Well I Knew What I Could Not Say

The fruits of a summer's labor.


August 26, 2015

How was your summer? In Louisiana we survived the apocalypse on the table. Governor Jindal blinked, in a manner, and higher education got most of last year’s level of funding, still leaving us down seven years of cuts before that to deal with. In this new normal, my regional uni is down a large percentage of faculty and staff, many of whom left for other opportunities. Foreign languages have been rolled in under the English major. Assistantships are down. There’s no copying budget. And we were told the citizenry believe we jet off to swanky academic conferences, maybe in Seychelles, so no matter where we’re going we should say we’re bound for Omaha. Poor Omaha. What if the conference really was in Omaha? one was tempted to ask. Where should we say we’re going then, Beaumont? Poor Beaumont. Sometimes a guy longs for a pen name that hasn’t been disclosed.

My summer was nearly idyllic. I wrote every day but four and have 125,000 words on the novel draft. I’m far enough along that I was able to start applying the Churm Test: Pick a random word and search the manuscript to see if you’ve taken the wider world into account: Liberty, check. Mermaids, check. Achilles, coffee, kiss, cloaca, Iraq, check. I never once got on Facebook, and several afternoons a week my sons and I swam and dove -- the novel is about divers -- in the deep end of the university pool, which turns out to be the best thing in town. After chores I took a little more time and pleasure in cooking each night. It was the sort of working summer that writers in the academy hope for. 

But worry over what fall might bring was distracting and anxiety-making. I’m teaching four classes and an independent study this fall, editing our journal, reading program apps, directing all prose theses, editing a book series, and blogging. I worried the novel would slambang to a halt. Then I worried it wouldn’t, since it was possibly the filthiest/longest/most meaningless/boring book ever written. There’s a lot of death and other loss in it, alienation, weirdness, alternate lines of reality, and an appearance by Sherwood Anderson, dying from peritonitis after accidentally swallowing that cocktail toothpick in Panama. I realized I have some preoccupation with the historical event, as I keep bringing it up in my writing; can you imagine the feeling of it sliding down, that oh-shit moment when you understand what you’ve done, the pinpricks and stabs in your gut that mount into agony over several days, the bad taste in the mouth? It’s Ivan Ilych. So of course last month I convinced myself I might have accidentally eaten a brass bristle from the grill brush on my hotdog. I worried I might never have things the way I want professionally, or that I’ve already gotten everything I wanted.  “This is hell,” Elvis Costello sings sweetly, “this is hell, I am sorry to tell you it never gets better or worse....” I get weird when I work on a book, most writers I know do (don't get me started on the guy with his shoebox of coke), but I’m learning to hold it in. 

My annual physical was last week, and my doctor pronounced me healthy as a horse. I squinted suspiciously and told him I had a lot of stress, and he asked if it had to do with the financial health of the university. He’s the son of a former president of the uni and wants there not to be a downturn to his father's legacy. I said budgetary ruin didn’t help, but I reminded him I’d been saying the same thing every year, and that he had told me in this culture people just drink more. I don’t want to drink more.

So what was I to do, I said self-pityingly, now I’m full of brass bristles and cholesterol? Something in his expression, a mix of sympathy and puzzlement, pushed me over the edge.

Doctor! I shouted, I accidentally ate a brass grill brush on my hotdog last month! I saw it under the mustard but couldn’t stop eating! Sherwood Anderson! I’ve got whatever killed my grandfather, who died of no-one-knows, long before I was born! I have dysbaric osteonecrosis! The accumulated bubbles of decompression sickness are lodged like a Green River phosphate in my organs and joints! Doppler me, doc! All my rottenness is going to slither into the crabgrass!

I can’t say here what happened next, other than it felt like a very meticulous tonsil exam from the wrong end, and it seemed as if the doc enjoyed it. He stripped me of my dignity, I told a grad student later. What dignity? the grad student asked. It's a savage business.


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