Thursday, December 31, 2015

Goodbye 2015

2015 started off well. On the third week of December in 2014 I had established, after a week at my mother's house, that I could write a draft of a dissertation chapter from start to finish in 7 days. Or at least I could with the help of a program that blocked facebook and gocomics. (What?) I also used a program that locked up my computer every hour for ten minutes and used those ten minutes to either grab a bite to eat, a new mountain dew, or go on a freezing walk. Freezing.

So in the first two weeks of January I wrote the next two chapters (although they would change a LOT over the next months). That pretty much set the tone for the year. 2015 was the year I wrote all the time, except when I was teaching or trying to move from one end of the country to the other. 2015 was the year I had a disaster of a campus visit (final stage of an academic job hunt) and a good one. I learned the fine art of Skype interviews and that so much of the job hunt is out of your hands and in the heads of the search committee. So you do your best and then you go back to being awesome where you are--instead of worrying about what your paperwork is doing on someone else's desk. I didn't really get that until really near the end. Save yourself the trouble.

In some ways, 2015 was one of the harder years. I can say with complete sincerity that all the credit for my not losing my mind (in June, July, and August) goes to my women friends from State College. They helped me with everything from power washing my back deck to scraping aged wallpaper off my kitchen and living room walls so they could be repainted for the house to sell. We're not talking simple moral support. We're talking back-breaking work and good company. The gift of expensive U-Haul boxes from their last move (much from another family who would end up moving 6 months later) and so many prayers. The house sale was challenging--the first falling through after we had agreed to crushing losses and the second moving along at a snail's pace with a buyer's agent who I have nothing kind to say about. (But the buyers themselves were sweet and we did establish trust after we got around the darn agent and talked directly with each other--emerging English on their part and complete ignorance of Russian on mine not withstanding.)

The move itself was only possible by borrowing money from family and friends because we ran out of time to get to move all our stuff out before I started the job and close on the house first. It was a ten-day difference that worked out okay because others believed in us and wanted this move to succeed.

A special shout-out to Jill, swimming lane-mate at OWU 1986-1989 and by the Hand of God, again in State College PA (where neither of us are from, but her first Christmas letter from Pine Grove Mills led to us moving down the street from her--not in any kind of stalker way, but because we were looking for a specific kind of place to move to from Southern CA, and if we hadn't gotten her letter, we would never have known about the place--it was perfect for us for 10.5 years). We got back in the pool together and rediscovered just how very much Cholorine fixes us. Although the move proved a temporary interruption in my swimming, I am finaly back in the water again (at 6 o'dark in the morning--I might be a little bitter about that).

We learned SO much this year about believing fervently that the Lord knows better than we do what we need and that when we trust in His will for us and work hard at whatever He puts in front of us, then life goes better. Let me be clear--I'm not saying that if you pray for God's will, get some kind of an answer, follow those directions--that you'll end up safe and wealthy. That's a lot of bunk used to help us believe that we don't have to help the poor and the needy--they're not working hard enough. They've made "poor decisions" that relieve our responsibility to help. I don't remember Christ lecturing anyone about their poor decisions and the consequences that follow. I remember, "Go, and sin no more." (Which, personally, I'm pretty sure He calls after me every time I leave the bedroom, my house, the kitchen, my office, my classroom....)

Where was I? Ah. Over and over again in the fall of 2014 and throughout the winter, spring, and summer of 2015, I was brought to a place of complete humility. Over and over I realized I'd tried to grab the wheel again and I turned it back over to Him. It sounds so awesome but the learning process was brutal. Recently I was reading a novel that caught the main character at different points in her life learning spiritual lessons from incredibly challenging circumstances. The circumstances were so real to me and each of the places in which the woman found herself were so recognizable to me that I couldn't finish the third novel in the series. It was just too emotionally wrenching. The common thread in each was that the "refining fires" in which we find ourselves are not the everyday fires that warm us but the ones that burn. The ones that change us as much as we let them, and as much as we may want to be changed to be more like Christ, somtimes we're so busy focusing on the hurt that we miss the comforting hand that He extends us to lead us through. At least, that's how it is for me.

The fall of 2015 was much easier. It was an updraft period where I got to rest a bit and just let a gentle wind keep me in the air. I had a wonderful class of students. I love my job and I love the house we are renting. I don't care if we ever own our own home again because I don't care to ever go through the process of buying and selling again--and I have no faith that owning your own home is a good investment anymore.

Winter, with its too-short days, has never agreed with the chemical make-up of my brain. But Provo has many, many, many more sunny days than State College did. I still have to monitor my emotional health carefully in the winter, but it is just not as hard as it has been in a very, very, very long time. I get enough sleep. I have time to read silly novels. I have time to excercise and get all my work done and have family home evening and scripture study--and joy in my family and in my teaching. I am so grateful I get to teach and especially to teach teachers.

So 2016--you have a lot to live up to. As I was talking to Chris and the twins about it, I wondered how 2016 could possibilly beat finishing the dissertation, graduating, landing the family in a great little spot on the planet, beginning a great job, and having all our family healthy and well. The twins ended up at a great little public school and we love their music teachers. Chris is continuing in his graduate program and will be teaching theatre part-time at a local performing arts themed charter school. (Awesome building and a great work space.) He'll also be TAing two classes at BYU. Chris pointed out that 2016 will be the summer that Max comes back home and starts at BYU with two years well served in Nevada. The twins pointed out that 2016 will be the year they start High School. And I had a sudden suspicion that 2016 will be a great year for Chris in a way that will bless us all as much as my year blessed the family as a whole.

So welcome, welcome 2016. (Forgive the mangled writing in places--I'm writing on my iPad and it's proving very hard to edit, so way more stream of consciousness than normal. Attrocious spelling is pretty normal.) 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

And it came to pass...

Around the 6th of the month I decided I was going to read the entirety of the Book of Mormon before January 1st. I found a schedule for 30 days online and made 6 days worth of adjustments and started reading.

The last time I read the Book of Mormon this quickly was in 1854 when I was 19 years old and I read it cover-to-cover for the first time. It was September and I had never read more than a chapter or two (a friend had given me the book when I was 14), and here I was thinking about joining the church, taking the discussions, etc. So I read it straight through in about 3 weeks. It's easy after you make it past 2 Nephi (which is mostly pulled from Isaiah, and that fellow was deep).

There are two primary pros to reading the Book of Mormon at this speed. The first is that the order of events hold together better in your head. Ammon smiting off the arms of the bad guys happened around the same time Alma became Chief Judge, and I had kind of forgotten that. Actually, generally speaking, I am not very good at remembering the order of events in the Book of Mormon (only, well, Nephi and Lehi and family leaving Jerusalem obviously came first and Christ's coming came 600 years later and everyone descending into wickedness is the end of the book. I've been clear on that from the beginning. So there you are, cranking through the chapters, and you just do much better at understanding how the history hangs together--which is challenging because of so many stories occurring during the same time frame and flashbacks and stuff. The second pro is you feel like you've leveled up a bit. After so many years of reading a chapter at a time--or not at all for a bit--you're cranking through and it feels good. It does. There is definitely something spiritual happening.

The con is that you're not really picking up any new details. There is definitely something spiritual, but at that speed, good stuff jumps out at you maybe once every 10 pages. You underline it and then keep reading...Also--it's a LOT to read. If you fall behind one night, there's a lot of reading left to do the next night (otherwise, it works out to about 18 pages a day). But oddly, I don't feel totally pressured. It was one of those thoughts that come to you while you are preparing for the Sacrament and which, if you go for it, aren't that hard to carry out and come with a bunch of blessings. Which I really need, because it's been a heck of a month, honestly.

I recommend it. Good stuff. Good feelings. Good lessons for life. Also, some stuff I don't understand that bring up questions I haven't thought about in awhile. I think I have some good notes about this though--in a notebook in my office. So I'll look that up when I'm back from break.

And that's all the news tonight.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

When You Start Reading Again

When I was young I read a lot. I actually don't remember being that hot on reading until I was in 3rd grade or so and I discovered Spaceship Under the Apple Tree, which was the first sort of science fiction I read and which became the first series I read. There were only three books, but I loved them. From there I began to devour books. I read quickly and I had a good memory for what I read. It only got worse as I got older because reading was a way to cope with a lot of things for me. But also, I loved being swept up in another world.

When I started writing for money, I stopped reading. I had very young children and not a lot of sleep and I was working from home. We lived in new places with poor libraries and then...I just forgot that reading was a part of me. Grad school compounded this. Reading became entirely product oriented. I read to write or discuss or both. The twins were born right after the third book came out and I never made it past the big Quidditch match at the start of the book. I read the vampire books because I was able to get hold of them between the end of my first semester of classes and the start of the second and I read all four of them in one week. And then nothing even remotely like it for years.

When I came out to Provo to find us a place to live, which was pretty darn stressful, I found the public library. It's nice. It's quiet and recently updated and there are computers the public can use for up to two hours. If you don't live here you can show ID and get a code to use the computers for a couple hours that day. I found it very useful. After we moved here, it took us a bit to get back there, but eventually we did. The boys and I got library cards and we've been there more than once a week since.

And I have read about 5 books a week since.

These are no classics. They're small mystery novels and romance novels with little more than kissing. Yesterday I picked up a humorous biography from one of the Big Bang Theory actors. But I had read somewhere on the Internet in the last year that even just reading silly fiction like this--not the good stuff from "Best of...", but your average paperback--is good for you and good for your writing.

I have noticed that one of the effects of reading more is that I have begun to feel less nervous about my attention span. My attention span is, apparently, just fine if you put a little kissing into the story. Of course, my research doesn't really lend itself to that, but it has made me wonder--every bit of research always has a story to tell. The object of the game is to bring out the "so what" of whatever it is that you were studying. If you don't have an answer to that, you don't really have anything new to say on the subject and you're better off writing about something else. So if a romance novel is better with a smidge of detail about those two innocent kisses (I gave up bodice rippers a long while back, but I won't judge you if you never did--so long as you don't judge me for reading romance novels in general) then what is "the kiss" in article about professional development? What makes you want to wonder what else that author has written? Compelling characters, a problem that really does need to be solved, and the suggestion of a solution or a future. All those things are part of qualitative research, but we aren't always very good at telling the story.

Another side effect of reading more fluff is that I have come to realize how GOOD it feels to daydream, to imagine, to roll your eyes at the ridiculousness of the plot, to thoroughly enjoy a very well-written parody of the genre...there is a role for this kind of escape.

Don't worry--it's not an exclusive diet.

That said, in a world in which we read more and more soundbites, mini-articles, social media--all on tiny screens of our smart phones, etc. (Which, I should add, I don't have--I can't read books on my phone anymore. I do have one of those oversized five lb. iPads. They're good for playing FarmVille 2. and holding an electronic copy of the scriptures.) It's very nice to read a story from start to finish. It's very nice to consider reading strictly for the purpose of entertainment. We live in a world in which there are ever increasing ways to be labeled as deficient and ever increasing types of "reading difficulties" or disorders or whatever you want to call them.

I am remembering the importance of giving both children and adults the freedom to read and enjoy books that aren't necessarily very well written or edited just because. Because it's nice to enter a world where you only know what you need to know--you aren't bombarded with information all the time. It's nice to put yourselves in the shoes of another and to know it's going to turn out well. It's nice to read whatever you want to read and know that nobody else will even notice you're reading that. When I do turn back to an article, I notice I read it better. I skim less, notice the big picture more, do a better job of remembering who contributed to the writing, and do a better job of thinking across texts. I've always been good at the last bit--but it seems letting my brain read whatever it wants helps me do what I've been doing well even better.

Nothing deep here. Just a few thoughts late at night when reading scriptures after a Christmas-themed romance novel by Heather Graham.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Somewhere Between Amazing and Calmly Mundane

Saw this on Facebook today:

I'm somewhere between Amazing and Relax and Exhale right now, depending on the moment. But for you mothers of young children and/or young families, I have to post this with some caveats.

I get enough sleep. Only the dog wakes me up to pee. She has trouble getting comfortable in her old age, so rarely sleeps with us on the bed anymore.

My children will cook dinner for the family once or twice a week. Ben usually offers.

They wash their own laundry. I don't clean the game room or their room. I only stock their bathroom. If it looks gross, I clean the bathmat, but I have them do the rest.

My children are old enough to tell me what they want and need. Their personalities are such that they will offer counter-arguments to my NOs with respect. I listen to those counter arguments and will change my response when they are reasonable. We can do that because of their age, who we are, the choices they make about how to communicate with us, and our current levels of calm v. stress.

I can pay all my bills. We can set money aside for savings. Unless I do something seriously immoral or at all illegal, my job is relatively secure for the next three years. Our internet is free (Google Fiber, and we're happy with the free speed) and our "basic" cable is 140 channels included in our rent.

We don't have smart phones. It cut our phone bill in half, it cut the addiction, and it cut down on overworking. I tell my students that I can't respond to their emails immediately so they know to expect that.

We don't have to work on the Sabbath. Not even rehearsals, because of where we live. People don't schedule lessons or activities on Monday nights to avoid interrupting Family Home Evening--which is just what it sounds like.

I have a job where my whole self is welcomed and appreciated. My classes start with a prayer. My students relate the experiences of their ELL students to their 18 months to 2 years learning a second language on their mission. We talk about how awesome General Conference was (AND the games, c'mon, be reasonable). GC is our THON and it happens twice a school year, but the students don't miss classes for the next two days. They are rested and refreshed.

Work is work! There are politics and long-standing personal clashes and things you just wish could be different. But it is *my* work, the work I had the *privilege* of choosing and I had the LUCK of landing at a school where I FIT. I love my scholarly community across Universities.

For me, the older I get, the easier it is for me to be cool with me. I have less of a need to be what someone else thinks I should be. I have a better understanding that sometimes the lens through which we regard others refracts.

Warning: The following reflections are influenced by my area of research:

In Mid-May I read a book about stereo-type threat. Not the work on the effect of stereo-type threat's affect on assessment practices in minority communities--although that started it all and is definitely part of the literature--but the notion that when we associate ourselves with a stigmatized community (e.g., a particular disability label)--we may behave in ways that attempt to avoid reinforcing a stereotype about that type of stigmatized person and in the process inadvertently reinforce it. We internalize the stigma and the shame and put an extraordinary amount of effort into hiding the disability. This gave me tremendous insight into one of the sources of what was nearly crippling anxiety in the last few years of my PhD program.

[Thank you Mary Lambert for "Secrets" at that point in time. "They tell us from the time we're young to hide the things that we don't like about ourselves--inside ourselves. I know I'm not the only one, who spent so long attempting to be someone else, well I'm over it." Not that I think everyone should know everything about me. I think that's part of feeling constantly apologetic for existing--you feel you have to explain yourself to everyone. I've moved beyond that.]

It happens that I love my Faith and the opportunity to NOT have to downplay its influence in my life and the degree to which it brings me JOY has had an incredible affect on my ability to love my life.

I had no idea that's what was waiting for me here.

I know there will be tough times ahead because that's how we grow. It's part of the design, as the quote above suggests, and it is a foundational belief for Latter-Day Saints. I suspect further heartbreak awaits me because I love a lot of people and none of them will live forever. But there will always be updrafts if we don't give up--and if we remember that we are never alone. I can promise you that.

Monday, September 28, 2015

You're Lucky

She said, “Yooou’re lucky,” in an accent thicker than the lines on her face.

In late June I left my doctor’s office to walk one long block down to Taco Bell where Chris was going to pick me up. The most direct path took me through the parking lot, down a flight of stairs, to a concrete sidewalk which led to the main sidewalk along the road. Right where this side path intersected with the sidewalk there was also a cross walk that ran across the road to the entrance of a multi-tiered retirement community. A woman was making her way slowly across the road with her walker. She was close to the sidewalk, as was I, when we made eye contact.

She said, “Yooou’re lucky.” She was from Brooklyn, New York. She didn’t have to tell me that—although later she would.

“Pardon?” I replied.

“You’re lucky!” she fired back. “You can walk!”

She had me there. “Yes, I am. I’m lucky. I can walk.”

Now, I’m quite frequently socially awkward. I have my moments of feigning normality, but I also have some humdinger moments of complete social ineptitude. This was a weird start!! It would have been in keeping with my character for me to kind of wave and say, “Well, have a good day!” and hurry on to Taco Bell.

But sometimes you know. I knew this was weird in a “stop and pay attention because this is a MOMENT” kind of thing.

I stopped and waited while she got to the sidewalk. “I’m Alaska,” I said. “You’re headed to Weis?” Yes, she was, and she had some things to say. Most of them involved the F word, and they were all in an Italian-from-Brooklyn accent. I’m guessing she was in her mid-80s, but she was smart as a whip and feistier than a Greek Goddess who’s been done wrong. We’ll call her Eva. Eva means life.   

“My children say Ya have to walk, Ma. You can’t just sit still. The don’t F’n know what they’re talking about! They don’t have to F’n do it!”

“It’s their job to harass you so you don’t freeze up,” I said.
“F that.” She replied matter-of-factly.

I won’t lie. I was in love.

She told me about her children. They were F’n brilliant. One was a psychiatrist. The other a professor in the hard sciences. She said her daughter came home at some step along her educational path and said “We need to talk, Ma.” Eva told her “F that. We all have our problems.” I told her I have my own Psychiatrist and it’s worked out pretty well. “Good.” She said like it had been her idea that I should go. “If you need it, you should go.” She paused. “Don’t stop. Bad things can happen if you stop.” I reassured her that I knew that rule well.

She had questions for me. “What do you do?” I told her I had just defended my dissertation and we were moving so I could take a position at BYU. “You’re a Mormon?” “Yep.” She cocked her head at me. “Good. People need something to believe in. Just don’t go being a F’n jerk about it.” I reassured her that was not my M.O.

Eva was generous, funny, smart, and had the vocabulary of an inebriated sailor.  

We talked about my boys, too. She decided she liked them. We covered such a short stretch of ground through the parking lot, pausing a bit at a corner of the sidewalk where she would leave the walk and head across the parking lot. But as far as sharing with each other—we covered a lot of ground. I prepared to go.

“I should go now.”

“You think I F’n care?”

I startled, then laughed out loud, “No, I guess not!” It seemed the funniest thing because of course these kinds of pleasantries are meant to mask the fact that strangers are trained to not care in order to make parting a smooth thing. It is hard to say goodbye to a new person full of possibility.

Her entire demeanor changed. “Come here,” and I did. I would have done anything for Eva in that moment. “I love you,” she said, and gave me a big hug. Very strong for someone so small. “I love you, too, Eva.” I said, smiling. Totally meant it. She took off at top Terapin speed across the parking lot. I turned and walked toward F’n Taco Bell.

God apparently will send Angels who use the F word to substitute for any manner of adjectives. The message that day was delivered first and last. “You’re lucky.” And “You think I care? Come here. I love you.”

I didn’t see her again before the move, so the chances of seeing her again are slim, but she’s unforgettable.

I’m lucky.