Saturday, December 24, 2011

Physician, Heal Thyself

My father's best friend died today, proving that doctors are disinclined to seek treatment for themselves and also that medicine, at the end of the day, is a complete and utter crapshoot. I loved Boochie. He was my GP, not to mention the mitigator of my father's famously bad temper and intercessor on our behalf for all kinds of things, from ear-piercing (which he did in his office, btw) to my weight loss surgery. My sister and his daughter, who is also a general practitioner, are the same age and were classmates-she was valedictorian, while Little Sister was Homecoming Queen. His son is one of those rare children I actually liked and did not fear; I was rather fond of Little William. I honestly can't say that about most children. I was born old, i.e., I acted like I was forty when I was four, and therefore other children frightened me. I still won't hold babies for fear of dropping them on their little heads- but I hauled William around with impunity.

When Boochie's grandson, Avery, was born, my father immediately went to Wal-Mart and purchased two things: a baseball glove and a Red Ryder BB Gun. I am not kidding. My father coveted the Red Ryder BB Gun when he was a boy, but his family did not have the means to get him one; instead, he got a single-action Daisey, which was not nearly as cool. Since neither my sister nor I are poised to reproduce, Dad made certain that the only infant in his immediate orbit got that BB gun. He's crazy about this kid. Seriously, the man who had a fit because one of his Army buddies had to show him how to change my diaper when my mother was gone for a little while is NUTS about his best friend's infant grandchild.

One of their weirder joint projects was growing pumpkins. They decided that pumpkins would be a good idea because they hunted deer. Deer eat pumpkins, plus, bonus: they wouldn't have to pay for pumpkins at Halloween. It sort of backfired- they had a bumper crop of pumpkins, the enormous ones that sell for twenty or thirty dollars, and no way to get rid of them. Boochie's parents lived on the main drag headed toward the high school and near the city elementary. They pulled a pumpkin-laden trailer into the yard, and told his mother (a retired teacher known to everyone) to charge whatever she thought was fair. Word got out that Miss Cleo was selling giant pumpkins for $2-5 each, and it was a madhouse. They got rid of the pumpkins, though.

About a year ago, I had a painful ganglion cyst about the size of a ping pong ball pop up on the inside of my left wrist. I'm left-handed and do quite a bit of computer-based work, plus the thing caused three of my fingers to go numb on a daily basis. It just kept getting bigger, so I sucked it up and went to see Boochie. He came into the examining room a little grey-faced and short of breath, manipulated my wrist and then explained it's what they used to call a "Bible cyst" because the old folks would just whack 'em with the family Bible to burst them. He offered to refer me to a surgeon to have it taken off; when the appointment concluded, I walked down the hall to Dad's office and asked him if Boochie was sick.

This all happened so fast. Many of his health problems mirrored my mother's, but she's also more than twenty years older. My father was home having lunch and got a call from the office staff to come quick, something was wrong. Shortly thereafter, they airlifted Boochie to a hospital with an advanced surgical unit that was supposed to be able to treat him. The spirit may have been willing, but the flesh was weak. They were unable to save him.

It is an incredible loss to everyone: the town, the patients, the medical community, but most of all, to the people who loved him. My father has difficulty getting close to people, but he was close to Boochie. I overheard my parents' conversation at the table: "I can't believe it. I can't believe Boochie's dead." "The last time I saw him, he waved to me from the end of the hall. He was talking to a patient. The next time I saw him..." and Dad's voice trailed off. Then he added, "But it won't change anything. He's gone. He's gone."

Modern medicine is miraculous, but sometimes we don't get the miracles we want. I am reminded of something my childhood pastor once told me: "It's not that God doesn't answer your prayers. Sometimes, whether you like it or not, the answer is 'no'." There was just too much 'no' built into this equation. Why did a man who saved so many lives, who labored so long and hard in doing it that he ignored his own health, have to die? I have no answers; I only have questions, and pain.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Little Shop of Upstaging

I'm dogsitting with my sister's Golden Retriever, Jack, and have hung out with my friend Stefan for a couple of days. I miss Stef. Back in my late twenties, he hove into view as one of the huge cadre of work-study students in the library at the Baptist college where I worked. I didn't particularly like him at first because he could be a little whiny and a lot lazy when the mood took him. I recruited him to the academic team, and got to know him a little better. By my last semester there, we were cast together in a show. We were in the ensemble opener together, and each had a vocal feature in the same four-person number in the second act.

The student director for this show, Steven, took an immediate dislike to several of us whom he considered 'lily white' and 'useless'. Stefan, another friend called Cee, and I were voted "most likely to still be virgins" by the 'cool kids' in the cast...something that made Stefan angry but enraged Cee, an old-school Southern gentleman who was offended not only for himself, but also on my behalf. Even bringing it up (and it's been oh, almost twelve years ago now) in his presence sends him off into an angry diatribe to this day. It was Little Shop of Horrors, by the way. I was a hooker and Stef and Cee were bums in the opening act.

What Steven had failed to consider was that I was caught directly behind him in the spotlight during his vocal feature in "Skid Row". After the "Cast Virgins" incident, I decided to upstage him during his own number. As a director, he gave us little, if any, direction at all. I planned my moment carefully and didn't let anyone in on it until the night of the open full-dress rehearsal. They put the spot on him, and right over his shoulder, I pretended to chew gum, roll my eyes, yawn, adjust my stockings, and play with my hair. I could see his shoulders tensing because he couldn't figure out why the audience was laughing at him- it was a dramatic moment for his character- and he couldn't turn around to see what was going on behind him. I was so far back in the set that nobody could do it inconspicuously...ergo, he was ignorant of the fact until he saw the video footage several days after we closed and the set was struck.

As we watched the playback, the camera zoomed in on the hooker in question, eliciting a howl of anger from him. His sister was the videographer, and I'd drawn her attention from him to me. The shot corrected quickly, focusing back on Steven, but the damage was done. For every night of the run, I'd gotten a good laugh out of the crowd while he strutted and mugged, doing a poor imitation of Rick Moranis's film version of Seymour. Unpleasant realization dawned and he rounded on me, spluttering: "You, you did that on purpose!" I gave him a sickeningly sweet smile and said, "Tallulah Bankhead once glued the bottom of a glass that she proceeded to set on the edge of a cocktail table just before she left the stage. The audience was so busy staring at it that they ignored the rest of the scene."

He opened his mouth and closed it, setting his lips in a thin line of disgust. Without another word, he rose and stalked out of the theatre professor's office and didn't come back.

His acting career hasn't gone anywhere. In fact, he's basically sitting on his butt in his little hometown doing not much of anything important. Meanwhile, the Virginal Three are: a professional actor, an attorney, and a full professor...yeah, we're a bunch of losers, all right. *smirk*

Thursday, December 15, 2011

It's Easier to Leave Than to Return

I work with non-traditional college students on a daily basis; this began at Day One of my career, when I was interning at a women's college that had recently taken on a bunch of workforce retraining program students from a sewing factory nearby. They were mostly in the evening program, so between the two night sessions, they were in the library. I was the night supervisor, so I was in close contact with them for the semester that I was there. When I transitioned to my first professional job at the state's only Historically Black University, we still had a similar student cohort. Later in the year, I accepted a position at a denominational college close to where I grew up, and for the first time I was dealing primarily with traditional first-time eighteen to twenty year-old students...then the sewing factory closed, sending my classmates, friends, and in many cases, their parents and grandparents flocking to the college.

I've been with the state community college system for eleven years. Non-trads are the norm. I've advised both, and honestly, the adults are more focused. They know what they have to do, and are highly self-directed about doing it. Soon, Hopkins will join this cohort at the regional university to which he dispatched me with a protracted good-bye and a pat on the head for the summer before my senior year of high school.

When you're eighteen and you've been programmed all your life for the moment that you waltz off to college, and thus, the rest of your future, it's expected. You go on autopilot. You have benchmarks. You have checklists. You do X,Y, and Z on a specified schedule, and without disruption, you march across a stage and accept your sheepskin four years later. It's taken for granted that you'll do this from rote, and everything will be all right.

If only it were that easy. It's easier to say your good-byes, give your little speeches, cut your ties and launch yourself with the arrogance of the omniscient eighteen year-old high school senior than it is to take hat-in-hand, swallow your pride, and take your damaged ego into the minefield of undergraduate life at the dawn of middle age. The good news is that your intelligence doesn't just evaporate with time; it may be dormant, but I promise you, it's still there. You just have to access what's inherent within you, dust it off, and make use of it.

We have the advantage of age and wisdom, acquired by the hardest. We are not the wide-eyed virgins of academe. We have persevered. We will succeed. It has a price, but it will be worth it in the end. You're just going to have to trust me on this one.

I am prouder of him now that he's facing this at 43, than had he walked across a stage in Baltimore in four years at 22 as he was supposed to have done had everything gone according to plan. It's what we make of what we're dealt that defines us- and it was in him all along. I have always said that if he believed half as much in himself as I've always believed in him, there was nothing that he could not do. Sometimes it's good to actually be right; now that he's figured it out, there should be nothing that stops him.

Back to School

Somewhat because of Hopkins' late-breaking news of returning to college to, at long (effing) last finish his bachelors', I decided that if he could go back, I need to suck it up, retake the GRE, and apply for my doctorate.

In addition to my library science degree, I have a subject masters' in history. Near the end of the program, though, I suffered a burnout. I lost patience with the endless posturing and bickering of some of the more aggressive students and told my advisor that if I didn't do something else, I was going to stab somebody with a pen in the middle of a three hour seminar on Post-Modern Something-or-Other. That's how I ended up in library school; I took one class over there as a visitor and realized immediately, "These people like each other! They're nice to each other! Frabjous day! I want to like people again!!!" I applied for, and was accepted to, library school.

Now that I'm senior faculty and have developed a thick hide owing mostly to digging in my heels against rampant folly and time wastage while I've served on our faculty council, I think I can handle the adolescent bullcrap that any of the newly-minted MAs feel like tossing out on the table. That is to say, of course, I will not put up with their crap and will freely hand them their oversized heads on a plate as the situation dictates. In history, you don't have to like anybody, and moreover, you are supposed to knife each other in the back at every available opportunity. Heh, heh, heh...don't tempt me, Skippy, I'm older and I have more insurance- along with tenure and a full professorship. I don't have anything to prove, so you can save it for the more easily impressed or readily victimized.

I have a lot of stuff to do. Three letters of recommendation, a book review, finding a copy of my thesis to resubmit as a writing sample, and yay, reviewing my math for the GRE. The deadline for this year is February 15th, which I doubt that I'll make. I'll just keep plugging away at it until I get finished. If he has no excuse, neither do I. Where one went, the other was never far behind.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Happy Dance! Happy Dance!

Dear Western Kentucky University: I am rather pleased to notify you that one of my most cherished friends is headed your way to complete his bachelors' degree in computer science. If you could possibly figure out  some means by which I will not have to sit in L.T. Smith Stadium on those ungodly aluminum bleachers and roast for approximately three hours about a year and half from now during commencement, I'd appreciate it. Oh, and please, for the love of all that's holy, ask Hal Rogers to do the commencement speech. He's a lot shorter-winded than Mitch McConnell, who spoke at great, rather warm (as in the seventh circle of Hell hot) length a few years ago when one of my other dear friends was at the TAIL END of the line. Can you work out a processional whereby CIS comes in first, graduates first, and leaves first? I plan on leaving campus quickly and getting very, very drunk after this is over. You people just have no clue how long I have lived in the hope of that day. I guess I'll suffer if you're going to make me, but please, I'm not young anymore. Graduate him. Quickly.

Yrs. truly,

PS My sole consolation is that I'm not on WKU's faculty and I will have already done my duty in the Robes of Teflon the night before at commencement where I work. Ours is inside a building that has rather aggressive air conditioning and the world's most uncomfortable plastic folding chairs.


That is all.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

It's a Nice Day for a White Wedding

So I was greeted this morning by the information that the last single person besides me from our college Nerd Herd has gotten married. This, in fact, is the guy who was gentleman enough to squire me to a formal after hearing that I'd been savaged in front of my Honors class by a boy I'd thought of as a friend and learned otherwise in brutal fashion. That was a charming, funny evening in its own way; an engaged couple who were friends of ours kept telling us that we danced like their seventy year-old grandparents at a Country Club dance. We were so stiffly formal that a few people from a neighboring university's ballroom dance society came over and asked us to join their club. Whee! Hot-blooded, we weren't, but it was a dance, he was nice enough to go with me, and he even bought me a little wrist corsage. Most of all, he kept me from feeling like a complete loser.

I don't begrudge him at all. After all, this is someone who wanted to volunteer for military service so badly after 9-11 that he changed his entire lifestyle, got in shape, and became a Navy Corpsman. At Christmastime a few years ago, I was in a store in Lexington. I didn't know that he'd mustered home from Afghanistan at that point, and as I was paying for my purchases, I heard his voice. I kind of made an ass of myself, but what can I say? I was so relieved that he was home and in one piece. I am not a "touchy-feelie" person, but I ran over and threw my arms around him: "Omigod, omigod, omigod, YOU'RE HOME!!!" Holy crap, was I glad to see him.

So now he's married, and I'm the last (wo)man standing.

I was already a little down on myself because I was thinking about my lengthy failed engagement and what it cost me. For that long, fraught ten years, I had my piece of the rock: it was two carats, yellow band with a white six-prong head mount. It was my badge of honor- my concrete, visible proof to the world that I was not_a_loser. Unfortunately, there was once that it was too visible, and it broke a heart that I would never have injured...had I known that it would...I resigned myself to having made a mistake with which I had to live, up to and until the point that it became patently clear that my fiance' was disporting himself elsewhere. I just got tired of pretending I didn't know and trying to make it work. Girls, if he's cheating on you now, he's not going to stop just because he walked you to the church door-and in the end, it's better that I was so busy building my career that I hadn't married him. It's cheaper to break up than to get divorced.

Statistics favor my unmarried state, though, since more couples are choosing to cohabit rather than marry. Also, my LGBT friends can't, in most cases, get married, so I should really just shut up about it. Still, I feel like I've failed a little, like I wasn't good enough to find anyone willing to lower their standards to marry me. If I weren't so absorbed in this pity party, I should remind myself that a lot of women of great moment never married...after forcing myself to 'hit the marks' on everything else, that's the one I just didn't manage. At this age, it almost seems absurd to consider.

Monday, December 12, 2011

By the Numbers

As one of the "smart kids", I came to know my numbers and hate them intensely by the time I was in high school. To wit: my PSAT was abysmal because I had the flu and was vomiting into a trash can in the school library between sections. That finished me for the National Merit Scholar competition. My numbers weren't good.

I took the ACT for the first time in December of my junior year...little did I know, because my parents were displeased with my numbers, that this would herald the first of four attempts. I took it every time it was offered but one from December to December, concluding in the middle of my senior year. Statistically, as a faculty member and advisor, I can tell you that the best you should hope for on a standardized test by retaking it is about a two point (ACT) to five percent (SAT) jump. In other words, it doesn't really justify retaking it over and over and over and over and over.

From the point that my scores were returned, because back in those days the tests were hand-scored and it took a month or more to get them back via snail mail, I became the number. To paraphrase an admissions officer's line from "How I Got Into College": "It would be so much easier if they'd just have their (SAT) scores tattooed to their foreheads!" I not only knew my numbers, I knew my friends', as well. We were our numbers- and to some degree, still are.

Not that I was a stranger to this concept; my number, prior to the advent of the PSAT, ACT, SAT, and subject boards (now called the SAT II) in my life, was my Stanford-Binet score, or rather, the lack thereof. I've blogged about that previously- I was literally off the scale, but my folks told me it was a modestly high 165. It's really over 200; they didn't tell me because they didn't want me to be egotistical about it.

What prompted this introspection was that a friend of mine proctored the December seating of the ACT and was shocked by the intensity of the students who were taking it at the crack of dawn. I found myself explaining to her that the bright kids live and die by those numbers; they determine your entire future...what scholarships you get, where you go to school, ultimately the path your life will take the minute you cross the stage to accept your high school diploma.

My number, by the way, is 28, unenhanced, because ACT added a three point curve a couple of years after I took it, so for my sister's class, my 28 was actually a 31. An 'old 28', combined with my previous college grades, high school grades, and activities resume', was enough to buy my undergraduate education. I blew the curve on the Western Civ I CLEP after my freshman year, scoring highest in the country on that test for that seating, securing an A in the course. After that, though, I suffered a nervous breakdown my junior year, which had a deleterious effect on my standardized test-taking.

During my bleak, terrifying junior year of college, while I was still in therapy, I started taking the LSAT and GRE. My first set of scores on both, which I took on consecutive weekends, were not what I wanted and did not reflect my ability. My second LSAT was disrupted by a fire alarm malfunction in the building, so we had to re-take the whole thing over again, and the third...well, let's just say I thought I had nailed the hell out of the writing sample and didn't do as well as I'd thought. The GRE was okay, but still not up to my usual scratch. I was forced to re-take it by my Director of Graduate Studies in history to 'get the numbers up', only to be fully admitted to program three weeks before my scores posted. What a waste of money...

What I'd tell these kids is yes, I know, I understand. I'm sufficiently scarred by my experience that I know what it means to sit awake all night, go to the test at the break of dawn, and throw up all afternoon after it's over. I carry those numbers, along with all of my relevant GPAs, class ranks, and credentials in my head. Wouldn't it be lovely if I didn't feel obligated to do so? There are so many other things I'd rather remember instead, things by which I'd prefer to be haunted...I am more than the sum of the numbers that were used to define me for someone else's convenience.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Does This Mean I Won?

Sometimes, you have to be willing to throw yourself on your sword. I learned to do it when I was fifteen or so, when it occurred to me that The Ego of Hopkins would not be thwarted by a Girl Who Might Be Smarter. While I didn't go around twirling my hair and drooling idiotically in a corner, I did back off a bit on anything that might be perceived as outshining him.

At the present date, he has only himself to blame for the fact that I can't avoid it. As part of the slightly histrionic little speech he delivered on the night he graduated from high school, he informed me that I had to move forward with my own life once he was gone. Well, dammit, I did what I was told. Here I am, Professor AiredaleGirl. What's worse is that I'm not really in the mood to apologize...this is the monster he created.

So when I heard from him about a year and a half ago, I began testing my depth.

That IT position did materialize, and much to my shock, he has applied for it. We are rushing headlong toward the interview phase; what's more, he actually has a pretty good shot at this. That makes me a little nervous for a lot of reasons, although if he's offered an interview, I think I'll strategically arrange to be out that day.

The odd e-mail every once in a blue moon is okay; seeing him in person absolutely destroys me. I keep telling myself that I have to face my fears, regardless of the form they take, but facing the cold fact that we're pretty much still estranged from one another is a bit more than I can handle. Don't get me wrong, I hope he gets the job because he needs it...but this is the monster I created. I'm not sure I can deal with that responsibility.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Lowest Common Denominator

First grade bored me out of my skull. My teacher was a dear, sweet lady known for her patience and the sea of jonquils that bloomed in her front yard on the ridge above town every spring. I was more than she was equipped to handle, and when I couldn't understand why she kept punishing me for drawing in the margins of my paper or singing softly to myself while we colored or such, I'd first go silent and angry, and then burst into wailing sobs. She'd set me in the hallway in my desk, where eventually, the principal, whose office was next door, would find me and bring me inside to tell him what I'd done this time. This was a pattern that repeated itself all the way through the third grade, until he became the superintendent.

What this taught me was that teachers play favorites, and they often dislike bright students, especially the hyper-intelligent. If the child gets bored, and begins to entertain him- or herself because the assignment was unchallenging and/or too quickly finished, the child is a "disruption" and a "problem". Nothing changed from Day One until the moment that I graduated from graduate school. Yes, I had a great many instructors who were kind, understanding, challenging, and who genuinely liked me, and I treasure every single one of them because they constituted the minority.

That's 'play' in the present tense because one of my friends is fighting with the principal of her youngest's academic magnet school for gifted students because the above-described is both her teacher's (as well as his) perception of the little girl's behavior. I can tell you what's happening; she's BORED. If this is allegedly an elite, academically-rigorous environment, clearly her intellect is not being sufficiently challenged. Instead of questioning their own shortcomings, however, the ignorati running this school have decided to blame the child. They're threatening expulsion. What's going to happen when she ends up in a regular public school, where she's at least a semester to a year ahead of the others in her age-appropriate grade? It will exacerbate her ADHD, that's what.

It is neither moral, professional, ethical, nor fair to behave in this manner; they're playing dice with this child's future. That this principal dared look my friend in the eye and say he did not know what attention deficit hyperactivity disorder was is nothing short of criminal, let alone stupid to a quantum degree. He holds a doctorate from a (granted, fourth-rate) College of Education at a regional university, and yet he is unaware of ADHD? He needs to be stripped of all of his degrees and fired. That's not just irresponsible, it's dangerously ignorant.

The absolute worst aspect of this is that the child in question is about to be robbed of her self-esteem, dignity, and educational opportunity at the administrative equivalent of gunpoint...and it makes me weep that it's because she's not more sheep-like. Even for the brightest students, it's still forbidden to be nonconformist. I was always taught that the difference between democracy and communism was that democracy was equality of opportunity, and communism is equality of result. Apparently it's still not the case in public education. I'd make a crack about it being Tennessee, but given that a friend of mine went through this here in Kentucky (his child is interviewing at MIT this month) to such a degree that he moved to Florida to escape it, it's just not funny or appropriate.