07-14-18 Cassandra O’Leary

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Heart of the Heart of the Matter of the Heart

According to people wiser than me (which means nearly everyone on the planet), the female heart consists of four chambers: family, friends, career goals, and intellectual pursuits.  Young men have a three-chambered heart: food, sports, and sex. As males age, they grow the fourth chamber, where they store the desire for money, necessary to fuel the other three chambers.

Last month, I realized for a third time just how fragile those chambers are.  I was driving down the freeway in Anchorage. That itself is rather unique, since Alaska has less than 100 miles of four-lane.  I was there to pick up my son at the airport and I had several hours to kill. 

Bored, I decided to have a heart attack.

I started to black out, so I pulled into an Urgent Care facility.  The physician told me that if I was having a heart attack, then I would be on the floor.  My EKG and vitals were fine.  He sent me to the hospital for blood work, and later informed me I was fine.  And by then I felt fine.

The problem returned later that evening, and was much more severe.  I convinced myself I wasn’t having a heart attack because (a) the physician said so and (b) there is a distinct possibility that I don’t have a heart.  Eventually the pressure subsided.

The next morning, my mother phoned and insisted I return to the hospital.  I was about to get on a plane and fly home. Our town not only has no cardiologists, you have to fly to get in and out.  The cardiologist at the Anchorage hospital said I’d had a heart attack.  When I was given some meds, my blood pressure dropped from 118/70, which is good, to 35/28, which ain’t.  The two cardiologists in the room turned white.

Half an hour later I was the proud owner of two stents.  Except for occasional angina, I’m doing fine – physically.  And that’s what brings me to the, er, heart of this blog.

When Isaac Asimov was asked what he would do if he found out he only had a few months to live, without a second’s thought he replied, “Type faster!”

Romantic/Idealist that I am, I always thought that if I had a limited time left, I would go to Thailand, my second home, and spend my remaining days under an umbrella on the beach, my wife beside me and a lot of mai tais alongside.  (Actually, since she’s Thai, I would have my Thai on each side; sorry about that.) 

And I would write.

But things aren’t working out that way. I’m not terminally ill, or anything of the sort.  Just aware of my mortality.  I know everyone dies, but until now I’d thought I’d be the exception to the rule.

The upshot: I haven’t felt like writing. I have two novels and two textbooks in the works, but I haven’t written a word since the heart attack over a month ago.  I sit down at the computer every day, but I end up surfing the Net and answering emails.

This isn’t the first time such a thing has happened.   

But one the other two times, my physical heart wasn’t involved.

As professionals we all go through rejections. We have problems with editors, agents, critics, the public.  That’s expected. But twice I had my heart shattered by unusual situations.

When I was in my mid twenties, I met some professional science fiction writers. I had never read any SF but decided to write it..  My seventh story finaled for the Nebula, the RITA of the field.  I asked my editor if he would send my story to the people who vote for the award – (unlike with the RITA, all professional writers in the field vote on the finalists).  He thought it was a good idea, since another editor had done something similar the previous year.  We agreed that we would send the story to the voting writers only if another story from that magazine did not make the finals.  When two other stories made the finals, the editor thought it still was a good idea to send the story to the voting writers; he would offer the same thing to the other two writers who had finaled. I reluctantly agreed.  Later, unknown to me, one of the other writers objected and withdrew from the finals, only to find out later that she had won.  Needless to say, the result was a major controversy.  I was treated like a pariah – for something that is now expected of everyone who finals – and I was so devastated that I stopped writing science fiction.

Years went by.  About five years ago I wrote a book of creative nonfiction, the story of how my Eskimo students won three national championships in academics.  At the beginning of the book I noted that I had changed the chronology a little for the book to read better.  There were two scenes, I specifically pointed out, that did not occur in the book’s two year period.  (These changes were very important, since I wrote it for charity, in the hopes of giving young Native Americans role models and hopefully help curb the skyrocketing suicide rate among that group of young people.)  A reporter for the Anchorage paper conveniently overlooked the frontispiece explanation – and basically called me a liar in print for having “changed things.” A professor then sent a blog all over the world saying that the book is untrue.  She hadn’t bothered to read it.  In fact, she never even saw it  – but good researcher that she was, she assumed that what she had read in the paper was gospel.  As a result, sales plummeted.  Instead of raising what we hoped would be $40,000, enough to build a school for the poor overseas, we only earned $15,000. Moreover, the kids who had won the championships were deeply, deeply hurt. 

My heart again broken, I stopped writing creative nonfiction.

So what happened while I was driving down the Anchorage freeway was a third time.

And not charming.


D. McCollum D. McCollum said...

First off George, I wish you a speedy recovery both physical and mental. You've certainly had some trying times. I never take the newspapers or T.V. at face value. It seems to me the other professor should have read the book or at least contacted you and discussed it before being so critical. All the best, and Thailand sounds like a great place for some R & R.

Judith Ashley said...

So glad you survived, George! And thank you for sharing your story. I am continually amazed (you'd think by now I'd know better) at how much people take at face value what they hear/read from the media instead of checking the facts out themselves. I'm agreeing with Diana - Thailand sounds like a great place for some R&R!

Paty Jager said...

George, I'm glad you made it for help and someone who could diagnose your problem.

You are a person who is rare. One who lives by your heart. I hope this latest set back doesn't curb your writing because you have a wonderful way with words and changing people's lives. Hang in there.

Tam Linsey said...

Hang in there, George. We missed you at the AKRWA meeting tonight, and hoped you were doing ok. Sounds like you are depressed. But know we are all thinking and praying for your return to our little writer group. The retreat is in October!

Sarah Raplee said...

I'm so glad you are around to write this post, George!

On the plus side, you finaled for a Nebula Award in SF writing, coached your Eskimo students to win three national academic championships and wrote a book that gives young Native Americans role models, and, despite a misdiagnosis, you survived a heart attack! Plus, wasn't there a Bram Stoker Award in there somewhere?

You have loads of friends and admirers, including all of us here at RTG. You are our role model. Don't you dare quit writing!

Depression often occurs after a heart attack. I'm talking about the disease, major depression. If sadness/dark thoughts/inability to write persist, talk to your doctor.

We love you.