Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Body Breakdown

I’m pissed. I don’t want to sound like every other 44 year old out there who is finding out how frail the body is, but really, there’s no way to prepare for this. I have been walking 12-15 miles a week for 9 years now. Nine years! And I’m not talking about strolling—we sweat, we get breathless and sometimes when we are feeling complacent, we jog. But even so, I recognized that that wasn’t enough. My knee needed a little repair work that required surgery about 20 months ago. Ok, that wasn’t so bad. I started yoga and pilates twice a week. This summer, I have been working out with a (paid) personal trainer once or twice a week and she’s kicking my ass but good. I’ve been doing this for three months and I can feel the burn in my abs as I write this (I worked out just two hours ago). I’m wearing shorts I couldn’t fit into two years ago—and they are loosely comfortable and my butt is, well, almost tight. I’m happy about all of this even if I have to spend 10 hours a week to achieve these results (like that’s going to keep happening once school starts), but…

My eyes are betraying me. One month ago, everything is great. Two weeks ago, I’m struggling while stitching one evening and as my husband walked by, with his reading glasses hooked into his shirt, I get an idea.

“Hey—hand me those, will ya?”

OMG! OMG! The holes in the fabric suddenly bloomed to sizes heretofore never seen. Stitching resumed at breakneck speed. Absolutely amazing! But what has happened to my eyes? Why is the world fuzzy? Why can’t I go to the gym and do some eye rolls and pupil lifts and see like I always have? And I know this is going to cost me lots of money. I already have contacts and now I’m going to have to get new ones. I did buy reading glasses at Target for only $9, but I know I’m going to have to buy more. One pair for school, two pairs for home as I’ll be like my husband, always searching. Cripes! It pisses me off. And my elbow hurts. And my brachial-radial pruitis is back in full swing, but that’s another post. I could have made this much longer.

Change in Focus

I’ve been told my posts are too long for a blog, and I believe that’s true. Certainly, since I’ve managed 2 posts in 2 years, I’m doing something wrong. So I have to change my focus and my approach. This will no longer be compositions of things I never got to write about—it’ll just be things I feel like writing about. So here goes…

Sunday, August 17, 2008

I've noticed a new thing lately and it's got me thinking about those big questions of life. I first came into contact with this new thing on an airplane. A young woman, probably no more than 21, had on a spaghetti strap top (which caught my eye because I couldn't help but think she was going to absolutely freeze on the plane). Across her back was a large tattoo, all one color, that bluish color that seems to reign, and it was quite elaborate. Luckily, I had time to stare as she was in front of me in the line to get back to our seats. It was a memorial to her mother. There was a name, birth date and a death date. There was a message: "Mom will forever by in my heart." There were frolicking dolphins and curlicues and flowers. I was faintly repelled--here I was, getting on an airplane and I find myself in the cemetery. Two things that should never go together.
But no matter. Just an anomaly. Someone who felt she needed to do something since her mother died so young and she was at a vulnerable age. Then a few months later, in those few minutes while the students are coming into the classroom and we're just chatting about things, I noticed one of my students had several tattoos. We talked about them--what they were, how she picked them, how she picked where to put them--when I asked the assembled students how many of them had tattoos. More than half did, both male and female. When I asked in general why and how they picked them out--and this is just me. I can't think for the life of me what image I want on my body or where I would want the thing. A flower, a heart, a butterfly? No way. Too girlish. A Chinese symbol? Yeah, because I'm not Chinese. A vine or a design around my wrist or my ankle or going up my foot? I love wine but I don't know that I want to share that with the world at all times. Hmmmm....what do I love? Boxers! (I'm not putting my husband's name on me--too much like branded property). I love boxers (that's the canine variety) and have always had one. Ok, so where would it go? My shoulder? Kind of ruins those occasional formal evenings with lovely barely there gowns. My ankle? Still ruining lovely evenings even if it would look cute at the beach. On my hip or lower back? What's the point of that? No one but me, Bill and the doctor see those areas and none of them would be particularly impressed by this artwork. My upper arm then. Yeah, still ruining those lovely dresses. And let's not even think about what that fabulous tattoo would look like in ten or twenty years. I'm already seeing the signs of aging in all those places.
OK, so I don't want a tattoo, but my students do. As I asked them questions, one student piped up and showed everyone her arm, which bore, in that same bluish ink, a tombstone with dolphins on it, her mother's name above it and the death date below it. "My God!" I exclaimed before that inner censor kicked in that usually works much better than it did that day. "You are a walking tombstone!" thanks God she wasn't offended by this--responded with, "Yeah, I guess you're right."
After that, I have noticed more tattoo memorials, all of them on younger people. Then last month, the latest thing. Memorials on vehicles--well, so far, pick-up trucks. Three of them. On the back windows in that white stick on lettering. One was just lettering--the name, the birth date and death date (very young child of about two) and a slogan something like "We will always love you," but I didn't know who the "we" were. I would presume the parents, but it could have been an aunt and uncle--i doubt it was the grandparents. Too old for that. One truck had the tombstone with name and dates. Another had two deaths to record. One on each side of the back window--simple, just full name and birth and death dates. Different last names, one boy, one girl, different birthdates, different death dates, one five-year-old, one teenager. I'm thinking, who were these children to the driver? Was he in a car accidents and killed these two and this is his way of feeling better? Were they members of his family who had died of the same mysterious illness? Were they just two unrelated incidents and he just happened to know both of them? Maybe his wife was their babysitter at different points in their lives? Whatever it was, it was bizarre to me.
Which brings me to the big question--why are people beginning to feel the need to advertise their dead loved ones on their bodies and their possessions? What's next? Billboards? Or the cheaper route of t-shirts? The family could just pass those out at the funeral, probably in black at first, but venturing into the whole array of darker colors--navy, hunter green and maroon. Ok, so it's easy to make fun of this, but really, why are people doing this? I have to think that our rituals surrounding death have become so truncated that people aren't getting satisfaction out of the two days we generally spend on death. You have your calling hours (visitation, wake, viewing--whatever you call it) on one day and the funeral the following day which is often a service of less than an hour followed by a drive to the cemetery and another short, few words around the grave. For many, there's not even that ritual anymore as people choose to be cremated. Two days to celebrate, remember, mourn a lifetime. I can see how that wouldn't be enough.
For all our life milestones, we expect something. A wedding is a huge event even if it is only 4 to 6 hours long. There's lots of things leading up to that and following that that mark it as the life-changing event that it is. Engagement parties, bridal showers, shopping, planning, writing out invitations, visiting florists and bakeries and caterers and venues for the reception, choosing a band or dj, trying on dresses and looking for the least hideous bridesmaid gowns. There's rehearsal dinners and choosing the people to read or sing at your wedding, to watch over the guestbook and escort people down the aisle. And when it's all over, you get a week long honeymoon to bask in the glory of your wonderful day. Even when you get back to reality, there's still presents to open, and a new household to set up (or not, but you still get to put all those presents into the existing household). And now your status has changed and your new life begins. Sigh. How wonderful.
But a death is nothing like that. It's silent and lonely. If sickness, there's hushed tones and many people dropping by with food and well wishes, but they don't stick around very long. At the end of the day, you go to bed alone and think thoughts you have avoided all your life. And afterwards, you are left with cleaning out the closets, the drawers, the detritus of life of a life that no longer is. Sure, maybe a friend or another family member helps out, but you are alone, making those decisions of what to keep and what to give away and what to toss. And soon, everyone is gone and you feel like you didn't do enough, or say enough, or love enough--and the brilliant idea of tattooing the deceased's name onto your arm or back seems very appealing. See? It would say--See? I did love you. I have not forgotten you. But most importantly, I need everyone else to realize this. I need everyone else to ask about you, so I can talk about you and tell them how much you mean to me.
And I guess that's the thing that creeps me out about this--the need to show that this person was important to you. Have we lost the assumption that our family members are important to us to the point we need to prove it to others by advertising it? I just find that juvenile, like a child jumping up and down, tugging my sleeve, saying, "Notice me! Notice me!" I notice my friends and family, the people I care about. I don't need to see a memorial on their arm or their truck to know how they feel because we actually share those things anyway. What does it have to be so public that strangers are left wondering what the heck is going on with this person?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Millennials

I watched 60 Minutes last week, which had a segment on the Millennials—those people born between 1980 and 1995. Those kids are now my students, and I recognized many of the characteristics they discussed in them—that they grew up believing they were special just because they exist, that you can’t shame them or boss them into doing something—you have to coach them, and the one that struck me, that they stay home longer, go home after college and have no embarrassment about it or see any problem with it. And that got me thinking—how am I different from these kids? I’m the very tail end of the baby boomers having been born in late 1964, and I do exemplify most of their characteristics—hard-working, independent, educated, and materialistic. I think we all share the educated and materialistic parts, but I’m not so sure about the rest.

I was stunned a few years ago as I realized that my graduating seniors had given little or no time to finding jobs—many hadn’t even written a resume yet. I panicked. “Oh my God! What are you going to do?” But they were, all of them, unperturbed and didn’t seem to understand my reaction at all. “I’m going home,” they said, or “I’m going to work for awhile longer at Penney’s (or All-tel or as a receptionist or as a sales associate, etc.) while I figure out what I want to do.” Figure out what you want to do? Hadn’t you been thinking about that for the last, oh, three or four years? What about health insurance? What about your cell phone bill? What about your car payment? What about your car insurance?

I put it down as a phenomenon of the Writing major—students who tended to be creative and not always very practical. I am, after all, a linguist in the Writing Department and while I also teach writing, I don’t do much of it except on my job. (This is my first foray ever into the blogging world and besides this, I wrote one short story in college, and while that was fabulously wonderful, it’s gotten lost somewhere over the years.) But it isn’t just the Writing majors I found out from my friends across campus. It seems the more science-y types are still practical like me, but not the Philosophy majors nor the English majors or Spanish majors. It’s a generational thing.

So what bothers me about this? I thought at first that maybe I was jealous. Once I went off to school at 18, it was pretty much understood that while I could come back at Christmas break and over the summers, I was building my own life. Oh, it’s not that I couldn’t’ve come back if I wanted to; my parents just made sure that I wouldn’t want to. Not in a bad way. In fact, when I found myself on my own at 22, getting a divorce, my parents immediately offered their home and their money—they asked me to come live with them and they would pay for me to go to graduate school. Now that is a tempting offer. Living with my parents after being out of the house and having had my own house for a year isn’t at all the nightmare many of my generation might think. In fact, having my parents as roommates would have been great. They are very easy to get along with, don’t demand much other than doing my fair share of keeping up the house, cooking a bit, doing some laundry—all things I had been taught to do as a child. And they regularly partake of the cocktail hour and nightcaps, and they love to go out to dinner as much as I do—nice dinners. Plus, unlike other roommates I’ve had, they don’t play loud music, bring strangers home for the night or park their cars so I can’t get out. So going back to live with my parents at age 22 wasn’t a bad idea at all—except that it was. Doing that would have made me feel like a failure. Getting a divorce didn’t feel like a failure in the same way that living with the folks would have. I would have told myself it was a great deal, that it was only temporary, that there was nothing wrong with it, but I would have known there was something wrong with it—for me. Life has an order to it—you can have detours, like a divorce, but going back to the parents was going backwards, back to childhood, immaturity, inability to make sound decisions. OK, so you’re thinking getting a divorce at 22 isn’t proof of my inability to make sound decisions? That will have to be another blog, but no, my divorce wasn’t about poor decisions or immaturity.

So it isn’t jealousy that bothers me about my millennial students. What is it? I think they scare me. I think that these are the people coming up behind me (after Generation X and Y), who will be my colleagues in a few more years. They aren’t driven like I was, not motivated like I was. I fell into the materialism—it’s a by-product of wanting the intangibles that my profession gives me. The Millennials seem to think that money is a given for them because of their parents—they always had money so they always will, either by earning it themselves from employers who will be so grateful to have them or through their parents who will never let them want for anything as always. Do they have passion? Do they have a love for what they do?

60 Minutes says they do have passion; it’s just not so much for work. These students of mine want more than my generation got—and it isn’t about money. When you look at a professor’s life, many people only see what’s on paper—that I teach 4 classes a semester, that I teach 32 weeks a year and have the rest of the time off. What they don’t see is that I work 40 hours a week during the school year, preparing for class, reading for class, grading homework and tests and papers, going to meetings for the various committees, preparing for those various committee meetings, writing abstracts, preparing papers for conferences, preparing conference papers for publication, reading and researching, doing service work for the department, for the college, for the university, for the profession—get the picture? Being off for the summer is often a lot of prep time, a lot of research time, a lot of writing time. Sure, I sleep until 10:00 most days and work maybe just 4 hours on a given day—or maybe not at all. But if you boil it all down, I work an average of 40 hours a week, every week, with about six weeks off a year. The Millennials will insist on those six weeks off a year—and maybe more. Maybe 8 or 10 weeks off a year. And they’ll make more money than I ever did and they’ll work less. I bet they get better health care, better benefits, too. Lack of passion and drive? Maybe so for work, but not for what thy want, what they see as a better life than there parents had. Is it any wonder that they are not worried about that first or second or third job? They don’t see their parents as safety nets like I did, but as cushions for rest as they plan out their next move—on their terms. More power to them!

So what scares me? Perhaps that by the time they do make such an impact, I’ll be gone. I will not get to reap the benefit of their impact—and they will have an impact. What will the typical college look like in 30 years in their hands? I hope it isn’t relaxed to the point of mediocrity, but relaxed enough that they don’t have to feel the pressures and stresses that my generation did.