Rise and shine

Good morning, internets!
It’s 7 a.m. where I am, but I’ve been up since 3:30. I would usually consider that an awful way to start the day, and I would still be in bed, tossing and turning and counting sheep, setting my alarm back another half hour because I really, really need to sleep.
But not today! I keep thinking about a TED Talk I listened to a while ago, Why You Will Fail to Have a Great Career. Economist Larry Smith talks about all the excuses we make for ourselves when it comes to really committing ourselves to our life goals with passion. 
“Passion is your greatest love. Passion is the thing that will help you create the highest expression of your talent,” says Smith. 

What got me out of bed this morning at 3:30 was remembering Smith’s discussion of the passionate as crazy, unbalanced zealots. Many people will fail to have great careers–great lives–because people who give up everything else to reach their goals are a little insane. Better to be a normal, healthy, balanced, tax-paying, registered voter.
I also just bought the Nook version of The Firestarter Sessions by Danielle LaPorte because she wrote
  • Life balance is a myth, and the pursuit of it is causing us more stress than the craving for balance itself. Being well-rounded is highly over-rated.
  • When you focus on developing your true strengths you enter your mastery zone.
I bought the book as soon as I read those words on her website, and I started reading the book this morning when I first got up. Well, after I read two chapters of Smart Women Finish Rich.
When I woke up at 3:30 a.m., I was surprised at how early it was because I didn’t feel tired. My first instinct was to go back to sleep, because I would need the rest to get through the day. 
“Self,” I said, “Only a crazy person…”
And then I realized that I really, really wanted to be one of those crazy people that gets up at 4 a.m. to pursue their life goals. 
My first step toward living the life I want for myself is figuring out exactly what that looks like and setting myself up so I can take advantage of opportunities as they come. For me, that means getting and staying out of debt, which is why I am reading Smart Women Finish Rich and why I’ve enrolled in a financial plan with LearnVest
Money is really unpleasant for most people to talk about, but I’m beginning to suspect that is part of the problem, so I’m going to to be honest here. I’ve already–finally–signed up for my 401k at work. Next, I’m going to get renter’s insurance from my car insurance provider, switch to a checking account that’s more convenient for me, and see about transferring the balance of my credit card to one with a better interest rate. 
All this is so that I can move toward location-independent employment, so that the next time I get an offer in my inbox about some outrageous deal for Jamaican cruises, I can just get myself to the airport right away instead of wishing I hadn’t spent my bonus on an unintentional shopping spree. 
What would you do with an unexpected hour or two of free time? 

Math homework doesn’t go away if you ignore it

Thanks nateOne

When I was in fourth grade, I “lost” my math book for a few weeks just before the end of the year.  I “lost” it because my teacher hid it behind a bookshelf. I have no doubt that’s what happened because there is no way it could have ended up behind the solid metal shelving unit unless it had been put there, and because that woman was fired over the summer for other, more evil things she had done to kids with parents more assertive than mine.

But for me, that was the beginning of the end of my confidence with numbers. I’d been effortlessly good in every subject at school up until that point, even though good study habits were not really stressed in my family. 
After my math book went missing, a new rule was introduced. My teacher set forth that anyone who had not finished every homework assignment by the last day of school would not be allowed to attend the end-of-the-year party in the library. Mrs. Hollar promised it would be epic: There would be popcorn, cartoons, and no structured activities.
My parents were appraised of the matter, but no action was taken. I had a vague notion that they didn’t want to pay for a new book, but they had three kids younger than me to worry about. A possible bad math grade from their precocious oldest daughter wasn’t anything they were going to worry about. 
As for me, the stress weighed on my eleven year-old shoulders day by day. Mrs. Hollar crept into my thoughts and dreams, her stern face demanding to know where my homework was. I can still hear the exasperated throaty noises she made when I had nothing to say for myself. 
But as we were packing up to leave one day, Peter called out, “Hey, Keili, is this your book?” He pulled it out from behind the wall of cubby holes. I was totally shocked, but it was Mrs. Hollar who screeched, “WHAT?!” when he produced it.
She made it obvious to me that even though I had rediscovered my book, I still had pages and pages of homework to complete before I would be allowed to attend the upcoming class party. 
My parents let me spend the night at Alexandra’s house that night, and she produced her own tidy stack of homework for me to copy.I tried, but my heart wasn’t in it. As miserable as I felt at the prospect of missing the party, I felt twice as sick at the thought of getting caught cheating. I was certain that Mrs. Hollar would know I had copied all Alex’s homework, that I would be in trouble, Alex would be in trouble, our parents would be notified, the principle (Mrs. Hollar’s husband!) would be summoned, the police might get involved, and–because our fathers worked for the State Department–the American government would keep a record of it, the kind of record that would follow me for the rest of my life, that others would always be able to access, but I would never be able to change. 
I couldn’t do it. By then, I was so far behind that I had long resigned myself to missing the party, so I didn’t protest in the slightest when everyone else lined up to go to the library and I had to stay at my desk doing my homework. I knew I wouldn’t even be able to finish it in one afternoon, so I dutifully worked through one lesson at a time knowing that I just had to get to the end of the day, not the end of the book. 
I’ve hated math ever since then; ever since it became the impassable hurdle between me and a good time. Eventually, my hatred of math became a conviction that I was no good at it, which was reinforced by my reluctance to engage in class or do my homework. By the time I got a bank account, my idea of budgeting was stopping at the ATM to check my balance. Anything else involved addition or subtraction (usually subtraction), and I wasn’t good at math, therefore I couldn’t do it. 
But I finally had my financial epiphany the other day. I realized that every opportunity I have missed in the past ten or fifteen years has been because of money. It hasn’t been the difficulty of figuring this stuff out that’s been standing between me and a good time–it’s been the fact that I haven’t bothered to figure it out at all.
To that end, I’ve been reading lots of finance books, including Smart Women Finish Rich. Good at math or not, the situation is not going to get any better by just waiting for the clock to run out.
I also signed up for LearnVest’s Core Financial Plan last Friday. I had my first phone call with my financial planner today. I confirmed the details of my income and spending with her, and in about three weeks, she says she can give me a budget that I can work with. I also get unlimited emails with her, so I can get all my questions answered by someone who actually knows my situation. I don’t have any basis for comparison, but from what I understand, working with someone online like this is actually a really affordable way to get professional financial advice. 
I can only hope that crazy Mrs. Hollar got the help she needed as well. 

The 2012 Monticello Wine Trail Festival

We just got back from a weekend in Charlottesville at the Monticello Wine Trail Festival. I was dubious about it from the beginning because the tickets cost $34 (that’s $29 plus a completely ridiculous $5 “service charge” for being able to pick up tickets at will call–exactly what “service” was provided?) for a four-hour outdoor festival. We paid $35 each for a whole day the massive Virginia Wine Expo, so I was bracing myself for disappointment.
The first indication that my pessimism was well-grounded came when we dutifully moved toward the venue entrance right at 2:00 and were greeted with a horrible long line of people stretching a few blocks down the road. However, the line had only grown because the eager crowd starting queuing up early: Once the gates were open, we got inside soon enough.
My second frustration was that they confiscated my bottle of water. It wasn’t a big deal: I drained it before they tossed it and the whole exchange was very civil. But it seems to me like good common sense that if you are going to have maybe a couple thousand people drinking alcohol outside on a very, very warm day that you don’t limit their access to water. Furthermore, the Virginia Wine Expo was indoors and water coolers were available at the end of every row.
Finally, this festival was overrun with college students and people who seemed more interesting in imbibing than enjoying wine. Even as we lined up for only our second tasting, we were trapped behind a group of girls chatting excitedly about how the sweet, chillable red they were swirling would make great sangria and in front of a group of guys saying that really, it would be more efficient if the wine were available in large barrels with taps so you could walk around and fill your glass at leisure without having to wait for the people ahead of you while they talked to the pourer. More than once, I was brushed aside as young and old people alike pushed their way to the front of the line to demand a swig of whatever variety the pourer was holding, only to disappear back into the crowd to down their wine like a shot of cheap vodka. We actually made friends with some women in front of us when they overheard me telling my boyfriend that people were behaving like zoo animals at feeding time.

I was hoping for this:

But instead, it felt like this:

From The Bobby D Show

Fortunately, drinking enough wine will make any bad situation better, so we didn’t feel like our $68 was wasted. We got to taste some offerings from vineyards we haven’t visited yet, like Sugarleaf and Delfosse, although most of the Central Virginia region vineyards are within driving distance from our home in the Shenandoah Valley and we’d already visited many of the other vineyards represented the festival. What’s most fun for us is talking to winemakers and pourers about their wines and vineyards, and many were friendly and happy to oblige us. We even spent a few minutes chatting to Richard Leahy, the author of Beyond Jefferson’s Vines: The Evolution of Quality Wine in Virginia, which has only been available for about a week now. He was there signing books and was happy to discuss the wine education opportunities that are available in Virginia.
My final judgment is that it might be a long time before I go to another wine festival. None of Virginia’s wineries are too far away from where we live and visiting wineries on the weekend (especially now, with everything so intensely green and lit up with all spring’s potential) is definitely relaxing, romantic, and pleasurable. Beyond that, a visit to a winery usually costs no more than $10 for a tasting, and if you pack a picnic and buy a bottle, you’re still only out maybe $40 for two people to spend a couple of hours admiring the vines. 
It’s frustrating to pay so much money to the organizers to watch drunk people toss back vino poured by the winemaker’s hand in the hopes that their name and their product will get recognized. If you are really interested in tasting a lot of Virginia wine and you don’t live here, a festival is a great way to get around and virtually visit as many wineries as possible in one day, with the qualification that you will be drunk before long and your perception of the wine–as well as your manners–may be impaired. 

Wining at the Expo

The only thing better than going to a Virginia winery to sample their wine is going to dozens of wineries all at once to sample their wine. The Virginia Wine Expo 2012 at the Richmond Convention Center made that possible. We put in a full shift of wine tasting, note taking, and bottle buying on Saturday from 12-8.
We were very strategic about it. The über-prepared J compared a map of the Expo floor to the Virginia Wine Guide. He highlighted all the vineyards that would be there that were more than a day’s trip away from us. It was brilliant: a beautifully conceived and executed assault plan that allowed us to maximize our time. (So J was very strategic about it, but I paid for gas. On the way home, anyway.)
Wineries had different approaches to the event. At some tables, we chatted with the owner-winemaker or their offspring while s/he poured and answered our questions about varieties and vintages. At other booths, detached and ignorant pourers smilingly took us through the tasting list, professing their preference for strawberry wine or Coke. It seemed like bad marketing and public relations to let the young and the clueless interact with the public on their behalfs, but then again, with a rapidly drunk public downing samples like shots, pouring at the Expo also didn’t seem like the best use of a skilled professional’s time. The only hosts that put me off were the ones that seemed unprepared without water to rinse your glass or a pot to spit in. If they expected me to thoughtlessly toss it back, I did them the favor of expecting not to like it.
The literature we’d read from the Expo hosts outlined the dress code (“smart chic”) and also iterated that “spitting is encouraged”. I didn’t think I could muster a inconspicuous emission, so I settled for drinking only whites at some places and skipping others altogether in an effort to maintain my dignity. Not everyone was concerned about dignity maintenance.
We also sat in on a seminar called Why Virginia? The State of Virginia Wine. Three o’clock had rolled around before I was ready for it and J had to herd my slightly coherent self into the lecture room. Overall, it was about as useful as a seminar in a room full of drunks could be. I kept telling J that college would have been much better if I had spent more of it drunk, and if some of my professors had opted to liberally fill our glasses during topic transitions. I’ve got a very good sense of humor when I’m drunk.
By the time the lecture was finished, I was at the point where I wanted extra credit for remembering to zip up my pants after going to the bathroom. I thought it would be funny to take some pictures of the notes we were writing to each other in class, but at second-glance, what isn’t illegible isn’t fit for the public. Let’s skip that.

I was looking forward to getting back to the hotel and resting my liver, not realizing that we were invested to stay until eight o’clock. After a pulled pork sandwich and some snide comments from our tablemates about my boyfriend’s cigarette break, we got back in the ring, albeit with a slightly less firm grip on our credit cards.

We made it out—alive, but disoriented—with four bottles of wine, a t-shirt, and two posters. And even though they were later pooh-poohed by wine shop owner (because after buying four bottles of wine what you need to do is buy four more bottles of wine), my handmade wine slings kept our glasses safe, unlike the glasses of people who did not have handmade wine slings.

Don’t you wish your wineglass was slung like mine?

In case you’re interested, we got
  • Very WellHung Chardonnay, 
  • a white Pinot Noir from Gabriele Rausse, 
  • a port from Horton, and 
  • La Belle Vie from Potomac Point. 

The t-shirt and the posters were also from WellHung, because you gotta love a label that looks like this:


Do you drink any local wines? Did you wine this weekend? What’s your favorite wine? 

Coming home (Part 3)

Living in Philly

I moved to Taiwan in 2004 after I graduated from college. I was going to teach English for a year and then come back to the States to find work. One year turned into five, and then I moved to Shanghai to work as an editor. After a year there—and three years without going home—I moved back to the States to start all over again. This series of posts was written in commemoration of the anniversary of my life in this new town. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 4 here.

“I got Smartfood and a diet Coke from the vending machine, if you want a snack. Hey, why’s all this stuff in your car?”

“Yeah, about that. My mom and I got in a fight, so after this weekend, I’m going up to Massachusetts to stay with my brother.”

“You’ll stay with me. It’ll be awesome!” L actually seemed happy. “You can get a job and live here.”

I tried to laugh her off, then I tried to have enough dignity not to accept a handout from a friend, but finally I had to accept. Where else was I going to go? My brother was a good backup plan, but I didn’t want to go to Massachusetts in the winter and I didn’t want to sleep in a single bed and I didn’t want to take another shitty job as soon as one was offered to me.

Thanks vic15

Continue reading “Coming home (Part 3)”

Funny in Shanghai: Andy Curtain, Expat Comedian

Andy Curtain moved to Shanghai from Australia in the summer of 2009. Although he eventually landed an enviable 9-5 job in the fast paced world of international finance, his awesomeness couldn’t be contained. He started doing amateur comedy gigs with a local troupe, which last year led him to found his own comedy group, Kungfu Komedy. He answered my questions about living and laughing on the expat comedy circuit in Shanghai.
Andy on a recent holiday in Japan
  • How long have you been in Shanghai? Why did you move there?
My third China-versary is in July this year, which is truly hard to believe.
I graduated from law school when Australia was really starting to experience the panic of the global financial crisis and there was almost a hiring freeze at law firms. The disappointing job prospects forced me to admit I hated law and wasn’t prepared to suffer for it. I’d always wanted to learn another language (for an Australian, bilinguals are a thing of fantasy) and really delve into a culture. China was the obvious choice as I (thankfully correctly) figured you only needed to speak a little bit to get a job using it, unlike say French or German.
So twenty-four hours after my last exam of seven and a half years of uni, I woke up on a friend’s couch in Shanghai, looked out the window, and thought. . .shit, what have I just done?!
  • How did you get started doing stand-up?
My delightful friend Keili suggested I should try it, as I love having a laugh. I thought, this is something I should definitely try before I die. There was no stand up in Shanghai so I joined an open mic night and did  seven minutes. The guy before me was a blind-drunk Chinese man serenading his ex-classmates. I suspect he may have been tone deaf. Most of the room was Chinese and spoke loudly over my jokes, which may have been serendipitous, because I survived.
And then I was hooked.
I joined an American improv group called the People’s Republic of Comedy, and eventually persuaded a few of them to write ten minutes of jokes and convinced a bar owner to put us on. We were so nervous the first time that we didn’t invite an audience. After that we put on more and more shows at different venues and the rapid development of the talented comics has been overwhelming. And Kung Fu Komedy was born.
  • Is there a big following for English stand-up comedians in Shanghai? Do you go on tour anywhere else?
While we are really the only group doing English stand-up shows, I am amazed at the development of the audiences. At our last show we were literally turning people away at the door because they couldn’t get in the room, and people seem to keep coming back for more.
We’ve also done shows in Suzhou and we’re in negotiations with some bars in Nanjing to take the show to the old capital. We have a performance coming up in Jinqiao which is a part of Shanghai totally unconnected to the area in which we’re based.
I’ve also done a couple of sets in Chinese, I think there’s a huge potential for this.
  • What kind of venues do you perform at? Describe your ideal audience. 
The bars we perform at all identify themselves as expat bars. The shape of the room is really important for a good stand up show so an agreeable layout and committed management are all we really look for.
We also get called in for specific gigs, for example we put on a few comics for Nielsen’s Christmas party in China, we’ve done a number of shows for Chambers of Commerce in Shanghai, and we’re looking at upcoming events for some big multinationals. This is making our venue list blow out really quickly.
The ideal audience is a few drinks in and feelin’ giggly. Also, you need to have a few laughers in there. It’s amazing how much hilarity a good chuckler can add to a show. My housemate Mitch laughs like a hyena at the slightest change of breeze so I like him front and centre. It’s hard for the audience not to get their grin on when someone is splitting their sides in front of them. We had one show that went so well, Mitch needed stitches to put his waist back together.
  • Where do you get your material?
Being a foreigner in China is a gold mine for comedy. I also try and keep vigilant for new ideas and write them down as they appear. Funny stuff crops up all the time and a lot of it gets lost.
Sometimes I just walk around China ringing doorbells for inspiration. I’ve come up with some of best my knock-knock jokes this way.
  • Do you hope to reach a point where you’re doing comedy professionally, full-time?
Oh wow, yeah, that would be a dream. I’m definitely open to the possibility although we’ve got a long path ahead of us. A couple of the comics are already talking about making a career out of it.
I really want to keep the group growing and if we keep on this trajectory I think it could happen.
  • Do you think it’s easier or more difficult to make a name for yourself on the local circuit in Shanghai or back home?
You’re really talking about different beasts.
We’re dealing with a much more international crowd, so there are some barriers with culturally specific humour. There are surprisingly few Aussies out there as well. That said, there’s an obvious connection with the audience in joking about being a foreigner in China. There are so many bizarre happenings in China and people are very ready to relate.
There’s also a lot less competition for time and people’s attention. I imagine in LA you have to be better than every other comic and also any play or performance which might compete for their interest. When we started out there was a void for this kind of entertainment and that made gaining traction much easier.
Now we’re really moving it’s not as easy to grow, there are no scouts signing the stars and if we want bigger shows we have to go out there and make them happen ourselves. So we’re facing different challenges.
  • Can you define a difference between the sense of humor in the Shanghai expat world and what would make people laugh back home?
The expat community is a real ethnic cocktail, so you can get a lot more mileage poking fun at other cultures, such as the French. Some say that’s why god made the French, but I think that’s unlikely, as god doesn’t exist.
  • Do your co-workers know what you’re up to on the weekends?
They do but they’re not sure what to make of it. I’ve loosely invited them to a few shows but they’ve been really unsure about it. None of them speak English particularly well so I haven’t pushed them on it.
There’s also the issue they will recognize a lot of the stories!
  • How often do you perform? What’s your typical weekend like?
Right now we’re doing one or two shows a week, with the occasional three.
Show nights are pretty hectic because bar staff can have freak-outs and trying to coordinate a bunch of comics is like herding cats. Most of us get this paranoia that you haven’t done enough before the start, and this leads to some pretty erratic behaviour. So pre-show involves a bit of running around.
Once the ball’s rolling things calm down a bit and post-show everyone tends to calm down and we go have a drink somewhere. Shanghai has a pretty wild nightlife so there’s no shortage of fun to be had after a show.
  • Do you have any funny stories to tell?
Being China, the emoticons people use constitute an entire other language. One of the comics explored this in a PowerPoint presentation, culminating in some suggested new ones, such as ~|^|?, which of course means, “did your house get knocked over by a tsunami?”
Unfortunately, a Japanese girl in the audience was (understandably) offended and started hurling abuse at the comic. It’s always a fine line!

Valentine’s Day 2012 Brought to You by Wine and Chocolate

My expectations for Valentine’s Day this year are really high. I am anticipating the best Valentine’s Day ever, but it’s going to have to top Saturday, which was the best pre-Valentine’s Day ever. We went to two local wineries, did a cheese pairing and had a pot of chocolate fondue (proposed new house rule: everything we eat must be dipped in melted chocolate before consumption), then made dinner together and finished off a bottle of Viognier.

Wine and chocolate fondue at Wisteria Farm and Vineyard

As far as V-Day is concerned, we’re going for a wine and chocolate tasting and then he’s cooking me dinner. And he’s going to give me a present. I had unilaterally decided we shouldn’t buy each other Valentine’s Day gifts since we are planning to spend quite a lot of money on tickets to the Virginia Wine Expo and an analysis and tasting course at Piedmont Valley Community College. However, boyfriend is very indulgent toward me (he’s a “keeper”) and downright stubborn, so he would not be deterred. I am giving him a set of Ohio State football wine charms that I found on Etsy. He is going to lose his mind.

From The Buckeye Lady‘s Etsy shop

Valentine’s Day last year fell on a Friday, and while I’d heard there was a big to-do at the local dance spot, I was happy to sit at home alone and revel in the fact that I was employed after six months of being otherwise. I probably had chips and salsa and watched my stories on Hulu. I don’t really remember it, so all in all, it couldn’t have been my worst Valentine’s Day ever.

Thus, my worst Valentine’s Day ever remains VD 2004, the year I found out that my college boyfriend was cheating on me (again!), so I ran up a credit card bill buying myself chocolates, balloons, and flowers. I was on some mission to treat myself well because to prove that I was worth it, but when my fabulous roommate came home and I had to admit to her that I’d gotten all those gifts for myself, I mostly felt lonely and narcissistic.

The moral of that story: if you’re alone on Valentine’s Day, watch some TV and go to bed early. It might just be another Hallmark holiday, but it’s about romance, and buying yourself some chocolates as an expression of self-love will only end badly. You might end up seducing yourself, but when you wake up all alone, you’re going to feel used and sad.

If you’re not excited about Valentine’s Day this year, here’s a cute video to cheer you up. There is always next year. Or next month. Or tomorrow. You never know. But as long as we’re on the subject, what are you doing for Valentine’s Day this year? Or better yet, what happened on your worst Valentine’s Day ever?

Coming home (Part 2)

Living in Pittsburgh

I moved to Taiwan in 2004 after I graduated from college. I was going to teach English for a year and then come back to the States to find work. One year turned into five, and then I moved to Shanghai to work as an editor. After a year there—and three years without going home—I moved back to the States to start all over again. This series of posts was written in commemoration of the anniversary of my life in this new town. You can read Part 1 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here.

I moved to Taiwan in 2004 after I graduated from college. I was going to teach English for a year and then come back to the States to find work. One year turned into five, and then I moved to Shanghai to work as an editor. After a year there—and three years without going home—I moved back to the States to start all over again. This series of posts was written in commemoration of the anniversary of my life in this new town.

One word I would banish from the dictionary is ‘escape.’ Just banish that and you’ll be fine. Because that word has been misused regarding anybody who wanted to move away from a certain spot and wanted to grow. [She] was an escapist. . .You have a right to experiment with your life. You will make mistakes. And they are right, too. . .I think we have a right to change course. – Anaïs Nin

I don’t know exactly what I was thinking when I moved back to Pittsburgh. In retrospect, the whole mad dash to get away from Shanghai was too hasty, even for me. Not that it wasn’t a good move, but I could have been more graceful about it.

Thanks JBlough!

Continue reading “Coming home (Part 2)”

Coming home (Part 1)

Leaving Shanghai

I moved to Taiwan in 2004 after I graduated from college. I was going to teach English for a year and then come back to the States to find work. One year turned into five, and then I moved to Shanghai to work as an editor. After a year there—and three years without going home—I moved back to the States to start all over again. This series of posts was written in commemoration of the anniversary of my life in this new town. You can read Part 2 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here

When people are ready to, they change. They never do it before then, and sometimes they die before they get around to it. You can’t make them change if they don’t want to, just like when they do want to, you can’t stop them.  -Andy Warhol

I came back to the US for a friend’s wedding. I scrimped and saved so I could spend a month’s salary on the plane ticket. That effort alone scared me: What if someone in my family got sick and I needed to come back in a hurry? I didn’t have any savings at the time. I didn’t even have a credit card.

I hadn’t been home for three years before that. That’s three straight years of everything being different, with the incongruities ranging from the exotic to the frustrating. Three years was too long to stay away. I had loved living in Taiwan: I loved Chinese people, Chinese culture, Chinese food, and learning Chinese, but I was starting to hate the hustle and bustle of life in busy, beautiful Shanghai. Back in familiar neighborhoods in Pennsylvania, I could get around in English, the coffee was consistently good, the clothes were all my size, and I was surrounded by the family I loved. Everybody had dogs, cats, cars and backyards. Within hours of getting home, I was messaging my boyfriend and asking him to join me, making jokes about not coming back. He didn’t want to leave.

My mom the undergrad

My mom is currently a non-traditional student pursuing a degree in social work. She didn’t have the opportunity to get a higher education until a few years ago, but growing up, she always told us that we would go to college and take advantage of the opportunities that she never had. We’re all so proud of her, but after so many years spent waiting on all of us, going to school has been a real change for her.

My mom, Sherri, in Cambodia


  • When did you start going to college?

I started college in September 2006 after the end of a twenty-five-year marriage.

  • Why did you start going to college?

I had originally thought that I wanted to become a teacher and that this was my opportunity. The real reason I started school, though, was to be an example to my children, especially my daughters. I wanted them to know that we are strong women and that we may get knocked down, but we get up and brush ourselves off. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do whatever I wanted to after losing myself in my marriage. I was forty-six at the time and I knew I didn’t want to hold a minimum wage job all my life. I wanted make my children and myself proud.

  • Why didn’t you go to college on a traditional schedule, like when you were 18?

When I was growing up I was always told that if I wanted to go to college, I would have to do it on my own. I went to my high school counselor and she seemed very disinterested in the whole process. I didn’t know where to turn or who to turn to, so I just put it on the back burner. I had a steady boyfriend at the time and my mom thought he would make a good husband. So I thought, “What the hell?” We got engaged, but one Sunday afternoon we got in a huge argument and the song In the Navy by the Village People came on as I was getting out of his truck. I told him, “That’s it! I’m joining the Navy!” He just laughed and said, “Yeah, right. I dare you.”  That Monday I talked to a recruiter, Tuesday I took the ASVAB [the Navy recruiting test] and I left Thursday morning. We broke up, but I loved the service. I met my ex-husband there and we got serious fast, so I just went the marriage route. It was convenient. Plus, when I was younger not a whole lot of “older people” (over 21) went to college.

  • What are you studying? Why?

I’m studying social work. I’m heading towards my bachelor’s degree and right into my master’s. I first went for teaching, but after I got my associate’s from a two-year college, I transferred to a four-year school. But when I walked in the first day and I looked around and saw all these young faces with dreams in their eyes, I knew that I was in the wrong place before my bottom hit the chair. I guess that as my own four children grew up I got over the need to wipe runny noses and tie wet shoe strings. I left that classroom prepared to withdraw from school altogether. I got in my car and drove around for about thirty minutes and then I called my youngest daughter and told her what I was feeling. She calmly reminded me that I had been mentioning how I wanted to work with our returning vets, so maybe I should talk to someone about studying social work. I thought, “What the hell? It won’t hurt.” I walked into the social work office and I felt like I was home. Everyone was genuine and down-to-earth. Within ninety minutes of walking out of one class, ready to drop out, I walked into a new degree and and a new life. My whole dream now is to be able to work with our returning vets and animals at the same time. I know what the unconditional love and responsibility of an animal can do for someone.

  • What’s your typical school day like? 

I pack my lunch and drinks the night before to save time in the morning because I get up around 5 because my dogs need a good forty-five minute walk. Once I get them back home, I fix myself something to eat, usually eggs and toast. I feed the dogs, let the cats out, get my clothes together, shower, blow dry my hair and get dressed. I take my school bag, lunch bag and whatever odds and ends I think I might need throughout the day. I put the dogs in the car and I take them to my mother’s house, where she dog-sits them for me. I chat with Mom for a few minutes then I drive forty-five minutes to school. I get to school in time for classes that begin between 9 and 11:45. After that, I do an hour at the gym (I’m trying to get ready for a half-marathon in April) and then my second class starts between 1 and 3:45. Then I do another hour at the gym for weight-lifting. I shower and then run to the car to grab whatever I packed the night before to eat. I go to the library and study my Arabic from Rosetta Stone for an hour or so. I have my third and final class from 6-8:45, then I drive back to my mom’s to pick up the dogs, chat for a few more minutes, then I head home. I feed the dogs and walk them for another thirty minutes (this last walk guarantees that I will not get woken up with an emergency “I gotta go” bark). I do the breakfast dishes, check my e-mail, and then crack the books for an hour or so. I am carrying eighteen credits again this semester and there seems to always be a ton of reading and writing I have to do.

Simone, my mom’s rescued pit bull
  •  How has your life changed as a result of the decision to go back to school?

My daughter [ahem!] would not believe this, but I have become more organized out of necessity. I feel good about myself again, especially the two semesters that I made Dean’s List. I remember thinking, “I still can do it!” Of course, sometimes I have to read things two or three times to remember or for them to even make sense to me, but you do what you have to. I feel more involved in life—not only mine, but in other people’s lives, too. If anything, I am learning (emphasis on “learning”) how to listen to other people and accepting that not everyone will think or react to things the same way I do or even how I would expect them to. Going back to school has made me find me again. When you’re a wife and mother of four young children, you seem like the least important person in the mix. Then, BAM! everyone is off and on their own and there you are. Well, here I am!

  • What’s your ultimate goal for going back to school?

My ultimate goal is a personal thing. I want to prove to myself that I can fulfill a dream.  I want to be happy within myself and know that no matter what, I can do it.  I want to be support myself beyond just holding a minimum wage job. I am looking forward to the day that I can honestly help people with the necessities that they need to not only survive, but to live! I want to work with our returning veterans and therapy animals in the hope that they can help each other. I would love to get into the policy changing aspect and see why our governemnt has turned their backs on our returning vets.

  • How do you get along with your classmates?

Actually quite well. I have had a lot of them tell me they wish their moms would go back to school and do something with their lives. We do study groups together and after tests we go out and have a drink at the local hangout. I think a lot of it has to do with the field that I am studying and the fact that it is drilled into us at almost every class that people are people. Older people are just like younger people, only with more life experience.

  • How do you feel you are different from your classmates as a non-traditional student?

Well, I have a hell of a lot more life experience. I have lived all over the world and did things that still amaze me. My writing is more in-depth than a lot of the younger people’s because of my life experiences. To sit in class and listen to how the younger students think they are going to change the whole world with just a degree leaves me shaking my head. I understand (at least I think I do) that change has to come from within and then spread out. I have a bit more responsibility than the others and I am not afraid of being considered “stupid” for asking certain questions—technology is way beyond me in so many ways. It takes me a couple of times to learn how to download things and how to store them in the computer. I also use the dictionary a lot because of all the technical talk. I decided to change to social work in my junior year and a lot of the younger students are already very familiar with the lingo that goes with the profession, so I keep a notebook close by write down the words I don’t know and then I look them up as soon as I get a chance. I also pack a lunch for myself. A lot of the kids [younger students] go through school hungry, which leads to their being tired. I make sure I always have a lunch box full of healthy foods. Eating healthy really helps me concentrate.

  • What have you learned about yourself from this experience?

Damn, I am a strong, independent woman! I have also learned that you have two choices if negativity comes your way: you can write it in stone and carry the heavy weight around for the rest of your life or write it in sand and let the wind blow it away. I’m a good example of that. I have learned that I am smarter than I thought,  though I am still not as organized as I want to be. I like me for who I am, not what other people think I am! There used to be mornings when I would wake up and think “You are fifty-one, your life is half over. What are you trying to prove?” Now most of my mornings start with, “Shit, I am only fifty-one and there is so much more to do! I hope I can get it done!”

What are you learning from the challenges in your life? How do you keep yourself motivated? Paste your favorite motivational quotes if you have any.