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!

 

First-Date Fridays: The Bank Robber

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It’s been a few weeks since my last First-Date Friday essay, and several weeks since I last discussed my 15-month litany of online dates. (If you’re thinking those dates are going to culminate in me finding romantic bliss, you are confusing my life with a Meg Ryan movie.) Next on the list, from March 2015, is The Bank Robber. Technically, we never had a first date, but I really, really wanted to!

I met The Bank Robber on Tinder. Of course, I didn’t know he was a bank robber at the time. Though, to be fair, he hadn’t robbed a bank in years. On his profile, he cited music and “crafting” among his hobbies, which in his case meant making art out of found objects. Very cool! He described himself as a punk, and he meant it, in an old-school, 1980s UK sort of way. (One parent was Irish, the other English, and despite being a US citizen, he spent a lot of time in the UK as a child.) He had a full sleeve of tattoos on each arm, and more across his torso, he wore a thick leather belt fastened high on his waist to hold up baggy trousers, and his boots looked like they were made for kicking shit. He was older–my age, mid-40s–but still handsome, though the years seem to have wearied him. From his photos, it was apparent that he slicked his hair up in a dashing yet irreverent pompadour on special occasions. It wasn’t until I did some sleuthing that I figured out, one of those special occasions was his release from federal prison.

I learned about his criminal past pretty quickly, not because he told me but because I think he was bad at the Internet. He went to prison in his late 20s, effectively missing much of the digital revolution. He had only been out a few months when we both swiped right, and he seemed not to understand the basics of protecting one’s privacy online. Or perhaps he just didn’t care. He asked if we could exchange email addresses and I agreed, answering at length his query about the type of music I liked. I was listening obsessively to the Pogue’s “Broad Majestic Shannon” at the time, and my interest in Celtic punk seemed to resonate with him. He wrote me back right away, revealing his full name in the automated signature. As a professional researcher, I couldn’t help myself: I googled him.

My search quickly went from bad to worse. The first hit that popped up was a website of prison inmates seeking pen pals. The second hit was a website that posted letters from people in prison. And the third was a guest post on a blog dedicated to reporting about life on the inside. There were photos, including his mugshot, that demonstrated unimpeachably that it was him. And then there was his Facebook.

I clicked on the Facebook link to discover that his profile was wide open–timeline, photos, friend list, everything was public. He had very few Facebook friends, because he had only been released from prison a few months prior. I guess 15 years up river tends to limit one’s social circle. But he did have a girlfriend! She was/is an adorable, tattooed, rockabilly massage therapist 8 years his junior. She wore cute-girl nerd glasses and seemed to have a bunch of elderly pets. It was clear from his Facebook page (and hers; yes, I am a stalker!) that they met while he was in prison. They were living together as a couple since his release from a halfway house, and they had purchased an adorable pirate-themed shower curtain right around the time we met on Tinder. What a prince!

Of the two revelations–that he had recently been released from federal prison after serving time for bank robbery, and that he had a live-in girlfriend–only the second was a deal breaker for me. Even so, I didn’t know definitively what the deal was. I decided to continue the correspondence. And, ok, I really wanted to meet him so I could ask him about prison!

I read everything by and about him that I could find online. I really am a professional researcher, so I have very good skills in that regard. And he was quite prolific, even writing–by hand–a newsletter from prison that included original articles, cartoons, opinion pieces by fellow inmates, and descriptions of prison daily life. He published several issues by mailing them to someone on the outside who would post them online. The newsletters were fascinating to me–a glimpse at another world, about which I know nothing. As a professional humanities scholar in possession of an amazing trove of texts, I immediately started drafting a conference proposal in my head. But as a lonely, single woman interested in meeting someone who could hold my interest, I was also drawn to him emotionally. His writings suggested a smart, kind, funny man who had endured serious trauma. Indeed, one issue of the newsletter was drafted from a hospital bed. According to the essay he wrote, he drew the ire of the prison’s skinheads for refusing to choose sides in a racially divisive conflict. They beat him unconscious, and he was hospitalized for three months.

I liked his politics, and his commitment to social justice came through in many places. But I was troubled by how The Bank Robber discussed his crimes. He admitted to robbing banks, and he framed the robberies as politically motivated attacks on the government and the nation’s exploitative banking system. Perhaps that really was his motivation at the time, and he was not just robbing banks as an easy means of supporting himself. But it does seem like a convenient, ex post facto way of justifying behavior that was incomprehensibly cruel–not to the banks, but to the people inside them.

He used a gun. And in that moment when he pointed his gun at the teller, the world froze. That person, and anyone who was aware the crime was taking place, instantly realized that they were powerless over this angry young man who was threatening their very lives for a sack of cash. Confronting the random brutality of the universe–“Why my bank? Why my shift? Why my window?”–and realizing in a heart-stopping instant that all of the control we exert over our lives–the makeup we apply to accentuate our features, the choices we make to save and spend, the ability to drive our cars where and when we want to, the laws that we endow with meaning so that the universe might be rendered orderly… it is all illusion. Confronting that fact changes people. And it changes them forever.

It requires callous indifference to other people’s feelings, to threaten violence like that. And I suspect it requires a conscious refusal to take responsibility for terrorizing actual people, in order to frame it–even long after the fact–as a benign assault on institutions. There is no way those tendencies do not leech into his relationships. Even so, curiosity and my irritating propensity for optimism got the better of my revulsion. Perhaps he did feel genuine remorse, I wondered, but he found it too painful to express publicly. I continued to write to him.

I concede, I am drawn to broken men. They are interesting, and I find their jagged edges sexy as hell. I admire broken people in general, because (to quote Hemingway), they tend to be “strong at the broken places.” Then again, if you’ve ever glued pottery back together, you know that Hemingway is full of shit. Structures tend to be weak at the broken places, and they tend to break there again and again. As a broken person myself, I know. Strength doesn’t reside in the broken places; it resides in the mending process, and the ability to do so over and over.

I never got to find out whether The Bank Robber was broken or strong, defeated or resilient, empathetic or sociopathic, or some combination of all of these. He stopped writing back right after I disclosed what I do for a living. He is a fry cook at a local diner, and I am a university professor. It wouldn’t have bothered me, but it might have bothered him. Or perhaps I was just too square, too bourgeois, too–well, really I have no idea why he stopped writing to me. At the time, it stung, and I framed his rejection as evidence that even the lowest members of society don’t want me. “Barrel bottom, scraped,” I sulked on Facebook.

But that was a low blow, rooted in my own hurt feelings. I am no better or worse than anyone, incarcerated, paroled, or free. And in a world rife with exploitation and suffering, I suspect we are all criminals in some way or other.

I still look The Bank Robber up online from time-to-time. After breaking up with his girl–Gee, I wonder why!–they appear to have reconciled. I am happy for them. He remains fascinating to me, and she seems like a genuinely good soul and someone I would like. I hope they are at peace. I hope, if he does recognize the horror of what he did years ago, that he finds the strength to forgive himself, and that he can channel his regret into service for others. I want to believe that people can change, that forgiveness is possible, that life works out for everyone in the end.

Maybe that’s what Shane MacGowan was talking about, as he recalled those golden days on the banks of the broad, majestic River Shannon.

Take my hand, and dry your tears babe
Take my hand, forget your fears babe
There’s no pain, there’s no more sorrow
They’re all gone, gone in the years babe

We are all part of the same search–for love, forgiveness, and redemption. And we are all just doing time, trying to figure it out.

Mother Day

It is called Mother’s Day.

Not Mothers Day, not Mothers’ Day.

Mother’s Day.

Its modern American founder, Anna Jarvis, campaigned to make Mother’s Day a national holiday in the 1910s, and she went so far as to trademark the phrases “second Sunday in May” and “Mother’s Day” as she did so. The position of the apostrophe was quite deliberate. “Mothers Day” implies celebration of mothers en masse or the concept of motherhood in general. “Mothers’ Day” implies a day for mothers as a collective. Ms. Jarvis wanted a day on which individual families would convene to honor their individual mothers, giving the holiday a distinctly individualistic and personalized flavor.

It’s a lovely idea. But that apostrophe is also responsible for a lot of angst, especially in the age of social media.

While I have dedicated no shortage of space on this blog to complaining about my mother (I know, it’s so original), I have always observed Mother’s Day with, at the very least, a card and a phone call. Since my parents moved nearby three years ago, I have also endeavored to give my mother meaningful experiences for Mother’s Day, whether she will remember them or not. (She doesn’t.) Today, for example, my sister, my niece, and I took my mother to a local botanical garden for a long walk in gorgeous weather, then out to lunch at a local market. I gave her a handmade card, and I spent $50 on Korean tacos. The only deficiency in this year’s observance was my failure to give her a handmade card from the dog. She didn’t notice, because she had the actual dog. At one point on the walk, they both laid down in warm grass with yellow flowers, and my mother laughed and laughed as the dog lolled beside her. It was nice to see her happy when she is in so much pain.

I have never minded performing these rituals, and I still don’t. What I mind is the public performance of Mother’s Day on social media, which has metastasized into two virulent strains of observance. I don’t know which one I find more upsetting.

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You know who else shapes lives? Teachers, mentors, aunts, serial killers…

First, there is the posting of updates, links, photos, and memes that celebrate one’s own motherhood. At 44, I still have many friends and relatives who are in the early years of motherhood, and some of them feel the need to exclaim, loudly, about how it has shaped their lives. Goody for them! But attendant with these declarations is a sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, conflation of womanhood with motherhood. Variations of “I didn’t know what it meant to be a woman until I became a mother” have saturated my Facebook newsfeed on Mother’s Day for the last few years.

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I dunno, the writ of habeas corpus is pretty good too…

From the perspective of the childless woman–whether due to infertility, the death of a child, not finding the right partner, or not wanting to be a mother–the only appropriate response to this pastel narcissism is, “Go fuck yourself.”

The other offending strain of Mother’s Day observance is entirely inoffensive, and yet, somehow more hurtful. It involves the posting of updates, links, photos, and memes that declare one’s own mother to be the best mother. Today, fully 95% of my Facebook newsfeed consists of photographs old and new, with declarations of love and thanks to mothers for what sound like magical childhoods. Profound sacrifices, shared confidences, shared adventures, unconditional love–these are the themes that animate my friends’ posts.

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I’m guessing these people’s mothers did not invoke the spectre of homelessness every time they suggested trying something new.

I am glad for them, that their mothers embodied the ideal. But I am left wondering, too. Are their mothers really that great? Or are my friends just better than I am at presenting a happy face to the world? Am I the asshole here?

Families are mysterious organisms, and because we spend our lives enclosed within perhaps just one or two, it is hard to know what is “normal.” Take violence, for example. What is an appropriate amount of violence within a parent-child relationship? All my life, I thought I knew. And then one day, when I was 28 years old, I learned that I had no idea.

Ellen was a new friend, but we hit it off so well that people who just met us assumed we had known each other for years. As new friends do, we spent a lot of time sharing our stories, including those of our families. I don’t remember what I was telling Ellen about my life growing up, but I will never forget the look on her face or the incredulity in her voice when I mentioned something about my mother’s discipline.

best friend
The motto of middle-aged women who shop at Forever 21, rely on their children for advice, and buy the booze for after-prom.

“Your mother hit you?” she asked, as though the concept was completely foreign to her.

I resented the implication that there was anything wrong with how I was raised, so I immediately sprang to my mom’s defense. “Well, no, she would just, you know, like, lose it. And then, WHAM”–I smashed my right hand through the air and tossed my head back to signal the impact–“right across the face.”

In my mind, I thought I was tempering the severity of the outbursts, which were frequent throughout my childhood but also totally unpredictable. My mother did not hit me as rational means of dispensing discipline, because there was no order or predictability to when she would lash out. She hit me when she needed to hit someone. And she only stopped hitting me when I got taller than her, in about 8th grade. One day she went to hit me, and I grabbed her wrist mid-smash. I held her arm firmly in the air, looked her dead in the eye, and said sternly, “If you ever hit me again, I will hit you back.” I was bluffing–I have never hit anyone, ever–but it worked. She never struck me again.

It took another 15 years for me to understand what that meant: there was nothing righteous about her anger towards me; she only hit me because she could not regulate her emotions; there was no perfect way I could behave that would not eventually incur her wrath; and the only way I could make her stop hitting me was to threaten her. My friend Ellen’s reaction helped me to untangle this.

“Your mother hit you in the face!?” Ellen exclaimed, even more aghast. What I thought was a mitigating detail was, for her, the final indictment. Not only had Ellen’s mother never struck her in the face, her mother had never struck her at all. Here, I was thinking my childhood was normal, but to Ellen, I might as well have grown up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. And to me, her childhood–and especially her relationship with her mother–seemed like a fantasy.

Actually, it seemed like a Hallmark card, one of those with the trifold and the florid script. And that’s why I tend to make my own Mother’s Day cards, because it is so hard to find a store-bought one that doesn’t force a bitter laugh.

I have no idea what is normal. I have no idea what goes on in other people’s families. I have no idea whether people who claim their mom is their best friend (whut?) or their biggest supporter or their greatest source of inspiration are really telling the truth. I hope so! But that’s not my situation. I haven’t spent much time alone with my mother since leaving for college. She is not my friend, and I have learned to carefully tailor the information I provide her about my life. She is sometimes a source of support, but just as often she has undermined my self-confidence and -esteem. She loves me, but not unconditionally.

Still, I am lucky. My mother worked hard to provide a nice life for our family. She taught me to be well-mannered and considerate of other people. She encouraged excellence in school and at work. She never abused alcohol or drugs, and she never hit me with anything other than her hands. She taught me how to take care of elderly parents. If it seems like I am damning with faint praise, it is because this is the unqualified list of traits I can offer. But still–I could have done worse. Much, much worse.

A long time ago, I visited a run-down community museum where schoolchildren’s poetry substituted for actual artistic and historic content. Elementary school students had obviously been asked to write poems about their mothers, and the little scraps of paper hanging on the museum’s walls were silly and touching, as you might expect. There was a line in one of the poems, though, that to this day stays with me, because it so elegantly captures the simplicity and ambivalence of Mother’s Day–and mothers–for people like me:

My mother is my mother

And I love her.

That’s really all there is to it. It’s not the individualized and personalized celebration of one’s own mother that Anna Jarvis envisioned when she slipped that apostrophe into Mother’s Day. But it is honest and sincere. Maybe next year I will post it on Facebook.

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I love the wholesome, unsentimental simplicity of this Victorian Mother’s Day card, which suggests both the endurance and insidiousness of a mother’s love through its use of the invasive and virtually indestructible English ivy.

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!

A New World

Last night I got the saddest, scariest email from my dad. My parents were dog-sitting a terrier named Oliver for some neighbors in their retirement community. Everything was going well. My mother took Oliver for a walk, and then she returned to the apartment…

Alone.

I asked her where Oliver was and she did not know what I was talking about. I pressed her, and she vaguely recalled taking him out but did not know where he was or what she had done with him.

When I read this, my heart fell into my stomach. More precisely, I had three simultaneous reactions:

  1. Terror: What the fuck did she do with the dog??? My parents frequently take care of my dog, who is often the only thing tethering me to this life. What is there to keep my mom from losing my dog too?
  2. Vindication: Every time I visit my parents, there is a fight about this very issue. I will not let my mother walk my dog until she proves that she has her cell phone on her and that it is turned on. I am terrified that my mom will get lost and not be able to find her way back. At least if she has the phone…well, let’s be honest, it just means that a kindly stranger who searches her person might be able to call us, because my mom often looks at her phone like it’s a moon rock. Anyway, every time–Every. Single. Time.–it is a struggle to find the phone. We have a locator device for this purpose, but sometimes I have to search the pockets of a dozen sweaters and jackets in the closet before the phone turns up. Meanwhile, my mother becomes enraged at the implication that she is not capable of walking a dog without intervention. She hurls accusations–you think I’m a blithering idiot, you don’t respect me, you don’t love me–but, every time, I stand firm. And every time, I end up feeling like an asshole. Not anymore.
  3. Sadness: Beyond sad. For my mom, for me, but mostly for my dad, who is losing his love of 50+ years one missing cell phone/purse/dog at a time. He sounds so defeated. When I asked him how he felt about her decline, he said, “Well, I guess it’s just part of the marriage deal.”

What happened? He thought she would be ok walking the dog by herself, and he just wanted 20 minutes alone to go to the dining room to fetch their dinner in peace.

I already cannot allow her to go to the dining room alone. She goes with a list that says buy A, B, and C but brings home X, Y, and Z. Or she becomes confused by the menu offerings or gets into an argument with the manager over whether or not corn is a vegetable. Her short-term memory loss seems to be escalating. Today she had no idea what to do with the trash or recycling. Her world is shrinking by the day.

And she knows it. That is the horror of Alzheimer’s Disease. Initially, at least, you know the totality of what you don’t know. It must be terrifying, like waking up stupid-hungover in a strange place with no idea how you got there–several times a day. Being around my mom is kind of like the movie “Groundhog Day,” except that her story doesn’t reset after 24 hours. It resets every couple of minutes, and when it does, she’s lost your dog.

I can’t tell which is the greater fear–that my mom will lose my dog or kill her altogether. My mom likes to sneak my dog people food as a form of rebellion against what she imagines to be my dictatorial rule. But we’re not talking about bits of cheese or meat, we’re talking about slabs of chocolate cake so large they would kill my 12-pound pup. Despite loving my dog immensely, my mom has also looked right at her and said, “Whose dog is that?” One time my mom tried to return my dog to a neighbor’s apartment, but thankfully my dad caught her in time. So, with good reason, I live in fear that I will lose my dog at my mother’s hand. And then I will lose my family, because I will never be able to forgive her for that.

It turns out that Oliver’s owners returned home while my mom was walking him, and they ran into each other outside. Oliver was surely glad to see his mommy and daddy, and my mom enthusiastically handed him over. Then she returned to her apartment–which is a goddam miracle in and of itself, because at some undetermined point in the future, she won’t be able to find it anymore. By the time she rode the elevator one floor and walked perhaps 60 paces to her front door, she forgot not only that she had returned Oliver, but that he had ever existed in the first place.

As far as my mom was concerned, the world was born the moment she walked in the door.

 

False Witness

“To pretend, I actually do the thing: 
I have therefore only pretended to pretend.” –Jacques Derrida

I lie. A lot.

Several people have commented on the honesty of this blog. They aren’t wrong, unless they are. Writing is manipulation, after all.

In the post “General Longing,” about a man whose daughter died in a plane crash, I wrote, “She died while he was holding her hand.” That was a lie. Her hands had been surgically removed due to catastrophic burns. He was in the room with her when she died, along with his wife, his ex-wife, and his ex-wife’s husband. I am sure they were touching the girl as she passed, but she had no hands to hold.

Likewise, the post “In Lieu of Flowers,” about attending the visitation of my friend’s 10 year-old son, suggests anger and frustration at the senselessness of the boy’s death. That part is true, but this part is a lie: “It was strange and sad and nothing I ever need to see again.” The fact is, when I stood before the boy’s open casket, I felt nothing. I looked for what seemed like an appropriate length of time, then I stepped away. I could have looked for longer, because I found his lifeless body fascinating. I was trying to remember the details for the essay I knew I would write.

I am good at conveying emotion through writing, whether it’s emjoi-laden texts, personal email, or even scholarship. Indeed, a graduate student I ran into last week told me he planned to read my book–a dry piece of research if ever there was one–because another professor had confessed that my writing brought him to tears. The ability to convey emotion has to do with being able to read emotion. You have to know how the reader will perceive the imagery, phrasing, and especially the pauses. Silence is not golden, because it is the space into which we flood our fears. The words distract, then silence catches like an icy breath, then more words, then silence, words, silence, repeat: like a beat, like dance, like a river. If you can make the reader hear you, you can make them feel whatever you want.

Right now, dear reader, I am trying to make you feel betrayed.

But how do I feel? I do not know. I wonder sometimes, do I feel anything? Or do I merely convey appropriate emotions because it is the productive, professional, personable thing to do? Am I a sociopath? Or am I just so badly damaged that it takes extremes of mirth or pain for me to feel anything at all?

I am probably not a sociopath, because I am a sap, and because other people’s pain deeply affects me. I used to bawl at those maudlin long-distance commercials about people reconnecting across a great divide. I cried at pretty much every Country Time Lemonade commercial in the ’90s, because they traded in nostalgia for summers past. And that Folgers commercial, where the son comes home from college at Christmas and makes coffee for everyone before they wake up? Devastating. (Maybe it was just because that poor family was waking up to such terrible coffee.) I also cry when I see other people cry, even John Boehner, whom I despise. And I feel sorry for people who are suffering, no matter who they are. The execution of Saddam Hussein and the final footage of Muammar Gaddafi were very troubling to me, because my heart defined them in those moments not as the brutal dictators we know they were, but as sad, vulnerable, old men confronting the loss of their stature, their history, and their very lives.

Sociopaths don’t think that way. That leaves damage.

I have always been a very sensitive person. In fact, I meet virtually every criteria that defines a Highly Sensitive Person, answering affirmatively to 26 of 27 questions on the scale. For example, I am extremely sensitive to color. I love looking at colors, and choosing a palette of colored pencils for an art project has taken me an entire day. Recently I noticed that staring for 30 seconds at a fluorescent pink piece of paper when I am tired stimulates my brain like a dose of caffeine. I would prefer the caffeine, though, because it doesn’t have all the emotional connotations of the pink piece of paper, which strikes me as aggressively hostile. I wonder, after more than four decades of managing my fragile system, whether it has ceased to function properly.

Often, I feel numb. The post, “A Lack of Emotional Concern,” which drew so many followers to this blog, is about that very thing. I am not bothered much anymore by my mother’s illness, the collapse of my relationship with my sister, my niece and nephew becoming strangers to me, my friends drifting away–because I simply choose not to think about it. Any of it. Instead, I self-medicate by eating junk food, binge-watching television shows, and endlessly surfing the ‘net. Oh, and writing this blog!

And I lie. When I walk my dog, I smile easily and wave hello to my neighbors, even though I am desperately sad that I have not talked to another human being for several days. I mount a charm offensive for my mother on the phone, enveloping her in happy anecdotes about the dog and eager questions about her day. I check in with friends who need support, even though I fundamentally question whether I am of any value to them. I lie in this blog, though less here than on Facebook. I lie to myself: do I really have the courage to quit my professor job and become a nurse, with all the stress, financial hardship, and loss of prestige that will entail?

It is when the lies collapse that I am in deepest trouble, though I have become so good at lying and so bad at feeling that it is hard to tell when that happens. I think, though, that it has happened. And, as you might have guessed, there is a boy involved.

My ex, J*, came home from overseas a few months ago. We started texting, then talking. We have seen each other twice. He talked about coming back to my city for a few weeks this summer to spend time with his nephew, which got me terribly excited. He remains disinterested in dating me and totally not attracted to me, though in his own maddening way he concedes that he loves me. Somehow, without me even knowing it, I took these disparate bits and composed myself a story: J* is my person, I am his person, and we are going to get through this life together. It is a lie, but deep inside I think I have been counting on it.

I am (was?) connected to J* in a way that I cannot mechanically explain. When he was overseas and not writing or talking to me, I would be moved to write to him at odd intervals based on a feeling that he needed my support. I have no idea if I was right. Since he returned, I have noticed that I can sense when he is in town. I have joked with him that  a “disturbance in The Force” (who doesn’t love Star Wars?) alerts me to his presence, and every time it has been true. Last Thursday night, it happened again, but in a different way. I was walking in one of our old haunts, and I felt something distinct. If it were a sound, it would have been a click. Then I felt J* slip away, like a railroad car uncoupling from the rest of the train and drifting down the tracks. An enormous sadness rushed in to fill the empty space.

I wrote J* the next day and joked, sort of, that I had yet again felt a disturbance in The Force. That night, he called me and we talked for 2.5 hours. In many ways it was wonderful, and in ways that surprised me, it was painful too. I’ve known for over a year that he has been dating other people, but somehow the revelation that he had a first date planned for this weekend shook me to the core. Eventually, he told me he made those plans in a text conversation on Tinder at the very time I felt him decouple and drift away.

“That’s kind of weird,” he admitted.

“Do you really believe it?” I asked.

“No,” he answered.

Yeah, me neither. Except that I can feel his absence now, in a way that is new and scary and raw. Maybe he has finally met the lady with whom it will all work out effortlessly. When that happens, he has told me more than once, there won’t be room in his life for me anymore. She will be his person, the one he checks in with, the one he wastes time with, the one he plans with. Not me. And I will be alone again.

Part of me wants it to be true, because it would affirm my special powers–that I was so sensitive, so highly attuned, I knew his love was leaving me from 250 miles away. Then, if it is true, part of me wants his new love to fail, because he will return to me. And part of me wants his new love to work out, full stop. If I can’t make him happy, there is no reason for me to wish that no one else will either. (Note to Self: Nurture that last part, and starve the rest.)

Regardless, I know now that I am a liar. I deceived myself into thinking that J* and I could be friends, and that I could be content with that. This new situation exposes the lie of it. We can be friends, but I won’t feel content. I guess I was always hopeful that J* and I would be together again someday. Because love isn’t what makes life divine or never having to say you’re sorry or even a battlefield. No, love is pine sap: it sticks to everything, and it never comes off.

Never.

I am a liar, but not such a good liar. And not such a good writer either, because I suspect you knew this about J* and me all along.

 

To Be Blunt…

I hate weed.

It’s April 20th–4/20–which I suppose is as good a time as any to explain why I hate weed.

I don’t know anything about the origins of 4/20 as a holiday celebrating marijuana, but I do know a fair amount about the drug itself. Well, enough to know I hate it!

I hate weed because it gets you in trouble. The first time I smoked pot was my junior year of high school, in the late 1980s. I was at a cast party for a high school theater production, and somehow I found myself in a parked car with two boys trying marijuana for the first time. Of the sensation of being high for the first time, I don’t remember much. But I distinctly recall that the smoke felt like a wolverine scraping the back of my throat, and the cotton mouth was terrible. I also got in Big Trouble, for not calling my parents when I got to my friend’s house, where I was spending the night. I suppose I forgot to call because I was hella high, but I don’t remember. I didn’t smoke weed for a long time after that, in part because I was terminally grounded.

The last time I smoked pot was the summer of 1993. On my way back to school from a summer job, I was pulled over in rural east Texas by the Tex-Ark-La Narcotics Police, on the pretext that I was not wearing my seatbelt. This was A) not true, and B) not a primary offense, but, as the trooper in mirrored shades screamed at me, “YOU. DON’T. ARGUE. BY THE SIDE. OF THE ROAD.” The police were looking for drug mules, I had out-of-state plates, and I guess it was my turn. The encounter was terrifying. They separated me and my passenger, the ne’er-do-well, one-legged biker I’ve promised to tell you about, and interrogated us. Thankfully, we did not say anything that gave the officers probable cause to search the car because, unbeknownst to me, the boyfriend did have weed in the car. After that close call, which could have cost me my entire future, I vowed never to put myself at risk again. If only I could have stuck to my guns!

I hate weed because it is so undignified. People debase themselves for drugs, and they look like morons while they do them. That thing where you inhale and then talk while holding your breath to give the smoke time to penetrate your lungs? It is an embarrassment to adulthood. And then there’s the spit-swapping. The one-legged biker would put his entire mouth around the bong when he inhaled, like some kind of toked-up, wide-mouth bass. And then pass it to the next loser, who would latch on without so much as a wipe. So gross.

I am guilty of undignified behavior too. I once smoked weed out of a Pepsi can at a desolate spot behind my high school called “the flats.” Somehow my friend had weed, but no pipe, so we improvised. We emptied a Pepsi can (god, I hope it was ours, and not one we found on the ground!) and folded it in half, then my friend used her earring to poke holes in the crease. I think we placed the weed on the holes, then we inhaled through the mouth of the can. To a third-party observer, I am certain we looked like complete trash.

I hate weed because it makes me sick. Yes, a substance known for alleviating nausea makes me puke. It wasn’t every time, but it was often enough. And there was one time when I became epically ill, vomiting again and again in the kitchen sink of a vacant apartment while my baked friends sprawled on the floor. That night I prayed for death.

I hate weed because it turns otherwise decent people into assholes. Marijuana causes people to dissociate, which is a fancy way of saying that they check out. They do not perceive social cues as unaltered people do. The experience of being high can be wondrous and absolutely hilarious to those who are having it, but to sober people, high people look like tools. And if there are people counting on them, the wonder and hilarity of being high is selfish and cruel.

I actually only smoked marijuana a handful of times–perhaps three times as many as I have recounted here–and I never bought it, never rolled a joint, never packed a bowl. Not once, ever. It was easy for me to leave it behind, because it so often made me sick. And even if it hadn’t, I didn’t especially like being high. It was fun for a hot minute, then I wanted it to stop. Weed also made me profoundly sleepy and hungry, which are my default states anyway. Why spend money or risk jail time for the privilege of being your worst self? Despite all my antipathy for weed, I ended up spending a lot of time around it in my late 20s, thanks to the most addictive drug of all: love.

The relationship did not end well, so let’s call him Cheesefart.

I met Cheesefart a year after my roadside encounter with the Narcotics Police, and one of our first big fights was over my refusal to allow him to transport marijuana in any quantity in my car. Even so, I fell in love with him, and we dated for several years. By the end, he was growing marijuana in our basement and selling it on the regular. That is when I went from merely disliking weed to outright hating it.

My relationship with Cheesefart was fraught, especially after I moved in with him. We fought over common issues like household chores and how to spend our meager, grad-student funds. The short version was, Cheesefart had no money if I wanted to take a trip with him or go out to dinner or buy groceries other than ramen. But he always had money for CDs, guitars, and weed.

I’m a practical gal, and I love to garden. I have no moral qualms about weed, and I oppose its criminalization on principle. Further, purchasing weed supports criminal enterprises that trade in murder and human suffering. So, it seemed to me that the most responsible way to free up funds for couple-time was to stop buying weed–and start growing it.

Oh, the things we do for love! Growing weed, in our house, was my suggestion. But boy did Cheesefart run with it.

He set up shop under our basement stairs in a secret little room tucked behind the washer & dryer. At first, I found the process fascinating and regarded it as an elaborate craft/garden project. You can’t just buy weed seeds–at least, not back then–and information about growing it was hard to come by. There was an elaborate process of sorting seeds, soaking them, and sorting again, to ensure the proper gender. After they germinated, they required artificial light. I was so proud of the solution he devised, which involved fluorescent lights hung in a panel under the stairs that you could lift and lower at will. To maximize growth, he hung washers on the branches so that they would leaf out more broadly. He experimented with fertilizers and found bat guano to be the most productive. He added fans to simulate wind, which strengthened the plants. This went on for over a year, maybe more than two, resulting in multiple yields and a shit-ton of pot.

When you have a lot of pot, you have a lot of “friends.” But they aren’t real friends; they are weedfriends. Weedfriends don’t want to get to know you, and they certainly don’t want to help you; they are just around. They come over to buy weed, and of course every time they buy some, they have to smoke it too. But weedfriends often have no money, so they just come over to hang out and “help” with the plants–another overture to smoking. As a result, my home had an endless parade of losers coming and going at all hours.

They were not discrete. Some concerned friends–real friends–told me that they could smell weed from the street when they drove past our house. Add the constant sound of live music or over-amplified acid rock coming from Cheesefart’s fantastically expensive stereo system–given to us in payment for, you guessed it, weed–and the situation was just begging for police involvement. I read with horror in the news about women just like me, who ended up serving multi-decade prison sentences for allowing pot to be grown in their homes. I researched mandatory minimums and learned that the presence of an elementary school around the corner from our house would tack years onto a sentence. I scrutinized our electric bills, because I knew that the police did so as well, in search of homes that used unusual amounts of electricity. I lived in fear of a break-in when Cheesefart was out of town, because I knew that calling 9-1-1 was not an option for me. I was risking my safety and my future for those plants–and I hadn’t smoked pot in years.

Cheesefart and I fought all the time. We fought about the time the plants were consuming–the watering, the weighting and grooming, and elaborate trimming rituals in which sticky weed leaves covered our dining room table. Sometimes he would disappear into the tiny grow room for hours. Cheesefart’s commitment to the plants bordered on obsessive, and it prevented us from ever going out of town together because someone had to look after the plants. We fought about weedfriends knocking on our door, peering in our windows, and skulking around the yard. We fought about the future, and whether he could continue his habits with children in the house. We fought about weed smell, which necessitated the purchase of equipment to mitigate it. Then we fought about the electric bill, which was as high as Cheesefart. And of course, we fought about how much pot he was smoking.

I suggested he grow pot to save money, not to fuel a burgeoning habit. But that is what happened. The more weed he had, the more weed he smoked. The following activities required getting high:

  • waking up
  • going to bed
  • having sex
  • studying
  • watching TV
  • all household chores
  • all yard work
  • cooking and doing dishes
  • driving anywhere
  • grocery shopping and other errands
  • biking
  • playing ultimate frisbee
  • playing or listening to music
  • petting cats
  • brushing cats
  • eating
  • drinking
  • social gatherings of any kind

By the end of the relationship, he was high pretty much all the time. He told me, when we broke up, that he smoked so much because I made him miserable. I believed that for a long time, until I saw him at a Sunday morning pickup game a couple of years later. It was 10 AM, and he was tapping the contents of a bowl out onto the tray of his infant daughter’s stroller.

I thought to myself, “Thank heaven that is not my life.” And also, “I fucking hate pot.”

I loved Cheesefart dearly and hoped to make a life with him. But over the years we were together, he disappeared into a private world that was insulated with weed. He imagined that marijuana made him funnier, more musically creative, and a better ultimate player. What it actually did was make him an insensitive jerk. We lived together, ostensibly because we loved each other and were going to make a family. In reality, though, he lived with a nice lady who was emotionally present, loving, and trying to be a good partner. And I lived with a man who was high literally all the time, because he loved weed more than he loved me.

I support legalization of marijuana, and I think the War on Drugs is a shameful waste of resources that criminalizes poverty and exacerbates longstanding social inequalities. I also think marijuana is addictive, I think it makes people who smoke it boring and cruelly insensitive, and I loathe the way it smells. I simply hate it.

Enjoy your 4/20, smokers and tokers! But please do it far away from me. Because I think you look dumb, and the smell of your blunt is dredging up bad memories.

In Lieu of Flowers

This weekend I attended a funeral visitation for a friend’s son, who died suddenly last week. Suffice it to say, if there are Lego toys in your casket, you are gone from this life too soon.

My friend and I attended together. I was reluctant to go, because I worried that the value of our presence for our mutual but distant friends would be outweighed by the emotional disturbance it would create for us–cryers, both–in an otherwise peaceful weekend. Better to reach out to the grieving parents in a week or two, to see if they want to get together, I suggested. We can go, so we should go, my friend countered. When you’re stricken with horror and helplessness, showing up to represent the collective good wishes of people at the outer edges of a community of grief is both an honor and a duty.

She was right. We went.

The receiving line was long, which gave us time to adjust to the fact that we were going to see the body of a 10 year-old boy. I never knew him in life, except as pictures posted on Facebook, so seeing him in death did not take my breath away as it has for others whom I knew personally. But still, it was surreal and simply awful. Living children have luminous skin that seems to glow from the inside, and their cheeks and lips burst with color. There is no way to replicate those features of youth on a dead child. There is no way a dead child can ever quite look at rest. A dead child can only look dead, or perhaps like a statue. What we saw, effectively, was an artist’s rendering of a boy, composed of embalming fluid, waxes and fillers, heavy makeup to conceal the violent effects of the accident that killed him, and the boy’s own little, lifeless frame. It was strange and sad and nothing I ever need to see again.

His family was good natured and kind, patiently receiving the condolences of guest after guest after guest. The boy’s grandfather held our hands and said something about “God’s plan.” We nodded kindly in assent. But silently, I thought what I always think when someone invokes God’s plan after a tragedy: God is a bad planner. Seriously. Show me a military tactician or city engineer or marketing strategist who says, “This brings us to Step 4: Killing a Random Fifth Grader,” and I’ll show you an idiot and a psychopath. Finding meaning in a child’s death after the fact doesn’t make that death an operational necessity. Any decent, productive plan would have all of the 10 year-olds survive to become 11 year-olds. But of course, the chilling truth is that there is no plan, and no god probably either. There is just the terrible physics of car versus kid, in which a second’s difference either way would have yielded a different outcome: an uneventful excursion, maybe some broken bones, or even a different mother’s child being life-flighted to the hospital. One second.

After twenty minutes or so in line, our friends greeted us warmly, almost as though we ran into them in a restaurant, not a funeral parlor ten feet from the body of their only child. I have never seen a woman look more tired than this boy’s mother.We laughed and made small talk. Someone said something about “under better circumstances,” and I replied stupidly, “This is shitty. This is a shitty thing that happened.” She laughed, looked me in the eye, and nodded. Because it is.

A lot of people invoked the “there are no words” trope in their online condolences at the death of this boy, but I think “shitty” is pretty good for describing a senseless accident, a tiny corpse, some Lego toys buried in a casket, and childless parents comforted only by their memories.

The Garden of Love

Every garden tells a story. Many stories, in fact.

There is the story of conditions: too much rain, not enough rain, too much sun, not enough sun, too much clay, not enough sand, too close, too deep, too early, too late, too tempting for the squirrels. Some plants thrive, others struggle. You tweak the variables–water, nutrition, pest control, even location–but the outcome is beyond anyone’s control. In the end, every garden story is a parable about patience and humility.

There is the story of the work: The bulbs I got as a party favor at my friends’ gorgeous May wedding that I forgot to plant and then secretly discarded with tremendous guilt. That time I waited too long to treat my Dwarf Hinoki Cyprus for parasites, and now it looks like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. When my friend died, and for days all I could do was garden. “Too many weeds,” I thought as I pulled them. “And somehow not enough.”

And then there is the story of origin: Those hasta came from my friend Liz’s old apartment. My boyfriend and I drove 100 miles out of state to buy the Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar out back. That Christmas Rose and those other hasta came from my mother’s garden. That Live Forever came from my mom’s garden, along with the Snow on the Mountain in the back, and she took them from my grandmother’s garden maybe ten years before that. Some of the plants came from my great grandmother’s garden, which ones, we’re not sure.

A garden story can go on like that forever.

In my family, touring the garden is a tradition. Whenever my mother comes over, she checks out the plants in the front yard, commenting enthusiastically about whatever is in bloom. I inevitably start pointing things out: This came from your house. That Andromeda is really struggling, can’t figure out why. Yes, that Live Forever will need to be divided soon. Before long my dad has disappeared inside to check sportz on his tablet, and my mom and I are wandering through the backyard too. It’s true, her memory problems ensure that the legacy plants always come as a revelation, but the ups and downs of weather and season ensure that there will forever be new news to report. “I really need to get out here and        ” is usually the final word.

Because the work is unceasing.  A garden is a process, not a finished product. Gardening is a journey, not a destination. A garden story never ends.

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Strong man, stronger back. I took this photo when I went to visit him in Guatemala a few years ago. More on that later!

But it does have a beginning. My garden began as a rectangle of grass with a single, tidy bed that hugged the porch. Then I met Marcos, a neighbor and professional landscaper. Gardener, actually. He was an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala. He was also the most beautiful man I ever dated–black hair, mocha-colored skin, dark eyes rimmed with lustrous lashes, thick lips like a Mayan god, and a gorgeous torso sculpted by honest work. He loved plants more than he loved women, and he loved women a lot–the curve of their hips, the mysterious depth of their bellies, the way they moved and smelled. I should know–I was one of them. “Beauty,” he called me softly.

Marcos never told me he loved me. Instead, he said, “We should do your yard.” And he did. One morning I awoke to a chopping sound. I looked out my bedroom window and saw him working out front, wearing nothing but white cotton pajama bottoms that he quickly sweated through. He had borrowed a pickax from the golf course where he worked, and he swung it like John Henry digging tunnels through solid rock.

“THWACK. THWACK. THWACK.” Over and over, never stopping, he dug up six pernicious Rose of Sharon that threatened to devour the whole house, Sleeping Beauty-style.

“THWACK. THWACK. THWACK.” Gone went the sucker trees that proliferated behind the neighbor’s crumbling shed, preventing my plants from thriving in their shade.

“THWACK. THWACK. THWACK.” Out of the ground came tap roots five inches in diameter that denied water to the tender plants I was trying to nurture.

After two hours, his brown skin was slick with sweat, and his soaked pajamas concealed pretty much nothing from the neighbor’s prying eyes. I brought him ice water and strawberries, and he kissed me sweetly. I am sure the neighbors who saw us together, then and later, told themselves a nasty little story, of a middle-aged white lady who hired a Latino gardener to redo her yard and then ended up sleeping with him. Over the next several months, we did little to dispel that rumor, in part because the myth that he was my gardener (and not my boyfriend) helped him get side jobs in the neighborhood, in part because we found the narrative titillating, and mostly because it was none of their fucking business. What actually happened was, I dated a talented man who loved me, and he gave me the most gorgeous yard in the zip code as a symbol of his affection.

When Marcos was done with the pickax that first morning, he pointed at the epic piles of debris and angry roots still protruding from the ground. “The rest is yours,” he commanded. “I’m going back to bed.”

Yes, he could be blunt and patriarchal, and he had some retrograde opinions about gender. But this aging feminist found it hilarious, endearing, and sexy as hell.

Over the next few months, Marcos terraced my front yard and built two patios and paths out of Pennsylvania field stone. He meticulously worked the soil to create flawless drainage and maximize the plants’ growing potential. We worked together to weed and sew. He called the final result “The Garden of Love.”

Every garden is a labor of love, but from the very beginning, my garden was made of it. Some of the plants Marcos chose did not do so well when the winters turned cold again. The neighbors drastically pruned their tree, and a few shade-loving plants withered from exposure. After Marcos returned home to Guatemala, I lamented about how much work (and life) he left me to do alone. But I take comfort that many of the plants we chose together are thriving, some so well that they need to be divided and shared with friends and family. And of course, the stones he laid in the ground will be here forever.

Like our love for each other, like the story itself.

 

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. 😦

brain 4
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.