29 May


This is my original joke. (You should imagine it said in Paula Poundstone’s deadpan style.) Why do they call it menopause? What’s it going to do? Take a little break and then start up again?

I can’t really say this in a nice way. If you don’t care about, or believe in, menopause, you should stop reading right now. If you are female and young (I’m sure I didn’t believe then), it will come to you, so enjoy your relatively steady hormone levels while you can. If you are female and mid-life like me, I commiserate with you, my sisters. If you are a man with a partner in this stage, trust that it won’t last forever. You will get her back. Just be patient, a little more patient than usual. Same with you young guys who will eventually partner up with a woman who will go through this. Prepare to be patient.

And what does this have to do with language? Stay tuned.

Some women breeze through menopause. My mom doesn’t even remember hers. Sigh. We can’t really relate on this. Edith Bunker had a hard time with hers, but it didn’t seem to last very long. We women can have all kinds of levels of “symptoms” (so they’re called, even though they have nothing to do with sickness). Some get hit in the emotions more than the body, like Edith. Some get it in the body, and bad. I can’t say which is worse, only describe my own experience. My worst symptom is this: my heart feels like it’s pounding out of my chest. It is a constant, almost adrenaline-like feeling (at least you’d expect weight loss as a result, but that is as hard as ever), that during the day I am usually too busy to pay much attention to, while at night it rocks me in my bed and often keeps me awake. It was disturbing enough last year to send me on a quest to figure out what was happening to my heart. I wore a Holter Monitor for 24 hours, that thingy with the probes stuck on your chest, a portable EKG. I saw two cardiologists and a sleep doctor, as well as my own physician, a very understanding certified nurse practitioner. I had numerous EKGs. My blood pressure was up too, and my cholesterol (cripes, never happened before, ever: they were always normal and healthy), more side effects of menopause. I even had a stress echocardiogram: more probes, then some amount of time on a treadmill, with incline and rate increasing, followed by an ultrasound of the heart.

I passed every test. My heart is strong and healthy, but sometimes slow. Slow. That’s bradycardia, a resting heart rate that dips below 50 beats per minute. Seems counterintuitive, but that’s what the tests showed, along with some skips. Nothing to worry about, they say. So here it’s the next year, I’m off hormone therapy (which seemed to help with sleep at first, but then stopped helping at all, so became pointless) and just letting nature take its course. My doc recommended magnesium to help with sleep. I take it daily now, and at first, for a few days, it seemed to help me sleep more deeply, but not anymore.  The trick is to override the pounding so my brain can shut down, and very little works.

The hot flashes are back too, and mad. I get them all the time, any time, except while I’m actively exercising. I get them in the morning, afternoon and evening. I get them at night, sometimes when I’m trying to sleep. I get them whether I’m drinking wine or tea or cold water, whether I’m eating or doing housework or trying to write. Worst, by far, I get them when I’m teaching. Now, I never heard anyone discuss this specifically, but for me, when a hot flash hits my brain stops. Language stops. Nothing I can do but wait to recover. The hot hits, my face gets red, and in the middle of a sentence I completely forget what I’m saying. And even when I haven’t actually forgotten what I’m saying, my speech becomes halting, loses its fluidity. Writing is so much more forgiving.

I have this word (see post: “Lethologica”) that I tell my students is useful to keep on hand for times when you forget what you’re saying. It sounds impressive, and gives you time to recover while your listeners are shaking their heads in wonderment at your fab vocabulary. (Imagine my delight when encountering this word on the last page of a student’s rough draft as she trailed off, struggling to find an ending!) It’s a useful word, but can only do so much.

Anyone who teaches knows that it’s performance. We are up there, in front of a group of people who may or may not (and since I teach required writing classes for freshmen and juniors who are NOT English majors, you can imagine) want to be there. Some are afraid of writing. Some hate to read. Some only want to write about subjects they choose. Some hate doing research. Some hate using sources. This is what we always potentially face: a hostile audience. So teaching is a performance. We are on stage every class. We work to engage them in wanting to do this work. We have tricks and methods and are attentive to the mood of the class. We have to give a little, and we have to be strict most of the time. We have to set rules and penalties for not following them, and like good parents, we have to follow through. We have to talk, a lot, and set ourselves as examples. We have to speak well, but we try not to be dry. We often want to express our own love of language, to convey the sheer joy that can be found in words and composition and reading and learning. This is what teaching writing is really about. Not following some drab curriculum but an attempt to change minds, to bring students over to our side, while still giving them the knowledge they need: how to form transitions, how to evaluate sources, how to choose and integrate quotes, how to use apostrophes, how to do deep reading, how to form an argument that appeals to emotion and logic, so many things.

When you have a good class, one that seems like a cohesive group, that laughs at your jokes, that has some fun but also respects deadlines and tries hard to do well, it’s easier to lose your words in the middle of a sentence. It’s less damaging, anyway. You make a joke of it, and go on. How annoying, though, to be an articulate person and sometimes, through some stupid quirk of biology, lose your language. Language is my trade, my skill, my profession, my passion. And to lose it seems like an especially mean cosmic joke.

Between the sleep-stealing heart pounding and the mental/verbal assault of the hot flash, hell. I’m sort of a mess. But holding myself together as well as possible, looking forward to the end of this. And it will end, right?


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