Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Clean Slate and Putting Up With Less Than You Deserve

This kitten has absolutely nothing to do with this blog.
He's just here to be adorable.  Good job, Wulfie.
(For those of you who’ve been reading my blog for some time, you’ll notice that some things are missing… like the last two years’ worth of blogs.  Sometimes you just want a clean slate, ya know?)

It’s Saturday.

I woke up at 7am with the knowledge that I had a ton of stuff to get done before a birthday party I’m going to this afternoon. 

Naturally, this means I have been finding every excuse I can to procrastinate doing what actually needs done.

Thus the revised blog.

As you know (or don’t know, if this is your first time here), I’m writing a book.  I came to terms with the idea about three or four months ago and set myself a target deadline for having it written.

I will have my book written by May.

But as it turns out, writing a book is more than just merely thinking up random situations and hijinks to throw your characters into.  It seems that writing a book, especially a sci-fi space-travel book, means creating not just a world, but an entire universe.  And I don’t’ know about the rest of you, but if God created the heavens and the earth in only seven days, he must’ve been mainlining coffee-laced crack-cocaine to get the job done so quickly.

How will the physics of this world work? Are the planets that my hero visits inhabited by human settlers, or different humanoid-ish species, or something in between? Does everything I write only seem to be derivative of one of the hundreds of sci-fi/fantasy stories I’ve heard before or am I straight up plagiarizing my favorites? Do I need to worry about the fact that at this point in all of my characters seem to be speaking with the same voice – namely, my voice?

And most of all, it’s no wonder that I find the character and place names in Dune to be so laborious to read. (Tlielaxu, indeed.  WTF, Frank Herbert?)  How does a person create differentiated and memorable names for alien lands and species when one only has the mildest understanding of how our modern Earth languages are formed?  At times it feels like I should just free fall into the English alphabet and pull out letters at random in order to name places.  They can’t all be called New Iowa, right?

Needless to say, although I’m over 100 pages into my writing, I’ve decided to start over.  Relax; I’m saving what was written so I can use it again in the future.  I just need to get to know my universe better before I can send my hero on an epic quest to save it.

But still, I have four and a half months to get at least a shitty first draft of my book written.  I think I can handle that.

In other news –

It’s surprising what a difference sleeping on a level surface can make in a person’s life.  (How’s that for segues?)

Over a year ago, when I was still living at the Barpartment, I realized that one of the casters attached to my bed frame was bent.  After ten-years of drunken sleepovers and countless hamster-piles, I guess the sonovabitch decided it needed a reprieve.  It was only slightly bent, so using the carpeting in my bedroom at the Barpartment I was able to keep the caster held in place and I didn’t think of it again until moving into my current apartment.

My bedroom now has polished concrete floors,which means that not only was there nothing to aide with holding the bent caster in place but my bed was also extremely prone to rolling around in the middle of the night.  It was not uncommon for me to awaken to my alarm and find that my bed had rolled three feet from the nightstand the alarm sat upon.  This motion surely helped in worsening the bend in the caster, but hindsight is hindsight.

Shortly after moving into my apartment last April, I began to wake up every day with a sore back, barely able to move.  By July, my morning routine would include vain attempts at stretching, shedding tears as I shampooed my hair, and eventually popping a couple Aleve to get me through the day. 

“My body is aging before its time,” I emphatically told myself with the depressing clarity that comes only when one is sure that they have reached the end of their lifecycle.

(*ahem*…You may or may not know that I often like to ignore the rational part of my brain that tells me when I’m overreacting about things.  This was definitely one of those times.  Just like when I was five-years old and screamed and cried as a chipmunk tried to befriend me.)

It took until October for me to figure out that what was really happening was that I had been sleeping on an incline.  Apparently facing my imminent demise was more exciting than taking a moment to follow the logical thought process from “Hmm, I wonder if I should investigate what’s causing this problem?” to “Oh, duh. My feet are a good four inches lower than my head each night.  I bet my spine hates that.”

No, I lived for six months considering how I would tell my parents that they would soon be caring for their invalid daughter.  Some part of me even spent the time rejoicing at how much writing I’d get done when luxuries like walking and sitting were no longer an option for me.  It was all very romantic, in that depressingly pitiful sort of way.

Until one day when I snapped out of whatever stupor I was in and realized that there is a hell of a lot more life left in these rattling old bones.  I could put up with my situation, or find a way out of it.  Luckily, the remedy was as simple as removing my bed frame and moving the fuck on with my life. 

The whole debacle has made me aware of how easy it can be to accept what seems to be the worst-case scenario (I’m dying) instead of looking for a simple solution (take the frame off the damn bed) to improve everything.

So why the hell did I feel the need to share this sad little tale with you all? 

Well, I think a lot of us tend to put up with shittiness like this from time to time without considering the ways that we can improve our situation.  In my case, it probably had a lot to do with fear. 

If I always kept the “maybe my bed’s just fucked up” thought in the very back of my mind, I could ignore the possibility that maybe I had a back issue I needed to deal with.  Because if I fixed the problem with my bed frame and the back problems persisted, I had a much scarier process of figuring out what was actually wrong with my body to face.  That thought alone was scary enough to keep me sleeping on a slant for six months.

Taking such a simple action required little actual physical effort (although, do try removing a bed frame while balancing a queen-size box spring and mattress on your back and then tell me how easy it was for you) but I had to cross some mental hurdles to get myself there. 

What shittiness are you putting up with out of fear?  Maybe it’s as simple as removing a bed frame.  But maybe it’s something more.  Either way, fear is never the reason to put up with less than what you deserve.

And in case you’re wondering – you deserve awesomeness.

Much Love,
Annie Jay

PS – I find it really creepy that as soon as I got done writing this post I went on Facebook and saw a link to this TED-Talk in my newsfeed.  I guess the NSA really is watching what I do online.  At least they’re being helpful about it.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

This is Halloween!

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Yeeear!

I love Halloween.  I hate to ever pick favorites and, you know, Christmas/NYE are pretty awesome, but seriously dudes – Halloween!!

There’s magic in the air on Halloween.

You can dress as someone completely different and embrace an aspect of yourself that you keep hidden the other 358 days a year (because Halloween is a week-long celebration, obviously). 

I actually lost a friend once because she ragged so hard on Halloween (we made up eventually and now we’re friends again).  I’m not pointing that out to say “Don’t you dare criticize Halloween in front of me”.  I’m pointing it out to say “Don’t you dare criticize Halloween in front of me unless you want to get stabbed in the kidneys and in the face.”  I don’t take Halloween haters lightly.  You’ve been warned.

*ahem* Sorry about that.  I’m a little too murder for my own good some times. *Back to the post*

Since I love Halloween so much, I usually go all out on my costumes. 

This year, I planned to be a phoenix.  Like Dumbledore’s bird, Fawkes, not Jean Grey’s alter-ego.

At the beginning of October, I went on Amazon and purchased roughly $70 worth of ostrich feathers in black, red and orange.  I went to the fabric store and bought more feathers and eight yards of organza and sequined fabric in varying fiery hues.  I made a pretty skirt out of some of the fabric:

The edge of which still needs to be hemmed...

The intent was to make the rest of the costume out of the same fabric and then put feathers everywhere, paint my face to look fiery and have wild hair.

Then I tried sewing the feathers.

Then I said Fuck. That.

Sewing feathers is super hard, time-consuming, and just all around awful.

So I returned everything I could (which was everything other than the fabric I’d already cut up) and last Monday I began to panic about what my Halloween costume would be.

For work, my department is dressing up like the characters from Clue.  It was my idea because even though I don’t know if other people think of it that way, I always feel like Clue is a great Halloween movie.  I’m going as Mrs. White.

I thought I had the appropriate black tube dress in my closet but when I went to put it on, I realized 1.) It was way too short for work and 2.) I looked like a stuffed sausage when I was wearing it.  So once again, I was up a creek without a paddle.

Luckily, the crafting gods were smiling on me and within one of my many boxes of crafting and sewing supplies (I like making things, don’t judge me) I found roughly four yards of a beautiful black fabric that I’ve had around for over a year and had forgotten about entirely. 

I immediately set about making myself a simple tube dress in the most complicated way possible.  Since I didn’t have a zipper on hand I thought, “Eh, I’ll just get creative with buttons and hook-and-eye closures.”  Yeah, that didn’t work out well.  By Friday night at 7:30, I was at my wit’s end so I decided I had to set it aside, resolving to work on it this week instead when I wasn’t in such a rush.

That’s when I dug out my box of Halloween costumes and found my Mother Nature costume from five years ago.  I also had some lovely green fabric I’d been intending to use for throw pillows but decided to turn into a quick cape instead.  By Friday night at 10:00 I had a fun costume – and it was good!

Saturday, I spent the day cleaning and decorating my apartment for the Halloween party I had that night.  Around 5, I went over to Natalia’s and she did my makeup, which turned out amazingly!

The Halloween party went off well and I don’t think I pissed off my neighbors too much. 

I think it’s safe to say a good time was had by all.

I barely remember taking this picture of me and Quail Man
Now I just need to finish my costume for our work contest tomorrow!  I haven’t touched it since Friday. Luckily I work best under pressure ;-p

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

An Apartment Tour and a Startling (to me) Announcement

I’ve been increasingly hermity lately.  But unlike the past when times like this came from a pretty negative place (depression, social anxiety, general hate-the-worldiness) I’m thinking this time it’s more for positive reasons. 

1 – I really love my apartment.  It’s beautiful and makes me feel grown-up and I can do whatever the fuck I want there.  And I don’t have to wear pants.  Or shirts.  Or anything.  And it’s pretty darn awesome. All of the entertainment I want is readily available to me.  I have my books, my writing, my paints, my Netflix, my apt’s gym, my keyboard… and on and on.

And oh - hey, I never took you on a tour of my apartment.  Please see the below pictures. I took these a few months ago on my crappy cellphone that takes crappy pictures and that I can rarely hold steady.  My bedroom and bathroom are still rather boring looking so they're not pictured here.

Someday the keyboard will get a proper chair.

Backless bookshelf born out of "Oh shit, the bookshelf got
broken in the move!" and my brother's ingenuity.

The fun things on the windowsills get rearranged every time the windows
are opened. They look nothing like this anymore.

The scary wood thingie on the wall that Mom and Dad keep suggesting I
cover up.  Dad suggests an American Flag.  Jokingly... I hope.

Couch courtesy of Grandma and Granpa's old house.

Sadly, those stools still don't have cushions on them.

Clearly, this place is not lit for photography.
So yes, that's my little hodge-podge home :-)  Now, back to the post - 

2 – I feel like the things I do at home are better for my personal growth than the things I do outside of my home.  I go out, I have some laughs, I have copious amounts of alcohol, I make questionable choices and I… that’s about it.  But if I stay in, I have some laughs, I learn some things, I edge closer to being the person I want to be.

3 – I’m using my money more effectively.  AKA – I’m paying my bills and buying decent food instead of putting off my bills, feeling like I’m drowning in debt and eating takeout all the time.  I’m living more frugally and it feels freaking fantastic.

Now, I’m not saying I never leave my house except to go to work.  But Sunday-Thursday, you’re most likely to catch me at home than anywhere else.  Friday and Saturday I do try to get out of the house to socialize with my friends, but I’m also trying to make these events more likely to be events where I’ll meet someone new instead of just visiting the same old dive-bars we went to when we were 21. 

Because, really, I’m tired of the same old same old, and if that’s the alternative I’d much rather stay at home where I feel like I’m doing things that cause me to grow, than sitting around having the same conversations in the same tired places. 

Maybe I’m just becoming an old fuddy-duddy?  


In other, sort of unrelated, news, I’m still writing my story. 

It’s weird.  This is the first time I’ve put this much thought into anything I’ve ever written.  I’m planning the storyline, creating the world (because it’s very Sci-fi/Fantasy), and trying to create believable but highly differentiated characters.

And so here’s the part where I decide I’m going to stop saying “I’m writing my story” and just finally admit (to myself as much as anything) that -

I’m writing a book.

Well great jumping jackalopes, that’s a little scary to look at.

But the fact of the matter is, the storyline that’s developed in my head is so incredibly massive it seems unfair to continue to just refer to it as “my story” as if it’s some kind of trifle.  Ever since I was 10 years old and began writing for fun, I’ve been writing “my stories”.

But this thing, it has taken on a life of its own and to call it anything less than a book feels like I’m insulting its integrity.  So it is, with great fear, anxiety, pretense and many vomity feelings, that I’m going to start saying –

I’m writing a book.

*Whew* Well, now that that’s out there in the universe…

I’m not going to share much of the plot because it still feels a little silly.  When you’re a rational adult, trying to explain a story about space travel and magical abilities is very blush-and-giggle-inducing.  So far I’ve only talked to my family and Han about the actual plotline and the physics of the world I’m creating.  Han’s gotten a chance to read the first ten pages and has helped me over a couple of the hurdles I was initially facing.

But here are a couple of questions you can all help me with:
  • Do you prefer to know a character’s back-story all at once at the beginning or in little pieces throughout?
  • What are some tired plot devices or character types that you never want to see in another book?

I’d love some input :-)

Much love,
Annie Jay

Friday, September 6, 2013

Deliciousness Born Out of Necessity

Someday I'll be brave enough to try the hot peppers...
I've been pretty broke the last few weeks and you know what I've discovered?  Apparently the best way to get me to eat healthier is to be broke enough that all I can afford is to pay my bills and buy fresh food.

It also helps that the Saturday Farmer's Market is only a few blocks from my apartment.

Since I've been broke and not able to go out to eat or order take-out as often, I've been forcing myself to use my food budget for good instead of evil.  I've been making myself buy fresh veggies, which in turn means I need to cook the veggies within a few days before they go bad.

This method is working pretty well so far.  (Note to self: Whenever I need to do something, make desperation be a factor.  Oh my god I hope it doesn't take me getting fired to finally finish writing a book.)

I've also been expanding my palate in the mean time.  For one thing, I've learned that I love tomatoes.  I mean, I'm still a ways away from eating a tomato like an apple, or eating a bowl full of chopped tomatoes for lunch (I saw my coworker do this a few weeks ago - do other people do this??) but where I used to be like "Oh crap, there's a chunk of tomato in this tomato sauce GET IT OUT!!"  I'm now like "Ohhhh yeeeeeeaaaaahhhh, I tots want that thick slice of juicy red tom on my turkey sandwich!"

One problem I've always had with veggies is storing them properly so they don't go bad before I get a chance to use them.  The internet has 5,000 different ways to store millions of kinds veggies.  Some are extremely crazy and perfectly impossible to do unless you have five kitchens and at least ten root cellars.

But I have found that this website has an awesome, practical list of how to store most common fruits and vegetables that we have here in North America.  So far, all of the tips have worked very well for me and I've tried about 50% or more of the tips on the page.  One great thing I learned?  Don't keep your onions and potatoes next to each other - they ripen faster when they're together!  And there are other fruits and veggies that should be kept separate as well.

So I mentioned in my post yesterday that I was going to make coconut oil refried beans.  They were delicious!  I started out following this recipe but because I'm broke and had to make-do with what I had in my cupboard I like to experiment, I did a little improvisation.  Here's my take on the recipe:

Coconut Oil Refried Beans

3 Tablespoons coconut oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup diced red onion
1 can black beans, drained
1 can garbanzo beans (chickpeas), drained


  1. Add garlic and coconut oil in a medium sauce pan over medium/high heat.
  2. Heat until coconut oil is melted, stirring constantly.
  3. Add onions and heat until onions have turned translucent.
  4. Add in beans and heat until very warm, but not boiling.
  5. Turn off burner.
  6. Mix and mash beans in the pot with a potato masher (or a fork if you don't have a masher).  Since this recipe uses chickpeas, which are a little "tougher" than the black or pinto beans, you'll need to mash for a while to obtain the desired consistency.
  7. Beans should have retained enough heat that you don't need to reheat them, but if you do, turn the burner to low and stir frequently.
  8. Sprinkle with cheese if desired, but I felt like they were flavorful enough that I didn't need it.

I'm sorry I didn't take any pictures - I was just starving by the time my meal was prepared!  These beans will look different than your usual refried beans because of the chickpeas, but I thought that the chickpeas lent the perfect texture, color and flavor to the mix.  I also grilled chicken and made Mexican rice using the peach/jalapeno salsa I made.

Sometimes being broke can be delicious!  It definitely causes me to cook more and experiment with what I have around more often.

Have you ever created a culinary masterpiece from what you happened to have sitting around?

Happy Feasting,
Annie Jay

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Kayaking the Galena River in Illinois

I hope everyone had a wonderful Labor Day weekend! I took Friday off work as well so I ended up having a nice 4-day weekend.

My brother, Clockwork, came to town, which was very awesome.  Friday night we hung out at my apartment, watched Star Trek: The Next Generation and Red Dwarf.  So, basically, we occupied our Friday night exactly the way we occupied it when we were little kids.

Saturday, I went to Farmer's Market with my girlfriends first thing in the morning and got some delicious fresh produce.

And from some of the above items, delicious peach-jalapeno salsa was made.  Tonight I'll be grilling up that corn because there is SO MUCH of it.  I'm also going to be cooking chicken and Mexican rice with the salsa and I'm going to try making coconut oil refried beans.  I'll let you know how it turns out!  (Or, if you're in town, you should probably just call me and come over for dinner.  You bring the beer.)

After Farmer's Market, I headed out to my parents house to make plans with Clockwork for the kayaking trip we planned to take that day.  Our parents let us use their kayaks and even shuttled us to Galena, IL where we met our uncle who was our guide on the Galena River.

Ok, so here's the point where I need to say the internet knows next to nothing about kayaking on the Galena River.  So I'm going to do a little instructional for people who want to know:

Put-ins on the Galena River:
Buckhill Bridge: Go to downtown Galena, drive all the way down the tourist section of Main Street until it becomes Dewey Ave.  Stay on Dewey Ave. until it becomes Buckhill Rd.  Stay on that until you come to a bridge that goes over what looks like a creek.  That is the Galena River.  On the far side of the bridge, there's a fiftyish-foot-long driveway that has a path that leads to a very primitive put-in.  (aka a couple of pallets tied together and anchored to the shore)
Galena Boat Landing: Alright, this one's pretty easy to get to since it's right in downtown Galena.  I'm not going to provide many details about this, but if you go to Depot park, you can drive under the bridge and get to the parking lot and put-in.
Ferry's Landing: This one's also harder to find.  From HWY 20, you'll turn onto Gear St (this is near McDonald's).  Take Gear St. all the way to S West St. and turn right.  S West St. becomes N Ferry Crossing Landing Rd. which you'll take all the way to the end.  The public put-in is pretty obvious once you're down there.

When we were planning the trip, we knew we had several trips to choose from.  From Buckhill to Galena takes about 2 hours.  From Galena to Ferry's Landing it takes about 2.5-3 hours.  From Buckhill to Ferry's Landing it's 10.5 miles and takes 4-5 hours.

Of course, we opted for the 10.5 mile trek.

One of the coolest things about the Galena River in Illinois is that it goes through historic downtown Galena, IL.  If you don't know much about Galena, you should definitely look at these pictures.  And plan a visit.  Then visit me.  It'll be fun.

The first 3.5 hours of the trip were great.  

Because the water was low, we didn't have much of a current to push us along, but we were content to paddle lazily.  We stopped just a couple of times so Clockwork could get out and investigate some ruined buildings along the river.  Uncle and I stayed in the kayaks and made friends with the ducks.

Quack quack!

Then we floated through downtown Galena.

Luckily I did not get a tan-line from my Vibrams.
We enjoyed the water and the quiet offered by the rural river.

Clocky and I talked about the writing we're both working on and the fun mythic worlds we're creating.

After that, it was all downhill.  

And by downhill I mean "Holy fuckballs why did we decide to paddle 10.5 miles on a river with little shade on a day that was easily 90+ degrees?"

Because of my allergies and asthma, I hate to be without water.  So I made sure to fill 6 water bottles for Clocky and I before we left home.  And since we'd be paddling throughout the afternoon, I also packed a shopping bag full of granola bars to take with us.

Luckily, the water bottles made it into the kayaks.  Unluckily, the granola bars stayed in the van we'd taken to the put-in.  Along with my sun hat.

So, three hours in, Clocky was hungry and I was baking in the sun.  But happily, our uncle, who is consistently in a good mood and is not easily shaken, kept us going.  As we got further down the river and came to a fork, I figured "We can't possibly be that much further from home."  That's when Uncle informed us we had at least another half hour to go.  

As Clocky brought up that he was hoping the end would be "just around the river bend" I of course (all concerns of being obnoxious having been completely cooked out of my brain by the heat) burst into my own spirited rendition of the song from Pocahontas.  And since I didn't have a drum to keep me rowing, I kept singing.

Finally, as we were rowing through buggy, marshy, log-ridden backwaters, I spied buildings up ahead and let out a cheer.  We had finally arrived.  The last 1000 feet of the trip were definitely the hardest of the whole thing because the end was in sight.

But in the end, I felt accomplished and happy that we'd done it :-)

Anyone else have fun misadventures on your Labor Day Weekend?

Much Love,
Annie Jay

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Swimming Pools, Ghosts, and Little Victories

It was a Wednesday in mid-July and the weather was a brutal 90 degrees with humidity that made the Weather Channel’s “Feels Like” temperature show 5,000 degrees.

Around noon, Francesca texted me, “That’s it.  We need to go water-walking tonight.”

It would be our first time joining the blue-hairs for water-walking at the public pool.  They say your late 20’s is the time to plan for your future – we were just looking 35 years ahead.

After work, I forged the river that was the atmosphere en route to my car.  I rushed home, visions of beautiful, blue, chlorine-filled coolness dancing in my mind.  After I put on my swimsuit, I readied my pool-going accessories and ran out of my apartment building.  I jumped back into the car and drove to pick up Francesca.  We arrived at the public swimming pool, found a parking spot, organized our towels and sunblock, and began the walk to the pool entrance.

That’s when an unexpected wave of panic hit me.

“Whoa.”  I said to Francesca as I stopped walking.  “I’m dealing with some issues right now.”  I felt my stomach contract and my chest tighten.  Francesca, who had been complaining about the heat all day, looked at me in a tone that made it clear ten-years of friendship was nothing compared to her need to be immersed in cool, chemically treated water.

“I’m sorry.” I said, swallowing the dense oxygen and trying to regain control of my body’s senses.  “It’s been over fifteen years since I’ve been here and there’s a lot of emotional shit I have to deal with, apparently.”

When I was a kid, the pool was awesome.  I loved swimming.  I felt like I could do anything as long as I was in the swimming pool.  I could swim faster, hold my breath longer, and swim deeper than anyone else.  The pool was my arena.  The other kids had soccer and basketball and football – the pool was mine.

But outside of the water - amongst the rows of sun-bathing teenagers with their judgmental scowls, around the boys I had crushes on who refused to acknowledge my existence, and in the locker rooms where my elementary school nemeses lurked – those places were my hell at the public pool.  How I longed for the weekend camping trips my parents would make to Devil’s Lake where I could finally feel safe at a swimming area without fearing the repercussions of being slightly chubbier than my peers. 

All of those little hurts from so long ago that I hadn’t even thought about for fifteen years came rushing back to me as we walked to the pool’s entrance.  To make matters worse I didn’t have my swimming shorts with me.  I was going to have to drop my towel and walk to the edge of the pool, bare, cellulite-ridden thighs and all. 

“This is ridiculous! I’m an adult now!” I practically shouted it as Francesca glowered at me, sweat beading on her brow.  I took a few deep breaths and tried to channel as much positivity as I could muster as we arrived at the entrance.  “I can do this.”

I kept my eyes directed at the ground the entire time I walked through the locker room, fearing the ghosts of past tormenters that might jump out at me.  We picked a place to set our things and Francesca easily dropped her towel and stood confidently as she waited for me to quit dawdling. 

Finally, I took one last deep breath and dropped my towel.  We quickly walked to the pool’s edge and slipped into the water.

And oh the relief!

The panic washed away as soon as I got into the pool, just as it always did when I was a kid. 
Francesca, finally being cooled, also lightened up as soon as we got into the heavenly water.  I’m pretty sure we stood there giggling for five minutes before we actually started walking.

Natalia and Prudence joined us after a few minutes and we all walked.  Then we discovered that perhaps we’re just a bit too young to do something like water-walking.  We still enjoy splashing and playing a bit too much for the Adult Swim, but perhaps we can fake it well enough on those hot summer days that we’ll be able to go back.

As the time for water-walking came to an end my mood had lightened to the point of giddiness at being with my girlfriends.  The water had washed away enough of the ghosts of my childhood pain that I jumped out of the pool and thought:

Fuck it.  Let those bitches see my thighs.

I think it’s safe to say that childhood Annie won a little victory that day.  That one's for you, kid.

Annie Jay

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

It's Back-to-School Time!

This month is back-to-school time all across the good ol’ USA.

Teachers across the country are groaning as they prepare to take on an entirely new load of students. 

My mother is a high school English teacher (hmmm… why do I enjoy writing so much?) and this semester she has about 140 new students.  That means she has 140 new names to memorize in the next couple of weeks.  That means that each time she assigns homework she has 140 assignments to correct.  When she assigns essays she has 140 essays to correct.  When she gives tests she has 140 tests to correct.  When she gives essay tests… well, you get my point.

And it’s all done outside of work.  And that’s in addition to any school activities or clubs she helps with.  And in addition to notifying parents when their children are falling behind.  And in addition to assisting students who need extra help with their work.  And in addition to dealing with the interpersonal issues that students are having.  I won’t even get into the effects on the teachers’ emotions as they watch and listen and provide counsel to students as they go through high times and hard times.

Yeah, teachers are soo overpaid.  They are soo lazy.  Let’s cut more funding to education. 

Sorry, that’s my rant, not hers.  My mother is mostly quiet on the subject of teachers being overworked and on government budget cuts.  I got to witness the challenges teachers and school employees face first-hand a couple of years ago when I worked in one of our area high schools as a study-hall monitor for a semester. 

And Dubuque, Iowa has it pretty good as far as education spending goes compared to the rest of the country.  We recently built a new middle school and a couple of new elementary schools.  The district did have some layoffs a couple of years ago but as far as I understand most of those teachers have been rehired in one way or another.

But across the country our nation’s school system is struggling.  Think Madison, Chicago, New York and countless other cities across the country that have made headlines in recent years because of cuts to spending and community support.

Just listen to this episode of This American Life from June 14, 2013.  Start at 38:00 (better yet, listen to the whole thing because it talks about some amazing things - including at  27:30 an eye-opening interview with an old schoolmate of mine who is a reporter for Rolling Stone and was at Guantanamo Bay) where Ira Glass is talking to Jason Pitman, a 38-year old teacher who won an award for teacher of the year in the 2012/2013 school year.  It was also Jason’s last year as a teacher.   Here you have an incredibly dedicated young teacher who’s helping to teach science – a subject which our country is severely falling behind in – and he is quitting because he has to fundraise to keep his program going every year.

The US school system is in desperate need of a makeover. 

I was never a good student. 

A couple of weeks ago my mom asked me to go to their house and look through some old school papers she’d found in a filing cabinet.  Among the many adorable things we found (like a letter telling Patrick Swayze that he’s just the most awesomest actor ever and a tattle-letter I left on the kitchen counter one morning before school to let my mom my brother had been picking on me) was a First Grade report card.  In the category of Completes Work on Time it had a comment “Annie has trouble completing her homework on time and seems more interested in the work that her classmates are doing.” Sigh

Even in First Grade I couldn’t sit down and do my homework.  That trend continued into high school and then into college. 

It was never learning that I had a problem with – I love to learn and continue to educate myself in topics that I feel uneducated about.  What I always I had a problem with was doing required readings and being taught subjects that I had no interest in learning.  It was like being force-fed vegetables without being told the health benefits.  I was never told why I needed to learn these things.  I was never told why I needed to be actively focusing in school instead of daydreaming of a story I wanted to write.

I absolutely understand the importance of students learning a wide variety of subjects, and even though I didn't have an interest in learning certain things in school, doesn't mean I don't think it was right to try to teach me those things.

Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like our school system does little to get students excited about learning. 

And you know what I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older? 

Learning is pretty. damn. exciting.

I’m not blaming the teachers because they are merely the tools that our government uses to convey its highly-standardized curriculum and they have to do what they have to do to keep their jobs and some teachers do an amazing job of getting their students involved even with the limitations the system places on them. 

But this system of standardized testing, and metrics, and basing school funding off of student performance on standardized testing… well, I’m sure that people far more knowledgeable on the subject than I have written copious articles about the problems with this system and ways we can fix the system**. 

But plain and simple – it’s not working. 

We’re leaving behind a large number of our students by failing to take into account that not everyone learns in the same manner.   

I have to adjust to this in my career as a Trainer.  My training program has to encompass a wide variety of learning styles in order for it to work for my staff.  I’m always revising and tailoring it to fit individual trainees. 

It’s sometimes exhausting and the most “students” I’ve ever had at one time is 3.  Imagine doing that with 140 students.

I recently learned about the Swiss education system when my family visited a couple of weeks ago.  I have to say, when I heard about it, claiming dual citizenship with the mother-country sounded like a damn good idea.

I’m interested in what my international friends think of the school system in your countries – do you think it works for your youth?  How does the school system work in your country?  Is university pretty much compulsory in order to get a good job?  Do you do apprenticeships?

Anyone else in the US think that our system is flawed, or did it work for you?

Let’s talk about it!

Much love,
Annie Jay

**To start, here are some awesome TED Talks on education:

Ken Robinson - How to Escape Education's Death Valley
Geoffrey Canada - Our failing schools. Enough is enough!
And for even more - TED Talks About Education

And this interesting interview with Mike Rowe from Real Time with Bill Maher