Central air reminds me we’re not living like we used to


Nothing screams middle class like having an issue with your air conditioner. Listen to the sound of “air conditioner.” A thing that conditions air to our liking.

air conditionerWhen I was a kid, every year my dad would pull the behemoth window unit from the basement and insert it into the dining room window. We had a three-bedroom house in the suburbs. Not that we could afford it. But it was a big house in a nondescript neighborhood. Our neighbors were salesmen and a few lawyers. Many, like my dad, had lifetime jobs with corporations. It was the 1960s and 1970s, a time when job security meant everything to the American working class. My dad had a pension and three weeks of paid vacation a year.

We were also about the only family on the block that didn’t have central air. I remember the way my dad used to say it. His eyes would get all dreamy and out of focus, as if he were looking into Eden. Central air. That was a pinnacle to achieve, a place to be in life. You were a nobody if you didn’t have air conditioning. You were almost nobody if you relied on a window unit.

The air conditioner was rated in tons. I don’t know what kinds of tons, maybe of ice. Our window unit was listed as a ten-ton air conditioner. I used to think of ten tons of ice, melting away as someone fanned the furnace-hot summer air over it. To me, the air conditioner was bigger than my dad. He couldn’t wrap his arms around it. Through it, I comprehended what machinery could do to human flesh if a person got in the way of it.

Anyway, he waited until well into June before installing the air conditioners. He would wrestle this thing up the steep flight of wooden steps that ascended from the damp and dark basement. I was supposed to help. Most of my effort went into holding doors open as he maneuvered the huge boxy thing around from the basement door into the dining room. Then, with all the heft he had in him, he angled it up from the floor into the window. Once there, it hung precariously on a metal rack that seemed too small to hold the thing up. As a matter of fact, we were forbidden to play outside underneath it for fear it would fall out the window onto out little heads.

He lowered the window to the flange on top of the unit and let it free. Likely, now that I think about it, it was the window sash that held the thing in place all those years. The metal stand wasn’t doing it and I remember one time I violated the play-free zone and saw that the air conditioner was really just hanging in space, its body an inch off the metal rack.

He sealed up the space on either side of the air conditioner with pieces cut from cardboard boxes and bits of wood. He pulled the drapes down around the unit, cutting off any natural light from reaching the dining room. In the gloom, he stepped back and after plugging the thing into the 220-volt outlet placed there just for an air conditioner, flipped the clunky dial to “max.” It growled to life, settling into a steady, loud hum. His day was complete. He stood in front of the air vent and soaked in the cool breeze until his shirt, sweaty and sopping from all that effort, dried out.

We cooled the whole house with that air conditioner. A series of fans pumped the cool air in the dining room around corners into the living room, where we could watch vapid television in comfort. In the evening before bed, we moved the fans around to direct the air down the hallway and into the bedrooms. My parents’ room took precedence and they took in the greater part of the air coursing through the house. My sisters’ bedroom got some. My brother and I in the back had to do with a tepid puff.

This orchestrated event happened every year until my dad decided, well, what the hell, and left the air conditioner in the window for the whole year. There it stayed, from about 1976 to 1983 when my parents’ sold the house and moved to Reno, Nevada. We never did enjoy the luxury of central air, but we had an air conditioner, which was a whole lot more than many people had. In Reno, the heat is dry and every house has central air. My dad even mentioned it once when I talked to him on the phone one Kansas City hot day. “Yep,” he said. “Central air.” He was in heaven.

When they moved away, I lived in midtown apartments without the benefit of air conditioning. My first place was two-bedroom at 43rd and Warwick. I lived with two other guys who took the bedrooms. I inhabited the solarium, which as some point in the far-distant past had been a screened in porch. Converted to a windowed room some generations ago, I had light from three sides. I could open the windows and when I did, they stayed open from April through October, except in heavy rains.

That summer people died in Kansas City from the heat. Not just a few casualties like we get every year, but scores of people. I had a fan that blew furnace-hot and muggy air over me. Fortunately, I drank heavily during that time of night and passed out every night. Otherwise, due to the heat, I never would have gotten any rest.

I went from one apartment to the next, each without air conditioning. I made do with a fan I dragged around Midtown with me for over a decade. I sweated through one summer and then another. The one place that had central air was a basement apartment where I lived for a year with a guy who was as much a drunk as I was. The place was generally cooler than outside and because we were poor, we rarely ran the central air.

In 1996, I moved into my first house at 2604 Madison. It was a 600-square-foot place that I loved dearly. Sometimes, especially when I look at the junk collected in my basement, I wish I still lived there. The place had central air. A compressor-fan unit sat outside as big as a truck. It was old and cost me dearly when I ran it. Since I had two rooms, I generally lived on a window fan I kept stuck in the front window.

Now, I live in a nice, modern, almost-new house (built in 2004). Because the place has the best insulation and super-efficient air conditioner that money could buy in the 2000s, we run the air conditioner all the time. I keep wanting, threatening to get a whole-house fan installed in the hallway, but I never do. The place is ill-equipped to live on outside air, so we always have either the heat or the air conditioner running. And it’s cheap. Our largest summer bill in the 12 years we’ve owned this house was $75 bucks.

But today the air conditioner went on the fritz. For some reason, the outside compressor-fan thing isn’t running. The outside temperature peaked at about 98 degrees today. I talked to an HVAC guy today and he had me shut the whole thing down. Because of the insulation in this house, we are living in 84-degree heat. You’d think, however, we were poor refugees the way we’ve complained about not having working air conditioning.

That is, until I sat down to write this essay. As I’ve contemplated our plight, I’ve had to think about what a great station in life we’ve achieved. We don’t have a window unit. We’re not dragging around an ancient fan from place to place. We have a couple of fans moving cooler-than-outside air around the house. Despite our discomfort, I think, we are comfortable. We could be in a place where we had to rely solely on outside air to keep us from overheating.

The air conditioner will be fixed. And the fact of the matter is that we have the means to pay for that.

The selfish, lazy gardener


The garden is a universe all its own. The things that grow there mostly do so out of our sight. Just as farmers can’t spend all their time watching corn grow, so we can’t while our days away making sure the cucumbers keep their vines on track.

tomato-plantsGood gardeners are always on the lookout, however. They keep the garden floor free of weeds and interlopers that would crowd out their tomatoes and beans. They till and mulch and pull weeds. They build fences against the rabbits and groundhogs. Every evening, they sprinkle the garden with life-giving water. They cinch up the vines, prune the tomatoes, and pluck the blooms off of overproducers.

I am a crummy gardener. I set everything up to take care of itself. I don’t mulch unless I have it, and I rarely do because I don’t keep a good mulch pile. I water once or twice a week when the plants look a little droopy. But I only know that when I go up to the garden, which when I go to water. I hoe off the tops of the morning glories, cinquefoil, and wandering Jew. I scrape away the leaves of grass. Yes, I know that I will have all those weeds back the next day, but I am a lazy man. I want the most for the least amount of work.

This is much different than the past. My first house, the one I could call my own, had a tiny yard. In the back was a parking space hewn out of the terrace. Determined never to park there, I filled the space one or two feet thick with new soil and mulch. I hacked away another small plot next to the timbers that held back the terrace.

The hoeing and preparation of the garden took about a month. Plenty of organic matter filled that ground. Autumn leaves, household waste, and grass clippings made for a huge mulch pile in the corner of the yard behind the fence that folded away from the parking space. Everything was right. I was a proud home owner. This was my Eden.

That year, I started all my plants inside in tiny pots. Snow was still on the ground in March when I seeded and thinned green peppers, jalapenos, and tomatoes, shifting and turning the trays to get the best light from a west-facing window that stood above my countertop next to the sink. The whole house took up only 636 square feet, and the kitchen was like a ship’s galley. But I arrayed the drainboard with trays. Every time I passed the window, and I looked at my work growing.

I was proud of myself. Plants came up and I thinned them. When they were big enough, I transplanted them into bigger pots. When the time was right and the snow had melted, I went outside to my meticulously prepared garden plot and planted beans and lettuce. I seeded okra and eggplant right in the parking space. I even sowed tobacco that year, a painstaking endeavor since tobacco seeds are like dust and produce thousands of seedlings.

Then came the day I decided to move the plants I’d cultured by the window outside. The tomatoes and peppers were about six or eight inches tall. They were strong and healthy, and I’d even started taking the trays outside for part of the day to harden my charges against the weather.

It was with great satisfaction that I put those plants in the ground. I stood from my work and felt I was master of all I surveyed. I watered well, washed off my new garden tools, and went inside happy that I was on the way to being a legitimate home owner.

The next morning, I slipped on my shoes and took up my coffee cup to go out and see how the plants were doing. I confidently strode across the dewy backyard, expecting that my well-cared for plants would have rooted and grown two inches overnight.

When I arrived at the garden, I saw only green stalks. Something or some things had gnawed away every leaf. My mouth gaped. My heart sunk. I felt immediate dejection. I looked around for evidence. A squirrel chittered away at me from the tree that grew behind the mulch pile.

These were the opening days of the internet and I didn’t have a computer at home that connected anywhere but my own fingers and brain. So, I consulted a gardening manual. I determined that I wouldn’t be a chemical sprayer. Building a fence seemed like a lot of work. The manual said that cayenne was a good creature repellent. I went to the spice store and bought a kilo of cayenne powder, the hottest they had.

I replanted with store-bought plants and was religious about covering them with cayenne every couple of days and after a rain. Sure enough, the squirrels stayed in their trees and groundhogs in their dens. (There was nothing I could do about the lettuce, however, as no one wants spicy lettuce. Fortunately, I grew more than the critters could eat.)

I even took to trapping the squirrels in a live trap and taking them to the park. No matter how many I caught, more always filled their places. After a while, I thought about the cruelty of being trapped and moved from my home against my will. I relied purely on cayenne and constant watchfulness to get my crop.

And my parking space-sized garden produced. We had tomatoes and beans, leaf lettuce and romaine and chard. The counter filled with eggplant and okra. The peppers and jalapenos came out of our ears. I had never eaten so healthy in my life. The rewards outweighed all the work and worry.

As a matter of fact, we had so many tomatoes that year that toward the end of the season, when the green tomatoes stop ripening quickly, my daughter, best friend, and I played a splashy backyard game with green tomatoes and a baseball bat.

That was the best garden I ever had.

I’ve kept gardens ever since, except for two seasons before this one. And I don’t think you could really say I “kept” them. Each year, I’d start the season with the best intentions. Life, however, would get in the way. My priorities changed. As time went on, those plants got lonelier and lonelier. I wrote a book.

I’d wade in every now and then and pluck what I could from among the weeds. I found plants withered and browned from the heat. Vines and plants succumbed to fungus and bugs. Despite my worst efforts, however, I harvested much and canned quite a bit.

I’ve learned that a garden well-tended yields a lot of produce. It also feels good to keep a garden. You can look back over days and seeks and see what you’ve accomplished. That tiny plot at my first house kept my grocery bill to just bread and cheese that year.

A lonely garden produces, but only a fraction. But that little bit sure tastes great.

So this year, I go at it with low expectations. My garden at this house is no bigger than a parking spot. I hoe and do not pull. I tied up the tomato vines and built runnels around all the plants so that watering’s easy and fast. This year, I have only my favorite garden plants—tomatoes and jalapenos. I just went into the garden today to complete my fifteen or twenty minutes of work for the week. I should have my first tomatoes in about ten days.

Maybe next year I’ll expand my portfolio. I still envy those gardeners who harvest greens and lettuce and okra. I want their eggplant and romaine. But for now, I’ll take what I have. I’m doing good this year. It’s not much but I’m growing.

Heartache and woe and just plain work


While I sit around moaning about how much work I haven’t accomplished, I once in a while have to look back over the previous weeks and see what I have done. Without this inventory, a sort of accounting, I could very well get off track and into morose self-loathing.

writing blue highwaysI often think of other writers and how many books they have written. Comparing myself to them, I seem to fail. I have written only three books of my own and published two. Paltry for a writer who’s 53 years old. But there will be more, I think. I have to keep plugging away.

I looked back over the E-mails I’ve sent over the last few weeks. There are over a hundred. Though I seem to be working only a little a day, my work has been prodigious. Some writing has shifted to the back burner. My book, which has been the major focus of my work over the last six months, still needs another rewrite.

A few months ago, I came across a little book by William Least Heat-Moon called Writing Blue Highways. It is a short book, and Heat-Moon is known for long works. Writing Blue Highways is a biography of the manuscript that turned into his classic and well-known Blue Highways: A Journey into America. For four straight years, Heat-Moon wrote and rewrote the manuscript. He produced literally thousands of pages of typescripts and hand written pages. He suffered crappy jobs, the end of a marriage, and ill-health to produce that book.

Whenever I think I’m done with my manuscript, I think of a picture in Writing Blue Highways. A copy of the hardcover edition of his iconic work stands next to a stack of 14 boxes. The boxes contain the typescripts of the manuscript. Fourteen boxes, representing reams of paper that went into the writing of Blue Highways. I can well imagine how many legal pads he also used, since his method in producing something to be typed and edited he did by hand. He has pictures of several of the handwritten and typed pages of the manuscript. Many are marked up so much that the original script is hardly legible.

When I wrote Seldom Seen and Canoeing the Great Plains at my desk when I worked for a Kansas City publisher, the original manuscript was well over 500 pages. That was in 2001. It went nowhere with the agents with whom I regularly worked. I faced heartache and woe at every turn. The manuscript sat for a couple of years, alone and lonely, in the files of my computer.

Then, I had the summer of 2005 off. I had started my Ph.D. studies. Money came in the form of scholarships, a fellowship, and an assistantship. With this and my wife’s earnings, I had the time to transform a hardly readable manuscript into something that a publisher might want to see.

Remembering my history with literary agents, I decided to find a publisher on my own. My first thought was that the book might do well at a university press. Most publishers, large and small, demand that the writer have an agent. University presses, on the other hand, took submissions from authors.

I made a list of six university presses that might want to see a work like mine. I received four rejections within weeks. One was a nasty note that recommended, in a sense, that I don’t bother them again. This was from the one press that I thought was most likely to take on the project. Then, the University of Oklahoma Press sent me a missive saying they were interested in the book. The editor, Matt Bokovoy, was enthusiastic about the manuscript and did his damnedest to get it through his press’ process.

In the end, however, the press said no to the project. I had not heard from the sixth press I sent the manuscript to. I figured with Oklahoma’s no that my work for the summer was at an end. That’s it. I said to myself. There’s always next summer to try again.

The day after I got word from Matt that Oklahoma passed. I received a note from the University of Nebraska Press. They were not only interested in the work but had put it through their peer-review process. The reviewers recommended significant changes to the work and wanted me to resubmit the manuscript for consideration. The editor, Heather Lundine, attached the reviews to the E-mail.

I was elated. Someone considered my work. They didn’t take it on but wanted to see a rewrite.

One of the reviewers had done significant work on the manuscript. He had 18 pages of single-spaced notes. I worked through all the suggestions. One of the recommendations was that I split the manuscript into two books—one about the walk from Kansas City to Helena and another about the canoe trip home from Helena. So, that’s what I did. I had considered the trip one piece but the natural division of the two parts of the trip made sense. The rest of his proposals spoke to the text, voice, and arc of story.

I followed those suggestions thoroughly. Later that year, I resubmitted the manuscript for Seldom Seen to the press and they sent it out again for peer review. The reviewer who had written the 18 pages approved of the work. His biggest caution, however, was that the manuscript needed a thorough proofread and some rewriting. Heather said she wanted the book and would forward me a contract forthwith.

I remember that day as the culmination of a dream. I had always wanted to be a writer. I had achieved that when I went to work for a local newspaper full time in 1996. Now I had achieved my ultimate goal of being an author. It was one of the best days of my life. Seldom Seen was published in 2009, eight years after I wrote the first working draft.

Now, I’m not good at proofreading my own work. I’m absolutely ruthless when it comes to editing. There’s nothing in a manuscript that can’t be made better.

Though I was confident in the book, I took his new suggestions to heart. I really felt at one point that I was taking a thing I wrote, that was decent, and was turning it into literature. When I submitted Canoeing the Great Plains—the other half of that original manuscript—to the press, I also received helpful and insightful reviews. One suggestion changed the whole scope of the work. This time, I took what I thought was good literature and was turning it into art. When Nebraska published it in 2015, fourteen years had elapsed between the first draft and when it arrived on bookshelves.

Now, with this third book, I know that I’m not done. I haven’t put in the labor. Oh, I’ve written and rewritten. It’s a book that’s worthy of the public light. It’s ready for a thoughtful reviewer, agent, or editor to look at. But it’s not what I would call art yet. This is important. In many ways, my third book represents a life’s work. It’s a book-length memoir about a period of my life that formed the person I am. Trying to capture the weight of that time of life is difficult. The tale is complicated, taking in several important characters and forming, basically, biographies of the relationships I have developed with them over the last three decades.

I’ve tentatively titled the new book It’ll All Be New: A Tale of Love, Loss, and Disappointment Spanning Two Continents. I don’t know when I’ll get back to rewriting it. It has to ferment another little while. I think, however, that it won’t be eight or fourteen years getting published. It will be sooner. I have more books to write. They can’t all take years and years to reach the bookshelves.

In the meantime, I’m very serious about getting it published. Should the University of Nebraska Press go for it, I will welcome the advice and recommendations of the reviewers. They haven’t steered me wrong yet. But if the press doesn’t take it on, I have the work of getting an agent in front of me.

So, I look back on the previous weeks’ work and ask myself if I have done everything I can to further my writing career. On consideration, I have. I have to be patient. None of this will be accomplished overnight.

That’s perhaps the worst part of being a writer of my stature—a minor literary figure. Everything’s up in the air. It will take time. I have to start thinking of my next book.

My next book. I have an inkling. This one will be the tale of a young son and father traveling on the big river. I think there will be enough material there. If not, it will make a good essay.

Sometimes, I have to take my own advice


Sometimes, especially when I’m up against the wall with something, I have to follow my own advice.

booksI have been looking for a literary agent. It’s hard work, bound up in ego, rejection, and heartache. I was looking through some old E-mails today and came across this one I wrote to another writer about a year ago. It’s ironic that I find myself in the same position as the writer I addressed last year.


Thanks for asking about the process of publishing my books. I will address, first, how things went for my books. Second, I will tell you want I know about publishing. It may all be more than you asked for, but it is the best I can offer.

Publishing was, for me, about getting around rejections and finding my own way. When I completed the first draft of what would become Seldom Seen and Canoeing the Great Plains I contacted agents I had been working with at the publishing house where I edited books at the time. The process was heartbreaking and filled with rejection.

After I exhausted the agents I worked with and some of their contacts, I then set the book—at the time it was just one book—aside for a couple of years. I was busy with family and work and couldn’t give the matter the time it demanded. I needed to make a list of agents, query each, and make sure that each had the material they wanted. Some wanted just a query, a paragraph or two. Others wanted a chapter outline and a summary. Still others wanted samples ranging from the first 50 pages to the first five chapters. Figuring this all out took time I didn’t have.

Then, I started my Ph.D. studies in Fall 2004 and had an assistantship and a fellowship. This freed me up to work on the manuscript in the summer of 2005. I was determined to get this published and decided to skip going through agents. Instead, I told myself, I would go the university press route. University presses do not demand that you have an agent, and all the commercial presses worth their salt do. That summer I rewrote the manuscript for about the hundredth time. In the meantime, I sent proposals and samples, depending on what each press wanted, to six university presses. I got four rejects right away. Some were nice about it, one was terribly negative. An editor at the University of Oklahoma Press wanted the book and took it all the way through his processes to get a reject from the sales department at the very end of the process.

This whole time I had not heard from the University of Nebraska. I’d given it up for a loss. The day after the University of Oklahoma press rejected the manuscript, I got a E-mail from the University of Nebraska Press. Not only had they liked the idea, they had sent the book out for peer review. The reviewers both liked the manuscript but thought it needed significant revisions. The editor at the University of Nebraska Press wanted me to revise and resubmit the manuscript, and from there it would go through the review process again. Both reviewers saw that the long manuscript could be severed in two (basically at the point where the land trip ended and the river trip began) and then I would have two books.

I rewrote the first half the manuscript and went through the review and editing process again with what would be Seldom Seen. Once I rewrote it (it’s January of 2007 by this time), it spent another long while in the review process and then another revision. That book was finally published as Seldom Seen in November 2009.

Then, the process began with the second half of the original manuscript, the book that would become Canoeing the Great Plains. It needed a significant rewrite, and I spent a good deal of time between family, school, and work rewriting. In a sense, I wrote Canoeing almost from scratch, as the last half the MS wasn’t really a half but more like a quarter of the original manuscript. And though I had an editor, I had to submit what would become Canoeing as I did Seldom Seen. Canoeing would have to undergo the same rigorous processes that Seldom Seen did. In May, 2012, after I rewrote the manuscript, submitted it, and had it go through the peer review process, one of the reviewers made a suggestion that I just could not pass up.

Let me back up a square. The reviewers for Canoeing both believed it was a good book and could be published as it. But one reviewers suggested that I spend time in the manuscript looking back on the trip from the present. That is, the book needed the perspective of years if it was to be a really good book. I decided that the reviewer was on to something. I spent another six months between family, school, and work rewriting Canoeing. When I completed the rewrite, which was the very best effort I could make, it went back out to the reviewer who made the suggestion for perspective of time in the manuscript.

He loved it. By this time, it’s May 2013. The book was scheduled then for release in Spring 2015, which is what we have now.

Now on to how you might proceed.

For my next book, which probably won’t be University of Nebraska Press material, I have to start at square one. When I have something I think is ready to show, I have to query agents one after the other, perhaps 100 times before I actually find an agent who is excited about the material. Once to an agent, then I have to keep in touch with that agent until they sell the book to a publisher. It’s all a crap shoot. There are no guarantees. I may find an agent, but that agent may not find a market for my work. I may have to find another agent, and then another after that.

I don’t say this to discourage you. If you are determined, you will work because your writing matters. You will take rejection as encouragement. After all, rejection means you’re working. Conversely, if you are not getting rejections, you are not working. Therefore, being rejected means you are doing good things for yourself.

Let me tell you a perverse little bit about me. I was convinced I could not be a writer for many years. But I wrote, and sometimes a lot. When I put my work out there and got a rejection, I drew back and didn’t try again until I just couldn’t help myself. This went on for over a decade.

After a long time (I was in my mid-30s by the time I got to this point), I began to submit my work to literary magazines and journals and received a million rejections. The difference this time was that I saw rejection as proof of effort—I wouldn’t get rejection if I didn’t try to get acceptance, right?

I began to keep a file where I stowed my rejection notices. After a while, I began to have greater success getting things published. But I still kept that rejection file and felt it had to grow. I know this sounds strange but the more I got acceptances, the more I send work out, and the bigger the rejection file grew. I almost felt I had to keep it growing because if it ceased to grow, it would show I wasn’t working hard enough.

Unless your novel fits into a university press profile—you will have to seek them out online, review their catalogues, and follow their guidelines to the T—I suggest you find a press that works directly with writers or get an agent. If a press works directly with writers, however, they are likely small or shady. Try to get an agent. Again, most reputable commercial presses will not consider any work but through an agent. I suggest that you read this helpful Web page at Poets & Writers Magazine. It will help you through the process of getting an agent. http://www.pw.org/content/literary_agents

Do not, ever, pay an agent to look at your work. A good agent is in the business of making money from what they sell. They will do the work. They will read your work to see if they know a market for it. They will be looking for talent and material. A good agent will never ask you to pay them to read your work.

Remember not to hang on any one agent but send your work to as many agents as you can until you get one or more on the hook, then decide which one is best for you. If you send your stuff to one agent, and then wait for a reply before you contact the next agent, you will likely be looking for an agent forever. As an example, I sent a query to one agent over four months ago and have not heard peep from him. I never will.

It’s very important in this process to divorce your work from your ego. It took me decades to understand this and is the reason I didn’t publish my first work until I was 47 years old. A rejection is not about you. It is about an editor or agent determining whether your work will groove with what they have to offer to a market. Yes, it is frustrating. It will feel personal. You will, however, begin to see patterns emerge. For instance, if several agents say that the structure of your manuscript is off, it may just be off. But this is no basis for despair. Such patterns present you with another opportunity to strengthen your manuscript.

In other words, “no” doesn’t mean the end of the world. It just means more work. This was something I understood. I don’t see myself as having any innate talents or skills. But I am good at work. What I write matters. Because it matters, I will work for it.

I hope this helps and answers some of your questions.

With all my best wishes,


Query to an agent


anxious writerI sent off my first queries to agents today. As you read this, see if this would be something you would go for:

Dear Mr. Kleinman,

In It’ll All Be New: A Tale of Love, Loss, and Friendship Spanning Two Continents, a family trip to visit friends in Germany frames an intense reflection on international relationships whose bonds have transcended distance and time. As my family and I visit one friend and then another, I recount and contemplate how these relationships, these people, and facets of my life have developed in common over the course of thirty years.

When I was 22, on a whim, I sold everything and took off to work in the vineyards of the Mosel Valley. I couldn’t speak the language. I had no contacts, almost no money, and carried what I owned on my back.

Over the course of a year, I landed a job with a well-reputed winery in Trier and met people who influenced my entire life. Each subsequent trip I made to visit these friends over the years—from final tense days during Cold War to the birth of a new republic—reintroduced me to a Germany and friends whose lives were changing. My friends developed in their careers as craftsmen and artists. I matured from an overbearing and needy drunk to a stable family man. In between, my wife and children formed their own relationships with my friends.

Tales of love, disappointment, and the death of my best friend, a German, take the reader through a personal odyssey that spans two continents, a trip to the mental hospital, and several careers.

The University of Nebraska Press published my two travel memoirs. Seldom Seen: A Journey into the Great Plains (2009) recounts my 1,450-mile walk from Kansas City to Helena, Montana. Canoeing the Great Plains: A Missouri River Summer (2015) takes readers down 2.200 miles of the Missouri River from Helena back to Kansas City. Both are works of personal exploration, as well as solid travel narratives. Seldom Seen won mentions in several book awards contests, including the Byron Caldwell Smith Award from the Hall Center for the Humanities at the University of Kansas. I have been an award-winning journalist, book editor, college professor, and ironworker. I conduct memoir-writing workshops at the Writers Place, a Kansas City literary center. I earned a doctorate in American History and American Literature from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 2013.

I’m seeking an agent who shares my enthusiasm for travel narrative and memoir. It’ll All Be New is a 93,000-word travel memoir that explores 30 years of personal development, human friendship, and loyalty. The manuscript is complete and ready for your consideration.

Dr. Patrick Dobson

1717 Jarboe St.

Kansas City, MO 64108


Sample pages:

Taking flight

Europe—it hailed me through the summer of 2014. It infested my dreams and daydreams, woke me in the night, and made my heart skip when I thought of it. The trip was almost here.

But I still had work to do.

Nothing makes grading student essays more drudgery than a trip on the horizon. Community college writers, and especially those who take classes online, produce a wide variety of work, mostly bad. I’d been reading my online students’ Donald Duck writing for about three weeks. Slogging through each essay and commenting on it seemed to take hours. Days became as long as weeks. Then came exams, which also had a writing component.

My misery was all my fault. I could have made things easier on myself, demanded less student writing—shortening the assignments to one or two from four—and used more multiple-choice and short-answer questions for exams. Unfortunately for my students, my undergraduate days loom large in my memory. The classes that were easiest for me taught me little. I found that, as a graduate student, I had to learn the lessons I didn’t learn as an undergraduate in a short time. Absorbing, for instance, the historiography of the Progressive Era while writing a dissertation about Progressive reforms made difficult, if not sometimes impossible, work.

I couldn’t sell my students short. Even though this was community college, the operative word for me is “college.” I wanted my students to walk out of my class and find themselves prepared for academics—in history, anyway—in any four-year college or university. My classes were difficult, but only in the sense that it took work. A student need not be overly intelligent, clever, or quick to do well in my classes. They need only do the work—read the book, take the tests, do their weekly quizzes (a cakewalk since they do these online and can use their books), and turn in the writing assignments. All this was work, and work for them meant work for me.

And here it was, the closing of the semester, the time when my work load was heaviest. Intellectual labor felt as difficult sometimes as physical labor. A day of student essays feels like carrying several tons of rebar, as I had done as an ironworker. In fact, after a couple of days of grading essays, I wanted to re-up my union card.

One of the great secrets of teaching is that after about eight weeks of a regular semester and four weeks of a summer semester, most teachers want the school to end as much as students do, maybe more. Few people who take summer semesters online at community colleges don’t really want to go to school anyway. They enroll because they want to finish up their coursework and move on with their lives. Or they believe an eight-week summer semester online will be less work than sitting in a classroom for sixteen weeks. Adjuncts like me teach summer courses because they love teaching and need the money. Soon, students who don’t want to be in school drain the joy from teaching and I’m in it for solely for the money.

The semester was a wreck and I was about as tired from the work as I’d ever been. I’d had it with school. I heard enough of students’ petty complaining and wheedling. I was over negotiating for grades. I was determined to be fair; I always am. But I decided that firmness with students and simple, stupid stamina would carry me through the last weeks until, once relieved of college duties, I was going to Europe with my family.

Once I turned in the semester grades to the school, it was time for us to go. While Virginia and Nick had been packing and repacking for days, I had a single day after the semester ended to get my things together before we got on a plane. Packing, however, is an easy exercise in throwing things in a bag. I was more worried about making sure we had passports and tickets ready and accessible. Virginia took charge of these documents, which made me a nervous wreck. I trust no one, not even my wife, with my passport. I lost a passport once on a trip to Germany and was determined never to go through that pain again. Letting someone else control the passports was akin to letting an inveterate drunk carry a Faberge egg in a backpack.

But we were off and no one was happier about it than me. My wife and I had been talking about a trip to Europe for over three years and thinking of one long before that. Something always came up in the weeks before we bought our tickets—a death in the family, someone’s wedding, or schooling needs for my son, Nick. Whatever the reason, we’d decided this was it and nothing would stand in our way. Luckily, no one died or was going to get married. We had buttoned up all of Nick’s outstanding and future school projects. We were ready to go.

And this was a special trip, more than a European round for a bunch of American tourists. We were going to visit friends in Germany, and we looked forward to seeing them in the flesh. Phone calls and e-mails weren’t good enough anymore. We had to see our friends in their habitats.

All the people we were meeting on this trip had been friends of mine since 1985, when I first hopped a flight to Germany to find a job in a vineyard. I was a 22-year-old kid with no self-awareness, plenty of fear, and loaded with great dreams. After resolving I would go to Germany, I had been frightened, but the fear of not doing what had come to me on a whim overcame the fear of doing it. By luck and accident, I found the job I was looking for in Trier in the west of Germany, a city ten times older than my country. Through the help of the winery director, I found a small room in the attic of the apprentices’ school, where for the rent I also got a small breakfast and coffee with some of the students.

Throwing bottles into the ocean


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least my students did well


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My daughter’s apartment


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A weekend on the Missouri


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

Nick on river

Nick at his best on the river

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remnants of the Cold War


The flock of Canada geese on the hill

raises necks like periscopes from unmown fescue.

They watch, turn heads slowly,

like spies, expressionless,

awaiting contact.


I cast another worm

into mushroom cloud sunset.

My bobber twitches;

Moscow is listening.