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Alex Lemon is warm and affable on the phone, and it's easy to see how he acquired the nickname "Happy" as a freshman at Macalester College. But as the title of his memoir, the name is weighted with irony.
"Happy" covers a decidedly unhappy couple of years in Lemon's life, starting in 1997, when the hard-partying 19-year-old and former baseball star learned that he had a brain malformation, suffered a series of strokes, endured a deep depression, underwent risky brain surgery and was left with permanent disabilities and chronic pain. Lemon made it through it all with help from loved ones -- particularly his mother, an eccentric sculptor who cared for and encouraged him through the crisis.
Lemon, now 32, graduated from Macalester, received a master of fine arts degree from the University of Minnesota, taught at Macalester from 2004 to 2007 and has published three books of poetry. He spoke from Fort Worth, where he now teaches at Texas Christian University.
Q The book opens with you waking up feeling disoriented, numb-faced, with twirling vision. You later find out you have bleeding in your brain, but at first it seems you're experiencing the aftereffects of chemical abuse.
A Yeah, I just thought it was some sort of combination of being rundown from college life and being hungover from whatever.
Q It's disorienting for the reader, as it must have been for you.
A Yeah, I did my best to replicate that. There's such a huge, huge challenge in trying to articulate pain and discomfort because it's so located in only one way in each individual person.
Q The book is partly about coming to appreciate how much you love the people around you -- your mother, primarily, but friends, too. How much do you think your health crisis led to that?
A When people have that transformation at a young age, there's usually some vehicle that acts as a catalyst to move into that confrontation. For me, four years of medical trauma forced me to confront things about myself. I'm not sure it wouldn't have happened anyway -- I mean, I wasn't a terrible person before -- but I feel like it sped up the process.
Q You were a kid with an unusual combination of characteristics -- athletic, interested in literature, a really heavy partier. Did this combination set you apart from friends and classmates?
A I wanted to be the all-American boy in so many ways, and I made myself good at sports and I made myself good at that kind of hyper-masculine thing with partying and girls and stuff like that. But, as much as I tried to work against it at times, I was raised in a really artistic household. We had books, we didn't watch TV, we had thousands of records, and art and nature on the walls, and so I didn't really fit in anywhere. I felt a bit dislocated from every possible situation. But I got along with everybody and I could party and I had great friends in both crowds.
Q In the book, Happy is this persona that you inhabit that covers up all these different fragments of yourself.
A That was really the emotional key to the entire book, that Happy was this surface character, this mask that I didn't allow anyone in to see how kind of troubled I was.
Q People may find this book as much about extreme chemical abuse as it is about health problems. Was that part of the meaning you want people to take from it?
A I did try not to spend too much time on substance abuse. I used it to really flesh out what the college experience was like, or what my experience was like, but I didn't want to make it kind of the overriding element of any of it.
Q You mention in the epilogue that you've been sober for the past three or four years. Why did you quit?
A I was literally destroying myself. I was never using for fun or to have a good time. I was trying to obliterate myself so I wouldn't think about all those things I've had to deal with and face and confront.
Q Typically, in books like this, where someone goes through a crisis, it gets all worked out by the end, and they live happily ever after. Clearly, with you that's not the case. What is your health like now?
A I didn't want to write that kind of book, and wrap it up with a tidy little bow, because that to me seems so incredibly dishonest in every way. So much of life is not tidy.
My health right now, there are good days and bad days. I still have visual disabilities, I still have some numbness in my face, sometimes in my hands, my gait, I kind of fall to my right, I'm awkward, I bumble into things, I knock into things often. I have some chronic pain in my back and legs. I continue to spend a lot of time in hospitals and seeing doctors.
Q But you're stable in a sort of up-and-down way?
A Yeah. And I can deal with the vicissitudes of my health. I know what makes me feel worse. I know how I can take care of myself. I can do most of the things I want to do.
Q That's a happy ending in a "that's life" kind of way.
A I fully feel that ending is more beautiful than an "everything is wonderful" ending. There's so much more power and beauty in that messiness.
Katy Read is a writer in Minneapolis.