Be Reasonable

Summer came and went in a blur. Here it is Labor Day already, and I realize I never did write about the undergraduate course I took in summer school: Introduction to Nutrition.

I was probably more excited for this class than for any of the 7 nursing prerequisites I am acquiring in anticipation of possibly, maybe, blowing up my professor life to go back to school. I know a lot about nutrition, but I nonetheless eat like crap. In fact, this afternoon, I am considering having microwave popcorn for lunch.

And dinner.

[Ed. Note: I did indeed eat microwave popcorn for lunch.]

My hope was that by immersing myself in the study of nutrition, I would develop a mindfulness that would in turn help me develop better eating habits. Unfortunately, I ended up taking a 6-week course that was Tuesday-Thursday, 9 AM to 12:45 PM, with two big projects and an exam every fourth class. It was like shotgunning nutrition facts without pausing to digest, or even chew, them. I learned a lot, but absorbed little. Almost nothing has changed in how I take care of myself.

I took the class at my local community college, and my fellow students were fairly typical of the up-by-your-bootstraps ethos of that school. There were a few “returning adults” in their late 20s or 30s, including the guy I sat next to, who wasn’t interested in nutrition so much as he needed an “easy” science class. He thought nothing of purchasing a Coke and a pack of Welch’s Fake Fruit Gummi Garbage Chews to eat during the second half of class from the front row. This would be like taking a class in oncology and having a big snack of cancer right in front of your professor. Or taking an environmental ethics class and wrapping your textbook with the pelt of a baby seal. But our instructor never said a word.

There were also several students for whom English was a second language, including two North African Muslim women who never did quite learn how to understand a nutrition label. “No,” they asserted firmly about the package for some kind of imported salty-carby bits. “Salt is for all package.” No, hon, I looked myself. Those things contain enough salt in a single serving to give a rhino a heart attack. But, no, our instructor never corrected them, so convinced they were of their native cuisine’s inherent healthfulness.

There were also a couple of effortlessly beautiful young women who were on the nursing or physical therapy track. One of them rode a motorcycle and perpetually looked like she had just walked on a beach, in an influencer-pushing-green-tea-on-Instagram kind of way, not the got-bit-by-sandflies-and-my-hair-looks-like-a-kelp-nest way that I have when I return from the beach. This girl wore breezy, off-the-shoulder jumpers, see-through peasant blouses that made you want to thank her for the view, and badass, black lace-up ankle boots. Her skin was luminous, and her vintage-inspired motorcycle helmet said, “Fashion first, safety second.” Or maybe “’70s-Era Bond Girl.” I wanted to be her so, so bad. These young women constantly asserted the merits of juicing, acai berries, and coconut oil–pretty much any fad that Dr. Oz has jumped on in the last five years. And always, our instructor answered in even tones about the fiber benefits of whole fruits, the peer-reviewed science behind healthy oils, and “everything in moderation.”

Behind Motorcycle Girl sat an obese woman who cracked wise and answered questions with tremendous confidence, though she (clearly) didn’t know much about nutrition. Over time, her worldview became clear: “One’s weight is unrelated to one’s food consumption, and besides I’m not that fat anyway.” One of the case studies we worked through as a class involved a middle-aged woman who was 5’2″, 165 pounds, and struggling to find healthy options given her jam-packed schedule. The obese student disputed that there was any urgency in helping this imaginary client, because “165 pounds isn’t that big.” Ouch. Everyone in the class silently did the mental math, and the instructor stammered out a reply, taking pains not to say what we were all thinking: “You only think that because you weigh twice as much.”

As I look back on the class, I remain fascinated by the professor, whom I’ll call Mrs. Bland. I never did quite pinpoint her age, because while she seemed physically well preserved, her mien was of an old woman for whom every decision–every word uttered, every sartorial choice, every unfathomable sexual act (yeah, I’m the kind of rude, daydreaming student who tries–and fails–to picture her professors having sex) was governed by intense adherence to practicality and reasonableness.

Mrs. Bland was trim, not thin, in a way that suggested well-planned, healthy meals and sensible exercise like water aerobics, walking, and perhaps occasionally some 3-pound hand weights. She was always dressed tidily in either beige or black slacks with a modest cotton blouse whose neckline and princess seams were generously proportioned to conceal any hint of bosoms or décolletage. With the black pants she wore a black slip-on walking shoe, and with the beige pants she wore the same shoe in brown. Two colors for the shoes and slacks, five colors for the blouses, mix, match, repeat. She wore a bit of blush, applied no doubt by the tiny brush that comes with the compact, and the same lipstick every day–a burgundy too dark for skin so pale and creamy, I’m guessing she never left the house without sunscreen. Her hair was short, dark, and monochromatic, suggesting a dye job, but not an expensive one. Maybe Nice ‘N Easy?

“Nice and easy.” It’s a way to color the gray, but it also suggests a practical way to go through life–a little luxury, but not too much.

I appreciated Mrs. Bland’s thoughtful approach to student questions, even when they were mind-bogglingly stupid. Her answers were always seated in a place of reasonableness: “Here is what I can tell you the peer-reviewed research says.” She affirmed every conceivable dietary choice, from vegetarianism to veganism to low-carb diets designed to trigger ketosis, but always with emphasis on seeking out the healthiest option. She never raised her voice, never got flustered, never made an off-color joke, and never denigrated a student’s facts, not even the 500th time someone started a moronic assertion by saying, “I heard that…”

Coconut water boosts metabolism. Garlic cures cancer. Honey boosts the immune system.

No, no, and no.

As a fellow professor, I was in awe of Mrs.Bland’s even keel. As a student, I appreciated her sensitivity, even if we didn’t always deserve it. But as a person, I wondered, “Is this lady going to lose it some day?”

Mrs. Bland reminded me of the Barbara Hershey character in the 1990 TV movie “A Killing in a Small Town,” about a repressed housewife named Candy who brutally murders her friend Betty, striking her 41 times with an axe–28 blows to the head alone. Based on a book that’s based on a true story, the film (now streaming on Amazon Prime under the book’s title, “Evidence of Love“) follows Candy through the crime and trial, at which she pled self-defense. [SPOILER ALERT!] Turns out, Betty had come at Candy with the axe in anger over an affair with her husband, but Candy wrestled it away and then snapped, turning her friend’s head to mush while her baby cried in the next room. Based on a psychologist’s testimony about Candy’s mental state, the jury acquitted her of the murder.

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Barbara Hershey won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her terrifying portrayal of blandness and internalized rage.

The last lines of the film still haunt me, because they raise questions about the secrets that live inside all of us, even people who seem entirely composed, dull, and reasonable. What are they hiding? What are they capable of?

The film ends after the acquittal, with Candy speaking to her therapist (voiced by Hal Holbrook) in a room filled with shadows. The therapist encourages her to forgive herself while the camera focuses intently on Candy’s plain, pained face.

“I’m not innocent,” Candy says wearily. “I killed her. I’m a monster.”

“No,” the therapist counters earnestly. “You’re just like the rest of us.”

“Is that supposed to comfort me?”

Smashcut to black! Yeah, no, that is fucking terrifying. It’s been 26 years since I saw that movie, and I still don’t trust bland women.

At the same time, I admire them. Mrs. Bland was ever in control, never flustered, as even and relentless as a gently ticking clock. She caused no offense, she created no drama, and she inspired no strong responses. If she were a meal, she would be 4 ounces of grilled chicken (no skin), steamed broccoli, and half of a baked potato with a spritz of that low-cholesterol liquid butter spray. Well balanced, nutritionally satisfying, and remarkable–but only for how easily it’s forgotten.

Yes, I learned a lot from Introduction to Nutrition: common vitamin deficiencies in the elderly, coconut oil is bullshit, there is no vegan source of B12 because it’s synthesized by critters. I did a research paper on the consumption of nuts and glycemic control. My dietary analysis revealed that I eat too much protein.

And also: There is power in being reasonable.

People listen to you. They take you seriously. The ideas you offer them come unfettered by visceral reactions to your person. If you can keep it up for a lifetime, more power to you!

But I’ll never be that way. I’m too volatile, too many jaggedy edges, too many strong opinions I can’t quite contain. Sometimes I hate myself for it, because I know it holds me back.

Then again, I’ll probably never axe-murder anyone, either.

Road Trip

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The last few weeks have been exhausting for a variety of reasons, good and bad.

For Memorial Day, I attended an actual memorial, for a friend who died of cancer last year. It was an educational, weird, but ultimately affirming experience. I was often reminded that weekend of something my dad always says: “Visiting family is not a vacation.” It is doubly true if you’re visiting someone else’s family, and triply true if that family is kinda dysfunctional. But it is also triply true that I loved spending time with my friend’s widow, who is also my friend, and a dear one at that. And I got to meet my dead friend’s best friend, who told me stories that brought my friend to life in my imagination. I felt his presence in the cabin where we stayed, looking at the gorgeous lake he used to paddle on, and in the epic mound of pulled-pork barbecue I ate to the point of meat intoxication. I could hear his laughter again, and I am so grateful to have been there.

After flying all night, I landed, retrieved my car, and went to class, where I crushed an Intro to Nutrition midterm. Then I fetched my dog from my parents and gave my dad another computer tutorial. I finally arrived home at 4 PM, a full 27 hours after departing the site of the memorial service. I lay down for a quick nap… and awoke at 2 AM. A few hours later, I met another friend at a surgical center, where she was having her lady business removed. It made me nothing but happy to be there for her, as she has so often been there for me.

Eventually, I got a full night’s sleep that actually happened at night. But since then, I have pulled several all- or near-all-nighters, to complete a paper for the class I am taking, to prepare for the class I just started teaching, and to provide material to a publisher for a project I agreed to write. I am tired.

This past weekend, I retreated to a friend’s house in the town where I went to graduate school. There was a brisk breeze that cooled the whole house, and a verdant lawn with a shady hammock. Three dogs slept soundly on the floor beside me, hypersensitive to my every move. Going to the bathroom was a crazy, collective endeavor! I love going there, because my dog has so much fun being part of a pack, because my friend takes such good care of me, and because time slows down–no traffic, no demands, no one to disappoint.

As I made the long drive to and from, I thought a lot about my last post, my current relationships, and how I feel about myself. I spent 11 years in that town, as long as I have lived anywhere, and though I was in my 20s and early 30s, it was the most formative period of my life. Most of my closest friendships were forged there, and I think I was the happiest I have ever been when we all lived near one another. For the last three years, as my friendship with my host bloomed anew, I have returned every couple of months. I find myself wishing that people who know me in other contexts–work friends, city friends, boyfriends–could know me there. With each passing mile of the drive, I become a better version of myself.

The last post was also about traveling, and burning bridges as I go. I am very good at it. But in fairness, I can be ok at mending them too. I try to recognize my part in a conflict and to render an apology that matters. It’s hard, though, because I have a history of being too quick to apologize–I said the words “I’m sorry” more than any other during my longest, most fraught relationship–and I can be too slow to stand up for myself. I tend to go from zero to “Release the Kraken” when standing up for others, or when I am just losing my shit. There is a tension there that I am only beginning to understand, but I think I’ve almost got it:

Not setting boundaries and articulating my concerns when I should leads to toxic levels of resentment that then seep out as vicious and deeply unproductive anger.

Basically, to borrow some language from my Introduction to Nutrition class, my consumption of other people’s bullshit often exceeds not just the Recommended Daily Allowance, calibrated to meet the needs of 97.5 percent of the population, but also the Tolerable Upper Intake Level, which is the highest dose that will not lead to toxicity in a human being. I have to accept responsibility for what I put in my body. Just because Tootsie Roll Industries makes Tootsie Pops doesn’t mean I have to have one (or five) in my purse at all times, and I certainly don’t have to eat them. And, just because people spew bullshit–and let’s face it, we all spew bullshit–doesn’t mean I have to consume it. I’m allowed to close my eyes and mouth. I can pull out an umbrella instead of a spoon.

With my recent conflicts, I am doing ok. I continue to protect my time and interests with that publisher, in order to disrupt my usual self-destructive spiral: hiding >> blowing deadlines >> imperiling other people’s work >> feeling horrible about it >> more hiding >> more blown deadlines >> Repeat Until Fired.

Negotiations with my Friend With Benefits have yielded no benefits, but we are still friends. No one in my family has spoken to me in days, and there are no plans on the horizon to see my sister and her kids. I fear that I have crossed some kind of Rubicon, with no bridge behind me for the retreat. I just have to trust that it will all work out ok. On the plus side, not seeing my family has dramatically reduced the frequency with which I feel like a worthless piece of shit. I am learning, slowly, to chart my course towards people who appreciate me.

As for my fight with J*, I think we did ok. We are both volatile people, and we are both learning relationship behaviors that other people seem to have mastered long ago. In the hours and days after my outburst and then his, we texted and talked, sorted and shared. It was good. Nothing changed in our dynamic, except that we demonstrated the ability to work through conflict. If nothing else, we are practicing productive communication for when we meet the people who will be our people. In the meantime, all I can do is try to be a good friend to him, though I often wonder what that means. I can’t tell where we are headed or for how long, and I don’t know what kind of snacks to pack for the trip.

This is true of all of my relationships, I suppose. Should I bring a sweater? Should I jump from the car? Who is driving, anyway? Did I leave the oven on?* Where is there a safe place to pee? And who will I be when I get there?

I know the answers to these questions when I make the long drive back to my grad school hometown, because I have traveled that road many times. But for the other journeys I am on, who knows? I guess I’ll just look out the window and enjoy the ride.

 

*I did not leave the oven on, because my oven hasn’t worked for nearly two years. To repair or replace? The issues associated with that decision created such a renovation conundrum that I simply set it aside. Not having an oven has not really been a problem, because as it turns out, the only thing I bake is frozen pizza. And now I know how to cook frozen pizza using a microwave and a skillet. Like so many facets of my life, the process isn’t pretty or efficient, but the end result is good enough. It’s not how you get there, but that you get there, at least as far as frozen pizza is concerned. And I really shouldn’t be eating frozen pizza anyway.

It’s the First Day of School!

It’s the first day of school! Again!

I love being a student, because it allows me to love the first day of school like I never have before–not even when I was a kid (too nervous). Being a university professor also involves first days of school, and lots of them. But, like most academics, I approach first days with dread.

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 2.25.06 AMFor a professor, the first day of school means the end to languid, flexible days when you are responsible to no one. It means 16 straight weeks of lecture prep, boring faculty meetings, endless service commitments, an unrelenting tide of email, and grading grading grading. The first day of school also brings with it the Crushing Awareness: no meaningful progress will be made on your research agenda for another four months. The weight of projects left unfinished settles over you like some combination of deathly pall and nettlesome hair shirt, ensuring that every free moment is tainted by a  gnawing guilt: “I should be working.”And when I say “every free moment,” I mean, when you’re on the treadmill, or in the shower, at a party, eating breakfast, having sex, crashing your car, writing your blog, walking your dog, caring for your mom, suffering a heart attack (or stroke, in my case–true story), walking the beach, or opening Christmas presents–that feeling is always there.
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I have had homework every night of my life for 22 straight years.

But, as a student once more, I love first days of school. The classes I take are like a well-made play: they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Most significantly of these, they end. And then a pleasant feeling of accomplishment sets in. Every moment leading up to that, starting with the night before the first day of school, is relished in anticipation of that simple, golden realization: I finished something I set out to do.

That happened to me once, as a scholar. I finished my book, sent the final draft off to the publisher, and eventually–after dealing with permissions, cover art, galleys, and feeble attempts at marketing–there was no more work to do. At last–7 years since it was a dissertation, and 11 years after I started it–I could cross “Finish book” off my list of things to do. Then, almost immediately, pressure started to mount to begin the illusive “second project.” And the guilt set in again..
IMG_4973Tomorrow I start Introduction to Nutrition. I am excited! I bought my textbook early–brand new, but something called “looseleaf,” meaning I had to buy a binder for it. No matter–I got a sassy green one with a clear cover. I’ve already packaged it up, inserting the textbook’s fruity cover into the sleeve, and it all looks fabulous. I got a matching folder, for handouts, and I bought a new sheaf of college-ruled, 8.5X11″ (none of this 8X10.5″ bullshit the kids are into) notebook paper for my notes. I cleared my A&P notes (nearly 100 pages, taken by hand) out of my Grand Teton binder, printed out my new syllabus, and packaged that up too. I also restocked my mechanical pencil with lead and a fat new eraser. Finally, I cleaned my A&P I books and note cards (100s of those too!) out of my school totebag. The best part was when I found a flattened, but still totally edible, Reese’s Peanut Buttercup in the pocket. Score!

Perhaps when I have finished Introduction to Nutrition, I will no longer be so romanced by candy. I hope so!

The totebag, btw, was purchased at a street market by my friend (since middle school) while she was on shore leave in the Philippines. It has weird cartoon cats on it, and polka dots, and its broken-English captions read, “Plip!” and “My heart will is about to burst!”

That sounds about right. My hear will is about to burst, because it’s the first day of school!

Plip!