Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Way You've Changed My Life

Today I spent several hours with my 95-year-old mother, who has been in hospice care for a
Mom and I doing some leg lifts last summer.
little over a week. We don't know how long she has, but as D. once so aptly said about my father in the weeks before he passed away, she's winding down. 

Ten days ago, as her frail yet strangely resilient and willful body was jostled onto a stretcher (with great care but jostled nonetheless) for the trip from the hospital back to her assisted-living facility—where we would initiate hospice and 24-hour aides—I thought: You'll never have to go anywhere again. This was good news for her, but it made me sad.

These are the words that came out of my mouth to D. yesterday: "She was my first friend, my first love, and my first ally." 

The person I am today is more due to her than anyone else in the world.

This afternoon, as my sister dashed home to attend to some pastries rising in her kitchen and the aide stepped out for a break, I held hands with Mom—lying in her bed, her feet lightly moving under the sheet—while a CD of old musical numbers played. This song filled the silence like a chest expanding:

The way you wear your hat.
The way you sip your tea.
The memory of all that—
No, no, they can't take that away from me.

The way your smile just beams.
The way you sing off-key.
The way you haunt my dreams.
No, no, they can't take that away from me.

We may never, never meet again
On that bumpy road to love
Still I'll always,
Always keep the memory of . . .

The way you hold your knife.
The way we danced until three.
The way you've changed my life.
No, no - they can't take that away from me.
No, they can't take that away from me. 

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Monday, February 02, 2015

Drop Me a Line Sometime

I started teaching a new essay workshop a few weeks ago. My pace is down to about one class a year now, whereas I used to do three or four (each is eight weeks long, two and a half hours at a pop, which wears me out, on top of my day job, more than it once did). Last month marked my 22nd anniversary teaching at this creative-writing center for adults. 

I started taking workshops there myself in 1984, a year out of college, in my first professional job, feeling creatively antsy and looking to revive—or get guidance for—an interest in creative writing that had gone dormant after a bad experience during my first semester of college, when I was made to feel discouraged about my nascent talent by a grumpy old professor. I majored in German and wrote virtually nothing for five years. 

When I began taking workshops at the place where I now teach, I was amazed at the power of encouragement—I went from a column-writing class to a workshop called Autobiography as Fiction and Nonfiction to my first real attempt at fiction (I considered fleeing the room but mentally bolted myself to the chair) to more fiction and more fiction and more fiction (I couldn't believe I could actually do this!) to applying to MFA programs to quitting my job and devoting two and a half years to getting my master's in fiction writing and, all that time, swimming in the amazing soul-building pool of encouragement: encouragement of the pursuit of writing, the idea that it was worth devoting time to. Not the kind of encouragement that meant people said only nice things to me about my very imperfect drafts. 

The belief that to teach writing is to encourage writing has guided me since I taught my first fiction workshop to undergrads at my grad-school alma mater in 1990 and then—after gravitating back to nonfiction in my own work (almost immediately upon getting my MFA in fiction!)—when I started teaching the personal essay in 1993.

If you had told me 27 years ago, in the first year of my master's program, that all this time later I'd still be struggling with the up-and-down effort to integrate writing into my life, I'd have been, well . . . a little discouraged. In those days, surrounded every day by equally eager, literary-journal-submitting friends, I envisioned myself someday as an author, regularly publishing short stories, perhaps with a collection or two under my belt. 

If "regularly" can be understood to mean "occasionally, with wide gaps in between," then I am indeed a published writer, and proud of what I've managed to shepherd into print. But I long ago realized that I'm unlikely ever to write a book. (I'm not putting myself down, and yeah, I know, never say never. I get it.) Publishing a book requires a certain kind of motivation and doggedness, just in the writing, let alone in the right-hand-on-red, left-foot-on-yellow, right-butt-cheek-on-blue Twister game of finding an agent and publisher and then promoting the thing. It takes a particular sort of person with a particular sort of life and vision, and I'm not that guy. (Shhh, don't ever tell the 26-year-old me.)

What I have succeeded in doing, and thriving in, for 22 years is being a teacher. It's stunning to remind myself that I have taught literally hundreds of people better ways to tell their stories. Many of them return to my classroom multiple times—the number is still in the hundreds even if you count those folks only once. I've forged connections among the various professional and personal areas of my life and enjoyed minimal degrees of separation from other interesting lives both modest and distinguished.

My current class of 11 includes four repeat students. One of those was a young intern at my day job 15 years ago; he's now a married father of two. A young woman, herself the mother of a three-year-old, was one of my students when I taught a class in literary journalism a decade ago at the university where I'd gotten my MFA. A student closer to my age has a teenage daughter who received a heart transplant at age three, a subject her mom wrote about in a previous workshop; several years ago, the daughter wrote an essay about meeting her donor family that I edited and published in the magazine I work for. Another student is the wife of a man who started in the graduate writing program with me in 1987; I remember meeting his baby daughter at an MFA event—she's 28 now.

One 74-year-old man in my class is the son of a famous classical musician. I get a kick out of my indirect connection to the kind of prominence I neither aspire toward nor will ever achieve. In my early years, I taught the wife of a well-known journalist. Teddy Roosevelt's great-granddaughter has been under my tutelage. A few years ago, John McPhee's sister-in-law took my class. Many students have gone on to publish books. My name appears on some very impressive acknowledgments pages! Am I now in the habit of turning first to the acknowledgments page of pretty much any book I pick up? Yes!

It's satisfying to help others tell their stories, to cheer them on in the undertaking with which I myself have had a love/hate relationship nearly my entire adult life. Writing, to me, is like a member of the family. (Not, in this case, a famous member.) Loved and loving, irritating and insistent, a source of both puzzlement and expectations, someone to whom I'll always be bound, whom I can never see enough of and from whom I sometimes can never get sufficient distance. 

I may not keep up the correspondence to his satisfaction, but he keeps writing to me.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Fall Descends

They say everything can be replaced,
Yet every distance is not near.
So I remember every face 
Of every man who put me here. . . . .
Last month, I went to a memorial service for a woman I met 27 years ago, when she was the administrator of the graduate writing program I was in—the very first person I met on the very first day—and whom I last saw in 2003. 

At the outdoor service in Rock Creek Park, we were led in sing-alongs of a few of T's favorite songs—"Blowin' in the Wind," "I Shall Be Released," "Forever Young." Lovely and moving, and some of my favorites, too. The only problem was I found myself singing Peter, Paul, and Mary's "Blowin' in the Wind," Bette Midler's "I Shall Be Released," and Joan Baez's "Forever Young" while the song leader, the printed lyrics, and the rest of the obedient crowd followed Dylan's locutions and beats. 

See, I like Bob Dylan's songs a lot more than I like Bob Dylan's singing—and the renditions that came out of my mouth were the ones that have resided in my head (and music collection) for years.

T. might have appreciated that story. She had a wry (occasionally caustic) sense of humor, a big laugh, and a welcoming manner. It helped that she seemed to like me. A lot of people probably had the same thought (that she liked them, I mean, not me). She managed to pull off a rare, felicitous blending of "get over yourself" and "how can I help?"

That was more or less the gist of all the speakers' reminiscences at the memorial, and I would have joined in with my own if the open period for stories had lasted longer. But almost all the speakers seemed to be designated as such, even those who weren't officially listed in the program. Then it was over. 

It's probably just as well I didn't come forward because I couldn't have said much more than the general, abstract characterization of her I've given here.

Other than my affection for T., my memories of how well she ran the office and supported people like me (a somewhat nervous 26-year-old returning to school after four years away), a memory of one dinner party at her house a few years later, and another at my apartment long after grad school (the last time I saw her, in fact)—coupled with my regret at having fallen out of touch over the last 11 years—I have virtually no specific memories of her at all, in the sense of stories, particular times she did this and I said that and she came back with this bon mot. Nothing.

She's not the only person I could say this about—I who, according to some, have such an amazing memory. (I just happen to remember different things than they do.) More often than not, what I retain are the little things, inconsequential details: music that was playing, food people "et" (to quote the pronunciation of the British actress reading the British book I'm listening to), what grade I was in when a particular movie came out (sometimes when I never even saw the movie—I can often remember what grade I was in when the stars appeared on Merv Griffin or Dinah Shore.)

I wish I could call up more interactions with those people who may not have been major players in my life but affected me nevertheless. Who in sometimes small, daily ways made me feel valued, respected, interested, engaged, inspired to return the favor of their ways.

"Fall Descends on Rock Creek Park" by Matthew Lehner

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Monday, October 27, 2014

That Night

My first thought was "Now I've done it. I've finally done it." 

It was similar to the feeling I had at age 16 when I totaled the family car while making a right turn on red. That time, despite having crushed my parents' Vega to half its size, I was able to walk away uninjured ("Get out of the car! Get out of the car!" people were screaming.) This time, I could only acquiesce.

My second thought was "I have no idea what happened, but I appear to be in extremely competent hands." 

I remember the flashing lights of an ambulance and many hands on me and being on a stretcher, but I'm not entirely sure which of those memories took place on the street, which were in the ambulance, and which were of being unloaded at the emergency room. As things started to come together more, I knew I was in the ER.

By this time, I must have figured out I'd been in a bicycle accident. The last thing I remembered—as "memory" itself haltingly reformed—was leaving the office with my bike, walking it across L Street, and turning onto the bicycle lane. Or maybe it came back to me later. But that's the extent of the events preceding the accident that ever have come back.

I remember having a neck brace put on me and being reassured by someone that it was just a precaution, that I didn't appear to have a spinal injury. I was asked if there was someone they could call. I don't remember saying the words, but I apparently came up with my brother's land line, a number he'd had for more than 20 years (and that he's since changed; I do not know his new number by heart).

At some point, as medical personnel started stopping by, I found out I'd fractured my right elbow (I always say "fractured" instead of "broke" because that was the word first used in my presence), knocked out a tooth and maybe damaged more, and cut up my face. 

An ENT (again, who introduced himself as such, so I'll never forget his specialty) stitched up my face—two gashes around my right eye, one on my upper lip where a tooth or teeth went through. I'd never had stitches before (at age 52, never been treated in an ER, never spent a single night as a patient in a hospital). The sensationless sensation of thread being pulled through tissue and tugged was new to me; at the same time, it reminded me of numbed dental work—that impression of major construction going on not quite here but in a room next door, the mysterious vibrations and structural manipulations of space felt all too viscerally.

My brother arrived in the emergency room and told me D was on his way. I was calm (drugged), probably apologetic, definitely immobile, and appreciative of what felt like order around me. 

I'd be spending the night (no kidding), and we were waiting for a room.

My brother manned iPhone central at the foot of my bed in the ER, communicating with our sisters and with his wife. At some point, D arrived, smiling, tender. My brother, D, and me—the trio who'd been with my father when he'd died at age 92 a year and a half before. This was the first time just the three of us were together since that day in July 2012, though I wasn't thinking that then. (I'm thinking it now.)

My injured right arm rested painless and immobile in a splint or brace across my chest. At some point, I met the orthopedist who would operate the next day. A young guy in his thirties, as young as my regular doctor, whom I'd seen just a few days before for a checkup at which all was well.

All evening long, I listened to gentle information and was ministered to—my first experience with the utter surrender of control entailed in the receipt of trauma care. Somewhere down deep, grief and sadness awaited their entrance, as did patience and fortitude, Sharks and Jets on opposite wings. But for now, the only thing required of me was to wait.

Later that night, when I was settled (oddly content) in my hospital room and my brother and D had left for the night, I was near-dozing when another doctor came into the darkened space—a dentist (dental surgeon, it turned out), closer to my age than the young orthopedist. He was nice, had grown up in Washington like me, and we talked about the high schools we'd gone to. All evening at the hospital, despite having no idea what had happened to me on the bike lane, I'd been able to converse relatively lucidly with anyone who came up to my bed.

He touched my shoulder in a comforting way. He examined my mouth and told me a tooth next to the one that had been knocked out was compromised and would have to come out as well. I thought he was referring to an upcoming procedure, but he started jiggling the tooth right then with his bare hand. I said, "You're going to pull it out now?" Saying it was already crumbing in his fingers, he tugged, as if removing a splinter, and it was out, leaving the root behind.

He said, "We'll take care of you." Then he touched my shoulder again and said goodnight.

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Thursday, October 23, 2014


Last night before bed, I picked up a guttering votive candle on the coffee table to blow it out and practically fused my fingertips to it, it was so hot. The remnant of wick, flaming out of proportion to its size, had migrated to the edge of the liquid wax and was leaning against the blackened glass like a hepped-up thug smoking in an alley. 

I'd had no idea how hot it was and spent the next 30 minutes with my fingertips submerged in a bowl of ice water (“You’re soaking in it”). As a result, I wasn’t able to indulge in the nightly bedtime ritual I’ve come to look forward to for practically the entire day: puzzling through a Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday New York Times crossword. The day of the week is important because the crosswords get harder as the week progresses and Monday through Wednesday are just too easy to be fun—or relaxing. 

Strangely, I can't think of a more relaxing way to end the day. These are sometimes puzzles I've been working on for a week or two. Staring at the same spot over and over, mentally trying out each letter of the alphabet on an incomplete syllable ("--bow, --cow, --dow, --eow . . . ?), straining to remember the name of an Ingrid Bergman character in a movie I've never actually seen (so much of cultural literacy is hearsay)—these are not frustrating practices for me but meditative.

Anyway, I couldn't do it last night because the fingers of my writing hand were burned. So instead I watched Charlie Rose interview Martin Amis, who as it happens is the stepson of Elizabeth Jane Howard, the author of the book I'm currently listening to, Confusion (the third novel in the Cazelet Chronicles). Both his latest book and the one by Howard are set during World War II—his a Holocaust novel, hers about an upper-class English family whose staid propriety gradually, through each book in the series, succumbs to cracks and reveals turmoil, uncertainty, betrayals and, in the case of one or two characters, unerring goodness. 

I've never read anything by Amis, but maybe I should, if only to honor this minor coincidence triggered by a singeing of my fingers that for one night kept me from digging up words.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Making Sense

As I walked my dog yesterday, a guy called to me from across the street, "Excuse me, may I ask: Is your dog walking that way because he just got fixed?"

I said, "It's a she. And she's walking that way because she's 17."

That way is haltingly, slowly, crookedly, seemingly a little drunk. Often I have to boost her hind quarters at a curb, sometimes even use an improvised (vet-recommended) "sling" on her back end, fashioned from a cloth grocery-store bag with the sides cut out. I carry her up and down the stairs.

The other day, someone asked "Is your dog okay?" 

I said, "She's old." 

As if I would would be blithely walking her, oblivious to some problem that made her "not okay," waiting for a passer-by to point it out.

"What's the matter with his legs?" is a very common question. 

"It's a she," I say, again. "And she's really old." (It honestly seems not to have occurred to the majority of the public that there's the same proportion of female dogs as there are female humans. How about starting out with something like "Oh, how cute—is it a boy or a girl?")

One guy who asked the legs question walked on, then stopped, stood stock-still, and stared back halfway down the block as I lifted her up from a pooping position—the look on his face not sympathetic but almost suspicious. 

I said, "Is something wrong?" He shook his head and walked on.

She has had a rough summer, with a sudden lameness in her back legs coming on in mid-June—she couldn't move at all on her own. On more than one occasion, she has seemed to be near the end, but now she's on excellent medication in the right dose for the pain caused by arthritis and a slipped disk in her spine (which is healable, and in fact healing, so there actually is a point to it) and is walking again, and while she has bad days when maybe her stomach is bothering her and she doesn't have a lot of energy (she takes Pepcid and a probiotic every day for her tummy) or when the heat is so oppressive that walking is the last thing she wants to do, she still usually enjoys sniffing around outside, eating her 97-percent-lean ground beef served to her by her 97-percent-vegan dad (she won't eat canned food anymore), snoozing on the couch, cuddling up in bed, and fully being just a very old dog. 

It is hard to imagine a world without Patsy—and I've said goodbye to three dogs as an adult, so this is not a new experience for me. Putting her down this summer, had it come to that, would have felt very abrupt and uncertain. Now when the time comes, as wrenching as it will be, I think I (and her other dad, my ex) will more confidently feel it's the right time because we did all we could. And I'm glad we did.

A vet has mentioned the word "dementia," and Patsy does sometimes walk into a corner of the room, uncertain what to do or how to get out of it. I know dementia. I pick her up and turn her around.

Amid all the "How old is he?" and "What's his name?" and "Why does he walk funny?" —she's not a he, people, really!—there were two encounters.

As I walked along with the sling supporting Patsy's back legs, a man stopped and said, "That's beautiful." 

Thinking he might have been talking about her beauty (she is beautiful, in her kooky, scrappy way), I said, "What's beautiful?" 

He clarified: "Just that. So many animals aren't loved."

Another day, a woman who had just parked her car toddled over to give Patsy a pat and a hug. "I had to put down my dog a few weeks ago," she said, smiling.

"So you recognize that stage of life, huh?" 

Yes, she said. 

It made perfect sense.

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Window Dressing

Last night I dealt with writer’s block by shopping online—an undertaking of questionable equivalency. Nevertheless.

I got some fairly pricey men’s skin-care products: Body wash because I considered going for a swim last night at the '60s-era public-school pool with a '60s-era unequipped shower but I was out of portable soap, so guess what—I didn’t go swimming! (Though I did run.) And facial scrub because I’m starting to pamper myself more in that area. (I turn 53 a month from today.) I justified the expense of these non-sale items by finding a $30 summer fedora for only $9 to add to my hat collection (Lord & Taylor has great discounts on top of discounts on top of sales) and a crinkly, long linen-blend scarf ($44 reduced to something like $13). This last one is new for me, as I’m only a winter-scarf man like, I think, most men. But at this price, what did I have to lose? Given that the “beauty products” I got qualified for free shipping, I made out pretty well, even though it’s all filler for the real stuff swirling around in my head awaiting expression. (Yeah, I know, that's happening now.)

About the scarf: The slight do-I-dare aspect dates back more than 30 years to my junior year abroad, where German men wrapped long flowered gauze scarves around their necks year-round, even in summer, no jacket required. It was kind of hippyish, vaguely sexy, and cool. Some American guys I knew adopted the look, too.

Oh, the hesitation that has followed me through the years—I've written about it a lot. I even mentioned those German scarves in an essay I published a decade ago about my pierced ears. And about a year ago, I added a tattoo essay to my oeuvre. Life is short, I remember telling myself as I headed to one establishment. Progress.

The scarf I bought is nothing radical—not even much like the German ones, which had a distinct  femininity about them. On a very masculine guy (I'm thinking of a particularly hirsute friend back then), it was a mysterious, androgynous counterpoint. Mine will either look good on me or it won't. 

I just noticed that twice in a row now I've written about body decoration and clothing. Surfaces. It's a start.

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