Sunday, October 28, 2012

No Easy Rider

A vivid memory from my cross-country bike ride (yes, it's an excerpt from the book):

It was getting late on my fourth day out, and I’d stopped at a gas station called “Wheelie’s 76” in Palo Verde, California.  I’d just inhaled a S’mores-flavored energy bar, a Milky Way, a banana nut muffin the size of my fist, a pint of chocolate milk, and a one-liter bottle of fruit punch Gatorade.  I didn’t know it yet, but some version of this obscene caloric intake was going to become a typical midday meal for me, and even though an hour after consuming it I’d be hungry again, those first few post-snack minutes always left me sated and, sometimes, a little woozy.  That I was standing in the heat and the wind didn’t help.  As I walked to the bathroom behind the building, I could hear the liquid sloshing around in my stomach, and I could picture little chunks of muffin floating in a sea of brownish-red fluid—or whatever color chocolate milk and red Gatorade make when mixed. 

This soupy mixture lurched as the stench from the bathroom hit me.  The best I can say about that space was that it was almost big enough to accommodate the pile of sanitary pads and dirty diapers on the floor by the garbage can, the half-eaten burrito by the sink, and the used clumps of toilet paper that fell a little to the right of the toilet itself.  I breathed through my mouth as I swiped a fresh coating of Chamois Glide over my saddle sores and reapplied sunscreen over the exposed parts of my legs, arms, and face.  I got out of there as fast as I could and was just about to roll back onto the road when my phone chirped.  It was a five-word text message from my buddy Jerry in Chicago: Dude, Dennis Hopper just died.

Flashback to me as a kid, circa 1979.  I was in the sixth grade, and every day after school I’d be spread out on the gold shag carpet in our living room, the television tuned to Channel 7 for The3:30 Movie.  There was a different theme each week, but I only remember two:  “Animals Amok!” (Frogs, Night of the Lepus, Food of the Gods) and “Jack Nicholson.”  On the last day of Nicholson week, they showed Easy Rider, and even though it was edited for television—ridiculously edited, I’d find out years later—I was immediately caught up in the story of Billy the Kid and Captain America and their idea to just drop out and hit the open road. 

It was beyond me then to pick up on any cautionary messages about the hazards of that open road or the complexities of freedom; I didn’t dwell too long on the image of both men dead alongside their burning motorcycles, and I’d completely missed Peter Fonda’s line, “We blew it.”  At that point in my life and for many years after, I absorbed road stories through a filter that blocked out everything except that thrill of doing your own thing and to hell with what anyone else thought.  I watched the scene where Hopper, Fonda, and Nicholson get harassed by the anti-hippie guys in the restaurant, and I let myself believe it was a reflection of my own life, where I saw The Man hard at work bringing me down at school, at church, and at home.  Spelling tests and phonics workbooks.  Report cards and parent-teacher conferences.  Dressing up on Sundays.  Chores.  The monotony of my parents’ lives and jobs.  Dad to work at seven.  Dad home at five.  Dinner at six.  Hey, what’s your dad do, anyway?  I dunno.  Goes to an office.  Weekend chores.  Two weeks’ summer vacation spent on another driving trip to New York to see the same relatives and friends.  Rinse and repeat.

All those rules and all that regularity weren’t for me.  On the road was where things were happening.  As long as I stayed out of the South and away from guys with shotguns in pickup trucks, I’d be fine.

So I began hitting that open road.  Of course, it wasn’t on a motorcycle; it was on the banana seat of my metallic orange AMF Roadmaster Renegade.  And by “road” I mean sidewalk, and by “open” I mean carefully bordered by trim lawns and little fences made of white plastic posts connected by white plastic chains.  I would have liked a helmet with the stars and stripes on it like in the movie—it seemed wrong even though I couldn’t say why—but they weren’t for sale in my suburb.  The best I could do was my plastic Chicago Bears helmet.  Back then kids didn’t wear helmets at all, so after a few taunts from some older kids on the other side of our townhouse development, I tossed it back in the basement.  None of that dampened my enthusiasm or the guitar riffs of “Born to Be Wild” that I felt in my chest. 

I brought the road inside, too.  In one of my comic books, there was an ad for posters.  Farrah Fawcett in that orange swimsuit, John Travolta in his white disco finery, Bruce Lee and his bare chest.  They were the big sellers, and they sat atop a few columns of tiny typeface.  And there, hiding in that small print, were the words  Easy Rider.  I talked my mom into writing a check for me, and six-to-eight weeks later I was standing on my bed and thumbtacking into the wall a full-color image of Fonda and Hopper tooling down the road.  If my parents had known a little more about movies, or about 1960s drug culture, or about my growing restlessness with the predictability of our normal lives, they would have been upset about much more than the holes in the unblemished tan wall, which is what my dad yelled about when he got home from work.

I’d lie on my bed and stare at those two on their bikes and imagine myself on that highway.  Only maybe not on a motorcycle.  Maybe in an old car.  Or hitchhiking.  And maybe not even a highway, exactly, but something like it, where the whole point would be to roam the great unknown and have adventures and not have to deal with ordinary, everyday bullshit.  Thumbtack holes?  Gimme a break.

In the Wheelie’s 76 parking lot, the wind blew hot across my face, pulling me out of my memory.  As I read Jerry’s message again and tried to come up with some suitable response, my right knee grew stiff bracing myself against the dry gusts that had been pummeling me all day.  The sugar I had ingested was starting to congeal in my gut, and I took a long drink of water to wash the stickiness from my mouth.  I put my phone away.  Palo Verde didn’t amount to much, but its geometric fields were green and lush and a welcome change from the white desert that I’d just pedaled through.  I had a little bit further to go to get to Blythe, a bigger town on the Colorado River, which I would cross the next morning.  I hoped that I’d have the energy to get where I was headed.  

I knew I should get back on the road, but I couldn’t move.

What was I doing out here?  Why wasn’t I back home with my sons, relaxing in front of the TV or taking a walk or doing any of the things that normal people do?  I was a forty-two-year-old man on his bicycle.  This wasn’t Easy Rider.  How the hell did I get here?

The answer wasn’t simple.  Before I left, ten different friends would ask me why I was going, and I’d have ten different answers.  The one that had the most traction was direct and simple:  I want to see if I can do it.  Many of these friends knew me for being politically active at school, which meant fighting with the administration.  They’d also seen me through chemotherapy.  Locking onto a challenge like a cross-country bike ride must have seemed to them like a natural extension of my personality.  But in my head I was a lot less sure.  Part of me was doing it because cancer had made me feel weak, and I wanted to do something big that would make me feel strong again.  Part of me wanted that big adventure that I’d dreamed about when I was younger.  Yet another part of me was starting to really understand the truth that our most precious resource—time—is irreplaceable and constantly being spent, and once I got the idea of a cross-country bike ride in my head, it was joined by a vivid and frightening image:  me, as an older man who’d passed on the ride, thinking, I should’ve done it. 

And then part of me felt like I’d had some solid ideas about who I was, but they turned out to be not as solid as I thought, and what I needed was to find a new way to see myself, where I was, and how I’d gotten there.

I held my phone and waited for something to come, but those five words seemed to say it all.  Dude, Dennis Hopper just died...

Digitize This!

It’s a common scene in today’s college classroom.  The students file into class, the professor begins to discuss that day’s reading, and out come the electronic devices.  The students aren’t being rude, mind you.  Well, maybe that one guy in the back with a laptop is actually checking Facebook or looking for hubcaps on eBay (this has happened before).  But the rest really are looking at their reading, because more and more students engage with the written word as a digital text, more or less on part with an email, or a text, or a tweet.  The problem from my perspective is at least twofold.  First, they come to regard all of this writing on par with each other, so it's not unusual for them to turn in academic papers with "i" for "I" and "u" for you.  Second, reading complex texts on a screen prevents them from doing something that they desperately need to do:  practice active reading, especially in the form of marking up texts with underlines and asterisks and plenty of marginalia.  When unsophisticated readers--hell, even sophisticated readers--encounter difficult material, they need to work hard to get the most out of those texts, but they don’t see it that way; most of my students—the ones who do the reading, anyway—just want to consume the assignment as conveniently and painlessly as possible.

Now, I’m no Luddite.  I’ve got an iPhone, I use social media, and I can program my DVR with my right hand while I’m checking with my left.  I’m not, in short, like the rest of my family: my parents, who have never owned a computer, and my brother, who still uses a VCR (the Walgreen’s by his house has stopped selling VHS tapes, so he hoards the three or four that he has left like it’s the post-apocalypse and they were cans of tuna).

I do, however, draw the digital line at books, and not just because e-reading works against my students’ best interests.  It’s also because I’m a reader who loves to hold books, feel the pages turn, smell the rich scent of ink-infused pulp.

All of which makes the release of Chris Ware’s Building Stories earlier this month the publishing event of the year.  At least to me.

For the uninitiated, Ware is the James Joyce of comics, pushing the boundaries of the form to their limits, and then some.  This latest book of his is about the lives of four people who, for a time, share space in a Chicago apartment building.  But it’s not simply a “book”; instead, Building Stories is fourteen separate comics that come packaged in a box about the size of a board game.  And the comics themselves take different forms.  There are a couple of little hardbacks (one of which looks like one of those “Golden Key” children's books), fold-out strips, a newspaper-style pamphlet, a huge poster whose central image is a life-size drawing of a baby, and others that defy easy description (see picture above).  With no direction in terms of how to order these stories, it’s up to readers to create their own master narrative; with fourteen different books, the number of different combinations for that master narrative is over 87,000,000,000 (that’s a factorial right there, baby).

Some comics readers find Ware’s work to be a little remote and a lot depressing.  In Building Stories, though, he shows how effective comics can be in revealing the humanizing details of our lives.

It’s difficult to reduce this book to a simple explanation, which is part of its point.  It’s also impossible to reduce this book to a digital copy, which for me, is a huge part of its appeal.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

FAQ Check

When people find out that I rode my bike across the country, they ask me lots of questions. Often the same ones. So in today's post--the first in a planned series--I'm going to answer one: "Were you chased by dogs?"

I was in Prescott, Arizona, sitting in a booth wedged into the corner of a Mexican restaurant, a little hole-in-the-wall place that didn't serve alcohol but let you bring in your own. The owners provided some help to the handful of diners who entered with bottles and paper sacks: hanging on the wooden posts throughout the place were corkscrews and church keys. I had just made use of one myself, prying the cap off of an icy cold Sierra Nevada that a guy named Dave had passed to me.

I'd met Dave about three hours earlier. He'd been out for an afternoon ride and was coming down the switchbacks south of Prescott as I was heading up. I was at the tail end of a long day of climbing. Dave, a seasoned tourist, took one look at me and my loaded rig and made a laughably off-the-mark assumption. He thought I knew what I was doing. Later, over dinner, the truth of my inexperience came out. I was a guy who knew a little bit about biking and even less about touring, and I was trying to forget how little I knew with a string of Sierra Nevadas.

Still and all, Dave was interested in my trip, and he fired all kinds of questions at me. Eventually, the conversation zeroed in on the hazards of the road.

"Been chased by a dog yet?"


He leaned back, smiled, and raised his bottle as if he was making a toast. "Don't worry. Before this trip of yours is over, it'll happen."

He was right.

But before it happened--and holy shit, it happened a lot--I'd thought about what to do. My original plan was simple: in my handlebar bag was a pepper spray fogger that I figured would work on dogs, provided I could dig it out in time.

But then the advice started rolling in from people I met along the way. Dave showed me his hand pump, which he strapped to the top tube of his bike. The pump was a little bent, and it got that way beating back an unleased Rotweiller in Kentucky some years before. The clubbing approach was a popular one; two days later, when I mentioned to a ranger at the Grand Canyon that I was going to cut through the northeast corner of Arizona, she told me to be sure I had a stick. "For the rez dogs," she said.

In Utah, at a gas station, a guy approached me as I leaned against the building and wolfed down a package of Twinkies. After he asked about flats, he asked about dogs. He'd done some biking himself and favored a water bottle--not for clubbing, but for squirting. "A good shot of water in the face'll turn 'em every time."

A lot of advice came from Colorado bikers. A young guy that I met somewhere between Durango and Pagosa told me that whenever he saw a barking dog ahead, he'd pedal right at him and "back the sonofabitch down." It made sense, but I wondered how it might work in a flank attack. Another guy was brief and direct: "Pedal your ass off." Two days later, a couple I stayed with warned that I should never try to outrun them because it just makes them charge harder. The thing to do, they advised, was to stop and let them know that I wasn't scared. But what if I was? I thought. Any dog worth his kibble would see right through that shit.

And in eastern Colorado, on a stretch of road where the mountains had melted into plains, I met a young guy who'd been on the road for a few months. The back of his bike was stacked high with supplies, all covered with brown tarps and trussed tight with bungee cords. A crumpled cereal box poked out of the top. Sun and rain had faded its multi-colored four letter name into a single, sickly hue of pinkish-gray, but I could still read it: life. Under a clear sky, train tracks to our left and alfalfa fields to our right, he told me that dogs were pack animals, so they always obey the top dog. "Just bark at them," he said. "They'll back down if you're louder." It sounded reasonable to me at the time, but it turned out to be the single worst piece of advice that I received on my trip.

I kept waiting for a dog to charge, even in remote areas. I didn't want to be caught unawares. I made sure that I could unclip my foot quickly, in case I had to deliver a quick kick to some mutt's chops. On empty stretches of road, I'd practice my barking. I felt like I was honing myself into a combat-ready biker, prepared to meet any and all canine challenges. God help the dog that dared attack me. My tactics were spiritual, too: whenever I stayed with someone who had a dog, I'd make a point of becoming its best friend, trying to build up good doggie karma. This plan led to some unwanted leg-humping, but I endured it in the name of appeasing the four-legged, tail-wagging gods.

It wasn't until Kansas that I got the first chance to try out my bark. A big red chow came through a hole in his fence, making a beeline for my rear tire. Or foot. It was hard to tell. I turned on him and started to bark--a staccato burst of ugh-ugh-ughs that I'd sharpened into what I thought was a perfect announcement that I was Top Dog, Leader of the Pack, the One Who Must Be Obeyed.

It wasn't.

He looked up at me and began to snarl and slobber in earnest. As our eyes locked, an unmistakable message passed from his to mine. Now I'm going for that ankle, you sonofabitch.

Three things worked in my favor: it was early (so I had energy), the road was flat, and this chow had no doubt been living a cushy life of couch naps and snausages on demand. I resorted to instinct. I pedaled like hell.

It took a brown boxer in Missouri, three pointers in Illinois, and a golden retriever in Kentucky to learn a very simple lesson: never, ever, never bark at dogs that are chasing you.

Sometimes dogs would appear out of nowhere, as if materializing out of the land itself. Other times I'd see them coming and have all kinds of time to chart their angry trajectories. Still other times I'd hear them behind me, and I'd force myself not to look and see how big, how close, how fast and angry and committed they were.

Is it too much to say that when you're alone on a bike and contemplating the world and your meager role in in it, that dogs take on a higher significance? That, like some of the disasters that befall us, they're small and manageable? But like others, they roar out of nowhere and scare us shitless? That we can go crazy trying to figure out how to deal with them, but in the end, all the advice is just useless talk? There are no shortcuts or easy solutions; only experience provides what we need to face all of those things out there that mean to do us harm.

I finally figured this out when I hit North Carolina. It was my second day in the state; I'd spent the first day climbing for six hours, and my ass was thoroughly kicked. That morning, though, seemed more promising. I was heading through the Nantahala Gorge, on a road that was just starting to fill up with canoe-topped jeeps and SUVs. The sun was out, but the gorge was deep--so deep that the shade forced me to take off my sunglasses. Right after this, as I rounded a bend, I saw them.

Two big dogs--one dark brown and the other with spots. If I was standing next to them, they would have easily come to just under my waist. They were leashed together with a chain, but not to anything else, and between this crazy configuration and their studded black collars, they looked like characters from an all-dog version of The Road Warrior. As soon as they saw me, they started barking and lumbering down the hill to my right, picking up speed. I thought for a second about the damage that the two of them and that chain stretched tight between their thick necks could do to me.

And then I thought about the nine states behind me. About crossing the desert and climbing the Rockies. About those Godawful Kansas winds and Ozark rollers. About eight straight days of rain through Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky. About climbing back up the eastern part of the country--the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee and the Appalacians.

And these two fuckers thought that they could take me on?

I slowed as they charged.

"No," I said. I didn't shout. My voice was even and clear and sounded a little strange to me.

Amazingly, they pulled up about twenty feet away and stared.

"No," I said again, and like the first time, I heard--no, felt--something in my voice that I hadn't before. A conviction that these dogs had no choice but to stop, and if they didn't, I was going to show them what almost fifty days on the road, a human brain, and two opposable thumbs could do. If it's true that dogs can smell fear, they didn't catch any scent of it from me that morning.

They looked around, at each other, and then circled each other and whined. The chain snaked between them, clinking over itself in the low grass. Dark Brown noticed something in the weeds to his left and ambled over. Spots followed, not that he had much choice.

And that was the end of my dog problems.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Keep Your Eye on the Ball

When my boys were younger, I coached their little league teams. Most of the time running practices and managing games were the highlights of my day, but sometimes--sometimes--the experience of working with squirrelly boys was a teeth-grinding exercise in self-restraint.

It's my considered opinion that baseball is the craziest sport to try to teach kids. First of all, there are the rules, which can be mind-boggling for someone new to the sport (How come I have to tag him? Last time I just had to touch the base!). Second, there's the down time, which allows kids to discover all kinds of fun alternatives to paying attention: digging holes in the outfield grass with one's shoe, asking to go to the bathroom four times during the second inning, spitting sunflower seed shells at each other. And third--maybe the biggest problem of all--is that one of baseball's fundamental components is, arguably, the hardest thing to do in all of sports.

I'm talking about hitting.

The beginning of every season was rough going. Several kids had swings that looked like they were trying to club a bird in flight. Some would spin their whole bodies around when they batted. One kid, James, always closed his eyes as the pitch sailed toward him. He got plunked. A lot.

I felt a little lost. My bag of tricks was limited to what I'd seen of other coaches, so I made my players do the same lame drills like hitting off of a tee or soft toss, and I gave the same lame advice like Throw your hands at the ball! or Keep your eye on the ball! Finally, I decided to do some research on what they did in the big leagues.

What I discovered blew me away. Turns out that there's not a whole lot of difference between how amateurs and professionals get better. The same basic drills, the same basic advice. One of the greatest hitters of my generation--Padres legend Tony Gwynn--once remarked that he always hit wiffle balls off of a tee to improve his swing.

It also turns out that professionals have a tough time hitting. If you're a major league baseball player with a .333 average, then you're a beast, and one who's probably in contention for a batting title. I can't think of any other profession where failing two-thirds of the time constitutes greatness. That's how hard hitting is.

I think about those days that I spent on the dusty, hard-packed infield, my elbow numb from hurling batting practice, whenever I talk to my students about writing. Or rather, whenever I talk to them about why they hate writing. Which they do. Not all of them, of course, but a lot of them. What's most frustrating is that their feelings are based on the misperception that writing is easy. They think that experienced writers churn out words with ease, are always confident, and always get it right.

Utter bullshit.

Writers work hard at what they do. They wade through draft after draft, throw LOTS away, pull out their hair, and are convinced at least twice during any given sentence that the words they're spewing out are steaming turds. A former student of mine who just sold her first book said that she wrote twenty drafts of it prior to publication. Twenty.

My students are convinced that their problems are unique, but for every excuse they come up with, there's an answer:

I suck at grammar.
Honestly, I couldn't have told you what a subordinating conjunction was until I started teaching the stuff. Practicing good grammar is not the same as knowing grammar terms, and it's the latter that students equate (wrongly) with writing. The simple truth is that good writing takes practice, and a big part of that practice is reading. If you read, you'll absorb a lot of grammar. Good writers might not be able to tell you the precise difference between a compound and compound-complex sentence, but they'll know how to vary their sentences to create lively prose.

I can't think of anything to say.
No one can the night before a deadline. There's a reason why baseball players don't walk out of their cars and onto the field at game time. In order to deliver their best, they need to warm up. The same goes for writers. Freewriting, drafting, reading, sharing, and discussing are all things a writer can do to invite ideas. It's true that you can't force inspiration through your door, but you can coax it a little bit and be ready to pounce when it appears.

I procrastinate.
Get in line. I started this blog over a month ago, and by this time I'd planned to have more than three posts. Next to my laptop is a legal pad with a list of things I intend to write, but this list is growing way faster than I'm able to make myself work. The problem is that it's easy to waste time. I can't tell you how often my fingers will be poised over the keys when my mind suddenly asks, What's the difference  between gelato and ice cream? or Have you ever seen any cool videos of leopard seals? or Who have the last thirty number one NBA draft picks been?

I ramble too much.
Hoo boy, here we go. An early draft of this particular post was a shapeless, meandering, overlong version of the paragraph above. The plan was to describe my problems with procrastination by detailing how easily distracted I am with the internet, but it got out of hand fast, rambling on for pages about my obsession with fantasy football, how much I love lists, a half-baked analysis of the impact Len Bias and Hank Gathers might have had on the NBA, and something about missile silos in Kansas. Any point I was trying to make got drowned out by all the noise, so I scrapped it. Still, though, it was good to write. It helped me find what I really wanted to say.

It's tempting to think that the books we read tumble effortlessly out of an author's imagination, but it just ain't so. Another thing that just ain't so is that Miguel Cabrera woke up one day with a perfect swing. That swing, which just won him the first Triple Crown awarded in my lifetime, took a lot of work, and it still misses the ball's sweet spot more than it connects.

The trick is to not give up. Take James, my player who closed his eyes. He'd convinced himself that hitting a ball was something he couldn't do, so why bother to watch? But then a funny thing happened. In a late-season game against the Diamondbacks--a team that had run up the score on us the first time we played (their manager was a total douche)--I told him that he kept getting plunked because he closed his eyes. Apparently he'd had enough welts and bruises, so James kept his eyes open and cracked a real beauty that sailed over the manager's kid's glove, went into the gap for a double, and sparked a nine-run inning that avenged our earlier humiliation.

Letting ourselves believe that a vast universe exists between superstars and us mere mortals keeps us from putting in the work that needs to be done if we're going to get anywhere. If my writing students could have seen James's big-league smile that day, they'd quit their grumbling and hit those keys.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Sound of One Hand Typing

I was in writing lab the other day, trying to answer my students' questions about their graded papers, which I'd just handed back. These questions were fairly typical: "What should I do in my introduction?" "What do you mean by 'more details'?" "What's this word you wrote here?"

Eventually, they hunched over their keyboards and got to work on their revisions. While they wrote, I tuned in to the sounds of the room. Shuffling papers. Mumbled conversation. The drone of the air conditioning. A static-y hum from the overhead projector. And the soft, steady taps of fingers on plastic keys.

This last sound dominated the others, but even so, it was muted, and that bothered me. Like what was being written lacked energy. Well, I knew that was the case for the most part; I had, after all, spent most of my weekend writing things like "vague" two hundred and fifteen times on their papers. But there was something else bothering me. Something about the way things change.

It's been a long time since I heard an old typewriter. It's a beautiful sound. Lots of sounds, really. The clackclackclackclack of your fingers on the keys, the pinnng! as you approach the end of a line, the whirrrr as you slap the carriage back to the right, and the satisfying thock as it locks into position, ready for action again. When you wrote on a typewriter, you cracked through the silence of whatever room you were in and made the kind of racket befitting the struggle of what writing is--wrestling thoughts into words.

When I think of old typewriters, I think of my parents' kitchen. In a house filled with 40-watt bulbs whose dim glows were swallowed by brown and burnt-orange lampshades, that kitchen table was the brightest spot in the house. It was the place where I did my homework, and it was the place where my mom did her work, too.

Her work was writing letters. She was the one who kept tabs on our sizable Italian family. Aunts and sisters and nieces and nephews and cousins and cousins' kids emanated like spokes on a hub where the hub was Brooklyn and most of the spokes led to New York's other four boroughs. Some spokes reached further. Jersey, Florida, California, and Chicago, where we lived. My mom was the one who knew that Uncle Vito's son Vincent had just bought a house in Yonkers, or that Antoinette and Jerry's girl Martha was engaged to a "very nice guy with a good job," and that her cousin Tony wasn't talking to his son because he and his Irish wife didn't name their first son after him, as was the custom.

As my dad watched the news or a ballgame in the other room and I agonized over story problems in the kitchen, my mom would lug what looked like a giant tan suitcase down from upstairs, set it across from me, flip open the top, and reveal the old Royal typewriter inside. Then she'd pull out the small stack of letters she planned to answer that night, roll a sheet of paper onto the carriage, and start in. My mom didn't know QWERTY, but she had some system of her own that let her hammer steadily away at the keys, stopping only every so often to unjam two typebars that had the nerve to clunk together.

The noise of that typewriter perfectly suited my mom. She's a woman who, for most of her life, would have been affectionately described by the people close to her as loud. When she wasn't writing letters, she kept everybody entertained as her quips and comments tumbled out in a thick Brooklyn accent. And sometimes they had a little edge to them.

Once, years ago, a neighbor complained to my mom that her kids went through twenty rolls of toilet paper in one week. "Twenty rolls!" the woman had shouted in a nasal twang. After that point, whenever my mom referred to this poor lady, it was never by her real name (which I can't even remember). Instead, she had become "Twenty Rolls."

When I was in graduate school, my dad had to have bladder surgery. I drove up from Indiana to help out for a few days, and on the morning of the operation, I drove them to the hospital. Before we left, my mom and I were sitting in my car, waiting for my dad. He was walking slowly around his Sable, looking at the tires, checking the doors, running his hand over the hood. My mom nudged me with her elbow and deadpanned, "Your father's saying goodbye to his car."

But all of that's changed now.

In early 2009 it became clear that my mom was suffering from dementia, and her decline since then has been slow but steady. Once possessed of a formidable long-term memory, she could remember who wore what to some wedding forty years earlier, and she could recite verbatim what people were whispering about it. Now, while she still recognizes immediate family, she'll arrive at family gatherings, ask the same two or three questions, then sit quietly until she's ready for my dad to take her home. Conversations are impossible. Since she's in Chicago and I'm in California, our main connection is a phone call every week or two, and that call is dictated by a tight script that fills about thirty seconds before she has to hand the phone off to my dad. Even less if I ask too many questions that require more than a yes or no.

As my students typed stories from their lives, it occurred to me that our lives are stories, and while we'd like to believe that we're writing them, the truth is that sometimes they're written for us and don't always end with a satisfying resolution. My mom's story is one of those, slowing and fading as if it's being typed with one hand on a soundless keyboard.