Archive for November, 2017

It’s Been Thumb Weekend

I always take great pains to avoid other animals when walking our dog Tito. He gets excited easily, so I always keep my distance.

On Friday afternoon, I was walking him when I noticed a family walking their dog up ahead. I crossed to the other side of the street to give us more space. Unfortunately, their dog decided it really needed to run at Tito. Also unfortunately, the small child holding the leash could not keep the dog controlled, and was thrown violently to the ground. Suddenly the dog was bolting for us.

Before I could think, the dogs are fighting like crazy and I’m trying to break them up. Like a moron, I put my hand in there to get Tito to release his bite. Eventually I lie on top of them and they separate. I’m crying and yelling my name because I want to make sure the other dog is okay. But the family has apparently vanished and I’m giving my info to some random passers-by.

The people who live in the house where this all happened (two blocks from our house) come out and call 911. I remove my glove and realize that my thumb is all bloody and messed up. I’m frantically clutching Tito’s leash and trying to calm him, insisting that I need to get him home right away. Everyone tells me to stay put.

I text Diane, who (fortunately) had left work early. She shows up when the ambulance does. They put me inside and take me to St. Mary’s. My biggest worry is: How will this affect my ability to play video games?

In The ER

Once we reach the hospital, the staff takes x-rays and gives me pain meds. I wasn’t hurting too bad, but they said the adrenaline can block some of it. Throughout the whole ordeal, they kept asking me how bad it felt, on a scale of 1-10. I never went above a 5. (Still haven’t, for the record.) Diane is a goddess of patience and support, and I can’t help thinking about how much more difficult the whole ordeal would be without her.

The surgeon stops by. The bone has been crunched, he explains, and the top part of the thumb has come away. It’s still attached, but not very well. He explains that had I not been wearing my glove, I would have lost the top part. They’re going to re-attach, and there’s a very good chance it will all heal up just fine.

Then there’s a lot of waiting. Apparently my wound is not time-sensitive, so they have to triage others ahead of me. It’s annoying, but I’m on some serious meds so I lose track of time. At one point I look up and there’s a former student, working hard in the ER. She was a creative, hard-working student, so it’s a lovely surprise. The other staffers are all very kind and in good spirits. I don’t know that I could handle that kind of work.

Unfortunately, I can’t eat — or even drink water. I haven’t eaten since 1:00 PM, and I’m really thirsty. They explain there’s a Subway on the fifth floor, which is open until midnight. I go into surgery around 9:00.

As the guy comes to wheel me to the Operating Room, I ask if I’m going to get the machine that goes bing. My driver lights up and gushes about how much he loves Monty Python. We trade lines from Meaning of Life all the way to the OR.

They put me under and stitch me up. When I wake up, I have a compulsion to tell dumb jokes to the nurse attending to me on the other side. (She likes the one about the ducks in heaven best.) They contact Diane and I describe my order for Subway. They run some tests and take my blood pressure a dozen times. Then they move me to my recovery room, where Diane is waiting with my dinner like a sandwich angel.

My hand is wrapped in a huge gauze wrap, and I look like Pee-Wee Herman hitchhiking in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.

A Rough Night

It’s a rough night. They put these weird vibrating stockings on my legs to prevent blood clots. They massage my legs constantly. I’ve never been a fan of massage — it’s just not my thing. Plus these stockings make my legs sweaty. I send Diane home around 12:30 and tried to sleep. I didn’t have much luck. They gave me meds, but they didn’t help. I dozed off around 2:00 and woke up (as usual) at 5:00.

On Saturday morning I walked around the floor a few times (this helped me get free from the stockings). I ordered an omelette (they have a pretty good room service menu) and watched an episode of Law & Order. I had never seen that show before, and I was struck by how rapid the pace of the storytelling was. Lots of info-dumping. Also the episode featured a young Major Rawls from The Wire.

I’m told I need to stick around until the late morning, so I can be visited by the surgeon again. Then I will be referred to the hand clinic for the next steps. They pump me full of antibiotics all day, and I’m told that my primary concern needs to be preventing infection. Keeping my hand elevated is the most important thing I can do. I hear The Offspring in my head constantly. (“Ya gotta keep it elevated.”)

More waiting. Fortunately I find a Futurama marathon on The SyFy Channel, so that keeps me busy. Diane returns mid-morning with a book (which I don’t read) and the cake I requested from HyVee. (Crazy craving. I can’t explain.) As requested, she has written a haiku on top:

Eric, what happened?

Watch out the dog and your thumb

Here’s a cake for you

Eventually a physician’s assistant stops by and explains that she doesn’t want to disturb the sterile wrapping around my thumb. She says it went well and everything looks good and I should meet with the hand clinic ASAP. I have to stay in the hospital to get more antibiotics.

Diane gets me McDonalds (because I haven’t filled up on enough crap yet) and we eat lunch while watching Futurama.

I get discharged at 3:00 PM. I don’t feel too bad, but I get prescriptions for pain meds and more antibiotics. When I get home, I hop on the special Saturday edition of the Veteran Gamers podcast for a bit. (My buddy Mike was halfway through a charity gaming marathon.) Meanwhile, Diane gets my meds from Walgreens. I’m relieved to see there are some guest hosts on the show, so I don’t feel bad about showing up late and leaving early. I tell the story, talk about Caveblazers, and say goodbye.

Home Again

The next 24 hours are a mixture of pain, regular weekend stuff, and boredom. My hand doesn’t hurt too bad, so I don’t take any meds until Sunday afternoon, and then only over-the-counter naproxin. I’ll save the heavy stuff for when I need it. Some people are surprised I’m not in more pain, and I wonder aloud if I’m experiencing less objective pain, or if I’m just good at dealing with it. We’ll never really know.

I sleep okay (10:00 PM to 5:00 AM) and in the morning I take a shower for the first time since the incident. I have to wrap my hand in a towel, then a plastic bag, and then tie off with a rubber band. It’s awkward, but it works.

Then Diane and I go for our usual Sunday morning brunch at our local tavern. It’s delicious, but I only finish half. I’m surprised when our usual waitress (a lovely woman) doesn’t ask about my enormous thumb bandage. But it’s busy and I’m not having too much difficulty cross-stitching, so maybe she can’t tell. I drive to brunch and back, and it’s pretty easy. Still, I’m catching a ride with my buddy Chris tomorrow morning, just to be safe.

Back at home I watch a bunch of episodes of The Wire (end of Season 1 and start of Season 2). I try playing Rocket League with just the keyboard. After some awkward refiguring, I map out some keys that seem to work. After a lot of fumbling around offline, I try a game online and actually score a goal. Woo!

Then I write this.

The TakeAways

It’s been crazy, and definitely not the weekend I would have chosen for myself. But it’s reminded me of several very important things. First, I am blessed in many important ways. I have an amazing supportive wife. I have loving family and friends. I have access to health care and I live in a place with a good infrastructure.

This all could have been a lot worse. Easily. My recovery will be annoying — when you’re disabled, everything takes longer. But inshallah I will soon have full thumb function again. I’m going into school tomorrow, and I have to lead a 12-hour field trip on Wednesday. Hopefully I can visit the hand clinic on Tuesday and get some news on the recovery. (Maybe get a smaller dressing.)

I was supposed to grade some papers this weekend — just like every weekend. That’s not going to happen, and I think my students will understand. I hope they do. But I also hope they can see me keep a positive determination with this whole affair and draw something from it.

Diane and other folks remarked on how calm and zen-like I was during this craziness. I was glad to hear it, because I strive for calm when stuff gets critical. I work hard to manage the stress in my life, but you never know when a serious test is going to come along. I guess I passed some tests this weekend.

They say you should not pray when it’s raining if you don’t also pray when it’s sunny out. I believe the same is true of mindfulness and clarity of self. Therefore I think this weekend, more than anything else, is proof that mindfulness practice works well for me, especially in a crisis.

For the record, I have written two books about mindfulness. Both are available for very little money in print, and there are free PDF copies on my website. (The first is also available as a free audiobook.) I hope the techniques that have helped me so much will also be valuable for other folks.

I want to thank Diane once again for her indefatigable support and care. Thanks also to my awesome mom and brother, and all my friends who have shown such love. (And excellent GIFs from The Simpsons.)

I’m a really lucky guy. This too shall pass.

Suckers, Monsters, Coaches, and Teachers

Warren St. John’s 2009 book Outcasts United tells the story of a soccer team in Georgia made up of refugees from war zones all over the world (Liberia, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan) who come together to form a team — literally and figuratively. I’m reading it with my American Literature students for the Quest Unit.

In Chapter Four (“Alone Down South”), we learn about the coach’s first foray in leadership.

Luna Mufleh coached the only way she knew how — by following the example set for her by Coach Brown. [Brown was a tough-as-nails soccer coach Mufleh had played for at the American Community School in her native Jordan. -esp] She was more demanding than any of the girls or their parents expected — she made her players run for thirty-five minutes and do sets of sit-ups, push-ups, and leg lifts before each practice. And she refused to coddle them. Luma explained to her girls that they would be responsible for their actions and for meeting their obligations to the team. Players who couldn’t make practice were expected to call Luma themselves; there woiuld be no passing off the excuse-making to Mom or Dad. Likewise, if a player had problems with the way Luma ran the team — complaints about playing time, favoritism, or the like — she would be expected to raise those concerns directly with the coach.

[…] Luma’s rule-making wasn’t entirely about establishing her authority over the team — though that was part of it. She also believed that the team would benefit once individual players started to take responsibility for themselves. Luma herself had been coddled by her parents in an atmosphere of privilege and entitlement, and believed that she had paid for these comforts by sacrificing her self-reliance and independence. If Luma was going to coach, she was going to do so with this basic lesson as a backdrop, whether her players’ parents understood it right away or not. Time would tell whether her approach produced results.

[…] When confronted by unhappy parents, Luma displayed a confidence incongruous with her status as a newcomer, an attitude that put off some parents and intrigued others. Once when Luma ordered her players to practice barefoot to get a better feel for the soccer ball, a team mother objected on the grounds that her daughter might injure her toes.

“This is how I run my practice,” Luma told her. “If she’s not going to do it, she’s not going to play.”

During Luma’s first season as coach, her team lost every game. But over time, her methods began to pay off. Dedicated players returned, and those who didn’t buy in left. The players worked hard and improved. They stopped questioning Luma’s methods and began to absorb and intuit them. In her third season, Luma’s twelve-and-under girls’ team went undefeated and won their year-end tournament.

This passage speaks to me deeply. As a teacher, I am caught in a trap between leniency for the sake of compassion and strict demands for the sake of long-term improvement. My students are dealing with a panorama of difficult problems — anxiety, sexual assault, depression, divorce, self-harm, loss of loved ones to suicide and drug overdose, pervasive subconscious racism, college debt, overloaded schedules, and the myriad pressures of late stage capitalism. I want them to be prepared for the fights ahead, but I recognize also that many of them are engaged in grueling battles now.

I often think of it this way: Do I want to be a sucker, or a monster? In other words: Will I risk showing too much leniency and compassion, allowing some students to take advantage of my kindness? Or will I risk being too demanding and tyrannical, causing pain and suffering to students who already have too much of both in their lives?

They key element for me is the lack of choice for the kids. In Luma’s case, the kids choose to play soccer with her. She gets to have total control over the process, because it’s an entirely voluntary affair. What might have happened if too few students wanted to be on the team? Or if every parent demanded her resignation after the first season?

We teachers don’t have this same set of boundaries. My students have to take my 11th grade English class. Obviously I have to set rules and expectations, and no good teacher will choose 100% Sucker Status, because we know there must be expectations for learning. But I do everything in my power to avoid sending kids out of the room. I know that the kids who act out most have the fewest people showing them compassion. I know that they’re waiting for adults to complete the script, to send them (once again) the message that they are disposable.

Even in the elective classes I teach, students sign up because they need an English credit. I know they’re usually not crazy about writing, or expecting a career in letters. I could be more harsh in the Interdisciplinary Poetics class focused on hip-hop, but so many of those students have struggled in other classes. I have a rare opportunity to nod and wink more (and whack their knuckles less) and thereby (hopefully) infect them with a deeper love of learning. Showing no mercy could very easily burn bridges and send them back into the spiral of To Hell With School.

(Side note: As I write these words, I am showing my Creative Writing II students the 2006 Will Ferrell comedy Stranger Than Fiction. I just noticed two students were staring at cell phones. Inspired by this very piece I am writing, I said “Put the phones away. Watch the movie.” One student said: “This movie’s boring.” I said: “Too bad. You signed up for the class. This movie is part of the class. Watch the movie.” The inextricable ingredient of cell-phone-addiction is another piece of this puzzle for which I shall not indulge at the present moment.)

This dilemma is made more complicated by my anarchist proclivities. I want to live my life as much as possible through voluntary association, which is nearly impossible in our context of compulsory secondary education. The most satisfying choices I’ve ever made in my life are the ones with the least pressure attached — at New College, for example, where I found a deep love for authentic education even though (in fact, because) there were no grades involved. So when my students choose not to pay attention, I often think: “Well, that’s their choice. I’m not the kid’s mom.” It’s especially tough when I want them to pay attention to me. What gives me the right to insist that I matter more than the activity on their cell phone screen? Shouldn’t I be able to find non-coercive ways to lead young people into the light?

Of course it’s a balancing act. We have to find ways to be compassionate and loving, without killing our students with kindness. We have to demand excellence and set high expectations, without robbing our students of fun or free time. I think the worst teachers are the ones who pick a position and never examine in, regardless of which extreme they fall into.

But it’s tough. I feel like young people are so very fragile these days, so distracted and overstretched and pressurized and overloaded and filled with worry and pain and desperation. I want to help them in the long term, but I can’t ignore the suffering they’re going through here and now. And I don’t have the option to say “If you don’t like how I teach, you can leave.”