The Caretaker Had a Gun: How I Narrowly Survived a Grad School Retreat
My recent email conversations with a certain upstate New York blogger have got me to thinking about quite a few things lately: Would it be breaking city code to raise some cute-ass lambs on my property? (YES) Would I ever be able to resist naming and getting attached to every single animal on my farm, making it impossible for me to kill them, leading to the starvation of the entire household? (NO) Have the scars healed enough for me to be able to share my Upstate New York Grad School Movement Class Retreat story with the Internet? (QUESTIONABLE).
But Internet, it’s a beautiful, sunny Friday afternoon before a 3-day weekend, and I think it’s about time to help you share my burden. Because this story? Is a doozy. And if any of my former grad school classmates happen to stumble upon this entry, I can only hope that [after weeping for a solid hour] they will find some closure. Or, at the very least, confirmation that OH MY GOD THAT WAS A COMPLETELY INSANE WEEKEND AND I CAN’T BELIEVE WE ACTUALLY PAID TO BE THERE HOLY SHIT WE ARE SO LUCKY TO BE ALIVE.
Let the healing begin.
So, as I’ve shared before, one of my great loves in this world (besides breakfast burritos and my husband) is theatre, and I’ve dedicated a lot of my life to acting, studying acting, and acting like I’m qualified to do other things besides acting.
As you can see, I’ve had extensive paralegal experience, but unfortunately all my previous employers have suffered horrendous, untimely deaths, so I’m afraid checking my references is entirely impossible. Perhaps I can show you my rack?
One of the more financially irresponsible ways I’ve pursued acting was enrolling in a masters program in New Jersey, wherein I pledged three years of my life, sanity, and money-I-did-not-and-will-never-have all in the name of earning that big, shiny M.F.A., so that I could…teach acting. Or something like that. I really didn’t think it through.
I dropped out about a month into the second semester of my first year, (also covered here) but oh, THE STORIES I have from that glorious 1.15 semesters I spent as a grad student in the acting program. THE STORIES. I still become paralyzed with amazement that some of these things ACTUALLY HAPPENED in a place that was staffed by ACTUAL PROFESSIONALS who were not ACTUALLY MENTAL PATIENTS in an ACTUAL PSYCHO WARD. Although one of them was institutionalized after I left – or so I was told – but more on that later (See? STORIES).
Of course, The Retreat Story happened pretty early on in my first semester, before most of the really crazy shit went down. Before the retreat, things were generally OK – I was mostly just adjusting to the new surroundings and new routine. And I remember the retreat being the first time I actually risked turning to one of my fellow students and saying, “Is it just me, or is this…weird?”, and feeling the flood of relief when her eyes widened and she gripped my hand and said, “YES.”
The retreat itself was for movement class, and was hosted by our movement instructor at his lakeside farmhouse and surrounding property in upstate New York. Actually, let me back up: see, actors have to take these insane-sounding courses called “Movement Class.” Yes, I know, it sounds totally ridiculous, and for me it always brings up an image in my mind of a person being completely planted to the earth with no idea what to do until – thank goodness! – the movement instructor tells her what to do. But movement class for actors is all about “being present” in your body, alignment, breath, connecting with other actors, and all that kind of touchy-feely stuff that artsy people totally get off on.
The retreat was something that happened every fall for the first-year grad students, and all the second- and third-year students would come up to us in the weeks prior to the retreat and tell us OH MY GOD you are going to have SUCH an amazing time, the land is BEAUTIFUL, you’ll learn SO MUCH, you won’t EVER want to come back, so enjoy EVERY BLESSED MINUTE of it, but hey it gets really fucking cold in that farmhouse so be sure to pack a ton of socks.
The thing that sucked for me was that HoST’s birthday fell on the weekend of the retreat, which meant that he’d be alone in New Jersey while I strengthened my core by a lake somewhere up north, so that drained what little bit of excitement I might have had about this retreat straight out of me. Because, believe me, movement class was never my strength, and the thought of an entire weekend sleeping in a drafty farmhouse next to spider nests and doing spine-lengthening exercises was not my idea of a good time.
Again, NOT MY IDEA OF A GOOD TIME.
I can still remember the dread I felt as I climbed into the old van belonging to one of my classmates (who also owned – and could play – a didgeridoo made out of PVC pipe) and settled in for the [interminable] drive.
I think there were about 3 or 4 carloads of us traveling to the retreat – I don’t remember exactly, but what I DO remember is the carload of boys who arrived before us, and who were standing in the entryway of the farmhouse looking completely shell-shocked by the time we pulled in. Apparently, the caretaker had not been properly alerted to the fact that our class would be arriving that evening, and when the guys got there and went up to the house, they were ambushed by said caretaker, who emerged from behind the building POINTING A LOADED RIFLE AT THEM.
We were later informed that the caretaker was “special.”
The kicker here was that there weren’t enough rooms in the farmhouse to accommodate all of us, so a few unlucky assholes had to actually STAY AT THE CARETAKER’S HOUSE. After the confusion had been cleared up and the gun had been put away, of course. But I can’t imagine that anyone was getting much sleep over there.
Our retreat schedule went something like this:
- Wake up. Feel heart fill with dread.
- Wait in line for freezing cold shower.
- Eat breakfast; feel constantly cheated, because for the fat check I wrote for “food provided,” I should be eating motherfucking Belgian waffles every morning.
- Spend mandatory “time on the land,” which consisted of walking alone in the woods, therefore giving bears their breakfast opportunity, and writing in journal whenever inspired to do so (I was never inspired to do so; still have journal, it is completely blank).
- Help out with farm chores. Our teacher gave some flimsy excuse as to why this was essential to our movement work (“It connects to you THE LAND!”), but it was pretty clear to us as we chainsawed through a felled tree that we were free labor, pure and simple.
- Maintain constant anger about the lack of a cell phone signal, which meant I couldn’t wish HoST a happy birthday/weep to him about my situation/let him know I’m alive/call 911.
- Have movement class a ZILLION times a day.
- Remain totally sober (possibly the cruelest thing of all).
I remember trying to make myself get it, you know? I really wanted to love the experience as all the upperclassmen promised I would…but it just wasn’t happening. I wanted to go home. NOW. I felt panicked whenever I thought about how isolated I was, and how much I did not trust my movement teacher. I could easily envision him doling out cups of Kool-aid with dinner while explaining with glassy eyes how this was going to be the best alignment exercise EVER. And I dealt with this the only way I knew how: making jokes, and being a complete and total smartass.
[Let me explain here about something I touched on a bit in the last paragraph: Very early on in the semester – waaaay before the retreat – I got the feeling that our instructor was a little…unbalanced. At first, I thought it was a symptom of him being a total MOVEMENT GENIUS, but as time went on, it just made me uncomfortable, and I always felt he was this close to snapping. He scared me, and after spending lots of time around him during the retreat, he scared me more. Of course, the next year I heard that he had been INSTITUTIONALIZED, and frankly, I was not surprised. A quick Google search reveals nothing new on his professional bio since leaving the school, so…I guess he’s still there. And I hope he’s OK. But still: SUMBITCH CRAZY. Now, back to the story.]
At one point, we were all gathered in the main room getting ready to have another marathon movement class, but Professor Crazytown hadn’t shown up yet. We all sat on the floor in our ridiculous movement gear, socializing and making up for all that forced silence from those solitary bear-baiting walks in the woods. Being the jackass that I am, I started performing exaggerated versions of the techniques we had been learning in class, complete with impressions of my teacher, and a particularly amusing version of our teacher as Katherine Hepburn (“You old poop!”). And then, true to every formulaic sitcom in history, he appeared in the doorway.
Uh…up your nose with a rubber hose?
You guys, I was totally fucking scared shitless. He just stood there, staring, for about a minute straight. Everyone was completely silent. I was convinced he was going to make me sleep outside on a tractor as punishment, or worse. I didn’t know what he was going to do. And actually, for a little while, I don’t think he did either.
Finally, he said, “I knew this would happen.”
Everyone remained silent.
“This always happens around the middle of the first day,” he said. Then spouted off some theory about how being on The Land causes all your excess energy to manifest in unfocused, hysterical ways. He calmly walked to the front of the room, told us to take some time to re-focus, and began class.
So, it totally freaked me out. Honestly, I think I would have felt better if he would have just yelled at me, you know? But no, he pulls some [CRAZY] bullshit about how he knew I’d be doing an impression of Katherine Hepburn exploring her circles of energy right there in the middle of the room. I mean, REALLY? He KNEW?
You weren’t kidding about those loons.
That evening, during another lengthy class, we tried a few different exercises, one of which including a whole lot of dancing around the room. Our instructor, who had an extensive dance background, suddenly stopped us and said, getting visibly emotional, that he felt moved to dance, even though he promised himself he wouldn’t because he had so many injuries. So we formed a circle around him. And he danced.
GOD, did he dance.
There was leaping. There was flailing. There was crying. There was a distinct possibility he was really, really for reals going to injure himself pretty seriously. And there was me, thinking, “THIS IS TEH CRAZY.”
it was even more awkward than this, if you can imagine.
After our teacher collapsed to the floor in sobs and we all applauded (!!!), I escaped outside to get some much-needed fresh air and bum an even-more-needed cigarette. This was when I took the leap to ask my friend if she was as fucking skeeved out by the whole experience as I was. And she was. And friends, that made all the difference.
The next – and final – morning at breakfast, as we all sat down and prepared for another full day of staring at trees, my teacher pulled out his copy of Walden and prepared to recite the morning reading (gag). My friend and partner in fear, M, sat beside me at the table with a bagel on her plate, which was quite the temptation to one of our teacher’s two dogs, a sweet golden retriever (whose name I have forgotten in my brain’s attempt to erase this entire incident from my memory). M sat silently as our teacher began the reading, but the poor dog just wanted that damn bagel so bad, and was making quite a racket with his whining and begging. Professor Whack was quickly losing his patience, making both M & me nervous, but I still did not expect to see what happened next. When the dog interrupted the reading yet again with another of his whines, our teacher stopped reading, reached down and grabbed the back of the dog’s neck, and twisted. HARD. The dog yelped that awful hurt-dog yelp, and backed away. And my teacher continued with his reading.
Did you get that? My teacher ABUSED HIS DOG. My teacher ABUSED HIS DOG WHILE RECITING THOREAU.
“Dude, did you even READ my book?”
That was pretty much the WHAT-THE-FUCK icing on the BATSHIT INSANE cake. Oh, and then one of the girls got food poisoning from eating an undercooked steak the night before and spent the whole ride back puking her guts out. Aaaaaaand…SCENE!
I don’t think I’ve ever – EVER – been so glad to leave a place than I was to leave that farmhouse on Sunday afternoon. I remember my teacher promising us that we would be “changed” after the retreat. And, well, I guess he was right.
Reading back over all that I’ve written so far, I worry that I’m not effectively communicating how WEIRD this entire experience was. Am I? Do you get it? Is the fear palpable? Are you one of my former classmates and you’re wondering what the fuck I was smoking because YOU had a WONDERFUL time, and my reaction to the retreat pretty much proves that I’m just a terrible actor?
Eh. Whatever. Internet, it was weird. It was scary. And it was the beginning of the end of my brief love affair with grad school. It certainly wasn’t the most heinous thing that happened to me during my brief time there, but it was definitely the weirdest.
Although I feel it only fair to tell you that there was one person in particular who I remember really enjoying the retreat. Can you guess who it was?
More like a didgeri-DON’T.
UPDATED TO ADD: I can’t BELIEVE I totally forgot this part, but after my teacher pinched the fuck out of his poor dog’s neck, he turned to M and said, “STOP TEASING HIM!” Did I mention she had been doing nothing but sitting totally still? Yeah.
Entry filed under: And you KNOW THIS!.