Patrick Dobson, the exciting academic

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I’ve been busy–papers, presentations, writing–which explains the lack of posts recently.

At the beginning of the year, I had two public presentations on my mind. I worried, wrung my hands, and lost sleep. Finally, I gave the papers and felt a great sense of relief.

Johnson County Community College filmed one of the presentations, called “Changing the River’s Course: Water, Conservation and Reform in the Progressive Era,” in the Nerman Museum’s Hudson Auditorium.

See the presentation here. I hope you enjoy it.

Persistence is the heart of publishing

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Rainbow trout

I recently sent away a manuscript that’s been swimming around my computer files for years. I never thought anyone would be interested in publishing a book that starts as a travel narrative and wanders into fiction in a Trout Fishing in America meets Blue Highways sort of way.

I first started writing Trout Stories when I was working for a newspaper, PitchWeekly. I liked newspaper work. It did me well and kept my attention, mostly.

But there were moments when sitting at a desk drove me stir crazy. This is often the case when I get an office job, so it was no fault of the newspaper. I was the one who had lost my focus. So I wrote some stories between other work for the paper. I last worked for the paper in 2000, so you know how old the first drafts of this manuscript are.

Redband-Trout

Redband trout

Trout Stories started out as short stories, or what I thought were short stories. But nearly everything I write is based on experience, so these were autobiographical stories about some fish I knew. They slowly turned into memoirs of place and time. They grew from the initial and most fictional story to a group of more-or-less true accounts of fish caught and lost and the people who made me who I am today.

I just couldn’t imagine that anyone would be interested in such stories, and, besides, who publishes short stories anyway? I didn’t know. Those stories grew and changed over time. Every time I opened them, I changed their complexions a little. This went on for a decade and a half. I quit the newspaper. I edited books and earned a Ph.D. I published two other books.

brook trout

Brook trout

I had people read Trout Stories from time to time. This is the way readings like this go: I give them to so and so and say, I sure would like to hear what you think. I am not looking for compliments, nor am I looking for someone to wipe them out. I want measured critique; this is good, this isn’t. But the people I give these stories to don’t ever give me that sort of critque. They are just regular people, not writers. What I usually get goes along the lines, Well, they’re interesting.

A couple of months ago, I retrieved Trout Stories from the archive. I accidentally found them, really. I thought I lost them in the march from computer to computer, from software update to software update. This time, I was surprised to see them open in my new computer program. They were a jumble of run-on lines and strange breaks, but the words were there more or less in the order I wrote them.

Of course, I went through them again. I took time to iron out all the line and page breaks, the funny symbols and punctuation, and the paragraphing. When I started editing, I lengthened some of the stories, took out contrivances I’d used when I first wrote them, and corrected all the typographical errors I could find. (I’m sure there’s a lot left over.) I saved them and put them aside again, thinking, well, that’s it for now.

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Golden trout

Not long ago, I went to lunch with a friend of mine and told him about this odd little book and he wanted to read them. He’s a learned man, a scientist with a deep interest in literature and the humanities. At another lunch, I asked him about them.

“Why haven’t you published these?” he asked.

“Who’s going to publish such a strange collection of stories?”

“Someone,” he said. “They are good.”

I didn’t think that Trout Stories would fit into my present publisher’s catalog. It’s a university press, and though the press published my two travel memoirs, I was sure they wouldn’t touch Trout Stories.

cutthroat trout

Cutthroat trout

My friend suggested that I get an agent. Years ago, when I was editing books, I tried to find agents for my travel memoirs and for a novel I wrote (that really should stay in the computer, now that I’ve looked at it again). The result was heartache and nasty letters from people who said things like, there’s no market for this, this has already been done, and this kind of writing doesn’t have a place among modern nonfiction.

They were all wrong. I found a publisher on my own (something I don’t suggest, even if it worked for me) and the first memoir was successful. Not a million-seller but good enough to keep it in print for a while. The press will publish my second book in May.

So the day after I told my friend that I didn’t think anyone would take this little book, I queried an agent, then another. While I was doing this, I thought, hey, I’d better get a firm no from the press before I go any farther. I sent a query to my editor.

It turns out that my editor no longer acquires literary/creative material for the press. She sent my query on to another editor who wrote back the very next day and said she would love to see Trout Stories.

Imagine that.

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Brown trout

So, I have queries out to two agents, who will likely take some time getting back with me. If the press doesn’t take Trout Stories—there’s a vast difference between being interested in a book and actually deciding to publish a book—then I have some other feelers out there that may bring fruit. The best case is that the press does take the book and I have to tell the agents to piss off. The worst case is that the press tells me to piss off and I have to keep looking for agents.

The truth of the matter is that the book will find a home somewhere. After years of writing experience and having been an editor at a newspaper and a book editor, I know that the game goes to the person with the most stamina. If I have something decent, which Trout Stories is (at the very least), I just have to be persistent about getting it out there. I may have to weather a hundred rejections, but I know that if I keep it out there, it will be published.

My job now is to get to another book. I’m starting that project next week.

Production as pathology

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I set out today to write this essay. Writing as an art escapes me. Writing is a personal exercise at centering myself in this world and sating a desire to do something productive. I don’t write out of inspiration, though I am often inspired. Instead I write out obligation.

Lately, I have entered a creative lull. It seems that I have nothing to write about. I feel no creative motivation. The inner creative beast is asleep. Call it middle-age angst, the question of what I am doing and what I’ve become. What do I have, at the age of 52, to offer the world? Not much, it seems.

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Bruce Chatwin

That doesn’t stop me from feeling obligated to write something every day of the week. I am a writer and have always wanted to be writer. I think of things I want to write a hundred times a day. Only a few of them ever get to paper (or keyboard, if you wish). I go about my daily business and think, wow, that’s a great idea for a poem—or essay or short story or book. But these ideas get lost in the comings and goings of the day. I often reach home and sit in front of the keyboard and wonder, hey, where have all those good ideas gone? I can’t think of them. I have forgotten them and they wander forever in the space between desire and forgetting.

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Ralph Ellison

None of this blunts the sense of obligation that plagues me. The need to produce that I have taken from my upbringing and from society at large compels me to sit down and write. Nobody told me I had to write. Society does not demand that I write. This obligation that I feel as responsibility is something I have taken on myself. It was not given to me.

This, then, leads me to believe that this compulsion to produce comes from within. At the end of the day, I have to feel as if I have done something. Since I have no innate talents or skills, the only thing I can produce is writing. It’s what I was born for.

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Simon De Beuvoir

This need to produce is a sickness. I cannot sit and wonder, ponder, or contemplate. I am in a constant state of removing myself from the relationship I have with myself. I don’t want to see inside and, therefore, I have to have something to show. These little essays are what I can show, even if I have not written anything of meaning or significance.

I used to think in lofty terms about writing, art, and literature. Now I think of it as discipline. If I sit in front of a computer long enough, I will write something, anything. I have often sat in front of the computer for hours, just looking at the blank screen. I check E-mails. I surf the internet. I get a drink, eat, nap. But I am always attached to the keyboard. I will write. What’s left to question is what I will write and when.

Literature. Personalities. pic: circa 1940's. British author George Orwell, (1903-1950) among his many books were "Ninteen Eighty Four" and Animal Farm".

George Orwell

I realize this doesn’t sound profound, but I have never thought of myself as profound, even if I always wanted to be profound. I see writers around me write significant works. They say things that mean something to someone. I don’t have anything to tell anyone. I have to write and when I have nothing to write about, I write about myself. I firmly believe that when writers run into a wall and find that they don’t have anything to say, they write about themselves. This makes my writing trivial, not worthy of consideration.

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Damon Runyon

This speaks to my belief that I will never compete. It’s not that I don’t want to. I want to publish. I want to work through legitimate publishers to bring my work to light. Vanity publishing, blogging, and reading at free events make for a lot of words floating out there in space. We have an internet that gives us the world on a computer, or allegedly does that. I’ve found that the internet just gives us a lot of facts and opinions loosed from context. It creates the illusion that every thought has legitimacy, every word meaning. But not every thought has meaning. Not every opinion is informed. An idea should have to work hard to get into the public. When it doesn’t, it produces a situation in which every thinker is a baby and every writer unable to deal with the exigencies of filters. A thought that doesn’t have to work produces laziness.

This is certainly the case with me. I didn’t have to do anything to get this thought out to the public but put words on paper. I have a forum and I use it, but because getting the word out into the public is so easy, I have not worked to refine. I didn’t contemplate. I sat in front of a computer. Words came out. I entered those words on my blog. You read them or not. They are out there, floating among all the other meaningless drivel that self-important people produce. The thought, then, is nothing. It makes no difference. It changes nothing.

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Anais Nin

I think of truly great writers. Maugham, Hemingway, Orwell—who wrote what I consider to be the best of all memoirs in Down and Out in Paris and London—worked hard to get their words into the public. They struggled against great odds. They found themselves rejected again and again. The filters—editors, publishers, a discriminating public—made them think, refine, contemplate. The struggle created works of great depth and meaning. With the internet, nothing is rejected. Few things rise to the top. Speculation and sensational sell. But they bring us nothing new and different. We don’t have a new aesthetic. My generation has produce little very new.

Regardless, I sit here every day. My production of two or three essays a week, and sometimes one every day, does a great deal of good for me, even if what I write does nothing for anyone else. Writing is a selfish endeavor and may do more harm to me and the public than if I didn’t write anything. The discipline that forms around writing makes for a lot of practice.

In the outside chance that I find a meaty subject that will have meaning and import, I’m ready.

 

The caterpillar

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Colors penetrate the buttery, grainy scenes. The reds are too red, blues iridescent, and greens as deep as rivers. For decades now, the memory has flickered and made me feel lonely the same way television light in house windows at night do.

My cowboy chaps, hat, and vest made me sweat. I sought relief as I laid atop the dusty blow-up pool that no longer held air. The plastic was hot in the sun and I put face to the grass. The caterpillar crawled out onto a blade. The ground smelled of earthworms and house dust. Beyond the caterpillar, the leaves on the apple trees drooped a little and the silver maples turned green and gray in the hot breeze. Above, the clothes and white sheets on the line rose and flipped.

Curious, I tilted up on an elbow, pulled my six-gun out from beneath me, and poked the caterpillar inching along. It reared up and continued along my finger. It was soft, like a thread of yarn.

Picking the young insect up between thumb and forefinger, I found it was cool as the grass. I rolled onto both elbows in my flattened pool and watched it writhe in the air. The sweat beaded on my forward and ran a drip into my eyebrow. I grasped the caterpillar in my fingers and pulled it apart. Its milky, yellow insides oozed from under the greenish skin. For a second I wondered if it felt pain or if it had even died.

Pain meant something then, physical, harsh. It tasted like electricity. But I was as distant from the caterpillar as the moon. My fascination with the young insect removed me from my sister and brother playing in the yard by the fence. Time stopped. The world froze in space.

My mom leaned out the back window of our tiny house.

“What did you just do?” she yelled.

I came to and ditched the two wriggling pieces. I rubbed my fingers in the grass.

“He killed the caterpillar,” my sister said. She’d been watching as my mother had. In my trance, I hadn’t noticed that my sister had stopped playing and moved in close. “He pulled it apart.”

“Dammit, Patrick, that’s cruel,” my mother said as she disappeared from the window. She rushed out the back door and across the yard. I felt shame and fear.

“I didn’t do anything,” I said.

“Show me,” she said as she rushed up. “Show me where you put it.”

Without thinking I looked to where I rubbed the caterpillar into the ground. As with all small things dropped into grass, it disappeared.

“Don’t lie to me,” she said. She was angry, her face twisted and sharp.

I tasted electricity.

I don’t remember the caterpillar every day, but often, and every time I cringe. The memory is vivid not because of the violence that followed my bug’s death but because my mother had dinner ready. I don’t recall the ritual washing of hands or the sounds of my sister and brother fumbling up into their chairs. After the current running through my mouth, I next recollect sitting at the Formica dinner table, my sister and brother watching at me. We prayed. My father knifed into his round steak.

His gaze cut through me. “Eat,” he said. “And don’t ever do that again. It’s cruel.”

I didn’t know what cruel meant. But I knew that steak once wandered in a field that spread out from a white house and a red barn. Chickens scratched in the yard and a pig oinked in a muddy pen. The smiling farmer wore overalls and held a pitchfork. The cow sat on my plate next to the creamed corn and mushed up potato. Its muscles smelled and, I knew, tasted good.

A caterpillar torn in two.

I was four years old.

 

I don’t eat animals anymore. It’s due only in part to a caterpillar four and some decades hence. That incident was one in a lifetime of cruel moments. The collection sits by itself, filed away in my head like dead documents in a cave. Until now, I’ve left them in the dark. But their presence troubles me. I’ve thrown them out a thousand times. They won’t go away. I’ve ignored them and denied their existence. In doing so, I’ve only moved them to a different part of the cave. The rent for them now taxes my ability to pay for other things. At some point they need to come out into the light. I need the energy for other things. If I expose the memories to the light of day, inventory them somehow, I think, they will shrink, dry up, and become harmless ashes in the corners of my mind.

The lottery

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I hoped the day would remain overcast. A winter day with a clear blue sky set my teeth on edge and built a peculiar tension that only abated with the return of night or of clouds and freezing rain and snow. If the sky cleared and I began to get down, work would help. The adrenalin and repetitive, hard labor always soothed the agitated soul and quieted the fitful mind. With a clear head and steady heart, however, labor’s balms get right to the spiritual mark. Best not to have to cut through the silly irritations of maladjustment.

The wind was bearing down from the north. The previous days’ melt had turned the construction site into a gumpy mess. Now the night’s cold had gray dayfrozen the deep, ribbed tracks of the backhoes and lifts into rock-hard ditches and troughs. My truck jerked across them to the parking area, a plot of dirt barren but for the yellow and orange machines and stacks of cinder block and brick. After bouncing to a stop, I turned off the engine, taking in a moment the sudden stillness and quiet. Deeply scored bare dirt spread out past the site to the edge of pasture land, which met the dark sky. I asked the first man I could find, an electrician, where the ironworkers were.

“Why, where they’re supposed to be,” he said.

“Point me,” I said with something of a smile. Ironworkers could be anywhere on a job, placing and tying rebar for concrete, installing fencing, interiors, and handrails, or on the ground, in the air, or in between, erecting steel. I only knew that the union hall had sent me to join a structural crew.

“Up there,” he said with a smile, jerking a finger over his shoulder. “On the roof.”

This was my first job on the structural side of the trade. I was nervous, as I was every time I ventured into unfamiliar territory. A few months earlier, I had started with the ironworkers union on a bridge deck carrying and tying tons and tons of rebar. At 45, I was one of the oldest men on that job, and certainly the oldest apprentice. The work was the toughest I’ve ever done in a life of labor, of working for other people.

I heaved and carried bar with twenty years olds. I bent over and tied, albeit slowly, when I wasn’t schlepping piles of forty and sixty foot rebar with other men. The morning break was too short, as was lunch.
At the end of the day, I couldn’t walk.ironworker My arms, legs, shoulders, and hands felt like jabs of electricity and, more disturbing, the small of my back was numb to the touch. I decided I would be back, despite the pain—or because of it. It took a week before I felt like a regular, but sore, human being. Two weeks later my legs and arms stopped feeling like Reddy Killowatt’s lightning-bolt appendages. The feeling in my back returned after a month.

That first job introduced me to work I liked. After the pain subsided, I found the work liked me. The day was much like an eight- to ten-hour workout that ripped me with fatigue. But sleep was good. In a short time, it became restorative. I woke mornings fresh and ready to get back to the job. The other ironworkers were interesting and friendly. hardhatThe company was black-owned and many of the workers were urban men—black, Hispanic, immigrant, and white. They were, overall, a rough-cut lot, more intimate with the workings of steel than their insides or polite society. They spoke a familiar language I understood in all its nuances. Its cadences were comfortable and its meanings open and accessible. Most of the men were friendly, even jovial. The banter on the deck, the kinds of taunts and jokes, were impersonal, funny, and often hilarious. It more often had to do with the work and the way people adapted to it than who was fucking whom, who was weaker than someone else, and who was unworthy of respect.

I was on the deck for a week, listening to the banter, learning to tie wire. We were working in a group, moving slowly down the deck, the sea of green-epoxied rebar turning from a rough grid in front of us into solid symmetry behind after we passed over it. The afternoon was warm but with a wind. Everyone was feeling good, even if they were wearing down.

“Man, I want to win that lottery,” said Miguel, a man who had joined the union after working for cash for many years. He was bent over next to me. “If I win that lottery, I will by my wife a house and bring my family from Mexico.”

cashJesse worked next to him. He impressed me. He was a nice guy who labored like a beast, seemingly immune to the pain the rest of us felt.

“Lottery, man,” he said. “I’d buy an island, or a piece of land on an island, you know. Buy a good skiff, you know what a skiff looks like?”

“What’s a skiff?” Miguel said.

The foreman, Barry, who had been overseeing work farther down the bridge joined us.

“It’s a boat, you know,” said Jesse, “like a row boat, only a little bigger.”

“You would fish?”

“Yah, fish. But nothing like work. Just fish to be fishing. I’d sit in a chair every night and watch the sun set. In the quiet. Just sit there.”

Some of the other workers stood and chattered about their lottery winnings. I could see Barry looking at them from underneath his hard hat.

“You guys are nuts,” said Dexter, a man from the city who was glad to be an ironworker after a life of drug dealing and prison. His arms were huge, his skin the color of dark bronze. He, too, was a good man. “Families. Sitting. Shit. I’d buy a fine car, a big house, and a big screen TV. Have a swimming pool, sauna, and hot tub.”

Another man, Jerry, who was even newer than me on the job, piped up. He was as slow as I was, loud, and good humored. “I’d carry a wad in my pocket,” he said. ‘And if anyone ever told me to do anything, anything at all, I’d pullout my roll, look at it, and tell them to fuck off. Fuck-you money. That’s what the lottery’d be for me. Fuck-you money.”

Barry stood up, all six and a half feet of him. “Man fuck all ya all,” he said, his baritone voice rolling down the bridge. “If any of you losers won the lottery, you’d smoke it up in crack.”

A roar of laughter rose from the group. “Now get your asses back to work and make the money you’re gonna drink up this weekend.”

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Penance

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My life has been an unending and conflicting struggle to find my place and, at the same time, to keep from getting stuck. For many years, I thought that my discomfort at one job or another, or in one relationship or another, came from a deep flaw, something seriously wrong. But looking back, I understand the anxiety that arose from familiarity was less fear of intimacy with tasks and people than it has been a way forward. It has tempered the expectations I inherited from my parents. In the grips of this anxiety, of which I have yet to be cured, I have been uncomfortable, even unhappy. But this discomfort impelled me into new experience that, in its own way, has produced happiness and fear, contentment and anxiety, love and resentment worth any temporary distress.

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Hurdling the void between my physical and mental universes has driven me to move from student to viticulturist to furniture mover to journalist to house painter re-habber to ironworker, and, finally, to historian (and ironworker). Between and during these extremes, I returned to the pursuit embodied in a story I scrawled in a Big Chief Tablet when I was in the second grade. On those yellow pages, I wrote and illustrated a story about Secret Service agents—no doubt influenced by a television movie or series that I no longer remember. Of those pages I remember a child’s printed letters at the top of each page, extending down five or six lines, with an illustration below of the action in the text. The pictures were two-dimensional, profiles of white and black men in suits carrying and shooting guns at bad guys, appropriately ragtag and ugly. I showed the story to my teacher, a young woman with frighteningly bad complexion, Miss Gilbert. Handing over the Big Chief, I was proud and ready to accept praise for my writing ambitions. She, however, was appalled. Where I saw the complexity of story and human interaction—for as much as a second grader can understand such things—she saw a young mind obsessed with guns, crime, and violence. Plus, according to Miss Gilbert, I’d drawn negroes, which was somehow wrong. She took that Big Chief and called in my parents, who, similarly astounded at the incandescence of my tale of guns and woe, ripped the story to shreds at Miss Gilbert’s desk and assured me the rest of my life with them that I would never be a writer. The competition was too stiff, they said. There was no money in it. It was an occupation unworthy of a good Catholic who should spend his time learning American patriotism and getting a good job.

Being born to my parents was not a choice I made for myself. Accident. Love. Attraction. Necessity. Obsession with legacy. These are reasons, or perhaps excuses, behind my coming into human life. Certainly, these were burdens my parents bore—and their parents before them in an exponential summation that shrinks to the hominids who first peered over the grass and picked up their babies and their fruit and walked to where they believed their fortunes were better. We are all stuck with what we get and have only unrefined ores from which to found a life. We all carry human emotions, obsessions, and compulsions. If my face revealed those that come to my surface in the course of a day, as I went to the grocery store or out to dinner, they would make me look and seem as monstrous to others of my species as I am to myself.

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I am sure, now, that joining my disparate selves will be my salvation. Building bridges is an exercise turning the void between them into the space where I will find peace. I grasp that work and will do my best or worse in it. That is enough. I seek neither ceaseless happiness nor eternal damnation. I search for redemption.

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The Penitent, Albrecht Duerer

Still, I fear the joy and anguish of the salvation I seek. In delaying confronting this fear, I increase the chances of a blind leap into my life’s dream. When I labor for others, for money, for approval, I deprive myself spiritual but very human nourishment. I sever myself from the soothing graces of my species in all their individual and collective ugliness and beauty. I force myself to believe in uniqueness of my lot, and in doing so, keep myself in exile, seeking not the comfort of others but the absence of them. Intellectual and physical labor are the metaphorical switches with which I beat myself, always with the understanding that if it’s not for an act of commission or omission, then it is for a lie, an excess, a good feeling or enjoyable day sometime in the past. For my indiscretions and misdemeanors—the desire to write, to create, to disappear under a stone among stones written with so many names and dates they become parodies of the individualism they are supposed to represent—I need not be arrested and fined by higher spiritual or human authorities. I take care of the job well enough alone.

The bane of the holidays

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The Christmas break is the longest, least pleasant pauses in the school year. I am not a party-pooper or one who bah-humbugs the season away. People can only blame me for generosity and good will, at this or any other time of the year.
Break is long because I am finally motivated to do something creative and can do none of it. A peasant work ethic infuses my being. Part of me says that life is work and work is life. Another, more cerebral part of me considers work and productivity nonsense. Since just about anything to do with me occurs in polar opposites, it’s natural that the grasshopper and the ant inhabit the same body, mind, and spirit.
Many of my letter recently concern lack of motivation. I suffer from that inertia plenty. But, now, as I work it out in word, I see that inertia is only part of the problem. I have a family. Family deserves attention. I am not disciplined with my time, or I’m not right now. Since I am not disciplined, my family is not disciplined. This is my fault. Without clear lines that signal when I am creating and when I am not, they cannot possibly understand when I am working and when I am not.
Then there’s all the other distractions. Dogs need walking. They need food. The fish tank’s dirty. Leaves clog the gutters. Thick oil slicks, from when the truck was leaking, cover the driveway. My wooden sculpture of the Pioneer Woman rots away. Pioneer Woman’s head and throat fall away from her upper body. We will have to burn her soon. The iron pink flamingos I bought from Auggie three years ago need paint.
You see what I’m saying? All these necessities and desires distract me from accomplishing any work when my family’s not bugging me.
James Joyce
I wonder how Joyce did it. He wrote Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and The Dubliners while drinking his way through Europe and working mind-numbing jobs. Mehlville was a customs inspector. Wallace Stevens worked as an insurance clerk and went on to head the Hartford Insurance Company. Neihardt wrote endless pieces of literary criticism while penning his life’s work, Cycle of the West. Bukowski wrote thousands of poems and his novels while he worked at the post office and stayed drunk all the time.
I do not pretend that I have the talent or drive of these giants. I am not an innovator. I write and love to write. I do what I can. When I don’t have the time, I am full of inspiration. When I have the time, I’m too worn out, don’t have the creative spark, or lack enough motivation to write anything.
Charles Bukowski
Before school let out this semester, I dreamed of writing tomes during my free time. But it was an awful semester—uninspired students, endless lectures where I spoke to the dead, and grading that became burdensome and tedious due to the students lack of ability or incentive to study. When the semester ended, I had one good week of essay writing. I think I finished five decent 1,000-word essays during that week. Then, kid had his Christmas break. He is of the age when he still looks to me to fill his time. We did what we could—played golf, took hikes, walked the dogs, did things around the house. After a while, you run out of things you really want to do and are left with the things you don’t want to do and can put off for an indefinite period of time. But then, the kid is still sitting there asking, “What are we going to do today?”
He wanted to build things, which meant he wanted close heart-to-heart contact with me. I didn’t want that. I don’t know that I’m capable of that kind of contact for very long or able to have that very deeply. Poor kid. I felt like a cad, sitting here trying to do things on the computer while he pined away. He satisfied himself with watching endless videos and playing computer games, which only deepened my guilt and feelings of remorse.
So, yeah, I feel like a crappy father. The break has been something of a disaster.
But wait. As I say that, I realize just how much we did. I’m not the bad guy I want to make myself out to be. Some of this feeling of uselessness comes out of my inability to satisfy the ant while I’m being the grasshopper, and vice versa. I live in a world of my own making. Every night comes the resolve to make the morrow different. I will do something with the kid, something more than we’ve been doing. I will do more creative work. I will do those pushups I keep thinking I need to do. Etc.
What it comes down to is this: I’ve gotten myself into a rut that only I can get out of. I seek the satisfactions of career and fame without wanting to do the things that bring them. On the other hand, I don’t want a career. Talk about getting into a rut. The only career I want is that of a writer. I don’t want fame but I’d kill to win the writer’s lottery—best-selling book, movie rights, interviews on radio and television. I want what writers Joyce, Mehlville, and Bukowski achieved, even if some of them didn’t get it until after they were dead. I want, more than anything, to have the drive and purpose that these and other writers had when they worked those shitty jobs, kept their good home lives (when they had them, I mean, no one can argue that Joyce or Bukowski had great home lives), and wrote, wrote, wrote.

Maybe tomorrow. Certainly not today. I have to take a nap.

The value of space: The crowded and unhappy life of Henry Fontaine Jackson

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Henry Fontaine Jackson wanted to see the world in black and white. No furniture. No Audrey Hepburn.

He dreamed of emptiness.

If that vision was Spartan, it was by design. Lack of foresight complicated everything. Even if he looked lived like a twenty-year-old dope smoker with a job at a fast-food franchise, nothing he ever did was simple.


Whatever he did always equaled the exact value of breathable air—there’s less of that air every day, but it’s not exactly rare.

He’d have done less if he had the time.

He hated Audrey Hepburn. Mousy. Weak. Movies crowded with things. Henry wanted no furniture. No Audrey Hepburn.

What he wanted didn’t matter. His house was full. There were forests of furniture. More than he could shake a stick at. Chairs, couches and beds, carpet and potted plants, and all sorts of consumer pleasures and non-necessities that wasted floor space.

It wasn’t always like this. Henry once lived in a house that had six hundred feet of infinity in two rooms. He had a couch in the living room and a futon on the floor of the bedroom—the only other room in the house. His 12-inch, black-and-white television sat atop a wooden peach crate in front of the couch. In the kitchen area—it was only an area to one side of the living room—he kept a sauce pan, two plates (one for visitors), a few thrift store utensils, and an expensive chef’s knife. He boiled coffee in the pan and drank it from a coffee mug he found that read, “Light a fire under your ass at Jalisco’s.” He had no idea who Jalisco was. He liked the idea of Guadalajara though he’d never been there.

It wasn’t luxury except it was spare, which, to Henry, was bounteous comfort.

His new house was much bigger. About seven times, if he counted the unfinished basement. And there’s no room in it. Whenever that woman who lived in his building wants to buy more storage, it means only one thing: More stuff coming in the front door. Empty space, just free floating air and sunlight, was like a vacuum to her. She needed to fill it up. More “storage” meant making room for more things.

Henry felt things like weight. Possessions are heavy. Right now, for instance, he can feel the concrete table tops he made a couple of summers ago. He made them for the community center when we were talking about putting those park chess tables up in front of the library. You know them. We can’t watch a movie about New York without seeing people playing chess in New York’s Washington Square Park.

Philip Johnson, Glass House
Well, Henry made some. He thought he was making them for the community center and the library. But he was making them for himself. He found that out later.

He constructed them on a table in his basement. He hacked together a form. Found some plastic sheeting to line the form with. He poured concrete in it, and, bing, a day later . . . concrete slab.

Those things are heavy all by themselves. They haven’t moved more than ten feet from where he made them. It took him making crappy concrete table tops to get the parks people to move on a project they had been dilly-dallying around on for a year. They really didn’t want Henry’s tables with different color tiles in the middle of them. So they built on their own.

He was out six or seven bags of concrete—480 to 560 pounds without the rebar.

And they sit in Henry’s basement. He feels them right now. They are as heavy as the files, cardboard boxes, tools, toys, old computers and printers, spare lumber—scraps mostly—paint in various cans and spray cans. Yard tools, trash, kitty litter box, photographs from thirty or forty years, broken picture frames, desks . . .

And so on.

The whole of everything but the tabletops outweighs the table tops by about three tons. But they all have the same weight to Henry.

He wants to hire some of these working guys around here to help him carry it all—table tops, files, books, everything to the curb. Let the neighbors, who are good people, have it all. Pick through and find what you need, Henry’d say. All it costs is the energy it takes to take it away and add it to your pile.

Henry wants to count his successes in how much he doesn’t have.

But not having much must be expensive. Every one of his friends has worked as hard as he has. They all have as much stuff as Henry does. But when he goes to rich people’s houses, they hardly have anything. Light and airy. Open spaces. Lots of light. Walls with paintings of almost nothing. Cotton candy-ish things.

If anecdotes were whole truths, Henry would conclude that he should have developed a career and stuck with something until he entered the middle class. If he had, he would have a fat bank account and his basement would be a yawning void.

Career. Henry doesn’t know the meaning of the word. He’s only had jobs with no significant opportunity for progress, whatever that is. Jobs mean a basement full of crap, full of bits and pieces of lives. Slabs of concrete with no definable use. There is no salvation in work. All his work has produced gravestones and landfill.

Henry must not be very successful. After all, he has more stuff and less floor space than he can shake a stick at. Sometimes he think he doesn’t have enough space to shake a stick around in.

Age isn’t all that bad

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Astrid,

Sorry about your mom. I hope it is not serious and that she gets well soon. 

As to your questions: I became a reverend in the Universal Life Church on the anniversary of the Ruby Ridge incident and the Oklahoma City bombing. I figured the ultra-right had claimed too much for that date (April 19), and I needed to make a score for my side. The Universal Life Church is an internet operation out of California. It is, however, a real denomination that rubs a lot of people and institutions the wrong way, in particular for its states supreme courts lawsuits that have further defined First Amendment separations of church and state.
That said, I approach with a sense of humor. My friends find the reverend title, when I decide to use it, to be refreshing, since I am a Freethinker. I have done dozens of weddings and funerals, as well as the occasional hedon invocation before concerts and band appearances. I have had to listen to hurting people from time to time. I like it. It’s another opportunity to be a servant to walking around human beings—those members of a species I love so much.

I share a “ministry” with a good friend and compatriot, Rev. David DeChant, of Atlanta. Both of us proclaim a deep faith in the basic goodness of human beings and the natural world. Thinking for oneself, questioning the values of the culture and the basis of morality, and developing one’s own moral center are the most valuable, eternal, and authentic of all human values. We respect and applaud the good works and moral consistency of human beings, regardless of their affiliations. In the end, there are only two core human attributes—fairness and honesty. All sins, if you want to use that term, stem from dishonesty and unfairness. Every time we look in the mirror, we see what might, in some circles, be called the face of the divine.

Second, the pic on my Facebook profile is Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin, the first person to travel to space. He fascinates me. He did everything he was going to do by the time he was 34. Besides flying to space, he was the lead on the design team that developed the Soyuz spacecraft, which is still in use some 40 years later. He died in a plane crash in 1968.
It sounds pretty nerdly. But I’m not a space nut or an airplane geek. Gagarin was a military man, and, frankly, I’d like to see all military stuff melted down and made into sculpture. But in some ways he was as in contact with the cosmos as Duke Ellington. He broke bonds with the earth and tried new things with a jokey sense of humor. Growing up as a peasant and traveling to space, he is probably more human than most of the rest of us.

Plus, my friend Jeff Ramsey looks almost exactly like Gagarin. Ramsey could be his twin.
Sydney is a great kid. She has grown up under difficult conditions–two houses, two parents that are completely different from one another (and never married), two stepparents. She has issues. But she is ambitious and has become quite an artist. She decided to leave Bishop Miege High School after her sophomore year. She was helped by her mom’s financial problems. In any case, she has gone to Paseo High School and will graduate in May. She applied to some prestigious art colleges and has decided to go to the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. I have counseled her about the debt she will hit the world with, only so she goes into this with open eyes. But I never discourage her from anything, as I was so often growing up. Her mom and I are not in a position to pay for such a school, and I wish we were.

I was going to say that I probably would have had the money for her had I been able to find a career and stick with it. But I couldn’t and it wasn’t me. I have no regrets about the path my working-and-academic life took. My shelf life at any job is about three years. I figure a job out after six months or so, and then sit rotting away until the low-level misery gets to be too much.
The exception was PitchWeekly, which was a dream until a big fat corporation bought the place. I’m just not a corporate guy and I didn’t want to write sensationalist journalism that winds up kicking ordinary people in the teeth more often than it uncovers government malfeasance or corporate greed. But with the Pitch I was making a living writing. I have always wanted to write, and it had taken a long damn time to get over a lifetime of being told I could never be a writer. As it is, I am a writer. And an author. I’m a decent one at that. I think talent might help. But hard work and persistence at writing have substituted well.

In 2003, I finally just quit working at desks for other people and headed out on my own, doing whatever: writing, house rehab, scaffold building, hard- and landscaping. I went back to school about year and half later to earn a Ph.D. in American History. I have written my dissertation and earned that degree. But it wasn’t all roses. After the coursework and comps, and just being inside for too long, I made my usual move to sate the brute laborer in me–I’d cared for the intellectual for far too long and had become uncomfortable again–and joined the ironworkers union. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done. But it’s interesting as hell. I love the work and it seems to like me. Plus, there is something in walking around on beams stories off the ground.

I’m never going back to a regular job. I teach at Johnson County Community College during the school year. Summers I work as an ironworker and work for many companies. One year I got six W-2s. I will stick with this routine a while. Every school year, every summer is different. Each day brings something new. I come home nearly day absolutely spent. I have a good feeling. I like the feeling of putting in an honest day.
I’m glad to see you write so fondly of your family. I know Sully very little, but he seems just great. I have always enjoyed the very infrequent short conversations I’ve had with him over the years. Sitting down with him for a good half hour that one day at the coffee joint was a real pleasure. I have always thought your girls to be overly cute with their mom’s red hair and curious if skeptical looks.
In some ways, I can’t believe the time has passed so quickly that we, at middle age, can talk about our kids going to college. On the other hand, time passes so quickly that the only way to live is in the moment. Tough times or easy, I really like being a human being these days. All the stuff that comes with age is interesting. The way I see it, we only live this life once, and it is very, very short. Why feel miserable all the time?
Please say hello to the friends I mentioned in the previous note when you see them. I would very much like to hear about them and how they have fared all these years.

Patrick

Sheer force of will

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Dear Alex,
The winter break is about halfway through and I’ve accomplished a few things. I updated one of my websites, written a few essays and poems, and had a vacation with the family. Other than that, however, I want to tell you that being a father full time isn’t always the most comfortable thing for me. The kid’s home for at least another ten days. I want to work but I don’t want the kid to fend for himself all the time. I find it incredibly difficult, despite what I just said, to get anything work related accomplished. What I’ve done, I’ve done out of sheer force of will.
But it’s good practice, if uncomfortable and nerve racking. Once I’m able to get into a regular routine again, I have some things in front of me for the next six months. I have two public presentations due in February. These demand attention and time, although I have the basic material for these lectures in hand. I want them to be good presentations, interesting and informative. I want them to showcase what I can do as a scholar. I think I am particularly adept at taking complex issues and making them understandable without, at the same time, making them simplistic. If I have any talent at all—besides the talent I have for hard work and determination—it is the ability to focus when I need to. These presentations just need my attention. I will have to find the time to contemplate the presentations as a whole and develop them into pieces that the public will take to.
I also have two papers to present at history conferences in March. I have one of the papers written. It needs contemplation and focus, as well. That I have the paper written doesn’t mean it’s read for a conference. The presentation will only be about a third as long as the actual paper I have in hand. Again, I need to pare it down to essentials without over-simplifying the issues or the evidence.
The other paper is just at the proposal stage. I have given myself up the to idea that, perhaps, this will not result in publishable work, as I know the first paper is already. Instead, I will use the paper to explore the issue of prostitution in Kansas City during the Pendergast years. Historians have written and rewritten the history of the Pendergast machine. But they have only ever mentioned prostitution as an aside. As a matter of fact, the one book with the most comprehensive overview of prostitution devotes only about a page and a half to the sex industry and sex workers of the time.
I think I can do better. The problem is, of course, is that the information about prostitution comes only from moralist organizations and the occasional news article. I want to know what it was like for hookers on the street. What made the Pendergast years so ripe for prostitution, and what would Johns find when they went to the de facto red light district that grew up in Kansas City at this time?
These limited sources make the subject difficult to write about. Even so, little has been written about Kansas City prostitution in relation to prostitution as a phenomenon of major cities during the interwar years. I can find only one source that even approaches a larger, global view of the trade at the time. I think I can place moralist organizations, police records, newspaper articles, and accounts of the Pendergast machine’s attitudes toward prostitution in a larger perspective of the trade as a occurrence relative to the machine, the city as a whole, and to other cities during that time.
I am merely at the beginning of the research and writing of a paper, ten pages or so, that I will give at the conference. I should need about a week of solid work to get it done. I can do this.
I also want to draft a new book I have in mind. I have the notes I need. I know the voice and understand, I think, the audience I want to approach.
Ray Bradbury

You might say that’s one tall order for a writer. It is, but it is something I can accomplish once I put my head down and get to it six or eight hours a day, five days a week. This is my usual discipline, and I take it on whenever I need to. I need to, so I will do it.
A couple of things come to mind as I write this. I cannot write and research at home. There is just too much going on. Kid needs attention. Wife has questions, concerns, and chores. The dogs want walking and will get out of hand if they are not. Everything has its place, and once I start to sit down every day at a particular moment and get up at a preset time, these other things fill in the gaps. They are things that happen when I’m at home, not working. Trying to work at home, I’ve found, while tempting almost always results in disaster, frayed nerves, and unfulfilling outcomes. It also produces sub-par work, as I don’t really get the chance to concentrate on anything like I need to or to find that contemplation necessary for all creative and academic work.
W. Somerset Maugham
I will need a place that’s quiet but not necessarily silent. Small things become large distractions in silent places. But where there’s a little noise, nothing loud or sudden, then the distractions melt away. I have my office at the college, and I will use it if I need to. It’s almost perfect. An open space. A few people coming and going. Small conversations but nothing spectacular. But the college is a long way off and the drive everyday is not something I invite. Better to find something close to home. I think I can scout out a place at the public library and make adjustments as time and necessity dictate.
Thanks for letting me go on about what I want to do and how I will do it. It lets me think and write through the aspects of my goals and whether they are realistic. I will accomplish just one thing at a time. I have learned that goals are not things I have to do perfectly. Instead, they give me direction, and this is a hell of a lot better than wondering every day what the hell I’m supposed to do.
Yours,

Patrick