On Being Ill (A List of Six)

  1. Pain does not ennoble. When the writer Jenny Diski was told she had inoperable lung cancer, she told her husband, “Under no circumstances is anyone to say that I lost a battle with cancer,” she told him. “Or that I bore it bravely. I am not fighting, losing, winning or bearing.” So, begin by denying power to the conventional narratives attached to sickness. Pain will teach you about pain. Pain hollows you out to make room for itself. In this way it is like anxiety–anxiety of the body.
  2. Wheelchair: It’s not when you first get in a wheelchair at the hospital because the insist on it, but when you tell the person by the door, “I’m going to need a wheelchair.”
  3. Happiness: I am not unhappy. A couple of years ago my Zen teacher, on the day after a particularly tough teisho, came into the zendo & announced, “I really would like everyone to be happy!” Okay, Sensei, I am. Even now, with cancer.
  4. Hospitals are filled with working-class people working. The patients come & go, but the staff gets up every day and goes to work. It astonishes me that they can do what they do because patients are so fucking depressing. The even depress other patients.
  5. Waiting for test results: I have been given a general diagnosis & had one MRI scan, two CT scans & a biopsy, the later just yesterday. A friend emails, “I imagine that the waiting must be among the most painful parts of this . . . .” No, I don’t think so. The days between right now & my appointment next week with my oncologist1 occupy a liminal space. Next week could be (relatively) good, or terrible. Once I know, I will know. And then I will have to act & be acted upon.
  6. Night Thoughts: Items one to five above are all very well, but after a pleasant day, I am awake at a quarter past midnight, when every small ache feels like a new blossoming of rebellious cells at a new location in my body. I’m not sweating, or anxious: I’m just thinking.

Show 1 footnote

  1. “My Zen teacher, “my oncologist”–what a post-modern person I have become.

Bad Back (A List of Five)

  1. It’s not the bending over, it’s the straightening up.
  2. Buying a walking stick. (Probably won’t need the little compass embedded in the top, but it’s nice to be oriented. (See No. 3. below.)
  3. Percodan creates a kind of mild fogginess that is not unpleasant, but it’s a fog you want to get to the other side of before you forget how to spell your name.
  4. It’s good to be in the room with the widescreen TV, but I actually like audiobooks of classic genre novels better. Graham Greene, George Simenon, Wilkie Collins (the two great novels1, not the hack work.)
  5. Having a moderately good excuse to be behind schedule grading my students’ essays.

Show 1 footnote

  1. The Woman in White, The Moonstone.

How I’m Spending My Spring Break . . .


JD & Oliver resting
. . . On my back with a bad back.

Fortunately, they have drugs for this condition & I’m much more mobile than I was a few days ago when this picture was taken; unfortunately, the drugs make me tired & muddle-headed, which means I haven’t gotten much work done & I had to cancel going to a retreat at ZMM. On Monday when classes resume I have permission to park in the blue spaces, which will save some wear & tear. Oh, and I’ll be the old guy walking with a stick—one of them anyway.

Hanoi Spleen (Another List of Five)

  1. The ugly cathedral really is ugly, a cement monstrosity deposited by the French, who, when the were driven out of Hanoi in 1954 razed the 1000 year old One Pillar Pagoda, an architectural marvel. It has since been rebuilt. Now the city is infested by twenty-something French hipsters smoking their execrable cigarettes in the coffee shops.
  2. The German hipsters are a little less annoying, perhaps because Germans have no history in Vietnam.
  3. There are hardly any American hipsters–just a few fresh-faced college students with almost no awareness of their country’s history in Vietnam.
  4. The Vietnamese word for tourism is du lịch; for history the word is lịch sử. Because the unbarred letter “d” is pronounced “z” the two words sound & look like mirror images of each other, at least to my insensitive Western ear. I know nothing about Vietnamese etymology, but I don’t think lịch is the same word / syllable in these two words, Vietnamese compounds working differently from those in Germanic languages. The joys of false etymologies & strained analogies!
  5. Compared to traffic in HCMC or (from what I have been told) Bangkok, traffic in Hanoi is not so bad, but it is bad enough. For my first four weeks here I was able to join the dance–and it is a dance–but the last few days it’s just seemed chaotic. Usually, at a major intersection, when the light changes there is a liminal period during which the more aggressive motorbikes continue through as the bikes from the perpendicular direction begin moving out. Usually the side with the red slows & stops, though individual scooters will continue to dart through along the edges or go up on the sidewalk to skirt around. It’s hard to describe. Sometimes the liminal period of one direction goes on so long that it overlaps with the period of the other direction, which is when you have chaos, the dance broken down. So, now, go cross the street to get to your favorite coffee shop on the other side.

Why Vietnam?

Every time I take a trip to Vietnam–averaging every couple of years since the mid-1990s–I’m asked what it is about Vietnam that draws me back again & again. It’s a reasonable question & one to which I have a set answer, but it’s an answer that doesn’t fully satisfy me. I usually say that, given my age, I have an inescapable historical connection to Vietnam. But that doesn’t explain, really, why I’m sitting in Logan International waiting for a 1:30 a.m. flight to Hong Kong, jumping then to Hanoi. And it doesn’t explain why I’ve now made twelve (I think) extended trips to Vietnam since 1996, including a Fulbright year in 2000 – 2001. It must be love.

I feel comfortable in Vietnam, especially Hanoi, which is less frenetic & less Westernized than HCMC. It’s not as if Hanoi is like home–I don’t feel “at home”–but I am attracted to the particular kinds of difference I experience there. And it certainly is different–the interpersonal expectations can take some getting used to. Social life is based on relationships of hierarchy, but also of trust, however paradoxical that may seem. Then there is that long sweep of history that gives weight to both social interactions and the arts, though much of this historical weight is being eroded by the forces of globalization.

Why Vietnam? What is it about going far from home that feels so lively & rewarding? Over the next few weeks I’m going to keep coming back to these questions, though I know in advance that whatever sort of answer(s) I come up with will be protean, shifting, unstable.