Wednesday, December 18, 2013

My Next Career

Five months ago I started a new job. Five months is long enough to now have some actual opinions and thoughts about how things are going. But before I write about those, it feels important for me to at least recognize that something big has shifted in my life.

For 25 years I was a teacher. I taught English in Yemen for 2 years, I was a teaching Naturalist at Brandywine Creek State Park in Delaware for a year, I taught severely emotionally disturbed teens in Delaware for 4 months, I taught Outdoor Education in Massachusetts for a year, I taught preschool in Montana for 3 years, I taught teens at an in-patient psych ward in Montana for a summer, I taught carpentry, construction, backpacking, and rock-climbing skills in Montana for 5 summers, I taught Special Education in Upstate New York for 3 years, I taught English and Global Studies Upstate for 3 years, I taught fifth and sixth graders in Connecticut for 7 years, and then back to preschool in Ithaca for a year.

In retrospect, I can say that I was a good teacher.  I was patient.  I was dedicated to my students. I kept myself informed on many topics. I communicated well with parents. I was a good colleague. I taught by example. I was willing to follow tangents if they were interesting and productive. I listened to my kids. I helped them see that testing is a game adults make kids play, and test scores are NOT a valid yardstick with which to measure a child. In the end, it was a great run.  The highlight for me was getting to have my daughter, Isabel, in my class for a year. It was a pretty great year.

But after all of that, I have nothing tangible to show for it.  There is not one thing I can point to and say with certainty, “I did that.” The successes are invisible, as are the failures. I have the kind words of parents in the end-of-the-year cards they sometimes give to teachers, but they are not concrete, either.  If I reread them, I can feel good, but still I cannot hold in my hand one thing I have created as a teacher.

For 25 years, that was okay with me. It was a job full of rewards and I truly loved it. For the last ten years there was not one day where I said to myself, ‘I would rather not be a teacher today.’ I know that is hard to believe, but it is true.

As we moved to Ithaca 18 months ago I started to play with the idea of getting out of teaching and into something else.  I was not sure quite what I wanted to do, but I could tell that teaching was nearing the end of its rewarding life.  I was starting to feel a bit run down from having to always care so much.  As a teacher, I could feel the weight and power my words and attitudes had. When you are a teacher there is no room for casual remarks or jokes at the expense of a student.  There is no room for tuning out while a student tells you about something they find important. You have to care—all the time. And, in the end, I knew I was getting tired of caring so much all the time.  I wanted to be able to let my guard down, to tune out of boring conversations, to poke a little fun without worrying if someone was strong enough to take it.

In the end, I feel like I did a lot more good than harm as a teacher and I did not want to skew the balance of that equation by remaining in the classroom too long.  There is nothing worse than a bitter teacher.

So, now I am a writer! And I am loving it. I am working for Cornell Engineering in the Marketing and Communications Department and mostly what I get to do is find fascinating people and write about them. My boss took a real gamble and hired me with no professional experience. And because she did, I get to learn all sorts of amazing science, I get to talk to geniuses, and then I get to close my door, not care at all about anyone for hours, and write words. After a while, the words show up out in the world, on websites and in magazines. There is a finished product I can point to and other people can judge. It is so different for me—and so good—to be able to share something I have done for work.

It is good to have specific tasks, to have deadlines, and to get concrete feedback in the moment on how I am doing. As a teacher the feedback is clear as you watch your kids.  You know if they are bored, if they are confused, if they are getting it. But that feedback has as much to do with their internal states as it does with your teaching. The other feedback you get as a teacher is test scores, administrator evaluations, and that inner-voice that lets you know how you are doing.  None of these is a truly objective measure of your ability as a teacher.

As a writer, my bosses and editors can tell me if something is unclear, too long, too informal, wrong on the facts, or just plain NOT what they were looking for. And then I can go back and make it more clear, shorter, more formal, correct, or more like what they were looking for. And I can do this by myself, in a room, without having to take anyone’s feelings into account. I feel remarkably free in this new job. After 25 years without direct, in-the-moment criticism of my work, I find it refreshing and very helpful to get feedback right away.

Another thing I love about my job is that I have an audience. If most teachers are honest, part of the thrill of teaching is being on stage every day. You have a captive audience for your brilliance, your jokes, and your special insights. But it is a small audience, and it is also there when you are having a bad day. As a writer, my larger audience only gets to see my edited work after it goes through several drafts and several critics. The crappy stuff doesn’t make it onto the website or into the magazine. I get a real thrill out of seeing my name in the by-line.

Another huge benefit of changing careers at the age of 48 is that I get to learn all sorts of new things. And, as an ex-teacher, I know the value of learning new things.  It keeps a brain young and makes me happier.  I feel pushed and challenged and excited about work.

So, I am happy to report that I loved being a teacher for 25 years, and I am also very happy to report that I love being a writer.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Cheney For Senate?

Let me start by saying that I am not from Wyoming, though I do go there once in a while during family visits to neighboring Montana. If you add up the number of days I have spent in Wyoming as an adult, you might get to 60. This total would most certainly NOT qualify me for a resident fishing license. According to Wyoming Fish and Game regulations, a person must live in the state for a year to qualify for the lower-cost resident license.

Surprisingly (to her), Liz Cheney also did not qualify for a resident fishing license in Wyoming. When she applied for permission to fish in Wyoming’s trout-filled steams and rivers, she said she had lived in the state for a decade. (Actually, she had only lived in the state for 72 days.) Cheney says the clerk who took her application must have made a mistake. Whoever made the mistake, it was a costly one to Cheney. She ended up posting a $220.00 bond for the high misdemeanor of swearing a false oath. 

It may be the most expensive $220.00 fine ever paid. It may cost Liz Cheney a Senate seat.

Like Montanans, Wyomingites do not cotton to liars. Or carpetbaggers. And Ms. Cheney certainly seems to be both. She and her husband bought a house in Jackson Hole in 2012 and shortly after, she announced that she would run in the Republican Senate primary in 2014. This has struck many observers as an interesting choice. Wyoming already has a Republican Senator in that seat. His name is Mike Enzi. I can certainly understand why Tea Party-types are “primary-ing” Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. They think he is not pure enough in his conservatism. Same for Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Susan Collins in Maine, Orrin Hatch in Utah, Lindsay Graham In South Carolina, and Lamar Alexander in Tennessee—all of whom voted to re-open the government after 16 days of self-inflicted economic damage had been done to the country.

But Mike Enzi did not vote to reopen the government, even though Wyoming is home to several amazingly beautiful national parks that had to shut down. In fact, Mike Enzi voted to continue the shutdown, even in the face of looming economic disaster. In his three terms as Republican Senator from Wyoming, Mike Enzi has earned the following ratings and scores from various interest groups:

Rated A+ by NRA
Rated 100% by National Right to Life Committee
Rated 0% by the American Public Health Association
Rated 100% by US Border Control—a private anti-immigration group
Rated 0% by Citizens for Tax Justice

In addition to these ratings, Senator Enzi has shown where he stands by voting no on limiting farm subsidies to those making under $750,000 a year, voting no on extending unemployment benefits from 39 weeks to 59 weeks, voting with the Republican Party well over 90% of the time, and voting no on increasing the tax rate on those earning over $1 million. 

Why on Earth does Liz Cheney feel the need to run against this man? Does she feel the voters of Wyoming need someone more in line with their values? Is Mike Enzi too liberal for Wyoming? I can think of only two reasons why Liz Cheney would move to Wyoming and try to unseat Mike Enzi: ego and love of power. 

The voters of Wyoming are smart enough to see right through Ms. Cheney. By now, she may have earned her resident fishing license, but she surely has not earned the votes of the people of Wyoming.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Sprinkle Plants of East Haven

When Isabel was 4 we lived in East Haven, CT. Our house was an 80-year old place that had been bought and updated by two guys who reminded me a lot of Tom and Ray Magliozzi from Car Talk. The hard wood floors had all been stripped and polished, the washer, dryer, fridge, and dishwasher were all new, the wooden accents around all the windows and doors had been taken down and refinished and rehung, it had central air conditioning, a new super-efficient furnace in the basement, and multi-zone control of the temperature for maximum energy savings. It was a beautiful house.

Only one thing was wrong with it—it was in East Haven, CT.

You may have heard of East Haven—it has been in the news a few times in the last couple of years. Four of its police officers have been charged with federal civil rights abuses; some of the charges stemming from a falsified police report about the arrest of a Catholic priest as he filmed two East Haven cops harassing a shopkeeper. Others of the charges are the result of one officer’s assault on the owner of an Ecuadorian restaurant who tried to photograph the officer harassing his customers in the parking lot.

Or perhaps you heard of East Haven when its mayor, Joe Maturo, was asked what he intended to do to help Latinos in his town feel better about his leadership. In all seriousness, the mayor said he might go home that night and have a taco for dinner. And then he could not understand why this answer might actually be offensive, or just the wrong thing to say. Or, if you didn’t hear about the mayor’s taco comment, perhaps you heard about the hilarious response to his taco comment from some in his community.

If none of these stories rings a bell, then maybe it was the more recent case of the group of East Haven cops who left their jurisdiction, lights flashing and sirens wailing, and went to New Haven, where they provoked an accident, took a woman and her car hostage, and then changed their stories about what happened as Internal Affairs investigated. Well, whatever the case, East Haven was where this beautiful house was located and we simply did not have the resources to jack it up off its foundation, put it on a truck, and cart it off to somewhere a bit better, (like Camden, NJ).

We lived in the house for two years, but we should have known from Day One that it was not the place for us. As the movers were unloading our stuff from the truck, there was a teen-aged girl on the front stoop of the house next door, talking loudly into a cell phone and cursing a blue streak. On closer examination, her ankle bracelet tracking device made itself evident. The girl’s heroin-using mom hit us up for work once in a while when she needed money.

Or, if we didn’t realize it was not the place for us on Day One, maybe we should have realized on Day Two, when I took Isabel to the playground in the local park just down the road from our house. Isabel LOVED to swing and she could do it for hours, so whenever she woke up real early, I would get her out of the house so Erica might be able to sleep-in a bit. So, that second day in East Haven Isabel and I went to the park and I put her in the kid swing and started pushing her. And then I looked down and noticed broken glass all throughout the sand under the swings. The more I looked, the more glass I saw. Oh, and also some used syringes. Before long, Isabel took to calling it the Glass Playground, to distinguish it from the Giant Playground that was a twenty-minute walk away from our house.

The first time Isabel ever said the F-word, she read it spray-painted on a slide at the Glass Park. Ah, memories…

 And if not on Day Two, surely we should have known five months into it, when our Subaru Outback was totaled while parked in front of our house. Seems a guy fell asleep behind the wheel on his way home from the methadone clinic. It wasn’t even his van he was driving—it belonged to the plumber who had just that week hired him as an assistant. (I ended up feeling a little bit bad for that guy.) Anyway, what got me thinking about that house in East Haven today was a cupcake I saw on somebody’s desk this afternoon. It had white frosting and rainbow sprinkles.

The sprinkles acted as the visual equivalent of Proust’s madeleine; one glimpse brought back two full years in East Haven. When I saw those sprinkles I right away pictured our front yard. We had put a white picket fence up after some punk stole the good cooking pot we had left on the porch. The pot was full of self-service Halloween candy so that we could both go trick-or-treating with Isabel. Inside that fence we had created a large L-shaped garden to grow tomatoes and basil and lots of flowers.

As I remember it, for our first Easter in East Haven we put a small shaker of sprinkles in Isabel’s basket. Then we told her that if she buried a few sprinkles in the garden, a sprinkle bush would grow. So, she planted some sprinkles in the garden. A few months later, Erica and I placed a few new plastic jars of sprinkles in the branches of a green pepper plant and then reminded Isabel of when she had planted the sprinkles. Right away she wanted to go check the plant, and sure enough it had borne fruit. In retrospect, the look on Isabel’s face when she saw those plastic jars full of rainbow sprinkles outweighs all of the negatives that came with living in East Haven, CT for two years.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

My Daughter's Perfume

Brushing my teeth this morning I had a horrifying insight into my own worldview. I am not sure about other people, but I am terribly bored by brushing my teeth. (This, by the way, is NOT the horrifying insight—that will come soon enough.) I do it every day at least twice, but it always feels like a chore. Often I will leave the bathroom as I brush, using the time to do little tasks like moving dirty laundry from my room to the washer or putting clean towels away or opening windows to let some air in. This morning I left the bathroom and went to Isabel’s room to turn out the light in her closet. While in her room I caught a whiff of perfume and assumed she had just put it on as she was getting ready for school. That whiff of perfume triggered a cascade of thoughts and feelings that ARE the horrifying insight. I am not sure what to do with what I have seen about myself, but my first impulse is to write it down and get it out into the light to help me make sense of it. Mostly, that whiff of Isabel’s perfume made me feel achingly sad.
The chain goes something like this: my daughter is growing up a bit..she is no longer playing dress-up when she wears a touch of perfume…it is part of her morning routine…soon enough she will be in high school…and she will, at some point, start dating people…and she will be lied to and manipulated and have her heart broken. How twisted is that? A whiff of perfume leads to real true sadness about the broken hearts my daughter has not yet suffered? Why is it that I go directly to the future sadness rather than the future joy? I remember how thrilling it is to have a crush on someone. I remember the jolt when you realize they might feel the same. I can still feel the explosion of that first kiss with someone you really like. Relationships bring giddy joy as much as they do deep sadness, so why do I ignore the upside and go straight to the down? Am I someone who sees life this way?

Friday, September 27, 2013

Be Strong, Mr. President

The Tea Party crazies in the House and their lead-from-behind “leader” Speaker John Boehner have a simple choice to make: do they want to raise the debt ceiling or do they want to force the United States Government into default on its previously incurred debts?  If by their childish intransigence they force a default, the economy will be dealt another severe blow, postponing a return to 6% unemployment for a few more years.

If Speaker Boehner backs away from this fight, he will have lost the little remaining faith his Tea Party caucus has in him.  They might even vote him out of the Speakership if they retain the majority after the 2014 elections. If he sticks to their guns and forces a default, he and the Crazies will have cost the Republican Party any chance it may have had of winning the Presidency in the next two or three elections.  He will have made it clear that Party is more important than Country to these bomb-throwers.

Meanwhile, the Republicans in the Senate are having to deal with their own Tea Party-inspired madness.  Ted Cruz wants to shut down the government rather than implement the Affordable Care Act. His fellow Republicans have told him what a dumb idea that is, but he is clearly more concerned with playing to his fanbase than actually governing.

In the end, all rational Republicans have one hope of coming out even slightly okay in this whole mess.  That hope is Barack Obama.  They need him to stand his ground against the hostage-taking Tea Partiers.  In this way, the voting public will see how utterly Unpatriotic these Tea Party Patriots are.  They just want to burn the whole thing down if they can’t have it their way.

At the next mid-term, the Republicans will lose seats in the House and will continue as the minority party in the Senate.  And the fault will lie with the Tea Party Caucus.  Maybe the national leadership of the GOP will be able to start exercising a bit of control over the monster they unleashed.  But to do that, they would need to have a spine—something I have seen little evidence of thus far.

Speaking of spines, President Obama needs to do what he has said he will do.  He needs to stand firm and NOT negotiate over the debt ceiling.  This is the biggest fight of his Presidency and he needs to be strong.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Question About Farm Subsidies

    This week the House voted to cut food aid to needy Americans by $40 billion over the next ten years. Back in July, the House passed a farm bill that raised subsidies to farmers and agricultural corporations by billions of dollars.  If there is a clearer example of the hypocrisy of the Republican members of the US House of Representatives, I would be shocked.  These are the so called “deficit hawks” who believe the government that spends least, governs best.  Yet they voted to give more money to rich people, and in the process drive food prices higher?

    Someone please explain. (And by “someone,” I mean Mike Dawson, Richard Dawson, or anyone else I know who tends to vote Republican.)

Monday, September 16, 2013

Lean on Me (RTB 2013)

Once again, Reach the Beach kicked ass.  The Rosie Ruiz Fan Club came thiiiiiiiis close to not running the race this year, but at the last minute several adventurous runners stepped up and filled slots on our team in the place of teammates who had to drop out.  It really was touch-and-go up until a week before the race.  I had started to make peace with the idea that we would not run this year, but I was not very happy about it.
We tried something new this year and it really worked out well for us.  We joined a newly-created category of team called Freestyle.  The 12 members of a freestyle team are able to choose which of the 36 legs they run without having to stick to a predetermined order.  We get to choose how we cover the 205 miles from Cannon Mountain to Hampton Beach.  We came to this category out of necessity this year.  Several of our runners were recovering from injuries and were not sure of how many legs they could run.  Being a freestyle team allowed us to fill in for those runners if it turned out we needed to.

Happily, both of the recovering runners were able to handle all of their legs.  Nobody got stuck taking more than three turns on the course.  As a team, we were all over the place in terms of pace.  Some legs were long and hard and run through a pounding rain.  Others happened in the middle of the night on no sleep.  Some were short and flat and fast.  Our pace ranged from 10:00 per mile to 5:50 per mile.  Altogether, we ran the race in 26 hours and 47 minutes, for a pace of 7:49 per mile.  We had no idea about how many other teams were in the Freestyle category until we got home and looked at the results on the Reach the Beach website.  Turned out we came in third out of 156 teams.  Holy Shit.

Personally, this year’s RTB was great.  I met some new friends, got to reconnect and spend an intense amount of time with some old friends, and I got to make friends with some trees.

If you are a runner you know that most of the endeavor is mental.  If you have trained, then getting through the tough stretches is all about playing mental games and tricks on yourself.  My legs this year included two long and hilly stretches in the dark.  I knew going in that I was not going to be fast, but I also knew I could get through the hills without dying.  Nobody likes running on hills, but I have recently moved to Ithaca, New York and I have to run on hills no matter which direction I go from my front door.  So I figured I might as well do some of the hilly RTB legs.

My first foray out of the van around 10:00 pm had me going up three big hills in a span of 5.11 miles.  Two of the three hills were well over 200 feet high.  It was dark and it was difficult, but I did it.  My next leg, (Leg 19), at around 3:30 am, had me again going up three big hills, this time over a span of 8.3 miles.  There was a 350-footer, a 150-footer, and a 400-footer to close it all out.  The first two hills were hard.  The last was near-impossible.  It was still dark and it was still difficult and my mind was having a hard time getting my body to the end.

The final mile-and-a-half was straight uphill and I didn’t have much left in the tank.  I tried my usual trick of giving myself a goal that was visible and then making that the focus of my run.  I told myself, “Just get to that telephone pole on the right—that is your goal.  You can surely make it that far.”  And then once I reached that telephone pole I would choose the next goal and go from there.  Normally, this trick gets me through to the finish of any hard run.  Not on that second leg of Reach the Beach.

I found myself picking closer and closer goals, and yet I was still tempted to shut down and just walk the last half mile.  I had to come up with a new trick quick or my body was going to take control and start walking.  At this point in the course, I was on a road in the woods.  There were no houses, just trees as far as I could see—which was not very far given the low-powered head lamp I was wearing.  I am not sure where it came from, but inspiration hit just before I shifted from run down to walk.  I looked ahead, identified a particular tree on the roadside, and mentally reached out to it.  I introduced myself and asked for its help.  I asked it to loan me some of its energy and help pull me up the hill.

Generally, I am not a spiritual person.  I don’t believe in God or a soul.  I don’t credit stories of spirits and life energies.  I am a firm believer in science.  And yet, I found myself asking the trees for help.  Crazy, I know.  Yet there it is.

I chose wide, tall trees, figuring they were strongest and most likely to be able to help me fight gravity and despair.  And they did not let me down.  I could feel the boost they gave me.  I started to feel stronger and picked up the pace just a bit.  I started to feel a bit selfish—making it all about me me me.  So as I neared the top and the end of my leg, I told the trees I would repay them by doing what I could to help them whenever I could. I told them I would print two-sided.  I would recycle everything I could.  I would become a better steward of the land.

I made it to the top of the hill and collapsed into the van.  I did not tell anyone about talking with the trees.
In the cold light of day the next morning I knew that my mind made it all up.  It was effective and it got me through my second leg without walking, but I know I was not really communicating with the trees and they were not really lending me a hand.  Right?  In any case, do me a favor.  If you are tempted to share this post with anyone, do so digitally.  DON”T print it out on paper.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

How is a bullet better than poison gas?

Imagine how you would react if China launched their version of cruise missiles at Israeli military targets because the Chinese Government did not approve of the way the Israelis had conducted a military operation in the West Bank.  You would probably be outraged, right?

Now tell me why the United States has any standing to launch a punitive attack against Syrian forces in the wake of their likely use of chemical weapons on Syrian rebel-held territory.  How has it come about that we have appointed ourselves in charge of punishing nations who do things the global community of nations disapproves of?

If the world is outraged by the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the world should do something about it—not just the United States.

And while I am ranting, how are chemical weapons different from more traditional ways of brutally killing your own citizens?  The Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad has killed between 20,000 and 40,000 rebel fighters.  The rebels have killed near 30,000 Syrian soldiers and police.  By all accounts, more than 100,000 civilians have been killed in the fighting. 

How are the deaths of those 100,000 children, men, and women any more acceptable than the deaths of the 1000 killed by a chemical agent last week?  This distinction between conventional weapons and chemical weapons is stupid.  Weapons are weapons and dying is dying. 

President Obama and those who support a limited strike on Syrian military capacity say they are sending a message that the use of chemical weapons crosses the line.  I would agree that a limited strike does send a message.  But I would also argue that supporters leave the second half of the message it sends unstated.

“The use of chemical weapons crosses a line—that the use of old-fashioned bullets, landmines, mortars, and shells does not cross, so you should feel free to rain those more traditional weapons down on civilians all you want.”  Is this really the message President Obama—and the rest of the world—wants to send?

I have no solution here.  In an ideal world, the UN would be unanimous in its condemnation of the Syrian regime and all of their actions against civilians.  It would also deplore any rebel actions aimed at civilians.  The UN has proven time and again to be a terribly flawed and mostly powerless institution when it comes to preventing violence.  

But this is far from an ideal world and bad actors have forever, (and probably will always), use whatever means at their disposal when they are feeling like they are out of options.  For the United States to have any credibility, we need to either stand up for innocents EVERY time governments use any weapons against them or we need to be much more cold-hearted and practical and respond only when our self-interest as a nation is at stake in a real and strategic way.  Our selective moral outrage drives me crazy and only serves to lessen our credibility around the world.

A weapon is a weapon, whether it be a suicide bomb strapped to the belly of a 12-year old girl, a drone-launched missile fired at a Land Rover in the desert around Marib in Yemen, a smallpox-infected blanket left as a gift for relocated Native Americans, or Sarin gas deployed against a town in Syria.  The people who die, die.  One way is not any more morally reprehensible than another to me.

I hope in the coming days President Obama will see the futility of any sort of military strike against the Syrian regime.  But I doubt it.