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.