Talent Show!

Last year I heard an educational speaker explain why the American phenomenon of school talent shows is incredibly important. While across the oceans other countries and cultures demand perfection and precision in all things, we here in the U.S. try to encourage kids’ creativity. It is not a prerequisite to be the best of the very best if you want to perform; you simply have to be brave and try.

When I was in second grade and fourth grade, I participated in the school talent show with my childhood best friend. We used to love to sing together on the school bus, and one of our favorite play games was “traveling” around her backyard to make it to our singing gigs. The stage, of course, was none other than the green electric box in her front yard, where we sang to our adoring imaginary fans. In second grade we delivered the well-known hit “Talk to Me,” as performed by Justine Bateman in the movie Satisfaction. (If you’ve never seen that movie or heard that song… don’t worry about it.) I can’t actually remember what we sang in fourth grade, and then maybe our school stopped having talent shows?? I can’t imagine why I would have stopped trying out.

Today the school where I work had its Talent Show 2012, an every-other-year event. It opened with a 3rd grader’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” as sung in a key that got close to the octaves only dogs can hear but remained perfectly on pitch throughout. Demonstrations of gymnastics and taekwondo followed, along with more musical performances — even another 3rd grader’s cover of Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot.” Preceded a few acts earlier by a rousing rendition of “Little Bunny Foo Foo,” sung by a kindergarten student in a lavender leotard. Awesome.

One of my favorite acts was the pre-school kiddo who did his gymnastics demo with the first verse of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” playing in the background. When he jumped and landed in the splits during the intro guitar solo, I was hooked.  I also loved the little first grader who demonstrated her ability to make a paper airplane. A little bit of physics for the masses, if you will.

Watching all of the students give the performers their full attention and seeing all of the parents and family members who showed up in the middle of the day was kind of incredible. Sure there were kids who sang off key and couldn’t sing on the beat. Yes the highlight of the sixth grade dance routine was watching the two girls crawl through the other’s bridge-up. And when it was all over, a sweet 3rd grader looked at me with her eyes shining and said, “There were some really awesome acts today.”

Even though the sometimes sarcastic and critical type-A part of me wanted to laugh a little at her earnest comment, I knew she was right. There were some extremely talented kids who performed, no doubt. And there were some average kids who performed. The “incredible” part for me was thinking about how much courage it takes to get up in front of one’s peers and perform, regardless of skill level. Public speaking, after all, still ranks as people’s #1 fear (at least in 2011), so I imagine that dancing, singing a solo, or doing anything else alone on a stage provokes a similar level of fear in most folks. All of the kids who performed today chose to share some other part of themselves that isn’t always highlighted in a classroom setting. I bet the singers — though nervous — were totally excited to sing in front of an audience. (I know from experience: I used to love to sing in front of my mirror at home with a hairbrush microphone. A jump rope also worked, as it imitated having to deal with a microphone cord.)

For all its varied level of “talent,” I absolutely loved the hour of my day spent watching the students perform. I’m also going to have to agree with the ed school professor who believes in talent shows. The band teacher/Talent Show MC summed it up best during his closing remarks: he encouraged all of the kids to explore all of their talents, to find out what they may like or be good at beyond academics because, he said, “you never know.” I think that we all want students to be original, to be open to new ideas, to feel like they have the permission to try anything at least once.

In this digital age, YouTube is like one huge international talent show; post a video and have an instant world-wide audience. But nothing quite compares to being live in front of your school, your classmates, and your parents all at once, because there are no edits or re-dos then.

So bring on the talent shows, I say. We’ve got some creativity to foster.


Cookie Cutter Life

I had a simple epiphany during this experience of future home shopping in this past month: I do not want a cookie cutter house. That is to say, I do not want to live in a newly-constructed house or condo that looks exactly (or close to exactly) like the next-door neighbor’s place. Would it be amazing to be the first owners of  a place? Certainly. But in searching for homes, I found myself more intrigued by all of the houses that had been lived in, the ones that had been personalized and loved already — even if it was sometimes hard to look past funky and/or odd decor choices.

I was explaining this to my friend last week when I was visiting California, and she fully agreed. Just like people, she said, who don’t want to have a cookie cutter kind of life. I translate that to mean that there is no neat, orderly path to a person’s life, nor should there have to be one. There are choices that lead to more choices; there are moments that feel like setbacks; there are lessons hammered into us by life until they are internalized and learned. And we are in charge of being creators and shape-shifters instead of cut-outs.

This idea of a call to change and evolve has been presented to me again and again in the past few months. Most recently this occurred at 10:30 am Mass last Sunday at Stanford — my only parish since leaving Cincinnati. Right now is the Easter season, and the priest talked about this in his homily. Lent is its own thing, he explained, a time of self-examination, preparation, cleansing. Easter, on the other hand, is a time of a renewal, a time to ask ourselves if we are going to remain exactly as we are (or were), or if we are going to allow our hearts and minds to be moved in new directions. In a moment of being touched by his words, my inner nerd couldn’t resist taking a few notes (there is, apparently, a first time for everything) on a scrap of paper. He went on to relate this to the idea of the two forms of “to be” in Spanish: ser and estar. One implies that something is permanent (i.e. Yo soy una mujer) and one can be changed (i.e. Estoy cansada hoy). He probed us further to reflect: What parts of you are fixed? And in what parts of your life will you allow yourself to be changed?

I was convinced that this man had somehow been spying on my life since last June when we moved to Alaska. Did he know how much I needed to and was ready to hear this message? The entirety of these past ten months has been nothing but change and adjustment… and I know there is more to come. But if I am grounded in my own sense of self, with the support of Husband and loved ones, then I can embrace change even when it creates discomfort or growing pains. If I never experienced those feelings, then I’d likely be stuck and/or too cozy in the cookie cutter zone.

In the homily, he also talked about falling in love. How in the midst of falling in love, we don’t even realize how much the other person is filling us up with light and energy (and vice versa), and how — together — we are changing the other person’s ways of being. And by the same token, when we grieve for something we’ve lost, we experience emptiness and literal pain in our hearts and bodies. Funny thing is, he said, a broken heart is an open heart. This was the part when I felt tears spring to my eyes… because I thought of myself and the people I love and the times our hearts have been broken. And more importantly, how each time we have been strengthened and able to take on a new challenge or a new relationship. The state of broken-ness is temporary, never fixed.

It took a week away from Husband and life in Alaska to recognize how much progress we have made, in our lives and our relationship, since we moved. Just as I know that we are not going to purchase a cookie cutter house, I also know that we are quite far from having a cookie cutter life. And we wouldn’t be ourselves if it were any other way.

A Tale of Two Birthdays

That's my dog - another essential part of my family, of course.

On my birthday last April 15, I was in a convention center-turned-ocean of volleyball courts at an away tournament in Reno. I was coaching the girls’ club team I had been with for the previous five years, and somehow I had been saddled with carrying in the ball carts and ball bags. Some accident of the way our carpools had shaken out, I think. There were about a bajillion volleyball teams there, plus the coaches of those teams, plus the parents and families of the players, plus the officials and tournament staff.

Husband was in Alaska starting his new job. My best friends were mostly in California or Ohio, living their regular lives. My immediate family was in Cincinnati and Philadelphia, respectively.

In spite of all of the people who were physically around me at the tournament itself, I felt so terribly alone. Now I’m not a huge birthday person — I don’t need to be showered with presents and feel the need to have big parties. But at the time I remember thinking to myself and telling Husband on the phone, “All I want right now is for someone who really loves me to hug me today.” I found myself crying and wishing to be anywhere else in the world near a loved one. (For the record, the day ended well and memorably, thanks to my fellow coaches, who insisted on birthday fun — I am grateful to them for that, more than they know.)

I wasn’t then, nor am I now, concerned at all about adding years to my life. With age comes wisdom that I cannot have any other way, and I appreciate that fact. But at the time and on that day, I was slightly petrified of the unknown future: how was I going to make it through 2.5 more months living apart from Husband? And finish packing up our apartment essentially by myself? And figure out where to live and what to do in Alaska once we did move? Thinking about all of that was overwhelming, and having a birthday only emphasized that feeling of inevitable, uncontrollable change.

Fast forward to this past Sunday, another April 15 in a new year. Husband and I were down in Anchorage, and we were curling together in a bonspiel (read: curling tournament) with family friends. After two victories and one loss, we lost our last game, but that was completely overshadowed by how much fun it was to do something together, to laugh and joke with our teammates and opponents alike at both the great and not-so-great shots. The drive home was beautiful, given the advent of Alaska spring and our 12+ hours of daylight that are continuing to increase each day. Plus we jammed to some of our old CD mixes in the car — does anyone even do that anymore? A simple day with my most favorite person — no gifts required.

We still have lots to figure out going forward, but right now I’m not petrified the way I was a year ago. I have had a year to learn the virtue of “surrender,” as my great friend just wrote to me, even while facing a whole plethora of new challenges and uncertainties. I actually have a better sense of myself now and an ever-growing appreciation for the gift that is my family community, made by blood and by bonds of love & friendship that time and distance apart only strengthen. I understand better that making crazy, unexpected leaps sometimes is just part of the process of living a full life. I remember telling my friends that my plan before moving to Alaska was to just “flow with the Universe,” and so far the results have been solid. What a difference a year can make.

Every birthday I am more certain that the present I always want and wish for is time with my family and friends. Sometimes that time comes on un-birthday days, and they are no less special then. Reading the cards that arrived in the mail today reminded me yet again that I already have everything I need: Love in its best forms. And that holds true no matter where I might be in the world on April 15.

All Good Readers Unite

Currently I am working with the 6th-grade students in a 5th/6th combo class. There are 11 of them, and we have been meeting for about 40 minutes per lesson — today was Day 4 of our mini-writing unit. I am asking them to write the time-honored five-paragraph essay. In today’s teaching universe it is more correct to say “multi-paragraph” essay because obviously not every idea can be argued in only three little body paragraphs, and on the flip side, students don’t need to be forced into saying more than is necessary to get the point across. I imagine five paragraphs has held for so long  because of the magical wonder of things that come in threes, so intro+body+body+body+conclusion makes sense.

They are writing character analysis essays about a character of their own choosing from a novel they have read this year. Many of them (but not all) are writing about one of the characters from The Hunger Games trilogy. Overall I think they’re doing rather well so far, especially considering that I’m moving them along faster than if I had a full class. Today I explained to them that they are allowed and encouraged to make any argument about their character that they wish… as long as the text supports that idea. This is the moment when I call upon their CSI: (fill in city of one’s choice) knowledge — when the CSIs come up with a theory about a case but don’t have evidence, then they either have to find irrefutable evidence to back it up or revise their theory based on the evidence they do have. (Referencing pop culture is one of my favored teaching tools.) In other words, if they misunderstood the book, then it’s more than likely they would make unsupported inferences about their characters. The pre-writes I saw today need some revision but not much.

Now in the land of online news, people are not called upon to write multi-paragraph essays to demonstrate their understanding of articles. But people feel compelled to write comments on material they read and/or engage in dialogue around it, and I do enjoy this democratic freedom. What is painful to me — when I  feel interested enough in an article to read some of the commentary — is the seemingly poor reading comprehension of the readers. So many comments (especially the hyper-critical or extremely favorable ones) don’t seem to reflect what is actually written.

Within any article’s comments, I am simply irritated when people are 1) snarky; 2) self-righteous; and/or 3) easily offended by any kind of disagreement or question of their opinion. But I am plain old concerned when folks seem to have completely missed the point/thesis/gist of the article, not to mention the author’s tone… then compound the problem by taking on the tone of #1-3 above. There are multiple contributing factors to this, one of which is the ease that one can just click “Comment” and start writing based on a gut reaction or respond to another comment in the same way. Another would be the anonymity that virtual commenting provides — it feels safe to make ridiculous remarks without necessarily having to put your live face behind them. Most of all, however, I am worried that people in general are weak readers. (insert my sad face here)

There’s a reason why people have to take standardized tests, at least in my opinion: they’re essentially massive reading comprehension tests. Going into college or graduate school would be awfully hard if you couldn’t read non-fiction and/or fiction… and write about it in a meaningful way. Sure, Twitter and texting are here to stay, but there is still  a space in the world for writing that is beyond 140 characters. Maybe articles should have a quick 3-question multiple-choice quizlet to check comprehension before you’re allowed to comment….???

Now I know that my English-major self is clearly biased and possibly over-reacting. Regardless, I know that it is so important that our students — who will grow into adults faster than we can think — read and write competently for schooling purposes and for being good at life. It would be wonderful if the comments people share were more often examples of thoughtful, constructive criticism and praise grounded in the text. I don’t think that’s asking too much. It’s the least I am asking of my students.

Temporary Spaces

Once upon a time, I grew up on a corner lot in Cincinnati, in a four-bedroom, 2.5-bath house that my parents bought before I was born and still live in now. Did I mention that it also has a two-car garage and a finished basement? And a yard? I didn’t know for those many years of living at home pre-college  that all of those things were taken-for-granted luxuries until my own process of house-hunting with Husband got started in these past few weeks.

In college, living in the same dorm room or sorority house room for nine months is not a big deal, because everyone on campus does that. My senior year, I actually moved in and moved out every quarter — moved in prior to fall quarter, moved out before winter quarter because I was studying abroad, and moved back in before spring. Then moved again in the summer for grad school. Not a fun process, but what is packing up one room — and only one room — of stuff? Not a big deal.

As a Bay Area apartment renter upon entering the real world, I was lucky enough to have lovely, long stints in only two locations over the course of seven years — three and four years, respectively. Those lengths of time sound like eons compared to the living “sprints” of college.

What I hadn’t truly prepared myself for, upon moving up here to AK, was living out of boxes for more than a year. Not bueno. Before Husband left last March to get started with his job, we started packing. And I kept packing up our apartment after he left, all the way up until June, when I finally left too. Our boxes and cars were shipped up… and at this point I have zero clue — in spite of my meticulous labeling — what is inside some of the boxes. I’m not even sure where all of our boxes are! Some at his parents’ house, some in storage, some with us at our current house-sitting gig. It is unsettling, at best. It makes me wish that packing up and moving were as easy as dealing with Barbie’s home and office module (you know, the one with the Murphy bed and the desk that also folded up into the wall).

My sister had this when we were kids and I LOVED playing with it.

What is difficult is this sense of living temporarily, like we’re never really settling into a space because it doesn’t belong to us. It’s one thing to charge forward in life and career, but there is a sense of stability in having one home, one place that feels safe and sacred and… regular, for lack of a better term. Like even when all of the craziness of a day or a boss is inside your head, going home is an escape from that. Right now, being half in and half out of a combination of boxes, baskets, and suitcases is consistently disconcerting.

I am sure, as with all things in life, that “this too shall pass,” and it won’t be an eternity until we have a place of our own. And at the same time, I am a wee bit anxious to find a home that will anchor us a bit more securely to our life here. I need that in a physical way — I miss some of our furniture and all of our art. But I also need it an emotional sense, because living in temporary spaces makes it seem like we can just pick up and leave at any time, so I keep looking in the rearview mirror and wondering, even while I am happy with Husband and the possibilities of our life here. For me, part of living somewhere is investing in the community, and that is so much easier to do when I know I’m going to be around for a bit, like not just for a few months here and there.

I also think that both of us (Husband and I) are excited about this “grown-up” endeavor of buying a house. Not to say that we are rushing into anything, because God knows we have seen some absolutely terrible properties, but it certainly feels like a solid, logical next step in our married life together. We started on the process of building our relationship many years ago, and building up the life of a home together is something we have been looking forward to since we moved up here. In fact it was a motivating factor in deciding to move, because we knew we could afford a real house with a yard up here (as opposed to renting forever in the Bay Area, probably, short of winning the lottery).

For now we are enjoying the house hunting process, and every time we walk into the front door of another place, I know we are trying to picture ourselves plus our dog plus future kiddos inside. That’s a good feeling, one that will get us through living in these temporary spaces and places.

An Accomplishment

I started Crossfit back in 2009, almost exactly two months before I married Husband. This was thanks to my friend Cindy, one of my bridesmaids, whom I blame (in a positive way) for getting me started on this whole Crossfit journey. We were flying back to California from Arizona post my bachelorette weekend, and we were talking about how we had each heard of Crossfit from other people in our lives. She wanted to change up her fitness regimen, I wanted to feel strong mentally and physically heading into the wedding … and two days later, she called me to tell me that there were three possible Crossfit boxes in our area and which one would be my first choice location-wise. That was the beginning.

Now here we are, about two and a half years later, and we have since gone to a Crossfit Level 1 certification together; I have been coaching a Crossfit class up here in AK three mornings a week  since October; and she and her fiancee (an amazing guy she met through Crossfit, of course) are heading to San Diego this weekend for a Crossfit Kids certification. Did I mention that they opened their own Crossfit box last October, too?

In my own Crossfit experience, I have — thankfully — experienced a whole myriad of highs, from setting personal records in different weightlifting movements to becoming more flexible and functional in life in general and learning, period. Like making my brain understand my body better, and then getting the two of them (brain and body, that is) to do things in a coordinated way. And thinking more about how to perform movements efficiently and safely, and then trying to get so good at said movements that it looks and feels easy. Any of my Crossfit friends and colleagues (including Husband) can explain that I actually like to watch Crossfit-related videos because I like to be armed with useful information and then try to apply it and share it.

These past few months of Crossfit have probably been the most challenging for me, for a variety of reasons. A changed environment, for one. The ridiculous winter here, for another. And while I am tremendously happy to be coaching and helping other folks move forward in their respective Crossfit  journeys, it has been very difficult to still prioritize my own training, especially while working a “regular “job, too. But I would say the biggest obstacle has been my own ego. I have been guilty of being overly concerned with other people’s numbers. I have not wanted to not beat my own scores. I have been hesitant to try going heavier even though I know I need to. I have been… afraid? A little unmotivated? Both?

This morning I did the workout of the day after class was over and I was by myself in the box. That’s starting to become more usual for me, and while it can be hard to push myself, I have started to appreciate the solitude. The workout felt solid,and I felt good about my performance overall. And then I thought, I really should see if I can do those chest-to-bar pull-ups. Pull-ups are tough, one of those bodyweight gymnastics movements that may have seemed easy when you were a 40-pound child going wild at the playground monkey bars, but I can do them. Mind you, however, I haven’t attempted a chest-to-bar pull-up since a year ago, and then only because it was part of the Crossfit Games workouts. Back then I was hoping to accomplish 1 in the allotted time, and I think I managed 10 total, with a lot of crazy effort and encouragement from my coach.

All of that memory was playing out in my head, and I remember then feeling proud of myself for even being able to complete those single reps. After finishing the workout today, I figured I would test it. Just find out. Stop being afraid, tell myself yes, and try — because literally no one was watching anyway. So I tried a few practice reps standing on  a tall box to get the feel of it, kicked the box out of the way after that mini warm-up, and tried. I did one on the first attempt easily… which turned into 5 in a row. Dropped off the bar, smiled to myself, and did three more. Dropped, smiled, three more. And then I kind of smiled to myself the whole drive home.

That's not me, but that's what the bottom (hanging) and the top (chest-to-bar) of this pull-up looks like.

I needed that reminder today to show me that even when I was coming up with all these excuses for why my training hasn’t been where I thought it could be or should be, I was still growing and improving anyway. The chest-to-bar pull-ups litmus test proved that in a tangible way. Why had I waited so long to re-discover this truth?

And if that is true, then I am also reminded that even when life can present all of its challenges — from the mundane  ones to the incredibly agonizing ones — I’m still growing and building up my mental strength & flexibility anyway. Move in a new career direction? Sure. Move to AK and start a new life with Husband? Sounds do-able. Live out of boxes and in temporary spaces for a year-plus? No problem.  For me that has been the greatest gift of Crossfit, far beyond the physical benefits (which are awesome, most definitely) — I have had so much more clarity in my thinking and self-confidence in my abilities during these past two years than I ever have before, even while facing some of the harder transitions of my life and relationships.

And now I’m that much more excited to think about what my next accomplishment — be it in Crossfit or in life — may be.

It’s Not Just a Mocha

Last week, I had a shocking moment: I didn’t like or even enjoy my white mocha breve drink. Now I am not a true coffee drinker in the sense that I am not functional without coffee. And if you asked me what kind of beans or flavor or roast I care about, I wouldn’t have a good answer. But I DO like froo-froo coffee drinks (read: mochas of almost any kind) and white mochas in particular.

Upon drinking said white mocha breve that morning and not deriving the usual pleasure from doing so, the logical next question followed: Do I need and/or want it, or is it a habit? Usually the answer is a little bit of both (leaning toward the “want” side), yet I was slightly annoyed with myself when I realized the answer was habit. Not completely an addiction kind of habit, but more along the lines of “morning ritual” habit.

The thing is, I am selfish. In particular because I work at a school, I try to dedicate every single second of my morning to me prior to walking into the school building and being “on” during my interactions with colleagues and students alike. Thus I like planning out what I’m going to wear the night before so I’m not frantic in the morning. I like thinking or singing in the shower before getting ready. And yes, getting a coffee before work is one last all-about-me activity.

I also really love “coffee talk” or “coffee walk and talk” when that’s possible. Many a dire problem or situation has been calmed or resolved, and many a brilliant idea has been born during coffee talk with colleagues.

But for whatever reason, on that particular day last week, I was drinking my mocha and thinking, “Right now I don’t appreciate this” and “How much money would I be saving if I didn’t drink these each week?” It was an automatic pilot decision to make the coffee stop. Thoughtless.

Upon this reflection, I had another Logical Next Thought: What else in my life is like this? What other things do I do — or say — without thought or intention? Because I either need to get thoughtful about those things quickly or consider dropping them altogether. It’s spring now, which is a natural time for cleaning, and obviously I need to do a little bit more than re-organize and purge the clothes in my closet and dresser. In the land of white mochas, most days they are delicious… but they’re not good on the waistline or the wallet.

On the flip side, what are the things I’m doing that I really, truly love and care about and enjoy? Because I should probably try to do more of those things and thereby increase my overall energy and happiness levels.

I confess that I have not yet fleshed out either of those lists — on paper or in my head — but that is my next action item.

And the moral of the story is not that I will never again drink another white mocha.  For me the whole incident was more of a wake-up call to be conscious about my choices each day. For those choices, as much as is possible, to reflect on my truest self and move me in a positive direction.