The Oxygen Mask

My Dad never fully accepted the inevitability of death.

During a long ago mental health counseling session, I was advised by my therapist to work on being less of a caretaker personality. I should learn to acknowledge and fulfill my own needs, she suggested; to say no without excuses or guilt; “put the oxygen mask on your own face first”.

Years later, I’ve come some slight distance toward achieving those goals. I can occasionally acknowledge personal needs, and even work on fulfilling them. Rarely, though, am I able to say no without providing a reason, and never without experiencing guilt. And I suspect that, were I to be found in that situation, I’d be trying to cram the oxygen mask on the face of the nearest small child, rather than my own.

I suppose that’s why, during the distressing six months of my father’s decline and death, I experienced such disbelief at the overwhelming work required of a caretaker, and such shocked surprise at the irritation and resentment I found within myself.

This isn’t to say that I was alone in this situation. Fortunately, there were a number of us working together to take care of paying bills, confronting apathetic nursing home staff and non-communicative doctors, seeing to the maintenance of Dad’s home, and providing care for his lonely little cat. The visits, the medical appointments, the holiday meals, the daily phone calls, his laundry, locating medical equipment rentals, picking up and monitoring medication, even trimming his toenails—all those chores were divided between a small phalanx of helpers. In that respect, we were very fortunate. As I have said many times now, I honestly don’t know how people do this, alone and without assistance.

But the simple truth remains that caring for a very elderly parent—and Dad was 92 when he died—means that one is aging oneself. These chores, both mental and physical, are made more difficult by years: at 70, one simply hasn’t the mental flexibility of prior decades, or the physical stamina.

Complicating our job was the fact that Dad, never having accepted the inevitability of his own mortality, was in a state of astonished disbelief, furious about his increasing frailty. Dad had been hospitalized only once in his adult life, when he’d been put in traction to relieve back pain. Despite having never exercised and eating mostly junk, he’d remained amazingly healthy until he was past 89. Finally, excruciating pain in his knee and back began to limit his mobility, and years of smoking caught up with his lungs.

But unlike those of us who’ve experienced serious illness, Dad simply hadn’t reconciled with the fact that he would, someday, die, or that he would begin to fail physically. He raged at that reality, and, infuriated, began to morph into the worst version of himself: demanding, resentful, whining, snappish, angry. All of his caretakers, both employed and family, bore the brunt of his choleric temper while trying to remain calm and helpful. I’ll always recall the afternoon when one of the aides came to tidy his room at the care facility: I’d jumped up to help her as Dad, increasingly irritated, could not make her understand exactly how he wanted a certain blanket placed on the bed. He snarled at me, too, and the aide grinned and whispered, “Well, I thought it was just me, but I can see you’re in for it, too!”

As I left from my visit that day, I finally acknowledged to myself that I, too, was angry–really angry; bitter and resentful. At that point, we had all had tried for half a year to make Dad more comfortable in his unhappy situation, without ever receiving thanks from him, or even acknowledgement of our sacrifices and effort.

And so, finally, I put the oxygen mask on my own face. Knowing that I communicate best in writing, I handed my father a letter saying all of this, and more. I insisted that he examine his inappropriate behavior, and mend it. No matter what he was going through, I said, he had the obligation to treat staff, family, and friends with courtesy, respect and, above all, appreciation.

Dad was absolutely flabbergasted at my letter–flabbergasted, flummoxed, totally confounded. For my part, I found his reaction bewildering until it finally it dawned on me that never once in my adult life had I truly censured my father, no matter how bad his behavior. Oh, I’d sometimes humorously chided him for racist or misogynistic speech. I’d quietly suggested that everyone, even nurses just doing their jobs, deserved to be thanked. I’d gently advised him that friends, growing tired of hearing only complaints, might stop visiting. I’d begged him to say please rather than issue commands. But I’d never blatantly censured his conduct or resolutely demanded better behavior.

Sadly, I can’t say that my letter made a great deal of difference in Dad’s conduct during his final weeks. But putting that oxygen mask on my own face allowed me to at last take a long, deep, clear breath, straighten my burdened shoulders, and lift my head high in acknowledgement of my own perfectly reasonable requests and legitimate needs.

And that felt good.

If you appreciated (I won’t say enjoyed) this post, you might also like “Aging Prayer”, from January 26, 2022. You can locate it in the Archives list, below.

It is Pronounced!

I started to write a post on this subject…then realized I’d already done so, years ago.  So here it is again.  (Hmmm.  I may be running out of things to talk about.  Nah.  Never happen.)

Before I write one further sentence, let me state, unequivocally, that I mispronounce many words. While I don’t make some of the most egregious errors of Midwestern pronunciation – I do not “warsh” my clothes, nor return books to the “liberry”; I do not “ax” a question, nor shop for “aaigs” at the “groshery” – there are still several words that I’ve spoken incorrectly for so many years that the mispronunciation now sounds valid to my ears.  I catch myself in two of the worst quite often, uttering the Midwestern “jis” rather than just, or “tuh” instead of too.

But there are common mispronunciations that grate on me almost daily. For this, I blame Mrs. Dryer, my excellent third-grade teacher.  It was she who told our whole class that if we mispronounced the word “mischievous” in her classroom (saying it as “miss chee vee ous” rather than the correct “miss cheh vus”), we would receive an “F” for the whole day.  Never mind that this word has been so consistently mispronounced that the incorrect pronunciation now appears as a secondary pronunciation in dictionaries; in Mrs. Dryer’s classroom, one said the word correctly or suffered the consequences.  Mrs. Dryer’s classroom rule set me up for a lifetime of picky pronunciation.

As an adult, I hid my face in embarrassment when an executive at a meeting I attended spoke of the “physical year” rather than fiscal year.  As a teenager, I sat cringing in my classroom seat while my American History teacher spoke of “Eyetalians”, or our Assistant Principal made his daily intercom announcement about our school “athaletes”. (I recently heard that same mispronunciation made by TV news commentator and I wanted to reach into the screen and rip the speaker’s tonsils out of his throat.  Now I mute the set each time that commentator is on air.)

I generally adore British accents, but I find myself bothered by the British habit of adding a faint but noticeable “r” at the end of any word ending in a soft “a”. I hear them mangle Asia into “Azhar” and transmute Amanda or Anna into “Amandar” and “Annar”.  “There is no ‘r’ at the end!” I want to shout at the speakers on the TV screen.  But I find myself just as furious when Americans end these same words in “uh” rather than ah.  “It’s an ‘a’,” I insist to the No One who is listening.  “It’s pronounced with a soft ‘a’!”

But I save my most impressive rants for announcers and newscasters on TV and radio. Hear My Declaration, O Ye Who Are On the Air: If one has made the decision to go into a field which requires public speaking, then Diction Is An Essential Skill.  So I rave at the car radio or the flatscreen when an announcer says “uh-mediately” rather than ih-meditately, or “uhh-fective” instead of eh-fective”.  I bury my face in my hands when they slur sort of  into “sorta”, or, just as I do, utter the word “tuh” instead of to.  I wince with shame when I hear them speak of “Queen Uuh-lizabeth”.

Nevertheless, having been embarrassingly called out myself on an occasional mispronunciation, when faced with an acquaintance who has mispronounced a word, I have learned to soft-pedal my corrections to avoid humiliating them—yes, even to the boyfriend whom I was almost done with. Having heard him, for the umpteenth time, suggest we dine at the “buffit”, I said mildly, making sure that there was no one else to hear me correct him, “Is that how the word is pronounced, are you sure? Because I’ve always heard it pronounced buffay.”  “Don’t be dumb!” he retorted.  “It’s not Jimmy Buffay, is it?!”  So I shrugged and said not a word as he suggested to the couple we were meeting that we have dinner that evening at the “buffit”.

And I didn’t say a word, either, when they realized he was serious, began to chuckle, and corrected him.

Well, I did smile. A little.  Evilly.

If this essay made you smile, you might also enjoy “Mispronounced, Revisited”, which you can locate by scrolling to the archives, below.  It was published October 19, 2018.

Writing in Cursive

Back to the basics…

As a young child in the 1960s attending a Roman Catholic elementary school, I learned to write on gawdawful, flimsy, triple-lined paper—paper made from such poor pulp that it had a faintly brown cast and even occasional wood chips hiding beneath the blue lines. Regular #2 pencils had a terrible habit of tearing through these fragile sheets; it was impossible to erase a mistake neatly, as the graphite just smeared over the shoddy surface.

But even worse was our promotion, usually in fourth grade, to the dreaded cartridge pen. Made with thick nibs that were supposed to encourage neat writing, these cheap ink pens scratched and stuttered across the surface of school notebook paper. They had a terrible habit of leaking and even exploding, usually over a vital test paper. One always approached with trepidation the necessity of inserting a fresh ink cartridge into the pen. No one, teacher or student, managed to achieve this without ending up covered in ink—blue or blue-black ink, only, thank you. Colored ink, like the more rational ballpoint pens, was not permitted.

But putting aside lousy first grade paper and cartridge pens with their shortcomings, the one thing those parochial schools taught competently, even superbly, was handwriting. Penmanship. Cursive.

Starting in the second grade, just after we had mastered printing, we students were given penmanship lessons every Friday afternoon. (As an aside, what a brilliant, master strategy: Take a bunch of kids who want nothing more than to get the hell out the door of the classroom for the weekend, and use the last hour of Friday afternoon to teach the two least cerebral classes imaginable–Art and Penmanship!) But as a 7-year-old child, these lessons in cursive infuriated me. I already knew how to write; why did I have to learn it all over again?! But learn it I did, scribing line after line of looping circles across the page to acquire the feel of writing in cursive. I was criticized by my nun teachers and forced to use a special notebook paper when I failed to end each word by drawing the final hook on the letters to the appropriate upward spot of each line. Struggling valiantly through the irritating lessons, I began to find that, not only was cursive writing much faster, but it could also be far prettier. I listened in excitement when my beloved third grade teacher, Mrs. Dryer, explained that she believed the letter “L” to be the most graceful of all the alphabet. My middle initial was L! I began to try ever harder to produce a graceful, swooping letter L,

Letter (2)

and finally succeeded, to the praise of my teacher. My middle initial–indeed, my entire signature–is written, to this day, in those elegant, flowing loops.

But worlds turn; times change. Faced with the onslaught of the computer era, teaching cursive began to seem to school officials evermore like a waste of time. Why did one’s signature matter when, scribbling it onto a touchpad, it looked nothing at all like a signature, anyway? Schools began to drop the teaching of cursive writing, and I wondered, sadly, how any future American child would be able to read the signatures at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence.

My sadness bubbled up into laughter, though, when I realized that I had a skill even beyond cursive writing which ensured that anything I wrote would remain a secret: Because I knew how to write in cursive, I‘d long ago mastered the art of Speedwriting, a form of simplified shorthand. After using Speedwriting at my job for years, I continued to jot notes and make lists in that quick and easy stenography.

Cursive (2)
If you can read this, then you not only know cursive, but you can also read speedwriting.

Continue reading “Writing in Cursive”

Flowers for the Living

Survivors don’t need flowers. They need memories.

When my friend, living 900 miles away in another state, died, no one told me.

Renee

I knew that Renée was dying. Late in the winter of 2021/22, she’d been suffering from prolonged pneumonia, treated at the local urgent care clinic with antibiotics and steroids. But she hadn’t gotten better, and finally X-rays were taken. They revealed cancer. A lifelong smoker, she had stage 4 lung cancer.

Having lost another friend to this terrible disease, I knew there was no hope. Chemo and immunotherapy could give her only a bit more time, not a cure. Nevertheless, I pretended with her to hope.

We had been friends since the late 1980s, despite the fact that we had never met. Introduced by letter through a mutual friend who recognized our similarities in outlook and philosophy, we became pen pals when that meant writing letters and affixing postage. In an era when long-distance calls were costly, we rarely phoned one another, but nevertheless “talked” regularly, supporting each other through innumerable crises and congratulating one another on every life achievement: children’s graduations, marriages, family drug problems, the deaths of friends and family and pets, my uterine cancer, various jobs, a grandchild’s birth, retirement. We decided we had been sisters in a previous incarnation. Her pet ferret died, and I wept with her; my favorite cat died, and she sent me a condolence card.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABekkahboo, my namesake cat

Renée herself adored cats and started breeding Sphinxes, even naming one in my honor. I began to call her Cat Lady. She nicknamed me Lady A for a long-running joke between us.

As e-mail developed, our friendship branched out first through that, and then text. We still rarely made phone calls except in the most stringent of circumstances, but now we were in touch several times a week or even a day. I started my blog, and she signed up immediately as a follower. My grandchild was born, and I learned to attach videos; I sent them to her, and she mailed my little one baby dolls and dollhouse toys.

And then she got sick. Hospitalized immediately, awaiting surgery, she texted me, “I’m so scared.” “I know,” I told her; “I know. I’m praying. I’ve got everyone I know praying for you. You can beat this,” I told her, knowing that I was lying, while I wept to my daughter, “I can’t lose another friend to cancer!”

She texted that she was alone at the hospital, hoping for a visit later of a close friend, but meanwhile, alone.

Renee Flowers (2)

Not knowing what else I could do, I called, and then sent her flowers. The bouquet arrived, and she texted me a photo of it. It was spring-like, she told me. It was bright and beautiful.

She with cancer, I with lifelong asthma and a newly-diagnosed heart problem, we knew that flying in the era of Covid would not be wise. Nevertheless, I readied my guest room for her, describing all the redecorating, so that she could believe that she would be here.

I began texting her multiple times a day, about anything and everything. “It’s the only way I can let you know that I think of you, all day long, every day. That you’re constantly in my thoughts and prayers.” “Keep ‘em coming,” she answered. Her replies at first came every day or two, then every three or even four days, then hardly at all. I knew that she was growing weaker. But she still made an effort to respond, especially if I sent her videos or photos.

A day or two after my ranting post appeared, complaining about the medical profession, she texted me that she wanted to print it and send it to several friends. “Push the button to republish it,” I told her.

It was the last text I would ever have from her.

After a few days of hearing nothing, I said, “I wish I’d hear from you.” I suggested, “Maybe you could just text me the number of a friend, so I could chat with them about how you’re doing.” But she did not respond. Since I am a Facebook abstainer, my daughter offered to check Renée’s Facebook page and message her. But, again, we received no response.

Then on August 26 I woke from a worrisome dream. It can’t mean, I told myself. No, certainly not. But by noon I could bear the suspense no longer. I searched for “Obituary Renée Croteau Massachusetts”—and found it. NO! THAT CAN’T BE RIGHT! I gazed in horror at the screen. But I pressed the link, and there it was: the face of my beloved friend. She had died a week prior, on August 19. She had already been buried. And no one had contacted me. No one had reached out to me. No one had told me.

In the days since, shock, and then grief, and then anger, have been my constant companions. Was her phone locked? Did her husband and sons not know her passwords to it or her social media or e-mail, to find me in her contacts? Had they made no preparation for what we all knew was coming? Had they not asked her, “Who should we contact?”

Or had they looked at all of it and just not cared?

How did she die? Was she in a coma at the end? Could they have held the phone to her ear, so I could have said goodbye? Was it quick? Did she pass in her sleep? All the questions to which I need answers swirl about me, keeping me from sleep, gnawing at my brain.

But the one thought that stays with me in the end and gives me some small comfort is: I sent her flowers. Flowers that gave her joy in a dark hour.

Flowers are for the living, but survivors don’t need flowers. They need memories. And I have an abundance of those.

In Loving Memory of My Dear Friend, Cat Lady, Renée Croteau
1963 – 2022

The blog post about the medical profession which Renée liked so well was published on August 10. You may locate it in the Archives.

Princess Diana Saved My Life

This was the first blog post I ever published, on October 22, 2017. I republish it today, on the 25th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in her honor. Thank you, Diana. What you suffered helped me to live.

Princess Diana saved my life.

However fanciful that statement may sound, it is also, to some degree, true.

In the years when the royal marriage was crumbling, and Diana’s popularity with the masses was at its lowest ebb, the articles being written by a rabid press were a thousand times more critical and far less fawning than they would be after her passing (although undoubtedly no more factual). More than one intrusive publication at the time explored the notion that perhaps the unpredictable and complex princess suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder.

Until I encountered those articles, I’d never heard of that psychological affliction. I was completely uninterested in whether the disorder applied to Princess Diana, but the description intrigued me. I needed to understand more about it. In one of my earliest ever internet searches, I researched the term. Leapfrogging from one page to another, I stumbled across a review of a book; a book written for family and friends of those with Borderline Personality Disorder. Included in the review was a questionnaire from the book: a quiz to determine if one was really in a relationship with a person suffering the disorder.

I took the quiz with an eye to unraveling my tortured relationship with my mother.

I answered “yes” to every question.

At last, at last, I had an explanation for the enigma who was my mother, and for the anguish and abuse that had comprised my childhood.

Knowledge is power, the saying goes, and like most proverbs, it carries a germ of truth. Armed at last with real understanding of the mental disorder that had, in all probability, troubled my mother, I began the long, excruciatingly painful but eventually rewarding struggle to excavate myself from the ruins of my childhood.

Decades later, it is a struggle that still continues. My healing is always tenuous. But without the famous and sometimes infamous Princess, and, more importantly, the insensitive, rude media speculation about her behavior—without those things, the healing that I experienced might never even have begun.

Like the multifaceted person who was Diana, Princess of Wales, my mother was saint to some, demon to others, and both, sometimes at the same moment, to me. The life that Betty Jean wove about me, my brothers, my father, even her acquaintances, was often a glimpse into the nether regions of hell. But we (and this is something of which I must constantly remind myself)–we escaped. She never could. My mother lived in that hell always.  The rest of us dwelt only on the fringes of her insanity, and at last, with physical distance, knowledge, understanding, therapy, and, finally, with her death, we were freed.

Forget me not
Forget Me Nots

With regard to those articles that set me on my search, though, well, aside from Diana’s well-publicized and admitted struggles with bulimia, no one, and certainly no member of the media, could ever have had genuine knowledge of any psychological disorder suffered by the beleaguered Princess. Those rumors were nothing but the fabrication of a bitterly unkind and often hostile press, hunting for their next story! Continued speculation on the matter would be both inappropriate and unspeakably cruel, for the truth is, none of it matters at all except to the family and friends who loved her. For the rest of us, that aspect of Diana’s life never was and still is none of our business.

But I will forever be grateful to the famous woman who endured such unbearable public abuse, so much anguish-provoking intrusion into her private existence, for without what I learned, encountering cruel conjecture and malicious speculation about Princess Diana, I might never have uncovered the knowledge I needed to begin the tortuous ascent from my own personal purgatory.

I say that Princess Diana saved my life, but it was really I who saved myself. I took her story, the painfully sad fairy tale of a real-life Princess, and allowed it to lead me to knowledge. I grasped that knowledge like a lifeline, weaving it into a net – an escape net, to which I clung for my very life. My very life: the life that I now have. The whole and healthy life that I created, like a phoenix, rising from the ashes of intense misery.

And while I may not live happily ever after, I will never cease to be grateful to nor forget the story of a princess with which that new life began.

Perhaps the press and media might learn a bit from “The Speech of Angels”, published October 24, 2017. You can locate it in the Archives.

Typhoid Mary, Covid Carrie

I have somehow become suspected of being a walking Covid factory; the Wuhan Market in human form.

It would appear that I, quite innocently and without any evidence whatever, have become the Midwest’s greatest vector for disease transmission; the Typhoid Mary of Covid. To this I can only say that, not content with scything down a large portion of the population and rendering the rest ill for months with the long form of the disease, Covid has made people downright freaking crazy.

The first indication of my unwitting selection as the Great Disease Vector came in January, 2021. The vaccine had just been released, but was in short supply; only specific populations–the most elderly, those who looked after them, health workers, etc.–were given first shot (pun intended!) at vaccination. Several members of my family fell into those categories, though, and were promptly vaccinated. But I, plenty old but not quite elderly, was caught in a holding pattern, waiting for my chance at a shot to save my life. (It’s really a great pun.)

Now, some of our family members being Asian American, we have for many years celebrated Chinese New Year together. In 2021, that holiday arrived in January. Unfortunately, one of those family members had been ill with an undiagnosed mystery illness (think, possible long Covid following asymptomatic disease; think, with far less charity and a touch of irritation, just plain hypochondria). So when the celebration rolled around, the vaccinated family members were invited. I, however, was warned by the most officious member of the family that I was a danger to the sick person, since he, along with his wife and three children, were too young to be vaccinated. Don’t come! I was ordered.

I did as bidden and stayed home, heartbroken. Only much later did it occur to me that, as a lifelong asthmatic, I was in a great deal more danger from two unvaccinated adults and three unvaccinated children than they were from me. But, hey, who was I, Covid Carrie, to quarrel?

Finally, the vaccine was released to those of my age category and (after a mighty battle with the website—for the love of heaven! Despite having come to tech so late that I actually learned to type on a manual typewriter, I could and did design numerous databases during my final two decades at the office, all of which functioned one helluva lot better than the joke perpetrated upon a helpless populace by the Indiana State Board of Health! But I digress….) I finally received my first vaccine and began the tortuous waiting period for the second shot.

Meanwhile, unfortunately, Easter rolled around. A gathering was planned once again with Mr. Mystery Illness and his kin, and I was warned, “You’re a danger to him. You’ve only had one shot. Don’t come.” You’re a walking Covid factory. You’re the Wuhan Market in human form. Stay away, Covid Carrie. I sighed and spent Easter visiting a homebound relative.

The world kept turning, and I, now both fully vaccinated and extremely careful, did not fall ill of Covid. In fact, when boosters became available in October, I rushed to get one, standing in line for over an hour despite having arrived early to my appointment. Nothing was going to keep me from that booster! When Thanksgiving landed, by God, I was going to be ready: vaccinated, boosted, mask-wearing, crowd-avoiding and hand sanitizer using me!

I hadn’t counted, though, on yet another family member. Despite every argument we flung at him, despite seeing that the vaccine had done the rest of us no harm, my son-in-law was adamantly an anti-vaxxer. Once more I was given an ultimatum: I could come to Thanksgiving dinner, but my daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter could not, due to his unvaccinated status (the possibility of his testing negative using one of the now readily-available home tests was not even discussed). Choking on my tears, I made my Sophie’s Choice, deciding, of course, in favor of my daughter and her little family. I had, after all, promised my baby granddaughter when she was no more than twelve hours old that I would always protect her, even to giving my life for hers. Giving up Thanksgiving seemed quite minor by comparison.

After all this, then, it came as no surprise to me this summer when I was barred from yet another gathering, this time of friends. I’d been exposed to Covid several days before our luncheon was planned to take place, and was upfront about that with everyone. But, I offered, I would test both the day before and the morning of the luncheon; I would wear a mask, and not order or eat, so I would not have to take it off; I would just join them at the table to bask in the joy of being with friends.

We can’t risk it, I was told.

Accustomed at this point to my status as a pariah, I was saddened, but neither upset nor surprised. My friends met for luncheon in an enclosed restaurant space, surrounded by strangers of uncertain vaccination, health, and testing status, and I remained at home.

Still, I find it odd that, having not yet (I will not dare say never!) fallen to Covid despite being directly exposed to it now over four times, I should somehow have acquired the weighty status of the Great Midwestern Disease Vector. As I say, looking at the anti-vax and vaccine wars, the lockdowns and protests, the attacks on mask wearers and mask refusers, as well as what I have experienced, it would seem that Covid’s true legacy is not actually death and destruction, but simple, plain, insanity.

For another viewpoint on my experiences with Covid, you might appreciate “No Pleasure in Being Right”, which you can locate by scrolling down to the Archives. It was published September 1, 2021.

Out of the Country

The cost of higher education in the United States is utterly iniquitous.

As I discussed in the post Barbie Shoes (November 13, 2019), I’ve always enjoyed reading personal essays on-line. Although the Lifestyle section that once collected the best of such compositions has long since vanished, I still discover personal essays here and there, reading them with as much pleasure and interest—or disdain–as ever.

A year or so ago I stumbled across one such essay discussing the problems inherent in student loans. The author, a young woman who had endured years of financial problems when her loans were called in prematurely, described in detail her path to fiscal ruin.

I felt genuine compassion for her plight. The cost of higher education in the United States is utterly iniquitous. Even with scholarships, students (and sometimes their parents) are subjected to crippling financial burdens from the loans needed to finance a college education. At higher levels of education, Master’s degrees and PhDs, scholarships are not even available. The costs are simply insupportable.

As the young woman pointed out, too, there are no financial advisors available to these very young (usually, 17- and 18-year-old) borrowers. Short of a wise family member, there is no one to say to them, “Is the return you’re going to get on this investment truly worth it? Do you know how many years—years when you will be wanting, perhaps, to marry, start a family, buy a home—how many of those years will be spent simply repaying these loans?”

So I read her essay in a state of empathy. She wrote of having achieved her goal of acceptance at the college of her dreams, and starting her educational journey there, only to experience difficulties. As a young Black woman in a mostly-White campus, she mentioned enduring frequent microaggressions that left her emotionally depleted. I couldn’t really imagine how that would feel, but I had once endured relentless, vicious bullying at a new school as a teenager; while not truly analogous, I felt that experience at least gave me a slight basis for commiseration. I’d also witnessed the difficult adjustment experienced by several young people of my acquaintance to campus life. Being subjected to racist remarks would undoubtedly compound the usual adjustment difficulties.

The young woman finally experienced what she described as a mental health crisis, one severe enough that she dropped out of college. Again, I commiserated. I’d endured multiple mental health crises in my life, stumbling through the first one, complete with suicidal ideation, when I was barely 14. The experience was unspeakably dreadful. I was sorry that she capitulated, but I acknowledged her misery.

Dropping out, though, resulted in her student loans being immediately called in. Payments were due. Now she carried a financial liability, while ill-equipped to find a job at a salary high enough to keep up with the payments. She was well and truly caught in the net of student loan hell.

So she defaulted—and began a years-long process of legal woes as she tried to manage the fiscal blows to her credit and future.

But it was at this point in her essay that I encountered the sentence which led me to question everything the young woman had written to this point: She stated that she missed a court date for a hearing on her debt due to the fact that she was out of the country.

Wait. What?

Out of the country? Why? For work? I reread the sentence; it specifically did not say, “for work”. Out of the country. Why? Was this trip a gift? A honeymoon? Did she need to get to someone who was ill, even dying? Again, things not said. And when? Court dates are generally set fairly far in advance; how is it she was unaware of the schedule? And where? Canada or Mexico? Did she simply drive across a nearby border? Or did she fly somewhere? Take a cruise? Never having been able to afford such travel myself, I was of the notion that international plane fare or cruise packages were expensive. Even passports weren’t cheap. Was she staying with someone for free, with many meals provided–or using hotels, paying car rental, eating restaurant meals? Student loan payments in default, a salary that purportedly didn’t cover making those self-same loan payments, but she could afford a trip to another country? Why wasn’t the probably-not-inconsiderable sum for this little jaunt spent on payments toward her legally-acquired loans?

I stumbled through the rest of her essay–complaints about the court system, excessive loan payments, and “rigged” financial systems–in a very different frame of mind.

Personal responsibility. Accountability. Determination. The determination that might have declared, “I don’t care what those racist fools throw at me, by God, I’ll show them! They’re not going to keep me from my education!” The sort of responsibility that, in my own circumstances, kept me slogging away in demeaning employment situations, enduring sexual harassment and gender pay gaps, in order to support my child, no matter what the cost to my mental well-being. The personal responsibility and strength of character to be totally accountable for one’s own decisions and behavior.

My compassion evaporating, I reread the young woman’s entire essay with a very different eye.

I still feel that the cost of a college education in the U.S. is iniquitous. Student loans are a terrible form of usury.

But Ms. Out-of-the-Country definitely contributed to her own problems.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Barbie Shoes” as mentioned above, which you can find in the Archives from November 13, 2019.

I Really Hate the Medical Profession! ( Part 1, Probably)

There is a reason for those two snakes on the caduceus!

A few weeks ago, I endured what is euphemistically termed a sleep study.  I haven’t the slightest notion under the frigging flaming sun as to why it would be called that, since the whole convoluted process would be more correctly titled a sleep deprivation study.  There’s no way in Dante’s Hell that any normal human being could sleep under those contrived circumstances, and certainly not someone like myself, afflicted with mild claustrophobia.  Sci-Fi androids probably have fewer wires than those that were slapped on me that night: a giant metal surge protector slung about my neck connecting hundreds of tiny twisted cables; nasal cannula jammed up and drying out my nose; sticky electrodes lining my body from my scalp right down to my calves.  And all of this in a stuffy windowless box of a room.  Sleep? Who could sleep?!

Even more hilarious were some of the questions on the paperwork I had to complete prior to the study.  Do I snore?  How the devil would I know?  I live alone.  My cats haven’t complained.  What did I weigh in high school?  Are you kidding me?  I’m 68 years old.  I sometimes can’t remember if I ate breakfast today, and they’re asking what I weighed in high school?  A lot less than I do today, was my somewhat-acerbic answer.

Despite this absurdity, the medical powers-that-be somehow determined that I suffer mild sleep apnea.  A CPAP machine was recommended.  Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, because I wasn’t really thrilled with the whole idea), in keeping with everything else  that is unobtainable/scarce/in shortage during the Covid era, CPAP machines are globally unavailable for six to nine months, as I was informed by a phone call from the medical provider’s office.  Having told me this, this same provider’s office then scheduled a follow-up appointment just three months down the road.  Excuse me?  If I’m not receiving any treatment for this condition (of which I remain unconvinced, anyway, considering the bogus environment of the test), why would I fork over yet another $176 fee to learn…what?  Nothing?  Sorry, doc, I don’t feel called upon to contribute to your next Caribbean vacation cruise.

All of this madness was, I should probably explain, in service of determining the cause of a worrisome heart arrhythmia.  So that night of sleep deprivation was followed by yet more ineptitude with a stress test.  (“Can you walk?” the cardiologist asked me, and I answered in the affirmative.  I enjoy walking.)  Unfortunately, she asked the wrong question.  She should have said, “Can you jog?  Sprint?  Run?”  Nope, and, suffering asthma, I’ve not been able to do so for perhaps 35 years or more.

The tech inserting the IV in my arm helpfully wrote “ASTHMA” in big warning letters across my paperwork before I was handed over to two techs who had, quite obviously, never encountered an asthma patient in their very young lives.  I suggested using my rescue inhaler first, and was voted down.  Bad move.  I always use my inhaler prior to exercising.  So, tucking the inhaler into my clothing where I could reach it easily, I hopped up onto a treadmill set to what they described as a “brisk walk”, with no warm up preceding the rush of movement.  Uh…  What they termed a brisk walk, I called at least a trot.  Not a good idea, without a warm-up, for most older people–joints, you know; for an asthmatic, a very, very, VERY bad idea. In a mask, too. Within three minutes, I was suffering a full-blown asthma attack and (since they refused to pause the machine to allow me to use my inhaler) the whole test had to be scuttled.  Three hits of my inhaler later, they proclaimed, “You’re having an exaggerated blood pressure response”.  Uh, a colossal asthma attack and three blasts of albuterol—ya think?

One week later, while speaking with the physician’s assistant who had received my test results, she complained that I’d been unable to exercise long enough to get accurate readings.  “I had an asthma attack,” I protested, and she was surprised.  That fact hadn’t been mentioned in my results.

Finally, reading the conclusions posted to my online chart, I sat, stupefied as I scanned the information.  My heart, I learned, was structurally sound.  There was no evidence of blockage, heart attack, or arterial disease causing the palpitations that I was experiencing.  “Continue with your treatment plan until your next appointment,” the letter concluded. See you in six months….

WHAT treatment plan?  Wasn’t that what all these tests were in aid of determining?  I had no treatment plan.

For two years, Covid gave me an excuse to entirely avoid the medical profession and seek natural treatments for any problems I experienced.  While l, along with the rest of the world population, would really, really like to see Covid become a faint and fading, distant memory, I’d still genuinely appreciate another such perfect justification to never see another doctor—never, ever again, for the rest of my life.

If you appreciated this little rant, I’m sure you’d enjoy “Aging Is Difficult Enough Without…”, which I published on July 29, 2020.  You can scroll down to the Archives, below, to locate it.

Lessons Learned

With the youngest memory of our family taking the first step of her educational journey today, I was reminded of this post from January 25, 2018.

As I mentioned in a long-ago post, we all have memories of teachers we idolized, and others whom we absolutely despised. Sometimes, too, those memories are a mixed bag, such as when we received shabby treatment from a teacher we liked.  We all have those stories.  These are two of mine.

I adored my fifth grade teacher, Miss Shireman. Looking back through time using the eyes of an adult, I can see that she was one of those rare teachers who not only genuinely enjoyed teaching, but liked children, as well.  She devised endless wonderful projects and creative ways to engage us in learning.

But what eluded me completely in childhood was that, like all of us, my beloved teacher was human.  She had good and bad days, and sometimes those feelings affected her teaching.

One such bad day occurred during our study of Indiana history. Miss Shireman had assigned us to draw a map of Indiana and its counties, and given us a weekend to complete the assignment.

Draw a map of Wyoming or New Mexico – a cinch. But draw a map of Indiana, with its squiggly lower border and 92 counties?  Not so simple.

I sweated over that map. I carefully drew and erased and redrew that noxious bottom border, and struggled to fit in all the weirdly-shaped counties.  I worked as hard on it as I had ever done on any assignment, and felt pretty proud when I turned it in that Monday.

A few days later, I was shocked when Miss Shireman stood in front of us and slammed the handful of maps down on her desk, declaring her disgust over the poor work we’d all done. We were going to do the maps over, she announced, and this time, we’d better do them well.

I was devastated. I had tried so hard! I’d been so proud!  It took everything in me not to cry. But pride came to my aid.  I redid my map by tracing the one I’d already done.  I knew it was already my best work, and I wasn’t about to redraw the whole darned thing.

It was not the first time I’d been scolded by a teacher for poor work when I knew I had tried my hardest, but, probably due to how well I liked Miss Shireman, it is the most painfully memorable.

Then came seventh grade.  Our teacher, Mr. Phillips (whom I didn’t dislike, but had no special liking for, either) encouraged our creativity and language development by having us write short stories.  In this, I was in my element.  I loved it…until the day he told us to choose an incident from American history as the basis for our story.

Wham! Writer’s block. I HATED American history.  It seemed to me nothing but a series of bloody battles and hypocritical old white men trying to circumvent the Constitution and get rich by trampling the bodies and spirits of others (sort of like a recent Administration).  I finally landed on one possible theme: the mysterious disappearance of the entire colony of Roanoke, Virginia.  That incident did intrigue me.

Once again, I sweated over the assignment. I wrote and rewrote that story, quickly learning that writing without inspiration was like slogging through knee-deep swamp mud.  I wasn’t precisely proud of the version I at last submitted, but I was satisfied.  So it was quite a slap in the face to receive my graded story back with a poor mark and the caustic comment written across it: “This is a very poor effort for you.”

Poor effort?! Did that jerk not understand how hard I had worked on that story?  It was my absolute very best damned effort under the circumstances, and he didn’t have the sense to appreciate it.

(Yes, it still makes me mad.)

There are numerous other memories of unhappy moments with teachers bopping about my memories of my years in school. I daresay everyone has memories like that.  And if these two stand out so prominently in my thoughts, it is mostly because of a sense of injustice.  I had done my very best, and was belittled despite it. But that in itself was a really important lesson for life, although probably not in the school syllabus.

I would need to use my fingers and my toes and then start on the strands of my hair to count the number of times in my working years that I was unjustly reprimanded. Small people given a little bit of authority often prove Lord Acton’s statement about the corrupting qualities of power. Being unjustly reprimanded by a boss at the office is a sad fact of life for most workers.

The most important lessons we learn in school are often not part of the curriculum. But they are probably the lessons we most need to prepare us for reality and for our future.

Happy first day of preschool, sweet Morrigan Lynn!

If you appreciated this essay, then you’d probably enjoy a post related to the many times in my working life that I had to rely on that childhood lesson of being unjustly reprimanded.  You can find “Tales of the Office: Jackass Bosses I Survived!” by scrolling to the Archives, below. It was published April 27, 2022 

Hiding in Jane Austen

I hide from reality in well-loved stories that gloss over all the evil of those bygone centuries.

A lifetime ago, when I was a little girl in the third grade, astronaut John Glenn orbited the earth three times. And despite the dust and decrepitude that has settled over me in the intervening decades, I still recall that morning (oh!) so clearly. I vividly picture my mother, sitting on the right side (her side) of that ugly Nile green brocade couch in the living room, eyes glued to the old black-and-white TV, as she braided my long hair. I can almost hear the voice of the announcer (Walter Cronkite?), talking, talking, talking, as the mission ensued. I remember my dismay at having to leave to catch the school bus—a dismay that, for once, had very little to do with how much I disliked school or the fact that I wanted to concentrate on my upcoming birthday, just two days away. I recall the almost-contagious excitement of my teacher, Mrs. Dryer. And finally, I remember my mother describing to us children the wonderful gesture of the residents of Perth, Australia, who turned on every light in the city, hoping that Glenn would be able to see the illumination from space.

But beyond all my memories of that day, I recall a feeling of pride; intense pride, and hope. Hope for the future—my future, the future of my someday-children; the future of the world. Space, the final frontier….

The world has turned many, many times since the day of Glenn’s orbit, and the once-astronaut, later Senator, has passed on, while I have grown old and, well, beneath the L’Oreal, white-haired, not grey. But my spirit—my spirit has greyed. The pride I once felt in my nation has evaporated, bludgeoned from existence by undeclared wars and unending lies; by revelations of historical genocide; by horrific mass shootings; by the hypocrisy of generations of politicians; by watching miserably as the democratic experiment that was America crumbles in waves of divisiveness and burgeoning fascism. And despite the recent, magnificent photos from the Webb space telescope, the hope my child-self once experienced for the future has dwindled. Space exploration has done nothing to prevent the glaciers melting, the forests burning, while we remain trapped on this scorched pale blue marble, winging its way through the solar winds.

Depressive, I know. Grim. But grim is what I feel most mornings, as I scan the latest news coverage. Oh, there is the occasional heart-warming human interest story scattered here and there throughout the carnage. But the rare story of kindness or environmental protection fails to overwhelm the simple, unutterable awfulness of it all.

And so, unable to continue, I ditch both the reports and the TV (where breaking news might interrupt any pleasant viewing I manage to find) and pick up my books. Eschewing even my favorite, light-hearted cozy mysteries, I take refuge in tales written a century or two ago: Jane Austen, and the Bronte sisters; Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. I escape to Avonlea and Pemberley; to Mansfield Park and Misselthwaite. I keep company with Anne-with-an-E Shirley, and young Mary Lennox. I worry not over the latest police brutality, but whether Sunday travel is really a permissible activity. I weep over the death of Anne’s firstborn, rather than children dead in a school shooting. I empathize with Jane Eyre’s inability to capture her visions in her paintings, rather than stress over how poorly my own written words convey my meaning.

The worse the world becomes, the more I hide.

When Covid was in ascendancy—when there were no home testing kits, no vaccines, and the only available masks were those we cobbled together from teeshirts and elastic and coffee filters—when we all dwelt in our separate spaces in lockdown, I hid in movies; specifically, superhero movies. The Avengers, Wonderwoman, Thor, Guardians…. Again and again, in 90 minutes, they saved the universe, the planet, their friends; struggling their way through battles, joking their way past villains. But watching movies palled; there are no superheroes to rescue us, and I can only suspend my disbelief so far, even for the purpose of respite and entertainment.

And so, now, as the world around me contracts and worsens; as forests burn and species dwindle; as the curtain is pulled back on revelation upon revelation of treasonous behavior by a former national leader; as blood and death are visited in my own backyard in such innocent venues as the mall where I shopped as a teenager and the park around the corner from my home–I hide. I hide in well-loved stories that gloss over all the evil of those bygone centuries; that touch only lightly upon lies and hypocrisy and faithlessness and cruelty and wrongdoing. I hide in a gentler version of life that probably never, in truth, existed beyond those printed pages.

And it comforts me.

If this sad little missive appealed to you, you might also appreciate the post, “Miss Happiness and Miss Flower”. You can locate it by scrolling to the Archives, below; it was published on April 22, 2020.