Dabble Away, I Say!

Blogging is narcissistic, but I hope to encourage faith in the power and excitement of experimentation.

I don’t know why it’s frowned upon to dabble. As a high school teacher, I try to encourage my students to dabble. Dabble away, I say! Not to mention, the word dabble is fun to say, although maybe its sound is a bit too close to dribble, which makes me picture myself as some kind of idiot, running around aimlessly, saliva dribbling out of my stupidly cheerful smile. But I still like to say it.

I recently encouraged dabbling to a student in one of my most generous moments: “Not into Spanish?” I asked him, putting on my best I-understand-you face, masking the feeling of having the wind knocked out of me at the very thought of someone not loving a language that so changed my life. “Why not try French next year?” I suggested, once more masking my distress, struggling to suppress a memory of a French man who sat next to me on a long wooden bench at a picnic style restaurant in Cambodia. In an attempt at small talk, I pointed out to the French man that we had ordered the same dish, only his had beef in it and mine had tofu. (Not my proudest social moment.) He acknowledged this fact, then added that he was drinking beer while I was drinking water, explaining in the thickest, most cliché French accent, “I eat meat, I drink beer, I enjoy life.” Ugh. French.

But still, I can prioritize a good dabble over my love of Spanish and my unrealistic expectation that my teaching methods will somehow transform my students into hispanophiles as well. However, in this case my generosity was trumped by the principal who corrected me: “Our policy is that once students choose a language, they have to stick with it.” Oops! But come on, life is not like that. There is a place for people with a clear direction of course, but there is also a place for dabblers. There are, in fact, lots of places for dabblers. So here are some highlights from my years of dabbling, which I hope will encourage faith in the power and excitement of experimentation.

Fresh out of college, I took a job working at an afterschool program for at-risk teenagers, which on paper sounded fun and even noble. Working there, however, felt like being in middle school again, only this time I felt like the new kid, the chubby kind with braces and acne. Whenever I approached a group of girls, the chatting and giggling would stop abruptly, they would shoot me looks of annoyance, gather up their things and walk away. I had a 13-year-old informant on the inside who told me that the cool girls called me “Poodle”. Oh yeah, this is what I look like.

Photo on 1-10-15 at 7.52 PM

It’s hard not to take these things personally.

I simultaneously worked at a mommy-and-me music school. You know, the kind where you sit in a circle, toddler in lap, clap your hands, stomp your feet, spin around, etc. In theory it was my dream job. But it turns out, one can only sing, “Elephants have wrinkles, wrinkles everywhere” so many times before wanting to break things. And this is coming from someone who loves elephants. My boss said I wasn’t enthusiastic enough, to which I almost sang, “Goodbye, goodbye, thank you very much!” and put a sticker on her hand. Almost is the key word here.

At night I semi-actively pursued a singer-songwriter career, playing shows at coffee shops and bars in San Diego and Los Angeles. Whatever you are imagining, you are probably right. Sometimes people love you and show up at all of your shows. Sometimes they can even sing along to your songs. Other times you are singing as loud as you can, but no microphone in existence can drown out the conversation and laughter coming from an audience that doesn’t even know you’re there. And sometimes there is actually nobody there at all except for one person who is listening very intently because he is next up on stage and hopes you will return the favor. The bartender offers you both condolence cocktails, and your new friend gives you a flier for his upcoming show.

crappy stage

At some point, possibly out of desperation for meaning in my life, I found myself in Santiago, Chile where I worked with more troubled teens. Please interpret the word “more” to mean that there were more of them, but also as a qualifier of their level of troubled. Being called “Poodle” was tough, but even tougher was confiscating hedge-trimmers from a Chilean boy who snapped them in the air as he chased a girl around a cramped classroom. Why were there hedge-trimmers in a classroom? That’s a great question.

Back in the USA, I believed my skin had thickened sufficiently to work once again with at-risk youth. I was hired by a nonprofit organization that offered free tutoring to kids in a neighborhood I never knew existed: Southeast San Diego. Type those three words into Google and it will promptly suggest “gangs” to finish your search. An amateur YouTube video even breaks down the gangs for you by neighborhood, and claims this area to be the murder capital of San Diego. Lucky for me, I had no idea, I just knew it was far from where I grew up, and seemed like a worthwhile endeavor.

The non-profit was disorganized, as they tend to be, neglecting to inform me that one of my students had severe special needs, for example, an area in which I had no training or experience. The organization also sent me to the wrong address not once, not twice, but three times. In Southeast, you do not want to knock on the wrong door. The first time, someone peered at me through a brown metal screen door, the kind in which the holes are so tiny it’s basically a solid metal door. I could not see the frightened woman inside the home, but I realized that she could see me, which is a really strange experience, it turns out. It’s hard to know what to expect when someone who does not trust you is looking at you, yet you can’t see them. It’s eerie. Like being hunted maybe. And in this case the woman behind the door had the right to be on guard because I was a stranger at her home, after all. (Castle Doctrine, anyone?) I asked if the student I was looking for lived there, and she said in a terrified sort of voice, “Who? No, no, thank you, no!” and slammed the interior door in my face.

The second time I knocked on the wrong door I was looking for a recently immigrated Mexican family, but a large white man with tattoos on his neck opened the door instead. He squinted at me almost aggressively, as if to say, You want something? You gotta get through me first. “I’m Enrique’s new tutor,” I said with rising intonation, almost as a question, forcing an I-come-in-peace kind of smile. His features softened, he looked me up and down and then said in a gravelly voice, “You have a beautiful body.” Gross. And scary. But I admittedly think I was at a low enough point with my self-esteem that I almost said, “Really? You think so? Oh my gosh! Thanks so much!” Almost is again the key word here. What I actually said was, “Oh wait, wrong house, sorry! Ha! Ha! Ha!” The laughter of course being as awkward as humanly possible. I set off in no particular direction, hugging a binder full of 9th grade math activities to my chest. He shouted something after me but I don’t know what it was. I came to a four-way intersection and frantically crossed the street, scurrying into a liquor store with barred up windows. I bought myself some condolence cacahuetes. I later learned that that intersection I crossed is known as the Four Corners of Death due to the number of homicides that have occurred there over the years. And all of this basically in my own backyard, and I had no idea. I should say that I loved that job, though. Or at least I loved the kids. I even convinced one of my students to play a “game” that I completely made up called “The Squish Face Game,” which is pretty self-explanatory. He had the chubbiest little cheeks!

Once that contract ended, I accepted a job with a title that is something like Childcare Expert or Youth Specialist or who knows what at a sort of boarding school for foster kids. I left after maybe the sixth or seventh F you. I empathize, but it turns out my skin is not so tough.

One of my favorite jobs at which I stayed the longest (read: one year and a half) involved giving stop-drop-and-roll presentations at schools across San Diego. Yes, I was the stop-drop-and-roll lady who taught the eight-year-old-you what to do if you ever catch on fire. I speak with no sarcasm when I say it was so much fun! Whatever that says about me is unclear, but I loved it. This job also involved interviewing juvenile firesetters, the oops-what-did-I-do? kind, and the habitual I-wanna-watch-this-burn! kind. I also got to install free smoke alarms in senior citizens’ homes, which was oddly empowering. I admit I enjoyed carrying a heavy drill and picking through a box of screws, even if it meant boring holes into popcorn ceilings and letting the asbestos flutter into my hair and onto my goggles. Much like working in Southeast, I loved the overall experience of this job from the seniors to the pyros, but even stop-drop-and-roll has its limits. Plus, I discovered an intensive Spanish program in Panama that I couldn’t pass up.

If you have read this blog before, you may know that I recently spent some time working with kids in Peru. I did that as a one-year hiatus from graduate school because two years of anything is too long for me.

Kid Count

And now I’m a high school Spanish teacher, which I love even more than being the stop-drop-and-roll lady. I love it more than the Squish Face Game. But I still sometimes find myself searching for jobs in places as unrelated as Santa Cruz, California and Cork, Ireland. Because who knows?

Sometimes I think back to when I was one of those teenagers for whom artsy and angsty kind of blend. I had the capacity to find poetry everywhere, and used to write inspiring (or sometimes dark) phrases and quotes all over the place. I would paint them on my bedroom walls, write them into my notebook rather than writing down math formulas, and scribble them into my glasses case. Some of them were stupid. But some of them were nice. A nice one that I still remember is: “Chase your passion, not your pension.” My passion keeps running around, and I hope I never stop chasing it. And you shouldn’t either. Even if that means you look like an idiot, saliva dribbling out of your stupidly cheerful smile.

Oh yeah, and I’ve also learned to eat meat, to drink beer, to enjoy life.

panama beer

I Woke Up Like This

Blogging is narcissistic, but so are couple selfies.

An acquaintance I knew as a teenager married her high school sweetheart. And not in the never-left-home kind of way. They separated during college, dated other people, did different things, but got back together as adults and got married. I don’t know the exact details, but I know that’s the basic outline of their story. They now work for tech companies in Northern California. A quick perusal of my Facebook homepage provides glimpses into the immaculate windows of their world. Warm, fuzzy, happy. They are both attractive, successful, and in love in that gushy kind of way, like they might talk to one another in baby voices. Oh, and their Facebook #tbt’s are amazing, of course.

I imagine their day-to-day like a sitcom or a romantic comedy. You don’t see the boring parts, like what goes on at work; you just see them walk up the steps of their Victorian-style San Francisco home early in the evening, then enter and clink their keys on the countertop, tired but happy to be with one another. Maybe they argue about gender roles, Why don’t you try making dinner for a change? Or their in-laws, Your mother is coming this weekend?? And then they laugh it off and settle onto giant fluffy pillows, putting bookmarks in their novels, and pecking each other on the lips before going to sleep.

They recently posted a couple selfie before heading out to a holiday party. The guy was wearing a trendy, metro sweater with a tie, and the girl was smiling with a serious red lip, her dark, straight hair perfectly pulled back on top, the rest of it swishing over her shoulders. I imagined they were going to some kind of fancy office party. I imagined them remaining side by side throughout the night, her hand lightly touching his shoulder. He would probably make well-timed jokes, she would probably wear heels and hold a wine glass between her index and middle finger like people do (although I was told you should really just hold the stem of a wineglass so you don’t affect the temperature of the wine). And I was suddenly filled with that sensation many of us get from seeing such photos on Facebook. You know, when you start to ask yourself, “Why doesn’t my life look like that?” I come from the same place as these two. I also have a supportive, stable family. I also went to a good university. Why don’t I get invited to Christmas parties that require me to buy a dress, to bring a gallant husband? Why don’t my social events involve schmoozing over hor d’oeuvres?

A fun time for me very rarely involves heels. (I own one pair made by a brand called Dexflex that are squishy and comfortable, meaning they are less likely to end up dangling from my fingertips as I walk home barefoot. Still, I’ve worn them twice.) I often excuse my heel aversion with the fact that I once had a short boyfriend (for real, he was 5’3) and therefore gave up heels forever. But I was never really into them anyway. I don’t know why the grown-up parties don’t appeal to me. I don’t know what I have against high heels.

And perhaps fittingly, I don’t have a husband, but I do have a younger boyfriend. He doesn’t care much about shoes either. He likes to wear these peasant sandals he got from some Spanish island if he wears shoes at all. (“Can’t you do something about those?” a British coworker once asked me.) I’m pretty sure he doesn’t own a tie. He also doesn’t own deodorant. I think he would feel uncomfortable at a fancy Christmas party, but feels perfectly comfortable sleeping in a car, or sleeping on a beach. In fact, we’ve slept on beaches twice now. The first time was when all the hostels were sold out in a little-known beach town in Peru due to a surfing competition. We had no choice. The second time was in La Costa Brava in Spain after we found ourselves at a hidden bonfire below some steep cliffs where we didn’t really know anyone. It was also like a movie, though not the romantic comedy kind, more like the kind featuring strangers being kind to one another sharing beer and passing joints. The kind where you think, this never happens in real life. But apparently it does. We weren’t well prepared for such festivities. The others brought tents. But that’s OK. We huddled up close to one another under the cloudy beach sky in our sleeping bags and slept a little bit. We watched the sunrise for a few moments until the mosquitoes started to viciously attack us, and self-preservation seemed more important than the beauty of the European sunrise. We cursed and swatted, then scurried up the cliffs in an unattractive scene that would be cut from a movie.

IMG_1339

But that’s one of my favorite things about this relationship. The element of surprise, I suppose. Letting things unfold without tampering too much with them. Letting things be. Like my boyfriend’s beard, which he once promised not to trim or shave until he saw me, and we were apart for three months. This was his own idea. I never asked him to prove his dedication through hair-growth, but I also never discouraged it. When we finally saw one another, his beard was thick and wiry. I could grab a fistful of it. He wondered why he was briefly detained during a layover at the Miami airport while making his way from Peru to Spain. He said he thought it was because of a Catalan symbol on his T-shirt that may have been confused for a Communist symbol. Europeans have strange ideas about America. Let’s be real. It was the beard.

And now I imagine us posing in our very own selfie, perfectly timed and touched-up for Facebook, though not too much in order to preserve the impression of spontaneity, of that social media casualness. I woke up like this. And I wonder, could I rock a red lip? Could he pull off a tie? Does he even know how to tie a tie?

Before visiting me in California, he asks if there is anything specific he should bring. “Maybe something nice for the New Year?” I suggest. His face changes like I’ve caught him off guard. He pauses, and then, “I don’t really have anything nice,” he says, completely earnestly. And I feel this inexplicable sense of relief.