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The Paperwork of Loss

My paperwork-overloaded desk, with the green animal license cards.

We all encounter it: the paperwork required to lead a contemporary life. In fact, from the moment we are born, we are subject to paperwork—birth certificates, vaccination records, report cards, drivers licenses. By the time we turn 16 and encounter the DMV, we are thoroughly immersed in bureaucracy. Now that I’m in my 50s, and working at a public university as a state employee, I’m sometimes so overwhelmed by it all that I feel there’s time for little else in work or personal life. (I started to list all the adult forms, but it was so long and boring a list that I just deleted it. You know what I’m talking about.)

Most of all of this paperwork is just deadening. Sometimes, however, it actually connects in poignant ways to what’s important to us.

Last week, I received in the mail three bright green “courtesy” notices that it’s time to pay my Seminole County Animal Licensing fees. I don’t mind paying these modest fees. They go toward supporting Animal Services in my county, and though I’m sure they euthanize far more animals than I’d like, I do support their work in keeping animals from dying on the streets. Even getting these little cards reminds people that they need to vaccinate their pets and be responsible pet owners. The fee is lower when your pet is spayed or neutered. In these ways, they function as an educational tool as well as a tax on pet owners.

This time, of course, I have to send one back with the box checked off that the “Pet is deceased.” Little Cameo is no longer, and the green card with her name stamped on it will go back without a fee.

My grandfather at McFerrin School, c. 1908 or 1909.

Perhaps because it’s November again, this has reminded me of the months after my grandfather died on November 2, 1972. My mother, of course, was the main one in our household dealing with the practical implications of her father’s death, as well as the emotional ones. These must have been enormous. My mother was closer geographically than her two siblings to her parents’ home, but was nonetheless more than 400 miles across the state of Tennessee, and her mother had grown fragile and fractious and was soon to enter into nursing-home-land. My mother filed changes of address on numerous accounts from their house to our house, so she could make sure that nothing slipped between the cracks. My grandfather had been in the hospital for several weeks, and the lengthy and incomprehensible medical bills kept coming. Other bills had to be paid. The estate had to be settled.

What I remember about this is that we kept on receiving relentless communiques sent to my grandfather months and months after his death. My mother handled the important ones, but somehow I took it upon myself to help handle the subscriptions and other minor stuff. My grandfather had been an avid reader—Newsweek, Life, Look, American Heritage, Smithsonian, The Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, Forbes. The list was large, and these companies kept sending renewal notices relentlessly, long after we had canceled the subscriptions.

Today, of course, I understand that in those times removing someone’s name from a subscription list might take time. No instantaneous computer could make him disappear off the rolls at the touch of one button by one employee. In some ways perhaps we should have taken comfort in this echo of my grandfather’s life, at the difficulty in purging someone from the world. However, it just seemed to us like torture.

I remember the day about eight months after his death when an envelope arrived in the mail from one of these magazines—fortunately, I don’t remember which one. The envelope was thick, not the usual postcard, and I wondered momentarily as I took it out of the mailbox at the end of the driveway if they’d sent an apology for harassing us every week for all these months even though I had sent numerous handwritten notes explaining that Paul Meek had passed on and would not be renewing his subscription. (This was a time when we were far less used to just dumping whole loads of mail in the recycle bin.)

Instead, the letter started off, “Dear Paul,” and went on with the most maudlin and begging kind of diatribe—how he had been such a long-time subscriber that they just couldn’t understand his betrayal now. How if they had done anything to displease him in the pages of their magazine, they hoped to make up for it with the fabulous new content slated for the coming months. How if he continued to care about his own standing in the world based on the insights this magazine gave him, then he would surely re-subscribe NOW! They allowed as how they wouldn’t raise the rates, even though they had the perfect right to do so because he’d let his subscription lapse. This went on for bpth sides of 2 solid, single-spaced pages with red ink used here and there for emphasis. Then came the clincher: They just couldn’t stand to lose someone who had been a member of their x-publication family for so many years!

My little 13-year-old head didn’t exactly explode, but the use of the word family evoked in me a bitter sarcasm about commercial enterprises who made grandiose, even delusional claims to try to guilt people into continuing to buy their products. I envisioned the pained look that crossed my mother’s face every time she took in a pile of this exhausting mail. By now I myself had burdened her further with my two broken bones and a diagnosis of diabetes. In fact, my grandfather’s actual family had enough to deal with and was getting pretty tired of this crap.

I decided that afternoon that hand-written notes would no longer do, and I sat down with my mother’s typewriter. “To Whom It May Concern,” I typed for the first time in my life (though I have typed it many times since then), “my true family has been writing to you for months to explain my lack of desire to renew my subscription to your magazine. Their missives have been ignored, and you continue to bother them, so I now take it upon myself to write you.”

I paused. Then I pressed the keys once more, click-clack, with the tears bulging but not spilling from my eyes.

“I am dead,” I wrote, “and unless you deliver to heaven, nothing you publish will reach me. You are not my family, and I wish you would quit bothering my family. While not on the pages of your magazine, this constant sales harassment is offensive, and none of them will be subscribing.”

Wondering if I were breaking the law and feeling like a rebellious crusader, I signed my grandfather’s name with a childish, girly flourish, and then folded it neatly into the automatic-return, no-postage-required envelope and put this letter out for the mailman. I don’t think I even told my mother about it.

Though I’m relatively sure now that my letter had nothing to do with it, that we had just reached the end of the natural life course of their pleas, we indeed never heard from x-publication again. I patrolled the mailbox for weeks as though I were anticipating a secret love-letter, making sure, feeling vindicated, hoping that someone had been at least embarrassed.

My grandfather with my brother and me, about 1963.

Nowadays, receiving the green card with Cameo’s name on it, I feel a little differently. First, of course, Seminole County will not be sending me missives for months—they provide a check-box for just such circumstances as a regular part of pet ownership. And SC is not a commercial enterprise, so there’s not a matter of them trying to get someone, anyone to just write them a check whether or not there’s anyone there.

It’s also true that I will be printing out a form from the Internet and filling it out and attaching a fee for a new little cat, the pesky Paka, who has since attached herself to our household. The life cycle is shorter with pets, and we are perhaps more prepared for their loss and their replacement. There is no replacing your grandfather, but while no two pets are ever the same, new ones appear to fill the gaps the gone ones leave behind.

Perhaps it was getting the reminder cards, but yesterday I took up all the cat beds in the house and washed and dried and re-arranged them. A couple of these beds had been used primarily by Cammie in the last weeks of her life, and the other cats haven’t touched them since. They have sat empty in Cammie’s favorite spots, reminding us of her absence. This weekend, I felt ready to have them used by other cats. We’ll see if the other cats are ready, or if they would rather they could send me a letter to the effect that she’s gone and I should get rid of her things.

I’ll try to pay better attention than a bureaucracy would.

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Kinds of Help

Last month, two graduate students that I work with invited me to speak at a round-table event about blogging later in November. I agreed, enthusiastically, put it on the calendar, and then promptly stopped posting on my blog. The two things, I promise, don’t have anything to do with each other, but their juxtaposition nonetheless has made me more aware of both of them. If I’m going to go and talk about the benefits of blogging, what does it mean that I’ve gone inactive? And does there come a time when it’s better not to blog?

There is nothing worse than those blogs that never quite get off the ground, where the blogger posts promises about blogging and not much else. “I’ll be back soon.” Or, even worse, “I’m back! I’m committed,” and then nothing more. As one stumbles through the blogosphere, one sees many such entries. That’s one reason why I have not even signed on to explain my hiatus.

Yet, I do find that being on break from the blog has been yet another learning experience about blogging.

First, that I do sincerely miss it. I miss the sense of discipline, the accomplishment of writing something every week that’s self-contained and “done,” and the connectedness that comes with all the public and private responses I get. This has given me insight into the junkie nature of attention to one’s writing—I’ve never had much, but I can see easily how that gets to driving some writers, for better and for worse.

I have also learned that as much as I love the blog and feel devoted to it, there are other things that take priority. The main reason I haven’t been blogging is because I have been spending every spare minute I have working on the book with Oxford for which I have a contract. There are other secondary reasons—I’ve had to have a minor surgery, I’ve been out of town, I’ve been formulating a project and soliciting an illustrator for it, I’ve been back in the classroom again and attending to all the prosaic demands of the university bureaucracy—course descriptions, book orders for next term, making benefits decisions during open enrollment, etc. etc.

Frankly, I’ve also been trying not-so-successfully to deal with the stress and anxiety of it all. A couple of weeks ago, my neurologist’s nurse told me that my latest MRI looks “completely normal.” She asked if I’d been having any symptoms, and I reported to her that I seem basically fine but don’t feel like myself. I wondered if my forgetfulness, irritability, inability to get a training response to exercise, and lack of concentration are sequelae to my brain events or just middle age. After asking me a few questions, she came to a different conclusion.

You know how it is when someone tells you something that you already really know, but it just clicks? There’s an aha moment even though the idea is nothing new.

“I think,” the neurology nurse said, “that there’s nothing wrong with your brain. You have the classic symptoms of insomnia and anxiety. You need to get eight hours of sleep at least two or three nights a week.” (I was getting between three and six. Once a month, maybe seven.)

So, last week I discussed this with my endocrinologist. He’s one of the good ones—a doctor who cares, who knows his stuff, and who makes time to really listen. When I was in the hospital after my brain hemorrhage, either he or his nurse came by to see me every day, even though I was not under their care at the time.

Anyway, I came home with a new prescription to help me deal with the insomnia and anxiety, a very minor dosage of a mostly harmless medication. I feel better already. That’s not really the interesting part, though. The interesting part is that Dr. M. spoke to me very personally. I have never, ever had a physician do so before, and it was a red-letter day for me.

When I was telling him about how sometimes I would be in the car driving somewhere and forget how to get there, have to call my friend and ask which exit is the best for her house, he laughed and said, “That sounds just like me. I usually get off at the right exit, but sometimes I don’t remember how I got there.”

When I told him how I feel that the powers that be just make it harder and harder for me to do my job well, and how it seems that my colleagues who take short-cuts or behave selfishly are the ones that are rewarded, he nodded. I told him that I used to love my job and that I thought I always would, but that now I always have to force myself to find the good things in it and that if I won the lottery I would quit tomorrow. He said, “I feel the same way. The adminstrators are always telling us we are only allowed to spend five minutes with a patient, and I am always telling them that’s not enough for a Type 1 with a pump, but they don’t care.”

I told him that the medical appointments—all designed to maximize the amount the doctor can charge the insurance company—have run me ragged. I told him that I had to have a total of eight appointments to have the D&C I had a couple of weeks ago—the initial appointment where all we did was set up other appointments and then appointments for the first lab work, the ultrasound, the tests the doctor performed, the pre-op, the pre-op labwork at the hospital, the procedure itself, and then the post-op. “That’s eight appointments,” I said. “Not including all the procedures themselves and the waiting in offices, that’s eight hours of me just driving around town, a whole day of work just driving around so that the docs can charge more. The number of appointments could certainly have been cut in half. Easily.

He looked chagrined, and we agreed that the tail is wagging the dog. We agreed that these circumstances are designed to promote those who don’t care about the quality of their work, and that it’s a mystery why we all seem to agree to live this way.

“I’m not mentally ill,” I said to him, and he agreed. “I need medication because we have come to find ourselves living in a world that’s intolerable.”

In fact, the percentage of my friends and relatives and their kids and their spouses and their parents that take some kind of psychotropic medication is enormous. At least one in five Americans is now taking at least one such medication, according to the American Psychological Association. And the percentage of people who aren’t taking prescription help often participate widely in the phenomenon known as self-medicating via alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and illegal recreational drugs. (Studies noted by Mental Health America and Health Services Research indicate the severity of this issue.)

The APA notes that the recent rapid increase in the use of these medications indicates “inappropriate prescribing,” and I agree. I have known people whose diagnoses I thought were overblown and who seem to me worse off than before they were medicated. The insurance companies and the medical world have tended to turn away from the hard work of intensive psychotherapy for those with real issues and have turned toward the easy pop-a-pill (or four) mentality.

But there is also a societal change going on that contributes to this in a different way, I believe. I believe that recent years’ move away from concepts of the public good toward more personal greed and supposed “self-reliance” have turned us more and more toward dog-eat-dog. Community is not emphasized, helping out is not emphasized—it’s every man, woman, child, and dog for itself. This leads inevitably to stress.

My father retired when he was 56 years old. He has lived the past twenty years in a secure retirement. He did some consulting work, he helps his wife with her small collectibles business, he got into crime writing workshops and wrote a novel, he plays tennis, he’s taken care of aging and infirm colleagues and relatives. And now he and his wife babysit her grandchildren. He has remained an active and contributing member of society, and he is a classic case of why the middle-class is a great thing.

We are unfortunately losing the middle class. My brother and I—highly educated, hard-working people who had our first jobs by age 16 or 17—have no secure retirement to look forward to. We only hope it will be there, and there’s no way that either of us will be able to retire before we’re nearly 70 years old. The future is even less sanguine for my brother’s daughter and for my students.

These are choices our society has been making and continues to make. There is plenty of money in our society, though it is consolidated in fewer and fewer hands. And there are plenty of us who want to help each other and be parts of a community, not just self-protective egotists. Even those that I encounter in my work life who seem the most selfish, self-promoting, and communally harmful seem to me to really wish for something else. They only feel that they are doing what they have to do to survive. Who can condemn them for that? I myself have turned away from demands I can’t handle, that I have felt might sink me.

Sometimes I marvel over the fact that there’s so much stress involved in being an English professor. I always think, “Hell, it’s not like I’m an ER doctor or an airplane pilot who could take out hundreds of lives with one error.” Not to mention that I don’t live in a war-torn place or one where I’m likely to starve. As the Rolling Stones song points out, though, even cooking dinner can be a trial, and there’s something stressful about the compromises that we make to have our comfortable lives. Vivian Gornick captured the same idle desperation of English departments in her wonderful essay “At the University: Little Murders of the Soul.” There is nothing more deadening than corporate expectations (or perhaps housewifely ones). And corporate expectations have taken over everywhere. My students can’t even have a minimum-wage job nowadays without being constantly harangued about their enthusiasm.

I have a hard time reconciling this high level of psychological distress across society with the idea that we are all living the way we choose to live. If we have all this choice in our lives that the gurus speak of, if we create the world we dream of, if we only have to envision success faithfully in order to get it, could we please envision something more benign, something more cooperative and less manipulative?

I know this is probably not stuff I should discuss in public on a blog with my name on it. That’s probably one more reason why I’ve been hanging back from blogging lately–just too many unspeakables on my mind. But I just have to say that if this is scandalous, then I have to laugh. More likely, of course, it could give an enemy a vulnerability to attack. But one thing I have always liked about myself—among the admittedly many things I’ve longed to change—is that I go ahead and do what I think is right. I go ahead and say what I’m thinking. I try to do this in ways that aren’t designed to hurt others, but I am not afraid to be hurt myself. I’d rather be real than afraid. I’m not invulnerable, but I am brave. I don’t mean to make more of that than it is. There are many things I am not that I would prefer to be. This is no Facebook brag or depiction of my life as peachy and perfect, of me as a hero of all that I survey, a wild success, a best human in the world. Nope, nope, nope. But I do marshal on. Today, a little more calmly.

The Bureaucracy of Fantasy

Dobrynya Nikitich, a great Russian dragonslayer. Close-up of the painting Bogatyrs (1898) by Viktor Vasnetsov.

When I started drafting this post, I included a long list of my recent encounters with the medical and health insurance bureaucracies. I’ve deleted all those specifics—you don’t need them because you have a list of your own. Everyone does because virtually everyone lives embedded in bureaucracy. There are very few walks of life where a person doesn’t have to deal with red tape and forms on a more or less constant basis.

Just stop and think how many forms you have filled out in the past year, and how much of your life that has taken up. Then add on the time you’ve spent on hold or dealing with some low-level “customer service” rep on the phone or instant messaging, and the sad truth of these many wasted hours comes clear.

As a person with a chronic illness that is likely to shorten my expected lifespan, I have always chafed at this set of circumstances. While I understand the need for much of it—the driver’s licenses, the voter registration cards, the building permits, the medical histories—I have always grown very impatient with needless bureaucratic obstacles.

But today while I was thinking about this issue, I happened upon some good news for me: Life expectancy for those with Type 1 diabetes has improved greatly in the past couple of decades and for those of us born between 1965 and 1980 is only about 4 years shorter than those in the general population. When I was diagnosed in 1972, it was a whopping 15 or 20 years lower than average. Maybe I am no longer justified in my impatience.

It would be fascinating if someone would do a study about what diabetics do with those extra years we now get to live. I suspect that a goodly portion of it will be spent waiting in doctor’s offices, hassling with health insurance providers and third-party billing profiteers, shuttling medical records from one doc to another, and filling out paperwork related to treatments and benefits.

What I also fear—for all of us caught up in this increasingly bureaucratized world—is that we will turn more and more to fantasy as the antidote.

Because even the word “bureaucracy” is really boring, right? Who wants to even discuss the issue when every one of us has some version of it in his or her own life. Who needs more?

I have a theory that the rise of genre fiction (and movies and gaming and so on and on) has to do with the concomitant rise of bureaucracy all around us, even through and in us. We are living in ways that it’s truly unacceptable to live—inhuman ways that denigrate us. Not that we are living in squalor—perhaps the trappings of comfort and leisure (the TVs, the cars, the iPads, the flights to Paris) allow those of us in the middle class to ignore these cold wastes of time. After all, desperate living and working conditions, hunger and illiteracy, dysentery and violent repression all continue the world over, and are worse than mere bureaucracy.

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that we don’t answer the bureaucratic inhumanity with the rally or the march or the strike. These methods seem to have lost their effectiveness to a great extent anyway—people march and rally and strike, and the powers that be wait them out. Our “first-world” problems don’t seem to deserve that kind of outcry. When it’s attempted—as in Occupy Wall Street, which I greatly respected as an attempt to bring attention to these and related economic issues—the result is moderate and the fun-poking is huge. The reaction of much of the bureaucratized population to the Occupy movement was “Get a job.” No matter how unjust the implications, that tone has been common.

For the middle class, then, the main protest activity seems to be a retreat into fantasy. Fantasy seems to be something that almost everyone can get behind, no matter one’s political party, no matter one’s income level, no matter one’s level of education. Whether it’s interstellar space exploration or misty dragon-filled castles, whether it’s pretend wars where everyone can be a paintball hero or perfumed spas staffed by buff young men who will oil and rub one’s muscles, whether it’s in book or movie or video game or cosplay form—almost everyone seems more interested in an alternate world than the one we actually live in.

Never in my life have I seen a more prescient film than Brazil. It’s a film I will admit that I didn’t enjoy watching—it’s an ugly film and hard to follow. But the world that it presents—where the only escape from the bureaucracy is in a fantasy where the main character takes on armor and the wings of an angel—seems to me more and more like the world I live in now.

And I think that Brazil anticipates the way in which more and more extreme reliance on bureaucratic thinking about fitting in, strange self-fulfilling forms of meaningless success, pursuit of superficial beauty at any price—these things all lead us not to rethink our own world and its possibilities, but to fall back on hope in the magical.

The real horses are starving due to drought. It’s okay, though, because we can pretend that Dobrynya Nikitich and other dragonslayers will ride in on their beautiful steeds and save the day.

This strategy is fine with the powers that be, with those that impose further and further bureaucratic strictures. It is a great opiate. It lets everyone off the hook. It’s the religion without the requisite belief or morality. Win-win, I guess.

I’m sure that if I can only convince myself I have some angel wings somewhere, those waits in doctors’ offices and on hold won’t bug me so much. Until, of course, the end of the fantasy.