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...)