Tag Archives: rain

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

Grateful for the swale

6 May

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

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

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

A swale of a tale

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

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

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

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

“Stay off the Swales”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Austrian Penpal

17 Sep

Last week I returned to Richmond, VA for a few days to do a final cleaning of my house and to reclaim my car (which I spent all of Monday driving 14 hours in from VA to SoFlo: a drive that is about 300 miles too long).

The weather in Virginia was 70’s-blue-skied happiness. The entire drive once I got deep into the Carolinas: sunshine for miles (and miles and miles and miles). Even the Sunshine State lived up to its name.

Then Tuesday happened. I woke up to the reality of tropical climate during hurricane season. Meet our parking canal:

No, that’s not my car, but a brave soul in an SUV trying to drive through a river. I gasped as I watched this from my balcony. Then promptly snapped a photo.

Here’s my parked car as another nearly hits it trying to navigate the canal:

Our friendly Haitian waste management professional told us one of the ground level apartments in another building had water filling half their apartment. Thank you, second floor!

And that concludes today’s weather segue. And now  I give you the first half of 9/9/10: a day so overstuffed that it needs two posts. I tried it with one post, but even my attention span couldn’t keep up.

Mission: Drive to DC to meet childhood Austrian penpal Sabine for the first time EVER. (Condensed backstory: we wrote back and forth starting in the fourth grade until college, then lost touch. 15 years later she found me on Facebook. A year and some months later she conveniently went on a two week vacation in the US which included a stop in our nation’s capital that overlapped with my return-to-VA-to-clean-my-house mission.)

The Complications: Apparently my Verizon Wireless plan doesn’t allow me to make international calls, but it can receive them from Austrian cell phones. So, super convenient. This thwarted our plan to meet at Potomac Mills just hours after I landed at the Richmond airport, as I missed her first call. Several attempts to call, text, Skype her later, I learned I didn’t have enough Skype credit for transatlantic chat. An awkward conversation with the State Plaza Hotel desk clerk led me to realize I didn’t know Sabine’s husband’s first name (under which the reservation was listed). Bless the kindness of this man, though, he read every German-sounding name on the guest register.

You know when you feel like a stranger is going to do anything to help you? Well, I stopped just shy of giving a “this is one of the moments in the movie when…” speech ala Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the nurse in Magnolia. Luckily, Sabine called again just in time.

Plan B: Have breakfast at Sabine’s hotel Thursday morning before she and her husband begin the drive up to New York and eventually Canada to round out their North American journey.

The Strategy: Leave soul-crushingly early. Washington, DC, according to Forbes Magazine, has the worst traffic in the US. Atlanta comes in second, as its sprawl can’t quite compete with that of Spin City. After consulting with my friend Alex, a home-grown resident of Northern Virginia, I opted to drive to the Franconia Metro station and take the train into the city.

After waking from my friend Carrie’s house at 5:00 am, I was on the road by  5:20 after a gas and coffee stop.

Sidenote: the coffee at 7-11 is now bad again.

I met my share of brake lights on the road, but I arrived in Springfield pretty close to when I expected, though a few minutes behind.  I parked right next to the entrance, thinking this would make it easy to find my car upon returning later that afternoon. Stay tuned for how that went in my next post. The time of metro ride + walk to hotel  was unknown to me and I did not want to have another international missed connection, so I switched into hurry mode. I locked the car door, walked briskly behind the crowd headed for the platform, and dashed inside the station. Within two minutes I’d purchased my fare card and was seated on the departing blue line train. Just as I heard the I’m pretending like I’m covering a sports game announcer note that the next stop was VAAAAN DOOOOORN Street, I realized I didn’t look to see the numbered section of my parked car. This is back when I thought parking near the entrance would save me.

Austria meets America: Sabine and her husband greeted me warmly in the lobby of their hotel. It had been a while since I’d been to Europe, so I found myself caught in the cross hairs of one-kiss-or-two confusion, but they were very gracious. Sabine’s English is quite good which combined nicely with my non-existent German. Danke!

As we sat down for breakfast, Sabine presented me with the first letter I ever wrote to her: it was fashioned on orange construction paper, laden with photos and accented with stickers. I took pictures of the letter, Sabine’s husband took shots of the two of us posing with the letter, and tragically I cannot post them due to a memory card formatting error. [Insert apology to my friend Carrie, whose camera I borrowed to document this encounter after leaving mine in Florida. Her photos were also victims of my HP inexperience. You should probably not let me borrow your camera unless it’s a Canon.]

Sabine and I started writing to each other as children; she lived in the magical land of the Alps. You might be thinking of this:

Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music

The hills are alive! But only in America. While many of us associate Austria with amusing children donning clothes made out of curtains singing to escape the Nazis, Sabine never even heard of the musical until college. I love perspective.

Trying to present my life in small town Virginia as interesting proved difficult when I was 8 years old. It took me months to write back after that first letter; I waited until after a trip to Disney World and a big snow gave me something photo worthy. I felt like the snow might help connect us. Wasn’t I cute with that? Strangely, it ended up being my “insignificant” small town that reconnected us 25 years later.

During the 2008 election, Sabine was watching the news in Austria and there was a story on my town saying how Obama probably wouldn’t do well in the area because it was so conservative. (FYI, my county went 68% for McCain). She saw this story and the day following the election she searched and found me in the social networking universe. Almost two years later we met in person for the first time. Sabine said to me at breakfast how big the world seemed when we were kids and how small it has gotten as adults.

I used to resist this change–I preferred hiding inside my private thoughts, my private world. It’s easier, safer, to live inside yourself, but you miss connecting with others, and in the end helping them by sharing your experiences. So something that could’ve been a school project that ended in college, has now turned into what I hope will be lifelong communication. Sabine’s a journalist for a newspaper with the highest circulation in Austria and she brought me Mozart chocolates!

Hopefully when Sabine returns from her vacation she will email her pictures of our meeting and I can post them, because the letter/collage/bad art project is something to behold.

Since I don’t have pictures of my penpal reunion, here are some more of Ramona. Her blog is still inactive:

“I’ve got your wedding present right here!”

Stay tuned for Part II of 9/9/10 with hot topics such as a parking garage and Ikea. Just try and stay away.