March 29, 2011

The Grand Canyon, graduate school and some music, too.

The Grand Canyon
Last fall I blogged about Brandon Flowers' album, Flamingo. Although I have always wanted to go West, Flowers' music inspired me to adjust my compass southwest as I browsed graduate schools. Is a random album a good reason to relocate? No. Is a graduate assistantship? Well, it's better than an album.

Since I first heard the call of the Southwest, I have been craving a road trip. A long, blistering drive down desolate highways through the desert. Last week, dear reader, I got my wish.

I recruited my boyfriend to accompany me on the 3000 mile trip across Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Kansas. He is outdoorsy, easy-going and one of the few people with whom I could stand to be in a confined space for seven days. We had been planning this hard-core road trip for months. We would camp out in National Parks along the way, hike the Grand Canyon and save money on food by packing a minimalist cooler of sandwich fixings. Self-imposed hardship, I thought, makes character. Just like Cambodia. 

But in Cambodia, I always had indoor sleeping options, plenty of food, and very, very predictable weather. For reasons I don't understand, I often choose to do things the hard way. Or at least the more uncomfortable of ways, if it will make me look tough afterwards. As we set up the tent the first night, Green River, Utah seemed a perfect place to sleep outside and prove my toughness after ten hours of driving. Then it got really cold. And windy. I had a hard time breathing in the frozen mountain air, and my body kept trying to make heat by staying awake shivering. I shifted around in discomfort, hoping that my body would give up and sleep. I was happy to dismantle the tent the next morning and head for the camp showers. To my unrested body, the spray of water felt like a pelting of sand, but at least it was warm. That night, as we pulled up to Grand Canyon National Park after another day of driving, we discovered that a snow storm had blanketed Mather campground with several inches of soggy snow. I was nearly in tears just imagining setting up the tent, let alone trying to sleep in it. Two nights of not sleeping does not a happy girlfriend make, so I was absolutely thrilled when my boyfriend suggested we find a hotel for the night. Did I mention that he is smart, too?

As for our plan to dominate the hiking trails into the canyon, well, let me remind you that I am a total novice hiker. The Grand Canyon, though gorgeous and awesome, is an enormous chasm of death. Moreover, the snowstorm that had ruined our camping (but probably saved our friendship) had also iced the hiking trails into the Canyon. From the South Rim, we peered down at the people attempting the Bright Angel trail. They were descending steep downhill paths, totally exposed to sheer cliff drop-offs on one side, on ice. They are the definition of total stupidity, I thought. We inched down the trail for a few painful minutes, and when we saw a father guiding his four-year-old over the icy death trap, we decided that being life-flighted out of the Canyon would blow our budget, so we turned around. We instead took the 17,000 step (yes, I do wear a pedometer) trail around the South Rim. We were able to focus on the grandeur of the canyon from above rather than the incredible risk of free falling half a mile down into the Colorado River.

Yes, we wussed out of snow-bound camping and the frosted Bright Angel, but we survived the trip. I, however, wussed out of yet another part of our trip. Sandwiches, I found out, are made with bread. And bread, I found out, is full of gluten or some other evil that sends stabbing pain through my abdomen a few hours after ingestion. Now, I haven't been diagnosed with any specific gluten intolerance or other food-related ailment, but I do know that I've eaten two sandwiches in the past two weeks and I was very sorry both times. My dear boyfriend, unaware of my recent self-diagnosis, had supplemented our sandwich bread with flat bread wraps, which actually get along with my stomach, so we decided that I would just eat those, and he would tackle the loaf of bread alone. So there we were, eating our respective grain-based products slathered with mayo, mustard, provolone, and lunch meat. We had baby carrots and celery for crunch; and apples, oranges and bananas for sweetness. The first several meals of this concoction were actually very good, but by the third day, we started to run low on interest and flat bread.

Thank goodness for Flagstaff. Mechanics, food, and GA stipends. A town to fix all my problems at once. The squealing sound my new serpentine belt was making? Fixed. No Charge. The grumbling in my stomach asking for a hot meal? Chili and cornbread. And hot tea. The most anticipated news of the last year? Oh yes, I've got the Graduate Assistantship at Northern Arizona University, a full tuition waiver, and a stellar stipend. Flagstaff is my favorite. We stocked up our cooler at the nicest Wal-mart I've ever seen, and the hotel even had free breakfast with boiled eggs. Glorious. Perfection. Do I really have to go back? Can't I just move in now?

Impatient for sunset at the Grand Canyon
The official e-mail about my GA-ship was a great start to the trip. I got the news outside of Eagle, CO on my cell phone's tiny e-mail application. Since that's all I've been thinking about lately, it was a relief to finally have an official offer. This assistantship almost guarantees that I will move to Arizona, 1,500 miles away, this summer. I wanted that assistantship so badly, and I adore NAU, so I was thrilled that my dream was finally sort of official. My boyfriend did a good job of congratulating me even though my moving creates serious uncertainty for our fledgling relationship. The struggle of long-distance relationships has often plagued me, and it will continue until I either settle down or begin dating a lap dog that fits into one of those cute dog purses so I can just haul it around with me.

The Southwest exceeded my expectations of mesas, desert and Route 66 nostalgia. I feel a renewed connection to the American West, the spirit of the pioneers, and to my Mitsubishi's front seats. I spent seven days straight with the same person and we didn't kill each other or fight—though I did make fun of him for using the suffix “-wise” so often that I started saying it too. Although blindly choosing a graduate school based on an album doesn't guarantee a good choice; school- and city-wise, NAU and Flagstaff made me feel at home. At least until I download new music.

March 15, 2011

My life as a granddaughter

Grandma's Locket
Grandparents are worth their weight in gold, and I'm not just saying that because I spent the afternoon helping my grandma photograph her jewelry collection.

I arranged her beloved Whiting Davis jewelry sets on the white felt material. I secured diamond necklaces with pins to capture their sparkle and value. I listened to the story for each piece as I snapped a digital photo.

"This one was my mom's." My Grandma pulled off one of her diamond rings and put it next in line for the photo shoot. "And these," she handed me a string of pearls, "My mom always called these 'her pearls'. She just loved to wear them, but many years ago, she had to get them restrung at a jeweler in Hastings. We never thought a thing of it, but when I took them in to be appraised, the guy said, 'I'm sorry, these aren't real pearls.' Those jerks in Hastings stole my mom's original pearls and gave her back fakes. It just makes me sick."

For every piece of jewelry, there is a story. Just like for every set of dishes, every saved postcard, and every hand-made blanket. Grandparents are our storytellers and our wisdom-holders, our chocolate chip cookie makers, and our first basketball coaches. More important, grandparents are our history and they are part of us. I am fortunate to have spent much of my childhood at Grandma and Grandpa's learning the stories of rural Nebraskan schoolhouses and Midland Lutheran College and the good old days of Husker Football.

As a kid, I didn't realize how special grandparents are. I had fun trying on Grandma's costume jewelry and 1950's-style dresses. I always ate ice cream with Grandpa, and he was never too tired to pitch me a few tennis balls after dinner.

Now, as a young adult, I respect my grandparents for enduring life's obstacles with grace and persistence. I love the stories about the old days, even the ones I already know by heart.

Today my grandma gave me one of her lockets. I'm the only granddaughter, so I take the position very seriously. Getting some of Grandma's jewelry is a big deal. Those special things that are passed down keep the stories and the family alive.

March 14, 2011

My Apron

Right now, the world is buzzing. The constant news coverage of the revolutions throughout the Middle East was interrupted by updates on the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Everything is being shaken up.

But for me, in my little world, the biggest news is that I've donned my Home Depot orange apron. Look out, I'm on the sales floor! I get to pack lots of fun stuff in my apron, like a box cutter, a tape measure, and little information booklets that no one reads. I even have a Spanish picture dictionary that I often read during my breaks. I despise the little "I'm in training" button that I must wear for the first four months, but I don't have a choice. I get a walkie-talkie so I can show the entire staff how "in training" I am with just the push of a button. I also get a store phone so I can confuse and frustrate customers, associates and associates from other stores in yet another way.

Despite (or maybe because of) the computer training about many of the products, I struggle to tell the difference between our ten models of push lawnmowers. When I find myself in an unfamiliar situation, I usually try to fake it. Oh yes, THIS is a great lawnmower. It has so cut...your grass? My lack of product knowledge makes me feel uncomfortable and stupid. Most customers are very forgiving and actually take pity on me for trying. They thank me sincerely for my efforts and then walk away from the chainsaws empty-handed.

Beyond learning to sell the products, I've also got to move the products. This isn't boxes of licorice. This is 300-pound boxes of grills and awkward and heavy stuff that I don't recognize. I felt sorry for the guy from the paint department who had to partner with me this morning to move the heavy stuff up to tall shelves. He had to walk that funny line between being nice because I'm a girl and making me do the work because I'm...well, at work. The formalities disappeared when some of his buddies rode up on a fork lift. The next several hours were belches, cuss words, and man-gossip. I tried really hard not to be weird. Or belch.

13,000 steps later (or so my pedometer read), I had my first Home Depot paycheck, a new understanding of lawnmowers, and a humility that only comes from being mildly embarrassed for two days straight.


March 11, 2011

Lesson Plan Gone Right!

By now it is clear to me that I want to be a teacher. When I'm spacing off on Interstate Highways, I'm thinking about lesson plans. I should focus more on the road, you're right. But still. You could drive from Lincoln to Kearney with your eyes shut.

The more I learn about teaching, the more successful my lessons become. No surprise there.

I've been wanting more direction with my Lincoln Literacy Council student, a gifted writer and musician from Korea. I've also been wanting to test-drive sample writing assignments. Seems like a good fit.

So I drafted out a basic 5-paragraph personal essay assignment with the cliche title "Words to Live by." The object is to write a simple essay connecting the inspirational quote of your choice to your own life's mission while also including information about the quote and its author. My initial assessment of the assignment was twofold: this sounds like a legit assignment and this is total crap.

I would have chickened out of giving her the assignment, but at our last meeting, she said, "Could you give me some writing topics that have to do with America?"

Haha! I whipped out my 3-rind binder and presented her with a shining copy of the "Words to Live by" assignment. She was politely skeptical of the rigid structure and topic, but I assured her (and myself) that it would be a great exercise.

Later that week, I sat hunched over my netbook at Scooter's Coffee, trying out my own assignment. And hating it. I couldn't find the right quote or voice for such a self-promoting piece. I settled on a Nelson Mandela quote, "a good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination." Then I got stuck between a politically charged rant and a timid Miss America speech.

What a terrible assignment. I wonder how my student is doing.

So today, just minutes before our lesson, I knew I was going to need a teaching tool, something to divert attention away from the crappy assignment and on to the good intentions behind it. I flipped through my Lincoln Public Schools Gifted Materials (which, by the way I have yet to be assigned a mentee!). I chose the Venn diagram exercise because it seemed the least irrelevant. I drew three interlocking circles and assigned each a title: Me, Quote, Author. I wasn't so sure it was going to work.

My student, though still critical of my assignment (I grateful for her comments during the test drive), had found a quote and had already encountered some of the same difficulties I had at Scooter's. To my delight, our Venn Diagrams served as a perfect medium to collect and organize our thoughts and to discover the areas we needed more information. As she was filling in her diagram, she discovered that the author of her quote was a clergyman and she was able to compare and contrast her own Buddhist beliefs with the quote of a Christian. I felt very rewarded when she began drawing deeper connections between the three circles. Actually, she helped me brainstorm through my diagram, too. As always, the successful lesson plan was beneficial for both of us.

I left the lesson on a high note, thinking: Hmm. Teaching is better when you have some training and specific expectations for the lesson. Glad I'm going to get a lot of that very soon. Do you hear me, grad school?

March 5, 2011

A Jena-tastic Drama featuring my Spanish Teacher and my Guardian Angels.

A few weeks ago in my Spanish class, we were talking about those funny nuances of language. When you begin a Spanish sentence with "Bueno..." it's the same as the English, "Well,..." The teacher referred to this construction as "the introduction of doubt." We use "well" when we're about to lie about how much experience we have during an interview. We use "well" to indicate boredom when we are trying to usher out a guest who has overstayed his welcome. We use "well" to buffer any situation requiring the words, "What else was I supposed to do?" I thought my teacher gave a strange definition, but I think she's right.

"Well, I'm all set. I've got them all filled out, mailed and organized." That's what I said last November when I sent big, brown envelopes requesting letters of recommendation for my application for a graduate assistantship. I enclosed information about the position and I even stamped and addressed little envelopes for convenient mailing. But, notice the doubt I introduced. It's not that I don't trust other people, it's just that I want more control than that. I want my application completed as early as possible. Other people are not as, how to put this, early-minded, as I am. And I don't like that.

"Well, all I have to do now is wait, right?" That was December.

And January.

"Well, I'd better get another job to pay for school.They will decide the GA positions in the spring." That was also January.

And most of February.

"We should know the first-round GA offers on March 7." The woman in the English Department said, surely an angel's smile. That was earlier this week.

No work, no word from school. Lingering visions of adventure in developing countries. Political unrest in the Middle East. Gastronomical unrest in me. Hola, Doubt. Soy Jena. Mucho gusto.

Today: March 4. Voicemail. "Jena, this is Northern Arizona University. I was looking at your GA application, and we haven't received either of your recommendation letters. Please call me back." What? Did I address those stupid envelopes wrong? Did the letters get lost? Were they ever written? Forget doubt. Introduce panic.

I called back. The lady with angelic voice and the Italian name soothed my distress with a calm plan. She had been organizing the applications and recognized my name from a phone conversation we had just a few days ago, and she realized that my application was incomplete. "Get in touch with your references right away," she advised, "have them email me by Monday and I will put the letters with your application. No problem." No worries. Peace. Namaste.

Well, not exactly. It was Friday at 5:30. I switched into my get-it-done mode and immediately sent emails to both of my references, then untensed vocal chords for a few phone calls to alert my references. I got a half excuse/half apology and a promise for an email by Monday; and a voicemail that might as well have said "Well, you could leave a message, but by the time I get to the office Monday morning it'll be too late and your application will be tarred and feathered." I needed a backup.

"I need a big favor," I blurted to a trusted friend who has often served as a reference. She replied without introducing any doubts. "Of course I will do that for you, sweetie!" Relief.

I've been doubting many things this week. Between listening to the voicemail and calling my back-up reference, I doubted everything. My personal efficacy to complete an application, my responsibility to check on my application, and even my little stamped envelopes.

But really, what happened today showed me something other than catastrophic application scenario. The lady with the pretty name was looking out for me. She could've just thrown out my incomplete (and by this time...ahem...LATE) application and said, "Too bad for whoever that was, she won't even be considered for the GA position." Instead of doing what most people would do, she took the time to call me and explain the situation; moreover, she gave me a chance to have my application considered. She didn't have to do that. That's extraordinary character. I might not get the position, but at least I'll have a shot at it.

Although this post began with the introduction of doubt, it ends with the certainty that people will go out of their way for friends, or for strangers.

Thank you to everyone who did a good deed today. Particularly if you did one for me.  Muchos gracias.