Friday, September 25, 2009

Introduction Ladders Matter

The following stories are TRUE, which is
to say, FALSE. But they are entertaining.
And isn't that, after all, the real
TRUTH? The answer is NO.
Noon+ September 10, 1977 + Wellington, Maine
Picture a beautiful late-summer Maine day: Chilly morning, clear, sunny, and warm mid-day, not a cloud in the turquoise sky. A healthy, motivated homesteader such as i at that time could work all day in weather like that. Invigorating. Honey bees and their more dangerous wild kin buzzed about, gathering supplies for their beloved queens and those idle, voracious drones. Squirrels, chipmunks, field mice, and all manner of untamed creatures great and small, were hurriedly doing the same. In the air, both on and under ground they toiled, as did hardy Maine folk, preparing to hunker down during those lazy days of winter.
Linda, our five year old Sarah, and I were likewise hurrying about, emulating our wild neighbors. Urgent questions demanded immediate answers: was the wood in, was the log house we were building ready for a prolonged fifteen below zero, was the compost finished and covered, were our domestic bees winterized, would the family vehicle start in January, were the veggies, fruit, berries, and herbs picked and stored, were the canning, pickling and drying done?
Grass was turning brown. Frost had decimated tender plants such as tomatoes and peppers. Cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower labored on in the coolness of the soon-to-arrive autumn. Leaves were barely beginning to turn. Yellow, muted scarlet, brown and fading green foliage formed an earth-toned mosaic of color, like the backdrop to Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. Amidst this magnificent tapestry, natural life was being energized to undergo a process resembling what scientists call a phase transition. Geese migrated south overhead, in formation, honking their strange messages to one another. Our feathered and furred cold weather home dwellers were now all business.
North central Maine, specifically the town of Wellington was whispering its farewell to one season and hello to another. Movement was everywhere. There was a lot to do.
Linda and i had bought thirty-five acres, more or less, which was to become our Shangri La. We were of the 'back to the land' generation, Sixties hippies sick that cities had become havens for violent bikers, speed freaks, codeine addicts, and desperate junkies. Martial law, pollution, and disease seemed to be everywhere. We had escaped to the country seeking a simple, self-sufficient alternate to the disenchantment we felt. he life we sought would be close to the earth, environmentally conscious, peaceful, and ruggedly independent. A new, clean start.
Our purpose was to find our way home, spiritually and literally. In the process we would create a model for those of like mind. Our efforts would bring into being an example of a different mode of living, one free from the many constraints and absurdities of modern civilization. Linda and i had, had enough of the endless repetition of insignificant events. This was our shared life dream. Myriad plans and unlimited possibilities included solar panels, a windmill, a greenhouse, an ice house, root cellars, a guest cabin, home grown wild flower honey, pure maple syrup, an organic garden and market. The list goes on and on...
We had settled at the dead end of a one and a half mile winding dirt road with deep woods and solitude on each side. This road tested the most skilled local drivers in winter and during mud season.. It ran by an ancient, slightly tended rural cemetery. In this hallowed place, tussocks of various wild grasses grew unimpeded. This country cemetery had no plan or order. Weather-worn gray head stones leaned haphazardly in all directions. Poignant memorials, such as,"Here lies Jane Doe, loving mother and neighbor" were barely legible.
Travelers to Shangri La eventually drove over a spring-fed brook of cold, clean water. This creek flowed quietly and unhurriedly within its course most of the year. Water overflowed the narrow banks and flooded the road during spring rains and snow and ice melts. This picturesque stream dried up in the heat of the Maine summer.
Our undaunted adventurer finally motored up a sharp incline to where Taylor Cemetery Road abruptly ended. Huge ancient sugar maples lined both sides, standing majestically like trusted sentinels guarding our privacy. Suddenly an unexpected clearing appeared where once a family farm had stood for generations, its building now long gone. Ruins of another era were at hand. These reminded the philosophically inclined of the inexorability of change and the scientifically minded of the ravages of entropy.
Our time had come to retrieve Taylor Farm from its age. Like King Lear, the Taylor family of another day was conferring its well-being on our younger strengths. We were fit and motivated to do just that. We embraced this task as our sacred trust. Linda, Sarah, and I had discovered our home;n our home had discovered us.
Mother and daughter had done a marvelous job turning the ruins of rough, overgrown, and neglected farmland into a well-tended park, shaped and tended by industrious and loving hands. They had trimmed over-hanging branches, cut away tangled underbrush, cleared debris, planted flowers and shrubs, and raked and mowed. The lawn they created cushioned bare feet like an expensive shag carpet. They transformed chaos back into ordered beauty.
We had built a small, temporary wood-frame cabin when we first arrived four years earlier. Our dream home, a one and a half story cedar log house with plenty of windows ands a wrap-around deck was three fourths completed. One gazed out the front windows at vegetable gardens, fruit trees, compost bins, a cedar post grape arbor, and that well-kept lawn. Flowers of every shape and shade generously displayed their wares. An eight foot by eight foot log tool shed with a black, cathedral roof sat silently waiting to assist the gardener and builder. Past the tool shed and over a gentle rise, deep forest stood on our east, west, and south sides. Behind the house was a very short dirt road to nowhere, ending abruptly in tall pines and maples.
Our spacious ten acre hayfield lay close beyond that over-grown old lane. This slowly-rising expanse was mowed clean and flat. Linda and i had lain here of nights, gazing at the star-studded new England canopy. We marveled at shooting stars and the immense expanse of space, and planned our future together. Enchantment. In many ways, we were far from downstate Ohio and upstate New York, where we had grown up.
As usual, whatever the season, I was moving much too fast. I resembled a squirrel, frenetically rushing from tree to tree, hiding nuts in soon forgotten niches. My mind raced. I was always three steps ahead of myself. I rushed here and there, building our new home, trying to do last Tuesday the chores listed above. Although we were far from the NASCAR circuit, I had brought its pace with me. The upshot of this was tragic, in a way and ironic. No matter where you go or what you do, you can't get away from Number One. I was living the saying "Wherever i go, I go there too, and it ruins everything."
I was finishing one gable end, nailing two and three foot boards to the eave on the east side. I had borrowed an aluminum extension ladder. This well-ages tool would not extend the ten foot height required to complete this rather easy job. Instead of seeking help or getting one that worked properly, I had laid two by sixes and two by fours on the uneven ground. These were supposed to form a base under the ladder. The base plus the ladder would get me to the required height. I didn't build the base right. The ladder wobbled as it leaned ominously against the building.
I rushed up the rungs, unconcerned about the danger. I was only ten feet up. In my left hand was a three foot board cut to fit, in my right a sixteen ounce framing hammer, which was more firepower than the job required. A twelve ounce all-purpose hammer would have done just fine. Oh, yeah, I had a mouth full of nails.
I held the board in place with my left hand, grabbed a nail with my right still holding the hammer, transferred the first nail to my left hand, and held it in place to nail the board to the upper storey. I reach back and cocked my over sized hammer, like I had done a thousand times before. This time the ladder slipped to the right, sliding readily across the smooth log surface. Too quickly for me to react, the ladder shattered a window and lurched forward. I momentum of the hammer carried me backward off the ladder and onto the ground onto the back of my neck at cervical vertebra six, causing a permanent spinal-chord injury.
In that instant of impact, faster than the time it takes to unconsciously blink your eyes, I was crippled for life. Thirty-three years old, I had become a C-6 quadriplegic. I was totally paralyzed and without sensation from my chest down to the soles of my feet. Later, when I first fully realized the consequences of what had happened, passionate, vehement denial tinged with terror poured out of me. "There has to me some mistake; the doctors are wrong. I'll be home soon, intact. I'll have to wear a collar for a while and then I'll get back to what I was doing." No. I had reached the proverbial point of no return. I had crossed my own Rubicon as Caesar had crossed his, and like him, I could not go back.
Linda, Sarah, and I were uprooted without notice from our beloved Maine home. I was in a VA hospital; Linda and Sarah lived in a rented house. We three settled in Massachusetts, and faced a bewildering dilemma. What to do? How does a family live with devastation day to day like this, deep in the Maine woods or anywhere else?

Neither Linda or Sarah had signed up for a husband and father with quadriplegia. What would they do? What would I do? How would I avoid getting trapped in pain and anger, loss and limit? The following pages contain some of my response. I speak only for myself.
Bob Dylan and Shakespeare appear from time to time in what you will read. They are the air i breath and the words I speak. When i discovered the beauty and depth they offered i knew i had to pass them on. From them to me to you. I hope their words resonate deep in your being, as they do in mine.

The title of this memoir is taken from Dylan's Pledging my Time:
"Yeah, early in the morning,
till late at night,
I got a poison headache,
but I feel alright..."

That sums up what quadriplegia has been for me so far. Everyday I've got a metaphorical 'poison headache', this crippling condition that has persisted from 1977 to the present. My particular brand of wheelchair life has a very high suckability coefficient. There is simply no denying it. I had to get straight with that early on and not waste my energy trying to live as if nothing had happened.
I could list all of the things i can't do, like walk, but that's not the reason for this writing. And what would be the point? I'm guessing most people have known someone permanently, or at least temporarily in a wheelchair or are familiar with pain and loss.
I know all about "You can if you think you can". In this context, that is nonsense spouted by would-be superior people who have nothing else to offer. One day a hustler who must have been suffering from motivational pretense syndrome said that to me. "Jeez" I said "Why didn't I think of that?"n I'm sure the sarcasm was lost on him.
"But I Feel Alright". The aforementioned coefficient is not the whole story. Not even close. In the VA hospital where I did my rehab, I saw clearly what this injury can do to people. Many of my VA friends were not willing to make the sustained effort quadriplegia demands. They gave up and froze in place. This meant life in bed, in a bottle, at the end of a needle, or just nowhere, like an asteroid drifting in empty space, cold and alone.
I wanted none of that. I had Linda and Sarah, among others, counting on me. I couldn't let them down. There was, after all, this life to live. I resolved to live it fully, honestly, and with humor. Paraphrasing Thoreau, I didn't want to come to die only to realize i had not lived.
It is especially important to remember there is a light side and a dark side, a 'time for laughter and a time for tears'. So with quadriplegia. This book will exhibit both. What appears so dreadful while happening can be hilarious in hindsight. My friends, family, and I think so . I hope you will, as well.
Like most people, I have failed some and succeeded some. I'm no Helen Keller and this is no treatise on 'How I Overcame Tragedy'. If you're looking for inspiration, go see that motivational; guy.
What follows are vignettes from my days before the injury and my three decades in a wheelchair. The puzzling beginnings notwithstanding, these stories are true, more or less. The law does allow for some puffery, you know. I hope what follows gives you pause to take stock of what you have, brings you laughter, touches and opens your heart, and simply helps you along.
More good souls have been kins and generous to my over the years than I could ever name. Nobody finds their way home alone.
The names of the outrageous have been changes to protect the guilty.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


In the 5 or so years prior to my father's death he endeavored to tell his story, or parts of it, in book form. This labor, to lay down, to recreate, to narrate to himself the shape and trajectory of his life was a task both narcissisticly self-consuming and deeply meaningful. To ask of oneself again and again and again: why would I relate this or that story, what elements shall I include or leave to evaporate in the non-telling, this process of defining and embellishing, of writing the story of one's life gave to my father a purpose and reason and more an opportunity to sumate for himself, in a both personal and public fashion the tally, to understand himself, to jest and wax poetic and political, to quote his heroes (B. Dylan and Shakespeare, among others), to apologize and explain, and to affirm, concretely and without cynicism his great respect for, awe of, and delight in living and loving fully.

What will follow in weekly, chaptered posts is my father's memoir But I Feel Alright, with my comments, anecdotes, reactions, thoughts, etc.