My psyche gradually seems to be coming around to the fact that I’m leaving for an MFA residency in Connecticut from the 28th to the 1st. Then a few days after that, going to California for three months. We’ll be in Palo Alto no more than four days before flying to London for the T.S. Eliot Prize ceremony. At least that last one's a quick trip.
I’m wondering how and when I became this kind of adult. When I was a kid, I didn’t want to be anywhere but at our family summerhouse at the Jersey Shore. My body literally rebelled when it was asked to be in motion. Trips to Maine, Virginia, Canada: my bouts with carsickness—or more likely, my holding carsickness back—ended up being one of the subjects of those vacations. It probably didn’t help that my father had his own ways of reacting to the loss of control associated with travel. There I was squeezing my eyes shut, operatically holding my stomach in the backseat, while my father inspected and rejected motel after motel, trying to find a room that had “good ventilation.”
The travel sickness finally stopped on our family trip to Southern California, and maybe that's why I still feel immediately at home whenever I see palms, lush vegetation, and anything remotely connected to L.A.-style futurism.
This brings me to the handout I just made for my workshop next week. I’m teaching nonfiction this go-round, and I needed some kind of organizing principle for the excerpts I chose. I decided to go with fathers, in part because travel must have been on my mind. One of the excerpts comes from David Shields’ The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll Be Dead in which the speaker’s 95-year-old father takes a writing workshop at Woodlake, a senior citizens complex in the Bay Area.
From “Superheroes” in The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll Be Dead
In almost every piece he writes on his antique Remington for his Woodlake-sponsored writing class—a dozen women, a retired dentist, and my father meet with the teacher every other Wednesday—he projects himself as a balanced okaynik, Mr. Bonhomie. He’s held more than fifty jobs in journalism and public relations and social welfare, been fired from many of them, been plagued by manic depression for fifty years, been hospitalized and received electroshock therapy countless times, is a genius at loss. Lily Tomlin was thinking of my father when she said, “Language was invented because of the deep human need to complain.” He’s always thrown a stone at every dog that bites, but in one story he sagely advises his friend, “You can’t throw a stone at every dog that bites.” My father, who is the only person in the world who may have a worse sense of direction than I do, writes about another friend, “Lou can go astray in a carport. He has the worst sense of direction of any male driver in the state of California.” Time after time he lets himself off way too easily. I used to want to urge him out of this macho pose until I realized that it’s a way to cheer himself up, to avoid telling mild good-bye and good-night stories, to convince himself he’s still a tough guy from Brooklyn, not yet ready to die.