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.

Sick Day 2011

With the space heater cranked up to "Max" and the humidifier gurgling out steam, my bedroom is reminiscent of Phnom Penh. Minus, of course, the geckos and Khmer Karaoke. For all its inconveniences, Cambodia was a very mucus membrane-friendly place. Though not at all a good place to be ill.

Now that I am suffering through a sinus and ear infection in my hometown, I can appreciate the exotic humidity and 88 degree sleeping temperatures I once cursed.

Little defeats. That's what getting sick feels like. When you wake up in a cold sweat, unable to breathe through your nose with a pounding headache. When you're filling tissue after tissue with green mucus. When you have to call in sick to work even though your paycheck is already disappointing. Or maybe when you realize that your prescription will cost you more than a full day's work, more than doubling your opportunity cost of missing a day. Finally, when your medication makes your body feel like the desert--though a mucus-free desert.

Little victories. Legitimate sickness diagnosed by a real doctor. An excuse to eat whatever sounds good and drink Gatorade. Reading David Sedaris books instead of lifting mulch. Soaking in the tub instead of watering plants. Sending pathetic text messages instead of answering customer questions. Watching a documentary on North Korea instead of watching the clock.

My body usually gives up around this time of year. Surviving winter is a great accomplishment worthy of some sort of activity-halting infection. Cheers to the annual spring sickness. And to taking a much-needed sick day.

May 3, 2011

Time to dust off the flip-flops

I spent the whole day in flip-flops. Not on purpose, and certainly not for the health of my feet; but because I like them. My toes are free to wiggle and wander as I walk through the grocery store and sit at my computer, day-dreaming about foreign places.

I began the day reading Amelia Bedelia with my Lincoln Literacy Council student. Through Amelia Bedelia's literal translations, my very advanced student has discovered a window to English idioms. During our lesson, I enjoyed practicing the pronunciation difference between "had" and "head"; and "salary" and "celery".

I put my flip-flops back on as I left her apartment. At the grocery store, I explained the concept of jasmine rice to the cashier. Hoisting into my cart the heavy sack of rice with the Vietnamese words gave me intense satisfaction--as if I had just proven my international-ness.

I kept my flip-flops on as I clicked through ESL videos on You Tube. My current mission to master the IPA has yielded a strong understanding of English vowel sounds thanks to a series of videos from Jennifer ESL on You Tube. I grow impatient with the recorded lectures of university professors, but I benefit from watching videos intended for ESL students. I think I've chosen the right career for now.

Finally, I found myself wandering around the internet searching for scholarships, fellowships and paying jobs in places where flip-flops are the acceptable footwear (i.e. Laos, Brunei, Mongolia?). When will my obsession end? Have I forgotten that living abroad can be really, really hard? What about sleeping in super hot rooms? Weekly bouts of diarrhea? Seriously. At some point, the reality has to sink in, or I have to get tough. One of those two things must happen or I will be committed to a mental institution.

Yes, I enjoy ESL and all things language and culture. Yes, I'm beginning an MA TESL this fall. One day I want to be a fabulous ESL teacher somewhere that really needs me. I'll pack flip-flops wherever it is.