Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Jobs I Never Had and the Cats I Killed, Part II

So I'm continuing to work on this series of I don't know what you'd call them. The first installment having been posted in May.

This time it wasn't a cat. It was a turtle. And this turtle's death was not a matter of passive acceptance or inaction, which was the case with Smackers. No, this was a case of not even having an inkling of having fucked up until it was far too late to fix it. And the thing that was lost - in addition to the turtle's life - was perhaps some other kind of life circumstance that I imagined would lead to a certain kind of professional future. Of course "professional future" may be too much of a phrase for the way I thought about my life's trajectory when I was 19. At the time I was working on improving my photographic skills with the help of the head of the photography department, Professor S., during intense one-on-one tutorials. We met - I think - once a week, and through our meetings I did actually learn a few things I should have known far earlier. I began doing a better job of getting good negatives, and Professor S. was a little less focused on ideas than my previous mentor, which allowed me not to overthink things as much. This is saying something because whether in an art context or not, if I am one thing I am an overthinker (except when I resolutely refuse to think at all). In any case, at some point during this tutorial Professor S. asked me if I would be available to housesit while he and his family went farther north - to what I"m sure was a really wonderful second home in the wilderness of Vermont. I was quite enthusiastic about the opportunity to spend a few days in a grown up's house, as I was currently living in a ranch house with three other people where we all had a pretty desultory relationship to keeping common areas clean.

Professor S. and his family lived in a spacious older home a bit out of the center of Tivoli, which in itself is not a particularly bumpin' place, so living even four blocks outside the center (which is one intersection) is already pretty rural. It was a nice brick house. Old, but modernized and well appointed. Professor S. was and is a renowned photographer in many circles, and between his art, family money of some kind, and his professorship, they clearly had the funds to make the house comfortable and updated. Steam shower. A front sitting room, not overly large, stacked from floor to ceiling with shelves of art and photography books. A wonderful kitchen and center island. I was especially smitten with the screened in back porch with comfortable furniture and a view of a field that stretched as far as the eye could see to the east. There was also a small barn in the back. I'd say really it was more like a large shed. Barn would connote a larger structure. That said, the structure was large enough to house two goats and a gaggle of chickens. Maybe 8 chickens? Maybe more.

I was given the assignment to feed and take care of the chickens, two or three cats, the goats and a turtle by Mrs S. There were many rumors about Professor S.'s wife. Most of them not terribly flattering to her. Who knows what is true and untrue about it, but she certainly had the reputation for not being an especially warm  person. From my interactions with her, which were few, I'd certainly say that she was brisk and no-nonsense, and that there wasn't much of a hint of an underlying sweetness waiting to come out. Of course, the second set of our interactions are such that that lack of sweetness is wholly understandable. In any case, I felt very much that this job was a sign that Professor S. found me trustworthy. I was also excited because the insinuation was that if I did well on this test weekend, there would be a good chance that I could potentially be a more permanent housesitter for them during the summer, when they would spend more time at whatever retreat they needed from a house I was already very much considering the perfect retreat for me. Even then I was really into chickens and their aesthetic beauty and the novelty and wonder of being able to enjoy an extremely fresh egg pretty much at will. I loved that I got to cut a cantaloupe up each morning and give it to the chickens as a breakfast treat. I also have never forgotten that one of the notes about feeding the cats was that every once and a while Professor S. liked to give them a can of tuna instead of typical cat food. I don't know if this was actually Professor S.'s little kindness or his wife's. I'm not sure how I knew it at all. But to this day whenever I"m too lazy to go buy my cat more dry food I make sure I have tuna in the pantry and think of it as a really special day for Zul (the cat).

Well. Things went slightly awry. Though I only realized they went awry after the fact. After enjoying peaceful days and evenings predominantly hanging on their back porch I came back from somewhere to find Mrs. S. back at the house a day earlier than planned. I had used all their milk and intended on replacing it before they got back and now felt as if I had somehow failed and would be judged for this oversight. But, of course, the use of their milk was not the failure I should have been concerned with. No. What I should have worried over was the fact that the turtle had not moved. During her tour of the house and instructions Mrs S. had said specifically that the turtle was in hibernation mode so all I needed to do was keep the heat lamp on it and spritz its back with water once a day, but that it wouldn't be walking around or being active. So, that's what I did and thought nothing of it. Alas. The first words Mrs S. said to me after a very terse hello were basically 'how did you not notice the turtle didn't move and the heat was off?' She was none too pleased. In my defense, it had been an unseasonably warm autumn weekend and I had been glorying in simply being able to sit outside without a coat and had not found the house to be too cold at any point in time. And she has specifically said that the turtle wasn't going to be traipsing all over the place, so I didn't realize that I should have been concerned. Unfortunately, the oversight of not knowing that the heat wasn't on led directly to the turtle's poor health. I left that house unsure whether the turtle was going to make it or not, and meeting with Professor S. for our next session was certainly awkward. I reached out to his wife separately, explaining that I simply hadn't been cold and truly hoped the turtle was okay. I never heard back from her but Professor S. let me know that the turtle didn't make it.

My lack of a photography career is not based on this failure of heat awareness- that can be chalked up to my lack of talent and self-confidence- but it is a definite opportunity that presented itself before exploding into a million pieces. Had I been deemed trustworthy enough to become a more substantial sitter of the S. animal menagerie, I would know more about chickens and goats than I do now. I would have had perhaps a slightly more familiar or strong connection to a mentor who had some definite ties to a community of artists and taste makers that would have been good to know when I was younger and still ambitious about my art. I can't say that Professor S. treated me differently after the incident, and for that I am grateful. But if I had won the favor of his wife and the access to that gorgeous house and flock of chicks, who knows what might have happened. Perhaps Professor S. would have introduced me to an artist in need of an assistant and instead of working at a sheep farm for two years post-college, I would have moved to NYC and lived a completely different existence, the ramifications of which I cannot even begin to cover. What is done is done, but I do sometimes wonder about that alternate ending. The one where either the heat turned on and the turtle never got sick. Or the one where the heat was off and I noticed, proactively called the heater people and saved the turtle from an early death. And, in the latter case, I was rewarded for my initiative and quick thinking with a standing housesitting gig and introductions to famous artists and musicians and a solid entry level gig in the creative class. A girl can dream.

Later on I continued to look to Professor S. as a mentor and asked him to be my senior project advisor. At one point I was flirting with a new photo project idea, one where I would take over the homes or living spaces of others to see how being surrounded by their things and approach to domestic life would influence my own behavior. The idea was that I would take photographs of myself in these different environments, and how the belongings and layout of different places would change my own actions. An exercise fanatic's house would find me suddenly on a treadmill, a non-television person's house would find me reading more books, a  fancy kitchen pantry would allow me to start putting obscure herbs in my scrambled eggs, etc.  Professor S. seemed to find the idea not entirely unpromising, and asked me how I would find houses to use in this series. I suggested that I would send out an email to my nearest and dearest requesting help in that regard. That I would say I would be a free house or pet sitter in exchange for permission to immerse myself in their homes. Professor S. paused, looked up to me, nodded as if to say that it was a sensible approach before - with a little smirk - noting that I should probably not list him as a reference.

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