Category Archives: 40s are the new 40s

Death on a Budget

Despite my well-intended delusions of gallantry, staying awake for two nights in a row just made me a useless, hot mess. And taking a nip or two from the bottle of bourbon in the kitchen during these sleepless marathons made me even more useless. So tonight I eschewed the alcohol, bought a pack of cigarettes, and let Dad propose taking half-night shifts. For four hours, I slept well, even with strange dreams of hiding myself and a bunch of children in secret compartments under furniture in order to escape some kind of unearthly menace in female form with an army of fugitive-sniffing cats. That’s a new one. I should be keeping a dream log as well as a death log.

When I left the warm bed to take my 2:00 a.m. shift, I found Dad sleeping on the couch. Just dozing, he said. Just dozing under a comfy quilt. Let’s face it, we’re not RNs or home health aides. We’re tired family members who crave our beds, with or without apocalyptic nightmares.

Mom asked my sister-in-law what happened to the local hospice facility where my grandmother had died twenty years ago. I think she had envisioned herself staying there when the time came and not in the middle of her living room being cared for, largely, by tired family members. Apparently, our local hospice facility had been shut down because it wasn’t “feasible,” its staff of PAs, RNs, and aides turned into traveling pill peddlers instead.   It’s a sinisterly brilliant way to cut corners. The professional caregivers get to keep their jobs, and the operating costs disappear. Now we have a solution that’s “feasible” because the dying can still receive their care twenty-four-seven, but in the comfort of their own homes. Oh joy.

Here’s where the plan gets more brilliant: our loved-ones definitely can receive care twenty-four-seven. Whenever we make the phone call to the emergency number on the whiteboard magnetted to our refrigerators, our questions and concerns are relayed to a nurse on call, who will call us back and answer our questions. Sometimes, if we sound sad enough, she’ll even offer to come out to the house for an hour or two—even more if we want. If we don’t call, however, we get a daily visit from a nurse (on weekdays), and a daily visit from an aide who will do the yucky stuff like bathe and change catheter bags. In a rural area like this one, where people spend their wholes lives NOT asking questions, removing the whole hospice facility from the equation is most certainly a feasible plan.

I decided that I prefer the 2:00 a.m. to whenever-Dad-wakes-up-again shift because it’s a perfect time to call that hotline and ask questions without Dad knowing I’m calling the hotline and asking questions. The very first hospice nurse I met this week stayed at our house for six hours so Dad and I could go out to dinner for his birthday. We were only gone for three, but she stuck around long after and helped Mom and counseled me. Dad, being Dad, just wanted her to leave. Me, being me, wanted the help and guidance. Why not? If a hospice is going to close down its facility and leave all the dirty work to us, we should accept as much of that help as it will provide.  We should not accept the death-on-a-budget excuse.

The nurses know this. The whiteboard on the fridge says “for emergencies call,” leaving it up the caller to determine the scope of an emergency. Luckily, I was counseled by a hospice nurse before I had even seen this semantic deterrent. Call any time, she said. No question is a stupid question, she said. That’s what we’re here for, she said. So I do, and I will, just not when Dad knows I’m doing it.

It isn’t that Dad doesn’t care. He cares a whole lot. His love is infinite. This morning, the RN assigned to our case watched him interact with her and said, “They clearly love each other. It’s adorable.” It was adorable, five weeks ago, now it’s very heartbreaking. The man needs two shoulder operations. He has a bad back. He carries around his own, permanent, catheter bag. And he just lost his brother. This is too much for him. He isn’t healthy enough, physically, mentally, or emotionally to be caring for a wife of fifty-five years round-the-clock. He needs a place where he can go that’s away from his grief, like his home. Oh wait, his home is now a makeshift hospice.

If I can do anything around here besides be in the way, and I often feel like I’m in the way, I can call in the professionals to help Mom instead of leaving Dad to do all the guesswork. I’m confused, and I’m younger, healthier, and more alert. I can’t imagine how he manages to do anything, let alone almost everything. I’m gonna keep calling that number because it helps and because I refuse the let “feasibility” and bottom-line win here.

Tiny Windows of Time

I’m on Mom watch tonight. My dad thinks I’m going to wake him up at 3:00 a.m. so we can split the shift, but I’m not. I’ve determined that he is more handy during the day, while I sleep in my mother’s king-sized bed with all the windows open, sunlight and the sounds and smells of a rural fall day streaming in. I’m a good day sleeper. Dad, I have determined since I arrived home yesterday, needs a full night’s sleep more than I do.

He’s brilliant with her. I don’t know how he does it. Love, I suppose. My poor brother showed up this evening around six o’clock to catch her waking up from a four-hour doze, and she told him to stay away from her blinds. There had been talk of my brother’s changing out the blinds for more functional ones. Since her hospital bed sits in front of the big bay window in my parents’ living room, my father, at one point in the many stages of helplessness family members experience in the face of terminal illness, thought new blinds would do the trick, and he recruited my brother to do the job. After learning of this plan, the blinds became my mother’s point of reference any time she saw my brother’s face. Then Mom thought we were all sitting around her bedside in the morning, rather than at dinnertime, so she asked my brother why he had showed up in the early morning. It came out like this:

“Why are you here so early in the morning? Are you here to watch me croak or something?”

She never minced words in reality; she doesn’t mince them in terminal illness, either. Dad eventually convinced her it was evening, but she continued to press my brother about his presence in the room until Dad quipped, “We’re all here to give you a bath, all three of us.” Until she realized he was busting her ass, just like he always does, Mom didn’t give my poor brother a break.

My brother doesn’t know what to do any more than any of us. Dad has the most experience caring for Mom, but her symptoms change rapidly, hourly, in hospice. Nurses who know the most about what is happening come around once in a while and take charge and sometimes provide useful advice, but then one hour lapses into the other, and Dad and I begin to bicker about how we’ve interpreted that advice. Dad often won’t accept my interpretation.

I feel like I’m in the way. Mom wakes up from time-to-time, and I try to give her medicine (ahem, morphine), and she tells me to go back to bed, that I’m making her nervous. She’s not used to 24-hour vigilance. She just wants to die.

My friend who recently lost her mother in at-home hospice told me to tell Mom what I wanted to tell her and do it as soon as possible. Turns out that the best time was any day prior to yesterday, when I arrived here. I wasn’t expecting to see what I saw. Dad had never said the word “hospice” when I’d called him. Two weeks ago, she’d been a different woman, reading and checking out Facebook and fretting about the state of the sheets in the spare bedroom or the laundry, basically being a sicker version of her usual self. She still hadn’t tried chemo, and we all still had a little hope. My father hadn’t been forthright about how rapidly she was declining, I think because he was too busy caring for her in ways that his own frail body couldn’t sustain.

She was still tinkering around a little with her tablet early yesterday, before I arrived, which means she was tinkering around on Facebook. Last night, when I cried to the hospice nurse about how difficult it would be to tell her what I wanted to tell her because of her hearing loss, she said, “Write it. Make the font really big and say it on her tablet.” So, as I sat around on Mom duty in the wee early morning hours of yesterday, and I opened up Facebook messenger, and I said what I wanted to say. Too bad she hasn’t picked up her tablet since yesterday, and she probably never will again. That tiny window of time, while I was dragging my feet to get out the door because I didn’t want to face what I had to face, had closed quietly.

Cancer is the New Black

I upset my husband last night with a little dose of dark humor. I asked him what cancer he thought would be the cancer that did each of us in, and he knocked on the wall. Apparently, he doesn’t want to joke about dying. I guess that’s alright, but personally, I would rather think about it now than be surprised by its sudden appearance. What is death, anyway, but just a phase of life, that seventh age, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”? We should be so lucky.

Most of us aren’t going to make it to that seventh age that Shakespeare described in his seven ages of man speech. We’re not going to die in our nineties, drifting peacefully into oblivion while our family sits around the bedside, our spouses spooning soft food into our birdlike mouths. We can’t expect our deaths anymore, can’t plan for them. They’ll just announce themselves. Perhaps our family will be sitting around us when we go, but that probably isn’t going to be in our nineties.

Cheery, no? Maybe it’s the Fluoxetine, or maybe it’s just all the preparation I’ve had, but I don’t find death depressing. For me, it is not a debilitating thought. Do I want to lose my mother? Absolutely not. Do I feel that she and I still have a bucket list the size of Texas full of items that never will be checked off? Absolutely. Is she or I or anyone in our world ready for this? No. But it’s gonna happen, and it might happen far sooner than any of us thought it would. My mother has stage 4 pancreatic cancer, a nasty cancer that has metastasized into her liver. She can’t eat. She can’t sleep. She can’t even sit up comfortably. Two months ago, we were on a vacation together in Maine. She and I walked down to the main drag in Bar Harbor, and she nagged me about how much money I spent. Now, she’s homebound, using a wheelchair, wearing great big t-shirts twenty-four-seven, and not eating a single thing. She wants to go, man. Who am I to stop her? I can’t do anything except be there for her. And that’s what I intend to do.

I remember when my dad first got prostate cancer back in 2005. I was strung out back then, and so I bawled and bawled and made my dad’s tragedy all about me and my business, and my personal regrets. I didn’t really do much to help him or mom. That was a long time ago.  I’ve since done a lot of helping. Like my recently departed uncle, I’ve showed up at hospitals with my sleeves rolled up, ready for action. What else the fuck can one do?

For three days, I’ve been wearing a tatty old dress that I bought on a road trip that I took with my mother. We spent seven days driving around Michigan together, sightseeing and driving each other nuts, and listening to the Grateful Dead channel, and bonding. It was the best vacation I’ve ever taken. In a little shop on Mackinaw Island, I bought a Woolrich dress that I wore almost every day for the rest of the trip. Somewhere, there’s a picture of me in that dress at the edge of the Sleeping Bear Dunes in Western Michigan, white sands that dropped so steeply into the shores of Lake Michigan that the park service posted warnings: you attempt to go down there, you will pay heavily for your rescue. And still, hundreds of tourists slid down those slopes and snaked their way back up the dunes. They looked like ant trails from our perspective at the top. What an awe-inspiring American vista. And I shared it alone with her. And now I’m still wearing that dress, even though the ass is worn out, and you can see the color of my underwear through the holes. I will never throw away that dress. I said I was accepting of death, I didn’t say I wasn’t sentimental.

There’s a lot of kids out there who treat their parents like shit. And there’s a lot of kids out there who are perennially lost. They need to look death in the face, stop knocking on walls. Cancer is the new black.

The Next-Day Regretsies

This afternoon, I was horrified to “discover” an unedited, terrible blog post that drifted into incoherence by the fourth paragraph—my very own post. I remember writing it, and I remember checking the Word .doc this morning and taking notes on it—“add transition” here and “delete this entire paragraph?” there. I DON’T, however, remember posting it. I have a void where a memory should be. Comes with the territory.

So I deleted it, just like my addled brain deleted those moments when I opened up WordPress and put some poorly-written piece of garbage out for the whole world to read (I wish). If you are one of the four people who read it and “liked” it, I thank you, and I apologize. Figures that the one post I was forced to delete got the most traffic in one day of anything I’ve posted thus far. I’m not the most effective blogger, but I sure like doing it! When I’m conscious enough to edit, that is.

I’m actually seeing an addiction therapist, and we’re making a little progress together. Today we talked about my friends. Who is a good influence, who is bad. I really don’t have any friends whom I would consider a bad influence anymore. They all kind of drifted out of my life with my ex-husband. He was the ultimate bad influence. He was cheap, narcissistic, alcoholic (my doing, he claimed), and selfish. And he brought out all those qualities in me. With him gone, all the lousy people that he attracted like flypaper are gone, too. My only remaining friends from that union went straight-edge and vegan, and their former debauched selves are unrecognizable. When we crazies put our minds to something, we really go all in, eh?

I’m still waiting for that “aha” moment when I finally go all in on sobriety. It won’t be today. I can hear the grocery store calling already. My favorite checker is waiting there to crack a joke about my odd assortment of items that inevitably contains alcohol. I’m fond of waltzing in there around 11:00 and buying things like beer and oatmeal (“Breakfast of champions!” she said), or red wine and beef jerky.

This post is also unedited, but far more coherent than last night’s. After I hit “publish” this time, the laptop is going off for the evening. There’s a way around every problem.

 

 

Does Anyone Else Feel Old?

I‘m having one of those, “Can this really be happening?” weeks. Yes, it can, and yes, it is.   This week was the double whammy of a sudden death in the family and the potential for much worse endings, pending a few tests. I feel old.   Mom and Dad have been careful about when to call me with news. They expect me to break down while I’m driving or whatnot, so they wait until I’m sitting on a couch with my husband nearby to tell me whatever it is they have to say. Then they marvel at my ability to just hear it.   I guess I grew up.

I’ve noticed lately that I keep thinking that I’m forty-six, even though I’m forty-five. In fact, for the past year, I’ve considered myself closer to fifty than I really am. Why is that? Why am I making myself old, rushing through the remainder of my forties?   Maybe it’s because the forties kinda suck. I just have this feeling that the forties are gonna go down in my history as the decade I lost everyone.

I’ll explain: My favorite uncle had a stroke on the operating table and died exactly a week later. We all thought it was gonna be a quick and easy operation. We all expected this summer to be the worst of his trials. Not even close. I don’t think anyone was prepared for an end. My father sure wasn’t. He lost his little brother, his closest sibling, and his greatest ally. This uncle and I spent weeks together while my mother and father were in the hospital or recuperating from one illness or the next. He was always there to help. I thought my mom was being morbid when she alluded to his last visit, while he was still on chemo, as a potential final hurrah. Damn, these people in their seventies who are so starkly aware of death.

And that’s one bit of bad news that has colored my week. There’s more, but the test results aren’t in, and I’m still allowed hope. Hope feels very different lately. It’s not a positive or a negative, it’s just an unknown. Sometimes, the unknown is better. For a little while anyway, while we process what we do know.

Embracing Rock-Bottom

Although the forties are the new forties in many more ways than one, sometimes we get snagged on one feature that plagues us throughout the decade, like alcoholism has me now. And while these snags are not just a forties thing, I suspect they’re a distinct characteristic of the forties in the Western world. The Washington Post recently published an article titled, “Under 50? You still haven’t hit rock-bottom, happiness-wise,” in its “Wonkblog” section (soooo millennial… the blog AND the title). The writer contends that our general sense of happiness reaches its nadir in our forties, supporting the claim with evidence from a survey designed to determine the life-satisfaction of over a million subjects. In one more line, I can summarize his point: people in their forties are the most unhappy people in the Western world.

A line graph attached to the article makes it easier to digest this generalization—our lives seem to follow a U pattern—first, life’s one big party—all the wavy lines are at the top of the graph; then we hit rock-bottom; finally, we turn fifty, and all the wavy lines rise again to the top of the graph, like a middle-aged phoenix soaring from its ashes—life becomes one big party again. How nifty.

Ordinarily, I would ignore or vehemently argue against such conjectures, i.e., the whole point of this blog; however, we experience some pretty heavy stuff during our forties, enough for us to question our own life satisfaction and possibly admit doubts on a survey designed to assess our “happiness levels.” Here’s what I know: the forties are humbling. It’s the decade when we finally start to see life for what it really is—a finite series of choices that we make, choices with results that could affect us for the remainder of our lives. I was unhappy with my job in my thirties, but I was too busy being a born-again single lady to notice. I ignored the really big choice—staying at my job—for the simple choices like where to go for Sunday brunch. I dreaded going to work five days a week, but I lived it up on the weekends, and I thought that was happiness. That’s not being happy. That’s just being delusional. If a representative from the “General Social Survey” had asked me about my happiness levels when I was, say, 33, I might have responded, “Yeah, all good here,” even though I didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about.

The other side of this spectrum takes a different, yet no less delusional, approach to its life satisfaction. Have you ever asked an elderly person how it’s going? How often do we hear something like of “Oh, can’t complain!” That’s right. Once you’ve already faced your life’s choices, once you’ve recognized your own mortality, and your friends and family start dying off, you might feel fortunate to still be breathing. At that age, it’s probably easier to frame the definition of happiness in an “I’m still standing, so what?” kind of attitude. Life isn’t one big party on the young or old sides of the line graph, life is just one big fantasy to get us through our days.

Our forties tend to be the years when we face those life snags, when we start ruminating over questions like, “How much longer do I have with my parents?” or “Is this really the only career I’m ever going to have?” or “Did I really sign up to spend the rest of my days with this asshole?” The term “mid-life crisis” had to come from somewhere. I’ve ruminated over those questions, except for maybe the last one because I chose wisely the second time around the marriage-go-round. These thoughts become big, existential dilemmas in our forties. Rather than considering the forties our time of greatest unhappiness, I would rather consider it our time of greatest introspection.

It takes a lot of strength to confront reality. I think that if you can come to grips with your choices, attempt to solve your problems without ignoring them, and find peace with whatever you can’t change (like crepe-neck or aging parents), then you have a right to label yourself “satisfied” or “happy” or whatever it is that the young and old are saying on this survey. To paraphrase Dickens, it’s quite possible that our forties could be the worst of times and also the best of times.

Just a couple quick words about death

Well, it’s Easter, so I’m seeing a lot of pastels and other awful Sunday best. Some of the neighbors are hosting the obligatory ham dinner I can see from the number of cars parked out on the street in front of their houses. Other driveways and streets are empty, their occupants eating their ham at someone else’s house. I wonder if anybody’s feeling particularly restored this year, rejoicing in their lord arisen and their souls buoyant. I’m not. Personally, I find Easter to be the most depressing of Christian holidays. When I think of Easter, I think of pastels, again, (never been a fan), and the moldy smell of a church basement where kids gathered to color creepy pictures of Jesus with his arms upraised and his hair all combed and neat. I think of quiet, nervous little ladies trying to teach us something, but with a bit of edge in their voices, like they just knew how many of us would never return after the age of ten. God, I hate church.

I think my church was always the blue sky and the sound of wind through the leaves of the trees around my childhood house. My psalms are the sounds of the doves outside my window that woke me up with their cooing in the springtime. When I first read William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis,” I felt like I had come home. It’s about death, “Thanatopsis,” and it makes no apologies for it. Resurrection, to the American Romantic like Cullen Bryant, was in the form of a new molecular structure—ashes to ashes, dust to dust. This poem told me that there could be nothing more beautiful than returning to the earth, feeding it like all of our forefathers did. Will I be worm food? Yes. But I like worms. Jesus avoided that fate. Hadn’t his flesh disappeared from the tomb after the crucifixion? If that’s the case, then he never really returned to the earth, did he? Had he rotted in the ground, fed the next season’s crops with his decomposed flesh, then he’d really be a part of this, a part of my church.

 

Thanatopsis

BY WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT

To him who in the love of Nature holds

Communion with her visible forms, she speaks

A various language; for his gayer hours

She has a voice of gladness, and a smile

And eloquence of beauty, and she glides

Into his darker musings, with a mild

And healing sympathy, that steals away

Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts

Of the last bitter hour come like a blight

Over thy spirit, and sad images

Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,

And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,

Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;—

Go forth, under the open sky, and list

To Nature’s teachings, while from all around—

Earth and her waters, and the depths of air—

Comes a still voice—

Yet a few days, and thee

The all-beholding sun shall see no more

In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,

Where thy pale form was laid, with many tears,

Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist

Thy image. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim

Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,

And, lost each human trace, surrendering up

Thine individual being, shalt thou go

To mix for ever with the elements,

To be a brother to the insensible rock

And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain

Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak

Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mould.

Yet not to thine eternal resting-place

Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish

Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down

With patriarchs of the infant world—with kings,

The powerful of the earth—the wise, the good,

Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,

All in one mighty sepulchre.   The hills

Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun,—the vales

Stretching in pensive quietness between;

The venerable woods—rivers that move

In majesty, and the complaining brooks

That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,

Old Ocean’s gray and melancholy waste,—

Are but the solemn decorations all

Of the great tomb of man. The golden sun,

The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,

Are shining on the sad abodes of death,

Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread

The globe are but a handful to the tribes

That slumber in its bosom.—Take the wings

Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,

Or lose thyself in the continuous woods

Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound,

Save his own dashings—yet the dead are there:

And millions in those solitudes, since first

The flight of years began, have laid them down

In their last sleep—the dead reign there alone.

So shalt thou rest, and what if thou withdraw

In silence from the living, and no friend

Take note of thy departure? All that breathe

Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh

When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care

Plod on, and each one as before will chase

His favorite phantom; yet all these shall leave

Their mirth and their employments, and shall come

And make their bed with thee. As the long train

Of ages glide away, the sons of men,

The youth in life’s green spring, and he who goes

In the full strength of years, matron and maid,

The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man—

Shall one by one be gathered to thy side,

By those, who in their turn shall follow them.

So live, that when thy summons comes to join

The innumerable caravan, which moves

To that mysterious realm, where each shall take

His chamber in the silent halls of death,

Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,

Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed

By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,

Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch

About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

 

 

Behavior Modification for the Debauched

My mornings are always filled with grand promises to myself: I’m going to start a healthy diet; I’m going to stop drinking; I’m going to get up earlier; I’m going to write and read more and watch TV less. Yup. It’s 10:04 as I write this, and I’m still processing my second of two routine cups of coffee, hours past my early morning wakeup goal.   My coffee ritual in the morning, that nothing can officially begin until I’ve processed those two cups, is about the only routine in my life that I’ve built and haven’t strayed from since I was sixteen. It only takes a few weeks to build a habit. I’ve built quite a few and even managed to make some of them healthy habits. But the scales tip more to side of unhealthy in my world, and my success rate at kicking is much lower than my success rate at starting. I think coffee is the only habit I haven’t tried to kick at some stage or another. I mean, why, you know? Why kick coffee? I do much worse things to my body in the course of a day.

And speaking of those other habits, I’m going to kick them now! The diet starts TODAY. The detox starts TODAY. The munchies after 11:00 pm end TODAY. Blah blah blah. Now I really sound like a middle-aged woman.

I remember, decades ago, listening to my mother talk about the exercise routine that she was going to start any-day-now. She was going to start walking and riding her bike. Yup. She’s 75, and I think she’s ridden a bike ten times in the past three decades. Her get-up-and-go got up and went before she even tried to start that habit. Am I gonna be like my mom and talk about what I need to do for the rest of my life? Or my mother-in-law, who has been talking about starting a diet since the eighties? I heard one time she actually did stick to a diet and lost like forty pounds. I think my husband might have been in middle school or something—it was that long ago. But it was a triumph she still talks about. She has plans to return to that svelte woman who looked so good in a red dress at her 40-something year-old son’s Bar Mitzvah. Ahhhhhh! I can’t do this to myself. I can’t become these women who I am so eerily resembling at the moment.

Well, then I guess I have to cultivate and maintain some good behaviors for at least three weeks, the minimum amount of time it takes for a behavior to become a habit. Let’s start today. Why not, right? Tomorrow’s not gonna hold any more promise than today for getting my life back. It’s April 14th. I must maintain my good behaviors until at least May 5. I can do that. I can do that, right?  Yeah, I can do that.

 

 

Survivalist Porn (with a nod to reenactment nerds)

I should know by now that when all the women in my family are passing a book around and even becoming irate when it isn’t returned fast enough, something’s up with that book. With the 50 Shades of Grey series, their attraction was obvious. The marketing makes it hard to avoid the 50 Shades pervasive theme—fucking, and so the matrons of my kin red-facedly admitted that they were reading sex simply by owning copies. They didn’t share with me what would have been horrifying details coming from, say, my mother or my aunt, but the ladies acknowledged what they had to acknowledge—they were all reading erotica.

After the 50 Shades of Grey and its attendant shades craze, which—incidentally—I still refuse to read, I should have known that The Outlander was a much-better disguised (and written) bit of porn itself. My mother has been recommending the series for years, but it was my latest interest in edible weeds and other information on basic survivalism that led me, finally, to crack it open (pardon the pun). Before I even knew Outlander was historical porn, I was quite satisfied with what I got—I didn’t drift off after every few pages, I started visualizing landscapes, and I even began highlighting points of interest. For the first hundred pages of The Outlander, I was perfectly content to learn about pagan traditions, the Scottish countryside, healing herbs, and eighteenth-century fashion.

Then—WHAMMO—the leading lady gets force-married to the hunkiest outlaw Highlander in the gang, who plows her and/or beats her into unconsciousness every twenty pages or so. Then the plot becomes a distraction!

Of course, I am exaggerating a little. Claire doesn’t explicitly say she was unconscious on those occasions… she might have just been playing dead… OK, seriously, there are the tender moments, too; and entertaining dialogue and bizarre vocabulary for objects that no one has used in two-hundred years. Basically, it’s a learny kind of text, the kind that I will annotate. And it’s also erotica. So I am reading it with gusto, like all the other women in my family read it. Interestingly, none of these women ever said a single word about the copious sex scenes. I actually got lured into joining their porny book club by the assurance that I would learn a whole lot about how people lived in the eighteenth century. I really am a nerd, aren’t I?

Since my family appears to be too prudish to admit that there’s a heck of a lot more to this series than the rich descriptions of the stars in the sky and the blue lochs of Scotland in the eighteenth-century, I’ll go ahead and introduce the series on their behalf—there’s lots of sex. Tender sex, grimy sex, violent sex, any kind of sex. It’s there. But, oh boy, is it ever providing me with so much historical information. If you’ll excuse me, I have studying to do…

A little love for the teacher

I have a delicious morning routine that I have indulged to the fullest since I quit teaching in public schools. Twelve years of getting up before daylight, rushing out the door, and trying to map out the day ahead as I exited the highway with the sun’s just creeping up over the dead industrial horizon taught me how to really enjoy a slower morning.

Anyway, my morning routine goes something like this:

  1. I hit the snooze on my smartphone (the alarm is always set for a reasonable, productive hour) for an hour to an hour-and-a-half.
  2. I think about my dreams. I always have dreams.
  3. I talk to the animals that wander into the room and that finally inspire me to get up and let them out (I know I sound like lonely pet lady here, but I swear I have a husband. He just operates on an entirely different schedule.).
  4. I get up, let the dogs out, pour a cup of coffee, let the dogs in.
  5. I feed the dogs.
  6. I drink my coffee, pour another cup, and drink that while I skim headlines of various news apps on my Kindle.
  7. I choose the stories that interest me most, and I read them.
  8. I stop reading when I can no longer stand being stared at by two dogs that expect me to take them for a walk the minute I wake up, yet never do.
  9. I take the dogs for a walk.

After that, anything goes.   Often, if it’s a weekday, I spend a good chunk of that day preparing for my night classes—grading or tweaking lessons or creating ancillary materials or just generally staying ahead of the students. It’s what teaching should be. All teachers should be able to think during some point in the day and thoughtfully plan during others. Having that time allows us to connect with students and properly differentiate our instruction. It wasn’t until I had this kind of time to live my life AND teach that I realized that I’m a fairly effective instructor—student-centered, with progressive yet research-based methods that drive learning. How about that? It’s all about time.

Lack of time is the elephant in the room that American educators rarely talk about above the grassroots levels, the “trenches,” if you will. It’s one of those things that just about every other developed country on this earth (and many developing countries) including China provide for their teachers. Not every country provides the kind of time off for students and teachers that the U.S. does, but believe me, Uncle Sam and his league of state legislators have found a way to make teachers pay and pay for those extra weeks in the winter and summer. Given the average quite shitty teacher pay rates that rarely keep up with inflation or rising insurance costs, those two months in the summer, if you can afford to take them (and most younger teachers don’t because they need to make extra money), feel more like rehab than a vacation.

I will go back to public schools, I will do it all over again if I can just show up at a reasonable hour and teach a reasonable number of classes a day with a reasonable number of students in them, and attend a reasonable number of meetings and spend a reasonable amount of time planning instead of whatever bullshit the administration needs me to do to keep the school running on a skeleton crew. My last school (and this wasn’t where I spent the bulk of my career, but a place where I dipped my toes after taking a significant amount of time out of the public school arena. As soon as I saw the writing on the wall, during the first week of my tenure, I officially resigned) had teachers doing the jobs of the custodial crew.

I will do it all over again, I suppose, when pigs fly. Maybe when hell freezes over… ok, that’s enough clichés. Six and counting (Can you find the other three?!).

The sad thing is, when I left that last school, the one I mentioned above—where, incidentally, I ended up spending a month-and-a-half because my principal, literally, wouldn’t let me leave—the friends I’d made on the faculty and staff didn’t hide their envy of me or their dissatisfaction with the way things were. More than one single or widowed mother told me, “I don’t blame you. I could do it, if I would.” The way they looked at me when I said I was leaving might have resembled how a prisoner looks at her cellmate when she’s about to be released, or like a soldier might look at his fellow who is about to finish a tour. Probably shouldn’t be that way.

There are other jobs that teachers can do, depending on the subjects they teach. English teachers have the flexibility to get into writing and publishing fields or to pursue a higher degree and transition into law or project management or something.   Math and science teachers have a wider range of possibilities. I’ve seen young teachers transition out of the field rather smoothly. The older you get, though, the harder it is to make that transition into an entry-level field where you have no experience. I have all my eggs in one basket (Cliché number six, POW!), so I’m staying in this field, albeit part-time. My colleagues above who envied my escape are staying in this field, full-time. Our lives are very different from one another’s.

I could say so much more. The English teacher always can. Honestly, I don’t want every teacher to transition out of the field. Who does? We’re needed. We’re just not loved.