Monday, March 31, 2014

My Brain May or May Not Be Turning to Oatmeal (aka Brain Food Experiment)


Sometimes I miss being in school.

Isn't that weird? I mean, I'm literally "in" school 50-60 hours a week, but being the teacher doesn't exactly hold the same "in school" feeling as being a student does.

There are some things I don't miss about being a student of course--I don't miss staying up until two in the morning writing papers or having all my time at home hijacked by homework and studying. But I do miss the challenge of learning, the thrill of new information, the pride of mastering a new skill or concept.

And lately, while I feel that in some ways I'm getting smarter (like in how to tell if a 13-year-old is lying to me or not), I'm not exactly sharpening my mind daily like I used to be. I mean, as much as I love reading blogs, most aren't exactly intellectual, and I find it sad that I spend more time playing Candy Crush most days than I do developing talents.

It's for all these reasons that I've imposed a new daily experiment---every day for about two weeks now, I've set a little "brain food" challenge for myself : for at least ten minutes a day, I need to do something that will sharpen my mind. Some ideas of things I've done (or that I'm thinking of doing):

- listen to a clip on YouTube of a classical melody I'm unfamiliar with
- read the newspaper
- listen to a TED talk
- participate in a free online course at Coursera
- study a section in a textbook
- find five new words in the dictionary
- spend ten minutes studying an unfamiliar artist's work
- read an article out of Time, National Geographic, or The New Yorker
- try out a few algebra, geometry, or calculus problems to refresh my skills
- next time I hear an interesting study mentioned in the newspaper or in a magazine, read the actual study report and statistics
- pick a religion I don't know much about and Google it
- watch a clip on a historical event on PBS, the History Channel, or YouTube

I know ten minutes isn't much, but many days, I find that I've far exceeded the ten minute limit because I become so absorbed in what I'm doing. And on the days I just get the ten, I figure that it's better than having spent that time playing time-sucking games on the tablet, right?

Do you ever miss being a student? What do you do to become more autodidactic (self-taught)?

Friday, March 28, 2014

Financial Friday: Cheap(er) Vacations

Part of my motive in blogging about financial matters is to get more people talking about money---it seems like money is usually the giant giraffe in the middle of the party that no one's talking about. I'm sure most of us have heard at some point in our lives that it's rude to bring up one's finances in public, but it sure might solve some "keeping up with the Jones" issues if people were more forthright.

Or maybe it would just make things worse because you might realize how much poorer you really are than somebody else.

But I digress.

My real purpose of today's post is to talk about traveling on a budget, which is one of my great loves. Ever since I visited Florida at 15 with two of my best friends, I've been bit with the traveling bug and am determined to see as much of the world as possible.

Unfortunately, being on a teacher's salary and having my husband be a full-time student are definitely drawbacks when it comes to making big travel plans. However, since the bug in me will not be satisfied, I have managed to come up with a few strategies for getting to go on some awesome vacations without dropping a ridiculous amount of money.

Tip #1: Travel to a location that's within a reasonable driving distance.

The rising price of airfare never ceases to burn a hole in the pit of my stomach, so because I just can't stand the thought of dropping $1000 (or more!) to fly where we want to go, we usually just opt to drive to a location that we can reach in one day of driving (preferably fewer than 7 hours). Since most people (I would wager) have not seen the gems and exotic locales close to their own backyards (that other people often travel thousands of miles to see), I think that most of us--wherever we live in the world--would be hard pressed to not be able to find a new, exciting traveling location within a 7-hour driving radius.

Some people might argue that with the rising price of gasoline, it is more worth it to fly. I guess this one would depend on the length of your drive and the gas mileage of your car, but for a 300-mile driving trip (600 miles round trip), you probably still won't have to spend over $100 in gas unless your car gets really terrible gas mileage.

For a point of reference, our 260-mile trip to West Yellowstone (520 miles round trip) cost us about $70 in gas, which is a heck of a lot better than shelling out $800 (or more) for two plane tickets.

Tip #2: Travel in the off-season whenever possible and book your accommodations early.

Luckily for us, Matt's spring break (which is when we've been taking most of our trips) is always in March, which happens to be the off-season for many of the places we've been visiting lately. The beginning of March is especially a good time to visit Yellowstone price-wise because most of the people who come for the snowmobiling and cross country skiing are gone (because the winter season is practically over), and the summer crowd hasn't shown up yet.

Also, I've found that the earlier you book your lodgings, the cheaper your rates (generally). For both this year's vacation to Yellowstone and last year's to Bryce, we were able to book deluxe rooms with a king-size bed and amenities in nice hotels for about $250 (for three nights).

Tip #3: Book a hotel that has a decent continental breakfast that's included in the price of the room.

Since the cost of food on trips can add up VERY fast, we try to always book at hotels that are known for serving a good-sized continental breakfast at no additional charge. The place we stayed at last week (The Stagecoach Inn) had an amazing variety for their breakfast--in addition to the usual pastries, muffins, and fruit, they had the mix to make your own Belgian waffle, loads of varieties of cold cereal, yogurt, oatmeal, and even hard-boiled eggs that were ripe for the picking. Because we loaded up each day on the hotel's breakfast, we saved money later on by not having to buy as many meals.

Tip #4: Book a room in your hotel that has a microwave and a fridge.

Along the same vein of saving money on food, I've found that it saves quite a bit of money to get a room with a microwave and fridge and bring your own snacks and even some food for meals. We stocked our fridge with string cheese, fruit, Powerade, and other snacks for between-meal munching, and we even packed simple meals we could heat up in the microwave, like avocados and melted cheese on tortillas with hot sauce. We were in Yellowstone for 4 days and needed to have basically 11 meals (since we left late enough on the first day to eat breakfast at home). The continental breakfast took care of 3 of them, the meals and snacks we'd brought knocked out another 5, so we only ended up going out to eat 3 times on the trip.

Tip #5: Research out the available activities in the area beforehand, and see what's available for free and what's worth splurging on.

We could have done a better job at this one when it came to our trip to Yellowstone, but we still were able to keep activity costs relatively low by sharing a snowmobile. If you're visiting a national park, check out beforehand if your library offers national park passes for check-out, which will waive the price of the park pass for you. Also, many venues often offer coupons or special discounts if you check them out online beforehand.

Also, never underestimate how much fun it can simply be just to walk around and admire the general splendor of the place you're visiting, whether it be out in nature or along a row of cute shops.

Tip #6: Ask money-saving tips from people who have already traveled to where you're going.

Had we talked to somebody who'd traveled to Yellowstone recently and been snowmobiling into the canyon, they could have told us we really didn't need to buy the special outerwear that the snowmobiling company rented out. Although the employee that worked there claimed we'd be miserable without it, we had dressed warmly enough to have been able to avoid renting it had we known beforehand that we weren't really going to get wet at all (since it didn't snow on us).

That tip alone (had we received it from someone else) would have saved us $30.

Tip #7: Learn from your mistakes in the past.

Even though this has happened twice in a row (actually, make that three times in a row), I think maybe I've *finally* gotten it into my head that we really don't need to go so crazy when it comes to buying treats and snacks for the car ride there (and to store in the hotel room). We over-bought snacks by about $30 this last trip, so I'm going to try really, REALLY hard to keep myself in control next time.

In conclusion, here is the breakdown of the total cost of our 4-day trip to Yellowstone:

Gas  --  $70
Snacks/ Groceries -- $50 (could have easily been $20)
Hotel -- $275 (w/ tax)
Eating Out -- $65
Snowmobiling -- $230 (could have been $200 w/o cost of renting outerwear)
Other Excursions (nature center, park fee) --$40

Total Cost -- $730

I know you can definitely do vacations for a lot cheaper (hello camping!), but for what we were able to do, I'd say we were able to keep it pretty cheap.

What are your tips for keeping costs down on vacations?

Treasure Tromp

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Allure of Insecurity

I've been giving my students the Myers-Briggs personality test to kill some time during homeroom this week (where I have 8 minutes with those kids every day pretty much to do whatever the heck I want). They've been really eager to find out their personality type, and I was pretty curious myself to take the test again because while I used to be an ENFP for a long time, I had a feeling that I didn't really belong in that section anymore (since marriage has made me perfectly content to become much more reflective and spend a lot of quiet time at home rather than go out and be in the center of all the action).

While I was taking the test again (online), I came across this statement (which I was supposed to give an answer to that ranged somewhere between "strongly agree" and strongly disagree"):

I don't often feel insecure.

I admit, I was stumped on how to answer.

On some things, I am relatively self-assured, such as with my ability to learn new things, my natural talent for reading and understanding, and the capability I've acquired to set challenging goals for myself in various pursuits and meet them.

And even on less sure things, such as my appearance and weight, while I've vacillated between confident and self-abasing in the past, I've found myself more or less content lately with the whole concept of my physical appearance at large (or at least it hasn't been a point of major concern).

However, the question stumped me because I've found myself thinking a lot lately about how too often, it gets easy to wear insecurity like a blanket--if I'm feeling insecure about my work, for example, I can blame my lack of success on my insecurity. If I'm not feeling comfortable with my talents in a certain area compared to someone else, I can simply justify not trying to do my best by my own standards because I know I'll never match up to someone else's.

Does that even make sense?

I've been thinking a lot about my future dreams lately too--about my goals for my writing, about my dream to open up my own photography business later this year, my future plans to have a family---and because all these things scare the skin right off me, it gets all too easy to just accept my insecurities and procrastinate making any progress forward.

I don't really know how to fix the problem, but I think it's important that I've recognized how easy it can be to hide behind my insecurities--to use them as justifications for why I'm not becoming the best person I can be.

What do you think? Does all that even make sense?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

5 Things

1. All week this week, we Language Arts teachers have been administering the SAGE end-of-level writing test to our students. Standardized testing is the worst, and the most awful thing about the new tests we have to give out this year is that my Language Arts classes have TWO FULL WEEKS of testing (just for my subject alone). I mean, that's enough to make anyone feel pretty sorry for the students (since all in all, they'll be in the computer lab taking standardized tests for four full weeks), but I feel sorry for MYSELF as a teacher because every day of end-of-level testing is high-stress and high-boredom for me. It's a bad combination, and I'm going a little out of my mind.

(Also, I am firmly convinced that students have an unconscious signal in their brain that tells them to wait until I'm finally sitting down to raise their hand so I have to get up again and come help them.)

2. As proof of how crazy testing makes me, I had this big presentation I had to give in front of my whole faculty on Monday after school. For anyone unfamiliar about how education works in Utah, all second-year teachers are required to put together this massive portfolio that proves how we've been meeting all the teaching standards, and then we're required to present it in front of the district. Normally, you're just required to present it in front of about six or seven people, but my school decided to have me do it in front of the entire faculty, which is comprised of about fifty people. That fact alone isn't so bad (since I don't really mind public speaking), except for the fact that as I was reading aloud my reflection on my first years of teaching, I started to CRY--not because I was stressed out or scared due to the presentation, but just because whenever I talk about emotional things, I tend to sob like a little girl (which means I'm pretty much a bawl baby every Sunday at church).

It was mortifying.

What made it even worse almost is how sweet everyone was about it---they kept coming up to me after and telling me how endearing or cute they found the presentation, and I just wanted to die.

At least everybody got free ice cream cones out of the whole thing since my faculty was kind enough to turn the whole thing into a celebration for everyone.

At least there was that.

3. On Monday, just before I was about to go out on my run, I proudly announced to Matt that I was not sore AT ALL from my too-long run on Saturday. In fact, I was even kind of excited to get out and hit the pavement again (get some of that stress out from standardized testing!). Well, my pride went before my fall, I guess--I  hadn't taken three steps before I realized that there was NO WAY I was going to be able to pull a 3-miler out of my board-like legs.

(Apparently my legs just didn't feel any soreness from something as weak and pitiful as walking around all day in a testing lab---apparently they only wanted me to feel their wrath when I was trying to attempt any pace faster than a small rodent's.)

4. Last note on the standardized tests and I swear I'll stop---so apparently because of the backlash over the Common Core, some parents are putting up a fight against the school and choosing to have their students "opt out" of taking the test. Now, I'm all for standing up for your constitutionally protected rights (as well as your kids'), but what is NOT cool is that all of the kids whose parents have opted them out have been some of my higher-performing kids, which just means that my overall class scores are going to look lower than they actually are.

It's stupid that I should even care, but since the education powers-that-be are threatening to put us on merit-based pay starting next year (and a third of our overall "merit" as a teacher comes from how our students perform on standardized tests), I'm a little less-than-thrilled about the whole thing.

5. I was doing pretty well with my whole "not eating sugar during the week" resolution I set at the beginning of this month until we took our trip to Yellowstone. Since then, it's been back to the cake and the gummy worms and the chocolate daily in order to cope with all the stress going on at work (since running alone apparently is not a good enough coping mechanism).

Maybe April will be a good time to start afresh with that particular goal...

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Marriage Matters: Service

The psychology behind relationships has always fascinated me (which is one reason why I went into psychology as my minor), and I've found that most marriage and family counselors will list the following thing when asked to list the top 5 ingredients for a successful marriage:

Service (or the need to be selfless).

In many ways, I married up---

Matt is kind and sensitive to my needs, he is easygoing and nurturing, and he is seriously attractive when he is slicing up vegetables for our dinner.

But of all his admirable qualities, my husband is above all incredibly selfless and giving.

Every day, he shows his love not just through hugs and verbal affirmation, but through countless thoughtful acts, like putting away my dishes, getting me a drink so I don't have to give up, packing my lunch every single day without fail, and giving me a neck rub when he can tell I'm stressed out.

In fact, it wasn't until I started dating him that I really realized that I am naturally a kind of selfish person when it comes to relationships--not about all things, mind you, but I wasn't usually in the habit of constantly looking for ways to serve the person I was with---in fact, I was more the type of girlfriend who was all about the "grand gestures"---the really thoughtful birthday gift, the spontaneous date ideas, or the passionate declarations of love in a letter or email.

And while I think that those "big" acts of love are pretty fun (and appreciated!) every now and then, I have found that marriage has taught me to be much more about acts of daily love, like making your spouse's side of the bed or folding his/her laundry or picking a movie you know you'll both actually like.

It's those small daily acts of love that build a truly loving environment at home---the kind of environment you want to come home to every day more than you want to be anywhere else.

But just as our atmosphere out in nature has to be nurtured and taken care of and not polluted by the daily acts of all involved individuals, so do our homes need to be nurtured and taken care of by the constant daily habit of selfless service.

I'm still not perfect in giving service (I still whine when I leave something downstairs and hope that Matt will volunteer to get it for me or let him pack up our leftovers after every meal), but I HAVE gotten much better at giving service over the course of our marriage.

At first, I started off with the obvious ways of giving service (meaning, the ways that involved things that I naturally enjoyed doing so they didn't really seem that out of my way) : cooking meals for us most nights, making sure I picked up things Matt liked from the grocery store, or giving hugs and kisses.

And while those were a great start, I have found that there are endless ways to serve my spouse, and the more ways I try, the more the love in our home seems to grow.

Below I've created a list of some ideas just in case you're looking for new ways to increase that daily love in your own home (and to remind myself of things to do the next time I'm cranky):

*Make his favorite meal one night just because (hence the lasagna pics here!)
*Pick up a $5 movie you know he'll like (even if you won't)
*Bake or buy a treat that he likes (even if you don't like it!)
*Fold his laundry and put it away
*Happily agree to watch one of his shows (with no complaints or snide remarks)
*Offer to help him with something having to do with work or school
*Pack his lunch
*Wake up early and make him a special breakfast
*Make his side of the bed
*Pre-order the next book in that series he likes so much
*Write him a little letter and slip it into his backpack, work bag, or wallet
*Buy a Gatorade in his favorite flavor and write a little love note on the cap/bottle, then leave it in his sports bag
*Change the car's oil without having to be reminded
*Draw him a funny picture of an inside joke or something and put it up on the fridge
*Send him a random email or text during the day to say you're thinking of him
*Hold hands as much as you can
*Ask him about something he's interested in and let him describe it to you in great detail
*Tell him you appreciate him and all he does for you
*Thank him specifically whenever he serves you
*Take his dishes to the sink when he's done eating
*Offer to get him a drink/snack when you're in the kitchen and he's not
*Make it possible for him to spend a night (or an afternoon) out with his friends
*Set up the Christmas tree (or other holiday decorations) without making him help you
*Do the chores that he would normally do

What are other little acts of service that you do to add to the daily love found in your home?

Monday, March 24, 2014

Emotional Running

Last Saturday was a perfect day for running---so perfect, apparently, that the springlike atmosphere and pleasant breeze wafting through my hair caused me to get a bit lost right in the middle of my long run.

Let me paint a picture for you--

Saturday, 8:30 a.m.

Looking at my training schedule and my personal goals for myself, I am supposed to run 9 miles, which, while no walk in the park, should definitely be doable, even despite the fact that I haven't run anything too close to that distance for about a month (although I have been doing 6-7 miles more or less regularly). My thighs are still feeling torn up after my first real speed workout ever on Wednesday (like on an actual track and everything), but all in all, I'm feeling pretty great. (It helps that I slept about 11 hours the night before.)

About four miles into the run, I come to an important decision--do I veer down this path that I know leads back to the main highway and risk running less than my 9 miles, or do I keep on going and just head down the next trail I come across and hope it carries me in the right direction?

Because I know it will be harder to tack on extra distance the closer to home I am, I decide to just keep on going, figuring that I'll hit a thru street soon.

Fast forward about half an hour--I am nearing the end of the road I'm on, and there's nowhere to go but down into the direction of the main highway (although with no thru street in sight), so I head that way, figuring that I've got to eventually find a road to take me where I need to go. But the minutes and miles keep ticking by and I keep hitting dead end after dead end, which force me to weave back and forth among small streets (that are all, by the way, WAY out in the country and generally surrounded by vicious German-Shepherd-like dogs). Luckily for me, I have brought an orange with me, which I desperately try to ration as I keep on pounding the pavement (since it's my only source of fuel or liquid for the entire run).

Another half hour passes, and I'm about 10 miles into what was supposed to be my 9-mile run. By this point, I'm at least back into familiar territory, which is both great and terrible---great because I'm not lost anymore, terrible because I realize that I'm still 2.5 miles from home, which means that my already-hard long run was going to be about the same length as the race I'm training for.

And then a strange thing happened around mile 11--I started to get really, REALLY emotional. Perhaps it was because my breath was already coming in ragged sobs due to the presence of hills and lack of water, or maybe it was because I was hoping desperately that my husband might happen to pass by me in the car and bring me home, or maybe it was because panicked thoughts started racing themselves in my mind and yelling that I wasn't going to be able to make it home, much less race this half-marathon in a month--but try as I might, tears and heaving whimpers were escaping me, whether I liked it or not.

If you've ever pushed yourself while exercising--and I mean TRULY pushed yourself to your limits--perhaps you know the feeling I'm talking about : the point where your body has just about reached physical exhaustion and your mind (that mysterious power that fuels ALL exercise) starts to turn on you, convincing that you can no longer go on, and you totally lose it.

I finally walked through our front door a mile and a half later sobbing uncontrollably while my bewildered husband tried to bring me glass after glass of water and ask what was wrong.

Truth was, I couldn't really tell him anything except for that it was "like the 18-miler." (Backstory: When Matt and I were training together for our marathon, we had carved out over 3 hours one Saturday morning to run our first 18-miler. The furthest distance either of us had gone before that point was 15 miles (I believe), so it was quite a jump up. I still remember the last mile of that 18-mile run from hell--I was sure that with every step, my legs would crumple beneath me and that I would never be able to rise again---that I would never be able to reach my goal of running a marathon because I couldn't even complete this training in preparation for it. It was the first time my goal of running 26.2 miles seemed truly impossible and that I felt like I was going to fall short and fail, and it was the first time that I truly had pushed myself to my physical and emotional limits.)

For anyone who has been into any form of intense exercise, there is an interesting intersection you might come across in your quest towards greater and greater intensities, distances, and/or weights---it's the intersection between what you WANT to do and what your body currently CAN do, and when you reach that intersection, it's like your brain opens the floodgates to your emotions, and you are reduced to a mewling, sobbing, infantlike mess.

I wish I could explain it better than I have---the absolute powerlessness it brings upon you, the uncontrollable emotion that seems yanked out of you by a force apart from (but still part) of yourself.

Basically, it was a lesson that I needed to plan out my runs better and not be running 12.5 miles when my training schedule told me I should only run 9.

Have you ever reached that emotional intersection while exercising before?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Yellowstone: A Photo & Word Journal, Pt. Two

Day Three (Friday)

In order to snowmobile into the park, you must be a part of a tour group, which means that our little expedition is starting at an hour I usually don't like to see on vacations. After an early breakfast, Matt and I encase ourselves in layer upon layer of sweaters and pants until we resemble lumpy human sausages because the tour guide had explained the night before that renting clothing cost $15/person, and we are looking to save money wherever possible..

However, as we pull into the snowmobile tours site, we quickly realize we are the only ones NOT wearing the special rent-able clothing, and we start to feel a little uneasy (ah, the power of peer pressure!). After a few moments of quiet debate with each other, Matt asks the woman working as a clothing assistant if we'll be okay in just jeans and several layers underneath, and she looks shocked--

"No way--jeans are no good. You'll get wet and be freezing and miserable."

So Matt and I look at each other, shrug, then ask to rent the clothing.

Even though it kills part of my soul to fork over the money, I DO have to admit that Matt looks pretty sexy in his snowmobile suit. He, in turn, starts making fun of my saggy bum (since the person handing me the suit seemed to have been all out of the suit that was more my size and length).

We waddle our way out to the parking lot where the snowmobiles are waiting, and I can see Matt eyeing one that's as close to the back of the pack as possible (so as to make it easier to "fall behind" and necessitate "speeding up"). We get a quick tutorial on how to run the machines (which kind of just succeeds in making me nervous about the whole thing, which I hadn't been before), and then we hop on.

I have no idea what to expect--the closest thing I can compare it to size-wise is a jet ski, but as we start along the road, I can unequivocally state that snowmobiles and jet skis are most certainly NOT alike in how they feel.

For anyone who hasn't been snowmobiling before, the runners on the bottom tend to slide into the path of least resistance (aka, whatever tracks that people before you have made), which means that the snowmobile can often take on a mind of its own, especially as the snow starts melting and getting patchy.

I really hadn't been scared at all about the idea of snowmobiling into the park, but as we start to clip along at ever-faster speeds (me holding onto the handlebars on the sides for dear life while Matt is driving), I keep having thoughts like, "We could die doing this. I could get thrown off at any moment. Ohmyheck! We almost tipped!"

As these thoughts tumble over themselves in my harried mind, I can just FEEL the vibes of excitement coming off of Matt---he is clearly having the time of his life pushing the speed limits while I am on the back planning my funeral.

Fortunately, as we get into deeper snow and I get used to the uneven gait of the snowmobile, I am able to relax (slightly) and start enjoying the view. As the day wears on, I even get comfortable enough to take out my camera and snap some pictures from the back as we are cruising along.

All around us, the park spreads itself in silent majesty, and we start noticing wildlife almost wherever we turn--herds of bison sharing our road, elk standing around in the river, far-off coyotes tearing apart their prey...

The more I look around, the more I think that THIS is surely the only way to see Yellowstone---not a lot of people around, bright blue skies and refreshing cold, drifts of snow muffling any sounds...

It is breathtaking.

Our tour guide breaks up our day into segments of driving and walking around, so we are never on our feet or on the snowmobiles for too long. Luckily for us, our guide is pretty knowledgeable and our fellow tour members friendly, so we all have a healthy sense of camaraderie as we admire the gushing geysers and point out wildlife.

Matt and the man in the snowmobile behind us (since we weren't successful in getting the last machine in line) even get into a little friendly man-competition about who was able to speed up the fastest on the last driving stretch. As they laugh about the exorbitant speeds they have managed to hit, I want to cover my ears so I won't have to do the automatic calculations as to how far over the speed limit they are going (and so the funeral preparations don't start up in my head again...)

As the afternoon starts to come to a close and as I realize we are heading back to the park entrance, I feel an urgent division in my mind--

Should I try driving the snowmobile or should I just let Matt drive the rest of the way?

The two parts of my apparently split personality start to compete with each other:

"It's just easier if I let Matt drive. That way I can keep looking around and taking pictures."

"What if I'll regret not trying it out while I have the chance? One of the worst things to feel is regret."

"But everyone else already knows how to drive---Matt would have to show me, and what if I hold everyone up?"

"I hate being a wimp all the time. What happened to my sense of adventure?"

Eventually, I almost convince myself to just keep on riding on the back and be content with it, although deep down, I know I'll probably regret it. But then I see that the woman in front of me asks her husband for a chance to drive, which gives me the courage I need to take the wheel.

My hands are awkward starting out, as they are wrapped up in thick gloves and my thumb unused to pushing forward to throttle (rather than pulling back with my fingers). My arms keep going numb from being held up in such an awkward position, and there are a few terrifying moments when the snowmobile, asserting its independence, seems to be about to spin off into the trees as it insists on following its own path.

But after about ten minutes, I am able to relax enough to try speeding up daringly (taking after Matt's lead earlier in the day) and even standing up for a few seconds to get some blood into my arms.

Even though I end up switching to the back again the next time we stop, I am so glad I have taken the opportunity to be brave---

Sometimes it seems that the older I get, the fewer opportunities I have (or at least take) to go outside of my comfort zone, but every time I do have a chance and seize it, I find that the experience inevitably enlarges me and my own sense of self.

So in addition to (re)-learning the importance of trying new things out with my husband, I also (re)-learned how important it is to try out new things for myself.

Until next time, Yellowstone!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Yellowstone: A Photo & Word Journal, Pt. One

Last year, when we went to Bryce Canyon over spring break, I did a little "Photo & Word Journal" on the blog, which I loved (if for no other reason than that it more completely documented our vacation than just a normal blog post). 

Hope you don't mind a repeat :)

(All photos taken by either me or my husband except for the one of both of us)

Day One (Wednesday)

Even though it's just a 4-hour drive from Logan to West Yellowstone, Matt and I decided to not stress ourselves out by trying to drive up after a full day of work and school. This morning I woke up, went on a quick 3-mile run, and then went into a frenzy of packing and preparing. Our goal was to be out of here by 11 AM, but we quickly realized that that was going to be impossible because we'd forgotten to update the GPS, which is all too good at getting us lost if we forget to plug it into the computer and get the updates.

After an excruciatingly long wait of over two hours, we are out of the apartment by about 1 PM and cruising north, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows blasting out of the speakers and a bag of freshly made cookies in the cooler behind us. While Matt drives, I play Candy Crush on his tablet and flip through some fun non-fiction reads I picked up from the library before we left---a couple books on blogging, a memoir that looked entertaining, and some magazines (of course).

Upon driving into West Yellowstone at about 5 PM, one thing becomes painfully clear--

There are a LOT of places that are closed down during the winter season.

We decide to check into our hotel before panicking too much about our lack of options, and it takes us 3 trips to lug everything out of the car. Because of the weather fiasco last spring break, we have overpacked so that we are prepared for whatever March decides to throw at us---blizzard or rainstorm, blazing sun or light flurries. And because we are determined not to repeat past mistakes, we have packed a LOT of sunscreen.

The hotel is quiet and definitely experiencing its off-season (although there are a couple weathered-looking tourists sitting in front of the big fireplace in the lobby). We ask the woman at the front desk what there is to do and mention snowmobiling, but she seems a little nervous, as if there isn't much to tell. 

After unpacking in our room (a luxury king-size bedroom with a fridge and microwave we got at a steal due to the time of year), I go back to the front desk to ask about the location and hours of their hot tub, which I had been greatly looking forward to all day as I had watched the thermometer in the car drop lower and lower the more north we went.

The nervous woman started off with, "Uhhhh..." and the clerk behind her laughed and said, "WHAT hot tub? Right now we haven't got anything."

I was not amused, especially as the guest services listed had included a hot tub (which was only nonexistent apparently because it was under construction).

Hot tub or no, I wasn't going to let our night be spoiled, so we decided to drive around town and see what was what and find something to eat. Everywhere we drove, boarded up windows and "Closed" signs met our eyes, and we worried that we would have nothing to do all vacation but eat at the same three restaurants and watch t.v. in our hotel room.

After grabbing hamburgers and fries at the cafe across the street from the hotel, we discovered with relief that we did have a couple options available to us---the bear and wolf preserve, the IMAX theater (which only showed nature programs), and going into the park on a guided tour on either a snowcoach (a massive van with tank-like wheels meant for snow) or a snowmobile.

We decided to hit the local stuff the next day and try to get on a snowmobiling expedition on Friday, then we headed back to the hotel for a relaxing evening of cable t.v. and WAY too many treats.

Day Two (Thursday)

Matt is overly excited about the bear and wolf preserve, and I try to lower his hopes a bit by explaining that the last time I'd gone into Yellowstone with my family (about 6 years ago), we hadn't been able to see much going on, so it wasn't very exciting. But we still bolted down our complimentary continental breakfast (which was fabulous), and headed out to the preserve.

Despite being in the high-30's, we found ourselves shivering in the mostly outdoor center as we waited for something to happen--the two bears who were out were lying down and barely looking around, and the wolves were lying on their backs with their tongues hanging out.

I worried that we wouldn't get much out of the $20.50 we'd just spent on tickets.

However, I saw that the bears were due for a feeding soon, so we parked ourselves in front of their enclosure and watched as an assistant herded the bears into cages in the back then came back and spread food all around the enclosure, covering it with branches and rocks and even putting some bits of what looked like small dog biscuits into a blue ball with a slight hole in it.

By this time, we were surrounded by virtually all the other people at the center (perhaps about 15 total), and we all looked on with interest as five bears came tearing out of their cages and directly towards the food. Large crows circled the bears' heads as they scooped up handfuls of food and shoved them into their mouths, and I kept half-hoping that one of the bears would take a good swipe at the birds as they circled around being pesky, but they never did.

Matt and I bemoaned the fact that we didn't have a better zoom on our camera because it made it much more difficult to tell if we were getting a good shot or not.

After we'd had our fill of the bears, we strolled through some of the indoor museums and the gift shop before deciding to head back for lunch.

Matt was insistent we come back to see the wolves fed though, so we were back to the preserve within a matter of about 90 minutes to see the wolves do something other than sleep.

After seeing the large carcasses in the wolves' cages, Matt was eagerly hoping that the assistants would throw in large pieces of a deer or elk and we'd get to watch the wolves tear it apart limb from limb. Unfortunately for Matt (but fortunately for me), they feed the wolves the bulk of the food in their cages in the back where no one can see and just put some other little bits of animals out in the open enclosure for "exploratory" and "enrichment" purposes.

My personal favorite "enrichment" activity was watching the biggest wolf roll around and around in the spot where they'd sprinkled deer urine.

Even though we were pretty cold thanks to a 20-degree wind blowing through, I had to admit that the center had been worth the stop this time---we were able to see these creatures close up that we normally couldn't have, and Matt was able to show off all the info he's gleaned about bears and wolves from all his nature shows (which, try as I might, I just canNOT get into).

Plus, the cold just made me that much more excited for dinner and souvenir shopping later, so the whole thing was a win-win, really.

On the schedule for tomorrow---snowmobiling!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Thoughts on Being a Second-Year Teacher

When you get into the world of teaching, everyone is always talking about the first year and what to expect--they tell you that it's normal to put in 60-hour work weeks and that it's normal to take things too personally and that it's normal to feel like each day is a game of survival.
And then it seems like they all say, "But don't worry---it gets better with time."

"How much time?" I ask.

"Well, it will never really be 'easy.' But just give it time--you'll see."

And with that elusive answer, the conversation is closed, with the other teacher convinced that she's told me everything I need to know about my educational career path.

Well, for anyone out there wondering how being a second-year teacher is different than being a first-year teacher, I'll tell you.

First, the work load--

I was convinced that after my first year, most everything would be smooth sailing from there on out since I had already planned out a full year's worth of lessons. Surely I wouldn't still be working 60-hour work weeks in my second year, right? 

Well, while I DO leave the school (on average) earlier than I did during my first year of teaching (5 PM most days instead of 6 or 7), I still am almost always the last teacher in the building. Here's why--while I do have many lesson plans and materials that I made up last year at my fingerprints, I have discovered a funny thing about myself as a teacher:

I'm a bit of an overachiever.

Some teachers (although I honestly think the number isn't as high as some people would believe) are content to make one year's worth of lesson plans and then stick to basically the same routine for all of teaching eternity (or at least as long as they can get away with it). 

I am not that kind of teacher.

You see, I have this idealist notion that if I just keep learning from what went wrong and making changes and trying out new strategies, I will be able to teach MORE kids MORE information MORE of the time. As far as theories go, it's not a bad one, but it does mean that I spend a LOT of time creating brand-new lesson plans and units from scratch because the old ones just won't satisfy me anymore.  

Another reason why my work load is hardly smaller is because one part of teaching that many non-educators don't realize is that some of your curriculum choices are out of your control---your elective (or main) courses get changed to something you've never taught before, the principal mandates that you all teach the same book during the upcoming year, the department head decides that all Language Arts teachers are going to do this particular unit...

This (second) year of teaching, I got slammed with all three, which necessitated the planning of brand-new units (and brand-new courses!) that I hadn't even dreamed of teaching last year.

So, if you're expecting to see a significantly lighter work load your second year--don't get your hopes up too high.

Second issue: Asking for help. As a second-year teacher, you won't need to ask for help as much, and when you do, you won't be as timid about asking for it. Last year, much of my communication with the powers-that-be was through my mentor teacher or department head because I was scared that if I spoke my mind, I'd lose my job. Now if I have an issue, I go straight to the authority figure who is most likely to take care of the problem the fastest, whether it be the attendance specialist, the principal, or the school guidance counselor because I'm much more confident about my place in the school's faculty

Third is the question of the relationship to the students themselves---last year, try as I might, I tended to take a lot of things personally that the students said. If they said that they were bored, I took it personally. If they said they hated reading (or writing), I took it personally. If in a course evaluation, they suggested that I needed to include a lot more "fun activities" and "joke around more," I took it VERY personally.

I've since toughened my skin a bit--last week, I asked a boy in my 6th hour why he wasn't doing his work like he should be, and he positively exploded and said, "I HATE this! This is the STUPIDEST thing ever! I will NOT do this! I HATE IT I HATE IT I HATE IT!" (Think of the 13-year-old equivalent of a toddler tantrum, complete with backpack slamming, fists shaking, and tears shedding). I calmly told him that he was free to hate it as much as he wanted, but I was still going to make sure he did the assignment. The experience didn't even phase me---in fact, I went home and laughed about it with my husband. So first-year teachers, take heart---you will certainly toughen up (and maybe too soon) when it comes to dealing with the students.

(Speaking of toughening up, I used to have the hardest time calling students out for misbehavior--especially in the halls or in the commons--during my first year. I always felt bad about doing it, and really weird about having the authority to just call someone out in public like that. Now I have no qualms---a student puts a toe across the line, and I'm right there to push him back over it again (figuratively, of course).)

Fourth, I feel like people take me a little more seriously now that I'm no longer a first-year teacher. Even though I'm just a year further into my career, I feel like there's no longer that "first-year stigma" floating around my head. (Although in some ways, the first-year stigma was kind of nice---if I made a mistake, it was a lot easier to blame it on the fact that I just didn't know any better. Now I can't use that excuse anymore.) Now that I've survived a year (and almost two years now!) of trial-by-fire in the public education system, I've found that colleagues are much more likely to come to me asking for help, whether it be with a Spanish translation or wanting me to help with a writing assignment. As a second-year teacher, I'm still not in the school's realm of leadership, but at least people know me enough to want to ask my opinion.

Lastly, there's always that issue of feeling like I'm making a difference---even though I know for a fact that I'm a better teacher this year than I was last year (I can see it reflected in my students' work), I feel like I've questioned now more than ever if I'm really making a difference. Maybe it's because I'm not so overwhelmed all the time anymore and can pick up on more of what's being said about me by my students or about what's going on in their lives, but I feel like the more effective I get at teaching, the more I see the gap between the kids I am reaching and the kids I'd like to reach. It's kind of like that saying---the more you know, the more you realize you don't know? That kind of applies to teaching for me, too. I may know a lot more, but I realize now much more clearly than last year how much further I still have to go.

But one truth holds fast no matter which teaching year you're in---

Effective teaching is still done one day, one lesson, and one student at a time. Some days are a whole lot better than others, but the aggregation of many such teaching moments put together is what make the difference, whether we are always able to see (or notice) it or not.

(Truth: I wrote this to put in my state-mandated teaching portfolio, which is the biggest thorn in your side when it comes to being a second-year teacher. So if you're a Utah educator, be prepared for that joyful little hoop you have to jump through during your second year.)

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Importance of Trying New Things With Your Spouse

As anyone who's been in a relationship for more than a few months can tell you, human tendency pushes us all towards routine, especially when it comes to relationships with our significant other.

Like any couple, Matt and I have a weekly routine---wake up at 5:40 AM, stagger bathroom time, I drop off Matt at work before driving myself over to my school, and then time back at home is spent making dinner together, playing a movie in the background while we study (Matt) or blog (me), and then it's off to bed around 8:30 PM for a good hour of reading and snuggling before lights out. Friday nights are date nights, in which we typically go to the tried-and-true local restaurants (like Angie's) and come home to watch a movie after. Sunday nights we usually do games with friends, and whenever we happen to go back home to Bountiful, we usually stop by his parents' house before going over to my folks' place to sleep.

We create routines for a reason---they are predictable, easy, and -- in a word -- SAFE. Few surprises come up while going about the process of daily living, and it's easy to start seeing each other in that same, safe, routine way.

There's this scene in the movie Runaway Bride (one of my top 5 chick flicks of all time), in which one of the main characters (played by Richard Gere) goes to his ex-wife and asks her, "What went wrong? With us? With the two of us, I mean. It's been . . . a long time. Do you remember?"

"Yeah...Do I remember? Of course I do."

"Is that what...Did I do the same...Is that what happened? Did I just not SEE you?"

"No. No, you didn't."

Not that I'm a marriage expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I've had enough experience with relationships to know that it can be all too easy to see our significant other the way they were when we first met (or got married) and then have a difficult time seeing them with new eyes as time goes on. We see our spouse daily doing the same routine things, and it becomes easy to think that that's all they are---that we really KNOW them because we know their routines so completely.

And THAT is precisely one of the main reasons why trying out new things with your spouse is so crucial to your relationship---trying out new activities together forces you both to be in a novel situation, which helps you to open your eyes anew to those characteristics of your partner that you'd overlooked or never seen or forgotten about.

While in Yellowstone this past week, Matt and I took the plunge and decided to go snowmobiling into the west entrance of the park with a tour group. I'd never even touched a snowmobile before, much less ridden on one, and Matt had been on one only once, and it was a long time ago.

It was the perfect opportunity to see each other afresh, complete with funny outfits (saggy bums and all) and the realization that we'd have to be putting our trust in each other into practice, as we were sharing a machine and taking turns driving. 

Besides the thrill of a new adventure, the day was special for another reason---

It reminded me that I've married a man who is talented and strong and a bit of a daredevil and that he is all these things in addition to being my husband. Sometimes I am guilty of pegging him into that box of "husband" and forgetting that he is a unique individual independent of that title of spouse.

We left the park that day with our eyes full of new sights and our minds filled with spectacular memories.

But most of all, we left the park with a renewed sense of why we work and why we fell in love with each other in the first place.

How have you trained yourself to see your significant other with new eyes? Do you think it's important to try out new things together often?
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