The Content of My Life Has No Appendix (Part 3)

Easter week I reread a blog post from almost two years ago, stumbled upon it idly reminiscing past blogging glories. I reported in the post that I had been reading Larry McMurtry’s Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, a chapter of which McMurtry writes about how his life changed after quadruple bypass surgery, and was reminded of my own recent experience of surgery.

In my case the most startling evidence of the profound effects of bypass surgery was that, about two months after the operation, I ceased to be able to read . . . . The content of my life, which has been rich, began to drain rapidly away. I had been leading a typical type-A East Coast life, reading three newspapers a day, reading many magazines, and in general, trying to stay informed. But more or less overnight, staying informed ceased to matter to me . . . . From being a living person with a distinct personality I began to feel more or less like an outline of that person — and then even the outline began to fade, erased by what happened inside. I felt as if I was vanishing — or more accurately, had vanished.

Clearly, I can’t compare my relatively uncomplicated routine appendectomy to McMurtry’s oppresively serious bypass surgery. But, when I started to reread the essay, and read the passages above, I felt a connection to McMurtry’s sense that the content of life was rapidly draining away.

Oh, it was a sensation I had begun to feel more than a year earlier, a few months after I quit my job at the newspaper – the content of my life, though not at the stature of Larry McMurtry, was that of a writer, a feature writer at a newspaper, one with aspirations to reach at least to Mr. McMurtry’s bootheels. That content was fading, or seemed to be fading, first after I traded myself in for the teacher of writing in me, and then, as my college teaching career came to an abrupt end, losing another identity — father (a complicated story for another time; I found out after eight years of believing otherwise that I wasn’t the father of a wonderful 8-year-old boy).

Then, with the climax of my teaching career, came what seemed an inability to find a job as a writer or editor, other than a few short machinegun bursts of freelance work for Waco Today, a lifestyles magazine. The only thing I kept up with was finishing the second draft of a novel. Still, as job prospects seemed to fade away, so did my sense of myself, my sustaining purpose. And now, in my current job — it seems a backward step careerwise — my content feels even further faded. I can’t find a rhythm to my writing. This essay is the longest sustained piece of writing I’ve written in months, since my last major — a minor thing probably in most writer’s notebooks — freelance assignment in July.

One night, a week after the surgery, when my funk had renewed itself, I told my wife, “I don’t have a sense of purpose anymore.” She knew writing meant everything to me, and had been worried that I hadn’t been writing very much. My saying this worried her even more. My life no longer felt rich, alive with rivers of words. Reading McMurtry’s essay, feeling a connection to McMurtry because of a shared experience of surgery, I began to wonder if the surgery elevated my already fading sense of self. The surgery itself became portentous. A burst appendix left unexcised could kill.

All through my hospital stay, post surgery, I never thought about the possibility of dying. That possibility only occurred to me after the nurse in the ER exam room told us my appendix had burst. Once I was in a gown and lying on the bed, I stopped thinking about the possibility I could get sick enough to die. I just wanted the morphine to kick in and the surgeon to show up. McMurtry writes about being hooked to a heart-lung machine during his bypass, and how, because the machine takes care of two major functions — circulation and breathing — the operation places you in a state in which you are neither alive nor dead. A comparable state for me might have been those moments in surgery when I was under anesthesia, unconscious, unaware a self of any sort existed. Before the surgery, after being placed on the operating table, I only recall taking off my boxers and the nurse telling me my legs will be strapped down so I don’t fall off the table. As fas as I know, I ceased to exist after that, recovering only to a brownish Purgatory of shadows moving around me, and a burning sensation at my side.

But dropping away under anesthesia can best be only a farce of death, a play on it, a gentle unconscious reminder there will be a time when we go under and won’t wake up. Appendicitis hadn’t eliminated me physically. Surgery hadn’t elimated me, all the content that makes up who I am. A CT scan, a machine, had peeked inside me — with the help of a Diet 7-Up and iodine cocktail, everthing was illuminated, as far as I know, my stomach, my intestines, and certainly the muck hiding what was left of my appendix, discerning the details of my body and its flaws. The surgeon saw even more of me, the me that was my body, opened it up, poked around in it, and stapled it together after removing a flawed part. The body was alive, altered, but alive.

(To be continued)

The Content of My Life Has No Appendix (Part 2)

The burst appendix didn’t kill me. Nothing seemed all that different to me the first hours after surgery, other than my drugged grogginess and a pinching sensation along my side and the longing to see my wife so she would know I was alive. The operation should have taken no more than an hour. How long, exactly, it had taken, I wasn’t sure, but it was longer than an hour. My surgeon later explained fecal matter had stopped up the open end of my appendix, and that crappy road block had calcified, had caused pus and other goo to build up inside my appendix, and that buildup made the appendix swell, burst, and make me seek the comfort of tortilla chips, Coke, and painkillers at four in the morning. The goo and pus complicated the surgery. My surgeon had to wallow around my insides and chase after the meaty pulp that was my appendix. And that took time.

Nothing seemed all that different to me the first few days in the hospital, other than stomach spasms trying to force extra gas from my body and piercing pinches at my side anytime I moved, especially when I walked. Nothing seemed all that different to me toward the end of week, other than I could walk with less pain and didn’t have to be attached to the IV’s umbilical, the stomach spasms had passed, and I was eating solid food. I was reading, and had made some notes in my journal about the surgery. And one night, just before drifting off to sleep, I resolved to write an essay about my first significant hospital experience. No life-altering changes seemed to have amended me, nothing significant enough to temper the me that was thought and personality. I had only been subject to one of the many thousands of inherited defibrillations Hamlet speaks of as natural to all of us.

At home the first few days after release from the hospital nothing seemed all that different, no aftereffects felt from the surgery. I slept late — since I was off from work — took antibiotics regularly and painkillers when needed, and started taking the antidepressants, even though I didn’t feel depressed or anxious and had just a few problems sleeping, all of which seemed physical — I could only sleep on my back and was only comfortable when my legs were elevated.

By Saturday, I felt ready to write. I set a schedule for my hospital-experience essay similar to the one I set for my novel. Three two-hour sessions, a minimum of 350 words. Sunday morning at 609 words, and in the middle of a sentence about my wedding plans, I stopped writing. I was tired. My wife and I had stayed up late Saturday night watching the Comedy Channel. Sleep tugged me. So I would sleep and then get up and finish my work. When I woke up, I didn’t go back to work on the essay. Instead, I went out to the backyard and started cleaning the midden of rubber balls, bricks, soggy blankets and crumbling chunks of sidewalk chalk left to litter the area after one of the many recent sleepovers my stepdaughters had held. As I sorted through the heap something undetermined nagged my mind, irritating me. All the rest of the day this amorphous jellyfish of a mood stung me.

Monday morning something was wrong. Not an aftereffect of the surgery. Not physically at least, so it seemed, but an alteration of mood. I hadn’t slept well, maybe three or four hours. The irritability of the previous day had accompanied me to bed and didn’t have the courtesy to leave during the night when it was done with me. Accompanying the irritability was a malaise that had nothing do with missing my daily dose of coffee. I had no interest in any part of my morning routine — no reading, no coffee. All I wanted to do was cover up and sleep. The mood continued through the day at work. I passed the mood off as a response to my increasing bout – a fight of almost five months — with dissatisfaction over my job. Even the next day, when it hadn’t gone away, I assumed the depression was solely due to the job.

Moreover, I was crabby with my wife, and yet she had nothing to do with the mood. All the time we had been together, I don’t recall snipping at her. I didn’t like it. I assured her the pissy moodiness billowed from work. The mood evolved over the week into something different, a slipping away of personality. All I wanted was for the Paxil to kick in, and frustrated that it wasn’t taking effect soon enough. Everything was slipping away. I stopped reading in the mornings. I had no desire to write. The hours I spent at the computer were devoted to surfing the Web — mostly checking blog stats — and playing my favorite PC game. My life after surgery felt only somewhat like life, to paraphrase Larry McMurtry. Except, I never imagined what I felt had anything to do with the surgery.

(To be continued)

The Content of My Life Has No Appendix (Part 1)

I wasn’t quite myself before the operation. Recently I’ve written about how I’ve tried to resurrect my writerly self. For more than a year now my writing life has jackrabbited, at times bounding at a clip, then halting altogether at the edge of the road as if awaiting the uninspiring ghostly hiss of a truck’s tires to pass before moving on. Last month the sense of myself as a writer faltered even more.

Sometime around 5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 19, I had an emergency appendectomy at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco. Two or three hours later, stunned on morphine and anesthesia, vaguely aware it was dark outside and that my surgery had lasted more than the estimated 45 minutes, I wasn’t musing any significant life change or an alteration of a sense of myself. I only craved seeing my wife. She needed to know the surgery was done. That I was OK. And I needed to feel her lips graze mine once the drugged scrim hovering over my eyes cleared. Which turned out to be soon enough, though all I could see when I first was wheeled into my room was a pink-shirted silhouette. At that moment, nothing had altered in my life, except I no longer had an appendix.

Four days earlier something was about to go wrong.

From about 3 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15, until late that night I felt I might have needed a Tagamet; my stomach quibbled with me, warmly gurgling and cloudily rolling, but not threatening a storm. We were out of my favorite cure-all for stomach ailments. Since we were going grocery shopping that Saturday, I decided to wait until then to medicate myself. I tried something different, though, because the gurgling and rolling had gone away. I now felt bloated, as if there were too much gas in my system. The generic gas pain reliever seemed to work. And it worked most of Sunday, until that evening, when a pain plucked my abdomen above the right hip, but, still, I felt no portents. I tried to sleep it off like a bad hangover, finally, after several sleepless hours, conceding to a generic pain reliever around two in the morning.

Several weeks before this pain struck, my wife had been cajoling me to go to the doctor because of some mild problems with abdominal cramping. My resistance, however, was close to rebellion, though it would turn futile. The last doctor’s appointment I made was almost two years ago, and that was a painless visit to the optometrist because I needed new glasses. I didn’t want to make an appointment for something as mild as abdominal cramps, when they faded away for weeks at time, and weren’t really troublesome, except on occasion.

Also, my mind was making a home for portents, as it sometimes wants to do. In December 2006, my former managing editor at the newspaper died from colon cancer, his insides slowly eaten away over the course of about a year. My abdominal pains, my anxious psyche was telling me, could be foreshadowing cancer, which my wife thought was ridiculous. I acted a mule, but only momentarily, and listened to my wife anyway, because I love her, and by Sunday night, Monday morning, somewhere along in there, felt crappy enough something had to be done.

I called in sick Monday morning and scheduled an appointment at a nearby clinic with a doctor a coworker had recommended. A urine sample was taken. No anomalies. An X-ray. No anomalies. A prostate exam. No anomalies. A blood test. Results available the next day; call in the morning. Some discomfort still when the doctor presses on my right side, but not enough to cause concern. The doctor believes the cramping and plucky pain, and some of my recent bouts with sleeplessness, which I also tell him about, may be caused by anxiety. So he prescribes Paxil, an antidepressant that’s often used to treat anxiety.

Monday evening I eat a few mouthfuls of baked chicken breast and that night sleep evades me. At midnight pain pierces my side so much I take a hydrocodone tablet my wife had left over from her hysterectomy in November. A scrim of sleep. Another hydrocodone and a handful of tortilla chips and a mouthful of Coca Cola to stifle an accompanying queasiness. Another veil of sleep. Then awake again, searching WebMD on my laptop. Multiple possibilities come up in the search, everything from irritable bowel syndrome to appendicitis to colon cancer. Appendicitis seems the most likely ailment. But WebMD suggests if it is appendicitis that I should seek medical attention immediately. It is three or four in the morning. My wife is sleeping. She said to wake her if I felt I needed to go to the ER. I don’t want to wake her. Of portents, however, I’m again well aware.

Almost 12 hours later, my wife and I sit in the Emergency Room at Hillcrest, thinking we are simply going to find out the result of a doctor-ordered CT scan.

Tuesday morning we had made calls to work and to the doctor. I keep imagining the calls must have sounded frantic, because the pain had tweaked since the hydrocodone wore off hours earlier. The doctor tells me that blood tests from my visit the day before show a slightly elevated white blood count. Because of the elevated count and the continued pain, he says I should get a CT scan.

When a nurse takes my wife and I to an exam room in the ER, the nurse asks, “Do you know why you’re here?” My wife and I look puzzled. No one in radiology had told us anything other than to check in at the ER after my CT had been read.

“You’re appendix has ruptured,” the nurse says.

“Yay me,” I say to my wife.

Later my wife told me I looked worried when the nurse said my appendix had ruptured. Nothing that day had really gone as planned. After the CT scan, I thought I would be sent home with something that didn’t require a hospital stay and surgery. Extended hospital stays had not been kind to my family in the last four years. I saw my dad die from leukemia in the hospital in 2004. My mom died in the ER a year later. She had spent almost five years in and out of hospitals and nursing homes after breaking her hip in 2002. A year later, my cousin overturned his truck about 30 yards from his home. A week later, in the hospital, he died. A burst appendix could kill me.

(To be continued)

Why Short Stories are Rejected

Found this interesting list (via Bookslut) of why short stories are rejected.

While the list itself is tongue-in-cheek, I find myself annoyed more and more by the “show don’t tell” advice. It crops up here in number 20 on the list.

20. Summation. “All in the past” syndrome. This is a problem sometimes characterised as “undepicted action” or “telling instead of showing.” Most writers seem to have a grasp of the need to get attention at the beginning, but an astonishing number by the middle of page two have started to tell us all about some ancient family history. All sense of immediacy and story is lost and instead we’re having summaries of complex events that happened, one sentence each, like a dry and tedious history book.

While great short stories are often great simply because of their use of full scenes (sometimes the whole story), I can think of several short story writers — Andre Dubus, John Cheever — who use summary so effectively, and almost exclusively in some stories, that it blows apart the “show don’t tell” mantra. Sometimes good stories function best when they’re told and not shown, and writers need to consider when to show and when to tell. Not every action or scene has to be depicted.

Roll a d20 and Write

I must confess I am a nerd. When I learned Gary Gygax had died March 4, I knew the name. Gygax, along with Dave Arneson, created Dungeons & Dragons, the fantasy role-playing game that provided me and a handful of other geeky friends hours of entertainment on Fridays, Saturdays and almost daily during the summer.

When I read about Gygax’s death, I wasn’t so much mournful as I was nostalgic, I suppose. Three or four of us sitting around a rickety green card table in a back room of our house. We forgot the world, except when Mom brought us hot dogs. We roamed our imaginations, fighting orcs, trolls, and goblins, accumulating vast wealth in gold pieces and jewels, all our adventures based on a combination of improvisational storytelling, acting and random numbers generated by combinations of dice rolls, the dice not just your average dotted cubes, but also polyhedrons like the twenty-sided dice (d20).

Role-playing games emerged in the 1970s, and Gygax’s D&D was the first commercially available game. Players took the roles of either characters or a game master, who led the characters through a simulated adventure in a variety of settings — D&D borrows from worlds such as Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Robert E. Howard’s Conan. Players interact with each other and the world created by the game master (the Dungeon Master in D&D), through combat (early games had heavy influence from wargames), trade, narrative, quests, and any activities humans or any imagined creatures might experience.

In the early days, as a subculture of gamers emerged, the games were demonized in the mass media and by clergy as psychologically and spiritually damaging (sometimes the games were literally demonized: My parents made me stop playing D&D because the game supposedly put me in league with the devil, although I could still play Traveller, a science fiction role-playing game, or a traditional wargame like Squad Leader.) These were the same criticisms that now accompany video games (many of which are directly influenced by paper and pencil role-playing games) — too violent, socially isolating, spiritually or morally corrupting — the same cliched arguments taken against movies, music, novels, art, plays, television, and almost any other form of entertainment or intellectual exercise.

I kept playing some form of role-playing game until the end of my sophomore year in college. The group of friends I gamed with broke up for all the usual reasons groups of college friends break up — they get married, they get jobs, they move away, they flunk out. Also about the time my gaming group broke up I started becoming serious about writing.

Role-playing games introduced me to fantasy and science fiction, beyond what I knew from comic books — Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, Robert Heinlein, Michael Moorcock. I read the genres voraciously, often to mine them for game ideas.

Once I stopped gaming, I almost simultaneously stopped reading fantasy and science fiction. Some books and writers I stopped reading because the stories weren’t interesting to me. But, much of interest decreased because I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer and science fiction and fantasy weren’t serious genres, at least in some English profs’ and English majors’ eyes. Gamers were even less serious. I hid my inner nerd, my past as a gamer. I sold all my games and miniatures. I sold my comic book collection. I read only literary classics — or what the English department made classics — mostly realistic fiction and poetry. I made pretensions of being a deep thinker, a serious scholar, submitting to conferences papers on Milton and to academic journals papers on Hemingway.

Only after graduate school did I read science fiction again after reading Camille Paglia, the feminist scholar who wrote about her love of Star Trek. Still, even then, I only read “serious” science fiction such as Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris.

Science fiction and fantasy are still stigmatized in some circles of the literary world, and yet it’s a fantasy author, J.K. Rowling, who has created enough of a phenomenon in Harry Potter to get people reading books, at least her books. This article in Wired suggests science fiction may prove a better ground for serious fiction than most fiction now out. Humor writing often also gets stigmatized, as if humor is somehow not serious enough.

When you go to bookstores and look at the shelves of young adult fiction, a lot of that fiction is fantasy. It was fantasy fiction, especially the lure of action and eroticism prevalent in the swords and sorcery of Howard and Moorcock, that led me to read more, and reading fantasy led me to my first attempts at writing. I knew I wanted to write in junior high, because of D&D and fantasy fiction. And the influence of fantasy appears in my own published fiction.

Fantasy and role-playing also generated a stronger interest in history. Because of D&D, for instance, I understood medieval feudalism.

So, here I am, coming out as a nerd, a former gamer. I probably won’t play the games anymore, the interest has waned (though I still play video games, especially wargames), but the games were an important element in my development as a writer. They stimulated my imagination, and my desire to create my own worlds with words.

Person Gary Gygax
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Black Hawk Down

Took a break from novels this past month to read Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down. I had read a couple of chapters a few years ago to inspire me when I was writing a war story for the paper, but never got around to finishing the book. Even those first few chapters amazed me, the incredible blow-by-blow detail of the fire fight. After reading the whole book, I’m still astonished by Bowden’s reporting, his ability to put you into the middle of this terrifying fire fight in the middle of Mogahdishu, Somalia.