Nights at CC Cafe

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On a chilly Sunday November morning, I sit in the window at the local coffee house sipping on peppermint tea and working on my online class through UC Berkeley. The coffee house has some memorable and remarkable mix of popular 90s tunes on heavy rotation that instantly take me back to the days of my freshman year of college. Suddenly, I remember what it’s like to be 17 in all it’s glory yet complete with challenges.

Part of these memories include nights at a place called CC Cafe. This was an on campus coffee house type atmosphere. I remember sitting in very dim lighting on an extremely comfortable couch with some band or comedian in the background that I had been there to hear but was unable to pay attention to over the easy-going banter of my crowd of friends. 

Whether an attempt to reclaim my 20 years as a college student or simply out of boredom, I decided to take a class this fall. I know, I know. I’m supposed to be retired from the whole college student gig. I couldn’t help myself. I love to learn and needed an intellectual challenge.

Taking an online course provides other challenges. I do not have internet access at home, so I am constantly trying to find places in the community with free wifi. That was part of the point in taking a class this fall. I am trying to meet new people. I figured an online class would force me out into the community more, which would result in meeting people. I have met a few people in passing. I know none of their names and have not had more than two or three interactions with the same individual.

The exception is the woman who works the counter at the coffee house who always smiles when I ask for my order and seems to know that I will always ask for the internet password as I slip a dollar into the tip jar. 

While I may not be meeting my goal of meeting new people, there are morning such as these that allow me to relive some pretty awesome memories of being a student. That alone, is worth the frustration. It has been hard doing an online class – always trying to find internet, taking time away from my house, my cats, my life to work on this. However, I will readily admit that I need a break from the overwhelming responsibilities I carry, and so, this online class has at least provided me with respite from some of my obligations. 

Challenges in life do not seem to change. It doesn’t matter if I am 17 or 40, I’m still dealing with the same crap no matter what my age. I am trying to work, pay the bills, and somehow find a way not only to survive but to thrive.

I think back to all those nights at CC Cafe and realize that, really, I do have the ability to thrive. Now, all I have to do is figure out how to do that again in real life today. 

My Biggest Mistake

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I am quickly realizing, as people have been laughing at me the past few weeks that going to grad school is one of the biggest mistakes of my life. I would not recommend it. In fact, given what I have lived through the past five years to try to obtain a graduate education, I am honestly not sure why I even went to grad school.

The only reason I can pinpoint is fear. When I completed the bachelor degree after a 15-year struggle, I did not know what to do with myself. When most little kids respond that they want to be firefighters or ballerinas when they grow up, I was saying I wanted to be a college student. I never planned for or envisioned anything beyond college, so grad school was this mad scramble to try to delay the inevitable push into the real world for which, at 36, I am still not ready to face.

In the past few weeks, I have learned how vastly different grad school is from undergrad. If I had to do it over again, I would have stopped at the bachelor degree.

I have learned in grad school that A’s are handed out whether they are deserved or not. Apparently, when you reach this level of education, you are expected to be good, so they only hand out A’s. While I am sure most people are probably saying, “Take the A and shut up,” I am the type of person who likes to think that my grades are a direct reflection of my effort and mastery of a particular subject matter. It is not possible for everyone to be good at everything. In all of my prior degrees, I have had at least one class in which I had a B+. I am not a perfect person. Why does graduate education give the illusion of perfection? Masters degrees are awarded to people who have not necessarily mastered the subject matter and thus become meaningless.

Second, I worked a lot harder for my master’s degree than I worked in undergrad. To qualify: I overcame many more obstacles in my pursuit of graduate education than I did in the 15 years I spend in undergrad. Some recognition of my effort would be appreciated. Instead, I have found that graduate degrees do not even list your field of study, as you are forced to order transcripts that no employer requests or wants to see, you are not awarded any honors for academic achievements, and you are not given any sort of ceremony or rite of passage to acknowledge the fact that you have sacrificed more in the past 5 years than the entirety of 36 years on this planet to get the degree.

For being the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, grad school has been one huge let down. I would rather run all 14 marathons again back to back than live through grad school again.

Yes, I said it. Running a marathon is easier than grad school.

It’s possible that all of this is simply due to poor choice of academic institution and program, but I have inklings that this situation is pervasive across academia.

I honestly have no idea why I ever went to grad school.

As I stare down a finish line that I now may or may not cross (I seriously do not feel like Defending a thesis I would much rather forget), I realize that the best thing to do at this point is to cut my losses and move forward.

There is no point in analyzing the why or the “what if.” We cannot go back and change the past. There comes a time when you must declare something as a learning experience and move forward because there is nothing you can do other than try to survive the moment in which you now find yourself.

So yes, I do find grad school to be the biggest mistake of my life. If I had to go back and do it again, I never would have went to grad school. However, there is no point in ruminating on the biggest mistake I have ever made and feeling regret. Negative feelings will do nothing to ameliorate the situation I am now facing. Sometimes the best course of action is to cut your losses and move forward.

What I am most looking forward to is reclaiming my life. I am looking forward to rewinding real slow from 5 years of mindless, unnecessary stress that I have just lived through. I am hoping that there will again come a point in my life sometime in the future where I enjoy learning again. I enjoyed school for the first 25 years of my life. These last 5 years, I have seriously been questioning the purpose of formal education.

Life is not all sunshine and roses. Sometimes we need to make mistakes to realize what is truly important in life. Grad school has been one huge, expensive colossal waste of my time, but I am thankful for the opportunity to learn from my mistakes and to have the ability to always move forward.

The Graduation Speech I Never Gave #TBT

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#TBT to my first degree when I was valedictorian but did not attend graduation. I have been in the top 10 for all of my degrees, but my attendance at graduations has been sporadic, contingent on many factors in my life at that time. This is the speech I had prepared to give well over a decade ago when I completed my first degree. For that degree, there actually was no ceremony, as I graduated in the “off” (fall) semester, so there was nothing to attend. Note that the above photo is from a degree that did have a graduation ceremony.

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There are so many people to thank, that I could be here all day. There are so many inspirational people and speeches that I would love to emulate. Some of my favorite graduation moments, speeches, and phrases come from movies such as Reality Bites and Say Anything. I would love to say something epic that will inspire you to go out and do great things, challenge the status quo, and change the world.

But when it comes down to it, it really does not matter what I say as I stand here before you today. You will not remember any of it. Twenty years from now, you will not remember the speeches, you will not remember what you wore, nor will you remember the unease you now feel as your sock is slipping down into your shoe. What you will remember are the feelings and the people who are here with you today celebrating and sharing this most amazingly precious moment with you.

So, I will say this: people are what are most important in life. This is what we need to remember. Graduation is a great accomplishment. We have sacrificed ourselves, our time, and our future earnings in pursuit of education. Never forget the people who have supported you through this time and who are here with you today. It doesn’t matter how much money you earn, if you get that snazzy corner office, or if you end up waiting tables and riding a bicycle, what matters most are the people in your life. Your legacy will be the ways in which you are able to make life better, even if that person you better is simply yourself.

When you leave here today, be sure to hug your children, your spouse, your parents if they are still alive, and even your grandparents if they are around too. For while graduation is a huge accomplishment, it is only a flicker compared to the flame of love that is the people in your life.

We have all sacrificed something in order to achieve this accomplishment today. Remember to be thankful for every thing in life. We should not be thankful just on the day in November when the calendar tells us to be thankful. Be thankful every day. Congratulations on your achievement and go forth and spread love into the world.

End Speech

I am currently in the home stretch of my final degree with less than two weeks to go. While I oscillate between relief and excitement to anxiety and despair, there is a part of me that knows that these are the days I am going to miss. They say that college is the best four years of your life. It has been the best twenty years of mine. As I look to the future, I am scared. I have been in some sort of educational institution for over 30 years of my life. Some people have been institutionalized by the mental health system, some people have been institutionalized by the criminal justice system, and I have been institutionalized by the education system.

I am sure that at some point I will have panic over the fact that my academic career is over. What is perhaps most difficult is the fact that it is over whether I like it or not. Even if I do decide that I want to return to school in the future to complete a PhD, I am unable to do so because I have officially maxed my federal student loans. Unless some institution decides to give me a full academic scholarship, I am unable to continue with any more education. I am not sure what is scarier – the fact that I cannot receive any more education, or the fact that I have officially reached the ceiling for student loan debt.

I have been half joking and half serious lately that I do not want a graduation party. I want a retirement party. Twenty years in any field is a career. My career as a professional college student is ending. I am not simply graduating; I am retiring from being a professional college student. I will never stop learning, but I will now be learning by less formal means.

I am looking forward to retirement. I have employment I love, and the most amazing people in my life. I am looking forward to running more marathons, and surfing more waves. My library card will be getting a great workout. I think I may even be getting a fishing license for 2016. I will finally have time to devote to the people and things in my life that are as equally or more important than education, which have traditionally taken a back burner role to school.

A few months ago, when I posted about the penultimate paper (the last but one paper), I had foretold that this major life change would be a challenging time for me but that I hoped to be able to face it with grace. I’m not quite sure you would call this last month or so grace; it’s more like the break dance you inadvertently perform on a slick floor trying not to fall down. Whatever is happening, my life is about to change in major ways.

I’m looking forward to being able to Rewind Real Slow.

Out The Window

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I’m working on writing my now second masters thesis, and I can tell you that in this process and many others, lots of things go out the window. The first is my APA (American Psychological Association) publication manual. Literally. Anyone who has written a document of any length can attest to the frustration, tears, and sometimes screams that accompany the creative process. Sometimes, in frustration, I throw my publication manual.

If it happens to be a nice day, and the windows are open, it flies out the window.

What is not okay to throw out the window are our positive coping skills and ways in which we engage in self-care. Yet of course, those are always the first things to go when things get busy. Schedules change from summer to fall and all of a sudden after work; we are rushing to this club or that game or some event. We no longer have time to engage in the yoga, reading, whatever it is that we do to replenish and rejuvenate our soul.

It’s very easy to do when things are rough financially as well. You are so worried about paying the light bill, the rent, and all the other necessities that there is no money left over to do anything fun. That may be true; it is reality for a lot of people. Yet, when we are at our most busy and overwhelmed times are when we need self-care and fun things the most.

You cannot keep pouring juice out of an empty pitcher. Unless you are a magician of some sort, once it’s gone, it’s gone. Yet repeatedly we overextend ourselves and run on empty.

How is that going for you?

It’s time to stop. The time you are most busy is the worst time to throw self-care out the window. If you have been going at a pace that makes a marathon look like a sprint, then it is time to slow down and embrace those things that nourish your psyche.

Sometimes we are forced to slow down. Major life events, usually an emergency, illness, or injury can force us to slow down whether we like it or not. It is usually karma’s way of saying, “hello, don’t throw self-care out the window.”

What have you done to be kind to yourself today?

Can you take even 5 minutes to turn off the phone and electronic gadgets, shut the door, and just close your eyes? Can you escape the whirlwind that is your racing mind?

I have been receiving massage to help the healing of the hip muscle I tore in my most recent marathon. I have not received massage in quite a while – not since I had employment at which I was making double what I make now. I am not sure if it is busyness or just thinking that massage is a luxury I cannot afford, but the thought to schedule a massage has not crossed my mind.

While massage is indeed helpful with my hip injury, it is perhaps even more helpful for my mind and stress levels. As I was lying there allowing someone to work on my injured hip, I remembered how important it is to take care of oneself. Massage is a luxury that I cannot afford, and probably would not be getting if not for my injury. Yet, it reminds me that every once in awhile we need to do something beneficial for ourselves even if it seems to be a little extravagant. Those are the types of things that keep your pitcher full. Those moments when you take time out to replenish yourself so that you can continue to give to others are just as important as what you do for others.

What goes out the window when you are really busy? Can you identify one activity or thing that you can do to replenish yourself at times when you need it the most?

Dirty Laundry

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I have always worked Saturdays. Always. I have been in the workforce over 20 years & even when I was a social worker with a traditional day job, I was still required to be on call on weekends. I do not mind working Saturdays. I would rather have a weekday off to do things when places are less likely to be crowded.

A few weeks ago, I realized just how stressful Saturdays have been. Especially, when I was working 60+ hour weeks, everything was crammed into Saturday night because that was my only night home. In my efforts to rewind real slow, I had not yet made adjustments to that routine. Until now.

Up until a few weeks ago, Saturdays went pretty much like this: come home from work and immediately start the laundry, as I typically have two loads per week. Then, I had to start preparing a week’s worth of food because when you have multiple food allergies, you can rarely do food on the fly. Then, I would have to sit down and write some paper for school, which in my educational programs have typically been 20 pagers. In fact, I have it down to a science. Once all my background prep work is done and I am ready to start actively writing, I can typically crank out 20 pages in 24 hours. To put the pressure on even more, I was also trying to get to bed at a reasonable hour, due to my Sunday morning long run. Whew. It makes me tired just writing about how it used to be, but is no longer.

Once I identified that this routine was the cause of so much stress, I was not only able to realize that I needed to make a change, but that the stress all started with dirty laundry, literally and figuratively.

While cramming all that stuff into Saturday afternoon was once a necessity due to an over packed schedule, I now have more free time and control over that time.

I no longer do laundry on Saturday. I do it during the week, often one load at a time. Since I am home more, I have the luxury of doing laundry whenever and not trying to cram it into a schedule.

I also no longer need to have monster paper writing sessions in which I am cranking out 20 pages in 24 hours. Unless I have procrastinated ridiculously with my time, I now have several days during the week to work on school.

Making these minor adjustments to my schedule have been hugely significant in lowering my stress levels and increasing my happiness. Dirty laundry is just another reminder that although we may spend 40 hours a week working, what we do with the rest of the time we have is purely our choice.

What areas of your life are you able to identify as creating stress? What routines can you alter or change in order to decrease your stress and save some time?

I have noticed that now when I come home on Saturday and no longer face piles of dirty laundry, both literally and figuratively that my weekend goes much more smoothly.

I still have not yet found the cure for procrastination when it comes to thesis writing, so if you figure that one out, let me know.

What dirty laundry can you change today?

The Penultimate Paper

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Note: The above photo was taken shortly after I completed my first masters thesis, which was 120 pages. Today is nothing like that.

I just submitted the last paper. It’s not a big deal. There is always a final paper, right? Well, right, except this one is huge. After almost 20 years as a professional college student resulting in numerous degrees, this is the last paper I wrote before I complete my thesis. That’s not a huge deal, either. I have already written and successfully defended a 120-page masters thesis in another field. Ultimately, my thesis for this masters degree will be the final paper ever. So, I guess this one is technically, in the words of Monty Python, the penultimate paper.

It took me 7 years to complete an associate’s degree, 3 years to complete a professional degree, 15 years to complete a bachelor’s degree, and when I am done this fall, 5 years to finish a master’s degree. My life has been all about school.

When you ask most kids what they want to be when they grow up, they respond with cute answers like ballerinas, firefighters, or veterinarians. Not me. When I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my response was “college student.” I started giving that response at about age 10. I had literally no plan of what I wanted to do after college. I never imagined a life after school. I just knew that where I was, in grade school, middle school, and high school, was so ultimately miserable that College was like the Holy Grail (Monty Python again – it must be that type of day).

I was so focused on going to college that I skipped a grade and graduated a year early. I did not just skip any grade. I skipped 10th grade. While most girls my age were engrossed in how high they could tease their bang with Aqua Net, which boys were going to light up their see through slim phones, and trying to perfect the ultimate roll on their jeans, I was reading Flannery O’Connor, Jean Paul Sartre, and studying just what really makes poison dart frogs poisonous.

The only thing I’ve been good at is school.

I survived a shitty childhood by being good at school, and basking in the praise and attention of my teachers and instructors for doing such a good job. I just want to stay in school forever.

When I realized I was actually going to finish my bachelor degree, panic set in. What do I do after school? I had no plan for this. Life after college? What is that? Graduation is not supposed to happen. I had a mid-life crisis over graduation. Granted, it was my fourth graduation ceremony, but that one is particular held a sense of doom. I was so clueless, that I remember standing in line at the ceremony getting ready to walk across the stage when someone yelled “Congratulations” at me because I was apparently graduating Summa Cum Laude. I had no idea what that meant. I didn’t even know I was graduating Summa Cum Laude until I was standing in that line to walk across a stage.

I now know that I was 6th in my class of over 2,000. Apparently, that’s really awesome, but to me, it’s just a pretty gold sticker and some fancy looking letters on a piece of paper.

Back to the penultimate paper.

In my panic over graduation and trying to figure out how I cold possibly graduate and still stay in school, I decided to go to grad school. My idea was that with a graduate degree, I could be a college professor, thus staying in college forever. Perfect.

However, after working on two masters degrees in five years, and being buried in an exorbitant amount of student loans, I have decided this is the last degree. 20 years in any field is a career. I have spent 20 years as a professional college student. Tap, tap, I’m out.

The fact that I just wrote the penultimate paper is a huge deal. It signifies the sunset of a huge part of my life and identity for 30 years of my life.

I’m trying not to stress. I am going with the flow. I am looking forward to focusing on my thesis (the real LAST paper), as I absolutely love my topic and my field. I cry over it. I laugh over it. I just love my topic. I am sure once it is over, the panic will set in again. I am hoping that when that point comes, I will be able to take it in grace and stride.

But for now, I just gave a sigh over the submission of the penultimate paper.

I am about to take my last math class ever. Yet another statistics class. After my time in nuclear physics, I have taken a great many math classes. While I may be able to find the square area of a horse, that knowledge has done nothing to help me in life. Don’t even get my started on algebra- I can tell you right now, there is no point in dwelling over your “X” (ex?) because life has taught me that the “Y” is more important – like “Y did I date you?” or “Why am I here?”

I am relieved that the penultimate paper is done. I am unsure what the final paper will make me feel like when my thesis is complete. I am hoping that I will be able to find ways to enjoy my retirement from being a professional college student. I am still slightly unsure of what I want to be when I grow up. Sometimes its fun to ask kids just so I can get some ideas. I’m hoping this time when I graduate, that I do not have the level of panic I had with my bachelor’s degree. Unless, I have to adult now. I just don’t think I can adult.

I may have to be an adjunct. If retirement gets to be too much, I can just go back to school by teaching. But, for now, I am going to relish in the achievement of completing the penultimate paper. I may even celebrate with a mariachi band.

(To get these references, you may need to view Monty Python’s “The Last Supper.” You can find it on youtube).