Month: September 2014

Exit 22. All in my head.

I had a strange dream recently.  In my dream, I was sorting through a bunch of boxes, just like I need to do one of these days in real life, except I was at my parents’ house.  I decided to take a break and turn on the TV.  ESPN was on, or maybe ESPN2 or ESPN8 or whatever, and they were showing water polo.  Remember, my dreams are pretty weird sometimes.  Problem #1 with this dream: I don’t follow water polo at any organized level, and I certainly don’t know why I was so interested in that game.  It was a big game, though, like a championship or something like that.  They were about to do the coin toss.  Problem #2: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t a coin toss in water polo.  Anyway, the announcers gave the names of the water polo-related celebrities that would be calling heads or tails. Problem #3: Why are celebrities making the call instead of players?  This makes no sense.  This dream keeps getting more and more messed up.  But as they were announcing the coin toss callers, much as they would announce who was singing the National Anthem, I thought, “Hey, Vega the Nice Ex played water polo.  I wonder if she’s there?”  Just as I had that thought, the announcer read her name; she was the second of the celebrity coin toss callers, having attained the status of water polo celebrity by virtue of having won a gold medal in water polo at the last Olympics.  They read her full name, with the full version of her first name (she normally goes by a shortened version of her first name, or at least she did when I knew her) and a hyphenated last name (I don’t remember the other last name, except that it had three syllables), implying that she had gotten married since we last spoke.

Problem #4: To my knowledge, Vega the Nice Ex never played water polo.  She may have at one time, and I may have just forgotten–we broke up in 2006, and I last spoke to her in 2011, and at that time it had been a few years–but she certainly didn’t win an Olympic gold medal in it.  I would have known about that.  For that matter, maybe it wasn’t the coin toss at all; maybe she was actually singing the National Anthem, and that’s why they were introducing her.  That would make a lot more sense, since Vega is a classically trained soprano.  But I know that in the world of this dream, Vega had played water polo in the Olympics.  Nothing ever makes sense in my dreams, after all.

Vega being married is not a problem in this story, since she was in a serious relationship last time we talked.  But I do remember feeling a spark of some awkward negative feeling go off in me when the announcer read her new last name.  I felt like a failure.  Even though in real life we broke up mutually and on good terms, I was presented with this clear picture that she was an Olympic gold medalist and had a husband now, and the whole episode made me feel like I would never be good enough to attract an accomplished and successful woman like that, or any woman for that matter.  Then that got me thinking about something that someone else said to me a couple weeks ago, and how the contrast of these two settings would make a perfect topic to write about for Highway Pi.

Shortly after that thought, I woke up and realized that I had been dreaming.  I found that kind of frustrating, because I couldn’t use my idea for what to write about if it wasn’t a true story.  But then I got to thinking about how the fact that this dream was complete fiction actually ends up making the point I was going to write about even stronger.

All that crap about not being good enough, it’s all in my head.  Just like the dream.

I mentioned above something that someone else said to me a couple weeks ago.  She told me that she enjoyed reading my Facebook posts about my job and my students, because of how I have a career that I enjoy.  With where she is right now, at a part time job that is not a direct stepping stone to her career, and having to take a lot of classes before she can start her master’s in a field completely different from her bachelor’s degree, it is nice to read about someone with an established career who enjoys his work.  My gut reaction when she told me that–and now that I think about it, it was my out-loud reaction too–was that it felt kind of odd for someone to see me as an example of someone with his life together.  I certainly don’t feel like I have my life together.

Now I’ll admit that getting this new job took away a significant part of the reason I tend to feel like I don’t have my life together.  For the first time in a while, I actually have enough money at the end of the month to save something, and I’m finally making more money than I made in 2003, with actual opportunities for advancement.  But I’m still 38 with no wife and no kids, and I’m probably farther from the wife-and-kids goal than I ever have been.  I’m still confused about a lot of things, as well as what I want in the first place, when it comes to that.  And my house is a mess.

But it’s all a matter of perspective, and my perspective when I see myself as a failure for these reasons is distorted.  My perspective when I see myself as a success because I make more money now is just as distorted.  All of that is in my head.  It is based on false premises that a high paying job and a traditional wife and 2.3 kids living in the suburbs is a universal measure of success.  It’s not.  That is a flat-out lie, just like Vega’s gold medal in water polo was a flat-out lie.  And even if I were to become acquainted with an attractive single Olympic gold medalist, why would that automatically disqualify me?  Why should I feel less worthy, of less value as a human being, because I don’t have these great accomplishments?  That goes against everything I believe and stand for.  And yet it’s so hard to change those thought patterns.  But it must be done.  Those thoughts, those destructive lies, are completely counterproductive in every way, far more so than the actual counterproductivity values of having a low paying job, not being popular with the opposite sex, or not having a gold medal.

I am a beloved child of God.  I have a pretty awesome job and great friends.  And I refuse to let lies control me.

Exit 21. An interesting fashion trend.

As you know, I started a new job this school year, and I’ve noticed an interesting fashion trend among the students at this school: Pizza My Heart shirts.  All over the place.  On any given day, I’ll probably see an average of at least one or two Pizza My Heart shirt in every period, with a comparable proportion of students wearing Pizza My Heart shirts as they pass by in the hallway.

Let me explain, for those of you who don’t live around here.  Pizza My Heart is a chain of surfing-themed pizza restaurants located in the San Francisco Bay Area and Central Coast regions of California.  They have 23 locations between Emeryville to the north and Isla Vista to the south, according to their website.  I don’t feel qualified to write about the restaurant itself, because I’ve only been to Pizza My Heart once.  It was the one in downtown Santa Cruz.  I do remember it being good pizza, though.  They also sell t-shirts at all of their locations, usually featuring surfing-related designs, and they have a meal deal type thing where you get a slice of pizza and a t-shirt for ridiculously cheap.  It’s actually genius marketing on their part, because they get their brand plastered on thousands of walking human billboards all over California.  I’m still a little bitter that the largest t-shirt they carry is still too small for me.  I just checked on the website, and the online store also only carries shirts up to one size too small for me.  I’m a pretty big guy.  Come on, no XXL shirt?  I’m sure some of the biggest Pizza My Heart fans probably eat enough pizza that they’re pretty extra-extra-large by now.  I wore my XL Pizza My Heart shirt a few times, but after I washed it once it was too small to be comfortable.  It’s now sitting in a box in my garage, along with all the other shirts that are too small for me now but too nostalgic to throw away.  (If any of my crafty friends read this, how much would it cost me to get you to turn these shirts into a quilt?)

So why would it be such a big deal that so many students at my school have Pizza My Heart shirts?  It’s because the nearest Pizza My Heart location is an hour and a half drive from the school.  (And the nearest Pizza My Heart location that is actually in a touristy area is a bit farther than that.)  This is not a place where the kids hang out after school on a regular basis or go out to eat after their baseball or soccer games.  They can’t get to Pizza My Heart unless they take a day trip to the beach with their families.  They have to make a significant effort to acquire these shirts.  And I just can’t figure out what the big deal is, although I have a theory now.

I wondered first if many of the kids took some sort of school-sponsored trip to that part of California and all ate at Pizza My Heart together.  For example, I thought maybe a science class did a field trip to the aquarium in Monterey, or to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk to discuss physics while riding the roller coasters.  But I asked a few students about their Pizza My Heart shirts, and I didn’t get answers that suggested any sort of group activity.  Most of the answers I got involved the pizza being good and the shirt being comfortable.  Those are good reasons, but still not enough to explain such a huge number of kids wearing shirts from a non-local restaurant.  I have another theory.

Let’s not forget, these are still middle schoolers, with all their middle school quirks.  Like peer pressure.

At some point in the relatively recent past, there was probably some kid who took a day trip to, say, Santa Cruz with his or her family, and on the way home the family had dinner at Pizza My Heart.  The kid got a t-shirt and wore it to school, and all of a sudden everyone wanted to look cool, just like that kid.  So they all started bugging their families to take them to Pizza My Heart next time they went to the beach.  (Again, genius marketing on the part of Pizza My Heart executives to get their brand out there.)  I remember being a kid and wanting to wear stuff that all the other kids were wearing.  Most of the time I didn’t get my way, but I still blame a fascination I had with Hard Rock Cafe shirts in my 20s, as well as a fascination with concert tour shirts that continues to this day, on things that I’d see other kids wearing when I was a teenager.

I’m not saying it’s a bad thing.  It’s just funny to see how these trends spread.  And it’s kind of sad how so many engage in that herd mentality, where being like everyone else is more important than being oneself.  Fortunately, some people grow out of it as they get older.  I just wish more did.  And in the big picture, fashion trends really are a relatively harmless form of peer pressure.  If I had a kid that age, I’d encourage them not to care what the crowd is doing, but if they wanted to dress like everyone else to fit in, I wouldn’t be as worried as, say, if they wanted to do drugs to fit in.  And I’ve definitely seen much more bizarre and irrational fashion trends than Pizza My Heart shirts among students in previous years.

And the genius marketing is showing itself again, because all this makes me want to give Pizza My Heart another try next time I’m in that part of the state.  Except I’m still bitter about the lack of XXL t-shirts.

Exit 20. California knows how to party.

My home state turned 164 years old last week.  On September 9, 1850, the United States Congress admitted the State of California as the 31st state of the Union, as part of what is now known as the Compromise of 1850.  The bills were an effort to placate the pro- and anti-slavery camps in Congress, successfully delaying the US Civil War for another decade.  During the war with Mexico, American and European settlers discovered gold in California, and thousands from all over the world rushed into the territory that had been recently added to the US, prompting the need to organize a state government.

I’ve lived in California all my life.  If you want to get really technical, I spent two months doing an internship at a university in a neighboring state, and I spent some time traveling in which I didn’t set foot in California for almost four months, but I always kept a permanent address in California, so that doesn’t really count.  And in that time, I’ve grown to develop a love-hate relationship with my home state.

I love the geographical diversity and the scenery.  We have beaches, mountains, dry heat, snow, big cities, small towns, farms, deserts, forests, and pretty much anything you could imagine within weekend trip distance at the most.  I love the cultural diversity.  You find people from all over the world who bring their cultures (and their ethnic food) to California, as well as big city liberals, small town conservatives, suburban conservatives, small town working class liberals, rednecks, hippies, and just about every type of American subculture possible.  I love the weather.  Where I am, it’s mild in the winter but never too far from snow, and hot and dry in the summer but never too far from the cool coastal climate.

I hate the way that California is so divided.  So many Californians on both sides of the political spectrum carry an elitist attitude where those who don’t see the world their way are viewed as lower life forms.  I hate the way that the government is similarly divided in a way that makes the state ungovernable.  Either no one can agree enough to get anything passed, or one side will do something that the other side sees as imposing radical unworkable ideas on the rest of the state that doesn’t want them.  I hate the way that California is so crowded.  The infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with population growth, and so many parts of the state, especially the more populated areas, are full of traffic with crowded schools and subdivisions taking good farmland out of production.  I hate the way that Californians can be self-centered in thinking that the world revolves around them.  Any time I hear Californians say that they don’t have an accent, I want to cringe, then make them listen to people who actually live in places other than California (or New York or London).  (Psst: “Cot” and “caught” aren’t supposed to be homophones.  They have different vowel sounds with different spellings.  We Californians pronounce them the same.  That’s an accent.  And don’t even get me started about people who pronounce “back” almost like “bock,” which by the way isn’t me.)  I hate the way that Californians jump on emotionally charged political bandwagons without thinking of the real consequences of their policies.  And I hate the way that so many other states see us as a laughingstock.  We really do deserve that reputation, because of the rest of the reasons in this paragraph.

Sometimes I fear for the future of my home.  Will we keep paving over everything until there is no open space left?  Will we run out of water?  Will our poor political decisions result in jobs leaving the state for more business friendly environments?  Will the nanny government tendencies continue to grow until one’s every move is scrutinized with freedoms continually eroding?  As I mentioned before, California statehood was born of a compromise between two very antagonistic factions in Congress.  This art of compromise seems completely lost in today’s government, both at the federal and state levels.  I wish it would come back.  I don’t want to see this state’s problems continue to go unsolved because two sides can’t agree, nor do I want to see either side destroy the state by imposing their will on an uncooperative populace.  Bringing together so many diverse populations within one state should involve give and take rather than so many disagreements.  Recently, a petition to divide California into six states failed to qualify for the ballot.  I had mixed feelings about it.  Part of me feels like I would have liked to be in a different state from San Francisco and Los Angeles, so that politicians from there with whom I disagree  wouldn’t be able to dictate what I do.  But like I said, I love the diversity of this state, and I would hate to see us admit that it doesn’t work… not to mention that any specific plan to divide California would come with so many kinks that it would probably get worse before it got better.

Despite all this, despite everything I don’t like about California, I can’t deny that California is in my blood.  That is why I chose a California highway sign for the logo of this blog, and the Bear Flag for the cover photo of the blog’s Facebook page.  California has always been a big part of who I am.  When I spent the four months on the road, I left thinking I was only coming back to California to get my stuff.  I ended up settling back here in Sacramento County (which, interestingly enough, borders two of the other three counties in which I had lived, including the one I was moving away from) because Sacramento is California’s happy medium.  It’s not as elitist as San Francisco, not as shallow as Los Angeles, and not as rural and provincial as much of the rest of inland California.  It’s just right for a guy like me, and it’s home now.  And in addition to all the things I like about it here, I’m also never too far from most of the rest of California.  Because, as Tupac and Dre said, California knows how to party.

Exit 19. It feels good to be friends again.

The other day, I hung out with my friend Mimosa.  It was really good catching up with her.  She has just recently moved back to the area, we’ve both been through some big changes lately, and it was good getting to sit down and talk about everything–

Wait, you’re probably thinking if you’re a regular reader of this blog.  Did you say “Mimosa?”

Oh… When I want to write here about specific individuals in my life without naming names, I use names of stars, planets, and other astronomical bodies as pseudonyms.  Mimosa is a star in the constellation Crux (the Southern Cross).  This isn’t about the alcoholic drink, or the flower.  I have my reasons for how I match up each person to a pseudonym, and I don’t normally share, but I’ll say that my choice of pseudonym for her has nothing to do with the drink–

Stop.  You’re rambling off topic again.  I know all that.  I’m a regular reader, remember?  You’ve explained the pseudonyms before.  But you can’t call your friend Mimosa.

Why not?

You’ve already used the name Mimosa for someone else.  Mimosa was that girl who you had the brief fling with four years ago, who led you on and then said it was nothing serious, and you were really hurt by that, remember?

Yeah, I know.  Same girl.  That’s who I hung out with the other day.

A week or two after I last mentioned Mimosa on this blog, I saw something on Facebook that suggested that she had moved back to the area, and I also noticed that she mentioned that she was going dancing at one of the same places I go dancing.  She hadn’t been there in a long time.  So I asked her if she was back; she was, but it wasn’t really a good time to talk about everything that was going on.  Dancing wasn’t a good time for it either, because I didn’t want to take away from her dancing time, and that’s the kind of conversation that’s better when you don’t have 200 people and loud music in the same room.  But we said we’d get together and catch up sometime soon.

Then I got hit with a big chunk of work and adult responsibilities, and the actual catching up didn’t happen until about a month later, which was a few days ago.  We mostly just talked for a couple hours, and she used me as a guinea pig for something she had baked, a recipe that was new to her.  (It was very good.)  It’s not my place here to share the details of what we talked about, or what brought her back to the area in the first place.  I’m not writing this to gossip about my friends.  But I will say that we had a very nice time talking about a lot of things.

Like I said previously, when I was speculating on how life would have been different had I not gone to the party in 2010 where I met Mimosa, I know she never meant to hurt me.  What happened was the product of both of us making reckless emotional decisions.  I also said that, had I not been to that party, there was a possibility we would have met anyway, through dancing.  And I wish it had happened that way, because by meeting under circumstances that didn’t lead to a fling, I think we would have gradually become good friends without any of the fling-related awkwardness.  That’s exactly the approach I’ve been taking in the last month since we’ve been in touch again.  Now that she’s back in the area, I feel like I’m ready to put the reckless miscommunications of 2010, and everything that happened after that, in the past so we can be the good friends we could have been, had we met under different circumstances.  And after I hung out with her earlier this week, I’m confident that it’s going to work out like that.  It feels good to be friends again.

Forgiveness and moving on and the like aren’t always easy for me.  They aren’t easy for a lot of people, for that matter.  And there’s a lot to be said for cutting toxic people out of one’s life.  Sometimes it takes me a long time to get over being hurt, and as I work through whatever pain I have felt, sometimes I realize that I am better off distancing myself from the ones who caused the pain.  It doesn’t mean I have to keep carrying around that bitterness with me, and letting go of that bitterness is hard, but sometimes the best course of action is to cut off contact with someone.  If someone has a continuous pattern of being hurtful or putting me in unhealthy situations, I’m better off without them.  Mimosa isn’t one of those people.  Remember, after everything happened in 2010, we were still friends for a year before life and circumstances and my changing status with her friend (euphemism of the year, I know) reduced us just to brief Facebook conversations a couple times a year.

In the days between making concrete plans to hang out with Mimosa and actually doing it, I was a little nervous, partially because I hadn’t seen her in so long, and partially because I was really hoping I wasn’t just 2611ing my way back into a hurtful situation.  And some of my friends who were around in 2010, especially those who don’t know Mimosa personally but remember how hurt I was, might be a little concerned for me, letting someone who did that to me back in my life.  I know I made the right decision.  I hope that if/when my friends meet her, they’ll be nice and not hold all that against her.  Time heals.

A few weeks ago, I said that something I had written recently might have an update or another chapter to it soon.  This is that next chapter, and as I hinted at previously, Darius Rucker was right.  Everything that didn’t work out in life led to this.  And experiences like this bring growth and add to life.  We all have bruises, and bruises make better conversation.  And I’m going to stop typing now before this entire blog becomes me quoting song lyrics.  The whole point here is not to dwell on the past, so I’m not going to keep going on about it.  That’s all I have to say about that.

Exit 18. Every second counts.

I’m not one of those people who goes on and on about how everything I learned in school was B.S. that didn’t prepare me for the real world.  But there is one distinct thing that I learned that is relevant to my life right now that does, to some extent, fit this description.  Normally, when I see people making statements like that, like the meme going around with all the practical life skills that one wishes they had learned in school and complaining about an incorrectly worded concept from geometry that they learned instead, with the implication that geometry is useless, I want to point out that I did in fact learn most of those practical life skills in school.  Most students just don’t pay attention because those things are often not taught until late in high school, when no one cares about learning anything anyway.  And I also want to point out that geometry isn’t useless at all, because it teaches critical thinking and logical argument skills.  But then I decide that this isn’t usually the kind of argument worth wasting my time on.

But there is one topic on which I agree with the people saying that school doesn’t prepare you for real life.  Before I continue this story, I should acknowledge something about my job.  I normally don’t talk about work at all on here, because I don’t want to get in trouble at work for something that I wrote on a public blog.  So here’s the big announcement: I’m a teacher.  I teach kids old enough that they only have my class for an hour for one subject.  That shouldn’t really be a surprise, though, since I did mention previously, when the girl recognized me at the concert, that I was a teacher 11 years ago, and a lot of people keep the same careers for 11 years or more.

Anyway, now that that’s out of the way, back to the point of the story: On Mondays, I ask my students how their weekends went.  I sometimes tell stories about what I did over the weekend.  I have conversations with students about things they are interested in.  And all of that goes against much of what I was taught about classroom management.  I learned things about how every second counts in the classroom, so I shouldn’t waste any time on non-instructional matters.  I learned not to be friends with the students, because I have to be an authority figure.  And I learned not to let the kids see me smile before Christmas, although that was more of an exaggeration to make a point about being an authority figure more so than an actual practice intended to be followed to the letter.

Here’s why I do that.  For one thing, it makes the job a little more fun.  But there’s a more important reason.  Some time ago, I think it was the year after the girl from the concert was in my class, I had a student who got Ds and Fs for the entire first half of the year.  She was a capable student, she just didn’t try very hard.  Early in the second half of the year, her other teachers and I had a conference with her dad.  He agreed to be much more proactive in making sure she was doing her homework.  He arranged for us to sign her planner every day to make sure she was writing down correctly what homework she had to do each night.  And he communicated with us much more actively to make sure he knew how she was doing.  And her grades instantly improved.  She had a B on her third quarter report card.  She did A and B work for the rest of the year.  And the year after that, she had a free period in her schedule, so she was my TA, helping me with routine classroom tasks.

I really think, though, that there was more to her turnaround than the conference with her dad.  Right around the same time as the conference, she had come to my room after school to ask me something, or maybe to write down the homework that she had forgotten to write down earlier.  I’m usually in my room working on stuff after school, and I’m usually playing music during that time.  My taste in music ranges from just about everything to just about everything else.  On that day, I was playing this song, a huge hit at the time.  Or possibly something else from the same album; I don’t remember the exact song, but I do remember the artist, and this is the only album of theirs that I have.

The student walked in and heard the song before she could ask me her question.  Her eyes lit up, she got all excited, and she said, “Oh my gosh!  I LOVE Evanescence!”  And ever since that moment, she always seemed to be a more active participant in class.  She answered questions.  She talked to me.  And I honestly believe that making that connection of listening to some of her favorite music really motivated her to do better in my class after the conference with her dad.

So while I agree in principle that every second counts in the classroom, I don’t interpret that to mean that I shouldn’t ask students about their lives outside of school.  Doing that is a perfectly valid use of instructional time, because it builds relationships with the students that makes them more motivated to participate in class.  In a class for which the subject matter was less interesting to me, I always enjoyed class more when I liked the teacher.  If I don’t take the time now to bond with the students, I’ll be wasting more instructional time throughout the year trying to keep their attention and get them back on track.  It’s a worthy tradeoff.

Of course, as with all things in life, there has to be a balance.  I can’t spend too much time bonding with students and not teaching them what they’re supposed to be learning.  I’ve had classes a couple years ago that I felt got off task too often when I tried bonding with them.  And this year, one of my classes always wants to talk about superheroes instead of doing their work.  But that doesn’t mean I have to go to the other extreme and not bond with students at all.  After over a decade in this career, I feel like I’ve gotten closer to that balance of how best to use my time.