December 28, 2010

Distress and Progress

Tonight I was really distressed about life. Okay...let me rephrase that: For the past several years, I have been distressed about life. I want to be making progress, to be moving forward, to be making the best decisions. Graduate school (and the prospect of boring alternatives a.k.a work) have posed the biggest challenge of my life because they are not decided for me. I have to choose to do them, and they are big, expensive choices.

My quest for graduate school got serious this fall, and I was proud of my applications to the University of New Mexico and Northern Arizona University for degrees in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL). I sent them in around Thanksgiving, even though the due date was February 15.

Then I had to wait.

A week ago, I found an article called "5 situations when you shouldn't go to graduate school." The blogger argues against going to graduate school to deal with uncertainty. After reading her article, I googled around for other people who wanted to rain on my graduate school parade. It's the most expensive choice for people who don't know what to do, it's not necessary for most careers, it's not going to be the romantic time you think...and so on.

I felt like those articles were written for confused people like me--just persuasive enough to pull the rug right out from underneath your plans and make you feel terrible. Then I got this e-mail from Cambodia. Starting in February, the Cambodian Rural Development Team (CRDT--the big organization behind the school I taught for) is looking for a volunteer to live and work in the remote areas of Cambodia with their team to help them learn English. Basically, live in the most beautiful, quiet part of Cambodia and teach very motivated people to speak better English so they can get more funding to implement sustainable development projects in the villages. It's almost perfect. No noisy city or other volunteers to compare myself to. I did the math on how much it would cost. I looked at flights. Living expense would be minimal, the experience invaluable...and so on.

So there I was, my mind boggled by Christmas, coffee and cookie overdose, a newfound distrust of graduate school, the pressing need to find full time employment and adulthood; and a once-in-a-lifetime escape hatch to malaria-ville. The options and distractions were overwhelming.

Tonight, I thought the confusion was going to get the best of me as I sat there eating popcorn, lamenting my woes to my mother. I was thinking about all the unknowns, all the "what-if" situations, and all the lame jobs I could get just to save a buck or two. I even asked her what would happen if I didn't get accepted to grad school. A job, she suggested. I think prison would have sounded better to me at that moment.

Then, there on the table amidst bills, Christmas cards and other letters not addressed to me, a little envelope from Northern Arizona University. Congratulations, you've been admitted to our program. The timing could not have been better. I was so worried that I would have to wait until March to find out whether I had been accepted. I needed a little reassurance that I was doing the right thing.

It's a small step. I've still got to get serious financial aid and/or establish residency before this degree is even an option, but acceptance to the program is the first step. The best part is that I won't be as tempted by distractions like Cambodia if I have a goal. It's obvious that my lifestyle at the moment is not the best situation for me. I need more intellectual stimulation and more interaction with people who have the same interests as I do (those are called "friends"). For a few months I need to stay home, make some cash; then go to grad school, become a better teacher, then stock up on anti-malarials and go save the world.

December 19, 2010

Warm your heart with hugs, sincerity and a mug of spiced wine

Our lives wouldn't be the same without you. My mom pointed out this line from a friend's Christmas card, and told me how much she liked the sentiment because of it's sincerity and simplicity.

The annual Griesel Christmas party was last night. My parents host an open house each year to celebrate the past year with friends, coworkers past and present, and family. The preparations for this Christmas-in-Germany-themed party began in September, but it all came together about 6 o'clock last night with the arrival of the first guests.

My mother had decked our halls with real greenery, lights and a massive Christmas tree. There were candles and sparkling ornaments, festive table settings and even my gingerbread house. My parents had baked dozens of traditional German cookies, cake balls and other holiday goodies. Achim prepared sauerkraut and ham shanks, bratwursts and pork chops in giant roasters. Our bar was stocked with German beer and warm, spiced wine. I contributed German licorice and expert opinions on decor and food.

From its humble beginnings, this party has gained a serious following and has become quite an event. As I have become an adult in the past few years, I have come to appreciate this party more. Last year, for example, the party was the day after my graduation from UNK and just weeks before my departure for Cambodia. With those two events as my conversation pieces, I made friends with lots of people at the party, and I gained a network of adults who are still rooting for me.

This year, I wasn't planning my jump into the unknowns of Southeast Asia, but I am still forging my way into adulthood. It was reassuring for me to catch up with people who have watched me mature, and people who will commiserate with the difficult process of figuring it all out.

The holidays are a time to enjoy the company of others, to be generous, and above all, to be thankful for the good things in our lives. Our friends and family are worth celebrating all year, but it is important to take time to show appreciation for the impact of others on our lives.

This morning, as I enjoy the leftover food from the party, I am appreciating the people in my life. I am lucky to have friends and family who support and care about me. It wouldn't be the same without you.

December 15, 2010

Blog by Jena ft. T-Pain and Pitbull

I think my life would be a lot better if I had someone to "feature." I mean, take a listen to top 40 radio, and most songs have an artist featuring someone else. Eminem featuring Rihanna, Rihanna featuring Drake, Drake featuring Lil Wayne. It's not a duet exactly, more like a sidekick.

I often compare my life to Hip-hop music, and I've decided I need someone to be my sidekick. Given my choice of artists, my first choice is T-Pain. This popular fellow has "sung" his way into nearly every song released in the past three years, letting his studio magic take auto-tune from little-known studio technology to the top of the charts repeatedly. Voice altering technology was developed to help artists hit the perfect pitch more consistently, and of course many artists are vehemently against this kind of assistance. T-Pain, on the other hand, has embraced auto-tune in a bear hug. When he sings, it sounds like an astronaut with a synthesizer instead of vocal chords. The effect is completely unnatural, but somehow enchanting. He had me at "I'm in Love with a Stripper"--a song about etiquette at the Gentlemen's Club.

But the rap song that is my life wouldn't be complete without a visit from Pitbull, the Miami boy. I first became acquainted with Pitbull because of his popularity in Cambodia. The subsequent Khmer cover version of his song "I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)" became the soundtrack of my stay in Cambodia, and the song taught me how to count in Khmer. My favorite thing about Pitbull is the sound he makes before every rap verse. It's a Latin tongue roll that always signals his arrival.

Because the world is good, Pitbull and T-Pain have teamed up for "Hey Baby (Drop it to the Floor)"--a song unapologetically focused on the goings-on at the local club. T-Pain and Pitbull do not disappoint me in this jam, as they explore the outter limits of the characteristics I described above. Pitbull is whirling his tongue before every verse, and T-Pain is playing his vocal chords like a baby grand.

If I had T-Pain and Pitbull to accompany me throughout the day, I believe I would be much more popular. My mundane phrases at work--would you like a sample, that'll be $20, and have a Merry Christmas--would be transformed into auto-tuned, tongue-rolled blasts of genius. I would be more fun at my crochet group, and I could order coffee with memorable flare. And besides, featuring at least one other person really takes the pressure off. If I biff the sentence, I know T-Pain is going to auto-tune me back to right, and Pitbull will translate the corrected version into Spanish.

This is the break I've been looking for. La la la la la la la la. If you don't listen to the radio, start--or go to youtube. I want you to imagine this entire post as performed by T-Pain and Pitbull.

December 10, 2010

Conversation sparks blog post

"I'm not as judgmental as I look," I confided during conversation about the power of Facebook-friending among senior citizens. Old people can still feel the sparks--that's why I didn't friend him. I believe it.

Old or not, sparks are more than simple attraction. When is the last time you felt the little Pop Rocks in your soul? Your hear skips a beat, your stomach does a triple flip. Mild electrocution. All of these somewhat unpleasant feeling that, for some reason, make you want more. It's an adrenaline rush like you're being chased by hyenas, but you're also winning the Boston Marathon. For me, it manifests in nervous gestures, a leg twitch and a cackling laugh. (Combined with coffee, these manifestations are magnified beyond all reason...thus explaining the essential problem with coffee dates!)

Sparks are a great indicator of compatibility, but they can also be dangerous--as my conversation partner eluded. I watched a video clip of an airplane with malfunctioning landing gear grind down the runway, shooting fiery orange sparks toward the fuel tanks. In order to land, the pilots had to take the enormous risk of explosion. In the end, the plane landed safely--though the landing gear was completely destroyed. On many levels, this is a horrible metaphor for relationships.

My conversation today got me thinking about the longevity of sparks and their importance. At 23, of course I don't know know much about old flames. For now, I'll enjoy eye contact with cute men, and I will regard my Facebook as a giant fire hazard.

December 9, 2010

It's a Wonderful Life

The Killers and the customers of Licorice International have me in the holiday spirit tonight. It's December of a very strange year and I'm ready for the familiarity of the holidays.

The Killers, a band that skips my ears in favor of my soul, sings "Boots," a Christmas-themed song about the power of holiday tradition to heal the year's wounds. Sometimes I need a little help to see past the enormous amount of work that accompanies the festivities. This year, instead of dead week and Finals, I get to participate in the preparations. At Licorice International, I get to help people pick out presents for grandparents or grandkids. Just a little something to put a smile on their faces.

Just as The Killers describe the perfect holiday scene with frost and presents and family gathered, I imagine the licorice sitting by the fire (not too close!), waiting to be enjoyed. The generosity of the holidays warming the hearts and hands of all. And the magnificent tree shimmering with ornaments and twinkling lights has a gravitational pull stronger than any Scrooge. We eat, we drink,
 and we open presents. If one of those three doesn't make you grin, you're not invited.

"A smile below each nose and above each chin" or so the song goes. That's my motto this December.

December 4, 2010

Full-time Licorice Lass

I've been appreciating my job a lot lately. I'm picking up extra hours during the holidays, and besides a happy bank account, I'm grateful for a supportive workplace.

Working part-time gives me plenty of time to connect with my inner college kid. I can ponder graduate schools, work out for hours (I could, anyway), attempt to read complicated books, volunteer and catch up on NCIS.

But for the hours that I am actually at work, I think I've hit the jackpot. When my mother first suggested I apply there, I didn't take it very seriously. A candy store? Are you kidding me? But I went in anyway, and one meeting with the Licorice Ladies convinced me that I would fit right in. Being such a small business, the employees are a critical part of Licorice International's success. The Licorice Ladies and the other employees have treated me like family right from the start. It's nice to work with people who ask about your life outside the office.

Since July, with the help of my licorice co-workers, I've become a licorice aficionado. I've tasted nearly all of the 160 varieties of licorice in our store, and I've become familiar with licorices of yesteryear. Customers always ask about my favorites: the Salmiak Rocks from Holland and American Bridge Mix. Along with my ever-refining pallet, my sense of smell continues to improve as my nose is constantly exposed to the different smells of licorice. I can recognize many licorices just by smell--not just anybody can put that on a resume.

Besides eating and sniffing, I have recently been given a few more responsibilities around the store. During the holiday rush, I get to work in the back: pulling orders, packaging licorice and labeling bags. Because it's out of the ordinary, working in the back is exciting for me, and I can see my contributions immediately. I like seeing the online orders because I imagine who is eating the different kinds of licorice. Some people order the really salty Dutch licorice or the really bitter stuff from Italy. I always wonder when and how they eat it because it's not a typical bag of candy.

I never imagined that my first job out of college would be selling licorice, but I think it's been a blessing. I work with good people in an interesting part of town, and I can eat licorice all day. It's a good gig.

 P.S. We're doing a gingerbread house contest this year. I made a house that is displayed on the Licorice blog:
link to my gingerbread house at Licorice International

December 2, 2010

Goals--and this time I don't mean Soccer

People must like goals. Everyone talks about goals--for some it's weight loss; for others it's about money. We have short- and long-term goals, we have attainable goals and pipe dreams, we have public and private goals. It's goal-mania out there. What goals do you have? Do you know your friends' goals?

I've heard that goal-setting is one of the keys to happiness because goals show optimism. At Lincoln Literacy Council training, we talked about setting attainable and specific goals--we need the who, what, when and why so we know when the goal has been met.

It's easy to make a goal statement if you know what you want. By February 1, I want to have lost 15 pounds so I can look great for my vacation in Cabo. Straightforward goal and vacay in Cabo--it's all good.

But what if your goal is a little less straightforward?

Since I was little, I have been fascinated by the pioneers of the Great Plains. People who set off into the unknown with the hope that they would find something great. Blind faith, bravery and good genetics I suppose. I have always wanted to be the best at whatever I'm doing, and if I can be first, I will. I like setting a precedent--leading the way. Unless the way is into a dark basement, then I'm quick to delegate.

I love the idea of pioneering something, being the first. But what is my frontier? What great unknown can I tame with my proverbial covered wagon? Too bad I missed out on the Gold Rush. Or the Space Race. Or Disco.

What will be the next Final Frontier? How do you set a goal about something unknown?

I have the feeling that the answer is not as complicated as I want it to be. For now, I've got two mini-goals.

1. Learn another language to fluency--wait, not specific enough. Live in a foreign country for two years, thereby learning the local language to fluency. Anyone else smell adventure?

2. Grow a real ponytail braid: twelve inches of braided hair whipping dangerously around my head. I'll need a ruler!

Happy goal setting and achieving!