Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Wisdom through excess

“It takes several lives to make one person.” I believe that and that we are also, all of us, phoenixes rising, or so it seems, from the ashes of our old selves. The rise and fall of the phoenix. Phoenix. Pheonix. Phoenix.

“The soul is a vast domain," wrote Arthur Schnitzler. "So many contradictions find room in us… We try our best to maintain order in ourselves, but this order is really just synthetic. Our natural condition is chaos.”

I think of that as I come across reviews of an earlier book. “Four Incarnations is named for four distinct periods in Sward’s writing career… shaped by four marriages and four dramatic changes…”

Friends ask, “Does it get easier… does getting divorced and getting divorced again… does it get easier, the second or third time around?”


In the 60s and 70s I took pride in being called a wild man, a crazy. Experimented and bought into the Romantic notion that to carouse, to indulge, to choose excess over order would help me as a writer. Excess. I'm thinking of Blake who suggested that the way to wisdom is through excess. I'm pro-Blake, but I'm re-thinking excess. These days I’m paying more attention to Ben Franklin and less to Blake. “Early to bed, early to rise...” In truth that's what works. That, for me at least, is what furthers the writing.

It's late in the game, but these are the confessions of a much-married man.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Why do you write?

Orhan Pamuk, Nobel Prize Lecture, 2006... 

In his Nobel Lecture, Pamuk provides a fairly comprehensive reply to the question, "Why do you write?" 

"Why do you write? I write because I have an innate need to write. I write because I can't do normal work as other people do. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can partake of real life only by changing it. I write because I want others, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey. 

"I write because I love the smell of paper, pen and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion. I write because I am afraid of being forgotten.. I write because I like the glory and interest that writing brings. I write to be alone. Perhaps I write because I hope to understand why I am so very, very angry at everyone. I write because I like to be read. I write because once I have begun a novel, an essay, a page I want to finish it. I write because everyone expects me to write. I write because I have a childish belief in the immortality of libraries, and in the way my books sit on the shelf. I write because it is exciting to turn all life's beauties and riches into words. I write not to tell a story but to compose a story. I write because I wish to escape from the foreboding that there is a place I must go but--as in a dream--can't quite get to. I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy."

The New Yorker, Dec. 25, 2006. Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Men have breast tissue, too! Later... #2

Medical Clinic

Procedure is for "US BREAST UNILAT... lump or mass in breast. Clinical data:
lump at 9 o'clock about 8 mm-1 cm size, cystic..." 

"...at 9 o'clock"? Can't help thinking of World War II movies, gunnery specialists, air force pilots and sailors locating the enemy's position. 

So there's the waiting, then these two procedures, imaging of where I'd have breasts if I had breasts. Thinking of re-reading Philip Roth's novel, "Breast." Maybe there'd be something there for me. A fan of his, but that's not a favorite book. I like Patriarchy, the one about his father, nonfiction, actually... 

So awaiting the second procedure, another imaging, I pick up a copy of an old New Yorker, Dec. 25, 2006, and the page I open to is Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk's Nobel Lecture titled "My Father's Suitcase," 2006. Usually I browse magazines before reading, but this time I plunge right in... 

A good long wait so I'm able to read Pamuk's Lecture in its entirety. I'm a 75-year-old writer, Jesus Christ! And what's the point? You wanna read my poetry? Yes or no? Don't even think. Just say what comes to mind. Do I want to read my poetry? No, actually. True, I wanna read it out loud to an audience. That I enjoy. And I wanna write new stuff... but do I want to go back and read it off the page for pleasure? Hell, no. 

Orhan Pamuk's Lecture is about himself and his father... and the suitcase full of writing his father left him. It's a meditation on the life of a writer. So here I am with my breast tissue and a whole bunch of questions, not the least of which has to do with mortality. It's the kind of thing that would stay in people's minds. "Oh, he's the man with the breasts."  That they'd remember, the biographical detail. Okay, I'm no better than anyone else. That's probably what I'd remember too. Better than someone's poems. Most peoples' poems.

But Pamuk gets it right: "Societies, tribes, and peoples grow more intelligent, richer, and more advanced as they pay attention to the troubled words of their authors--and, as we all know, the burning of books and the denigration of writers are both signs that dark and improvident times are upon us.

"But literature is never just a national concern. The writer who shuts himself up in a room and goes on a journey inside himself will, over the years, discover literature's eternal rule: he must have the artistry to tell his own stories as if they were other people's stories, and to tell other people's stories as if they were his own, for that is what literature is."

"Men have breast tissue, too."

Mammogram - "Men have breast tissue, too."

August 7, 2008

Inflammatory breast cancer

"Men have breast tissue, too," said my doctor, a woman. And I got this little cyst or lump or something. So there I am today in Radiology, the only man in the waiting room. I don't know if the thing is benign or not, but the muzak they're playing is positively toxic. Hell, for me, would be an eternity of canned music. One tinny, one cloned musical cyst after another. Suspiciously benign music. Lumpy music made up of... I hate being here...

Women over 40 get these things, mammograms, every year, says the technician. Only one man in 500 gets breast cancer? Is that what she said? Or only one man in 500 gets to get a mammogram? Better my male breast tissue than my nuts. X-ray technican holds and squeezes my "whatever" into position so she can shoot the first of four x-rays. She sticks little "nipple dots" ("nipple markers") on the places where the little cyst(s) might be hanging out. I put my arm up, first the left arm, then (later) the right and lean into this contraption, we shift around, struggling, plump technician and I... together we try to produce enough of something to be squeezed into immobility and x-rayed. What the fuck! And I don't mind her squeezing me. It's an odd way to spend your morning. We do a little dance. She leads, I follow... it's all about getting my breast tissue into position. It's a struggle... we finally get it done.

Then the wait for... we need to find out if she needs to do it again, if the first set of x-rays don't work out. So I wait. Lying down. Sitting up. Dressing. Preparing to leave. Then simply waiting. Room has a pink orchid, possibly real. But stiff and unlife like. It wears a label: www.shopflower.com. And there's a can of Suave, "fights sweat... 24-hour protection."

And a copy of the Ladies Home Journal. What am I gonna do? My mother used to read this thing and I did too... years ago the Journal actually published some decent fiction. This issue offers "125 Beauty Boosters." It's for women. "Can This Marriage Be Saved? The Case of the Boring Husband." And, to round things out, "Sizzling Summer Cookouts!" plus, just what we all need, "Fatal Drug Side Effects (What Your Doctor Isn't Telling You.)"

Still waiting. One pink wall and three cream-colored walls and x-ray room itself is the size of a prison cell. Pink gowns...

X-ray machine has a name, the manufacturer? " Lorad - M-IV" it says on the glass (?) shield to protect technician as she shot those images. Yeah, how am I going to know where I am if I don't write these things down? catalog... it's a way of paying attention. A kind of writer's x-ray?

I read somewhere that men, aeons ago, were equipped to suckle their young. That's why we still got nipples.