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I Witnessed History

Well readers, this past Saturday, I had the opportunity to fulfill a dream I have had since 2004, the first Presidential election that I paid attention to. I got to see a small piece of history through the experience of a campaign rally!

We have all seen them on television, and if you are passionate about one candidate or another, you may have even cheered or clapped along with the crowds as the candidate shouted words of inspiration on television as I have. Maybe it’s the journalist in me, but ever since I started paying attention to these rallies, I longed to not just cheer along with a television crowd, but be in the crowd, to not just listen to a reporter trying to capture the experience, but experience a rally for myself. Of course, when there is something you really want to experience, the candidates would always come to town when I had school, and when I was off, the campaign rallies were too far away. My freshman year of college in 2008, John McCain held a rally just blocks from my college, and my mom had the audacity to attend the rally with my grandmothers, but insist that I go to class! If I were sighted, I might have fooled her and walked in the door of the building where I had class, waited until the car was gone and then walked to the rally where I would have blended in with the masses and she would have never known. It wasn’t high school anymore, so the school wouldn’t have contacted her or given me a detention. As it was, Gilbert and I didn’t know the route to the rally and I didn’t know of any friends who were going, so I went to class like a good student. But as I listened to the professor, it occurred to me that the 2012 campaign season would be in full swing the summer I graduated college. If the economy was still shaky then, I might even be able to enjoy a few months without a job. If this turned out to be the case, I vowed that 2012 would be the year to fulfill this dream.

Well, 2012 came in the blink of an eye, and I did graduate and the economy is still bad, so I still don’t have a job. Given that, last Monday September 17, Mom was trying to talk me in to going with her to Indiana for a family reunion on Saturday. I was a little reluctant, fearing that finding something gluten-free at a potluck-style family reunion would be a nightmare. When she promised we would get to Grandmas house in time to go to a grocery store and make gluten-free food, I was starting to cave. And then I found out that Barack Obama was coming to Milwaukee for a rally on Saturday. It was officially decided. Sorry Mom, but I have to go to that rally. I have waited years for this experience. Perhaps remembering how I envied her in 2008, she understood.

The rally was free and open to the public, but tickets were required. So after a career fair last Thursday morning, the kind of event when we would usually be tired and hungry and thus choose to go straight home, we bypassed the home exit on the freeway and made a special trip to one of four Organizing for America offices in our area to pick up two tickets. We had to fill out a form with our contact information to obtain the tickets, and as long as they had lured us in, the form asked if we would be interested in doing anything on a list of volunteer opportunities for Obama’s campaign, and Obama T-shirts and buttons were on display for purchase with a donation. Boy are politicians clever and opportunistic! We didn’t want to commit to volunteering, but I fell for the Obama button for a donation ploy. I had to have something to show off at the rally after all! Everyone else probably would too! So I got a Women for Obama button with a $1 donation.

Mom put the tickets on the little kitchen table when we got home so we would see them Saturday morning, and every time I would walk by that table, I would feel for the tickets to verify that they were still there, that they hadn’t been accidentally lost amidst other paperwork or gotten anything spilled on them and because I just couldn’t believe that the opportunity I had patiently waited eight years to experience was just two days away now and touching the tickets confirmed this was actually for real!

Last Friday I got a reminder call from a volunteer, as if I would forget to show up for such an opportunity. The volunteer said the doors to the park where the rally was to be held would open at 2:30 in the afternoon, so we should try to get there around then to get a better spot in line and get through security in time for the President. So on Saturday at around 1:30, sporting blue jeans, a white T-shirt, a red fleece jacket on which Mom helped me pin the button and a pair of good walking shoes, and with both of our tickets in my excited little hands, we headed for the rally.

Now I knew there would be a long line. This was the president of the United States after all, and not just any president but the first African-American president and an inspiring speaker. But when an organizer of the event spoke on the news Friday casually predicting “a couple thousand people”, I imagined a line that was blocks, rather than miles long. Dad had the car parked right at 2:30 and already when we took our place at the back of the line, Dad said we were a mile from the park. And as we stood in line, people were still coming in waves, until Dad told me that the line wound around buildings and extended all the way to the lakefront miles away.

“I’m not sure we’ll be able to get in on time,” Dad confessed when he saw where we were in a line that didn’t budge for over an hour, “we’ll try to get in, but don’t be too disappointed. I think someone near us in line said they heard people who were closer to the gate had been there since 9:00 in the morning. I wouldn’t have had the patience to hold a place in line for that long, even if it was to see the president. But I will say it was the most pleasant, festive line I ever waited in. It was nothing like waiting in line to get on an amusement park ride, where everyone is in a tight single-file line with the hot sun beating down and little kids getting tired and upset. It was around 56 degrees, a cool Autumn afternoon. I think it was a pretty cloudy day too. I did feel the sun occasionally, but it wasn’t oppressive at all. Since the line didn’t move very fast, people could step out of the line and sit in the grass or on a bench and then get up when the line moved. Since I was running on adrenaline, and since I am used to standing for insane lengths of time from when I was in choirs, I could have stood the whole time. But Dad insisted that I should be one of the people sitting down because if we managed to get in to the rally, it would likely be standing room only so I should pace myself.

Surprisingly, at least where I was, I didn’t hear any protesters, and Dad didn’t see any protest signs either. Perhaps in the aftermath of last year’s Capital chaos in Madison, police have been cracking down, so protesters decided to stay home. But at different times, random people would come around selling Obama merchandise. “Obama buttons! Obama buttons! 2 for $5!” or “T-shirts for $10! Others are charging $15!” When the line progressed a little further, someone was even selling Obama underwear! I’m not kidding!

Just behind us was a mother and her little boy who ran around and played a little while we waited, although the mother basically said to be careful because if he got hurt, they weren’t leaving. He complained a little about the long wait, but overall was a great sport, behaving much better than I would have at his age. On the one hand, he seemed a little young to be at an event like this, but he seemed old enough that he would remember the event and while he may not appreciate it now, when he grows up he will understand that he got to witness history.

After over an hour in which time the line hardly budged, all of the sudden it was moving fast and we pretty much walked without stopping until we reached security. Since it was the President, it was airport style security where we had to empty our pockets of metal, throw away any liquids, and even remove our Obama buttons. To my relief though, we did not have to take off our shoes!

And then at about 5:00, we were in the gate! Dad was right. By the time we got in, all of the seats were filled and we were standing crammed like sardines ten rows back. The outdoor venue where this rally was held is a popular venue for summer festivals. I’m not a fan of outdoor concerts so I had never been to this venue, but my dad had and said it wasn’t very big. Someone else said it seated around 5,000 people, but the next day, I read a recounting of the event from a blogger who reported there were 18,000 people there. At first I thought that whoever organized this rally seriously underestimated Obama’s popularity, until Dad explained the politics of perception to me. Organizers of rallies like this intentionally use smaller venues to create an overflow crowd because if the event was hosted in a big venue and there were empty seats, it would look bad.

My dad had to stand on his tiptoes to see because there were tall people standing in front of us and I had to strain to hear the speakers because people around us were talking, but we were there! When a former Democratic Senator, a woman running for senate and a union firefighter gave speeches, the crowd seemed enthusiastic but relatively subdued. But when the president of the United States stepped on to the stage, that all changed. The audience erupted in deafening cheers, mirroring the spirit of the rallies I had seen on television. And if you thought he could give a rousing, inspiring speech on television, they are ten times as rousing when you hear them in person! It’s one thing to hear a crowd “boo!” on television when Obama talks about Romney’s vision for the country. It’s quite another to be in the booing crowd and then hear him say “don’t boo! VOTE!” From then on, every time Obama said “Don’t boo!” the crowd would shout “VOTE!” After awhile this cheering and booing gets boring when you have to listen to it from the other side of the television screen. As a passive television viewer, I have accused these crowds of being silly and overly dramatic. I admit to fantasizing about getting “good seats,” or maybe even having the opportunity to shake the president’s hand, so I was a little disappointed about how far back we were, fearing that the experience would be no different than if I had watched it on television. In fact, Dad and I probably could have seen and heard the president better on television. But as soon as the whole venue exploded in cheers, I realized that the back of a live audience is still part of a live audience through which energy and emotions spread like wildfire. And no matter how far away we were in the venue, if you put it in to perspective, you realize you are still closer to the president than many will ever have the opportunity to be, making the long line well worth the trouble.

Two favorite lines from this rally that were re-played by reporters and which I liked too:

“We are not Bears fans first or Packers fans first. We are Americans first.” I don’t care about football, but it is common knowledge that Obama is a Bears fan. It made me think how nice it would be if a few extremely partisan bullheaded politicians on both sides were listening to this speech and took a hint, perhaps taking it a step further and changing the words in their head to “we are not democrats first or republicans first. We are Americans first.”

“I don’t see a lot of victims here today. I see hardworking Wisconsinites.” Alright, politicians are human and since even I, an average person feel terrible when I have occasionally said things that got misinterpreted, I cannot imagine how much worse politicians must feel when their every word is scrutinized across the country. Unfortunately, I have the sneaking suspicion–based on the fact that Mitt Romney defended that statement last week rather than apologizing for how it was interpreted–that he was not misinterpreted. Of course there probably are a few people out there who don’t have any desire to pull their weight and expect the government to take care of them when they are perfectly capable of working. But I believe that people are basically good and therefore I am sure that 46.99% of them are hardworking Americans who simply cannot find jobs that pay enough to provide for their families, let alone pay taxes. Or perhaps they desperately want to work but cannot find jobs at all because so many companies were encouraged to outsource jobs to China with tax breaks under the republican leadership of George W. Bush? The thought of having a president so excessively wealthy he is out of touch with this reality scares me.

But the most thrilling moment of the rally to me was when Obama reminded us that Osama Bin Laden was dead. It started with just a few people toward the front, but within seconds, it reached the back of the venue. “USA! USA! USA!” Despite all that is wrong with our country, it is amazing to see such contagious patriotism is still alive. If any Obama opponents hidden in the audience weren’t woken up by the “we are not Bears fans or Packers fans first. We are Americans first” comment, maybe this swell of patriotism got their attention. No matter who is president, we are Americans first and we should all want terrorists brought to justice and work together to secure a bright future for our country.

I try to keep political preferences off my blog as much as possible because I want to express myself, but I am not the kind of blogger who wishes to alienate anyone or ignite a fight in the comments. But I am sure some of you noticed my little jab at the republican party earlier. So while I would never go as far as buying Obama underwear, I admit that this election, I am for Obama all the way. I don’t worship Obama as if he will save the world, nor do I believe that republicans are evil. Both candidates are mere imperfect humans. After the Republican convention, I was appalled to hear that Mitt Romney’s campaign was supported by donors whose identities were top-secret, only to find out a week later after the democratic convention that Obama had secret donors too. And my internship with my state’s republican governor last summer woke me up to the corrupt behavior of unions which I admire republicans for trying to end.

I would not rule out someday voting for a republican if he/she was intelligent, well-spoken, had reasonable and moderate views and was specific about their plans. But I had a bad feeling about John McCain, and I have an even worse feeling about Mitt Romney. As an observant journalist, I have noticed that every time a reporter asks Mitt Romney a tough question, he dodges it with a blatantly scripted statement, whereas Obama answers tough questions more directly. Mitt Romney seems to pander to his party, promising to repeal the Affordable Care Act, whereas Obama isn’t afraid to do something politically unpopular. I’m sure the transition toward more government control of healthcare won’t be perfectly smooth, but something had to be done to hold insurance companies accountable for unethical behavior like denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions (like me once I can no longer be covered by my parents). Mitt Romney said he would make sure people with pre-existing conditions are covered, but since he won’t be specific, I worry he is just saying that to lull people in to thinking he will be moderate, and then once elected, he will return us to the status quo where insurance companies are in charge. And as far as republican scare tactics like telling us this will mean “socialized medicine”, we already have socialized medicine. Everybody who comes to the emergency room is cared for whether they are ensured or not, but the cost of caring for people who won’t pay for insurance because they never thought they would get sick is passed on to those with insurance making their healthcare costs higher. The provision of the Affordable Care Act which requires everyone to have insurance or pay a penalty will simply distribute healthcare costs more fairly. I am also aware that Romney passed a very similar Universal Healthcare plan as governor of Massachusetts, making me wonder if the one and only reason he is vowing to repeal it is because a democrat passed it.

My point in saying all this is that at least when it comes to this dream come true, as cliche as it sounds, patience is bitter but its fruit really is sweet. Sure the immature student in me would have loved to play hooky to see a campaign rally so close to my college. But John McCain lost the election of 2008 and was quickly forgotten by the media, and likely would have been forgotten by me too, especially since he wasn’t a candidate I was fond of. I would have just been going to the rally to experience a rally. But having the opportunity to experience a rally for the president of the United States, and realize that I didn’t just experience a rally but was inspired by it, made this an experience I will never forget.

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I’m Dreaming of a Good Pizza, Just Like the Ones I Used to Know

In the old days before Celiac, there was at least one night every week or two when it was a long day of school or work and we had no energy left to cook an involved dinner, a day when someone was feeling under the weather and needed quick easy comfort food, or nights when we just wanted a yummy dinner that was befitting of a Friday or Saturday movie night. In all of these cases, someone would say, “let’s get a pizza.”

     My parents and I liked to go to a sit-down restaurant for pizza occasionally, and occasionally we would carry out pizza from Pizza Hut or Rosati’s. But as we matured and became (slightly) more health conscious, we became fans of the take-and-bake revolution. When we baked pizzas, not only were they fresher and hotter. They also seemed less greasy. Come to think of it, that was around the time that a Papa Murphy’s opened up just five minutes from our house.

     It wasn’t long before we had the cooking instructions for Papa Murphy’s pizza memorized, so when Mom or Dad called to indicate they were on their way home from work and almost to Papa Murphy’s, whoever was home would set the oven to preheat. If it was a weekend and we were all home, someone would set the oven before we left. (We have one of the new energy efficient ovens that takes forever to be ready, but we had the timing for Papa Murphy’s down like clockwork. If we preheated the oven before we left, or when Mom or Dad was close to Papa Murphy’s, we could hear the “Beep beep beep” announcement from the oven that it was ready as soon as we walked in the door with the pizza.

     Unless there was an irresistible special pizza we had to try, or a silly, cute novelty like the thick-crusted pizza designed to look like a Jack-o-lantern for Halloween, we would almost always get a family size delite pizza (with Papa Murphy’s signature cracker-thin crust). Usually, we ordered it with canadian bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms, green peppers and onions. If Dad found a coupon that was only good for one or two toppings, he would quickly slice up our own vegetables and add them to the pizza. This was delicious too. Occasionally, we also enjoyed trying something unusual like the chicken parmesan delite or chicken artichoke bacon delite.

     The name sure suited these pizzas well. Just carrying them in to the house when they were still a giant cold paper plate of uncooked dough and toppings wrapped in saran wrap was a delight. When we got the fully loaded pizza, I swear that plate weighed five pounds, and it was the kind of pizza you had to carry cradled in the flat palms of both hands or else the plate would buckle under the weight of all the deliciousness it was carrying.

     It only got more delightful from there. In the few minutes when the pizza smelled wonderful but wasn’t quite done yet, I would be salivating like a dog. When Mom or Dad pulled the pizza out of the oven and placed it in the center of the table, those seated at the table would go “ah!” the same expression of contentment as when a cool breeze comes through an open window. Each slice felt like eating a delicious work of art too. They were the kind of slices that fit perfectly on a dinner plate. The crust of each triangular slice fanned out like wings across the whole width of the plate, and each slice also had to be cradled in both hands while being eaten because the thin crust would buckle under the weight of all the delightful toppings. From the crust that actually crunched like a cracker, to the crispy yet moist center where the cheese stretched with every bite and the tomato sauce oozed over the edge onto my face, each slice was a delight from start to finish, and there was always enough for us each to have two or three. In the early days, we would just get a 14-inch large pizza or get the 16-inch family size and have leftovers. But as time went on, we came to love the pizzas so much that we didn’t bother saving leftovers and would go ahead and eat ourselves in to a delightful stupor. With each pizza costing under $10 for my parents, the price was delightful too. What a perfect pairing of gluten and glutton that was!

     We were once loyal customers of Papa Murphy’s with a punch card that rewarded us with a free pizza when it was full, but last weekend, we had to accept reality and give our punch cards to my brother when he came home to visit. Papa Murphy’s does not have gluten-free pizzas and the gluten-free pizzas we have had just aren’t the same.

     On Friday July 20, just two days after my Celiac diagnosis, I was already hit with a pizza craving.

     “We can still have pizza,” my mom said, “we’ll just make it ourselves.” That night, she rolled out two pizza crusts from a Bob’s Red Mill kit. We all agreed it was too thick, doughy and dry. A couple weeks later, we tried putting toppings on pre-made crusts. I think they were from Schar. They were better in that they were thinner than Bob’s Red Mill, but still they seemed dry and doughy to me. The same was true of pizza I had at three local places that offer gluten-free pizza.

     I later found out that these pizza places don’t handcraft a gluten-free crust but throw their toppings on gluten-free crusts from companies like Schar as well. I don’t fault these restaurants for doing this. At this point in time at least, the Celiac population is still relatively small, so I suppose it would be impractical for these businesses to invest in the training and materials needed to make a gluten-free crust from scratch, and I suppose a hand-crafted crust would raise the risk of accidental cross-contamination. I liken it to the availability of Braille menus at restaurants. Since the blind population is also very small, very few restaurants offer braille menus, but when a restaurant does have one, I get a warm fuzzy feeling. This restaurant thought of people with special needs like me! I know I could read the menu online and decide on what to order before leaving home, but it is so exciting to be able to page through a menu with the rest of the family and read mouth-watering descriptions of their dishes rather than sitting with nothing to do while everyone else looks over the print menu. I get flustered when on occasion, I will place my order only to find out that the braille menu is out of date and the restaurant doesn’t offer that dish anymore. But once I recover and find something else, I don’t hold any hard feelings toward the restaurant. Ideally, it would be nice if they kept the braille menu up to date, but the blind population is so small I can understand how a restaurant just wouldn’t think of it, or maybe found it too impractical and expensive to update braille menus all the time for such a small market. It’s the thought that counts. Since a lot of places, including good old Papa Murphy’s, still don’t offer gluten-free options, I will gladly patronize pizza places that do have gluten-free options even if they aren’t spectacular, handcrafted creations because they thought of people with special needs like me! I would much rather eat a less than ideal pizza than live a life where I had to eat dinner at home before going to dinner with family or friends because restaurants didn’t have anything safe for people with Celiac to enjoy. Some people with Celiac have told me this was often the story of life even just five years ago.

     To be fair, there is still one more local pizza place yet to try, Transfer Pizzeria, which some friends I made in a celiac support group said is the best. It is kind of far from where we live so it hasn’t been convenient for us to get there yet, but I cannot wait to try it, especially when I found out that they get their crusts from Molly’s Gluten-free Bakery, a locally popular bakery about twenty minutes from our house that also supplies gluten-free items to stores and restaurants in our area. Their sandwich bread was the best I have had since going gluten-free, and their mint brownies are heavenly too, so I have high hopes for their pizza crusts. If we like the pizza we get at Transfer, we could go to Molly’s and buy their crusts to fill with our own toppings.

     We also have yet to test the truth of the advertising on a kit for Hodgson’s Mill pizza crusts that claims they come out light and crispy. We have a pizza crust recipe on a box of Betty Crocker gluten-free Bisquick we haven’t tried either, and I have high hopes for this crust too because it made the best banana bread I have ever had, including my life before Celiac, and it makes for excellent dipping batter that I never would have guessed was gluten-free. This has caused my parents and I to suspect that while many gluten-free product lines clearly taste gluten-free and cater to people who want to give up gluten for weight loss or a desire to go organic, Betty Crocker’s products must have been scientifically tested (and probably infused with chemicals, but oh well), to make them appealing to Celiacs and their families who are going gluten-free because they have to.

     I have an aunt who doesn’t have Celiac but goes gluten-free most of the time because she is sensitive to it. She has been a wonderful trail blazer giving Mom and I advice. She prefers thin pizza crusts too and told my mom to try rolling the pizza dough out on parchment paper instead of using a greased pan as the directions for these kits say. Mom found that when using the greased pan, she couldn’t get the dough thin because when she rolled it out, it would just spring back like a rubber band. But my aunt said this doesn’t happen with parchment paper so she can roll the dough thinner that way. And once the family comes to a consensus on the best type of flour for a gluten-free pizza crust, she wants to start making them from scratch.

     For now when we want a quick easy pizza, we turn to Udi’s. My parents bought two Udi’s frozen pizzas, an uncured pepperoni pizza, and a four-cheese pizza. Of course these pizzas lacked the delightful freshness and flavor of a fully loaded Papa Murphy’s pizza, but the crust crunched like a cracker! That’s a wonderful start!

     Although less important in the grand scheme of things, I look forward to the day when we–(or Papa Murphy’s? If you are an owner or CEO for Papa Murphy’s and you found this blog, I urge you to think about it)–get the confidence to make pizza crusts from scratch to resolve another disappointment our family has experienced with gluten-free pizza crusts. They don’t come in family size. The standard seems to be 12-inch crusts, the equivalent of a medium size pizza at Papa Murphy’s (and more expensive than the Papa Murphy’s family size too). This is just not enough for our family of big eaters. Of course we can and do make two pizzas which actually amounts to more pizza than the family size as two 12-inch pizzas means we can now indulge in 24 inches of pizza! But our oven can only cook one pizza at a time, so while we start on the first pizza, someone has to check the progress of the second one in the oven. And the presentation just isn’t the same either. We still go “Ah!” as each pizza is put on the table because it still smells wonderful, but 12-inch pizzas don’t cut beautiful masterpieces of slices that spread the entire width of a dinner plate. I can hold gluten-free pizza slices in one hand like a football, and even though we get more pizza, it seems like less because we have started using smaller plates. These skinny slices would look pitiful on a dinner plate. I don’t know why companies make gluten-free pizza crusts so small. Maybe it has something to do with the chemistry of gluten-free dough and the pizza may not hold together if it is too big, or more likely, most gluten-free clientele probably aren’t as gluttonous as I am. But whatever the reason, I have been dreaming of the day when I can enjoy the perfect gluten-free, family size pizza on a cracker-thin pizza crust that would make pizza nights a delite once again.

Remembering Trusty Rusty

I never could understand people who hate owning stuff once it gets old. I know someone for example who bought a beautiful fancy car, drove it for a few years and loved it, but then traded it in. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the car. This person just wanted it off his/her hands before it got old and things started going wrong with it, decreasing its value. It’s a free country, so I have nothing against this person’s decision. But to me, there is a certain special joy in owning something old. I am thinking about this in light of this past weekend when we traded in the minivan we drove for seven years.

     Except for some squeaking and rattling, it drove beautifully. In fact, just a few weeks ago, Mom and I took a trip to Virginia Beach with it. Dad wanted us to fly, fearing that our old car would give out on some treacherous mountain road in West Virginia, but Mom and I much prefer the pleasures of the open road over the inconveniences of airport security, luggage limits and flight delays, not to mention the outrageous costs of airfare and hidden fees that add up these days. There was a little more stress than we anticipated. When we drove through West Virginia, it was raining so hard that at one point, a state trooper was directing cars because part of the road had washed away and if you weren’t familiar with the area, you could drive right over the cliff! But that had nothing to do with the car. The car never once let us down!

     Because of this, part of us thought it would be fun to see how many more miles we could squeeze out of it, but the last time Mom went to get tires, she was told by the mechanic that this was the last time he would recommend putting it on the lift because the underbody had rusted. And on our trip to Virginia, I opened the glove box to get something for my mom and noticed that everything was wet. My sister’s husband said it was likely because some firewall that protects the glove box had also rusted. It was starting to get pretty squeaky and rattly too, so we realized it wouldn’t be too much longer before repairs would cost more than the car was worth. But because of the car’s amazing reliability for its age, even when we did some pretty rugged driving, my parents and I dubbed that car Trusty Rusty.

     Just like my parents, I would never buy a used car (or any other expensive appliance in my case). It is fun to experience appliances that are shiny and new after all, and of course when you buy a used item, you could be buying someone else’s problems too. But when your brand-new appliance gets old, I love how our family savors the joy of driving the old car until it is no longer practical, rather than rushing out to buy a new one.

     Sure, it is fun to touch the clean, shiny unblemished finish of a new car, but on the other hand, you love its shininess so much you cannot relax in it. You feel like you shouldn’t park too close to another car whose driver might fling the door open and put the first ding on the new car. With every new car, we have found ourselves hesitant to eat or drink in it and risk spilling something and putting that first stain in the shiny new carpet or seats. My parents didn’t want Gilbert to ride in our new minivan until they bought a pad for the floor that can be easily washed so that maybe the car won’t smell like him, at least for awhile. But when the car gets to be a Trusty Rusty, you relax and park anywhere. Once it’s starting to rust, a ding is no big deal. And once the car is rusted and dinged on the outside, a little spilled beverage or dog puke incident on the inside is no big deal either.

     Sure, it is fun to play with new features that weren’t available when you bought your last car. But once your car becomes a Trusty Rusty, you forget the frustration of trying to read the manual and figure out how the new features work. On Saturday for example, I took my first spin in our new minivan to the farmer’s market. All was going great until we got to the market, I opened my newfangled automatic door to get out, but when I pushed the button to close it, it just beeped at me and wouldn’t close. So for what seemed like forever, we sat in the car combing the manual, finally figuring out that for safety, it won’t respond if two people are pushing the button at the same time. At the same time I was pushing the button on my door, Dad was pushing it remotely from the front seat. When we couldn’t figure out how to cancel and start over, we collectively sighed and closed it manually, the Trusty Rusty way we had been doing our whole life. Sometimes I think driving around with a Trusty Rusty is less embarrassing than the first few days of a new car when we maybe could have been done buying our produce in the time it took us to figure out how to close the automatic door! But the good new is, since we parked far away from other cars, it is likely no one noticed.

     I love that distinctive new car smell, and it is fun to break in the new seats. But I am never sad when the seats are broken in and the car starts to smell like us; a mingling of Gilbert, and the meals we eventually give in and enjoy on that first roadtrip. When the seats feel unfamiliar and the car hasn’t smelled like us yet, I have always had a strange feeling like I am riding in someone else’s car. But by the time that car becomes a Trusty Rusty, it smells and feels like home.

     It is comforting to drive a car with the latest and greatest safety features, and while there hasn’t been much difference between Trusty Rusty and our new car in that regard, I remember how fun it was when I was younger and we lived on the edge for a while with a not-quite-as-trusty, and probably much rustier old car.

     In 1999 when my grandpa’s health had been failing for awhile and he could not drive anymore, Grandma gave us an old car of his. I think it was a 1984 Eagle, but our family affectionately referred to it as the Ghetto Cruiser. Sorry for the lack of political correctness, but the name was fitting. I don’t know what the car looked like of course, but it must have been pretty embarrassing since my teenage siblings forbid Dad to pick them up from extra curricular activities in it. And Dad said he never feared for his safety driving through bad neighborhoods in it because it blended right in. If by some strange chance someone stole it, it would not have been a hardship because in its condition, it wasn’t worth much.

     On the inside, I guess it was trusty in that it was reliable. I don’t ever remember hearing that it died on the side of the road. But I remember finding it strange when it was time to drive it back with us from Indiana, but both parents insisted I ride home with Mom in the minivan rather than with Dad in the new-to-me car. In fact now that I think about it, I only remember riding in it on short trips to school or the grocery store. I later learned there was a reason for that. I don’t understand car mechanics, but there was something wrong with it where if the car was driven too fast, it would bounce all over the road and it was all Dad could do to control it. He didn’t mind living on the edge and driving it on the freeway to work every day, or by himself to Indiana and back, but it wasn’t a risk he was comfortable taking with his precious children in the back.

     For awhile, Dad was even reluctant to allow Mom to drive it. Eventually, Mom convinced Dad she could handle it and he gave in and let her drive it a little bit. But I will never forget how before handing over the keys, Dad gave Mom a firm warning on the bouncing issue, and the importance of using pliers to turn on the windshield wipers, or else the car could catch fire!

     A couple years later, my parents decided that while the car had served us well as a cheap means of transportation across the city to work for Dad, they were getting tired of putting their lives at risk, so Dad sold it to a work buddy for $500 and bought an inexpensive, safe new car. But I don’t know if it was because I am blind and had no idea how awful the car looked, or just the fact that when you are little, Daddy is cool no matter what he drives, but I loved the distinctive old smell and feel of that car. Of course, being blind means I will never need to buy a car, but the nostalgia and laughs that still come to mind when I think of that car make me think that if I were sighted, I would be the kind of person that would get a thrill out of buying a brand-new car or procuring an old car from a trusted family member, and proudly driving it for twenty years to ghetto cruiser condition and beyond.

To the extent my parents put up with it, I already do this in a figurative sense with other things. I will continue to wear gym shoes, even when they have holes forming in the soles and are giving my feet blisters, until my parents notice and drag me kicking and screaming to the shoe store. Just like with the seats in a new car, I feel like I am wearing shoes meant for someone else until I break them in. Unlike most people, I have always brushed my teeth with my mouth closed. (Maybe I was traumatized from gagging on toothpaste that slid to the back of my throat or something when I was really little.) Anyway, this quirk means that as it is, my toothbrushes get worn out faster than they do for normal people. With my mouth closed, I cannot help chewing on the bristles until they are all bent. But bent bristles never bothered me. I only get a new toothbrush when Mom happens to see it on the counter if I forget to put it away and says “You need a new toothbrush,” as she simultaneously chucks it in to the garbage can, allowing no opportunities for argument. That new toothbrush never feels right the first week or two.

I am still running JAWS 9.0–I think the rest of the blind world is up to version 13 now–and an outdated version of internet explorer on what people these days would call a Trusty Rusty four-year-old computer. I often get pop-up alerts that I would have a better web experience if I upgraded my browser, and some sites I cannot access at all. But I don’t want to upgrade! For one thing, the few times I have attempted upgrades, the upgrade process never went smoothly. I have tried several times to upgrade my brailleNote from keysoft 9.0 to version 9.1 and 9.2, but every time, I am told the installation failed, despite doing EXACTLY what the directions said! The last time I attempted and failed last Sunday, I decided I am not wasting another minute of my life on something that always ends in defeat and frustration. Some of the features available with the upgrade would be awesome, I admit. Supposedly, Keysoft 9.1 could recognize files with the .docx extension and version 9.2 can convert PDF files. It sure would be wonderful to have these features on my BrailleNote rather than having to use JAWS to read these files. But unless I happen to meet someone with a magic touch who can do the upgrade successfully, I would rather be stuck in 2003 with .doc files than waste any more time being frustrated. Who really needs the newfangled features anyway when the old ones work just fine? And with my luck being so bad just upgrading my simple blind-friendly BrailleNote, there is no way I am attempting an upgrade on the much more complex desktop computer. And don’t even get me started on how much I hate Windows 7 which my college upgraded to my senior year. Maybe it has some cool features for sighted people, but for me, it made processes that were once simple, such as opening e-mail attachments and saving documents, much more complicated. Every time I had to work on an assignment at school, I came home with a renewed commitment to take extra good care of my Trusty Rusty, easy-to-use Windows XP, so I can put off upgrading as long as possible.

     But the best example of my loyalty to old appliances is my first treadmill. In eighth grade, I wasn’t very diligent about healthy eating, but I was at least trying to take better care of myself by exercising more regularly. When my parents noticed me doing jumping jacks or marching in place every day, they got me an inexpensive treadmill for Christmas which I loved.

One day the summer after my sophomore year, the part of the emergency stop pin that hooks to me broke. My parents and I had no idea if or how it could be replaced. Mom thought about improvising with duct tape, but I assured her I would be careful and that this wouldn’t be necessary. I kept my word and never once fell. Then one day during my junior year of college, my dad came down to the basement to do something else and came up concerned because he saw the treadmill belt slowly moving even though I wasn’t on it. This wasn’t news to me though. It had been doing that for awhile. I don’t remember exactly when, but one day I remember finishing my workout, unplugging the other end of the pin (there was an actual stop button too, but on that treadmill the pin was easier and safer for me to find), taking my shoes off and then casually plugging the pin back in for the next day as I always had. With my workout done, my guard was down and I wasn’t holding on when the motor started humming and the belt started moving slowly. Fortunately I have excellent reflexes and I grabbed the handle before I fell. I knew if I told my parents that in addition to the broken safety pin, the treadmill had started moving when it wasn’t supposed to be, they would freak out and I didn’t want to get rid of a treadmill that was just starting to have a few quirks but “drove” just fine. So I just quietly adapted. Instead of plugging the pin in to have it ready for the next day right away, I would either drape it over the handle, or hold the pin while I took my shoes off and then plug it back in once I was safely off the treadmill. Either way, I would make sure that at least one hand was holding on to a handlebar at all times until both feet were safely off the treadmill.

On the days I draped it over the handle, I would have to remember to be careful the next day because the belt would sometimes, but not always, jerk to life before I set a speed. Even though the speed lever was on zero, I was always able to stop the belt by calmly pulling down on the lever. Since it didn’t happen every day, the start of each treadmill walk was suspenseful. On the days when the motor started humming before I was ready, I would just hold on tight and pray, then laugh about how much fun unpredictable old appliances are once I was safely walking.

Once Dad found out the treadmill was doing that, he went treadmill shopping right away and both parents gave me a firm “be careful!” as I headed downstairs to work out on the old treadmill until the new one could be delivered.

I have had my “new” treadmill, complete with a new intact safety pin for a year and a half. I don’t mourn the old treadmill because for one thing, I love the new features of this one like the ability to set an incline for even better workouts, and nice big blind-friendly buttons for setting speed so I know exactly what speed I am walking. (If Mom or Dad set my speed on the old treadmill, they could see the speed the lever was set to on a print display, but when I set it myself, it was less scientific. I would just gently push the lever up until I liked the pace.) But more importantly, I have had it long enough that it feels like home now, and it won’t be long until the minivan will too. And the way the years seem to fly by, it won’t be long before my family and I will get to relish the joys and advantages of owning a Trusty Rusty once again.

Some Necessary Perspective on Celiac Disease and Life

Well readers, there is so much more I want to write about eventually regarding my new Celiac Disease diagnosis mentioned in the previous post. Navigating this river has been an interesting journey, complete with wonderful experiences, funny moments, unexpected surprises, and so far only one melt-down. But for this post, I thought I would take a break from feeling sorry for myself to talk about people recently who have found themselves in a sandbar so awful that it almost makes me ashamed to be mournful about my Celiac diagnosis. There are in fact things that are much, much worse. Like going out for what you anticipate to be a fun date, the midnight opening of another Batman movie, never imagining that you or your partner wouldn’t leave that theater alive. Or being a family just going to their usual worship service on a peaceful Sunday, perhaps thinking that after worship, they would enjoy dinner on the grill or a walk in a park, but instead finding themselves in a hospital in critical condition, or planning a funeral for the senseless death of a loved one.

     The movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado happened two days after my Celiac diagnosis. Mom had Good Morning America on and told me about it when I came downstairs, but I was so self-absorbed in getting used to eating gluten-free bagels which have a different texture than “regular” bagels and realizing once more that this whole Celiac thing wasn’t a dream–it was my reality, for the rest of my life–that I didn’t grasp the magnitude of this shooting until the evening news. As I was watching the evening news, I decided that I would make it a point to keep things in perspective and ensure that my conscience never got wrapped up in such trivial roadblocks, which Celiac really is in the grand scheme of life. I never imagined I would have to put this in to practice so soon, that another senseless shooting would hit so close to home (Oak Creek is just a half hour drive from where I live), or that in America in the year 2012, people were still being targeted because of their religion. But from that day forward, I have found myself savoring the not-quite-as-tasty gluten-free bread when I realized that just across town, there were nine families who would likely give anything for a life where Celiac Disease was their only source of hardship.

     It is only by the grace of God that you or I have never, and hopefully will never face such a tragic, senseless sandbar. My mom and I had just gotten back from worship ourselves when we heard about the shooting at the Sikh Temple. As if there was no doubt that our worship would be peaceful and safe and we would get home alive, we made plans that morning to throw sausages and vegetables on the grill and enjoy a beautiful Sunday at home as a family. Those Sikh families across town were probably just as casual as we were in making Sunday afternoon plans. In America, houses of worship are sacred and safe, after all. At our church, nothing happened and we returned home as always and put our sausages on the grill as we watched the local news coverage. But just across town, a whole faith community never got to enjoy that Sunday afternoon, and six families will never get another Sunday afternoon with their loved ones again. The Sikh people may speak a different language and have different beliefs, but when you get right down to it, they are no different than Christians. Their faith teaches love, compassion, service to those in need, virtues that Christianity emphasizes as well. They just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. What’s to say next time, it won’t be us?

     These recent shootings also reminded me of an incident in college I had put out of my mind but will never forget. One day in the spring semester of my freshman year of college, I walked in to another Introduction to News Writing class, as I had done every Monday and Thursday at 4:00 all semester. Nothing had ever happened in all my years of school, so I am sure as I waited for the professor to start class, my mind was wandering to what we would have for dinner that evening and what evening homework I needed to do. But that day, a troubled student got in to an argument with the professor in front of the class. Since she was causing a scene and a guest speaker was expected shortly, the student was asked to wait until after class to continue the argument. I didn’t hear it because I didn’t sit near the student, but the next time our class met, campus security was standing outside the door. Another student sitting near this troubled student reported to the professor that this student had muttered under their breath, “this is how things like Virginia Tech happen.”

     Fortunately, another Virginia Tech didn’t happen in that news writing class. I don’t know how the situation was ultimately resolved with this student. This student never came to class again, nor have I heard anything about this student since. But even though nothing happened, it was an incident I will never forget because something could have. It is so easy to think that nothing could ever happen at my warm friendly college/church/theater/community, but unfortunately as long as there are guns everywhere and troubled people in the world not getting the help they need, Virginia Tech/the Sikh Temple/the Aurora, Colorado theater shootings could happen anywhere.

     As is always the case, time will pass, and as it does, the memory of these recent shootings will fade, at least for those of us who don’t know any of the victims. But I hope that say, a year from now if I find myself stuck in a restaurant with no gluten-free options, that instead of sobbing because I am tired and hungry and the restaurant isn’t accommodating, I might think back to these shootings, hug any loved ones at the table with me and realize there are much worse things to be sobbing about.

River Gets Rough Already

Well readers, just one week after college graduation, a time when I saw no hints of storms on the horizon, the river called life hit an unexpected rough patch.

     My master plan had gone off perfectly so far. The graduation festivities were beautiful. The delicious leftovers were almost gone and Mom and I had driven Granny safely back home to Indiana. All that was left was some blood tests ordered by my primary physician and my pediatric endocrinologist. The plan was that the doctors would quickly glance over my blood tests and then send me on my merry way in to the adult world with a clean bill of health. My pituitary problems that resulted from my brain tumor were well-managed, and although I hadn’t been making the healthiest eating choices amidst the stress of finishing college, I was still thin and even amidst stress, made far healthier choices than I did in high school. Given that, and just the fact that every other facet of my master plan had gone off without a hitch, I just didn’t expect this plan to go off script. But it did.

     So on Wednesday May 23, just as I was finishing my breakfast and settling in to another lazy worry-free day, the phone rang. It was my physician who noticed that my liver enzymes were slightly elevated, and that I was anemic. I wasn’t surprised or concerned about the anemia. The summer after second grade when I had a big growth spurt and basically wouldn’t eat anything healthy, I became severely anemic to the point where I could barely function. I was sleepy all the time, had no appetite and when I started third grade, I was so skinny it frightened the teachers. With some medication adjustments and force-feeding, I returned to a healthy weight and felt well again. I don’t remember hearing anything more about my iron levels for years. Maybe it wasn’t tested or maybe it was tested and reported on my medical charts, but since I felt well and was gradually eating a much more balanced diet by middle school, nobody felt it was worth mentioning to me. Then in the fall of my sophomore year of college, the glands in my neck swelled up and got really painful seemingly overnight which had never happened to me before, so my parents wanted to get me to the doctor right away. But my primary physician wasn’t available, so the receptionist set me up with a different doctor in the same building. This doctor was amazingly thorough. In addition to the usual look at my throat and feeling of my glands, he also ordered a blood test to check for Mono, and iron I guess too, because he called me personally later that afternoon and told me I was mildly anemic. Like I said, by then I was feeling great and eating a very healthy diet, so I just made an effort to eat more high-iron foods like beef and spinach and didn’t think anything of it. Maybe I was just prone to being a little anemic.

     But elevated liver enzymes? That was a new one. How could I have liver problems? I tried one sip of whine, at my brother’s insistence shortly after my 21st birthday, but it was so disgusting I spit most of it out. I don’t abuse painkillers either. Those were the only things I knew of that can cause liver problems. In a panic, Mom and I consulted the internet, but couldn’t find anything reliable or applicable to me so we decided it would be better to wait for the results of some more detailed bloodwork and a liver ultrasound ordered by the doctor. So Mom immediately scheduled an ultrasound for June 6, and took me in for the additional tests.

     Then like clockwork on June 5, just after finishing breakfast, the phone rang again.

     “Your blood results show indications of Celiac disease,” the doctor said, “It is a disease where your body cannot tolerate gluten, which just means you will have to give up wheat.”

     She is a young and very compassionate doctor, and perhaps in an effort to soften the blow, she said “There are lots of foods that are gluten-free. I think even Snickers bars are gluten-free.” I laughed politely, because I do love snickers bars, but still my heart sank, and I apologize if it sounds overly dramatic, but I will be honest and say I felt my gluten abundant life flash before my eyes. What would become of our Christmas cookies, my dad’s quiche, my mom’s family-famous fluffy waffles, my double-layer chocolate birthday cake I look forward to all year, our Friday night pizzas, our comforting lunches of grilled cheese sandwiches or macaroni and cheese?

     Mom and I had decided to have this conversation on speaker phone, and I will always carry with me the image of us sitting side by side on the couch with the phone between us. When she saw my expression fall, she tapped me on the shoulder and whispered enthusiastically “that’ll be so easy!”

     “Yeah right,” I wanted to say, “don’t you realize how central a role bread products play in our family?”

     “I worked with a lady who was gluten-free, and she brought the most fabulous cakes to work,” Mom said when she got off the phone.

     “That’s great. But I cannot live on Snickers bars and cake. What are we going to do for actual meals?”

     “There are all kinds of gluten-free breads and pastas made with other kinds of flour like rice and corn. And, some of your favorite meals like steak and baked potatoes? Naturally gluten-free!”

     This is true. In my shock and panic, I overreacted and interpreted the diagnosis to mean I would never be able to eat anything delicious again, but when I found out I could still eat steak, a baked potato loaded with butter, sour cream, salt and pepper or even my dad’s amazing spicy spaghetti sauce over gluten-free noodles, I started to feel better. Maybe Mom was right and it would be easy.

     And then I found some more information on websites for Mayo Clinic and the Celiac Foundation that had my heart sinking again. To start with, going gluten-free wasn’t as simple as just giving up the obvious wheat products like bread and pasta. Other grains like barley and rye also contain gluten, and products like sauces and salad dressings that don’t taste as if they would have gluten in them could be thickened with wheat. Some companies are transparent about gluten in their products, but others disguise it. In a Betty Crocker book on how to get started with a gluten-free diet, there is a huge list of unpronounceable additives that contain gluten. But the real kicker was when I learned that even trace amounts of gluten can be harmful, so people with Celiac even have to watch out for cross-contamination, meaning that if even a crumb of wheat touches a gluten-free item, it is no longer safe for people with Celiac to eat. In practical terms, this means that those warnings on food packages for items which seem like they would be gluten-free like Quaker oats which say “processed in a facility that also processes wheat,” must also be avoided by people with Celiac. And gone would be the days when I could just walk in to a restaurant and order anything I wanted. Fortunately, more and more restaurants offer gluten-free options these days, but people with Celiac are advised not to blindly trust even these items, because if the staff in the kitchen handles your chicken with the same gloves used to prepare bread items, your gluten-free meal has now been contaminated. And let’s say a restaurant says their caesar salad is gluten-free so long as you order it with no croutons. If the restaurant makes a mistake and brings your salad with croutons on top, people with Celiac cannot just pick off the croutons because it is impossible to remove every last trace of crouton crumbs. People with Celiac are supposed to send the salad back and ask for a fresh salad without croutons. Since customers aren’t allowed back in the kitchen to oversee preparation, people with Celiac are supposed to ask to speak with the manager or chef, inform them that they have Celiac and explain how food must be prepared. Actually, the most polite thing to do is plan ahead and call the restaurant to give them a heads up and find out if they can accommodate you, and try to go to the restaurant at a slower time of day.

     I wanted to cry as it occurred to me that (a) our family, especially my dad and grandma, loves to go out to eat on weekends, the busiest time; (b) sometimes we plan ahead, but other times, my parents like to just drive around and pick new places to try spur of the moment; (c) most of our family  likes to keep our order simple, and we get all embarrassed just when my sister with no dietary restrictions makes a complicated order with substitutes and everything. Dietary restrictions which would require the manager coming out to talk to me would be far worse. And (d), we have all watched too many of those “dirty secrets of restaurants” shows where waiters admit spitting in people’s food when they send it back, and as a result, we never, ever, send food back. Well, my dad has once or twice, but when he did, I remember us all getting nervous and giving him a “what are you thinking?” lecture. And let’s say I ever got in a situation where a restaurant doesn’t like dogs but has to grudgingly serve Gilbert and me because of the ADA laws, AND at the same restaurant I also have to send back a contaminated salad. That could be the perfect recipe for spit (or worse) in my food.

     Did I also mention that this disease is about more than just a little stomach upset (which I never had by the way)? I had more subtle symptoms like frequent headaches and fatigue which I always overlooked. In people with Celiac, gluten destroys the villi which are the carpet-like fibers in the small intestine that absorb nutrients from the food we eat. The only treatment is a gluten-free diet for life. Left untreated, Celiac can lead to liver damage (which I was just beginning to have), and scarier stuff like cancer. If you follow a strict gluten-free diet for life, all sources said the small intestine would heal, but if you stray, even on Christmas, your birthday, your wedding day, damage begins again. I have even heard that after being gluten-free, the body overreacts to gluten, so one speck of gluten can set the healing back three months or more. I remember logging off the internet and coming out of my room somberly for a drink of water, sure that the carefree life I had been so looking forward to after graduation would be hellish now.

     But unbeknownst to me, while I was upstairs researching with my computer, Mom was downstairs doing research of her own. That’s when she found out that Celiac runs in families! I won’t get in to the details, but she said that her and Dad, my siblings and two of my aunts had the classic symptoms. Even if they got tested and didn’t officially have Celiac, my parents both promised they would go gluten-free with me because even if gluten hasn’t caused damage for them, they are definitely sensitive to it. And there was a high probability that other members of the family would test positive for Celiac as well, so by us going gluten-free, we could be a positive influence for the rest of the family. Even if they weren’t sensitive, it warmed my heart when they said they would go gluten-free anyway because we are a family and families suffer together. But since they are sensitive, that was a moot point. Although it didn’t eliminate my anxiety about future social situations, not by a long shot, you cannot imagine the euphoria of finding out you won’t be navigating these rough uncharted waters alone.

     Even so, I wasn’t eager to go gluten-free immediately. The good news was the doctor said I should still enjoy my glorious gluten (well, those weren’t her exact words but that’s how I interpreted them), until I saw a gastroenterologist who knew more about celiac and could do a more definitive test, a biopsy of my small intestine, the only way to diagnose Celiac with absolute certainty.

     The soonest my mom could get me in to a specialist was July 18, but I thought I might still be able to eat gluten even after that because the biopsy is a procedure that involves sedation, not like a blood test that can be done same-day. (If I had been allowed to schedule the appointment, I would have gone with the doctor who couldn’t see me until September). But instead of the carefree blogging I had intended to do, I found myself spending the next six weeks obsessively reading up on Celiac disease, perusing blogs and Facebook pages for information and coping advice, and of course saying yes to gluten every chance I got. I am sure I gained weight those six weeks as I loaded up on ice cream cones, ravioli, Papa Murphy’s pizza (at my insistence even when it was way too hot to be using the oven), as well as items I loved but wasn’t sure about like my favorite caesar salad dressing and store bought guacamole. In my paranoia, I was sure I would find out that everything I loved had gluten lurking in it.

     All too soon, it was July 18, and I had a foreboding feeling that I was sitting down to my last piece of peanut butter toast made with oat nut bread, and I was right.

     The doctor’s first words when she entered the exam room were “you definitely have Celiac. We looked at your blood tests and there is no question.” I guess there is some antibody that my physician didn’t know as much about that confirms Celiac if it is elevated and my levels were off the charts. She still wanted to do a biopsy to see how much damage had been done, but when we asked if we should wait and have the biopsy before going gluten-free, she basically said “are you crazy? No, you should start going gluten-free now.”

     At my insistence, Mom and I went to Chipotle after the doctor’s appointment where for my last gluten meal, I ordered one of their amazing burritos, made on a flour tortilla of course. It was the one thing I hadn’t had the chance to get one more time in that six-week period. When we got home, I savored a Blue Bunny ice cream cone, and dug out one more of my sister’s fantastic chocolate chip cookies which she made for my graduation. And then it was time to resign myself to the necessity of leaving the familiar river I loved and accept the newer, healthier route.

College Graduation Part 2: A Perfect Celebration

Gilbert and me on steps of Rankin Hall

Here we are, both proudly wearing our caps and gowns.

Well readers, although there was anxiety leading up to graduation, there is only one word I can think of to describe the graduation festivities themselves. Perfect.

     Just hours after checking my grades which officially confirmed that I would be graduating, Mom took me to the Almost There Fair. The primary purpose of the fair was to pick up rain tickets, brunch tickets and a packet with the important information on where we were supposed to be and when on the big day, but there was also a class picture and champagne toast with the president of Carroll University, a tradition for every senior class. This fair was at 4:00 that afternoon. The festivities began at 2:00 with a barbecue, outdoor games and a raffle drawing, but I had a little bit of a headache that morning, so I decided to just come for the main event at 4:00. The original plan was for Mom to take me around to the tables to get the information we needed and then leave since I didn’t think to make prior arrangements to meet up with a friend. But to my joy and amazement, Mom, Granny and I had literally just stepped out of the car when one of my best friends saw me! We met through an american history class first semester of my freshman year and enjoyed each other’s company so much that freshman and sophomore years, we would get together for lunch twice a week and occasionally do other things together like ring salvation army bells. She even came to my house to visit me when I had to miss a week of school for surgery to remove an ovarian cyst. But junior and senior year, school requirements were so demanding for both of us that we hardly ever saw each other. She gladly agreed to take me around the fair, so Mom left me with her and we had a great time catching up. Both my friend and I don’t care for champagne, and usually hate standing for pictures, but we didn’t mind watching the others drink the champagne and just enjoying the president’s speech celebrating our accomplishments. We also had such a good time talking and savoring the beautiful weather that day that even the tedium of positioning 600 students for a class picture went fast.

     After this fair, I made a quick trip to the disability services office just to tie up loose ends for some special accommodations being made for me so that commencement would go smoothly, and then out to dinner at a nearby mexican restaurant that is a favorite of college students, especially on Thursday nights which feature discounted margaritas. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t drink, but the food is awesome too. I had two chicken tacos and one beef taco, each topped with guacamole, and of course, more chips than I needed, but hey, college graduation is a once-in-a-lifetime event right? I think that was the most relaxed social function I ever went to because everyone was in a festive mood, brimming with excitement on the cusp of graduation, and since grades were submitted and all the hard work done, the faculty member that went with us no longer felt like a professor, but an equal. We were all adults now! And just when I thought the meal couldn’t get any better, I pulled out the money to pay for my meal but was told that the communication department had set aside money for this celebration, so it was free! The only damper to the event was that we might have liked to stay a little longer to chat, but when we were done eating, the restaurant more-or-less shooed us out. It must have been a busy night and other people wanted our table. But I guess we were about done anyway.

     Even preparation for graduation was festive. Unlike my high school graduation, this time around there was no need to host a bridal shower and a graduation all in one weekend, no one had just moved out of the house leaving it a mess, the weather was beautiful and everyone stayed healthy. Since I wasn’t used to a party free of these complications, I was at first perturbed when Mom did other things unrelated to the party in the days leading up to it like planting flowers and shopping at the mall for a baby gift for my brother-in-law. But she assured me that this time was different. Everything was in place, and there would be plenty of time to set up tables, make sure caps and gowns were ready to go for me (and Gilbert), and order the food with no stress. She was right. With my high school graduation, I remember staying out of the way as Mom frantically ordered food, but this time around, there was so much time the whole family could come along to Costco and pick out food based on free samples! I think I have mentioned in past entries how eating good food is half the fun of parties for our family? This party was no exception as we went all out! For appetizers, we picked out guacamole, salsa, spinach and artichoke dip, cheese spread and crackers and chips for dipping. For the main course, we picked out some wonderfully seasoned pre-cooked chicken and meatballs and a round steak which my brother-in-law who likes to cook made a fajita seasoning for. And let’s not forget about the usual party standards we all love like pasta salad, potato salad, bean salad and my dad’s famous tomatoes seasoned with olive oil and spices, topped with fresh mozzarella cheese! And of course, it was all topped off with a beautiful chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, cream filling, and a crunchy chocolate mortar board on top! A large chunk of this cake is still in the freezer for whenever the mood strikes me and I want to re-live my graduation via the taste of cake. That evening after a delicious pizza from Papa Murphy’s, I helped cut ribbons which Granny curled around napkins which had plastic silverware rolled in them. Mom also found streamers in my school’s colors which she cris-crossed over all the tables and despite not being able to see, I could tell it was beautiful.

     There wasn’t much time for breakfast Sunday morning as I had to be at Carroll in my dress, cap and gown by 9:15 to line up for a Baccalaureate, a fancy name for a prayer service at 10:00. I had my usual oatmeal, but was too excited about the events of the day to be interested in food yet. From the moment I stepped out of the car and heard the festivities of guests already arriving, felt warm sun and a perfect balmy breeze on my face and heard pretty church bells off in the distance, I just knew it would be a glorious day. In the arrangements worked out with the disability services office, I was assigned a student volunteer, who actually ended up being a classmate from public relations, so I knew her. She stayed with me all day and was such a wonderful help to me, getting me everywhere I needed to be that day that I sent her a thank you note with a $50 Target gift card. The funny thing was, she actually graduates next year, but several students walked up to her asking if she was graduating with me. But she said it was fun to be a sort of unofficial participant in my ceremony to get excited for next year. She found my dad and me right away and took over. There was the usual chaos of a faculty member shouting over a din of chattering graduates trying to get us all lined up, but it wasn’t long before we were all lined up and processing in to the auditorium to beautiful organ music. It was a beautiful service with various students leading prayers thanking God for the education and support we received at Carroll and asking Him to bless us wherever our lives lead us in the years to come. Then ironically, a student named Luke read a parable from the Gospel of Luke, the parable of the good samaritan, after which the chaplain gave a sermon encouraging us to think about how at different points in our lives, we resemble all the characters in this parable. Sometimes, we are all like the man beaten and left on the side of the road, and sometimes while we don’t mean to, we get so focused on our own lives that we ignore those in need, but we should all strive to be like the good samaritan as we go about our lives.

After this, the student volunteer and I met with the Dean of Students to orient me to the stage, and then my dad picked me up for brunch held in the main dining room. Brunch wasn’t as relaxed an affair as I hoped it would be because graduates had less than an hour to eat before we needed to line up again for the official ceremony and the line for the brunch buffet was really long, but it was worth the $20 ticket to eat in the dining room one more time as an undergraduate. After brunch it was back to the auditorium to line up, and seemingly in the blink of an eye, the sound of bagpipes announced that commencement had begun.

     Carroll has a proud tradition of having each freshmen class process in to the opening convocation the day before the start of every fall semester and then process out of Carroll with the same bagpipes as seniors. Unfortunately, my start to freshman year was so chaotic what with getting used to Gilbert, transitioning to the dorm and getting trained with new technology that I somehow missed the freshman procession. Mom got me there in time for the main convocation event itself, but somehow the fact that I was supposed to march in this procession got overlooked. But to be honest, given my nervous state at the time, the weight of these four years of hard work ahead of me, and uncertainty about whether Gilbert and I would actually survive to see graduation given our stressful start, I probably would not have enjoyed it. But I didn’t miss this procession, and as the bagpipe sounded and the student volunteer and I processed in, I felt almost euphoric. Ever since the end of my last final exam, people from my parents to the president of Carroll had been saying “you did it! Congratulations!” But it wasn’t until I was actually processing in to the commencement ceremony that it hit me, that yes, “I did it!”

     Unlike high school graduation when roads were washed out from flooding the day before and even during the ceremony, thunder could be heard outside, four years later at college graduation, rain tickets weren’t necessary. It was the most glorious sunny day you could ask for and in fact, the chaplain announced that morning at the baccalaureate that he was informed there was a 0 percent chance of rain!

     Unlike many of my peers, I always love graduation speeches. Yes, they can be long, but if they would quit checking their watches and listen, they can be very fitting opportunities to celebrate the accomplishment of graduating and be inspired to make a difference in the next chapter of life. The speakers at my commencement were excellent. The keynote address was given by Dr. Howard Fuller, a 1962 alumnus of Carroll who has become a nationally renowned advocate for education reform. The speech had light moments as he talked about his athletic involvement at Carroll and how he injured himself playing basketball the day before his commencement but would not allow this injury to keep him from walking across the stage. But he also talked about how America has shifted away from its values like free, quality education for all and protection of the most vulnerable of our society and how as graduates, we should go out in the world to embrace these challenges and make a difference.

     Then the class speaker, elected by the senior class gave his speech. I was actually nominated to be class speaker. Around the middle of February, all graduating seniors got an e-mail inviting them to nominate someone they think would make a good class speaker. I disregarded this e-mail because I didn’t want to be the one to put one of my friends on the spot by nominating them, and because I wasn’t really involved in campus life and always feel like a stuttering nervous wreck when giving oral presentations. I honestly thought that the odds of someone nominating me were as unlikely as the odds of me being elected president of the United States. But a week later, I would come home from class to find an e-mail in my inbox announcing that someone had nominated me!

     Needless to say, since I never considered the possibility of being nominated, I hadn’t considered how I would respond either. After the first reading of the message, I was just speechless. After the second reading, I was elated that someone had that much faith in me to nominate me for such an honor and was tempted to send a reply accepting the nomination right then and there. Then my brother, a voice of reason who came home to visit that day asked me, “are you sure you want that kind of pressure on your graduation?” Maybe he was right. Graduation is supposed to be a day to bask in the glow of being finished with four years of hard work. Would the pressure of delivering a speech that would forever represent the class of 2012 spoil the day? But then again, it might be worse to decline the nomination but then kick myself the rest of my life, wondering if the class would have voted for me if I had accepted. Thus began two days of mental agony as I wrestled these questions to the brink of a headache. The e-mail was sent to me on Tuesday February 28, and we were supposed to accept or decline the nomination by March 2. On the evening of March 1, when I couldn’t stand my indecisiveness any longer, I decided to bite the bullet and accept the nomination. And then I had to figuratively hold my breath for three weeks until the outcome of the class vote was revealed. As crazy as it sounds, when the e-mail said “the class speaker for commencement 2012 will be…Greg Pateras!” I actually breathed a sigh of relief and cheered, realizing I had scored the best outcome of all. I would die an old lady with no regrets and tell my children and grandchildren that I wasn’t a chicken. I didn’t decline the chance at the opportunity of a lifetime. But I would be able to relax on graduation day and leave the pressure and stage fright to someone else.

     But actually, since he studied to be a teacher, a career that requires daily public speaking to children who can be a tough audience, and since he had done a lot of public speaking for student organizations, he was definitely a more qualified speaker than I would have been. Of course, my family members naturally would have loved to hear the speech I would have given. Inspired by Josh Grobin’s performance of Believe on the Polar Express soundtrack, I had a rough outline in my head of a speech on how our childhood and college journeys ended so quickly it was scary, especially given the economic climate we are entering. But as the song says, destinations (and graduations definitely qualify as destinations) are new beginnings and with our Carroll education, we should go forth with confidence that we have everything we need, if we just believe! But I am sure this speech would not have been as beautiful in practice as it sounds in theory, and we all thoroughly enjoyed Greg’s more light-hearted, impromptu speech with no traces of stage fright apparent to me at all.

     And then it was all over but the walk across the stage, such a fleeting moment but one I will always cherish. But unlike most graduation walks which are only remembered by the graduate and friends and family close to that graduate, my walk across the stage was cherished by the whole audience. Remember how earlier in this entry, I casually mentioned the necessity of making sure caps and gowns were ready for Gilbert and me? Yes, that’s right. Gilbert also wore a cap and gown!

     Here’s the story. The manager of the bookstore absolutely loves dogs, and since his adored lab was old and had to be put to sleep right around the time he met Gilbert, Gilbert held a special place in his heart. So every time we went to the bookstore to get the required materials for a new semester of classes, I would allow some time for this manager to pet Gilbert and we had a good time chatting about our dogs. Well, at the end of my junior year, what started as small talk became the early stages of planning for graduation.

     “So what year are you now?” he asked.

     “I’m going to be a senior,” I announced proudly.

     “Hey, does that mean you and Gilbert will be graduating next year?” he asked.

     “Yes, we are!” I said. After we all, including my dad who was with me, exclaimed over how fast my first three years at Carroll had gone, the manager asked in a mischievous voice, “is Gilbert going to wear a cap and gown?” to which Dad and I laughed hysterically. I had already decided that I wouldn’t mind if Gilbert was acknowledged at graduation. But the thought of him wearing a cap and gown was so silly, and awesome we hadn’t thought about it!

     Then the manager proceeded to tell us that a few years ago, the company that supplies the graduation gowns came out with gowns that were so inappropriately revealing that the administration deemed them unacceptable to wear at commencement.

     “I should see if we kept any of them. With a little altering, I’m thinking one of these gowns would fit Gilbert perfectly!”

     So on February 29, I went to a graduation fair to order my cap and gown and five days later over spring break, I took Gilbert to the bookstore to get measured for his! Then on May 8, after finishing my last final exam, Mom and I walked out of the bookstore with an altered cap and gown for Gilbert, stuffed incognito in to an ordinary shopping bag.

     I knew everyone on campus would love it, but even I had no idea the extent to which everyone would love it! Thinking Gilbert might be uncomfortable wearing a cap and gown all day, my parents and I decided that I would be the only one wearing a cap and gown for the baccalaureate service and brunch, and we would put Gilbert’s cap and gown on just in time for the real event, the commencement ceremony. During the final instructions for how to line up at about 12:30, my siblings tried to walk in and discretely pull Gilbert aside to put on his cap and gown. (Since numerous safety pins were required to hold everything in place, there was no way I would have had time to dress him myself).

     “It was kind of hilarious,” my sister recounted laughing after the party, “here the instructor is giving important final instructions for a dignified ceremony and we come in to dress a dog!” In other words, the popular four-legged graduate was clearly drawing more attention than the instructor, as evidenced by the sound of several cameras clicking, giggles and whispers of “aw, so cute!”

     As usual, Gilbert agreed that he was cute too. I think I mentioned in an earlier entry that Gilbert was originally bred to be a show dog, but was instead donated to the guide dog program? Well, Mom noticed a trace of his show dog personality as my volunteer helped us up to the stage to accept our diplomas. As we were walking through the crowd, Mom said he would occasionally turn his head to look at the crowd, just like a human model strutting down the runway!

     Before I knew it, the voice of a faculty member from the biology department boomed, “Allison Michelle Nastoff, magna cum laude!” Realizing in that instant that all of those late nights, big tests and stressful projects had paid off, and I was actually accepting a college diploma cover, an honor which many never see, my face wasn’t big enough for my smile as I graciously extended my hand. But that wasn’t the end of our moment.

     “We would also like to acknowledge Gilbert, who has attended all of the courses required for graduation.”

     The crowd which had applauded enthusiastically but politely for me, erupted as Gilbert was shown his diploma, a giant bone! I know some blind people ask that their dogs not be recognized in commencement ceremonies, and I respect and understand where they are coming from. The dog didn’t have to write any papers or pass any exams after all. But in my view, Gilbert deserved some recognition because as I would tell a blind freelance reporter and former Carroll alumnus who wrote a newspaper story about the event, Gilbert and I grew together through college. As I mentioned in previous entries, I graduated the training program with Gilbert exactly one week before moving in to the college dorm, so we were both scared freshmen in a sense, adjusting to a new environment, and each other. But by senior year, we were a mature, confident team. I also believe that just because Gilbert’s work wasn’t academic didn’t make it any less important and worthy of acknowledgement. He faithfully guided me to class every day, both the beautiful days and days when he had to shake rain water from his fur or lick paws that got rock salt in them. I will also cherish the countless times Gilbert breezed through the twisty turny confusing tunnel that brought me to tears when I had to practice it with my cane senior year of high school. He slept patiently and without complaint through every course I had to sit through, on cold hard floors that surely made him long for his fluffy bed by the couch at home. And most importantly, his adorable, sweet demeanor encouraged peers who may have otherwise felt uncomfortable approaching a blind person, to come over and strike up a conversation with me, thus forging friendships with people I look forward to staying in touch with the rest of my life. I suppose I could have gotten through the nuts and bolts of college–the lectures, the exams and papers–without Gilbert, but it definitely would not have been as rich and rewarding an experience. So as Gilbert and I returned to our seats and I thought of the numerous people who had high-fived and hugged me saying “congratulations! You did it!” I realized it was time to pat Gilbert on the head to tell him “congratulations! We did it!”

     By the way, Tuesday after the ceremony, I discovered that the alumni office put a video of this moment on YouTube! So if you couldn’t be at my graduation and would like to see this precious joyous moment, go to YouTube and search Carroll University commencement 2012. When I searched these terms, it came up as the first result. It is called “Carroll University Commencement 2012 — Gilbert the Guide Dog Receives Honors, Too.”

     In no time flat, the ceremony ended with the singing of Alma Mater, Carroll University’s school song which is also on YouTube, and a final procession and I was officially an alumnus of Carroll University.

     After the ceremony, my siblings and grandmothers headed home to get ready for the party and greet anyone who arrived early, but as I anticipated, Gilbert’s formal recognition made us celebrities and it seemed everyone wanted our picture! My parents also thought it would be nice to have a picture of Gilbert and me standing on the steps of Rankin Hall where I had many classes. Usually I think Gilbert and I both get tired of having pictures taken, but that day, we were all smiles and wags. For my part, I knew that this was such a special sweet day that I wanted to savor it, even by staying longer to take pictures, and for Gilbert’s part, his tail wags any time someone gives him attention!

     The party that evening was the perfect icing on the cake. Unlike the storms that spoiled my high school party, that night was the perfect evening to be on our patio surrounded by family, close friends and a couple special former teachers. And speaking of icing on the cake, it was a delicious cake which I shamelessly accepted a huge piece of, as I wasn’t going to spoil such a special once-in-a-lifetime day by worrying about calories.

     All too soon, the day was over, my dad had to get ready for work and family had to pack up and fly home the next morning. While there was a little bit of that let-down that I talked about in a previous entry, that “I cannot believe it’s all over” empty feeling, it wasn’t as pronounced as it was after my high school graduation. Perhaps it was because exhaustion won out. I had to work much harder to get through the last semester of college than the last semester of high school. Perhaps it was because I have gotten over my anxiety about the future, realizing that life is a river that always has a way of working out. After my high school graduation, my let-down feeling was largely based on anxiety over college. Will I be able to handle the higher expectations, and the absence of an assistant to advocate for me? But now that I had not only survived, but thrived in the beautiful experience of college that I had been so worried about four years before, I woke up the day after graduation more mature and confident that I could handle anything life threw my way.

     But I think the biggest reason for the less pronounced let-down was the realization that graduation wasn’t only the end of an exciting chapter, but the start of a new one, full of possibilities. Even so, if I could leave college freshmen with one piece of advice, it would be the advice I gave a neighbor girl who started her freshmen year at Carroll as I was beginning my senior year and who expressed dread of her first college class scheduled for 7:00 in the morning. College may seem daunting now, but enjoy these college years, because they will go fast!

College Graduation Part 1: Anticipation and Anxiety

Well readers, I still cannot believe that May 13, a day four years in the making, (or 22 years if you look at it from the perspective of all my school years) has come and gone. I am officially a college graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Communication, and a proud alumnus of Carroll University. I apologize for not updating sooner, but the weeks leading up to graduation were so busy and full of excitement that updating the blog was the last thing on my mind, and these weeks after graduation, I think I have been so exhausted physically and emotionally (in a good way) that I haven’t been inspired to write about it. To be honest, I am still at a loss for how to put such a beautiful milestone in to words, but now that we are in to June and I am approaching the one month anniversary of my graduation already, it is time that I push myself to write about this event, not only for you curious readers, but also for me. Sighted people often rely on Facebook pictures and videos of an event to record and recollect an event. I have both Facebook pictures and a video of this special moment, but as a blind person, pictures do nothing for me, and videos only capture half of the experience, the sound of the moment. But a written account can recall all of the senses and even the emotions running through the mind leading up to the event, which even pictures cannot do justice. So I find blogging to be the most meaningful for capturing special moments. In a two-part series, I hope to capture as much of the experience and emotion of that day and all of the hard work and emotion leading up to it in this blog so that the memories never fade.

     I don’t know if this happens to anyone else or if this is another thing that makes me a strange person, but for me, anticipation of exciting milestones is often accompanied by needless anxiety. At first, it manifested itself in fear of the unknown path my life would take after college. (See Living on Easy Street). When Mom calmed this fear by advising me not to think of life as a road but as a river, to let the river carry me as it may and know that while there may be rough waters, everything always works out, my fear turned to a more pressing paranoia. Sometime in April while I felt myself becoming invested in the excitement of inviting relatives and helping my parents plan a party, it occurred to me that school wasn’t over yet. There was still a chance I could fail something and not graduate, or be allowed to walk at commencement, but be told that my degree wouldn’t be official until I repeated a course the summer after. I cannot imagine what a let-down that would be. If that had happened to me, I would have skipped the commencement ceremony and postponed the party.

     In retrospect, I should have just taken a deep breath and realized I had nothing to worry about. After all, I made the dean’s list every semester and my classes had been audited by both my academic advisor and the Registrar to ensure I had the required credits, and that same audit from the Registrar indicated I was on track to graduate Magna Cum Laude!

     For those of you unfamiliar with weird academic terminology, Suma Cum Laude is the best of the best. I think this distinction requires a grade point average between 3.8 and 4.0 or something like that. Magna Cum Laude is second best, but pretty awesome too! I think it requires a grade point average between 3.5 and 3.8. Mine was right around 3.66 every semester!

     Every semester, I would score poorly on an assignment or two. While I freaked out about it freshman year, I quickly realized that it was normal to get a poor score occasionally, and my excellent scores on everything else balanced everything out so that I always got A’s and B’s. But last semester when I got a couple low scores on assignments in my public relations class, I found myself freaking out again. Graduation announcements had already been mailed to former teachers and my sister’s flight booked when I got these grades! I don’t think that even a piece of rhubarb pie (Garrison Keillor reference) would be enough to get the taste of shame and humiliation out of my mouth if I failed now! But of course, just like what always happened before, my excellent scores on everything else compensated and I passed with an AB.

     But even as part of me was anxious about my grades and wanted to make sure I got perfect scores on everything to end strong and ensure my graduation, another part of me was battling a serious case of senioritis. I would go up to my room with every intention of working on a paper or studying, but then my mind would wander to life after college and unable to focus, I would find myself goofing off on Facebook or listening to music. I will say I was proud of myself for finishing the final research paper of my communication conflict class on Sunday evening when it wasn’t due until Tuesday May 1. But that unusual decision not to procrastinate was overshadowed by revisions on a user manual in my technical writing class that ended up being more time consuming than I thought. So on Monday April 30, I still ended up staying up until 2:30 in the morning finishing the written revisions of my user manual on my braillenote, then setting an alarm, which I don’t usually do, to make sure I was awake and on the real computer by 6:30 to make visual revisions I forgot about like bold type and larger font for some text and a table of contents. I shudder to think what could have happened if I procrastinated on both my user manual and my conflict paper!

     On May 3, I was inducted in to two honor societies; Lambda Pi Eta, the Communication honor society and Pi Sigma Alpha, the politics society. I smiled as I was presented with medallions and cords which I would wear at graduation, but the realization that exams hadn’t been taken and grades for final papers hadn’t been entered yet nagged at the back of my mind. “Has anything ever happened where a student was inducted in to an honor society and then had that honor revoked because they failed an important paper or exam their final semester?” I wondered to myself. Can you imagine how humiliating that would be?

     Now that I have graduated, I will admit to any professors who read this that I rarely read textbook chapters from cover to cover. If a professor put a lot of emphasis on the importance of reading a particular section of a chapter during lectures, I would read it, or if there was something unclear from class, I would search the textbook chapter for clarification. When professors made study guides, I would scan the study guide and if there was a term that wasn’t ringing any bells in my memory, like “principled negotiation” and it couldn’t be found when searching my notes, I would find the section from the textbook about it. Early in my college years, I did read the textbook chapters dutifully from cover to cover, but sophomore year, I started noticing that despite reading the chapters, I was scoring terribly on reading quizzes and essay questions related to the reading. It occurred to me that it may be because textbook chapters are so ridiculously long and overly detailed that by the time I got through them, my brain was fried and I had retained nothing. But when I started skimming readings and reading only the information related to the daily essay questions assigned as homework in a politics class, my scores on these essays improved dramatically! I quickly discovered that by paying close attention and taking detailed notes during lecture, I was able to retain the rest of the information better and thus did great on tests in that class and subsequent classes as well.

     Of course, this approach didn’t always serve me well for reading quizzes, but these were relatively rare and worth a small percentage of my grade. Perhaps the time not spent frying my brain reading chapters cover to cover meant I had more time and mental energy to write better papers, which more than compensated for the low quiz scores. And while I had a mental blank on a couple questions on the communication conflict exam (they were questions I remember discussing during class lectures but the answers were on the tip of my tongue), I nailed the question on principled negotiation which I had found while skimming the textbook the night before, a question I may have gotten wrong had I read the whole chapter when it was originally assigned, let myself be lulled in to complacency and not consult the study guide since I read the chapter already, (something I used to do), which would have resulted in that term getting lost in the shuffle of other extraneous details from that chapter.

     Maybe it was a guilty conscience, or simply the realization that I cannot fail now since the weekend before graduation, my mom made a twelve-hour round-trip drive by herself so that I could finish a group project and portfolio for public relations and Granny (my maternal grandmother) could witness my graduation. (If that graduation didn’t happen, this sacrifice of love would have been for nothing and I don’t know how I would ever recover from the humiliation.) But while Mom and Granny cheered and declared a celebration was in order after my public relations exam May 7, and the Communication Conflict exam May 8, (the final final of my college career), I couldn’t stop silently fretting over the couple questions I went blank on and whether after four years of late nights, tired fingers from typing papers and the occasional tears, these questions would make it all a waste.

     It didn’t help that on Saturday May 5, a day I had planned on making dramatic progress on the final portfolio for Public Relations, I had a nasty headache and didn’t make near the progress I had hoped to make as a result. That put me behind so that Sunday night when I would have started looking over the study guide for Public Relations, I was finishing revisions on portfolio pieces, and on Monday, even though my exam wasn’t until 1:00 in the afternoon and even after cancelling my weekly Big Brothers Big Sisters visit, it took me until 11:45 to add the final visual touches to my portfolio on the real computer and get it printed. That left just enough time to get dressed, eat a quick lunch and review my notes in the car. In fact, since I have a better memory than many people, it was not uncommon for a quick review of notes in the car to be the extent of my studying these four years, but because of my graduation anxiety, this was the one time when I desperately wished I could have studied the night before.

     Since my procrastination mindset had returned and I had no sense of urgency to start working on my contribution to the group project, or the portfolio for Public Relations, I studied hard for my first amendment exam on May 3 after the honor society festivities and walked out of that exam feeling relaxed and confident. (I went blank on the names of a couple of theorists, but the professor for that class is one of those merciful professors who will give you credit if you get the general concepts, which I think I did.) But in my frantic efforts to finish the portfolio for public relations, the exam for Public Relations simply snuck up on me.

     Mom tried to calm me by asking, “if you weren’t anxious about graduation and you had time to study, would you have studied?”

     “Well, probably not,” I admitted.

     “See, then you’ll be fine,” she said, “if you’ve never studied before and you have always done fine, you shouldn’t worry.” She was right, but it is kind of funny how the one time I wanted to play it safe and study in advance as college students are supposed to, it doesn’t work out.

     On May 7 after my public relations exam, my mom made chicken dinner to celebrate my (paternal) grandma’s birthday, but all through dinner, the online, 90-question multiple choice exam for my technical writing class nagged at my mind. I had taken online exams before and thus was familiar with the interface which was very accessible. But in a reminder e-mail about the exam, the professor cautioned against waiting until the last minute to take this exam to allow time for problems like internet outages, which happen occasionally with our internet provider. The exam would only be active until May 8 at 1:59, but taking it Tuesday was risky as I had my conflict exam that morning. The exam was made available May 1, but it got pushed to the back burner, and I was just sure that fate would punish me for this procrastination by causing the internet to fail me and I would be screaming at the computer, re-taking and re-submitting the test until 3:00 in the morning, or not be able to complete the exam at all. But to my relief and delight, fate was nice to me. Although I was a little surprised and disappointed with my score when the system automatically graded my test, (it claimed I scored 69/90, but I felt more confident than that while taking the test), at least the internet worked on the first attempt and my test was submitted by 9:00 that night, leaving plenty of time to study for the conflict exam.

     But it wasn’t until Thursday May 10 when grades were due and I went online to discover that I earned an AB in all of my classes that I truly started to relax and enjoy the festivities. In retrospect, now that the rat race has been over for almost a month and I can actually think clearly, I wonder if it was not my grades that I was anxious about after all, even though that was how the anxiety manifested itself. Maybe the real source of my anxiety was over fear of the unknown. As I mentioned in “Living on Easy Street”, I have experienced many transitions, but through them all, there was always one constant: I was merely transitioning to another school, not another life and another world. Or maybe, after being in school my whole life, the prospect of graduating college and no longer being a student felt so surreal that deep down, I couldn’t believe it. Indeed, my anxiety peaked on the last official day of classes before exams when the professor of my first amendment class said “Have a good life.” Have a good life! Wow! That’s when it hit me that I wasn’t just taking a temporary reprieve from the world of school to “have a good summer” the usual refrain of teachers all of my life. I was embarking on a new life. How did that happen so fast? There must be a mistake. But there wasn’t a mistake.

     I didn’t, and still don’t know what life has in store for me, but when I saw my grades May 10, I decided it was time to put anxiety over the future aside, savor the present and let the festivities begin.