Progress Report: In which I ramble about feeling rough, this damnable winter, blogging, work, romance (very stream of consciousness)

Feeling a bit rough tonight. A cough — a rattly, unpleasant thing that vibrates in the centre of my chest when I inhale and exhale — bringing up a bit of phlegm and a feeling of relief for a few minutes. It’s not a steady cough, but it’s there. Hubby has made me a cup of tea with lots of honey. We’re watching Julie and Julia together.

No progress yet on the Snowmobiling Story. The marking continues on the Flash Fictions, seven more to go. I believe I have turned the halfway point on those.

March 2nd does not feel in any way like March 2nd. We are in the middle of an endless swath of white drifts and blowing crystals. Planet Hoth. I wish we could afford to go somewhere for the spring break, although it’s nice that we’ll be able to ski every day if we want to.

Hubby’s been talking to a friend of his who is a professional blogger. The friend said it’s better to own one’s domain (heh heh, Seinfeld) than to borrow the space from the entity, as I’m doing, because then you can make money for yourself through advertising revenues, rather than (just) making money for the company that hosts. It’s a thought. I showed him my home page, that I’ve been blogging for five years on this platform without issue (although not consistently, which is why I’ve challenged myself to a post every day this year), so he’s like, “Well, just keep doing it then.” But I’ve considered purchasing this blog for a while now, off and on. What do you think? Is it a worthy investment?

If I bought this blog, I could upload video directly. Would that be worthwhile? The vlog I did the other day didn’t get a huge response, but it was still a nice change from type type typing. If I went the Premium route, I wouldn’t have to go the long way around with loading my video on YouTube first.

Anyway . . . other than feeling rough off and on today, it was a good day at school. Had two classes successfully complete tests when I’d anticipated having to drag some students through them. The tests were practical: sight passage-style practical exercise in annotation and making connections. The grade 11s in first period had a selection of three different articles about effective workplace communication, and the grade 9s in period two had a choice of six different short stories in various genres and styles. Tomorrow, some of my grade 11s will be missing class for a literacy test preparatory meeting, so I have to figure out what to do with the rest of them. Last time they had a lit test prep session, I had the rest of my class watching Sherlock and pointing out some of the concepts we’ve been discussing. I suppose I could have them watch the remainder of the episode, and then do some independent reading with their novel studies. The grade 9s, though . . . well, we haven’t looked at their class novel for a few days, Cue for Treason, so we need to update their notes on the plot points and dive back into the book.

You know, it’s occurred to me also that I haven’t done any romance writing for a while. So I have to wonder: does a writer need to have romance going on to be able to write about it? And then I contemplated whether I’ve been feeling the vibe for writing romance or not. My hubby does lots of little things that are romantic in nature, but of course, there are also the big demonstrative acts that we look to in books and films to give us those little fluttery moments in our bellies. Could I write a romance about a two-decade relationship that would feel as freshly inspiring as a tale about strangers or old friends getting to know one another?

Thank you, by the way, to all of you who leave comments and like my posts. I do appreciate your thoughts and feedback, and it’s gratifying to know that someone out there is enjoying my ramblings in some fashion. 🙂

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It’s a flurry of finals! or, A Teacher’s Survival Guide to Final Exams

The first semester is winding to a close: we had our first round of examinations this morning, and it was (for me) uneventful and really rather pleasant. Even though I prefer not answering any questions at all during an exam, I found that my students were earnest and making effective observations, so I ended up having a few brief, but effective (and quiet) discussions with some of them as they analyzed short films as site passages.

I’ve invigilated exams which weren’t nearly as pleasant in the past. One year I had to send a student to the office for blatantly taking out a cellphone and texting during the final. Another time, a young person left the room in tears and I had to ask a colleague to take over while I went out and coaxed the individual back in to keep going (and ended up passing!). But exams don’t always cause dramatic moments.

Sometimes they’re downright amusing, though.

Some students will write lovely notes to me about their experience in the course, and others will leave me deliberate attempts at flattery or hopeful (and overblown) assessments of their own work. I’ve had some panic as they realized that they were not double-spacing through most of their work and attempt to start over — I did the same, during an English exam in grade 9, and ended up getting a lower percentage because I wasn’t able to finish, having taken the time to write everything. Consequently, I just tell my students to keep going from that point instead of redoing their work. It’s not funny-funny, but I enjoy those moments because they’re so familiar and repeat themselves with surprising frequency.

But the best experience I ever had was with a male senior who was wrapping up his final English credit, in my class. He’d finished his work with 15 or 20 minutes left of the time allotted, and so he decided to clean out his binder while he waited. I make it a general rule to leave the exams with the students until the time is up, so I hadn’t yet collected his package. When the clock’s hands finally rolled around to the prescribed time, he stood up with a grin and straight shoulders, ceremoniously tore his old notes in half, marched over to the recycling box, and dropped the papers in. He was about to leave the room when I asked him, “May I have your exam now?”

The look on his face when he realized that it had gone into the recycling bin along with all of his course notes . . . torn in two . . .

It took him a half an hour to tape the pages back together once he’d fished them out from among the remains of his course work. The good news, too, was that he had a sense of humour about it. We both couldn’t help but keep laughing at the ridiculousness of it. I’d never seen something like that happen before, and I’ve not yet seen it since.

Aside from the tension, insight, funnies, and relief that is palpable in the exam room, over 13 years of teaching I’ve developed a system for surviving the fast-turn-around flurry of marking before Semester 2 begins. It has to be fast, because marks are needed at this time of year for students applying to colleges and universities, and I have to leave time to prep for my new courses. So here’s what I do to get through it as painlessly as possible:

1) Keep Up on Other Marking. There is nothing worse than having a great pile of overdue marking to complete as well as the course culminating activities AND final exams. What is intended as a wrap-up week becomes a massive effort with lost sleep, carpal tunnel, hair torn out trying to keep track of all of the numbers, and a last-minute rush to throw together the report cards while second semester students file into the first class. Yeah, I’ve been there, multiple times. But a few years ago I actually got it together enough that I had everything else done before the exams started, and the freedom was . . . glorious. I’ve tried to keep it that way ever since.

2) Hydrate. I keep a beverage handy while I’m working, because sometime after the first hour, the eyes start to feel a bit dry and tired. At work, I tend to consume vast quantities of tea interspersed with pop — tea when I’m cold, pop when I’m hot — which also ensures that I’ll get up and moving every so often to go pee. Gets the blood moving! This year, I’ve introduced coffee to my system as well, to really stimulate the senses. At home, it’s also tea, or pop, or coffee, but if I’m feeling especially je-ne-sais-quois, I’ll pour a small glass of wine. Quelle sophistication! When I’m marking with the wine and a bit of music on, I feel like I’m a teacher in a movie. I can imagine that I’m marking with my feet up by a fireplace, or perhaps sitting in a study with rows of polished books, instead of cross-legged on my sofa with papers balanced precariously on my mounds of blankets. (In the summer, I get to take the exams out to the back yard and lounge in the sunlight while bugs alight in my drinks and the wind attempts to carry the work out from under my paperweights.)

3) Take Frequent BreaksSee above need to hydrate and its logical consequence. Plus, after a while, there’s a knot which forms in between the shoulder blades. A break which includes more than just a run to the bathroom — a walk around the school or my block, a shower if I’m at home, chatting with a friend or a colleague, or doing some other needed chore like reorganizing my desk — these things help to refresh a mind that has gone a bit numb with reading. But I have to be cautious because what starts as a break can quickly turn into the demon Procrastination.

Confession: my breaks also include gaming sessions on Facebook. CandyCrush, PetRescue, Words of Wonder, Farm Hero . . . plus a few more on my phone, only. I rationalize that the strategizing helps me to wake up. Or I’ll knit for a little while, because it’s mindless and tactile and gets my wrists moving in different directions. Again, reeeaaallly easy to turn into PROCRASTINATION. And that is bad.

4) Motivational Music & Movies. I can work in silence, and sometimes I prefer it. But I like to mix it up with upbeat, energizing tunes as white noise. Sometimes it’s just a matter of throwing on a movie or tv show that I’ve already watched, just for the soundtrack. But I find I can’t do audio books or podcasts or even the radio for long — if it’s the spoken word, my attention quickly drifts away from what I’m trying to get done and into the dialogue or what-have-you. Best preference is closing my classroom door so I can sing along with the lyrics, which requires little concentration and actually helps to keep me focused, at least until I get tired of it. And then it’s quiet for a bit. And so on.

5) Noms. I need snacks. Knowing this, today I asked hubby (and he obliged) for a large baggie filled with veggie slices: red and green bell peppers, carrots, celery, cucumbers, and grapes. Otherwise, I’m bound to head to Timmie’s to stock up on doughnuts. Or to the grocery store for chocolate. If you’re going to be stuck behind a desk for a while marking papers, it’s obviously better to eat healthier, but honestly, sometimes I just want the comfort foods: lardy, sugary, with tasty fillings and savoury toppings, deep-fried and finger-licking good . . .

6) Warm Feet. It’s difficult to concentrate with cold feet. I have my shoes at school, and slippers at home, and when even those fail to keep my tootsies happy (as they sometimes do when it’s 40 below outside), a stool or low table or whatever to put my feet up. I’ve attempted to mark papers with my feet in warm water but that leads back to having to pee, plus the added risk of dropping the papers in the water . . . And using my foot massager just ends up with messy marking.

In the summer, I get to just kick my shoes off and soak my lower limbs in beautiful hot sunshine. Yeah. It’s that good.

7) Frequent Self-Talk. “The sooner I get through this, the sooner I can do the report cards and be done with the semester.” It’s easy to get pulled into the lure of second semester planning, but I have learned through bitter experience not to fall for that trap. Also works if there isn’t also a massive pile of other marking to complete (see #1).

8) Master Copy. Preparing an answer sheet for the exam is an essential time-saver, as well as good practice. It’s easy enough to know what you’re looking for in short-answer or essay questions when you make the exam up, but the rationale can slip away in the time between photocopying it and collecting the students’ work at the end. And it really sucks when you, the teacher, can’t make your brain remember which multiple choice option was the right one. But it’s particularly necessary to have an answer sheet in case the worst case happens and you’re not able to mark your own exams or independent projects. It’s happened to me: one year, I was sick in bed with influenza for five days in a row and I couldn’t finish my own exam marking or my culminating activities. My amazing department colleagues stepped in and saved me, pooling my students’ work so I wouldn’t miss the report card deadline, but I remember slogging through phone calls and emails with them because I stupidly hadn’t made up an answer sheet. Lesson learned on that, too.

Pro tip: Make your answer sheet up at the same time that you make up the actual exam. Great time saver. (shifty eyes) Please don’t ask me if I actually did that this year, though . . . (scuffs foot against floor)

9) Stay Healthy. Get enough sleep, take your vitamins, dress for the weather, wash your hands, and remember to hydrate. That year I was sick in bed, even though my colleagues were fine with helping me, I felt just awful that they’d had to step in because I’d failed to keep myself healthy. We have to remember, fellow educators, that we are human and we can’t just keep going until all hours of the morning like we did when we were young. Rest must be had to think and write coherently and competently. Even multiple choice questions, true-and-false, and matching answers can be marked wrongly by mistake when you’re tired.

10) Mark In Pencil. I once had a student chortle when she saw that I’d marked with pencil, because as she said aloud in front of me, “Great, now I can change my marks before my mom sees them!” I switch it up a lot, using whatever writing utensils my daughter hasn’t yet sneaked out of my purse or school bag. When I’m marking a test that students will see, I like to use green for “go” instead of red for “bad” — red looks like blood, and in some countries, it’s considered unlucky or offensive — and lately, I’ve been on a highlighter kick because I can more quickly highlight errors than circling them. But there’s no worse feeling than marking something wrongly and having to make that “x” into a checkmark, or making an error in addition and having to switch the numbers up, or writing a comment and then the tired brain realizing that the words you wrote were the lyrics to a song and not the thought that was in your head to put down . . . much easier, in the end to eliminate these problems altogether by using a pencil. I prefer the standard No. 2 to mechanicals. I tend to press down a little harder than the average bear (in fact, I distinctly recall being told over and over in grade 1 to stop pressing so hard with my thick red pencil because I was ripping the pages of my notebook), and mechanicals constantly break on me. The other trouble that I find with pencils is keeping a sharpener handy. Again, I look to my second child for that . . .

So that’s it — that’s my survival guide, my little mental list written down for your enjoyment and edification. Now I’m off to Bedfordshire, as they say across the pond, hopefully not to dream about the damned exams AGAIN. Last night it was superheroes on a vacation tour that started in France, then went to Britain, and then into an underground mall in China. So weird . . .

The Value — and Comfort — of Silence

There are some days when so much talking has been done — so much hectic running, problem-solving, bargaining, sympathy, storytelling, explaining, restating, revising, assessing, interpreting, guiding, restraining, smiling, frowning — so much of everything that the only remedy for the knots of stress drawing shoulders together and creasing the brow is a good long space of silence. preview Doesn’t have to be absolutely quiet, although that’s nice for a while. Music in the background works nicely, too. Tonight, though, would have been a good night for a long walk with the dog with only the hush of wind sweeping over the snowy hillocks and houses. I, however, was extremely tired when I got home and opted for a lovely short nap instead. I think I ought to have gone for the walk after supper, maybe. Debating now whether it’s too late, or too cold. There is a comfort in being alone with one’s own thoughts. When you have kids, sometimes that quiet is dangerous. Children who are quiet are either asleep or up to something. Tonight, they are neither — since I was sick for those three days, they’re making up for lost time. It’s just frustrating to feel so  . . . drained. It’s not that I’m not appreciative of the bond we have, or that I have the luxury of time and space in which to spend time with my children. But as I recently read in another person’s blog, sometimes it’s hard to enjoy the moments with the family when exhaustion is in charge. It’s a different kind of exhaustion from the work of babies and toddlers and preschoolers, but it’s still there. And January doesn’t help either. Bloody long and cold month, with one more to go (albeit a few days shorter) before the hope of warmth returns. This is when people who can afford it start planning their spring break vacations away, in places hot and sunny with sandy beaches and lapping waters. Several of my students are paying into something called an S-Trip, which is a young-person-only, supervised holiday at a tropical resort, sans parents or teachers. I would enjoy planning a getaway with our children, taking them to Florida (the great Canadian rite of passage: March Break in Disneyworld!), but that prize remains out of reach as long as student debts remain. The other side of it is that I have done a tame version of Spring Break in Florida, and I found that coming back to dirty snow and damp cold was almost worse than not having left it at all.

IMG_5194When I was in university, my mother took myself and her mum to Marco Island for a week. I was grumpy, missing my husband of only few years, struggling with undiagnosed mental health issues as well as feeling hormonal, a bit bored at staying off the beaten path so we wouldn’t tire out my 80 year old Gran, and frustrated at having still another two years of school until I could graduate. I forgot to value the silence. And given our collective personality similarities and differences, there was a tension that built until my Gran got upset and stated that she would be happier at a hotel. We had a sit down and discussion, worked it out, got through, and it really was a nice holiday after all of that, but it’s always going to be one of those, “if I knew then what I know now” kind of deals. I ended up giving my Gran a pedicure, I remember that, and having lovely walks along the beaches as well as visiting family friends.

IMG_5196But it was over all too quickly, and flying away from the warmth, colour, palm trees and sunshine back to grey roads and frozen car doors was horrible. No wonder Snow Birds leave before the first snow and don’t come back until it’s all gone away. Still, I am grateful that my kids have learned to respect when I need quiet, for the most part. And hubby helps as well. Increasingly, they’re valuing time to themselves also, retreating to their own rooms to play without being a bother or making a worse mess than what already exists. Family patterns and behaviours are necessarily dynamic, shifting as we all age and move into different stages of our lives; perhaps we’ve entered a place where we’re all now capable and prone to introspection, even Bridget. Certainly the children have learned to value the fact that their rooms are valuable for activities that would be too noisy or crowded for the living room, and how to negotiate taking over our common space when they want more than one friend to stay overnight.

There are still some nights when I wish I had Holly Golightly’s pretty earplugs, but they’re getting fewer and farther in between.

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Confession…

I’ve been working on this post for five days. That’s not really my confession, it’s just that wording it has been difficult.

One of my resolutions this coming year is to exercise — get active, get out of the house, do more physical activity, and especially build up my upper body strength. So here’s the thing: When money was tighter, I used to avoid exercise because I worried that working out would make me more hungry, and I’d have to spend more on food. There. I’ve said it. I actually used to be afraid that getting healthy would be more expensive than…well, not. For the same reason, I used to drink pop all the time to save the juice for the kids, eat peanut butter and jam twice a day so the kids would have all the cereals, soups, mini ravioli, etc.

But things have been getting better. I cut out most of my pop drinking last year, or at least the non-diet. I know that the diet pops are just as bad for me in different ways, so I’m trying to focus back on the herbal teas. It’s the fizz that’s the hardest to let go of — I like fizz. Bubbles on my tongue just make me happy.

The exercising, though — I need to do that. I’m not sure whether it’s going to make me more hungry, but I have to dive in, anyway. There will always be bills to pay, but I won’t always have my health.

I’m afraid of making this resolution and not keeping it, but I asked my husband for a membership to a local gym, and the wonderful man obliged. Now the hard part is breaking my pattern and actually getting there…but last night I found my workout clothes (old-ish leggings and some workout tops donated by a friend who lost some weight), and on the weekend I retrieved my running (lol) shoes from work. The only thing stopping me now is *me*… well, that and making sure my kids are good. The gym doesn’t have babysitting, but my son is just about old enough to babysit his little sister. It’s making sure they’re fed and happy before I go, but it’s probably better for my peace of mind if I wait until my hubby gets home from work. I’m very, very good at making excuses to NOT go to the gym, but I’ve also been making an effort to get out of the house on walks, so going to exercise is something I am GOING to do.

Now, here’s a question: two years ago, I got back into yoga for a bit (which I want to do again, if I can make space in this small house to do it) and I tried running. I lasted until a big heat wave. I found, though, that on the days I exercised, I wasn’t able to do very much writing. In fact, barely any. On the days when I sat around on my bum, I did a ton of writing. So how do I find the balance between the two? Also, those were things I did in the summertime, when I wasn’t teaching. Can I find a balance between these during the regular school year? Teaching all day…parenting when I get home and in the early morning…going to the gym at least three times a week, after school (or evenings, maybe)…writing when? At bed time? On the days I’m not at the gym — maybe while waiting for the kids during their activities (karate & dance)? There’s reading for my own pleasure, too. And cleaning. Let’s not forget the cleaning.

Sometimes I think I should be like Sheldon on TBBT, scheduling time for everything. I’m not sure how well it would work, though. Something always comes up, when I’ve tried that in the past. And not accomplishing something in the time I have allocated is simply bruising to my self-esteem.

But I need to have time to write — the third book in my trilogy has been percolating and it feels like it wants to take shape. And promoting, I have to make time for contacting reviewers and bloggers. Book One of the Talbot Trilogy will be coming at me any day now for edits, and Book Two needs revisions and editing. At the same time, I need to get out and be active (in some way that doesn’t hurt my stupid ankle), spend time with my kids and help them with their homework, spend time with my hubby, keep up the house with their help (and spend time training them to do so)… Is it any wonder that hiding in my bed seems like a much easier alternative?

I am not a Type A personality, or whatever — so if you’re like me, how do you keep it all together? What do you do when you have to let something go in order to get other things done? How do you prioritize?

Writing Professionally — Does it mean living a double life?

I enjoy spy fiction. I’ve become a huge fan of the Chuck series, and I’ve always had a thing for superheroes…not necessarily for their powers (although those are certainly fun) but because of the challenges they face in leading two lives. I find the conflict between having an alter ego and an “official” life to be really interesting. It’s isolating for the individual, yet necessary for the protection of the people loved by the hero. That isolation in turn leads the hero into sometimes questioning their own role, and purpose. I love that. It’s very Shakespearian, isn’t it? It’s the essence of asking the question, “Who am I, and why am I here again?”.

I write under a pseudonym at the moment, for two main reasons: I want to separate my two professions for a little while, and I think it’s kind of romantic. I’m a sap, what can I say… I cry at the end of Disney movies. Hell, I cried all the way through Bridesmaids, caught up in the emotions of the protagonist’s struggles. In my “official” life as a teacher and a parent, I have a lot going on as we all do, but as my alter ego Tori, I can let some of that go. Or try to, at least. Thinking as Tori, I am able to separate a little while from the mundane and really sink into the fictional world I am creating. It’s a secret pleasure.

But it’s also a problem.

When you have an alter ego, as discovered by Chuck, Peter Parker, Superman, etc., it can get exhausting at times to keep up. I am no superhero (as much as I’d like to pretend), and I’m not even a supermom. I know some supermoms, and in comparison, I muddle along much as my own mother did, but my children are happy and healthy and well-behaved (most of the time…especially around relatives and babysitters and in public), so I guess I’m doing something right.

But I digress.

How do you find balance when you are living two lives? As you can see, I find it difficult or impossible to completely separate my “official” self from the writer, but I don’t think it’s necessary to invent a wholly different persona. I have considered it. But my children, my partner, my regular job, these are all part of who I am. Where I run into difficulty is making time or room for the writer, in the daily patterns of being a mom and a wife. My alter ego, Tori, craves time to dive into the fictional world. I know that one of the markers of a professional writer, is someone who write for a set time every day. I started the summer with a vision of writing for a few hours every afternoon, in my backyard (weather permitting), but so far, I’ve only managed to do this twice. The priorities of parenting, cleaning, and spending time with my other half must be met as well. So by rights, I should not yet call myself a professional writer.

How does someone live two lives, and find time to sleep? What does a professional writer who works from home do when the five year old refuses to be put off, the laundry piles, and the dog needs a walk? My spouse is very supportive and understanding, but he cannot do everything, nor do I expect him to. He gives me time when I need it, but he can’t cover for me every day. The mom needs sleep, but the writer wants to write!

So if you have an alter ego, I’d like to know – how do you separate and yet maintain a balance? Do you mark a time schedule on the fridge and stick to it? Do you have a room in the house where you can lock the door? What do you do when, in your set writing time, someone small will not leave you alone? I guess the easy answer is to stop and come back to it later…but in my case, often that ‘later’ doesn’t come.