Thursday, March 30, 2006

Katie's business trip, day 2


7 hours is too long to spend in one room. In the dark. Watching PowerPoint slides.

Putting the design engineer in charge of the certain lectures isn’t smart. He tends to be overly detailed and viciously protective of this programming decisions.

If you’re a bad speaker, someone in the room is counting (and writing on a post-it) how many times you say “um.” Surprisingly, this wasn’t me. Not surprisingly, I adore the person who did this.

If you’re going to bring one pair of dress shoes, don’t make them heels. High heels. That look pretty and make me feel tall, but force me to consider crawling down the hall by the end of day 2.

You can drink too much coffee. It will make you feel jittery and sick.

A chocolate cookie with white chocolate chips – still warm and gooey – can make me want to weep with gratitude after 5 hours of lecture on day 1.

Bringing ice cream instead of cookies on day 2 also almost made me want to cry, but this time in despair.

I get overly emotional and dramatic in times of mental stress and sleepiness.

You can buy my affection, so free gifts are nice. I very much enjoyed my coffee mug, pen, notebook and post-it notes. Thank you.

If you want my affection today, you’ll have to offer some sort of luxurious vacation or a car. I’m freaking exhausted.

Putting a design engineer in front of his actual machine, then asking him to demo it? It actually goes worse than his lectures. And takes twice as long. I desperately wanted to throw my shoe at him.

For all my complaining, it’s an excellent class. There are only 12 students, all of whom I like a great deal. The 4 instructors are undeniably brilliant and seem to balance technical details, clinical applications and helpful tips extraordinarily well. I’m quite glad, in the abstract sense, that I’m here. But I’m tired, drinking yet another cup of coffee as I write this and prepare to head downstairs, sore from sitting in the same chair, and my tolerance level for learning seems to decrease every day. But today is day 3 of 3, so I’ll force my way through it.

And hope for cookies instead of ice cream this afternoon.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Katie's business trip, day 1

There are 4 instructors for this course. One of them loves to hear himself talk. At the 1 hour point of what was scheduled to be a 30 minute presentation, he stopped, smirked, and said "I guess we'll just be off schedule, because I'm not done yet!"

Then he laughed, but he was laughing alone.

In the interest of being concise myself, and because I'm so tired that I made my excuses to leave dinner early, I'll offer the following:

It was a long, busy day. But it went pretty well.

Tomorrow will include 11 hours of class and labs. Then a social event. That makes at least 14 hours with people, talking about my job (or one aspect of it), and knowing that even after tomorrow's over, there's day 3 to handle.

But I'm learning a lot. So that's good, right?

Monday, March 27, 2006

Social? Me?

Today’s post will be about my lengthy trip north for this class. At one point, I begged God to show me the freaking lake that means there’s no more north left to go in Ohio. Instead, He gave me I-271 that goes all the way to Erie, PN. Apparently that was punishment for the excessive amount of profanity directed at my fellow drivers throughout the day. Seriously though – if I’m trying to go 20 miles over the speed limit, don’t be in the left lane going 66 in a 65 mph zone. And yes, there were times today where I was driving 85 and it was lovely. Dangerous, but efficient.

I stopped twice. Again, I’m efficient, so each stop much include gas, a restroom and the possibility of food. The first gas station had bathroom entrances on the outside of the building. Not cool. So I decided that I’d get french fries and stopped at McDonalds. This threw off the whole plan, since now I had to go inside due to the poor restroom placement at the gas station. But fine. Once in the building, I found myself seriously considering going back to my car and using the drive-thru rather than ordering at the counter. Really.

What is wrong with you? I asked myself, and walked briskly to the counter to prove that I was not, in fact, suffering from serious social problems. It was actually lovely. Tracey took my order, then told me my hair was very pretty. Rather than asking if she saw any gray in it, I smiled and replied that she was very sweet, and thanked her.

In addition to the 6 cups of coffee I had consumed (requiring the use of 2 travel mugs), I decided a soda was necessary. As I walked over to fill the cup Tracey gave me, still smiling and fluffing hair that I’d curled that morning, I had a nice conversation with a blonde woman about the weather. I didn’t get her name. But I walked to my car wondering when I had last stepped inside to get fast food. I just never do it. It was a strangely pleasant experience.

An aberration, I told myself. I’m not like anti-social all the time. So I rejoined traffic on the interstate and wondered why I hadn’t flown to this class. I told Jill, our secretary, that it would be really expensive to book a flight on such short notice. I didn’t know what to do with my dog, driving doesn’t bother me now that I have the iPod, blah, blah, blah. Upon closer thought, flying would have been faster, certainly. Less trouble. And I wasn’t paying for it, so why hadn’t I just taken a plane?

But I wrinkled my nose just thinking about it. People are always too close to me when I fly. Sitting next to me on the plane, waiting in line, going through security. Making conversation out of boredom when I’m clearly playing with my computer or reading a book. Plus, airports are crowded – I don’t like crowds. Then there’s the lack of control. But mostly the people – I don’t want to deal with the people. It’s easier to just drive myself. Then I can actually yell at those who dare irritate me without the risk of them actually hearing.

A lot of people would rather drive, I comforted myself. It’s not like I’m completely isolated from the outside world – communicating only through drive-thru speakers, turn signals and glares, and email. Ah, the email. My vastly preferred mode of communication. I wish my voice mail said “If you can send email, please do so. I’d really rather not talk with you.” But that’s not nice. And I finally made Jill understand that I don’t like my pager. I check email if I’m at all free, so just write a note and I’ll respond as soon as I possibly can. I promise.

I shook my head and sought a distraction, pushing the button to skip forward through the shuffling songs on the iPod. Dismayed, I realized I can’t remember the last time I listened to the radio. Instead, I constantly look for static on radio stations so my FM transmitter can work properly. And I buy music as I buy books – iTunes or amazon recommends it, so I consider, then purchase what sounds right. I just feed information – rate songs, buy items I like – then I can see what else might work for me without having to talk to anyone at all!

And maybe I do, in fact, have a bit of a problem.

Sunday, March 26, 2006


I’m traveling for work next week. My boss applied to go to a training workshop for the more technical aspects of a project I’m leading, but decided his teaching load wouldn’t permit him to attend. When faced with driving 9 hours to attend class for three days versus teaching his classes, I took the former without any hesitation. I’m a bit concerned – it’s been years since I had to sit and focus on something for two hours straight, let alone all day. I’m a bit intense with checking email, taking breaks, playing with my iPod. So it could be a rough few days.

It’s always a problem figuring out dog-sitting. The thought of driving all the way to my parents’ then continuing on to this class didn’t appeal. It would have added a good 8 hours to the trip. Plus, they were here this weekend and taking the puppy home with them seemed logical. So I arranged her blanket carefully on the passenger seat and she hopped in and waited for me to remove her leash as I stood beside the car. Then I closed her door, and waved from my spot in front of the garage. And watched her little face change from “I’m going somewhere!” to “Wait! I belong with my mom!”

Assuring myself that she’d be fine – my parents love her almost as much as I do – I waved as they turned the corner and headed back inside. How lovely, I told myself, trying to believe it, that I’ll have a quiet house, can clean and work and go to church without having her whine at me as I vacuum or put on make-up. I can sit wherever I’d like, not have to make room for her as I sleep, get to use the blanket without having her steal it as she tucks it around herself.

But I’ve never been in this house without her. And I miss her. Found myself calling her name as I found something for lunch, wondering if she’d want the sausage off the leftover slice of pizza. Then feeling my heart hurt as I realized she isn’t here. I left the door to the garage open when I went out to fold laundry – she hates it if she gets locked inside and can’t explore the garage while I’m out there. I put all her toys away in the three baskets I keep, and they’re still there. I’m looking around and not seeing tennis balls, squeaky squirrels, bright plush birds and gaudy plastic toys scattered across the carpet. She didn’t get excited when I took out the suitcase to pack, wasn’t waiting when I got out the shower, isn’t tucked behind my knees as I sit here and type.

I haven’t been so lonely lately – a mixture of having people in my life that I really enjoy though they aren’t physically present, being really busy, then seeing a good deal of my family – we’re on weekend 2 of 3 in a row that I’ll spend with them. But having my furry little friend gone, talking to Mom and knowing she cried for 30 minutes after leaving me, that she currently is sitting on the armchair in front of the living room window, watching to see if I’m coming to get her soon, wondering if she’ll sleep well or continue to wait just in case I appear.

It makes me sad – ridiculously, profoundly unhappy. So much so that I can’t write a decent post for you guys. And I’ll probably go to bed early, shaking my head at myself because I love her so much, and wiping away a few stray tears.

Friday, March 24, 2006

A rather pitiful update

Things are actually going well. Sections of the grant have been sent out, other sections are nearing completion, and while I'm still overwhelmed, it's more manageable.

I've been struggling with migraines lately, so that's been bad.

My parents and niece are here this weekend - we have a 1st birthday party to attend tomorrow. Want to know what I bought? OK!

Well, there's Pop Along Baby Pooh, and my little cousin is lucky her party is tomorrow or I'd lose my battle against temptation and take him out of the box to watch him run around. And he talks! And his little toy makes the best little popping sounds!

Then there are the outfits! This lovely dress with a peach top and skirt with tiny flowers all over it. And a little shorts set with yellow stripes and a big daffodil on the front!

I'm actually so not ready for children myself. The Little One was the Terrible One this afternoon - I really wanted to look in her brown eyes and say "What the hell is your problem?!" But I resisted, cursing only in my mind when she screamed at the restaurant because she wanted to be walking around rather than sitting nicely. And I look around with some dismay, noticing that my formerly tidy house is covered with stuffed animals, toys, half-eaten snacks, dirty dishes, pacifiers, and a couple bottles of beer (the afternoon was rough on my parents too).

I'm going to quietly clean up - careful not to disturb my three sleeping guests (and yes, it's just 7PM here) and work more on my grant. Hopefully I'll be back to tell lengthy stories next week.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Sitting down.

I’m falling apart here, folks. This grant is starting to feel like an analogy for my life. I saw the announcement, shook my head at it – too hard, not likely to get funded, not sure what I’d say. Then I decided to try to write it – just put some words on paper to see what happened. Nothing really serious – not scary at all. But then I started telling people about it – needed to ask for letters of recommendation and found that there were way more than three people who were eager to write them. And that’s flattering – a much needed boost to my fragile little ego – so I started to think I might be able to pull off a decent application.

But now I’m in the middle – at some point, I started moving really quickly into this, letting myself care a great deal, feeling strong and capable. But now, after 4 hours sleep and realizing I’m not writing fast enough – this draft needs to go out now and I’m not ready, can’t make it work. I’m going to disappoint those people who wanted to write letters because, well, I’m not good enough after all. I don’t know if I can do this.

Then there’s other stuff. I go all or nothing, so when I’m feeling strong, I start moving everything around. So my living room looks all different than it did a couple weeks ago, and while I liked it at first, now it feels strange. And I’m hurting people I love – my family, someone I think I could love really completely, a new friend with whom I’m not taking enough care. There are others, but why make myself feel worse?

It’s times like this that I’m so grateful I have faith. That I can take advantage of my ducked head while I sob, and fold my hands while they’re pressed to my chest and pray. Ask for help, for peace, for some idea – absolutely any idea – of where to go from here. I allow myself to be defined by how others see me, and if you want advice, don’t do that. It’s really hard. And when I start pushing around these important pieces of my life – how I look at family and friends and work and goals and love and happiness – there’s not a lot left to cling to when I look around and wonder how exactly I got to this spot.

Tears have been brushed away, and my skin feels tight – you know how it gets when you’ve cried too hard and the moisture dries on your cheeks? And I’m emotional and scared and overwhelmed – needing to soothe those around me so desperately – to make things normal and right and easy – but not seeing out of this exhausted misery very well.

I went to church in undergrad, and once we prayed for others – were told to ignore our own concerns completely and ask God to watch over other people – those around us. So we all stood and bowed our heads. Cal asked that those who felt especially weak – in need of prayer and help and comfort – sit down so we’d know where to direct our strongest thoughts. Who would sit? I thought. That’s embarrassing – to admit you’re not strong enough to ask God for what you need on your own.

But the woman next to me sat. I was uncomfortable - wanted to tug her up and whisper “You’re fine, it’s OK, just stand here.” Then she ducked her head and I saw that she was flustered, considering standing up herself. So I put my hand on her shoulder and bowed my head and prayed what is among the sincerest prayers I’ve ever given. I didn’t know what was wrong – whether she’d lost someone vital to her or not been able to find a good parking spot. Whatever it was, she needed help, and there was this inability to cope, and I was so moved. Suddenly found myself thinking she was so brave for sitting down, asking for just a few minutes of attention to regroup and heal.

I opened my eyes to see her covered with hands – mine on her shoulder, her husband curled over to rest his cheek on the hand he’s placed at the top of her head, Mom reaching across me to hold her hand, people bent awkwardly over their chairs from in front to reach her knees, those from behind finding places on her back.

God. It was powerful – so exquisitely profound.

I needed to sit down here, I think. Not ask for anything outright, just to take a moment and admit that I can’t handle this right now. So I prayed and it helped – eased the tears and brought some peace. But what should I do? I asked desperately, and returned my gaze to the laptop sitting open in front of me. I had been reading some email and looking at the 5 documents I have open to write my grant, and that triggered the initial break into tears for me.

But I opened a new document and wrote this. And it helped – knowing that even without comments, some of you might cock your head at me and find a spot on my shoulder to touch just for second. Acknowledging that, like that woman who was so radiant and beautiful when she walked out of church that day - I couldn't look away from her - I have something inside me that allows me to sit when I need to do so.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Busy, busy, busy!

I’m trying to write a grant. That isn’t news – I’ve been working at it for 3 weeks or so.

Well, working is probably the wrong word. I prefer to say that I’ve been thinking about it. Letting topics, goals, and problems tangle then find order in my head as I write slowly. Some sections are complete – the easy stuff that’s already been written for other purposes and just needed tweaking, the talking about how cool I am, only to explain how very far I have to go. Because there’s a dichotomy here – you want to be good enough, but also show a true need for the money in the K award, right?

So some sections, despite my rising at 3AM to allow writing when I think of text to include, are refusing to come together quickly. Also, that thinking I was talking about – from the outside, it may look at lot like wasting time.

If there’s a question game for me recently, it doesn’t look like "Candidate section or Research proposal section?" It’s more "Coffee or Nap? Chinese or Pizza? Television or blogs? Romance novel or The Colbert Report? Writing email or writing for the blog?" Note the lack of anything related to actual work.

So now as the deadline approaches and I need to get my draft out to the lovely folks here soon so they can fix my many mistakes, I’m going to attempt some focus. So I’ll get back to the family stuff, and perhaps come up with something interesting to tell you. In the meantime, I’m listening to music, waiting for email (you can’t cut out all distractions – I don’t think that’s healthy at all!), and trying to pull this together.

And that’s about all I know for now.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Defining home, part 1

The ground feels different under my feet at home. I took time to walk my dog both mornings I spent at my parents’ – it’s so much a part of my routine now that I miss it. Plus, it’s been long enough since my last visit that all the noise can sometimes be overwhelming. The walk was a welcome, if short, escape.

Nostalgia was almost as overwhelming as the noise. My parents live in this u-shaped neighborhood full of modest homes, ranches for the most part, that slopes down to the river if you head left off the blacktopped driveway, and eases ever so gently into moderate hills of farmland if you head right. Throughout my childhood, on bikes or on foot, I headed left. Started toward the river, though I don’t remember it being quite so pretty, and tried to sort out problems.

I was looking around, noting how many houses had welcomed me at some point. Brother’s best friend lived 3 houses down. He’s married now, and his parents moved south after a scandal involving his younger sister. As lovely as I find the Midwest, after you cross a certain line, you’re faced with steady disapproval from some of us. Moving was probably the best idea for them, I decided, returning my gaze to the river before getting too far down the hill.

I looked over at my dog, recalling that a different one used to accompany me. Our old german shepherd trotted gently at my side, looking up, happy to be out, but worried over my melancholy mood. This current dog also has questions, but none involve me – she wants to know her environment, stop to look around and smell, meet all these new friends. I smiled at one point on Sunday, realizing that nearly all the neighborhood dogs were mixed breeds – spots and speckles and ears that weren’t quite pretty. There’s hound in almost all of them, I thought, stopping to rub one finger over a small puppy’s head as we waited for his dad to retrieve him from his impromptu trip with us down the street.

I wrinkled my nose at some houses, remembering students – girls, mostly – that had lived there. I’d ridden my first horse at that house, I thought. And if I went down that drive and into the woods, I’d get to Father Keller’s place. I wondered if he still used the fountain shaped like a frog, feeding into the lake that housed the ducks and single swan. Then realized it’s likely been 15 years since I’ve visited, and that he was quite elderly even then.

Continuing back up the hill, on the other side of the U, I not familiar with as many homes. Memories of Halloween dominate here. How the oversized lots (if you don’t have more than an acre here, what’s the point?) that had allowed room to play in the daytime now made collecting candy a rather lengthy process. My thoughts turned to Mandy, as I walked by her house, remembering countless summer hours battling over a Monopoly board between trips to her pool. Then I recalled more recent events in my grad school city, hoped sincerely that she was doing better – not so distraught over failed relationships, that her headaches requiring my spending 2 nights holding her hand in the ER were under control, feeling guilty but grateful that I didn’t have to force a friendship that no longer truly existed since there is great physical distance between me and the west coast.

Continuing on, I viewed the playground behind the school from the street – it’s tucked away behind the basketball courts and baseball fields that rest behind the sprawling single-story building. A brightly colored system of slides and steps rests where the merry-go-round used to be. The swings, all in various heights, looked old to me. And the slide – the huge, tall slide that was the source a delight, then fear after the very first time I couldn’t breathe after falling down, was gone. Too dangerous, I nodded with approval, remembering lying on the ground, not being able to get air.

I used to walk through that yard, I remembered, looking away from the playground – every day, to and from school, through that expanse of land, into the small path behind it, then down into my own yard. I always had my head down – I don’t remember being sad, necessarily – I just wanted to watch where I was walking. Careful not to fall, more concerned with the very next step than the overall journey. Looking at the bright green grass that would turn brown and crackle under small feet when the summers grew too dry. Shuffling through leaves, noting the differences in resultant sounds when you marched versus kicked through them. Then there’s the hollow sound as you trudge through snow – bundled up, feet heavy from boots.

It’s fenced now, I noted with some regret, having already been warned that I’d need to continue to the highway and walk through the yards there. At age 27, I still was warned to watch for cars and not get too close to the road.

I stepped off the side street and into the first yard I’d cross. I made it three steps before noticing how different the ground felt under my feet than where I live now. There’s underlying rock here in the south – difficult to plant trees and shrubs because you can only dig so far before hitting harsh resistance. I’d been noting similarities between the 2 places earlier – how my house sits atop a hill that slopes to a lake, rather than a river. A single story, light brick structure, much like my parents’ home, it has a generous driveway, but a tiny yard in comparison to the nearly 3 acres my parents own.

I was charmed with the ground up north – perfectly familiar, absolutely lovely. Rich farmland, I thought, with a great deal of pride. Deep, full of nutrients and moisture from the recent rains back home. Soft – there’s noticeable give as you step on it – welcoming you in, then providing steady pressure as you push yourself forward. A bit sandy in our particular neighborhood, due to the proximity to the river, but rich. We grow stuff here quite successfully. And I know it’s boring to drive here – the flat fields offering little in the way of entertainment. I think it’s gorgeous – find myself visibly relaxing as I leave the southern hills and the topography gently eases into flat.

I stepped carefully over a mole hill – I’d stomp it down if I was in my parents’ yard, but I can let them be here. Mom and Dad have fought them for years – the rodents too enjoy the soil in our region. At one point, Dad decided that feeding car exhaust, mint gum, caster oil, and other remedies I can’t remember were inadequate and decided to empty our swimming pool into the network of tunnels one fall. Mom backed him up, and I remember sitting at the counter, helping with dinner, when he came in later on.

With a shrug, he informed us that it didn’t work, but that was fine. He had become the founder of the YMSA. I smiled – I’m crazy about acronyms from years living with Dad – and Mom cocked her head and asked what that meant. “Young Moles Swimming Association.” Dad replied, heading down the hall. “When they make t-shirts, my picture’s going to be on the front. Because I’m their leader. I gave them the water.”

And, like the moles, I guess I dug in there in the soft, flat farmland. Sunk my roots so deeply into the ground that I thought I’d prevented myself from being home anywhere else.

But I do find myself nestled into my new environment – my first house (and I will sob upon leaving it – it’s going to be miserably hard for me), first job out of grad school, warm winters, absolutely lovely people. The ground is different here, but I like it. And until I walked through those yards on Saturday morning before a day of errands with my parents, I think I'd forgotten to long for the ground back home.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Fine. Whatever. I don’t really care.

I have been at my parents’ house for about 40 hours, and a vast majority of them have been spent playing games with the Little One (who could very well be the coolest person I know – I really, really like her), dealing with two warring dogs, hearing bad jokes and stories from Dad, catching up with Mom, shopping, cleaning, picking up sticks, trying to sleep (and being largely unsuccessful), dealing with other family members, and eating. Though at one point yesterday, I had a frosted sugar cookie in one hand, and a chocolate chip cookie in the other. Nice.

Is everybody bored yet? How about you go away? Just stop reading and return tomorrow.

I accepted a bet. I knew it wasn’t a good bet, but grad school loyalty demanded that I give it a shot. So Charlie bet his team would outlast my team in this NCAA basketball thing. Then on Thursday, in a stunning show of evil, he reminded me that the tournament was beginning and that he’d miss most of the first round games. Then there was something about never seeing my team play! Indignant, I responded with a shameful, “I know. I’m nervous.”

His team played well (big, mean bullies), and my team played … Well, I didn’t see it so I’m not sure how they played. But they didn’t win – I can’t even say it was close. At one point, on another topic, I made some comparison regarding a race between greyhounds and turtles. Really slow turtles that aren’t very smart. And Charlie, much to my delight, extended it to “Make the turtle blind, with no sense of smell or direction and one broken hip.”

My team and I are the turtles, OK? You should know though, Charlie, that it’s all part of the master plan. We will be avenged, and there will be a better bet than writing something about how your school is better than my school (such a lie – I can’t even look at that statement without rolling my eyes). For the sad turtle, I’m thinking something along the lines of an artificial hip, lasic surgery, and an internal navigation system. And the pain of this loss will make said turtle study harder in an attempt to gain super intelligence with which he will control his bionic body.

Meanwhile, your greyhound will become arrogant in what is clearly a minor victory now. Perhaps he will skip his daily training sessions to romance a lady greyhound who only likes him for his athletic ability. He’ll gain weight, age badly and perhaps lose some of his shiny coat. Then as the little turtle continues to improve (and I really, really hope the lifespan of a turtle is longer than that of a dog, though I fear that’s not true. Dial-up internet prevents me from spending what could be hours looking it up), your dog will see said turtle – with his super intelligence, technically-improved body and incredible strength of will – and just roll over to nap because turtle superiority is overwhelming to him.

Luckily, my exhaustion – mental and physical – prohibits me from feeling too badly about this. (I hate to lose though.) So while it’s over for the basketball portion of the battle, the war has yet to be determined!

Stupid freaking turtles. We’ll win in the end though. I’m pretty sure.

Oh, and that bet said nothing about being graceful in defeat. I checked.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Maturity (or lack thereof)

If I have a problem with this blog, it’s that there’s absolutely no predicting what’s coming next. Unless you’re reading within a series, I don’t see how you could know if you’re going to get something about family, faith, dating, how I fell down. And while I feel fine doing that with friends – just talking about whatever comes to mind, the very lack of coherence here makes me a bit surprised that a number of you keep coming back. We really should be best friends.

It occurred to me, perhaps as a result of a couple discussions about how I felt putting so much of myself in this space, that I rarely talk about work. And when I do, it’s on a deeply personal level. Not that I completed task A, or had this interaction with person B. More like I’ll mention task A at the end of some lengthy discussion on how, when I was younger, I did thing Q and that reminds me of event M that if you squint really hard and think about it kind of quickly, could relate to event A. So when I call this some sort of academic blog, I’m a giant liar. So, sorry about that. The interesting thing is that I’m kind of a bad academic too, so it all fits.

Still reading? OK! Want to hear a story?

I’m still tutoring my little Math group, and yes, I love them already. A couple of weeks ago, one of the girls made quite an impression on me.

We were adding fractions. Playing this card game that mimics blackjack (get the kids started early! We played with M&Ms, which can be better than money in some moments) and I realized that they were guessing when I asked them if their 2 or 3 fraction cards got close to equaling 1, or actually went over.

Well, that’s why I’m there, right? So we got out the little white boards and markers and started adding fractions. A little practice would get this straightened out, I thought naively. They had no flipping idea what to do. Some were adding diagonally, some were adding across, then there was this weird multiply-add-write down random number strategy I never really understood. So I’m frowning, and they’re making up math rules, and I’m feeling all inadequate and lame.

I work best with individuals – even 4 people is too much for me. So I turned my attention to each of them in turn, wrote down my method of solving the problem, then watched them work. It’s not ideal, but that’s how I work. So I was dealing with Alice, and she was doing something weird.

“Common denominators.” I said softly, scooting my chair closer to her end of the table and asking Aaron to wait a moment before asking his question.

“I wanted to know if I could have more M&Ms.” He said quickly, so I pushed the bag toward him and returned to Alice.

“What?” She responded, looking back at her board and playing with her blue marker.

“You have to make the denominator the same – so multiply both numerator and denominator by the same number, then add the numerators and keep the denominators the same.” I told her with a smile.

Now, there are a number of problems here. First, I tend to talk rather quickly. I always have. Even up north, it was sometimes a problem, and years of working with senior citizens taught me to consciously slow my speech at times. But sometimes I get excited (or have a bit too much coffee) and find myself throwing out words at top speed. In the south though, people tend to speak really slowly sometimes. The accent, the speech patterns – they’re very different than my own. Additionally, my binder told me to use the key terminology, so I was throwing around numerator/denominator at every chance.

So Alice looked over at one of the other girls, raised her eyebrows incredulously, then looked back at me.

“Speak my language.” She said simply, and I loved it. Was completely charmed by her confidence in telling me she had no idea what the hell I was talking about. That shows tremendous maturity, I think. I’m still learning to be secure enough in my abilities to stop someone, think, and tell them I’m lost. But it’s how you learn! Pausing discussions to clarify issues, check terminology, make progress. I could not have been more proud of her.

“OK.” I continued, trying to think. “We want the, um, bottom numbers?” I pointed to them and she nodded. “Right, so the bottom numbers have to be the same. That’s the denominator. Then the top numbers are called the numerators, and they get added together.”

We continued to work through the problem and I continued to marvel at how cool it was that Alice, in her 11 year old wisdom, had so easily displayed a quality that it’s taken me 27 years to refine. There are still days I nod along, completely lost, and then return to spend hours trying to understand a concept when a simple question and 2 minute answer could have provided the necessary information.

My musings, however, were interrupted.

“Can I tell you something?” Alice asked.

“Of course!” I answered quickly – more wisdom from my students! Perfection!

“OK, nobody can repeat this.” She said, looking darkly at the other 3 students around the table. “You have to promise.”

“Wait.” I said, because one lesson maturity offered me is that if “this” is good enough, it will be repeated. I’m better about keeping secrets than I once was, but the temptation sometimes lingers. And in junior high, temptations are not easily overcome from what I remember. “I don’t know if you should tell us.” I said, shaking my head.

“No! I want to!” Alice insisted, and while I considered what to do to prevent her from being vulnerable in telling said secret, she continued.

“My teacher,” and she paused for dramatic effect. I'm easy, so I was hooked. I wanted to know. “she burps. In class. And doesn’t even say ‘excuse me!’”

So they burst into giggles and I struggled not to join them. Because apparently my years of life and education have afforded me some knowledge and maturity in comparison to 5th graders after all.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Grand gesture, part 3

My playlists finally complete, the FM transmitter delivered and settled in the box, I was just waiting for Kathryn to make her appearance. She was due to arrive before her original shipment date, so she headed out from China several days early.

In my family, we love to give large gifts – shower someone with something they likely didn’t expect because it’s so much fun. So this was actually in character for me – I’ve always loved doing something really cool to make a big impression. So this gift – the money, the time, the planning – was pure joy for me, and it felt like something I would naturally do.

The other tradition in my family is to be so very pleased with our generosity that the gift itself becomes a source of worry. So I started to wonder about little Kathryn. What if he broke her? Scratched her delicate little screen beyond repair? Yanked out her little connector instead of gently depressing the buttons located on each side? Forgot to eject her before disconnecting from his computer? Or, horror of horrors, what if he synced automatically and lost all my audio files?! All the music! The books! The movies! They were so perfectly organized – better than I’d done with my Chandler.

John isn’t stupid. He is, in fact, very bright. But I sent a list of instructions anyway. Because I can’t stand the thought of him breaking my lovely gift.

Then I finished these blog entries, printed Word documents so that he could see my reasoning, and placed them carefully in the box.

Kathryn arrived as expected, and I carefully gave her the files from iTunes. Painstakingly tested her to make sure the transfers were successful. Then placed her back in her tiny box for another trip.

I closed the box, checked John’s address one last time, and taped it closed with the brief thought that I hoped he would be pleased. Surprised, certainly, but also filled with pleasure that someone liked him that much – wanted him to remember that some days brought questions of where good things came from instead of wondering what he’d done to deserve another bad moment.

For me though, his reaction was actually a bit secondary. I needed the reminder that I could find pure kindness in myself – the desire to give comfort, joy and iPods. This grand gesture represented hope for me too – that I’m still learning a lot, looking for someone with whom to share my life, figuring out my own career stuff, having bad days. Within all of that though, I’ve developed the ability to be a friend – to love people in a pretty generous way.

On the way home from the post office, insurance and delivery confirmation slip tucked away in my purse, I smiled at myself. If I didn’t already have an iPod, I mused with a glance at Chandler as he sat attached to my own FM transmitter, someone might send me one. I think I’d deserve it too.

As a final note, John has, in fact, received the gift. His reaction, as I stated, wasn't really the point of telling the story. I haven't told you much about him at all, have I? I will say that he's lovely - deserving of far more than an iPod. I feel exceedingly lucky to know him and find myself hoping I end up romantically linked with someone quite like him in the future. He understood and appreciated the gift to exactly the right degree. John's a very good guy, and I'm sure I'll remain quite fond of him.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Grand gesture, part 2

Yes, an iPod. This is a grand gesture, people, so it was the good one. 30 GB, video capability – like the one I use, but half the storage space. Because, well, I didn’t buy mine.

Little Chandler helps me a great deal sometimes. Distracts me with audiobooks, plays short Pixar cartoons when I’m waiting somewhere, and the music – oh, the music – that I can shuffle or listen through carefully-created playlists, search through artists or albums, go from Classical to Country to Pop with just a snappy click on my gray wheel. I love it – I’m not sure how I lived without it. I plug it in to my FM transmitter in the car (which was the vital accessory I mentioned yesterday), I use headphones at work, then I have little speakers for home. It’s a pretty constant feature in my life now.

So when I thought of what might provide a great deal of entertainment, making John smile long past the initial arrival of the package, the iPod was so dominant that I couldn’t think of another idea that appealed in the slightest. Plus, I thought of what I wanted engraved.

Two lines. His name – because it’s a good name, and because you should label your iPod so people know it’s yours. Then, Fingers crossed.

Fingers crossed, folks! So elegant, so meaningful, so perfect in my mind.

This little gadget was symbolic (because, for me, what isn’t?) of having hope for the future – knowing that in spite of the potential misery – needlessly cruel people, jobs you should have been offered, papers rejected for trivial reasons, getting gray hair, gaining more weight than you probably should have, having less money than you envisioned – there is such sparkling joy available – fantastic people (like me! Because I bought him an iPod!), career boosts you may not have deserved, aging gracefully with humor and wisdom, having more friends or patience or love than you envisioned. So it was a physical symbol of hope – wishes for great things in his life.

Likewise, I find myself crossing my fingers for people. Something you can see - a physical expression that represents my sincerest best wishes. Do you get it? Isn’t that great?! I was delighted, especially since my creativity rarely extends to something I think is this cool.

I returned home and settled into organizing a good portion of my music library. 30 GB is huge, and there was plenty of room for a bunch of my stuff while leaving him excessive space for his own music and video files. I spent hours one night in my office, moving files, pulling from my iPod when I couldn’t find the original CDs, organizing music into carefully created folders – classical or classical-like when to Mozart et al., spoken word selections – books, interviews, snippets I’ve collected online – went to a folder called Audible. Potential laughter held my single comedy CD and some particularly funny stuff from Dad’s Bob and Tom collection. Then there were 4 files for my music – one for high school, then college, then grad school, then my current location.

Some of it’s crap – I listen to it more for nostalgic value than musical quality. But some of it is lovely – and I found myself smiling fondly as I moved those artists and songs to the top of the playlists titled for the cities in which I’ve lived. John probably won’t like much of it, but there’s always the option to delete it, right? Or to move the good stuff into playlists of his own so he can enjoy the iPod completely?

After getting sore from sitting in my desk chair for so long, I realized that this might be too much. The money, the time, the big red bow. Hell, I wondered, was this going to freak him out?

So I sat, left iTunes on my screen, and considered my motives as I perched on the bed next to my desk. I slept on it throughout grad school and still find it very comforting.

If you’re doing this with any expectations at all,
I lectured myself, you shouldn’t send it. It’s not fair. So I thought – kept turning over the idea in my mind. Did I want anything? Was I trying to get his attention, force him to think of me, make him appropriately grateful so that he would be more easily tricked into loving me so I could just get married already?

Nope, I decided with a fond smile for myself. Not at all. I’d actually feel terrible if he felt that way. My motives were pure – I wanted to make him happy – surprise him with a really cool gift that would ease the irritation of his commutes, make him think, make him laugh, remind him of the hope for goodness. Reassured, I happily went back to play with iTunes, reminding myself that next time I want to do something nice, it should be for a friend with a Mac. Windows in my office was hurting me with the slowness.

Finally tired, though not finished, I went back to my living room. Got email from him that said he was losing hope on the jobs he’d had in mind. Despaired over not knowing what to say, then soothed myself with the thought that I’d at least make some attempt at comfort soon.

I found a foof that I don’t use – bright red corduroy, soft and fuzzy. I wrote a note on a post-it, carefully affixed it to the soft material, and placed it in the box I’d already constructed. There was a big red bow, and a small red iPod case. Apple had shipped little Kathryn (that’s her name, though John can change it – I don’t use the name for myself, so I thought it fair to bestow it on my perfect little present), and the FM transmitter was scheduled to arrive the day before she was.

With pure pleasure, I continued my manipulation of my music library, carefully drafted a card, then sat to write it out. Then the white envelope joined the other items patiently waiting in the box.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Grand gesture, part 1

I have a friend who’s looking for a job. Since I’m surrounded by academic types, online and off, he’s going through the same process as many of you. And it can be a long, miserable process. Carefully building confidence so you can interview properly, then watching it get sucked away as things don’t work out. Exhausting.

In addition, though we haven’t been in close touch throughout, said friend is having one of those years. Problems – some minor, some major – seem to pop up with greater frequency than is warranted in his near past, and I find myself feeling badly – wondering why the world seems to smile on some and torture others, even in the short term.

I frown over it – not really worried, because John’s a capable guy. He’ll handle all this crap and figure out where to go from here. But I’m bothered that someone who’s so clearly smart, talented, cute and kind can be overlooked by the more pleasant side of luck. Because, well, why?

John was on my mind during my Tuesday morning commute about a week ago. Caught in a snarl of traffic, inching forward, feeling the rise of irritation because increased volume shouldn’t prevent any and all forward motion. But little Chandler continued to play music, and then there was a song I liked, followed by a little excerpt from Bob and Tom that made me giggle. Since I’m apparently like a raccoon with a shiny toy, I was distracted from John by the joy I found in my little iPod.

But he captured my attention again as I walked through the balmy morning toward my office. I’d decided on a gift somewhere between there and here, and was completely charmed by the idea. I spun ideas of how it would look, what could go with it in the box, what I’d write on the card. I love sending people stuff – I just think it’s really cool. But I often falter between an idea I love and actually putting something in mail.

I’ll decide it’s often too much. That my brilliant idea has the potential to cause discomfort in its extravagance rather than pleasure at finding such a cool present waiting for you one day when you arrive home. Because some circumstances call for grand gestures. When life is garbage, and I want to provide a reminder of the potential for great happiness, the present should be good.

For whatever reason, I didn’t falter in my plan this time. It made me so happy to picture it that I desperately wanted to see its transfer from imagination to reality. So I got to my desk, quickly ordered 2 things online, and gleefully plotted what else I would include.

I needed to get a box, I mused, not remembering where I had shipping materials in my new house. So there was the gift, then this important accessory item, and I had something else at home that I never used that would also be perfect, so I’d include that too. Plans lingered in the back of my mind all day – through meetings, irritations, experiments, conversations – and brought me a great deal of anticipated joy.

I left work a little early. Went to Target. Found a really good card, carefully selected the appropriate box, then walked by gift wrap. I wrinkled my nose – wrapping the individual pieces seemed less classy then leaving them settled in the box to be viewed immediately. Then I smiled and stood on tip-toe to reach one last item.

A tiny girl with short, dark hair checked me out. My box, packing tape, and card were placed quickly in a plastic bag.

“That’s a big red bow!” She said, smiling at me. “What are you going to do with it?”

“It’s going in the box.” I smiled back, and when she looked confused, I elaborated.

“I ordered an iPod for a friend, and the bow will go with it when I send it along.”

Sunday, March 12, 2006

On hating the hot

Karma’s kind of a bitch. I admit to scoffing at the ‘winter weather survival tips’ when temperatures dipped below 32°. I rolled my eyes at my lovely neighbors and colleagues when they bundled up as I cheerfully walked the dog in a sweatshirt and went to work sans coat. I asked my crush at Starbucks for iced coffee despite the “cold” temperatures outside. I was stronger than these people – more adept at handling cold. Though I tried to comfort them with the knowledge that I would certainly suffer through Southern summers, apparently I failed to take that warning seriously on a personal level.

So, in the most pitiful whine I can muster, I’ll inform you all that it’s hot here. My favorite summer phrase, and the most often used, is “I hate the hot.” or some variation thereof. And I really do – the sweating, the pure helplessness to ease the discomfort because you have to wear something (and even if you didn’t, nudity wouldn’t help on some days), the hatred of being outdoors at all expressed through desperate trips from the air conditioned car to the coolness of offices or shops. But you can’t hurry on those journeys – it just makes the heat harder to handle. Freaking summer. There’s a reason it’s hot in hell, people!

In an attempt to distract myself from misery (over 85° in my house! In March!), I’ll assure myself that I have some fond memories of summer. We had a pool growing up, and though it would make sense to add water to my list of fears (heights, roller coasters, large crowds of people, balloons (they pop and it startles me), hospitals), I’ve always loved it. I’ll admit to a preference for pools over natural bodies of water, but I’ll take what I can get. In fact, of the reasons I will tolerate summer at all, swimming tops the list.

A close second would be family vacations, though they were often painful. Dad and I would fight, growing more intense as I grew up and hated the cigarette smoke more and more (cracking the window does not help either. I try not to offend here, but if you smoke and you think cracking the window pulls all the smoke out of the car, you’re kind of a moron), then Brother and I would argue because he kept putting himself or his stuff on my side. Perhaps I was the problem. It was hot, which makes me all cranky and out of sorts.

Anyway, on one of our 3 trips to pay homage to the mouse named Mickey, we stayed for 6 days at Port Orleans. I don’t think I had ever been that exhausted – little 7th grade Katie would be up by 5:00 to catch the first bus and take advantage of early admission to the parks, then I’d stay out with Mom to enjoy one of the many fireworks displays each evening. On two nights, I slept in my clothes rather than pajamas to buy myself 15 more minutes of sleep. Oh, and we all wore belt bags. It was awesome.

We set aside one day for water parks, and did all three in a single day (we’re nothing if not ambitious when it comes to sight-seeing!). We ended up at Blizzard Beach and I decided I wanted to do the family raft ride. We made it most of the way up the stairs before Brother looked down and opted out. Mom wanted to join him, but I stood, hands on hips, and told her in no uncertain terms that at least 3 people were necessary and she would be making the trip down in a freaking inner tube! Heat makes me irritable, after all.

It was finally our turn and Dad and I tucked ourselves into the far corners, leaving the closest edge for Mom. Hanging on to the rope that lined the upper edge of the yellow ring, I noticed Dad tuck his flip flops into the criss-crossing ropes on the bottom of the tube. I quickly followed suit.

Mom must not have noticed our preparations, busy looking around and gingerly settling into her corner. I remember, vividly, her looking up at the brightly-dressed park employee.

“Does this go very fast?” She asked meekly, looking worried as she perched awkwardly.

“Uh… sort of.” The girl responded, and sent the tube into a slow rotation as she pushed as down the first dip of the ride before Mom’s request to wait could have an impact.

I grinned at Dad, excited to be taking what we knew would be a moderately paced trip down the hill. Mom was looking around, frowning darkly.

“I don’t know if I like this.” She told us, and we quickly assured her that she was fine.

Then there was a concurrent corner and bump, and somehow Mom lost her balance and looked up at us from the bottom of the tube, only her head resting on the soft edge. Dad and I stared at her, surprised.

Then the ride got interesting. See, when she fell, the whole balance system was severely compromised. Suddenly, Dad and I were heading backward, while Mom’s eyes got bigger and bigger. Another corner forced a rotation and since Mom’s side was clearly lighter – having only her head for weight – she ended up going really far up the gently sloped walls of the ride.

“Wow.” I breathed after the second time, because she really did have some decent height on her ascents.

“Shut up, Katie!” I think I laughed, because as she was hanging on to the rope for dear life and getting bounced along the ride, spinning the tube and leaving us to gather more momentum than was wise, I didn’t think I was in much danger of punishment.

Meanwhile, Dad was trying to help by telling her to push against his flip-flop-shod foot, all the while explaining that she shouldn’t lie down on the ride since it threw off our balance. So as she swung wildly from side to side, looking more and more terrified, I giggled, and Dad espoused on her very refusal to sit up that was causing her to go so far up the walls.

She got mad.

“I don’t like this!” She insisted. I nodded at her, clinging to the rope myself, unable to wipe away tears that form with excessive laughter.

“This is going really fast!” She began, only to stop to blow out air to push the water away that would cascade in over her head in the moments between her trips up the walls of the ride. “I don’t like this!”

“If you’d just push against my foot…” Dad repeated, obligingly moving his shoe closer as he continued to explain that the ride would be better if she would just sit up.

“I can’t sit up! Do you think I want to lie down?! I don’t like this! Katie, shut up!” I tried to nod, but I was lost to hysterical giggles, much as I am now.

We got to the end of what was clearly the best ride ever taken, and I noted the signs that requested you stay in your tube for another few feet. Mom, of course, immediately rolled out on her hands and knees and ended up chin deep in the knee-high water. She just stayed there on all fours.

“Mom!” I chastised, embarrassed, “follow the rules! Get back in the raft!”

“I will not get back in there.” She said loudly, making me duck my head with a blush, looking around to note who could see us.

Dad got out to help her, and promptly lost his flip flop.

“Oh, no.” He said, also too loudly. “My shoe fell off.”

“We’re all supposed to be in the raft!” I informed them, looking back to see Mom crawling toward Dad’s shoe in the clear water.

“I found it!” She informed him, finally happy to have done something right.

I don’t know what happened then. I got out of the raft, careful to keep my shoes on my feet, and sloshed through the water. I had perfected the ‘pretend you don’t know them’ technique and put all my skills to use by hiding behind a tree about 10 feet down the path.

“Where’d you go?” Dad asked minutes later, interrupting his monologue on why it was important to remain seated in the raft rather than lying down.

“I didn’t mean to lie down! It wasn’t like I decided to almost drown myself or wanted to go that high up the sides of the stupid ride!” Mom continued to speak.

I shook my head at them and continued on, meeting Brother down the path. He was laughing.

“What happened? I’m glad I didn’t go. You guys looked stupid.” He informed us. Dad went into yet another explanation of how we all should have sat up, Mom reiterated that she didn’t like the ride at all, and I looked at Brother and laughed.

Some memories are worth the heat.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Silly bloggy stuff (or is it?)

There’s a reason I don’t do the typical blog-type postings. Apparently I am a retrospective soul (the most misunderstood of the souls – lovely). I am also a high-level nerd (87th percentile, which provides me more amusement than concern, though it probably should be reversed).

The reason I don’t let myself do things like that is that I truly believe the results on some level. Like astrology – I have a book (though not the updated edition), and I totally buy into it. When I meet someone, I’ll try to work birthdays into the conversation early on so I can look up compatibility in the “Sun Signs in Love” section. To be fair, there are only 3 signs that poor Capricorns can deal with – we don’t even tend to like each other long-term, though the mutual admiration, mental attraction and sexual tension can be lovely. Though I haven’t read it in some time – other than a quick compatibility check whenever I know a man’s birthday – I believe the book knows me.

To prove my point, I decided to get my copy and read my description and make a true/false table. The problem? It’s all true. So with credit to Joann Martine Woolfolk, I shall describe myself in exquisite detail for you (with comments to clarify).

"Ambitious" Yes, very much so.
"Practical" Yep
"Leader" Not to brag, but I was voted Best Leader in my graduating class.
"Power" Where?! I love power!
"Heightened sense of time" Freakishly so. I have clocks everywhere and never use an alarm clock. I always know what time it is.
"Superb organizer and planner" Thank you. I know.
"Melancholy" Yes, often. It’s very sad.
"Sternness" I find myself wearing my “I disapprove” face quite often.
"Responsible" Very much so. I always got to be in charge when teachers left the room.
"Disciplined" At times – I go back and forth. But overall, yes.
"Restriction" Part of why I loved dieting so much and went to extremes.
"Determined " Just another way of saying these other qualities.
"Purpose" What’s the point otherwise?
"Faith in ability" I sometimes question my ability quite viciously. But I often find myself thinking “I could do that better.” So I agree here.
"Depend only on self" I went ahead and linked that for you. It's always been true.
"Remoteness of spirit" I’m much more open here than in person, so you’ll have to trust that it’s very true.
"Misunderstood" In terms of what I want versus what I say I want? Fine.
"Sensitive" Very, very, very. In good ways and bad.
"Sympathetic" Oh, yes. I hurt when other people hurt. It’s a very real quality for me – one I like.
"Supportive" Sincerely so.
"Somber, gloomy, but with sense of humor" I’m nodding.
"Extremely funny, unexpectedly so" I’m not sure about extremely, but I amuse myself quite often.
"Cautious" Uh huh.
"Conservative with money" This might go in the false column if I had made one. I spend money quite freely at times. Because…
"Materialistic" I love stuff!
"Likely to amass wealth" One can hope. Unfortunately this apparently comes late in life.
"Require thorough understanding of path before beginning" We already said I was cautious.
"Concerned with security" A lot.
"Proud" To the point of being flawed.
"Not likely to forgive people who belittle or slight me" I take this farther to 'not trusting people won't belittle or slight me at some point in the future.' It's why I’m writing on a blog rather than out with friends.
"Repay favors" Of course. Always. The book says I do this out of pride though, but I believe that I fall a little in love with people who do kind things for me and want to give that love back.
"Marry for money or prestige" If I could, I would. I wouldn’t turn down a rich husband.
"Dominate relationships" Again, only because they’re not doing it right!
"Continually test loyalty of those around you" Oh, yes. Often subconsciously, but it occurred to me recently that I do this all the time.
"Loner of zodiac" Sighing here.
"Great need to be loved and appreciated" Yes. Please love me! Please appreciate me!
"Master at concealing said need" That line above was a joke. I’m good. Really.
"Appear aloof, indifferent, hard to reach" Again, I feel comfortable here so it’s not such a big issue. This is completely true of me in person.
"Self-contained" Absolutely.
"Elusiveness can be hypnotically attractive" To whom? Where is he?! I believe he's the elusive one here.
"Greatly reward people who seek to know me" It’s like repaying a favor. So yes.
"Deep affection and loyalty" Very deep. Deep like the ocean.
"Cherish and protect loved ones" Rabidly. I’ve yelled at teachers and dentists on Brother’s behalf.
"Completely present in toughest times" Ah, the nurturing instinct. Yes, it’s very strong – I like to take care of people once they have my attention.

If you wonder if the book knows you too, send email or comment. I'll give you your list. But back to this retrospective soul stuff.

"The most misunderstood of all the soul signs."
I sigh. Did they talk to the book of knowledge?

"Sometimes you even have difficulty seeing yourself as who you are."
I nod. That’s likely true. It’s not constant, but yes, sometimes I struggle.

"You are intense and desire perfection in every facet of your life."
Of course. What’s the point otherwise? I don’t want to settle. For crying out loud.

"You're best described as extremely idealistic, hardworking, and a survivor."
Idealistic, yes. Hardworking? I’m currently analyzing some online quiz rather than writing my grant, so this is questionable. A survivor? Of what? My life hasn’t been all that hard. So I’m calling this line a wash.

"Great moments of insight and sensitivity come to you easily."
Oh, stop. That’s very kind. Thank you.

"But if you aren't careful, you'll ignore these moments and repeat past mistakes."
Oh. So you give the compliments, then take them away? I see. To be fair, I noticed this pattern first. That’s why I started the blog! To remember my moments of “insight and sensitivity.”

"For you, it is difficult to seperate the past from the present."
Sweet quiz, my desire for perfection forces me to note that it’s spelled separate. But your point is a good one. I’m very interested in those lessons you say I ignore in favor of repeating past mistakes. So I try to remember and grow from my experiences. You’re starting to irritate me – do you want me to remember the past or live completely in the present?

"You will suceed once you overcome the disappoinments in life."
Again with the spellings! Succeed! Disappointments! If I can get past your skill in spelling, I guess I can appreciate your point.

But then, it tells me that I’m most compatible with the "Traveler Soul and the Prophet Soul." You can’t work that into conversation! How am I supposed to meet someone, then trick him into taking a quiz?! I’m sticking with astrology as my shameful check on romantic possibilities. At least my book is spelled correctly.

The little water picture

“Girls? This looks wrong.” Elle and I looked to the kitchen inquisitively. Rachel was frowning into her bowl of brownie batter.

I was doing homework – always multi-tasking even when spending time with friends. So Elle wandered over and agreed that there was a problem.

“It’s like there’s not enough wet.” She said, and Rachel enthusiastically agreed.

I smiled into my book, writing out homework problems or grading lab reports – I can’t remember which. We made brownies a lot in undergrad – it was the consistent item on all of our grocery lists and I don’t think a week went by when brownies weren’t readily available. Bad days, good days, nothing much has happened days – chocolate treats were ever present. So if the batter was wrong, we’d know. This was our area of expertise.

“What’d you forget to add?” I asked from the couch after they’d stood at the kitchen island for a moment without making progress.

“Nothing! I don’t think.” Rachel started whine.

“So there’s the eggs, the oil and the water. You did all that?”

“Water doesn’t go in brownies.” Rachel said, looking over to grace me with a grin, and Elle went to dig the box out of the garbage.

“Look,” she said, displaying it. “There’s the little oil measuring cup, then the picture of the eggs, then the little spoonfuls of water. It’s not like we’ve never done this before.” She teased.

“Oh,” Rachel said, smiling sheepishly. “I must not have seen the little water picture.”

So we laughed, Rachel quickly added water and put the brownies in to bake, and we returned to casual conversation and half-hearted attempts at work.

I craved brownies last night, added the now rarely enjoyed treat to my grocery list, and went shopping this morning. I returned home, preheated the oven, and put food away into a refrigerator that remains very neat and organized. Then I added oil and eggs to the boxed mix, smiling fondly as I measured 3 tablespoons of water. I’m just starting to smell chocolate as they bake.

I’ve been told I resist small talk. I don’t mind listening to it, certainly, but if I’m telling you something that happened to me, I’m probably attempting to teach myself a lesson or make some point. I don’t often tell stories just because I thought of them, so I’m trying to practice doing that.

No big point today. Just a really lovely memory and the anticipation of brownies.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Home and family

My grandparents had separate bedrooms when I was little. I often stayed overnight at their house and could sleep in either one. I remember being asked to choose as bedtime approached. I always picked Grandpa's.

It now strikes me as unfair – my consistent choice of one over the other – but he was my favorite. Grandma and I would nap together during the day, read stories and talk. But Grandpa, he would sing songs, and play school and walk with me while I rode my Dukes of Hazard Big Wheel.

He would count my bones – rubbing circles up and down my back while he counted softly, soothing me into sleep. Of my childhood memories, all of them good, one of my favorites is falling asleep smiling when Grandpa would tell me I must be a giraffe. Because I had so very many bones in my back. I'd tell him that he was counting the same bones over and over as he went up and down over and over. He'd laugh and tell me I was his little giraffe.

He died when I was in first grade. Had yet another heart attack while mowing the lawn and never woke up. I understood early that you had to treasure people while they were around. Because sometimes, inexplicably, they’re taken away. All I’m left with are moments I remember, laughter, songs I still sing for comfort, and the hope that someday I’ll get to count someone’s bones and pass that piece of him on.

Friends or family?
In junior high, I was a state representative for the student council association. Trust me when I tell you to be impressed. Really – it was a big deal.

The speeches, travel, organizing – all fine. But summer camp? I’d never been away from my family for more than a night, and didn’t even care for sleepovers at friends’ houses. So leaving for a week was met with much resistance. But I had fought a hard campaign to win my position (seriously – remember to impressed), so I had to live in some shack, use community showers and have lakeside fun for a whole week. Awful.

I remember playing the question game though, so camp wasn’t all bad. I sat in a circle on soft green grass, watching carefully for bugs, with 8 other students and a dreamy high school counselor. We were going around answering the questions, laughing a bit, getting to know each other.

“Friends or family?” Dreamy asked, and I smiled from my position opposite him because this was an easy one.

My face fell as the 4 students who answered before me were unanimous in their “friends!” response. No, no, no. I thought. Family. The support, understanding, laughter, safety, love that I’d felt so far had come much more strongly from relatives than peers. They didn’t think I was strange for refusing party invitations to spend time alone, smiled fondly at my inclination to read rather than join them to watch movies. Listened intently as I described problems with friends or boys, never sharing that information with others to increase their social status. The comfort that I felt with my family so far surpassed that I felt with friends that there was no question of my answer, but when my turn came, I gave it softly. I was the only family vote.

“Moving out”
It should come as no surprise that I struggled with moving out at age 18. I would stare at my ceiling at night in high school, unable to sleep, struggling to breathe in the face of panic caused by picturing myself somewhere far (like a 90 minute drive) away. I was vastly relieved when scholarships were awarded to the pricier institution closer to home.

Knowing me very well, my parents insisted I live in the dorms, and I agreed gracefully. It was the right thing to do. But after carefully moving my belongings, buying new things, and settling in, I probably spent 2 nights a week on campus. I’d more often make the early drive back from home to attend classes, drawing comfort from telling myself nothing had to change.

Grad school was harder – the 3 hour drive too long to make each day – so I often lived for weekends. I settled into a routine of spending every other weekend at home, and would pack my suitcase, then trek home, settling into my old bedroom that had been kept nearly identical to its high school state. For the most part, I was fine with my bimonthly visits, though I would occasionally get twitchy after a week and sneak out of the city and head back to the quiet at home.

It was detrimental to many friendships, platonic and otherwise. If you’re in my life, you’ll know with absolute certainty that my family outranks you. No question. If they call, I’ll ignore you. If I crave being home, I’ll cancel plans to make that happen. It’s just how it’s always been. How I thought I always would be.

I had an acquaintance in grad school. We never quite made it to friendship, though we did respect each other and had interesting conversations. I always left her feeling vaguely guilty though – she was incredibly faithful. Mission trips, long-term goals revolving around God, church at least 3 times a week, wouldn’t associate with anyone who wasn’t strongly Christian, had a roommate who had converted to Christianity upon her arrival from Korea. Conservative and intense, she was a completely gentle and lovely person. I liked her, but wasn’t ever very comfortable.

We had lunch, as was our habit, once a semester after we became dissertators. At our last meeting, perched on a bench watching one of the many fountains on campus, I asked about her family. She, like me, escaped to the comforts of home with great regularity. So I asked when she’d last made the trip.

“Three months ago, I think. Maybe more.” She responded, looking down at her sandwich while my eyebrows raised in surprise.

“Wow! You finally grew up! That’s great.” I joked, trying to make a quick recovery from my surprise and dismay that someone else had broken the ties that bind me to home.

“They adopted 2 children from church.” She informed me, even more solemn than usual. “It’s just not the same anymore. I don’t really feel like I have a place there, so I’ve stayed away. They haven’t been here to visit either. And when we talk, it’s always about the girls.

“But that’s fine. It was probably time to be more independent. To grow up.” She smiled at me weakly before dropping her gaze again.

“Oh.” I said softly. Then I told her how hurt I’d be – that no matter what my age, I liked feeling special and important and loved when I returned to my childhood home. That I was slightly worried about adding a grandchild to the mix because it would certainly draw attention from me, and, well, I do enjoy attention. I still wonder about Jane – how she coped with the jarring shift in dynamic from a source that had offered such comfort in the past.

I find that my dynamic has shifted too, though in a much more subtle, gradual way. I moved farther away – inconveniently far, actually – so weekend trips are tough. It’s a tremendous amount of driving for a day or two with my parents.

I also really like my house. All my stuff is here – all the books, music, comfortable beds and pillows, wireless internet. I’m quite comfortable in my own space, and have plenty to share when extra people are around. Plus, I finally feel like my job is really important – that as they near retirement, it could be more reasonable for them to take time off for a longer visit than it is for me. Perhaps I feel more professionally equal having moved out of the student stage of my life.

Then there’s the Little One, who I adore completely. I think she’s representative of everything hopeful and lovely, and if I get to spend 5 minutes on the phone to hear her say “ ’lo?” twice, it’s often the best 5 minutes of my day. But she’s a demanding little girl, and the attention is rightfully bestowed upon her, regardless of the humor or importance of my riveting stories.

There’s also the Sister-in-Law, who I don’t adore completely (or much at all). Dealing with her is miserably difficult for me, and avoiding her is often much more tempting than returning home.

I looked forward to the visits home less over the last few months. Spaced them out a bit more. But after packing my things and placing the dog in the passenger seat with her blanket, I continued to feel that familiar lightness that heading home has always brought. Things are the same, I comforted myself, or very nearly so. Nothing to worry about.

I had planned to head north this morning. But then I had 3 hours to think about everything in my life last night in what should have been a 30 minute commute home. 3 hours, people! Not even Chandler can save me from being irritated by that. I finally got home, almost panting with frustration, and called my parents. Told them I wasn’t feeling very well, ankle was still sore, was in a mood, and was considering postponing the visit. Dad was disappointed, but quickly handed the phone to Mom so he could deal with Brother’s dog and the Little One. Mom was also distracted, asking me to call this morning and let her know what I was going to do.

I cancelled. For the first time I can ever remember, I decided to stay away. It’s a mental change for me – a small one, sure, as I’ll probably make the trip next weekend, but an important one. Perhaps it represents one less barrier between me and starting a family of my own. Maybe I’m finally growing up, rather than just getting older.

For whatever reason, home to me is starting to be this place I’ve created for myself. I’m not sure if that makes me proud or sad. I’ll have to let you know when I figure it out.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Professional glow

I thought of a story for you. I didn’t think I was going to write tonight, but then this memory returned with intense clarity, so I thought I’d share it.

I felt really good about myself in June. I had completed a draft of my thesis and handed carefully printed copies to the 5 men who would sit on my committee. I was beginning 5 weeks of nearly constant travel that was to be based out of my hometown. My dog was staying at my parents’ and it was easiest to deal with flying out of the smaller airport at home. I was done – had completed projects, was working on some papers, and feeling confident and smart. Completely capable of dealing with this interview stuff.

I had successfully interviewed at 5 places, I think. I headed back to grad school for a short stay – wanted to check in for early revisions on my thesis document, reserve a room for my defense in early July, touch base with some students I’d mentored. I wasn’t thrilled with any of the job prospects so far, but I was only halfway through my 9 interviews, knew I’d get offers and be lucky to have them, and was still feeling darn good.

You know when it hurts to be wrong? When you’re so sure you’re right. When the pain is so completely unexpected that it brings waves of embarrassment – humiliation, even – in addition to the shock of being unexpectedly slapped back. My thesis, scheduled for a week later after one more interview trip, had been unceremoniously canceled by a member of my committee through email.

No note to me – I was cc’d on a message to my whole committee that noted his concern that the document, and my work, were insufficient to merit a degree. I don’t have words to explain how bad this was, so I’m not going to go into detail. I fought – viciously hard – and I lost. We pushed it off indefinitely, and I went home to prepare for my flight the next day.

Instead, I spent 3 days lying on my parents’ bathroom floor. I’m not sure exactly how you define a nervous breakdown, but if involves the inability to do anything but lie mutely or cry, vomit regularly, and curl so tightly into yourself that you’re not sure what will eventually emerge, then I guess I had one. So I missed the interview, and it happened to be for the institution where I currently work.

It killed my parents. I don’t know that they’ve ever been so angry or worried on my behalf. It finally pulled me out of it. I went back to my grad school, found refuge in icy rage, and told my advisor that there was “no way in hell I could stay.” I would put off the defense because I clearly didn’t have the support necessary to graduate, but I’d leave without a degree, work, then return to finish up. So we set specific conditions upon my release, and I decided to leave.

At this point, I still had 4 interviews to go, and that glow I had before? From looking over my CV? Listing my accomplishments? Noting the affection and respect I had for my colleagues and graduate institution? It was extinguished completely. I had nothing left from which to draw strength or professional confidence.

Later, I was returning from a long interview – 4 days, I think – and only had one left to go. I remember getting on the second flight that would take me back to my parents and dog after a lengthy layover. I think I read a magazine, but the delayed boarding had enabled me to finish it. I could have worked on the paper that had just been rejected, but I couldn’t find the internal resources necessary to do so. Instead, I got on the small plane – 2 seats on either side of the aisle, sat in the front row by the window, and fixed my eyes on the ground outside.

Someone sat next to me and I shifted slightly, acknowledging her presence without turning to look. She asked me where she should put her carry-on since there were no seats in front of us. I turned to offer suggestions and smiled weakly before returning to my bleak stare outside.

I sighed when she asked what was taking me to the relatively small Midwestern city.

“My parents live there.” I replied simply, not looking away from the window, curled into myself to protect from the nearly constant disappointment that faced me.

She then told me about her church conference, and I remember forcing myself to keep my eyes on her as she spoke. I was vaguely worried – I very rarely have trouble enjoying people once I’m engaged – and I wondered if I’d lost some vital piece of myself that was capable of feeling joy, hope or even mild amusement. I don’t think I’d really laughed in weeks.

She asked if I was working in the South, and I shook my head.

“Interviewing, actually.” I told her, not able to resist the lure of looking out the window afterward.

She asked about the job, and I told her, trying to muster some enthusiasm for at least one of the eight since I had to take something to get out of grad school at this point. I couldn’t. I did tell her I was leaving graduate school. Not finishing – I never used the word finish – always leave. I was leaving grad school.

“What did you work on?” She asked. “Did you do research?”

I nodded automatically, turned to her and opened my mouth to answer. Then closed it. Thought of the jobs I didn’t want. The email informing me of my paper’s rejection. The defense date that had come and gone without a presentation or signed forms or celebrations.

“It doesn’t matter.” I told her, meaning it with every molecule of my being. “It’s not important at all.”

For once, I’m not trying to gain sympathy and guilt you into offering encouraging comments. I’m writing a grant and going through the candidate section, telling my story of grad school – the various projects, the problems, the mentoring, the people with whom I collaborated, how I followed some ideas and discarded others.

And you know what? I was good at it. Yes, there were weaknesses and places I could have tried harder. But as I write about myself, look back on my background and forward to goals I’m struggling to define, the glow is back. I am smart and capable and lovely. I am.

If I may offer you some advice, which I rarely do because I almost never know what I’m talking about, I’ll tell you that my confidence came back. So try to hang in. It took some time – a lot of resting and thinking and writing on a blog. I understand how it is to feel lost and alone and profoundly changed. I also know that I’ve laughed a lot in the time since then – loved people and sought collaborations, pushed myself to keep moving forward even with the knowledge that being slapped back again was likely inevitable. Because now I have the knowledge that I’ll bounce back. Know that this – me – is important and matters is some very real way.

And I’ll glow again. I'm glowing now.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Poor, poor me*

When we last left off, I was going to get into my new goals. I had this really cool analogy in mind too! How when I walk my dog in the mornings, I see this lake, then I have to go down this hill so I can’t see the lake anymore even though I’m closer to the lake than I was when I started. It was going to be really cool.

I had it basically written in my head – could feel the flow I wanted to follow, had paragraph ideas mapped out, and even a nice little ending. I could even picture some comments! I was going to write it this evening since I needed to leave for work after my walk.

I had followed my normal path through the neighborhood, returning to my house only to stop to drag my garbage can back to the house. The plan, as I remember it, was to get my plastic trash receptacle, grab the mail, then head up the driveway.

The plan went awry. I must have stepped on the curb wrong with my left foot, and when I stumbled, my right foot refused to support my weight. You can imagine my surprise when I found myself lying on the street.

It hurt.

“Wow.” I said softly, checking to make sure I wasn’t seriously injured. I picked up my headphones that had clattered to the ground during my tumble, looked up to find the dog regarding me from around the garbage can, and sat up.

No blood, I determined, though I was scratched pretty badly. Both hands, my right elbow. I tore a hole in my pretty blue yoga pants, so that was sad. Wiggling my toes, I decided to stand, and regretted it. Both ankles are really swollen as I sit on my loveseat typing.

I’m working from home today if anyone needs me. I fell down and hurt myself.

*Today finds me more able to walk. The right ankle seems to have recovered, though the left one is still sulking. I'm bruised, but not nearly as badly as I could be. So I have upgraded to moderately poor me. Good news, right?

The Mice and the conclusion

Until Brother was born, I was in charge of the nativity scene at Christmas. Mom had painted ceramic figures – almost cartoon-like with their little round bodies – and I loved to take out the manger, arrange the straw and place the animals inside. The people, save baby Jesus, had to linger outside the manger, away from the warmth of the small bulb that lit the interior of the brown shack.

Jesus was placed between the donkey and the bull while sheep and camels guarded the edges of the manger.

“Katie, why are all the people outside?” Mom would ask.

“It’s cold at Christmas. I don’t want the animals to be cold.”

“So you want the people to be cold? Mary and Joseph? The wise men? The shepherds?”

“They should dress warm.”

She was eager to hand over the job to Brother when he was not yet three years old. In my nearly seven-year-old wisdom, I explained to him that the animals might be cold outside while the people were more capable of caring for themselves. He was pleased with his responsibility of arranging “baby Jesus and his friends” and followed my advice by placing the animals inside with the baby, leaving the adults to watch from outdoors.

Mom now arranges the nativity scene herself.

So you might smile and think I grew out of it, right? Well...

I’ve mentioned I have a dog. After 2 years of grad school, I moved 20 minutes away from campus to find an animal-friendly apartment building. Then I carefully chose Chienne online, then pushed to move in a week earlier than the lease actually started so I could get the dog as soon as possible. We moved all day, then went to pick up the dog that night.

Chienne has allergies – lost much of her short coat that first summer. All told – between steroids, injections, pills, special diets, weekly veterinarian visits (I went through 4 people before I found someone I liked), fish oil, tablets in food… I’ve spent at least $5K on this dog and her health within the three years we’ve been best friends.

Lest you think that’s normal – responsible even – let me list a few other things in terms of how I deal with my little roommate.

She likes to ride in the front seat of the car. She can see better. Normally this isn’t an issue since when she’s with me, we’re alone. However, if I have a human passenger, said person will either hold 50 pounds of dog that won’t sit still or have a seat in the back so the dog can have her spot.

My parents and I took her to Texas (about a 28 hour car ride – long story, miserable trip) and for the entire trip, 2 people sat in back, someone drove and Chienne had the passenger seat. Seriously.

She has short hair and I like to be cold, so I’m constantly covering her up. I bought her 2 blankets, Mom made her a couple. When she comes over to nudge me, I’ll make sure she’s all snug and warm under a blanket.

I’m really weird about sleeping – the environment has to be nearly perfect – so I knew that I didn’t want the dog in bed with me. Not only does she sleep with me, she’s usually under the covers, tucked behind my knees. Some mornings I’ll roll over and find her head on the pillow next to mine.

I bought a house for her. I wasn’t crazy about living in apartments, but I could have done it for convenience. But I promised her a yard and doggie door after grad school, so I commute at least 30 minutes each way to fulfill that promise.

I had to buy a new back door to put in said doggie door.

She keeps rolling in the freaking grass and tracking it all over the house. So I went to the attic and found the lawn chairs I’d stored and put one on the back patio. Now she lies in the chair instead of on the ground and we’re both happier.

When I go get fast food, she always goes. Sometimes I even pick restaurants so she can get what she likes. She’s a big fan of McDonalds, likes Taco Bell, but isn’t fond of Chinese.

We have manicure days. She hates having her nails clipped, so I bought a Dremel tool and grind them down for her. Allergies often affect paws, so she needs to use special shampoo (expensive, special shampoo) on them, but she hates baths. So after we trim her nails, I dip her paws in a bowl of warm water, rub the shampoo in, then rinse and dry.

There have been many times I’ve turned down invitations because I like to spend the evenings with her after being gone all day at work.

My dad has never allowed dogs in his room. Ever - not any of the 3 we had when I was growing up. My dog sleeps between he and Mom, under the covers, when we go to visit.

We took classes so that she could indulge her social nature. We got through 2 obedience classes then 2 agility sessions. We were really good, but she seemed more interested in playing with the other dogs so I decided not to take more classes.

Instead, I enrolled her in doggie daycare! On Tuesdays, I’d drop her off on the way to work, and she could play with her canine friends inside and out while I spent time at the office. She loved it at first.

Then she started hating it for some reason. I was worried about her one day – I think I called them 4 times to check on her. I finally left work early to go get her, though they had told me she was fine. She’d been scratching at the door to leave and I threw a fit (again, seriously. I know.) because if they’d told me, I would have come to get her immediately.

She didn’t go back, and I remain irritated that they let her be sad rather than letting me come early.

If I’m sitting on the loveseat and she sits next to me, then needs more room, she’ll start pushing me with her paws. I usually move to the couch.

When I was in grad school, we lived very close to a WalMart. So I’d stop a lot to pick up random things. I always brought her a toy. She’d promptly shred it. I’d throw it away, and tell her I’d get another one next time I shopped.

I could think of more if I tried, but I think you see my point. So while you’re all figuring out how to warn anyone who might consider having children with me at any point in the future, I’ll mention that I do discipline her. There are times I don’t want her around, and vice versa. I also know that many of these behaviors are a bit eccentric, but, well, she’s a dog. It’s not like I’m trying to create a responsible member of society. I like trying to make her happy, so I do it.

The point is that I’m extremely fond of animals. I want to take care of them. Make sure they’re pampered and happy. So the mouse stuff? It still bugs me. I think I’m terribly ill-suited to do it.

So Charlie says to remember it’s important. (Charlie and I, by the way, are currently mortal enemies [arch nemeses now that I’m publishing this days after starting it] over some college football loyalties. So I think I lost my best resource in trying to deal with this mouse stuff. Honestly though, I feel pretty strongly about my team and Charlie refuses to fall in line. What am I supposed to do?!) I think I can do that – focus on the end goal and let the horror recede in favor of remembering why these studies matter.

So when Joe told me to schedule some practice time to get more comfortable, I knew I wouldn’t do it. Practice isn’t profound enough for me. I can’t walk over, put the little guys into another cage, walk them across campus covered with a garbage bag, do the experiment, then send them off to die. Can’t do it. Won’t do it.

Joe sent email while I was writing this asking if I was going to be OK. I went into considerable more detail here than I did with him, but the end answer is the same.

I really don’t know.

Or I told myself that I didn’t, writing this 2 days ago. Then I read it again – thought about the over-the-top weird facets that form my personality. I really like animals – that’s always been a big deal.

So, at 4AM Monday morning, I sat with my laptop and considered myself. I can do the animal work – I made it through a session with a good deal of composure. So my gratitude to Charlie remains – he turned a question of ability into a debate over preference. For me, that was a vital step.

In asking myself if I want to do this – learn the techniques, grow more comfortable with the small animals, start to consider them as research tools rather than sweet, furry creatures – I discovered I don’t. I have extreme amounts of respect for people who do this work – I think it’s unquestionably important and think you’re amazing if you participate. I choose not to, and I think my colleagues were relieved to finally have the decision they could see me heading toward.

It was an important process for me, and I learned a great deal. Waves of relief wash over me in knowing I don’t have to force myself to continue. Unfortunately, this decision takes away a career option – the path that was to lead me out of academia went straight through animal work. So this step off that path means a new evaluation of where I’m going.

But we’ll get to that later.