Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Law of Unintended Consequences

Recently, I posed what I thought was a fairly innocuous question on Facebook: if you could go back to a single day in high school, what would it be, and why? The reaction was, in a word, visceral and totally opposite of what I expected. The majority of responses were that high school was a hellish abyss and that under no circumstances would a single day of it be worth reliving.

Wow. I thought my life sucked then...in fact, being at school was fairly good as long as I could avoid my bullies and the two or three teachers who openly disliked me (NB: most teachers don't appreciate it if you're smarter and/or more sarcastic than they are). It was the going home part that sucked, and of course, my senior year, when my circle of friends changed dramatically.

High school for me was about the people. My sister recently said she felt that I was "socially retarded" in high school because the 'normal' social opportunities weren't really open to me. Say what? She was a freshman my senior year, so she missed the more halcyon years of my social life, i.e., freshman through junior years. I was not popular in the standard sense, but I was well-known. I had friends...but not the kind who had sleepovers or wild parties- and I've never thought that I missed out. I went to the prom three years in a row, attended almost every dance unless I was grounded or sick, and was in several clubs and activities. Until my senior year, I had plans every weekend that I wasn't on the road with the band.

Yes, I was bullied. I've written about it before. Both of my bullies were vicious, particularly the one in my own class. She specialized in social assassination- by the time the field was clear for her to do her worst, though, my social circle had contracted and it was pretty hard to attack me on that basis. The friends I had in our class and those who were younger are people I'd known most of my life and who really weren't into those politics. My sister, however, felt it necessary to defend me to The Clique, since she moved in that circle more than I did- not sure why, since I could've cared less. I'd already been to college. The handwriting was on the wall: in a few months, they would cease to exist in my world. I was over them.

The people who remember you, especially those who remember you fondly, are the ones who should matter. They're probably the ones who have pictures of you in awkward moments, like crossing your eyes or falling on your face in the bleachers on a band trip. They remember the Flock of Seagulls hair and don't judge you for it; they laugh because they know that you also remember their mullets, spike 'do's, legwarmers and knitted neckties, or the time everybody tried to bleach their hair with Sun In and it turned orange. They're the ones who made it bearable when nothing else was...

I don't dismiss or diminish in any way the things that happened to a couple of people who responded. An excellent memory is more of a curse sometimes than a blessing, and servavi occulto... I know many of us had our own private hells, some of which became public over time, with far-reaching, resonant consequences for all within the blast zone. We all wore the mask. We all learned that the public face and the private grief must be kept separate at all times. It hasn't killed us yet- and we carry both the scars and the lessons forward so that those tragedies do not re-manifest in the lives we have made for ourselves.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Just Us Chickens

I'm home in Smalltownland, albeit briefly, to make sure my folks have enough food from the nearby Wally World to get through the latest impending Snowpocalypse...it's supposed to snow most of the coming week, and I want to make sure they have milk, bread, and toilet paper, the sacred triumvirate of houseboundness back here.

I knew I'd reached the county line when I noticed, rambling around in somebody's driveway near the road, a rather large, beautiful chicken. Since it was a lone bird, marching proudly around a house that had no obvious coops out back, I think it's probably a pet. Too bad, really, because it was a nice, big one. She'd make a pretty good meal.

That takes me back to when I moved over to Lake Redneckville for my current job. Every morning, I'd hear a rooster crowing not far from my house. Not that I find this particularly disturbing, since we lived on a ridge overlooking, among others, my high school principal's farm and roosters are a fact of life in the country- it's just that I lived smack in the middle of town.

One day, a couple of weeks after I moved into the house, I cut across a small, winding street next to the city cemetery, which beats braving the twenty-some-odd traffic lights that slow one down on US 27, when I passed a flattened miniature Rhode Island Red rooster...I could tell by the squished rusty body and the forlorn plume of green tailfeathers bobbing in the wind.

Yes, I'd finally moved into town...a block away from someone with a coop full of banty chickens. It gave me a weird sense of comfort, until it was reported later that day that someone had caught a small black bear rummaging through their trash, also about a block from my house in another direction.

Coyotes I can take, but bears, not so much. I don't keep long arms, that is to say, I own neither a shotgun nor a rifle. A handgun is somewhat ineffective against the ursine among us, and besides, we don't have bears back home. That's an Eastern Kentucky thing.

Anyway, from time to time back here in Smalltownland, you do come upon (though not so much anymore) a chicken squashed by the side of the road where the owners just let them scratch in the yard all day. Chickens aren't very bright and it's irrelevant why they crossed the road- too often, they don't make it to the other side. I'm wondering if that beautiful speckled hen is going to be ambulatory by the time I go home tonight...

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Plumbing Follies

I live in an old house, such as are subject to little foibles including weird, tiny rooms, odd built-in shelves, no closets, cave crickets coming up through the vents from the former coal cellar...and...

Tiny pipes.

In all fairness to my much-beloved, long-suffering landlord (two appliances and new central air in the last eighteen months), he re-plumbed the place after he bought it. However, who knows what eons of junk are clogging up my drains?

We had septic out on the farm, so my grandmother taught me to be especially careful about what goes down the drains. I keep a grease jar- yesssss, I believe I just heard you all say, "Eeew!", dear readers- next to the stove, scrape the plates in to the trash, and run some pre-emptory Drano through every few months. This little snafu, however, is beyond the power of household chemicals. What we have here is a job for the most expensive of all home services aside from HVAC: the plumber.

The pastor of my church when I was a teenager was the son of a plumber, something of which he was mightily ashamed. My friend Shane's dad was the campus plumber for a small elite private college in their town, and by dint of his employment there and the nature of it, he really pushed his son to get a degree...I remember Shane telling me that his daddy never wanted him to have to crawl around under somebody else's house in the dead of winter trying to unclog their pipes. The way I look at it is this: if not for skilled tradespeople who know their business, those of us who know NOTHING about real plumbing issues would be in a lot of trouble. Even if your expertise is not something white-collar, well, it's no reason for anyone to look down their noses at it, because they most likely couldn't do what you do if they tried.

I hate telling my landlord, the pastor of a small country church, about this, especially because just calling the plumber to look is going to cost a small fortune. Unfortunately, this is beyond the mad skills of the Self-Rescuing Princess, although I did actually purchase and use a toilet augur to try to resolve this myself. How's that for using my vast overcredentialing? :/

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Talisman

This is a St. Christopher medal, very similar to the one I've had since 1990. The translation from the Greek is "Christ-bearer"...

Yesterday, I was watching the great Mira Nair film "The Namesake", adapted from Jhumpa Lahiri's excellent 2004 novel. There's a scene in which the widowed mother announces that she's returning to India, and her daughter-in-law says,"Oh, like your name," and then explains that Ashima means 'free spirit'. I got up to go to the kitchen and said aloud to myself, "Eh, like Christopher means 'Christ-bearer'," and I froze.

My mind flashed to the small gold medallion sitting in a ring tray on my bureau, and to the exact timeframe in which I obtained it...right after my big undergraduate flameout, just before my parents put me on a plane to London.

Recently, my sister told me she felt that I didn't trust anyone. It's not a hundred percent accurate, but it's close. I trust a very, very few people- somewhere around the same number that I actually, as one of my friends once said, let in enough to really know me (she's someone who spent high school mildly disliking me for that reason, and then got closer to me as an adult).

As I was drifting through the house last night, it struck me that there was a deeply buried reason that I'd worn that little medal for ten straight years. It was my talisman, it was my trust, and it was the thing that made me feel safe for reasons that I couldn't admit to anyone, least of all myself.

I went to the United Kingdom and visited all the deeply nerdy shrines: the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert, Stonehenge, Cambridge, the End of the World, the Houses of Parliament, the Inns of Court, and, oddly, Torquay...home of Agatha Christie. I was only close to one person who might have found any or all of that interesting, like my weekly visits to look at the Domesday Book, Magna Carta, and the Lindisfarne Gospels- but I was the proverbial stranger in a strange land. I knew a couple of the people in the group and made three or four friends after I got there, but I was a little lost- except for St. Chris. He was always with me.

Strangely enough, I went through another series of dramatic changes before I landed in my current job, ten and a half years ago. I'd largely stopped wearing the medal during the first year, although my return to the U.K. caused me to put it back on. By then, it felt a little incongruent, as if I'd let go of a certain level of fear in my life. When I got back, I consigned it to the ring tray- and there it is, even today.

We create our own heroes, our own safety blankets; we cling to things when we should've let them drift into the past long ago. Often we don't realize that we're doing it, and in this case, the second layer of meaning took me quite by surprise. I went to the bureau and dusted the St. Christopher off, turning it over to look at the tiny dent left by a friend's overly curious Cockatiel, and recognized, at last, that it had quieted my mind and spirit over the many years that have intervened.

I don't know what it really means. It tires me to even think about it. I'm angry with myself for not seeing it before now, not that it makes much difference...but be careful who you make your saints, for men have feet of clay.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Get off of me, cat!!!

I live in a drafty old two-story bungalow of uncertain vintage that has a gas furnace...which is great, until you consider how much heat escapes in spite of the storm windows and insulation. The thermostat is set on 62', which still brings down a gas bill of around $150 per month in the winter.

In addition to my two Airedales, I have three cats. In the winter, they all want to sleep with me, or rather, on me. Each of my cats has some less-than-endearing qualities, and although I love them, there are things I could live without. They're all rescues, all neutered, and don't always get along with one another...the two tomcats are fine, but the third cat, a Tortoise female, hates the others, the dogs, and everyone in the universe except me.

The smallest of the three, an aging grey tabby named Gus, has a really high specific gravity- he's not a big cat, but he can effectively concentrate all of his mass into a single point, usually when he's decided that he needs to sleep on my legs or shoulder. Despite having come declawed and fixed, Gus has a serious need to mark things: furniture, walls, doors, the dogs- he'll back right up to their crates and loose his contempt when he knows that they can't do anything about it. It's not that the dogs have ever even tried to hurt him; Gus is the Alpha Male in the household and he wants you to know it. I love this cat, but the pee drives me nuts.

Frosty the Siamese, aka "Not So Secret Asian Cat", is the only one who isn't declawed. He uses his claws for two things: shredding my furniture and fighting off the Tortoise cat, who has a nasty notch in her right ear because she pushed him too far a few years ago. He's an extremely affectionate cat, but typical of his breed, very demanding. He can hear my mother on the phone (when she isn't on the speaker) and will howl until I put her on speaker so he can talk to her. He's the one who gets up on the bed and punches me in the shoulder at 6:00 a.m. because he thinks it's time to get up. Don't kid yourself; Siamese cats can make a pretty good fist, and it hurts.

The third, and the only girl, is Skeezix. She came from my former dean, not long after my first cat, Mr. Cat, died from respiratory complications of FIV (I actually adopted him because he was an AIDS kitty and I didn't have other cats at the time- FIV is not zoonotic and can't pass to dogs). I should've known she was trouble because the first picture I ever saw was of her sitting in a dish drainer. She's the median-size cat in the household, a door-opener, and generally angry at the world. She's also a slob; the boys let her have her own ladies' room because she doesn't tend her litterbox very well. She insists on kneading my shoulders at night until I push her down to the end of the bed. There's also nothing quite like being asleep and hearing a low, feral growl from the area by my feet, followed by hissing, spitting, and angry screeching.

I've been sick since before Christmas, so going to bed and having three cats march around on top of me is not my idea of rest. Last night, Gus decided to tough it out on the back of the couch and leave the bed to the Tortoise and Siamese. After being smacked around a bit by the girl cat, Frosty decided that the path of least resistance lay just above my head. I felt something suddenly weigh down the pillow, so I flipped on the lamp to discover him sitting bolt-upright on the top edge, giving his best impression of Bastet, the cat goddess of ancient Egypt.

It was a tactical error on my part. Skeezix usually sleeps on the pillows on the other side of the bed, so seeing Frosty perched in that spot set her off. I heard, "ROWWRRR! FFFFFTTT!" about a split second before she charged full-tilt at my head, wailing in fury. I may have been half-asleep, but a demonically-possessed bare-fanged kitty rushing at my face engendered reaction: I slung her off into the floor, then swatted Frosty down from his perch. Both immediately returned to the bed to renew the power struggle- but I'd had enough for one night. I called the dogs.

My dogs are actually very fond of the cats, but here's the thing: they like to pet the cats on the head, which my mother says is probably akin to being hit with a sledgehammer. It's really cute, but the cats hate it. As Sister appeared in the bedroom doorway, ready to launch herself onto the bed, both cats spat angrily and took off to their respective hiding places. Somewhere across the house, I thought I could hear Gus laughing quietly to himself.

Naturally, in the morning, I awoke to find both of them back in the bed, and Sister on the floor beside it. I love my cats, but there are some things I can live without...I call them my Crazy Cat Lady Starter Kit, and they're it for me. I'm a dog person at heart, so no more cats when these have passed on to the Great Catnip Farm in the Sky.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Name Game

I was thrilled last year when a friend of mine named her newborn son for her late father and grandfather. Their name was Samuel, and they were called Big Sam and Sammy, respectively. As a friend of mine (he's a Navy veteran and his wife is Japanese) once said about their choice in naming their son Samuel, so he'd be called "Sam", there's no more wholesome, American name than "Sam". The trendy name thing kind of blows me away, especially since my family is famous for its old-fashioned, restrictive Southern nomenclature. I'm really turning into my mother.

The names themselves aren't the only thing that should concern prospective parents, though. Kids will latch onto anything they find remotely funny. For example, Hopkins' actual initials are three C's (and he's in possession of the loveliest and most lyrically alliterative of full names). Only among our peer group would that have been a source of entertainment- in what other realm of possibility would kids tease somebody about the Civilian Conservation Corps? Well, nerds- big ol' we-can't-escape-the-gravitational-pull-of-our-own-geekdom-nerds...

What I'm getting at here is that parents should consider what a child's initials spell or represent, if anything. I don't think my parents really gave it much thought that Little Sister's initials spelled 'ahh' before she married, let alone that she might marry a man whose last name is spelled with an S. Yes, that's right: my sister hyphenates, so her full initialism is 'ahhs'- let the L. Frank Baum jokes begin! My mother once talked a friend, whose last name began with S, out of naming her son 'Andrew Simpson'. I'll let you mull that one over a minute or two.

A long time ago I blogged about a student of ours who named his daughter an anagram of Dracula. Turns out that his girlfriend is expecting their second, so this morning's office conversation revolved a little around what they might choose next. My immediate votes went to Viktor, Lycan, or Lucian, if it's a boy this time. Of course, I'm not going to tell the father any of this because he's likely to take it seriously. There are definitely worse things than strange initials...

Just to round things out a little, having a double-Mary name, I go by both the double name and my initials, which happen to be 'MT'- get it, 'empty'?- and in high school, I made the mistake of dating a boy named Edgar Head. Had I married him, I would've been...drumroll please:

Empty Head.

If you've met him, you probably know I would've wholly deserved it for such folly.

Happy Monday, all, and Happy Semester to my fellow academics!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Fly, Blackbird, Fly Away if You Can

Redwinged blackbirds have a special place in my personal iconography.

Someone close to me suffered a scalp laceration in high school that was subsequently treated with peroxide...and if you've ever seen badly bleached brunette hair, you know that it can turn a spectrum of color between orange and bright yellow, much like the aforementioned bird's wing. It's visible in his senior picture, long lost in my high school scrapbook, although I'm not likely to forget it anyway.

There were redwinged blackbirds on our farm, which is northwest of the town where I grew up. I loved seeing them, and I've blogged before about my excitement at discovering a tiny colony of these marsh-dwellers in a drainage plain in the town where I now live. I attribute this esoteric attachment to certain regional wildlife to my awkward relationship with my father, whose first inclination was zoology, not medicine. I could always sit still for his full academic descriptions of the local flora and fauna, when other children probably wouldn't have.

Now the blackbirds are dying, by the thousands. They just dropped out of the sky a few days ago in a big clump, victims of what's been described in the press as blunt force trauma. A second smaller kill of both redwinged blackbirds and grackles happened a few days later in the Western Coalfield region of Kentucky. It depresses me.

I have found and lost the blackbirds so many times. I know it would be easier if I didn't care so much about them, the avian and the human.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Kink in the Works

About five and a half years ago, I had weight loss surgery- I have a LapBand. For a long time, I had relatively few complications, although eating the 'wrong' foods (fibrous or dry meats, some vegetables) resulted in what WLS patients refer to as 'PB' ("productive burp", food coming up that never made it past the band), 'sliming' (mucous production related to PBing), and sometimes, actual vomiting.

In the last year, a new protocol requiring an annual upper GI series for WLS patients has been issued, so off to the radiology center I went just before Christmas. Yesterday, I got my results:

I have both a hiatal hernia and GERD.

First of all, I developed peptic ulcers my junior year of high school. In the Dark Ages before they expelled students for having an aspirin on their person, I carried a pharmaceutical stock bottle of Tagamet in my purse, along with a similar giant bottle of Motrin 800 for my arthritis. The ulcers returned (no surprise here) in grad school. Given that I've had digestive acid issues since I was about sixteen, GERD isn't much of a shock. The hernia's a different story.

The more I research this, the more I'm discovering about what happens to Bandsters who get hiatal hernias...and, quelle horreur, some of them end up having their bands removed. If that's necessary in my case, well, I guess I'm going to convert to Roux-en-Y gastric bypass if my insurance will cover it. Can you tell I'm excited? Meh.

The only bright spot in this is that good ol' Weird Al has this one covered from back in the day, with his James Brown parody, "Living With a Hernia". Ow.

Monday, January 3, 2011

We Haven't Come a Long Way, Baby

Once upon a time, a lifetime ago, I spent most of a spring and summer touring around the Southeast interviewing for jobs. Only two jobs outside the region ever garnered an application: Stephens College, in Missouri, and Hanover College, in Indiana. Stephens was a particularly memorable trip for a couple of reasons: they'd insisted that I fly into the tiny regional airport in Columbia (hello, Tom Nevers Field) versus ground transportation from St. Louis, reasoning that it would be more efficient, but they didn't count on an electrical storm that pinned me down in St. Louis for an extra five hours- or our pilot taking off through a thunderhead in a twelve seat commuter prop-jet. They also didn't count on my return flight from Columbia to St. Louis being cancelled, resulting in my barely making the last flight to Louisville that night.

I was not amused. Ten minutes after I got to campus, I just wanted to go home.

The situation when I arrived was one of, errr, decay. Private colleges, particularly single-sex colleges, have to fight for their bread. Several buildings were shuttered. Some had been sold; the college couldn't afford their operational expenses anymore. Questions about the library budget were met with evasion; the fact that they relied on the nearby public university to meet their students' research needs (partly because they couldn't or wouldn't fund minimal necessary technologies) was unacceptable from both institutional and accreditation standpoints. The enrollment was tanking. The endowment was crumbling.

In private higher ed, the endowment is do or die, and thus in 2010 Stephens found itself accepting a "challenge" from an alumna who dangled a million-dollar "gift" before them if the faculty and staff agreed to diet and lose a minimum total of 300lbs. by the beginning of 2011, and there was an additional bonus of $100K if the president lost 25lbs. . They contend that the 80 year-old alumna is interested in better nutrition and lifestyle habits, not superficial weight loss. I'm on board with the faction who believe that this is a completely irresponsible idea to which a women's college should subscribe in an age of increasing eating disorders among young women and girls.

I was shocked to learn, when I was a graduate intern in a women's college library, that they had once had a weight requirement for admissions. Some of the letters from the applicants' doctors describing them in condescending terms, if they were overweight, as having 'college potential' in spite of their lack of self-control and obvious laziness were appalling. Well, I guess everything old is new again- Stephens is about a half-step from a big chunk of endowment funding being tied to a similar requirement. It's setting a dangerous trend- society censures those who are considered 'less than average' in looks, so I wonder: is college, especially at women's colleges, supposed to return to an exclusive preserve of 'pretty girls'?

The alumna in question is 80 years old, five years older than my mother. That means she started college around 1947, when such attitudes were normal and pervasive. If you need a media illustration, rent "Mona Lisa Smile" and observe how the 'fat' character (Connie) is treated by some of her peers. She's a good person, talented musician, and a sweet, kind girl, but she's been indoctrinated to the notion that she's a second-class citizen because she's 'overweight and unattractive'...buying into it almost loses her the boy she'll eventually marry. It may seem cruel, but that mentality was still firmly in place in the Eighties; by sheer force of personality, I bulldozed my way past a small handful of bigoted junior high and high school teachers and fought my way through the overwhelming looksism of an SEC university to get an actual education, even if my social life was on the fringes.

Trust me, Stephens desperately needs the money. It's just that the conditions attached to it are degrading to women who are supposed to be role models of professional and educational attainment...proof that we haven't come as far as we thought, baby.