Sunday, February 21, 2010

Last week I had some minor surgery. It was a painless, outpatient procedure that forced me to spend a few days being waited on at home by my wife, Donna, while I watched old movies on television. But it brought to mind a very different experience from some thirty years ago.

I was riding my motorcycle home from work, that time, and anxious to see the final game of the World Series. The Yankees were playing somebody, and I am a Yankees fan. But it seems that the previous owner of my BMW had put the wrong tires on it and, at 65 mph it went into a “high speed wobble” that culminated in me flying over the handlebars onto the concrete pavement of the Merritt Parkway.

When I came to, there were people telling me not to move and assuring me that I would be all right. Both an ambulance and a pickup truck were on their way, the pickup being to bring my motorcycle to the repair shop. It wasn’t till the EMS crew started to lift me onto the stretcher that I had any sense of my injuries, and that was excruciating pain in my chest and collarbone. As long as I lay still, I was all right, but the moment I tried to move or someone else tried to move me, no matter how carefully, the pain was terrible. As the ambulance backed up to the business end of Norwalk Hospital, I wondered whether I might be dying. If so, I remember hoping to live long enough to hear the outcome of the Yankees’ game.

In E.R., when I was helped to stand in front of the x-ray machine, I passed out. From then on, as I lay in bed in the Intensive Care Unit, it was a matter of coming to for short stays, then, for no apparent reason, passing out again. On the other side of the white curtain on my right, an old man was fighting for breath, groaning and gasping, possibly for the last moments of his life, and reminding me that, if I survived this, I still had that to look forward to, down the line. And, when I asked about the World Series score, no one seemed to know. I began to suspect that the Yankees had lost and they were withholding the news from me so that I might die in peace.

In addition, I was in a difficult place at the time. Earlier that year, my wife of 23 years and I had separated, much against my will, and I was trying to build a life without her. When the hospital people had asked me whom they should notify, I had named the lady that I had recently formed a relationship with, but said that they certainly should not call my estranged wife. But the hospital had played it safe and summoned my wife anyway, I suppose in the event that her signature was necessary for something. She had brought my thirteen year-old-daughter, as well, a decision I didn’t consider wise under the circumstances. And now, as I came in and out of lala land I would find my lady friend holding my hand on one occasion, my daughter on another occasion, my wife on a third occasion, and, sometimes, just a solicitous, six-foot tall, white rabbit, wearing scrubs.

It was determined that I had broken my collarbone in two places along with a liberal quantity of ribs, as well as rupturing my spleen. The ruptured spleen, I was told, was hemorrhaging into my body cavity and causing the loss of consciousness. And, if it wasn’t repaired within the next two hours, I would bleed to death.

At that point, with jolts of pain each time someone tried to move me, bleeding to death didn’t seem like the worst of my options. But someone signed the release, and I was told that that I would soon be going upstairs to Surgery. Being moved from my I.C.U. bed onto a gurney for the trip upstairs seemed like a “via dolorosa” that I would just as soon pass up.

Then a miracle happened. A woman in the colorful scrubs of the O.R. appeared at my bedside, introduced herself as my – my very own – O.R. nurse, who, she promised, would be with me through the entire procedure. Then she went on to inform the orderlies that I was going upstairs in my own I.C.U. bed, rather than the rinky-dink contraption they were anxious to transfer me on to. Taking her outstretched hand, I felt as though I was holding hands with an angel, and we proceeded to ascend into the higher regions of Norwalk Hospital.

I’ve never seen that nurse again, nor would I recognize her if I did. But I do remember the feel of her hand in mine and the wonderfully comforting sense that a caring person had just committed herself to being “with me” through the entire ordeal.

Last week, as Donna, and I sat in the waiting room for what was to be much less of an “ordeal” and under far less stressful circumstances, instead of the usual technical person struggling with the pronunciation of my name from across the room, an O.R. nurse in the colorful scrubs of that profession came to where we were sitting, introduced herself, and explained that she would be “my” nurse for the procedure. She didn’t offer her hand this time, so I don’t know if it would have felt the same. But that wonderful sense of a total stranger appearing out of the blue to care, was there again.

By the way, the Yankees won that Series as well.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Recently, I told you about my undistinguished, fictional friend Kip, rattling around in the back of my head, and the book, “Writer’s Block,” that I had to write in order to get rid of the rattling. What I didn’t tell you was that the rattling didn’t stop with the end of the book. It seems that I got so deeply involved with Kip and his friends that I found myself suffering withdrawal symptoms and immediately set about writing a sequel. After finishing the sequel and some wondering what to do next, I still had so much unfinished business with Kip that I decided to do a trequel.

In writing the original sequel, I began with Kip and Amanda in Europe, where I had left them, and proceeded to bring them back to the little Village of Venice, Mass., where Kip is now a local hero because of what he did in the original book, plus the book he has written while in Europe. This immediately set up a broad range of possibilities and I began writing the opening chapter without bothering to do an outline, but with the confidence that, with all the possibilities, something would develop.

And it did. But, as I approached the trequel, I did not see the natural plot possibilities ahead of me, and decided to do an outline so that I would know where I was heading. And that outline required a dramatic ending in which Kip confronts the abusive father of a troubled fourteen-year-old boy, whom he is mentoring, that convinces the boy that he cares about him.

This gave me a very confined stage to work on. Being seventy years old, Kip is not about to get into a fist fight with the man, and I just could not come up with a way of resolving the conflict between the two men that would be in keeping with the tone of the story. Usually, my run/walks produce solutions to such problems, but no ideas that this technique developed seemed to fit the situation.

Then I asked the advice of a friend of mine, who is a therapist. “Is there some exercise for extending your creativity?” I asked him. “Something to help you to think ‘outside the box’?” My wife has a wonderful capacity for thinking outside the box, which I very much envy.

“What you do,” my friend suggested, “is tonight, before going to sleep, you ask your unconscious to help you.” My friend is a disciple of Milton Eriksen, the famous hypnosis therapy guru, and I should have known that he would suggest this approach to the problem.

“You tell your unconscious how grateful you are for all the ways it has helped and protected you throughout your life,” he continued, “because the unconscious is very susceptible to flattery, you know, and then ask it to help you to find a solution to your problem.” He also explained that the unconscious is generally quite inclined to help you in life since it knows that, “if you’re out of business, it is out of business.” Then he added, “You may wake up with a solution.”

That night, I tried my friend’s technique. I was, of course, skeptical, but I had nothing to lose and a lot to gain. As my wife turned out the light, after watching one of the BBC comedies that we enjoy so much, I turned my attention to my unconscious and, following my friend’s instructions, said something like, “I want to thank you for all the ways that you’ve helped me and protected me in the past.” As you can imagine, it wasn’t easy saying that, even silently and in the dark, but I continued. “But now I need your help in a small writing problem. As you probably know, I’ve got to come up with some kind of dramatic conflict between Kip and Erik’s father that will convince the troubled Erik that Kip cares about him. I’ve been looking for a solution for a couple of weeks now, and I need to start thinking more outside the box.” Then I went to sleep.

The next morning I woke up with a headache. The temptation was to take that as a “Do not disturb.” I could visualize my unconscious playing Chinese checkers with my libido. I was tempted to say, “I knew it wouldn’t work,” but didn’t dare to, just in case someone was listening.

Later in the morning I went for my run and, about a mile and a half into the run it occurred to me to introduce a third element into the confrontation, along with Kip and Erik’s father – a hurricane.

In a more serious drama, introducing a hurricane at this particular point would be considered gimmicky. But this is a humorous story and, in that context, I felt it would be acceptable. So I wrote in a hurricane and Kip’s concern for his new sailboat which needs to be secured against the wind, but he is not willing to leave Erik alone with the abusive father, and I had a dramatic climax.

In the week or so since then, I have found myself coming up with solutions to other problems that I consider to be from “outside the box.” As you can imagine, for a writer of fiction, this is, indeed, a valuable ability. In the past I have considered myself a good “storyteller,” that is someone who can do a good job dressing up a story, once there is a story to dress up. But I have considered myself weak in the area of actually creating a story. Now, hopefully, with the help of my new internal friend, this will all improve. You might give it a try.