The Livin’ Is Easy

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…

 

Hey all ya’all, and happy summer! Officially off the clock on May 17th, I’ve been busy in the best kind of ways ever since! This won’t be a post about teaching; I’m going to stray from the norm and write about the importance of leisure and the soul-soothing warmth of the summer sun.

Hiking Fleschers Pass
Hiking Fleschers Pass

Since May 2003 when I first started my college education, I’ve either worked or had internships or taught or took classes or did research or sometimes a combination of those during the summer months. I still enjoyed the slower pace and time for fun, but always in the background loomed some kind of major goal: create a new class; pass a class (or two); put together a promotion and/or tenure portfolio; read texts for ideas for assignments, etc. Not summer 2017.

I earned my tenure this spring (yeah, that’s a pretty big freaking deal) and my classes aren’t changing at all next year, so aside from putting together my syllabi, which I do every semester, I have no academic tasks to complete. I renewed my K-12 Class 2 license this year, good until 2022, at which time I’ll be 60 (gasp!!) years old and possibly will have won the lottery, so I won’t have to worry about renewal credits (better start buying some lotto tickets). All those years of working, planning, striving, studying and learning finally paid off and landed me here: the summer of 2017. And I’m going to enjoy it.

Karen and June
Kayaking Helena waterways with June

So far, I’ve been kayaking twice, hiking five or six times, and out with friends. Some of that time was spent in Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park and some was spent on the waters and mountains surrounding Helena, and mixed in with that has been later-than-usual nights and leisurely mornings, sleeping late and coffee on the patio, time for journaling and shopping and friends.

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On safari in YNP
Karen and Mark
Hiking McQuithy Gulch with Mark

I’m still working on the Rocket Project, and the longer I spend thinking about and reflecting on that incredible event, the more privileged I feel to have had such an opportunity to be involved in it. The sense of community that I found in the audio recordings, the reminisces of the community members who generously donated their time and memories, is tremendous; it resonates like a marching band on July 4th and humbles me that I am able to compile and prepare an historical artifact that encapsulates the civic-minded spirit of Helena’s community over the past sixty years. Publication is forthcoming but dependent upon my ever-encroaching social calendar. I plan to have the book completed before the Lewis and Clark County Fair in July. Stay tuned…

Speaking of books, I haven’t even begun work on this year’s edition of Reflections, but it’s in queue, after the Rocket Project, and it will be published before the end of July also. I have a long list of “to read” books for the summer, beginning with The Name of the Stars, a sequel written by Pete Fromm, a look back, in a way, at Indian Creek Chronicles, one of my all-time favorite books. I can’t wait to read it.

The rest of the summer is filling rapidly with an upcoming concert, a family reunion, friends visiting from out-of-town, my mom coming to visit me for the first time since I’ve moved here, and more kayaking, hiking, and of course, wine! Today, I spent the day on the water with my beloved June Caudle, and my soul sucked up the nourishment of sunshine, warm temps, calm waters, and June’s friendship. Every day I have like that—and there have been several already this summer—sustains me during the trying times (midterm, anyone???) during the academic year and the bleakness of winter. These days, these friends, these experiences are just more reasons why I love my job.

The past year was a challenging one, with many, many dark days, loss, heartbreak, and difficult decisions. I can’t be certain I’ve emerged from the cloud of darkness that hovered during that time, but it sure does feel like I have. I am hopeful and happy and excited to see what the future holds, how many days I can spend in my kayak, on a mountain trail, enjoying a good read, a nice bottle of red, or with friends. This is going to be a summer to remember: Summer 2017.

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Ready for Summer 2017

 

The End

Tomorrow is a new beginning; that means that today was an end. I feel like this whole past year has been one succession of ends in my life, and frankly, I’m over it.

Trigger Warning! (for Brad or any of the students from my honors class—they’re a sensitive bunch—there will likely be some very bad language in this post, so if you’re easily triggered, you might want to skip this…)

Today, I sat through several hours of an end-of-semester planning meeting for our 5-year strategic plan. Yeah, so you know what that was like. However, I tried to pay attention, and a couple things really stood out to me. For example, we were reminded that the brain has basically two regions: one is the decision-making part, and one is the language, or emotional, part. Wanna guess which part dominates my life? I don’t know why it was a eureka moment for me. It makes perfect sense. I love language and everything related, and I am completely dominated by my emotions, to the point that rational judgment is often impaired.

We did some good work today, but I was distracted by the fact that there are so many ends in my life now. The end of the semester is a good thing, but it’s also a time of reflection. People who work in education get to do that twice a year, once at the end of the calendar year and again at the end of the academic year, and I was thinking about the past year and wishing I had done it better and wishing it wasn’t the end.

I’m coming off a very good year, professionally. It seemed like I had the Midas Touch though my pal Nathan said it was due to the year of the “Hen”derson (the Chinese year of the Rooster). I had great students, as always, and my special courses, Creative Writing and Ways of Knowing were innovative and successful; The Rocket!!! This is still incomplete as of this writing, but by all accounts, The Rocket project will go down in history at Helena College, and my name will be attached to it; TENURE!! Yes, friends! It was officially announced yesterday, so I feel confident in announcing that I have received tenure and will spend the rest of my working life at Helena College (unless the President needs a new press secretary, which could happen…).

Let me add the new clubs that so kindly asked me to advise them: TRiO Students 2 Scholars and Newspaper Club, the Helena Helm. These students made me look like a rock star this year. Everyone is talking about the successes of TRiO S2S and the first-ever student newspaper, and I was the lucky person they asked to put the oky-doky on the slip. Just wait though…this is NOT the end of these guys. TRiO S2S is still working on memorial trees and is going into the fall semester with a full leadership team on board. They recruited successfully and have been pioneers in club organization within a two-year college. Plans are in place for a fun run in the fall and a huge orientation presence, along with sponsoring the Rocket book, currently in the making. The Helena Helm plans to be in place to record all the good works of all the clubs beginning early in August and has also highlighted some of our faculty and staff who really deserve some credit (Helenahelm.blogspot.com). It really did seem, at times, as if I could not make a bad move professionally. Never fear…I very competently managed that personally.

How someone can be so successful professionally and so unsuccessful personally is something that Bill Clinton and I apparently share. My personal life, over the past year, has been a succession of ends: the end of my marriage (and because my ex-husband is reading this and will object to my pandering, let me just say it was all my fault), the end of my relationship with my dad (at least my ability to impact that relationship at all), the end of my long stint as a dog-mama (I miss my Lancelot more than I can bear to think about at times), and the end of Karen as I knew her, before.

I lost friends from my former life, people who somehow had to “choose” a side; I lost people I considered family because they, too, had to choose, and I wasn’t really family; I lost some self-respect because I wasn’t able to be the person, the teacher, the friend, the woman that I know I should be. Despite the fact that I initiated our divorce, I lost myself in the process; the past year is a blur of just moving forward because I had to.

More than anything, as I come off a very successful year professionally, I wish I had been a better teacher. I wonder how good I could have been if I would have been “on.” I think about the times I went to class on two hours of sleep…how inept I must have been to facilitate discussions. I think about how distracted I was, really, all year, how my emotional state detracted from my ability to foster learning. I’ve been fortunate to bask in the glow of the Rocket (and it really is an amazing project), to receive the accolades of the work the clubs have accomplished, to relish the feeling of earned (?) tenure, but today, when my beloved friend Tammy said to me during a pensive moment, “A Penny for your thoughts,” my response was one she surely did not expect: tears of regret bubbled up in my eyes: How I wish I’d done things differently, and I wish this wasn’t the end.

Oh yeah, the trigger warning? Fuck.

Seven More Days

Almost always, at midterm of the semester, I develop a bad attitude: I start grousing about students, complaining that they’re not performing to caliber, noting the many who are not attending class, wondering what other kind of work I’m qualified to do (?) because I’m so tired of this teaching gig. Like the monthly cycle I used to dread, I can almost predict it to the day, but then before I realize it, we’re about two weeks away from the end, and miraculously, the rainbow appears.

Y’all have my permission to slap me silly the next time I start; I mean it.

Today, a good day, I remembered why I do this work. It isn’t for everyone; let me be clear, but for me, I cannot imagine how I could possibly love an occupation more, and it’s not just those damn students who make it so great.

I woke at 5:45 a.m., the usual time when my alarm sounds. It annoys me, usually, but I rise and start my day. By 6:30, earbuds in, gloves on, and well-worn sneakers laced up, I’m on my way up the hill with a little Lynyrd Skynyrd on Pandora. I hike up the asphalt trail, warming up and breathing hard. About 20 minutes into the hike, I turn around and pick up the pace. Downhill is not quite a sprint but neither a jog, somewhere in between as I try to keep the pace slow enough that I don’t jar anything too drastically or trip over my own feet. At about the 30-minute mark, I turn around and walk/jog the last few minutes back to my house, and when I arrive, I feel energized and ready to take on the world. After showering and dressing for work, I eat breakfast and visit with Leo the bird, filling his water and food dish, giving him a special piece of lettuce or some millet. Then, I leave for work.

The best thing about that whole scenario is that I don’t have to worry about the time. Sometimes I leave home at 8:05 a.m., other times 8:30. Sometimes I’m really slow and it might be 8:45, but rarely is it later than that. The flexibility that my job offers is incredibly valuable to me; it gives me great peace-of-mind to have the leisure in the morning to treat my body the way I should and attend to Leo. After all, he is 20 years old.

My colleagues: you’d have to experience it to completely understand, but I’ll try to put it in perspective. We’re something like a family. We bicker and barter and sometimes we really step up in support of each other but more often we’re commiserating or teasing each other. Most of the faculty share one huge office divided by cubicles. The lack of privacy, especially when working with students, can be problematic, but the camaraderie at other times reminds me of the television show The Waltons and their nightly ritual of saying good-night. Good night, John-boy. Add to that a group of highly educated stand-up wannabes, and we have some really hilarious pseudo-conversations sometimes, so funny that I’ll be laughing about it hours later. Yeah, and I’m being paid for that, sort of.

Make no mistake: I make up for the late arrivals and collegiality during evenings and weekends, and I haven’t had a true lunch break in a couple years, but those things are important in my life, to the quality of my life, and really help me wake up at 5:45 with a little less crankiness.

Nonetheless, it’s the students (you knew this was coming) who remind me why I love this job. It’s not all students and it’s not even some students all the time, but it’s most of the students, and sometimes it doesn’t even have much to do with school work. You’ve heard, I’m sure, that we’re headed to hell in a handbasket? Ask any teacher who’s been doing this work for any number of years, and you’ll find out that’s not true. Teachers who teach, those who love their work and their students, will be the first to tell you that students haven’t really changed over the years. Society changes, and culture changes, and sometimes it does seem that values weaken some, but I can say with complete certainty that we are in good, capable hands. Here’s why:

Meet “M”. I met him last semester in my class, a young man who struggles with mental illness, who lives with a woman who also struggles with mental illness. They support each other and both contribute to the conversation about mental illness, going so far as to be participants on panels and informational venues. “M” is in my class, again, this semester and told me about his early mornings, 4:00 or 4:30, when he rides his bicycle to work several miles, riding home later to prepare for school. This is all in addition to school. But what struck me most about “M” was last semester when he and his partner were both in my class. I knew the challenges they were facing, and one day, I felt compelled to hug his girlfriend; I felt she needed some support. It wasn’t her response that surprised me, but his: he came to me later and thanked me for the gesture. It was important to her, he said, and the love in his voice, the tenderness and concern for her, touched me deeply. More concerned with her suffering than his own, his empathy for her responded to my hug. See what I mean? No hell in his future, none other than mental illness and the costs of healthcare.

Then there’s “B.” I met him last semester, too, and I was impressed immediately. A nontraditional student and irrepressible perfectionist, he soon stood out as a class leader, and I sought his advice and help. This semester, he’s in two of my classes, so I see him every day; I remind him, frequently, of his good luck, and he responds that he had no other choice, or something equally dismissive, but our friendship has grown this semester and my respect for him is immense. A committed father and husband, his priorities in life are clear, but he’s involved in many groups and activities beyond school. His humor, his leadership among students, his stellar academic work, and his kind heart endear him to me more all the time. The only questionable association he has is his personal friendship with Donald Jr., and I’m going to cut him some slack there. He also doesn’t drink, and that might be his problem, for I have found that a couple glasses of wine will take the edges off.

There’s so many students like these; I could write about them, each one, and people would think I was making it up, but I’m not. These are our students: they are parents, children, spouses, employees, friends, veterans, young, old, male, female and confused. They struggle, and they’re trying their best to better their lives while working and managing dysfunctional vehicles and relationships. If you want to see and experience the best that Montana has to offer, I invite you to visit your local community college, where you will find instructors who are doing their best to help students, citizens, who are also doing their best.

But take my advice: don’t do it at midterm.

The (Almost) End

Tomorrow, we will be two weeks away from the last day of classes for spring semester 2017. Students are anxious during this time of year; they’re anxious about the final assignments that are usually heavy point assignments; they are anxious about their grades; they are anxious to be done. Teachers, too. It’s the time of year when I’m not surprised if a student breaks down in tears in my office. Sometimes, I join them. The stress can be unbearable, and it’s not always bad stress. All the different stressing agents—teachers, assignments, children, jobs, applications to special programs, money, future semesters, graduation—all contribute to students’ stress levels, and we’re all a bit anxious and on edge. It hasn’t been that long for me; I remember what it’s like, and I spent my fair share of time in my professors’ offices in tears, so I’m sympathetic.

For me, though, this is one of my most favorite times. Tonight, Robyn and I held the Phi Theta Kappa induction of new members. What a rush! One of our new members was a student in my class during my first or second year at Helena College. After the ceremony, he and his mother asked if they could take a photo with me. What? As if that wasn’t enough, they went on to tell me that though I was one of his first teachers, I was one of the most influential. Let me just say, hearing that caused me to step back a moment. It’s been four or five years since that young scholar was in my class, and to be remembered in such a way reminds me of the severe responsibility of my position. What might have happened if he would have had a negative experience in my class?

Beyond that, there were two students inducted who are current students of mine, and several others whom I’ve had in class previously. I own no credit for those students’ achievements, but it certainly feels fabulous to recognize and congratulate them publicly for their academic success. I remember my own honor society inductions; there’s little recognition of the commitment and many hours it requires to earn a 3.5 or higher GPA. Ceremonies and notices on the Dean’s list are about it, so I like to make the most of it. I’m so proud of our students.

For me, too, this is a stressful time. I worry about those students on the bubble…will they pull it together at the end, or will I reluctantly have to assign a failing grade? I worry about my high-achieving students: will they successfully manage the stress or will they bail before it’s all done? I worry about getting things graded in a timely manner, and with this semester’s “Rocket Project,” I’ve not been very good about that. And frankly, I worry about crying in front of my students. It doesn’t take much; ask anyone who knows me. Monday night was a night to cry. Tonight was a night of celebration. We still have two weeks left, and we could see any and all combinations between now and then, from me.

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Did I mention my clubs? I currently advise two clubs: Helena Helm student newspaper and TRiO Students 2 Scholars. I could.not.possibly.be.more.proud of these students. Believe me when I say that I have been the straggler in these organizations, but despite that, the students have achieved really great things. The newspaper has published two, soon to be three, editions, the first ever for Helena College. We have never had a student-voiced medium, but we do now, and thanks to Joy, Kiera, Dalton, Angela, and others, we will in the future, too. And then there’s TRiO S2S. That group of students deserves a post all their own, and I’m sure at some point, I’ll devote one to them. They have achieved more in one academic year than I could have ever hoped, most especially close to my heart is the memorial tree project for students who have died too soon. This, for me, is personal and another reason I just might cry. Dalton and Kat, especially, deserve great credit for the success of this club, and I am so excited that we have current students willing to step up and take on leadership roles for the next year. They asked me today, at a meeting, if I would stay on as advisor, and though they might have been trying to get rid of me, it ain’t happening. They are stuck with me.

Fourteen years ago, I began my college education, hoping to become an English teacher. I had great aspirations of what a great teacher I could be, and I thought I had a lot to offer students in my care. I had no freakin’ idea, just sayin’. What I did not know was how much the many students in my care had to teach me, how much I would come to love them and how much of my identity and personal success would be tied to theirs; what I did not know was how lucky I would be to find my “home” at Helena College and Helena city. I’m not sure my heart could have stood the fullness, had I known then, where I would be today. I’m pretty damn sure, I would have cried.

Day 21

I made my television debut today; I think I won’t quit my day job.

Andy Hunthausen, one of Lewis and Clark County’s Commissioners, invited me to join him on HCTV for a conversation about the Rocket Project, the restoration of a piece of playground equipment at the county fairgrounds and my students’ oral history project. Why not, I thought.

It’s a very odd thing, watching oneself on video. It’s nothing like looking at still photos. I always hate photographs of myself because they never look the way I see myself, and watching myself on video was even stranger: my mannerisms seemed unfamiliar though I live with myself all the time, and my voice…my voice is child-like and not at all how I hear it when I speak. My eyes, though…so many times people (men, mostly) have commented about my eyes, especially about the way I sometimes look at them. I’ve had people say, “the way you looked at me, I’ll never forget that look,” and it’s usually not because it was a good look, and yet, most of the time, I’ve not been conscious at all of giving someone a specifically meaningful glance. When I watched the video today, I was struck by the expressiveness of my eyes, and I had a glimpse, I think, of what some people have noted. There were a couple moments of intensity where I felt if my mood had been dark, I would not have wanted to be on the other side of “that look.” Very strange…I didn’t believe them before.

The entire “performance” lasted about 15 minutes, and my part was significantly less than that. Nonetheless, I was honored to be invited to join Andy and Jim Cottrill and Keith Hatch to talk about the Rocket Project and share some of the amazing things we’ve been doing at Helena College. It aired today at 4:00 on cable channel 189, and it will air again tomorrow, Friday, April 21, at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday at 4:00 p.m. in case you’d like to tune in. As I said initially, I won’t be quitting my day job. Here’s a link to a live stream:

http://helenacivictv.org/whats-on-our-channel/live-stream/

So…between my 55th birthday on Monday—a great day, I have to say—and my television debut, and a great week working with great students, and a lot of things going on and some coming to culmination, this has been an interesting week. On the way home from work tonight, I had a revelation: I am the boss of my life, totally and completely. I don’t have to consult one single person about the decisions I make or the reasons I make them. I can choose to do—or not do—any damn thing I please within the limits of the law and my conscience. And that revelation brought me to my next decision: 30 days is an arbitrary number that means nothing outside of a typical number of days in a month. In fact, 20 days is just as arbitrary and just as good in most cases, unless one is awaiting delivery of a baby or anticipating something else of such significance, and since I successfully managed to remain alcohol-free for 21 days—if I count today—why would it matter if I waited another nine days to enjoy a lovely glass of wine? And to whom did I have to answer, in any case, about whether or not I went 20 days or 30 days or four hours without an alcoholic drink? OH! I had only to answer to ME!

When I arrived home, I chose a nice bottle of wine from the wine rack—not the $54 cab, not yet—but a nice bottle, and I opened it, and I am enjoying a glass as I compose this post. I’m not gonna lie: I love red wine; I love being the boss of my life; I even love my job, today, and that’s a good thing because my television career was short-lived.

Here’s to a good day, friends. Cheers!

Day 17

Happy Easter! It’s day 17 of alcohol abstinence; it was pretty challenging last night when my friends Karen and Mary and I went to dinner after the roller derby bout between Helena’s Hel’z Belles and the Great Falls team. They had drinks at the bout, and it’s such a raucous atmosphere, I would have enjoyed a drink, but I had a diet coke instead, all the while remembering a paper one of my students wrote last fall about how bad diet soda is for one’s health. She ruined diet soda for me; since then, I buy flavored seltzer water.

After the bout, we went to MacKenzie River Pizza for dinner, and I really would have liked a glass of wine with my salad, but I had club soda instead. More than anything, now, it’s getting tedious to talk myself out of it, but I’m pretty determined.

To celebrate my 17 days of success, I went hiking with Adam today. He and I haven’t spent much time together over the past year. He was traveling over the holidays, when we usually have time to reconnect, and now he’s getting ready to go back to work for the Forest Service this month, so we had planned to hike today.

I met him at the junction of Lincoln Road and Highway 200, and then we went a couple miles toward Lincoln and turned north onto a road that was supposed to take us to the trail head of the Lewis and Clark Pass Trail. We got about 4.5 miles from the trail head and couldn’t go any further due to snow in the road, so we decided to walk, not knowing exactly how far away we were. When we got to the trail head, the trail itself was only 1.5 miles more to the top, so after eating our lunches, we decided to go on despite the snow. In some places, it was probably about two feet deep, but it was still frozen enough that we didn’t break through.

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We saw lots of scat on the way, wolf scat (which I’ve never seen before) and elk scat, and Adam found a grizzly paw print in the mud. He said it looked like a small bear. We didn’t see any live animals on the entire trek, nor did we see another human the entire time. Adam works for the Forest Service, in the Lincoln district, and he said the trails in that area are lightly used. I guess there’s no big attractions out that way to draw people in. I definitely plan to go hike that trail again this summer, and maybe I’ll even go on from the top. There are a few different trails that lead off from the top of that one.

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I left the house a little after 9 a.m. this morning and returned home about 5 p.m. After a hot bath and a light supper, I’m just about ready for bed. What a great day it was, and the best part is that summer isn’t even here yet. This is just the beginning of another great summer of adventure!

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