Kathy

Last night being the first of several at my sister’s house for a late Christmas celebration, I slept lightly, and I remembered all of my dreams in the morning. Most of them included the theme of bringing order out of chaos, needing to clean up a large area filled with trash. Sometimes the mess was at work, sometimes at home. Invariably I was aware that a few valuable items were scattered within the trash, and I feared that they would be lost. Most of the other workers in the various dreams seemed content, though, to stand around and converse aimlessly with one another rather than getting involved in the work.

Oddly enough, Kathy appeared in two of those dreams. Kathy and I attended the same elementary school and junior high school, in which we were in the same homeroom. We also attended the same high school, but followed different paths which rarely crossed. She was one of the popular girls—cheerleader, athlete, pep club, and student government. I was involved in the band and orchestra, the school newspaper, and the spring musicals. Kathy was one of the truly attractive girls in junior high and senior high school. She was lovely in appearance, but not vain, gentle in manner, kind without being condescending. She was one of a trio of girls who always sat together at the beginning of the school year, when the teacher organized the desks in alphabetic order. Later in the school year, when the teacher allowed us to choose our own desks, the three friends remained together. Only if the teacher tried to rearrange the seating to split apart friends (for better order in the classroom, or so they said) did those three become scattered; and of course many opportunities arose during the course of the day for them to reconnect—to eat lunch together, or exercise together in Physical Education, or visit in the hallways between classes.

In one of last night’s dreams, Kathy was sitting at a table when I walked past. She stood, hugged me, kissed me on the mouth, smiled and said something friendly that I can no longer remember, and then sat again. I can assure you that in all our years of school together, she never did such a thing to me—not even once.

In the later dream, she and I both knew that it was Tuesday and that the lunch that was to be served on Tuesday was particularly repulsive. I knew of a couple of good restaurants across the street from where we were cleaning, and I wanted to invite her to join me for lunch. To the end of the dream, though, I failed to work up the courage to approach her with my invitation.

This morning, with Kathy still at the edges of my memory, I typed into Google® her name and our hometown. I learned that she had graduated college, gotten married, worked as a nurse, and had two sons. She was respected and well-liked by her coworkers and the patients she served. However, Kathy died almost one year ago. The comments that followed her obituary glowed with praise for her life of service and her kind and helpful personality.

I cannot guess what brought Kathy’s image into my dreams last night. Of all my classmates from those early days of school, she is scarcely the most memorable. We never became friends, as we truly had few common interests. Of all the dreams in all the unfamiliar bedrooms in all my travels over the years, why did she have to come into mine last night? J.

 

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Coffee

In my life I have participated in most of the legal substance-abuse vices, with the exception of tobacco. I’ve been around smokers frequently, but I’ve not been interested in smoking. Some other time I might address the abuse of sugar, salt, and oils, but today I want to write about coffee.

My parents had the habit of drinking a cup of coffee with each meal–breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They drank it black–no sugar, no milk or cream. As a child, I didn’t like the smell of coffee and didn’t want to drink coffee. Even when I went to college, coffee held no appeal for me.

That changed my last year of college. I took a course in art history which met three afternoons a week, right after lunch. The professor turned off the lights and showed slides of paintings and sculptures on the wall. He had a quiet, monotone voice. His quizzes were very difficult. To keep awake in class, I started drinking coffee with my lunch those three days of the week.

By the time I started graduate school, I was in the habit of drinking coffee every day. During my internship, I even learned to drink Cuban espresso, which absolutely requires a lot of sugar because it is so bitter. Also during my internship, I learned that drinking a cup of coffee during Wednesday night Bible class was a bad idea. I was often awake for hours after Bible class, until I learned to stop drinking coffee that late in the day.

When I graduated and started working a steady job, I had one day off each week. After a couple of months, I began to wonder why I always had a headache by lunchtime on my day off. I finally realized that my headache was a symptom of caffeine withdrawal. Rather than giving up on coffee the other six days of the week, I started drinking coffee on my day off as well, and the headaches went away.

My habit became two cups of coffee a day: one with breakfast and the other with lunch. Most of the time I drink it black. On hot summer days, I sometimes prepare a cup of iced coffee, which includes sugar. On some winter days, I treat myself to a mocha, stirring a package of hot chocolate mix into a cup of coffee. I always fix my coffee at home, because I do not want to pay the coffee shop prices to soothe my addiction. I have been careful not to have coffee in the mid-afternoon or evening, because I want to be able to sleep at night.

This was not a scientific study with proper controls, but I have played video games while mildly intoxicated with alcohol, and I have played the same games while “buzzed” with caffeine. In matters of coordination and in matters of judgment, I found that caffeine created more problems for me than alcohol.

Over the years, I have given up alcohol for Lent, and I have given up caffeine for Lent. I found caffeine to be the harder substance from which to fast. Withdrawal symptoms, the desire for a drink, and the rush to return to the substance when Easter arrived all were stronger for coffee than for alcoholic beverages.

My doctor suggested that I cut my coffee drinking in half to help control my blood pressure. At first I resisted his advice, but after I was diagnosed with anxiety, I was willing to cut back to one cup a day. I still drink a mug of coffee after breakfast before I leave for work.

Some web sites list the dangers of caffeine, while others insist that caffeine is safe except in extremely high doses. Some mornings I savor my cup of coffee, while other mornings I worry about my addiction to caffeine. I sympathize with people who struggle with addictions, because I know how powerful my own addiction is in my life. J.

Five back-to-school movies

When I was a boy, school didn’t start until the middle of the last week of August. We had half a day, and then a full day or two, and then a weekend before the school year really got rolling. Of course these were the days when I walked to school, uphill, even in the snow, twice a day. Gasoline was forty cents a gallon, milk was $1.32 a gallon, you could buy a loaf of bread for twenty-four cents and mail a letter for six cents. No, I did not have a pet dinosaur!

Anyhow, certain movies from the late 1970s and from the 1980s remind me of going back to school. The movies on my list are based in high schools and colleges rather than elementary school, and some are more true-to-life than others. A lot of other movies are set in schools, but the following movies mean the most to me this month as children, teens, young adults, and teachers are on their way back to their respective classrooms.

Grease (1978): This movie is nothing like my high school memories. I did not attend school in the 1950s, none of my fellow students were in their twenties or thirties, and only a few of them regularly broke into song and dance. (Some of those who did, though, were pretty good.) The “Summer Loving” bit of the movie, though, perfectly captures the feelings of the end of summer vacation and the start of the school year. My favorite memory of Grease will not be shown on the screen—I remember a ten-year-old girl who had just seen the movie trying to explain its plot to me. Priceless!

Animal House (1978): My college was nothing like this movie, but some students there definitely tried to reproduce this movie on campus. We had fraternities and sororities, excessive drinking and partying, in the setting of stately buildings and droll professors like Donald Sutherland’s character. Many of the guys wished they were John Belushi. This movie is raunchy enough that I would be embarrassed to watch it with my parents or my children, but it has its moments. “Seven years of college—wasted!” “Did we give up when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?!”

Fame (1980): Based on a real school in New York City, this movie shows scattered events from the lives of a few students and teachers at a high school dedicated to the fine arts (music, dance, and theater). Fame is more a collection of short stories than a movie with a single plot or theme, but the characters and their situations are entirely believable. Every song-and-dance number fits the movie. When I was in high school, I was involved in music and in theater, so some parts of this movie strike close to home.

Big Chill (1983): I saw this movie in a theater when it came out. All my friends saw this movie too. We were certain that we would keep in touch with each other, care about each other, and support each other. If it wasn’t for Facebook, most of us wouldn’t even know where the others are today. Not one scene in this movie takes place in a school, but this movie still reminds me of the intangible things that mattered most about college. It makes me think of the times we said to each other, “This is what college was meant to be.” Every fall I try to watch this movie the weekend of my alma mater’s homecoming celebration.

Footloose (1984): A young man from the big city must attend high school in a small town, a town where the council has banned dancing. Footloose is a typical coming-of-age, teen angst movie from the 1980s, but it is one of those movies that gets it right. Kevin Bacon shines as the central character, and John Lithgow is brilliant as the minister opposed to dancing, but the two of them are surrounded by smaller characters who are thoroughly convincing. Although the fist fight near the end of the movie seems contrived and unnecessary, every other scene builds the story, and the soundtrack is notable as well. I haven’t seen the recent remake, and I don’t want to see it. This movie is nearly perfect just the way it is.

Tomorrow: five more back-to-school movies from the 1980s. J.

Panic in the classroom

I respect every student who struggles with anxiety and/or agoraphobia and still attends classes to work toward an education. When going to school is a frightening experience, the temptation to drop out and stay at home must be strong. To all those reading who match that description, my hat is off to you.

For me, the classroom and the library have always been safe places and happy places. Even though I was bullied from the fifth grade through the ninth grade, I didn’t blame the school for that; being bullied during slow times probably only made me more focused on my studies. I loved going to college and to graduate school, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to return later to the classroom, this time as a teacher.

Not only am I introverted; I am also shy. It may seem strange that I enjoy teaching. When I teach, though, I know why I am there. I have a clearly designed role and task. I believe that three qualities make a teacher good: deep knowledge and understanding of the subject area, deep interest in the subject area with a desire to share knowledge and understanding, and genuine interest in the students. Those qualities make me happy to stand in front of a group of people and talk, even though I might not have the courage to approach any one of them or speak with them in a store or other public area.

One evening last week was different. I left work in the middle of the afternoon to prepare to teach, as is my habit, and as I approached my house I saw that the neighbor two doors down was having a tree removed. That made me sad and also a little angry, as I see no reason to destroy a healthy living tree. Of course I had to listen to the saws while I read through the chapter and ate my early supper. Still, I drove to the school and spoke with the office staff without feeling any different than usual.

The first sign something was not quite right was when I started writing notes on the classroom
whiteboard. I wrote “INDIA” in big letters at the top of the board, and it looked as if I was aiming for italics rather than bold letters. Then, when I tried to write “Harappan” underneath, it took three tries to achieve a legible “H.” A couple deep breaths and I was able to finish putting words on the board, but having my hands shake that badly before class even started was not a good sign.

As the students arrived one by one, I was able to enter the small talk before class—not my strongest suit, but something I generally can fake. Then I began the lecture and discussion. Fifteen minutes later I had completed half an hour of material without leaving out anything important. The thirty minutes on China were polished off in another fifteen minutes. I stammered more than usual and had to repeat some words—I can’t say whether that was due to talking faster or another symptom of the same panic. We moved on to the quiz, and the students who usually do well did about as well as usual, while the students who generally don’t do as well did even more poorly than usual.

I cannot guess why I felt so panicked in the classroom that evening. Was it lingering anger over the neighbor and his tree? Was staying up past midnight the night before to visit with family a mistake? Is the counseling that is working on identifying feelings and working backward to their causes making me worse instead of better? I have too many questions and not enough answers.

Lately I have been learning about mindfulness. (I will write more about mindfulness in another post.) I tried to be mindful in the classroom—I was able to talk to the class and cover all the material even if I did so in double speed. What happens this week is yet to be seen. Think good thoughts for me.

J.