So Yeah – I’m Back

In own mind, I’ve never really abandoned this blog. If you want proof, I can show you months’ worth of to-do lists filled with references to posts and essays and stories I planned to write and post here. But I’ve been busy – since the last time I posted, I’ve packed up my apartment in Massachusetts, moved myself and my two cats out to San Francisco, launched a book-reviewing blog called Postcards from Purgatory –  on which my friend Jill and I have reviewed over a hundred books –  gotten a job, gotten another job, gone off of all of my medications, gone back on some of them, tried new medications, and finally – for now anyway – managed to cure my insomnia. My symptoms are still around – in fact, all told, I think they might be worse than when I was last posting here in the spring. My body buzzes all the time – I think this is a symptom of my medications – as if it is just coming down from a nitrous-oxide high at the dentist. I have anxiety attacks about the dumbest things. I still want to sleep all day long, although I never do, and in fact I’m working more than forty hours most weeks and for the most part doing okay, except for the fact that I can’t seem to stop my left hand from shaking.

But this blog isn’t finished, and I want it to be finished. I’ve spent some time over the last couple of months going through old entries and outlining the entries that still need to be written, and I want to finish this project and think about sending it out for publication. It’s a memoir world out there, after all, and while I don’t claim to be a Maya Angelou or even a Cheryl Strayed, I do think the story I have to tell is a valuable one, and I thought that if I started posting these entries when I write them it would help motivate me to keep working steadily. I want to have a full draft of a book-length manuscript done by December 1. That’s do-able, right?

I’ve never done much to publicize this blog. Back when I was first out on medical leave, I was afraid to show it to many people. I shared this blog only with a few friends at first, and these friends read it faithfully every day and send me comments and feedback and were no less than the saviors of my life back in those cloudy months of February, March, and April of 2012. I still won’t be going out of my way to publicize it, but of course I would love to hear from anyone who reads what I write here and has comments or questions.

It’s late morning on Thursday right now, and I have to leave for work pretty soon. My weekends are my busiest time lately, so I don’t expect to get too much blogging done on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. But come Monday – just you wait.

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Meanwhile, Back at the Hospital Ward – Day 134 of Medical Leave

I’ve been away from this blog for a good long while, although my friend Jill and I have been busy setting up, and I hope my readers here have enjoyed checking out that site. Since I last posted here, I have flown back to Massachusetts from San Francisco, attended a class picnic, an awards ceremony, graduation, and final faculty meetings at my school, in the process of which I managed to plunge myself back into the kind of pain and almost the kind of insomnia I was experiencing when I was still working. Then I slowly recovered, and this week I’ve had a couple of days of feeling mostly human again. The weather has generally been mild, with temperatures in the seventies or low eighties most days, and I’ve been spending my days reading and napping with all the windows open in my apartment and the breezes sweeping in from the sunporch and out through my apartment’s many windows. I’ll miss this place when I move, and so will the cats.

I am still waiting for a decision from my school’s insurance company, which is in theory supposed to provide long-term disability payments for as long as I am unable to work. My school’s business office has assured me that I shouldn’t have any trouble qualifying for coverage, but my doctors were slow in sending my records in to the company (and one of them is currently being very slow in returning my phone calls – grrr!), and the company itself is having trouble getting it through its skull that fibromyalgia, MTBI, and depression are all conditions that present gradually. I didn’t wake up on February 2, 2012 magically unable to work, and the company is having trouble understanding why I don’t have a sheaf of medical records dated February 1. They won’t even look at a thorough 10-page report from a concussion specialist that essentially says I should have quit teaching back in 2010, because they don’t understand what a report from 2010 could possibly have to do with my health in 2012.

Because the past doesn’t have anything at all to do with the present. Please. Haven’t these people read Faulkner?

So I am living very, very cautiously, rationing every banana and potato and can of cat food and gallon of gas. And that’s OK, for the most part – a simple, home-based life is good for me right now, and I’m enjoying the down time. But then this morning my phone rang, and it was my landlord. My sweet, beleaguered landlord who lost most of his tenants when a sewer backed up into the building two winters ago and still brought me a gallon of Poland Spring drinking water promptly at seven o’clock every morning until he could turn the water on again, and who only just now managed to finish all the repair work that needed to be done and rented out the rest of the apartments again, and whom I had to tell a couple of weeks ago that I would be moving out. He sounded so sad when I told him. I assured him that I would stay until my lease expires on August 31, and that I might even want to stay for one or two months beyond that because I am in no hurry for the stress and exertion of a cross-country move and could really use one last mellow New England summer and fall before heading out. Yes, that landlord. And when he called this morning, he had a proposition for me. He has a long-time acquaintance, an older woman, who recently had to take a leave of absence from work in order to care for her husband as he died of cancer. He lived longer than his doctors expected, and when she asked to extend her leave of absence, her employer fired her. She had been provided housing by her employer, who said that she would have to start paying rent – rather exorbitant rent, according to my landlord – if she wants to stay in her current housing. She is willing to buy out my lease if I can be out of my apartment by July 1. If I insist on staying, she will be unable to afford her rent and will probably have a hard time finding a place to live that is safe and affordable for her as she struggles to pay off her dead husband’s medical bills.

So, in other words, if I don’t move out within the next two weeks, a little old lady will DIE. And possibly also a puppy.

The financial advantages to moving out now are obvious: I won’t have to pay rent or utilities any more, and I’ll get my security deposit back on July 1. I can have a garage sale for some additional cash, leaving me a bit of a cushion as I set off for San Francisco. Presumably the disability money will come through at some point within the next few weeks, but if it doesn’t, at least I won’t have to worry about paying the rent. I can take my time driving to San Francisco and get settled out there several months ahead of schedule. It’s perfect, right?

Except for one thing: me. My body is still covered with all those crazy bruiselike fontanel-shaped things, and every day I have anywhere between 2-4 hours of clear, effortless eyesight before things start to glaze over. I can barely make decisions about whether to have oatmeal or yogurt for breakfast each day, let alone the kind of decisions that go into making a long-distance move. Fortunately I have moved many times before and am good at it, and I have already decided to liquidate almost everything I own. But still.

Check back in, folks – I have a feeling that life here at Six More Weeks of Winter is about to get a lot more interesting.

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Announcing a New Arrival

Six More Weeks of Winter is pleased to announce the birth of its sister blog: This blog is a joint venture with my friend Jill and is devoted mostly to book reviews and other literary matters.

Please join us – Read! Subscribe! Comment! Tell your friends!

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Day 110 of Medical Leave: On Which My Identity Just (poof!) Changes

Yesterday I went to an acupuncture place in San Francisco that my acupuncturist recommended (Fun fact of the day: All acupuncturists know each other. Seriously.). Because it was my first time there, I had to fill out a lot of paperwork about my personal information and health history. And here’s what I did: under “Employer,” I wrote “n/a.” Under “Occupation,” I wrote “Writer.”

I felt like a fake – like a little kid playing dress-up (and I must say that I had dressed the part quite well: old sweatpants and a vaguely surfing-related T-shirt. Dressing as a writer has never been a problem for me). If it were this easy to change one’ s identity, everyone would be doing it, right?

When I was leaving, I saw the receptionist typing up my paperwork and preparing my file. She didn’t even stop to think or look suspicious or ask to see my MFA. That means it’s real, right?

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The Time I Was Almost a Ghostwriter

In April of 2002 I was flat broke. This in itself is not news; I have often in my life been flat broke. But in April of 2002 I came to the conclusion that if I wanted to be able to survive the summer and actually get myself to my wonderful new job in Connecticut by the end of August, I should probably do something to earn some money. I had spent the previous year finishing my MFA in fiction writing on a fellowship from the Walton Foundation – a fellowship that was paid in two installments in September and January and had been drained down to its dregs by April.

If it’s true that I have found it very easy in my life to run out of money, I have also found it very easy to make money. I have bounced from job to job all over the place, but I’ve never been out of work for an extended period (except, of course, for the extended period that is documented in this blog, but I am not actively seeking work, so this hiatus doesn’t count) and have gotten almost every interview – and well over half of the jobs – that I have ever sought. And in this spirit, just as I was facing the reality that I would have to make some money to sustain me until September, I saw an ad in the English department mail room at my university.

The ad asked for a graduate student to help a retired physician write his memoirs. He promised that his career had been full of  “humorous moments” and was looking to strike it rich in his retirement by having a collection of these funny anecdotes published.

I needed the money. But more than that, I sensed that the situation had the potential to become quickly absurd, and I have rarely been able to walk away from the absurd.

On the phone, I agreed to meet the doctor and his son in a local café. The doctor (whose name I forget) was in his mid-seventies and arrived in an old fashioned brown three-piece suit (is he the last man I have seen wear a three-piece suit for non-kitschy reasons? He may well be.). His son was about thirty and refused to sit. He stood in the aisle of the café near our table with his hands in the pocket of his leather jacket, pretending he didn’t know us.

I’m just standing here, dude. What are YOU doing?

The doctor revealed to me that he had spent his career as a dermatologist (“So I guess these will be skin disease-related funny anecdotes,” I said to a friend later on the phone). Apparently in retirement he was semi-reclusive. “We won’t meet often,” he said. He wanted to record his stories on a tape recorder and then arrange for me to meet his son at the café to pick up the tapes. Then I would listen to the tapes at home and write the stories. “I’ve never really had a gift for the written word,” the doctor said.

So a week later I met the thuglike son at the café, where he glared at me shiftily and passed me five or six tapes in a brown paper bag. I muttered my thanks before we headed toward different exits. At home I popped the first tape into my tape player, lay down on my futon, and began what is probably the longest period of sustained laughing in my life. Because every single story on the tape was about someone coming to the emergency room with some kind of object stuck up his/her ass. And the doctor recited these stories onto the tapes with perfect, straight-faced earnestness – I pictured him at his desk in his three-piece suit, hunched over a hand-held microphone, a look of nostalgic concern moistening his eyes as he narrated the story of the man with the carrot up his ass, the woman with the socket wrench up her ass, the man with the toothbrush… You get the idea.

By the end of the first tape I was red-faced and exhausted. Of course I knew that some awkward moments were coming, because at some point I was going to have to tell his weird, sweet old man that he wasn’t going to make himself independently wealthy over his collection of butt stories (although perhaps I was premature – when did House first go on the air? Is it possible that this doctor sold his collection of anal anecdotes to whoever is responsible for writing the ‘clinic’ segments of that series?). But at that moment I put off the inevitable. I took the first tape out of the recorder and inserted the second one. Surely all six tapes couldn’t be full of up-the-ass stories, right?

Well, right. Somewhere midway through the second or third or fourth tape (keep in mind that I had been laughing for several hours straight by this point and had pulled at least a few intercostal muscles), the doctor began to tell – in exactly the same measured, careful tone, entirely devoid of irony or consciousness of a change in subject matter – the following story:

Shortly after he completed his residency as a dermatologist and became board certified, this doctor was appointed to serve on the Arkansas State V.D. Council.

Do I need to repeat this? The Arkansas State V.D. Council. Medical leave or not, I have a teacher’s instincts, and I know that this is the moment in the story when That Kid in the Back of the Room suddenly wakes up.

Apparently in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, the state of Arkansas dealt with the rise in cases of sexually transmitted diseases by convening a council of doctors – largely urologists and gynecologists, but the doctor informed me that there were always several dermatologists on the council because many patients at the time were too embarrassed to go to a urologist or a gynecologist for the symptoms of venereal disease, so for some reason they went to dermatologists, who therefore developed great expertise in sexually transmitted diseases. Using that reasoning, one could go to a dermatologist for just about everything, couldn’t one? Take me, for instance. My neck, shoulders, jaw, and back are all killing me, and they have skin on them, so off I go to the dermatologist. I’ll be sure to bring some protective seat covers for the public restroom there.

So here’s what this V.D. council was tasked to do: any time a case of V.D. was reported in the state of Arkansas, the patient had to appear before this council and confess the names and (if known) the contact information of every person he or she had had sexual contact with during some specified time period (a year? Five years? Ever? I don’t remember and may never have been told). The council would then contact all of these people and haul them before the committee so they could provide a record of all of their sexual partners. Sort of like a seventh-grade slam book, but with chancres.

So at this point I’m sitting up on my futon, not laughing, and scribbling furiously on a legal pad. This could be a novel – or a work of investigative journalism. I pictured myself driving to retirement homes all over Arkansas tracking down the doctors that were on this committee – not to mention some of their hapless patients. Where were they now? How had the time they spent before the V.D. Committee affected their lives? Did other states have V.D. committees in the fifties? And, perhaps more importantly, did people in the fifties know what a treasure trove of a decade they were living in? Because REALLY!

But the doctor hadn’t reached the best part of the story yet.  As I scribbled my notes, I continued listening. Next, the doctor mentioned almost off-handedly that LIBERACE had come before the Arkansas State V.D. Committee. I regret to say that I don’t remember the details, except that in general terms the doctor remembered having to track down the great pianist’s lovers – of both genders, of course. By this point I had the phone in my hand and was dialing.

“Hello?” the doctor said, carefully and suspiciously. This call had not been pre-arranged.

I explained that I was only halfway through his tapes but that I thought the story about the V.D. council had a tremendous amount of potential, either as a novel or as non-fiction. I told him that so far I thought it might be hard to market the rest of his stories. I was talking fast, and in my head my thoughts were running faster. This project would involve a lot of research. Would I be able to do it all before I left town at the end of August? Would I have time to work on it after I started my teaching job? Should I quit my teaching job and become a full-time ghostwriter for former V.D. council members. Surely we could get a film contract out of this, couldn’t we?

“No, no, no,” the doctor interrupted me after a minute or so. “That’s not what I have in mind at all. What I want is a book of little stories. Just a page or two of each one, nice and succinct, to give people a sense of what happens in a doctor’s life from day to day.”

So in other words, vegetables up orifices on pages 1 through 86 and 89 through 200; Liberace’s nasty case of chlamydia on pages 87-88. I tried to explain why I doubted his reasoning.

“I suppose I could try to write some of the other stories up for, I don’t know – Reader’s Digest or something,” I said weakly. Naïve, I assumed that his opinion of Reader’s Digest was as low as my own and that he would see this statement as the insult it was. No luck. He thought it was a great idea.

We hung up, and I went back to the tapes, thinking that there was at least a chance that the doctor would surprise me again with a story that was really good. But nope. He was back to his up-the-ass stories – for about two and a half more hours.

At this point I was despairing both of how to break the news to the doctor that his idea was not publishable and of the prospect of ever earning enough money to finance my move to Connecticut. But as I said, I have never had trouble making money – especially back then in the confident days before I met my first department chair. Just a few days later an administrator from the school that had recently hired me called and asked me if I wanted to teach summer school. I would need to be in Connecticut by the second week in June, and if managed carefully my money would hold off until then. I accepted the job and called the doctor to say that I wouldn’t be able to help him finish his memoir. “I’m sure you’ll find someone else to help you,” I said, “and when you do, please think seriously about pursuing the book about the council. I really think that’s the way to go.”

I wasn’t much prone to going out of my way to commit ethical acts prior to the age of thirty, but in this case I made an exception. I called the doctor’s son and arranged to return the tapes (“I told you so,” he muttered when he met me at the café to pick up the paper bag – even though, I noted, he had never actually told me anything). Normally those tapes would be the sort of things I would keep forever. If the Real Me had been at the controls, I would still have the tapes and would be about to invite everyone I know over for a party to eat nachos and listen to up-the-butt stories. But the Nicer Me was in charge that day, probably because I really did feel sorry for this lonely man who had stories to tell and nothing but a scowling son to tell them to. I felt sorry for him too for not recognizing that at the heart of his career lay a moment of such brilliance, such serendipity, such (I want to say grace – why do I want to say grace? Maybe because in my secular way of viewing the world a moment when one’s time, place, career, personal characteristics, and pure luck come together and one realizes that one is living a story that no one else except the people in one’s immediate surroundings will ever live again, at least quite like this is the best definition for grace that I can conceive of). I felt sorry for the doctor for not understanding that there is a difference between maintaining an ever-expanding file of Liberace’s sexual partners and extracting kitchen implements from the rectums of – to hear him tell it – half the population of Little Rock.

I didn’t realize that it was possible to live into one’s seventies and not understand that sort of thing.

Ghostwriting really didn’t appeal to me as a career back then, in spite of my temporary excitement over the Liberace story, and it still doesn’t. But the concept of ghostwriting – of someone who is unskilled as a writer hiring another individual as a filter to sort through, process, and make sense of one’s life experience – is interesting. In some ways the job is more similar to that of a Freudian analyst than to the work of actual novelists and memoirists, who have to make the understanding of the story and the telling of the story seem like one coordinated process. And there is something very honest in what that old man did, reaching out – through an ad in the mail room of a graduate writing program, of all places! Did he know how mean young writers are? How pompous? How clumsy and careless with the feelings of others? – to find someone to turn his life into something tangible. And I did what writers always do – I zeroed in on a small moment and shone a spotlight on it. There would be no poetry, no short stories, no plays, and even no novels if writers didn’t do this. Even at twenty-six, the process was so instinctive to me that I don’t even think I recognized that I was doing it – maybe if I could have explained it better, he could have understood.

Thoreau wrote, “our lives are frittered away by detail” around the same time that Marx wrote, “Man shall be saved from repetitive labor.” These two ideas are not as incompatible as they seem. To hear the doctor tell it, his life was frittered away in an endless series of proctological extractions. For me: grading papers. Explaining just one more time how to use a semicolon and that you’re not supposed to take your backpacks with you when there’s a fire drill and that not all poetry rhymes and what the green light on Daisy’s dock means and that it’s best to wait until there’s a lull in the discussion before you use the electronic pencil sharpener. Added up, these moments make up the background static of my life – but they do not capture the meaning of my life. They don’t bear equal weight to seeing a student who failed his first two years of English receive three major awards at graduation for his strength of character and his tremendously acute artistic eye. They don’t bear equal weight to the cards and letters of appreciation and gifts I received from my students at my first school after I was fired for being a bad teacher. And they don’t bear equal weight to the way I felt today, walking around my school saying goodbye. It is by recognizing the difference between a single term (bear with my mathematical metaphor – here I mean ‘term’ as in an integer or variable) and the things that happen when that term comes into contact with others – it can be multiplied, it can be divided, it can increase exponentially, it can be reduced to zero or made irrational or result in a null set – that, to paraphrase Marx, we free ourselves from the repetitive labor of our lives.

I remember very little about calculus. But I remember that my favorite part of that subject was all the evocative language, any among my favorite phrases was “what is the limit of this function as x approaches infinity? And I like to think I’ve been living out a real-life variation of this problem for the last ten years or so. In this analogy, I’m x. Through my career, I tried so hard to approach infinity. I tried so hard to find meaning in everything.

What is the limit of the function? Just keep reading this blog.

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Is Posting From the Clouds, 36, 153 feet above Iowa

Why? Because I can.

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What a Decade Did

I was in a motel in Hamburg, Arkansas when I learned that I had been hired for my first boarding school job. It was a decade ago, almost to the day. I knew that the call was coming and checked my home voice mail from the motel phone as often as I could. I was on one of my last trips as a teacher with the Arkansas Writers in the Schools (WITS), a team of graduate students who traveled across the state to teach poetry and fiction workshops in the public schools.

Jim Whitehead, a retired professor of creative writing, was the founder and director of WITS, and I was one of two student directors – so in addition to being my former professor, a writing mentor, and one of my thesis readers, Jim was also my boss. I did most of my work from his office, which was crammed with the papers and memorabilia of his 35-year career at the university. A pink tasseled pasty hung from a thumbtack. Curly-edged photos of workshop students critiquing each other’s writing while stubbing out their enormous cigarettes in ashtrays the size of dinner plates lined the bulletin boards. Over his file cabinet hung a watercolor painting of a naked woman being stared at by a bear. Every so often Jim would stand up, walk over to the painting, gaze at it for a while, poke at it with his huge index finger, and remark, “Now THAT’S a painting.”

When I returned from Hamburg and told Jim that I had gotten the job, he slammed his fist down on the December 1993 calendar that served as his blotter. “You’re going to be so fucking good at that job,” he said, in an enraged voice that didn’t match the words he was speaking. “And then it’s going to kill you. And what’s worse, you’ll never write again.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Jim knew a lot about jobs that can kill a person. A year later, the university cut its funding to the WITS program and nearly decimated it. Jim learned on an August morning about the budget cuts, and by afternoon he had had a brain aneurysm and was dead.

Today I wish Jim were alive so I could go find him and yell at him for always being right. I am good at teaching in an independent high school setting – although I wasn’t good at it right away, as I’ve written elsewhere in this blog, and, if anything, it was the process of becoming good at it that did much of the work of destroying my health. He was mostly right that I haven’t written anything in the last ten years, although that is changing. And he is right that this career has sapped me of my strength, spirit, and soul – although what he didn’t say, and what I know now, is that it was only through teaching that I developed a spirit and a soul that I can feel proud of.

Did I even have a soul before I started teaching? I don’t remember.

So today, ten years and three schools later, I resigned from my wonderful, fulfilling job as teacher and department chair – a job so sacred and important that I could never do it as well as it needed to be done. I don’t know exactly what I’ll be doing in the fall (but I do have some ideas, so don’t be too scared for me). It won’t involve teaching. It may involve schools. It WILL involve writing.

I am heartbroken.

And, OK, also relieved. There, I said it.

Posted in Fibromyalgia, Teaching, Uncategorized | 8 Comments