Tuesday, May 26, 2009


For any of you reading my posts, it probably comes as no surprise that I am depressed. Usually the depression starts with the workweek and ends on Thursday, when the teaching is over. Sometimes it sneaks into the weekend, attempting to ruin my free time. This last weekend was glorious, insofar as the depression was reduced to a small, annoying creature easily vanquished with some fresh air and exercise. At the moment, this depression is monstrous and refuses to go lurk in its corner, where it belongs; better yet, it needs to be outside on a leash. No, let me revise that: I don't need it anywhere near me. There is no need to put it on a leash, which implies that I need it to hang around. I don't. I need it to kill itself, perhaps by throwing itself into a river and drowning, or by jumping off a building.

This semester was unusual, insofar as I did something I never, ever have done in my professional life: I gave up on a class. I stopped caring. There is no justification for that, but that is what happened. The worst offender came in today, looking sheepish. She knows that her incessant talking and refusal to listen to anything I said contributed to the disaster of that class. When our interview was over, she asked, "Is this it?" Yes, this is it. There is no more class. No more fruitless attempts to make you listen. No more constant threats and entreaties. We are done. J., another active participant in the failure of that class, seemed utterly perplexed when I told him exactly how I felt about his behavior. "But," he stammered, "this was my favorite class." Really? Because you were able, day after day, to ignore me and socialize until I was reduced almost to tears? It wasn't, you see, simply J. or the other student. It was a whole gang of them, friends since high school, who decided to cover up their ignorance and insecurity, their frustration and their pain, by banding together and using the class for social purposes. Every day, at least 7 or 8 people were showing blatant disregard for me and the material of the day. To pick only one to throw out seemed illogical; how to ban 8 people from class at once? What happened was I lost myself this semester as a teacher. Not in the other two classes; they thrived. In this one, I came face to face with my own weaknesses and my inability to control the classroom.

From there it was a downward spiral. While some students joked about the "Dangerous Minds" environment, I would simply stand there, watching the majority of the class talk about irrelevant things, ignoring me, absolutely unconcerned that I was about to scream in frustration, walk out, quit. No one cared what was happening to me, or perhaps no one noticed. Only one student did, near the beginning of the semester. P. walked up to me after class one day, extremely concerned, and said that "she had never seen my like this, so stressed out." She was, she confessed, really worried about me. She couldn't even keep the class, since it was so different from the previous class she had taken with me. I don't know what I told her that day. Something about how awful that group of students was, but most assuredly, I didn't take action to stop the class from becoming a joke. I know what the evaluations would have said if I had been required to administer them. "Has no control over the class," "we hardly spoke Spanish," "didn't inspire me," and "I didn't learn anything."

In this job, I am expected to inspire and educate and illuminate four days per week for fifteen weeks. I get a break, and then I have to do it again. Four to five hours per day, I am supposed to make everything "fun" and enlightening. What I learned is that it is possible for someone to utterly, completely, totally, burn out. Not only was I required to make all the students want to learn everything about Spanish language, literature, culture and politics, I was also charged with inspiring the entire faculty to write their Student Learning Outcomes. So, in the morning I wore myself thin as a professor, and in the afternoons, I had to convince an entire faculty to fully engage themselves in the classroom and document it. Not only was I supposed to inspire, I was told that I must somehow "make" all of the other professors on campus become better teachers through SLOs and rubrics. Most don't give a damn about the latest accreditation requirements, and those that do are swallowed up in a sea of passivity on the one hand, and threats from the administration on the other.

At this point, I am not giving the students what they deserve and need, and I am not serving the faculty well, either. I am exhausted spiritually and emotionally, and bankrupt mentally. I feel out of ideas, out of energy, and lost in terms of my career choice. What is so fascinating about all of this is the expression of my anxiety and conflict: I am terrified of death on a daily basis, feeling that at any moment, a heart attack will take me out of this world, or any number of other ailments. Of course, I think it's a good idea to read an entire book on lethal brain tumors, looking for spiritual guidance, but finding sheer, numbing terror instead. So, I look for evidence of life after death as a kind of hope that things will get better in the next go-around. What I don't fully grasp yet is that it isn't MORE life I need, but a better way of living. What does it mean to get more life, another life, if you never really solved the issues in this one? I don't enjoy a huge chunk of my so-called life, a fact that hurts more than I can bear sometimes. I give myself away to people; I sacrifice my time, my energy, and my soul so that others are happy with me. I try to please everyone, to "make" people happy; in this way, I think that I will find my purpose. I suppose I didn't learn the lesson when my ex walked out of our marriage: I couldn't make him happy, no matter what I did. The more I tried to please him, the less he liked me. The less he liked me, the less he loved me. From there, of course, it was all downhill. I desperately looked for ways to be the person he wanted; I never managed to find the magical combination of traits, behaviors and appearances that would have ignited his commitment.

It's the same scenario with my students. I try to be everything, everyone, to all of them. It never works. Someone will always blame me for his lack of motivation, for his crappy grades, for his inability to speak Spanish. I will end the semester with the insidious notion that I failed all of them, even when I know better. In order to cope with my own loss of boundaries, with the fact that anyone can now ignore me with impunity, I invent a myriad of illnesses: there are headaches, stomach problems, breathing issues, imminent heart attacks, lurking cancers, strokes, you name it. Some of these maladies have real, physical manifestations; others are imaginary, but are no less powerful for it. Whether real or imagined, I know that something terrible is about to happen, at any moment. I obsess about my parents' age and health, about my sister's marriage and new son, about my husband, my friends, my pastimes, everything. I try to be a good mom, but lately I see very little of my step kid. I can't believe that she no longer needs to see me. Then my heart hurts. I can't even write about it.

With death stalking me from every corner, it's very hard to concentrate or feel any happiness. Everything I read leads me to believe that death is simply a transition to more life, and lately that has me even more upset and worried than the idea that all of this stupidity and self-imposed misery will end. What if it NEVER ends? What if I have to continue in this state of general unhappiness forever? That seems too terrible, too unthinkable. I realize that the only solution is to CHANGE EVERYTHING.

For years, I believed that I was on the verge of a huge spiritual transformation, that I would find a moment of illumination that would clear away the confusion, the stress, the anxiety of everyday living. Well, I had those moments, but then quickly refused to believe what they were telling me. I've had several epiphanies that could have, should have, changed absolutely everything. Instead, I ignored all of those collective moments and decided that I needed more proof. I would get more proof and then repeat the cycle of ignoring it yet again. I'm afraid to believe what I know to be true, because it's too good, it's too powerful, it's too amazing--and I don't want to be a fool when it turns out to be fantasy or wishful thinking. Reality, for me, is supposed to be depressing and miserable, a study in suffering and sadness. Where did that belief come from? I won't blame my parents, but in them I see a resignation and a panic over time passing, leading them to death, and then to nothingness. I suppose if that's my only model for how to live--in continual, low-level depression over the awfulness of time, decay, and annihilation--it would be very difficult to celebrate the everyday. I've felt terror and despair over time and death since I was a teenager; even when I had my whole life ahead of me, all I could feel was life slipping away and abandoning me.

Now that almost half my life is over, it already feels like I'm on my deathbed. I know how ridiculous that sounds, but I've spent my whole life in fear of disaster, disease and death. I was a sick kid who spent a great deal of time in a hospital, watching adults fall apart around her because she was going to die. I should have died a many times over with all the surgeries and illnesses, but I never did. Maybe I feel like I was supposed to die, that I wasn't really taught how I was supposed to survive. Perhaps that is why I love ghosts so much, because I've always felt like one. I never claimed my life, because I wasn't really expected to live. Well, the problem is, I am still here, 44 years later, 39 years after my parents were told that I might not make it. I don't know what to do with that; disease and catastrophe are so familiar, that I expect them. When they don't happen, I just wait for their arrival. What if I live until 96 and die in my sleep? I will have spent the next 52 years waiting for something that never arrived.

Wanting to please everyone else but myself is a kind of living death. It's a way of denying who I am, and ignoring what I need. I live for other people, and other people generally don't want me to, or appreciate the sacrifice. In fact, those who care about me try to warn me that my self-sacrifice is simply miserable to watch. It serves no one, and only creates a huge emptiness in my life that I fill with ghost books. If I'm not a successful person in the here and now, how will I be a successful ghost? What the hell IS a successful ghost? Why do I care that there is or is not life after death? I am reasonably sure that there is; but that does nothing to solve the problem of my life. I wish I had some kind of answer for all this pondering, some reasonable philosophy that would guide me to peace. The truth is, I don't believe in anything. I have half-beliefs, partial understandings, a little faith. Living in this half-life is sheer unhappiness. It's not sustainable. At some point, we have to choose: we take the evidence we have, we arrive at a conclusion, and we decide to live our lives accordingly. In other words, we decide to have faith that what we cannot conclusively prove is not a reason to abandon our intuition and our deep sense of the way things truly are.

My evidence, which I don't ask anyone to share, is this: there is something like God, although I don't pretend to know exactly what or who God is. This God recycles. We retain our consciousness through several lives. The form we take is much less important that the evolution of our consciousness over time. We are supposed to learn what it means to be happy and how to reconcile the existence of true misery and suffering. We are, I think, supposed to evolve through service to others--tried and true, perhaps too obvious, but the truth is often disarmingly simple. We are not supposed to waste our lives with worry and dread; when we do, all we are doing is masking our lack of faith.

It is the lack of faith that leads one to spend thousands of dollars on books intended to prove something that one will not believe, anyway. Only faith in one's evidence matters; the rest is just fear of existence. One doesn't fear death, really; death is a transition, a doorway; am I terrified of being born again? No; I don't even think about those traumatic possibilities. The fear is only about learning to live. Some people learn early, others late, some never; I figure, there's no time like the present.

Ghost hunters, paradoxically, only hunt ghosts because they don't believe in them. The day that a ghost confronts on of us in some absolute and unequivocal way, we'll pack away our EMF meters, our digital audio and our cameras. Faith would lead us in an entirely different direction; but where?

My stepdaughter's name in Farsi means 'faith'. How interesting that her very name represents all that I seek. For now, I am a faith hunter. One day, I hope to give up that hunt; I think the reward for that will be joy. I just have to believe that I deserve to feel that.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

What Does it Mean to be 44?

As anyone who lives anywhere near Los Angeles is painfully aware, you are not allowed to get old here. You must wear the same tight jeans as your daughter, look the same from the back, and if possible, only appear about 10 years older than she (if she's around 13 or 14)from the front. Now of course, that isn't easy, but that's why we have Dr. Ourian at the Beverly Hills Surgical Center, who champions the famous 60 minute facial re-do that will take off all those unwanted years. Get rid of that divorce, that bankruptcy, husbands' infidelities, kids who disappoint you, friends and relatives who die or abandon you; all that leaves traces on your face: those sunken eyes, saggy chin skin, soft jaw line, wrinkles around your eyes, oh the horror . . .

Don't let anyone know that you have lived longer than college, that you have experienced loss and failure, that you have parented a child or children, that you see history repeat itself and then repeat itself again. Here, in this part of the world, we want you new and shiny. We don't like experience in women; that makes them "cougars" and "bitches", and we all know how--in the end--a 44 year old will always lose to a 20-something on reality TV; and reality TV is the driving force that defines our culture, our, well, "reality". Never mind that there is nothing further from real than those canned, cheap shows that pretend to tell us who we are and what we care about.

So it is with a certain obvious bitterness that I start my 44th year (or do I start my 45th?). I don't feel that a particular age "belongs" to me, but everything around me is more than willing to assign me to a category. Is this the year I stop fighting, or do I give in and visit the posh offices of Dr. Ourian? I am not above it all, not able to simply say, "yes, I'm middle aged, and I'm proud!" Middle-aged women are not the object of desire in our culture unless it's a joke or a fetish. I'm just not ready to give up youth and desirability in the name of some nebulous "maturity" that seeks to define me through our twisted lens of what's "appropriate" for our age.

As a culture, we are very leery of a woman my age. We are not old enough to be written off as crones or grandmas, stripped of our sexuality. We are not young enough to be considered "hot" and worthy of pursuit. We inhabit a gray area, too smart and experienced to play the naive little thing that everyone wants to bed, too aware of ourselves and conscious of the gender wars to be the airhead, the starlet, America's sweetheart, or any other role that demands a lack of worldly experience along with a willingness to be the sex toy of any persuasive young man. I am not saying that I desperately want to be the airhead or the starlet, nor am I affirming my interest in young men bedding me; I don't want my sexuality defined by my age, whether I'm 24 or 44. In fact, I don't want the media--who utterly controls our culture in So Cal--to define the parameters for desirability in general. Judy Dench is sexy as "M" in the Bond movies. If people find that funny, uncomfortable or disgusting, then that shows to what extent we have all bought into the myth of youth=desire.

So where do we fit in? We don't. We need to stop asking the question. I don't think L.A. culture knows what to do with the woman of a "certain age"; it tries to convince us to plump up or faces, erase our wrinkles and tone our asses in the hopes that perhaps we can play the 20-something just a little bit longer; then, when we hit 50, it's truly all over and we can start playing the grandma or the bitch; you choose. In any case, the message is: you make us uncomfortable, so either disappear or pretend you're 20 years younger. We'll play along, but at some point, we'll have to dispose of you or ignore you completely.

You understand.