Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A Free Education

“You’re a hardass, Prof,” my dad used to tell me. He would always flash that evil Cheshire Cat grin when he said it, because it meant that I was like him.

Truth is, I’m not. I’m the M&M of my profession. Gooey on the inside.

I don’t fail students or ever “give” an F. Students fail themselves – by not attending class, skipping assignments or blowing off tests. In my classes, if you show up regularly, turn in everything and work hard, you will not fail. 

I strongly believe in passing on God’s grace and will do anything I can to help a student who is drowning in personal problems. Life’s complications come in many forms: work stress, chronic illness, divorce, family strife, death of a loved one, financial crises. And that’s just a snippet from my personal list.

But a student who develops a pattern of excuses for why he/she cannot attend class or complete assignments will – well, tumble out of my good graces. I’ve been teaching for a long time, and I can tell the difference between someone who is entangled in an urgent, traumatic crisis and someone who makes up some weak excuse about not coming to class because it’s raining. I have an internal BS meter. I recognize it when I hear it. (I did get that from my dad.) Just so you know, I prefer the truth. Don’t make an excuse; tell me that you overslept and then accept the consequences. I will respect you more.

So when I read the news about students demanding tuition-free college, I get angry. Millions of people before them attended college because of parental sacrifice/savings, loans, grants, scholarships and work-study. Countless students in my classes are working more than one job to pay for school. You are not entitled to a “free” education. Do you think you would appreciate it more if you didn’t earn it? And do I have to explain that anything that shows up on my tax bill is not free?

Yes, of course, you have the right to protest, march, demand, question authority. But use your youthful energy and emotions to attack issues that matter. 

A few years ago, a student fighting an aggressive cancer still managed to miss only a few of our class sessions. By the end of the semester, she was using a wheelchair and could only move one arm. Her dad would attend class with her. She finished all those InDesign assignments, painstakingly moving the mouse with her nondominant hand.

She died just months after our class ended. I still look to the back of the classroom where she sat and think about her. A lot.

You’re not a victim. You’re not entitled to any more than the person next you. A lot of things will happen in your life that could crush you. Don’t let them. Get up and fight for respect and dignity. Put down your damn phone. Work hard, study hard, volunteer.

Be a hardass.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Teething Pains

“Do you floss?” the dental hygienist asked.

Why do they always ask that?! I floss like crazy. I stow floss in my purse, my car, my desk drawer, the cushions of the couch. I buy the multi-packs. I know that waxed is better for most people and that the picks don’t work as well as the stringed kind. I am an addict. No one flosses more than I do.

But under interrogation, leaning back on that hard gray chair, under the spotlight, I stammered. “Um, well, you know, I …”

“You have to floss or you’ll get (gingivitis and a couple of bigger words),” she interrupted. “And your gum will separate from the tooth. You’ll lose bone.”

I can actually list a million people (maybe more, if I really concentrate) who take less care of their teeth than I do. I mean, I’m a GRADE A FLOSSER.

“Do you use an electronic or manual toothbrush?”

It’s called a manual now?

You know how sometimes you can’t remember the name of someone or something you see almost every day?

“I use one of those, uh, those electric ones with the gold-plated toothbrush head replacements.”

“A Sonicare?” she asked.

For some reason, I heard “Sonic,” and all I could think about was a cherry limeade. Crushed ice, lime, cherry, deliciousness. Mmmmm.

When I looked up, she was peering at me over the blue protective mask.

 “Yeh, I think,” I replied.

“Well, how old is it? Does it change vibrations every 30 seconds?” she continued.

People brush their teeth for longer than 30 seconds?

“Well, it’s kind of old, and it’s, um, really basic, I think. Honestly, I have no idea.”

She paused, her eyebrows furrowed, like she was about to deliver some bad news. “I think even those basic models change vibration,” she said seriously.

It occurred to me that I didn’t know my toothbrush very well at all.

“Do you brush the back of your teeth?”

They have backs?

“Are you spending at least 20 seconds with each tooth?”

They have feelings?

There I was. The kid caught in a lie.

You know those braggers who say they only brush once a day and have perfect checkups? Yeah, I don’t associate with them either. My last crown cost $600 (with insurance) and 30 days of daily ibuprofen. Are these dental scare tactics standard procedure now?

With a sharp metal tool (is this sterile?!), she meticulously poked at each tooth and around its gum, whispered a number (2 “3 “4) and then typed something into a complex, multi-colored chart on the computer. Finally, she said, “I’m concerned about the 4-millimeter ones.” (Or was it 4 centimeters? The metric system never clicked with me.)

“There seems to be some separation between the bone and the gum,” she said gravely.

This better not have anything to do with flossing. Because, let me tell you, I am a fricking flosser, OK?

“I get concerned when I see some 4s. Now, I don’t want to upset you, but I do see a few 4s.”

Why do I have the feeling that “4s” (whatever those are) are not covered by insurance?

Bending over the chair, her head blocking the spotlight, she looked me in the eyes. “I’m not trying to upset you. But if I see more 4s next year, well, you just never know.

Then, with a reassuring smile, she added, “Now, I don’t want you to worry; this process will be practically painless.”

Until I get the bill.

Paid cartoon used by permission,

Friday, April 3, 2015

An Ordinary Life

“Hey, look at me!” he said. His voice echoed like thunder in the quiet waiting room. Head nodding, I had been slowly sinking into that catatonic state brought on by beige walls, low fluorescent lighting and 1980s (non-hair band) elevator music. About a dozen other people were seated around the big room. Most of the six or seven female assistants behind the check-in desk were talking on phones. There were plenty of places to sit, but this guy had settled in comfortably about six inches from me on a dark brown fabric love seat.

Shouldn’t they be called “holding rooms?” Because your life is on hold.

He was tall, and his thick hair was one solid color – medium gray. Dressed in creased, dark blue Wranglers and worn leather cowboy boots, he was wearing a long-sleeved plaid shirt that snapped up the front. He had neatly folded a tan corduroy jacket – Tractor Supply, not L.L. Bean – on the left arm of the love seat. I guessed that he was in his early 70s.

Apparently, the waiting drives some people to steal the newer magazines. Everything here is from last summer. 

Amused, I looked over at him.
He peered through his dark-rimmed glasses.
“Is that your real hair color?” he asked, loudly enough to make one of the assistants smile and two people look up from their magazines.
“Most of it,” I replied.
“What do you call that, dirty dishwater?” he asked. “My wife’s hair used to look like that.”
“Well I, I mean, I don’t CALL it anything,” I stammered. “Actually, I prefer to think of it as sort of blonde, but I …”
“You look just like my niece,” he interrupted. “She lives in Tulsa. I’m pretty sure she’s older than you, though.”

            Why is it you never have to wait long to get the bill? Why do they take you back to the exam room, just so you can put on a flimsy gown and wait some more?

Stretching his long legs, he added, “I’m kind of worn out today. I worked out yesterday, and it takes two days to recover from that. It didn’t used to take that long.”

Now that I think about it, the StairMaster seemed a lot harder this morning.

I sifted through a stack of AARP, Better Homes & Gardens and Reader’s Digest and picked up a recent Rolling Stone featuring Stevie Nicks.

She’s 66?!

“Do you know what it’s like to be on a submarine?” he asked.
I looked over at him. He was staring across the room.

I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t count the Submarine Voyage at Disneyland. And honestly, I was the only nervous one. The kids were fine.

“I joined the Navy when I was 16. They put me on a nuclear submarine. Nothing makes you happier to see land than coming off of one of those things. You don’t know what it’s like to be in a small space until you’ve been on one of those things.”

My personal space is a minimum of three feet, so getting into an elevator is an issue for me.

“They gave us two quarts of water for personal use. So, I brushed my teeth and washed my private parts every other day. Every time we came into a port, the first thing I did was to take a shower.”

This might be worse than the personal space issue.

“At least all of you smelled the same,” I commented.
“That’s true,” he laughed. “It was terrible! Anyway, I did something crazy and got married young. A sailor shouldn’t be married. Well, you know what I mean.” 

He winked as his light blue eyes met mine.

I hope he didnt think I was winking back. I get this uncontrollable eye twitch when I think about paying another medical bill. 

“Anyway, all she wanted was that paycheck, and I couldn’t divorce her until I put in my 20 years. She didn’t think I would do it, but I did as soon as I could!”

Strangers talk to me all the time. They regularly approach me in Target and other places and ask where to find stuff. I know it’s because I look approachable, not because I look like I know what I’m doing. I always say, “Aisle 25.”

“So, you married again?” I asked.
“Yeh, 41 years ago. I married a girl that grew up across the street from me. It’s her house, and my home, and I like it that way. I mean, I let her do whatever she wants to the house because she takes care of it. It works for us. She made this appointment for me, and I’m OK with that.”
I smiled and started to ask another question, but he changed the topic.
“Are you from around here?”
“I’m originally from Arkansas,” I replied.
“My grandmother – I called her Nettie – was from Arkansas. She was in the Land Run when she was 9 years old. She was half Indian, but, hell, I don’t know which tribe,” he added, laughing.
“I didn’t find out until I was 40 years old that “Nettie” was short for her real name – Cincinnati.”
He took a breath, but it was a short one.
“My mother was an amazing woman too. She had eight boys, although the one just ahead of me died when he was a baby. My dad died of a heart attack when he was 31 years old, leaving mama with all us boys. We gave her a hard time.”
His voice got quieter, and he was looking away again.
“I asked her, why did daddy want so many kids? ‘It wasn’t your daddy’s fault,’ she told me. ‘I wanted a girl.’ ”
He smiled.
“She never had a girl, but all except one of her grandchildren are girls!” He said, laughing.
“Do you live near here?” I asked.
“Yes, we have a little house on 22 acres. We used to raise thoroughbreds. We raised some good ones, too, but we quit when we realized we had to choose between groceries and horse feed. But at our age – I’m 76 now – we spend a lot of our time waiting in places like this.”

I know what you mean.

He sighed, but it was obvious he was just stating a fact, not looking for sympathy. A young woman carrying a clipboard stepped from behind a door and called his name.
“Are you ready sir?” she asked.
He got up quickly and headed toward the door.
“Why, yes ma’am. I’ll follow a pretty blonde anywhere,” he said, grinning.