My 60 Day Caffeine and OTC Pain-Med “Wash-Out”

I hate my neurologist.

Of course, this isn’t a static emotion. What was first a panicky hate for his long list of changes has grown into an affectionate grumpiness for the smart man I wish hadn’t been right. Damn him.

In September and October of last year, I kept waking up to bite marks in my tongue. Bad ones, ever-worsening. Besides being confusing, they made teaching difficult. One day I woke up from a nap with my face covered in blood from a deep wound in the right side of my tongue. I didn’t wake up when I bit it. I felt like shit: heavy, weird, and confused. Every muscle ached. Fearing I’d had a seizure, I made some doctor’s appointments.

I was worried because there is something in my head. This isn’t a figure of speech. Midway through getting my MFA a few years ago, when my migraines increased, I had what seemed like a cursory MRI before I could be put on Topamax, a daily migraine medicine. During that MRI, the technician slid me out of the tube and asked me a bunch of questions that were too pointed to seem normal. Have you ever had an MRI before? No. Have you ever had any head trauma? No. Are you sure? Yes. Has anyone ever told you that you had any abnormalities in the left side of your head? No. And at that point, the technician told me she needed to push me back in and do the MRI all over again because she couldn’t be sure of what she saw. My Ativan had worn off. I couldn’t reach my ears through the head cage to get the earplugs back in. I lay there and I cried through the booms and clangs, in full panic attack. What was in my head? An arachnoid cyst, just behind my left ear. My general practitioner wasn’t great about helping me understand it. She sent me an email. She said they’d keep an eye out, wait to see if I had any neurological symptoms. And that was that, for a few years. So when I bit my tongue, when I suspected this might be a seizure, I was terrified.

I promise you, this is about coffee, too. I’m getting there.

My tongue-biting episode led me to the neurologist, which is where I should have gone after that first MRI. He asked me if I wanted to see the last few MRIs of my head. He showed me the surrounding, healthy, brain tissue. He told me I was probably born with the cyst because my brain had grown around it. He said that it couldn’t be causing either my migraines, or the episodes I was having now because of both where it’s located and how it hasn’t changed in several years.

See? I told you he’s smart. He’s kind and comforting, too. That made it hard to ignore him when he told me that I needed to give up caffeine and all OTC pain meds for two to three months if I wanted to make my headaches better.

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“How often do you take over-the-counter pain medication?” he asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. Probably four days a week?”

“How much?”

That answer was too high.

“And how many cups of coffee a day?” he gestured to the cup in my hand.

“Oh, this? This is green tea.”

“Green tea has caffeine in it, too.”

“I know. But, uh. Just one cup of coffee a day.” His fingers fluttered across his keyboard.

Diagnosis: rebound headaches. People like me who have chronic migraines can get them from being too used to caffeine and over the counter pain meds.

Prescription: cut out all over the counter pain meds, any use of Imitrex (a migraine medicine I take when I get one), and all caffeine for two to three months. A “wash-out.” After the “wash-out,” I could return to these things, but in an irregular pattern. Caffeine was okay, as long as it wasn’t every day, and I had to do one week a month with zero caffeine. Pain meds no more than twice a week. The hope was that it would lessen my headache frequency.

“It’s going to be hard,” he said. “Your headaches are going to get worse before they get better.” No Tylenol, or Motrin, or Excedrin. Nothing. No coffee, or green tea, or black tea.

Cool.

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He wasn’t wrong. The two weeks I cut caffeine were awful. I weaned myself with decaf (first three quarters caffeinated, then half, then one quarter, etc), then decaf for a few days, then nothing. Water and herbal tea only. It sucked. When I say “it sucked,” I mean that I had headaches and I was tired and I hated everyone and my body ached. And I wanted to murder my neurologist a little bit.

He also cautioned me that in order to stop the seizures, I needed to get at least eight hours of sleep, and I needed to “reduce my stress.”

Sure, Buddy.

This is my sixteenth year of teaching high school, but it feels like my first. We have all new curriculum–entirely new anthologies–as well as new novels at each grade. I teach two grade levels, which means I am teaching something new to me four times a day, every day. Not to mention learning one hundred and fifty personalities and trying to accommodate each soul as it needs to be taught. We also have an entirely new, entirely confounding computer database this year (and in the fall, I was a trainer for our staff), and the combination of new computer system and 180 days of new literature–times two grades–proved to be more than I could fit into my brain. By the second month of school, I wasn’t sleeping. I would wake up at 3:00 AM, worrying, and I’d think, well, that’s an extra hour of work I can get done. I’ll just get up and create a user guide for the computer system. I was borrowing sleep from both ends of the day, falling asleep late and getting up early. Usually I would wake sometime in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and I’d lay awake trying to make lists of all the things I needed to do.

Sometime last fall, my friend Lizi sent me this podcast from NPR, with scientist Matthew Walker. It inspired me to start harassing my children by telling them that “sleep is the Swiss Army Knife of health.” I believe it, though. The podcast is wonderful, and I can also recommend his book. Cliff Notes version: if you ain’t sleeping, you gonna die, friend. I was putting myself at risk every day. The real science behind how much we need a real chunk of sleep is pretty scary, and my recent brush with nocturnal seizures is proof that I need to stop messing around.

Robbing my sleep was the worst thing I could do. I just didn’t know. I’m a morning person because I like the peace of a quiet house. I like the sunrise and the sound of the coffeemaker. But that means I need to be an early-to-bed person. I like knowing that I’ve given time to the most important task on my list so I won’t have to worry about it for the rest of the day. But I was taking so much time from sleep that my body was shutting down. My neurologist diagnosed me with nocturnal seizures. (Biggest contributing factors: sleep deprivation and stress). Since I left his office in November, I’ve been religious about sleep. I’ve set an alarm to get in bed (not to sleep, but getting in bed about an hour before I want to be asleep makes a huge difference). I try for eight hours, but I usually get about seven and a half. You know what’s happened since I started getting all that sleep? I haven’t been sick once.

Giving up coffee was emotional, in a surprising way. I didn’t realize how it was linked to writing and reading, entirely a part of my routine. I got past the caffeine withdrawal after a few weeks, but I never made it to a point where I didn’t miss the emotional pull. I gave up soda, too, but I couldn’t care less. But at 8.5 half weeks, when a bad day finally sent me over the edge and I gave up on this “wash-out,” it was because I needed a cup of coffee. For my feelings. This process has taught me both that I have a serious lack of vices, and that I am tied more to a daily cup of Joe that I thought. More than once as I tried to muscle through, I thought, maybe it’s just worth it to have headaches, because I really, really love coffee so much.

But of course my doctor was right. After the initial miserable pain, my headaches lessened. I still have them, but more more infrequently. Not being able to take even a Tylenol made me pay attention to headaches before I got them. Before, I’ll admit that I’d just get a headache, and then worry about it later. Now, I’m more likely to try to prevent one before it starts. I’ve found that a lot of my headaches are from bad posture: specifically, sitting badly in bad chairs. I sit to read or type for long periods of time. I need better neck pillows and desk chairs. My tension headaches often turn into migraines (I had three migraines during my “wash-out,” and I couldn’t take anything for them. That was fun.) An added side effect of cutting caffeine was that I slept better.

I found that without coffee, I ate more. I had less of a reason to get out of bed. (Who gets up for tea? Not me.) I realized I drink coffee when I’m bored, rather than eating. I also found that I had to be more honest with myself about how much caffeine I’d been consuming before. Sure, I only drank one cup of coffee when I was home, but if I was out, one “cup” meant a Venti black coffee, and usually a large iced tea somewhere else in the afternoon. Oh, and when I was stressed last fall? I’m sure I was also pounding down the Coke Zeroes. So if I really think about that answer I gave the doc? It wasn’t honest because I wasn’t telling myself the truth. No wonder I had headaches, and no wonder I couldn’t sleep. The other thing this taught me is that most people are completely stupid when it comes to how much caffeine they’re consuming. Decaf is not caffeine-free, dummies. Now I know that herbal tea is just gross water (I never really got on the herbal tea train, although I will say mint tea and chamomile are the least offensive of the herbal teas), and it’s not good, but most people are just downright ignorant about what they consume.

I made it 60 days without coffee or pain meds. I couldn’t do the full three months, but I’m still glad I did it, and I do feel like it had a positive effect on the number of headaches I’m having. For now I’m sticking to decaf for as long as I can, and I’m still not drinking coffee every single day. More importantly, I’m still trying to sleep close to eight hours, and I’m practicing saying no to the constant demands on my time. That’s the hardest part of all of this. It feels like my health is under control, but barely. I need practice.

 

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2017: 1 Second a Day

Last year–January 1, 2017 to December 31, 2017–I used the 1 Second Everyday app to capture our life in seconds. The final video is about 6 minutes long, and I love it so much.

Admittedly, it stressed me out a little during the year. I ended up thinking I accidentally deleted what I had so far in early March, and I cried for about 2 days straight. But I recovered what was missing, and I kept it up (almost) faithfully for the entire year.

It’s a little peek into our ordinary life, and I know I’ll be glad to have it for years to come. There are, unsurprisingly, a lot of pets, a lot of swim meets, and a lot of books. Enjoy!

Do It My Damn Selfie

A sweaty man in a polo shirt stood near me this afternoon, making a comment he thought I couldn’t hear. “Oooooh,” he said to the women in his group (they all looked Boomer-ish, or at least Boomer-adjacent). “Maybe I need to take a selfie with the wall, too.” They all laughed like they’d invented farts. Ha ha. Burn. We are funny Boomers. This selfie-taking girl is bad because she is young. We are so awesome because we only point our cameras outward.

What a turd.

I was taking a selfie in front of the sign outside the National Air and Space Museum, and I wasn’t in anyone’s way. I wasn’t flipping the bird. I wasn’t wearing a pink hat. I wasn’t even thinking bad thoughts about Paul Ryan. I love America, and I think museums are rad. The National Air and Space museum is a hotbed of dadsplaining and crying toddlers, anyway; it’s not a silent or serious place. It’s a noisy, crowded petri dish of humanity and space ice cream, as it should be. It’s fucking cool that we fly. We put a man on the moon. Let’s let our nation’s toddlers climb on some jet parts–maybe someday they’ll want to do science. That seems to be a thing America needs.

If a 38 year old mom wants a picture in front of a museum, why is it a big deal?

This guy’s comment got under my skin more than it should have because it’s a sentiment I’ve heard several times this week. Almost as many times as I’ve heard someone mention the humidity or the number of steps they’ve taken, I’ve heard a Boomer complain about young people taking selfies. I have bitten my tongue.

I get it that I’m doing the same thing I hate. #notallBoomers. But I don’t know how to write about this without pointing out that all of the people who have said things around me about selfies this week have generational commonality. People’s age is not what bothers me, it’s their judgement.

Listen. I take selfies because I’m smart enough to realize that a picture of a building or an open expanse is boring and meaningless in history, personal or otherwise. None of my descendants want a picture of the books in the reading room at the Library of Congress. They can find that on Wikipedia, anyway. But they might want pictures of me in that space, having an experience. I do. I want to remember what I felt when I breathed that cold air in the card catalog room. To laugh at my hairstyle, years later. To remember the scent of old pages. To remember a moment. Photos help you do that.

I take selfies because I regret all the pictures I don’t have of myself when my kids were young. This is a common thing with moms. I was really good at documenting their lives when digital cameras were new. But it felt stupid to put the camera on myself. Now I want pictures of myself being alive. Nobody goes to the Library of Congress to do research and says thank goodness nobody kept any records in the past, because they really maintained their self respect. Nobody ever researches genealogy and says I wish I had fewer pictures of my great great grandma.

I was excited to be at the Air and Space Museum for two reasons: first, the same reason I was excited to be there as a kid. My third grade teacher structured our entire school year around space history. She had just been to space camp, and we spent the year studying missions in suits we made out of cardboard and foil; we read transcripts from mission control aloud, and did complicated reenactments where we sat in overturned desks that simulated Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. I thought that being an astronaut was completely attainable as a girl in the 1980s. Space was my first cross-curricular study. But the second reason I wanted to go today was that I interviewed David McCullough in 2015 about his Wright Brothers book. I wanted to see the 1903 flyer with actual knowledge of what their risk meant to our country. Nothing self-centered or lame (I think?). Pure American patriotism and curiosity.

I was alone, in that sea of polo shirts and clean sneakers. I also wanted to share my experience with my kids, who are across the country, and they only way I was going to be able to do that was by putting myself in the frame of my own pictures.

We don’t need to talk about how technology has changed, how it’s just easier to take a picture of your face now because you can see the screen and hold a tiny computer in your hand. Or how one of the laziest ways to criticize young people about today is how they look down at their phones all the time. As if there’s inherent evil in a glowing screen compared to newsprint or a book. But for crap’s sake, people have always been using print and other media to distract themselves from boredom. We read on our phones now. It’s not always bad; a person’s responsibility for their behavior and conversation is a better indicator of their dickishness than whether or not they look at a screen sometimes. I would venture to say that making fun of people within earshot is ruder than glancing down or texting a picture to someone you love.

It’s also worth mentioning that one of my favorite things about the Wright brothers’ story is that their connection to bicycles was judged harshly by older generations at the time. The olds saw bicycles as a way for young people to get themselves into trouble. They were sin machines. No matter the decade, there’s been some piece of tech that felt scary and like it might possibly lead the younger generation right into the pit of hell.

But here’s what it comes down to: don’t take selfies if you don’t like them. And don’t be such a loud jerk. If you want to complain about something, be a lady and get a damn blog.

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Off-Script and Off-Road: An Interview with Bernadette Murphy, Author of Harley and Me

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Bernadette Murphy, author of Harley and Me.

Bernadette Murphy wants to challenge your preconceptions about the kind of woman who owns a motorcycle.

Once upon a time, Murphy, now an LA writer and professor in Antioch’s MFA program, was a room mom for her children’s Elementary School classes: a woman who wore Winne the Pooh jumpers and bought into a vision of placidity. But when her father died, she bought a Harley, reassessed her life, began to dabble in risk, and started living for herself.

Harley and Me is Murphy’s memoir about learning to ride a motorcycle, but it’s so much more. In the vein of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Harley and Me is a journey narrative. But Murphy contextualizes her journey with scientific, historical, and cultural references. Harley and Me makes us evaluate not only how we see motorcycle riders, but how we see ourselves as women, mothers, and risk-takers.

Murphy and I spoke about neuroplasticity, becoming The Fonz, and the bio-chemistry of bonding with a machine.

Harley and Me is out in paperback May 30, 2017.

harley-and-me-csHarley and Me
By Bernadette Murphy
320 pp. Counterpoint. $16.95
IndieBound | Amazon

Heather Scott Partington: You write, “Awareness of death, it turns out, is a critical force motivating human behavior.” What did it mean to you to take on such a monumental risk? How did it shape your awareness of the current moment, and of who you want to be?

Bernadette Murphy: I bought my motorcycle the day after my father, my last remaining parent, died.  He had always seemed such a huge figure in my imagination, a strong, nearly invincible and wholly tangible human.  I could not imagine that one day he’d get older and die. But of course he did.  Experiencing his death changed how I saw things.  If death came for him, the most solid human I knew, it was coming for me, too.

We live in a culture that tends to play down and hide the reality of death.  Recognizing just how limited my time on this planet actually is has motivated me try my hand at a slew of wild adventures. I used to always think that there’d be more time later if I didn’t take an exciting opportunity when it was offered.  But guess what? The chance may not roll around again. I need to make sure I do the things I really want to do in this life, and inhabit my life as fully as I can while I can, because there will be no do-overs.  And while I know I take my life in my hands every time I mount my motorcycle, it reminds me that I take my life in my hands every moment I draw breath.  Driving across town, doing my daily routine.  There’s no knowing.  So why not go do the things I want to do – I’m going to die one day, either way.  Of course, I take all precautions I can – full-face helmet, riding armor, classes on how to be as safe as possible.

HSP: How did you deal with sexism or sexist language on your rides, and at the rallies? How did you reconcile for that with your pre-riding worldview?

BM: There’s no question that the sexism is rampant in the motorcycling culture, especially among riders of a certain age.  It’s been gratifying to meet an emerging new crop of young female riders who are breaking all the boundaries and just basically leaving that sexism in the dust.  Check out The Dream Roll, The Women’s Moto Exhibit, and Babes Ride Out.  These are groups of women (usually younger than me, but they include me, too, in their gatherings) who get together to ride and forge their own culture.  They’re not focused on changing the sexism of the old-boy network. Rather, they’re focused on their own riding, their own community, their own strength.  This is what I love about them: they just can’t be bothered focusing on what they don’t like about the male-centric aspects of the moto world.  They’re going off script, off road, to forge their own path.  And though this is not their goal, I suspect that by doing so, they will help transform the misogynist culture.

Personally, I don’t tend to go to motorcycle rallies and events like the ones you describe – they simply don’t appeal to me, unless they’re women focused like The Dream Roll.  Last summer, I rode from LA to Washington State to camp out in a field with 280 other female motorcyclists. That was a blast.

HSP: The chapter about Fonzie is great, and oddly enough I love that Henry Winkler was a little afraid of the bike–he was such an icon, but it was more of an accessory to him than a way of life. What did it mean to you to speak to him? And to reconcile the reality of the Fonz with how you had seen him when you were younger?

BM: Speaking with Henry Winkler was one of the highlights of writing this book.  I’ve had a crush on him since I was 11 years old, and still have a crush on him to this day. In fact, my infatuation only got deeper after the conversation because he’s such a thoughtful, authentic, and willing-to-be-vulnerable human.  He’s just really present and I connected immediately with that quality. From talking with Henry Winkler, I saw that that he, like me, has struggled with the issues of being clear about who he is, claiming himself fully, being true to who he is.  What a wonderful confirmation that I’m on the right path!  I also came to see that I had stopped emulating the parts of the Fonzie character I had so admired.  Instead of wanting to be Fonzie, to some degree – to the degree that I wanted  — I have in fact become him — or at least, my female version of him.

HSP: You write that women have an innermost thermostat that tells us how much joy, love, and success we think we deserve. What did this journey teach you about what you deserve? What lessons do you think other women can take away from your time on the bike?

BM: I learned that I have been shortchanging myself my entire life!  Especially as a young mother, when finances were tight and kids needed so much, I had learned to deny my own needs and wants, to reduce my desires to as small and easy-to-contain a package as possible.  And with good reason.  But now what I’m finally breaking out of that scarcity and lack mindset and working to reset my joy thermostat,  and finding that my dreams and desires are huge!  And that when I embrace them and think it might actually be possible to pursue them, I am so very happy and content.  Notice I didn’t say that when I get them I’m happy.  Getting them is almost beside the point.  Knowing it’s possible and that it’s okay for me to embrace these desires is the thing. For a long time, the voice in my head repeated the same toxic six words: “Who do you think you are?”  Who did I think I was to believe I could have a rich and wonderful life, to do things that were wild and exotic and just plain fun?  That voice kept me stuck for most of my adult life.  Now when it pops up, I remind it that I’m a beloved child of the universe who deserves these things as much as the next person and that I believe good things are in store for me.

HSP: Why do humans get risk-averse as we get older? What chemical changes start to happen when women decide to accept risk into middle age? You write that risk is necessary, that “one thing seems certain: avoiding risk altogether is actually an unhealthy state for all of us, male and female alike.”

Risk taking (in whatever form – taking a drawing class, traveling abroad, learning a foreign language, ice climbing, mountaineering, etc.) rewires our brain.  We use new muscles – literally and metaphorically – that increase our neuroplasticity.  This is a virtuous or vicious cycle, depending on which way you go, because the brain chemicals support the change.  If we take more risks, our brain chemicals give us a reward and then we want more of that reward so we continue to take more risks.  And if we stop taking risks, the reward cycle is broken and we find comfort in taking fewer and fewer risks.  The reason this is so dramatic for women in middle age is that the childbearing chemical brew we talked about earlier has convinced us to take as few risks as possible.  And unless we actively try to break that cycle, we’ll continue taking fewer risks until we become stuck and unable to take any kinds of risks at all.  If we’re not growing and evolving, we’re dying.  It’s a truth for all living things.

HSP: Did your experiences change anything about how you talk to your [adult] children? You write about how difficult it was to explain your risk-taking to your loved ones. I’m wondering if it changed how you want to parent them, or the message you want to communicate to them, even though they’re adults.

BM: My kids taught me more about risk taking than anyone.  They haven’t (yet) gotten stuck in that “let’s take a safe path no matter what” thinking.  They still believe so much is possible.  And they got me to do the same.  This has changed how I parent them.  I have to believe that if I’m safe in the hands of this universe, that they’re safe, too.  That I personally no longer have to be the guardian of their safety. I’ve done a good job raising them and I believe they make good and healthy choices for themselves.  So if they make choices I don’t believe in or support, I have to let it go and let them do what they’re going to do. It’s possible they are on the exact path they need to be on and that any interference from me is only going to mess that up.  And if the choice they make ends up hurting them, they will have learned something I couldn’t have taught them in a million years.

Plus, I have to embrace the fact that bad shit happens in life and there’s little I can do to change that.  They could get hurt doing a risky thing, but they could also get hurt not doing a risky thing. Parents are quick to warn their children about all the lurking perils if they take risky options. But they seldom tell them about the death that occurs, slowly, like the frog swimming in a pot of increasingly heated water, if they don’t put their true selves on the line.  That’s what I tell them.

HSP: What new risks are you taking now? Has your family’s reaction to your risk-taking changed since they read your writing about it?

BM: The biggest risk I’m taking right now is holding my partner, Edmond, in my thoughts and in my heart as he climbs Mt. Everest.  He’s one of the 200-plus climbers currently on Mount Everest*, on the brink of the first attempts in three years to make the final ascent to the world’s tallest peak, after fatal avalanches cut short the 2014 and 2015 campaigns. Here’s a piece I wrote about it.

My family is divided on my risk taking.  My kids, my partner, and two of my brothers are supportive.  My sister, my stepmother, my ex, and some others still think I’m crazy and that if I’d just quit this stuff my life would be better.  What they don’t realize is that my life is now the best it’s ever been.

HSP: Can you share a little about your research related to Oxytocin? The results of your tests were astounding. 

BM: Oxytocin it the cuddle compound that we create in our bodies when we have sex, nurse a baby, feel deep love, even pet a dog.  It causes us to trust and to feel connected and warm with others.  I had this theory that my embrace of my motorcycle was tied to this neurotransmitter.  I believed that as my 25-year marriage deteriorated, and as my kids began to fly the coop and didn’t hug me and need me in the same way, I was going through a kind of oxytocin withdrawal.  Embracing the motorcycle seemed to reverse that.  But from a scientific standpoint, that doesn’t make sense. Oxytocin, the neuroscientists tell us, can only be produced with contact with other living, active beings.  You can’t increase your oxytocin level with a machine.  Or so we thought.  We took my blood before and after riding my motorcycle and found my oxytocin level jumped a good amount – as much as a groom’s oxytocin level jumped in one experiment, just after he’d taken his vows. I believe that riding the motorcycle helped me have a deeper relationship with myself and that that is responsible for the oxytocin leap. Of course, this little experiment was just done on me and just done once, so it’s not scientifically valid, but it does lend credibility to my theory.

HSP: What are you working on now?

BM: I’m working on a novel about a woman who teaches at a performing arts high school in Los Angeles and who engages risk – but risk of the more emotional kind.  She learns that her version of her past is not the true story, and then has to change her life to incorporate this new information.

I’m also toying with a possible book project on the nature of women’s leadership and the role marriage plays in it.  I’m particularly interested in 1) how marriage as an institution is dying away in Iceland and what that means to the culture, and 2) how the women of Rwanda took over many leadership roles there after the genocide there (when a large percentage of the men were killed and women had to step up into government and leadership positions) and how that change in gender balance of those in power has made for a healthier, happier country.  How those two topics fit together and what I might do with it, I don’t know yet.  But that’s what I’m tinkering with.

*This interview was conducted in the spring of 2016.

Purchase Harley and Me at IndieBound or Amazon.
More information about Bernadette Murphy can be found here.

I had a year.

This morning we watched The Battle of the Bastards again and I tried not to look away from all the stabbing. It’s been a big week in TV as we’ve tried to wait out whatever viral thing has lobbied its way into our family’s respiratory systems. Resistance is futile: five seasons of GOT, some Voyager and now The Fall, plus cold meds. TV feels like as good as any other way to mark the passing of mucous and the old year.

But this isn’t a good riddance to 2016 post. My 2015 was much harder, physically, and though 2016 surprised me, in some ways its helped me to grow up and figure out what matters. So, good on that. It feels icky to me to claim one year as the worst year ever in the same way it makes me squirm when people thank Jesus for winning a football game. Maybe my anxiety is about trying to pin that kind of power on one arbitrary thing. I do have one thing to say about the political mess of 2016: I just hope–hope–that 2017 brings more civility. America matters to me a whole lot, and so does our fundamental right to disagree with each other and still hold on to our humanity.

Anyway. Here’s what happened to me and my most important humans in 2016. It was a good year for our family.

Being a parent of non-toddlers is the strangest combination of longing for the wonderful little teeny people who used to live here and complete delight in the friendship of the newer, big people. I don’t begrudge them the fact that they’ve grown, and it’s the most wonderful thing to have these two whip-smart dudes to talk to. But I won’t lie: when Henry had a ridiculously high fever a few weeks ago and draped himself across me like a rag doll, I ate it up. (Along with his germs, which is why every one else got sick shortly thereafter). Henry is 11 now, and Addie is 14.

But they’ve done more this year than just get taller. Henry is in sixth grade, but taking math at the local junior high every afternoon. His coding and gaming hobbies have now expanded into building computers. I’d like to claim we saw it coming with Legos or something when he was three, but everyone says that thing about Legos proving your kid is a genius, right? We couldn’t have imagined what kind of mind he’d have for all that now. He’s just following his curiosity, and we’re trying our best to let him, whatever that means. He’s also a nut for anything related to mythology, ancient history, and puns. He played volleyball for his elementary school last year and joined the swim team with Addie. His favorite stroke is butterfly. He is a good and kind boy, and he makes me laugh every single day.

Addie is at the high school with me, which is nice. She bit a big bullet and did summer school there to get two classes out of the way so she could take both Spanish 2 and digital arts electives during the year. In both her summer school classes and her first semester, she worked her tail off and earned straight As. I’m incredibly proud of what a good student she is. She is a maniac of a reader and such a good writer. She had to read Ender’s Game for school and Eric and I had never read it before, so we both read it too. We ended up in a heated family argument about whether or not Ender was a hero. She was so mad about the book (I loved that!). But more important to me than arguing about books is the fact that she’s still the same kind, artistic, and sympathetic soul. I really enjoy getting to spend time with her every day as we drive to school and set up my classroom in the morning. It’s been a good chance to see her for who she really is, now. In addition to swimming on the swim team again, Addie has been volunteering regularly for the Sacramento Zoo as a part of the Zoo Teens program this year. I’m so proud of everything she is, and everything she has ahead of her.

Eric had a good year too. He got a promotion in place at a job he loves, so he can keep doing the work he likes with the people he likes. He taught several training classes for his office at McGeorge and for various other state agencies this year. He continued to do all kinds of improvements on our house and completely remodeled our garage from a nasty, dusty heap to an organized storage space and working shop for Maude (the other woman, his 1954 Ford Customline). Last spring he and his dad put up solar panels on the side of the house so the kids and I could enjoy a heated pool; I spent my entire summer enjoying the fruits of their labor and getting a ridiculous tan. Eric’s made friends with our neighbors, and continues to be happy to run over to our friends’ homes to do handyman work and fix-it jobs. I feel incredibly lucky to be married to someone who is a book smart lawyer (and a great editor for my reviews), and knows how to fix things.

My sister, Melissa’s, family lives about five minutes from us, and our kids are constantly connected. We had to tell the five of them this year that they can’t just arrange sleepovers on their group text without checking with adults–this week we’ve had to institute a code word to confirm that they checked with the other parent for approval. The best thing in the world is seeing (and hearing) our five noisy kids knock around together. They’re loud, but they love each other. When Melissa and I were pregnant with Luke and Henry we used to daydream about how close our kids would be. The older they get, the more they all want to hang out, and it’s even better than we hoped.

I didn’t work on reviews as much as I have in previous years. Part of that was by choice–twice this year I took breaks from social media and review pitching because the cycle of keeping up with publishing news and books that were coming out during such a contentious news cycle was making me weary. I think the larger consideration was that this was (and will continue to be until they graduate in 2017) such a different year with my AVID class. I’ve had the same class of amazing kids since they were freshmen. This fall, I shepherded 30 of them through the college application process and FAFSA process, and it almost defies description, it was so taxing. I take the responsibility of their futures so seriously, and I was so nervous for most of November that I’d miss something or mess up somehow in helping them. They didn’t get done early (as I’d hoped), but they got done by the deadline. I’ve been trying to forgive myself a little for not reading as much and not reviewing as much because I know teaching full time and college app assistance took all of my energy even when I wasn’t doing anything. I couldn’t turn my brain off and stop worrying about them when I’d go to bed. The amazing part of this is that for the last few months, I’ve gotten the most amazing texts as these kids get into college. I am so proud of them. They are great. But holy crap, helping 30 kids apply to college at the same time is no joke. No. Joke.

Critical work was slower this year, as I said, but probably more rewarding. The more I do it, the more I see that it is both what I want to do and what I am meant to do–but the more I continue to see what I have to learn. But 2016 brought me some big opportunities: I was fortunate enough to be asked back to do a panel at the LA Times Festival of Books again, and early in 2016, I interviewed Yann Martel for Goodreads. His publisher ended up adding the interview to the paperback version of the book, which was published in November. Just before the election, I interviewed the brilliant Michael Chabon.

The best thing this year, hands-down, was my trip to DC with Kitty to tour the West Wing with a friend from high school. It was incredible, not only because being in such a historical place is beyond anything I can put into words, but because on our way to DC, we were rerouted to North Carolina and had to drive all night to make it.  It was, in terms of travel mishaps, a pretty big mess. But navigating our way out of the mess felt like a huge accomplishment, and getting to see the Oval Office, the Press Room, the White House, and then so much of DC with Kitty, was a real gift. I’m incredibly grateful to our host, Katrina, who welcomed us into her family and home while we were there.

I spent a lot of 2016 overscheduled. I don’t say this as a brag or a badge of honor. It means I’m doing something wrong. Working full time as a high school teacher and part time as a book critic and whatever time you count it as when you’re a mom of two kids who cooks and cleans and shops and does all the things? That’s too much. I’m not happy with all of it and I spent a lot of 2016 trying to figure out how to do less and there’s not really an answer. Some of it I want to do while I’m lucky enough to have the kids here before college. I don’t want to sacrifice my time with them. So maybe 2016 was just about a shifting of priorities, or a pondering about whether or not I can be patient or still keep myself in the publishing world if I’m not still out there trying to prove the same things I was proving two years ago. I don’t have answers. But I worried a lot in 2016.

Things I don’t care about: staying up until midnight (tonight or any night), making a resolution for 2017, having any answers tonight.

What I do know: every year with this family gets better. I am lucky to be loved and to have people who let me love them and spend lots of time with them.

Happy New Year. May it be good to you.

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