What If . . .
My father owned guns, mostly shotguns for bird hunting. I suspect that the sport mainly gave him an excuse to ramble around in the Michigan woods with his hunting dogs, but he did indeed sometimes bring home grouse and woodcock, sometimes quail, and invite friends for a fancy dinner.
I was taught to shoot a .22 rifle at tin cans, but I wasn’t very good. I was more proud of using the gizmo that hurled clay pigeons into the air for him to do target practice.
The closest I ever came to gun mystique was when I played Belle Starr (The Bandit Queen). Back in 1989, when we had our theatre in Lancaster PA, Belle Starr was part of an enormous solo piece I did: eighteen women from an amazing book of character-poetry by Pamela White Hadas. Onstage, Belle spoke aloud her letters to her estranged daughter Pearl while taking care of the mundane task of disassembling, cleaning, and reassembling her very large pistol.
I learned to do that so well I could work by touch and still keep my face toward the audience. I still remember the smell of cold steel and oily rags, but the strongest memory is the pain of bittersweet words never spoken to the girl/woman who was once a part of her.
Belle’s pistol was a necessary tool, not a fetish. My father’s gun cabinet was not an object of worship; he taught me respect, not reverence. He used ammunition appropriate for his purpose. I think he would have mystified by today’s weaponry: an AR-15 would have left nothing at all of a grouse, quail, or woodcock, but the NRA has asserted that the AR-15 is the most popular rifle sold today. Last year, the business site Bloomberg stated that there are more civilian-owned guns than civilians in the US.
Those weapons are not evenly distributed, since many gun-owners have very large collections, but it’s still a lot of heavily-armed people. If I were writing dystopian fiction, I would be tempted to speculate about a grotesque what-if: what if a majority of those folk all got pissed off at the same people at the same time? What if they realized they are empowered to rid their beloved nation of a vile toxin? What if they’d been taught how to recognize those Others and what to do about it? What if?
Death. . .
To start with: I have no idea what’s going to happen with Ukraine or the debt ceiling or the election. No one else does either: that’s why these things are called crises. Most voters have the attention span of a turnip, so we can only wait and see what happens, dependent on pundits who’re paid to warn us what might.
We’ll likely survive this stuff, but how and with what consequences, I don’t know. We’ve survived obvious scams, no different from the obvious scams that are out there now. Can’t blame the scammers, really: most of us will take those bucks, if offered. Our flexible brains will find a work-around.
But that’s not what I’m thinking about. Right now it’s more personal.
One of my friends is diagnosed with brain cancer, another with Parkinson’s, and others are dropping like flies. I’m 81 and have just had a concussion and brain bleed. I’ve learned at this late stage to walk again, and I feel just fine. But one is led think a lot about the time for checking out. Not so much an obsession, but just as a thought of, “Oh, it’s getting to be that time.”
You can whisper it, “You’regonnadie…” You can speak it out boldly, “You are going to die.” You can scream it out screamingly: “YOU’RE FUCKIN’ GONNA DIE!!!” But it pretty much means the same, no matter how you say it, and it will not truly register. How can it? Nobody wants to hear it, not even the cockroach scuttling over the counter.
We construct elaborate systems to deal with this. Concepts of an afterlife. Values like patriotism to convince folks to go to the slaughterhouse. Naming rights to art museums. Entry onto the lists of best-sellers, award-winners, classics, geniuses, or bankable movie stars, charitable foundations, football trophies, halls of fame. Some such strategies are harmless, some have good effects, some reek with blood.
But what I feel like saying to myself right now is, “It’s time.” Time to recall what I’ve always known from song and story: I’ll die. It’s time to think what that means. Whatever I believe of an afterlife, this one will be kaput. Those knickknacks on the mantelpiece, someone will have to sort them, give them away or keep them or junk them. That stuff I thought might make me live forever, it won’t. I’m toast. If not now, tomorrow. No more triumphs or stinky reviews. I’ve known that since childhood, but now it’s real.
I’m okay with that. But it takes some adjustment. Other than wanting to live forever and forego the hospital indignities, I want to see the next installment of the news. I want to know what’s happening with my kids and my wife. And I still want to have an effect, meaning I want something to persist, even if it’s on the shelf gathering dust.
Which isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been said—many times before and in luscious words. It just occurs to me to say it. In my case, it doesn’t radically affect my worklist—I still do my song and dance. It doesn’t affect my mood—I retain my sense of the comic. But it makes life much simpler, I think.
Never Too Late. . .
I’ve been fascinated reading about ADD and Executive Function Disorder and seeing some of my own lifelong struggles mirrored. I don’t like to define things through buzzwords, but it’s been illuminating to recognize patterns that have dogged me all my life. I am trying to find what I can do to shift the balance of power with what I have always thought of as my Demons, or my Opponent. I used to think I was uniquely weird, and finding that others are like me has been a revelation.
Some of this probably began with my mother’s well-intentioned program of breaking my will when I was little. (Child-rearing theory from the early 1940’s is ghastly.) I was adopted as a newborn by a woman who was nearly fifty and had no previous experience with children, but who was certain it was something she should do. Having married later than the norm and not having conceived during her remaining years of possibility, she considered adoption.
They were rejected by a respected agency, probably because of age, and turned to private adoption. They did extensive research and found a good candidate, a young intelligent white Episcopalian college student who found herself unintentionally pregnant. Discreet anonymous overtures were made, money changed hands, and a relocation from the Midwest to Brooklyn was facilitated, avoiding scandal. My mother bore me, named me, and said goodbye. Then I was on my own.
My adoptive mother had to adapt to the primitive needs of an infant without either instinct or guidance, and as I became an actual person, I think I scared the shit out of her. I had a fierce intelligence and a spontaneous creative nature, and she didn’t know what to do with me. At first she trained me like a pet, and I could recite all the state capitals by the time I was two. Like any two-year-old, I also began to assert my right to say no. She followed the prevailing child-rearing theories, set out to tame me, and I quickly learned that it wasn’t safe to do anything but learn instant obedience.
Everything was a test, fear was my tutor, and excellence was the minimum standard. I learned to achieve, but it wasn’t my choice, and I never was allowed pride in it. The words that echo are “What’s the matter with you?” and “You don’t know how to follow through with anything.”
Now I’m eighty-three and still make a list of intentions, don’t follow through, feel lousy, and stew about it. But writing my memoir has confronted me with the fact that I’ve spent decades surviving, making a life and doing impossible things. I need to learn to feel good about what I do, moment by moment.
I’m trying to do at least a couple of things each day that I can finish, look at, smile, and say “Good dog.” Best of all is if I do something that my Opponent has labeled impossible, that’s been shoved into my mind’s black hole and avoided. The silly key is that these are not arcane challenges, they’re simple things that didn’t get done on time and became pockets of black mold.
That little girl learned to live with fear and depend on it for adrenaline. I need to give her the grace of change.
Never too late.
Organizing. . .
Organizing: an essential activity for multi-billion dollar industries and for a superannuated geezer in California who’s trying to juggle six balls and not step on a cat. He’s extremely talented in the process of making lists and strategies, having done it all his life—less certain in the follow-thru.
The immediate problem is in writing. There’s no deadline, no opening-night for prose fiction. The world doesn’t really need another novel, novella, short story, or flash fiction. Your bowel alone sets the timing, and for me the digestive process goes pretty fast.
The challenge is the geography of rewrites. I write (a) on an iPad in my doggy reading chair and (b) on the iMac in the office. With the last novel, I was simultaneously working to finish the first draft of the ending, a first rewrite of what I’d done up to that point, and a rewrite of the rewrite. Going back and forth between two computers and making separate documents for each chapter, I had to develop a sure-fire labeling system to keep working on the most recent fragment.
(Of course I could have reverted to the 5,000-year-old strategy of writing by hand. This would have solved the problem, as my handwriting is totally illegible, somewhat resembling chickens doing a hat-dance. The world would have been deprived, but would take not the slightest notice.)
Yet every sure-fire system requires compliance. Which in this case requires only that I move my butt from one chair to another nearby. Yes, I could put wheels on my ass or even jet-powered skis, or I could just do it the old-fashioned way—that ancient method, walking.
My system is broken down. I have two versions of Chapter 14, plus two versions of Chapter 14 plugged into the second draft and third draft. I have a distinct memory of shifting a section of text to another spot, which I can’t find. And the added pain of feeling like a total fool.
Truth be known, I don’t really know myself. I think there’s an inner core, maybe a pretty nice guy, but I can’t say who that is. I know him only from external evidence—what he writes, if he weeds the garden, all that. So it occurred to me that perhaps I don’t really want to write Chapter 14 and this is a subconscious revolt. Perhaps in my deepest heart I just want to eat, and increased frustration will drive me to peanut butter.
But it doesn’t work. I just bull through it, and after Chapter 14 comes Chapter 15 and all that follows. I thought I was sufficiently skilled in procrastination—what about all those years in grad school?—but I just keep churning it out.
Blizzard. . .
I’ve managed to get back to writing on Book Two of the memoir and have eased into it by going back to its beginning and doing revision. I was feeling pretty strung out after Conrad’s bad fall and hospitalization, and reading about our winter of 74/75 gave an interesting perspective.
We had moved to an awful basement apartment in Chicago, and Conrad had developed a bizarre medical problem that was making our life hell. There was no diagnosis yet, but it caused sudden manic fits, hallucinations, or sometimes a coma, and life was pure chaos. Our son turned two on November 27th, and Johanna was born December 11th. This is what January was like.
On December 26th, CB went to the hospital for four days of tests. It was a trial run for me—two weeks later he would be admitted for nine days to undergo tests that could clinch his diagnosis. I had recovered enough from my C-section to manage by myself the first time and I told myself that the long haul would be OK. I wasn’t counting on the weather.
The Super Bowl Blizzard has its own Wikipedia entry. It started its rampage on January 9, spawned a historic number of tornadoes, and blew through the Midwest. Howling winds drove snow into drifts that buried cars and killed livestock. By the time it hit Chicago, it had dumped its heaviest snow but still had enough to paralyze all traffic. I have no idea how he got to the hospital on the 13th.
Those days were bizarre. Cooped up in our little domestic dungeon with only my two offspring to judge me, I gave a big fuck-you to proper routine. We ate when we felt like it, Jo could nurse at whim, bedtime was whenever, and my only responsibility was to keep us all clean and fed. It wasn’t long before I was desperately lonely for my mate’s embrace, but we did have phone calls. Being a research patient, his only expense was for a rental TV, and I just about fell down laughing when he told me about his late-night hallucination. He didn’t know what he was watching, but he was sure his brain was playing its tricks—cartoons of Queen Victoria with people opening the lid of her head. Turned out he was watching the early broadcasts of Monty Python.
The rest of it wasn’t funny. It started like the old joke about a toothache: the minute you walk into the dentist’s office, it stops. The doctors needed to provoke an extreme blood-sugar crash so they could draw blood samples, and they stopped feeding him. He starved and starved and nothing happened—until it did. And when it hit, it was like the first time back in Milwaukee when he started pitching a terrifying fit.
His hospital team grabbed whatever parts they could catch and wrestled him down flat on the bed. They finally got their blood, and all during the struggle one nurse kept very still, her face close to his, and whispered, “I know what you’re feeling. The rational part of you is in there watching yourself with horror. I know you can hear me. Believe me when I say this will pass, you’ll be yourself again.” Later, CB thanked her. She told him that she’d had epileptic seizures in the past that were now controlled by medication, but she’d never forgotten seeing what her out-of-control body would do. Chance had sent him an angel.
And it sent me one day I’ll never forget.. The blizzard had blocked the streets with dense drifts, so I had to walk through the snow to the supermarket for food. The baby was on my front in her Snugli and our son was slogging along in snowsuit and boots. Halfway back with frozen hands gripping a heavy grocery bag, I was confronted with my little boy’s refusal to walk. He sat down on his butt and cried. I managed to pick him up, and then I realized, “I can’t do this.” The baby, the boy, and the bag were a huge unwieldy load, and underfoot was drifts, ruts, and ice. I just stood there for a stunned minute. And then I walked us home.