I Don’t Know How She Does It . . .

“She,” in this case, being Joyce Carol Oates, who has lived with a diagnosis of tachycardia for the past 40+ years. I recall reading an interview with her a bazillion years ago in which she mentioned that the heart condition could kill her at any time, and that the knowledge of that potential sudden death helped her get over any anxiety she had about writing.

But maybe I’m misremembering that last part. Since getting out of the ER last Friday, I’ve been on a rollercoaster. The heart/lung symptoms that prompted the ER visit changed by the beginning of the week; the “weird fluttering” is gone, but I found myself having episodes where I was yawning repeatedly, almost compulsively, never quite able to get enough air. I’ve got a cardiologist appt. early next week, and I’m hoping to get confirmation that whatever-this-is is stress- and/or allergy-driven, and that my heart and lungs are fine.

It’s been a very difficult stretch for me, especially because I spend so much time alone. If I’m not talking to other people (or the dogs), I talk to myself. I’ve spent much of the past week with two voices in my head: one yelling, “You’re a hypochondriac!” and the other yelling, “You’re going to have a heart attack and die tonight!”

(There’s a third voice, actually: my dad’s. He’s been calling every day to see how I’m doing, which is kinda astonishing. At first, I was short with him, because I didn’t want to compare our respective conditions, or because I’m too cool, or because I didn’t want to let him in to see the dread that I’m experiencing. It took me a few days to really get the notion of, “This is your father, man. And, sure, his behavior in your childhood was a big part of the reason that you developed all that guardedness and anxiety, but he’s calling you because he loves you and can’t bear the thought of losing you, even if he can’t say that.” Tomorrow, we’ll go to the Chabad service so he can pray for his parents’ souls. I shouldn’t be writing on Kol Nidre, but I want to get this out because I haven’t really addressed how I’ve been feeling.)

All that anxiety magnified the severity of my symptoms, making it feel like I’ve got a time-bomb in my chest, making it more difficult for me to draw a solid breath and feel at ease, making me believe that the end is nigh. Is my right hand going numb because of an aneurysm or because I haven’t eaten for 8 hours? That crick in my neck from sleeping badly or is it an artery about to go? That stabbing sensation in my chest? Oh, wait, that’s just the itchiness from the hair growing back where they had to shave it for the stress test.

But when I could just talk to people about quotidian stuff, it would take me out of myself and I’d feel just fine. Either the symptoms would abate or I just become less aware of them.

As long as I don’t think about it, I think I’ll be okay.

So one part of me has been trying to maintain my routines and act as though nothing serious is happening, while another part is trying to total up all the things I should’ve done in my life and what I’ll still have time to do. I mean, what am I supposed to do? Quit work and go to an ashram? Be calm and carry on? I’ve got people out the wazoo telling me to relax, not to stress so much, but none of them offer to do my work for me. (And it was a lot of work, with a 150-page issue that had to go out by Wednesday in order to print and ship in time for a big show in Germany that I’m supposed to attend in a few weeks.)

On Tuesday night, things got so bad that I was afraid that I wouldn’t make it through to morning. I found myself regretting, of all things, that I wouldn’t get to read the newest issue of Love & Rockets. I’d heard that Jaime Hernandez had a monumental story in it, and it saddened me that I wouldn’t see it.

There weren’t a lot of other regrets that occurred to me on Tuesday night. I regretted being sharp with Amy during the drive home from the train station that night, but I knew she understood how shaken and scared I was. Once home I decided that, if this was to be my last night alive, then I’d go out with a little joy: having a fine gin & tonic and watching some baseball.

And if it turned out that I was being a hypochondriac, then I figured the G&T would relax me a bit. And I’m a long way past getting worked up about a Yankees game.

I felt fine on Wednesday morning, and pushed on with a positive outlook most of the day. When I got home from the office (and that work-stress from the first three days of this week didn’t help me any), the annual issue of L&R was waiting for me at the door. I took the dogs for a walk around the block, then fed them and lay on the sofa with the new book. I cried like a baby at the final pages. It was that good and I’m that emotionally raw.

Now (Friday night, just about one week from when I left the ER) I’m feeling a million times better. I still get short of breath/yawny on occasion, but I’m almost certain it’s due to anxiety. Among the lessons I learned this past week, the big one is that my anxiety is so much more vast and subtle than I ever imagined. It’s one thing to actively think, “I’m going to die,” and trigger a fear-reaction. But no: I found myself falling into those thoughts only after these episodes began. I got a real taste of how dread works behind the scenes, the chimera obscura. The longer I went without talking to someone or opening myself up to something like music (even when the iPod in my car thought it would be funny to shuffle up Breathe or Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?) or a good podcast or some silliness with the dogs, the more this dread gathered.

Walking the dogs around the neighborhood last night, I wondered what it would be like if I could get those two voices in my head in harmony. What if I could be reconciled that I’d been worrying over nothing, but also retain that immanence unto death? Would there be some way to use it, like Ms. Oates did, to let that specter pervade me, guide me past my dissipated routines, let me face the fear of the end and shatter all this anxiety?

Can I write like there’s no tomorrow?

F*** You, You Whining F***: Dog Days of Awe edition

I don’t do much blogging by the end of summer. It’s a yearly malaise, which you can chalk up partly to my work schedule (a couple of big issues and our annual conference) but also to the dog-day-ishness of the season. That’s not to say that the heat gets to me, exactly. I just feel enervated and incapable of sitting down to write anything I think worth sharing with my adoring public.

I’ve blown off a couple of What It Is installments lately because I’d rather not spend a chunk of my Sundays trying to make my media-consumption habits seem witty and engaging. I have so many ideas for longer posts, but can’t bring myself to perform the work they need.

And then there’s The World At Large, which I can’t bear to write about. I don’t feel I have any commentary to offer anymore about war, the economy, sports, religion, the future of publishing, the future of pharma, the future of cars, the future of No Future, etc. Which isn’t to say that I’m depressed, but that I’m tired of the cacophony and feel like I’d just be adding to the ranting. I wrote to a pal recently that I’d love to know when I lost all interest in contemporary fiction, because I think it predates my newfound affection for high-end gin and good clothes, but I’m not sure.

One thing I’ve noticed is that I’m no longer very satisfied with the blog as a format. Facebook and Twitter now provide venues for writing and sharing shorter notes, links and jokes that I once would’ve blathered on about here. In fact, many of my Unrequired Reading links come from tweets I posted during the previous week (twitter.com/groth18).

I also have really long-form topics I’d love to write about, but don’t know how I’d be able to sustain the effort to compose them. One of them is a modern Parallel Lives series of essays/studies, but I think the lives I’d parallel are so esoteric that no one would have any interest in reading them. Be honest: would you like to read my comparisons and contrasts of John Walker Lindh and Gary Brooks Faulkner? Andy Warhol and George Plimpton? Tom Ford and Andrew Cunanan? (Okay, I’m still trying to figure out whom to pair with Cunanan.)

Sometimes I think I should put together an insanely good book pitch, sell it, and then let the deadline pressure drive me to actually finish the project. But then I remember how I used to ridicule that guy I knew in college who wanted to become a best-selling novelist so that he’d be able to go to Marvel or DC and have his pick of superhero projects to write.

Also, I’m still getting used to having an iPad as my main online interface; it’s not as easy to write with as my laptop, although I wasn’t doing a ton of writing on the laptop before. (I’m writing this on my home office desktop, with OmmWriter.)

And then there’s work, which takes precedence over any other writing I’d like to do.

So I mutter, and don’t post much, and take my dogs for walks, and read books and a million RSS feeds, and try to remember that point about the Iliad that I didn’t write down last night because I was reading in bed and didn’t have a notebook nearby. Oh, yeah, it was about how the envoy to Achilles in Book Nine finds him playing a lyre that he picked up after sacking the city of Eëtion. I was interested in how he was composing lovely lilting songs (“pleasurig his heart, and singing of men’s fame”) on an instrument that he won by pillage. Then I thought about the irony of how he was hanging out by the boats and singing to Patroklos, when the first line of the whole poem is, “Sing, goddess, the rage of Achilles.” Wish I had something to add to that.

But enough with the griping! Tonight heralds a new year! Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown, and I’m going to head out to the Chabad congregation nearby to celebrate. I doubt I’ll write a comprehensive take on it all, a la Operation: Yizkor a few years ago, but I hope I’ll find some inspiration in my introspection.

Happy new year, every(Jewish)body. I’ll try to do better in the year ahead (or I’ll shut down the blog and go in another direction; either way, you’ll be the first to know).

No-No NaNoWriMo

Well, National Novel Writing Month is over, and I was a near-total failure. I managed to write a mere 2,600 words, only about 5% of the goal of 50,000 words. But I’m happy! Those 2,600 words are the most I’ve managed to write — as fiction, I mean — in 15 years. More to the point, I managed to make an incredibly obvious insight that seemed profound at the time!

I finally let my anecdotes become stories. That is, I took several of the oddball experiences I’ve had and let them breathe, let them belong to someone else. Where I once took pains to ground my anecdotes in utter veracity and my voice, I discovered I could let them out to play in fiction’s wonderland. Actions and reactions don’t have to be my actions and reactions. If something funnier could have — should have — happened, then maybe this time it will.

It turned out that I’d never given myself permission to ask, “What if this happened instead of that?”

Still, that breakthrough didn’t take me far enough. I let other things distract me, and still need to find the time and discipline to work on this stuff.

But I felt pretty good when I got started, so I’m going to try to get back to it, now that the dogs are asleep.

F*** You, You Whining F***: Don’t Look Back edition

In an op-ed in today’s Washington Post, CIA Director Leon Panetta pulls a Mark McGwire and asks Congress to stop looking into the CIA’s role in running secret torture prisons and planning political assassinations:

I’ve become increasingly concerned that the focus on the past, especially in Congress, threatens to distract the CIA from its crucial core missions: intelligence collection, analysis and covert action.

Why should we look to the future? Well . . .

The CIA no longer operates black sites and no longer employs “enhanced” interrogation techniques. It is worth remembering that the CIA implements presidential decisions; we do not make them.

That’s right! They were just following orders! Even the “enhanced” ones!

Nowhere in Mr. Panetta’s piece is there a “we learned our lesson” moment, because he hands responsibility for the agency’s actions to the office of the President. The closest we get is

[After 9/11] Judgments were made. Some of them were wrong. But that should not taint those public servants who did their duty pursuant to the legal guidance provided. The last election made clear that the public wanted to move in a new direction.

The thing is, without investigating those actions, we’ll never understand the processes that led to them, how that “legal guidance” was formed, and how people who should have been nowhere near the levers of power managed to put grotesque policies like this into place.

Read the whole thing.

F*** You, You Whining F***: 1/8/09

A lot of these entries have focused on the publishing industry, because I read about it and its constituents tend to whine a lot. I haven’t written so much about the financial crisis in that context, so I’ll remedy that now.

Here’s an article about the SEC branch chief who managed to find no problems at Bernie Madoff’s hedge fund in a recent investigation. Rather than say, “I sure screwed up on that one,” she asked, “Why are you taking a mid-level staff person and making me responsible for the failure of the American economy?”

She added, “If someone provides you with the wrong set of books, I don’t know how you find the real books.” That’s why it’s called an investigation, you whining f***.

So, if you’re looking to pull an accounting scam on someone, make sure she attended Yale undergrad and Fordham law.

F*** You, You Whining F***: 10/25/08

I suppose a disproportionate number of these F*** You posts are going to come from the literary world. I just have a great deal of pissed-off with regards to people who think book publishing could be a utopian wonderworld if publishers would just stop caring about making money. Don’t get me wrong; a lot of money gets wasted and big publishers are hemmed in by a blockbuster mentality, but that said . . . well, let’s just leave it to the David Ulin, book editor at the L.A. Times:

What’s more likely [than mid-list authors getting low-balled in favor of hype-driven Big Deals], I think, is that publishers will scale back some of their higher-end advances, especially in regard to certain risky properties: books blown out of magazine stories, over-hyped first novels, multi-platform “synergies.” At least, I hope that’s what happens, because one of the worst trends in publishing — in culture in general — over the last decade or so has been its air of desperate frenzy, which far more than falling numbers tells you that an industry is in decline.

That is, faced with hard times and a declining global economy, book publishers are going to abandon their quick-hit strategy, and start promoting “serious” literary midlist authors whose books could take decades to catch on (if they ever do). Oh, and they won’t do this because it would make any sense to their management and ownership per se, but because that’s what I want to happen.

And this will work why? Oh, because our global economic tumult will make us all crave “serious” literature!

This, of course, may be the silver lining to our current economic contraction: No more will publishers or writers have time or money for ephemera. During the Great Depression, even popular literature got serious: The 1930s saw the birth of noir. As the money dries up, so too, one hopes, does the gadabout nature of literary culture, the breathless gossip, all the endless hue and cry.

I just hope they don’t let him review business and finance books.

Bonus: the writer refers to the “ridiculous (and ongoing) print-versus-Web non-controversy” despite the fact that he works at a newspaper that’s collapsing . . . because all of its readers have left for the Web!