Friday, January 29, 2010

Thoughts on Cheddar, Or On Making Things More Lively

We watched this video in my nutrition class the other day in the midst of a discussion about how our food choices are influenced by creative media and advertising.


(Sometimes you just need a little something to lighten things up…especially in high school in January)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Yes, I Still Attend High School Dances


On Friday night I sat on a hard plastic bleacher, sandwiched between my co-worker and former student, a wall of junior-high students in front of me, parents chatting behind.

This isn’t an unusual scene for me on any given weeknight or weekend.

This weekend was one of many times I have made myself presentable, left my husband for the evening, and paraded off to yet another school event to cheer and chat and show my students that I care about more than just their test grades, or their work ethic, or their ability to comprehend difficult passages and think critically.

“I don’t miss high school at all,” a former student mentioned to me as she sat and watched the basketball game.
“I don’t either,” I replied, without hesitation.
She turned, raised one eyebrow and chuckled.

It’s true. I don’t miss high school. I don’t miss the drama, or the chaos, or the uncertainty of relationships from one day to the next. And even though I live in high school forty hours a week, and some weeknights and several weekends, there is one crucial difference: I am outside the fishbowl, not swimming in circles in the midst of it.

And nowhere was I more aware of this than while watching a mass of high school students in rented tuxes and taffeta skirts awkwardly swing around a glossy dance floor.

I split my time throughout the night. I would sit for a while on the padded chair around the perimeter, observing awkward exchanges. Later I would cascade through the middle, chatting with students about the song choices, lip-syncing Taylor Swift’s fairy tale.

While watching the relatively synchronized movements to the latest hip-hop song (that quite frankly I had no idea how to dance to), another teacher and I determined that in all the hours of preparation, anticipation and execution associated with high school formals, there were a few brief moments of relaxed enjoyment back in high school, where we weren’t concerned how disjointed our dancing was, or who was paying attention to our awkward heel-walking gait. And in those moments, we weren’t concerned about acting all grown up; we were basking in our innocence.

By the end of the evening I was one of the only females who still had shoes on, and (along with the other staff members) one of the only people happy to see the DJ pack up his belongings. I was one of the first out of the parking lot, and was in sweatpants within three minutes of walking in the front door.

Because for all the thrill and innocence of swimming around the fish bowl, sometimes it’s plain old exhausting.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Fragments From Medical School: Mr. Migrating Fracture


In modern society there is less pressure to enter the profession of your parents and more encouragement to pursue your interests. I am a teacher, and both of my parents were in real estate. There was little expectation that I would enter the field, and it doesn’t appear that any of my siblings will either.

Despite the modern illusion that a child can dream and enter a profession of his or her choice, this is not always the case. My husband came to decide on medical school after migrating through a number of potential professions. Since entering medical school, he has met several students who weren’t offered the same time of exploration in considering other professions, but rather were nudged/shoved/pushed into the profession by their parents.

“So what do you think he would rather be doing?” I asked one of Curtis’s classmates, about a student, who has made it clear he would rather not become a physician.
“Astronomy” was the reply.
“So, how has he made it this far?” I asked, slightly shocked.
“He does just enough.”

It turns out that “just enough” applies not only with tests, but with clinical practice. They recounted stories of this student’s “migrating fracture”—an injury that locates itself strategically based on the skills required.

Delivering babies?

“Which sounds more convincing for a fractured wrist” he asked his classmates, having already wrapped his wrist in an injured fashion, “that I fell on the ice? Or that I fell skiing?”

Oh my.

And this injury has manifested itself in all kinds of ways to keep this student from having to practice any more than he has to.

Has this affected his review and evaluations? Probably. But more than anything it makes me sad that he has invested so many years in an education that he not only doesn’t care about, he avoids it at all costs.

When my husband got into medical school, we were really excited. It had been a long process, with a lot of work, and a lot of time, and a lot of sacrifices. Receiving his first white coat represented a chance at so many things.

Avoiding learning wasn’t one of them.

To hear about someone that makes those investments—curtailed as they are—in vain, with no hope or intention of making good use of them makes me sad. But it also reminds me of how blessed I am. I have a profession where I invest a lot of time and energy, and find much purpose and fulfillment in my work. Curtis, with all that he has put into his professional preparation, looks forward to the same.

But what does Mr. Migrating Fracture have to look forward to?

I hope he finds something that he wants, that is worth working for and investing in.

Life is too short.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Fragments of Medical School: How Smart Were You?

Interesting discussions come up when you talk to people that are in school full time. Everything they do revolves around learning.


All the time.

Unsurprisingly, much of their conversation revolves around learning. This is not so difficult for me to participate in, as someone who makes a living trying to instruct, but sometimes discussing the progression of learning brings up odd conversations.

This past week I dined with a few of Curtis’s fellow classmates, who are all enjoying a month away from their stressful regime to interview for next year’s residency. Over bowls of child, cornbread muffins, and slices of chocolate moose cake, the graduating physicians started discussing at what point they were most smart.

That’s right, they are all quite sure they are going down hill from here.

Obviously, as they choose their specialties and begin their residency they become more knowledgeable in a specific field: family medicine, internal medicine, emergency medicine. But as they specialize they loose the wide-breadth of knowledge that they have spent hours and weeks and months gathering and substitute it for a small focus.

So when did they “know” the most?

In the debate between whether the first or second board exam required a greater breadth of knowledge, they began discussing circumstances that impeded their studying: A death in the family. A stressful rotation. An attempt at balance.

In the end it was pretty obvious that the conversation was entertainment at best, and far from important. When it comes down to it, few people care how many facts and how much information is available during an eight hour test. After residency, no one cares about your scores.

In the end, being able to do something well, rather than just know a lot about it, is far more important.

Even if you can’t attach a grade to it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Signs of Origin: Returning to My Roots


I listened to many podcasts in the midst of travelling this past month from This American Life, a production of Chicago Public Radio. This radio show takes a theme and develops it through multiple stories and examples to create a hugely entertaining hour that celebrates the interesting and unique in life.

One podcast that caught my attention this past trip was about stories of origin--from the humble beginnings of major corporations and inventions, to the histories of relatives and friends. Travelling home always strikes an intangible chord for me--what is it about being where I grew up that feels so significant?

I have moved many times in my life: across the west coast as a child, across the country in college. With each move I have felt a bit more fragmented, as if a piece of myself was left behind, planted in soil elsewhere: in relationships, on trails through the forest, in favorite corners of a house. I would stash a piece of myself in each location I left: a marble under a loose corner of carpet, a signature in an upper corner of a closet, memorizing the view out of a window and the feeling of belonging in that home.

As a child I remember visiting the neighborhood my mom had lived in through high school and listening politely as she recounted significant places: her home, the home of a friend, the hill she stalled on just after learning to drive a stick-shift car. And I remember thinking that even though I knew these places were significant to her, they held no meaning for me. They were unfamiliar street corners in the midst of an unfamiliar place.

As an adult I would find more meaning in those places.

I now have my own sentimental locations. As my husband and I consider the prospect of moving we compile our own sentimental catalogs of places and experiences shared. We speak o f coming back with our own children to show off our old residences and well-travelled running routes. We will stroll the brick streets holding hands, recounting the brisk temperatures we endured in order to steal away from campus for a few moments.

And even though at that moment they probably won't appreciate the tour any more than I did as a child, someday I hope they understand.

Friday, January 15, 2010

And Sometimes, Life Just Pauses


While driving back to my mom's house this afternoon, I was surprised by the unexplainable decrease in speed of the semi in front of me. I was exiting right behind it, and as I drove up the off-ramp and turned onto the bridge passing over the highway, I was delighted to see a young moose trotting across four lanes, slowing everyone in his path. Just as the fellow made it across, he changed his mind (as most adolescents do) and turned his short-horned head around to scamper back across.

I was delighted.

For one brief moment, everyone travelling 65+ miles per hour had to stop and appreciate the wonder of creation and the uniqueness of their surroundings.


We have been back in the homeland this weekend, adding another 5,000 miles to the 3,500 we have already traveled in the past thirty days. Too many miles for one month?


Despite my current aversion to any mode of transportation, I have been enjoying the many opportunities I have had to pause and appreciate my surroundings. I have been in so many beautiful places, with many wonderful people, and have had lots of time to think and read and just be.

In the midst of a year that seems so full of unknowns about the future, I have been very refreshed by the break from the chaos.

And now, without further adieu, may second semester (and all that it entails) begin.

*While the camera wasn't handy at the highway crossing, this fellow was hanging out down the street from the house.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Celebrating the Silver Lining

Three years ago
I wrote one of the biggest checks of my life when I purchased a new vehicle. This was a first for me. Previous to this state of ownership I had begged and borrowed vehicles for days, weeks, or months at a time, reimbursing the owners for their generosity.

Did I say the vehicle was new?

This lovely Ford Contour was actually manufactured in 1998, and had already been driven 140,000 miles. Both rear doors squeak loudly when opened, and while this problem could probably be fixed rather painlessly with a little WD-40, we aren’t regularly using the back seat, and thus just suffer through the noise.

When the previous owner (a good friend) offered us the vehicle, we knew he was ditching it for its lack of reliability. He was moving 200 miles away, knew he’d be making the trip back home frequently, and didn’t want to be stranded on any major Ohio highway.

Why did we take the car?

Well, I needed it for my commute to school everyday, which is all of three miles. The car does occasionally make longer treks to exciting places like church, or to visit my sister, by I think the poor sheltered vehicle has maybe left the state once.

In the past three years, the seller of this vehicle (and his wife, who was all too familiar with its—can we say endearing?—quirks) has been amazed by the luck we’ve had with it. We have had to take it in two times in three years for problems, most of which have been fairly reasonable, and at convenient times. I have never been stranded by the side of the road, only in my driveway.


The past three years of our lives have been nothing short of overwhelming. Between my job, and his medical school, and my masters degree we have been busy and poor. We live simply and save often.

Excess to us means going out to the cheap Mexican restaurant down the street to share an order of fajitas. This is justified because we can get an entire second meal out of our leftovers adding only a couple tortillas and a can of refried beans.

While running outside the other day Curtis and I were talking about what it would be like to have money. It was then that I told him my theory about the Contour, and our other tangible possessions:

“ I think everything is going to fall apart as soon as we have money.”
“I think that this is God’s provision in our lives. We haven’t landed any windfalls of cash or won any brand new cars, but everything we have has held together. We have been healthy. Our cars (against all odds) work. And we get by.”
“Interesting. It does never cease to amaze me how the Contour has held together.”
“If it happens, I called it.”
“Fair enough.”


Last week the Contour broke down in the driveway once again. Since it’s a new year, I suppose we’re due. Then yesterday, our other car’s muffler started making an awful noise, and we’re pretty sure that’s going to need some TLC this week as well.

And that’s when I amended my theory.

While we have (just) enough money to work with these current issues, what we currently have in (unusual) abundance is time. Both vehicles having problems within a week—coincidence?

I could never believe it.

Friday, January 8, 2010

And Visions of Snow Days Danced in Their Heads...


Voice on the Radio: We expect 3-8 inches starting this afternoon and continuing until 7am on Friday morning.
Voice in my Head: The conditions are PERFECT.


Voice of a pessimistic 8th grade student, after all middle school practices have been canceled: It isn’t even snowing yet! How is it that they are canceling everything? This storm isn’t even going to show up.
Almighty Teaching Authority: The weather report didn’t call for snow until this afternoon
Voice from student: It is afternoon.
Almighty Teaching Authority: Later afternoon.
Look from student: Unconvinced
Voice in head: Don’t crush my hope for a long weekend! I could accomplish so much with a snow day! Clean the house! Take down Christmas decorations! Work on planning for next semester!

Snow starts

Snow thickens
Voice in head: See, you unbelieving 8th grade students, the snow day IS coming.


Voice in head: The roads are TERRIBLE. Well, maybe just slippery…but the conditions are still PERFECT.


Voice in head: It will come back…all the weather reports called for snow—all night.

Voice in head: So, what was I planning on teaching tomorrow?

Weather report calls for more snow starting at 2am.
Voice in head: Yeah, right. Like the snow that supposed to be falling ALL EVENING? I should have listened to the 8th grader…

Text Message: NO SCHOOL

Love it.
Now, where did I put those boxes for the Christmas decorations?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

“Well somebody has to make the money...”

I guess he's not so bad at relaxing, after all.

…my husband said to me as I lay in bed the morning after Christmas break, listening to my alarm ring. Someone should warn teachers of all the perils of that fateful first day of the new year. From the moment I woke up to the moment I got home I was fairly miserable.

(I say “fairly” because there were a few brief glimpses of enjoyment with the students weren’t around and my coworkers and I were reminiscing about the highlights of our respective break experiences.)

My husband is currently in the midst of his “interview” month, a lovely gift bestowed on fourth year medical students to give them time to gallivant around the country strutting their knowledge and skills to residency programs they hope will hire them.

(Since too many thousands of dollars worth of loans are coming due shortly after graduation, we are very hopeful that one of these interviews will turn into a job.)

Since Curtis only has two interview days this month (and three additional days out of town) we are left with no less than fourteen days whereas my husband stays home while I go off to work. What on earth will he do to fill those days?

(You know, other than things like making dinner, doing laundry, training for a marathon, going to the post office, the bank, the grocery store and visiting our elderly neighbor who is in the hospital.)

So, while I battle it out in the classroom with vacation-remembering teenagers who have forgotten what it is like to have structure and purpose in their days, he will gallivant around town, making my life when I return home as simple as possible.

And I guess that makes being the “bread winner” all worth it.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Metting Debbie


Vacationing at the beach this past week found me anticipating time to read, soak up sun, perfect my skills at bocce ball, and walk on the beach. I (completely) forgot about how much I enjoy watching people.

The beach presents some pretty interesting characters over the course of a week. In addition to the old couples, young couples, travelling families and resident snowbirds are those that “work” the beach everyday.

You can rent almost anything in a week at the beach: canoes, jet skis, sail boats, and surf boards to use in the water; hotel and motel rooms, condos and yachts, for when the sun has left one exhausted. But in between the sun and exhaustion lies an important piece of furniture: the lounge chair.

We met Debbie (as we came to call her) our first day on the beach. After exploring the terrain in search of a place to spread out and relax, we settled on a couple pairs of lawn chairs, protected from the wind with angled umbrellas, facing south toward the arch of the sun. These chairs lined the shore of the beach for a couple hundred yards.

Debbie greeted us shortly after we’d settled into our books, welcoming us jovially while informing us that the chairs we were so settled into could be rented from her for the day.


We explained that we had not realized they were for hire, to which she replied incredulously “You thought they were free?”

Yes, kind of like picnic tables, or park benches, or facebook. We thought that these wind protected, pad covered, sun-facing lounge chairs were tax payers’ gift to visiting tourists.

Call us naive.

After we removed all our belongings and spread our sheet on the sand, covering it with various items to weight down all corners, we discussed our misjudgment of the situation, and our intrigue with Debbie. As the week progressed we observed her from afar, trying to piece together what her life—as one who collects for chair rentals—looks like.

We weren’t disappointed.

Throughout the week our lives intersected with Debbie on several occasions. We found her home, situated a short walk from our condo, and obsevered her laboring to fix a broken umbrella in the shade of her open garage. She was seen long boarding down the sidewalk, small dog riding passenger near her feet, in the cool dark evening. She was even witnessed leaving one hotel’s New Year’s Eve party, shouting up to the balcony of a guest.

Her robotic gait and tan leathered skin made her easy to recognize from afar, as did her constant accompaniment of iPod and headphones. She walked back and forth everyday on the beach for hours, sometimes with a sweatshirt and jeans, sometimes in shorts and a tank top, at times with shoes though often barefoot, but rarely without her tunes.

And while her activities seemed easy enough to find, her playlist—alas—eluded us.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Meeting Tom, Dick and Harry, or On Learning Language

My three vacation companions...

My body recoiled against the cold last week, wishing me back into a warm building rather than the stale cold of my car. I tried to guess what the temperature was, with and without windchill as the car hummed back to life. As I drove past a digital sign flashing the temperature, I noticed how wrong I was.

I have lost my touch.


When I was in high school I became very good at determining how cold it was outside. After school every day someone would stick a thermometer in the snow, and bring it in to our ski team to report what kind of wax we would be using.

Temperature matters a lot in cross country skiing. If the snow is close to freezing, it is fast. If it is far below zero, painfully slow. There is wax for warm snow, cold snow, new snow, old snow, and every combination in between. If the temperature shifts ten degrees, there’s a good chance you’ll want a different wax.

And thus, knowing exactly how cold it was every day I went out to ski, I became very familiar with what certain temperatures “feel” like.


When I was in college I did some research on the Eskimo population and culture. One of the most interesting things I learned was how many different words they had for snow. While the author tried to explain why this was important to their culture (while insinuating it was not as important for our own), I understood instantly. I could think of countless times where different descriptive terms would have been helpful in describing snow conditions.

As an English teacher I struggle to urge my students to use good descriptive words. “In your list of descriptive adjectives, I don’t want to see any words like ‘bad’, ‘good’, ‘nice’, or ‘mean’. Be original. Make me feel like I really know something about what you are describing.”

Circulating the room I will hear them reminding and chastising each other: “She said you can’t use ‘nice’. No, ‘good’ won’t work either.” Words are powerful, I try to remind them. We play games with Thesauruses. We make lists of vocabulary words. Still they seem to prefer boring generalities, like “snow”.


I recently vacationed with my husband and two friends, all three of which are in graduate school for medical professions. With two doctors and one physical therapist, conversations sound less than standard as we sit around for dinner. “I strained my arch walking on the beach today,” I comment.
“Where does it hurt?” my husband asks. Next, the physical therapist traces her finger along the line on my foot I am pointing to.
“I think it’s Dick, of Tom, Dick and Harry” Curtis comments, referring to the mnemonic he used in memorizing the tendons.
“Yes” she replies, “though it’s commonly mistaken for plantar fasciitis”
“So what is it called? This tendon I strained?” I ask, as I spoon another helping of freshly squashed guacamole onto my plate.
“The flexor digitorum longus” one of them finally replies.

Yes, this really was a conversation.


Words indeed are powerful. The ability to name and describe and express and explain effectively are things I teach on a daily basis, and truly value. Similarly, in medicine it is vital that one be able to identify exactly what and where problems are, so that a solution can be determined. When something is named, it is valued. It is given worth. It takes on significance as an individually important item or experience worth noting.

And maybe that is why I like writing. In the end, I am truly appreciating things more by enumerating them with words, able to look back and remember and experience life once again…

…for each unique and individual experience.