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 Lost Hour

In less than an hour, it will be two hours from now–such is the wonder of Daylight Savings.

We will all wake up groggy and cranky in the morning. Those who use their cell phones as alarms, or who remembered to advance their old-school clocks, will awake on time but poorer for the loss of an hour’s sleep. Those who forgot about the time change will awake refreshed, but irritated as shit that they are late for brunch or church or Sunday Funday. The academics will simply go to work.

For all us college folk, Sunday is a work day, because there is school the next day. And for thousands of us, this particular Sunday marks not just the end of the weekend, but the end of spring break… also known as, The Last Time I Will Feel Rested Until May.

On my spring “break,” I worked every single day. The break part involved some long walks with the dog and a friend, but that was it–no dinners out, no drinking, no shopping, no gardening, no travel, nothing but work and a little laundry. For all of that deprivation, I have almost nothing to show. My kitchen is clean, I have clean underwear, and the checkbook is balanced. But the taxes remain undone, the basement still reeks of mold, and the floors need to be shaved, there’s so much dog hair floating about. And I barely penetrated The List–the epic list that all academics maintain of projects that must be managed, papers that must be graded, knowledge that must be produced.

Forty minutes left.

For a blog that is supposed to help me work out whether I want to continue in my current profession, it has not escaped my notice that I hardly ever write about my job. My feelings are too complex, and the task of untangling it feels too onerous. It’s just easier to focus on bad dates and old wounds.

Thirty minutes left.

Here is my to-do list:

  • Grade 41 undergraduate essays 3-5 pages in length.
  • Grade 9 graduate book reviews, 3-5 pages in length.
  • Offer 14 graduate students feedback on their research projects.
  • Read and offer feedback on a doctoral dissertation.
  • Read and offer feedback on a doctoral dissertation proposal.
  • Prep lecture notes for two courses.
  • Revise a syllabus for which I am hopelessly behind.
  • Calculate midterm grades for 20 undergraduates and upload them. Write an evaluation of a learning disabled student.
  • Send three thoughtful emails to job candidates about their interviews.
  • Write an apologetic, but not too apologetic, email to a bunch of scholars who are really mad at me for dropping the ball on a shared project.
  • Answer a bunch of emails and do a bunch of paperwork related to my administrative job.
  • Figure out if I want to resign from my administrative job.

Twenty-five minutes left.

These are the tasks I have to do by Monday. And they do not include the writing–two 7,000-character essays and a chapter-length essay–that are months over due. I told myself that I could not return from spring break without completing them, because I would never find the time until the summer. They were to be my highest priority. I haven’t even started.

And when I say I haven’t even started, I mean, I haven’t even started researching them.

Why am I so behind at my work? What do I do all day? Where does the time go?

I can tell you where it went this week, and every week. It went towards administrative responsibilities. Most people don’t understand how universities function, that they run off of the invisible, uncompensated labor of faculty (and staff) who are leveraged to perform this work through a variety of means that never seem to involve money: there’s guilt, that students will be harmed; the promise of tenure/threat of being fired; and the unwillingness to let friends and colleagues suffer as a result of one’s own recalcitrance. Most of us put our heads down and forge ahead.

Twenty minutes.

I joke that my administrative job is 10 percent of my salary but 50 percent of my time. It’s a terrible joke, because it’s true, and because I can’t pay my mortgage with terrible jokes. I was told that this job would involve “the least amount of work you can do and still call yourself an administrator.” That would have been true if I were constitutionally capable of doing a shitty job, if I had no belief in the integrity of my university or the sanctity of education, and if I constantly overlooked glaring problems of inefficiency and rank incompetence. But I’m not, and I didn’t, and I can’t. Someday I will write a post about the absurdities I’ve encountered in this job… like…

…the professor who told an applicant she was a shoo-in for admission to a graduate program she wasn’t remotely qualified to enter. And then the professor mishandled issuing the denial of admission. And then the applicant went bonkers. Bonkers. As in, 2,000-word emails in the middle of the night, “I’m being persecuted like Martin Luther King,” “You need to be punished,” BONKERS. That mess took six months to clean up.

Nine minutes left.

At a university, they call this kind of work “service,” and it accounts for 20 percent of our performance evaluations. The  problem, of course, is that teaching accounts for 40 percent of our performance evaluations, and research activity accounts for about 80 percent. Granted, I’m in the humanities, but…I think there’s a problem with the math. So I grind out the service during the school year, I give my students the best of what’s left over, and I make up the scholarship (research, writing, publishing, presenting at conferences) on spring break and over the summer. I have taken perhaps a week off from work altogether–as in, seven days without doing so much as an email–in the last five years.

In two minutes it will be daylight savings time. The clock on this laptop will spring forward to three AM. And I will be one hour further behind.




The Perfect Day


I don’t like this time of year, what with its relentless focus on endings and beginnings, its ruthless celebration of children and families, and its vicious indulgence in nostalgia. Not to mention, you’re a loser if you don’t have a date.

It isn’t all bad. There is my friend who makes care packages for homeless people–600 this year! There is the holiday concert at my niece’s school, replete with happy kids so excited about their clarinets and alto solos. There is the t-shirt I got with my dog’s name on it, perhaps the greatest article of clothing ever gifted to me. There are the holiday lights that help to blot out the inky darkness, which seems to begin around lunchtime. There is a lot of candy.

No, it isn’t all bad. Just…most of it.

I haven’t always felt this way. Most years, I decorate the house inside and out. I practice Christmas carols at the piano. I send out a funny Christmas letter to connect with old friends. I volunteer. I try.

This year, I haven’t even switched out the fall wreath for the winter one. (Yes, I am That Lady, who has artificial wreaths for every season.)

Last year, in fact, I had a perfect day, just a few days before Christmas. I am starting to think it might have been the best day of my life, and as I ruminate on it, I wonder: Will I ever have a day like that again?

It was fall graduation, and a young woman whom I had mentored through personal, legal, and financial problems was finally graduating with her Bachelor’s degree after several years of struggle. Seeing her walk across the stage when her name was called–that was perhaps my finest achievement as a teacher. Later that same afternoon, I hooded my first two doctoral students, also an incredibly satisfying moment.

That day, I never looked better. My skin was clear. I was down almost ten pounds. I was wearing a fetching black dress and heels with fancy fishnet stockings–a rare sartorial success for me. Over that, I was sporting my brand-new academic regalia, purchased in collaboration with my parents (multiple years’ worth of Christmas presents) to celebrate finally achieving tenure. My hair looked great, all straight and shiny beneath my tam, which I perched at a cheeky angle. I was beaming as I walked across campus. I took a selfie, and I actually had someone to send it to.

On the drive home, J* suggested I come to his place, and he would make me dinner. That felt wonderful–a place to go, and a handsome man to greet me warmly when I got there. He told me my body looked great in that dress, and I gently laughed it off as though I heard compliments like that all the time. We snuggled into the couch to watch a documentary, basking in the twinkling white lights of the Christmas tree. Then he had to meet some people, and I went home to walk the dog and go to bed. Not a perfect ending to most people’s perfect day, but it was good enough for me.

Perfect, actually. I felt at home in my own skin, I felt successful professionally, and I felt loved. I even had the grace to realize, as it was unfolding, how special it was, and I was so grateful.

It all started to unravel about a week later, and the unravelling has accelerated with each passing month, until here we are in December 2015, and there is almost nothing left.

I’ve gained weight. My hormones are a mess, so I get to enjoy my first serious bout of acne in middle age. I cut my hair, and it looks terrible most days. I haven’t worn the dress or stockings since that day, and the shoes are going south due to neglect and misuse. (Speaking as a former shoe-care professional, suede is a bad investment.) I didn’t attend fall graduation this year, and I’m certain I wasn’t missed. J* is long gone, and there is no one new on the horizon. I won’t even get started on the mess that is my family. It was a mess last year, too, but I had people outside my family for whom I was a priority, so that made it seem not so bad.

This year, it’s just me. Me and the dog, and the fall wreath, and a long, long night.

First-Date Friday: Harry Psychologist

My fourth Tinder date was Harry Psychologist who was, ahem, a hairy psychologist.

This date went into the spreadsheet (yes, there is a spreadsheet of all my online dates, because they are numerous and my memory is terrible) as “Big Fizzle.” But in reality, if you have a fear of intimacy, then it was perfect: you meet up with an actual human man, the two of you reach an amicable consensus that you’re not a match, which spares everyone the drama and suspense of unrequited interest, you bask in your friends’ sympathy and admiration when you call from the car on the ride home to report that you’ve just completed another unsuccessful Tinder date and did not get murdered, then you revel in a confounding, conflicting wave of relief that it didn’t work out but also self-satisfaction that you’re not actually trying to remain single, and finally, you nestle into bed for the night with the dog and a bowl of potato chips bigger than your head. At seven p.m.

Win, win, win!

This date also yielded a very Practical Tip for would-be suitors: Do Your Research.

The hardest part of online dating is setting the actual meet, which is no mean feat in a large metro area when the party of the first lives twenty miles from where she works and, usually in the opposite direction, twenty miles from the party of the second. Even so, I am often reluctant to be assertive, because I have found that the cocktail of assertiveness, intellect, and PhD credential is a guaranteed boner killer. So I tend to be pretty chill about The Plan. In this case, I demurely allowed Harry to choose the setting. He graciously suggested he come to my side of town, but I guess he also felt like he had something to prove, because he kept making sweeping assurances that he “knew the area.” He declined all suggestions or offers of assistance in choosing a place to meet for coffee.

We did meet in a coffee place, in the sense that they sold coffee. In beans. By the bushel. And they had no seating.

We took our “samples” out to a park bench near the water, which was a good save. As Harry and I discovered the nothing we had in common, I took note of his piercing blue eyes (gorgeous, actually), the doughy physique he had skillfully managed to hide in his profile pictures, and a LOT of body hair. I got a good view, because, like my previous online date, he was wearing a diaphanous white shirt–you know, the kind you wear when you ride a horse bareback through a meadow. It’s a hard look to pull off if you’re not posing for the cover of a 1980s romance novel, is all I’m saying.

Harry was a psychologist who treated people recovering from addiction or serious mental illness. But he worked for a private firm that provided round-the-clock, in-home support for very wealthy people. I can be pretty judgey about wealth, so I kept reminding myself as he talked that sick people deserve the best care they can get. But I was uncomfortable with his degree of comfort with a system that rations healthcare to people based not on how ill they are, but on how much they can pay. He no doubt sensed my ambivalence.

After about an hour, I made the usual excuses, and we walked to our cars. Harry was parked across the street from me and made a beeline for his ride. No hug, no awkward assessment of the encounter, just a mutual desire to return to our own lives in disappointment–or relief.

The dog, the chips, and a half-dozen online episodes of good-bad TV–it’s just like taking a nap in a snowbank when you’re already hypothermic: warm…cozy…lethal.


First-Date Friday: Col. Asshole

Ed. Note: I will be dedicating Fridays to my online dating experiences. This won’t lighten things up, so much as inject a little schadenfreude. Enjoy!

I started online dating in the summer of 2014. I had tried it twice before, with terrible results. First was an E-Harmony profile. Within seconds of it going live, an actual male human contacted me through the site. In terror, I slammed my laptop closed, thinking maybe he could see me. I promptly deleted my profile. Sometime later, I set up a profile that lasted about a week. There was one guy to whom I gave my phone number, but with the caveat that I was on a deadline and couldn’t talk until the weekend. He called within 30 seconds, left a voicemail, and I never called him back. I rationalized that it was because he couldn’t follow directions, but in truth, I was terrified. There was also a guy who emailed me through the site to ask why I didn’t want children. His tone was blank and hostile, and I resented his entitlement. “Why don’t you want children?” is an enormous question for which there is seldom a simple answer. And I hadn’t even explained it to myself yet. I shut down my profile immediately and cancelled my subscription shortly thereafter.

Last summer, I got my first-ever smart phone. (a late adopter, yes) My friend Meagan was visiting and puckishly put me on Tinder. Swipe left, swipe right. It is addictive.

My first-ever online date was with a guy we’ll call “Col. Asshole.” I can’t remember his name, and I even put him in the Spreadsheet (yes, I have been on so many first dates that I created a spreadsheet to remember them) as such.

I knew very little about him going into the date, but he had a dry sense of humor that made me laugh, which is rare. We met at a coffee shop. He was blonde, clean cut, very fit, and about my height (5’8″), though he claimed a few extra inches. (This will be a common theme.)

It was clear within the first few minutes that I absolutely hated him, but I also found him kind of fascinating. Basically, Col. Asshole was the dating equivalent of sticking your finger in your navel, discovering a really foul odor, and then continuing to do it out of rank fascination with your own disgustingnessdownload. We talked for over an hour, partly because I wanted to hear his world view, partly because I wasn’t really sure how much of my time I owed him.

He claimed to be the “head” of Marine Corps Intelligence. I never verified if this was true. (He was definitely a Marine; you can’t fake that shit.) I can say with certainty that if he had told me what he did for a living, I never would have gone out with him. And he had ample opportunity to tell me, so I suspect that he concealed his occupation in full awareness that it might be an impediment to getting laid. That’s ok; I usually hide the fact that I’m a professor from potential suitors as well.

That he was a Marine wasn’t the problem. It was that he was ideologically bankrupt. He was a soldier in the global war on terror, and yet he clearly had no firm belief in the necessity or efficacy of the project of combating Islamic extremism. He didn’t even have much belief in the Marine Corps or the United States. A true believer would have been conventional and frustrating, but reassuring. A climbing, calculating automaton–I couldn’t deal. I realized right then that I can’t be attracted to men who aren’t, in some small way, dedicated to the process of making a better world. Or, if they aren’t making the world affirmatively better, then at least they can’t be profiting from making it worse.

Col. Asshole was pretty smart, and he knew what I did for a living, so I half think he trolled me on the date. For example, having established that I prized living in my ethnically and economically mixed neighborhood, I asked why he chose to live in his neighborhood. “I love yuppies,” was his quick reply. (If he was trolling me, well done him!)

He had also told me he had a Master’s degree in the humanities, so going into the date I thought perhaps he was a sensitive type. Nope! He got an online interdisciplinary degree that required no in-person contact with faculty, and he did his thesis on Evelyn Waugh solely because “it was conceptually easy.” WHUT? The degree itself was just a credential to rise in rank; there were no medals for intellectual curiosity, creative expression, or self-improvement on this Marine’s chest. He told me he saw no value in graduate education or why it required brick-and-mortar classrooms or in-person instruction, knowing full well that I am a professor at a university who runs a graduate program. It was almost as though he sensed that I saw no reason why we had a Marine Corps, because it’s redundant to the other services! We could not have hated each other more.

After a long discussion of US foreign policy–which revealed him to be as paranoid as every other member of the intelligence community I have ever met–I thanked Col. Asshole for his time and left.

I know the perils of meeting people online, how you can craft a false identity for them to accord with your own desires. (Let me tell you about Afghanistan Man sometime!) Driving home, I realized that I had done exactly that–taken the ephemera he provided me (photos, a few biographical details, some dry wit) and molded them into a man I wanted to meet, but who could not have been further from the man he was. I decided right then that I was deleting Tinder and never online dating again. But I didn’t, because Tinder has an insidious way of capitalizing on the drug of hope and catering to the gambler in all of us: “Maybe THIS is the guy.” Swipe right. “It will be the next one.” Swipe right. “Just one more.”

That night, I texted warmly with another match. His name was J*.

We had our first date the next day…