Summer Motivation

There are a few things that I feel everyone should do at least once to help gain perspective in life. You should work a retail job to better understand what it’s like to stand on the other side of a cash register. Everyone should have to try and run some sort of business to better know the kind of insane workload that entails. People should have to teach an unruly mob of children for at least a year strait to experience not just how rewarding it is, but also how the effort to hold it all together comes directly out of your hide and incidentally, why when teachers come home and grab a beer at 3:30 in the afternoon, it is most definitely for medicinal purposes. Experiencing these things informs you on how to act and react when you encounter the harried individuals who deal with these things on a daily basis. It teaches you empathy and to not stand on their frayed nerves through either obstinance or simple cluelessness.

Mowing a cemetery is one you might want to try some day as well and that is exactly what my wife, Action Girl, and I were doing just yesterday in a vain effort to get through the absurd list of “must do’s” before the time in our island hourglass runs out and the adventure begins. It’s high summer here on the coast of Maine and for us, that means it’s bugout time.

The beautiful islands, sandy beaches, dune grass and quaint villages of where we live acts as a siren song for tourists and they flock here in numbers that boggle the mind and at times, boil the blood. Mostly, they are a good natured lot with smiles, questions and appreciation of everything they encounter here in Maine, just truly happy to be experiencing “They Way Life Should Be”, as our state’s official motto puts it, and they come to experience in droves.

This is where it gets grating.

The produce and dairy sections in our little island market look as though it was attacked by vultures, the once full racks now striped to their metallic bones. If we decide to venture to the mainland for supplies, the time it will take to drive to and get through the big supermarket will be quadruple what it is in the off season due to the slow moving packs of holiday makers looking for lobster rolls, potato chips and sun block. Parking throughout the city is filled up with SUV’s sporting foreign license plates and those giant black hamburger things on their rooves, holding the extra debris of vacation that couldn’t be crammed into the driving compartment. There are people everywhere. EVERYWHERE! And really… I don’t blame them.

Hot Weather

The coast of Maine is wonderful.

Honest!

You should visit some time!

…Just let me get my bag packed, first.

As much as I understand why they come, there are some unavoidable issues that are part of the deal when you live in a place desirable for others to experience. It’s not really the depravations of milk and bread at the local market that makes it aggravating but rather, having to wade through the expanse of humanity on vacation on a daily basis while you, who are NOT on vacation, attempt to get on with your life without having your patience worn down to a painful little nub.

Okay! Okay! Maybe the “not on vacation” thing is slightly disingenuous coming from me. The truth of the matter is that both my wife and I are teachers, and that means that come summer we are in fact out of school, just like our children. This however doesn’t mean that we are kicking back, drinking rosé and eating cheese by noon each day. Summer is when our other jobs kick in and though they may be less intense than our normal school-time gig, they most definitely still count as work. Action Girl, never one to sit still for more than about three minutes, captains a ferry boat transporting clumps of eager vacationers to and from their long dormant island, summer cottages. On her days off, she can be found cleaning houses or teaching boat handling to land lubbers or if the time allows, perhaps doing some fine painting… or possibly fixing the plumbing. Meanwhile, I slide into my other rolls such as working at making our house actually habitable and weather tight using a maximum of noisy power tools and too much lumber. If I’m not making sawdust, I’m carving headstones. If I’m not carving headstones, then I’m desperately trying to make order in our little island house as our children follow in my wake, slowly destroying what was freshly accomplished. It’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. You start at one end and by the time you reach the other, it’s time to circle back to the beginning again.

See? Action Girl and I don’t get into the rosé and cheese until at least six or seven, just like normal folk. So how do we deal with the added weight of dealing with those “from away” as we attempt to enjoy summer? We flee. We become the enemy. We become… Tourists!

And that brings us back to the cemetery.

With the grass trimmed back nice and neat to the ancient stones, we can now cross its care off our list of responsibilities before we leave. Mow a cemetery some time and like any other job, you’ll be stunned at how much more work it is than you thought it would be, just like most things in life. We do a lot, and now, it’s almost time for us to go so that we can enjoy some perspective in our life as well. We know what it’s like here, and how nice it is, even with the extra work, but you know what we don’t know? What it’s like to be Dutch.

So we’re off to see the Netherlands in the height of Summer and we won’t be back for a good long while, the time made available to us being the one huge bonus of being full time school teachers. It’s beautiful here in New England and to leave our home empty while we’re away would be nothing short of criminal and so the best part is, our place won’t be wasted while we are gone. All our work: the carpentry, the gardens, the view and the expert plumbing will be enjoyed by a lovely Dutch family with whom we are exchanging homes. We will take their place just outside of Amsterdam and they will ensconce themselves on the rocky coast of Maine, each of us joining the tourist throng. I have no doubt that it’s going to be great and hopefully, with both families well accustomed to what it’s like to be neck deep in foreigners, we can adjust to being the best tourists possible. After all, living is about experiencing new things and I can’t think of a better gift to give ourselves, our kids and in this case, another whole family than the chance to gain the perspective of what it’s like to experience a whole new place full of beauty and good food. They won’t have to mow the cemetery, but they get to water our gardens, feed our cat and enjoy our corner of the world while we do the same at their place and I know that we will both do our utmost to be the best tourists possible. Just like all the others.

Hey, if you can’t beat ‘em…

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Checking Out, Checking In.

Ten years ago, I started a business. It never became large. It never made me rich, or even that well off, frankly. What it did was suck up mountains of my time, force me to work weekends, holidays and late nights. It took a toll on my body, on my sleep and my psyche. I worked long, hard hours and on more than a few occasions, I had to call in backup to help get an order out by the date I promised. If I had put in anything close to this amount of work anywhere else, I would probably be a VP of some division by now.

Over my working life, I’ve held quite a few jobs in many different industries. I like to think that I’ve done a good job at all of those places and if I decided that it wasn’t the place for me to stay, I’ve always reminded myself that I had learned a valuable lesson in the interim. I had learned what I didn’t want to do and whom I did or didn’t want to work with. Essentially, I got to know myself better through the trial and error of employment.

Putting in overtime always bugged me, especially when I was a salary man. I don’t think I’m a slacker as much as I believe that I have my priorities set correctly. I recall with horror the moment many years ago when I was confronted with this information and I had to keep it from showing. I had just started a new job managing a retail store and my new and enthusiastic boss, in an effort to make me feel… empowered, I guess, clapped a hand on my shoulder and said, “Are you ready to make XYZ store you top priority?”

I’m sure that he was trying to instill a feeling of responsibility and pride in me but what shot through my brain was, “My Mom, my Dad, my girlfriend, my friends, my health, my mental well being, hiking, biking, fishing, painting…. Buddy, this store doesn’t even make my top ten list.” I’m a hard worker though and I tried to make improvements and boost sales. That’s what he SAID he wanted. That wasn’t so true in practice.

badboss

He turned out to be a very difficult person to work for and after I had been there for about a year and a half, I left under a cloud after he caught me idly doodling on a piece of scrap paper when I should have been helping nonexistent customers. I had worked for a number of individuals after this particular individual, but always chafed a bit at being told what to do and when to do it. I confess, I’ve never “played ball” well and when I saw an opportunity to start my own shop and do things my way, I took the leap.

Being a small business owner means a lot of things, but what it means the most is time. You get none. The business gets it all. The funny thing was, all the unpaid overtime that I had put in before and resented like hell, didn’t bug me when it was for my own shop. It was all for me, and I enjoyed the work, which is good because there was a hell of a lot of it. More than I had ever seen before. But, hey, I was young, had a wife who also worked crazy hours and though this lifestyle almost ensured that we’d be toiling away through nearly every single holiday that came along, we had no kneebiters of our own, so why not? Then, about three years ago, that last part changed.

With the birth of my son, and then my daughter two years later, the slowing of the economy and my general weariness at having bent my shoulder to this particular grindstone for the last decade, I decided some months ago that I was done, cooked, burned out. I needed a change. The work isn’t fun anymore and what’s most important in my life are the two little munchkins who light up when they see me come through the door. I want more of that. A lot more.

Once the initial decision to sell my business a week or so of flopping around and coming up with strange and unusual ideas as to my next career came and went. I set aside the applications for hamster wrangler and licorice gunrunning and decided to take another look at my fading college diploma. I blew off the dust and just made out the faint cuneiform scratching on the crumbling clay tablet. It read, “Bachelor’s of Art Education, K-12”

Hmmm.

I had given up on teaching a long time ago, mostly because it’s fiendishly difficult to find jobs teaching art. Most school shave one, perhaps two art teachers and in times of economic trouble, Art is almost always the first on the chopping block. I had done a lot of substitute teaching during my years of begging for work and I had taken two very important lessons away from that. The first was that I was going to grow old and die before a position opened up. The second was that I loved working with the little kids. K-3 is where I felt the happiest. The students are interested and interesting. The curriculum never leaves you confused and best of all; almost everything you show them is new and exciting.

I thought it was time to reexamine my college major with just a tweak or two for today’s reality. What I’ve found out is that I’m about six college classes and two tests away from being a K-3 teacher. I have a new goal.

Today, I will be signing the papers with the new owner. He will be handing me a check for, if not everything I was hoping for, an adequate amount to set my new life in motion. I’m going through a lot of emotions about this. Relieved that soon, I will be free of the burden that is small business ownership. Sad, to see a decade of my efforts leave my sphere of influence. Regretful for not having gotten to do a few things that I wanted in the business. Empty, realizing that I won’t come here and toil away like I have for so long. Pissed, that I ordered so many now useless business cards a few months ago.

Still, this is a good thing. Better than that, it’s the RIGHT thing. I’m tired of this work while the new owner is excited. He can’t wait to dive in and I have no question that he will do very well with it. He’s even invited me to come back any time and get my hands dirty, if I need a fix, for old time’s sake. That’s very nice of him, but I don’t see it happening.

He’s due to show up in the next hour and I’ll sign the business away. It’s just me, so there are no employees who have to be considered. I’ll put my John Hancock on the line, collect my check and stop at the back on the way home. When I walk through the door, my family will be waiting for me. It’s Christmas Eve today and the house will be warm and cheery. I’ll hug them all, Short Stack, Lulu Belle and Action Girl and get down to business. Being home for my family is my new endeavor. Teaching will help give me that ability.

Finally, I’ll be home for Christmas, and that’s the only gift I really need.

christmas-tree

MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYONE!

The Tone in Dresden, Part I

The traffic had pretty much ground to a halt and through our lightly frosted car windows, the view of the empty and snow dusted wheat fields was flat and unremarkable. We had been driving now for several hours and the traffic jam, still several kilometers out side of our destination, was a bit disheartening. The cause of for my chagrin wasn’t based in the company I had in the car. Far from it. It was rooted more to the realization that I was having a blast and that these days spent in adventure after adventure were finite. Eventually, I’d have to go home. I was in Germany with my friend, Mountain Man, his friend and co-worker Carla and we were heading to her hometown, Dresden.

We were heading there very, very slowly.

I love visiting Germany, and doing so with Mountain Man and his preposterously perfect German makes it that much better. His own reason for being here started several years previous when he was signing up for classes at university. Apparently, he had struck up a conversation with (was hitting on) a cute girl as the two of them waited in line to register for classes. When she got her chance to pick her classes, she turned out to be a German Major. Not wanting to miss his chance, Mountain Man decided on the spot that English could take a poetic leap and changed his classes to match hers. That’s his style. Oddly enough, it seems to work for him, too. This man fears nothing and is aggravatingly good at surviving his spur of the moment, whacked-out decisions. Fast forward some years and now you have Mountain Man living and teaching in Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship and inviting his friends to drop by for a visit. The girl who stated him on this road is long gone, but that hardly matters now. What it meant is that I had a friend in Deutschland!

The trip to Dresden was not one that I had expected to make but this opportunity was far too amazing to miss. Carla was a teacher at the school where Mountain Man was placed. The Wall had only been down for a few years and there was still a lot of DDR infrastructure that needed to be set light to. Trabants, the East German version of what a car would look like if it were built by a toy company, were still fairly plentiful, as were a lot of the old institutional buildings, like schools. Not this one though! This school was brand-new and everyone in the village, especially the kids, was very proud of it.

Mountain Man had been placed there to help expand the English program. Carla had been teaching Art as well as English and Russian for years at the old DDR school. With the move to the brand new building and with out much cause for students to take Russian anymore, she was working hard at polishing her English. Specifically, she wanted to learn American English. Much of what was being taught at the time was British English, but that is not what the former East Germans wanted to learn. They wanted to sound like they were from Hollywood. Mountain Man, being from New Hampshire, did his best as a stand in.

When I arrived, as a newly minted art teacher in my own right, I was informed by my friend that he had secured permission for me to teach at his school as well. I’d be in the upper level, conversational language classes teaching the students and faculty alike to say things like, “trunk” rather than “boot” and, “flashlight” rather than “torch”. It sounded like fun! That night, Mountain Man made me some dinner with his patented, “Salty As All Get Out, Baking Soda Flavored Biscuits” and I tried my best to gather my jet lagged brain for the next day.

The next day I was introduced to the director and some of the other teachers and given a cup of coffee that could have fueled a small city for a day. Hardly anyone spoke English and I spoke hardly any German at this point. A project I have been working hard on ever since. Once the handshakes were done and we found our way to the classroom, I was quickly greeted by about twenty-five intensely interested teenagers. It felt a bit like being an exhibit in a zoo.

As you can imagine, not speaking the language of the land and supposedly being there to teach, can make a guy a bit… freaked out. I put on my best, “I’m a teacher” look and let Mountain Man explain to the students that what they had right there in the class room was a bone fide, clueless American and to go to it. The questions began…

“Where are you from?”
“What do you do for work?”
“Are you married?”
“Do you like American TV?”

These were the softball questions and simple to work with. After a few minutes, they started to dry up and they needed to actually come up with some more difficult and hopefully embarrassing questions. They did not disappoint. The first question that made me pause and feel like an idiot was, “What German bands do you like?” Teenagers often define themselves by what groups they are into and they were all obviously interested in what I had to say.

“German groups? Ahhh… Hmmm.” I swear, all I could think of was Falco of, “Rock me, Amadeus” fame or Daft Punk. The problem being that, A: Falco was Austrian and, B: I didn’t like Daft Punk. The only other name that came to mind was Marlene Dietrich, and I don’t think that would have made my position any better. I punted and talked instead about how German music doesn’t get over to the States much and how I’d love to hear what they like. Phew. Break down averted.

The next question was one that really caught me off guard. “Are their any Indians left in America?” The idea of the native tribes of my homeland being wiped out entirely was a thought that, though dreamed about and drooled over by some of my ancestors, had never occurred to me. “Yes! There are quite a lot of Indians still living in America.” Then the follow up: “Have you ever seen one?”

I was still a bit off balance from the previous question, so had I been more cool headed, I might have relished the theater of the moment a bit. As it was, I simply blurted out, “You’re looking at one right now.” That stopped them cold! The room was full of parted lips and eyeballs, all pointed at me. I had to clarify things quickly. There was more to it than that.

“Well, I’m not just Indian. I’m also English, French, Irish, Scottish, and Sicilian as well as two different Indian tribes.” The eyeballs got bigger and the quiet of the room was practically tactile. In the back of a row of seats, a lone hand went up followed by a single voice. “My mother is Danish.”

Stay tuned for the next thrilling installment of “Clueless Man Goes on Holiday!”

Back to School Shopping

The air is cool and heralds the end of summer. Trees are still green, but it’s the deep, dark color of overly mature leaves. Soon they will be sucked dry of life and thrill leaf-peeping visitors in lethargic motor homes as they back up traffic for miles on the winding New England roads.

I’m waiting for my first meeting that could possibly bring me back to a decision I made a long, long time ago. To teach. I had made up my mind that I wanted to teach back when I was in high school. Other than the fact that my mother was a teacher, I’m not sure why I thought it would be the right place for me to make my career. I had never been a stellar student and to be honest, always viewed school more like prisons with desks rather than a place of learning. I would rather have been doing my own thing than listening to someone else’s.

The funny thing is, my own thing often consisted of researching topics I was interested in, building projects that I thought were fun or drawing and painting. The idea of sitting on the other side of the big desk in the classroom and teaching the INTERESTING stuff appealed to me. When it was time to go off and get my bachelor’s degree, I had picked Art Education as my direction.

I had always been artistic and it was easily one of my favorite classes. The other possibility that tempted me had been history, however since my mother was a history teacher, going into that particular field felt… too obvious, some how. Also, I had watched the piles of homework she brought home and had to grind through on Sunday nights. Art’s workload looked better to me.

Four years later and degree in hand, I got to see the cold hard fact that my advisors had been warning me about for the last four years. The job market was hideous. Unless, that is, you were an art teacher. Then it was HORRIBLY hideous! Although I was able to teach grades Kindergarten through high school seniors, the jobs just didn’t exist in any real numbers. If you think about it, most schools have one, maybe two art teachers. They were hired twenty years ago and now that they had the job down cold and tenure, there was no way that they were leaving any time soon. Schools too, were rather caustic when it came to art programs. Though it is very difficult to actually let an art teacher go once they have established them selves, there was nothing to stop them from closing the position once they retired or moved on. Bottom line, art as a subject wasn’t being expanded then and isn’t now. It wasn’t looking good.

So, I did what all hopeful and unemployed teachers do. I subbed. When I say, “subbed”, what I mean is that I awoke to the phone at six in the morning with a call from the school secretary, telling me that there was a school that needed a punching bag in a half an hour. I would fish out a shirt and tie and bring them with me to hang up in the bathroom in the hope that the the steam from my shower would smooth out some of the wrinkles. In the blur of the early morning, I would arrive at an unfamiliar school, look for an unfamiliar class room and then try as hard as I could to both decipher the missing teacher’s lesson plan for the day and not get taken advantage of by the students. What ever happened, you can’t show fear. Forth graders can smell fear and if they do, well… I’d just prey for a swift and painless death.

To be honest, it wasn’t that bad. Close!… but not that bad. What I did learn was that I loved the little kids! I had always envisioned myself teaching art in a high school somewhere and had done my student teaching at that level. What I discovered was that I should have been a kindergarten teacher. To pass on dealing with sullen teenagers who know it all and are utterly unimpressed, if not out right dismissive of what you are trying to teach them, for the wide eyed enthusiasm of a five year old learning a new song was something I found out after I had assumed I was done with college. Unfortunately, I didn’t peruse the change to being a Kindergarten teacher. It would have meant going back to school again to get another degree and I was still twitching from my last round of finals a few years before. After years of mornings like this, I was getting crispy from the subbing and loosing interest and any hope of being an art teacher. Rather than going back for the second teaching degree, I looked away from education and moved into the world of business. It’s been ten years of that now… and I’m getting crispy again.

A few weeks ago, Action Girl and I took the kids to the local school playground for some fun. The new school year was due to start in just one week and as Short Stack played on the garishly colored plastic jungle gyms; I peeked through a window of the building. Hands cupped on the sides of my head and nose against the glass, I looked in on a first grade classroom ready for action. Desks neatly lined up, black board cleaned, bulletin boards decorated and everything needed for learning, neatly tucked into cubbies an baskets just waiting for little hands to fish them out. In the middle of my chest, I felt the pull again. I wanted to be behind the big desk. I wanted that to be my room!

So, I’ve made a decision. I’ve put my business up for sale and will be stepping away form that. It’s time for a change. As I wait for my appointment with the director of the education department, I’m watching the other young students walk down tiny paths on their way to another class. I remember being them and hope they are enjoying what they study. Life can be a long and strange road and you never know where it will take you. It might be away to unforeseen places. It may be leading you where you never expected to go and wouldn’t pick now if you did. Or, like the path might be for me, circular. Having shown me some amazing vistas and overlooks along the way, it could lead back to the place I started at so long ago. I’ll have to wait and see.

The thing is, to enjoy the walk.

Wordsmith in Training

My son, Short Stack is at the full fledged “tape recorder” stage of his life. Anything said or any sound made with in his earshot is more than likely to come flying back to you, but in a higher and squeakier register. Often, letters will be substituted here and there as he makes his first attempt, but more then not, he gets it right on the first try.

Fairly early on, I realized that a lot of the words that we teach kids work against them in the long run. Why would you teach them “horsie” when it’s a horse? Why get them to say “din-din”, when it’s actually dinner? “yummies” instead of snacks, “duckies” rather than ducks, “Nukular” instead of nuclear. Mr. Presidentman can’t even get that one right.

Not to say that there aren’t some words that he slaughters on his own. “Banana” becomes “banna” when left to Short Stack’s interpretation. The same with a crane being pronounced “train”, which can add a certain level of confusion to conversations with him. But, here’s the thing; Action Girl and I correct him with his pronunciation when he gets it wrong.

It’s really hard to do sometimes. Some of the things that come a-tumbling out of his mouth are somewhere just beyond amazingly, heartstoppingly adorable and you feel kind of like a monster telling him that it’s not an “ExcaBAtor”, but an excaVAtor. If you ask him what the excavator does, he’ll tell you that it “doops”. We love hearing these kid-isims but helping out with saying things correctly has, I believe, helped him expand his vocabulary very rapidly. Words don’t scare him.

A few weeks ago, Short Stack, his Grandfather and I were at a new playground. It was mostly set up for bigger kids so it was a bit tricky finding stuff that he could play on. Naturally, he was drawn directly to the stuff that made my heart stop. One such piece looked for all the world like the reclining, undulating spine and ribcage of a Playgroundosaurus. It was set up close to the ground and was intended to be walked along. Understand, I’m not one of those “tear out the teeter totters and merry go rounds” type of parents. This bit however, was made of welded pipe and obviously intended for children with a higher level of dexterity than your average two year old was likely to muster.

“I don’t know about this part, Buddy. It looks pretty lethal.”

Naturally, and much to the entertainment of the other moms there, Short Stack spent much of the his remaining playground time pointing out the offending play equipment to other folks and exclaiming, “I don’t know… Dat’s pretty lethal!”

I’m still working on “that” rather than “dat”.
So. Damn. CUTE THOUGH!

This interesting little experiment that I’m running with my obliging child is a reflection of my own experiences when I was a knee biter. My parents taught me proper, common and sometimes, not so common words. As a result, I could carry on a conversation with an adult when I was fairly young. It had serious benefits.

Having the ability to speak well and articulately is a wonderful way to get what you want. You can make a logical case for it and preset your side of the argument in a thoughtful and organized manner. It helps avoid confusion and frustrations and, hey, it helped get me a ten speed bike when I was in fifth grade!

It’s also fun at parties… “I think Dad is full of Hooey” coming out of a two year old, is rather bemusing.

The best part, from my perspective is the surprised reaction from other adults and the obvious pleasure that Short Stack derives from knowing that a word he used gets a positive and unexpected reaction.

His current list of “My God! He knows what that is?” words are…

Excavator,
Hydraulics,
Wheel, (…versus the tire. The wheel is the metal hub)
Peonies,
Bachelor Buttons,
Neon Tetra (in the fish tank)
Portcullis, (he has a toy castle with one that you can drop on unsuspecting finger puppets)
Stabilizers, (on the sides of his toy backhoe)
Front-end loader.
and most importantly to me, “May I please have a ____”

That last one makes me beam every time.

So, Senior Statesman-to-be or seriously articulate lobsterman; I don’t really care what career he chooses. Just so long as he can say NU-CLE-ER.

That’s all I ask.

Snarky Post Script-
I refer you here to Merriam-Webster.

Apologies to those offended. 😉

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