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.


Simile Like You Mean It!

I have been sick for almost a week now, one of those pernicious viruses that starts with one part of your respiratory tract and doesn’t stop until it has inflamed the whole damn thing. I’m not feeling especially creative, except to convey the misery of this experience. For your amusement, or perhaps just mine, see if you can match the simile to its object!

  1. charles-m.-schulz-frieda
    It’s a clue! And it looks like it was practically drawn from life!

    My voice sounds like          .

  2. My hair looks like          .
  3. I cough like          .
  4. My eyes water uncontrollably like           .
  5. I’m going through tissues like           .
  6. My face is puffy like           .
  7. My throat burns like           .
  8. I’m so tired from coughing all night, I feel like           .
  9. I’m so behind with my grading, when I walk into my classroom, I feel like           .
  • A) a Real Housewife went crazy with fillers and had them injected right into her nose and eyebags.
  • B) Kim Carnes singing “Betty Davis Eyes” after smoking a million cigarettes.
  • C) it was drawn by Charles Schulz in a drunken rage.
  • D) a spring breaker who slept next to the toilet.
  • E) a teenage boy with a Victoria’s Secret catalog, if it were 25 years ago and the boy was straight, also.
  • F) former Speaker Boehner watching old Ronald Reagan speeches.
  • G) a frustrated Canadian goose after three hours of trying to get customer service telephone support from a Comcast robot.
  • H) gonorrhea made a baby with an arsonist.
  • I) the gal who brought Yellow Tail Shiraz to a fancy work party at her boss’s house, and he “set it aside” for “cooking with later” rather than make it available for actual, human consumption. (an actual thing that happened)

On the other hand, I am lucky because:

  • A) I have a job I can do from home while not wearing pants. (Though yesterday I had to teach, and wear pants, and it was awful. Not dying-in-a-mine-cave-in awful, just…really-bad-day awful.)
  • B) I have health insurance.
  • C) I have better things to care about than impressing my gross boss with fancy wine.
  • D) The Dog has been taking excellent care of me.
  • E) I know I will get well. It’s just a bad cold!
  • F) All of the above!

Answer Key: 1-B, 2-C, 3-G, 4-F, 5-E, 6-A, 7-H, 8-G, 9-I


A Lack of Emotional Concern


(ă-nō’sō-dī-ă-fōr’ē-ă), Indifference, real or assumed, to the presence of disease, specifically of paralysis. [G. a- priv. + nosos, disease, + diaphora, difference]

I learned a new word today: anosodiaphoria. It is a medical term, not even in the Oxford English Dictionary, that means “indifference, real or assumed, to the presence of disease, specifically of paralysis.” It was coined by Joseph Babinski, discoverer of the famous Babinski, or plantar, reflex in which scraping the sole of the foot determines spinal cord damage. Babinski first noted anosodiaphoria in 1914 in a few paralyzed patients who were all “meh” about their paralysis. Another, more general definition describes anosodiaphoria as a “lack of emotional concern.” A recent medical paper on the subject is titled “Blissfully Unaware.”

My dad and I took my mom to the doctor today–specifically, to the neurologist to receive the results of her annual memory evaluation, an extensive battery of tests performed last week. It was pretty much unnecessary, given what we know:

  • That her mother died of Alzheimer’s.
  • That her sister had early-onset Alzheimer’s and was robbed of seventeen years of life starting in her late 50s.
  • That my mom gets lost and can’t drive a car and can’t remember why (two accidents).
  • That she has trouble forming new memories.
  • That today she asked us at the breakfast table, as we were leaving, twice in the car, and again in the lobby of the doctor’s office, “Now, what is this for again?”

My mother’s neurologist is a young man of south Asian ancestry with luminous brown eyes and a quiet, fastidious mien. He spoke in soft, measured tones, and his approach to delivering news to patients in layman’s terms was studied, as he though he carefully considered each ten-cent word before he said it. His hipster bowtie was flawless.

After addressing my mom’s mysterious dizziness (I’ll tell you about that some other time), he summarized his colleague’s report. Memory exams are administered by a specialist, and the scientific literature has shown a preference for having the same doctor administer the tests over time, such is their subjective bias. According to the neurologist, the exam showed improvement in some areas, decline in others, and stasis in still more. It struck me that he was building to something, but was remembering back to that day in medical school when they explained how using certain words can cause your patients to shut down. “Cancer” is one of those words. “Alzheimer’s” is another.

Last year, this same neurologist told us my mother had “mild cognitive impairment,” but I knew there was nothing mild about her deficits. He described her condition as a “gray area” between normal and not normal and offered hollow assurances that lots of people find themselves there who do not end up with dementia. Today, he was a little more assertive.

Overall,” he said, “there did seem to be a mild trend of decline.”

Such gentle language: the passive voice of “there did seem” rather than “you have.” The uncertainty introduced by the use of “seem.” It’s not a definitive, yes-or-no thing that has happened like, say, getting impaled by rebar that has fallen off the back of a speeding flatbed. Rather she’s just experiencing a “trend.” A trend is a process, a direction, but not necessarily a destination. The cruelly optimistic implication is that trends can be reversed. Furthermore, hers is a “mild” trend, like warming springtime temperatures or rates of marijuana use by senior citizens.

But the neurologist was just warming us up. My mother’s test results now point to “a mild stage of something more progressive, likely some form of dementia.” Whew. That’s a relief! I thought he was going to sell us car insurance there for a second. Dementia, yes, we’re familiar. My mother recently asked my dad if Jeb Bush was president.

Lest we get hopeful, though, he then offered that this form of dementia was likely not of the vascular type. My mom, who did a fantastic job of following along, interjected and asked for clarity about the form of the disease that she does not have. After explaining how some forms of dementia are due to blockages in the vascular system that nourishes the brain, the neurologist finally reached the crescendo of his plodding andante.

“The change in those domains [that she exhibited in her exams] are more associated with Alzheimer’s.”

Well then.

It was the first time that word had been used by a clinician to describe my mother’s condition–the closest we have gotten to the Dreaded Diagnosis thus far. She took it like the taciturn Midwesterner that she is: stoically, silently. As far as she is concerned, there is nothing more to be said, and nothing more to do.

A few hours later, I asked my dad if I could read the report, which the neurologist had promised was written in “accessible” language. That’s when I learned my new word. And that’s when I realized how random and fragile the art of neurological diagnosis really is.

The report found that my mother’s memory did not decline. Great news! Except that her memory was “poor” last year and remains so, as does her learning function. She did experience decline in language (the ability to come up with the right word on queue) and in executive function (the ability to plan, organize, and conduct a task to completion), which I have often summarized as my mother “falling off a cliff, cognitively speaking.”

She asks sometimes about words–today she mixed up “affluent” and “effusive”–but thankfully her ability to her express herself has not yet been compromised. We have noticed the executive function thing, though. That’s when your mom is supposed to be getting dressed for her Golden Anniversary party, a fancy catered affair attended by fifteen out-of-town guests that was months in the planning and has cost thousands of dollars, and the guests have arrived and are all downstairs waiting, and she disappears into the bathroom for too long, and when you find her, everything in the bathroom closet is on the floor, because she started doing her makeup but went looking for a Q-tip, which she has in her hand, and then she got sidetracked somehow, and now she doesn’t really feel like “going out to dinner” anyway.

Her recent evaluation was neurological but also vaguely psychological, in that the clinician endeavored to understand my mother’s mood. Unfortunately, the test was conducted the day after said Golden Anniversary party weekend, when my mother was still high on being around people she loves for two straight days. She did great! The neurologist reported a “confound of any potential mood changes,” and he smiled adorably when he told us there was no sign of depression.


There was no sign of mood change when my mother raged at me and the front desk lady for no reason on the night of my father’s surgery?

There was no sign of mood change when the anniversary guests were waiting and my mom announced to my dad and me that she didn’t want to go, that she had nothing to wear (she said this while wearing a brand-new, custom-tailored Talbot’s suit purchased specially for the occasion), and that she wished my father was married to someone else so he could take that lady instead?

There was no sign of mood change last night, when my dad and I emptied the kitchen pantry trying to find the dog’s bowls–my mom hides things–and had the audacity to discard her priceless collection of 50 carryout containers and some of the 10,000 cafeteria napkins she’s hoarding, and in response my mom put herself to bed, hilariously fuming, “Fifty years of running my kitchen clearly aren’t good enough for you, so I will never go in there again.” No sign at all?

Not even on Christmas eve, when my mother told me that she thinks about killing herself every day?

Such a relief! And really good to know.

The doctor who did the report also noted that she showed signs of anosodiaphoria related to her condition. My dad and I looked it up together, and we puzzled over its application to my mother’s situation. But on the drive home, I think I figured it out.

My mother can’t remember my name, and someday soon she won’t remember me at all. But so long as she is still herself, she will never, EVER, think that it is ok to disclose the dark thoughts that plague her mind–and certainly not to a doctor, a person in authority, a man. She thinks her dementia is her fault, a terrible, embarrassing failure of her own making. And, while she will admit that it is real, she would rather die than talk about how it makes her feel. Hence whatever it was that she said or did to indicate anosodiaphoria, or “indifference to the presence of disease”: a shrug, a refusal to answer, or perhaps a firm statement like, “It is what it is.”

This isn’t the cheerful acceptance of the green-tea-swilling, yoga-pantsed, meditating Buddhist. No, this is the grim resignation of Ohio farm folk, people who canned their food, darned their socks, and survived barren winters in metal sheds while their babies died of typhus. That’s an actual thing that happened, to my mother’s great-grandmother, but the story’s impact on subsequent generations was profound. There are other stories too–like, the story of how my mother’s grandfather was such a cheap sonofabitch that he wouldn’t let his 40-something year old wife have her baby in a hospital, and he refused to summon a doctor until just before she bled to death. And the half-born baby died of asphyxiation. And my mother’s mother witnessed the whole terrible scene as a girl, and she never told her own daughter, my mom, that she loved her, until the Alzheimer’s devoured the part of her brain responsible for remembering that our people don’t show emotion. Yes, grim resignation is coded in our DNA.

Anosodiaphoria. You could tell, the doctor thought it was curious that my mother doesn’t seem to mind that she is losing her mind. In fact, she’s mad as hell, and since there is no rational place to direct her anger, she takes it out on everyone around her. I feel for her, I really do, at least in the abstract. But in the moment, I often find myself incapable of accessing the empathy, kind words, and genuine emotion I would bestow on literally any other human being in the same situation, up to and including Saddam Hussein.

The reason is because I still can’t quite separate out the fragile old woman my mother is at present from the passive aggressive nightmare she has been all along. As long as I can remember, her default setting is to cast everyone else as her tormentors while she bullies us all into compliance. My whole life, no matter what she said or did, no matter how terrible, I never received a single word of apology from her. And any suggestion that perhaps some elements of my childhood might have gone a little better (or just, you know, my failure to empty the dishwasher in a timely fashion) always resulted in outrageous, sarcastic accusations designed to pathologize any utterance of dissent: “You hate me. You think I’m the worst mother ever. You think I’m a monster.”

It’s a brilliant strategy, actually, because every fight ended with me apologizing. “No, Mommy, I love you, I’m sorry, I love you, I do, I’ll empty the dishwasher right now, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

At present, this tendency manifests as my mother’s refusal to offer any hint of apology when her memory problems inconvenience other people–like, say, when she compulsively threw away a bag containing $70 worth of hearing aid batteries, or she made me late for work when she hid my car key. Instead, she gets angry at us. We don’t respect her, we don’t care about her, we ignore her–when really, our entire lives revolve around her. My sister says I should pretend our mom has the words “I’m sick” written across her forehead. But what I know is true is that she was sick long before she lost her mind, and I am having trouble forgiving her for that.

Still, I rally. I take time off work, I show up, I eat shit for as long as I can stand it, and then I run away, often after saying something I regret. Then I hate myself for being unable to stay perfectly poised in the exact fraction of a moment where my mother lives, with no before or after, no old wounds let alone fresh ones, as though last night’s Great Tupperware Meltdown and the last forty years never happened.

I admit it, I have become hard. I exhibit a lack of emotional concern. I am indifferent to the presence of her disease.

I guess I have secondary anosodiaphoria, if that’s a thing. But none of us is blissfully unaware.


The Knockout


I think I might need anger management.

A good way to tell whether someone knows me–really knows me–is to ask them how I am under stress. A year or so ago, when my department was discussing future leadership, one of my colleagues offered privately that I might make a good chair. Part of his argument was that I am “calm.” When I conveyed this to a friend of mine, he started laughing. Hysterically.

When I was on Tinder, a guy asked me via text, “Are you pretty laid back?” I considered his question over the course of several days, I discussed the merits of various responses with friends on Facebook, I did some research on the subject, and I replied in a lengthy message about conviction, assertiveness, and gendered assumptions about women. I never heard from him again. I should have saved us both some time and replied, “No.”

One of my ex-boyfriends told me I was “high strung.” He paused dramatically, then clarified, “Like an Irish setter.” Sure, he was a one-legged convicted felon who lied to me about his identity for several weeks when we first met, and he was high pretty much 24/7. But he was a good judge of character.

I try to remain calm, and most days I succeed. When I am well-fed, rested, and stress free–or, successfully ignoring the creeping demands on my time–I am pretty chill. The summer is better, because the email tide at work stops rolling in, and I can catch my breath. But if I am honest with myself, I contain my anger because it is in my vested interest to do so. Blood sugar, tiredness, and stress are contributing factors, sure, but the most important variable in whether or not I lose my shit seems to be whether or not I can get away it.

My friends know me to be an intense person, but few of them have actually seen me mad. They have seen me assertive, they have seen me bitchy, but they have never witnessed the fulsome power of my rage. If they had, they would not be my friends anymore, because I have a knack for identifying lines that people never knew they had and crossing them with the cold determination of a Panzer division. I have great capacity for empathy, and I pride myself on being able to understand other people’s perspectives. It’s part of what has made me a successful teacher and scholar, and it affords me some measure of redemption. But in moments of anger, my emotional sensitivity allows me to zero in on what will hurt the other person most. If I know them at all, I can level them. I see it in their passive, broken faces as they endure the onslaught of my words. In that moment, the only thing they hate more than me is themselves. There is no going back from that.

I have had two meltdowns in the last two days. In both cases, I was absolutely justified in feeling anger, if not in how I expressed it. In the first instance, an unleashed, 50-pound dog attacked my 12-pound little sweetheart (who was leashed), grazing her leg with teeth marks that hinted at how close we both came to catastrophe. (I am pretty alone in this world; if there is no dog, there is no me.) The owner, a neighbor with whom I have had some issues–namely, that he hits on me when his wife isn’t around–stopped the attack but then proceeded to slam his own dog to the ground and bash her head into the dirt with both hands. Both the attack on my dog and the man’s attack on his dog were terrifying. I literally ran away. In the second instance, a driver hit my parked car with some force during an aborted attempt to parallel park. Rather than assess the damage and leave a note, she left and parked elsewhere, thinking no one had witnessed the accident.

In both cases, a little voice in my head whispered, “Don’t do this.”

“Don’t open the door to your neighbor’s wife, who is undoubtedly here to apologize and inquire about your dog’s wellbeing.”

“Don’t get out of the car. Don’t follow the other driver.”

I didn’t listen.

Compelled by my rage, I invited both confrontations. My neighbor was so flustered by my obvious hostility when I opened the door that she refused to come into my house. I hectored her on the porch and watched her collapse inside herself as I issued an indictment of her dog, her husband, her marriage, her childrearing, and what I termed her “simpering apology.” I was probably right on every count: Her dog is a menace, because they failed to socialize it properly as a puppy and because her husband is abusive to it. Her husband is a menace, because he gets handsy with female neighbors when she’s not around, and he beat their dog like a savage. Her marriage–well, it seems like she puts up with a lot, and the way she bowed to my rage makes me suspect it’s not the first time someone has cut her off at the knees. And her childrearing–I’m sure she’s a good mother in many important respects. But her behavior during the attack on my dog and her husband’s attack on their dog makes me wonder. The last words I said to her were, “If you think that kind of violence is normal, I fear for your child and I fear for you.” Then I slammed the door in her face.

The young driver who hit my car didn’t know what hit her. She claimed she was going to return to my car, but I am skeptical. Still, Rational Me would like to give people the benefit of the doubt. But this morning, overtired and stressed about being unprepared for an exam just minutes away, I hit her with both barrels when I found her. Irresponsible, incompetent, immature–I don’t remember exactly what I said, but my spontaneous alliteration was positively Sorken-esque. If I were on the receiving end of one of my tirades, I might think, “Wow, I didn’t know people could talk like that in real life.” And then I would burst into tears. She stammered an apology that was profoundly inconvenient to my assessment of her as a person without remorse. I wasn’t having it, and she left in tears.

In both cases, I was shaking and shaken. Then, once the adrenaline dump subsided, I was overcome with shame and regret. When I picture what I must have looked like from the outside–course and loud and raving–I am mortified. That is not the person I want to be. That cannot be the person I am.

But it is.

I accomplished nothing with these confrontations. My neighbor–a woman who might very well be living in an unsafe home–will never again regard me as a decent person, let alone a friend. They will change nothing in how they correct their dog, because I have zero credibility as a person of restraint. If other neighbors hear about my outburst, they will be shocked and appalled. (Just today, an elderly neighbor brought me cookies with a note thanking me for being “the perfect neighbor.” When I think about her witnessing my outburst, it makes me want to die.) In the case of the young woman, I taught her nothing about maturity or accountability, squandering my spot on the moral high ground for a chance to roll around in the mud.

I think there is something wrong with me that I can hurt people this way, yet I manage to hide this terrible skill from most of the people in my life. I would never behave this way to someone who might physically overpower me, or someone who could get me fired, or someone whose love was not assured, or someone who could return my volley with anything approaching equal force. I only do this when I know I can get away with it. And that is a very grim assessment of my worth as a human being.

This doesn’t happen often, especially if I can avoid talking to customer service reps on the phone. It has been years since I really let go on someone in real life. That’s why these back-to-back confrontations have me so rattled. I thought I was doing better, but perhaps I was just stringing mines this whole time, and now I am tangled in the trip wires. I feel ruined, completely defeated, as if recovering from my own devastating knockout blow. I hope I wake up tomorrow feeling better about myself than I do tonight. What’s done is done, and there is no going back. All I can do is work harder in the future to keep it together, to see the other side. Be kind. Be still. Heed that little voice that whispers, “Don’t do this.”

And maybe ask for help.


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


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!


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:

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


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.”