Tuesday, October 28, 2008

at traction

“I don’t know you well, of course,” my physical therapist says as she pulls the traction belt tighter, “but within the first few minutes of meeting you, I knew you were a control freak.”

That trait is hard to hide.

Control freaks are an interesting breed. We don’t need to control everything; we just need to control ourselves. For instance, I can’t do much about my back pain, but I can be prepared for it; I can work toward making it disappear as soon as possible. I need to be able to control the management of the pain. During my first shot, for instance, as my back was being wiped with cotton and liquid, I had to know what it was. And when the doctor began his work, instead of telling me what was happening, he tried to have a conversation, take my mind off of it. You can’t do that with a control freak. You must narrate: “I will now stick this ginormous needle right inside your spine. First the Novocain will go in. Now you’ll feel the medicine—the sensation of rubbing alcohol being poured over a cut. Now it’ll hurt for just 30 seconds longer.”

When I walked in today, Jennifer was leaning over an email by some right-wing friend of a right-wing client. He calls Obama, “B. Hussein.” How mature. He went on to describe “Markism,” which set her off. She read her literate, intelligent response. “But why do you bother?” I asked. I should have known the answer.

It’s the same reason I flinch when she yanks the pelvic belt tighter.

Jennifer’s a control freak, too. And she likes that in a client. “Some people come in and lie there and say, ‘Fix me.’ I don’t have any patience for that.”

Control-freakism has not served me well in the areas of sleep, meditation, and massage—any place that requires total relaxation, trust, and an abandonment of the self. (Orgasm is different—probably because the moments up to the loss of control are controlled and deliberate.) And it’s far less easy to be a control freak when you’re disabled. You need something to do, something over which to lord—like a physical therapy routine.

My at-home PT is my new religion: I do the knee tucks and spine rotations and hikes and alternate swims and camel humps and leg lefts. If I’m supposed to hold my position for fifteen seconds, I hold for sixteen; if I need ten reps, I do eleven.

As I lie strapped to the table, I reach for my camera and try to take a shot; a self-portrait only counts if you shoot it yourself.

But sometimes you can’t get the full picture unless you’re outside yourself. And to get there, you have to let go. Jennifer takes my camera out the door to get the whole contraption in the frame.

My heart beats hard in my throat, and she takes my pulse. Fifty-four. “It will serve you well,” she says. I am stretched at 75 pounds of pressure. The E-stim is sending jolts into four spots on my back. The belt slips, and the traction machine readjusts to 75 pounds. Appliances buzz and hum and tick.

For fifteen minutes, there is almost nothing I can do about it. Beside me is a kill switch, a red button with hair-trigger sensitivity. "Think long and hard before you press it; all of Russia will disappear," she says, closing the curtain on her way out.

I look for something to control. Words. I control my thoughts, arrange the words, these words. This is what I write.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

hot for teacher

My husband is a little starved for affection. His Catholic school teaching job has him working all the time—including various Friday night socials and random Sunday morning masses and open houses. Seems he can't escape his West Virginia coal-miner roots, only company scrip is now company scripture. The hours are long. Marty has seven preps a day and goes to bed at 9:00 so he can wake up at 4:30 to plan classes.

Consequently, he’s tired all the time. Sometimes, even when we can squeeze past our daughter's open door, he's too tired for some nine-o’clock nookie. And last night, when Marty got home from the school dance at 11:15, I was asleep.

We just can’t seem to find any time for—you know.

Last night, I reluctantly installed my two-week heart monitor. This morning, in the kitchen, while my daughter was upstairs playing Twisted Sister's “I Wanna Rock” in her bedroom (her electric guitar and practice amp are up there), Marty said to me, “Show me your titties!”

I grimaced as I lifted my shirt to reveal the electrodes and wires and pads. But this is how long it's been. He said, “Hey! You look good with medical stuff hooked up to you. Maybe we can get you an IV!”

Hot is great. But hot without humor doesn't last for twenty-five years.

Friday, October 10, 2008

on the interwebs again, my friends!

When I showed my husband the new gigantic interview with yours truly, "Breakfast with Leslie," at Creative Construction: Life & Art, he said, "Yeah, so you're on the Internet again."

I've made a lot of contacts over my four years on Flickr and various discussion boards. I learned when I was fourteen and had a lot of pen pals that knowing people from all over gives you a place to stay when you travel. Seeing the world was a goal of mine in the olden days, when I slept naturally, all the time, and didn't have to think about it. My husband still likes to go, though, and I like that I'm able to hook us up with Stewart Green, a writer and climber living in Colorado; or Penny, who lives in the West Kootenays, off the grid in Canada (she has a pet crow); or cybergeek and runner Steffen, in Vienna; or the lovely Gabi, who's trying to be in Rotterdam most of the time; or the insanely funny Martin, in County Cork.

And I love that Fran stayed with me and has sent me her book. I love my friend Derek, who is so thoughtful that has sent me cards for every occasion, including my birthday, Halloween, my book, and no reason at all. And I love that I can visit Sarah Bloom an hour and a half away in Philly (and even take in a Bahhhhhhhb show together in November). And one of my best friends in the whole wide world is Jennifer K├Ânig, who thinks all my thoughts at the same time; we have visited each other, with our families, and we work in virtual cubicles next to each other—and next to one of my all-time favorite humans, Patrick T. Power.

This cultivation of friendships with faraway people is selfish. I feel like I get everything, even when I'm commenting on blogs and photos, emailing them when they are sick; celebrating with them when something cool happens, like when Cory got her new tattoo; and supporting them in times of crisis, like when my Jackson Heights friend, Jodi, lost her beloved Molly, or when Susan in Jersey and David, a Canadian teaching English in Korea, lost their fathers. Being their friends is rewarding, and I spend a lot of time doing it.

My husband works hard at his job. He's a middle-school teacher, and sixth grade is his homeroom. Do you remember sixth grade? It was the worst year of my life. I had breasts. I got my period. The boys at my table called me "Moose Miller," after the comic, and I was teased because, well, I guess I had "it" goin' on. The hormones are insane in sixth grade. Marty teaches Catholic school, and many of the families are conservative, so add that wrench to the psyche of the unreligious, left-leaning, peace-loving man. Then throw seven preps a day in math and social studies on top of the mix, and you have an overworked dude who's not going to be too thrilled when you show him the gigantic interview about you, which appeared because others felt your Internet presence.

This morning, I gave him an example of why it's so important and why he should be pleased about this news. Fellow Goucher Gopher, and now Flickr friend, Kimberly Hosey, told me that she was so excited about my book that she would buy 100 copies. I reminded her that even on Amazon it would cost her $1,700. She agreed she'd probably only buy one or three, but she'd make 100 others buy the book.

My husband thought this was a good thing. He'd like nothing more than for me to be a successful writer and sole breadwinner, while he home-schools our daughter and takes her on field trips to Korea. (It's not likely to happen. But that will be our little secret.)

In the meantime, though this may just sound like the politics of P.R., I want everyone to know that when I talk about my 120 Flickr contacts or my twelve Square One-ers or the people on Facebook, 37 of whom wrote me Happy Birthday greetings the other day, I start every sentence with "My friend...."

And, my friends, when I say, "my friends," I actually mean it.*

*Unlike that other one.

P.S. Thank you, my newest friend, Miranda, for the awesome interview at Creative Construction.

* * *

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

It's my birthday, it's my birthday, it's my birthday


So when you've written a book about cake—when you've baked a few yourself, had them declared delicious, had men kneel before you and women kiss your hand after partaking of your confection—who bakes your cake? Who makes the best, to-die-for cake?

That's what they ask me.

I'm not quite a kid at heart, but when it comes to my birthday, I want it to taste like childhood. I want a break from my strict avoidance of hydrogenated oils and high-fructose corn syrup.

So if you're asking me for a recommendation, I'd tell you to go to your neighborhood bakery, the one up the road, where the line forms on Saturday mornings and Sundays after church. If I need an unfancy cake that tastes delicious, that's where I go. For a fancy one that tastes delicious, I call Patisserie Poupon. (Ask for the Grand Marnier cake. Mmm.)

But if you're asking me what cake I'm eating right now, right this very minute, I am not ashamed to tell you that I picked one up for $15 at Safeway a little while ago. I might be 4[inaudible mumbling], but I want it to taste like seven.

Monday, October 6, 2008

untrue blue, misbegotten moon

If you were into astronomy, and you knew that this photograph was taken at 6 p.m. in October in the eastern United States, you might find it deceptive. In real life, the moon was farther to the left, out of the frame, sitting just above the point in my next-door neighbor's roof.

In a true story about the moon, I wouldn’t mention my next-door neighbor’s roof. Even if this were a story about how I see the moon in October in Baltimore, Crista’s roof would only be in the way. That is the luxury of editing.

When I look out the window of my attic to watch the sun set in the east, my peripherally adept eyes see the moon. Nudging it a few inches closer to the glowing clouds and delicious sunset is deceptive, as is erasing that nasty electrical line that always messes up my skies. But I wouldn't mention those wires in the essay about the moon*.

The photography that accompanies nonfiction, especially when it’s in the newspaper, is held to some strict standards. And the issues seem as divisive and polarizing as politics. You’re likely to find nonfiction writers on the side of accuracy, rather than artistry—even those who practice what is called “creative” nonfiction.

But nearly as soon as there was photography, there was photo tampering. In fact, photo developers tamper with film all the time—with the slightest over- or under-development altering the so-called actual appearance of people, places, and things. Sometimes these are as serious as putting someone’s head on another’s body. Other times, it means enhancing someone’s skin or the low-lights in clouds.

Last year, I got into a big debate with my creative nonfiction group over a photograph by Allan Detrich that appeared in the Toledo Blade. It was deliberately altered. While all the other photojournalists were shooting from the same spot, only Detrich’s photo was missing a pair of jeans-clad legs in the background. Detrich, an award-winning photographer, removed them because it detracted from the photo.

Ron Royhab, the executive editor and VP of the Blade wrote in his editorial:
Readers have asked us why this was such a big deal. What's wrong with changing the content of a photograph that is published in a newspaper?

The answer is simple: It is dishonest.

Journalism, whether by using words or pictures, must be an accurate representation of the truth.

...Details of the incident unfolded gradually in the days after Mr. Detrich's digitally altered picture was published on March 31. The dramatic photograph showed members of the Bluffton University baseball team kneeling in prayer before playing their first game since five of their players died in a March 2 bus crash in Atlanta.

We did not know at the time of publication that the photographer, using a computerized photo-editing tool called Photoshop, had removed the legs of a person wearing blue jeans and standing in the background behind a banner.

It’s been a year and a half since the incident, and my contention is, still, that if editing is allowed in writing, it ought to be allowed in photography. I hold writers of nonfiction to strict standards. All of it must be true—from the color of the car to anything with quotation marks. It bothers me that David Sedaris exaggerates. It harms nonfiction when James Frey makes things up. A photo accompanying nonfiction must not make a blue car red. It must not add something that did not happen. It shouldn't be an outright lie.†

The subject of the photo in question was a baseball team kneeling in prayer. It was not about a jeans-clad leg, even peripherally. The writer of such a story would not have mentioned the leg in the story. And were the photo simply cropped, we wouldn’t be discussing this at all. Why didn’t Detrich simply crop out that last banner? Instead, he straightened the poles and erased the legs. He turned an average photo into a piece of art. As a writer of nonfiction, creative or not, I appreciate the beauty of his work. And it’s still honest.

I can see the argument for absolute truth, exactly as the camera caught it. But that means no crops, ever; it means no color correction, no resolution adjustment, no saturation. Frankly, it means no black and white. What in our world is black and white? Using black and white film is an illegitimate choice in the first place. And shooting color digital and changing it to black and white afterward—heresy!

So what about the photo was harm or foul?

I think the fact that we can do this at all—that we can make a ball appear where it had appeared just a split second earlier, that we can erase ugly wires, that we can move the moon—scares people. What else can be tampered with? If a photo isn't the exact truth at that moment, then what is?

Nothing and everything. My brain sees color more vividly than your brain, maybe, and my camera's white balance isn't always perfect. And my lens distorts straight edges. My vision is wider than my camera's. Editing will always be necessary. What writer of merit doesn’t craft his words? What newspaper editor doesn’t put his mark on a writer’s copy? Why should we expect less from photographers and art directors?

Sure—some people want to know where we draw the line. More important, where do we erase it? And why must there be hard and fast rules in the editing of a photograph? I’m not suggesting our photographs be lies. But editing—cropping, straightening, and even erasing an extraneous power line—does not change the truth into a lie.

We all have our causes. I would never tell a defender of animal rights that he ought to be working for human rights. But I do wonder about those supporters of truth in photography. Why aren’t they as riled up when it comes to the alteration of portraits? Where’s the truth in the Sports Illustrated centerfold or the Time Magazine cover? Every model you see is airbrushed to the point of plasticity. And if the subject is a detestable figure, every flaw and blemish is highlighted.

Which does more harm—a team prayer minus some distracting legs or flawless models against which our young girls will compare themselves? Who will develop an eating disorder from seeing the moon the way I saw it on that October evening in Maryland?‡

*This is not the essay about the moon. This is the essay about the essay about the moon.

†Not everything Detrich has done would pass my muster. Adding a basketball where one had just been isn't acceptable in a newspaper, where, if you miss the shot, you miss it. In art, it's fine.

‡I wouldn't necessarily use my sunset with moon in a nonfiction newspaper story, but the edited photograph of the mime should be perfectly acceptable!

* * *

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

want some whine with that, bitch?

As if we needed to devote any extra time to complaining, October 1 is the “official bitch day.” Don’t we bitch too much—about cellphone users and language abusers, political creeps and carb creep? Don’t we whine enough about our aches and pains and pounds we gain? And ugh! All that bad grammar we have to put up with! Like sentences ending with prepositions!

Sometimes we just want to let it out to the people who’ve been there, get some affirmation for our daily struggles—in the express lane, where the sign reads an illiterate “15 items or less” instead of fewer, behind the lady with 30 items. We want to commiserate, which breaks down to being miserable (miserate) together (co).

When I woke up this morning after a delicious night of sleep, which was preceded by a riveting episode of Law & Order SVU, which followed good sex, there was nothing for me. My daughter came downstairs wearing the right, clean school uniform, her hair brushed. The air was cool and gorgeous. My handsome husband was pleasant.

And then my Internet, which ought to be called Intermittentnet, screwed me, turning on and going off every few minutes.

And then I got cut off on the way to my appointment with the back doctor. The car was some fancy yellow thing with JACKIES on the tags.

I arrived to my 9:30 appointment ten minutes early. At 10:30, when I was not the next patient to go back, I complained. Of course it’s not the receptionist’s fault, but she does need to do more than look at me with a squinched up face and tell me she doesn’t know what’s going on. She needs to get up and find out, even though doing so changes nothing.

A woman who arrived a while after I did is also a patient of my doctor, so she wasn’t happy when she realized how long I had waited. Our discussion in the waiting room—about how it is obscene to make people wait like this, especially people in pain, and how we should not stand for it, and how we consistently have to pay $5 for parking that ought to be free, were we in and out of there on time—was loud.

The patients were riled up, yes, but not enough to form the army that we needed.

Not enough to walk out.

We’re not stupid, after all. It took us months to get our coveted appointments. We couldn’t possibly step out of our place in line awaiting these blessings from our gods. Going all Michael Douglas on their asses isn't an option, either.

I have one standing obligation: Wednesday yard duty at the school. I relieve three overworked teachers for twenty minutes each at lunchtime. Yet here I am, in the waiting room an hour and a half past my appointment time, calling to say I don’t know when I can be there.

When I am at last taken back, the assistant yells my name through a window on the other side of the room before she has even opened the door. She walks me silently down the hall and puts me in a room. Then she explains, like I’m a stubborn child, that the doctor is still with the other patient discussing his films. She just wants to let me know that I might be waiting a little more. But she doesn’t apologize to me like she has to the other 15 patients who were seen earlier.

When the doctor comes in, she says she’s sorry, she knows I’ve been waiting. “An hour and twenty minutes,” I say. Yes, she acknowledges, as if reading it from a card, my time is also valuable. “It’s worse for us. We’re in pain. We’re depressed,” I say. We’re listening to old people complain about their bursitis and last night’s dinner.

I can understand emergencies. I’ve been an emergency now and again, and I feel bad for all those people who have had to wait because of me. But why aren’t emergencies built into a schedule? When I first visited this back doctor, I waited for just as long before being seen. I couldn’t sit or stand. I had to lie on the floor. I’m sure there was an emergency that day, too, and there will be another emergency when I return in a month. (Fortunately, I had the sense to make myself the first appointment of the day.)

So why can’t all physicians take an example from my daughter's pediatrician. Block out between one and two hours a day mid-day or an hour each in the morning and the afternoon—just for people who need to be seen right away. Even if they did this two days a week, it would cut down on our waiting time, which would surely decrease our surliness and remedy our respect for them.

Even still, when I go to a restaurant, I’m told how long the wait will be. When I register at the desk for a doctor’s appointment, why doesn’t someone say to me, “I’m sorry. The doctor is an hour and a half behind. Would you like to reschedule or go shopping for an hour?”

I was ten minutes late to yard duty at my daughter’s school.

All the children in the fifth grade cheated at four square.

Maybe October 2 can be the official Bitching Hiatus.

If only we could get through an entire day without someone pissing us off. I mean, pissing us off, bitch.

* * * *

Getting angry with Bob always makes me feel better.