Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: Another Year Gone...What's Next?

I hardly know where this year went.  Time goes faster as we age, but this year seems to have shot past me in the blink of an eye.  I felt truly renewed in having a purpose and a goal on several fronts, and I've made progress in all of them. 

I wanted to take my fitness to the next level.  Well, I started running and I've done two 5k races.  In 2011, I want to do at least 3 and maybe try for a 10k.

I've contemplated grad school for the last 5-going-on-6 years, and this year I had the Great Business School Epiphany.  In 2011, it's officially Game On as I re-take the GMAT and complete my applications.

There have been some setbacks here and there, namely in my dancing world.  I feel as though 2010 was a rather static year in which life's distractions made it difficult--if not impossible--to advance, so I'm going to mix it up in 2011 and find my new groove.

Meanwhile, even though I'm orchestrating a move out of the country, I continue to enjoy my job and I want to take it as far as I can for as long as I am able.  Believe it or not, I'm actually looking forward to going back on Monday.

I'm very much looking forward to the next year.  In 2011, I will celebrate 10 years since graduating high school, which almost seems like nothing, given that my generation has stayed very much in touch with one another via Instant Messanger and later MySpace and Facebook.  While I've been at home in Pittsburgh, the topic of a class of 2001 reunion has come up with a few of my friends, and we all seem to come to the same conclusion: Is there a point?  Like I said--we all pretty much know what everyone else is up to because of the Internet.  I don't even know what sort of governing body puts together official class reunions.  Student Council?  Is there an Alumni Association?  I haven't a clue, and I may not even be around to celebrate anyway.  Which is a shame, really, because I've been telling my BFF Lindsey for the last decade that I would pretty much handcuff myself to her and drag her to our class reunion if I had to.  Even with the social media keeping everyone connected, I think it would be a real laugh riot to get everyone together again and see what happens.  Nothing truly takes the place of real time, face-to-face interaction.

It's been a fun year full of adventures, discovering new friendships, and re-discovering ones that have been around for awhile.  Thank you to all of my family and friends who have been a part of it all.  May you all have a happy and prosperous New Year!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Reverb10: Gift

This month, gifts and gift-giving can seem inescapable. What’s the most memorable gift, tangible or emotional, you received this year? 

I'm struggling to come up with something as quickly as I have been able to for the other questions, but if I sit and ponder on it for a bit, the overlying theme I keep coming up with is the gift of...belief?  To explain: in 2010 I have had more people than I can recall before who have come out and told me that they believe in my ability to achieve my goals.  I think it's a direct result of my finally opening up to the world at large and bothering to share what those goals actually are.  Besides the grad school thing, I also took up running, which really gave me something to focus on this year. To have people cheering me on to meet my little running goals all along the way has really helped me keep it up.  When I tried running in 2007, I shared that with pretty much no one, and I fizzled out within a few months.  I do struggle to believe in my own abilities, and just having one person saying, "You can do it," with all sincerity means the world to me.  Great things will follow when you allow yourself to be open to accepting such gifts.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Reverb10: Achieve

What’s the thing you most want to achieve next year? How do you imagine you’ll feel when you get it? Free? Happy? Complete? Blissful? Write that feeling down. Then, brainstorm 10 things you can do, or 10 new thoughts you can think, in order to experience that feeling today.

Ok, I'm going to set the obvious (b-school) aside for this one.
In 2011, I want to fall back in love with dancing.  A little background for those of you who may not know me as well: I've always liked to dance socially, but wasn't really formally trained in any particular style.  I took ballet classes when I was about 6 or 7, but apparently I didn't like it and didn't even make it as far as the first recital.  I did learn some basics when I was a member of my high school colorguard and we incorporated dance into our spring competition routines, but that was the extent of it.  About midway through college I decided that I was going to formally learn a dance form, but I didn't actually achieve that goal until I started taking bellydance classes in January of '07.  I studied Middle Eastern dance continuously through October 2010 and had been performing with my studio's dance company since summer of 2008.  For personal reasons, I chose to disaffiliate with the studio this fall, so I've been a "free agent" from November on.
It has been nice to have a break and get a few more visits to the gym in these last couple of months, but come January I'm going to get moving again!  I've always been an admirer of ballroom dance and I've had a pair of ballroom shoes for about a year now.  In our studio, we performed barefoot 99% of the time and usually just broke out the ballroom shoes for big stage productions (and sometimes not even then), or some dancers chose to wear them while doing solo work.  As for me, I wore the shoes to dance in Nations of San Diego in January '10, and that's it.  It's time to dust those babies off and learn how to dance backwards.  I am particularly enamored by the Latin dances (samba, cha cha cha, mambo, et. al.), so I've found a local studio that has beginner classes on a weekday evening and we'll take it from there.  They also have high level classes for people who want to compete, which is my other big thing.  I'm a ham and I'll eventually need an audience if I turn out to be any good at it!
What can I do about it today?  Not much, really, since I'm at my parents' home in Pittsburgh.  But I do have my iPod hooked up to the speakers in my old room, and I plan to go through and weed out more old junk I've been storing here.  Maybe a good dance beat will make the task at hand that much easier.  It usually does, yes?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

T-Minus 0 Days: The Aftermath

Well, I did it.  I survived the GMAT.  However, I wouldn't say I kicked its ass like I wanted to. 

The test is administered in 3 parts in this order: 2 Essays, the Quantitative (aka Math) section, and the Verbal section.  I feel good about the essays because writing is my strong suit.  The Quant section was rough--so rough, in fact, that I failed to answer the very last question.  Not finishing every single question on the GMAT is a big no-no and severely penalizes your score.  My big problem was pacing.  Even though at one point I noticed I was getting really hairy questions, which is a good thing in a computer-adaptive test that adjusts to your level, I was taking too long to answer and by the time I still had 10 questions to go, I had so little time left that I had to take a wild-ass guess at almost all of them.

I felt good about the verbal section, however.  I kept a steady pace and finished with a few seconds to spare.  Historically, that's how it has always been for me--stonger in verbal than math, and today was really no different.  My verbal score was in the 87th percentile and my math was down in the dregs--the 28th percentile.  My overall is in the 58th.  It's also below the recommended minimum score that two of the three schools I'm heavily pursuing right now wants to see.  Now, the GMAT is not the be all and end all of your business school application.  Everything I have read and heard has indicated that the admissions committee for b-schools really does look at it holistically.  I am confident that I will produce great essays and that I will have solid recommendations.  My undergrad GPA is above average and my recent work history is pretty good, but I wouldn't say any of it is enough to easily overcome a lop-sided, below-average GMAT score.  As such, I have already decided that I will bite the bullet and take it again as soon as I am able, which I believe is in 30 or 31 days.  Most schools even give you the chance to try and redeem yourself with an extra essay in your application, but I feel like I shouldn't go down that road if I don't at least try for a better score first.

I am, of course, disappointed that I didn't reach my goal on the first try, but the thing about business is that you have to learn take a hit, figure out what the heck went wrong, fix it, and keep going.  So that's exactly what I'm going to do.

You may have won the battle this time around, GMAT, but it's not over yet!

Monday, December 27, 2010

T-Minus 1 Day: Almost GMAT Time

'Twas the night before GMAT, and all through the house...

Okay, I'm not going to go there.  Christmas is over, after all.  Plus I don't want to waste precious brain cells trying to be clever and rhyme my way through this.

But here we are at the night before the GMAT.  I've just printed out my confirmation e-mail and reviewed the directions.  Even though the testing center is in a building where I used to work about 4 years ago, they have since finished building a freeway interchange that didn't exist before, so I'll be going a slightly different way.

I'm actually feeling eerily calm.  I guess once you realize that you're at the point where you know as much as you're going to know and there isn't much more to be done about it, you can relax.  I do feel confident that I will not fall flat on my face.  It's funny--I've been saying these last few weeks that I've come to view this like a cagefight between me and the test, and today I was thumbing through my strategy book and it basically said that taking that exact attitude is often part of successful test-taking strategies.  That gave me a chuckle and made me feel better.

Dad's downstairs cooking dinner and I might go over a few last-minute things for the test--like how to check your timing (e.g. by the 30 minute mark you should at least be on question 15 or whatever) and how to set up your noteboard efficiently, but basically after dinner I plan to just chill out with some tv and hit the sack at a decent hour.  I'm testing in the afternoon, so I have plenty of time to roll out of bed and eat a good breakfast, talk to friends, putz around, etc.

That said, I still welcome all the luck I can get!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Reverb10: Soul Food

What did you eat this year that you will never forget? What went into your mouth & touched your soul?

Wow, them's strong words.  Umm...lobster feast & wine tasters in Mexico comes to mind.  As does the lunch at my all-time favorite restaurant (El Q'ero in Encinitas) that I finally got to go to with one of my fellow foodies (Alyse).  The lasagna I ate at Buon Appetito in Little Italy in San Diego was the best I've ever had.  (Sorry, Mom.  You're still amazing.)  However, what truly touches my soul are great dishes prepared lovingly by family and friends.  So for that I look to my Ma--who has been my #1 inspiration as a cook all my life, and my buddy Tim, who is a talented cook and grillmeister who always aims to please!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Reverb10: New Name

If you could introduce yourself to strangers by another name for just one day, what would it be and why?

When I was little, I went through a phase where I thought "Missy" was the coolest nickname in the world.  This was after my "I wish I had an 'h' at the end of my name so that I would be Mariah" phase. (I was a huge Mariah Carey fan.)  Since then, I have grown to absolutely love and appreciate my given name--first, middle, and last.  That said, when I wrote short stories about myself and my friends back in college, I gave myself the moniker, "Victoria".  That way I could be Tori or still even use Ria for short.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Reverb10: Travel

How did you travel in 2010? How and/or where would you like to travel next year?

The "how" part of the question kinda makes me laugh because, well, does it really matter how I got from Point A to Point B? Unless it was by camel caravan, I think that part is pretty uninteresting.

This year I was more conservative with my vacation time and dollars than last year after making the declaration that in 2011 the Brown Family would be going to Europe. That said, I've gotten out and about quite a few times in the latter half of the year.

  • June - Vegas Vacation with the aforementioned Tara (see previous post). Even though it ended up being just the two of us and we both worked part of the time, we managed to enjoy ourselves quite a bit when we weren't doing the "Vegas Shuffle". (Long story.) I even got to cross something off of my "30 Things to do by 30" list, which was to stay out all night in Las Vegas. I saw the sun rise on our last night. :)

  • September - I attended the Kappa Kappa Gamma Leadership Academy in Columbus, OH. Awesome experience, and it was exactly the kind of thing I needed to help me realize my MBA Project.

  • October - I flew up to Portland, OR for my cousin Carmel's wedding, which allowed me to cross another thing off of my 30/30 list.

  • November - Went out to Virginia to celebrate Thanksgiving with my maternal family

  • December - I leave tomorrow for Pittsburgh to be with my paternal clan. Wish me luck with all the crazy weather and holiday traffic...

Peppered in there have been driving-distance trips up to Orange County and LA to hang at Disneyland with friends, tour Hollywood & Beverly Hills, and visit family.  I also spent a day in Mexico this spring eating inexpensive Lobster feasts and wine tasting in the Guadalupe Valley.
Coming up in 2011...

Europe. And lots of it.

As mentioned previously, my Dad and Stepmom and I have been planning to go since 2009, and I'm bringing my friend Tina with me. She studied in Trier, Germany five years ago, and we've sworn to go back to Germany together in the time since. The trip itinerary is not yet set and it's already seen quite a few configurations that has involved Amsterdam, London, Berlin, Frankfurt, Trier, and Rome. Regardless of where we start and finish, Germany is going to be the big focus. Now with my plans to go for an MBA somewhere over there, I think we're going to try to work it out timing-wise such that I can just go over for our holiday...and stay there. :) Domestically, I don't have any other travel plans for next year that would involve a plane. There may be a wedding or two, but invites have yet to go out, so let's not put the cart before the horse.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Watch Out! There's a Serial Writer on the Loose!

I'd like to take a moment to give a shoutout to my friend Tara and her blog, A Serendipitous Life. I've been following her writing for several years now, and one of the things that's fun about her style is that she dabbles in serial-style writing. That is to say, she'll take a topic or theme and run with it, whether it's about participating in date-night challenges with her husband Steve, writing about the homes she grew up in, or most recently, a series called Reverb10 in which she reflects on the past year. And every time I read one of those posts I think, "That's cool; I should do that too!"

All this writing about business school is bound to get a little old, so I'd like to widen my scope a bit. And since I'm not necessarily interested in re-inventing the wheel here, I'll borrow from Tara's Reverb10 series. I won't necessarily pick all the same topics or go in the same order, so I'm grabbing from last Thursday's topic:

How has a friend changed you or your perspective on the world this year? Was this change gradual, or a sudden burst?

This question jumped out at me because this year the new friendship I made was so sudden, unexpected, and awesome. I am, of course, talking about Ralph. (AKA, "The German Guy") I don't know that our friendship changed me fundamentally, but it certainly gave me a kick in the pants that I sorely needed. He embraced the experience of living in a foreign country with such reckless abandon (well, as reckless as a German is apt to be) and crossed so many things off of his To Do list that I realized there was nothing stopping me from doing it too. In 2009 I had this two or three week period of total restlessness surrounding my trip to Germany in which I ran my head against the wall trying to think of ways to live in Europe. I can't explain it; something drew me in that was far stronger than just a desire to take a vacation. I used my car, my cat, and my job as excuses to stay put last year, but this year I realized that my other dream--going for my Master's--fit perfectly into the whole plan. Throughout my life I have met so many people who come to America to have an amazing experience, from our two Spanish au pairs when I was a kid to the Brazilian interns I met at Disney to, well, Ralph. I want what they had, and the only thing that has really stopped me up to this point is my own fear of not being able to clear the obstacles.

And, hey, even if I wasn't gunning for grad school, becoming close friends with someone from another country introduced me firsthand to another perspective on life in general. Everybody needs some of that.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

T-Minus 7 Days

Well, here we are at the 1 week mark.  In fact, by this time of day I should be just wrapping up.  A friend asked me how I feel about it at this point, and I answered, "Well, I'll say this.  I'm no longer terrified."

Anxious and a bit pressured, yes.  But not terrified.  Learning test taking strategies goes a long, long way in building your confidence.  (Seriously, "Jane" at work has a fruit basket coming her way...whether I bust out a 700 score or not...)

However, I'm also starting to sweat the application process a bit.  First up is St. Gallen, the Swiss school, which has its Round 2 Deadline on the 1st of February.  It's also shifted to my #1 choice for now.  I'll revisit my personal ranking system later in another post after I've recovered from the GMAT.  I now have two recommenders on board and a third unexpected offer.  I got multiple copies of my transcript from my alma mater and the skeleton of a few essay questions are already started.  This week I'd like to get a brief rundown of my history and goals to my recommenders so that they have something to reference over the next 6 weeks or so as I prepare my first application package.

All in all, I'm feeling good.  Onward!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Brunch for One

One of the worst things about where I live is also one of the best things about where I live.  My apartment happens to be in the heart of my town's "downtown" district, which in and of itself is not a bad thing.  It's just that I also happen to live on the street corner of the main drag, so traffic and it's accompanying noise is a constant.  (This is where my compulsive need to listen to music all the time comes in handy.)  However, the flip side to that is that I'm within walking distance of the library, a big movie theater, and local restaurants.

I've had a serious case of what I call "Bachelor Fridge" for the last couple of days.  That's when you have nothing to eat but a few random things, and this morning it's at its worst: 6 bottles of beer I inherited from a party and will probably never finish, a lemon, some phyllo dough, condiments, my Brita pitcher, and a bowl of oatmeal soaking in water.  I've been staring at that bowl of oatmeal, which has been my go-to breakfast during the week for a couple of weeks now, but this morning I couldn't do it.  I've been living off scraps all week, as I'm trying to get rid of food before I go back out of town.  I'll do a small grocery run later today, but I felt like a sad bowl of oatmeal wasn't going to properly fortify me for the job of getting a few items to get me through the week. 

Nah, it's cold and rainy and I've earned a big breakfast.  I threw on my trench coat, grabbed the umbrella, and walked a block away to Allen's Alley.  This, again,  is where the living downtown part pays off.  And apparently Allen's Alley is the town's oldest continuously-open restaurant.  It's one of those "blink and you miss it" kind of places.  A best-kept secret to boot, because locals love it.  The first and only other time I'd been there was over two years ago, which is a shame, really.  Luckily I found room at the counter right away.  A small part of me dislikes having to do the lonely trucker thing and sitting alone at a counter to eat, but the bigger part said, "I need me some coffee and hotcakes."  I sat and took notes in my MBA Gameplan book, people watched, and had the best stack of old fashioned pancakes in existence.  Most of the people there were clearly regulars, getting called by name and a few of them even receiving a Christmas card from the staff.  Why don't I come here more often?  I can literally see it from my front stoop.

I try to appreciate those things more as I grow older.  You know, the unique gems and places you can't find on every other street corner.  Don't get me wrong--I'm a fan of Starbucks coffee and Target superstores too.  I don't think one necessarily precludes liking the other.  One of the things I'm most looking forward to about moving to Europe, however, is the more commonplace nature of small local businesses.  Places where I can go to people watch and potentially socialize, get an up front view of the local flavor.  In the meantime, I'll try to enjoy what's already in my own backyard.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

T-Minus 14 Days

Wait--what??? I'm taking the GMAT in two weeks?  When the heck did that happen!?  I found myself writing to a couple of people this afternoon with whom I haven't spoken to recently, so naturally I told them about my plans.  And that's when it occurred to me to look at a calendar and come to the realization that D-Day (or G-Day) is in 14 days.  Yowza.  I lost this last weekend of studying, and by "lost" I mean had a blast with one of my best friends who flew out from Kansas City to experience San Diego sunshine and witness the massacre of her football team.  (Obviously the little detail on the latter was not what she was gunning for.)  We spent a couple of nights in a great location right next to the San Diego Convention center, which overlooks the bay, Coronado Island, and offers views of the famous Gaslamp district and the Padres Stadium to boot.  It doesn't get much better than that.

At any rate, I have been diligently plugging away at several practice questions a night with my handy strategy book these last several nights (w/exception of the aforementioned weekend), and last night I turned this weird corner where I actually found tackling data sufficiency questions to be  I am not much different from the masses who tend to just jump in and try to start solving equations the old-fashioned (read: inefficient) way, so when the time-saving strategies that let you say "Ah-HA!" actually start clicking and making sense, it becomes more of a game.  Granted, I keep getting knocked down in this game, but I'm starting to get better at it.  I'm starting to look at it like this: the GMAT and I are going into the Octagon together and only one of us is coming out alive.  If I can just be patient and learn what the GMAT's Achilles' heel is, then I stand a fighting chance and I start to get the eye of the tiger instead of the shakes.


Saturday, December 4, 2010

T Minus 24 Days

Well, I finally bit the bullet and registered for the GMAT.  D-Day is on December 28th.  That also happens to be the last day I can access Kaplan's online prep material, so there you go.  I had been tentatively planning to take the test on the 18th, but by the time I was ready to pull the trigger today, the spots had filled up.  I decided to look and see if there were dates available during the week I'll be on vacation in Pittsburgh, and lo and behold, there was something open at the Pearson Testing Center that happens to be in the very same building where I briefly worked for Act-1 almost 5 years ago!  Hahaha, my, how things have come full circle.  While a part of me just wants to get it over with already and not have to worry about it over my vacation, the other, smarter part knows that I haven't been a strong enough studier to be ready in 2 weeks.  I will need every last minute of those extra 10 days, I'm sure.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

How'd I Miss That?

You know what's funny?  I just discovered today that I don't have a copy of my final undergraduate transcript.  The one I've had tucked away in my files all these years is from when my last semester was still in progress.  I may have been reporting the wrong GPA on my resumes and everything.  I tried to see if I could log on to the school's database/profile system to confirm what my final average ended up being, but of course it's down for maintenance for the next half hour at least.  And even then, my log-on may have been purged from the system since I'm about 5 years removed from using it actively.  I'll need to request copies of my transcript regardless, but I just thought that it was amusing that I made this discovery only now...

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Shopping Roulette

Last night I stopped by a Borders after work because that particular location is going out of business, so "Everything Must Go!"  Bad for them, but great for me because I'm ready to start working on my applications now and I wanted to pick up some MBA guide books at 30% off.

I love books; you can find anything you need between the pages of one.  Comfort, advice, wisdom, solace, humor, admissions secrets from the best business schools...  I scoped out some titles ahead of time on Amazon.  (By the way, what did we do before we could go check out the ratings on any given product, anywhere, at any time?)  I was pleased to find a copy of two of the ones on my list: Your MBA Game Plan and The Best Business Schools' Admissiosn Secrets.  Perhaps later when all is said and done, I'll do some sort of review on each.  I've read a few chapters of both of them and so far I've found them to be enlightening.

After I left Borders I wandered over to some of the other stores in the plaza: Anthropologie and White House/Black Market.  (This should tell you right now what caliber of shopping plaza we're dealing with.)  Oh, are my fantasy and my anguish.  You should just be renamed the Things You Can't Afford or Fit Into Store.  With many places it's one or the other, but that establishment is decidedly both.  I guess I could've gotten one of the candles, which is the only thing I've ever bought from there anyway.  White Market was a lesser exercise in masochism, although only just.  I still couldn't afford the clothes, but at least I fit into them.  I felt bad picking piece after piece and letting the friendly attendant shuffle them away to a room for me to try them on, knowing full well that I wasn't going to buy anything.

And as if that wasn't enough, I stopped by the Premium Outlet mall and wound up wandering through the Coach Factory Outlet, something I've actually never done before in the four and a half years I've lived here.  I suppose I always passed it and thought to myself, "Why is it always so busy?  Who wants to buy a bunch of overpriced bags?".  I heave a sigh and slowly raise my hand here--as soon as I stepped in, I got it.  I was greeted by no fewer than three people and I wanted, mmm, pretty much everything within arm's reach.  It may be overpriced and some of it is clearly not going to stand the test of time, but mostly it is quite at my taste level.  I have a sad, dirty canvas purse that I bought at Target several months back that I have grown to loathe, but somehow I managed to escape the Coach store without giving in and splurging on $125 worth of leather, suede, tweed, or any other manner of fine fabric.  Truthfully, I don't think that spending that much on a purse is ridiculous if the purse is well made, durable, and likely to last several seasons.  It's like a pair of good shoes: spend a little more and get what you want, and if the quality is up to snuff, it's going to last you forever.  However, I just couldn't justify that purchase when I have both holiday travel and MBA-related expenses hitting me right now.  It came really close, though.  That's why I call it shopping roulette.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The MBA Project: Baby Steps

This is going to be a short one--I just wanted to say that I started my first application tonight.  I sat down to the laptop to look for Curriculum Vitae examples and I ended up looking at student blogs for LBS and St. Gallen, and next thing I know I'm creating a profile to start my St. Gallen application.

I must say, one thing that St. Gallen really has in its favor in my eyes is that they don't charge you an application fee.  So, once I've completed everything, all I have to do is hit "submit" and not wince as the school demands anywhere from 50 € to £160 just for the privilege.

It just seems so surreal to actually start putting my name to these things, like it's actually happening or something!

Monday, November 8, 2010

The MBA Project: I get by with a little help...

...from my friends.  And my family. And my work colleagues!

I kept this whole MBA project close to the vest for a long time, divulging in just a few people at a time over several months. That's how I go about announcing big, life-changing decisions. I'm glad that I am finally at the point where I feel comfortable talking about it with everyone, because a golden opportunity fell into my lap this morning thanks to a conversation I had over the weekend.

One of my co-workers held a housewarming party on Saturday, and one of the other people from work who stopped by is an acquaintance of mine from another department. Let's call her Jane. (I don't think she would mind if I used her real name, but since she doesn't know I have a blog or that she's subject to be in it, I'd rather just use a pseudonym for courtesy.) At some point several of us were sitting out on the back patio chatting when I heard Jane tell another engineer who works at our company, "...yeah, and I'm taking the GMAT soon. I'm looking to go back to school." Naturally my ears perked up. (Barooo?) I put down the chips and salsa, sprang out of my chair, and went over to her side.

"ME TOO!", I cried like an overexcited 5 year old. Maybe that was a little exaggerrated--but I was enthusiastic about joining this conversation. As we got to talking and comparing notes, she told me that she's been taking a prep course. I am all for that sort of thing, but I am trying to go about this process as frugally as I can get away with. So, for now, I've just been studying with used books that I ordered online. Jane offered to lend me some of her study material when she's done since she is going to test very, very soon. (As in next week.) Who am I to turn that down? She followed through this morning by showing me her prep materials and saying that I am welcome to use them, especially after next Wednesday because that's when she sits for the exam.

Hot DOG! Do you see what opening up and having a little conversation can do? And now I gotta get her a fruit basket or something because this is above and beyond just the normal friendliness and helpfullness that I've come to expect from Jane. I'll put something on my calendar to give her an inter-departmental thank-you certificate, which is usually good for a nice gift card. :)

I'm so grateful for all of the help, advice, and words of encouragement that I've received from everyone thus far. I'm really lucky to have the support network that I do because there's no way I can do it all alone.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The MBA Project: Choosing the Schools

One of the first questions anyone asks me when I talk to them about my ambition to go for an MBA is, "What schools are you looking to go to?"  Excellent question!  Right off the bat, I can tell you that they all have one major thing in common: nary a one of them are in the United States.  As an American citizen, the world is my oyster when it comes to choosing an MBA program on my home soil.  Most of the top ranked programs in any MBA track or specialization can be found here, and there are people overseas dying to get in.   However, there is one thing that they cannot give me: immersion in another culture.  My overwhelming specialized interest when it comes to business is sustainability, and I believe that it is crucial to the world economy that we stop trying to work at it within the four walls of our respective countries.  As proud as I am to be an American, I don't think it should limit me to a prescribed set of ways of thinking and living.  Living in a culture different from my own and studying and working alongside dozens of others would give me that kind of perspective.

Of course, I've had suggestions that I go go an American school and take an opportunity to participate in a foreign exchange program that many of them offer.  I consider that to be Plan Z.  I simply have no interest in studying in my home country.  To me it feels like, "Been there, done that".  I've lived in literally all 4 corners of the continental US plus a stint in the middle.  I haven't been to every state, sure, but I've had an itch to go live in Europe that I have been dying to scratch for the last 7 years at least.  When I returned from a brief visit to Germany last spring, I decided that Europe was the only place I could ever leave California for.  I include the United Kingdom and Continental Europe in this statement.

Without further ado, and roughly in order in which I discovered them...

London Business School
London, UK

One of my co-workers happens to be a graduate of LBS, although that's not how I came by the school name.  Like many people, I went straight to the Internet and started looking at school rankings, and London Business School overwhelmingly appears in the Top 10, and in some cases, #1 ranked for non-US schools.

  • Highly renowned program with a strong alumni network in the UK & Europe.
  • Club listings include a Responsible Business Club and Consulting Club, both of which appear to be active, and the latter of which hosts regular speaker series with top consulting firms, such as McKinsey & Company.
  • Flexible program that allows you to finish in 15, 18, or 21 months.
  • almost goes without saying and sometimes it's the first thing that springs to mind, but it's in London.  LONDON.  It sends shivers down my spine just thinking about it--in a good way.

Imperial College
London, UK

Arguably a second tier alternative to LBS with about a 25% lower price tag.  I met one of the recruiters at the MBA fair I attended in September and got a good, friendly vibe that I hope is representative of the Imperial College reputation at large

  • Solid program with electives that I like.
  • Also has a Net Impact chapter, which relates to sustainable business.
  • Less expensive than LBS and still makes respectible appearances in rankings
  • Still in London. :-)

Vlerick Leuven Gent Business School
Leuven, Belgium

In addition to finding schools by the more traditional rankings (e.g. Bloomberg, Financial Times, etc.), I found this site called Beyond Grey Pinstripes, which looks at business schools in the context of corporate social responsibility and sustainability, two of my favorite topics.  Neat, huh?  Out of all the schools in my list, Vlerick placed the highest.  Actually, there was only one other that did--London Business School, and it was ranked near the bottom!

  • The aforementioned sustainability recognition goes a long way with me.
  • The least expensive school on my list at € 28,500 for the 12 month program, which is around $39,000 USD.
  • Very well located in Europe in terms of relative distance to major metropolitan areas.  For instance, it's only half an hour from Brussels, home to the UN.  How cool is that?  Also close to the Netherlands--one of those obsessions with places I've never seen--as well as to France and Germany, and a stone's throw from England by air.  I wouldn't mind learning Dutch either, as Leuven sits in the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium.  (As opposed to the French-speaking south.)

University of St. Gallen
St. Gallen, Switzerland

I only really stumbled on this a couple weeks ago, but I was immediately intrigued when I heard it has one of the best reputations of MBA programs in the German-speaking countries.

  • Well, first of all, I see Switzerland as this cool guy at school that everybody seems to get along with and wants to be around because he's a pretty successful guy, but he definitely does his own thing.  Switzerland is famously neutral in world conflicts and it's not part of the EU.  Switzerland, like Belgium, is a small country that has a few distinct language-regions.  St. Gallen happens to be in the German part.
  • Wonderful school to be an alumni of if you want to stand a chance at getting a job in Switzerland post-graduation.  And, I gotta say, for as famously expensive as the country is, you also stand to make good money and enjoy a host of benefits if you live/work there, and that's very appealing.

Mannheim Business School
Mannheim, Germany

When this whole revelation came upon me back in April, the friend that I had the good and long talk with suggested schools in Germany.  Not a surprise--he's German!  And why not?  They have a great university system that is pretty affordable. At first when I was just looking at Master's degrees in subjects like Information Systems, I had a few options in Germany noted.  But when I realizeed it was an MBA I wanted, I was disappointed to discover that business schools in Germany were a fairly new concept and that the programs on the whole haven't quite gained the footing that schools in the UK, France, and Spain have.  For most of this year I didn't challenge that assumption much until I re-considered and found Mannheim Business School mentioned in a few publications.  Then I found out that it's actually considered one of the best--if not the best MBA program in Germany, and is quickly gaining recognition in the rest of Europe.

  • Great school with a sterling reputation in Germany!
  • I happen to speak some German, and this, as with St. Gallen, would be an opportunity to learn it fluently outside of the business classes, which are all in English.  (Note: Most MBA programs are in English.)
  • Well-situated between Frankfurt and Stuttgart, and very close to Heidelberg, a city I visited last spring that I adore.
  • Very reasonable tuition at € 29,000, or $40k USD.  Mannheim also has the lowest cost of living of all the schools I've chosen, which can only be a good thing as I start to scrounge up sources for money.
This came to me as very good news indeed, for I have been a self-professed Germanophile ever since I sat and watched Europe Through the Back Door with Rick Steves in German class as a high school junior.  I had actually been taking German classes since the 7th grade, but when I was introduced to the affable tour guide, I really got bitten by the bug.  I have a long-standing history with the country that began before the classes, in fact.  In 1995 my Mom, who was at the time active-duty military, received orders to go there.  The whole family picked up and went across the pond, and we lived in an old Gasthaus in the tiny village of Kottweiler-Schwanden.  Now, I'm not going to lie: at the time I was devastated.  I was miserable about moving away from my tight-knit group of friends in Virginia and being so far from my father back in Pittsburgh.  It was not an easy transition for me in the least bit, and with the exception of fun trips to a few nearby castles and to the local Schwimmbad (swimming pool), I did not appreciate the fact that I was living in a foreign country.  I moved back to the States within a few months and made visits back every summer while my family was still there.

I didn't have the burning-hot desire to go back to Europe until a few years after Mom & Co. returned Stateside when hordes of my friends in college started studying abroad and coming back with amazing stories to tell.  I didn't have the confidence to consider actually living there until just last year when I visited my sister-in-law and newborn nephew for a week in Germany, and I spoke as much German as I could muster to anyone who would speak it with me!   Visiting with the appreciation of an adult as opposed to the petulance of an adolescent was a completely different experience.  I wanted more.


There were a few other schools that I heavily considered throughout this process, but didn't quite make the cut.

HEC Paris - Incredible school and I was in love with the idea of living with Paris...until I learned that not only is the school not really in Paris, but is a pretty self-contained campus separate unto itself.  That was exactly the type of school I was looking for as an undergrad, but it doesn't appeal to me now.  I want to live in the city among ordinary people--not in a dorm.  I didn't find any French schools that were actually in Paris.  And if it's not in Paris, enh, there are other places I'd rather live.  (Sorry, Ma, I know you'd love for me to go there.  Perhaps we shall when you come overseas to visit!)

ERASMUS Rotterdam - Now this one was a toughie to cut, because it was one of the first schools I looked into and I loved everything about it.  The school was into sustainability before it became so cool and popular.  I am obsessed with getting to the Netherlands as well.  However, they don't start their intake until January of each year, which for me would be January 2012.  Also, I've heard that attaining funding for this school can be more difficult than other European schools, and Rotterdam is an expensive city.

ESADE & SDA Bocconi - ESADE is in Barcelona, Spain and Bocconi is in Milan, Italy.  They are excellent schools, but I'd rather go to school in a country that I am more likely to want to stay and work in after graduation, and neither Spain nor Italy quite grab me in that way.

The Cons of Going to School Abroad

Now, with all of these options, there are of course drawbacks.  For one, working is more than likely not an option.  I'll likely be too busy managing the concentrated courseload of the 12 month European MBA programs, and as a foreigner I will probably only have a permit to study and not to work.

And, as an American, staying on to work post-graduation would certainly require some deft hoop-jumping that other EU-nationals probably wouldn't have to go to.  So, if I was to stay, I would probably have to work a lot harder than my classmates to secure the job with a company that would sponsor a work permit.

Going to London would be cool and in some ways a lot easier on me in light of the fact that it's in another English-speaking country.  Yet at the same time, I see that as a downside.  I'd love to become fluent in another language, and it would make me a heckuva lot more marketable.  I've already got a 15 year head-start in German...

Not all of these programs really grab me to the same level, but at the same time, I would be thrilled to be accepted to any one of them.  At the aforementioned MBA fair, I had a long and candid chat with the recruiter from SDA Bocconi in Italy (who happens to be American), and he gave me this advice: make sure that of the schools you choose, you like them all equally and that you would be just as happy to get into any one of them.

When I told my boss about my plans--she herself being a huge proponent of MBAs--she advised me to work backwards.  That is to say, first figure out exactly what I want to be doing and who I would want to work for, then find out what schools they recruit from.  Excellent advice that definitely helped me sort this out!

My gut instinct is that Mannheim is my best shot and my best fit all-around for its location, the cost, and my familiarity with the country and its language.  St. Gallen is a close second for the same reasons--it just costs almost twice as much.  Then I would say LBS, Vlerick, and Imperial.  I am such a nerd that I have this spreadsheet I keep with stats on each one, as well as my drop-dead application dates.

As I said in my previous post, I'm still studying for the GMAT.  I've never been very good at sitting down and studying, so this has been an interesting challenge for me.  I intend to test in mid-December, and in the meantime it's time to start approaching potential referees and giving my resume--ahem--Curriculum Vitae-- an MBA-appropriate makeover.  Oh, and getting transcripts and writing essays.  Not to mention figuring out how to accomplish a move of epic proportions with a cat who needs insulin every 12 hours.  Whew, this is a lot of work before you even start applying for the loans and, you know, actually being in school...

One step at a time!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The MBA Project

Within a few months of earning my Bachelor of Arts in English in 2005, I decided that I would go on to grad school.  I remember quite vividly sitting at the assistant learning coordinator's desk in the Disney College Program Education Office, where I was serving a post-graduate internship that fall, and brainstorming to myself what I could parlay my BA into.  I quite enjoyed my minor concentration, New Media Journalism Communication (say that 10x fast), so something in communications seemed to be the natural choice.  I could explore more of the journalistic side to that, but I didn't feel quite passionate enough about it.  Besides, writing articles usually started out to be fun for me, but quickly turned into a laborious task.  I shifted my thoughts towards general communication, and that quiet afternoon at the desk I started browsing some college search sites.

The more I looked into it, the more excited I became.  I searched this way and that, tapping into programs in human communications, which gave way to speech and language pathology.  What's more is that I didn't limit myself to local schools by area, state, or even country.  I looked at the programs in Ireland, Britain, Canada, and Australia--all English speaking countries who often had reciprocal agreements with each other whereby if you attained your certification in SLP (speech language pathology) in one country, you could practice in another.  By the time I returned home to Pittsburgh in January 2006, I decided to apply for the University of Pittsburgh's SLP program and hope that they would allow me to complete prerequisites as part of the program.  So, I solicited professors for recommendations, gathered transcripts, and wrote an essay on how I wanted to help people communicate, especially after seeing my late Uncle Norman struggle to speak and remember names following a stroke.

I was rejected.

They cited my academic background as the reason, which was resoundingly a liberal arts one that had almost none of the math and science foundations essential to their program.  I was disappointed, naturally, but I don't blame them.  It was a long shot at best.

I didn't dwell on it for long, however.  Within weeks of receiving the rejection letter, an opportunity to move to San Diego, California presented itself.  The dream of going to grad school for SLP gave way to the excitement of living in a new city.  The lingering desire to further myself with graduate study never completely vanished, however, and I did make overtures to going into nursing.  In 2007 I researched programs from Los Angeles to San Diego, began volunteering at a local hospital's maternity wing, and I even took a biology class at a community college to get a leg up on the prerequisites that I needed.

Even though I earned an "A" in the biology class, my interest faded as I realized that perhaps I wasn't really cut out for the rigors of nursing.  It's a difficult job that I highly respect for the skill, knowledge and sheer stamina it takes to be good at it.  Although I am fascinated by medicine and unfazed by the sight of blood and guts, I think the stakes of being either partly or solely responsible for the outcome of a life-or-death situation to be too high for my natural temperament.  What's more is that I found myself bored to tears in the volunteer position, which consisted mostly of clearing up meal trays and changing linens, so I eventually gave that up too.

By the summer of 2008, I was content to go about my business taking dance lessons and pursuing a new job that my good friend Tim was helping me to secure.  We worked together for a year and a half before he was let go by our company, and he quickly took up with the supply chain department at ViaSat, a local satellite telecommunications company.  A few months into it, he was working on transitioning out of his role, and he recommended me as his replacement, given that I had some limited experience in purchasing and work with Excel quite readily.  I got the position and started working there that December.  It was, and still is, the best job I've ever had to date.

For the first year, I worked happily alongside supply chain agents, learning the ins and outs of the business, the operations department, and a bit about the industry at large.  I was given the freedom to make changes that allowed me to perform my job more efficiently and effectively, and I took my role into a new direction--the people who held it usually went on to become buyers--but I was more enamored with crunching numbers and summarizing data.  Over time, I found that the more I learned, the more I wanted to learn.  Not just about how to make a better chart or how to build an Access database, but about how the results of my calculations related to the health of the organization, and how to use that to make intelligent business decisions.

Working at ViaSat has been the flint to my steel, creating a spark that finally lit a fire up under me this spring.  After a long conversation with a close friend who was working on his master's thesis, I realized that I was finally ready.  I knew what it was I wanted to study because I had already been studying it, in one way or another, for the last 5 years: Business.  I've worked for every type of business from small family-owned operations to one of the world's most widely-recognized fortune 500 companies.  I've intereacted with customers, liasoned with other departments, supported high level executives, and carried a little bit of each experience with me until I became a person with a genuine interest.

I realize now that my desire to go into speech language pathology and nursing were expressions of my natural gravitation towards being consulted.  Indeed, when I was a custodial hostess at Walt Disney World's Epcot park, the hands-down favorite part of my job was talking to guests about the best place to get a cup of coffee, to take a break, to entertain their four year old, or to watch the parade.  It was something beyond provinding basic needs, like directions to the nearest bathroom.  It was taking the breadth of my knowlege and experience and using it to tailor a solution for someone in need.  I find myself doing it nearly every day, though mostly for writing reports and providing charts who need to use the information to make decisions.  For this reason, I think I would be suited to a consultancy position post-graduation.

Meet my new best friend.

This has led me to where I am today: a woman in pursuit of a Masters in Business Administration.  I'm in what you would probably call stage one of three: the before.  The during is when you're actually in school, and the after is when you're hopefully making more than enough bank to repay the loans you probably took out to finance the whole gig.  I have been using books as study aides since July, and I will be sitting for the GMAT exam next month, probably just before I go back home for Christmas.  As to what programs I'm looking into, I do have my Top 5 and reasons specific to each.  I will explore that in my next post.

Until next time!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Putting Down the Crack

When you start a blog post with "It's probably not the smartest thing I've ever done...", you're usually right.

A year ago, I wrote about becoming a Crackberry owner, which for anyone who doesn't know, is slang for the Blackberry smartphone.  Users often become "addicted" to it, hence the Crackberry.  I had a rather tumultuous relationship with the device for almost the entire time I used it.  It didn't take long for me to see the spinning hourglass of death at the slightest provocation.  I had but a few apps for it, as many of them didn't quite work or were slow, or invited appearances from the aforementioned hourglass.  In the end, I really only used the Gmail app to check my second account (the "main" one was what I checked through the Blackberry mail system), and occasionally Facebook, Stitcher, or Pandora.   All day, every day, it seemed all I did was compulsively check it to see if I had a new message (or tweet, as I had Twitter for awhile too).  I became a slave to my phone, and for what?  Showing off and letting people see "Sent from my Verizon Wireless Blackberry" at the bottom of my messages?  It wasn't worth it, and I knew I should just let it go.

What's more is that I am in the midst of imposing some of my own austerity measures.  (Greece? France, anyone?)  I've calculated that between letting my Disneyland Annual Passport expire and no longer making that monthly payment, and taking a hiatus from dance lessons through the end of the year, and giving up a $29.99 monthly data plan by downgrading back to my "dumbphone", I am putting well over $100 back into my monthly budget.  In fact, I am even contemplating taking it a step further and going for a new challenge in eating on $5-$7 a day. 

This is all driven by the fact that I need to bolster the savings fund I've been feeding for my trip to Europe next summer, I'm trying to pay down my car faster, and I intend to eventually go on a cash-only system except for one or two recurring bills that I may leave on a credit card.  Maybe if I've done well enough in staying on track in the next month or two, I'll re-evaluate and treat myself to a newer non-smartphone on eBay, like an enV Touch.  Eventually I'm looking to upgrade my classic 30 gig iPod to an iPod Touch, which is darn near an iPhone by now anyway.  (I'll believe the Verizon iPhone story when I actually see the lines wrapped around the block to get it.)

I went online yesterday and activated my old LG enV, dropped the data plan from my account, and went on my merry way.  The Crack withdrawals are present, but manageable.  Eventaully I'll get used to checking my e-mail from a computer again like normal people.  I feel good about my decision--better than I did about deciding to get one in the first place.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Home and Back

I went to my cousin Carmel's wedding in Portland, OR last weekend.  My God, did it feel good to be "home" again.  To explain: I claim Pittsburgh, PA as my hometown, but I was actually born in Tacoma, WA.  We moved to the East Coast just before I turned 9, and I haven't been back in Washington--indeed hadn't been anywhere even near that region of the country--since.  Not even remotely close.  And the more I think about that, the weirder and sadder that thought becomes.  I still have my aunt/godmother and cousins who have all been living in Seattle since forever, but I've never taken the time to visit them and never had any other reason to be out that way.

Anyway, as I flew up there on my smooth and uneventful Alaska Airlines flight, something stirred within me when I saw the Cascade mountains.  As a little girl, hardly a day went by when I didn't see Mt. Rainier in the background, and I took it completely for granted.  Flying over the snow peaked mountains felt comforting, and, oh, when I saw the endless green trees, I was so happy I could hardly stand it!  My cousin Gina and Auntie Ana picked me up from the airport, and as we drove into Portland I was taken aback by how much like Pittsburgh it looks.  Seriously, with all the bridges going over the rivers and the houses scattered on the hillsides, mixed in with the green trees, it was eerily similar.  I also laughed and joked about how I came from over 900 miles just to get back on the same freeway.  I-5, or "the 5", as southern Californians call it, runs from Mexico to Canada, and it amuses me to no end that I use the same freeway as people all the way up north.  


Portland, Oregon


Pittsburgh, PA

I know, right?  Forget Minneapolis-St. Paul--these are the real twin cities!

Walking about a small section of northern Portland during some free time I had before the wedding was an awakening.  When I saw these creeper vines that are ubiquitous in the Pacific Northwest, the architecture of the houses, and the rhododendron bushes, all of it was saying, "Welcome back, Maria.  It's been a long time, and we haven't changed."  For someone like me, who often feels untethered because of the way I've lived pretty much of my life, it was a revelation.

Now, the weather was surprisingly clear--albeit cold--and that definitely helped.  Had it been raining, I wouldn't have been that upset because i was expecting it.  (It was actually looking more like Seattle down in San Diego this last week or so.)  So perhaps Portland put on its best show for me my cousin's wedding.  Familiarity aside, I was also charmed by the city for its friendly people and lively neighborhoods. I don't mean lively like Manhattan lively, but like people must truly get out there and enjoy their environment.  As with San Diego, there are bike lanes everywhere.  Sidewalk cafes abound.  Several old homes had been converted into places of business, and what really sealed the deal for me was seeing a local co-op grocery.  That's so granola; I love it. Haha.  I had an inkling of an idea of what life there might be like, for my cousin has been living there for, what, 12 years now, and often mentions local spots in her own blog, The Evolving Epicurean.  But nothing really prepared me for the welcome feeling that enveloped me in my brief stay here.  It's like anything you didn't realize you missed until it comes back to you.

I returned back down the coast feeling like I had a schoolgirl crush on Portland.  That is to say that it probably wouldn't work out for us to be together forever and ever, but that doesn't stop it from putting a smile on my face just thinking about it.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Be the Match

I don't have cable or tv antennas, so I get most of my news from podcasts.  One of the ones I subscribe to is NPR's Story of the Day.  I listen to it while I get ready for work, and a few days ago I heard a particularly intriguing story about bone marrow donations and what happens to the people who don't have a readily available match.  In particular, non-whites.  The story cited that because African American people tend to have a particularly diverse ethnic makeup, it's often harder to find a donor if no direct relatives are a suitable match.  As such, the Black community is less likely to receive life-saving treatments for leukemia and other related diseases than Caucasians.

It gave me pause.  Cancer has affected more than its fair share of members of both sides of my family.  I am also an American of the African and Mexican variety, with dashes of Native American Indian and a pinch of European (Spanish, specifically) peppered in.  I have two living biological parents and a half brother.  But what if I developed leukemia, needed bone marrow, and none of those three people were a match?  And if they weren't, even in my vast family network, there might not be a match in there either.  You can have all the family members in the world and not find a donor match.  Tissue types are inherited, and you're more likely to match a member of your own race or ethnicity, which is why doctors start there.   When those options are exhausted, they turn to donor registries.

After listening to the story, I made a mental note to myself to look into it.  That evening I punched in "bone marrow registry" and Be The Match came up first in my search.

Swabbed up and ready to go!  Don't let the biohazard sticker scare you...
They can explain who they are and what they do much more thoroughly than I can, but basically, you can register online and they will send you a Buccal Swab Kit.  That's where you swab the inside of your cheek.  You mail it back.  Done.  Donations are encouraged to help with processing costs, so I gave some money.  (You don't have to, though.)  I received my kit yesterday and swabbed it up this morning.  It took less than 10 minutes.

I urge you to consider registering to become a bone marrow donor.  Should you be a match for somebody, advances in medicine have made marrow extraction a far less invasive and painful procedure than in days past.  Admittedly, this was a concern of mine, thanks to my perception from movies, books, and word of mouth.

In particular, I urge you to register if you are in any of the following ethnic groups because they are the most in need:

  • Black or African American
  • American Indian
  • Asian, including South Asian
  • Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander
  • Hispanic or Latino
  • Multiple race

I could go into speculations about why these ethnic groups are so lacking in available donors compared to Caucasian people (distrust of "the man", "the system", etc.), but really, that's unimportant.  What is important is that this is fast, easy, and has the potential to save a life.  Period.

For more information, the link to the National Marrow Donor Program is or you can call 1 (800) 654-1247.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Running Around

I have three journals.  One paper, one on LiveJournal, and this here Blogger.  It gets a little tough to keep all three in active rotation, okay?

I realize I'm being defensive for nothing, for I've also had a Facebook page for over five years, so it's not like I've been totally off the grid in any way.

What have I been up to since April?  Well, I'm still "shooting the cat", as I like to refer to Amelia's insulin doses.  The good news is that in my inexpert opinion, she's regulated on these 3ccs of Lantus because she no longer drinks like a frat boy and pees like a race horse.  Her food generally gets her through the day with a few bites to spare the next morning, and overall she seems content.  I will be taking a second mini-vacation this summer for a few days when I go up to Anaheim, so I will use that as an opportunity to board her at the vet and ask them to run tests to see how well she's really doing.  Perhaps she can even go off of the insulin soon--who knows!

This spring into early summer I was mostly occupied with the usual--work and dancing, but also getting to know my city again with the likes of the guy I like to call "Loophole".  He came over from Germany to intern with my company for five months, and we became fast friends who liked to get out and about in Southern California in one of our two Camrys.  A byproduct of our friendship came a renewed interest in something I attempted 3 years ago: running.  Ralph--that's his real name--likes to run and can do 6 miles at a go, leaving me in the frustrated dust.  We had started working out together once a week in the company gym this spring and made an unofficial pact:  he would start working in more strength training and I would try to run.

As far as I know, he's not back in Germany doing Romanian dead-lifts these days (which would be funny because, actually, he was born in Romania), so I think I've held up my end of the bargain more because today I finished my second almost-three-mile-run outdoors!  Haha.  I started slowly in April back in the old gym with him.  He'd get a head start on the treadmill while I worked the free weights and then eventually drag myself over to the second machine to run.  I gradually worked myself through running a mile straight before walking out the rest of my pre-set time, which eventually became two miles of straight running, and only once to date has been three.  The 3-miler happened during a short trip to Vegas about a month ago.  I was using the Mirage gym and I was able to distract myself to the point of running about 2.83 before peeking under the towel, realizing how far I had gone, and finishing out a 5k's worth.

I had not been able to repeat that performance back in my regular gym since, which pissed me off so badly that Monday I decided to do what I had intended to get into all along: the outdoor run.  After work I picked a route, put in the earbuds, and took off.  It was a bit overcast and it's been unseasonably chilly for July in San Diego, but I found myself actually enjoying the ramble down the business park back roads.  I enjoyed it until I got to the slow grade back uphill, which by that point felt like I had been skewered with that thing you use to hold down a big, juicy steak while you slice it.  Getting to the top, though, was such an endorphin release.  All in all it was about 2.6 miles that passed much more easily than any stint on a treadmill.  I was on to something.

Today I went on a suicide run.  I call it suicide because you get lured into a false sense of security early on by going down a long hill and then about a mile into it, you climb up into an unforgiving, long, slow, windy ascent before making it back up to the starting point.  It's a pretty tough road for anyone, especially the likes of me who has been on a flat treadmill for the last 3+ months.  I just have to suck it up, though, because San Diego is full of hills.  Not quite San Francisco-grade, but enough to make you feel the burn!

I have to stand back and marvel at it all because for most of my life I've despised running and was secretly envious of anyone who didn't.  However, I was encouraged to give it a go and I really like having this as a way to challenge and set goals for myself.   I know people who have gotten themselves into great shape by running and I hope to join their ranks.

Whenever I would climb off the treadmill heaving and red-faced, Ralph would say to me, "Do you feel good?"

Yes. Yes I do.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Paging Nurse Brown...

It began about three weeks ago when I noticed the persistent, frantic glug-glug-glug coming from the kitchen.  Miss Amelia would saunter in there once, twice, three times an hour...and then her little kitty litter tray of Feline Pine stuffed itself to capacity in mere days.  I would come home to a completely empty food dish and a water feeder knocked over and askew, a sure sign that it was empty and someone's negligent mother must come refill it immediately.

I knew something was not right.

The quart-sized water feeder used to last about a week.  Now it was sucked dry in two days.  The litter could go 5 days before it started getting packed.  It, too, was in a state of disaster within days.  I tried to explain it away to warmer weather at first, but I knew that I would end up at the vet eventually.  In the meantime, I got her a gallon sized water feeder and made an appointment.

Today I took Amelia into Dr. Schiebert who laid out the possibilities upon a quick examination: kidney trouble, feline diabetes, or perhaps hyperthyroidism.  Or hypo?  (I know one means overactive thyroid and the other the opposite, but I forget which might manifest in increased water consumption.)  I prayed that it was not the first option, which is progressively degenerative and irreversible.  Talk to my parents about our beloved cat Tammy's last several months on this earth when her kidney function went south and they had to give her subcutaneous water injections.  I was out of the house and living here in California by then, but I did witness an IV session during a home visit, the last time I saw her alive.  It's not fun, and it generally signals that the end is nigh.  Tammy was a creaky old lady cat by this point, the ripe old age of 19.  Miss Amelia is no spring chicken, but my hope is that at 12 or 13 years old, she's got a couple lives left to spare.

By the afternoon we had our diagnosis, however.  It's feline diabetes.  Normal blood glucose levels for cats is between 80 and 120, and Miss A was up past 400!  They gave her an insulin shot then and there and I was recruited once again to play cat nurse.  They called in a prescription of insulin to the local Walgreens and I showed up ready to learn how to stick my cat like a pincushion.  After last November's adventure in administering medicine to the feline patient, this wasn't so bad.  While I am not crazy about hypodermic needles as they are applied to my skin, I could handle her pretty well.  The biggest pain in the neck is just getting that air bubble out of the syringe with the smallest does of insulin you can imagine!  I won't even come close to using it all before it expires.

In addition to these injections (which I must administer every 12 hours for now), I must give her specially formulated food that has a low carbohydrate content and more protein.  She also has a bladder infection, which commonly accompanies diabetes, as the bacteria love to feed on the extra sugar spilling into her urinary system.  Yes, I learned a lot about my cat's bodily function today.  I gave her a practice shot with saline at the office, and then did the real thing shortly after getting home. Had she the words, I think she would have called me a clumsy oaf as she slunk away from my lap following her insulin injection.  And when I came at her a few minute later with the antibiotics, it would have gone something like, "F*#&! Really??? "  Hey, at least I'm somewhat good at that!  It's old hat by now. Ultimately, she seemed to take it in stride, all poking and prodding considered, because she's cool like that.  She is now resting peacefully on the back of the couch, dreaming of how she's going to walk in my hair and put her little kitty bum in my face later when I'm in bed.

In case you are wondering--and I know you are--today's little adventure set me back some dough.  Which is why I thank my lucky stars for having the foresight to get her pet insurance when I adopted her!  The premium costs me about $33/month with a $75 per incident/illness deductible, and I am reimbursed 80% for everything after that.  Monday I will scan the invoices and receipts at work and rattle off my claim to Pet's Best.  If you don't have pet insurance, I urge you to consider it!  I will also invest in a home glucometer eventually.  I'll be bringing her back in 10 days so they can monitor her for the day to see if the dosage is working out, but even the vet technician told me today that learning how to do it at home is even better.

All things considered, it could be a lot worse, and I am glad to know what's going on and how to treat it.  For one, according to the vet there is a reasonably good chance that her pancreas will eventually start to produce insulin on its own again and she will go into remission.  It may happen within a week, a month, several months, or, hey, perhaps not ever.  Here's hoping to many more happy years for Miss A, whether I'm shooting her up with the juice every day or not.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Garden of Eatin'

I love food.  While I wouldn't say that I live to eat, I definitely don't just eat to live.

Food in our Western culture seems to have become a very complicated matter.  Dieting has been around for centuries and today it's a multi-billion dollar industry.  People are running around looking for answers, desperately wanting someone to tell them what to eat and how much, and guilt abounds when they fall off the wagon.

I have never been one to diet (especially not the kind of the fad variety), but that doesn't exclude me from the masses looking for answers.  How can I be healthy and satisfied and not feel deprived?  I grew up in a family with two working parents and as I grew more independent and socially active into my young adult years, food--though enjoyable--became a commodity that had to be ready quickly, easily, cheaply if at all possible, and the more portable, the better.  In high school I was particularly proud of the discovery that placing food wrapped in foil on my windshield defroster would be nice and warm by the time I got to school.  (A trick I modified later in college by placing pastries on my computer monitor while I was in class.)

I began to really get serious about cooking for myself when I was 19 going on 20 and participating in an internship program at Walt Disney World.  In an apartment with 5 other girls, we no longer had the convenience of a college cafeteria to rely on.  I had pretty much o.d'd on Ramen and Easy Mac the previous year, so I managed to avoid that pitfall.  That semester in Orlando, I burned pans making rice, perfected the frozen veggie mix side dish, accidentally cold cooked a filet of salmon in vinaigrette dressing, and prepared the turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.  It was a lot of fun and I benefitted from the experience.

Several years later as a college graduate, I moved in with a friend who shared an appreciation for the art of food preparation.  We would have weekly competitions in which one of us would choose an ingredient or culinary style for the other to attempt, usually with good results.  (A rare exception...won ton ravioli.  Heh heh.)  Neither of us were from Southern California, and suddenly the abundance of avocados and the introduction of new things like jicama and plantains were more prominently featured on the menu than some of the traditional dishes of the Mid-Atlantic/Midwest where we grew up.  I developed my signature cooking style that the roommate dubbed neo-classic, as I was always putting new twists on old favorites.  We both made honorable attempts at keeping dishes on the healthy side.

Gradually, I began to make other changes to my diet, like avoiding anything with high fructose corn syrup and sodium-rich frozen prepared dishes.  I thought I had it pretty much figured out until a few months ago when I realized that I could stretch my grocery dollar further if I cut back on meat.  I've been living alone for over two years now and without anyone to share any of the expenses with, I have to keep a weather eye out for ways to save money.  So I began to forego chicken breasts in favor of tofu blocks, eggs, and maybe some frozen tilapia fillets as my weekly protein.  I began to get more creative, adding more legumes like black beans and replacing pasta and potatoes with brown rice and quinoa.  Slowly, subtly, I began to realize how little I needed meat at all.  I used to get downright cranky without it.  Now I can go several days without it.  Was that dependence psychological?

If you think this is a manifesto about how I have come to forsake meat and all its perils, it's not.  I had a piece of rare filet mignon last night at the company holiday party and it was lovely.  And I will always, always, always want another piece of bacon even if I've already had 8.  No, what I've come to realize is how much I dig vegetables.  And not just any vegetables, but the fresh ones.  And, dare I admit it, but organic too.  Once food to hippies and food snobs, now organic is becoming more and more mainstream.  I recently read Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto and was fascinated by the history of Western food consumption and how it went from agrarian farming to big industry flash-and-packaging.  I learned why organic food is good for you, why cage free hens who scratch up their own bugs to eat produce more nutrient-rich eggs, why raw milk* became a taboo after the discovery of pasteurization.

Reading the book was a revelation, it's directives a liberation.

Now I look at food and think, "Is this the real deal?  Or was it cooked up in a lab?" and make a quick decision from there. I went to a few local farmers' markets over the last couple of weekends and my dinner for the week was largely decided for me by what was offered out in the stands.  Are organic products more expensive?  Yes.  Is there a difference in the taste?  Also yes--for the better.  Do I buy less and eat less because it costs more?  Yes and yes!

Only time will tell if this makes any significant difference in my outward appearance, but I can tell you already that inside I'm feeling pretty damn good.  As an accidental almost-vegetarian, I don't have to fret about what kind of meat to get and how much it's going to jack up my food bill, I'm broadening my culinary palette, and I'm feeling a lot more alert through the day.  I like the idea of supporting my local farmers, who are generally really friendly and eager to educate you on what you're getting--and sometimes do things like throw in an extra avocado if you sing the praises of their table loud enough.   I actually get, well, excited about finding recipes for the things I bring home. Granted, it's easy to experiment like this when you're living in southern California, magnet to progressive leftists easily influenced by health-conscious ideas.  I won't even try to deny that reputation.  As I described it to my best friend back home in Pennsylvania, I'm becoming kinda granola--but more like granola dipped in chocolate. :-)

Have you made any particular changes to your way of eating as an adult for health, monetary, or ethical reasons?  Are you of the vegetarian or vegan persuasion?  Do you find that eating a Western diet is as destructive and complicated as authors like Michael Pollan declare it to be?  What's your personal eating manifesto?

*One of my favorite discoveries is raw milk.  I'm not touching skim milk ever again if I can help it.  I bought raw milk for the first time last weekend and have been delighting in it all week.  "Regular" pasteurized milk aggravates my lactose intolerance; raw milk does not because it still contains all its live cultures that "eat" the lactase for me.  My stepdad worries about my calcium intake because I haven't been able to drink much milk for the last several years, but he can lay that one to rest now!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A Tragic Christmas Tale

At my parents' house in Virginia, there is a sizable collection of nutcrackers in varying sizes and styles.  They're one of my favorite Christmas decorations, and when I came home this last time, I cracked up when I noticed the addition of a little cannon, cannon balls, and swords.  "Sometimes they have wars", Mom informed me as I stood examining them.

Indeed they do.

But in the Christmas spirit, they decided to lay down the weapons, eat, drink, and be merry.  Out of this, a Conga line formed on Christmas Eve.


One can only surmise, however, that things got out of hand, and Christmas morning we awoke to this carnage:


Luckily, Monstro did not succeed in actually eating Claudio.  Unfortunately for him, Claudio was quick to exact his revenge with the sword and brought his aggressor down by the next morning.  The day after, they held his processional.

You may notice the snowman standing guard and saluting.

Yes, that is a Mexican mariachi nutcracker at left, and yes, he is playing "Taps".

My family is nothing, if not imaginative. ;-)