Home is Where the Artist


Some of you, maybe even one of you, may have noticed a dearth of drivel adding up to a paltry and pitiful product of posts made to this site in recent months. You may have wondered why (although you most probably didn’t) the drop-off in both quantity and quality. Despite some answers and rationalizations I had on the ready, if I ever were to be honest with myself, I know that I, for one, was certainly wondering why.

It occurred to me that when I gave my stock answer, that I’d just finished writing my second novel (coincidentally titled I Don’t Know Why) and needed to take some time away from writing after spending so much time on it, it didn’t ring true.  The truth is that I had no new ideas and that, for the first time, writing had become an unpleasant chore for me.  Even worse, I felt that I hadn’t grown, hadn’t improved over the stuff I was writing nine or ten years ago. I felt, after finally finishing what was a fairly ambitious work in I Don’t Know Why, the short stuff I wrote for this site and others seemed tedious and repetitive, and I was showing no growth as an artist.

That’s right, I said it, the “a” word. I’ll admit it – I aspire to be recognized as an artist. Pretentious, yes. Overly ambitious – you bet.  Out of my league – most probably.

But to me, whether I’m capable of artistry or not, it makes no sense to aspire to mediocrity. Better to aim too high than shoot too low.

It’s certainly how I approached both of my novels.  In both Ojibway Valley and I Don’ Know Why, I wanted to write about what I feel are important topics.  In Ojibway Valley, I wanted to write about how the past shapes the present, and loss, how the decisions we make when dealing with it change the world in ways we are not even aware of.  In I Don’t Know Why, I wanted to write about how trauma and isolation can drive an individual to their breaking point, and how love and truth can bring one back. I wanted to write about things like life and death, truth and betrayal. You know, serious stuff.

Additionally, I had specific “technical” themes I challenged myself with.  In Ojibway Valley, these included conveying my own romantic relationship with a real place and trying to make the reader feel the same way about my fictional landscape, and I wanted to tell the stories (because there are more than one) in a non-linear format and tie them together in the end. In I Don’t Know Why, I wanted to write a stronger narrative that unfolds in a shorter period of time than the 120 years or so Ojibway Valley covered (I succeeded in that I Don’t Know Why covers roughly ten years – I’d like someday to write a novel that takes place in a single afternoon or over a single night, but I’m not there yet). I also wanted to play with telling the story from the point of view of an unreliable narrator

Whether and to what degree I succeeded or failed at all this is up to the readers to decide (I know how I feel). And I know that for Ojibway Valley, readers has been a low number. I also know that nobody believes me when I say that I’m okay with that.  Given my diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease, Ojibway Valley was the book I had to write, that I had to complete and publish, if for no other reason than for my children to better know me, to know what laid in my heart and mind and soul. At this stage of my life, money isn’t the motivator – I spent an entire career chasing that, now it’s time to chase other, more elusive things.

Not that more money and readers would be a bad thing.  I did spend a year kind of half-assed trying to sell Ojibway Valley, but my heart really wasn’t in it – I just wanted to write the next one and move on.  During that year I started the first draft of I Don’t Know Why, and settled probably too easily on self-publishing Ojibway Valley.

So what is it that left such a sour taste in my mouth that I found myself first putting off writing and then avoiding it all together?

Could it be my health?  A reoccurrence of the heart problems I had a couple of years ago, or the advancement of Parkinson’s?  Well, let’s take a look at that:

How am I doing?

Overall, I’m doing exceptionally well.

First, my heart – it’s been over two years since I had triple bypass surgery, and I’m doing so well that most days I forget it ever happened.  I recently saw my weight dip below 200 pounds (199.6 for one time only, since then I’ve been stuck between 202 and 203!) for the first time in at least twenty five years. I still work out at the hospital every day, and I’m confident that as long as I continue to exercise and watch what I eat and take my prescribed dosage of Lipitor every day, my cholesterol levels should remain where they’ve been at for over a year now, which is about half of what they were before the surgery.

Now, P.D. –  It’s been twelve years since my diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, and I’m doing better and taking less carbidopa / levodopa, the primary medications used in fighting Parkinson’s’, than I have in years. Thanks to the right mixture of pills and exercise and deep-brain stimulation, the balance issues I suffered last summer are pretty much non-existent.

Every day, I wake up prepared for a fight with P.D.  Lately, I feel so good that it feels like I’m landing almost all of my punches, and that I’m kicking Parkinson’s ass. But while I might be connecting with right uppercuts and haymaker left hooks to Parkinson’s head, almost undetected are the subtle but powerful body shots PD is still hitting me in the ribs with, and when I look at things honestly, I realize the scorecard still has PD. in the lead. PD is a plodder, a bulldozer, able to bob and weave his way in and take the most vicious blows to the head without so much as a stagger, while working tirelessly on my rib cage and abdomen, knocking breath after breath out of me. There will be no quick T.K.O. of Parkinson’s, but at least I’m still in the ring.

I still get exhausted after taking my meds, and take an afternoon nap every day, and sometimes an additional late morning nap, too.  My salivary glands have kicked into a permanent setting of hyper overdrive, resulting in a wet and thick mouth that makes speaking coherently more often than not difficult in the day time and for a flood of drool on my pillow at night time.

My sense of balance is much better than a year ago, but I still have the occasional stumble if not out and out fall. It’s certainly manageable. What is becoming increasingly frustrating is the erosion of my hand to eye coordination.  While I have to admit that when it comes to physical grace, nobody has ever compared me to a Nureyev or Baryshnikov, at least I used to be able to do simple tasks at a normal speed. Now, for example, when checking out at the grocery store, it takes me so long to put my bank card back in my wallet that the high school kid doing the bagging has started his graduate studies. It can be frustrating as hell to try and tie a fishing hook or to simply untangle the wires of my headphones. The worst is trying to open the clear plastic bags in the produce section of the grocery store. I know, everybody occasionally struggles with the two sides of clear plastic that are so thin and bound so tightly together as to make it easier to break into Fort Knox than separate, but most people don’t spend fifteen hapless minutes trying to open one bag until finally some good Samaritan steps in and quickly snaps the bags open for me. I may not be a fading southern belle, but I find myself like Blanche Dubois depending more and more upon the kindness of strangers.

I’m also prone to frequent and sudden drowsiness. This has led to my wife doing most of the driving, and as a rule, I don’t drive if the trip is longer than a half hour. This makes getting up to my cabin in northwest Wisconsin, more than 300 miles from home, an exercise in logistics and planning if I want to spend some alone time up there.  This week, for example, I took the bus from Kenosha to O’Hare and flew the short (the bus ride to the airport took longer than the time we were in the air) and cheap one-way ticket flight to Eau Claire, where my son Nicholas lives.  Nick then drove me the hour (made two hours by unexpected road closings) trip north to our cabin, where he dropped me off.  Today, my sister, who has a cabin of her own a couple of hundred yards or so away from mine, arrived from her home in Oshkosh, where she will take me next Thursday, so my wife has a shorter trip to pick me up and  take me back home to Pleasant Prairie (south of Kenosha).  So in a week and half, I will have traveled by bus, airplane, and three different cars into Illinois and all around the State of Wisconsin, just to get a few days use out of our property.  It truly takes a village.

But these are still, in the grand scheme of things, pretty minor complaints. The big thing to take away from this is that with the weight loss and exercise, overall, I feel really good.

So what was it that put myself into such a funk about writing?

Well, I think one thing was sheer boredom and laziness. I think I’d become bored with writing because I’ve been doing it for long enough now that I wasn’t pushing myself anymore. I’d developed a lot of bad habits, and instead of trying to break them, I found myself leaning on them, using these same old tricks to whip through whatever I was working on.  The result was an increasing mediocrity and repetitiveness in my writing, especially the essays I wrote for the site 2ndfirstlook.com. Anytime I contributed one of my lists (“Favorite one hit wonders,” for example) I was clearly just going through the motions and repeating a formula that was already tired the first time I trotted it out a couple of years ago.

Whatever it was, it had to stop.  Paradoxically, I think the fact that I was feeling so well worked against me as a writer. It seems that denial isn’t just a one-time thing you go through with Parkinson’s, and while it might be better than its twin sister obsession, denying the truth can be just as dangerous as obsessing over it all the time. Writing had become, with the constant typos and misinterpretations of the signals my brain was sending to my fingers, an annoying reminder that I hadn’t knocked out PD yet. I didn’t want to think about these things, they didn’t fit with the narrative I was trying to sell myself on, that I was losing weight and regaining strength and rolling the clock back decades. I chose to ignore things like the fatigue I still suffered from and avoid things that would remind me of my condition and deny those things I couldn’t avoid.  For example, if I was really turning the clock back, I wouldn’t require a nap every day.

Eventually, though, and only recently, the need to express myself has seemingly returned, and I’ve found myself returning to writing and rediscovering my love for it.

Since Nick dropped me off up here almost a week ago, I’ve been at my north woods cabin, not quite alone as my sister is up at her neighboring cabin. A tornado came through in mid-May, right between our two cabins, amazingly not touching either one but knocking down an extraordinary number of trees on my 47 acre property, many over the trails we use to get around the woods on.  So about a week after the storm I bought a new chain saw and have been, when up here, trying to clear the trails. I’d been making good progress when Friday afternoon, as I neared the far edge of the property, I found two immense trees that had fallen smack dab over the trail. I started cutting the first one, when during a momentary lapse of attention I badly buried the blade of my new saw deep in the center of the tree, unable to move it in either direction. I should have known better, that both sides were supporting weight and that  I couldn’t cut straight thru without it binding on me, but hey, it happens. I could absolve myself of that sin. What was more neglectful was how unprepared I was for the situation.  Sure, I had a mallet and a couple of small wedges, but it quickly became obvious that they were woefully not up to this job. Then I remembered that back at my cabin I had my old chainsaw that I hadn’t started in months.  So I hopped on my ATV and went back and got my old saw, with the intent of using it to cut out my new saw. Just in case I couldn’t get the old one started, I looked for more wedges, but the closest I could find was an old wood chisel. Grabbing it and my old saw I returned to the scene of the crime. First, I tried the old saw. Much to my surprise, she started right off, but the chain was worn so bad that it got about halfway through the log before I finally gave up on it. I then sat myself down and went to work with the mallet and the chisel.

The sunny afternoon sky was soon consumed by gray clouds, and sure enough, it wasn’t long before it started raining.  I continued chiseling, and listened to the soft symphony of the rain in the woods, a sound I’ve loved since I was a kid.  It occurred to me as I sat there, chiseling away, how much I was enjoying myself.  You’d think that with the saw stuck and the rain falling down I’d be miserable, but I wasn’t. I knew that eventually I’d get my new saw out of that tree, and in the meantime I’d just celebrate how good I felt, and how blessed I was  to have my hands occupied by the work I was doing, giving a reason to be out there, in the middle of the woods in the soft summer rain.

After working on it for about an hour, I was finally able to yank the new saw out. Figuring that in the process of yanking it out I’d undoubtedly flooded my saw, I packed everything up. I was soaking wet from the combination of sweat and rain, and dirty, my hands and shirt and jeans covered in wet sawdust that clung to skin and clothing. I stood there for a second before starting the ATV.  The rain had stopped and bright summer sunlight streamed through the leaves and onto my face. The woods were lush and green and alive, and I felt good, I felt like for a moment at least I was part of it all.

I strapped all of my gear to the ATV and drove out of the woods.  Somewhere along the trail back, a familiar refrain that I hadn’t heard for a while popped into my head:

I have to write about this.

 

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