Monday, April 29, 2013

Carmel Valley Wedding

Bad mood, over.

E and I attended a wedding this weekend for our childhood friend James, in Carmel Valley, just outside of Carmel, CA. We've both known James since elementary school, and we all spent a bunch of time together in high school before he went off to pursue his education all over the country. He and E have stayed in touch over the years and we didn't want to miss this weekend. The wedding was at a beautiful resort, The Carmel Valley Ranch.

We decided to go a little more low-key on Friday evening, so we stayed in Santa Cruz, which was a little more our speed. It was like the warm-up to the real hotel. Basically we drove all afternoon, found a senior citizen filled steakhouse, ate our fill of mediocre smoked meats (but some DELICIOUS chowder), and passed out early watching HBO. Dream. Night. After the week I had, I was happy with boring.

Saturday morning we were up pretty early and we made our way toward Carmel. I decided I wanted to drive along the coast, so we cruised through Monterey/ Pacific Grove, Asilomar and Carmel, and E obliged by rolling the windows down (AND listening to about half the new Justin Timberlake album. What a lamb.). Haven't been back to the coast with him since we were there with the kiddos a little more than a year ago, but the weather was much better this time. It made me miss the monkeys, though.

We arrived about lunch time and had lunch with E's friend trent at a little cafe in Carmel Valley while we waited for our room to be ready. Service was slow but the food was tasty. A similar thing seemed to be happening over at the grocery store where I stopped for snacks, re: speed of service. It took my checker (who was also my bagger, natch) about 20 minutes to ring up five items and then get them in a sack. Ain't nobody in a hurry in the Carmel Valley, apparently.

But finally we headed over to the ranch (hee!) and we could check in.

The resort was breathtaking. I'm not sure how to talk about it without sounding like a girl from a small town who is amazed by such things because they are unfamiliar to her. So I won't even try. This place was. Just. WOW. Huge property. Gorgeous facilities. Wonderful people. It's a good thing there was a group rate for the wedding, so we could attend and stay there. That's all I'm sayin'. The property was amazing and everyone there was magical.

And my God, there were free things everywhere. And not just apples.

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So we got checked in, and then we got fancy. And I continued to struggle with my selfie picture-taking skills. But we gussied up good and eventually it was time to meet up with high school friends in the hotel bar.

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And then we took a short hike to the wedding venue, which was a vineyard. No detail was overlooked. I made sure to act like a total nerd and avail myself of every amenity they had. Sparkling watermelon non-alcoholic drink? Sure! Parasol? Mmhmm! We took our seats and waited for the ceremony to begin.

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James and Bonnie both seem very happy, as did their families. It was a beautiful ceremony.

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Then it was time to party in a big tent and dance the night away to an 80s cover band.

My achilles tendons still hurt, but you know what? Worth it.

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And just because I love peeking into houses and hotel rooms, here's a look into our gigantic suite at the Ranch:

Schmancy. Favorite thing: fireplace with a sleep timer.

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Sunday we went to the final wedding event, a big ol' brunch, and then we headed out. But not before I made E stop and walk on that big, soft beach with me. And not before I touched the Pacific.

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The moral of the story is that when life gets too hard, all need is a weekend away with my husband, a bunch of high school buddies, the sea, and an unreal (in its beauty) wedding to cheer me up.

Lesson learned.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Vent.

One of my pen pals asked me in a letter the other day how I do it all. Here's the answer: I do it all until I do this thing I'm about to do right now, which is be at my wits end.

I am grateful for my job. I am grateful to have a job. This moment is not about that. This moment is about venting, about being a human being who is not perfect.

Today I am exhausted.

Today teaching is too hard. Today it's just too much. Teaching is a job that asks sacrifice to the point of self harm. They don't tell you that when you get your credential.

Or maybe it just is the way I'm doing it--that's the more likely scenario. Why anyone would say sure to the kind of schedule I have is beyond me, and yet there I was last spring, saying yeah, okay, I can do that! Sure! Never mind that I'm trying to get my MFA. Never mind that my kids are 8 and 10 and won't ever be the age they are today again. Never mind that I have a marriage, and it's one that needs more attention than a rare orchid to stay alive.

And no, Internet, I'm not having this tantrum because I'm a lazy slacker who let things get away from her. I'm doing it. ALL OF IT. I'm working my schedule like a mofo, and I am on-task. I'm on-tasker than anybody you have ever met, but I am at the point in the school year where I lay down on my carpet after school and kick my feet and go I can't do this. I just can't do this anymore.

Because illusions I had about making a difference in a big way are out the window. I have 110 AP students (and 75 freshmen). And honestly, even though I'm grading their weekly essays like a beast, I'd say a goodly percentage of the writers don't really care what I write on them. In the last week I've had 2 kids come talk to me about their writing. Two. Out of 110. Not even 2% of the most ostensibly advanced writers in the school--the ones who are taking a college-level test in a little more than two weeks--want to talk about how they can improve. We can talk about why that might be some other day, but the fact is that they're not. It's disheartening because I want to help. So we press on, hoping that some quiet kid is getting more out of the class than I know, that he's learning something even though he's afraid (?) to talk to me. And I tell myself that I would do the job no matter what their response because it's the right thing to do. Because it is. And I am. And like an idiot I still keep hoping they'll read the comments or come see me when I offer.

But still, still I feel like every single act, every step and word and movement I make is being critiqued from afar. I could have never known that was the life of a teacher. It is being on stage five hours a day, and your show is getting reviewed in the paper constantly. I am conscientious to the point of obsession, and still I'm getting panned. This is the point in the year where I surrender, where I say enough. I did my best, and it isn't good enough.

Listen. I know it's me, too, this mood. I take things personally. I know that some days I can handle the BS better than others. Today was not one of those days. I can't hear kids mutter things like "I fucking hate this class" while I'm teaching curriculum I love and not feel a sting. This afternoon a precious snowflake looked right at me and said "why are you wearing that dress? It's so ugly." I just don't think that's the kind of thing you say to a person. Teacher or not. By the time I had to deal with a group of boys who thought it would be really awesome to repetitively blurt out the word "boner" while I was trying to teach the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, I was about to lose my shit.

Yeah, haha. Boner. But you try teaching something you love while somebody does that.

I didn't lose my shit, though. Because teachers don't. I kept it together. I kept them together.

No, I waited until I got home and saw the dishes in the sink that were there from before I went to LA.

The dishes that E left for me until I got home, the dishes that I then left for him in an immature act of defiance I could no longer maintain. I was faced with week-old bowls of cereal milk and the stench of my own defeat. That's when I lost it. That's when I lay on the floor and kicked my feet and cried a little.

That's the thing about the job that's hardest for me. It's everyone at home who suffers. My real life--my home life--is what matters, yet that is always where the emotions boil over and make a mess. Not so often in the classroom, where I feel like it's off limits. I start to feel out of balance when I'm giving away more of myself at work than I save for my family.

That, my dears, is how I do it. I do it until I fall apart.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Festival of Nerds

When was the last time I stayed up all night that wasn't because a kid was barfing?

It's been a while.

Certainly the last few times I did, it wasn't to do anything fun. Not to gossip all night, eating chips and salsa around a big table, giggling my tail off like I was in college all over again. Only when I was in college, I wasn't even doing that.

When my friend Eileen invited a bunch of us from my MFA program down to stay with her for the LA Times Festival of Books, my gut reaction was what it always is when someone asks me to go somewhere: yeah, that sounds like fun but I know I'll never go because I never do stuff like that. But this time I actually went. Huh.

The Festival of Books happens at USC and it's a crazy-good time of author panels and celebrities and music and booths and signings cooking demonstrations and food trucks. I had a blast.

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Not for nothing, this was also the first time I hung out with my UCR peeps away from residency. Or, I should say, the first time in real life. They all live in my phone and I can talk to them whenever I want, but that's not quite like having homies. It was lovely to feel like I am a part of something that exists beyond the walls (yes, there are walls) of the Rancho Las Palmas Resort in Rancho Mirage.

When I started the program, I kept hearing these would be lifetime friends I would make, and I kept thinking yeah right, I'm going to prove you wrong by being the one weirdsmobile who makes it through my MFA without human interaction. So it's nice to be not right about that. And honestly, it's nice to talk to people about books and writing and poetry and crap like that for a whole weekend and not have them look at you like they want you to shut up.

And this: I didn't know if I'd go to LATFOB and enjoy it as a spectator and feel like I was just watching it all happen. I didn't know what to expect, really. But I left feeling like this was a thing that I was very much in. It was a thing I went to see, but also it was a thing that I felt like I was a part of because of the lovely program I am a part of. That's kind of a wonderful thing. I feel like I had choice about where I ended up for grad school, but I also feel like I've been surprised and lucky in many, many ways by what my particular program has to offer.

The festival also made me so thankful for the luxury of my residencies. The panels were wonderful, and they were just about like what we have in December in June, only on a larger scale. It just made me feel really grateful that these same people who were gathering for this huge festival are also gracious enough to drive out to the desert to speak to us.

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And in the category of things that don't suck, Eileen's house on the beach is gorgeous. And the company was wonderful. The entire thing was just great.

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Still feeling very Pollyanna about the whole experience, but who cares. It was a good time.

And now I'm happy to be back home with my monkeys (who were thankful for the UCRPD and USC pencils I brought them to add to the collection.)

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Crossing Things Off the List

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Today was a day of crossing things off the list. At work, at least. I take off tomorrow after school for the LA Times Festival of Books, a nerd and word-filled weekend of geeky awesomeness with my school frenz. But I wouldn't let myself go unless all of my homework was done and uploaded and I was completely caught up with my grading. That took some doing this week. I have been working like a dog.

BUT. Done and done. Eez all FINISHED.

Luckily, I pulled it off. By 4:30 I was home and ready to head over to the monkeys' school to check out Open House.

I like Open House so much better than Back to School Night. No sitting in tiny chairs, listening to teachers go over rules and state standards. Just lots and lots of art.

Henry's class is learning about dinosaurs. Listening to him talk about the latin roots for their names just about made my nerd heart melt. Roo got a bad headache right before we left, so we ended up walking around her room without her, checking out all of her good work.

You can imagine it was a good place to be. So happy my kids are so smart and creative.

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And speaking of putting writing up on the wall, here's a little bit more of mine: Under the Gum Tree featured me today in their Meet the Author post. Check them out.

I can't wait to get on a plane tomorrow and have a little adventure.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

This and that.

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Yesterday was our wedding anniversary. 13 years. I was going to sit down and write about it, about our day of running kids here and there and cleaning house and buying some more new stuff for the backyard this weekend... write about our anniversary that was shaping up to be lovely despite the fact that a baseball game was scheduled for the boy and we were just going to have a lazy cheeseburger at BJs, but I was pretty sure that was how 13 was supposed to be.

But then Boston. So sad.

There just aren't the right words for it, but I keep thinking about this: it's been a little over a year since I've run a race, but not long enough that I consider that part of my life to be over. What touched me most at my first running event was the awesome, supportive, uplifting spirit that people had in the corrals and in the crowd. Every race I ran from that first one felt that way. I can't imagine the positive power of an amazing race like Boston. When I finished my one (ridiculously long, but hard-fought) full marathon, the sight of my husband and kids at the finish line was like nothing I've ever experienced. For something like this to happen at that wonderful place... hurts. And I have to remind myself that it was designed to make all of us feel scared and sick and angry. Gah. Awful.

I keep trying to focus on all the good, on those policemen who ran toward the blasts. On the strangers who helped each other. There's way more good in the world than bad. I know.

Anyway. So I wore a race shirt today to work, from my marathon. Something to do. A way to feel connected to that good in the world, to the community of runners that's definitely out there, sending love, being good to each other.

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Sigh. And life goes on. It must.

Speaking of good, there's a lot of it in my house. Much to be thankful for. Anniversaries always make me feel grateful not just for the relationship I have with E, but for this life. This whole deal.

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For this guy. Who is trying so hard to be a good ballplayer this year.

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And, in the interest of stalling at every turn, will sneak into my bed (in his underpants) with his Captain Underpants books and try to stay up past his bedtime, reading. Who could resist that smile?

Tonight he had baseball practice (it's always one or the other lately, practice or game), so he and E were gone for the better part of the evening and I got some alone time with Roo. Great, in that she and I are getting much more time together and that is always a good thing. Not great in that tonight it was Meltdown City, Population: Roo. We had a little bit of a stress situation on our hands about the 5th grade Constitution musical, and her role as James Madison.

Don't worry, I fixed it. And then E came home and he fixed it some more. There were tears, but then there were great big hugs from Mom and Dad that were bigger than the worry.

That's what I'm thankful for. These monkeys, this life. A husband who I can tag and he can jump in right where I left off.

Even when life throws in a big, loud bad, there's always so much good.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

PDawg Reads: April Edition

This morning Addie woke up late and snuggled in next to me on the couch while I was putting the finishing touches on the last paragraph of what will be my longest critical paper for school.

She let me know that she hasn't seen much of me in the last week or so. Aside from taking the cat to the vet together on Monday and one night we spent painting our nails (when I promptly fell asleep in the resulting snuggle, at what I am sure was about 7:30 PM), she's right. E asked me what was up this week, too.

"All you do is read or grade or write papers right now," he said.

Yeah. Sounds about right. I think everyone around here (me included) is used to the fact that I used last summer to get almost a full quarter ahead in my reading for school. When I had the same professors for several quarters in a row, it was easy to slow my reading pace a bit and stop being as freaked out as I was in my first year. But this quarter I have two new professors, and I had to wait until I transferred classes to get my reading list approved. No reading ahead. So now all of the sudden it's a mad PDawg dash to read shit like a MFA-er so I don't find myself in a last minute stress situation.

I think what's happening is that I'm just back in normal grad school mode, only nobody around here remembers what that looks like.

Short answer: a little crazy, and a lot busy. But if I stick to my schedule (GOD BLESS THE SCHEDULE, Y'ALL), it's doable. I just don't want to do anything after 10:00 at night or I turn into a blinky-eyed monster who yells and cries a lot.

Anyway.

I finished two books this morning, making four in the last two weeks. I've been cranking out papers in between sneaking peeks at pages, listening to my audio book every time I walk anywhere or drive in the car for more than five minutes. Two nights this week I didn't even open my computer, I was so busy reading. I almost didn't watch The Real Housewives of OC this week. (I said almost. I can't quit you, Vicki Gunvalson.)

So without further ado, some more books I read. All good stuff.


Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss

In 2010, E was diagnosed with a list of food allergies that is longer than any human should have to deal with. Soy. Peanuts. Dairy. Eggs. Citrus. Berries. Tomatoes. Etc. Etc. Etc. It should have just been one sentence: Eric, you are allergic to food. Dealing with his new reality sent me deeper into books about food than I ever thought I'd go, and when I read Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, it changed everything. I don't know how to write about that without sounding like I got religion, but reading that book marks a turning point in how I shop, cook, and eat. Plus how I think about the food that I want to serve my family. We're not perfect, but I feel like we're better educated. Nothing in Pollan's book felt pushy to me or pseudo-scientific. What fascinated me most at the time were the bits of history about why Americans eat what we eat: legislation, government subsidies and business practices that have shaped the American dinner plate.

Salt, Sugar, Fat reads like the natural sequel to Pollan's work. Where Pollan focuses on eating, mostly, Moss' book is purely about the history and science of processed foods. Moss devotes one section to each: salt, sugar and fat. Moss takes a journalistic approach and traces the development of the processed food industry both on a large scale and by examining the creation and adaptation of products like Lunchables and the Oreo. There was just so much here I didn't know, and I consider myself pretty well-educated about food. Moss' book makes a clear economic case for why these processed food companies would want to keep engineering food products (it's hard to think of them now as food, anymore) to trick our tastebuds and keep us coming back for more. I think that's something I knew, or suspected, but seeing exactly science is used to do such a thing is fascinating. Moss doesn't villify anyone, but he does show the practices of these companies for what they are. They know that salt, sugar, and fat will sell. And we are eating them up.

My recommendation: Must read. Now.


Reading for My Life by John Leonard

Reading for My Life is the book I was reading earlier this week when I was singing the praises of book reviews. It was a posthumously compiled collection of Leonard's previously published reviews: book and TV, mostly, of varying lengths, and it reflects a lifetime of consuming media. I found it fascinating. Not just because this is a direction I think I'd like to see myself going, although that is certainly true. But I've never read so much popular criticism in one place, so it was cool to read Leonard's reviews together, see the threads that carried through from one to another.

Leonard's reviews in this book span his lifetime, and as such they reflect an eclectic mix of titles and TV shows. As I read it started to feel like an autobiography in books, and I started to focus on Leonard's own life coming through his critical reviews of others' work. I hadn't read many of the titles he reviews, but his references are often classical and Shakespearean and Russian. His personal interjections were at times incredibly vulnerable and revealing. I found it taught me a lot about voice, honesty and creativity in writing critical work.

My favorite pieces in the collection are the ones where Leonard appears to be a fan of the author's work, or at least of the cultural circumstances of the media he reviews. He has a knack for viewing a work within the totality of an author's entire body of work. There are several long pieces including one piece on the evolution of the sitcom that mix Leonard's personal experience with analysis of cultural shifts. I was particularly moved by his last included review, on Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.

This was a lovely look back through a lifetime in reviews. It made me think about what my own legacy of media would be. Leonard writes with an easy, accesible style. I enjoyed this book.

My recommendation: A good one if you remember Leonard from CBS Sunday Morning or his written work. You'll enjoy this one if you like reviews. These are some great ones.


Seek by Denis Johnson

Seek is a collection of Denis Johnson's nonfiction work--some reportage, some personal memoir stuff, some travel essays. All of it, intense. This was not the kind of thing I would have picked up on my own. Ever. And the intensity of language and war imagery in some of the essays was difficult. But Johnson's writing is so good, there was a lot to glean from it as a writer. He uses different narrative perspectives in his essays, which I found fascinating, and even in intense political and war situations, such as in the opening essay, "A Civil War in Hell", he manages to maintain a neutral tone. Other times he refers to himself in the third person, as a character in the narrative, or not at all.

Seek isn't the kind of book I'm going to recommend to anyone for a little light reading in book club, but it's an amazing collection of great writing. Johnson finds people at the fringes of society, all of them looking for meaning and hoping to belong to something. He mixes together the weird and the spiritual and the violent and the edgy. There are lots of serious moments, here, but there is some levity too.

My recommendation: Read if you don't mind intensity. Read if you love nonfiction. Read if you can handle it.


Tenth of December by George Saunders

Ah, George Saunders. I'm kind of mad for everyone I know who reads words for never recommending George Saunders to me. How did I get to be 33 and not read George Saunders yet? I don't know the answer, but I'm working on making it right.

I liked this collection. There was a lot here. Tenth of December wasn't a great collection for me in terms of how it built to something dramatic or intense; in fact, I definitely felt like several of the stories resonated more than others, and the overall effect of the collection wasn't spectacular for me. But what is spectacular was how Saunders manipulates language and creates situations for his characters so he can examine life--big, scary, dark life--and somehow make it feel light and funny and obnoxious and exactly the same way it feels to all of us day by day. He deals with some heavy, heavy stuff here, but he manages to do so at a distance, so his characters' focus can be on just getting through the day, doing the best with what they have.

I particularly liked "Escape from Spiderhead", "The Semplica Girl Diaries" and "Victory Lap". This book goes into the category of books that have helped me overcome a lifetime belief that I did not like or understand short stories.

Anyway.

My recommendation: Read it. Accessible, entertaining, thought-provoking. A nice change from reading a longer work, too.