December 26, 2011

Thoughts on Christmas

I don’t remember the point when I stopped looking forward to Barbies and CDs under the tree. Now I hope for cashmere and little green notes to help me cover the Health and Recreation fees at school.

The holidays are different once you leave home. Especially when you leave home and have a “life” somewhere else. For me, coming back to Lincoln was particularly bizarre this year. I left my whirlwind of linguistics and language for a few weeks of good old Nebraska. My family puts on an epic party every year, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world—although maybe for plane tickets to Thailand (sorry Mom!). This year, the party was on the 23rd, that’s the day before Christmas Eve and the day after my Mom’s birthday. Three party days in a row is a lot for this grad student.

For my Mom’s birthday, my cousin picked me up to go downtown and have lunch with our mothers. My cousin, who I may always picture as a 10-year-old, is now about 6’4” and 270 lbs. He just finished his first semester of college and we suddenly had a lot in common. When did that happen?

It was also on my Mom’s birthday that I gained a lot of respect for my own body. I had to have a blood test done at the doctor, and I forgot that I should lie down during the blood draw. I survived the poke, the eternity of the draw, and the put-your-finger-on-the-cotton-ball, but after that, it’s all a blur. I came to slumped way down in the chair, with three nurses holding on to me. I put the pieces together to realize that this was not a bad dream and that I had actually passed out. It’s a special condition they told me. Something about the veins in my head contracting so much that I don’t get enough oxygen. Lot s of people have it. It’s always the big guys that pass out on us. Nothing to be ashamed of. Drink this orange juice.

I threw up the orange juice, much to the dismay of the lab tech. My blood pressure hovered around 70 for a little while as I did my best to stay awake. They put me in a wheelchair and wheeled me back to the exam room. The doctor chuckled at me and we joked that passing out was worse than the symptom I was trying to treat!

I regained most of my color and tried to fake some dignity on my way out.

Amazing how resilient the human body is. Unconscious one minute, paying a bill the next. If only my bank account were so self-healing.

Besides my medical misadventures (I’m fine, by the way, nothing a few days of medicine couldn’t fix), it was an eventful few days. The Griesel Christmas Party has reached legend stage. My parents invite over a hundred people, and most of them show up and bring friends. My Mom bakes about 500 cookies in the months before the party, and my Dad cooks up ham shanks and sauerkraut and grilled brats for everyone.

We hire someone to help in the kitchen during the party, we have two bartenders serving guests, and we have had hired babysitters and piano players in the past. Part of me feels like hiring people to work at your party is too bourgeoisie, but actually, it’s much better for the Griesels, because we can enjoy the party ourselves and we don’t have to spend the whole night pouring drinks.

While I know many of the guests, there are at least 50% that I either don’t know or can’t recognize from the last party. The deck is somewhat stacked against me, since everyone knows my parents and therefore knows that I am the daughter. Most of those people even know my name, so they rush over and greet me, and I frankly have no idea who they are. I have fish for clues or ask them straight up for names. I once asked a couple “So, how do you know my parents?” When they said, “We are your neighbors”, you can imagine the embarrassment.

This year, having started a new phase in Flagstaff, I had a good excuse for not knowing the neighbors. I also had a much better outlook on life than last year, and a more certain feeling than two years ago (it was about 2 weeks before I left for Cambodia). Telling people about grad school and Flagstaff felt good. I feel like I’m hitting my stride right now. I have a job that pays my bills, I’m studying something I‘m interested in, and I have some idea of what’s coming up in the next several years. Especially the parents of my brother’s basketball team seem to appreciate my struggles and successes. They also tell me how much my little bro misses me when I’m gone. That is a good Christmas present.

When I was little, Christmas was all about the cookies, the presents and the unwrapping. Now that I’m doing some of the wrapping, paying the Christmas credit card bills, and watching what I eat, Christmas has a new meaning. At the risk of sounding very Dr. Suess circa How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Christmas does mean something more. I’ve never appreciated eating breakfast with my family like I do now. I’ve never seen a more beautiful Christmas tree, or wanted to cry so fiercely during silent night at church.

This newfound reverence probably comes from life experience and possibly some latent homesickness. Whatever the cause, it couldn’t come at a better time. The holidays should be about appreciating our families, our health, and the hard work we put in during the year. Cashmere and cake balls are good ways to show appreciation.

Merry Christmas.

December 16, 2011

One down and three to go!

I survived  my first semester of grad school. I haven't seen my grades yet, but barring any major snafu in my final exams, I think I will be pretty proud of myself.

Flagstaff was an unexpected gem of the decision to come to NAU. For about six months of the year, the weather is outstanding. For the other six, or at least the part I've so far experienced, you better have snow-boots. Actually I saw a woman walking her dog on cross-country skies yesterday. That kind of bold spirit characterized this town as the pot-smoking-vegan-cowboy-environmentalist town that it is. If it isn't organic,made by Patagonia, or if you can't spend the week rock climbing it's caverns, it isn't good enough for Flagstaff.

Granted, I'm not exactly a Flagstaffer yet. I appreciate the concern for the environment and the healthier diets, but sometimes the hippie stuff is too much.

Moving on, my cohort of MA-TESL students is incredible. I've made some really good friends. Since we all share the daunting experience of being first-year graduate students, I think we bond on fear and anxiety. Those bonds go deep. It's a good thing to bond with your cohort, because they will be your biggest support. In an graduate program with both PhD and MA options, the MAs get run through as quickly and painlessly as possible. On the other hand, The PhDs go through an arduous screening-in process to become candidates. I didn't realize how political graduate school can be, but having shared an office with two PhD students, I sure got an ear-full.

TESL itself was a good choice for me. I feel like I am able to invest a lot of myself into the assignments because of my own experiences learning language, and my experiences in Cambodia. Especially for my term paper about attitudes toward English in Cambodia, I had put my heart into researching and writing, so it was a great validation to get an A. I spent yesterday morning discussing that paper with a friend who wrote about refugees learning English. We are going to present our papers together at a small conference in February. It was rewarding to talk with her about something that I was so proud of, and to feel like maybe I know what I'm talking about. It's the first of four semesters, but if I keep expanding my knowledge at this rate, I think I will need a bigger skull.

I also turned in grades yesterday for my ENG 105 class. What an experience. Teaching composition is one thing, but being a teacher is quite another. I had a few students cry during the semester, another disappeared, and some just never quite knew what to do. I have so much admiration for teachers. This profession goes so deep. You are the presenter of materials, the grader of assignments, the counselor, the motivational speaker, and, in a way, the decider of futures. Next semester, I'm signed up to teach a special section of 105 designated for international students who are at a high level in the Program of Intensive English at NAU. Two of my good friends taught this section this semester, and are going to do it again in January, so at least I won't be alone.

Grad school is an intense experience. It reminds me of studying abroad in a way. When I was in Austria, I felt like I was trying to eat, sleep, and breathe German language. Now, I am eating, sleeping, and breathing English. I wake up at 6 and start thinking about plans for the day. By 7 or 8, I'm checking emails from my students, by 9 I'm tutoring, going to class, doing homework, teaching, updating grades, commenting on papers etc, then at 10 PM, I crawl into bed. That's when I do mental lesson plans for the next day. Luckily, about half-way through the semester, I stopped dreaming about school.

It's kind of exhilarating to be that immersed in something, but at the same time, wow, do I need a break. I miss my family and my boyfriend. I miss my kitties and I miss the flat horizon of Nebraska. I miss thinking about things besides English. Just give me three weeks away from the ponderosas and the mountains and I will be fine.

Get ready, Nebraska.





November 27, 2011

Thanksgiving on a Card Table

This year marked my first Thanksgiving away from home. The holiday also gave me a much needed break from school, and an even more needed dose of boyfriend time.

Although my cooking generally teeters on the edge of barely edible mush laced with cayenne pepper, I stubbornly resigned to cook the entire meal: turkey, trimmings and pumpkin pie. I recruited Grandma Moore's recipes, lots of advice, and lots of butter.

My boyfriend did the grunt work on the mashed potatoes and the dressing, and I implanted butter under the turkey's skin, baked the pies, and made green bean casserole. We declared the feast a victory over small kitchen, inadequate utensils and general lack of experience in feast-cooking.

The card table in my living room has a weight limit that was thoroughly tested by our spread of food enough for 7-10 adults (we were only two). In a symbolic joining of Thanksgiving and Flagstaff, my steel water bottle was a testament to saving the environment; unning the dishwasher twice in one day, on the other hand, was a nod to America, the land of "infinite" natural resources.

My boyfriend and I agreed that Thanksgiving didn't feel like the real thing without our families, but that we liked the turkey and pumpkin pie just fine anyway. I suppose this Thanksgiving marks some newfound independence or culinary conquest, but I'm still looking forward to spending Christmas in Lincoln. I'm not a grown-up yet.

Counting the Informations

So as I was three-hole punching a thick stack of research articles I was supposed to read over the weekend, I began to wonder what the point of all this printing is.

Seriously. I have an enormous three-ring binder in which to bind all of my three-hole punched papers. I've read these papers, marked them with four different colors of pen, and pretty much forgotten all of the material already.

I have visions of myself one day opening this notebook for inspiration as I sit at my desk in Budapest, or Mandalay, or Tunis. Ah yes, back in ENG 548, we did talk about Content-Based Instruction--that's just what I need!

In reality, that notebook will likely gather dust in some plastic bin for all eternity.

The readings (which will likely be totally out of date in 3 years anyway) aside, I bought possibly the least practical teaching materials ever created. Okay fine, the least practical item to take along on an international flight to destination TBA: 500 laminated words with magnets that were hand cut out and assembled by my boyfriend and me after Thanksgiving dinner. The words themselves could potentially be a fun and useful classroom activity, but 500 magnets really increase the volume of that paper! I settled on a satisfactory method of organization that would no doubt make Martha Stewart cringe. I painstakingly grouped similar words together in stacks of about 10, fastened them with binder clips, and then sorted the stacks into 10 poly material button and string closure envelopes. It was a tedious process to say the least. Now I have a cubic foot of any future suitcase or desk drawer already spoken for. Let's hope they are useful.

Anyway, I think the underlying issue I want to write about is: how am I supposed to bring all of this information with me? My little brain is already on overload, and I haven't even finished my first semester.

I definitely need a stellar method of organization. Something better than poly envelopes and binder clips.

November 15, 2011

Just PRINT (Gonna be okay...any Gaga fans?)

I'm never sure why the blogging muse strike when it does, but here I am. I just did a victory dance after printing off my first graduate term paper. The topic was Foreign Language Anxiety, and foreign language or not, I'm an anxious person, and I think that topic (plus the mountain of other work) just fueled my fire. I made a commitment on Facebook to choose a topic like ESL Zen or Positive Psychology next semester, but my natural inclinations always take me to such dark places! My other paper this semester is about Cambodia's recovery from the Khmer Rouge (and the influence of English as a new beginning). Genocide, Holocaust, HIV/AIDS, Anxiety, etc....what is my problem with selecting a not-so-depressing topic?

Anyway, my general anxiety hit an apex today sometime between realizing that I can't please everyone all the time and flicking an enormous spider off of my sweatpants (and then crushing him to a bloody pulp). Luckily I have a stellar boyfriend who is just a phone call away, plenty of jasmine tea, and a new album--Florence and the Machine's "The Ceremonials". Good stuff. Helps me relax.

I think my experience with anxiety today helped me just push print tonight. It's a hard thing for me. I want everything to be perfect, even though I know that at some point, I've met my limit. It's kind of exhilarating to hold 18 pages of pieces of paper in your hand and know that your blood (paper cuts), sweat (riding a bike to my office), and tears (self-explanatory) went into creating that masterpiece (or total hot mess--fine lines here).

If you haven't ever, I suggest busting a move after you print a paper; it's a pretty spectacular way to celebrate.

October 31, 2011

More good advice

Grad school seems like a hibernation of sorts. A time period in which I have given up my right to a life outside of TESL. Two years of hard-core studying, after which some new segment of my life will begin.

This paradigm is problematic.

In my professional development seminar, a counselor who specializes in grad student issues gave us a reminder that school isn't everything.

It's not about what happens after this time period. It's not about waiting for grad school to be over to let your life "begin".

This is your life, she said. Right here. Right now. Don't let grad school block that out.  Flagstaff is an awesome place to live. Take advantage of it!


Ever a sucker for a profound thought, I think this advice is important. It's so easy to devote yourself to school, and to get caught up in the semester projects that seem to divide your life into neat little sections.

The Killers have a song called "This is Your Life" that carries a similar meaning to that of the counselor. If you read my blog regularly, I guess you already know that The Killers have a song for every occasion.

Anyway, I just wanted to put out a good thought today.

October 16, 2011

A dose of my own medicine.

I got some good advice today.

It was from a stranger and it kind of hurt my feelings, but I think it was good advice. The young American girl with the killer German pronunciation said to me, in English: Don't introduce anything that you are about to do as bad. Just let it speak for itself.

This stranger and I met because we were both attending Oktoberfest as non-German majors. We were waiting for the professor to come back, and we had been speaking German. My German comes and goes. And it was particularly halting today during our conversation. The words felt funny in my mouth, and so I apologized for my unintelligble speech. That's when she switched the conversation to English, and  gave the advice. As my ego crumbled, I realized that I always tell other people exactly what she just told me, but I am so often guilty of selling myself short before I even have a chance.

She is wise for a seventeen-year-old who spent a year in Berlin learning to speak some of the best German I've ever heard an American speak. Later she confided that she wished she could just call herself "German" because, having spent a formative year in Deutschland, she felt somehow "German". My advice to her was just go for it. Tell people that you are German and see what happens. This was not advice in a serious sense, but in a party trick sense. She liked it. I think this is an identity crisis that every devoted language learner/study abroader encounters at some point, and role-playing when you meet new people is a lot of fun. I've definitely pretended to be a Scandinavian foregin exchange student before--which works a lot better if real Scandinavation excahgne students aren't around to call my bluff...

I'm tempted to write about the mess of theories that explain what I experienced today as a language learner, but I am not up for self-punishment at the moment.

To conclude, I would like to thank the universe for introducing me to a wise stranger who gave me a much-needed dose of my own medicine.

October 9, 2011

AZ-TESOL Conference in Prescott Valley

Academic conferences are important for professional development, and they are also fun. My friends/colleauges from NAU and I attended AZ-TESOL (Arizona chapter of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) in Prescott Valley, Arizona. It was a smaller turnout than I expected, but I got to spend time talking with people from my classes who I hadn't had time to get to know.

The sessions ranged from textbook sales reps to highly interactive activities to use with students. I enjoyed watching some of my new friends present research on best practices in the classroom. It was nice to see people's real passions, and not the day-to-day stuff that we are often bogged down with. I also invested in some wonderful ESL materials from a session about teaching lower level ESL. I decided to invest a little in these fabulous laminated cards that have words color-coded by part of speech. The cards have magnents, so they will stick on newer white boards, filing cabinets or other metal objects. The cards are great because they are easy to read, the students and I can move them around, and the color-coding helps students associate words within a category. I'm trying to figure out a way to use them in my freshman composition class becuase I'm just so excited about them.

My excitment level about some laminated cards should tell you a lot about my life right now. Focused. School is on my brain non-stop, and I like it. I had a great time at the conference because I went with friends, and we had been awarded enough travel money to cover much of our costs, and we had a little time to just relax and enjoy our intellectual selves.

This post is sort of boring. I'm sorry about that. I don't have much to complain about! The funniest part was in-car dancing to Gaga's "Born the Way" at about 6:20 AM on Friday. I also enjoyed our random detour to the Dewey-Humbolt Pumpkin Festival on the way home this evening. County Fair, anyone? The best food was a tie between our dinner out at the Tajmahal restaurant and the home cooking of my Turkish colleague (yes, practically tailgated at the conference with a cooler, paper plates and everything).

Yet more reassurance that I might be on the right track (thanks Gaga). Perhaps I was born this way?



October 2, 2011

Overdue fun-making of Flagstaff, but also of myself.

A Personal Essay from Flagstaff:

Flag is, like, one of the least pretentious cities in the world. Seriously, I'm from SoCal, so I know about pretentious. 

I decided that I would use the water I was saving by not washing my hair to water my raised garden. I'm growing my own alfalfa sprouts. My hair looks really cool now that the back is dreadlocks. I cut really short bangs in the front. They make my eyebrow piercings stand out. A lot of people have their noses pierced, but that looks so lame. I got some glasses from the thrift store. They're from, like, the 1960's or whatever, so they look really vintage.

By the way, I almost lost a Birkenstock while I was riding my bike to Macy's after my hike. This Subaru just came out of nowhere when I stopped in the middle of the intersection to get my dog's leash out of the bike chain. When I got to Macy's, my dog was super tired, so I ordered him an iced coffee. He kept barking at the other dogs and at the customers, but I didn't really care. He's a dog, so he's going to bark or whatever. I took out my MacBook Pro and did some homework for my sustainable communities class, but I had to check Facebook, too, so I didn't get my homework done. Then I was hungry, so I totally ordered the veggie sandwich because it's, like, so rude to eat animals or whatever.

Then I thought that some girl from Nebraska was calling me pretentious, but I couldn't really tell because my dog was barking so loudly. 

Okay, so I've been dying to write about some of the ridiculous stuff in Flagstaff. The official name for this phenomenon is "culture shock". It's in one of my textbooks on page 195. In this stage, I'm feeling intruded upon by the host culture, and I seek solace in people who are similar to me and I take comfort in complaining about the host culture--hence my essay.

When I'm not making fun of the people of Flagstaff (I wear Birks, I ride a bike that gets stuff caught in the chain, I go to Macy's, and I check Facebook), I am loving life here. Grad school is is high gear and I'm learning so much about learning that I can't help but be a better student. Learn how to read textbooks, Jena, or else you will get a 60% on the quiz. Yep, welcome to graduate school. I'm learning about phonetics and phonology, and about communicative language teaching and the critical period hypothesis. The phonetic symbols have finally worked their way into my dreams, as have the assignments I give to my ENG 105 class. Somehow this stuff has permeated into my deeper consciousness. Terrifying.

I'm writing two papers at the moment. One on World English in Cambodia, and the other on Language Anxiety in the Foreign Language Classroom. Speaking of anxiety and pretense...Actually, grad school isn't as bad as I thought. Although, I'm glad it isn't as bad as I thought because I would definitely be in tears if I had anything else on my plate at the moment.

I've made some friends, thank goodness, who look out for me and tell me to go home when I've been chained to my office chair all afternoon. I do fun stuff occasionally, like unpretentiously hike on mountains.

So I hope that is enough of an update to say that I'm still alive, I love what I'm doing, and I'm still able to pick apart a host culture like it's my job.

Keep it real, Flagstaff. And wash your hair.

September 12, 2011

Pre-mid-September Updates

To my loyal readers, sorry I've not posted as regularly I would like to. To the rest of you, you made it just in time.

I've been in graduate school for two weeks now. I've got homework, I've got far-out paper due dates, and I've got my own class to run. As a teacher/tutor/student, I am trying my best to keep everything in my planner, and then actually look at the planner to remember what's next.

The most surprising thing that's happened so far is in my TESL Practicum. Instead of working with ESL students, through a serendipitous chain of events, I ended up as an assistant in a first-year German class. The professor is enthusiastic about having a helper in her class, especially since that helper has the remnants of an Austrian accent. I observed the class on Thursday, a requirement of the TESL practicum, and on Tuesday, I will start as an active teaching force (that's the first thing that came to mind, "force") in GER 101. Look out students, I'm about to lay some serious "Steierisch" on you. "Les ma a bissl was, ga?"

Although it has been three years since I lived in Austria, my fond memories of  Kaffee and Schnitzel still warm my heart. My German has deteriorated since then, but at a GER 101 level, I feel confidant that I can handle it.

Did I mention that I teach Freshman Composition? Well, they have also been impressed by my German abilities because I told them about my assignment. They are a fun bunch, my ENG 105ers. We had a rousing discussion of rhetoric centered around the hypothetical text message "I love you". They were so enthralled that I was worried that my subsequent lessons wouldn't stack up. I was right. Sometimes you have to be more boring. How about that for a teaching philosophy?

Graduate school is a lot of work, and a lot of planning to do work. But it's also a place where I am surrounded by people who are a lot like me. And they like coffee, so...life is good.

September 1, 2011

Mostly a list.

It was my first real day of graduate school. How do I know? I wore dress pants, for starters. I discussed possible topics for term papers with a professor. I said the words "communicative competence, syntax and linguistic analysis" while jogging with a fellow grad student. I sent a dozen emails regarding a "practicum". I spent two hours responding to freshman comp papers. I also made last minute copies of book pages for some of my students, held office hours, and rode my bike home after dark. I don't recommend ever doing that last part. I didn't eat dinner until past 8, and I hardly noticed. I didn't have my customary bowl of ice cream, and I hardly noticed. I did have a cup of tea. That's important.

Grad school. I love it for now. Even the dress pants.

August 21, 2011

"Just Jena" or "Linchpins are cool, but not cool enough"

Grad school has many surprises for me. Even my name is subject to scrutiny.

Today is my 24th birthday, and according to my Grandpa, I still have four years to prepare for my career-phase (28-42). The career I think I want is teaching ESL. That's what my masters degree will be in, anyway. My preparation at NAU includes graduate level coursework and a teaching assistantship in the English department teaching "Reading and Writing for the Academy Community"--essentially, it's a required writing class for freshman.

I'm a week away from starting my classes, and even though the lesson planning is daunting, it's the small things that give me the biggest hang-ups. For example, what should I have students call me? I want to have authority, but not intimidation. My instinct says "Jena" because I like my first name, and I don't feel like a Miss, Ms. or Mrs., and definitely not a Prof. or Dr.. I could go with "Ms. Lynch", but I've never been all that fond of "Lynch". I think of lynchings or lynch mobs, neither of which suggest that I am a nice or reasonable person. I could always say, "Lynch" like "linchpin", but I think my aversion to the name is more than semantic.

I am not close to the "Lynch" side of my family. When my parents divorced, I had my dad's last name, but little else. When my Mom has remarried, I became the only Lynch in the Griesel family. A few years back, I seriously contemplated legally changing my last name. First I thought of practical changes, "Jena Griesel", "Jena Moore" (Mom's maiden name), or even "Jena Keim" (Grandma's maiden name). None of these choices sounded very natural, so I tried to tap into the Italian-ness of "Gina". "Jena Bonati" (our one-time foreign exchange student) "Jena Marzetti" (a salad dressing) or "Jena Lorenzetti" (Still has the L).  These seemed a little far-fetched, since I have no relation to Italy.

As a teacher, I want a name that has a positive connotation, (preferably something not connected to killing) like "Teegarden", "Goodheart", or "Coffee". A German name would also fit me: "Ms. Braun", "Ms. Ritter", "Ms. Garten", etc.

But alas. Here I am Jena Lynch. Rather than be called by a name that I don't really like, I think I'll stick with just Jena.



Or I could really go for it and be "Lady Lynch".

August 10, 2011

Welcome to Grad School--Sort of!

I'm officially a grad student. I wrote my first paper, well, "response" to a reading. An informal one-pager full of my thoughts on David Bartholomae's "Inventing the University". I feel so grad student-y now.

Actually, the text had a lot of tough ideas and I spent about two hours trying to figure out what to put in or leave out of my response. I want to start strong. Or at least with minimal typos.

I really like grad school so far. I'm a whopping two days into my graduate teaching assistant (GTA) training/orientation that should prepare me to teach Freshman Composition. The instructors are helpful and organized, and the new GTA's are fun and smart. I'm still getting used to sharing my thoughts and questions in front of 30+ people (why do the dumb questions make me raise my hand?). I will also get back in the Writing Center this fall, and I might even get to do some writing tutoring outside of the WC. Oh yeah, and I'll be taking graduate courses in TESL. It will be a lot of work.

I've been riding my bike to campus. It's 20 invigorating minutes of rolling hills each way. Pant Pant Pant. Helmet hair. Sweat on my dress pants. Heavy backpack. No big deal. The weather is gorgeous, it's Flagstaff, and I'm getting exercise without going to the gym.

Life is good.


August 5, 2011

Something to accompany the pictures of last post

It’s much harder to blog about things that went well. That’s my excuse for not writing much lately. Flagstaff is incredible, the weather is a temperature so perfect that my body doesn’t even register it, and I’m no longer alone all day every day.


What is there to write about? My boyfriend came to visit me with his fractured elbow in a sling. Although I found his left-handed motions awkward and funny, I enjoyed the chance to help him out with day-to-day things that are hard with one hand, like picking up heavy things, carrying laundry baskets and opening bottles.

Despite the broken arm, and my better judgment, my boyfriend and I tried to experience Arizona’s outdoor pleasures. It turns out that my ability to whine about anything was more of a hindrance than the broken arm. We drove to Sedona and took a short, hot hike on Wilson Mountain—named for Mr. Wilson who was gobbled up by a bear at the turn of the last century. We slid down steep rocks to Oak Creek. We even took a scenic route by Red Rock High School to get an up-close view of the thunderstorm moving into Sedona, at which time I became jealous of the Red Rock school district and paranoid about getting struck by lightning. Closer to Flagstaff, we explored a hike trail near Mormon lake that I renamed “1000 Ways to Break an Ankle.” I’m not exactly an outdoor enthusiast, but I do my best to keep up with a guy with one arm.

When we weren’t out trying to break other body parts on the cliffs of Arizona, we took turns winning Scrabble until he figured out the “Bingo” rule (if you can play all of your tiles in one turn, you get to add 50 to your total score). After that, I had to fudge on the rules if I wanted to come even within 50 points of his score. For some reason, my background in English doesn’t translate into creating a crossword puzzle on the spot. The wine didn’t help either.

My roommate and a few guests also arrived during the week my boyfriend visited. Stress. Having been alone for several weeks and then suddenly being surrounded by people was a shock to my system. They were all very friendly and wonderful people, so my stress soon melted into much needed social interaction.

I also got to share more than I planned with my new roommate the day after my boyfriend left. After two afternoons of severe stomach cramping, fatigue and mild headache, I decided to get a professional opinion. Well, decided, as in I began crying in my roommate’s car while I was on the phone with a family friend asking about walk-in clinics. The decision was made for me, really. I can’t imagine how terrifying for my new roommate to have me crying and clutching my abdomen on her third day in Flagstaff. Bless her heart, she put in the address of the clinic to her GPS, drove me there, and sat with me in the lobby as my stomach churned and gurgled.

As I sat on the doctor’s table I expected that all of my internal organs were complete mush and that I would need some scary procedure involving a transplant. To my delight, I was diagnosed with altitude sickness, an affliction common to hikers and those who move to high altitude cities like Flagstaff. The doctor said that the pain in my stomach was most likely due to dehydration caused by the altitude, and that physical exertion and the Scrabble wine were exacerbating the problem. At this altitude you have to drink a lot more water than usual. Seriously? That’s it?

Seriously, one Gatorade and a couple glasses of water later, I was feeling better. I just needed to know what was wrong to fix it!

There's no real moral to this story. I had a lot of fun and I got altitude sickness. Welcome to Flagstaff.

August 3, 2011

Most fun you can have while getting altitude sickness


Outside Sedona, Arizona

Did I mention that I live in Arizona?

Red Rocks in the rain

Candidate for best picture ever

11,000 feet up.

Near Mormon Lake

July 22, 2011

Happy, Nerdy Post

I spent the past three weeks hauling, shuffling and buying a bunch of stuff. The excitement and challenge of moving to a new city on my own had overshadowed the reason why I moved in the first place. Even though I chose  Northern Arizona University in a manner than falls just short of random, that choice landed me in a place I couldn't have purposefully picked better. While the rest of the nation roasts in 100+ temps, the weather in Flagstaff hovers around 80, with occasional monsoon storms for moisture. The summer climate here intices me to go for long walks and take bike rides that would be a chore if it were for the natural beauty of this place. I hear rumors that Flagstaff measures winter snow accumulations in feet instead of inches, but I will deal with that when it happens (Do they make chains for bike tires?).

I moved to Flagstaff to get a masters in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL). My experience as a writing consultant back in Kearney, and my subsquent adventures as a teacher in Cambodia and as an underemployed young person in Nebraska proved that my interest in language runs deeper than my typical six-month obsessions.

I ordered my textbooks for this semester online. I have received about half of them and I have already started peeking! How Languages are Learned and Principles of Language Learning and Teaching are just the kind of books I want to read! Teaching Composition, the text for my graduate assistantship, also gets my blood flowing, but more because I'm so nervous about teaching freshman composition.

What I'm getting at with all this blabbing is that I think I made a good choice. Several good choices, in fact. My interest in the textbooks assures me that I've picked a discipline I can live with (for now at least), and my enthusiasm for Flagstaff and its lifestyle is icing on the very delicious, from scratch, cake.

July 21, 2011

Instead of several thousand words... Apartment Pictures!

The Living Room

The Patio
The view from the patio

The Kitchen



My Desk
My Bedroom

July 19, 2011

You know you've moved to Flagstaff when...

Flagstaff is getting the better of me. Today I bought a $100 couch from a thrift store, thinking that my butt can't really tell the difference between this and any other couch. I'm no princess and the pea.

I had a similar mindset when I bought my first bike here in Flagstaff. I'm no Lance Armstrong, I thought as I handed over the $60 to my Craigslist dealer. This bike may have been  born at Wal-mart, but that doesn't make it a bad machine. After struggling with this bike for a week on the bike-ready streets of Flagstaff, I maintain that Wal-mart bikes are not bad machines, but this Wal-mart bike was not meant for me. I decided that I could do better.

I could do way better, in fact. I could tell that I was a becoming a bike snob. I am already a snob in many things: coffee, iced tea and chocolate. However, real bike snobbery is out of my budget by thousands of dollars, so I convinced myself to start with the basics: durable, lightweight parts, a frame that fits my body, and a local bike dealer who can recommend the right bike.

After settling for a couch that screams "grad student furniture," I pulled up to the bike shop, ready to buy a respectable bike. To my delight, the bike that best suited my needs was a handsome model with a brushed black finish. It has a 20 inch frame that fits me like a glove, quality wheels and an aura of badass.

Flagstaff is getting my priorities in order. I bought a bike that cost nearly four times as much as my couch. I hope the money ratio also applies to the time my body spends on these two items.

July 18, 2011

Garage Sale Dreams

Garage sales remind me that I'm picky and cheap. But they also provide alternative views on the importance of new, clean items.


Picture from http://www.shopkitchenaid.com/
I woke up this morning with the intent to nurse my battle scars (steam burn from the electric kettle and sunburn from a tubing trip) and do absolutely nothing. If you are familiar with my anxiety, you will not be surprised that less than an hour later, I was writing down the address of every garage sale listed on Craigslist with a do-or-die mission to find--

Well, I had a few things in mind. A stand mixer, preferably KitchenAid, for less than $50. A lightly used sofa and armchair, any color, with delivery. Price very negotiable under $200. A Crock Pot, anything Pampered Chef, and silicone baking accessories.

However, garage sales by their very nature, are a display of the stuff that the seller didn't want. Rejected items such as a plastic bread slice guider, beat-up car seats, and miscellaneous appliance parts. I always try to look over the wares as though they are things that I want, and not things that must have missed the trash can on the last hurl. A broken extension cord. Old shower caddy. Tape players. Half-used perfume. A food processor from the 1970's.

Of course the upshot to garage sales is the price. You can buy a lot of someone else's junk with a role of quarters. I prefer the sales with unmarked prices.

"How much is that end table?" I ask.

"We are flexible." The lady in the hat says.

I try to think of a price that is low, but not insulting for such a table. "How about five bucks?"

"Sold." After which I always think: why didn't I say two bucks?

Hauling off another person's would-be garbage always gives the the satisfaction ants must get from cleaning up during our picnics. Wow, I just got this stained end table for five bucks. I can put this in MY house now!

By the fourth round of finding none of the things on my wishlist, and getting lost at least one time for each sale, I decided it was time to go home. Just before my turnoff, I saw a hand written sign for a sale in my neighborhood, so I made a quick left turn. A young kid was standing in the drive way waving a sign for the sale. I stopped.

A young woman who didn't appear related to the young boy showed me around the baby clothes, and used sporting goods. The super model thin woman tried to win me over by claiming that we would wear the same pants size and that I should try her jeans, but I politely declined, knowing that the pant leg wouldn't even clear my knee. Instead I settled on a blue cup, a pair of wooden spoons, and a crafty wreath made out of fake berries. My total bill at this stop was $1.25.

I realize that my wishlist was unreasonable, but it was fun (and unnerving) to look at the things people sell at garage sales. One day I hope I can afford to buy a Kitchenaid mixer and a new couch with the same paycheck. For now, I will make the off-brand, thrift store and garage sale as fabulous as possible.

July 16, 2011

My New Trick!


I wish this blog were scratch-n-sniff!

Thanks to Betty Crocker's Cookbook, I've learned to bake my own bread. It is hard work, but the smell of fresh bread is worth the sacrifice. Check out how well my third loaf came out! The first two needed altitude-attitude adjustments.






Glamour Loaf




July 13, 2011

A new ratio in Flagstaff

I love Flagstaff.

I know this may seem a deviant statement compared to the rest of my No Workee, Just Whinee blog, in which 95% of my writing points out faults and the redeeming factor is summed up in a measely 5%. But Flagstaff, and the accompanying adult-like freedom I have here, is suiting me better than I imagined. I promise to try to keep the whining to less than 80%, okay?

This morning for instance, I ate two slices of homemade bread (thank you very much) with peanut butter. I drank my coffee while listening to NPR news--life was good, so good that I saddled up my new bicycle for a ride.

I rode on South Lake Mary Road, a glorified highway with a clean 8-foot bike like on either side. Bike lanes are a marked portion of the right side of the road for bikers to ride safely with traffic. If you've never used a bike lane (I've got two days experience), I can already tell you that there are good bike lanes and bad bike lanes. Bad bike lines are slivers of cracked asphalt on the very edge of a steep road with a 50 mph speed limit. Not only is is hard to stay in a tiny straight line on a big hill, but the SUV's show no mercy when they speed by, pelting you with a burst of wind. Many bikes lanes also suffer from gravel or other slippery material, particularly at the bottoms of hills, the place where bikers reach maximum speed, and therefore maximum wipe-out potential.

I wear a helmet. I'm considering elbow, knee, and wrist protection.

Anyway, good bike lanes, like the lane on Lake Mary Road, are wide and well-maintained, free of debris and large cracks. A good bike lane also depends on the obedience of surrounding traffic, and I saw most cars behaving properly. One car, however, was trailing a long-distance runner in the bike lane. A woman on an expensive bike, pulled up beside the car and yelled at the unassuming driver for being in the bike lane. This is the bike lane! No cars allowed! 

So there I was, rolling down and barely ascending the hills and valleys of the self-policing road. The scenery was incredible. To my right, lush forest, meadows, quaint Bed and Breakfast operations; and to my left, the small communities, horse stables and the distant mountain peaks. What a ride.

It's downhill when I'm headed away from my house, which means that the way home made my legs and my lungs burn. While riding, I came up with this discouraging metaphor for life's awesome things. Sure the downhill part is really fun and easy, but just wait until you turn around to come home! Paying for things by credit card, making a huge mess while cooking, eating too much cookie dough...I wanted to putting "Moving to Flagstaff for grad school" as an example, but I can't sabotage my future after Flagstaff just yet.

For now, I'm enjoying a downhill coast in a beautiful bike lane in Flagstaff, but if there is gravel at the bottom, or errant drivers, or maybe the sun's too hot, you know I'll write about it.

July 9, 2011

How all the cool 23-year-olds spend Friday night...

I have never liked recipes. The tsp and tbls, the sautéing and the broiling, the waiting for water to boil and the planning ahead for room temperature butter. I always found the whole thing constricting. I am the kind of person who has the stick of butter in a dish in the microwave because I forgot to put it out a few hours before. I am also the kind of cooking rebel who seasons my own chili (none of those mild prepackaged mixes), much to the alarm of everyone else in my family. Sour cream, anyone?

But more than my forgetfulness, my adventuresome spirit is what has driven me from recipe cooking. I like to start with a main ingredient and open up the fridge and cupboards to see what comes out. When this type of cooking goes right, everyone is impressed at your creativity. The trouble is, you can never make the same dish twice. My famous "Fresca Beef" began with whatever cut of beef was on sale in a marinade of Fresca grapefruit soda. From there, I could never quite remember what I had put in the original version, and each time, the Fresca beef was less enjoyable because it lacked the serendipitous combination of the first.

Now that I am in total control of what stocks my cupboards, my attitude is changing. Grandma Irene gave me Betty Crocker's Cookbook and lots of cooking supplies to help me get started in Flagstaff. After successfully following Betty's recipes for Chocolate-chip Cookies, Oven-fried Chicken, Tuna Salad and Blueberry Cobbler, I am a changed woman.

Recipes make things so much simpler! Sure there is measuring and planning, but the results are worth it. Besides a consistent outcome, planning ahead to follow a recipe creates a shorter grocery list with fewer processed foods. Instead of frozen chicken strips, but a fresh whole chicken. Betty will show you how to separate and cook the pieces and make several economical servings at less than the cost of processed chicken. On the other hand, I was given a large tub of blueberries, a food I don't usually like plain, so I popped open the cookbook and found a recipe for delicious cobbler that depleted the nutritional value of the berries, but delighted my pallet.

Now that I'm trying to figure out adulthood, I want to develop my household skills. Learning how to cook (for real) is important to me. To make a meal from scratch is cheaper, healthier, and more satisfying than opening a bag and turning on the microwave. To follow a recipe is not to give up creativity; instead, it is to create something consistent first, then to fine-tune as needed. You never know, maybe I could take one of Betty's beef recipes and sneak in a little Fresca.

Flagstaff Exceeds Expectations

I've been in Flagstaff a full week now, and it's about time that I pass judgment on my new home.

As with any new place I visit, Flagstaff has been subject to my discerning tastes and personal values.

Do the people there speak a language I understand? Initially, -5 points because it's still part of the United States. But, +2 because I hear Spanish and Navajo on a daily basis.

Do I have a view of ancient-volcano-turned-rocky-crags? +5 Yes, I do have such a view thanks to the San Francisco peaks.

Can I sit on my patio and look into a forest? +5 In fact, I can sit on my patio, look into a forest and blog all at the same time. +10!

Are there scary bugs? -3 Crawling out of the forest and across my bedroom!

Are the scary bugs small enough to kill with a rolled up magazine? +2 Thanks, Cambodia for creating this important distinction.

Is there a quintessential coffee shop? +10 Macy's is the stuff of legends, but -2 since I don't have a coffee buddy yet.

Are there designated places for people on bikes to ride safely? +5 Once again, thank you to Cambodia for fine tuning my list of desirable qualities.

Is the traffic frustrating? -5 Milton Road. Route 66.

Does the frustrating traffic make me want to walk, bike or ride a bus? +5!

Overall, Flagstaff scores very well on my list. Especially dominant in the physical beauty category, Flagstaff is edged out only by Hallstadt, Austria as most stunning place I've ever been. On my way to the mailboxes, I see the San Fransisco peaks; on my way to downtown, I see Ponderosa Pines; and one day I'll have visited the 50 gazillion gorgeous natural wonders around here.

I don't even have friends yet, and I'm still happy. I congratulate myself on a city well chosen and I look forward to more blogs from the patio.

July 6, 2011

Independence Day


Fourth of July Parade in Flagstaff
The Fourth of July was never one of my favorite holidays. I have a hard time enjoying myself with the startling pop-pop-pops and deafening bangs of fireworks, the hot and buggy outdoor eating, and the constant playing of that “Proud to be an American” song. I had not factored the Fourth of July into my moving plans, although the beginning of July did mark my living in Lincoln for one year. I reasoned that there would be good sales for the holiday, and that perhaps I could get away with ignoring the parts of the Fourth that I don't like for one year.

I could have easily avoided all festivities in Flagstaff, citing a lack of information about goings-on, or lack of friends, or even lack of interest, but all of those make me seem like an unpatriotic recluse. I think I'm more of an “Introspectively proud American who happens to enjoy some alone time,” but whatever the title, I didn't move to Flagstaff to stay cooped up in my apartment the whole time.

Hike and bike Trail in my neighborhood
I went to the Independence Day parade in historic downtown Flagstaff this morning. As my boyfriend pointed out, “Independence Day” symbolizes more for me this year. Indeed, my moving to Arizona signifies a new and more adult phase of my life in which I make the decisions and I finance them. In an effort to save gas (and to kill some time), I walked for an hour to get to the parade. But before you feel sorry for me, remember that I'm in “Flag,” as the locals call it, and this place is set up for hikers and bikers. My walk began in my residential neighborhood, then faded into a long, gravel trail along a winding street. After crossing onto a bigger thoroughfare, my forest trail was asphalt paved until it turned once more into a wide sidewalk. During the entire trip, I had at least a sidewalk, if not a trail through stunning pine scenery.

Once I came nearer to downtown, I started to follow the Teva sandal-wearing, iced-coffee drinking masses to the parade route. With the other 80,000 people of Flagstaff, I assumed my position along Aspen Street to wait for the parade to begin. I have not been to any Fourth of July parades since I became too old to scramble for the candy, and so I wasn't really sure what adults do at these things. One of the first floats handed out small flags to wave, which helped my nervous ticks look more patriotic than anxious. I saw everything from the expected veterans, ponies and marching bands; to the more niche Native American dancing, Bikram Yoga Instructors, and the antique tractors of Northern Arizona. My favorite parts of the parade were the former Peace Corps members (one who served in Afghanistan in the 1960's), and the veterans from Vietnam and WWII. Although I rarely talk about it, I admire people who sacrifice so much for this country and I always get a little choked up when I recognize their service (required patriotic moment).

After the parade, I wandered over to the Arts in the Park festival I had seen on my laundromat misadventure. I made a beeline to the Italian ice vendor for something cool and sugary. Then I browsed the vendors' wares. Lots of metal cacti, blown glass, and tie-dye apparel were being sold to the tourists and locals who had planned their morning with roughly the same schedule as mine. No one was selling cheap second-hand furniture, so I decided that I had better wait until I had a table for the sculpture to sit on before investing.

Although proud of myself for attending two events that I would never think of going to solo in my hometown, I wished I had been more outgoing and struck up some conversations. “Wow, great hiking boots! I bet those are great for...everyday use!” or “How long have you been growing your hair...that way?” or even, “Hey, where did you get that iced coffee?” Wanting desperately to fit in, but not to stick around any longer, I bought an iced coffee for the way home. I will make friends later. Happy Independence Day.

Laundry adventure on my first full day in Flagstaff (written 7/2/11)


For a minute there, I could have sworn I was on study abroad. My mission of the day was to have a bed set up and ready to sleep in. The final step to complete Operation Bed was to find a laundromat.

Finding a laundromat was my forth or fifth step in the day's mission. First thing this morning, I went to the Furniture Barn and bought a bed because “sleeping” on the floor for just one night is more than enough motivation. The second phase of the mission was to go buck wild at Target, picking up everything from a silverware organizer to a shower caddy—and don't forget sheets for the new bed. Unfortunately I did forget laundry detergent, which spurred a third mission. Since returning to Target so soon would have been a total embarrassment, I decided that I would go to Home Depot (across town) instead, because they have laundry detergent and Adirondack chairs for my patio area.

Since I began this entry with the need to find a laundromat, you may have seen this next part coming. Detergent and laundry in hand, I marched right up to the locked laundry room door to read a sign informing me that the laundry rooms would be out of service until July 8th, presumably for an upgrade of the 1980's-style machines lined up out front.

My experience trying to find a laundromat was not unlike the frustrating times I had in Cambodia, waiting for tuk tuk drivers to admit that they had no idea where the Post Office was (and then demanding extra money); and not unlike the agony of coordinating five Austrian bus routes only to arrive at the office building and realize that the office hours are from 10-12:30 Tuesdays only. Today, I had called upon my trusty cell phone GPS to help me search for and navigate to a nearby laundromat in this unfamiliar city. After the third laundromat failed to be where the phone insisted it was, the phrase “you are now off track” applied more to my phone than to me.

I gave in to the stomach growls and headache and pulled into a grocery store. I could only handle the unwashed sheets if I had a full stomach and stocked cupboards.

On the way home, sitting in a form of traffic unique to Flagstaff's main drag, I saw a laundromat. Right there, on the street I had been driving all day. About 200 yards after the place where my phone had insisted I turn (that was the DMV, by the way.)

I had a choice to make. Totally abort mission or resume. After a quick grocery drop-off, you bet I was back at that laundromat. Once I had my sheets spinning around amidst hundreds of other people's, the scent of communal laundry took me back to a very dark place: the laundry room at the Ghegagasse Student Apartments, where I had lived as an exchange student in Austria.

To wash laundry at Ghegagasse, I had to go to the basement of another complex and brave the “drying room,” which was just a damp, windowless, barely lit room full of clothesline and the ghostly shadows of other people's trousers. If I was lucky the light in the actual wash room would be on, illuminating the outline of the door I wanted. Once inside, I had my choice of machines in varying degree of disrepair. This one leaks, that one stains, the other runs it through the wrong cycle. Well, actually, it was impossible to know which cycle you had chosen because, like in Cambodia, the machines had directions in an unintelligible language. Even if it was German, I couldn't make any sense of it.

There are no dryers in other parts of the world, either. Drying clothes in Cambodia was a breeze. A few minutes at midday and you had crispy shirts. In Austria, it wasn't so easy. The lack of space in our five bedroom apartment proved difficult for freestanding laundry racks. No matter, we put them in the hallways, blocking the bathroom. I borrowed a rack from Gimi', my happy-go-lucky Serbian roommate. He taught me that there is no shame in displaying your socks and underwear in the hallway.

The Flagstaff laundromat proved that a little perseverance goes a long way. My experiences on study abroad continue to help me see everyday situations as both funny and triumphant. The little victories lead to something bigger, like a freshly made bed. Or a sent letter. Or a signed form.

June 28, 2011

Simply Overpacked

Nothing like a day of packing to make you feel like your whole life boils down to a stack of boxes. And nothing like the growing stack of boxes to make you feel delusional in your plan to "take only what fits" in a Mitsubishi.

I'm packing to move to Flagstaff, Arizona. Every time I move, I hope for a transition to a simpler lifestyle. Fewer things and more adventure. Minimalistic like my Canadian roommate who brought merely a rucksack to Cambodia. To be satisfied with very little. To be content with the basics. As I surveyed the toppling piles of clothing today, I couldn't help but feel guilty. Here I am 23 and again unemployed, standing in front of a stack of cashmere sweaters, silk wool pants, and tailor-made items from Bangkok. You could say I was dealt good cards. You could say I have good taste. You could also say that I'm a spoiled brat. True. True. VERY TRUE.

I hope Flagstaff will encourage me to live simply--though decked out in fabulous clothes. I hope I find my stride on her sidewalks and trails. I hope I learn to slow down a little and multi-task less. I want to enjoy every minute of graduate school.

For now, the 27 boxes loom like a mega-tetras puzzle. Tomorrow I'll rearrange until I reach maximum capacity. Soon enough my boxes and I will hit the open road, ready or not!

June 25, 2011

My first (un)traditional Korean music experience

At my Lincoln Literacy Council lesson today, the tables turned were turned. The Amelia Bedelia books remained on the shelf, the laptop with her essays stayed closed, and my little notebook was nestled in my bag. My student is from Korea. She's a young mother who came to live in America several years ago because of her husband's career. She is an accomplished student of English, a savvy local event attender, and a conscientious mother. But beneath all that--before she moved to America and became a mother--she was a musician.

She would never call herself a musician. Despite my admiration and protest, she wouldn't give in. She explained that even her masters degree in music performance didn't equate to the title. Part of her refusal is modesty, but I also think that she doesn't like the limitations of the label.

But when she played for me today, I knew she was a musician. She grew up playing the Gayageum, a long piece of wood with 12 pluckable strings held by adjustable frets. She played me a contemporary piece, along with the disclaimer that it hardly retained any traditional value, but it was easy on the ears. As she played the instrument the grace and power of her hands surprised me. On this instrument, the strings on the right side of the fret are plucked and the left hand bends the strings on the left side to alter the tone and pitch.  I sensed her confidence and calm during the song, the truest sign of a performer. For the second song, she played her favorite instrument, the Geomungo. This instrument is similar to the first, except there are fewer strings, and it is played with a bamboo stick instead of just plucking. She didn't even read music for the second song, just played from memory.

I enjoyed her performances not only for the music, but also for the musicianship. It is a wonderful thing to see a person do what they love. Instead of my strange explanations of American English and custom, for our last lesson, she gave me a real treat--a glimpse into her real talents. This may be the best reason of all to be a teacher.

June 24, 2011

Smoky Sweet Spot

I have been thinking about Arizona for months. I've been thinking about getting out of Lincoln since at least September. And I've been thinking about becoming a very independent adult for years. Now that my countdown is down to days, not weeks or months, life in Nebraska is pretty good.

I've hit the sweet spot. The time when everyone wants to see you for the last time, and everyone is happy for you, but also sad that you are leaving. Even my coworkers at Home Depot seemed sentimental on my last day. Everything is coming together for me, but it also feels like it's all falling apart.

My boyfriend and I decided to cook lasagna on our last day together in Nebraska. I was worried because lasagna takes over an hour to prepare and bake, and I was really hungry. My patience is limited when it comes to food preparation. While he browned the hamburger, I mixed the cheese and eggs. We assembled the layers and slid it into the oven. I set my phone timer for 60 minutes. We poured glasses of wine and started regaling the good old days. We told study abroad stories, confessed old crushes, and predicted good things for our relationship.

At some point, I got up to check the lasagna and I caught a glimpse of the clock. The lasagna had been cooking for an hour and twenty minutes. My phone had gone off, but I hadn't noticed. We rushed to get the casserole dish out, and checked for damage. Just a little blackened on the bottom.

Although I was disappointed in my time-keeping ability, I was happy that it was enjoyable conversation that distracted me. We weren't talking about anything profound, but we were enjoying it so much that we didn't notice the tummy grumbles. Even with the smokey noodles, I've never tasted better lasagna.

It's time for me to move to Arizona and here I am at the sweet spot, one of life's curious gifts. Everything comes to together just when it's time to start over. We move and change in hopes of reaching an even sweeter spot, and I know things are on the up for me (but I better work on my cooking skills).

June 16, 2011

Don't get too cocky. Customers will break you.

This morning while I unloaded boxes of Miracle-Gro and Bug-Be-Gone onto the orange shelves of Home Depot, I thought: You know, maybe this isn't so bad. Besides building better biceps than I've ever had, I have learned a thing or two from The Home Depot.  I'm pretty good at this job now.

The most useful of the skills I have acquired is quick thinking under pressure. I can deal with an unsatisfied customer, answer a phone call, and orchestrate the bringing down of a grill all at once. I can calm myself enough to read signs and directions during the wrath of an angry customer. I can call upon a growing amount of stored information about garden stuff, or I can remember the phone numbers of other people around the store who might know an answer.

Life is good. I'm good. Too bad it's my last day on Sunday.

I had just finished that thought when all hell broke loose. Suddenly I was the only person in the department and I was in charge of two phones. Immediately, customers rushed over to ask me questions about spruce trees and warming racks for Charbroil Grills. I tried to explain that we were out of spruce trees and that I didn't expect any more in--but then my phone rang. And rang. And rang. As soon as I would answer a question about Mosquito Magnets, I'd have another about retaining wall block, then a cashier would call with a question about a SKU. I was still trying to explain about the spruce trees, but neither the customer nor the bees would leave me in peace with my ringing phone. By the time I was looking for the elusive warming rack, I began to melt down.

Me, after thoroughly checking each shelf: "We don't have it here on the shelf, so we must not carry it. Here is the number of Charbroil customer service. They can help you figure out the model number of your grill and the right warming rack replacement."

Customer, while on cell phone with husband: "But isn't there someone more knowledgeable who could help me find this rack?"

Me, subduing involuntary eye roll: "No, unfortunately I am the only person in the department right now. I would be happy to check online if we carry the part."

Fifteen minutes of computer search later, one of my [male] co-workers, someone who does not work in the Garden Department, suggested that she call Charbroil customer service. She accepted his advice without question and thanked him as she left the store.

I had to refrain from screaming because my phone was ringing again. Could I set up the transfer of a clearance shed? Why not? I've never done that before. I tried my best to sound capable, but somehow the voice on the other end sensed the "I'm in Training" button I am supposed to wear. What's your name? Who is your manager? I heard this as: Okay, who is the dufus I can blame when the shed never arrives?

So I didn't actually melt down, but I doubt that shed will make it to its destination on time. Today I was frustrated that I couldn't manage everything that I was in charge of. My feelings get hurt when customers refuse my suggestions just because they came from me. Maybe I don't have this job as figured out as I thought. Humility sucks. Well, the virtue doesn't, but getting humbled does.

When you think you have it all figured out, get ready for the next lesson. Thanks, Home Depot.



June 8, 2011

0% Contained

The beautifully distorted sunset over Interstate 80 was the result of a wildfire more than 1000 miles away. Instead of its trademark clarity, the Nebraskan sky turned a hazy gray at sundown, leaving only a glowing red ball hanging above the cornfields.

I can't help but think about the coincidence of this particular sunset and my plans to move out-of-state. One of the worst wildfires in Arizona history is 0% contained, and the smoke from this fire has drifted all the way to my favorite hiding place in Kearney, Nebraska. I will be moving to Arizona in a matter of weeks; consequently leaving behind my hometown, my family, and my hiding places.

I can't say a fire is a good omen, but forests and people need a fresh start now and then. I am ready to start a new phase, but it won't be easy to say goodbye to I-80.

June 3, 2011

OMG it's June...

I realized this morning that I am scared of moving to Flagstaff. Not necessarily the packing, the 1200 mile drive, or even the new location worry me as much as the identity change. Although I've been whining about my lack of independence and my desire for adventure, the prospect of starting my adult life in a little over a month  is terrifying. In this "new" life, I expect myself to be a worthy contributor in intellectual discussions, to excel at even the most challenging coursework, and to be an insightful composition teacher. Of course 95% of this is up to me, but the 5% or so that I can't control is the most bothersome. What if I don't fit in? What if I'm not smart enough? What if I'm a terrible teaching assistant? My list of irrational self-doubt goes on.

I'm trying to convince myself that graduate school will be neither all soy lattes and conversations about a better world, nor will it be a doom and gloom world of constant busywork. What I most want from graduate school is exposure to ESL teaching methods, practice teaching, and a clearer vision of what I want to do with my MA. I'm most afraid of coming out of school with an MA-TESL and not knowing what to do with it. I can't control whether I get the job, but at least I am in control of how much I know about the options.

Somehow that doesn't squelch my fears. Did I mention money and boyfriend?

June 2, 2011

Berlin, The Murderous Tuxedo Cat

My cat Berlin is a murderer.

While I've always preferred Tom to Jerry (And Ben and Jerry's above all), I can't help but feel a little sad for Berlin's mouse victims. Each morning, one of her "trophies" has been carefully placed upon the rug in our garage. But this morning she showed us her potential as an exterminator. Not only did she snatch the biggest mouse I've ever seen, but also she killed a smaller second mouse and brought the guts and severed head of a third. The bodies or pieces thereof were laid in a neat row on our cheery welcome mat--now the killing field of a sinister ruler.

Grossed out, but extremely proud of my baby, I collected the mouse bodies on a rusty shovel and tossed them into the tall grasses behind our lot. A mass grave.

I don't know much about the mindset of a house cat, but I like to think that Berlin is trying to provide for our family--she nearly brought a mouse for each of us. Maybe she is just showing off her hunting prowess. Or perhaps she just wants to she us squirm as we forget and step on a pile of still warm mouse parts. Most likely she is an instinctual hunter, but since she is fed daily, eating the kill just isn't necessary. Who wants field mouse when you can have Classic Pate? Whatever the case, Berlin has a talent for the hunt and our neighborhood will be free of small rodents in no time.

Beyond the icky factor of picking up the bodies is the ultimate grossness of seeing what happens when your cat eats the bugs that live on mice. OMG! Berlin, what is that white thing crawling out of your butt? Worms are a common, though still unnerving feline affliction. They look like little moving rice grains. A simple pill from the vet clears your cat up, but you can never erase the image of worms seeing daylight for the first time from underneath a tail.

Did I mention that having a cat is part of the South Beach Diet? No mice or rice allowed! Ben and Jerry's is out too, sorry.

May 26, 2011

Not the disco-post I expected--more later

Not only did I survive "Rapture-mania 2011," but I came out the other side ready to rule the world.

Or at least to have lots of meaningful social interaction (a.k.a coffee dates). Lady Gaga's new album, Born This Way, also dropped this week. The combination of soy lattes, conversations and the delightful confusion/obsession only Gaga can bring has recharged my enthusiasm for life. Also, I've had a terrible time sleeping.

In addition to my own metamorphosis, my brother is graduating from elementary school tomorrow. I attended the "Memory Night" earlier this week to hear him give a speech on his finest times of the past five years. After thanking a few of his favorite teachers, my brother gave a shout-out to his "awesome friends." I was so proud. Actually, I nearly cried several time during the ceremony. I'm a sucker for anything sentimental, and nothing beats seeing little baby pictures next to fifth grade photos.

On the other hand, I rarely feel sentimental about The Home Depot. I'm still hauling mulch, selling grills and misdirecting people around the Garden Center. Every day is a reminder of where I would rather be--almost anywhere, but namely, in a university somewhere. But, in getting to know my co-workers, I've realized that working at The Home Depot is not a luxury for many people. If I get scheduled for only a few days a week, my paycheck will be smaller, but I won't have to explain to my family that we have to cut back. For some of my co-workers, however, the ups--but mostly the downs--of working temporary retail have serious consequences. I can almost see the desperation as they tell me about losing a good job after middle-age, or being forced out by awful working conditions; and then the endless job hunting that landed them the same unstable job I have. I saw the 120-day employment as just enough to get me to my next destination, but for them, it is a countdown to even greater uncertainty.

I may not be ruling the world like Gaga, but I am thankful for the relative stability I have at home, at my job, and in my immediate future. I'm also thankful for my awesome friends and for my brother--I'd be lost without you!

May 21, 2011

Last Chance

The words "mosquito net" almost broke me today. A customer wanted to hang some around her hot tub, but I wasn't listening. I was flashing back to--where else--Cambodia. Land of eternal wonderment, occasional suffering, and constant muse of my blog.

And if that "Biblical scholar's" predictions (an event I'd dubbed Rapture-mania 2011) are correct, tonight my be my last chance to blog about dear Cambodia.

Rapture-mania 2011 brings up an interesting point. If you knew that you only had one day left, what would you do? Some of my coworkers suggested various felony misdemeanors and other idiotic displays of testosterone. For me, though, taking my brother to order the largest available cookie dough Blizzard from Dairy Queen would satisfy my need for otherwise regretful activity.

What a shame it would be if it all ended tomorrow. All my plans for grad school, and all the hours working at Home Depot, just wasted in a flash of world-ending might.

Here's to surviving Rapture-mania 2011, and living to see the end of the world in 2012.

May 20, 2011

Has-been, though could again...

I like to be good at things.

The trouble is, to get good, you have to practice.

Fine. Seven years of classical piano training. Painful hours of scales, theory books, and little ditties with names like "Bubble Gum March" and "Waltz of the Wizard." My piano teacher remains the nicest person I've ever met, and likely the most patient. She never gave up, even when I missed the same F sharp six times in a row. While many talented musicians develop a keen ability to play new material with ease, I struggled to sightread even simple music. After a few hours of practice, I could figure out all the notes and approximate a rhythm, but never on-the-spot. By the time recital season came around, I'd have my piece memorized just like everyone else. In private I could play with emotion and expression, but as soon as people were watching, my soul floated out and just watched my helpless body play the notes in the right order.

Despite my shortcomings, by the end of eighth grade, I was a proficient piano player. I had also taken up the clarinet, and experimented with other woodwinds. That was my musical peak. I sat first chair clarinet, edging out my best friend in a brutal display of chromatic scales. At home, I was pounding out a recital piece aptly titled, "Warrior's Song" for the actual athleticism it required to play that many notes at once.

Then I made the JV volleyball, and varsity swimming squads at my high school, which catapulted me into a new world revolving around practice, tournaments and little free time for things like music.

"Warrior's Song" would be my last recital piece. I was so upset about my decision to quit piano that I made my Mom call the teacher and explain. I was able to keep playing in the band, though I began slipping down the ranks of clarinet. I had stopped practicing. The band teacher suggested I switch to bass clarinet--an instrument with the same importance as the triangle. I was a damn good bass clarinet player, first chair out of two.

Around the time I was quitting piano, I was beginning to learn German--the language of Ramstein, the Nazi's, and to my peers, presumably of Hell. "Don't forget my Stepdad; he's a German citizen," I told those who were making lists. Frau Schroeder took an immediate liking to me because I was somewhat normal, and I wanted to learn German for purposes other than decoding Ramstein lyrics or "Mein Kampf". For a German class, this is exceptional.

Although we spent 90% of the time trying to figure out how to say perverse things, I came out of high school with basic language skills. I attribute most of my knowledge to visiting my Oma and Opa in Germany, but I suppose I wouldn't be able to conjugate without Frau Schroeder's memorable version of Old McDonald. Ich bin; Du bist; Er ist, sie ist; Wir sind; Ihr seid; Sie sind, sie sind.  Und sein, sein heir, sein, sein da, hier sein, da sein, ueberall sein, sein...

I get depressed when I think about how fluent my German was during my semester in Austria. Not only could I conjugate professionally, but I was writing auf Deutsch! I knew I had reached the apex as I was delivering the finest book report this side of the Alps in my B2 Lese- und Schreibtraining course.

From the moment I stepped back on US soil, however, my German was doomed.

It's really frustrating to put "fluent in German" on resumes and job applications, and then struggle to form a sentence on the phone with Oma. All those years cramming adjective endings into my brain! And the painful declensions that accompany so many parts of German speech. Genitive case.

Ten years later, our beautiful 1920s baby grand piano sits by the window, mocking me. Bet your fingers aren't so limber now, are they? Can you tell me the key signature for A flat minor? How about "The Luckiest"--are you going to play that from memory? Of course not. You'd be lucky to remember where Middle C is. When I do sit down to play, I feel almost scared to touch the keys. It's a feeling similar to the choking effect of not wanting to make a mistake in a foreign language.

I may not be able to tell you the accusative masculine adjective ending (I think -en), or play "The Luckiest" in its entirety, but sometimes I surprise myself. Muscle memory, a clever device of our bodies, retains information about movement for our entire lifetimes. It's like riding a bike.

Muscle memory is exactly why I can still sit down and play pieces of songs I once knew if I don't look at the keys; and why I understand linguistics discussions about genitive case and the palatal, velar, and uvular fricative sounds that make German an "ugly" language. By the way, French has them too. Ever heard a French "r"? Not so nice.

The moral here is that investments in our abilities shouldn't be neglected. For all things that are not bicycles, our bodies need practice to stay skilled.

May 16, 2011

Quick! Somebody get me a pen--I need to revise!

I think I'm addicted to writing. I have to write at regular intervals or I begin a cold sweat panic. Maybe I'm afraid I'll forget how to write. Or how to think. Writing is as important to me as exercising or drinking hot beverages. It's an essential part of my well-being.

My craving for composition pays no attention to my amount of free time, nor to the amount of inspiration. To feel the urge to write, I don't necessarily need a co-worker's insightful quip, a life-altering volunteer experience, or even a dislike of a particular brand of shoes. My drive comes from a deep enjoyment of the craft. Writing was my first hobby, back when I named the horses in my stories after my schoolyard crushes and asked I my mother to pen the captions beneath my magic marker sketches.

I've also kept journals throughout my life. Especially during stressful times, these journals gave me a record of the daily struggle to just be "okay." That sounds dark, but writing down my worries always lessened the burden. During my travels, journaling helped me remember the details (and vent the tedium) of living abroad.

I've been experimenting with a six-word journal lately. Each night, I use only six words to describe the day. Many times, I end up with three two-word phrases; but sometimes, I get a sentence that summarizes my outlook on the entire day. I like seeing my existence boiled down to that level. Short, sweet, and written down.

For me, a thought hasn't become real until I have written it down. By the time I write something down, I've tossed it around at least once in my brain. If it passes the initial inspection, I can send it down to my hands for drafting. With writing, unlike casual conversation, I always have an eraser or a backspace key. I can revise my thoughts until I've said what I meant. For example, today I blurted, "I've often romanticized about living in 1930s Germany" to a person I barely knew. Yes, we were talking about a mutual fascination with the Holocaust, but my thought came out as a not-so-secret desire to be a Hitler youth, rather than my intention of saying that World War Two has always captured my imagination and I wonder what life was like in the thick of it all. I didn't try to correct my thought for fear of further entrapping myself in the quicksand of conversation. I simply changed the subject to pets and made sure to discuss German Shepard dogs appropriately, without any nationalism.

In high school, I wrote a poem about the band a friend and I started. Our songs lacked any musical ability, though our lyrics ran circles around anything I've heard since. In the poem, I valued our band practices because I could be anyone I wanted to be, even my insecure and awkward self. Revise my life to be more like a band practice, I wrote. I still like this line, though I have lost touch with our late nights, fake cigarettes and ridiculous outfits. Revise my life resonates with this lifetime writer as a never-ending quest to improve myself every day, with the same care I would take to a piece of writing. Perfection is not the goal, but an ever-improving version of life with more clarity, better examples and fewer adverbs.

May 5, 2011

Tan Lines

Self-tanner is one of my worst guilty pleasures. The phrase is nearly perfect for a product that promises beautiful (though discrete) results to be displayed in public, but almost always ends in a private scrammble to scrape off my streaky epidermis. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.

The pleasure of self-tanner is in creating a sun-kissed bronze without spending hours in a bikini on your balcony or lying naked on a machine certain to give you cancer. The idea of self-tanner is that a lotion with special chemicals can temporarily alter the color of your skin. I use lotion, I like to be tan. This is a dynamite idea. I see visions of beautiful, tan, toned legs strutting around Home Depot, making everyone jealous and eager to buy lots of home improvement goods. I see a fabulous physique emerging from this miracle bottle of lotion. Not only tan, but also dimple-less, bruise-less, and at least 20 pounds lighter.

For someone who looks like she missed her flight home to Oslo; pale skin, blond hair and invisible eyelashes are a way of life. I haven't accrued the nickname "Valkyrie" from two separate sources for nothing. The blond hair is no problem, and the lashes can be fixed with a little Maybelline. But my skin is approximately the color of wax paper during winter, and it carries the same opacity, which hasn't been desireable in this country for several decades.

I've been struggling with self-tanner for years. I remember my first tragic experiment in third grade that left strange stripes of orange across my whole body and me crying. In the years that followed, nearly every spring I decided that I would try again to achieve something from Miami. And every year, a tell-tale streak would appear on my wrist, neck or other body part that isn't usually covered in clothing. Off to the shower with a washcloth and lots of shame.

For a few months of my quest to achieve tanned glory, I even went to a tanning salon. Peer pressure and transparent skin are a lethal combination. Once I had a suspicious mole removed, however, I called it quits on fake-baking.

Tanning outside gives the best results, if you don't mind tan lines. During my visits to the Phnom Penh Sport Club, my skin (save the sporty bikini spots) took on a delightful and slimming bronze. Locals stopped complimenting me on my skin.

But outdoor tanning requires so much effort. And maybe a plane ticket to Southeast Asia.

Since becomming older and wiser, I had decided that tan was only a state of mind, and that my natural skin "color" was fine.

Then the Easter Bunny left me a tube of "Sublime Bronze" next the Cadbury Eggs (another guilty pleasure). That bunny is my enabler. I ate the eggs without remorse, but I contemplated just throwing the lotion out before I even had a chance to slather it on. 

This morning, as I admired my work, all my imperfections gleeming with a fresh coat of the glittering bronze lotion, I felt the rush of addiction.

My high will undoubtedly fade as the lotion develops and I see the spots that got too much or too little. I'll be wearing a turtleneck and long pants to work when it's 80 degrees just so people don't know about my guilty pleasure.