Teaching Others Not to Cry: Zoloft and Strong Martinis By SUSAN PARKER

Tuesday December 14, 2004

In Nona Caspers’ Teaching Creative Writing workshop at San Francisco State, my classmates and I spent the semester exploring educational theory and pedagogy. We created curriculums and gave lectures on different aspects of craft; we read about teachers whose lesson plans worked and others who left their students confused and disappointed. Guest speakers told us about their experiences in the classroom, warned us about pitfalls and false expectations. We asked questions and took notes. We were earnest and sincere, scared and inspired.  

Nona pushed and prodded us and her workshop was stimulating and rewarding. But for our last class meeting, she suggested that we switch gears. “Instead of writing,” she said, “Let’s teach each other something we’re good at, something that has nothing to do with poetry, fiction, or theater. For instance, I’m good at yoga, so next week I’ll show you a pose.” 

Nona’s request worried me. I stayed up late wondering what the hell I was good at. I could think of dozens of skills I practiced before my husband’s accident—things I haven’t done in the past 10 years, like rock climbing, cycling, skiing, and rollerblading. I was once proficient at reading a topo map and compass, finding routes through the Sierra where there were no trails. I could erect a tent swiftly, break it down after a night in the snow, carry a heavy backpack while on skis or dangling from a climbing rope. But now I doubt that I could pull anything up a haul bag line, or even find my way out of a paper sack. I might be able to change a flat tire on a bicycle if my life depended on it, but true a crooked wheel, or prime a camp stove? Forget it. 

So what am I going to teach my fellow classmates? These days, my physical activities are limited to swimming and pushing an electric wheelchair. I could bring flippers and goggles to class but that doesn’t seem very interesting, and shoving a wheelchair takes no skill, only brute force and suppressed grunts.  

What am I good at? I’m an expert at not crying thanks to the miracle of Zoloft. I could share a few tablets with my classmates, but I’d have to explain that it takes a month of daily dosages before the tears subside. I could teach them about the Kaiser Emergency Room, how each visit there lasts a minimum of seven hours, or about what it’s like to be trapped on the third floor of a building with a wheelchair-bound companion after the elevator breaks down.  

What am I good at? A whole lot of things that I wasn’t good at a decade ago. I’m a professional, in some ways, at being patient, (see above reference to ER and elevators). Because of the people who live with me and help me take care of my husband, I know much more about other cultures and ethnic groups, racial matters and socio-economics. I used to be a whiz at saving money, but now I’m better at spending it on things I never expected to pay for: pills and domestic help, other people’s traffic tickets and child support. I’m first-rate at putting up with addictions and petty theft, tolerant of many behaviors that I once found intolerable.  

What can I teach my fellow students? Maybe I can explain to them that you never know for sure what might happen to you or someone you love; that accidents are sometimes unavoidable; that you can do things you never thought possible, stick with situations that you once viewed as unbearable; build new relationships and forge friendships with people you never would have met in your old life, the life you were forced to leave behind. Your new existence may not be one that you expected, prepared for, or wanted, but you can go on. You can survive.  

Or maybe I’ll just teach them how to make a strong, double martini, straight-up, with an olive. I’m a specialist at that. ›