Living the Dream: The Shannon Court story

This last week has been a struggle. So many exciting things have happened… and yet one sudden and tragic event has overshone them all. It’s been tough, trying to figure out how to process it all and trying to figure out how to talk about it. The words haven’t come easy. But there’s a small, dim, flickering light at the end of this unspeakably long and dark tunnel, and it’s from there that I feel the need to tell the Shannon Court story. Hold on to your seats – though well worth it, this will be a long one.

I grew up in the house my parents built just after they got married, in a nice neighborhood in a nice town. We’ve always had neighbors that were close, but not necessarily neighbors we were close to. Late in elementary school was the last time I remember being somewhat close to my neighbors: one of my best friends lived two houses down, some of the moms had a book club and got together on a regular basis, and we all danced the night away at a wedding in which I was a “junior bridesmaid”. As I am in my family, I was one of only a handful of younger children in the group, only older than my best friend. It was fun, until her and her family moved away, and slowly but surely all the families I knew had long left.

We had a number of questionable characters wander in and out of nearby houses throughout the next few years, but above all, they were families that kept to themselves, mostly due to a lack of younger children. But then, one fateful day nearly 10 years ago, a family moved in with 4 kids younger than me. Then, another family with 4 kids younger than me moved in next to them. Soon, more families, all with at least one or two younger children, moved into our court and the surrounding area. Kids started to play with each other. Parents got to know each other. We started to get together one day a week, which soon turned into two, which soon turned into gathering for holidays and birthdays as well. Traditions were born, and invariably, come rain or shine, weekend evenings extending early spring through well into fall were spent at one house or another, each family bringing a dish, a drink, at least one kid, perhaps some friends, but always a smile and joy to share. Before we knew it, 16 parents and 18 kids (and 5 dogs and 2 cats!) became like family.

For the first time in my life I found myself the oldest, and I was thrust into a “big sister” role for so many kids who looked up to me; slowly but surely, I started to find my place between playing with them and sitting back and talking with the adults. And my mom and dad? They’d all but forgotten the days when their house was new and their only child was young. Suddenly the ‘matron’ parents of the court, Dr. Luke attended to cuts and bruises and flus while my mom lived vicariously through parents confounded by growing and aging and changing children.

Still, inseparable and incomparable bonds formed between children and parents alike. Lot lines faded as we moved seamlessly from house to house each night, treating each other’s homes as if they were our own. While the kids were off playing night games, pretending to be in the army, or amusing themselves with other shenanigans, the dads found common interests in all things manly: “lumberjacking,” planting the biggest communal garden our neighborhood had ever seen, and grilling (and competing for best backyard bbq pit), all while imbibing the finest lagers and brandy. Meanwhile, the Ladies of the Court bonded over wine, fondue, pottery painting, and simply enjoying watching our families become so close. Each family came from a different walk of life with a different story to tell; each was unique in its own way and varying in size, yet made up equal parts of our newfound Neighbor Family. Though no blood lines connected us, the support system we’d built was unbreakable, and the deep connections between us were undeniable. We all knew we had something special; our Family of 34 was as real as any other, and nothing could break us.

Emotions were tried as two families with the youngest kids moved away last summer. A mild winter somehow felt colder than it should, and gatherings became a little smaller. Our once rowdy bunch had begun to dwindle and the kids found themselves a bit calmer as they aged ever so slightly. Things seemed to be settling down as the newness of it all faded away, though we never lost touch.

As fate would have it, soon after one family visited this summer, we found out they’d be moving back within the month – and that the other family was soon to follow! We couldn’t believe our luck. We were all so ecstatic to have the old gang back together.

Just as the families had started getting situated back home – in different houses, but home nonetheless – our world came to a screeching halt on Monday, September 3. The husband of one of the first two families to move in, Vladimir Novak, passed away after being stung by a bee and suffering anaphylaxis, even though he’d been stung several times before with no reaction. To say it was unexpected is potentially the grossest understatement there ever was. To say he will be missed is an even greater one.

Let me tell you something about Vladimir Novak. He was a big Russian man, not even 50, and he smoked. If you had asked any of us last month what we thought he’d someday die of, I guarantee you a bee sting is the absolute last thing any of us would have said. He would listen to us nag about his chain smoking, then sweetly smile and light another. He had a zest for life that was unmatchable, and his smoking was the least of his concerns. His pride and joy were first and foremost his wife and children, followed by the rest of his family and friends. Currently ranging from the ages of 14 to 22, his children were lucky they had a chance to truly know and remember him – but never well enough.

No matter the circumstances, weather, or latest drama to be circulating amongst us, the one man you could count on to have a smile on his face and a bear hug waiting for you when you arrived was Vlad. He had an answer to everything that made the world seem more peaceful, more palatable. He traveled a lot, and it was bittersweet because it was clear he’d rather be at home with his family. But inevitably, he chose to see life in the best light possible, and if you’d ask him how things were going, nine times out of ten you’d get the same honest answer with the most genuine cheery smile: “I’m just living the dream.”

Our Neighbor Family, but even more so the Novak family, are still dumbfounded and reeling in shock that he’s just not coming home. It still seems surreal; there’s a part of me that just expects he’s off on business, not gone for good. The outpouring of support for this man and his family is absolutely monumental. And if you ask any of the hundreds of people that paid their respects to him, I’m positive each and every one of them will tell you the same thing about him: that he was one of the best men they’d ever known.

From here, we will try to rebuild and move on, and I know I speak on behalf of my entire Neighbor Family when I say that as it’s always been, so it shall be: the Novaks are part of this Family, and we will do everything in our power to keep them safe and afloat. While no person can ever replace who and what Vlad was to that family – and to this world – we hope to bridge the gap at least a little, to share in the grief, and keep him alive in memory, in stories, in pictures, and at our many inevitable bbqs to come. If anything we’re stronger now, more aware of how much we have to lose, and thankful of each other even more. And I know we’ll continue to reassure each other that even despite this enormous lingering hole in our hearts… we ALL have a dream to be lived.

Photo taken by Doug Kobs. Vlad is in the center.


Day 1: Complete!

Welp, we made it to Seattle! We left Milwaukee not so bright and early (which was quite nice for a change) and after a leisurely two hour layover in Minneapolis, we boarded our flight to Seattle!



All in all it was a smooth travel day, though I was bummed not to have a window seat on the fight out. I did manage to catch a glimpse of Mt. Rainier from across the aisle as we neared the SeaTac airport…

Mt. Rainier at a nearly equal level

The first thing I noticed on our descent is how unmistakably GREEN the landscape is around here! I noticed Washington State license plates boasting “The Evergreen State,” and they’re not kidding. They’re everywhere, and it’s gorgeous!! The air here seems so crisp and clean. And the mountains? They speak for themselves.

Seattle Landscape on the light rail into the city from the airport

Rides on the light rail and monorail brought us to our hotel just a few blocks away from the Seattle Center! We were greeted by a towering Space Needle immediately upon arriving… a warm welcome to say the least. :) We took a few moments to gather our thoughts and bask in just being here at our hotel before heading back to the Seattle Center for Bumbershoot!

It’s been something of a headache to try and figure Bumbershoot out. I originally bought tickets before they released the full lineup schedule, which meant when the schedule came out I found out we weren’t going to be able to see two acts that were the reason I bought the tickets because they played before we landed. Fred Armisen, of Portlandia and SNL, was going to be doing stand up at 4:30. We didn’t leave the hotel until 4:45, and upon arriving we found out that, of course, the show was full. But we were there, and didn’t want to waste the tickets, so we got to wandering.

Leave it to my boyfriend to find the video game exhibit out of all things. Here he’s playing the original Tetris on a Super Gameboy. I got to play Mario Kart on an N64 they had, too!

I imagined Bumbershoot would be something like Summerfest, which it was. It was a fairly large outdoor festival with different stages, food vendors, and plenty of people watching. But it’s more than just music – there’s comedy, arts, theater, the whole gamut of performing arts. Also beer. Lots of beer gardens everywhere!

We listened to a great band called The Heavy for a little while, found a Video Game Exhibit and Rock Poster exhibition, and ate gyros (beef – their only option. Strange!) at a food cart on-site. The weather was truly perfect and while I’m bummed we missed two musicians I was really excited to see AND Fred Armisen, it was fun to amble around.

What else can I say? So far, everyone we’ve encountered has been helpful, friendly and lighthearted, starting from the flight attendant coming into Seattle, to the police officers at the light rail station, to the man at the front desk, to just people walking around at Bumbershoot and around the street. That’s been a really great first impression! I’m excited to get more of a feel for the city today. Soon, we’ll head down to Pike Place Market (aka coffee mecca, as Kevin just quipped!) and start exploring downtown! We have an ambitious list that I’m excited to conquer. Talk to you all later tonight or tomorrow! :)

Le Space Needle

Listening to The Heavy at Bumbershoot

A great shot Kevin got of a live statue inside Bumbershoot

ADORABLE kid playing violin, leaving the Seattle Center area. He was so good!

Le Space Needle from the base

My understated love: Tea

I think everyone who knows me knows I love coffee. I’m not addicted by any means – it’s rare that I have a cup every day of the week – but I still love the caffeine and the flavor as well. It’s oddly soothing for me to wake up and start my day with a cup of coffee…. often, if I’m tired enough, it’s my ONLY motivation to get up!

Unfortunately, I’m by no means a coffee expert. I’ve tried to begin distinguishing flavors in regions, but I can never keep them straight in my brain or my mouth. It’s still tough for me to discern a textbook ‘good’ cup from a ‘bad’ one – the only guide I have is my rather blind taste buds that tell me it tastes good when it’s strong and flavorful. But, I’ve actually purchased a few coffee books from Amazon that I should be getting my hands on this weekend that I can’t wait to read!

However, perhaps one thing not everyone knows about me is my love for tea. It’s a different love, perhaps deeper in a way. It very much mirrors my love for beer – there are so many different kinds, styles, flavors and varieties to try, and while I know what I do and don’t like, I’m ALWAYS willing to try a new kind! In this way, my love for coffee mirrors wine – I don’t think I’ve ever had a glass I don’t like, and yet I can’t figure out why. There’s dark roasts and light, and red wines and white, but that’s about as deep as my understanding goes (but soon to change!).

Yesterday, a co-worker stopped by my desk. “I noticed your stash of teas here,” she said. I smiled, delighted – I have two boxes of Tazo tea (my new favorite, Focus, and my ‘sick’ tea, Green Ginger) sitting on top of a tin of Tazo Awake, next to a box of Bigelow Apple Cider, next to a clear jar of mismatched tea bags. “Did you know we have a Tea Club here?”

….. O.O

She excitedly told me all about the group and the massive collection of teas they’ve acquired. There’s no monthly dues, she said; the only requirement is to bring some tea to share and you’re free to partake in the assortment.

I’m feeling a little disappointed, but only because I can’t believe no one had told me about this before! I donated some of my beloved Tazo Focus, as well as some Apple Cider and a Yogi tea I wasn’t a huge fan of (but hopefully someone else can enjoy!). And when I walked over to see the stockpile… holy moly, my jaw dropped!

Loose teas and other varieties!

Blacks, Greens, Whites, Reds, so many different varieties!

Needless to say, I’ve made it my personal mission to try as many kinds of tea as I can, and perhaps find a new favorite! I think Kevin might donate some of his Chinese Oolong tea in exchange for some Rooibos tea he wants to try.

If nothing else, let this perhaps be motivation to go try something you’ve never tried before, be it tea, coffee, or a new food! You never know, you just might discover a new favorite. :)

The role P.E. plays growing up

THIS. “Research suggests the gap between the amount of exercise girls and boys do widens during their time at school.  A study for the Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation says more than half of girls are put off by PE classes.”

I don’t know that I can speak for my more athletically-inclined female friends, but this was absolutely me growing up. Jaded by always being the last to finish running the mile (usually around 15 minutes), constantly picked last in team sports, and humiliated by The President’s Challenge week, I generally dreaded gym class. It didn’t get any better by the time middle school rolled around; in fact, I’d say I was even more scarred by the experience then. All of a sudden I’m thrown into a school where the other half of the grade is comprised of people I’ve never met before, gym class is split by gender so I no longer have an excuse for being athletically inept, AND we have to wear uniforms and you expect me to change in front of these strangers?! This shy, flat-chested, athletically challenged only child says no thank you, and I know I wasn’t the only one.

I absolutely agree that P.E. class makes many girls shy away from bringing fitness into their lives once they’re out of school. But I also agree, despite everything I’ve said, that it’s an integral part of the curriculum, perhaps even through college. Given our rising obesity rates and backwards notions about health and fitness in this country, it’s important to stress how important staying active is. But how to do that effectively is a tough call. Clearly, being forced into it doesn’t always help, but what other choice do teachers and administrators have? I could say bring Zumba to schools, but frankly, I probably would have thought it was dumb at a young age and would have never continued with it now.

The only gym class I think I truly enjoyed was the one I took my junior year of high school. Much to my chagrin, we were required to take two semesters of gym on top of Freshman P.E. to graduate, and my only saving grace was that my high school offered a nice range of options. Of course, my sophomore year I took the only non-physical class offered – CPR certification. I dreaded choosing a class that surely involved more humiliation my junior year, but one stood out – Shape Up. These electives were co-ed but it just so happens that the class was entirely girls and taught by a woman teacher – and it helped that I had a few like-minded friends in the class. We all set goals, be it to lose a certain amount of weight or simply firm up, and we spent the semester achieving that goal. Every day was something different. We spent time in the weight room, we ran, we did pilates and yoga and crunches and step aerobics and cycling. It was a nice variety, and our teacher really pushed us and motivated us because she knew we were all apathetic about fitness. But it worked, and I credit that class for my love of yoga, if for no other reason than when we walked in and found out it was yoga day, we were all relieved because it was so easy compared to everything else.

If we take what I enjoyed about that class and compare it to what I enjoy about Zumba, there’s a considerable amount of overlap. It’s in a group setting with friends. The teacher has a vested interest in helping each person in the room exercise while still having fun. Every day is a little different, and you still look forward to some routines more, yet push through the others anyway. Whether or not you’re working towards a goal, you’re still motivated to come to class and have fun because it’s ultimately your choice. You have a say in your fitness fate.

Perhaps instead of splitting gym classes by homerooms and then gender, middle schools should split gym by gender and then interest. My middle school’s fine arts elective model would be a perfect example of how to execute this. In 6th grade, we spent half a semester each in music, art, tech ed, and home ec. Then in 7th and 8th grade, we got to choose between taking a language for two years or alternating fine arts classes by semester. My point here is that we got a small taste of each option, even those we knew we wouldn’t like, and then got the power to choose our own fates. This is so powerful and important at that age, because even the smallest liberties are a huge step towards independence. Why not take this model and apply it to gym class? Perhaps split classes by gender the first year, and do a little bit of everything – team sports, fitness classes, what have you. Then in 7th and 8th grade, give kids the choice. If they enjoy high intensity and/or team sports, great! Have at it. But I think it would be so much more of a confidence booster to let girls (and guys) choose something that interests them more if they want.

I’m lucky that my disposition is such that I can look back on gym class and laugh at my many (MANY) failed athletic attempts, but I’m also lucky to have thicker skin. I’m lucky I found talents in other areas, like English and Spanish and music, so that it didn’t hurt as much failing at sports. And it did hurt, being compared to other students publicly, knowing you’re not as good as them and there’s nothing you can do about it. But it’s more than cushioning egos or babying students. It’s about mirroring the rest of the journey through high school and college and beyond: recognizing your strengths and interests and capitalizing on them, rather than being forced to endure humiliation and being fed the notion that this is all fitness will be for the rest of your life. It’s about knowing that while you still have to bide by guidelines and curriculum, you still have wiggle room, because someday you’ll have complete control over what college classes you take and what jobs you want to apply for and what role fitness plays in your life. Discourage students from exercising when they’re young and what do you get? A society with attitudes towards health and fitness much like ours, I’d imagine.

There’s always mandatory curriculum up until a certain point. There’s standards, there’s national averages, there’s so much more than the student’s interests at stake in elementary and middle school. But gym class goes beyond that; it’s not just ensuring that our children are competent and well-learned enough to someday contribute to society. Once you get out of school, the only one responsible for keeping you active and healthy is YOU, and I believe it’s so important to let kids know that they have a hand in that fate. Keep them active, give them choices, show them they’re more than run times and national averages. Fitness is so individual and independent that if we don’t get kids excited about it now, there’s a good chance they never will be.

Zumba Basic Training 1

As promised, here’s a recap of how my Basic Training class went! In short: it was WONDERFUL. I had so much fun and learned a ton! More

Zumba Love, Pt. 2

I’m back to talk about my new love, Zumba, and how it’s been fitting in with my overall goal of staying healthy and some tips and information I’ve picked up along the way! This is a new endeavor for me, as mentioned in my previous post, so I am in NO WAY, shape or form an expert on this subject. I’m simply sharing my knowledge and experience, and hope to inspire others to go down the same path! Of course, talk to your doctor before implementing any major changes in your lifestyle.

I’ve never been the type to really worry about my weight. It seems like I’ve always fallen directly in the middle of the average range – not stick skinny, but not overweight, either. Like any girl, I’ve always struggled with keeping my thighs, hips and stomach at a size where I feel comfortable showing them off. I’m by no means immune to muffin tops and bulges, but I’ve never been the type to obsess over my appearance. As long as I’m not falling out all over the place, I’m usually happy with how I look. Thus, my goal as of late is to simply move towards being healthier and trying to keep my midsection under control. I’m in a wedding this summer, so I decided to use that as a benchmark for trying to shed a few pounds here and there and trying to maintain a lifestyle that, in turn, helps me maintain a body I’d hopefully be proud to show off.

Before moving forward, I want to stress that you should do what feels right to YOU! It’s my goal to lose a few pounds before the summer; I’m not saying everyone should do this, nor am I judging anyone who has different goals (or no goals at all!). You can of course Zumba without having a weight-loss goal – in fact, that’s mostly how I’ve been operating thusfar. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a common theme for many people, so I thought I’d throw it out there for consideration.

The biggest thing I want to emphasize is to take baby steps towards your goal. Expecting that you’ll be able to go from never working out to doing so 4 days a week an hour each time is ambitious and commendable – but probably not realistic. Don’t get down on yourself if it takes a month or two for you to get your workout routine to where you’d ideally like it to be, and especially don’t get down on yourself if you don’t see results right away! There’s a lot more that goes into achieving fitness goals than simply working out (which I’ll touch on in later entries!), and it all takes time. Be patient and pick something you love that you’re happy to stick to and will look forward to doing. We all know what that was for me, in case you’ve been asleep this whole time – Zumba! ;)

So, how does Zumba fit into my goal? One thing I’ve noticed is that it’s great cardio but not always great toning. I really should do ab workouts before/after Zumba (probably before, only because I know I’d use exhaustion as an excuse not to after!), but until I find a system I like and that works, I just try to get in toning wherever possible in class. I try to push myself to squat low, squeeze hard and focus my energy on burning fat wherever and whenever I can!

I actually was flipping through the radio after Zumba the other night and John Tesh happened to be talking about workout tips. One thing he mentioned that I thought was very true was the importance of exercise intensity. You can walk on the treadmill for an hour, but if you’re not pushing yourself and your heart rate, it’s basically useless. He mentioned that if you’re doing it right, you shouldn’t be able to hold a conversation. Definitely true for Zumba! I still find myself completely out of breath after many songs, and this goes along with the benefit of going to class regularly and learning the routines – once you stop worrying about the footwork and whether or not you look stupid, you can focus on pushing yourself and just having fun!

I see so many people in class looking around nervously, only putting in a quarter of the effort they could be and not really trying to have fun: barely jumping, moving only haphazardly and without conviction, not really doing anything to make it look they’re even halfway interested in being in class. This makes me sad because a) hello, do you SEE your instructor up there flailing her arms and jumping around like she’s nuts? She’s not actually nuts (okay, maybe she’s a little nuts), she’s trying to inspire you to let go and just have fun! And b) if these people were to drop their inhibitions and really push themselves, they’d be getting a great workout. These people are probably not having fun because they’re not trying, so they’re going to quit after 2 weeks when they see no results and chalk it up to Zumba being lame and not working. IT WORKS! You just have to leave your worries at the door and just dance, that’s it. :)

Up next in the Zumba series queue: diet, Vibrams, and of course, my Basic 1 Training session on SATURDAY!! :)


Coming back from my hiatus to talk about something I love. Everyone who knows me knows it, so I may as well just come out and announce it: ZUMBA! I wanted to take some time to talk about my Zumba journey, how far I’ve come and where I’m going next! Unfortunately I don’t have a fascinating story chronicling dozens and dozens of pounds shed… but I must say, I never would have seen this coming.

I did Zumba for the first time with my college roommate probably a few winters ago. “You’ll love it,” she said. “It’s a mix of Spanish and African rhythms, and dancing, and working out, and it’s so much fun.” We’d been attending group fitness classes at Winona State together on an almost-weekly basis, which I prefer any day over just going to the gym to lift weights and work on machines. I HATE going to the gym for that reason; that approach has just never worked for me. I’m too self-conscious and not nearly self-motivated enough! I should also add that I have this incredible talent to fail at every sport ever invented; dancing and gymnastics were never in the picture, and I’ve never enjoyed running, either. Thus, I always felt like my workout options were limited, and it never interested me anyhow so I never worried about it much – I stuck with band and I was perfectly happy. :) But luckily after discovering yoga, I realized that if I were to work out, group fitness settings seemed most appealing to me, so that’s what I stuck with.

So that winter break she took me to a class at a gym back home where we’re both from, and man, I was ~DYING~ not even two songs in! But I pushed through and couldn’t get over how much fun I had. It was similar to the fitness classes we took at college, but BETTER. Everything coordinated with the music, which this music nerd loves, and I really pushed my limits and just had fun. I was able to attend one more random class before moving to Madison, and even though the classes had been so spread out, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that being in Zumba brought, and knew that would be what I needed to motivate me to stay in shape.

Mad props to Groupon for helping me find a gym to try out that offered weekly classes! After just a couple weeks I knew this was exactly what I needed more of in my life. It was just as fun as I remembered and I began to learn the value of going to class each week to learn routines better!  I began downloading music we danced to so I could listen in my free time because the songs were always stuck in my head. I would practice routines in the shower and going to class just made me feel so good about myself and so happy. I looked forward to those classes more than almost anything else! When the Groupon deal expired a few months later, I was ready to add more Zumba to my schedule. I searched tirelessly for gyms offering Zumba more than once a week, and finally decided that the YMCA was not only my cheapest option overall, but offered the most Zumba classes weekly. And, my current Zumba instructor (who I’d come to love and whose routines I had almost entirely memorized) taught classes there too, so it was a done deal!

I now am able to do Zumba up to three weekdays if I want, and I have weekend options as well… but tend to just stick to Monday and Wednesday nights. :) I still drive my boyfriend crazy with listening to the music we do in class and dancing around all the time, but I think he knows I’d be listening to Spanish music like crazy, even if not for Zumba! All the instructors at the Y are so energizing and inspiring that you’d have to actively try not to have fun in class. The two hours a week I Zumba are still probably two of the most fun hours I have any given week.

A month or two ago, my boyfriend dropped me off at the Y because he wanted to use my car in the meantime. While I was waiting for him to pick me up, my instructor walked out, and we said goodbye to each other. But then, to my surprise, she backed up and said to me, “Hey, you should think about becoming a Zumba instructor… you just seem to have this knack for how to move.” I can only imagine my flabbergasted expression as I thanked her for the enormous compliment and told her I had actually just been thinking about it earlier that day, but wasn’t sure whether I should go through with it or not. The Basic 1 training session costs $250, so I had been seriously thinking about whether I truly wanted to become an instructor or whether it was just a passing whim! Needless to say, I signed up for a training session that night and have not regretted the decision even for a second. Quite the opposite – I’m counting down the minutes until I get to say that I’m a licensed Zumba instructor – 9 days, if anyone was interest to know!

With that being said, I want to write another post or two in the coming weeks about the physical results I’ve seen so far, and how I’ve been working toward being healthier overall. I also want to talk about wearing my Vibram Five Fingers shoes in class! So much of my Zumba journey has involved me doing research online and scouring forums and blogs for information and opinions, so I want to make sure I do my part and give back and add to the discussion! I’ll be sure to keep you all updated on how the training session goes next week and maybe, just maybe, get back into writing on here more often. I miss it!

Stay tuned!

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