The stranger asks:
The author answers:
|You’re a novelist? Have you published anything?
|You’re a surgeon? Have you ever operated on anyone?
|Have you written anything I might have read?
|Do you read novels?
I read a couple every year.
Still haven’t figured out the formula.
|Literature or fiction?
Any of your novels
made into movies?
|Only in my nightmares.
Who do you get compared to,
as a writer?
My brother compares me to a
volcano of repressed anger.
My therapist doesn’t disagree.
|So self publishing, how difficult is that?
It’s a challenge, from what I can tell.
I am not self published.
|You have a publisher? how did that happen?
|I wrote a proposal and a first chapter. My agent tapped the right editor on the shoulder, the publisher bought it, and that started the ball rolling.
|You have an agent? how did that happen?
I wrote a lot of letters and talked to a lot of people
and had a really good proposal and first chapter.
|Could you introduce me to your editor, publisher, agent?
|Wait, you write fiction?
I plan to give it six weeks.
That should do it.
Now that’s a coincidence. I was planning on
learning how to take out an appendix this summer.
|That’s a no to the agent, editor, publisher intro?
|Technically it’s a no, no, no.
|So you’re writing a novel now?
|Are you still practicing medicine?
|What are your novels about? Any good reviews?
|Funny you should ask. I’m wondering what kind of surgery you do and how your patients evaluate you.
|You are tough.
|Yes, I’m a published novelist.
|So when is your next novel coming out?
About six to ten months after I finish it.
|Really? So what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be at home working? When will it ever be finished, the way you slack off?
|Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.
The Mathematician now has three honkin big screws pinning femur to pelvis on the left side. He spends one more night in the hospital and will be home tomorrow, once he’s completely comfortable with crutches and the negotiation of stairs. His spirits are alarmingly good. Opiates will do that, I guess.
Here is one of the best Mathematician stories, ever. I am telling it now because (1) the statute of limitations expired long ago and (2) it provides some perspective on a guy who would walk ten miles on a broken hip.
The Mathematician and I shared a suite of rooms in the Princeton graduate college dorms one summer. We were getting ready to move to a place off campus, and all our stuff was in boxes, piled up to the ceiling.
On the morning in question I took off to work on my dissertation in the computer lab on the third floor in the East Pyne Building.[1. Note: this is long before anybody had a computer of their own, and the computers were the kind you hooked up to a mainframe by way of a telephone handset you forced into rubber cups on a big modem. And you could input only one line of text at a time. It makes me laugh to think about it. Shortly thereafter the computer were upgraded and we got software. I wrote my doctoral dissertation with WordPerfect 1.2.] So there I am, typing away on a tiny screen, amber letters onto a black background, when the Mathematician comes flying into the room, out of breath. Fortunately there was nobody else in the room at the time, because he flings himself down next to me and says I don’t want you to be mad at me.
Interesting start to the conversation.
This is what happened, he tells me. Somebody knocked on the dorm room door. Nothing good ever comes of answering a knock at the door, because the fire inspectors stood there looking serious. Now, he believed there was nothing to worry about — we had no coffee makers or toasters or anything that produced heat — so he let them in.
These two inspector types have a quick look around the two rooms and a bath, and they’re about to leave when one them scans the tower of packed boxes. He points to one of them near the top and asks the question. Is that a toaster oven box?
Um, yes, says the Mathematician. But it’s never been open. You can see the seal is still intact. It’s just in transit and will be out of here tomorrow.
Never mind that, sez the inspector. You’re in violation. We’re taking it with us. You’ll get a notice about a hearing and a fine.
Here’s the thing: the Mathematician has both a keen sense of justice, and a temper. They left, and he jumped onto his bike and took off in pursuit of the inspectors in their van. He followed them all over campus until they got to the security building, parked, and went in.
Now he leaps to take advantage of the opportunity, opens the van, digs through piles of tea kettles and hot plates, grabs the toaster oven box — and this is not a small box — tucks it under one arm, and pedals away at high speed.
Fast forward to me listening to this in the computer lab.
Me: Um, you stole the toaster oven out of the van.
Him: No. I liberated your property from men who had seized it under false pretenses.
Me: And what did you do with it?
Him: It’s in a safe place.
Him: It’s in my office in the math department.
Him: Nobody saw me taking it into the building.
Him: I’m pretty sure.
Me: They could deport you.
Fast forward to the day the notice arrives inviting me to visit the security office to be interviewed about my sins. I sit down across from the director of security trying to look calm.
Security Guy: This is a fairly unusual situation. Inspectors seized a toaster oven from your rooms at the graduate college a few days ago, but it disappeared from the van that same morning.
Security Guy: Yes. The inspectors mentioned that there was a young man in your rooms when they took the toaster oven.
SG: A tall guy, brown hair, brown eyes. They believed he may have followed them here and stolen the toaster oven out of the van.
SG: Who was that person?
Me: I’m not sure I know.
SG: He had an English accent.
SG: You don’t know who was in your rooms when the inspectors came by?
Me: It wasn’t me, I know that much.
SG: You don’t have a name for me.
Me: I do not.
SG: Okay. Well, we will reimburse you for the cost of the toaster oven, of course. How much did it cost?
Me: Do I still have to pay the $50 fine?
SG: Of course.
Me: The toaster oven was $50.
SG: Then I think we’re finished here.
See? Persistant. Unflinching. Anxiety-inducing.
The Bat, the Knee, the Bicycle, and Dick, the Doctor
Imagine, if you will, an evening in the fall. Here in the Pacific Northwest the weather is cool but pleasant, and it’s dark at five.
The Mathematician is in the habit of going to a local brew pub to meet a friend, every Wednesday evening. They drink beer and play darts. On this particular Wednesday evening, the Mathematician decides to ride his bike into town rather than driving. This is so he can drink more beer, of course. He is not only logical, but responsible.
He takes off on his bike, headed for what is called the interurban bike trail, which runs parallel to Chuckanut Drive. It leads from out here in the county all the way into town, and rarely has anything to do with a road where cars have to be considered. Generally very safe, if a little spooky at night. Imagine a trail through the woods, overhung with trees.
Ten o’clock. I am sewing, with my feet up and the dogs draped across my legs. I hear the garage opening: the Mathematician home from the Wednesday night outing. He comes in, and stands next to my chair. The fiddly bit of sewing in my hands prevents me from looking up.
–Have a nice time?
–Mmmmm, well. I’ve had better.
I look up and see that his pant leg is bloody from the knee down to the shoe. Really bloody. I leap out of the chair, dogs flying, and into action, and as a part of that, ask a lot of questions of the what – where – how variety.
He is very calm, in spite of the fact that his knee — visible once I have stripped him down to his skivvies — is swollen to twice its normal size. He hit a pothole on the way home. He managed to get home, so the knee isn’t broken, but it sure looks bad.
I am peering and prodding and dabbing.
–I think we have to go to the emergency room. Or at least I have to call the doctor.
–(nonchalantly) oh, and something else: I got bit by a bat on the head.
I sit down while he tells the story. Riding along the interurban, minding his own business, a bat landed on his head and bit him. Or scratched him. Hard to tell the difference. Blood was let, in any case. I consider searching his scalp for the evidence, and decide this is beyond my expertise. And, a question has occurred to me.
–You weren’t wearing your helmet.
–So that’s when you fell off the bike?
–Oh, no. The bat bit me on the way to town. I hit the pothole on the way back.
–Hold on. Let me see if I understand. On the way to town, while riding your bike — without a helmet– you got bit by a bat on the head. And you went on to drink beer and play darts.
–Yes, that’s right.
–Okay. And on the way home you hit a pothole and did this to your knee.
–Yes, right again. But I was wearing my helmet on the way home.
–In case the bat was lying in wait, hoping for another chomp?
–Yes, I suppose so.
–You decided to go ahead into town for beer and darts while bat-saliva and blood was dripping from your scalp?
–Seemed reasonable at the time.
Fast forward to me on the phone with the emergency room nurse:
–…it’s very swollen, but it doesn’t seem to hurt him much.
–It could probably wait until tomorrow morning, if you call your doctor first thing. I didn’t tell you this, by the way, because we’re not allowed to make any kind of diagnosis on the phone.
— So while you’re not telling me things, I should mention that he also got bit by a bat on the head.[pause]
–Maybe you better start from the beginning.
…. and then he came home.
–Wait. Let me get this straight. He got bit by a bat on the head …
…and went on to the brew pub to meet his friend for beer and darts.
–He does know that bats are often rabid?
–He figured it could wait until tomorrow. I suppose he’s a little jaded. He’s had the rabies series before.
–A feral cat scratched him.
–On the arm.
–No, I mean, where was he?
–Huh. When was this?
–A long time ago. When he was a kid.
–And they gave him the rabies series in Greece?
–They gave him the rabies series, but not in Greece, in England.
–How did England get into the story?
–So he’s visiting here? Maybe he should go home for the rabies series this time too.
–No, he lives here. He’s been here since 1984.
–Okay, so listen. He’s out drinking beer, do you think maybe he imagined the bat?
–No, he didn’t imagine the bat. The bat bite was before the beer. The knee was after the beer, but he didn’t imagine that either, because I’m looking at the knee.
–Have you looked at the bite?
–This is the strangest phone call I’ve had in a while.
–Imagine how I feel.
When I got off the phone with a plan (to call our doctor first thing in the morning about the knee and the bat and the bite on the head), the Mathematician was deeply asleep with his swollen knee up on a pillow. The beer, I think, or all the excitement.
The next morning we called the doctor’s office and spoke to Sue, Meg and Dick’s nurse. The conversation with the emergency room nurse pretty much repeated itself, after which the Mathematician went in to be seen.
Dick let the blood out of his knee and looked at his scalp, and Sue looked at his scalp, and then they called the Health Department and the Health Department wanted to see him, and they all looked at his scalp, and then he was sent to the emergency room, more looking at the scalp.
Finally they gave him the first round of rabies shots, and he had to go in every week for four or five more rounds of shots, I forget now, because to tell the truth, I really didn’t want to know.
At one point in my life I was a full time faculty member at a high powered Big Ten school, with administrative, teaching and research expectations. I had graduate students writing doctoral theses under my direction, and others who I advised. I attended conferences and gave papers two or three times a year, I wrote articles, I edited volumes of articles, I published two full length books. All of this between the years 1987 and 1997.
During that same period I had a baby, and two years later, I went into treatment for secondary infertility. After four losses over a two year period, we decided to stop trying. We had a healthy, bright kid, and we counted ourselves lucky to have her.
When the Girlchild was about three, I started writing fiction more seriously. I joined a group of writers, we met every other week and I worked hard on a series of short stories that eventually became Homestead. At one time I was writing Homestead, Into the Wilderness, and English with and Accent simultaneously. I was up for tenure that year. At that point the turn down rate in the humanities (at UM/Ann Arbor) was more than 70 percent, so I also went on the job market in anticipation of not getting tenure. My first short stories were published. I got an agent. I got tenure.
In graduate school my PhD advisor called me a force of nature. At UM, my colleagues nodded in approval. Normal people asked in all seriousness how I got so much done. I would crack wise in response. I don’t do windows. Sleep is highly overrated. In fact both of those things were true. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we did have household help once a week for a few hours. And I got very little sleep. Insomnia was my self diagnosis. I went back to the reproductive endocrinologist who had treated me for secondary infertility and he checked me over. I was thirty seven at that point. He mentioned some possibilities: early onset menopause. Sleep apnea.
On winter break we drove from Ann Arbor to Lake Placid, so the Mathematician and the Girlchild could ski (or better said, he could ski and she could take ski lessons). I was going to use that time to do research for one of the historical novels. I had an appointment to meet with the archivist at the Schuyler mansion. There was a huge amount of snow, and it was very icy. Driving south on the North Road near Glens Falls, I hit a patch of black ice and drove into a cliff face at about fifty miles an hour. The car (three months old) was totaled. I walked away with a sprained wrist and a lot of colorful bruises from the airbag and safety belt. You be glad of that airbag, one of the rescue people told me. Or we’d be scraping you off that cliff face. We had to rent a car to get home. The Mathematician drove the whole way. I kept falling asleep and jerking awake in a sweat.
Shortly after that, I began to develop a driving phobia. If there was any snow, if the road was wet, it was almost impossible for me to get on a highway or freeway. Once I got on, I would be tense to the point of lockjaw until I got off. Many times I took an exit and then realized that I was nowhere near where I needed to go, but in my panic I had convinced myself that it was the right exit to take.
We left Ann Arbor and moved to the Pacific Northwest. I had a new faculty position, the Girlchild had a new school. The Mathematician brought his job with him. My driving phobia got worse. It got so bad that more than once I almost caused an accident. I found it hard to concentrate, I was forgetful, I lost things constantly.
I went to the doctor. He asked me to fill out a depression evaluation. Which I flunked. I can’t be depressed, I told him. I’m running as fast as I can, all the time. He suggested a therapist. I went home and wept for a day. Then I went to see a therapist. It took a couple months for me to see what was going on.
The first big revelation: You can be depressed and be productive. A-type personalities may slide deeper and deeper into depression going a hundred miles an hour and leaping buildings in a single bound. Which makes you harder to diagnose, my therapist told me, and it also makes other the kind of depressed person really mad. The guy who crawls under the covers and is immobilized.
Insomnia, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating, weepiness, these are signs of depression.
But I wrote three books, I told her. I wrote dozens of articles and reviews. I got tenure. My daughter is healthy and well adjusted. My marriage is solid.
You lost four pregnancies and went through two years of medical hell, she told me. You went up for tenure in a Big Ten crucible. You had a near fatal car accident. You started sliding into depression during infertility treatment and down you went.
Looking back now it’s obvious, but back then it wasn’t. Back then it would have felt like whining or self indulgence.
One clinical definition of depression is anger turned inward. Sometimes there’s no logical place to put your anger. Sometimes directing your anger where it belongs is something you can’t let yourself do. It took a long time and a lot of therapy before some of that began to shift for me. After six months or so I went on medication as well.
You hear a lot of talk about people being overmedicated. Maybe that’s true. Maybe doctors are too ready to hand out SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) but then there’s no blood test to tell them exactly what’s out of whack with your brain chemistry, and so they err on the side of caution. Because when depression hits bottom and the bottom gives way, it’s much harder to pull off a save. A doctor doesn’t hesitate to give insulin, doesn’t worry about the next big expose article and fad controversy. But depression meds — that’s fair game. It’s an easy target. Rise up in outrage, all ye who have never missed an hour’s sleep, or lost a loved one to suicide.
I started medication on a Monday. They told me it would take a couple weeks to kick in. I wasn’t really expecting any change because at that point I still didn’t really credit the idea that I was depressed. I was a preoccupied insomniac with a work ethic. Everybody had an acronym in those days. I was a PIWE, as were so many other academics.
And then about ten days after I started taking meds, I was walking down the street on a warmish morning in late January. Thinking about dinner or the parent-teacher meeting coming up or whether or not to give a pop quiz — really, I don’t remember. But I do know that I looked up and it struck me very suddenly that the world was in color.
Sometime over the last seven or eight years, all the colors had leeched out of the world, and I hadn’t even noticed. Now suddenly it was all there again. How was such a thing possible? And where were my sunglasses? It occurred to me that the person who wrote the Wizard of Oz screenplay understood something about depression. Dorothy leaves gray-scale Kansas and opens the door into Technicolor Oz.
Within six weeks my driving phobia had pretty much disappeared, and I could merge onto the highway without breaking into a sweat. I started sleeping normally. I stopped getting weepy for no reason.
Why am I telling this story today, you’re wondering.
I’m telling this story because today I realized that at some point or another I started down that old depression slide again, and I’m picking up speed. Insomnia, inability to concentrate, irritability, anxiety. Time to go back to the therapist, back to the doctor, fill a prescription, start talking. Time to turn up the color.
A few months ago I heard that the husband of a former student had committed suicide. I don’t know what was up with him, if had been clinically depressed, if he had been diagnosed and treated, or if he had never found his way to the person who asked him the right questions. So this is also something of a public service announcement. Some things you may not know, from All About Depression:
If you need help, get it.