The Best of Times and the Worst of Times

Well readers, I haven’t written as much as I would like in this journal, and when I have written, the entries have often been tailored to Lj Idol topics and blog carnivals. So I think an entry that is simply an update on my life is long overdue. I have so much to update you about, especially regarding the internship I will be starting May 31, the day after Memorial Day. But since there is a long story behind that, I think I will save that news for the next entry and start with a reflection on this past school year.

     Usually I am not the type to parrot famous lines to describe something, but I have to say I cannot think of a better way to describe this year than to say “it was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” I suppose every year of my life has been that way, but it seems like this year, I was more aware of the meaning of this line. Although this line was written by Charles Dickens, my inspiration to use this line was not inspired by him, but instead by Laura Ingalls Wilder. By the end of every year of college, I have been so tired and drained of ambition that I don’t feel like doing anything, and this year was no exception. I was able to muster the motivation to write the blog posted May 8 about Osama Bin Laden, a post that was relatively short compared to my typical writing style, but yet took me four days to write. But once that entry was posted, it occurred to me that what I needed was a good book to escape in to, a book that would be an easy read on a light subject. In other words, I wanted to finally read a book that was a polar opposite to the books I had been reading all semester for college. I had a small collection of books downloaded from bookshare on my SD card, book that had been recommended to me by various sources, but they all seemed heavier than what I was looking for. And then I remembered an article written for our newspaper that my mom read to me about a local woman whose childhood fascination with Laura Ingalls Wilder led to a career blogging and doing research about her. “That’s it!” I realized. “Laura Ingalls Wilder would be the perfect escape read!”

     The first book of the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, “Little House in the Big Woods” was required reading when I was in fourth grade because the woods where she lived in her early years were near Pepin, Wisconsin, and fourth grade was the year for learning about Wisconsin. Like a lot of kids at that age, I was often less than enthusiastic about school reading, but I loved this book even then. It even led to an obsession that probably annoyed the rest of my family about how wonderful the pioneer life was. But since fourth grade was eleven years ago, I decided it was time to read that book again, and if it is possible, I think I love and appreciate that book even more now. I only stopped reading this book long enough to eat meals and had it finished in less than 24 hours. From there, I have been on a mission to read all the books in the series. Yesterday, I finished the sixth book of the series “The Long Winter” and all of these books have been just as engaging as the first.

     So you are probably wondering where I found a correlation between Charles Dickens and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Even though Laura doesn’t say it as explicitly as Charles Dickens, her writing indicates that the late 1800s when she was growing up were clearly the best of times and the worst of times simultaneously. Of course, a lot of people like to point out how rough life was back then, with no modern conveniences like cars or electricity. But not having electricity or the inventions that came out of it, especially television, meant that after a hard day’s work, Laura’s father, referred to as Pa, would play the fiddle or tell stories, instead of just falling asleep watching some stupid television show like so many families do today. Pa was always doing some kind of back breaking labor, whether it was plowing, chopping trees or stacking hay. Even with all this labor, there were times when the family was barely scraping by. When the family lived in Minnesota, their crops were beautiful and almost ready to harvest when they were eaten by millions of grasshoppers. But when their luck took a turn for the better, they genuinely appreciated their good fortune more than people do today, an era where we can go to the grocery store and buy anything we want to eat any time of year, and where the globalized market we live in means that if a storm or something wipes out a crop in one area, we just import it from somewhere else. The children had chores to do at a very young age, and when they could play, they played with paper dolls or rag dolls. Given all of the fancy toys marketed to children today, children would probably throw a tantrum if all they got for Christmas was a rag doll, but since Laura’s childhood preceded this gluttony of consumption, she was so excited to get a rag doll. Then there were the illnesses that we have vaccines for today that were not available when Laura was growing up. Mary, Laura’s older sister ironically lost her sight because of scarlet fever. But she did not have a pity party. Instead, she focused on what she could still do, re-learned how to sew and studied with Laura so that she could still go to college one day. Now of course, my life circumstances aren’t nearly as extreme as those faced by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family, but the point is that these books inspired me to think about the best and worst parts of my own life last year.

     First semester was the best of times in that I essentially only had 12 credits of coursework. I was enrolled in 16 credits worth of courses, the full course load at my school, but the business 101 class that my adviser recommended was so easy. I only had to answer two or three questions out of the textbook each week, and quickly discovered that I didn’t even need to read the textbook chapters because the professor said his lectures were directly based off the chapters. Listening to powerpoint lectures every day was kind of boring, but hey, I’ll take a boring class if it is easy! Having this one class that was so easy gave me more time for a life other than school, like singing in the concert choir, mentoring another blind student a few times and participating in Lj Idol. But that also made it the worst of times in that I allowed this easier schedule to make me more of a complacent student. Since my politics course didn’t have the dreaded ticket questions I talked about last year, I was less diligent about reading everything that was assigned, and in my communication law class, I could have scored better on my presentations had I taken them more seriously and backed up my arguments with more research. I didn’t fail by any means. In fact, I still made the Dean’s list. I just didn’t make the most of these learning opportunities the way I usually do.

     When I got my wisdom teeth out in January (see the entry I wrote January 8), it was the worst of times in that I had this unrelenting pain on the lower left part of my mouth where the incision had to be deeper because the tooth was fully impacted. After taking Vikodin every four hours only to have the pain come back again when the drugs wore off, my dad took me back to the oral surgeon the Wednesday after surgery, and it was discovered I had dry socket. So every day, we had to drive half an hour to the surgeon’s office where it took a nurse less than thirty seconds to pack the dry socket with this disgusting tasting stuff with numbing medicine on it. But that surgery was the best of times because it gave me a deeper appreciation for the comforting effect of soft foods like soup, pudding and applesauce. Also, it gave me a legitimate excuse to sleep away a few dreary winter days.

     First semester this year brought no crazy trips to the emergency room or need for surgery like first semester last year, although I did have a fever one day requiring me to miss school, and in November, I had this weird painful lump on my neck that the doctor diagnosed as inflamed tonsils and prescribed antibiotics. But second semester brought the best health I have ever had. Other than a few headaches caused by stress and sleep deprivation, I felt great because of a decision I made that this year would be the year I would eat healthier. While I will eat bacon, eggs and hashbrowns occasionally, most mornings now I eat oatmeal and fruit for breakfast, and this healthier eating extends to the rest of the day too, where I have made incredible strides in eating fewer simple carbs and high-fat meats and more whole grains, fish and vegetables. That combined with walking 4 miles an hour for at least half an hour on the treadmill or walking a minimum of two miles outside, has resulted in such stunning weight loss that pants that once fit me are now too baggy, so my mom has been buying me smaller pants, and donating my “fat pants” to Goodwill! In eighth grade, I tried a more extreme health plan where I gave up chocolate altogether and did a lot of situps in addition to my treadmill workout. Needless to say, this more extreme approach didn’t last. But this more moderate approach where I can still eat chocolate, just less of it, and where I choose one exercise to focus on, which I decided should be aerobic exercise, I have a wonderful sense that this approach will be sustainable for the rest of my life.

     Starting in November, it was the best of times in that my mom got a new job that allowed her to be off on weekends again, so we have been able to go to church as a family again. I don’t usually like football, but since my mom finally got to be off for the playoffs and the superbowl, there was something special about huddling under blankets on the couch and watching it as a family this year. But it was the worst of times in that during the week, Mom and I hardly ever saw each other, as she had to work more hours than she expected, and I had night classes three nights a week last semester. Then again, it was also the best of times in that I think I have developed a closer relationship with my dad. When I was little, my dad loved to ask playfully, “are you Mama’s girl or Daddy’s girl?” When I would always say “Mama’s girl!” he would pretend to cry like I broke his heart, but now that I spend more time with Dad, I have noticed we do have a lot in common, so maybe I am Daddy’s girl now! It is also the best of times because when I do get time with Mom, like this past Tuesday when my dad took my brother to a baseball game, or a few Saturdays ago when my dad was gone all day taking my Grandma to visit her sister in Illinois, the girl time with Mom was even sweeter and more special somehow.

     Second semester was the worst of times in that I had an insane amount of reading. Whereas in the past, teachers only assigned an article or a particular chapter out of a book to read, it seemed like all my teachers this semester were assigning whole books to read. One teacher even required us to turn in reading notes for all of the assigned reading. This meant that every weekend when I thought about just taking a day to blog or relax, I would see all of the reading on the syllabus, get a guilty conscience and spend the whole weekend reading instead. But it was the best of times in that this was by far the most interesting array of courses I have ever taken. My public policy course which was two hours twice a week, flew by because much of the time was spent discussing current issues that effect public policy, most notably my governor’s budget repair bill that stripped public employees like teachers of their collective bargaining rights. (You have all probably heard about it if you watched any national news in January.) My society and mass media course which was three and a half hours once a week, also flew by with fascinating discussions about how the media covered news events from the American Revolution in 1776 to September 11 and the wars that followed. I am really glad this course is required because now I give the news I hear more thought and critical analysis rather than just passively believing everything I hear which I know will make me a better journalist. In Communication Ethics, I also learned to think more critically about what it means to be ethical. Of course, you saw my paper written about the Japanese nuclear crisis. We also had other interesting class discussions, one of them being about the budget repair bill and whether the teachers protesting at the capital were engaging in civil disobedience. In English, I read beautifully written creative non-fiction and documentaries which gave me a deeper appreciation of that art. So while last semester was stressful, it was worth it for the awesome discussions and learning opportunities.

     It was also the best of times in that my hard work seemed more appreciated than ever before. My public policy teacher admired my enthusiasm and understanding for the material after classes and even asked me to help other students having trouble writing a thesis for their paper one class period. Then on April 9, I went to a special banquet hosted for all the humanities courses which included English, Communication, Politics, History, Art and Music, where I received the Journal Communications Award, and where the teacher I had for Communication Ethics gave a beautiful speech about my academic achievement and presented to me a beautifully engraved silver plate.

     The weather this spring has not been nearly as wonderful as it was last spring, so consequently, Gilbert and I were not able to take as many walks during the school year which really helped me cope with school stress last year. But on the few days when it was warm, I appreciated the walk more, paid more attention to the pretty songs of the birds and breathed the fragrant fresh air more deeply.

     I have noticed that every Laura Ingalls Wilder book ends with a sweet scene that reaffirms how wonderful life can be even when times are hard. My favorite of these moments is the end of “Little House in the Big Woods”, which ends with Pa playing the fiddle and singing “Shall auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Shall auld acquaintance be forgot, And the days of auld lang syne.” Laura, a little girl lying in bed in a warm cozy house, hears Pa playing the fiddle and watches Ma knitting in the rocking chair, and realizes those long forgotten days of auld lang syne are now and will never be forgotten. Perhaps this is an attitude we should all embrace, myself included. I am all too guilty of thinking “my life is alright now, but it will be even better when I get out of school, get paid for my hard work and have a house of my own.” But I should know there will be hard times then too. Just look at how many people are unemployed, or who aren’t compensated fairly for how hard they work. Or, just think about a startling fact I learned in a public service commercial today: that one in six Americans are hungry because they cannot afford to buy food. Or even if you have a great job and are financially secure living a comfortable middle class life in your own home, the news coverage of the devastating tornadoes that hit Missouri and Alabama with so little warning shows there are no guarantees the same thing couldn’t happen to any of us. This goes to show life will probably always be the best and the worst of times, so we should all make the best of any hardship and appreciate the blessings in our lives here and now.

Published by Allison Nastoff

As I write this in 2020, I am 30 years old. I am blind, and Gilbert was my first guide dog. He passed away on December 2, 2020, but I decided to keep the title for my blog as a tribute to him because he will always hold a special place in my heart. In 2012, I earned a Bachelor of Science in Communication with a journalism emphasis, and went back to school for a Paralegal certificate in 2014. I worked for five years at a Social Security disability firm. When the pandemic hit, I did some reflecting and decided to resign from this job and take seminary courses. My dream is a career as a teacher or writer where I can be a blessing to others.

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