Monday, September 22, 2008

Laid Up

So, I had a little accident yesterday. My lovely cottage tenant left at the beginning of September, and he sold me his cordwood. He'd gotten it late last year, and the only place he found that would deliver it had a 3 cord minimum. The cottage is little, and 3 cords is a lot of wood. Its arrival last fall was a drama in and of itself--the delivery guy dumped it on the driveway, which I said was fine as long as it didn't block anything. (I also said, 3 cords is really a lot of wood.) It was both impressive and scary to see that much wood on my driveway. Early in the morning, my tenant started moving it, load by load, up the hill. He had already started by the time I got up. By the time I got home from work that evening, the driveway was clear, as if 3 cords of wood hadn't been dumped there that morning. Sometime in the early afternoon, he told me later, a friend came with a second wheelbarrow and helped him. But all in all, between the two of them, it took more than 11 hours to get the 3 cords of wood from the driveway to the cottage.

What he didn't use spent the winter neatly stacked and protected by a tarp, so I was excited when he offered me to sell it to me, especially because I kept reading about a cordwood shortage. (We couldn't estimate exactly, but we guessed there was a generous 2 cords left.) I was very sad he'd decided to move, but the wood seemed like the silver lining to his departure. And in August, I started bringing it down. Nearly every day, for the past month, I've been carting it down to the house. While I was impressed with his 11 hour- all-day-wood- moving extravaganza, I had no intention of repeating it. I figured that if I brought down a wheelbarrow load or two a day, by the time the new tenant was in at the end of September, I'd have the pile moved. And I've been making progress. Probably, at this point, I've moved 3/4 of the pile, and my front porch is nearly full. On Saturday, I had my best day yet and moved 6 wheelbarrow loads.

I put in as much wood as will fit in the wheelbarrow--somewhere between 15 and 25 logs, depending on the size. So, the wheelbarrow is heavy and sometimes unwieldy to maneuver. But I've been lifting weights for years now, and I figure that the point of having muscles is to be able to use them in real life.

So, maybe I was getting a little bit cavalier with the heavy loads of wood, the backwards trip down the hill by the cottage til I got to the point where I could turn the wheelbarrow around. Maybe it's that I'd spent a lot of the day inside on the couch trying to work and wasn't properly warmed up. Maybe it's that I was distracted by the sudden swarm of mosquitoes that greeted me up there and wasn't watching where I was going. Maybe it was just a freak occurrence. Maybe I just took a bad step.

Whatever it was, I felt something ping, or perhaps pop, in my right calf, and I had to sit down right where I was, swearing loudly and steadily. It reminded me all too much of the day I broke my leg when I was 19, except that that day, I was by myself on a mountain trail in a thunderstorm rather than in easy sight of my house. I managed to get up and limp inside, but, also reminiscent of the day I broke my leg, after I'd walked just a little ways--yesterday, I just made it into the kitchen--I felt like I was going to faint. (I should add that it was clear to me that my leg was broken when I fell, given that my foot didn't feel attached to my leg in the usual way. The walking I tried to do was after the first rescue party had arrived, and my leg had been splinted and I was on crutches.) Yesterday wasn't nearly that dramatic. I managed not to faint, and I grabbed the phone, collapsed into a dining room chair, and called Alex.

So, that's how we ended up spending our Sunday night in the emergency room (other people occupying the waiting room included 3 buddies of a college guy who did something to his ankle and a teenager with whooping cough). We waited, talked to a nurse, got fast-tracked to a room, got un-fast-tracked because there wasn't a room for us, waited some more, waited in a different room, and finally, after about 2 hours, we saw, in rapid succession, a nurse, a doctor and another nurse. I didn't need x-rays, as it turns out. The doc said he could tell by the way I couldn't put any weight on it and the way I yelped when he touched a certain part of my calf that I had torn my gastroc muscle. Apparently, it's a common injury among the "middle-aged." Ouch. It turns out that it's also called "tennis leg," though when I googled it later, it turns out that people did the same thing doing other equally dumb or innocuous tasks--taking out the garbage and tripping over a step, lunging the wrong way in fencing class, doing an agility class with a dog.

After 2 1/2 hours, I was sent home with a set of crutches, a prescription for Vicodin and an ice pack, with instructions to rest it, ice it, elevate it and take painkillers as needed. We also learned the interesting fact that one of the nurses has a 27 pound cat. That's two Chayas in one cat. That's a cat the size of a toddler. I'm still contemplating it. (And feeling slightly bad that I call Chaya a big lug and say that if he were a boy, he'd have to wear husky jeans.) Alex and I managed to find an open Chinese restaurant, and in negotiating the trip from the car to the restaurant and back, I immediately remembered how much I hate crutches.

So, today was day one of being housebound. (I can't drive, and given that I'm supposed to elevate and ice my leg for at least 20 minutes every 2 hours, going to work didn't seem like an option if I did work Mondays.) It turns out that little New England farmhouses with one bathroom on the second floor are not ideal for people on crutches. (And just yesterday afternoon I'd been thinking longingly of the day that maybe I can put an addition on the house, an addition that would include a downstairs bathroom, among other things.) Emily brought the boys over for a visit in the late afternoon, and while Emily kindly performed a short list of tasks more easily done while not on crutches, the boys entertained me--Jamie sang and Tommy wanted to talk about "Star Wars," which he's added to his list of obsessions which already include the Revolutionary War period and Ancient Egypt, this despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he's not allowed to see the movie til he's 8. Or maybe 7 1/2.

I'm not sure how long this state of affairs is going to last. I couldn't get an appointment with the orthopedist til next week, which is annoying. I may call every day to ask about cancellations, and maybe they'll be so annoyed with me that they'll find a slot. I think I need to rest and ice and elevate for at least another day, but I still don't know if I can drive after that. Plus, my new office, which I adore, is on the third floor, and in the few weeks I've been up there, I've found myself running up and down the stairs fairly frequently, which is definitely not possible now. I'm not in terrible pain, which is good, but I also definitely don't want to put any weight on my foot yet.

So, I've entered a state of gimpiness for the forseeable future. I'm trying to think of how productive I'll be able to be, since most of my time today has been spent on the couch with the computer on my lap. All those blog posts I've written in my head may actually make it to the screen (not to mention the freelance work I'm being paid to do). I'm trying not to think about losing all those hard-earned muscles. And I'm also trying not to think about the 1/4 of the woodpile that still needs to travel down to the house, propelled by someone other than me.

I think it's time for a Vicodin.

Friday, September 19, 2008

DFW, addendum.

Before I return to the mundane and talk about tomatoes and potatoes and other garden produce, I wanted to say that there's a really lovely tribute page up to DFW at McSweeneys. And I'm not just saying that because they put up an excerpt of my post below. It's a really nice assortment of remembrances, from people who knew Dave in many different contexts, and I'm honored to be included. And among the many tributes to him, I found one written by someone else who was in the class. Maybe she didn't have a crush on him, but she confirmed that he taught us specifically about "further" and "farther," which must mean that I still messed them up after that.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

In Memoriam--David Foster Wallace

I just saw the news that David Foster Wallace killed himself. I'm stunned and shaken and sad, but I can't say that I'm entirely surprised.

I knew him a long time ago, and I didn't know him well. He was my teacher, at Amherst, in the fall of 1987. I was back at school after a year off, a year in which I'd contemplated leaving and transferring to Oberlin. But that spring, when I was trying to figure out what to do, my dad sent me a clip from the Wall Street Journal called something like "Whiz Kid Writes Wacky First Novel," about DFW's first book, The Broom of the System, which he'd originally written as his senior thesis at Amherst. (One of two theses, I later learned. He'd double-majored in English and Philosophy and written honors theses in both departments (basically unheard of), graduating with a double summa cum laude (even more unheard of). ) I didn't decide to go back to Amherst because of him, but when I got back, I found out that he was teaching that semester, a single creative writing class. I immediately applied to get in.

It's been 21 years, and I still remember that class vividly. DFW was about 25. He had long hair and always came to class with a tennis racket and sometimes cookies. He had us take breaks so he could smoke. We loved him. I can pretty safely say that all of the women in the class (and possibly some of the men) had crushes on him. I bonded with someone, who later became a good friend, because she was the only person in the class with a bigger crush on him than me. He was goofy and charming and cute and unlike any other teacher I'd ever had. But that's not why I remember the class so clearly. He was a wonderful teacher, even at 25, even just out of grad school. He was tough in workshop but not mean. He made me look at writers I'd already discovered on my own--like Lorrie Moore--in a new way, and he introduced me to writers I probably never would have discovered on my own, like Lee K. Abbott, whose story, "Living Alone in Iota," remains a life favorite. He had us read a Stephen King story about a possessed laundry machine ("The Mangler") in conjunction with a prize-winning short story told from the point of view of a dead body ("Poor Boy") to illustrate the differences between literary and genre fiction. There were other tangible things. I used to confuse "further" and "farther," and, apparently, I did it quite often. In one of my stories, I'd confused them yet again, and in the margins, he'd written, simply, "I hate you." I've never confused them since. He once left me a note, postponing a meeting, excusing himself by saying, "I'm so hungry I'm going to fall over." While I was irritated that he wasn't there, I immediately adopted that sentence and have been saying it ever since.

Mostly, he was the first person who really made me think I could be a writer. I'd applied to the class with a (clearly autobiographical) short story I'd written the semester before I left for my year off, a story called "At Charlie's House." On the basis of that story, he let me in to the class. But when I wanted to talk to him more about the story, he told me that, in truth, it wasn't actually a very good story. But that I could write that story told him that I could write better stories. "I don't know what's going on with you and that Charlie guy," I remember him saying. He advised me to move on. I can't say I did that entirely where "Charlie" was concerned, but I put the story away, and I tried to write better ones.

It didn't happen all at once, but at some point during the semester, it just clicked. I worked harder for him than I had for any other professor in any other college class. Writing fiction was the only thing I'd ever done that frustrated me that much but that I still wanted to do. It was a revelation. The second story I handed in--about a mother and daughter on a ferry to Alaska--was 20 pages, the longest story anyone had handed in at that point. I was very apologetic about making everyone read 20 pages, but he told me it wasn't long enough. If I really wanted everyone to be on that ferry with me, I needed more detail. I gave him detail. I took the whole thing apart and put it back together again. My revision was 40 pages long, and he kindly agreed to read another draft even after he'd gone. The final version was closer to 60 pages, no longer really a story at all. That story won me a prize at Amherst--which astonished me--and it got my senior creative writing thesis proposal accepted. I can't say that he made me a writer, because I probably would have figured it out some other way, further on in time. But I definitely know it wouldn't have happened the way it happened if it hadn't been for him, if he hadn't been so smart and so tough, if he hadn't challenged me the way he did, if he hadn't pushed me to challenge myself.

We stayed in touch for a few years after that--somewhere, in a box in my basement, are the few postcards and letters I got in those pre-email days. One letter arrived when I was in India for the first time, a letter he wrote mostly to tell me that he'd sent in my letters of recommendation for grad school. He told me other things, though, like that he was in a halfway house for drug rehabilitation. It was a strangely intimate letter from a former teacher to a former student, especially since I hadn't known he had any issues with drugs. He told me that he wasn't much of a traveler, so he was impressed with my bravery about going to India. He signed it Love, but with his full name. Love, David Foster Wallace.

I haven't seen him or talked to him in more than 20 years. I always thought that if he ever came to read at Amherst, I'd go see him, but that never happened. But when I wrote above that I wasn't entirely surprised to hear that he'd killed himself, it goes back that far. I often said, at the time, and since, that he was the smartest person I'd ever met. I think that's probably still true, and it's probably true for a lot of other people--that he was the smartest person they'd ever met. Even at 21, I could tell that it was the kind of smart that made you strange, that it was too much. Even then, we got glimpses of another side of him.

At some point, I stopped reading his fiction. One of his gifts as a teacher was that he kept his own writing separate from our writing (not that, realistically, any of us could have written like him anyway). I read The Broom of the System, I read Girl with Curious Hair. I read his later essays with great delight--I still have fond memories of reading his essay about going to the Illinois State Fair while I was in Delhi in 94-95, and along with everyone else, I adored his cruise ship piece--but Infinite Jest was too much for me, though my brother loved it and gave me a copy, hoping we could talk about it. Still, even as I strayed from him as a reader, I've followed his career from afar. A few years ago, I met his parents at an Amherst reunion, and I told them he'd been my teacher all those years ago. I told them how important he'd been to me.

I don't know anything about the present tense of his life or what drove him to kill himself. I'm sad for his parents and his wife and his sister, for his friends and all of his other students, for everyone else he encouraged with his intensity and with his smartness and his humor. And selfishly, I'm sad for myself. For the past 21 years, since the fall of 1987, I've thought that when the time came that I published my own book, that I'd send him a copy with thanks, that I'd tell him, all these years later, how much he'd influenced me. He was there at the beginning for me, and in addition to all the zillion other reasons I'm sad he's gone, I'm sad that he won't be there anymore along the way.

Friday, September 12, 2008


Even 7 years later, it's still strange to have my birthday also be a national day of mourning and remembrance. In some ways, it's even stranger because I wasn't in the country on that 9/11. I'd flown from Hartford to LA on September 6 and from LA to Bangkok on September 7, with the 15 students I'd be spending the semester with and two of my three colleagues. We arrived in Calcutta on September 10.

India is either 9 1/2 or 10 1/2 hours ahead of Eastern time, depending on the time of year (and still, after all this time, I still can't remember which is when), so most of my 9/11/01 occurred when it was still the middle of the night in the US. We sent the students out exploring in the morning (absolutely terrifying for them) and then went with them in the afternoon. We helped the girls buy salwar-kameez sets so they'd have some Indian clothes to wear when we got to Varanasi. It was still monsoon season, so very hot and humid out, and we were all hot and sweaty and jet-lagged. At some point in the late afternoon, I was sent back to the hotel, and a bit later, my birthday was celebrated with these 18 people I barely knew. I was summoned to the hotel room Dale and Bantu (my male colleagues) were sharing, where everyone was crowded in. (We were staying at a hotel primarily for businessmen, so it was all pretty nondescript.) There was a cake with sweet white icing, and everyone sang "Happy Birthday." They gave me a few little presents--some flowers, some cotton handkerchiefs, one of which I still have. (I don't think they gave me the handkerchiefs for any particular reason, only that there seemed to be a large number of handkerchief sellers out on the street that day, and they probably just got tired of saying no, they didn't want any.)

After my little party, everyone was hungry for dinner, so we went to a Thai restaurant Dale knew. It took a long time for our food to come, and I still remember the last moment Before--when one of the restaurant guys went to turn the TV on, and I was hoping he wasn't going to put a Hindi movie on, because the TV was right next to us, and I didn't want to eat dinner to a blaring Hindi movie soundtrack.

As it turns out, we didn't eat dinner at all. Once the TV was on, once we saw what was happening--the BBC had a message across the screen that what we were watching had actually happened and wasn't a movie--many of our students fell apart. We took them out, in groups, to try to call home, but all of the international lines were busy. We eventually found an email place that had enough terminals for most of us, and we sat there, writing home, checking in, not knowing what else to do. When we got back to the hotel, we crowded into one room again, just as we had a few hours earlier, but this time it was to watch the news on TV.

We left Calcutta the next night, on an overnight train to Varanasi, all of us still stunned and not at all sure what we were supposed to do, 10,000 miles away from home when something so horrible and so unimaginable had happened.

But the semester went on. And just a few weeks later, when we were up in the mountains, we were walking somewhere, and I overheard a bunch of students having a conversation about bad things happening on people's birthdays, mostly along the lines of, "I have this friend, and her boyfriend broke up with her on her birthday! Can you believe it?" And I had to say, "Um, I think I win that one no contest." And at least one student said, "Wait, when's your birthday . . . Oh, yeah. Right. Okay."

Still now, when I tell people when my birthday is, they often cringe and look sympathetic. One of the nicest things anyone said was my oldest childhood friend (whom I've known now for 40 of my 42 years, which I find just astonishing), who wrote to me and said, "September 11 will always be your birthday first." I appreciated it especially because she lived in lower Manhattan at the time.

Yesterday's birthday was pretty low-key. My office surprised me with a pink birthday cake and a lot of popcorn (harking back to my ode to the popcorn-wallah, which was published in the Christian Science Monitor almost exactly 2 years ago) and a gift card to the movies. I got some cards and phone calls. Alex is going to make me a birthday dinner this weekend, though he's promised to avoid the tofu and the daikon this time. I asked him if I looked 42, and he said sweetly that I didn't look a day over 27, which I said would only hold true if I wasn't in the same room as any 27 year olds. But today, a colleague who wasn't around yesterday said happy birthday, and I said that after all the hoopla around turning 40 (see Emily's gorgeous cakes below), 42 wasn't very dramatic. And much to my surprise, she looked genuinely shocked when I said I was 42 and said that she'd thought I was around 25 (even better than 27!). Admittedly, I don't think I look 25, and in lots of ways, I'm very glad not to be 25, but still--it's kind of nice to be taken for 25 when one is actually 42 and a day. Even if there weren't any actual 25 year olds around for comparison's sake.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

An Imaginary Friend with Real Need

Through the wonder of the internet, I've made imaginary friends who have become real ones. I am a true believer in the reality of friendship with people you've never stood in the same room with. Through online boards like Readerville and Freelance Success, my horizons have expanded exponentially, and I've met many fabulous people.

Sometimes, though, the news isn't so fabulous. On Freelance Success, we've been alerted to the plight of Lori Hall Steele, a writer and single mom in Michigan. Over the past year, she's been hit with a devastating diagnosis--first chronic Lyme disease, and now ALS (aka Lou Gehrig's disease). She's at home, on a ventilator, and being tended to by her overwhelmed mom. She has a 7 year old son, whom she writes about beautifully in this essay, published in The Washington Post just a few months ago. She is paralyzed, unable to work, and in danger of losing her house to foreclosure. She's received several emergency grants from ASJA (the American Society of Journalists and Authors), but it's a drop in the bucket, between medical bills and mortgage payments. The call has gone out to help Lori--help that can come from friends and strangers alike.

There's a website that gives more details about Lori's situation, and a way to donate via PayPal, to an emergency fund for Lori that will allow her and her family to remain in their house. ASJA has challenged its members to give $25, and the challenge was extended to Freelance Success members. There's also a blog-a-thon going on to try to get the word out about Lori's plight. (A list of blogs that talk about Lori is here.)

I turned 42 today. (More about that later.) Lori is 44. I can't imagine the life I have now turning into the kind of life she has now, but it could happen to any of us. If you can donate, please do. If you can write about Lori and spread the word, please do that too. This definitely seems like a time when it's going to take a very extended internet village to help this family.