The Writing Life: Reflection, Reaction and Reexamination
By Bill Dixon
Everyone, I suspect, writes for very roughly similar reasons, but I’m wrong often enough to cast some doubt on that that supposition. My own writing seems to retell tales of things centered on past experiences: mostly experiences with good outcomes. I’ve assiduously dodged looking ahead, in favor of revisiting that which happened in my past, and have concentrated, further, on things that turned out well. I like to grade my own papers, I suppose. Furthermore, I have two degrees in history, which would bias my work in that direction. I don’t have much experience in studying the future, and not too many people have. Narrowly, weather forecasters, political pollsters, racetrack touts, those on the forward edge of the “hard sciences” can predict what will happen with varying degrees of success. Predicting is substantially less certain than factual recounting, although recounting is usually less than totally reliable: as Steven Crane famously said during the Civil War, “The first casualty of war is the truth”. Predictably, I’ve got some observations about that, based, of course, on previous experience.
I’ve either been fortunate enough to have a remarkable ability to recall events from the past, and see them in my mind’s eye, as clearly as if they were a week ago, or cursed with that same ability. It’s as usual a two-edged sword, and it cuts both ways. For every triumph, there was a defeat. For every good thing I accomplished, there was some bad thing that I did. Every prideful moment has a corresponding moment of personal shame. I can still see those events, as they unfolded, and am forced to revisit them frequently. That’s not always a “gift”. When I was a kid, thirteen years old, I got a job working in a used book store owned by two teachers in a suburban, Columbus, Ohio, high school. I bluffed (lied) my way into a job there, telling the owners that I was sixteen. They bought it at first, but then figured it out, and confronted me. A sixteen-year old could legally work more hours than a thirteen-year old. I could have gotten them in trouble by misrepresenting my age. Lacking any practical options, I told them the truth. I was going to go to The Ohio State University when I graduated from high school. I knew that, because my parents had drilled that into my head, routinely. However, they also told me, rather recently, that there would be no money to help me pay for my education, post-high school. The money that I earned working for the bookstore, would go into the savings account I’d set up for that reason. That was why I lied to them about my age. The next day, after they’d discussed the situation between one another, they told me that under the law, I could continue to work for them, but that I couldn’t work after six o’clock PM, on any day, and that I couldn’t work more than sixteen hours a week, total. I wasn’t allowed to work on Sundays, either. My compensation would include, in addition to eight dollars a week, for my sixteen hours’ labor, I could have all the books I wanted, one at a time, conditional on my reading each one, and discussing the book with them afterward. The book selection was up to me, no exclusions. I could keep every book that I read and reviewed with them. I accepted the deal, as offered, at once. It was quite probably the best job I ever had, and fostered a life-long love of books and writing.
My book selections included from that first day on lots of science fiction: Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Aisimov, and many other SF writers who presented alternative future developments for my inspection. In reading those books, it seemed to me I was now studying the future. Many things, like space travel, huge advances in medicine, science and physics, and in civilizations that were disassembled and reassembled, life on other planets, time travel suddenly seemed completely possible. Many such things were indeed possible, and actually did happen, as time progressed from those days in 1957 to the future in which we all now reside. I’ve had a lot of jobs that I loved since then. I was almost always lucky enough to be brought into workplaces in which I thrived, and I prospered as a result, at almost every level of my development. In every instance, however, the past was always more real than the future, and certainly more absolute. I gambled on various outcomes, mostly financial possibilities based on my analysis of various probabilities that were relatively risky projects, things mostly based on my expectations of real estate future values, and my continuing strong work ethic and excellent heath. Over time, I slipped and skittered by various crises and negative possibilities, sometimes frighteningly close to the edge. Sometimes the risks I took were solely for personal adventures in foreign settings, more for excitement than anything else, and that easily could have gone wrong, but somehow didn’t. There were important personal relationships that went both directions in that process. The good outcomes and choices never bothered me, of course, but the others did, and continue to do so, to the present day. That damned memory thing!
A neighbor from my college days, later a tenant in a building I owned, then a solitary old codger who I looked after as his health deteriorated, shook his head at me one day as we were going out for Coney Island hot dogs, which we did every couple of weeks, and said, “We’ll never get out of here alive, Dixon.” Some time later it dawned on me he was right. When he died several years later, I did as he had instructed. I had him cremated, then buried, in Greenlawn Cemetary, in Columbus, next to his parents and sister. I cleaned out his apartment myself, and got it ready to re-rent to a new tenant. I pitched out evidence that he was gay, and took a large box of family photographs to his only relative’s apartment. She was a second cousin, and she didn’t like me much, partly because Walter had entrusted his estate, which was mostly credit card debt and used electronics, to me, a white boy, and because, also on Walter’s instructions, I’d left her out of the obituary I put in the newspaper. Walter didn’t like her much, either. She refused the photographs I’d been asked to convey to her; when I showed up on her door stoop she muttered and slammed the door in my face. It was a sunny, pleasant day, and I left the box of photographs on her front porch with a weight on top to keep the wind from blowing them away. I drove past her place about an hour later, and they were gone. Like Walter said, we aren’t going to get out of here alive. I hope she kept some of the family photos, at least for other family members.
So, back to the future, then: in the last two years, I’ve had a couple of close calls with death: I had four-way bypass surgery, which was a breeze, in terms of recovery, then a year ago, I came down with the flu (yes, I got my flu shot, the same as I have for the last twenty-plus years), but I got the flu anyway. It turned into pneumonia, while I was on one of my recently frequent out-of-town jaunts. The situation didn’t look good, and my girlfriend, Susan, a nurse, sitting by my side in the hospital, figured I was probably toast. So did the hospital employees in Key West where I was hooked up to various devices I’d never seen before, and wish never to see again. They dripped in, and dripped out, adding and subtracting fluids from me. It reminded me of the soldier in the hospital with Orr and Yossarian “who saw everything twice”. At the end of each day, in Catch 22, Joseph Heller’s opus, the nurses switched the collection vessels and IV drip with one another, and marked the clipboard accordingly. I imagined my nurses doing likewise, mostly for purposes of personal enjoyment. The Key West Hospital people thought I was headed elsewhere, too. They offered to fix me up with an available Catholic priest, who I could see hovering in the doorway, or any alternate choice I wished, to smooth my passage to the next world. I thought about requesting a Santa Ria practitioner, there being several Haitian nurses on staff, but took the rare option of keeping my mouth shut, instead, and quietly thanked them and declined the offer of the priest. It was a rare and temporary moment of sanity during that event. A few minutes earlier, I had threatened to remove my catheter myself, if the nurse refused to do so. I was out of it. Nurse Susan was investigating alternative options to send the earthly remains back to Ohio for interment. Things didn’t look good, my friends. I got away with a narrow victory, though. I’m still not a hundred percent, even eleven months later. Then again, I’m a whole hell of a lot better than dead.
Now, at age seventy, being dead isn’t much of a stretch of the imagination. And while I certainly don’t look forward to my demise, I’m not afraid of it. My plan is to live while it seems like a good idea to do so, and “to not go softly into that long goodnight”, to quote Dylan Thomas. But, realistically, it doesn’t seem like that event can be very far away, given my age and recent medical history. That’ll be in the future, since I’ve put this column in front of you, but I can’t see any further than that hazy notion.
You know, what I really wanted to do here, is look into the future for a change, rather than dip into the past for a story, but I don’t think I did a very good job of that: all I did was quote my old friend Walter Brooks, who told me we wouldn’t get out of here alive, which is out of the past. I have no doubt that his prediction will come true in the short-term future: “short-term” being relative. Right now, however, I guess I’d like to take this golden opportunity to sincerely apologize to the numerous folks that I’ve wronged over the past seventy years, and thank the many people who helped me along life’s way. A lot of those people are on both lists, I suppose. While those gestures are totally inadequate, they’re sincere, and it’s guaranteed for the foreseeable future. That’s not a very good look at the future, I’m afraid. The list of those folks, living and dead, is a lengthy one, and has gotten longer as the future slowly became the present. You know who you are, and I do too. I’m sincerely sorry, and I’m sincerely grateful. I might never get a chance to say that again, given the unpredictability of future events. I do this as thanks to those good folks still living. To those who’ve gone, I apologize for being so tardy in getting around to saying this. I always meant to. At least I’ve been lucky enough to finally put it on paper.
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