Margo Banks’s mixed media piece (shown above) is intriguingly called “Keep Your Heart Open to Everything.” The image itself is a mystery, at least as it relates to the title, yet the animal’s kinetic energy, however contained it might be by four sides, somehow reminds me that in the years, or seconds, that remain of my life I must proceed as fearlessly as I can. It has been a decade since I started this blog, but when I try to remember who I was back then I am not able to see myself clearly. I can recall that I careered often between despair and hope, dread and equanimity, longing and indifference. Loving and not wanting to love. I can remember, too, how skittish I was about offering up what seemed at the time the very smallest of voices.
The awfulness of awful (update)
(First posted in early fall 2017) For more than 20 years I have been teaching writing and research at community colleges and universities in the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington State, and the DC metro area. Students always have had the opportunity to write end-of-the-semester evaluations of my courses, which I dread with open arms. But in recent years they also have been able to express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with me on an extremely popular, high-profile site called Rate My Professors. And these ratings seem to carry as much, if not more, weight than college evaluations do — at least in the court of very public opinion.
While many professors who have received negative reviews on this site might dismiss them as the biased rants of disgruntled students, they would have to be made of granite if they did not feel somewhat besieged or besmirched — not least because these reviews typically appear at the top of the first page of a Google search.
Because I have worked so hard to be a worthy teacher, and because I have done my best to develop respectful relationships with my students, I feel fortunate that I have received largely positive college and online reviews through the years. In fact, if truth be told this has been a source of not a little pride that privately I have held fast to, especially during periods when I have felt less successful in other areas of my life.
Occasionally I will check the site, and from time to time I will find that I have been rewarded with a new, and typically lovely, evaluation. Then, a few days ago I went to it and, to my great horror, for the first time saw the dreaded red scowly face with its corresponding “awful” emblazoned at the tippy top of my list of reviews.
These reviews are anonymous, so I could see only that it was from someone who had taken a course I have not taught since fall 2016. “My God,” I thought. “This student has been waiting to pounce for nearly a year!” My heart was pounding as I read “takes her time” (though this did not strike me as an especially negative quality) and “unhelpful” and “move on if you want an easy A.”
It was painful to know that future students would see this neon red face as soon as they entered my page, and I felt I had to try and do something to protect myself from a faceless, nameless someone who was bent on shredding my reputation. But, I also felt at the mercy of this masked student and of Rate My Professors itself, so my imagination failed me until a small voice from beyond whispered, “Write a rebuttal.” Which I proceeded to do.
Although I did not identify myself as the offended professor (and also was in “Incognito” mode on Chrome), I said that I thought the student review seemed defamatory in light of the other positive reviews, and I also said that there was little of substance to give prospective students a good sense of why the teacher deserved such a low rating from this one student.
I did not really expect anything to come of it, but I felt I had to try something to salve my wound. In fact, having tried years ago, and without any success, to get Google to remove my doctoral dissertation abstract from its search engine, I thought snowballs in Hell would remain intact before this nightmare review disappeared.
Then, the next day I checked the site and saw it had been taken down.
UPDATE: Yesterday, I received my second “awful” on Rate My Professors from a student who dropped a class I am now teaching:
I took the hybrid class, and she gives an average of 3-4 assignments per week. Both of the English classes I took are hybrid, and she makes English class 10x harder than it should be. She is detailed but picky. So if you want a professor that creates a one full page instruction for only a week’s homework, very detailed, willing to help, go for it.
Fortunately, I feel less afflicted this time, and at least her (I’m pretty sure I know who it is) explanation shows a clear gripe: I’m too hard and offer too much online explanation for way too many assignments. When I reflect on the boatload of work I had to do as a UC Berkeley undergraduate, I cannot help but lament the trend I have seen of students wanting to do as little work as possible for their degrees.
I love learning, but I am now in the minority, I think. I used to love teaching.
Voice as Rorschach
Driving home from work each evening, I generally listen to NPR’s All Things Considered — and with more attention than I might otherwise muster after a long day. I have enjoyed all the co-hosts, but I especially enjoyed listening to Melissa Block, who left the program in 2015 after having been a part of it for 12 years.
Though it is difficult to describe the qualities that make for a beautiful speaking voice, I can say that Block somehow made me feel like I was the only member of her listening audience. There was a tender, silver-throated warmth to her and a sense, too, that I could pull up a chair to her table and sip a cup of tea with her while she delivered the day’s news; still, she always seemed to have absolute mastery over the delivery of any story.
My feelings about Robert Siegel’s voice, on the other hand, have been shot through with judgment. A radio veteran who has been with the program for 30 years, Siegel has “[o]ne of the most distinctive voices on NPR’s airwaves,” yet, while it may be that off-air he is a very kind soul, his voice sounds just this side of about-to-make-a-mockery of someone. And, from the sound of it I have always seen him thus: pink-faced; thin and small; balded; dressed during summer in short-sleeved, button-down shirts; thin, bowed lips the color of raspberry Popsicle.
It wasn’t until I learned that he was retiring that I had an occasion to see his photo, and I have to say I was taken aback. There is a darker density to him that I do not hear when I listen to him speak. I hadn’t imagined the facial hair either, which certainly changes things.
Rusty, my father’s golden retriever, was revered. My father, who each weekend cooked her fresh organ meats, loved her more than he loved my stepmother, my brother, and me. My stepmother loved Rusty more than she loved my brother and me. And I loved my father more than I loved anyone, including Rusty, though I very much loved Rusty. My brother, it turned out, didn’t love a single soul — Rusty included.
This morning, I awoke from a dream about Rusty, who has been dead some 40 years, but, as I wandered across that vaporous, atemporal continent that separates dream from wakefulness, I believed she was still alive and was confused for some seconds about where on the timeline of my little life I stood.
Once I touched bed, pillow, table and saw mirror, bookshelf, clock, I remembered who I was and remembered, also, the man who has been installed in the White House. Just about every morning when I first open my eyes, his image — or the image of someone in his inner circle — appears, and I find myself needing more air than seems available. This morning I recalled what my stepmother once told me about sleeping dogs with twitchy legs and paws: They’re dreaming about running, she said.
“…there is, instead, madness.”
“King George III isn’t exactly a hero of history,” writes NPR’s Colin Dwyer. “In most U.S. textbooks, he is portrayed as the British tyrant who lost the Colonies in the American Revolution. He’s scarcely more popular in his native U.K., where his bouts with mental illness late in life earned him the impolite epithet ‘Mad King.'”
This week in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan writes brilliantly about our own mad king Donald, whose mental well-being he describes thus:
…there is the obvious question of the president’s mental and psychological health. I know we’re not supposed to bring this up — but it is staring us brutally in the face. I keep asking myself this simple question: If you came across someone in your everyday life who repeatedly said fantastically and demonstrably untrue things, what would you think of him? If you showed up at a neighbor’s, say, and your host showed you his newly painted living room, which was a deep blue, and then insisted repeatedly — manically — that it was a lovely shade of scarlet, what would your reaction be? If he then dragged out a member of his family and insisted she repeat this obvious untruth in front of you, how would you respond? If the next time you dropped by, he was still raving about his gorgeous new red walls, what would you think? Here’s what I’d think: This man is off his rocker. He’s deranged; he’s bizarrely living in an alternative universe; he’s delusional. If he kept this up, at some point you’d excuse yourself and edge slowly out of the room and the house and never return. You’d warn your other neighbors. You’d keep your distance. If you saw him, you’d be polite but keep your distance.
Sullivan goes on to say that “this is a fundamental reason why so many of us have been so unsettled, anxious, and near panic these past few months…. There is no anchor any more. At the core of the administration of the most powerful country on earth, there is, instead, madness.”
Until I read this piece, I hadn’t put it together for myself why I have felt so undone since the day the man was elected. It is not so much his odious agenda. As a left of left Democrat, the antipathy I feel towards a Republican worldview is at the level of marrow and sinew, yet I still have been able to go about my life when one of that persuasion has landed in the White House.
But with a pathological liar
…barging into your consciousness every hour of every day, you begin to get a glimpse of what it must be like to live in an autocracy of some kind. Every day in countries unfortunate enough to be ruled by a lone dictator, people are constantly subjected to the Supreme Leader’s presence, in their homes, in their workplaces, as they walk down the street. Big Brother never leaves you alone. His face bears down on you on every flickering screen. He begins to permeate your psyche and soul; he dominates every news cycle and issues pronouncements — each one shocking and destabilizing — round the clock. He delights in constantly provoking and surprising you, so that his monstrous ego can be perennially fed. And because he is also mentally unstable, forever lashing out in manic spasms of pain and anger, you live each day with some measure of trepidation. What will he come out with next? Somehow, he is never in control of himself and yet he is always in control of you.
It is this sense of being controlled by a force over which I feel little control that has turned me into someone I don’t quite recognize. On the one hand, I am aware that at times I have been made quite unwell. On the other, I am unslumbered and find myself in search of an opportunity to best help those whose lives have been — and will continue to be — violently upended by this madman and his handlers. Yesterday, in fact, I was reading about a call for Virginia residents who might like to serve in the state legislature. Hmm, I thought.
Love trumps Trump.
Last Saturday, I went to pull on a sock and instead pulled every major muscle in my mid-back. I fell flat out on the bed and sobbed — not so much because of the physical pain, though the pain was considerable, but because Donald Trump had been elected president of the United States.
In the days preceding the back event but following the election, I was left to contend with an unremitting migraine behind the left eye, a bout of despair diarrhea, and a stress-induced shingles episode that, among other things, left my shoulder numb. The body is a genius.
It would be wrong, though, to think that I am yet one more aggrieved American adding to the volumes of articles written about Donald Trump and his last-gasp entourage of greedy, self-interested, racist, anti-Semitic, white-skinned misogynists since, as Jon Stewart in his understated and affecting interview with Charlie Rose reminds us, not everyone who voted for Trump is a racist. Some, he says, are afraid about their health insurance premiums.
For 11 days now, I have borne witness to my unfettered feelings of anger and fear, and I have seen the underbelly of contempt I possess towards my particular version of “the other”; yet, while I am not proud about admitting I am a container for the very darknesses I ascribe to those I already have condemned to the wrong side of history, I am happy to report I still have a heart that beats stronger for love than it does for hate.
There is my daughter, whom I have loved freely and unconditionally every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year for more than three decades. No one taught me how to feel this love. It appears to have come in the same box with the rest of my parts.
And no one told me how, or why, to love A., whom I have loved without end for some 17 years in spite of the fact that these feelings have never been reciprocated. Something from within (or from without) winged me to him, or him to me, and I came to know, without knowing, that I was to love him without condition or expectation.
The love I feel both for my daughter and for A. is a very great mystery, and I can say only that love’s capacity to awaken us and to help us evolve from the pipsqueaks we really are puts into perspective the shallow affairs of nasty men, who, like the rest of us, will one day fall to dust.
Just thought I’d share
The other day my colleagues were talking about the difficulty they have discussing sex with their male clients. The reasons for this shyness with the “emerging adults” in our program are complex, but, to illustrate the complexity, I told them about an experience I had had just the day before.
My supervisor, whom I adore (I realize this point is apropos of nothing), and my counterpart at work were discussing the sister of one of our young men when I blurted, “She’s, uh, with child, isn’t she?” Had I wanted to sound any more like a character straight out of “The Monk’s Tale,” I might have asked, “Hath she child in womb?”
We laughed heartily when I said, “I don’t know why I couldn’t just come out and say the word p-p-p-pregnant,” but later I reflected on my embarrassment (interestingly, in Spanish the word for “pregnant” is embarazada). I realized I had never been comfortable using that word because the “preg” part of it conjures for me the act of a man impregnating a woman — as in putting his (p word) in her (v word) and depositing his (s word). So asking flat out if the woman being discussed was pregnant also could have suggested that I might have had intimate knowledge of how she came to be with child in the first place.
location, location, location
Last night I brought my new license plates to bed with me, and I admit I felt pretty pleased with life. It has taken me more than two years to finish replanting myself and to grow some shoots after a long period of defoliation, so there was cause for delight. During the time of my walkabout, I had no permanent address — not that any address is permanent in the grand design — because I had sold my condo, which would have floated down river had it been any more under water, and had set out to find my future.
To begin the adventure I slept for several months on a friend’s scratchy couch; by my choosing, we are no longer friends. I stayed with my daughter under a few roofs, and we soldiered on, but barely. I lived for a good stretch in a sad hotel with a kitchen, and I almost got used to the brown carpet and the plastic plates. Finally, I ended up in a boarding house for the unhinged, where even the cats had lost their minds, and I knew then that my wandering days were coming to a merciful close.
I wouldn’t recommend dislocation to most people since human animals typically tend toward amassment and above all seek comfort and safety, but I can say to those who have an interest that my experience taught me to loosen my grip on all things earthly, except for Keurig’s Dark Magic coffee, and to seek a higher, more ethereal location. Still, as I looked at those license plates resting where another might find her lover, I understood that they were an emblem of my transfiguration, and I was more than a little pleased to share a bed with them.
Fast track to heaven
Recently, the US Department of Transportation sent me two dollars as a way of thanking me for filling out, or for even considering filling out, a survey about my transportation needs. Actually, though, the survey wasn’t addressed to me; it was addressed to any resident of my city who lives (or stays) where I live or who collects mail from my box and reads it.
While two dollars is not twenty dollars or two hundred dollars or two thousand dollars, two dollars is not nothing. Sure, I have received other incentives to take an action I might not otherwise take: free stamps, free Christmas stickers, free return address labels, and free quarters taped to the mailers they accompanied. But pocketing two unearned bucks places me more squarely on the road to shame than does nabbing address labels, say. If I took the two dollars without responding to the survey, I would have a difficult time seeing this as anything other than a theft, if only on a karmic level. If, however, I took the labels without doing what had been asked of me, I am pretty certain I would escape God’s wrath because God knows I could never find in myself any interest in using such things.
Were I a member of the other political party, I might take the money, crumple up the survey, and rant about big government wasting my hard-earned cash. I might not even recycle the paper it was printed on because I could see myself thinking that God has put a never-ending supply of trees on this green earth for my benefit alone, and I might also think that if I recycle I am just supporting another one of those government scams designed to bilk me out of even more of my money.
But me, I feel gratitude for the money not only because two bucks is not nothing but also because I can well imagine the drama surrounding any decision made to stuff fistfuls of dollars into envelopes addressed to no one in particular and to send these out into the world with the knowledge that much of the cash could end up in the trash bin with the rest of the unopened junk mail. To be sure it was a gamble, but, at a time when data dictates who gets funding, it was a good one. I might not complete the survey today or tomorrow, but each day I lollygag the good angel sitting on my shoulder will be whispering into my ear that I need to get it done if I want to make it through those Pearly Gates.
The girl she left behind
When she was 49, my brother’s first wife—a blonde-haired, green-eyed, freckled beauty—drove her car off a Los Angeles cliff. When she was young, her father Jack was the one to find his wife, her mother, who had also killed herself, and during the years I knew Carmen she more than once wondered aloud if that would be her own fate.
I have held onto a few things that help me remember the kind of person she was: a cookbook with a bright pink cover, which had been one of her favorites, and two papier-mâché containers decorated with a jungle theme, where I keep paper clips and push pins.
Sometimes when I am sitting very still, I find myself thinking about Carmen’s last moments, right when her car went over the edge and there would have been no turning back. I try to imagine myself flying through the air with her just long enough to be assured that she did not suffer. But I am never able to stay in the front seat with her for more than a few seconds before my psyche recoils.
My niece, who was young herself when her mother took her own life, has been left to imagine and grieve that terrible death for the rest of her days, and I cannot think that anything would diminish the pain of her loss, not even time or love.