Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Living for dying

One of the biggest things I've noticed in the last few weeks is that a whole lot more of my time than normal is being focused on death and dying. I'm not desensitized to it yet, so all of the focus is really taking a toll on me emotionally. I'm still crying during videos in Death and Dying class, and I'm finding myself being particularly sensitive in other aspects of my life too as death and dying carry over.

This will be the hardest part, I think. I'm not trained yet in how to handle the emotional parts of the death process. And, I really believe that I have not yet come to terms with my own death yet. A few weeks ago I began to touch on this realization on I Am What I Am, but that was just the start. I find myself imagining it sometimes, thinking about my own death or that of someone close to me, and I need to stop myself. It's unhealthy for me at this point to spend so much time contemplating my own death. Of course, I always remind myself too that I could die on the way to work tomorrow, or tonight in my sleep, or three seconds from now. Or now.

Andrew Olmsted is dead. He's a guy I never met or knew, but he gave a message to a friend to post to his blog in the event of his death---and then he went and died.

He writes:

I write this in part, admittedly, because I would like to think that there's at least a little something out there to remember me by. Granted, this site will eventually vanish, being ephemeral in a very real sense of the word, but at least for a time it can serve as a tiny record of my contributions to the world. But on a larger scale, for those who knew me well enough to be saddened by my death, especially for those who haven't known anyone else lost to this war, perhaps my death can serve as a small reminder of the costs of war. Regardless of the merits of this war, or of any war, I think that many of us in America have forgotten that war means death and suffering in wholesale lots. A decision that for most of us in America was academic, whether or not to go to war in Iraq, had very real consequences for hundreds of thousands of people. Yet I was as guilty as anyone of minimizing those very real consequences in lieu of a cold discussion of theoretical merits of war and peace. Now I'm facing some very real consequences of that decision; who says life doesn't have a sense of humor?

In his formatting, the phrase "very real consequences" appears at the beginning of three successive lines and it almost reads like poetry. Whether or not that was intentional I have no idea, but it works really well.

So, dying. It's going to become my life. My livelihood. I will get paid and live because people die. I will profit from the loss of someone's mother, sister, child, father, husband. Until I desensitize to that fact (at least in theory--I don't ever want to become desensitized to death *really*), this is going to be a long road.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Back in the habit

Between the big test on Thursday night and company in town over the weekend, I haven't studied since, well, Wednesday. I should be back into it by now, seeing as how my company left about five hours ago. And I have another bio test on Wednesday that's worth 20 points so it's almost as big of a deal as the lab test. I should be studying my ass off. And yet...

It seems that getting out of the habit of studying around the clock has served as an off-switch for studying entirely. I'm going to give myself another two hours, and then I'm getting back to the books. I have to. If I get an F on Wednesday's test (on material I'm familiar with and have had the opportunity to study for the last two weeks), I will freak right the fuck out.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


I got an A on my biology test!!!!! Actually I got 32/30, so I got MORE than an A. I would have gotten 34/30 but I missed one of my 15 parts--the brachial artery--that I will never forget ever, ever again. Brachial artery and I are like BFF now. I was so nervous I was shaking, and I told Dr. Adams that and he said "yes, you should be shaking!" He was kidding--he's quite funny--but I didn't stop shaking for almost an hour afterward.

Now I can take a break--for a day. I have another quiz next Wednesday and I really want to get a perfect score so I can keep my "over 100%" grade. But Jessie and Brian are coming into town on Saturday so I'm going to relax for the rest of tonight and then take Saturday "off" from studying. There will be plenty of time to study tomorrow and again beginning Sunday.

Imagine--me with an A in a biology class. Insane. I expect to be waking up any time now.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Heath Ledger

Heath Ledger's death at age 28 is shocking. The deaths of celebrities always hit me a little funny--in part because I'm such a star-fucker that I feel like I personally know them. The sensitive part of me wants to feel pain and be sad, but the logic part of me says "hey, stupid, you didn't even know the guy." I mean, ultimately it's sad, but does it impact my life? Only because I thought he was a cool actor and I'll miss seeing him in movies.

But, on a grander scale, I think it's the suddenness of the death that bothers me. He was here this morning, and now he's not. I can't adjust to that with anyone, celebrity or not. It's a reminder of how quickly life can cease, and that no one is immune. Every year we each live the day that will eventually be our deathday and then the anniversary of our death. And we do it without knowing. I feel like it's a day that should be figured out and celebrated, just as a birthday would. Imagine how different our society would be if death was revered as much as birth. Of course the idea that today may be the day that I die one, five, or fifty years from now, is unnerving. But I've passed that day either 30 or 31 times already in my lifetime.

In Psychology of Death and Dying we talked last week about 'appropriate death' and how that might be defined. Everyone had different variations on the same theme: older is better. Dying in cardiac arrest at age 28 surrounded by sleeping pills just is not okay, and it's so....beneath him. I'm not saying "beneath him" suggesting he killed himself, but beneath him in that he should have lived to be an old man. There are certain celebrities that we may be able to do without in this world of ours; Heath Ledger wasn't anywhere near that list.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Balancing teaching and studying

One of the most important aspects of transitioning from one career to another is the time management of maintenance and learning. I need to, essentially, balance two careers for at least another few years.

I've taken and scheduled to take several days off from teaching in order to complete my obligations to my second career: school. What that means is that even if I'm not feeling well, or if I might have taken a day off in the past, I need to weigh my current "need" of a day off against the potential future need (that may be greater). Hopefully that makes sense.

Today was a day I stayed at home. Students had the day off, so the teachers had an inservice. I decided that my time would be better served by finishing chapter 2 in accounting, reading chapter 2 in Death/Dying, and running through my anatomy flash cards one more time (or more) before I hit the lab tomorrow for a few hours.

I'm pretty surprised with my level of studying, to be perfectly honest. If I had put forth this amount of effort the first time around, I'd be a much different person. Crazy how one's priorities change as one gets older.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Where it all began...

In order to avoid complaining about my classes and how hard college seems to have become since the last time I was there, I'll share with you where the connection of English teacher/Funeral Director really first began.

December 17, 1992, I stood in the hallway after school with friends. It was late but I didn't have to work until 5:00 (at Hardees) so we were just shooting the shit by our lockers. Brad was there, and Kale, I'm sure, and a few others though I don't remember exactly. Naomi Lindscheid was in Mr. Eckhoff's room. Eugene Eckhoff was my speech coach and pretty much the coolest teacher in our school. Everyone loved and respected him. He was one of those toiling, brilliant teachers that gives tirelessly to his students until he retires, then he still stays involved because he still loves kids. Right? Except that Naomi came running out of Mr. Eckhoff's room that day, which was a Tuesday I think, saying that he had collapsed.

I ran into the room. He was on the floor behind his desk not moving. Naomi and I got him laid out flat on the floor, I moved his legs, and she began CPR because she was a swimmer and knew how. When our assistant principal got to his room (in record time) he did mouth-to-mouth.

And I watched my English teacher die.

I won't say that I'm an English teacher because of Mr. Eckhoff. There were other teachers who followed him, including his replacement, Raymond Philippot, who had a far greater impact on me because they were there. But, there's no question in my mind that seeing death and teaching English became permanently linked together in my mind on that day in December, when I stood by and watched--not because I could help, but because I couldn't turn away.

Monday, January 14, 2008

School days, school days, dear old golden rule days...

The whole night can be summed up in one piece of information: I had to leave biology in order to go throw up.

Sometime around 9:00 this morning, I began to have "stomach issues." I thought it was nerves, and began to realize that I may have underestimated the massiveness of the changes I'm putting myself through. Later it became painfully clear that nerves weren't all what was happening. It should be said, though, that I have always manifested "nerves" through physical ways: I get sick, throw up, get headaches, etc. This appears to be just the flu.

Aside from the puking, my first trip back into a college classroom in ten years proved to be enlightening. I'm still not sure quite what to make of it. There are eighty people signed up for the class. My biggest class at St. Olaf was my monday night psychology seminar with sixty people. Other than that, I didn't have a class over 40.

Other differences:
--> The last time I was in college, the internet was new and used mostly for....well, I don't know what. I think academics, actually.

--> The last time I was in college, the only person who had a "cell phone" was Donald Trump. And it was the size of his head.

--> The last time I was in college I was 21 and my highest priorities were: getting drunk, getting laid, and passing classes...in that order.

I don't know how all of this will pan out. The class is going to be hard. Extremely hard. I'm not afraid of hard work, but I am scared to paralysis to fail. Hopefully Wednesday I'll feel better--I teach from 7 to 3 and have class from 4-9. Hell day.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

First Day of School

I've always loved the night before the first day of school. I'm excited, can't sleep, and I feel like I want to jump right into my studies and get ahead in all of my subjects.

I'm a teacher instead of a Nobel Prize winning physicist because that feeling doesn't last beyond the night before the first day of school.

Tomorrow I officially begin on the path to becoming a funeral director. The classes aren't that exciting yet, but they're the ones that will build the foundation on which everything else will be built: accounting, psychology of death and dying, and human biology.

I don't know how much I'll sleep tonight--it's 11pm and I'm thinking that I might make some popcorn--but when I'm going on the "night before the first day of school" energy, life is all good.

Friday, January 11, 2008

No need to wait for 4pm Monday

Remember yesterday? How I was talking about how smart I was and feeling all smug about my 100% on my syllabus quiz and pretty sure I was going to turn the world on with my smile at least until Biology on Monday?

Today I spent two and a half hours on accounting...on a five point set of problems. So far I've earned four points, but I've got the distinct feeling that last point is going to remain out of reach (I've got one last chance to enter the correct numbers for Mr. Johnson's owner's equity statement and I'll be dipped in shit if I can figure out how much his "drawing" is).

Truth is, I love accounting. I love balancing and I adore numbers as long as they don't get too complicated. One of my favorite classes in high school was Mr. Dixon's Accounting class where we would sit for entire class periods listening to Air Supply and entering numbers onto the computer. I love accounting so much I almost chose it as a career. The only reason I didn't was because St. Olaf didn't have an accounting major/program and I would have had to major in Economics.

Accounting is quite important for funeral directors. They are, I think, more business people than anything else. And yes, sales too. But most funeral directors own their own businesses so they need to know what's up with the numbers.

So I'll keep working for two hours to earn four points, not for the points themselves but for the knowledge that I know I'll use this stuff in the future.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

One quiz down and some early lessons about my new environment

I passed my first quiz in accounting tonight with 100%. It was a quiz on the syllabus, which has apparently become required in colleges so that the instructor can insure that the students actually read the thing. I haven't even set foot back on campus and I can already tell from my accounting textbook and this "syllabus quiz" concept that college is a lot different than it was the last time I was there. My accounting book, in the middle of a section, suggested that if I was getting confused I should step away from the book and take a 10-15 minute break to clear my head. Back when I was in college the first time, the textbooks were filled with new information that would show up on a test, not common sense study tips. We were supposed to know those already.

I guess with No Child Left Behind, though, books need to be written to the lowest common denominator. In the past, you figured out how to study in high school or you didn't do so well in college (I was in the latter group). Now, though, so far it appears that the publishers assume that you have only two brain cells to rub together and have responded accordingly.

Did I mention that the class average grade on the quiz is 93%? On the SYLLABUS.

Of course, this false sense of security I'm indulging in will likely be kicked right out of me at 4pm on Monday when I stroll into Biology and all of the knowledge I've ever had in my head will be zapped out as I cross the threshold.

Fortunately, I hear they have a textbook for people like me.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Five days to liftoff...

In five days I will set foot in the classroom as a student for the first time in ten years. I have equal levels of excitement and trepidation, just never at the same time. The first step in this process is to complete my prerequisites, classes that will get me to the level I need to be in order to compete at the University of Minnesota. Mortuary Science is a four year degree, and since I already have my college degree, I'll need to just do the prerequisites and then one year of the "official" mortuary science classes. The plan is to be ready to enter the U of M in the fall of 2009.

I am excited because the day I walk into the classroom my dreams turns from an "I'm going to" into an "I am." I'm nervous because this time around I know how much work college is--that they're serious about that 2-3 hours of studying per class hour. Excited to learn new things. Nervous that I might get a B. Excited to show off how smart I am. Nervous that I might think I'm smarter than I actually am.

Either way, at the end of the day it's the classes that will help lead me closer to my goal. If it's not meant to be, I'll find that out and I'll be better for the experience. If it is meant to be, and I believe it is, I'll succeed and my hard work will pay off.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

An Introduction

Welcome to 'Death Becomes Her,' my blog that will capture all of the ups and downs of my journey to change careers from a high school English teacher to a funeral director. Going back to school at age 31 on the other side of the classroom and working in math/science/business areas rather than literary subjects promises to be very interesting.

The first question most everyone has asked as I've "come out" with my decision to become a funeral director is "WHY?"

My answer:
I've always been fascinated with death and feared it on a higher level than most people. I didn't go to a funeral until I was 24 years old. Once I started, though, I suddenly found myself going to a lot of them. Former students, current students, grandparents, friends of the family, parents of students...all told at the current time I've been to nearly 30 funerals in the last seven years.

Death, at least the idea of it, kept creeping into my fiction writing. Finally, when my grandma died in January of '05, I bit the bullet and asked the funeral director, Mark, to give me a tour of the place. I told him (and I believed this myself) that I was researching a story. I now realize that I was actually researching a career.

I put it out of my head until late 2006 when several events pulled together to push me in the direction of funeral directing:

1. I applied for the MFA program at the University of Minnesota and did not get in.

2. On a staff development day, we had to fill out a questionaire that asked the question "if you didn't teach, what other job would you want to have?" My answer: funeral director.

3. Pressure to get into a master's program finally reached a boiling point when I didn't get into the U of M. I looked at several schools and nothing seemed to fit right. Everything was a struggle.

4. A friend of my grandma died in the summer of 2007 and I went to her wake. Mark, the aforementioned funeral director, gave me some literature on the University of Minnesota's mortuary science program.

Once I made the decision to explore mortuary science, everything seemed to fall into place. The program is possible, affordable, and, after a few pre-requisite classes that I can take at Normandale Community College, totally doable.

That's the basic story of how I decided to go into mortuary science. There are, of course, a lot of feelings that I have on the subject of death care and funerals that aren't covered above, but I'll get into those.