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…


Sunday, May 27, 2018

Peeking through the curtains...

"It's not that I have something to hide,
I just have nothing I want you to see."
– Andres Niccol screenwriter,
movie – Anon: Spoken by
Amanda Seyfried

I didn’t want to admit it. In fact, I thought I’d left all that behind. It’s one of those things you imagine that changing times and circumstances would cause it to drift away into the currents of yesteryear. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

I guess it’s true, everything you have done in life is recorded somewhere in the memory banks, and if that ‘doing’ involved other people, well, you just have to deal with the consequences.

I might as well just come out and say it. If confession is truly good for the soul, then here goes.

I am a voyeur plain and simple. If I were sincere, I'd have to say I am surprised how exciting it is. In the early years, surprisingly, I didn't find it nearly as stimulating.

In those times, I have to admit, the motivation was truly questionable. But everyone I knew, at least in the circle of folks with whom I ran, was doing it. I realized some of them genuinely loved it. Their eyes would sparkle when talking about their latest foray or adventure. It wasn't that way for me. I was just going along with the crowd.

My life was a little aimless at the time, and due to circumstances, it was the thing to do. If I hadn't done it, I would have been discarded by all of them, and left to fend for myself, alone…un-needed.

I suppose it would be important to say how I found myself in this current circumstance. I want to be clear, I did it willfully…no coercion, no calls from old friends from bygone days encouraging me to give it a go. The full gravity of this thing and its repercussions are on my shoulders and mine alone.

I think what made me start up again were fond memories that I now realize were not wholly realistic. Our minds do that, you know. As the years go by and the hard edges of life and past experience become softened, the explicit memories give way to a broader sense of past events.

That led to this…
So, it was that in February, after going through a six-month vetting process, I got a teaching position in the Department of Biology this fall at the local junior college – an anatomy/physiology (A&P) course to prepare future health care professionals (e.g., nurses, EMTs, physical therapists).

Oh, you thought I meant I had been peeking through windows at the local sorority or neighbor's houses. I'm sorry, I meant to say decades ago while finishing school and teaching, I was spending a lot of time ‘looking into' how our physical body's work. The gang of folks I ran with in those days were graduate and later, faculty colleagues.

In that time, there was so much to learn and no time to think about it. In school, it was ‘burn the midnight oil' to pass the test – next! In the first year of teaching,  I was barely two weeks ahead of my students!

In the fall, I’m taking on the physiology side of ‘A&P.' The reality check came pretty quickly. The warm and fuzzy feelings of classroom days gone by were quickly replaced by the sheer volume and scope of material to be taught. An undercurrent of fear began to ooze its way from a low-level discomfort to a more blatant, "What the heck were you thinking?!"

To prepare, I got the texts, a new colleague's old class notes, and collateral materials (i.e., PowerPoint presentations and a sample syllabus). The textbooks, by the way, are huge, hefty and very expensive…further, I might add, pretty content dense.

At first, I was so overwhelmed, I put the books on my desk, stored the electronic materials on my computer, sat down and just looked them. That little voice seemed a bit stronger...not "...what the heck, but WHAT THE HELL??"

The first section? The endocrine system (hormones).

At first, it was tough sledding, my brain rusty and apparently not particularly interested in getting with the program.

But as the pages unfolded and the notecards began to fill up, something inside started to change. I stopped resisting the mass of material and felt myself embracing it. It would be disingenuous to say every metabolic control and feedback loop excited me, but on balance, I began to look forward to the ways in which these seemingly disconnected hormone glands create an orchestral balance so finely tuned and elegant it’s almost breath taking.

Like Goldilocks and the three bears…too much of something gets turned down…too little, turned up…all regulated like an automatic thermostat connected to the furnace or cooling system keeping the temperature "...just right…” The medical term – homeostasis.

By now, I have worked through the hormones and Blood. An aside: Do you know each red blood cell contains over a two hundred seventy-three million oxygen binding sites, AND there are between twenty to thirty billion red blood cells in our bodies? How could you NOT be excited!! I know, I digress and need to calm down...

Next is the heart and circulation

There is a lot to review, you know to keep ahead of my students this fall, but the more I'm in the physiology, the more wondrous it has become. This time around, the material is not without a frame of reference or context. This time around there is space to meditate on the way this body interacts. Understanding it, as much as I am capable, has become fun and intriguing (if I may use that word).

Yep, this time around, peeking through the physiology and metabolic curtains of life is pretty darn rewarding.

An old high school classmate sent me a quote of encouragement from Lucius Seneca (a Roman philosopher) – "While we teach, we learn…"

Hard to argue…

- ted