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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.

Why I wanted to kill a cat

9 Jan

I love animals. I especially love other people’s animals. I’m a one cat/one dog kind of person. Or maybe two cats and one dog. But that soon leads to two cats and two dogs and then boundaries get blurred.

House/animal sitting is something I used to do occasionally, and it was the perfect way to experience multiple-animal ownership without the permanent responsibility. It’s like babysitting, but easier.

On this 10-day sitting adventure, I cared for two dogs and two cats. Dog #1 (let’s call her Squirrel!) was a hyper, 2-year-old golden lab  mix who jumped up to your neck every time you approached her. Dog #2 (let’s call her Ruby) was an elderly, arthritic black lab mix who only jumped up to your waist.

Cat #1 (Let’s call him Morpheus) was an orange tabby who I was afraid of. He didn’t like strangers, yet wanted to be in the room with me when he was inside. Just so he could stare at me. Or meow in a mournful Siamese yelp.

Morpheus was never relaxed, and neither was I. He would sit at my feet staring at me, but I was terrified to pet him. Does he want me to or is this a trap? Cats can smell fear. If I stood up, Morpheus wanted to go outside, and I happily obliged, allowing him to stay out all night. I feared there could be a Stephen King Cat’s Eye situation if I forced Morpheus to stay inside against his will.

This brings me to Cat #2. Let’s call her Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Or Walking Dead.  DQMW/WD was a bazillion years old and just trying to die. But her owners were not ready to let go, so I had to assist the neighbor in giving her kitty dialysis. Cut to me in a shower stall holding down DQMW/WD while the neighbor (who was also my friend) injects an IV bag of saline into her kitty veins.

If that treatment had rejuvenated DQMW/WD and caused her to chase a feather around the house, I’d be in full support of these life-continuation efforts. However, it did little more than enable locomotion. So I spent the rest of my days in that house praying this fur skeleton did not die on my watch.

The dogs were sweet and affectionate, but stressful. They were jumpers. They stayed outside in their doggie garden during the day, and when I got home they pummeled the gate in excitement. Squirrel! jumped straight up, leading with his nose. Ruby’s arthritic knees wouldn’t let her leap that high so she compensated by barking louder than Squirrel!, which I didn’t think was possible until I heard it. Once I entered the doggie garden, they were relentless, throwing themselves at me like defensive players scrambling for a fumbled football. I was the loose ball.

Squirrel!: You’re here! You’re here! Did you miss me? I missed you. Do you love me? I love you. Please don’t leave again. Food! Do you have food? I need to lick you. I NEED TO LICK YOU! It rained here! I have muddy paws! Smell my mildew!

Ruby: It’s been 8 hours. Here. With this. Go ahead, I’ll look the other way when you crush up that powder into my food. I’ll pretend not to taste its bitterness. Just love me now!

Then I go inside for the elaborate feeding ritual. Squirrel! had to be fed outside separately from Ruby, but I can’t completely remember why. It was a combination of Ruby eating Squirrel!’s food and the potential for Squirrel! to eat Ruby’s arthritic medicine food as a result. Older dog takes what she wants.

While the dogs are eating voraciously in separate chambers, I check on the cats. Morpheus is happy to use me for food, only after giving me a howl to terrify me as I set down his food dish. But I can’t find DQMW/WD. *Heart starts pounding.* I pace the house searching for the potential cat corpse, flashing back to when I found my childhood cat dead in our backyard when I was 10. Please don’t let this cat die on my watch!

I finally leave her food out and take a break from the search. Later that evening I’m seated in the living room with the dogs, who were finally exhausted enough from our nightly walk to sit still on the floor and chew on tupperware. Morpheus was safely outside and I was starting to relax a bit.

That’s when I hear it. The sound of un-retracted claws hammering the hardwood floor down the stairs. My whole body tensed up like a blood clot. DQMW/WD looked like a crippled ghost being hurled down the staircase in slow motion. She let out a death cry that made me ache inside. It was as if she were screaming “Kill me! Please just kill me!” I pitied her as she lurched forward to get to her food and water bowls. But she was technically alive. Not on my watch indeed.

We survived another few days like this, and I even trained the dogs to sit and wait for me to come inside the gate before they got some affection. All that stress of the jumping coupled with the dead cat anxiety was too much: the dogs’ behavior seemed fixable since they were so eager to please. So that evening, I was much more at ease, having stopped the dogs from trying to knock me down upon arrival.

Before bed, I went down to the basement to get more dog food (which was housed in a giant metal trashcan with a shovel scoop). I look to my right and I see DQMW/WD asleep in her litterbox. Curled up next to her own clumped urine and feces. Now I’m no veterinarian, but even I know death is imminent in this situation. *Dead cat anxiety increases tenfold.* Very likely on my watch! I start brainstorming explanations for the owners when I have to call them to say DQMW/WD is sleeping-in-the-litterbox dead. Not walking, just dead.

To my great surprise, that cat lived to see another day, which was fortunately my last day inside that house. She did not die under my care, although I kind of wanted to mercy-kill her.

I love my own cat like a family member. I understand DQMW/WD’s owners loved their cat so much they would do anything to keep it alive. It’s emotional. It’s hard to let go of something you love so much. But in the end that cat was not happy, just suffering, begging her humans to let her go. They just weren’t ready to read the signs.

I understand the owners’ perspective and the cat’s perspective. I’m so emotional when I think about leaving teaching because it’s something I considered doing for the rest of my life. And something I did truly love. Then the last couple of years when a part of me was open to new things, instead of truly investigating those possibilities, I kept trying to resuscitate my teaching career. Because it’s what I know. It’s almost a safety net. It’s the kind of job I know how to get. So when I moved to Florida, I went back to my roots–I wasn’t ready to jump yet. I was giving myself saline.

This year I feel more like the cat: I just want to move on to the next life. At least for a while. It doesn’t have to be permanent: Cats have 9 lives, remember.

There is a third possibility, though: I’m just a mean lady who wants to kill a cat.

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”
― Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

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

Come on, ride the train

6 Nov

August brought me a Triple Crown of anniversaries. One third of them made me smile and walk around in shell-covered beach bliss. The other two thirds left me with brief excitement followed by frustration and more career confusion.

August 21: First wedding anniversary

August 22: Tenth anniversary as a teacher on the first day of school

August 28: First anniversary as a Floridian

The combination of the latter two have me feeling especially conflicted. The 10-year anniversary of  9/11 is the only reason I realized it was my 10-year teaching anniversary. I remember clearly being a brand-new teacher on September 11. I remember being asked by a student why everyone was freaking out over something that  happened in New York and DC. I also remember not handling his ignorance very well. Ten years later, handling ignorance without losing my shit  is a daily part of my job. But there are moments of brilliance along the way to inspire you. Or just keep you hanging on for another year.

When I started teaching, I thought I’d do it for five years and see what was next. Then during year three, I started advising a publication which kept me invested for longer than I predicted. After year four or five, I started to love teaching (and especially advising), and thought maybe five years would turn into ten one day.

Well,  at the start of year 11, it’s  very one day at time down here.  As I’ve started boring myself with my own career confusion, I decided to postpone any future decisions until the end of this year.

Transition is one of those long train rides that never  ends. The train keeps stopping at every seedy station, but you have to stay on the train. It’s not your stop. So instead of looking out the window and counting the miles as they crawl by, I’m trying to close my eyes, listen to my iPod, and go to sleep. When I wake up, I hope to arrive at my destination. Or stay on the train because I like the ride. Either way, I’m searching for peace.

Before a new order can emerge, there is chaos. Similarly, whenever you are about to have a breakthrough you will experience confusion and chaos. Confusion really is a prerequisite state in order for us to have breakthrough experiences. This means that whenever you feel confused, there is something happening within you. —Henri Junttila

I spent the earlier part of this semester feeling like I was regressing, reverting back to last January when nothing made sense, and each day was longer than the one before it. This was frustrating–wasn’t I past this? The above quote I read on Dumb Little Man made me think about my confusion in a different way. Maybe I’m not going backwards, but instead to a new place  I’ve never been. And like all clarity, it has to come from struggle. The kind of struggle that has me in a mental boxing match every week, sometimes every day.

Part of me thinks I’m burned out from teaching, especially in the anti-teacher climate gaining movement in my state and around the country. In earlier times I would have completely ignored it, and followed the “shut my door and teach my kids,” mantra of teachers everywhere. But this year I’m finding that difficult–my heart is with the kids but not in my job. While I still love my kids (even when they are auditioning for the role of difficult student in an after-school special), I don’t find the same rewards from teaching I usually do.

It’s not them; it’s me.

I used to feel so lucky to be a teacher–while it was often stressful and overwhelming and full of work I was never actually finished with, I loved it. It kept me energized and creatively challenged. And my students and colleagues kept me inspired (and laughing). It never felt like a job. It was a community. A life.

This year it feels like a job. Suddenly I have so much empathy for people who feel like this all their lives. They go to a job, and their life is what they long for at the end of each day. If I’m just going to a job every day, I don’t want to do something as important as teaching. Ultimately I worry it will affect my students. And I promised myself a long time ago that I wouldn’t stay a teacher if I couldn’t best serve those kids.

My new colleagues have coping mechanisms I haven’t yet developed to survive the bureaucracy of my county and state. I watch them in awe as they trudge through the minefields of education policy, gritting out smiles even though they witness the effects of over-testing every day in their classrooms. They see the defeat of the kids who have been christened failures by standardized tests since before they can remember. My students define themselves by the 1-5  score on state  testing. The kids know they are 1’s and 2’s and they behave accordingly. It’s much more difficult to motivate my Florida students to work hard enough to improve: they have too much evidence to convince them that’s impossible. And yet, this same system will institute merit pay that will base teachers’ pay on student achievement. When you’ve set up the kids to fail, you’ve set up the teachers to fail eventually as well.

And by fail I mean stay motivated to push through the day-to-day demands of being a classroom teacher. When you care,  you need motivation. And I’ve learned this year that I’m terrible at not caring.

I’m on the train, headphones on. But sometimes I sneak a look out the window.

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.

I think this blog is about transition

5 Feb

I’ve made significant progress fighting anxiety in this new month. I sleep better (though still not enough) and I celebrate more. Instead of begrudging potentially losing my income, Aaron and I started to budget for it. What I learned from my January of self-pity is that transition hurts. And I think that’s what this blog is about.  How to recognize it, how to handle it, and how to move forward. Step one was to give myself permission to be sad. It took me until January 28 to finish writing my last post because I developed an “I can’t  deal with this right now” kind of headache with each attempted revision. When I finally wrote the not-making-fun-of-myself part of the entry, I started to cry. It hurt and I needed to feel it.

What a relief the rest of the weekend was. As Gretchen Rubin clarified for me, I became happier because I admitted I wasn’t happy.  The whole time Aaron was trying to cheer me up, I just wanted permission to be sad.

A child psychologist I saw on TV recently explained how to apply that same technique in dealing with a toddler tantrum. Simply acknowledging what the child is upset about can inherently calm him or her down. You don’t have to give in, just acknowledge.

I realized I’ve just compared myself to a creature that kicks and screams when it doesn’t get what it wants. But when we’re feeling hopeless, we’re all id. It’s not that much of a stretch.

I moved to Florida based on little to no research. I looked at home values a bit but most of my inquiry was into potential teaching positions in the local schools. I trusted my husband’s judgment on everything else since he had lived here temporarily while working on his master’s. I was a move-out-of-state virgin while Aaron was a pro. He may have attended college in his hometown but he followed that up with moving out of the country (Peace Corps), then to Colorado and Louisiana, then back to Virginia to meet me.

While I moved to different cities (okay, some were towns) in my home state, I never got enough continental wanderlust to jump ship for more than a vacation. A huge motivation behind this was to avoid changing everything at the DMV. Which moving-box-we-stuffed-in-a-closet holds my car title, again? Ugh.

Here’s the research I should’ve done, but neglected because I was planning my wedding, packing, and moving. And taking time to reflect on my crafting deficiencies. And without further self-centered linkage, here’s a bunch of statistics.

The median price of South Florida homes in December was $203,700, a decline of $11,000 from 2009. The market in Broward County, if you believe recent projections, won’t hit complete bottom until 2012. Fort Lauderdale values are still on the decline (-13.6% in 2011), which is worse than Phoenix (-12.8%) but better than Detroit (-15.1%). Topping the deflating market is Naples, FL, just around the peninsula from us, at -18.9 percent. This means buying a house on a tight budget might just be possible for this potentially one income family.

In contrast, $219,546 was the average price of homes in my former city of Richmond, VA. That sounds better until you consider that of the available properties on the market, the number of foreclosures almost matches the number of available houses.

Fannie Mae claims the median income for Broward County (2010-11) is $60,200. This was $13,000 lower than Richmond.

Virginians are fatter than Floridians but just barely (25.5 percent vs. 25.1 percent). We live across the street from Italians who coal fire everything on the menu. We just joined a new gym.

Other than the weather, South Florida’s biggest attraction is its diversity: everyone from everywhere moves to South Florida. Ten percent of all American Jews live here. Some have immigrated from Latin American countries, Arab nations, Russia, and even Israel. Unlike the rest of the Baptist-heavy South, Catholics comprise the majority of churchgoing Floridians. 16.7 percent of our population is Latino. That same percentage of the state’s people are internationally born. I know there’s a lot a fuss about immigration (some merited) but I teach many of these students: don’t fear them; learn from them.

Every 8th period, Columbian-born English learner “Juan” strides down the hallway sporting a faux-hawk and a smile and we repeat this exchange.

Me: [greeting him with a grin] “Juan!”

Juan: “Hey Teach-er!”

(He can’t pronounce my last name “Mullins,” since the sounds don’t make sense in Spanish.)

Juan is bright. He wants to learn. The light in his eyes when he does understand a concept hits me right in my gut. This is a kid who volunteered to read Ayn Rand out loud in class: he stumbled through some of the words and  his slow pace might have made some impatient classmates shuffle uncomfortably in their seats, but he finished that paragraph. I get self-conscious speaking my broken Spanish to him and he tells me not to worry, his English “no good, teach-er.”

He doesn’t have the luxury of choice I do.

He writes his essays in Spanglish and his eyes come alive when the topic allows him to write about his home village: the familiar, the comfortable, the known.

He’s in transition too.

Only he’s walking around with both hands tied behind his back.

And what am I so afraid of?

Sometimes being brave is easier when you have to.

Think about your major transitions. Please share in the comments how you adjusted and/or the lessons you learned. My ego desire to learn thanks you.

How to dance your way out of anxiety

28 Jan

Dance Dance Revolution Mat

January 1: A day to start over.  A day to reinvent yourself. A day to pretend you are going to lose weight, drink less, and start an organic garden. Or a day to kick off a two week anxiety blitz with the force of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Two significant things happened to me on 1.1.11.

1. Someone made a serious offer on my house in Virginia. (Twenty days later, the sale closed, thanks to a buyer with cash and no interest in a home inspection.)

2. I played Dance Dance Revolution for the first time. Partied like it was 1999, if  you will.

I love to dance. I have some rhythm. I predicted I might excel at a game with dance in the title twice. Oh how the delusional fall.

The premise seems simple enough: Step on right, left, up, or down arrows as shown, in time with the music.

Aaron, experienced in DDR, demonstrates for me first. He smoothly taps the arrows in a controlled and relaxed manner.

That’s it? I can do that, I think to myself.

Only when I step on the mat I’m a flailing spaz. The anti-smooth. Picture a giraffe with the nerves of a squirrel.

I realize I will need more time in the DDR virtual school if I’m ever going to be as good as this kid. After a few lessons, I realize five-year-old Japanese kids will always kick my ass.

While you’re slapping your feet around on an arrow-laden piece of plastic, a  DJ shouts things like “you’re awesome,” “nobody can dance like you,” or “this song is the bomb.” Except when I’m dancing, it goes more like this:

Me (confused, uncoordinated): “Where’s the back arrow? I swear I’m hitting it!”

DJ (condescendingly robotic): “Try har-der!”

Me (irritated): “I AM trying harder!”

DJ (impatiently robotic): “TRY HAR-DER!”

Me (vengeful): “I’ll show YOU try harder$%#$^&!”

While I suffered a fair amount humiliation in the process (and irrational anger at an imaginary MC), I did complete enough lessons with my fan-carrying, knee-sock wearing, Japanese school girl avatar to unlock a plethora of pop songs by Naoki. Congratulations to me.

Now I’ve moved on to Dance Mode. After a achieving a false sense of confidence on the beginner level, I advance to basic. That’s right, not intermediate. Basic.

The arrows are all coming at once and I can’t tell which ones are up and which ones are down anymore. So I panic and move my feet in such an anxious frenzy that the mat gets twisted and sideways and at one point I actually flip it on top of itself, all to the tune of  Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You.”

So, turns out I’m terrible at this.

And I’m terrible at being terrible.

While Aaron glides back and forth on the dance mat with the smoothness of 70’s Yacht rocker Christopher Cross, I sulk in the corner and wonder why my life feels so frustrating right now.

Getting to the next level is always harder than it looks.

I’ve spent most of January not sleeping enough or not sleeping well. I take at least an hour to fall asleep. Or I wake up at 4:00 a.m. and can’t fall back  asleep, at least not until 20 minutes before my alarm goes off.  Not the one right next to me that pipes in NPR at 5:30 am, the one I bang silent every 8-9 minutes. I’m talking about the one in the kitchen that rings with increasing volume at 6:10 a.m., the one that means I actually have to crawl out of bed and face the day.

Welcome to anxiety.

It all started with my December realization that this whole starting over thing is affecting me more than I realized. As usual, when you think you’re handling things well, you usually aren’t.

Then on New Year’s Day Aaron and I had our first real conversation about having a baby. We had previously discussed wanting to have children but this was the first time we discussed logistics.  Timeframes. Moneyframes. Houseframes.

Yes, I sold my house, but for less than it was worth. And while I’m grateful to be free of that monthly mortgage payment (people in this market have suffered far worse), my -1 year of seniority in my current job does not bode well for building our love nest. That’s right, cutting teachers in Florida is even more hardcore than in Virginia. With 10 years of teaching experience (and 7 years of publication advising), I will be one of the first five to go at my school. Equal to a brand new teacher, age 22.

That hurts.

When I signed a one-year contract, I wanted to believe the words of my principal and my colleagues that they’ll do everything they can to keep me. If only it were up to people who know me.

Who know how much I care about my students and that they actually learn.

How to write.

How to love (at least not hate) Shakespeare.

How to read between the lines.

How to think (even if it’s different than what I think).

How to stop being afraid of themselves.

Oh and I actually like teenagers. I know, it’s weird. They’re so hormonal and dramatic and full of attitude. Until they decide you care about them. That you’re on their side. Then they’re some of the sweetest, most interesting, most hilarious people on earth. And you end up accepting (some) of their Facebook friend requests when they’re college students or (gasp) married and working a real job.

What’s worse is even with such an irritatingly positive attitude about teaching, I still suffered the pangs of transition this year. I left a school of (mostly) supportive and collaborative colleagues who on the whole loved their jobs and got excited about the latest teaching trends that increased student achievement.

My current school has many equally motivated and dedicated teachers but their voices get drowned out by a system that amplifies negativity and over-emphasizes hard times.  My principal who meant to be “real with us” about the upcoming year’s budget cuts at a faculty meeting instead left us feeling defeated and depressed. On the one hand I understand it, but ultimately I expect our leaders to see past it and still inspire us. This is why they get paid more than me.

So while I’m sure people think it’s overly optimistic or “just rhetoric,” I needed to hear that piece of the State of the Union that reminded me my job is important. Hearing our president call for good teachers to be rewarded (in pay and esteem) by asking the best and brightest to become teachers means at least it’s worth a few paragraphs on a teleprompter. At least we shared space with Sputnik. And salmon.

Whether or not the Chief is for real shall be seen but as my good friend Caroline said, “it’s better than silence.”

We’re still planning to have a baby one day (God willing) and whether or not I have a teaching job next year, I will never stop learning. Ultimately my life is in my hands. It’s up to me to make it better, level change pains and all. In tough times, it helps me to remember Goethe’s wise words:

“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”

That is teaching.

That is humanity.

That is life.

Live your insecurities. Then get over them.

17 Aug

Gave the blog a makeover: like it? Tell me. Hate it? Also tell me, but then follow it with “you’re pretty.”

It’s four days until the big day and I just finished a slideshow of our childhood pictures. Such a trip down memory lane got me reflecting in a way that’s good for all of us to do (briefly) Who were you? Who are you now? Who are you glad not to be anymore?

This was when I was the only child. Life was full of possibilities. I lived in the back of an orange Datsun (go with me, here). This was also when my mom wore giant glasses and clothes to match our car. I didn’t know who I was yet, but I look confident (and like I might want cake).

Then I became the big sister and I had lessons to teach: “Take my hand, little Kate, let me show you what it’s like to walk in my red shoes. Since red doesn’t match anything, you can wear it with everything!” 17 months of life experience pre-sister gave me all kinds of wisdom that I couldn’t stop sharing with her (she loved this). 

That’s us years later feeding dolphins at Sea World, my only other trip to Florida until 2010. My sister is happy, carefree. At age 8, I’d already started obsessing over my ears sticking out. Note shaggy hair to ensure coverage of ears.

I had braces for two and a half years, yet this is one of the few pictures I could find where you can actually see them because I refused to smile in most pictures. Before braces, I didn’t smile to cover up my buck teeth. Here the wind is betraying my carefully crafted hair-over-ears placement as well. Ear + teeth insecurity was very serious.

Hello, paisley! 10th grade school picture: braces still on. I look at this picture and want to scream, “Smile, you joyless looking bore!” I smile excessively now for pictures (and sometimes with crazy eyebrows). Overcompensating.

Since the slideshow was childhood focused, I don’t have scans of me from college. Secretly, I’m glad of this (I was 20 lbs  heavier), but the visual would be helpful. The 90’s was the grunge era (read baggy clothes and flannel). This look made people at size 2 look large, so on 6 ft’ of me at size 14, it was unfortunate. Grunge was anti-feminine fashion: at one point I was wearing an oversized, black, zip-up hoodie, baggy jeans, and steel toed boots. I looked like a chubby-faced thug. Luckily I was charming.

My point is not that once I started smiling, wearing my hair in a ponytail, and stopped eating entire boxes of cereal as snacks that my life got better. It’s that I stopped fixating on all the stuff that was wrong with me/my life and started focusing on being happy. At that point everything started falling into place.

Leo Tolstoy (who is surprisingly not intense 100% of the time) said “if you want to be happy, be.” So simple, Leo (as most good advice is). Don’t stay in situations and ways of thinking that make you miserable. So obvious, yet it took me years  to get it.

This self help guy also said, “Most people would rather be certain they’re miserable, than risk being happy.” Being happy is a risk, and as a friend said to me “it’s easier not to.” It hurts in the beginning to shake up your routine and your thinking, but once I did I never looked back. At least not more than twice.

Like Conan,  I  hate cynics. It’s so much easier to criticize others than to change your own life. Or to compare your life to others saying “at least I’m not like that.” I speak to you not only as president of the former cynics, but also a member.

Thank goodness I finally GOT OVER IT.

This will be my last post ’til I’m wed, so until then, be happy!

Shredding my memories

7 Aug

I have lived in my house for going on six years. This is (other than my childhood home) the longest I have lived inside any structure. As a kid we moved once when I was 8. From one house in a small town to another house in the same small town. I mostly remember going through stacks of World magazines with my sister in her new room while we waited for the movers (who were my Dad’s poker buddies) to bring in our clothes. Starting in college, moving became part of my life. It went something like this:

Fall 1994: Mom and Dad drive an overly packed Suburban (thanks, neighbors for the lend!) to college. I see Dad tear up through the rear view mirror as we near the campus. (I didn’t see that again until he and I pulled away from his childhood home when we left my grandfather there after my grandmother’s funeral six months later). I’ve officially moved out and even Dad’s choked up. This was going to be different.

Spring 1995: Move out of dorm, sadly leave all my new friends, move back home. Anti-climatic, but no less irritating. Moving = hell.

Rinse and repeat through Spring 1997. This was the year of epic moving. I moved out of my dorm end of exam week  (for one week) then moved into another Summer Leadership dorm. Moved out of said dorm and back home (for one week) and then into my senior year dorm Fall 1997. 4 times moving, one summer. And in case you haven’t done it in awhile, moving sucks. All the boxes and sweating and yelling at your family; it’s enough to make anyone disown you.

Spring-Fall 1998: Graduation! Yay! I’m a real adult! Moving out is triumphant! I’ll miss my friends, but….woohoo! More like boohoo. Enter mild depression for three months, lose 20 lbs. Move again. (Turns out being a real adult blew, and after brief excitement over buying a bed and a dresser, I had to work at the Olive Garden. Neverending pasta bowls still give me nightmares).  Live there for three months and decide to be a teacher, move again to take a job back near hometown working with children under the age of 7 (with plans to return to Richmond).

Summer 1999: Re-enter Richmond with a trailer of my stuff, this time for grad school: I’m going to teach high school English, people! Party time. Real adult was better this time; I was back in school with a plan.

Summer 2000: Move again (two blocks away). One of my two roommates (both with the same name, different spelling) moves out to move in with her boyfriend. The two of us left behind can no longer afford our rent, so we move into a Uhaul and down the street.

Spring 2001: Holding pattern of school is over, need job. Grad school graduation party thrown by parents ends with sadness. Jobless, directionless, but not homeless–have an apartment on my own & sign a lease…but before moving into said apartment, accept job teaching 1 hour away. Move into new apt. in Richmond for 2 months, then move again into house on the Rappahnnock River (well, an apartment inside a giant house). Third summer as real adult = another two moves.

Summer 2002: Wait, no Uhaul truck? Sure, I hate it here, but no moving? Totally worth it.

Summer 2003: Whoa, I lived in one place for two years. SO MUCH CRAP I NEVER THREW AWAY! Without the yearly purge, I was floundering. A trip to Goodwill solved (most) of my mini-hoarding issues. I had 4 closets in that place (storing and forgetting = cake). I moved back to Richmond to take a new an exciting teaching job at a brand new high school! (And I would advise the yearbook, oh shit).

Summer 2004: After a fantastic year of living in the Fan again, I had to um, move again. This time for good reason: I bought my first house! So exciting and yet another moving debacle, but OMG, I’m a homeowner. Debt and responsibility ensue. Game nights, dinner parties, and I ended an 8-yr relationship while living in that house. Real adult x 10.

Summer 2010: It’s six years later and I’m trying desperately to get every little thing out of this house. I have tremendous friends and parents helping me go through an excess of memories. The photos of who I was, the 401K statements of what I could be, and the [insert where my friend tells me to shred all my memories and make new ones]. When you have a townhouse full of memories, you need to buy a shredder. So I did (with Target gift cards). I’ve spent the last week shredding (and unjamming said shredder), but at some point when you’re moving to Florida to start a new life with the love of your life, you don’t want to carry all these burdens with you.

Memories are embedded in my brain; I don’t need physical tokens to feel them, be them. Every step I take is on the heel of a past experience. I once thought that experiencing a fire would help me to separate myself from my possessions. Not that I wished for my house to catch on fire but I did think of the positives of such a tragedy. Then of course I met people who lost everything in a fire and I’m marrying someone who lost most everything to Hurricane Katrina. I am grateful I was not them. But the idea is still the same: as much as I love momentos and pour over them for hours when I find them, memory is deeper.  So I shredded and trashed far more than I thought I might. And it felt good. And then I was strangely emotional about an TV show on hoarding–while I don’t understand the depths of real-life hoarders, I understand the need to hold onto papers, to evidence of your previous life. It feels like you’re disappearing.

Thing is, you’re constantly reappearing in better form. Young Kara held onto everything. Young-at-heart Kara lets go in the physical sense and embraces the adventures lying ahead. Life will keep getting better the more you can release the past into the wind. I like to think of it as a warm breeze that comforts us when we need it, and cools us off when things are too hot. Like in Florida. Thank God above for the breeze or the humidity in SoFlo would knock me over. And ultimately, that’s me. Easy. Breezy.

Memories shredded, but I kept most of the pictures. Sometimes the breeze needs a visual.


2 Jun

Just as school ended today, the sky opened up and all you could hear was the pounding downpour on the roof. I hadn’t noticed the preliminary signs of this as my students were giving research presentations using PowerPoint (shades drawn, lights off). When the artificial lights flickered on, and my students finished rubbing their still adjusting eyes, I saw the gloomy rain beating down on the tops of the yellow buses outside the window. I had wanted to flee the building all afternoon. Mother Nature would like me to hold off another fifteen minutes. I walked outside around 4 to an embracing sunlight and drove home in a sunny rainstorm: this merely elevated the confusing mix of emotions I’d been harboring all day.

Earlier this morning, I drove my fiance to the airport so that he could catch a flight to South Florida (his current and my future home). Some background: less than a week after we got engaged, he left studying honeybee disease and started a new job researching termites a few miles west of Ft. Lauderdale. Yes, I’m marrying an entomologist and yes, I’m moving 14 hours away from all my family and friends so he can follow his dream. Was this an easy decision? Obviously not. I mean leaving a job I love, the moving part, the getting over the fear of change: that didn’t come easy. Saying yes to marrying Aaron? Easiest decision I ever made. But maybe that’s because nothing about our relationship has ever been convenient: we’ve always been long distance (it just went from 3.5 hours to it’s faster to fly). You don’t burn up the highway in your 30’s unless it’s worth it, so pledging a lifetime to my bug man = no brainer.

And yet with all this excitement and all these good things coming my way, the burden of selling my house and unfinished work have me paralyzed a bit. I know soon I’ll get inspired and become so productive I won’t even recognize myself, but in the interim I’ll keep harboring the clouds that block all those rays of the Sunshine State.

Taken at Dania Beach, FL, in January (This was one of the few times the sun peeked out on a generally cloudy day; despite this post, I'm an optimist).