Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Okay, I'm ready

This is the follow up to "just leaving this here"

Today was longer than planned.

The worst part was that I had nearly had an asthma attack in my exam this morning. A cold front is coming through and this is finally a big one (they are saying it will get colder than it did all last winter) and often these fronts stir stuff up and bring in new pollen or dust.

Also, I might have brought it on myself - I spent the morning sitting in my chilly office (it's been chilly in much of my building) hunched over my desk grading biostatistics exams. I might have caused my muscles to cramp up a little - with me, asthma often manifests as tightness in the intercostal muscles and what feels like cramps in my diaphragm. (I wonder if that could in any way be tied to the fact that I got hiccups incredibly easily as a child - when I cried too much, or if I ate a little too fast, or if I swallowed air while eating, or even certain food textures did it).

I was pretty miserable for most of the time, hoping I didn't get worse, hoping I didn't wind up gasping or even actually hitting the floor (I have never passed out with these but it feels like it couldn't be impossible to; it's screwing with my vagus nerve and I've passed out before when swallowing too-big antibiotic capsules and the like).

After the exam was over, it was the annual lunch out at the best local restaurant. (This is sponsored by someone who has supplied lab books for us in the past - probably technically we're not supposed to accept the lunch as we are state employees, but it's more of a social/friendly thing than anything). The man involved is a very nice man and when I came in (I was first to arrive) and commented I was having some breathing troubles, he asked me if he could arrange for me to have a beverage and I said hot tea would help. Two cups of strong hot tea (the cheap bagged kind restaurants that don't serve much tea use, but that was fine) and I was better.

It was a big relief. Some ancient Greek philosopher wrote about pleasure being the absence of pain and I often think of that after something like one of those cramping-muscle episodes or after I get over a migraine - it is such a relief for the pain to be gone. (And of course, with the asthma, there's the specter of  "Am I misinterpreting this and it's actually HEART" though when I've gotten checked out in the past with similar symptoms nothing was found wrong with my heart)

But anyway.

I linked this article earlier. It's a year old, but I think a lot of people are melancholy this year. (2016 has been a bad year for lots of folks, and I know some people saying they have no Christmas spirit, even when in other years they have)

I do think it is good to recognize that there sometimes is a little sad mixed in with the happiness. I think an unfortunate strain in American culture (maybe Western culture in general, I don't know) is wanting to paper over any hint of sadness. But sadness is a part of life. Maybe not "sadness," quite, but pensiveness and melancholy. Especially at the end of the year, when it gets dark early and in much of the country it's cold. And when we remember the I commented once before, in the past, there have been years when I had to stop while putting up decorations or listening to Christmas music and cry a little bit because I was thinking of the people who had "left" in the previous year - 2004 was a bad year, and 2008, and 2010, and 2014. And this year, my cousin and my mom's best friend's addition to all the well-known folks. (And I still remember, far, far too vividly, that Friday night back in January when I was having to make panicked calls around to the police and the hospital in my parents' town, and there was maybe a 10-15 minute stretch where I literally did not know if they were dead or alive, and I kept having to stuff down the rising worry of "What will I do if..." Fortunately that ended happily - a medication mistake that was fairly easily fixed - but I do admit it affected me very strongly and still affects me)

Anyway. The funny thing is, I don't find the Vince Guaraldi music referenced therein all that sad. Maybe it's that I never really watched Arrested Development (in which it apparently became a running gag whenever a character was sad, the song played). I find it maybe pensive, maybe even a little melancholy, but not exactly SAD. And again, I think accepting that pensiveness is a part of life is important - not papering over everything with a big goofy smiley face like nothing bad ever goes on.

I don't have problems with moments of melancholy at Christmas. I don't know if that's because I am better than some at seeing the sad side-by-side with the happy in life (you have to take the bitter with the sweet, I think, and it's really only alongside the sad times that the happy ones have meaning) or that I possess a sufficiently sunny outlook most of the time that I can pull myself back up out of the sadness I may experience (the times I feel sad, by and large, it's very traceable to circumstances - a friend of mine is suffering in some way, there is a big difficult change going on, there are budget worries.) Though I will admit I had a few weeks this fall when I wondered....wondered if I'd be able to pull myself back up out THIS time.

And yeah. The whole situation with the promising student of ours who died suddenly still plays on my mind. I was entering grades today and his name was still there and it just makes me sad. I hope his family is doing OK. 

I also think the author is right, about how often our actual experience does not live up to our dream (He must be a good bit younger than I am; he writes of wanting a "Thomas Kinkade" type Christmas morning in his childhood; Kinkade was not painting yet when I was a kid). But I remember even as a kid, how the days before Christmas seemed to last forever, but then, once the presents were unwrapped, there was a sense of "is that all there is?" - or as WH Auden said,

Well, so that is that.  Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes --
Some have got broken -- and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school.  There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week --
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted -- quite unsuccessfully --
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers.  Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
(From "Christmas Oratorio")

I think even as a child I expected some change, some sense of things being different, and they never seemed to be...Oh, there were new toys and books to read and of course the decorations stayed up, but....I don't know what I expected. A coming of the Kingdom, maybe, even though I couldn't have articulated it that way as a child? Or that maybe everything would change and I'd be totally happy? I don't know.

The author of the piece (Tyler Huckabee) I linked also refers to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," which in the more-original (not the ORIGINAL original with truly pessimistic lyrics, which Huckabee quotes in there). But I do like the slightly-sadder version, where there is the mention of "next year, we all will be together" and "Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow." (Really, isn't that adult life? I talk all the time about "making it up as I go along" but that's pretty much the definition of muddling through). (Of course, not long after the song is when Tootie flips out and destroys the snow family, in a fit of childlike sadness and rage about maybe being plucked up and forcibly moved to New York. And really, that's kind of a sad and disturbing scene, but again: isn't that how some of us want to react to changes in our lives? I know after finding out this spring about my now-former colleague being let go for budgetary reasons I really wanted to scream and cry and kick stuff and break things. I did cry, and I cried a lot, but I guess I really am fairly grown-up because I didn't do any of the other things)

But no. I prefer the movie-original lyrics to the happied-up ones the Sinatra or someone switched to.

Huckabee also notes that we say "making merry" - because it does take work: MAKING merry. Just like I make cookies or dinner or a new pair of mittens, we have to consciously work at it. And we also have to accept that it won't be perfect. And that at times we may be sad, or some of us may have to go off and cry a little bit and we shouldn't be to pressed as to the reasons why because we might not even be able to give good ones. And also that it's okay not to be totally jolly and merry, and even okay to maybe want to opt out of some of the things.

And also that it's not perfect, it will never be perfect - the cat will climb the Christmas tree and break ornaments, or some little cousin will have a screaming meltdown, or someone will drink a little too much and say something they regret later, or someone will regift something not remembering the original giver is right in the same room, or someone will get food poisoning, or, or, or....

I mentioned I liked National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation despite it being a fairly crude and, in some ways, mean-spirited movie. But I think what I like about it is that it's the opposite of a perfect Christmas, it shows a family that's really kind of messed up in a lot of ways....and yet, somehow, they still muddle through. (That said: I'm not sure I can watch it more than once a season). And I like some of the simpler Christmas specials (Even A Charlie Brown Christmas, to bring this back around) because there IS that recognition that perfection is really kind of out of reach, and "the best we can do" is the best we can and should hope for. (One thing people forget about the comic strip "Peanuts" is how *melancholy* a lot of the 1960s-era strips were. I read them A LOT as a child and yes - the kids are mean to poor Charlie Brown, and Linus is that weird kid who is probably "too old" for his age, and Lucy has a crush that will never be reciprocated....and I learned a lot from those comics and I do think in some way they affected my worldview. (I also learned the word "sarcasm" from them; I sounded it out and then had to ask my mom what "bitter sarcasm" was. I don't remember her exact explanation...)

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