Monday, November 26, 2012

Lying Disease

There was a fantastic article in The Stranger by Cienna Madrid about Munchhausen-by-internet ...which led me to three thoughts…

A phenom we see all the time in publishing – an unusual disease or disorder turns up in the news, which turns up a few months later in a half-dozen manuscripts, which in turn takes all the mystery out of – say -- a mystery novel. A friend who works for one of the big publishing houses said there was a big uptick in stores about hoarders, people with odd jobs, extreme chefs, and fishermen when those programs were first on TV – she called it “writer’s Munchhausen”. She knew it wasn’t an entirely accurate description, but the term stuck with me.

A friend who was a school nurse said that she was constantly looking at limps, stomachaches, headaches, blurry/double vision, cramps, fevers, and yes, pregnancies -- that arose for various psychological reasons. She estimated that three-quarters of the ailments she saw were imagined. She had a variety of ways to determine if the ailment was real or not; although either way she offered support to her students – and counseling.

… A revisit my own experiences with Munchhausen IRL (in real life)

I had a benign cyst removed from one breast when I was in my early twenties; the doctor did such a good job with the surgery that every OB-GYN I’ve seen since has remarked on his work. Three years later I had another lump in the same breast and a swollen lymph node, and went to the doctor, biopsy reveals nothing, but I still felt crappy. Another round of tests and the doctor said, you have no immune system left, get your affairs together -- and handed me a stack of brochures about what to do at the end of one’s life.
I told my friends that I was dying and I certainly felt bad enough to die for a week or so; I had a high fever, lost my voice, and could barely move from bed. A friend would come and take care of me – make soup, share her experiences with chemo and radiation. I talked about my dad’s battle with cancer and eventual suicide; she talked about feeling suicidal.

One morning I woke up and felt… better. Over the next few days I got well, and the better I got, the less I saw of my friend. She stopped coming over and when I ran into her at the grocery store she poked me in the chest and called me a liar, a faker. I didn’t know what to say.

My friends were mystified too, “Weren’t you supposed to die?”

“They were wrong? I dunno.” (That sounded stupid, even to me.)

I went back to my doctor, who pronounced me healthy – I’d probably had the flu.

Twenty years later, I discovered[1] that my test results and another had been mixed up; well, not exactly mixed up – another patient and I had received the same diagnosis, but mine was false. (BTW: sleuthing was required to find this out: it wasn’t written out in so many words on my records.)

Over the next decades, weird little clusters of symptoms would keep popping up – the most annoying was that I’d occasionally get buzzy in the head and faint for no discernible reason. Was I having seizures? “Spells?” I imagine if it had been 1900 I’d be diagnosed with a “female complaint.”

It took years to discover that I had severe food allergies, but only if I ate certain foods in combination during a specific point in my menstrual cycle; for instance, a garlicky white bean salad, shellfish and strawberry shortcake eaten at the same meal would trigger every one of my allergies at once. Immediately after my period I would feel a little headachey; BUT just before my period I would go from headache to a faint. But not right away – it took a few hours for all the allergens to work their magic on me.

My allergist said it was an anaphylactic reaction, made more severe by my estrogen levels. She said, “Your body is going overboard protecting you in case you get pregnant.” I knew nothing about anaphylactic reactions then, now most folks know about anaphylactic reactions to bee stings and peanuts.

The allergist suggested I join a group of other folks with food allergies. They offered tons of support, understood when I said that people thought I was faking symptoms, offered stories of their own—one man’s children thought he had Alzheimer’s, another said her husband insisted on having a cat and didn’t believe she was allergic to cats. “Or cat spit,” she said. “I’ve done a lot of reading and it’s the probably the enzymes in the cat spit that I’m allergic to. I’d be fine with a spitless cat.”

One woman in the group was really keen on getting the details of all of our allergic reactions—she would be bright-eyed and weirdly interested, for instance, when one member of the group accidently ate something that had peanut oil in it and had to go the emergency room – a few weeks later the exact. same. thing. happened to this gal.

The others in the group believed she was lying, maybe even faking outright, but weren’t quite sure what to do. Was she hurting anyone? Did she fake stuff outside of group – had she really been to the emergency room? We never found out. She left the group a few weeks later, telling us that she was moving to San Francisco – we wondered if that was true and if it was, would she join another allergy support group?

We decided that it was an endless chain.

[1] I went to work for the healthcare provider; I was able to access my own records.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Historical Fiction (and Elvis Rain)

My favorite genre to edit is historical fiction; and by that I don't mean romances that are -- incidentally -- set during a time of turbulent history. (OK, I'll make an exception for Casablanca.)

It was E.L. Doctrow's Ragtime that did it for me -- written in syncopated style, when I read passages aloud I could feel the rhythms of ragtime in the words. And Evelyn Nesbit!  Doctrow called her the first media darling, a woman who was famous for being famous. Doctrow drew his characters very well; and though I knew that Stanford White, Henry Thaw and Evelyn Nesbit were real, I was disappointed to discover that Coalhouse Walker was fictional.

I am not a huge fan of French and English history, though I studied both to understanding the context of Shakespeare's plays. If I were a fan, I could keep reading Jean Plaidy or Sharon Kay Penman for years... possibly decades.

I recently read Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall  -- a lot of reading at 600+ pages. Mantel finds fresh life in the stories of Henry VIII by skimming through Prince Hal and his many wives and writing about Oliver Cromwell and Thomas More -- but she wasn't writing a history book, her hybrid novel is historical fiction.

A chuckle here--Mantel's book arrived in the mail from a friend who bought it thinking she was getting some light reading -- sex, scandal and intrigue (still at 600+ pages) in the vein of Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl.

The Other Boleyn Girl is also historical fiction and Gregory took great liberties with the historical context and characters in the book, which makes for a great novel, but made historians cross. However, the book was made into a big-budget movie  and I don't expect to see "Wolf Hall" as a movie soon. (Maybe a BBC4 documentary.)

Historical bodice rippers aside, Larissa Macfarquar at the New Yorker feels that Hilary Mantel has revitalized historical fiction.

Historical Fiction -- partial reading list from my freshman literature class, circa 1993:

Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers
Ann Rinaldi,  (YA books with historical background)
Ken Follett (yes!),  Pillars of the Earth

More (imagined) Adventures of Elvis Rain

Elvis is not thrilled with the rain -- no, the deluge -- today. Dell had to practically drag him down to the Java Jive to watch the action between Ms UB, her dog B+ and Noodles' owner, the object of Ms UB's affections.

The only way Dell could get Elvis out the door was to put his red "Therapy Dog" vest on -- Elvis was used to wearing a vest. When the vest was on, he knew it was time to go to work.

When the Doggie Daycare van pulled up, Elvis made a dash for the side door-- it was dry inside the van and he was tired of standing under the drippy eaves at Java Jive. Dell reined him back in and the young woman driving the van smiled at him while B+ and Noodles got on board.

On a whim, Dell asked, "Do you need help?"

"We're not hiring."

"I was thinking of volunteering. Elvis and I were in the Beagle Brigade, and he's-- we're -- a trained therapy team, maybe we can be of use to you."

The young woman latched the doors on the dog crates, then stood up and pulled a business card from the driver's-side visor. "You bet," she said. Normally I'd say no, but you might be a good addition to our team. Call the boss -- Tom, tell him Amy told you to call."

"Amy, OK. Thanks," Dell said. They shook hands.

Elvis trotted along expectantly beside Dell and he realized that they couldn't go back to the house, Elvis expected to go to work. They walked to the Mini-School Cooperative Daycare--they knew Dell and Elvis there -- and the parents and kids going in all gave Elvis a pet. After that Elvis was happy to go home.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Elvis Rain & the Dryer Sheets

More (imagined) adventures of Elvis, the Barking Rain Press mascot...


Dell and Elvis moved last week to newer, but smaller digs in a posh (but slightly odd) neighborhood;  Elvis doesn't have to ride the elevator up and down from the fourth anymore and the dog park is only six blocks away. Elvis is thrilled, he's never liked elevators.

However, Elvis constantly alerts to the house next door; sits down in front of the house and won't move. Dell wonders what's going on -- Elvis was trained to sniff out contraband fruit in airline luggage; he can't imagine that there's a illegal mango-growing operation next door. Eventually he caught a whiff of what Elvis smelled--something fruity--ah--the neighbor is using fruit-scented dryer sheets. Mystery solved.

Elvis loves the dog park even though he's not interested in the other dogs, being off-leash or playing fetch. (Elvis pointedly does not fetch.) His passion is collecting tennis balls and he won't leave the park until he has collected every tennis ball. A first he carefully made a pile of them at Dell's feet; that didn't work because other dogs would steal the balls back. Now Dell brings a big garbage bag along and puts all the tennis balls in it; when Elvis is done he leaves the bag on the bench.

Java Jive the coffee shop comes after the dog park. Elvis dutifully will alert to any fruit on the counter: today it's a display of Satsuma oranges. Dell gets a large drip and Elvis gets a dog biscuit; they've been coming every morning at about the same time and Dell has started to recognize the regulars. The morning starts with a gaggle of high school kids who hop off their buses and grab lattes and mochas before going to school (their private high school is across the street). As soon as they're gone a woman who reeks of cigarettes and booze comes in and shakily nurses small drip; the Doggie Daycare Van stops in front of Java Jive and picks up a half-dozen dogs every morning; there seems to be a romance brewing between the owner of Noodles, a curly gray dog and B+, who is some sort of Labrador mix. His owner is a nervous woman Dell calls "Ms. UB" because she is always in a sweatshirt that says "UB" -- university-of-something? Dell isn't sure; but he knows she waits until she sees Noodles and his owner before going into Java Jive and she always orders a dry cap.

Elvis alerts to B+ as if he's another service dog, Ms UB curtly told Dell that he flunked service dog school.

Dell tried out a small joke: "His name is B+? So he's a good dog, but not an excellent one, right?"

Ms. UB looked at Dell flatly. "His name is Ben, his name tag is scratched up." She scampered out the door after Noodles and his owner, the dogs got into the Doggie Daycare van, Ms. UB laughed loudly at something Noodles' owner said.

Interesting question from a student this week: "How did you edit when -- you know, you set type by hand?"

Answer: Very carefully. I sent the student a little diagram showing how we would edit thoroughly on paper before sending copy to the typesetter, the process of pulling and reviewing galley proofs. The whole process took a long time -- I think of this every time I do a quick edit in InDesign.

And among my who-needs-it-now skills, I can read accurately upside-down and backwards and can spot a 1/4 point of bad kerning or leading at 40 paces.

Next week: Elvis, Noodles and B+

Monday, November 5, 2012

I'll Be Brief

I'll be brief because it'sNaNo month and I am already carpal-tunneling... sigh. Time to switch keyboards.

NaNoWriMo is my favorite month – and I am not being sarcastic. Can I really write a novel in a month? I dunno – I haven’t written a novel, but I have written 50,000+ words during the month. The point of NaNo is to write 50,000 words during November, 1667 words a day – or more – or less, just get to 50,000 words by the end of the month.

Was my “novel” any good? No – and yes. I surprised myself by getting through a story I’d been working on for years, beginning to end – though the story turned out to be about something other than I thought. But it wasn’t a very good story… but there was a story in there that I wanted to tell. I’m still poking at it – why is it I want to tell this story?