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 

Friday, August 2, 2013

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

 Wow.  It’s been over a month since I last wrote something here!

I’d like to say that the reason that I haven’t posted anything new is just because I’ve been so ridiculously busy having fun and making waves in my life that I haven’t had time to think about this blog.

But that would be a lie.  I have mainly been unable to write anything that I thought was worth sharing.  I could write about being broke, I could write about how I feel like I'm going through some sort of transition in my personal behaviour, I could write about the potential love affair I almost had but that then turned awkward and weird... but all of those things just never felt right to write about or I couldn't wrap my head around them enough to explain what was going on.

Finally, I'm at a point where I have other stuff I want to write about - like sharing with you some of my plans and some of the things I've been ruminating on for the last few weeks.  But first, I just want to play a little game of catch-up.  

Because it is summer - and I have been having lots of fun.  Here are some picture highlights and quick captions from my last month:

June 22-24: Was a weekend of River!  The water was high as hell so we didn't get to go to some of my favorite places on the boat (because they were underwater) but we did an all-day/all-night river excursion on Saturday and spent Sunday floating above an island.

We were traveling super fast in this picture so it's all
kinds of blurry, but you get the idea!

Oh the muddy, muddy Mississippi

June 29-30:  A group of my friends went camping.  They were only about an hour away, so The Boss and I went up to visit them during the day.  As soon as we all arrived and as soon as everyone got their tents set up in poured rain.  After the rain stopped, we got to go tubing (some people call it "floating") on a flooded campground that had a river running through it.  We played on flooded playground equipment and even though I got a huge gash in my foot, I managed to not get dysentery.  And no one fried by the electrical transformers which were also flooded.

The campsite after we'd all been drenched with rain.

July 3-7: I had an awesome long holiday weekend.  Watched the fireworks on the 3rd.  Spent the 4th recovering from a night of drinking out of my "magic cup" that never held the same beverage twice and never went empty.  The 5th we went out on the river again and then we went out on the town that night. The 6th and 7th I spent recovering from the madness.

Definitely one of the best pictures ever taken of our rag-tag group (plus, we were right in front of where they
were doing the July 4th air show, so there's a pretty sweet airplane in the background)
My favorite group of party girls
When he's not busy carrying whole trees on his shoulders,
this boy likes to party with the girls (who can blame him,
did you see those hotties up there?)
July 12-14: A huge group of my friends went camping.  We drank something like three bottles of whisky/whiskey, 2 bottles of vodka and roughly 390 beers.  We went tubing on a nice, non-flooded river and I got to use my solo tent.  The weather was perfect so I didn't have to use my rain fly and was able to stare up at the stars all night long.  

Some of my favorite moments of the trip - 
  • The first night was just a huge party where we were all happy to be there and to be with each other.  
  • After roughly a million hours of drinking, our entire crew took a walk to the river where we stomped around in our non-swimming clothes and giggled a LOT.
  • Falling asleep in my tent while admiring the endless stars above me.
  • Tubing the next day - water, sunshine (well... a little bit of sunshine), beer and best friends, ahhh nice.
  • The second night, sitting by the river at midnight, for hours, talking with some of my closest friends about some intense subjects and counting shooting stars.
And some of my favorite pictures...

My baby tent.  All screen = Soo many stars!

Playing in the river - beer in hand - backpack cooler - flashlight - giggles

This is what happens when I steal The Boss's camera

Those are some pasty, highly attractive SOBs

July 19-21:  We went to Chicago to celebrate Han's birthday.  We actually stayed in Rosemont on the outskirts of the city, so sadly I didn't actually get to go into the city - but we had a great time!  We went to an arcade filled with old school arcade games that were all set to free-play.  We played for hours.  We swam, went to the zoo and got heat exhaustion, but also saw some dinosaurs, and had a nice dinner at his aunt's house.

July 26-29:  One of my favorite coworkers/honorary little sisters got married Friday night.  It was a beautiful outdoor reception in the countryside.  She looked absolutely gorgeous and the weather was perfect.  Saturday, Sunday and Monday I spent time with my Swiss cousins who came to town!  More on this in a future post! It was the first time I'd met one of them and only the second time I'd met the other.  We had a great time together and enjoyed making jokes about weird things - like ice cream trucks driven by child molesters.

Aaaaand - that's about it!  So it's been a fun month.  I hope you're all having a great summer.

Much love,
Annie Jay