Today, I am thankful for anal sphincters. As we learned in my Anatomy & Physiology class this week, we all have two of them–an internal and an external–and relaxation of both is [usually] required for defecation. The internal anal sphincter is made of smooth muscle and relaxes involuntarily in response to signals from the parasympathetic nervous system. Even if your brain decides it’s time to poop, you won’t until you consciously relax the skeletal muscle of the external anal sphincter. Since potty training, we’ve all relied on this two-step method to keep us tidy. And boy, do we take it for granted!
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has this bit about a toothache, how when you have a toothache, happiness = not having a toothache. But during all the other moments in our lives, when we do not have a toothache, do we equate this state with happiness?
At 5 AM this morning, I came to appreciate Hanh’s wisdom in a new way, when I awoke with tremendous intestinal distress. I never realized the beauty of those little sphincters and the happiness I enjoy when everything works flawlessly. What a flood they can contain!
Until they can’t.
This morning I shit my own bed. Just a little, but still. It was awful and humiliating and just a fraction of the malevolence my body experienced in the grip of this…food poisoning, norovirus, or whatever. I will never take those sphincters for granted again.
I ended up spending Thanksgiving Day in bed with my dog. It made me sad, watching friends post photos of Turkey Trots and get-togethers on Facebook. I was supposed to be at my sister’s house, where the presence of her fun in-laws would have provided a buffer for our usual family nonsense. And I wanted to hang with my niece, who has finally become a consistent and loving part of my life now that she’s old enough for me to communicate with directly. I eat all but a handful of meals alone every month, and I was really looking forward to a collective dinner experience. Plus I’m a shit cook, so I was psyched about eating a really great meal.
Instead, my “Thanksgiving dinner” was an egg and some applesauce when I finally felt like I could keep something down. Or rather…in.
In some ways, though, I am grateful for the intestinal intervention. My sister terrifies me, and it was a virtual certainty that I would do or say, or not do or not say, something that would incur her wrath–if not now, then passive aggressively months in the future. I was nervous about the day going well, which probably did not help my digestion–or the terrible food choices I made yesterday, when I was stress eating. This GI situation was a blessing in disguise.
A very, very clever toilet-paper disguise.
I am acutely aware that, even with poop on my sheets, this year’s Thanksgiving was better than last year’s. Last year, in the middle of dinner, my nephew made a fat joke at my expense. His comment hurt less than the fact that it was met with stony silence from the four adults–his parents and my parents–who also heard it. Not one of them stood up for me or took him to task in any way. There was just a slight pause, then everyone went back to eating. When I consider how my sister and I were reared, and the emphasis our parents placed on manners and deference to adults, their silence was shocking. Essentially, the message delivered to my nephew that day was, “Even though you are a child, you are not obliged to respect your aunt. Say whatever cruel things you want, we don’t care. She does not have our respect, and she doesn’t merit yours.”
It was humiliating. More humiliating, even, than being sick and getting poop on my sheets and having no one to help me clean it up.
So, this Thanksgiving will not go down as the worst in my life, because there is more to holidays than dress-up clothes and savory dishes and white linen tablecloths.
Just like there is more to dignity than successfully containing your poop. Not much more, but more: I took care of myself, I took care of my dog, and I didn’t hurt anyone. I did the best I could in a shitty (!) situation, just like those little sphincters. We’ll bounce back, all of us, and contain the flood another day.
I was so worried about the possible return of my dad’s melanoma (biopsy result: negative) that I never saw it coming: the routine, outpatient cataract surgery.
It’s never good when your sister calls, and the first thing she says is, “Dad is still alive.” Because if that’s the metric by which you’re measuring good news, then the news is gonna suck.
My dad is a cardiac patient–never had a heart attack, but his brother has had two. My dad takes a blood thinner, blood pressure medication, and a statin for cholesterol. I learned recently that he walks around with nitroglycerin pills. A doctor I went on a first-date with described my dad’s complex of pathologies as a “ticking time bomb.”
The bomb didn’t go off, but it did start hissing and steaming right on the operating table. My dad’s BP spiked partway through the procedure, and a blood vessel burst in the back of his eye, forcing the eyeball forward and causing a bunch of delicate tissues to shift and collapse. The surgeon did something, and then he did something else, and then he had to snip some teeny ligament and stitch his eyelid closed. I can’t quite recall all the details. They packed the eye with gauze and put a big clear plastic bandage over it, like a window, so you can see the swelling and bruising peeking out behind the gauze. As I rushed to the hospital (I was on second shift, supposed to spend the night with my parents and drive them to the routine followup appointment tomorrow), I texted my sister to see if she’d seen him and find out how he looked.
“Like hell,” was her answer. She was not exaggerating.
They admitted him, and he slept most of the day. While he was sleeping, my sister mentioned that she thought no one had actually told him his prognosis. She had been there since 6:30 AM, so she left after about 13 hours, and I did the late shift with my mom. She had a million questions, and every time we told her, it was emotionally wrenching because the Alzheimer’s wiped her memory clean every goddam time.
And then my dad finally woke up, and I fed him grapes and jello, and he started asking questions too.
Today I had to tell my father that he is very likely blind in one eye and may never drive a car again. I only had to tell him once. I must have told my mom 20 times.
This is my new baseline for a shitty day, I think.
J* told me once that hospitals are full of families who never thought they would be there when they woke up that morning. Today that family was us. I am grateful my dad is cognitively ok, that he did not have a heart attack or stroke, and that he still has one good eye. That is not the standard by which I originally planned to measure this day, but I suppose it’s good enough going forward.
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.
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!
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!
My voice sounds like .
My hair looks like .
I cough like .
My eyes water uncontrollably like .
I’m going through tissues like .
My face is puffy like .
My throat burns like .
I’m so tired from coughing all night, I feel like .
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.
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.
I haven’t posted in over a week, in part because I have been SUPER busy, with work, more work, and school, including two Anatomy & Physiology exams (lecture and a lab practicum) in the same week. It turns out, one cannot master the entire muscular system in a single study session that begins at 4:30 AM. I still don’t know my extensor hallucis brevis from a hole in the leg*, but I knew enough to eke out a B on the test. I am proud of that.
I am also proud to have been featured as an editor’s pick on WordPress Discover, which indeed resulted in many new readers discovering this blog. Your visits have been duly noted, your follows are most welcome, and your feedback has been truly humbling. Thank you for joining me here. 🙂
As a college professor in the humanities, my job requires constant creative output, yet at the same time scholars maintain an icy nonchalance about their work. It is considered gauche to crave public attention, and we are not supposed to need positive feedback (let alone compensation) for most of what we produce. Indeed, I have published an entire book, into which I poured my heart and soul, and it generated less attention in several years than this blog has gotten in a single week. (Unfortunately, I can’t tell you about my book, because I have to write this blog anonymously, lest I incur the enmity of my peers. Academia is a little like a cult and a lot like a gang. If I get jumped out, I want it to be my choice!) According to the culture of academia, I should be nonplussed by your interest in my writing. But I’m not! I appreciate and value your visits to this space and the time you have taken to read my words. And the kind words you have written about me, my family’s situation, and my writing have lifted my spirits like a warm spring day. I am grateful.
On the other hand, positive feedback is a little scary, especially in this format. My new audience of readers is free to come and go at will, unfettered by the hassle of climbing over other people to make their escape from the theater. There is no post-purchase regret to guilt you into reading through to the end, nor is there a teacher demanding a cogent analysis of the contents. If I don’t entertain you, you’ll drop me like a dull elective class. And I will watch the bar graphs that track my views diminish like a glass being drained from the bottom. Hence, the other reason I haven’t written recently: I don’t want to disappoint my new readers.
I’ve thought it over, though, and I’ve decided, “Screw that.” The project of the blog remains: This is a space for me to figure stuff out. Hard stuff, like:
If I do flee from academia, like a rebel pilot fleeing the exploding Death Star, where do I land? What do I do for a living? How do I finally get a dishwasher for my kitchen?
If I stay in academia, how do I make teaching and research meaningful again?
In my personal life, how do I nurture my family through my parents’ final years?
How do I meet a nice man who wants to have adult wrestling time in addition to, not instead of, taking me to dinner?
If my life stories are so interesting to other people, why am I so bored?
And, most urgently, what will make me happy?
If I wrote this blog like I’ve lived much of my life, I would remain paralyzed by indecision over what would irritate a bunch of strangers least. Or, as I put it in a plaintive Facebook post during a low ebblast year, ” ‘I don’t want to let you down’ has been the operating principle of my life, but I’ve never actually said it to myself.”
I am going to keep writing. And I am going to keep writing for me, because that’s all I know how to do. I can promise honesty. I can promise stories. They won’t always be interesting, but they will be interesting often enough. That’s just how life is.
Though, my mother used to say that my life is like “The Perils of Pauline”–a cliffhanger at every turn. My dad used to say I was a shit magnet. In fact, he said it again last night.Sigh.
As I look back on the last 30 or so years, I do seem to have had a lot of drama.
That’s ok! I don’t mind being compared to Pauline. Whether you’re talking about the original 1914 silent serials, the 1933 serial remakes, or the 1947 film that charmed my mother as a little girl, Pauline is always a plucky, adventurous single woman whose dire straits are the natural consequence of trying to lead an interesting life. She survives dangling from a hot air balloon, being tied up in a burning house, being tied to railroad tracks, and hanging from a cliff–always just long enough for her beau to rescue her.
I can relate, except for that last part. I am usually the one who gets me into trouble, but I am always the one who gets me out. This blog, like the undergraduate courses I’ve been taking, is the present manifestation of that process: a bobby pin to pick the lock, if you will, or a shard of glass to cut the rope. That buzzsaw has gotten awfully close, and it may yet cause me a few split ends, but I am getting out of this sawmill one way or another!
Because I don’t want to let me down.
* Speaking of a hole in the leg, remind me to tell you about my one-legged criminal boyfriend sometime. He was (and looked) so much older than me that he pretended to have lost his leg in Vietnam! In fact, his best friend shot him on a drunken hunting trip. It strained their relationship, sure, but they were good by the time I met them. In fact, my boyfriend was impersonating the best friend–something about arrest warrants–when we met. The one-legged criminal was the first of two men I have dated who claimed to be someone else. Like I said, stories…
We were just two friends having a friendly drink at the bar. At the time, I did not understand what was happening: I was with a man looking to cheat on his wife.
We met at a conference a few weeks prior. I was in my third year on the tenure track and still in that hopeful, terrified stage of a young academic’s career. A dear colleague of mine was very ill. He was a mentor, a kind and encouraging dad-like presence at my job, who also happened to be nationally known in our profession. We knew he was in the hospital, and we were on tenterhooks awaiting word. His prognosis was not good, and yet we were hopeful. No matter how cynical, how cerebral we are, hope stirs us. But often we only realize its supreme presence in our lives when it is finally gone.
I was in the airport waiting to board a flight to a conference when I got the email. My colleague was dead. I was sick at heart and considered hopping in a cab and going home. But then I thought about what he would want for me, about how much he believed in me, and how foolish he would regard any maudlin displays of grief. I got on the plane.
This was one of those conferences that’s by invitation only, there were fancy people there, and it was all paid for–a real boon to the CV for a junior scholar trying to make her name. When my flight landed, there was a guy with a sign with my name on it waiting for me, just like in the movies. We were ferried around like that for a couple of days, staying in a nice hotel, then being driven to various sites for tours and talks and dinners. It was, professionally speaking, a Big Deal.
Unfortunately, I was not in quite the right frame of mind to capitalize on the opportunity, which began with cocktails and dinner in an upscale steakhouse, the kind whose bar is filled with leather chairs with brass studs and oil paintings of cowboys. I am shy and introverted by nature, so a party at which I don’t know anyone is challenging. Make it a party that’s 90 percent men, most of whom are middle-aged or older, in a professional context, and you’ve created my nightmare scenario. Normally I handle such situations by clinging to a wall, carefully observing, and spending lots of time in the ladies’ room. It gets you nothing, but it costs nothing too. In this case, though, I was still in shock over the death of my friend, so I tried a different coping strategy: booze.
I am a lightweight, and it only takes two drinks on an empty stomach to get me drunk. By dinner, I was pretty toasted. I barely spoke to my table mates and focused instead on the many challenges of not looking drunk. I struggled to stab those pesky cherry tomatoes, chasing them across my salad plate with my fork as the guest speaker droned on. The little tabs of butter in foil wrappers likewise befuddled me. It’s a wonder I didn’t require stitches from trying to cut my steak.
Eventually they herded us back onto the shuttle bus for the return to the hotel. I was so eager to leave, and so disinterested in talking to anyone, that I was first to board. I took the front row, the one with an expansive view of the road, and rested my head against the window as the other conference goers filed past the empty seat beside me. Despite myriad alternatives for seating, a man sat down next to me. I stirred from my reverie to acknowledge him.
I don’t recall if there was an opening line, but I do recall a moment where I felt like I was standing at the edge of a canyon and thinking, “What the fuck do I care? I’m gonna see if I can make it across.”
He was an officer in the Air Force, about 50 but fit as hell, handsome, and clean cut, like he had been poured into a mold labeled “ideal white masculinity circa 1960.” He was wearing a natty suit and projecting just the slightest air of nonchalance. I could smell it.
“I’m not really into this conference,” I said. “I feel like I am somewhere else.”
It was an enormously risky thing for me to say, because no one was wearing name tags. I did not know who was who at the conference, meaning I had no awareness of who could help–or jettison–my career. Showing human frailty in that situation was an invitation to judgment, not just of me as an individual but of all women in my field, who labor against the usual offensive stereotype that emotions cloud our reason. And it was personally risky, to display that kind of vulnerability. Rejection, even from a total stranger, only serves to deepen the well of loneliness we are drowning in.
On the other hand, I am also aware that when you are brave enough to reach out, fate often provides a person willing to reach back. I learned that lesson in the most powerful way years before, when I was in graduate school. I was going through a horrific breakup that taxed my ability just to breathe, let alone keep my teaching job. One day I taught my class, returned to my department for office hours, and found my recent ex–the one I had been living with after four years together–and his new girlfriend–the one he had cheated on me with–flirting loudly in another office two doors down. I shut my door so I would not have to hear their voices and promptly dissolved into sobs. Just then, in the midst of a silent hyperventilation, there was a knock at the door. Delusional in thinking that my ex had come to comfort me, I opened it with a rush. Instead, it was one of my undergraduates. He looked shocked to see the person he regarded as his “professor” standing there with hands full of Kleenex and a face wet with tears, smudged mascara, and snot. I was horrified. I tried to compose myself and do the right, professional thing.
“Um, I was just… Come in!” I opened the door wider and stepped aside so he could enter, but he didn’t move. “Please,” I coaxed. “Come in.”
“No,” he said. “It’s…ok.”
There was an awkward pause while he stared at me and I stared at a spot on the wall somewhere behind him. Mortified and beyond recovery, tears continued to pool in my eyes and trickle down my cheeks. I don’t remember much about this kid, other than that he was Joe Average Undergrad, a white, middle class boy of privilege who, from my vantage point at the podium, was no different than the rest of his peers–that is, totally preoccupied with binge-drinking and shirtless volleyball. (This sounds a little like I went to grad school at Top Gun University. I assure you, it was just a regular university.) But then he said something that made me think, “My god, out of all the kids that could have been standing there when I opened this door on my actual, crumbling, embarrassingly broken state of mind, it can NOT be an accident that it was him.”
“No, really, it’s ok,” he explained. “My sister died last year. She had cancer. And it was really hard. Sometimes I would just fall apart…” His voice trailed off. I don’t remember all of what he said, but I know he said, “So I understand,” even though he never asked why I was crying. After what he had been through, he was wise enough to know that it didn’t matter. Before he left, he also said, “Don’t worry, I won’t say anything about this to the other students.” Which was exactly the fear that shook me when I opened the door and saw him standing there–that I would return to a classroom full of sniggers and undermining comments. Such is the workplace dynamic of the young female instructor when students equate authority with age and masculinity. Instead, his words freed me to focus on caring for myself, and they showed me that there are decent people in this world, at precisely the moment when I was losing faith.
Now, a few years later, grieving the death of my colleague and feeling overwhelmed by my precarious professional situation, I was sitting on a bus revealing my vulnerabilities to a total stranger.
“A friend, a colleague of mine, he died today. I found out right before I got on the plane,” I explained. “So I’m not really feeling present at this thing.” I gave a halfhearted wave at all the suited people nattering enthusiastically behind us.
“I understand where you’re coming from,” he said. “My daughter died last year. I know that feeling, of not really being where you are.”
I offered my condolences and asked what happened. His daughter was in her early twenties when she was killed. She was embarking on a career in the Air Force, following in her father’s footsteps, and learning to fly. There was a training accident, a crash. She survived, but with horrible burns. She spent several months in a burn unit at a VA hospital, disfigured and in agony, alternating between hope for recovery and for relief from the pain of this world. During that time, her dad–this gentle gentleman sitting next to me–took leave from his duties to tend to her. He told me about how close they got, and how it changed him. He was politically and socially conservative, with a strong religious upbringing that he had conferred on his children. His daughter was a good girl, he told me, but she was also an empowered young woman who had boyfriends and adventures that were supposed to be just part of the catalog of experimentation we all acquire before we settle into ourselves. Instead, they were all the life she had to reflect on at the end, and so she shared it with her dad–all of it. He said it was uncomfortable at times, that dads don’t want to know all the risks and sadnesses and illicit triumphs their daughters experience, but that he felt privileged to learn about her true life and to be there with her at its end. She died while he was holding her hand.
He conveyed all of this to me, and I listed intently, over the course of a thirty minute ride back to the hotel. His grief was towering, and mine so small in comparison, just like the kid outside my office back in graduate school. But, just like that kid, he never made me feel diminished, which is the mark of a kind and knowing person. Instead, he made me feel understood. And I think he liked being around me, because I reminded him not so much of his daughter–she was about a decade younger than me when she died–but of the freshness young women exude, like a warm breeze scented with flowers and watermelon. Young women are unaware of it, of course, because they are usually conditioned to criticize and hate themselves. But men–especially older men, especially men with daughters, especially older men with daughters they will never see again–are absolutely intoxicated by it.
The mood lightened as we debarked from the bus back at the hotel, and we settled into a pattern of wry banter that carried us through the rest of the conference. He asked me to join him for a nightcap at the hotel bar, but I demurred. The next morning, he was waiting for me at the door of the bus as we boarded yet again. This time, he was in his Air Force uniform, a blue suit with lots of embellishments that made him look like a 1950s bus driver. I made a joke to that effect, totally unaware that this is a common dig made so frequently at Air Force officers’ expense that it is effectively a cliché. But come on–they really do dress like bus drivers from the 1950s! It wasn’t until later, when we received the program and everyone at the conference was seated in front of their fancy place cards, that I realized he was a general in the United States Air Force, and a multi-star general at that. Looking back, my youth, my vulnerability, and my lack of deference to his rank were probably an alluring combination. (I also had a bangin’ body back then.) But at the time, I was totally oblivious.
The conference finished with little of note, but the general and I did exchange phone numbers to keep in touch. Work periodically brought him to my city, and he said he would give me a call the next time he was in town.
He did, a few weeks later, and we met–just two friends having a friendly drink at a friendly bar. At the time, I did not realize that he wanted to sleep with me, and perhaps neither did he. It was all very chaste. There were some hints in his compliments to me, of course, but most of the evidence lies in the negative space of what didn’t happen after. He never called again.
We met, I thought as friends, and I reiterated that on the date. Over a drink, just one, we chatted about how “totally normal it is,” to have friends of the opposite gender, with a big age difference, who live in different cities and meet quietly from time to time. Totally normal. I was wary enough to ask pointedly about his wife, and he told me a little about her. They sounded like a great couple, I said, and it would be nice to meet her next time.
Had I flirted, had I been silent about his family life, had I put words to the unspoken chemistry between us, I think it might have gone differently. But in terms of what did happen, there was really, truly, nothing untoward. We stood together at the precipice of an affair, and then we went our separate ways.
I suspect he didn’t really know why he was there either, though the crisis within his family had clearly led him to me. I suspect he realized, when he saw me for that second and final time, that we would never quite be able to recapture the simple elegance of our original connection–two strangers sitting quiet and still, alone but together with their grief, while the world spins on and on around them. I suspect he realized, as we talked, that the fresh breezes that waft from young women are best appreciated at a distance.
I wouldn’t say there was much online chemistry between Libertarian Yoga Instructor (LYI, so we’ll call him “Lee”) and I. And if I had already known he was a libertarian, I probably wouldn’t have agreed to meet him, because libertarianism is an infantile ideology that usually plagues people who are unaware of their privilege, self-entitled, ignorant of history, devoid of common sense, and really, really dumb.
What I did know about Lee was that he was decent looking, polite, an “advertising executive,” and a yoga instructor–an intriguing combination. His photos included several of him in various advanced yoga poses, demonstrating impressive balance and flexibility. In retrospect, I should have noticed that none of his photos depicted him looking anything like an advertising executive.
We agreed to meet for a late afternoon drink in a trendy neighborhood that would put me in reasonable proximity to my evening plans. In person, he looked like an older, more fragile version of his photos, and he projected an air of sadness, confusion, and eagerness bordering on desperation. After about two minutes, I was crafting my exit strategy.
Lee’s first misstep was telling me, in the opening moments of the date, about his ex-wife. According to him, she had ruined his life for several years and was now in a mental institution, a story he asserted without concern or compassion, as though the “fact” (and who knows if it’s true) of her illness legitimized his victimhood in their marriage.
Over the next hour–it would have been much less if it had not taken over twenty minutes to get the check–I learned a lot of unsavory details, at least from my perspective. While he was in fact a yoga instructor who taught a couple of classes per week on the side, Lee was only an “advertising executive” in the sense that he owned and operated a one-man direct-mail business. I asked for clarification of what that meant, and he explained that he produced advertising materials for businesses and mailed them to people on purchased lists. His business is sending what the rest of us would call “junk mail” and what environmentalists would regard as “a paper holocaust.”
Proudly, Lee told me he had just completed a mailing of one-million postcards for a firm that helps the environment by installing solar panels.
“Um,” I said slowly, “my understanding is that, in your industry, a response rate of 2 percent is regarded as a success.”
“Yes,” he replied, excited at my knowledge of and seeming interest in his work.
“So, basically, you just sent 980,000 pieces of paper to the landfill?”
His face fell, then he got defensive. “Yeah, but they were for solar panels,” he asserted, as though a little renewable energy would balance the ledger of his environmental trespass.
It went on like that, because besides the concrete under the patio table at which we both sat, there was no common ground between us. When I offered that I thought his industry should be regulated to prevent waste, I learned about his antipathy for government regulation and his belief that the “invisible hand” of the market would create social and economic equality and solve environmental problems. I tried to be gentle as I exposed his vast ignorance of history, politics, and The Way Things Work (and by “things,” I mean basic concepts like the merits of public education and pot hole repair), but I suppose I probably just seemed like a bemused, smirking bitch. The conversation went so badly that a guy at the table next to us interjected, “Dude, I agree with you. I’m on your side,” offering solidarity but no argument to counter my positions.
Lee’s worldview was rooted firmly in his own victimhood, that as a white man “the government” and “feminists” had rigged the game to deny him the money and status to which he felt entitled. His endorsement of the Men’s Rights Movement was what ultimately extended the date to an hour. Once I realized that my hasty departure would result in one more bitter dude loudly declaiming to all who would listen that “women pretend to like men in order to get free drinks,” I silently vowed that there was no way in hell I was letting him pick up my check. (Unfortunately, I also had no cash.) Indeed, when the check finally, mercifully, arrived and I insisted on paying it, he claimed that I was the first woman he ever met who wanted to buy her own drink. I paid for his too.
The funny thing is, he still wanted to see me again. In his mind, I guess we were having witty repartee? I was trying to be kind, and perhaps I succeeded. He seemed disappointed when I declined his invitation.
“It was really interesting meeting you, and I appreciate your time, but this is gonna be it for me,” I offered cheerfully. I shook his hand and bolted. When I got back to my car, I tried calling my friend several times until she finally picked up. Then I dissolved into hysterics.
Why? Because I had been assaulted by my neighbor six hours earlier.
To all the people who saw me that day–Lee and the other restaurant patrons and the friends I dined with later that night–I was a normal, cheerful woman having a normal, cheerful day. But for me, I was indulging in an alternate reality where what had just happened to me had not actually happened to me. It makes you wonder: What secret wounds is the stranger hiding? What story are they actually in–yours? The story of drinks on a patio on an unseasonably warm February day? Or the story of fleeing a home that no longer feels safe, because a man with a delusional dream is willing to break the laws of civility and decency–not to mention the regular law–in order to satisfy his interest in you?
I still marvel at how that day unfolded, how it exists on parallel planes, one of trauma and the other as-per-usual. You never know what is really going on with another person, unless they tell you. It’s a good reminder to be compassionate, always, even (especially?) to your ridiculous date.
And Lee was ridiculous, to my great relief. Because I was completely out of my fucking mind that day, and if he had been The One or anything resembling a person I wanted to spend time with, I would have felt terrible about ruining it. But he wasn’t. He couldn’t have been more unpleasant and unsuitable, and for that I am also grateful.
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:
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.
I didn’t even know I had New Year’s Eve plans until a few hours before midnight. J* texted me while I was at the gym to see if I wanted to spend the evening with him, and I rationalized, “Hey, better late than never.” We agreed that he would pick me up at 7 to drive an hour to visit friends of his in a far suburb. That gave me a leisurely two-and-half hours to finish my run, stop off at the store, and slap on the pretty stick. About 30 minutes later, he texted again, wanting to know if I could be ready to leave at 6, just an hour hence.
I was still on the treadmill.
With a mighty effort, I managed to get home, stop sweating, and be ready when he arrived to pick me up. We were trying to be there in time for something called “an Irish toast,” though neither of us understood what that meant. Because I thought we were going to his English friend’s home, I imagined a custom of some import, a break in the evening’s festivities at which our absence would be noted. J* drove with urgency and then like a madman. At one point, lost in conversation, he missed our exit, trapping us on an airport service road. He got angry. Then, when we missed the last bailout, he got angry some more.
I had witnessed one of his outbursts on the phone, but never in person. Now, I was trapped in the passenger seat of a car that felt like it was going way too fast, driven by a grown man having a tantrum. He muttered and yelled, addressing himself in the second person. He slammed his fists on the steering wheel. He shifted the manual transmission in waves of anger. When he slowed in the airport parking lot to ask for directions to the exit, I looked at the glittering terminal in the distance and wondered if I should make a run for it. I froze.
I dated a violent man once, so in those seconds of uncertainty, I reverted to what I knew: be quiet, stay still, act small. Even so, when J* challenged me to confront him, I foolishly took the bait.
“Go ahead, say whatever you’re going to say,” he demanded.
“I’m not going to say anything,” I fumed, “because I don’t want to get punched in the fucking face.”
In the twisted logic of our relationship, my words became the most grievous transgression of the night, a presumed accusation–that J* was an abuser–we never quite got past. I offered context that he declined to consider and apologies that neither of us quite believed. He offered very little, pushing back hard that my words exceeded his actions in their terribleness. In retrospect, that argument exposed the power deferential of our relationship: his ambivalence towards me could put me on my heels even if he was in the wrong. In the end, having resolved nothing, we just moved on.
We arrived at our destination–not an English home, but rather an Irish bar–about ten minutes to seven. J* bolted from the car without a second’s pause, leaving me trotting after him in heels across the icy parking lot. We exchanged no words to bridge the angry divide between us. Moments later, I was meeting his friends for the first time, smiling a plastic smile that I hoped would hide my deep discomfort.
As it turns out, an Irish toast is simply an acknowledgement that it is midnight in Ireland. The bar distributed little flights of Guinness, a canned version of Auld Lang Syne blared from the PA system, and then it was done. A piece of actual toast would have been more satisfying.
It was 7:01 PM, and the five hours to midnight spread before us like a cold and lonely road. I drank a lot, I ate too much, and I spent a lot of time in the ladies’ room. As the hours passed, J* and I found our way back to each other. He held my hand, he touched me lightly under the table, he checked to see if I needed anything. At midnight, he smiled broadly as he took my face in his hands and rendered that sweet but fateful kiss.
I was wary but hopeful as our lips met. Lost in softness and warmth, we failed to notice the poison seeping like a fog. Within hours, I was toxic. Within the month, I was adrift.
We went to J*’s friends’ house, where we watched them drink themselves into oblivion. Then we drove back to my house, where J* dropped me off as unceremoniously as a taxi service–no hug, no kiss, no promise to see me again.
Days later, my body started to go haywire–my first bout with the fun! fun! fun! of serious hormonal imbalance.
Two weeks after that, J* broke up with me in a brief text message.
Three weeks after that, a trusted neighbor assaulted me in my living room, violently groping me and attempting to tear off my clothes. I fought him off but did not call the police, because he was leaving the country the next day, and I wanted to put as much distance between us as possible. Even now, he lurks at the edge of my dreams. And when he returned to his house, just 16 feet away from mine, last spring, I found myself feeling panic every time I had to walk the dog.
Spring semester, I endured a two-month bout of bronchitis and a crushing to-do list: teach three classes, give four presentations at three conferences, attend a hundred meetings, grade a thousand typed pages (that is sadly not an exaggeration), write a million emails. All of it felt like work. By fall, I felt broken.
My relationship with my sister deteriorated. In January, she unfriended me on Facebook for a slew of infractions she declined to mention until I noticed I could no longer tag her in family photos. She made it nearly impossible for me to see her children, who used to be the lights of my life. Where we once had monthly excursions, I took them out just twice all year. My parents remained neutral or erred, understandably, on the side of seeing their grandchildren. Throughout the year, my family gathered frequently without me, having decided preemptively that I was too busy to join them. My mother started to forget me.
My friend was sick. He got sicker. In May, he died. My friends, also his friends, lost their friend. My friend, his widow, lost her husband. My loss was so small compared to hers, but still–the losses associated with this one man piled up atop one another, so that everywhere I turned I saw someone I cared about struggling to breathe through their grief.
Days after my friend died, I reached for J* and he reached back. After months of silence, we struck up an amazing, awkward, amazing friendship. It was an invitation to healing but also more pain. In August, I fell into a hole so deep I could barely see the sky. J* pulled me out. Then he left the country without saying goodbye.
The remainder of 2015 was defined by depression, loneliness, workplace misery, family problems, health problems, and another painful breakup. I could not make anything turn out right, as though the poison coursing through me wilted everything I touched. In that powerless state, I felt adrift.
The year began with a crazy night and a fateful kiss, but, like all measurements of time, midnight on New Year’s Eve is an arbitrary beginning for a period of decline that probably started years before. In some corners of this story, I can say comfortably that someone else was the agent of my misfortune. But in others, it was fate or chance or no one, and in still others, it was me. I made choices too. I opened a door, or closed one. I said things I shouldn’t have said and failed in a hundred different ways. J* kissed me, and I kissed him right back, even though I knew I shouldn’t. Other people–who knows, maybe even 2015 or the Universe itself–might have shoved me out to sea, but I’m the one who untied the raft from its moorings.
Now I write this blog, as if from the safety of that raft. Life often seems like a forbidding sea, and only the moon and stars at night help differentiate sky from the dark water all around me. The writing helps.
I tell my story, I vent the poison.
I plan a new future, I chart a course to safety.
I don’t know what 2016 has in store for me. But just in case, I am staying in this New Year’s Eve.
I have never climbed a glacier (though I did slide down one on my butt in high school!), but my understanding is that one has to be prepared to conduct a “self-arrest,” whereby one uses an ice axe to stop a potentially fatal slide into oblivion. That’s kind of what happened this Christmas.
As I’ve discussed previously, I’m not a huge fan of Christmas. The holiday involves too much waste, too much self-indulgence, and not enough actual spirit-of-Christ giving. It has also been historically fraught in my family. I won’t go into that here, just trust me. I’ve earned the Girl Scout “Ruining Christmas” merit badge too many times to mention.
This year, I did Christmas differently, albeit somewhat unintentionally. On Christmas eve, I departed my family gathering early–for a booty call. It was fucking awesome, in the most literal sense. On Christmas day, I elfed with Santa and my sister-elf at a rehab center filled with ill and lonely people. Yes, “elf” is a verb, meaning, “To assist Santa by handing out gifts, greeting people, singing carols, and feeling palpably grateful that you are not a patient in that terrible place.” That afternoon, I played host to a friend who unexpectedly arrived at my house, pregnant with weariness and no place to stay. We played tourist and visited my parents, then we met up with another friend for Thai food and booze. Over the next few days, I texted with far-away friends, I went to a play, I went for a hike with a second surprise houseguest, and I laughed so hard I nearly peed myself on a public street.
Doing good for others was, as always, a soothing experience, which helps to explain nursing’s appeal for me. And being with people who appreciate me for who I am was soul-saving. After months of feeling like I am sliding into oblivion, slipping the bonds I share with everyone who cares about me and spinning not off a glacier but off the planet altogether, the choice to go my own way–to serve my own interests–this Christmas gave me a sense of purchase I haven’t felt in a great, great while.
I can feel myself starting to slip again already. The booty call was great, but I wish I could meet a guy who wants to take me to the movies. My friends are doing well, but sometimes it feels as though they are leaving me behind. And being with my parents the day after Christmas made me very sad. I worked a jigsaw puzzle with my mom, and it felt more like occupational therapy than a shared project. “I can’t see it. You do it,” she said time again, as she struggled to fit a piece into its place.
But still–it feels good to know…
that self-arrest is possible,
that sometimes I can make the pieces fit,
that there are people who can still make me laugh and, despite my precarious attachment to this world, who can help me to enjoy the view.