Sunday, February 10, 2019

I'm sorry...what?

“Pride goeth…before a fall”
(Or something like that!)
Proverbs 16:18

It was one of those small restaurants that dot big city neighborhoods. Molly and I were visiting her brother in Philadelphia and wanted a quiet dinner with a little quality family time. The meal was delicious, and the waitress did a great job - we paid by credit card.

The young woman brought the receipt to the table and then leaned over to Michael and said with a smile, “I’m pregnant, but we’ll be open on Monday for business.”

What!! I mean, we didn’t even know this person. It seemed a little out of place for her to be confiding to total strangers something so personal.

I turned to Molly and said, “Did she say she was pregnant?”

“No! She said on President’s day, they would be open.” The three of us began giggling which quickly turned to howling laughter. Gathering ourselves, we headed for the door.

Our waitress was busing another table as we left. I said to her, “I didn’t have my hearing aids in this evening, and I thought you said you were pregnant, but that you would be open Monday." With that, she began laughing so hard she had to put the empty dishes down so she wouldn't drop them. It was one of those unexpected, unguarded moments that had us recounting the event for the rest of the evening.

The next night we attended the opera (Midsummer Night’s Dream). Michael is music administrator for Opera Philadelphia. In addition to having great seats, we got a post-performance backstage tour where we met some of the singers and the conductor. Michael reintroduced us to one of his colleagues whose first comment was, “By the way, I’m not pregnant.” I quickly replied, “But are you open on Monday?” Once again, we all burst out laughing. It was clear this story was going to have legs.

Paying the piper…
“I think you need to check with someone,” I said. “You’ve begun lisping, and sometimes I can't tell whether your words end in “-s” or “-th.”

“I don’t think it’s me,” she replied. “I think it’s your hearing.”

I, of course, knew there was nothing wrong with my hearing. The more I thought about it, though, there were certain people, mostly women who I had trouble understanding.

To ensure continued peace in the household and to pacify my wife, I got an appointment with a hearing specialist. I already knew the outcome. My hearing was just fine.

The audiologist led me into a small grey-walled soundproof room. After some brief instructions and questioning whether I was claustrophobic, she handed me a set of earphones and a thumb switch.

“Put on the headphones,” she said, showing me how to hold the thumb switch. “Every time you hear a sound, push the red button down.” With that, she was out the door.

This was going to be a breeze.

There were quite a few pings and lots of thumb clicking. Yes sir, no problem. I was thinking about how much fun it was going to be to let Molly know she was wrong. 

When both ears had been tested, the audiologist came back into the room and sat down. “Let me show you how you did.”  Hot dog, here it comes.

She turned on a small computer screen and up flashed a graph. It had a horizontal line that moved across the grid from left to right. About three-quarters of the way across, the line precipitously dropped and looked like the vertical edge of a cliff.

“The horizontal line indicates normal hearing,” she said. “These are frequencies you hear well. But you see where the line drops off? These are higher frequencies. You missed almost all of the pings once those frequencies were reached. You’re going to need hearing aids. I’ll get them ordered, and then you will need to come in and get them adjusted.”

Hearing aids! Hearing aids!! Are you kidding me? The data couldn’t be right. I mean, old people wear hearing aids! What a rude awakening!!

“Hearing loss,” she continued, “is not like vision changes. Hearing aids will not allow you to have better hearing, they will only enhance sounds, so they are clearer.”

She indicated that nowadays hearing aids were little computers that could make adjustments explicitly based on individual hearing deficits. She said a bunch more stuff, but I tuned her out. I got it, I was just another pair of ears to her. I mean, there’s a lot more to me than just a couple of ears!!

When I got home, humble pie in hand, Molly said, “If it’s any consolation, this is not a new thing. You’ve been hard of hearing as long as I have known you. I had been in denial. She had not been critical but just trying to help.

Everything begins somewhere…
I suppose it started in Vietnam where I was an air traffic controller and for a year was exposed to high-pitched airplane and helicopter engine sounds. A reality, but small consolation. The need for hearing aids was just another marker in the diminishing returns of getting older!

So, another small brick has appeared in the wall of my mortal journey. Another reflection that the once held belief I would live forever was fancifully adolescent.

I suppose the good news is that I am not pregnant and I will definitely be open for business on Monday!

- ted

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Sometimes it's better not to know...

“Facts are the enemy of truth…”
– Miguel de Cervantes
The Man from
la Mancha

If we had only known what was wrong with the creature, we never would have adopted her.

Still stinging from the loss of two of our three geriatric cats, we felt it was time to bring some new life into our home. We thought Hannah (the remaining elder) would make a good mentor for the newbies. As it turned out, it was not to be. As if Hannah had been waiting until she felt we were settled, we unexpectedly lost her a week after the cats arrived.

Backing up a step...
Not knowing Hannah would slip away so quickly, and after some due diligence on the internet, it was off to one of the local cat animal shelters. Molly already had an idea of several particular cats to choose from. Of that bunch, we settled on two females named Milena and Aquarius, respectively – somewhere between two and four years of age.

At the shelter, Aquarius was the ‘lobby cat.’ She wandered around the open area where bright-eyed potential adopters entered the facility. She had a wonderfully calm personality but probably didn’t have a future outside the shelter. Rescued from Puerto Rico during the hurricane earlier in the year, she was hit by a car that left her faced disfigured.

Degloving is what it’s called – an almost polite term for having had the skin from one side of her face ripped away. Reattached, the cat had an odd look with a drooping lower left lip. Friendly, but not particularly attractive.

I think it was the imperfection that actually appealed to us. Most of us are deformed in some way – inside or out. That's just life. 

We knew she would get all the love we could give her. So, after examining our references and making a couple of calls, the shelter said we could take ‘Aquarius’ home. That day, we packed two cats in the car and brought them to our little place on Laughing Coyote Way.

On the way home in the car, we decided on names we wanted to give them – names better suited to our sensibilities. Molly thought Milena should simply be called Lena. I was reminded of a strong woman in the Old Testament with whom David fell in love. Abigail was her name. Yep, Aquarius evaporated and as surely as the “…moon in the seventh house…,” and Abigail – ‘Abby’ for short – entered our lives.

If we had only known what was wrong…
One of the requirements of the animal shelter, after approving us, was to take the newly adopted cats to our veterinarian for a more thorough check-up. Lena was okay, but when Abby went for her evaluation, I got a call from Molly. "Ted, you are going to have to think of a different name for Abby. It turns out, ‘she' is a ‘he.' That was a bit of a shocker, he had been neutered, not spayed, but we could sort that out. The shelter vet had somehow missed the apparently obvious sign. That was the first part of the call.

If we had only known…
During Abie's assessment (renamed for spelling not sound), the vet found there were tears in the soft palate in the roof of his mouth. We knew something wasn’t right when we brought him home because after eating, he would sneeze and some of the food would come out of his nose. We now knew the tears would need to be operated on and repaired.

Worse, or at least almost as bad, all of his canine teeth and two other broken ones needed to be extracted. This surgery would not be simple, and it would be costly.

We had not had the cat for very long. What should we do? Take him back and get another one or commit. It's a funny thing – matters of the heart.

In the few days, this little creature had been with us, we had bonded. More importantly, what would his future be like if we did not take care of him?

We agreed, and after a three and a quarter hour operation, the vet felt the surgery was a success.

If we had…
Unfortunately, the stitches did not hold. When Abie returned to eating, swallowing the food caused the sutures to tear. He needed a second operation. The surgery required some grafting. The vet also did some alignment of the hard palate that had been damaged in the original accident. This time, Abie would not be permitted to eat by mouth.

For the next two weeks, four times a day, Abie ‘ate’ through a feeding tube that exited on the side of his neck.

At first, it was a daunting task. A special diet of canned food was sent home with us. A cereal bowl became the vessel in which to mix and dilute the meal – a kind of soupy material pushed through the line with two, two-ounce syringes. The tube needed to be flushed with water before and after each feeding.

The second day, we had a small obstruction and couldn’t get all of the food in – it was tense. Fortunately, it cleared, and the next two weeks went pretty well. By now, the line has been removed, and the post-surgery evaluation indicated all was well. The sutures held, as had the adjusted hard palate.

As importantly, maybe more importantly, during all of this, our little family unit – now four – continued to grow in love and affection. Molly and I look at one another and wonder how we ever could do without Abie.

The thing is if we had both known how damaged Abie was when we first saw and interacted with him…if the records kept by the shelter had contained the palate tears and teeth issues…had we known his sinuses were clogged with food every time he ate…had we known he would need to be operated on just to get him back to some semblance of normal…well, lot's of 'had we knowns.'

Yeah, If we had only known what was wrong with the creature, we never would have adopted her/him.

Thank God we didn’t!

- ted

Monday, June 11, 2018

Ah, the classroom...

“It is not successes that make one a good teacher. It is
failure upon failure that burnishes the soul…”
– Anonymous

I have the fondest memories of teaching. There was nothing I enjoyed more than the satisfaction of students actually getting the material. Most of them were just looking to get through the course. But there were those who were genuinely interested. A few students like that and life was good.

Then there were those ‘teaching moments.’ People that teach recognize the magic when the stars align, and there is a live connection and convergence of the material, the teacher, and student. Those were the holy grail experiences. I was never able to create them, but when they happened, it was lightning in a bottle.

I didn't start out wanting to be a teacher. It was, in fact, the farthest thing from my mind. It took a shaky academic start, a war, a chance meeting with an old mentor, and over a decade of preparation. In the end, I found myself in the university classroom teaching exercise science and feeling I had found my calling.

As it turned out, it was not to be, and after a few years, I left teaching and found myself in a completely different field. I walked out of the classroom in the late 1980s, but over the next few decades, the embers of those years remained alive in my heart. The closest I came to that environment was traveling and speaking at scientific and specialty meetings. I viewed the presentations as extensions of storytelling – what I think academic work is all about.

Life happens…
When coming to Arizona, in 2013, I began planning for a time when things in my professional life would slow down. There were public lectures on back pain, healthy habits, and life management strategies. I joined a couple of not for profit boards and a writer’s group.

Three books emerged from these blog posts and a mystery novel, under a pen name, filled some of the time, but in the back of my mind I kept a ‘heart secret.’ I wanted to teach again.

I applied to a local junior college last fall where after vetting my transcripts and professional background, I was offered a job teaching biology. Biology? It was not my field of study, but I was over the moon. Back in the classroom, I could hardly believe it.

The thing about one’s memory, or at least my memories, is that they seem to lose their hard, detailed edges. Often remembrances are what we would like them to have been, rather than what they really were…meaning memories are selective.

When the adjunct teaching position was offered, I was thinking, “…yeah, I’m gonna teach again – hot dog…” Even though the area was in the Biology department, my topic would be physiology…yes, sir. Sure, it had been decades since I had been in the weeds of the material, but it wasn't like I didn't know the concepts ­– Right?

Reality bites…
Unfortunately, one of the critical things that slipped away from the reverie of good feelings was the mind-numbing time and energy it takes to prepare to teach.

The first reality check came with the textbooks. I got two ten-pounders in the neighborhood of eleven hundred pages each. I, of course, would only be responsible for five hundred, or so of them.

The soft-edged thoughts of "…go ye therefore and teach…" came to a screeching halt as they collided with the reality of class preparation.  Understanding the material and putting it into a digestible form for students are not the same things.

With the clarity of a cold shower, the truth set in. The shock caused memories to recalibrate, reminding me how painful and extremely time-consuming class prep is. I had NO SUMMER in the first year.  That isn’t exactly right. I had NO LIFE that summer.  Untold numbers of hours were spent on course outlines, handouts, quizzes, tests and getting the textbook material into my mind.

So, I now find myself spending hours every day preparing for the twelve to sixteen weekly lectures, most of which might well constitute more new material than I imagined – did I mention it was nearly five-hundred-pages?

As my thoughts draw to a close, let me say that teaching, in addition to being an honorable calling, is one of the most challenging things a human being can do. Teachers are often dismissed in the broader narrative of our society. Indeed, they are sometimes demonized rather than, as they should be, lionized.

We pay millions of dollars for distracting entertainment, frequently presented by petulant, self-important, and shallow human beings. Yet the very foundation of our society and democracy rests on the shoulders of those dedicated people who spend hours in the dark and show up every day to share with our future citizens the light of educated minds.

Yes sir, this fall I will stand in front of a group of young people, to present material they will need to continue their educations. None of them, not one, will know the amount of work that I, and teachers everywhere, have put into the few moments of their lives they spend with us.

Ah, the classroom! I'm going to love this, but am mindful of the old adage...

Be careful what you wish for…