Wednesday, October 30, 2013

I ain't afraid of no ghosts. But I am afraid of everything else.

I no longer sleep with a light on. It's been years since I had to peek out of the shower curtain every 5 minutes looking for Norman Bates. I only check closets and under beds on those rare evenings I get home and realize I left the garage door open all day. Most of my childhood ghosts and superstitions have been scared away by advancing age, growing wisdom, and working-woman's exhaustion that makes me not care so much if a homicidal maniac is hiding out in my basement to murder me in my sleep so long as it gets me out of a faculty meeting the next day.

That does not mean I've outgrown being afraid. For I still see the boogeyman. It's just that now he looks like suspicious growths, fiery auto accidents, and women who have borne multiple children and yet still wear size 4 skinny jeans. Seriously? Nothing scarier.

So this Halloween I will not be frightened by Michael or Freddie or Jason (the masked murderer) or Jason (the husband who likes to startle me in my sleep by having the nerve to think that he can just wander into our bedroom willy-nilly while I'm having a nightmare about tax audits). I'll only be spooked by the truly scary things in life, which aren't so easy to dress up as for trick-or-treat.

Unexplained basement floods. (The water's coming from inside the house!) Melanoma. A large spider that disappears in your bedroom in the 2 seconds it takes for you to retrieve a shoe. Colonoscopies. A really long and recurring hair in a mole. Loss. Being so desperate for money and power that you put all your principles aside to become the kingpin of a drug cartel specializing in blue meth and high body counts.

Actually, I hear Walter White is going to be the big costume of the year, so I guess that last one's totally do-able.

This year, instead of watching monster movie marathons and the creepier episodes of The X-Files, I will be freaking myself out checking for lumps and swollen lymph nodes, running a credit report to look for signs of identity theft, and maybe spending some time standing next to our washing machine, which may or may not have been part of a recall of washers that have randomly exploded during the spin cycle.

Because on October 31st, everyone deserves a good scare. Don't look now, but your retirement plans might have just walked up behind you, ready to say, "Boo!"

Happy Halloween, fellow adults.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Just because it's dark doesn't mean it's serious.

Oh, autumn. That time of year when the rolling hills of my old-ish Kentucky home become so fiery beautiful that my heart aches. It's my favorite time of year, and yet it brings with it the return of an old friend I'd rather not have visit.

Seasonal Affective Disorder.

As far back as my sophomore year in high school, I've struggled with feelings of despair that strike on the first truly cold, dreary day in October and last until roughly President's Day. That first bad day is always the worst--I wake up knowing before my feet ever meet the chill of my bathroom floor that that day will be different. Worse, without reason, than the day before. But probably not as bad as some of the days to come. It's not a great way to wake up, really.

I think Cate Blanchett's opening voice over in The Fellowship of the Ring best (and most geekily) explains it:

The world is changed.
I feel it in the water.
I feel it in the earth.
I smell it in the air.
Much that once was is lost...

Okay, so maybe that's a little over-dramatic. But not by much.

I've learned some ways to get by. After all, S.A.D. isn't as bad as its cousin, depression. I've had both knock on my door, and depression is the Cousin Eddie to S.A.D.'s Clark Griswold. One of them you may not enjoy having stay at your house for an extended period, but you can get through it with only your newel post damaged by the end of the vacation. The other is going to park his R.V. in front of the house, let his dog destroy your kitchen, and kidnap your boss.

So I can deal with Clark. I get out and run on rare warm, sunny fall and winter afternoons. I keep lights on in every room of my house, even in daytime. I meditate. Yet the thing that helps the most flies in the face of convention a bit and is generally met with raised eyebrows.

On my darkest days of the winter blues, I simply wallow in it.

I might have a "Sad Songs" playlist on my iPod. And you may find me listening to it while blankly staring at a wall on some random afternoon in mid-to-late October. If you do, do not worry about me. Or pity me. Or pray for me.

For in that moment, I am much, much happier than I look.

Allowing myself to go to my sad place and listen to droopy music and think morbid thoughts for a while does more for me than a dose of Prozac or a shot of bourbon. I let my mind wander to the darkest corners of my imagination without judgement or worry. And after a while, I feel cleansed.

A high colonic for the soul.

And it's even proved to be productive. For the last 3 Octobers, I have set a day or two aside to update my own funeral plans. Seriously. Scratch that one right off the old "To Do" list. (I really hope you can make it to my memorial, because it's going to be amazing.)

Yesterday I felt the first twitches of winter sadness and pulled up my "Funeral" file. While meandering through the dark night of my own soul, I overheard a news story about, fittingly, the dignity of death. Apparently the family of a deceased service member wants to put up a large Sponge Bob tombstone in the cemetery marking the final resting place of this young woman. The cemetery does not find it entirely appropriate. Controversy ensues.

I listened to sound bites from both sides of this argument, and could see the cemetery's point of view. Because one of my favorite dark-days activities is cemetery-walking, I can understand the desire for beauty and solemnity in a place where the living go to visit in their own way with the dead.

On the other hand, I think we take our own mortality way, way too seriously.

The reason why I ultimately wallow in the morbid is that there is a hair-thin line between the tragic and the comic. Spend enough time in the shadows, and eventually you wake up to the humor of it. It's why there's such a thing as gallows humor. And why The Addams Family was so popular. And what makes the cemetery scene in Steel Magnolias a brilliant movie moment. A situation can be so bleak that it eventually becomes comedy. Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion, too, Dolly Parton.

So while a huge cartoon character as a grave marker is not in my written final wishes, I smile to think that it was in someone else's.

And in that smile, I find the humor I need to turn off the sad playlist, close my funeral document, and rejoin my family in the land of the living where I hunker down to fight through another winter.

I'll get through. The sun will shine again, the days will get longer, the flowers will bloom.

But for now, I will find time to stop and enjoy the darkness.

Thursday, October 17, 2013


I hear people say sometimes (and these people are usually high-school students with a romantic view of world history) that they wish they lived in another era. Maybe in the time of Shakespeare, maybe the roaring 20s, possibly just the 50s and 60s when real-life Mad Men roamed the earth smoking cigarettes and bedding married women. These times-gone-by would perhaps be a nice place to visit, but I for one could never live there.

Because in an era without advanced dentistry, I would not have a single tooth in my head.

At my first dental appointment, when I was only three years old, I had nine cavities in my baby teeth. Or so the story goes. Our local dentist worked out a plan with my mom to fill these a few at a time over a series of months and told her that I would probably have weak teeth for life, a trait inherited from my parents, who wore partials and full dentures.

Partially inherited from my parents. Partially inherited from drinking Coke out of my baby bottles as a toddler.

The plan went awry when I decided that the dentist's life had been too easy up to that point and made it my mission to even that score at the first filling. To this day, I don't know what possessed me. (Could it be...Satan?) I was a well-behaved child in every other venue. But for some reason, I took great joy in making drilling as difficult as possible for the good doctor and his staff. I screamed. I kicked. I refused to open my mouth. I cried about pain I had had way too much Novocaine to technically feel. After the first few appointments not going well, the dentist sent my mother home with a prescription for happy pills I was to take 30 minutes before each remaining procedure.

Yes, kids, I had a prescription for Valium at three.

His mistake was suggesting that the first dose be administered in the office by him so that the timing would be right. Have you ever tried to give a pill to a pissed-off cat? It was like that. Except that the cat in this scenario could yell louder.

My mother tells me I couldn't possibly be remembering this right, but I swear that at one point the dentist pinched my nose shut to get me to open my mouth and poured a dissolved tablet down my gullet. I admit this could be a hallucination, because, well...Valium for a three-year-old. But it was the most frightening moment of my life up to that point, so whether it was the medication or PTSD, I behaved angelically for every appointment thereafter.

Though that also might have been due to the copious amounts of nitrous oxide pumped into my nose. Either way, I spent most of my childhood dentist visits high. Drugs are bad, kids. Unless you have to get a broken molar repaired when you're nine, and then they're awesome.

This Monday saw me back at the dentist to get one of my oldest remaining fillings removed and replaced with a crown. The tooth in question had cracked, and my current dentist discovered a deep cavity underneath. While in the chair getting news that my tooth was more a disaster than previously thought, not sedated but kinda wanting to be, I had a flashback to my childhood dentist breaking the news of tooth decay:

You have some bugs in your tooth. I just need to dig them out with my drill. All you'll feel is a little pinch.

No wonder I fought this guy. Comparing dental decay to bugs? In your face? Not cool, dude. Not cool.

Hours later, still numb and swollen (my current dentist's philosophy is "enough injected anesthesia to take down an adult elephant"), I realized that every biting surface is now covered in composite resin or a porcelain crown. (Years ago, I lost the gold molar that gave me street cred. I looked like such a bad-ass when I yawned.) As these begin to fail, I wonder what will be next. I think of my dad, who had every tooth pulled in his first weeks in the army and who wore dentures the rest of his life. Of my mom, who had a bridge to replace most of the molars on one side of her mouth and failing crowns on her two front teeth. Of a host of aunts and uncles who don't even bother with such formalities and have fewer teeth than they do dogs sleeping under their front porches. Is that next? Will my worst nightmare, a recurring gem where I spit out my own teeth as though they're Chiclets, come true? Despite the wonderful advances of modern dentistry, are my genetically-inferior, Coke-marinated teeth doomed?

And will I ever regain full feeling on the left side of my face? Only time will tell, I suppose.

Maybe innovation in dentistry will keep up with my bad biters and I will become the first member of my family to go to the grave with all of her natural teeth. My parents, who sacrificed a lot of time, money, and sanity the first 22 years of my life to help me keep my mouthful of problems, would be as proud of this feat as of my college degrees. It was certainly a more painful and dramatic process. (And this is coming from a girl who suffered through a philosophy of religion class.)

If not, and if extractions are my inevitable endgame, one thing is for certain--I will not fight the Valium. Lesson learned.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


Sometimes, life is overwhelming. It's easy to get so caught up in all the things you have to do and all the deadlines you're asked to meet that you lose sight of one of life's most important truths:

Any day that you have a dry basement is a good day.

This time a week ago I was kind of an emotional wreck. I felt life had me boxed in. Trapped. Every second of every moment of every day planned out in advance with no time to enjoy life. By Tuesday night, I had told my husband that I felt ready to crack from the pressure of working full time, being a mother, being a swim mother, cooking, cleaning, maintaining an older vehicle, and dispatching the stink bugs and chipmunks trying so hard to invade my home. The kid had just shown me her right shoe, which was suddenly falling apart, and that one extra unplanned chore in an already busy week sent me over the edge.

I need a break. I can't keep this up. I'm burning the candle at both ends. 3-dimensionally. There are so many ends, and oh, they're all alight.

But God, or Fate, or Karma, or just plain dumb coincidence, has a sense of humor. And 24 hours later, I stood in a flooded finished basement, sopping towels at my (wet) feet, thinking about what an idiot I was that days before I was stressed out about just needing to run the sweeper down there.

Oh, what I wouldn't have given in that sopping-wet moment to be able to solve the problem with just 30 minutes and a Dyson.

It was pretty bad, but as is so often the case, could have been so much worse. We're out some of our saving-for-hardwood-floors money to pay for water restoration and the problem that necessitated the water restoration. And we still are not completely sure that we solved the problem, so simple tasks of daily living like running the dishwasher, getting a shower, and doing a load of laundry cause multiple trips to the basement to make sure we don't once again have a river running through it. Yet nothing of great monetary or sentimental value was lost. The carpet and drywall dried out quickly with the help of a couple of experts and do not have to be replaced. We can even be semi-happy about a couple of the side effects. The malfunctioning bi-fold doors that separate the laundry room from the finished room, which we have hated and fought with since the day we moved into the house, got just wet enough that we feel justified throwing them out and replacing them. And nothing compels you to scrub a concrete floor like a little standing water, so my laundry room floor now glistens and smells of artificially-scented lavender and chamomile.

Truth be told, this watery setback could have been a blessing in disguise. I realize now how ridiculously petty I was being getting so stressed out and worked up over the small tasks of life that everyone has to do. How self-important I was, feeling sorry for myself that I have a house to clean and a family to cook for and a kid who swims and outgrows shoes. It's a cliche to say this, but only a cliche because it's so very, very true--I should, instead, be over-the-top grateful that I have a house to clean, and a family to cook for, and a kid healthy enough to swim and outgrow shoes.

Because sometimes life hands you a pretty bad hand. And you wish your life could rewind to the day before, back to busy and normal.

While I am in no way glad this happened, I am glad for the relatively painless wake up call it gave me. I need to learn to recognize when my life is good and appreciate it. While I am busy whining and complaining and feeling a nervous breakdown is nigh because a headlight just went out on my car, there are others who, in that very moment, are losing their most treasured possessions to fire or natural disasters. Who are holding vigil at the hospital bedside of their beloved spouse. Who just got that call from their child's doctor, the call that changes the pattern of their lives forever. Who would give anything, anything, to have the most stressful thing they have to deal with that day be tracking down the correct auto part and a skilled person to install it.

So thanks, I guess, to God, or Fate, or Karma, or Coincidence, for not making your wake up call louder.

And please...don't try to contact me again for a while. My basement carpet would really appreciate it.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Ends of Things

Every year when I have my last day with seniors, and we're at that moment when the bell has rung and it's time to say farewell, I always tell them the same thing:

Let's not say goodbye. I hate goodbye. Let's say, "I'll see you around." Because more than likely, I will.

When you work with some of the incredible young people I do, sometimes having them as a student for more than one year, goodbye is too sad and too final. I want to believe we'll stay in touch, that they will occasionally email or drop by or not get too annoyed with me when I run into them with their significant others (and eventually, children) at local restaurants and ask them what they're up to.

As I get older, I realize more and more that some goodbyes are forever. Some paths never cross again. It's more than my soft little squishy heart can bear.

And so it also goes with books and television shows.

I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird every few years because missing Scout, Atticus, and Miss Maudie becomes a physical pain that can only be relieved by a week in their presence. I have re-watched the entire run of Lost, even the dreary first episodes of the 3rd season. I can't bypass Friends, Scrubs, or Everybody Loves Raymond when I stumble upon them during channel-flipping because to do so would be akin to pretending not to see a friend from high school in line at Old Navy. (Which we're all guilty of doing. But not with the fun friends. The ones like Chandler, J.D., and Robert.)

My entire family said some sad entertainment farewells this weekend. On Sunday, Ainsley finished reading the final pages of the Harry Potter series. And just hours later, her parents watched the last hour of Breaking Bad.

How do we go on without Snape and Walter White in all their flawed glory? I wish I didn't have to try to know.

Ainsley still has the final movies. But after that, our entire family is finished with Harry Potter. Our  childhood is over, officially. When Jason and I finished the last book, our consolation was that our daughter would someday read them, and in her re-reading, we would relive the joy we had in the books.

We didn't think ahead to how it would hurt just as badly to leave those characters a second time.

The mood, then, was already grim when the kid's lights were out and the adults settled in to watch Breaking Bad. I did not have the ugly-cry-for-2-hours reaction I had to Lost. And I found this ending to be deeply satisfying. But still--endings. I like them not.

The kid already has said after the last movie is watched this weekend, she wants to read the entire Harry Potter series all over again. She misses the magic already. So as she wraps it up during Saturday family movie night, and perhaps finds herself in the same finality funk her dad and I found ourselves in on Monday morning after seeing Walt and Jesse for the last time, I will teach her one of life's most important lessons: how to say goodbye. And I will give her my words, for in this case, they are apt.

Let's not say goodbye, Harry Potter. Let's say, "See you around." Because more than likely, I will.