Monday, July 21, 2008

Writing fodder

I had to take my 6-year old son, Grayson, to the doctor’s this morning.

A few weeks back, he fell off a teeter-totter and broke his collar bone. I, being the perennial "father of the year" candidate that I am, didn’t take him to the ER right away – I figured it was a typical bruise. He wasn’t really complaining about the injury, and it wasn’t until almost a week later, while playing catch with him, that I saw it was still bothering him. Good one, Matt...

The next day, in the Urgent Care, I endured the “what the hell is wrong with you anyway, waiting so long?” glances of the nursing staff as I tried to explain why I hadn’t brought him in right away. Ah, guilt… They sent me off with some x-rays on a CD and something called a “Figure-8 Splint” that promised to hold his shoulders in the proper healing position.

His regular doc wanted to see him after two weeks, to be sure that everything was healing properly (everything's fine, thanks for wondering), hence my early-morning foray to her office. When they finally called Grayson and me back, I noticed an array of laptops sitting on little black stands reminiscent of wheeled conductor’s podiums, standing in a cluster beside the usual weigh-in station. “We’re doing all our charting on PCs now, so I hope you’ll be patient with us,” the nurse explained.

I shrugged. Whatever tech helps you keep track of stuff, right? Thing is, while sitting in the exam room, watching this older lady hunt and peck her way through entering Grayson’s information, it struck me that nobody had even so much as glanced at him since we’d arrived. All of her attention was on finding the right entry on the drop-down list for “Follow Up – Injury – Clavicle – Right Side” and “Patient’s Height/Weight/Temperature At Time Of Visit” or whatever.

As the minutes dragged by (a second nurse had now appeared, in an attempt to decipher the new system), I began to get angry. Grayson’s doctor is a wonderful woman, even-tempered and pragmatic, and her staff is generally warm and caring – totally unlike this collection of confused, harried tech slaves. As she laboriously entered the data her computerized taskmaster demanded, the nurse’s fingernails ticked against the keys with the same sound as a poodle on linoleum, a sound I’ve always found oddly disturbing.

By the time the doctor herself came in, accompanied by her own wheeled Dalek-like cart-and-PC, I was almost ready to complain. Luckily (cue heroic music), that's when writing came to my rescue!

In that moment, it struck me that this was one of “those moments” – one of the myriad little snippets of life that I love so dearly. I go through each and every day this way: observing little moments like this and telling myself “I must remember this and use it in a book someplace”. Most are forgotten, but a few, like my feeling of frustration as not one but two care-givers ignored my son in favor of appeasing their laptop PC, stick around for a while. Some even make it into a manuscript someplace. Maybe it was crafting the “fingernails like poodle’s claws on linoleum” simile in my head… Maybe it was the fact that I knew that I still had this vague guilt hanging over me, the residue of the fact that I'd not brought Grayson to the urgent care for almost a week when he had a broken bone for Christ's sake, and I knew full well that some portion of my irritation was simply misdirected anger at myself... Whatever it was, I had the image now, and it wouldn’t go away.

My dear friend Amy refers to these moments, large and small, as “writing fodder”, and I couldn’t agree more. They’re important, even when they aren’t weighty in and of themselves, just as each small chip of colored glass or stone in a mosaic isn’t terribly interesting. It‘s only when taken all together, as one (hopefully) coherent image, that the greater pattern emerges.

I think that this is equally true of writing and of life – as if there were ever any division between the two in the first place.

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