Be Reasonable

Summer came and went in a blur. Here it is Labor Day already, and I realize I never did write about the undergraduate course I took in summer school: Introduction to Nutrition.

I was probably more excited for this class than for any of the 7 nursing prerequisites I am acquiring in anticipation of possibly, maybe, blowing up my professor life to go back to school. I know a lot about nutrition, but I nonetheless eat like crap. In fact, this afternoon, I am considering having microwave popcorn for lunch.

And dinner.

[Ed. Note: I did indeed eat microwave popcorn for lunch.]

My hope was that by immersing myself in the study of nutrition, I would develop a mindfulness that would in turn help me develop better eating habits. Unfortunately, I ended up taking a 6-week course that was Tuesday-Thursday, 9 AM to 12:45 PM, with two big projects and an exam every fourth class. It was like shotgunning nutrition facts without pausing to digest, or even chew, them. I learned a lot, but absorbed little. Almost nothing has changed in how I take care of myself.

I took the class at my local community college, and my fellow students were fairly typical of the up-by-your-bootstraps ethos of that school. There were a few “returning adults” in their late 20s or 30s, including the guy I sat next to, who wasn’t interested in nutrition so much as he needed an “easy” science class. He thought nothing of purchasing a Coke and a pack of Welch’s Fake Fruit Gummi Garbage Chews to eat during the second half of class from the front row. This would be like taking a class in oncology and having a big snack of cancer right in front of your professor. Or taking an environmental ethics class and wrapping your textbook with the pelt of a baby seal. But our instructor never said a word.

There were also several students for whom English was a second language, including two North African Muslim women who never did quite learn how to understand a nutrition label. “No,” they asserted firmly about the package for some kind of imported salty-carby bits. “Salt is for all package.” No, hon, I looked myself. Those things contain enough salt in a single serving to give a rhino a heart attack. But, no, our instructor never corrected them, so convinced they were of their native cuisine’s inherent healthfulness.

There were also a couple of effortlessly beautiful young women who were on the nursing or physical therapy track. One of them rode a motorcycle and perpetually looked like she had just walked on a beach, in an influencer-pushing-green-tea-on-Instagram kind of way, not the got-bit-by-sandflies-and-my-hair-looks-like-a-kelp-nest way that I have when I return from the beach. This girl wore breezy, off-the-shoulder jumpers, see-through peasant blouses that made you want to thank her for the view, and badass, black lace-up ankle boots. Her skin was luminous, and her vintage-inspired motorcycle helmet said, “Fashion first, safety second.” Or maybe “’70s-Era Bond Girl.” I wanted to be her so, so bad. These young women constantly asserted the merits of juicing, acai berries, and coconut oil–pretty much any fad that Dr. Oz has jumped on in the last five years. And always, our instructor answered in even tones about the fiber benefits of whole fruits, the peer-reviewed science behind healthy oils, and “everything in moderation.”

Behind Motorcycle Girl sat an obese woman who cracked wise and answered questions with tremendous confidence, though she (clearly) didn’t know much about nutrition. Over time, her worldview became clear: “One’s weight is unrelated to one’s food consumption, and besides I’m not that fat anyway.” One of the case studies we worked through as a class involved a middle-aged woman who was 5’2″, 165 pounds, and struggling to find healthy options given her jam-packed schedule. The obese student disputed that there was any urgency in helping this imaginary client, because “165 pounds isn’t that big.” Ouch. Everyone in the class silently did the mental math, and the instructor stammered out a reply, taking pains not to say what we were all thinking: “You only think that because you weigh twice as much.”

As I look back on the class, I remain fascinated by the professor, whom I’ll call Mrs. Bland. I never did quite pinpoint her age, because while she seemed physically well preserved, her mien was of an old woman for whom every decision–every word uttered, every sartorial choice, every unfathomable sexual act (yeah, I’m the kind of rude, daydreaming student who tries–and fails–to picture her professors having sex) was governed by intense adherence to practicality and reasonableness.

Mrs. Bland was trim, not thin, in a way that suggested well-planned, healthy meals and sensible exercise like water aerobics, walking, and perhaps occasionally some 3-pound hand weights. She was always dressed tidily in either beige or black slacks with a modest cotton blouse whose neckline and princess seams were generously proportioned to conceal any hint of bosoms or décolletage. With the black pants she wore a black slip-on walking shoe, and with the beige pants she wore the same shoe in brown. Two colors for the shoes and slacks, five colors for the blouses, mix, match, repeat. She wore a bit of blush, applied no doubt by the tiny brush that comes with the compact, and the same lipstick every day–a burgundy too dark for skin so pale and creamy, I’m guessing she never left the house without sunscreen. Her hair was short, dark, and monochromatic, suggesting a dye job, but not an expensive one. Maybe Nice ‘N Easy?

“Nice and easy.” It’s a way to color the gray, but it also suggests a practical way to go through life–a little luxury, but not too much.

I appreciated Mrs. Bland’s thoughtful approach to student questions, even when they were mind-bogglingly stupid. Her answers were always seated in a place of reasonableness: “Here is what I can tell you the peer-reviewed research says.” She affirmed every conceivable dietary choice, from vegetarianism to veganism to low-carb diets designed to trigger ketosis, but always with emphasis on seeking out the healthiest option. She never raised her voice, never got flustered, never made an off-color joke, and never denigrated a student’s facts, not even the 500th time someone started a moronic assertion by saying, “I heard that…”

Coconut water boosts metabolism. Garlic cures cancer. Honey boosts the immune system.

No, no, and no.

As a fellow professor, I was in awe of Mrs.Bland’s even keel. As a student, I appreciated her sensitivity, even if we didn’t always deserve it. But as a person, I wondered, “Is this lady going to lose it some day?”

Mrs. Bland reminded me of the Barbara Hershey character in the 1990 TV movie “A Killing in a Small Town,” about a repressed housewife named Candy who brutally murders her friend Betty, striking her 41 times with an axe–28 blows to the head alone. Based on a book that’s based on a true story, the film (now streaming on Amazon Prime under the book’s title, “Evidence of Love“) follows Candy through the crime and trial, at which she pled self-defense. [SPOILER ALERT!] Turns out, Betty had come at Candy with the axe in anger over an affair with her husband, but Candy wrestled it away and then snapped, turning her friend’s head to mush while her baby cried in the next room. Based on a psychologist’s testimony about Candy’s mental state, the jury acquitted her of the murder.

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Barbara Hershey won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her terrifying portrayal of blandness and internalized rage.

The last lines of the film still haunt me, because they raise questions about the secrets that live inside all of us, even people who seem entirely composed, dull, and reasonable. What are they hiding? What are they capable of?

The film ends after the acquittal, with Candy speaking to her therapist (voiced by Hal Holbrook) in a room filled with shadows. The therapist encourages her to forgive herself while the camera focuses intently on Candy’s plain, pained face.

“I’m not innocent,” Candy says wearily. “I killed her. I’m a monster.”

“No,” the therapist counters earnestly. “You’re just like the rest of us.”

“Is that supposed to comfort me?”

Smashcut to black! Yeah, no, that is fucking terrifying. It’s been 26 years since I saw that movie, and I still don’t trust bland women.

At the same time, I admire them. Mrs. Bland was ever in control, never flustered, as even and relentless as a gently ticking clock. She caused no offense, she created no drama, and she inspired no strong responses. If she were a meal, she would be 4 ounces of grilled chicken (no skin), steamed broccoli, and half of a baked potato with a spritz of that low-cholesterol liquid butter spray. Well balanced, nutritionally satisfying, and remarkable–but only for how easily it’s forgotten.

Yes, I learned a lot from Introduction to Nutrition: common vitamin deficiencies in the elderly, coconut oil is bullshit, there is no vegan source of B12 because it’s synthesized by critters. I did a research paper on the consumption of nuts and glycemic control. My dietary analysis revealed that I eat too much protein.

And also: There is power in being reasonable.

People listen to you. They take you seriously. The ideas you offer them come unfettered by visceral reactions to your person. If you can keep it up for a lifetime, more power to you!

But I’ll never be that way. I’m too volatile, too many jaggedy edges, too many strong opinions I can’t quite contain. Sometimes I hate myself for it, because I know it holds me back.

Then again, I’ll probably never axe-murder anyone, either.

It’s the First Day of School!

It’s the first day of school! Again!

I love being a student, because it allows me to love the first day of school like I never have before–not even when I was a kid (too nervous). Being a university professor also involves first days of school, and lots of them. But, like most academics, I approach first days with dread.

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 2.25.06 AMFor a professor, the first day of school means the end to languid, flexible days when you are responsible to no one. It means 16 straight weeks of lecture prep, boring faculty meetings, endless service commitments, an unrelenting tide of email, and grading grading grading. The first day of school also brings with it the Crushing Awareness: no meaningful progress will be made on your research agenda for another four months. The weight of projects left unfinished settles over you like some combination of deathly pall and nettlesome hair shirt, ensuring that every free moment is tainted by a  gnawing guilt: “I should be working.”And when I say “every free moment,” I mean, when you’re on the treadmill, or in the shower, at a party, eating breakfast, having sex, crashing your car, writing your blog, walking your dog, caring for your mom, suffering a heart attack (or stroke, in my case–true story), walking the beach, or opening Christmas presents–that feeling is always there.
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I have had homework every night of my life for 22 straight years.

But, as a student once more, I love first days of school. The classes I take are like a well-made play: they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Most significantly of these, they end. And then a pleasant feeling of accomplishment sets in. Every moment leading up to that, starting with the night before the first day of school, is relished in anticipation of that simple, golden realization: I finished something I set out to do.

That happened to me once, as a scholar. I finished my book, sent the final draft off to the publisher, and eventually–after dealing with permissions, cover art, galleys, and feeble attempts at marketing–there was no more work to do. At last–7 years since it was a dissertation, and 11 years after I started it–I could cross “Finish book” off my list of things to do. Then, almost immediately, pressure started to mount to begin the illusive “second project.” And the guilt set in again..
IMG_4973Tomorrow I start Introduction to Nutrition. I am excited! I bought my textbook early–brand new, but something called “looseleaf,” meaning I had to buy a binder for it. No matter–I got a sassy green one with a clear cover. I’ve already packaged it up, inserting the textbook’s fruity cover into the sleeve, and it all looks fabulous. I got a matching folder, for handouts, and I bought a new sheaf of college-ruled, 8.5X11″ (none of this 8X10.5″ bullshit the kids are into) notebook paper for my notes. I cleared my A&P notes (nearly 100 pages, taken by hand) out of my Grand Teton binder, printed out my new syllabus, and packaged that up too. I also restocked my mechanical pencil with lead and a fat new eraser. Finally, I cleaned my A&P I books and note cards (100s of those too!) out of my school totebag. The best part was when I found a flattened, but still totally edible, Reese’s Peanut Buttercup in the pocket. Score!

Perhaps when I have finished Introduction to Nutrition, I will no longer be so romanced by candy. I hope so!

The totebag, btw, was purchased at a street market by my friend (since middle school) while she was on shore leave in the Philippines. It has weird cartoon cats on it, and polka dots, and its broken-English captions read, “Plip!” and “My heart will is about to burst!”

That sounds about right. My hear will is about to burst, because it’s the first day of school!

Plip!

 

Final(e)

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At first glance, these could be images of distant planets viewed from across space. But no, they are photographs I took through the lens of a microscope during the histology lab in my Human Anatomy & Physiology I course. Left to right, they are hyaline cartilage (a form of connective tissue that is present in joints and respiratory tract organs); nerve cells with their dangly dendrites and asymmetrical axons; and cardiac muscle, which looks a bit like prosciutto but is in fact a miracle: striated tissue that contracts in perfect synch (autorhythmicity), without fail, until you die.

No, these are not planets. But to this humanities professor, they were an invitation to another world.

It’s the middle of the night, and yet I have just three hours until I am up again to finish studying for my final exam. I never imagined that this class would be so hard–about 1/3 of the class dropped out–or that I would learn so much. I am very tired.

I wish I could have luxuriated in the material over a longer period of time, or that I could have read and studied more. Unfortunately, given the demands of my job, passing my Biology exams(5 lecture exams and a half dozen lab practical exams) became an exercise in doing the least amount of work possible to squeak by. Of course, squeaking by has meant getting A’s pretty consistently; professorial perfectionism dies hard, or not at all. I learned so much, and yet I feel like I barely know anything…

Which makes me wonder about the basic scientific knowledge of the nation’s nursing corps. What exactly does one have to do to fail this course!? I suspect the students who dropped out were not willing (or able) to get up when it was still dark out, after only three hours’ sleep, to pour over study guides and homemade flashcards and a textbook the size of a microwave.

I really loved it, and I’m sad that it’s over. Almost over–I still have to get through this final exam.

*UPDATE*

With extra credit, I eked out a B on the exam, which gave me an A for the semester! Yea me!

I did some algebra to calculate the minimum exam grade I had to get (75%) and still maintain a robust A course average, and then I studied strategically. A few times this semester, I determined that some topics were too complex to warrant my full attention, given the limited time I had available. As such, the sliding filament theory of muscle contraction, the muscles of the arm, and several pathways of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system shall remain a mystery to me.

Today, one of the questions on the final exam was about where a particular type of nerve impulse goes after it leaves the post-ganglionic whateverthefuck. I wrote, “To the bar” and added a drawing of a martini for good measure. I had reached my limit, and there was nothing else to convey, except a wry joke at what I hope my teacher understood was my own expense.

This is the difference between going to school in your early 20s and going to school in middle age, especially after a long career as a college teacher: I know my limitations, I have too many demands on my time to give every topic my full attention, and I can forgive myself for not being perfect. If only I could apply that self-compassion to my professional life! Perhaps, if I decide to stay the course with academia, some of the lessons I’ve learned as an undercover undergraduate will stay with me.

I’m done with the A&P (for now), but I’m not going to the bar. It’s 2:30 in the afternoon, and I’m going back to bed!

Nervous System

Digging deep today. We are in that part of the semester, when everyone is bored and exhausted and overwhelmed. There are just a few weeks to go, the weather is nice, and no one wants to be in school. On sunny days, the campus commons devolve into a flesh show of bare legs and shoulders and mid-drifts, and the students constantly try to con their professors into having class outside.

It’s never a good idea. Wet butts, wind noise, a million distractions. One time, my students were attacked by an aggressive squirrel. It’s actually one of my proudest teaching moments, when my skills as an extemporaneous speaker fused beautifully with my skills as an ultimate frisbee disc handler. Mid-sentence on a lecture about human depravity, I whipped a 2-inch piece of mulch at the aggressor squirrel from 12 feet away. Beaned it right in the head. I never paused, never commented, just kept going. My students were in awe of me that day. Which was also the last time I ever agreed to have class outside.

But since I am a student now too, all I want to do is have class outside. Or not at all. Because my brain is full, and I am exhausted.

Speaking of brains, we recently dissected a fetal sheep brain in my Anatomy & Physiology class. We never get to do fun stuff like that in a humanities class, which is all, “As so and so says” and “perils of the human condition” and rhetorical masturbation, blah blah blah. In addition to being boring, the classes I teach are also extremely depressing. In fact, one of my students was so upset from material we discussed last week that she told me she cried for an hour afterword.

Yea. 😦

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You can see the arbor vitae in the round structures on either side of the brain stem.

I loved dissection. Brains are fascinating! My favorite part of the brain is the arbor vitae (“tree of life”), which is a formation of white tissue inside the cerebellum that looks like a tree when you cut it in half. It is so beautiful and mysterious. I am in love with brains.

But, as I said, mine is full. I have yet another exam–my 7th or 8th, I’ve lost count–tomorrow morning. I should be studying now, but I don’t want to. I should be studying always, but I don’t have time. Between teaching and research commitments and a taxing administrative job, I squeeze my studying in when I can. I have developed a ritual for that purpose: waking up at 4:30 AM on the morning of my test, studying in bed while the dog sleeps beside me, then arriving at school by 7 to study in a commons area. It’s quiet for the first hour, then other students filter in. I get to glare like a mad woman at people who disturb my peace, and I have been known to interrogate students before they sit down.

Brain 2
This is what education looks like in the 21st century: everyone uses phones to document lab activities, but drawing would probably help us learn more!

“Are you planning to talk?” I ask them. “Yes? Well, would you mind going to the lounge down the hall?” They comply, because I look and sound like a professor. Or just a crazy old lady. I would never have done such a thing when I was their age, but now I am old, and I don’t have patience for their noise. If all else fails, I listen to Chopin on my headphones. If you’re wondering, yes, I have wadded-up Kleenexes inside my sleeves and hard candies in my purse. My driver’s license says I’m 44, but all other evidence points to 80.

 

Finally, at 9:30 it’s time for the exam, which requires more intensity and focus than I have mustered in years. If we have class afterwards, I finish at 12:15. Then I start my grownup day.

Last week, I got to experience the extremes of the examination continuum. In the morning, I took a lab practical in my freshman-level biology class. Then, at 2 PM, I helped to administer an oral comprehensive exam to one of my doctoral students.

I used to say, with relief, that my orals were the last exam I would ever have to take. I reveled in that fact: I had summited the pinnacle of educational advancement, and oh, what a fantastic view! But, eventually, sitting at the top of the mountain started to feel less like an achievement and more like a sentence.

“Does anyone know how to get down from here?” I find myself wondering. “Because, um, I’m kind of stuck.”

Last week, when I took a freshman-level exam and administered a doctoral-level exam, I was palpably aware of which I enjoyed more. I loved learning about brains, poking them, memorizing their features, and demonstrating my mastery on an objectively measured test. It was challenging, but exciting too. I was proud of myself afterward.

By contrast, I hated delivering the oral comprehensive exam, because it combines the worst features of my job: literature review and performance. I was worried about how my student would perform, for her sake, but also because orals are a literal performance, of her abilities and my teaching, for the benefit of my colleagues. Oral comps also tend to get conversational, meaning, I had to perform smartypantsedness for my colleagues. The problem is, I don’t actually like to read in my field of study (more on that some other time), and I am not up-to-date on the literature I should know. Faking my way through these exams is intellectually and emotionally draining. Plus, I internalize all of my students’ stress, so I am a nervous wreck for both of us. I was relieved when it was over, but I did not feel the least bit proud. In fact, I felt like a fraud.

A friend of mine pointed out that acquiring a competency is always exciting, for people who love to learn. Someday, if I change fields, I would eventually have to account for my expertise in a similarly stressful setting. So it is illogical to compare my enthusiasm for a freshman exam with my weariness over an orals.

“Apples and oranges,” she said.

Brain 3
So lovely! You can make out the olfactory nerve bulbs on the left and the optic chiasma in the middle. Anatomy is a dream come true for people who love big words!

“Sheep brains and human brains,” I say. They have more in common than you would think.

Still, I don’t take her point lightly. It is hard to know what it would feel like to move into the medical profession and be accountable for other people’s health. New stresses, bigger stresses, I am sure. But new rewards, too? Perhaps. Whether they would make me happy, I cannot say.

Right now, though, I feel like I climbed a mountain without much thought for what I would do if I arrived at the top, and with no plan for how to get back down. I need a rope ladder, a helicopter. Or maybe just another mountain. Either way, as the title of this blog suggests, I can’t stay here.

I’ll figure that out later. Right now, I have a dog to walk, a nervous system to master, and an exam to take in the morning.

If You’d Like, I’d Be Happy to Explain Carrier-Mediated Facilitated Diffusion* to You

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I got an A+ on my first-ever college Biology midterm!

I loathed BIO so much when I was younger–not sure why–that I did everything I could to avoid taking it in college. I am also not particularly strong in Math, so I had this bright idea that I would learn about the stars by taking Astronomy, and I would learn about aquatic mammals by taking Oceanography. Wrong on every count!

I eventually learned, Astronomy is Math, and I had confused Marine Biology with Oceanography–which is also Math. DOH. I rounded out my science requirements in college by taking two courses in Physical Anthropology, which involved a lot of the same brute memorization that is required in Human Anatomy & Physiology.

Anyway, I am doing well, in part because I am trying really hard. But I think it’s also because I’m taking the course at a community college, and it is probably not as challenging as it would be elsewhere. It also might be that students are kind of doofus-y these days, and faculty have adjusted their standards accordingly. (It’s been a long time since I’ve taught freshmen and sophomore courses.)

Case in point: one of my classmates missed a critical email from our professor about the exam, which caused him to miss the exam altogether. He admitted, as he was pleading his case to me about why he should get a makeup (“Dude,” I kept thinking, “I’m a professor, but I’m not your professor!”), that he had not checked his college email account. WHUT? And today, when we had the exam, about 1/3 of the class arrived late, including several unapologetic young women who showed up after it was over. Everyone looked annoyed–the instructor with good reason, but the students also seemed genuinely irked that she had not held up the entire class to accommodate them.

I have no idea how other people are faring in the class, nor what will become of them (100% of the class is interested in healthcare careers). I just know that I made 100 flashcards, read every word of the textbook, poured over the lecture slides, and hunted up YouTube videos to augment my understanding.

I am so relieved that it paid off!

 

* I still can’t explain Redox Reactions or Buffer Systems to save my life!

Don’t Question the Steps, Just Dance!

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Today was insular yet interesting, a lovely mix of reaching out, reaching up, and hunkering down.

I took my first biology exam today, and it had me very, very nervous. The amount of material was overwhelming! We had to know the basics of anatomical directions; the regions, cavities, and systems of the body; the organization of living things and the requirements for life; basic chemistry (atoms, ions, chemical bonds, solution chemistry, etc.); and the anatomy of a human cell, including the name of every protein, carbohydrate, lipid, nucleotide, and organelle therein, as well as their composition and function. WTF!

And when did human cells become so complicated?! From what I recall of biology in middle school–the last time I took it!–a cell looked like a cracked egg and consisted of a membrane, a nucleus, and some cytoplasm.

What, then, is this monstrosity:

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I know what this is and how it works! 😀

It appears that scientists have discovered a whole bunch of extra crap in there, and I am expected to know what it is and what it does at the molecular level. Thankfully, I actually like sorting my proteasomes from my lyosomes, and I can now label and (sort of) understand everything on this diagram.

I also love how dirty some of it sounds:

“Can I use my secretory vesicle to transverse your phospholipid bilayer?” she asked thirstily.

I did my level best on the midterm, depleting what I thought would be three exams’ worth of index cards in a marathon flashcard session. And it was ok: I missed one out of forty questions. Had the exam not been open-note, I would have missed perhaps five or six, which is still respectable. I am pleased and hopeful, even though I have no idea where this is headed.

While I was getting ready for the exam, I texted about my nerves with a few friends, and they wrote back with all the affirmations and assurances I needed to hear. I am so grateful for their support.

Interestingly enough, one of those friends was J*. After my exam, we talked for the first time in five months, and it was wonderful.

Most of my closest friends will shake their heads ominously and ask, “Why would you muddy the waters with that piece of dirt?” And I can’t blame them, because they love me, and they worry for me, and they remember the disappointment and heartache I experienced with him as it was unfolding. Plus they never met him, so they regard him more as abstraction and distraction than as an actual human man that they might like.

The reality, though, is that J* is one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and I have missed having him in my life. And when we talked today, he said he missed talking to me too. That lifted my spirits immeasurably, not because of some fragile hope that the path he is on will one day lead back to me. Truth be told, my heart does go there sometimes late at night, when I can’t sleep and need a story to put my mind at rest. But that’s not why I loved talking to him today. It’s because I loved hearing his story and learning that he’s ok. Better than ok, actually–he’s excited for a new job, a new living situation, and a fresh start in a new town. I am happy for him. Talking to him also made me happy because the one thing I can’t abide is his indifference. Though I know to my core that no time is ever wasted (a sincere thank you to the poet Richard Brautigan for that wisdom), it would pain me to know that my time meant nothing to him.

And yet, even if that did happen, I would remain hopeful and still. Relationships ebb and flow, people come and go. I know this. Some of my closest friends right now–I didn’t talk to them for years, once upon a time, and now we walk together . People tend to find their way back to love, all kinds of love, if you don’t place barriers in their path. So you never know how someone might filter in and out of your life, because it’s not an orderly process like, say, protein carrier-assisted passive diffusion across a phospholipid bilayer. It’s more like osmosis: water flowing back and forth, in and out, filtering through aquaporin channels or caressing the gently undulating tails of the phospholipids themselves, until it finds its equilibrium. (I never realized the beauty of plasma membrane transport until just now!)

I don’t know the right metaphor, and maybe biology isn’t even the right science. It might be astronomy, with friends traversing hidden corners of the universe, then reappearing suddenly as a bright light streaking across the sky. But no, comets are predictable. People are not, though they can shine just as brilliantly.

Maybe we’ll just leave this one to the humanities and the Analects of Confucius: “To have an old friend come from far away–isn’t it a joy!”

I almost titled this post, “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back,” because I am exploring a way out of an unsatisfying career by returning to the soothing embrace of school. And, ok, talking to J* long-distance again does feel very 2014. But I stopped myself from using that title, because the saying implies linear directionality–you’re headed towards something, but you’re having trouble getting there. Instead, I don’t know which way I’m headed, nor towards what, and I have no idea who, if anyone, will be with me when I get there. Even if I do take two steps forward for every step back, the steps do not go in the same direction. And sometimes the steps back aren’t so much a retreat as a return, to a warm and comforting place I need to experience from time to time.

“Two steps forward, one step back. Repeat!” We’re all doing this, all the time, crossing paths with one another in the process. That’s not walking a line.

That’s dancing!

If Scarlett O’Hara Had Taken A&P, She Wouldn’t Have Had Time for Boys

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I’ve felt panicky the last few days–butterflies in my stomach, nausea, a tight feeling in my chest. Perhaps my heart attack will commence shortly?

There are a few things going on.

First, I’m nowhere near ready for the classes I have to teach this semester.

Second, the class that I am taking is kicking my ass after only one week. It’s not the amount of material, though it is daunting. It’s that the course design assumes a working knowledge of chemistry and basic biological processes–at the cellular and molecular level–that I simply don’t have. The last time I had Chemistry was 10th grade, in 1988. The last time I had Biology was 8th grade, in 1986. The mental bandwidth it required of me to focus for 3 hours in class both days, plus study time, was absolutely exhausting. And I had just a tenth of the work that I will need to complete starting next week.

Third, I am questioning whether I have the stamina for nursing and if I want to do it at all. Part of the questioning is my own exhaustion, which triggered a string of migraines, and part of it is that two of my role models are struggling. One of them is having trouble finding desirable work. Another is having health problems and experiencing on-the-job bullying that may cause her to quit. It wasn’t until I watched their narratives of late-in-life success fall apart that I realized how invested I am in those stories. Apparently I need to have people with whom I identify–ie, not 22 year olds–succeeding on this career path so that I can imagine an alternative story for myself.

What I’m left with is the thought that, if this doesn’t work out for me, I will be stuck in my current job for the rest of my life. Or, perhaps worse, I will have left academia and will be unable to return. Then what?

“Where shall I go? What shall I do?” I’m feeling a little Scarlett O’Hara-at-the-end-of-Gone With the Wind. I wish I had a Tara I could return to, some place to give me strength, and the time to figure this out. But I don’t.

What I’ve got is a course to design, 16 chapter-length essays to read and edit, a manuscript proposal to review, three articles to write, a program assessment to plan, and I need to master basic chemistry so I can understand cellular respiration.

Time to panic!

I’ll add here, that just rereading the above is helpful. I am trained to analyze texts, and my default setting is “criticism.” When I see words in print, even words I myself have written, my brain automatically alights on a critique: “There are other options besides your current job and nursing.” I’m sure you see that too. It is a false binary, the result of depression-induced tunnel vision. The time pressure is self-imposed as well. I can drop the class I am taking. I can retake it if I get a C or worse. I don’t have to decide if I’m leaving my job for at least a year. I don’t have to decide anything today.

There’s Miss Scarlett again: “Oh, I can’t think about this now! I’ll go crazy if I do! I’ll think about it tomorrow…. After all… tomorrow is another day.”

gwtw