“Delicate Geniuses” and Hired Hands

The all-knowing George Costanza

The all-knowing George Costanza

Today I thought about the fact that teachers are held to a standard, criticized openly about the meeting (or lack thereof) of these standards, and often let go when they don’t perform accordingly.  Yet others in the service industry avoid such incessant ridicule, even though their performance affects the lives and well-being of the public as well.  I know I’m probably opening a can of worms here, but I’m talking about doctors.

One of my best friends is a nurse, my husband is a physical therapist, and I have several friends who are doctors, so I hope I don’t offend by going there–but I gotta.  Yesterday I went to the gastroenterologist for my first annual check up after being diagnosed with Celiac.  I’d heard rumors about one particular doctor in the practice–four separate people told me to avoid him, including a doctor in my OB’s office.  So I rescheduled with a woman in the practice who came highly recommended, and I really looked forward to speaking with a woman about my concerns, especially since I’m pregnant.

Now before I go on, I will address some biases.  I went into this appointment expecting to be told that I didn’t really have Celiac disease and it was all a big misunderstanding.  Or, at the very least, that I could go on a gluten binge for a while before being tested again to be sure.  My husband told me I was creating a fantasy that would ultimately disappoint me, and he was right, but I pretended not to hear him when he brought it up.  So, to continue…

Here I sat waiting for my awesome female state of the art doctor to come in, and I am instead greeted by a brusque, agitated middle-aged man–the very man I had been told to avoid.  The first thing he said to me was, “Are you pregnant?  I can’t do anything for you right now.”

I’m not kidding.

Let me address this point now:  Let’s say that on the first day of school, I happened to notice that one of my students has a broken hand, lacks school supplies, or–gasp!–has a learning disability, and rather than work with him or her in the best way I can to provide the best education that I can, I say, “There’s nothing I can do for you right now.”  I would not be employed for long.  Or I might be on the news or someone’s blog as an example of why our public schools are failing.

I explained to him that I really just wanted to be educated on my disease–that no one had really walked me through the ins and outs of it before.  To which he replied, “Well when it comes to the diet, patients really know more about that part than I do.”  I told this to my husband, and although he was appalled by the doctor’s bedside manner overall, he explained that this was pretty typical, even understandable–many doctors diagnose, but know little about the path to recovery.

Huh?

So, to extend this analogy, pretend that I hand back an essay marked all to hell with red ink, but include no directions or feedback on how to fix the mistakes.  I’m pretty sure that one of the major current criticisms of teachers is their lack of improvement regarding moving kids to the next level after the students have been assessed.  Yet it is considered normal and acceptable for a doctor to tell me what’s wrong with me and not be able to tell me how to get healthy.

Finally, this “delicate genius” told me that I really just needed a good nutritionist, and after I explained to him that I saw a highly recommended one who simply handed me a bunch of packets she had printed from the internet, he continued to harp on the importance of working with a qualified nutritionist.  Fine.  I believe him.  But I don’t often get the luxury as an educator of pawning my students’ problems off on other professionals.  In fact, it is often my sole responsibility to see that they get all that they need for the hour that they’re with me–mentally, emotionally, and physically.  The icing on the cake though was when, after becoming frustrated (and even a little hormone-induced hysterical), I said, “You know I really just want to know details…like would it be the end of the world if I had a beer every now and then?”  And he replied, “They have gluten-free beer!  You know, I really don’t often hear patients complain about the gluten-free diet.  Most are pretty happy on it.”

I wanted to slap him.

But I didn’t slap him.  Instead, he ordered some blood work, and I cried as soon as the nurse entered the room.  She whispered conspiratorially to me that many people felt that way after seeing him.  So let’s recap:  Four people, including another doctor, talked me out of seeing him.  His own nursing staff disliked him.  Many patients left his office in tears.  Yet, he still has a job–a well-paid one at that.

Meanwhile, politicians and well meaning members of the general public, discuss the pros and cons of teacher tenure, the importance of balanced teacher evaluation systems, and whether or not teacher pay, retirement, and school budgets can be sliced ever more slightly off the top.  How is it that a doctor can be terrible at his job and the worst that befalls him is…well, I’m not sure.  No one is debating the security of his job, whether he deserves to be paid, or how to best evaluate his performance.  And if they are talking about it, it’s not public in the same way as teacher reform.

Don’t get me wrong, the way I feel about some of these topics would probably surprise you.  I see the importance of cultivating quality educators, keeping them, and challenging them.  But I do get frustrated with the double standard, and I get really tired of being treated like a misbehaving hired hand while others in public service are treated like infallible gods.  We all owe it to those we serve to give the best care we can, and should be held accountable if we don’t.

Photo courtesy of Google Images.

Let it go. Let it happen.

As you’ve gathered by now, I have always suffered from anxiety.

I remember being a small child and, after hearing my parents argue that my dad would have no money while on the road for another low paying carpentry job, I put a five dollar bill that he had given me back into his duffle bag because I worried that he wouldn’t get to eat.

As a seven year old, I watched the news religiously during Desert Storm out of constant fear that my dad would be deployed, even though he hadn’t been on active duty for years.

Yet, oxymoron that I’ve always been, I was also really adventurous. In high school, when none of my other friends dared do it, I was the first to dive off a 25 foot cliff into the lake, not once considering the string of possible injuries. Of course, upon reaching the riverbank afterward, I fretted for half an hour about how “icky” my hair would be from the lake water. That was and is my M.O.: Jump now. Worry about it forever.

Then, three years ago, I applied for a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Thailand and Vietnam with other educators, and when the acceptance letter came in the mail, I began mentally packing for the trip of a lifetime. To say that the trip was life-changing is an understatement: If you met me an hour before the plane took off and then an hour after I returned, you would have sworn you’d made a mistake. Although I had hopped on the plane without a doubt in my mind, when I got there I was riddled with doubt. Will this fruit make me sick? Did I hit the wrong note while singing “I Will Survive” on karaoke? Will this tuk tuk car turn over taking that curve? My brain would not be quiet.

Near the end of our time in Thailand, we went to an elephant conservation camp in Lampang. As usual, when they asked who wanted to ride one through a river, I was the first to volunteer. I climbed the ladder (yes, ladder) up the side and slid onto his back like a professional mahout. I laughed when others feared falling into the rocky water and being trampled to death. When we reached the other side, the elephants mingled with us. They bathed in the water and splashed around. They strolled up to people and took off their hats or tugged at their shirts. I found all of this amusing at first, but then out of nowhere, my old friend anxiety reared his ugly head. When one of the elephants offered kisses by sucking the cheeks and necks of the my friends, I stood back, quietly alarmed. I couldn’t tell you why.

Elephant kisses.

Elephant kisses.

Then, Marilyn, a feisty sixty-something English teacher from North Carolina, pushed me closer and said, “Let go. Let it happen.” Not the first nugget of wisdom Marilyn had shed that trip, but my personal favorite. So I walked up to that elephant, a little bell on his neck tinkling like a shop keep’s door, and it was like he had been waiting for me the whole time. He wrapped his trunk around my shoulder, pulled me closer, and sucked up the skin from my cheek like a wet, furry vacuum cleaner.

Hands down the best kiss of my life.

And I’ve tried to remember Marilyn’s advice every day since: Sometimes you just gotta let go and let it happen. It’s the only thing that will ever really quiet the worrying mind.

I Am Not My Neuroses

This is supposed to be a sad face...can you tell? Call it hormones.  Call it summer boredom.  Call it whatever you like, but the bottom line is that I have had a shit storm brewing in my brain since June.

Allow me to explain.

Really it’s longer than that.  Over the last few years (if I’m being honest, since I started teaching) I’ve come to believe that I am a neurotic person, and that’s just who I’ve always been.  Anxiety disorder and Ashley are synonymous in my mind.  I said this to my best friend who’s known me since freshman year of college and she corrected me.  I was not always like this.

So why is it that I cannot have an idea without doubting it?  Why can I not have a polite exchange with a colleague without wondering what she thinks of me afterwards?  Why do I feel good about myself one minute, and then completely worthless the next?  The answer is that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I have become my anxiety.

The good thing is that I am self-aware.  In fact, maybe a little too self-aware.  I’ve recognized this issue for a while, and since summer began, it’s gotten progressively worse even though I’ve done all the right things.  I’ve walked, traveled, spent time with friends and family, found creative outlets, and eaten (mostly) healthy foods.  But I just can’t kick it.  So I found myself a few days ago in a therapist’s office vomiting the nonsense that has been swirling in my brain.  She cut me off mid sentence at one point and said, “Listen, Ashley, you’re thirty-one now.  You’ve got to stop relying on other people to provide your confidence.  You will never get over this anxiety until you do.”

Easy for her to say.

The truth is I don’t know where the border between me and other people begins, and I’ve spent years (maybe a lifetime) expecting that praise and approval will eventually make me whole.  Last night I was relaying all of this to another of my best friends and she said, “Ashley, you might have an anxiety disorder, but you are not an anxious person.”  For the first time, I’m realizing that there is a difference between the two.

There’s been much talk lately about mental illness with the tragic death of Robin Williams, and I know many are asking the same question I am:  If I’m not blank [an addict, anxious, depressed], then who am I?

I grew up with a mother who hated having her picture taken.  I have few pictures of her, and I’m pretty sure past a certain age, I could probably count how many there are.  Somewhere along the way, I developed the same phobia.  To my credit though, I can take some pretty awful pictures.  My husband, who loves to take photos, calls what happens to me when a camera comes around as “turning into a gremlin.”  Exhibit A is the photo above.  My friend and I were on a girl’s trip to Jamaica and on our last day, she said, “Make a sad face for the camera.”  What you see is apparently what happens to my face when I’m sad.  For others, it’s a frown or a slight grimace, but I literally turn into a golem.  Such mutation has become the reason why I avoid having my picture taken, and if I must do it, from ever looking at the picture to avoid the self-criticism that will come with it.  But I wasn’t always this way.  There are countless pictures of me as a teenager and young adult being silly and clearly loving the camera.  Somewhere along the way worrying about how I look in a photo changed the way I think about myself.  Now I just accept it as fact that I take bad pictures most of the time, when that is not really the case.

But I don’t want my daughters to worry about how they look in pictures or to run when someone pulls out a camera.  There’s more at stake for me now that I’m a mom.  Thinking of myself as an anxious person, constantly thinking and expressing negativity, and ruminating on nonsense that doesn’t really matter will not only impact me (and my relationships with others), but how my daughters see me and themselves.  It’s just not a risk worth taking.

The shit storm will still be a-brewing, but I would rather acknowledge that I happen to have a disorder that I can control instead of believe that the disease is who I am and I just have to live with it.  It’s not easy, but it will be worth it.  And maybe I’ll learn how to take a better picture along the way.

 

The Search in On…

IMG_0963During my first pregnancy, all I wanted to eat was watermelon.  And I went through A LOT of them.  I ate at least two watermelons a week, and the watermelons that year were the best I’ve had in years.

Fast forward to the present day, a second pregnancy, and another nagging hankering for sweet, juicy watermelon.  But this year the watermelons have been crap.  Seriously, crap.  They’re never ripe enough, too tough, not sweet enough, too mushy–you get the point.  My approach to dealing with this has been, “Let’s just keep getting them every time we go to the grocery, and we’re bound to find a good one.”  My husband’s approach has been, “They’re not good enough, so we’re not going to get it.”  The debate has been heated enough that we’ve turned quite a few heads in the produce aisle, but the problem is bigger than getting thrown out of Whole Foods.  The way we’ve searched for watermelon this summer is exactly how we each approach life.

Matt does all the cooking in our house, not because I don’t like to cook or am terribly awful at it (although the idea of cooking a meal after putting on a show for teenagers all day sometimes makes me want to cry), but because I always mess something up.  The food usually turns out fine, but my timing is always off, or we are missing an ingredient so I do a spur of the moment substitute that doesn’t quite work, or one box says 350 degrees and the other says 450, so I just average the two and end up with half frozen, half burnt meals.  I am very impulsive.  Matt, on the other hand, is extremely calculating.  He will study cookbooks or online recipes for several days before planning a meal.  He will lay out all the ingredients on the counter (no matter how crazy it drives me that he makes such a mess while cooking) and scan it all before starting.  If we don’t have the exact ingredient, he will stop midway through and run to the store.

Our difference in this area filters into almost every aspect of our day to day existence.  Before purchasing an item, Matt will look up reviews until his eyes bleed and compare the prices of every possible place to buy it.  I tend to buy a lot of stuff and take half of it back–I’m pretty sure the guy behind the customer service desk at Target rolls his eyes when he sees me coming.  Matt wants the best of the best of everything (especially when the best of the best is on sale), and I just grab whatever I see first.

So our approaches to watermelon this summer hasn’t really surprised me.  What has surprised me is the way it’s made me question so much about myself.  Because, as luck would have it, we did find the best watermelon only a few weeks ago at the farmer’s market across the street from our house.  Apparently the Amish know how to grow ’em, and at $6.00 a piece, it’s not a bad deal.  The thing is though, (even though I will NEVER tell him this) I kind of regret eating all that crappy watermelon, and wish I had held out for the good stuff.

Because I’m impulsive, I do tend to spend quite a bit of time regretting.  Not only do I regret my purchases, but I regret texts I send, words I say, worries I dwell on, and a whole mess of things that if I just took the time to wait, to be a bit more calculating, I might not regret so much.  I’ve always thought that being impulsive was another way of saying spontaneous, and that it was all a part of my flaky charm.  But now that I’m in my thirties, it’s a liability, and it negatively impacts my relationships with others and myself.  If I thought about what I said before I say it, I might not say it.  And if I don’t say it, I might not send the pitiful I’m sorry text after saying it.  And I might not then worry about whether or not the person is annoyed that I sent the text.  And…you get the point.  So, in the end, others become frustrated with me and I become frustrated with myself.  It’s a vicious cycle that always leaves me lying in a puddle of regret.

I’m learning that one of the best things about being in my thirties, is growing into myself.  And that means letting go of some traits that I always thought were “just the way I am.”  There is something to be said for accepting and being kind to ourselves, but if we’re not growing, what’s the point?  When we moved into our current home, I set about preparing to paint the plain white walls.  Having always been a lover of bright colors, I wanted to bring some color in the house, but part of me wanted to tone it down a bit from what I’d done in the past.  Matt, who loves me inside and out, kept saying, “What happened to my Ashley who loves bright colors?”  I listened, went against my gut, and bought a gallon of bright, grass-green paint for the dining room, and about ten rolls in, I realized that it was a disaster.  It was truly awful.  And although I am grateful that I have a husband who would tolerate living in a Pollock painting for my sake, I had to repaint it.  That girl who loved bright colors has grown up, so now her dining room is a bright, although tasteful, gold color.  And she’s stuck with a gallon of ridiculous green paint if you need any.

Tomorrow is Saturday, and we will make our trek across the street for the good stuff, but with each bite I’m going to remind myself that sometimes it’s best to wait for the best and to let go of the way we’re used to being.  If you do, you’ll end up with a properly cooked meal, a bright, yet tasteful home, and, quite possibly, the best watermelon the Amish can grow.

 

 

Go have your beer!

My husband rubbing it in.

My husband rubbing it in.

Since being diagnosed with Celiac Disease last October, I find myself more easily irritated with how other people eat.  Considering that most of my readers are most likely those “other people”, I know I’m on thin ice here.  But bear with me…

At first the diagnosis was a relief.  I felt better within twenty-four hours of the gluten free diet.  It was like all of my life’s problems had been answered:  No more headaches!  My stomach doesn’t feel like a train is running through my intestines anymore!  Oh I’m not supposed to be that skinny and I do look better with fifteen more pounds on me!  I’m not such a worrying psychopath!

But then reality set in.

First I didn’t get to eat my Granny’s famous chicken and dumplins for Thanksgiving.  Then I suddenly became that person at holiday parties who demanded to know the ingredients of every dish on the buffet.  But the worst, worst, worst part was when spring hit and I couldn’t have a beer.

It seems like it’s no big deal to abstain from drinking beer, and it may not be for some, but beer has (had) become a part of my lifestyle.  Sitting outside on a patio during a warm, sunny day with a cold beer is truly my idea of the perfect afternoon (or late morning).  And if my husband and I were ever bored, we’d go try a new beer on such and such patio, and talk about how much or how little we liked it.  Because my husband and I are the poster couple for opposites attract, enjoying a beer together was our shared interest.  Now he feels guilty when he wants to go try a new beer, and I feel resentful that he gets to do it.  Not good for marriage.

So I’m whining; I get that.  But here’s what makes dealing with all of this even harder:  other people.  I’m all for people trying to live healthier lifestyles.  In fact, I would say that my main philosophy in life is “live and let live.”  Yet I get a little frustrated when I go to a restaurant and I get a weary half-smile from a server who has dashed off for the gluten-free menu one too many times because Gwyneth Paltrow or whoever has suddenly decided it is the best way to lose weight.  I notice the not so subtle eye rolls when I have to explain for the hundredth time that soy sauce has gluten in it and that’s why I can’t go to the Chinese restaurant everyone else wants to go to.  I hear the remarks, even from family members, that it’s a made up disease and I could probably just have gluten if I really wanted.  Or even better, when someone cuts me off from explaining all of this to tell me that she has been gluten free for years and it’s so easy and I don’t have any trouble at all doing it, and then turn around and head for the beer tent because that sounds good right now.

I know that it could be worse.  And I am grateful that I happen to have a disease that can become virtually cured by diet alone, rather than taking a ton of chemical-ridden pills for the rest of my life.  

Not too long ago I stuck my foot in my mouth by making a joke that after my second pregnancy I’d be the only person in the world to lose weight by going on a pizza and beer diet and that the cancer I could ultimately get from ignoring my disease would be worth it in the end.  I made this joke around someone who had recently lost two family members to cancer.  She handled my insensitivity with grace and said nothing, but when I realized my mistake, I recognized that I had become like all those people who irritate me when they are insensitive to my problems.  Sometimes it feels good to dwell in my solitary resentment of how others get to live because it does feel unfair, but in the end, people don’t really mean harm, or they are simply ignorant and that’s not their fault.

So now that I’ve educated you, when you’re enjoying your Oktoberfest or Pumpkin beer this fall, drink one for me and try to keep your mouth shut about how good it tastes.

 

What went well…

Matthieu Ricard

A while ago I heard Matthieu Ricard, “the happiest man in the world”, speak.  I sat beside a woman who made it her personal mission to help me.  She saved my seat for me with her beach tote, gave me the names of at least four books I now must read, and shoved her tickets for the rest of the weekend’s events into my hand before I could refuse her.  I felt so comfortable with her that I left my purse sitting on the chair beside her when I went to the bathroom.  How is it that some people can do that for us?

And then there are others who seem hell-bent on making it difficult ( I won’t mention the large haired woman who sat in front of me and blocked my view the whole time).  As an anxiety sufferer, I find that I am often the person who makes it most difficult for me.  For example, when the possibility of a friend being angry with me warps my whole mind to the point that I cannot sleep, even as the clock ticks toward midnight.

Why are we our own worst enemies when strangers work hard to be our best friends?

As this lovely woman chatted with me about books on happiness and well-being I found my thoughts drifting (extremely rude, given her considerate nature) to my future, as they often do.  I worried about my daughter at daycare, my husband at work, my colleagues at school, my friends.  When her voice cut through my anxiety with the phrase, “What went well,” I drifted back into the present.  She told me about recent research on how ending your day by listing the positive experiences, no matter how small, can significantly decrease anxiety and depression.

I’ve spent my whole day, my whole life really, plagued with thoughts about what went wrong.  It seems so simple, yet so hard, to turn those thoughts around.

So, here goes…

What Went Well Today:

1.  I spent time with myself, writing, painting, and reading.

2.  I got to watch my daughter laugh and play and live really hard.

3.  I laughed so hard my nostrils flared and I made weird noises because of something my husband said.

4.  Again, I wrote and read and painted.  And my mind has been spinning with words and ideas today.  That is a feat, especially since I’ve been in a year and half creative funk.

5.  I made a new friend who was kind to me.

That does feel good.

Photo courtesy of Google Images.

Didgeridoo

Two years ago, after reading the conclusion of Walden, I asked my students to write “Drummer Journals.”  These journals encompassed students documenting their adventures while “marching to the beat of their own drum”, as Thoreau encouraged mankind to do.

Some of my students chose the obvious (I’m going to march to the beat of my own drum by not doing the Drummer journal) and others chose off-the-wall activities just to see what I would say (I pooped in my cat’s litter box).  I’m pretty sure some of these were made up.

But there were that handful of beautiful blessings who took the assignment to heart and followed theirs.  One such group of students chose to conduct a Native American pow wow in the hallway of the school one morning.  They brought bongos and ukuleles and even a didgeridoo so that they could make a big bunch of noise.  They wore Aztec prints and feathered headdresses just because they felt like it.  I could tell that they really were into it because they came and invited me to join them for the next one.  I couldn’t claim to live passionately, yet ignore such an invitation, so I brought my ukulele that I have yet learned to play and sauntered down to the lobby where they made a heap of noise shouting and pounding and leaping around.  My heart almost burst.  Sarah* trudged around the circle they had made sitting crisscrossed on the floor with giant broad steps, blowing into her didgeridoo so hard that her face went blue.  Amelia* shouted, “Hello brother!” to passersby, greeting them with the pounding of her drum.

There are those who might have witnessed this delightful morning pow-wow and thought, What nonsense…a waste of tax dollars!  But I have to respectfully ask these people to shut the hell up.  So much of education is about discipline and regimen and conformity.  I know that these skills are necessary to some degree, but as Ken Robinson says, “education should be waking students up, not putting them to sleep.”  I carry that thought with me each day.  I’m willing to bet that Sarah and Amelia are less likely to forget Thoreau now than had we just discussed the chapter and I tested them on it.  Learning is active.  And passion is learning.  Education, like passion, means waking up.  My pow-wow tribe woke up themselves, the kids in the lobby, and me that day.

Now I need to take my own advice (well, Thoreau’s) and march to the beat of my own drum.  As teachers, it’s easy to speak and harder to act.  During this past summer I found other nonsense to waste time on–mostly worrying about things that I can’t control.  Marching to the beat of my own drum means doing what I want and not what I worry that I should want.  I’m going to be silly with my daughter.  I’m going to talk about real things with my husband, not just whose turn it is to change the baby’s diaper.  I’m going to write and read and walk and eat good, fresh food.  I’m going to try not to worry, but just be.  And if none of that works, I’ll try to imagine the sounds of the didgeridoo when I start to feel the anxiety build up.  Maybe I’ll break into a pow-wow.  Thoreau would be proud.

Photo courtesy of Google Images.

Fulfillment isn’t always so fulfilling

I am a passionate person.  It is a blessing and a curse:  a blessing, because I never worry about whether or not I’m living my passion; a curse, because otherwise I worry A LOT.  Worry is my middle name.

I have been teaching for 8 years now.  I’ve always taught in pretty “tough” schools with high rates of low-income students and horrendous test scores.  A couple of years ago was by far the worst of those years.  We were audited by the state.  We had 9 people quit throughout the course of the year, 4 of whom were principals.  Our students were out of control due to the lack of consistency and structure.  I got cussed out every single day.  Oh, and I was pregnant.

Anyway, in the midst of this chaos, I took a personal day to replenish my strength.  Being pregnant, around midday after crying and feeling sorry for myself all morning, I decided I really needed a roast beef sandwich from Arby’s (which I couldn’t touch with a ten foot pole now).  As I approached the window with a tear-stained face, I was greeted by the happiest man I had ever met.  He said, “Hey girl, how’s your day goin’?”  He looked like he had a coat hanger in his mouth from smiling so much.  He started dancing in the window as he handed me my sandwich and I thought, “How is he so much happier than me?”

From that moment, I realized that “living your passion” as Oprah has encouraged us to do, sometimes comes with strife.  And worry.  And crippling anxiety.  I’ve wanted to be a teacher for a long time, and although I love it more than the air I breathe, sometimes it hurts.  It hurt when I got cussed out by students I wanted to help.  It hurts when I pour my heart into a unit and it flops.  It hurts when I don’t have the energy to play with my daughter because I have given and given and given myself all day long to other people’s children.

Living passionately comes at a cost.  The rewards are great, but getting there can feel like slip n’ sliding down blacktop.  Sometimes we need band-aids for our scrapes and bruises.

I realize, now that I’m in a much better work environment, that the Arby’s employee wasn’t happier than me–he just had better band-aids at the time.  Now that a new school year is upon me, I’m collecting bandages because I know all the love I have for my job will also bring some scratches.  That’s just the nature of passion–sometimes it hurts.

Photo courtesy of Google Images.