I’m guilty of child neglect and have to do something about it


For about the last six months, I’ve neglected my son. For the first several years he lived with us (we adopted him when he was five), we did a great deal together. We hiked, took photographs, went camping and bike riding. In fact, we did some of that this summer, but not nearly as much as we could have and should have.

father sonThe problem, of course, is that I have gone through a long period of doldrums. I have been literally stuck in the middle of a kind of sea with no wind in my sail. It may be that it’s my age or that I am losing vitality just as he’s gaining the wonder and restlessness that comes with the teen years.

In either case, I realized my situation and have not possessed the energy or will to do anything about it. I have to look back a bit to see the start of this neglect, and I think it began about the time I began serious work on my dissertation in 2012. I spent every day that summer, from 9 a.m. until 5 or 6 p.m. at the graduate offices at UMKC. I did that every workday for months. I purposefully did not work on the weekends so that I would have family time.

It mattered little just what I did during the day because Nick was involved in a summer program with the parks department at our community center. I took him in around 8 or 8:30 a.m. and then picked him up, depending on if Virginia was working and had the time to do it herself, around 5 or 5:30 p.m. They ran him all day. He played with the other kids in the gym, watched movies, and did crafts. They swam every day. Weekly, they made a field trip to a more elaborate playground-type pool with all kinds of fountains, lazy rivers, and assorted vortexes. They went to the amusement park—that god-awful Worlds of Fun. (I’m glad the parks people took him because I never would.)

At the end of the day, it was time for him to recover. Evenings, he played with his friends across the street—tag, football, baseball—or they would play at the neighborhood park. By the time 8 p.m. came, he was more or less ready for bed and biding his time until he could reach a respectable bedtime of 9 or 9:30 p.m.

Every summer since he’s been with us, he was a part of that parks program. I thought that his time with the other kids was convenient to me. The first summer I worked on dissertation, we rode bikes and went camping on the weekends, but less than before.

After summer, I let school be my babysitter. He was, of course, busy during the day and would have some homework at night. But our father/son projects fell to the wayside. I found myself not taking pictures with my pinhole camera anymore. I didn’t fiddle at the workbench in the basement, and I certainly didn’t engage Nick the way I did before I started seriously on the dissertation.

The following summer, 2013, was much the same as the summer before. I dropped all my extracurricular activities—photos, painting, creative projects—for the dissertation. I lived and breathed it. I knew that I missed my hobbies and obsessions, but I formed a discipline in which that dissertation would be my focus and finishing it my goal.

And, then, after three years of hard work interspersed with periods of darkness and despair, I completed the dissertation. When I walked out of the doctoral committee the day they gave me my degree, I said to myself, well, now, I’m free. I’m a real doctor and I’m free.

I thought that after a short time, I would be back to those creative projects that took up so much of my days before the dissertation. I looked forward to doing things with Nick again.

Slowly, my life began its normal paces and routines. I taught school, wrote essays, and even, this year, drafted another book. But I didn’t pick up the pinhole camera. I didn’t take Nick on those photo hunting expeditions we made with our regular film cameras. We didn’t fiddle around in the basement. We painted no pictures, built no crystal radios, and made no furniture.

I read more, devoured books after having spent so much of my efforts picking through books like so many toll boxes. I learned to read novels again. Reading became a joy. In fact, it was the only thing I did outside of teach and write.

I find now that the dissertation did damage. After the intense effort to get that done, I suffered a kind of post-traumatic stress. Outside of my normal work duties and reading, I had nothing. About this time last year, I even wished I had another dissertation to do. I wanted that passion back, that sense of purpose. It’s almost as if I had been to war and didn’t know how to live without it.

Earlier this year, my son’s grades began to drop. Not by much, but enough to see that he was seeking attention. Sinking grades get him attention. Good grades get him a pat on the back. It’s a situation that I now realize that only more father/son time will solve. It’s not a matter of more lecture but one of more time devoted to him outside of school and the adulation that school brings him.

This Thanksgiving we had our holiday a day early. Virginia had to work Thanksgiving night, so we put together a family gathering for Wednesday. It was a time of close family, just Virginia, Nick, Uncle Phil, sister Sydney, and me. Everything went well and we had a wonderful day that ended at the movie theater where Sydney works. We returned from the movie in enough time to say goodnight and go to bed.

Thanksgiving day neither Nick or I left the living room. He played with legos—he’s something of a lego freak—and I read and noodled around on the computer. The whole day I felt awful. We should be doing something. Rain gave me an excuse not to do anything inside. But I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to get into the basement, make a painting with Nick, build something. Instead, we just sat until the day was through.

Friday was a little better. Nick’s friend came to spend the weekend. I was grateful to have something take my responsibilities away, a friend that would keep him preoccupied. We walked the dogs together, but that is hardly an activity that Nick enjoys. He was glad, however, that we did it together. We had the same kind of day on Saturday and part of Sunday. Nick and his friend played. I wrote and stayed out of his life.

Today, Sunday, his friend went home and it was just us again. What could we do? I remembered all the times when Sydney was a little girl when we would waste time at the art gallery, see the art, discuss it. So, that’s what we did today.

I’ve had a moment to think about our relationship. I look back now and see that Nick does best when we do things together. Not just in the moment we are together, but in all the moments in between our interactions. For the sake of his grades, his creative life, and his general happiness, I see now, I have to be involved in his life.

I can’t make the promise that I will get out of my funk and do the things with Nick that we used to do. But I know that now I have to try. It’s for his good and for mine.

A Christmas in Germany three decades hence


Every year starting in late November stands a market in Trier’s town center. The otherwise wide open pedestrian zone in the center of town hosts a village of what look like gypsy wagons draped in Christmas lights. The owners sell hand-made goods: candles, Christmas ornaments, toys, and other suitable holiday presents. Pretzels, brautwursts and currywursts, ham hocks, and French fries can all be had, along with assortments of baked goods and confections. At least one of the trailers dispenses beer and gluehwein—hot, spiced wine that warms the insides while a fire in the center of the trailer village warms the outside.

On a stage toward one side of the trailer village, musicians play classics on acoustic instruments. When their time is up, men and women in traditional German dress perform oompah-oompah music. Visitors dance in an open space near the carousel.

While many German towns host Weihnachtsmarkts—literally Christmas markets—Trier’s holds a special place in my memory and my heart. I was a young apprentice at the Episcopal Wineries in 1985. In the evening after work, I often walked from my tiny room in the attic of the apprentice’s training school down underneath the train tracks and through the expansive Palastgarten. Usually, I wandered around the park for a few minutes, savoring what I knew was going to be a brief but important time in my life. After making rounds of the park’s sculptures and taking in a view of the ancient Roman baths, I sauntered through the empty, narrow streets between warmly lit houses and glowing business fronts.



Palaststrasse was one of those intriguing old-town one-lane cobbled streets. Houses and apartments stood three and four stories on either side. I stopped to look at what the goldsmith displayed in the window and wandered down past the restaurants and bars just getting their evening crowds. Above, in the apartments, curtains let through the warm glow of family life.


Trier town center

The end of the street let out onto the pedestrian plaza near an ancient fountain and statue. Beyond the statue, the pedestrian plaza spread out wide like a river delta between department stores, bars, and restaurants, as well as the shops of artisan sliversmiths, clothing makers and retailers.

That season, I spent nearly evening and weekend at the Weihnachtsmarkt. Often, I only went for a cup of gluehvein and the feeling of being around other people. At the time, I had only a few acquaintances. Two of my mates, Carmel and Stephan were also interns. I worked with Carmel at the winery and Stephan was interning at a bank. I’m sure that I bothered Carmel a little too much. She was a Brit and the only person at the winery who spoke English. I realized at the time that she sometimes took great joy in my presence but other times merely felt sorry for me. I was grateful for both, I was so alone.

On the weekends, I met Carmel and Stephan at the market. Sometimes our friends Wolfgang, an intern I worked with in the vineyards, and Monika, a young woman who knew Wolfgang would join us. It was at the time that I began to fall in love with Monika. She had green eyes, the brightest green I had ever seen. Her tiny frame and long hands intrigued me. I looked forward to weekends not just that I would have real company for a few hours but also because I knew I’d be able to spend time with Monika.

As much as I had Monika on my mind, I also had a crush on the Weihnachtsmarkt’s candlemaker. He had long, soft brown hair and gentle features. I used to watch him in his trailer, wondering at the revelation that I had a homosexual in me. I admitted that I did, but when I imagined sex with him, I couldn’t see anything. Still, I looked forward to my time at the market so I could gaze upon this beautiful man illuminated by yellow candle light.

The time was magical. My first months in Trier—I arrived and began my internship in November—were some of the loneliest in my life. I’d settled in the town without contacts, without knowing one soul. My social life at the beginning revolved around work, which I loved. Working outside, first in the harvest and then in the pruning of the vines suited me.


Wawern, Germany

The only other social outlet I had was a parent-like couple I made friends with early in my travels in Germany, Josef and Marlies Frick. They lived outside of Trier in a little, quiet and sleepy village called Wawern. In those first months in Trier, I spent a couple of weekends with them. There, I ate well, walked with Marlies often, and spent nights in a room they called my room in the attic of their 12th century house.

That fall and winter, I walked a lot in all kinds of weather. Weekends I sometimes spent eight to ten hours walking the streets of Trier, from where I lived in Petrisberg, up through the valley behind my room (Olewiger Tal) and back up over the plateau rising above the town, and then down the valley (Avelertal) where I worked in the vineyard. I walked out toward the Mosel and up the riverside paths through the old fishing village Zur Laube and then back through Trier Nord and the center of town. I spent hours walking the little streets and corners of the old town, down to the Roman baths called the Barbarathermen. I came to know the town intimately and can still navigate the streets and make my way around town when I return now thirty years hence. Sometimes I would take off down the Saarstrasse into Trier Sued all the way to Matthiaskirche and then past down the riverside toward the town of Konz and back.

vineyardOne day, I spent ten hours, literally from morning into the evening dark along paths through the vineyards south of town. It was bitterly cold and snowing. I brought nothing to eat or drink. I felt the steep hills in my legs and back. The chill shot through me from my hands to the nape of my neck and into my chest. I kept on and didn’t turn back toward home. I had to keep moving to keep the cold out of my bones but also because I was driven. I had determined to walk all the way to Konz and back through the vineyards, not taking one street or sidewalk along the way. I stopped once for a long time late in the afternoon and watched the towns of Trier and Konz in the valley, separated from me by hundreds of rows of vines falling steeply to the highway below.


Trier with Petrisberg in background

Besides walking, I spent a good deal of time in my room writing and reading. When there was nowhere to go, or I had gone everywhere where I could go—when I’d walked myself out—the room where I lived seemed really lonely. I stood for hours at the window in my room, looking out on the quiet neighborhood along the Egbertstrasse—which was once one long side of Trier’s Roman Circus where horsemen in the Gallish outpost would run chariots. I watched the lights come on in the houses as the sun set. Lone walkers clattered up the cobblestone. Somewhere, a dog barked. I often looked up past the houses toward Petrisberg, a large volcanic mound behind my neighborhood. On the other side of the hallway from my room, I looked out on the roofs of the town, down toward the Roman basilica and the churches rising up above the town. Besides the traffic on the Weimarer Allee that ran parallel to the train tracks, the bells of the churches echoed through the valley.

I remember the time fondly for a couple of reasons. I was more alone than any other time in my life and had to come to terms with myself. I could not whine or cry about being alone—I had put myself into this situation. Settling down after spending two months on the road, where travel keeps loneliness from setting in, I had to get used to being still. When I needed, I walked. And sometimes, after a day of walking, I took and nap and walked again into the evening and then night. I witnessed the rhythms of  a town waking up and going to sleep. The warm glow of houses, their unknowable secrets, the ways in which I imagined life in those houses all kept me going, kept me walking, kept me company.

I also recall the time alone as one of growth. I had to come to terms with myself. Nothing and no one stood between me and myself. I was learning a new language. I was making friends, albeit slowly. My skills in the vineyard moved from clumsy to practiced. I was falling in love.

I have experienced other times in life when I was alone. None of them have the poignant sweetness of that time in Trier. Since that time, I am rarely lonesome.

But mostly, I was at the bottom, making a new start. One other time in life have I made a new start, and that when I quit drinking and found myself with no friends. I’d driven them all away. I had long weeks that revolved around school and study. But on weekends, I walked and came to know the streets of Midtown Kansas City as well as I knew those of Trier.

It was during this time that I experienced one of my greatest disappointments. I had visited with Monika, Carmel, and Stephan in the Weihnachtsmarkt over the weekend before Christmas. I spent the evening Monday, December 23, walking through the vineyards. The weather that week was cloudy and cold but no wind or rain. Tuesday, Christmas Eve, we had the day off. I read and wrote most of the day, taken about as much nap as one can take, and then headed out toward the city center after dark.

This time, I walked quickly. I looked forward to my last glance at the candlemaker and a cup of gluehwein. I knew that Christmas Day would be a lonely one for me. I had nowhere to go and no one to visit. It would be my first Christmas completely alone. I entered the Palaststrasse and with some anticipation anxiously awaited turning the corner and seeing the warmly lit Weihnachtsmarkt. I remember stopping for a minute to look at a statue of St. Nick in the goldsmith’s shop and being thankful that German Christmas was not a consumer-drenched holiday. In fact, that Santa was the only one I saw in Trier that season.

I rounded the corner into an empty square. The plaza spread out before me swept clean. No evidence of the Weihnachtsmarkt remained. I wandered around a while in the place where the trailer village stood just a few days before. I started to cry. I sobbed my way home. When I opened the door to the school the dark stairwell that climbed five stories to my room was quiet but for my footsteps. I sat down on the steps and cried again, my sobs echoing up the stairwell. I never felt so lonely in my life nor have I since.

Memory makes those times in Trier seem better and worse than they were at the time. It selects the details and arranges them in a context. But those details and contexts change over time, over the course of one recollection and another. Sometimes the memory of the Weihnachtsmarkt and that season seem so sad—a lonely American kid with nothing to do in a strange town. Other times, I feel the growth, long for the lonesomeness, feel the city turn on its lights as the dark thickens. I don’t regret the time or desire to return to it. I sometimes miss the sweet sting of loneliness and the poems it bred. But I know now, after a couple of trips back to Trier, that I can never return to that time of discovery.

As I write about this, I think that those times of learning about myself, learning a new language, and feeling the topographies of a new town show me that while I can’t return to those times, I can keep interpreting them in context of a lively life. A Weihnachtsmarkt would never match my memory of that particular one in that particular year three decades ago. It can, however, spur me to discovery, to get off my butt when I have nothing to do, and to walk and keep walking.

The rain and the H-bomb


The rain came and it made me happy. It started in the morning, steady and solid. It continued through the day and into the night. For the first time in many weeks, I felt at ease.

rainA pluviophile they call me, a person who loves rain, someone who finds joy and peace of mind during rainy days. Granted, I only spent a few minutes out in it yesterday. But the sound of the rain on the outside of the house, the gurgle of the downspouts, the sight of all that rain raised my spirits and put me in a mood to sit and wait for inspiration.

No poems came to me. I did not feel the impulse to sit down and write one of these essays. Instead, I fiddled around the living room. The warm light from the incandescent lamps and the small coziness of the room kept me safe and warm feeling all day long. My son watched television and played with his legos—he’s something of a lego freak—and I pottered around with books and my computer.

Lately, I’ve had a string of days where I feel like I can’t get anything started, and when I do get started, I can’t finish. Such is the life of a manic depressive who takes the proper medications. The drugs rob me of the times when I’m on top of the world, able to do anything and everything I set my mind to. Of course, as much as I miss the energy and frenetic action of the high points, I don’t suffer the lows, the bone-crushing depressions that make me want to hang myself from the beam in the basement.

The medicine, however, doesn’t take care of everything. Sometimes it seems that taking the medicine, while it gets rid of the very highs and very lows, also traps me in a kind of somnambulance. I still go through periods of depression. I get down, lethargic, and sometimes mean. I suffer from cyclical downturns that sometimes last only a day, sometimes for months. This time, the depression has lingered for a couple of months. I wake in the morning and try to go back to sleep. When I do get up, my thoughts are about when I can finagle a nap.

When depression bubbles up through the chemical compounds implanted against it, guilt and feelings of uselessness emerge with it. Since I can’t seem to make myself move, I feel the weight of things that I need to do but can’t. The basement needs a going over. There’s a hole in the floor of the playhouse out back. I haven’t finished painting the kitchen, a project now over five years old.

These thing lay on me like heavy, wet packing blankets. The feelings of uselessness grow. Here I am, 53, and suffering the paralysis of middle age—almost senior age—that writers like Updike, Cheever, and Malamud wrote about. Certainly, I say to myself, this can’t be happening to me. If I could just get started, get over the hump, I will be all right. Then, I feel the presence of despair. No, I can’t get started. All the things to be done will have to wait until I feel better, if that time ever comes.

Then, there’s my son. I leave him to play by himself. He needs me. He wants the father/son experience of completing a project, no matter how trivial, together. I neglect him and those feelings of guilt and uselessness gather like driftwood against a bridge pillar. The only thing that will dislodge the jam is a flood or dynamite, neither of which I have in me at the moment.

I started with that kind of day yesterday. Another one, I thought. All I want to do is sleep, get away from the light and noise, turn off the nattering voices in my head.

But it was raining and I could feel it. The light was dim, and all I had to do was leave the lamps in the room off to be in the twilight that a good, rainy day brings to the world. Calm washed over me, and the nervous ticks that plague me in times of stress abated. My hands quit shaking. My jaw unclenched. I was in a quiet world broken only by the sound of the rain and downspouts. I felt good despite being down in the depths.

I let my son play with his legos. I read some and pinballed around on the computer. I looked up the Soyuz space program and the Soviet space stations posed to look like civilian and scientific endeavors but were really Cold War surveillance missions. The rockets that propelled those stations into space were the same as those the Soviets tipped with thermonuclear bombs. While the United States and Soviet Union sent their astro- and cosmonauts into space as great human feats, those riders of stars operated like men in little outposts and determine how to rain devastation down from the heavens.

As the day progressed, I read more ephemera. The Bikini Islanders had no idea what their American handlers were saying as they explained what they were going to do to the Bikiniers’ island. When the H-bomb Bravo blew the atoll to smithereens, the islanders saw that the gods had really arrived. They wanted to go back home after the 20 H-bomb tests the United States conducted on the island. They had no idea about the dangers of radiation and no one knew how to tell them. Their trees did not distinguish between ordinary water and radioactive precipitation. They became radioactive beacons, the coconuts on them like little containers of the most deadly substances known to human kind.

If my reading tended to follow my mood, I didn’t see it until now. I watched H-bomb explosions on youtube. I saw the effects of war on Syrian refugees. I listened to American politician wax jingoistic in their xenophobic speeches. The American presidential primary candidates seemed like clowns who wanted to wreck the economy with more war and to make young men take up arms in the name of profit.

All the while it rained, and I felt a kind of joy that I rarely feel during these depressions. Nick played quietly and paid little attention to Mythbusters. The rain allowed me to sit, doing little of the work I have before me. I tried to feel bad about not getting busy. But the rain left me powerless against its soothing effect.

For the first time in many weeks, I was at peace. I wished for the rains that produced the flood. I could think of nothing more comforting than forty days and forty nights.

Tough day. Hope on the horizon.


When the darkness and lethargy of depression hits me, I constantly push myself. I must be doing something, anything. Mooning around the house, I see a million projects I should be undertaking. I’m a writer. I should be writing. But when I sit down to the computer, nothing happens. I start and stop, start again. Somehow, I think, if I can just get something going, I’ll be all right.

writerThe problem, I’m discovering, is that trying to deny the darkness only makes things worse. Waiting for that one magic jolt and believing it will strike only makes me feel more inept, more useless.

My new turn is to embrace it. I’m down and I’m going to be. Nothing I do will stop the downward spiral. My inability to do much only exacerbates the challenges. I might as well go with it, flow with the darkness

So, here’s how I’m doing today: Not good. I have yet to feel the creative spark that will get me going on a piece of writing. I don’t feel the poems all around me. I know they are there, and all I have to do is reach up and grab one. But I can’t lift my arms. I have no fingers that will pluck a poem from the air.

So, why try?

How about if I go this direction: Life has no point. Everything I do is meaningless. I will never be a writer who shows real insight into the affairs of human beings. Those writers who publish in magazines like the Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, and the New Republic on a regular basis have something I don’t have and never will. All around me people are writing poems, books, articles, essays. I just don’t have it. I’m old. Most writers my age have already written their best stuff, what makes me think I can do any better than them?

If I had any talent, things might be different. But I have no talents or skills I can count on. I’m only a mediocre poet. What I write is drivel that even the most amateur school kid can outperform. I’m not even a good historian. I’m too taken up in the details and not enough with context. When I’m an essayist, my work is predictable and regular. Nothing stands out.

That makes me feel a little better, having said all that. The above things are the inner struggles, the doubts and fears that bubble to the surface when I’m down. I’ve been out sorts for months now. From the perspective of the moment, it doesn’t seem that I’ll ever be out of this phase, if that what it is.

Waiting out the passing of this gloom is agony, which is why I think I should think about the deaths of hundreds of people today in wars, terrorist attacks, revenge killings, and outright murder. Corporations and governments create famine. Adults molest children. People rob, steal, and cheat. The shoot each other. They terrorize, frighten, and torture. Militants destroy entire landscapes and turn verdant valleys into a sterile wastes.

My culture, American silliness, paralyzes people. Endless emptiness haunts television and music. Little of significance comes without pain. But I don’t feel pain. I feel nothing and nothingness. Empty. Void. My head is just another television with inane programs playing on and on and on.

It’s happening all around me. There’s nothing I can do. Nothing I can write will ever stem the flow of human misery. I can’t move myself to tear my eyes out or drive a nail through my hand. The energy escapes me. I just don’t have the drive.

Of course, I know, or hope, at least, that this dark period will pass as all the others have done. I will emerge into the light. The sharpness of the sounds will abate. My nerves, so frazzled now, will mend.

Writing about this reinforces a couple of important things. The first is that I’m in a spot familiar to me. Throughout my life, I have gone through periods—some as short as a day, some as long as a few months—when I become paralyzed, when I cannot muster the energy or drive to do more than get up in the morning, read the newspaper, and go back to bed.

The second is that writing, no matter how hard it comes, helps. Even this piece, this scattered, unorganized, even whining piece helps me break through the creative block that stoppers me up during these periods of despair.

I worry, too, that such pieces will lose readers, those few faithful who stick with me through good and bad. It’s another bleak essay about paralysis, I think. Who can be interested in one of these after they have read a couple? No one likes a whiner. Who can stand a constant complainer?

No one. That’s who.

Fortunately, anyone who’s kept up with me over the years, they know that the glum Patrick has a companion who’s fired up, creative, and inventive. That Patrick, let’s call him the healed Patrick, will be back. It will just take a while.

I look forward to that time. It will come, but here’s the thing, It will take steps on my part. I know I can unlock the doors tomorrow if I wanted. All it takes is for me to force myself out of bed at a decent hour and sit down to the work. When I sit down and start the discipline again, it may take a couple of weeks to come together. I will have to stare at the computer for hours and get nothing done. But then I will do it again. And again. Sooner or later, something will come. It always does.

Of Vonnegut and Heller: Billy Pilgrim, Ice-9, Catch-22, and the writing life


Joseph Heller

A few things I didn’t know until the last couple of days: First, in the 1950s, Joseph Heller worked as a highly paid advertising executive for some of America’s most popular and influential magazines, such as Life, Look, and McCall’s. Second, Kurt Vonnegut could be a real prick.

I first read Cat’s Cradle in high school for an English class. A kid with a tumultuous home life, bereft of friends, and feeling alone in the universe, I took to the absurdity of life that stands at the center of Vonnegut’s work.


Kurt Vonnegut

I was an optimistic fatalist. That is, I hoped all the time that I was wrong in my belief that everything would go wrong. If human beings could invent genocide in a two-ton package that a plane of missile could deliver to unsuspecting people within a few minutes, they could certainly invent other ways to destroy the planet. Dr. Hoenniker’s Ice-9, which turned water into ice at room temperature made sense to me. Someone besides me knew, or, at least, grasped the fact that life in the twentieth century could have no meaning. I hoped that things would be different but held out little hope that they would.

I moved on to Vonnegut’s bleak first novel, Player Piano, which asks the question, “What are people for?” After pondering that the world was becoming less and less human the more we relied on technology, I went and read all the Vonnegut I could find in the school and the public library. I understood Billy Pilgrim, victim of Tralfamadorian time shift, walking through a door in 1954 and into 1944. He skittered uncontrollably between a child’s birthday party into a German POW camp in Dresden, from the Tralfamadorian paradise he lived in with Montana Wildhack to a cold trench during the Battle of the Bulge.

slaughterhouse_fiveVonnegut’s circuitous story telling didn’t confuse me. It soothed me. I never knew what was going to happen at home. I might find my father in a good mood one minute and then be smashed across the room the next. I also had no control of my moods. I might wake up on the top of the world, feeling that I could do anything. Then, within the span of an hour, I knew the world would be better off without me and was thinking how to off myself. Up and down, back and forth, who knew where or when the wild ride would end. I didn’t. I just held on sometimes, knowing that whatever I was in would change soon enough.

But not knowing what I would be in made me nervous. I suffered nightmares. I chewed my fingernails and through countless plastic pens. I wear permanent scars on my lips from being electrocuted by an extension cord on whose end I was gnawing. Nothing was safe.

(When I was young, I cried all the time. Then, Mrs. Herron sent me to see Father Masturbation-Fornication who told me I was living beyond God’s will and that I had to buck up. I quit crying but ate more, smoked more, drank more. I was 11. By the time I was in high school, I weighed 250.)

I ran into Heller’s Catch-22 sometime in my senior year. The book should have been over my head, but again, it made sense. Like Billy Pilgrim’s journey along the space-time continuum, Heller’s novel moved back and forth through time with seeming randomness. It wasn’t random, if course, it was Heller being a genius writer. Every shift made sense in the context of the novel and its stories.

Catch22I got it when I read about Yossarian doing anything to stay alive or die trying. There was sense in the catch, that fliers who flew in the bellies of planes so easily plucked from the sky were insane to do the work. But if they asked not to fly, they were sane and, thus, had to fly.

Catch-22 became a reading staple for me. I read it at least once annually, if not more frequently for years. Heller caught the absurdity of living in a corporate society and the meaningless of our actions in it and our powerlessness in the face of it spoke to me. The book was funny, as was much of Vonnegut’s work. It only got funnier and more relevant the older I got.

I never knew much about these writers who so informed my outlook and perspective. Somewhere the other day, I was reading about Vonnegut and came across the title of Charles Shields’  biography, And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life. Between reading books at the moment, I bought Shields’ book for my Kindle. It was a 500-page tome. But I read it in two days. I just couldn’t stop.

and so it goesWhat struck me was how the public Vonnegut was often diametrically opposed to the private man. He often treated his wife and kids poorly. He cheated on his wife and wound up marrying someone who he cheated on, as she was cheating on him. He successfully played the stock market, even buying stock in the maker of napalm, while he wrote about the absurdity and cruelty of war.

But I was also reading to see about his discipline, how he wrote. For years before and after he made it famous with Slaughterhouse-Five, he worked every day on his writing. He rose early in the morning and wrote through until lunch time. He often worked longer than that. He was a tyrant at home, disappearing into his study and screaming downstairs at rowdy kids—there were six—and taking his wife to task for not keeping the kids under control.

He worked. Slaved. He was so dedicated to writing that nothing could stand in his way. After his marriage ended, he would up with a tyrant to match him. He never deviated from his writing discipline, no matter what kind of shattered mess his private life and relationships were.

Just-One-Catch-192x300Reading Shields’ book got me to thinking about other influential writers in my life. I poked around and found that Tracy Daugherty’s Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller had gotten good reviews. The reviewers said the book was readable and covered Heller’s work in depth. Good enough. I bought that book and have read most of its 560 pages in just a day.

Heller was also a contradiction, a corporate man intensely focused on the inanities and absurdities of corporate life. The social critique in Catch-22 is biting, acerbic, scathing. In order to stay alive in the corporate society, you must fight the institutionalization of every aspect of living. To live you depend on institutions and routines. If you succumb to the routine and like it, you must be crazy. If, however, you question the routines and institutions, you must be sane. But in coming to that sanity, you must admit how much you depend on the institutions. In the end, the corporations have all the power except the one that is your desire to live as an individual.

I’d love to live off the grid, or would I, really?

Heller wrote in the evenings after he came home from his corporate jobs. He spent time with his wife and two kids, going for walks, eating dinner—his mind likely far from the moment and deep in his book. He wrote with pencil and typewriter, often combining the two on a single page and clipping and taping passages into pages. He read and reread. It was slow going. Sometimes he’d achieve just one page for a night’s work.

But he kept at it. It took him between 1955, when the first draft of a first chapter of a book then called Catch-18, appeared in New American Literature, to 1961 to get that book finished. Work. Plain, unforgiving work. And Heller was a pragmatist. He had a vision for the book and would ditch anything, any passage or number of pages that seemed to get in the way. He eyed his own work as a surgeon would a patient. It’s not personal, it’s excising or mending the offending part.

I take a lot from both. I try to write two or three essays a week. When I’m drafting a book, I will get at least 1,000 words written every time I sit down. In revising I tend to get one to five pages completed in a day.

But I stop. I am not as disciplined as I should be. Some days, I find excuses not to sit down to the computer and write. I’m too busy or there is too much going on. In fact, I’m just lazy. Life has meaning and purpose when I write, so I should write. On the other hand, it’s very difficult to take up the responsibility that comes with meaning and purpose, so I put off writing.

In the end, I have not dedicated myself, my every free moment to writing like Vonnegut. I have not put together a routine where I carve out a little time for my writing every day the way that Heller did. Sometimes, though I call myself a writer, I am not.

With a solid four hours a day, I know that I would be able to produce a great deal. I would love to know the feeling that overcame Vonnegut toward the end of his life—that he had said everything and didn’t have any more to say. I don’t know that. I often look at a page and wonder where to begin. But once I begin, like Heller did, with just a sentence, the rest flows of itself.

I have put off forming the discipline for two long. I still have seven books to write before I reach the age of 70. I have only 17 years left. I have to get moving.

Writing for the hell of it


gardnerI just finished John Gardner’s book, On Becoming a Novelist. Gardner has the nuts and bolts of being a novelist down: Write, find your voice, struggle and slave, give up dreams of becoming famous. More importantly, he covers the creative process involved in becoming a writer.

The most sound advice Gardner gives to the prospective writer is simply to write. Write anything. It’s not science or magic. While he’s concerned with the processes involved in writing novels, a heartless and difficult process that one must sacrifice nearly every other earthly endeavor to, he deals broadly with the act of writing. Of course, he admits that a writer must make a living but cautions that writing, in and of itself, probably will never yield a satisfying living.

All my life, I only wanted to be a writer. I conceded to a number of other pressures for a long time. I heard from friends and family that I’d never be a writer. I couldn’t compete. I’d never make a living. I even had writing teachers in college, one in particular, who told me directly that I should give up the writing business and find a profession that paid well and provided me a regular routine.

I believed all that crap but still wrote thousands of pages, notes, poems, and letters. I missed the most important lesson a writer can learn: writing is a reason to write. Nothing more. I can’t fault my teachers. I was, at the time, drunk much of the time. I put minimal effort into writing for those classes. I fell into the myths of writing. I have to be struck with the magic. I’m a struggling artist. Hemingway wrote when he was drunk (which he certainly was not) and the great writers wrote only when they felt the creative impulse.

It took many years for me to understand the processes of writing and publishing. I found out, again and again, that nothing comes from a bout of drinking with pen in hand. All I ever produced on a bender was gobbledygook. I wrung my hands and wondered when fate would smile on me. After I got over the drunken inspiration bunk, I wrote and wrote a lot. I slaved away. But I hadn’t yet become a writer.

rejection slipMy efforts at publishing brought only rejection slips. After I received a rejection, I would pull back my efforts and concentrate again on producing pieces, long and short, that went into a pile. I never really produced a piece that would stand the light of publication. But I tried. I slaved away. I wrote when I had a chance and often when I didn’t, stealing away moments from responsibilities for time at the typewriter.

All those years of writing are a blur to me. I can only find a few manuscripts from my time at the typewriter, only a few of the many thousands of pages of drivel I produced. They are mostly embarrassing. There are more thousands of pages that I’ve lost to changes in technology. I moved from a typewriter to a computer in the early 1990s. Those floppy drives are all gone now, and those that I have I cannot convert to modern devices. Not that it would matter. Maybe some ideas are worth salvaging, but the writing itself would do better in the trashcan than on sheets of dead trees.

Outside of a couple of poems and a few college newspaper articles, I never got anything published.

That all changed when I took off for my walk to Montana in 1995. After much effort and great strain, I secured a column in PitchWeekly where I would publish bi-weekly articles for five months of the trip. I was thrilled. I remember well the first check I cashed that came to me as a result of my writing. It was a dream come true. Maybe all those years of slaving away in the dark paid off. I had some concrete approval of my effort.

But that wasn’t the end of it. I had become a writer only by dint of hard work and perseverance. I quit worrying about what I thought people thought of my work and started producing work just for the pleasure and reward of producing it. That doesn’t mean that I forgot I was working for audiences. Those audiences remained part of my thinking and writing. But I stopped putting myself and my own critique into the shoes of imaginary groups of people who I thought would never accept my work.

That is the conundrum of writing for me. I had to forget the audience, or, rather, I had to stop being the audience and be the writer. On the other hand, many times I am the only audience for my writing. The writing has to satisfy me.

One thing that Gardner talks a great deal about is the mystical space that the writer enters when he or she is on their game. It’s a place where the characters and the action take over the writer’s mind. They stop worrying about words, audience, theme, and structure and just write. While many struggle to enter that sacred space, many just keep writing whether they enter it or not.

My good friend Eddy Harris emphasizes when he and I talk about writing. I complain, Eddy, I want to become a writer. How do I get published more? If I write and no one sees it, was it worth the effort. Eddy’s answer to all this is to write. Just keep writing. Give up the idea that writing has to have a reason, that an essay has to conform to some preset and academic structure. Just sit down and see where it goes.

That is the secret. Keep writing. Write when you have no drive or creative impulse. More importantly, an adept writer practices and can trigger that state of mind of writing. Sit down and look at that empty page. Put some words on it. See what comes of it. Repeated enough, the impulse will come almost of its own. But don’t depend on it. Write. Write. Write. Much of what I write will be drivel. But it’s exercise. It’s flexing the muscles so they stay fit. If I’m lucky, as I am today, the creative state of mind will come. But it’s definitely not coming if I don’t put myself into place.

That’s where these essays come from. I have to write. I don’t feel I’ve done my job as a writer unless I’ve written a thousand words in a day. Things get in the way. I’m tired. Family and work responsibilities take my time. I find that I write best in the afternoon, after I’ve gotten over the morning sleepies and have had a nap. Then, the day really begins. I sit down to that empty page. I see what happens.

Sometimes, I write about a subject that’s been bugging me all day. Every now and then, the writing impulse starts of its own and I have nothing to write about until I put those first tentative words on a page. I start and delete and start again. After enough times, the gears engage and I’m off and running.

I don’t believe that writing about writing is much of a topic for an essay. Except for today. I’m trying, even as you read this, to figure myself out. What is it that drives me to write? That lifelong obsession, perhaps, is behind the impulse. Maybe it’s something else. Who cares?

Whatever it is, I have it today. I can only hope that the same kind of impulse takes your fancy, drives you to do whatever it is that you do. For me, its writing, the sheer joy of watching this page full with words.

It’s time I get a real job, again


My wife had the first panic attack in her life the day before yesterday. She couldn’t breathe. She was crying, feeling inferior and afraid. She felt like she was having a heart attack.

I could feel that panic attack as I was watching it. I have them fairly frequently. I guided her through the experience, talked her down, as it were. Take a deep breath and hold it. Pace a little—the back and forth tends to help some. Wring your hands so that they have something to do besides grasp the sides of your head and rub your eyes. It’s all right, I said. It’s normal.

Even while she felt the distress, I wondered about the state of our family. What if, I thought, there are two of us who have to deal with mental illness? Where does that put us? Two people barely to make livings?

nurse hatVirginia works too hard. She’s at the hospital for three overnight shifts a week. Often, when she comes home, something inside her turns on and she doesn’t go to bed. Instead, a frenetic energy takes over. She starts a thousand projects, running from one to the next as a squirrel runs from tree to tree. I find it hard to be around her. She talks to herself. Mumbles. She falls asleep standing up at the counter or in front of the mirror in her bathroom. I used to think falling asleep standing up was a myth. Then Virginia started working nights.

It’s frightening. Sometimes, I wish she was drinking. There would be a logic to the incessant demands, the slurred speech, and the disjointed conversation. As it is, sleep deprivation has no logic. It’s a wealth of symptoms, none of which a sane person can deal with.

I’ve asked her more than once to move back to a day schedule. Eleven years of working nights is enough. But she loves the night shift. She works in oncology and there are no clocks for someone with cancer. Her patients need treatments and medicines the night through. Pain keeps many of them awake. She’s as busy during the night as most nurses are during the day.

There’s one difference between night and day that’s important to Virginia. During the day, nurses have a number of administrative duties that take away the time they can spend at their patients’ bedsides. Virginia loves, more than anything, patient care. The fewer administrative duties she has to perform, the happier she is.

There’s also the matter of money. That night shift is worth about $5,000 a year more than the day shift. Money motivates Virginia more than me. For me, money is just a way to keep people off my back. Virginia, however, came from a different background than me. Money means security to her. She used to be very poor. She’s not anymore and she doesn’t ever want to go back there. That five grand I can do without means comfort and safety to her.

So when I ask, even sometimes beg her to move to a day shift, she counters that she doesn’t feel comfortable with that. I have to respect her reasoning, even if I disagree, even if I think that the money isn’t worth it.

I’ve often thought that his schedule can’t be good on Virginia’s health, physical or mental. A person can’t walk around half a week sleep deprived. I’ve seen her grow older under this regime. She’s more frail than she used to be. She doesn’t exercise or walk the dogs like she once did.

When she was going through the panic attack, I began to think that perhaps this night shift is getting to her mentally. This made me feel a moment of despair. I already deal with panic attacks. They say I have bipolar disorder. I know I have the symptoms. When I don’t take medication, I have moments when I feel like I can do anything, and I can. I start and finish a hundred projects at a time. I can take on any challenge. I have confidence and an abundance of energy. I’m not afraid of anything.

Inevitably, these episodes end in bone-crushing depressions. Where one minute I’m on top of the world, the next I’m lower than low. I feel despair. I can’t move. The world darkens and nothing feels right. It used to be that I thought of suicide and once even came close to hanging myself in the basement.

It’s worse when I’m working a regular job. The daily routines close in on me, no matter how much I like the job. I feel trapped. I cycle through periods of intense accomplishment and absolute despair. Life doesn’t seem to have a point. In part, the feeling that life has come to a dead end has kept me out of regular work since 2003.

It’s not that I don’t make a living, I do. I cobble one together through adjunct teaching, speaking engagements, and writing projects. But it wouldn’t be enough if Virginia didn’t work. Because of her, we live a middle-class life—a life of opulence compared to where we each came from.

Selfishly, while Virginia was in such distress, I thought, Jesus, what if this means I need to get a real job? I’m a strong starter and would do well for six months. After that, life closes in on me. More than anything, I hate the feeling of sameness, of routine. I don’t look forward to it.

But if Virginia’s panic attack is the first crack in a stalwart façade, then it’s back to regular work for me. I don’t want to wait and see. For the last few days, I’ve thought real hard about what kind of work I want to do, of what kind of work I can tolerate. I think it would be good to build up something of a retirement, have something for when we both reach old age, which is approaching faster than either of us want to admit.

I’ve also thought that maybe it’s not time to wait and see if this one panic attack was an anomaly—the product of a normal person dealing with normal stresses. I want Virginia to work less. I have a choice. I can write that book that will deliver us financially or I can get a job. I don’t think I’ll be more than a minor literary figure anytime soon. It may just be time I found myself what my mother always said I should get: A real job.

A friend’s illness shows me just how selfish I am


sadnessA friend of mine came down with cancer recently. I’m not sure if cancer is something you can come down with. You can’t catch it. Maybe it develops. She developed cancer. It took an errant cell, one genetic trip up. Something broke and now it’s going to kill her.

Sandra’s an author who has published four books in the last three years. I have worked with her at JCCC for quite a while now. She teaches anthropology. She always told me she wanted to publish and didn’t find a publisher until just a few years ago. She had all those novels in the pipe, ready to go when she found a publisher. I envy her and her success at the same time I think it couldn’t happen to a better person.

She’s a real go-getter. She’s something of a fitness freak. Until she experienced some back pain a few weeks ago, she ran five or six miles a day and ate right. Everyone at the JCCC gym knows her. One of the very first conversations she and I had was in the gym. I was working weights. She was doing leg lifts. I was sweating and worn out. She looked like she just walked out of the house with a cup of coffee.

A good friend of mine on the faculty worked out with her for years. We had a long talk yesterday about Sandra. What do you do when everything you say to a dying person is selfish? Send a card and let someone else do the talking. Keep her fresh in your mind. Remind her she’s become a part of your DNA.

She’s also a sunny personality who has a million friends. She’s really brings a lot of joy to the lives of many, many people. As an example, our little neighborhood book club read one of her novels as our book last month. I set it up so Sandra could visit with us on our meeting night. This was October 1. The book club, a collection of real regular people, were quite taken with her. She talked to us as if we were the most important things happening in her life at that moment.

She had some back pain that night. She said it came on suddenly about a week before. She was somewhat immobilized but figured that it was just another of the somethings that we all deal with when we sit in chairs for too long. As a matter of fact, we had a conversation in which we discovered that, indeed, our minor back problems and other aches come from being confined to a desk. Such is the writer and teacher’s station in life.

Just last week, the pain became so great that she went to the hospital. After a night in the hospital and a series of tests and x-rays, she discovered that she had tumors up her spine, on her liver, and in her lungs. She was given six months. Just yesterday, the did more tests and found that the cancers had spread so quickly that  she has three months at the outside. She’s in for pain management and hospice.

I’m reminded of my good friend, Joachim, who struggled for a year with brain cancer. When he died, I could only think of the e-mails I meant to send but didn’t, the phone calls I didn’t make when I had the chance. I’d missed my chance and I was never going to have that again. In my selfishness, I was inconsolable.

I suppose that’s why I write tonight. I have a minute. We are alive. We have another day in front of us. I just gave the cat a hug and pet the dogs. I thought of my wife, now hard at work. I told Nick he had to take a shower before bed.

Sandra and Joachim reveal to me what a selfish guy I am. For the last few months, I’ve awoken in the morning and my first thought is of the nap I’m going to take a few hours on. I’ve done what’s necessary to earn a paycheck, nothing more. I worry and fret. I wring my hands. I walk around afraid all the time. But I don’t do anything different. I take that nap. I swallow meds at night, the ones that are supposed to keep me out of the nervous hospital. They kick in. I go to sleep. I wake up and think about taking a nap.

I have it all. The wife, the house, the dogs, and kids. We have a steady income and want for nothing. Sandra and Joachim remind me that I’m taking all this for granted. I get to get out of bed in the morning and have a nap. I get to pet the dogs and tell the kid it’s shower time. I get to wonder if a cancer is developing and wring my hands over it when my blood pressure is normal and my at-rest heart rate matches that of an athlete.

I complain because I’m not grateful for what I have. I want to wake up fresh, greet the sun, and see the beauty of the day. I can’t perceive it now. There’s something broken in me that isn’t a cancer. I will get over it soon enough. That’s mental illness. It comes and goes. I go with it.

I’ll wake up someday in the not-too-distant future feeling all right. Sandra doesn’t get to wake up without cancer.

The Missouri saves me from myself–again


I have to admit the big river scares me. I’ve ridden its currents from Montana to St. Louis and spent numerous weekends and long trips on its banks. I know it as well as anyone. But every time I’m ready to get on it for another ride, my imagination takes over. What if the river swallows me? What will happen if I get lost on its banks? Who will save me?


Evening, Lexington, Missouri

I’d already gotten over the greatest of my fears before the river trip this weekend. Just getting the canoe onto my regular-guy sedan paralyzed me. I dread the thought of the boat coming free of the car in traffic. I don’t want to get into a situation where I somehow break the boat. My boat is precious. It cost a great deal of money. I’d never had it on this car before.

I spent the previous evening practicing putting the boat on the car and cinching it down with ratchet straps. My rack doesn’t span the distance it should to capture the belly of the boat and insure that it won’t move from side to side as I drive 70 miles an hour down the Interstate. But after I ratcheted down the boat to the rack, I attached the front and the back to the frame of the car—no easy task since the car doesn’t have tow hooks and I had to hook the ratchet straps to the frame deep under the car.

Satisfied that I could undertake this task, I took the canoe off the car and stowed it again behind the house. With my mind made up that I would take attaching the boat to the car only slowly and with care, I settled into a good sleep that night and worry never bothered me again.

The next day was a busy one with school and family business. But when it was all complete and I’d taken a short nap, I again attached the boat to the car and head out on the interstate. Despite the fact that the boat was firmly attached to the car—firmly—I watched those ratchet straps that came up from under the bumper and hooked to the front of the canoe every minute of the drive. Of course, and just as with all my fears, I settled into a slight state of anxiety and let the miles fall behind.

I arrived at the boat ramp in Lexington, Missouri, at 6 p.m. As I waited for a river pal to come so we could shuttle his truck to Miami, I kicked gravel in the parking lot and walked down to watch the river flow. It was like seeing an old friend. The river muscled by in a silent way that great things should not have. Its great expanse and sinewy currents flowed down from the boat ramp and took my eye downstream, where the river wound around a sweeping bend and disappeared.

A ping of excitement and anticipation rose in my throat and my heart skipped. This would be the first time in a few years that I would travel the river’s surface. I couldn’t wait to start.

By the time my friend rolled into the riverfront park, I had resolved to face my fear head on. I wouldn’t be dealing with the river until the next day. I was going on it with friends. One thing at a time. That’s what usually gets me through any fearful situation I get into.

We stashed our boats out of sight behind a couple of cottonwoods at the far end of the park and drove to Miami. The sun had set and the evening grew dark before we were far along that road. Once in Miami, we parked my friend’s truck and headed back to Lexington.

Through a text message, we discovered that our other river friends would not arrive from Sugar Creek, Missouri, until well after dark. The idea of canoeing the river in the dark has always frightened me, and I felt for our friends. But they were intrepid types, ready for anything. If they had to paddle in the dark they would, and with confidence. They were better than me, stronger, and I admired them.

We arrived back at the boat ramp in Lexington and found that our friends had arrived without incident. We sat in a picnic shelter, the night growing cold around us, and talked. They told stories and laughed. Since I didn’t know any of them well, not even my shuttling pal, I remained silent for the most part. They asked about it, goaded me into conversation. I told a few stories of my own.

The next morning, we set our boats on the river and entered that divine space between land and water. Strung out across the river like a string of Christmas lights, we each went about the business of putting a long day behind us. Conversations rose and fell, depending on who we happened to be paddling next to. I spent a long time talking to a man in a little kayak, barely big enough it seemed for him and the mountain of gear he brought with him. He was a nice man who I got to know as well as one can paddling a great stream.

Once the man in the tiny kayak and I separated, I fell into conversation with a fellow canoeist, the man who had organized this crowd of anarchists for a weekend ramble down the river. We had much to talk about—family, job, life. We paddled together for most of the day, sometimes close enough to touch each other’s boats, sometimes at some distance.

The miles rolled by and with them my fears dissipated. There’s nothing like being on the big river to show me that these fears, these everyday worries and anxieties, come more from the life I’m living than from fear of the river itself. It’s almost as if the river absorbs the tensions of my work and family life. I get to think again, watching the rocks and trees, birds and insects float by. I get to be myself without the burden of myself.


Hill’s Island

We paddled that day some 37 miles and landed on a great sandbank on Hill’s Island, an expanse of cottonwood-bottomland where the vines and trees make the ground walkable beyond the first heavy growth at the edges of the forest. The surface of the sand was hard, though it broke free and powdered underfoot. We chose places where the sand was flat, as most of the surface of the sandbank was withered and wrinkled. Soon, we had our tents scattered out for a hundred yards in every direction.

Fire was the first order of business and the large amount of drift at the head of the island gave us all the fuel we needed. My friends broke out their beer and ate a meaty deer chili, prepared from cans of tomatoes and spices. One of my companions noted that I didn’t eat the chili and the subject of my vegetarianism became a long topic of conversation.

Not long after dark, I walked away from our little group, now grown to nine. The light from the fire and the lanterns threw long shadows across the sand. Above the Milky Way lofted its chiffon veils from horizon to horizon. The night was still and there was no wind. Again, the river sped by on its way to the sea, making its presence felt in the dark. It was profoundly lonely and stunningly beautiful.

Standing in the dark alone on that riverbank, I felt grand in a calm, humbled sort of way. The river had not turned out to be the beast my mind made it out to be. The fear of the river revealed itself as the frustrations and worries of home. I knew, in a very conscious way, that the river had relieved me of my shortcomings and made me aware, again, of myself.


Dawn, Hill’s Island

The next day started roughly. We paddled off into a stiff headwind that made headway difficult. At one point, I paddled up near the bank and while digging my paddle deep and quickly. The bank inched by and the first two miles took over an hour. The previous day, we had traveled, with dawdling, an average of four miles an hour. This day, however, we were lucky to make it around the next bend.


The river crew at breakfast, Hill’s Island

We came ashore at one of our crew’s family cabin. We stood atop the bank, hands in the armholes of our life vests and chatted and smoked. I fidgeted. We had to make another twenty or more miles before ending the day and heading back home. I dreaded the idea that if we were only going to make two miles an hour we would arrive at our take out spot well into the night.

My fears, again, were unfounded. The murderous wind let up. We entered a series of bends that sheltered us from the wind that remained.

I fell into a reverie. Wind, sun, water, and trees hypnotized me. I paddled and in paddling got lost in thought. I am the captain of my own ship. I can decide whether the fears will cripple me and take me into an uncertain future. All those things at home—the work, the family relations, the exigencies of paying bills and worrying about the future—need not keep me from being present. I saw my folly and laughed. I didn’t have to fall into those traps again. I knew, of course, that I would. The everyday world tends to distract me from just living in this particular moment. When I do it right, the moment disappears, as there can be no moment without a past and future.

We arrived at the ramp in Miami new people. We had paddled together. Despite all our differences, and there were many, we had a common bond that transcended the politics, beliefs, and ideologies that every one of us tend to hold onto.

The river has a power. As channelized, revetted, dammed, and diked as it is, has a riverness that we have yet to remove from it. That riverness carried me through another rough time in my life. I am better for it.

The river will frighten me again. I will go through my normal agitations again. But someday, I know, I will be free from myself. It just takes time and river. Time and a river.

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.