Thursday, April 8, 2010

Shore Leave

It’s been just over a year since I quit school for the last time. This past year has been the first one of my life where I wasn’t in school or working, or looking for a job, or “resting up” so I could go back to school.

If you’re healthy, a year may seem like a long time, and it is! I miss being part of a community! I miss co-workers! I miss homework and exams! If you’ve had CFS or another chronic illness for a long time though, one year in isolation probably doesn’t seem so bad compared to say, twenty.

I’ve spent most of the time right here, where I’m writing from now, in my apartment, on this beautiful but ergonomically disastrous couch. I haven’t been totally housebound, a lot of the time I was able to go to acupuncture two or three times a week. I went to some concerts, the kind you sit down for. I’ve taken some trips. But for the most part, my life is in this room.

Today though I had the opportunity to get off this sinking ship and walk around on dry land. Even though I’m not officially a USC student anymore, I'm still on all the list-servs. So when Paul Frommer, USC professor and creator of the Na’vi language from the movie Avatar, was giving a lecture, I knew about it, and I really wanted to go. I just didn’t know if I would be able to. Last night, I thought, it could go either way. It started at two, and yesterday I woke up at two.

But I did it, I got up in time to take my medicine, eat a quick breakfast, and drive myself the 20 minutes to campus. I was reminded of how long it's been since I'd driven myself anywhere when I saw the dashboard clock was still an hour behind. I was the first time I'd driven since daylight savings.

I was worried I might have to do too much walking. I thought about asking a friend to come with me and drop me off right by the building, then go park, but was glad I didn’t because whoever I brought would have been really bored. The lecture was really technical. Fortunately, the building was right next to a garage, so I didn’t have to walk too far.

I had to drive to the roof of the parking garage, but I got what I wanted, a spot on the same side as the elevator. As I was walking towards it, still a half a length of the garage away, I saw a man getting in hold the door for me. I waved to thank him, because I did want him to hold it. The less time standing around waiting, the better, but I didn’t hasten my pace, which is the polite thing to do. He made a “Well come on, hurry up!” expression, so I took a few quicks steps and pumped my arms a little, to create the illusion of hurrying up, to make a little show of effort, but then I went back to walking. Just the idea of a quick jog made me want to collapse on the ground. I didn't like that I had made people wait for me on the elevator, but it’s a venial sin.

I got there five minutes early, but I was still just the second person to arrive. It ended up being a pretty small group. They must have been expecting a lot more people though, because the organizer quipped, “Afterwards there will be pizza and soda in the lounge, one whole pizza for each of you.” Someone else could have my pizza.

I was expecting the anonymity of a large group, so when that didn’t happen I was a little nervous. I felt like an imposter. When Frommer started speaking he took a little survey, “Undergrads raise your hand,” I didn’t. “Graduate students raise your hand,” I didn’t. “Faculty and friends?” I didn’t. I wondered for a second if I qualified as a friend, but I really didn’t have any friends there. I spotted an old professor, but she didn’t recognize me. She knew me way back when, when I was in her office a lot asking for extensions, but it’d been two years since I took her class and dropped it halfway through. I recognized her during the lecture when she asked a question, and it was a good one, one that I was way too out of practice to have thought of.

Overall I really enjoyed the lecture, I’m glad I decided to go. Some of it involved terms I’ve forgotten, or things I never learned, but nothing was totally over my head. It was exciting to talk linguistics again, or at least be in a place where linguistics was being talked about. I still find myself reading linguistics articles in wikipedia every once in awhile, or looking up other language's alphabets in IPA, but whatever I can do on my own can't compare to being immersed in college classes.

I liked Paul Frommer too. You could tell he’s someone with a lot of energy and a virtually limitless capacity for learning, which of course I admire. Well, covet, really. From his wikipedia entry:

Frommer graduated from college at the University of Rochester with a bachelor of arts in mathematics. He taught English and math in Malaysia with the Peace Corps, and earned his masters degree and doctorate in linguistics from the University of Southern California under Bernard Comrie; his doctorate was on aspects of Persian syntax.

He gave an example of a rule he borrowed for Na'vi from a Malayan language he learned while he was in the Peace Corps. I always thought I would do some kind of teaching abroad for a while, maybe in the Peace Corps. My mind wandered a little during the lecture and I thought about what I’d do if I recovered, would I still do it? I still want to, but I'm more cautious now. Well, afraid. What if, after my miraculous recovery, I immediately contracted some tropical disease and died? What a shame that would be.

After the lecture there was a Q&A. I had a question, but I was afraid everyone else’s questions would be really technical and everyone would think mine was silly. But I stopped worrying about that when the first hand shot up and the first question was, “Did Ben Stiller really speak Na’vi at the Oscars?” The answer was no, though he used one Na’vi word at the end. He also threw in some Hebrew. I waited a few seconds, and when no one asked another question, I raised my hand.

I remember, the last time I was in school, thinking I’d lost the ability to properly phrase good questions, but this one actually went off pretty well. He’d said at the beginning of his talk that James Cameron wanted the actors to speak the language themselves, he didn’t want any electronic voices or anything. So even though it was an alien language, it had to be constructed within the confines of human speech. He did throw in some clicks and glottal stops, which are exotic sounding to English speakers. What I wanted to know was if, creative guy that he was, he had any ideas for things he wanted to do if there were no limits, if the actors speech could have been electronically manipulated.

He seemed to like the question and went on about how maybe they’d have four different voice qualities, or two separate voice boxes so they could harmonize with themselves. When he was done he tagged on, “good question”, I thought it went pretty well, but my body was freaking out. My heart was pounding, I’m sure adrenaline was surging, I could hear my pulse pounding in my ears. My body was acting scared way out of proportion with how I was actually feeling. I’ve never been really comfortable asking questions in front of a lot of people, but it’s not like this was a huge auditorium and they had to pass me a microphone. It was the size of a classroom. I was really shocked at how “afraid” I seemed to be. I took it as a warning sign about how isolated I've been.

After the talk we were all invited for pizza and discussion in the lounge, but I went right back to my car and drove home. It was the longest I’d been out in awhile and I was tired. But it wasn’t just the fatigue, being with all those happy young linguistics students and accomplished professors made me want to cry. I didn’t feel like I would belong, I didn’t have anything in common with these people. As I’m writing this now though I realize that’s not true, we’re all people interested in linguistics, but, I don’t know, I was scared. What if I was talking to someone and they asked something like, “So are you a grad student? Undergrad?” I’d have to tell the truth, which I’m still really bad at. “Well,” I’d say, “I was an undergrad but I had to drop out for health reasons.” “Oh, I’m sorry” “Oh...that’s ok *smile*” and then the conventions of the conversation break down and you have awkwardness. Most people I think, wouldn’t ask, “What do you have?” or “What’s wrong?” but some do. And then it’s awkward because when I say “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome” I never know if they’ll have heard of it before or what it means to them. My biggest fear is that they think it still means “yuppie flu”.

Last year, still in school, when I began to realize I was missing too many classes, when I’d pulled off my first paper but knew I had absolutely no energy to do the second, when I began to realize I would probably have to drop out again, I fantasized about asking my teachers if I could drop out, get a tuition refund, but still come to class when I could, just not have to turn in any assignments, or get credit or a grade. Just learn without stress. I’d be like a ghost in the classroom, my actions would have no consequences. I’d be like a ghost to the other students too -- I used to be one of them, then something happened to me, I was supposed to leave, to move on, but I didn’t; I stayed, like a ghost. I am like a ghost, and today I haunted the campus. At least I didn’t scare any students.


  1. I'm glad you were able to go. I love learning, and I love every opportunity to learn. It seems like, with CFS, we need to get very creative to do the things we love. I'm glad this worked out for you, and I hope your payback, although inevitable, is minimal.

  2. Thanks for reading Shelli. I hope my payback is minimal too. May all our paybacks be minimal!

  3. This actually made me cry a little, which, ok, is partly because I've been an irresponsible patient who needs to refill her meds, but is mostly because I know this feeling all too well. And not as a distant memory, as in, I can feel it too when I'm reading your experience. The inexplicable panic in a classroom setting, the lack of assurance in a field where you used to feel most assured, the lack of an adequate label to give yourself to make everyone around you feel "safe," and the wandering thoughts about what in the world your life will be like and how different you are from everyone around you. I just feel all of it, and I'm sorry that you have to feel it too, because it's super complicated ground that we're on sometimes. But congratulations on getting up, taking your meds, driving to class, going to the lecture, and being brave enough to ask a question. As someone who knows the stress, I know that's a huge win for you! And you should really let yourself feel good about that- you were brave today!

    The lecture sounds really interesting, and I liked his answer to your question... the harmonized voice boxes would have been very Na'vi, in my opinion. It also reminds me of Tibetan throat singing, where the monks attempt to utilize the entire voicebox, making it reverberate and harmonize... it's weird-sounding, but also really cool.

    Whenever I see professors from my many sick semesters, I start to wish the ground could just swallow me up whole and keep me safe there until everyone's gone and I can re-emerge and go on my merry way. There's just no good way to talk to them... it's embarrassing when they don't remember you, worse when they do, and worse still when you try to remind them who you are (I've only made this hugely awkward mistake once).

    I've started to look at jobs for after I (hopefully) graduate this August. I'm being very hopeful in this whole endeavor because I don't even know how well this Lyme treatment is working or will work, I just know it HAS to work. So I plan. But filling out these applications, they ask for my last place of employment. Urm, uh-oh. Do you mean working for my dad for a few months before I got too sick to go to work? Or last spring when I tried to work at H&R Block and then the same thing happened? Or even better yet, the best internship I've ever had (at a magazine where they were incredibly nice and helpful and gave me all kinds of great writing experience AND paid me AND let me set my hours). I set it up in September, became ill in October, and by the time the internship rolled around in January, I was in an awful state. So I quit after 2-3 months of coming in once a week (which was honestly a Herculean effort-- I would skip lunch to nap in my car. I was that tired.)

    Which of these lovely work experiences shall I list on my job application?

    Ok, excuse my tangent. This is probably longer than your post. Sometimes I wish there was a way for us bloggy friends to all talk in a chatroom or something when these things are on our minds... because there's not really anyone else who understands.

    Hope you feel okay tomorrow, Alison~ sleep well!

  4. Hi Alison! I really liked this blog post. I can totally identify with it. I also had to drop out of college (architecture - 4 yrs ago) and I'm at about the same level of activity as you. Not totally housebound, but not able to get out much. When I was a bit better last year I did a photography night class once a week and pretty much fell in love with it. I signed up for the advanced class this year and only made it to less than half the classes. I dream of being able to do a real full time photography course but can't imagine when that will be possible. Recently I had a very similar experience to you. There was a pretty famous photographer speaking at a local college and I heard about it through my teacher. I made the effort to go (my teacher gave me a lift as I can't drive) and it was really interesting. I was so glad I went but it felt odd to be in a lecture situation again. There were students from a few different colleges there,some professional photographers, lecturers and me! I didn't ask any questions but I know what you mean about that heart pounding & adrenaline rush, it has happened to me in different situations. I spent the hour madly scribbling notes and drinking it all in. And only realised after it had finished I was exhausted and I had to drag myself home. I spent 2 or 3 days recovering but it was worth it. But it does make me long for a time when I can go back to college and it makes me reminisce about the good ole days too!

  5. This actually made me cry a little too, only because I've felt the same way oh so many times.

    We can have our own little family online :)

    I'm glad you got to get out to the lecture, and good on you for being brave!

  6. Thanks everyone. Miriam: I have a story similar to yours too! One summer when I was taking a break from school I took a design class, once a week at UCLA extension. I loved it, but I only made it to the first 3 or out of, I don't know 10 or 12 classes, and then I just disappeared.