Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Cancer takes a dear friend

As an editor at Alaska Magazine in the late 1970s, part of my job was to talk to people who brought stories in for our consideration.  It's the kind of job that in time you almost dread seeing someone come through the doorway looking anxiously, their precious manuscripts gripped tightly in their hands.  But it had its joys also.  Among the stories about "me and the old lady drove the Alaska highway and thought you would like a story about it;" "I saw the northern lights last night and just had to write a poem about it;" and the literature proposed by young collegiate writers, once in awhile a gem showed up:  a real sourdough's tale of life in the wild, often written in longhand on unlined paper; and even less frequently a beautifully written piece by a competent writer about a subject that Alaska magazine actually wanted.

During that tenure Patricia Monaghan walked into the office.  She was probably in her late 20s or early 30s at the time and working as a journalist in Fairbanks.  I wish I could remember the subject of the manuscript she brought now, but it has escaped me.  What I do remember is recognizing immediately that this was not one of our ordinary contributors.  Beautifully written and expressive the story whatever it was, I recall almost jumped off the page at me as I scanned it.  She was offering the story and also wanting to make contact to send us more as time went on.  One of the unfortunate parts of that job was knowing the magazine would never pay enough to keep the really good writers contributing for very long.  I knew immediately she was one of those.  We would get maybe three or four stories and then she would outgrow us, as so many others had.  But for that short period of time the magazine would benefit.  I doubt I said it that first time, but I am sure I did at some point in our relationship, that she was too good for Alaska Magazine.

Over the next few years we became close friends, often getting together when she came to Anchorage or when I went to Fairbanks.  No matter what we were doing the conversations always turned to writing.  I have never joined writers groups or much wanted to discuss it.  To my mind writing is not a team sport; it is done alone, isolated and best kept in isolation.  Pat was more of a group person, but she also understood.  Talking about writing with her was different. We weren't discussing and criticizing each other's work.  We discussed craft and word usage and at times even read a little of each other's work when asked and offered suggestions.

The work she hadn't shown anyone else yet was what impressed me most.  At that time she was just beginning to explore what would become her life's work.  I realized that of all the authors I knew or know personally, she was the one whose talent and intelligence left me in awe, the one person I ever knew who I accepted was a much  better writer than I am.  When someone I thought that much of, told me she liked something I wrote, it held great meaning for me.  She was never overly effusive, she wasn't like that  so I was pretty sure she wouldn't lie to me just to be nice.  She was very selective in what she complimented and never criticized, and I could tell by what she didn't mention what she didn't like and those parts I would work on.  I did the same with her. 

In the 80s we lost track of each other for a while.  She left Alaska for Chicago and I went off on my adventure.  The next I heard from her was shortly after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.  I had taken her out in Prince William Sound on my boat and she remembered that.

She sent me this poem she wrote about the spill:

There Is No Way Back
By Patricia Monaghan

On the radio, an old friend's voice
chokes with anger and grief.
At the Stony Island intersection
I am stuck, gridlocked in place.

Stalled in traffic uselessly
weeping I listen to the news.
The light turns yellow, red
again; a sudden cry of horns.

Salmon in the tide pool, whales
beside the boat: memories flood me.
The traffic surges forward,
each car spuming its exhaust.

Now the announcer decries
the otters' oil-soaked coats.
I speed home along the freeway
surrounded by the names of animals.

I have fished the Sound, watching
slow fog fall on the blue shore.
--Someone passes me, too fast.
I brake as I approach the exit.

Anchored over the crab pots
I have watched the day moon rise.
A red sun sets now over
the Halsted Street bridge.

I want this to be easier. I want
to forget that oil fueled our boat.
I want to hate the vivid city
as a kind of expiation.

But I've burned trees as fuel.
I have boiled crabs alive.
My trapper friends kill for luxury.
Gardeners rub their hands with Vaseline.

There is no way now to be innocent,
no way for it not to be night and
each of us unprepared to pilot
through these rocky narrows.

And there is no way back.  There is no
part of the world that is not part
of the world.  There is not one of us
who was not on the bridge that night.

It may have been the first, but it was not the last time she brought a tear to my eye.

From then on we corresponded occasionally, the old way with letters actually written on paper, so it was not often.  I recall sending her a copy of  Keep the Round Side Down when it came out and hearing back from her typically finding what she liked "the author long-known as something of a male chauvinist pig, actually wrote a woman character who is interesting, complex, intelligent and strong."

Then the Internet came along and we embraced it.  Our correspondence picked up, first through email and then through social media.  She had a web page, I had a blog, we were both on facebook and we discovered the joy of instant messaging.  With almost instant access we worked through our writing sometimes together at least until we discovered that what we were really doing was encouraging each other's attempt at the greatest of all writing obstacles --  procrastination.  Our conversations fed our procrastinations and in realizing that, we laughed.

Some of those conversations found their way onto this blog.  These are the links:

Then late last year she was diagnosed with cancer.  Soon that often became the subject of our conversations even though we tried to steer clear of it.  She suffered through several unsuccessful therapies and we discussed them.  I have never been through this with anyone before and was not sure how to act, what to say, what to do.  I had all the sympathy in the world for her and at times her pain and her frustration were mine as well, though I know mine could not have been nearly as severe as hers.  I thought about it quite a bit and decided a lot of sympathetic words were not going to help, nor was phony encouragement.  In her posts on Caringbridge and to friends she said this was going to be fatal but none of us wanted to believe her.

I finally decided that if I could, I would do things to make her life more bearable, perhaps even giving her some joy.  I started telling her stupid jokes.  It thrilled me when she would write back that one of them had made her laugh.  But that wasn't enough.  When I was laid off last February and people asked me what I was going to do, I only half jokingly had said, "go to the Lady Gaga concert."  So I asked Patricia if I could take her.  She jumped at the idea.  I even sent her links to videos of my favorite Gaga songs.  I bought the tickets.  And several times over the ensuing few months she would mention looking forward to the concert.

When she listed all the things she packed to take to her chemotherapy sessions, I realized many of those could be replaced with an iPad.  As I had just bought a new one; I sent her the one I was replacing.

When I went fishing in September I sent her a bunch of fresh salmon.  One of the last meals she wrote about when she still could actually eat, she had that salmon with a small group of friends.

Since then I noticed a difference in activity.  I seldom received an email.  Her husband Michael McDermott, who endured every minute of the suffering with her, started writing the Caringbridge posts.  I noticed she was seldom on facebook any more and I began to fear the worst.  A couple times I saw a Caringbridge notice in my email and was very hesitant to open the link, not wanting to read what was becoming inevitable.

When one came Sunday morning I didn't open it right away.  Somehow I knew.  I watched some pregames football show for a while, but my mind was racing and also thinking how stupid it was to watch unimportant events on TV when I needed to look at Caringbridge.

When I did, from her husband, this is what I read:  "My beloved Patricia passed away in her sleep last night."

Even expected, it was shocking and I spent most of the day alternately feeling stupid about watching football and fighting back tears.  A few days have passed and I have recovered and accepted what was after all the only outcome as she had told us.  One thing we spoke about at times was as writers we had something to leave behind for others to remember.  Patricia has left more than most, and even more with me because from now on every time I sit down to write I suspect she will be there and that's all right, but she has left a big empty space in my mind as well.

The makeup guerrilla who possesses enormous musical talent, a few years ago wrote a song about a devastating trauma in her life.  In it she described something of a Stockholm syndrome in which she became entangled in the mixed reactions of loathing and, at times, liking what was going on. In the song, as she related her feelings when the trauma finally ended, she could only ask, "what am I going to do now; what am I going to do now?"

That is exactly the feeling overwhelming me as I contemplate the future after the loss of my friend Patricia. What am I going to do now?

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Interesting quotations

· " “Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.” — Ernest Hemingway

When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth. Kurt Vonnegut

“If you wrote something for which someone sent you a cheque, if you cashed the cheque and it didn't bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.” Stephen King

The thing about ignornance is, you don't have to remain ignorant. — me again"

Never debate with someone who gets ink by the barrel" — George Hayes, former Alaska Attorney General who died recently

My dear Mr. Frost: two roads never diverge in a yellow wood. Three roads meet there. — @Shakespeareon Twitter

"The mark of a great shiphandler is never getting into situations that require great shiphandling," Adm. Ernest King, USN

Me: Does the restaurant have cute waitresses?

My friend Gail: All waitresses are cute when you're hungry.

I'm not a writer, but sometimes I push around words to see what happens. – Scott Berry

“The rivers of Alaska are strewn with the bones of men who made but one mistake” - Fred McGarry, a Nushagak Trapper

Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stared at walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing. – Meg Chittenden

A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity. – Franz Kafka

We are all immortal until the one day we are not. – me again

If the muse is late, start without her – Peter S. Beagle

Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. ~Mark Twain Actually you could do the same thing with the word "really" as in "really cold."

If you are looking for an experience that will temper your vanity, this is it. There's no one to impress when you're alone on the trap line. – Michael Carey quoting his father's journal

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. – Benjamin Franklin

It’s nervous work. The state you need to write in is the state that others are paying large sums of money to get rid of. – Shirley Hazzard

So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence -- Bertrand Russell

You know that I always just wanted to have a small ship to take stuff from a place that had a lot of that stuff to a place that did not have a lot of that stuff and so prosper.—Jackie Faber, “The Wake of the Lorelei Lee”

If you attack the arguer instead of the argument, you lose both

If an insurance company won’t pay for damages caused by an “act of God,” shouldn’t it then have to prove the existence of God? – I said that

I used to think getting old was about vanity—but actually it’s about losing people you love. Getting wrinkles is trivial. – Eugene O’Neill

German General to Swiss General: “You have only 500,000 men in your army; what would you do if I invaded with 1 million men?”

Swiss General: “Well, I suppose every one of my soldiers would need to fire twice.”

Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.—Gloria Steinem

Exceed your bandwidth—sign on the wall of the maintenance shop at the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center

One thing I do know, if you keep at it, you usually wind up getting something done.—Patricia Monaghan

Do you want to know what kind of person makes the best reporter? I’ll tell you. A borderline sociopath. Someone smart, inquisitive, stubborn, disorganized, chaotic, and in a perpetual state of simmering rage at the failings of the world.—Brett Arends

It is a very simple mind that only knows how to spell a word one way.—Andrew Jackson

3:30 is too late or too early to do anything—Rene Descartes

Everything is okay when it’s 50-below as long as everything is okay. – an Alaskan in Tom Walker’s “The Seventymile Kid”

You can have your own opinion but you can’t have your own science.—commenter arguing on a story about polar bears and global warming

He looks at three ex wives as a good start—TV police drama

Talkeetna: A friendly little drinking town with a climbing problem.—a handmade bumper sticker

“You’re either into the wall or into the show”—Marco Andretti on giving it all to qualify last at the 2011 Indy 500

Makeup is not for the faint of heart—the makeup guerrilla

“I’m going to relax in a very adult manner.”—Danica Patrick after sweating it out and qualifying half an hour before Andretti

“Asking Congress to come back is like asking a mugger to come back because he forgot your wallet.”—a roundtable participant on Fox of all places

As Republicans go further back in the conception process to define when life actually begins, I am beginning to think the eventual definition will be life begins in the beer I was drinking when I met her.—me again

Hunting is a “critical element for the long-term conservation of wood bison.”—a state department of Fish and Game official explaining why the state would not go along with a federal plan to reintroduce wood bison in Alaska because the agreement did not specifically allow hunting

Each day do something that won’t compute – anon

I can’t belive I still have to protest this shit – a sign carriend by an elderly woman at an Occupy demonstration

Life should be a little nuts or else it’s just a bunch of Thursdays strung together—Kevin Costner as Beau Burroughs in “Rumor has it”

You’re just a wanker whipping up fear —Irish President Michael D. Higgins to a tea party radio announcer

Being president doesn’t change who you are; it reveals who you are—Michelle Obama

Things sports announcers say

"… there's a fearlessment about him …"

"He's got to have the lead if he's going to win this race."

"Kansas has always had the ability to score with the basketball."

"NFL to put computer chips in balls." Oh, that's gotta hurt.

"Now that you're in the finals you have to run the race that's going to get you on the podium."

"It's very important for both sides that they stay on their feet."

This is why you get to hate sportscasters. Kansas beats Texas for the first time since 1938. So the pundits open their segment with the question "let's talk about what went wrong." Wrong? Kansas WON a football game! That's what went RIGHT!

"I brought out the thermostat to show you how cold it is here." Points to a thermometer reading zero in Minneapolis.

"It's tough to win on the road when you turn the ball over." Oh, really? Like you can do all right if you turn the ball over playing at home?

Cliches so imbedded in sportscasters' minds they can't help themselves: "Minnesota fell from the ranks of the undefeated today." What ranks? They were the only undefeated team left.

A good one: A 5'10" player went up and caught a pass off a defensive back over six feet tall. The quote? "He's got some hops."

Best homonym of the day so far: "It's all tied. Alabama 34, Kentucky 3." Oh, Tide.

"Steve Hooker commentates on his Olympic pole vault gold medal." When "comments" just won't do.

"He's certainly capable of the top ten, maybe even higher than that."

"Atlanta is capable of doing what they're doing."

"Biyombo, one of seven kids from the Republic of Congo." In the NBA? In America? In his whole country?

"You can't come out and be aggressive but you can't come out and be unaggressive."

"They're gonna be in every game they play!"

"First you have to get two strikes on the hitter before you get the strikeout."

"The game ended in the final seconds." You have to wonder when the others ended or are they still going on?

How is a team down by one touchdown before the half "totally demoralized?"

"If they score runs they will win."

"I think the matchup is what it is"

After a play a Houston defender was on his knees, his head on the ground and his hand underneath him appeared to clutch a very sensitive part of the male anatomy. He rolled onto his back and quickly removed his hand. (Remember the old Cosby routine "you cannot touch certain parts of your body?") Finally they helped the guy to the sideline and then the replay was shown. In it the guy clearly took a hard knee between his thighs. As this was being shown, one of the announcers says, "It looks like he hurt his shoulder." The other agrees and then they both talk about how serious a shoulder injury can be. Were we watching the same game?

"Somebody is going to be the quarterback or we're going to see a new quarterback."

"If you're gonna play running back in the SEC you're gonna take hits."

"That was a playmaker making a play."

Best headlines ever

Sister hits moose on way to visit sister who hit moose.

Man loses his testicles after attempting to smoke weed through a SCUBA tank

Church Mutual Insurance won't cover Church's flood damage because it's 'an act of God'

Homicide victims rarely talk to police

Meerkat Expert Attacked Monkey Handler Over Love Affair With Llama Keeper

GOP congressman opposes gun control because gay marriage leads to bestiality

Owner of killer bear chokes to death on sex toy

Support for legalizing pot hits all-time high

Give me all your money or my penguin will explode

How zombie worms have sex in whale bones

Crocodile steals zoo worker's lawn mower

Woman shot by oven while trying to cook waffles

Nude beach blowjob jet ski fight leads to wife's death

Woman stabs husband with squirrel for not buying beer Christmas Eve