Friday, March 15, 2013

nurse-tastic: part 2

Among the most exciting aspects of nursing school is the constant knowledge that for once I'm doing exactly what I want to do, something I thought of entirely by myself, without a professor or a fellowship or a giant ideological project like Closing the Achievement Gap to compel me. That knowledge is essential is dealing with one of the least exciting elements of nursing school -- that is, the general consensus among nurses, my professors included, that I am a useless and unsolicited intrusion into the field, and my audacity in trying to enter it is mitigated only by the fact that I won't be able to get a job, anyway. In an effort not to sink into a mire of despair, I spend a lot of my down time reminding myself of why I chose to become a nurse in the first place.

There are the reasons I put on my application to nursing school, clacked out in a thrum of third-trimester certitude. (Judd Apatow and my crazed OBGYN professor to the contrary, pregnancy is not some sort of underscored special case of the female condition, where "the female condition" is to be a mewling, unreasonable interruption in the lives of otherwise high-functioning men such as Seth Rogan. For me -- whose brain chemistry generally resembles the workspace of a bright-but-inattentive college sophomore -- being pregnant was the closest I've come to glimpsing how people live when they aren't thrust into existential panic over their decision to buy new pants or go on vacation when no one has yet found a cure for ALS.)

According to my nursing school application, I wanted to be useful. This is true. But I said something pretty similar in my applications to law school, and, although the deans of a (small) number of Tier-I schools found those essays convincing, they really shouldn't have. In point of fact, my ability to convince Columbia to admit me to a program for which I lack every imaginable qualification beyond a generous LSAT score left me feeling so soulless and insubstantial a person that for a good fifteen minutes, it seemed to me that maybe I should be a lawyer. 

The difference between nursing and law isn't that lawyers aren't useful (I guess; to be honest, I still have a blurry picture in my mind of what, exactly, lawyers do). For me, the compelling distinction -- that is, the distinction that compels me to stay in nursing school despite all the shitty-feeling new manners of growth that nursing entails -- is that nursing attends to bodies, and bodies have been my issue, my preoccupation, for most of my life. 

Basically, my deal is this: I am terrified of pain, and I am terrified to die, and I am, more deeply than anything else, terrified that my body truly is all the awful things I have imagined it to be at various points in my life. These fears settle in different parts of my body and mind, moving in and out of my way, depending on dumb luck, my spiritual practice, the time of day and how well I am sleeping and whether or not I've overdone it with the coffee this week. 

This is my experience in a body that is privileged in every way except (maybe) gender, a body that, today, is healthy and able and basically young. To deal with these fears, for it to mean anything when I tell myself it's okay, I need for it to be okay, not just for me, in my body now, but for people whose bodies aren't working, people who can't care for themselves, people for whom pain and disability and death are not abstractions or morbid little fantasies. 

And from what I've seen, much, much too often, it's not okay. The same way life is not okay for people who are poor, life is totally not okay for a huge number of people who are sick, disabled, dying, old. 

It is not okay that the children I see (maybe) one day a week at the nursing home spend their lives mostly bored, lonely, and in pain. 

It is not okay that people sit in their own shit, lie howling like animals in their beds, spend their first or last hours on earth in pain that could be managed, but isn't. 

It isn't okay with me that one's quality of life is determined by how well one's body happens to work right now. It shouldn't really be okay with anyone: of all possible forms of inequality, the disempowerment of the sick, of the old, of the disabled, makes the least sense, since almost everyone will ultimately fall into one or all of those classes. 

And I don't know what to do. Poverty is visible; my reasons for not doing more about it are overwhelmingly just the basic, run-of-the mill personal failings I always mean to overcome and almost never do. Kids are dying of malaria, but those kids are far away; Sushi Tatsu and Starbucks and Target are all so much closer.

One of the reasons why so many people live the way they do, here, in a country where the standard of living almost seems like a parody of itself at times, is because it is sometimes very hard to gain access to the places where these people are kept. You pretty much have to be a nurse; doctors are often accused of treating the body rather than the patient, but right now the expectation seems to be more that they treat the disease, not the body. 

How your body feels, how it looks to you, whether and where and how it eats and sleeps and shits -- to meet you in any of those places, I have to be your nurse. No one else really gets access there. And so no one else is in the same position to affirm, right now, in this moment: it is okay. You don't have to be in pain right now. Your body, your life, is not garbage to be thrown out or ignored or hidden -- not now, while you are living, and not later, while you are dead. However invisible you may feel, whatever has been taken from you or done to you, you are still valuable.

In just one of the many chapters of My Impasses with Atheism, a friend and I fell out over whether or not it is meaningful to say that a person has intrinsic value, if that person has no one to value them. Because I believe in a God who is omniscient, I say with conviction that everyone has value. (While I think there are atheists who would agree with this,  my friend isn't one of them.) More than my need to believe in an afterlife or in the inherent goodness of the world, I think, this is what compels my faith. I'm unable to shake the belief that everyone, even my patients who cannot speak or move or respond, who hold precisely no capital as most of us understand it, are valuable, are lovable, and that the world is only as it should be when they are being treated accordingly.

This belief is why nursing, and not law or teaching or management. Because there are people who matter, who have value, and to whom the only useful response to that value at this moment is to push morphine, to knead the spasms out of their neck, to care whether or not they are eating. Because my faith, however mustard-seedlike, is largely wrapped up in my belief that I am to love those around me, and this is the kind of love I understand best: the kind that keeps its mouth shut and goes about its business. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


So, Girls. If you don't watch this show, it's about a privileged girls living in a magic alterna-Brooklyn in which everyone is white and pays for things with monopoly money (I guess....)

Now, everyone has criticized Girls for this already, and I will point out that, you know, a culture that produces twenty-six-year-olds who have not yet experienced "I want this thing, but I can't have it" as an economic reality (not in the sense of, this boy doesn't like me, or I didn't get into Columbia) should maybe casts its gaze towards the mirror rather than at individual young women who reflect that reality. Life is a different thing when you do and do not have to pay your own rent. The fact that Girls focuses so much more on Lena Dunham being naked than it does on actually depicting that reality is only annoying insofar as it is annoying to spend your twenties getting up at 6 and working fifty hours and commuting two and wearing the same four pairs of pants and not getting haircuts, and then to be told given a picture of well-dressed, well-nourished girls eating cupcakes in bathtubs and told, We get you.

But TV isn't going to represent life, and it's equally stupid to complain it should and to herald an obviously fanciful view of a world in which no one really has to work as "gritty" or "real". The difference between Sex and the City and Girls is that the women in Sex and the City are likable and attractive, and they have jobs that support their spending, because, conventionally, that is how people live.

Really it's not, of course -- Mary Crawley doesn't spend a lot of time concerned about paying the bills, for example. It's always been the case that some people have to work and some people don't. It is super irritating to be handed a person who does not have to work or who is somehow living in Greenpoint but working at a coffee shop -- because whaaaat? Does she have stock in it? -- and be told that this is the voice of any generation. (I do feel much better after resolving with my husband that a generation gap exists between kids born in the early and late 1980s; something about using hardbound encyclopedias rather than computers to write book reports. I'm just old!)

Because in the Brooklyn in which I live, I am privileged, because I can afford to borrow the money to attend an accelerated public nursing program while working between one and three jobs and raising my son, who I leave in a day care center where he is occasionally bitten but otherwise does okay. When I am walking him there, I see one of the gentlemen from the drop-in center where I used to work; he has housing now, after over a year, and he remembers me. The kids at the bus stop are wearing the generic uniforms required by the corporate charter schools blooming around our part of the city, schools at which the rigors of Being an Artist are a distant concern; schools staffed by slightly less privileged versions of Hannah who do have the distinction of recognizing that the world includes other people and formulating a response to that fact that doesn't involve taking off their clothes.

When I go to work, I am either teaching the sullen teenage children of Chinese immigrants in Bay Ridge or booking free field trips for kids in Flatbush. In my free time, I like to take care of disabled children in nursing homes. I'd like a TV show about someone who enjoys these things -- who spent her twenties looking for responsible ways to respond to the needs of others and sees her sexual exploits as a boring, common sidebar to real life, rather than a profound artistic statement.

But people (almost) always prefer watching you have sex than dealing with your opinions, ideas or beliefs; it's not a triumph to get them to do so when you're 150 pounds instead of 110. People  (almost) always prefer the illusion that really, the current social system is working -- just get a job in a coffee shop; at 7.50 an hour, less taxes, that $210 a week will certainly cover your share of a $1800 apartment. How fortunate that you found the only apartment in Greenpoint that costs that much!

It isn't feminist or empowering just to be a woman and talk, or make art, especially if you're just talking about sex and taking pictures of your own naked body.

I can see how it is refreshing to see an ordinary looking woman naked on TV. But truth bomb, here: you can be ordinary looking, not a model, and still find people who want to look at you naked, and that "triumph" is in no way a replacement for being respected, or being listened to, or taking meaningful action with your life.

I think it actually may not even be a generation gap here, as much as it my own disappointment with the way that the Third Wave of feminism turned the whole thing into a fight to be approved of as a sexual object, regardless of the size of your ass.

I just want a story about women who do things that don't involve getting a man, or talking with da girls about her man, or empowering herself by having sex, because fine if you want to do that, but understand that the person you are sleeping with is getting sex, and everyone else is getting to look at a young, naked body -- so the fact that it's not thin isn't actually "showing them" or challenging them the way you may think it is. A transgendered body? I'll buy that that's subversive. A disabled body? Sure. A healthy, young, hetero-normative body that happens to be a little fuller-figured than the norm? Be as naked as you want; it's not appreciably different from any other pretty white flesh onscreen just because there's more of it up there.

I want a story in which women relate to the world around them in the way men (sometimes) do in art and literature and TV and movies: that is to say, by mattering to someone who is not them, their bff, or the guy they're dating. I just want someone to make a TV show about Dvera Saxton or Magdelena Schmidt or Hilary Davis, any of whom actually has so many things to say and so many things going on that they don't have to take their shirt off to keep anyone's interest.

Because: really, whether you are gorgeous or average, fat or thin, curvy or not, you're not automatically defined by your body and its erotic or aesthetic possibilities, just because you are female. There are so many more interesting options than being conventionally attractive and naked or non-conventionally attractive and naked.

And I would need to dig out my critical theory book to get into it, but I feel like the biggest problem with Girls is the way it presents an adulthood stripped of any sense of responsibility to one's community or world, any grappling with problems outside oneself, and any effort to come to terms with one's position in a world that is giving you these privileges not only in juxtaposition to, but at the expense of, other people. The system that makes Girls possible is the same economic system that makes a lot of other, radically different lives inevitable here in Brooklyn. I'd watch Hannah do whatever she wanted with her zaftig self if she'd stop and free-associate about that at any point.