Slow Down

By Eli Ryder

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My father died of a brain tumor at the ripe old age of forty-five, and if that hadn’t taken him down the cancer in his lungs would have done the job. I don’t remember if anyone connected the two, calling one a metastasis of the other, or if they were separate issues. What I do know is that his age threw a cloud around my own longevity, because the other thing no one ever discussed is whether he was genetically predisposed or if he’d brought all of that on himself.

The brain tumor could have been the drug use throughout his life. The lung cancer, maybe the two-pack-a-day habit he had since before I was born. Or, he could have passed to me a potential for illness I would have to carry around in the back of my mind.

I smoked for a while. Did my share of recreational drugs. There’s more cancer in the family, too. All kinds of potential.

I’ve tried to leverage that potential into motivation to do all kinds of things with my life, to wear all kinds of badges:

Writer.

Songwriter.

Editor.

Manager.

Asshole.

Teacher.

Father.

Single words, short ones. But with so much power. Their technical definitions and emotional implications can express universal experiences with such specificity. Or create imaginary identities out of nothing, identities we wear like winter coats even when they don’t all-the-way fit.

The longest there is ten letters, ten ultimately arbitrary characters we’ve all agreed have sounds, and those individual sounds make a longer, more complex sound, and suddenly the five, six, seven characters assemble into an entire identity.

These identities overlap, combine, and even their almost-magical capacity to contain, to be infinitely bigger than their arbitrary signifiers, are individually still too inadequate to contain an entire person.

We sure make them try, though, don’t we?

Writer: Here I am, writing. I’ve got some short fiction out in the world, a play once upon a time in San Francisco, and some short musings on writing and craft for Automata’s blog. Also, a songwriter—nothing anyone would ever remember, but enough to make a record, and record demos at home, and then play them for people years later when I don’t think they’d laugh. I’m an editor, both for my own magazine and for friends in writing groups. I’m in my second career, having left a decade of experience in retail management behind for the much more challenging and rewarding halls of academia. And, Asshole. Yep. I’ve been that. Haven’t we all?

I am also a Father. Connotatively, that’s love, support, guidance—and fun and sacrifice, a great magnitude of things. The word contains so much that a single essay cannot possibly express everything the word demands. And, to my daughter, that singular word will encompass every I am to her. Every other identity will be contained in that word: “My father is (insert other signifiers here).”

Even in their magnificent power to create meaning, words are still too small and weak to contain an entire human.

We are a great many things, and when one of them overshadows the rest, maybe the whole human suffers. For instance, teacher—my mother (there I go, boxing her in) is a teacher, has been for 20-odd years, and will likely never be able to retire. So, she’ll be a teacher until she dies. She also has horses, reads books, and twice upon a time was a wife. But mostly: teacher. And now, that’s pretty much it. Solitary, almost anti-social, she works from dark to dark and is usually too drained by her work to do anything but decompress when she’s not at work.

She’s become someone who can fit completely inside the badge. Teacher. There are other things, but they’re wedged into the Teacher box and only exist to support the teacher identity. She’s made everything else so small that even my limited-scope version of her wilts in the face of Teacher.

I have a new badge.

I’m trying hard not to let that new badge, the new-as-of-12:46pm-January-8-2019 badge with the lethal connotations, gain too much space among the rest. I’m a writer, friend, partner, teacher, lover, reader, songwriter (despite that hat’s rare appearance), and more recently, walker, breather, relaxer. All of those can peacefully coexist together, even support and make each other stronger. Now, though, there’s an interloper, a badge often so powerful it crushes people under its weight:

Patient.

That’s what I am, now. A patient. A negative metastasis, no spread of disease, best-news-about-worst-news early-detected Prostate Cancer Patient.

And that word, that identity, could easily obliterate everything else, spread and take over and suffocate the rest of me. It could, and does to a lot of people—most of whom don’t have the positive adjectives tacked onto the front of that badge the way I do. If there’s luck in these kinds of situations, I’ve got it. So, that’s a new badge too: Lucky.

Lucky that I turned down the position in Las Vegas when I did, because that landed me here in Texas. Lucky I missed my flight to the interview in Fort Worth after having accepted a position in Houston, because that kept me in Houston—where my general practitioner made a mistake on a lab order and ran a test never ordered on people under fifty. Which led to a series of tests and biopsies and discoveries probably not explored had I not found the one GP who would make that mistake.

My surgeon told me he had no idea why my PSA was tested, because my age and indicators didn’t call for it. I’m only forty-one. He also told me I’d not have lived to fifty, the age at which that test would normally have been run.

My father wasn’t so lucky, didn’t have medical insurance, and maybe forty-five was my timeline without all these seemingly random events falling into place. But they did.

So, lucky.

I am a Patient, noun, one who is receiving medical care. But, let’s look again—patient, adjective, able to withstand delays, problems, and suffering without becoming upset. (I stole those definitions from the internet). Being patient means weathering a storm without having dimmed one’s shine.

The etymology of the homonym looks obvious—it comes from “patience,” according to etymonline.com. Patience, noun, the ability to suffer and endure. That’s another stolen definition. The noun Patient, in receiving medical care, must endure. The adjective Patient, a modifier for other identities. I like to think the adjective exists to remind the noun of the noun’s existence. To remind it of it’s endurance, its ability to stay shiny in a storm.

So my new badge? It should take the reins sometimes, let me settle into each diamond-glow moment for the moment itself. Let it support all my other badges. Make everything I am more patient. Slow down with students when the third and fourth attempts don’t hit home, because I’m going to miss the moment things finally click.

Slow down when my daughter’s independence—the clear sign she’s mine—means she’s not listening, she’s testing boundaries because that’s what smart toddlers do, so that I’m more in tune with what she’s doing and how she’s growing, because I’m going to miss the toddler when she’s older, the kid when she’s a teenager, and the teenager when she’s an adult.

Slow down when the words don’t come, or come fragmented, or come stupid. Because those moments are the pain of writing, the work is to bear down and write through it, and that takes slowing down, embracing the process, and coming out on the other side.

And that’s the meat of it. Weathering the storm, is what patience is. I should be a patient teacher, a patient writer. A patient friend and partner. All of these things in addition to, and due to, being a Patient. The rest of my little boxes should nest in that one for a little while, let me be a Patient among all those other things and bear down, work the process, and come out on the other side. Because I’ve got time, now, more than my father had.

Not a Book

This wonderful sci-fi story by Ken Liu I read the other day concerns the book-making and -reading habits of various (fictional, as far as we know) intergalactic species. It has the kind of inventive and intricate storytelling I look for—there’s a touch of mischief to it, a sense of wonder, a sinuous line of pattern-making and -breaking.

I ran across it while reading through a thread on Goodreads about the deletion from Goodreads’ database of issues of FIYAH, a black speculative fiction magazine. So the story goes, Goodreads does not list periodicals and magazines and literary journals in its database. The reasoning behind this is unclear, beyond the fact that these items are not “books”—and Goodreads is a site for books, not writing. But various non-books can and do get added to the database—by users, through automated methods, by osmotic data seepage—and these items are sometimes discovered by the site’s volunteer librarians. They’re deleted if they don’t have ISBNs; if they do, they’re shuffled off to NOT-A-BOOK purgatory. FIYAH does not have ISBNs for its issues, so it was booted.

The upshot of this scenario is a significant loss of exposure for FIYAH, and people are upset. Rightfully so: with FIYAH being dedicated to black speculative fiction, it looks an awful lot like a discriminatory outcome, especially when other literary magazines were allowed to remain. Some commenters in the thread explain this away through appeal to the rather arbitrary and apparently random nature of the librarians’ work—if they happen to find something awry, away it goes, but whether or not they find the things that are awry is left up to chance. It’s a fairly haphazard way to go about the rather serious matter of curating a database that millions of people use, and rather bizarre if you think about it: this is an area in which software excels, in fact an area in which software far outpaces human ability—and yet it’s being handled by humans, and unpaid ones at that. But never mind that absurdity. Other commenters in the thread make the reasonable and rational point that when an outcome is discriminatory, well then it’s discriminatory, and here we have a discriminatory outcome, and whether or not Goodreads’ policies are intentionally discriminatory, they have resulted in just such an outcome. QED: one more example of structural racism, albeit a kind of grunting, creaking, wheezing, who-me-I’m-not-a-racist-I-have-a-black-friend kind of structural racism.

Much of the discussion of whether FIYAH was rightfully deleted hinges on the question of what a book is, according to Goodreads. In my opinion, what makes a book a book, what constitutes “book-ness,” is quite obscure and possibly undefinable; Liu’s story stretched my own conception of “book-ness” so far that I’m not sure there is anything that does not have the potential to be a book. If it can be read, it can be a book—and what cannot be read?

Goodreads seems to endorse the position that books, and only books, are books. We know them when we see them, right? Problems with this essentialist position abound, however: there are non-books like literary journals and magazines and periodicals masquerading as books—they can be read like books and are often printed and bound and distributed just like books, but still: not books—and there are toys and bookmarks and board games that are sucked up into the database because they have ISBNs, which make them appear to be books even though they, too, are (clearly) not books. These interlopers cannot be tolerated, they cause a bad vibe, they harsh the real books’ mellow, and so the lit journals and magazines get the ax, as previously discussed; the non-books with the slick fake IDs, however, they’re trickier, they keep trying to get back into the club, waiting for the bouncer to look the other way or sneaking in through the side door or riding in on the coattails of a friend.

Goodreads’ rather ingenious solution to this dilemma is to send these non-books off to NOT A BOOK land, which features numerous non-books called NOT A BOOK, all written by the exceptionally productive author NOT A BOOK. We should all emulate NOT A BOOK’s work ethic: 180,000+ non-books and counting, as of this writing. I’d like to humbly submit here that if Goodreads can handle this ridiculous ad hoc solution to a real-but-trivial problem, then maybe it could also handle having magazines, periodicals, and literary journals hanging out with the “real” books, rubbing shoulders and making eyes at each other and maybe sneaking off into dark corners, getting busy and creating new hybrid forms like bound collections of periodicals and books that start life off being published as serials.

To bring this back around to FIYAH, though: it’s a frustrating situation and the only clear thing I can see to do is hop over to their site and subscribe, and then tell a bunch of other people about it and get them to subscribe, too. One-year subscriptions for 2019 and two-year subscriptions for 2019–2020 are even on sale! So that’s what I’m doing. Let Goodreads NOT-A-BOOK itself silly and nuke non-books from its database if it wants to; I’ll be over here reading, because that’s what matters, not whether or not something is a book.

Trouble with Titles

My ideal title lies somewhere in between the two poles of “painfully obvious” and “horribly obscure.” It suggests what the work is about without blaring it through a megaphone, it alludes to layers of meaning within the piece, it has maybe a touch of humor or mystery or intrigue to it.