Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Toe Story 3 and Between Panic and Desire

(If you missed the beginning of the saga of the toe, you can catch up by clicking on any of the links in this paragraph.) Yesterday I made my fourth visit to Campbell Clinic in five weeks. The surgery was on January 8. The second cast was two weeks later. A third cast (at my request, due to discomfort) was applied a week later. And finally, x-rays revealed what I hoped and prayed, the surgery seems to have been successful. The toe is straight. The bunion is gone. And now I’m out of that *#@%!* cast forever.

Instead, I get to wear this lovely number for three weeks. It’s a removable boot-cast, and I don’t even have to sleep in it. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was for that foot to feel the cool, soft sheets of my bed last night. (This was after a long soaky bath and peeling off layers and layers of gross dead skin. Ugh.)

Learning to walk with the boot is another challenge, as it’s taller than any shoe I have to wear on the right foot for balance, so I look like hop-along as I saunter through the house. (I haven’t ventured out yet.) I find myself anxiously looking about for my crutches and then remember, oh, yeah, I don’t need them anymore. So…. Stay tuned for a follow-up post in three weeks, when I (hopefully) get to lose the boot and learn to walk on my own.

One of the perks of recovering from surgery is the “down time” for reading and writing. Three new essays are safely in the tender loving hands (or computers) of my writers critique group, which meets this weekend. And another essay has been sent to Dinty Moore, the instructor for one of the workshops I’ll be taking at the Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford February 28-March 2. I thought it would be helpful to get to know Dinty’s style a little bit before the conference, so I just read his latest book of essays, Between Panic and Desire. It’s a nice balance for me, for several reasons:

He’s a man, and he writes from a very masculine perspective. He’s only 4 years younger than me, so we grew up during the same era. But he grew up in the north, while I was trying to bloom in the south. And he tripped (literally) through the 60s and 70s with lots of political fervor and activist energy, while I was oblivious to most of the issues that didn’t affect my struggle for popularity or my plans for the weekend.

My father was a delegate (from Mississippi) to the Republican National Convention in 1960, so that tells you something about the political atmosphere in which I grew up. And while I didn’t even begin to think for myself about politics until recent years (I’ve been a bit distracted) I do remember being disappointed that my dad didn’t run for political office at the time, when he was encouraged to by lots of folks. I just thought I would have liked the limelight. To be the daughter of a senator or representative. Thank God we don’t always get what we wish for!

Back to Dinty Moore’s book. These quotes, from his introduction, give a good preview of coming things, especially the things he lost:

An entire generation lived through the untimely death of JFK (lost a good father), the resignation of Tricky Dick (lost a dysfunctional dad), and the turmoil of Vietnam (lost our Uncle Sam). We’ve all spent years, or maybe decades, feeling fatherless, cynical, unmoored. …All that we know about Watergate and the subsequent cover-up toddles into the voting booth with us thirty years later; our experience with Vietnam—whether we fought, protested, or stood on the side-lines paralyzed by confusion—shapes our vision of every new military adventure the Washington yahoos dream up; and the tragedy of 9/11 at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in the Pennsylvania field down the road from where I live, will color wide swatches of our world for who knows how long.

Moore will talk about his own dad later in the book. I’ve read lots of memoirs where women talk about their mothers, but only a few that tell the son-father story, and it’s fascinating. I would have quit reading the book early on if Moore had come across preachy or arrogant, but his humility and humanness drew me in:

So, given that I don’t see clearly—that in fact, my vision is even more distorted than most (more on that later) —it makes some odd sense that I would write a memoir. I was there, after all; I misperceived it with my own eyes. Or maybe this isn’t a memoir. Perhaps it is a generational autobiography—a chronicle of those events most responsible for twisting our collective psyche over the past forty or so years, especially for those of us who remember where we were on the day Kennedy died. The first one.

I was in seventh grade at Chastain Junior High School in Jackson, Mississippi. And I was much too young and self-absorbed to understand why some people were crying and getting dismissed to go home from school early when I was worried about cheerleader tryouts and the upcoming seventh grade dance. And yes, I was a blonde. But I was also a kid, whose parents lived through the Great Depression and were trying to provide my brother and me with the Good Life.

So, Moore’s book isn’t exactly a walk down memory lane for me, but rather an example of unconventional creative nonfiction writing. Some of the chapters read a bit like prose poetry. Others, like “Son of Mr. Green Jeans, a Meditation of Missing Fathers,” is an alphabetical listing of people and events that affected Moore’s formative years. His paranoia comes to life in the Chapter 9: “Number Nine” —a plethora of conspiracy theories developed around the numbers 9 and 11.

And if you’re wondering about the title of the book, Panic and Desire are actually the names of two small towns in Pennsylvania. (This reminded me of Joshilyn Jackson’s book, Between, Georgia, which is named after a town in Georgia.) Dinty drove into each town, trying to find out why they were named “Panic” and “Desire,” but no one seemed to know, not even at the libraries. So he drove to the halfway point between the two towns, got out of his car, and:

… it is here that I finally realize I don’t want the actual answer, the truth of where those towns found their names. The mystery is sweeter. I just bask in the unknown for a while, alone on the road, halfway between Panic and Desire. Until it occurs to me: I have been here all my life.

Near the end of the book, he begins to let go of some of his panic:

When you stop beating your head against the wall, your head miraculously feels better. I had a father—not Mr. Green Jeans, not Mr. Nixon—but a real one, and much of what has been difficult in my life connects directly to his drinking and his absence. (If not, there’s a string of therapists spread across the country who owe me refunds.) But if my demons and disappointments are attributable to Buddy, as everyone called him, then much of what’s gone right must be attributable to him as well. You can’t just give the man half credit. I’ll thank my Mom here, too. Nobody’s perfect. The point is this: These days I’m inclined to value the entirety, each piece of it. I’m starting to appreciate that my losses, let-downs, and wasted years were precisely what kicked me down the road like a bent tin can, until I ended right here, at this very spot, which is a good place to be if for no other reason that the fact that I made it. So life wasn’t perfect…. “So it goes,” Kurt Vonnegut’s narrator repeats throughout “Slaughterhouse-Five,” and for the moment I’m hard-pressed to come up with a better piece of wisdom.

I knew he would be a Vonnegut fan. But I didn’t know he would come full circle with his “Final Chapter”:

This idea—value the crap in your life because that’s what got you here, and if you’re still here, well that’s a good thing—works for the larger picture as well. Leaders die, presidents lie, nations clash, and terrorist madmen frighten us out of our wits. Hazy-dazy dreamers from the Summer of Love somehow morph into flabby baby boomers whose glasses are half-filled with either dentures or martinis… History kicks us like a bent can down the road of panic and desire, and so we go, misperceiving wildly, onward to the next disaster.

As I return to reading Sam Harris’ The End of Faith for my next chapter review (reviews of earlier chapters are here, here, and here) I can’t help but notice some similarities in Harris and Moore’s political views. But I approach The End of Faith with a bit of dread because, well, because I’m finding it dreadfully lacking in humor (which abounds in Moore’s writing) and more significantly, in hope. And now that I’m finally footloose (from the cast) I’m just not wanting anything to weigh me down right now. Watching the Beatles' music being celebrated on the Grammy’s Sunday night, I realized that they fell extremely short with their hit song, “All You Need is Love.” You also need Faith and Hope. But yes, the greatest of these is Love. Check back on Valentine’s Day for more on that!

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