Teaching as performance art (better done naked)

Standard

Sometimes I just don’t have it. The lecture I’m supposed to make is clear in my head, but the words come out in jumbles.

mortar boardFrankly, it’s embarrassing. I have a class to impress. If I don’t impress them, engage them, they lose interest. They lose interest and I’m a failure or, at least, feel like I am.

I can see the loss of students’ interest in all kinds of ways. Eyelids flutter. Students look lost. They play with their phones during the lecture, which is particularly disturbing because it distracts me and throws me further off my game. A few students whisper to each other. In extreme cases, they laugh. This makes me think they are laughing at me. I get more distracted. The more distracted I get, the more likely I am to lose them further.

I try to stay on my game. I know my stuff. Lectures about the formation of Farmers’ Alliances and the development of the Populist movement spill from my lips. The labor movement erupts like a spring out of a bluff face. I can talk at great length about the development of the Jim Crow South and the nation’s racist heritage. In my pre-Reconstruction classes, colonial history comes easy to me. From the Stamp Act to the Compromise of 1850, I have my shit together.

But some days, like today, I don’t prepare like I should. As my lecture outlines advance, it’s as if I’m reading these things for the very first time. I struggle to make connections between one event or trend to others. On days I haven’t prepared, the words don’t flow, they tumble. They are clumsy and fall all over themselves.

lectureI know what I have to do but I procrastinate and skip that work. Since I have a 9 a.m. class, I have to do homework on the weekends so that I’m that confident, self-assured teacher I need to be. I always let it go until Sunday. Sundays, however, are the last days I feel like working. I didn’t work yesterday. I can’t tell you that today’s lecture was a failure, but it wasn’t a complete success. I saw some eyelids droop. A kid who sits in the back because he really doesn’t want to be in class started fiddling with his phone. A few students sat with 1,000-yard stares, unaware they even attended class. In a couple of instances, I could see students doodling. They were bored.

Over the years, I’ve found that the secret to teaching is either staying one step in front of students or acting like I’m one step ahead. I don’t need a greater education than the students, I just have to know a few things that they don’t.

Sometime in the past, my teaching ability sharpened. My first attempts at engaging students halted and hobbled along. I felt like I was on trial every day. I felt the expansiveness of a decent public speaker but would recoil and question myself mercilessly after class. Insomnia plagued me. Doubt haunted me. Self-reproach and loathing accompanied me.

After a time, I became more confident. Doubt and self-depredation faded. I came to evaluate my lectures rather than question them. Soon, lectures became standard. I knew my stuff and could always just use a few notes to keep me on target. I began to stray from hard-boiled criticism of my classroom presence. After a while, I taught as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

This semester, I’m actually lecturing less and engaging students with work. Two days a week in my Monday, Wednesday, Friday classes are set up as lectures. For my Tuesday-Thursday class, I lecture just one day a week, maybe part of another. One class period a week, the students work among themselves on an essay question that will appear on the examination. This week, the students will work one class period on an essay question and one to work on the first writing assignment, which the students must complete in two weeks. Since I ask a lot of students for these writing assignments, they can’t get started too early.

I actually like not lecturing all the time, as I did when I first started. I wrote every lecture from my own store of knowledge. I felt like I had to get through it and struggled to keep up with the students’ reading. Most students comprehended that the lectures were separate from the textbook. Some, however, wondered why I didn’t lecture on what was in the book. They can read. Why should I repeat what the textbook had to say?

But days like today pop up. Twinges of doubt pass through me like electricity. Did I get through to students? Did they walk away with something they didn’t have before? Were my words halting or did they fall off my tongue smoothly and without effort?

Today’s lecture could have been better. I knew the material but did not express it in a way that would make the most bored and disengaged student interested. I didn’t fail. I filled that room, dominated it. At the same time, students didn’t feel intimidated or overwhelmed. The lecture just wasn’t perfect, and I strive for perfection.

Fortunately, there’s always the next lecture. I evaluate what I did wrong or where I didn’t achieve that excellence I’m always looking for. I take those lessons into the next lecture and, hopefully, do better. Flawlessness is a tough standard but one I shoot for. Maybe someday, I’ll get there.

In the end, every class represents an experiment in prying the lids off of young minds and pouring in the poisons of analysis and self-determination. Students don’t understand that now. They may never. But some, a few, will walk out of my class and into the halls of a university. The rest will go into careers, families, and lives that they make on their own. They won’t look back and remember me. But, I hope, they will do better in their endeavors because they took my classes.

 

 

The time I banished my daughter to homelessness

Standard

I threatened my daughter with homelessness. I didn’t feel bad about it. In fact, I felt quite adult.

homelessnessSydney lived for years between two houses. She stayed with her mother most of the time and then with me every Tuesday and every other weekend. When she lived with me, we first inhabited a small house across the street from Gillham Park in Kansas City. She didn’t have her own room. My roommate took the other room in the two-room dwelling.

Until she was five, she shared a room with me. At first her bed was a crib. When she was two, I found her a single bed that I put at the foot of my own. She would always have to be in bed early, which left me a few hours to myself. Then, I’d sneak in, listen to her sleep, and fall asleep myself.

Later, when Sydney was six, we moved into a one-room house on the Westside. Again, she had no space for herself. My bed was a mattress on the floor, and she slept on a futon, again, at the foot of my bed. This arrangement changed after Virginia and I were married when Syd was eight. On the days she was with us, she slept on a couch in the front room.

Over time, the custody arrangement changed. Syd was eleven. We moved into a three-bedroom house just a few blocks away from my first house. During this time, she stayed with us every other week in her own room. We moved into our present house when Sydney was 14, and she had her own room again. This is when the trouble started. She came to live with us full time. By the time she entered high school, the problems with her house hygiene had escalated to nearly unbearable proportions.

sydneyBut we persevered. For four years, our house was often filled with turmoil. She was a great kid, an intelligent woman with a quick wit and skewed, refreshing view of life. But she was a terrible roommate. She left her room a complete mess. It often looked as if someone set a bomb off in there. She threw her clothes everywhere. Books and magazines littered the room, as did art and art supplies, blankets, pillows, and tons of paper trash.

We could always track Sydney’s movements around the house by the piles of dishes, paper trash, and couch afghans thrown on the floor. The kitchen was always in a state of disarray. We could see where she made a sandwich on the counter. Jars of condiments stood with the lids off of them. The bread sack remained open, the bread drying out. She left dirty utensils and dishes on the counter.

For some reason, we found no way to inculcate a sense of propriety about these things. Other people have to use the kitchen, we said. Leaving the living room a mess only inconvenienced other people. We didn’t like having to pick up after her, just so we could sit down in a chair or watch television. When she was in the living room, she hogged the remote control and bitched up a storm when we wanted to watch something other than she decided.

trash bagWe did everything. One time, I even gathered her things in trash bags and set them out on the driveway, hoping that she might see how much she invaded everyone’s space. Nothing worked. We tolerated and tried to convince ourselves that we needed to change our thinking and behavior since there seemed to be no way to change her or her habits.

This was only one aspect of refusing her reentry into the house once she moved out. The other was that she had no job and no prospects. She had been picky about the kinds of jobs she would work and seemed to eschew anything that she felt was beneath her. She took jobs she thought were fun and then lost them when she discovered that most jobs became uninteresting over time.

Don’t get me wrong. We loved having Sydney with us full time. As she settled into her new living arrangements, we frequently had very good times. We often ate family dinner at the dining room table. We watched movies together. We did family things. We took vacations and weekends away. She was always a kind and loving person. But she just didn’t know or felt it was important to keep up after herself.

As she approached 18 years old, she began to look forward to moving out of the house. I cautioned her that she should get and keep a job for a while and save some money before she took off on her own. Sydney, however, had a very different idea of independence. As soon as she landed a job, she moved into her brother’s house in a suburban area far from the center of town.

Her brother, Beau, was six years older. He was not my son but we never, not once, referred to Beau as Sydney’s half-brother.

That poor guy was upside down in his house. He bought the house during a rocky marriage and at the top end of the housing bubble. He had a variable-rate mortgage that started with an attractive monthly payment. Like many millions of Americans, he found that mortgage payment rose far beyond his means. His wife left him for another man. He thought, hey, if I have roommates, I can keep the house.

Unfortunately, he took in his cousin, Marc, and his sister. Both of them had jobs and paid rent. For the first months, everything was fine. Then Syd and her cousin both lost their jobs. They ceased paying rent, and there was nothing Beau could do to convince them that the house payment overwhelmed him. His job paid well, but it only barely made him through a $1,500 house payment and other bills, as well as food for three people.

walking to workSyd would call and repeat to me a familiar tale of woe. She couldn’t find a job. She left her car in the driveway for lack of insurance. I begged her not to be picky. She lived in a part of town where people had to own cars just to get around. “You will have to walk, at first.” I said. But after you have a job for a month or two, you will be able to buy insurance on top of paying Beau rent. Walking to work would tax her, make her get up early and plan to leave for work an hour before she had to clock in. Go down to the grocery store and get on as a cashier or stocker. There’re fast-food places always looking for help. Any number of restaurants lined the streets near where she lived. She would have none of it. She didn’t apply for jobs. She sat at home.

Ultimately, Beau had enough. He decided to short-sell the house and get out from underneath the huge payments and his spongy relatives. He had fallen in love with a woman in New York, who lived outside of Buffalo. He secured work there and made arrangements to live separately from his new love until her divorce was complete.

Sydney called me one day and said she had thirty days to vacate Beau’s house. He’s selling, she said, and I need a place to live. Can I move back in with you?

After a period of reflection, during which I considered Syd’s background with us and her future on her one, I said no.

“But, dad,” she said, “I don’t have a job. I don’t have the money for a deposit for an apartment. I’m going to be homeless.”

soup kitchen“Listen,” I said, “I know everybody. We can get you temporary shelter. There are places you can eat and where you can use food pantries. Some places even have clothes. You will be cared for. It may not be in the manner you want, but you will not starve. Unless you want to, you will not have to sleep on park benches or under bridges.”

She was angry and hurt. I went on, “Sydney, this is your time. You will either become independent or dependent. If I let you back into this house, you will have no incentive to get a job or an apartment. I would be carrying you. I can’t, in good conscience, take this time away from you. This is your defining moment. Take advantage of it.”

It wasn’t difficult to turn my child away. Of course, I worried. What happens if she doesn’t find a job? What if she has to live in shelters and get her food from food pantries? Will I be doing her a favor by relegating her to a life of abject poverty, if she decides that proverty’s the way she wants to go?

I remembered my first attempt to live on my own. It wasn’t pretty. I didn’t really know how to provide for myself. I had a job, but I was a drunk, and drinking meant more than either a job or a steady apartment. But I had one thing going for me, and that was a sense of priorities. If I made enough money to pay the rent, then I would be legitimate. I would have a place to drink. I would have my bills paid.

It had to happen. My parents had moved out of town. I couldn’t go home.

These priorities were based on drinking. If I had a job, a place to stay, and enough to drink, I was on top of the world. That was what I settled for. There were times when I had to choose between eating and drinking, and drinking always beat out eating. I made just enough, no more. I saved nothing but I was drunk all the time and that’s what mattered.

I maintained that kind of life for many years. At some point, it was bound to come apart, and it almost did. I was almost to the point of falling off the map. I was alone. At one point, I even chose not to have a phone because there was no one to call. Only by dint of a scholarship, which I received only because I was a student with an above average grade, did I escape complete homelessness and beggary. I was that close.

After I sobered up, things changed drastically. Without the option of drinking, I had extra money in my pocket. I saved a little. Over time, I wound up with jobs that paid greater than minimum wages.

By the time Syd called and asked to move back into the house, I was twenty years sober. I had dealt with hundreds of alcoholics, many of whom just wanted someone to care for them, provide them shelter, or give them enough money to make it to the next drink. I saw how dependence subjugated them to lives of poverty and woe. I also saw in them my own shitty life before I sobered up. I realized that if I had someone or some people to care for me, bail me out of jails, get my out of close scrapes, I would have kept drinking, probably until I wound up begging on the street for my next drink.

With this experience, then, I told Syd that she had to do what she needed to build her own life. Letting her back into the house would have allowed her to continue her own bad habits. She wouldn’t get a job unless she found something she really liked. She wouldn’t face the lessons that twenty year olds should learn.

She was scared. She wheedled her way around and brought up her impending homelessness again and again. But I’d set my heart on her innate ability to survive, to manage her own affairs, or, at least, learn to try to manage those affairs.

Two weeks after I told her she had to find her own way, she called me up and told me she had a job—and a roommate! The job paid little but with someone to share expenses with, she would be just fine.

I was happy to see her develop really quickly over the next months. She discovered that roommates mean heartache, disagreements, disputes over who owed what for which bills. She negotiated these difficulties. She learned, over time, that her piggishness and bad habits alienated other people. She had to keep the apartment clean. She had to clean up after herself.

Six months after I told her she had to find her own way, she called me and thanked me. She could see, she said, just how her bad habits would have persisted without the impetus to build her own life. She began to define herself as an adult, she said. Saying no to her, she asserted, was the best thing that ever happened to her.

I look back on that time and compare her progress to where she is today. She is self-sufficient. She has her own apartment—she’s decided that roommates are more trouble than they are worth. We recently gave her a car. She could have bought one on her own, but we decided that she may use the extra money for college, with which she has a spotty history. She has done without a care for years because of her bad driving habits—she wrecked two cars in a short time and gave up driving for a while. She rode the bus and walked to her jobs until she received that car. Now, she’s free to pursue a social life like she never experienced before. Plus, her gain was my gain. I didn’t have to go through the pain of selling the car, which is an older model that would have done me little good in the way of money.

In short, sure, we helped her out with a car. But that’s very different than allowing her to be dependent on us for food, clothing, and shelter. I threatened her with homelessness and the gamble paid off. Even if it hadn’t I would have made the same decision. My experience seemed to work against her but it turned out that it worked for her.

I am nothing but proud of my little girl.

 

 

Why I hate spring, or How I almost hung myself but went to the nervous hospital instead

Standard

nicholsonAbout four years ago, I went to the mental hospital.

Springtime was on me. The season has always been difficult for me. It emerges from the depths and darkness of winter. As the days get longer and the light more intense, I get more and more depressed. I find myself crying, seemingly just for the hell of it. Feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness grow. I stay in bed longer and sleep during odd times of the day. Fatigue plagues me.

Soon, usually by the beginning of March, the world looks and feels dead to me. I see the flowers and the trees busting into green. I hear the birds and see the rabbits. Beauty is all around and I have no connection to it. I find myself going into deep isolation. Thoughts of suicide and absconding from home haunt me. A pall hangs over me. I know I should be doing things but cannot find the energy or ambition to undertake them. All sounds are too loud. Activity around me, any activity, grates on me like sandpaper on raw nerves.

rainy dayThere’s very little I favor about spring but gray, rainy days. I’m happiest when the sky closes and the rain falls. I only really like sunny weather in the high summer, when the days bake the earth and the grass dies. I’m always a little sad when the weather cools off as summer fades. But then the rain begins and the days grow shorter. Things start looking up.

IMG_0256In the past, spring was always the time that I changed my life. I’ve taken up new hobbies in the spring, started grand art projects, and terraced a backyard—a project involving shovel, mattock, wheelbarrow, and twenty tons of rock—in the spring. I’ve planned long trips. It was spring when I decided I would walk to Montana, and I took off on foot for Montana in the spring, suffering all the anxieties and fears that usually come forward at that time of the year. But at the time, I had things to think about other than my inability to get out of bed. I couldn’t repair to my sleeping bag or hide. I walked through the countryside. Not many places along two-lane roads in the Midwest accommodate a depressive in the thralls of his tribulation.

Each spring, I resolved to read more, and I did. I read all the time, but in spring, I disappeared into books as if they were underground bunkers. For decades, I didn’t understand what was happening to me. Little did I understand that these activities, many of them back-breaking or intellectually taxing, provided distraction from the darker feelings that erupt in me in the spring.

Four years ago, the winter was dark and deep. I visited a friend in Berlin and other friends in Germany for two weeks, and, thankfully, the sun shined on only one day. After I returned, snow blanketed Kansas City. The sun didn’t shine for weeks.

Then, the days grew longer and the weather cleared. I plunged deep into darkness. Sadness over my German friend’s impending death occupied me. At home, I barely talked to my family. I sunk into books. Activities with my son felt obligatory and difficult. I could hardly move myself much less be a father to a young boy rife with all the energy and curiosity that kids his age should possess. (He was eight at the time.)

Soon, I wanted nothing to do with the outside world. I rose in the morning solely because the alarm clock told me to. I had to hoist myself out of bed. My impulse was to burrow into bed further, turn off the world around me, and sleep. I had teaching responsibilities and went through them as if under robotic control. I dodged my students and didn’t talk to my colleagues.

Thoughts of suicide grew. I found myself obsessed trying to figure out how to string myself up in the basement so my son would not be the first person to find me.

All the while, my thoughts seemed rational. Of course, I reasoned, I was scared. There were things to be scared of. The weight of life pressed on me, as it should, since I have always done penance for being me. Suicide seemed like a reasonable way to deal with the darkness and fear.

depressionIt never struck me that these feelings and thoughts were irrational until one morning, a Sunday. I somehow hove myself out of bed that morning at 11 a.m. My wife worked the night before and was sleeping in anticipation of another night shift. My t-shirt and jeans weighed a ton, or, at least, that’s the way they felt. Again, I was thinking of which rope I would use to tie my neck to the beam in the basement. When I made it to the living room, my son asked what we were going to do that day. I didn’t have an answer.

I sat with Nick for about an hour. He was watching cartoons, jumping around as he’s apt to do when he’s in front of the television for too long. Suddenly, something inside me broke. Darkness and weight, isolation and suicide were not rational. They were, in fact, destructive. I wondered why I didn’t see it before.

I dragged myself to the bathroom, where I bagged up my medications in a large sandwich bag. I made arrangements for Nick that evening and night. Walking into the bedroom, I woke my wife and told her, “Darling, I’m going to Research Psych. I have to.” I told her not to worry, Nick was taken care of. She looked up at me in half-sleep and told me that whatever I needed to do, I should do it.

Virginia, my wife, knows the struggles I have with the darkness. Depression some call it. I don’t know if it is depression or just an inability to cope with certain aspects of living. I know that my deepest periods of darkness are connected somehow with the length of the day. But enough depressive episodes occur between springs to convince me that depressive episodes are just part of me. I have to tolerate them. Sometimes, I think I’m an escapist looking for a reason to withdraw.

childersWith Virginia’s blessing, I took that bag of medication and drove, as well as I could—even stoplights seemed too much input—and walked up the counter of the mental hospital. I remembered that Karl Childers, the main character in the movie Slingblade, called the mental hospital the nervous hospital. I liked that. I was nervous and upset, using all the energy I could muster to talk to the clerk at the desk.

“I’m here to check in,” I told the clerk, not looking at him. When these episodes occur, I tend not to make eye contact. I look at the floor.

“Yes, well . . . uh . . . people usually call before they come in,” he said. I handed him the bag of medications.

“I’m here,” I said. “This is where I need to be. I’m not leaving.”

“Well, fill this out and take a seat. We’ll be right with you.”

I filled in the blanks in the admitting form. I noticed my hand was shaking and my script looked like that of an 80-year-old. I gave the form back to the clerk and took a seat in the corner, hiding as best I could from the other people there, probably families waiting to visit inmates.

After an excruciating hour, a woman came out and asked me if I was Patrick Dobson. She took me back for an admitting interview. She asked questions about my medications, what doctor I was seeing, and if I had any medical conditions the doctors should be aware of. She asked if I struggled with depression. Then, she asked standard questions about depression, probing to see if I really needed to be there.

“Have you had any thoughts of suicide or hurting yourself?” she said.

“Of course,” I said. “What’s a good depression without them?”

At that, she stood up, waved me over with a weapons wand, and took me to the back, into the nervous part of the nervous hospital.

I talked with a doctor, who showed me around the place, my bed first, and then the other facilities. I shuffled behind him with my eyes to the floor. When he left, the other patients gathered around.

“You mean you’re staying?” a woman in a gray, faded gabardine jacket asked.

“Yeah, well, sure I’m staying,” I said. I made for my room. It was dark in there. Though there was another bed in the room, I had no roommate.

“But, wait,” the woman said. “You’re not a doctor?”

patientsI don’t know what would have given her the idea that I was a doctor. I was dressed in a black, long-sleeved pullover shirt and jeans. Outside of my dress, I may have impressed the patients with my aloof and distant demeanor.

“No,” I said. “I just checked in.” I stood there a minute, looking at the floor. Then, I went off to my room.

That evening was a long one. The halls of the institution were white and fluorescent. Noises echoed through the place. Plastic covered the mattress underneath the sheet, something I wasn’t surprised at. It was just new to me. The bathroom door stopped about a foot and a half above the floor. The top of the door was cut at a steep angle, I supposed, to keep people from hanging themselves. They told me at check-in that I’d only be allowed to shave under supervision.

Man lying on a sofa while with therapist making notes

I stayed in the nervous hospital for a week. I met with a doctor every day for about two hours. After a couple days of these chats, he thought that the treatment I’d been receiving was flawed. I had been on serotonin re-uptake inhibitors for about ten years. He determined that I was bipolar depressive with chronic monopolar characteristics. This meant, in effect, that I was always depressed but some times worse than others. I experienced moments when I thought I could do anything, and, in fact, could do a lot, manage a great deal, and take on more than most people. But crashes and seasonal-affective disorder created bone-crushing depressions.

The answer, he believed, lie in a drug developed in the 1960s called oxcarbazepine, an anticonvulsant first developed for epileptics that affects the brain’s dopamine receptors. The drug’s side-effects solved problems of anxiety and mood disorders. This combined with lamotrigine, also used for epileptics but also for bipolar disorder, might solve my chronic depressions. A psychologist, he added, “might help you with your feelings of inadequacy and this strange feeling you have of being a fraud.”

While I was in the hospital, I began eating again. I’d lost a lot of weight in the weeks previous to my nervous hospital escapade. The food in the psych ward was surprisingly good, and there was lots of it. Three times a day, patients lined up at the door to go to the cafeteria. The staff laid out all kinds of good things in hotel pans. Since we were the only customers, the food was always fresh, with lots of fruit and vegetables, beautiful deserts, and, I supposed, since I don’t eat meat, plenty of animals cooked to perfection.

In addition, two refrigerators stood in the nervous hospital day room, where people milled about or watched television between smoking cigarettes. The fridges held all kinds of fruit juices, yogurts, and fruit. Cabinets between the refrigerators were stocked with granola bars and cereals. Between meals, I grazed in the day room, eating things just because I could.

smokerNearly everyone in the place smoked but me. When I went outside into the tiny, sad courtyard, the smokers stayed in. I’ll never forget the first time I went outside. All the people there filed in the door like I had some disease. Then, they stood with their faces at the windows until I went inside, at which time they filed out and lit their cigarettes. This was disconcerting. I finally asked one of the smokers what I was doing wrong.

“Nothing,” he said. “The hospital staff won’t let the non-smokers go outside with the smokers.”

hangingOne woman in the nervous hospital with me wore bandages that went around her arms above the wrists. She was very beautiful and seemed sweet. She asked me how I came to be in the hospital. I checked myself in, I said. I was going to hang myself. She laughed and held up her arms. “Yeah,” she said. “I know what you mean. At least I think I do. They found me on the bathroom floor.”

A tall, lanky and friendly guy was in for alcohol treatment. We struck up a kind of friendship, or, rather, comradery over a couple of days. When he found out that I had not had a drink for twenty years, he said, “Twenty years and you’re in the psych ward? What’s in it for me?”

“At least,” I said, “I don’t have to go through this whole thing drunk. I can’t imagine the horror.”

“Well, I suppose that’s something,” he said. “I might want to give this sobriety thing a try. But you aren’t going to be my role model.”

About the third day, I began to feel better. I struck up a rapport with the hospital staff and my fellow inmates. I led art therapy sessions where the other patients and I worked with plaster, paints, and colored markers. I attended group therapy sessions where I wound up leading discussions. Every evening, I’d hide in my room, where I did pushups and shoved against the walls and beds—which were firmly anchored to the floor—to get some physical exercise. I had a roommate for one night. He snored and talked in his sleep. After that one night, I never saw him again.

Virginia and Nick visited me twice that week. It felt like visits I’d made to my friends in prison. We sat at a round table and they asked how I was doing. We talked about little things, how Nick was doing in school, how did walking the dogs go, etc. It was nice to have them there. When the visits came to a close, they asked me to continue calling them every night.

bergmanOne evening, I commandeered the television and turned to the classic movie channel. Instead of rounds of reality and game shows, we watched Joan of Arc with Ingrid Bergman. At first, I could feel my fellow inmates grouse about missing The Real Wives of Orange County. But I told them about the life of Ingrid Bergman and how critics considered this particular role one of her greatest. My fellow patients took interest in the movie. Soon, patients filled the day room. When someone came in and started talking, my mates shushed them. It was a real night at the movies with popcorn and apple juice.

After a week, the doctor told me I was good to go. I’d started the new drug regimen and was feeling better, mostly from having taken a break from myself. I drove home. The stoplights didn’t throw me into anxious fits. The sun was shining, which was kind of irritating but I didn’t feel the need to hide.

In the four years since I went to the nervous hospital, depressions have come and gone. Some have been severe. During spring two years ago, I walked around for a solid two weeks on the edge of tears. I felt worthless and useless. But I didn’t think of hanging myself. In fact, the thought of suicide by hanging or any other means has not entered my head since I was on the psych ward.

Regardless of the state of my mental health in the intervening years, I’ve wanted to return to the nervous hospital from time to time. Despite all the disadvantages—plastic on the mattresses, the dismal and sterile interior of the place, the little courtyard with its anemic bushes, the other patients—I found the nervous hospital to be a good place to disappear, just like I always wanted.

Afterword:

I thought I’d revealed my suicide wish to Virginia when I was in the nervous hospital. About three months ago, I told her that I was headed into one of my episodes and that things might be difficult for me for the next couple of weeks. I always tell Virginia when the beast is on me.

This time, I happened to say, “Well, it’s not going to be that bad this time. At least I don’t think so. At least I’m not thinking of hanging myself in the basement like I did before I went to the nervous hospital.”

She immediately began to cry. Why the long face, I asked.

“You never told me that you were thinking of killing yourself,” she said. “This is the first I’ve heard of it.”

I realize now, looking back, that I keep a lot of myself to myself. That’s something I need to work on.

 

On wordless days

Standard

Some days I don’t have the gumption or the inspiration to write. Such times make me feel useless, ineffective at doing what I love to do. Today was such a day until just a minute ago.

writer

Throes of Creation by Leonid Pasternak

I left home early today to come out to the college. I always feel better when I have a quiet place to work away from home. There’s just enough noise here to keep me from being distracted by the little creeks and cracks that happen in my empty office. The other profs outside this office door go about the business of schooling. They discuss students. I can hear one complaining just now about student writing, one of the greatest problems any of us have. We all share offices here. Two other profs catch up after a long summer. They have shared an office here for years. Their banter provides a steady background noise that cancels out the little distractions.

Since the start of a new semester, I getting into the habit of coming out to the college hours before my class. I need this moment of reflection on  events and feelings. In the quiet of my office, somewhere, a poem will appear, just pop out. There’s always an essay in the works. I never know where an essay will come from or which one I will write on any given day. I just know that three to four essays a week makes me feel  better than just one or two, or none at all. In the quiet of my office, those essays, like the poems, materialize from the ether of thought and contemplation. They start as motes that gather others to them. Eventually, they grow and take on lives of their own. Then, I put them on a page.

I’d rather work in my office. When I work at home, little things distract me. One of the dogs barks. Another, having a dream, ruffs and whines. There’s food in the refrigerator. I need to mow the yard. I have a bed to take a nap in. I don’t usually watch television during the day. But once in a while, on a day like today when the words don’t flow, I’ll sit down and flip mindlessly through the channels. The feeling of worthlessness grows on me. The distance between me and a piece of writing widens. Soon, I’m surfing around channels because that’s all I am capable of.

Other days when I’m working at home, the wife’s also home and up. She works nights three days a week. On days before she works, I can count on working in peace, or as much peace as I can get while I’m at home. She’ll be sleeping during the day and I have the place to myself.

When she has the night off, the television’s on. She watches videos on her phone—the tinny and whiny sounds that emanate from the phone’s tiny speakers act like sandpaper on raw nerves. I grit my teeth, wait for it to be over. Sometimes she’ll use headphones, which I like since her activity doesn’t get into my personal space. Then, other times, she’ll start to tell me about her work life, the patients she tends to, the loves and hardships of being a nurse.

I try to listen, or look like I’m listening. But I’m thinking, I’m trying to write. This is my work. If I’m listening to you, I am not accomplishing the thing that gives my life meaning and purpose outside of family.

In short, home is not a good place for me to work.

When the words don’t flow, it generally means I didn’t go through the processes that I should if I am going to be a writer. The writing process starts well in advance of a word landing on a page. In order to write an essay  on a particular day, I have to start the night before. In the evening before going to bed, I write in a journal. There’s nothing spectacular in that journal—what I did on a particular day, how I feel, the frustrations and fears of day-to-day living. But a moment always arrives when I think of something I want to write about.

When that happens, I make a brief sketch in my notebook, usually write less and fifty words, mostly just a sentence. For instance, I used to hate cats. That small sentence, “I used to hate cats,” generates a line of thinking that winds through the night, in my dreams, perhaps, and then into the next morning. All the while, my mind works on that idea. I used to hate cats but now I don’t. Why?

Sometime the next day, I will try to answer that question. The act of hating cats is not interesting in itself, nor is the act of loving cats or even being indifferent to them. What’s interesting is how I shifted from hating cats to loving them. It hinged upon the moment that our cat, named Bill, wound up on our porch as a stray one winter night. There’s an essay in that. And an essay is what essayists write.

Usually the act of forcing myself to think about something to write brings forth a passel of ideas. Writing down a short sentence or sketch may not wind up transforming itself into an essay, but something that I thought of while processing the idea becomes an essay subject. I might think about how I used to hate cats and think about the wreckage of my past and how I still feel it. There’s an essay in that. Or, randomly, I’ll remember the stars on a night in the mountains. This turns into an idea that has atmosphere, feeling, and conflict. How do you contemplate the stars when you live in the middle of a large city? What do the stars look like when you are in the middle of the ocean with no artificial light around for hundreds of miles?

That turns into a thousand words, at least. On days I put in my thousand words, I feel useful. I have fulfilled the requirements for being a writer. I have written.

Today, I feel like a writer. You’ve helped me with that. Thanks for being here for me.

 

 

Trout fishing in myself

Standard

trout fishing in AmericaSome books have provided me priceless revelations. W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge turned on something fundamental in me. Larry Darrell’s traveler/loner appealed to me and let me understand that the things he was seeking—humility and egalitarian democracy in his own life—I was looking for myself. In Catch-22, Joseph Heller presented a complex and existentially absurd world that resembled the life I had known. I also wanted the authentic and autonomous life Yossarian so hungered for.

But the little book Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan made most sense of all. Adrift in a world of production and consumption, the narrator seeks a new place of his own definition. The main characters, all named Trout Fishing in America, each inhabited a special place in my mind. Besides being the title of the book, “Trout Fishing in America” plays many roles in the book. It is a character, a hotel, fishing itself, and another character named Trout Fishing in America Shorty.

Brautigan’s novel isn’t much like any other. Instead of a story arc, with a build-up, action, climax, and denouement, Brautigan constructed the novel from seemingly disconnected stories, each of which make some statement about life in the United States or about humanity itself. My favorite chapter, “Tom Martin Creek” begins as many fishing stories would–but is only a page long. The narrator catches a trout in tiny Tom Martin Creek in a pool under a culvert that passes under a road. It’s a good fish that “fought all over the top of the pool.” The narrator decides he likes the feel of the creek. He likes the name of the creek, too, and decides to follow it, like one might follow a person, “to see what they have to offer.”

Like many people who seem interesting at first glance, Tom Martin Creek has nothing more to offer. After the narrator (who has no name) caught that first fish, he finds the creek deals him rocky bends, pine-cone strewn gutters, and a canyon so narrow that the creek “poured out of it like water from a faucet.” After dashing himself against the tribulations of the creek, he says that, “You had to be a plumber to fish that creek.” That first trout was it. The creek had nothing else. “I was alone in there. But I didn’t know that until later.”

The entire book is a collection of narratives on the nature of fishing and other people. The narrator seems to be just an observer, telling the reader about youth, loss of youth, the wonder of the natural world, and disappointment. At no time does the novel descend into worry or despair. It is what it is, and the mind of Brautigan reveals present-day existence to be a series of absurdist events. Trout Fishing in America is the very essence of Dada with the trout being the only thing that makes much sense.

catch 22The first time I picked up the book, I so liked some scenes and chapters that I read the book three times. It’s not a hard book to read that many times in a row. It takes only a couple of hours at most to make it from cover to cover. Like Catch-22 and The Razor’s Edge, I have read Trout Fishing in America innumerable times. I just reread it twice in the last few months. The probability that I will read it again is very high.

The book was a revelation. Someone, like Heller, understood the world like I did. My adult life careened crazily from one endeavor, one emotional jag, to another. Bureaucratic nightmares lurked around every corner. The novel explained such absurdities as the only way to get a job was to have experience, but the only way to get experience was to get a job. The way out of a dismal existence was to accept that existence, but accepting its existence gave it credence and legitimacy.

The book framed my young life, as well. Suddenly, the arbitrary nature of home life when I was a kid made a kind of sense, if nonsense can transform itself into sense. The kaleidoscope shifts in emotions, actions, and situations didn’t seem foreign to me anymore. The nature of a kaleidoscope places a person in a stable position while the world in front of them speeds in a flowing sequence of colors and shapes. I was the person at the end of the kaleidoscope. I was the only stable element in my world. I could become an actor in the chaos. And that’s what I liked most about Trout Fishing in America.

Most of the time, I see the world through a lens that offers a view like that of Catch-22 and Trout Fishing in America. A privileged business mogul who has little connection with the lives of ordinary Americans becomes the front-runner in an election race. People live perfectly normal, if meaningless lives just down the street from abject poverty. Preachers and the morally righteous teach that dependence on ritual and an antiquated tale of a desert people will set them free. We live our lives for the afterlife. Citizens move to faceless suburbs to protect their children from the vagaries of the urban world, only to leave them adrift in a world of non-possibility. We go to school to learn how to be slaves to a system that distributes neither money nor power in ways that might let us become authentic, original human beings.

How am I—or anyone—supposed to make sense of these absurdities?

Even now, my comfort depends on the misery of countless people in the developing world. Low-wage workers in dirty factories make the baubles and bits that I consider luxuries. I don’t need the toaster like I don’t need a career, but they are always there if I choose to want them. I am lucky enough to have the choice. My immigrant neighbor has to work endless hours to afford a smoky little car.

the razorIn the end, a book like Trout Fishing in America has more to teach me than a Bible or the great classics. But I read the Bible and the classics to put Trout Fishing in America in context. The Bible and the classics formed the civilization I live in and, in many ways, influence the way I have to live in this world. Brautigan’s book, however, shows me that I can live in this world the great books made any way I damn well want.

The first day of the rest of your semester

Standard
ben stein

Ferris Bueller’s economics teacher

The first day in the classroom went well, as far as I can see. I didn’t have much planned. Like all other things in life, I planned to fly it as it came. I didn’t have a lecture prepared. I didn’t have a class plan. Only the syllabus, which is a long, intricate document, lay at the ready. There’s a lot to talk about and a lot of opportunity for a few laughs.

But the classroom computer didn’t work with a new projector the school installed this summer. I quit printing syllabi years ago. Students pay attention to a hard copy as much as they do something that’s computer-ready. The document is online, accessible anytime, and downloadable for students who want to carry a hard copy.

Without the projector, I had to do something. I made some opening comments about how the class is a difficult, college-level class, after all the operative word in Johnson County Community College is the word “college.” I also mentioned that students didn’t need to be smart or cleaver to pass the class. They just needed the ability and perseverance to do the work.

A great fallback in this situation is class introductions. We started with some poor kid just out of high school. He came from a school with an upper-crust repuation. I made a joke about that. The kid took it well and his pain, if there was any, endeared me to the rest of the class, who understood this all-business kind of teacher had a sense of humor.

At least that’s how I think it went. You never know how a class perceives you. You only get clues. Are people coming to class? Are they paying attention or trying to get away with texting under the table? Do they respond to a joke or do they look at you like you’re just another adult trying to tell them what to do?

The rest of the class members introduced themselves, revealing where they went to high school or college. I asked some of them what they wanted to major in and celebrated those who declared themselves undecided. I was undecided for years. I switched majors like changing socks. I’m still undecided, flowing along like a piece of driftwood on the ocean. Who knows where I’ll end up next.

A couple of male students were going into criminal justice. I asked if that meant they wanted to be cops, lawyers, forensic specialists, crime-scene investigators, etc. It turns out that both wanted to be cops. One said his goal was to get into the FBI. I made a remark about him being so focused so early in his life. There was a good laugh at the expense of G-men everywhere.

As people introduced themselves and talked about their high school or their major, I made intelligent statements or asked them serious questions, as well as cracking wise.

There was only one kid who seemed completely out of sorts. I’m pretty sure he didn’t have an idea of what a college classroom is supposed to be. He was a pimply kid, skinny and tall. When I looked at him, he demurred. It came to his turn and he was afraid. He stated his name and where he went to school. I could tell he didn’t want it to go any farther and that’s where we left it.

During all of this, I called the tech-help people and arranged for one of them to come into the classroom while we talked. When a man arrived, students paid him mind for about three seconds. They were more interested in what other people and I were saying.

When the tech guys, there were two by the end, got the computer up and running, we had only a few minutes left in class. I covered some important aspects of the syllabus and reiterated the importance of them understanding what was in it. They had to take on the responsibility of knowing the workings of the class. I reinforced this with a sound truth—students who read and know the syllabus do better than those who don’t. Those who don’t read the syllabus or only glance at it either do poorly in the class or fail the class altogether.

In all, I pulled off a successful first class. It’s my first time in front of a classroom in over a year. I have been teaching online the past semesters. In fact, I can’t remember the last class I taught in the classroom. Four semesters ago, maybe?

Every class is different. I have not taught classes the same way twice. I’m always learning how to shape classes for the student’s benefit. This leads me to change things up every semester.

I still don’t know how I’m going to conduct classes this semester. Ideally, we would work through the textbook and have discussions every class period. But this will be hard to pull off. Students just don’t read unless they absolutely have to. Unless a significant part of their grade derives from class discussion, they just won’t take it seriously.

Right now, the students’ grades come from tests, writing projects, and weekly quizzes. I am loathe to change this. The measures are objective. Pass a test. Write a good paper. Do the quizzes. Regardless, I believe the students teach students better and more effectively than teachers teach students.

So, I am ditching most lectures this semester. In past semesters, I lectured from my own notes and knowledge hard-won from years of study. I find that most students find my lectures interesting. But I can tell that some just won’t be convinced that the stuff is worth their time. Most don’t know how to take notes, and when they do, they still get lost. Even on their best days, much of my lecture comes across as more blah-blah-blah.

So, I’m going to focus this class on getting the grade. Here, we have a set of exercises and standards. They must take those tests and write those papers. This time, however, we will spend our class time concentrated on getting them to think in dynamic and innovative ways. I won’t be teaching to the test, but I will help them build their grades, one paper or test or quiz at a time.

We will work from the textbook, which I hate. But I want these students to walk out of the classroom with the basic knowledge and timeline of American History since Reconstruction. They should know how to write an essay and analyze documents. They should, if I do my job right, be able to navigate the halls of any four-year college or university with confidence.

I think I will try to create an atmosphere of open conversation this semester. Rather than telling students what they should know, I want to show them by having them show themselves. The best way to do this, I think, is to avoid being the only person in the classroom who’s talking. I will distract them with relevant information. Movies, recordings, and other media help students understand the nature of history better than a guy droning on and on about things he thinks are important.

They will have to do the work. Only, unlike classes I’ve taught in the past, I’m making them do more work. I hope to be Tom Sawyer at the picket fence. That’s my goal: Get them involved with their own learning without having them know they are doing all that work.

Bill the Flying Cat, or How to skin a cat hater

Standard
bill five

Bill the Flying Cat

Some days I’d like to strangle Bill the Flying Cat.

Bill came to us in winter four years ago. He was a kitten who wound up on our porch when the temperature hovered around 3. His small stature and aloof personality attracted me. He had one eye that didn’t open as far as the other. He’d been in a few scraps.

I love the small things, the deformed and handicapped, the things and people who have a rough time in the world just from the circumstances of their birth. I thought at the time that Bill showed up that he’d had a tough time already or was cut out for one.

Bill first took up on the overstuffed chair on the porch. Years of use hollowed out the seat of the chair into a nest-like depression, where he could stay warm. When we came out on the porch, he didn’t jump away or start. He just propped his head up on the chair arm and looked at us. He didn’t need us, I think, as much as he wanted us. He chose us. And this is what I liked best about him.

It was January, the coldest month of a cold winter. It had been a rough time of year for us. My good friend and brother, Joachim, died that December. He had spent over a year battling back the brain cancer growing in his skull.  He received the best care the German health care system had to offer. But it didn’t, in the end, do away with the cancer or save his life.

Two of our dogs also died that winter, with my wife Virginia’s favorite, Auto, dying the same day that Joachim did. We were all bereft, depressed, and finding it hard to live from day to day.

That January rode in like a chariot, killing the small things and freezing the bums under the bridge in its wake. The sun didn’t shine for the first three weeks of the month, and then when it did, it glinted off the snow like knives. The depressive and bipolar couldn’t stand up to a January like that. And, indeed, a wealthy loner in the neighborhood named Charles killed himself that month, leaving a house and yard full of cats.

We think Bill was the runt of a litter but we don’t really know. It makes a good story. I don’t know much about cats and even less about the suicidal loner. If he was one of the progeny of the loner’s cats, the cat soon to be named Bill navigated half the neighborhood, about a half mile, to the chair on our porch. He looked like most other cats in the neighborhood—bi-colored dark gray and white (a color patter I now know as “mask-and-mantle”)—except for his small size. He was still a kitten, but even I could tell he was small for his age.

At the time, I was fundamentally anti-cat. In the past, cats produced strong allergic reactions in me. Whenever I got around cats, I found it difficult to breathe. My lungs being filled with steel wool. My eyes watered and stung. My nose ran. A rash broke out wherever I brushed up against a cat.

But I felt for Bill. Small, out in the cold, finding comfort on our porch endeared him to me. I refused to have him in the house. As I would for other small things, I put out food. It occurred to my wife, Virginia, that Bill needed more in his nest. She and my daughter and son arranged blankets and towels in the chair so that Bill might have a deeper nest. Virginia put out those hand-warmers that you take from the plastic enclosure and shake to activate. After a week, she bought a bag of cat food, as well as some soft food in cans. Except for the cold, Bill had it made on that porch.

While Virginia, son Nick, and daughter Sydney took part of their day to hold and pet Bill, I remained distant. I didn’t want a cat in the house and thought that, while necessary in the short term, our care for him would make him dependent on us. We should take him and get him neutered or spayed but then he should be let out to fend for himself like those other neighborhood cats.

Soon, care for Bill turned into the kids sneaking Bill into the house for short periods of time. They tried to keep it secret but I could tell. My eyes erupted. My lungs burned. I itched all over. Goddammit, I said. The cat has to stay outside. Other people in the neighborhood took care of cats who lived outside all the time. We would do the same.

Over the next weeks, however, the kids brought Bill in more often. Soon, my eyes didn’t smart the same as before. It was easier to breathe. I didn’t itch as much. I could still feel when Bill had been in the house. But it wasn’t as terrible as in the first weeks of Bill’s time with us.

And don’t get me wrong. I liked Bill. I went outside like the others and pet him. I felt for him, being out in the bitter cold and dark January. After the first week, I even wanted Bill to stay with us, outside, of course, but stay with us all the same. I looked forward to feeding Bill every morning, and even to seeing him come around after he lived the private life that all cats lead.

It wasn’t long before the kids begged me to let Bill stay in the house full time. Seeing them and their excitement combined with the affection I’d gained for Bill urged me to let them have their wish. I didn’t even have time to commit before the kids believed the deal was sealed and they owned a cat. After a few days, my allergic reaction to Bill faded. I was still anti-Bill, but he made the other members of my family happy enough so I put my own selfishness aside and welcomed Bill into the house.

Bill got his name because, at first, we thought he was a girl. We—my wife, son, and daughter—all thought Bill was a girl. I suggested we name her Bill, since Bill fit a girl cat. It was a cool name, simple. A cat could learn that name easily. And people could have fun with it too. They could easily expand Bill into Wilhelmina, Wild Bill, or Billy. Or whatever.

A week or ten days after we let Bill in the house, Bill showed us he was a boy cat. He kept lifting his ass in the air when we pet him. Those little nads began to poke out. It was then we took him for shots and to get neutered. He spent a couple of days resentful about that but stuck around.

We tried, as good cat owners, to keep him in the house. An urban neighborhood poses a number of dangers for small cats. Big cats want to fight all the time, and Bill demonstrated he liked to fight. Either that or he had to establish himself among the other cats that hang around this end of the black. Then, cars race up our street to the corner. We live on a short little block that shoots off the main boulevard. People driving 35 or 40 miles per hour don’t slow down when they make the slight turn off the wider street. A fox lives in the back somewhere or patrols the alley regularly. Urban foxes are desperados with never enough to eat. A small cat like Bill would make a good meal for the fox.

bill three

Molly Maguire

Bill had already had a taste of the freedom of the outdoors, however, and we couldn’t keep him from whining, howling at the front door when he wanted out. He learned to use the doggie door we’d installed for the dogs now dead. By this time we adopted a stray wiener dog we named Molly Maguire. We couldn’t lock up the dog door or we would be taking Molly out for a pee or a howl at the cars rolling past every twenty minutes. The dog door remained open. Bill had free access to inside and out, which he retains to this day.

Who knows what Bill does when he’s outdoors. He lives a secret life away from us. He maintains his aloofness when he’s inside most of the time. When it pleases him, he shacks up in laps or along the back of the couch. He knows to bother us when we’re reading or when I’m trying to write. To get him to leave us alone, we pet him. That makes him think that pestering us is a good way to win affection.

bill oneAnd he flies. As I said, I don’t know much about cats or how high they can jump. Since we have to keep his food on the kitchen counter to keep Molly (and now another once-stray we named Sadie) from eating it. Bill makes a vertical leap three five times his standing height to the counter. I’ve seen him jump from the porch to the grape trellis, and from the porch railing to the roof. It’s as if he has wings.

bill four

Sadie (Sarah Moore Grimke)

The thing that bugs me about Bill is that he possesses all the poise and peace of a Zen master. Nothing bugs him. He goes about his business not caring about what we think of him. He’s either established a territory that’s his own or he has ceased fighting. He no longer comes home with scratches on his face or flank. He acts as if no problem in the world exists indoors or out. He also knows when I’m down or anxious. In these times, he offers his back and neck to me, sometimes even demanding that I pay attention to him. At the same time, it matters little to him whether I tend to him or not.

Being emotionally unstable, I am often distraught or having some issue or worry. I want what Bill has. I desire his peace and serenity, even the life of a kept cat. I have yet to find it.

I want to strangle Bill for being so well adjusted, adult, and independent. Sometimes I get to the point where I believe I deserve those things. Bill reminds me how far I have to go. I want to kill him.
bill two

The best of a bad job

Standard

drunk-guyWhen I sobered up twenty-five years ago, I wasn’t ready for the new life presented me. I was out of joint, sick, and without one lick of self-awareness. Some of this can be a blessing. Had I known what the future held for me, particularly the amount of work I would have to do on my past, I might never had made it.

When the end came, I was simply ready to be unsick. I didn’t understand what “healthy” meant, but I wanted an end to the pain. A few days after putting down that last drink, I became unsick. It was a new feeling to me, to see the day and the life in front of me without the lens of a hangover for the first time in over nine years. I was 27 and had been drinking regularly since I was eleven. By the time, I was 18, I was drunk every day. Every damn day. Hangovers ruled my mornings, jitters the afternoon. It was only with the coming of night that I felt the relief that only comes to an alcoholic with enough to drink, get drunk, and pass out.

I can’t say I loved being a drunk. Of course, at first, the feeling of drunkenness overjoyed me. I felt like another person. I was no longer the fat kid. I felt articulate, smart, accepted by my peers. These feelings were fleeting, as soon as the drink wore off, I became my old self, and I didn’t like that self. I hated that self. I always needed more drink to feel different, better, and more fit for a life in the wider world.

After a couple of years, however, life turned sordid. My apartments rotted in their buildings. I sustained a life, but just barely. I often went without a car because car money cut into my drinking money. Isolation was my lot in life. I quit drinking in bars. It was less expensive to drink at home alone. At one point, I decided not to have a phone. I had no one to call.

Putting down the drink was hard at first. I wanted to drink. I sought the kind of escape I related to the early days of drinking. I had lost that escape over time and just became miserable, in love with the idea of escape, of the process of passing out, but unable to relive the euphoria and lack of inhibition that came to me in those first days of drinking when I was just a kid.

I wasn’t unsick long before I came to see a person I didn’t recognize. I was the fat kid again but I didn’t identify with that kid. I lost my ability to articulate myself—as least as much as I thought I expressed myself eloquently. I didn’t feel a part of the world around me, but this wasn’t new to me. Years of drink had isolated me from my peers. I didn’t go about in regular society. In fact, the last three years of drinking, I drank almost exclusively alone.

Then, being unsick wasn’t enough. I seemed to be going nowhere. The relief I felt in the first days and months of being sober faded. I had to do more if I was to live happily. I didn’t even know what that meant, I just knew I wanted it. I wanted to be happy.

But I didn’t know myself. Which person was I? The drunk who retreated to dark rooms to complete the process of blacking out and passing out? The guy who felt such relief at giving up drinking? I knew, somehow, that I had a good heart. But I fumbled at being generous, compassionate, and loving.

It was then that I confronted my past. I wouldn’t long stay sober unless I dealt with my past. I made an inventory of all the wrecked cars, relationships destroyed, money stolen, liquor filched, and lies told. The list went on for pages in my journal. How would I approach the people I’d done wrong? How would I replace wrecked cars? How would I even find some of these people, people who had long given up on me and ran to escape my self-destruction?

I grit my teeth and went at it little by little. I called old acquaintances. I went to employers to tell them of my stealing and offered some restitution. None took me up on it, there was no way, they said, to account for cash but in goods bought and sold. What would they do with a cash payment?

Only a few people were so hurt that they turned away my calls and visits. Many people disappeared from my life forever, and all I could do was to try to be better with people in the future.

Somehow, I turned all the destruction to good. I realize now that all those cars, people, stolen things and money lead me to where I am right now, writing an essay about getting and staying sober.

I still get a twinge of embarrassment from time to time. I remember something in the long past, a work uttered in anger, an awkward moment, an inappropriate action or thought. Moments of unspeakable torture of others and advantages taken crop up from seemingly nowhere. I think to myself, well, that’s long ago and no one would remember it. Then, I realize that unless I’m willing to face the consequences of my actions, words, and thoughts, I will not be happy.

In the end, I still don’t know what happiness is. I feel it, I think, in isolated moments. I continued to make mistakes in sobriety. I didn’t become a social butterfly. I made people uncomfortable with my words and actions. I was awkward and untoward sometimes. I still go through periods of deep self-loathing and doubt. I punish myself for being me. Overall, however, the work of sobriety pays off in good, healthy relationships. I am only unsick part of the time. Otherwise, at least from my perspective (which changes) I’m healthy in mind and spirit.

I live with my past every day. There is no way to go back and un-wreck a car or restore a bitter, broken relationship. Sometimes, I can only make the best of a bad job.

A boy and his canoe

Standard
mirage34

The Bear Creek Canoe Company’s Mirage

When I canoed the Missouri River from Montana to Kansas City, I used a 16-foot boat from the Bear Creek Canoe Company in Limerick, Maine, called the Mirage. The canoe maker, a man whose name has long escaped me, was laying up a new fiberglass and Kevlar design and wanted someone to test it out on a big river. He sent me the canoe and a lifejacket gratis to Helena, where it sat for a week in the back room of a sporting goods store. The canoe maker even sent me $40 to buy paddles, rope, and other necessities.

I used that canoe for a 2,000 mile trip down the Missouri. It saw eleven years and multiple trips down the Missouri—day trips, weekends, overnights—with me. It was a dreamy boat. It’s low profile and square-ish bow and stern cut through the water straight and true. In many ways, the boat formed me to itself over the years. It had become as much a part of me as my own feet.

But someone stole that boat from me in 2006. My son Nick, Ken Larson, his daughter Ava, and I made a little afternoon trip from Parkville, Missouri, to the old Riverfront Park in Kansas City. We put the canoe in the woods and took off in Ken’s car to get mine from English Landing Park in Parkville. I had stashed the canoe and left it offshore tens of times over the years and had no problem. But this time, someone with the means to transport the boat must have seen us and took advantage of the opportunity.

The boat’s loss was personal. It hurt the same way a stolen bicycle creates pain. Take my car, steal my furniture, rob me on the street. Things can be replaced. I can recover from a mugging. But something as well formed to body and mind as a canoe, and a body and mind formed to a canoe in which a person has traveled thousands of miles are irreplaceable.

After the canoe was stolen, I found a little boat and motor for $300. It was a nice boat—14-feet-long, wide on the beam, and sturdy. We used the boat from time to time on the Missouri. The vessel was a pain in the ass, though. Not just anyone has a trailer hitch to pick you up downstream. You can’t put a boat like that on the top of the car with a couple of ropes and spongy pads.

The boat just wasn’t like the canoe. Just about everything concerning the canoe connects me with the river. In a canoe, I feel the river in my hands. The river is immediate, its actions demand my attention. My head sits just three feet above the water. In fact, part of my body rides beneath the surface of the river. I feel the temperature of the river through the bottom of the canoe. The water splashes up over my face. Drips from the paddles soak my pants. I can dip my hat in the water as respite from the hot sun.

The distance from the river increases the more modern conveniences I put between it and me. The boat disconnects me from the waves and the water. I don’t feel the river in the boat. My responses to the river are leaden and delayed. The river runs its own way, and I mine. I know nothing of the river’s nuances. It acts and I act any way I want. I don’t depend on it for anything but its ability to float me on its surface.

After a few years of sitting in the driveway, the boat became a source of worry and woe. Here I had a perfectly good boat that I paid taxes on. I kept the registration sticker current. I made sure the lights worked so I wouldn’t have to worry about getting a ticket. Sure, it was great when I put it on the river and used the oars to stroke us downstream. But I rarely used the boat and when I did I couldn’t relax. The boat motor ran sometimes and balked and coughed at others. I was never sure I would make it back to upstream when I used the motor and getting anyone to pick me up downstream was nearly impossible. I feared losing a kid to the waves. I was jittery.

tire

It kept me up at night.

I lay awake at night thinking about the boat. I should use it. I was fearful of using it. I never knew if that crooked wheel would detach itself from the axle. I didn’t have a spare in case one of the tires went flat. What happened if I had to leave it on the side of the highway? Where would I get the boat repaired? Over the years, I tried to find a repair shop for the engine, but everyone I called didn’t work on engines that old—it was built in 1950.

Finally, this summer, I decided to sell the boat. I asked $500 and sold thee boat in two days. The family that bought it was cute. They were working-class people with happy children who were excited about the possibilities. I had to correct a mistake on the title a few days after I sold the boat to them. When I visited them at their house, they had already bought life jackets and a trolling motor. The man had stripped the old paint off the hull and was spraying new marine paint on it. They were anxious to get the boat on a lake for the fourth of July. After I delivered the title to them, the man left right away for the DMV to get new plates for the trailer.

wenonah

The Wenonah Canoe Company’s Adirondack

A few days later, I found a canoe on Craigslist. An army officer and lawyer on the base at Leavenworth was selling a 16-foot Wenonah Adirondack for $900 (new, $2,300). I had $500 from the boat or I would have thought twice about buying such an expensive craft. The boat design resembled my Bear Creek Mirage. The Adirondack is rated for 650 pounds. The canoe makers laid up the boat with 100 percent Kevlar. It weighs only 49 pounds. (The Mirage was made of Kevlar and fiberglass and weighed 68 pounds.) Since I have broad shoulders, I find the three-foot beam, just like the Mirage, comfortable.

But again, fear paralyzed me. I didn’t have a proper rack for the car. Never having even looked at one before, I had no idea what I was buying. I went cheap first. It took a month to find out from the people I ordered it from that they cancelled the order. They didn’t have one in their warehouse. I ordered another cheap one online, but it didn’t fit the car. I wanted it all to be settled so I could get on the Missouri with a group of paddlers who had canoed all or part of the Missouri t one time or another. But I didn’t have the rack and instead had to watch them pull away from shore near Columbia, knowing that their next week together was going to be a dream and that I was ashore due to my own fear and insecurity.

I ordered another rack online, this one fit the car. But it didn’t show up until two days after those paddlers left the bank. When I watched them pull away, I decided not to let my anxieties rule my life. I put that rack on the car. It was sturdy and steady.

We put my new canoe on the car a couple of days ago and headed out for Longview Lake. The boat rode steady at 35, 45, the 55 and 65 miles an hour. I found myself forgetting that the boat was even on the car, despite it hanging right in my face over the windshield. We got the boat off the car in seconds. Nick had no problem helping me carry our light canoe to the water.

Once we were on the lake–my first time on any body of water outside the Missouri–the wind kicked up waves and at first I found getting the canoe under control difficult. Then I realized that the front of that boat stuck up out of the water like a weathervane, and the wind was in our faces. I weigh 215 pounds. Nick weighs maybe 90. I sat in the back to steer, he in the front. I climbed into the middle of the canoe and found controlling the boat—when it was level—to be easy. It reminded me of taking my Mirage, also a tandem boat, solo. It felt good. I would be taking the Adirondack out solo sometime. I dreamed of it and looked forward to another trip by myself on the Missouri.

We paddled around that lake for a couple of hours. Just paddling, getting used to the boat. I explained to Nick how things worked. He responded with a host of questions. We had a blast.

We left the lake just in front of a storm. The winds buffeted our little craft and it shifted around some on top of the car, making me nervous. But we made it home just fine. The only hitch was that I saw that one of the ratchet straps with which we attached the canoe to the rack came loose—not so much that it put the boat or us in danger, but enough to make me think, my god, I’m glad we didn’t come undone.

I sit here now thinking about that canoe. We are taking it out again today. I am anxious about the wind and the precarious way the boat sits on the rack. But I have decided not to let fear rule my life. We will go out there. If we lose a $900 boat to the highway, then we did it trying to get it on the water and not by letting it rot in the backyard.

And I’m also thinking of the Missouri and the long weekends, weeks, and months on that mighty stream to come.