This happy life is killing me


My crazy pills are killing me.

About fifteen years ago, I tried to say goodbye to the cycles of incredible, unstoppable energy punctuated with bone-crushing, suicidal depression. I was a married man with a serious job. I had a kid. I had to fit in.

lexaproDuring one of these depressions, I went to a doctor. He talked to me for a while and I walked out of his office with a prescription for anti-depressants.

They seemed to work, at least, at first. They did something for the depressive episodes but nothing for the wild, out-of-control “I can do anything” episodes.

And I really could achieve amazing things. I wrote essays in the morning, taught school all day and came home and took pictures with my pinhole camera. I’d develop all those pictures and get them loaded into the computer. I once got obsessed with radio and built one on a whim. I terraced the entire back yard with nothing more than a shovel. Facebook posts revealed not only frenzied craziness but also a kind of weird paranoia. Somewhere in there I took naps, cooked dinners, and did the laundry. I even rode the bike, walked the dogs, and went to a kid-school event or two.

Even on the anti-depressants, however, I’d fall into weeks long depressions when I had no energy to do anything, including getting out of bed. The house darkened, shades pulled, doors and windows locked. Nothing I did or said erased or even dented the gloom.

On medication, I still careened from one extreme to the other, sometimes within the course of a few hours. I don’t know how my family dealt with me. I think sometimes they just tolerated me. After all, they had lives of their own.

Frenzy2Why don’t these things work for me, I’d ask the doctor—actually a series of doctors that insurance companies and circumstances dictated. They all had the same answer. You have depression. Here are the appropriate pills. Take them. You will feel better.

I did and I didn’t feel better. My libido declined to zero, which wasn’t such a big deal since sex, as good as it is, has always been a pain in the ass anyway. I didn’t seem to crash as hard from an episode of frenzy. But over time, the drugs seemed to do less and less, and the side-effects seemed to get more pronounced. I gained weight. I could give a shit about sex. I slept at odd times of the day.

Despite being on these modern medications for about a decade, I hit a point about four years ago when I had to go to the mental hospital or hang myself in the basement. I’d just gone through an upswing in which I rewrote all my lectures for my classes. I changed the way I graded and made the classes harder for me, as a teacher. I added more writing assignments. I was very excited about my new prospects. I took a million pictures with my pinhole camera. I felt like I was on a creative streak that would last forever.

crazyThen it all came unraveled. I remember the time as mostly gray. Everything had weight, even the air I breathed. I decided suicide was the right and proper way to go.

Well, that stint in the hospital got me all straightened out. I went on a different regimen of medications. I settled down. Life evened out. I gained the ability to work through my difficulties in a thoughtful way. Going to work got easier. I became a steady family man. I was reliable. People could count on me.

frenzied creativityAnd that’s the problem. At least, when things were up and down all the time, life presented new kinds of danger at every turn. I never knew where I’d be when I woke up in the morning. The day might start slow and end late the next morning with a million projects started and completed. I might wake up, excited about the day, and then find myself huddled in the corner waiting for the end by mid-afternoon.

Creativity bubbled through all the ups and downs. I wrote essays, poems, and letters. I rarely found myself at a loss for words, either written or spoken. I seemed to be able to get things done. I rarely had a free moment, up or down.

All that’s different now. This morning was typical of my machinations of late. I woke but tried to go back to sleep. I didn’t want to get out of bed. That meant I’d have to do something, anything. I couldn’t think beyond a cup of tea and the newspaper. What do I do after that? In the last year, I haven’t had the energy to do much more than what I need to everyday.

Don’t get me wrong. I get a lot accomplished even during an uneventful day. I’m just not excited about it. And that’s why the drugs are killing me.

houseEverything is so even. I rarely feel an up or a down. The days are predictable. Nothing changes. One week rolls into another with ease. Every time I look up it’s Friday again. The week is gone. I have done what I was supposed to do but what for? What’s the point?

I don’t want to hang myself or go back to the mental hospital. At least, those were events. They were different, just like each high and low of a bipolar cycle was different from the ones previous.

I want to feel like I can do anything again. I loved that energy, that unbounded confidence that anything I put before me would be complete, and I would be complete through it. The close brushes with suicide represented something different, something uneven, dangerous, thrilling.

Now, life fluctuates only in the rising and setting of the sun. Everything feels like work. Even getting out of bed promises little but the same kind of thing I did yesterday and the day before.

These crazy pills probably don’t kill anything in me. I think it’s all still there, just shut down. Evenness has its good points. But looking back from the plain that medication puts me on, I pine for the old days when nothing was sure, when everything was in flux, when, even on a good day, I was in danger of killing myself.

Petting the bees


Some people are lucky enough to know what they wanted to do since they were kids. I am one of them. I always wanted to be a writer. Through much adversity, most self-imposed, I published my first pieces at age 32. Since then, I have been able to make a living writing. I’ve published two books and written three more that will soon see the light of day. I can say, yes, I am where I always wanted to be. I am a writer.

beeSome kids also dream of avocations, things they want to do but that they will never make a living at, or ever want to. They are the things we would do if we didn’t have to make a living. I’ve always known what I wanted to do in addition to being a writer. I dreamed of it all my life.

When I was a kid, I used to roll around in the clover in the front yard petting bees. That’s right. My favorite summer pastime was bee petting. Misfortune and hurt filled my childhood and I didn’t fit in with the neighborhood kids.

So I petted bees. It got me out into the sun and filled hours with useful, meditative activity. I’d find a bee on a flower, extend my index finger, and rub it on its back. The bee would move on to another flower. So I’d do it again and it moved farther along. Sometimes, a bee was so intent on the nectar it sought that it just stayed there. As long as I didn’t prod too strongly, it drank its fill before it moved on to the next flower or flew off to the hive.

A little kid poking may be irritating to the bee but it isn’t a threat to house and home. Bees only sting when they feel a threat, like the bottom of a foot or bump of an elbow. They sting to protect the hive. But bees don’t want to sting you. Their lives depend on not stinging you. Once a bee stings, it dies, and bees, like cows or horses or birds—or any other animal of the field—want to live.

My fascination with bees grew well into my teens. I learned just about everything there is to know about bee morphology, anatomy, and behavior. I dreamed of one day running my own apiary. The money an apiary demands never concerned me. As far as I knew, every beekeeper managed bees in his or her backyard. They went about their hives quietly, tenderly, like monks praying. They gained some innate satisfaction or even redemption from their interaction with the bees.

Even during my decades of sordid alcoholism and self-destruction, I would daydream about bees. Bees and being a writer stuck with me through the dreck and self-loathing. I don’t know if wanting to raise bees determined the trajectory of my life as much as wanting to be a writer did. The desire to raise bees, however, must have had an influence, no matter how slight, on how I’ve come to be where I am today.

The thing is this: Beekeeping demands of me capacities I don’t have or possess innately. I’ve managed bees now for four years. My first experience occurred with Zeke Amador, a neighbor who kept the bees in the community garden. When I discovered he had bees, I sidled up to him as a gold-digger does to money. I wanted what he had. Not just the bees, but the patience and understanding of self that bees demand.

I was 48 years old and finally secured a piece of my life’s dream. But having bees taught me more about myself than I had gained from life’s big adventures. Sure, I had proven myself to me again and again. I’d written, taken long journeys, and canoed a mighty river. Bees, however, made me look into the quiet corners of myself. In managing the hive, I find the intestinal fortitude to put me, my problems, and my worldly concerns to the side for a minute and be present. When I am with the bees, I am with them. That is all.

I call them my “girlies.” They, however, possess me. I don’t own them. When I am standing above a buzzing hive, taking in that beautiful flower-pollen-musk smell that emanates from only a beehive, bees mandate that I be at peace with the world. A few times, I came to the bees laden with my personal baggage, my melancholy and anger and disappointment. They knew I wasn’t at my best. They felt a threat to their house and family. They stung to protect their own. The interaction between human and bee demands discipline. I cannot be angry and work with the bees. The bees won’t stand for it. If I want to play with the bees, I have to do it on their terms.

Zeke and I have had our disappointments. A few years the bees took flight from our meager housing. We’ve had to buy new colonies and re-people our hives. This year, I set up two hives outside the garden, one near a lake and another in an urban backyard. I manage them with Zeke and Matt Tomasic, a cop and another freak who, from the time he was a kid wanted bees. Together we have five hives.

We do as little to the bees as possible. I talk to other beekeepers. In their obsession, they fiddle with their hives. They inspect them, move them, open them to see what’s going on. I’ve found, for me, that when I mess with them too much, they fly away. Just as when I disturb or bring my problems to another human being with something else to do, they leave or avoid me. I have to stand on my own with the bees. I have to see nature as something that gives, not a thing I take from. I have to see the world their way.

I am a writer and keeper of bees today. My dreams came true. I live them every day. From the bees’ perspective, that’s not a bad view.

How masturbation and fornication saved me from Perdition


When I fell, I fell hard and I fell fast.

olympiaWhen I was a kid, eternal damnation haunted my young life. Only through sins of the flesh would I come to believe there was no such thing as sin. In other words, sin served as the starting point for my redemption.

In grade school, I accepted without question the admonitions of priests, nuns, and family members that I, as a human being, was corrupt and without hope, except through the mercy and grace of a hard-hearted god. Sin accompanied me wherever I went and in whatever I did. When I whispered something in class, I recoiled from myself and said a prayer of forgiveness. When I went around public school children and Protestants, I prayed Satan would not infect me with doubt and that god would save my immortal soul from the grasp of unfaithful.

My church and school taught conservative reactionary religious tenets as if the very deliverance of humankind depended on them. My father bought into these instructions. He inculcated in his children a fear of god and of the world at large. He joined conservative Catholic organizations trying to recover the teachings of the One True Church. He longed for the return of the Latin Mass, nuns in habits, and priests in capes. His father beat him for becoming distracted at mass, and he beat me in return. From him, I learned to live mortal fear of Protestants, communists, and liberation theologists. They might influence me and my thinking with the softer aspects of a changing church. Guitar masses, drums in church, and priests in blue jeans represented all that was wrong with post-Vatican II Catholicism.

And I was a sinner. Try as I might, I could not keep my hands out of the cookie jar. Frustrated in a task, I cursed under my breath and immediately regretted my actions. Hatred plagued my young heart. I detested classmates who taunted me, my siblings when they received something I didn’t, and a world’s people who acted in contradiction of the rebukes of the pulpit. Cleavage on television or movies, as much as I liked it and found myself drawn to it, produced profound regret. When I teased or treated my siblings poorly, I lay awake at night, praying with all my might that I might be forgiven and give up my contemptible behavior. I went to confession constantly and did penance in the hopes that I might be forgiven infractions, no matter how small, that would keep me from heavenly redemption.

The contradictions all around me rived my young and tender soul to the point of breaking. How could I attend morning mass at school and then deal with the bullies who pushed, beat, and intimidated me? Couldn’t they understand the need to treat others as they would be treated? My reactions—really self-defense against bullying—violated a standard I held for myself, one that I believed others, particularly my parents, judged me by. I wanted to turn the other cheek. But my innate need to fight back defeated me every time.

Sins were venal and mortal. Dying in a state of venal sin relegated a person, me, for instance, to Purgatory, which sounded as bad as Hell, only not as long-lasting. If I went to my grave with unforgiven mortal sin, I was going straight to Hell. Stealing cookies and contesting bullies demanded punishment in Purgatory. Cursing another person using the name of god sent me straight to Perdition. I was almost certain I would never commit the mortal sin of murder or blaspheme. But I never knew. I could commit sin in action or thought. If I wanted to see Mark Smith die because he hurt me on the playground, that thought might just constitute a mortal sin. I was always on the verge of neurosis. What if I forgot a sin and didn’t confess it? Would that exclude me from Paradise?

The doubts went deep. What kind of god commended all non-Catholics to Hell? How long would Purgatory last, for instance, for the sin of stealing cookies? What about indulgences, the sort of “get out of jail free” cards that one stacked up for good works, visiting holy sites, and praying for the good of others?

I first smoked a cigarette when I was 11, about the time I started to drink out of my dad’s liquor cabinet. Both (venal) sins that felt really great. I first smoked weed in the fifth grade, and, boy, did I have to go to confession for that one. The priest at confession wanted me to rat out my boys that were involved, but I was afraid. They would certainly know who told on them. But wasn’t keeping the information to myself a sin, as well? Was it mortal or venal not to turn a guy in? Was the sin or lying to a priest a moral or venal sin? I couldn’t keep track. I wore a scapular for years. In case I died with mortal sin on my soul, at least I wouldn’t go to Hell. I might spend a long time in Purgatory, but I wouldn’t go to Hell.

Things became more complicated in high school. Our Catholic high school demanded entrance testing. One guy, who would later become one of my friends, jacked off the whole time we were taking the test. Jacked off! Not with his penis in his hand but by rubbing his penis through his plaid slacks. He moaned every now and then and went straight back to beating off. All of us in that quiet room were stunned, speechless. No one knew anyone else. The teacher always seemed to be looking away. Everyone was so embarrassed that we stood wordless in the hall during breaks in the testing. Here I was trying to do algebra problems while watching a guy condemn his soul to hell. Was I supposed to tell on him and save him from eternal damnation? What was the sin for keeping it to myself?

The social relations of high school confused me. I tried to get along with my mates, but I was still the fat kid, awkward, backward. I made friends with the outcasts—people who didn’t fit in with nerds, jocks, or dopers. Surely it was a mortal sin to smoke dope in the parking lot, just as it had been for me during a class picnic in the fifth grade. Of course, bullies would go to Hell, which was my only comfort. Other kids talked about hitting their fathers in retaliation for being beaten. I couldn’t imagine such an action. My dad was too strong, too big for me ever to win a battle like that. And, of course, hitting your father must be a mortal sin. As much and as badly as my father beat me, I never raised a hand to him in fear of burning in Hell.

After a year or two, I settled into the workings of high school. My moral standards relaxed, or, perhaps, became more mainstream. I made friends with the kid who was obviously gay. I smoked cigarettes in the parking lot after I started to drive my own car to school. I hung out with the dope smokers, though it would be a long while before I smoked dope again. I drank. In my house, drinking was normal. My dad was drunk often. Certainly, my father may be committing venal sin for imbibing too much. I could put up with some time in Purgatory in exchange for the euphoria that came with drunkenness.

My faith became more tenuous as high school progressed. Where once missing mass on Sunday was mortal sin, it became more and more palatable over time. God wouldn’t condemn a person to Hell just because he missed mass, would He? The more I drank, the more I wanted the touch of a soft breast, the more I found small infractions tolerable, the close I came to the end of my faith.

I first masturbated when I was fifteen. A whole new world opened up for me. At first, of course, I was convinced I was going to Hell. But after a short time, I couldn’t keep my hands off myself. Surely, something this good cannot be wrong, despite what Father Francis taught at every single religion class we had with him. I began to understand the masturbator at the initial testing to get into the school. Masturbation was good, particularly if you were never caught, and I got caught more than once by one or the other of my siblings. I went right on masturbating. I didn’t go blind (I was pretty blind already), my palms never grew hair, and if I suffered from the corruption of my mortal body, I never knew. I was already saddled with a corrupt body heavier and clumsier than other kids. I broke bones and went to the hospital numerous times for stitches whether I masturbated or not.

I’ll never forget the first time I found a porn magazine hidden in a tree at a park. The women and men seemed to enjoy themselves despite what they were doing to their future in eternity. I liked looking at them. It added whole new dimensions to my masturbation. Porn, while sinful, must be good, I thought.

I would never touch myself in public for fear of the kind of retribution the masturbator suffered—no one even talked to him until we were juniors. Even then, they could not forget watching his arm pulse, his buttocks jiggle, and his moaning. Poor kid probably walks around today with the scars of what I thought at the time was his sin.

Then, when I was 19, I missed mass for the first time. I went with a friend to his family’s cabin in the Ozarks. We didn’t get away in time to make mass. He opened a bottle of grape juice and some saltines. We had a sort of in-jest communion. I didn’t feel like I was going to Hell for it. I never went to mass again.

The end really came when I slept with a woman the first time. I was in college and working at the school newspaper. She was a sorority girl and I had the keys to the newspaper office. One thing led to another. The feel of soft, springy flesh reminded me of mountain waterfalls, trees in the Fall, and all of the great human wonders hanging in every art gallery in the world. I felt myself falling into the hands of the Demon. But there on the couch at the newspaper office in the center of the college campus, with the night watchman wandering outside the window, I decided that if having sex meant I was going to Hell, then that was just all right.

All the unconsidered teaching I’d absorbed in grade school and high school came to the fore after that first tryst. Religious constriction fell from me like leaves from a tree in autumn. I began to question theology, sin, what I had been taught at home and in school. I doubted the good of country, mother, and familial piety. I took to philosophy classes like a man in the desert takes to water. I became agnostic, then atheist. God could not exist, I thought. Randomness and natural selection were just all right.

Through masturbation and fornication, I had been redeemed.

And I slept with every woman I could lay my hands on. Or, rather, any woman who would lay her hands on me.

The order of my youth fell away to reveal the chaos that underpinned the universe. I never felt more comfortable and at peace in my life.

Penance, it seems, is not just for the church. No god saved me from the hell I would put myself through in the intervening years. I still pay penance today for the sin of being me. In fact, I believe there is no sin except that of being me. But that is a subject for a whole other essay.

Letter to a fellow traveler


Thanks for the note, Charlie. Sorry for the long, pedantic reply. I am very interested in your project and found that your questions warranted more than curt answers.

SONY DSCYou asked me about relating personal experience that is readable and relevant to a stranger, and about filters. Making a thing readable and relevant comes out of the writing process. The process itself and the story I’m trying to tell provide the filters.

Let me explain: I take notes in a journal whenever I travel. At the end of the day, I take an hour to reflect on the day’s events, processes, and interactions with other people. I try to recreate from memory the conversations I had that day that I feel were important.

What I wind up with is a journal that moves from day to day without much interpretation. When I sit to write the story, I follow those notes. This leads me to a draft. But a draft is not a book. “On a first draft, there’s no element of chance in writing crap—it’s fully guaranteed,” writes William Least Heat Moon in his latest book, Writing Blue Highways, a little writing manual that I keep handy. He’s absolutely correct in my case. I set out to write a book and wind up with crap. I don’t consider myself a talented writer. I wish I had talent. But I do have the capacity for hard work and persistence. These are the elements that make something decent I’ve written into something good.

Once the draft is complete, I have to let it sit for a while. I just drafted a book this year. I finished the draft in August. I will let it ferment by itself until I can get to it next, which should be soon. At that time, I will have to go back into that huge pile of words (about 90,000 right now) and find the story, themes, structure, and arc of story. Once I have some of that, then comes the filtering process. I will delete about 40 percent of what I have in the writing process, and I will add more. At the end of the process, I see a book of about 85,000-95,000 words.

While I’m sifting through that big pile of words, I ask, “What interactions and conversations will advance the story?” You can’t include all of a journey in a travel memoir. The reader will find a “get up in the morning, have breakfast, walk in beautiful landscape, find a camp spot, etc.” narrative tedious and boring. I have to make the decision as a writer what’s important for the reader to know.

For instance, I had a great many interactions with people that were important to me and my journey on my way to Montana, but not all of them are in Seldom Seen. Inclusion of too many people, animals, weather, landscapes create annotated and detailed laundry lists that wouldn’t be interesting to readers. The question always comes back to “What advances the story?” If the tale of a walking trip plods, then, in a sense, I have to walk faster. I have to exclude certain people, places, weather stories, etc., in order to create a tale and keep the story intact. This is where themes and structure come in. If I can limit myself to a few important themes (which can have innumerable sub-themes), then I can take the story along that trajectory. If I wander off from time to time, that’s all right, as long as I bring those tangents back to a particular theme.

In the end, all those notes—people, places, events, interactions—matter. They are the scenes behind the scene. They were necessary to create the story but have become unnecessary to the story itself.

As another example, I will never forget when I published my first poem. It was a short thing, as all my poems are. It hinged on an image that I’d written into its heart. The editor of the magazine, Wayne Lanter, wrote me back after I submitted the poem. He told me he’d publish it if I removed two lines. These two lines were the very reason the poem existed! But he was right. The idea that birthed the poem became unnecessary to the poem itself, and, in fact, held the poem back from reaching its potential. The reader did not need to see the seed to understand the plant.

So, how do I know what will be interesting to the reader? I don’t. I only know the story I’m trying to tell, and then not even that until well after the first draft, maybe the second or third. For my second book, Canoeing the Great Plains, I had gotten down to the final draft when one of the book’s peer reviewers—the University of Nebraska Press sends all their books out to independent peer reviewers—made a suggestion that would change the course of the entire tale. He said that the book was good the way it stood, but that if I took out some of the detail and added the perspective of years, the book would be even better. This meant, in a sense, that I had to fashion a second “I” character—an “I” voice that looked back on what the “I” of the tale’s action did in the past. The suggestion made sense, and I just couldn’t pass it up. I took the book back and redrafted it almost entirely. It’s a better book because I rewrote it again.

For your walk, you start out with a great deal more than I did. You have a list of questions that will filter some of what you later relate to your readers. “Is this about borders? Is this about personal change? Is this about the people who live on the edges of our city? Is this about borders shaped by money?” I suspect that your endeavor is about all these things. I see these as the themes of your story. That is, you don’t have to answer one at the expense of another. You don’t have to narrow your tale down to one question or another. One or more of these questions will come to the fore as the most important—the story. The other questions will be themes of the story. What about personal boundaries? That is, the trajectory of your life as you approach the walk. Why is it important to you that you make this trip? What about the boundaries of city’s memory?

You are, in large part, creating a memoir of place. The space, the human geographies of the city, are waiting for your definition. Once you define your boundaries, you have turned space into a place. In other words, you’ve taken the abstract and made it into lived space (place).

You will have to do your homework to define the dendrology (I love that term) of the city. This is an approach to the city’s history that I don’t think I’ve seen before. It includes the history of growth—foreign and domestic immigration, the creep of the city from the river to the plains above, urbanization, suburbanization, etc. It will also include the geographies of capital and power. City politics and the behind-the-scenes pressures of development and money form part of your narrative.

I don’t think you have to contemplate all that right now. The walk, making your notes, finding places to stay are the labors ahead of you. The rest of this will come as you find the story you have to relate to your audiences through grant writing, presentations to parks and conservation departments, etc. Or even a book on top of all the work you will do to establish a series of trails that follow the city’s boundaries, present and past.

In part, your story or the basics of it will remain the same. But what you present to the parks people will be much different than what you tell to an audience of book readers. Parks people will want to know the nuts and bolts of your proposal and how it fits into their vision and budget. Book readers will want to read about your personal transformation—how the things you discovered changed you and your perspective. That transformation will inform them and perhaps inspire them to go out and undertake their own journeys of discovery.

What happens to you is important here. What kinds of struggles did you have? How often did you have to ask for forgiveness? What kinds of historical sites did you discover along the way? Who is the Charlie we start with and how does he get to be the one we end up with?

Some books you may want to read. They may inform your trip. Many of these are available through local libraries:


  1. Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience
  2. Harry Hartoonian, History’s Disquiet: Modernity, Cultural Practice, and the Question of Everyday Life
  3. David Harvey, Consciousness and the Urban Experience

History and travel:

  1. William Least Heat Moon, Prairyerth: A Deep Map
  2. Ray Suarez, The Old Neighborhood: What we Lost in the Great Suburban Migration, 1966-1999
  3. James R. Shortridge, Kansas City and How It Grew, 1822-2011 
  4. Rick Montgomery and Shirl Casper, Kansas City: An American Story –This one’s a real feel-good kind of book, but the background work they did was tremendous.

For when you’re trying to write your story:

  1. Heat Moon, Writing Blue Highways: The Story of How a Book Happened 
  2. Stephen King (Yes! That Stephen King.) On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft 
  3. Ray Bradbury, Zen and the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius in You


Teaching as performance art (best done naked)


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


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


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.


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


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.


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


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

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.