Category Archives: Women

Hiking Montana

I was an overweight kid, and my least favorite class was gym, or physical education, as it is euphemistically called. My least favorite week of the school-year was the week of physical fitness testing: no pull-ups for this fat girl, only marginally more sit-ups, and if I could be violently ill on the day of the dreaded “600,” that was all good…until I had to make it up the next time I was in attendance. At least I didn’t come in last since I was the only one “running.”

An overweight, asthmatic (diagnosed in adulthood), I was always the last person to complete the torturous 600 meters around the track, often forced to face the ridicule of my classmates, especially the boys. Gym teachers took little pity on me, probably just as disgusted with my poor physical condition as my juvenile classmates.

I started smoking around 12 years old, and by the time I reached the age of majority, I was fully addicted to nicotine, a fantastic accomplishment for an overweight asthmatic. With the exception of about a year when I was pregnant with my son, I smoked until the age of 34, finally succumbing to the intense pressure to conform to appropriate social norms and give up the devil.

About this time, which would have been the latter half of 1996, I decided to get serious about exercise. Previously, my attempts at physical fitness had been sporadic and mostly related to weight loss. In 1989, at the age of 27, I finally got sick and tired of being fat and tired and joined Weight Watchers, losing fifty pounds in six months. During that time, I did exercise occasionally, but I was also smoking, so my weight loss can be mostly attributed to calorie restriction. When I quit smoking in 1996, I gained back about twenty of the fifty pounds I had previously lost, and in order to get back to a desirable weight, I started walking. The exercise had a two-fold effect: it helped with my weight loss efforts, and it also helped distract me from my addiction. The healthier I got, the more I had to lose if I reverted to unhealthy behaviors, so it became a new, healthy preoccupation.

Sometime previous to this, I saw a doctor about my allergies and asthma and got treatment and medications for my breathing problems. As my walking picked up, I gradually started jogging, and soon, my jogging became regular running. I began running up to six miles a day, which helped me drop my weight back to my goal of 138 pounds. For several months, I ran Highway 89N between Clyde Park and Wilsall, always trying to improve my speed and/or distance. Sometime around the year 2000, I developed a stress fracture in my pelvis requiring eight weeks of nothing more rigorous than walking. I put back a few pounds.

Since then, my weight has gone down. Today, I consistently weigh in the 140 range though I can fluctuate five pounds either way. I have not had any tobacco products in 22 years, and my nutrition is constantly informed by my training in Weight Watchers. I whole-heartedly endorse the program that gave me a “normal” life, twenty-nine years ago. Though I am now vegetarian, I eat a normal diet, one that sometimes includes indulgences, and I always eat food I enjoy. More than anything else, though, I credit physical activity with my ability to maintain a healthy weight.

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This last weekend, I hiked with Mark on Friday and Saturday, and today, I logged four miles on the walking path near my house. Tomorrow we’ve planned another hike. For someone who used to dread the 600 meter fitness run, I’ve come to love, really love, the exertion and challenge of cardio exercise, especially the zen-like results of a hike in Montana. More even than the physical benefits, of which there are many, the mental and emotional benefits of hiking Montana cannot be over-stated. Some people would claim that I tend to emotional extremes, and that’s probably an accurate assessment, but I am much calmer now than I was as a teenager, and I often wonder how different my early years might have been if I had known the calming power of a walk in Montana’s natural beauty. The peacefulness is part of it, the beauty, the challenge, the vastness of Montana’s natural spaces, the quiet, the forced focus on the here and now, the demand that other stuff be relegated to later. All of that, and more, is part of the magic.

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I thought about that today while on my walk, listening to Staind, one of my favorite stations on Pandora. I thought about it again when Mark asked me to meet him tomorrow afternoon for a hike: I felt the endorphins spike in response to the stimuli. My teenage self could not have known that at age 55, I would be healthier than at any other point in my life. She could not have known how the prospect of a five-mile hike in 40 degree weather would be the equivalent of a date at the movies. She would have been very hopeful.

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I remember, as a young kid, longing for the day when I would be forty years old. At that age, I reasoned, I would be a grandma and it wouldn’t matter to anyone if I was fat: how wrong I was and how sad that I thought my joy in life would be as a fat grandma, feeding my grandchildren cookies. Turns out I haven’t gotten any grandchildren yet, but more importantly, the last thing I want to do is bake cookies. There are mountains to climb, rivers to ford, trails to follow, and many places to get lost. Love where you live.

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SOT (State of the Teacher Address)

Lately, I’ve had a bit of writer’s block going on, and the more one worries about writer’s block, the worse it gets. “I haven’t written in months…how can I be a good model if I can’t put a couple sentences together?” These are the thoughts I’ve entertained most days for at least several weeks in a row. So, here I am, preparing my State of the Teacher Address, and wondering how I’ll navigate this treacherous territory.

I’ve noticed that most click-bait blogs today have “? Number of things you should do, know, whatever, if you’re this…” I don’t know: it draws me in because there’s a limit, I guess. So here goes:

Ten things you should do when addressing the throngs of adoring students and other random readers (yeah, I’m talking to you, Brazil) who haphazardly end up on Karenhendersonblog.com.

  1. First, realize that it’s been a while, and if this post is essentially lame, people will forgive you. After all, they’re not going to read it much longer anyway.
  2. Throw them a morsel of bait: my personal life is undergoing transition…I’m kind of lost right now.
  3. Tell them how important they are to you: Oh, god…you guys…is there any way I could possibly explain the emotional reward I get from working with students, day in and day out for several months at a time, knowing that you hate me with the fires of hell at midterm but at the end realize it was all for your own good, that I sacrificed my own social life to grade your papers and help you improve your communication skills, all in service to your overall achievement??
  4. Tell the truth: That is the truth. Really.
  5. Support it with evidence: I have the evidence; I have the data that show that our students go on to do amazing things, both at the university level and in the workplace. I helped make that possible. Students we’ve sent to Missoula tell me they were well-prepared for the rigors of university work, that they never once felt behind or under-prepared or “less than” their university peers. This isn’t only my efforts, but this is the efforts of my colleagues, good men and women who truly take their rewards from the successes of their students.
  6. More evidence: It happens nearly every day; someone tells me that something I said, something I did, something has inspired them to keep trying, keep working, keep striving. Sometimes it comes in messages from other students, like it did today, about comments overheard somewhere about how my influence, my presence in someone’s life was meaningful and made a difference. I never know when that sweet gem of love will descend on me, but it happens frequently enough that I know to be patient when things are mostly dark and complicated.
  7. Students love hearing about my personal life, my loves and my losses, especially my losses. They rally around like fans at a rock concert and give me dating advice, offering both X and Y chromosome insight. That love is almost enough…
  8. Remember, students, college life is temporary. It’s sweet—difficult at times—but this is a time in your lives you’ll never repeat. College is temporal; you’ll move on, join the real world, and this life will be a memory of stressful tests, annoying homework, strong social involvement, and intense relationships. The real world is somewhat different, which is why I’ve yet to join it.
  9. What you’re doing now matters, too. Often, people delay their own dreams and hopes and desires because they’re looking down the road. There’s nothing wrong with that—necessarily—but today, this minute and the minute that just passed…you’ll never get them back. They’re gone. How did you experience those minutes? Were they wasted in bitterness or barely acknowledged at all? Pay attention to the now.
  10. Know that I love you: you are more than my job; you are more than random faces moving through the semesters of my life (because I am a perennial college student who refuses to give up the life); you are real humans with names, faces, families, problems, hopes, dreams, and challenges, and no matter how many students will intersect my life, everyone of you leaves a piece of yourself behind with me, and each of you take a piece of me with you into your futures (don’t try to do the math; the DNA thing would be very complicated). This job is so challenging that no amount of money could really compensate me, but it is also so rewarding that nothing else will ever satisfy me.

Go into the world and do well, but more importantly, go into the world and do good, and make sure you come back some day and say hello.

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.

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.

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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.

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Jamie, me, and Jet

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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.

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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.

Solidarity

I marched today; I marched in solidarity with people (not just “women”) to support human rights. For some people, today was definitely a response to our new president, but for me, it was more a positive response to support human rights for all. It would be very easy for me to go negative; believe me, but I don’t see anything positive coming out of that, and right now, I really need more positive than negative, so I choose to view it in a positive way.

It was awesome, really. They expected maybe 5,000 people, but as I drove into Helena from Montana City, I could tell there would be many more. The streets were clogged with traffic. I had planned to meet my friends at the “mall-that-isn’t” but there was nowhere to park. We ended up meeting at the college and walking the several blocks to the capitol. That’s okay; I didn’t get my usual 30 on the treadmill today anyway. People were everywhere. There were just lines and lines of groups of people, many holding signs of the most original thought. I didn’t get many photos because I was too enthralled with just watching and being dumbstruck by the theatre. It was inspiring.

I saw on the Helena Independent Record website that they estimate 10,000 people were there. It felt like it. Inside the capitol building, people were everywhere, and I saw only one security person. It felt a little like the “people” had taken over.

We didn’t stay until the end. We all got chilled, and we knew the exodus would mean a traffic snarl, so we left early, but as I reflected on the event, I thought about my own life and how over the last several months, it’s been women who have sustained me. Many people don’t know the pain and tragedy of the past months for me, but there are a group of women who do know, and they are the heroes of my world. My cousin Jamie is at the forefront. From day one, she has been by my side, checking in, asking about my sleep and my eating, worried about my destructive behaviors and a solid constant in my changing world. Though much younger than I, she has been the voice of reason more than once.

Then there is June. June and I have been through hell and back (another story), and what’s amazing about her is her resilience and her take-no-shit attitude. She is a straight-shooter who calls ‘em like she sees ‘em, and too bad if you don’t like it. Sometimes I didn’t like it, but I had to hear it, and June was one to tell me.

Then there’s Deb M. and Karen RC and a collection of my colleagues and Facebook friends, who check in from time to time, despite their own busy lives, just to make sure I’m not alone or lonely. My friend Kerri recently spent part of the afternoon chatting with me on the phone, checking in, making sure I’m okay. My cousin Susan has been another support, someone I know I could call on any time, any day, despite the physical distance between us. She’s more like a sister than a cousin. And there’s my good friend, Laura, a busy mom/working woman/wife/activist who made time for me several times to vent on the phone or to go for a hike. What an unbelievable group of strong, compassionate women have surrounded me.

Tonight, I’m so humbled by it all. It’s true that sometimes women can be “mean girls.” I’ve seen that, too, but today I witnessed what I consider one of the most altruistic gatherings of people in support of others that I’ve ever seen (in such mass), and in my own life, I’ve felt it lately too.

I’m sure I’ve left out someone important, someone who has been a critical support, and I acknowledge that there have been some dudes who have been pretty darn considerate, but if I survive this crazy disruption of my life, and the next four years, it will be due to the love of my “sisters” and to female solidarity.