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Craftlandia

27 Mar

Back in early February, I attended a Buckler Craft Fair in Fort Lauderdale. These fairs are held all over Florida; this particular one was held in the same space as the orchid show Aaron and I went to in January. A few weeks later there was a gun and knife show there. Very different vibe.

I admit, I ventured into Craftlandia ironically. I even convinced my friend to join me because I needed back-up in case they could sniff me out as an imposter. I thought I might need craft cred. Would I have to show a glue gun upon entry? Was there a crochet test? Entry with children in hand-stitched garments required? Mandatory glitter donations?

I walked into the War Memorial Auditorium a professional noncrafter and it felt like that was cross-stitched on my forehead.

Then I started to walk through the exhibits and realized Buckler held a loose definition of the word “craft.”

Bedazzled

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So much to take in.

And the award for Best Bedazzled Tee goes to…

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And so began the “crafts” devoted to whimsical alcoholism.

This one just made me mad.IMGP0040

$5.00 for a poorly painted sign about drunkenness and denial? Is this your idea of custom home decor, Buckler? This is your woodworking?

I tried to move on, but there was this.

IMGP0042 I get that the manatee is supposed to be sad because the boats are making wake and he’s grumpy about it, but after walking a day in his flip flops, I think he needs a margarita. I hear it’s happy hour somewhere.

I feel like this is what outsiders think of Florida: cheap and drunk. On a podcast once, Michael Ian Black described Florida as full of people who’ve “given up.”

I get it. There are those people here, roasting themselves on the boardwalk…becoming beach “lifers” in the way of the older, cynical members of a chain restaurant wait staff. Vacations are meant to be temporary, and when your lifestyle is permanent relaxation, it gives you the illusion of bliss without any of the heart to back it up.

When I worked at the Olive Garden at age 21, I met lifers who never meant for a temporary job to turn into their career. I found myself trying to win over the 45-year old, grizzled veteran who reminded me constantly that I was in her way. She snapped at everyone, and I never saw her smile. It wasn’t until I crashed an entire tray of dishes onto the floor in the middle of the dining room and then amidst seconds of silence, stood up and took a bow, that she ever acknowledged me as a human. Her face lit up and she ran over to tell me that I handled that disaster in the best way possible. She smiled at me plenty after that.

I had a similar experience at the beach yesterday. I was unlocking my bike next to an orange man who wore the small black swim trunks and weathered skin of a lifer, and in my quick judgment, the pointed gaze of a creepy old man. As I mounted my cruiser to ride away, he smiled at me and said “and you’re off again!” His lighthearted tone encouraged me to smile. “Have a great ride,” he called as I pedaled away. Instantly he morphed in my eyes from creeper to sweet retiree who’s earned his beach bliss.

We pass out judgment like candy on Halloween. It’s an obligation to make ourselves feel better. I walked into the craft fair a noncrafter, so naturally I spent the majority of my time feeling better than everyone else.

“I’m a little bit country”

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Look, I’m from a small town in Virginia. My family is from southwest Virginia, which is even more “country” than where I grew up. Biscuits were part of life, but no one real has ever said this. And if they did, they read it on this sign.

Also according to this vignette country people “Cherish the Simple Things.” Like Santa Claus riding a rooster while hoisting the American flag.

And for further exploitation I bring you the following, sponsored by Comic Sans:IMGP0024

Look carefully, bet you can’t see me. IMGP0046

At this point, I told my native South Floridian friend we needed to seek refuge from stereotypes. I found the one place I am relatively snark-free: children’s hairbows. IMGP0032

I dare you to deny the cuteness of handmade hedgehogs and turtles. I bought these for our littlest nieces. They don’t know yet, so shhhh. Actually they can’t read yet, so it’s probably fine to reveal their gifts on the internet.IMGP0061

Fear the frame man

And now comes the portion of the post where I break a craft man’s rules.

Despite the darkness of the War Memorial Auditorium (as demonstrated by poor picture quality), no one objected to me (or other patrons) photographing the items for sale. I snapped photo after photo without so much as a “please don’t do that.”

My friend and I were looking at a series of framed prints. They were of animals, people, patriotic images, famous quotes, etc., but nothing out of the ordinary. No original art to protect here. We came upon this print and I snapped a photo:IMGP0052

My friend then took a picture with her phone thinking she might ask her formerly cat-hating friend who now has four cats if she’d like this. At this moment the craft man emerged from behind the frame wall and demanded that she delete the photo. He pointed frantically to a tiny sign we had missed with a camera and the “no” sign. I apologized and told him we’d missed the sign. Instead of being gracious, he hovered over my friend’s camera until she deleted the photo. He was aggressive and rude to a potential customer. She was considering buying the print and he’d now missed a sale.

Vengeance is ours, frame man. I shall post this crappy photo on the internet for ALL TO SEE!

So feel free to spread this as an example of how not to keep customers.

The Golden Girls

Finally my heart was softened again after meeting two retirees who sold banana bread. They’ve been doing it since 2010.  These Palm Beach ladies had labeled samples, aprons, signs, and enthusiasm. IMGP0049

Banana Nut Heads, LLC’s secret is the nut crust on the top. They have varieties of bread involving cranberry, apple, orange, and the like. I can attest it was delicious and bought a loaf.

The best part of their story is these two friends thought of this idea while having lunch together every day. If you choose the right people to hang out with and talk to them about your crazy ideas, you might just inspire each other to action.

It was a reminder of the other stereotype of Florida: 55+ communities. Seeing these ladies proves that these seniors haven’t given up; they just got tired of being cold. It’s never too late to make a dream happen.

And to close, I’d like to present you this final treasure of the craft fair: IMGP0037

Of ants and orchids

18 Sep

South Florida defines transition. Its very nature is ever-shifting and wild. This makes it the perfect place to rip yourself from comfort.

It is a collision of things you would never expect to find together in one place—condominiums and panthers and raw wood and hypermarkets and Monkey Jungles and strip malls and superhighways and groves of carnivorous plants and theme parks and royal palms and hibiscus trees and those hot swamps with acres and acres that no one has ever seen—all toasting together under the same sunny vault of Florida sky.

….

Sometimes I think I’ve figured out some order in the universe, but then I find myself in Florida, swamped by incongruity and paradox, and I have to start all over again.

-Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief

We have four species of ants living in our house, including giant carpenter ants and the invasive, persistent white-footed ants who form super colonies. As in multiple queens fed by foraging workers who serve more than one mother. The lines between colonies become invisible  since they all share a communal stomach. This means the same amount of bait toxicant that would normally eliminate a colony invading your house is just a drop in the ocean. Since the super colony can extend at least a football field’s length away from wherever you happen to observe it, you need more than a drop to stop the ants from marching like, well, ants.

In this kind of environment, you adjust to having ants around. It’s weird to brush your teeth in the morning and watch them crawling into a Terro bait inside your medicine cabinet, sure. But they aren’t actually stopping me from good dental hygiene. Do they occasionally crawl inside the water glass? Yes. I’ve learned to keep the glass on the bedside table and take it with me to the sink. Adaptations.

I’ve turned a new corner in my transition this year. Last year, I fixated on the ants. I felt them crawling on me even when they weren’t touching me. When I saw them on the kitchen counter, I worried about my food being contaminated. I obsessed over how to expel the current ants and stop future ones from coming in. Every new place I found an ant, I alerted my entomologist husband, as if to say: “Isn’t it your job to control this?” I could have this many ants on my own!

My professional life felt like it was spinning out of control: I had questioned my identity as a teacher all the way down to its ugly, seedy core. For the first time in my life, I was honestly investigating other careers. The merit pay system instituted in Florida that set out to dismiss poor teachers and reward the good ones had given ineffective administrators tools to micromanage and inflict doubt upon those who already practiced heavy introspection. The others learned to get all the surface things shiny.

There is an argument that strong teachers shouldn’t worry about this system, as it’s set out to codify just where they excel. Let me be clear: I have no worries about losing my job due to this evaluation. I’ll keep being “effective.” But what I’m already seeing is mediocre teachers performing to get these marks. They give the kids scripts and follow principals’ fixations on surface elements to ensure that data mark gets checked. I also see excellent teachers who cannot tolerate less than “innovative” ratings because they know they are highly effective and want the paperwork to back it up. While I understand the former’s insecurities leading them to performance AND the latter’s need to have evaluations that reflect their master teaching, I had to withdraw from this battle in order to stay in the profession.

Last year I read obsessively about what was happening to teachers all over the country; I became impassioned; I formed discussion groups; I wrote things. Then I spent too much of last year in misery because I kept trying to stop the ants from getting in. I needed to make sense of it. I needed rational voices leading my people. They weren’t to be found in any capacity that controlled my reality. It started to feel like more than just a bad year to get through, and more like a culture change that was here to stay. The more I educated myself on this culture, the more I decided I was ready to leave teaching.

Those thoughts were so foreign to me that I often felt like a stranger to myself. Thankfully, I had colleagues I respected who saw me through one of toughest years in my career, one so riddled with self-doubt that I nearly crumbled at one point. I had not until last year been treated as anything but a professional. I saw my administrators as my support system, not people working against me and my fellow teachers. Now I am in an environment where from the school-level to the district to the state, I am to be micromanaged. I cannot be trusted to educate myself on the best teaching methods or to constantly perfect my craft a little each year. I need to be mandated down to a script on how to get my students to be critical thinkers. This irony escapes no teachers, but most education policy makers.

The blessings of not having been micromanaged my entire career made me ill-prepared to be treated as a factory worker instead of a teacher. I worked a few temp jobs during the summers in factories in my formerly-industrial hometown. I expected to be micromanaged there; I was inspecting air-conditioner parts–I needed black and white directions on what to do in order to be successful on the job. As much as educational reformists want to make the art of teaching an industrialized matter, teachers all over this country know it’s gray matter. We help mold that matter of our students into useable skills; we help them become bigger thinkers and better writers. Unfortunately, the people who are data-marking us do not always have the ability to recognize it even when they see it because it doesn’t look like the blueprint a standardized testing company passed down to them.

I chose to stop listening to all the noise and listen only to my respected colleagues and my own voice. That voice told me to focus on what’s best for the students. I will take the advice of my superiors when it makes me a better teacher (I am not obstinate), but when it feels like a performance for an adult versus a better lesson for my students, I will go my own way. I will always be rated “effective,” though likely not “highly effective” for this refusal to play the game. I’m okay with that; it frees me up to actually be innovative.

If this system somehow rates me as “ineffective,” then I’ll know it’s my time to leave. Not because I haven’t done ineffective things in my classroom; I have and will again as I continue to try new things that challenge both my students and me. I will learn from those failures and turn them into future successes. Any system that determines that process isn’t “successful” is not a place for me.

Here’s what “reformers” miss: If you’re busy trying not to look bad, you miss the chance to get good. I’m old enough to not be content with looking good; I want to BE good. That’s the same I want for my students.

For now, I’ve found a way to ignore the noise that made me start to hate teaching last year. I know this won’t last forever, but at least for now I’m enjoying being in the classroom again. I have twice the students and half the planning time this year, but compared to my outlook last year, I’m still happier.

Florida has transformed me into a person who appreciates the ants as much as the orchids. It’s impossible to board out nature down here: you have to embrace it. Grass grows inside our screened porch during rainy season; the moat that forms around our house leaks into the guest room. We have to wait until it dries out completely before we can paint the sealant on the house, but it keeps on raining.

Before the swale drains out, the ants seek refuge inside our house again. They eat the bait and feed it to another inch’s worth of the colony’s trajectory; a few more drops in the ocean. We learn to accept the ants as temporary residents and go on about our day. I barely notice them now, as they are much reduced since the initial invasion. It’s the moment I stopped focusing on them that I stopped viewing them as obstacles to my happiness. I finally stepped back to take it all in.

It was in the nature of Florida, this kind of abundance, the overrichness of living things–so many of everything that all of it blurs together and you have to decide whether to be part of the blur or to be a distinct and separate being.

-Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief

What lies beneath the carpet (a prequel)

11 Jul

Before we got all SoFlo-y with the paint colors and even put our gloves on for battle wallpaper, we had to deal with floors. The house featured this indoor/outdoor carpet Aaron shows off from the guest room:

As much as this turf carpeting screams tropical location, we were looking to get down to the bones of 1958 Florida. So we ripped it up and rolled it into the carport, where it was quickly snatched up the next day thanks to a Craigslist curb alert. People love turf!

Here’s what we found post-ripping/rolling/lugging:

Terrazzo floors! For decades, people covered them up with carpet or tiled over them, but luckily, it’s coming back in style now. Cost of pouring a new terrazzo floor? $30/square foot. Our house is roughly 1000 square feet of living space (more if you count the screened porch & shed). Turns out we have $30,000 floors. We faced a time crunch here–for us to learn how to trial-and-error it ourselves guided by the internet, it would prolong moving in even further because the process roughs up the walls some, and that would postpone painting, etc. So we decided to get professional help–there are entire businesses down here built around refinishing terrazzo floors. We prepped the floors by removing the nail board from the carpet:

Then the sparks started to fly. Aaron used his Dremel tool to grind off the nails left from the nail board. When I used the end of the hammer at first, the nail coming out led to shattered floor pieces, so we had to adjust our course. Grind on, grind off:

Then the terrazzo refinishers showed up to grind down the stone to make it even and smooth. Next step was filling the holes with a clear coat substance, followed by polishing. Above is what I walked into once they were finished. The flash is supposed to show that it’s shiny, but since it’s a bad photo, let’s focus on my then-recent pedicure.

After a late night of floor-prepping, we made a stop on the way home at the famous Jaxson’s Ice Cream Parlor. We were there at just the right time. I do not find delicious ice cream worth the long line and parking lot of insanity. But late on a Sunday evening with minimal line and park-where-you want? Perfection. The ice cream-lover in me remembers why:

Home sweet canal

While the view is an obvious plus, it’s not all bliss living on brackish water. On the final walk-through before we closed, a salt water crab was waving to us from the water. Our romantic side led us to swoon “it’s a sign; it’s a sign!” Then we moved in and saw what that cute little guy and his crab army can do to your yard:

It’s all very “we have crabs!” now. That is one hole of many, by the way. But we still love the crab, because when you see him waving your forgiveness is immediate. We also have barracudas, though, less cute but more badass and set to a Heart soundtrack. We purchased a vase from Ikea that Aaron turned into a rotating aquarium by dipping it into the canal every 24 hours to discern what’s living in our backyard.

Wait, is that a jellyfish medusa?

Yes, yes it is. Mini jelly for the win! We spotted puffer fish in the lake around the corner, and Aaron cannot make it through a dinner on the intercoastal waterway without spotting fish.

Behind his head and slightly to the left is where we live. I’m trying so hard not to say “living the dream,” but it does feel that way. Especially when we arrived to dinner by bike. I hold my breath every time I cross over the waterway on the bridge because I don’t want to miss a moment of this life.

1000 square feet of paradise will do.

Start your new life by removing old wallpaper

4 Jul

On July 1, Aaron and I spent the first night in our new house. We’ve been working on it since Aaron got back from Paraguay from his second bug safari (as only I call it.) The day after we closed on the house he left the country, so there was no time to start the DIY process. Despite being born to parents who love to fix up a house, I am the last person to initiate a DIY experience: I will be part of the team, but if you leave it to me to lead, I will get overwhelmed quickly and run away. My last experience leading was in my first house, where after painting my cabinets before I moved in, I called in professionals to install my new flooring. When you’re not handy, nor naturally interested in the process, you lose steam fast. I do not have the stamina for home improvement to go it alone.

This time was different, as I am married to a man who has ALL THE TOOLS. And if he doesn’t have one, he will quickly size up the instruments needed and have said tool before I’ve located my painting clothes. Also, Aaron’s enthusiasm is unparalleled. Give that man a project, and he cannot be stopped. Sometimes I have to stop him because we’ve skipped dinner and I get grumpy when this happens and the reason is wallpaper removal.

Our homeowning journey began by getting out-bid for a completely redone house on a lake. Then I had to talk Aaron out of a major fixer-upper (as in needs a new roof, has mold AND termite damage.) But it was 500 square feet bigger than our current house and on deep water, as in you can drive your boat from your backyard TO THE OCEAN. Our hypothetical boat, sure, but the dream was hard to let go for my handy, dreamer husband. The neighborhood was not great, though, close enough to the interstate that you could hear the car noise from the front yard. There were too many negatives for me to volunteer to live in a construction zone.

Then we found it: A modest house on a canal in an idyllic neighborhood near the beach.

View from the backyard:

It’s a canal to nowhere, but it does count as waterfront property in the real estate listing. After the inspection revealed that our old (by Florida standards) 1958 house was in remarkable shape for its age, we realized this was our house. With only cosmetic changes facing us, I was much more at peace with this venture. “Let’s make it pretty” versus “let’s stop it from falling down” sounded much better to me.

Tropical Storm Debby threw us our first structural challenge after she peed on our guest room floor, as Aaron likes to describe it. After so many hard rains fell in a short period of time, some of it leaked into our house forming a sad little puddle. So that’s #1 on the to-do list before the rainy season delivers its next installment.

Battle wallpaper

One of the ugliest parts of the house was the bathroom. I’ve never seen wallpaper on a ceiling until this Mylar delight introduced itself. 

Brings new meaning to that phrase “look, something shiny!”

My first task was to remove this wallpaper to prep for painting. The shiny layer peeled off pretty easily, leaving behind the glue-y undercarriage that held fast to its squatter’s rights. After spending hours trying to scrape it off using water and a putty knife, we finally discovered this stripping gel that made everything go twice as fast. You spray it on really thick and let it soak in, then the paper peels right off. But I started getting spray cramps in my arm, so there was a price. Then we got the concentrate form which you mix with water into a garden sprayer and it goes on like butter. Now I was working at three times the speed, but in messy fashion: the gel drips everywhere: onto the floor, your face, your hair.

I finally got to the actual wall/ceiling:

Next stop was sanding the walls. Just to show you what a DIY idiot I am, I started dreading the laborious process of sanding…by hand…with sandpaper. Aaron then introduced me to the electric sander and that fascination with power tools men have? I GET IT. I felt like I was controlling a rocket that might launch at any moment if I didn’t carefully maneuver it to blast the rough edges off those walls. It was a little scary (as I had to balance on the edge of the tub or sink counter) but also invigorating. It was similar to when I took a self-defense class in college and the adrenaline led me to punch the padded man until my knuckles bled.

After a layer of primer, and three coats of white on the ceiling by Aaron, I painted the walls in the shade of “arctic stone,” which should be spoken with a British accent in my mind.  This was my first attempt at painting anything other than white on white, so I was thrilled.

I’m sparing you the boring photos of white-on-white action (which we did a lot of, particularly doors and trim, and walls that we learned through sanding had hidden wallpaper underneath. We pretended not to notice that. Just keep painting. Just keep painting.)

Aaron cut glass to fit the medicine cabinet nook, which he is building shelves for and will eventually place a mirror-covered door over. I know the flash-in-the-mirror is irritating, but the lavatory is small, and I’m tired.

Next I took on our bedroom–we’ve decided to embrace SoFlo beach living an do it all the way. Bright colors are happening: lime sorbet for the master suite. And by master I mean minor, and by suite I mean efficiency. You know, quaint.

Our bedroom suffered from an unfortunate wallpaper border, which I eventually removed using the magic gel. This photo was taken in the frustration stage (before discovery of the magic gel.)

Here I am after Aaron made me face the camera while painting (I resist posed pictures, but the other action photos are either out of focus or ineligible due to my vanity.)

I know the paint looks yellow here, but I swear in person it looks green.

Our favorite part of this house is the view from our bedroom window. My first two years of teaching I lived on a river, and my bedroom faced the sunrise over the water every morning. It was one of the joys of my time living there, so this feels very full circle (yet much happier.) Here’s the final product after move-in (with minimal unpacking and whatever pillowcases we could find):

See it’s green when it dries, right? Also note the upgrade in blinds, which will be upgraded again (the ones behind the bed will become vertical also to filter more light on those days I don’t have rise at 6:00 am.)

Rising each morning takes courage for some of us. When faced with the laborious process of removing the wallpaper, it often seems too much. Easier to paint over it, to use a “hack” to find a way around it. Eventually this catches up with us, and we are faced with hours and hours of stripping ourselves down to raw. But by finding the tools to remove the often tacky masks we wear, we find our confidence. That shiny exterior we thought was fooling everyone was fooling no one. It was always too much; people were just being polite when they said it was “interesting.”

But it takes time to get to raw, and it happens one day at a time. Sometimes you thought you were painting over paint, but it turns out to be wallpaper. It’s okay. Take it one room at a time.

Look out! Obvious running metaphor ahead! With lizards!

12 Jun

On January 1, I started running again. Not because I recovered from an injury that previously kept me from the road. Not solely because I wanted to get in better shape (even though I did). No, to get my shoes back on the pavement, I had to sign up to run a 10K in front of 40,000+ people.

Back in the fall, my sister-in-law proposed that we run the famous Monument Avenue 10K together in Richmond, VA (her current and my former home). I ran this same race two years ago (my first-ever 10K). And like every race before that (which, let’s face it, was one 5K), as soon as the race was over, I stopped running. Because I kind of hate it. But I love to have run. And while the moments of pain and wanting to stop are more frequent, I love those moments in the middle when it’s just you and your thoughts and your body just follows along. That feeling of being alive inspires me,  and inspiration in my day-to-day routine was easily obscured.

Since my year career-wise has been a challenge, I decided this kind of tangible goal was just what I needed to focus on (instead of the confusing mess that is my future in teaching).

Beginnings can be deceivingly easy

Once the calendar hit 2012, I vowed to run.

Day one, I ran two miles. The last .05 might have been less confident than the first 1.5, but overall I was shocked at how simple it had been to run two miles out of the gate. My running legs were back.

Two days later, two more miles! The next day? Three miles! I bought new shoes in between miles 2 and 3, so clearly nothing could stop me now.

And then attempts at 3+ miles began.

Then I took at least a week off from running.

When I started again, I climbed toward four miles at the pace of an inchworm going up a Royal Palm. I had two strong runs at 3.6 miles, and then I started to regress and want to stop nearly the entire run, every time I ran.

Mile 4, where you at?

Motivation: Who?

Inner voice: You’re not a runner. Told you so!

The middle’s the thing

When you hate running, you have to trick your mind into liking it. When your mind is willing, your body will follow. The problem is your mind is a stubborn, selfish creature bent on sabotage. The advantage of running over other mental challenges is that the goal is tangible; the distance is defined. So if you want to run, you will finish. Or better put: If you want to finish, you will run.

During the desperate moments of a run when I beg myself to let me stop, I look to the local lizards for inspiration. They dart in and out of the hedge onto the sidewalk during my runs. They want more than anything to stay under that hedge, where they’re hidden from view and feel safe from human feet. But being cold-blooded, they have to get into the sun to survive. So anywhere you walk in South Florida, you will see nervous lizards whipping around your feet, just praying for it to be over soon.

Tiny lizards you nearly smash with your sneakers.

Big fat lizards with curly tails that look like miniature alligators.

Green lizards.

Brown lizards.

All of them nervous.

All of them in a hurry.

But they never stop moving because their survival depends on it. The shade is less intimidating, but the sun keeps them alive.

It’s how you handle the middle, the transition, that defines you. It’s whether you hate it and give up or hate it and keep going because you want to finish that shows your perseverance. The pay-off doesn’t come until the end of the race.

Don’t listen to the real runners who tell you how AMAZING running feels. It only feels that way at the end; they’ve been running so long they’ve memorized the exhilaration of the end–they crave it even when they aren’t running, which is what gets them back out there at ungodly hours of the morning. They sometimes forget how painstaking each mile, even each half a mile can feel when you’re sweating it out on the pavement.

The finish line is the starting line to the next race

Some runs each moment feels like misery: how will you finish? How will you run for another 30 seconds? Some runs it feels too easy, almost like you’re cheating. You don’t feel any serious urge to stop. If those happened all the time, I’d become a real runner. Unfortunately I tend to get stuck in this vicious cycle:

Step one: Train for race. Inspiration/misery ensues.

Step two: Run race. Meet goals. Triumph!

Step three: Never run again.

Until this year when I continued running for weeks AFTER the race. I thought to myself, maybe I could become a real runner? Maybe this will be my new cardio.

Then May in Florida hit and the humidity began to cloud my judgment. Slowly but surely I reverted to step three above. To be a serious runner in Florida, you have to learn to run in the heat. Specifically full sun. Yes, you can run in the evening after the sun starts to go down, but then you’re fresh meat for mosquitoes: layers of deet required. The other option? Running at 4:30 am, which my triathlon/marathon-running friend does regularly. My body rejects this plan.

While I learn most from the process, I need the finish line to motivate me. I am never motivated to start by a process.  I can only reflect on how the process helped me after I finish. In fact, thinking too much about the process overwhelms me and stops me from starting things that ultimately I am capable of doing. This is why running is the perfect goal for me when I feel stuck or lost: the goal is clear. You’re either running or you’re walking: some black and white in a gray world.

Instead of beating myself up over not running because it got too hot, I realized I just needed to sign up for another race. If I knew I was running another race, I’d be out there running, heat or not. Or maybe I’d be up at 4:30 am, who knows? Probably not, but  I’m working on my optimism.  Know thyself, right? I need a goal, a deadline that means something, or else I’ll find a way out of it.

I once had a goal of running a second 10k. Here I am actually smiling before the finish line of that goal:

It’s time for a new race.

Grateful for the swale

6 May

My destination on Monday, May 1, was a doctor’s office in an anonymous looking medical park. This was another step in a process my husband and I recently began in order to discover why we haven’t yet conceived a child. And it’s not for lack of trying.

At first I felt paralyzed by our situation. It became yet another thing in my life that felt in a holding pattern: my career, my home, and now my future family. My reaction to this put some strain on the one thing I never questioned: my marriage. I couldn’t stay at peace with so much uncertainty swirling around me and this caused my husband duress as he started to feel partly responsible. He did move us down here to live with alligators and twice the mosquitoes (and of course termites.) And the bees are mean here. MEAN I TELL YOU!

But I don’t blame him. I blame my personality (ESFP: Extravert Sensing Feeling Perception.) My people are optimists who “live in possibilities,” and too many negative ones do not rest easy in our minds. We are also driven to “meld ideas into a structured format,” which explains my need to write (and let’s face it, teach.) This post is an attempt to attack what I’m bad at (sitting with negative possibilities) with what I’m good at (writing the ideas into words.) If you don’t remember your Myers-Briggs results, find them out again. It helped me understand why I’m reacting so poorly to obstacles this year, when normally my optimism is steadfast.

A swale of a tale

Last weekend, outside my window pounded the third day of rain in SoFlo. Not spring showers, but the kind of unrelenting downpour that reeks of hurricane season. The humidity hung in the air like a ghost as I moved through each day. As I drove down any highway, I was surrounded by low-lying areas swollen with water, holding in buckets of moisture until the soil is ready to receive them. Long after the rain ceases to free-fall, these temporary ponds now havens for water fowl morph back into mere dips in the ground. The water absorbs back into the earth without a trace. The sunshine the state is named for reclaims its place in the sky, and the landscape pumps enough vitamin E into our veins that we forget all about the foreboding, yet inviting nature of those low-lying areas called swales.

It was Monday, day three of rain, as I drove down the highway obsessed with this idea of swales. They flanked every road I drove down, and they started to feel familiar. Ever since I learned this term, I’ve been fixated on it. Swales hold the water in for days as the soil absorbs it gradually. This makes our groundwater healthier, even though in the meantime it’s a mess to be out in the world.

Nature dumps inches of precipitation onto the earth and the soil says “not yet.” Hold onto that for a while. I’m not ready.

It’s only after the downpour that you notice the saturated swales that fade into the background when empty and dry. But they’re always there, waiting for the right moment. We’re just not paying attention.

“Stay off the Swales”

Monday was my third  appointment with my doctor, and every step of the process so far had made me feel better; action defeats uncertainty every time. This time was different, though. Something happened in the exam room I didn’t see coming. After being asked to disrobe from the waist down, the nurse left me to drape myself in a “sheet.” And naturally, as soon as I sat down on the crinkly paper-covered exam bench, my “sheet” ripped in the back. In its defense, it was made of paper, and modesty isn’t really something I needed for what was about to happen.

I was here for a transvaginal ultrasound. And this wasn’t my first time, either. Over my right shoulder, I could see the implement to be used during the exam: it resembled a giant dildo, or “wand” tipped with lube (or “gel” as they call it). I promised myself not to joke about this with the doctor because it would shake her professional nature. But it was so hard. SO HARD! And there I did it without even trying. While I’m in the mindset of a 13-year-old boy, I would like to add that if I were legally forced to have this procedure, I do not think I would enjoy it as much.

After about 15 or 20 minutes, I started to get impatient and realized I need to pee again. They insist that you empty your bladder before the wand action, so I started to plot how I could quickly dip in and out of the restroom before they came back in. Before she left, the nurse had asked if it was okay for my doctor’s male intern to join us, and of course I said yes, I mean, the more the merrier at a vagina party, right? But this meant more anxiety over being caught getting off the table with the ripped paper sheet as they walked into the exam room. Minutes of indecision went by before I finally jumped down and backed into the bathroom just in case. The upside was that I got a new sheet. Which promptly ripped upon sitting down again.

The wait was now approaching 25-30 minutes, and that’s when I really started focusing on the thing I was avoiding. The blank sonogram screen screaming from my peripheral vision. That same screen that I’d seen on TV shows and movies filled with a potato-looking blob and a discernible heartbeat.  The exact screen that becomes everyone’s profile picture on Facebook as soon as they get past 12 weeks. This was the first time I’d seen a blank screen. And it had my name right at the top. My actual name typed in like a permanent record.

I could feel the power of this screen, the draw of this bad omen, and I vowed not to stare at it for too long because it started to haunt me. It punctured a part of me I didn’t realize was there. It was the swale filling up with water after three days of rain: I didn’t notice it until it rained enough to be right there at the surface.

There is a sign in our neighborhood that says “Stay off the Swales.” This very sign prompted me to research what exactly constituted a swale: was it the low-lying area filled with water, or the low-lying area itself? It’s the latter. The swale holds the water in one place to prevent the whole area from flooding. These areas of over-saturation are necessary to protect our safety. The problem is our culture says to avoid them, so we pretend they aren’t there. We put on faces of strength and dildo jokes, but in certain moments the swale gets over-saturated and we have to get wet. It’s there to protect us. Allowing myself to feel the pain of that blank sonogram will keep me healthy and focused on the path ahead, whatever lies in front of us.

It seemed like a such a cliche: a 35-year-old woman who can’t get pregnant and is upset about it. The truth is even if my family is just my husband and me for the rest of our lives, I would be happy. We have a great life together, and no news I can get during this process is going to shake that. I’m not sure I would have been able to say that until I fully felt the weight of not being able to have a child on that rainy first Monday of May.

So, I’m grateful for this swale and the clarity it gave me. I just hope I’ll be able to recognize the next one before it becomes a flippin’ lake.

You have to live it to get it

15 Feb

I live in South Florida, bad driving capital of the South. Conventional wisdom says it’s because of the influx of drivers from other places who’ve all learned to drive under different rules. Or sometimes no rules at all. Despite its dangers, I walk places as frequently as possible, including the grocery store across the street. The other day I was doing my daily cross-the-street maneuver with permission from the “walking man” street sign. As I walked in front of impatient drivers stuck at red, three different cars turning right into to my path (with “green” lights) attempted to run me over. They gave me “the NERVE of YOU!” looks as they slowed down to avoid vehicular manslaughter. I gestured at the pedestrian walking man to prove my rights. They were not concerned. It was all about them getting where they’re going as fast as possible. The only thing that would change that is if they were in that crosswalk with me as 1500 lb. boxes of metal lunged at them with no apologies.

But they likely never walk anywhere, so that perspective shift may never happen. And thus the cycle of impatience and blame will continue.

Nothing truly matters to us until if affects us personally. We might think we empathize with others, but we don’t actually get it until it lives with us every day. This is the strange position politicians are in–trying to solve problems they don’t fully understand.

I know how expensive healthcare is for small businesses because my dad owns a small business of himself and two employees. I also know how grateful he is to finally be on Medicare. For the period of time I had a “pre-existing condition” and paid insurance out-of-pocket while in graduate school, I realized how high the burden would be if I had a family to support as well. But since knowing and living with my type I diabetic husband, I finally GET IT. Even though he works for a major university with group health insurance, he still battles with the  insurance company every six months to maintain his insulin supply. Every time he bargains over how the insulin will be delivered, and how much they will or will not cover, I cringe. I also realize that I’ve been sheltered from the reality of our healthcare crisis. I’ve never had a permanent disease that will result in death if I don’t get medication. It’s one thing to read about it–it’s quite another to watch the love of your life stress over whether or not he’ll have to pay $250 more per month to NOT DIE.

In a similar vein, I recently learned that merit pay for teachers (at least the way the state of Florida is going to implement it) is purely a political move. The “reward good teachers” promise made at the stump is great lip service for politicians making deals with education specialists and testing companies. The way our pay scale was presented to us through a district training is that 6%-89% of teachers will be rated “Effective.” So only those in the 90-99th percentile are even eligible to earn the coveted rating of “Highly Effective,” the only rating that earns you a raise. How that raise is determined is based on 60% teacher instructional practices (as determined by a model sponsored by a paid education consultant) and 40% student achievement. It’s how the 40% is determined that will make your head spin. My district is going to implement this plan before they have standardized tests for every subject. This means that if you teach a subject or grade level that doesn’t have a state test yet, then your 40% will be determined by the school grade (in Florida we get graded A-F based on test scores, attendance, enrollment in upper level classes, etc.)

Yes, you read that correctly. You could be a highly effective theater or Spanish teacher who doesn’t get a raise because you teach in a high-needs school whose grade is a C or lower. Where’s your incentive to teach in a high-needs school? Where’s your incentive to look out for anyone but yourself?

I’ve been coping with a lot of guilt over not wanting to teach anymore. When I got laid off I was a little relieved because it forced me to find out my new path. Then the fear of not having a job took me over and when I was offered a position a few months later, I was temporarily excited. You know, “grateful to have a job.”

Only after several weeks, I wasn’t so grateful. Hello, guilty, my old friend…

It wasn’t until this year that I experienced real burn out with classroom teaching. This is my second year of all-classroom teaching and no advising. Deep down I knew the advising (although with its own stress) kept me from cascading into the reality that as much as I tried to convince myself that public school education is my lifetime calling, I’m not sure that it is. I think it was for a decade, and I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. And I’m not even saying I’ll never go back.

In addition to lacking a creative outlet at work, this year I ended up with a schedule of mostly low-level freshmen during a year when class sizes went through the roof. Everything going out, and very little coming in. Ending your day with 38 boisterous ninth graders who are only in your “journalism” class because they didn’t sign up for history feels more like corralling than teaching. That wasn’t even my worst class last semester.

Fight or Leave

If I knew I wanted be a classroom teacher for 19 more years, I’d be much more prepared for the fight that will likely continue for another five years (or however long it takes people to realize one-size fits all standardized testing is not the answer). Instead I’m battling a serious ultimatum, because teachers who stay will have to fight. And fighting for what you’re not sure you want to do anymore feels awkward. And it’s not fair to my colleagues who know this is their life’s work, the ones who deserve more money and better treatment. Instead this War on Teachers will give them uncertain, irregular pay that is determined by too many factors they can’t control. Don’t believe the hype that merit pay will allow us to fire bad teachers and keep good ones in the profession in order to boost student achievement. This is something I once would have agreed with because the kids motivated me. However, after all the research I’ve read and especially now that I’ve seen how the fourth largest state plans to implement merit pay, I see it for the political ruse that it is. I laugh now when I think how Michelle Rhee was on to something when she said that the problem with education isn’t the kids, it’s the adults.

The kids are always going to make it hard on teachers: that’s their job. When the adults decide it’s their job to make it even harder by micromanaging the minutia of their classrooms, it leaves many teachers with little left to give to the kids. It’s like drinking hot coffee with a perpetual burnt tongue and then being asked to smile as the district and state pour an entire pot into your face. “Teach on!”

When people try to dissect your craft into too many pieces, it stops feeling like it’s yours anymore. It feels more like a Skeksie draining a Gelfling of its essence. And this Gelfling is in a Dr. Seuss-esque slump.

“And when you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.

You will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked. A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin! Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in? How much can you lose? How much can you win?

And if you go in, should you turn left or right…or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite? Or go around back and sneak in from behind? Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find, for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.”

–Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go