Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Part 32 of "Miracle Boy"

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

I've been working on a new NPR commentary for the impending holiday season, and have set myself a personal goal of doing even more next year than I had the pleasure and privilege of doing this year. We shall see…

Meanwhile, my financial journalism continues apace (whatever that means).

And one of the three publishers passing judgment on my humble book proposal has given it a thumbs-down.  Yet I shall remain hopeful about the other two.  They have the new-and-improved version, which the naysayer didn't.

In other news, the excellent writer Mary Karr has come down hard on recent statements by controversial writer James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces.  Who, in New York magazine, said something recently about the blending of fiction and nonfiction in modern literature.  Karr does not believe in confusing the two.  "Hey Frey: if you can't tell the truth and you lack imagination to make up stories, maybe scribbling just ain't for you," she proclaimed to her Facebook fans.

She's right, of course.  But honestly, memoirs like hers (Lit, Cherry, The Liars' Club), and the one I'm working on, are not biographies nor works of journalism.  They should not be taken for reporting indisputable facts.  A memoir is necessarily subjective--the author's version of events.  Right?  So what you read here is my take on what I remember … thus, it's highly filtered. 

And to make it more readable, I do try to use some of the techniques of a fiction writer.  So the pacing is artificial, that is, contrived as a work of art.  What's included and what's left out is artificial, too, in the sense that the decisions are based on my own sense of what's relevant or interesting.  But the situations depicted, and my experiences of them, are completely based on fact.  I haven't made up any characters or scenes.  Though, of course, anyone else who lived through these events probably has a completely different memory, interpretation, and story.  Does that make sense?

Anyhow, without further ado, here's the next installment –

It's the autumn of 1976. Jimmy Carter is running for president against Gerald Ford. I'm convinced Carter will lose, because who would vote for a Southerner with blow-dried hair? "Shake Your Booty" by KC and the Sunshine Band is the top hit. I'm trying to be into what's happening now, and swear off talking about Star Trek as if it's real, though some of the popular disco music leaves me cold. I won't pretend I'm Chief Ironside or even the much cooler Steve McGarrett anymore. I spent last year signing "Steve" to my homework papers at Walden, such as there were homework papers at Walden.

On the other hand, I don't want to be just Wheelchair Guy either. I like having a counter identity. If I can do something else—such as make my new classmates laugh—perhaps I can go from Wheelchair Guy to Funny Wheelchair Guy and, in time, to just plain Funny Guy.

I start doodling cartoons between classes and sometimes during classes. A few weeks later, the student paper publishes one. It's a caricature of Carter, Ford and—what the hell—Nixon at a fictional debate. Nixon says, "I am not a crook." Ford says, "New York, drop dead." And Carter says, "Anybody want a peanut?"

I'm doing my best, but I'm fighting impossible odds. I'm still fat and wearing an uncomfortable back brace that makes my clothes fit funny. I take to holding my bathroom needs till I get home, on the assumption I'm too old to ask teachers for that kind of help. On occasion I have accidents, concocting clever excuses and misdirection. "I spilled my drink!" Or "What's that smell? Did my chair run through dog doo in the park?"

Soon medical imperative blows my cover. The surgery. 
My curving spine has overpowered the pinching back brace. My weak muscles can't keep up. My back has nearly folded over itself. I look more like a beach ball than an almost-fifteen-year-old boy. And the orthopedist says the situation has become critical. Without surgery, and soon, breathing will become increasingly problematic as my body closes in against my lungs. I'll become unable to sit in a chair within five years. My parents have insisted on getting second opinions. Now three of New York's top orthopedic surgeons agree.

We pick Dr. David Levine of the Hospital for Special Surgery, which is on the Upper East Side. He seems the most responsive to questions, even from me, and I like his sunny manner. His penchant for bowties is either a plus or minus—I can't decide.

To prepare for next summer's surgery, I spend the better part of spring break in the hospital for tests. I'm given a private room in the pediatric ward. Disney characters are painted on the walls. Come on, I'm nearly fifteen!

Out my window you can see the East River. The hospital is on prime real estate! Mostly I like the small Sony Trinitron color TV on a pivoting gooseneck over the adjustable bed. I can't change channels myself, but at least I can pick what and when to watch and ask a nurse for help.

For five days I undergo a litany of tests—breathing tests, blood tests and so forth. I try to find the bright side, look at the nurses as sex objects, because that's what the cool guys at school would do, but I'm too busy taking it all in and being bored to float any pleasure.

While I'm there, Mom checks into New York Hospital, which is adjacent.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Part 31 of "Miracle Boy"

I have a second chance at reinventing myself and finding happiness. Rudof Steiner starts one day later than Rippie. Why not give it a try, too? My parents agree. What I didn't realize is they never actually told Steiner about this second change of plans. They didn't have time.

At Steiner, the brouhaha soon settles down and I'm parked behind a desk at the end of the front row. Dad leaves. I struggle to learn the name of the girl on my right. She's pretty, and I figure if we're going to be neighbors we might as well be friends. The new me is as shy as the old me, however. The new me is still a work in progress.

The teacher re-begins his remarks. He's a broad-shouldered, slightly potbellied man, and his fair locks hang diagonally in a … well, a Hitleresque slant toward his bushy eyebrows. I've missed the part where he gives his name.

At lunch the other kids make a special effort to welcome me. "So what're your hobbies?" I'm asked probably six times. I become self-conscious about their solicitousness, but seize the opportunity. "Our teacher—what's his name?"

My question elicits giggles. A girl with flaming red hair and an expansive smile says, "Isn't it funny? German, I guess."

I wait. Then, in a hesitant, enchantingly soft voice, she says, "A Hard Penis." At least that's what I think she says.

I nod knowingly, or try to as best I can, betraying no embarrassment. My head doesn't actually move much, so I sort of raise and lower my eyebrows, playing it cool. I'm good at using facial expressions to my advantage.

On the third day I have a pressing question about a homework assignment. I can't raise my hand. I raise a finger, but will have to call out. Maybe I can get by simply saying "Sir." No. Too formal. I decide to be brave. Perhaps if I say it fast enough, emphasizing the initial syllable and slurring the rest, I can get by. I'm good at fooling people. "Uh, Mr. PEEEN-ih—?"

He looks over. No one chortles. It worked!

Maybe his name really is Mr. Penis.

There are a lot of funny names here. Kids called Almira and Bethea ... at least I think I have those right. I hurriedly ask when book reports are due, and we go on to a lesson in recitation. Recitation is big here. Every morning starts not with the Pledge of Allegiance but with Steiner's own Morning Verse, which I soon learn. "I look into the world, in which the sun is shining, in which stars are sparkling, where stones repose ..." The class speaks it in unison while standing up—slowly, reverentially, like some secret, ancient chant.

Very spooky.

English class begins with two passages we're supposed to memorize. "In the beginning was the word ...," Mr. Penis enunciates for us to repeat. What happened to, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth"? I'm in the presence of goyim, but this isn't Connecticut and they're in the minority.

Then, a few days later, comes: "Respect for the word is the first commandment in the discipline by which a man can be educated to maturity—intellectual, emotional, and moral. Respect for the word—to employ it with scrupulous care and an incorruptible heartfelt love of truth—is essential if there is to be any growth in a society or in the human race …"

I sort of like that one. I've always had respect for scrupulously employed words! I become engaged in the lesson, and soon realize this oddly named teacher and eccentric, quasi-cultish school are growing on me. I made the right choice, coming here, staying in New York. I never think about moving to Stamford again.

Mr. Penis writes the name "Dag Hammarskjold" on the board. I only know it from the plaza near the U.N. Someone then asks him to spell out his own name on the chalkboard. Thank God! Why couldn't I have done that?



Monday, November 8, 2010

Part 30 of "Miracle Boy"

So far, all the men at this Steiner high school wear the drab, narrow-lapelled suits of a previous generation; the two women in evidence are in navy pencil skirts and prim cream-color blouses that've seen better days as well. An odd sort of shabbiness, considering the affluent location, pervades. And not the hippy-dippy grunginess I'm used to from Walden.

My homeroom teacher—young, blondish, in a blousey gold-color dress shirt, conservative polkadot tie, and comfortable shoes—interrupts his presentation to the class when I'm at last wheeled in. "Yes? Hi! Mattlin? Are you in the right class? Ninth grade? It's just that we weren't expecting you ..."

No shit? I smile and remain silent. The other kids—roughly fifteen in all, I estimate—are staring at me from behind identical front-facing desks. (I'm relieved to notice no ties or blazers, like Walden, not like Alec's school.) Most are girls. Much whispering ensues between the teacher and the swarm of 1950s administrators and others who have gathered. The source of the confusion is apparent, to me at least. I am the cause of the commotion. I'm supposed to be in Stamford.

Yesterday, I awoke to the darkness of 5:30 AM in Dad and pregnant Barbara's West End Avenue apartment (they moved from Brooklyn several years before, when the strain of walking up two flights became too much), got in Dad's minibus-sized red Checker sedan—which had room for my motorized wheelchair, if I ducked my head—and did the long reverse-commute to Connecticut. The house they're having built in Stamford isn't finished yet, and I don't want to miss the first day at Rippowam High School.

Rippowam turns out to be a sprawling suburban campus of about a thousand students, quadruple the population of Walden's high school and about fourteen times Steiner's, spread out on a single floor. It's a public school, but it's supposed to be a good one. It's also pretty accessible. I roam from class to class in my motorized wheelchair, something I've never done before. But I get lost and my chair is slow, so I struggle to keep up. Many of the other kids already know one another ... and look different from kids I've known. Athletic? Outdoorsy? Suburban? Gentile? Something!

What's more, out the windows are trees and grass. You can hear birds, not car horns and sirens. Charlton Heston's monotone resonates in my head: "I am a stranger in a strange land."

When my latest attendant, Kenny, brings me home to Manhattan's Upper West Side that afternoon, I'm depressed with severe misgivings. "How many trees can you stand?" I shriek.

The realization: I am a city boy.


Thursday, November 4, 2010

Part 29 of "Miracle Boy”...goes to high school

Thanks to all of you who have written to me in response to this blog and other things I've done.

Thanks for voting for items below, and for my first YouTube comment.

(These humble entries are now receiving about 15 views per day, or close to 500 visitors a month. Not bad!)

My proposal is now in the hands of three or four book editors (I've lost count). I've published articles in each of the past two issues of Financial Advisor magazine, and a new one is in the works.

And NPR is awaiting my next commentary, which I'm hoping will run before the end of the year.

But of course, none of this is certain. None of it is money in the bank. Well, a little, but not much money.

In the manuscript segment that follows, we start the final chapter that's completed so far. Honestly, I'm wishing for a book contract to keep me working on it--so far, it's all been on spec--but I doubt not having one can stop me now!

Well, barring further development, here's the next installment . . . .

Dad and Barbara plan to move to a house in Stamford, Connecticut, where there will be room for the new baby. There is great excitement in the air. Barbara is pregnant! The house is being built! It's an opportunity I don't want to let pass.

I've always wanted to live in a house instead of an apartment. Besides, New York City in the mid-70s is depressing, dangerous. What's more, Mom's not as fun as Dad and Barbara, not as upbeat and adventurous. She's been struggling to find a job and a man she can stand. Only I put it in better words when I finally muster the courage to tell her I want to move out and live with them.

"Are you sure?" Mom asks. Then: "Have I been so—? No. Never mind. Um, won't you miss Alec?"

I haven't thought of that. Alec? No, I guess not.

Yet having spoken my fantasy I'm suddenly not so sure about it. Dad is able to do more with me than Mom, better at tending to my physical requirements. That much is true. Yet Mom is more emotionally supportive. Even now, she suggests I see a psychologist to discuss this.

Reluctantly, I agree.

She has in mind a specialist named Dr. Friend. Who could resist?


"You'd be crazy to move now!" declares Dr. Friend several weeks later, after I speak my piece. A genial fellow with tufts of silver hair framing ample ears, he sits in a big black leather armchair by the window of his elegantly furnished suite off the lobby of an apartment building on Central Park West, a few blocks down from home. Mom and Dad both promised he wouldn't tell me what to do, just help me make up my mind.

"Is—is that what you think?"

"Look, you're starting high school, which is big. Life is best taken a step at a time. Don't overwhelm yourself, particularly considering your upcoming surgery."

I don't want to think about that.

My scoliosis has become worse to the point of dangerous. The miserable back brace isn't working. I can only put off an operation so long. The sooner the better.

When my attendant picks me up at Dr. Friend's office and pushes me home along C.P.W. on what's turned into a blustery spring evening, almost immediately I decide to disobey the shrink.

Chapter 3: My unfortunate, life-changing incarceration

My first day at Steiner, no one is expecting me. Housed in a converted townhouse on East 78th Street between Fifth and Madison avenues, the school is like a disheveled Old World dowager. It's warm and nurturing yet mothball smelling.

I'm the first and only wheelchair student ever—pioneering, again—and nobody's checked if the elevator is working. It's very old and arthritic, we're told. Like at Walden, Dad has to jerk my chair up the front steps, but we're used to that. Beggars can't be choosers. Inside is another story. We hadn't reckoned on an elevator problem.

The tiny "car"—a cargo elevator, if ever there was one—refuses to move from whatever floor it's on. When someone at last finds it and manages to open the tarnished old gate, my chair doesn't fit inside. I'm about ready to give up, whatever that means, when Dad removes my footrests and finagles till my chair and I are wedged in. That said, there is no extra space for another person to push the buttons, which I can't do myself. So long-legged Dad vaults the staircase to summon the elevator to the third floor. Still the rust bucket won't budge, until—honest to God—someone kicks the door from the outside!

Needless to say, I'm now late for my first class.

All of which gives me plenty of time to size up the people I'm hurriedly introduced to.