Tag Archives: happiness

Of ants and orchids

18 Sep

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

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


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

-Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief

Comparing yourself to others stunts your growth

19 Feb

photo: Kingston Images

There’s this saying: When you compare your insides to other people’s outsides, you lose every time.

Who loves to do that? Pick me! Pick me!

The problem is comparison leaves you struggling to stay afloat in a sea you never wanted to dive into in the first place. Instead of learning to swim, you keep hugging the side of the floaty or sinking like lead.

While I’m excellent at faking confidence when needed, lying beneath the surface lurks a tiny inferiority complex. Deep in my mind, people are smarter than me, funnier than me, more creative than me . . . more interesting than me. Mostly I’m bad at admitting this. That’s why blogging was so scary in the beginning.

Hello, honesty, it’s crowded in here. Can we go somewhere we can be alone?

Facebook is easy for snipets of wit. If I were on Twitter, concisely twitty I’d be.

But blogs are personal. You have to be authentic or you’re boring. And even then, you might still be boring (anyone still awake?).

Since introspection is my frenemy, perhaps you can learn something from my inadequacies qualifications:

Your idea of adventure is cooking with vanilla bean. You see a few photo albums on Facebook of your friend’s trip to India/Eygpt/Peru/Bali. Then you read a few blog posts about sailing/mountain climbing/backpacking, and suddenly your fancy dessert or spontaneous jaunt through the woods doesn’t seem so adventurous. You start to feel ordinary. Less seizing, more day.

It’s easy to get intimidated by people who seem to have adventure in their back pocket. One of my husband’s oldest friends climbs mountains and takes breathtaking photos of the world (and less glamorously, our wedding). Aaron’s cousin travels the globe to interview pirates and scribes. My childhood friend traveled frequently in his 20’s and lived abroad. I thought of him today while I listened to a news story about Tunisia because he’s been there too. He was one of the first people I thought of when I needed a travel mate to Spain. On that trip he told me a crazy story about climbing an icy mountain in Italy, flirting with life and death.

I remember in exaggeration so the ice might be imaginary. And the near death part. But my reaction I remember clearly: I never want to do something like that. Danger is not my middle name. But then again, neither is caution.

I love Spain and seeing new places, but I’ve learned I’m meant for small pockets of world travel at a time. My friend, who later ventured to Turkey to study its political geography, always had his passport up-to-date. Now he’s a stay-at-home dad who blogs about PhD parenthood. He has different kinds of adventures now. Perhaps less predictable ones.

This timely moment of happiness arrived in my inbox this morning:

“Happiness is in the taste, and not in the things themselves; we are happy from possessing what we like, not from possessing what others like.” —La Rochefoucauld

Ask yourself whether you actually want to climb/sail the world or if just feel like it’ll make you more interesting at parties. I’m definitely in the latter category. Climbers and globe trekkers are pursuing what they love. We don’t all love the same things. It’s okay.

Happy people are boring? Penelope Trunk has a test you can use to decide if your life is interesting or happy. She believes you value one over the other. She has given up on happiness and everything she writes is interesting so perhaps that makes the case.  When we’re happy, do we avoid potentially interesting experiences as to not risk our happiness? Or do we sacrifice happiness for interesting experiences?  Some might argue there’s a vapid nature to being concerned so much with happiness. I will argue that the pursuit of happiness makes me interesting. Okay, maybe not. But it does make Gretchen Rubin a ton of money. She has a #1 bestseller, after all. I read her blog regularly but it did take me some time to get past the constant self-promotion. I realize this is the point of most blogs. Except mine. My lack of accomplishments is your gain!

Penelope and Gretchen are complete opposites but they are both excellent at growth. Precisely because they know who they are, and they know who they aren’t. They don’t compare. Penelope wants to be interested; Gretchen wants to be happy. I am the greedy person who wants both.

Gretchen often points out that things that are fun for one person are not for someone else. She loves organizing closets while that makes me want to drive nails in my forearm. Or sit on the couch and eat the internet.

Both women are honest: they admit their faults and embrace their strengths. Penelope is sometimes shocking while Gretchen is more subtle but I can relate to both of them in different ways. And they value being nice. Cynicism and criticism don’t inspire. They do.

Interesting projects are worth the work. When I was a yearbook adviser, there were times I wanted to pull my hair out, fire all my students, and stop running a 300+ page publication. Editing copy, tweaking designs, ensuring that each book’s voice remained intact from the typography and graphics to the story ideas and secondary coverage:  those details make you crazy. But the difference between good and great is all details. So each year when I saw my staff surpass the previous year’s book in vision and execution, I knew it was worth it. To see my kids surprise themselves (and everyone else): labor of love.

Then when I moved to Florida and started to worry about not having a job and planning a family, I amped up my research and reading on freelance writer as a potential new job. I love to write but I hate to promote myself. Therefore, freelance writing would require hours and hours of doing things I hate so that I can get writing gigs on mostly boring topics. Because the jobs that are the easiest to get and the most lucrative are the ones no one wants. Technology manuals, anyone? I’d rather organize my closet!

So after a few months of comparing myself to the branding freelance masters of the internet, I realized something important. I don’t want to be them. What they do won’t make me happy. I like teaching and despite its frustrations, it’s a much more interesting and rewarding career than the isolation (or forced promotion) of the freelance writing marketplace. I’m going to stick with education until the day I get a magical opportunity to write about things I’m interested in. Like I do on this blog. So until then, I guess I’m giving the milk away for free.

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!