10 3d

Week 22, lj idol: hiraeth

This was written for week 22 of therealljidol if you like my story, please consider voting for me, and any of the other talented writers

I’ll never forget the day that my dad brought it home. It was the first night of Hanukah, and the four of us were lighting the menorah. After a dinner of microwaves latkes, which resulted in them being soggy, and Nana’s applesauce, it was time for presents. First, we got our individual presents. My brother got some Ghostbusters action figures, including a green Slimer one. I got some books. I was really into The Babysitter’s Club. Then my dad led us downstairs into the family room.

One thing I will always remember about the house that I grew up in was the family room. My brother and I probably spent ninety percent of our waking hours in that room. When my parents had bought the house, the family room had had a wet bar in it. Behind the wet bar were mirrored shelves that were meant to keep liquor on it. Instead, my dad had stacked his collection of science-fiction and fantasy novels on the shelves. On the bar itself, was my dad’s alphabetized record collection even though we didn’t have a working record player in the house. To the right of the room was a couch that turned into a bed. Just above the bed was a very wide and flat wooden windowsill. My favorite thing to do was to sit on the couch and play with my barbie and my little pony dolls on that windowsill. Across from the sleeper sofa was a brown leather sofa. This brown leather sofa had traveled with my dad since he had been a student at Penn. Next to the sofa, on the left, was a huge cabinet that was jammed with different toys, art supplies, and books. On the right, was another bookshelf that was built into the wall, also jammed with more of my dad’s book collection. The carpet of the family room was a shaggy lime green carpet that had come with the house.

My brother and I looked at each other, we had no idea why dad had brought us down here. Dad walked to the TV and turned it on. A weird musical tune came on, and the screen was bright blue. Words in white appeared on the screen, my dad and I read them aloud together as they appeared, “The world is veiled in darkness. The wind stops, the sea is wild, and the earth begins to rot. The people wait, there only hope is a prophecy…. ‘When the world is in darkness Four Warriors will come….’ After a long journey, four young warriors arrive, each holding an ORB.”

“What is it?” asked my brother, obviously as confused as I was.
“It’s a Nintendo, we got a Nintendo,” Dad said. I think he was more excited than we were.
“Where’s Mario?” my brother asked. The only things my brother and I knew about Nintendo was based on the cartoon shows we watched. Every Saturday, one of us would wake up around five am, usually me, and we were in charge of waking the other for a show based off of the game Dragon Warriors. I would sit through religious broadcasting in the morning until the show started at seven am. After school, we would come home and watch The Super Mario Bros. Super Show, The Legend of Zelda, and Captain N: The Game Master.
“We have it,” my dad said, “This game is called Final Fantasy. My secretary Beth got it for me. She saw the sword and shield on the box and I thought I would like it.”
“I want Mario,” my brother said.
“You and Jamie can play Mario tomorrow. Do you want to watch me play?”
“No,” said my brother, and he went upstairs.
“Do you want to watch me play?”
“Sure,” I said.

My dad sat down on the couch, and I sat next to him. He pressed a few buttons on the controller and entered the new game screen. He made himself a fighter called Dad. “Do you and Randy want to be in my game?”
“I do,” I said.
“What do you want to be? You can be a fighter, a white wizard, a black wizard, a red wizard, a thief, or a blackbelt.”
“The white wizard, I think it looks the most like a girl.” Dad chose the white wizard and named it ‘Jami’ since there was a four-character text limit.
“I’ll put your brother in too since he’ll get mad if he’s not in the game. He can be a black wizard.” Dad chose the black wizard and named it ‘Rand’ for Randy. For the fourth character on the party, he chose a blackbelt and named it “BLEE” after Bruce Lee. My dad was a huge kung fu movie fan. And from there on our, Bruce Lee was forever known as ‘BLEE’ in our household.
For the next few hours, I watched my dad play the game until it was bedtime.

Final Fantasy sort of became our thing. Every night, after I did my homework, I would go downstairs and watch my dad play his game. I would build Lego robots or make up full-length Broadway musicals starring my dolls while he played, but I would be there. When my dad finished the game, he just started it over with a different team. I once did the calculations, and there were about 126 different team combinations that you could make within the game.

As gaming systems advanced, my dad would buy the new final fantasy games that came out for every system. He played them up until about Final Fantasy X, when the games because “too weird” for him. But even though there were a few others he enjoyed, particularly, Final Fantasy IX, they just didn’t hold the same magic that the original had for him, but our NES had long-stopped working.

I play my own video-games now. I’ve beaten most of the Final Fantasy games, and I’ve moved on the different games such as Fire Emblem, Animal Crossing, and Stardew Valley. But now that I’m older, beating games just doesn’t have the same magic, as it did that first time, I watched my dad beat Final Fantasy from start to finish.

Several years ago, before I moved to Texas, I wanted to give my dad a going-away present. Being the huge video-game nerd, I am thanks to my dad, I had a Gameboy SP that I had bought to beat a Pokémon game. The Gameboy SP had been discontinued, and I didn’t really need it anymore. I left my dad with my Gameboy SP and the Gameboy Advance remake of Final Fantasy that I had found on eBay.

Every so often, my dad calls me and tells me about the latest in his “Final Fantasy” world, perhaps more now than before thanks to COVID. He loves to tell me all about how strong his team is, what bad guy he beat, and all the dungeons he dominated. And yes, the blackbelt is still named BLEE.

the topic for this week is hiraeth, which means nostalgia, and I can't think of anything more nostalgic than childhood
10 3d

Open Topic: Mother's Day

This was written for a sudden death tie-breaker open topic entry for therealljidol

In honor of Mother's Day being tomorrow, I decided to write about my Nana. The pic below is actually a picture I scanned from an old photo album she gave me recently from one of our Disney World trips like the one mentioned in this story

Also, my birth first name is Jamie, I just go by Lyssa, which is my middle name


scannedpicnana

My nana called me today. She usually doesn’t call me very much, so whenever I see her name on the caller ID, I mentally panic. The same goes for anytime a member of my family calls me. We aren’t the most social family. My dad recently discovered text messaging, but it’s hard to interpret his messages when he invents his own acronyms and emojis, and every so often I’ll get a text from him, but that’s really it. The extent of our communication is the weekly phone calls I make to them. To be honest, I tend to avoid my family, they are the main reason I decided to move to Texas, and usually, when they call me, it’s because there’s some sort of bad news.

Nana is ninety-eight years old. She can’t really see anymore. Earlier this year I convinced my parents to get her an “Alexa.” Her eyesight is too bad to see the numbers on a phone anymore. Now whenever she wants to call somebody, she just asks Alexa to call whoever. She doesn’t really understand technology either. Whenever the internet stops working, she complains that Alexa is mad at her. She takes it personally too.
“Hi, Nana?” I say.
“Jamie, this is Nana Rebeca,” she always says. I tried to explain to her once that my cell phone automatically tells me that she’s calling me, and she doesn’t need to tell me it’s her, but she doesn’t listen. “I got your Mother’s Day card in the mail.”
“I’m glad it got there,” I said, “You never know with Texas mail.”
“It’s a beautiful card,” she says.

I can picture her in my mind. She was probably sitting at her kitchen table. I can hear mumbled Spanish in the background, and I’m pretty sure she was watching her Spanish soap operas. My grandmother grew up in Mexico. She was born in Russia, but during World War Two, she immigrated to Mexico and was raised there. When I was little, she tried to teach me how to speak Spanish. She often tells me about how she used to teach me to sing songs in Spanish when I would go over there to visit. I took Spanish in high school and college, but I never really used it outside of class and lost most of the language. Sometimes on the phone, she’ll talk to me in Spanish, and I understand her, but I answer in English. I’ve been trying to get my Spanish language skills back with duo lingo, but phrases like “soy un mujer” and “como pan” aren’t exactly her idea of conversing in Spanish. She was probably drinking green tea as she watched her soap opera. “How are my grand kitties?”
“They’re good,” I answer, “They’re sleeping.”
“Do you remember when you were little?” Do you remember our trips to Disney World?”
“I remember when we went to Disney,” I say, “I remember riding the Dumbo ride with Papa.” I don’t mention how I remember the Dumbo ride breaking as Papa and I rode on it, and we were stranded what seemed like very high up when I was five, but was probably maybe only ten or twelve feet in the air, in reality. I haven’t ridden the Dumbo ride since. “I also remember riding Peter Pan and Space Mountain.”

My grandparents used to have an apartment in Orlando. Every morning, after breakfast, Papa and I would go to the pool. We used to race across the pool. I would always win. My papa would make a big deal about how hard he tried to beat me, but he just couldn’t because I was too fast. Years later, I realized he had always let me win. We would go to the Magic Kingdom or Epcot during the day. Nana always really liked Epcot. She liked walking through the world showcase and going to the Mexico pavilion. She loved the “El Rio del Tiempo” ride. I don’t remember much about it except it a lot like “It’s a Small World.” The dolls were clad in the clothing and music that my nana had grown up with, in Mexico. She said it reminded her of home. After we spent the day at the park, we would go back to the apartment. We would eat dinner and then Nana would give me Neapolitan ice cream in my Mickey Mouse bowl. Papa and I would sit on the balcony and he would teach me about the stars and outer space.

“When we were in the park, people would stop me. They would tell me that you had the most beautiful curly hair. You have beautiful curly blond hair, Jamie.” I wince on the other end of the phone as I pace around my den, my hair in a shower cap because I decided to dye it purple several hours earlier.
“Thank you,” I say.
“I’m going to go. I’m tired. I just wanted to say thank you for the card. I haven’t gotten a card in years. Thank you for thinking of me, Jamie. I hope the world gets less mashugana soon and you can come home and visit.”
“Happy Mother’s Day, Nana.”
10 3d

Lj Idol: The Way Back

This was written for week 21 of therealljidol

This story is based on a real event and takes place in a real place. Peanut Falls are part of several hiking trails at the Palisades in New Jersey/New York. Since this story, the trail has been rebuilt. I recently hiked there last time I visited home. Here is a picture I took

waterfallwholepic

We had made it down the cliffs, but I wasn’t very sure of the way back to the top. There used to be a path to get back to the main hiking trail. But when Hurricane Floyd had come to New Jersey in September, he had washed out the path. That had never stopped my friends and me before. We probably hiked down to the waterfall, at least a couple of times a month, but usually, Cat was the one, who led us up and down the cliffs. It was just him and I for now. But I could just worry about that later.

It was pretty quiet at the bank of the Hudson River. The two of us were sitting on a fallen tree. The tree probably fell during the hurricane too because I didn’t remember it being there before. The only sounds were the crashing of the water lapping as it splashed on the bank and the trickle of the water as it dripped down Peanut Falls. The cascade wasn’t really impressive. The only time it was impressive was after a marginally heavy rainstorm. At the same time, you didn’t really want to hike down a washed-out trail when it was just a hill of mud.

“I think I’m going to climb the fall,” Jeremy said.
“I’ll watch,” I said.
“Where’s your sense of adventure?” he asked.
“Nonexistent when it comes to climbing things. You know I’m a klutz. Slippery rocks and me probably aren’t the best idea.”
“Your loss,” he said.

We walked towards the falls. The pool in front of the falls wasn’t very big, nor was it very deep. It had been a particularly dry winter with only a few snow flurries to my dad’s disdain. April hadn’t brought us many showers either. I walked over to the stone wall to the right of the falls and sat down.

A long time ago there used to be a garden. None of us knew very much about the garden except that it used to be a part of a much larger estate in the 1800s. All that was left of the garden was dilapidated stone and brick walls built into the cliff and the remnants of columns scattered on the ground. Empty beer bottles, cigarettes, and graffiti-filled what was left of the foundation of the estate, but even so, there was something beautiful about its decay. It was one of our favorite places to hike to.

Jeremy managed to scale the waterfall pretty easily. He shouted my name from the top and waved at me. I gave him a thumbs up.

Climbing had been his thing. We had been counselors-in-training together at sleepaway camp; he spent most of his time at climbing tower. I did too. I would lie on the benches and read one of the millions of books I had brought to camp over the summer. Occasionally, I would move and change whatever CD was playing in the wooden shack. Jeremy had tried to get me to attempt to climb the tower many times, but I always said “no.” Once in a while, I would rappel. Rappelling was easier. I just had to climb a ladder, and then sort of hop down the wall, on belay. It was easier to go down then up. I was sure hiking back to my car later today would follow that same motto.

Hiking had been our thing. During the day, we would go for short hikes in the woods. We would hike to the low rope course, and play on the different obstacles. The rope swing was my favorite. After curfew, the two of us would meet up behind the cafeteria, and hike up to The Rock. The Rock had been the campout area at camp. I wasn’t really sure why it was called The Rock, there wasn’t any rock. The two of us would hike up to the campsite. Jeremy could find his way there in the dark without a flashlight. It probably wasn’t a very far hike, but it always seemed long under the guise of moonlight and stars. I would point out the two constellations I knew, Draco and Scorpius, and he would try to teach me the others. Occasionally, I recognized a planet or two, usually Mars or Venus.

The hike went up a hill behind the cafeteria and into the junkyard. The junkyard was covered with old camp equipment. There were rusty bicycles, broken down Hobie Cats, deflated soccer balls and basketballs, old pottery wheels, and faded lifejackets. Once you passed through the junkyard, there was a small clearing in the woods, and then you made it to The Rock.

We would spend most of our nights at The Rock. We were close with the pioneering counselors, who didn’t care that we were violating curfew. In fact, one of my counselors was a pioneering counselor, and the other had been a CIT the summer before, and breaking curfew was just a CIT Rite of Passage. We would toast marshmallows for S’mores. Jeremy would laugh at me because I would light mine on fire. Sometimes, Jeremy or one of the other counselors had a guitar and they would play songs around the fire. My favorite was Fade to Black by Metallica. I loved to watch the sky for shooting stars. But mostly, we would sit in comfortable silence.

“I think I’m ready to go,” his voice brought me back from my reminiscing.
“Okay,” I said.
“Thanks for bringing me here. It reminded me of the summer.”
“Thanks for visiting me. I’ve missed hanging out with you.”

We started up what was left of the stone stairs. It was going to be a long way back, especially if we trusted my sense of direction.

Author's note: We did eventually find our way back to my car. We bushwhacked through a lot of the off-trail land. About three days later, my legs were covered in poison ivy. It's also when I discovered I was allergic to poison ivy. My legs were so swollen that I couldn't walk and missed school and prom because of the severity of the reaction to poison ivy.
10 3d

LJ Idol: Boondoggle

Author's note: There is a real bar in the Houston area called Boondoggle's



Second Author's note: This is just a part of the story, albeit a sligtly fictionalized version, of how I met Justin, my husband. I hope I have an opportunity to write more of it.

Third Author's note: I really do love pineapple and chicken pizza. It's delicious.


“We’re here,” Kat said. She pointed to the building in front of us. It was a two-story brick building, lanterns with electric tea-lights hung from the ceiling of a covered porch. There were a few wooden tables there. A few were occupied by people sharing pitchers of beer and thin crust pizza. “This is Boondoggles.”

There were a small group of us. Kat and her boyfriend Chris, there was also a couple, who had introduced themselves to me when we had first met them in the parking lot. I forgot their names already, All I remembered was that they liked roller coasters, and were planning a road trip this summer, where they planned to drive from state to state, go to amusement parks, and ride the popular coasters, make vlogs for YouTube, and rate them on their blog.

And then there was him. We had met at the New Year’s Party a few nights ago. I wasn’t really sure what I thought off him. We had played a few board and card games together, but he had been drunk. We had “talked” a little bit, if by talking, you meant I wrote words down on a yellow legal pad, he read them and responded, and then I would write more words. I had had laryngitis that night. I remembered he liked Doctor Who and had never seen Firefly.

We walked into the bar. Kat and Chris waved to the bartender, who waved back. The hostess nodded at them. It was obvious that they were frequent diners. They led our group to a tall wooden table in the back. White fairy lights hung all around the bar, and various animal heads hung on the wall next to lit up oversized beer bottles. Kat and Chris sat at the head of the long vertical table, I sat next to Kat, he sat across from me, and the nameless couple sat to my right. The hostess handed us menus.

“It’s not New Jersey pizza,” Kat said, “But it’s not too bad for Texas.” She shrugged.

“Do you want to share a pizza?” he said, “The pizzas are pretty big here.”

“That depends… how do you feel about pineapple and chicken on pizza?”

“I hate pineapple pizza.”

“I don’t think this is going to work out,” I said, half serious, half joking, and not sure if I meant sharing a pizza, or having a future.

“Half pineapple? Half bacon? I’m okay with the chicken.”

“I can work with that,” I agreed.

The waitress came and we placed our pizza order. I also ordered a cider and a cup of maraschino cherries on the side.

“Cherries?” he asked.

“They’re good,” I said.

Next to us, the couple were having a conversation about whether or not they wanted to add Disney World to their road trip plans so they could blog about Splash and Space Mountain, for any possible families, who subscribed to their blog and or YouTube channel. On my other side, Chris and Kat were talking to each other in baby voices.

I could either… stare at my cell phone, and hope one of my friends from NJ would answer one of the frantic texts I had sent several hours ago or I could try talking to him… I hate blind dates; I have no idea why I let Kat set me up with one of her “friends.” I wasn’t like I lived here, I was from New Jersey, and I was only here for the week. I stared at my phone for a few more minutes… why did my friends at home choose tonight to have a life?

“So, what do you do?” he asked.

“Can you be more specific? Like what do I do as a job? Or what do I do in my spare time?”

“Both, I guess,” he shrugs.

The waitress comes to the table with our drinks, and a Jell-O shot sized container of cherries for me. I eagerly take the first cherry and put it in my mouth.

“I’m in school,” I say, after I swallow the cherry. “I graduate this May. I’m studying to become a special ed teacher. I also tutor and babysit almost every night.”

“Cool, I’m a teacher too.”

“What do you teach?”

“Math.”

“I hate math.”

“Most people do.”

“I had a lot of bad math teachers in school. I also have dyscalculia. I think my teachers focused more on my disability and because of it I didn’t really get any confidence in my math ability. I’m really good at statistics though, and I took some weird advanced math like factorials and truth tables and I was pretty good at it… So sometimes I wonder I’m actually better at math then I was left to believe.” I shrugged. I really didn’t want to talk about math all night. I needed to change the subject. “I also like hiking and camping. I like to visit national parks.”

“I’ve never been to a national park before. Which one is your favorite?”

“I’ve only been to Acadia National Park in Maine. I was in middle school. I don’t remember very much of it except there was this island. You could walk to it when the tide was low, but you had to get back before high tide came in or else you’d be trapped there.”

“That sounds pretty cool.”

“I’ve always wanted to visit Olympic National Park. That’s in Washington state. When I was in sixth or seventh grade, we had US history, and everyone was assigned a national park. Our social studies teacher had a baseball cap and everyone randomly pulled the name of the park out of the bag so people wouldn’t fight over a park. I got Olympic. I don’t remember much about my report, but I remember looking at pictures of it in a magazine and there were these beautiful waterfalls. I love waterfalls.”

“I’ve never seen a waterfall before…”

“Not even Niagara Falls? It’s like a rite of passage for every high school on the east coast to take a trip to Niagara Falls. You poor deprived thing.”

The conversation continued. More national parks were discussed. Favorite bands were compared. Embarrassing stories about our mutual friends were shared. I wasn’t sure if this was the start of a relationship, but at the very least, it could be the start of a friendship, and at that moment in time, that didn’t seem like the worst thing.

This was written for week 20 of therealljidol if you enjoyed my story, please consider voting for me, as well as for any of the other talented writers in the competition.
10 3d

LJ Idol: "I can't get calm"

The car ride had seemed long. Long but interesting. Highways weren’t the most fascinating things on Earth, especially when driving at night. But the sunset had been pretty, and it was always fun to read the exit names in new places.

For the most part, during the 1.5-hour car ride from Kutztown, she had played DJ with different burned CDs, most which skipped during songs due to the fact that she had no place to safely store them in her car and sipped her drink that was mostly cream with a touch of coffee. Mike, her best friend at college, had been silent during most of the drive, keeping his eyes on the road, and occasionally telling her something random from his life story.

They drove into the lane made of orange and yellow safety cones and paid for their parking. The lot was filled to the brim, but they found a spot in the back. The two of them got out of the car.

“Do you have the tickets?” Mike asked. She could barely see his face in the clouded orange light of the parking lot, but she could tell from his voice that he was just as excited as she was.

“They’re in here,” she said, getting a folded crinkly envelope out of her purple striped Nightmare Before Christmas purse. She preferred to keep things in her back-jean pockets, but she had also already lost 2 school ID cards that had been in her pocket, and they had only been in school for about a month. “They were a birthday present from my dad.”

Mike said nothing.

The two of them walked towards the building. Part of the it was domed, and there were a lot of windows. Through the windows, the crowds of people made a living and blurring mural. The name of the place made eerie shadows on the outside of the building under the harsh lighting.

They didn’t really have much time before the show started. There were classes and traffic. Mike had picked her up, right as her 4 pm psychology class had ended, and they were just barely on the road at 6. The show started at 8. As they got to the door, the line was barely ten people long consisting of last-minute non-cohesive stragglers in a crescendo of gratitude because they had just made it on time.

They rushed through security. The security man barely glanced through her bag, not even giving the pack of cigarettes a second glance before he handed it back to her.

The two of them followed the signs to their seats. They were so close to the stage that she could practically touch it. The arena smelled like sweat and cigarettes. It was so different from a ballet or opera in New York City, where people dressed in their most expensive clothing and the theater reeked of expensive perfume and mothballs. Instead of opera glasses and binoculars, the crowd had lighters and cups of sloshing beer.

“Is this really your first rock concert?” Mike asked.

She barely got a chance to nod when suddenly the lights went off, and the guitar riffs and drum beats started. The band on stage started playing her favorite song. The singer started singing. She remembered the first time she had ever heard this song. He sounded nothing like it did on the various scratched CDs in her car, but she loved every second of it.

The stage was chaos. The lead singer moved around and jumped so quickly. As your eyes darted in one direction towards him, he had already pranced to the other side of the stage. One second, he was at the front of the stage, slapping hi-fives and taking a quick selfie with the lucky people in the mosh pit. The next second, he was shaking his fist in the air. Under the stage lights, the sweat started dripping down his face, his eyeliner melting in uneven streaks. The crowd thrusting devil horns in the air with their hands. People were singing, the voices of the audience was a cacophony of melodious and unmelodious screams.

The song finished. She started screaming with the rest of the concert-goers.
Cup of Tea

The real lj idol, week 6: Blood Harmony

It was humid in August. We were doing laps around the airport passenger pickup. The airport wasn’t as busy as it could be since it was a Tuesday night, and it was summer. Who wanted to go to Texas, especially Houston, in summer?

The air conditioner in the car was blasting. But even at night, without the sun shining down into the windshield, it was so hot, that the AC could barely sputter out any cold air. The plane was already two hours late. There were thunderstorms on the west coast.

We did another lap around the passenger pickup.

My phone buzzed. His plane landed. They were taxiing on the runway. He didn’t have a lot of luggage. He was on his way home from a business trip in Washington state, and he was used to traveling light. But it would probably still be another twenty minutes.

Time to do another lap around passenger pickup.

We pull up the automatic doors at baggage claim. I fidget with the radio display, and find a certain song on my phone, and cue it to start as I start to take off my seatbelt.

“Really?” My fiancé asks when he sees what I’m getting ready for the car to play.

“Trust me,” I say. I open the car door and step down from the SUV. “I’m going to go get him since there are way too many exits at this baggage claim, and I want to avoid anything that might frustrate him.”

“Okay.” I close the door behind me.

It’s been barely a minute and my hair has already started to frizz, and I can feel the sweat starting to pour down my face. Houston humidity at its finest. Or maybe it’s anxiety. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference. My cat-bitten flip flops make a small sound as I take steps towards the revolving doors. As I get inside the baggage claim, the buzz of the air-conditioner provides a slight relief. I walked towards the monitors and start to scan the baggage claim assignments.

It doesn’t take very long before I spot my brother. It’s been a while since I’ve seen him, and even longer since we’ve had an in-person conversation. I had come home the previous summer, but he had been away on a business trip to Germany. He looks the same. He carries a beat-up black leather satchel over his shoulder. He comes over to me, hands in the pocket of his ill-fitting khaki pants.

“What’s up?” he asks.

“Nothing,” I say.

“How are you? Is it…?”

“They say it should be gone, but I don’t know.”

“How do you feel?”

I shrug. “Empty, I guess.” I start walking towards the doors. “He’s waiting in the car.” My brother starts following me. We don’t really have much to say to each other. We never have. Even as children, we were never really close. I know he’s only here because I had cancer.

We get over to the car. I get in the front seat and my brother gets in the back. He and my fiancé exchange pleasantries, then my brother starts texting on his phone. It’s silent, but not awkwardly so.

As he shifts the car into gear, I hit play on my phone.

A familiar sounding melody starts playing through the speakers.

On cue, my brother starts singing, “Valjean, at least, we see another plain, 'm'sieur le mayor, you’ll wear a different chain.”

I join in. “Before you say another word, Javert, Before you chain me up like a slave again,” and for two minutes it’s just like childhood.
Rini/Serena

The real lj idol, week 5: Moon shot

The only thing I knew when I was younger was that I didn’t want to spend my life living in New Jersey. I just wasn’t sure where I wanted to go.

The one thing I knew was that I didn’t want to move to New York City. There was nothing wrong with NYC itself, in fact, I love the city. I really enjoyed having museums, Central Park, and Broadway shows just about an hour bus ride away. I enjoyed spending summers with my friends at Coney Island and being able to the beach whenever I wanted to. I enjoyed being able to take a combination of buses, subways, and trains to get to almost everywhere from concerts at Jones Beach to visiting my best friend Amanda in Philadelphia. No, there was nothing wrong with the city itself, except for its apartment prices. A studio apartment that was about the size of my walk-in closet had rent that exceeded anything I thought I could make from a teaching job. Even my brother, who works odd hours on Wall Street doing international trading couldn’t afford an apartment with his six-figures salary, and he lived with three roommates.

For a while, I considered moving to California too. I could apply to PhD programs there, and I knew a lot of people, who lived in California. But I had the same problem with California that I would have had with New York City, it was too expensive, and I couldn’t afford to live on my own. So I had to reconsider my options again.

The first place I thought about moving to was Northeastern PA aka NePA as my friends and I lovingly referred to it as. My best friend Bethany lived in NePA, and at the time I was in a somewhat-serious relationship with her first cousin and spent most of my weekends up there. I would drive up to Clarks Summit after my last graduate class on Thursday nights, and wouldn’t come home until around 5 am on Monday morning, when I would leave either Bethany’s or her cousin’s house and make it to campus before my ten am English classes started.

I really enjoyed life in NePA even though it was unlike anything I had ever experienced in New Jersey. In NePA, I learned to shoot a gun. Bethany’s cousin Cliff had a makeshift gun range in his backyard. Social activities consisted of fire parties, which was when somebody would light a huge bonfire, and people would gather at their house. People would just drive their trunks up on somebody’s lawn, park them in a circle around the fire, and whoever had the best sound system in their trunk would play DJ. Beers were served out of coolers filled with ice cubes, and it was completely normal to just burn things… old CDs, broken radios, furniture, clothing, anything was game to help keep that bonfire lasting through the night.

Sometimes on weekends, we would drive to Ithaca, New York, which about two hours from NePA, and we would go wine-tasting. The routine for these trips included waking up before the sun rose, filling Cliff’s jeep up with gas from Sheetz and grabbing coffee. Bethany would usually pass out in the backseat, and I would play DJ with my iPod and FM transmitter. Cliff and I generally liked the same music: classic rock like The Doors and Billy Joel, rock like Fall-Out Boy and Blink 182, and prog rock like HIM and Delain, and the two of us outranked Bethany, so she always had to put up with our music as opposed to her Britney Spears and Pink related pop.

About 1.5 hours into the drive, we would pull into a Flying J on the side of 81, get even more coffee, and drive until we got to Ithaca. In Ithaca, we’d always get some lunch, buy NY state lotto tickets, and then spend the next 4-5 hours stopping at different wineries until we were too buzzed to drive. Most of the time, we would camp at the nearby KOA in Watkins Glen and head back to PA the next day. On these trips, Bethany would always spend hundreds of dollars on boxes of different wines to hold her over until our next wine-tasting trips. Shenanigans also always occurred on these trips. Eventually, our wine-tasting group expanded, and we ended up having to take two cars, mine because it was bigger than Cliff’s. Also, Bethany’s wine cravings got larger, and then Cliff’s best friend Steve’s Mazda because him and his wife started accompanying us. I had a Cheshire cat plush from the Disney movie in my car that rode by my rear windshield and the game during wine-tasting was keep away with the Cheshire cat.
But as I got towards student teaching and graduation, life had a nice way of throwing a curveball at me. Cliff’s job transferred him to Arizona, and he didn’t want a long-distance relationship or even friendship to follow him to Flagstaff. At the same time, Bethany started dating an abusive asshole, who made her choose either her relationship with him, or her friendship with me, and she chose the former. Thus, ended my dreams of moving to NePA.

After NePA was Austin, Texas. I had just gotten out of a serious relationship, not with Cliff, but with a guy, who I had been on and off serious dating since undergraduate years. It was a really hard breakup for me. I knew I was better off without him, but at the same time, it’s really hard to end something that you feel so passionate about without lasting and lingering emotions.

My cousin Bambi lived in Austin, Texas. Her and I had always really clicked well. She was like the older sister I always wanted, and lived a very interesting life in Austin. To get my mind off of Ex, my parents were more than happy to send me away to Austin for a week, in hopes that it would cheer me up.

I had a blast in Austin. It was a completely different planet from New Jersey, and even more different from NePA. I spent the week in Austin doing mainly outdoor activities even in the Texas humidity. Bambi and I hiked to the top of Enchanted Rock and meditated atop of the rock as we waited to see the sun set. We spent hours sunbathing and swimming at Barton Springs. I had my first ever food truck experience. It was a taco truck and they were the best tacos I had ever had in my life, and made my favorite Taco Bell Chalupas go to shame. We went to a twenty-four-hour Thai restaurant and had Thai Teas and I tasted my first ever curry. Ever since then, I love curry more than almost anything else. At the Thai restaurant, around three in the morning, we bumped into a tarot card reader, who offered to read our cards. She asked me how old I was going to be and when my birthday was. When I told her, I was turning 27 on September 27th, she told it was my golden year, and it would be unlike any other year I had lived before.

The week in Austin was amazing, and I wanted to go back as soon as I could. I booked a three-day weekend around Halloween. I flew down the night before Halloween, and Bambi and I dressed up the next day. I was Alice in Wonderland and she was Little Red Riding Hood. We went to a club and befriended some local musicians, who were pretty well known in the Austin music scene. After their set, we followed them back to their house, where the party continued. We got drunk on apple cider Jell-O shots and listened to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and contemplated all the different genres of music until the sun rose the very next morning.

After Halloween, Austin was the only place I wanted to be. I started researching doctorate programs at UT and found one that focused on autism and other behavior disorders and started filling out my application. Bambi and I texted daily about how we would change her house up once I moved down there. I even planned the route across the United States that I would take to drive there, planning detours at Graceland, Nashville, and Dallas on the way.

But then Matt happened. Matt was one of my friends from sleepaway camp, and we had recently reconnected on Facebook. To be honest, at the time, he remembered more about our friendship than I actually did. All I remembered was that he used to get all the male leads in our camp musicals. Matt was a junior at Temple University in Philadelphia and absolutely loved it and invited me down to tour the campus and visit graduate services. Temple was one of the few colleges that actually offered the MFA in creative writing that I had always wanted. So that November, I drove down to Philadelphia.


I’ve always loved Philly. I spent a lot of time in Philly because most of my undergraduate friends lived in suburbs of Philly from one direction or another. Matt lived across the street from the Franklin Institute and was within an easy walking distance of the Philadelphia Art Museum, FI, Wawa, Whole Foods, and Starbucks.

Matt was true to his word and showed me all around campus. There were delicious food trucks with cheesesteaks and crepes. I enjoyed all the buildings I spent time in while I was there and really could envision myself being at Temple and living in Philly. After marching band practice and an ice cream food truck, we went back to Matt’s apartment and marathon-watched Firefly, while eating delivery sushi, and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. About a month after I had first visited Matt, we started dating.

From then on, everything was about Philly. My graduation was getting closer and closer. I graduated that May and still had no idea where I was going to go or what I was going to do after getting my Master’s Degree. I fell in love with Philly. I loved walking downtown or taking the trams around the city.

Also, Amanda lived in Philly, and I loved how easy it was to see her. The two of us had a favorite coffee shop called the Rim Café, that had the best frozen raspberry mocha I have had to this day. Amanda and I were there so much that the owner knew us by name and even took selfies with us on his Instagram. I loved spending my weekends with Amanda during the day. We would wander South Street and giggle at the sperm fountain in Condom Kingdom or catch concerts at the Electric Factory, TLA, or Troc. We would hang out during First Fridays and show off Amanda’s jewelry or photography. We had a favorite Thai restaurant in Fishtown that we would go to. We would go to the zoo with our cameras and tripods and take pictures of all the animals we saw. Sometimes we would hop into Amanda’s car and drive to New Hope for the day and see if we could see ghosts at the crying bridge.

Sometimes I would just spend weekends with Matt. We were both introverted nerds so our weekends together consisted of ordering takeout, binging RiffTrax’ of our favorite movies, or re-watching favorite shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica. Other times, we would just play video-games. I’d play final fantasy or chrono trigger games on my Gameboy 3ds, we’d play Peggle on the computer, or Matt would try to get me to play games like Portal.

Philly became my new haven. I started researching public schools in Philly that I could apply to work at, and Matt and I talked about how we would transform his one-bedroom apartment into a place that we could both live in. It involved installing curtains to separate his huge bedroom so that we would each be able to have some privacy, and starting to budget how much it would cost to split the rent and utilities.

Right before graduation, Matt and I broke up. He had been cheating on me with a girl her met on the internet, and cheating on her with me, and eventually it slapped him in the face. At the same time, Amanda’s family decided to move to South Carolina and she decided to move there with them.

Then my grandfather died. I had been in Israel on birthright, the summer after graduation, and came back to my father and brother waiting for me at 2 am at the international arrivals sign at JFK airport to tell me he had died while I was in Israel. I had been very close to my grandfather, and I fell deep into depression, and just stopped caring about anything. I didn’t care about my future, I didn’t care about moving, I didn’t care about getting a job, I just wanted to be left alone to wallow in Farscape reruns on Netflix.

In December, my friend Kat invited me to Houston, Texas. She had been seriously dating a guy named Chris for four years and thought he was the one. Since she had thought he was the one, it seemed fitting that I needed to meet him. Every year her and Chris threw a huge New Year’s Party, so she thought that would be the perfect time for me to meet him.

I flew to Houston on New Year’s Day and had laryngitis. I was fine when I landed, but the second that plane touched the tarmac, my voice disappeared and I had to rely on communicating via a notebook and pen. At Kat’s party, I met this guy named Justin. Kat had told me all about him and thought we’d either really hit it off or hate each other. I hated him. He was drunk and obnoxious. But as the party went on, Kat wasn’t really good to game with because we were playing cooperative party games and she had no poker face. At the same time, Justin always got thrown out of those games first, so I thought maybe if him and I teamed up, we might have a chance of winning.

We didn’t, but we spent all night “talking” and for the rest of my week in Houston, wherever I was, so was he.

About two weeks later, we started a long-distance relationship.

Two years later, I moved to Houston to be with him.

One year later, we got engaged.

Three years later, we got married.

Last week, we celebrated our five-year anniversary by buying a ready-made Coldstone ice cream cake and getting drive through Chick-fil-A since every restaurant was closed because of the coronavirus.

I’m now officially a Texan. Houston is NOTHING like New Jersey. For example, there are no Dunkin Donuts unless I drive about thirty minutes from my house. There’re no such thing as back roads, and there are highways on top of highways. In New Jersey, BBQ was my dad cooking something on the grill. In Houston, BBQ is an art form. There aren’t any seasons in Houston either. It’s either bearable, hot, or unbearable. Christmas is a thing. There are so many different Christmas displays and celebrations. There are food trucks for everything, from artisan soda to peanut butter and jelly to grilled cheese sandwiches. People are friendlier here. The first time we went to Freebirds to get nachos and the worker started having a conversation with me, I was extremely confused. There aren’t just neighborhoods or streets in the suburbs of Houston, everything is a smurf-village housing development. The beaches have no waves.

It’s not exactly like the moon, but it might as well be, but I don’t think I would have it any other way.
10 3d

the real lj idol, week 4: Backwards and in Heels

*All names are fictional; all stories are true*

“You only have seven students? I wish I had seven students.”

If I had a dollar for every time, I heard that throughout the year… Well, I wouldn’t be rich, I’m sure I’d still have to teach… But maybe my Starbucks budget would be bigger?

I’m a PALS teacher. PALS is my district’s “unique” way of classifying the class, it’s known as PPCD throughout other parts of the United States, and I’m sure by other names in other places, but it’s all the same thing. I teach special ed for students from the age of 3, who are my EC students, the age of 4, who are my PreK students, and the ages of 5-6, which are my kindergarten students. The range of ages that I teach, means, depending on when a student’s birthday is, I can have them anywhere from 4-3.5 years to 1 year. And since I teach PALS, I sort of have a melting pot of students, I get them all. I get autistic students, speech delayed students, emotionally and/or behaviorally disturbed students, intellectually disabled students, students with health issues [students who might be absent a lot due to asthma or other similar health issues], students with genetic disorders [think down syndrome or fragile x, for example], or students just classified as NCEC, which means that they might have an issue, but it’s too early to classify them with anything. When they’re done with me, I decide their fate. They might go to Lifeskills or SLC, which is Lifeskills but more structured for students, who might need that structure. Or maybe they’ll go to PSI, which is for students, whose disabilities severely impair their performance in cognitive and developmental areas. Occasionally I have a student who might go to a BSC class, for severe behavior issues. We also have TREK, which is inclusion with built-in time to address sensory or other issues, or they might go into a gen ed class.

I absolutely love what I do, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world, but it sure as hell isn’t easy because my students don’t really see the world as other people.

This year, a student of mine, who I’ll call Aiden, will be graduating from me. I’ve had Aiden since he turned three. We came back after being off a month due to the damage from Hurricane Harvey, and Aiden’s apartment had flooded, and they stayed in a hotel near our school until they found a new apartment, which zoned them to my school. I’ll never forget my first year with Aiden. On the first day of school, we went to the playground for recess. Nobody knew anything about Aiden. We weren’t at his initial ARD [aka an IEP meeting, we call things strange acronyms in Houston] because he wasn’t originally zoned to our school, he just sort of showed up. I bent down to tie my shoe, and the next thing I knew Aiden was gone. I started freaking the fuck out because I didn’t even see him run away. He was there less than 30 seconds ago, and that’s all it took for him to disappear. After almost dying of a heart attack and screaming for him, one of the fifth-grade teachers came up to me with Aiden in her arms and asked jokingly if “he belonged to me.” Why yes, he does. And that is how I learned Aiden was a runner.

We had a lot of adventures with Aiden during his first year. He used to love taking all his clothes off in the cafeteria during lunch. He would steal other student’s food. He would try to run away from the cafeteria and he’d just think it was funny. He loved to turn the lights on and off constantly in the classroom. He wouldn’t sit still at all, and it took about a year before he was able to sit at the table and pay attention to what I was teaching. I’m happy to say we’re mostly past the stripping now, and he hasn’t run away in a long time. I may have cried last week during class pictures because I realized that it was the last class picture, I would ever have with him on my lap. And why is he on my lap, you ask? Well, it’s because he tries to run away from the class, every time we try to take a class picture. We’ll always be a work in progress.

We’re not perfect. I was dead to him last week over some sausage. Once a week, the PreK and Kindergarten students get a different breakfast. The PreK get sausage sandwiches, and the Kindergarten students get a breakfast bar. Aiden loves sausage. I don’t know what he loves more, sausage or fried chicken. Anyhow, he saw the PreK students getting their sausage sandwiches and he wanted one. I kept trying to explain to him that since he was no longer a PreK student, he couldn’t have the sausage sandwich, but he doesn’t understand. He sees the sausage sandwich, and he wants the sausage sandwich.

That’s where special needs kiddos and general ed kiddos are different. You can rationalize with a gen ed kiddo. You can explain to a gen ed kindergarten student that they can’t have sausage for breakfast anymore because they’re in kindergarten, and only the PreK students get sausage, and they’ll understand. But my kids don’t really see the world that way. Aiden sees sausage, and he wants the sausage, there’s no reason that he shouldn’t be able to have that sausage when it’s right there. So, throughout the entire morning, he gave me the death glare, I was dead to him. He refused to hold my hand when we transitioned from place to place, and he refused to participate in anything that day because he was mad over sausage.

My students aren’t good with schedule changes for the same reasons. Our schedule has been different lately because of all the state-testing. I can tell them that we have music THREE times this week [and they hate music] because the older kids are taking the TELPAS test, but those words mean nothing to them. They just know that normally on Thursdays, they go to computers, and for the past three Thursdays, we haven’t been able to go to computer because of testing. But they don’t rationalize the testing part. They just know their schedule is different, and they don’t like it. My students hate changes, especially the autistic students.

I’m pretty sure my vice principal hates me because I send her a trillion emails every week about how I don’t approve of her schedule changes because it greatly upsets my students. I’ll fight for them. Two weeks ago, we were supposed to have the trail riders for the Rodeo ride by our school and then have a mini cookout. My VP sent an email with a lunch change for the day. I have ancillary [what we call specials like art, music, etc.] from 9:45 to 10:30 and she was sending me to lunch at 10:30 when my lunch is normally 11:10. The thing was, fifth grade was going to lunch from 11:25 to 11:55. The special ed students sit at a table to the side of the cafeteria as opposed to a regular cafeteria, which pisses me off to no end, but I won’t get to that here. But the point is, we don’t sit at a regular lunch table. The last lunch started later than my lunch normally does. I wrote to her asking her if she could just let me have my regular lunch. We don’t sit with anyone else, so we wouldn’t be taking over a table they need. Her schedule change was too drastic for students to cope with. After ancillary, we have read-aloud and then either workstations or library before lunch on a typical day, and that’s what my students are used to. Also, we weren’t going to the trail riders because I have runners, and putting students, who run, on the sidewalk of a main and very busy street through downtown Houston seemed like a horrible idea. She wrote back to me telling me that she made the schedule the way she made it because of the cookout, and I responded being telling her that fifth grade has lunch after my lunch would normally be anyways and my students cannot cope with changes to their schedule, and she relented. She was probably tired of my emails.

Lunch is another interesting ordeal in a PALS classroom. Most of my students are nonverbal. Some grunt, some make sounds, some say words, and some say simple sentences, but they cannot verbally express their thoughts. A gen ed class can just drop their students off at the cafeteria, and be off to Sonic, Canes, Starbucks, or Subway like that. I have to wait with my students in a line. They need constant redirection to stay in line and need help placing food on their trays and carrying it to the table. On top of that, they’re very picky eaters, and they cannot verbally express their dining preferences themselves, so we need to tell the cafeteria workers everything. We need to tell them that Aiden likes his nachos with cheese and meat, Jared won’t eat cheese on his burgers, and Nathanial doesn’t like his tacos with meat. Also, since the gen ed teachers are probably drinking their venti lattes as I’m waiting with my students in the lunch-line. I’m also usually the one, who must discipline their students on the line because if I don’t, nobody will. By the time, my students are through the line, and their milk cartons or ketchup packets are open, about ten to fifteen minutes have passed, and I’m lucky if I get a good 10-20-minute lunch for myself.

Rainy and cold days are another issue. After lunch, we have recess. For recess, we go to the playground. My students have gotten better at understanding the concept of rain, and realizing that if it’s raining, we can’t play on the playground, but we haven’t yet grasped the concept of cold. Texans aren’t very good in cold weather, as soon as the temperature hits about sixty degrees, they come out in parkas. To them, a temperature of anything below about 65 degrees is extremely cold [at least in Houston, where the climate is generally hot, hotter, or hot as hell]. When we get a cold front, and it does get a bit chilly, it’s too cold for my students. They’ll shiver and cry, so we tend to have an inside recess, but they’re not always okay with it. You can tell a gen ed class that it’s too cold to play outside, and they understand. I can tell my students that, they won’t understand it and they’ll be upset, or I could try to let them play for a few minutes, but they tend to get upset because they’re so cold, so either way, it’s a losing situation.

Fire drills are another issue. They’re ALWAYS during my naptime. No matter how much I beg the administration to hold fire drills, in the morning, they refuse. The gen ed students must come first, especially the fifth graders. According to admin, the morning is “prime time” for fifth-grade academics, and they don’t want to interrupt that because the fifth grader’s scores on state tests are very important, more important than my special needs students’ needs. They can’t have them after ten am because it interrupts the lunch schedule, which starts at around ten am and lasts until almost 1 pm. My nap time starts at 12:15, and my students need those naps. They may be chronologically 3-6, but mentally, they’re much younger. So like clockwork, during the last week of every month, there’s a fire drill during naptime. My children are DEEP sleepers with varied sensory needs, imagine how traumatic it is for them to be woken up from REM sleep to a very loud siren and not having any idea what’s going on, then being rushed outside, in a crowd of 500 something other students. They’re not okay with that, and to be honest, I don’t really blame them. I can tell them about the fire drill, I can use a visual schedule to show them a fire drill, or I can read them a social story about a fire drill, but none of that adequately prepares them for an actual fire drill, and that’s just the nature of their disabilities.

One of the best things about my students is their honesty. They don’t know how to be dishonest or how to lie. There have been years when I have had verbal students, who I could have a conversation with. One year, I was reading a book about naming a cat as our read-aloud for a week, and I was telling them I had five cats. One of my girls looks at me and told me that “You have too many cats, you need to make real friends.” Another time, I read the book Leaf Men by Lois Ehlert and we were making our own “leaf men” during art time, and one of my boys said, “I don’t want a leaf man, I want a girlfriend.” If my hair or makeup looks bad, I can always count on one of my students to tell me so. One time we were rhyming words in the “at” family and one of the words was “fat” and one of my students told me I was fat. I ran for an extra-long amount time on the treadmill that week. Their compliments are also the most meaningful. If a student tells me that I look good that day or they like my outfit, they probably mean it since just the last week, they told me that my “hair looked like crap.”

Special needs students also don’t really have a lot of drama compared to gen ed students. My one girl, the one who told me I needed friends, decided that she was going to marry two male students in my class when she got older. I told her that she could probably only choose one of them and asked her which one it would be, and she just shrugged and told me that she would work it out. It’s not like when I taught first grade, and Sofia had a different boyfriend every week, resulting in some messy breakups, and fighting on the playground.

Teaching PALS, I seem to spend 50% of my time in the bathroom. Since I get children, at such young ages, we’re usually the ones, who are responsible for potty-training them when we deem their ready, or when parents demand it in an ARD meeting. A gen ed teacher can just send a child to the bathroom and that’s that. If I’m potty-training a child, I’m with them in the bathroom, sitting them [or standing by the toilet or urinal, if appropriate] on the toilet, with a stopwatch, trying to sing happy songs about going to the bathroom, and encouraging them. The song I coined during my first-year teaching PALS goes “Pee Pee in the Potty, Pee Pee in the Pot,” which makes no sense, to be honest, but my students seem to love it. If my students have accidents, I can’t just send them to the nurse with a change of clothes like a gen ed student, I must change them myself. Just the other day, I was potty-training, Gabe, one of my newer kindergarten students, and well, he just doesn’t understand potty-training or anything, but mom is insistent. He sits on the toilet, and says, “I did it” and that’s pretty much as far as we’ve gotten. He has absolutely no concept of needing to go to the bathroom, nor does being wet or soiled bother him. During dismissal, after holding it all day, sitting and trying before dismissal, he just peed in the hallway and was sitting in a puddle of his own piss. He didn’t seem to notice or care. I had to tell the janitorial staff, for at least the third time that week, that they needed to clean up more pee in the hallway, and the dirty looks they gave me were epic.

I also change a lot of diapers. When I first started teaching PALS, I think it took me a good 10 minutes or so, to change and clean a child, I’ve gotten it down to less than 3 minutes. But even when you’re changing a diaper, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the child is doing his or her business or will keep their hands still when you’re wiping their butts. I learned early on, in my teaching career, to keep complete changes of clothes, always. One time, we went on a field trip to the zoo, and a mom didn’t bother to tell me that their child was having diarrhea issues because she didn’t want her daughter to miss the trip. Almost on the hour, I had to rush her into the zoo bathroom, put on gloves, and change her diaper and clothes.

And that is the glamorous life of a PALS teacher, and I still wouldn’t change it for the world. Nothing makes me happier than when a parent tells me how much I’ve done for their child. Nothing makes me happier than to see all the growth I see while my students are in my class. To have a student go from crying for almost the entire 8-hour school day to coming in with a huge smile, and excited to start his or her day. Nothing can beat the excitement when a student says their first word, after being nonverbal for an extended period of time, no matter what that word might be. Nothing makes me happier than making a difference in a special needs child’s life.

So maybe I only have seven kids, but I do everything and more than a gen ed teacher does, forwards, and backward, but without the heels, because most likely because I’m running after a student down the hallway, and I’d trip in heels.
10 3d

The real lj idol, topic 3: Busman's Holiday

For the most part, I’m happy at my job. I love what I teach, my kiddos are pretty damn adorable, especially this year, my co-workers are all nice, and I get along really well with the special ed team. The admin leaves me alone, and I have the freedom to run my PALS [PreK special education] classroom how I want it to run, and for the first time since I’ve started teaching, I’m content. However, the one thing I really hate about my job, and it’s really the only thing, is my commute.

My commute is insane. It’s not too bad in the morning, if I leave my house by 5:45 am, but it’s bad when I come back from school. My commute takes me 25ish minutes in the morning, and then that 25 minutes turns to 60 to 120 minutes, depending on traffic and weather in the Houston area. On a good day, it’s 60 minutes home, when it rains it’s about an hour to get home, but when there’s an accident or I’m stuck at school til 4:30 for a pointless staff meeting that never has anything to do with SPED, I’m lucky if I get home by 7 pm. There’s no way around those driving times. There’s only one highway that leads to the city I live in, and to get to that highway, I have a choice of three other highways, and to be honest, they’re all equidistant to my highway, give or take five minutes. Not only that, it seems that several highways are always being worked on at once, and the road work never seems to end. Every day, there’s a new detour that I get to take. Let’s pretend that my commute never has any issues, so that would be 5 hours alone just in driving home, which equals about 20 hours, in my car every month, only going home from work. School is in session for about 10 months, I’ll round it down to 9 months with all of the holiday breaks… So, 20 times 9 is 180 hours that I spend in a car every year, and that’s NOT even including my commute to work, which would be about 90 hours. So, in a school year, all together, I spent 270 hours driving in my car, and that’s assuming I never ever hit traffic.

You would think that with spending all that time in a car, I’d want to spend my various breaks, NOT in a car. But instead, my husband and I are really into road trips. We both hate flying, I hate it because I’m claustrophobic and LOST didn’t help my fear of crashing, and my husband just hates the pressure of having to be somewhere at a specific time, and spending money just to be squished like the insides of a hoagie sandwich for several hours on a plane. This year, we went on several road trips. For Thanksgiving break, we went to Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and for winter break, we drove all the way to Key West and caught a ferry to Dry Tortugas National Park. It was about 10.5 hours one way to Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains, and it was 20 hours one way to Key West, Florida. That’s 61 hours of driving add that to the 270 hours I already spend driving to and from work, that’s 331 hours. There are 8760 hours in a year, and my trips this year were 3.7% of them.

Road trips will make or break a couple. When you’re stuck in a car, for about 10-15 hours with another person, relationships are tested. On the way to Key West, as well as one way back to Key West, I almost wanted to kill my husband. The only thing that kept us sane was Dresden Files audiobooks because it distracted me enough that I wasn’t thinking about how long I’ve been in the car. I’m not even allowed to drive on our road trips because when we went on our honeymoon, which was a road trip through the west to Yosemite National Park to Crater Lake National Park to Olympic National Park to Yellowstone National Park to Rocky Mountains National Park before we finally returned to Texas, I almost killed us. We rented a SUV because we knew there would be a lot of mountainous driving, and we needed four-wheel drive to feel safe. I had practiced driving the SUV around our town and I thought I was fine, but as soon as I got behind the wheel on a highway on the way to Amarillo, Texas, I almost crashed it into an 18-wheeler. I haven’t been allowed to drive ever since. Instead, I play DJ, and crush caffeine pills, strawberry watermelon 5 Hour Energy, and red bull to stay awake so my husband doesn’t fall asleep.

The worst part about any road trip is night-driving. There’s nothing to see at night except streetlights, exit lights, and headlights. Driving during the day is a little bit better, there’s a lot more to see from the green forests of Oregon to the Waterfalls of Washington to the snowy Mountains of Colorado. Even driving from Houston to El Paso, you get a change of scenery. You pass San Antonio, and then there’s pretty much nothing until you get to El Paso. The worst scenery is the drive from Houston to New Mexico. It starts out okay, but then the GPS redirects you to these backroads, where there’s nothing to see but oil fields and dust.

The other is going to the bathroom. When you drive to so many places in the United States, not all of them are accessible by main highway. Sometimes it’s hard to know when the next bathroom is coming up, so you learn to stop whenever you can and wherever you can.

Sometimes we hit traffic. Usually we’ve been lucky in the traffic department, however. The worst traffic we ever hit was driving to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. We were driving on a two-lane highway, and there was a car accident. Considering the highway was only two lanes, and in an area devoid of 5g or cell towers, the traffic delay was epic. Another time we hit traffic was entering California from Nevada. There’s a California Agriculture Inspection Station at the border. The inspectors are looking to make sure commodities coming into California are free from exotic invasive species within plant materials such as fruits, vegetables, and firewood. We had none of that and were waived through immediately, but imagine how much time it took, when there are only a few inspection stations and so many cars and trucks are driving on the same road. We also had a lot of traffic driving through Yellowstone National Park, and with the wildlife going on the roads through the park, as well as all the cars that visit Yellowstone every year, it can sometimes take over an hour to get from point A to point B within the national park.

There are plus sides to road trips, however. We always stock the car with our favorite junk food before we leave. For me, that includes at least three different pringles flavors, vanilla frosted cupcake pop tarts, and every and all trail mixes with peanut butter anything. For my husband, it’s usually goldfish crackers, s’mores pop tarts, and cheez its. If you don’t pig out during a road trip, you’re not doing it the right way. There’s also nothing quite like Flying J and Pilot Coffee, or seeing a Dunkin Donuts en route to wherever, and knowing I can get a frozen or iced coffee from there. [We sadly lack Dunkin Donuts in my area]. On the East Coast, there’s Sheetz and Wawa, my two favorite convenience stores, which sadly pwn Bucc-ees, in my opinion… Sorry Texans… There’s also the fun of discovering random restaurants wherever we are, such as that time in Kennewick, Washington, where we discovered the best Indian food ever. I also love seeing so much of the United States, I’ve been to 45/50 states, 44 of them via driving and road trips, and there’s so much beauty in this country that people never get to see because they take planes to get from point A to point B, or they just ignore visiting national and state parks all together.

The scariest drive we had was driving from Saguaro National Park in Arizona to Zion National Park in Utah. The drive started out fine. We took a detour to Horseshoe Bend. On the way to Zion, after that, we got distracted by the Glen Canyon Dam, and like all the other tourists, we parked our car on the road so we could take pictures of the Dam during sunset. It started getting dark as we left the Dam, and at the same time, we entered a different time zone. About an hour or so after left the dam, it started snowing. It was pitch black, there was pretty much no light on the roads, and the snow swirled in the air making blurred shapes at such a rapid pace that we couldn’t see two feet in front of us.

We passed a Hampton Inn, a little before we were about to drive on the Zion-Mt Carmel Highway. I told my husband that we should just get a room for the night because the snow was getting bad and I was worried about making it to the park. He insisted that we would be fine. This was December 2018, and the national park shutdown had just happened. This trip had been planned over a year ago just to get lodging within the national parks, and we didn’t want to cancel it due to something beyond our control. Utah was paying money to keep their park open during the winter tourist season, but they still had a reduced staff. As we drove down the highway towards Springdale, Utah, the snow got harder, and visibility was reduced to pretty much nothing. The highway was filled with curves and switchbacks. There were no safety railings on the road as we started our descent down the cliff, and we couldn’t see anything in the snow. At one point, we just stopped moving. We didn’t move for over an hour, and I kept on thinking this was the end. I wasn’t sure if we had enough warm clothes or food or water to survive a night in the single digit temperatures of Utah. After a very tense hour, a national park service employee tapped on our window and explained that a car had slipped on the ice and nose-dived headfirst into some of the packed snow on the road. A plow was helping to dig the car out, and she told us we could follow the plow down to Springdale, Utah. Later, my husband confessed that he really thought we weren’t going to survive that drive, and that that was the end. At least, we would have died together, in the car, where we had most of our adventures in.

Another frightful drive we had was when I moved from New Jersey to Texas. We decided to make a pitstop at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We drove all the way to Clingman’s Dome at the peak of the mountains, and as we got to the top, took our pictures, and as we were driving back down the mountain, the beautiful blue skies turned a smoky gray color. Suddenly, it started to pour. When I say pour, I mean that I couldn’t see two feet in front of me, the windshield wipers weren’t strong enough to fight the rain, there was thunder and lightning everywhere, and we were driving down a mountain with no safety rails and some very impressive curves.

One of the coolest drives we had was through Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. Maybe it was because it was the middle of June, and desert temperatures average around 90 t0 100 degrees, or maybe it was because the Petrified Forest isn’t as visited as the Grand Canyon, but we had the entire park to ourselves. We drove the 28.6-mile scenic drive throughout the park and saw the Painted Desert and the Blue Mesa. The colors and landscape made it seem like we were on another planet. We bought our national park passports there, and got our first cancellation stamps and stickers, which is a tradition we’ve kept up since we visited Petrified Forest. We’re both on Passport number 2 now because we’ve filled the pages with so many cancelations from different parks we’ve visited over the years.

Another favorite drive was driving the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive at Big Bend National Park from Rio Grande Campground, where we had been camping, to the Santa Elena Canyon. Big Bend National Park is so big that you could probably spend about a week there, just driving from destination to destination. The landscape at Big Bend is so different from the landscape in other parts of Texas. There are the swampy marshlands by Rio Grande Campground, the natural hot springs on the Rio Grande River, which are always open, and I highly recommend visiting them as the sun rises. Then there’s the limestone cliffs of the Santa Elena Canyon, and the mountains near Chisos Basin. The Chisos Mountains are the only mountain range in the United States to be contained in a single national park. The stars at night are amazing. The best time to visit is during a new moon, where there’s no light from the moon to disrupt the endless stargazing. There was one night during our three-day camping trip there, when I saw at least ten shooting stars, and during certain times of the year, the Milky Way is also fully visible.

We’re taking most of next year off from going on vacation. It’ll be kind of weird NOT being in a car for one of our breaks, and just staying at home and playing video-games and marathoning Netflix and Hulu. Our next trip is in June 2021. We’re going to Glacier National Park, crossing the border to Canada, and driving to Banff National Park, Yoho National Park, and Kootenay National Park. Altogether, the driving for that trip totals 1018 miles and 14 hours or 841 minutes in a car, starting from the Spokane airport.

With how much driving to and from school and how much my commute pisses me off. I guess it’s kind of ironic that I spend most of my free time, choosing to be in a car for very long periods of time, but it’s worth it for all the things that I’ve seen during those long drives even though it seems like the majority of my waking hours are spent driving in cars.