Category Archives: Higher Education

The Things We Never Say

In just over three weeks, I’ll be back to work full time. I know there won’t be a lot of sympathy for me based on that, but it does make me feel a little panicky. I’m not managing summer very well; how will I manage a fall semester I’m not yet ready for?

Now that I’m moving back into “teaching mode,” as opposed to summer slacker mode, I’m thinking about my upcoming classes and things I hope to do again and things I hope I won’t do ever again (yeah, no need to start a list for me, students), and I’m thinking about all those times when I should have told someone something but didn’t. I’m thinking of those many times when someone did something nice for me, and I thought about telling them how much I appreciated it or how much some little thing meant, but I didn’t. Time moves on, gets away from us, and after a while it seems silly to send someone a thank you card, especially after three years. But you should; I should. And since I’m moving back into “teacher mode,” this will be about teachers, but it could be anyone a person encounters, including teachers. It could be a coworker, a boss, a stranger or even a police officer or a judge! It could be any person who makes any kind of impact on your life. From a teacher’s perspective, here’s what it looks like:

Kaitlin’s not coming back; she is transferring to another school, and I’m quite sad about that. I was looking forward to having her in class again this fall, along with her pal, Nikki. Nikki, too, will not be in my class as scheduled, and I’m not sure why, but I hope it’s because she was accepted into the nursing program: that damn nursing program. I really like those two women, and the fact that they took classes from me, more than once…the same class…is a testament to them and to me: to them for facing a demon (College Writing) and taking it on…with the SAME instructor, and me, for being that instructor they chose to take again. Here’s the thing: I know they like me, too, because they told me. I’m so grateful they told me.

Last May, Nikki and Kaitlin showed up unexpectedly in my office, one holding a white orchid plant and one a bottle of wine (how’d they know????). They sheepishly explained that they wanted to spare me the embarrassment of tears in class (and how’d they know that?) by bringing them to my office, privately, with a card I did not immediately open. To say I was touched by the gesture is an understatement, of course, and I filed it all away “to process later,” and the three of us went to class.

It was the card, more than the flower or the wine (believe it or not) that touched the core of my soul, and I’d love to write the sentiment here, but somehow that feels like it would be a violation of the intensely personal messages the women wrote for me. I can say that I was surprised, had not realized the impact I’d had on those two women who had to repeat my class. When I finally did sit down and read the card, there were tears galore, all mine, some happy but some a little sad, what I could have done better had I known more…

Both were registered for Creative Writing this fall, and I was so excited to work with them in an entirely different genre, one much more relaxed than academic writing. I know them both so much better now; I could really enjoy them, I thought, and we all could make grand, academic strides, but now that won’t happen. In fact, I don’t know if I will ever see either of them again. What I do know, however, is the way that I touched them and how they touched me. The gifts, but especially the card with the long, handwritten messages, one on the inside left and the other on the inside right, remind me that what I do every day matters, both good and not-so-good. One of them wrote that my consistent support kept her going at times…and I wondered how many times I had not been as supportive as I could have been. In the future, I’ll think about her comments when I’m dealing with other students, and I’ll remember that I don’t always see reflected to me—at the time—my efforts and impact. Sometimes, I see a blank stare.

I’m pretty good about telling people they’ve been important in my life; I love sending handwritten “thank you” cards (old fashioned as that is), and I enjoy giving people the thanks they deserve, but there have been those times when it’s seemed not as important or a little excessively sentimental (oh, yeah, that’s me for sure…) and I didn’t do it. I regret that now. My life’s work is teaching, and it’s only through my interactions with students that I really know how I’m doing and whether I should keep doing it or whether I should apply to be…I don’t know…a meter-reader. Nikki and Kaitlin reassured me that I should give the old teaching gig another year or two, and I’m excited to do that and eager to up my game and see how much better I might be this year, to see how many students like them I might meet.

So, do it. Whether a teacher, a spiritual leader, a parole officer, a neighbor, or a stranger, there’s never a negative outcome when we express our gratitude and affection for each other, and sometimes it inspires those people to try even harder, to give a little more. I know I will, and if any of you know Nikki or Kaitlin, tell them I’ll miss them a lot this year. I won’t be the same without them.

The Rockets’ Red Glare and Other Observations

Fortunately, I’m not paid to blog because, if I was, I’d be running a deficit right now. Neither am I paid to write, and that, too, would be a less-than-productive source of income for me based on the amount I’ve written lately. However, I AM paid to teach, and I’ve been doing a fair amount of work related to my teaching, especially and including The Rocket Project, formally known by the publication title, Helena’s Rocket Slide: The History of a Cultural Icon.

http://www.blurb.com/search/site_search?search=Helena%27s+Rocket+Slide

Astute readers might be wondering at the lack of symmetry between this and my previous blog post where I stated that the summer of 2017 would be dedicated to play and nonacademic pursuits, but those who know me well will not be surprised. Without an overabundance of things to occupy my time, I subconsciously start seeking other projects, and no one is more surprised than I when suddenly there’s no time to accomplish them all.

I’ll begin with The Rocket Project: since last August, that silly rocket has been in the periphery and then eventually at the forefront of my consciousness until finally culminating in the publication. Never having done an oral history project before, I began with researching what such a project entailed. Next, I tried to imagine how I could get lots of different people to “buy in” to the project, including students who would have to push out of their comfort zones (challenged already by the whole college experience) and call, setup, and interview complete strangers about a local landmark. Putting myself into their shoes, I knew they would hate it, and they did. I also banked on the hope that my cultural capital with enough of them would float the project well enough to be successful, and it was a good bet. Everyone eventually carried out their responsibilities, and many of them found that they grew dramatically as students—and citizens—after meeting such fascinating and inspiring people who were also donating their time and energies to support the fairgrounds and the Rocket Project. After literally hundreds of hours of my own time planning, arranging and facilitating interviews, grading papers, listening to and editing transcripts, and then publishing the book, I came away with a new reverence for civic engagement, selfless service, and the importance of “place” in our lives. I will never forget the experience of The Rocket Project.

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At the unveiling of the rocket, May 13, 2017.

I will be at the Lewis & Clark Last Chance Stampede Fair next week, from Wednesday until Saturday, selling copies of the book. TRIO Club Students2Scholars fronted funding to purchase a dozen copies of the book to sell, and when they’re gone, we’ll take orders for later delivery. Come by and see me! Say hello and take a peek at the book! Help me pass the time on a hot summer day.

Reflections, Writing 095, is in late production due to The Rocket Project, and I’m sweating bullets wondering how I’ll get it finished before school begins, but stranger things have happened, and I’m hoping to somehow pull off a miracle. Between that, planning fall classes, and my responsibilities as a member of the hiring committee of the UM President, I’m beginning to feel the pressure of fall pressing in.

The Rocket, however, has not entirely dominated my time, and Facebook friends know I’ve been very busy enjoying summer enthusiastically. I’ve hiked Refrigerator Canyon, Hanging Valley, Hauser Dam, Fleschers Pass, McQuithy Gulch, and Mount Helena, all new experiences except for Mount Helena, my go-to hiking area. I’ve kayaked Hauser Lake, Canyon Ferry, and the Reservoir and hope to get out on the Missouri before I head back to school. In terms of outdoor fun, it’s been one for the record books.

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Hanging Valley hike: thirteen miles round trip and a spectacular view (oh, and Train Like a Girl)!

I’ve made time for friends and cultural pursuits, too, and my high school chum, Cinda, visited over the 4th of July, just before all of us were jolted awake by the 5.8 earthquake on July 6th at 12:30 a.m. What to do in the middle of the night after being wakened by a house-shaking earthquake? Why, check Facebook, of course! All my local friends were up and chatting about the frightening experience of waking to an earthquake in progress, and my own thoughts reflected my literary background: I’m not supposed to die in an EARTHQUAKE! I wonder if that’s how it feels when the time actually arrives, if the person is annoyed or shocked at how it all goes down.

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Cinda and me: friends for forty years!

Cinda in repose on my patioIMG_0341

My mother left today after visiting me for the first time since I’ve lived in Montana City. We took the Gates of the Mountains Boat Tour, the Last Chance Trolley Train, went sapphire mining at the Spokane Bar Sapphire Mine, and saw Tarzan at the Grandstreet Theatre. Along with a variety of Snapchat photos, meals out, and wine, I enjoyed the time with my mom tremendously and look forward to our next opportunity to spend time together. Since my dad died last October 31st, we’ve all been learning how to move forward as a family, and individually, without him here, and this was the first time Mom and I spent time alone, just us with nothing to do but have fun, and we did.

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What’s not to love?
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Mining for our fortunes

Finally, some people missed my December and January posts where I wrote about my failed marriage and were surprised by recent revelations that my hiking and kayaking partner is also a romantic partner. Mark is indulgent of my penchant for social media and indifferent to whether anyone knows or cares about our relationship, which I appreciate a lot. So, regular readers of my blog should expect to see frequent updates of the adventures of Mark and Karen, and I appreciate the many expressions of support and affection I’ve received, not only in the last couple months but the previous nine or ten months. I lived through several dark days and lots of self-doubt, but I’ve emerged on the other side, and though way behind in my goals for summer 2017, it certainly has been one to remember.

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Me, Mark, and Mom

 

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Appropriately, at the top of Mount Helena

Please come see me at the fair!

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!

SPRING BREAK 2017

Since 2003 when I first started college at Montana State, I’ve never vacationed during Spring Break. Other people would talk about their vacations, sometimes even exotic locales, but not me: I had work to do. As a nontraditional college student, I was driven and focused on doing well at school, and just generally, vacations were few and far between. As a teacher, I always have plenty of work to catch up on, and I always used that time to grade papers or finish up unfinished business. Sometimes it was spent working on taxes. Finally, after fourteen years of higher ed, I planned and enjoyed a real Spring Break. This might be the beginning of a tradition.

My friends know that the last several months have been difficult; during that time, my cousin Jamie has been one of the stalwart supports in my circle. Always just a text message or email away, she frequently checks in and checks on. More like a sister, she and I share a connection that goes deep. We understand each other at a very intimate level, and we share pretty much everything. Despite that we’re separated by more than ten years, we have a lot in common. I’ve wanted to visit her in the Bay Area ever since she moved there, and finally, we made it happen. I gave myself a gift last Christmas: a trip to San Jose to visit Jamie over Spring Break. Finally, I was one of those people who actually spend Spring Break having fun rather than working the entire time. Maybe I’ve turned over a new leaf!

The first day of my “vacation” was spent traveling, and it started out badly. Due to stormy weather in Salt Lake City, my flight was postponed so that instead of arriving in SJ around 4:00, I didn’t get in until after 9 p.m. Dinner plans with Jamie and friends were ruined (for me, at least), but I still arrived on the same day. On Sunday, Jamie had everything planned: brunch at Absinthe in Hayes Valley; a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge; a stop at Coit Tower; shopping at Union Square; a drink at a beautiful hotel in the area; dinner at Dosa, a fabulous Indian foods restaurant. It was perfect.

Absinthe

Monday Funday was reserved for wine country! We started our day leisurely, then drove first to Gloria Ferrer in Sonoma County. A light breeze cooled the day, but the sun shined, and I felt crazily indulgent, tasting wine midday on a Monday. We shared the patio with only a few other lucky people. From there, we headed north to Robert Keenan Winery in the Napa Valley. There, we were nearly alone with the winery staff who were very friendly and accommodating, even inviting Jet to join us inside. I splurged and bought two bottles of wine and spent much more than I usually do (think 14 Hands Hot to Trot at Costco), one for me and one for Jamie. I brought mine home in my suitcase, worried that all my clothes would be pink when I got here, but all’s well, and I’m saving the bottle for a special occasion. We wrapped up with dinner at Rutherford Grill, where I ate the best veggie burger I’ve ever had and drank more wine.

gloria

Jamie, me, and Jet

Jamie and me Napa

Tuesday, we hiked; it was beautiful and pastoral, and Jet joined us. Happy dog, happy dog, happy, happy, happy dog. I miss my dogs a lot, and spending time with Jet was therapeutic (she also shared the bed with us). She is a beautiful animal with a loving heart. The first hike of the new year, it was challenging and exhilarating at once. My smile in the photos shows clearly how I was feeling. After returning home to shower, we ventured to Half Moon Bay where we shopped in some sweet little stores and bought matching bracelets. I had bought us both matching bracelets when we hiked in Glacier last fall, and we were wearing them while I was in California; it might, also, be a new tradition. We stopped for drinks in a watering hole/hotel and it seemed like we generated a certain amount of attention though I’m not sure why. Maybe we were having too much fun.

Me hiking

Hiking

Jamie and me Half Moon Bay

Finally, we ate dinner at Moss Beach Distillery; enjoying an ocean view table, we watched the sun set on the water as we ate and contemplated our last day together. The meal was perfect, as all our meals were, and I felt really happy and content and about five pounds heavier. We also laughed, a lot. More than once during my visit, we found ourselves wiping away tears as we laughed about some silly thing. It was a bitter-sweet ending to an exciting and emotional four days together.

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Yesterday, we rose early, and Jamie delivered me to SJC for my journey home. It was mostly uneventful except for some crazy turbulence between Seattle and Helena; I wondered for a moment who would teach my classes if I didn’t make it home. Sorry, students: we didn’t crash. I was in bed before 8:30 last night and slept until nearly 7 a.m. today. I guess I needed the rest after such a fantastic experience.

Today, life resumed its normal rhythm: I graded papers, went for a lovely 4-mile jog, and did some laundry. I also got word that my tenure has been approved by my college; now I just await the final decision by the Commissioner and the Regents. That’s a nice gift to return home to and a reminder that my work is what enables me to enjoy the finer things, like visiting my cousin in San Jose. I guess I’ll keep teaching for a while; I can’t wait to open that special bottle of wine. Cheers, friends.