February 18, 2013

badge photo

I recently had a new photograph taken for my company badge. Mine has always had a blue background to distinguish me from the permanent employees, who wear red badges, though I’ve been with this company long enough to need my photo updated.

This isn’t a screed about worker exploitation. I’m compensated fairly, even generously, and I have a latitude in the wheres and the whens of my work that I’ve come to cherish as someone with young children and writerly pursuits. I’ve also weathered the recession remarkably well, bringing in a steady income during a time when plenty of folks with company health insurance and 401K matching contributions have found themselves abruptly out of work.

I’ve been lucky, and my old badge tells the story. The picture, taken on my very first day, is not flattering. It looks like I’ve been cryingbecause I have been. I may have pleaded allergies, or more likely, people were too polite to ask.

I’d left a “permanent” job for this contract position, which promised only a year and the possibility of renewal. I’d been willing to give up a lot for a shorter commute and what I hoped would be less stress. I was even captivated by the phrase “possibility of renewal” and its unintentionally spiritual overtones.

But shortly after I’d given my notice, the blots that had shown up on my husband’s routine chest X-ray also appeared in all the follow-up MRIs, and then he tested negative for the things it could be that were not terrifying and deadly.

And here I’d quit my job, which would have kept me in contact with physicians and researchers (I wrote for a medical center’s creative services department) and provided the medical benefits to cover any of the cutting-edge treatments they might recommend. And the family leave time. And the life insurance.

I’d let go of all that because I was tired of driving on the interstate.

What a strange, sad conversation to have with my soon-to-be former employer: So hey, if it turns out my husband has lung cancer, do you think I could have my job back? We were in that weird no-man’s land in a large organizationmy exit paperwork had already been processed, so even if they would take me back (and if they wouldn’t, no one was cruel enough to say so), it wasn’t entirely clear if I could unquit at that point. Maybe I would have to start anew, with no credit for time already served. Maybe I would have to reapply and vie for the position with qualified people who didn’t have a looming family health crisis and who hadn’t previously resigned.

Exploratory surgery was scheduled on the same day my new job was to begin. (Stuff like that, they call you and tell you when it is.) We didn’t want to delay the surgery, and though it seemed a little crazy not to change my start date, I felt that I shouldn’t begin things as a special case, already asking for favors. If my husband were sick, we would need all kinds of leeway soon enough.

He had to check in for pre-op at some predawn hour, like 5:30, which was fine since there was so little sleep to be had the night before. We were wide-eyed awake, coiled together, but largely silent, almost too scared to talk. There was nothing to say. We didn’t know anything. My piercing regret that we hadn’t had a second child didn’t bear sharing at that moment.

My aunt, a nurse who worked at the hospital and was acquainted with the surgeon, met us so she could be there when my husband was brought to the recovery room; I would not be there. We said goodbye before they wheeled him to the OR, and I drove to my new company, suddenly, queasily aware of what a foolish decision I’d made. How normal did I suppose I could act today? What did I think I’d be capable of doing?

My phone buzzed just as I breached the gates of campus. We hadn’t thought there’d be news of any kindjust a biopsy and some tests and then another appointment to get the verdict, an appointment I would request time off for. But the doctor scoped his chest and recognized what he found there almost at once: sarcoid tumors, little clumps of inflammatory cells, not cancer. Not cancer.

I sat in the parking lot outside my new building and sobbed in relief. Then I went in and reported to work. One of the first things they had me do was have my badge picture taken.

Nearly six years later, I turn it over. Let it go.


Say sorry

February 28, 2012

I’ve been driving for more than 25 years now (!), and to date my accidents have been few and minor, though the first occurred at the end of my driving test at age 16, when I hit the gas instead of the brake and plowed into a parked car. I didn’t pass (and I’d already flubbed my three-point turn, so I wouldn’t have anyway), but neither was I cited; no one knew how to ticket an unlicensed driver with tacit permission to drive, so they left it alone and my mom’s insurance funded the repairs. I didn’t go back to retest for an entire year, but by then I’d practiced and grown confident from many nights of sneaking out with friends and cruising the deserted streets of Raleigh.

In each of my subsequent three accidents over the next quarter-century, my car was rear-ended, and it was not my fault–I think legally it may never be the fault of the driver who is hit from behind, but I’m saying I didn’t suddenly slam on my brakes and catch the driver behind me unawares; their cars simply slid into mine.

The first time was on a road slick with new rain, and the girl who did it was contrite, though virtually blameless, I felt. The second time the woman pushed my car into the car in front of me as I waited at a red light, crunching both ends, and she was so adamant in denouncing her unresponsive brakes she must have forgotten to apologize, or indeed acknowledge me or my frightened children. In the moment all I registered was elation: we’d been hit and were unhurt! My babies were all right!

But later her failure to offer this courtesy rankled, and I know that has colored my recent collision, which was far less serious, and minus my children in the car. I have wronged and been wronged far wronger than these wrongs–I can barely even call these incidents wrongs. Since redress has been proffered, they’re slights at best. Why do I still want the apology? Why does not getting one feel like the greater injury?

For a long while my older son couldn’t grasp why he was being asked to apologize if he stepped on someone’s foot, say, or played a little too roughly with his little brother and made him cry. “But I didn’t mean to do it!” he would exclaim. “It was an accident!” It seemed to him an affront to have to say sorry under these circumstances, like an admission of guilt. It was as if he’d been advised by corporate counsel to avoid liability and damn the bad PR.

I would explain that the person was still hurt, regardless of his motives, and deserved an apology. I would say that I was sure he would never cause harm deliberately; nonetheless he should still say sorry. I would say we are still responsible for our actions, even when they seem entirely beyond our control. Sometimes it’s just a mistake, and sometimes maybe we needed to have taken more care than we did. It took a while to sink in, but at age seven I think he gets it. His apologies are more often than not sincere and spontaneous. That’s why I don’t mind when the other ones are clearly to stave off my badgering.

We say sorry for things that aren’t at all our fault. When someone dies, we’re sorry for the loss. We’re sorry someone didn’t get a job or that they lost a job or that a relationship ended. Sometimes that’s an irritant–it’s not your fault, the person will shoot back bitterly. But mostly it’s taken in the spirit in which it’s offered. To be told your sadness is shared by someone else, that it is felt chiefly because you feel it, can be deeply comforting.

I walk my younger son through these steps now when someone enters the orbit of his explosive energy and gets a face full of Legos or an errant elbow. Check on your friend. Ask if he’s all right. Say sorry. (And if it’s said inaudibly or with overt hostility, try again.) Try to make things right. Regret that you made the mistake. Resolve to do better. Go through the motions, even if you don’t feel sorry. Empathy may be more of a skill than a trait, but it can be practiced, strengthened. It can become a part of you.

In praise of prednisone

September 27, 2011

If pressed to name my favorite synthetic corticosteroid, I would have to choose prednisone. “Why?” you may ask in this perfectly natural conversation we’re having. It’s so versatile—a pharmaceutical Meryl Streep. My grandmother took it on and off over the years for a host of ailments, including TB-ravaged lungs, arthritis, and headaches. I’ve been prescribed it for acute cases of “mom back” when I could not simply cease tending small children for days on end to nurse my lumbar region.

That’s its action: quelling inflammation. It can take the heat out of strained muscles and dampen down an immune system in attack mode, so that you may hold on to costly donor organs or keep your lupus or multiple sclerosis in check. If your adrenal gland is slacking off or your tumor is secreting hormones, prednisone is also your friend.

If you’ve been on it awhile, you have to wean off it; abrupt stoppage can put you in the ER. But in small doses for short stints, it’s relatively safe. I’ve only ever taken it in five-day bursts, so I’ve dodged its more alarmingly named side effects, such as “moon face” and “buffalo hump.”

By the time my younger son was given prednisone to keep his reflux-inflamed airway from swelling shut, I was already fondly inclined toward it. Eight or nine years ago I’d experienced a few days of mysterious swelling and pain in my hands. One morning I woke crying because they hurt beneath the weight of the quilt but I could not quite scrabble them free of it; my fingers were stiff and puffed tightly as sausage casings, and it took concerted effort to drag the heavy meat of them out to air. To the doctor I flew. I recall some talk of rheumatoid arthritis, but blood tests showed nothing awry. A few days of prednisone and my hands were back to typing up masterpieces and fending off suitors with their usual facility. But what was it? I asked the doctor. She shrugged. Whatever it was had retreated, and we’d worry about naming it only if it came back.


Two in Particular

April 26, 2010

Somehow more than a month slid past me, a pollen-hazy blur of work and fits-and-starts socializing and half-assed parenting, so the dear blog fell by the wayside. Is this how blogs go defunct? I won’t leave you to the Internet graveyard just yet, old blog, just because the novelty of clicking on a “Publish” button has lost its luster. And to have ended it all on a book I bashed and wouldn’t name?  That would have been shameful.

Too, I’ve read many fine books of late, in those drowsy late-night moments before oblivion. Two in particular stand out, similar only in that they’re each made up of brief, almost fleeting autobiographical snapshots that gradually accrete into an experience, a life.

Mark Salzman’s Iron & Silk chronicles his two years teaching English in China as a young man in the early 1980s, when Westerners were still uncommon and Socialism still the rule of the day. What makes this such a welcome departure from the expected fish-out-of-water tale is that Salzman speaks the language and studies wushu (martial arts), both of which open doors that would otherwise have been firmly closed to him. The novelty of not only encountering but actually being able to converse with a foreigner prompts many strangers to invite him to their homes, where he is alternately gawped at and warmly welcomed. It also leads him to various wushu masters, who offer him instruction and friendship. Originally published in 1986, it may be that it simply predated the fashion of narcissism plaguing so many memoirs, but there’s something so open-spirited and outward-gazing in his depictions of the experience, it makes me long to travel—and read more travelogues. Hence I picked up Bruce Chatwin again, but that’s for another post.

Kevin Sampsell’s A Common Pornography is made up of individually titled vignettes, some no more than half a page long, brief snatches of growing up outside of Portland in the 80s, evoking an excruciating adolescence and uncovering a horrible family secret in the wake of his father’s death. I reread a good bit of it on Vicadin following a back strain (my malady is informally known by the medical community as “mom back”), and that was the nearly perfect vibe for it, especially during passages of teenage postpunk excess. Though presented in this chunked-up format, the book has, strangely, the aftereffect of a fluid and continuous narrative, and I’m inspired to try it out in future blog posts to see if I can make them add up to anything at all.

On Memoirs

February 15, 2010

About Mary Karr’s third memoir Lit: The woman is fifty–has she lived three lifetimes? Some will say yes, I suppose, given the hardscrabble childhood (The Liar’s Club), the rollicking adolescence (Cherry), and the booze-addled then redeemed adulthood depicted in her latest book. Too, if Augusten Burroughs gets to urp up contested autobiographies every two or three years (and he’s what, thirty? Thirty-five? I guess I could Google it, but you go ahead if you care), it seems fair that Karr should produce her trio. 

I was invested enough to read it through, though I got mildly annoyed and impatient with her sobriety account, which probably says a lot more about me than her. There’s a familiar shape and language to the recovery narrative that borders on template, even when emerging from a poet’s pen, if you practically grew up going to AA meetings as I did (via one alcoholic parent plus one enabling parent). It’s still a meaningful journey, possibly a necessary arc to beat down addiction, and perhaps as fascinating to program outsiders as her Catholic conversion was to me–though I felt that got incredibly short shrift, as did her writing life, her marriage, and her almost-next marriage. Possibly she was too respectful of her former partners’ privacy–and of her relationship with God! I do love that Karr’s sobered-up mother was still pretty much a hot mess until the end, proof that the straight life need not be dull.

I was on an Out of Africa-themed headtrip awhile back and though it did not result in my actually reading Out of Africa (sometimes the film is so good it deters me from the book), I did luck onto the purported memoir West With the Night, likely penned not by the powerfully cheekboned aviatrix Beryl Markham but her lyrical journalist third husband, Raoul Schumacher (according to biographer Errol Trzebinski, who makes a strong case in The Lives of Beryl Markham), and The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley, two moving accounts of growing up in a still-colonial East Africa in the early twentieth century. Both are heady prefaces to Alexander Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, which chronicles the messy end of colonialism as viewed though a white British family’s chaotic traipse through Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) in the 1970s. Life was probably no less tough in those earlier accounts, but the closer proximity of events paired with the senseless deaths of three of the author’s siblings strips away all genteel, nostalgic veneer.

A life needs only to be interesting (or perhaps only rendered so) to merit a memoir, but “interesting” in recent years has come to largely mean rife with sexual abuse and/or delirious self-destruction, which may be why some pretty sketchy fiction has gotten recast as scintillating autobiography (the most egregious culprits will go unnamed here; they’ve gotten enough attention). The only memoir I’ve encountered in recent years that actually brags about depicting a happy childhood is Marianne Gingher’s A Girl’s Life: Horses, Boys, Weddings & Luck. If you’ve overloaded on anorexics, asylum-dwellers, self-cutters, and junkies, it’s a pure palate cleanser.