A conversation with a trainer

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Julie is the first trainer I’ve ever worked out with that I didn’t, at some point, want to punch in the face. That’s saying a lot.

Julie is the owner and and head trainer at BAWS Gym. I’m excited to share her journey and wisdom with you today because I think she’s so inspiring. She comes from a place of humility and true caring and I think that’s the best.

Caitlin: When did you first become interested in fitness?

Julie: When I was young, I would watch my dad workout in the basement. He was in the military so like many Marines, he had a very strict regimen. I would go down the basement and watch him workout.  I was always impressed with his pull ups. One day he got off the bar and said, “Do you want to try?”  I was like ten years old. I got on the bar and I just hung there. And every day I went down there and hung until I could do a pull-up.

It got the the point (eventually) where we started doing round robin with pull ups.  It was so fun doing something with him and I really feel like he was the one who inspired me.

Also, not many people know this, but when everyone was playing sports in school, I was always at the YMCA working out.  I just loved weights. I loved them so much. And that’s really how it started.

I did get to an age where it was pissing me off that I was bad at certain things (running in particular) so I just kept working at them. And I just told myself, you have to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Caitlin: Well, that can kind of sum up the entire diet and exercise experience.

Julie: It’s so true. I train Spartan teams and that’s the biggest thing I tell them. I put them through rough workouts and I just say, you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.  I think it really resonates with people and it just tells them, all right, when I want to quit, I just need to push myself three more minutes. And that’s all that I want from people. When you want to quit, just give a little bit more.  It’s funny how much I’ve grown in life because of that attitude. I’ve totally put that quote to use in so many other areas of my life.

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Caitlin: I would imagine that many of the people you train do, as well.

Julie: Yeah, I think so. I think that once you do that, you really start to train your mind to be stronger.

Caitlin: So tell me about your fitness and nutrition education.

Julie: I started as a floor tech at the YMCA when I was 14. I would watch this one women train her clients and teach classes.  She inspired me and soon became my fitness mentor. She taught pilates. I took her classes and I started to really get into it. So, I got certified in that first. That women, Bethel, took me under her wing and taught me so much about fitness.

Then I went to West Chester University for kinesiology, but the program was really long and I was super antsy to get it over with. So, I dropped out and I went to the National Personal Training Institute and it was hands down the best experience and the best thing I could have
done. I don’t think I’d be where I am today if I didn’t do that. That got me certified in anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and nutrition. I am also certified in kettlebells and Crossfit.

Caitlin: So you now own a gym. How did you get there?

Julie: I worked at a private personal training studio and the owner knew I had aspirations to open my own gym. He asked me if I wanted to buy his studio. I said yes. It was a franchise when I bought it and I tried to sever the ties to make it my own small business. But, the franchise came after me and said they would take me to court if I did that. It was a huge, huge mess. It was so frustrating. We eventually dropped it and I quit my job because more than ever before, I craved being a gym owner.

I had saved some money to get me by while I was searching for a location.  I finally found a spot in Huntingdon Valley.

Caitlin: Tell me about that gym.

Julie: It was called Bryn Athryn Workout Studio, or BAWS. I loved it so much, but eventually I outgrew the space and my training style had gotten a little bit more “gritty”.  And by that I mean, um, badass, I guess. Haha. I knew I wanted more of a warehouse like gym because I wanted a little parkour training, a litte Crossfit action, a little gymnastics, a little pilates, ya know a whole mix of stuff. The space needed to be functional for all of that.

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Caitlin: That’s a good problem to have!

Julie: It is. So, I’ve been in my new location in Hatboro (Pennsylvania) since October last year.

Caitlin: What kind of programs do you offer?

Julie: I do personal training during the day. Forty-five minute, one on one sessions, all tailored to the client. And then I do classes at night. Cardio kickboxing, pilates, strength & conditioning.

I also hold all types of programs and obstacle course trainings. I get groups together to get in shape for a particular obstacle race and then we go tackle it as a team. It’s a lot of fun.

Every two to three months I try to re-evaluate and come up with new programs. So, it changes all the time. The biggest thing I try to do is make the programs fun, fulfilling, and rewarding.

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Caitlin: So what is the most rewarding part of your work?

Julie: Seeing people change, emotionally and mentally. I had a 50 year old man turn to me, after two and a half months of training, and he had tears in his eyes. He said, “You know, I actually love myself again.” And I was tearing up because it’s just so gratifying to see people feel that way about themselves.

Fitness is such a big industry and it wouldn’t be so big if it wasn’t so hard.  Being fit is a hard journey. To help people get to their goals is so gratifying. And, you know, I do little videos and I put stuff about food and everything online, but it’s not because I want attention. If I can help one person do better, that’s why I’m doing it.

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Caitlin: I think what’s appealing about you is that there’s no ego. How important is it to you to be a real person to your clients?

Julie: Yeah, you know, a lot of people say they train with me because I’m real. I average a size six, I’m not a size two. I eat a donut when I want one. I don’t wear belly shirts and have six packs abs. That’d be nice, but would mean I would have to live life in such a strict manner. Unless, of course, your DNA is gracious to you. But, I try to be as real possible and let people know that it’s so important to live in a healthy way. And that means balance.

When I was younger I struggled with eating disorders and I don’t want people to go there. I don’t want people to be afraid of food or be obsessed with exercise. Instead, just focus mostly on whole foods, be kind to yourself and move a little almost everyday.  If you find that balance, you never have to punish yourself. You don’t have to starve and you don’t have to overeat. You can find balance where everything just comes together.

Caitlin: And you’re also pretty balanced in the amount of exercise you recommend.

Julie: Yeah, I mean, I used to be that person who was all into cardio all the time (after I went through my weight lifting phase). But, I realized that you only need maybe four days a week of exercise and, if you do it right, only 20 to 30 minutes. It’s great because it makes your metabolism revved just enough to build muscle and burn body fat, but you’re not starving all the time because your workouts are so long!

Caitlin: I know for a lot of people to take that first step to get healthy is really hard. There can be a lot of embarrassment and shame. I know you really succeed in getting people out who otherwise might have been too afraid to join a fitness class. What do you tell people who might be afraid to take that first step?

Julie: You know, it’s a journey and everyone is battling something. The first step is to be kind to yourself.  And if you can change one thing a week that will bring you closer to your goal, that’s awesome. Don’t be embarrassed with yourself because everyone is working on bettering themselves somehow, someway. People battle their issues in so many different ways and no one’s life is perfect. We never judge people who are overweight at the gym. We’re proud of them.  Keep your focus on you and no one else.  They don’t really matter when it comes to YOUR health. One of the things that I feel is great about BAWS is that it offers one on one training if you really feel you want to work out without others around.

I went through some hard stuff with health and fitness. And I believe the universe gives you those things so you can live and learn and teach people. I’ve had to gain weight and I’ve had to lose weight. And both are hard.  I feel that I went on that journey so I can connect with people, empathize and understand their situation to some degree.  It’s not going to be easy, but you have to want it.

Caitlin: I always think that no one is judging you as much as you’re judging yourself.

Julie: Yeah, you hit the nail on the head. That’s so true. You are your biggest critic. And we compare so much. I try hard not to compare myself to other trainers.  I feel like I look like the average person in way-

Caitlin: Well, I wouldn’t say that, but okay (laughs).

Julie: Well, I don’t look like a Hollywood trainer. You just have to focus on yourself and stay on your own journey. That’s hard to do, but once you can, it’s really satisfying.

Caitlin: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?

Julie: With fitness: There is no quick fix. There is no pill, there is no diet, there is no cleanse. It is day in and day out, on the grind. But, want it, enjoy it.

With life, business and myself: Be patient.  Many people will do so well, with whatever their goals may be, and then mess up and be so angry at themselves. Then they quit.  Never quit.  It gets you nowhere, but pissed off at the world.  Trust me, I know.

If you’re in the Philadelphia area, check out Julie’s gym, BAWS. Or, try virtual training, anywhere in the world.

 

Living the dream: An interview with Harrison B.

Harrison B. is a Progressive American Soul artist from Lascassas, TN. He blends traditional and progressive American song forms into a soulful and statement-driven delivery. I happened to meet Harrison B. two summers ago when he showed up at a party I was throwing with my friend, Sarah. I talked to Harrison B. about his music and what it means to him to be living his dream.

Caitlin: Can you tell me a little bit about your musical roots? Was it something you were always interested in?

Harrison B: So, nobody in my family really dug playing music other than my grandfather. He is into bluegrass, old school blues, Southern Folk, Gospel, Western Country. He is into early country. I used to go over to his house and he has had the same guitar since he was 15 that he bought out of a Sears catalogue. It’s just this big, incredibly difficult to play, but amazing sounding instrument. I learned from him having one guitar to truly love and put a piece of yourself into it. he’s genuine and he’s honest and he loves it, so I just kind of grew up hearing music from him. And I really, really enjoyed what he did. We listened to records together, too many to mention, but he put me into real roots music. They became my musical roots.

I’ve always had an ear for music. Writing has always been in my head. I used to love, as a child, listening to classical music when I went to bed. My favorite game was guessing the movement. I liked to guess where the arrangement was going. Major, minor, resolving, that sort of thing.

As I grew older, it became something I needed, as opposed to something I just wanted. I started with my first band when I was 19 and really picked up the guitar in earnest around the age of 21. At 22, I had to have it, had to get out there and do it.

Now, I’ve been doing it full time since I was 24.

Caitlin: I think it’s really interesting the way the importance of music in your life evolved as you got older. I think a lot of times people begin to let go of their passions as they get older and it’s often such a mistake. So, you grew up around Nashville. What effect did that have on you and your music?

Harrison B: So, I grew up in Lascassas, Tennessee and moved to Nashville for college. Musically at the time, I wasn’t very advanced and so I had to play and write songs that were in my technical ability range, which was limited. So starting out I wrote a lot of singer/songwriter, acoustic country, that sort of thing.  I wrote a lot of country songs. Thomas Rhett became a buddy of mine and we used to write some, and Dustin Lynch was around, he went to my college. They’ve both gone on to very successful country careers.

So, yeah, I’ve always had a heart for country because of my grandfather. So I started talking with an artist development company about the things I needed to do to be groomed to be pitched to a major label.


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As I was getting into it I thought, if I’m choosing to do this for the rest of my life I sure better love it. And you know, there were aspects that were just empty to me. I felt like my subject matter was limited. I felt like there were just things about confining to one single genre that didn’t move me to my core and didn’t satisfy some musical need in me, so I had to let country go.  It is still an aspect of my music, but now it is one of many.

So, what better way hit reset than to leave town when I graduated. And if you’re going to leave town, what better place to go than Alaska, as far away as you can get.

Caitlin: I have to say, I am a big country music fan, but I definitely get what you’re saying. And when I listen to your music I definitely hear some country influence. But, I don’t want to get ahead of myself, so tell me about the Alaska move.

Harrison B: So, I had a friend, who had one friend in Juneau, Alaska. It’s the farthest from home I had ever been. I packed my Jeep up, and drove to Prince Rupert, BC. There I got on a Ferry and rode 3 days to Juneau. Between that solo road trip up there, and then adjusting to a whole new environment, that to me was really growing up. The road is a great teacher.

Musically, I didn’t play the guitar for four or five months and when I picked it back up, I decided it was, indeed, for me. So, I started playing again. All I had observed in my three week drive from Tennessee to Alaska, the things I learned, the CD’s people gave me for the drive in states along the way, indie rock, ambient rock, funk, punk, all these new things. All things I hadn’t really experienced before, particularly in their proper context. So, when I got my guitar out and played again it was totally different from what I had played prior.

I got out and played one open mic night and I was so scared I wore my peacoat through the whole performance. Still, I just really tried to let my soul out, which was kind of novel to me and my musical experience. I just realized at that moment, this is something I love and something I can’t live without. It felt like an infatuation, like you’d hear a guy talk about feelings for a girl.

From there I went home and recorded my first album, The Harrison B LP.

Caitlin: What place does music hold in your life now?

Harrison B: It is my life. Honestly. It controls just about everything. I think that’s what it takes if you have aspirations beyond local successes.

I’m in a growth phase right now, I’m still pretty small fries. I’m starting to establish myself, as to say, these are the things you can expect from me artistically. I really think it has to color all aspects of your life. Music is, honest to God, just about my everything. I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Caitlin: What’s the best thing about spending your time playing music?

Harrison B: I think getting to do what you love for a job, even if you’re just surviving. It brings peace of mind to me that honestly I don’t think I could get anywhere else. I don’t think I’d be as happy doing anything else.

Caitlin: I imagine life on the road as a musician isn’t always easy, even if it is satisfying. What’s the hardest part?

Harrison B: The hardest part is probably all the time alone. For instance, in the last year, I’ve been on the road all but 2 ½ months. It’s very rare for me to get to be home. At heart I’m a homebody so it can be difficult.  The other aspect is love and relationships. It is very difficult to keep a relationship. I had one for four years and I had to give it up for this. And it was a terrible day.

It’s very hard coming into a town and seeing all these awesome, beautiful people and before you can even get a chance to talk to everybody, you have to roll on. It’s isolating in a lot of ways.

But you start to develop relationships where you make good friends in a lot of places. For me, it’s been a learning curve, but once you understand it and can be genuine through it, it’s awesome to have good friends in different places and when I’m with them to really get to spend time and connect with them.

Caitlin: I hear you renovated and live in an Airstream. That’s so cool. Tell me about it.

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Harrison B: The Lil Miss Josie is a 1968 22’ foot Land Yacht Safari. I renovated it from the frame up. It was a lot of work and it sucked for a long time. For over two years it was about all I did for with my off time.

It’s a pretty liberating thing. I get to travel and do my job and enjoy it and at the end of the night, anywhere that I am, I get to go back to my apartment and sleep in my own bed, cook a meal in my kitchen. So, for my lifestyle, it’s perfect. And I rebuilt it from scratch so it has a lot of soul, a lot of heart, and it’s home.

Caitlin: I love that. I’m a total homebody, so I definitely see the appeal there. What have you learned about people since you’ve had a chance to see a lot of the country and meet a lot of different types of people?

Harrison B: Interesting question. Honest to god, my answer is, there’s a lot of sameness, and a lot of difference and I think they’re in equal amounts and with equal subjects.

Good people are good people and bad people are bad people. Bad people are few and far between. I’ve found nothing but love on the road. I don’t think I’m unique in this situation, but everywhere I’ve been has been a contributing factor to where I am right now.  That keeps me humble and grateful, knowing how much of what I do is because of other people..

I want for nothing anywhere I go. And not because I can afford it or I feel like I deserve it, but because genuinely, people have gone out of their way for me. And so, touring does nothing but embolden in me the feeling of the greatness and goodness in people.

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I can’t imagine more of a LIFE. Not everyone gets a chance to get out here and really live. And I feel grateful because I didn’t afford that opportunity all by myself. I am one piece of a puzzle of many who have helped propel me and put their faith in me and put a little bit of pride in me.

I accept that as a responsibility and I take it quite seriously and I try to live each day to respect that. I push myself to be the most impactful voice of positivity and that to me is my job. The music, the shows, the road, those are the details. Those are the medium through which I can reach out. But, I just want to embolden people. I want people to leave a Harrison B show feeling strong in themselves and looking out at the world a little closer than when they came in.

Harrison B.’s debut release, The Harrison B LP, & the Sophomore effort, Down At Brown’s, are available at major online music retailers. You can check him out at harrisonbmusic.com. Oh, and check out his latest video for his song, ME. Serious skills.

Image 1, 2, & 3: Harrison B.

Image 4: Jeremy Lavender via Harrison B.

The first day of kindergarten

First of all, I can’t believe some kids went back to school before Labor Day. I always remember Labor Day as the final day of summer and being equal parts bummed and excited that school was starting the next day (okay, mostly excited.) But, last week a lot of kids went back to school. So, I wanted to talk to a mom about her experience sending her little one off to school for the first time.

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Caitlin: Did you do anything special to help your son, B, prepare for kindergarten?

Jessica: We talked about kindergarten A LOT! B didn’t attend preschool so this is his first experience leaving me every day to go somewhere else.  We drove past his school a lot, and  we also would walk there in the summer and play on the playground.  We wanted him to be familiar with the school and I think it helped that he experienced some of those things with me and my husband, Hans. So, it was in his safe zone and he felt comfortable which I think helped him prepare to go up there for his first day.

Caitlin: Any trouble sleeping the night before?

Jessica: Haha, well B didn’t seem to have any trouble sleeping.  I kept waking up in a panic and looking at the clock to make sure we didn’t oversleep since we weren’t used to being on any type of schedule! Usually the mornings that we have something to do, my kids sleep in and we are late so I didn’t want that to happen the first time I was sending my boy to school!

Caitlin: So, tell me about that morning, getting ready and then finally, saying goodbye?

Jessica: Well, Monday was his orientation. The rest of the district began school on Monday, but kindergarten only came in with their parents and met their teacher. For some reason I was more emotional facing this day than I was on Tuesday when he went without us. We made a big deal about Monday. My parents came over in the morning and stayed with my daughters, Lila and Kensley. We took pictures out front and both Hans and I went with him to his orientation.

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On Tuesday, he was ready. We put the girls in the stroller and headed up to the school. Once we are there, we give kisses and B goes into the school yard and we stay on the fence and watch him walk in with his class!

Caitlin: Who was more nervous, you or him?

Jessica: Ha, well it’s funny. When B was little he would scream if we left him. We couldn’t leave him in church nursery without a huge fit when we walked out. Over the years, as he has gotten older, he has gotten better, but we usually only leave him in familiar situations (church, family, close friends), so I was really nervous watching him cause I didn’t know what to expect. B is typically pretty shy when he doesn’t know someone so watching him in a whole new world where he knew no one made me nervous for him because I thought he would be nervous. But, he totally played it cool and I was the one sweating it out!

Caitlin: What was the first day like for you, at home without him?

Jessica: My three year old daughter, Kensley, is loving the one on one time with me. There aren’t many days that I get to spend time with just her so now that B is in School and Lila (9 months) is taking her morning nap, Kenz and I get some quality time together. I am excited for this the most.  I really feel like it will be very valuable to her and also to me.

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Caitlin: What was the first day like for Brayden? Did he come home with any good stories?

Jessica: He loved it! He didn’t necessarily come home with any good stories, but he did come home with his shirt on backwards! After taking off a smock he must have gotten mixed up and put his shirt on the wrong way. Hans and I just laughed. He also was excited to let me know that one boy in his class had a Paw Patrol school bag (that’s his favorite show). It’s cute to see the things that he picks up on when I am not around!

Caitlin: That’s so funny he came home with his shirt on backwards. How cute! How was sending your first child off the kindergarten different than you expected?

Jessica: Becoming a parent has taught me more about myself than I ever would have thought it would. It’s hard letting go and putting your child in the hands of another person (or people) to teach them and help them grow. Naturally, I worry about how he’s doing without me. I wonder how he’ll interact with his peers since he isn’t under my wings. I’m learning a lot about myself. I’m learning what it means to give my cares over to God and trust that He has us where he does for a reason.

When B was little and scared to leave us we would always quote Joshua 1:9 to him. We actually have it hanging on his bedroom wall as a reminder. And whats funny is that I’m now reminding myself of that same verse that I’ve memorized with him for the last few years! “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Caitlin: I love that! It’s amazing how much we can learn through guiding others, and I imagine that’s especially the case with children. Now that you’ve been through it, what advice would you give other moms who are getting ready to hit this milestone or are going through it now?

Jessica: Embrace it! It is a really fun and exciting time. It may be a little overwhelming, but it’s worth it and soon it will be the new normal. Watching my boy come out of school excited and filled with confidence makes my heart happy. Watching him grow and overcome fears is so rewarding. It makes the hard times worth it! It all happens so fast so my advice for parents – especially myself- is to pause and take it all in. Enjoy the crazy because one day we will all miss this stage!

Do you have any advice for moms and dads sending their kids to school for the first time? Any funny memories? Share in the comments sections, let’s talk!

 

ChitChat: First Day of School

My strongest memories of the first day of school are also my oldest memories. I was the youngest in my family, so I grew up watching all my big brothers go off to school and I couldn’t wait for the day when I could join them. I remember when I was going into first grade my mom had taken us shopping for new school clothes. My brothers, appropriately, got new Umbros and t-shirts. I, on the other hand, got a wool Minnie Mouse sweater with matching pink and purple polkadot leggings (pictured above). I was SO excited to wear that outfit that I insisted on wearing it on the first day despite the fact that it was early September and still very warm out. My mom relented and I wore it and I was so hot all day, but at the same time, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so cool again in my life.

So, today I’m introducing a new featured called ChitChat. Each month I’ll ask a panel of people one simple question and they’ll share their thoughts, memories, and opinions. This month I asked, “What memories do you think of when you hear ‘first day of school?'” (Check out some of their back to school pictures at the end!)
Chelley panel
Chelley: First day of school means so many things for me. I think I’ve forgotten exactly how I felt about it  in high school because it was just the day when two-a-days stopped, and field hockey practice  moved to once a day after school. But as a child… it elicits such joy and anticipation. Wanting  to hold my father’s hand and let it go simultaneously. I know I would walk away from him, and,  though I think he didn’t ever see it, I would look out the window and watch him go- his suit  jacket unbuttoned and his boots lightly dragging on the pavement from the preschool building  to the mail building of Meadowbrook School.
I can remember how cool I felt taking the bus (even though my parents were totally following in  their car), and the sound of a brand new zipper opening and closing. The smell of plastic from a pencil case. New markers and glue sticks and freshly printed name tags on our desks. Presenting book reports, using highlighters I didn’t need (yet) and getting the classroom job of clapping the erasers. The first day of school held such promise for the year… and I still have that anticipation. As I move into filling out paperwork for kindergarten for my own child, I smile at the school shopping, LL Bean monogrammed backpacks, choosing the first day outfit… and cringe at the thought of letting her hand go from my own.
(Read more of Chelley’s writing at AisforAdelaide.com)
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Mary: September, 1957, first day of first grade, walked to school with 2 big brothers and then left alone in a classroom of 75 children and one scary nun.  I knew my friends Helen and Frank who lived on my street, so that was good, but the class was so big I hardy knew how to find them.

One girl was crying and wouldn’t/couldn’t stop in spite of being ordered to by the teacher, who was becoming more and more annoyed (I thought I saw smoke come out of her wimple, although I didn’t know it was a wimple at the time) and the kids were growing more and more nervous until–suddenly–crying girl made a run for it!  Off she ran, out of the room toward the back stairway to freedom!  Off ran the good Sister, furious that she had already lost control.  Seventy four 6 year olds sitting with hands folded on their desks, hoping Sister wouldn’t return, but alas, return she did, with crooked wimple, beet red face, exclaiming “The little brat kicked me!”  Yikes!  At least that’s how I remember my first day of school. (P.S.–The “little brat” spent first grade in public school)

Steve

Steve: I would rate my feelings toward the first day of school as neutral, leaning towards negative.  It was the best school day of the year other than maybe the last day, or maybe the day before Christmas break, or some random day like Acceptance Day or Purple Gold Day.  It was the end of summer, which was heartbreaking, but you couldn’t help but be excited for the first day.  What will your new teachers be like? What will the girls look like?  You got brand new clothes for at least the first three days and the workload will be light.  The first day of school is great.

But, sadly, the first day of school passes, and soon it’s like you never left.  As a kid I unfortunately regarded school as a punishment rather than the gift that it was.  But I still don’t see how you’re going to convince a 9-13 year-old otherwise (that’s the age group I’m thinking of because the summers before you were expected to have a job were the best).  When you spend your summers out in the woods biking, fishing, rope-swinging, catching frogs, vacations down the shore boogie boarding, eating ice cream, catching crabs, and suddenly you’re stuffed in a classroom and forced to learn…I think I’ve explained enough why my feelings lean toward negative.

Colleen Panel

 Colleen: Believe it or not I’m pretty sure the only “first day” of school I can actually remember might have been my first day of school ever. I have a vague memory of being upset because my mom left, and a boy came over and showed me a book to help make me feel better, and it worked. I honestly think I might have been 3 years old, so I guess it really goes to show a little kindness goes a long way!

Moira panel

MoiraDread!! Actually I don’t know if that is how I felt back when I was in school, but that is how my 35 year old self feels when I think about the first day of school. I also have memories of being really excited, mixed in with a lot of nervousness. What classes will I have? Who will my teachers be? Will my friends be in my classes? What should I wear the first day? Those feelings definitely continued into college, and nursing school later on in life. I think the first day of school is daunting no matter your age.
Leslie panel
Leslie: Since I was a single parent, a good bit of the memories were dropping my son off before school, not about the school itself. I just remember looking forward to and having fun doing the back to school shopping once we got the list. We would head to the store and just buy everything. I was proud to be in line. I always found it a fun time to be together and made me feel that this was really one small part of the joys of being a mom. My son probably hated it. It was sad to me when he got old enough to go himself and with his friends.  But of course that needed to happen.

And a personal funny memory of a first day of school – one of our neighbors had an exchange student from Spain.  However, just before school started the neighbor went into the hospital and needed emergency surgery.  So, I had to be become the exchange student’s “parent” for a few days. This included the first day of school and helping the student to ride the school bus. I took my newfound temporary responsibility very seriously. So, after the high school student boarded the bus I actually followed the bus to the school to make sure he was okay, hoping not to be seen, the whole time laughing to myself.

Theresa (not pictured): One of my sons wasn’t thrilled about going to school. When he came home on his first day of school, I told him I bet he had fun and that I missed him. He didn’t even answer me. On the morning of the second day of school he told me “Mom, I won’t go to school…. You’ll miss me too much and I’ll worry about you.”

hart

Hartley: I had to call my mom regarding this. My memories are mostly me being nervous, but she recalls me being excited — I always liked school. However, she agreed with my recollection of being nervous for college.  I must have blocked this out, but the first college I attended was in the middle of Massachusetts, and it was really close to where my aunt, uncle, and their kids live, so my mom planned on my family staying there the night before move-in day. But apparently I was so nervous I made us stay at a hotel down the street from their house so I could, I don’t know, lay my clothes out the night before and be assured that no little kids messed with them? Like I said, I must have blocked it out. Too nervous.

What are your memories from the first day of school? Any good stories your kids brought home? Let’s talk! PS. Check out some first day of school pictures below!

Chelley and her dad on the first day of school

Chelley on the first day of school

Moira and her sister on the first day of school

Moira & her sister on the first day of school

 

Hartley on the first day of second grade

Hartley on the first day of second grade

 

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Living with ALS: Beyond the Ice Bucket

By now, you’ve heard of the Ice Bucket Challenge. Chances are, you may have even dumped a bucket of ice water on your own head and, hopefully, you’ve made a donation to ALSA.org. I’ll admit, there were a few times when I thought, jeeze, this Ice Bucket Challenge is really taking over my news feed. But, then I heard that ALSA.org had raised something like 4 times the amount it had raised year-to-date last year. And that number just kept growing. Last check, the Ice Bucket Challenge has raised over $70 million dollars. That’s awesome.

You see, we don’t talk much about ALS because, well, the disease is devastating. It’s hard to talk about. And that’s why it’s so important that we do.

Karen Shideleff was diagnosed with ALS three and a half years ago after feeling symptoms for about six months. Because Karen’s mother had familial ALS, Karen lived with the knowledge that she had a 50/50 chance of developing the disease herself.

I’m honored that Karen agreed to talk with me about her life with ALS and how the disease has affected her family. You can read a condensed version of our conversation below and watch the video at the bottom of the post for the full conversation.

Caitlin: To begin with, you lost your mother and grandfather to ALS and you told me you were the 25th person in your family tree to be diagnosed. When did you first realize that ALS was something that you might one day be diagnosed with?

Karen: When my mom was sick, my parents didn’t want to point out to us that it was a hereditary form of ALS because my three sisters and I were pretty young. We were 16,18, 19, and 20 years old when my mom was diagnosed. And we didn’t know our grandfather, so it wasn’t something we had lived through prior.

When I got into my 20’s I was in nursing school and I was taking classes in biology and genetics and I kind of put all the pieces together. It was very shocking to figure out that I did have a 50% chance of developing ALS.

Caitlin: And that’s because it was familial ALS, which I read accounts for about 10% of all ALS cases?

Karen: Right, so they say 5-10% of all ALS is familial. The rest is sporadic which means they don’t know why it happens, it’s a random occurrence. So familial ALS is rare, even within the umbrella of ALS.

Caitlin: So when you realized that there was a 50/50 chance that you would develop ALS, how did that change your life? How did it change your plans?

Karen: I was 21 or 22 when I figured it out and I was already dating my husband so at that point I made the decision that I didn’t want to have children because I didn’t want to take the chance of passing that gene on. It’s a really personal decision. I never had an overwhelming urge to have children and my husband didn’t either, so for us, it was a little bit easier of a decision to make. But, you know, it gets harder and harder as you get older and all your friends and family are having children. So it’s a decision we just consciously made throughout our relationship and our marriage.

And really, we just try to enjoy life. We’ve done a lot. We’ve traveled a lot, we enjoy spending time with our friends and family, first and foremost. And we’ve really just built our life around that. So I always say, I don’t have any regrets with my life. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything, which is good. I don’t know how many people can say that.

Caitlin: Is there a constant fear when you know you could develop ALS? You know, I think of the things people get anxiety over and something like this is just more than most people could imagine. Did you live with the fear until you were diagnosed? How did you handle that?

Karen: It was a constant fear. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t. And it’s still a constant fear for my sisters, unfortunately because they don’t have any idea if they’re going to get ALS.

But, every time you stumbled on something or you trip and fall or you get muscle twitches, anything that might feel like the beginnings of ALS really just sets it off in your head and you have to convince yourself, I’m just tired, or I just exercised too much. So, it’s very hard. It’s constantly on your mind. And unfortunately for me, it became a reality.

On the flip side, at least a diagnosis when it’s familial ALS, you already know so much about the disease, so I think the acceptance portion might be a little easier to come by. Whereas, somebody who just gets stuck with an ALS diagnosis and doesn’t know what it is, that’s a really difficult time to understand what it is and explain it to your friends and family. So, in some ways, I know it sounds ridiculous, but I’m glad I knew what I was walking into.

Caitlin: That doesn’t sound ridiculous. I think it must be damn near impossible to accept either way, but it does make sense.

Karen: Well, my friends and family all know what ALS is. So when I told them I was diagnosed, I didn’t have to explain what the disease is. And I had been fundraising for ALS for years, so even my co-workers and people I’ve been friends with all knew what ALS was.

Caitlin: So, how did you finally get diagnosed and what was it like to hear those words?

Karen: I noticed things were happening with my body and I knew something was changing. I was very active before I was diagnosed and I walked my dogs all the time and I noticed that my route that I always walked with the dogs was taking me longer and I noticed that my footsteps started to sound different on the pavement. This was maybe July of 2010. So, I just started to pay attention. And as it progressed along, I noticed my balance was getting worse. So, I took yoga, thinking, well, maybe I’m just getting older, trying to convince myself that it’s not what I think it is. I would say by Thanksgiving of 2010 I was pretty certain I had ALS. It was getting harder for me to climb the stairs and things like that.

In January I spoke to my husband about my concerns. And my doctor is actually my husband’s cousin, he’s an ALS specialist at Lehigh Valley Hospital, so the next week I got a visit with him and by the week after I was diagnosed.

Still, hearing the words, yes, your EMG shows that you are definitely showing signs of ALS, as much as I knew what it was, it still was pretty bad. My husband was with me and, you know, you think you can set up in your mind, get yourself ready for it, but hearing it just sucked. I cried the whole way out of there and the whole way home and even more when I got home.

Caitlin: I imagine telling your family members must have been an exhausting time.

Karen: It was. It was brutal. We didn’t tell anyone for a month. I waited and talked to my dad first and then my sisters. It just brings ALS right back into the forefront of everybody’s lives which is tough.

Caitlin: So how have your symptoms progressed over the last 3 and a half years?

Karen: So, ALS can present differently with different people. The two main ways of presentation are either bulbar presentation which affects speech and swallowing first and maybe some more respiratory problems and then there’s limb presentation which is more arms or legs. Typically it starts on one side. For me, I felt it in my right leg first and then my left leg started to have issues several months later, as far as balance, strength, and atrophy. But, there are differences between each patient, even my mom and I who have the same genetic mutation.

I had been working as a pre-op/recovery room nurse, but I started to not trust myself as much with the patients. You do these fall risk assessments with patients when they come in and when your fall risk is higher than theirs, it’s probably a good time to stop taking care of patients (laughs). But, in all seriousness I was afraid if a patient needed me to hold them up, we would both fall and get injured. So, out of responsibility to the patient and myself, I had to stop doing any hands on nursing. But, my employers were fantastic and they just kind of molded a job for me. I’m so thankful that I was able to work for people like that, that respected that I still had the brain of a nurse.

I went from no walking assistance, to a cane, to a walker. Once my shoulders started to get weaker and I couldn’t drive anymore, it really took a toll on me. So, I stopped working. And now I volunteer at the ALS Association. I am really involved with the chapter. I joined the board of trustees and I’m chairing the patient and family services committee, so it keeps me really involved which is great.

Caitlin: So, you’re in a wheelchair now.

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Karen: I am. I can still stand, like at the counter I can maneuver around, or if I’m holding on to somebody I can do a couple of steps, but because my hips are so weak, my stability is really shot. So, if I’m home alone, I’ll only stand if like the wheelchair is behind me and counter is in front of me. But, I spend the majority of my day sitting in a wheelchair.

Caitlin: You know, if you were really negative through all of this, no one could blame you. But, you’re really positive, and I’m wondering if that’s a choice you have to make every day. How do you do it?

Karen: As I was going through telling everybody about the diagnosis, I would jokingly say, “Fake it until you believe it.” Like, I just can’t go through these months being so incredibly stressed out without finding some joy, somewhere. And my husband and I are like, okay, we’re not watching any sad movies, only comedies. We have enough crap going on in our lives, we just need something light. And I’ve always been a glass half full kind of gal. Even as a nurse, I loved helping people and making a difference for them. So, if I can make a difference for another ALS patient, I try to figure out how I can still be helpful to other people.

And, you know, I have my moments just like everybody else, but I just try to be grateful for what I have in my life and that just carries me through for right now.

There’s no pity party here. Yes, it sucks and we shed our tears every once in awhile, but then you just put on your big girl panties and carry on.

photo (5)

Caitlin: So, the Ice Bucket Challenge. It’s everywhere! What has it been like to see everyone talking about ALS?

Karen: You know, there are so many things that are amazing about it. So many people are talking about ALS and hopefully even if a small percentage of those people look it up and learn about ALS, then maybe they can explain to somebody the basics of what ALS is. Sometimes people will say to me, “Why are you in a wheelchair?” And I’ll say, “Because I have ALS.” And they just kind of say, “Well, I hope you get better.” Well, I’m not going to get better, but you’re not going to say that to somebody.

I’m so happy it’s getting national attention. I think the majority of people involved with the Ice Bucket Challenge know it’s fatal. No one survives ALS, and it knows no boundaries. It will attack men and women, young and old. Hopefully those are the things that are getting across to people. And that there’s no treatment and there’s no cure for this disease. And then the amount of money that’s been raised, it’s just crazy.

There are scientists trying to figure out what’s causing ALS and there’s just not a lot of funding. Our numbers are too small for big drug companies to care. I know that sounds horrible, but we’re a small population, we’re not profitable. So big pharma is not interested in helping to find a cure or a treatment. So, this bulk of donations that have come in is amazing.

Caitlin: What ALS does to a person is so scary. What is one thing you’d want people to understand about ALS?

Karen: ALS is not just affecting the patient. It affects their whole family and their friends. Eventually you become so incapacitated, you can’t do anything for yourself. You can’t feed yourself, you can’t dress yourself, you can’t bathe yourself. All the things we take for granted doing every single day of our lives, all of that gets taken away from you. Even something as simple as losing your driver’s license, losing that independence, it’s crushing. And on top of that, the emotional toll the disease takes is exhausting and it’s hard that nobody knows what ALS is.

You feel like screaming, “No! It’s not okay!” I have family that I’m worried about. I’m doing everything I can. I participate in trials and studies. I’m trying desperately to find a cure, not for myself, but for my sisters if they need it. Hopefully they don’t. But, there’s not a day that goes by that it doesn’t cross my mind.

Caitlin: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Karen: For everybody doing the Ice Bucket Challenge, I think it’s great and I want to say thank you. It’s overwhelmingly crazy to me that millions of people are dumping ice over their head and saying ALS when they do it. My news feed is filled with them and they make me laugh and they make me smile. And if people are donating also, even better. Pete Frates, who is one of the people who started the Ice Bucket Challenge, I can’t say thank you enough to that gentleman and his family.

Let’s keep ALS out there. Let’s not forget what ALS is or what it does to patients like myself when the Ice Bucket Challenge stops and we’re still living, hopefully very well, with ALS.

Watch the f

If you haven’t donated yet, please join me in donating to Karen’s fund for the Walk to Defeat ALS. Click here to do so. Again, you can watch the video of my conversation with Karen here. Thank you! 

 

I have a confession to make

I read this story this morning and cringed. Here’s the headline: “10 hour ‘Pay it forward’ line ends with customer No. 458 who refuses.” What??? The story is really about over 400 who paid for each other at a Starbucks drive through, but local media decided to lead with that headline instead.

So, why does this make me cringe (other than the obviously rude and irritating headline)? Because I was once THAT person. When I was in my early 20’s I went through a drive-thru and was told the person in front of me wanted to pay for my meal. I said, “Oh, wow, thanks!” and continued on my way. I had no idea I was supposed to pay it forward. Honestly, it didn’t even cross my mind. For all I know, I was car number 531 in a long line of nice, generous people. *cringe*

So, yeah, I feel bad for car number 458. Maybe she had no idea what was going on. Maybe she only had the money to pay for whatever item she ordered. But, I’m sure she saw that headline today and is cringing, just like I do every time I hear about these “Pay it forward” stories.

Have you ever been in a “Pay it forward” line? Did you ever mess one up? I know I never will again!

Photo by: Perry McKenna

Let love take over: Lessons from hospice

I recently came across a post on Facebook from an old family friend that brought tears to my eyes. Christopher (pictured below) is a hospice volunteer. He agreed to talk a bit about work I find both fascinating and inspiring. He also shares that wonderful story I mentioned, below.

HeadShot2013

Caitlin: What drew you to volunteering with hospice?

Christopher: I have always had an interest and curiosity about the experience of death and what comes after death. I had several experiences as a teenager with death, one in particular in which I was the only person on the scene of a late night car accident and stayed with a passenger as he died. Those experiences had a deep impact that I never forgot about. In college I took a course on Death & Dying. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ ground breaking theories on the five stages of grief were relatively new at the time, as well as the academic study of death. Looking back, I am honored to have obtained that knowledge thirty years ago.

It wasn’t until three years ago that I began to think about doing some volunteer work. My children are grown now and after spending years involved in various sports and school related programs, that phase of life had ended.

I was working for Abington Hospital at the time and knew they had a Hospice facility. I felt drawn to it. I walked in one day and discovered that they had an immediate need for someone at the exact time of day that I was available to volunteer.

Caitlin: Wow, it sounds like it was meant to be. What’s a typical day like for you volunteering at hospice?

Christopher: I cook breakfast two morning each week. We have a 20 bed inpatient facility with a lovely small kitchen where volunteers make meals to order for the patients who are eating. We have patients who may only spend their last couple of days with us, but we also have some who spend several months. Many of them are quite self sufficient when they come in and still have hearty appetites. So I might be cooking something as simple as Cream of Wheat or Toast & Tea, or a more elaborate breakfast like an Omelette or fresh Blueberry Pancakes.

I can honestly say there is almost no such thing as a “typical” day.  I could show up one day and no one is eating, but the next time I might feel like an over-stressed cook at a busy diner. Either way, there is always an opportunity to connect with a patient or family member. Family members can spend the night in the rooms with patients, and quite often they will ask for breakfast as well. Preparing a meal, serving food, and perhaps feeding someone is one of the most elemental forms of caregiving. A very intimate experience.

Caitlin: What is the hardest part of volunteering at a hospice?

Christopher: The hardest thing to accept is the younger patients.  When a patient is in their 80’s or 90’s death can be accepted or expected for the most part. That person has lived a full life. We seem to have so many women in their 30’s and 40’s dying of breast or ovarian cancer. Women who have young children and husbands coming in to say goodbye. It is heartbreaking.  We also have a Pediatric wing. It is not common for children to enter inpatient hospice. Most remain in the hospital or spend their final days at home. But we do have children and teenagers from time to time. It is very difficult and tough on even the most seasoned nurses.  At the same time it can be a beautiful experience. We once had a 10 day old baby. Very unusual circumstances meant that the parents could only visit for a couple hours each week. The baby had a congenital heart defect and was slowly but painlessly dying. The nurses and volunteers made a pact that this child would never be out of the arms of someone. There was a continuous stream of loving people who took turns holding the baby and rocking her. She was with us for two weeks and no one will ever forget her.

Caitlin: That’s so beautiful. I’m curious for you, what is the most rewarding part of volunteering with the dying? What keeps you coming back?

Christopher: There is ALWAYS something to learn or receive from my time at hospice if I stay open and receptive. It may come from a patient, or family member, or often from watching experienced nurses. Even the most difficult patients or family members can be learning lessons.  There is a saying “We die as we lived.” This is so true. There are people who are so grateful and giving even while experiencing great suffering or pain. You just know that they lived like this their entire lives. There are people who are the exact opposite. Nothing can make them happy. I’ve learned to accept both types of people as teachers.

Caitlin: How do you keep yourself emotionally intact doing what could be very draining volunteer work?

Christopher: Honestly, the challenge is staying emotionally present. Resisting the temptation to close off.  It can be easy to view death as routine when you are around it so often.  Every patient and family member is facing a unique situation in their lives, and that is easy to forget when there is a constant cycle of families coming and going.

Before I experienced a hospice setting I guess I imagined it to be an incredibly and overwhelmingly sad environment. That isn’t true at all and it didn’t take long to figure out why. There is continuous grief, but at the same time there is continuous Love (Earthly and Heavenly).  I have often described this as the “Beautiful Sadness.”

I have also worked with ways to help staff and volunteers stay mindful and present.  Last year I took a course that was based on  “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rinpoche. (You can check out a video about the course here.)

Based on the course, I set up a meditation and mindfulness program and have presented it to fellow volunteers. I’ll be continuing the program this fall and we hope to expand it. The goal is to provide a pathway to enhance end of life caregiving skills by reducing fear, increasing compassion, and embracing the emotional roller coaster.

Caitlin: You shared a story on Facebook recently about comforting a family while their loved one was passing away. Can you share that story?

Christopher: Sure. An 80 year old man, dying of liver failure, was surrounded by his family. His wife of 58 years at his side, two daughters and three grand daughters stood around the bed as well. Tears were streaming down all faces. He shook my hand with the strongest grip I have ever felt from a hospice patient. The only words that came to my mind to say to him were, “You are surrounded by love. Nothing else matters right now.”

That family will stay in my heart and that is the greatest gift of hospice care, and why there is absolute truth in the old saying “You get way more than you give” as a hospice volunteer.

The more I think about this, and the words “Surrounded by love”… is the realization that he is not just surrounded by the three generations in the room. He is surrounded by an unending generational chain. All of his ancestors who have passed before him, and all of his descendants yet to be born. It is all part of the same LOVE, unbroken and inseparable. It is with us always.

Caitlin: I think that is so powerful. I am personally really uneasy about death, but those words really made sense to me and I think they’re so true. It certainly brings peace to me and I hope it will for my readers, as well. If I may bring up, I know you recently lost your mother. How has this volunteer work impacted that loss and perhaps helped you deal with it or understand it?

Christopher: I don’t think it lessened the pain or loss at all, but it certainly helped to understand the process of a prolonged terminal illness like she had. I was better equipped and capable of talking to her about death than I would have been without the experience of hospice work. Even more so, was the ability to help family members work through the pain.

Caitlin: What advice would you give other people as they care for family members who are in their final stage of life?

Christopher: Stay focused on the moment, enjoy the smallest and seemingly most insignificant moments. Be sure to take care of yourself as well as the person who is dying.  There is a tremendous amount of internal stress going on that people are often not even consciously aware of. Eat, sleep (or at least get rest), and take time for yourself on a regular basis. Without this you can not give your best to your loved one over the long run. Above all, put aside petty differences or difficulties with family members.  There is no time for this at all. Let love take over.

Caitlin: Let love take over. That’s really great advice for all situations, actually. Obviously, this kind of volunteer works seems like it could be very emotionally difficult. Is it hard for hospice to find volunteers?Why should someone consider volunteering with a hospice?

Christopher: It can be; both difficult to do and to find volunteers.  I think that the people who volunteer for hospice as well as the people who make a career of working with the dying will mostly tell you that it is a calling.  Maybe some people try it and then discover that it is too much to handle. There can be a lot of emotional burnout as well.  This can happen in any field though.  There are many ways to volunteer for hospice without having to be in direct contact with patients. We have a fantastic group of people who make quilts and crochet blankets for every patient.  (I have my mother’s quilt that was on her bed during hospice care)

We have people who are trained to do follow up grief counseling with family members. And we have people who volunteer time doing clerical work or fundraising. These are all vital components of the whole hospice network. I would say that if someone feels called to do this type of work, they should listen to the calling and contact a local hospice. They will always be welcome to come in and discuss the possibilities.

Thank you so much for sharing your story, Christopher. I think it takes a truly special person to do the work you’re doing and it makes me happy to know there are people like you caring for those in the last days of their lives.

If you’re interested in volunteering at Abington Hospice at Warminster (in Pennsylvania, where Christopher volunteers) you can call Volunteer Coordinator Nancy Leporace at 215-441-6831.

Image credit: Christopher

 

Gifts from my dog

Caitlin: This morning I had to remove a dead possum from my deck. By myself. It was hours ago and I’m not over it yet.
Hartley: Was it a present from June (Caitlin’s dog)?
Caitlin: Yup, of course. Last night she came into the house all muddy and worked up, but it was dark and I was alone so I just ignored it. This morning, I step outside to find a poor, dead possum sitting on my deck.
Hartley: I’ll bet it was heavy, too. Gross.
Caitlin: Well, it took me 20 minutes to work up the nerve to move it, but when I did it was surprisingly light. And I will say, the tail made a useful handle.
Hartley: Wait, you did it with your HANDS?
Caitlin: What the hell else was I supposed to use??
Hartley: A shovel?? A broom? Oh my god, I’m traumatized now, too.
Caitlin: A shovel is an interesting idea, actually. I was in a rush to get to work and dude, I was freaked out. And, of course, alone. I should note, I used a trash bag wrapped around my hands, so there was no skin on skin action.
Hartley: Oh, okay. I was imagining you hurling it over your shoulder?
Caitlin: (laughs) Like a Continental soldier?
Hartley: I was just going to say that!
Caitlin: (laughs) I’m not a lunatic, Hartley. I mean, it took a lot of courage just to pick it up with trash bags.
Hartley: Wait. What did you actually do with the possum? Just drop it in your garbage?
Caitlin: I put it in the outside trashcan, with a lid. Although, I’m not sure if that was the right thing to do now that I’m thinking about it. Hang on, I’m calling the township to find out…. Okay, yup, just put it in the trash. According to The Police.
Hartley: What a good citizen! Fixing the world, one dead possum at a time.

On quitting TV (and blaming Matt Lauer)

I was perusing the blog The Vegan Chickpea recently and learned that the author, Caitlin M. recently quit watching television. As someone who really enjoys a lot of TV shows, I wanted to talk more with Caitlin M. about what motivated this change and what benefits she’s seen. Yes, we have the same name, and so I’ll be known in the following conversation (and in life, generally) as Caitlin and I’ll call my guest Caitlin M.

Caitlin: You stopped watching television this summer. So, my first question is, why? (laughs)

Caitlin M: (laughs) That’s funny!  Well, a bunch of reasons, actually.

The first reason is that I have become completely indifferent about everything that is on television. Within the last year or so, whenever I was “in the mood” to watch TV, there would be literally nothing on that I wanted to watch. I would spend an extremely long time looking for something and not find anything. Like, sometimes I’d spend an hour trying to find something to watch and give up.

Secondly, I started going to grad school last summer and wouldn’t be home at night.  When I was home and put the tv on for background noise, I’d turn it off because it was distracting.

The one thing I held onto for a long time was morning television, specifically the local news and The Today Show. I grew up watching The Today Show and didn’t want to give it up. But at the same time, I hated what it had become. I was irritated on a daily basis by Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie, and was completely disillusioned to the amount of fluff pieces that took up the majority of the show.

Caitlin: (laughs) You know I’m going to have to call this: How Matt Lauer made me quit TV

Caitlin M: (laughs) So true. After they fired Ann Curry, I could never forgive them.

Caitlin: I am right there with you.

Caitlin M: In May, I went up to Boston to visit my friend for a long weekend. She lives with her sister, brother in law, and two nephews. The entire time I was up there, they never turned the television on. I was so inspired and realized that television was a distraction from my life and I didn’t want it in there anymore. When I got home, I decided to not put on the television in the morning and that was that.

Caitlin: So, did you cancel cable, or simply stop turning the TV on?

Caitlin M: I stopped turning on the TV.  My husband stills watches it.

We actually had some ridiculous issues with Comcast in the beginning of the summer (surprising, right?) and I tried so hard to get him to cancel it, but he wouldn’t because of sports and NFL Redzone. Plus, he has some shows he likes to watch. But, it’s such a waste of money in my opinion.

Caitlin: That’s funny. Every time my husband and I start eyeing our budget, he always suggests getting rid of cable. And I always say, BUT SPORTS! And he usually drops it. I don’t personally care about sports, but I love watching TV for certain shows I really get into.

Caitlin M: My goal is to one day (soon) convince my husband to get rid of cable.

Caitlin: Do you think you’ll be able to?

Caitlin M: I think it will be difficult because of sports.  But, it seems like as time goes on, more and more sports are available to view online.  I definitely think a time is coming soon where he can watch whatever he wants over the internet. I might try to convince him to go without cable starting in February, after football is over. He really loves his NFL Redzone.

Caitlin: So, what’s been different about your life since you stopped watching television?

Caitlin M: I think watching television occupied my time in a non-productive way. Quitting helped me concentrate on things I really care about rather than zoning out for an entire evening.

Also, the news would always make me worry about something or make me sad. It’s all just fear mongering and blowing things out of proportion. I’m glad I don’t watch it anymore.

Caitlin: How do you get your news now?

Caitlin M: The internet or my mom. She’s so funny. She’ll ask, “What do you think about *insert current event*?” then pause and say, “Oh wait, you don’t know about it because you don’t watch television anymore.” She’s always up to date on what’s going on.

Caitlin: I have to say, beginning of summer is great time to quit TV. All the good shows are off for summer and the weather is nice, so you’d rather spend time outside. Do you think it will be tempting to start watching again come fall?

Caitlin M: What will be worth watching starting in the fall? For the last couple of years, all the new shows the networks put out have been crap.

Caitlin: (laughs) That’s cold! For me, Scandal, The Mindy Project, Parks and Recreation, Parenthood. I could go on! Were there no shows you were really watching?

Caitlin M: My husband and I watched Parks and Rec, but that ended.  We did watch The Mindy Project, but stopped. I forget why. I think I just stopped caring. I never watched Parenthood or Scandal, but I’ve heard they’re good!

Caitlin: Side note, Parks and Rec does come back for a final season, despite that confusing season finale. But, it definitely has lost it’s luster.

Caitlin M: REALLY?!  That is so bizarre!  I don’t plan on watching it, then. In my mind, it ended.

Caitlin: I know, I’m sure it will be a weird final season. Anyway, you mentioned there are still some shows you binge watch with your husband?

Caitlin M: Yeah, at the end of last year, we got Netflix. So whenever I watch episodes of a television series, it’s been through there. We’ve watched Fringe, Dexter, and more recently True Detective and Sopranos. We tried watching Mad Men, but my husband hated it too much.

Caitlin: Okay, I can get on board with that. I think the next time we move, I might consider skipping cable, and just watching shows on Netflix and Hulu. I guess it comes down to being more mindful about television, watching because there’s a show you really love, not just a mind numbing background presence.

Caitlin M: Exactly. I think when I stopped watching television, it was just an extension of my desire to reassess the things I do and habits I have, and question them.  Do these things add anything to my life or do they just take away from what’s really important?  Just because you grow up doing something or having a certain viewpoint doesn’t make it right.  I also enjoy the personal challenge of eliminating unnecessary things from my life.

Caitlin: What else have you done that with?

Caitlin M: I stopped eating all sugar, except fruit. I am a whole foods vegan, so I don’t eat anything processed. I stopped drinking coffee one day after drinking an entire pot in the morning for years.  I got rid of a lot of my possessions last year and plan on getting rid of more very soon.  I made those lifestyle changes for different reasons, but the sentiment is still there.

Caitlin: So, it’s safe to say, you have a healthy dose of discipline!

Caitlin M: (laughs) Yes, I have really good discipline. Once I’ve convinced myself I want to do something, I do it. And I don’t give in to temptation.

Caitlin: That’s really impressive, I believe you when you say you won’t start up again in the fall! Okay, final thoughts, what’s been the best benefit in your life since you stopped watching television?

Caitlin M: Eliminating unnecessary noise and distraction from my life.  I spend my time doing things that are important to me rather than spending hours convincing myself that I care about pretend characters and situations on television.  It gives me a sense of peace.

But, but, but…

Okay, I can’t really think of a good argument for watching a lot of TV. But, if it’s something you enjoy, what’s the harm? I do agree with Caitlin that watching television should be intentional instead of just a constant drone. However, I’m not ready to said good-bye to Olivia Pope or Mindy Lahiri.

How about you? Have you ever quit watching TV? I know some people give it up for Lent? Or is giving up TV the worst thing you can think of? Are you still mad at Matt Lauer, too? Talk to me!

PS. Do check out Caitlin’s blog, The Vegan Chickpea. It’s beautifully designed with some really great insight on the vegan lifestyle, and life, in general.

More than a beauty queen

I remember as a kid getting applications in the mail for beauty pageants. I ALWAYS wanted to apply, but my mom ALWAYS said no. In retrospect, they were probably a scam, so, good going, Mom. And, my mom probably realized that I don’t like being fussed with and I don’t like being told what to do, so it probably wouldn’t have been a good fit.

So, I don’t know much about pageants. Enter, Jessica, 30-something mother of three young kids. Jessica competed in the Miss America system and even won the title of Miss New York State.

I was excited to talk to Jessica about what attracted her to the pageant system and to tackle some of the stereotypes we have all heard. And, it was moving to hear Jessica talk about the platform she holds so dear. Check it out!

Caitlin: So, here’s the first question: Is beauty pageant the right term?

Jessica: (laughs) Well, I call them pageants.  When I was competing there was a push to call the Miss America System a “scholarship program,” but I still call it a pageant.

Caitlin: So how did you get started with pageants?

Jessica: Frankly, it wasn’t something I always wanted to do, in fact I remember when I was ten watching Miss America and making fun of the way the girls walked. However, at my High School in Memphis, there was a Senior Miss Pageant and I decided to give it a try.  We competed in Interview, Talent, and Evening Gown.  I was trained in classical ballet, and I danced 5-6 days a week a couple hours a day. I loved it, but I missed out on a lot in high school, and I thought it might be a good way to show people what I did all the time. I also thought it would be kind of fun, but didn’t think I would win. I thought it would be a popularity contest and I was kind of a nerd. I was a big nerd, actually.

So, I competed and to my surprise (and everyone else’s) I won. Then, about a week later I saw an ad for Miss Memphis, which was a preliminary to the Miss Tennessee Pageant, which would then lead to Miss America. And I said to my mom, “Maybe I should do this.” And she said, “Absolutely.” The very next day, I received an application in the mail from one of the judges from the Senior Miss Pageant who thought I would make a great competitor.

I ended up being first runner up, and I had a ton of fun, so I thought this was something I could see myself doing. And that’s kind of where it started.

Caitlin: So you eventually became Miss New York. How did you end up in New York?

Jessica: In order to compete in the Miss America System, you have to work in the state you’re competing in, have a permanent residency there, or you have to go to school there.  I graduated from University of Virginia and moved to New York City to pursue acting. I had some success, but mostly I was waiting tables and I felt like there was something missing in my life. I had competed in Tennessee when my parents still lived there, and I had competed in Virginia when I was going to school at UVA.  So, I decided to go and compete for Miss New York to give me some direction and focus in my life.

Caitlin: So, you had to win Miss New York City first?

Jessica: Yeah, you have to win a local before you can compete at a State Pageant. My first year I won Miss Manhattan.

Caitlin: Wow, that’s no small feat.

Jessica: Thanks, but then I went to Miss New York and I was first runner up.  I won’t lie, I was  pretty upset and I thought, I’m never doing pageants again. But, I decided to go back and do it on my own terms.For me, that meant I was going to be myself and that way, if I won, it would really be my win. And if I didn’t win, that was okay, at least I was being myself.

And I won Miss New York City and went on and won Miss New York that year.

Miss NY Pic

Caitlin: That’s awesome. What did winning Miss New York mean to you?

Jessica: The biggest thing was, that this was a goal I set for myself and I was able to achieve it. I think anytime you set a goal and achieve it, it’s a big deal. For me, that was it.

The other thing was, I had become very involved in my platform and I saw it as a chance to get that out to people and talk about my platform.

Miss America is unique because not only is it the largest provider of scholarships to young women in the world, you also are required to have a platform, which is basically community service.

Now, since I’ve gotten out of the system, Miss America has taken on the Children’s Miracle Network as their national platform. But, when I was in it, we could take on anything we chose.

Caitlin: And what was your platform?

Jessica: Combating teen depression and suicide.

Caitlin: Why did that platform mean so much to you?

Jessica: For me it was personal. I have suffered from depression since I was a child and when I got into the pre-teen years and teenage years, I suffered from a serious eating disorder. So. eventually, in order to save my life, my parents put me in a child psychiatric hospital. After a month I was kicked out because my insurance ran out and I went home. Fortunately for me, my parents were able to afford to pay for my treatment out of pocket.

As Miss New York, I made my platform two fold. The first aspect was the insurance portion with regards to Mental Health Coverage, and what we could do to change that. The other component I talked about, was the stereotypes that surround people with mental illness.

When I would go into schools, I would always say, “Okay, raise your hand if when I say ‘mentally ill,’ you think of a crazy person on the street.” And everyone would raise their hand. And I’d say, “Okay, raise your hand if when I say ‘psychiatric hospital’ you all think of an insane asylum with bars on the windows and locked doors” and everyone would raise their hand.

And then I would say, “Raise your hand if when I say ‘Miss New York’ you think mentally ill, psychiatric hospital, depression’” and nobody would raise their hand. And so, I’d share my story.

With adults, I would talk about the stereotypes that surround mental illness and how to obtain treatment.   Statistics show that 1 in 5 people will suffer from a mental illness in their life time. So, even if you don’t, more than likely someone in your circle will. And, do you know what to do if you or that person starts to suffer? Because a lot of time people don’t know what to do. They don’t know where to turn or even what the signs and symptoms are.

Caitlin: Yeah, I imagine that must have been very powerful as far as stigma goes seeing a successful, beautiful young woman who has dealt with depression and who has gotten treatment. I think that’s fantastic you could do that.

Jessica: It was so often I would do these talks and people would come up to me after and say, “Oh my gosh, me too.” Or, “My daughter suffers from this.” I think it’s just getting that awareness out there. As a society, we’re doing better, but there’s still a huge stigma that surrounds mental illness. People are embarrassed to talk about it. It’s a shame, it really is.

I like to compare having a mental illness to having diabetes. Some people with diabetes can control it with watching their sugar and watching what they eat. Just like some people with mental illness can control it by making lifestyle changes or seeking counseling.  Some people with diabetes have to have a permanent insulin pump, just like some people with mental illness need more care, such as medication, or even being in a facility.

Caitlin: That’s a great way to look at it. You know, you were so young, did you ever worry about having a platform that wasn’t glamorous.

Jessica: You know, not then. I didn’t care what people thought. Now, I really find that it’s not just about me. I have a family. Eventually I will have to tell my children about this. Is it my favorite thing to talk about now? No, because it’s so far removed from my life, but at the same time, I know that five years from now my kids will be on Google, and be like, “Mom, you have some explaining to do.” But, I also think it’s important for them to know about it, because there is often a family history and so I think the kids should be aware of that.

But, back then, I was like, this is who I am. You like me for who I am, or you don’t. Now, with having kids, I know what I say can have an effect on them. So I have to think about that.

Caitlin: What do you think was the most positive impact being Miss New York had on your life?

Jessica: I think the first thing I learned was to be myself. You know, at first, I was trying to fit a mold, and I was successful, but I didn’t win. And it wasn’t really until I decided to really be myself that I won. I think from a personal standpoint, that was very helpful.

The other thing was seeing kids I helped. Seeing kids who went through what I went through. Let’s be honest, high school sucks for some of us, but what I could say to those kids was, if I can get through it, so can you. And being able to give them just a piece of hope was really something that was good for me.

Caitlin: You mentioned stereotypes earlier and I know everyone has a stereotype of what they think pageants are and beauty queens and that sort of thing. So, which ones are true and which ones aren’t?

Jessica: A lot of the stereotypes I think is people getting Miss America and Miss USA confused. They both have their strengths and their flaws.  However, I tend to think of Miss USA as more of a beauty pageant, and Miss America as more of a scholarship program.

I always feel almost embarrassed when I tell people I was Miss New York. I’m fairly short and I don’t consider myself beautiful or anything. Pageants have taught me how to fix my hair and put on makeup, but I think people expect some sort of knockout beauty, and that’s not me.

I also think there’s a stereotype that the girls aren’t that intelligent. I come across that a lot. Most of the girls I met were incredibly intelligent and very committed to their platform and their education.

I hear the stereotype that it’s very catty, and you know, I think anytime there’s a lot of personalities in one room you’re going to have some issues.   But for the most part, I’m still very close, best friends with seven of the girls I competed at Miss America with.

Close friends from Miss America

The stereotypes that are true…. does it get competitive? Absolutely. Are there people slashing your bathing suit or stealing your shoes? No. Nothing like that.

We do glue our bathing suits to our butts during competition. That’s true. Some girls do put Vaseline on their teeths to be able to smile longer. A lot of hairspray.

Caitlin: So you have a five year old daughter. I’m curious, what do you tell her beauty and what it means to be beautiful?

Jessica: We don’t really talk about beauty. I try not to make that a focus or something we talk about a lot. I do tell her she’s beautiful every day, because I think you should tell every little girl that she’s beautiful, . But, more important, I tell her that she’s smart and that she’s sweet. I stress that we need to be nice. Thankfully, my daughter has a much different personality than me.  She has a pretty healthy dose of self confidence, and we always say we want to get her a shirt that says, “I’m not bossy, I have leadership skills.” I’m sure when she’s older we’ll talk about it more. But, she’s just a little girl and I want her to enjoy that. It goes by so quickly.

Caitlin: So if she wanted to do pageants, what would you tell her?

Jessica: I think she’s too young now. But, that’s just a parenting decision my husband and I have made regarding all sports or extracurricular activities. We don’t let our boys play soccer tournaments all weekend either.  We feel there will be plenty of time for team sports and activities when they are older. Right now, we just want our kids to enjoy being kids and play.

If she decided when she’s 12 or 13 that she wanted to try pageants, okay. I’m a big believer that if you can come up with three good reasons why you want to do something, then, yeah, I’ll consider it. I don’t think it’s any different than choosing to play soccer or run a race or something. For me it’s just another form of competition.

photo (56)

I think the hardest thing now, as an adult having been Miss New York, is that people assume things just because of a former title. I think my friends like to bring it up when I meet people, because it’s unique, and honestly I am forever grateful I had the experience.  However, I would like to think there’s a lot more to me than that.

I think anytime you meet people it’s so easy to have a stereotype about them based on a past experience and I think the more we can try to keep an open mind, the better off we’ll be in general.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a bit, you know I wholeheartedly agree with that last line. I really believe in the power of talking about things and getting past the superficial to break down barriers and build relationships. So, thanks to Jessica for chatting!

What did you learn that surprised you? Have you ever competed in a pageant? Talk to me!