Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Life is Busy. Life is Good.

Minimum day today. I'm home before my kids get out of school. I just finished an entire mug of coffee as I sat on my couch, petting my cat's fat belly with my bare foot. I can't remember the last time I got to sit at home by the open window and do nothing.

It's been a busy time. I've been trying to get ready (read: finished) so I can go on a big trip. And so I can end the school year. I try really hard not to tell myself I'll be happy when something is done--I know how that kind of thinking only makes me feel tired and stressed my daily life--but in this case I know I'll be happier on this trip if I finish this school year well and finish all my review books first. I've put my little philosophy on hold.

Exactly one week from this Saturday, I get on a plane by myself and fly to England, then Ireland. Boom. Just me and my new passport. Of course, I'm meeting family there, but I think it's fitting that I get on that plane by myself. Somehow it means more. It's proof to myself that I can make things happen, even on my own. That I don't need someone else to give me permission. That things like going to Europe (or, I could alternately say: getting an MFA, leaving this small town for school, meeting an entirely new group of people, getting my reviews published by respectable publications, writing the stories I want to write) are not just for other people, they're for me if I want them.

My company today, plus the things I'm too tired to fold, clean up, and put away.
I think when I was about 28 or 29, with two little teeny kids at home and a mostly failing marriage, I thought that I knew what the rest of my life was going to look like. I was scared because I wasn't happy with it, and I saw that as a fault in myself. I'd committed to the picture of myself I had when I was 19. I'd grown more and more dissatisfied with the non-kid aspects of teaching in a public school, yet I felt like I was going to be there until I was 60, complaining about the same things every day and hardening myself to the world just so I could get up in the morning. I just didn't believe that I had the capability for change, or that opportunity would be there for me if I went looking beyond the borders of my small town. I'm happy to have been surprised so much by life these past few years. To see that working hard and really putting effort--hours--toward new endeavors pays off, and that I'm not stuck. To realize that 19 year old me wasn't a bad person--I'm thankful for the decisions I made then--but that doesn't mean I have to stop at what I wanted in 1999.

Some days I have a hard time keeping up with everything I've committed myself to doing. Since graduation in December, I've read and reviewed 11 books. 11 in 5 months. (Three of the reviews are still to be published.) I'm trying hard to build publication credits and relationships with editors and publications. I've been reading and writing like a madwoman. And pitching all the time so this review train doesn't stop. Sometimes I don't want to read. Or I start reading and it takes me a while to get into the book. Or I read then book and then I'm not sure what I want to say about it. But I've never felt so sure I was on the right path. I love this work. And I still can't believe people want me to read books and then write what I think about them. I've found this niche and I'm as pleased by it as I am surprised.

In a roundabout way, this new writing focus has given me positive perspective on teaching. When I started my MFA I thought I'd want to quit teaching and move on. I don't. But I have much better perspective about what it means to me. About not wanting it to be my whole life or even my whole day. It's too easy to get hopelessly frustrated by teaching, and it doesn't look like things are going to improve. And again, I'm not talking kids or the nitty gritty of what I get to do in my own classroom, but all of the B.S. just outside, and in the political arena I want nothing to do with. So what all this reviewing and writing fiction have shown me is that this other life I have not only flourishes if I put my effort into it (I know, duh), but that having that rich life beyond the security fence around my school means I'm better when I'm in the classroom. Mostly because I'm able to let it go.

Next year I'm letting even more of it go and teaching part-time so I can be home in the afternoons as Addie starts junior high. I'm reducing my contract so I can spend more time with family, a decision I know will also lift a bit of the guilt I feel when I have to leave them to go write. I'm sure I'm always going to have to find moments in Starbucks or my car to get work done, but knowing I get to give more of my presence and attention to the monkeys at home means I feel more peace about my time in the classroom, as well as the time I'll spend reviewing and writing stories next year.

Reviewing is teaching me a kind of happiness in the midst of unfinished business. If I'm going to do this, and do it well, I have to live with the idea that there's always another book to read, another review to write. There's no finishing--or at least, I don't want there to be. But if I'm going to live with that as a thing in my life, I have to learn when it's okay to have fun, too. I can't ruin my joy with guilt about what I should be doing.

There is no should be, anyway.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Chopped: Sodium Edition

I watch Chopped with my kids all the time. They're crazy for the gross-out ingredients and they like to practice throwing baby shade.

The other night (inspired by a commercial featuring something similar, I'm sure), they told me and E that they wanted us to compete against each other in a home version of the TV show.

E bailed, saying he didn't know enough about things unrelated to the grill/smoker.

So last night when he was at softball practice, I accepted a solo Chopped challenge. I let the kids choose any four ingredients they wanted. Henry declared himself Ted.

Here's what they picked for me to use. I like to call it Chopped, Sodium Edition (aka all the things they like in the world/ things that should hold no place on a plate together). To wit: "Really, you guys? Peanut butter and Cream of Mushroom soup?"


I decided to play to the judges. Make things I know they're into. Rice and broccoli score big points around here with the under-12 set.

My dish (this was the entree round, Henry decided, since we don't have an ice cream machine):


Cheesy broccoli with a tangy peanut butter dipping sauce.
Cheese cracker-crusted stroganoff over white rice.

Not a nutritional powerhouse, but edible.

There's no way to end this that isn't sappy, so I'll just tell you what really happened. Henry tried each thing and then ran away to his room for a minute. Then he handed me a $10 bill. "I'm sorry I don't have this times a thousand, Mom. You win."

Of course I gave the prize back. Competition aside, I'd won before we even started.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Talking Books with Literary Disco

So, this happened, and it was amazing. I got to talk to Tod Goldberg, Julia Pistell, and Rider Strong of Literary Disco a few weeks ago. And now you can listen to it.

 Literary Disco

You might say I have a face for podcasts. Or on second thought, maybe don't say that. But give the episode a listen.

I was a guest on the show to talk about teaching books to teenagers. They asked me to assign them something to read (I chose Albert Camus' The Stranger, which I taught to AP kids for years), and give them a test on the book. Hilarity ensued. We spent some time talking about how and why English teachers teach certain books, and then we got into some super-duper nerdy AP English-style discussion of Camus, ennui, and cat mysteries.

Former students of mine will recognize some PDawg-isms.

Children of the '90s will recognize Rider as Shawn Hunter of Boy Meets World. (Which now I am wishing I had seen an episode of, actually.)

Anyway. Check it out, friends. It was an awesome time and I'm so grateful that I got invited to do this.

(click on the Stitcher Smart Radio box to listen)
(Episode 55: The Stranger)

Monday, May 12, 2014

Just waiting.

For the school year to end. For my first trip to Europe. For reviews to post. For the late spring wind to stop. For this lingering cold to leave my chest.

Waiting. That's what May feels like. Teaching is so cyclical. May is never my favorite. I'm not patient.

I'm gloriously busy; life is handing me more opportunities than I can schedule into my calendar. But I'm tired all the frigging time. I'm ready to stop thinking about when I need to go to bed so I can be awake enough for the next day. I'm ready for the school year to wind down. I'm ready to stop being everything to everyone for just five minutes. I need to wrap up The Mrs. P Show for a while. Maybe be only, like, two things at once.

It's time for summer. It wouldn't be possible to keep up the pace of teaching high school without the summer break. At least, not in any way I've figured out. For half a minute today I thought about teaching summer school, and then I remembered the year I did that and promptly crashed in the middle of October. I also remembered I'm not crazy. And I can't wait to have a summer with my mature, easy, self-reliant, Ramen-noodle-making, own-cereal-pouring children. This is the payoff for all those years when we had small trains and plastic ponies strewn across the carpet and everybody had Cheerios in their diapers and needed sippy cups refilled every five minutes. This is the calm before the (teenage) storm.

This week is actually a week of peace and (a little more) quiet. Henry's baseball season is over on Saturday (unless by some miracle he keeps winning... but realistically he's probably done), and E's softball season ended last week. Of course these things start up again in a matter of weeks, but I try not to think about that too hard. For now we're home and I can cook dinner and we don't have to go sit in the wind to watch anybody do the thing with the points. One week of being at home. My fave.

Henry is reading Harry Potter and the Something of Something out loud to himself in his bedroom. (A homework assignment?) Addie is perched in her loft bed thumbing away at her iPod. Cats are lazing. Dog is watching me type. All is calm. All is bright.

This week, I'm:

Reading Maud Casey's The Man Who Walked Away.

Teaching the last three chapters of The Great Gatsby to disinterested 17 year olds (They will like it, dammit.) and hopefully getting my AVID kids to study enough that they don't collectively fail the 9th grade.

Listening to podcasts. It's been a while since I didn't have an audio book I was dying to finish, so I've been catching up on Literary Disco, NPR stuff, and (my guilty-pleasure walk listen) Slumber Party with Alie and Georgia. Oh, and trying to begrudgingly finish Dubliners. I don't know if it's my fault for having a crappy audio version, but I am not into it. Like super not. I won't let myself not read it, though. It's one of those I-feel-like-I-have-to-s. So I make myself listen to it a little bit every day. It will probably only take me until I'm 40 to finish.

Eating... Well, hmm. This isn't a "currently" kind of situation, but E and I are fans of the crab restaurant that opened around the corner. And Saturday night we gorged ourselves on some sweet, sweet crustaceans.

Writing book reviews in my car during breaks at school.

Watching Season 2 of Game of Thrones. For E. (I don't hate it, though.)

Drinking good tequila or good espresso, depending on the hour.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

All the steps I'm not walking

Life is full of surprises. And shattered illusions. Like the one I had about being a runner again after I finished my MFA.

When I started the program in 2011, I was running all the time. In the fall of that year, I ran what I thought was going to be my first marathon. Heh. I was running half marathons from time to time and spending most of my Saturday mornings on long runs by the American River. I loved it. It was hard, and I was slow as a brittle old lady, but I felt good when I was running that much. It taught me that I'm much better mentally when I get time outside. Even at my very low level of proficiency, running had incredible benefits. But it was hard to keep up as soon as I started writing and reading enough to meet deadlines. I gave it up--temporarily, I thought--with the hope that I'd go back to it after I graduated.

I tried a few times while I was in school, but I never could make it happen. Others are doing it--my friend Antonio gets up every morning to run and then he writes 500 words. Murakami has a freaking book about it. But I couldn't seem to make it work for me. My fitness was haphazard as I struggled to figure out my schedule for those two years.

As I neared graduation, I was certain I'd be able to get back into running. But here's what I didn't expect: nothing changed for me after I graduated. Just me. I still wanted to write in all my free time. And if I'm going to write, I have to be realistic about what that means in my insane life.

I've always written daily. In fact, most of the way through my MFA I was writing here all the time. But once I graduated, I felt different. I felt like writing daily was something I could and should be doing. For my job. That's the part I didn't expect. And because I felt different, I went after opportunities to publish my writing elsewhere. It's going great--better than great--but the side effect of that is that I'm still just as busy (and sedentary) as I was in grad school.

So in the spirit of accepting what is (and not wanting to give up on living a long life), I'm trying something new. I'm trying to think about health as an all day thing, not an if I can't find time to run more than three miles today, I'm a complete failure as a human. Because if I'm being real with myself, I'm choosing to pursue a career that means I have homework every day for the rest of my life, and that life was already kind of over-scheduled. I feel so much gratitude that I'm able to do a job where I get to read books and then tell people what I think about them. But that takes so much time. Just like teaching. I love it, but it doesn't leave me with much at the end of the day.

After talking with my friend Megan in San Francisco about her Fitbit, I bought a fitness tracker. And I'm not trying to do anything more than make myself walk 10,000 steps a day. Prancersize it, y'all. Since the Fitbit Force (what Megan has) got recalled, I bought a Garmin Vivofit. I wanted something with a watch on it, plus I already had a Garmin heart rate monitor that would pair with it. I also wanted one that would track sleep, since I was having so much trouble sleeping.

Screen Shot 2014-04-18 at 4.39.10 PM
My steps per day from a few weeks ago. This week wasn't good enough to show you.
Screen Shot 2014-04-18 at 4.39.43 PM
Hours of sleep, including naps.

I've had the thing for a little more than a month. It's not a miracle, but it does make me more conscious of how much I do or don't move in a day. I thought I moved a lot in my day at work, but I wanted to know how much. What I've learned is that I move a lot some days at work--all I have to do is make a few trips to the bathroom and one up to the office to make copies and I'm almost to half of my steps for the day--but on other days when I'm really busy (and confined to my classroom), I don't really move much at all. It's really interesting. And I know enough about myself to know I'm driven by (read: obsessed with) charts and plans and things that are organized.

The other thing this doodad does is display a red bar if I don't move for an hour. You have to walk about 200 steps to clear the bar. This is the physical equivalent of a notification icon, which I cannot stand (Unread emails? Kill me.) so it's pretty good about guilting me into getting up more often than I would, otherwise. It's ugly as all get out. Don't get me wrong. I don't like looking like I'm wearing a Casio watch from 1986. And I don't always remember to wear it. But when I do, it's helpful.

For now, I'm just trying to walk my steps. I haven't been able to do more than that. It gets me moving. It helps me notice when I'm not moving. I'll take it.