Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - May 25, 2012

Rolling through life

Paul Bendix reflects on a life of discovery, loss and hope in a new collection of personal essays

by Renee Batti

Each of us must find the right dance to move us through life with as much grace and satisfaction as we can hope to attain. Will we waltz or swing? Pirouette or prance? Will we tango with a torrid gaze or cut a rug with a rumba?

Paul Bendix of Menlo Park doesn't have a pat and pithy response when asked in a recent interview to elaborate on the title of his newly published book of personal essays, "Dance Without Steps." One might assume that, for him, the word "dance" is merely a metaphor for life, given that he's been paralyzed since 1968 after being shot and left for dead during a street robbery when he was on the cusp of graduation from U.C. Berkeley.

And yes, he says after pondering the question for a few moments, dance is a metaphor, but as far as its precise meaning in his life, "I'm kind of working that one out."

Then: "I've been through an awful lot of changes," he offers, citing the long-ago shooting, the partial recovery of some movement that allowed him to live independently in London for a few years, the decline in neurological function in his 40s and the subsequent developments that have made mobility increasingly difficult. And of course, there's the pain of loss that has marked his life.

"It all adds up to a kind of dance," he concludes, and to amplify he recalls old cowboy movies where the gunslinger shoots at the ground near his nemesis' feet, barking, "Dance!"

With the difficulties of life as a partial quadriplegic mostly confined to a wheelchair, Bendix says, "I often felt that way: 'Dance!'"

And yet, the book's title "also glances in part on the essay about dancing with Marlou on the Queen Mary," he adds, referring to his late wife, Marlou Imes. In the poignant 2007 essay, "Queenly," Bendix describes the evening on the ship when he realized that to dance to dance with his wife just then, in a ballroom on the Queen Mary 2, with a live band was something that mattered to their lives.

"Just that we were here, alive and together," he wrote. "And it had taken sixty years for me to get here, and something similar could be said of everyone else.

"Marlou didn't need a gentleman escort right now, for I could stand up from my wheelchair, hold her in my arms and dance the dance of the paralyzed."

Although the publisher chose to call "Dance Without Steps" a memoir, Bendix says it might be better labeled "scenes from a disabled life."

Written between early 2005 and December 2010 and dedicated to Marlou, who died in 2009, the book includes: sketches of his life growing up in Southern California desert country; living in Berkeley during his college days; "on a roll" in recent years as he navigated life in Menlo Park, the wider Bay Area, and traveling the world; and pursuing his passion for "keeping things alive" by toiling in the garden.

The most dramatic essay, titled "A June Night," tells of the horrific event that changed his life in a way unimaginable to anyone, let alone a young student on the threshold of adult life. He was walking home from campus that night after studying for finals when he was approached by three young men asking for money. The response to his negative reply was a clip to his chin, then a bullet to his spinal cord.

"With the bang, which was not terribly loud, my step ceased," he wrote. "My puppet body slipped downward, strings cut. The head bounced, then settled in a field of black rocks, the view of an eye resting on pavement."

Bendix moved to Menlo Park in 1981. Now 65, he is a familiar presence downtown, traversing the sidewalks on Santa Cruz Avenue and nearby streets, stopping by Peet's for coffee, and rolling through the Sunday Farmers' Market.

He has worked as a writer for decades, including stints as a science writer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a copywriter for a Silicon Valley firm.

Bendix has also done outreach work for Menlo-Atherton High School, and, a frequent train rider, he currently chairs the Caltrain Advisory Committee.

He met Marlou in 1997, and together they were a lively presence in the Menlo Park Community Chorus. He continues to sing in the chorus and has done publicity for concerts. "Mostly I enjoy singing ... though I cannot read a note of music," he says in an email.

"In earlier generations, singing was much more commonplace and taken for granted. For me, this is an essential community activity. ... Singing is an absolutely joyous group activity, one that links me to the community in all the best ways."

The chorus director, April McNeely, performed a solo from Faure's Requiem at Marlou's funeral, which was attended by many chorus members. "For more than a year after her death, the chorus dedicated performances to her memory," Bendix says.

In addition to his new book, Bendix writes a blog, "Range of Motion," at paulbendix.com. He says that the blog was "a great liberation for me," when he began it years ago. Even though he had always thought about writing a book, he says, "I wanted it to be perfect" a well-known recipe for not doing anything at all.

"But with a blog, it didn't have to be perfect," he continues. "It was more like daily journalism ... and it got me moving" in the direction of a writing life.

When Marlou became ill, writing kept him sane, he says. In the face of death, one can feel alone and cut off from the rest of the world. "In writing, I was able to tune into my reflections, insights and discoveries all of which came to me quite naturally at the time," he explains.

"When death is all around, something in us tries to make sense of things. This seems to be a naturally healing human capacity. Writing is just a way to get the stuff down."

The book's epigraph is a quote from his essay about dancing with Marlou on the Queen Mary 2. The passage refers to a fellow traveler on the ship a man who had been stabbed in the eye while on duty with a fire brigade, then contracted ALS, a fatal neurological condition also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

"He was, in many ways, the best reminder of all. That this is life, that it is a voyage, that the essential conditions are rough, and that it all ends."

Bendix says that passage "reflects much of my inner life. I am very aware of loss, cannot help but observe the tragedy of human existence yet I find buoyancy in humor, love, connections and ultimately see hope in my days."

Info: Paul Bendix will talk about his book "Dance Without Steps" at 10 a.m. on Sunday, June 3, in Kehillah Jewish High School's multi-purpose room at 3900 Fabian Way in Palo Alto. A $5 donation is requested for the program, part of Keddem Congregation's "Bagels, Lox & Learning" series. More information is at http://keddem.org .

In addition, Bendix will give a free talk on his book on Saturday, June 16, in the Menlo Park City Council Chambers. The program begins at 11 a.m., and is sponsored by the Menlo Park Library and the Friends of the Menlo Park Library. Go to http://menloparklibrary.org . Free van service for Menlo Park seniors and people with disabilities can be scheduled by calling 650-330-2512.

Renee Batti is news editor of the Almanac, one of the Weekly's sister papers.

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