It’s that time again, when editors across the land reread what they’ve published in the last year, then drive themselves bonkers trying to compare all the apples and oranges and figs and molten lava cakes and palak paneers and potato salads and bánh baos they published in the last year. Editors of small presses get six nominations for each year’s Pushcart Prize, and I take it seriously.
I’m excited to present FGP’s Pushcart nominees for this year.
It seems like there’s only one right answer. I have to keep him safe. But it’s so much more complicated. It’s difficult to know at any given moment if he should no longer be doing something he used to be able to handle.
My wife left the appointment satisfied with the pediatrician’s explanation—seizures left her mind—and ready to ignore our daughter’s future fist clenching scenes and moments of rage when they should start to appear. I, on the other hand, was distraught; I knew that the pediatrician didn’t have the full story and neither did my wife.
Something is wrong with me, only I don’t know what it is. Or how to fix it. In the middle of the day or night, rage fizzes up inside my ribcage. It burns and unspools, as berserk and sulfuric as those black-snake fireworks from childhood: one tiny pellet, with seemingly infinite potential to create dark matter—dark matter that’s kind of like a magic serpent and kind of like a giant ash turd. This is how it is for me right now.
I felt her papery lips kiss me on both cheeks and sensed in her touch both excitement and trepidation as if she couldn’t believe she had crossed the ocean to visit her daughter in America. The country I had chosen over my birthplace. The country I now called home and to which she had lost me almost fifteen years ago.
I walked down the long hallway to the jury room. Aspiring pianists tried to read their fate in my face. Did she smile? Did she frown?
We’d just heard the twenty-four quarter-finalists, and in a few minutes we’d weed out half of them and announce the dozen semi-finalists. The failure to make it to the semis can mean the loss of a scholarship, the erosion of family support, a devastating blow to self-confidence. The jury’s decision is final, its power absolute. There are no appeals.
I savor the opportunity to discover new talent, but I don’t relish playing God in other people’s lives. Most of all, I dread the chats with the losers. They say they want the truth no matter how painful—“Tell me why I was eliminated and how I can improve” —but what they really want is validation, something to assure them their talent has been recognized. I could say I enjoyed their performance and was surprised when we tallied the votes and I saw their names at the bottom. That would give them hope but wouldn’t help them grow. I could say they played beautifully but that the level was just too high. That would be cruel. We educate our children to work hard, we praise them for putting in effort, we assure them that if they apply themselves they’ll be rewarded. Then they go into the world and get crushed by rejection for not being as good as the next guy.
What can I say to sustain their self-esteem without hyping futile expectations? I remember well my younger years when harsh criticism could pierce my heart. Who are we, the judges? What gives us the right to destroy someone’s dream?
The first jury I served on, I was determined that only the best would win. I suggested to my fellow jurors that we select somebody who could shine at Carnegie Hall rather than play like a well-schooled student. Everybody agreed. We all ranked each pianist and tabulated the results not once, but twice. The pianist who got the most points won. Nevertheless the outcome was disheartening. I thought the silver medalist was outstanding. After the award winners’ gala, I remarked that the second prizewinner would probably become world famous while the recipient of the jury prize might be forgotten. I glanced at my fellow judges—all seasoned musicians—hoping to provoke strong reactions that would betray the culprits who’d propelled the winner to the top. Instead, everybody laughed, and some said, “We’ll see.” And, “Don’t be so sure.”
The voting system is carefully structured to prevent bias and undue influence. The highest and the lowest marks are thrown out. No deliberation is allowed until the votes have been cast. And yet, mediocrity often wins. Here is how it can happen: I’m a judge from the fictitious state of Transatlantica. My government has sent me to the competition and paid for my airfare. I give the Transatlantic contestant high marks, but not so high as to stick out and get discarded. Then I identify the pianist who poses the biggest threat to the Transatlantic contestant’s standing, and I give him consistently low marks. Multiply me by five, and his chances of winning are null, while my guy may just sneak up to the podium.
There are also unimpeachable motives that propel judges to vote for average performers. What’s pedestrian to my ear may be enthralling to another’s. One judge may disapprove of an interpretation he deems unfaithful to the composer’s intentions, while I may view it as original and fresh. I once served as an observer at a famous competition. Six of the jury members rejected flair, preferring a strict adherence to tradition, while the other six celebrated virtuosity, imagination, and personality. In the end the scores of each group offset those of the other, and the most lackluster pianist, who hadn’t offended either camp, was declared the winner.
Competitions came and went, and my preferred pianists sometimes won and sometimes lost. In one competition, the organizers campaigned for their favorite contestant, a rather ordinary performer who hadn’t distinguished himself either technically or artistically. Their actions were an affront to fair process, quashed only when some of us in the jury threatened to go to the press. Those of us who’d led the revolt were not invited back.
In another competition, a Russian judge told me on day one that he had been on a hundred fifty-nine international juries—only to add on the last day that a hundred fifty-nine of his students had won awards. One of them got the third prize in our competition. There was nothing remotely remarkable in his performance and I gave him very low marks. Somebody must have liked him a great deal to counterbalance my score.
My favorite first-prize winner was an American male pianist of boundless sensitivity, who could turn a musical phrase into magic and lose himself in the indefinable. I looked forward to his New York debut recital, a decisive first introduction to the music world’s opinion makers, and an indicator of things to come. Even I, who had championed him throughout the competition, could not be certain that he had the chops for a successful international career until I saw him handle the pressure of a make-or-break concert.
A few weeks after he won he called me in despair: after graduation, he no longer qualified for a scholarship. His family was unable to pay for his lessons, and his teacher wasn’t willing to work with him for free. I assured him he was ready to do it on his own. He had to be, if he planned to embark on an international career. I knew all too well what could happen to a performer who failed in New York. Two of my friends, both excellent pianists, had been relegated to regional careers because they choked on the stage of Lincoln Center. Why a totally in-command pianist, capable of playing to perfection with his eyes closed, would fail to deliver at a crucial moment is a subject of endless analysis.
Think of Andy Roddick. He would have been placed on a pedestal had he won the fifth set in his last Wimbledon final with Federer. I watched that match like a laser, willing him to take that one extra daring shot. Close-up, I could see his eyes spelling caution, and I knew he wouldn’t make it. The line separating the champions from the runners-up is the thinnest of all lines known to man.
However, the brilliant young pianist I so appreciated withstood the pressure. His prizewinner New York recital was nerve-free and inspiring, the hall was full, the applause enthusiastic. He was on his way to stardom but for the wrinkle of a mixed review in the Times. The reviewer—just like his teacher—failed to recognize his exceptionalism, or he was not in the mood to use big words like “phenomenal” or “one of a kind” that can propel a career into the stratosphere. Some people cry for a few days, then move on. Not the young pianist in question. He viewed the review as the ultimate verdict of his chances, became overcome with doubt, and took a teaching job somewhere far away. Soon after that I lost track of him.
Years later he befriended me on Facebook. His timeline was filled with links to his performances on iTunes. I listened to some of them. Magnificent. He never lost that unique ability to arrest your attention with phrasing that came straight from the depth of the soul. It made me think of Paula Fox, the writer no one talked about until, when she was already over sixty, Jonathan Franzen stumbled on one of her books while browsing at the Yaddo library. You’d think such poignant elegance as, “I often thought of killing myself but then I wanted lunch,” would have caught attention, but no. Her prose was either ignored or unappreciated until the famous Franzen said the word.
One can resurrect the career of an older writer, but classical music performers must make it at an early age of boundless potential, before the muscles begin to atrophy, the body resists the stress of globetrotting, and promoters turn their attention to the new kids on the block. My beloved pianist has missed the moment, and there was nothing I could do to rejuvenate his career. We, the jury, can only hand a young talent an Andy Warhol fifteen minutes of fame, and the rest is history. That’s what my first agent said.
“What do you mean, history?” I asked.
He laughed. “You’re a huge success and we make history together, or you’re history.”
ISRAELA MARGALIT is a critically-acclaimed playwright, television writer, concert pianist, recording artist, and recently a published author of short fiction and creative nonfiction, with awards or honors in all categories, including the Gold Medal, New York Film & TV Festival, an Emmy Nomination, and Best CD the British Music Industry Awards. Visit her website at http://www.israelamargalit.com/
My partner was brewing a pungent, murky brown concoction on the stove. The label on the box beside the stove listed burdock root, slippery elm bark, sheep sorrel, and turkey rhubarb root, but it gave me no clue as to the purpose of the ingredients.
“What’s it for?” I asked, sniffing the pot.
Ted mumbled something unintelligible.
“Is it a laxative?” I asked.
“For digestive problems?”
He paused. “Nope.”
Puzzled, I tried again. As a custom cabinet-maker, he had been working long hours and weekends but seemed energetic and healthy. “Is it for your anemia?” Several months before, he had been diagnosed with a severe iron deficiency, but he’d been taking a supplement.
I made a few more failed guesses. Finally, he said flatly and quietly, “It’s for cancer.”
I stared at him. “Why on earth do you think you have cancer?”
He kept stirring the pot. “I’ve been passing blood.”
When I urged him emphatically to see the doctor for more tests, he shrugged. He carefully poured the steaming brew through a sieve into a couple of large jars, not spilling a single drop. “I guess I should.”
Several weeks later, we sat with the gastroenterologist in a small examining room, looking at a color print-out of the images taken during an internal scan of Ted’s intestines. One image revealed subtle polyps that looked hardly more sinister than crimson crayon scrawls. Another image showed the slight bulge of a small polyp that resembled a small fleshy boil or pimple. But then there was the final image: it looked like a blob of gummy red gelatin encasing curled-up maggots. It filled a third of the intestinal tunnel and resembled a fetal mouse or fetal frog. I repressed an instinctive shudder.
“It’s cancer,” the doctor said without drama. “I took a biopsy, but I’m fairly certain.”
So this was what cancer looked like from the inside. Ted’s father had died over two decades earlier of complications following stomach cancer surgery. A decade earlier, Ted`s eldest sister had died of colorectal cancer at the age of fifty-seven. Years of gruelling chemotherapy, radiation and experimental therapies had failed to stop its spread. We were informed that people with a first-degree relative with colorectal cancer are at a higher risk of developing it. Being the most commonly diagnosed type of cancer after prostate cancer for men, it is the second leading cause of death from cancer overall, although if detected early, it is over ninety percent curable.
The doctor matter-of-factly went through the process that we’d be going through: staging to determine how far the cancer had spread, an ultrasound and CT scan, analysis of the biopsy results, a referral to a surgeon. He drew a diagram of the kind of bowel resection surgery that Ted could expect to undergo—it looked deceptively simple, a cross between plumbing repair and alterations at a tailor’s.
Strangely, neither Ted nor I was alarmed. Perhaps we’d used up our storehouse of apprehension during the weeks leading up to the colonoscopy From this moment on, he would go through the necessary tests and procedures with all the hoops and steps laid out for him. It was as if we were both buckled into the seat of a medical amusement park ride called “the oncological flow chart.” A positive result on one test might lead to a diversion down a more complex chain of procedures; a negative result might lead to a positive destination reached in a shorter time. None of the flow charts in the cancer brochures led to the word “death.” But it existed, unwritten, just over the edge.
We arrived for Ted’s surgery at Vancouver’s historic St. Paul’s hospital on the first day of August. As we dutifully followed the painted red line on the floor through the body of the older buildings into the newer sections, we passed commemorative plaques about the nuns who had fundraised on horseback at mining and logging camps to raise funds to found the hospital at a time when the current downtown site was located on the outskirts of wilderness.
Little did we know how familiar we would become with that brick edifice with its threading red line. Advised initially that he might expect a stay of five days, Ted would remain there for over four weeks. I would be taking the bus there daily, sometimes twice daily, for the remainder of the summer.
We’d prepared for weeks before the surgery, going in for Ted’s appointments with the surgeon and for scans, as well as to the pre-admission clinic to review hospital checklists, instructions, and test results which I gathered in a purple file folder on the kitchen counter near the phone. That file became both compass and hub through the summer and fall.
On the morning of the operation, we were the first to arrive at the day surgery department at what seemed like any typical waiting room—institutional chairs arranged against the pastel walls, a coffee table with outdated magazines. After he checked in at the reception desk, Ted changed into a hospital gown and we sat together until he was called. It didn’t seem to be a place of sufficient gravitas, of momentous, radical change, where your guts would be sliced open, dismantled, rearranged or removed—or where you could die.
Because the surgery was supposed to last three hours, I took the bus home while Ted got his abdomen shaved and epidural and intravenous lines inserted. Too restless, I returned downtown. There were booths and kiosks set up along Davie Street as part of a block party in advance of the Pride Parade the next day. At Bute and Davie I walked by the celebrated rainbow crosswalk, Canada’s first permanent rainbow-painted crosswalk added to the West End in 2013 to celebrate the thirty-fifth anniversary of the local Pride Parade. I went into a dollar store to buy a small rainbow flag to mark the festivities. Inspired by Judy Garland’s song, “Over the Rainbow,” the flag had been designed for the 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco to represent the diversity of the LGBTQ movement, with special symbolic significance assigned to each colour.
Back at the hospital, I headed upstairs to Ward 10B to look for Ted. He was a bit groggy but conscious and smiling, and looked surprisingly normal except for the various tubes emerging from underneath his sheets that were connected to a catheter, an IV, and a patient-controlled hydromorphone dispensing machine known as a PCA that he could press whenever he was in pain. I pinned the rainbow flag next to the “Nothing by Mouth” sign that was turned face down on the bulletin board behind his hospital bed, wondering why each of the six beds in the room had bulletin boards with those signs and no artwork or photos.
As there didn’t seem to be any kind of bulging from his abdomen, I asked Ted if the surgeon had given him an ostomy. He wasn’t sure and hadn’t had a chance to ask. The whole idea of having your intestine protrude out from your body to expel feces into an external bag had made us both queasy and anxious, despite our having watched the obligatory DVD at the pre-admission clinic that showed gorgeous athletic men and women blithely unaffected by their ostomies.
With his permission, I gingerly lifted the sheets and then his hospital gown, bracing myself for the worst. We both peered down at his belly. There was a narrow tube leading from a dressing a few inches beneath his rib cage to a small disc-like Hemovac drain to remove the build-up of excess blood and fluids after surgery. On different parts of his belly were five neat sets of black staples along puckered, deep red incisions, with the longest row near the pubic area. Over the weeks ahead, the redness would soon fade to purple, and then eventually light brown, until the scars from the incisions were barely perceptible.
I put his gown and the sheets and blankets back in place. I felt like celebrating and considered heading out to watch the parade the next day to wave our little Pride flag. Ted had made it through surgery successfully. He was in good spirits. The cancerous tumor had been removed, with no need for an ostomy. Maybe this whole ordeal wasn’t so terrible after all?
Ted found it difficult to sleep on the ward. The blue PCA machine dispensing the hydromorphone and IV fluids ticked and clucked day and night without a break except when the IV or the medication needed to be refreshed. We pretended there were miniature robotic chickens trapped inside it, even tried to imitate the sounds. He had to take it with him to the bathroom, the IV pole draped with tubes and with electrical cords that had to be pulled out each time. But the PCA alleviated the discomfort, at least during those first few days. I fretted about the possibility of addiction, but he waved my concerns away and kept clicking the button to bliss.
When he’d been first diagnosed with colorectal cancer, I had wondered how I’d feel about the hospitalization, bed pans, diapers, catheters, the physical changes to his body, the possible ostomy. Although we had lived together and become more interdependent over the past four years, he knew that I still had some doubts about our relationship. He was concerned that his care would become a burden that I would resent.
“You don’t have to come every day,” he told me.
I looked at him in disbelief. “Of course I do!”
And I did. The day after the operation, I ventured out to drift among the crowds in the intense August heat to get a glimpse of the parade. The noise and hoopla were fun, but ultimately it felt jarring to be surrounded by the teeming exuberance and staged goodwill. I rushed back to the hospital where it was quiet and cool and where I really wanted to be—with Ted.
Most of the time, after arranging plants and flowers and cards on the sill and getting him fresh ice chips, I’d gaze out the window by his bed. I’d look down at the shifting rhythm of traffic on Burrard Street and out at the glass towers that reflected both each other and a faceted sky. After drawing the curtains between us and the other patients so we could at least have the illusion of privacy, I would sometimes sit facing him on the bed, my back against the footboard, my legs alongside his, so we could hold or rub each other’s feet, which felt more intimate than holding hands.
Sometimes after the visitors had gone and if my twelve-year-old son was staying at his father’s, I’d remain to watch dusk fall across the city. I didn’t have to be social or chase down Ted’s frustratingly elusive leprechaun-like surgeon and his wandering medical team. The fluorescent lights would be turned off and everything would slowly become bathed in blue. I’d watch a DVD with him on the old portable player I’d brought, the light from the screen flickering across his face.
Other days seemed very long. I wouldn’t realize it until I returned home. Saturated from the hospital, I would want to collapse in bed, but I’d face a backlog of texts, voicemail, and email messages. My work, household chores, and tasks accumulated, undone. I had just enough energy to deal with Ted at the hospital and my son at home and not much left for anything else. But it seemed impossible for it to be any other way. Whether I was examining Ted’s stitches and dressings, helping out the nurses by changing his hospital gown or diapers, giving him sponge baths, massaging his feet, taking him for walks, or just sitting with him, it was important for me to be there. Our lives were entwined. Until then, I hadn’t been aware of how much. What bound us together wasn’t a yoke, leash or chain—it was a root.
Very soon after his surgery, Ted started receiving clear fluids. The little four ounce chilled plastic juice containers started to pile up: mostly orange, but grape and apple too. The inevitable hospital jello came also— yellow, orange, and red, laden with sugar, artificial flavours and colours, and probably made from gelatin extracted from the bones of factory farmed animals. Dishwater-like broths of questionable origin arrived as well. He downed them all willingly.
As his incisions seemed to be healing well, the type and level of foods swiftly advanced from meal to meal as the dieticians tried to speed his progress and ready his digestive system for his possible discharge from hospital in a few days’ time. He started receiving cream soups—broccoli, carrot, mushroom. When he started getting little cups of orange sherbet and vanilla ice cream, Ted’s eyes lit up as he devoured each one. His abdomen became increasingly bloated, however. We started joking that he was growing twins. Then rice with green beans and fish arrived, followed by a chicken sandwich, puddings. The stack of unopened juices grew taller. His belly ballooned out, painfully distended. The traffic jam inside his digestive tract became untenable. Intense, continuous nausea overcame him. He stopped smiling, his gaze turned downward and inward. The food was left untouched.
Ted rejected the insertion of a nasogastric tube for two long days. But soon, it was impossible for him to think or sleep.
“Could I get more medication for the nausea?” he pleaded with the long-suffering nurse on the ward that day.
“You’re already on the highest dose,” she said shaking her head, disapprovingly. Her tone of voice shifted into persuasive mode. “Why not try the NG tube? You’ll feel better.”
Ted was fighting his body’s natural urge to reject the food. A scan showed that a gas pocket near his duodenum was causing the blockage. He finally agreed. It took five painstaking, arduous attempts by the nurses to feed the NG tubing down his nose into his stomach while he gagged and vomited on the floor. One attempt stopped him from being able to speak. He had to yank out the tube in order communicate to them that they’d threaded it in the wrong direction, toward his trachea instead of his esophagus.
When I returned later, he was sitting with his eyes downcast with concentration and discomfort. He seemed demoralized and exhausted. Green fluid was being suctioned out through his left nostril via a long tube attached to his nose that snaked into a large plastic canister attached to a wall unit. The canister was already half full. Canister after canister was filled and emptied that day. Ted’s nausea started to subside, but talking was kept to a minimum. I fended off friends from visiting.
“I’ll never look at a green smoothie the same way again,” I told him.
Over the course of the weeks ahead, it seemed almost everyone else in the gastrointestinal ward would be “producing” the exact same green fluid irrespective of what they were ingesting, as if the ward were some bizarre factory. The sound of vomiting was common. The cleaners were regularly called in to mop the floor of spilled bodily fluids of every type.
A number of patients came and went, part of the shifting social microcosm of the ward. We joked about pitching a reality TV show called Ward 10B. There was an elderly Danish man with dementia who was scheduled for a reverse ileostomy but kept pulling out his IV and trying to flee. Beside him was an outdoorsy young man who’d been airlifted to the hospital as a result of tearing his spleen after a dive gone wrong. After a few days, he was replaced by a wiry, grizzled fellow with keen, bright eyes, who swore and complained vociferously about the food. “What’s this shit?” The patient who had a bed next to Ted’s appeared to be a new immigrant. His chador-clad wife had her hands full trying to shush two young, precocious children. He was soon replaced by another patient whom we nicknamed “The Prince.” He conversed frequently and loudly on his cell phone in Farsi while his mother fussed over him. “More ice!” he commanded the nurses repeatedly.
The insertion of the NG tube did not end Ted’s problems. Just after his surgeon left for summer vacation, Ted’s temperature began to rise dangerously. His distended belly became tender and painful. The fluid in his Hemovac tube became pus-like and fetid, as if something were rotting inside him. A CT scan showed that there were air bubbles leaking from the re-sectioned area—infection had set in. He was put on an intensive course of antibiotics via IV and his vital signs were monitored every hour.
A peculiar foggy terror filled my throat and chest. My every movement seemed sluggish as if I were trudging through swampland, but certain thoughts flitted around in obsessive loops. I questioned the doctors, sent detailed emails and texts to his family members. I peppered the night nurses with questions when I’d get home late at night. Some would brush me off; a few would update me. If he deteriorated further, he would have to be admitted to the Acute Care ward for continual monitoring and more drastic medical interventions. A second operation could be risky, and if it occurred, even more of his colon might need to be removed with the likelihood of an ostomy, probably a permanent one. He might get another infection. Recovery would be longer, slower and more complicated.
Because his system had rejected most of the food and drink they’d given him, and because of the need for the re-sectioned bowel to heal properly, the doctor prescribed daily liquid nutrients, called total parenteral nutrition (TPN). A nurse told us that each bag cost $1000 to make fresh daily and had to be specially transported to St. Paul’s from another hospital laboratory. We named it the Crisco milkshake but it seemed more akin to breast milk. Chock-full of lipids, sugars, vitamins, trace minerals, and amino acids, it was a creamy white substance that was administered by an extremely narrow catheter threaded into a central vein in his chest. A nurse told me that the leftover TPN discarded at the end of each day supposedly worked well as plant fertilizer. (I took some home for the garden—our apple tree had a bumper crop the next year.) The TPN would sustain Ted for the next three weeks while he ingested nothing but ice chips. The orderlies with the food trays would stay away: the sign on the bulletin board was now turned face-up.
The lounge in the ward had a small bookshelf with a few outdated magazines, several hospital foundation publications, and a number of dog-eared paperbacks. I noticed the cover of a single National Geographic magazine in the stack. The pristine copy was dated 1968 and its feature article described the plans for the first lunar landing. During those weeks in hospital, I sometimes felt like we’d landed on an artificial planet, a desolate sterile landscape with little vegetation, shifting inhabitants, its own unique language, hierarchies, protocols, and undeviating routines.
The whole ward seemed utterly divorced from nature: its windows wouldn’t open; the sliding glass door to the balcony off the lounge was locked; the concrete balcony itself was dirty and uninviting; there was no fresh air and little greenery other than a few limp, discarded bouquets and dehydrated plants left behind by discharged patients. I placed a hydrangea plant in the corner of Ted’s room so that he would awaken to their large blue clustered heads and rich green leaves every morning. As soon as they entered his room, the nurses and visitors would see something alive and beautiful and thriving.
Ted was supposed to have regular, short walks to maintain his circulation, increase his strength, and speed his healing. At first, it took immense effort just to get to the bathroom. He’d prepare himself with a shot of hydromorphone from the PCA, put on his special rubber-soled hospital socks, put on another hospital robe to cover his back, disconnect the NG tube during the days it was in place, clip the Hemovac to his gown, unplug the two electrical cords from the wall, drape the cords on the pole, pull himself up, and then try to walk step by shaky step without losing his balance. Getting back to bed meant going through the whole routine in reverse.
Eventually, he was able to get past the doors of the ward to reach the service elevators, next to windows that looked out onto the expanse of English Bay. He would pause there for several minutes, gripping a railing for support, before enduring the arduous fifty meter journey back to his bed.
“I was in better shape before the cancer operation,” he noted.
Right up to the day before the operation, he had been working full-time. He’d been full of vigor, tanned from a recent trek around ancient Haida villages up north, and ready to hop on his Yamaha motorcycle at any opportunity. Now he couldn‘t walk across a room without effort.
I thought of all those expressions—“gutsy,” “gut instincts,” “gut reaction,” “gut-wrenching,” “gutted,” “it takes guts,” “spill one’s guts,” “bust a gut,” and “no guts”—based on the word “guts” derived from the Old English word guttas for bowels or entrails. The adjective “visceral” comes from the Latin word viscera for inner organs also. It suddenly all made sense: the guts are located in our core, the elemental source of instinct, courage, determination, stamina, will, and strong emotion. The operation had hit Ted literally “right in the gut,” the stronghold of his vitality.
But as the days passed, his stamina gradually increased. We could extend his usual walk from the service elevators and back to include the ward down the hall. Finally, he was ready to try to take one of the notoriously slow elevators down to the fourth floor cafeteria and patio. As we waited, I could see how taxing it was for him just to stand.
The elevator finally arrived. Ted winced at every bump and jolt as we descended. The long imposed fast had eroded his body’s insulation. We made our way toward the almost vacant cafeteria. He steadily exited the open glass doors and was outside for the first time since his admission over three weeks before. As the late afternoon sunlight touched his skin, tears sprung to his eyes.
“It must be the medication,” he said.
My sister pulled up a plastic chair and helped him sit down. The plants in the concrete planters around us clearly needed watering. There were food wrappers and a few empty cups lying around, and some of the tables needed a good wipe. But it didn’t matter. We sat quietly while he closed his eyes and drank in the sunshine and the fresh air with an intense wordless gratitude.
“This is amazing,” he said at last, opening his eyes and smiling.
We talked about his progress to date. Ted had lost most of his muscle mass: his already slim 5’11 frame had been whittled down to 145 pounds. He would soon start a very cautious clear fluid diet. We stayed outside for about twenty minutes before Ted asked to return. This was the longest walk he’d taken since his admission and it had sapped his diminished reserves.
We would visit the patio again only once or twice more before his discharge; it was easier for him to take short unaccompanied walks on his floor. During the end of his stay, the monitoring of his vital signs grew less frequent, tubes were removed one by one, fewer and different medications were administered. He was even able to take his first shower. He was being released in more ways than one.
Discharge day. Ted had filled out the necessary papers and questionnaires, been briefed on his diet and pain medication. He also was entirely tube-free at last. As he put on the jeans and shirt he’d arrived in thirty days before (much looser now), I removed my son’s school watercolours from the wall and the cards from the window sill and bulletin board, erased my daily list of questions for the doctors from the whiteboard, packed up the magazines, DVDs, and the rainbow flag. The room soon looked as blank and anonymous as it had been before our arrival.
“Good luck,” said the nurse who had dexterously changed Ted’s dressings, given him injections, and adjusted the IV over the course of the month, all with an artificial arm and hand.
We gave him the still healthy blue hydrangea for the staff room, and waved at the head nurse who was engrossed with paperwork. There was no one else to say goodbye to. Almost all the patients that we’d met in the beginning of Ted’s stay had been discharged earlier. Everyone was going about their business as if this were an unremarkable day.
As we walked toward the elevators, I wondered how many patients had stayed in that ward. How many had lived and how many had died as a result of their operations? Every bodily fluid imaginable had touched those floors. Every kind of person had lain in its beds, and every kind of emotion had been felt—boredom, irritation, anger, fear, despair, agony, exhaustion, relief, even joy—the full spectrum of human emotion and humanity.
The threat of a possible cancer recurrence would linger on the horizon for the foreseeable future, but it didn’t matter. Exactly one year and one week after his surgery, we would finally get married at a private family ceremony in our backyard. As my brother drove us out of the hospital parkade onto Burrard Street into the late summer sunlight, Ted teared up again. “It’s the medication,” he said. “Makes you emotional.”
My dad thought my nose was a baby. He said there was a baby on my face, where my nose should be; a full body and a head. He found it funny. He wanted to take a picture so I could see what he saw.
My mom thought my dad was hiding millions of dollars from her, from us. She thought he was part of an international money-laundering scheme.
My dad called as I drove to pick him up to take him to the dentist. “I can’t make it to the appointment,” he said. When I asked him why, he said, “I’m in Bosnia.” Apparently he had been in Bosnia for the last five days. He told me he had received a voice mail message from himself saying he was lost in Bosnia, but he wasn’t afraid. When I got to his room at the assisted living place, he wanted me to listen to his voice mail so I could hear the message. Even though I doubted the message would be there, part of me wondered if he did somehow call himself, if I could hear what he had heard. But no, when I pressed Play, all I heard was myself, a message I had left a couple of days ago, the little-girlishness of my voice making me cringe. Later, he shook his head and laughed a bit, saying “Bosnia”, stunned by his own brain. When I brought up the story a few weeks down the road, he said earnestly, “It wasn’t Bosnia. I was in the Bosphorus.”
My mom thought white vans were chasing her. She thought people were spraying her with poison from their cellphones.
My dad thought President Obama had called upon him to be the new leader of the civil rights movement. He thought the FBI had transported his whole apartment to Washington, DC. “I’m going to be a hometown hero,” he told me excitedly.
My dad’s death certificate reads
(a) Cardiopulmonary Failure
DUE TO, OR AS A CONSEQUENCE OF
(b) Debility and Decline
DUE TO, OR AS A CONSEQUENCE OF
(c) Senile Degeneration Of The Brain
DUE TO, OR AS A CONSEQUENCE OF
(d) Dementia, Vascular”
My mom’s reads “HANGING BY ELECTRIC CORD FROM PIPE.” (clearly there are no capitalization standards from coroner’s office to coroner’s office.) It doesn’t say “DUE TO OR AS A CONSEQUENCE OF Paranoid Delusion” but the subtext is written all over the page.
Watching both parents lose their minds doesn’t give me a lot of faith in the future of my brain. My mind already feels slower than it once did, less electric. I find my memory fading, too; sometimes it feels as if the grooves in my brain are smoothing over, erasing stories trapped in each cleft, a sort of reverse evolution, turning my cerebellum from prune to plum, something firm and blank and tart.
This terrifies me—if I lose my memories, my stories, who am I? I feel panicky when I think of my childhood, my children’s childhoods, being lost to me forever. But maybe a sense of peace comes over people who lose all their memories. If we forget everything, every moment would be brand new. We could just be, like an animal or a plant.
I can remember lying in bed shortly after my mom hanged herself, nursing my baby, who was born one week before her death. I remember thinking I should be doing something more, something active, writing or researching or doing one of the many practical post-death tasks that needed doing, but then I thought about sows, about how a mama pig just lies on her side nursing her piglets, how that’s all she needs to do, that’s her task, she gives herself to it fully, and I let myself drop into that surrender, let myself just be a mother animal nursing her young, mind blank, and I found there was something comforting, liberating, in that. Maybe that’s what it feels like to have your memory erased—you can just be a mammal in your body, living from moment to moment.
In her memoir Ongoingness, Sarah Manguso writes “My goal now is to forget it all so that I’m clean for death.” But I have to remember that’s just memory loss. Delusion is a whole other story. Dementia is a whole other story. And after watching my parents, I know I can’t take my lucidity for granted.
My mom, in her delusion, thought everyone was against her. My dad had his own moments of paranoia and disorientation, but his delusions were more often of the absurd, even sweet, variety. I know I have no control over the matter—over that tender, amazing, convoluted gray matter—but if I have to lose my mind, may it be in the way of my dad. May I say things that make my family laugh and shake their heads instead of traumatize them. May I travel to surprising places without leaving the room, see whimsical things, imagine myself a hero—which sounds quite a bit like the writing life, come to think of it, just without the mediation of the page. Maybe it would help to think of it that way, to think of delusion and dementia as a new way of living inside a story, entering non-linear, unpredictable narrative. A way of life in which we let go of chronology, let go of traditional plot and sentence structure. That makes it sound less scary to me, makes it feel more like art than ruin. But I also know how scary it can be to get trapped inside a story—I saw that in my mom, how terrified and alone she felt in her delusion, especially at the end. Story can save us but it can also imprison us. My mom may have killed herself to kill the story that had taken over her life.
My mind wants to create a happier narrative for itself—one in which it can avoid my parents’ fate, one in which it can hold on as long as my body does, one in which my body and mind stay vitally, inextricably linked, until they both give up the ghost—but at the same time, my mind knows it may not be the final author of my life. None of us know who will have the last word. For now, I’m grateful to be able to string words together, grateful to preserve some sharpness, some clarity, before the light ultimately goes out.
GAYLE BRANDEIS is the author, most recently, of the memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press) and the poetry collection The Selfless Bliss of the Body (Finishing Line Books). Her other books include Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), and the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine), Delta Girls (Ballantine), and My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt), which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. She currently teaches at Sierra Nevada College and the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. Buy her books here.
One morning, years ago, the major landmark in my town caught fire. A relic of the town’s glory days in the nineteenth century, it dominated our modest skyline, and I’d been used to passing it every day on my walk to work. I had not heard the news yet that day, and I glanced toward the monument as usual. The top part of the edifice was now a charred stump; it may even have been surrounded by wisps of smoke. But oddly, I registered nothing unusual. My brain projected normality—what it “knew” to be real—onto what I was seeing, overlaying it like a private movie. When I heard the news later—only then did I believe my eyes.
All of this is to say that I didn’t recognize I had been sexually harassed for seven years, despite having been a self-professed feminist since I’d learned what the word meant, despite having learned feminist theory at the feet of leading scholars in college, despite having been supportive of friends who had gone through sexual harassment and assault. And even after I allowed myself to understand what had happened, despite knowing of the importance of breaking the silence, and despite having been grateful to others for breaking their silence, I kept silent.
Back around 2009, I was looking for answers for some minor but annoying medical symptoms. My usual doctors seemed out of ideas, so I made an appointment with a local alternative practitioner. As I sat in his office, I noted that he didn’t have on a white coat, nor did his office seem especially clinical, but as “doctor’s appointment” was a category of the landscape of my world, as fixed as that monument in my small town, I only hesitated slightly when he asked me to remove my shirt as part of the exam. There was some plausible reason, which I now can’t remember—visual inspection of a rash, perhaps?
After the exam, he suggested that I do a patch test for some vitamin deficiency on a two-inch square of my “lateral breast tissue.” Then he added, “If you can find enough.” Then he chuckled: “Heh heh.” Trying to remember what “lateral” meant from way back in freshman biology, I must have looked confused. He repeated himself: “Lateral breast tissue. If you can find enough,” gesturing to my on-the-smaller-side (but well-formed, I had always thought with some pride!) breasts. And then he chuckled again, as if to drive home what he was saying: “Heh heh.”
If he had had spinach between his teeth that day, I wouldn’t have said anything. If he had farted during the exam, I wouldn’t have said anything. Because another fixture of my world was the personal code of conduct of a Nice Girl: always be polite and never point out when someone does something embarrassing to himself. So I ignored his comment, and then I convinced myself it had never happened, that it couldn’t possibly have been what it sounded like, a creepy evaluation of my breasts’ sexual appeal or lack thereof in the context of what had been billed as a medical examination.
I didn’t get up and walk out in outrage. I didn’t even stop seeing him (well, I did after a while, when I got sick of buying all the vitamins he prescribed). I didn’t alert the community; I didn’t expose him. And once I finally allowed myself to admit to myself what had happened, I didn’t tell anyone then either, not my close friends, not my husband, no one. I merely quietly unfriended him on Facebook.
Why? Because I was ashamed—at my silence, at my acquiescence, at my gullibility for going to someone who wasn’t a medical doctor, at my agreeing to take my shirt off, at the overall triviality of the event in the larger scheme of things (after all, he didn’t touch me; I was a grown woman; it wasn’t ongoing; it wasn’t some terrible work situation that I had to endure to keep my job—was it really sexual harassment?), even ashamed of, well, my breast size, which would have become part of the discussion if I had ever told the story. Embarrassed, too, for him, for saying what he had said. Worried about his reputation, about his livelihood. Because these are the unquestioned edifices in our society: a man’s honor, a man’s work, a man’s understanding of what happened (he’d surely deny that his intent had been anything other than innocent). I didn’t want to believe these monuments were on fire even as they burned right in front of my own eyes.
I finally told one person. This summer. And then in October, I wrote “me, too” when the #metoo hashtag went viral. Still, my doubts persist. Will I be criticized for doing everything I criticized myself for above? Will others hold me as responsible as I held myself? Above all, I think about the women throughout my life who’ve told me about being sexually harassed or assaulted: fellow undergraduates when I was an undergraduate; fellow grad students when I was a grad student; work colleagues; friends from every era of my life. I did not seem—I desperately hope—unsympathetic, but “this happens to others and not to me” was part of the landscape of my world, solid as any building, so I’m sure my empathy arrived, if it did, as if from a long distance. Today I’d look them in the eye and say, “I’m so, so sorry this happened to you, and thank you so much for having the strength to talk about it.” I’d listen, listen, listen some more, as long as necessary, forever. One of my favorite quotes, ever since I saw it on a greeting card in college, is a haiku by Mizuta Masahide: “Barn’s burnt down—now I can see the moon.” As what separates us becomes a wisp of smoke—has always been a wisp of smoke—what I see are these women’s faces.
LYNNE NUGENT’s personal essays have appeared in Brevity, Mutha Magazine, the Tin House blog, River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things” column, and elsewhere. Her previous essay for Full Grown People, “The Get-Out-of-Jail-Free-Card,” was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016. Find her at lynnenugent.wordpress.com.
From as far back as I can remember, I was what grownups called a verbal kid. My parents were both high school English teachers, my mother for thirty years, and I was lucky enough to inherit their predisposition to articulate speech. At this point, in middle age, I know that this articulateness is a privilege—a gift reinforced by a few beloved mentors and heaps of inspirational highbrow entertainment—but that’s not how it always felt growing up. Speaking precisely was no social advantage in the public schools I attended in suburban Wayne, New Jersey. I would much rather have been good at baseball.
Early on, I developed a tendency that, for all I know, is common among verbal kids, though I’ve never heard it mentioned. I began privately adopting certain words as my own in the secret belief that, like an ardent lover, only I fully understood their true colors, coded signals, and secret desires. I’m not speaking of what people often call pet words—favorite, everyday words that we all have, replace over the years, and tend to overuse. The words I mean are deeply lodged within our psyches and continue to move and sometimes bedevil us even as we age out of them.
I have intensely vivid memories of the circumstances surrounding my learning these words, which subsequently became totems and touchstones, seeding private jokes, tempering and organizing experiences, and affirming my core beliefs.
“Solicit.” Google definition: “to ask for or try to obtain (something) from someone.”
One day during tenth grade, I saw an enticing ad on my high school bulletin board: “Easy work. 1-3 hours after school. Earn $50 to $100 a week.” That was big money in 1974.
The job turned out to be selling subscriptions to The New York Times door-to-door on commission. The clincher was that the guy on the phone promised I’d be paid a minimum daily fee no matter how much I sold. My mother liked his articulate-sounding voice and didn’t pay close attention to details. He picked up me and five other boys in a van the following week and drove us to a leafy section of Hackensack.
We were set loose in pairs, and my partner and I were at it about fifteen minutes when we walked up to a stocky guy standing in his driveway, who asked what we wanted.
“Would you be interested in home delivery of the New York Times?”
“Are you soliciting?” Neither of us knew that word.
“We’re selling subscriptions to a newspaper.”
“So you’re soliciting.”
“We’re selling …”
“That’s soliciting. Soliciting is illegal in Hackensack.” The guy then pulled out a police badge, yelled toward his house, and asked whoever was in earshot to summon a patrol car.
Twenty minutes later the two of us (and then four, then all six) were sitting on a bench at the station, waiting for Hackensack’s finest to decide our fate. We could hear the panicked van driver being grilled in a side room. The next few hours were a gauntlet of tedium, hunger, peremptory harangues, and supercilious questions from cops half-heartedly trying to bait and shame us.
They eventually just let us go. I thought my mother would kill the driver when we got home very late, and he explained what happened. He never paid us for the day.
The dangerous and dubious edges of “solicitation,” the word’s slightly sickening aura of unfairness, has been part of my worldview ever since. When I later learned this word’s association with prostitution it made perfect sense to me. It was a name for something casually polarizing, acceptable to some, depraved to others: not just selling but unwanted, disreputable selling. Not just asking, seeking or applying but supplication, begging, the stain of importunateness always there.
I’ve collected random bits of trivia over the years about many of my words, but particularly about “solicit.” I happen to know, for instance, that the Latin root sollicitare means to disturb, rouse, trouble, or harass. I make space in my head for the fact that Samuel Beckett used “soliciting” to describe the diabolical activity of the purgatorial light interrogating the characters whose heads stick out of funereal urns in his anti-drama Play. I’m probably the only fan of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus who looks forward to the particular slur a plebeian politician uses to trigger an anti-patrician mob reaction: “He did solicit you in free contempt.”
To this day, any neutral use of “solicit” startles and jars me. If a colleague, for instance, proposes soliciting opinions or applications, I automatically regard the appeal as disingenuous and probably futile. The colleague’s motivations seem questionable purely because of the choice of word.
“Solicit” isn’t for everyday use (unless you’re a British lawyer). It’s one of those occasional words that hangs around your brain and exerts its force over time. My sense of its effect on me is that it influenced my disposition toward decorum, convention, and propriety—the whole basket of deplorable ideas that poisons the concept of respectability. Thanks to the Hackensack police, Beckett, and Shakespeare, the word is forever linked for me to all the species of exclusion and harassment that authorities soft-soap as protection: “right to work” laws, gratuitous prohibitions in public spaces, arbitrary restrictions on journalists, protesters, students. I would guess that, more than any other word, “solicit” helped make me politically liberal.
“Spontaneous.” Google definition: “performed or occurring as a result of a sudden inner impulse or inclination and without premeditation or external stimulus.”
When I was ten, I nearly set fire to my family’s house. I, like many kids, needed to test grownups’ claims, and one that struck me as particularly dubious was that gasoline was flammable since it was a liquid. Every liquid I’d ever seen meet a flame—water, soda, juice, pee—had extinguished it, and, yes, I’d done that experiment any number of times. How could anything you poured out, that splashed and sparkled, possibly burn?
One day when my parents were out shopping I rolled our lawnmower onto the driveway, unscrewed the gas-tank cap, and tipped it over—a clumsy maneuver that created a bigger puddle than I intended. Some gas dribbled toward the driveway’s edge, but it looked as if it had evaporated so I wasn’t worried. I threw a lighted match at the entrancing polychrome fluid, jumped back, and thrilled at the windy whoosh. What do you know—the adults were telling the truth!
Within seconds, however, the harmless blue flames on the pavement had spread to the bushes in the adjacent flowerbed and were snaking toward the garage. I stomped on them, waved my arms and dashed about, but the area was already too wide and I found myself surrounded by fire. Then, out of nowhere, an older boy who lived across the street—who had evidently been watching me—ran up, pushed me away, grabbed a garden hose, and doused the fire in a heart-attack minute. Thanks be for fluids that behaved themselves!
I begged him not to say anything to my parents. Then I dashed inside and dialed the Wayne Township Fire Department, asking the guy who answered: “Hey, is there any way that gasoline can catch fire without a flame?”
“Spontaneous combustion,” he shot back, declining to elaborate.
I ran to the dictionary. I didn’t completely understand its complicated definition, though the gist was clear enough and flooded me with relief: a thing could ignite on its own without heat from any external source. I’d found my alibi, and a marvelous new word. What grownup could possibly have such specialized technical knowledge?
My father saw the damage as soon as he pulled up in his Buick Electra. I babbled out my terrifying tale of having “accidentally spilled some gas” while trying the start the lawnmower, after which I was shocked to see it “spontaneously catch fire all by itself. I have no idea how!” Then he asked me to tell him what really happened.
Long story short, since he knew exactly what spontaneous combustion meant and knew it couldn’t happen out on a driveway, he confronted me. He said that if I’d admitted I was trying an experiment because I didn’t believe that gasoline could burn he would have been annoyed and probably made me pay for the bushes. Instead my lie had deeply disappointed him and had to be punished.
This is how the word “spontaneous” became inseparable in my mind from visibility and discernment. My father saw right through me; there was no hiding from him, and this incident marked the turning point in childhood when I suddenly grasped how much more adults saw about me than I’d allowed myself to perceive. All children are humored and cosseted. Adults want them to enjoy their natural curiosity and spontaneity as long as possible. But that indulgence is mostly pretense, condescension. Real respect, I realized then, can’t come from pretense. It has to be earned. I’d been expelled from the Eden of childish egoism and felt naked and embarrassed.
From that day on, “spontaneous” could never again be an index of simple or sincere expression to me. The word instead reminds me how complicated trust, honesty, and instinctiveness are. If, for instance, someone praises an actor, a musician, or a painter for the amazing spontaneity of a creative act, I might share in the admiration but I’ll also ponder the years of preparation and seasoning behind the act. If a child asks for my spontaneous reaction to something—a joke, say, or a picture, or a feat of agility—I will oblige, but I’ll also wonder what his real game is. I know something else is at stake and want to know what.
“Spontaneous” set off brain-alarms when I first noticed how overused it was in the essays of Richard Wagner. Wagner felt that his music-drama was the spontaneous expression of the will of the German Volk, and this word made his ardor suspicious well before he made clear that the German Volk excluded Jews. “Spontaneous,” ironically enough, planted cautiousness in me and reinforced my naturally analytical disposition.
The earliest word I remember adopting is “shortchange.” Google: “to cheat (someone) by giving insufficient money as change.”
On a field trip to the American Museum of Natural History in fourth grade, my parents gave me six dollars to spend on lunch and souvenirs. My bill at the cafeteria, where I’d scrimped to be able to afford a dinosaur at the gift shop, was $1.83. I gave the cashier my single, searched my pocket in vain for change, and then handed her my fiver. She gave me back seventeen cents, snapped her drawer shut, and wouldn’t acknowledge or investigate the error no matter how much I protested.
My tears came, the manager came, and the upshot was that they would reconsider my claim only at the end of the business day when all the register cash was counted. A sympathetic teacher brought me back to the cafeteria then, delaying the homebound buses, and the manager handed me four dollars—“Okay, young fella. I guess you were right!” I still felt indignant since the gift shop had closed. Worse, when I showed my four dollars on the bus, a creepy little red-haired kid cracked wise that he thought I’d just been “jewing” the lady over my lunch bill.
For me this was a story of epic complication and monstrous injury. My parents—whom I never told about the bus comment, which felt humiliating—glossed it with a single word: I’d been “shortchanged!” A good word, I remember thinking, useful, self-explanatory, but too succinct for the outrageous context. It left out the condescension, the bigotry, and the still more stinging injustice that I never got a dinosaur.
Since that day “shortchange” has carried a charge of special outrage for me. It doesn’t just mean cheating, but cheating with malice, discrimination, and intolerable collateral damage. I never hear or use it without flashing back to the experience of not being believed, of belonging to a category of person (children, Jews) whose complaints could be summarily brushed off. In college, I once joined an anti-apartheid divestment campaign I’d been ignoring after receiving a flyer about blacks being shortchanged by the South African government. Recently I deleted the Uber app from my smartphone after reading a headline about the company shortchanging its drivers in New York City. The word made it impossible to believe that Uber’s error was anything but a deliberate fraud.
Even when “shortchange” is used in its softer sense of underestimate—as in, “Don’t shortchange Mitch McConnell. He’s a sly old tortoise!”—it carries a repugnant aftertaste for me, a sugarcoating on dishonesty. Someone is lying to him- or herself about the real merit of an opponent. The word is fused in my head with the principle of fairness at the core of democracy, which is no doubt because as an adult I know that bourgeois democracy, with its rational values, is what gave Jews a path to social inclusion and equal opportunity after some two millennia of exclusion. Jews esteem articulateness. For a long time they did so out of faith in the Enlightenment dream that reason would soon reign over human affairs—that the articulate, being most reasonable, could compete to best advantage on a level playing field in the brave new reasonable world.
Many people have personal dictionaries, lists of words and phrases they use and understand in idiosyncratic ways, shaped by their unique experiences and quirks. These dictionaries are usually unwritten, though a friend of mine told me that she and her siblings once wrote one as a gift for their father on his seventy-fifth birthday. It was about fifteen pages long, she said, and contained several dozen personalized definitions of not only his pet words but also the grumpy connotations, guilt-trippy subtexts, unspoken addendums, and affectionate intimations behind his expressions. The gift made him weep—the tears prompted, I imagine, from the feeling of being so clearly seen, so intimately known by his loved ones.
No one but me could compile a dictionary of my adopted words—and I could add a dozen more to these three—because I don’t use them often. They operate in my inner life as sources of knowledge and attributes of my character. They’re not quirks of speech. Even my wife of twenty-nine years didn’t know most of these stories until she read a draft of this essay. I sometimes think of these words as my deep personal myths.
Roland Barthes famously argued that myth was “a type of speech,” not merely a genre of story. He defined it as speech that treats anything (objects, ideas, people, places, words) as rooted in the natural order when in fact it reflects a very specific and contingent ethos or value system. Nations, communities, and social classes share experiences that make certain concepts appear ineluctably true, timeless, or transcendent. Loving wine, for instance, becomes a token of being truly French, loving ideas for their own sake a mark of being German, and trusting inarticulate people more than articulate ones an acid test of Americanness. Personal myths are much the same as communal ones, only subtler and more virulent in their effect on the psyche.
Since the election of Donald Trump, I’ve been struck again and again by the fact that the leader of my country is now a man so antipathetic to language that he might as well be my mythical enemy. Everyone can see that the communal myths that helped elect him are noxious and retrograde, even his supporters. What interests me more are the personal myths that roil and curdle and fester inside the man. These you can’t see but I imagine them to be grotesque counterpoles to mine.
Trump is a prodigy of belligerent self-absorption who hides behind a protective wall of muddled, degraded, and degrading language. Most of the words he relishes are monosyllabic fetishes (“win,” “sad,” “huge,” “weak”), and he deploys these more like punches than thoughts. I doubt many of them hark back to complicated childhood stories. Nevertheless, without getting too psychoanalytical about it, they probably all have sharp early associations with shaming by some combination of teachers, coaches, and Fred, his blunt and brutal father. One can easily imagine this rolling dumpster being set aflame with remarks to the effect that, “Whadda you smilin’ at? You didn’t win!”; “That’s a sad report card!”; or “Why such a weak swing? Choke up!”
We will obviously never know the whole truth about Trump’s myth of grievance against proper and precise language, though we can all agree it’s now a serious matter indeed. It’s one thing for an average person to heedlessly mangle and ravage words, quite another for the most visible and influential man in the world to do so.
Masha Gessen, in her wonderful “Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture” this year, carefully explained just how thorough his assault on clarity and truth is. She examined a random interview transcript and pointed out that approximately one in ten words was wholly drained of meaning. “Trump’s word-piles fill public space with static,” she wrote. “This is like having the air we breathe replaced with carbon monoxide. It is deadly. This space that he is polluting is the space of our shared reality.”
Our shared reality. That is what a myth purports to define but instead pollutes, sickens, and destroys when it is this malignant.
I’ll be candid about my own corner of this shared reality. My adopted-word myths admittedly contain fear, loathing, envy, and even aggression toward people who can’t or won’t speak well. Zadie Smith put the matter succinctly in a recent piece on the question of who owns black pain: “Our antipathies are simultaneously a record of our desires, our sublimated wishes, our deepest envies.” Yes, all those dull-witted kids who could catch, throw, and bat better than me, win more votes for student council, and get dates with the cheerleaders—they had things I wanted. Personal myths are defenses as well as weapons. At their worst, they’re a form of lamination keeping our ideas clean and utterly unreactive.
The learning moment then must be when the lamination tears. At some point, we must all hope, that will occur in Trumplandia. Some anomalous freethinkers in his ragtag army of gloating elite-bashers, pricked to attention by the jagged edges of, say, “collusion,” “rapist,” “hacking,” “laundering,” “proliferation,” “denial,” “fraud,” “fact,” “treason” or some other word that miraculously survives the wreckage, will pluck up the courage to admit their real resentments. Only then will the mythical curtain start to rend and make the driveling man behind it visible again.
JONATHAN KALB is Professor of Theater at Hunter College, CUNY. He has published five books on theater and his essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Nation, Salmagundi, and many other publications. His blog, “Something the Dust Said,” can be found at www.jonathankalb.com.
Relief as I arrive at the rental office with moments to spare before it closes to pick up keys for my new home: an eleven-hundred square foot townhouse with a small backyard, a garage, and more space in the closets than I have stuff to fill closets with. I wonder if the large downstairs closet by the front door could be used as a study; I contemplate it seriously.
I furnish the town home with two tables, a small stone-colored couch, a rustic Mexican wooden television stand with shelving—all furniture that my mother and stepfather have given to me from their own home. My queen-sized bed is a hand-me-down I got from my sister; I’m pretty sure my niece was conceived on it.
About a year later, a friend from Berkeley, a former roommate, visits me there. After staying with me, she gossips to another friend that I still have all my furniture from grad school. I’m hurt since it is obviously not meant to be a compliment; but she’s not entirely wrong either. The décor of the townhome is more than a little patched together, the furniture worn and perhaps more starkly so against large, bright white freshly painted walls and new carpets. I want to paint the walls, but it’s a rental and I don’t want to lose my security deposit. Grad student poverty is still my day-to-day reality. But the new place is to me, palatial and above all, spacious with possibility.
I am 189 miles away from Sacramento where I was born, the furthest I have ever lived from that city except for the year I lived in Mexico as a girl. I am a new Assistant Professor at a public university on California’s central coast with a freshly completed a doctorate from UC Berkeley. I traveled from the Sacramento area in a caravan with my mother and stepfather in a small U-Haul truck, me driving the 1987 Volvo that my stepfather purchased for me for $750. I am twenty-nine years old, the Volvo is my first car, and I am a newly licensed driver. My mother and stepfather are doing all they can to help me. So many things are new.
I’m embarking on a nationwide job search, and I interview at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. There, after actually complimenting the coffee at a restaurant in which we have dined, a graduate student accuses me of being a “Berkeley food snob.” She says: “People who come here from Berkeley are always like, ‘Oh, well, in Berkeley we have blah blah blah, and in Berkeley we have wah wah wah.’” Seriously—that’s exactly what she says.
If the apartment in which I live can be taken as any indication of the kind of status that enables one to become an anything snob, then this graduate student’s accusation is a verifiable impossibility. I live in a basement studio apartment of an old white Victorian home on Hearst Avenue, in Berkeley not far from campus. I select it solely on the basis of its location and the fact that it is “affordable.” It is not really affordable, since I have to take out roughly ten thousand dollars in student loans to afford it, but I’ve reached the point that many graduate students reach: I simply can not deal with the idea of having yet another roommate and have no idea how I will be able to write anything while having to negotiate others’ schedules and habits. I’ve been a student having student money problems and roommates for eleven years; I’m desperate to be done.
I should have known there is something up with the basement apartment when the landlord asks me to give him twelve postdated rent checks for eleven hundred dollars each when I sign the one-year lease. I have never signed a lease on my own before, and I understand Berkeley to have an odd and difficult rental market, so I agree to his request. After all, he says this is the only way to secure the apartment and make sure he doesn’t rent it to someone else. I give him over thirteen thousand dollars in postdated checks.
I’m sick almost immediately and this lasts pretty much the entire year. The damp, musty basement apartment grows molds and mildews in places I didn’t know mildew grew. As a child, I lived in some poorly ventilated homes and apartments; I’m used to the green black creep of mold on bathroom ceilings, to the mold that grows around window sills. But this apartment has that and more. I discover that mold is even growing in the one small closet in the apartment. My clothes begin smelling like mildew. A girlfriend tells me about a product called Damp Rid, a container of crystals that gets put in places where moisture leads to mold in order to absorb the dampness. I have no idea such a thing existed, and after complaining to the landlord who does nothing, I think I should give it a try. I have three containers of Damp Rid in different parts of the four-hundred square foot studio including in the musty closet. I write my doctoral dissertation next to containers of Damp Rid with a constant runny nose, itchy eyes, and allergy-induced headaches.
Some young men live in the flat above. I can’t tell if they’re students or if they do something else for work. I hear them exclaim, “Oooooh! Oooooohhh!” in loud unison about once a week. I imagine they are involved in some kind of weekly circle jerk and don’t really know what to think about that. I guess I’m curious about it but I mostly stay away from them. Eventually, I figure out that they’re vociferously playing video games. A disappointment. I have a very regular writing routine and remember every day that I moved to the Hearst Avenue basement apartment because I didn’t want the noise or the distraction of roommates. One day, I begin to hear hammering right outside my window. I try to tune it out and don’t worry about it much until the hammering goes on day after day. I am distracted and irritated. I see that my neighbors are building something brown and hairy on the back of a truck. Over the next few days, it begins to take shape…some kind of an animal. A…Snuffleupagus? On a truck? One day, I ask them about it. And that is how I learn about Burning Man.
I think I will be happy and in better health once I move out of the Hearst Avenue basement apartment, but the move takes place abruptly. I file my dissertation on a Friday afternoon in May, and my grandmother dies the day after on Saturday morning. My deceased grandmother is in Mexico, and though it’s time for me to move out of my Berkeley basement apartment, I leave suddenly and take a flight to Guadalajara to accompany my mother to my grandmother’s wake. After the wake and after my grandmother is cremated, we transport her ashes to Ciudad del Carmen, my grandmother’s hometown and the place where my mother was born and raised.
Back in Berkeley, at move-out time, my stepfather and my sister pack the contents of my apartment into a small U-Haul truck. I tell my twin sister where the cigarettes I hide are, and all the things I do not want my stepfather to see; as always in my life, I entrust her with my secrets. I leave the apartment with a little clothes, a certificate attesting to the completion of the requirements for my doctoral degree, and some uncertainty about the future though I am certain I will not return to that mold-infested place. I’m grief stricken, exhausted, worried about my mother, missing my grandmother already, and overall considerably less happy and healthy than I thought I would be at this moment.
I’ve walked by the 1970s era building thousands of time since I moved to Berkeley in 1995. There’s a storefront on the bottom floor and the store sells Turkish rugs, beaded jewelry, baskets, and other imports. The building is pretentiously called “The Glen Building” and it has a top floor studio apartment that I rent with he who is my first serious long term romantic partner. I’m twenty-one and just learning about what that means. The studio apartment interior is very basic and has fresh paint and a new carpet, the way I hope and expect a rental will have. The carpet has very little padding and matches the 1970s industrial storefront feel of the building. It has a full but very tiny kitchen with a sliding door onto a balcony with a view of the Bay Bridge far in the distance. We move in a queen bed that’s just a mattress and a bed frame with no headboard and an old red easy chair and a table from my parents’ house. While we live in that place together, my partner Ryan and I travel to Mexico, the first time I have ever taken a love there. After returning from Mexico, I make a complete travel scrapbook including ticket stubs, stickers, and countless photographs of us with cousins, aunts, and uncles, on the Zocalo, at la Casa Azul, in Coyoacán, in Xochimilco, in so many magical Mexican places.
I want our studio apartment in the Glen Building to be more like Mexico. We paint the bathroom Frida Kahlo blue and the kitchen a Mexican avocado green. The painting of the kitchen and the bathroom is an investment and a grownup undertaking both because of the effort and because of the cost involved between the painting supplies and the forfeiting of the deposit money. There is a basketball hoop over the sole closet door in the apartment. The closet is not like a regular bedroom closet. It’s very small—more like a hall closet or linen closet. I share it—happily—with Ryan, and we jam our clothes in there and do not complain. I have a bad habit of leaving my wet towel on the bed when I get out of the shower. It is one of only two things that Ryan ever seems unhappy with me about. The other is that I sometimes go on and on talking, and I don’t listen to him very well. I stop leaving my wet towel on the bed and learn to be a better listener.
I learn to fry tofu, I learn to make soups, I learn to use a rice cooker. We host friends sometimes overnight, even though we have no separate guest room or even a futon. One of our friends, a fellow undergraduate, and also poet, gambler, and sports fan, stays with us several times, sleeping on our floor next to us in the queen bed with no headboard in which I learn about what it means to have an adult sexuality. Another friend comes out to me in the stairwell outside of the apartment, confesses that the protagonist of the sex and romance stories he has told me is a man, not a woman as he had made me believe. I’m unfazed; we’re figuring things out and finding our way. We host parties in our cramped studio apartment and create traditions. One of these new traditions is hosting Christmas dinners the week before we leave for our respective families’ holiday gatherings. It’s a way that I can make sure I have a good Christmas. I make roasted legs of lamb and experiment with cooking other things that are brand new to me and like nothing we ate in the homes in which I grew up. With Ryan, I learn what it means to create a chosen family; we flirt with being a family of two ourselves. For the first time in my remembered life, I share a home with a man with whom love and safety are feelings I have all the time and in abundance. I am free.
We live in a rented house in a suburb of Sacramento on Ash Street, having returned from a year of living in Ciudad del Carmen just the year before. The house is a boxy, light brown two-bedroom house where I live with my stepfather, mother, twin sister, and my two younger brothers—sweet, rascally, fun, little boys. My twin sister and I miss living in Mexico and long for the embrace of my mother’s family, the literal and figurative shelter they give us.
Between, say 1984 and 1995, I live in at least six different rental homes and apartments excluding the year we live at my grandparents’ house in Mexico. In one of the apartment complexes where we live, my mother and stepfather are the resident managers, living rent free in exchange for being the on site go-to people for our neighbors in the apartment complex. A Korean family who own a donut shop are our upstairs neighbors there. The woman of the household teaches my mother to make kimchi and they sometimes bring us fresh donuts from their shop. Some of our homes have unfinished floors. Some of our homes have roaches. All of our homes have holes that my stepfather has punched into doors and walls.
The holes in walls sometimes get covered and repaired, but they sometimes stay—or multiply—while we live in those places. The holes in the wall remind me of the imminence of the “cocos”—what my stepfather calls the knuckle punches on the head he gives us—that is his most frequent physical punishment of us kids. For a while, we are hit with the hard, grey plastic handle of a paddle for a raft I only vaguely remember us owning. But I do remember the raft paddle … its sting, its heft, the fear it inspires even after the welts were gone. There are slaps, too. Hair pulling. I believe, hope, pray that my mother will make it stop.
But she is being hit, too. The sounds of my mother and stepfather’s yelling and arguments are often preludes to sounds of thuds and later to the sight of my mother’s eyes—red and bleary and puffy from crying—or to the mark of welts or bruises on her. Occasionally I see a ripped blouse from her being pulled, yanked on, or dragged. My sister and I learn to drown out the sounds by turning up the volume on the TV. Against reason, we hope our little brothers do not hear what we’re hearing, do not see what we’re seeing.
Once my mother has us pack a few things as we flee to a battered women’s shelter—a “safe house.” I do feel safe in that house though I’m also scared that my mother will go back to my stepfather. Which she does. In the safe house, I desperately want my brothers to somehow feel like things are okay and normal. Though the hand-me-down towels, sheets, and other kids’ hand-me-down stuffed animals point to the anything-but-normal nature of our situation. One of the rules of the safe house is that no one is permitted to give out its phone number and address to preserve the secrecy, anonymity, and so the thinking goes, the safety of the women and their children. We can’t tell anyone where we are or how to reach us. It does not feel normal.
Today, almost thirty years later, I long to remember the faces or names or stories of others who were in that safe house with us, experiencing something similar. But I don’t. We were there just a few days and I was preoccupied with our own situation, where we would go after. It turned out to be that where we went after was the same house we had left. After that, there were promises of no more beatings, which was a promise he mostly kept. After eight years or so of much torment, he (for the most part) stopped hitting us all, instead sticking to yelling, punishing, general volubility, and the maintaining of a home environment where walking on eggshells was the norm.
Of course, we kids did sometimes have fun and experienced joy in our childhood family homes, but these feelings were rented, and we were always aware that we could be evicted from joy at any minute. My siblings and I continued to be kids together until my sister and I moved away to college; we loved and still love each other with the passion of people who know that sticking together is survival.
I’m now a tenured professor, a wife, and a mother of twin daughters. I married my husband just over two years ago, on a beautiful, sunny afternoon on a beach in Maui aptly named Baby Beach since we spoke our vows with our two babies by our side with no other family present. In the midst of our wedding planning, and after thirty years of marriage, my mother and stepfather were in the middle of a bitter divorce the dregs of which I could not bear to have at my wedding.
Beside a shimmering Pacific Ocean, my groom read poems I saw him write on the plane ride without knowing what he was writing. We had one friend in attendance, a dear mutual friend and colleague we learned would coincidentally be in Maui at the time of our wedding. Our friend valiantly did quintuple duty—as our sole guest, videographer, on-site child safety specialist, best man, and maid of honor. I marveled at our luck. Actually, I marvel at my luck every day, as the man with whom I share my home and life shelters me with love, harmony, and understanding, opening my eyes daily to all that is possible for me, for us, for our life together. What is this happiness that I dare to call my own, beyond all my younger self could have imagined?
For the first time in my life, I live in a home that is not a rental home though it is in the same campus housing complex where I moved as an Assistant Professor just over ten years ago. The home I bought with my husband is only slightly bigger than the home I rented just over ten years ago on my own. Not long after we moved in, my husband and I went to the furniture store and bought a brand new couch and coffee table, another first for me. We didn’t buy an expensive couch because we have two small children who spill and stain things the way small children do, but it’s probably still the nicest couch I have ever had.
Last month, my youngest brother hand delivered a letter from my stepfather. The letter was sort of a group letter—asking for reconciliation with my mother, with my siblings, and with me. My name was written on the envelope in handwriting I will always recognize, but there was no address on the envelope under my name. My stepfather has never seen the first and only home I have owned, and does not know where I live. Sometimes the dull ache of the past tugs, but peace reigns in the home I have made, and I relish it.
MARÍA JOAQUINA VILLASEÑOR is a professor of Chicanx/Latinx Studies at California State University, Monterey Bay. She is a co-author of The Historical Dictionary of U.S. Latino Literature, and an essayist whose writing has been published in Remezcla and The Acentos Review.