Throwing bottles into the ocean


I’ve walked across the country and canoed one of the world’s great rivers by myself. When I was underway, I asked no one for help. People came to my assistance because they wanted to tell their stories to a stranger who would not question or contradict them. Some just wanted to be a part of someone else’s journey. Regardless of their intentions, they came to me and I benefited from their presence in my life.

bottle in the oceanToday, I again took off into unknown territory. I am by myself. On this road, there will be few if any who will help me on my way. There won’t be friendly couches to rest on or front yards on which to set up my gear. The road is long, and it is lonely.

Writing a book is hard, solitary, and thankless work. But it rewards the writer. A good, solid scene sets my heart on fire and gives me motivation to move forward. It’s the same with a piece of beautifully executed dialog and a sentiment that floats. Sitting down to the computer each day, I search around for the next idea, another word or phrase. Those things build into a piece, a living thing that needs shaping and reshaping until it takes on its own and goes out to make its way in the world.

But it’s not that easy. The work lives and breathes. But it goes out there but can’t make it on its own. If talent (which I have very little of) or hard work (which is what I’m made of) was the whole of it, the things that stand in the way of creative endeavor, such as the market, fashion, and the politics of who you know, wouldn’t matter.

Now that I have the first working draft of my book, I have a few things before me. The first and most important is that I have to turn that draft into a piece of living art. There’s a feeling I get when I’m turning something decent I wrote into literature. Then comes the sublime experience of turning literature into art. I want to rewrite the manuscript. I love rewriting. I am good at.

But I also have to get the story out into the world. With a manuscript, I have a book I want to, have to sell. To sell a book to a publisher, I need an agent. A university press published my two books. I didn’t need an agent for that process, just a set of good ideas and some skills to show. But for the big-boy world of commercial publishing, relying on myself is no longer an option. I have to find that person who I can convince that my work is good and worthy of seeing. I feel like I have a bowl in hand and am begging for alms.

This summer I’m teaching two online classes—easy work. The rest of the time, I’m going to spend writing and revising. I will approach two or three agents a week until I have one or more on the hook. If it takes months (years), that’s all right. I’m used to having people say no. I’m also determined. This is a good book. I believe in it. It will go somewhere as long as I stick with it. I’m throwing bottles out into the ocean. Well-crafted bottles that would be treasures for anyone who finds them. Someone has to find them, and this isn’t a game of chance. I have to rely on the ocean currents but I have to direct those currents to make sure the right people see those bottles.

Then, someone will pluck one of those bottles out of the ocean, open it, and move the contents along to another person, who will have to determine whether they can make money on that book. If they think they can, they may just buy the book. So, yeah, maybe this is a game of chance. What may be attractive one minute may not the next. My manuscript could arrive at an agent’s office fifteen minutes too early or too late. It may arrive on time, but the agent can’t get to it right away. They find a manuscript like mine and when they get to my book, it’s passé.

Regardless of whether it’s chance or not, a good deal of work lay ahead. Today, I compiled a list of agents. In four columns, I put the name of the agent, the name of their agency and agency’s address, a description of what they want, and their E-mail address.

Every agent wants something different. Some want a query letter, which is about a page long and says why I’m contacting them I particular, a short idea of what the book’s about, and some information about me.

The second and third part of the letter are easy. I know what the book’s about and who I am. I have to craft something compelling, but I have every confidence I can do that. The hard part is telling them why I decided to contact them. They want to know that I know what books they have helped publish in the past and how my book fits into their oeuvre.

There I run into a problem. It’s a name-dropping game. I haven’t read all the books these agents have ushered through the publication process. Every day, I will have to do the research. Find out what authors these agents have represented. Get familiar with the titles, plots, and stories. I won’t be able to read all the books, but maybe I can become conversant in the language these agents speak.

Once I get the query down, some agents want more. Many want a query and a synopsis, a five-page narrative of the book’s contents. The easiest for me are the agents who want samples—the first chapters or 25 or 50 pages. That’s where I shine. If I can get them past the query letter, I stand a good chance of an agent considering my work.

In these essays and over the years, I have often written about discipline. Every day, I have to get out of bed, fix my cup of tea, and get to the work of researching the books and the agents. As I assemble the goods the way the individual agent wants, I just have to keep in mind that my work is to fashion the bottles, get them into the ocean, and do magic with the currents.

I don’t know that I’m up to the whole job. But that doesn’t concern me. I am up to doing what I’ve always done: one step, and then another. I can do that. If I do it long enough, I will arrive at my destination.

At least my students did well


Frankly, I’ve been phoning it in all semester. I am to the point now where I am so familiar with the things I teach and the way I perform in front of a classroom that I put it on autopilot in January, and, suddenly, we are here in the middle of May.

Stressed-teacher-460x276I had one of the best classes I ever had in thirteen years of teaching. They showed particular prowess in the use of the language and their ability to process information in creative ways. Their tests were great. Over half of the class is earning an A before I grade the final exams, which shouldn’t affect their grades much at this point, except those people who are on the line between grades. A good exam could mean the difference between a B and an A.

On the other hand, another of my classes was the most difficult I have ever had. They didn’t respond to discussion. They showed little initiative. While most classes have at least one personality that would jump start group work and class discussion, this class did not. They weren’t exactly droolers. Taken one on one, they showed interest in the class and did the work. But as a class, they were lifeless.

My third class took place in the evening. It started with ten students, but by mid-semester only six of them remained. Of them, five earned top grades. I couldn’t reach one student, whose cavalier attitude and lack of interest separated her from the rest.

My class is difficult. There are, however, many pieces from which to build a grade. Regardless of whether the class is American I or American II, each student must take a quiz and complete a chronology each week. There are 28 of these grades, and this part of the class is the easiest to get through. Students get to use their textbook and notes to complete the quizzes and chronologies.

Trickier are the written assignments. I have four. The first three are required to be four to five pages long. One concerns two primary documents that they have to compare and contrast, or analyze in some way. Scholarly articles from history journals form the nucleus of the next two assignments. I don’t tell them what to write or provide them a subject. They have to figure out that part on their own. The final paper of 10 to 12 pages, again, is on a topic of their choosing. But they must use the primary documents and articles from the previous assignments to build their papers. In addition, they must use one more article they find in a journal database.

The written assignments present the students the greatest challenge. They have to read the documents and come up with their own subjects. They have to use their creative minds. As a teacher, I am part composition teacher. I mark up their work, highlighting grammar and usage, as well as content. I judge the pieces according to organization, whether they have developed a central thesis, and on the way that they supported their argumentation with references to the works they are reading.

We also have three tests. They consist of two parts, multiple-choice and essay. The essays must be real essays, with a central thesis and argumentation supporting that thesis. It should lead to a convincing conclusion. But since we have been working on the essays in groups, many of them seem to have absorbed the material and can handle it well. I give the students the chance to study a list of multiple-choice questions out of which those on the test will come. Those who take the time generally do very well on this part of the test.

I also give them a chance to carve out decent essays. They possible test topics form the central theme about which they develop their group work. Each week, we take at least one class, where we divide into groups. Each group will them work on the essay topic, using each other’s brains to come up with what they might put on the exam.

I have largely gotten out of the lecture business. Most students, except the best, take away little from lecture. They often take notes and then don’t revisit them until briefly before the exam, and then they cram to make sure they get it all in. They may do well on the exam but then forget everything they’ve learned shortly after.

The result of me getting discussion or work underway on the essay topics is that I really only worked hard when the students turned in essays. Then I went about my work marking them up comprehensively. Tests are easy to grade and only take a short time. I use several films each semester. The students are always busy, even the dead class, doing something related to American history.

I’ve found that stepping back from the center of the room allows the students to deal with the material more closely. They form ideas on their own. They prove their creative might. The material stays with them longer. Their essay responses are better, sometimes even adept. And it all has made my work easier.

So, this semester, I slept late and did not mend harness. Getting out of bed in the morning proved difficult. I woke at the last minute and arrived at class just on time. I napped every day, which is nothing new, but like in the morning, I woke wondering why should I even get out of bed. Apathy ruled my life. A feeling of uselessness dogged me. I wrote but not nearly as much as I wanted and could have.

To be fair to myself, I did rewrite a book manuscript over the course of the semester. When I first drafted the book, I didn’t write a concluding chapter. While rewriting the book, I put together that last chapter. I also kept up on my househusband responsibilities. My kid seems happy. He either hasn’t missed me, or I have been doing better than I feel have.

Meantime, I put little thought into my teaching, except how to get the students involved in history in ways meaningful to them. It’s new to me not to be the center of attention. I’m surprised at how little work I had to do in classroom except fill in information they may have been missing or shepherding the discussions back to the topic.

So, on reflection, while I may have not been doing well personally this semester, my classes have. Most of the ennui I feel is on my part, not on the part of students, who always showed up to class. Several of the students walked out of their final telling me this was the best class they ever had or that they will miss the class now that it’s over.

What to take from this? As much as I worried, my feelings of uselessness and world-weariness did not interfere with my duties as teacher and father. My new method of teaching worked for the students, even if it left me out of the center of attention and feeling like I wasn’t doing my job.

I have to shake this inability I’ve found getting out of bed and finding the motivation to do much more than the exact minimum that I must. This is work that goes beyond measures of effectiveness in the classroom or at home. I will do what I usually do when faced with big problems in life. I’ll write about it. If that doesn’t work, then, I suppose, it will be time to seek professional attention.

My daughter’s apartment


My daughter decided a few years ago that she would learn to skate and compete in the roller derby. She had seen Ellen Page in Whip It, a movie about an alienated young woman who works out her frustrations in a nearby roller derby league. She starts with no experience and works her way up to the level of roller derby star.

apartmentSydney thought she’d do the same thing. We thought it was a good thing. Try as we might, we just couldn’t get her off the couch. Nothing physical interested her. Getting her to walk the dogs was like a root canal. I would take her for hikes in the woods and sometimes take her camping, but physical exercise was not for her. So, when she came home and announced she was going to get into the roller derby, we were thrilled.

She did what she set out to do. For the first year or more, she went to practices and scrimmages every week, a couple of times a week. She was starting from zero. The first time she went to practice was the first time she put on skates.

With effort, she got into shape. Eventually, she passed her skills test. She continued to go to practices. She began to make friends and socialize more. She lost weight and became more active around the house. When she finally made the team, we had a celebration. She set out to accomplished something and did it.

She’s not the best roller derby skater, but she’s good, and considering where she started, she’s good. Herr teammates enjoy her participation. She’s made lasting friends. Roller derby skaters are a tight knit bunch. They stand by each other. Their loyalty amazes me.

But there are dangers. She’s had shin splints. Her feet don’t always cooperate, becoming so painful she cannot walk. She has had to take it easy after falling during matches. One time, she had to go the hospital for an x-ray and some care because she thought she broke her leg. It turned out not to be a break but it put her out for a few weeks.

Recently, she started street skating with her roller derby friends. They take out from the house and skate sidewalks and streets through the city, going miles. Sometimes they take on too much. We have had to pick her and her friends up a couple of times when they’ve worn themselves out.

She and her mates have also been using the skateboarding park for workouts. During one of these outings, Sydney skated in the bowl, a huge concrete depression similar to a swimming pool. Skateboarders get in there and show their skills rolling around the bowl and skating up to the rim. The skaters take advantage of bowl for their tricks. I’ve watched them perform in the bowl. It’s thrilling.

But a couple of weeks ago, Syd and her friends were in the bowl and Sydney fell on her skate. At first, she said, she looked down and her foot was at an unnatural angle. She forced her foot back in place but it was clear that she had broken her ankle. They had to call the EMT’s who needed the fire department to pull her out of the bowl on a stretcher. The ambulance took her to the hospital where she found out just how badly she’d shattered her ankle.

It’s funny what you learn about your adult kids when they become dependent on you. Syd’s almost helpless. Her mom and we take turns putting her up, getting her things she needs, and feeding her. She doesn’t do well being dependent. She moans and complains. Every move becomes an ordeal. When she has to use the bathroom, she hobbles around on crutches and use a walker. We had to buy her a shower seat like the ones I’ve seen in old folks homes.

In the meantime, we tend to her cats. The little animals scoot around Syd’s studio apartment by themselves. We go over once a day and feed them. We scoop out their litter boxes and take a few minutes to stroke them. They seem to be very happy to see us.

The apartment is a studio in an old Midtown building. The security doors are ages old. The dark hallways smell like dust and mold. Whoever has owned the building, probably more than one person or company over the years, has slapped paint on the place every now and then to freshen it up–the result is everything is covered with thick layers of cheap paint. Decades of neglect have left the creaky hardwood floors scarred and bare.

Syd’s apartment is three rooms, a kitchen, a living room, and a bathroom. The appliances and cabinets show their age. They were the cheapest when they were bought in the 1950s. The place has plenty of windows and light, which are its saving grace.

I knew my daughter lived on the edge. She works at a downtown movie theater, where she barely makes a living wage. She owns the barest of necessities. Her bed sits on the floor in what used to be a large closet. In one window sits an air conditioner that doesn’t quite fit. Her cabinets are bare but for some spices and condiments.

But the place is hers. She has asked no one to help her pay the rent or give her things. She has made a life here. The place may be Spartan but I can see how she could be happy with it. There are no roaches that I can detect. The place doesn’t have rats. It’s quiet. As long as the refrigerator works and the place has water, as long as the toilet flushes, then it works and is a humble place to live.

I sat on her bed today, letting her cat Hannibal run itself back and forth across my hand. I thought that I could live here. I might arrange things differently. More chairs, perhaps. A television, though that’s not necessary. I could see myself writing at the table. Paints and an easel to add color to the place. I imagined myself sitting lonely nights in the one room. I wouldn’t have cats. I might walk more and find myself out socializing, going to poetry readings and music events. I would definitely go to more AA meetings.

I thought about my daughter here, the life she lives. It’s her own. She has made it for herself. Humble as it might be, it belongs to her. She doesn’t have much but one really doesn’t need a lot. I look around my house and realize just how much stuff I have and how those material things sometimes, many times, get in the way of the things that are really important. Just how often do I avoid writing and waste my time watching television?

If Virginia ever leaves me or makes me a widower, I will shake off the trappings of my middle-class life and move into an apartment just like Syd’s.

I know the kind of life that Syd can look forward to after she gets back on her feet. It will be sooner than she thinks, as she will have to learn to get around without her truck. She will shuffle to the bus stop. The bus will take her to the store and to work, if she still has a job, until she gets her cast off and can drive again.

I feel for her but envy her, especially now that I’ve seen up close the life she’s made for herself. I miss the simplicity and humility of her surroundings. I would like to get back to that someday.

A weekend on the Missouri


This weekend Nick and I spent Saturday and Sunday out on the river. We met with loose association of people who call themselves the Missouri River Paddlers. Many of the people–about 40 or so–have undertaken their own Missouri River journeys, many more astounding than mine. We gathered Friday night in Jefferson City. One of the group, an old river hand by the name of Joe Wilson, provided a full-on fish fry for everyone. Nick and I don’t eat fish, but between beans, coleslaw, potato salad, and fried potatoes, we had a good feed.

Nick on river

Nick at his best on the river

We were such a big group that the city of Jefferson City provided firewood. Members of the city council came down to the landing and took their pictures with groups of paddlers. The city even groomed the sand up around the bank. The local water company had big coolers there and everyone got a water bottle. These may not seem like big things, but to a bunch of river bums used to procuring everything on their own, it was quite a treat.

Evening progressed and we sat around the campfire telling stories. Someone produced a guitar. Since the drinkers were at it, Nick and I hit the rack at a decent hour and slept well all night under a full moon.

The river access at Jefferson City is amazing compared to what we have here in Kansas City. A wide, sandy beach leads down to the river. The park sits under giant cottonwoods and there was plenty of room for the twenty or so tents that the paddlers put up for the night. Kansas City’s access is nothing but a boat ramp, parking, and a few worn out picnic tables. It’s sad compared to what we experienced in Jefferson City, and then, on Saturday night, in the tiny town of Chamois. But more on that in a minute.

Saturday morning, we rose at a decent hour, not too early, and commenced our labors. Tent down and things packed, we loaded our boat and were with the first flight of people leaving the landing. The day was warm but not hot. A few puffy clouds poofed around the sky. The section of the river we traveled is known as the Rhineland, because the region reminded the German immigrants who settled there of their homeland. Having once lived on the Rhein, I have to say that the comparison is not misplaced. The forested hills rise from the banks to several hundred feet. The river runs wide and slow, often beneath limestone bluffs.

Despite the size of the river, which scares most people, Nick never once was anxious. I think this is because he trusts me and knows that I wouldn’t put him in danger. Of course, canoeing the river has risks—rock dikes, buoys, downed trees, etc. There’s always a possibility of tipping over if one of us leans too far over one way or the other. But none of these mattered to the boy, who never imagined anything could go wrong. By the middle of the day, Nick felt comfortable enough in the canoe that he was standing from time to time to adjust his pants. He didn’t think anything of it. I just had to caution him not to jerk around or move too quickly.

One of the things I never look forward to on a river trip is a headwind. But this time, the wind treated us well, mustering only a light breeze all day. It was perfect for paddling the 27 miles into Chamois, where the group came together again. We spent part of our day chatting with a guy in a kayak, who happened to be a cop in Hermann, our ultimate destination. I asked him all kinds of questions about his work and how it was to be a cop in a small town. Nick paddled from time to time, but for the most part, just enjoyed himself at the head of the boat.

The cop, Nick, and I stopped for lunch on a sandy beach and were soon joined by five or six other people. Nick played in the water, even took a dip in the stream. I kept an anxious eye on him since we were on the current side of the river and who knew how quickly the bank dropped off. He’s a good kid, though, and kept his life jacket on and stayed close into the boats. While everyone chatted, Nick skipped rocks into the sun. I lay back in the hot sand and enjoyed the heat of the sun on my face.

After about an hour, Nick and I got underway again. It’s amazing just how big that river is. We could see some of our mates in the distance, but only as little dots on the expanse of the stream. We spent the rest of the afternoon alone, talking now and again, but mostly quiet. It was a relaxing float.

We pulled into Chamois about 5 p.m. It is a town of about 300. But they have a fantastic riverfront park. They even have water and electricity for several dedicated camping spots. Across the way from the boat ramp, stood a modern bathroom with showers! The mayor of the town came down and turned everything on for us. He shook everyone’s hand and welcomed us to his little burg. It just amazed me that the town could put together what for a river traveler is something of a luxury when my city can’t put together a decent riverfront park.

The evening was beautiful. Nick and I ate and then just sat around the fire of one of our companions, whose fire brought in others like moths to a flame. Others sat around other fires and talked deep into the night. Morning came all too early. If it were up to me, we would have slept until well into the day. But some of us were up before dawn and their talking rousted the rest of us.

A wind had come up and everyone was talking about what it might hold for us that day on the river. Some people even bailed out on the trip for fear of the wind. But since we only had 20 miles to Hermann, I wasn’t much worried about it. To me, the wind is more of an irritant than a reason to stay off the river. Nick and I were on the water about 8 a.m. or so. The wind pushed us along and wasn’t nearly as strong on the river as it seemed to us on the land. We were also sheltered from the worst of it by the steep hills of that region.

When Nick and I were alone, we noticed the nature and, at one point, spent a good deal of time looking up at a bald eagle perched in a cottonwood on the bank. I’ve seen them before, but never so close.

We spent a good deal of the morning floating along with one of the group, a guy by the name of Tom. He had kayaked from Montana to the Gulf of Mexico and we had plenty to relate to each other just in that experience. I also appreciated that Tom tried to bring Nick into the conversation from time to time.

The wind did get us a couple of times that day. While it stayed mostly at our backs, we got into it coming around a couple of bends. The problem we face is that when our boat is fully loaded, it isn’t balanced. I pack most of the gear forward, but compared to others, Nick and I don’t carry much more than what we need for a night in a tent. With the gear and Nicholas up front, my fat ass lowered the back of the boat and had Nick’s end sticking a little into the air. The wind gets a hold of that and spins us around, making control of the canoe difficult. When we had a headwind, I cajoled Nick into putting some power into his strokes and we did just fine. There were a couple of times he decided he was too tired and put up his paddle. But I told him that I needed him for a couple more minutes, or I would say that we needed to get to some point down the river and then he could rest. When we finally made it into Hermann, the end of our journey, he was pooped out.

Tom, Nick, and I walked up into town, which is right on the river, and had lunch at the Wurst House, a place specializing in bratwursts of various types. Nick’s a super picky eater and I was afraid it would be chips and pop for him. But the restaurant had a little kiosk where they let people sample their wares. I convinced Nick that he needed to try the sausages and pick one that he would like on a bun with mustard. I then walked away, as I find that letting him make up his mind without my watchful eye is much more successful than standing over him asking him questions. Sure enough, he picked one. I was just glad to see that he ate something substantial.

Back at the landing, we waited for our compatriots to come in. Singly and sometimes in groups of two or three the Missouri River paddlers came to shore. Our ride back to Jefferson City arrived about an hour after we did. Our return trip put us back home around 5 p.m. Nick declared the trip a complete success and I prided myself on being a good dad.

The only negative thing that came from out river trip was a sunburn on the tops of my feet. We had been careful to cover ourselves with sunscreen. But once in the boat, I took off my shoes and didn’t think much about it. They were good and fried by the end of the first day. I can tell you I was much more cautious the next.

Remnants of the Cold War


The flock of Canada geese on the hill

raises necks like periscopes from unmown fescue.

They watch, turn heads slowly,

like spies, expressionless,

awaiting contact.


I cast another worm

into mushroom cloud sunset.

My bobber twitches;

Moscow is listening.

The daguerreotype and the reception


The annual Johnson County Community College Night at the Nelson-Adkins Museum of Art brings something like 700 students to the gallery. Faculty give presentations on art and art history associated with particular pieces or collections. The lectures last fifteen to twenty minutes with questions and answers until the next round of presentations begin on the half hour.


Boulevard du Temple by Louis Daguerre

This year, I talked about the Nelson’s daguerreotype collection. Louis Daguerre invented the first permanent photography process in 1839. Light and its capture amaze me. But what’s more important is that with a simple chemistry set, polished silver-coated copper plate, and a camera obscura, a person could make photographs. Within a few years of the introduction of the process, thousands of daguerreotypists set up studios in the United States, mostly in cities. But a good many took to the road, taking pictures in small towns and villages, and at people’s homes and farms.

The daguerreotype was a miracle. For the first time, people could capture scenes from real life without the interpretation of a painter or sketch artist. No longer was the realm of reality in the hands of artists. Daguerre created a process that was democratically available. Where once only those with money and time could afford their portraits pained, the daguerreotype allowed ordinary people to have their portraits made for the cost of a day’s wages.

The daguerreotype produces a picture that seems to float in space rather than live on a two-dimensional plane. Depending on the angle one looks at a daguerreotype, the picture seems to change from positive to negative and back. A good picture made with the process possesses a clarity and sharpness that even today’s digital photography can’t match.

I was motivated though my crowd was small. They all paid attention and posed great questions. Each of them stepped up to the display and looked over the tiny pictures. Some lingered for further discussion. I struck up a conversation with a man who wanted to know more about the process, which includes mercury, iodine, and bromine. Dangerous chemicals, he said. Didn’t they ever think about the possible health effects? I said I knew of no incident where a photographer went mad as a hatter (whose processes used mercury and produced intense neurological affects and brain damage). That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. In fact, I said, most daguerreotypists worked in spaces that would have allowed a lot of air, which probably reduced some of the danger of the chemical process.

After the presentation and when the crowd melted away, I went to look at some pictures I like. I stuck around in the dim Block galleries, looking at photographs, and then went into the main gallery to take in some Monets. I wandered around the gallery after that, seeing several faculty members who had given presentations. I thought to take in a presentation myself and wound up back in the photo gallery to listen to a woman talk about some kinetic works that captured motion.

I went back to wandering the gallery. The night was coming to a close. An after-party or reception was set up in the Ford Learning Center. I fought with myself. Should I go to the after party or just go home? Nick expected that I would be home by about 8:30. But I could cheat that time a little and stay after.

But I decided against it. Most of those people know each other and have been working together for years. I was just an adjunct, the joke of academe. I’m sure I could have struck up some talk. But I had been to the reception in previous years. I get a drink and eat some cheese. Uneasy chats begin and end. In reality, I like my colleagues. They respect me. But I found myself a little anxious at the prospect of standing around with nothing to say.

I walked slowly out through the ultra-modern glass Block galleries. Would it be better to go back inside and give the reception a stab? There may be some people there I would like to catch up with. I was a little hungry and know that the cheese-and-fruit spread at the reception was likely very good. But I saw myself as an interloper among the full-timers who only get to see each other once a year. I could see myself being tolerated.

As I filed through the revolving door, the opportunity was lost. I figured to return to the gallery would be turning my back on myself. I didn’t have much to add to the event. I wouldn’t fit into the crowd, or at least I felt I wouldn’t. Those people wouldn’t miss me, anyway. It didn’t matter if I went or not.

Instead, I strolled in front of the gallery for a while, taking in the evening, enjoying the quiet and the falling of night. The gallery has been a part of my life for five decades. While the curators add a new exhibit or installation, or even an entire run of buildings, the main gallery building hasn’t changed. It always looks the same. There’s some solace in that.

As I walked, an inner calm overcame my nervous insides. I’m 53 now. I have friends, even if I don’t have a social life. I didn’t need to go to that reception. The really wouldn’t be much of a chance for conversation, which is what I really craved. A reception is for talking nice, catching up a little, going over the night at the Nelson. It’s not a time for conversation, a real sit down with someone. There just isn’t the time.

I arrived home at 8:18. I opened the door and sat in the car for a minute and listened to the engine tick. The smell of my lilacs drifted in. I was at home. Nick looked forward to seeing me. I was just all right.

Still, the niggling feeling I should have gone to the reception bothered me. I thought about the daguerreotype, a picture floating in space, an image like a life, positive one second, negative the next. There’s always next year, I told myself. There’s always next year.

The man I could have been


My parents are in town. I spent the last week dreading the day they would come. But like most things I fear, their arrival and stay has been less traumatic that I supposed. They have revealed themselves once again to be just people, regular people who happen to be my parents.

cobbWe don’t have much of a relationship. I don’t think we’ve talked about anything weighty for twenty years or more. There’s too much that divides us. I ache to have a conversation with my parents. But that possibility has passed. Getting in a few words about the weather is about what they can handle.

When I was growing up, life was filled with violence, drunkenness, and reactionary religion. My dad had a fiery personality that might erupt at any moment in flights of grandiosity or outright rage. God forgive us if we did anything wrong while he was away at work. We lived in mortal fear of a guy who was loose with the belt, and in lieu of the belt, the open-hand slap.

I remember when I was 13, one of the kids at school told us that he hit his dad back after a beating. The sin of it, I thought. We were supposed to respect our elders. It said so in the Commandments. I couldn’t imagine a situation in which I would strike back at the man who sometimes beat me and my siblings mercilessly. My dad was so mighty, so strong that I feared being crushed if I ever hit him back.

There were other things, too. My dad acted out in all kinds of childish ways in public. From about the time I was ten, I was in constant embarrassment. I never knew when he would break out in one of his long monologues about how great he was, how the country was going down the tubes, or how liberals were taking God out of the classroom.

In one way, my dad was a saint. He worked a job he hated for thirty-five years. He sat in a windowless concrete room and repaired cash registers for the National Cash Register Corporation. He built up three and then four weeks off every year. He always took us on camping vacations in the mountains. We went to the Grand Canyon once. One year we spent a miserable week at an Ozark campground. It wasn’t the mountains. We all pined to be in the Rockies that year.

He complained but he paid tuition for Catholic grade school and high school for four kids. He railed against public school and envied the things that people who sent their kids to public school could afford. We drove junkers because we went to Catholic school. I don’t know how those kids did in public school, but when I went to college, I found the first years easy after the rigors of Catholic education.

But life at home was rugged. I remember three events very clearly. My grandfather sat me down when we went to his house one night. My dad had beaten me pretty severely that day. I had bruises. Handprints festooned my cheeks. My grandfather said that I needed to mind my parents. I earned what happened to me because I had stepped out of line. Looking at his serious face, I didn’t know exactly what I did. He said, “When he says jump, you jump. You don’t even stop to ask how high.”

Another time, I was sitting on the fender of the 1966 Dodge Polara Station Wagon. My dad was performing some repair under the hood. I thought we were talking breezily about things. I don’t remember what. But one second I was sitting there, the next minute he erupted out from what he was working on and smacked me so hard, I wound up on the ground. I’d peed my pants. He walked up to me and kicked me in the gut. That’d teach me, he said. Now, get up and get out of here.

I built a world outside my home with the Boy Scouts. Every Thursday and one weekend a month, I was free of home. I built my own friendships and achieved in competition with other kids in the troop. I was an Eagle Scout by the time I was 13. It was my life and I was proud of it.

Then, my dad decided he would get involved in his boy’s life. He began coming to scout meetings and coming on overnights. The leaders and older kids, the 18 year olds, drank a lot of beer. My dad found himself right at home. But he overdid it. He got into fights with other leaders. Then, one time, he hit a kid. I remember it like it was yesterday. We were on the bank of an Ozark stream. My dad was facing down one of the mouthiest kids I’d ever known. My dad couldn’t make that kid do what he wanted. The kid mocked my dad. My dad slapped him across the face.

It was as if my life had ended–my pristine, self-built life was ruined. The other kids in the troop kept me at a distance. They berated me for my dad’s behavior. My dad was kicked out of the troop, of course, after the trip. But I couldn’t have my Boy Scout life back. It was all over.

Which was, in a sense, just all right. By that time, I’d taken to drink myself. I had friends who were 16 and could drive cars. We knew places in Kansas that would sell us beer. (The drinking age for beer in Kansas was 18 at the time.) Then, I turned 16 and could drive myself. I took up with a group of guys who would drive to Kansas and buy up a bunch of beer. We’d drive to the Mid-Continent Public Library at 77th and Prospect and put the beer in the back seat. The boys would climb in the trunk. Since I was the fat kid, I drove the car to the Fairyland Drive-In at 75th and Prospect and paid admission for myself.

The Fairyland showed only two kinds of movies at the time. They projected martial arts movies on one screen and porn on the other. We never went to the kung-fu movies.

I’d drive in, pick a spot, and sit in the driver’s seat for a minute. Then, I went and let the boys out of the trunk. It was our past time: beer, cigarettes, and porn movies. We were 16 and 17. It was our pastime. We did that every couple of weeks, regardless of season, for a couple of years.

It was a life I built on my owned and it seemingly went against everything that my Catholic education was about. I couldn’t get a date. I was a failure with women. But I could drink and smoke. I could sit and watch people writhe around with each other. It was a life I made and one that my dad had nothing to do with.

When I moved out of the house at the age of 20, I really made life my own. I drank what I wanted when I wanted. I didn’t have to fear getting the daylights beat out of me when I came home. I didn’t face the shame of having a drunk berate me for drinking. I didn’t have to answer to anyone.

The distance between us only grew over the years. I sobered up, finally, at the age of 27. It was then that I had a chance to contemplate home life. I tried to approach my parents about it. They dodged the questions. My dad flew into a rage when I brought it up. I stayed angry with them until I just didn’t have it in me anymore.

Now they are old. The mighty father, the man whose raised hand sent me cowering, moves about the house meekly. His memory is failing. He is weak physically. My mother takes care of him as she would a child.

The time for discussing the past is over. I suppose I could talk religion or politics around him now and he would have to put up with it. There is nothing he can do to me anymore.

So, in a way, my parents staying at my house, sleeping in my beds, and eating my food, is just and right. I have accepted our truncated relationship. Short of a miracle, we won’t ever have a conversation. But I have seen the mighty fall. I see myself in my father when I near 80. But I know that I’ll be talking to my kids. They will come to me for advice. They will take my guidance into consideration.

I suppose I can say that I learned a lot from my father. He gave me my work ethic. I have a firm sense of right and wrong. I know the value of loyalty, and my friends can attest to that.

I also learned how not to be a father and husband. I am gentle with others, listen to what they have to say, and interested in other people because he could do none of these things. I don’t live in fear of him anymore, and the older he gets the more I understand that the time we have is limited. To cut myself off from others with moral and mental rigidity is to sever me from myself. I won’t have it.

Five years later, I still miss Joachim Frick


My friend Joachim, Josef and Marlies’ son, was diagnosed with cancer in October 2010. When his wife, Kristine, told me the news, I was struck dumb.


Joachim Frick, Aug. 13, 1962-Dec. 16, 2011

Joachim and I had been together as friends for over 25 years. He was, in many ways, my soul mate. He had prospered, a determined and sharp academic whose career shined among his colleagues. I had fallen into dissolution, drinking myself nearly to death. But he never let me down, never told me anything but the truth of my condition. I would fail at everything I tried, he said, unless I got the drinking under control.

When I sobered up, he cheered me on. We would go months without talking or E-mailing. But then we’d get together and within minutes, start finishing each other’s sentences. I knew Joachim like I knew and understood no one else. The same held true in reverse.

I made plans to go to Berlin as soon as I could. When I visited in January 2011, he was learning how to use the right side of his body and brain again. He had been through two surgeries. The first resulted in infection and swelling that left him unable to see, hear, or speak. For three weeks, his disease cut him off from the rest of the world. When the infection subsided and the swelling in the wound went down, he came out of his isolation. He believed, he told me, that the period of his incapacity was his death. Anything after was life, and he was glad to live it.

I stayed with him and Kristine in Berlin for five days. Joachim had physical and occupational rehabilitation every day from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. He worked on physical and motor skills, and then on intellectual development, the tumor having damaged the language and problem-solving parts of his brain. He worked in English and in German, English sometimes coming to him easier than his native tongue. The first evening found us talking about his various rehab strategies and how they treated him at the rehab facility. But, in a quiet moment, our discussion turned serious.

“Joachim,” I said, “I have to ask about what Americans call the elephant in the room. Can I ask you some serious questions?” We were speaking German. He spoke slowly and with determination.

“You want to know about how I feel about all this,” he said.

“What will happen if you receive your powers back, if you beat this thing?”

“I have received an offer from the University in Trier to join the faculty in the economics department. The Institute made me a counter offer to keep me here. I now have an academic appointment at the Berlin Technical University and can take graduate students to direct their theses and dissertations. They have offered me a greater salary. The position is not as prestigious as that in Trier. But I’ve had to ask myself whether I want to go to Trier from a city that I love.

“The most important thing is my family,” he continued. “The girls have their friends here. Kristine loves living in the city and she has a fine, permanent position in Pankow (A suburb of Berlin). In the end, it is a decision we all make, and I think, unless the terms of the Trier position changes, we will stay in Berlin.”

“What happens if you don’t get your abilities back, if you wind up permanently disabled?”

“We’ll have to see, won’t we?”

“What happens if you don’t make it? If the tumor comes back or new cancer spreads? God forbid. But I can’t help but think, in the back of my head, that I will lose you someday. What will happen to me?”

“Listen to me.” He looked at me with those eyes that always smiled. They twinkled in the soft light of the living room. Kristine had gone upstairs to let us talk, between friends, without any other interference. “After my first operation to remove the tumor, the swelling cut me off for three weeks. I couldn’t see, hear, or talk. I was alone and isolated. That was when I died. The isolation alone was hellish. I had no idea what went on around me. I couldn’t even feel if anyone was around. But I was conscious, fully awake. Do you know what that might be like?”

“I cannot even imagine.” I said.

“It was like death,” I think. “It was death. That was when I died for the first time. I consider myself lucky. It’s not often that a man gets to die twice in his lifetime.”

He laughed. He made me feel that my questions only passed between friends who had known and understood each other for a long time.

“Every day I have between now and the next time I die, well, each represents an entire lifetime. I want you to feel that, not just now, but every day you live. I only have what I know, and what I know right now is that tomorrow I will go to rehab and try to gain more strength. I will do the puzzles and my language exercises. I will come home and take a nap, as I did today, and then you and I will spend another evening talking. That’s what matters to me.

“As to your loss, Patrick, I understand. But we all have to die sometime. You must try to be with me on this. We have each other right now. Everything that’s happened to us in this life leads right to this conversation.”

For the next few days, we sat evenings and watched soccer matches. We sat in the living room eating chocolates and talking with Kristine and his daughter Katherina. His other daughter Anna was on exchange with a family in Uruguay. We looked at pictures from family vacations and from times he and I traveled together in the United States. We talked about his disease and what it might mean for his future, but his optimism never flagged. We went over his accomplishments at the German Institute for Economic Research, which were many. For me, I was happy to be with my friend, to talk frankly and in ways that we never had before. When he went to bed, I walked from his house into the broad parks surrounding his house. I walked miles through the streets of Alt-Reinickendorf, and then out along where the Wall once stood. The nights were bracing, but not as cold as the Midwest in the middle of the winter. The moon was up that week and I walked through the forests and parkways without help of a flashlight.

All the time, I could only think of my friend. I hoped the best for him but had to face the fact that only a small percentage of people with his kind of brain cancer survived more than a few months, even after surgeries and chemotherapy. Simultaneously, I was glad to be there, happy to be close to my friend and his family. During the day while Joachim was at rehab, Kristine showed me around Berlin. We went to the Berlin Wall Memorial, where I tried to imagine the terrible dictatorship that led to its construction. We went for coffee and took long walks.

Each evening, I sat with Joachim. The day I left Berlin was the last time I saw him. Over five years later, I think of my friend almost daily. I miss him. I admit, I was selfish. I didn’t want him to die, in part, because of what I would lack. I miss the phone calls and the E-mails. I’m still sad that I will never get one of his grand hugs.

Some of this will fade as the years go by. Joachim will become a good memory. But I always think about what he said. Everything we go through leads us to the conversation we are having right now.

When the waiting ends


The most bothersome thing about travel but that makes up most of travel is waiting. We wait for the next train for several hours. We wait in line at the food shop. We wait to get into the museum. It’s fair to say that I spend the majority of my time traveling waiting for something, anything to happen.

waitingI’ve waited in Reykjavik, Berlin, Luxemburg City, Naperville, Illinois, Arches National Park and thousands of other places. I’ve stood by waiting for camping places to open up and tours to close down. Amazing things happen when I wait and nothing at all.

I’m waiting for the Southwest Chief to take off from Chicago and deliver me home to Kansas City. People from all walks of life fill the Metropolitan Lounge, reserved for first-class and sleeper-car passengers. Mothers and fathers hold sleeping children. Kids lay around, hooked into their devices. A man sits at a table with people he doesn’t know and writes on his computer.

Some of these people are nervous and fidgety. Others, resigned to their fates, stare off into the distance. My family, Virginia and Nick just returned from the shops in Union Station and join tens of other people eating oranges, pizza, salads, the snacks available at the lounge, and a hundred different kinds of sandwiches and pastries.

They are a calm bunch, these waiters. They pay attention to each other in caring and loving ways. The father sitting next to me speaks Hindi. He holds his little girl, who has been sleeping for the last hour. Every now and then, she wakes, whining. He strokes her hair, shifts her around a little, and talks to her softly. So far, the girl has responded by going back to sleep. She’s beautiful in sleep, distant from this world and living in her own dreams.

A kid of about fourteen just walked up and asked if the armchair next to Nick is taken. Just a few minutes before, a man with a British accent asked the same thing. Nick told the kid that someone had taken the seat. I told the kid that someone had asked about it but then left. “Well,” the kid said, “I’ll move if he comes back.”

That’s the way waiting works. Seats fill. People traveling together find spots and leave single chairs empty. The travelers come and go. The Amtrak agent announces a train’s departure. People stand here and there and go to the back exits that leads out to the vast train sheds. Everyone and everything seems to wait. The people wait for trains. The trains wait for the people.

What remains immutable is the lounge, tracks, and train sheds. The station sees thousands of people, cars, and trains come and go every day. The stationary accommodates the moving. Cars drive by on the streets and the streets remain. Some of these people will die in the coming days and months. The world moves around them. Their houses and the buildings they work and live in will stand. They will wait for more people to fill them.

The absolute and the transient. That is travel. We just spent the week in the nation’s capital. I don’t know how many millions of people will visit the city this year, but it will be tens of millions, I think. The museums and monuments mean something in the vastness of time. They will change exhibits. The curators will rotate the collections. But the buildings, but for the human efforts to stave off entropy in maintenance, stay the same. They keep the rain out and the people in. They will stand for decades. The visitors will grow old and die. They will move to new houses. Their marriages will dissolve and be renewed. But the sights and monuments and museums will be there for them and their children.

Or, we hope so, since the buildings are transient in the vast expanse of time. Will the Library of Congress, whose building is 119 years old, be here in another century? Two or three? If so, then we will have accomplished what the Greeks and Romans did in their times. But I wonder if the building’s hulk will last the millennia. We don’t build the way the Romans and Greeks did. These facades hide brick and steel skeletons.

The politicians and policies shift. The law shapes itself to its time. The founding documents, while subjects of continual interpretation, remain the same. They, too, wait. Someday, a civilization subsequent to ours, may be able to look back and see that once there stood a republic that its founders established for the ages. I hope that they learn that all civilizations come and go. Ours was here for a little while and gave itself over to something else. Theirs, no matter their faith in themselves, might know that they too will stand only a little while.

The land, weather, and sky. They wait while the people are born and move and die, while the people’s institutions rise and fall, while the buildings one day fall to dust. All is waiting and it gives me in my waiting some perspective. It makes my travel and its waiting all the more urgent. My time is limited. I will only ever see a tiny sliver of this world and meet only a few of its people. I will come and I will die and my name will join those other millions of anonymous and faceless others.

Travel, then, becomes the constant, movement and transience constants. I move because I have to. Part of my movement is waiting. The Southwest Chief takes off at 3 p.m. It’s 1:43 right now. In an hour, I will be off to a new part of my life.

I sometimes look forward to waiting. It means that I’m alive and moving. When I come to rest, the waiting will be over. My time will be over. I will disappear. The land, weather, and sky wait.

Washington, DC, and America’s original sin


Washington, DC, is probably one of the most diverse places I’ve ever been. People from all over the world inhabit the nation’s capital. Immigrants fill the city. Indians owned the hotel where we stayed. Restaurants were owned and filled with brown people who had accents. Many bureaucrats, taxi drivers, and business owners came from other places. The greeter at the Capitol Visitor Center wore a hijab and spoke with a voice with overtones, it seemed to me, of India or Pakistan.

washingtondcEverywhere, Black Americans held jobs of consequence—train engineers, federal police and security forces, police officers, business managers, and business people. We have them in Kansas City, for sure, but not in the great abundance you see in Washington. Here, Black Americans are everywhere in number. It’s glaringly apparent that a significant portion of the population was black, not just a sliver living in partitioned areas like in Kansas City, but many, in all sorts of occupations.

It was refreshing to see people who weren’t limited to ethnic restaurants and service jobs. Certainly, many were in service but many of their bosses and their bosses bosses were black or some sort of ethnic or immigrant background.

This should be so noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, I live in an area of town were whites are in the minority. Most of my neighbors work for a living at the bottoms of the wage and color hierarchy. The people in charge are mostly white. The city employs a lot of people of color, some in supervisory positions. But when it comes right down to the centers of power, except in the mayor’s office, white people handle the controls.

As a white person who grew up in one of those homes that tolerated black people but was always cautious about, if not downright intolerant, of race mixing. They have their own culture, my parents told me. They had different life priorities. They like to keep to their own kind. They have their own way of doing things. While I heard these statements and was often forced to live by them, what I knew was that when I played with black kids, we played, we threw the ball and caught it, we hid while the other sought.

That what I was told and my reality didn’t line up caused me all sorts of psychic displacement. How could the people I loved and who loved me be so wrong? Why couldn’t I play with the black kids? Why did I get in trouble when I did play with them?

These questions stuck with me as I grew older. While I used the language of racism and acted unjustly as a pre-teen, when I hit my coming-of-age years, I was in full revolt.

That’s what makes me so sensitive to the questions of who’s in charge and who is not. I find Washington refreshing because it’s almost as if the world gets turned on its head in the city. Black people in charge? A Muslim immigrant greeting people to the Capitol? What a crazy world this is.

I think about Washington and think about the world my son Nick is growing up in. I look out my front window when he’s playing across the street. Most of the time, if not all the time, he’s the only white kid. I look into my memory now and can’t think of a time he played with the neighborhood kids and he wasn’t the only white kid. They play. The throw and catch the ball. They have sword fights with sticks. They fire off their Nerf guns at each other. I wonder if they are thinking, well, that’s a white kid, that’s a black kid, that kid’s got parents from Guatemala.

As far as I can see, Nick’s not living in the world I grew up in. He goes to a school where white kids are the minority. It’s a special school. They only let the smart kids and high-functioning students. He’s smart. They call him a “walk-in.” Because of his grade school grades and attendance, he didn’t have to take the qualifying test to get in.

This means, if he’s in the minority, that he’s growing up with black, Hispanic, and immigrant kids who are high achievers. He sees that people of color can and do get along, help each other, and do well in school. I can’t say what would happen to him or what he would see in a run-of-the-mill Kansas City public school. I hope he would learn the same lessons.

When we go to the swimming pool in the summer, he’s one of the few white kids in the neighborhood taking a dip. He doesn’t have to think about “getting some on him” when he’s in that pool, like I did when I was a kid.

That means that when he was in Washington, he likely did not notice the blacks and immigrants in charge of important functions in the city. Or, maybe he did. Maybe he did notice. He’s hard to read. But I know that race didn’t take up too much of his time, except for maybe when we were in the National African American Museum or the National American Indian Museum.

He certainly knows that racism exists. Even in his 13-year-old mind, he sees and understands the coded language of racism, especially as he witnesses the presidential contests. He deplores Donald Trump’s rhetoric. He knows that when Ted Cruz talks about people needing to work that he’s talking about all those poor blacks who Cruz thinks are poor because they want to be. He finds the anti-immigrant sentiment the candidates tap distasteful.

So, while the kid isn’t growing up in the world I did, he still has to taste racial turmoil. It isn’t fair. It wasn’t fair to me when I was growing up. It’s not to any kid who enters the world in a state of innocence. But it’s the American scourge. I should not have to notice that blacks and immigrants in Washington hold positions of power and that those in my town do not.

Original sin, as I learned it in school, was the mark you were born with. You didn’t ask for it. You did nothing to earn it. It was just on you because you were human. Racism is America’s original sin. You don’t ask to be born in a world riven by racialist ideas. Nick didn’t get lucky enough to escape the original sin. Maybe his children won’t either. But their world as children will be much different than Nick’s. Maybe it will be a purer place, cleaner, without the divisions that come with the original sin.

And perhaps racism is something we grow out of. Generations down the line may live in a colorblind world where race isn’t even thought of in school or work or social life.