Now that I’m a writer guy, a bona fide author, and so on, you’d think I’d be scrambling to get to the top of the bestseller list. You know, right up there with Danielle Steele. But no, I’m scrambling, but sideways. Like a crab. Partly, this is because I am too old to believe in progress. Our most important product, remember…if you are old enough to recall Ronald Reagan intoning these words in the 1950s, his mellifluous Teleprompter voice targeting that most noble of creations, General Electric. But I digress.
No, I don’t. That is the point. It is all digression these days, only more accelerated and more interesting. Moving crabways has much to commend it. The maps all point straight ahead, so you get to see the side roads. Besides, the road ahead is washed out. Book promotion? Despite valiant efforts, bookstore readings have proven difficult to arrange and of only modest benefit. That is to say, in financial terms. A huge benefit in every other sense. And that is the sideways thing. A profit-and-loss analysis of flying to Phoenix to read at Changing Hands Books doesn’t look so hot. And of course, I would not have missed it for the world. Lose here, gain there, and who cares anyway?
Which brings me to one of New York’s largest and most famous hospitals. Am I checking in? No, but they are checking me out. In the course of being there in early July, I have volunteered to make a presentation to both staff and patient audiences. Part of the book tour, I swear. Although I obviously didn’t care. Maybe part of the Paul promotion, that is fair enough. But even there, what exactly am I promoting? My ability to speak? Tell a good story?
No. I have a strong, largely instinctual wish to try to share what I know about sustaining and recovering from spinal cord injury. Expertise? Who knows? Here, the getting of wisdom is everything. No, not the ‘content’ of whatever I plan to present. In a sense the opposite. The other day sitting across from my old friend Billy, a man who has spent much of his life dealing with the aftermath of military combat, it all seemed quite simple. I was nervous about these New York hospital talks. What should I say? Billy’s take was quite different. How open could I be with my audience? After all, wasn’t this an opportunity to discuss things that are tough to talk about?
Which highlights an interesting progression. As recently as last autumn, I was talking to the book publicist about my fear of going before audiences…probing questions, unnerving recollections. And now I am actively going in search of this very experience. For Billy is right. People in and around the world of catastrophic injury tend to envision the worst. And how better to discuss the neuromuscular worst than with the likes of me?
Still, it’s going on an unknown stage, with only part of the script – and a yawning void for…questions, opinions from the audience and, God forbid, ‘sharing.’ Yet this is precisely what I am signing up for, ‘sharing.’ A certain amount of banal experience. Or maybe experience so dire that I can’t cope. Either way, the possibility of failure. Which seems to be what is attracting me to all this in a counterphobic sort of way. There are no guarantees. In fact, a certain number of missteps, miscalculations, and a glaring want of public-presentation and audience-management experience are bound to come to the fore. I am signing up for failure, that is the thing. And it’s a good thing. And it’s about time, the spirit is telling me. Go forth and fuck up. Then go back to your hotel and continue with your vacation. Which is what really brings Jane and me to New York, anyway. Talks and selling books, well it’s all a sideshow. The side being the preferred crab direction, whatever show lies laterally.
Nerves. Aside from falling on my quadriplegic face before these small but doubtless hopeful audiences, there are all these other possibilities. What if the New York weather is too hot? What if I can’t sort out the uptown buses? What if I get run over by one? Oh, well. Good thing publisher Eric Larsen is supplying Jane and me with a couple of Metrocards. Otherwise, we would doubtless be arrested or stranded at some bus stop for days, maybe weeks. Sad.
But seriously, folks. What’s really sad is my tendency to worry. To worry and to miss the point. Not that the point is very clear. What I am realizing is that the best way to miss the point is to look in the wrong direction. And for me, the main direction is in. And how to prepare for discussions with rehab nurses and doctors? And with patients? More precisely, can I tune into what I am feeling, without so much shame that I miss the moment? Anything could happen. The professionals could be in a hurry. They could have an idea that something else was going to happen…and be disappointed. What can I do but try to plan? Which means what? Having some sort of exchange with my contact at the hospital, via e-mail, phone call, whatever. And practice? Hard to do. Think it through. Prepare for various scenarios. Then get on the plane…secure in the knowledge that I am not dropping by a New York hospital to dispense wisdom…but to prove I am still capable of acquiring it.
As she grew older, my mother grew increasingly reluctant to be photographed. She looked too old, she said. This position only hardened with the years. Her discomfort was real enough. We humored her, as I recall. Someone took her picture anyway, but she was always reluctant. Reluctant to be seen. Thus my heritage. A cautionary tale, one apparently rich in shame. Perhaps I have gotten the message.