Enjoy Every Sandwich

“In Confessions of a Winning Poker Player, Jack King said, ‘Few players ever recall big pots they ever won, strange as it seems. But every player can remember with remarkable accuracy the outstanding tough beats of his career.’ Seems true to me.” –Mike McDermott in Rounders

It’s Thanksgiving break. And I have to confess.

I’m struggling.

I’m trying to unwind. Which, for any normal person, would probably be easy. For me, sudden stops are hard. That, and I still had work when the “break” began. But in St. Louis, the break started grey, and rainy. The Lewis Blacks line about it being, “Grey, grey, rain, grey, rain, shit, grey, rain, rain, grey, shit, rain, grey, rain, shit, grey,” was apropos.

It’s a week where I’m supposed to “be Thankful”, and it’s hard to be thankful. Yes, the obvious are certainly true, and I’m all too cognizant of it. I’m alive, (physically) healthy, I have a job, my family is alright, and I have a roof over my head. All things considered – life could be a hell of a lot worse.

I also took my first day off in four months. I’m not lying – ask my wife. There’s still MORE things I’d like to accomplish, if I could only squeeze it on to my plate. And I already can’t balance everything that’s being asked of me; funny, it seems like I’ve been here before. The number of, “oh, and one more thing” items that have popped up this week alone is unreal.

I didn’t think I’d cry this much on one break. And if there’s no tears, it’s yelling at myself in my car. “Momma, there’s a madman talking to himself in the car next to us.” I swear, I’ve seen that toddler on I-44 at least twice this week.

I got out on a hike/trail run on Tuesday. I felt like someone set a caged animal free. For 80 minutes, I was free. My chest didn’t hurt, I didn’t have a worry, and I even cracked a smile. Relief. I honestly don’t remember I single thought I held for those 80 minutes. I’m lucky I didn’t wind up in another county – I have had momentary fugues when hiking before and gotten turned around and not remembered where I was or where I was supposed to be going. I’ve been told not to solo hike, but Sonia knew my general whereabouts, so I figure it’s all good.

Speaking of Sonia (maybe that should be my blog if I rebrand it), she has been in my ear about how to get through the rest of the school year with my sanity intact. Actually, not just with my sanity intact, but actual happiness. I heard her, but I’m not sure I was 100% listening. I was 90% listening, because I was about to take up some of her suggestions. Then my sister called, and echoed her sentiments. I’m still not sure they aren’t in cahoots, but it’s ok. When your wife and big sister say the same thing (I think) independently, it’s time to listen.

I’ve reached a certain number of truths (for me) and I find them clarifying, if not uplifting. (Sidebar, much of adulthood isn’t uplifting. Clarity and contentment are good enough – or all that we have the right to expect at times). But sometimes, just knowing and accepting the way things are is enough help. It offers a route forward. “Here’s a plan. Pick me.”

-The pandemic isn’t going to get better for some time; it’s probably going to get worse. Following Johns Hopkins data, cases and deaths are accelerating. Local data here isn’t good. Hospital beds and ICU beds are filling up. We’re running out of ventilators. Influenza hasn’t hit (yet, and fingers crossed we get lucky). People have traveled for Thanksgiving, and may do so in December anyway. This will get worse. How much so is anyone’s guess.

I’m enough of an extrovert that I really need some kind of personal contact. I miss people, hugs, laughs – all of it. One fact of middle age is that everyone has their own problems. Kids. Older parents. Partners / spouses. Finances. Jobs. Their own health. The fact of the matter is this: kids are lucky in one tiny aspect. People are looking out for them. Most adults – when it comes to social contact – are squarely on their own. Not because anyone WANTS it that way, but if you are responsible during this pandemic, it’s just going to BE that way. I could use a hug or random check in from a friend. It’s not going to happen – not because people don’t care – but because every adult is in a similar boat. This falls under the category of acceptance.

I’m actually not upset or sad about this. I’m at peace with it – it just has to be this way until things improve enough for everyone. It means that people are trying to take care of themselves – and I get it. We all have straws in our noses so we can breathe while (barely) treading water. All I will say is this: If I reach out to you to offer my help (no matter how small – I cook a meal for you, a quick text check-in, or bring over a small plate of cookies, for instance), I’m doing so to help you feel better – and I’m trying to make myself feel better simultaneously. And I’m hoping that you’ll say “yes” and accept the assistance (and by the way, I will reciprocate and accept help as well – because I want others to feel better, too. I know that helping feels good, even if the lift is momentary.)

-I think healthcare workers will relate to this one. I work in a field where I think I could still be classified as a “helper.” I alluded to this about my students, but now I focus on the adults. What happens when the HELPERS NEED HELP? Now, more than ever, I could use some standing obligation to come off my plate. A deadline extended, lesson plans to not have to be turned in, a meeting to disappear – something. Instead, in the most stress filled year, more obligations have been heaped on my plate. I have been hoping that this would improve. I have reached the conclusion that this will not improve. The cavalry isn’t coming, no lifeboat is being sent, and there will not be a supply drop.

This actually makes me mad. The support was supposed to be THERE this year. As stated, in order to survive, before Thanksgiving, I’ve had ONE day off since the end of July (now, understand, this is my 3rd year teaching, and I’ve had a new class every year. Veteran teachers might have it a LITTLE better – a larger repertoire to fall back on. But the majority that I’ve talked to are in the same boat I’m in). Winter Break won’t be a break – it will be two weeks of trying to get back ahead for January in order to survive the second semester. Those are just facts.

Even though I’m beyond angry, this also falls under the category of acceptance. I’ve given up on help coming. Once I finally accepted that no extra help is coming; no relief is coming; that yes, effectively, I’m on an island – I started to feel a little free. I thought of the Christopher Titus line in one of his comedy bits: “Step up or step aside.” I was hoping to have someone step up and help; it’s not coming. So, step aside – and don’t complain with the solutions I find. I’m no longer concerned about doing things “your way.” I’m doing things “my way” and the way they will work for MY STUDENTS.

And I have value; of this, I am certain. I learned that 3 years ago.

-I can’t skimp on doing things to my own standards – to my own level of satisfaction. I simply won’t start “mailing lessons in” in order to make my life easy. It won’t happen. We have over a semester to go, and we have real shit to do. The necessities of education and wanting students to get everything out the experience – however odd it might be learning over a computer screen – dictate excellence. Will it be awesome every day? No – it can’t be. But that’s the bar, and I will jump over it more than I pass under it.

-My job would be much easier if I stopped paying attention to the emotional needs of my students. I won’t. Didn’t you see the first two points in the post? The old pediatrician in me isn’t dead. If I’m struggling, I know they are. If they’re struggling, they a) won’t learn b) will likely regress c) not be ready for whatever is next after this year and d) hate me with every breath. I teach mostly older teenagers – but they are still kids – and they need attention, kindness, support – and as much of it as I can humanly provide. If it were Covid permissible, I’d give each of them the biggest hug possible. Right now. But I can’t. So, I’ll be ready to help them however I can.

-So, how do I make things better for me? This is where Sonia and Big Sister come into play.

I’ve long hated my own brain and my own wiring. (I’ve told people – get out of my head. Even I don’t really want to be in there.) My own students have even asked me about my medical career, “Doc, don’t you have any happy stories?”

I do. Plenty, really. But the details are vague. It all gets murky. The goodness that happened isn’t seared into my brain like I want it to be. And that bothers me – I don’t want all the “feels” to disappear by the time I’m 60. There were plenty of hugs, high fives, and wins.

Hell, some of the goodness from my first 2.5 years of teaching is getting a little cloudy already. I can’t remember who the last student was to “Bro hug” me before we left for spring break – which turned into this Covid mess. And I WANT to remember that. I have it narrowed down to three students – but for the life of me, I can’t remember who it was.

I tell my students that I’m very nice and very well-intended, but I’m a little absent minded at times. And I give them the line, “the thing about remembering is that sometimes you forget.” I don’t know if I heard that somewhere or if it’s a Jason-ism. But man, when it comes to remembering the good stuff, it sure seems to be true.

But I can remember a lot of things that I’d like to lose details about:

I can remember the surgical resident that gave me two hand shove in the patient’s room that October morning in 2001. I remember his face, his glasses, his name, the color of his shirt, tie, and pants.

I can remember the surgeon that yelled and cursed at me in the O.R. for not being able to hold a camera perfectly still during a laparoscopic cholecystectomy (camera guided removal of a gallbladder) – the first time I operated the camera. Never mind that in order to see the TV around the 300+ lb. surgeon, I had to stand on one foot and use my non-dominant left hand to operate the camera. I remember every f-bomb thrown in my direction for 45 minutes. I remember the layout of the room, the lighting, the name of the scrub nurse with her awkward silence, the resident performing the procedure.

I can remember – in a panic – telling Dr. Gerard, “I. Need. You. NOW!!!!” When I had a patient that was crashing and burning in the E.R. and his shift just started (he told one year later that he was impressed and I made the right call, but I can remember the terror 17 years later).

I can remember running down the stairwell to resuscitate a neonate brought to my hospital – that was delivered in an ambulance. I can remember who I worked with that morning, the stairwell I was in and what it looked like, the weather that day, removing my dress shirt and asking for a scrub top, how the ER room was laid out, how I asked for a transport team, the helicopter taking off with the infant, you name it.

And it frustrates me – because the “wins” are there. I want to remember the hugs, the virtual high fives, the softly spoken “thank you” – but for whatever reason, it fades with time. I remember some of them – but not as many as I like. My sister, having her master’s in psychology, has explained that I’m not unique. Most of us are wired this way; we are wired to remember the major, traumatic experiences. Whether this is to help us (from an evolution standpoint) with one-trial learning and to avoid painful stimuli – is beyond the scope of my blog.

My point is this → getting past this wiring is my best hope for getting through this year in the best possible shape. And I think I can do it. Actually, I have very little choice; I HAVE TO DO IT; my students need me to do it. My family needs me to do it. I need me to do it. It’s amazing what you CAN do when there’s no other choice. Life can be very persuasive.

And the solution is simple: I’m going to write it down. All of it – I’m taking notes. Every last victory, every last thing that I do correctly. No matter how small. The small “thank you” I get – they now get written down. The coffee mugs – written down. The laughs with my colleagues – written down. The student that absolutely blisters an assignment up one side and down another and says, “I couldn’t have done it without you,” – written down. The student that I boosted from a “C” to a “B” – written down. I know it’s there – I know it has BEEN THERE this entire time. It was there in my pediatrician career, and because I didn’t do this, I’ve lost a lot of great memories and stories of what I did well. It ends NOW. I’m remembering all the good, come hell or high water.

It will be different from this blog – these are for my eyes only. It’s for me to remember. It’s to see the good that I’m doing, even when it feels like I’m outnumbered and outflanked. If I can’t take anything OFF my plate, then I’m damn sure going to enjoy as much of what’s on my plate as possible. It might mean at least for the remainder of this school year that I wind up getting “lost in my work” at times. That part will be short lived. I’ve survived residency, and I survived several awful years working for a company that literally didn’t care about my safety. Covid, in the grand scheme of things, is doable. This will end – and damn it, I’m going to enjoy as much of it as possible. I went into teaching for a reason – to help. I might as well remember the triumphs during this odd time, and then have the capacity to celebrate them when I need to call upon them at a later date.

Will this be an easy mental trick to pull off? No. You don’t get to be 43 with all of my oddities and eccentricities and do something like this overnight. But the situation demands something different be done. It’s the most logical place to start. It might be the ONLY tool I have.

This year has been locked in the difficult, the depressing, and the mundane. And it’s tough to break out. But I’ve realized that I have been asking my students to break out of their rut. It dawned on me that for all of my coaching and pleading – that I’m really bad at breaking out of my own rut. High time to follow my own advice, lest I be accused of being a hypocrite. If truth be told, the bright moments are THERE, and I don’t even have to LOOK for them. I just have to be receptive to them, or I’ll miss them entirely. They don’t look exactly the same as they did before, but the wins, the highs, the touchy-feely moments, the “ah-ha!” moments, the things I’ll want to remember 10 to 15 years from now are in fact PRESENT. It’s time to rewire and refocus. The situation demands it.

I was watching some old YouTube clips (I’ve said this before – I love comedians), and I remembered how much I loved Dave Letterman’s final interview with Warren Zevon. For the record, I’m not a huge fan of Zevon’s music. I like a few songs (I’m not the singer-songwriter genre fan, but I do appreciate what he did).

Zevon had recently been diagnosed with terminal mesothelioma. Letterman had asked him how he was coping, and did he have any insights into life and death that “the rest of us” might not have. Zevon’s response is semi-popular, but I think it fits – especially during these times. We are tempted to take for granted the little details, the little things that are always there. It wasn’t a “live life to the fullest” quote – but an urging to appreciate the quiet moments. The answer was profound because it didn’t try to be profound. His response?

“Enjoy every sandwich.”

I’m going to write things down. I’m keeping my eyes open. I’m celebrating the tiniest of wins – so I can remember the who, what, where, when, and why of the good that I do. It’s there. I want to remember – and not forget. It’s not one big win, but one thousand little wins that twenty years from now, I NEED to remember.

And if you have time, the interview is below, and it’s worth watching.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7Mirkd3CT4

Author: Jason Kesselring

I am a 42 year old high school chemistry teacher (and former pediatrician), happily married, and a father of two wonderful children.

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