Pucker Up, Buttercup

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Happy Thanksgiving! What are you thankful for?

Today, I am thankful for anal sphincters. As we learned in my Anatomy & Physiology class this week, we all have two of them–an internal and an external–and relaxation of both is [usually] required for defecation. The internal anal sphincter is made of smooth muscle and relaxes involuntarily in response to signals from the parasympathetic nervous system. Even if your brain decides it’s time to poop, you won’t until you consciously relax the skeletal muscle of the external anal sphincter. Since potty training, we’ve all relied on this two-step method to keep us tidy. And boy, do we take it for granted!

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has this bit about a toothache, how when you have a toothache, happiness = not having a toothache. But during all the other moments in our lives, when we do not have a toothache, do we equate this state with happiness?

At 5 AM this morning, I came to appreciate Hanh’s wisdom in a new way, when I awoke with tremendous intestinal distress. I never realized the beauty of those little sphincters and the happiness I enjoy when everything works flawlessly. What a flood they can contain!

Until they can’t.

This morning I shit my own bed. Just a little, but still. It was awful and humiliating and just a fraction of the malevolence my body experienced in the grip of this…food poisoning, norovirus, or whatever. I will never take those sphincters for granted again.

I ended up spending Thanksgiving Day in bed with my dog. It made me sad, watching friends post photos of Turkey Trots and get-togethers on Facebook. I was supposed to be at my sister’s house, where the presence of her fun in-laws would have provided a buffer for our usual family nonsense. And I wanted to hang with my niece, who has finally become a consistent and loving part of my life now that she’s old enough for me to communicate with directly. I eat all but a handful of meals alone every month, and I was really looking forward to a collective dinner experience. Plus I’m a shit cook, so I was psyched about eating a really great meal.

Instead, my “Thanksgiving dinner” was an egg and some applesauce when I finally felt like I could keep something down. Or rather…in.

In some ways, though, I am grateful for the intestinal intervention. My sister terrifies me, and it was a virtual certainty that I would do or say, or not do or not say, something that would incur her wrath–if not now, then passive aggressively months in the future. I was nervous about the day going well, which probably did not help my digestion–or the terrible food choices I made yesterday, when I was stress eating. This GI situation was a blessing in disguise.

A very, very clever toilet-paper disguise.

I am acutely aware that, even with poop on my sheets, this year’s Thanksgiving was better than last year’s. Last year, in the middle of dinner, my nephew made a fat joke at my expense. His comment hurt less than the fact that it was met with stony silence from the four adults–his parents and my parents–who also heard it. Not one of them stood up for me or took him to task in any way. There was just a slight pause, then everyone went back to eating. When I consider how my sister and I were reared, and the emphasis our parents placed on manners and deference to adults, their silence was shocking. Essentially, the message delivered to my nephew that day was, “Even though you are a child, you are not obliged to respect your aunt. Say whatever cruel things you want, we don’t care. She does not have our respect, and she doesn’t merit yours.”

It was humiliating. More humiliating, even, than being sick and getting poop on my sheets and having no one to help me clean it up.

So, this Thanksgiving will not go down as the worst in my life, because there is more to holidays than dress-up clothes and savory dishes and white linen tablecloths.

Just like there is more to dignity than successfully containing your poop. Not much more, but more: I took care of myself, I took care of my dog, and I didn’t hurt anyone. I did the best I could in a shitty (!) situation, just like those little sphincters. We’ll bounce back, all of us, and contain the flood another day.

Nobody wins ’em all.

 

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This Story Is the Perfect Metaphor for Our Time

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Still image from an abcnews.com story based on video taken by David de Muelles.

This story is the perfect metaphor for our time, because it is inherently ironic. As Paul Fussell argues in The Great War & Modern Memory, irony is the “dominant form of modern understanding.” Even more so now, because: hipsters. Of war, Fussell writes, “Irony is the attendant of hope, and the fuel of hope is innocence.” But he could just as easily have been talking about polar bears. People saw the original post and thought, “Awww.” (Hope) And then we learned, “Oh, actually, a polar bear ate a helpless dog trapped on a chain, and the dude has been charged with a crime.” (Irony)

This story is the perfect metaphor for our time, because people saw the original post and thought, “Awww.” Because dogs are cute! Polar bears are cute! Polar bears petting dogs: SOOO CUTE! People reacted in an emotional way to something that made them feel good. And it made them feel good because it affirmed their preexisting ideas about the world: that the aforementioned animals are cute, that life is like a Disney movie, that everything is going to be effortlessly ok. It is easy and convenient to think that way. Questioning the wisdom that’s before you, figuring out what’s missing, factoring in context, deferring to experts–that’s hard. Why exert so much effort when you can just anthropomorphize a polar bear and pretend that domesticated animals like to be stroked by apex predators!

This story is the perfect metaphor for our time, because people know nothing about nature. Nature is beautiful, but it is also cruel. And the cruelty is, in its own way, beautiful. Predators are relentlessly singleminded: they think primarily about food. The only thing that might take their minds off food is fucking. If you’re a predator, and it’s not fucking time, then it’s food time. That’s pretty much it. There is no such thing as “Predator Netflix & Chill.”

This story is a perfect metaphor for our time, because people know nothing about animal behavior–not polar bear behavior, not even dog behavior. The polar bear wasn’t “petting” the dog; it was sizing up the dog to see whether it was food. And the dog clearly wasn’t enjoying the experience. The dog was trying to remain small and then move slowly away from the bear, being careful not to behave like prey, which would trigger the bear’s prey instinct. I’ve seen my own dog do this around bigger dogs. The owner of the dog sanctuary claimed that the dogs were left out to provide protection, but that is epically stupid, because the dogs were tied up. Dogs are vulnerable when leashed, and they know it. Anyone who has walked a dog, let alone mushed with one, ought to know that too. This guy basically set up an All-Bears-Can-Eat Canine Buffet. My first reaction when I saw the video was, “OMG!” Followed by: “Whoever is responsible for leaving dogs out in polar bear country,  and taking away their ability to run or fight, ought to be brought up on charges of animal cruelty.”

This story is a perfect metaphor for our time, because the guy responsible was, in fact, brought up on charges–in Canada. Thankfully, there are still some places in the world where laws are designed to protect nature, and you get called out for being a moron. Unfortunately, the United States is not one of those places.

This story is the perfect metaphor for our time, because global warming is affecting northern latitudes profoundly, bringing bears and people (and their dogs) more frequently into contact with one another. The polar bears in this story were struggling to feed themselves, as evidenced by the dog sanctuary owner leaving food out for the bears. He was kind-hearted, but dim-witted. The bears do need help, but not help that desensitizes them to being around people, which will only cause them to be relocated or killed when (not if) they hurt someone while acting like predators (see above). The bears don’t need food. What they need is legislation to protect wild areas from human encroachment and to limit carbon dioxide emissions that warm the planet, melt the ice caps, limit the bears’ mobility, and imperil their non-dog food supply.

This story is the perfect metaphor for our time, because it exposes how most Americans consume information: without a second’s thought. The original video went shooting across the Internet like a comet seen by millions of people. The grisly epilogue trails along behind, like dimly lit space garbage, seen mostly by grumpy liberals who like being right more than they like feeling good.

This story is the perfect metaphor for our time, because it ends with a helpless dog getting eaten by a vicious predator. And then the predator dies, because its habitat is ruined. And then all the people that ruined its habitat go get dinner at the Arctic Circle’s first-ever Red Lobster, serving “fresh” shrimp from Thailand with cheddar biscuits and a side of mercury dipping sauce. It will be sunny and 65F at the North Pole, so we can all sit on the patio and tilt our faces to the light. Someone will say, “Remember when it used to get cold and Santa had to wear a fur-trimmed coat?” And someone else will say, “I can’t even remember the last time I saw a polar bear.” And some little kid will ask, “What’s a polar bear?” And no one will answer, because we’re all dead. (Apologies to Tim O’Brien.)

This story is the perfect metaphor for our time, because it means nothing, changes nothing.

Twist

I was so worried about the possible return of my dad’s melanoma (biopsy result: negative) that I never saw it coming: the routine, outpatient cataract surgery.

It’s never good when your sister calls, and the first thing she says is, “Dad is still alive.” Because if that’s the metric by which you’re measuring good news, then the news is gonna suck.

My dad is a cardiac patient–never had a heart attack, but his brother has had two. My dad takes a blood thinner, blood pressure medication, and a statin for cholesterol. I learned recently that he walks around with nitroglycerin pills. A doctor I went on a first-date with described my dad’s complex of pathologies as a “ticking time bomb.”

The bomb didn’t go off, but it did start hissing and steaming right on the operating table. My dad’s BP spiked partway through the procedure, and a blood vessel burst in the back of his eye, forcing the eyeball forward and causing a bunch of delicate tissues to shift and collapse. The surgeon did something, and then he did something else, and then he had to snip some teeny ligament and stitch his eyelid closed. I can’t quite recall all the details. They packed the eye with gauze and put a big clear plastic bandage over it, like a window, so you can see the swelling and bruising peeking out behind the gauze. As I rushed to the hospital (I was on second shift, supposed to spend the night with my parents and drive them to the routine followup appointment tomorrow), I texted my sister to see if she’d seen him and find out how he looked.

“Like hell,” was her answer. She was not exaggerating.

They admitted him, and he slept most of the day. While he was sleeping, my sister mentioned that she thought no one had actually told him his prognosis. She had been there since 6:30 AM, so she left after about 13 hours, and I did the late shift with my mom. She had a million questions, and every time we told her, it was emotionally wrenching because the Alzheimer’s wiped her memory clean every goddam time.

And then my dad finally woke up, and I fed him grapes and jello, and he started asking questions too.

Today I had to tell my father that he is very likely blind in one eye and may never drive a car again. I only had to tell him once. I must have told my mom 20 times.

This is my new baseline for a shitty day, I think.

J* told me once that hospitals are full of families who never thought they would be there when they woke up that morning. Today that family was us. I am grateful my dad is cognitively ok, that he did not have a heart attack or stroke, and that he still has one good eye. That is not the standard by which I originally planned to measure this day, but I suppose it’s good enough going forward.

Plot twist indeed.

Spinning Plates: An Update

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Hello there, faithful readers. I apologize for my silence these last few weeks. My attentions have been focused on:

  • Logistics for travel to my cousin’s funeral. Must remember to rent second car! And cancel backup rooms! And figure out rides for my crazy, maddeningly incompetent uncle!
  • Helping my bestie prepare for her wedding, which unfortunately takes place the day after my cousin’s funeral. Flowers! Favors! It’s fun, and I’m loving the time I’ve spent with her. Plus I am getting REALLY good at zipping naked ladies into wedding gowns.
  • WORK, but not enough WORK. I am terribly stressed about WORK.
  • Anatomy & Physiology II, which is proving very, very tough. I currently have a C average, but not for lack of trying. The instructor’s competence does not extend much beyond the material itself. She cannot use PowerPoint effectively, her lectures lack discipline and focus, we are so far behind that she has had to dramatically revise the syllabus, and she is getting pwned by the students when she goes over test answers. I can’t blame them–the lady can’t write a coherent test question to save her life. The entire class is frustrated and demoralized. As my mom would say, “HISS, BOO.”
  • My own illness… a little upper respiratory thing that has laid me low. Like the last two colds I have had, it is sinking into my chest, which makes me wonder about the health and resilience of my immune system. Getting older sucks, you know? At least now I know that my lymphocytes and basophils are the problem.
  • My dad’s health. I am on tenterhooks today waiting to learn if his cancer (malignant melanoma) has returned, and he has cataract surgery later this week. We need him healthy for his own sake, but also because my mother’s quality of life will decline dramatically–as in, have to move into assisted living, dramatically–if he isn’t able to care for himself and for her. I am… worried.

Lots of little things. Just life in middle age, I guess. I wish I had someone to go buy me more kleenex. Or snake my bathtub drain. Or ask me how it’s going at the end of the day.

Because it’s hard keeping all these plates spinning, as I am sure you know from your own life.

Someone impugned my “independence” recently, implying that I am not an independent woman. Um, to that person, see above, because that’s just a sample of the plates I am spinning. And when one breaks, I sweep up the pieces and save them for craft projects! So, FUCK YOU, frenemy who confuses needing help with dependency. If I didn’t have a bad cold and lingering depression, I would rule this world!

 

 

Suicide Haiku

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Fewer words are best. Soldiers know this, when they try to write about combat. Decorating horror with adjectives is like putting glitter on shit. What’s the point? It’s still shit.

On Tuesday my favorite cousin was hospitalized in a psychiatric facility for depression and suicidal thoughts.

On Thursday, they released him because he was no longer a danger to himself.

On Friday, he killed himself.

That’s it.

 

Suicide is preventable. It should always be taken seriously. If you need help, or know someone who does, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) anytime, 24/7. http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

Foreshadowing

I am thinking about jumping into the Wayback Machine. No, not the Internet Archive, more like the WABAC Machine from Rocky & Bullwinkle. “Jumping into the Wayback Machine” is what I call “using the Internet to reconnect with people from your past.” In any case, I’ve been thinking about an ex boyfriend. He is much younger than me, and I have no (nor ever had any) illusions about a future for us. So I am not looking to rekindle anything. But I am curious how he’s doing, and I don’t like how we left things.

Also, I’m bored.

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Gee, Mr. Peabody, what will happen if I message my ex? Should I wait until I’m drunk & alone on Christmas eve, or just get it out of the way now?

The Wayback Machine is a funny thing. Jumping in usually leads to disaster and humiliation, like when I travelled to visit a high school crush a few years ago and got so drunk from drinking in a hot tub for six hours that I was hungover for two days. I know, I know, you’re not supposed to drink in a hot tub! How did every single person in the world get this memo except for me? The hangover wasn’t even the worst of it. The tears! The drunken tears!! It is mortifying in retrospect. I unfriended him on Facebook a year later, after we got into an email pissing contest over whether Sarah Palin was qualified to be president. During our Wayback Rendezvous, I accidentally peed his bed, then lied about it, and I’m kind of glad, because honestly. There’s more, but I think I’ve made my case:

The Wayback  Machine is a threat to basic human dignity.

On the other hand, I have a friend who met her husband that way. She got in touch, out of the blue, with her old college boyfriend twenty years on. They flirted, he traveled to meet her, he booked a hotel room that he never used. They dated long distance, he moved here, he moved his children here, and they made a family. They’ve been married a year, and by all accounts seem blissfully happy. In fact, they write each other a love poem every day. It’s kind of nauseating. And amazing!

I haven’t yet reached out, but through the miracle of Facebook, I was able to glean a little of my ex’s life, namely that he still likes hockey and that he’s lost all his hair. Clicking on “Message” brought up our last correspondence, which ended abruptly in August 2010. He was back in town for the summer, and I tried to get together, but he blew me off a couple of times, then returned to law school without ever seeing me. I called him out on it, it didn’t go well, and then I cheerfully and abruptly unfriended him.

I regret it. He was fun and funny and a good person. There was no reason not to keep him on as a friend. But my feelings were hurt that he didn’t want to see me, and I was disappointed that when I nearly died (truly), all he could muster was a two-word text: “Be well.” I wish I had handled the whole thing better, but I suppose I did my best. I could do better now.

I haven’t decided whether to write to him, but scrolling back through our last few exchanges in the Facebook Message app, something curious caught my eye.

It was a year before I was up for tenure, and I was working furiously on my book, which was moving through the publication process at a glacial pace. I was worried I wouldn’t make it–that the book wouldn’t be far enough along, that I was creating an argument for my colleagues to vote against me. No tenure means you’re fired, I had just assumed a mortgage, I was nearly broke, and I had never had a grownup job outside of academia. I was scared.

Meanwhile, my ex was struggling to find his first job after law school and had suggested, only half-joking, that he might become a bike messenger. In commiseration with his frustration at an uncertain future, I wrote:

Sorry to hear about the lousy job market. If law school doesn’t pan out, I suggest nursing. That’s my Plan B.

I have no recollection of thinking about nursing at the time, though much of that year is a blur due to some major health problems that landed me in the hospital a few months later. I don’t know, in retrospect, if I was kidding about nursing, or serious, or both. I had long joked that my Plan B was to join the Army, and I paid attention to the maximum age for enlistment, making note a few years ago when I aged past it. Nursing has for years been in the news because of the anticipated shortage, so I’m sure I was aware–and envious–of the choices nurses have for employment. I have also thought about second careers in social work (not enough money) or police work (not enough patience). If I were a social worker, I would likely lose my house. And if I were a cop, I would definitely lose my temper–and then probably get shot with my own gun.

Nursing.

Even if I was kidding about it, I was thinking about it. Because there it is in a message I typed at 11:21 PM on October 10, 2009.

It wasn’t meeting J* in 2014, who also turned to nursing late in life, or reconnecting with my friend from high school, who graduated with her BSN last year before returning to her previous profession. (Unfortunately, that’s not an option in academia. Leaving the professoriate is a one-way trip–what a friend likened to leaving a parking lot by driving over the tire spikes. You can get out, but you are FUCKED.) No, those friends didn’t give me the idea of becoming a nurse as a second career. They just demonstrated that it was possible.

To an extent I didn’t realize, until I saw that old message in my personal Wayback Machine, I have been thinking about this for a long, long time.

She Did It!

Why are all the ladies crying?

If you’ve been watching the Democratic convention this week, you’ve seen a lot of women in the audience with tears streaming down their faces. On my Facebook page, several female friends have commented that they have been crying too. I’ve lost it a few times. In fact, last weekend, sitting in a theater watching the “Ghostbusters” reboot with my niece and nephew–who were enjoying it immensely, totally oblivious to the transgressive nature of an all-female cast–it happened again.

What is going on?? We can’t all be on our periods!

At the same time, I’ve noticed in public discourse, and especially among my students, a distinct ennui. I think Hillary Clinton has been in the public eye so long, and women have come so far, that many people–especially young people–regard her candidacy as an inevitability. I thought about pointing out the historical significance of her nomination in my own classroom this afternoon, and trying to explain all the tears. As a humanities professor, it would be mostly within bounds. But in the end, I didn’t want to incur the heavy sighs, eye rolls, and negative online comments that would surely result. I kept silent.

This is what I would have told them:

When my mother went to college in 1959, she had three career options reasonably available to her: secretary, nurse, or teacher. Back then, college for women was regarded as a fall-back in case they didn’t get married. My mother became a teacher. I wonder what she might have done if she’d had more choices.

When my sister was a little girl, her class took a field trip to the local firehouse. The boys were allowed to climb on the big red truck and sit in the cab, but the girls were not. Because, the little girls were told as they watched the boys play, you can’t become firemen when you grow up. (Not firefighters, firemen.)

When I was in fourth grade, our class did a big unit on the Middle Ages. There were many assignments and academic opportunities to earn points. The student with the highest number of points would become “king,” which conferred certain privileges in the class. I worked my ass off, and I bested the nearest competitor–a boy, Jim J*********i, whose name I will never forget–by 10 or 15 points. On the verge of me–a girl–becoming “king” of the class, my teacher decided that a leader should also be able to demonstrate strength–physical strength. The entire class was marched down to the gym, where we all had to demonstrate how many pull-ups we could do. I did 2 or 3 (I was not an athlete). Jim did over 20. With each additional pull-up, the class cheered him, and I watched the value of my academic success diminish. Jim became king, not me. I felt betrayed and bereft. I can’t imagine how the girl in my class with cerebral palsy, who couldn’t even reach for the bar, must have felt.

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What would a public school do today if a student had “dyke” scrawled all over her locker?

When I was a junior in high school, I had a picture of Janis Joplin–a famous nude that I cut out of an anniversary edition of Rolling Stone magazine–in my locker. Some boys broke into my locker, tore up the picture, and scrawled “dyke” all over the door. My friend Alicia saw them do it, and she told me their names. I reported them to the disciplinary officer, who did nothing.

Also in high school, my health teacher–a man charged by our state with teaching young people about sex and relationships–announced on the first day of class that he would be assigning seats. He said, out loud, to a room full of boys and girls, that he would be putting all the pretty girls in the front row. And he did it. (Yes, I sat in the back.)

My senior year, I was repeatedly and aggressively groped by a hulking sack of shit named Kurt F*****n as I walked in the crowded halls of my high school. I did not report it, because why would I? In fact, at the time, I didn’t really understand that there was something wrong with what he did–that my body was mine, and no one had a right to touch it without my consent.

In college in the early ’90s, I was the only woman in a class in a male-dominated field. One woman, in a class of ninety. I had two majors and took a million credits, and yet I only had 7 or 8 female professors in four years of college. At present, I am part of a faculty in which women are well represented, but I have also worked on a faculty in which women were just five of forty. 

(There is no way, in an age when a majority of doctorates in my field go to women, that that number is not the result of systemic discrimination. Two years after leaving there, I was approached by a female faculty member who was considering a lawsuit over equal pay.)

In the workplace, I have dealt with harassment in a few contexts, including my present job. Every time my former dean inquired about my dating life, discussed pornography, talked about my body, stared at my breasts, or patted my head like a dog, I felt angry, humiliated, and powerless.

I once took an inventory of my friends and realized that the number of girls and women I know who had been sexually assaulted ran into the double digits. Eighteen months ago, I added myself to that list. Only one of all those cases was reported to the police, and none of them resulted in prosecution, let alone someone being convicted of a crime.

This is my inventory, after just 44 years. When I think back on it, I feel sad and angry, but mostly just weary. I and my mother and sister and most of my friends–we are middle-class white ladies. Women decades older than me, poor women, women of color–I can’t imagine the inventories they must have, the indignities they must have endured.

Why are all the ladies crying?

We are crying because we are thinking about all the times we felt afraid, objectified, degraded, diminished, and powerless–because we were women.

And we are thinking back to the girls we once were, and to the women who came before us. We are crying because we thought we might never live to see this day.

And we are so fucking proud–politics aside–to finally see a woman standing up there.