Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Creating Traditions

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One tradition we hope to continue...lots of game playing.

This February will mark the seven year anniversary of my relationship with Curtis. While we’ve only been married for three and a half of those years, in that time we have discovered many areas of life where we expect different things. He likes to squeeze the toothpaste in the middle of the tube; I like to roll from the bottom. He likes to make piles on the floor of things to put away; I don’t like to delay the return of items to their designated place. He likes to eat dessert right after dinner; I like to allow the meal to settle awhile before digging into the next dish.

Whatever the detail, we come from different families with different customs and expectations. I would suggest that this is at no time more evident than at holidays.

The first Christmas Curtis spent with my family, he was fairly appalled (though in his good wisdom, he didn’t share this with me until later). My family is one that values efficiency. As a result, we do not subscribe to the “everyone open one gift at a time” practice that some carry. We open multiple gifts at a time, somewhat at the discretion of the recipient, always with a nod from the giver that it is a good time for the gift to be opened.

Typically, we put the breakfast casserole (the beloved “Company French Toast”) in the oven at the beginning of the endeavor, read the Christmas story, and then proceed with unwrapping—always finishing in time to eat breakfast while it is still hot. Gifts are later examined for further appreciation, tried on for fit, and equipped with important pieces such as AA batteries.

Then you have Curtis’s family.

One of my favorite things about visiting Curtis’s family is the slow pace that they carry. Living in a small time on an island leaves little reason to rush, after all. Even though visits there carry late nights of playing dominos or any number of card games, I always return to my everyday life feeling refreshed and relaxed.

You can probably guess how they open gifts.

I must admit, after a lifetime of opening gifts with a measure of efficiency, it was a nice change to linger over every package. Items would be discussed, tried on, and examined or assembled before the next person opened a gift. We even took a break in the middle to make and consume eggnog. It was very different from my typical Christmas experience, but it fit. If his family opened gifts like mine, it wouldn’t feel right at all.

How will we open gifts if we have a family some day? I’m really not sure. We haven’t really had a reason to create our own holiday traditions, content to follow suit with whatever those around us choose. One thing that both of our families instilled in us, however, is an appreciation for a Christmas apart from gifts, and a contentment with people instead of things.

As long as that tradition is continued, I don’t really care if we open gifts in one mass explosion of chaos or one at a time. The gifts were never really the point.

Monday, December 27, 2010

A Christmas, Baseball Metaphor

Whenever the holidays come around, there always seems to be this desire that all details work out perfectly. Maybe this only happens to me, because I'm a perfectionist. (Somehow I don't think this is the case)

Because this is an unattainable desire, something inevitably goes wrong.

The apple pie I assembled for Christmas this year was on the three strike plan:

Strike 1: Pie crust was on the dry side, and nearly crumbled as I rolled it out. Crisis was narrowly averted when the "together" parts of the crust neatly covered the necessary area.

Strike 2: Pie was forgotten at home, retrieved by husband and brother, and stored on the floor of the vehicle during the Christmas Eve service (can you see where this is going?). Curtis nearly smashed the pie with his foot when later climbing into the vehicle, but crisis was averted when he caught himself just in time.

Strike 3: Pie was not golden brown enough for this perfectionist's taste, and was thus left in the oven for three extra minutes. The timer was set, and when the pie was retrieved, this was the tragedy that awaited me:

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Clearly, perfection was going to elude me once again.

The way I figure it, if this is the worst that happened, I am getting off pretty easy.

After all, this could have been about the moose that was stocking Curtis while he tried to check the mail. Now that would have been a true crisis...

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Traditions: Travel Edition

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In the eight years that I lived in the Midwest I travelled home for Christmas for six of them. One year was missed due to one of my best friend's wedding; the other was last year as a result of excessive Midwest traveling necessary to scout out residencies. Being back this year, both for Christmas and full time, has been a great opportunity to connect with people I haven't seen in quite a while.

Christmas is a time for gathering all over the country, but when you live in Alaska and are separated from most other places by thousands of miles, Christmas truly becomes an occasion. You can't just visit Alaska for your sister's birthday or Labor day weekend, you have to wait until you have several days of vacation stored up so that you can justify the trip. After all, when it takes approximately one day's travel on either end of the visit, you'd better make sure you are staying a while. Consequently, there are lots of people that come "home" to Alaska for Christmas when they can't make it at any other time. As a result we have endless social occasions with friends and family in from out of town, our calendars full of scheduled meals and parties with those that we might not see for another year.

As the recipient of the visitors this year (as opposed to being the one doing the visiting), I find myself both more relaxed and reflective. I know these people that I know and love have come from and will go back to places and people that love them also. I can appreciate the tension of having two communities that you feel a part of, and being with one means absence from the other. Though all of us living locally plead our cases with each of them to move back, leaving behind whatever jobs/friends/training is keeping them away, I can recognize that I too spent time "outside", away from my family and the people that knew me growing up.

The busyness that comes with endless meals scheduled to be shared is a welcome, short-lived chaos. Inevitably it leaves those of us that live locally wondering why we don't get together more often, and though it ends quickly, it is celebrated long after with updated pictures and stories. Perhaps it is these visits that keep me most connected to the practice of celebrating Advent and the practiced anticipation of a visit from someone treasured, as Mary anticipated the birth of Christ. After all, these visits remind me how much I treasure those I love--both near and far.

Even though I am not doing the traveling this year, I can appreciate an occasion that warrants a visit...even if I won't see them again until next year.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas Traditions: Party Edition

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Forks arranged by type, by Curtis. For the record, we have five different patterns.

On Monday night Curtis and I threw our first party in our new place. When neither of our work places planned Christmas parties, we decided that we should throw one ourselves. And with me on Christmas break and Curtis and his co-workers on a lighter-than-usual rotation, we knew this might be the only time that most people could ever gather for socializing, games and of course, enchiladas.

Because whenever I throw parties, they inevitably involve enchiladas.

The Christmas Fiesta started out slowly, with people trickling in and commenting on the events of the day. While my stories of grocery shopping and oil changes paled in comparison to their lectures on medical, cultural sensitivity, they didn’t mind my temporary lack of vocation if it led to a hot, homemade dinner ready for consumption.

The slow tempo the party started with quickly changed with the addition of two key party guests: one boy and one girl, about two years old. While the little guy ran around our smallish condo, I quickly moved lit candles, fragile d├ęcor, and bowls of M&Ms to higher ground. Later I would discover him running in circles around my bedroom, whipping the table runner above his head, searching through Christmas paper, and putting small candies down our heating vents.

And where was the little girl in all of this? Hiding in the kitchen behind her mother, downing endless spoonfuls of refried beans while occasionally peaking around the corner to see what mischief her peer was up to.

The night wrapped up early, with everyone knowing work would come again Tuesday morning. And although most were up for another round of cards, it was time for the games to end, for people to go home. Despite the return to business as usual today, there is nothing like a night of Christmas decorations, candles, socializing and enchiladas to lighten up the darkest night of the year.

When everyone had left, we loaded the dishwasher, packaged up the leftovers, and reassembled the chaos that the toddlers had left behind. In crashing on the couch we smiled contentedly, thankful for new friends and new memories, reminding us just how much we have to be thankful for this holiday season.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Traditions: Santa Edition

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The older I get the more I recognize the traditions and practices that distinguish my family from the next one. When I was a child, I assumed that everyone went about life the way we did. Every child cleaned his or her room on Tuesdays and Fridays. Everyone spent time in the summers completing book reports. Everyone drank prune juice with breakfast.

One by one I discovered that every child did not, in fact, live life the way I did. Recognizing, for once and always, that my parents did some things different than everyone else. One tradition that lives on, even after moving out and getting married and making decisions about prune juice and room cleaning for myself, is the annual Santa photograph.

My mom started taking pictures of my sisters and me propped up on Santa’s lap as soon as we were old enough to cry for being handed to a stranger. Not quite thirty years later, the tradition lives on. We don sweaters and venture downtown, forcing either my brother (the youngest) or my sister (the shortest) to sit on the frail man’s lap while we all laugh and smile for the camera.

Since we’ve gotten older, getting downtown to get a photo snapped has required more and more coordination to find a gap in our schedules. Between seasonal jobs, visiting schedules, and Christmas parties thrown by friends together or separately, our age has made it more challenging—and not just because of glares we receive while waiting in line without a child under the age of ten.

The children in tafeta dresses and bow ties often look on our tradition with confused expressions, unsure of the adults assaulting Santa while they wait for their turn. The mothers, and occasional father, look on with mixtures of what I have always perceived as confusion and jealousy, wondering if by continuing the annual photo tradition their children will remain—ever—theirs.

Tomorrow is the day we continue our annual practice. We have set the date and made our arrangements. My mom will purchase one more holiday frame to decorate the mantle, and next year as we decorate the house we will remember whatever event inevitably accompanied the outing. Each photo becomes a story.

And that is why--even in our twenties--we still support the annual tradition. These photos record our constantly evolving existence as a family: whether or not everyone lives in town, whether or not everyone is busy, and whether or not they include Santa.

(Though he is a jolly ol' prop.)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Lighting Up Christmas

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Photo taken a couple weeks ago...at 10:30am.

I stopped by the store yesterday after school to purchase items for dinner and Christmas decor. One of the best things about moving across the country is that you are forced to purge all items deemed to be no longer useful or necessary. (Un)fortunately, some (necessary?) Christmas decor made it into that category and is now being replaced.

After all, I had exactly zero strings of lights.

After piecing together dinner last night, I set about hanging up the purchased garland and lights, all of which left the kitchen and family room a bit more twinkly, bright and cheery. It doesn't take much to brighten things up when you are down to four measly hours of daylight. I thought it made quite an impression, until Curtis got home and asked (ten minutes later), "Are these new?"

Oh well.

Apparently I'm not always that great at noticing details either, since my students were the ones to discover a nice, fresh cigarette strewn on the floor this afternoon, less than ten feet from my desk, leaving tobacco shavings all over the floor.

Clearly I'm not the only one interested in "lighting up" the holidays.

Alas, the quarter is finally over, the grades are entered, and the celebration can begin. I have no ambitions of sleeping in (past 7am anyway), but I am looking forward to reading for fun (perhaps a bit of this), cross country skiing (hopefully with a return to double digits temperatures) and venturing back to Curtis's homeland...for a few slow-moving days on the island.

Christmas break is finally here. And while the students have shown their need for a break (through any number of suspensions and inappropriate activities, as well as an overwhelming amount of rudeness), I am pretty sure I am ready for the hiatus.

I am, perhaps, just a little bit better at channeling that energy toward legal and positive activities like hanging garlands and grading papers.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Unspoken Expectations

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On Monday night I opted against skiing. Again. This also happened on Sunday, when Curtis desperately wanted to go skiing and I talked him out of it.

“It’s really cold outside,” I protested, as he packed his skiing gear for after church.

“Well, we could dress with a lot of layers,” he replied, without looking up.

“But it’s really cold. You’ve never skied in weather this cold, and you don’t know how slow your skis go, and how badly your face stings, and how miserable you will be.”

“You’re right. I don’t. Can we pack gear anyway? In case you change your mind?”

I didn’t.

“Curtis didn’t spend hours upon hours on dark ski trails regardless of the weather or temperature during his teenage years,” I thought to myself. “He was in a gym under fluorescent lights, running up and down a wooden court.”

While he spent hours sweating through jerseys, I was doing permanent damage to the circulation in my hands and feet. While he was twisting ankles and breaking his nose, I was face planting in snow banks around sharp corners. While his state championship was hosted in a major arena that was temperature, mine was hosted in twenty below, requiring that I soak my feet every evening in tepid water while I gradually raised the temperature, wincing against the excruciating pain of bringing my feet back to life.

No, he didn’t know.

Despite this lack of knowledge--the pain I was surely protecting him from, the experience that would surely cool his enjoyment of the sport--I couldn’t help from walking away feeling like a bit of a loser. The hardcore, do whatever whenever mentality that so many Alaskans pride themselves with is one that I can accept only with conditions. And that makes me feel like even with our recent move to return of the state of my birth has come with expectations I cannot meet.

When I lived here before, I would have skied in any temperature, any time, any place. When I lived here before, I hiked at midnight in the summer, because it was still light out. When I lived here before, I walked around in a t-shirt when we broke freezing for the first time in the spring.

At the same time, last time I lived here, I was in high school.

When I was in high school I would also stay up until 4:30am talking to my best friend. I would eat Oreos off the pavement on a dare. I would spend days and weeks on end doing little more than schoolwork, sports and sleep—with a rare crash-and-burn occasion.

And even though I still spend many of my waking hours in school buildings with adolescents, I am clearly not a teenager anymore, which begs the question:

Am I excused from nighttime, below-zero skiing ventures, without failing to meet unspoken Alaskan expectations that I have set for myself?

I vote yes.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Doorbusters, Diverticulitis, and Momentary Peace

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This weekend found Curtis and me attached at the hip as we went about accomplishing various weekend necessities. Saturday was Curtis's first day off in two weeks, and only his second in three. His last day off was shared with a couple basketball games, his visiting parents and his brother. This day off found me selfishly keeping him to myself, well, except for when I had to share him with a paper on diverticulitis that desperately needed to be finished.

We both woke before 7am because we were so excited to be together (that, or we are both so conditioned by our jobs to wake up early that we don't need an alarm). We bundled up and ventured downtown for breakfast at my favorite place before hitting the boutiques just as they were opening. Actually, we were early, and thus walked block after block in the frigid wind before find an opening at JC Penneys. I don't think I've ever been so excited for a doorbuster sale.

By 11am we were driving back home, shopping completed, ready to regroup for the afternoon. At 1pm we were out on the ski trails, with Curtis trying to remember how to ski. Apparently three weeks off isn't good if you're a beginner. The layer of fresh powder from Friday night's snow coupled with the afternoon sunshine and my new favorite skiing buddy put me in perhaps the best mood I've been in for days. I was relaxed and at peace, not concerned (for once) on the next thing on the list, or tasks that need to be accomplished.

Three o'clock found us at my mom's house so I could give Curtis (and eventually my brother, as seen above) a haircut. I offered to give my sister's visiting friend a trim as well, but he was not convinced of the superiority of my amateur skills. A couple stops, a try at making falafel, and a shower later we were at my brother's basketball game, his first venture at varsity play.

Yesterday evening, as my relaxed enjoyment of everyday life continued into the work week, found me musing to Curtis that I am more relaxed than I have been in months. It was then that a little simple inventory led to a discovery: I've been juggling uncertain or overwhelming life circumstances for the last nine months. In March I found out we were moving across the country, a week into track season. While coaching junior high and high school track (and finishing a school year) I applied for a new teaching license, new jobs, and packed a house. In June I started living out of a suitcase, which would continue for four months while we looked for a condo to purchase, and moved like vagabonds from house to basement to guest room. By the time I had a job, I was coaching again, and we didn't actually move into a place until both were in full swing.

Friday was the first day I have had a job and a house and wasn't coaching since...March.

I guess it is fitting that this Christmas break from teaching and coaching leads me to look back on all that the last year has brought to Curtis and me: a new place, a new house, a new job. I have found new friendships and rekindled old. And now that I can stop and breathe and appreciate all I have, I can honestly say that it has been good. Challenging, yes. Stressful, absolutely. But I guess this is a good season to remember that facing an unknown future can lead at times to unexpected gifts. And having faith that all will be provided in due time is only faith when it is practiced.

We are rich with so much, this season. I hope that even as this current blanket of peace is lifted with inevitable uncertainties and chaos, I remember this moment...when I wondered why I ever doubted that everything would settle into place.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Making Beautiful Things

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I cannot play any stringed instruments...but I can make a pie...

The snow has been falling all day in a steady, slow accumulation that reminds us all that it is winter. The skies are gray, the season is feeling long, and Christmas seems to be taking forever to get here. Despite the Christmas decorations the hang in most windows and stores, I try desperately on a daily basis to keep students out of the whimsical and down in reality.

I'm not sure it's working very well.

We racked up two more suspensions today at school, meaning that 15% of my personal student population has been suspended for at least one day of the last seven. It's getting ridiculous and unfortunately does nothing for the hope I should put in the other 85% of my population--that they will pull through, follow directions, produce quality work. It's a hard thing to do when 1.5 out of every ten students has no problem proclaiming "No, actually, I don't care that the rules say not to do this..."

This afternoon I had a choice: grade papers (from that endless stack) in my room or attend the choir/band/orchestra concert that would be taking place during my prep period. If I am completely honest, I would admit that I tried to grade papers. I really did. But that little voice inside of me kept whispering that I needed to go to the concert. If I was going to be frustrated with student's behavior outside the classroom, I needed to show them that I do genuinely care what they do outside of my class--even if it's just down the hall.

And so I went, grading in hand, and stood in the back while the choir performed "My Heart Will Go On" (cue, Celine Dion's 1999 hit...). And while the song triggered my own eighth grade memories of attending Titanic with my Mom (who was there to screen out inappropriate parts while we shared a jumbo pack of Twizzlers), there was something angelic about their voices, and then the orchestra, and then the band, even with the occasional (or frequent) note off key.

"Yes," I found myself musing while the papers to be graded were neglected, "These students are capable of producing beautiful things."

And in the midst of grading run-on sentences and adjective quizes,
while producing packets of work for students to complete while suspended,
it was a very important thing to remember.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Game Over

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Yesterday was officially the last tournament of the season. As much as I love coaching--the "outside-of-school" connection with the students, the teaching, the activity--I had officially had enough.

These past eight days, I have been hanging onto to my sanity on a day by day basis, trying desperately not to run out of patience (or energy) in front of any of my students (or athletes).

Everyone is going a little crazy with the impending holiday and end of the semester, and tacking on ninety minutes of student contact at the end of the school day for practice--or 4-5 hours on tournament days--has left me nothing short of worn out.

My next challenge? Attacking the six-inch stack of papers and projects that have accumulated in my coaching haze.

Six days until Christmas break.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Embracing the Glitter

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Another fresh coating of snow last night...

My favorite thing about the weekend these days is watching the day come to life. During the week I drive to work in the dark, and the sun has long since set by the time I leave school after coaching practice. The two windows in my room face a brick wall, and the only way to "see" the daylight is to get close enough to the window to angle your view out beyond the building.

This is not something I have time to do very often.

Today my life finally slowed down a bit. The past five days found me coaching three practices and two tournaments, teaching 25 classes, and trying to keep up with a few simple details of my life in the mean time. Now that it's the weekend, I finally feel like I have time to do more complicated things like put my clothes away, clean the bathroom, go grocery shopping, and exercise.

With Curtis working (and sleeping--when he can) at the hospital this weekend, I spent the night at my mom's last night, waking this morning to make cinnamon rolls to accompany hours of Christmas decorating. I haven't helped with such things for a few years now, and my sister, mom and I unpacked decorations of varying ages, telling stories and old jokes as they triggered memories. It was a morning of sentimental goodness, leaving the house shiny and glowing.

Now that I am back at the quiet, cold and not-very-sparkly condo, after an afternoon outing to cross country ski with a friend, I am curled up in a blanket, trying to decide what I should do first: Run errands? Clean the bathroom? Put away clothes? Figure out a plan for dinner? A morning of sweet pastries, Christmas music, and ornaments leaves an afternoon of productivity looking quite glum and dull.

Who needs groceries or a clean house when I can go to my mom's winter wonderland?

Evasion. That is surely the answer. I guess when it comes down to it, Christmas truly does bring out the inner child in me. Just for a month I would enjoy living under my mom's roof, eating her food, and enjoying her decorations. It would make me feel a bit less responsible, like I'm not in charge of way too many teenagers most days, like my toilets will clean themselves.

It would be a Christmas miracle.

(Perhaps I should break the news to Curtis after he's gotten more than two hours of sleep...)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ignorance was Bliss?

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A glimpse of the sun from the weekend...something I probably won't see much of until next weekend...

When Curtis and I purchased a car this past summer, we had no idea all the bells and whistles we would stumble upon along the way. Given that this vehicle is ten years younger than either of our former vehicles (which were "well used" when we acquired them), we have been quite surprised on numerous occasions about what our lovely car can do. The latest discovery? Yet another warning light, this one telling us that "our tire pressure has lessened".

When this light went on Friday night, I feverishly pulled out the car manual to search out what this orange exclamation mark surrounded by an orange ring meant. The last time I searched out the manual, it was for a blue light that signals when the car has not yet been sufficiently heated up. (This light is my husband's dream. As someone who warms up a vehicle with the utmost patience and diligence even when it's -10 outside, he thinks this light represents perfect communication between the driver and the vehicle.) This time I found the information I was looking for pretty quickly, and was relieved to find out that the overly anxious looking warning light did not mean that the car would soon explode.

As I drove to work this morning, still gazing at the warning light, I found myself thinking that perhaps I would benefit from warning lights in other areas of my life. For example, I would love to have a light that pops on as I drive home in the evening, warning me that I had better stop at the grocery store, because I have no food of any substance in my fridge, and pie will not suffice as dinner. Another helpful warning? A light that turns on before I run out of clean socks and underwear, or spoons. It would also have been very nice to have a warning that the snow plow would be constantly blowing snow against my first story window throughout my morning classes, interrupting productivity. Perhaps the most helpful light would be one embedded in my forehead that turns on to warn my students when I've had little sleep in two days because my husband has caught an awful cold (from the children he is treating on a daily basis) that has caused him to cough all night long.

Despite these morning daydreams that transpired on a dark drive to school, I think not knowing what is coming can also be a good thing. If I had known that I would have to stay an hour after practice to wait for parents to pick up their children last night, I might have lost it. If I am destined to lose every game in our volleyball tournament this afternoon--much like what happened a couple weeks ago--I'd prefer it to be a surprise. The reality, fortunately or unfortunately, is that results are typically preceded with warnings. Mediocre, unfocused practicing leads to similar play in games. I may have been shocked to lose all of our games, but losing most of them wasn't much of a surprise.

I am often chastised by parents for not giving them enough warning--about grades, about behavior, about anything. When a grade turns out to be an "F", or behavior requires a detention, the parents want to know why no one told them THIS was the direction things were headed. While the occasional surprise could have used a bit more of a warning, typically the signs are already there: the grades are online, the disrespect happens at home, the trends have only continued from years past.

Most of the time, the light has been on, and the driver has been ignoring it.

I don't have a flat tire--yet--and I'm hoping to deal with the pressure issue in the next few days. But if I end up with a flat tire because I have not addressed a light that has been glaring me in the eye for the last three days, as much as I'd like to blame the tire manufacturers, the winter pot holes in the road, or the frigid temperatures, I've got no one to blame but myself.

(If only my students and their parents felt the same way...)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Choosing the Response

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I sat on the couch this morning and watched the sun rise at 9:30am. The condo was quiet, with Curtis's visiting parents already out for the morning to appointments needing to be taken care of in "the city". I sent them off with fresh coffee and homemade cinnamon rolls and settled in, wrapped in a quilt, to evaluate papers about courage.

It's interesting to read what fourteen year olds perceive to be courage. We had many conversations about the topic in class, with my redirection often needed to remind them that egging your neighbor's car when no one else will is not courage. Neither is going off an idiotic jump with your snow machine. Or sneaking out at night for a midnight run for ice cream. "Well if those don't count," my students recounted, "then I have never been courageous."

I tended to disagree.

Thanks to the last set of papers I had a starting place for conversations with these students about areas in their lives where they'd been courageous. "What about when your dad died?" I would ask one student. "What about when you moved in with your grandparents?" I would suggest to another. We had discussed as a class what defined courage before we started this project: overcoming obstacles, persevering in tough situations, withstanding fear. Despite these discussions, my students didn't see their challenging life circumstances as requiring courage.

They just see them as what life has handed them.

When I was originally handed this writing prompt to assign to my students (by the "higher ups" that determine district-wide which writing assignments will be best), I was not that excited about it. I thought it felt a bit forced and a bit idealistic. What about the students that haven't been courageous? What about those that don't stand up for themselves and what is right? In some ways I feel I was right: some students don't have a good personal example of being courageous. In more ways, I was wrong. These students needed to be reminded that they face situations that require them to choose to persevere, to push forward, and to work for the best in everyday life--sometimes when adults in their lives are working against them.

As I push through this set of papers, trying to remain fresh in my perspective after reading over one hundred responses, I am reminded that at times my students are completely unaware of the baggage they carry around with them. It weighs them down, affects their perspective, shapes their character--without them ever realizing it.

And while I hope they walk away from this assignment with a greater understanding of sentence structure and comma splices, I also hope they walk away feeling empowered. I want them to be able to see that even though they cannot control their circumstances, their response to events outside of their control will shape the path their life takes.

We are not often able to direct our lives (or our essay questions) in the way that we would choose, but recognizing the power of perspective and choice has been, perhaps, a valuable reminder that I needed just as much as them.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

You're Making Us Drive In This?

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The roads were icy this morning. Really icy. So icy that I heard a truck spinning its wheels in the middle of the night, desperately trying to make it up the hill outside our condo. So icy that Curtis called to warn me of the treacherous drive ahead of me. So icy that the police department called our superintendent to express that there were "significant problems" on the highways and roads. So icy that twenty miles per hour felt more like more than enough speed on a road that normally calls for fifty.

But apparently not icy enough, early enough.

The freezing rain that could have kept me warm at home in my bed made its appearance about a half hour too late to make a difference in my work day. On the other hand, some of my students, or their parents rather, went ahead and opted for the warm bed against the temptation of treacherous roads, leaving my first period class attendance at 42%, with my second period only rising to 66%. On days like this a teacher is forced to make a tough decision: Teach a new lesson to (less than) half the class? Review while trying to maintain the attention of students anxious to make it to the late-week holiday? Give up and allow the students to do whatever they want?

I choose D: Hope for a day off tomorrow, when the freezing rain is scheduled to make another appearance.

Meanwhile, I dream of making another round of the delicious cinnamon rolls I created this weekend...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Escaping the Predator...

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This afternoon, I was chased by a moose. This has happened to me only two other times in all my years of living in Alaska. The first two times I was on a bike, and after the startled moose clomped after me for a few seconds, it gave up the chase.

This time, unfortunately, I was on skis.

Curtis and I have been going out skiing on the past few weekends, replacing our back country biking adventures with the exploration of the local trails. I spent quite a bit of time on those trails in high school, going out night after night as a member of a cross country skiing team. Curtis, on the other hand, was a much cooler breed than I, and subsequently was on a basketball team. Now that we are adults and trying to maintain our fitness despite our busy schedules, he has come to see the value of gliding around on skinny skis through the woods.

We arrived to a full parking lot and after putting our skis on ventured to a nice flat, straight area for Curtis to warm up. While our first several outings involved him gliding back and forth on long flat portions of trail while I completed loops close by, he has since gotten good enough to venture out on the "real trails". I skied behind him at least fifty feet as he ventured down the long, straight path. I was confused when he reached the end, turned off to the side to turn around, and didn't come back toward me. I was looking over to figure out what was going on when I spotted the problem: a moose, camped out, chowing on the tree branches, directly to my left about ten feet.

I did what I have always done in my years of countless moose encounters: I kept going. I maintained the same pace, planning on sweeping up around to where Curtis was standing without raising any concern for the moose to pay attention to me. For some reason, despite my meticulous composure, I was seen as a threat. The moose looked up at me. I looked over at Curtis, and then back at the moose--which was now starting to move toward me. I began to turn, to try and move onto a trail veering off the right, but as I did so the moose was clearly not happy with my decision and as I looked ahead I saw why.

There was a baby calf right in front of me.

"Awesome," I thought to myself, "I have just planted myself BETWEEN a moose and her calf." In the split second that all of this happened, I decided that my best bet was to head into the dense woods, where the trees might make it difficult for a moose to trample me for threatening her child. The problem? I still had long, skinny skis attached to my feet. Consequently I launched myself into a dense collection of trees and started pulling myself into the brush, skis dragging behind.

At this point I was desperately looking around for the moose, who I was quite sure was now going to trample my legs, which were hanging out of my protective collection of trees. Instead, the moose had made its way over to the calf, and the two were probably chatting about the spectacle of a person that had just dove head first into the woods with skis attached. After a couple minutes (or maybe twenty seconds) Curtis called out that I could probably come out. I backed myself out of the brush, tried to stand back up on my skis, and realized my legs were shaking. I looked behind me to see the moose just hanging out and chowing down on a different tree, the baby further down the hill.

We were safe.

The rest of the ski was pretty uneventful: quiet trails, a sunset sky, and best of all, no moose. And even though I was thoroughly freaked out by the whole experience, I can't help but love that those kinds of things happen. It's one of the things I love about living up here; it's a little more rugged, a little less civilized, a bit more adventurous.

Besides, after two weeks of fighting off illness with more than my fair share of coaching frustrations, it was nice to have a battle that could be fought face to face (or snout to ski as the case may be), with a distinct beginning and end.

Sometimes it's just nice to know that crawling off into the woods is a simple, acceptable escape for a problem.

(Now if only that fixed all my issues...)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Tale of Two Teams

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The invitation that stared me down on last night's hour bus ride...

"I need a vacation," I proclaimed to Curtis this morning.

Yesterday was too much. Just too much. If it had just been the fact that our bus driver was thirty minutes late to pick us up for our tournament, I would have been okay. If it had just been that one of my athletes thought herself entitled to the use of her cell phone throughout the tournament (encouraging a similar disregard for team unity amongst her teammates), I might have been alright. If the only down side of yesterday had been our loss of all nine games in the six hour tournament, I might not have gotten home, taken a shower, and crawled into bed a rat's nest of frustration.

But it wasn't.

The late pick-up, snotty attitudes, and record-breaking losing streak all culminated in a one hour bus ride where the driver blared static filled radio tunes while the girls proclaimed their frustration with his music choice. As if they hadn't been the ones that had begged him to turn it on in the first place. Couple the aggravating audio with the constant flash of the camera as the girls took self portraits, and I was so disgusted with their selfish attitudes I could hardly give them instructions without them dripping with sarcasm.

I was done. I was so done.

As I think back on yesterday's downhill progression, part of my problem was my expectations. Last week the buses were on time, the students were fairly well behaved, but more than anything they were present. They were playing hard, cheering each other on, and evaluating their efforts all the way up until the bus ride home. Perhaps it was naive of me to expect the same from the other half of my team, but I did.

And when my expectations of focused enthusiasm were crushed with self-centered apathy, there was nothing I could do to stop it. I tried to make up for their lack of gusto by cheering and encouraging and clapping after every play. I was on my feet all night. But with only a few exceptions, they had made up their mind to drag their feet through the tournament, more concerned about the text they were missing on their confiscated cell phones than their teammate--right in front of them--that just made a great serve.

Today I am very aware of the pendulous nature of my job. I invest endless hours in a profession with little concrete feedback to inform my practice. The concrete feedback that is available isn't always very reflective of energy expended. Grades don't always equal ability. Scores don't always equal effort. Uniforms don't always signify a team.

Today, I will try and teach my team, or what I'd like to be a team, how to do better next time.

Today, I will hope for the best, even though the results last time would suggest it's not worth it.

Today, I will keep going; I will try new tactics; I will continue to push forward.

Today, I will not quit.

Tomorrow? I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Learning My Lesson

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The view from my confinement in bed....

It's been a bit more quiet than normal around here, thanks to the lingering effects of my latest illness. I lost my voice on Friday afternoon, in the locker room waiting for the gals to gather their belongings and head home for the weekend. I looked amongst the abandoned Uggs and forgotten orchestra instruments, but it was nowhere to be found.

More than two days later, it's still AWOL.

Despite the abandonment of my voice, I started to feel better Friday. With my energy level nearly normal, I was looking forward to a weekend of catching up: laundry, unpacking our last three boxes, grocery shopping. But more than anything, I was looking forward to getting out on the trails for the first ski of the season.

Saturday went as planned, a mix of unpacking, fresh air, and four loads of laundry. Unfortunately, sometime Saturday night I took a turn for the worst, leaving me exhausted all day Sunday, and forcing me to skip another round of skiing on a sunny afternoon.

Despite my frustrations with a sickness that is now on day seven, a weekend with minimal speech left me feeling quite reflective. Listening has never been my strong suit, but when left with the choice to listen or struggle to squeak out a few words that are difficult to comprehend, I usually choose the former.

Thus I became an observer, helpless to participate even when my husband and brother-in-law conspired over dinner to tease me shamelessly because I couldn't defend myself. In some ways that was freeing. I tend to suffer from a need to always participate. This need could be the reason I have been sick for a week, is probably the reason I agreed to coach volleyball, and is unfortunately the reason I am not always the best listener.

Of course, there's always time to learn to slow down and appreciate things a bit more rather than always feeling the need to be on the go. A week long sickness may be the perfect classroom for such a lesson.

Now, if only a weren't such a reluctant student.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Taking Ownership, or Learning to Love

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This week turned out to be just as long as expected, though thankfully was not without its share of entertainment. While Tuesday's cold symptoms turned into Wednesday's day home sick in bed, Thursday came through as expected: with a day of teaching followed by a six hour volleyball tournament.

Yes, they really are six hours.

I agreed to coach volleyball a little over a month ago when a coaching deficit was discovered, and I volunteered to referee games.
"Do you have any experience?" they asked.
"Oh, yeah" I replied, trying to convince them that I was a perfect referee for after school tournaments.
"Then I think you should coach."
"Wait. What?"

The discussion ended when I surveyed Curtis to find out how much he would be working during the eight week season.
"A lot," he replied, unsurprisingly.
"I'll take it," I told the head coach.

And so I agreed. Agreed to ninety minute practices after school with 35 junior high girls. Agreed to six hour tournaments and bus rides across town. Agreed to negotiating hurt feelings, babying girls that got hit in the face, or hit the ball too hard. Agreed to surveying the locker room to watch for cell phones (whose idea was to put cameras in those things?). Agreed to wait while irresponsible parents show up 45 minutes after practice is over.

I'm not really sure what I was thinking.

The past three weeks of practices have been interesting. There has been a lot of hair flipping, heart drawing, and gossiping. There has been a little serving and passing, and an occasional spike. In general, practices have left me frustrated. I have too many people, in too small a space, with too many attitudes.

Yesterday that all changed.

We left for our tournament in the afternoon, and as we boarded the bus I wasn't really sure what to expect. I would be the first to admit that my team's talent pool was, well, lacking. Our serving was atrocious. Our passing unreliable. And as we suited up and played our first game, my athletes (if you want to call them that) looked a lot like the team I coach in practice: unmotivated, distracted, and not good at getting balls over the net.

And then, all of the sudden, they transformed.

One girl dove across the court with such gusto that she slid under the net and onto the other side. Another girl served the ball over the net--for the first time in her life. And then she did it again. They were moving, and passing, and covering each other's weaknesses. They were cheering and chanting and screaming (as much as I discouraged the later), and they were getting into it. Really into it.

And I was too.

Game after game was played and they continued to improve. I was on my feet cheering. I was on the floor when that's where I wanted them to go. I was losing my voice, and I didn't care. This was fun.

Finally.

As we boarded the bus back to the school, a few of the girls strategized about how to help the weaker players. They wanted my input and support in improving their team. It was finally their team: a team they cared about, a team they wanted to see succeed.

And this was an even bigger change than the one I saw on the court.

My team, from the very beginning, has been an insiders/outsiders team. I have a queen bee, her BFF, and an entourage of wanna-be populars. I also have a group of outsiders: the ones that don't care, don't notice, or have been flat out rejected. In practice it hasn't mattered what I've done to split them up, group them differently, or tried to show them that this is a team sport. They have their friends, and they have the nobodies.

And the populars don't care about the nobodies.

Perhaps I should be concerned that the only reason "the nobodies" now matter to "the populars" is because they are directly tied to winning and losing. The fact is, I'm happy they care about them at all. Because yesterday night as we chatted on the bus, the populars determined--for themselves--that everybody matters.

And even with the miraculous serving, and unforeseen court-side passion, this was clearly the biggest victory of the evening. And I'll take that over a winning record any night of the week.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Scrambled Eggs and Bleeding Knuckles, or Just Another Tuesday Night

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It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...

I spent the evening Tuesday night lying on the couch, blowing my nose, constantly reapplying chapstick and hand lotion. With the recent onset of nasty weather has come the dry, cold months that make my hands crack at the knuckles with the slightest bit of contact. Couple that with coaching volleyball and generous applications of moisture-sucking hand sanitizer throughout the school day, and you can picture the result.

It's not pretty.

Of course, who cares if my hands are covered in small cuts when my face is flushed, my head is pounding, and my nose is congested?

I've never been good at being sick. I am good at productivity, efficiency, and high energy activities. I am good at continuing to move when everything wants me to stop, continuing to work when other people know I should call it a day, and maintaining a reasonable bedtime and a healthy diet in order to (try to) maintain a fairly hectic pace.

Yet, despite my best laid plans, sometimes my body fails me, leaving me to half pay attention to outdated Hulu while Curtis makes me a scrambled egg and salsa burrito for dinner.

After all, when life is tough all I want is eggs, Mexican food, or some sort of combination.

And so I head into the rest of the week, a bit compromised, but still kicking, determined to finish out a week that may or may not include a volleyball tournament and a massive field trip.

Wish me luck.

(And plenty of tissues)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Making the Best of It All

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My "gourmet concoction"...which didn't taste quite as good as it looked...

This is the weekend I finally caught up on paperwork.


Ever since the move, I have had very organized and meticulous stacks of paperwork...all over my bedroom floor. Between the condo purchase, the car purchase, both job switches, and the move quite a bit of paperwork had accumulated. And while there are other ways I like to spend Sunday mornings before church, I must admit that ninety minutes of pure organizational productivity turned out to be a great start to the day.

Follow that up with breakfast for lunch with the family after church watching the NYC marathon, and a leisurely afternoon in the kitchen making some gourmet concoction, and I am almost ready to head back to a full week of classes and volleyball.

Almost.

Would I rather lay on the couch, watching the inches of snow accumulate on the window sill, while reading a thought provoking novel? Of course. Then again, I'd also rather have my paperwork organize itself, and my dinners always turn out tasting spectacular.

Sometimes you just have to make the best of what you have.

Friday, November 5, 2010

A Slightly Slower Pace

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Evidence that Curtis was home at some point during the night...even if he went to bed after I did, and left before I woke...

The city was covered with a blanket of snow this week, a bit later than what is traditionally normal but sending people in the mode of "winter" all the same. Drives were slow; boots were everywhere. The array of hats and gloves abundant, and the number of snowmen (made with the perfectly wet snow) comical. The students went a little crazy, mesmerized by the thick white flakes falling in the light of the street lamps, and eventually the daylight.

Thus I find myself in the bridge before the next song of the season. The days of biking on tree lined trails are over, but the necessary blanket needed for cross country skiing has not yet accumulated.

Right now the sidewalks, streets and trails are covered with a mixture of snow, ice and slush, depending on the time of day. With the daily temperatures hovering on either side of freezing even as the snow continues into the weekend, it's anyone's guess when the local trails will be fresh and ready for a nice long ski. Until then, the only thing I'll be gliding on is the stairwell outside our condo. I am pretty sure it is only a matter of time until I lose my grip on those icy steps.

Here's to winter: the slower pace, the fresh beauty and the unexpected adventure it brings.
(all six months of it)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Thoughts Over One Serving of Roast and Mashed Potatoes

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Me, talking with my hands as usual…

At 7:52pm, I finally caved.

I had successfully busied myself since getting off work: working out, three loads of laundry in progress, fresh mashed potatoes and a clean kitchen, a tidied the house. It was time to throw in the towel.

It was time for dinner.

The pot roast was incredible. The vegetables were soft and saturated with roast juices after a day in the crockpot together. The potatoes were creamy, with a hint of garlic and pepper, balanced with salt. And as I served the scrumptious meal and set myself a place at the table I couldn’t help but check my cell phone. Again.

For the thirty-seventh time of the evening.

Maybe Curtis had called? Maybe I had missed a text. Perhaps that was his car pulling in the drive, his steps on the stairwell. Perhaps the hospital was finally finished with him for the day.

Alas, no such luck.

Marrying someone in medical school (or residency) requires a delicate dance with independence. Sure, you’re attached to this individual for all legal rights and purposes, but in real life you’re often on your own, making your own plans, eating your own dinners, maintaining your own relationships. We have found this fragile shuffle to be most effectively executed with clear expectations, meticulously coordinating schedules to maximize time together while minimizing disappointment.

So I don’t end up alone for an evening with a delicious tender roast.

Unfortunately, we operate with an imperfect system. No matter how carefully we plan, the hospital holds the almighty trump card. Health emergencies occur whether or not there is a roast waiting for dinner. And while I’d like to think I’m a patient person that capitalizes on opportunities to catch up on laundry and dishes, the reality is that I’d be happy to let them pile higher for one more night.

As long as it meant that at the end of the evening remnants of mashed potatoes would be growing crusty along the edges of two dishes, instead of just one.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Hibernation

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The snow is creeping down the mountains, coating the sidewalks, the roads, the trails, the windshield. The dustings we’ve received already are not enough to cover surfaces completely, but enough to make corners slick, trails crunchy, shoes slip.

Curtis and I went out for another adventure bike ride this weekend and had to reroute our intended course after only ten minutes. The road up to the trails we’d settled on was more icy than expected, and while we were confident we could make it up the hill to the trails, I had concerns about getting back down on icy surfaces. I had visions of cold, painful wipeouts while trying to turn corners.

It wouldn’t be pretty.

The alternate route, while still snowy and occasionally slick, was executed without mishap. We still returned with frozen toes and fingers (even without a fall in an icy creek), but as we put the bikes away we once again wondered if the ride was the last of the year, just as we mused last week.

Our hibernation is imminent at this point.

Many places have beat us to snow fall this season, their streets already covered, their trails being readied for skiers. The meteorologists say we are behind, having a very dry month, but I don’t mind. Even as our pavement reflects a tardy showing for the winter season, the darkness doesn’t lie.

Every day as I listen to the news on the way to work the time of sunrise grows later, with a loss of five minutes each day. In the next month we will lost another two and a half hours.

It’s true; the snow will come, just as the darkness already has.

Now that we are settled in to our new life, I feel that life has become a bit more predictable. We go to work: teaching, coaching, practicing medicine. We make meals on weekends to reheat during the week. We go out when Curtis has a weekend off. We go to church.

My coworkers muse at times about how they wish their lives were more exciting and I must admit I don’t really share their sentiment. I have all the excitement I need at this point in time: the unpredictable shrill of Curtis’s pager in the middle of the night, the endless question of what we will eat for dinner, the questionable conditions of the trails we will traverse on a free weekend.

That is all I need.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Bit of a Nightmare (and a Bit of a Dream)

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I'll take icy feet and treacherous biking over taming the hooligans any day...

Today the students were crazy.

It could have been because the schedule was abnormal.
It could have been because of predicted snow.
It could have been because they have half days for the next two days and Friday off due to conferences.

Whatever the reason, tomorrow had better be different than today.

Today the technology wouldn't work.
Today my interesting lessons worked out to be boring.
Today everyone had a distracting comment for everything.
Today I had to constantly remind myself to be patient. Be patient. Be patient.
Today I bit my tongue to not verbalize the sarcastic comments floating around in my head.

Today was a bit crazy.

Perhaps tomorrow should be a silent work day.

(Is that possible? A silent work day in an eighth grade classroom?)

I can dream.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Multiple Personalities, or Choosing My Own Adventure

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When my teaching pal from Ohio called this evening, I reported that my Sunday afternoon was feeling quite productive: 90 minutes of ironing, a load of folded laundry, dinner in the oven, and a loaf of banana bread on the way (in addition to the apple pie made on Saturday). In response to Curtis's yell from the background that he has "the best wife ever" she commented that I was quite the domestic one this weekend. "Right now I am," I told her, "but you should have seen me three hours ago when Curtis took me on one of the roughest mountain biking outings of my life, involving a hill steep enough and rocky enough that both of us had to walk our bikes a significant way down, only to find a large creek to cross over the next hill."

Did I mention this creek had snow and ice gathered in the midst of the rocks?

It was then that I started to feel like someone with multiple personalities. I could easily spend hours in a book store, or hand stitching a quilt, or grading eighth grade papers, or baking in the kitchen, or mountain biking through icy creeks. While I would choose some of those options over others (depending on the day), I can appreciate that at the end of this weekend I felt like I truly was able to exercise many pieces of myself.

"Why can't we do what we want to do?" my students sometimes ask me. And sometimes, when I'm feeling exceptionally honest, I confess the truth: adults don't often get to do what we want to do either. Sure, I chose my profession, and many of my commitments, but even tasks you choose can become a burden at times. I don't always love grading papers. I don't always love coaching. I don't always (pretty much never) love ironing.

While I've been baking and cleaning, Curtis has spent much of the evening reviewing paperwork for his job, and now I can hear him listening to audible suturing instructions online in preparation for a surgery rotation. Our time, even when "out of the office" still isn't fully ours.

Perhaps that's why today felt like a gift: soaked frozen feet, messy kitchen, laundry strewn bed and all. Today was a day I chose to fill with activities that suited my fancy.

Tomorrow I will teach classes, coach a team, work out, eat, and crash into bed. Tuesday will look like much of the same. And even as I find much joy in my work, I may find myself day dreaming during the week of adventures that are off the proverbial path, excitedly awaiting the weekend so that we can be in the wild again.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Hazy Memories of a Grocery Store

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Preparing for my mom's surprise birthday party, where we served all kinds of Mexican food...it was a good day.

I feel awake and rested for the first time in several days, which could be because I was in bed by 8:20, and asleep by 9 on a Friday night...and then didn't wake up for eleven hours. Despite the sleep, the exhaustion of an overflowing schedule seems to haunt me on a Saturday morning when I have no plans or commitments. Should I go to my brother's basketball game? Bike across town to visit my sister working at the coffee shop? Read for pleasure? Make an apple pie? Unpack and organize? Iron?

A week full of activities both chosen and necessary has left me with little free time. Now that I have a few hours to myself, I feel like a kid in a candy store: what shall I eat?

Last night, after a day of distracted giddy students, and chaperoning the junior high dance that made them unruly all day, I wandered around the grocery store trying to make sense of the aisles, asking myself the same question. The answer was clear to me: apple pie. But since I am practical even in my most exhausted and hazy existence, I also bought lettuce (found to be rotten at home), oatmeal and a frozen pizza.

After all, everyone knows you can't have apple pie for dinner.

And so this morning I realize that my extreme exhaustion last night was not all a loss. I have now found a new item to add to my list of "foods that make me feel better when everything seems to be a bit too much". Other items on that list? Fried egg sandwiches and almost all Mexican food.

Next time we have a junior high dance I think they should serve apple pie instead of nachos and pizza. It would be a big hit.

(And then maybe next time I will win the teacher dance contest...)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Lessons of At Least 500 Words

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A summertime visit to my classroom back in Ohio, back when tank tops in the summer were still an option...

I recently graded a very large batch of eighth grade stories. These essays, which were written in response to my request that they "tell me about a personal experience that taught you an important lesson" tended to fall into three main categories.

First: Lessons About Safety.

Since majority of my students have lived in Alaska for a while, with quite a few of them having spent some time in rural towns and villages, their experiences with large machinery at the age of fourteen is quite extensive. I read stories about four wheeling crashes, snow machine crashes, even car crashes (because who enforces driving licenses when you're in the middle of nowhere and there are hardly any drivable roads?), which made the stories about bike crashes seem like child's play. They all tended to end with the same trite statement about "wearing helmets" or "not taking dares" or "watching where you're going" and after a while were very anti-climactic. This lack of suspense was not the case with the second set of stories.

Second: Lessons About Loving People.

I was surprised at how many of my teenage students are missing parents. These stories were often twisted and confusing, with many of the writers giving me the feeling that the topic was too difficult to write about with good detail, but too meaningful and fitting for the prompt to write about anything else. I often finished these stories trying to trace the pronouns throughout, getting lost in the "he did" and "she left" and "he never called" and "I haven't seen her" statements throughout the story, sometimes applying to one parent, sometimes both, sometimes applying to mutilple relatives that have been present for only a short while only to disappear. The students often struggled to pull lessons out of these stories, often ending with some general statement about "not taking people for granted" which I knew hardly covered the emotions associated with the tale. This was a story that was far from over, a story that would never fit under the umbrella of not appreciating someone enough. And while some students tried to make meaning of deep and complicated events completely out of their control, others recounted tales of obvious missteps.

Third: Lessons About Doing What You're Supposed To.

This third category was a bit more developed than I would have expected, given that I'm their teacher and all. I guess I didn't expect the paper writing process to turn into a confessional on all sins committed great and small. After reading papers about everything from bad grades, to sneaking out, to drinking underage, to inappropriate games of spin the bottle, I'm pretty sure I will lock my theoretical children up before they hit this age. Much like the lessons on safety, the lessons tended to manifest as closing statements that all sounded the same: "And now I know to never (insert sin of choice) again."

Today is the end of the first quarter, and thanks to this deadline I have everything graded and posted for the helicopter parents to check online tonight, and the negligent parents to ignore even when mailed home. So what is the lesson I learned from this personal experience? Wear helmets when operating any machinery; always watch where you're going; know that every student could have an unstable home.

Oh, and never put off grading 120 stories until the last day again.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Finding My Mittens

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Curtis with his cousin last December while visiting Minneapolis. I think I would like to wear a snowsuit like that...

My foot slipped on ice as I ran under a bridge this afternoon. That momentary loss of traction, that brief absence of grip reminded me that the days of running without gloves, in the occasional pair of shorts, on pavement that is dry or wet but not covered in snow and ice are almost gone. The snow line slowly creeps down the mountains in the distance, hovering closer and closer to our sea level existence, reminding me every day as I drive toward the mountain range making my way home, that the roads will soon be covered.

I have plans to purchase snow tires, to get them studded, to get them put on my vehicle. I haven't ever had to do this before, and the whole process makes me feel a lot like a grown up. When I was in high school my mom would get studded tires put on the vehicles, looking to add yet one more measure of protection for her driving teenagers. The studs would help gather traction on the icy roads that linger all winter. Ice covers the lines on the roads and makes starting and stopping and driving up and down hills infinitely more tricky. I never got in an accident in high school, but as I reenter the realm of treacherous driving, I find myself wondering if I've lost my touch for icy roads and snowy conditions, much like I've lost my resistance for cold weather.

In preparing for the coming temperature drops I've been evaluating my winter wardrobe. While my sweater/jacket/layer wardrobe was a bit excessive for the Midwest, it is already starting to feel a bit minimal. I found myself perusing high quality gloves and mittens while out shopping yesterday. Wind resistant, multi-layered, hand coverings were offered in a wider variety than I thought existed. I briefly considered a pair of "extra cold" mittens on clearance, complete with a wind resistant shell, before leaving empty handed, ever a frugal shopper.

Later I rode my bike with Curtis as he ran the local trails. The air was wet and cold, and despite my dress of two long sleeved shirts, a wind breaker, tights, an ear warmer and gloves, by the end of the forty minute run I was frozen. It took a bath to get circulation going in a couple stubborn toes, and my hands were cold for the rest of the night.

And so I prepare for the coming of winter, completing some tasks in advance and others by trial and error. In the end, that is life: Some obstacles are foreseen and prepared for, others come at inopportune times, leaving us frozen, unsure of how to respond, missing a pair of mittens that were offered earlier in the day.

Next time, I'm buying the mittens.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Some Things Just Don't Change

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In the interest of saving our digital photos for posterity, I spent quite a while Sunday transferring files from our "medical school laptop", whose battery won't hold a charge and has given us many signs that it is near crashing, to our new lovely macbook, which was purchased shortly after I nailed down a job.

In the midst of labeling and organizing all sorts of files and photos, I stumbled on all sorts of memories that made me smile. The gem above? Taken six years ago while making lefse with Curtis's family the first time I made the trip out to the island. On that occasion I was dumbfounded by the potato based tortilla-like items we were making. This past Labor Day I knew how to jump into the lefse making process, eager to devour the results.

I was (once again) overwhelmed again with how much in the midst of change some traditions remain the same. Granted, the digital camera I now use has a few more megapixels, and a bit more clarity, but after a few rounds of making lefse I still walk away from the kitchen covered in flour.

Some things will probably never change.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Meet the Neighbors

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There are many qualities I have come to love about our new home since moving. The windows are thick, or well-fitting, or something more than the 1920’s windows that we had at the old place. They keep noise out. They don’t whistle when the wind blows really hard. They don’t have to be propped up with wooden rods because the weight/cord/pulley system broke. And when some middle of the night random 4:30am visitor feels like blasting the current rap trend of choice, it sounds more like background noise, rather than something getting directly piped into our room.

Also, the drawers in the kitchen don’t shower dust on the pots, pans and bowls stored below. I still find myself whisking my hand along the insides of pans as I pull them out for use, looking for traces of dust, preparing to wash it away. And then I remember that our cabinets are not the dust-showering kind that we left behind in Ohio.

One of the qualities I love most about our new place is the lack of intruders, or more specifically, mice. Every fall we would find ourselves setting (and emptying) traps in an attempt to keep mice excrement from appearing in the bathroom, under the kitchen table, on the bed—a feat I’m still not quite sure how they mastered. Yet, since we’ve made ourselves comfortable in the midst of boxes and piles and sparse furniture, apparently, so have they.

On more than one occasion I have been guilty of throwing things at these invading moths as they perched on our vaulted ceilings. When they came flying around the room looking for cover, Curtis was poised with a wad of newspaper in hand, ready to take care of them, hopeful that with the insects extinguished I could go to bed in peace.

Curtis assures me that the moth camp that exists outside our front door will disappear when the snow falls. Much like the mice, they will be forced to find a more permanent residence, or die. I am not concerned enough to research what or how moths do to hibernate through the long winter that exists in this city. I do know, however, that they will not be taking residence on my ceiling.

Sometimes you just have to draw your boundaries.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Something Old, Something New

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The leaves raining at the cross country state championships, showering everyone with a bit of gold.

I went on my first run from “our new place” on Monday. It was a beautiful afternoon: sunshine, fifty degrees, golden leaves blowing everywhere and covering everything.

On days like this I am quite sure it is the last of the season. Temperatures above freezing in October are a luxury. Above fifty? A lucky break.

A man on the radio proclaimed this morning that experts are calling for a frigid winter, despite the glorious fall. I don’t want to know what “worse than normal” means for us up here (unless, of course, it means we will be getting snow days—which are also a lucky break in this state).

Yesterday I biked with Curtis as he ran after work. We wove our way through the trail systems that surround our condo, reacquainting ourselves with trails neither of us have run much in years. We talked about work, stories and plans from the day, the week.

By the time we were finished the brisk breeze that had kept Curtis cool during the run left me with numb hands and red ankles, which had peeked out above my socks and below my tights. We went inside to make dinner (or rather pop a frozen pizza in the oven), and I was struck by the contrast of things new and things that haven’t changed. I use the same pizza cutter, just in a new kitchen. I wear the same bike helmet, but ride different trails. I watch the same seasons; they just manifest themselves in different ways.

And after a season of transitions, with new people in a new place with a new job and a new home, those bits of familiarity are more than welcome. They make living in a place with a long winter (with expectations of a harsh one) that much easier.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

You Do The Math

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The drive out of town on Friday night: A breathtaking mix of autumn and winter, sunshine and rain (which this photo clearly doesn't do justice)

When I climbed into bed at 1am on Saturday night, I have to confess I was quite pleased with myself.

I can't remember the last time I willingly stayed up past midnight.

Make that 9:30pm

These days the hectic schedule of teaching + coaching + grading + unpacking = exhaustion.

This weekend found me shuttling back and forth between being in and out of town. In town Friday for teaching and practice, out of town Friday night to join Curtis and his co-workers for a retreat. In town Saturday morning by 8:45am for the cross country state meet, back at the retreat around 6pm for an evening of games and a spontaneous dance party. Back in town Sunday morning to camp all day at the condo being productive.

Four loads of laundry, a lot of unpacking, one outing to run/bike in the sunshine, and one attempted craigslist entry later, I had a lot of clean clothes + several empty boxes + a little bit of exercise + one treadmill that apparently no one wants--even if it's free = one very satisfied (albeit exhausted) lady.

Today I found myself mesmerized by the mountains again, examining the snow caps as they creep down the sides with its fresh, clean white. As I ran outside in the sunshine, I found myself wondering if the 50 degree temperatures of this afternoon will be a memory all too soon, wondering if each day above freezing with be the last.

Snow is fair game in October, after all.

But as I welcome the snow and cold of October, I also welcome a bit more of a relaxing schedule, a bit more time to read and cook and quilt.

And, you know, occasional late nights.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Winter Whispers

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Though autumn was officially marked on the calendar just over a week ago, winter is undoubtedly approaching close behind. A week ago snow was spotted dusting the mountain, tapping the windshield as it was swept aside along the highway, leaving no trace on the road but weighing heavily on those that observed it.

Winter is coming. Soon.

Curtis and I have both commented that the fall colors are more radiant this year than we remember them. The gold colors flush the mountains with various shades causing pause between summer and winter even as we search through boxes for hats and gloves.

Perhaps it’s because fall in the Midwest was so radiant.
Perhaps it’s because September was so mild.
Perhaps it’s because the summer held record rainfall.

Whatever the reason, the trees are sporting their richest shades, and in I am desperately trying to soak them in before they disappear.

It will be days, weeks if we’re lucky, before the snow comes to stay and I am left pondering:

Am I ready for seven months of cold and darkness?

(I am rather out of practice with all this…)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Second Helping

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One of many line-ups of award recipients at last week's region championships...

When I was in high school I ran. A lot. I say this not to brag, but to offer some context. Running was a big deal to me, and running fast was even more important. I needed to be fast enough to win championships, fast enough to win scholarships, fast enough to prove that I was worth something.

You can see why this was a problem.

My high school running career was all but smooth. It started in an unexpected whirlwind when I placed second at the state cross country championships my freshman year of high school, and ended with disappointment when my senior year was capped off with my fourth runner-up finish, officially giving me the "always a bridesmaid" status among the high school running elites.

I still went off and ran in college, but even as I raced at national championships on a very competitive team, winning came to mean less and less. By the time I graduated, I was content to hang up (or box up) my running spikes for a three month hiatus from running, and almost a year break from racing. I was mentally exhausted from eight years of training and racing and carrying heavy expectations--which were mostly my own.

This fall has found me back in the running scene, running alongside teenagers as they train for races and yelling along the sidelines as they test their limits. I have been asked by many if it feels odd to be back--back at the same races, training on the same trails, following the same schedule (exhaustion). The answer: sort of.

Yes, it feels odd to walk into coaches' meetings when some of the coaches knew me as a high school athlete. Yes, it is odd to jog the courses where I lost state championships in the final stretches. At the same time, the time I invest and the emotions I carry with me to practices and races are very different than back in high school. There's no pressure on me when I show up to races. There are no expectations haunting me when I cross the finish line after someone that I think I should have beat. There is no nausea the night before every race and nightmares the preceding week.

A couple weeks ago I ran the community race after all the high school races were over. The athletes I coach lined the course and chanted sayings to me that I often yell at them while they race. They were loving the role reversal, every minute of it. After I finished (in a time "only" a minute slower than a high school comparison) a parent that used to watch me race in high school commented to me that it's the first time she's ever seen me race "without a piano on my back". I was out there, physically challenging myself, but just having a good time doing it.

And I guess that's why when people ask me if I "wish I was back" in the high school racing scene, I really am not tempted at all. Carrying that piano around got pretty old. I'm not quite sure when and where I dumped it, but I'd be just fine with never seeing it again.

This weekend will mark the first state championship races I will attend since I lost my senior year. And while I have fond memories of the experience of being on a high school team, I am perfectly content to watch and cheer and yell and take pictures from the sidelines.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Now, where is that attic?

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Curtis texting his brothers about "the new place"...while I admired the autumn leaves outside.

"It looks like someone walked around our house and vomitted stuff...everywhere," I commented to Curtis as I walked around demonstrating what that might look like.

He agreed.

The massive amount of unpacking that took place Sunday left us with cupboards and closets and drawers a little more full, and a mountain of boxes and newspaper in the family room that would be any small child's dream place to play.

Maybe instead of recycling all the used packaging we should just make a fort.

Despite the fact that hundreds of items were put away yesterday, it seems like there are still thousands of items that still need to find a "home" in our condo. Piles litter the perimeters of rooms, the hallway, the counter tops. Even though we went through a massive purging before moving this summer, we still seem to have brought far too much "stuff" with us. This could be due to the fact that we had a huge attic at our last space that stored all items that couldn't fit in closets or cupboards, and now we have no such stow away place to house all miscelaneous items.

Out of necessity we must simplify our lives a bit further.

As I head into this week, and another busy weekend, I know I will be facing many evenings of putting items away: candles, extention cords, photos, files. And with organizational tools being so expensive ($12.99 for a tray to organize a drawer? I don't think so) I am getting more creative by the day.

Maybe that pile of cardboard boxes will end up coming in handy after all.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Endless Treasure Hunts

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It has been less than 72 hours since we received the keys to our new place, and already it is feeling like home. I haven't had a free evening since we moved in, and consequently the boxes are still mostly taped up and stacked all over. Last night found me searching for a towel--of any size and shape. Endless hunts have already taken place for sheets, and socks, and soap.

Despite this chaos, the fact that we are moving in the direction of organization and away from suitcases and househopping every few weeks finds me welcoming the disorder and the work. I am actually thoroughly enjoying it.

I have spent what feels like a fortune the past couple days stocking our new home with various necessities: toilet paper, Ziploc bags, milk, laundry detergent, eggs, marshmallows. Every time I put things away I find myself lacking a different forgotten item that should have been purchased at the store: a kitchen brush, hair spray, vinegar. Despite the face that these lists that grow and wane as fast as I can write them, I don't think I have ever been so happy spending gobs of money on essentials. These essentials represent a home that is being developed and established, they represent settling in and reestablishing normal.

Yesterday I left the condo at 7am, bowl of oatmeal in hand because there wasn't a spoon to be found, and returned after 8pm. A First Aid class after school kept me for five hours while I day dreamed about unpacking and organizing and putting miscelaneous items away to a proper place. As exhausted as I was when I arrived home after thirteen hours at school (and a trip to Target), I was endlessly energentic as I tore open box after box, flinging newspaper and packing materials to the side, carefully choosing drawers and cupboards to hours spatulas and pots and pie tins, thrilled to have an hour to invest.

Today I am tired.

I have stayed up too late every night this week, have run ragged from getting up until going to bed, and have been eating a lot more junk than normal along the way. This weekend we will spend time traveling to and from another cross country meet, leaving Sunday as the only day I can truly attack the mess of boxes in which I live.

Last night as we lay in bed falling asleep, I mentioned to Curtis that Sunday was going to be the most productive unpacking day yet. It made me excited just thinking about it. He paused before replying, choosing his words carefully, and commented that perhaps we should think about resting for a small part of it.

He's probably right.

Next week won't slow down one bit, with teaching and practice adding up to nearly twelve hour days, and trips to cross country races (for me) and a conference (for him) eating up the weekend.

But when you haven't seen most of your belongings for four months, every lid opened feels like a present. And taking a nap to recoup for another week feels a lot like trying to sleep the night before Christmas.

Yes, I know that rest is the proper choice.

I'm just not so sure it's going to happen.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Disappearing Acts

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It's fall in Alaska. It has been for almost a month.

In Ohio Autumn meant sweaters and cider and pumpkin patches. It also didn't start until October. Here the fall has meant cool breezes and late sunrises, working toward a dreaded winter solstice with far too little daylight to counter the frigid temperatures. The trees started to change colors in late August, and wet morning often brings the sweet aroma of decaying leaves.

Despite the shifts in the seasonal changes, the biggest difference that has come with autumn is the absences I see in my classroom: everyone is out hunting.

This past summer when I was meeting Curtis's co-workers at the annual resident camp out, I had a discussion with a fellow spouse who is a local teacher as well. He was lamenting the early start to the school year, which was nearly three weeks before my comrads back in the Midwest. I commented that the early start meant for early dismissal in May--a definite plus when May tends to be far more sunny than August. He countered that the early start was good in theory, and terrible in practice...thanks to hunting season.

Oh, that's right, I forgot about that.

There are a small handful of people in Ohio that skip town in search of deer or other edible animals every autumn, but the number of people that disappear for a few days or a couple weeks is much higher up here. I have several students that have disappeared for a week and a half only to reappear back in the classroom, face flushed with days out in the sun, and stories abounding from adventures out in the wilderness.

One student was back in 48 hours after a moose was ready for the taking shortly after they arrived. Another student came back days after his expected return after poor weather left them stuck waiting for their plane. A third student is still gone, but has been texting his friends updates on the "6 by 6" beast that was landed over the weekend.

The hunting and gathering culture that is so prevalent up here also makes regular appearances in meals with caribou and reindeer sausage and moose meat added to spaghetti. Street corner venders downtown sell such goods all summer, but the quantities seem to only increase as the temperature drops.

While I don't personally go out to capture animals to fill the freezer, I appreciate these subtle differences in the way people appreciate the food in their every day lives. In most parts of this wealthy, civilized country we live in people are very disconnected from the food that they eat. It comes from a grocery store, or the refrigerator, not from a living breathing animal that wanders in the wilderness.

The city that I live in is pretty close to "normal" when you look at any other city across the country, you know, other than the extreme changes in daylight and the studded tires to combat five months of driving on ice. The difference is that it takes twenty minutes (or less) to find areas without cell phone service, areas you'd be foolish to trek through without the protection of bear spray or a weapon, areas that are still pretty rugged despite the thriving metropolis nearby.

Hunting season, just like a hike in the mountains or a day when the sun doesn't come up until 10:30, reminds me of this once again.