Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Patry Francis. Period, or, P.F. I Love You

Last year I signed up for a six-month long master essay/memoir workshop at Denver’s only independent writing school, the kick-assish Lighthouse Writers Workshop. I laid down my good money and my essays for people I hardly knew so that they could tell me what they thought, and in turn I would tell them what I thought about their work. We squirm and giggle before each class, and make disclaimers before having our pieces read and critiqued. We apologize in advance for what we are about to submit. “It’s really rough,” we say, or, “For those about to read this piece of crap, I salute you.”

We turn in our stuff, dead trees be damned and wait for the slings and arrows, and of course, my classmates are not hiding in the bushes the next day to napalm me on my way to the car. Nor am I filling their gas tanks with sugar and figuring out how to do them bodily harm with their own manuscripts. We are nice and tender and supportive while being honest and helpful; the way I’d like to be treated with my craft and calling, yes, but it’s also the way I’d like to be treated in general.

It’s no worse than a lot of other vocations, but it’s a hard gig, this writing thing, and without role models, without community, it’s too easy to be too hard on one’s self. I made the mistake of trying to work in a vacuum for several years, and because I’m me, tried taking inspiration from the suite of quality programming at VH1. I would spend my lunch hour watching Beyonce Revealed, or The Fabulous Life of Christina Aguilera, or Behind the Music, shows that weren't helping me develop any sort of skill, but that started me on the important tack of thinking that success in the arts is possible. Period. The problem with these shows is that, while they do mention the struggles and sacrifices these stars-to-be had to make to further their careers and empires, it’s easy to overlook them. What we don’t see and can’t see in these glossy shows are the real doubts, the hurdles, and backbreaking, soul-breaking setbacks that artists must endure to bring their works to light. What we don’t get is the journey vs. destination philosophy. We get a lot of imagery, but none of it has anything to do with real heroism. Well, duh. What did I expect?

Once I’d drawn the conclusion that one can only spend so much time with VH1’s reality shows without risking brain injury, I imagined other heroes of the journey. Every time I pushed myself away from the desk and said, “This is too hard,” I would remind myself of Jane Austen, who had to use a well of ink and a quill by candlelight for god’s sake to do her writing, which was frowned upon in the first place, since she was shirking her other womanly duties like using her spindle and loom or something. But eventually I decided relying on Austin was lame, too, because to be honest, I don’t really identify with someone whose work I haven’t read since high school, and even then I was only pretending to read it. As long as I’m telling the whole truth, I should also say that the things I know about her are only secondhand; they’re bits and pieces of facts I’ve heard my well-read friends mention, and I’m probably making up a fair bit of it to fill in the gaps.

But forget all that, because today it’s with great relief that there’s a new hero in town, and her name is Patry Francis. She’s the author of the just-released novel, Liar's Diary. **UPDATE** Penguin Group, publisher of THE LIAR'S DIARY is offering a 15% discount if you order direct from them. To receive the discount, type PATRY in the code field.

To use the lovely and talented Susan Henderson’s words from LitPark (with permission), here’s why:
“What if you worked for years as a waitress and then went home at the end of the day to your husband and four kids, and in those rare minutes of free time, you dared to dream that one day you might write a book? This is the story of my friend, Patry - a story that leaves out years of false starts, revisions, and rejection slips. It's a story that writers know intimately, though the details are different. Every one of us is well acquainted with the struggle of getting a story on paper, of honing it and believing in it enough to send it out, only to receive rejection, or worse, silence for our efforts.
Imagine, after many years, you beat the odds. You finish that book. You find that agent who sells your manuscript. Your dream is about to become a reality. But just as your book is due to be released, you discover you have an aggressive form of cancer.
Patry's story struck such a deep chord with many of us, not just because she is our friend, but because those of us who know her or read her blog have relied on her company through the ups and mostly downs of trying to write and sell a book. She is our buoy. She has shown us time and again her great gift for shedding light in the dark. Even her blog post about her cancer showed this - in her greatest time of need, she was still somehow comforting all of us and showing us glimpses of joy. Patry is part one of this amazing story.”
What happened after that is like one of those holiday movies about giving and love that you can’t help but watch again and again, despite the corniness and what your cold-hearted husband might say. (As if he doesn’t cry like a baby during every episode of Little House on the Prairie ever taped.) Uh-hem. On New Year's Day, or thereabouts, author maven Laura Benedict wrote to author maven Susan Henderson, calling her attention to Patry's publication date. "Perhaps we could do a 'Patry Francis/Liar's Diary' blog-o-rama or carnival or something to promote the book?" she wrote. "I'm such an amateur at this stuff that I don't know what's possible."
Susan didn't give a moment's thought to what we might try to pull off, or how; Susan simply said, "Yes! Let's do it!"
Susan writes:
“In less than one month, over 300 bloggers, writers, readers, and just big-hearted people signed on to take part in this day. I am overwhelmed and grateful for every single person who said yes or helped spread the word, but let me reserve some enormous thanks for the people who traded hundreds of emails with me to put this together: Karen Dionne of Backspace, Jessica Keener of Agni and The Boston Globe, Dan Conaway of Writers House, and Alice Tasman of the Jean Naggar Literary Agency.
What began as a personal gesture of caring for a friend became an astonishing show of community - writers helping writers; strangers helping strangers; and most surprising of all, editors, agents and publishers, who have no stake in this book, crossing "party lines" to blog, to make phone calls, and to send out press releases.
This effort has made visible a community that is, and has been, alive and kicking - a community that understands the struggle artists go through and rejoices in each other's successes. It's a community made up of many small voices, but - guess what? - those many small voices can create some noise. So while today is for Patry, it's also a symbolic gesture for all of you who work so very hard for little or no recognition, for all of you who keep going despite the rejections, and for all of you who have had illness or other outside factors force your art or your dreams aside. We are in this together.”
So Patry Francis, when I’m struggling or fighting with myself or isolating myself from what’s wonderful and right, I will think of you—and Laura, and Susan, and all the other friends I’ve met along the way. I salute you. And as my three-year-old likes to say, “Love you, mean it.”

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Right Thing to Do, but Not That Tasty of a Way to do It

Every year I see pretty much all my doctors for checkups at the same time, which only used to take a few appointments. Now it takes an entire Franklin Covey day planner, two tanks of gas, and a withdrawl from my savings account to cover the co-payments. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve built up quite a stable of medical personnel, which makes me wonder if I should start hosting those MLM home parties, but instead of inviting my friends over to buy Tupperware or PartyLite Candles, or vibrators (I’m looking right at you, Carol), you could get a Johnny On the Spot appointment with the medical specialist of your choice. And I call dibs on the dentist’s tank of nitrous. The rest of you can play rock-paper-scissors for the proctology appointment.

The good news is that I have no big-time complaints about my health right now. My eyeglass prescription is still the same, although my taste in eyewear continues to worsen. (The next thing you know, I’ll be shopping for my next pair of frames from the Bea Arthur collection.) The bad news is that I now have an extra item of health-related paraphernalia for the bedside table. “Try keeping your eyes more moist to reduce the redness,” said my eye doctor, after I told her that when asked what color my eyes were, Sophie said, “Mommy’s eyes are red.”

“Was it worse when you lived in Vail?” she asked me, making notes in my chart.
“Everything’s worse in Vail,” I told her. “I think that’s the town motto, as a matter of fact.” And then we affirmed to each other that it’s just so dry here. Before I could edit myself, I then just sort of blurted out what must be the truth: “I think my body is just really sick of not living by the beach.”

The good doctor gave me some eye drops to use before and after sleep, and I said, “Awesome, this must be the warm-up for the portion of the show when I travel with an extra carry-on bag just for my prescriptions.” On the bright side, I’ve got some relatively innocuous stuff on my nightstand: saline nasal spray and an asthma inhaler—and now eye drops. The three of them are probably talking right now, wondering when the Ben Gay is going to show, along with his wife, Aspercream, and some sort of stomach acid remedy for those occasions when I go crazy at dinner and eat something like a boiled potato. Woo! I’m looking at my scaly shins and feet ashy enough to convince anyone that I make my living as a firewalker, and can understand why the nice-smelling skin lotion is probably standing off to the side, alone, feeling all snotty and self-righteous about how she’s the last vestige of evidence that I was once a normal young woman. The poor thing, she’s been relegated to the back of the drawer, no doubt snuggling up to the KY for comfort, wondering what will happen to her the next time I clean out my drawers.

Like a lot of folks, I’ve been known to mix up my physical and emotional health in an entanglement that has traditionally been called psychosomatic. But if you asked just about any wellness practitioner who has even a dash of common sense, he or she will tell you that just about all illnesses are caused at least in part by an emotional or intuitive component. The mind-body connection is a strong one, and there’s no better indicator that I’m ignoring some suffering that’s going on inside than some condition or other that’s going on outside.

For months on end, I’ve had some low-grade, all-over, nonspecific feeling of unwellness that doctors so love trying to treat. During the summer, my asthma was pretty bad, and I was tired and fatigued all the time. My body ached and my head hurt, and I wondered if the Grave’s disease was making a comeback and trying to film a sequel entitled Goiter II: Son of Goiter. (This time, it’s personal.) The last time I felt this way, my friend Lisa, who is usually the voice of wisdom among 500 channels of nothing on, asked me, “Have you tried entering your symptoms into WebMD?” And I told her that, on paper, that was a fine idea, but that WebMD scares the shit out of me. The last time I consulted the digital physician, my condition was either pancreatic cancer or a pulled muscle. So I chalked my symptoms up to having just moved for the third time in eighteen months with a toddler, two dogs, and a husband who can’t be bothered with packing anything besides his outdoor sports gear and his collection of ‘80s vintage ski sweaters.

And then the unignorable happened. My nose completely stopped working. I know that this is bound to happen from time to time, and so I dealt with it as I usually do. I unearthed the humidifier from storage, I cranked the air purifier up to eleven. I dug the Breathe-Rite strips out of the plastic tub full of medicines in the linen closet and put them next to my asthma inhaler, saline nasal spray, and eye drops. (Sigh.) Mostly, though, I just waited, remembering with just a touch of panic that the last time I had rhinitis this bad, it was because I was pregnant. (Going back to the tub in the linen closet for the spare pregnancy test elicited an even bigger sigh—of relief over the negative result.) And then I waited some more, and wondered what I was all stuffed up about in the metaphorical sense. The answer was likely, “Everything.”

Three months later, I went to see my general practitioner, an MD in family practice. He’s a long winded fellow who takes his time, shares endearing and comforting personal details about himself, and doesn’t interrupt me when I speak. His office has an overcast, unloved quality to it, though, and the tattooed members of his staff teeter into the room on platform heels. It’s kind of a weird scene, but it’s close to my parents’ house, and when I have an appointment, I can drop Sophie off for an hour of the ice cream and candy therapy my dad is famous for administering to all the young members of the family. Just by looking at the place, and at our friendly doctor, I have concerns. I wonder if his heart is in this. It’s the thing that keeps me from really trusting him like a good patient should, even more than the statement he made in passing several years ago that ruffled every pro-choice feather I’ve got. But—but!—he is available.

When I am confounded about what seems a minor health issue, I don’t have to wait weeks on end for an appointment with someone who doesn’t have time for me and my nose. I don’t have to take a brow beating for why I’m bothering an over-busy doctor with my irksome respiratory constipation. He makes it easier for me to seek medical attention, whether I need it or not, which for me is a net gain. He is the closest I’ve ever gotten to my dream doctor, who I imagine looks and sounds like Wilford Brimley, the Quaker Oats TV pitchman of days of yore: older and rolly-polly, with Old West country doc sensibilities peppered with just a touch of motivational speaker. If the members of Cake were looking for a girl with a short skirt and a looooong jacket, I’m looking for a nice, gray-haired doctor who will chuckle at my jokes and tell me that everything’s going to be all right. And I want him to call me by a pet name like Pumpkin or Sweet Pea while he does it.

“Allergies,” he said with confidence. “Take some Claritin and wait for the first frost.”

I waited, ditching the Claritin and ten other over the counter preparations that didn’t touch the congestion. I took what could be called extreme measures ridding the house of whatever it was that had aggravated my immune system into the extended dance remix of one of those movie scenes in which angry villagers arm themselves with torches and gardening tools to flush out whatever offender has disturbed their peace. “It sounds like you have a cold,” was the statement used by every single person I spoke to over the phone between July and October, which was heart-warming at first, and then later became…tiring. “Hello, it’s allergies,” was how I began answering the phone sometime in November.

In December, practically weeping nonstop from the sleep deprivation and overall annoyance that comes with having a perfectly fine-looking nose, but being unable to use it for its intended purpose, I made an acupuncture appointment. This was a big step for me, as not only was I asking someone else for help—again—but I was asking someone with sharp objects for help. These were desperate times.

Let me just say that I hate acupuncture treatments. I feel hot and cold at the same time, I lay on the table with literally a full-body shudder going on from what feels like an electrical current running all the way up and down my body. I get sweaty with the extra added bonus of my hands and feet alternating between ice and fire. Nine times out of ten, which is actually two times out of three, I leave feeling slightly nauseated and just the least bit disoriented, like one of those wild animals that has been sedated, tagged, and left in the field to figure out why she’s wearing a great big new earring.

The treatment my acupuncturist had in mind for me didn’t just include needles, but needles topped with a pile of herbs that he intended to light on fire. “It will be smoky,” he assured me, “but it won’t burn your skin.” I almost walked out at the idea of becoming a kind of fleshy birthday cake, but then I remembered that while the acupuncturist was asking me a million questions about my body and its various peccadilloes, I mentioned that I’d been feeling, quote, sad. My allergies were actually starting to ruin my life. And so I lay down and watched this nice young man with crooked teeth and a long goatee, the very antithesis to Wilford Brimley, poke eleven holes in my body. “Ow,” I said.
“What kind of feeling is it?” he asked, scrutinizing the offending needle.
“Like there’s a pin in my foot.” I said. And then he went to work with his Bic lighter, and I meditated on the phrase, “Smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em.”

A month later, things were just as clogged, and even my acupuncturist encouraged another visit to my doctor, just to make sure that I hadn’t grown a grapefruit sized tumor in both nostrils, for example. I went back to my doctor and explained, “It’s like the inside of my nose is totally swollen and engorged.” And it was. It was like my nose had this ridiculous, errant, adolescent-type erection. “I just want someone to take a look, just to make sure that nobody’s hiding up there without paying rent.”

“You have allergies,” said the good doctor. “God!” I said, pulling my hair, “that can’t be.” And after we went down the list of things that could alleviate them, and after I said, “That didn’t work” after each one, I looked at him with my saddest eyes. “Is there anything you can do for me?” And he patted me on the shoulder and said, just like Wilford Brimley would have, “Well Sweet Pea, I can give you a shot of cortisone.”
I said, “Will it do anything to me that I’ll hate?” knowing full well that if he had told me that it would give me anthrax in addition to crystal clear nasal passages, I would have said, “Let’s do it.” Because when it comes right down to it, I have no pride. Once my suffering threshold has been reached, I just want relief. He could have told me that we could try putting a leach on my head, and I would have swept my bangs aside to give that slimy, creepy crawler a nice place to sink its teeth.
“No, it’ll just clear up your nose,” he said.

It was supposed to take a week to work, but the next day, the angels began to sing and the world in all of its frozen splendor looked sparkly and new, like White Christmas, instead of hopeless and dark, like Doctor Zhivago. For the first time in six months, I was breathing through my nose again. I almost cried, but didn’t want to take any chances stuffing up my nose again. I stood very still and looked down at my nose, dizzy from the enjoyment and from crossing my eyes, wondering how such a miracle happened overnight.

I have this fantasy that ends with finding out that my doctor filled the syringe with nothing but saline, a placebo, in stunning proof that such things happen, and that I was in the hands of someone who knew how to exploit those things. “Salt water,” I imagine him telling me with a sly smirk, “Pumpkin, you just needed a little nudge.” But who cares? Saline, cortisone, flesh-eating bacteria. Whatever works.

And now I have yet further proof that it is an act of strength to ask for help with something “silly,” and that that being honest about what’s killing me makes me transparent, but not invisible and there’s a difference. What They say is true, no one is coming to save me, and thank goodness; I might not like who shows up. I’d rather do the hiring—and I don’t always have to go in-house. Sometimes, I can outsource, like everyone else. I can still be a self-help enthusiast without doing everything myself. So, I will get into the habit of asking so that I can receive. I’m not above it all, I’m a part of it all. Please pass the fancy, nice-smelling lotion. (Note the obvious absence of any mention of the KY.)And I can be nicer to myself. Watch me. It’s my new thing.