Category Archives: illness

There sat down, once, a cold war on america’s heart

I didn’t know the video above existed, of my not-so-secret sensei JB.*, so excuse me while I catch my breath. I’ll wait, too. while you catch yours; here’s the heartrending poem he’s declaiming in that Irish-Woody-Allen accent. But that’s not the John Berryman poem I’m thinking about today.

I’ve never been a fan of Dream Song 23, below For the most part, Berryman at his best stayed away from explicit political references. But I’m staring at the Song now for clues, as I try in what I’m writing to evoke for 30 seconds an era I never lived through — wishing I’d never lost that great book The Dark Ages,  assigned by my beyond-brilliant Binghamton prof Sarah Elbert.

I also know that  I’m relying far too much on the Bayard Rustin phrase that David McReynolds taught me: Bayard spoke, he said,  about the era’s rigidity as “a large piece of sheet steel, 50 feet wide and 50 feet tall, and one inch thick – and if you  hit that with a  hammer at one corner, the entire sheet would reverberate.” (The Dark Ages referenced chronicles how under that steel, subversive elements like jazz and the Beats were gathering, though it makes almost no reference to any of my soldiers.)

jarrell_randallGrasping at cultural straws of all kind, I thought I’d try again. After all, Berryman was friends with WWII veteran Randall Jarrell (right) and in 1946 was teaching at Princeton, which like Yale had a front-row seat on the rest of my WWII story.

I know Berryman was spun by Hiroshima, and get the easy Joe Stalin bit, but what else is inside?   Please comment on what you see?  (You don’t have to be a Cold War baby to speculate.) I do think that the first verse, with its intimation of old-style TV static, comes closest to Rustin’s sheet of steel.

This is the lay of Ike.
Here’s to the glory of the Grewt White—awk—
who has been running—er—er—things in recent—ech—
in the United—If your screen is black,
ladies & gentlemen, we—I like—
at the Point he was already terrific—sick

to a second term, having done no wrong—
no right—no — right—having let the Army—bang—
defend itself from Joe, let venom’ Strauss
bile Oppenheimer out of use—use Robb,
who’ll later fend for Goldfine—Breaking no laws,
he lay in the White House—sob!!—

who never understood his own strategy—whee—
so Monty’s memoirs—nor any strategy,
wanting the ball bulled thro’ all parts of the line
at once—proving, by his refusal to take Berlin,
he misread even Clauswitz—wide empty grin
that never lost a vote (O Adlai mine).

Michael Erard of the Texas Observer had some thoughts about it last year – apparently Ike was about as articulate as Shrub, and he compares all the line-breaking to Ike’s speech.   I think Erard doesn’t recognize the purity of JB’s self-created syntax, though his comparison to the great “Mr. Bones” sections is probably apt. Still, what is the poem saying about that sheet of steel and who it silenced? Or should I be looking to the far-greater Dream Song 10 (Ike is 15) for my answer? However things hurt, men hurt worse.

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the WAC of my dreams

It’s a voice I hardly remember not having heard: the writer in the edgy science-fiction anthologies, the voice cool as ice, the material borderline radical. How many times did I read “The Girl Who was Plugged In” (turned later into an episode of Paradox), whose plaintive cyborg “Delphi” predated Blade Runner by decades?  Or the moment in “The Women Men Don’t See when the steely narrator tries to reassure a woman that she matters:

“Come on, why doomed? Didn’t they get that equal rights bill?”

Long hesitation. When she speaks again her voice is different.

“Women have no rights, Don, except what men allow us. Men are more aggressive and powerful, and they run the world. When the next real crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish like—like that smoke. We’ll be back where we always were: property. And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom, like the fall of Rome was. You’ll see.”

Now all this is delivered in a gray tone of total conviction. The last time I heard that tone, the speaker was explaining why he had to keep his file drawers full of dead pigeons.

“Oh, come on. You and your friends are the backbone of the system; if you quit, the country would come to a screeching halt before lunch.”

No answering smile.

“That’s fantasy.” Her voice is still quiet. “Women don’t work that way. We’re a—a toothless world.” She looks around as if she wanted to stop talking. “What women do is survive. We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.”

“Sounds like a guerrilla operation.”

Frankly, I was never the HUGEST fan of James Tiptree, Jr, despite the Hugos and Nebulas and the knowledge that it was a pseudonym for a woman writer. I was kept at a distance by that detached voice, the same one that long convinced famous male writers like Robert Silverberg that the mysterious writer couldn’t be female, “for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.”  I’d never thought to buy the 2005 biography by Julie Phillips – I confess i didn’t even go to the extent of reading about it.

If I had, I’d have known that I’ve been looking for her for a long time.

allidaveyNot that she hasn’t already been in front of my face. In the 1945 manifesto from the American Veterans Committee mentions a “Captain Alice B. Davey, WAC, Armed Forces Advisory Committee” on its list of leaders. But it wasn’t till that hissy fit last week that I started trying to track down if she were someone worth writing about. The answer of course, was more than yes: Major Alice Bradley Davey Sheldon, who her mom called “Alli,”  was more of a kindred spirit than I imagined.

I’d been looking for, as I said to friends, “a WAC vet with complex thoughts.” In Alli I also found a writer, a dreamer, a bisexual who described boot camp in her diary:

the long grey-green lines of women, for the first time in America, in the rain, under the flag, the sound of the band, far-off, close, then away again; the immortal fanny of our guide, leading on the right, moved and moving to the music—the flag again—first time I ever felt free enough to be proud of it; the band, our band, playing reveille that morning, with me on KP since 0430 hours, coming to the mess-hall porch to see it pass in the cold streets, under that flaming middle-western dawn; KP itself, and the conviction that one is going to die; the wild ducks flying over that day going to PT after a fifteen-mile drill, and me so moved I saluted them.

Of my characters from this war, she belongs more with John Huston, who withdrew to Mexico in 1980, than with Howard Zinn or William Kunstler or Philip Berrigan. Most of her stories only whispered their social critiques. But she lays it out pretty clearly in “The Women Men Don’t See,” a few exchanges after the one above:

“Men and women aren’t different species, Ruth. Women do everything men do.”

“Do they?” Our eyes meet, but she seems to be seeing ghosts between us in the rain. She mutters something that could be “My Lai” and looks away. “All the endless wars …” Her voice is a whisper. “All the huge authoritarian organizations for doing unreal things. Men live to struggle against each other; we’re just part of the battlefield. It’ll never change unless you change the whole world.”

Alli, you were half right. Thanks for your muscular telling of the paradoxes you saw.

(Many thanks to Julie Phillips, for working so closely to bring her to the world. If I can convey 1/10 of what you have, I’ll consider myself lucky.)

Dancing with chronic illness, or when a mouse is your role model

Another cross-post, but of  work dear to me: a personal essay I first wrote a couple years back, when asked for something in the category “strange bedfellows.” You get to decide who the bedfellows are. (And if you click on the second page, you find out who the mouse is – with video!)

A blast from the recent past: Queens Boulevard had its usual martial look after a snowstorm. City snowplows had made quick corridors, long since finished off by relentless traffic, while sculpting on each side massive walls of hard-packed snow, some shaped like the cars they’d buried. On each corner, pedestrians stomped the snowdrifts into slush, occasionally even breaking the ice underneath. Great, I thought as I descended the subway stairs. Two great problems that taste great together.

Wrapped in a down coat that made me look at 41 like an overgrown toddler, I also carried a hefty backpack, the kind that turns into a rolling cart on clear ground. All of which made crossing the street a comic challenge even for a normal person, if you could really call normal a community college instructor who carried reams of paper on her back like some demented Sherpa.

The first corner took me about seven minutes, using my sight to find the first place to step and then trying to manage each slide across the bulk, hurling my pack across at the last moment. On the second corner restless students passed me, as if I  were a tree that had come half-unmoored. At the third, and mercifully last before I  got to the school doors, the drifts were smaller, but icy patches made it treacherous, passage still slow. For a normal person, navigating that snow would be tricky. But for me, whose feet felt wrapped in cotton wool on good days and almost numb on bad ones, it was asking a deaf person to sing a subtle tone poem, with broken bones the penalty for getting it wrong.

Suddenly, to my right, a petite woman of about 70, hair and lips a defiant orange, reached for my pack and offered a shoulder. I  nodded gratefully and let her lead me across the ice, letting go at the other end so quickly she  barely allowed time for me to thank her.

I waited till I  got to school to start laughing, not at the unexpected good Samaritan but at myself. This is what MS means, I  thought. You’re so slow, ladies 20 years older than beat you down the block.

I  suddenly wished some of the people who told me, “I wish I had your energy” had seen that. Being outwardly Type A had its uses – especially in the department, which thought little of piling on more classes for me to teach (an advantage for an adjunct). I  didn’t necessarily want to remind them of the limits to that energy, and they might not get why I  was laughing. Hire the handicapped, they’re fun to watch.
If twenty years of this hadn’t given me a sense of humor about it, I  thought, that fact would be a tragedy worth a telethon. Or something.
*   *    *  *

I’ve stopped teaching since then, at least for now, but mornings like today — when the mercury is teasing with near-frost –make me think of that week in Queens. Unlike most people with multiple sclerosis, my symptoms don’t get worse in the heat: it’s lower temperatures that turn my body numb, make my fatigue worse than ever, make my handwriting even more like shorthand than before. It happens indoors, too, sometimes with air conditioning: I still don’t know what Manhattan’s Community Board Five thought when they first saw this reporter drag herself along the wall of their meeting room because she couldn’t feel her legs (“Is that girl drunk?”)  When you’re diagnosed at 22 with a chronic illness, you feel life just handed you a big, sour lemon. But the key to getting through it for 20 years has been, at least for me, making lemonade (or maybe lemon martinis?) out of that lemon.

A bit of history, first: the lemon’s, and then a bit of mine.

Multiple sclerosis means, literally, many scars — a name coined in 1868 by Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot, the father of neurology, after the death of a woman who had come to him with tremors and slurred speech. In her brain,  and those of patients like her, he found lesions smaller than a fingernail, threaded and knotted through the gray matter. He tried strychnine, electrical stimulation, injections of liquid gold, but nothing even helped.
Even for most of the twentieth century, all researchers were able to accomplish was to learn more about how the disease operates: the body’s immune system jumps up and attacks for no apparent reason the myelin sheath, the mix of proteins that line the nerves. The disease flared without apparent warning, and often receded, though each flareup often left patients worse off than before. And throughout most of the century, treatments were few and far between.  Physicians were thus, understandably, cautious in their approach. Right up until the 1980’s, many MS patients were discouraged from exercise, or regular employment.

When Olympic gold-medal skier Jimmie Heuga came down with the illness in 1970, his doctors advised him to stop training and rest. But when staying sedentary didn’t help him improve, Heuga took their advice and flipped it 180 degrees, going back into training – if not at Olympic level – and starting a center for people with MS to devise structured exercise programs. In 1987, his center also began to fund research to challenge the conventional wisdom and promote a rehabilitative model for MS, one that employed exercise and physical therapy as equal partners with medication. Meanwhile,  one December night back then, I was hurtling to Manhattan frommt home in upstate New York in the middle of the night, hoping to learn what was wrong with me. As the car raced down Highway 17, the darkness was pierced in places by bursts of holiday lights, some towns decking their halls early and sending bits of red and blue across the relentless green of New York highway signs.

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what we write about when we write about war

My current bookshelf is weirdly focused. The collection might seem a bit scary, if you didn’t know I was writing a book. (“What kind of obsessed veteran lives here?”)  When you know, some of what’s here might then seem obvious: David Cortright’s Soldiers in Revolt, Kingston’s Veterans of Peace anthology, the trauma stuff ( Jonathan Shay’s iconic Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America, Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery) and the war-specific guides: Rich Man’s War/Poor Man’s Fight, The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell, The New Veteran ( by Charles G. Bolte, c1945).

Lately, i’ve been poring over the biographies and novels on the shelf, looking for guidance in the writing. (And kicking myself for never making the annual writers’ conference at the William Joiner Center.) Roy Morris’ invaluable  Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company, Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’ s Ghost, and James Tobin’s Ernie Pyle’s War seamlessly join narrative detail with the swing of history. So do Panther in the Sky, James Alexander Thom’s fictional biography of Tecumseh, and Joe Haldeman’s peerless 1968. (That last, however, is a bit like reading Joan Didion: you read it to be spun around by the master, not with the illusion you can write like that. )

But given the period I’m dealing with this week, I’ve been brought back to studying with Doctorow. More specifically, The March. In his 2005 review, Walter Kirn attaches to one of its core themes, which in some ways is half of mine:

The rampant destructiveness of Sherman’s march is, of course, the stuff of high school textbooks, but what isn’t so obvious is the way that destruction transfigures and transforms, pulverizing established human communities and forcing the victims to recombine in new ones. Inside the churning belly of Doctorow’s beast, individuals shed their old identities, ally themselves with former foes, develop unexpected romantic bonds and even seem to alter racially. Yes, war is hell, and “The March” affirms this truth, but it also says something that most war novels leave out: hell is not the end of the world. Indeed, it’s by learning to live in hell, and through it, that people renew the world. They have no choice.

Unlike the civilians in Doctorow’s novel, the soldiers in my story are all doing just that — either by challenging the discipline that makes war possible, or by speaking out either during service or afterward. Call it a coda to that central theme. But that’s not why I’m looking at Doctorow’s novel again.

Instead, I’m looking at a far more technical issue; how does he keep the arcs of four major characters, and an equal number of minor ones, flowing ahead together for the reader?  Can watching his transitions, his narrative spins, help me do the same, at least for this chapter? Can the transformation of Ambrose Bierce from 20-year-old hothead to Homeric figure/journalist/mystery shape one arm of this March while still getting readers interested in the parallel transformations of Lewis Douglass, sailor Edward Strickland in Florida, little Quakers like Jesse Macy? Let alone Donelson Caffery, who became an ardent opponent of the Philippine war after not only preceding Bierce at the battle of Shiloh, but seeing his Confederate commander go down at that field with the funny name, which witnessed hand-to-hand fighting that sounds like tales from 1994 Rwanda?* (Leaving aside the related question of how to write honestly about it all as a non-veteran, and to keep it bearable without trivializing it.)

Some of it is making them vivid, not just externally but with some characteristic mental tropes/phrases. But most of those, the bits of dialogue that fill Doctorow’s work and stayed with me, are from fictional characters. Except for this historic meeting aboard a ship off the South Carolina coast, so dramatically right that it’s hard to believe it happened:

The long head was in proportion to the size of the man, but intensifying of his features, so that there was a sott of ugly beauty to him, with his wide month, deeply lined at the corners….What is important, the President was saying in conclusion, is that we do not confront them with terms so severe that they continue the war in their hearts. We want the insurgents to regard themselves as Americans.

Doctorow doesn’t use quotes here, smartly not putting words in the mouth of frigging Abraham Lincoln. (I checked; that poetry about “the war in their hearts” is a Vietnam-era formulation for sure.) He does well, considering his source (Sherman’s memoirs):

Lincoln was full and frank in his conversation, assuring me that in his mind he was all ready for the civil reorganization of affairs at the South as soon as the war was over; and he distinctly authorized me to assure Governor Vance and the people of North Carolina that, as soon as the rebel armies laid down their arms, and resumed their civil pursuits, they would at once be guaranteed all their rights as citizens of a common country; and that to avoid anarchy the State governments then in existence, with their civil functionaries, would be recognized by him as the government de facto till Congress could provide others.

I know, when I left him, that I was more than ever impressed by his kindly nature, his deep and earnest sympathy with the afflictions of the whole people, resulting from the war, and by the march of hostile armies through the South; and that his earnest desire seemed to be to end the war speedily, without more bloodshed or devastation, and to restore all the men of both sections to their homes. In the language of his second inaugural address, he seemed to have “charity for all, malice toward none,” and, above all, an absolute faith in the courage, manliness, and integrity of the armies in the field. When at rest or listening, his legs and arms seemed to hang almost lifeless, and his face was care-worn and haggard; but, the moment he began to talk, his face lightened up, his tall form, as it were, unfolded, and he was the very impersonation of good-humor and fellowship. The last words I recall as addressed to me were that he would feel better when I was back at Goldsboro’. We parted at the gangway of the River Queen, about noon of March 28th, and I never saw him again. Of all the men I ever met, he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other.

Doctorow lets his own beloved Wrede Sartorius, brought in to witness the meeting, to echo Sherman’s description and to more explicitly say what many think when we see those later, brooding portraits:

Perhaps his agony was where his public and private beings converged. Wrede lingered on the deck. The moral capacity of the President made it difficult to be in his company…..His affliction might be the wounds of the war he’d gathered into himself, the amassed miseries of this torn-apart country made incarnate.

Doctorow has, I think, also added a dash of Walt Whitman, the Civil War’s Homer, who wrote after watching Lincoln’s second inaugural procession the he could see

the lines, indeed, of vast responsibilities, intricate questions, and the demands of life and death, cut deeper than ever into his dark brown face; yet all the old goodness, tenderness, sadness, and canny shrewdness, beneath the furrows.

That last except courtesy of  Roy Morris (again), in his The Better Angel: Walt Whitman and the Civil War. Morris quotes openly from both Whitman and Bierce in describing the events of their iives; I wonder if I can do something similar, while somehow using a contemporary voice to better expose all those  gathered wounds to air. Or is my object to let their voices do it, and get out of the way?

We write about war, as Kirn said, as a way of writing about our lives. But there’s got to be a way to let those experiences be what they are, for a reader, before storytellers and politicians start yammering about what it all means.

* Speaking of Rwanda — and of learning from the master—check out this incredible Christian Science Monitor piece by my friend Jina Moore. If you ever need a reminder about what journalism can do, go re-read it.

Cross-posted at Devourer of Books.

we are all elizabeth edwards

Elizabeth_edwards_nhGood for Hofstra University for telling the Associated Press yesterday that they still expect Elizabeth Edwards to speak there next month, as a start to the school’s fall lecture series. Even if she does have to bring the husband who famously admitted last week on Nightline that after her cancer went into remission, he got involved with a New Age blonde who’d already told Newsweek that Edwards was an “old soul” who could change the world, “If he could only tap into his heart more, and use his head less.”

Thanks to the National Enquirer, we are all painfully aware that Edwards’ heart was not the only part of his anatomy that interested Hunter, who went on to work for the campaign making “webisodes” and also became involved with Edwards fundraiser Andrew Young. And for at least this midlife woman, when the Enquirer broke that story last year, it also broke our hearts.

Not because of John, whose politics you can choose to find appealing or not. But because of Elizabeth, the unflinching cancer survivor who had just told the world that her cancer’s recurrence should not prevent her husband’s presidential campaign from going forward. As Sarah Hepola said last week on, in a discussion among Broadsheet contributors worth reading in full:

I believed deeply in the Elizabeth-John love story, even as I distrusted Edwards as a politician (shifty trial lawyer that he seemed to be). When the Enquirer story broke, I shot back at others’ knee-jerk judgments, choosing to believe that a couple staring down a bleak future, wrestling with a grim prognosis (a couple who knows the agony of losing a son, no less), might make an unconventional sexual arrangement. And yet, what strikes me about today’s revelation is how conventional it seems to be: just another hotel bump-and-grind, another thirsty ego desperate to be slaked.

The first question, for many of us, upon hearing about Edwards’ infidelity was: does Elizabeth know? And if so, why is it anyone’s business but theirs? The first question was answered by Elizabeth herself, the day of the Nightline interview:

John made a terrible mistake in 2006.  The fact that it is a mistake that many others have made before him did not make it any easier for me to hear when he told me what he had done. But he did tell me. And we began a long and painful process in 2006, a process oddly made somewhat easier with my diagnosis in March of 2007.  This was our private matter, and I frankly wanted it to be private because as painful as it was I did not want to have to play it out on a public stage as well.

Yesterday, we learned from her family what most of us guessed last year: that she made exactly the sort of agonized choice to save her marriage that many of us have done, in her case exacerbated by her cancer.

“She couldn’t say, ‘Well, maybe we’ll work through this for years, or maybe we should separate for two years,'” said Hargrave McElroy, a friend, told the magazine for its Aug. 25 issue. “(The cancer) forced her to choose whether to move forward.”….

Edwards has said he both ended the affair and told Elizabeth about his infidelity in 2006. He kicked off his second bid for the White House in New Orleans a few days after Christmas, at an event that Hunter attended and Elizabeth did not.

But Elizabeth was out campaigning soon thereafter, and continued to do so after the couple disclosed in March that her breast cancer has spread to her bone and could not be cured. In July of that year, the Edwards renewed their vows to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary in the presence of a small group of friends and family, including their three children.

“There was anguish — excruciating anguish — for her in dealing with this,” McElroy said. “She was angry and furious and everything, but at one point she had to make a choice: Do I kick him out, or do we have a 30-year marriage that can be rebuilt.”

Perhaps too much has been said about the levels of self-delusion required to think that such privacy was possible, 24 years after Gary Hart’s campaign was torpedoed by photos of his fling with Donna Rice. I’ll leave such issues to the likes of male pundits, from the disappointed Walter Shapiro on the left to the never-disappointing Rush Limbaugh to the right. And not having had the privilege of interviewing her, like many of the journos talking about it last week on, I can only ponder why, with that first question answered, it still felt like the answer to the second was still that I needed to care.

It’s because many of us, from across the political spectrum, applauded as the couple renewed their wedding vows in their backyard. Melinda Henneburger, who profiled the couple in a 2005 Slate piece, wailed the week the story broke in “Just a Couple More Questions for John Edwards“:

Was all this going on when you renewed your wedding vows last summer at that intimate backyard ceremony where you wrote your own vows and there was not a dry eye in the house? (The one your wife of 30 years lost weight for, because she wanted to look pretty for you and fit into her wedding dress?)

Full disclosure: I’m not a cancer survivor, but I’ve been dancing with a chronic illness (multiple sclerosis) since 1984, and think it played a subtle role in the collapse of my much-shorter marriage a few years later. More recently, when asked how my partner of 11 years and I have stayed together, I’ve told friends that “The first thing you do at the sign of trouble is to STOP looking for the exit door.” All of which may influence how I respond to the question about the wedding,given the rest of what we now know.  I can only admire both parties trying to salvage something they’d organized their lives around. And even her quixotic, it seems, decision to continue the campaign may have felt like something close to her core: the natural next step in a series of decisions that began when the far-more-political Elizabeth agreed with  the”pretty boy” she married in 1986 that he, not she, was best suited to pursue elected office.

Having spent hundreds of words talking about it, I’m no longer in a position to say that we shouldn’t be thinking about Edwards’ involvement with Rielle Hunter (which he said, incorrectly, was  a departure from “that North Carolina boy from the mill town.” Begging your pardon, sir, but who else would have stayed a minute with a crystal-wielding girl he meets in a bar, whose thinking smacks of Scientology?) And I won’t even insist that equal time be given to Carol McCain, whose husband John tossed her after she no longer looked like a swimsuit model after her car accident. Because he could.

Still, I think the title works. We all could be Elizabeth: we all could see something we’ve fought for splintered in a second, because of others’ stupidity or our own. As midlife women, we curse what our bodies can no longer do or be or look like, even as we celebrate the power of this new stage. And we can work as hard as we can to defend Elizabeth’s, and Carol’s, right to privacy as the political scene begins rightly to focus on issues bigger than all of us.

(Cross-posted at Women’s Voices for Change. Though without the Scientology reference, likely for legal reasons…)