When Karen Gaffney’s mother found out she would be born with Down syndrome, the doctor said Karen probably would not be able to tie her own shoes. Instead, as Karen explained in a moving and eloquent TEDx talk, she has become an accomplished open-water swimmer who has crossed the English Channel in a relay race and completed the swimming leg of the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon… [read the rest on the Washington Post]
So there’s this memoir, The Long Haul, that was reviewed in The New York Times last year. I read that and checked it out from the library in hopes I could steal some of the author’s narrative tricks. And I just heard on the radio that Fresh Air is going to have the author, Finn Murphy, on the show today (Wednesday). I’d been meaning to type up my own review for a while, and now I have a reason to get it done.
The memoir genre: A novel that really happened, and how it changed you. Pretty simple specifications, really hard to execute. It’s about how it changed you, but you can’t ramble on forever about how it changed you, you have to show it in scenes that hang together as a plot, but real life doesn’t happen in a sequential plot. You need just the right balance of dramatic and emotional action, internal commentary and external events, and it’s darned hard.
One guy who’s done it is Finn Murphy, a trucker in the moving business. He tells the story of his becoming a mover and learning to excel at it. He drops out of college and makes his parents mad when he tells them he wants to do his summer job full time: packing other people’s belongings up to move them to other states.
He tells us about various shippers, that is, the person moving. Most are grumpy, but different kinds of grumpy. Some are worried everything will get broken, others just like dominating people and others yet are in terrible health or financial straits, doing a move they don’t want to.
He tells of how he puts name tags on his movers so they’ll get treated like people, and how he can stir up trouble for this shippers when they’re especially difficult. “Ma’am, would you like me pack these gay porn mags underneath the tax returns in the office?” “Sir, would you like me to pack the almost-empty vodka bottle behind the laundry soap?” He also explains how movers like to have a little fun, going through the lingerie drawer with more details than necessary, especially if the shipper is a good-looking woman, concluding with this gem of advice: “Either pack your erotica yourself or salt the lingerie draw with plastic snakes or a loaded mousetrap. This will scare and impress the movers; always a good option.”
The first part of the book is his introduction to the moving business and then his becoming a successful mover in the early 1980s, getting assignments and working 73 hours in a week (he says he likes it) and bringing in the bucks. He then stops trucking for a decade and a half and starts again, with little explanation of what happened in between. A divorce? But this is memoir, which allows gaps like that. Coming back in his 50s, he’s now called The Great White Mover just because so few whites are left in the business, and he’s a handsome older gent, which leads to one story of a shipper who’s a neglected gorgeous housewife. (I’ll just let that one linger.)
He alternates between telling stories of memorable shippers to explaining the trucking business, and the changes that occurred with deregulation in the 1980s. In the 2010s, he’s astonished when he’s stopped at a rest area in Kansas during a massive thunderstorm, waiting it out in the lobby with a FedEx driver, when the FedEx driver gets a call from Mumbai. It’s the company, wanting to know why he’s stopped. Not the open-road cowboy independence that appeals to most truckers.
In my own writing, I’d like to have a lively yarn like he does that leads you from one shipper to the next, both with humor and frustration. And I’d like to open the secret world to the reader the way he does. My two books I’m working on have either someone in danger of dying most of the time, or characters actually dying… and it’s not as much fun. But that’s my slog.
Ok, that’s my blogpost for today. I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s Fresh Air to hear Finn!
So this is what happens when you let your 5-year-old go bowling several times in a month — he gets better than you. His score is in blue at the end.
Gabriel started aqua therapy this month. He gets to spend 45 minutes with a physical therapist once a week at a swimming pool. The exercises are meant to promote motor planning and coordination, things like “hold your body straight, face down, while blowing bubbles and rotating your arms.” Not exactly swimming lessons, but probably this will give him a boost in those, which he’s taking at a different pool.
The other children who come to these lessons are impressive. Most of them show up in electric wheelchairs that have head-support braces. Some of them require two therapists to take them around the pool. They kick, move their arms and pick up objects in the water and move them. They don’t talk much, but they do have huge smiles.
The staff never tell me the names of their conditions or their treatment plans (HIPPA) but watching them I am very aware that this could have just as easily been us. Gabriel, being born at 22 weeks and 6 days of gestation, was at high risk for these disabilities, or “severe to profound neurodevelopmental impairment” as the statistics chart explained to us. (He was also at high risk of dying in the first few days of life.) The doctors explained that 22 weeks was way too early and 23 weeks was also probably too early, and because of the high chances of suffering or disability, it would be better to “let him go.”
Gabriel proved them wrong, and we got out of the hospital with only minor problems — developmental delays, and feeding delays that required a feeding tube to be surgically installed. He still has the tube, which is a small plastic plug that comes out of his skin.
I sometimes feel a little uncomfortable at the pool with the kids who obviously have so much more need, but the therapists assured me that Gabriel is indeed in need of the physical therapy and would benefit from it. I’ve also wondered how Gabriel views the other kids. Last week, as I was drying Gabriel off, I got a sample of how he understands things. Another boy, a year younger than him, was being lifted out of the pool by two therapists and being dried off. They put him in to the wheelchair and stabilized his head. Gabriel said to me, “He has-”
I braced myself, wondering if I needed to stop my son from saying something inappropriate.
“He has-” he repeated, restarting the sentence several times, as kindergartners often will. Would I have to explain what a disability is? What the wheelchair is for?
“He has a stomach tube, too.”
Wow, I thought, that’s the one thing I hadn’t noticed about the other boy.
“That’s right, Gabriel, you both have stomach tubes.” It warmed my heart that he looked for the thing they had in common. Hopefully judgmental thoughts will take a few more years yet to arrive.
One of the things that PTSD will do to you is make you think that since this life-changing event occurred, everything surrounding it must be significant.
Writing a book, on the other hand, is the opposite. A memoir, which is supposed to be structured like a novel that really happened, is about how the main character changes in response to the life-changing event. Thus, only events that support the changed person at the end can be in the book. In a memoir, the main character is you, so the process of cutting the stuff that doesn’t support the plot is especially difficult as you’re removing some of the most important days of your life.
What you don’t realize is that you’re afflicted with a condition known as Too Much Information, something that can bog down investigators when they’re trying to solve a crime. To give an example of what I mean, I’m going to include a short video at the end that the New York Times made about one aspect of the Kennedy assassination: The Umbrella Man.
To summarize, on the day that Kennedy was killed, it had been raining the night before, but the sky had cleared up by morning. The photographs of the crowds surrounding the motorcade route have no one wearing a raincoat or holding an umbrella. But, in the pictures that were taken by bystanders at the moment the gunshots rang out, there was one man holding an umbrella on the sidewalk near the president’s limousine. It must mean something, right?
I’m talking about the Kennedy assassination and PTSD because if there’s one day in our history when America got PTSD, that’s it. No event has created more conspiracy theories by people unable to tell the difference between a significant fact and an insignificant one. In 1976, 81 percent of Americans thought that Kennedy had been killed by a conspiracy. One conspiracy theory had The Umbrella Man as an assassin who had a gun concealed in the umbrella.
The Umbrella Man is worth particular attention because it was eventually resolved. The man holding the umbrella came forward and testified to Congress that he had been holding the umbrella as a visual protest of John Kennedy’s father, Joseph Kennedy. When he was ambassador to Britain in 1938-39, he had been cooperating with Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policies. The umbrella was there to be a symbol of Chamberlain’s umbrella, part of his trademark look.
It was there, so it must be significant, says the PTSD victim. In the case of the preemie memoir I’m writing, called Too Young to Save: Our Premature Baby, My Weakness and God’s Strength, I’ve been through a painful cutting process. Out goes the endocrinologist who made us think Gabriel had congenital adrenal hyperplasia, out goes the part about how reading Coleridge’s “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” gave me comfort and context when we thought we were going to lose him, out goes the parts about trying to explain to co-workers how bizarre the NICU is, and out goes the amazing lady who saw me struggling with Gabriel’s g-tube on a really rainy day at a McDonald’s and spontaneously gave me a one-hundred dollar bill.
On the other hand, this process of focusing the plot does give me the opportunity to convey an emotional message to the reader through the narrative, a message of fatherhood and faith as I got my feet back under my body. Writing this book is an important part of recovery from PTSD – not just to say what happened, but to take command of the Too Much Information and tell a coherent story.
While speaking at Seattle Pacific University’s nursing program, a student asked me about social context and the decision to resuscitate. Here’s my answer, with a reference to the excellent preemie memoir This Lovely Life, by Vicki Forman.
Here’s an e-newsletter I published today on our complicated memories from Gabriel’s birth, but our joyous ones about the day he came home from the hospital.