Life lessons


Head to head

There’s a scene in the movie Stranger Than Fiction that chokes me up no matter how many times I see it. Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an IRS agent whose boring existence is turned upside down when he discovers his life is being narrated by best-selling author Karen Eiffel, played to perfection by Emma Thompson. Because Eiffel lets Crick read the manuscript of his (doomed) life, Crick knows exactly how his story ends: he’ll die on his way to work, jumping in front of a bus to save the life of a young boy.

Meshed

The scene that inevitably gets me teary eyed shows Crick enjoying his last night on earth. Instead of sharing his ominous knowledge of what will happen the next day, Crick enjoys an otherwise ordinary night eating dinner and watching TV with his girlfriend, Ana Pascal (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal). Instead of causing Pascal to worry about the inevitable, Crick quietly savors the simple pleasures he learned to appreciate only after he learned his days are numbered.

Trio

This morning I made a euthanasia appointment for Groucho the cat: tomorrow morning, J and I will hold Groucho in our lap while our vet puts him quietly to sleep. Monday’s trip to the vet didn’t reveal anything clearly treatable, and Groucho continues to lose weight at an alarming rate, his bones jutting this way and that out of his thinning fur. Like Harold Crick, J and I know how Groucho’s story ends, and we see no need to delay the inevitable.

Brunette

Tonight is Groucho’s last night on earth, and I’ll follow our usual Tuesday routine, cleaning his and Nina’s litter box and then sitting on the loveseat to give Groucho his daily petting and head-scratches. Groucho has learned to jump onto my lap after I’ve cleaned his litter box, but he won’t know why tonight I’ll be weeping. Instead, he’ll purr under my caresses as he always does, without the burden of knowing what tomorrow brings.

Groucho

Groucho the cat is dying. He was diagnosed with small cell lymphoma in July of 2013, and for more than two years he responded well to chemotherapy. (The picture above is from January, 2013, six months before his diagnosis.) Recently, though, Groucho has been losing weight for no reason, and J and I are bracing ourselves for the worst. We know from past experience with other pets how this story ends.

Groucho closeup

Last week J and I took Groucho for his usual oncology checkup, and tomorrow I’m taking him for a follow-up ultrasound and X-ray. If his cancer is no longer controlled by the chemotherapy we’ve been giving him, there are other, stronger drugs we can try…but if there is something else causing his weight loss–something that hasn’t shown up at his previous ultrasounds and checkups–there isn’t much more we can do.

I’ve written before about the lessons you learn when you live with an old dog, but I’ve never written about the experience of living with a dying pet. When you live with an animal you know is dying, you constantly monitor that animal’s behavior and demeanor in an attempt to judge their quality of life. When faced with the Big Decision of whether and when to euthanize, you have two opposing factors to consider. On the one hand, how great is the animal’s suffering; on the other, what (simple) pleasures does the pet still seem to enjoy?

Groucho in morning light

Last week, we were heartened that Groucho was still eating, still basking on a sunny windowsill, and still looking forward to his morning petting, trotting over and hopping into my lap when I sat down after cleaning his and Nina's litter box. This morning, however, Groucho was noticeably listless and indifferent, getting up and walking around when I came into the room with fresh food, but not hopping into my lap. Instead, he walked around aimlessly for a bit before settling himself to meditate on his paws, marshaling his energy for a long day of napping.

Groucho in the window

Tomorrow’s vet visit will be momentous, as J and I will learn from the ultrasound and X-ray results whether there is anything more we can do to improve the quality of Groucho’s remaining days. J and I know from past experience that there’s no sense prolonging a pet’s life if that lengthened life isn’t a comfortable, dignified one. But before you make the final decision to say goodbye, first you want to be sure you’ve explored all possible options.

This semester in review

Today I asked my first year writing students to look back on their first semester of college as a way of brainstorming their final essay. After they’d listed the new relationships they’d made, the things they’d learned, and the triumphs and challenges they’d experienced, I asked them to draw a comic strip illustrating their first semester in college.

Those comics captured the gamut of the first year college experience, with solitary stick figures arriving on campus and soon making friends. One strip captured a gradual increase in the complexity and rigor of college assignments (“No Wikipedia”), while another focused on the cycle of procrastination, with an optimistic stick figure proclaiming “Today I’m going to get a lot done,” only to be sidetracked by distractions. “Oh well,” the stick figure cheerfully proclaims before bedtime. “There’s always tomorrow.”

To show my students that you don’t have to be an artist to draw a comic, I drew my own version of the semester in review: a series of panels showing the tasks I juggle on a typical day, with never enough time for grading papers. “Oh well,” I proclaim every night before bedtime. “There’s always tomorrow.”

Tea and chocolate

Every year, I eagerly anticipate Thanksgiving, when a brief break from teaching gives me a chance to tackle my paper-piles. All this week, I’ve repeated my usual mid-November mantra of “It’s almost Thanksgiving,” and on Tuesday, I went to Trader Joe’s to stock up on chocolate bars. Today, a shipment of assorted black and herbal teas J ordered for his office arrived, and I set aside a dozen of my favorite varieties–both caffeinated and herbal–to fuel next week’s marathon grading sessions.

Newton Centre after dark

It was a little after 5 pm–already dark–when I heard on the radio about the terrorist attacks in Paris. I’d just left the library–the first in a series of Friday night errands–and I sat in my car, saddened and overwhelmed as I rehearsed the same litany of questions that arise in the aftermath of terror. If there, why not here? If them, why not us? Will we ever feel safe, anywhere, now that a simple Friday night at a soccer game, concert, or bistro can be shattered in an instant by explosions, gunfire, and chaos?

Oak leaf on windshield

On my way from the bank to the drugstore, I took a photo of the stylish mannequins in a Newton Centre shop window. How sad and strange to walk the dark November streets in safety while across the world, terror rules. When I got home and unpacked my bags, I was struck by the irony of one of the library books I’d checked out: a collection of photos by legendary French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, his iconic shot of the decisive moment when a man leaps over a Paris puddle suddenly surreal in its unintentional innocence.

It's a dog's life

Because of today’s Veterans’ Day holiday, I’ve spent the day at home commenting on papers and prepping tomorrow’s classes: the kind of thing you do on a gray, drizzly day when you’re up to your eyeballs in essay drafts.

Morning fluffiness

Gray, drizzly days are perfect for napping, towering piles of student papers are unbelievably soporific, and staying awake on a stay-at-home grading day isn’t any easier when you’re surrounding by sleeping pets who have perfected the fine art of rainy-day snoozing. When I used to teach online, I’d sometimes refer to our menagerie of pets as my “teaching assistants,” but today, my so-called assistants have done nothing more taxing than snore.

Please don't erase

Several of the lounges in Framingham State’s new science center, Hemenway Labs, have whiteboard walls, giving students plenty of space to scribble graphs and equations while they work. Although I’m not a scientist and don’t understand most of what these figures mean, I enjoy seeing them. As a writer, I deeply respect the blank page, and that’s basically what a whiteboard wall is. Whether you’re scribbling the draft of an essay or a graphic equation, you’re translating an imaginary idea into a visual figure that others can see and comment on. Where once there was nothing, now there is a visual expression of deep ideas.

Whiteboard dragon

This morning in my first-year writing class, I asked students to take a learning style assessment. Some of my students already know whether they are auditory, visual, or tactile learners, but others don’t, and I think it’s helpful for students to understand how they learn. Since I myself am a visual learner–someone, that is, who likes to see the shape of an idea and who remembers concepts according to where I saw them on the page–it makes sense that I love the whiteboard walls in Hemenway Labs. I’ve always struggled to do math in my head, so even the most complicated figure makes more sense to me than a verbal explanation of that same concept.

Fun with whiteboard walls

Whether or not they are visual learners, college students are perpetually stressed, so it should come as no surprise that some of the whiteboards in Hemenway Labs are covered with cartoon doodles that have very little to do with science. One thoughtful soul even went so far as to leave a mandala coloring book and shared stash of markers for anyone who wants to color their way to calm: visual learning at its best.

Communal art supplies

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