Optimization

That title actually made me think of something completely different than what I’m going to write about. Or is it different? One of the Roman emperors, in legitimizing his supreme authority, called himself “Optimus Augustus,” which basically means the BEST Augustus of all the Augustuses (“Augustus” being a title of a Roman emperor in the late Empire).

Why do I know this, you wonder? I’ve been taking Ancient Roman History this summer for funzies, and also for my new job as Latin teacher (which starts Monday!). I just finished up that class and another which I was teaching, and I’m officially on summer vacation….for two more days.

Anyway, the best of the best Augustuses, Optimus Augustus, relates to my post because I was going to write about this interesting tendency I’ve noticed in myself: the need to optimize.

I guess it’s both a larger societal trend and a pervasive social and cultural pressure in our nation of individualistic entrepreneurs. I mean, we are constantly under pressure to compete for the coolest “Insta”posts, the best vacations, the hottest body, the best job…you name it, we want to optimize it. I guess I knew this, but I’ve been realizing that I also do it in my head, to myself. I want to be a better person, a better teacher, set new goals and challenges for myself, succeed in new and different ways. I think this drive is super important for my future success. And yet…

Sometimes, I think there should be more said for accepting people, places, and things for what they are. The problem with wanting to improve everything is that the already-great things don’t get enough appreciation or credit for how great they are. I don’t get to enjoy the small moments of gratitude for what I have, if I’m focused on where I’m going next. I don’t get to appreciate what’s in my life for what it is, if I’m thinking of how it could be better.

Furthermore, who’s to say that there will ever be an Optima Anne, the best of the best, with the best life and the best people in it. I don’t even like to think that there’s an end to self-betterment, because that makes it a linear, rigid process. With that mentality, I guess I won’t be the best until I’m nearly dead…

So in the meantime, here’s to celebrating all of the journey – meaningful or not, pleasant or not, optimal or not. It’s all worth learning.

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Optimization

Life in Parallel

A year ago today, I was in Carbonne, France, in the Toulousain countryside, being hospitably welcomed by a friend’s friend. It was one of my favorite and most bittersweet weekends. I had just finished my TEFL course, a 4-week intensive on how to teach English which had reinvigorated my teachery enthusiasm. I soaked in the sunny Southwest — the hills, the little houses, the farms, the village landmarks — and prepared myself for the inevitable end of it all.

I didn’t really anticipate how vividly I would relive the experiences of the past year. In Fall 2015, I was busy adjusting to the new teaching job and new schedule — too busy to really think about what I’d been doing during my first few months in France the year before. But, as of December, the past was a constant presence. I will partly thank Facebook for this one, with a special mention for its handy “a year ago today” tool which automatically reminded me of where I’d been. But, even offline, I would pause and think “last year at this time, I was…”

The common misconception is that living in the past meant I wasn’t loving the present. That isn’t true — I’ve loved a lot about this year, and I feel like I’ve been living in the moment as much as I did in foreign lands.

It felt more like I was loving two moments at once, and one life was running parallel to the other. The two experiences don’t even approach each other. There is almost nothing similar between the two years. But, by remembering so vividly what past Anne had been up to, I was able to enjoy the both of them. It was a positive nostalgia, life-enriching and comforting.

It kept my friends close to me as well — friends from last year, if you’re reading this, I feel like even a year later, and even if I haven’t talked to you, we could have a Val McDo picnic and things would be just as lively and convivial and full of friendly bonding (and eating and drinking, obvi). I still feel close to you, and maybe it’s because that past was always in my mind instead of far away. I can feel the presence of new people I love, wherever they are — just like I felt the presence of old people I love while I was abroad.

This parallel life also serves as a constant reminder of all life’s possibilities. Yes, I can go away again, pursuing something new and different from what I’ve done before. Yes, there are friends to be made and communities to be found, stories to be written and reflections to be pondered, places to visit and good things to eat. There are so many different ways of eating, drinking, living, thinking, and being. Through my parallel past life, the largeness of the world was in the forefront of my brain.

I think it will always be there, just as my past will always be there. It’s both a memory and a tantalizing future possibility. I had to be introduced to it to want more of it. Right now, I will content myself with the knowledge that my life was an adventure, is an adventure, and “adventure is [still] out there!”

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Life in Parallel

Going Places

I use my favorite travel photos as my desktop backgrounds. I’ve told my computer to rotate through a folder of photos, all my best ones, changing every time it wakes from sleep. I love this way of remembering where I’ve been. Every time I open my laptop, a new place pops up and I’m flooded with memories of standing right there, looking at that, capturing the moment.

I wish I could capture the feeling. Sometimes it washes over me in a wave of nostalgic tears, and I sense so acutely that part of me is missing.

What part, you ask? There’s a lot of writing out there talking about how traveling changes your life, that it’s life-changing, that it impacts everything you think and believe in, thereby changing your life through all the life-changing experiences. Sense a pattern?

I kind of believe that, but I think it changes lives not in the generic just take off and land somewhere and you’re insta-changed sense, but in the sense of it really makes you think about yourself, where you came from, and where you’re going. And it makes you think about the now.

Maybe it’s a photo. Maybe it’s a song, or a smell. Sometimes I get any kind of sensory stimulus and it’s suddenly specific and transporting me back. I’m back on the streets of Valenciennes, strutting over the cobblestones with my school bag bouncing on my hip, in my no-nonsense black boots, watching out for ubiquitous dog crap (no matter how lucky it is to step in it). Other times I’m sitting in the Jardin de Luxembourg, under the Paris sunshine with my best friends, market cheese, and a bottle of wine per person. I’m alone in the deserted streets of Somain, walking to school before the sunrise. I’m in the metro, bathed in eau de métro – a mix of beer and pee, maybe some mold or garbage, occasionally punctuated by the wafting warm smell of a fresh batch of croissants from the metro cafés. I’m on a train heading somewhere I’ve never been, journaling about last weekend’s parties, my experiences with French people, my struggles with the language and with homesickness.

I was solo, all over the world. I made new friends and saw lots of things, and it was the first time I’d ever felt the true weight of my decisions. Each direction I took determined the likelihood of finding my way through a foreign land. Each social occasion determined whether or not I’d have genuine companions in my expatriation. Mulling over, making, and accepting my decisions was the most empowering thing I’ve ever done. I learned my own agency: I can do whatever I want, I make my own life, and I accept the consequences of what I make. At the end of the day, the only thing that mattered was feeling comfortable in my boots and confident enough to explore again tomorrow.

Being back home is like, suddenly there are more people to take into account, and way more past and future things to think about. Old friends, S.O.’s, family members, a serious 8-4 job, the next job, the life direction. There are a lot more expectations about where I’ll devote my attention, a lot more things distracting me from what I’m doing now.

Those brief moments of nostalgia are breaths of fresh air in the muggy swamp of my routine.

Then again, so is the view of Mt. Rainier at sunrise on clear days, as I drive over Lake Washington. So are margarita nights with Mom, Indian food with Dad, sushi dates with my boyfriend and house parties with friends. So is the occasional trip out of town to see more of the great Pacific Northwest, and so are the funny stories from my days spent with kindergarteners.

Being on my own in a foreign place, concentrating on the now, the great things, the adventures of every day – it taught me how to bring that mentality everywhere. When I get those waves of nostalgia, it reminds me of the gifts of the present, of where I am. And even though I’m not alone, I’m not struggling with language, or traveling, or whatever else…I’ve still got the gifts of those experiences: many tools for feeling comfortable in my boots, and confident enough to explore again tomorrow.

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Going Places

Playing Teacher

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There’s what “playing teacher” used to look like.

I guess now I’ve been a real “teacher” for two years: first of French high schoolers, then of some rambunctious bilingual kindergarteners. Although those experiences were entirely different, one thing remained the same: I feel like a teacher who still thinks she’s a student.

This week, my head teacher left for a teacher training in California, and I was the head teacher for three days. I was nervous about it, having never been responsible for the learning of a class of kindergarteners. I shouldn’t have been; everything was prepared for me, and the only real work of a teacher I had to do was being present, engaged, and organized enough to lead the class through the days and hope they learned something.

Turns out, being present, engaged, and organized takes a lot out of me. It’s hard to describe teacher fatigue. I’ve tried in other posts, but the only real way to empathize is to be there. The little expectant faces, the way they all scream “ANNE! ANNE! ANNE!” at me until I acknowledge them, even if I’m talking to someone else…the way they bring me cookies and watch me until I eat them, the way they glow when I praise their work, the joy I feel when I see them mastering something new, and the patience it takes to explain something five times and five different ways, all while being pulled and tugged and poked and otherwise distracted…it really is a job in its own category.

In high school it was obviously not the same — they stayed at their desks, they didn’t yell out in class…they didn’t talk much at all. Responding in English class was probably social suicide. But there were similar moments of inspiration and learning — when I decided to teach them about country music and they all started singing along, for example… when I taught them philosophy and I saw the scrunchy puzzled face turn into a comprehending smile.

Regardless of the context, I still feel like I’m playing teacher. I’m too young, I’m too inexperienced, I haven’t encountered enough situations to know how to handle them all, I don’t have enough education, I don’t have any natural authority: all of these are things I’ve thought to myself in the past two years, over and over again.

I realized, this week, that teaching isn’t really about any of those things. It helps to have experience, which comes with age and encountering situations, and it helps to have education and natural authority. But most of being a teacher is about being present, engaged, and organized enough to  lead a class through a day, or a period, and hope that they’ve learned something.

I just found this perfect quote:

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I want to become an educator, and the only way to learn how is by playing at it. Sometimes, I’ll get things right.

Playing Teacher

On Kindergarten

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How I feel at school is analogous to how I feel in life. I’m a barely-adult. Sometimes I feel like I’m underemployed; my immense skills and talents gained from world traveling and an education from a prestigious university are wasting away, unused [in a fit of eyeroll-worthy pretention].

Other times, I end up sobbing in Mommy’s backyard, locked out and overflowing with self-pity, and life is just so hard. Those are the moments I want to be a kindergartener, not teach them.

I’d die to have someone pick the seeds out of my orange slices. I want someone else to receive an e-mail saying I need to bring a potato and a leek to school tomorrow, to put those vegetables in my backpack without letting me know I had that responsibility. I’d love to ask an all-knowing all-powerful adult to validate my drama, and to make my friends apologize for hurting my feelings. I’d happily burst into tears and jump into some strong person’s arms when I’m tired, or frustrated, or I just can’t go on.

I want it to be okay that I’m young, and I’m learning, but I can’t do what the older kids can do yet. I want someone wise to remind me of that undeniable truth: that we are always learning and never perfect, and if you’re perfect what’s there to learn?   

But something happens when you’re in the repeat-childhood that is your 20s — you get to be “independent.” I became my own wise adult. Not only that, but I get to be the wise adult for my little almost-students, who are totally dependent. I have a wise adult voice, a wise adult air of confidence. My wise adult self makes sure they wash their hands with soap and teaches them it’s L M N O P and not ello-meno-pee so maybe they can read someday. 

But inside I know the truth: I am not a wise adult. Sometimes I can’t remember to bring my own potato and leek, and I can’t find the words to validate my own drama or make my friends apologize to me for hurting my feelings. All that feels like my fault and my shortcoming, because now it’s my responsibility.

Maybe the illusion that barely-adulthood is shattering is that wise adults “know what they’re doing.” Maybe they’re all just doing what they can, and that’s either enough…or not, sometimes. 

Or the true illusion is independence. Maybe I am only slogging through “becoming wise” because I know there are people behind me who would tie my shoes and help me zip my coat, if my fingers were numb or I didn’t know how.

Maybe we’re all still kindergarteners, inside, and we still need each other. 

On Kindergarten

Journey to the Netherlands

Every time I said “I’m going to Amsterdam this weekend,” I was met with a knowing “ohhh, Amsterdam?” I think there was an implied “capital of sex and drugs?” on the end of that sentence almost every time. I promise, that isn’t what we went for!

This trip was originally my friend from Whitman’s idea, and she invited me to tag along, and then my housemate Laura joined us. These ladies were lovely travel company! I arrived a little earlier than both of them, checked into my hostel, and set out to explore the city. Here are my first views, one by night and one by daylight.

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My biggest fears while walking were getting crushed by a tram or hit by a bicycle. Everything is fast and furious on the streets there, and the big groups of sauntering (and often stoned) tourists made it hard for everyone to get around. That said, walking was my favorite thing to do.

It was on my walk that I had the most magnificent pastry I’ve ever encountered: the kwartzbollen. It’s essentially a large donut hole covered in vanilla sugar.

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My Whitman friend had decided to couchsurf, so we met her lovely host for dinner when she got in. It was great to have a Dutch perspective on the city. He taught us some Dutch and fed us pasta. Then, I picked up Laura and we all went to bed.

Saturday was the walking tour, a three-hour excursion with Kor, of Sandeman’s New Europe tours. Sandeman’s is a new-ish company which gives “free” tours. Their business principle is to have people pay, at the end, the value that they place on the tour. It makes the tour guides work harder to entertain the crowd and it puts the burden on the tourists to decide how much they’d like to pay! And it worked just like the theory said it should; Kor was fabulously entertaining, and the tour was incredibly informative. We walked all over Amsterdam: through the Red Light district, through Dam Square (where the original Amster-Dam was built to dam up the river Amstel), past the shopping quarter, Anne Frank’s House, the museums, the cute quirky neighborhoods…I felt like we saw everything we needed to.

This is the narrowest house in Amsterdam. Anyone who is taller than 5’9″ cannot lie widthwise on the floor in this house. People built narrow houses so as not to pay as much tax, as they were taxed for canal front space! Width is proportional to wealth.

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Another option in Amsterdam: houseboat life! Houseboats cost around 100,000 euros, and the permits cost 500,000 euros. Maybe if I win the lottery one day, I’ll retire to a Dutch houseboat. Life on the water sounds ideal!

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Other fun facts that stuck with me:

Every house on a canal in Amsterdam has a little hook that juts out of the roof with a rope attached. Because their houses are so narrow, these pulleys are used to lift things that don’t fit through the door to the upper levels of the house. This is also why most of the houses lean forward slightly, so goods are less likely to hit the windows!

In old Amsterdam, the last names of its citizens were simply their profession, or location within the city. When Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, came to take over the city, he made all the citizens pick their own last names. That’s why, if you ever meet a Dutch person, they may have a last name which translates to something funny (like “of the trout”).

Prostitutes and freelance tour guides have the same paperwork from the Chamber of Commerce.

Despite its reputation, Amsterdam’s marijuana consumption is less than the global average! First in the world, per capita? Canada. Second and third? France and Italy.

Schiphol Airport’s name literally translates to “Ship Hole” because it’s actually a dried-up lake. As such, it’s way below sea level and thus one day could become a lake again…

I found Amsterdam to be a breath of fresh air. There’s a free-spirit vibe everywhere; people dress how they want, whizz around on bicycles, help you if you look lost on the street. They’re used to tourists, but it also seems like tolerance and creativity are deeply rooted cultural values. I was fascinated by something which fascinates me everywhere I visit: how people respond to the conditions of their environment, and how that forms their cultural and linguistic identity. Innovation in house-building to deal with the swamp life, and innovation in trade, which made the Dutch East India Company one of the most lucrative in the old world, gave way to inventiveness in the arts and sciences and an open-minded cultural mentality. If I could learn about one thing for the rest of my life, it would be this interaction between culture, language and environment. Maybe I should have been an anthropology major after all…

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Journey to the Netherlands

Getting Dirty in the Woods

This morning, I went on a walk. It’s been raining a lot in Val, so my attempt to walk around the lake (yep, there’s a lake) was thwarted by multiple impassable mud puddles. In one of my attempts to cross a more reasonable one, I looked at my shoes and had a series of thoughts.

Oh, my new shoes are already muddy.

I never see French girls with muddy shoes.

Why can’t I keep my shoes clean?

Between this morning and now, I haven’t solved the mystery of why French girls don’t have muddy shoes, or at least not the ones I see walking around the city. They have city shoes and woods shoes, maybe?

Sort of in conjunction with this, last weekend I saw the movie version of the book Wild.

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Lille was showing it in VO (Version Original, aka not dubbed in French), and a group of friends and I went as our Saturday afternoon activity. I left the theater feeling inexplicably gutted. It was one of my favorite books of the summer; I read it while on my uncle’s family’s ranch in Montana, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it even when I put it down. I think the movie had such a profound emotional impact on me because Cheryl, and the movie itself, are from my neck of the woods. Literally, I have hiked parts of the PCT on family camping trips and regularly visit Portland, her last stop and current home, to see some of my best friends. Reliving the story reminded me of family and nature and extreme emotional journeys and personal growth.

When we were on that trip in Montana, we went on a family hike that ended with pouring rain and pelting hail as we madly dashed to the cars, soaking wet and covered in mud.

When I looked at my shoes this morning, I thought: I miss getting dirty in the woods.

I’ve been feeling persistently homesick since I returned from winter break. Maybe it was the holidays, maybe it’s the January blues, maybe it’s because this is about the halfway point of my adventure, but I feel like I’m in the “confronting deeper issues” dip of the culture shock curve.

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I’ve never thought of myself as a nature girl, but everything is relative. Relative to the extreme outdoor enthusiasts of Whitman’s OP, where nature is a temple and/or second home, I maybe don’t qualify for the “Nature Girl” title. Relative to my students and a lot of the people I meet in Europe, I feel like a total tree-hugger. I love the smell of trees, and moss, and rotting things in old growth forests. I love how fresh the air is. I love seeing the occasional slug sliming across the trail. I love marveling at things that sprung out of the earth that are so beyond humans, that preceded and will outlive us. I love getting dirty, and sweaty, and sore, and wearing my REI boots and bright green LL Bean fleece and ratty blue jeans.

And, more abstractly, my self-concept has always included deep roots. I pull everything I do and think from a central, grounded, internal source which I take care to cultivate. I am Anne, the tree.

Sometimes I think coming here was me branching out, and other times I feel uprooted.**

Being planted — putting down roots — brings comfort, safety, certainty. I miss my earth, I miss my ground. I don’t feel entirely like I can plant myself here, or, for that matter, anywhere. I might be floating around for a while. It makes me afraid to make connections, afraid to really mentally plant myself because I know I’ll have to uproot once again. I try really hard to cling to my center, but sometimes it escapes me. Right now, it’s much easier to feel lost than it is to feel rooted. I’m more unsettled than grounded.

As a personal development nerd, I read a lot about growing up. I think it’s supposed to feel like this.

And I guess, whether I can feel my roots or not, they are inescapable. I must be nourished, watered, and cared for somehow…and growing up and out from somewhere.

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** Isn’t it interesting that so many emotional metaphors can come out of the image of a forest?? Language is cool.

Getting Dirty in the Woods