RIP Zombie Hamster

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It wouldn’t be the holidays around the Afthead house without a pet dying. Yesterday, when my husband was looking for things to do I suggested he check on Lula, the zombie hamster.  He disappeared into the basement and shortly returned shaking his head.

“She’s really dead this time?” I asked.

“Had been for awhile from the looks of her.”

And like the dope I am I burst out crying. She wasn’t my favorite pet, but death is sad.  We had a quick burial beside the dead-bunny-bush where Lula joined the baby bunny who died in our window well several years ago.  No words were said, because it was 20 degrees out, but her tiny body curled neatly into the hole I managed to spade out of the frozen ground.  She looked very Lula-esque as I sprinkled dirt on top of her.

The last time I knew she was alive was December 14th, because she tried to run around on her wheel while I was working at home:  the tumor on her hindquarters made movement difficult.  I gave her a slice of apple which she nuzzled on for a bit before drinking and heading back to her purple cave.  It was a nice final hamster human interaction.  (Yes, she could have been dead for two weeks in there, but I was dealing with a cancer scare at Christmas and couldn’t bring myself to check on her.)  The last time my daughter saw her was at our Christmas craft party where one of Afthead Junior’s friends suggested feeding Lula to her pet snake.  I can’t say that would have been a worse ending for Lula, but my daughter balked at a Lula death by snake swallowing.

This morning, I did a little research.  Lula’s life expectancy was 1.5 – 2 years.  By my calculations we had her almost 3.5 years.  So she lived an entire lifetime as a hamster, then another as a zombie hamster before the zombie-hamster-tumor took her agility, then her sight, and finally her life.

My last hope for Lula is that she and the bunny don’t start some mini Pet Sematary in my back yard.  I really hope she rests in peace back there.

My favorite Christmas Present? A Benign Biopsy

My new favorite word is benign.  Say it with me: benign.  It’s a little choppy and doesn’t really flow off the tongue;  there may be too many syllables for the length.  It wasn’t a word I’d given much thought before last week.  In fact, if you’d asked me before that, I would have said I liked the word malignant better.  It has a force to it, a weight, and a power that is scary as heck when it might be related to your own body.

Last Friday I was presented with that glorious word, benign.  All day I sat by the phone waiting for my biopsy results.  Before the biopsy, the mammography center had warned  that I might not hear the results until after Christmas, but the surgical center seemed certain that I’d hear on Friday.  My husband and I had discussed the uncertainty and decided that if the sample was cancerous we didn’t want to hear until after Christmas.  I rationalized that I could fake my way through the holiday not knowing, but would likely ruin everyone’s Christmas if I did know.  However, when I discussed my plan with the biopsy nurse practitioner and doctor they looked at me like I was crazy.  “I mean, I’ll have questions and I’ll need to know what the plan is if it isn’t benign.”  I told them.  They assured me that there would be a plan – nay a whole team ready – if the sample was not benign so I capitulated and agreed that they could call, which seemed to satisfy their need for procedure and protocol. (“Not benign” is such a stupid euphemism.)

My arms were deep in the sink, soaking my brother’s Christmas scarf for blocking when my daughter ran in, “Mom, your phone is ringing.”  I dripped while sprinting into the study and grabbed my phone.  Better to ruin my phone with soggy hands then miss this call.  They were going to tell me if the turtle ripped from my body was a good turtle or an evil turtle.

There is no situation that is beyond the absurd in my life.  While I was laying face down on a surgical table, my clamped and bleeding boob protruding through a hole, the doctor put up the image of the sample taken from my flesh.  It looked exactly like a turtle with a bulbous middle, a head, and four smaller blob appendages.  Of course, I shared my interpretation of this image with my medical team.  Appeasing me, they pointed out the lighter squiggles on one turtle foot.  That was the sample they wanted.  The worrying parts of the turtle were now outside of me ready to be analyzed and tested.

The call had no preamble before the nurse practitioner – the one who convinced me that I wanted to talk to her no matter what she was going to tell me – said, “I have good news for you.  Your sample is benign.”

That moment is clear in my head.  As unclear as the medical guidance given to me by my doctor during the biopsy procedure.  He was very kind, but the nurse assigned to me seemed hellbent to ensure any medical information provided was covered up by cheery banter.  She entered with the doctor and was “there for me” in some role perfectly clear to her.  At the moment the biopsy was about to happen the doctor said, “I’m going to take the sample now.  You might feel…” but whatever I might have felt was drowned out by the nurse screaming in my face, “WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE CHRISTMAS COOKIE?” I still don’t know what I was supposed to feel, but Nurse Rose knows I like sugar cookies the best.  Her question wasn’t a total non sequitur.  She’d drowned out the anesthetic information by asking me my plans for the day, which involved making Christmas cookies.

Sure, maybe making Christmas cookies they day you get a biopsy might seem a little strange, but that’s what happens when you get an irregular mammogram less than two weeks before Christmas.  My brother’s scarf was carried with me from waiting room to procedure room to waiting room the day of the biopsy, because I had knitting to finish before the holiday.  My potential cancer worries were all wrapped up with holiday concerns – pun intended.

The decision to have the mammogram right before Christmas was an odd one for me.  In a flash of uncharacteristic optimism I took the appointment offered because, after my first irregular mammogram in June, my doctor and I looked at the films together.  She’d assured me that the worrying spots had been on my mammogram in 2015, disappeared in 2016 and were back in 2017.  She said it was probably nothing, but cautioned me that I needed to go every 6 months, just in case.

At the time, the mammogram didn’t seem like it was “just in case,” but in hindsight the lady doing my mammogram got less and less chatty as she took more and more pictures.  Since this was my first followup appointment, I just figured she didn’t find my demeanor charming.  Or maybe she was also unsure how she was going to get everything done before Christmas.  When she asked me to sit in the waiting room I didn’t wonder, but when she asked me to come back into the bowels of the mammography center I got concerned.  She led me into a dimly lit room with faux leather chairs around a small conference table and I panicked.  The room looked exactly like the special room my vet has for euthanasia appointments.  When the radiologist arrived and didn’t bring me a warm blanket and a cocktail of life-ending drugs it was a relief, until he suggested a biopsy.

The warm blanket came right before they strapped my legs to the biopsy table and raised me into the air on the worst amusement park ride ever.  Nurse Rose did not find my amusement park ride jokes funny as the table made herkey jerks and my boob was smashed and smushed and poked.  I feel like being “there for me” should have involved laughing at my jokes.

The benign call ended awkwardly.  When asked if I had any questions I mentioned that I thought the incision was bleeding more than it should.  The nurse practitioner seemed taken aback, like the invitation for questions was rhetorical.  I was supposed to just hang up in a blaze of relief and joy.  When I told her that the bloody spot under my bandage was much bigger than a dime or nickel she said, “Well, if it’s still a problem on Tuesday give us a call” then said goodbye.  My Christmas cancer worry was replaced by a smaller bleeding-out worry.  Nothing I couldn’t fake my way through, but enough to make me drift off to sleep with images of bloody wounds dancing in my head.  (Spoiler alert, I haven’t bled out yet.)

When people ask me what I got for Christmas this year I go blank.  I got benign, but almost everyone doesn’t know I had a biopsy.  A few friends and family members along with an astute coworker who caught me at a bad time know, but I didn’t tell anyone else.   When was the right time?  During the band concert?  The school holiday party?  During our work calendar exchange?  At my friend’s dad’s funeral?  Had the ending been different I would have had to tell, but now I’m just awkwardly hugging on one side and randomly asking people to carry heavy things for me.

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Along with my constant appreciation of the absurd are my rose colored glasses.  Even after my Magic 8 Ball told me I didn’t have cancer (this was before the actual diagnosis) I couldn’t help planning for the worst.  The silver lining of the cancer scare was my evaluation of the things I was afraid of losing:  my family, my friends, my book, my stories and – surprising to me – my Master’s degree.  In the week between mammogram and biopsy I planned how to transition my work role to others, write my book at chemo so my mom could read it, and make countless videos and knit objects for my kid to remember me by.  (Because a box of hand-knits is almost the same as having a mom, right?)  I also hoped I would feel well enough during treatment to go to school.  It’s interesting the things that rise to important when you are considering th….

“WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE CHRISTMAS COOKIE?!?!?!”

Now when things start to get serious around here, you’ll understand why I’m screaming cookie gibberish.  My surgical pamphlet tells me that one in eight women develop breast cancer and four in five biopsies like mine end up benign.  That means many women are having these procedures and it’s all okay, but for each four of me, one other woman is dealing with all the fears I had the past two weeks.  If you find yourself in this same uncomfortable situation, my hope is that your turtles turn out benign and your warm blankets just make your uncomfortable amusement park ride a little bit more pleasant.

The Wet-Willy Guide to Platonic Touching

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I was born from a non-hugger, so all this current rigmarole about “can I even hug my coworker anymore” has me baffled.  From childhood I learned the discomfort that hugs can cause, and was progressively raised to ask permission before initiating physical contact with another human being.  If you come into my office at work crying I will stand up put my arms out and ask, “Are you a hugger?”  If you are, then you are welcome to step into my hug.  If you are not, then you can shake your head, continue weeping, and I will offer you a tissue.  However, I will not force a tissue upon you and wipe your face, because what if you don’t like tissues?

One of my best friends is also a non-hugger.  For ten years we have worked alongside each other, raised our girls together, and I have never hugged her.  I’ve watched others hug her and seen her tolerate the contact.  She’s never pushed back or rejected the hug, because she’s a polite person, but I always wonder why others’ need to hug is more important than her desire to not be hugged.  Especially when she is in crisis, I marvel at how people unknowingly make the situation worse by hugging her.

As I troll the social network scene I notice person after person commenting on how uncomfortable this “no hugging” mandate makes them, and I think about all the people who have been made uncomfortable by their hugs.  So I have come up with a rubric for hugging which I call “The Wet-willy Guide to Platonic Touching.”  Here is how it works.

The Wet-willy Guide to Platonic Touching

Put yourself in a hugging scenario.  Maybe a colleague has just returned from medical leave and you want to welcome him back.   Perhaps you haven’t seen a client in a year and you find yourselves in a meeting together.  After twenty years you see your old lab partner from college at the grocery store.  Before you hug translate the action of hugging into a wet-willy.

For those of you unaware, the wet-willy is the process of sticking your finger into your mouth and thoroughly coating it with saliva.  You then remove the dripping finger from your mouth and place it into another person’s ear and wiggle your finger around a bit.  It’s a common practice among elementary aged boys.  

So now, consider each of the scenarios above.  Would you give that person a wet-willy?  Of course it will depend on the relationship.  If you and the colleague are good friends outside of work maybe an impromptu spitty finger in the ear will be fine.  The client situation?  Probably never a good idea.  The relationship plus the public venue makes for an unlikely successful ear rooting.  The old lab partner?  Maybe the two of you enjoyed a carefree relationship in the past, but do you know where her ear has been or where she has been?  Maybe she’s just been released from an anger management program and you could cause her to relapse into her old unwelcome bludgeoning ways.  Maybe she’s joined a religion which does not allow for physical contact outside of marriage.  Either way, probably not worth the risk to you or her.

Personally, I would not wet-willy in any of these situations.  It just seems too perilous.  If I’d had a prior wet-willy relationship with these folks, I might ask “Hey you wanna wet-willy?!?” or even stick my finger in my mouth and offer it, allowing them to run forward with their ear proffered.

Assuming you are in normal healthy relationships, there are probably situations where you don’t have to ask, and those will differ by person.  I’d totally wet-willy my kiddo.  I’d also do it to my husband, who would hate it, but it’s within the norms of our physical relationship.  There are a few friends, and that’s about it.  Now, consider who you would unabashedly wet-willy your life.  Maybe you have a more physical family than I do, in which case your your brother, your sisters, your parents, your spouse or your child might love wet-willy contact.  (And your brother will probably do it regardless just because it makes you uncomfortable, because that’s what brother’s do.  Sibling relationships are based on forgiving cruelty.)  If the person isn’t on your wet-willy list then don’t enter their ear without asking.  Sure, you might get rejected, but a “no thank you” response and the shot to your ego is better than the alternative.

Now, let’s say you assumed incorrectly and the person you thought was accepting of wet-willies is not.  You stick your finger in their ear and they shriek, “Oh gross!  What the hell is wrong with you?” There is an immediate and appropriate response.

You say, “I am so sorry I made you uncomfortable.  I won’t wet-willy you again.  Is there anything I can do to make it better?”

Do not explain to them how you like wet-willies or how you thought you had a wet-willy relationship or how most people really like your wet-willies.  No.  Do not get mad at them because you are embarrassed they rejected you.  Don’t shame them because they do not share your affection for spitty ears.  They don’t need to know about how in your family wet-willies are the epitome of caring.  Finally, in no circumstances is it okay to wet-willy them again, to show how really inoffensive your wet-willies are.

Now, go back and read the wet-willy instructions as hugs.  Hugs aren’t that different.  It involves even more body contact and on sweaty days or in crying situations there’s an exchange of bodily fluids.  A hug can be just as invasive to an individual.  So before you hug, just ask yourself, would I give this person a wet-willy without asking?  If the answer is no, than it’s really simple to say, “Do you want a hug?”  Wait for a response before acting, and respect the wishes of the person you care enough to hug.


Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

Embarrassingly Excessive Advent

I have a confession to make.  I have an obsession that has gone into the realm of embarrassing.  Do you have one of those?  Maybe a penchant for shoes or purses or coats beyond what is reasonable for your budget or your closet size?  Maybe this desire even contradicts your core beliefs?

My addiction is advent calendars.  Not those paper ones where you open for a new picture every day.  Not the felt ones where you stick a new ornament twenty-four times.  Not one where you get a festively shaped piece of chocolate every day.  Not even the cute ones with little drawers that can hold a Hershey Kiss.  Folks, all those enabling Advent calendars have been part of my life, but I’ve moved beyond those.  My problem is much worse.

Behold!  My daughter’s advent calendar!  Purchased from The Land of Nod several years ago it has been the instrument of my decline.  Note that every day in December, up to and including Christmas – totally Advent inappropriate, having a pocket for the 25th – my daughter gets a gift.   I’d like to say that they are just little trinkets, and there are some.  However, there are Lego sets in there, my friends.  Small Lego sets, but Legos nonetheless.  There are objects too big for the calendar, thus the “box” cards, which direct my little girl to an extra box of wrapped gifts.  For example, today she got a book, which is too big for day 1 pocket.  I confess that there are even articles of clothing in some of those numbered pockets.

If I step away from this monstrosity and look at it objectively I’d tell you that I live in a tiny house that doesn’t need more stuff.  We are a family that values experience over things.  My daughter will get tons of Christmas from our extended family, if I didn’t get her anything she’d have more gifts than the average kid.  I’m sure, in confidence, my mom would tell you that I’ve made her feel bad about buying things for her granddaughter because I’m so anti-stuff.  In fact, the commercialism of Christmas is just obscene and my favorite part of the season is our celebration of Hanukkah, where we light the candles together as a family and quietly say a prayer as the lights burn down.   I love that moment of togetherness and quiet.

(But I also REALLY love the Advent calendar.)  I love that there is a day where the cookie cutters I bought her in Minnesota will remind her of our family vacation.  I love that there are Nutcracker leggings for the day she’s going to the Nutcracker, and brass instrument leggings for the day we are going to go see a brass holiday concert.  I adore how she springs out of bed every day in December to see what I got her.  Her joy and gratitude are an amazing way to start the day.  I love the planning involved:  making sure her crafting gifts are delivered just before our annual crafting party.  It is excessive and ridiculous and I can’t stop.

I CAN’T STOP!  Last year the Advent Calendar issue took a terrible turn, because my favorite online knitting shop, Jimmy Beans Wool, started offering a knitting Craftvent calendar.  I couldn’t resist and I loved getting a knitting surprise every day last year.  So I bought it again.  Gak!  There’s not even any thoughtfulness in this one.  It’s pure unadulterated Christmas commercialism and I love it so much that the guilt just slips away.

I refuse to calculate it, but I may spend more on my daughter’s Advent calendar than on her Christmas presents.  My husband is a stabilizing force with the actual holiday gifts.  I know I spend more on my Craftvent calendar than he spends on my gift.  It’s this weird annual sickness I have: excessive advent celebration.

I cannot wait to see what we get tomorrow!  And the next day!  And….

Hamsters – not the pet for me

I’m calling it.  Hamsters are not the pet for me.  Here’s why:

  1. Hamsters are nocturnal, so really not awake and fun when humans are awake and wanting to play with hamsters.
  2. Hamsters have little personality due to their little brains.
  3. Hamsters are bitey, with no ability to learn not to bite.
  4. Hamsters are small and can easily escape to become short lived cat toys.

In particular, I’m starting to think our hamster Lula is not the pet for me because:

  1. She is a zombie, and I’ve never really trusted her since the hamster zombie apocalypse.
  2. She is now growing a hamster tumor growth thing out her butt, which is probably not related to the zombie thing, but who knows.

Really, that last one is throwing me over the edge right now.  I’m a pet owner who goes way above and beyond to care for animals.  Some might say I go too far, and they might be right.  However, this hamster pet cannot really be cared for.  The vet will see her, but the normal $120 vet charge will apply and while they could do hamster tumor removal or hamster chemo on Lula she was only a $60 pet to start with (including her cage) and she’s well toward the end of her expected lifespan.  And when I consider taking her to the vet even I can’t justify it.  I’m sure they’d perform hamster euthanasia if I really wanted them too, but she doesn’t really seem to be unhappy.  She just looks gross and can’t run on her wheel anymore because there’s this thing growing between her legs.  So I just watch her waddle around drinking water from her drippy straw thing and digging for peanuts in her hamster chow while her tumor and my guilt grow.

I hate hamsters.  They are not the pet for me.

The Perfect 1-Year-Old Gift

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Afthead Junior, many years ago.

Do you have a wee one in your life?  A child between 9 and 18 months who needs a gift soon?  While a variety of retailers will tell you which book, toy, or puzzle to buy while outlining all the brain development you’ll be stimulating, I have a gift that is guaranteed to delight.  The pre-toddler will abandon all other gifts for yours, if you follow my plan.  Best of all, it’s inexpensive.

Are you ready?

Every one year old is scolded for partaking in an activity that really, we’d all love to do.  When they find an opportunity the object is removed from them and set up high on a bookshelf to taunt them.  But you, the favorite gift giver, will end this cycle.

Go to any grocery store, drug store, gas station, or convenience store and buy a box of tissues.  Not just any kind, but the kind magically gives you a new tissue each time you remove one.  Do not wrap up the box, but just remove the perforated cardboard protector of the tissues.  If you must, pull the first one up, then hand it to the child.  Watch as they pull out one, then another waiting for the yelling.  When it doesn’t come, pure joy will emanate from the child as they methodically empty the box of magic.

I’m looking forward to tissue shopping this week.  I think my niece is ready.

Meet Nyx

There has been a tiny new addition in our life.  In September our annual renewal to be foster cat parents came up, and I admitted to myself (and to the shelter) that we just couldn’t try again.  After losing four kittens in the first disastrous litter (including one we’d thought had made it) then nursing a cat to heath only to discover his heart was failing, well, the Afthead family’s collective heart wasn’t up for anymore death.

I settled happily into our two cat household.  I started looking for another forever cat for our home.  We’d always been a two cat household, and Adventure and Katie loved each other, but neither one of them was really a people cat.  I wanted a lap sitting purring cat, but my husband laid out a strict rule: we could not get another cat unless it loved our daughter.

Our new cat claimed me on a trip to buy cat food.  PetSmart was having an adoption event and when I walked up to her kennel she stretched up, put one paw on each of my cheeks and started purring.  She didn’t stop purring the whole time I was there.  The clerk said she’d been adopted, but the family decided they couldn’t handle a kitten, so she was never picked up.  I went to pick up my daughter from school and while I waited for her I texted my husband, “Going to go see if our new cat meets your requirement.”  Back at the pet store, the kitten claimed my daughter too.  By 8:00 that night our adoption was approved and our new cat came home.

Her name is Nyx, after the Greek goddess of night.  She’s adventurous,

sleepy,

snuggly,

bathroom loving,

cross-legged sleeping,

water loving,

and adorably two-toned.

She rides our big cats like they are cat horses, waiting until they are sleeping before jumping on their back and biting their scruff until they buck her off.  The big cats do not love her and I’m afraid Adventure is scarred for life.  Her preferred sleeping location is under the covers biting our knees and ankles.  She climbs the screen door and completely wrecked one of my favorite plants, poisoning herself in the process.  She’s recovered and become a fixture in our family.  We love her, and my cat heart is full.  Besides, if we adopt anymore we’ll become crazy cat people.  The rule is that as long as you don’t have more cats than people you aren’t crazy cat people.  It’s true.  I read it on the internet somewhere.

Bloggers are Real People

Ten years ago, I found the SouleMama blog.  I was searching for a knit hat pattern, and stumbled across Amanda Soule’s website.  She talked about crafting and raising three kids; something about her voice and demeanor spoke to me.  I’d return frequently and watch her family and life unfold from afar.  Occasionally I’d comment, and once I submit a piece to her.  But mostly I’d just lurk and read and imagine how if I’d made different choices along the way – like a different husband, because my beloved guy is not a farmer – I could have lived a life like hers.  My baby girl was born right before her fourth kiddo, and my bond with her grew watching our kids grow up together.  Funny how that “kid the same age” bond works with virtual friends too.

 

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Well, Amanda Soule is visiting Colorado this week!  She’s got a new book out and her publisher is up in Boulder, Colorado.  There are a host of events planed and I targeted the Horseshoe Market book signing and an open craft night as possibilities for me to attend.  Luck would have it that Saturday between taking the kitten to the vet, a soccer tournament, and readying our yard for winter I had a sliver of time and was on the right end of town to meet this lady who had no idea who I am, but who I’d known for years.  During the drive I vacillated between feeling like a weirdo for visiting this stranger and being excited about meeting the real live human being Amanda Soule.

After meandering around the market, I found Amanda’s tent and awkwardly waited while another lady chatted.  When my turn came, the introduction went like this, “Hi Amanda, my name is Johanna and I’ve been following your blog for years and I totally feel like a creepy stalker but I wanted to come by and introduce myself and tell you how much I enjoy your work and watching your kids grow up, I mean Harper – isn’t it weird that I know his name – is the same age as my daughter and I’m so glad to meet you.”  That was me.  Spilling out every detail of my life without breathing in hopes that my oversharing would somehow made up for my creepy overly developed one sided relationship with her.

Amanda replied, “You aren’t a stalker.  I put it all out there.”

True enough.  The short conversation proceeded a bit more normally after that, especially as it evolved to commerce.  She told me about the delicious lunch she’d had, and I renewed my Taproot subscription – Amanda is the editor – and bought a copy of her new book which wasn’t officially released until yesterday.   With the magazine renewal I got a free totebag, which doubles as a cat toy.  (Note below cat is not the new kitten who got an emergency visit to the vet this weekend.)

I wasn’t there for more than five minutes, but I did mention that I might bring my mama and kiddo to her last Denver event.  It’s at Fancy Tiger, a nearby craft and yarn store I love.  I confided in her, “Make a budget, because they have beautiful stuff and you’ll spend more money than you want if you aren’t careful.”  United by the call of expensive yarns and notions she thanked me, and then moved onto her next stalker/customer.  That last exchange felt completely real and friendly, and I was glad I had stopped to meet this woman whose writing I have so enjoyed the past decade.  Hopefully, if I make it to the next event, my interactions will be a little more natural.  After all, Amanda and I are real life acquaintances now.

Gold Star – 100%

I am a grown up.  My life is measured in vague shades of grey.  At work, the exceptional ratings are saved for the top 5-10% and I’m lucky to see one every 5 years.  (And due to recent changes, I’m certain to not see an exceptional anytime soon.)

As a parent, it turns out there is no “mom of the year” award.  Even if there was, I wouldn’t win it.  While I’d score high marks on basic measures like my daughter being alive and her not getting called into the principal’s office, I would get zero points on unexpected top-mom qualities like “make myself a priority”.  I need to lose 10 pounds and am too frequently unshowered in public.  (True story:  I picked up my daughter braless the other day.  I mean I had a shirt, a sweatshirt and a coat on, but no way do free breasts get you mom-award points.)

Then there is my writing persona.  My short story came back last week with a kind but brief rejection: “We appreciate the chance to read it. Unfortunately, the piece is not for us. ”  I ignored the tiny voice in my head that said, they seem nice, so reply back and see if they know who it IS for.  That would be helpful.  Instead I did what I’m supposed to do:  submit again to a new journal and not be disgruntled.  I’m trying, but so far my publishing career score would be a 0%.

Then there’s graduate school.  Given the vague I’m doing okay, or at least better than nothing scores in the rest of my life, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when my first homework assignment grade gave me a thrill.  I mean, it was just 1 out of 1 – I just had to turn the dumb thing in – but I got 100%.  Now three assignments in my grade is 21/21, still 100%.  My homework grade is perfect.  I have an app on my phone for school, and I can pull up my class for anyone to see and show them that I am perfect at something.  (No, I do not show anyone my perfect grade.  Okay, except my husband, and kid, and a couple of friends at work.  Well, and now all of you readers, but that’s it so far.)

A friend told me I should print my homework assignments out and put them on the fridge, just like I would do with my daughter’s good grades.  I haven’t gone that far yet, but I am wearing my little virtual gold star around proudly.  Only six assignments left.  Gotta go finish my reading, so I don’t break my perfect streak.  100%, just in case you missed it.

Midlife Experimentation

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I was almost 15 years old when Dead Poet’s Society came out.  It was a movie that spoke to me.  I was deep into my persona as a thespian: on my way to playing Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.  Simultaneously I was moments away from diving into AP Chemistry and Biology.  There was nothing I couldn’t do.  The world was pure possibility.  I would make my life extraordinary just like Robin Williams character demanded of his students.

A month ago I turned 43. For the past few years I’ve found myself desiring change.  Not little change, like a new shampoo, but big fundamental change:  a new house, a writing career, or at the very least a new office at work.  Being a responsible adult married to a super-duper-risk-adverse responsible adult meant the change has been slow coming, but incrementally it’s come.  First, I decreased my work schedule to 32 hours a week, so I had a day to focus on my writing.  That has been going well.  I submit my first completed short story to a journal this past Thursday, and have another short story in the works.  Meanwhile, the first draft of my novel is slowly becoming a second draft.

Tomorrow the next phase begins.  I’m starting graduate school at a local university with a college that’s dedicated to working adults.  My degree program is in Geographic Information Systems (GIS).  For the lay person that’s a degree in making maps using computer software.  The college I’m going to has a master’s in creative writing, and while that’s intriguing, it doesn’t help me with my day job, and my day job is the one that allows me the ability to both pay for my degree through tuition reimbursement and write one day a week.  (Also, don’t tell anyone this part, but I have a non-fiction work I want to write that’s very dependent on me honing my GIS skills.)  So I’m starting with a practical degree to see if that quiets my need for change.

My mom went back to school later in life.  Interestingly, as she and I were chatting I realized that she started her undergraduate degree program at 42.  Isn’t that weird?  That we’d start such a big change at the same time in our lives a generation apart?

No.  It’s not weird.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and the truth of the matter is, our American middle-class lives are built around 20ish year cycles.  Your first 20 years you are educated.  If you only graduate high school you are done in 18.  If you do post-graduate work, it might take you 28 years.  But in general, you complete the education phase of your life around 22-24 years old.  Then you start the work phase.  

I graduated college at 23.  Now, 20 years later I’ve done the working thing and understand how to succeed in the workforce.  I also know what would be required of me to become a high level manager or director.  With that knowledge comes a complete lack of interest.  For me, the rewards do not balance the required sacrifices of time and family.  My next phase of life will not be a slog toward executive.  On the other hand, while I like my current job, I can’t imagine doing what I do now until retirement without new opportunities to grow and change.  I’m wondering what the next 20 years holds.

Of course, I’m not the only one to get antsy when my early 40s show up.  The words mid-life crisis exist for a reason.  My need for change makes me empathize with the stereotypical 40-year-old male of my parent’s generation.  If I was the sole breadwinner with a house full of kids I might have purchased a sports car or had an affair with my secretary to force a change from the inevitability of 20 more years of sameness.  My own desire for something different felt like a crisis a year ago.  But then a wise woman (our family therapist) told me that now was the time to make a change.  While my daughter wasn’t a teenager.  While my husband’s depression was stable.  Because, she said, you never know when life is going to throw you a curveball and you won’t have the opportunity to make your life better.  I know now that she told me that while facing her own cancer diagnosis.  She died earlier this week.

Her legacy to me was allowing myself to enter an experimentation phase of my life.  Will I make it as a writer?  Will I get a break and be a novelist for my next 20 years?  Probably not, since few people make it as a writer, but I don’t want to close that door before I try to open it.  Will I be a geospatial data expert and solve the world’s future transportation problems using maps and visualizations?  That’s a direction I can see pivoting my current career.  Maybe I’ll make amazing connections at my university and become an adjunct professor in addition to my current job.  When I graduated with my bachelor’s degree 20 years ago I was voted “most likely to become a professor” so maybe my classmates knew something I didn’t.

I’m so thankful I live in an enlightened time  and work for an enlightened company so I can take the heartfelt advice of a trusted advisor.  What will I be when I grow up?  A writer?  A professor?  A map maker?  All of the above?  In some ways I feel like my decision will be a tribute to a woman who guided me through the hardest times of my life.  I want to do right by her last words to me.  I do not want the second half of my life to be a story of quiet desperation.  I want to accomplish another iota of what I am capable.  I want another opportunity to strive for extraordinary.

DPS2


Quotes from Dead Poets Society (1989) and screenshots taken from IMDB – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097165/quotes.