There Is No Pain, You Are Receding

I had a little revelation today, while sitting in traffic at an epically tangled intersection, where construction and driver nit-wittery turned a 7-mile toot into an hour-long odyssey. I realized as I sat, inching forward, what my problem is: I am terribly lonely.

The world’s longest traffic jam took place in China and lasted 12 days!

It is not for lack of friends or human contact, though I could do better on both counts. It’s that there is no one in this world who knows my whole life, or at least as much of a person’s life as can be known. The solitary nature of my work, my social awkwardness, strained relations within my family, having wonderful friendships with individuals but not being part of a friend-group, even the difficulty of navigating the city I live in–for all of these reasons and probably others, most of my life is lived silently…unobserved and unasked after. And, well, when a tree falls in a forest…

Sometimes I wonder if I even exist.

Social media adds another layer of complexity to this vanilla slice of dysfunction cake. Like all of us, I have many online personas. Each of them is simultaneously true and also a thundering lie–but only a lie of omission.

On Instagram, I am relentlessly optimistic, taking pleasure in my dog and the small beauties I encounter on our walks together. That is where I “practice”gratitude and mindfulness, and boy, does it sometimes feel like work!

On Snapchat, which I only do with my teenage niece, I am goofy as fuck. I had no idea I would love looking at myself with dog ears so much, or that sending 4-second movies as a maniacal squirrel could be so fun!

Facebook offers perhaps the greatest insight into my life, but only if you consider the silences. Most of my Facebook “friends” are acquaintances who cannot see anything beyond the basics. I try to remain hidden from the public (especially my students), and I routinely ignore or delete friend requests without a second thought. My own sister unfriended me almost two years ago, and we pretend not to belong to the same family on Facebook. Yet we coordinate via email who will accompany my parents to the next parental doctor appointment or share information about our mother’s newest cognitive deficit. It’s weird (but her choice). Due to my family’s predilection for gossip and judgement, just last month I had to wall off my parents, brother-in-law, and some family friends from seeing anything except photos of my dog. As a grown-ass woman, I just couldn’t take another stern lecture from my father about “how I use Facebook.” They probably haven’t even noticed. As for my “close friends,” they read acerbic observations about teaching or politics or my own foibles–nothing of import, nothing worth remembering. I used to whitewash my Facebook wall–delete literally everything in my newsfeed–but I stopped after a friend died a year ago. I realized that I might someday want to read those silly exchanges again, after my friends stop being my friends, after I stop being me.

R.E.M. used the collective loneliness of the traffic jam to great effect in the video for “Everybody Hurts.”

This blog offers yet another perspective on my life. Here, I think, we see process more than results. These essays are the literal act of remembering, but they are also effort and strain, grasping and sputtering. Through writing, I search for meaning, understanding, and hope–not from you, but within me. With each shared reflection, I grope the darkness for a way forward, or at least a switch to turn on the light. If I could just get some clarity, I could finally find the exit!

I have friends IRL too. My longest friendship dates to 7th grade. Thanks to Facebook–truly, thank you, Facebook!–I have reconnected with a few friends from high school that I see every now and then. For some reason, I am not connected with anyone from college, which I approached with an “I’m not here to make friends” work ethic–and I didn’t. Well done! But since I endured a sea change during graduate school, I have invested mightily in friendships, and I have five close friends who date from 1999-2000. There are other friendships, forged through work connections, that also mean the world to me. And there is J*, to whom Tinder owes its redemption. All of these people–wonderful people–are my friends, and I love them, and I would wrestle alligators for them. But I wonder sometimes whether the feeling is mutual, and also whether they really know me. Even J*, who has seen me naked in every respect, has never witnessed me laughing with people who love me. And the people who love me and make me laugh, well, there are dark corners J* has wandered into that I will never show them.

We are probably all unknowable to some degree, so these musings and frustrations aren’t particular to me or even to singletons. But I look at my friend L*, who is planning her wedding and future with a man she loves, who loves her back. And I think, “That must be nice, to be someone’s priority. To have someone who wants to know as much of you as can be known. To have everyone who loves you meet one afternoon under the same tent to share their collective hope for you. Because they all know you, the one and only you, the person that you are.” I don’t begrudge her a second of this happiness, because she well and truly deserves it. But it makes me wistful just the same.

Of course, I thought of all of this today, while I was stuck for 20 minutes at a single intersection, inching forward but going nowhere, besieged by panhandlers and post-brunch ennui, with Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” on autorepeat the whole time. That could fuck with anyone’s head. So, you know… take it with a grain of salt.




The Professor Gets an A…For the Class!

Today I finished my first undergraduate class in twenty years, and I got an A. For the nursing prerequisites, that’s one down, six to go!

I also started doing HESI practice tests this week. (The HESI is a standardized test I will have to take to prove that I can do well on standardized tests.) Thus far, my difficulty on the HESI was not with math and not even with anatomy–turns out, I know more than I thought. Being a middle-aged hypochondriac pays off!

The problem I had with the HESI was the reading comprehension. DOH!

Just a reminder, I am a tenured associate professor at a large public university teaching in the humanities. It is literally my job to read books and interpret them for other people. But, according to the HESI folks, I have trouble understanding a 300-word essay about Cesar Chavez. It seems that my challenge will be learning “HESI-speak,” because I found both the essays and the questions pretty poorly written.

Whatever. I got an A!

After the final, I went to breakfast with some of my classmates. Turns out, undergraduates are nice people that I like hanging out with–if they’re not my students!

Psych 101

The class I am currently taking is Human Development, a 200-level survey offered in a compressed, eight-week format by my local community college. I took the prerequisite, the standard Psych 101, twenty-five years ago. I was nervous then, too.

I was an achiever, of sorts, in high school, though a recent peek at my old transcripts didn’t show as many A’s as I would have thought. Now, having had a long career as a professional educator, my “independent” assessment is that I was an unusually smart kid–freakishly smart with language–who was bored by high school and intellectually ready for the next step. I was also pragmatic and lazy. I had not exhausted my options for Advanced Placement courses, because I recognized that their curricula and the exam format itself were harder than college classes. Why suffer through AP English when I could take an actual college Lit class that would ask less of me? Of course, I used the opposite argument, that college courses would pose more of a challenge, when I pitched this to my parents. They were able to absorb the cost, so somehow it got decided: I would finish out my senior year by splitting time between high school and the local university where my father worked.

I have fond memories of this time, because it enabled me to do something I love: disappear. (I have perhaps become too good at it, because some days I scarcely exist at all.) In the mornings, I would ride to the university with my father, who would hum the theme to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” every time he accelerated onto the freeway. I was usually still putting on shoes and make-up, as I was never quite ready for our 7:15 AM departure. He would drop me off for my 8 AM class, then park and go to work. If I needed the car after school, I would retrieve it from the staff lot, and he would take the bus home at the end of the day. (I have a very kind dad.) But on most days, I would take the city bus back to the suburbs after class, arriving at school during lunch. The campus bus stop was in front of a McDonald’s, where I stopped virtually every class day, wolfing down a Sausage McMuffin with Egg, hash browns, a cheese danish, and coffee in the fifteen-minute gap. The university was on the quarter system, so I was doing this probably four days a week. Did I mention I got really fat my senior year of high school? Then I would ride the bus home, get off in the little town square, and leisurely make my way back to prison high school for the balance of the day. The spring of that year, I took Psych 101 in the morning at the university, then had typing, choir, and something called “Political Radicalism”–which involved a series of politically amped guest speakers invited by our marijuana-fogged teacher–in the afternoon. It was not a particularly challenging schedule, is what I am saying.

I remember very little of those first college courses. There was a lit class in the fall, which I remember because the instructor was irritated that I asked for dispensation from a pop quiz for a daytime performance of “The Diary of Anne Frank” at my high school. (I was Mrs. van Daan.) I distinctly remember thinking he gave a quiz just to punish me, because he seemed bothered that one of his better students was not yet a high school graduate. I took Pysch 101 in the spring, and I remember almost nothing of what I learned. But I do recall that we had to participate in experiments, as Psych 101 undergraduates everywhere are required to do. (Has the discipline of Psychology ever interrogated the merits of producing knowledge of the human psyche based primarily on study of binge-drinking late-adolescents with the resources to go to college?)

These experiments–or rather, the direct contact I had with my classmates–was a source of some anxiety. I could sit in lecture anonymously, but in those experiments my cover as a high school kid was blown. “I hope no one finds out,” I remember thinking–that I was young, but also that I was smart. I was starting to realize that my intellect–skill with a turn of phrase, but actually very little else–could cause other people to doubt themselves and create barriers in my relationships. This has been a perennial problem, right up through this week. Know that “Indira Gandhi was the first prime minister of India” in Trivial Pursuit at a keg party? Get made fun of for the rest of the summer! Use the word “ambulatory” to describe the victim of a house fire? Get labeled as the Pretentious Neighbor! Make a joke about “The Picture of Dorian Gray?” Watch your date’s interest wane when you’re unable to calibrate an appropriately kind, it’s-so-dumb-that-I-know-this response to the perfectly valid question, “Who is Oscar Wilde?”

“Maybe you use language as a shield,” you’re thinking, “to create distance so that you don’t have to connect with other people.” That is a great insight! Have you taken Psych 101? As true as that might be, it is also true that I can’t help the way I talk–articulate, forceful, with a “you will listen to me” presence and an “Inherit the Wind”-like intensity that is strikingly out of place in arguments over where to eat for dinner. I try to hide it, I really do, but it just comes out, exposing me as a person not just with education, but with mastery over language. Not communication, mind you. Just language.

And now here I am. The precocious high school student pretending to be a confused undergraduate has evolved into a disaffected college professor pretending to be the average adult learner. My dusty, decades old Psych 101 prerequisite was enough to get me into this next-level class, where I am still the stranger, the fish out of water, the imposter pretending to be something I am not and desperately hoping not to be found out.

“You don’t belong here” is the song of my life.