently sucked his pleading back down his throat.

“I know. I will leave in a few minutes. Go wait in the car until I get there, so you don’t get hit by a drunk driver. The band is going to be here in an hour and we can’t have you being all squishy when they get here.”

The word “squishy” reminded him again of his ice cream. He clicked his phone off and climbed back into the car, reaching over to the passenger’s seat to grab the paper bag that held the generic brand of Mochi  and started to tear into it, sliding his long, pointed fingernails along the side of the box. He liked that there was a variety, strawberry, chocolate, and green tea. He had a strawberry one first, popping it’s soft pink lusciousness into his mouth and letting his two elongated canines pierce the rubbery, flesh-like outside of the ice cream first, which allowed the melting ice cream to drip into his mouth and ooze down his throat. The way the ice cream allowed him to bite and suck was so satisfying that he often craved this delicacy over what he should have innately craved. Although he had never been to Japan, it was most certainly his favorite part of LA.

By the time his personal assistant, Meredith, pulled up behind him, expertly pulling a bitch on Ventura’s semi-empty space in the tiny silver Prius, Stanimir had gone through nearly the entire box. Which was a  good thing, since they were nearly all completely melted. Despite being nearly 11 o’clock at night, the heat in the valley seemed to be nearing 100 degrees.  Maybe he could convince the band to skip practice tonight and go to the beach for some night swimming. And maybe they could find more mochi.

Wasting Words

7 Sep

I really don’t seem to post much anymore. This is probably a mistake. Not because anyone really wants to read anything I say, but because it makes my facebook friends have to read a lot of status updates in lieu of my writing out fully thought out ideas. But a lot of changes have been happening as well, which are exciting and weird, and I have no idea how to use words to fully explain them. Which is sad.

 

 

I was watching the BBC documentary, the 1940’s House (which is fun and interesting and despite the food shortages and lack of soap, does make me miss London terribly), and one of the women at the end shows that as she has returned to “modernity”, she has kept some of her new found habits—one of which is writing letters to her friends. She says, and this is me paraphrasing, that she had been forgetting things and feeling that her vocabulary was dwindling before she went on the show and she had attributed that to the fact she was getting older. But now that she writes each and every day, she feels her mind is getting sharper and that she has a more solid sense of what she is feeling and can express herself, her wants and needs, better. And it made me realize, that every day I silently curse how far away I am from the days of constantly having someone berate my grammar and sentence structure and how I feel inexplicably dumber for it. I look at my old blog posts from *highschool* and I think my grasp of language and wit was far superior. How sad is that? Today, I cannot even really express the mass of emotions I have raging about in my head about what I am doing with my life. So sad.

So let us try, shall we?

I live in Portland.

Whew. Just writing that out was hard. I live here. I live in a city, on a street, and I have my clothes hung up in a real closet. I have a dog. I have a job. I have a car. I have friends. I have a boyfriend. I have a tea kettle.

And now I am buying a house. Yes, the nomadic writery-wandery me is buying a house. With a yard, so my dog can run around like a crazy person. I don’t quite know what that means, exactly, fully, but I think I can write about it to figure it out. It’s not a pretty pretty all finished house, it’s a giant mess that needs to be gutted and renovated and have the floors torn out and things painted and repaired. And I’m going to do it alone. I am buying a house, just me, and I am fixing it up, yes, with the assistance of friends and family that will wander in and out of the scene, but mostly, I am on my own for this.

And it’s going to be a project. A project bigger then rehabbing a nutty rescue dog. Or taking care of a bookstore. But smaller, I would imagine, then the act of writing a novel. I love the hands on work, I love tearing away at rubble to stretch out the structure and rebuilding a life exactly the way I want it. I am going to plant a garden and bake bread in my kitchen. I am going to take inspiration from that BBC documentary and I am going to do everything by hand, with love, and by myself. I cannot wait to reupholster the wingback chair I found for a steal on Craigslist or put back together the upstairs bathroom, which, at this point, looks like something out of a horror movie. There’s something really enlivening about building something, really getting your hands into it, that I don’t think that mere decorating with throw pillows and curtains can do for you. I suddenly get home renovation blogs. I get why people want to document this process because it is creative and intense.

I am hoping to get a lot out of this experience. Of course, I am hoping to get a home, where Ava (the dog) and I can feel safe and secure. I am hoping to have a comfortable place where my friends from all over the world can feel free to crash (three bedrooms! So much space!). I am dreaming about having the kitchen up to code so I can bake pies and share my favorite hobby with others. And most of all, I am hoping it sparks inspiration in me to create in every part of my life. I feel like my will to write has felt so defined: if I am not working on my novel, then I should not be writing. No words should be wasted.

Where did I get that? How can you waste a word? Putting a word down on paper does not make it unusable for later. I’ve started writing short stories, I write about an imaginary lead singer of the band the National, because I don’t like the idea that he is really a blonde man. It doesn’t ring true for me, which really hammers in that old saying, Truth is Stranger Than Fiction. Although, this might be possibly untrue for these stories, which are incredibly strange, even by my standards. But strange or not, I am not wasting words. I have to repeat to myself this over and over again.

Perhaps while budgeting money, while watching what I eat, what I wear, what I spend on nearly everything, it has made me worried to be wasteful with every commodity, even my own creativity. As though it is a finite source, as though I may run out the moment that I really need a metaphor. I don’t want to end up sitting dumbly, blankly, when I have a conversation, I want to make sure I have something of value to say. And then I tumble into the nightmare, of what is valuable? What is a valuable word or sentence? Is it okay to want to feel valuable or is that a need that cannot be adequately met because it is dependent on another person’s perception? And then we tumble into the firey hell that is fear based writer’s block. And how does one get around that?

I suppose they buy a house.

Of Pit Bulls and Posies

18 May

I’m going to tell you a secret.

 

Everyone in my real life knows this secret about me; even all of my co-workers even are fully aware. But I still get nervous when I meet new people and trying to figure out how to tell them. And sometimes I get angry, like when I am on the bus and people are talking about “those kind of people” and I get a nudge from an old woman that tells me that she expects me to agree with her, maybe because I look so polite and so sweet and so, “not one of those kind of people.”

 

Except I am.

 

For the last two years, I have owned a Pitbull. Tucked away, next to my front door, beside my hand-woven snood from a little shop on Queen’s Street in Edinburgh and my green velvet coat with the hand-embroidered flowers all over the sleeves from Harvey Nicks, is a pincher collar and a leather, police issue, lead. It’s burgundy, not black, because I thought the color was nicer and as it ages, its starting to have a lovely soft patina.

 

I was not the sort of person who is a breed advocate, or particularly political with animal rights, but my little ginger Pit has started to turn me into that sort of person. I grew up in Upstate NY, as I am oft heard saying, and that meant that hunting and farming were the norm and, part and parcel of Upstate is that Pits are also normal. Blissfully so.

 

High school and college friends alike adopted dogs, many of them pit puppies. Others got Dobermen or Rotties. Big dogs that you took in the back of pick up trucks. My college boyfriend’s sister had two kids and an adopted Pitbull female. A homeless man had asked her to take his dog (she works as an advocate) and she obliged. A few years later she got a second. I remember sitting in her living room, petting that big goofy head, and watching her play nicely with the kids. No one, absolutely no one that I knew of had a problem with Pitbulls. We all read in horror what Michael Vicks had done and wrote that off as a twisted man, not as an issue with dogs. To us, saying it was the dog’s fault was a cop out that lazy people made. We wrote off Pitbull haters as an issue bred in cities where people had no idea how to hunt or fish or do a keg stand. In other words, what we called “assholes.” In the UK, at least in Scotland, people have pits left and right, and maybe they wore muzzles, and maybe they didn’t, but the familiar wide head and goofy smile was easily spotted all over Leith, which is where I made my home for most of my time there, although there was a man who walked his pits around The Links where I lived as well. The rest of Europe had wild packs of dogs that were shaggy and wolf like; those scared me, the way they would run loose through the streets at night, howling.

 

When I came “home” from Europe two years ago, I was breaking down. I had left what I had hoped would be my home for life, Scotland, to making my way through London, and surviving my way through Eastern Europe and Greece and then back again. It wasn’t a physical hardship as much as it was a complete shift for my mind. Being Upstate, I think, had made me crave a home, stability, to see familiar faces. And then the nomadic, military brat in me was pushing away those edges and making me restless. I didn’t know where I belonged or what I was going to do. I could write, yes, and I could make friends, and try out things, but I was also mostly stuck in my hometown with just a few suitcases, unpacked into my grandmother’s dresser in my parent’s spare room, my own childhood bedroom a quilting/computer room.

 

The whole time I lived overseas, and even before then, I had been day dreaming about a dog. I thought I wanted a little dog, when I lived in a tiny apartment, but as I walked across Europe, I saw big, fuzzy, fluffy dogs, especially in Oia, where everyone had a beautiful dog. We rescued puppies at the book store, and my Ukrainian friends took a set of golden puppies that had the same marking as my future dog would have. I dreamed of a Shepard or a Husky, or what my father had had when he was fresh out of the military, a Malamute. I dreamed of hiking and swimming and camping with a dog. I was tired of doing these things alone.

 

Nearly in tears every day, as girls who don’t know what the fuck they want to do with their lives once everything around them has been shuffled around irrevocably, my parents agreed to take me to the animal shelter. I think they were desperate to give me something to focus on. Like a five year old set free in a toy store, I only thought about the getting, not about the later. I was a nervous, wide eyed, whippet of a person when I got to the Humane Society.

 

I don’t know why they gave me the dog, I don’t know why the shelter let me walk out with her and her big floppy bunny ears. Maybe they trusted my parents; that my big, 350 pound, 6’7”, ex-AirForce father could handle whatever was given to us. Maybe they just didn’t know what else to do with her. Her tag read “Ruby” and the guy who lived around the corner from my parents, the guy who bred Red-Nosed Pits himself, told me I had saved her from certain death. He said that people will pay for puppies, but if they can’t control them, if they can’t train them the way they want and give them up, and no one will take an adolescent pit, especially not one built like a brick shit house, like “Ruby” was.

 

When I was walking down the aisle in the “Big Dog Room” (no terrier for this girl, I wanted a monster sized dog to keep me safe and warm) I was drawn to a pit/great Dan mix named King, that at 8 months, already weighed 80 pounds. I was sure, and still am, that he was a gentle giant. But from the end, my mother was squealing, “This one has bunny ears!”

 

And so she did. While most Pitbulls are short, stocky, and even, dare I say, on the small side, “Ruby” was tall, with a greyhound body, and the most gloriously tall rabbit ears that cocked this way and that way. She was underfed and looked sorrowful, her spirit was super still when we met, but she tilted her golden eyes at me. She is not pure Pit: she is Red-Nosed Pit and Pharaoh Hound, which may be the most fucked up mix to ever exist. I instantly fell in love. She was a creature drawn straight from the dark crevices of the mind of Hunter S Thompson: “Too weird to live, and too rare to die.” I felt instantly connected with her and I wanted us to start again. I named her Ava, for Ava Gardener, an idol of mine, and a woman I think who was also, a rare bird, revered for her beauty, but with a toughness that could pack a wallop (there are tales about a frying pan and her then husband, Frank Sinatra’s head).

 

When I take Ava out these days, well fed, and bright eyed, people stop and tell me that she is built like a race horse, with long running legs, defined by muscle on top of muscle, but slender with the curving chest of a Pharaoh Hound. And she can run; she gallops like a horse, stomping across the ground at a speed that is terrifying if you do not know that she means no harm once she reaches you. My father and I would take her to the abandoned air field by our house and let her run the length of the tarmac. She was in-fatiguable. We go on hikes that last for hours, up hills and through the woods and at the end she is ready to run more.

 

Who bred her and why, we’ll never know. Maybe as a hunting dog? She is fast, she is focused, and yes, she is prey driven. Where we live now, she can not run free, it’s not the same here. In Syracuse, people have their dogs in yards and they run with them on trails, safely leashed. There are wide open spaces where there is no one and no other dogs. People have farms and yes, abandoned airbases where dogs can roam and run and be dogs. I think she was very happy there.

 

But life changes and there is not any work in Syracuse, not for someone like me, and so, after more journeys and more hunting of my own, I found work and a home in Portland. I am also prey driven, and when I set something in my sights, I can’t be still until I have it. A home for us, a job I loved, I wanted this for us, no matter where it was. When I found my little cottage near the woods, I felt satisfied that I could stop running. My parents drove across country to bring me Ava. But she was not instantly happy here. She had left a big house and a good sized yard and daily runs on the base to come live in a studio apartment in the NW of Portland. I lucked out with where we live, because it is ground floor and we have a little yard, but nothing like she had. She was sad, crying, whining, barking incessantly. When we walked, she tried to drag me along. She was uncontrollable, inconsolable. I felt like we had never been friends and that, like a child of divorce, she blamed me for everything terrible that was happening to her. We had to start all over again.

 

And so I have to work with her. While my parents let her run free, hardly ever using a leash, here she had to learn manners and to not pull my arms out. She did not like that one bit; I am too slow for her and she dreams of racing. I sneak out of the house early to take her to the tennis courts by our house, which have a locking gate, so she can run and run and run, but it’s only in circles and I don’t think it’s enough for her. 5:30 in the morning we leave the house and walk and run and circle the woods we live near for at least an hour. Then we have breakfast together: I have eggs and she has raw turkey and veggies. And then I have to leave her while I go to work, from which I hurry home every day, never going to happy hour with my co-workers or having dinner with friends.

 

On weekends we have lessons with an amazing team who knows how to handle my hell-hound, and Ava is now working on agility lessons, like jumping over picnic tables. We practice with other dogs, so she can learn to be calm and obey me no matter what else may come: she is learning to trust me above even her own instinct to bolt, to freak out, or to attack to protect herself from strange creatures that run up to her. I think she had a bad experience as a puppy, but we’ll never know, so all we can do is train her and work with what she is now. She has dog friends, and if you are slow and introduce your dog to her sweetly and with patience, she will be extremely friendly. But I am the first to admit: she shocks easily and a dog running up to her, off leash and yapping, looks like something she wants to tear into. I have to be ever vigilante.

 

Like me, she has a short attention span, easily amused and totally enraptured by everything and anything,distracted by the wind blowing an interesting scent across her nose, or a leaf dancing fantastically to her right. We have walks together where she and I become lost in looking at the leaves and birds. She is anxious when left alone, terrified I won’t come back for her. Her favorite thing to eat is vanilla ice cream and bananas, same as me, but she won’t turn down strawberries either. When I am sad or scared or lonely, or in pain, she lays with me in my bed, protective and calming. She stays awake most of the night, keeping her ear cocked to the door and windows, murmuring her growls at the people who walk by at 3 am. We are both nervous creatures who often do the wrong thing based on our fears and mis-perceptions. Cesar Milan once said that you “get the dog you need, not the dog you want.” And some days, when I sink down onto my couch, crying and freaking out that I cannot take one more day of Ava and her behavior, I have to repeat that as a mantra to myself. My trainers tell me that if I choose to not keep Ava, the kind thing to do would be to euthanize her because she could not be re-homed again with her separation anxiety and who else would take the time I take with her? They are good trainers, who have themselves adopted and trained dog-aggressive dogs, Pits and other breeds, but they know how different life is for a Pitbull in Portland than it is in NY.

 

I know I am doing something right, that what was once a high energy wind up hell-hound psycho dog, can now walk down a busy street, go into dress shops with me, and be told, by elderly couples, by men playing softball, by construction workers, and by little girls who love her ears, that I have a “beautiful dog.” That when she automatically sits when I stop walking or lays down when I say, “Plotz!”, people marvel out loud at how well mannered she is. She smiles, her goofy, lolling smile, and waits, not patiently, to be petted, loved, and fed treats (which the shop keepers kindly do).

 

But I am still told, at times, that my dog is the devil, that her jaw locks and that she will someday devour me in my sleep. Mostly I read these thing online, where people don’t have to show me their faces when they say these words. Worse than people who might come up to me and be cruel are the cowards that hide behind websites and forums and comment boxes. In real life, no one would come up to me and say anything nasty, partially I am sure because Ava’s exact breed confounds them and most people, people who do not know and love Red Nosed Pits, do not know what she is. But also, I think an owner dressed in a floral dress and a cardigan go a long way in making a dog look friendly. But still, I brace myself, ready myself to pull out the angry NY Italian that resides in my heart, ready to fight, to defend my dog’s honor.

 

My friends tell me that no dog should take up so much time. People on the street do walk away from me. Sometimes she does get into dog fights, because unleashed dogs run up to her, their owners shouting from 500 feet away, “Don’t worry, she’s friendly!”…well, mine isn’t and you should have asked…although luckily she is a shaker, not a biter, so she’s only ever been the one injured. Sometimes, it’s just enough that she sneaks into the grocery bags and eats all the turkey I bought for the week in one sitting. Sometimes I am tired from running 4 miles a day with her, rain or shine, and I just break down. She is not the dog for the weak of heart.

 

And so, I repeat the mantra, you get the dog you need. Because maybe I was too weak-hearted before I met Ava. I didn’t know where I belonged. I fell for men who were unkind. I had the sort of friends who slept with those unkind men. I allowed emotional and physical abuse into my life. I took advice from people to heart, as though they always knew best, not always thinking for myself. And now, I am purposeful, even if my only purpose is to take care of this ginger furred, golden eyed, rabbit eared, horse dog. I write on this blog, this rabbit-hearted, self imposed title of weak willed woman-hood, and yet I know that this isn’t entirely true anymore.

 

I am now the sort of person who takes great, purposeful strides across the pavement as I handle a 65 pound dog who is pure muscle and teeth, and I know she will obey me. She is not perfect, but I have the inner strength, matched by the physical strength, to correct her, to be loud, and un-apologetic about who is in charge here. I do these things with a smile on my face and a dress on my body, but I do these things forcefully and with great strength. I am re-habbing a wounded, emotionally scarred throw-away who laid homeless on hard floors while people said she was not worth rescuing and I am doing this with the help of an incredibly beautiful and graceful dog who happens to be a Pitbull.

Of Spiders and Things…

19 Sep

“Experience is never limited and it is never complete: it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue”.
~Henry James

Friday at my job, as it is at many offices, is “casual Friday.” To me, that meant that I would wear leggings under a skirt with a sweater. It felt casual. To me.  I guess not to my co-worker and friend, L.  She came up to me as I was typing away and asked, “Have you always been so…prissy?” And it sort of took me aback. Me, prissy?

Do I wear dresses? All the time? Yes. Absolutely. Except when I am wearing a skirt. But since I have worn dresses while hiking, while breaking the neck off a turkey carcass and pulling his little turkey guts out, while on my hands and knees scrubbing a rooftop clean, while carrying a bleeding child home from the park, and a zillion other situations, I didn’t really think that this made me “prissy”. I thought it made me the type of girl who could eat 5 plates at the Chinese buffet without have to worry about my jeans digging into my stomach. I looked at my co-worker with a quizzical eye and wondered why this was a question. Didn’t she know me?

It sort of reminds me of my favorite bit of Christmas. You see, my mother is German and our tree was always very staunchly “German”. When we had lived in Germany, my mother had collected many beautiful things that you simply could not find in America, things like a gorgeous wax angel with luminous skin  and bright eyes, delicate candle holders, and most importantly, the tale of the Christmas Spider.

You’ve never heard of the Christmas Spider? Well, that is the whole reason you have tinsel on your tree. Yes, my mother, who is not a tacky woman, let me start off by saying, would delicately swath our tree in tinsel as the final touch before we set the angel atop. And she would always tell me the story of the spider as she did so. You see, when all the other creatures came to see the baby Jesus in that manger, they all brought what they had to share. Wool to keep him warm, milk to keep him fed, you know the tale. And when the spider came, the animals did not know what she could share. And so she spun. She spun her delicate web here and there and made intricate patterns that she hung from the plain wooden rafters. As the northern star shone down, light reflected off her beautiful webbing and caused the whole manager to glow and shimmer and look much more beautiful than it had been before.

I thought of this story as I walked to work today because I saw spider’s web, strung up in a strange alcove of a building where the spotlights were set up. One spot light was just right underneath this web, where the spider sat in the center, causing the whole web to look golden. It really stood out to me and made me remember the story and how much I do love spiders just because of that childhood memory. And yes, that is sort of the point. Because my mother told me that tale over and over again, because we have delicate spider ornaments tucked away on our tree right beside Santa’s and snowflake encrusted bulbs, whenever I see a spider, I smile. It’s changed my whole outlook on how I view them. I think to myself, pretty web and thanks for eating the icky bugs that try to crawl in my house. And sometimes I have to sweep them outside, but I never squish them with a shoe or a book.

I think that when people do kill spiders it’s because they don’t really know them and every time I hear someone make a statement about me and my dresses, good or bad, I feel like they don’t really know me. It’s true, sometimes people are extra kind to me because of my dresses.  And sometimes they are less than kind, acting as though I am offering up an excuse of incapability to anyone looking at me.

I think it’s both. I glamorize the spider and her lovely little web, but I am fully aware and incredibly thankful that she’s also using that web to trap the bugs that I do not like and keeping them away from my house. I like that she’s strong and willful and protective and that she did not build an ugly little weapon to do it all with, she did it with a flair for design that could not be learned in a decade at Parson’s.

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