Ely Lester


This is a long post, so first the short version. In the last year: I started working full time and am adjusting to that. I’m glad to be working towards my MFT licensure, but uncomfortable about how it pushes my relationships and other projects onto the back burner. My marriage gets better and better, despite this. The company I work for goes out of business so I get part of the summer off, and I get the exact same job (family therapist for US Marines & their families) with a new company.

And for the year ahead: I plan to continue this work, taking good care of myself, dance with Reanna every night, as promised to my friend, Tilke, in her “How to be a Real Artist” workshop, get in best shape in 5 years, and learn how to treat myself and Reanna really really well while working full time.

October: I started my year out at Farm & Wilderness, VT, staffing and teaching a really fun psychology project at Not Back to School Camp. As is traditional, I got really sick, but this time it was from a waitress in Rutland, not someone at NBTSC. I recuperated while visiting Ethan & Susannah, also in Vermont. Back in Joshua Tree, I started working out again (SERIOUS style), planted my first winter garden, fixed some electrical and plumbing problems in my trailer, and started setting up a private practice. In the process of hiring a supervisor, I found out that in California, unlike in Oregon, I cannot do my internship in a private practice. So I started looking for work in a local clinic.

Looking out over Woodward Reservoir from my cabin at Farm & Wilderness

Ethan, cataloging NBTSC lost & found in his library

The famous Quodlibetarian tub

Reanna

Reanna at Playa Del Rey

Ollie, a year ago

Ollie & Pap

Gabe, Damian & Maya on the Hwy 62 Art Tour

Trailer at sunset, looking south

November: I move into a new computer, archive my years of audio journal entries, and learn Sketchup while applying for and getting a job at Morongo Basin Mental Health: providing free, confidential therapy for US Marines, veterans, and their families. In what would become a series of small-town coincidences, a high school friend I hadn’t seen in decades worked there, saw my name on the interview list and sat in on my interview, interjecting stuff like, “Oh, yeah, good answer!” Nice way to interview. The manager of the military program assured me that the our contract was solid for at least two years. That’s about how long I need to get my hours for licensure, so the job sounded good–no chance of having to ditch my clients like I had to in grad school! I spent the rest of the month getting in as much time with Reanna and my family before starting full time work.

Rainbow over the Bartlet Mts

Maya & Ollie in hammock

Ollie helps Nana Honey cook

Me & Reanna

December:  My 93 year old Grandpa Bob gets really sick, and I get really sick taking care of him. I was pretty sure he was going to die. He had pneumonia and had to go on antibiotics for the first time in his life. It took me weeks to fully recover. He eventually recovered, too, but I’m not sure he’ll ever fully recover. He’s been on antibiotics off and on ever since and is progressively less mobile. It’s got me thinking a lot about dying–how I can support the people I love when they start having a hard time taking care of themselves, and how I want to die when my time comes.

I start at MBMH, reading 40 hours a week of protocols. I have Christmas with family in Joshua Tree. My brother Damian starts a weekly evening with family, listening to an integral Christianity lecture and meditation that turns out to be a presentation of integral theory to Christians, rather than Christianity to integral thinkers, but valuable nonetheless.

Reanna & Christina, Xmas

Reanna & Maya, Xmas

Ely, Christina, Pap, Ben, Rebeca, Xmas

Gabe, Ely, Ollie, Christina, Xmas

Reanna, ukulele, heater

Ollie, bundled up

January: I get my first paid vacation ever–one week off, fully paid by MBMH. Weird, pretty nice. I write my first attempt at a comprehensive political statement. Reanna and I start a three-month experiment with a strict “paleo” diet, which mostly means we cut out sugar and grains from our diet. The theory is that human adaptation to grains and refined anything is shallow at best. I also start cooking Mexican food (the paleo-friendly recipes) from Rick Bayless’ Authentic Mexican. I love it. And Reanna loves eating it. I start learning to play Reanna’s ukulele. I play and sing “Amazing Grace” most nights for a month. Fun!

I’m working full time, which I’ve never done. It’s not my favorite schedule. I had to let go of most of my projects. I started building a solar batch water heater in the fall, for example, that is still not finished. The schedule has simplified my life quite a bit. Work all day, spend the evening with Reanna. I gained more respect for my friends who’ve been working full time for decades and still manage to write some music or read books. I’m ramping into a caseload, though, and am seeing seven clients a week by the end of the month.

My endurance training is going great by this point. Mid month I got my heart rate up to 179 bpm without hurting myself. Very exciting.

Smiley and Gallant visit

Reanna in our clean, cold kitchen

Dinner’s almost ready. (Photo by Reanna.)

Grandpa Bob turns 94

Me in therapist costume, with Ollie. (Photo by Reanna.)

February: Full time work continues. I get trained in the Trauma Resiliency Model, which I find very cool and useful. I re-up the trademark on Abandon Ship. I feel sad that I can’t write music with my brothers right now, but have plenty of optimistic plans to do so… Reanna starts designing our future house, another exciting project that I have to watch from the sidelines. I love watching her get super deep into a topic like this, though. She is now the resident expert in passive-solar-optimized-very-small-house design. We start car shopping, too. We need to be independently mobile in Joshua Tree.

Trench. Hose feeding trailer finally to be buried.

Reanna & treehouse near the Mexican border

Ollie, Damian

March: I’m up to 16 clients at MBMH and I’m fighting for mastery of the intense paperwork load. The clinical work is going great. My supervisor is good, I am fully engaged by my clients, and I get to see a good variety of folks–kids, adults, families, couples. The paperwork is fairly unpleasant, though. Mental health providers that get government funding spend a huge amount of time and energy creating and maintaining a paper trail for their work. These clinics get paid based on the work they claim to have done and then various agencies can audit their files and take that money back if a box wasn’t checked or a T wasn’t crossed. I spend my first very late day at work in March, trying to catch up on paperwork. Reanna is not happy.

Highlights: A great lecture by Bruce Perry, planting my first spring/summer garden, endurance training going great (I work out during my lunches at MBMH), meeting the Transition Joshua Tree folks. And Reanna. Reanna is wonderful.

Lowlights: My truck fails smog and I begin what becomes an expensive debacle trying to get it to pass.  I start having sync problems with my Mac that I am still dealing with as I write. I start working on our taxes on weekends. Reanna is Canadian and that makes our taxes super complicated and somehow even though we hired a professional we ended up owing big fines.

Abandon Ship cover art, for the TM folks. Art by Tilke.

Damian & Ollie in old billy goat pen, future garden

Me, just having sunk the garden beds. (Photo by Reanna)

Reanna planting pepper starts

Ollie

Ollie & Reanna take the trash out

Ollie & Reanna rest in the hammock

April: I find out that Morongo Basin Mental Health has decided to go out of business after more than 40 years, at the end of June. That’s quite a shock and less for me than for the many decade-plus employees I work with. At home, our three months of paleo is up and I feel fine, as I have on just about every diet I’ve tried, but it clearly had not solved any of the problems we’d been tracking for the experiment. And I am sick in bed for a week for a third time this year. Reanna’s parents arrive for a month long visit. I don’t get to see them as much as I’d like, but we get in some fun events (like the Morongo Basin Conservation Association’s “Desertwise Landscape Tour” and Transition Joshua Tree’s Water Catchment Workshop), good talks, good swimming.  I get trained in sand-tray therapy by my supervisor, Richard Gray, which I find quite useful.

Reanna preps cholla buds for dinner

Family dinner at Damian & Maya’s (Damian with Bugzooka)

Doug & Kathryn up San Jacinto

May: We get a great little car, a gift from Reanna’s parents. It gets 38 mpg unless we use the AC.  At work, emotions are high and rumors are flying around. I try to avoid it as much as possible. My coworkers are mostly looking for work with great intensity. I decide that I will chill instead, concentrate on my clients, and do what I can to get my job back with whatever company picks up the military contract in the summer.  Meanwhile,  something is eating my garden. My weekends and after work time is often spent critter-proofing.

The highlight of the month by far is meeting my new nephew, Julian.

Julian in sling

Ollie in work gloves

First scorpion of a scorpion-rich year

June: I’m at 21 clients at the beginning of my last month at MBMH. The management has had me continue taking new clients but I’m starting to get nervous about it. It’s starting to look like my clients will have a significant lapse in services, and it pisses me off. I write people in charge at the county and local journalists but no-one can say how long it will take to get the military program back up and running. I know I’m fine. I can look forward to a full season working at NBTSC if things go badly. It sucks, though, that my clients are just getting dumped. It’s screwed up. I just have to set them up as best I can for the lapse and do the tons of paperwork to close their charts. Meanwhile, my co-worker, Jackie, introduces me to Candy Crush, which starts sucking up the cracks in my schedule.

Highlights: Jonathan & Ayako’s wedding in Idaho. Motorcycle safety class with Reanna. And being married to Reanna, of course.

Living room pano: Ely, Christina, Julian, Ben, Rebeca visit

Ben & Julian

North end pano from on top of Reanna’s sewing RV

Ayako & Jonathan, getting married

July: I’m unemployed again, but within two weeks I get interviewed by Pacific Clinics, the company who got the military contract that I’d been working for at MBMH. It looks like I’ll get the job based on the reputation I’d made for myself in that position. That feels good! It means I’ll miss most of NBTSC this year, too, for the first time in 14 years.

Reanna leaves for OR to do prep work for NBTSC and I delete Candy Crush from my phone so I can get some things done: install AC in our trailer, create an outside pantry, build a greywater cistern, make a front step for the trailer, get my motorcycle license, and a few other things. Satisfying. Then I fly up to OR to work the Camp Latgawa session of NBTSC.

Reanna hangs our laundry while I goof off with the camera

Cistern in progress

Julian & me

August: Finish at NBTSC (wonderful, as usual), and spend a few short days in Eugene at an NBTSC leadership summit, then back to Joshua Tree for my last week of unemployment. I completed some last-minute landscaping and plumbing projects, built a dry toilet and installed a weather station, then started training at Pacific Clinics in Arcadia.

At the end of August, Reanna got back from her travels, and we started shutting down all lights and electronics at 8pm and just hanging out until going to bed. This was lovely. We usually laid in the hammock outside, talking and looking at stars. The desert summer evenings are really, really nice. Especially with Reanna.

My advisee group, NBTSC Camp Latgawa

Ely & Julian before dinner

Reanna & Ollie, downtown Joshua Tree

September: I start making contact with clients and by the end of the month I’m back up to 7 clients. This is exciting, and it’s nice to be working with some of my old co-workers from MBMH, and the new crew at Pacific Clinics is an entertaining bunch. Working full time again limits what I can do in terms of projects, but I manage to put a new roof on the old goat pen/the new outside pantry, go visit Quail Springs permaculture farm, and start building a new composter with my 2-year-old nephew, Ollie.

At the end of the month, I have my first birthday at home in many years. Usually I’m at camp. It’s nice. My family threw me a little party and I’m glad to be here, even though I miss my people at Farm & Wilderness.

Yes, Ollie wants to help build the composter!

Rain Event, 29 Palms

With Reanna & ocotillo, on my 42nd birthday.

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I just visited my brother Ely in Glendale and the forecast was calling for rain in the next couple days. He was happy about that. They need the water. Glendale gets an average of 21.09 inches of rain a year (according to Wikipedia) and had only 16.95 inches in the last ten months (according to Weather Underground). Ely just emailed me that a meteorologist on the radio today said they’ve only gotten 5.15 inches so far this year, 9 inches below average).

But what is going to happen to that rain water? Almost all of it will fall on rooftops, sidewalks, parking lots and roads:

Glendale

For a case study, I looked at Ely’s neighbor’s roof. They have a gutter on the low side, which will catch most of the rain that falls on that roof:

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The neighbor’s gutter dumps into a drain pipe that heads towards the street on Ely’s side of the wall, picking up the runoff from another roof along the way.

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Back on the neighbor’s side of the wall, the pipe dumps on the ground.

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The water runs along the wall, down onto Ely’s yard, and onto the sidewalk.

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Down the sidewalk, into the street.

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Down the street.

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And into 50 feet of storm drains.

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Verdugo Wash

The drain dumps into the Verdugo “wash,” a giant concrete culvert a few blocks away.

Los Angeles River

Which is a tributary of another, even bigger concrete culvert, the Los Angeles “river.”

(photo by Ron Reiring

Which dumps into the Pacific Ocean at Long Beach Harbor. (photo by Ron Reiring)

The system moves the water that lands on Glendale to the ocean quickly and efficiently. Meanwhile, they wash their cars and water their lawns with water pumped in from the distant Colorado River.

Here’s a totally different way of thinking about rainwater, from another, drier city that also relies on the Colorado River–Tucson, Arizona. Watch for the wow moment, starting around 1:20:

My Grandpa Bob turns 93 today. I feel so lucky to get to live with him and interact with him every day–he lives most of the year in a trailer on my parents’ property in Joshua Tree, so we’re neighbors right now.

Grandpa Bob is one of my best role models, and his current living situation reminds me of how he inspires me the most. Instead of focusing on his own material security, for the past 45 years he traveled around the country, helping our his friends and family wherever he went. Whenever Grandpa Bob showed up, you knew that things were going to get done. He’d tune your piano, help build your house or shed or boat, dig a septic, whatever. He would enthusiastically join in or start projects. And when the work was all done, he’d always have good conversation about some topic he was delving into, usually from the fringes of human thought.

The result of this lifestyle is that now, when his memory and mobility are keeping him from being as helpful and active, he has built up so much goodwill that he has a lot of options in his old age. He lives with us in the winters and with our cousins in Idaho in the summers, but I imagine he could live with any number of friends and family around the country who would gladly take him in. He didn’t worry about money. He just built community. And that is a good model for living, in my opinion.

Here’s Grandpa Bob (who actually flew biplanes) with my brother Ely, about to fly model airplanes–both of their favorite activity:

Ely, Grandpa Bob at Sunburst Park, December 29, 2011

I first saw Sumi Ink Club art at my brother Ely and Christina’s wedding reception. The party was on the roof of the Pasadena Museum of California Art, and there was a whole room of Sumi Ink Club downstairs. It was striking–densely packed, collaborative, black drawings covering white walls from floor to ceiling. I have to admit I was primarily overwhelmed by it, and that it was Reanna who stayed interested, setting up a Sumi Ink Club party for an issue of her magazine. That’s how I had the idea to do Sumi Ink Club during my advisee group at the first New Hampshire session of Not Back to School Camp.

We started with two picnic tables of almost blank white paper and 14 sharpies. (Sumi Ink Club uses sumi ink and brushes, of course, but sharpies work. I’ll paste in the official rules at the bottom of this post.) We just started drawing and rotated to a new spot every couple of minutes. It was really fun and we were excited about the final product, which we figured took about 26 person-hours to complete:

Full Composition, 5×8′, Paper & Sharpie (Occasional Crayon, Marker & Paint by Anonymous Artists)

Section 1

Section 2

Section 3

Section 4

Section 5

Section 6

Sharpie Artists, in Front of Our Meeting Place, the Charles H. Watts Craft House, Camp Huckins, NH, September 2011: McKinley Corbley, Liam Woodworth-Cook, Signe Constable, Justus Joy, Joel Malkoff, Maddie Pryor, Jacob Adams, Rio Nelson, Eve Blane, Hannah Conrad-Reingold, Kiera McNicholas, Nathen Lester, Sophia Kramer, and LarkinHeintzmann in front.

Here are the guidelines for doing Sumi Ink Club, from the website sumiinkclub.com:

sumi ink club rules*:

– anyone can join in (all ages, all humans, all styles)

– everyone adds to the same drawing

– keep moving around, don’t spend too long in one area

– add to what other people have started

– keep the ink pure, don’t dilute with water

– no words allowed, but things that look like words are ok!

* you can experiment with making your own rules and using new materials, of course you can!

My friend Grace is flying to Ethiopia today to meet her adopted son, Yared, for the first time. What a journey to make! My thoughts are with her. Last Sunday I was at her baby shower, a moving ritual arranged by our friend, Kyla. There were lots of flowers and food, but instead of presents, we each brought a story–something we loved about how our parents were with us. We told them to Grace and wrote them down for a book for her to keep. It was lovely. I cried, off and on, hearing all of those beautiful, funny, endearing stories. Here’s what I wrote:

Hi Grace. Off the top of my head, I love how my parents sang a lot. My mom sang around the house, washing dishes or whatever, whatever song was in her head. I remember her singing the Oompaloompa song from the other room after we’d recently watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I remember thinking that she sounded so good–just right. My dad sang to us every night at bedtime. He’d come up  to me and Ely’s room after we were tucked in and sing us a few songs with his guitar. I had no idea how special that was–it was just something that happened, but it’s such a warm memory now. They were usually the same songs but I never got tired of them. One of them was Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Pony Man.” That was my favorite. One was “I Been Working on the Railroad.” He also sang an odd little song I’ve never heard anywhere else that went “What do you do in a case like that?/What do you do but stamp on your hat?/And your nail file and your toothbrush/And anything else that’s helpless.” Hilarious!

But writing about my bedtime made me think of a larger story about how I was parented. My days and weeks–my life–as a kid were punctuated with so many fun, comforting rituals. Bedtime was the best. My dad’s singing was the last part of a great time. My mom read to us from a chapter book every night. I could count on it. I could anticipate it with total safety. I loved it. And yes, sometimes I cried when she was ready to stop, because I wasn’t ready for her to stop, but I also looked forward to it the next night. We brushed our teeth together in our tiny bathroom, and my dad would call out the checklist of things we might need to do before bed, “OK, pee, poop, throw up, brush your teeth, go to bed,” and then, while brushing, the dental geography, “Bottoms of the tops, tops of the bottoms….” My mom would tuck us in, and gave us our choice of a back or head scratch.

That was just bedtime. We ate all of our meals together as a family. Each kind of meal had its own ritual. My dad’s dishes all had names that he announced with triumph: “Lentissimo Magnifico!” was one of his lentil dishes. He could be counted on (and still can, now that I think of it) to remind us that broccoli were miniature trees and that beans were miniature potatoes. On Saturday mornings we baked bread and Saturday nights we ate pizza on the homemade pizza crusts. On Sunday mornings we had pancakes. Every two weeks we’d all go out to the local dairy and watch the cows get milked. My parents bought the milk before they pasteurized it. We’d sit around the living room, shaking quart jars of fresh, whole milk until it separated. We made butter from the cream and (usually chocolate, s0metimes tapioca) pudding from the whey. We had regular nights with foot rides or crazy eights or The Muppet Show. There were great wrestling matches, the brothers against my dad. We’d apparently pin him every once in a while and he’d say “Now any normal person wouldn’t be able to move right now…” and that meant we were about to get (gently) tossed around the room.

I think I was an extra-sensitive kid, so maybe I was a special case–I mean, I don’t know that this will apply to Yared–but I’m so grateful to my parents for all of the regular, predictable, fun, comforting moments. They created structure for my days, gave me things to look forward to, cushioned the blows when things didn’t go my way. They also created a culture for the family: This is what life is like for us. This is what it feels like to be a Lester. There were exciting times, too, of course.  Like ice cream once a year or so. Or Disneyland, or relatives visiting. Or the couple times that we moved. That kind of stuff made vivid memories, being so rare, but it is the predictable stuff that I feel so warmly about.

As I’m thinking about all that, too, I’m reminded of the communication theory I’ve been learning in my Couples and Family Therapy program. In it, human communication exists on two levels. One is the obvious, content level–what the words mean. The other is a higher level communication, a non-verbal assertion about the nature of the relationship. The non-verbal sets the context for all of the other communication, colors it. One thing about non-verbal communication is that there’s no negative term. You can’t say, for example, “I will not hurt you” with non-verbal behavior. All you can do is put yourself in a position where you could hurt someone, and then not do it. One book, Pragmatics of Human Communication uses the image of an animal communicating to another that it will not hurt them by taking their throat in its jaws and not biting down. It seems like being a parent (and maybe part of any relationship) is to be constantly in that position. It seems to me that love is like that. The words “I love you” do not convey love by themselves. I appreciate so much how my parents showed me their love–rather than telling me about it–in all of these little, regular, predictable ways, making me feel comfortable and cared for, giving me a safe physical and emotional space to explore myself and the world in.

Love,

Nathen

It’s the middle of summer, in Eugene, Oregon, the place and time with the best weather I’ve ever seen, and that includes Maui, southern California, and the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s just really nice all the time. I’ve noticed, though, that people who live here don’t seem to appreciate it. We spend all winter griping about the cold and the rain and then most of the summer griping about the heat. The thing is, it never really gets cold or hot here. It only gets cold enough to snow a few times each winter. I lived with Max Orhai, who is from Montana, through my first winter here and he liked to say “You call this winter?” and walk around in T-shirts. And this week is projected to be blisteringly hot: in the mid 90s. (Canadians, 95F = 35C.) Where I grew up, in the Mojave desert, it doesn’t drop into the 90s until well after sundown, and it is a blessed relief.

I think part of it is that these moderately hot temperatures do not force us to learn to act appropriately during the heat of the day. 105F is like an oven if you’re trying to do yard work (without dousing yourself with the hose every fifteen minutes, at least), but it’s actually pretty pleasant sitting quietly under a tree, mostly unclad, with a cool drink. And each little breeze is a wonderful experience.

But we also acclimate. One summer in the Bay Area I remember hearing that people had died of heat stroke during a temperature spike that got into the low 90s. They weren’t just griping; their bodies got too hot. And I remember my first day on Maui: My friends and family took me on a wonderful, balmy, lightly clouded hike through the bamboo forest, complaining and apologizing the whole way about the weather. I had left Joshua Tree in February, with early mornings in the 20s (Canadians, 25F = -4C), and here it was in the low 60s and everyone was miserable but me. (Los Angeles is the same. When I visit my brother Ely, he will apologize about the weather if there is a wisp of cloud in the sky—this in the winter, when I probably haven’t seen the sun in weeks.) In six months, of course, I was the same way. I was embarrassed, but almost any variation in temperature was uncomfortable. 80F was oppressively hot and 60F had me shivering.

As for Eugenians, and maybe Pacific Northwesters, let’s get our act together. As I see it we have two options. 1) Admit that these 90+ degree days are perfectly normal around here, and are exactly what we were craving all winter and enjoy the heck out of them. 2) Admit that the only season we can actually enjoy in this region is spring, not because the weather is more pleasant, but because the ongoing dismal winter weather makes it easy to appreciate the occasional sun and relative warmth.

11 years worth

11 years worth

I have started this blog inspired by my friend of just over a decade, Jeannie Lee. I’ve been waving her away about it for years because of the time commitment: learning curves and then continuing to post. I’d already stopped writing in my precious journals in favor of a voice recorder because of how much time it took. I already have plenty of ways to keep myself a little too busy: university, learning to dance, making money, reading, writing music, keeping up with friends and family…. Jeannie’s rebuttal was that I could put as little time as I felt like into the project, which is true, of course, but not usually how I operate.

I think two things tipped me. One is that I’ve been thinking a lot about how difficult it is for me to write well, and that it’s because of how difficult it is for me to think clearly. But good, clear thinking is important to me. I decided I could stand to nudge my daily activities in that direction. Another push was from my new friend, Reanna, who told me she liked the little rants I’d put up on my (feeble) myspace page. She’s smart and a writer and I have a crush on her, so that convinced me to make better friends with the part of myself that says things. Plus, the few writings and images she has up online give a sense of her personality and life that mine do not. I’m jealous.

NME 32, 33 & 34

NME 32, 33 & 34

So here it is, starting September 29, 2008, the first day of my 38th year. I’m calling it Nathen’s Miraculous Escape after a zine that I made for a while about my year, each year, for Christmas presents. (I stole the name from the title my dad gave to the film of my brother Ely’s birth: Ely’s Miraculous Escape.) I hope this blog will serve the same purpose as the zine—make it easier for you to stay connected with me during the times (most of the time, actually) that I’m working on projects and neglecting the loved ones in my life who I don’t see every day.

I’m excited about this project. I always get a creative rush around this time because I always spend a lot of time brainstorming about my new year, clarifying my goals and visions. This year’s creative rush has been bigger than usual, though. The last several days I’ve woken up after only a few hours of sleep and lain awake until morning, thinking about how to organize this page, how I can include all of my inspirations. Normally I’m not a big fan of insomnia, but this has been fun. I hope you enjoy it.

Love,

Nathen