Saturday, June 12, 2010



When I was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes, during my honeymoon in Barcelona, I spent three days in the ER, hooked up to a tube of insulin the size of a bomb. It was called la bomba. My blood sugar was so high the bomb needed replenishment every few hours, and this need was announced with a shrill alarm. If I had been sleeping, I'm sure that dramatic alarm would have jolted me awake. But I couldn't sleep. I was in the ER. I was laying on a thin, awful mattress. A plastic mattress. I was hooked to tubes and bombs.

After three days, I was unhooked and transferred to a room with a slightly more comfortable bed. Hallelujah! I'll never forget the delight of my first meal: roasted potatoes and cod with spinach. I ate slowly, savoring each bite. I sat, cross-legged on my bed, reading and re-reading the USA Today's Olympic coverage (this was the 2004 Games, in Athens). After eating, feeling finally relaxed, I closed my eyes. Ahh, sleep...

Did I mention my roommate?

He was an elderly man, a Catalan, who hardly spoke Spanish, let alone English. He introduced himself. I had just eaten. I had just closed my eyes, in fact.

"Señor," he cried. "Lo Siento!"

He pumped two shots of cologne in the air. The smell, floral and nauseating, hit me all at once, and it arrived with a surprise: another, deeply human, smell. Shit. The man had pumped his cologne, thinking it might disguise his accident; it only amplified the smell, brightened it, really, as lemon zest brightens cooked mushrooms.

"Lo Siento," he said, again, his voice full of shame.

Within minutes, two orderlies--two slim, cheery guys--arrived to wash the man and change his bedsheets. Closing a blue curtain that seemed, to me, to divide my beginning from the old man's ending, the first orderly smiled and repeated the old man's sentiments, "Lo Siento!"

I heard, and smelled, the routine through the blue curtain, as the man's cries modulated, from shame to thankfulness, as the smell evolved from a floral funk to an equally nauseating soapiness.

I stayed in that room, with the old Catalan, for four days. I spent my time looking out the window, to a strip of pavement below, where patients in blue outfits roamed. Some patients smoked and talked, and some simply smoked as they moved, tediously, across the pavement. To me, though, these walking patients embodied the most powerful urge that had yet occurred in my life—the urge to get the fuck out of the hospital. I felt terrible--reduced to a bed! And the man--I felt terrible for him, too. It seemed unfair! How did we end up in this place? How do we get out?

And that's how I came to think about the orderlies. These guys, the same two guys, willingly came here, to this hospital, day after day, merely to work. To clean. To comfort. To wipe.

It's the wiping that got me. After a few days, these guys seemed like saints to me. I mean, their life's work, at least at that time, included the necessary task of wiping an old man's soiled ass. Laying there in bed, I lost all sense of self-pity. How could I feel bad for myself? These orderlies were much more pitiable. Clearly, they had the worst job in the world.

And, Josh, this is what you do, right?

For most writers, especially young writers, writing is a notoriously low-paying job. I'm always comforted when I hear about writer's "real" jobs--the jobs they take to satisfy life's financial needs. It reminds me, as I trudge out the door for another shift, that we're in this together, all of us, equals in ambition and needs. The goal, of course, is to make a living writing. Or, as Kenneth Koch so beautifully states it in his poem "Some General Instructions":

"If you do not have money, you must probably earn some
But do it in a way that is pleasant and does
Not take too much time."

After a failed romance drove him to Europe in 1977, The Great Bolaño, "began a long, itinerant tour of the Mediterranean coast, taking on an absurd variety of jobs: grape harvester, dockworker, campground watchman, trinket-shop proprietor. In his spare time, he wrote lush, sentimental poems about his Mexican friends."

William Carlos Williams was, awesomely, a doctor. Wallace Stevens, shockingly, was an insurance executive. Frank Kafka, the Chief Legal Executive of the Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute, spent his working life writing reports such as "Measures for Preventing Accidents from Wood-Planing Machines."

T.S. Eliot was a banker. Douglas Adams was "moonlighting as a hotel security guard" in London when he began The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. And Kurt Vonnegut owned a Saab dealership in the late 50s.

From the improbable website

I've been (relatively) lucky: since I was 24, I've managed to make money in a way that is pleasant and does not take too much time. Before that, I worked almost exclusively in kitchens, except for the year after college, when I worked at my father's consulting company. I was the lowest paid executive in the entire place. (Karen, my future wife, also worked there, and made about 30% more than me.) I didn't read or write a lick for an entire year. Faced with the very real prospect of assuming eventual control of the company, I left for Barcelona. My father, finally fatigued by the business, sold his share five months later.

In Barcelona, living entirely off my savings, I wrote every single day, longhand in a journal, sometimes for 8 or more hours a day. Since then, my shining goal has always been a return to this momentous opportunity: to write every day, without concern for cash.

At 25, my money depleted, I came home and started a new consulting "company" with my father. We got a few contracts, which required about two weeks of work each. For that work, I made $1500/month for two years. During that time, I lived with my father, writing my first, second, and third novels--all failures. At the end of that period, I finally moved in with Karen, and my financial situation complicated. Still, via a patchwork of freelance work, I managed to successfully stay away from a real job for years.

Then, I came home from my honeymoon, at 29, in September 2004, broke and sick and fearful that I might have to move back in with my father, wife in tow. That spring, I found a job at a grocery store. Whole Foods Market. I've worked at the grocery store, happily and sometimes unhappily, since then. I wear an apron to work. I make the equivalent of about $40K/year. My title is: Demo Coordinator & Healthy Eating Specialist. Yes, you can be a "specialist" in healthy eating; you merely need to be hired for the job, and complete an online course from eCornell. Now I have an Ivy League education, a "Certificate in Plant Based Nutrition."

And yet, I actually enjoy the work. I cook. I teach. I guide others through the rigors of kale. Most importantly, though, I make my own schedule. I work only 30 hours. It all comes down to this: I took the job because it allows me the time, and freedom, to write.

I basically live paycheck to paycheck.


Sometimes people ask me, "What will you do with your MFA?"

As if what I'm doing, trying each day to write a worthwhile novel, is not the real thing. The real thing, of course, is money.

"I'm applying for teaching jobs next fall," I say.

And I mean it.

But even as I say it, I start to feel a constrictive life of no-writing, or less-writing, tightening around me like a hospital tube. The truth is, for my entire adult life, I've stubbornly and selfishly chosen jobs that accommodated my writing lifestyle, and not the other way around. I know this can't last--unless something changes: unless I publish my current novel; unless I find some way to have my writing make money for me.

My wife makes nearly double my salary. Soon, we'll try to have kids. At that moment, when my wife stops working, my current lifestyle will become immediately untenable.

Now, each day when I sit to write, I feel the weight of this upcoming challenge. Of course, I don't expect my writing to take me anywhere, to do anything for me, to make a career for me. But I am a writer, for better or worse. The difference, of course, the main difference between being a writer and not, is writing. Without undue expectation and with wild abandon.

I suppose one thing that motivates me, then, is to hear about all the others. My friends, Kurt Vonnegut, any writer, who has done something like wipe another's ass, or run a Saab dealership, merely to sustain a writer's lifestyle. But there's something in these jobs, too. These jobs are not always merely means to an end. They say something about us, don't they? I suppose my hope is that writing will eventually say the most about me.

Until then, I'll continue to specialize in healthy eating.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Watery Parts of the World


Your generous, starwalking last post reminded me of the great final third of Thomas Mann's novel Buddenbrook's (panoptical harmonium of German middle-class life - written when he was 26!), in which the young scion of a prosperous German family wakes up one morning and decides that he doesn't want to get out of bed. So he says he's sick. Is he really sick? Even he isn't totally sure; but from that point on, his day is full of pampering and delight. Cordials! Presents! People feeling sorry for him! Needless to say, the boy realizes quickly that being sick is vastly underrated - perhaps even the best thing in the world. He resolves then and there to be sick for the rest of his life. And he is, for the most part, with a variety of real and imagined illnesses - the most debilitating and (for our purposes at least) interesting of which is not a biological condition at all, but the great chronic disease of art.

Yes, young Hanno Buddenbrooks is an artist. And he is sick. Paraphrased like this, the connection sounds forced and naive; but no matter how much I reject its pedantic and pseudo-Christian Scientist overtones, I find it hard to read the moment in which Hanno "decides" to be sick without at least a tiny shock of recognition. I feel exposed: as if Mann has caught me stealing cookies or sneaking into my mother's closet to play a game of Zelda II, which I am not supposed to even know about until Christmas morning. But, uncomfortable though they may be, I have learned to trust such neurological twitches as symptoms of some larger truth. And I do think Mann has it right here, if only in part. Art, though it may not be an actual physical illness, is certainly an effective way to stay in bed.

Artists need beds - if not real ones, then at least the metaphorical rectangles of imagination and repose that Australian poet Les Murray sung in his beautiful "Homage to the Launching Place", which ends like this:

"I loved you from the first, bed,
doorway out of this world;
above your inner springs
I learned to dig my own.

Primly dressed, linen-collared one,
you look so still, for all your speed,
shield that carries us to the flight,
and bears us from it."

Who, reading this, does not feel a twang of tenderness for that "kindest of quadrapeds"? Just writing the lines out, I find myself gazing at least twice towards the shadowed bedroom, where my faithful mattress lies resting after a hard night's sleep. How gluttonous I have been with her! And how neglectful! But then, like Hanno, I have perhaps come to rely a little too much on the "doorway out of this world" part of the equation - have begun, in other words, to glut myself on that mulch of interspace from which art arises like mushrooms on a compost heap.

That's the tricky thing about beds: they grow. They overflow and spread, to the point that soon you're falling asleep wherever you please. The whole world has transformed, from an unforgivable and dangerous surface to a sort of gigantic moonbounce, on which we desire to sink at a moment's notice. And why shouldn't we? Aren't we weary? Haven't we spent the vast majority of our day doing things that we wish to escape - that we would opt out of completely if we could, like a frail little German by deciding to roll away from work, responsibility, and duty, and towards tubercular infection?

But it's not that simple of course, and I know this - for I am not just a user of beds: I'm a maker of them as well. Every night I wander the halls of my hospital, snuffling like a hedgehog, not just for whimpers and moans and the telltale manatee-rolls of unsound sleepers, but for the disturbances of this kind that haven't even happened yet. No one sleeps well in a hospital, they just don't, and anyone who tells you differently is or was on drugs; but between sleep and non-sleep is a state as wide as the one between health and death, and that is where I do my work. It's my country, if you will: my garden of mandrakes clenched in their various beds. And I, along with my companions, am its steward: one of the many naiads and dryads and goblins of water-replenishing and pillow fluffing and volume-lowering.

Hospital corners are difficult even for a professional, and I'd be lying if I said I always executed them with an identical amount of patience. Still, one thing that I've discovered over the course of the past year is how much these and other little featherings can help a sick patient become a sleeping one. Exactly how this works remains a mystery to me; but what I do know is that, when we look at it through the lens of illness, the story of the princess and the pea takes on a startling poignancy. As told to children, the tale lies once, but at a critical juncture - for the truth is that there was no pea, and that the woman would have tossed and turned no matter what she slept on, not because she was a princess, but because she was sick. The pea was inside her: it was her death. And though it looked like the prince was testing her, she was actually the one testing him, as she'd been testing all of her hosts over the years, tossing and turning in the pretenders' beds as she submitted to their stupid little vanities: the mountain of mattresses, the transparent secrecy, the relieved, if still strangely self-congratulatory morning embraces. But in the end there was no sleep in any of them.

Artists write about the relationship between art and illness in different ways, depending on (among other things) their own health. There is writing that wakes us up - that seizes us like a cough and leaves us bed-ridden for days, after which we emerge to a world glistening with sweat and newness. Books like this are a mini-death: an allopathy (to use a late 19th century medical term), or "other suffering", which helps us combat the disease we are by introducing a disease that we are not. We read them in order to be more awake and to feel more alive, or simply to feel less isolated by a disease that we'd thought was personal, but which is really shared (these writers suggest) by everyone.

Our age is full of great allopathic writers: lucid insomniacs like Celine and Bolano and Roth and Beckett, the uncomfortable-makers whose dreams demand that we submit to them, and which suggest that if we don't we'll wither and die of something we don't even know we have. And we need these writers, the same way that you need to be sick. NEED to, Seth - not in an exceptional way, either, but in what I would say is a deeply normal one. Because whatever health is, it is not standing still. The tepid pool breeds disease in the same way that a patient confined to a hospital bed will begin to develop bedsores, insomnia, nausea and constipation.

Books that get us moving, however, are only one half of the equation: floods are as dangerous as clots and often more so (dysentery, which growing up in Africa made me see as terrifying, was once known simply as "the flux"). So, when our bodily vacillations become too drastic, we turn to the other tradition, the homeopaths - not just the nappers, but the sleepers, the dreamers and tunnellers and divers through deep water.

What does writing like this look like, and how do we recognize it? In his essay Sleep-and-Poetry, the Chuvash poet Gennady Aygi describes a "Poetry of sleep", in which, "the connections....with the Reader are so intimate that they can share sleep with one another." So, the homeopathic writer attempts, not the famous writerly estrangement (of the brilliantly militant Shklovsky, yes, but also of many others before and after him), but the opposite: an at-home-ment, at-one-ment, (atonement?), in which the bare cave of exile gets relined with a wallpaper that not only soothes our cheeks but reminds us of a room we left a long time ago, where we were happy. Miraculously, we believe it.

Gaston Bachelard talks about something like this in his dream-manual "The Poetics of Space". Poetic images, he says, do not simply describe things for us,

"They give us back areas of being, houses in which man's certainty of being is consecrated, and we have the impression that, by living in such images as these, in images that are as stabilizing as these are, we could start a new life, a life that would be our own, that would belong to us in our very depths." (POS, p. 32)

"We have the impression that..." - and then this, I would say, is the great gift of homeopathic writing, which helps take us out of illness and into sleep, out of wine and into nap (to use counters close to both our hearts!). Is this valuable? To me, yes - more and more so the older I get, as rest becomes a rarer and rarer commodity. You don't get it in the hospital. But you have to get it. It's part of being healthy - not the only part, or even the best, but one that I think we need the most right now. At least I need it. After all, what's more untrue than the phrase "We'll sleep when we're dead"?

In reading over your post again, Seth, I found myself thinking a lot about what I want writing to do, both in me and for me. I'd like to say that every reader needs both allopathic and homeopathic types of books - but while I think this is true, I also think that many books, and writers, can be usefully placed on one or the other side of the divide. If this sounds overly simplistic to you, that's because it is; still, simple things can be helpful sometimes. You talk a lot about the difficulty you have in the amount you obsess over your illnesses - the need you seem to have to be sick. Well maybe that's just it: maybe you need to be sick to be healthy. And maybe your tiredness with illness is just a way of being sick with being sick. Allopaths live not just for, but in resistance. Take away the disease and you take away the health. Not to mention the beauty.