The Author

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I am a high school English teacher, and mother of two charming little ones of my own. I teach in a high poverty urban charter school, while I live in a typical American suburb that has frequently been rated one of the safest cities in the country. It is a paradox I struggle with constantly, but it is my life.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Ministry and Marriage

Like anything else, I suppose, being married to a youth minister has its ups and downs.  For one, you never really disappear at church.  Actually, come to think of it, I'm not sure if this is an up or a down.  Its mostly an up. Like the Cheers song says, "Sometimes you want to go, where everybody knows your name."  Everyone at my church knows my name (okay, at least my last name, I get called "Mrs" at church quite often"), even if I don't know everyone else's names yet.  We've been at this church for over a year, and I am still learning names, but there are several hundred people in the church, and I am not very involved, so it takes time. 

There are definitely feel good moments.  At the annual church business meeting yesterday, the president's report said such remarkably nice things about my husband that I was practically moved to tears. Having other people remind you of all the reason's you married a person.... definitely a perk. 

But there are downsides. Like all the traveling.  All youth ministers travel.  If you were involved in a high school youth ministry as a teenager, then you know what I mean and why.  The most meaningful times of bonding and ministry are on trips and overnighters and things like that.  Plus, there are also conferences and trainings.  In addition, Marc is in graduate school now through a distance program, which means he travels to Iowa several times a year.  I don't begrudge him these trips, but it can be a difficult, lonely time, especially for a parent. When I was younger and did not have kids, I would fill these times with activities with my friends. Other times, I would even go with him. Now, my kids keep me home for most of these.  There is a youth pastor's wife who blogs regularly and she talks about "camp season," with the same sentiments.  She says, "It’s hard to stay strong and supportive of my husband after being alone for so many days and nights."

And it just never seems to happen at a good time.  This weekend, Vinny had tech rehearsals all weekend.  The theatre is about half an hour from our house, and the drop off and pick up times just did not coordinate well with Tiana's sleep schedule.  With a lot of help from my mom, I made it work, but add rain and cold to the mix and it is just yuck inconvenient.  Last night was the final dress rehearsal, so, as you theatre people will understand, it of course ran late. As we waited outside in the cold, while it drizzled on our heads, I was one of the only parents there with a little one.  I chatted with the moms around me, and many of them have younger kids too, but they were of course home with their husbands.  

Such is life.  Everyone has their struggles.  I'd certainly rather parent solo a few weeks/weekends a year than for months at a time like military wives.  

Friday, January 25, 2013

A Worthwhile Journey

      If you had asked me in Spring of 2012 for my opinion of the Master's program I am enrolled in, you would have physically been able to see my blood pressure rise. I would have begrudgingly admitted that I was learning a lot, but I would have also told you that it was draining my will to live.
       As I begin my last semester of graduate school, I am feeling much more positive, reflective even.  Reflective is probably a good way to be feeling, given the portfolio I have to compile and present in order to graduate.  We were officially assigned the portfolio project last night. With memories of my credential program all too fresh, I have anticipated this project with anxiety and dread.  Now that I am actually looking at it and starting it, dare I say that I might even enjoy it?

       I'll admit it.  I am enjoying parts of it.  In class last night, we brainstormed possible options for each "artifact" we are required to present.  In thinking about these classes, I began skimming through folders in my computer, looking at the work I have done over the last three semesters.  I continued this process tonight, flipping through physical folders of graded papers, handouts, and class notes. My metacognitive process could be likened to an out of body experience, as if I am observing the past three semesters of my teaching, as well as the past three semesters of my learning, from a distance.  I re-read a paper I wrote in my first semester of the program, and I didn't even really remember writing it. I found myself chuckling at my own sense of humor and my quirky writing. I rejoiced in my own stories, if that makes any sense at all. I got to the end of the paper and read my instructor's comment, "A pure delight," and thought to myself, "Yes, this was truly delightful."  Reading the paper, I mean. I don't really remember writing it, so that part must not have been particularly delightful.

      I would be lying if I claimed that this entire experience was a delight. Graduate school has been many things, but delightful would not be at the top of the list.  Exhausting, eye-opening, and enlightening, would probably be my top three descriptors.  But today, I have to admit that it has been a good journey that has stretched me as an individual, pushed me as a writer and as a teacher, and has changed the way I view education. A worthwhile journey for sure.

How worthwhile?  $10,000 worthwhile?  Well...  you might want to ask me that a year from now when my student loans enter repayment status again.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Joy of January

Most years, I make plans like crazy all January.  (I have this month off of school).  Before Vinny was in school, I used to use this time to travel, but I would also schedule myself full of other activities as well. This month, I have done the opposite. I have done a lot of staying home and a lot of not making plans.  I don't regret this at all.  It has allowed me to enjoy and appreciate things I have not always had the opportunity to in the past.  I have gotten into habits I am enjoying.  I have been home cooking almost every single meal.  We don't eat lunch or dinner out. We ate one meal out at Knotts Berry Farm on Friday, and that is the only meal we have not eaten at home all month.  This is huge for us.  At first, I was kind of grieving our decision to stop eating meals out.  I enjoy take out. It tastes good and its easy. Now, I have found that I am enjoying the routine of eating each meal here. I like being able to make each meal just the way I like it.  I have enjoyed experimenting with new stuff (my homemade macaroni and cheese was a flop, but hey at least I tried). I have even started making breakfast regularly.  I am not big on breakfast, so this is new for me. I usually don't have anything but coffee in the morning. I made a huge batch of waffles and froze the leftovers.  We have a "bagel slice" toaster, so I can reheat them easily in there, and you know what... homemade belgian waffles taste much better than store bought frozen waffles. 

Best of all... when I designed a monthly budget for this year, I cut our budget for food by $200.  I was nervous about this decision and didn't know if we would really be able to make it work, even without eating meals out. As a result, I have made extreme efforts to be incredibly frugal with my food usage.  I have become more aware of portion size and have tried to cook only what we will use, and I have also tried to be more aware of our leftovers to be sure not to let them go to waste. As a result, we are about 64% of the way through the month, but we have only used 39% of our food budget!  Woo hoo!  Go me.  This extra money can go to pay off our debt faster.

I've spent much time in introspection. Recent events in my life have made me really question a lot about my life -- who I say I am, who I really am, what I really value in life, and what I want for my future and what I am doing to get there.  It has opened my eyes to a lot. Some of it has been somewhat painful, but I think for the best.  I am proud of myself for the personal progress that I have made. 

I am nervous about going back to work and keeping the commitments that I have made to myself.  I want to try to be mom first and teacher second, so that I can keep making homemade meals and packing Vinny healthy lunches.  It's just hard to describe what happens to me when I am working.  Teaching has a way of completely taking over your life.  Even when I want to be mom first and teacher second, it is just really hard to do.  Teaching is kind of all hands on deck. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Outside the box

       Last week, Marc and I watched a movie called No Impact Man that a friend recommended.  Great movie. What really surprised me was how some people reacted so negatively to this man's one-year experiment to try to be as environmentally friendly as absolutely possible. I will never understand why people act negatively towards people who are trying to make changes for the better.

      But come to think of it, people do occasionally act like I am a crazy person because of the little things we do differently.  A woman at Knott's Berry Farm once watched me changing a cloth diaper while she waited in line for a stall. By the time she got to me, she actually looked at me and said, "That's disgusting." It was only a wet diaper, not a dirty one, so I was confused. 


     As I closed the wet bag tight, she replied, "The raggy diaper. What are you, Amish?"  

      Amish? Huh?  Lots of modern people use cloth diapers. Enough for there to be a company dedicated just to driving around the greater Los Angeles area picking up our diapers to wash them.  I'm really not sure what is disgusting about it either.  Yeah, changing diapers is kind of gross period, but I don't see how me throwing them in a bucket for a diaper company to wash is any grosser than throwing a paper diaper full of poop in a trash bag to sit in a landfill for the next century.  I think sometimes people imagine that I take the diapers out to my backyard and wash them by hand with my washboard. It's 2013. I'm cloth diapering, not churning butter.

But I'm in the minority and people don't always understand that. But I've grown as a person into not caring if people understand.  I mean, some of the things we do in life, we do just because that's the status quo. We've never thought about doing them differently.  I kind of think we should think. 

Like, why do we use paper towels and paper napkins?  Rags tend to be much more effective at cleaning up messes, not to mention less expensive.  Not that I think paper towels are some huge injustice or anything like that. It is just not a big deal to wash a few rags and cloth napkins in the midst of each load of laundry we are already doing. I mentioned this to my mom and she's like, "That's true. I have a lot of cloth napkins. I should use them. I just don't think of it." 

       Vinny takes his lunch to school in reusable containers, which apparently gets him made fun of sometimes. And he doesn't always bring the classic packed lunch - he's not huge on sandwiches. One day this week, he brought leftover stir-fry, which he was really excited to have.  On the walk home that day, Vinny says to me, "Sam says I don't eat healthy."

       "Because you brought Chinese food today?  What does he have against Chinese food?" 

      "I don't know. He says its junk food." 

       "Well, what was Sam eating?" 
       "A lunchable, I think." 

     I laughed.  I imagine this came from a good place. Sam's mom is probably trying to make good decisions for her family. I imagine she told Sam that it isn't healthy to eat school lunch every day, and so he has to bring lunch. Since the school lunch is usually corn dogs or pizza or chicken nuggets, I would have to agree that his lunchable is probably a better choice, but clearly this first-grader does not realize that some lean chicken w/broccoli and carrots tossed in a sesame ginger sauce is probably a healthier choice than processed meat and cheese. Why should he?  We raise kids to think in boxes. Disposable plastic ones, to be specific. School lunch is limited to a few boring choices, but I don't think it should be.  Apparently Vinny didn't care that much either, because he ate every last bite. 

     And I'm willing to be the weirdo who defies the status quo. And if my son grows up willing to defy the status quo, then I will be a very proud parent. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Not SuperMom, Just Super Me

     My mom is pretty much "SuperMom."  She is just really good at it. What is the "it" of which I speak?  The "it" is the standard by which society judges a mother. Those of you who are mothers probably know what I mean.
     The world is constantly evaluating women based on what it means to be a "good" mom. The tide is always changing on some things -- there was a time at which women really thought they were ensuring their child's best health by feeing them formula, while now the tide has shifted so far in the "breast is best" direction that you almost have to hide in shame if you did not breastfeed your infant -- however, there are other societal expectations of mothers that remain fairly universal:
      Good moms keep a tidy home. 
      Good moms get their laundry done and make sure their children have clean clothes. 
      Good moms make sure their children always look neat and put together. 
      Good moms look after their children's nutritional needs responsibly. 
      Good moms play with their children as the ever-willing participants in whatever schemes they may devise. 
      Good moms look after their children's education by getting them to school on time and ensuring they do their homework and being actively involved in what they are learning. 
      Good moms always put their children first in life, no matter what. 

     By all these accounts, my mother is super mom. I always kind of knew this too. I would go to friends' houses and see stuff like unwashed dishes in the sink and think "Geez, my mom would never leave dishes in the sink." I had friends who did their own laundry in elementary school. I didn't even do my own laundry in college. My mom couldn't even braid hair until I was seven, yet some of my earliest memories in life are of standing in front of the mirror in my mom's room  while she would use her gold-plated brush with the soft bristles to brush the tangles from my impossibly thin hair and form it into some sort of tidy hairdo. I have vivid memories of needing to drink a glass of milk at dinner table every night, and I knew never to even think of asking for soda on a weekday (although, if my dad was in a good mood, and I ate all of my dinner, I could sometimes convince him to help me make root beer floats for dessert). My mom made the best voices for my "little people" and was even willing to play the  boy parts if I wanted her to. I could probably count on one hand the number of times I was ever late to school (and if I was, it was probably because I threw some fit about getting dressed). As the ultimate PTA mom, my mom knew practically every kid in my elementary school -- she still remembers kids I don't think I ever even knew.  In fact, my mom is such the SuperMom that now she SuperMothers my children (and sometimes me). It is as if being a mom is just what she was meant to do. 

       It's not that I don't think I am a good mom.  I know I am a good mom. My kids love me and are excited to be with me. They are happy when I come home from work and enjoy the time that I have off work. When Tiana plays "mommy," with her dolly, she kisses that doll constantly and strokes her affectionately. She lays the doll down in her crib (yes, her doll has a crib) carefully and sweetly tucks her in and says goodnight. If our kids are a reflection of ourselves, then I think I'm looking at some pretty good parenting. 
     But I am certainly not society's good mom. I'm not a "type A" person, so although I do have a sense of organization to what I do, my home is not typically seen as having "a place for everything and everything in its place." Now that my mom takes care of my kids, I find it "practically perfect in every way" every day, but this is not at all my doing or my nature. The puzzles on the floor just don't bother me. I'm going to organize them later. I'm going to write in my blog now. I rarely know what to do with Tiana's out of control hair, so I settle for just "out of her face" most of the time. My mother-in-law keeps trying to schedule hair appointments for Vinny, but if he wants to grow it "as long as Rapunzel," well then I'm content to let it be. Some of my friends had qualms about using fruit snacks as bribery for potty training. Heck, I broke out the last of the halloween candy. Poop in the potty?  Have a pack of Skittles kid, you deserve it. While I will sit and do puzzles with Tiana for hours on end, I hate sitting in her playhouse -- it make me feel claustrophobic -- and I am guilty of refusing to sit through a two-hour "one man" reproduction of Vinny's favorite musicals. As much as I hassle my advisory students about their tardies, I must admit that I overslept and dropped Vinny off late to school one day this week (it was only by three minutes).  Because I am a teacher, I do get many weeks where I can just be mom, and I really love it, but I wouldn't quit teaching, even if I didn't need the money. 

       My SuperMom worked through much of my childhood, but I never thought it was because she liked working more than she liked me or anything like that. I knew if it were up to her, she would just stay home and be supermom, but I knew why she worked -- so that we could live in a beautiful suburb with some of the best schools for miles, and so we could have a great house where I had my own bedroom, a playground in the backyard, and even a pool.  Although I know that many people feel strongly convicted that a mother's place is with her children, I can tell you that I wouldn't have wanted my mom to stay home if it meant I had to share a room with my sister. And I wouldn't have wanted to give up our pool. And I certainly wouldn't have traded my excellent education for anything -- not even a stay-at-home-mom. 

     You know what I do wish I could have changed about my childhood?  I wish I didn't have to feel bad that my parents worked so hard to give me those things. I always knew that my mom didn't want to deal with cranky customers. She did it for us. She did it just to get by. I hated that she had to just get by. And I hated the times when they hated their bosses. I hated that my dad had to get up before dawn to run call centers when I knew he wished he was using the theatre arts degree he was still paying off.  But, as they say, c'est la vie. My parents did the best they could, and I could not be more grateful. 

    Neither Marc, nor I, work just because we have to. Our jobs are not just work. Sure, we would just work if we had no choice, but we've been dealt a good hand in life and have been able to have jobs we love and enjoy. We also have to work really hard at these jobs and sometimes this takes time away from our kids. But it doesn't mean we don't put them first. It means we continue to exist as people, not just as parents -- even me as a mom. I don't think that being a mom means you have to stop being a person. Nor do I think it would make me a better mom. My dad recently stopped me in a conversation when I mentioned taking some of "my kids" to New York again in a few years, and he said, "You shouldn't call your students your 'kids.' They are not your kids." 
     I sort of chuckled. "Why?" 
     "Because Vinny and Tiana hear you call them that and they're your kids."

     I honestly don't think my kids feel that they are in some sort of competition with my students.  I am sure there are times that they get irritated that I am so busy, but if you asked Vinny if he wanted me to quit, I know he'd say no. I am a role model to Vinny. He wants to be a director when he grows up. He is more irritated with the fact that I am not putting on a kid-friendly show this year than with the fact that I teach. On the occasional times when Vinny has visited my classroom, he stands in awe and asks questions like, "Where do you stand? Do your kids get to use these computers whenever they want? Do you write on this board a lot?"  

     A lot of people act like the absolute best thing that a mother can do for her child is to be home and be just be the best mom she can be. I think that is only true if that is what that woman really truly wants. I think the best thing I can do for my children is to be the best ME that I can be. This applies universally to the "to work or not to work" issue, as well as all the other expectations of parenting.  
      I am not a naturally "neat and tidy" person. I like things clean and organized, but leaving dirty dishes until the morning does not really bother me. I could force myself to be better at all the household chores. But I wouldn't be happy; I'd be stressed.  When I'm stressed, I'm a terrible mom.

     But when I do things I want to do... like taking a beginning dance class... then I have the patience to spend an hour a day helping my son get over his conceptual block against counting money (fingers he can count, tiny little boxes, tally marks... pretty much anything other than money - I'm working on it.  I think we had a breakthrough today).  When I do things I want to do,  and I'm not stressed, then I'm in the mood to cuddle up in Tiana's tiny toddler bed when she asks me to lay down with her before she falls asleep, even if my tush does hang off the edge of the bed. 

     By society's standards, I'm not supermom. But every day I become a bit more "super me" and that's all I want for me and my kids.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Eating within our means...

So, the past few weeks, as part of our commitment to live within our means this year, we have promised ourselves not to unnecessarily eat take out or dine out. Take out has actually been a very big part of our lives. I track our spending on, I realized we spent over $5000 last year on eating out. This was more than 33% of our food spending! Whoa!  

      When I realized this, it seemed the only logical step would be to cut out that spending, or at least as much of it as possible. Like I have talked about before, it is redefining how we live. It is about re-defining the difference between necessity and luxury, and the fact that we can't afford luxuries at this time in our life. 

    Please, if you are reading this and don't know us well, don't think that we live a life of flippant luxury, having steak dinners at five star restaurants or anything like that.  Totally not the truth. It averages out to less than $100 a week, and I can pretty much tell you what that is -  family take-out dinner Friday + family take-out dinner Saturday (~30-40 each) + a few other meals throughout the week. There are a few main restaurants we eat at Freebirds, Urban Cafe, Sharky's. I eat take-out almost every Thursday because I have classes from 4-10pm. Add an occasional take-out lunch. A dinner out with friends every other month or so. How quickly it adds up. I just didn't really realize.  

     But now that we do, this is our opportunity to make a change. In some ways, it is sad for me. This is our lifestyle for a reason. Yeah, it's easy to cook every meal at home right now while I on break, but when I am working 40-60 hours a week... taking a break on weekends is nice. The saving grace is that Marc is learning to cook and getting pretty good. He can much more easily share the burden now.

     So, instead of finding my comfort in not having to plan a meal, in being able to enjoy a cayenne  tortilla wrapped burrito from Freebirds, I am learning to find joy in creativity and the comforts that certain foods bring me. I've experimented this week. I made baked chicken strips coated in crumbs of Tiana's favorite cereal (Gorilla Munch), and then, when I realized we didn't have any barbecue sauce, I quickly whipped up some of my own. I was able to give it just enough kick, and I loved it. That brings me joy.  Tonight, we had pasta - Marc's request - but I added my own little touches. I kicked the arrabiata sauce up a notch with some diced fire roasted tomatoes and green chiles. I made homemade croutons for the salad. 

     I could choose to be sad that we have to change our lifestyle. I could choose to be angry that there are so many people who can afford to spend $100 a week on fast food without going into debt. 

OR...  I could remember that I am among the wealthiest 5% in the entire world. Yes, you read that correctly. Recent figures show that the median income, when examining the entire world, is just $1,225 a year. The 1% figure in the U.S has come to mean all sorts of things and have all sorts of negative connotations, but when you look at what the 1% is on a global level -- well, most of my friends and family members are probably pretty close; the wealthiest 1% in the world take home $136,000 or more. Yes, here in California... that's pays for a house, two cars, and leaves a small budget for spending, but that is wealth to the world. While Marc and I aren't in that 1%...  I know we must be in the top five. How's that for perspective?  

     It's all on how you look at things. Is it strange that... after getting a "low balance alert" on my checking account today... my heart was just filled with gratitude at how fortunate I am?  I truly am blessed. 



Thursday, January 3, 2013

The road to freedom...

     .... is paved with Craigslist ads. 

 In the past two weeks, we, as a family, have made tremendous progress towards less stuff and more happiness.  We've sold several hundred dollars worth of stuff. I've been using a chopstick to shove more and more money into my happiness bottle.  When it gets too full to shove any more money in, I'm going to break it and pay off a credit card. 

Even Vinny has made great progress. De-cluttering is really difficult for him because de-cluttering involves moving stuff and making somewhat of a mess in the process of sorting. Vinny hates mess more than anything.  The irony is that what he had in his room was a huge mess, but he didn't see it that way because it was out of the way (I think I have said this exact same thing about Marc in the past... I have recollections of helping him move out of his room and into our apartment and discovering that, although he maintained appearances of tidiness, a mess lay hidden underneath). Vinny had a corner of his room where he had just tossed anything and everything. Backpacks, papers, random little toys and party favors, "books" he had made.  You name it, it had been shoved in his corner.  After many tears, we got through that one corner. He sold a bunch of stuff and threw away a bunch of stuff. He still has hundreds of toys in there that he hasn't played with in years, but we are taking it one step at a time. He is only about 7% of the way to his goal of buying a MacBook, but he gets excited about his progress every time he sells something, which is at least once a day, which is good. He gets positive reinforcement for the emotional distress that de-cluttering causes him. I have been encouraging him by letting him play with my Mac when I'm not using it.  He has become amazingly adept at computers in a very short amount of time.  Last night, he was playing with photobooth, and suddenly iTunes comes on, specifically, my reggae playlist.  "Did you mean to do that?"I ask. 
  "Yup. I'm on an island. Need background music," he replies. He is just too funny.

       Even Marc is making great progress. It seems that every day he appears with an arm full of stuff that I didn't even realize he had.  "Where are you getting all this stuff?" I asked one day. 
 "Boxes," he replied.  Hmm. Okay. I thought I was painfully aware of all the boxes of clutter and what they contained, but I guess there were more I didn't know about.
     By the fourth or fifth new load of stuff, I finally asked, "Where are these boxes hidden and how many more of them are there?"  

      "The garage, and I am pretty sure that's the last one." Time will tell, I suppose. 

      I am trying to tackle it all one room at a time right now, with the intention of returning to each room for another round after the first round of each room is done.  I've done the first round of Vinny's room, my room, one of two bathrooms, and the bookshelf. I really need to go through the toy box in the living room, but its such a mess that I've been avoiding it.  Baby steps.  With a few baby steps each day, we really are making progress. 

      This year, we really are serious about paying off debt and living within our means. I know that, in order to really feel free, this is the answer, but at first it is hard.  It means redefining a lot of how we live.  It means not buying fast food just because it is convenient or because we don't feel like eating leftovers for lunch for the third day in a row.  Instead, I am trying to get creative with leftovers and finding ways to stretch what is in our refrigerator.  It is a change, but we are up to the challenge.  

    When I was looking over our finances in December, I was really depressed. This month, I looked at it with a more positive attitude, and I looked carefully at our credit card statements.  I realized that Vinny's dance class had triple charged us for two months in a row.  I contacted them and got all that money credited back, which was great.  I also realized that we had paid nearly $200 for Green Day tickets for a show in Vegas. We were planning on making a prolonged date night out of it, but the show has been postponed with no date rescheduled yet. Who knows if the date they end up choosing will end up working with our busy schedule, and besides that, we cannot really afford a trip to Vegas with hotel costs and gas and food. I decided to see if I could get a refund. Fortunately, they were able to refund the  tickets. Yea! More credit towards our account.  

  With careful planning and shifting to a lifestyle of true frugality for a while, I believe we can be debt free by the end of 2013. 

      For now, I leave you with how Vinny's "adventures."

"Look, Mommy!  Two Vinnys and they are mad at each other."

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Vinny needs 50 sponsors!

I hate shameless promotion, so I will say it like it is... Vinny needs 50 sponsors for his performance in Peter Pan.  Click here to read more.