Lifting the Weight: On Grieving at the Gym

 
He manages like somebody carrying a box
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out,
he moves the hands forward, hooking them
on the corners, pulling the weight against
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes
different muscles take over. Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood
drains out of the arm that is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now
the man can hold underneath again, so that
he can go on without ever putting the box down.
– “Michiko Dead” by Jack Gilbert

He’d been dead for a few months, but I already knew what had to happen. After I watched cancer erode my father’s body, I decided that there needed to be more of me. I suddenly needed to pack on as much muscle as possible. Cancer might have eaten through my father’s wiry frame in six months, but I would not be taken so easily.

***

I did not explain to the gym sales-person, or my therapist, or my wife, that I was full of rage and needed somewhere to put it. Neither did I reveal my desperate plan to be a physically insurmountable problem for cancer cells. I was sure that if I said this to anyone they would explain how cancer didn’t exactly work that way. Because, for me, it had to work that way; something had to work. Something had to ensure that yellow, withered body in the hospice bed wouldn’t be mine twenty years hence.

The gym I joined was newly built, surprisingly inexpensive, and hideously decorated in yellow and red. You could watch movies on a massive screen while you walked on a treadmill in the dark. There were machines with levers and pulleys that gleamed and clinked; padded benches with silver bars wielded by veiny-muscled dudes and spandexed women.

I was 29 years old; months away from my 30th birthday. I had not lifted a weight in at least seven years, and before that I had only worked out in my parent’s basement using sand-filled plastic dumbbells inherited from an uncle. Shirtless, I looked like E.T.

I was petrified of the gym. Several times I would have small panic attacks in the parking lot. Most of those attacks began with a simple fear: I might drop a weight on myself; I looked clearly out of place; I had no idea how any of these machines work and was too afraid to ask for help. I was a ball of nerves, avoiding the glances of the clearly experienced gym-goers and hoping to not make a fool of myself. But these were the easy fears, the ones I could articulate in my car on a cool, bare Saturday morning. It was easier to worry these bones than it was to remember that I was really here because I was desperately afraid to die.

***

Eventually, you realize nobody is looking at you. Nobody really cares whether your form is correct or whether you look like you belong or what. Once I saw that most people were just there to worry about themselves, it got easier. I also eventually noticed just how many of the people in the gym were not supremely fit people.

There were a lot of older people. Septuagenarians looking to eek a few more years from their spindly frames. And teenagers. So many teenagers in local high school athletics shirts, all of them lean and happy and ready to live for a hundred more years.

And this range was liberating. While I sometimes felt a pang of guilt over some of the truly aged folks struggling to even sit (because clearly their desperation to keep going was more imminent than my own), and other times felt frustrated that these kids didn’t know how good they had it, it was mostly inspiring. All of us were in this place for one reason or another.

And while I didn’t exactly see anyone else on an elliptical welling up with tears while they struggled to not think about how badly they missed their father and how goddamn furious they were that he was gone and would never meet his (then potential) grandchild and son of a bitch this is unfair and so on and so forth, there did not seem a reason to believe that some of these people were, in fact, here for similar reasons.

The gym, that stereotypical place of vapidity and meatballers, became something like holy for me. The fact is, no matter what excuses existed, everyone there was there. They got in the door and were working on themselves. As someone who has cried in a gym parking lot, I assure you this is miraculous. The heavy woman who endures thirty minutes on the treadmill. The graying man with the Marines tattoo dripping on the recumbent bike. The woman yoga stretching in a corner while still wearing her United States Postal Service gear. All of them there for one essential thing: relief.

***

I know there is some cosmic (or comic) irony in my attempt to lift heavy physical weights in order to unburden myself of an existential weight. It is kind of masochistic logic.

But, the question that brought me here, to writing this, is: has the weight been lifted? For how long does one need to go and lift weights or jog or ride a stationary bike or get Vedic before they transcend fear and grief?

I was hoping that by writing this I would have a number. I hoped that I would get near this point in the essay  and I could say with certainty that after six years of committed gym membership and equally committed grieving I was done with both; that the maximum amount of weights had been lifted; that I had leveled up and graduated and was now free from those pains.

Of course that’s not the case.

Cancer is not afraid of the number of plates you can load on a bar and lift. Deadlifting has nothing to do with raising the dead. I’m just as scared of dying today as I was in 2010. Maybe more so, actually.

But today my desire to be and do more is greater than my fear of death. I’ve come to see that joining a gym was not the desperate act of pseudo-survival it could have been. The desire to live, to be at your fullest life, defined by whatever metric you’ve decided to utilize to achieve that: that is a true act of survival. The continual push into new territory, seeking new approaches of doing and understanding whatever that thing is–that is the lesson for me. You lift the weight, and you put it back down. And you consider how you did it and how you can do it easier, faster, better the next time. And the next time maybe the weight is easier to move, or maybe it feels heavier. But what you did not do is crumble under it; you were not crushed.

I remember people commending my father when he was first diagnosed: “He’s a fighter,” they’d say. “He’s a tough son of a bitch.” And those things were true about him, and I agree that if cancer were a man my father would have whooped that ass. But that’s not how it went. It went quickly and traumatically. It often does. Death is worst for the survivors. We are the ones who really have the longest fight. So long as we have the memories of whom we love, we are battling the weight. What we do as survivors is simple: we lift the weight. And when it is too much, we put it back down. And when we are ready, we lift it back up again. And on. And on. And on.

Telling the Talk: Reflecting on TEDx

So, you’re asked to give a TEDx talk and you think: wow, me? Yes, I’ll do it. Humbled and excited you wonder vaguely what you’ll talk about. But, whatever, there’s time. How long could it take to prepare a fifteen-minute speech? Odds are, if you’ve been asked to do a talk, you’ve done some public speaking. How different could this be? Okay, there’s a camera. Big deal. It’ll be posted online, with a potentially global audience? So what? All stuff to worry about later. I just need to get through today.
And then, seemingly, it’s the next day (it was three months later) and the organizers are asking for an outline and most of what you have is incoherent rambling in the direction of a rant that, now that you’re looking critically, sounds like something a guy in a bathrobe on a busy street corner might shout at strangers.
Whatever, it’s just an outline, right? Send something mildly coherent, hit the snooze bar. It’s all good. Nobody watches the TEDx videos anyway. It’s not like you’re being flown to Vancouver for the big one.
IMG_1177
The original outline. Yikes.
But it’s too late to be that chill. Seeing your notes border on illegible, feeling the heat of the big day now two months out: you get the first pang of nervousness. You start to dig in and make more time to write.
That’s the first problem. You can’t write a TED talk. You have to coax it into existence.
Lesson 1: TED writing is not speech writing.
I’d written for public speaking before. I delivered a school-wide address to mark the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I’ve written and performed two original wedding ceremonies; written and coached numerous graduation speeches; and done plenty of small acts of public speaking with prepared notes.
In this kind of writing–where you can read off the page–ideas are organized for impact. Anyone who has taken a class in rhetoric knows there are structures you can employ to make simple ideas more powerful. This was my automatic mode when I started drafting. That’s why my first “final” draft was almost 9,000 words. It said everything I wanted, in precisely the way I wanted it to be read.
Which meant it was far too intricate to memorize and too alliterative to deliver effectively.
Which meant I had to un-write the damn thing.
TED is this unique situation where you get to talk about something that deeply matters to you, which sounds informal. But it is an organized presentation of ideas. No matter how fluent you are, you still can’t go up there and just talk. It’s like this: if you were asked to tell a room full of strangers about your job, you’d probably get across the basics. But if you were asked to walk that room through the nuances and dramas of your daily work, detailed to the point that the audience understood as closely as possible what it was like to be you but persuasive enough so this person felt your position in this world was vital, well, then that’d be your TED talk. It’s hard to be detailed, persuasive, and memorable about a topic whose familiarity you take for granted. Writers, especially non-fiction writers, know this.
It took a lot of intricate paring to get the talk to retain agency without feeling like a memorized list of bullets. And this is to say nothing of the attrition of the moment. The talk ultimately came to about 12 minutes in both rehearsals and live performance time, but during the performance, from sheer adrenalized forgetfulness, I skipped several smaller sections.
So, if you’re a writer preparing for a TED talk, don’t write it out. Sweet talk it. Or snake charm it. Just don’t be alliterative.
That’s part one: the writing.
Part two nearly broke me. I like writing and I usually like sharing what I’ve written (basic writer’s urge). But once I realized how this was not really writing, I was way out of my comfort zone.
Those easily written-off fears about cameras and a wide digital audience? Yeah, they gain momentum as you get closer to the day.
For all the public speaking I’ve done, I had never memorized and articulated something so long and detailed. I almost always got to read from a page or a slideshow.
So I started researching tips for TED talks. Turns out, there’s something of a niche industry for this. Apparently enough people give TED talks (or at least aspire to give TED-like talks in various settings) that there are books and blog posts (like this one) aplenty.
Seeing so many resources out there, I felt like I was okay. This doesn’t mean I dived right into those resources. It means seeing the plethora of information comforted me and in a fit of over-confidence, I posted to social media that I was doing a TEDx talk.
So much support! So much more pressure! You fool!
On Facebook, a good friend recommended Carmine Gallo’s book Talk Like Ted. This particular friend is a very handsome and old friend who meant well, but that book almost made me quit. In Talk Like TED, Gallo does a case study of several incredibly popular TED talks to analyze their underlying structures. It’s good, practical stuff. If you’re a CEO or a frequent public speaker, definitely read this book.
But it made me feel like I was way, way out of my element. When I read that Amanda Palmer (AMANDA F*CKING PALMER) took four months to write her talk, and that she’d practiced it on a variety of live stages before going to Vancouver, I closed the book. I had two weeks. This was not helping.
The same friend who unwittingly brought me to the brink via Gallo also saved me. He randomly texted me a link to Tim Urban’s blog post “Doing a TED Talk: The Full Story.” Now, this was my speed.
Urban was thorough and honest and really broke things down. If you’re asked to do a TED talk or any kind of formal public speaking, read this man’s post. Urban got me seriously dialed in, and for the remaining two weeks if I wasn’t fully confident, I at least had a plan.
The plan was to try and memorize the speech. Memorize it, as Urban says, as well as you know the Happy Birthday song.
I’m not going to split hairs here, but that song is a lot shorter than 11 minutes. And it’s not exactly loaded with humanity-inspiring ideas or, in my case, things your mom might be surprised to learn about you. And it was pretty easy to memorize.
But I was determined to get the material down cold. The organizers had asked me to do this talk, and I had excitedly agreed to it. This was an incredible opportunity and my students and friends were happy for me and eager to hear what I had to say. I couldn’t let anyone down.
So, the Sunday before the talk, I took the shortest version of that long speech and chopped it into sections. On Monday I put the sections into Google Slides and printed them out like note cards. I laid them out in chunks on tables in my classroom and paced down the line, reciting and referring as needed.
Every night until the talk, I sat on the couch and read and re-read those note cards. When I had the cadences and accents right, I recorded it on my phone. I listened to that recording before bed and then on the ways to and from work. At night, I’d edit here and there, too, altering a word or a phrase but mostly just reading, reciting, reading, reciting. I asked a co-worker who has a theater background for tips, and she suggested reciting from memory until you screwed up. Then, repeat the messed-up line three times and start all the way over until you get past that line. Like a cumulative memory bank.
(Do you hear the Rocky theme song?)
By the day of rehearsal, two days out, I was eager to get on stage and see how it felt.
IMG_1215
Rehearsal stage. The TED folks left out an “H,” which was perfect.
Rehearsal felt good. I was happy with the talk’s content and length. But, with less than 48-hours before show time, I’d still needed my notes to get through. And that spooked me.
Why couldn’t I get it down? How had this not sunk in yet?
For the next 48-hours, I listened to and re-read and spoke the material continuously. During any free time I had, I was listening to the talk.
The night before, I undulated between confidence and despair. One reading would be perfect, the next would be spotty. Because I struggled to get it down cold, and because it was the last minute, I tried scrapping the script and free-styling from what I knew. Again, one rehearsal would be great, the next disastrous.
It was only out of sheer exhaustion that I slept at all the night before.
I have never been afraid of public speaking. This is not to say I don’t get dry-mouthed or knock-kneed in front of large crowds. I’ve known, and been stifled by, anxiety throughout my life. But I’d never felt that hideous surge before any public speaking. Like magic, no matter what was on the line or who was in the audience, just before the event, a kind of calm would overtake me. Although my leg muscles would grip, I could keep an even voice and a quiet mind; I could always just focus on the words on the page, on what was right in front of me.
Too bad for that on stage were only bright lights and vague faces. There was no page to anchor me.
And I was scheduled to speak last. I was (and am) so honored to have been asked to close the day’s presentations. But I wish I had read the 11 Tips for Right Before You Go On Stage from the TED blog first, because I sat in that green room (which was so cool) and listened to the other speakers. While I waited, I rehearsed and I tried to be very, very still. Apparently, I should have done jumping jacks or something.
I did all the amping-up I was capable of, and still, when they called my name, some courage fell away.
I know, I know: Come on, guy, I’m reading this because I might give a talk one day, too. I know, I’m being a downer.
But you might like this next part (part three?)
Truthfully, I was so excited to do this talk that I started to think beyond the event. In the planning of the talk I had so many ideas that even the 9,000-words I pared down were just the tip of the iceberg. As I went through the rehearsing and the memorizing, I was still curious about what I could do with all those ideas. They were (are) all related to the basic premise of my final talk. When would I get to them? What could I do with them? It felt like there was so much more to say than this 11-minute monologue would allow.
I also felt like this could generate an audience for these ideas, and that notion slowly began to pressurize my preparation for the talk. I don’t think I’m the only person who has considered this. Tim Urban says you don’t turn down a TED talk, and there’s a reason for that.
Giving a TED talk is a chance to share some of your truth on a stage that comparatively few folks get to grace. I’m ambitious, and this time my ambition distracted me. It created an energy that I fed in the wrong direction; it was energy I could have put towards refining my talk, invigorating and streamlining my preparation, and ultimately helping to tell a more distinctive and cohesive story.
But if that’s the worst thing that came from all of this (excepting that little slip-up in the beginning of the talk), then I am still a very lucky and grateful man.
This whole process has been transformative. Working on this project taught me a lot about my own writing–namely, that I should read everything to my wife 6,000 times before I consider it finished. Because of this talk, I’ve tapped into a well-spring of ideas that have inspired me to keep writing and thinking and talking and reading about what it means to be a human and a storyteller and a teacher. I’m pumped and grateful and I sincerely hope I get to try it all again very soon.
If you’re reading this as prospective TEDx speaker, here are my final simple suggestions for a good talk:
  1. Start writing now. The talk isn’t for six months? Start today. You barely have enough time.
  2. Rehearse every draft. Take every iteration of the talk seriously. This will help you stay with the process and weed out–or cultivate–side trips as needed.
  3. Take a day off. During the weeks before the talk, take some time to reflect on what you’re about to do. Enjoy the process of putting this thing together.
  4. Ask for an audience of anyone. The more people you can read this to the better. If you feel like it’ll be weird or something to have a one- or two-person audience, then you’re going to hate having one hundred people staring at you.
  5. Read these things (even the Gallo book, which is insightful despite triggering my neuroses):
    1. TED Coach Gives 11 Tips for Right Before You Go On Stage
    2. Tim Urban’s “Doing a TED Talk: the Full Story”
    3. Talk Like TED by Carmine Gallo (NOTE: This book scared the hell out of me. He gives solid advice, but if you are not a CEO or are giving a TEDx talk–as opposed to a TED talk which has less consequence–this book might just shake you up. I had to put it down. Message me if you want my copy. It still scares me.)

 

If you’re interested, here’s the full talk.

This post also appears on humanbeingteacher.wordpress.com and medium.com/@mickey.diamond

TRUST THYSELF: but like for real this time I mean it


Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Except yours, Mickey.” — RW Emerson, 1841

On Monday, April 4th, I got an email from SmokeLong Quarterly, a digital lit mag I follow, announcing their recently published pieces. The winning story of that week was called “Sometimes My Father Comes Back from the Dead,” by Steve Edwards. I literally wretched when I read that title.

Last summer, I drafted a short story called The Memory of Smoke. It was a story based on a dream wherein I awoke to find my father — who has been dead since 2010 — tinkering around in my house. A carpenter by trade and a Marlboro man until he died, my dreamed-dad was in work mode: cigarette in hand, scowling towards the floor, a tape measure dangling from a back pocket. The dream was sensory-loaded, and when I woke for real the smell of cigarette smoke lingered in my memory. The story I wrote afterwards roughly explored my frantic neuroses of new-fatherhood as a father-less adult. It was an early draft but promising enough to share with my writing group that summer. Given the power of the dream, and some encouraging feedback, I decided that the story wasn’t publishable but that I would get to it later, eventually, at some point.

This was mostly fine. After decent output last summer, and a busy autumn, I had concrete plans to begin writing again in the new year. In fact, my concrete plans included scrapping fiction for 2016 and moving into memoir and essay instead. I wrote about that decision and have since put together a few book reviews for that project on my blog.

By the end of March, I still hadn’t gotten around to that story about my dad. I thought about it occasionally. I made notes, too, for when I got back to it.

And then I opened the SmokeLong email with Mr. Edwards’ piece.

I could only hope that his story both somehow sucked and took a vastly different approach to the concept of a dead dad coming back. It was not a lot of hope.

They are somewhat different. That was a slight relief. But not so different that when I forwarded the story to my wife, (who’d read my draft) she replied: ARE YOU [expletive] KIDDING ME.

In “Sometimes My Father Comes Back…”, the narrator’s deceased father has returned, having “probably forgotten he’s dead,” routinely bumbling into the house “looking for whatever he’s looking for” before leaving again. Edwards story is, of course, a lot better than my rough draft: a cleanly compressed and carefully explored version of similar emotions I struggled to capture in my attempt.

In my decade of writing, this was a first. I’d never seen something I’d been working on — something I felt was entirely original — come to life in someone else’s hands. I was unsettled.

And I was set to begin teaching Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” that same morning. You know the essay: it’s the one where Ralph Waldo Emerson warns us about the perils of not acting on our intuition.

“Else tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.”

And shame is not the only word for it. Unoriginal and foolish will work, too. But, yes, shame.

Seeing Edwards’ piece in SmokeLong forced me to confront why I hadn’t even tried to complete the draft. Which actually felt like I walked in on a surprise, underground pity-party I’d been throwing myself for years.

The truth is that I don’t know why I didn’t go back to it. Even if I had done some edits, it’s a slim chance I would have submitted the piece and slimmer still it would have been picked up anywhere.

This is not to suggest that my ghost-dad-story was somehow more publishable than Mr. Edwards; this is not a lament that my work was not chosen. I want to be clear: this is not jealousy. Jealousy is that cool slithering in your gut when you see something you never realized you’d wanted but believe is beyond your grasp. This was different. This was the limp weight of regret, dull and dumb in my lap.

The point is that I didn’t finish a story that I believed in, and someone miraculously wrote a similar, better story. And that sucks in like three directions: it sucks to see how your work was not that good anyway; it sucks to think you are not as original as you’d hoped; it sucks to see that hesitating leads to, well, this.


I don’t know what to do with that draft now, but the future of that specific piece is besides the point. It was just one draft of dozens I’d began and abandoned. In my years at the desk, I’ve been consistent only in thinking that one day there will be more time to write. And each season seems to bring a new reminder that the clock is ticking.

But seeing that unexpected coincidence has me standing straight up. I did not like that feeling. And it’s impossible to come up with any more reason to hesitate. Because there is no more time. Right now, as far as I know, someone somewhere is working on this exact same post. And so I have to click “publish” right now, or I never will.


(NB: Mr. Edwards (should you read this) — If your story is autobiographical, thank you for putting the thing together in spite of the weight and haze of the subject; you have my absolute respect. I hope this doesn’t seem condescending or weird. Maybe it is a little weird. But I hope it’s the kind of weird you’re cool with.)

On Harry Crews’s CHILDHOOD

In Harry Crews’s memoir, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place,  the author sets his authority firmly and quickly. After opening with a second-hand story about his father who died too young for the author to know, Crews writes: “Did what I have set down here as memory actually happen? …I do not know, nor do I any longer care.” This abandonment of exactitude follows throughout the memoir, putting narrator and reader on solid, fair ground. Rightfully so. The stories in this memoir feel hyper-realistic, shorn of the ordinary in the manner of good fictions. It’s the stuff of reverence and romance: Harry Crews pens a love-letter to the time and place he considers home.

As such, the book begins with the idea that home is partly what we tell each other it was. Part One is largely the story of his father, what he’s cobbled together from “stories I have been told about him, stories told to me by my mother, by my brother…and the men and women who knew him while he was alive.” In fact, most of Chapter Two is young Harry with his Uncle Alton being told stories about his daddy by the men who knew him.

I walked away from Part One thinking about how our individual stories mingle and stray from the larger stories we inhabit: the places and people we are a part of, and the power of family legend.

Part One of A Childhood feels like it’s own little book. It does the technical work of introducing the time and place when Crews was born. There is a brief and precise history of sharecroppers in rural Georgia circa 1920’s, and Crews makes the place vivid despite his not being old enough to recall much from those very early years before his daddy died. It becomes that much more apparent by the end of the book just how little things change in a single lifetime for these southern farmers. But, mostly, Part One is a love letter to his daddy whom he never knew and a spotlight and head-nod to all the folks who helped Crews build an image of a man he must very much wish he’d gotten to know.

Part Two is the true memoir of the book, the retelling in a memorable and inimitable voice of the life of a very young boy in a very rough time and place. We’re introduced to his family and several friends, as well as the other father he would also eventually lose.

Crews has the kind of power in his voice that makes you sit up and listen. Part Two opens thus: “It has always seemed to me that I was not so much born into this world as I awakened to it. I remember very distinctly the awakening and the morning it happened. It was my first glimpse of myself, and all that I know now…” I sat straight up when I read that. I felt like I needed to be awake, too.

Much of the memoir is told about the time the narrator was between five- and six-years old. Crews’s childhood is visited by all kinds of hazard: in close succession, he is temporarily and inexplicable crippled and, shortly thereafter, he’s scalded over two-thirds of his young body. There is, too, the impoverished, monotonous life on a farm, the perpetual fear of an alcoholic step-father who would return from a whiskey bender in a whirlwind, and the apocryphal stories from Auntie, the old black woman who helps nurse him.

Throughout the book, Crews reveres the physical world of Bacon County. He describes the farming processes and mind-sets of the characters here in loving, accurate detail. The weather, the rituals, and the voices of his childhood farms and kinfolk are simultaneously legendary and pastoral.

If I had read this book about two years ago, it would probably be one of my all-time favorites. In a memoir, it’s hard to incorporate the mystical and the mysterious, and yet Crews does it here, and to memorable effect. Crews also has such an authentic voice that you can’t stop his accent from running through your head. He cherishes and celebrates that southern dialect, playfully selecting which vernacular to define and which to let you just figure out.

As it is, this memoir has the brevity and the wit to be one of the best memoirs I’ve read throughout this True-Thousand Sixteen experiment. Crews proves that having a life with remarkable and sometimes shitty things happen to you makes for a good book. But he also proves that having a careful eye and, most importantly, a legitimate yearning to capture and share the essence of a place and a people can also make for a powerful and beautiful story. Consider me inspired.

 

TOWNIE by Andre Dubus III

I’ve just spent about 8 days reading this memoir and here I am, four days later, struggling to write a review.

I should love this memoir. And I do, in certain places.

I love Dubus’s attention to detail and his clinical use of sensory details. The locations in Townie are attentively defined and carefully illustrated.

I love the movement of the narrative. Split into three parts, the memoir is twenty-one chapters of swift scenery. Dubus breaks the chapters down into punctuated moments: scenes loaded with memorable imagery and character-revealing detail that subtly advance the plot. Structured thus, each moment feels as if was designed to Mean (capital M) more than it appears to, the tension growing tighter by the end of each chapter.

I loved that the book chronicled the formation of a violent young man and his eventual maturation away from violence towards a more “creative” outlet. While reading, I loved entering the fight scenes that were wrought with fine detail. While reading, I loved that Dubus recalled the choreography of the fight, who hit whom and with what approximate velocity and then the report of the shot’s severity. I loved reading about this tough guy who lifts weights and attempts to remake his psyche and his physique.

Yet, as I look back on this memoir, these are also some of the things–the constant sensory language, the too-vivid memories of fight sequences, the soft transition from fighter to writer–that eventually strike me as heavy-handed. And then I think: this is a memoir about a violent young man, himself physically heavy-handed. Is this brilliant or basic?

Did this memoir need to record so many disparate acts of violence?  Very possibly, yes. In a  book about this particular kind of reformation, the more violence you include, the weightier the pay-off in peace-time. At least, it seems the book is designed that way: Part I is nearly half the page-count of the memoir and here we see our narrator come into his own. By the end, he has some stirrings that there is more to life than fists and fury, but it’s actually not until near the end of Part II where Andre Dubus III hears the writer’s call and, on a whim, skips on a training to dabble at home with pen and paper and a cup of tea. And throughout the book Dubus is fighting–sometimes he’s fighting against fighting–until the penultimate incident where he holds his hands, finds peace among violent-prone people.

But for all the heavy-hitting throughout the memoir, the two biggest moments didn’t have the power I expected. But maybe that’s the brilliance of this memoir. Maybe the idea that a book that quite literally puts you in the ring with Dubus, and puts his power in your actual hands, and has this same character seek to leave this world, maybe it makes the most sense for his moments of non-violence and transition to feel like a light jab and not the power shot you expected. It’s a juxtaposition that seems logical, but I was hoping for the knockout.

The book is really about Dubus’s relationship with his father, specifically reconciling his abandonment and the vacuum of masculine influence he found himself within as the family bounces through tough neighborhoods. As such, the final pages of this memoir are some of the finest stuff I’ve read about grief and loss. What Andre and his brother and their friends do in the wake of his father’s sudden death are admirable in a kind of basic, old school way that is admirable and that makes me think about previous generations and blue-collar guys who did the right thing like visit dead friends moms, etc.

But that’s also the part of the book that, as I move away from and reflect back on what happened, sours for me.

Dubus, on his unknowing last night with his father, watches the DeLaHoya fight with his old man. He’s busy, the fight is  on late, he isn’t really into it. But, citing some cosmic notion urging him to go there to not “regret it,” he makes it and an opportunity for Andre to reveal his frustrations about his father’s absence, to undo his father’s false assumptions about young Andre’s neither safe nor well-tended youth. Andre, the aggressive, one-step-ahead narrator, doesn’t take the shot.

While it played fairly well during my reading, this segment now seems like too much liberty with the privilege of reflection. I’m not saying it’s impossible he felt this way or thought those things. I’m saying that after three-hundred pages with Andre and his father, and after all they experience together, I wanted that part to be more raw. But it felt too light, somehow empty. I’m pretty sure that’s how it felt for Dubus, too, but I keep wondering–and this is me as writer here, not really as critic–whether (or how) this scene could have been more dramatic.

Throughout the memoir Dubus does the right thing and keeps the fight scenes to practically journalistic detail. You don’t often get the sense that you are supposed to be rooting for him–the hits go in both directions, hurt is felt all around, and Dubus follows up whatever stories of his opponents that he can. However. You’re being told the narrator’s story, so of course you want to see him prevail. In this ways, the memoir is like Rocky humble-bragging about his fighting days and then claiming a moral victory by finally seeing what the rest of the world sees (violence is not the answer). At the very least, you know that you’re reading a memoir: you’re walking with someone on their journey towards redemption, and even as the fists fly with scientific description, you don’t exactly root for Andre to lose.

Maybe that’s a caveat that comes with writing about one’s experience living with physical violence. I’m not sure how else a writer could portray this life other than the way Dubus does in Townie.

Mechanically speaking, Dubus does fine things with language, pacing, structure, and overall arch. He leaves it all out there, and the truth of this review is really to be found in the three or four pages of criticism I’ve deleted, all of which deal with my own shit about grief and violence and fatherhood (and the intersection of all three). So, for that alone, this book gets generally high marks from me. The truth is that I’m more comfortable assessing fiction, and this memoir has shown me the dangers of reading true stories that touch upon themes and topics that you might want to write about. Dangers like wanting a person (and not a character) to have done something different, to have told their story in another way that is more similar to your version of truth. This is not really part of responsible discussion when you discuss fiction. And maybe it shouldn’t be here, either. Because this is real life. Memoir, I’m realizing, is a record, however deliberately arranged and composed, of actual shit that’s happened to an actual person. And it’s a ridiculous thing to point at another nonfiction writer and say, “Hey, you should miss your dad more.”

The upside of my struggle with this review and, more specifically, this memoir, is knowing now that this kind of dangerously personal critical impulse helps you (me, the potential memoirist) see more clearly what they want to say about the world. The risk, I see, is knowing this kind of lazy, personal criticism may one day be aimed at you, too. That someone out there will struggle with accepting your own decisions in writing and in life.

So, thanks to Andre Dubus III for getting me off-balance with this memoir. It’s a little too early in my memoir-review career to say that this is one of the best I’ve read, but I’ll be going back to this book again for all kinds of lessons.