Sunday, September 16, 2012

On Teaching

Since the beginning of the semester, I have been thinking about the semester, about my workload, about the challenges I gave myself this semester. For the past couple of years, due to political personnel issues at work, I have given myself teaching schedules that didn't require tons of attention and time on campus. It was an escape. A way to deal with my job. There were times during those two years when I perused job boards consistently, at times pondering moving in order to change jobs. Things would get so bad that sometimes I would enter a class immediately after an hour conversation with colleagues, spinning in distress. My mind wasn't in the game. I spaced out more often in class, trying to recover a bit of myself. Fortunately, despite this, I still did a good job, but not a great one.

I hadn't really thought about the depth of those two years much until Friday when I took a teacher narrative workshop. As I wrote and reflected, I realized that those years placed me at a crossroads of decision, a reckoning with my current job. During what I recall as two years of job hell, I found solace and sanity by returning to my writing, taking writing workshops and working with a writing coach. This redirected my attention away from work and back to a practice of craft I had missed for decades. Not only did this save me, in a way, but it also gave me ways to connect back. I brought my experiences into the classroom and found myself relating to my students on a new level of authenticity.

During the spring semester, my writing came first. Weekends were first devoted to my own writing, to assignments for my workshop. Only after that was done, did I turn to prepping for classes and grading. Fortunately, my prepping demanded little, since my schedule was easy (nothing new in terms of prep and classes I could wing at the last minute). Early in the spring semester, when I finalized my fall schedule, I opted for challenge, deciding that if I were to continue at my job, I had to cease being lazy.

With this new schedule this fall (new class, new text, all F2F), I am piled under at times, stressed by the enormity of the work I need to do for classes, pissed that my writing has to come after. For four weeks, I've spent most of my time bitching about my exhaustion, my heavy workload, my shitty schedule that I gave myself. Yet, for four weeks, I go into all my classes smiling, engaged with students, laughing, and finding that we have begun to hit our stride with a nicely developing sense of community. Even though I teach three classes back-to-back-to-back with only a quick 30 minutes for lunch, I am energized when done. And so far, I've done a fairly good job of using that 30 minute lunch to actually sit and eat with colleagues, rather than multitasking with the computer and food. I have full days, and by the time Thursday rolls around, I don't want to do much, and fortunately, often have the luxury of the day to recover.

During the teacher narrative workshop, I wrote my way toward some sense of peace and gratitude around my struggles with balancing work and writing. I do get to do it all in a way, but I have to go about life a bit more carefully in terms of time, at least for now. Socializing needs to be kept at somewhat of a minimum, and when I know that I have several things coming up, I need to work ahead. On weekends, I need to devote an entire day to nothing but school and writing. Down time isn't really an option, at least if I want both work and writing.

And honestly, it ain't all that terrible. Yes, I spent hours this weekend working, but it's not so awful that working means closely reading an Annie Dillard essay that reminds me to slow down. It's not so awful that working means teaching myself about the artistic, musical, literary, architectural, and philosophical ideas that defined the Realism period. My brain is alive and I am challenged.

To stretch myself does mean some stress, but out of that stress brings a sense of life, of active engagement, of pushing my boundaries a bit rather than resting it out.

On the eve of week five, I am still excited, still slightly nervous, and grateful.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Sudah makan?

I am spoiled when it comes to neighborhood food choices. Platte Park has no shortage of restaurants, and choosing between some of the great spots on Broadway (Azucar, Buffalo Doughboy, Capital Tea) and South Pearl Street (Park Burger, Sushi Den, Black Pearl, Kaos Pizza) can make an indecisive girl dizzy. Now, however, I have found a new go-to place for a delicious inspired Malaysian meal--Makan Malaysian Cafe

Nan and I decided to have an impromptu lunch out on Friday, finally finding the time to give this two-and-a-half month old neighborhood restaurant a try. We walked in, and not only were we immediately greeted by a waitstaff and a welcoming light space, but we realized that our neighbors were there having lunch. When we sat down at an open table next to them, they immediately introduced us to their two new friends, Pravine and James, who got up to shake our hands. They had traveled from Morrison to this part of town so they could have some Malaysian food. In two months, James was headed to travel around Thailand and Vietnam, ultimately teaching English abroad for awhile. Our neighbors gushed about the food, swearing to the glory of the Curry Puff and Kari Ayam (chicken curry). For awhile, the six of us chatted, all comfortably from our separate tables.

The restaurant is a small space, with one row of tables that seat two or four; they can easily be combined for larger parties. The tables are positioned close enough to share conversations, but separate enough to converse with your dining companion. There's also a small community table and a few wooden stools at a counter, a place to sit and grab a cup of espresso and a Malaysian pastry. 

Usually, when Nan and I are venturing into new menu territory, we try for different dishes, wanting to get a decent sampling of the restaurant's offerings. This time, Mee Siam grabbed us both, and I'd be tempted when returning, to order it yet again. This noodle dish yields a variety of flavors, from the hints of chili spiced noodles to the tangy fresh lime on the plate for a fresh squeezed dressing. Mixed in the dish are shrimp, spongy tofu, and green onions. The dish is garnished with long strips of cooked eggs. For a starter, we ordered the pork and shrimp wontons, a dish of three pouch-like fried dumplings, delicious small bites accompanied with a slightly sweet chili sauce.

Since we were both tired from a long bike ride and hot from the heat, we selected Makan's Teh Halia , their "pick me up" (mixture of Teh Tarik and ginger juice) as a drink. The cool comfort of a milky tea with a zing of ginger perfectly accompanied all the flavors of our dishes. 

What I really love about this new neighborhood spot is that it serves unfamiliar dishes. While the menu has some familiars, such as roti and satay, it has plenty of mystery with dishes such as rendang daging (beef rendang) and nasi lemak. Most of the dishes feature a mix of spices and coconut, characteristic of Malaysian cuisine.

The place has character (the good kind), with small instructions on each table about the best way to eat Malaysian food (fork and spoon for dishes that are served on a plate, fingers for small dishes such as our wontons, and chopsticks for food served in a bowl). Community and a passion of food are clearly evident here. At the top of the menu is the question, "Have you eaten?" (sudah makan?), a typical greeting in Malaysia. Any place that greets me that way is my type of restaurant. When I leave this slice of Malaysia, I can say yes, I have eaten.