Friday, January 28, 2011

Menagerie

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That is the word I came up with when pressed to decide what spelling bees and quilting have in common. They were both on my mind as I went about my evening: paying the bills, searching for Curtis's W2's, emptying my breakfast and lunch tupperwares from my school bag.

Tomorrow is the classroom round of the junior high spelling bee, and I had words on my mind as I went about my business: curmudgeon, Kelvin, jalapeno, yeti, legalese, convivial...and then that morphed into my visions of my latest quilt planning. I spread the fabric on the floor yesterday, and then sat and placed each scrap or yard into piles of different colors, an irregular crayon box that had enough order to look intentional, and enough eclectic options to make any artist drool.

And it was in that moment that I convinced myself that quilting and spelling bees are not so different. Both are collections of items that have something in common, even as they are infinitely different. They follow rules, and have structure and form, and yet can be collected together in ways that are beautiful and ugly and interesting and boring and awe-inspiring.

Now, I am off to work on assembly of my own...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Simply a Good Day

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The tunnel leading down into an old World War II bunker in Curtis's hometown. 
It all started in the hallway.

I was standing outside my door, watching the students pass between periods: classroom-locker-chat-locker-classroom. Then a student walked up to me and asked me a question: Can I chew gum in your class?

Now this answer has changed in the past year. At my last school, gum was not allowed. That's not to say that the stealth teenagers didn't try to sneak it every opportunity they got, it's just that when I heard it, saw it, smelled it, I asked them to spit it out.

At this school, gum is up to the discretion of the the teacher. Knowing that trying to outlaw gum in a school where my students likely chew in every other room was an uphill battle, I told the students they could chew as much as they wanted--until it became a distraction. If I saw it or heard it, it was gone.

And that's what I reminded this student, slightly surprised that he still didn't know the policy after our five months together. On the other hand, that fits this student. He's not very great at paying attention, and doesn't often notice details. He's not the most mature, and capitalizes on every possible opportunity to elicit a laugh. As a result, he's gotten in his fair share of trouble.

If there were a mature student in the 8th grade, it wouldn't be him.

Despite all of these realities, I humored him when he pulled out a pack of gum and I saw it was Trident Layers--one of my personal favorites.
"That's a good pack of gum," I commented to him as we stood together in the hallway.
Without missing a beat, he quickly replied, "You want some?" as if I was one of his buddies, and we were sharing a bag of chips.
"Thanks for the offer" I told him "But I don't like to chew gum when I'm talking in front of everyone." He smiled and nodded hid head, and headed back into the classroom while I corraled the stragglers into the classroom before the bell.

Toward the end of the period, when I finally made it back to my desk, I found a piece of gum neatly placed in the middle of my computer keyboard. It was a small gift, stealthily placed, and never mentioned.

And it made my day.

There are a lot of up and down moments in teaching, almost like I am plucking petals off a daisy daily. The petals proclaim "they love me; they love me not" depending on how much they love my lesson, hate the assignment, are getting along with their friends, or parents or relatives. I deal with a lot of variables, very few of which I have any control over. I care a lot for my students, but I am rarely convinced they have any idea.

One piece of gum? A token, a gift, a small act that made the day a little brighter.

I'll take it--any day.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Salad-Du-(Every)-Jour

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Every Wednesday the school I work at has a “soup and salad” luncheon. Various teachers throughout the school volunteer a couple weeks a semester to bring soup or salad for forty, and the other weeks that teacher gets to feast on someone else’s crockpot creation or fresh greens.

It’s a welcome mid-week break.

Last week was my turn to bring lunch, and I purchased the fixings for one gigantic salad. I opted to make the same creation I made first semester (blue cheese, pear, and Dijon oil vinegar dressing), and purchased the same amount of materials.

The problem? Apparently people are more hungry in October than January. Perhaps the other dishes were more appetizing; maybe serving an autumn fruit in the dead of winter was uncouth. Whatever the reason, the lunch period came and went and the second half of my salad never needed to be prepared.

Curtis and I have never been good at throwing things out. Whether it is the running shoes he wore in junior high (that I would love to trash) or the unappetizing leftovers (that I can’t take for lunch for the 17th day in a row), we are people that believe in using everything—especially food.

When I came home that day with a mountain of salad fixings, Curtis wasn’t overly dismayed. He loves salad. When I showed him that I had already purchased extra lettuce (in addition to the leftovers) for salad fixings, he added that we’d have to get creative.

After all, the clock was ticking.

We are on day five of the massive-salad-construction-project, and have made several lovely creations. The classic blue cheese and pear on Wednesday (for both lunch and dinner) morphed into blue cheese and apple on Friday, which was a nice change up from the taco salad consumed on Thursday for dinner and Friday for lunch. Over the weekend we continued trying to work through the massive pile of greens, with today’s salad-du-jour being one with salmon, avocado, tomato, cilantro and feta.

Yes, necessity is the mother of invention (or a new appreciation for allrecipes.com, depending on how you look at it).

As would be expected, the greens are slowly starting to wilt, and we are down to our last eight cups. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether we will consume the greens before they need to be tossed. This much is clear, however: we gave it our best fight. If we lose, we will have done so struggling against the decomposition process until the bitter end.

And our vitamin and mineral levels will be all the better because of it.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Bit of Blah

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Fake drama, anyone? Part of snow-cave-adventure-weekend was a staged avalanche survival exercise. Trying to follow along as a bunch of medical professionals "saved" victims made be more than aware of my lack of knowledge about the human body.

Good thing I know exactly how to use a semicolon.

We hit our stride this week, after an unusual few weeks that involved Christmas break, travels, snow cave construction and a four week rotation requiring Curtis to work only 40-50 hours a week.

We almost felt like a normal couple.

The weather seemed to echo our own experiences, bouncing back to reasonable temperatures (above ten degrees, or even zero) and granting us the first fresh coat of snow in nearly a month. The last month of extreme cold and unseasonable warmth settled on a typical neutral.

And so did the hours of our schedules.

For some reason that I can't explain, January and February seem to be "a bit of blah" (as I explained it to my friend) every year. Things are a bit too routine, with not a lot of excitement to keep life feeling new and fresh. School has been in session for five months, but it's not stopping anytime soon. The winter is beautiful, but has been around for a while. The darkness is receeding, but not fast enough.

Subsequently, I sometimes find myself moving from task to task with an underlying feeling of "blah" that makes grading papers a bit more aggravating, laundry a bit more bothersome, and cleaning and tidying a task to be perpetually put off.

The good news? We are near the end of January. So this "blah" stage is about half over.

The bad news? Third quarter means one thing for me as an English teacher: research papers. My mind in constantly littered with thoughts and plans for teaching website credibility, proper academic writing structure, and endlessly trying to come up with a system that will help my students not lose things.

I'm pretty sure that keeping track of notes, sources and a pencil all at once is the number one problem.

In the mean time, we'll attempt to spice things up with skis on the fresh snow, cinnamon rolls for weekend breakfast, and reading books for fun (gasp!) at the local coffee shop.

(All while finishing the laundry and putting things away, of course.)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Looking for a new start...

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In addition to humans, Curtis is also great at bringing fires to life...

It has been cold the past several days. Really cold. It didn't break zero degrees at our house all weekend, and when we drove to church around 10am Sunday morning it was -16. Thanks to these superbly chilling temperatures, one of our vehicles hasn't been starting so well. Or at all.

One of the best things about our latest residence is that we have one garage slot. The problem is we have two vehicles: one a shiny, new specimen that I picked out in 48 hours last summer when an unexpected collision left us without our trusty Honda Civic; the second a tried and true suburban that was purchased when my brother was born. Have I mentioned that my brother is in high school? This is the truck I learned to drive in, the truck I slid through red lights in on icy nights in high school, the truck that we took road trips in when I was a child.

While one of our vehicles starts like a charm, even when left outside all day in below zero temperatures while we live in snow caves, the other, well, let's just say she is not a huge fan of sub-zero temperatures. Whenever the temperature gets really cold, the old 'burb needs a jump start--sometimes a really long one.

Sunday morning Curtis went out to start the 'burb to give it a bit of a warm up and found it to be unwilling to cooperate. The engine would turn over a little, but the fluids were frozen or something and the vehicle would not be persuaded to come to life. After over an hour of connection to our young, perky car, the old lady would still not come to life, and Curtis set out for the local auto parts store for some inspiration.

When he returned he was in possession of all sorts of toxic chemicals intended to provide the jump start we needed in our frigid temperatures, which were still below zero--even in the heat of what was now afternooon. Every so often I would get a call from Curtis up to where I was in our warm condo, making chili and organizing tax documents, to come down and aid him in his latest method of reviving the 'burb. To no avail I revved both engines while he sprayed highly flammable contents on this fan or that gizmo, sucking the water out of the gas and trying to heat all sorts of important things.

(At one point the thought passed through my mind that as amateurs we might end up setting something {ourselves?} on fire with all these chemicals, and when it was all said and done I'm pretty sure the consensus would be that it wasn't worth it.)

Despite the flamable chemicals and the jump start from our newer, sleeker vehicle, we were left looking for new options. Perhaps, we theorized, if we could get the suburban into the garage to sit overnight, it would come back to life. After all, what woman doesn't love a nice spa treatment to feel revitalized? Curtis called his brother, who brought over a couple spare tires to help move the oversized vehicle into the coveted garage slot. I was once again beckoned into the cold, where I was given the important task of directing the vehicle into our slot and NOT into the neighbor's shiny SUV, all while battling a lack of power steering.

It was a very intense moment.

Once the suburban had been pushed and prodded into the warmth of the garage, we left her to sit while we ventured to my mom's house for dinner. Three hours later, we optimistically tried to start the warming vehicle to no avail. Apparently three hours wasn't enough to thaw out. This morning (a morning that I ironically should get to sleep in, since it's a school holiday) I woke at 6am when Curtis's alarm beckoned him out of bed. I lay in bed trying to "sleep" while I listened to him dress, scarf some breakfast and ready for the day. Then I strained my hearing for news from the garage two floors below--would the old lady come to life this morning?

The sound of our heating (working overtime in this frigid spell) was masking any sounds from the garage, and after ten minutes of pretending to sleep while everything in me was dying to know if the vehicle turned on I put on several layers to venture down to the garage in the -19 temperature of the morning.

No luck; apparently the spa treatment wasn't enough.

I climbed into the 'burb to turn the key several times while Curtis tried the flammable chemical concoction to no avail. And when it was obvious that a heated garage had not fixed the ancient vehicle, we closed up shop, disconnected the jumper cables, replaced the hoods, and jumped in our dependable vehicle so I could drop Curtis off at the hospital.

The vehicle still sits in our garage, and I will probably secretly sneak down to try my hand at coaxing the suburban into turning on this afternoon, mostly so that I can be the hero when Curtis gets home. What better way to show that a day off from school has been productive and worthwhile than to turn on the car with no assistance that he labored over for hours yesterday afternoon?

Meanwhile, I hope that a twelve hour shift at the hospital brings lots of productive life-saving measures for Curtis. Because even though he may be totally unknowledgeable at what makes automobiles tick, he has had way too much schooling on humans.

And sometimes, you just need a win.

Friday, January 14, 2011

(In)Vincible

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Did you know that "vinicible" is a word?

As I drove to work this morning, ever aware of my swollen achy hands (more on that later), I was trying to figure out what the opposite of invincible was. As in "I am so far from invincible, I am ______." And I couldn't find a word that I liked. Vulnerable? Conquerable? Breakable? Nothing seemed to fit the way I wanted it to, and I was left wondering if I could just ditch the "in" and call myself vincible.

Turns out I can.

I probably should have ditched the "in" yesterday afternoon around 3:08pm: one minute before Curtis called proclaiming he had gotten off early, twenty minutes before I changed into clothes to go out skiing, thirty minutes before I watched the temperature drop down to six degrees as we headed to the trails, forty-five minutes before I stopped at the top of a hill intensely frustrated because my wax was slow (due to both temperature and the need of a new coat) and my hands numb past my second knuckle.

I was feeling quite stubborn, however, and was determined to finish our normal loop. The wax issue continued to get worse, my hands continued to grow more painful, and about a mile from the parking lot I opted for a short cut that would let us cut off almost three quarters of a mile. Bad idea. Just as I was taking the short-cut-corner, I wiped out on a mini-ice rink sitting right in the middle of the trail. I bruised up my knee and shin, grunted an "I'm FINE" when Curtis turned around to check on my progress, and proceeded to the parking lot afraid to open my mouth for fear of what might come out.

Sometimes the trail and I don't get along.

This morning as I tried to think of a better word than vincible, I was feeling very aware of my weaknesses. Yesterday morning a couple students got in a fight a few feet from my classroom, a few minutes before the start of the day. It disturbed me. One of the students I have in class and know to be an intelligent and thoughtful person. Why stoop to a level of clawing at the other person's face? Yelling profanities as you get pulled away? I felt very aware of instances where emotions get the better of me, of all of us, and we make choices that are no longer logical or measured.

I have not thought myself to be invincible for a very long time; the older I get the more I am aware of how easily I can be conquered--by students, personal ambitions not attained, or really cold weather. And yet when I am surrounded every day with full classrooms of teenagers that act like they could conquer the world, I am often moved when they fall back down to earth. I want to hope that they can make it--out of family situations that drag them down, away from peer groups that might compromise their goals, into a world where their potential can be met.

Unfortunately, sometimes one is left the next morning with aching hands, a reminder that quickly made choices perhaps weren't very well thought out, wondering if there is something I could have done to keep the students from making negative choices of their own. And yet, the battle continues: in the classroom, on the trails, in my mind. Sometimes you have to keep fighting, despite the reality of brokenness, for the victories--even when they seem to be impossible to find.

Does continuing to fight for these wins despite all sorts of set-backs make me invincible after all? Maybe. And maybe hanging out with teenagers every day, who seem to never know when to quit, has some positive effects. After all, even when they fall hard, they keep trying, convinced (to a fault) that next time will work out better than the last.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Next Time You're Stranded in the Wilderness...

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While the snow cave adventure was clearly the keynote focus of a weekend titled "Wilderness Survival", there was a lot of information to be learned about making the best of being stranded in the wilderness. Though my readership probably doesn't plan on getting stuck in an area with no communication, transportation or people of any kind, you can never be "too prepared", as the following bits of info will surely convince you.

First off, there were many a lecture that started with "One thing you should always carry with you in your backpack is..." Clearly I need to get myself one of these backpacks. These things will literally save your life five times over. I'm not sure that my "leftover from college" pack is cool enough to carry all of the following gear. And if it is, I'm not sure I want to carry it with me everywhere I go. But maybe that's me taking my life into my own hands.

1. Flares: We practiced setting these suckers off under a clear night sky on a nicely frozen lake. A local "outdoorsy" store had donated a box full of expired flares of all shapes and sizes for us to set off--after letting the local authorities know that we were neither celebrating New Years Day a week lake, nor were we stranded with more than our fair share of attention-seeking devices. Lesson #1: Expired flares don't always work. Don't count on them in your hour of need--they might be duds. Lesson #2: Even when it's below zero, they may still catch things on fire. Luckily, our fire went out. Lesson #3: Make sure you have someone on hand that isn't afraid of explosives, fire or loud noises. Basically, I should never travel by myself in the wilderness.

2. Wire: After a twenty minute lecture on all the different ways to set traps with a certain type of wire (which I now, of course, can't remember) I am quite confident that if I were hungry enough, I might be able to construct something that resembled a trap to catch rabbits. Or mice. Or something. Being that I was listening to this lecture with a whole bunch of doctors, the mention of catching a rabbit led to a whole litany of diseases you could catch should you not properly remove "the innards" or cook the meat to a sufficient temperature, or skin it properly. Basically, as long as I'm carrying a backpack, I should also carry a meat thermometer to go with my wire. That, and wire cutters.

3. Knife: This one seemed obvious, but with Curtis and I were preparing for "Wilderness Survival Weekend", we realized we own no knife. We have knives to cook with, but nothing to take "to the wilderness" to use for things like peeling bark off of trees and fashioning mukluks--but I digress. The knife is necessary for obvious reasons. Apparently everyone should have one, and sharing one (like we did) might not be safe. What if we get separated?

4. Steel wool, a nine-volt battery, vaseline, flint, etc: Basically, bring something to start a fire with. I aided in starting a couple fires without matches, lighters and such and learned one very important thing: be ready to blow. A lot. I also learned that you have to get your face really close to the flame to keep it going, especially when it's below zero and everything you try to use for fuel is covered in frost.

5. Plastic bags, foam, carpet: Apparently these are things you can find in your everyday vehicle or plane (you know, for those of you that own one). I know where to get the carpet, and I'm sure I could dig up some foam under seats or something, but the plastic bags? What if you keep your car pretty clean? Perhaps this is where I blame my childhood for my inability to survive. If only I were allowed to leave plastic bags sitting around, I would have survived...but I digress. These materials are used to construct "mukluk" boots for the person that forgot a sturdy pair of boots or shoes and is now stranded. Basically you wrap the foam around the food, cover with bad, and then wrap carpet. It makes for a sturdy (albeit awkward) pair of shoes. An orthopedic surgeon helped me construct mine, and I was amazed at a) how talented he was at cutting the carpet to fit my foot b) the fact that he had two knives on hand for different uses and c) his knot tying abilities. I would personally recommend you keep a surgeon on hand for constructing these.

So, if you've been taking notes, items you need for "your backpack" include non-expired flares, wire, wire cutters, a meat thermometer, two knives, steel wool, a nine volt battery, vaseline, flint, plastic bags, foam, carpet and string. I would also recommend a surgeon, and someone not afraid of fire, explosives, or really loud noises. Put it all together in your (exceptionally large) backpack, along with a shovel and candles for snow cave construction, a sleeping bag for 0 degrees or below, and you should be good to go and get stranded in the wilderness.

Go get 'em, folks. Make sure to report back on how the rabbit turns out, and let me know if your own mukluks turn out nearly as stylish as mine:

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Sunday, January 9, 2011

Outside Adventures: Snow Cave Edition

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Taken from the inside of the cave...the best (though ineffective) impression of the compact space.

Ever since returning to our home state, Curtis and I have enjoyed exploring the terrain looking for adventure. Whether it’s crossing an icy stream while out mountain biking, or narrowly escaping a moose after (accidentally) crossing between a mom and its baby, we have been taking full advantage of the wilderness that exists almost right outside our front door.

This weekend we ventured almost two hours north with Curtis’s co-workers for some “wilderness survival training.” While public cabins were rented—cabins that lacked both plumbing and electricity--snow cave construction was part of the agenda.

I arrived on Friday evening, after a long week with my lovely junior high students, ready to conquer the wilderness. I had watched the car’s thermometer drop steadily since leaving school, from a balmy 18 to a not-so-comfortable 1. It didn’t help that I knew from previous experience that the car’s assessment of the outside temperature is usually optimistic. I put on almost every item of clothing I had brought along, and trekked a half mile down to our cabin on a narrow, winding, uneven trail carrying my virtually empty backpack.

Once we arrived at our cabin, the safe-haven in case of snow cave disaster, we dropped off my belongings and hiked another half mile to a different cabin where we would be eating dinner. We arrived just in time for snow cave awards.

The leader of the wilderness retreat had personally assessed all the caves constructed earlier that day, and was ready to report about his findings. One cave was deemed most aesthetically pleasing. Another was complimented for interior construction. And then the leader turned his attention to Curtis and complimented his design as likely yielding the warmest cave—due to the six foot tunnel that led to the compact, inside cave. “I hope your wife is not claustrophobic” he joked, while my eye brows jumped about six inches off my face and everyone chuckled.

“Did he forget?” I said while chuckling, eliciting further laughs from the crowd.

On the inside, I was terrified. I have long been uncomfortable in small, confined spaces—especially those without a quick escape. A six foot tunnel not even big enough to crawl through on my hands and knees, leading to a space three feet tall and six feet across? Not exactly my cup-of-tea.

Soon enough we ventured back to the cabin where I took my first look at the cave. Curtis was clearly pleased with his construction, but all I could think about was how small it was on the inside. How in the world was I going to relax enough to fall asleep? Once we settled in for the evening, I found myself more and more okay with the confined quarters. Despite the constant shower of ice shavings every time anyone touched the ceiling, a common mistake with such compact quarters, it was actually quite warm. Eventually I fell asleep.

That it, until I woke up screaming.

Turns out that even though I had convinced myself while awake that the snow cave was safe and secure, my sub-conscious was having nothing of it. After a very realistic nightmare that the snow cave was collapsing in on me, and anxiety that plagued me every time I started to fall asleep for the ninety minutes after that, I called it a night. I struggled to put all my layers back on, shimmied back out of the six foot tunnel dragging my sleeping pad and bag behind me, and ventured into an overly warm cabin to spend the night, getting up at two hour intervals to stoke the fire—lest the true survivors come in from the cold to find a cold cabin as well.

The next day when the snow cave was dismantled, I was unsurprised to find it incredibly secure. It took several people nearly ten minutes to break it down, and even when half the roof had been broken in, Curtis could still vigorously jump up and down on the other half. The ceiling was at least eighteen inches thick.

When we returned home Saturday evening after a long sequence of other survival activities, I told Curtis that I hoped he didn’t take my intense panic within the snow cave to be any reflection of the confidence I had in his constructing ability; the reality is that I just don't like small spaces. I guess we will just have to hope that we are never stranded in the winter wilderness. And if we are, I hope I quickly develop the ability to operate without sleep.

Even though I normally complete our outdoor adventures with a desire to repeat them at a later date, I think it is safe to say I never want to try and sleep in a snow cave ever again.

The destruction of the impetus of my anxiety...which gives you an idea of how strong (and deep) the cave actually was.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Year of Spring

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It has taken me several days to come up with a suitable “beginning of the year” post. Even though mentally my “year” follows the school calendar, there is something significant about the shift from 12/31 to 1/1. It feels cleaner and less cluttered, somehow.

A good friend of mine has been steadfastly clearing out all of the excess in her life for the last month. Even as her husband purchased toys for Christmas gifts she was bagging up old ones. Every time I went to her house she had more to offer: Dress pants? Salad bowls? Decorative shelves? Bundt pan? Coffee table? Bedroom set?

She offered me her sofa and love seat as well, but I convinced her that she should probably keep those.

While I had condensed my belongings this past summer both before and after the move, she has lived in her current house for nearly five years and in this town her whole life. Even though her house is almost always neat and tidy (an impressive feat with three kids under the age of five), in her mind it was time for a major purging session.

--

One year ago I didn’t know where I would be on this day. I didn’t know where I would live, where I would work, who I would know. I was living in an hourglass of sorts, knowing that I had six more months of a life that I loved, but unsure of where I would be sent when the sand ran out.

Turns out, in an odd sort of time warp, I returned to the place I was born and raised. I was dropped in a familiar place and left to rediscover and reacquaint myself with trails and hikes and shops and roads as an adult and no longer an adolescent. Some old places were abandoned; some new destinations discovered. Some friendships were rekindled, and some have shown themselves to be unrevivable.

2010, it turns out, was a whole year of spring cleaning, where I was forced to evaluate all that I had in my lives: precious, frivolous, mandatory, optional.

If I were to predict what 2011 might be, the orderly person I am would require that I choose the next season, summer. The planning and cleaning and planting of spring has passed, and now must be the work of developing and cultivating all that is newly seeded.

So this is it, my Happy New Years, Go get em’ inspiration.

May whatever season your find yourself in be one that you can appreciate and enjoy, trials, victories and all.