Universal Translator

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Making a Life Change

Well, I’ve not been around for a while.  Real Life, as they say, has gotten in the way of blogging.  If anyone’s missed the running commentary, I’m sorry ‘bout that and I promise to try to do better in the coming weeks.  Although that may not always be easy.

I’m trying something new these days, and it is gripping and exciting and very, very different than anything I’ve done before with my adult life, but it is also demanding quite a bit of my time, so blogging may be a bit sporadic until I get more of a routine down.  I’ll tell you about it, but let me first back into it by telling you a bit more about me and how I came to be where I am today . . .

Decades ago, when I was just graduating High School, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.  But I wanted to make a nice living and I knew that I was fairly smart and I came from an immediate family that never had produced a member of the “professional class” and so – like about 1/3 of that year’s graduating High School seniors – I decided I would be a doctor.  It sounded nice, y’know . . . I’d get paid well and be smart and respected and, well, that was it, really.  That was about as far as my 17 year old brain took me with that idea.

The truth is that I hadn’t a clue what I would do, I just knew that I was blessed enough to be smart enough to do whatever I turned my mind to and I figured, “eh, being a doctor sounds alright.”  It was an amazingly feckless way to launch myself on what we always are told is a Very Important Decision.

And in large part because I didn’t really care too much about that first decision, it was an easy enough one to abandon.  I came home from school after my freshman year at college and started dating a woman who had been one of my best friends since junior high (and whom I had known for much longer) and I thought Hot Damn!  This is It!  This is Love!

And, seriously, how could it not have been Love?  I was dating one of my best friends, a woman (girl) I had known since elementary school except now we could do the naughty stuff too – this must be that Love thing people have been telling me about, I thought.  And so I decided to transfer to a new school to be close to her, but the closest school to which I could transfer on a moment’s notice did not have a pre-med program.  No problem.

I’ve decided I don’t wanna be a doctor, I told my parents (who were paying for their son to become a professional), I think I wanna be a lawyer instead.  I’ve always like learning about how business works – I’ll get a business degree and then go to law school.  What the hell, I didn’t care . . . I was all of 18 years old and I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.  I just knew I wanted to stay with Her.  And so I followed my True Love off to her school.

Which was – of course – a huge mistake.  I had made my decision impetuously at the beginning of the summer, and by the end of the summer the two of us no longer were dating.  (Yeah . . . I know.)

But my transfer already had taken place.  I still remember the first day of the second semester that second year, waking up in my 11th floor dorm room at 5:30 a.m. to perk coffee in my (illegal) coffee percolator and to stare at the 3 feet of snow on the ground – snow I would have to walk through on the mile long hike to my first early morning class on the other side of campus.

You know, I can still remember thinking to myself, a year ago you were waking up in a dorm room in Miami where the window was never closed.  When the wind was right you could smell the salt air from Biscayne Bay.  You used to walk to your classes barefoot.  You had a beautiful girlfriend, fraternity brothers, and the beach whenever you wanted it.  And you gave all of that up for a girl.  And now you don’t even have the girl. 

You screwed up really big, somewhere.

But as Life tends to do if you take a long enough look at it, things worked out.  I moved on and even – years later – happily attended that girl’s wedding.  I also transferred to yet a third school where I met a crew of people who are even now among my closest friends, and I did end up going to law school which taught me – wonder of wonders – how to actually think.  And by that I mean how to think critically, and logically, and structurally, and also how to couch a good, logical argument in an emotionally gripping – and therefore persuasive – way.

So I can’t really regret any of what got me to that point, or how I spent the years afterward, putting the skills I learned in law school and then later, in the real world, to work.  Like I said . . . things tend to work out.

* * *

I, of course, have changed a bit over the years.

When I was still a freshman pre-med student down in Miami I got a job as a computer programmer at the local VA hospital.  They needed someone to decipher a Frankenstein program that had been cobbled together by a number of grad students over the preceding few years and nobody had bothered to put any documentation into the code; it was a huge puzzle, and I delighted in showing up at the hospital with my pass and my lab key at 1:00 a.m. to pull pages and pages of print sheets out on the floor so I could try to follow the variables and solve what it was doing (the lab was paying me to make it do something slightly different).  I loved being alone in a quiet room painstakingly going over row after row of code, sussing out what it all meant and how the program worked and where it could be improved.  It was sterilely elegant.

And, at the same time, I hated the chemistry labs I had to spend at least one evening a week doing.  I hated the imprecision of it all, the ugliness of it all.  This plus That equals Something Else . . . . maybe.  If you got it all right then . . . maybe.  Real Life wasn’t as elegant as abstract life and I found it . . . messy.  Dealing with the idea of Things, I discovered, is always easier than dealing with the Things themselves.

But not only was Real Life inelegant, it was also unpoetic.  I remember the precise moment I turned against the Life Sciences:  I was driving back to UM after an evening spent in my VA computer lab.  To avoid traffic I had taken a residential street that paralleled US-1 and as I drove I noticed that the leaves on the trees were curled up.   I knew that meant a storm was on its way.

But what saddened me was how I now knew that for storm sign.  I had grown up playing in the pinewoods of eastern North Carolina, but even those woods had leafy trees.  Nobody had had to tell me what curling leaves mean – after a few years of playing in the woods, you just figured it out for yourself:  take shelter when you see the silvery side of leaves because a squall is about to hit.

But back then, driving in my car to UM, all I could think was that I had just learned that leaves have special cells that contract when the humidity in the air increases, so that they can soak up more moisture before a storm.  And that is the reason why the leaves curl.

Which is interesting, I thought, and I am sure it is in some way useful . . . but it isn’t poetic or particularly special.  I remember looking at the upturned leaves that day and thinking about the physics and the chemical reaction that went into making the leaves curl up, and realizing that with that knowledge a little bit of magic had gone out of my world.

* * *

But now I think I’ve come full circle, in at least two ways.

First . . . I now think it is cool to know why things work the way they do.  I can find poetry in the stoma cells of a leaf, I can find elegance in the science of a chemical reaction.  I think maybe with age comes the relaxation of one’s grip on Newtonian cause-and-effect, and – as an adult – one begins to understand the truly wondrous possibility of probability.  The Rules make Knowledge possible, but the Exceptions keep Life exciting.

More than that, though . . .

I have grown tired of the sterile elegance of models and ideas and argument.  I want to see the messy side of things, I want to see the messy side of Life.  Not to mock or to recoil, as I might have done when I was a kid, but to help out.  I want to help do something for other people, and it has occurred to me that I don’t have any really useful skills.  I can think, and I can reason, and I can argue and I can write . . . but I can’t help.  Not in a hands-on kind of way.  Which really, really sucks.

So, a few weeks ago, I enrolled back in school.  I’m going to be a nurse.

* * *

My local nursing program only has a few slots, and I took the last of the entrance exams today.  It is a computerized exam on reading, writing, math and science, and you get your score back immediately after finishing the test – I aced it.  I say that with a small bit of pride, sure, but it’s just a fact; I’ve always been a very good test-taker.  Unfortunately, there are very few seats available in the RN program (a result, apparently, of the fact that there are few hospital seats in my rural community so there are limited clinical opportunities), and I am competing against a bunch of other people who already have a good deal of health care experience.  So even though I aced all the tests, I think the odds of me getting into the program this year are not that great and I’ll have to re-apply in about 9 months.
But for my purposes, that’s okay.  Even before you can enroll in the nursing program you’ve got to become a Certified Nurse Assistant, which means you have to actually learn and provide direct care.  I am not a CNA, so I am enrolled in that course right now.  If I beat the odds and get into the RN program, then being in the CNA program this Spring means I’ll be able to go into the RN program next Fall; if the odds beat me and I don’t get into the RN program this Fall, well . . . then I’ll still be a CNA in a few months and I can try again for next year’s program.

And that’s neat because CNA’s are the people that feed patients, walk patients, bathe patients, change (if incontinent) patients . . . all that stuff.  CNA’s are the people who actually tend to the patients.  Which, quite frankly, terrifies me. 

Until about 10 years or so ago, I spent a lot of my time dedicating myself to not letting my Life get messy.  I had a career, I had a plan, I had a house.  I would have had girlfriends but the job usually kept that from happening.  It was a terrible existence and I dropped out of it, but the truth is that I still find myself keeping most people at an arm’s length.  I’m a “hale fellow, well met” kind of guy, but I’ll shy away if you invite me ‘round to your house for a bar-b-que if I think it might mean that now I’ll have to see you every other day.  I like people, I do, but I’m not particularly sociable.

The point is that I think I’m usually best when dealing with people at arm’s length.  I know how to be fairly funny (without being obnoxious) and since turning about 22 I’ve only made a handful of really, really good friends.  I find it easier to be facile with most people.

But I’m learning something new in my CNA class.  For one thing, we all have to role-play and put our hands on each other, moving each other around and talking to each other.  It is very unlike almost all the academic classes I have ever taken, where you didn’t have to interact at all if you didn’t want to.  This one demands that you interact verbally and physically.

And it is weird, because I can almost kind of feel my personality come out when I interact with the women in my class (oh yeah . . . just to make this all that much weirder, I’m the only guy in the class), and I realize that it isn’t a persona I’m putting on so much as it is just a different aspect of me, an aspect that hasn’t had much exercise since I stopped having to go to court.  Court Guy was a sociable guy, but it turned out he was also me.

The other thing I find myself thinking about more and more are the clinical aspects of the course, and the dealing with patients and residents.  I actually am excited to work with these people, and to help them.  In my head, there are two polar opposites of what that might turn out to be like:

Scenario A:  Way back when I was about 20, I was home for summer break.  My great-grandmother lived in the house next door to my family, and we took care of her.  This particular day, I had gotten up late and made a brunch of grapefruit juice and vodka, and then had retired to float around in the pool reading Hunter S. Thompson. (I know this sounds like I’m making it up, but I had just discovered Thompson and this is, in fact, what I did.)

On the second or third trip back into the kitchen to fill up my greyhound, the phone rang.  It was my dad, who asked me to go next door and tell Great-Nana that he would be late for lunch, but that he would be along shortly to prepare it for her.

So I went over and found my Great-grandmother sitting in her wheelchair in front of the glass front door, looking outside.  I opened the door and – yelling at her so that she would hear – I explained that Dad was running late but that she should not worry.

“I just want you to know,” she said, patting my hand in hers, “that I am so very happy that neither you nor your sister smoke or drink.”

Well.  I was fairly heavily buzzed by all that vodka I had just been drinking down at the pool, and I felt amazingly guilty.  So I sat down next to her and, until Dad showed up about an hour later, I listened – really, really listened – to her stories of what it was like to grow up around the turn of the last century. 

That was an amazing afternoon, and because of it I ended up spending hours and hours later with my great-Nana that it never would have occurred to me to do but for that one day.  (Yay, Vodka!  And Guilt!)

Scenario B:  will involve an old woman suffering from dementia, whom I will have to help calm down and clean up after she has shat herself.  It will be degrading for her, and terrible for me.  And, of course, unspeakably gross.

But – and this is the real point – it is something that will still need to be done.  Just because something is ugly or foul or unpleasant doesn’t mean it is something that doesn’t exist.  The messy bit is what the rest of it is about. 

After my great-grandmother finally slipped and broke her hip and we put her in the nursing home, somebody had to clean her.  Somebody had to take care of her.  Somebody had to make sure she was fed, and comforted, and that she did not get sores. 

And I am sure that the people who had to take care of my great-grandmother thought that a lot of what they were doing was, well, disgusting . . . but I hope they also were taking pains to ensure that in her last years she had as much dignity and respect as she deserved.  Which was all of it.

* * *

I’ve written before about the fact that – were I to consider myself a religious man at all – that religion would have to be Buddhism.  And I’m self-aware enough to realize that there is a selfish part of me that wants to do this.  I look forward to being a CNA because it seems to offer almost a perfect opportunity to exercise compassion.  This will be a compassion work-out, no doubt about that.  Doing this job will be like going to the gym. 

Anyway . . . that’s what I’m doing these days.  I’ll still be blogging, of course, and Reading Marx and maybe – now that I’ve come clean about what I’ve been up to these past few weeks – I’ll be blogging about the nursing thing.

So, y’know . . . keep tuning in.

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