Thursday, May 14, 2015

Things I Am No Good At

Organizing my tool bench, pegboard, and office. Throwing away socks. Sending birthday cards. Eating leafy vegetables. Flossing. Saying no to students who need a break, even though they have missed class, turned work in late, and given me bad evaluations. Forgetting that my dreams are full of running water. Ignoring the moon. Training my cat to sleep longer when she is hungry. Making it all the way from the house to the car without talking to rabbits. Remembering the names of colleagues. Appreciating Hallmark cards and movies with a lesson. Being around people who are successful and happy and good at giving motivational, sanctimonious speeches. Staying calm when jerks tailgate. Dusting. Keeping money in my wallet. Enforcing consequences. Self-promotion. Comforting sad people. Feigning disinterest when I hear about you. Not whispering your name when I drop into sleep. Receiving criticism. Moving on. Touching raw nerves. Doing the right thing. Forgiving myself. Losing weight. Not cussing. Being poor. Breaking bad habits. Listening when I am nervous. Breaking open to the finality and certainty of the perfection of this precious and passing moment. Living so close to the shadow of death that I can caress its cool and indifferent bleached bony emptiness.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

So There Was this Guy (A Parable)

He stumbled through his days looking for a story that would give his life shape. The story could align his heart, mind, and spirit along a golden thread of direction and destiny. The thread, he knew, would give him energy and meaning. But it asked that he leave the familiar world of habit.

Every once in a while he thought he saw it down there on the floor, disappearing under the couch or heading out the door into the wild desert.

He'd reach for it, feel it, but then forget to follow it. He would drop it and go wash dishes or catch the news.

It went on like this for years, more years than he could count.

Seasons came and went and still he only occasionally spotted the thread beneath his feet, passing through a wall in front of him or winding around the base of a mesquite tree.

Gradually, a light that shone in him began to dim. A hunger remained, but faded to more of a memory. He was sad, not knowing the cause.

The thread, once thick, was now thin as a strand of spider web. He saw it in fading sunlight, waving in the breeze. It was no longer strong enough for him grab, but if he was delicate, he could still see where it led.

One day, he got up from his chair, took hold of the wispy silk, and began to make his way along its length. He had to make it up as he went along, had to trust and dance and feed the story line with drops of blood taken straight from his heart.

It led him away from safety, into the wildness of his dreams.

The last they saw of him was his entry into a deep forest.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Elder. Monk.

The emails and envelopes arrive intermittently. They carry news of fresh hires in good jobs. Most of them are tenure track with potential for promotion and growth. I am glad for the young faculty starting out on their careers. The letters express gratitude for our time together. They say I helped them with their teaching, helped them with my letters of rec., helped them navigate the first years of grad school.

All of this feels good, but I also suffer from a twinge of envy at the news. I am in more of a dead-end job, with wages that never rise, with no prospect of promotion. It's been twenty years of the same thing, more or less. I compare my place in our profession to theirs and see underachievement if not failure. My ambitions were not fulfilled. I tried, but didn't make it onto the academic escalator.

That's what it is, and I accept the consequences of my decisions. In fact, I am grateful to have had a job that provides health insurance. I would be bankrupt, given all the health issues I and my family have dealt with, if we did not have health insurance. Just my snakebite alone would have cost us around $250,000.

That said, I am still searching for the narrative that will best infuse this stage of work and life with a context and some meaning.

One way to look at this transitional moment is that I am moving from one stage of life to another. I am leaving the warrior/householder stage and entering the elder/monk stage. The warrior stage was about achievement, climbing, "making it." I have yet to let that go, even though it is over. I am not going any higher in terms of social status. Them's just the facts.

The "curriculum" of the next stage is more about spiritual pursuits than work or status. It's time to pursue wisdom rather than knowledge, acceptance rather than acquisition, kindness rather than one-upping.

The jump from here to there looms more and more. The unwillingness or inability to do so feeds my envy of these junior faculty and their rise into successful careers. The problem is mine and has to do with how I frame these simple facts.

My beard has gone gray. My hair is following. My eyes can't see as well. I need glasses. My belly is getting soft.

I still want to climb a few mountains before I settle into life in the valley, but it's time to let go of striving to be more than I am.

Like it or not, I am becoming that "old guy." It's unbecoming to pretend otherwise. But I do have things to offer to anyone who wants to listen.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Cognitive Testing

"Listen closely," she said, "to the problem. You may not take notes. Just remember what I say and then tell me your answer."

"OK," I said.

"Last year, profits for a company were $20,000. This year those profits increased by 20%."

I thought about this increase, and how it was a pretty hefty bump to profits, as my eyes and attention wandered to the skin of her belly showing between the buttons of her blouse. She was the "tech" charged with administering parts of a battery of tests that would measure my cognitive and memory function. This one was about math and memory.

"Next year, profits will increase by 15% over this year." She looked up from her script at me looking down at the openings in her blouse and the revealed belly button.

"What are the total gross earnings of the three years?"

I thought about it. Twenty thousand plus $20,000 plus $4,000, plus that plus $3,600 would be about $71,600 I guessed. I had trouble following her after the second year, and could just barely hang on to the train of sums into the third year. I had to fight down a panic that I wasn't understanding what she was saying. I'm not an accountant.I fought to focus. My shoulders and neck were as tight as banjo strings.

She offered no clue about the correctness or lack thereof of my answer as she made a note on her pad.

The tests continued all day -- eight hours -- and ranged from drawing a geometric design from memory to clicking a counter with my thumb as fast as I could. I did puzzles, took multiple choice tests about lists, and saw only a little of my tech's pale skin.

I wanted to do well, but kept wandering all over in my thoughts. I just couldn't seem to focus on the tasks, even if I could do them. Not being able to focus raised my anxiety so high it could have lifted, in not gone through, the roof.

Beneath the anxiety, of course, is the fear that I am losing it. I fear that I am losing it just as my mother did when she was my age. The signs are all there: I don't know where I am sometimes; I can't pull necessary words out of my memory when I need them; I lose track of tasks when I move from one to the next; I talk nonsense to myself, "Ooga-booga," and swear a lot.

Then there are the stacks and stacks of paper at work that I can't seem to find the time or energy to process.

I remember days when my brain would do things without my applying much effort. Those days are long gone, and I have to think -- hard -- to get even basic work done.

I can't seem to focus on what is right in front of me. 

As the test continued, I blew the word problems, could not recall simple images, couldn't concentrate on complex progressions or engage with problems like I usually do.

It was embarrassing. I began to see why I am living a disoriented and somewhat sloppy existence. It is, in part, because my brain just can't seem to process as well.

A few weeks later, when I went in for the results, I got the news that I am still OK, more or less. They said I have a high IQ, but that I am also slightly memory impaired, and suffer from extreme anxiety. The anxiety is actually part of the cause of the impairment they think. I worry too damned much, but there really is something "off."

They said I need to work more at focusing, connecting, engaging. They said my tendency to isolate and retreat is leading me into some kind of fantasy world of my own making.

Well, duh! I thought.

They said that I have been lucky in life, that my brain has been something like a Ferrari, using a car analogy. Now, however, they said, you have more of a Corolla. I guess a Corolla is OK. It's driveable, but I had to wonder what year and how many miles and how many more years it might last. 

I'd like to be able to continue to coast along like everything is OK, but the reality of decline is no longer avoidable.

My days working may be numbered, not because I can retire, but because I can no longer function. Each trip to the mountains may be the last I take. The reality is sinking in. Soft fabric covers more and more of the belly buttons.

The question of what to do, how to respond remains, lingers, growing in quiet urgency.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Changing of the Guard

The sand is running out beneath my feet. I've been standing here for quite a while, and the waves just keep breaking, washing around my ankles as the tide rises.

Problem is I don't know where to go next. This place is all I know. My feet don't want to lift up and get out of the changing seas.

I took up residence here about 20 some years ago because it was what I wanted to do. I liked this place, this stretch of sand at the University of Arizona. The days were interesting. We had a pluralistic view of teaching; creative writers, lit people, ESL folks, and rhet-comp people all found a way to get along mostly. PhDs and MFAs, we worked together to appeal to diverse grad students in different grad programs. We all agreed that writing was complicated stuff and that teaching writing was exponentially more complicated if you really respected it.

I mean the brains of students all work differently and teachers had to apply a variety of methods to try and reach as many as possible. Some students responded to talk about style and sentences, others to big ideas, still more needed to explore personal stories and identities.

Teachers needed to teach from their strengths and past experience while meeting common course assignments and guidelines.

It was not paradise, but it worked in weird ways. Young teachers found things out about themselves that they didn't even know existed before they started teaching. Of course there was chaos, creative chaos in the design of syllabi and approaches and selecting materials.

But the tide has risen and the ground I stand on is washing away, being pulled from me by time and change.

The new guard is rhet-comp focused. The new curriculum standardized. To be fair, I don't know much about it because I haven't even read the new text book or seen the new assignments.

My role next year is unclear. My personal involvement is minimal. I don't know what to expect or what I can do about it.

I do know I have to step back or the waves will carry me away from shore.

It's the way of things.

You can't fight the tide. You need a place to stand. It's time to move.