Monday, November 19, 2012

"Worlds of Unknowing"

I recently read Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face (1994).

Actually, I thought it was on my Classics Club list, but as it turns out, it's not. Oh well.

It's an extremely interesting--and yes, somewhat depressing--read. In 1973, at the age of nine, Grealy was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that typically afflicts children.

Over the next two years, she would undergo an aggressive course of radiation and chemotherapy (5 days a week) and a series of surgeries that eventually removed over a third of her jaw on the right side of her face.

And before you think, "Oh, but they can do wonderful things with reconstructive surgery...," stop. This was the mid-1970's. Chemotherapy was relatively new. Microsurgery was in its infancy.

Most people don't realize that reconstructive surgery on radiated bone and tissue is extremely complicated. Even if the body doesn't reject the graft, the radiated tissue has a tendency to simply "absorb" the graft over time.

In Grealy's case, she would undergo the pain and complications of a surgery involving extensive bone grafts designed to reconstruct her missing jaw (the bone was removed from her hip, which typically left her lame), only to watch as her jawline slowly disappeared again anyway.

And then they would try again.

Initially, when presented with the idea of reconstructive surgery, Grealy was told that the only option was a technique called "pedestaling." Because microsurgery was a relatively new field, the primary issue in reconstructive grafts in the early- to- mid-1980's was the problem of creating a sufficient blood supply to the graft itself.

To achieve this, "pedestals" were used: part of the graft was left attached to its original site and then slowly moved to its final destination. Grealy's description of the procedure is both explicit and horrifying:
In the first operation, two parallel incisions would be made in my stomach. The strip of skin between these incisions would be lifted up and rolled into a sort of tube with both ends still attached to my stomach, resembling a kind of handle: this was the pedestal. The two incisions would be sewn together down its side, like a seam. Six weeks later, one end of the handle would be cut from my stomach and attached to my wrist, so that my hand would be sewn to my stomach for six weeks. Then the end of the tube that was still attached to my stomach would be severed and sewn to my face, so that now my hand would be attached to my face. Six weeks after that, my hand would be cut loose and the pedestal, or flap, as they called it, would be nestled completely into the gap created by my missing jaw. This would be only the first pedestal: the whole process would take several, plus additional operations to carve everything into a rcognizable shape, over a period of about ten years altogether. (154)
Ultimately, Grealy found a microsurgeon, so she never had to undergo the pedestal procedure described above.

What I think Grealy manages to convey throughout her narrative--beyond the mind-boggling description of a sequence of operations that sound like the stuff of science fiction--is a sense of how the regular experience of this kind of perception of and relationship to one's body shapes one's sense of oneself.

Grealy was fifteen when the pedestal procedure was suggested.

In interviews and at public readings, Grealy expressed dismay at the extent to which she was often defined solely in terms of the content of her story. She was a writer. She wanted her story to be read on the basis of its literary merit, not simply as a tale of her "triumph" over cancer.

Autobiography of a Face is thus about identity and physicality, but it is not solely about the role that the body--or, more specifically, the face-- plays in the construction of identity.

As the world looks at Grealy's childhood face and stares or cringes, and as Grealy herself attempts to come to terms with whether or not to look at her own face and its implications, her narrative account meditates on all of the other ways we understand the trajectory of life's direction and its significance.

For instance, Grealy describes how her cancer diagnosis first unfolded. It's a malignancy with few symptoms, and Grealy never actually realized she had it.

One day, she was playing dodge-ball and collided with a classmate. By the next morning, her jaw had swelled and she couldn't open her mouth. Initially, they simply thought she had fractured her jaw.

Grealy reflects on the sheer coincidence of this discovery of a life-threatening condition:
It's impossible for me not to revisit this twenty-year-old playground scene and wonder why I didn't go right when I should have gone left, or alternatively, see my movements as inexorable. If the cancer was already there, it would have been discovered eventually, though probably too late. Or perhaps that knock set in motion a chain of physical events that created an opportunity for the cancer to grow which it might not otherwise have found. Sometimes it is as difficult to know what the past holds as it is to know the future, and just as an answer to a riddle seems so obvious once it is revealed, it seems curious to me now that I passed through all those early moments with no idea of their weight. (27-28)
These are the moments of sheer beauty in Grealy's text, I think: the points at which she pauses, poised on the threshold of discovery, to reflect on what she characterizes as the "worlds of unknowing" that we all inhabit on a daily basis.

Hospitalized for yet another surgery, she shares a room with a teen who dove off a two-story building into his friend's pool. As Grealy observes, "Michael, at the age of seventeen, was permanently paralyzed, all because of a stupid trick that took him ten seconds to perform":
When I got home, I thought of Michael again and again. Did he ever reimagine himself standing on that roof or try to remember what it was like to not know his fate for just one split second longer? If he didn't, I did it for him. I'd close my eyes to feel the height, see the bright blue of the pool winking below me, bend my legs, and feel the pull in my calves as I jumped up and then down, falling from one world of unknowing into the next one of perpetual regret. (175)
Lucy Grealy died of a heroin overdose in New York City in December of 2002.

Monday, November 12, 2012

"Common Sense, Dancing"

I recently read a (common sense) article by Marie Hartwell-Walker on PsychCentral, "The Care and Maintenance of Friendship."

But although it's common sense, as another old adage would have it, "common sense isn't so common."

It frustrates me sometimes, today, to watch how others conceive of friendship.  I'm lucky: most of my life has been marked by strong, good friendships.  Occasionally, I've been not-so-lucky, and my retrospective posts have talked (at length) about one set of such experiences in particular.

What was always most frustrating for me in those episodes was, the people involved clearly had a very different definition of "friendship," and it in no way involved adhering to any of the care and maintenance tips Hartwell-Walker describes.

These so-called friends were rude: in big ways and in small.

So-called friends always keep score.  They like to remind you of all of the "nice" things they have done for you, most of which involve absolutely no effort on their part, provide them with at least some form of tangible, substantial benefit, and generally aren't all that noteworthy, really.

If they even did them, in fact: so-called friends also like to take credit for other people's contributions, or simply fabricate "help" that you will subsequently rack your brains to remember receiving.

The things you do for them, however, are always taken for granted as run-of-the-mill expressions of the admiration they so richly deserve.

Sometimes, however, the signs are more subtle. (Usually, actually.)  In one case, the weekly, if not daily, phone calls just started dropping off.  At first, this isn't a problem: people are busy, I'm busy.  Life changes.  But then, you start to notice that, when you leave messages, your calls aren't returned.  When you write to say, "hello!", you get no response.  Ever.

Months just roll on by.

If you call and happen to catch them, they say, "I have someone here, but I'll call you back."  The someone (if there really is anyone there) is someone they see daily, and meanwhile they haven't seen or talked to you in months.  And they don't call you back, despite the fact that they repeatedly say they will.  

But when you write to say, "Is everything okay?  Are you angry?  I'd really hate to lose a good friend...", you receive protestations of deep and sincere friendship.  Or the person just ignores the first two questions altogether, talks about the equivalent of "the weather," and acts like there's no problem. 

But when you look them in the eye and talk to them, they read their responses to you off of a cloud or the ceiling, or it's inscribed on the ground at your feet.  Or, you suddenly realize that there is clearly an invisible teleprompter somewhere just to the right--or left--of your ear.

In short, eye contact is a thing of the past.

They're not your friends.  And something's up.

So, take it from me, when it comes to friendships, there are some bad hombres and phony feminas out there, big-time.

But that shouldn't sour your attitude toward friendship as a whole.  Because, in the long run, people like that are a flash in the pan.  They're out of your life more quickly than they came into it, and their influence never proves to be lasting or significant--with you or with anyone else, actually.

In cases like these, age makes a huge difference.  I remember that, in high school and college, the loss of a supposed "friendship" always seemed incredibly painful and incredibly dramatic and overwhelmingly meaningful.

But now, in my mid-forties, I can safely say that I've had friends that I've kept for decades.  These are people I'm in daily, weekly, monthly contact with, who have been in my life for decades.  In some cases they live in another state, in some cases, another country.  They're as different from each other as they are from me.

So when I face a situation that involves losing people who played a walk-on role in my life for, at most, a couple of years, well, it's not something that's going to leave any lasting scars.  And at the end of the day, I'm just grateful for the wisdom the experience provided me with.

And the humorous anecdotes, of course.  Because, as William James once wrote, "A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing."

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Eat a Bowl of Tea

If you had told me a month ago that I wouldn't like a novel centered around female faith-healers, but I would like a novel centered around male impotence, I wouldn't have believed it.

And yet, it's true.  I enjoyed Louis Chu's novel, Eat a Bowl of Tea (1961).  A self-proclaimed, "Novel of New York's Chinatown," Chu's text focuses on the Chinese American community post-World War II.

Although the novel is often described as depicting the Chinese American "bachelor society" of the 1940's, I don't think that label is entirely accurate.  Most of the men depicted are married (ultimately): in the case of two of the main characters, Wang Wah Gay and Lee Gong, their wives live in China.

As the novel repeatedly explains, it was not uncommon for Chinese American men to marry in China and then emigrate to the United States, more or less permanently.  At the same time, however, these men always hold onto the possibility of return: I think identifying the protagonists as members of a "bachelor society" erases the cultural nuances of their situation.

In Chu's novel, the post-war generation of Chinese American men exist in a state of cultural and geographical transience--in some cases, they go back and forth between China and their adopted country (the U.S., Canada, the Philippines), and in other cases they stay in the west and help their children relocate.

As a result, the novel depicts the generational conflicts that occur when centuries-old Chinese traditions clash with a newly-conceived notion of "American" identity.

The novel centers around the arranged marriage of Wang Wah Gay's son, Ben Loy, to Lee Gong's daughter, Mei Oi.  The young couple meet in China (thanks to the maneuvering of their parents), are immediately attracted to one another, and quickly marry.

Things are going just fine until they return to New York and Ben Loy becomes impotent.

What is particularly interesting and clever, I think, is the way in which Ben Loy's impotence (and the consequences that result) becomes a vehicle for Chu's depiction of the Chinese American community at large, the role of the elder generation and its traditions in the lives of the younger generation, and the function of mobility.  (Travel is a kind of Viagra for Ben Loy.)

As I said, this was one of the most pleasant surprises of the novel: that Chu could use a device rife with comedic potential as a way of making very serious and astute observations about Chinese American society in the 1940's.

Because, let's face it: no card-carrying feminist like myself is going to want to read a couple of hundred pages about a guy lamenting the fact that he can't get it up now that he's married, despite the fact that he frequented numerous prostitutes prior to his marriage (and suffered the requisite bouts of syphilis and gonorrhea as a result).  Chu's style and approach prevents his material from being reduced to that, and I for one am quite thankful.

At the center of the novel, of course, is the daughter-in-law, Mei Oi.  Although we see relatively little depth in her character, in many ways, it is the role that she plays in shaping the definitions of Chinese American masculinity (and paternity) that are highlighted.

Wah Gay arranges for his son to marry Mei Oi because she is not "fook sing," an American-born Chinese girl.  Ben Loy, for his part, is identified in China as a "gimshunhock" like his father-- that is, a Chinese-born man who is living in America (also known as a "Gold Mountain Sojourner").

The marriage of Mei Oi and Ben Loy is influenced--even on its most intimate level--by the couple's expectations of each other and the way in which those expectations are shaped by their understanding of Chinese culture and traditions.  This understanding is complicated, of course, by their newly-emerging place and status within American culture, figured in the depiction of New York's Chinatown.

Chu's novel is interesting and highly readable--he opts for short chapters that offer brief vignettes depicting the couple's married life, the atmosphere of Wah Gay's mah jong club, and surrounding scenes and connections in Chinatown.  As with Fae Myenne Ng's novel, Bone, I had a hard time finding it at a library and ultimately had to opt to purchase it.

I'm glad I did.  There is much in Chu's novel to return to.

Friday, November 2, 2012

"Small, Bordered Worlds"

I have a tape of a Tibetan nun singing a mantra of compassion over and over for an hour, eight words over and over, and every line feels different, feels cared about, and experienced as she is singing. You never once have the sense that she is glancing down at her watch, thinking, “Jesus Christ, it’s only been fifteen minutes.” 
I do so enjoy the wit of Anne Lamott.

I've been reading Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994). The title itself encapsulates one of my favorite anecdotes from Lamott:
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a  report on birds written that he'd had three months to  write. It was due the next day. We were out at our  family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen  table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper  and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my  father sat down beside him, put his arm around my  brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.'
This is Lamott's recipe for writing: take it "bird by bird."  Focus on the small steps, one by one, and you will gradually move toward a larger goal.  Lamott argues for the benefit of "short assignments": "figure out a one-inch piece of ... story to tell, one small scene, one memory, one exchange."

And little by little, one by one, the short assignments will help you to build momentum as a writer.

Lamott is also famous for her advocacy of "shitty first drafts": just write it down, and don't worry about how bad it sounds.

While I agree with the principle behind the "shitty first draft," personally, I find that there is only so "shitty" I can let a draft get before it becomes humiliating and pointless.  As I said, I agree with the premise Lamott is advocating: don't give up just because it sounds bad (or even not very good), just keep writing, because it's only in the writing that you can find the way.

For me personally, though, if it gets too obnoxiously "shitty," I find it makes more sense to stop writing and put the ideas on the back-burner of my brain.  Let the thoughts and the ideas cycle through, talk to myself about them, find my phrasing that way.

And then, come back to the actual writing.  As Lamott points out, "this is the nature of most good writing: that you find out things as you go along.  Then you go back and rewrite."

It sounds so simple, but I think many people really struggle with the idea that you'll figure out what you're writing as you're writing it.  I find that when I start with a set idea in mind and try to hold myself to it, I hem myself in in ways that often don't ultimately "work" for the piece itself.  If I had a nickel for every wasted hour I spent trying to force my sentences and my ideas into a perspective I thought I had... I'd be rich.

Joan Didion has commented on this phenomenon at the very level of grammar itself:
Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement.
The picture can only dictate the arrangement, though, if you loosen your grip on the sentences themselves and leave them free to move and rearrange themselves as you go.

As Lamott argues, "Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly."

I think many beginning writers stay hypnotized and feel that retreating to a position of cold calculation after the warm moment of inspiration is over is a betrayal of their artistic impulses.  I think most writers--and artists--would tell them that the artwork begins with an inspiration, but it doesn't end there.  No one really knows where it ends, once it begins, and sometimes the best and most promising beginnings don't necessarily lead to great things.

You need the false starts and the missteps just as much as--if not more than--the moments of "flow."

Again, as Lamott points out, "Annie Dillard has said that day by day you have to give the work before you all the best stuff you have, not saving up for later projects.  If you give freely, there will always be more."

It sounds odd, but I think every writer has an impulse to hoard: sentences, phrases, stories, ideas.  You keep them back for a "better" time, but in doing so, you fail to use them.  And they wither on the vine.

That doesn't mean, of course, that you dump it all into whatever you happen to be writing at the moment.  Simply that you don't save the best for later.  The best belongs in the moment in which it comes to be.

Finally, Lamott notes that, "To be great, art has to point somewhere."  I think this is a crucial idea that gets lost in the work of writers who think art is its own explanation (pace Oscar Wilde).  Art for art's sake is still a direction: it points back upon itself.  It isn't directionless or aimless.

It forces us to, in Lamott's words, see "things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds."

And that's the best kind of break-in there is.