To Be Or Not To Be OCD

I have never been the organized type. I’m not a candidate for “Hoarders,” mind you, but there’s always room for improvement (just don’t go into my bathroom). I’ve gotten better over the years. Not perfect, but better. Does this mean my pantry looks like Ina Garten’s? Or my closet is neatly arranged by color? Or that my desk is spotless? Nope. Not even one of these things.

Instead I open my pantry cupboards with caution so I’m not knocked unconscious by a flood of canned goods. My closet has more non-clothing items than clothes (oh, there’s that old hoola-hoop I’ve been looking for!). And my desk…well, there’s an empty water bottle from three days ago that I could easily throw in the trash.

Organization – or the lack thereof – goes for undergraduate life as well. Again, I’ve gotten better about organizing, and this full-time semester has helped.

Let’s take a look at the weekly schedule photo I posted above. This is about as organized as I get. Quite frankly, I’m particularly proud of it. Screw the ‘A’ on my 8-page auto-ethnography essay I just got back – that pales in comparison to the joy of this hand-written schedule.

When I look at it, I smile. My five courses are listed beautifully like a treasured family recipe. Under each course are the assignments I need to work on for the week. I highlight all that is important. Most important, I adorn it with cute little stickers, a suggestion from my 7-year old to make the paper “look happy.” And it does look happy, doesn’t it??

This would not have come about 20 years ago. I had an agile mind back then. My community college assignments were categorized right in my noggin, and I never forgot a one. And I was working one or two jobs. Now I’m lucky to remember if ate breakfast or, worse, if I made it but forgot to eat it. Hey, it’s happened.

This organizational skill is nothing to brag about, really. It hasn’t seeped into my normal day-to-day life. Just today I got a notification that my child’s eye appointment is tomorrow – an appointment I made two months ago. An appointment I should have cancelled because we’ve already seen the optometrist.

I’m just happy that being an undergrad at 45 means learning more than just academic knowledge. Who knows, by this time next year I might be doing something as crazy as, I don’t know, going to bed at a reasonable hour!

Hey, one can hope.


Can’t Attend Classes? Don’t Worry, We’ve Got You COVID.

That’s a bad pun, and I apologize. But if this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we are obligated to laugh at cheesy dad jokes. And at this rate, I’m pretty much a giant block of sharp cheddar.

The experience I longed for most as an undergrad at 45 years of age was taking part in campus life. Mind you, I had taken about 3,427 classes at my local community college over the last 25 years, but that was the path to transfer into university. A long, daunting, arduous path (and absolutely nothing against community college, I wouldn’t be where I am without it!).

To me, University equated to my major, which is Literature & Writing. Rubbing elbows with my peers. Discussing Hamlet in a group setting. Joining writers’ groups, critiquing our work. Impressing professors with my charm and wit…shut up, it’s a real thing.

Instead, like millions of others, schooling was moved to online learning. COVID-19 wasn’t messing around. At first, I was miffed. Jokes aside, I had looked forward to the classroom environment. I enjoy the energy when a topic is brought up and everyone gets involved. I looked forward to adult conversations about subjects I am passionate about. And let’s face it, I adore my 7-year old, but I can handle only so many conversations about My Little Ponies.

Thing is, online learning has turned out to not be so bad. In fact, while my own child is out of school, it’s working out perfectly; I can’t imagine how I’d have juggled five days of on-campus classes. A few classes are synchronous, with regular Zoom meetings (which aren’t nearly as impersonal as I thought they’d be). A few are asynchronous, which means I can work on what I need to do when I want to work on it (no slacking!).

There are several pros. No traffic. No parking anxiety. No $600 parking permit needed, for that matter. I easily save $200 a month on gas. Group work, which I loathe, is also online! The refrigerator is right next to me. I can have a cocktail, for Christ’s sake. Most important of all, no matter what I do that’s school-related, the bathroom…is right down the hall!

The pros of online learning certainly outweigh the cons. But the truth is, I crave in-person learning. The very point of Literature & Writing is to discuss, share, banter, argue, and enlighten each other.

I also wanted to make friends. I did a lot of that in community college, and I miss it. But this time around it’s my major (are you sick of the italics yet?)! Like-minded individuals. Networking. Reading each other’s work. These are people who might be my colleagues one day.

I know things could be worse. I’m lucky I’m in a position to be going to school in general, while others struggle deal with far worse issues. I simply have to hope we all get through this and come out the other side stronger and better! And, with a lot of crossed fingers, things might returns to some kind of normal come fall of 2021.


Group Class Work, or Hand Me the Noose

If you have taken a college course, you understand there are unspoken rules. For one, the professor will always be late. Next, anyone who sits in the front is definitely an ass-kisser (I sit in the front so shut up). Also, if you sit near the door, it will be your job to “get the lights” from that point forward. The seat you pick on day one is marked with your scent; when someone else sits there you will feel the fire of hell rage in your blood – you won’t do anything about it, but you’ll want to.

And there will always – always – be group work.

Group work is the bane of my educational existence. When the syllabus is passed out, it’s the first thing I look for. But watch out, for sometimes professors are sneaky. On Week 7 the syllabus might read that your 10-slide PowerPoint on The Sand Child by Tahar Ben Jelloun is due. No Late Work Accepted. Well, gosh, that’s not too bad. A PowerPoint is eezy-peezy!

But no. Suddenly your glee is shattered when the professor says: “Sorry, guys, the syllabus has a misprint on Week 7. The PowerPoint project is a group activity. So go ahead and break off into groups of four…”

These are times it would be nice to have brought a flask to class. Or a noose.

I’m by no means an introvert. I’m not frightened of group work. I’ve met some really interesting people this way. But it NEVER FAILS: there is always that One Student who slacks off. That One Student who has more excuses than a six-year old with chocolate smeared across his face. That One Student who is taking the class as an elective and Just Wants it The Fuck Over With. Sometimes it’s two students.

I get it. I do. An elective class is basically bad sex, with text books.

This semester I had to do the exact PowerPoint project listed above. Even with COVID destroying everything, like in-class activity, it didn’t manage to bring group work down with it. Via text I had to join forces with three 19-year olds with selfie-ready school profile photos and jaunty emojis in their messages. “OMG!” “LOL!” *insert eye roll*

We knew for two months this project was due. We picked the book. Two weeks prior, one of my teammates – let’s call her Sandy – began a Google Slide document. I started it. She added to it. I edited, so did she. For a week we spruced up our presentation with photos, quotes, themes, and analytical content. It was a thing of beauty. Our other two teammates graced us with a text or two, but they may as well have just farted into the ether.

The day before the project was due, I was ready to cut a bitch. Sandy and I did everything. I sent one last group text that read: “This is done and I’m sending it in. It would have been nice if Sandy and I didn’t have to carry this whole thing, but I guess she and I don’t have bitch-ass shoulders.”

Project sent. Grades dispersed. My complaint to the professor was worthy of a Pulitzer. Did anything come of it? Who knows. In the past I always let it go, so sending the email was a big step. I’m not looking to ruin academic careers here, but I sure as hell hope karma wants to cut a bitch once in a while.

Or hand out nooses.


What’s the Big Deal About Hemingway?

In my U.S. War Literature class, we have read several interesting items. First, we tackled a little bit of Walt Whitman’s Civil War poetry. Next, we admired Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches (a far cry from the sappy Little Women). Quality work from both.

Then came A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway. Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning Hemingway. Hemingway, the guy who wrote a bunch of other stuff like The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Novels I’ve known about for years but somehow managed to avoid in my 45 years rooted on this planet.

A Farewell to Arms. I didn’t like it. At all. Turn your nose up at me, it’s ok. I understand Hemingway changed the way we read. I realize he took writing and turned it on its head (100 years ago). He’s a smart guy. War veteran. Highly respected. He even has his iceberg theory, after all:

“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.” – Hemingway

The problem with Farewell, though, is that the other 7/8ths of the iceberg is buoyed with it. It’s dense and heavy. It’s slow. Often times it’s infuriating, namely the conversations between Lieutenant Henry and Catherine Barkley; the words are like an endless stream of Cupid’s arrows.

And I feel guilty for not liking it. It’s true. And I’m rarely prone to guilt (ask my mother). And I start sentences with ‘and’ more often than I should. But Hemingway is regarded as one of The Most Important Authors in History. Who am I to judge his work? What’s worse is I’m a f***ing undergraduate. I’m hardly a literary scholar.

Thing is, I don’t pretend to be. I know what I like, what I don’t like. I also know that to be a better writer, I have to be a better reader. I didn’t hate the novel, by any means. I can distinguish good writing from bad (I like to think). But still: the hills, the mountains, the rain, the mud, dead leaves, more hills, stones, and more damned rain. Don’t worry, I get it. I understand symbolism. For me it was his approach to said symbolism.

This is what I enjoy about school, namely in my major. I’m being introduced to so much reading from authors I would never have picked up on my own. There are daunting aspects, of course: this includes having to write a negative reader response to Farewell and turn it in to a professor who adores his writing. I still got an ‘A’, but my finger quivered when I clicked “send document.”

To quote Andy from “The Devil Wears Prada” (the film, which is totally out of place in this post, but I don’t care): “I know I’m still learning about all this stuff…” Now all I need is a tongue-lashing from Meryl Streep deriding me for that comment, and I’d be all set.

Next up: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. I’m more than halfway through and this is a novel I can chew on.


Flashback Friday: 1985

I was 10 years old in 1985. I know, not quite an age to look back on with vast memory. It’s an important year because it pinpoints exactly when my formative years began. Music. Movies. It’s the year Everybody Wanted to Rule the World, after all.

10 years old. My god. It seems like eons ago. Here I am, 35 years later, living in the same city. I reside in an apartment where, as I type this, I look out onto a road I’d traversed many times as a kid on my bicycle: Grand Avenue, they call it. Believe me, it’s anything but – traffic, noise, and a woman who got shot in the head just by driving between two rival gangs having a gun fight. Grand, indeed.

Please don’t fault me for waxing nostalgia, but 1985 was a simpler time. Granted, being a kid helped. I had two responsibilities: going to school and not getting kidnapped. This was the year of the Night Stalker. How my best friend and I rode our bikes in the summer until 11 o’clock at night is beyond me. We’d sneak onto our school’s campus and play like fools. Nope, no red flags there. Just a couple of unsupervised adolescents running around in the dark. I don’t know how I survived. Interesting to note: we were never once stopped by the cops.

We were kind of poor in 1985. Not destitute. My mother worked her ass off, but sometimes powdered milk was a staple. Food stamps. None of this EBT nonsense nowadays where a parent can buy chips, soda, candy and NyQuil. Nope. We had only government-approved items to choose from. And god forbid my mother pick something as flashy as real cheese. “Sorry, miss, this has to go back,” the clerk chided. The slogan for food stamps should have been: We Strive For Total Humiliation!

Can’t forget the mall. I miss our little mall from the 80s. Sears. Chuck E. Cheese’s. Orange Julius. TG&Y. Farrell’s Ice Cream. Going to The Wherehouse to buy actual records. Shoes from Kinney’s. Imagination, where we could procure weird shit like rainbow dreamcatchers and tie-dye t-shirts. All along Valley Parkway, where teens drove their flashy cars and glowed in neon everything.

I saw The Goonies that year. In a theatre. By myself. Without much supervision, I could do these things. I was a good kid, at least. I could be trusted (an important element when you have a single mom who works). But that feeling of independence put a spring in my step, which was good, considering I had to walk four miles to get to the theatre.

I could go on and on. When I close my eyes I can make the dreary road ahead of my window disappear. I can remember the distinct feeling of growing up. I knew I was a kid, had no interest in being older yet. But 1985 is that year where it all came together – the music, the movies, the friendships.

And not getting stopped by the cops. Couldn’t have gotten away with all this otherwise.


Crazy Old Cat Lady

The Coronavirus has happily forced me to live a life I was living anyway, but now I don’t have to feel guilty about it.

Staying in most of the time? Check. Avoiding others at the grocery store? Check. Not socializing, even when opportunities present themselves? Check!

I am not afraid of people. The anxiety that has grown over the years is not incapacitating. I’m an amiable gent. I’m the guy who says hello to the cashier before she asks me. I thrive in work environments where there are many of us, including customers. Hell, sit me at a bar stool and in no time I’ll be chatting it up with the person next to me.

I just seem to be evolving into a Crazy Old Cat Lady, that’s all.

‘Introvert’ is a strong word. Anyone who knows me can attest that I am not an introvert. Need a dirty joke? Sure. Sing a karaoke tune in tight leather pants in front of 1,000 people? Done. Incite a riot? Well, there’s always tomorrow.

I like the word ‘withdrawn.’ It implies choice. Where many look forward to gatherings, parties, even one-on-ones, I prefer to stay home, cook, read, and watch bad television. I look forward to my solitary walks, or time in the corner of the library. It’s who I am.

And, everyone’s health included, I am such a proponent of wearing masks! Hide my unruly beard? My red face? You don’t have to ask me twice!

Granted, the Coronavirus is an awful, horrible thing. I do not mean to make light of it. In these times, it’s important to find light at the end of the tunnel. My tunnel just happens to include turning off my phone, caring for my little girl, and tending to the 45 cats I will have adopted by year’s end.

Can’t be an Crazy Old Cat Lady without them.


My Secret History

Some books, I believe, find us at times when we need them most. An unexpected surprise. Maybe when we are vulnerable. Hurt. Sometimes it’s a book that’s been sitting on a shelf for years. A forgotten gift. Perhaps it’s a worn copy of “Catcher in the Rye” found on a park bench. Or imagine the title “Dandelion Wine” resonating with a young girl who stumbles upon it, and now it’s her favorite novel.

This happens often, for many of us.

In February of 1997, I was living in a grey outskirt of Boston called Winthrop. I’d moved there three months prior with a friend. The decision was impetuous. I was navigated by naïveté, youth, and spontaneity – ingredients that did not make for a successful stay. It was frightfully cold. My roommate was depressed. I was broke. I worked for Barnes & Noble, and though the job provided a break from reality, the truth is I was miserable.

To break the monotony, I familiarized myself with the local public library. I enjoyed the walk there most of all. The air was fresh, despite the grey sky and threat of snow. The cemetery I passed along the way often brought perspective – weathered headstones dating back to the 1700s. The library was warm, well-used, and comfortable.

“The Secret History,” by Donna Tartt, found me on one of these trips. I did not seek out specific books, but rather I’d peruse the aisles, head tilted to read the titles. When I saw “The Secret History” – there were three copies – I remembered it as being a title suggested to me by a friend back home. There was something about the acetate cover. Even Ms. Tartt’s stark photo was intriguing somehow – her sharp black hair, her tailored jacket. I checked it out.

I am not a voracious reader. I wish I was. I wish I had been that kid who cozied up in corners, a stack of books at his feet. But I didn’t have the attention span. My love for reading progressed as I got older. Anne Rice. Stephen King. Agatha Christie. At 21, I thought I wanted to be a writer, but the truth is I had no idea what truly good writing was.

“The Secret History” changed that for me. I devoured it in two days. Then I read it again. The language fit me like the piece of a puzzle. The prose. The sentences. The story of six people my age. While reading, I didn’t have to think of my depressed roommate needing cigarette money, or the lumbering, mustached goon who lived with his wild-haired mother upstairs, always making excuses to come into our part of the house. I could crack that book open to any page and be satisfied. No 20 degree weather, or window-rattling gusts. I took it with me on the bus, the subway, to escape the treachery of bone-chilling rain, sleet, and weary travelers. I wrapped myself in the murder of Bunny, his friends – the culprits – and the dreamy intellectualism of a fictional college where students studied Greek and drank and drank and drank.

The book didn’t fix my situation. But it helped immeasurably. It was a favorite of a co-worker at the bookstore; we connected over it immediately. She was lovely. A literature hound. I will always remember her as looking like Kyra Sedgwick. She worked because she wanted to, not because she had to. “My husband is a lawyer, we do well, but if I have to wash socks and make meatloaf every day, I’ll slit my wrists.” When I made the decision to move back to California, she asked me to house sit her brownstone in the city. “I don’t want you leaving Boston without having experienced what it has to offer.” That week allowed me to walk the streets of a city steeped in history. I soaked up the culture, the food, and enjoyed every moment.

I realized during that week I genuinely wanted to be a writer. Those bleak months in Winthrop were no one’s fault, though I blamed my roommate for a long time after. The thing is, it was a trip that needed to happen. I needed the experience, the notches on my belt. “The Secret History” had to find me there.

There was no other way.


So I’m Not 22 Anymore

Recently I made an appointment with my doctor to talk about my aching joints. As the world is now connected by apps, I made my appointment this way. In the comments section I wrote about my concerns – slight pain, the inability to do squats the way I used to, ibuprofen becoming a closer friend than I’d like. A nurse called me a couple hours later to follow up.

“You’re having trouble with your joints?” she confirmed.

“Yes,” I answered. “My knees, mostly.”

“Hmm,” she said. Her voice was not amiable.

“Is there a problem?” I asked.

“Well, Mr. Farley, with all due respect, you’re not 22 anymore. You’re 45. Joints are the first to go.”

I was speechless. Not because of the truth, but her attitude. “I appreciate the insight,” I told her, “but for your information, I’ve been wearing contacts for years, so sight is the first thing to go.”

The nurse didn’t laugh. I imagined Louise Fletcher sitting rigidly at a desk. I confirmed my appointment, thrilled I didn’t have to see her face-to-face.

So I’m not 22 anymore. I don’t generally let this truth bother me. I enjoy my age; believe me, I am happy to be out of my 20s and 30s. And I can’t let a little thing like aching joints get in my way. I know I need to eat better, exercise more, drink more water and less rum. This is a roller coaster I have been on a dozen times.

“It’s all part of the journey,” my doctor told me when I finally saw him. “The next thing to go is your prostate.”

My doctor laughed. I didn’t.


Old Dog, New Tricks

45 years old. In the fall I start my undergraduate studies in Literature & Writing. It has been a long time coming.

This has been a dream of mine for many years. I didn’t have the opportunity after high school to go to college. Life, circumstances and all that stuff. There was no traditional trajectory, so I attended community college to get here. In my 20s, 30s and 40s, while traversing through life, I took classes here and there until I had enough to transfer to a four-year university.

And here I am.

And I’m petrified.

But I got here, and that’s all that matters. A sage friend once told me, when I complained about being almost 50 by the time I have a Master’s, “Well, you’ll be 50 anyway. Might as well be 50 with a Master’s.” Words of wisdom.

School doesn’t begin for a couple of months. 5 classes, all Lit & Writing-related. That’s a shock in and of itself. No more horrible biology. No more mind-crushing math. General Education be damned! A couple of professors have already emailed book lists and I think it’s safe to say I won’t be seeing daylight for the next several months.

And I’m tickled. Petrified, but tickled.