Monday, May 22, 2017

Tame the Inbox. Prepare for the Worksheet Tsumani. (And Other Modern-Day Hurculean Tasks)

Last week, I reduced the number of emails in my personal inbox to 12.  I felt like I had slayed a dragon, which is somewhat of a self-congratulatory statement, but people, do you get swarmed with emails like I do?  (I hope you don't because I have a genuine fondness for you, my reader, and getting swarmed with emails is like getting swarmed by locusts, minus the end-of-days vibe.)

These emails just keep coming.  They continually appear.  One right after another.  More always arrive.  They don't stop.  They never end.  It's never-ending.

Some emails can be deleted on sight, of course.  Some automatically get filtered into little folders that I've created and named in the attempt to streamline this facet of life.  (You know, so I can ignore them from afar.)  But some emails require actual reading -- and, even more strenuous -- some require not only reading, but actual thinking and responding.

This latter category is where I struggle.  I'm quite good at reading an email and then responding to it in my head without legitimately responding with spoken or typed words, like I'm sending my message via mental telepathy, which is even less reliable than homing pigeon.  Certain days, I also excel at reading an email, recognizing that a response is being demanded from me, ascertaining that it's not urgent, and then copping-out by closing it and thinking, "I'll respond to that later."

That is how you build up an inbox with hundreds of messages, my friends.

For the record, I never struggle with keeping on top of my work email account.  I ride that wave just fine, thank you, partially because it's earmarked as work.  Since almost all of my work is time-sensitive, I'm automatically trained to knock it out, stat.

No, it's just my personal and blogging email accounts, which morph into one inky black hole of messages about school picnics, summer campus registration deadlines, overdue library books, school cafeteria account balances, dress codes for a child's end-of-year field trip, upcoming Girl Scouts meetings and tumbling events, requests for me to review products on my blog even though I don't write product reviews on my blog, one rogue Bath and Body Works sale update that somehow didn't get filtered to my "shopping" folder, and friendly messages or forwarded stories from my dad.

Last week as I regarded that tangled web of messages, I got serious.  Enough was enough.  I plowed through my inbox savagely, responding and deleting, deleting and responding.  I added items to my calendar, even.  (Except for those events and deadlines that I had already missed, at which point shrugged it off as one less thing to deal with, before deleting and marching onward.)

I slayed the dragon.  I tamed the beast.  I reduced the inbox to a singular page -- and less than a full one, at that.

It's good timing, too, as any parent of school-aged children knows.  Because in the next few weeks as school comes to a close, all of the papers and worksheets and projects that teachers have carefully filed away during the 180-day school year will be sent home, crumpled of course, in your children's backpacks where, upon reaching your house, they'll be splayed across every flat surface -- your kitchen table, the hallway, the family room floor -- until your home resembles a snow globe classroom that's been vigorously shaken, until you're convinced that your children's school paperwork is infinite, until you finally figure out a filing system, or dump everything into a box to sort later, or just throw it all out.  Because you know, deep in your heart, that another school year will eventually begin, and with it, a new influx of paperwork and emails.

Me: Empty your backpack.
Her: Done.


Yes, those days are coming, but for now, I'm resting in the fact that at least I'm on top of my inbox.

For now.  

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Sunday, May 14, 2017

What I want for Mother's Day. Really.

Happy Mother's Day!  Since the dawn of this holiday, I daresay there's never been a mom who's refused those precious illegible cards written on construction paper with blunt crayons, or the yarn necklace strung with elbow macaroni, or the iconic painted Dollar Store wooden picture frame that gets propped up with a wooden stick.  Homemade gifts are part and parcel of motherhood.

But I also think that each mom secretly harbors a list of what she really would like.  If you're like me, they really don't cost much at all.

1) Take a nap.  This one is obvious.  I want to take the type of nap where I wake up and can't remember my name, much less what day or time it is.  I don't even care if my splayed posture makes me resemble a crime scene victim, or whether my kids poke me and wonder if I'm still breathing.  I just want a little extra sleep.

 
2) Drink sweet tea.  Is drinking a vat of sweet tea good for me?  Certainly not.  Do I care today?  Not one bit.  I need something to rouse me from my lingering nap-induced haze, after all, and I can't think of anything better than 32 fluid ounces of tried-and-true refreshment to make that happen.  Today there are free passes all around.  Sweet tea for everyone!


3) Make no decisions.  What's for lunch?  I don't know.  What's for dinner?  I don't know.  What should I do?  I don't care, as long as it's legal and doesn't involve setting things on fire, and I might even be loose on that last stipulation if you leave me alone and don't require me to form an opinion because I can't.  As in, I am physically and mentally unable to evaluate options, weight consequences, arbitrate between conflicting factions, or arrive at any conclusions today.

You see, today I have no vested interest in deciding what anyone eats or does, myself included, except that I've already laid claim to my sweet tea and nap.  (Those are non-negotiable.  I have already decided upon them wholeheartedly, like following Jesus.  No turning back.)  Everything else must be decided by someone else.  I have no capacity for decisiveness today.

4)  Have backpacks empty on their own accord.  There have been roughly 32 weeks this school year alone, and scientifically speaking, 32 weeks is plenty of time to have formed a productive habit.  Plenty of time.  Despite this, I still cannot remember to start the backpack-emptying-routine before bedtime on Sunday night -- a time that's already fraught with increased chaos, diminished patience, and the distressing epiphany that my children may not have bathed for the past three days.

5) Take one picture of my children where every single person is looking at the camera.  And nobody is snarling, or elbowing someone, or making a strange gesture that resembles jazz hands.

Because, you know, something's got to fill that hand-painted wooden picture frame, right?



Happy Mother's Day to all the moms out there!

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

Let's chat. It's time for a spring update.

Sometimes, it would be nice to sit down with you, my dear reader, so we could have a little chat.  I'd serve sweet tea, and together we could admire the gorgeous tree peonies that are blooming in my yard, even if we must look at them from inside because it's raining (again) today. 


Of course, our conversation would flit from topic to topic, as comfortable conversations are known to do, or simply because we're both too tired to sustain a singular coherent thought for too long.  There's so much to tell you, so let's chat!

Grading All The Things.  This time last week, I uploaded final grades for my four classes after grading final projects, final e-Portfolios, and final speeches.  It's always a sprint to the finish, but the kind of sprint that comes after you've already run a marathon, meaning that it's not very fast or pretty.  Nevertheless, the Spring 2017 semester is in the books, and I've been grateful for this gap week before I begin teaching my summer class on Monday.

Celebrating All the Things.  Within a span of less than two weeks, I've attended graduation as my department's Faculty Marshal, which thankfully is the only celebration that requires its celebrators to wear official academic regalia.  (To my knowledge, at least.  Maybe lots of other people regularly party while wearing a mortarboard.)  Additionally, we celebrated my husband's 40th birthday with a "40 Reason We Love You" scavenger hunt, and this week we're also celebrating two of my three daughters' birthdays.

Basically, this month we walk around our house declaring, "Let them eat cake!"


Cleaning All the Things.  Among other thrilling cleaning tasks, this week I scrubbed our kitchen cabinets with Murphy's Oil Soap and cleaned two kitchen drawers that hold our silverware and serving utensils, hand washing each piece.  I'd like to think that we're relatively tidy people, but these endeavors disabused that illusion. 

Planning All the Projects.  I've come to a realization: I need tasks in my life that look different when I finish them than when I started them.  Both teaching and parenting are rewarding, but when you reach the end of a day, nothing looks different.  (Well, perhaps with parenting things look different at the end of a day, if different means your house has imploded on itself with crumbs, toys, balled-up socks, school paperwork, and other various detritus of active children.)

This lack of visible progress at home and work sometimes wears on me.  I like seeing progress.  I'm a sucker for good before-and-after pictures, after all.  This is why I schedule time to work on projects each summer when my teaching load lessens -- projects I do with my hands, not only with my head.

This summer, for example, I'll tackle this mid-century modern cabinet that I snagged at a garage sale last year for $1.50.  It had been used to store vinyl records, hence the outline of musical notes on the cabinet doors.  Can't you envision new life being breathed into it with a fresh coat of paint and new hardware?


I tell you, this has the potential to generate a stunning before-and-after picture!  (If you have any color recommendations, drop me a comment!)

We Once Had This Tree.  We have a great view from the front porch of our house.  We can see the stadium, which is a campus hallmark, and we have a perfect showing of our town's 4th of July fireworks.  In the past few years there's been one problem, though.  A tree across the street has grown so large that it obscures our view.  My husband and I have joked about cutting it down, or staging an accident, or discretely hammering copper nails into its base to kill it.  Each time we have a storm, my husband prays that it would get struck by lightning.  Alas, it's never worked.

Until last week.  We didn't have just any storm; we had an epic storm that knocked out power for multiple sections of town for several days.  With the wind raging and rain pounding, Joel walked to our front window, looked at the tree, and prayed, "God, I'd love to see that knocked down."  Then, in his own words, he immediately thought, "That'll never happen."

Within seconds, though, a gust of wind surged, and right before his eyes the tree cracked in half and fell into the road.

Moral of the story: God is capable of answering our prayers even if we doubt.  Another moral of the story: God must like our view of the stadium and fireworks, too.


Cumulative Fatigue.  I once read a book about marathon running that discussed how runners should log enough mileage each week to have their legs reside in a state of cumulative fatigue.  Then, as runners taper with less mileage during the week leading up to the race, their legs will feel fresh again, leading to a better performance.

Even though I understand the logic behind this training method, I never could get past the phrase cumulative fatigue.  It sounds awful, doesn't it?

But cumulative fatigue is a phrase that I'd use to describe how I've been feeling.  I'm tired.  I've felt chronically tired for the past two months, in fact.  Each time I decide to schedule a doctor's appointment, I experience a day or two when I feel relatively normal.  (This is oddly similar to taking your car to the garage and having the suspicious clinking noise disappear when the mechanic listens to the engine, or scheduling a hair cut and having your hair, which intuitively feels the treat of scissors, behave more manageably than it has in weeks.)

I don't know whether my tiredness is due to actual illness, or general wear-and-tear, or mental exhaustion from making hundreds of decisions (see Grade All the Things above).  Perhaps I simply need some more sunshine, views of tree peonies, and the happy work of DIY projects to kick a little more energy into my days.   At any rate, I'm finally going to the doctor tomorrow.

Is your tea finished yet?  Would you like another glass? 

Granted, I've monopolized this conversation, but I'm so glad we could chat today.  Drop me a line if you have anything pressing to share, like a fallen tree, or whether your family also experiences clusters of birthday celebrations, or whether you've ever dealt with cumulative fatigue.  I'm all ears!

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Monday, May 1, 2017

A Few Needed Hours at a Campsite

Sometimes, you don't know know what you need, but then you get it, and it dawns that this thing is exactly what you had wanted all along.  This happened on Saturday.  I had taught my final classes of the semester on Friday, and given that my students wouldn't submit final projects until Monday, I had no other grading to finish over the weekend.  For the first time in weeks, I had a moment to breathe.

It feels good to breathe.

In this state of exhaling, we spent a few hours with friends at their campsite on Saturday.  We grilled chicken over the fire and toasted s'mores. 


We walked along the Little Juniata River and watched a fly fisherman cast his line.


All this time as I caught up with friends, ate chicken, licked marshmallow off my fingers, and wondered if the fisherman would get a good catch, in the back of my mind I thought: At this moment, I have room to breathe.  At this moment, I don't feel like I need to be doing anything else.

It's wonderful to feel like you shouldn't be doing anything else, like nothing else is hanging over your head.

I needed that.  I really, really needed that.

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Saturday, April 22, 2017

An unfortunate (true) story about a substitute teacher, a third grade class, and a hamster

On Thursday when the bus dropped off my younger two daughters from school, my eight-year-old had pressing news.  "Five kids threw up in my classroom today and had to go home," she said. "One was sitting right beside me."

No parent ever wants to hear these words because you know, deep in your heart, that this isn't a mere statement.  It's a proclamation.  It's fair warning.  It's game on.  Your child is now a ticking time bomb inserted into your family structure with the power to bring you all down.


She was sick within hours.  The next morning, my oldest daughter also complained of an upset stomach and promptly joined the ranks of Sick Kramer Children Staying at Home.  I succumbed today.  None of this has surprised me.  Twelve years of parenting have taught me many lessons, including the innate knowledge that the stomach bug rarely stays contained.

But this isn't just a story about our family.  It's a story about the unfortunate substitute teacher who was in the third grade classroom that day -- you know, that fresh-out-of-college, maybe 23-year-old substitute who, perhaps like a young foal, is still finding her footing as an educator while the regular teacher recovers from surgery for a few weeks.

I immediately tried to imagine her day because, people, five kids vomiting in a third grade classroom is not ordinary.  It's a day that goes down in lore and gets referenced for years -- maybe decades -- to come, like the Blizzard of '93.

It's a day that lives in infamy.

I imagine her pausing in shock when the first child threw up, then springing into action and calling the custodian.  I see her regaining composure and re-establishing classroom order as the student was ushered to the nurse and the mess was cleaned.  But then the second kid threw up.  And then the third.  Then two more for good measure.

Somewhere along the line, I imagine her composure ending.

No.  No, no, no, no, no.  Dear Lord, no.

I didn't know that much stuff could come out of such a small person.

This is not what I signed up for.

That's it.  I'm showering in Lysol as soon as I get home.  

I will never wear these clothes again.

What are the odds of this happening while I'm subbing?  I've clearly been set up.  Recovering from surgery?  That's easy!  I'll take recovering from surgery compared to this!

Lysol is not enough.  This room must be destroyed, and I need a Hazmat suit.  I saw the movie Contagion, and this scene is eerily similar. There's no way today's going to end well.

(I'm speculating on that last one, but then again, I am the woman who proposed burning down her own house as a viable middle-of-the-night solution when a child throw up on our hallway carpeting.)

All told, the word on the street is that two more children threw up during their bus rides home.  One made it off the bus and then reached his yard, where he promptly threw up in the bushes.  Like my own daughter, more students got sick later in the evening.  I even saw the father of classmate at the grocery store that night buying ginger ale while I was picking up Saltine crackers.  (We nodded in solidarity.)  The substitute teacher had to take the next day off, and even Cupcake, the dearly loved classroom hamster, was sadly found the next morning resting in peace.

A day in infamy, I tell you.

Oh, substitute teacher, I'd raise my glass to you in your honor, but I can't hold down any liquids yet.  You have earned your stripes.

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