Learning Not to Be Brave*

Image_5--CROPI spent the weekend out-of-state with a friend, an annual trip in which we celebrate our February birthdays (and our spinsterhood) over the Valentine’s Day weekend. The drive to and from offered a lot of time to think, and I found my mind drifting to Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia undergraduate who is currently detained in North Korea.

North Korea’s state-run media reports that authorities arrested Warmbier for committing a “hostile act” against their government. In the crazy-pants logic of the Hermit Kingdom, that could mean anything: leaving a Bible in a hotel room, exchanging pleasantries with an unauthorized person, or folding a magazine with the crease across Dear Leader’s face. In Warmbier’s case, he was hauled away by armed guards at the airport on January 2. No one knows why, and no one has seen him since.

The US Department of State’s travel warning about North Korea could not be more clear: DON’T GO. The North Korean government can disappear people for no reason, and unknown thousands–perhaps millions–have perished in state-run detention camps. A recent United Nations report alleges myriad, ongoing “crimes against humanity” in the DPRK, including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”

Korea_Lights
This satellite image of city lights at night elegantly captures the extreme deprivation endured by the people of North Korea.

Add in some primitive technology and a little famine, and you’ve got yourself a vacation paradise! What a great exercise of privilege to imagine such a place as a tourist destination rather than a hell on earth.

Why did Warmbier go? That’s the part that interests me. He is a super-achieving, well-travelled, politically active 21-year-old from a prosperous Ohio family that can afford to send him to UVA out-of-state. He’s on the dean’s list, serves as his fraternity’s Alumni Relations Chair, and likes vintage clothing. He is an athletic, white man of above-average height with a full head of hair. By every measure, he has the world at his feet and a bright future ahead. Why risk it on a five-day excursion to one of the scariest places on earth with a tour company that brands itself as “the budget North Korea tour operator?” Is this an example of hipster irony run amok?

I suspect that Warmbier was drawn by the sense of risk and the caché associated with defying expectations. I can identify. As I contemplate blowing up my life–quitting my job, going back to school, starting out in a difficult, less lucrative career on the bottom rung in my late 40s–I am carefully parsing my motivations. Part of it is that I am unhappy in my current job, and I feel like I am entitled to be satisfied at my work. Part of it is that I want to be of service to people in a way that academia will never allow me to be. Part of it is that I am specifically drawn to nursing because I know people who have entered that profession late in life, they seem happy, and I admire their accomplishments. And part of it is that I like the idea of it–the audacity, the unexpectedness, and the courage it would require. I relish the thought of telling certain people, seeing the incredulous looks on their faces, then dismissing their objections in the ultimate peace-out, mic drop moment. And I revel in the essential narrative arc, because it is ennobling and empowering: I had the Golden Ticket of a tenured position at a Research I university, and I walked away to take care of sick people.

Put simply, it’s a better story than the one I am living.

When Otto Warmbier told his friends, parents, and professors that he was going to visit North Korea over winter break, they undoubtedly expressed surprise and concern. I suspect they asked him “Why?” in tones approaching exasperation. I suspect that he answered glibly with something like “Why not?” or “Because it’s there.” Perhaps he was also honest about his desire to do the unexpected, to have a coveted experience defined by its uniqueness, and to demonstrate his courage in venturing to a place few would dare to visit. But did traveling to North Korea make him brave, or merely foolish? As Nigel and David point out in “This Is Spinal Tap,” it’s such a fine line between clever and stupid.

Did Warmbier have doubts? He must have. But he powered through them, having committed to a narrative of success in his mind that affirmed, in advance of the outcome, the rightness of his choice.

Do I have doubts about the path I am on? Absolutely. Why do I continue?

Some of it is practical: I’ve already paid the tuition, so I might as well finish the class! Some of it is strategic: Nothing is firm, and I am merely giving myself choices to be executed at a later date. Some of it is joy: To my great shock, I LOVE learning about the human body! And some of it is pure stubbornness and pride: I’ll do it because I said I would.

That’s the part that scares me. I hatched this plan, I discussed it with others, and I have excited my friends about an alternative narrative for my future. I don’t want to let anyone down, least of all myself. Having shaken up my life like a snow globe, it’s awfully anticlimactic to just let the white bits settle back down to the bottom as though nothing happened. It would take tremendous courage for me to walk away from my career and return to school (nursing or otherwise), or even just to take another kind of job. But it might take even more courage to fully consider those options, and take steps to make them viable, only to settle on living out the rest of my life in the status quo.

I don’t know what will make me brave, let alone happy. But I do know that sometimes the greatest act of courage is not doing something. Otto Warmbier demonstrated nerves of steel (but scant common sense) when he boarded that Chinese airliner destined for Pyongyang. Heading back to Charlottesville without seeing the Hermit Kingdom would have required a different sort of bravery–a self-awareness and confidence that allows us to appreciate what we have, endure the ignominy of leaving a challenge unmet, and cut our losses without regret.

It’s the kind of bravery you acquire by living–enduring–to see middle age. If we enlisted 40-somethings with mortgages and acid reflux for military service, instead of kids with bad judgment and big dreams, there would be no more war.

 

 

* The title of this post is an homage (not a critique) of my friend’s blog, Learning to Be Brave. She has an amazing story, she’s an amazing writer, and it is worth your time!

Another New Beginning

Tomorrow is the first day of the new term for me as a student. Once again, I am terrified. I am taking Human Anatomy & Physiology I, and I wonder if my tired, damaged, old brain is up to the task. I picture myself getting hectored by the professor–a very stern woman about 5 years older and 3 inches taller than me–and I am unable to produce a coherent answer.

But, all I can do is try.

I have no idea what is going to happen. I love that.

Even If I’m a Nurse, I’ll Always Be a Doctor

If you’re following along regularly, you no doubt think I should rename this blog, “Everything Is Terrible, Including Puppies, Christmas, and the Amish, All the Time, Everywhere.” Actually, when it comes to domestic abuse and animal rights, the Amish are kind of terrible, but I digress. My point is, for me, things are looking up!

Today I registered for my spring class: Introduction to Human Anatomy & Physiology. It took a little doing, because I had to visit an academic advisor in person to get them to waive the prerequisite, English Composition. I brought my transcripts for both of my degrees, but not the transcripts from the other two schools I attended part-time before settling in at my undergraduate alma mater. “Surely a bachelor’s and doctorate are enough,” I reasoned.

The advisor scanned the transcripts quickly and casually, as though he was looking for something specific. I sensed there was a problem.

“Is there a particular class you’re looking for?” I asked sweetly.

“Yes. Something like English composition.” He continued to flip through the pages, scanning, flipping, scanning, with greater urgency as he failed to see what he was looking for.

“It’s been a long time since I went to college, and I don’t really remember how I satisfied that requirement,” I explained. “It might have been AP, or maybe a placement test. I went to two other schools…”

“Do you have those transcripts?” he asked curtly. “Maybe on your phone?”

I found this suggestion wildly hilarious, since course registration wasn’t even digitized when I started college! We would queue up in an endless line at the Registrar, our hands full of paper catalogs and registration forms in triplicate. We didn’t have phones, so we read newspapers or talked to each other. When you finally got to the front of the line, a weary clerk would take your requests, and your alternate requests, and do their best for you. Today, that part felt comfortingly familiar.

“No,” I said softly, realizing that he had lost the forest for the trees. “But… you realize what that is, right?” He was holding my doctoral transcript, which showed a near flawless academic record. “I have a PhD.”

His eyes drifted up to the top of the first page, then he flipped to the end, where the tiny letters affirmed my greatest achievement: a doctorate in the humanities from a research-one university. Surely that would be enough to get me into an entry-level Biology class at a community college?

Just in case, I had my second greatest achievement, my book, in my laptop bag. Plan C was pulling up my faculty bio on my phone. Thankfully, I didn’t need to go that far. The advisor started tapping at the computer, and the prerequisite disappeared.

I always tell my graduate students, “Your degree is the one thing no one can ever take away from you. Your home, your spouse, even your kids–those can be taken away from you. But your doctorate, and the accomplishment it represents, will always be yours.”

If I do this thing–this brave, terrible, crazy thing–of abandoning my scholarly career in order to become a nurse, I will need to start telling myself that too. Because, despite all the frustrations of academia, I am truly proud of what I have accomplished. It is an amazing thing, to have that degree, even if it only gets me out of English comp on this new path that I am following. And no one can ever take that away from me.

Onward!

IMG_6217
With a little luck and a lot of hard work, all of the knowledge in this book will be in my brain come May!

 

 

Defying Prereq-xpectations

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After much soul searching, I finally decided to take Anatomy & Physiology I at my own expense at my local community college. There is a class & lab that fit my own teaching schedule, and there are still seats available.

But!

When I tried to register, I was denied. The reason: I have not met the prerequisite, which is placement into Introduction to English Composition.

This is hilarious for so many reasons: I have a doctorate in the humanities. I am a published author who gets paid to write and speak (in English!). I teach college courses to undergraduates–courses more advanced than the one I need to place out of–at a research university. And yet, I have to prove that I am proficient in my native tongue!

It will all work out, I’m sure, once I figure out to whom I submit my transcripts for a waiver. But it’s a little frustrating, in that I would like to cross this task of my to-do list. It’s almost Christmas, and I am unlikely to be able to wrap this up until after the first of the year, plus the college’s website is very opaque about how to proceed. It is going to require some legwork.

In the meantime, I kind of dig this little hiccup, because it demonstrates so clearly the subversiveness of my project. Professors don’t go back to school as undergraduates in a completely different field. They just don’t.

But I am.

HA.

Paradigm Shift

I have curly hair now. It used to be long and straight–well, I could straighten it–forming a nice, blonde Lego-like helmet that gave me lots of options: bun, ponytail, braid, clip, or a head-turning mane. Then, two months ago, I cut it. Lo and behold, my hair is curly as fuck.

This is a problem, because–as the Bible tells us–hair is a glory to women. And, as the Bible commands us, I’ve been online dating for awhile now. This new hair is not helping. It does not photograph well, meaning I have no recent (flattering) photos of me to post on my profile. Rather, my hair photographs as though I just awoke from a nap on the beach. Or I am being set upon by disorganized nesting birds. Or I’m applying to clown college. I am every man’s dream!

“How can hair change from straight to curly?” you might be wondering. So was I! I asked the Google, but deep down inside, I already knew: it is most likely caused by hormonal changes related to menopause. I have some lab confirmation of just that very process, even though I am–to use scientific terminology–too young for this shit. My curly hair, as effervescent and youthful as it can make me seem, is actually the physical manifestation of my dying junk. Which makes me hate it all the more.

And yet, I have mad respect for my hair as a literary device, because it is the perfect manifestation of my inner struggle. Like me, the person, I don’t know what this hair is supposed to be. My old hair was professor hair: orderly, manageable, and legible. On a good day, it said to the world, “My hair is supposed to be this, and today I got it about 85% right.” My new hair is whateverthefuck. It is illegible. There is no “ideal” state to style for, and it looks different every time I leave the house. I don’t know what it is supposed to be, so it forces me to make peace with its misrule. I suppose I am learning to surrender control, to the humidity, the concentration of the mousse, the whim of the follicle, and all the other variables that conspire to make me look like an old hag wearing a grapevine wreath or, on a good day, an aging [non]manic pixie dream girl.

I am getting used to it. And I am grateful to have hair at all, not to mention money to make it pretty and colorful and breath to complain about its foibles. It’s all good, right? It’s only hair.

curlyhaired buddha