Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Curse of Being Interesting

The curse of being interesting

Honestly, I rarely tryto be interesting. I actually like to be in the background. Even though I speak in front of people, present classes every week and have danced in front of hundreds of people, I secretly like working in obscurity, which makes my writing habit an excellent fit for me. However, I have made some non-standard life choices. 

It all started out normal: I got married right out of college and had three children within five years. I was a stay-at-home mom. I converted to Catholicism and I followed all their rules for a good eight years.

But after a while, the façade started to wear out and the real me started to poke through the thin spots. I started writing again, and the writing led me to evaluate my life. I wasn’t exactly happy. I went back to graduate school at about 30, while I still had three young kids. I got a job as a bartender to pay for my tuition. 

Eventually, my marriage wore out, too. When my ex and I split up, we arranged for shared custody of our children, and I felt like had to quit and look for a “real job.” I spent whole days applying for jobs online. It is rough to find a job when you’ve been out of the normal workforce for a while, and all you can put on your resume is bartender and mother of three. Aware of my shortcomings, I wrote a cover letter that tried to bend these experiences into a useful work background. 

I remember once, when I was in high school, a history teacher returned one of my term papers with the comment, “This paper is a little too ‘creative.’” He knocked five points off my grade, but I scoffed. How could creativity ever be a bad thing?

Well, it can be bad when you want a steady job.

As the application process went on, I felt like I was getting rejected by companies where I had never even applied. Eventually, I received an enthusiastic phone call from the editor of The Postal Record, the magazine of the National Association of Letter Carriers. He was moving up in the company, and they were looking for a new writer and copy editor. He said they found my application interesting,and they wanted to meet me in person.

Delighted, I scheduled the interview and found someone to watch my kids for the day. I went out and bought a new interview suit--a very adorable brown number with a fit-and-flare skirt. It was businesslike, but still attractive. I got brand-new brown spectator pumps to go with it. I bought a Metro card. 

On interview day, I got up, took my kids to my friend’s house, drove an hour to the Metro, then rode 30 minutes into the city. I was early, but I ended up walking about a mile in the wrong direction before I realized my mistake and went back. So far, the day had cost me about $150 that I did not have. But it was fine, because this job would be a perfect fit. I had trade association experience. I had worked magazines in the past. Yes, it would be terribly far from home and the logistics of getting kids to and from school would be tough, but lots of people did it. I could find a way. 

I finally arrived at NALC, and was quickly shown into the interview room. It was to be a group meeting, with two or three staff members. I was ready to love them from the moment we met. There was an older man and woman, a man younger than me (who currently held the job for which I was applying). The older two reminded me of college professors. I felt that I could come in to work wearing hemp sandals and do yoga at my desk during lunch break, and that would be okay.

The mood broke about five seconds after I sat down, when the young man said, “To be honest, we actually think we’ve already found someone who is an absolutely perfect fit for this job and has the right job experience. We just wanted to meet you, because we thought your cover letter was so interesting.”

Interesting. Yes. My brain started ticking off the expenses of my trip to the city, the lost time with my kids, the blisters sustained from walking two miles from the Metro station…and I felt a strong surge of yuck wash through me.

Things did not get better. Although this was a job interview (with a labor union, no less), my interviewers asked how I would manage to juggle my children and a full-time job. Just in case you’re wondering, you’re not actually allowed to ask those questions in an interview.

Since there was no way I was getting this job now, I decided to go full-out interesting. In response to their questions about my childcare, I told the interviewers I’d “work it out with my partner,” which I knew would make it sound like I had a same-sex life-partner somewhere. I was actually talking about my mom, but that wasn’t nearly interesting enough.

As if the interview weren’t bad enough, I also had to take a copy editing test. I was consumed with a sense of wasted time at that point, so I made the most flaccid effort I have ever put forth on any sort of contest.

Needless to say, the other girl got the job. But I got a lesson—whether or not it was a good one remains to be seen. Don’t be too interesting your applications. Just interesting enough. Save the really kooky stuff for after they get to know you a little. And if that means fewer interviews, fine. Hopefully it means a more precise job-hunt where you are showing them exactly what they need to see for you to get the job you want. Another lesson: always insist on a phone interview first, and get serious about the questions you ask in that first screening, to see if it really is right. Because you need to make sure that once you get there for good, you’ll be able to be your real self, and your office won’t just tolerate it: they will need it. 

Monday, April 15, 2019

My view of PTSD

In my yoga trainings, we talked a lot about PTSD. This is also something I deal with personally, so I thought I'd share what it looks like in my life, just a little, not the full picture, because it's too much.

PTSD is standing in the rain with a friend, scraping off any conspicuous markings on your car so that you'll be harder to find in a parking lot. 
It's knowing how to check your car for tracking devices, because the sheriff showed you.
It's surveying a room thoroughly before you enter. It's looking out the windows before you leave, and sticking your head out the door before you commit to walking outside. 
It's jumping through your skin when someone in the gym drops a heavy weight.
It's building up anxiety for a period of days, before you have to go do a thing, so much that you actually feel sick, but you go anyway. And then it takes two days to feel ok again. 
It's moving and not wanting to share your address with anyone, and when you do, admonishing them not to share it with anyone else. 
It's a feeling of dread upon opening your email, or hearing your text message chime.
It's not being able to sleep, and waking up every few hours when you do, thinking you heard that noise...
It's worse if you've experienced the same type of traumatic event multiple times in your life.
It's people telling you it can't be that bad, or you are exaggerating, that you are making too much out of things...

It's so much more, but it's not me. It doesn't define me. I keep going, I keep doing the things. Even when they are hard. Especially when they are hard.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Meal prep: Saving your sanity, one meal at a time.

It’s a fact of modern life that we are all crazy busy. As a yoga teacher, I could tell you about the value of simplifying, cutting back, and prioritizing, but this is reality. We all have struggles. We all have some combination of demanding jobs, kids, aging parents, social obligations, volunteer commitments, fitness needs, and recreational habits. Plus the stuff we actually want to do. This is what makes it so tempting (and sometimes necessary) to order pizza or stop for McDonald’s on the way home.

When I was a kid, McDonald’s for dinner was a way of life. It was just my mother and I at home during my middle and high school years, and by the time she finished her commute home from work, the lastthing she wanted to do was cook. So we ate a lot of burgers and fries. We ate so much takeout that I actually got sick of it. This is when I started learning to cook. She was the only working parent she knew who could look forward to coming home, most days of the week, to dinner made by her kid—without even having to guilt me.

Things are a little different for me now. When my kids were home, I made good use of my Crockpot to create meals with something for everyone. But now that the kids are mostly gone and it’s just me, my cooking strategy has changed. It’s hard to find the motivation to make dinner every night for just myself, and although I don’t do McDonald’s, there’s the lure of the Thai House just down the street, with their $13 shrimp Pad Thai waiting to destroy my caloric and monetary budgets.

This is where meal planning and prep comes to the rescue. I spend about two hours, one day per week preparing most of a week’s meals. Sometimes I end up with even more than I can eat in a week, like when I make chili or spaghetti sauce, and I can put half away in the freezer for a bonus on another week. I try to portion out each meal in individual serving containers, unless it’s something that needs to be stored separately until eaten, like pita sandwiches. 

If I plan my meals well, there is very little waste when I cook this way, because I cook it all at the start of the week. You know how sometimes, you have great ideas when you go shopping on Sunday, and you think you’re going to make something like salmon en croute, but by Wednesday, you are exhausted and you just end up eating a bowl of cereal for dinner and then all your expensive food goes to waste? Well, if you have already prepped your food, heating it up is exactly as much work as making cereal, and a lot more tasty. 

Here are some of my top tips for meal planning success: 
·     Keep everything simple.Don’t imagine you are going to make five elaborate dishes that each take an hour to prepare. Think quick, easy, mix and match.    
·     Pre-cook one starch per weekand store it as a base to put under your sauces. You can cook one round of quinoa, rice, faro, millet, or whatever else you crave and store it in the fridge for three to four days.
·     Cook one protein, use it multiple ways. This week, I made delicious turkey meatballs that I ate over quinoa with jarred marinara sauce. Another day, they’ll appear on a flatbread with melty fresh mozzarella. For lunch, they will crown some romaine lettuce and cherry tomatoes.
·     Use prepared foods where it makes sense. Rotisserie chickens save you about an hour and a half of cooking time, and you can shred that cooked chicken and use the meat to make salads, pita sandwiches and hearty soups. Jarred pesto and marinara can elevate a quick meal into next-level awesomeness. Hot smoked salmon is amazing on a salad. It keeps perfectly unopened and you don’t even have to heat it. Best of all, for singles, it comes in 4oz packages, which happens to be an exactly perfect serving size. 

Where to find meal prep ideas
If you don’t yet feel comfortable coming up with your own meal prep plans, there are lots of places online where you can find ideas. Many sites will want to charge you, but I say ba-humbug to that. If I am so cheap that I am trying to save money by eating in every meal of the week, clearly I don’t have the cash to spend on pre-arranged meal plans.
So here are a few places I’ve found with ideas. Keep in mind, I am gluten free, but not all of these suggestions are. I made my own GF adaptations.
·     The Kitchn: Meal Prep Plan: A Week of Easy 1500-Calorie Days. The turkey meatballs recipe here is amazing, and it really gets into the details of how to prep and pack everything.
·     Eating Well: 14 Day Gluten-Free Meal Plan 1,500 Calories. This list is more about meal planning than prep ahead, but still some great ideas that capitalize on reusing the same ingredients to save you money and simplify prep. I love the Salmon with Chimichurri.
Don’t want to try a whole lot of new things? That’s ok, just keep it simple. Stick with your favorites. Try to think of things that hold well in the refrigerator or freezer, like veggie chili, spaghetti sauce with ground turkey, and grilled chicken. One day when you have some time, make a big pot of chili, another of spaghetti sauce. Grill a family pack of chicken breasts (or pull apart a rotisserie chicken). When the chili and the spaghetti sauce are done, portion them out into two-cup containers and cool them in the fridge. Cut up the chicken and store it separately in two-cup, freezer-safe containers.  Evaluate how much you think you can eat in a week, and put the rest in the freezer (use a strip of masking tape and a sharpie to label and date the containers).  Wash, dry and tear some lettuce into salad-sized pieces. Portion the salad greens into two-cup containers. Put some cherry tomatoes, beans, and whatever other sturdy vegetables you like into the containers. Prepare as many salads as you think you can eat in 2-3 days.  
And there you go. On any weeknight, you can come home and toss some chicken onto a bed of lettuce for an instant salad, or heat up your chili, or put on some pasta for spaghetti in 15 minutes. Ta-da.

Personally, I love having my prepped meals to look forward to, and knowing that I don’t need to exert any effort to make them, except heating them up. I also love knowing that it only costs me about $100 to buy all of my food (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and coffee) for the week.  That is less than $5 per meal, and includes coffee! And snacks! And I know all the ingredients of my food, so I can manage my salt, sugar and fat intake as necessary. So even if you don’t go all-in and make a whole week’s worth of food at once, I do hope that maybe you are a little inspired to spend about 20 minutes planning the week’s meals before you shop, and that you adhere to the concepts of keeping meals simple, using similar ingredients so you don’t spend a ton of money or waste a lot of food, and using prepared foods where it makes sense.

Have a healthy and prosperous day!

Friday, December 14, 2018

What do you mean, self-care?

Sometimes, life gets crazy.

I'm not talking about the kind of crazy where one morning, you overslept and missed the bus and forgot to pack lunch, I mean crazy like six months of extended insanity. Maybe you just had twins, or you are trying to finish your dissertation while you are also homeschooling four kids, or you are going through a divorce, and then your mother suffers a stroke that leaves her physically challenged, and you are her primary caretaker. Ongoing, long-term CRAZY.

People will say things to you like, "Make sure you take care of yourself." But after a while, there are so many things to take care of that you really start to wonder what taking care of yourself actually means. So I thought I'd break it down into self-care by levels of insanity. Keep in mind that the ideas expressed in level 1 remain good ideas as you become more spazzed out, it's just more impossible to imagine having the opportunity to achieve such luxurious expenditures of me-time. You still may need and want all the self-care activities described in level 1 as you approach DefCon 5, it's just harder to get there.

DefCon 1. Things really aren't that bad. 
You are experiencing the routine stress of a normal life. You have a job, yay! And it keeps you busy. Sometimes, it's difficult getting food on the table, making it to the gym and finding time to do your hair. In this case, self-care may mean taking time for a nice massage or a mani-pedi. Or perhaps journaling and going to the therapist.

DefCon 2. Things are a little crazier, but just in the short-term.
Your in-laws, about 30 of them, are coming to your house for Christmas, and everything must be perfect. You must hand-make enough food and shop for each guest. If people are bringing food, they will want you to tell them what to bring. There's about a week of planing for the food and a month of shopping involved here, but you know it will all end on Christmas Day. In this scenario, self-care may include everything from DefCon 1, if you are so lucky. But if not, make sure you get a shower on party day, and budget time to do your hair and makeup so that you are not still in your pajamas, covered in flour and sporting bed-head when everyone shows up. Remember, they can all bring a dish to share, and if things aren't perfect, who cares?

DefCon 3. Things are starting to get real.
Maybe you are overworked during a peak season like tax time or Christmas, or possibly trying to finish grad school while raising little kids. This is a longer-term situation, but it's still bearable because it's all positive. When you look around, you may see piles of clean laundry taunting you, and you may have some dishes in the sink that really need to be washed. You say to yourself, once I get through finals/Tax season, I am going to "_________." During the stress phase, you know there is a light at the end of the tunnel, so you can plan awesome self-care events like vacations for your break times. During your rush times, self-care is down to making sure you eat actual human meals on a daily basis, and brush your teeth and put yourself into pajamas and your own bed, instead of downing a bag of microwave popcorn and a bottle of wine before falling asleep on the sofa.

DefCon 4. You've had a few anxiety attacks.
The big difference between DefCon 3 and 4 is that you can't see the light at the end of the tunnel anymore. You are dealing with a situation that has no set expiration date, like a loved-one's illness, the loss of a job (and probably working a few stop-gap jobs while trying to job-search) or possibly going through a major life change like a divorce. Every day brings you something new to deal with, a thousand decisions to be made that must be made RIGHT NOW, and none of them are what you would like. You have become so accustomed to the piles of laundry that you accept them as part of the landscape. You've given up on eating real human food and think that a hot dog from 7-11 is an excellent source of protein. At DefCon 4, self-care means calling in reinforcements. Hopefully you have friends of family who are always saying, "If you need anything, let me know." Well, let them know that you would love about an hour of their time to help you put away some laundry and wash dishes so you can go take a nap or a shower, or whatever you need the most.

DefCon5. I'm so sorry you're here.
This is sustained, long term crazy. In my fantasy world, I think that self-care in DefCon5 looks like running away to Jamaica and never coming back. Perhaps changing my name. The vegetation is so lush in Jamaica, I feel like I could live in the jungle and survive off the mangoes and bananas for quite some time. However, I would definitely stick out like a sore thumb, and I don't think it would be realistic. So, real-life self-care at this level means setting some boundaries that you probably should have set at DefCon 2. You are one person. You can't do for everyone. When crazy eventually becomes the "new normal," you must adapt. Change the situation. Get help. Hire people if needed, or call on family and friends.
And if that fails, spend the last few dollars on that plane trip to Jamaica. And look me up when you get there. Oh right, you won't be able to find me because I'll be hiding in the wild.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

November 2018, a Stroke Story

It was election day, November 6, 2018 when my mother suffered a stroke at home.

She was sitting on the sofa, watching the election returns start to come in on TV. I had just come home from my last class of the day, Yoga, and I was cooking my dinner while sitting and talking to her. She said that she was not feeling well, and she wanted to go lie down. When she stood up, she fell nearly face-first into the entertainment center. I tried to catch her, but I was a few feet away, and at a weird angle. I only deflected her a little.

From there, she tried to come back to standing, but couldn’t quite make it. She tried to pull herself up on furniture, including a swivel chair that kept turning. I encouraged her to just sit still for a few minutes, but she was determined. She asked me to go get her walker, which she hadn’t used for years and that typically sat in a back closet.

I brought it out and put my weight on it for counter-balance, but it still wasn’t working as an assist for her to pull up. Next, she asked me to drag her back to her room. I know a little about body mechanics, and I didn’t see dragging 150lbs of mom as being a great experience for either one of us, mechanically speaking.

So she started scooting herself down the hall toward her room. Once she got there, I was able to help her stand, and she successfully made it into the bed, with some challenges.

I thought I had her safely in the bed, so after talking to her for a few minutes, I went back to the kitchen to try to eat my dinner. I took a few bites, came back and talked to her, went back to the kitchen and took a few more bites.

At some point when I was in the kitchen, she decided she had to go to the bathroom, and decided to get there by herself. Attempting to use the walker for help, she tried to get out of bed on her own and fell into her bedside table, landing on the floor. It was a pretty hard fall that brought me running back from the kitchen. I found her sprawled on the floor, her left leg was somehow wound up in the middle of the walker supports and it had to be unwound. It was very difficult getting her to bend and move her left leg to get it untangled from the walker. I couldn’t see it yet, but she would have an enormous bruise on her left hip from falling into the bedside table. The bruises would be so pronounced that in a few hours, people would ask if anyone ever hit her.

My mom had colon cancer a few years ago, and will use a colostomy bag for the rest of her life. The fall caused a bag fault, which meant the bag would need to be replaced. This is something she had been independently doing for the past several years.  Once I got her back in the bed, we started trying to work on fixing the bag. A rather nonsensical conversation ensued.

“I can’t see the stoma,” she said. “Where did it go?” she said.
If you don’t know about colostomies, this question is a lot like asking, “Where did my belly button go?”

It was right there, on the left side, like it had been for years.

This was the point at which I called 9-1-1.

My mom worried about things like the EMTs having to walk all the way down the hallway to her room, and not being able to bring a gurney back, and not having her shoes on. In the process of falling and dealing with the bag, and not feeling well, she had also removed some of her clothes, so we found a nightgown and some shoes to slip on, and I helped her get to a chair in her bedroom.

Meanwhile, she massaged her neck with her left hand and said, “It’s so weird, I feel these ghostly fingers on me. Like someone is touching me. It’s like someone’s rubbing my neck. Is that you?” she asked.

“No, mom, I’m standing over here,” I said. I was about four feet away, out of reaching distance. It was clearly her own left hand rubbing her neck.

Once the ambulance arrived, the paramedics conducted a short interview. They talked to me and to her. They asked her a series of questions, about what had happened, about current events, the election, what year and day it was. They asked what medications she took. She showed them her high blood pressure medication and said she didn’t think that had caused the problem, because she hadn’t taken it for four days.

Based on this interview, the paramedics felt that she was lucid and in no immediate danger, and they did not want to take her to the hospital.

“But, she can’t see her stoma,” I told them. “She has been maintaining her own colostomy for four years, and she can’t even see it now. Isn’t that a problem?”

Based on this, they rather reluctantly agreed to take her to the emergency room.

In the ER, the doctor ordered a series of tests: urinalysis, X-rays, blood panel, etc. The first test that came back indicated she had a urinary tract infection, and the ER doc was satisfied with that as the source of all of her problems. He started intravenous antibiotics, and was ready to let her go as soon as the meds finished.

Meanwhile, she was still flailing her left arm and leg about uncontrollably. Every time hospital staff tried to take her blood pressure, they would ask her to hold her arm still, and she kept flailing it.

“Can you hold your arm still?” they would ask.

“I am,” she would say, and look at her right arm, which was quite still. She seemed unaware that she had a left arm, and certainly unaware that it was fidgeting wildly.

As she waited, her left leg would also flail about, finding its way in between the metal supports in the bed rail. Then she would complain about sudden, sharp pain in her leg.

“Well, your leg is kind of wedged into the bed rail,” I would say.

And she would look to her right leg, which was fine. And I would work to move her left leg out of the bed rail, but it was a real struggle to get her to bend her knee or move her leg, and once she moved it, it would flail right back into some other awkward position.

This was all still very concerning, but the ER doc was still willing to let us go as soon as her IV antibiotics finished, and they would have sent her home, if the blood panel hadn’t come back in time. The next round of tests that came in showed an elevated troponin level, which is a heart enzyme that indicates you might have had, or be about to have, a heart attack. That elevated troponin level in an 87 year-old, warranted being admitted for a few days’ observation. Thank God.

So the next step was coordinating with her insurance to find a hospital they would let her be admitted to, and finding an available bed. The place insurance accepted was in Arlington, an hour’s drive away. And although the decision to keep her was made around 11pm, the actual transfer didn’t happen until about 9:30am the next morning, which meant that she napped on the ER bed and I parked uncomfortably on a plastic ER chair, waiting. Looking at it from hindsight, it’s easy to think hey, you had like 10 hours, you could have gone home and gotten a good night’s sleep and then met her at the new hospital in the morning. But, if you’ve ever been in a hospital, you know how this thing goes…ten more minutes...just a while longer…we’ll be right back…and they stretch it out and the next thing you know, you are bleary eyed and running on fumes and speaking incoherent nonsensical almost-sentences.

Once morning arrived, I found subs for all my Wednesday classes and watched the professionals load mom on the gurney to send her to Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington. I went home and took a nap, knowing that my sister was on her way from her home in Maryland, and would meet my mom at the new hospital.

After napping for a few hours, showering and eating some food, I eventually met everyone up at the hospital in Arlington that evening (Wednesday). At this point, mom’s hand and leg were still moving rather spastically. She still required a two-person assist to go to the bedside commode, which was only two steps away. The doctors were talking about letting her go home the next day or so.

And late that evening, more than 24 hours after her initial episode, the nurses started catching on to some of the neurological symptoms. Like the spastic movement of her left arm and leg, and the fact that she didn’t seem to be connecting the things her left arm was doing with her own actions. And at some point, someone asked her who the president was, and she said, “Donald Duck.”

Okay, in all honesty, my mom has always called Donald Trump Donald Duck, but the nurses didn’t know that, and it was enough for them to start to take things seriously. At this point, they were really thinking more about a concussion because she fell twice, but finally, someone asked to do an MRI. And at last, about 30 hours after her initial episode, the medical team discovered that she had had a stroke.

The disability that she is left with now is called left paresis/left neglect. It’s like her brain forgets the left side of her body exists. She has a hard time seeing out of her left eye or feeling anything going on on the left side, or controlling left arm and leg. They still move, but spastically and seemingly of their own volition. It’s a little bit like the Terminator’s robot arm, or Cousin It from the Addams Family.

She also suffers from a marked attention deficit disorder that she did not have before, and a short-term memory loss. Which means that if I explain some new information, it may not all get inside her head. And if it does, three out of five parts of it may fall right back out. In real world terms, this can mean that I might relay a simple story like, “I will be back on Tuesday at 7pm,” but she might forget which day I said I’d be back, which day it is today, and at what time I said I would be back. She also has a hard time with telling time. So the 7pm is rather irrelevant.

Many members of my family, myself included, suffer from anxiety and depression from time to time. Dealing with short-term memory loss and a sudden new disability really don’t improve your stress and mood levels, and neither does the lack of sleep that she is currently experiencing.

Three weeks have passed since her stroke. She has made great physical improvements. She can walk very short distances with assistance. She needs help to do many activities of daily living (ever tried opening a wrapper or putting on a sock with one hand?), but she delights in guests and telling stories, and loves to talk and visit with people.

She will be released from the actue rehab where she has been staying on Nov. 28 (tomorrow, as I write this). She will require 24-hour care and supervision. She can’t move from one location to another without help at this point. Initially, I felt that the hospital and the insurance gave us zero assistance in either planning for her return home or helping us find another alternative that would work with her insurance.  

My one previous conversation with the case manager went something like this
Case manager: We understand that you live with Mrs. Cox, is that correct?
Me: Yes, that’s correct.
Case manager: Ok, so there is someone in the house. She will need 24-hour care when she is released, so we need to know that there’s someone there.
Me: Well, I live there, but…
Case manager: Ok, great. Thanks.

I live there, but I work, and I own a small business, and I am supposed to be trying to promote that business, and I travel from time to time, and I also have to sleep now and again, and maybe I might want to take a shower every so often myself…how do I get help? These were all questions that went unanswered.

That is, until Monday (yesterday), when I had a mini-meltdown during my family training session. Family training is when I was supposed to learn how to take her to the bathroom, give her a shower, and help her up and down stairs. Never underestimate the power of a good nervous breakdown. I shed tears in Occupational Therapy. By the end of the day, the case manager had come in to visit with us. By morning, we had a list of sub-acute rehabs, and within 12 hours of my meltdown, we had selected a sub-acute facility.

I hope things go well at the new place. In the meantime, the point of my writing this is just to share a little more information with my friends about what’s been going on in my life for the past three weeks. If you haven’t seen me, I’ve pretty much been at the hospital, working, or sleeping. I try to get out and dance when I can, because I feel so much better when I do, but the hospital drains the energy out of me. Once I convince myself to actually get out and into a dance space, I draw energy off of the music and the other people, so I know I really should get out more often.

My other purpose in writing is like a public service announcement. If you’ve ever done CPR/First Aid training, and learned about strokes or heart attacks, and you have learned all those signs and symptoms, then you have learned that the essence of first aid these days is to call 9-1-1 as soon as possible when something is wrong. Yes, do that. But in addition to that, when you know something is wrong with someone you love, don’t just let it go. I could have let the EMTs go, and just leave mom at home after she fell twice and couldn’t see her left side. The ER doc would have been happy to just let her go with a diagnosis of a urinary tract infection. If we hadn’t kept pointing out weird neuro symptoms, no one would have tried to do an MRI. It is infuriating that no medical professional thought to do it when we first came into the ER—I mean, 87 year old with high blood pressure who said she hadn’t taken blood pressure medication for four days…big tip-off…but the point is, when you know something is wrong, keep telling others and make them listen. If it’s a stroke, every moment can make a difference.

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Workshop Weekend: Learning to be a New Dancer Again

I recently attended the DC Bachata Congress (DCBX), in Washington, DC. This is a link to their promo video. Although I am an experienced swing dancer, and a pretty comfortable Salsa dancer, I'm still really new to Bachata. It is difficult for me to take consistent lessons because I live about an hour away from all the places where that might happen, and as a dance and fitness teacher myself, I am usually teaching at the same time group lessons are happening.

When I heard about this Bachata Congress, I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to take a whole lot of classes all at once, and to get some intensive exposure to the dance. I didn't seriously consider going until the last minute: I registered on Sunday, and the event started Thursday. As a result, I didn't have time to find subs to teach my classes, which meant I would be seriously burning the candle at both ends during the weekend (as in, go to bed at 2am, teach 8:15am Spin Class). But I knew that going in.
Alien Ramirez and Martin Gonzalez,
World Bachata Champions,
taught the two best classes (for me) at DCBX

Attending DCBX also meant not attending the International Lindy Hop Championships (ILHC), an event I have faithfully supported for several years, because they were both happening during the same weekend, just a few miles apart. And I just couldn't manage both. I know a lot of people at ILHC, the style of dance and the faces are very familiar. It is actually a lot like going to a big family reunion where everyone wears vintage clothes and has great hair.

DCBX offered many of the same things you expect from any dance workshop weekend. There were so many classes and so many amazing teachers. All the other dancers were friendly. The music was great. Performances were inspiring. I discovered new levels of foot soreness and muscle fatigue.

For me, there were many things about this event that were different and that helped me grow in ways I did not expect. For one, my family is of latin descent, but I grew up so far away from that influence that it's like a distant shadow of a memory. To be immersed in the music and culture, and hear people speaking Spanish around me all the time was like waking up some kind of dormant collective memory.

Aside from all the great dance information, tips, and advice I got from the instructors, and all the practice time, perhaps one of the most useful benefits of the workshop weekend was remembering what it's like to be a newer dancer. I am so comfortable with swing and Lindy Hop that I forget how overwhelming it is for new learners to try to work on feet, and arms, and rhythm, and body positioning, and posture, and following/leading, all at the same time.

Sunday mornings are typically the most sparsely attended of any workshop weekend, since Saturday is usually the big party night, and everyone wants to sleep in on Sunday. So I had a small class at 11am with a great teacher, who gave me continuous, rapid-fire feedback: Make your steps closer, lift from the chest, keep your chin parallel to the floor, keep your elbows more away from the ribs, soften the elbows, make the hip movement softer, move the foot through toe-ball-heel, keep your chest squared off to your partner at all times. All this advice came in about a one-minute rotation cycle. I'm not sure how much I can internalize, but I did remember it all well enough to write it down.

There were also the social dance parties. With swing and Lindy Hop, or even with Salsa, it has been a long time since someone tried to lead something that left me completely confused. Bachata left me puzzled often because the body movements are so different. The poor guys would try to lead a move, and I would drop the ball. They'd try again, and I'd drop it again. They would finally move on and do something else. They were all very nice about it, but I quickly came to a point where I found it easier just to tell people at the start of a dance that I was a new learner. It kept them from throwing their A-game at me, and sort of managed their expectations from the beginning. 

However, I did have one funny experience with that. I mentioned to one guy that I was new, and he said, "I know. I've been watching you." Thanks, dude. Didn't realize it was screamingly obvious. However, he did still ask me to dance, so hopefully it wasn't that horribly bad. 

My take-aways from the whole weekend were that it is always good to learn new things. It is always beneficial to build new neural pathways. Expanding your dance horizons can only help you grow as a dancer. And also, as a person. I have reconnected with my empathy for people who are learning new dance concepts for the first time. So, if you've ever thought about taking a dance class, but are worried that you'll be the one slow person in class, or that you just won't get it, you should definitely take a class with me. Because I have been that person very recently and I know exactly how it feels. And I've got you! 

To sign up for swing dance lessons (and we are also teaching beginner Salsa) in Fredericksburg, go to For more general information about what's going on at our dance studio, check out our FaceBook page at You can also take a look at our studio website,

Sunday, August 19, 2018

A Few Dance Tips for Follows

A while back, I blogged about dance tips for leads, and promised that I would follow up with dance tips for follows.

  1. Let the leads lead. This isn't a gender thing. It's totally based on the role you choose in a particular dance. Only one person can lead per dance, and when you decide to be a follow in that one dance, your job is, well, to follow. If you really want to lead, then I encourage you to switch roles and learn the lead's part. It's fun, it's more work than you might think, and it might even help you become a better follow in the end. 
  2. Ask people to dance, but don't be offended by no's. A guy once told me that it's easier to ask a woman to marry you than to ask her to dance. A bit of hyperbole, perhaps, but it is intimidating for a new dancer to approach unfamiliar and gorgeous women such as yourself. When you ask the guy, you spare then the effort on that round, which generally makes it less intimidating to ask you next time. However, sometimes people turn you down. Sometimes, they give you gracious reasons like, "I need a break," or "This song is too fast/slow/old/new for me." Other times, they just turn you down flat. My official advice in the context of this blog is to not take it personally, and don't hold it against them. They probably just sprained their toe or broke up with a girl who looks exactly like you. In real life though, what I have typically done in a case like that is assume that the person thinks I can't dance, and go find a really good dancer, then come back and show off right in front of them. Because I'm small-minded like that. And I've also been known to remember that person who wouldn't dance with me on August 10, 1955, and would subsequently not want to dance with them ever again. Don't be like me. Just assume the person who turned you down can't handle your radiant beauty at the moment and needs a few seconds to adjust. They are, after all, only human.
  3. Don't apologize. This is something I do all. the. time. and I wish I would stop. When things go wrong in a dance, I still apologize, even though I say in every class, and I said in item #1 above, the lead is the lead. Your job is to follow the directions given. If the directions are vague, confusing, conflicting, or come too late, you just can't do it. It's not your fault. It's not even really the lead's fault--they are figuring it all out, too. So just roll with it. Don't apologize. Own it and on rolling. 
  4. Develop your frame, but stay relaxed. Oh, the big conundrum! This is like the holy grail of all forms of social dance. In order to dance with a partner (either as a lead or a follow), we have to have dance frame, or energy, across our core and upper bodies. Without the frame, leads can't effectively send information and follows can't act on it. It's like dancing with a drunk toddler. But if we get too much frame, then we're like C-3PO from Star Wars. In case you aren't as much of a nerd as I am, I included a photo. 
    Droids would have a little too
    much dance frame.
    The trick is finding the happy medium. Energy when we need it, relaxation when we don't. The only way you can find that medium is by actually dancing and having helpful leads who will give you feedback. Sometimes it's hard to hear, but it helps. Early on, a lead I really liked (and still do!) told me, "You know, it's really hard to lead a Whip, or pretty much anything, if you don't have frame." Point taken. I worked on framing up. Then I went too far. I got to a point where I was more like Goldenrod in the photo on the right. I went to workshops, and apparently guys felt their poor little arms being ripped out of the sockets. So sad. They would ask me to relax, loosen up, etc. And apparently I finally found the sweet spot, because just this week at the same dance, I had two (TWO) people tell me I was the only woman at that venue they could dance with and not have to worry about getting their arms ripped off. That's really more like Chewbacca's thing, but I was pretty happy to hear the feedback. I mentally patted myself on the back, and I felt like I could happily retire my dance shoes at that moment. But I won't, because I still have so much more to figure out. Like freestyling. And what to do when leads go on a footwork tangent. But these are topics for another day!
Chewbacca might have good rhythm,
but he really could rip your arms off.
Last tip: take lessons. We have new classes starting frequently. Check out, and if you aren't in Fredericksburg, Gottaswing has classes all over the DMV area. And if you aren't there, use Google and find some classes near you! And then get out and find some social dances, and just dance as much as you can.

If you have more helpful tips for follows, you can post them as comments.