“Moo,” she said.

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I don’t eat meat for simple reasons. When I walked to Helena from Kansas City in the mid-1990s, I saw the devastation that American agricultural policy wrought on the land. From irrigated farms that drink up western water for the sake of profit to desertification of public lands, I began to think very carefully about what I ate and what contribution I made to the damage.

It takes about 1,800 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. That includes the amount the animal drinks, water used to irrigate the fields on which they graze, and the water it takes to raise the grain farmers and ranchers used to fatten up their cows. About 600 gallons goes into a pound of pork. This compared to about 200 gallons of water to grow a pound of soybeans and 100 gallons for corn.

But grain was problematic too. Irrigation in the semi-arid West drinks up rivers and streams and ruins local ecosystems. It drains wetlands and underground aquifers. Irrigation consolidates government and corporate power. It demands that millions of Americans pay for the benefit and profit of a few.      In the end, I decided after I returned to Kansas City after that long walk and the canoe trip back from Helena on the Missouri River that ag giants would be just fine without my money. It was scary, such a decision. It took me almost a year and a half to take the plunge. In January 1, 1997, I lived my first day completely without meat.

But as the years passed, something else happened. I became less and less able to kill even the smallest creatures. I found myself taking ants and flies outdoors and leaving spiders hang in the basement. I shooed mosquitoes instead of swatting them—which isn’t much of a statement since I’m one of those people that mosquitoes leave mostly alone. As I thought about my vegetarian eating habits, I came to see them as about more than government power, corporate money, and environmental concern. It became part of a philosophy of nonviolence. When I grew up, violence was part of daily life—physical, emotional, or verbal violence. My parents, at bottom, were good people who were also inept parents. They learned from their parents how to deal with child behavior. But they applied their methods as they applied the rules, only haphazardly and in arbitrary ways.

I learned from my parents. Hitting and constant scolding didn’t get me anywhere but a world of hurt. I didn’t treat my kids that way. I didn’t hit them and I tried not to damage them emotionally while also attempting to exact discipline in uniform ways. In other words, I tried to follow the rules.

As my inclinations toward nonviolence grew, they moved into daily practices in the market. Where and what could I buy that exacted the least amount of hurt and harm to other people and creatures? Living, by itself, takes its toll on others. But how could I minimize my effect on other? More and more, vegetarianism became a mainstay in daily life.

There are all kinds of problems with my decisions not to eat animals. Do plants feel pain, as some biologists and activists maintain? Grain and vegetables take their toll on the environment, and particularly in the irrigated West. Farms and agricultural land have changed irrevocably forest, prairie, and stream—from sea to shining sea. Unless I limit my purchases from local sources, I’m making a negative impact on the environment. Just the transportation of food from distant places costs the nation billions of gallons of fuel each year. The lettuce on the shelf represents a petroleum used in farm production and transportation. Corporations that grow and harvest grains concentrate power and money. Aren’t dairy cows from whom I get cheese enslaved and exploited?

Yes. All that’s true or, at least, may be the case. But I have to eat. I’m just not going to eat another sentient creature.

What makes me a Missourian?

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missouri countryside

Unless you’re in love with Midwestern landscapes, as I am, once you’ve taken the interstate from Kansas City to St. Louis, you never need drive it again. After the first time, the familiar rolling hills and deep river valleys come at predictable points. The little creeks flow under the highway with names like Chouteau, Boeuf, and Davis. The Lamine River Valley winds through the limestone bluffs on its way to the Missouri. Here, Odessa sits on its hill. There, Sweet Springs shows itself in tangles of gas stations and motels. And so on.

The road itself runs through the countryside much like any other of those great feats of engineering winds though any landscape, anywhere. The interstate’s not quite straight but offers the driver little to steer around. It’s as if someone tilted Missouri on its side and emptied a cup of water on O’Fallon and followed the water’s course to Kansas City. The water takes the path of least resistance. It runs in a straightish path from east to west across the state. There’s a fortunate series of curves around St. Louis. By the time you’ve driven that far, 248 miles out of Kansas City, you’re ready for something, anything, to happen.

missouri countryside 1I never get tired of the Missouri countryside. In spring, the new buds filigree the woods in light greens. The fields turn from winter brown to emerald. In fall, colors burst out of the sunburned grass and woods in orange and red. The winter fields show all the nuances of brown and the trees take on the look of black skeletons waiting in silence for the snow. When I drive through it all, I feel the kind of comfort that comes with familiarity.

I just drove that stretch of interstate for maybe the 60th time. The route from Kansas City to St. Louis makes me feel like a Missourian. I grew up on the state line. My house sat across the street from Kansas. My family looked West. We drove across the plains of Kansas and eastern Colorado to vacation in the Rockies every summer. Camping in Missouri always disappointed us. No stretches of public land allowed us the illusion of freedom. We felt cramped nestled in crowded campgrounds in the Missouri hills.

But I could no more feel a Kansan or Coloradoan than I could feel like an Alaskan. I looked across the street into a different world, one familiar but foreign. Missouri spanned out behind my house like a blanket. It was warm and comfortable. Later, I backpacked the public lands of Missouri. Such places lay far from Kansas City. But the karst Ozark hills, while unfamiliar at first, offered me more of my homeland than any Forest Service campground in the West.

missouri countryside 2Maybe it was because Kansas City resembled the East more than the West. Out West the trees thin out beyond Lawrence. The farm fields are bigger and stretch to the horizon. Missourians farm just like farmers in Kansas but the fields are smaller, more compact. They wrap around little patches of trees. Woods nestle tiny lots of corn and beans hewn into them. Ponds dot the land like little mirrors reflecting thoughts and memories.

I came all this way to attend a history conference. It’s my last for a while, I think. I went to the opening reception. I knew no one but everyone there seemed to know each other. It was a very cliquey group. I wandered around for five minutes and realized that unless I could come out of my shell, I would just wander around. I had the feeling, as many shy people do, that all eyes were one me. No one, of course, even noticed me but that doesn’t break that feeling of being on the outside.

I know these things are what you make them. But I’m beyond making social connections, though it’s probably good for me. You really have to belong to an institution and know other faculty to make these things really work. An independent scholar who teaches adjunct at a community college just doesn’t have a place.

Instead, I went out front. I looked over a replica of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, which hangs in the atrium of the Missouri History Museum. The plane flies to nowhere right in front of the second story balcony. It struck me that Lindbergh couldn’t see where he was going. The plane has no front window, just a small window on the side where he could look out at the ocean.

missouri-history-museumI thought about not having a front window and driving across the shortgrass prairies turned to corn fields. What a shame it must have been for Lindbergh not to see the sky ahead, not to know where he was going, to see only the runway and the ocean below through a tiny glass on the side of his plane.

Then, I took a long walk around the museum. The Missouri History Museum is a ponderous edifice in Forest Park. A haze rose over the park. The sun, low to the horizon, gave the park the appearance of having a halo. I thought of Thomas Wolfe and the things he wrote about the park. He couldn’t go home again. I could hardly get started.

missouri forest parkI stared at the halo settling in over the park and realized that it wasn’t such a bad thing to come this far and sit alone in a hotel room. I didn’t regret coming to conference I would be on the fringes and outside of. I made the trip to St. Louis again and saw my beloved Missouri.

I never feel the pang of conscience when I spend the money and time to go to St Louis. It reminds me again where I live and the place I came from. I am a Missourian. That is plain to me. The fact of being a Missourian becomes more relevant to me as I grow older. I have traveled this country and Europe. I have spent time in the lower third of Canada. I felt a part of those places, particularly when I lived in Germany in the 1980s. But I have never been a part of them like I am a part of Missouri, and Missouri is a part of me.

Perhaps it is best that I make the trip from Kansas City to St. Louis from time to time, though I don’t need to. The highway doesn’t change, nor the countryside around it. Take away the family farms, which are mostly gone now anyway, and put factory farms on them. Fill them with hog and chicken and turkey factories. Mow the fields down and cut down all the trees. It will all still be Missouri. You can’t kill that.

The hotel room at the history conference

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hotel room

I love an empty hotel room. There’s nothing here to interfere with my thoughts. Nothing and no one to disturb me.

I don’t stay in hotels rooms much, maybe, once or twice a year. The air conditioner/heater hums like a saintly presence. It fills my mind with the soothing thrum that tells me I’m not home. That’s what’s important here. I’m not home.

I don’t get away from home much. The kid, the wife, and the dogs take up most of my time. When they aren’t around, writing and reading occupy the hours before they all need something from me. Evenings I walk the dogs. I watch a movie before I go to bed.

Life is like that these days. Easy. Comfortable. Predictable. Sometimes I pine for the old days when crises plagued me every day, it seemed. You get used to that sort of thing. When it’s gone for a while, well, you wonder, what’s next?

That’s where this history conference comes in. It’s what’s next. It’s all right. There’s not much exciting about history conferences. I suppose it’s a time for colleagues to get together and listen to new ideas. The historians get out of their lonely, isolated offices and away from other faculty. For me, it’s a time to leave home for a few days, take a little stock, and write something that’s completely unrelated to my other work.

I hear them out there, those historians yukking it up at the bar. They are a merry bunch. They will be there until 9 or 10, then they will go to their rooms and read books or watch television. Good for them. I think to myself, maybe I should go down to the bar and introduce myself. But, nah, I’m old now. I’ve become asocial in the last few years. I don’t go out. My acquaintances call every now and then. I have a regular brunch with my friend Stan. Gary meets me for coffee every now and then.

When I was younger, I feared a lonely death. I needed friends and would do just about anything to make sure I saw and was seen. I was never the popular kid but always dreamed of being popular. I moped when I had a Friday night alone. The phone’s silence drove me to the depths of despair.

At the same time, I suffered debilitating social anxiety. Meeting new people was the scariest thing in life. Walking into a room full of strangers was like falling into a snake pit. I compensated. I was loud and made jokes. I danced too much.

Social situations were always much better when someone, anyone talked to me first. But I’m sure that’s true for just about anyone. And, so, today I find the one person in the room who looks as needy as I do and talk to them about anything that strikes me.

I will let the conference sessions break the ice tomorrow. People will ask me about the details of my paper. They will congratulate me. They will provide reasons for introductions and conversations. Someone might even ask me to join them for drinks.

Tonight, it’s good enough not to have people need me or for me to have to do anything. The television isn’t too loud. The dogs aren’t barking. It’s just quiet but for the merry-makers out in the lobby, and even they will fade in a little while.

I sit in my room, channel surfing and feeling just about as all right as I ever feel. No dogs. No wife. No kid.

In my solitude, I contemplate hotel rooms. There’s not much difference between them. Some are nicer than others, and this one’s nice. No less than six pillows lie on the bed. An ante room has a nice dining-room table, some chairs, and a fine television. This room, the bedroom, is as big as my living room at home with twice the gravitas. A mirror stands behind my writing table.

My biggest decisions are these: How many pushups will I do to keep myself in shape for sleep tonight? Will I take another walk through downtown Omaha? Can I finish an essay that’s about really nothing at all? What can I watch on television that won’t make me feel like I’m wasting all my time?

I live a life of leisure.

Patrick Dobson, the exciting academic

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I’ve been busy–papers, presentations, writing–which explains the lack of posts recently.

At the beginning of the year, I had two public presentations on my mind. I worried, wrung my hands, and lost sleep. Finally, I gave the papers and felt a great sense of relief.

Johnson County Community College filmed one of the presentations, called “Changing the River’s Course: Water, Conservation and Reform in the Progressive Era,” in the Nerman Museum’s Hudson Auditorium.

See the presentation here. I hope you enjoy it.

Persistence is the heart of publishing

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Rainbow trout

I recently sent away a manuscript that’s been swimming around my computer files for years. I never thought anyone would be interested in publishing a book that starts as a travel narrative and wanders into fiction in a Trout Fishing in America meets Blue Highways sort of way.

I first started writing Trout Stories when I was working for a newspaper, PitchWeekly. I liked newspaper work. It did me well and kept my attention, mostly.

But there were moments when sitting at a desk drove me stir crazy. This is often the case when I get an office job, so it was no fault of the newspaper. I was the one who had lost my focus. So I wrote some stories between other work for the paper. I last worked for the paper in 2000, so you know how old the first drafts of this manuscript are.

Redband-Trout

Redband trout

Trout Stories started out as short stories, or what I thought were short stories. But nearly everything I write is based on experience, so these were autobiographical stories about some fish I knew. They slowly turned into memoirs of place and time. They grew from the initial and most fictional story to a group of more-or-less true accounts of fish caught and lost and the people who made me who I am today.

I just couldn’t imagine that anyone would be interested in such stories, and, besides, who publishes short stories anyway? I didn’t know. Those stories grew and changed over time. Every time I opened them, I changed their complexions a little. This went on for a decade and a half. I quit the newspaper. I edited books and earned a Ph.D. I published two other books.

brook trout

Brook trout

I had people read Trout Stories from time to time. This is the way readings like this go: I give them to so and so and say, I sure would like to hear what you think. I am not looking for compliments, nor am I looking for someone to wipe them out. I want measured critique; this is good, this isn’t. But the people I give these stories to don’t ever give me that sort of critque. They are just regular people, not writers. What I usually get goes along the lines, Well, they’re interesting.

A couple of months ago, I retrieved Trout Stories from the archive. I accidentally found them, really. I thought I lost them in the march from computer to computer, from software update to software update. This time, I was surprised to see them open in my new computer program. They were a jumble of run-on lines and strange breaks, but the words were there more or less in the order I wrote them.

Of course, I went through them again. I took time to iron out all the line and page breaks, the funny symbols and punctuation, and the paragraphing. When I started editing, I lengthened some of the stories, took out contrivances I’d used when I first wrote them, and corrected all the typographical errors I could find. (I’m sure there’s a lot left over.) I saved them and put them aside again, thinking, well, that’s it for now.

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Golden trout

Not long ago, I went to lunch with a friend of mine and told him about this odd little book and he wanted to read them. He’s a learned man, a scientist with a deep interest in literature and the humanities. At another lunch, I asked him about them.

“Why haven’t you published these?” he asked.

“Who’s going to publish such a strange collection of stories?”

“Someone,” he said. “They are good.”

I didn’t think that Trout Stories would fit into my present publisher’s catalog. It’s a university press, and though the press published my two travel memoirs, I was sure they wouldn’t touch Trout Stories.

cutthroat trout

Cutthroat trout

My friend suggested that I get an agent. Years ago, when I was editing books, I tried to find agents for my travel memoirs and for a novel I wrote (that really should stay in the computer, now that I’ve looked at it again). The result was heartache and nasty letters from people who said things like, there’s no market for this, this has already been done, and this kind of writing doesn’t have a place among modern nonfiction.

They were all wrong. I found a publisher on my own (something I don’t suggest, even if it worked for me) and the first memoir was successful. Not a million-seller but good enough to keep it in print for a while. The press will publish my second book in May.

So the day after I told my friend that I didn’t think anyone would take this little book, I queried an agent, then another. While I was doing this, I thought, hey, I’d better get a firm no from the press before I go any farther. I sent a query to my editor.

It turns out that my editor no longer acquires literary/creative material for the press. She sent my query on to another editor who wrote back the very next day and said she would love to see Trout Stories.

Imagine that.

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Brown trout

So, I have queries out to two agents, who will likely take some time getting back with me. If the press doesn’t take Trout Stories—there’s a vast difference between being interested in a book and actually deciding to publish a book—then I have some other feelers out there that may bring fruit. The best case is that the press does take the book and I have to tell the agents to piss off. The worst case is that the press tells me to piss off and I have to keep looking for agents.

The truth of the matter is that the book will find a home somewhere. After years of writing experience and having been an editor at a newspaper and a book editor, I know that the game goes to the person with the most stamina. If I have something decent, which Trout Stories is (at the very least), I just have to be persistent about getting it out there. I may have to weather a hundred rejections, but I know that if I keep it out there, it will be published.

My job now is to get to another book. I’m starting that project next week.

Production as pathology

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I set out today to write this essay. Writing as an art escapes me. Writing is a personal exercise at centering myself in this world and sating a desire to do something productive. I don’t write out of inspiration, though I am often inspired. Instead I write out obligation.

Lately, I have entered a creative lull. It seems that I have nothing to write about. I feel no creative motivation. The inner creative beast is asleep. Call it middle-age angst, the question of what I am doing and what I’ve become. What do I have, at the age of 52, to offer the world? Not much, it seems.

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Bruce Chatwin

That doesn’t stop me from feeling obligated to write something every day of the week. I am a writer and have always wanted to be writer. I think of things I want to write a hundred times a day. Only a few of them ever get to paper (or keyboard, if you wish). I go about my daily business and think, wow, that’s a great idea for a poem—or essay or short story or book. But these ideas get lost in the comings and goings of the day. I often reach home and sit in front of the keyboard and wonder, hey, where have all those good ideas gone? I can’t think of them. I have forgotten them and they wander forever in the space between desire and forgetting.

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Ralph Ellison

None of this blunts the sense of obligation that plagues me. The need to produce that I have taken from my upbringing and from society at large compels me to sit down and write. Nobody told me I had to write. Society does not demand that I write. This obligation that I feel as responsibility is something I have taken on myself. It was not given to me.

This, then, leads me to believe that this compulsion to produce comes from within. At the end of the day, I have to feel as if I have done something. Since I have no innate talents or skills, the only thing I can produce is writing. It’s what I was born for.

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Simon De Beuvoir

This need to produce is a sickness. I cannot sit and wonder, ponder, or contemplate. I am in a constant state of removing myself from the relationship I have with myself. I don’t want to see inside and, therefore, I have to have something to show. These little essays are what I can show, even if I have not written anything of meaning or significance.

I used to think in lofty terms about writing, art, and literature. Now I think of it as discipline. If I sit in front of a computer long enough, I will write something, anything. I have often sat in front of the computer for hours, just looking at the blank screen. I check E-mails. I surf the internet. I get a drink, eat, nap. But I am always attached to the keyboard. I will write. What’s left to question is what I will write and when.

Literature. Personalities. pic: circa 1940's. British author George Orwell, (1903-1950) among his many books were "Ninteen Eighty Four" and Animal Farm".

George Orwell

I realize this doesn’t sound profound, but I have never thought of myself as profound, even if I always wanted to be profound. I see writers around me write significant works. They say things that mean something to someone. I don’t have anything to tell anyone. I have to write and when I have nothing to write about, I write about myself. I firmly believe that when writers run into a wall and find that they don’t have anything to say, they write about themselves. This makes my writing trivial, not worthy of consideration.

damon runyon

Damon Runyon

This speaks to my belief that I will never compete. It’s not that I don’t want to. I want to publish. I want to work through legitimate publishers to bring my work to light. Vanity publishing, blogging, and reading at free events make for a lot of words floating out there in space. We have an internet that gives us the world on a computer, or allegedly does that. I’ve found that the internet just gives us a lot of facts and opinions loosed from context. It creates the illusion that every thought has legitimacy, every word meaning. But not every thought has meaning. Not every opinion is informed. An idea should have to work hard to get into the public. When it doesn’t, it produces a situation in which every thinker is a baby and every writer unable to deal with the exigencies of filters. A thought that doesn’t have to work produces laziness.

This is certainly the case with me. I didn’t have to do anything to get this thought out to the public but put words on paper. I have a forum and I use it, but because getting the word out into the public is so easy, I have not worked to refine. I didn’t contemplate. I sat in front of a computer. Words came out. I entered those words on my blog. You read them or not. They are out there, floating among all the other meaningless drivel that self-important people produce. The thought, then, is nothing. It makes no difference. It changes nothing.

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Anais Nin

I think of truly great writers. Maugham, Hemingway, Orwell—who wrote what I consider to be the best of all memoirs in Down and Out in Paris and London—worked hard to get their words into the public. They struggled against great odds. They found themselves rejected again and again. The filters—editors, publishers, a discriminating public—made them think, refine, contemplate. The struggle created works of great depth and meaning. With the internet, nothing is rejected. Few things rise to the top. Speculation and sensational sell. But they bring us nothing new and different. We don’t have a new aesthetic. My generation has produce little very new.

Regardless, I sit here every day. My production of two or three essays a week, and sometimes one every day, does a great deal of good for me, even if what I write does nothing for anyone else. Writing is a selfish endeavor and may do more harm to me and the public than if I didn’t write anything. The discipline that forms around writing makes for a lot of practice.

In the outside chance that I find a meaty subject that will have meaning and import, I’m ready.

 

The caterpillar

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Colors penetrate the buttery, grainy scenes. The reds are too red, blues iridescent, and greens as deep as rivers. For decades now, the memory has flickered and made me feel lonely the same way television light in house windows at night do.

My cowboy chaps, hat, and vest made me sweat. I sought relief as I laid atop the dusty blow-up pool that no longer held air. The plastic was hot in the sun and I put face to the grass. The caterpillar crawled out onto a blade. The ground smelled of earthworms and house dust. Beyond the caterpillar, the leaves on the apple trees drooped a little and the silver maples turned green and gray in the hot breeze. Above, the clothes and white sheets on the line rose and flipped.

Curious, I tilted up on an elbow, pulled my six-gun out from beneath me, and poked the caterpillar inching along. It reared up and continued along my finger. It was soft, like a thread of yarn.

Picking the young insect up between thumb and forefinger, I found it was cool as the grass. I rolled onto both elbows in my flattened pool and watched it writhe in the air. The sweat beaded on my forward and ran a drip into my eyebrow. I grasped the caterpillar in my fingers and pulled it apart. Its milky, yellow insides oozed from under the greenish skin. For a second I wondered if it felt pain or if it had even died.

Pain meant something then, physical, harsh. It tasted like electricity. But I was as distant from the caterpillar as the moon. My fascination with the young insect removed me from my sister and brother playing in the yard by the fence. Time stopped. The world froze in space.

My mom leaned out the back window of our tiny house.

“What did you just do?” she yelled.

I came to and ditched the two wriggling pieces. I rubbed my fingers in the grass.

“He killed the caterpillar,” my sister said. She’d been watching as my mother had. In my trance, I hadn’t noticed that my sister had stopped playing and moved in close. “He pulled it apart.”

“Dammit, Patrick, that’s cruel,” my mother said as she disappeared from the window. She rushed out the back door and across the yard. I felt shame and fear.

“I didn’t do anything,” I said.

“Show me,” she said as she rushed up. “Show me where you put it.”

Without thinking I looked to where I rubbed the caterpillar into the ground. As with all small things dropped into grass, it disappeared.

“Don’t lie to me,” she said. She was angry, her face twisted and sharp.

I tasted electricity.

I don’t remember the caterpillar every day, but often, and every time I cringe. The memory is vivid not because of the violence that followed my bug’s death but because my mother had dinner ready. I don’t recall the ritual washing of hands or the sounds of my sister and brother fumbling up into their chairs. After the current running through my mouth, I next recollect sitting at the Formica dinner table, my sister and brother watching at me. We prayed. My father knifed into his round steak.

His gaze cut through me. “Eat,” he said. “And don’t ever do that again. It’s cruel.”

I didn’t know what cruel meant. But I knew that steak once wandered in a field that spread out from a white house and a red barn. Chickens scratched in the yard and a pig oinked in a muddy pen. The smiling farmer wore overalls and held a pitchfork. The cow sat on my plate next to the creamed corn and mushed up potato. Its muscles smelled and, I knew, tasted good.

A caterpillar torn in two.

I was four years old.

 

I don’t eat animals anymore. It’s due only in part to a caterpillar four and some decades hence. That incident was one in a lifetime of cruel moments. The collection sits by itself, filed away in my head like dead documents in a cave. Until now, I’ve left them in the dark. But their presence troubles me. I’ve thrown them out a thousand times. They won’t go away. I’ve ignored them and denied their existence. In doing so, I’ve only moved them to a different part of the cave. The rent for them now taxes my ability to pay for other things. At some point they need to come out into the light. I need the energy for other things. If I expose the memories to the light of day, inventory them somehow, I think, they will shrink, dry up, and become harmless ashes in the corners of my mind.

The lottery

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I hoped the day would remain overcast. A winter day with a clear blue sky set my teeth on edge and built a peculiar tension that only abated with the return of night or of clouds and freezing rain and snow. If the sky cleared and I began to get down, work would help. The adrenalin and repetitive, hard labor always soothed the agitated soul and quieted the fitful mind. With a clear head and steady heart, however, labor’s balms get right to the spiritual mark. Best not to have to cut through the silly irritations of maladjustment.

The wind was bearing down from the north. The previous days’ melt had turned the construction site into a gumpy mess. Now the night’s cold had gray dayfrozen the deep, ribbed tracks of the backhoes and lifts into rock-hard ditches and troughs. My truck jerked across them to the parking area, a plot of dirt barren but for the yellow and orange machines and stacks of cinder block and brick. After bouncing to a stop, I turned off the engine, taking in a moment the sudden stillness and quiet. Deeply scored bare dirt spread out past the site to the edge of pasture land, which met the dark sky. I asked the first man I could find, an electrician, where the ironworkers were.

“Why, where they’re supposed to be,” he said.

“Point me,” I said with something of a smile. Ironworkers could be anywhere on a job, placing and tying rebar for concrete, installing fencing, interiors, and handrails, or on the ground, in the air, or in between, erecting steel. I only knew that the union hall had sent me to join a structural crew.

“Up there,” he said with a smile, jerking a finger over his shoulder. “On the roof.”

This was my first job on the structural side of the trade. I was nervous, as I was every time I ventured into unfamiliar territory. A few months earlier, I had started with the ironworkers union on a bridge deck carrying and tying tons and tons of rebar. At 45, I was one of the oldest men on that job, and certainly the oldest apprentice. The work was the toughest I’ve ever done in a life of labor, of working for other people.

I heaved and carried bar with twenty years olds. I bent over and tied, albeit slowly, when I wasn’t schlepping piles of forty and sixty foot rebar with other men. The morning break was too short, as was lunch.
At the end of the day, I couldn’t walk.ironworker My arms, legs, shoulders, and hands felt like jabs of electricity and, more disturbing, the small of my back was numb to the touch. I decided I would be back, despite the pain—or because of it. It took a week before I felt like a regular, but sore, human being. Two weeks later my legs and arms stopped feeling like Reddy Killowatt’s lightning-bolt appendages. The feeling in my back returned after a month.

That first job introduced me to work I liked. After the pain subsided, I found the work liked me. The day was much like an eight- to ten-hour workout that ripped me with fatigue. But sleep was good. In a short time, it became restorative. I woke mornings fresh and ready to get back to the job. The other ironworkers were interesting and friendly. hardhatThe company was black-owned and many of the workers were urban men—black, Hispanic, immigrant, and white. They were, overall, a rough-cut lot, more intimate with the workings of steel than their insides or polite society. They spoke a familiar language I understood in all its nuances. Its cadences were comfortable and its meanings open and accessible. Most of the men were friendly, even jovial. The banter on the deck, the kinds of taunts and jokes, were impersonal, funny, and often hilarious. It more often had to do with the work and the way people adapted to it than who was fucking whom, who was weaker than someone else, and who was unworthy of respect.

I was on the deck for a week, listening to the banter, learning to tie wire. We were working in a group, moving slowly down the deck, the sea of green-epoxied rebar turning from a rough grid in front of us into solid symmetry behind after we passed over it. The afternoon was warm but with a wind. Everyone was feeling good, even if they were wearing down.

“Man, I want to win that lottery,” said Miguel, a man who had joined the union after working for cash for many years. He was bent over next to me. “If I win that lottery, I will by my wife a house and bring my family from Mexico.”

cashJesse worked next to him. He impressed me. He was a nice guy who labored like a beast, seemingly immune to the pain the rest of us felt.

“Lottery, man,” he said. “I’d buy an island, or a piece of land on an island, you know. Buy a good skiff, you know what a skiff looks like?”

“What’s a skiff?” Miguel said.

The foreman, Barry, who had been overseeing work farther down the bridge joined us.

“It’s a boat, you know,” said Jesse, “like a row boat, only a little bigger.”

“You would fish?”

“Yah, fish. But nothing like work. Just fish to be fishing. I’d sit in a chair every night and watch the sun set. In the quiet. Just sit there.”

Some of the other workers stood and chattered about their lottery winnings. I could see Barry looking at them from underneath his hard hat.

“You guys are nuts,” said Dexter, a man from the city who was glad to be an ironworker after a life of drug dealing and prison. His arms were huge, his skin the color of dark bronze. He, too, was a good man. “Families. Sitting. Shit. I’d buy a fine car, a big house, and a big screen TV. Have a swimming pool, sauna, and hot tub.”

Another man, Jerry, who was even newer than me on the job, piped up. He was as slow as I was, loud, and good humored. “I’d carry a wad in my pocket,” he said. ‘And if anyone ever told me to do anything, anything at all, I’d pullout my roll, look at it, and tell them to fuck off. Fuck-you money. That’s what the lottery’d be for me. Fuck-you money.”

Barry stood up, all six and a half feet of him. “Man fuck all ya all,” he said, his baritone voice rolling down the bridge. “If any of you losers won the lottery, you’d smoke it up in crack.”

A roar of laughter rose from the group. “Now get your asses back to work and make the money you’re gonna drink up this weekend.”

construction

Penance

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My life has been an unending and conflicting struggle to find my place and, at the same time, to keep from getting stuck. For many years, I thought that my discomfort at one job or another, or in one relationship or another, came from a deep flaw, something seriously wrong. But looking back, I understand the anxiety that arose from familiarity was less fear of intimacy with tasks and people than it has been a way forward. It has tempered the expectations I inherited from my parents. In the grips of this anxiety, of which I have yet to be cured, I have been uncomfortable, even unhappy. But this discomfort impelled me into new experience that, in its own way, has produced happiness and fear, contentment and anxiety, love and resentment worth any temporary distress.

big chief

Hurdling the void between my physical and mental universes has driven me to move from student to viticulturist to furniture mover to journalist to house painter re-habber to ironworker, and, finally, to historian (and ironworker). Between and during these extremes, I returned to the pursuit embodied in a story I scrawled in a Big Chief Tablet when I was in the second grade. On those yellow pages, I wrote and illustrated a story about Secret Service agents—no doubt influenced by a television movie or series that I no longer remember. Of those pages I remember a child’s printed letters at the top of each page, extending down five or six lines, with an illustration below of the action in the text. The pictures were two-dimensional, profiles of white and black men in suits carrying and shooting guns at bad guys, appropriately ragtag and ugly. I showed the story to my teacher, a young woman with frighteningly bad complexion, Miss Gilbert. Handing over the Big Chief, I was proud and ready to accept praise for my writing ambitions. She, however, was appalled. Where I saw the complexity of story and human interaction—for as much as a second grader can understand such things—she saw a young mind obsessed with guns, crime, and violence. Plus, according to Miss Gilbert, I’d drawn negroes, which was somehow wrong. She took that Big Chief and called in my parents, who, similarly astounded at the incandescence of my tale of guns and woe, ripped the story to shreds at Miss Gilbert’s desk and assured me the rest of my life with them that I would never be a writer. The competition was too stiff, they said. There was no money in it. It was an occupation unworthy of a good Catholic who should spend his time learning American patriotism and getting a good job.

Being born to my parents was not a choice I made for myself. Accident. Love. Attraction. Necessity. Obsession with legacy. These are reasons, or perhaps excuses, behind my coming into human life. Certainly, these were burdens my parents bore—and their parents before them in an exponential summation that shrinks to the hominids who first peered over the grass and picked up their babies and their fruit and walked to where they believed their fortunes were better. We are all stuck with what we get and have only unrefined ores from which to found a life. We all carry human emotions, obsessions, and compulsions. If my face revealed those that come to my surface in the course of a day, as I went to the grocery store or out to dinner, they would make me look and seem as monstrous to others of my species as I am to myself.

failure

I am sure, now, that joining my disparate selves will be my salvation. Building bridges is an exercise turning the void between them into the space where I will find peace. I grasp that work and will do my best or worse in it. That is enough. I seek neither ceaseless happiness nor eternal damnation. I search for redemption.

penitent

The Penitent, Albrecht Duerer

Still, I fear the joy and anguish of the salvation I seek. In delaying confronting this fear, I increase the chances of a blind leap into my life’s dream. When I labor for others, for money, for approval, I deprive myself spiritual but very human nourishment. I sever myself from the soothing graces of my species in all their individual and collective ugliness and beauty. I force myself to believe in uniqueness of my lot, and in doing so, keep myself in exile, seeking not the comfort of others but the absence of them. Intellectual and physical labor are the metaphorical switches with which I beat myself, always with the understanding that if it’s not for an act of commission or omission, then it is for a lie, an excess, a good feeling or enjoyable day sometime in the past. For my indiscretions and misdemeanors—the desire to write, to create, to disappear under a stone among stones written with so many names and dates they become parodies of the individualism they are supposed to represent—I need not be arrested and fined by higher spiritual or human authorities. I take care of the job well enough alone.

The bane of the holidays

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The Christmas break is the longest, least pleasant pauses in the school year. I am not a party-pooper or one who bah-humbugs the season away. People can only blame me for generosity and good will, at this or any other time of the year.
Break is long because I am finally motivated to do something creative and can do none of it. A peasant work ethic infuses my being. Part of me says that life is work and work is life. Another, more cerebral part of me considers work and productivity nonsense. Since just about anything to do with me occurs in polar opposites, it’s natural that the grasshopper and the ant inhabit the same body, mind, and spirit.
Many of my letter recently concern lack of motivation. I suffer from that inertia plenty. But, now, as I work it out in word, I see that inertia is only part of the problem. I have a family. Family deserves attention. I am not disciplined with my time, or I’m not right now. Since I am not disciplined, my family is not disciplined. This is my fault. Without clear lines that signal when I am creating and when I am not, they cannot possibly understand when I am working and when I am not.
Then there’s all the other distractions. Dogs need walking. They need food. The fish tank’s dirty. Leaves clog the gutters. Thick oil slicks, from when the truck was leaking, cover the driveway. My wooden sculpture of the Pioneer Woman rots away. Pioneer Woman’s head and throat fall away from her upper body. We will have to burn her soon. The iron pink flamingos I bought from Auggie three years ago need paint.
You see what I’m saying? All these necessities and desires distract me from accomplishing any work when my family’s not bugging me.
James Joyce
I wonder how Joyce did it. He wrote Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and The Dubliners while drinking his way through Europe and working mind-numbing jobs. Mehlville was a customs inspector. Wallace Stevens worked as an insurance clerk and went on to head the Hartford Insurance Company. Neihardt wrote endless pieces of literary criticism while penning his life’s work, Cycle of the West. Bukowski wrote thousands of poems and his novels while he worked at the post office and stayed drunk all the time.
I do not pretend that I have the talent or drive of these giants. I am not an innovator. I write and love to write. I do what I can. When I don’t have the time, I am full of inspiration. When I have the time, I’m too worn out, don’t have the creative spark, or lack enough motivation to write anything.
Charles Bukowski
Before school let out this semester, I dreamed of writing tomes during my free time. But it was an awful semester—uninspired students, endless lectures where I spoke to the dead, and grading that became burdensome and tedious due to the students lack of ability or incentive to study. When the semester ended, I had one good week of essay writing. I think I finished five decent 1,000-word essays during that week. Then, kid had his Christmas break. He is of the age when he still looks to me to fill his time. We did what we could—played golf, took hikes, walked the dogs, did things around the house. After a while, you run out of things you really want to do and are left with the things you don’t want to do and can put off for an indefinite period of time. But then, the kid is still sitting there asking, “What are we going to do today?”
He wanted to build things, which meant he wanted close heart-to-heart contact with me. I didn’t want that. I don’t know that I’m capable of that kind of contact for very long or able to have that very deeply. Poor kid. I felt like a cad, sitting here trying to do things on the computer while he pined away. He satisfied himself with watching endless videos and playing computer games, which only deepened my guilt and feelings of remorse.
So, yeah, I feel like a crappy father. The break has been something of a disaster.
But wait. As I say that, I realize just how much we did. I’m not the bad guy I want to make myself out to be. Some of this feeling of uselessness comes out of my inability to satisfy the ant while I’m being the grasshopper, and vice versa. I live in a world of my own making. Every night comes the resolve to make the morrow different. I will do something with the kid, something more than we’ve been doing. I will do more creative work. I will do those pushups I keep thinking I need to do. Etc.
What it comes down to is this: I’ve gotten myself into a rut that only I can get out of. I seek the satisfactions of career and fame without wanting to do the things that bring them. On the other hand, I don’t want a career. Talk about getting into a rut. The only career I want is that of a writer. I don’t want fame but I’d kill to win the writer’s lottery—best-selling book, movie rights, interviews on radio and television. I want what writers Joyce, Mehlville, and Bukowski achieved, even if some of them didn’t get it until after they were dead. I want, more than anything, to have the drive and purpose that these and other writers had when they worked those shitty jobs, kept their good home lives (when they had them, I mean, no one can argue that Joyce or Bukowski had great home lives), and wrote, wrote, wrote.

Maybe tomorrow. Certainly not today. I have to take a nap.