Thursday, April 30, 2009

the kindness of sophomores

I love my students and the odd group personalities that form among each different class.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

May 3

I was going to run a marathon. My sister-in-law and I both signed up months ago. She was planning to run in Cincinnatti, and I would have run in Newport Beach. Neither of us will run now. She has a severe hip injury that could take years to heal. I had my own drama last week, not to mention that running in the first trimester of pregnancy is likely to overheat the body and cause harm to the baby. I had heard that dropping out of a marathon plan was more common than completing the race. I was determined to be smart and patient with my training, not to back out for lack of desire, and to wake up as early as I needed to in order to get the long weekend runs in without dumping all the parenting responsibility on my husband. Yet, life intervened.

Half of me, the angry part, is tempted to run the damn thing anyway. I have a masochistic desire to put my body through as much hell as it has caused me. I still have an untouched bottle of Tylenol with codine that might have come in handy. Unfortunately, I'm not that angry and I do enjoy being able to walk.

At my husband's half-marathon 2 weeks after I stopped running, my hormones got the better of me and I cried with envy. I was so proud and inspired and disappointed that my own life had veered off in another direction. Now, I'm saddened for all the opposite reasons, wishing I still had that awkward bump and that reason to look ahead nine months. Even if I really wanted to run (if just around the block), the prospect of simply lacing up shoes now seems like an unbearable task.

So now I'm just left with the decision of whether or not to still pick up the souveneir t-shirt. What do you do when you want something so badly and then worry that you never deserved it in the first place? Not really talking about the shirt here, am I?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Ren fair

On the spur of the moment, we drove out to the Renaissance Festival in Irwindale on Sunday. It was a much needed distraction. Surrounded by drunkards, pirates, and busty women thrusting their wares at you, escapism comes naturally.

A sweet little redheaded fairy accompanied by her father in full plate armor greeted visitors at the ticket booth. She came skipping over to our little boy and bent down in the muddy grass to hand him a blue glass bead: "Give this to the young lady who catches your eye and she will be yours forever. Girls like shiny things." My son had no clue what was going on, but he took care to put it in his pocket and say thank you.

Renaissance Festivals are an odd cross-section of historical anachronisms, people obsessed with very big swords, neopaganism, and knick-knacks. Did I mention the not-so-subtle overtones of drunkenness, violence, and sex? Can't miss that. And yet, it's a good place to take your children on the weekend.

L got her hair braided with bunches of flowers and multicolored ribbons; J bought a wooden sword to fight off the dragons. The music was excellent, the weather was mild, and the crowds were much too polite for LA. My favorite part was our crowd-control woman at the joust. When her neighbor took a break, she was left rushing back and forth between two sections: egging us on to boo for a knight while wildly gesturing for cheers and applause from the group a few seats over. No, wait, that was topped by someone hawking "the Coach bag of the Renaissance!" (wooden beer mugs).

J fell asleep in my arms and we went home sunburned and smiling.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Going back

I'm scared to go back to work tomorrow. I bought two boxes of Kleenex, but I wish I had the equivalent of Kevlar emotional armor. I don't know what to tell my students. I don't know why this is such a taboo topic. When my grandmother had a heart attack, it was a no-brainer to share with my students. It's easier though when the outcome is good. I think I won't know what to say until the actual moment comes. "I don't want to talk about it" seems like a good back-up option.

It doesn't help that I'm also paranoid of catching the swine flu. Worse, that my kids will catch it. How can I suddenly be so terrified of the same world I lived in last Tuesday? Why do main characters die in all the novels I teach, like A Separate Peace, which I just started? This completely sucks.


I love mornings when the little ones find a way to play peacefully until the sun comes up. I love mornings when we get to lie in bed awake and talk about what we want to do today. I love mornings when it feels like the possibilities are endless. I love mornings when the biggest question is whether to make pancakes at home or to go out to breakfast.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


Wikipedia: "a sudden emotional climax that evokes overwhelming feelings of great sorrow, pity, laughter or any other extreme change in emotion, resulting in restoration, renewal and revitalization"

Aristotle: "language embellished . . . through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions."

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: "When you learn your lessons, the pain goes away."

In tragedy, catharsis is a public event. Fifth-century Athenians gathered on the side of the acropolis at the theater of Dionysus to collectively watch the demise of dramatic heroes. When Jocasta took her life, it was not just her husband who mourned, but the whole audience. As the actor for Oedipus donned a mask with bloodied eyes, the spectators followed his every action, listened to his words, and empathized with his pain. Experiencing tragedy from behind the safe barrier of our suspended disbelief (and fiction at that) allows us to purge our own emotions and to walk away from the story afterward with a sense of relief, renewal, and redemption. Or so the theory goes.

Forgive me for making this story of my miscarriage so public. Selfishly, writing is cathartic. I also chose to share my joy, so I find myself now sharing the loss. I am amazed to discover how common this loss is and how many close friends have felt this pain too acutely. My dad pointed out that because we had told so many people about the pregnancy, we at least do not have to keep our grief a secret from those who might help us through it.

It reminds me a little of the liturgy in a Lutheran church service when the congregation as a whole recites a confession of sin. The words are rote, we speak en masse, and it even uses the pronoun "we." It is impersonal and highly personal, seeking renewal through grace.

That's as far as I'm going to get with religion on this topic. Literary criticism comes much more naturally to me. I've read too many books to not compare my life to literature, to not seek out the interesting characters, to not look for symbols and themes in the world around me, and to not hope for some elegant denouement of all my conflicts, even the tragic ones.

Like any educated ancient Greek sitting on the stone bleachers, I knew how this story was going to end. That small advantage of knowledge made all the difference. Even in the most painful parts, I could step back and consider it all part of a process, a scripted sequence of events that would lead to the end of this short chapter in my life.

So yesterday, lying down in a tiny 9x4 closet of the ER with an OB patient table and a very poorly placed door, I faced my own catharsis.

I had been given three choices. The idea of any degree of choice in a matter like this is of little comfort. Option 1: Wait it out ("expectant management"). Option 2: Take medication to speed up the process. Option 3: D&C. Everyone I spoke to tossed off this acronym like it was common knowledge or taboo to actually explain it, but I admit that I kept associating a D&C with the Democratic National Convention. I'd much rather attend the DNC.

I just started reading this awesome little book Nudge about guiding choice architecture so that people have the freedom to make good decisions while being nudged a little in the direction that would have the greatest benefit to one's general health, wealth, and happiness. Thus it was hard not to analyze the way I had been presented these choices ("No one wants to go through a medical procedure if they can avoid it") and to wonder which would have the greatest benefit for us. Rightfully perhaps, my husband wanted no part in telling me what I should do, nor did my pregnant doctor friend nor my colleague who had endured a similar miscarriage herself. All three offered to help me learn more about each option, as they emphasized that this was a personal preference decision I needed to make for myself and my own body. My mom said I should get the surgery.

I decided first to wait, then 12 hours later to call my doctor and schedule a surgery for next week if the waiting wasn't working, and I was on the verge of asking for the medicine when I became impatient the next day. My OBGYN beat me to it and ordered me to take the prescribed medicine anyway. Yes, I chose all three. Apparently the authors of Nudge are right--humans suck at making important decisions when they lack experience, good information, and prompt feedback.

Within an hour, I was bleeding too much and too fast, so we drove to the ER instead of the pharmacy despite the doctor's initial advice. My husband cursed and drove 100 mph while I listened to elevator music on my cell phone and was finally told, "It's like a heavy period. You'll continue to bleed a lot." It's hard not to be skeptical when your body is gushing blood continuously for hours and very educated people had forewarned me that was bad. "So what is the warning sign that I might need help?" I asked. Honestly, was I supposed to measure it in liters? Wait until I passed out? "Let me ask the doctor. . . . Ok, maybe you should go to the ER now, but go ahead and pick up your medicine first."

We weren't thrilled at the idea of backtracking 15 miles to wait for a pharmacist to fill a prescription while I turned the drugstore into something resembling a crime scene. ERs have drugs, too, so that's where we went. At the hospital, they rushed me to the room mentioned above where I waited to be seen and tried not to pass out or to wonder where I stacked up in the triage order. Ironically, the first person I saw was a lab assistant who came to draw some blood.

I was scheduled for a D&C. They swaddled me in blankets and wheeled me down to the radiology department where I had seen my son's face for the first time. I cried, my husband waited nervously, and a nice lady named Ashley performed the worst part of her job as an ultrasound technician.

By the time the ultrasound was finished, I had been moved to a real bed and hooked up to an IV, my doctor had been contacted, and I had learned the names of all the nurses on call (5 hours since everything started), my body self-righted. Everything was purged. They canceled the D&C but gave me the medicine anyway as a precaution against infection and sent me home in time to pick up our kids for dinner. So much for choice, but I'm not complaining. I don't mind the illusion of choice if it gives way to the reality of ensuring my health and safety.

I ate the best-tasting steak of my life with the family I love dearly. Even though we all spent the dinner staring glassy-eyed at the tv, exhausted, saddened, weak, or too young to get it, I couldn't have wished for a better evening. We had apple pie for dessert and went to bed early. I looked forward to a new day, the beginning of an uncomplicated weekend, and a new opportunity to re-examine my hopes and dreams for the future.

I don't pretend that my grief is gone, but I believe that I am sliding my way down the plot diagram to a gentle resolution.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


Warning: A long post that I need to get off my chest

In the same week that I learned my 90-year-old grandmother survived a heart attack, I also learned that my baby never developed a heart. Fifty-some years ago, my grandmother also suffered a miscarriage, and we had a good cry together last night. Her words of comfort: "It's hard to get into this world, and it's hard to leave it."

Despite this truism, much has changed between her experience and mine. My great-aunt apparently suffered so badly from a miscarriage that it shook her body with fever and infection, nearly costing her own life. In my case, my nurse practitioner quietly noticed warning signs--a drop in my blood's hormone levels (I didn't know about) and no heartbeat at eight weeks (I did know about). She referred me for another ultrasound in 2-3 weeks.

I went in on Tuesday optimistic. It was week 11 and 1/2. I was practically out of the first trimester and my morning sickness had completely dissipated. To her credit, the woman behind the ultrasound machine kept a complete poker face and warned me that she could not tell me anything. I could not even see the screen, and she certainly didn't print me out a picture. I was told that I'd get a picture at the normal OB ultrasound appointment at 18 weeks. At one point she asked me to hold my breath. I assumed she was counting heartbeats, and took that as confirmation that everything was ok. My optimism got the better of me, and as my friends began to suspect something important was going on in my life, I gave out the news.

I got the call Wednesday during the last five minutes of class. Twenty-four hours before I ever saw a warning sign of miscarriage or experienced any pain, I knew that the baby had stopped growing. Weeks ago. It is agony to wait now for the physical loss, but I know that it is a luxury.

I am in grief, but I felt like I needed to keep busy and be distracted. So I went to school yesterday anyway. What good is crying at home? Better than crying at school apparently. I was fine for the first two periods. Mild cramps I can handle. I was prepared to leave at the hint of physical pain; I was holding it together well. Then at my prep period, the school announcements got to their inspirational message of the day. All I heard was "Think about where you were born. Were you born in a big city? Were you born ... ? Were you born ... ? Were you born ... ? It doesn't matter where you were born, what matters is your life ..." By the fifth reference to birth, I was turning off my computer and grabbing my keys.

At home, my husband joined me and we resumed the waiting, the grieving, and the relief of knowing what had happened and what would happen. I checked my school email. Bad idea: "Family Additions: New births!" Damn these fertile teachers. Many replies afterwards of congratulations, beautiful wishes that I had no desire to see. As a joke, another teacher replied (without a subject line) that she, too, had good news: she was NOT pregnant. That one hit me hard.

We went to pick up the kids just as the gray foggy marine layer was burning off in the mid-afternoon. At home, we cooked dinner together. I ate fish and drank coffee, but these were not things I had missed during the pregnancy. Though I was tempted to have a beer or two, my husband wisely advised that we save the beers to drink in a good mood, not to drown the pain. Instead we made an apple pie. There is something simple and delightful in the steady peeling of apple after apple, taking off the bruises and filling up a bowl past brimming with apple slices. J and L took turns patting down the dough and stealing a slice here and there. I don't even like apple pie, but this one tasted delicious.

This morning I woke up when L came into the room for a hug. As she squeezed my arms, I felt the contractions begin. Today, I hope it will be over.

Monday, April 20, 2009

April 20

How does a teacher appropriately mark the tenth anniversary of Columbine? I chose to teach a completely normal day, to listen to my students a little more carefully, and to hug my own kids a little more tightly.

I teach on a relatively open campus, a very typical California school with many buildings and no real hallways to speak of. Still, I followed the lead of the teacher nearby and kept my outside door locked today. It only locks one-way (not a fire hazard) and students are used to opening the door for each other anyway.

There was an interesting piece on NPR today about the myths behind Columbine--all the stories and stereotypes that have perpetuated despite their falsehood. When asked how we cope with that senseless act of violence, the freelance journalist David Cullen who reported on Columbine suggests that the public and particularly young teenagers flirting with ideas of violence need to see the dead bodies of the shooters. Not the yearbook pictures of the shooters, not the grainy security footage of them wreaking havoc in the library, but the gruesome photographs of their dead bodies as proof of the consequences of such violence.

The mom in me argues shouldn't the parents of the killers have some right? After all, they were someone's son, someone's cousin, someone's neighbor. Or did those two boys give up all rights to privacy and decency when they brought guns and bombs to school? Maybe the author has a point. The way I remember Timothy McVeigh is in an orange jumpsuit, looking cool and distant, completely pathological as he was sentenced to death. He looked above it all. Is it wrong to need to see a dead body in order to weigh the magnitude of murder?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Millionaire: minus $19.95

I kept the Blockbuster movie out too long, and now I'm the owner of Slumdog Millionaire. Not such a bad movie to own. Maybe now my husband will actually watch it one of these days. The idea of sitting through more domestic violence, child abuse, and torture scenes isn't particularly appealing, but at least it has a cheery ending. The beauty of the movie and the art of the story is captivating enough; I'm sure I'll be back for more.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

On Easter and new life

I'm expecting. Now at ten weeks, we are full of hope and happiness.