Thursday, January 31, 2008


I'm recovering from the second worst illness in my life, the worst being the legendary February 1998 strep throat that caused me to spend several hours dizzily recoiling in pain on my bathroom floor in Minneapolis, wrapped in towels. Back in '98, I woke up the next morning in a pool of sweat, feeling completely healthy, the antibiotics finally killing what they had to kill.

This time, it's no virus, no bacteria, just (in the words of my gregarious doctor) a "really bad 7-day cold." So, two nights ago, I spent minutes - not hours - recoiling on the bathroom floor. Two afternoons ago, on a brave trip out of my apartment to get a Jamba Juice soy-based smoothie, I had to interrupt my trip back home to take an hour-long nap in my car, parked on the sunny side of Gower Street. Yesterday morning, I watched the entire two-hour block of Frasier and Will and Grace reruns on Lifetime in a medicate haze, respecting that network's "vision" of relentlessly advertising weight loss products, feminine lubricants, and Swiffers. Over the past few days, I've watched so many Monk reruns (on USA and online) that I'm actually finally sick of that finicky bastard and his perky assistant(s). I'll get over it eventually and finally post my "Why Monk is Brilliant" blog entry, incorporating the topics of divorce, loyalty, and Arab-American assimilation.

But back to the title of this entry - I've never felt quite this weak in my life. The energy I've needed to expend on the most mundane tasks - moving from the couch to the bed, turning the heat down from 65 to 63, refilling the cat food, etc. - has seemed equal to the amount expended during my more impressive feats of the past (the half-marathon in 2000, cleaning my apartment that one time in 2006, riding my bike all the way to Doylestown in 1979).
I don't mean to talk about this in a whiny way - this feeling of weakness is just interesting to me. I'm more than familiar with laziness. It's more or less my default. But pure weakness is a novel concept to me.

The 1998 strep throat referenced above wasn't my only experience with the nasty bacteria. Back in December 1996, I was hit with it pretty bad. Back then, I was in my first semester of my Ph.D. program. I was working as a T.A. for a statistics professor who could best be described as "maniacally cruel." It was the day of the final exam and I was proctoring the test. I had found out earlier that morning that my strep test was positive (back then, the test took a day; now, it takes 15 minutes). When the professor found me in my half-office shortly before the test was to begin, with my head down on the desk, asleep, she asked me in her memorable accent "What's wrong?" I mentioned not feeling well. I mentioned the strep test. She weighed the pros and cons of me still giving the test. She considered sending me home and proctoring it herself. In the end, she made the odd compromise of not sending me home but:
- handing the final exams out herself (so I wouldn't touch them)
- announcing to the class that I had strep throat
- leaving me in the classroom to oversee the test (while she sat in her office, likely writing the never published follow-up to this classic book)
- telling the students that I could help them if they had questions but not to get too close to me
- having me collect the tests and grade them, giving them back to her after the bacteria had passed, presumably
Rather than being scared or disgusted by my predicament, the students clearly felt sorry for me and recognized the crass selfishness of a professor who couldn't give an hour of her day to oversee the test and send me home. Anyway, a week later, she left a classic message on my answering machine (I still have the mini-cassette) telling me I was the "lowest performing T.A. in her seven years of teaching." Still, she hired me for the next semester. And the one after that. And the one after that. She knew I was the only one who could take her crap. I knew she was actually easier to work for than the other statistics professors who demanded a lot more curriculum preparation from the assistants.

(Post-script: When she was refused tenure in '99, she left the university for what she told me was a "really good job" at the University of California-San Diego. There was never a record of her working there, under her maiden or married names. There is currently no record of her existence anywhere on the internet, except for a few pre-2000 references. What happened? Is she still alive? Was the guilt simply too much?)

Enough about that crazy professor, whom I conveniently blame for me getting my Ph.D. 3 years too late. What about me? Am I getting better? Today is marginally better than yesterday, which was infinitesimally better than Tuesday, which was far worse than Monday. I think I've turned a corner.

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