One Inspiration at a Time

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Silence is a source of great strength  –Lao Tsu

I write at 4AM. The moments before the birds sing bring me the most peace. My mind clears. Silence reveals the thoughts that drown in the clatters, jangles, and noise of the day. The fire glows, coffee sits to my left, and I think. I am inspired. As I start, I look for one inspiration each day. A quote. A blessing. A thought. Something to think about during the day. Sometimes I share them with a friend.

Today, caffeine is my daily inspiration. Hear me out on this one… After receiving “The List of No” from the doctor, he said “sure” on some caffeine. His colleague had taken it away. I suffered. I suffered a lot–not because I need the drug. I don’t need caffeine to live any more than I need crack or heroin. It’s just that decaf coffee tastes like a cup full of butt and I can’t find one that reminds me of coffee. I love coffee. It starts my thinking each day.

“There’s only so much I can make you suffer,” he said. “You can have some caffeine.”

I forgot to define “some” because my mind, celebrating the victory, was already onto the next negotiation. “I’d like to start running again.”

He gave me the look. He had been clear about the “no activity” mandate. I’ve obeyed, except I do forget things downstairs so I can run up and down the stairs to get them. The smallest exercise protest. Other than that, I obey.I negotiated. I begged.  I said, “You don’t understand. I’ve gone from 7-10 miles to couch instantly. I’m stir crazy. All my friends want your card so they can avoid exercise too.”

“You can go walking.”

“I hate walking. It bores me. I lack focus. I need to run. How about jogging? I’m not that fast anyway.” My jogging reminds people of walking. Semantics.

Hesitation. Slight opening of the mouth. Pause. “No………I don’t think so.” He’s Southern. Bound by law to be polite. “Nothing that gets your heart rate up. You could do stairmaster or elliptical a little if you take it slow.” I hate both of those things. And slow’s never been in my repertory. If exercise doesn’t beat me up, it’s not effective. I’ve run, played basketball, boxed, thrown, fought, done competition weightlifting (never competed–too scrawny) and played all the fast sports. Not well. That’s not the point.

Screen Shot 2013-12-12 at 4.56.13 AMThe one activity that slowed me down–Japanese sword. It was good for me, meditation and inner peace combined with the ability to cut someone’s head off if I trained hard enough–a good combination. Then yoga. But I was highly, highly suspicious of yoga—what good could it do without pain? My friend of Indian lineage made me go on a yoga retreat. How could anyone of Indian lineage steer me wrong on yoga? He said “Experiences are everything,” and that I needed “to get rid of [my] monkey mind.” He was right on both accounts. Yoga centers me.

Yoga doesn’t really raise my heart rate. “How about yoga?” This was turning into a fierce negotiation. I felt the tone. I’d spent years in Career One negotiating with attorneys and body shops. Surely I could defeat one doctor on the issue of physical fitness despite the fact he had more degrees than me.

“Hmmmm…” He’d said a definite no to yoga the first time. But I obeyed his orders not to drop dead for an entire month, taken drug upon drug, and listened to his every command. Surely that gets a reward? “No, I don’t think so. Too much with the neck.” Defeated. Again. That’s when I asked him about caffeine.

He said yes.

Inspiration: Even when the list of “no’s” gets long, if we keep looking, we get one yes. Sometimes we have to look hard for it, not abandon the search. And when we find it, it’s golden;)

My coffee smiles in the mug my friend Kristen made. And it tastes very good.

[Images: Sarah Steenland and Kristen Runvik. Check out their stuff. Their art makes me smile]


My Season of Obnoxious

Screen Shot 2013-06-29 at 8.44.06 AMToday’s Saturday. Dates and times are irrelevant to me for the next seven weeks until school starts. This is the time of year when you hate me. The time of year when I call you randomly, email you at all times, and disturb you at work. You get annoyed. “I’m working! Don’t you have something to do?”

Nope. Don’t you know teachers never have something to do after 2PM, or during vacations and summer?

This is the glorious time of the year when I don’t yet have my schedule so I can’t possibly think about what I’d like to do next year. I can’t make goals, I can’t write curriculum, and I can’t obsess about the lessons I’d like to plan to reach my students better. I am forced to have fun.

That gives me plenty of time to bother you. You know you love it. Really. It makes you feel important. Deep in your mind, you’re convinced teachers don’t do anything most of the year and work a seven hour day.  It’s why you secretly want to go into teaching–there will be plenty of spots soon, trust me–we’ll take you. Especially if you are good at math and those multiple choice tests.

This summer, I am doing the following, which should give you a break from me: 

Gardening: I want to get off the grid and eat out of my own garden. But the cabbage worms are beating me to the produce, and they’re gross, so I don’t think I’ll be eating as much cauliflower as I want. I still have about eight weeks of Swiss Chard to cook and a ton of weeds to pull. That should keep me busy, but if I have time, I’ll call you during your important business meeting.

Learnist: Next year, I will get rid of my textbooks, whatever they are destined to be, almost entirely. When I know what I’m teaching, I’ll create and locate a ton more boards on Learnist to accomplish this, but one thing I’ll be doing differently is collaborating more. You’ll probably start to see me writing articles about using Learnist to crowdsource; about not “recreating the wheel.” I often think I work too hard when I could be sharing the load better. This sounds deep and prophetic, but truthfully, it’s pretty selfish. I really want to save myself some time, so I can bother you during the school year as well. Perhaps you have a presentation due or a deal to negotiate–that’s when I’ll Skype in or send a really long email. It’s the least I can do.

Developing a better plan for tech in my classroom: I did well this year with Learnist, my class blog, and Twitter, but in the next year two, I plan to do even better. I didn’t tweet enough on the @braincountry handle with the students, although we did tweet the debates and election. They wanted to tweet more. I can do better with my class blog. I want the students to do more writing, and the parents to see and comment on what students are doing. I will figure out a way to do this from Day One to make lessons more relevant and engaged, and save me time to–you guessed it–bother you.

Fitness: I’ve enjoy yoga and running, and am ditching The Boy to get back to my fun at  Fitness is never a burden for me, it’s fun and often meditative. I can Screen Shot 2013-06-29 at 8.48.35 AMuse this addiction to give you a break when the other time-saving innovations give me an excess of time to insert annoyances into yours. I’ll try to recognize your righteous indignation and kickbox or run for an hour or so. That should give you enough time to pack up and move to a nation I can’t spell.

Don’t worry…it won’t be too long before I’ll know what I’m teaching and start focusing on that instead of calling you while you’re trying to be productive so you can avoid being outsourced.  My writing and other projects will fill up my time to give you a breather, and the last week of August–when I return to teach–is coming before you know it.

By then, you should hear the crickets chirp in your email. But until that time, it’s really nice bothering you again.


[images: and]

Breaking Up the Band

guitar tabWe were playing guitar, last night. My husband is a classically trained guitarist. I’m an untrained disaster. It’s a perfect combination. Sort of like The Monkees, who I loved growing up. One musician and a cute front man. I’m the cute front man. I can strum, play my three country-folk music chords, and if I see a chord I don’t like, I skip it…

“Oh, that’s a B-minor-seventh-diminished-trampled-tenth,” he’ll say. “Simple.” If a chord sounds too much like math, it’s out. There’s a reason I don’t teach math.

Actually, music is a great way of disguising math. I learned this when I was flunking out of music school. I’d lock myself in a practice room, which reminded me like a cross between an old phone booth and a padded room–with my borrowed clarinet–I wasn’t even good enough to own my own–and I’d play the same scales and arpeggios–wrong generally–over and over and over, changing key, adding one sharp here, one flat there–never really being able to solidly read the music, just listening and memorizing as I went. Eventually, I started feeling like I was in calculus class. And I left.

But not before they kicked me out.

I always loved guitar. It gave me creativity. I didn’t need to have great skill or read music. Half the famous pop musicians don’t. I can write songs. Simple ones that make fun of things. When Coach wouldn’t play me–I usually played left-bench or left-out, I wrote “The Benchwarmer’s Blues.” I wrote diddies about people annoying me, things that were wrong, social injustice. It felt good. I used to play a lot, but life got in the way. I wasn’t going to be famous anyway–YouTube hadn’t been invented.

I remember the first time I played with my now husband.

“It’s not written like that,” he said. We were playing John Denver. I love John Denver. I have all his records.

“Oh, I don’t care.” I strummed loudly and sang.

“Can’t you see that rest?” said Rusty, a little more emphatically.

“Yes. There’s no rest on the record.” I had three versions.


“Music is joy! You are sucking away my joy!” I stomped away as only an artist can do. Except I am not an artist. I’m really pretty bad. Rusty is classically trained. He’s so good, in fact, that he got a scholarship to Prestigious Music School, except that no one in guidance told him about it, even knowing that he was signing Army papers before the “surprise reveal” at high school graduation.

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 6.20.32 AMI picture him as one of my students, standing there, dumbfounded, knowing he would have had that choice–a full music scholarship to an amazing place. Maybe he would have chosen the Army, maybe not–but that choice was taken away due adults who didn’t have that vision for him. I picture him standing at graduation with a sinking feeling, knowing music scholarship was dead because his military papers had all been signed. Knowing that the adults in his life made judgments about him and never envisioned him reaching the stars.

I try never to be one of those adults when I teach. Education is about vision. It’s about knowing the full range of possibilities that each student has in front of him or her, and giving the skill set and mentorship to make that happen. It is individual. It’s not standard. Lately, standardization is taking over, giving me less time to be the visionary. Seems it’s more about testing, goals, and benchmarks than looking at that kid and saying, “Hey, you got a music scholarship. Go. Be great!”

When I get discouraged, I think of Rusty. I look at the student in front of me, and I say, “What’s your plan?” And we tweak that idea, adding on hefty layers of time-based action plan to the pile until it’s quite a lot of work, and the students says, “Wow. I never thought I could be that!” You can. That’s the entire point of education, not whether they passed tests or I got a great score on my teacher evaluation rubric. It’s creating vision. Relationships. Continuing the mentoring even after graduation, because that’s when the lessons ACTUALLY set in. “Do…great…things.” Don’t reach for the stars–own them.

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 6.23.52 AMLast night we sat down and played some Creed and Ozzy. It was fun.

“You can’t play that like that–see, only two strums.”

“Where do you see that?” I said

“It’s right there.”

“Oh, I don’t care. I can’t read it anyway. I have it on my iTunes.”

Deja vous.

In case you’re wondering about the end of the story, Rusty turned out okay–visionary even. After an amazing military experience, he went on to be quite the entrepreneur, transforming fitness in the region, with Maybe they should have offered him a business scholarship instead. Turns out, he wouldn’t have needed it. He needed a vision, and to reach for–and own the stars. He’s done both. And if you asked him, he’d say it wasn’t school that prepared him–it was life and hard work, and having the best people around him, people who also had vision and the desire to own the stars. That’s the entire secret.

I’ll remind my students before graduation.

But today, I’m going to skip some chords and sing loudly, even if it doesn’t say that in the score.

[images: and]

If the Music Won’t Die, Neither Will I

Screen Shot 2013-05-12 at 10.03.34 PMHaven’t run in a while–it seemed like a great day to get back. 80 degrees in Rhode Island. Sun. When I got home from work, the world was happy and everyone doing his thing–the perfect time for sneaking off for a pre-grilling workout. But…the iPod was on red. Deep red. Would ten a minute charge be enough? I need tunes–ten minute charge. Exit stage left.  I needed the run. I needed the music–the same three playlists that I listen to every run… helps my meditation, and helps keep me from running backwards. I always mean to change the playlist but never do. Sort of like half the tasks we all have hanging like fruit waiting to be picked from a tree that just hangs and never gets eaten.

The music lasted–It lasted and lasted till the end of the several mile run. It was like the Maccabees and Hanukkah in iTunes land–the music should have gone a tenth of a mile, but it lasted all five miles.  A miracle even if it wasn’t oil lasting eight days.

I ran and ran and ran–too far for a first day back. I lack moderation. The music played. That made me want to run some more. I did.

The iPod on red. Music played. I ran. The iPod had more in it than I thought.

Sometimes, we have more in us than we think.

I consider this year–a very good year. A year of transformation. New job, new business, new voice. Getting things done. Quite amazing. Every time I thought I had nothing more to give, I survived. I made things happen. I became a better person.  Exhilarating.

I ran and ran and ran and the music never stopped. Each time I thought it would, it continued.

I remembered a lesson from Chinese medicine. I studied for a few years, never achieving mastery, but I learned some life lessons. There was a point on a meridian, not far from the knee, called zu san li. It translates to “three more miles.” When stimulated, it helps invigorate the patient. It was useful in constructing the Great Wall–legend has it that by using this point to treat exhausted workers, foremen could get three more miles of work out of them before they keeled over and died.

Pushing and pushing can be a bad thing–sometimes we go three more miles and burn out.

But it can also be the thing that makes all the difference, taking us exactly where we need to go–through the wall, over the hump, and in the place where we need to be. To the glory.

So, I ran until I knew it was really time to turn around–a few miles too late. I headed back. I waited for the music to cease. It never did. I picked up the pace. I listened more. I sprinted the last half mile.

The music never stopped. It made it to the end.  Sort of how it always seems to work out that way in life.

Happy Hangover Monday, America!

Hungover DogHappy Hangover Monday, America!

It’s the day when I walk around at work smiling and you all want to punch me in the face. It’s awesome. I’m not sure if it’ll be quite so bad this year, because none of my coworkers had anyone to root for–the Patriots weren’t in the Super Bowl, the Bills and Jets got wiped out, and the only Giant in the house last night was Phil Simms.

I can’t really talk about football with authority this year–I used to know every stat–won the football pool on a regular basis in my first job until I got ejected. The guys weren’t comfortable with a girl who beat them on stats rather than the preferred female technique of picking the winners based on how good the players’ behinds looked in the spandex.  I was insulted–any moron can memorize football stats on fewer than 20 regular season games. It’s not like trying to memorize fifteen million baseball games. I took my ejection as a compliment and a concession of victory. I paid for a timing belt and a few weeks of groceries, too.

The last few years, I have slowly but surely divorced myself from sports. It started when I got married. I hate to blame this on my husband but it seems the fair thing to do–he hates to armchair quarterback.  Nothing annoyed him worse at his prior job than out of shape people discussing what the team should have done.

“Get out and play,” he’d say, much like the NFL player campaign to defeat child laziness. So, on football day–a day previously reserved for cooking and chucking stuff at my team on the small-screen TV, we had to go out and do real stuff.

Screen Shot 2013-02-04 at 4.52.56 AMI missed football for a while–it was like a withdrawal from a favorite soap opera. We all used to watch Days of our Lives until it turned out that the days of our lives were passing without us and we had to do stupid things like work. Tivo hadn’t been invented and using VCR tapes was a pain in the ass because someone would always tape over episodes before I had a chance to watch anyway–it was new technology, tough to set the timer right to begin with. Eventually, I didn’t care what happened to those ridiculous people in that ridiculous town. I never thought that would happen with sports, which I loved much more than Days.

What I found, was that without being married to the television, I could be married to life. It posed a few conversational problems, though. I couldn’t just say “Nah, I went for a hike and didn’t watch the game,” because people would look at me like I was insane, especially in this area–two feet away from the Patriots and Sox. So, as with most things, I found a manifesto worked best.  Mine included a warm-up speech about how sports were when I was a kid–when you could go to a Yankee game for six bucks and afford to take the whole family, and now you’d have to sell a car to do the same. That there’s no more “for the love of the game,” and player scandals rock every edition of Sports Illustrated.  No sir, I’m protesting! I’m not going to watch until the average working family can afford to go. Until then, I’ll watch UConn. I’d only have to say it once–they’d never, ever bother me again. Manifestos work even if they’re not true–any local fan would know I’m lying. The reason is this–you can’t even get UConn tickets these days without having a serious connection–even college ball is an industry. If I were telling the truth, I’d be left with Little League to watch.

So, last night I watched half the game and did some work. I followed through on my threat to bother friends in San Francisco and Maryland with texts and Tweets. When bed time came, I shook the Magic 8 Ball, congratulated the winner, and slept.

If I appear a little foggy today, that’s not because I’m hung over like half of the nation. It’s because I have a five-year old who doesn’t sleep.  Even so, I’m happy this Hangover Monday. I’m even wondering if there’s a Hallmark card for the occasion, “Sorry, your team lost and you look like crap today.”  “HAPPY MONDAY–CAN I BLAST SOME MUSIC??!!!!” “Sorry for your loss,” or “What are you going to do NOW for the next eight weeks till baseball? Exercise?”  Someone should invent those cards–I’d buy them.

Yes, I’m awake, happy, and quick enough to dodge the punches I know will be thrown for sure. I’ll be okay. Hungover people are slow and never punch straight anyway.


[image: and]

Girls Should Not Be in the Weight Room

I wanted to be a bodybuilder.  I know, check out the “about me” photo, and you’ll see a pretty scrawny individual who is not even good at cross-country, the one sport where people are morally required to cheer for all participants even if they’re terrible.  But for some reason, in college, I got the idea that I should not only be a bodybuilder, I should compete.

My lifting partner and I met twice a day at the non-varsity gym at 5 AM, no small feat for Rochester, New York. I lived off campus, and it was a mile and a half walk through all sorts of weather to accomplish our morning workout. It usually snows and rains in Rochester about 400 days a year on a leap year–the weather is so crappy, that the suicide rates are higher due to lack of sunshine. The University even built tunnels from building to building so that, like moles, students can burrow along and not emerge until after the thaw in mid-July.

But even with the distance to the gym and my crazy schedule—I worked full-time all crazy hours four miles in the other direction–weight lifting was important.

We started our day with a protein drink and the first half of our split workout somewhere between 5 and 5:30 AM, a time when no college student is awake except for the very few still painfully trying to locate their dorm rooms after whatever they had done the night before.

For a while, our presence in the non-varsity gym was somewhat of a curiosity—the muscle-loving college guys didn’t give us much respect. Girls aren’t supposed to be in the weight room. Well, maybe they can in certain circumstances, like when they’re decorating the sidelines or showing off matching outfits near the five-pound weight section that they might lift after the gossip session. We were very, very different. There were no matching clothes for us—only baggy sweats, lifting gloves, straps and all the grungy equipment a proper weight lifter should have. We were serious.

After our morning workout, we went to the dining hall with a half-dozen zip-lock bags and Tupperware containers.  We ate what we could and packed food for later. I’m not proud—technically, this was against the spirit of “all you can eat,” maybe even crossing the line into theft, but I was flat broke.  Breakfast was the cheapest meal available, so breakfast was the meal I attended.

The way we saw it, it was the best $2.35 shopping trip in town for poor, off campus college kids. It didn’t feel wrong packing take out lunch, because the football team “all you can eated” half the room.  Ergo, I felt I deserved a bag full of apples, some cereal, a couple of bagels, and whatever else didn’t squash in my bag, especially when I factored in the tuition I was paying. This turned out to be a mistake for my lifting partner when she left hard-boiled eggs in her bag and two days later, cleared out the entire section of physics.

After a while, things got socially better for us in the weight room. Some of the guys actually acknowledged our existence. They’d even move away from the weights to let us pass through and let us rotate into sets.  They passed us the real weights, not just the girly-5’s. It was definitely a sign of respect. And one day, someone even gave us the “hey” nod.

But the lines in the sand were still drawn, and the boundaries were clear.  Guys often give lifting pointers to other guys, “Hey, you should try maxing out at ten reps, then doing supersets of (insert exercise here.).”  If a guy performs an exercise incorrectly, another guy is required to correct him, either to help him avoid injury or to attain that girl-scoring chiseled physique.  It’s in the rulebook.

But girls can never correct, help, or spot guys.  It’s not allowed.  When we dared try to helping a scrawny guy about to drop a weight on his face doing an exercise wrong, the entire room stared like we were suffragists a hundred years ago demanding the vote.

Eventually, we broke through the barriers. We knew we had truly made it–become real lifters–one day when a guy took our pointers and nodded a weak thanks.  He cast a furtive look around the room to see if he had been socially emasculated, relegated to the ranks of wimpy guys driving minivans who lost their male card. Noting that he had not—that the gym crowd was treating us as genderless equals–he actually broke a smile.  We were in.

Eventually, even though we were Part of the Crowd, I decided I was not going to be a competition weightlifter, even as a hobby.  First off, no matter how many stolen hard-boiled eggs I ate, I could not gain enough weight to be serious in the sport—yes, “the sport,” for it quickly turns into an addiction.  It starts with enjoying the strength and conditioning, escalates to reading Muscle & Fitness every day, chanting mantras like “Incomplete reps make incomplete body parts,” and finally to glorifying chemical drinks and potions, fake tans, and a diet only an anorexic could love, void of health and balance. I couldn’t do that.

Alas, we were not going to audition for American Gladiators when they came to our area. We would never be ready to take on the ranks of sculpted females who could throw cars and out muscle guys named Sven and Hans in strongman competitions following it up with more one-finger pushups than Bruce Lee.

That knowledge, and the requirements of the real world, ended my weight lifting career.  I still work out—I run, I’ve taught and practiced martial arts, lift for fun, and hustled various sports at school.  I usually lose, but I’m not above saying “Your mama!” in order to rustle up a good game of hoops.

When I think back on my real weightlifting days, I’m horrified by the lack of health, balance, and nutrition we put ourselves through in the name of health and fitness. I apologize to my poor body for this, because it’s growing older every day.  I also apologize to the good people in the dining center for all the eggs I’ve stolen.  Know that when I strike it rich, I’m going to pay them back, but in the mean time, I’ll feed some poor kid who forgot his lunch in their honor.