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“I want something else”

4 Jan

Our son practicing taking care of his future baby brother, our big “something else” for 2018

This fall we have taken two road trips with a 2-year-old and a terrier with separation anxiety. The first was to evacuate because Irma was predicted to hit our house as a Category 5 hurricane, and we are not the people who ride it out with a toddler with that forecast. The storm later took a turn west and only knocked out our power and shade trees instead of flooding our house and ripping the roof off. #Lucky

When you live at the bottom of Florida, that trip is daunting without hurricane traffic, much less when you’re driving in the middle of the night as one of a thousand ants crawling at a snail’s pace on I-75. Our normally 9-hour drive to Aaron’s cousin’s house near Atlanta took 15 hours–a treacherous trip plagued with no gas anxiety we hope never to repeat, but it was worth the unexpected time Fox got with his cousins, running around outside and sitting on both real and pretend tractors.

Our next road trip was intentional–Christmas in Virginia. We split the first leg into two days–return trip we did all in one shot. After stops and holiday traffic, we logged a total of 16 hours from start to finish in one day, three pairs of pants and two shirts for the toddler, and a hundred whimpers of worry from our dog every time we stopped.

Will this be the time they leave me? Will this be the time we get separated for good? I better whine nervously for the duration of the stop to make sure they don’t forget me.

I heard plenty of “no!” on this trip but also a new phrase that has made the regular rotation now: “I want something else.” He could never tell us what the “something else” was, only that he wanted it. He even woke up from sleeping in the car shouting the phrase and immediately fell back asleep.

Toddlers have a way of reducing adult existential dilemmas into simple statements they repeat incessantly. They don’t think in why, only what.

After hearing this mantra after each snack, each course of a meal, after a truck video ended, after 17 books read twice, after playing with the same toy or holding the same stuffed animal, I started to understand it.

Each of us wants “something else” we can’t always define, even when we’re pretending we don’t. Not material things, but maybe food. (I am pregnant, excuse me while I get a snack.)

While at home last week, we watched old family videos–many of which involved skits, news broadcasts or commercials I had written as a kid and cast my (sometimes unwilling but always brilliant) sister and neighbors in to try and find my something else. Before that, I created my own “radio station” using one of those giant gray tape recorders with the orange button inside the play button that let you record.

Now that I’m halfway through year 17 of my teaching career, that old “I want something else” feeling creeps in again. Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching, or rather I love helping students create something, which is why I’m most content advising publications. That doesn’t mean it’s ever going to be “enough” to stave off that intangible yearning my son articulates so clearly.

Having a second child in a few months will temporarily be my something else–maybe that’s why I’m willing to throw myself into those sleepless newborn months one more time. To watch my son interact with his baby brother will fill me with joy just as helping him navigate his growing world already does.

Yesterday, when I was home sick with him all day, the only moment of reprieve from my illness was during the time he wanted to know if the cracker he was eating was a “nutcracker.” This hilarious question was spurred by an episode of “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” where Daniel had to dance as the Nutcracker Prince after Prince Wednesday became ill. Solidarity, Wednesday.

Minutes later, we were watching videos of How It’s Made: German nutcracker edition. I was riveted but not the 2-year-old.

“Not that one!”  he protested.

Turns out YouTube is bereft of nutcrackers actually cracking nuts. We first found one of a child demonstrating one, but let’s be real, the kid was an amateur and it left us wanting more. Finally, I found a video with a creepy Santa nutcracker intro that horrified Fox but delivered the laughs moments later.

During Santa nutcracker’s slo mo beard wave in high volume wind with dramatic sound effects: “No! No! No!” *tears* *panic*

During videos of people demonstrating nutcrackers successfully crack nuts: *howls of joyful laughter* *hand claps* “Crack that nut!” “Again, Mommy!”

It’s these moments between fear and understanding and confusion and joy that made me want to be a parent. It is not only moving to observe it up close but it makes me more aware of how I interact with the world.

Christmas Eve was our first night in Virginia at my parents’ house and Fox had trouble sleeping that night, woke up a few times crying. We thought it had to do with him being low on the floor on an air mattress and the bed being extra high next to him (so the under the bed space seemed scary in the dark).

In the morning, I asked him what he was scared of the night before and he said “Santa Claus and alligators.” So much to unpack there in the life of my Florida-born toddler but that nutcracker video is way more unsettling when you already have a fear of Santa.

The only difference between my son’s desire for the undefinable and an adult’s is that he expresses it on the regular. He is trying to find what will fill his quest while I am often too busy to entertain it.

So I guess my new year’s resolution is to explore something else, a side project that has always intrigued me but I’ve never made time to pursue. Too busy editing copy or layouts, packing lunches, doing laundry or gearing up to clean out my room (apparently the latter takes a couple of years) to focus on cracking this existential nut.





Show your shame

12 May

The other morning my car wouldn’t start, so I had to take my husband’s to work. He winced when he offered me the car.

“It’s the worst it’s ever been.”

I didn’t have time to worry about that, so I climbed into the front seat, shoved a board out of the way and hooked the handle of my coffee mug onto the butterfly net riding shotgun with me. I clicked on NPR and ignored the empty Powerade bottles and gym shorts with the tags still on them next to me. Before I exited the car and headed into school, I glanced into the back seat to find a halogen light, rubbermaid containers filled with rolled up strips of cardboard, a beekeeper’s veil, and a 4 x 250 ft roll of laminating plastic. I didn’t even open the trunk, but it was filled with at least two dozen coconuts. photo(5)

Later in the morning I received the following text:

“After seeing my car at its worst, do you still want to be married to me?”

My husband was horrified that I’d seen his shame. It’s the same reason he gets uncomfortable if I walk on his side of the bed because it means I might trip on clothes, comic books, empty boxes, a suitcase, or general trash.

The only difference between his shame and mine is that I keep mine off the floor. I prefer to put it in a closet or on top of a dresser.

This whole anecdote got me thinking. Everyone needs a corner of shame. No matter how much we gloss up the outside to look organized and healthy, our humanness dictates that we allow ourselves a place for disgrace. A place we pray no one will accidentally discover. Because if we know they’re coming, we’re going to clean it up first.

What we present to the outside world is often not our complete truth. But we write it as if it were. The internet is full of “how to live your best life!” advice and tutorials. The mecca of these places is Pinterest. If you’re not DIY-ing your sugar-free life of quinoa recipes while doing squats on your Chevron-print rug, you’re not really living.

DIY Burlap Wreath!

#Eat Clean


Homemade gluten-free bagels!!

How to organize your jewelry with wine corks.

DIY Toddler Adirondack chair with Anchor Decal (adult version comes with wine holders!)

DIY Mason Jar Herb Garden

I am not against any of these things separately, but when presented all together as prescriptions for living “happier and healthier,” I carve out a space to eat Cheez-its and watch Oprah in protest. Pinterest has upped stress in the lives of many, but I still find it useful for ideas I turn into reality, especially recipes and home improvement inspiration. The key is to focus on the things you want in your life, not the things other people want.

This is difficult because people present these options as all-or-nothing propositions. You’re either eating clean or eating dirty. Fit or lazy. Crafty and DIY or unskilled and materialistic. Organic parents or mainstream parents. They forget it’s possible to be both at different times. I think it’s because we try to convince ourselves by convincing others.

In my quest for the best workout routine, I’ve found the path of least resistance has been the easiest to maintain. The go hard-or-go-home approach is only sustainable for so long. For periods of time in my life, I’ve exercised and lifted weights obsessively; I’ve become a regular runner; I’ve taken three exercise classes in one day. I could not be stopped. Until I stopped completely. Which happened every time.

Now I’m at a period in my life where I feel like I’m doing the least amount of regular exercise, but I’ve been able to maintain the same weight the best this way. I take a weight and cardio class at least once a week, I started doing push-ups every day, and I cook healthy meals. I walk/bike/run to supplement but it’s in moderate amounts. We use our rare night of eating out to indulge in more high-calorie foods, and we eat dessert more than I ever have in my life. Small amounts at a time, but more frequently. My next feat is to work this kind of manageable routine into my job and my writing life.

While I understand the need to present our best selves publicly, I respect people more who aren’t afraid to show their corner of  shame. Or they’re terrified but go through with it in order to better themselves. I am working to develop this type of openness as I’m less and less interested in looking good and more interested in feeling good and actually being good at something.

When I moved out of my house in Richmond, I was horrified for people to see my “room of shame” upstairs. After two friends helped me start to clear it out, I felt more motivated to cipher through the rest of the house. By showing them my shame, it removed the stigma and I was able to move forward. Me seeing my husband’s car motivated him to clean it out and get the air-conditioning fixed just a week later.

I’ve been mulling over this post for the past couple of weeks (and not writing it), then today I watched a Creative Mornings talk author Austin Kleon gave in Austin, Texas. His talk is about showing your work online instead of waiting until the perfect finished product is unveiled. His talk is about honesty in the creative process. His talk is very similar to what I wanted to write this post about. He has an insanely bigger internet audience than I do, but I like to think my emphasis on shame over work makes this unique?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been interviewing people about their transitions in life, and by slowly understanding how people overcome obstacles, be they self-inflicted or outwardly-inflicted, I’m getting a deeper understanding of how to actually cut away what you don’t want in your life.

I believe you have to cut away to create.

You can’t create anything while hiding in your corner of shame.

2012 was a year of lies

20 Feb

In third grade it was clear I was a procrastinator. Not only did I get my first C because I put off learning math, but I stayed up later than my parents NOT doing my homework. I was working on a research project on President Nixon one night that year when my dad tried to rescue me. I can still picture him standing over my white desk (that also flipped up into a high chair) trying to explain Watergate to me. I looked up at him, nodding, my mind fixated on the opposite of wiretaps. Eventually, I created a collage of Nixon’s presidency using rubber cement. It LOOKED great, but I doubt I was clear that Watergate was the name of the hotel.

Patching problems became my second nature, and so began my long-practiced craft of applying band-aids to temporarily fix situations. Once the pain stopped, I rarely took the time to heal the faulty process that led to the wounds. It’s much easier to buy more band-aids. This carried into the smallest behaviors of my life:

I bought new underwear instead of going to the laundromat.

When I couldn’t decide what groceries to buy for dinner, I got take out or had many sad “whatever is in the fridge meals.” The worst of which was green beans with onions. Raw onions.

I put off dealing with the reality of a relationship for years too tedious to count.

I moved the same unpacked boxes from apartment to apartment to house.

(Try not to trip over that baggage metaphor.)

I just kept purchasing those beige, adhesive warriors in bulk at 24-hour pharmacies.

I’m not too hard on myself now because I know this is not unusual: patching the surface to get by is more the norm than the exception. (Lie #1 I told myself.)

Something about moving to Florida and getting distance from the usual comforts forced me to take more action on the root of things instead of patching the side effects. Someone very close to me participates in a 12-step program, and while I don’t need the program for addictions, the tenets have proved helpful in my own search to live life more deliberately and less reactionary.

Lie #2: I don’t have my shit together enough to cook real meals every night.

This  turned out to be a true lie. At my most organized, I cooked maybe three times a week. That merited celebration; mostly, I considered myself a food-preparer. Or a taker-outer. Or a throw-a-party-to-inspire-cooking-er.

I wanted to cook at home because I knew it was healthier, less expensive, and more satisfying than the-dinner-less-planned.

Inspired by my sister who preps and shops for her family of five on the weekends, I vowed to do the same. We are two people with a cat: it’s a little embarrassing if we can’t figure this out.

In order to be a person who cooks every night, I had to learn to be a person who plans to cook every night. This meant sitting down every weekend and churning those collected recipes on Pinterest into a menu, and transforming that menu into a grocery list. Going to the grocery store only once a week meant we couldn’t talk ourselves out of cooking because everything we needed was right there in our refrigerator.

Also, once a week? At our old apartment, people at our local Publix started to know us because either Aaron or I was there Meal planning  equaled phone calls after work to each other asking who was going to deal with that mess?

Now we cook 5-6 nights a week, save money, and wear smaller pants.

Issues of frugality and health aside, cooking is creating. By doing it regularly, I experiment with ingredients I’ve never used, and methods that once intimidated me. I’m on month seven of being a cooker, and I love the process as much as the end result.  But there are times I hate it and it feels like work, just like writing. I used to wait until I was inspired to cook; now I do it as habit.

Since no one is asking me to write, I have to boss myself around.

Note to self: I am stubborn and refuse to listen.

Truth of 2013: Inspiration is temporary; write at least a paragraph every day.

Lie #3: I want to run a half marathon.

My college roommate and her fiance traveled down here to run a half marathon this past weekend so I thought maybe it was a sign that I was ready go from 6.2 miles to 13.1. One of my colleagues and neighbors is a long-distance runner and was even willing to help me train. But it was still an “I want to want to run 13 miles” situation. I threw myself into the process for weeks at times, then I took breaks and had to restart again. My last push came during my winter break from school and the week afterwards. I ran in Virginia in 20-degree temps, undaunted. I returned to run in Florida at 80 degrees in full sun with humidity, and motivation started to wane. Then I got sick for 7+ days and it was over. There just wasn’t time to want the things I didn’t really want to begin with.

Wanting what other people want never works. Actually, working towards something you think you want never works either.  I wanted to run two 10K’s, and I ran them, the second one faster than the first. Eventually, I might want to run a half marathon. That time is not now; it’s fine.

My 30’s have been a decade of learning the difference between what I want and what I think I should want. The difference between what fulfills me and what fulfills other people.  Running for longer than an hour at a time does not complete me.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

–Theodore Roosevelt

Truth of  2013: Run at least once a week, even when I don’t want to.

Lie #4: Self-discipline is a breakthrough, not a long-term battle.

This lie screamed the loudest. My procrastination habits had always crippled me without deadlines. Too often I allow distractions to shift my focus; it’s a lifelong battle to manage them. In 2012, I imitated a home DIY-er, an amateur sous chef, a real runner, a regular reader and writer, and a motivated teacher who grades essays in a timely fashion.

Home projects accomplished in 2013: Zero.

Miles run in 2013: 20 in one week then a steady zero.

Meals cooked in 2013: 35 (The system works!)

Books read in 2013: Zero.

Blogs/articles/podcasts/animal videos that distracted me from reading books in 2013: ALL OF THEM.

Oscar-nominated films seen in 2013: Three.

Papers graded in 2013: 3.14156 per hour over the square root of it never ends.

Finished pieces of writing: Zero. Not even this blog post started in 2012.

Pieces of writing worth your time: Zero (see # of books read in 2013).

Muses are fickle so I have find a way to freedom through self-flagellation. And so ends my mid-February New Year’s Resolutions post: cheers to the liars!

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.

Big picture unclear? Focus on interactions.

1 Jan

When your career goals have become amorphous, clear pathways seem elusive. While my attempts to “pray the gray away” have been unsuccessful, I hope that ignoring it completely will make everything better. Instead of fixing what’s muddy, I will focus on my day-to-day interactions that mean something.

1. Your presence means more than you think.

I traveled to Pueblo, Colorado, this past weekend for my grandfather-in-law’s funeral. I thought I was going for my husband, but when my mother-in-law hugged me with the same force my own mother would hug me in those circumstances, I knew I was really there for the whole family. While there I also learned that my sister-in-law (while living in Hawaii) made six trips in one year to the mainland–all the way east to Virginia. And for a couple of years with a small child. That shows her family is important to her. She showed up all the time, even when it meant three flights across the continental US. Even when everyone would have understood why she didn’t.

Does this mean we should make that 14-hour drive to Virginia more than we already do? Crap, it probably does.

Be there for the people who are important to you: it may be inconvenient, but you’ll never regret it. 

2. Traditions hold us together, even when we don’t understand them. 

Several years ago my friends had their wedding reception at a Masonic Temple behind their house. During the event, we all made jokes about this “secret society” and its mysterious traditions, but while in Pueblo I got new insight into the individuals that form this “cult.” My husband’s grandfather was not only a World War II veteran, but ascended to the 32nd level of the Masons as a Shriner. Until he got too sick to do so, he had coffee every Friday morning at the local lodge. Those same coffee buddies were pall bearers at the internment, and performed funeral rites over his coffin.

Earlier I had asked my husband casually and ignorantly, “why are they wearing aprons?”  My husband responded, “I don’t think we’re allowed to know.” We chuckled a bit.

Twenty minutes later I was watching the “worshipful master” drape that same apron over the coffin with such reverence that it moved me. He then handed a single rose to my mother-in-law and her twin sister, expressing his grief over their fallen brother. He looked them both in the eyes and I could see this was more than a ritual. A man easily in his 90’s grasped those roses the entire service, shaking every so slightly. He kept looking for his time to hand over the roses. He didn’t want to miss a beat. His patient and humble service reminded me of my own grandfather.

The brotherhood of the Masons, however mysterious, was a second family to my husband’s Papa. Sure, “worshipful master” as a title still creeps me out, but “worshipful master” the man meant it when he said, “please let us know if there’s ever anything we can do for you.”

Don’t be surprised to find inspiration in unsuspecting places. 

Note: After reading about the Masons, I am more confused than ever (I think that’s intentional), but I did learn that the apron symbolizes “honorable labor.” Take from that what you will.

3. You own your attitude. 

My biggest fear in staying in public education is that I will let the avalanche of bureaucracy and bad decisions affect my teaching. This is new territory for me: I’m usually hope’s annoying cheerleader. It just goes to show you that enough “trickle down” can bruise anyone’s face. But that’s no excuse for me to play the victim: I have to keep fighting my way out of it.

My school has over 3, 000 students; my county is the sixth largest in the country; my state is the fourth largest in the United States. No wonder I’ve struggled to adjust: it’s much more difficult to have human-to-human conversations in a system that large. It’s all policy spoken at us by robots masquerading as humans. And the “humans” are usually talking to us through video clips or emails written in red Comic Sans.

I can’t let that insanity change me in the end. “The only thing they can’t change is my attitude.” My husband’s friend (also in education) reminded me of that over the holidays, and it has stayed with me.

It’s small moments that remind me I’m not a total failure this year. One of my students has started withdrawing from class more than usual, and meeting me with attitude when I ask her to do the smallest thing like open her book. It would be easy to group her in with the faction of my class who is on academic strike, but something made me hold her after class to find out what was going on. Even though she didn’t reveal much, she almost smiled at the idea that I’d noticed. She even asked me what she could do to undo her falling grades. The next period, her friend (who saw me keep her after class) told me this girl had been having family problems. So maybe it helped both of them to see that I noticed and cared to ask. It was a good reminder for me that each child is different, and while I can’t save them all, if I focus on personal interactions, at the very least my students might emerge feeling less jaded with the system than before. And maybe I will too.

Your attitude can save your life. 

Go ahead, contradict yourself

28 Nov

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)                                       –Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

To remove judgments is one of my biggest challenges in my quest for enlightenment. Since I have such a deep memory, I’ve pointed out my loved ones’ contradictions far too often. “Just six months ago, you said XYZ, and now you’re saying ZXY. What do you even believe?” Perhaps I should have considered a career as a political journalist. That annoying habit would finally come in handy.

Since I value genuine people with principles, I used to view contradiction as not holding on to one’s principles. Even though I was flip-flopping all the while. You can’t see yourself in the mirror clearly: it’s always at an angle and reversed. So when I was staring at everyone else, I saw every wrinkle, every blemish. When I listened to them speak, I heard every misplaced sigh, voice crackle, and could compare old tapes with new tapes. I couldn’t hear myself because I was so busy talking. AND BEING RIGHT.

Over the years, I’ve learned to value contradiction. The more we learn, the more we change our minds about things we so vehemently believed prior. We didn’t have all the information before, or we lacked an important perspective when we formed that passionate opinion. Sure there are clear-cut lines in our world and a place for black and white thinking. For example, we all agree ethnic cleansing and child molestation are wrong, but there are few issues that can be reduced to pure good vs. evil. Life is easier when it’s a superhero world of good guys vs. bad guys, and it’s popular during election season–black and white campaign promises get the loudest cheers. People want something to fix their problems, to un-muddle their confusion. Black and white solutions are appealing for exactly those reasons. Wallowing in gray area just makes us feel more overwhelmed. At least at first. But if you study the gray long enough, clarity emerges. In teeny, tiny pieces at a time.

I recently started to grapple with my own contradictions because of my current feelings over my career. If you ask any of my former colleagues they would likely tell you I was one of those annoyingly-positive teachers who did not sweat the daily irritations of my field. Someone who approached teaching with an open mind. Someone who believed most obstacles could be overcome. Someone who cared deeply about the success of my students. Now I see someone  who is only partially those things. So all those old feelings of “how long will I stay a classroom teacher” have resurfaced and gained strength. At first I was disappointed in myself because I viewed not wanting to be a regular classroom teacher for the rest of my life as giving up. On the system, on myself, and ultimately on the kids. That last little devil gets me. All you teachers out there who want to give me the “stay a teacher” speech, don’t worry, I know it by heart. I’ve given it several times myself. And that’s why it’s such an emotional subject for me. Because even at my lowest point, I have not stopped caring about my students. I’m not the jaded teacher who believes the next generation is doomed. Here’s a very long post on my optimism if you have some time to kill.

Since I’ve taken up residence in this career crossroads, I’ve developed even more empathy for my fellow teachers. Their dedication to education inspires me every day. They’ve made it harder for me to consider leaving for other pursuits because I’m so honored to be part of them. Contradiction at work again: I want to want to stay teaching because I believe my job is important, but my heart is somewhere else right now. It may come back to the classroom, or it may follow my other interests. Either way, I am grateful to live in the gray until the lines seem less blurry.

“Clear eyes. Full heart. Can’t lose.”

–Coach Taylor, Friday Night Lights

What Sade (and LL Cool J) taught me about comebacks

29 Aug

My husband and I saw Sade back in July. It was pricey but worth it. After all, we loved Sade enough to dance the first dance at our wedding to one of her songs. We got the chance for a live encore in our new city. Like we were supposed to NOT GO?

In case you are too young or too hip to know who Sade is, listen to 80’s saxy Sade, 90’s mermaid Sade, and 10’s drumline Sade.  If you don’t know who LL Cool J is, I’m just sorry. But ladies do love cool James. (And angry jams.)

We live our lives coming back from one thing or another: a career change, the end of a long relationship, the death of a loved one, a severe illness, or a natural disaster. Something knocks us out for a while and we spend our days climbing off the mat, figuring out if we even want to get back in the ring.

You start seeing the darkness as the light–it feels warm and it looks strangely comforting. So instead of getting the hell out of there, you embrace the negativity–you sprint toward it like it’s the holy grail. Only it’s the one that will eviscerate you if you drink from it. It’s only then you learn that you “chose poorly.” Only you can’t learn that because you’re a pile of Nazi rubble.

We all find comfort in negativity at times. The trick is not to let yourself stay there if you want to come back.

“One thing I know is that positive things don’t happen if you’re in a negative frame of mind.” (Sade Adu to Jet Magazine)

I recently had to come back from getting laid off, which put me into a career backslide I didn’t expect. This surprised me because I knew I was likely to lose my job. I thought that would make it suck less to actually lose it. I was a fool. Just like all of us who think we’ll handle everything awesomely until we don’t. After a summer of waiting and confusion, I’m back in the classroom trying find my inner teacher again.

My other attempted comeback involves fitness. Or redirecting my year of ignoring it. There’s always a strong dose of humility involved in restarting one’s physical fitness (and a dozen negative-thinking landmines to try and sabotage you along the way). Again I turn to Sade’s history.

A talented British band found Nigerian-born singer Sade Adu.  After all, gorgeous front woman = success (usually). Turns out Sade was shy on stage but passionate about songwriting. Despite pressure from record companies to lose her band (led by the talented Stuart Matthewman), Adu refused to sign without them. She won and 1984’s Diamond Life began a long, though sometimes intermittent career for the band Sade.

The reason Sade is able to come back over and over again is because she stopped listening to negativity. After working through a failed marriage, she disappeared from the music scene for a while and rumors swirled about her mental health, and potential heroin addiction. At that point she stopped reading the press releases and worked on herself. When you take 8 and 10-year breaks between albums, people start to talk. But the more I read about Sade, the more I understand it. The creative process is so draining, and if you don’t take time away from your work to fuel your work, the break-neck, life-stealing pace of modern life will eat your soul.

“You can only grow as an artist as long as you allow yourself the time to grow as a person,” Sade says. “[My bandmates and I are] all parents, our lives have all moved on. I couldn’t have made Soldier of Love [2010] any time before now, and though it’s been a long wait for the fans – and I am sorry about that – I’m incredibly proud of it.” (Sade Adu)

This is where our philosophies align. I work better in cycles: a time for work, a time for less work, more reflection. Which is why I loved teaching for so long: the beginning and ending of school years give you that time to recharge and be awesome again for your students.

Then I started thinking I didn’t love it and then people told me I couldn’t do it anymore. Maybe. Probably. Maybe not. I have recently been rehired as a teacher at my old school for one year because another teacher left. But she might come back next year. Or she might not. In the meantime I am trying my best to motivate my new freshmen to succeed, but I have my work cut out for me this time. Instead of helping most students enhance their writing or perfect their diction and style, I will be helping some of them just write a sentence. It requires a different mindset, but it’s no less important.

On the fitness front, some days it’s a struggle to make the time to go to our new gym. And do as much as it takes to actually get my muscles back while I’m there. One big helper has been the Kindle: by combining gym time with reading time, I’m much more fulfilled. Granted, I had difficulty reading Tolstoy while my heartbeat climbed to 180 beats per minute, but once I switched to young adult science fiction like The Hunger Games series and the now-a-movie The Help, I’m a master of efficiency. Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants is up next.

But I must not be doing as well as I thought because a woman approached me at the gym today to offer me a free makeover. Thank you? I said no mostly because she looked like she had a frequent knifer card from a plastic surgery mill. But anyone who approaches me while I’m stretching is scary. Sadly, this is not my first time. People, please learn gym code!

Lately I’ve been more optimistic about my comebacks. I have precedents to reflect on.

I’ve neglected my fitness before and come back in better shape (and turned myself into enough of a runner for a 10K). I’ve also become disillusioned with  my job before and found my inspiration again.

So don’t call it a comeback. I’ve been here for years.

Mad Pen: a blog year in review

24 Jun

In the Mad Men season four finale, Don Draper’s steady girlfriend Faye tells him (after he dumps her to marry his secretary): “I hope she knows you only like the beginnings of things.”

I’m a little late to the season four party (thank you, Netflix), and while that kind of writing certainly keeps me watching, it’s also given me a chance to realize that I’ve surpassed the blogging honeymoon period: I’ve maintained this blog (while at times only monthly) for over a year now. While almost everything has changed since my first post, many things have come full circle. A year ago, I worried about finding a new job once I moved to Florida.  After getting a new job that I have now been laid off from, I’m hearing a familiar soundtrack.

As this blog is about transition, here’s a closer look at mine over the past 365+ days of navigating my way through change:

Pre-blog landmarks:

September 2008: Met Aaron at a mutual friend’s wedding in Blacksburg, VA; long-distance relationship ensues.

January 2010: Aaron applies for job in Fort Lauderdale, says he won’t move without me, or ask me to move without a “bigger commitment.”

March 2010: After a request from Aaron, I get sized for an engagement ring in New York City (was there for a journalism conference with students); Aaron accepts job in Ft. Lauderdale; I tell my principal I’m leaving at the end of school year; principal cries (not really, but I like to think he did on the inside).

April 2010: Aaron asks me to marry him over my Spring Break in Blacksburg (yes, please!); Aaron moves to South Florida (aka SoFlo); decide on August wedding; planning commences.

A blog is born

June 2010:  I create blog to maintain sanity; write through gloom and more gloom; end bittersweet school year; visit Aaron in Florida and suddenly moving there (here) becomes real (cut to me crying on a golf cart).

July 2010: Start cleaning out my house of six years (emotional roller coaster ride unleashed); try to be a low-maintenance bride.

August 2010: Engage in some pre-wedding self-deprecation, and then some more; get married in Virginia; move all our possessions into a truck for a 15-hr-driving honeymoon to SoFlo.

September 2010: Return to Virginia for final house-on-market preparations and cleaning (and to pick up my car); reunite with childhood penpal (fresh from the Alps); parking garage beats me in hand to hand combat; search for new teaching job in Florida and pretend to be a housewife by baking a pie.

October 2010: Land and begin new teaching job; meet new and awesome teacher friends; adjust to educational politics in the Sunshine State (standardized testing on steroids); my parents visit their old vacation spot (which is now our home).

November 2010: Spend Thanksgiving in Richmond with Aaron’s family and my friends; continue to survive Florida drivers.

December 2010: Learn that when you communicate effectively, marriage is less compromise, more growth; spend Christmas in Virginia with my mom, dad, sister and family, Aaron’s parents, and our hometown friends.

January 2011: New year, new challenges: Transition sucks. And then some. What’s this positivity you speak of?

February 2011: Realize I’ve stopped comparing myself to others; celebrate six-month-a-versary right after Valentine’s Day (which was accidentally incredible); forget every monthly anniversary after this, despite our best efforts.

March 2011: Get fired up about blogging teacher who got publicity for all the wrong reasons; Aaron’s sister and family visit during Spring Break and we are reminded of why we want (yet fear) children.

April 2011: Survive my first voluntary crafting project;  forget the rest of the month because I didn’t blog about it!

May 2011: Get laid off from job, then can’t stop writing about it;  Aaron leaves the country to fulfill a childhood dream; I try to do my best despite challenging circumstances; rely on strengthening friendships with grounded colleagues to see me through.

June 2011: Aaron returns home with Ecuadorian roses; I end another bittersweet school year, this time on the beach with beer; Aaron and I take our first cruise (to the Caribbean); I start cooking again (every day, with mangoes, which have taken over our lives).

* * * * * *

So it turns out I’m more than just beginnings. I relate more to Birdee Pruitt from the movie Hope Floats than I do to the stylized and trendy Don Draper. No surprise, Don is pretending to be someone he’s not while Birdee is growing into her true self. She says to her daughter: “Beginnings are scary, endings are usually sad, but it’s the middle that counts the most.”

It was the middle of this blogging year when I realized no matter how scary the beginning was, or how sad the end becomes, this adventure is helping me grow. Because in the worst of times, I have the best of what matters.

Don’t fear or bank on beginnings: sometimes they’re exciting; sometimes they’re terrifying; but they’re always temporary.

For the first time in months, I’m content with transition. I’m happy with my middle.