Archive for January, 2011

Old Dogs Thinking about Learning New Tricks

Here’s a question for you readers. What do you get when you combine an adorable dog, a college student who is already tired of school and needs an exciting project outside of school to make life interesting, two inspiring blog posts and late night inspiration? You get crazy ideas!

     Alright, perhaps I should start from the beginning. The weekend after getting my wisdom teeth out when I pretty much spent my days alternating between sleeping off pain medication and reading blogs, one of the posts I read was this post: http://aftergadget.wordpress.com/2011/01/07/sing-a-song/

     I found out about this lady’s blog through another blog that I follow and first started reading it when this blogger was the host for the first Assistance Dog Blog Carnival I participated in back in October. (The first post I submitted to the carnival was my reflection on my one year anniversary with Gilbert, and the second post of course was my rant on table scraps). Anyway, this lady’s blog is so interesting I started following her blog after the carnival.

     This lady doesn’t use a guide dog but is training a puppy to be a wheelchair service dog for her. In this post, she talks about how she is using a training method where in addition to the training to perform service dog techniques, there are twelve fun activities that you do with your dog to forge a stronger bond with them, and one of these activities is to adapt a song to incorporate the dog’s name, and then sing it to him. Just to be silly, around Christmas time before I even knew this could be used as a training exercise, I had adapted “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” to “Gilbert the Wet-nosed Puppy” and sang it to him in a baby/puppy voice. In this blog, this lady said the goal of the activity was to not only forge a stronger bond but find a song that would get his tail wagging, and that’s when I realized that “Gilbert the Wet-nosed Puppy” didn’t do it for Gilbert. If he was laying down when I sang it, he gave me no response, and if he was standing when I sang it, he would just sit down as if to say, “Wow Mom, you’re strange”. So while Gilbert seemed to enjoy going to choir with me last semester, I let the idea of singing to him drop figuring maybe songs sang directly to him wasn’t his cup of tea. But when I posted a comment about Gilbert’s bored reaction to my song, she responded saying her dog gave her the same reaction with a lot of songs she tried before finding the song she ultimately chose, a song that gets her dog wagging his tail and running circles. This gave me renewed inspiration! Maybe Gilbert is fully trained, but who says we still cannot do this activity just for fun?

     With the start of school, and the stress of adapting to a new routine and a huge pile of homework after a month long vacation, I kind of forgot about this goal, until last Wednesday night that is. This semester, I have class from 6:00 to 9:30 in the evening so I don’t get home until 10:00 or so. I am the kind of person who is wired after sitting in class for three and a half hours, so despite my best efforts to unwind through reading and watching the news, I was still wide awake when the clock struck midnight. This wasn’t the case with Gilbert who was conked out in his favorite spot, his dog bed right in front of the couch. I didn’t have class until 1:00 Thursday afternoon, but since I wanted to get some homework done in the morning, I thought I better put Gilbert in his crate for the night and go to bed anyway.

     “Gilbert, come!” I called clapping my hands.

     Gilbert made no response. During the day when I call him, he runs to me right away, but late at night when he is passed out in front of the couch, it is not uncommon for him to ignore this command, but since he comes so well during the day, I don’t yell at him because I honestly think he is so sound asleep he doesn’t hear me. Instead, I always go over to him and say “come on Gilbert. Let’s go to bed!” and gently pull on his collar, to which he slowly gets up, stretches and follows me to his crate. Often times when I put him to bed my brain is so fried from finishing homework or something that we are both yawning as we walk to his crate, but on this night, I was so full of energy, energy I couldn’t resist rubbing off on Gilbert after rousing him with the usual routine of pulling on his collar. We were just approaching the stairs when without even thinking about my goal to find a song to get Gilbert excited, I spontaneously started snapping my fingers and burst in to a chorus of “Wake up little Gilbert, wake up!” a spoof on the 1957 Everly Brothers hit “Wake up Little Suzie”. And guess what? Instead of sitting down and sighing at me as if to say, “oh Mom, quit this nonsense and just put me to bed would you?” he wagged his tail furiously! I had found his song!

     After laughing and giving him a hug, the remainder of our procession was the most joyful one ever as I galloped down the stairs humming this song with him running after me exuberantly. After putting him in his crate and saying goodnight to him, I was just about to tell myself, “Alright Allison, calm down”, when I remembered another post by this same blogger: http://aftergadget.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/my-operant-dog/

     This post was about how this lady made the new year’s resolution to teach her dog a totally useless trick, just for fun. Not only would it be fun for her, but it would be a fun diversion from the dog’s regular service dog training, not to mention that it would also be a great bonding experience. This too was an idea that I thought would be fun, but was at a loss for what kind of trick I could teach him. The trick she worked on with her dog, filing his nails on a sandpaper board wasn’t something I thought Gilbert or I would be interested in. And then that night, like a lightbulb flicking on, I had a revelation about the most perfect, awesome trick that could be incorporated with Gilbert’s newfound favorite song! What if I could teach Gilbert to come to “Wake up little Gilbert” instead of the same old boring “Gilbert Come”? Would this song be more effective at rousing my sound little sleeper than the monotony of the traditional command?

     So for the next hour, I lay in bed fantasizing about how fun teaching this trick could be, and how with someone’s technological assistance, it would make the cutest YouTube video ever! I eventually settled down and went to sleep, deciding that maybe I should think about this idea in the daytime hours when I often don’t have the inspiration I do late at night, yet think more rationally. Sure enough, the next morning, I was beginning to think that although it would be cute, would it be too complicated to teach? And how on earth would I teach such a trick anyway? That evening, my mom added to my doubt with the concern that maybe such a trick would confuse him and I should keep to the way he was trained, which was to come to the command “Gilbert come”.

     But the more I think about it, I actually think such a trick could be doable. I mean, I’ve seen pet talent shows where dogs are trained to do card tricks or dance. This trick would be easy compared with that right? Also, I wouldn’t want to confuse him so that he no longer responded to the traditional come command, especially since while many professors and future employers who would witness this trick might find it adorable, there is the risk that some might find this trick unprofessional and a little too nutty. (smile) But then I got to thinking, just like I have heard that a lot of guide dog handlers allow certain behavior at home that is not allowed in public, the same could be true for this trick couldn’t it? The traditional command could be used when out in public, and this trick could be his at home trick.

     I still don’t know exactly how I would teach this trick, but am beginning to have a little bit of an idea. This lady’s blog post talked about how she started teaching the trick to her dog by creating a no fail situation with very low expectations at first. For example, in the beginning, she would give the dog a treat just for looking at the sandpaper board. So maybe I could start by standing really close to Gilbert and singing the song and have a sighted person with me to tell me if he makes the slightest perking up of the ears or opening of the eyes, to which I could treat him with a piece of dog food and then go from there. I don’t know. Teaching tricks is uncharted territory for me. But I don’t see why old dogs–which applies to both me and Gilbert since Gilbert turns four today–cannot learn new tricks. What do you readers think? Have any of you taught your dogs tricks just for fun? How did you go about doing it? Do you think this kind of trick would be within Gilbert’s intelligence, and did the teaching of tricks have any adverse effects on their regular service dog duties? I would love your feedback about this.

     And even if teaching this trick doesn’t work out, I could still find a soundtrack of this song, make up more cute dog words for it and post a video of me singing this adapted song to him. That might be equally adorable!

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My LJ Idol Concession Speech

Good evening my fellow Americans.–Oh wait, wrong speech.–Good evening my fellow LJ Idol community members. Last weekend, and the early part of last week, this great community exercised a fundamental privilege in our democracy: the chance to have your voices heard by going to the polls and casting your ballots to determine who should move on to the next round of this competition. The outcome of this election was not what I had hoped it would be. But the voters have spoken, and this week, I was the person to receive the fewest votes in my tribe.

     While I had hoped to have the honor of writing a victory speech as an Lj Idol champion, I am not bitter about this defeat. After all, the reality is that in the end, only one person can hold this title. Between college responsibilities, holiday commitments and being in too much pain to read much after getting my wisdom teeth removed, I didn’t have the chance to read as many of the entries from other contestants as I would have liked. But the entries I did read were written fabulously, so I knew the competition was tough.

     Also, although claiming this title would have been really cool, winning was not my primary objective when I wrote my declaration that I was competing in this competition back in October. In fact, since I am toward the younger end of the age range of LJ Idol contestants, and I have observed from past experience that the most eloquent, well-developed writing comes with age, wisdom and a larger bank of life experiences to draw from, I actually didn’t expect to last as long as I did. So my primary objectives when I decided to take part in this competition were to meet new people, to develop as a writer and to share my writing with a larger audience. Though my journey as a contestant in this competition was relatively short, it was as thrilling as I had dreamed it would be with the chance to realize all of these objectives.

     Whenever I had a free moment, I had a blast meeting people by way of reading their journal entries, which were beautifully written, and sometimes shared aspects of their personal lives and glimpses in to their thoughts that they might never have been comfortable sharing in person. I also enjoyed meeting people through the comments people left on my entries, especially when people shared their own insights and perspectives about the thoughts I shared in my writing. I apologize that I often didn’t reply to them, but I read and appreciated them all.

     I definitely developed as a writer through this competition as well. For one thing, I definitely identify myself as a writer, and as my english teacher this semester says, “writers have to write.” Yet before this competition, I often let the craziness of real life or a lack of motivation prevent me from meeting this need to write. But this competition forced me to develop discipline and set aside time to write which was a wonderful stress reliever, and thus something I am going to strive to continue despite being eliminated from the competition. But I think my writing itself has also been developed in that since many of the topics were vague with a lot of room for creativity, I have learned to think more creatively as a writer which I hope will show itself in this journal and maybe even real life.

     But most exciting of all has been the validation I have gotten for my writing by a larger audience than just my family, friends and teachers. Before this competition, I loved writing but would often feel discouraged when I would pour my heart and soul in to an entry that never received comments. Family and friends have told me they enjoy my writing, but sometimes I would wonder if my writing was worth sharing with the larger world. Do family and friends just say they enjoy my writing because they are family and friends? Are people even reading my writing?

     But since taking part in this competition, some of my entries have received 22 comments, a number I never imagined I would see on my blog, all from strangers, all of whom loved my pieces. I cannot think of another experience in my life that has boosted my confidence in myself as a writer for a larger audience than this overwhelming positive response from readers in this community.

     I was also moved by the friendly spirit of this community when the polls closed and it was announced I had been eliminated. One friend even sent me some virtual flowers. Even though winning was only a secondary hope when I entered this competition, I was still a little stunned and disappointed that I had been eliminated, so this kind gesture really made my day.

     Was there more I could have done to keep myself in the game? Maybe. Maybe I could have written entries that were more short and to the point. But long-winded writing is my style because I think a lot of detail and background really enriches a piece, and I would rather not win a competition than win it with writing that is not true to my style and principles. Maybe I could have indicated in the subject line or in the entry that my entries were for LJ Idol so that friends who didn’t know about this competition could have voted for me. Maybe I could have even provided the link for people to vote directly for me. (I don’t actually know how to do this since I am the kind of person who prefers to keep life simple by only learning the basic computer skills needed to get by in life. But I could have learned). But while the thoughts I shared in my entries were prompted to the forefront of my mind by the topics, I feared that if I explicitly stated which entries were for LJ Idol, readers unassociated with the competition would think I was just making up thoughts and views to suit the criteria of each particular topic. I wanted readers unaffiliated with the competition to see my writing as my original writing, not something I crafted for a competition. I know that sounds silly and irrational, and I didn’t think any less of people’s writing when they explicitly stated it was for the competition. I just didn’t want to reveal this in my own entries.

     Finally, like everything in life, there is a silver lining to every disappointment, and my elimination from this competition is no exception. For one thing, it so happened that last Tuesday was my first day of second semester, which always seems to be more demanding than first semester, so I suppose it is a good thing that I was eliminated before school made life crazy and I had to make wrenching decisions like “do I need to drop out of the competition and focus on school, or make college grades my second priority?” Fortunately, my elimination means I won’t have to have this conflict with myself. But last week was also the perfect moment to be eliminated because it so happens that I haven’t a clue what I would have written about Icarus! We studied Greek gods briefly when I was in sixth grade, but since I never imagined I would be in a competition where Icarus was a topic, I didn’t pay much attention. Next week, I hope to start participating in the home game when school permits, but this week, I’m sure glad I don’t have to write on the topic!

     So to close, I just want to say that although it may sound cliche, and although I ended another entry I wrote last summer with this quote, there is so much truth in it that I want to reference it again on this occasion. It really is not the destination but the journey that counts, and I am alright with the fact that I couldn’t make it to the destination of victory because the journey I got to take with this community was wonderful and unforgettable.

     Feel free to friend me and continue following my entries if you are interested. I will continue to follow, cheer on and vote for contestants the rest of the season. I cannot wait to read the entry that clenches someone’s victory as this season’s LJ Idol because with all of the talent I have already seen early in the season, I know that the writer who wins this tough competition will be spectacular!

     But writers beware. When it comes time to sign up for Season 8, by which time I will be a little older and wiser, with a slightly larger bank of life experiences to draw from, I’ll be back!

What Part of “No Table Scraps” Cannot You Understand?

Years before I was old enough to work with a guide dog, even when my vision teacher, parents and I were not sure whether I would be a worthy candidate for a guide dog due to my slow gait and medical circumstances that would have made it very difficult to go far away from home to a training program for a month all by myself, the prospect of having a guide dog thrilled me. A lot of this excitement could certainly be attributed to witnessing an older blind friend of mine who got her first guide dog three years before me, travel with such independence, graceful speed and confidence while my cane and I clunked our way down the sidewalk far behind. But almost equally exciting was the notion that almost like the relationship between mother and child, this guide dog would be my responsibility. This responsibility would encompass not only physical care, but also being his advocate and not being afraid to make my own decisions about what is in his best interests, or what is necessary for our success as a team and then stand by these decisions in the face of criticism. My friend confirmed my belief, based on her own experience that taking on this responsibility would make me feel like an adult by increasing my confidence and assertiveness immeasurably. But as I approach two and a half years as a guide dog handler, and as I reflect on the eager anticipation of taking on this responsibility, a reflection inspired by an Assistance Dog Blog Carnival, the theme of which is Decisions, I realize that in my naive ignorance and excitement, I never anticipated how upholding this responsibility would be easier said than done. Don’t get me wrong. This responsibility, along with other unpleasant responsibilities like having to take him out to relieve himself every day, even in winter (smile), are responsibilities I would never want to trade in for the cane, and the longer I work with Gilbert, the more I know that my confidence and ability to advocate will be honed. But upholding this responsibility has not been without periods of self doubt and frustration.

     Before I continue, I should mention that I recognize that I am not a perfect dog handler, but other than maybe Cesar Millan the Dog Whisperer, is anyone? Though I am not a parent, I am sure the same question could be applied to parenting as well.

     I have heard new mothers talk about how when they bring their baby home from the hospital, they are determined that “we’re going to be perfect parents and do everything the experts say you are supposed to do!” only to discover after the first day or week that perfection is unrealistic if not impossible. I can totally relate to these parents because I had this utopian determination in my first week with Gilbert my guide dog, only to realize that perfection is unrealistic in the real world.

     Yet another commonality between parents and dog handlers that I have heard numerous stories about is having to deal with people who are not parents or do not have assistance dogs, criticizing you and holding you to unrealistic expectations for caring for your child or dog. I know I shouldn’t beat myself up over this criticism because in the same way that it’s easy for someone who has never had children to criticize a mother for a poorly behaved child at a restaurant, it is easy for someone who knows nothing about assistance dogs to criticize me. Even so, I cannot help feeling the occasional twinge of self doubt, frustration, and even discouragement in my journey with Gilbert because of this criticism.

     When I imagined what advocating for myself and a guide dog would look like before I had Gilbert, I imagined myself slapping the wrists of people in public caught petting Gilbert without asking my permission, or telling my college peers no when they asked if Gilbert could have table scraps. While I have had to do a little bit of this kind of advocacy, now that I am a guide dog handler, I have come to find that advocating for Gilbert isn’t always so easy and straight forward. I think a major reason for this is that before Gilbert, when I imagined advocating for Gilbert, I imagined that I would only have to worry about this responsibility in the presence of strangers. But in reality, I have come to find that often it is not strangers I need to be concerned about. It’s my own family.

     By far the most frustrating source of criticism has been over my “no treats or table scraps” policy. When I go out to restaurants or eat in my college cafeteria, the occasional person who has tried to sneak Gilbert table scraps was respectful and understanding when I told them I didn’t want him eating table scraps. This has not been the case with some members of my family, most notably my older brother.

     My grandma who lives just three miles from us went through a phase early in my career with Gilbert where she bought a box of milk bones, and every time she came over, she would greet him at the door with a treat without asking my permission. If I could, I would try to get to the door first, confiscate the treat and have a polite but firm talk with Grandma about why I didn’t want Gilbert to have treats, but the next day, I would be immersed in homework or something, and would not realize she was here until Gilbert came galloping happily up the stairs to announce her arrival with the crunch-crunch-crunching of a treat in his mouth. Every day, I would tell her I knew Gilbert got a treat and that I would like her to stop, but was met with the same response every time: “Aw, one treat won’t hurt him”, and then she would change the subject. It was only after both my parents sat her down and had a talk with her that she finally understood I was serious about this rule and stopped bringing treats for Gilbert. I still feel a little hurt that she wouldn’t listen to my authority as his handler alone, but at least she did stop bringing the treats. My brother on the other hand is a different story.

     My brother lives in an apartment about half an hour away from us, but will come home for dinner occasionally. But ever since I have had Gilbert, the peace of these family dinners has been marred by his total lack of respect for my decision that Gilbert is not to have table scraps. Every visit, it’s the same story.

     “Gilbert,” he says in that seductive doggy voice, “want some chicken?”

     Gilbert is well trained, but still what dog could resist that voice? So he jumps up from his spot beside me and prances happily over to my brother.

     So I have to put down my fork, frantically call him back to me or grab him by the collar and pull him away from the temptation saying for the millionth time, “No, I don’t want him to have table scraps!”

     “Why not!” he protests, “it’s just one piece of chicken!” and then makes me out to be a mean owner for never letting him have treats.

     I tell him that maybe a few table scraps are fine for a pet, but Gilbert is not a pet. He is a service dog who has to be well-mannered in places like restaurants, and if you teach him to expect table scraps during meals, he will lose these manners, start begging and then I won’t be able to take him to restaurants anymore.

     “He won’t lose all manners and start begging just because I give him one table scrap!”

     “Maybe not, but it’s not worth taking a chance, and besides, it’s not just his manners, but his health I am concerned about,” I say, pointing out that the school still legally owns Gilbert, and if they see that he is getting fat in a follow-up visit, they could take him away.

     “Well, if you are so concerned about him getting fat, how come you never work him or take him for walks?”

     This is what really makes my blood boil. For the record, my brother only comes out occasionally, maybe for an hour or two every two weeks. Sometimes when he visits, we do go out to restaurants and I often leave him at home in his crate for these outings since he is kind of big by guide dog standards, which means that often when he is with us, someone ends up having to sit with their legs crunched. When I do bring him, I often do sighted guide inside the restaurant since aisles between tables are narrow, which the dog trainer said was alright. At home of course, I don’t need to work the dog because I know the house like the back of my hand, so the times he happens to see me, I don’t work the dog. But he isn’t around the rest of the week when I work him all over my college campus, and take two mile walks on park trails and our country road when the weather is decent. Of course, where I live, there are days when I don’t take Gilbert for walks if the ground is covered with ice in winter or on hot muggy summer days. Maybe some guide dog handlers would say I should buck up and take him for walks on these days anyway, but walking in that kind of weather is unsafe and unnecessary in my opinion, and thus I have chosen to take the approach of being extra strict about his diet to make up for these days. He eats one cup of food in the morning and evening with no treats except from the vet–hey, I wish I could have a treat myself after putting up with cold metal instruments, pressed against my chest and jabbed in my ears and down my throat, not to mention shots–and the mail lady when she occasionally delivers a package to the door. Gilbert met this lady on the third day of training, and I don’t know if it is because he can smell the fact that this lady also has a yellow lab who is about the same age as Gilbert, but Gilbert loves her to pieces! When anyone else rings the doorbell, he runs to the door wagging his tail but is basically his calm well-mannered self. But when she comes to the door, he dances in circles and practically breaks the door down with excitement. The treats she gives aren’t milk bones but smaller ones broken in half, and I figure he probably burns the calories of this treat and then some in expressing his love for her! (smile) But I digress. Since the vet says he is at a perfectly healthy weight, I see nothing wrong with this approach, and my brother’s lack of respect for this decision frustrates me to no end! But at any rate, I do work him and take him for walks whenever I can, so his accusation that I don’t work him are ungrounded!

     His next attack is that I pick and choose the rules I want to follow. Case and point: “The dog trainer said he was not to have table scraps, but didn’t he also say you are supposed to sleep in the same room with Gilbert?”

     I did sleep with Gilbert for the first couple months, and yes, I think technically, guide dog handlers are supposed to sleep with the dog for bonding reasons. But while Gilbert and I match beautifully in daytime hours, our sleep styles are completely at odds. I am a very light sleeper, jolted awake by the slightest noise, and Gilbert is a noisy sleeper. If he is not snoring loudly or barking in his dreams, he is fidgeting, standing up, adjusting his position and then flopping down on the floor of his crate again with a thud. I can put up with these habits on vacations when we have to sleep in hotels, but on an everyday basis, I came to the decision that our daytime bonding would be much more successful if both team members got a good solid, undisturbed night of sleep. Maybe this is choosing the rules I want to follow, but I see nothing wrong with that. After all, the training program legally owns Gilbert, but for all practical purposes, he is my dog, and thus just like a parent, I feel I have the right to make my own decisions about what I do with Gilbert based on what works best for my situation, even if some of these decisions may be at odds with what the experts recommend, and the right to have these decisions respected, not criticized. And for the record, the fact that he doesn’t sleep with me has done nothing detrimental to our bonding. In fact, since my dad often wakes up before me, he will let Gilbert out of the crate, and as soon as that crate door opens, Gilbert races upstairs to lay right outside my door.

     My brother’s final attack is that he sees Gilbert licking crumbs splattered on to the floor all the time and I don’t say a word about it. I try to argue that for one thing, the crumbs he picks up are minuscule compared to a whole hunk of chicken, not to mention the fact that he finds these crumbs on his own. In fact, the dog trainer even said once that if he licks up a crumb on the floor, so long as it wasn’t dropped for him on purpose and I don’t praise him for finding it, this behavior is not the end of the world. I agree with this philosophy because unless I have him on leash 24/7, catching him every time he licks a crumb off the floor would be unrealistic. So now my brother’s tactic is to “accidentally” drop things. He hasn’t admitted this, but every time he comes over, while he has eased up a little with the usual arguments, I seem to hear an inordinate amount of food hit the floor, and maybe it was a legitimate accident, but in the most recent visit when I heard not one but four almonds my brother was eating drop to the floor, I had to wonder. When I heard Gilbert getting close to the sight of these dropped almonds, I grabbed him by the collar and marched him out of the room until Mom promised me the almonds had been picked up.

     One friend suggested I keep him on leash every time my brother comes over and maybe I should do that. But it irks me that in public, people respect my decisions but in my own house, I have to keep close tabs on Gilbert because I cannot trust all members of the family not to give him table scraps!

     While my parents got to attend my training sessions and are thus very supportive in my efforts to enforce this rule, their authority has not been near as effective at getting my brother to stop, and I feel like it is because even they think I am a little more rigid than necessary about this rule. One visit, they even tried to convince me to cave and just let my brother give him a treat. He doesn’t come home that often after all, so it probably wouldn’t do any harm. Maybe not, but my brother is not four! He is 24, an age when I think “no table scraps” shouldn’t be a hard concept to grasp! When they respond with “aw, don’t let him get to you! He’s just teasing you! That’s what brothers do!” it is pretty clear that this is a battle I will have to fight alone.

     Fighting this battle is draining, leading me to question if maybe I am too uptight on this issue. But with the combination of unanimous support of this decision when I wrote about this issue on the National Association of Guide Dog Users discussion list, and just my increasing confidence the longer I work with Gilbert, I am coming to realize that it is not perfection that makes a good guide dog handler. No one is perfect after all, and I have already admitted I am not the exception. What makes a good guide dog handler is the ability to not be afraid to make your own decisions about what is in the best interest of the team, and stand by these decisions despite criticism, which often comes not from strangers, but family. So while the battle may be draining and discouraging, the longer I work with Gilbert, the more confidence I develop to stand up for these decisions because Gilbert’s health and our success as a team is well worth the fight.

Marching Orders of the Classroom

School has been weighing heavily on my mind this week, as it does at the end of every long wonderful vacation when I realize that it won’t be long before every aspect of my life, even weekends, will be ruled by textbook chapters to read and projects to complete. But I have lamented on these feelings enough in past entries. So for this entry, it occurred to me that an angle that is rarely written about by students is the possibility that perhaps, teachers aren’t looking forward to getting back to school either, and not for the reasons you might think.

     Sure, it is true that teachers have to work 25 to 30 times harder than students do, as a teacher pointed out to me in elementary school once when I complained about homework, and she reminded me that I only have to do one assignment, but she has to read, grade and provide feedback on every student’s work. In addition of course, teachers have to create lesson plans and powerpoint presentations for each class they teach, and be available to meet with students after class hours if they need help. College professors have to keep up with research and write books in addition to their teaching responsibilities since most of them have a PhD. But standing in the shoes of a teacher for a moment, I wonder if it is not the onslaught of new responsibilities at the beginning of every semester that teachers dread most, but the discouraging task of having to educate sleepy, bored or simply unmotivated students. Nowhere could this argument be made more apparent than in the unenthusiastic responses of students like myself when a teacher gives a class marching orders.

     A frequent complaint of students when we fill out evaluations of our professors is that every day is so boring and all the teachers do is lecture, lecture lecture. So although lecturing is often the easiest most practical way to teach college subjects, in their well-meaning efforts to keep us engaged and provide some variety, teachers will change up the routine occasionally. For instance, one day, in a morning business class I had last semester that was especially lecture heavy, the professor decided to reenforce some information that had been lectured on the day before with a group activity.

     “Remember yesterday when we talked about how businesses conduct a SWOT analysis to determine how their business is doing?” he said.

     “Uhm hmmm,” some of us muttered, probably half in our sleep.

     Taking that as a yes he continued, “well to reenforce this information and have a change of pace for class today, I would like you to divide yourselves in to groups of four or five, maybe turning your desks so you are facing each other, and read this case study on the handout I just gave you. I figured you could spend about twenty minutes in your groups to do a SWOT analysis of the fictitious business in this case study, and then we will come back together and discuss what you came up with as a class.”

     With that, he prepared to sit down in the front of the room and maybe proceed to grade papers or check e-mails or whatever unless anyone asked for his help, when he realized that us students were still sitting at our desks, silent and blank faced.

     “Do you guys understand the assignment?” he asked politely, but with that trace of worry, or perhaps discouragement in his voice.

     It wasn’t until then that it occurred to the class that “oh my Gosh, we have just been given an activity.” I couldn’t see the rest of the class, but I had fingers positioned on my braille computer, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the rest of the class had pencils poised, ready to just copy the notes in their sleep to read later in the day when we woke up.

     With mumbles of “yeah” to indicate we understood the assignment, some of us stood up with a groan or a yawn and turned our desks. Others like myself just stayed where we were and craned our necks to jump in to the group that happened to locate themselves closest to us. Maybe we were a group of six instead of four or five, but oh well.

     “So, what are we doing again?” someone would say groggily. Fortunately there is always one half-awake person to carry the group.

     “I guess we have to read this case and do a SWOT analysis,” someone said.

     What’s a SWOT analysis again? We all flip through our notes. Oh yeah! Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. So we have to find the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats faced by this fictitious business. That makes sense.

     Then someone else yawns and says “I guess I can be the recorder,” as they tear out a sheet of paper from their notebook, and someone else reads the case study out loud for all of us.

     The remainder of the 20 minutes is smooth and productive with all group members contributing, and at the end of the group time, we came back together for a very lively, productive and interesting discussion. But this slow response to marching orders seems commonplace in my classes, and I have always wondered if this must drive teachers crazy.

     I have read several magazine articles, and heard several people interviewed on shows like “60 Minutes”, lament how my age group (also known as the Millennial generation) spends their whole life texting or hanging out on facebook, and how they wish we were more civically involved and enthusiastic about things like education, and when teachers see our unmotivated response to their efforts at educating and inspiring us, I wonder if they cannot agree more. Maybe they are thinking “if their response to tasks in the rest of their lives is as slow and lackluster as it is in my class, the future of our civilization is in trouble!”

     Now, I consider myself a serious student, but even I admitted guilt at my often lacking enthusiasm for education, and I am sure many of my peers feel the same way. It is not that I don’t care about education. When I am given an essay assignment, I tackle it with vigor and enthusiasm. When others might have said “go to bed! Your essay is good enough!” I find myself going back to sentences again and again saying “I could make this argument better!”

     This semester, I am taking a public policy course with a professor who is notorious on campus for her high expectations. But she is a wonderful teacher, and I know the deeper perspectives on public policy that I will get from her will be well worth the stress of meeting her high expectations, and I know several friends who choose to take tough classes for that same reason.

     As far as civic involvement which is outside the classroom but definitely still an educational experience, I sing in a community choir and volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters. I know many students who are actively involved in campus activities and in the larger community, passionately tackling everything from writing for the school newspaper, to tutoring their peers as well as younger students in the community, to organizing blood drives and spending their Saturdays doing service projects. Thursday evenings, the chapel is packed with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship students singing, praying and listening to guest speakers. My freshman year, I knew students who volunteered in the “get out the vote” effort for Barack Obama, and several students from my college went to a city council meeting to protest a proposal to remove a crosswalk students like to use to get to classes. I cannot speak about how this involvement compares to other eras like the Vietnam era which critics often compare us to since I wasn’t around back then. But my point is that from my perspective, I think my generation is passionate and engaged in other areas of our lives.

     But you would never know it when you see the very same students respond to the marching orders of our professors. There always seems to be a reason why I cannot get motivated to tackle these orders with enthusiasm. If it is not the early hour of a class, then it is the dreary weather outside, being brain fried after a test or something in a previous class, or the end of a busy week when I just want to go home, be done with school for awhile and do something mindless, like maybe hang out on facebook! (smile)

     I know that having the means to go to college puts me in a privileged minority compared to much of the world. Thus, I should show more gratitude for this privilege by embracing every activity with passion. I know that when teachers give marching orders, they are not doing it for their own health, as when it comes to undergraduate college courses, they have already been there and done that. I know that if students like myself would be as engaged in the traditional classroom as we are in the classroom of life, the education experience could be a lot richer. I have never talked to my peers about this issue, but like me, I wouldn’t be surprised if they have these same sentiments, and yet even so, cannot overcome this lack of motivation.

     But I think there is a saying that goes something like “change starts with you” so while I generally don’t make resolutions at the beginning of each semester, pondering this topic has inspired me to give myself marching orders to start a wave of change in the classroom. This semester, I am going to strive harder to be the leader of groups, not the sleepy unmotivated member along for the ride. When the teacher gives marching orders, I want to be the first one ready to march.

     Even if no one else wants to join me in this march, at least maybe I could be a positive influence that people look up to. And maybe just one more passionate engaged student, even if no one but myself notices this change, would subconsciously give professors a little more optimism about their jobs, and the future of civilization, not to mention lead to a slightly richer educational experience for all.

A Dear John Letter to my Wisdom Teeth

Dearest Wisdom Teeth:

     I know you will never read this. But even so, I hope you know that I have always loved and treasured you. You were literally a part of me after all. For twenty years, you knew that you belonged to me, and were eagerly awaiting the day when you would hatch through my gums and I would open my mouth and meet you. It was with great sadness that I took the doctor’s advice to end our relationship yesterday, especially since two of you never even had the chance to hatch, and one of you, the one on the upper right, was just barely beginning to poke through my gums.

     The doctor warned me our breakup wouldn’t be easy, and he was right. My jaw aches for you, especially on the left for the two of you I never got to meet. Vikodin has eased the pain a little, but it is always there. I was told the pain would ease with time, but long after the physical pain is gone, I know I will be filled with sadness when I feel the four empty spaces where you used to be.

     I am sure the breakup hasn’t been easy for you either. You must feel betrayed, especially you who used to live on the lower right side of my mouth. You were fully hatched after all, and I had mentioned that I enjoyed the extra chewing power you gave me, yet I still allowed the doctor to unceremoniously rip you from my mouth.

     But I know that in the long run, it was best for both of us. After all, x-rays showed there was not enough room in my mouth for all of you, which could cause other teeth to shift, or lead to infection if food got caught in you. I don’t think either of us would have been happy if you had to live in an overcrowded mouth. If you got infected, you would have to be removed anyway, and the longer I waited, the more I knew I would grow attached to you, making the decision even more wrenching. I sincerely hope you understand and that you will be able to forgive me.

     While I will go on to live a long happy life without you, I realize that even now you are probably already rotting away in a lonely landfill, ground up by a garbage disposal or whatever they do with you in this cruel world we live in. I want you to know I asked if I could take you home so that even if you couldn’t be inside me, at least you could always be with me. But I was told this could not be done, that you had to be disposed of properly.

     Our relationship did have its difficult moments. When you on the lower right hatched slowly over the course of September and October, my jaw ached, and you stabbed me every time I moved my mouth. In addition, you embarrassed me, as I was reduced to the level of a teething puppy, constantly needing to chew gum, which somehow made your hatching less painful. You on the upper right hadn’t caused me pain yet, but I know I complained about you being annoying, poking the inside of my mouth a little when I chewed, and making me feel like there was a piece of food caught on that side when it was only you. But all relationships have their difficult moments, and despite these hardships, I never stopped loving you, and I am sorry I couldn’t find a way to make this relationship work.

     But alas, since we couldn’t make it work, I will do the next best thing. I will mourn for a few more days by eating soft foods like soup and ice cream. The doctor said I should do this to protect the surgical sight, minimize pain and prevent infection. But you and I both know I am doing it for another reason. Giving up chewing for a few days is the least I can do to honor you and your loving service to me that had to end far too soon.

With love always, Allison

I Want to Be Rich by Different Standards

“Walkin in the sunshine, sing a little sunshine song!” I happily sang as I ambled through the noisy halls to my next class.

     “Come on Allison! You need to pick up the pace! The bell rings in one minute!” one of my teachers hollered after me.

     Scenes like this were numerous throughout my school years, often repeating themselves multiple times a day.

     “It concerns me that you have never had any sense of urgency, and it doesn’t seem to bother you when you are late for classes,” one of these teachers told me when my leisurely attitude and disregard for schedules remained largely unchanged when I got to high school.

     And she was right. It really never did bother me, and to some extent still doesn’t. Eventually, I did learn to pick up the pace and get to class on time, a trend that continued when I got to college. In high school, this change of habit was only to avoid detentions and lectures from teachers, and in college, it is because while there are no longer detentions, there is an unwritten expectation that students get to class on time, and since professors are often the ones to provide references about you to prospective employers, it is important to make a good impression on them. And my parents have told me that in their jobs, they can face disciplinary action for being late, so I know that after college, I will continue to feel obliged to meet society’s definition of a responsible employee, keeping an eye on the clock every morning. But I still resent our society’s obsession with timeliness which I have always felt marred the beauty of life with unnecessary stress. But the older I get, the more I realize that the obsession with timeliness is only the beginning of my dissatisfaction. Since I am still in school, I have not had to live this fact firsthand yet, but I am well aware that with the majority of careers, which includes all of the career options that interest me, there is no such thing as summer vacation, and this month I get off for Christmas as a college student will be something to look back and laugh about in just a couple short years. Case and point: my mom worked Christmas eve and was back at work on December 27, the Monday after Christmas. In addition, it seems like a lot of people I know are in a constant state of stress or dislike about their jobs, either because they are expected to take on more than is humanly possible in the name of “company productivity”, or they simply don’t enjoy the job or even the career in the first place.

     One day, I think it was after the combination of watching a show in which I found out that in some countries like France, employers are required to give all employees six weeks of vacation, and an intercultural communication class where we discussed how the cultures of many countries are much more relaxed and it is acceptable to be late or go home for a nap in the afternoon, I began to wonder “Does it really have to be this way? Why cannot our society follow the example of other countries and take a more relaxed approach to life?” When I posed these questions in the course of complaining about the hectic routine of school to my mom, she said something like “Well, our society is lucky in that we have the highest standard of living in the world. But maintaining this standard of living and being a competitive in the world unfortunately requires hard work.”

     I, like teachers over the years who marched right along to the drum of dominant societal values, had always believed that my attitudes were purely the result of laziness. But more and more, especially after this conversation, I am beginning to wonder if the real issue is that I simply don’t belong in this kind of society, and that marching right along with the stress and discontent of the rest of society in the never-ending quest to be wealthy leaders in the first world isn’t what I want for my life.

     Make no mistake: I feel very blessed to have the life that I do with a family that loves me, a spacious house, excellent medical care, plenty of food to eat, the opportunity to go to college, and the financial means to have basically anything I could ever need or want. It is heartbreaking to watch the news about places like Haiti which aren’t that far from here if you think about it, where it is often a daily struggle just to access enough food or clean water. But by earning such a comfortable middle class life, have we become poorer in other ways? Why cannot more people in our society find a happy medium in which maybe we would all be a little poorer financially, having just enough to meet our basic needs but not enough to live in luxury, so that we can become rich in terms of calmness, family time, and the ability to go to work doing something we genuinely enjoy and get fulfillment from, and not let society indirectly steer us away from a career we would enjoy because “you won’t make any money doing that”? After all, what good is the big screen television or the fancy leather recliner if you come home from work too frazzled to enjoy them?

     Actually, looking back, I can point to several instances when I was already starting to have this revelation. When I was in sixth grade, I went through a spell where I was sick all the time between fevers, coughing, a complete loss of voice, and I think there was even a case of pink eye sometime in there. I went to school off and on if the fever let up and I felt better, but it kept coming back, and in total I think I missed like two and a half weeks of school before a doctor finally determined I had a sinus infection and gave me antibiotics.

 

But as bad as this sounds, I actually cried when I felt well enough to go to school again, partly because I was overwhelmed at the thought of all the make-up work I had to do from being gone. But looking back, I realize that another part of it was that I got a taste of what it would be like to be out of touch with the exhausting, hurried routine that defines society, and middle school, and I loved it.

     Here is how my typical middle school routine went. School started at 7:20 in the morning, which meant the bus usually arrived between 6:35 and 6:40 every morning. It’s funny because when I am on vacation and don’t have to be anywhere, I am often up by 6:00, but when I had to shower, get dressed and catch a bus by 6:30 in the morning, all I wanted to do was sleep, especially on the cold days. As a result, I couldn’t get moving in the morning, and was often just climbing out of the shower when the bus pulled up. Since I rode a special bus being blind, the bus driver waited longer for me than a regular bus would have, so I usually caught it, but it made for a very frantic and stressful start to the day.

     Then, when I got to school, I was extremely fortunate to have a sweet teacher who started the day gently with questions about our lives or fun brain teaser games, sympathising with our lack of motivation at such an early hour. But there was one teacher who you could hear because she was just next door, who always greeted the class by hollering “sit down! We’ve got a lot to do today!” Even second hour when I had to have this teacher, I wasn’t ready for that kind of approach, and thus I still cannot believe my teenage hormones didn’t lead me to say something like “Well, good morning to you too!” in a sarcastic tone.

     Then, we had only four minutes to get between classes which was alright for my academic classes since they were divided between two teachers who were next door to each other, but for classes like gym and music which were on the other side of the school, I was always late. Sure, maybe I could have walked faster, only focusing on the task at hand instead of singing or talking to friends, but contrary to society, I believed, and still believe that unless you are a fireman or paramedic, there is no need to stress yourself out trying to get there on time.

     And then we only had twenty-six minutes for lunch, which included the time it took to get through the long cafeteria line to get it, so instead of the quiet calm affair that I think lunch should be, I had to gobble down my lunch in a cafeteria full of screaming shouting teenagers cramming all of their socialization in to twenty-six minutes. And then to top it all off of course, I had hours of homework.

     But while being sick wasn’t fun, it allowed me to roll over and go back to sleep when the school buses drove by outside my window, and since I didn’t feel well enough to concentrate on schoolwork much of the time, it gave me wonderful memories of watching movies and eating quiet comforting lunches of soup and macaroni and cheese with my mom. One day, Mom even spent the whole day reading Belle Prater’s Boy, a sweet story set in the tiny town of Coal Station, West Virginia in the 1950s, out loud to me. Like I said, being sick wasn’t fun, but oh how I longed for the sweet peaceful life I lived those few weeks when I had to return to the chaotic routine of school.

     I also get this wonderful feeling every time there is a blizzard. Blizzards fierce enough to cancel school are rare where I live since Wisconsin is accustomed to snow and thus to my chagrin, usually the roads are able to be cleared in time to go to school. But the rare days when the roads cannot be cleared are so magical. On ordinary days, even on days my parents don’t have to work, it seems like the errands, or the housework that needs to be done is never-ending. But there is something about fiercely falling snow and whistling wind that casts a spell on everyone, my family included, making them put aside errands or housework, for a day of just watching cute movies like “White Christmas”, playing a game of scrabble and sitting down to a steaming bowl of chili or potato soup. The next day, by which time the streets are cleared and we are all back to the grindstone, I long for a life in which the joyous simplicity of yesterday could transfer over to the rest of the year.

     Of course, I do recognize and accept the reality that we must work to pay for that cozy house and the ingredients for that potato soup, and I suppose if every day were a snow day, I would get sick of it as it would no longer be special. (Theoretically since I am blind, I could apply for social security and if I lived very frugally, I could maybe get away with not working. But I have always believed in playing by the same rules as sighted people, so I plan to work). But again, we are back at the question “why cannot there be a happy medium where we work enough to meet our basic needs, but where our work is fulfilling and doesn’t consume our lives?”

     I haven’t given up on pursuing the life expected of me by conventional society yet, partly because since I have been a student all my life, I cannot imagine myself in the shoes of a career woman, and while careers have stresses of their own, maybe I will handle these stresses better than I handle the stress of grades and homework. And even though Journalism, my first career choice is a competitive field, made worse by the fact that newspapers and other media outlets are doing more and more with less resources, maybe my passion for talking to people and writing will outweigh the stressful aspects of the job. And if I cannot find a job as a Journalist, I may still consider my parents’ suggestion that I go to law school since I enjoyed a communication law class I took last semester, and it is something my parents think I would be good at. But let me be perfectly clear! If neither of these careers make me feel fulfilled, if I come home frazzled and discouraged more often than I come home happy, I will not muddle on with these careers and choose money over overall happiness.

     So what would a happy medium kind of life look like, you might ask? Well, since I am a thinker and a daydreamer, I have already given this question considerable thought. I haven’t done any practical research, and being a student who is still supported by my parents, I realize I may have a lot to learn yet as far as the reality of how much “meeting basic needs” costs. But here’s what I envision a happy medium simple life would look like for me.

     First of all, as much as I have complained in this entry about our country, in many other regards, I do love this country, and I don’t think I am the kind of person who would be brave enough to uproot myself and learn the laws and culture of a new country, even one that would give me six weeks vacation and lets me go home for lunch. But I bet the sleepy small town life would be a wonderfully close equivalent. When I travel to my grandma’s house, which is located in a sleepy little American town, people still work, yet it seems like the culture is more relaxed. In stores, the cashier who is often a good friend of my grandma, will chat with us, and there is no boss breathing down her neck to hurry up because the store is a small quiet store with no long lines to worry about. My aunt who is a teacher and works in the same town where my grandma lives, has time to stop by for lunch instead of gobbling down school cafeteria food. There are a lot of towns similar to my grandma’s town in my home state, especially in the northern areas of the state. I would settle in one of these towns, or if I couldn’t find anywhere to live in my home state, I would not rule out going west to North Dakota or Wyoming, which I have heard are beautiful, sparsely populated, friendly places. All I would require of my little town would be a welcoming little church, your basic grocery store and drugstore, and safe sidewalks or trails that Gilbert (or whoever my guide dog happens to be should I choose this life), could stroll along on beautiful spring and summer days. Once I found this Norman Rockwell town, I would buy a modest little house, which I imagine wouldn’t be that expensive because the real estate slogan that determines housing prices is “location, location, location”, but if my house isn’t located in the heart of a big city, and I make sure not to settle in a town that is on the shore of a beautiful lake or in a tourist area, there wouldn’t be a lot of demand for the house, keeping the price down. I would want the house to be bigger than my college dorm room which made Gilbert and I both stir crazy, but I think we would both be happy in a single story house the size of the suite my dorm was in. I don’t know how many square feet that would be, but the suite had two double occupancy dorm rooms separated by a shared bathroom in the middle, so maybe if you have lived in a similar college dorm, you can picture the size. Anyway, this house would be like one fourth the size of the house I live in now, but it would be plenty of room for Gilbert and me, and cleaning could be done in probably less than an hour as opposed to the whole day that it seems to take to clean our big house. After all, on my days off, I want to enjoy my home, not spend the whole day cleaning it.

     The furnishings in my house would be simple. There would be a small kitchen with a refrigerator, sink, microwave, oven and crockpot. At the beginning of every week, I would prepare a batch of chili, soup or stew to simmer all day in the crockpot that would be dinner for the week, bake a batch of cookies and stock the refrigerator with fresh, locally grown fruit and vegetables, bagels, eggs and milk. Hamburger helper tastes alright, but since it is the hallmark of the stressful, hurried life that I strive to escape, it will be banned in my house. I wouldn’t even need a dishwasher. They are expensive, don’t last very long, and I am only one person, so washing my dishes in the sink probably wouldn’t be that hard.

     My livingroom would be furnished with a simple recliner that I would not be ashamed to buy at a thrift store, a small radio for my music and news as National Public Radio has excellent news reporting, a cabinet stocked with board games to play when I have company and a basic computer for writing. The computer may be expensive initially, but if I continue my policy of using it gently, forbidding other people from using it so that I know stupid things aren’t being downloaded on to it that would wear it out, I bet I could make each computer last ten years, minimum. I wouldn’t bother with buying a television. While there are a few shows I like to listen to, most shows these days stink in my opinion, so I could live without it. Additionally, television in my opinion is also a hallmark of the stressed life since after a stressful day, too many people crash on the couch and fall asleep in front of it because they don’t have the energy to do anything else. But with my simple, less stressful life, my hope is that I will have the energy for more stimulating pursuits like reading, writing, volunteering or inviting the neighbors over to play board games like Scrabble or Monopoly! I received a braille monopoly board as a gift five years ago, but have never played it. Why not? Well, every time I ask someone if they want to play it with me, they say no because, you guessed it! It takes too long! But in a relaxed community where the clock doesn’t matter so much, maybe the length of a game wouldn’t matter so much either.

     I would of course have a small bathroom and laundry room. My bedroom would hold nothing but a modest twin bed and a closet, and in that closet, three, and only three outfits. One would be my formal outfit for going to church or any formal events, and two would be my casual outfits that I would wear to work and around the house. My mom still doesn’t like me to wear the same outfit two days in a row, even if that outfit is clean for fear that other kids would comment on it. But I say, who cares? Maybe in middle school I might have been teased, but at my age, I have noticed people don’t notice or care what people are wearing. And if people did comment, I would just tell them the truth, which is that having a diverse wardrobe isn’t important to me.

     Not only would a small wardrobe save money. It would also save time and unnecessary stress, as I could get my laundry done in one load, instead of having to devote a whole day to it, and it would make it a lot easier for me to find and pick out my clothes each day, benefits which would be so wonderful that when people do shower me with clothes at Christmas, maybe I would consider putting my foot down and returning them.

     There would be no knick-knacks cluttering every hearth and shelf, no expensive paintings on the walls, and whatever color the walls are when I buy the house is the color they will stay.

     And as for employment? Maybe I could write for a local publication which would not have the same stress as writing for a big city publication since life would be uneventful and quiet with the biggest event being the county fair. Or, while I don’t like public speaking in a high pressure school atmosphere, maybe I would enjoy being a soft voice on a little local radio station that plays old country music or happy polka music, and I could announce each song, read the news on the latest corn prices and the weather forecast. Or maybe I could forget Journalism altogether, be a clerk at a quaint little family owned shop or restaurant far removed from the corporate world of Walmart and McDonalds, where I could know all my customers by name chatting and smiling while I worked, and write purely for pleasure when I got home. Or maybe I could be a freelance writer from home, a job that would allow me to be my own boss. Whichever job I ended up doing, I would still be a hard-working dependable employee, but maybe in a slower paced friendlier culture, the boss would understand if I were late every now and then for reasons like “it is such a spectacularly beautiful day with birds singing merrily everywhere, that I just had to walk the long route to work to take it in.” Maybe he would even be late himself for the same reason.

     Maybe these jobs would only pay minimum wage, and I would have no discretionary money by the end of each month. Maybe I won’t be able to afford luxuries like going out to eat or traveling. Maybe the day to day cost of living wouldn’t leave me enough savings to retire, but if I had a low-stress job in a pleasant working environment, maybe I wouldn’t mind that. Maybe these plans would have to be adjusted if I met someone I wanted to marry and start a family with, but maybe he would enjoy a simple life too. Maybe I am caught up in a fantasy and such an idyllic life doesn’t exist anymore, or is unrealistic. Maybe people would look down on me for not fully utilizing my potential to become famous or wealthy. But maybe I could make this idyllic life a reality somewhere, and maybe if I keep in touch with family, friends and even former colleagues from my financially well-off but discontent life, and they see how rich I have become in terms of peace and contentment, I could be the leader of a small-scale revolution and inspire more people to realize they don’t have to be blind followers of the drum of dominant society, or victims of the first world myth that money can buy happiness.

Another Merry Christmas

Hello readers. I hope you all enjoyed, or if you are still on vacation, I hope you are still enjoying this holiday season. I sure am! (College semesters may be demanding, but since my vacation started December 14 and I don’t have to go back until January 18, I cannot complain)! Anyway, the day after posting my Lj Idol entry about the wonderful brouhaha of Christmas, my parents and I went to Indiana to celebrate Christmas with my mom’s side of the family, which is always fun, especially since a couple years ago, we started a tradition of exchanging white elephant gifts. For those of you who may not have heard of this tradition, white elephant gifts (also known as gag gifts), are gifts that are simply silly, and they are exchanged by having everyone draw numbers from a hat and pick from a pile of presents in the order their number was drawn. Some of the laughter in this tradition comes from the gifts which are stupid and hilarious no matter who gets them, like the pooping panda (the poop is in the form of jelly beans). Some of the laughter comes from the context of who gets the gift, like my boy cousin who got a girly fairy wand one year. Fortunately for him, once all of the gifts are passed out, trades are allowed. This year was especially funny because a couple weeks earlier, my grandma on my dad’s side said she was at Walgreens and saw little bags of coal that could be bought as a joke, and my mom and I both agreed that would make an awesome white elephant gift. But what made it even better was that since the craziness of preparation for Christmas was starting to get to my dad causing him to sound like Scrooge, my mom rigged the drawing so that my dad got the coal! He couldn’t help laughing about that in spite of himself. But besides cheering my dad up a little, the other advantage to him getting coal is that we can recycle it for next year. So our family will once again hold the power to determine who has been naughty or nice! (smile) I originally got playdough, but the same boy cousin that got the wand a couple years ago got a candle this year, so I traded with him. Of course, in addition to the joke gifts, the tradition of receiving giant bags of candy from both my aunt and my grandma was carried on, as well as the tradition of overeating, especially when it came to Grandma’s cookies and cheesy potatoes. These traditions combined with the simple joy of visiting and filling the relatives in on our busy lives added up to a wonderful celebration and happy memories for all.

     On December 22, we celebrated Christmas with my grandma on my dad’s side by going to an Italian restaurant that according to the sighted people, is decorated beautifully every year for Christmas, and then went to Grandma’s house to eat cake and exchange gifts which by tradition, always means clothes since this grandma loves to shop for clothes. Privately I complain about this tradition since my closet is bursting at the seams with clothes she has gotten me, and I would like to simplify my closet to make it easier for me to pick out my clothes. But I really do appreciate this generosity, and my mom says the clothes she picks out look nice on me, so I am not one of those people who returns clothes after Christmas like I hear a lot of people do. For my gift to Grandma, I sang her a song because she loves my singing more than the material gifts I have given her in the past.

     Then the next day, my dad took me to the mall to buy gifts for my mom and sister, both of whom said they would love having some bath jell from Bath and Body Works. Due to my mom’s work schedule and some nasty weather on the days she was off, I never had time to go shopping alone with her to buy a gift for Dad, but that was not necessary since Dad recently started a tradition of buying his own Christmas gifts and putting our names on the to/from tags because he hates seeing us kids spend our hard-earned money on stuff he doesn’t need or want. So this year, Dad got himself a miniature radio he could use when he works out at the YMCA, and we all got a good laugh on Christmas morning when he pretended to be surprised and thanked me saying “This is exactly what I wanted!” My mom and the rest of the family prefers to be genuinely surprised, but we let Dad have his way because after all, Christmas is not about the gifts but the time with family and the making of memories, and my dad’s fake surprise is certainly a fun memory to have.

     Anyway, when it comes to clothes, I hate shopping because wrack after wrack of pants and blouses that all feel the same gets old pretty fast. But Bath and Body Works always has so many wonderful things to smell that I don’t mind shopping there. This trip to Bath and Body works was no exception, however I will always remember this shopping trip as the trip where the wonderful aromas were overshadowed by my first case of sticker shock!

     Alright, here’s the story. Every year from second or third grade through high school, I got to participate in a really fun annual event where all of the vision teachers in my area would pull all their blind students out of school for a day at the mall. We were always asked to bring $5 for a secret Santa gift for another student, gifts that were exchanged over lunch in the food court. Then the rest of the day, the teachers would help us find gifts for our families. Since I was an unemployed child back then, I depended on cash donations from my parents for these trips. My parents typically would give me $30 or $40 so I would have $5 for secret Santa, $5 for lunch, and $20 or $30 for other gifts. So I would always tell the teacher helping me up front how much money I had to spend for the day, and she would steer me toward the items in my price range, not mentioning the many things that were not. I generally tried to only spend around $5 a store so the money would last the whole day. This price range generally meant a small candle for my mom, cheap candy for my brothers, an inexpensive book or pretty ornament for Grandma, and often nothing for my dad or sister. So after these trips, I couldn’t help apologizing that I didn’t have enough to buy gifts for everyone in the family, and the gifts I did buy were nowhere near as nice as the ones the rest of the family always got me. My parents always responded by reminding me that the purpose of this trip was to have fun not to worry about buying elaborate gifts. Still, I dreamed of the day when I would be grown up so I could have a job, make my own money and spend as much of it as I wanted on Christmas gifts for everyone. This year with my job answering phones for the college switchboard, a summer job that I was able to continue during the school year, that dream had come true. Eventually, I know a large portion of my earnings will be eaten up by adult responsibilities like groceries and rent, but since I live at home and thus don’t have these responsibilities yet, my bank account is pretty flush! “Life is good!” I thought to myself with a smile as I jumped out of the car in the mall parking lot, shiny debit card in hand.

     When we got in to the store, a saleswoman showed my dad to the bath jell section and told us they were “buy three, get three free”. I had no reason to worry about saving money, but I was still excited about what I thought would be a good bargain. I only needed two bottles of bath jell, but the others could be saved in case we forgot about someone and needed an extra gift, traded out if my mom or sister didn’t like the scent I chose for them, used as gifts next year or I could use them myself! I love all those fragrances, so why not?

     So my dad and I had fun walking around sniffing each kind of jell for half an hour until we settled on six of my favorite fragrances. Now I should mention before I proceed that I knew bath jell from a fancy mall store like Bath and Body Works would cost more than the Walmart jell we usually get, partly because at fancier stores, you are paying for the fancy brand names, but also because the ingredients required to produce these exotic fragrances probably cost more. I also knew since I had received jell from Bath and Body Works as a gift in the past, that Walmart’s bottles are easily three times the size of these bottles. Even so, I just about dropped my debit card in disbelief when the cashier rang up my items and said “that comes to $33.11.”

 

What! Did I really hear that right? I thought about saying something, but not wanting to make a scene or make my ignorance about how much things cost known, I just quietly gave her my debit card to swipe. But I made sure the receipt was in the bag, and when we got to the quiet parking lot, I whispered to my dad, “before we get in to the car, do you want to check the receipt? I wonder if the cashier made a mistake and charged me for the three free bottles.” If that had been the case, then each bottle would have cost about $5, which seemed like a reasonable price to me. But I will never forget the way Dad cleared his throat in that “you have so much to learn” way and said “um, sweetheart? The three bottles were $10 each.”

     When he saw my jaw drop, he laughed and said “I suppose I should’ve told you how much they were.”

     “That’s alright,” I said laughing in return “mom and my sister are worth it.”

     But in all seriousness, it really wasn’t his fault for not telling me how much they cost. For one thing, like many Americans before me, I fell in to the trap those financial experts on television always warn you of, the trap of letting your guard down and spending more than you would if you had used paper money. But there is also the fact that from the time sighted children learn to read, they start becoming aware, at least subconsciously of how much things cost when they see package labels. But my inability to read labels means that I have no idea how much things cost, a realization that I think gave him a hilarious wake-up call of his own.

     Anyway, don’t worry. That shopping excursion didn’t send me in to financial ruin this time. But it made me realize that perhaps before I venture out on my own or get married, a commitment that would require buying gifts for two families, I should invest in one of those special portable scanners for the blind that reads store package labels, compare prices on the internet or at least leave the dangerous plastic money at home and pay with cash!

     From there, Dad took me to Taco Bell, where I used some cash made from selling my textbooks back to the bookstore to buy $10 gift cards for my brothers. The rest of the evening was peaceful and quiet, the perfect evening for my traditional viewing of the Dr. Seuss Grinch cartoon I mentioned in the last entry.

     Christmas Eve was a happy quiet day at home where I just enjoyed listening to “An American Christmas” a special radio program hosted by Chip Davis, a member of the band Manheim Steamroller, and helping my dad wrap presents. A word of warning though in case you might have been thinking about asking me to help you with this tedious task some year: I am good at wrapping if all you care about is that the present is covered up, which fortunately is all my family cares about. But if you want the job to look perfect and pretty, you better ask someone else (smile). Then, when my mom and brother came home from work, we carried on our tradition of feasting on the delicious dinner of spicy shrimp cocktail, cheese and crackers, summer sausage, chips, salsa and guacamole for appetizers, and a main course of steak, baked potatoes and salad that my dad prepares every year. Because we weren’t stuffed enough after dinner (smile), and because my mom’s new work schedule meant we only had time to bake a couple of the many kinds of cookies we usually baked, and because these cookies were dwindling since we mailed a lot of them to my other brother who couldn’t get home for Christmas, I helped my mom bake peanut butter cookies with a Hershey’s Kiss in the center of each cookie. And let me tell you, they are delicious, especially when you eat them right out of the oven before the melted kiss has hardened! The rest of the evening was peaceful, with Mom wrapping a few final presents that Dad forgot about, and me watching a choir Christmas concert on public television.

     Christmas Day was bittersweet for me since I am prone to migraines and had the misfortune of waking up with one on Christmas morning. Actually, I had a bit of a headache on Christmas Eve, but figured it would go away with a good night’s sleep. Instead, it was worse by morning. With a dose of excedren, it eased pretty quickly, but my parents decided not to go to church because of it, so we missed the beautiful Christmas mass our church does every year. Hopefully, I will have better luck next year. The rest of the day was wonderful. We enjoyed a brunch of hashbrown potato pie which is a delicious breakfast casserole recipe my mom found that is a favorite in our family, but something we don’t have very often since it takes a long time to make, and the rest of the year mornings are often too rushed for such an involved breakfast. For dessert, we had a wonderful cinnamon coffee cake that was a box mix my dad saw at Trader Joe’s. Then of course, we opened presents. I got a Panera Bread gift card from my brother, and from my mom, a really cool pair of gloves where there are holes in each of the fingers accept for the thumb so that you can have full use of your fingertips if you need them, but then when you are walking and don’t need your fingers, you just fold this piece of fabric over them! What an awesome find Mom! For years, Mom has chastised me for coming in from the school bus or standing outside on my college campus waiting for my ride without gloves, but I always hated wearing gloves. I think it is because since I am blind, my fingers are like my vision, so the annoyance of wearing gloves must be a close equivalent to the annoyance sighted people talk about when their vision is blurred, since when I wear gloves, the feeling of objects is blurred. I am still able to function when I wear gloves. For example, when I get out of the car when my dad drops me off on my college campus, I am able to find the handle to open the door of the car, and able to pick up my guide dog’s leash because I can still distinguish the shape of these objects through my gloves. But since I don’t have direct contact with these objects when my fingers are obscured by gloves, it always seems to take my brain a fraction of a second longer to realize “oh yeah, that’s the door handle, or that’s the leash”, and this delay always drove me crazy! But now, when I go back to school, I will be able to keep my fingers warm, and have full use of my fingers when I need them. Whoever said you couldn’t have your cake and eat it too? (smile)

     My parents also gave me a bowl for popping popcorn in the microwave and a bowl for cooking pasta in the microwave, gifts which I had asked for because I would like to start cooking more independently, but the microwave is my preferred method of cooking since standing by an angry sizzling stove stirring scares me. I also got a pair of headphones you can put around your neck instead of on your ears when exercising at the YMCA since I have always found ear headphones annoying, as well as a Lee Greenwood CD and an Allen Jackson CD featuring a duet with the Zach Brown Band, a band that my mom and I have wanted to have on CD for years since they are fantastic musicians. Oh, and my sister mailed me a wonderfully soft sweater that I am wearing right now actually, and my dad “surprised” me with a set of peppermint hand lotion and soap that I picked out at Bath and Body Works. But believe it or not, after all of the gifts had been opened, my mom apologized to me and my brother, saying that she wanted to give us more, but with her new work schedule, she didn’t have as much time to shop. You know I suppose there may have been a time when I was younger when fewer presents would have seemed disappointing, but I am finding that as I get older, gifts are becoming less and less crucial to the enjoyment of Christmas. Since I am no longer a child playing with toys, there are really no material things I absolutely MUST HAVE, so anything I get is appreciated of course, but I honestly think I have reached a level of maturity where I would be fine with it if my parents decided some year not to give presents at all. I think the best gifts truly are the time with family and the happy memories made. Anything else is just a bonus.

     And there definitely were happy memories made this Christmas, a day of snacking all afternoon, watching two movies, one of them being our family movie we watch every year, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, having ham, scalloped potatoes and chocolate pudding for dinner, and playing a game of Scrabble.

     Sadly, although Christians believe the Christmas season doesn’t end until January 6, and although my mom always does a good job of keeping Christmas alive by leaving the decorations up and baking any cookies we didn’t have time to bake before Christmas, for all practical purposes, Christmas is over. The radio went back to playing regular music on December 27, and as Garrison Keillor says, the twelve days of Christmas are used simply to teach children how to count (smile). But though I hate to see this season of joy wind down, I know I will always have the happy memories made this season, memories I can use to keep Christmas alive in my heart all year.