Friday, June 03, 2016

An Ounce of Prevention


From my earliest memories up to my mid-30s, I never had any serious medical issues. Sure, I’ve been stitched up a time or two, broken an arm and I have been pretty sick a handful of times, but nothing really all that serious. Even when I had my wisdom teeth pulled at 18 years-old, I was only mildly sedated and given a local anesthetic. I remember it clearly; I was awake the whole time. It wasn’t until much later in life that I was in a position to need fluids intravenously (anaphylactic shock due to an allergic reaction to over-the-counter medication). I was in, fixed up and out within a couple of hours at a clinic. But that’s the extent of it. Until I was 37, I had never spent the night in a hospital as a patient.

All of that radically changed on October 17th, 2000. I was in a terrible automobile accident that should have killed me. It didn’t, but the hospital and all that goes with it became a real, constant and integral part of my life. I’ve written extensively about that wreck in my blog (this link has links to most of those posts), this is not about that, exactly. But it is about medical procedures and some of the nuances that never meant all that much to me prior. Among them is a simple revelation that only those who have been in the hospital for a sufficiently long period of time get it. We are the people who understand what the hospital means more intimately than anyone else. It’s not the doctors, the nurses, the x-ray and MRI techs, it’s not the family members who come to visit. Everyone else - everyone else - gets to go home. We don’t. We are there 24/7 and there is nothing we can say about it. We, who have been hospitalized for long periods of time, know it in a way no one else can. And it sucks.

I was there for about three months, five weeks of which I was in a “medically induced coma.” That’s pretty much a euphemism for being sedated into oblivion. I spent those five weeks in la-la land, somewhere between totally unconscious and semiconscious. They were the easiest weeks. After they brought me out of it, I was still put back under general anesthesia regularly for various procedures related to my recovery. When I was finally released, my hospital days were not over yet - I had to go back for procedures that took anywhere from a day to more than a week. Thankfully it’s been about 15 years since I’ve been hospitalized or needed a general anesthetic.
When I was conscious and I knew I would be “going under,” I found the experience not at all unpleasant. The unpleasantness either preceded whatever procedure I was going to have or came about a day later in the form of pain (or both), but I came to enjoy the “going under” and waking up part. Often, when I woke up, there would be new stuff about me (external fixator removal and the reversal of my colostomy were two procedures that made huge improvements). It was kind of exciting and not at all unpleasant. If nothing else, it was a break in the routine. Of course, by this time I knew hospitals and I knew what to expect.

In two days I will be “put under” for the first time in 15 or so years. It’s nothing serious, in fact, it’s a good thing. I am getting a colonoscopy because at my (ahem) advanced age, it’s considered a very good idea. It is not, however, the first time I have been “scoped.” Because my injuries in that accident resulted in a temporary colostomy, I was scoped fairly often. The procedure was never a problem and going under was, as I mentioned, something I had grown to enjoy. The prep for it is similar to what I have to do for this one. I’ll be drinking a ton of “purging fluid” and dealing with the, um, fallout. For those who have been there, you know, but imagine if you will what that looks like when the “exit” has been moved to your abdomen. No fun, but then they put me under and I was in my happy place again.

It’s been a long time. It was more than 37 years before my first hospital stay and it’s been around 15 since my last. I don’t know what I liked so much about going under and I am not exactly looking forward to it. The procedure itself? It is what it is. It’s an ounce of prevention. I can say with conviction that, although I know hospitals like only those who have lived in one do, and while I am not going into anything remotely unknown, I can also say, unequivocally, I do not like hospitals. That year or so of spending almost as much time in one as out of one was enough. To this day it takes more and more effort just to go inside one, let alone admit myself. I guess to those who have never been in one for a long time, this sounds like no big deal. And the reality is that it’s not. But it kind of is, too.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Soap Bubbles


I left Baton Rouge a year ago today. Although it would be a couple of weeks before I was able to get back into my home in Fair Oaks, it was the end of my temporary stay in a city that became my home. In fact, it became my fifth home in the short list of geographic regions that I ever spent enough time in to call home. But home is more than just geography, it is more than just where a job is, it is more than just where a school is. It turns out the old cliché is right on the money - home is where the heart is. For that to happen, for me, it means not only that I have to live in a given place, I also have to establish long-term emotive connections with people who also live there. In have done that in exactly five places, four in California and one in Louisiana.

Now about one year back in my Sacramento area home again, I don’t feel “at home.” Yes, I am all moved back into the same house I moved out of two (or three+, depending on how one defines “moved”) years ago and it’s the same house I have owned for almost 11 years. Yes, I still know my way around. Yes, I am gainfully employed in a “new” job, but it’s at the institution I spent five years working on my BA and then my MA before starting my journey towards a Ph.D. And, yes, I have a lot of friends here from before. But… things changed while I was gone. The circles have intersected, merged, dissolved and been reincarnated as new circles. This morphing of groups and alliances and loyalties occurs everywhere and amongst all groups and subgroups of friends - but when one is in the midst of it, it is hardly perceptible in real time.

Try moving away and then come back. The familiarity I have with this place is almost deceiving. A lot has changed and after the initial “hey, we’re so glad to have you back,” reaction by a whole lot of people (not all are “friends” in the pre-Facebook sense), that novelty has, apparently, worn off. I am not part of the circle(s) I once was. The evidence, while subtle, is becoming more and more convincing. Where I once was always “in the know” on various different happenings, gatherings, excursions, and the like (some of which require an actual invite, others are open to everyone who shows up), I now find out about such things (often on Facebook) after they have happened. This is not to say that my event folder never gets the telltale red blip indicating an invite is awaiting a response, but I got those kinds of invites when I was in Baton Rouge, too, 2,200 miles away and without a chance of making it. Blanket invites to blanket events are not among the subtleties I am referring to. It unfolds more in the unofficial, in the impromptu, in the circles circling that I am now decidedly on the outside of.

A lot of shit went down while I was gone. That disaster marriage and my now ex-wife took a toll on who is who and what is what. The fallout for all those who were either directly or tangentially affected is over - life has moved on. However, speaking for myself, I am still trying to find my place. The terrain has changed; this is not the same home I left. It was predictable, but I didn’t see it coming. It feels Twilight Zone-esque sometimes. Where the fuck am I? Who the fuck are y’all? Who the fuck am I? It’s like waking up from a dream but it was the dream that was real. This, this real, has become more surreal.

The circles, apparently, are not circles at all. 
They are more like the soap bubbles blown by a kid with a bubble wand. 
They are fragile, short-lived and exceedingly fluid.




Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Now What?


My first year of full-time professing (which, I must assume, is the act a professor performs) is in the books. It is not my first rodeo, however. Indeed, I have been professing semi-professionally, without the title, for some time now. Now with the nebulous title, “adjunct professor,” I can lay claim to a vocation that is as enigmatic as it is intuitive. Enigmatic because so many, including many of us, cannot say what, exactly, it is we do. We are more than just teachers; we are more than just researchers; and when it comes to professing, speaking for myself at least, the ambiguity of language itself leaves me questioning what that actually means. While I do, for the most part, know what I am doing, I am often not as good at doing it as I wish. My dissertation advisor at LSU once told me that his job extends well beyond mentoring his advisees through grad school. He is part counselor, part friend, part colleague and part many other things, as necessary. That’s the intuitive part - we know we are more than teachers and we can feel that what that is is an important distinction, but I cannot articulate with any more precision what that “more” actually is.

I am also left with a monumental “now what?” One of the benefits of this job is the several blocks of “free” time we are given during the year. Some outside of academia see that as more “vacation” than they get (or more than we deserve), but the fact is that many professors never stop professing through the summer and other breaks. If we are not teaching summer classes, we are researching or preparing for upcoming classes. Although the life of an adjunct professor (or visiting professor, or part-time faculty, or lecturer, or temporary faculty - all of these terms are relatively synonymous) does not entail the rigors of attaining tenure or reaching other non-classroom goals, we are still charged with being ready. And being ready means preparation. For me, this summer, that means doing a significant amount of preparatory work to be ready for the fall semester - to fill the shortcomings revealed in my first year in order to be better next year. It’s not all “vacation,” but it is self-directed. There is no clock to punch, no one to answer to, no students and no superiors. That’s not just me, anyone who takes this job seriously does not look at summer as “summer vacation.”

But some of it is. That’s where the “now what?” comes in. In the past eight years, my summers have been loaded with an abundance of “free” time, but not all of it was and, depending on which summer we’re talking about, it might have been difficult to differentiate it from the preceding spring or the upcoming fall. This is the first summer since 2009 in which I am not a grad student. My graduate career officially comes to an end in August, but for all intents and purposes, I’m done. I threw in the towel on the Ph.D., but I am coming away with another MA just before I time out on it. What that means is more time this summer. It doesn’t mean I have all summer, but a much larger proportion of it belongs to me. Now what? Part of that what is this - writing. I am also going to be reading for my own entertainment, enlightenment, interest, etc., too. But I will be reading for “work,” as well. I’ll be reading a new edition of a textbook and creating curriculum for one class in the hopes I will get a section or two next fall (adjuncts rarely ever know what we will teach until just before we get to teach it). But even with that, I have a lot of time on my hands.

Years ago - at least 10 years, probably more - I discovered something in me that I kind of knew was there, but never paid too much attention. Very broadly defined, it can be called “art.” Or artistry, or an artistic nature, or artistic talent (aren’t all talents artistic?), but to be as clear as possible, let’s just call it “art.” I found art in me. I always wished I had art in me, but felt that when it came to such things, I was not so blessed. I could not sing, I could not play music, I could not draw, I could not paint, I could not sculpt, I could not write poetry. I still can’t, but I can write. I don’t know how or why this “gift” found me, but for a long time I wished a different one did. I am not exactly a “voracious” reader, but there have been long periods of my life that I could be described as such. I don’t know if there is a genetic component and I can’t (nor will I) say that some definition of “god” bestowed me with this ability. Despite all this, I finally acknowledged and embraced not only the fact that I have this artistic talent, but, more importantly, that I have art in me. Furthermore, I believe everyone does. Some are obviously more gifted than others (I am among the “others,” not the “some”), but we all have it.

There is a much larger work of art, larger than anything I have produced thus far, lurking somewhere inside of me. It is painfully obvious that it is not a dissertation, but there is something. There is a big piece of art struggling to get out. It is, perhaps, serendipitous that this urge coincides with the first summer in a long time that I have the time I do. I have a “now what?” and the “what” occurring at precisely the same time. So, I will be writing - and this is the start. It is not a bad start considering today is the first day into the now what/what collision. I have a lot to say, I have a lot of ways to say it and, now, I have a lot of time to get it said.

That’s what.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

The Dark and the Light


When I deactivated my Facebook account in February, I did so because the dark side of Facebook was overpowering the light. In fact, the negatives had been outweighing the positives for some time. That is not to say there are no positives, if there was nothing good about it I would not have reconfigured and reactivated my profile after a six-week hiatus. The changes I made are part voluntary and part how I have my security (and other) settings set, and part removing the mobile app from my iPhone. That last part is probably the best part - I no longer take Facebook with me everywhere I go. It no long lives in my pocket.

Among the things I do like about the Facebook is the "On This Day" feature. Since my Facebook history reaches back to 2006, it gives me a pretty good idea of where I was, what I was doing and, probably most importantly, how I was doing over a long and particularly important part of my life. Not always, and certainly not everyday, but sometimes these are pretty significant insights. Today’s is particularly profound. Two years ago today, after a crazy and difficult two years prior, I felt like I was at the end of my rope. I was struggling with not only whether I would be able to finish what I had started at LSU, but in broader terms, what I would do next. I was, in a word, scared.

That post two years ago is now private, but I did not delete it like I do with some posts and comments that are no longer relevant. It is still there because as the years come and go, on this day I will be able to not only see just how "bad" things can get and still be survivable (though, my actual survival was never really in question), but also see how things look from one side can look completely different from the other. That post two years ago received an outpouring of love and support in more than 100 comments and it also generated calls and texts of concern and support. After I wrote and posted it, I took my Harley out for a ride, put some Grateful Dead on the stereo and got lost in the Louisiana bayou back-roads. By the time I returned and read all those comments, my outlook was better.

What I resolved that day - and many since - was that I am indeed capable of finishing the work needed to earn a PhD. Further, I resolved to do that work. Since then, I did cross some serious hurdles in that effort, however, I have not (and now I know) I will not write the dissertation needed to complete the degree. It is not that I am not capable or that I think I am not "PhD material" as I lamented in that post two years ago. I know I can do it, but I also know I will not. It is not beyond my capability; it is beyond my willingness. It took a lot, and I mean a lot of soul-searching and introspection to come to that realization. I am not only okay with my decision, I feel freer than I have in a very long time.

So, were my four years in Baton Rouge a waste? Not even close. I would do it again without hesitation. Not only was the experience at LSU one I could never have dreamed of or replicate, I also made some new friends who will be the lifetime variety. I got to spend some time with family in Louisiana that I otherwise would not have. Further, my connection there is such that it has attained the status of “home.” It was for four years and now it always will be, despite the fact that I will never get “used to the weather.” It also wasn’t a waste in terms of academic achievement - I did complete more than enough to receive a second Master of Arts degree. Finally, all that time in Louisiana shows up in Facebook’s “On This Day” feature almost everyday. Do I need Facebook to make those memories real? Of course not, but it sure is nice them along side the struggles I overcame. There is no question that the two are distinctly connected.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

On Books and Things


Some years ago I had a mentor who would say all people have at least one book in them. He probably would not have said that to me, but at the time I was trying to get that book out of me. After a little more than five chapters I found myself at a standstill. Those five-plus chapters are still there, languishing in my computer’s archives, and they have been joined by a handful of other attempts to get that book out of me. So far I’ve only hit dead-ends. At present, I have two, maybe three books floating around in my head. There was one more, one that was actually at the top of my priority list, one that would have to be written before anything else could. It is a book with a very specific designation and designed to accomplish a very concrete goal. That book was going to be my dissertation.

Past tense? Yes, past tense – “was,” not “is.” Of course, the decision not to write my dissertation necessarily includes the decision not to finish my Ph.D. While I am not blazing any sort of new ground in languishing in ABD (“all but dissertation”) land – many have taken the very same route through grad school – it still took a great deal of soul-searching to conclude my graduate career. Some will say and have said things like “why give up when all you have left is just a dissertation.” I have reasoned the same thing, many times, but those two words “all” and “just” significantly minimize what a dissertation actually is. It is a book and in the world of books it is an exceptionally difficult one to write. Although the type of work is not beyond my capability, it is patently obvious that it is beyond my willingness. After recommitting more times than I can remember – with nothing to show for it – I can no longer con myself into thinking that this project is one I am going to finish.

So what does all that mean. Let us recap: After numerous attempts at college since 1981, each with slowly and gradually better results, I returned once again in the fall of 2003. I was 40 years old with a total of about two years of college credits scattered all over the place, both geographically and academically. The upshot was that while I had enough credits to be a junior, they did not meet all of the requirements. This was neither surprising nor important, I had a specific vocational target in 2003 and planned to obtain an AA degree and start a new career as a counselor. That was it - an AA degree and go to work.

For reasons that are beyond the scope of this essay, I never got that AA degree. I transferred to California State University, Sacramento in the fall of 2005, this time with the credits where I needed them to be a junior. And my grades, almost 25 years after graduating from high school, were better than they ever were in my entire life up until that point. I graduated from Sac State magna cum laude in 2007 with a BA in journalism and government, worked briefly as a journalist and went back to school in the fall of 2008 fro an MA in communication studies. That foray into grad school (and the subsequent master’s degree) led me to Louisiana State University in the fall of 2011 to begin work on that Ph.D. All of the work I have done at LSU, without a dissertation, is not worth nothing, however. I have completed enough (actually, more than enough) to be awarded a Master of Arts degree from LSU as well. The total then is one BA and two MAs, not too bad for someone who flunked out of San Diego State University in 1985.

But still, the idea of “just” a dissertation haunts me a little bit. Another mentor of mine who is also a very good friend is concerned that I will regret this decision later in life. I cannot say he will be right or wrong, I honestly don’t know. I can say that whether I regret it or not, I will survive and I will quite likely have something to say (write, share… something) about that experience as well. Because that is what all this is – experience. It is also why I do not regret making the attempt. It was definitely not a waste of time or money. The experience of going so far away in pursuit of such a lofty and elusive goal – a goal I really have no business being so close to in the first place – is an accomplishment in and of itself. I left SDSU 21 years ago with a 0.7 GPA and today I have not one, but two master’s degrees, both from very highly regarded schools. The “failure” in getting my Ph.D. is still success by any objective measure.

So, back to those books. Now that the mental strain of writing something I could not bring myself to write is relieved, I can put effort into doing what is calling me. In the meantime, I have a job teaching that rewards me in ways money cannot, but it is also sufficiently financially rewarding (barely, a rant for another time) so that I can pursue my other interests, namely getting those books out of my head. One of them, a compilation of many of these blog posts, is largely already written, but there is still a science-fiction apocalyptic novel and a memoir that are trying to free themselves. It’s time I gave them a way out.

Monday, March 07, 2016

"It"


Once upon a time, a few years ago, I thought I might write a novel. Although it would be decidedly fictional, I would, like many novelists do, base it on so many experiences. My thinking was (and to some extent still is) that my trials and tribulations – both those that were self imposed as well as those that were just “bad luck” – could be used to sculpt a compelling narrative. It could be an adventure, it could be a tragedy, it could even be a comedy depending on how I chose to put the pieces together. I didn’t think about it that thoroughly at the time (a theme that would have to appear in any story I write, it is the story of my life), but that didn’t stop me from plunging in. I started to write it. I even created a blog to post it. After three chapters, despite very positive feedback from the few who read them, I stopped.

I haven’t written any fiction since. I would say that I haven’t even done any “creative” writing since, but that is as false a statement as is the genre “creative writing.” All writing is creative. True, the creations are not all beautiful, the creations do not all rise to the level of art, or at least not good art, but the act of putting words together to create something that did not exist before is, by definition, creative. However, when it comes to making stories that did not exist before, the work of fiction and the writing of novelists, it means more than creating just new combinations of words. Most of the stories created run along familiar themes, many are adapted from age-old ideas and many, while still running along these familiar themes, are also about us – all of us – not just the lives lived by those who write, but about all of our lives.

It seems the human experience in all its unlimitedness is mostly nuances of very old, very familiar stories. Love, love lost. Good versus evil. Triumph. Tragedy. Greed. Redemption. And a host of other common themes make up the walls of the box we all live in. My story was based on a reality/dream sequence that would come to some resolution in the end, but leave the reader wondering (as I do in real life) what is really real. I was simply retelling a new version of what happened to me about 15 years ago. It was surreal, but in a fiction/non-fiction sense, it was firmly rooted on the non-fiction side of the tracks. So, even my one solid attempt at this so-called “creative writing,” my one serious attempt at fiction, was simply an account of what I dreampt combined with changing the names (to protect both the innocent and the not-so-innocent).

Recently, the ideas have started coming at me again. The creation part of these ideas involves, obviously, new writing, but it also involves creating new stories. The hard part, as always, is transforming the ideas into words; the act of giving life to my characters and painting a landscape for the world they live in is creative, sure, but it is also a lot of fucking work. It’s all stuff I didn’t think about when I attempted to do it before. But it’s also stuff I’ve done over and over and over and over again. It’s simply a different level of abstraction. The stories are limited, but the characters, the world and the time in which they act are left to the imagination of the writer. It’s not that I could not imagine such stories – I believe everyone is equally creative – it’s the ability, the willingness and the desire to do the work of creation. That, for me, has always been a moving target. When everything is just right (and “just right” is not something I can create, apparently), the words just poor out of me. When it’s not, I am shut down. Something has been seriously not right for a while now. I don’t know what it is, but I do think it is near the end.

Therefore, the moral of this story extends well beyond the story itself. Also, what is not written here is important, too. This story is not over yet. The particular sub-plot or chapter or part xx could be a story of triumph, it could be one of tragedy, it is already in some ways comedy and in terms of love and love lost, those elements exist as well. But how the end comes about is still not known. A mushy, gooey happy ending? I’ve never been much for those, but to experience one for once would be nice. Life, and my life especially, is not nearly so neat. Life is messy. It seems as though I haven’t much choice in the matter, but in the big picture is could be worse. Much worse. One thing is sure -
it won’t get written unless I write it. And by “it,” I am not talking about some novel.