For Toney

This morning I told my class the story of how I met Toney. I told them about the day he took a chance on me and hired me for my first job in education. I told them about how he motivated me, pushed me, cared for me, mentored me, befriended me and loved me.

And then I told them that he died this week.

For the first time – and hopefully the last – I cried in front of my students. I asked them to tell me what a mentor was. What perseverance meant. What it means to push themselves to learn. We came up with a word cloud and it made us happy.

Toney was the first person to ever tell me that he recognized something in me I didn’t know I had. He was tough, stubborn as shit and was harder on me – personally and professionally – than anyone I’ve ever known.

TBHe was born in 1960 in rural North Carolina to a very poor, uneducated family. He was the baby and knew he would have to fight harder than his siblings if he wanted a better life for himself. He could fail out of high school (and almost did) or he could graduate and go into the Air Force where he knew he’d be taken care of. He graduated from the Community College of the Air Force, then got a bachelor’s degree and retired at 40.

Education found him nearly the same way it found me. He was retired military but had administrative experience which put him at an advantage for jobs his peers wouldn’t qualify for. Like me, Toney needed a job and found one that just happened to be in adult education. He had a wife, a stepdaughter and a son on the way, so he went back to school on the weekends and earned a master’s degree. He moved further and further up the ladder until he was in higher education administration.

That’s when he met me.

I came to his office prepared to just introduce myself but instead he had an interview committee lined up, and there I was in casual clothes with my car keys in my hand. He asked me a dozen or so questions and then wanted to know why I was interested in working for him. I told him I wanted the job – which, truthfully, I knew nothing about and wasn’t remotely qualified for. Toney knew it and hired me anyway.

We worked together for 8 years. I got engaged, got married, bought a house and started a graduate degree. He got divorced, raised his son alone and kept moving up the administrative ladder. We had long talks over cigarettes, or in our offices, or over lunch. We listened to the O’Jays in his car on the way to conferences. We made jokes about how we must look at the lunch table: he, the short black man in a suit, and me, the young white girl with wide eyes.

In 2008 he was hired as vice president at a nearby college. We emailed and phoned each other, and saw one another every couple of months. He loved Brian – who loved him back – and was always so keenly interested in Brian’s career. Did he like his job? Were they nice to him? How was his MBA coming? What advice could he give Brian? Fourteen years apart in age, Toney and Brian grew up in the same corner of the state just miles away from each other. They knew the same people, the same chicken joints, the same terrain.

He called in December to tell me that he had cancer. He’d been through chemo and radiation, and the prognosis, he said, was good.

Over the past few days I have come to discover that he wasn’t telling the truth. His cancer was terminal and he spent most of December calling his friends to catch up, and making us promise not tell anyone he was sick.

When I heard the news of his death I collapsed in my office chair and sobbed. I left work early and crawled into my bed, where I cried myself to a fitful sleep.

Saturday morning we’ll travel to his hometown for the funeral. A local minister we’ve all known for years will preach the eulogy. While we’re there we’ll visit Brian’s father’s grave and those of his grandparents. And on Saturday, when it’s forecasted to be cloudy and cold, I will remember my friend, who gave so much light and warmth to my life.

The dog ate my homework

Over the past 6 months or so I’ve been wrestling with a few issues, not the least of which is what to do with my blog. Since I started writing this almost 6 (!) years ago, I have changed. The blogosphere has changed. My world has moved and shifted and this blog has been along for the entirety.

But now? Now I don’t know what to do. You, my dear faithful – and, it must be said, few – readers have helped me through so much over these years. You’ve guided me and comforted me during the first steps of my treatment for panic disorder. You read along and sent me messages of encouragement. You laughed when I was funny, you raised your eyebrows when I was snarky and you approved when I did something positive for my mental health.

Since last I wrote, I’ve experienced lots of disappointment – I wish so much I could write about it here but I can’t – and some joy as well. I’ve grieved for friends and celebrated love. I have also experienced new rounds of panic and anxiety. I know from where it stems, but I have yet to get a handle on it, despite a strict adherence to medication. My attempts at therapy have been unsuccessful.

In times such as these, I now turn to prayer. I have a somewhat shaky faith that I try to work on daily, but I struggle to remain focused. My mind still tumbles and spins, particularly at night when I’m alone with it.

Over the weekend I made the decision to write my final post and close shop on Half Baked for good. But today – right this minute – I am re-thinking that decision. In this new frontier of Pinterest and $1,000 cameras with lenses that take rocket surgeons to decipher, I rely on my only waning skill: writing.

I have no idea what 2013 will be. I hate resolutions and didn’t make any. I tried over the holiday break to start a massive organization effort in our house – with the assistance of Pinterest and 72,000 different DIY/style/design blogs – and so far it’s a really good feeling to purge our house of old shit. It’s like a big glass of ice water with mint and lemon and lime: super refreshing and head-clearing. 

There are goals I need to make for myself but I’m still too frightened – scratch that – PETRIFIED to face those fears. More about that at another time because the thought y’all, THE THOUGHT, makes me want a Xanax.

So there’s all that. In a nutshell, I’m writing this post as an update, a sort of “I’m alive and kicking but forgot to tell you that” kind of post. I don’t plan – at this particularly moment – to make it my last. I want to be funny again! I want to work out my anxiety right here again because it’s been so cathartic and energizing in the past. But I will wrestle with this decision until the next post.

The pressure to be a blogger comes from the nagging feeling that you haven’t done your homework. The due date was a week ago and you’ve got nothing and frankly, you’re not sure you’re gonna have anything at all – much less BETTER! – when the next due date passes, because inevitably it will. And then the weeks and months pass by but the nagging feeling remains. Do you devote your time to writing something you don’t feel good about? Or that is productive? Or do you give up the whole damn thing and call it what it is: a washed-up effort to work out personal demons in a public forum for all to witness.

Oh how I wish I had an answer to this. I wish YOU had an answer to this. I wish my skin hadn’t fused with the couch cushions such that I am more concerned with how many episodes of Episodes I missed. (I’m lying. That show is marginally terrible. I just watch to see how gray Matt LeBlanc is getting and then I switch back to dumb shit like Million Dollar Decorators. Or Wheel of Fortune. I’d be so fucking good at that show.)

Have a nice day, Internet. Drink your afternoon pick-me-up, enjoy your cucumber sandwich and your spinning class. When you fall asleep tonight, all satisfied with achieving your goals yet unsatisfied with your cucumber sandwich, think of ways I can breathe new life into blogging. Or how I can bow out gracefully and yet WITTY AS HELL.

That’s the kind of girl I am.

To be adored

I hear the buzz of the dryer in the other room, impatiently reminding me that THE CLOTHES ARE CLEAN, LAZY WOMAN for the 35th time. I reach around for the magazine postcard that inevitably lands somewhere around my pillow and save my place, for it won’t be long until I come back to finish reading the piece on John Faircloth. Vanity Fair’s style issue is overflowing with good articles this month. I read about Peter and Harry Brant, “dandy” sons of Stephanie Seymour – who liken themselves to the cast of Gossip Girl except far more glamorous – and stare at pictures of Kate Middleton or, as the über-fabulous Tom & Lorenzo call her, Cathy Cambridge.

All weekend long I was lost in Facebook messages and updates about a friend’s child, who died of a rare form of cancer, who “saw angels” and reached for them. That news has put me in a fog while I’ve folded laundry and made cookies and turned up my nose at dinner suggestions. I’ve kicked off and put on my J.Crew flip flops 40 times and absently tugged at my tank top. I haven’t showered. I don’t mind.

On Saturday I wore a summer skirt and went to the movies. I admired the fabric on my mother-in-law’s recovered sofa and gushed over her mercury glass lamps, which I am secretly hoping to get for my birthday. I’m doing all of these things just like a normal girl. Granted, my life will never fill the middle pages of Vanity Fair or Town & Country (but oh, can’t a girl dream?) and that’s all fine and well. Like normal girls, I share shoes with my mom, try 50 kinds of tinted moisturizer and share book lists with my friends.

Unlike normal girls though – God, I hope this isn’t normal – I am dying a little on the inside. Kristen says people have “residual issues,” and I’m one of those. Recently three people in my professional life questioned my abilities and belittled my entire career. Or that’s how I took it, at least. In my mind it was one solid hour of insults, though in reality I’m probably being too sensitive. It happened three weeks ago. I am still – dramatically – haunted by it. I ask everyone who knows me: do you think I am a leader? Do you think that I have no potential? The memory of that encounter is clouding everything I do.

I read a great article in the New York Times Magazine last week about – among other things – the gray area of personal essays. In this day and time, of course, it’s about the blog posts but aren’t we all – those of us that write blogs – personal essayists? We are, aren’t we? Sarah Hepola talks about that blurry line people are afraid to cross, about knowing when to draw back a little so as not to hurt family or endanger jobs or embarrass ourselves. I want so badly to name names and specifics and times and places when I write things, particularly when they are bad things. I want to point fingers at someone who wronged me and say It’s her! She did it and you should grab her so she can be vilified all over the Internet! I won’t, obviously. Because even this little snippet on this tiny blog in this far corner of the Internet could, and very well may, do me in.

The question of whether or not we are good enough is normal. We are all normal girls like that. We are normally supportive of each other in times of tragedy – as with my friend’s child, in times of triumph and in times of self doubt. I don’t think we can ever get enough reassurance though, that we are not inconsequential, no matter what other people say. We need to be validated and praised. What’s so wrong with telling someone that they are good at what they do? Shouldn’t we all be told that we’re appreciated?

Perhaps I’m just dreaming of a different world somewhere far away, where shopkeepers close for siesta and wine stays on the table until 11 p.m. In that world there is no political scorekeeper, no bully to steal both your lunch money AND your dignity. In that world my picture is in Vanity Fair next to Valentino’s and we both j’adore your bag, darling.

Vulnerable

I’m not sleeping again. Tonight I will try the couch to see if it makes a difference. My body hurts, my feet especially, and I feel like I’m starting the slow spiral into “mild” depression, if there is such a thing. There are days when I’m UP! YAY! LET’S GET SHIT DONE! and then there are days where I would be happy alone in my house, under a blanket with the cats, flipping channels, reading books, crying uncontrollably and wallowing in self-pity.

Everyone needs those days now and then – personal days off from work when no one else is at home and a constant state of PJs is allowed, even expected. But the crying and self-pity is not expected on those days. I can’t pinpoint the reason I would pity myself, for I’ve had social events galore, kindnesses from friends and the hope that the summer won’t suck too terribly bad.

Why, then, the self-pity? Why the crying? Why can’t I sleep, even with Ambien? Why aren’t my drugs working as they should? I still have mountains of fear about ridiculous things; oddly enough, none of these fears are of having a panic attack. The drugs, at least, numb that rising tide and gently push it back where it belongs. But what of the others?

I had a party for some work friends a few weekends ago and it was the first time most of them had been to our house. I was completely obsessed with it all going perfectly. Will they like my food? Is my house clean enough? Will they look down on us for the way we live (i.e. it’s not designer perfect in there, TRUST ME)? A few years ago my therapist chastised me, over and over, for my perfectionist tendencies. They only apply in certain cases though: entertaining, teaching, grades, work. I’ve yet to find the root for it, not that it would do any good. I haven’t made any progress there, Therapist, sorry.

I believe I need my college girlfriends. I need them to hug me – in person – and tell me that they, too, remember the good times when we didn’t worry so much. I need those familiar faces that are touchstones for me. I know this is completely selfish but I don’t care. If drugs aren’t working and the desire to emerge from the cave under my comforter isn’t there, I’m certain there is but one solution: their love.

This is all in my imagination, of course. I’m imagining that someone else’s happiness will just seep out of their arms and into mine. The reality is that none of that is true.

Mental illness has no quick solution, no magic potion. It lives in fear and detests change. It rolls its eyes at attempts to push it around the corner and forget about it. Mental illness is vicious and feeds on the vulnerable.

And I, at this point, am vulnerable.

American Girl

It’s late, and my nap on the couch after dinner wasn’t a good idea. I’ve been so tired lately, probably from too much exercise of the mind and not enough exercise of the body.

Winter missed us completely; a very short spring has made way for an early summer and the heat exhausts me already. It’s not hot to some, but for me 87 degrees plus humidity and a giant pile of pollen has taken its toll. My head aches, my eyes itch, my general demeanor is unpleasant.

Tonight I can’t stand stand the stuffy air in our bedroom any longer. I wake Brian and beg him to reach the switch that turns the fan the opposite way. Long strings of dust fly around the room, landing in my hair, all over the blankets, covering the floor.

We’re not good housekeepers.

Today I realized that I’ve lost command of an aspect of my job that I should control completely. I’m not proud of myself and I feel that I’ve failed. I’ve been snappy and short, and am utterly tired of faking smiles and feigning interest in other people’s lives. It’s hard to overlook my shortcomings and my preoccupation with myself is becoming obnoxious.

Trying not to hate this time of year is always an effort and, in the same way people with SAD dread the winter, I dread the spring. I want to stay inside and admire the flowers from behind a window. I don’t want to socialize or make small talk or pose for pictures in a dress that makes me uncomfortable. I want to decline invitations to parties and mail the half dozen birthday presents to family instead of delivering in person. I feel sick thinking about how hot I’ll be until November, so I sign up for a summer school class. Partly I’m excited to be a student again, but mostly I’m relieved to have an excuse to keep to myself until July.

Will I go back to school? Will I close my business? Will I fake a smile and dance until my feet hurt and pretend that I’m enjoying myself? Or will I shut myself inside my house, shivering in the air conditioning, reading stories about slums in Mumbai or lost childhoods in Africa?

I’ll probably do it all. It’s the way life moves forward, trudging on some days and flying by on others. We keep doing what we’ve always done, and we’re surprised when the outcome isn’t different.

Maybe we’re fools. Or maybe it’s just me.