Decisions, Decisions

Last Friday, I had a simple decision before me: ziplining or kayaking?

My friend Elaine and I had agreed to go ziplining—oh, two Octobers ago, and somehow our plan kept getting put off. We were on the verge of letting yet another bright autumn slip away with no zip. Neither of us wanted to be the first to admit that we are no longer in the market for thrill seeking, that a sedate afternoon of kayaking is now more our style; thus the question of which activity to pursue was still dangling by a text message thread as I entered my optician’s office for my annual exam.

I wasn’t all that keen on keeping the appointment—I already had a lifetime supply of contact lenses. This is how old I am: I am so old, I remember when “soft” lenses were not yet a thing; when contact lenses were suffocating brittle little plates. A ripped contact lens meant penury, for in those days one contact lens cost far more than today’s one year supply of soft “disposables.”

As the oldest of three, then four, severely myopic children in a family with little or no disposable income, I would have been astonished to learn civilization would eventually produce disposable contact lenses. To this day, I find the concept offensive. Why throw out a perfectly viable technological miracle?

We children wore our contacts until the lenses cracked, or until our prescriptions worsened, whichever came first. As such events occurred with horrific regularity, our severely myopic family of five, then six, was a winning lottery ticket for our local optician. I couldn’t help but resent our optician’s relative wealth. And feel deep personal shame every time I let the family finances down…again…while contributing to that mustachioed man’s vacation fund.

I’ve never quite outgrown that shame, or my indignation when suddenly little slips of plastic went from being worth hundreds of dollars each to being sold in 365-packs for way cheaper. There has never been an intermediate stage of cheap single serve contact lenses…except in my medicine cabinet. I still wear my contacts until they rip or until my prescription becomes obsolete. I keep reaching what I think must be the outer limits of nearsightedness—a -10 on what I assumed had to be a scale of -1 to -10—only to learn in subsequent visits to subsequent opticians that there are further negative integers.

Last Friday, I hit a new low: -13. And that wasn’t the bad news.

The bad news was that the flashing lights I’d sensed as coming from behind my left eyeball weren’t some silly commonplace symptom of my multiple sclerosis, as I’d assumed. The optician referred to those flashing lights as an “event” that signaled my retina was maybe thirty days from detaching. She then recommended I get an appointment thirty days out, though I should see her earlier, if “a dark curtain falls across your vision. Or an array of floaters.”

I made the appointment to be polite; I was already thinking of consulting a specialist. There had to be a more proactive approach.

I refused to enter “detached retina” on Google. Instead, I texted my husband about the problem, figuring he’d Google for me, and spare me the worst. He texted, Don’t stand on your head. Stay away from roller coasters.

Excellent! The zip-line vs. kayak decision was made for me! No zip-line.

This retina crisis was wonderful. Clarifying. I would put my affairs in order. Pronto.

Another decision—vote early or vote on Election Day?—resolved. I would vote first thing the next morning.

The future is…more and more problematic.

For months now, I’ve been looking forward to driving up to Iowa City to participate in an exciting study funded by the MS Society which will compare two popular diets to treat MS-related fatigue. I’ve been fascinated by the possibility that MS can be treatable through diet, but I’ve always been hesitant to go all-out. Joining the study is going to force me to be one hundred percent compliant, while also being a force for the greater good.

And while participation in the study has been reason enough for visiting Iowa City, I’ve also been planning to stick around town the following day for a ceremony to honor James Alan McPherson, a brilliant writer and compassionate teacher of mine from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Other writers I love and esteem and/or have read will be traveling from around the country to gather in his honor. I’ve been reading his work all week, revisiting some of the very themes I remember him bringing up in workshop, to little avail. Most of us students weren’t yet well equipped to respond. I, for one, was too young at the time, too narrowly focused. Which is why I’ve appreciated his words being frozen in time in his essays, waiting patiently for decades for me to finally grow up.

While I’ve lost my chance to ever talk to Jim again about Spartans vs. Athenians, I’m happy to say that at least I did have a chance to reconnect with him five years ago, at an Iowa Writer’s Workshop Seventy Fifth Anniversary Reunion. He had been sitting alone in a crowded room; unrecognizable in that he was thoroughly unacknowledged. I sat and talked with him a long time, comparing notes on living with chronic pain and chronic illness. When I left him, I didn’t expect he’d make it another five years; I don’t think he was expecting that, either. The ceremony for him will be a vast and profound validation. It will be something to see. I’ve wanted one of us to get to see it.

So I went to a retina specialist. While I carry that old grudge against opticians, I have all the respect in the world for ophthalmologists. I’d expected an ophthalmologist would be proactive, would have some sort of plan to prevent a “dark curtain” or “an array of floaters” from falling across my vision. Surely, a retina specialist wouldn’t keep me in suspense for thirty days.

The retina specialist saw me promptly. He took a very fancy picture of my eye. That was service. He said I should make an appointment to see him in thirty days, or to call him immediately , if  “a dark curtain falls across your vision. Or an array of floaters.”

I had to admit it. The optician wasn’t so far off.

But this guy is better. He has to be. He told me he can fix the problem. He told me that if I get to him early enough in the trauma, he can fix the problem in his office. But if I get there later? He can fix it in the OR.

I already knew from my husband’s Google foray that those OR surgeries take weeks to recover from.

It seemed to me, then, that it was a good thing I lived a mere ten minute walk from his office.

“So,” I ventured, “I like to travel. Do you think it’s a good idea to travel right now?”

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The specialist answered soundly, “Travel.”

I went ahead and made an appointment with him for thirty days out.

Yesterday, I packed my bags for a three day trip to Iowa City. It was a gray day; perfect for my light sensitive eyes. I made it seventy miles before I started seeing floaters, squiggly little lines wafting across the gray sky. I wondered, how many floaters constitute “an array?”

I still had four hundred miles to go. There was so much waiting for me at the other of this trip. People I haven’t seen in five years, in twenty years. People I’ve been eager to meet. But the only person I was thinking of was my husband. How awful it would be for him to get a phone call asking for a rescue. Or worse, a phone call from a far-away hospital.

I had to make an uncomfortable decision.

I could keep driving, keep asking myself, every few miles or so, is this an array?

Or I could turn around.

It wasn’t a difficult decision, after all.

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MacGuffin

I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis during my second year of grad school at the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, which had granted me a coveted Teaching/Writing Fellowship. Up until that point, my future looked promising. I had only two sources of discomfort; the numbness and tingling in my legs, and the notion that my novel was a sham.

My friend Iqbal Pittalwala and I put our work up together. Iqbal’s piece was destined to become the title story of the delightful Dear Paramount Pictures. My piece was an excerpt from a novel destined to remain unpublished and untitled.

Our class had barely settled in our seats when workshop director Frank Conroy declared that Iqbal and I had presented “an embarrassment of riches.” I had never heard the phrase ‘embarrassment of riches’ before. I felt embarrassment, all right. Iqbal’s story was flawless. But my piece?

One of my classmates wondered aloud if the central figure in my novel was merely a MacGuffin. I had never heard the term ‘MacGuffin’ before, either. Back then we turned to Frank for definitions. We have since lost him. I turn now to Wikipedia.

A MacGuffin…is “an element that … drives the plot of a work of fiction”…The MacGuffin is the central focus … in the first act, and then declines in importance as the struggles and motivations of characters play out. Sometimes the MacGuffin is actually forgotten by the end.

My classmate had nailed it. The central figure in my novel was a missing person. I had no idea of how to leverage that character’s disappearance. I had no sense of the plot. I had been hoping that if I focused on the remaining characters, the story would suggest its own resolution. I allowed each sentence to suggest the one that would follow. Chapter after chapter, my missing person receded deeper into the background. Like a MacGuffin, my missing person seemed likely to be forgotten by the end.

Frank bristled at my classmate’s suggestion. MacGuffins were flim-flam. My novel was the real thing. “I think we’ll find that every word in this novel is necessary for its inevitable conclusion.”

After class, I considered asking Frank some leading questions, so I could coax out his notion of my novel’s inevitable conclusion. I didn’t have the moxie. I feared he would catch on.

Instead of discussing my anxieties about my novel with Frank, I discussed my anxieties about my numbness and tingling with a neurologist. The symptoms I described made sense to the neurologist, even the most bizarre. Especially the most bizarre.

The neurologist told me I had multiple sclerosis. I’d never heard the term, ‘multiple sclerosis’ before. The disease he described was ruthless. Bit by bit, my central nervous system would self-destruct. My life would be foreshortened. That was it. The end.

I wore my Workshop mask, listening to the nightmare prognosis as though it were just another critique. Surely this was someone else’s story, this prognosis of a horrific decline? I didn’t ask the neurologist any questions. I didn’t have the moxie. I accepted his “literature.” I think I even thanked him. I walked off, and waited until I was far beyond his sight line before I allowed a tear to fall.

I went directly from there to the Workshop. It was on my way home.

Secretary Deb West and Program Associate Connie Brothers were the first to console me. Connie assured me that plenty of writers persisted through chronic illness; both men on the faculty— Frank Conroy and James Alan McPherson—had diabetes, as did visiting writer Thom Jones.

On hearing the news, Frank ushered me into his office. He trembled with indignation at the audacity of this as-yet untested diagnosis. I later learned that Frank would telephone his good buddy, Antonio Demasio, then the head of University of Iowa Neurology. My neurologist would get in deep trouble. Don’t feel too sorry for him. He would retaliate with my lumbar puncture. My spinal fluid would leak out through the puncture, leaving my unsupported brain to scrape against my brainpan. The resulting spinal headache made me want to die.

If Frank Conroy played the role of father, or perhaps Godfather, my classmates Karen Leh and Janet Roach played the role of sisters. Karen held my hand as I heard the tests results that confirmed the diagnosis. Karen and Janet convinced Frank, Jim, Connie and Marilynne Robinson to pitch in with them to buy me a used TV.

Marilynne, the mother figure, invited my husband and I to her home for dinner. She assured us that watching television was an acceptable pastime. I had no interest in television. I had no interest in finishing my novel, either. My diagnosis prompted an epiphany of what I really wanted out of life. I wanted a child.

As the year came to close, Marilynne took me out to eat, on Paul Newman’s dime, to urge me not to give up on my novel. “Finish your novel to support your child.” I smiled politely. I understood it could be difficult for the author of Housekeeping to imagine that not everyone’s novel could make enough money to actually support a child. The success of Housekeeping had enabled her to support two children.

I had one last chance to come clean with Frank Conroy. I went to his office for his advice on grading. The most talented student in my undergraduate writing class was a Brit with a cockney accent and a Billy Idol haircut. The boy had written a gorgeous short story I had praised to the sky. After that, he quit going to class. I didn’t want to flunk such a talented writer.

“Maybe I put too much pressure on him,” I suggested.

There was no pregnant pause.

“Nonsense,” Frank snapped. “The boy deserves F.”

At the end of the year, I handed in a novel with a pseudo-ending. The gig was up. I’d written a MacGuffin. Frank did not follow his own advice; he was more of a softie than he let on. I didn’t get an “F.” I got an MFA.

In the years that followed, my classmates produced an embarrassment of riches. I added each new gem to my bookshelf. My own writing receded deeper into the background. I focused on raising my child. That child has turned out fine. I have finally returned to writing. In my blog, http://www.mslabratcom/, I examine my life with multiple sclerosis. I have a real story to tell, after all. I have located that missing girl in my novel.

I am the MacGuffin…no longer.

author’s note: I recently attended the 75th Anniversary Reunion at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. It took me three solid days to recover from leaving my loved ones in Iowa City all over again. One of the very many nice surprises of the weekend was the discovery that this essay appears, in a slightly modified form, in the Workshop’s anniversary anthology, Word by Word. I was tickled to be anthologized with so many writers I’ve admired for years.
Recommended Reading:

Here are but a few of the gems from that embarrassment of riches that was my class at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I recommend all of them without reservation:

A Better Angel: Stories by Chris Adrian

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0312428537/ref=pd_lpo_k2_dp_sr_1?pf_rd_p=486539851&pf_rd_s=lpo-top-stripe-1&pf_rd_t=201&pf_rd_i=1932416609&pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_r=06C72H4WC8PNVS5KD39V

Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian

http://www.amazon.com/Childrens-Hospital-Chris-Adrian/dp/1932416609

Gob’s Grief: A Novel by Chris Adrian

http://www.amazon.com/Gobs-Grief-Novel-Chris-Adrian/dp/0375726241/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1295041180&sr=1-1

The Testament of Yves Gundron by Emily Barton

http://www.amazon.com/Testament-Yves-Gundron-Emily-Barton/dp/074341148X

Brookland: A Novel by Emily Barton

http://www.amazon.com/Brookland-Novel-Emily-Barton/dp/0374116903

Juniper Tree Burning by Goldberry Long

http://www.amazon.com/Juniper-Tree-Burning-Goldberry-Long/dp/0743202031

Living With Saints by Mary O’Connell

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_0_14?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=mary+o%27connell&sprefix=mary+o%27connell

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_16?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=invisible+bridge&sprefix=invisible+bridge

Dear Paramount Pictures by Iqbal Pittalwala

http://www.amazon.com/Dear-Paramount-Pictures-Iqbal-Pittalwala/dp/0870744755

The Mysterious Benedict Society Series by Trenton Lee Stewart

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_3_51?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=trenton+lee+stewart+the+mysterious+benedict+society&sprefix=trenton+lee+stewart+the+mysterious+benedict+society

The Lonely Polygamist by Bradley Udall

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0393062627/ref=pd_lpo_k2_dp_sr_1?pf_rd_p=486539851&pf_rd_s=lpo-top-stripe-1&pf_rd_t=201&pf_rd_i=0375719180&pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_r=0RWNERVJNHXDGTQV64FW

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Bradley Udall

http://www.amazon.com/Miracle-Life-Edgar-Mint-Novel/dp/0375719180

It looks like the very talented Lisa Taggert, who helped my edit my fellowship application, wrote a book I ought to read: Women Who Win: Female Athletes on Being the Best

http://www.amazon.com/Women-Who-Win-Female-Athletes/dp/1580052002/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpi_1

Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion and Redemption by Jerald Walker
My review: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/164030784
amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Street-Shadows-Memoir-Rebellion-Redemption/dp/0553807552/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1304004405&sr=1-1
Am I missing any big publications from the authors to come out of our year? Workshop collegues, let me know. I am always eager to read and recommend yet another great book.

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