Sunday Afternoon: Stressed Out, I Guess

Just went up and took a shower. Two o'clock in the humid afternoon. Spent the morning doing chores around the house. Washed both cars inside and out. Cleaned up my basement workbench. Threw in two loads of laundry. Cleaned out the Shop Vac and regular vacuum cleaner. Helped clear up after my brother helped my daughter build a wooden prop for one of her photo shoots. Lots of sawdust. While I was at it, I swept out the garage. Busy morning. Good to get things done.

The humidity is knocking me around. Woof, it's like being on some science fiction planet where gravity is twice as strong. It should make me stronger when I come back to Earth, but I just want to lie down and give up.

I've had symptoms of something. An odd, underwater kind of headache. Feels like my spring has wound down. Aches all over my body. Fatigue. Trouble sleeping and night sweats. I'm moodier than usual and filled with the desire to be alone. Even when I get a writing idea, it feels like too much work to pick up the pen or computer. It all feels like too much under this gravity.

The next door neighbor is shunning me. Maybe she's embarrassed. A couple weeks ago I told her she had to do something about her barking dog. For hours early in the morning and late at night she left him out, his bark like cannon fire. I told her, we can't take it. I said, this is no way to be a neighbor. Okay, she said, her head down. The dog has been more quiet. That moment of conflict keeps barking in me. She walked by this morning while I washed the car. I said, good morning and asked, how's it going? She and that dog walked on as if I hadn't spoken.

The neighbor across the street was having his house painted but the work stopped while the cladding above his garage was removed and a guy is now rebuilding it. Things rotted out. I bet the whole thing was a shock, an unplanned expense, and though it's not my garage or bills to pay, it makes me anxious. The circular saw cuts my nerves. I feel like my world could rot out any moment.

The window sills on one side of our house are rotten. I need to call for quotes to replace them. My wife has been calling for roofing quotes. It rained hard yesterday and again it rained in the dining room. Four ceiling tiles are bowed, browned, and disintegrating. The drips fell into a bucket placed next to the pile of things my daughter will bring to her first year at college.

We take her to college Thursday and this is exactly how things are supposed to work, but, well, you know. She's our girl. Our first. And she's so good. Not having her home on a daily basis, it's going to be a tough adjustment. I know she's ready, but I wonder if the rest of us are even close.

Speaking of ready, my mind keeps thinking that I have to get ready for school. An old colleague told me there's an ice cream social for the teachers tomorrow. I won't be at the social or back to school this year, but my mind and body don't yet understand. I've had school nightmares for weeks, sometimes more than one a night and they dog me into morning. In the dreams I'm unprepared and things go desperately wrong. I wake thinking I've got to start planning lessons, though I also know I'm no longer a teacher. That logic has little weight even on my higher gravity world. It floats away like smoke.

My new job is fascinating and partially undefined. I'm being trusted to shape it, to create a position at which I can excel. Lovely, really. There are parts of it for which I have buckets of talent. There are other parts I don't feel I'm learning fast enough. No one else fusses over the speed at which I'm learning, but it reminds me of another set of nightmares in which I need to run or walk somewhere but my legs hurt too much and lack the strength to support my weight. I'm pulled down far from where I need to go.

This week I have meetings in which I need to be both learner and leader. At one meeting, tens of thousands of dollars rest partially on my performance. I wonder if the people who hired me made a dreadful mistake. Logic says they haven't, but at about now I feel like lying on the ground, sore of leg, and overcome by gravity as I look up the slight incline which transforms into something mountainous.

I've put on a record. Supertramp's Crime Of The Century. I'm sitting still as I type this. The headache is held at bay. There are drops of rain beginning to fall. The air is still heavy with humidity, but I know it's about to become filled with a storm of rain. Likely some of it will trickle into the bucket through the dining room ceiling, next to the things my daughter will take so school, each drip feeling like more and more weight, things for which I am or should be responsible.

That or the sound will be a rhythm that carries me off to sleep, for a while, a quietus in which my body will be held up by the soft couch cushions as if it were weightless and gravity, anxiety, depression, all three were the stuff of make believe and pain is less than a fiction and dissipates like the humidity on the breeze signaling changes in our world.

Gods & Fire

It must be troubling for the god who loves you
To ponder how much happier you’d be today
Had you been able to glimpse your many futures.

— Carl Dennis, The God Who Loves You
   

Perhaps the god who loves me resides within. For all I know, the god may be me. That's where gods begin. Like the dead who are gone until I bring them back, the heavens are empty until I populate them with the gods I create and come to believe. I begin with a pen, a sheet of white paper empty as the ether. The pen marks that emptiness, disrupts it, mars its clean surface. Each letter a star in the blank firmament, a soul remembered, a god written into the pantheon. The friction of nib on paper starts fires in a vacuum where it seemed nothing could ever burn. Pen strokes become letters become words become sentences become paragraphs. Constellations of ideas are born, tremendous things that move with impossible grace following mechanics of motion we largely fail to understand and attribute instead to the whims and desires of gods above who, come to think of it, are stories we've written under an empty sky growing so dark that soon I'll have to kindle some kind of fire to lights my way to the end of the story and keeps me from the fear of being all alone.

When To Take The Drawing Away

I've been writing a lot this last couple weeks but publishing very little on the blog (or anywhere else) because I'm torn between two competing instincts: to publish and to revise. It's difficult to know when something is ready to go, when it's finished. I have a piece about the power of leaving the classroom, the nature of real leadership, and the mistake of hierarchy, but I don't know that I've got all three things in the piece, that they all belong and are connected in some meaningful way. I liked the first draft but saw issues and have gone through four or five revisions, but wonder if it still requires significant restructuring and re-imagining. I wish it would just resolve into what I imagine it should be, but there is still work to be done.

On the other side are today's Morning Pages. Running my pen over three pages, I came up with something that felt good in the moment, but I worry it will require just as much revision as the leadership piece. There are only so many balls I can keep in the air. Here's what the Morning Pages sound like:

The most vivid of dreaming this morning began with a woman who could not wait to get me alone and naked. She was dream-familiar in that she probably combines eight to ten women I've known or seen on the screen. I'm trying to conjure her now in order to figure out who she is, but she is a figment, fleeting, insubstantial as smoke. Maybe I have no idea who she is and with every attempt to pin her to reality some part of me says, "she's not of this world. Let her go."

In a later dream I was saying goodbye to Danny Devito whose son I had helped somehow. I said, "I hope to come back someday." He stared sadly at me, not wanting to explain that this was a one-off. The woman appeared again, silent, withdrawn, and I was possessed of a need to make out of desire something like love because the chance wouldn't come again. But I also knew that chance had never come at all. I hugged her — around the legs of all things. She allowed it because even I knew it was an embrace rather than my usual desperate hanging on.

In the real world, something like my old school job was posted yesterday. This morning the school's website is down. Coincidence? I don't think so! (Actually, I'm sure it's coincidence but still enjoy that joke.) The posting describes only half of what I used to do. This is either management omitting crucial details and withholding information or it indicates a programming shift in which the two parts of my old job are split from one another. I suspect it's the former or else there would be a part-time job posted as well.

Whatever the case, some poor sap will walk into my old job like stepping on a rake, the wooden handle snapping up hard in her or his face. They'll see stars and it will leave a mark. Some admin will say "it's nothing, keep walking, there are a hundred more rakes in the yard. Good luck!" They'll give the sap a push forward, turn out the lights, and blamed that teacher for every bruise and beating they receive.

Here's what really bothers me about all this: I won't know; I'll be out of that loop. No one in management will notice I'm gone and those on the ground will be too busy to pine for me. Though I want to say it doesn't matter, I'm so troubled about being easily replaced that I want to see the place fall to pieces without me.

"Why are you still carrying her?" the elder monk asks me. I have no good answer. Anger, anxiety, and ego get in the way of enlightenment. I'm still back in the place I left in June, trying to change someone other than myself.

(There's a topic to discuss with my therapist today. Will I continue therapy after August when I have to change insurance plans? It will be a luxury I likely can't afford and I wonder if it's a better vehicle than this writing. Is it just a shield against making the same old mistakes?)

In the dream I was only close to the woman twice and each time something got in the way. First it was other people, then it was me. When Danny Devito asked how he should pay me for helping his son, I said, "call it tutoring. That's what I do." He shrugged and wrote the check.

Then I was with a guy trying to figure out our next move in a long-term plan to teach writing. I asked what our next event should be, but he refused to say even the first word.


That was this morning's pages. There are things that interest me, but it's a mess, just a draft. I'm torn between revising and losing the feel of the thing. It reminds me of a scene in Six Degrees Of Separation:

FLAN (VO): How easy it is for a painter to lose a painting. He can paint and paint – work on canvas for months and one day he loses it – just loses the structure – loses the sense of it – you lose the painting.

A BRIGHT WHITE LIGHT shines on FLAN who turns to see A TEACHER, in her forties, very pure and happy, hanging beautiful and brilliantly colored children's drawings in the air. FLAN'S VOICE echoes in this vast space

FLAN: Why are all your students geniuses in the second grade? Look at the first grade. Blotches of green and black. Look at third grade. Camouflage. But the second grade — your grade. Matisses everyone. You've made my child a Matisse. Let me study with you. Let me into the second grade! What is your secret?

THE TEACHER: Secret? I don't have any secret. I just know when to take their drawings away from them.

I have no idea when to take the drawings away, but I keep wanting to be Matisse.

Learning Is Messy

It turns out that learning is messy. Go figure.

Sunday, having had in my possession since Christmas a doorbell/camera, I decided to install it. I'd put off doing so for, well, seven months because I'm afraid of electricity and figured I would need my brother's help to install it. I kept meaning to set up a time we could work on it together, but that time never seemed to come. Doing it alone meant attempting something I feared and would have to learn. No wonder I put it.

What possessed me Sunday, I'm not sure. I had finished mowing the lawn (not exactly brain surgery) and wondered what to do next. I stood outside the garage next to where I planned to mount the doorbell/camera. I was appropriately bored, dulled by the July heat, and figured I'd give it a shot. I had little idea how to install it, but what the hell.

I ran wires from a low-power switch that opens and closes the garage door. Two problems: it provided too little power for the camera and pushing the doorbell button opened or closed the garage door. Which really isn't ideal.

Okay, start again. This time I wired into another low-power line, thinking it was just power. It was a reasonable assumption, but wrong. The line runs to a second garage door switch upstairs. Once again, pushing the doorbell opened and closed the garage door. Oh, and it still lacked sufficient power for the camera. Damn it, damn it, and damn it.

You know what's tough about these learning experiences? By now I was far enough into it that I couldn't just stop. Part of that was pride. And then there were holes I had drilled and the bracket I had mounted. Those things would have mocked me. Still not quite sure what to do or if I could make the thing work, I drove to the hardware store, thinking about how learning sucks.

At the hardware store I bought a 24-volt transformer to hook into the house current at a junction box in the garage. It was a good plan with one problem: I really am scared of house current. At my funeral I'm sure someone will be shaking their head and reporting that I neglected to shut off the power at the box. Still, I had to go forward and see if I could get it done. I drove home thinking, learning really sucks.

Moments after I returned home, my brother arrived, God bless him. He understands electricity and so doesn't fear it. I wanted him to take the tools and do the work, but he knows better. He left the tools in my hands and talked me through. I (we) wired the transformer into the box and we (he) made sure it was connected safely. I (really me this time) wired the doorbell/camera to the transformer and went into the basement to flip the breaker.

"Well?" I yelled out to him.

"It's got the blue light it's supposed to," he said.

The rest was simplicity itself. I installed and configured the app. No fear there. We rang the thing and it lit up my phone. Hooray. All set. Except the chime at the top of the stairs remained silent. Learning totally sucks.

I thought I had wired it correctly, but obviously not. We tested the front doorbell, sending the dog into apoplexy. We tested the back doorbell. Same results for bell and dog. We tested the doorbell/camera at the garage. No sound. Damn it. But hey, no big deal. It rings our phones and the Google Home units we have. Good enough. My brother went on his way.

At bedtime, the back doorbell sounded. The dog went nuts. I was perplexed. No one had pushed the button. I looked things over but couldn't imagine what was going on so I went to sleep.

The next morning, just before six, I woke to a menacing buzz from the door chime. Crossed wires? Fire hazard? I felt a rising electrical worry. I went to the basement and tripped the breaker for the chime and two other breakers. Whoops. I flipped the wrong one back on, set off the doorbell and the dog, woke the family, and startled myself into a brief panic. I tripped the breaker again and went to see what I could do to reset the dog. She was having a fit. Whether it was about learning I don't know.

I was wondering why learning couldn't be just a little less messy. Maybe it can be for other people. Sometimes maybe it's neater even for me. But often enough it's a mess.

There's a lesson in this. Something about kids and teachers in schools. I've been out of teaching school for a few weeks and don't know if I'll ever go back, but I still think along school lines and probably will for a long time. I always used my own learning as the model for my teaching. Messy learning seems as good a model as anything neater.

After I got the dog and my own racing heart calmed down, having shut down the electricity to the chime, I stood wondering what it was all about.

Maybe it's about how ridiculous it is to think that kids learn whatever they're taught and that if they don't learn it right away it's the teacher's fault. I had directions for installing the doorbell and they were clear. It's just that things didn't go as they were drawn up because I didn't know enough. I had to make mistakes and learn from them.

Kids aren't allowed to do that very much at school any more. Neither are teachers, at least not where I used to teach. Mistakes still happen at that school, but making them guarantees that tenure will be denied and the teacher will have to move on. Step on a crack, break your mama's back. If installing the doorbell had been a school project I would have been fired three times over.

Sometimes learning is a messy process done all alone. And when good teachers come along sometimes they simply stand by, doing what appears to be nothing while I fumble around feeling foolish and making mistakes. The outsider, or the passing administrator, wonders what good the teacher is doing standing back, maybe nodding once or twice, but mostly just being there.

All learning has the potential to be messy and deliver shocks. That can hold a learner back, sometimes for seven months.

Who knows what gets us over that. Maybe the good teacher or necessity or boredom on a hot summer day. Maybe it's embarrassment or desperation. Whatever it takes. Then, when we break through the fear, we bungle things until the bungling teaches us what's what. We find an imperfect but working solution that signifies, more than anything else, how much there is left to learn.

I have plenty more thinking about learning and teaching, planning and doing, fearing and trying. If you want to talk any of that over, stop by the house and ring the bell. Let's see what happens. Could be almost anything.