"With the certitude of a true believer, Vellya Paapen had assured the twins that there was no such thing in the world as a black cat. He said that there were only black, cat-shaped holes in the universe."
-- Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Monday, August 27, 2012

Last First?

Me in Kindergarten - 1982

Here it is the first day of school… and it’s just another Monday for me.

I’m looking at all the first day photos on Facebook this morning.  My family had that tradition too.  My brother and I had to stand out on the front sidewalk in our first day clothes and hold up fingers to show what grade we were in.

My first time in 7th grade.
This is the first first-day-of-school that I have not participated in for 30 years.  I had my own first days from kindergarten through 12th grade, then four years of firsts in college, then 13 more first days teaching the seventh grade.  (I continued the photo tradition for my dad, so there are a LOT of pictures of me holding up seven fingers for the camera.)

People keep asking me if I am ok, asking how I feel about not being in a classroom today.  I’m ok.  Maybe that’s the sad part.  I really am ok.  But still it’s on my mind today—all my friends, all my would-be students, all those bells telling me what to do.  I miss that.  I miss the bells.  They kept me organized, kept me on schedule.  My to-do list today is already far behind and no buzzer or alarm is getting me back on track.  I even had first-day-of-school stress dreams last night.  Something tells me it’s going to take awhile for those to go away.

I’m thinking about what I used to do during the first week of school.  I used to learn my students’ names, as quickly and as correctly as possible.  And sooner than you might expect, I’d know them all.  I’m pretty good at names and memorization anyway, but I also had some tricks that would help.

On the first day of school, I gave each student an info sheet to learn some personal things about them and get my first glance at their writing.  One of the spaces on that sheet asked them to fill in their birthday.  Then, for an evening or two during the first week (often the first night even if I was tired) I would read their information sheets, starring any interesting or disturbing or funny tid-bits, and copy each student’s name and birthday onto a little paper birthday cake or star to put on the “birthday board” during their month.  I’d also go through the info sheets again to copy each student’s name (first and last) to a notecard.  These notecards (color-coded by class) went into a box on my desk and became the “Fickle Finger of Fate”, a way for me to randomly select students for groups or answers or errands or anything else, and a great way to call on them until I knew all their names.

I got my Fickle Finger idea from
my amazing professor, Dr. Flowers.
Every student got a sticker and
a pencil on their special day.

Yes, these things would take time.  I’d often sit on my couch with a favorite movie on TV while I worked, usually a cat in my lap.  But it was the fun kind of time, the worthwhile kind.  No one was making me do that stuff, I chose to and I liked it.  I’ll miss that.  Then last year, my numbers tripled and it wasn’t so fun anymore.  It took two or three movies instead of one and gave me a hand cramp.  Half way through I wanted to stop, but I was already halfway done…  That was the first sign of how difficult the year was going to be.  Even learning my students’ names and writing down birthdays had the fun taken out of it by the sheer quantity of work. 

Me grading my LAST SET of papers last May.
No, I do not usually grade in a dress and heels, but we English teachers
grade whenever and wherever we can.  It was a Saturday morning at 9AM
and I got ready for the baby shower I was going to early.
So... time to grade five tests.  Yes, it is nuts.  But it is what we do.

But this is not the time or place to complain about last year.  If you want to read about that go to the blog post about why I left teaching.  Right now I want to think about what I miss.

I miss coming home on that first day of school and, no matter how tired I was, writing in my journal—jotting down my first impressions of my students, listing a few names and why they stood out and what kind of person I thought they’d be, then going back months later to re-read and see how right (or wrong) I’d been.  I miss that.  I learned over the years that some of the most rambunctious kids on the first day are NOT your future behavior problems—they are the kids that love school, that are so excited to be back they can’t contain themselves.  Sometimes it’s the quiet ones you have to watch.

Often on the first day of school, former students would stick their heads in my room to say, Hi! and prove to me that they are not the mean, snobby 8th graders that I swore they’d turn into.  (They realized that was reverse psychology, right?)  I’ll miss that.

I’ll miss choosing the quote of the week and writing the agenda on the board each day.  (Yes, that’s nerdy.  Don’t care.)  I’ll miss reading a poem to the class for the first time.  And teaching them how to write a “Where I’m From”.  And hearing the band play at the pep rallies.  And knowing my friends are just down the hall.

I’ll miss all that.

I don’t know if or when or in what capacity I will ever go back to teaching.  

I wonder if I’ve had my last first day of school?  

First day of school 2011

Friday, August 17, 2012

Mildly Amusing, a.k.a. The Funniest Thing You Have Ever Read

Back before LOL and texting were a thing, my crazy cousin Kelley and I came up with our own abbreviated lingo.  We used to chat on AOL Instant Messenger because it was cheaper than talking on the phone long-distance (whoa, I’m starting to sound like one of those AT&T U-Verse commercials) and when it got late and we got tired, we had some pretty silly conversations.  Fortunately, I had the foresight to copy and save a few before they were lost in cyberspace.  Unfortunately, I can’t find where I saved them right now.

Our version of LOL was ICU, which meant “I’m cracking up” but was also funny because it looked like “I see you”.  We used it a lot during those insane late-night chats. My dad also (strangely enough) uses his own made-up acronyms in emails and texts, his favorite being RME, which means “Rolling my eyes”.  I’ve always thought that one should catch on.  

When my dad types RME into an email, I know without a doubt that there is some legitimate eye-rolling going on at his end, and every time I typed ICU into that little AIM box back in 1999, I truly was shaking with laughter in my apartment, scaring the cats and generally looking like a nutcase to anyone who happened to be peering in the window.  (Ooo!  Just creeped myself out.)

These days, though, I’ll type LOL into my email or phone while really I am sitting straight-faced and still, drinking coffee or wondering what I’m going to eat for lunch.  I am not truly L-ingOL.  (And wipe that fake shocked look off your face because you do it too.)

Crazy Cousin Kelley and I "LOL" 4 times in this 1 screen shot.
(However Kelley's attempts to type "Gink" into her iPhone WERE very funny.)

I share this with you because I am admitting to being partially guilty of what I am complaining about.

People today speak only in extremes.  Everything they share is either the ‘funniest’, ‘saddest’, or ‘weirdest’ thing they’ve ever seen, heard, or experienced.  No one shares anything mediocre anymore, or if they do, they hide its mediocrity behind glowing adjectives and intensity.  “You HAVE to watch this AMAZING video!  It is the CRAZIEST thing I’ve ever seen!”

And then we respond to it in the same over-the-top way, just shorter.  “OMG!  LOL!  LMAO!”

We are not having real conversations here, people.

Think about it.  REALLY think about it.  What is the funniest thing you have ever seen in your life?  Whatever it was, I’m betting it was not something you saw on You Tube in the past 24 hours. There’s no way I could come up with just one moment, but the images that come to mind immediately are:  The time my cat got run over by a mouse, the time crazy cousin Kelley was having a panic attack because she thought she lost us AGAIN at the Reading Music Festival but really we were right behind her, and the times (multiple) that my brother had to let our dog lick peanut butter off his face because he lost a dare.  Now THOSE were some hilarious moments.

Last year in my classroom, I did a lesson with my students called “Word Scaling”.  I gave them lists of words that all had similar meanings and then, in groups, they had to arrange the words in order from most positive to most negative or from least intense to most intense.  For instance, the synonyms for ‘thin’ might be organized this way:  fit, slim, thin, skinny, stick-like, emaciated.  And the synonyms for ‘funny’ might be organized like this:  humorous, amusing, entertaining, funny, hilarious, gut-busting.  The purpose was to teach the students to “weigh their words” and choose the right adjective for the right situation. 


Really, though, I think this is a good lesson for everyone.

I guess the reason why this is such a problem for me is that I’m too gullible.  When I see a friend (a good friend, a friend I admire and respect) post on Facebook, “This is the funniest thing I have ever seen in my life!” I believe them.  And I click on it.  And I prepare myself to LOL.  But time and time again I am disappointed.

So here are some suggestions:

#1—Check your ratio.

At a recent happy hour, over beer and cheese fries, one friend accused another of being 70/30 on her ability to tell a straight story, suggesting that 30% of what she said was overblown and exaggerated.  After much debate and some “testing” of recent stories she has told, it was decided that the initial appraisal was unfair and we got the ratio back to 90/10.  Everybody was happy with 90/10.  It seemed reasonable to us all that 10% of the time we might get a little over-excited and exaggerate or blow something out of proportion, but the rest of the time we need to speak the truth, in all its mediocrity.

So let’s apply that 90/10 theory to our internet lingo.

90% of the time, we should all be weighing our words carefully, choosing fitting adjectives, and “telling it like it is”.  That doesn’t mean we can’t share that video of the latest satire of this week’s most popular song.  It just means we have to caption it appropriately, like “This might make you laugh” rather than “I am literally rolling on the floor laughing right now!”  Because let’s face it—we aren’t.  Then 10% of the time, we are allowed to be silly and exaggerate and use those extreme adjectives we love so much, because sometimes yes, it’s fun to blow things out of proportion and get a little excited over something ridiculous.

Check your ratio.  Are you under 10%?

#2—Consider some new acronyms. 

Let’s be honest, most of us simply respond to texts with LOL because we are lazy and it’s easier than typing out, “Yeah, that’s kinda funny.”  So, staying true to our lazy natures and need for shortcuts, let’s just start using some acronyms that are more sincere.

Here’s a list to get you started:
SA = Somewhat Amused
CTM = Chuckling to Myself
PTLTMYH = Pretending to Laugh to Make You Happy
NFAA = Not Funny at All
And of course my dad’s favorite… RME = Rolling My Eyes

#3—Start now!

There’s no time like the present to turn over a new leaf.  So when you share this blog post with everyone you know, go ahead and describe it aptly.  Say, “Hey, you should read this blog post because it was mildly amusing and somewhat informative.”  Then just sit back and get ready for the OMGs to start pouring in.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Joys of Swimming

I recently discovered the joys of swimming.

After returning from Germany, Mark and I made a pledge to get on a healthy kick.  We both needed to lose some weight and get into shape anyway and eating schnitzel and sausage for a week didn’t exactly help.  So we’re having salads and cooking more fish and tofu and eating fewer tacos and burgers and trying to avoid too many sweets.  I for one feel good and like most of the healthy foods.  Mark, on the other hand, sends me pictures of his lunches (salads with all sorts of green things lurking in them and even *gasp* a tomato) with texts that say, “The things I do for love.”  Don’t worry—he’ll survive.

The healthy eating has been pretty easy for me, but the exercising has been a little harder.  Mark rides his recumbent exercise bike before work, but I cannot get comfortable on that thing—it always hurts my back or butt.  And it’s boring, because you don’t go anywhere.  I walk Uno every morning, but it turns out that’s not exercise.  At least not for me.  I used to walk for exercise.  In my old neighborhood, I took brisk 30-45 minute walks, but I would get lazy about how often I went or start snoozing instead of getting up early.  I thought when I finally got a dog, he would give me the motivation I needed because he’d HAVE to be walked.  Well, Uno does have to be walked, but it’s not very brisk.  It’s a lot of starting and stopping and sniffing and peeing and staring at joggers.  And there’s not going to be any jogging or biking with this dog because he’s too “delicate”.  At a year and five months old, we are already convinced that he’s going to have joint or hip problems.  But if I go on a long walk WITHOUT the dog, I somehow feel guilty.

So walking’s out.

To sum up and get to the point, walking isn’t working anymore, I am scared of gyms, it’s too dang hot outside to do anything between 9AM and 9PM, and Mark’s exercise bike is boring and uncomfortable.

So… I have discovered swimming.

Our neighborhood pool opens every weekday morning at 6AM for lap swimming and I am now heading there two or three times a week between 7 and 9AM to exercise.  And it is amazing.  First, swimming is good exercise anyway.  And I don’t do it well.  I have never had any formal swim lessons, even as a kid, so my form is… almost nonexistent.  But that’s ok.  Because I honestly think that flailing in the water burns more calories than a nice stream-lined stroke.  Secondly, it’s not boring.  There are whistles and conversations and sometimes music and always the soothing splishy-splashy sounds of the pool to keep me company.  And I am moving down the lanes, going somewhere, even if it’s just to the other side and back again.  But third (and most importantly) it feels wonderful to exercise while staying cool at the same time.  How else can you spend an hour outside in Austin in August burning calories and working your muscles while not building up a sweat?  I love it.

I haven't graduated to goggles and a swim cap yet,
but I do have a couple of nifty kickboards.

Mark asked me how it is that I went 35 years without discovering swimming.  It’s because the pools I grew up with were only for recreation.  Terrace Pool, where I spent many summer days as a kid, was just divided in half.  Deep end and shallow end.  The deep end had two diving boards—a low dive and a high dive—and was reserved for their use only.  The shallow end (about 5 feet at its deepest point) was where all the kids played.  If you wanted to swim there, you had to constantly dodge all the little kids and it really wasn’t worth the effort.

Mainly I just did handstands and played Marco Polo and dove for nickels for hours on end, which was good exercise but not the kind of exercise you are allowed to do as an adult.  Honestly, I wish I could.  I am still a kid, not just at heart but in practice too a lot of the time.  Mark and I are not going to have kids and I think one of the reasons is that we don’t need one.  I am our kid.  I like to go to the zoo and swing on swing sets and draw on the sidewalk with chalk, and if I could go to our fancy neighborhood swim center and entertain myself by doing front flips and handstands without making everyone think I was crazy, I would.  But it doesn’t work that way.  And without those childhood games to amuse oneself, hanging out in the water can feel a little awkward. 

Earlier in the summer when I finally convinced Mark to come to the pool with me one weekend, he did find the water refreshing and cool and he was impressed with the facilities and he did think the salt water pool was much nicer than the chlorine.  But after about five minutes in the water he said, “Ok, I’m at the pool.  Now what do I do?”

It’s true that without a little kid to play with (almost every other adult had one) there wasn’t much to DO except stand there and talk while alternately treading water for a minute, then floating on our backs, then standing again.  It was refreshing but a little boring.

Well, I have finally figured out what “grown-ups” without kids do at the pool.  They swim.  I swim.  And I love it.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

On Bavaria Time

Munich-- from the top of "Old Peter"

My husband is half-German.  He was born here, but his grandmother (“Oma”) and extended family of uncles, aunts, and cousins still live in Bavaria, in a little village called Neufarn just east of Munich.  Mark (who becomes “Mark-Philip” when he is in Germany) has visited them several times in his life, and he has a deep affection for both the people and the culture over there.  Three years ago, before we were married, he took me on my first trip to Deutschland to meet his family, and I instantly understood why he sometimes daydreams about living there.

Last week, we went back with Mark’s sister and her two kids.  This time our trip was short—too short—only 7 days.  But we made the most of it, sightseeing and eating amazing food and, most importantly, spending time with family.  And this time, I was a J├╝ttner too.

Here are some of my thoughts (via my journal) from when I was on Bavaria time.

View of Neufarn, just before a thunderstorm
July 28, 2012 –
I am so tired.  I have been up… I don’t even know how long.  All I know is that it is 10PM by Germany’s clock and I want to write a little before I finally sleep. 

We are in Neufarn and despite my brain-disabling sleep deprivation, I already love it here again.  The pace, the feel, is just different.

The house is just as I remember it.  Three stories high (plus a huge basement) it is white stone with a red roof, built so solid it looks like it could withstand anything.  Although they do not use this term here, the structure is like a duplex.  On the larger side, Oma lives in half of the bottom floor while her son Hans Christian and his wife and three daughters live on the other half of the first floor and the two floors above.  On the other side, Oma’s sister and her husband reside on the first floor, while their son Wolfgang and his family live upstairs.  (Last time I visited, I got the impression that this is just the way things are done in Germany, but this time Wolfgang set me straight.  He said their living arrangement is not typical and friends of his think it strange that he lives above his mother.  Still, I think the family compound idea is very charming.)

The family's house
Upon arriving at 9AM, I was greeted by blue skies with big white puffy clouds, a lush green garden full of flowers and tomatoes and four different kinds of fruit trees (every few minutes a large ripe apple falls to the ground with a thud), a strong embrace from Mark’s 86-year-old Oma, and a table covered with food.

Breakfast is always the same:  a large basket of rolls and breads and pretzels from the local bakery, a plate of sliced cold meats, a plate of sliced cheeses, a plate of sliced cucumbers or tomatoes from the garden, offerings of butter, honey, Nutella, or marmalade, and coffee.  And this morning was no different. 

We ate on the patio.  I munched on a roll and tried to convince my brain that it was not the middle of the night, while Mark’s relatives spoke in near perfect English about their six weeks of vacation a year and the standard three-year paid apprenticeship their oldest daughter will soon begin.  Meanwhile, two 7-year-old boys ran around the yard and bounced on the trampoline, both naked as the day they were born and not concerned about it at all.  When they began dragging a very heavy and somewhat precarious looking ping pong table out to the driveway, no one told them to stop or be careful or put on clothes first.

This moment, in a snapshot, is what Germany means to me.  Lush landscapes, great food, few rules, and a relaxed attitude about life.  Oh yeah and delicious beer.  (But not for breakfast.)

Breakfast is meat, bread, and cheese.  Instead of lunch, they have "coffee"
which is coffee or tea and cake in the mid afternoon.  Dinner every night was schnitzel
or rouladen or sausage.  And yet no one there is fat.  How can this be???

July 31, 2012 – around 8:30PM
Images from the past three days:   Woods of tall trees that swallow the light whole, absorbing it into their moss and branches like wrapping a loved one in a warm blanket.  Horse poop on the path.  Pet bunnies tossed nonchalantly into outdoor pens, scooped up lovingly again when the rain comes.  The passing and sharing of so much food—so many dishes on the table, a saucer for every cup, a plate for every slice of cake or piece of bread.  No eating off paper towels (as we sometimes do at home), no plastic cups or drinking straight from the bottle of Coke.  Everything is glass or ceramic.  Everything gets washed, not thrown away.  Twelve family members, three generations, under one large roof, and this week we make it seventeen.  Squeezing, shuffling, scooting, adding chairs and mismatched plates, but eventually we are all around the table and it is not a crowd.  It is family.  It feels right.

Right now I sit at the table on the patio (almost all of our meals have been eaten outside).  Mark’s sister and her kids are having a late dinner after visiting Neuschwanstein today and we are keeping them company as the light fades.  Gray clouds tinged with pink are drifting by the blue sky and almost full moon, and I am being serenaded by the squeak of the trampoline and a language I don’t understand, but that is starting to sound so familiar.  (Note:  Our 11-year-old nephew Travis has the ability to eat a giant schnitzel, wash it down with an entire Mezzo Mix and then immediately bounce around on a trampoline without incident.  Ah, to be young.)  There are no cicadas here.  No mosquitoes right now and few sounds of traffic or machinery.  At the moment I smell nothing but clean air, though sometimes the scent of “landluft” (Mark’s word for cow manure—it literally means “country air”) sometimes drifts over to play.  Somewhere the cats, Minosh and Snoopy, prowl for mice, but the rabbits are already put up in the shed for the night.  The temperature drops.  A baby squalls somewhere.  A lone car goes by.  At the moment I can’t think of any of the things that would be on my to-do list if I were at home.  

August 1, 2012 – 7:38PM
Germany has the best playgrounds.
And they are not littered up with rules
and warning signs and safety reminders.
Nothing is.  I love it.
Hans Christian asked me today to translate the phrase “somebody that I used to know”.  There is a lot of American music on the radio here and that song by Gotye is his favorite right now.  He looked up the lyrics, but still was having trouble understanding the term “used to”.  We explained it to him and he got it. 

Later though, Mark realized how truly confusing that phrase can be.  It can have at least three different meanings.  I used to play soccer, but I don’t anymore.  This gun was used to commit the murder.  It gets really hot in Austin, but I am used to it.

It’s like the word up.  Such a simple little word and yet it can be used so many ways.  Climb up, get up, give up, look it up, used up… the list goes on and on.  I can’t even imagine what the dictionary definition for up is.  I bet it’s long.

August 2, 2012 – 10:05PM
I dreamed in German last night.  That happened to me during my trip to Peru.  I was using my Spanish so much and hearing it all around me so constantly that I started to dream in the native language.  But here… I don’t actually know German, no more than a few words anyway.  And everyone speaks English so well that I haven’t had to learn.  So, my dream was most likely full of gibberish.  I guess I dreamed in fake German last night.

Today we visited the Salt Mine near the Austrian border.  (We actually drove into Austria just a bit so that I could say I had been there.)  The mine tour was great.  They give you these jumpsuits to put over your clothes to protect them from the salt.  Then you sit on this “train” meaning you straddle a wooden bench and hold on to the person in front of you and fly through a tiny tunnel into the mountain.  Once inside, the cavern opens up and you dismount and begin the tour.

The tunnel our train went through.
Again, no fence to keep me off this track.
No bright red signs keeping them from
getting sued if I get hit by a mine train.

At that point, we walked the rest of the way, except for two slides and one boat ride.  The slides were awesome.  Three to five people lined up together, again straddling a very smooth wooden beam.  We grabbed on to the person in front of us, leaned back, lifted our feet, and WHOOSHED down a two-story-high slide to get to the lower level of the mine.  (I was grateful for my thick jeans and jumpsuit.  Even so my rear felt quite warm afterwards!)  At the very bottom, we took a barge across a “salt lake”, and were allowed to taste the water afterward.  (Very salty.)

The English-speaking guests were given radios that translated the information being shared.  However, after every segment, our tour guide would then tell a joke, which wasn’t recorded on the radio.  Oh well.  I learned to laugh along with the Germans anyway.

No pictures were allowed inside, but of course I bought the ones they took of us.  How could you not?

This is our last night in Germany.  I have sixteen hours of traveling ahead of me tomorrow and then 100° temperatures, pet chores, and to-do lists ready to greet me when I return.  But I plan on taking some Bavaria home with me, and I don’t just mean all the Milka bars stashed in my suitcase.  I intend to hang on to this relaxed attitude and sense of camaraderie for as long as I can.