The other day I was rowing a boat with my friend and fellow Tropner Jill Riddell. She had rowed us down a lake to meet her children and husband at a picnic spot. Some people swam and I sat on the rocks. Now I was rowing us back and she was talking about what types of duress generate good writing. “Physical duress,” she said. “Manual labor, illness. These are the sorts of duress that generate good writing.”
A few weeks ago I read a couple of books by a guy named Christopher Beha. I was going to interview him but it didn’t happen. (Somebody else is going to review him for Trop.) What I wanted to ask him, though, was how his various illnesses—cancer, Lyme’s disease, a serious knee problem, all before the age of thirty—had affected his writing. I was thinking of Proust’s asthmatic cadence and Dostoevsky’s epileptic frenzy.
A few years ago I read an article by a diabetic who claimed that a runner she’d met had been jealous of the way in which she distilled her life into statistics—her blood sugar, the amount of carbs she ate, the amount of insulin she injected. When I got diabetes at twenty-five, I found that having to watch my blood sugar all day—and what I ate, and how much I exercised and drank and everything else—compelled me to examine myself in more extensive ways than I’d expected.
Diabetes crushed whatever leftover youthful thoughts I’d had about having an endless amount of time before I’d have to start living seriously. Walking down aisles at grocery stores, I saw foods I couldn’t eat and I felt as if I’d joined a fraternity of the flawed. Before this, I’d never really trusted people with dietary restrictions. I’d thought that, if they just put their mind to it, they wouldn’t have to burden the rest of us with their specialness.
Today my blood crashed twice. After a dentist appointment I ate a German sort of hybrid-fusion version of a hamburger with mustard from a food truck on Wilshire. Typically the bread from that meal would’ve held me over for a while, but an hour later, in a parking lot, I crashed and ate a Balance Bar and sat in my truck and waited for my blood to come back so that I could drive. When I got home I ate some fruit and two Eggo waffles.
That definitely should’ve been enough food, but sometimes I get into crash cycles—one crash begets another and another. I was on the couch in front of the air conditioner reading Harper’s. I was reading a poem called “Palm Sunday” by Frederick Seidel. I rarely read poetry. When I see poems in magazines, I usually pass them over. I got to the end and wondered what had compelled me to read this poem and I took a second to recognize that these words were packing an oomph that I used to encounter more often, when I was younger. I reread the poem and soaked up the feeling of being struck by words like I used to.
Close your eyes while you read this
Default setting for the Divinity.
It’s Mohammed in the cave and the angel commanding: Recite!
Close your eyes to see infinity.
I finished the poem and flipped the page to an article about food labeling. This time though I couldn’t read at all. Words were skipping around in front of me. I thought maybe the poem had trained me to read in a new way or something—as if after Seidel, food labeling wouldn’t work. But then my diabetic instincts kicked in and I checked my blood and saw I was at fifty-two, which is far too low a number to read anything at.
I guzzled orange juice for a quick fix and heated some spaghetti for a sustained fix and then I opened up multiple Gmail windows and drafted multiple lunatic emails. I didn’t send them though and I lay down on the couch and waited for the shakes to go away. One time I was walking down the street in New York and I walked by a church and felt my butt get light, like I was about to lift off. I thought for a second that maybe I’d finally found God but then I checked my blood and ate some candy and my butt came down.
When my head got clear I reread those emails to make sure they weren’t too lunatic, to make sure they were lunatic in the right kind of way and not the wrong kind of way, and then, with a wicked glint, snickering at my just-expired delirium, I hit send.
Tom Dibblee is Trop’s editor. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train and his nonfiction has appeared in Pacific Standard, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Point. He lives in Los Angeles.