Living by the Numbers

Even though people claim to have a poor relationship with math, we sure do live in a wriggly snake pit of numbers. For example: I have two children, one cat, one husband, one mom, and two siblings. I have a numeric value for how quickly I solve certain types of arbitrary problems (an IQ), another numeric value for a measure of my mass (my weight), and all manner of numeric values for my eyesight, my hair length, my ring size, my pants size, my bra size and even the size of my feet.

I don’t generally mind all my numbers because put them all together and they add up to one of me, but I mind a whole lot when my numbers are used as a comparison for myself vs. someone else’s numbers. I can accept – begrudgingly – the need to standardize sizes some kind of way so that I can buy a clothing item with a reasonable expectation that, given a certain number, it means something relative to my ability to wear it without it either cutting off my circulation or falling off of me. Got it. But then we have to get all immature about it and use our numbers to shame and/or brag. Oh my goodness, she wears a size 00, she’s so lucky. Ummmm, why? Or, she needs to stop eating so many deserts – she wears a size 14. So? Stop it. Just stop. No. Take a time out or a nap until you can make better judgments.

This is not to say that I am completely unaware of my numbers. Nope, I am aware that my number is bigger than some numbers and smaller than others. I don’t blame commercials for this, nor do I blame some plastic doll. Does anyone really think they ought to look like Barbie? Scratch that; I know the answer and I am not smiling. If I am going to be silly and compare myself to others, I will most definitely compare myself to a living person who represents a quality I admire – and when I do that I am not thinking about whether I can borrow their clothes. I have to remind myself that clothing sizes are not a measure of human worth and awesomeness.

I would like it if my brain wouldn’t get stuck on the sizing loop, but after a particularly fruitless shopping expedition of looking for blue jeans that involved the sales clerk recommending a store with jeans better suited to my age bracket (oh yes she did), I have concluded that the blue jeans of my dreams are somewhere sitting beside my sewing machine waiting for me to make them. My body didn’t do anything wrong; it was minding its own business of respiration, digestion, and locomotion, so it’s my brain’s fault for overthinking the numbers. My best way to rid myself of this numeric nonsense is to create a story problem: if a woman goes jean shopping on a Monday and the relative humidity is 80% while a train is coming down from Chicago to Tampa at 60 mph with a stop in Kentucky because it’s pretty, how much does the size of the blue jeans matter? Not a bit.

I am now heading out to the movies with a friend wearing my favorite blue jeans because they are the exact comfort level I want. Also, I cut the tag out of those a long time ago.

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Replenishing My Bucket

Tom Rath presented a wonderful analogy of interactions and their effect on people in his book How Full Is Your Bucket? The premise is simple: either you have a positive interaction which adds to your bucket, or a less rewarding interaction that empties it a bit. You also do this to yourself through positive and negative self-talk. Big interactions reap big effects, sometimes filling that bucket up to overfull and sometimes emptying it till all that’s left are pieces of lint and rust — kind of like burning the candle at both ends and getting singed in the process. In the spirit of overextending metaphors as I do and using the bucket analogy of life, some people are bucket heads, some people put out fires with their buckets and some people share the water in their buckets until there’s nothing left for them.

This brings me to May. April is the cruelest month for T.S. Eliot and tax preparers; May is the cruelest month for teachers. We walk around like extras on The Walking Dead, shuffling with arms outstretched in an effort to catch that last little morsel of learning (braiinnnnnnnss) and prove to the students that they really can master the concept we’re teaching. Teachers are committed, desperately so, to the notion that our students are important. Their futures matter, their psyches matter, and their goals matter. I don’t have time for the argument about the bored teacher who gave up on the students; I only have time to be inspired, so I look for those teachers. They are abundant and cross all grade and subject areas.

As a buffer to the news, to the end-of-course exams, and to the students’ burn-out, I have devised a few strategies to keep my bucket full:

  • Thank you notes. I write positive notes to parents, to the students, to my teacher friends, to anyone who could use a smile. They include emoji stickers or scratch and sniffs because stickers are a universal smile inducer. If you don’t like stickers, I will stay away from you, I promise.
  • Candy. Yes, it is not healthy, and no, I don’t care. I share my candy. My friends at work know where I keep the goody stash, and unbeknownst to them, they are the ones I buy it for. Very rarely do the students get the chocolate; that’s an adult reward.
  • No surprise here, I keep a gratitude journal. Each day, I write down three things I am grateful for and three things I hope for. I don’t write a to-do list; those things get freakishly long and I do best focusing on one thing at a time.
  • Inappropriate lyrics to songs. I rework lyrics to songs when I need to regroup. Fortunately for the world, I keep it in my head. The cadence of Frozen is a good one to use: “F—it all, F – it all, stop passing notes in class,” will usually yield a smile wide enough to make the students wonder what I’m up to. That’s all anyone hopes for: curiosity on the part of their students.
  • Award certificates – I derive fiendish glee in making award certificates for ridiculous categories and giving them to people. It’s like a sticker, only more official looking.
  • Exercise. I hate it that I typed that, but it’s true. Exercise helps keep me from burning out.

The reason I write about the book and my strategies is that I needed every single one this past week. It was a whopper in teacher-land: students who didn’t want to take finals (like, who does?), colleagues who are overwhelmed, way too many social events and way to little sleep. Added to that, I will miss the students. There are plenty of memes and video clips out there about people counting down the last days of school, but I don’t. It makes me feel a little bittersweet. When we do our job well, our students leave us. With all the tribulations of testing and grading, the graduations and the celebrations (I don’t know why I needed three –tions, but there it is), my bucket’s wobbling a bit. I have to remind myself that the best part of this time of year is the hope. The graduates, the transitioning students, the parents: we’re all looking forward to a notion, an idea that the next great adventure is on the horizon and that the people who are important to us are ready for it. For me, that next great adventure involves sleep and a trip to the bucket store.

 

The Art of Waiting

Part of being a human person is waiting. We wait for our turn in line, for our appointments, for the flight to get called, for the announcements to be made. For people who are not good at waiting, this becomes something of a problem. “Hurry up,” we mutter at the child who is still saying goodbye to the 10 best friends they just met, “We have errands to run!” Then we become surprised at their general lack of joy in running errands with us. Enter the tension, the bickering, and the flat out arguments that result from our mismatched perceptions of time. I am sure there’s some longitudinal study about this, but it certainly feels like waiting comprises much of our conscious time. If we spend so much of our time waiting, it stands to reason that we should get better about doing it.

Judging by the number of horns beeping in traffic and humphs while standing in line, this is not a skill people care to master. We could – and often do – spend this time fussing and whining. I would like to think that when my life is over, I will have laughed more often than I fussed, but there are days where this is probably an optimistic goal.

If you hate waiting, imagine how the people around you feel. We’ve got all this festering energy percolating around and we’re not popcorn, so any degree of explosion we’ll have is going to be named something else: road rage, being the angry customer, or more aptly, being a jerk. It’s no one’s particular fault that we have to wait, we just have to. Hopefully, we remember our kindergarten manners and behave as such on the outside, but inside we remember the laundry, our other appointments, and our more preferred activities. It begins to show. Tempers get short, kids start to fuss, we start to fuss, and then everyone joins in on the fuss-tival (I had to).

Instead, I have been practicing how to wait. I am a fan of daydreaming, reading, and chatting, as long as the people I’m chatting with haven’t passed their optimal level of waiting patience. I’ve swapped recipes, brainstormed how to fix sewing mishaps, even played games with kids while in line. When there’s someone to talk to, I have fun waiting, probably because I’m not waiting but socializing.

If I don’t have anyone to chat with, I have reading and daydreaming at the ready. The only unfortunate thing about this is that all too often, my name gets called right when I’m in the middle of mentally rehearsing my acceptance speech for whatever award I think I’m getting, or when the plot of a story takes a great twist. I did, once and only once, ask the doctor to wait a moment while I finished a sentence on a student’s paper. My health care professional did not appreciate being told to hang on a second when he was already running late. The imp in me grinned, but externally I thanked him for his patience.

I have learned that waiting is an art form. If we reframe the waiting and make it something else, then we’re not really waiting. We’re having free time imposed on us, and we can use that wisely (plan your dinner party, write your thank you speech, sketch the rough draft of your opening arguments) or not (fussing). I am currently on hold, waiting for my turn in the phone line. This afternoon, I have another appointment. Clearly, I will have ample and continued opportunity to practice this craft.

Jawline Journeys

 

Last Thursday I had my final appointment at my TMJ doctor’s office. TMJ, in all its acronym-istic glory, stands for the temporomandibular joint, a disorder of the jaw, where the joint is misaligned, misplaced, or gone fishing. For the last fiveish years, I’ve been treated for a case of TMJ so wondrous that my jaw locked and my mouth wouldn’t open all the way. While it wasn’t all that unusual to my doctor, it was weird to me, painful, caused headaches, and seriously impacted my ability to eat food. It wasn’t life-threatening, I kept reminding myself, but it was definitely life impacting. Initially, I realized I might have a medical problem when I began having to cut bananas because I couldn’t open my mouth wide enough to eat one straight out of the peel. I figured the locked jaw would clear up on its own. When it didn’t get any better and, in fact, got worse, I went to the doctor. This was about six months after my jaw locked for the first time. I’m an idiot.

I have mentioned before that I adore this doctor and his entire office staff. They were professional, fun, pleasant, and tolerant of the fact that Italklikethisallthetime. They got used to the jokes I’d tell when I was nervous, and the fact that when I’m scared I will hold someone’s hand, doesn’t really matter whose. This only happened once, my first treatment, and then I was fine, mostly because they were fine and we could all be fine together. Their calm was sustaining.

My jaw tendons required a type of therapy that redirected the tendons back to where they were supposed to be. The tendons were stubborn, much like the owner of the jaw they were misbehaving in, but eventually they realized that my doctor was the boss of them and they’d better stay put. For the first time in ever, I followed directions. You want me to practice opening my mouth to the point just after discomfort but just before it feels like it has been hit by a jackhammer? Okey doke. You want me to wear an appliance that holds my mouth somewhat open while I teach middle school? Ummmm, okay. You want me to use warm compresses twice daily? You betcha. I’ll see those compresses and raise you one more. I would have attempted to stand on my head and recite the Pledge of Allegiance to my jaw if that had been prescribed. Thankfully, it wasn’t. I can’t stand on my head any more without a wall to stabilize me.

Eventually, the pain went away, the mobility improved, and then finally, I could chew big people food again. Do not underestimate how awesome it is to eat food with your teeth and jaws working together in harmonious tandem. It’s glorious. First, I could eat a banana without a fork and knife. Then ground meat. Then chicken. Finally, nachos. God, how I missed nachos. Once I could eat them again, I cried real tears of real joy over how great it is to eat without first cutting food into bite-size pieces.

I didn’t really think about the fact that there would come a day when I would no longer need jaw therapy, even though I joked that I was looking forward to missing them. This past Thursday was that day. My doctor measured my ability to open my mouth, checked the alignment of my jawline, and pronounced me good to go. As in leave. As in all done. While I was thrilled to be rehabilitated, I found myself wondering who was going to need their hand held, or who was going to give the office staff goodies to celebrate the wonders of chewing, or even who was going to like them as much as I do. Of course, I realize that there are already patients under their care who fill all of those categories. It’s just not going to be me.

With hugs to anyone within reaching distance, I graduated from the office. Like all good patient-graduates, though, I consider that place an Alma Mater of sorts. Every time I chew food without cringing or yawn without tearing up, I will remember them with thanks.