She’s giving it away and I like it

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My wife’s a real dream when it comes to giving our money away, and she gives a lot.

financesThrough the early years of our marriage, I used to pay all the bills for the house. At the end of every month, I listed the bills on the back of an envelope and put the totals of the cost of those bills in a column next to them. Then, I wrote the checks to mail them and put the receipts in the envelope. At the end of paying bills, I would write a couple of checks to charities I favored.

At the time, Virginia’s spending upset me. I figured she had no idea how much money she was laying out every month for groceries, household necessities, and myriad other things she bought on whim. We had a couple of good rows about it. Finally, I thought I hit on a solution. Why don’t you pay bills for a few months so you can get acquainted with just how much money you’re are devoting to the purchase of food, clothing, and other items that we really don’t need?

At the time, she did a lot of shopping at Costco. She would go to the store and spend upwards of $200 every week, or so it seemed, for food that would only last us a couple of days. Add what I considered unneeded items—key racks, filing boxes, new pots and pans, etc.—I really thought she was putting us in an awkward situation.

We come from two different place when it comes to finances. Things for the house, high-end and bulk food, new items to replace those we have are important to her. I am less of a material guy. I shop at the Aldi and go to the grocery store to fill in produce. When I go to the store, we get ten or twelve days’ worth of food for just a fraction of the cost of the big-bulk items from the Costco. My attitude is that if it still works, we ought not by a new one. If putting on a sweater will work, why buy a space heater?

I admit to contradictory impulses. I am not a spendthrift and will give my money away to whomever asks. My donations of our money showed my generosity. But when it came to material goods, I see our retirement flying out the door. Less stuff, more money for when we don’t want to work anymore.

In other words, Virginia loves things. She likes to have a house well-stocked with blankets, afghans, furniture, lamps, and decorations. I would prefer an empty room with a simple stand for the television and a futon to sit on. My idea of a beautiful house borders on the Spartan. I could live in Philip Johnson’s Glass House, where Virginia would prefer the Biltmore mansion.

Costco’s gotcha. They sell large amounts of lots of stuff. When you get 48 rolls of toilet paper cheap, you have the feeling that you have all this toilet paper and it doesn’t cost much. You use it twice as fast, after all, there’s enough to go around and around. In the end, you spend as much on toilet paper at the Costco as you would buying it at the grocery store because your use of it justifies the amount. When you buy little bits, you use little bits. You are more economical. The illusion of Costco is that you’re saving money, but that is only the case if you are judicious and frugal. Buying at the grocery store just makes more sense if you’re looking to save money in the long term.

Like everyone else, we bought a Costco membership when the store opened up in Midtown. The lure of lower priced goods got us. But I noticed right away that our grocery bill climbed to what I thought was an outrageous amount after we started shopping at the Costco. I smelled the scheme right away. Buy two gallons of ice cream on the cheap and you eat ice cream like you have it on the cheap. Our midriffs were growing in proportion to the amount of shopping we did at Costco.

So, I devised a scheme. I compared shopping bills between the way I spent the money and how long it lasted us in the house and the way she bought groceries. The difference startled even me. But it wasn’t good enough for Virginia. She found all sorts of flaws in the comparisons. She justified Costco over Aldi and the grocery store.

I had to change my strategy. I thought since she didn’t know or understand how much she spent every month, I said to her after one of our scuff-ups that she should pay the bills and get a sense of how much money went out of the house. I showed her the way I did it.

She took over and never batted an eye. She didn’t modify the way she spent money or rethink her approach to material things. But I left the bills to her. Let her deal with the weight. I never asked her to see the credit card or utility bills. I thought, well, she’ll learn.

But she didn’t. She still pays the bills and hangs on to that responsibility jealously. I don’t worry about the retirement. I just accept, for the most part and almost always reluctantly, when new and seemingly unnecessary items come through the front door. Who needs a therapy light? What good is a new desktop organizer when the one we bought last year works just fine? What do we need with a five-pound jar of mixed nuts? We’ll just put them right on our thighs.

Then comes tax time, and that’s when I admire my wife most. We sit down across the table from one another with the envelopes that we’ve written down our expenditures on. We go through them together. She reads the charitable donations she made every month. The total for the year always surprises me. It’s almost always at least 15 percent of the gross. It’s never been less than ten percent. It’s much more than I would have given, since I’m so money conscious about retirement.

Last year, when we listed all the charitable donations, I started to cry. This woman, who drives me crazy with the stuff she brings home from the store, gives so much of our money away. It’s right. It makes me feel good to be married to such a generous woman.

Before the light comes

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January delivers. The dark. The cold.

snowy nightI’m glad it’s here, finally. I’ve been waiting all winter for just this kind of night, when the snow blows into the cat’s eyes and makes it turn toward the door.

The streetlights throw beams through the snow and all is quiet, hushed. The houses look warm, their windows yellow and dim against the darkness. Beyond the blinds and curtains, the people watch television, read books, play games. For most people, it’s a night for the indoors.

The shortest day of the year is already a month past. I lay awake that night wanting to savor all of it, all the darkness I could possibly absorb. It’s a precious thing, something I appreciate. I didn’t mind the sleeplessness or what it would do for me the next day. The important thing was that I was awake for the night and felt every minute of it.

When I was in Wyoming in the early 1990s, I was a scared, insecure grad student. I used to walk the town streets at night to vent the pressure I put myself under. I remember one winter solstice, I put on my cross country skis at about 9 p.m. and took off behind the fence of the house I was living in at the time. I skied out across the sagebrush plains and up to the foothills of the Laramies. After about an hour and a half, I turned around to look down on Laramie. It glowed underneath a prefect sky. I was far enough out of town to see the Milky Way wend its way across the sky.

I never felt so fine. My face hurt and my fingers, despite the work of skiing, were like icicles. I after a long time, I headed back into the wind coming out of the west and arrived home after everyone else had gone to bed. I didn’t turn on the lights but navigated by the clocks on the oven and microwave, by the little vampire eyes on various electronic things plugged in around the house. Sitting in the living room listened to the wind-up wall clock and thought that every night needed to be one in which I felt calm and steady. When I went up to bed, I stopped on the stair and heard my roommates snoring, each in their turn. I had the feeling that things would never be like this again.

They have and they haven’t. I mark every winter solstice with some regret. The nights grow longer for six months. At first, it’s not noticeable. Then in August, suddenly, we become aware that the days are shorter. When we change the clocks in October or November, night become synonymous with evening. School’s hardly out when the darkness descends. When we get off work at 5, night comes upon us almost before we get home.

When I canoed down the Missouri River in the summer of 1995, I set my boat on the water on the 15th of July. By the beginning of September, my day paddling ended too soon. There wasn’t enough day to soak up all that water. But the nights were pure. A fire and a cheap smoke made the darkness comfortable. I sat up as late as I could to hear the night sounds of the river, the way the water runs against the rocks, the beaver slaps its tail on the water to make me go away, a carp runs up close to shore.

It was over all too quickly. My days on the river made the nights short. The physical work and the necessities of travel put me in bed early, about two hours or so after dark. I didn’t lay awake much. Once in that sleeping bag, I was off to dreamland. But the time I had, just me and my fire in the night, I can never forget.

Nor can I forget nights in the mountains. There’s something luminous about night in the mountains. The light of stars, perhaps, or just the way my eyes adjust to the dark let me take walks along roads through the national forest. Then, alone and without a flashlight, I could hear the mountain lions roar and the porcupines snuffle in the pine duff and the low willows along the rivers.

Night in the mountains yawns. The quiet isn’t so much the lack of sound as the presence of it. I feel the wind in the pines and the rushing of the creek. There is life in the night. It’s not just the porcupines or mountain lions. Perhaps at night I could also hear the trees grow.

I’ve spent my whole year getting to the shortest day of the year and then, that’s it, it’s gone. My friends and family don’t notice the dark. When they do, they complain of the dimness of the days or how short the day is. They don’t revel in the twilight that is a winter day, a day like today.

When I was younger, I lived for the snow. I woke in the morning early, praying that the school would call the day off so I could lose myself in the snow. I loved everything about it: the cold, the hot burn of my face when I came in from playing, the hot chocolate, and tingling fingertips and toes. Year after year until I was well into my teens, I wished everyday could be a snow day and that the endless hill behind our house would keep from melting until I was too tired to carry my sled up it.

Even in my teens, I loved the cold and dark. My boyhood home was not in what we now call a walkable neighborhood. There were no sidewalks, and when I walked, I had to walk right up against the street. We lived along a busy main road. Cars coming at me were menacing. But when I’d get around the corner, onto the side streets, things quieted and I could listen to my breathing in time with my footsteps. Streetlights lighted the way but I could feel the night, a winter night, when I was alone and happy.

When I walk my dogs, I walk at night almost all the time. In winter, I get to walk earlier in the evening than I do in the spring and summer. At that time, people act differently than later in the day. They walk their dogs when I do. They are still at the restaurants around the corner. The city has yet to close down, even if the darkness has descended upon it.

Already, I feel the light advancing. I try to stay present and not to think of the lengthening of the day. My nerves are not sensitive and I don’t have a problem receiving information. I feel at ease. The bustle of traffic does not bother me. I can still tolerate the television that keeps my family entertained.

These days are passing. Soon enough, the day will overcome the night. I dread that time of year. In the past, I’ve felt my nerves get raw. I become restless and feel stress at the slightest pressure. My mood turns sour. Getting out of bed in the morning take pure strength of will.

But we are not there yet. Tonight is a brilliant night, covered with snow and sharp with the cold. It’s a night for walking, taking in the city, and absorbing the darkness.

Getting a haircut and feeling the miracle

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Now that I’m back rewriting my book, I find that my most important work every day is putting a few sentences together.

On Monday, Jan. 4, I started my new writing discipline. I did well the first day. Then, I got sick with a terrible cold.

barberThis is what I’d planned before I got sick: I force myself out of bed in the morning at a decent hour and sit right down to the work with a cup of tea. Previously, my routine included reading the newspaper, which took at least an hour and put my head out of commission for writing. I found that if I get right to it, I have at least four hours of writing time before my mind begins to wander and my eyes begin to droop.

After four hours, or around noon, I take up a book or go to an AA meeting. After about an hour with a book or a meeting, I take a nap. I’ve taken a nap every day for years and things just don’t seem complete without it. A nap separates the morning from the rest of the day. It gives me the energy to face what awaits me. (I married my wife, in part, because she was the first woman who didn’t worry me over taking a nap every day.)

I go to the gym for an hour in the afternoon. It’s something I hate. I don’t like standing on a trainer for a half hour and lifting weights bores me. But I do it. It’s something that comes with age. Inertia. Getting the body moving by exerting psychic force. Once in motion, it stays in motion until acted on by another force. The clock runs out. Entropy sets in. The body comes to a halt and I walk home.

For a few days last week, I slept until noon. The illness paralyzed me and I couldn’t write or get anything done around the house. I’m on the hook for walking the dogs every day, and a couple of days last week, the best the dogs got was a simple saunter around the block. This isn’t enough. Both these dogs have energy and get keyed up if they don’t get out for a good two to four miles every evening.

This week was better for me. I went through my morning routine but had social engagements every noon. This is the last week before school starts. This semester, I teach every day at the noon hour, and I won’t be able to see friends I usually have lunch with until May.

This meant that I cut my writing time short. But the new discipline worked. The important part of the process happens in the morning. If I get right to the work, work gets done, even if my time is limited.

I’ve been able to make quite good progress on my book and another writing project I have, even if I have only been able to give it a few hours a day. The miracle probably won’t happen every day as it has over the last few days. I will sit down to the computer sometimes for four hours and stare at it. I will waste time and energy. I will bang my head against the wall.

But if I sit there, I will get something done. It’s like the old saying, “Hang around a barbershop long enough and you’ll get a haircut.” If I sit in front of my computer long enough, I will get something written.

And that’s the most important part. There is something beautiful and pure about sitting down to an empty piece of paper, or, in the modern case, an empty computer screen. I get excited. I feel a sense of adventure. What’s going to happen? Who knows and who cares. Something will happen.

In many ways, that’s why I sit down to write. I want to see what happens. Every time, it’s different. It never goes the way I want it. There’s a cut-off between what’s in my mind and what winds up on the paper. More important than my own frustration is the interaction between me and the paper. I am not as talented as I need to be in order to make what’s in my head come out on the paper. But a relationship arises between what I want to say and what I’m able to write. In some ways, I settle for what makes it to the paper. But I am talented enough to shape and form it to something I can accept and, sometimes, even be proud of.

Another aspect of this is that I often don’t know what I want to write. The writing becomes a process of self-discovery. What is it that I want to say? Sometimes, like tonight, I sit down to write just because I haven’t had enough. I wrote this morning for about three hours. But late in the day, I find myself with time on my hands. I’m sitting here watching television. I like watching television, but sometimes it makes me feel like I’m wasting time. I only have so many hours left. I don’t want to waste any.

I think I’m lucky. If I knew all the time exactly what I wanted to write, I’d be a much different writer. The interplay between paper, need, longing, wanting to live all result in an essay just like this.

I worry tonight if I’m repeating myself. I’ve written about writing enough lately and I ought to find something more interesting than my writing process. But that is what I have for now. I had an hour, an empty computer screen, and a sense of longing. I wanted to say at the end of the day that I did something. I put those sentences together. I did the most important work of my life.

Tomorrow, I have the day free. That is, I have nothing and no one to answer to. The discipline kicks in and I get to live it to the fullest. Get up. Get to the work. See what happens.

 

The good of discipline and the writing that comes from it

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pen-and-paperI took back part of my life today. I don’t know if I will have it tomorrow but for the moment it doesn’t matter. I did something good today, something that made me feel good in a way I haven’t felt in a long time.

What I did was simple. I forced myself out of bed at 7:45, and by 8 a.m., I was sitting at my computer contemplating my book for the first time in six months. During that time, the book had become a scary monster. This happens to me all the time. I start something and have to step away from it. While I’m away, it becomes something else, a thing that inspires fear and self-loathing. It keeps me up at night and I dread opening it up again, afraid of what I might find.

Then the questions begin. What happens if I can’t finish? If it’s irrelevant? What happens if it turns out to be a dud? Maybe I’ve already done my best work. I mean, that last book was a good one. What happens if I can’t top it? Will people like it? What happens if they don’t?

These kinds of questions make no sense, of course. A book is what I put into it day to day. The end comes of itself. I won’t have to worry or fret about the course of the writing if I get up every day and write.

And that’s what I did this morning. I wrote. I first read what I had and considered the text. Does this say what I want? I’m dealing with a draft and a draft is not a book. It’s not even a manuscript. It’s just a pile of words. My job is to organize that pile into a story. To do that, I must find the themes, structure, and story arc. They are all in there somewhere. I just have to find them. That’s what the rewriting of a draft, the sculpting of a draft into a book is all about.

I was surprised when I opened that introduction. In my mind it had become a jokey, frivolous and confused collection of ideas. In reality, it shows a man taking off on a journey with his family. The journey will be one of self-discovery, the contemplation of friendships, and the development of a human being from what he was in his past. All the elements are there. They just need an even tone and sensible story line. The voice is unique but the experiences must connect with a wider audience, which they will.

Which leads me to another aspect of the rewriting: Soon after I opened the file and read what I had, the notion of audience left me. I wasn’t writing for an imaginary public. Instead, I was writing—an act so pure and focused that audience and the doubts I had about my work disappeared. I was alone in that near perfect space where creative impulse and confidence meet.

The hours disappeared one after the other until toward the end of the time I set for myself (four hours) came to a close. It was then that I wrapped my hands around my head and asked myself, is this saying what I want it to say? Does this get the point across? Is the sculpture what I want it to be?

I set the computer aside and went off to take a nap. As I lay on the bed, thoughts shot across the expanse of my mind. Maybe I need to make clearer that this book is about friendships and their meanings, their evolutions over time. Will this idea or that fit into the intro? What about the writing? Is it as smooth and clear as I want it to be?

I went over these things, thinking I will change this or alter that. I want to add this idea and it fits in this section. Slowly, the draft was rewriting itself. Those things that I thought about today will come back to me tomorrow when I open up my piece and begin the process again.

And the point is to continue to start the process and let it run every day. Things will get in the way. Already, tomorrow I have an appointment at 11:30 and then another at 12:30. I will start again at 8 a.m. and work until the last possible second, when I will have to gather my things and run out the door. But I like it this way. I like the urgency of the moment, both of writing and of ending the process. I won’t want to give up writing when I have to but I will. But that ending is as much a part of the discipline of writing as sitting down to it.

That discipline is important, both the act of sitting down and sticking to it until I have to stand up again. It worked today. It will probably work tomorrow. There will be days when I can’t get to it. Family or school or doctors’ appointments will get in the way. I have another project that I have to work on. But if I can sit down to the work—of both the book and the other project—every day for three to four hours, if not more if I can sneak it in, then I will accomplish my tasks before I know it.

Today was a good day and one I treasure in this moment. Who knows if every day will be like today. My experience tells me that there will be days when I stare at the computer screen for four hours, when nothing, not even the tiniest dribble, will come. I will be tired sometimes. The questions will return. I will get bogged down in my own self-doubt.

But my experience also tells me that if I sit down at an appointed time and work for a set number of hours, I will birth a book. I will get good writing done. I will, with determination, succeed in the tasks I’ve set before myself.

There will be good days and bad. But the discipline, if I can stick to it, will outlast the doubt and fear. It will be the key to getting this draft turned into a book.

Relationships with kids–like father, unlike son

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There’s nothing in my life at the moment I treasure more than the relationships I have with my kids. My daughter, now 24, rings me several times a week and spends at least one evening a week with us at home. My thirteen-year-old son loves doing things with me and thrives when engaged in activities with Virginia and me.

father son III am proud of the bonds that my kids and I have in particular because I don’t share them with my parents. They are dear people, probably. They worked hard all their lives to fulfill the roles they were supposed to play in the society that their parents built. They married and had the requisite number of kids their religion and their status demanded (four). When they were coming up in life, the middle class was growing, and their fortunes followed the upward arc of that lucky generation.

But what a price my father paid for living according to the whims of the society that bred him. That poor guy sat in a windowless concrete room for most of his 35 years at the National Cash Register Corporation. In part, he did this because he thought he was supposed to. His job was to fix the cash registers that technicians from all over the Midwest brought to the downtown headquarters. On occasion, the managers sent him out on service calls. He hated dealing with “customers” and complained of it bitterly.

In part, he sat in that basement because he was afraid to do anything else. What kind of a life was there except the boomer, middle-class life? Hippies? My father’s conservative, even reactionary impulses repelled such alternatives. He hated anything out of the ordinary and didn’t like much in the ordinary either. While he dreamed of being wealthy, he reviled those who had more than him. He reveled in the freedom his two-week camping vacations in the mountains but envied, even hated those who could afford to live in such environs. He wanted the middle-class home and yard but hated, avoiding until it was too painfully obvious, such chores as trimming trees, cleaning gutters, and mowing grass. He hated it so much, he made his kids from very young ages take over the work of tending house.

I never remember my father enjoying his job. A complex man of opposites, he felt a kind of fealty to the corporation. They gave him two, then three weeks of paid vacation. His health insurance covered the whole family. With the money he earned, he bought a three-bedroom ranch in the suburbs. When it came down to it, he felt trapped—by the money, his family, the benefits and pension, and the life he thought he wanted to live but could not. He didn’t hate his coworkers so much as envy them. They were happy at their jobs. They didn’t grumble. Maybe some of them even chose their careers. My dad happened into his and stuck with it because it was the best thing going.

He drank every day. Sometimes he quaffed a few beers in his special chair with the newspaper in the evening. Most nights ended quietly. Some ended in violence. He was always tired and we were, for the most part, supposed to do our duty—go to school, take care of house, and stay out of the way. When we didn’t, when we got caught smoking or

He dreamed of being free. He had undefined ideas of being a great inventor, of winning the corporate lottery with the one invention or method of making money that would, in turn, make him rich. While he fought for every dime he made, and spent it on his children’s education, he hated money for all the trouble it made. Without it, one could not be a middle-class man of means. But procuring it forced him to live the life of a slave.

What good was it to demean yourself all day and come home to an albatross of a home, a couple of cars that demanded constant attention, and a house full of needy children and severe wife?

The feeling my siblings and I got from my father’s constant complaining was that we were burdens. Here he was, a great man, capable of fantastic things held back by his family. He could have been so much more productive had it not been for us kids. He meant, of course, that he made a sacrifice for us because we meant so much to him. But that’s not what we heard. We heard in his expansiveness that we were in the way.

And things were not good for us siblings. My father’s whims ruled the house. Where we might at one minute enjoy his tender side, the next we might be whipped for doing things that all kids did. He ruled with an iron fist and generous belt. I don’t know the exact experience of my brother and sisters, but I watched them suffer blows for their transgressions. A lie brought certain punishment, but then again, so did a cookie filched from the cookie jar, a moment stolen outside away from the family when we were supposed to be with them, and a fidget during church. God forbid, you were in his presence when he grew angry about something. That wrath might just wind up in a bruised face and stinging behind.

My dad did try to connect with me, but his attempts were clumsy and almost always more about himself than about me. I became a boy scout and found that I could live a life of my own outside our house. When I was away on overnights and at summer camp, I was gloriously freed of the arbitrary and punitive nature of home life. Life in the woods comforted me and I found the chaos of nature preferable to the confusion of home.

Then, my father decided he would get involved in his son’s life. He joined our troop as one of the father/leaders. He drank too much, argued with other leaders, sought to impose his will upon the troop. My secret life was no longer my own. My father had invaded the one aspect of living that I had carved out for myself. I was driven underground to live life in the shadows along with those who smoked weed, drank too much, and fraternized with loose women.

All of my father’s faults might be forgiven, and as I’ve grown older, I chalk up my father’s failings to frustration, lost dreams, and disappointment. Even his grandiose pronouncements—“If it weren’t for you kids, I could have been a rocket scientist or an astronaut.”—I understand, now having been father twice over. He wanted to be a respectable man but didn’t know that we respected him despite all of his actions. We loved our father. But the love and admiration of his children was not enough. He wanted to ascend to the oculus of wealth and comfort. His family was often an afterthought.

I started drinking when I was eleven. I had a good role model who revered drink like it was a god. It started for me sneaking beers out of the fridge and gulps from the ever-present bottle of bourbon. As it was, my drunkenness was sporadic—there’s only so much a pre-teen can do. But as I neared the age where my friends had cars, I drove with them to Kansas joints that didn’t check IDs or found older people willing to buy drink for us kids. By the time I had my own car, I was drunk every Friday and Saturday, and when I could sneak it in, once or twice during the week.

Alcoholics have terrible relationships, and the ones I had with my parents only deteriorated during high school. I often came home drunk and my dad listened for the front door. Many a night, I stood humiliated while the old man, drunk himself, threatened and cajoled, yelled and bellowed about how I needed to straighten up. I went to bed, sometimes badly beaten, but I repeated my actions again and again. That’s the thing about alcoholism. I would go to the ends of the earth for a good drunk, and there were times that I did.

My parents moved to Reno, Nevada, in part to get away from the “stress” my dad felt from his job and family. He didn’t change jobs, he stayed with the same company and performed the same functions, but in a different place. In some ways, my dad was finally free. He lost three of four kids in the move. He moved into and lived in a fifth-wheel trailer in the parking lot of the Reno MGM Grand Hotel. It was a cramped space for three people, and I think my youngest sister suffered the most from it.

I’m sure that there are families that live perfectly happy lives in fifth-wheel trailers. And maybe they are drunks too. But the years in the parking lot must have been miserable, or, if not miserable, then confining. They had to leave for at least two days a month, according to a state law that said people can’t live in parking lots but can only stay there temporarily. Because of this, I’m sure they saw some of the state.

The reason I don’t know is that when my parents moved away, I took up into my own apartment in Kansas City. I spent the next seven years drunk most of the time. If I wasn’t drunk, I was getting ready to get drunk. I even spent two of those years in Germany, where my drinking moderated—mostly from necessity and lack of funds.

I look back on that time, and from what I remember, I had good intentions and did the best I could, handicapped as I was. I had a larger view of the world than my parents. I thirsted for knowledge and read stacks and stacks of books. Things were often miserable. I lived in poverty and squalor. I had no self-awareness. In many ways, I was a child just like my father.

When my parents came to town or I visited them in Reno, we got drunk together. We came to a kind of peace that alcoholics who don’t know each other well seem to have. We toasted each other’s good health. We didn’t disagree on anything because we talked about nothing. Our priorities were the same. We drink, we gamble, we act out. That was it. Reno was a great place for us.

I was always glad to get home, however. There was only so much of the fluffery I could stand. But then, when I arrived home, my own empty life faced me. I was deathly afraid to call myself an alcoholic. I tried all different kinds of things. I drank only every other day. I drank wine instead of beer, or beer instead of wine, or cocktails, or straight liquor. I tried all different combinations. I drank at different times of the day, mostly later and later at night. I quit drinking in bars. I was not a bar-buddy kind of guy anyway. I drank at home, alone. I was thorough. Every night I blacked out.

Seven years after my parents moved out of town, I sobered up. I was tired and sick and broke. I didn’t have the strength to keep drinking or the courage to kill myself. I started a new life. This way of living, without drink, introduced me to myself and brought me into the process of maturing. In many ways, I am still at that work today, twenty-five years since my last drink.

The relationship between my parents and me was never the same. We never really had much to talk about. I tried calling on holidays for a while but the conversations with my drunk father always turned maudlin and repetitive. He was still the greatest guy he knew. He did the most stuff, earned the most prizes, was the most unique. After a while, we hardly talked and any effort I made to contact them wound up in my father’s long diatribes over the evils of the modern world, the mess liberals were making of the world, and creeping communism.

The result is that I really haven’t spoken to my parents in years. I’ve had a few “how’s the weather?” sorts of discussions. But the reason we have any contact is because Virginia and I adopted my youngest sister’s son when she went down the meth hole. If it weren’t for that, I’d hear from them once a year when they called me. I can’t imagine calling them.

And it’s not as if I harbor any animosity toward my parents. We just have nothing to talk about.

That’s why I treasure the relationships I have with my kids. At 24, Sydney has yet to find a reason not to come around when she wants. I don’t force her. I don’t lecture her anymore on anything. She asks my advice and I give it. She wants to know something about the way her used car runs, I tell her. We have meaningful discussions over books, music, television, and movies. We have heart-to-hearts.

The same with Nick, who’s happiest doing stuff with me. I’ve been meaning to find more things we can do together that are really close-up activities—building things. I have little patience with these things, and I think he knows it. But we spend time taking pictures together with film cameras. We go hiking and backpacking. He loves road trips.

I would love all those things I have with my kids with my dad. I believe in miracles—after all, one day I was a hopeless drunk and the next day I was a drunk with a sober life ahead of him. But time is running out. The old man is losing his mind, little by little. My mom is a bundle of niceties. I will have to be happy with my kids. The time for building anything with my parents is running out.

Not a New Year’s resolution, just plain determination

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Not being an animal of routine, I look forward to the holidays. The tasks and activities associated with Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year interrupt the normal course of days. In between family and parties and shopping, pauses give me time to think about the course of my life, where I want to be, and what I want to do.

dsiciplined writerThese past weeks, I’ve had a lot to think about. I don’t have a job in the traditional sense. I teach three classes each semester at the community college. I’ve been at it long enough so that many pieces of my teaching routines run on their own. Those that don’t need only a minimum amount of effort on my part. Grading essays take the most time and energy. Four times a semester, I have hours and hours of work deciphering student writing. It’s work I don’t relish. Student work, for the most part, is mediocre. Frequently, students just write poorly.

Outside of school, I spend part of each day writing. Lately, I have spent a good deal of my writing time with these essays. I try to get in three to five a week and am successful for the most part. I also have a book I drafted earlier this year that I’ve laid aside for another project that I worked on for most of the last semester.

But lately, I’ve had a lot of time on my hands and I’ve not used it well. Several things are happening at once, I think. I don’t have a defining venture I’m working on. My son is on his winter break—a two-and-a-half week jaunt into everything that has nothing to do with school, a true vacation. That means, however, that I’m on the hook for his entertainment, or, at least, part of it. That book is fermenting. The public history project stalled out a couple of months ago. School’s out. While not fond of routine, I like discipline and I’ve had none.

I’ve also gone through one of my depressive periods, one that I’m still dealing with. Just today, I woke, drank some tea, read the newspaper, and then went back to sleep for a couple of hours—and this after sleeping ten hours last night. The days have gotten monotonous with this sleeping thing. I get up in the morning and look forward to the afternoon nap. After the nap, I bide my time until it’s time to take my medicine, an hour after which I will go to sleep for another ten hours. Etc.

In truth, I’m not a resolver. I don’t go to bed on New Year’s Eve determined to do something good or change my life in the next year. I’m more of a creature of misery. I will do something detrimental to my spiritual and mental health until low-level misery turns into real pain. Then, I change.

The routines of the last few months have reached the point of pain. I think to myself, I only have two good decades left. I have more books to write and poems to compose. If I don’t get started, I will not get these things completed. It’s not that I have to have a certain number of books published by age 72. It’s that I like working on and finishing books. I want to get as many in as I can in the time left to me.

This is why the last few weeks have been good for me. I can get nothing accomplished during the holidays. Family needs attention. We have Christmas parties and family dinners. On Christmas and New Year’s nothing moves in the real world. Business stops or should.

(I don’t go to stores on holidays because I think that employers should give their employees days off. When I say that, friends and friendly opponents will say that some people need the work. I say that employers should be paying wages good enough so that their employees don’t have to work on the holidays.)

During Christmas and New Year we are stuck at home doing home things. One of my home things is writing. But my depressive state and the activities that the holidays bring have gotten in the way of writing.

And in a way, I’m grateful. If I cannot work on this computer, I take a few minutes and write in a journal I keep. Thoughts and ideas, a diary of the day’s or week’s events. It’s an imperfect record of myself, but it’s a place where I work out some of the issues and challenges I face on an every-day level.

The last few days, I’ve been working out a new routine for after the holidays. A discipline of writing is more accurate than routine. When the child is off to school again next week, I will rise at a decent hour. This may take some doing, since I have been getting out of bed around 9 to 10 a.m. I will start with setting the alarm for 7 a.m. This will give me about an hour to drink tea and read the newspaper, and generally get myself set up to sit down to this computer at 8 a.m.

Then, regardless how hard it will be at first, I’ll work until noon. I will be back on the public history project and will have taken my book out and dusted it off to start the fun of rewriting—the book is just a draft now and can hardly be called a book. I will write at least three essays a week. This may sound like quite a bit—book, history project, essays—but I can get a lot accomplished in three to four hours of daily work.

After noon, then, I want to get to the gym. I walk the dogs two to three miles every evening. But I need more. A half hour lifting weights or swimming or both will help me fill in the energy gap I feel in my days now.

Then, when I get home from the gym, I can take that nap. In some ways, that nap may be a motivator. After all, if I look forward to getting through parts of my day to arrive at that nap now, it will function much the same when I start my new discipline.

You have the right to ask, well, if you so believe in this discipline, why aren’t you in it now? I have formed disciplines in the past centered on writing projects and when I’ve completed them, I let myself go. When I wrote dissertation, for instance, I went to the office every day for months and worked for six to eight hours on that thing. There were days—as there will be now—when I sat in front of a computer and did nothing for the time I was there. But I went and sat in front of that computer and a dissertation came out of that effort. When it was completed, I got out of the discipline of writing. The same happened with my two books. I have a discipline when it comes to these essays, though in a much more disorganized way.

I firmly believe in the adage, if you hang around in a barbershop long enough, you’re gonna get a haircut. If I hang out in front of a computer long enough, I’ll write something.

I hold no illusions that this new discipline will solve all my problems. It will be hard at first. I will be tempted to drift off to bed or fiddle with something else in lieu of writing. I will spend days just looking at the computer screen. I will not start or finish on time, not at the beginning. But I will, after just a few weeks, be in my discipline and well on my way to getting that book completed.

There will be things that impinge on my schedule. Those student essays will have to be read and graded. Family will demand my time. The dogs will bark. The letter carrier will get them worked up. But, if I do this right, and I will after a while, I will have time each day to tend to family responsibilities and do the work of teaching.

For me, it is a matter of resolve, though this is not a resolution. I will not conquer the world, lose weight, or make my pilgrimage. I will, however, write, and that’s the point of it all.

Coffee or tea? Tea for now, thanks.

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I had my first cup of coffee at age 12 and was hooked. I liked what coffee did to me. It enhanced perception of the world, set my heart thumping in my chest, and put a little nervous twang in my limbs.

When I was in high school, my mom bought a twenty-cup coffee percolator so we would have enough for my mom, dad, and me every morning. The coffee maker was a smaller version of the church-basement can with a giant basket in it. At first, I was civilized and drank out of coffee cups. As my obsession grew, however, I started filling plastic drinking glasses with coffee for the ride to school.

Coffee beans in the shape of a coffee cup. Stock Photo

Coffee beans in the shape of a coffee cup. Stock Photo

And since I was a early-age smoker, I found that coffee only made smokes better.

I discovered gourmet coffee when I worked at the Hickory Farms kiosk in a local shopping mall. Next door was a coffee retailer that sold single appellation coffees (Tanzanian Peaberry, Guatemala Tegucigalpa, etc.). That Christmas, I skipped around the mall, buying Christmas presents with a recently delivered paycheck. I wound up at the coffee retailer, thinking my mom, who was an inveterate coffee drinker would like some special coffees for the holidays.

I bought her what I thought were exotic coffees—hazelnut- and cherry-flavored coffee and a bag of Kenya AA. After she opened her present, I began making those coffees for myself. I soon found that the flavored coffees didn’t suit me. They were too candy-like and I found the flavors bad. But I loved the Kenya AA. I’ll never forget sitting around one Saturday morning absolutely jazzed on too much of that heavenly blend. My eyes buzzed. I couldn’t move. It was wonderful.

When I lived in Germany, I made coffee with a pour-over filter or, later, a French press. I heated the water in a little tank under the sink that got the water at least hot enough to brew a hot-ish cup. All my German friends drank coffee. From them, I gained the habit of having a second round of coffee in the evening around 5 p.m. and stuck to that for years. It came in very handy when I had jobs that I had to work late into the evening.

I didn’t think much more about coffees until I was 25 and I started working at a bistro in the Westport shopping-and-bar district that sold cheeses, sausages, teas, and coffees. We had an espresso maker in the back at the restaurant where we made lattes, cappuccinos, and Americanos. This was in the days before the ubiquitous coffee shop. Or, I should say, this was in the days when a coffee shop was where you bought a regular cup of coffee and ate pie. Our place was one of the few in Kansas City where someone could get an espresso or coffee drink other than what the gas station, convenience store, or restaurant served.

I soon became quite enamored of our coffee selections. I made the rounds through all the single-appellation and estate coffees, as well as our Italian and French coffee blends. Since I had a lot of time when I worked in the front serving up the whole-bean coffees we scooped out of bins, I read a lot about coffee, where it was grown, under what conditions it was grown, and the difference between Arabica and robusta coffees. I consumed volumes on coffee and coffee culture.

After a few months, I qualified as an expert. I counseled customers on the coffees that best suited their tastes. I served up Guatemalans, Costa Ricans, Mexicans, and various Africans. My favorites, even to today, are the Central American coffees. I concocted my own blend: one quarter pound Italian roast, one quarter Costa Rican Tarrazu (or Guatemala Tegucigalpa), and one half pound Mexican Altura Pluma. I drank that blend religiously for the years I worked at the shop, and then well after when I could find coffee retailers that sold those particular coffees.

But I was no snob. I also drank just regular coffee-can coffee from the grocery store. I consumed a lot of convenience-store coffees when on the road or in-route from one place to another. (I spent two years in grad school driving between Kansas City and Laramie and drank truck-stop coffee like a hound.) At some level, coffee is coffee and taste took second place to a hot, bitter fluid that started the day right. I differentiated between Folgers, Hills Brothers, and Maxwell House, and I have to say that the perennial favorite was Folgers. Of convenience stores, I erred on the side of QuikTrip. 7-Eleven just didn’t cut it. On the highway, Sapp Brothers brewed a good cup but I wasn’t above a cup from the Flying J or Pilot truck stops.

Slowly at first, and then with greater precision, I found that I liked coffee percolated better than from an automatic-drip coffee maker. French press coffee was superior to both the percolator and the automatic-drip coffee maker. Through my extensive travels in the backcountry, I determined that coffee boiled in a pan made the best drink of them all. I think of it this way: Coffee boiled on the grounds is brewing, water run through the grounds is leeching. I prefer brewed rather than leeched coffee.

I once walked from Kansas City to Helena, Montana, and then canoed home on the Missouri River. Coffee on the walk was rather inconvenient. If I drank it in the morning, I would soon find myself on a stretch of busy two-lane hunting for a place to pee. I switched to tea, instead and got along just fine. But on the river, I drank cowboy coffee I made in a pan exclusively.

percolatorAfter I got married in 1998, I settled in with a woman who drank Folgers. I drank a lot of it. We ditched the automatic-drip coffee maker a few years into our marriage for an electric percolator and have stuck with it ever since. I brought home my own coffees, generally the Central Americans, for myself, and made them in a counter-top espresso maker and a French press. But I could never get my wife to drink what she considered high-brow coffees. She preferred the medium and predictable strains of Folgers no matter how long it sat in a canister on the counter.

Over the years and with increasing regularity, I found that when I drank coffee in the morning, it made me tired. Occasionally, I would switch to tea. Coffee notwithstanding, I loved tea and knew of its various forms and blends from the bistro where I used to work. Tea started the day right and didn’t put me into a zombie-like state at 10:30 in the morning. I generally drank loose-leaf teas of various origins, but I would also drink Bigelow and Twinings tea-bag teas.

Inevitably, I always lost the taste for tea and came back to coffee. About five months ago, I got sick of having to crawl back in bed for a nap just an hour or two from waking up in the morning. This is important stuff, since I work mostly from home. At home, I have the luxury of taking a nap—which I do every afternoon, anyway. At the office, when I work from there, I have to yawn and shake myself awake while I sit at my desk.

coffee teaEnough was enough. I decided to switch to tea for a while. I went to the tea store and bought a couple of my favorites. Since I have made the switch, I drink coffee only very occasionally in the afternoon at home or with pals when I meet them for a chat.

Not long ago, I asked my doctor why coffee put me to sleep. “Son,” he said, “when you have ADHD, certain stimulants like caffeine tend to have the opposite effect on you than with most other people. When you drink coffee in the morning, you will find that you have a better ability to focus and concentrate but that it will make you tired.”

Tea, if I drink enough, will put me to sleep. I usually don’t drink that much. One or two big cups in the morning are enough. And, I tend to enjoy the experience more than with coffee. I have a tea ball that I use in a large cup. I boil the water and set the timer on the stove for four minutes. This works to bring out the best in most teas, though, depending on the tea, I adjust the water temperature and steeping time accordingly. Thus, I wake every morning and hear two happy sounds—that of a teapot squealing and then the ding of the timer that tells me my cuppa is ready to drink.

I like all kinds of tea but have landed on Chinese Keemun and Russian Caravan (a blend of Keemun and oolong, minus the Lapsong Souchong) as my favorites. I drink Irish Breakfast tea regularly and almost always have an oolong around for the afternoon.

For Christmas, my wife enrolled me in a tea-of-the-month club. I was very particular about what kind of teas would arrive at my door. Black teas only. No flavored teas. While I appreciate them greatly, I didn’t want any green or white teas—for as much as I drink of them, I can get them at the store where I buy my loose-leaf teas. When she asked me to find an appropriate tea-delivery service, I searched the internet until I found just the right one.

I don’t know that my coffee days are over. Certainly, I will drink a cup of coffee if someone offers me one. I go the coffee shop and meet with friends about once or twice a week and always in the afternoon. I drink a strong coffee then, a cortado, usually. But coffee in the afternoon doesn’t affect me the way it does in the morning. So, when a pal wants to meet me for coffee, I’m wide open to the idea.

In the meantime, I look forward on waking to my morning cup of tea—usually with two sugars and milk or creamer. It bastardizing the tea to add these things into it, according to some people. But they aren’t drinking my tea.

A lonely, beautiful moment at Christmas

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The holidays as seen in Hollywood movies don’t do much for me. I’m all for peace on earth, goodwill towards men (and creatures), and family. But my history with the holidays is checkered and filled with melancholy memories.

And it’s in the melancholy mood that I like to be on the holidays. It’s different from being sad or depressed. Introspective, thoughtful, and contemplative assessment of the holiday is good for me. If there’s any tradition I keep, it’s taking a trip through memory and seeing the holiday bloom all around me without my participation. It’s always interesting to discover what insights these will reveal to me.

weihnachtsmarkt-trierAs a kid, I looked forward to getting up on Christmas morning and seeing what was under the tree. It didn’t matter who brought the stuff and I don’t remember the transition from believing in Santa Claus to knowing that parents were responsible for the holiday cheer. That morning, the tree always looked different. The family sitting around in their robes and pajamas made the day special.

The one Christmas I remember from early in my childhood took place in a house we rented near 85th and Mercier. It was a small house whose light was always dim. The square two-bedroom let in light only from the east. The bedrooms were on the north side of the house and the garage was on the south. Huge, mature trees overhung the place, so, in the summer it was covered with shade. In the winter, it was always just dark.

That’s what made the lighted Christmas tree so special. It stood in a corner of the living room, which was attached to a small dining room that led to the kitchen. We kids, there were three of us in one bedroom at the time, jumped out of bed that morning. We waited anxiously until we thought we heard stirrings in the other bedroom, and then we burst out, running for the tree. Santa Claus brought all the presents at the time and we just couldn’t wait until we found out what goodies we’d received.

When the whole family was gathered around the tree, parents firmly ensconced in the couch, my sister began to pull presents one at a time from beneath the tree. I don’t remember what everyone got, except for one thing. Right in front of the tree and the first present my sister pulled was a bunch of switches with a piece of Christmas wrapping around their middle. It was addressed to me from Santa.

That was it. That’s all that was under the tree for me. Where kids in the long past received a lump of coal for being on the naughty list, I got a bunch of switches. My dad was big into corporal punishment. Looking back, I must have misbehaved in the days leading up until Christmas. Each of those little pieces of tree were the exact same length as the others. They were as painful to look at as I remember them being when swiped across my naked ass.

I probably cried. There were no other presents underneath the tree for me. I had to watch my brother and sister open their presents and see their faces light up. I sat there with a bunch of switches in my lap. At some point, my parents brought out some presents that Santa delivered me but they admonished me. I was on the naughty list and would be there until I sat up straight and acted right. I was four years old. It’s one of my earliest memories.

We moved out of the rental when my second sister was born in 1967, probably the year after the Christmas switches. We settled into a modern three-bedroom ranch in an undistinguished suburban subdivision on a street imaginatively named “State Line.”

Chistmases in that house blend together in memory but patterns emerge. My father went every year and bought a real Christmas tree—we never had an artificial tree until I arced into my late teens. He drove from lot to lot looking for a deal, and went over every tree in each of the lots we visited. When he found a tree he liked—and almost always when we kids got restless of the dickering and driving—he roped it to the roof of the ’66 Dodge Polara wagon and drove us home. He wrestled the tree through the front door and set it up in the living room in a rickety stand that almost always insured that the tree would fall over once a season.

Meanwhile, mom supervised kids who fetched Christmas ornaments and lights from the basement. We had to wait while dad untangled and strung out the lights, testing them to make sure they all lit, and replacing dead bulbs with others from packets he picked up at the hardware store earlier in the day. How odd and beautiful a string of Christmas lights looked snaking around the orange shag carpet! How impatient and restless we kids, now four, were while we waited for dad to get the lights on the tree so we could hang ornaments.

In a chaotic and often violent, always tense household, Christmas provided a break from the anxieties of everyday life. For one evening, we were happy to have mom dig out an ornament at a time and hand it to one of us to hang on the tree. We took turns handing ornaments to dad, who hung them from the highest limbs of the tree. When the tree was decorated to within where we could reach, the tree was all ours. Meanwhile, his job completed, dad reclined on the couch with a beer or whiskey and put on his daily buzz.

Christmas mornings, then, were always different from the other days of all the other weeks of the year. Mom and dad were calm. No one argued. We opened presents one at a time while mom and dad enjoyed some grog they cooked up—every occasion called for a drink, if not a full-on drunk in my house. Once the presents were open and the paper folded and stacked for use the following Christmas, we kids were free to play with our booty. Dad went back to bed. Mom went to work in the kitchen. I often wound up on the naughty list but I never did get another bundle of switches.

Since I moved out of my childhood home, Christmases have all been different from one another. I’ve celebrated Christmases with families of girlfriends and with groups of friends who didn’t go home for the holidays. Some, I’ve spent alone—here and in other countries—and there’s nothing more sweetly melancholy than being alone on the one day a year when everyone is supposed to be together.

Tonight, Christmas Eve, Virginia has to work. Nick is engaged in his phone watching videos of people playing video games (a phenomenon I’m still wondering at). I will take the dogs for a long walk downtown. I hope that everyone is home with family. There’s nothing more beautiful than spending a few minutes alone before the crush of family excitement tomorrow.

While on my walk, I will remember more about Christmas than I have for this essay. There’s something about being in an empty downtown that’s quiet, lonely, and peaceful without traffic or holiday cheer. I look forward to that.

 

The fat kid

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I’ve been fat all my life. No matter how much I’ve weighed, I’ve always looked in the mirror and seen someone who’s overweight.

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This is what I see when I look in the mirror.

A couple of months ago, I woke up and said to myself, I’ve been wanting to lose a solid twenty pounds for over a decade. I weighed 228 pounds. When I started Ph.D. studies, I was 200 pounds. I remember feeling skinny then. My pants hung on me with plenty of room. My t-shirts fit loosely around my chest. I had more energy, but then again, I was 41 and not 53.

Twenty pounds. I’m going to do it, I said, then started to make excuses. In order to carry out my plan, I had a lifetime of cultural baggage the crawl out from underneath. I was going to have to deal with the way I ate when I felt bad. Then, I’d have to think about the way I stuffed myself when I felt good or accomplished something. I ate when it rained and when the sun shone. I used visiting company, parties, and dinner events as excuses to eat too much. I almost never ate when I was hungry–I was never hungry. I ate because it felt good to eat.

After going through these peregrinations (and only within minutes), I realized that if I wanted to lose twenty pounds, the my past had little to do with it. That day, I changed the way I ate. Food would have to become sustenance rather than drug. I kept at my daily exercise—a bike ride and a long walk (2- to 4-mile) with the dogs.

I watched the first ten pounds melt right off. The next five took a while. The five after that took even longer. But about two months ago, I reached my goal of 210 pounds. My wife became concerned. You’re getting all skinny, she said. You’re going to wither right away.

I loved hearing it. Someone noticed. I lost the twenty I set out to lose. I wanted more. I made a new goal of 190. But the scale got stuck at 208. It hovers around 210 now, a pound here or a pound there. Today was another in the break-even column. Today, I used food as medicine. I felt good when I woke up. I had cake for breakfast, then a fat chile relleno with beans and more cake for lunch. I ate cake again when I got up from a nap. (It’s a fucking awesome cake.)

My experience with weight gain or loss has a long history. Schoolkids can be to each other and I know it first-hand. All through grade school and then high school, other kids called me names. I was the fat kid, the last to be chosen for a team and the one that was left standing against the wall at the school dances. When I graduated high school, I weighed 240 pounds. At five-eight, I was a rotund, out-of-shape kid who had a poor attitude toward himself and no self-confidence.

In addition, throughout my youth, my parents were fanatical about weight loss. They procured all sorts of potions and aids. They tried the latest diets and some of their own making. They cut out eating bread, desserts, and cheese for periods of time. They went on fat-free diets and lowered their salt intake. My mom enrolled in exercise programs and watched exercise shows on television. She even tried belly dancing, which was said at the time to have certain advantages in weight loss and body modification.

They always weighed the same no matter what they did.

Through their persistent efforts at sculpting their physiques and the lingerie ads in the Sunday paper, I gained what can only be called an unhealthy idea of what a human being should look like. In other words, if my parents were screwed up, then I was screwed up too.

I had spent my high school years obsessed about weight but couldn’t lose any, despite all my efforts at diet and wearing clothes that were much too small. I’d exercise but lose the impetus to continue after just a few short running steps around the block. Fortunately, I did have a treehouse and had to hike to it. Even so, I was frequently tired and out of breath after a little exertion. I dreamed of being a slim, good-looking guy. But then I looked in the mirror. Thoughts about weight and eating depressed me.

When I graduated high school, I got a job at a gas station. The summer of 1981 was hot. Someone died from the heat and became a news story. The paper filled up with articles about the elderly and poor dying in their apartments. Construction workers collapsed and died at work. Cops found homeless people dead of the heat under bridges.

I worked from 6 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. six days a week. Breathing gas and physical labor in the heat are about the best diet aids one can find.

After about a month of running the drive and filling gas tanks, I noticed that I had lost some weight. I felt better and could put in a day’s work without falling flat on the couch when I got home, as I did when I first started. I put my mind to it and began eating less. Instead of cookies, cheese, and bread, I ate one baloney sandwich at lunch and drank an egg nog and had a salad every evening. By the end of the summer, I had lost sixty pounds.

I started college that fall at 180 pounds, and it was easy to keep it that way. I continued working at the gas station part-time for the next year. I stayed out late and rose early. Many of the calories I took in everyday came from various alcoholic beverages. Normally, that might give a guy a beer gut. But breathing gas and drinking my food kept the weight off.

Regardless how much weight I lost, however, every time I looked in the mirror, I saw a fat guy. I don’t suppose I would have been happy with my physique until I had the bulging ribs and knotty joints of the truly starved.

Through the years, I’ve fought fat. I’ve weighed as much as 235. But I carried it differently than when I was 18. Since those years, I’d gained strength, built muscle, and grown a couple of inches. Nothing about 235 is thin, and I think I looked like I weighed that much. But it never matters. Two-thirty-five or 180, I feel fat.

About a decade ago, I saw some pictures of me in the 1980s. I never realized that while I wasn’t skinny, I wasn’t obese. In fact, I looked rather trim. That surprised me because I remember distinctly looking at myself in the mirror during those years and seeing someone overweight. Those pictures threw me into deep confusion. If I was thin when I thought I was fat, did I need to put myself through all the self-deprecation and loathing I have my whole life? If it doesn’t matter how much I weigh when I always feel fat, could it be that the opposite could be true? That I could be fat or skinny and not feel fat?

And what is the right weight for me? Doctors have told me I could lose f few pounds but none ever told me that I was unhealthy. I stay active. My heart rate sits at a steady 58. My blood pressure stays around 120/60. My cholesterol is 145. As far as anyone knows, everything is working fine. It’s just that I want to be skinny. Just once in my life. I don’t even have to be thin, just feel that way.

I’m back on my weight kick. I want to get to 190—another twenty pounds. But when I get there, I won’t be happy unless I get over a lifetime of shitty feelings about myself. Maybe it’s something I need to bring up to my therapist.

Or, maybe, I ought to get out of the weigh-reduction business altogether. All my efforts have never really mattered. I might be able to get to 190. But there’s no guarantee I won’t gain it all back and find myself wondering again why it is I’m so fat.

The basement haunts me

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The basement makes me feel bad. I have done so many things there in the past. But the memory of those days of radio building, photograph developing, and a hundred other projects and activities nags me. I don’t do that much in the basement anymore. It’s a place where we store things we don’t need and probably never did.

basementAbout four years ago, I started very seriously to write dissertation. I put aside all my extracurricular activities. The pinhole camera sat alone on the table where I cut the photo paper I used to create negatives. The crystal radio became a lonely object. The painting easels and paints were left to gather dust. The clay that we used to make heads turned hard and unpliable.

I thought, at the time I started dissertation writing, that I would get back into my other interests when I put the thing to bed. When I earned my Ph.D., I would again be that famous amateur art photographer who would one day see his pictures in famous studios. My paintings would command high prices and wow the art world.

Actually, I wanted not so much to be famous than to be active. I loved taking pictures. Light fascinates me, and the ultra-sharp nature of pinhole photographs, as well as the fuzzy impressionistic pictures of the camera obscura still move me in very fundamental ways.

And I was good at it. I had much to learn but took heartfelt and masterful pictures with my pinhole camera and camera obscura. My painting was that of the pure, untalented amateur, but that never stopped me from hanging my abstracts on the walls. I stretched my own canvases, sometimes made my own paints from linseed oil and various materials I ground myself.

These creative projects took up the time between writing projects, and, in some instances, worked for my creative self in the place of writing. In other words, the activities—building yard art, painting and taking pictures—worked against my writing responsibilities. Writing is hard. Sometimes the material isn’t there, the spark doesn’t come. Often, I sit down to my discipline and watch an empty computer screen for a couple of hours.

It’s often easier to pick up a project that shows immediate accomplishment than to write a poem, even if the results are disappointing. I’ve thrown away tens of paintings and hundreds of photos. Statues and aborted concrete structures have would up in the trash heap. But one thing I can say about fashioning a head of concrete is that no matter how much it winds up as a landfill, a failed crystal radio set is something I can touch and feel at the end, before I put it in a trash bag or take it apart to start again.

After I walked out of my dissertation defense, when my judges had become my colleagues, I thought to myself, well, dissertation is done, I can get started with the things that make me happy. Dissertation didn’t make me happy. I never felt so inadequate or demeaned. Walking away from my Ph.D., I thought that now my creative life could begin again. I figured that after a while, the spark to return to my hobbies would return.

It hasn’t.

The basements is also a record of waste. The reason places like basements and attics fill to brimming, I think, comes from three related but different impulses. One is to save those items that have some sentimental meaning. Photographs, kids’ art, and mom’s china stack up on each other because they have no place in the upstairs. They are things we want but just can’t bear to part with. Better hidden in the basement than thrown in the trash heap.

Another impulse comes from keeping things that I use only once in a while. I have shelves of camping equipment that see the outdoors about ten times a year. It, too, has no place upstairs, the closets and cabinets filled with clothes and dishes, as well as cleaning supplies, appliances, and toilet paper. The things we only use occasionally still get out on a regular basis. We can’t throw them away. For instance, we don’t want to buy new camping equipment every time we want to go live in the outside. Radio projects, photography equipment, and painting supplies also fit into this category.

The third and most depressing reason the basement fills is that we bring things into the front door in increments, a bag at a time. When the upstairs gets crowded with boxes and papers, we want to clear it out. We pick it all up and take it to the basement where we permanently plant it along with those sentimental trinkets and the stuff we use from time to time.

When I go downstairs these days, I face a disordered mess. I am not a person who needs things tidy but I despise clutter. The basement’s full of it. Just stuff that fills the place like the flood of a backed up drain. Papers and receipts that seemed so important to keep sit around in stacks. Boxes and mason jars fill the shelves. Wood scraps form a pile that takes up a whole corner.

After a while, I avoid the basement. I feel a sense of despair when I have to dig around for a tool down there. There’s just so much that I need to throw away, sort out, and get busy with. I turn my head. I feel pain. I can’t deal with it. So, I fetch my tool from the disordered piles of stuff and get on my way.

But the basement doesn’t go away. I lay awake sometimes and think about the detritus of living. I have to get down there and break the seal on the dark, forgotten side of our lives. When I have time, I either don’t have the energy or will. I forget about the basement until I have to go down there for some reason. I think, better to have the place finished and livable than to have it a cold and forbidden place.

But I don’t act on it. It stays there, unfinished, filled with my past, haunting my dreams, depressing me when I do think of it. I dread the moment when we have to move from this house and have to deal with it.

There is one solace. I don’t own things very well. It’s all disposable, except for the camping equipment. Even the tools can be thrown away. I will get a big dumpster, one of those they haul behind a truck and have it set in the driveway. Then over the course of weeks, I will take things out of that basement as they arrived down there, one thing at a time.

And those hobbies I mentioned. They may still just return to me. I can’t wait to see.