A Melancholy Goodbye Followed by an Enthusiastic “Hey There, World!”

Although my first novel began “I never intended this, of course,” when I came to Pittsburg in mid-August, I intended to stay for a year or so. I intended to finish another novel. I intended to write a memoir. I intended to learn some things about myself.

I had a lot of intentions.

After eight months here, I wrote a column called “An Unorthodox Man’s Unorthodox Job Search.”  In it, I outlined, in the form of an open letter to the universe, a few things I was looking for in my next job. Since I’ve written a couple hundred columns, I assumed this one would meet a fate similar to the others: some people would like it, some people would say “meh” and a few would send me angry emails accusing me of being a Trump lackey or Anti-American.

(A brief aside here: I’ve written at most 15 columns that could generously be described as “political.” Six or eight would be labelled “conservative,” primarily because of their patriotism, while nine or seven are “liberal” because they defended free speech and treating all Americans with decency. No matter what I’ve written, though, I get responses from supporters of our president accusing me of trying to undermine him or being a snowflake. Likewise, folks who oppose President Trump accuse me of being a lapdog for fascism. Sigh.)

Back to that column, though. It wasn’t treated as a quick read by my audience. Instead, it was shared from person to person and ultimately led to my accepting a job with Hope for New Hampshire Recovery, beginning May 31—next Thursday. (If you missed it, here’s the news release and, I think, a pretty good interview.) So, after nine months the Tiny White Box and I are heading south to begin walking a new path. Tonight is my last evening here, and I wanted to pass on, without description or comment, a few things I’ve learned during this sabbatical.

  • My friend George is right when he ways, “There are always more solutions than problems.” It’s equally true that there is always more to be grateful for than stuff to complain about. Sometimes it just takes looking.
  • Although the top of my head is still fairly dark, my beard is starting to come in with white patches.
  • Running water is nothing to be taken for granted. Washing hair in outdoor sub-zero temperatures is not a character test, it’s just a pain in the neck.
  • Once it gets below zero degrees the difference is negligible.
  • I like myself. Even alone for a week or so in the middle of the winter, I can still make myself laugh.

People have asked, so I’ll answer. Yes, I’ll continue writing, although instead of aiming for a daily column, I think I’ll cut it back to three or four per week. If you’re worried I might be running out of ideas, below are some columns I’ve started but yet to finish.

The novel? It’s in the early stages of finalization. The memoir?  It keeps on growing and growing, much like my gratitude for all of you.

 

A Miscellaneous Hodgepodge of Potpourri in a Ragbag

Acting Career

Bird’s Nests and Dog Crap

Blurbs for the Book

Colonel Warnke and Iced Beer

Cowards Stay and Face the Consequences

Ego Desideres

First Time Getting High

Green Grass and Urine

The Child of a Rat is a Rat

How Many Points Do You Need to Make a Pattern?

I am a Gluttonous Bulimic with an Appetite for Praise

I Don’t Have a Lot of Original Thoughts

If You Love Something, Set It Free—But Not Near Route 3

Instead of Quiet Desperation

Last Time I Danced in Public

Lethargy, Larceny and Lechery

Losing Four Years

My Personal World Records

Phil Semitism

Platonic Drunkenness

So Whattya Been Up to for the Last 45 Years

Some Men Pass on Great Wealth to Their Children

Two Miles of Chicken Wire and a Four-Mile Pasture

You Said You Had to Get Back to Work

 

 

Bits from the Floor

After all the kind words about an interview in Manchester InkLink earlier this week, I feel duty-bound to include some more of that, bits that ended up on the cutting-room floor.

How did you decide to retreat to Pittsburg?

It would be a good story to say I had a vision in which a man with a flashing sword on a fiery steed came out of the north, crying “Follow me, My Lord! Safety, sustenance and sanity await you in my land. Ride with me to the farthest point in the New Hampshire northland to winter there in a wooden box surrounded by metal.”

That would be a good story, although the retelling of it would likely get me locked up in the bin. Or, to be more sensitive and accurate, an Involuntary Emergency Hospitalization in the New Hampshire State Home for the Bewildered. The truth is much more mundane. Still, it’s true, so worth telling on that account.

Five or six years ago, when I was at Liberty House, a man named Jon Worrall came calling, telling me about Warriors@45North, a retreat on the Canadian border where veterans could go, free of charge, to hunt or fish or shoot or just kind of hang around with other vets. While Jon is a combat vet and tough as nails, when he gets talking he is virtually indistinguishable from an excited golden retriever pup, practically bouncing off the floor and looking in need of newspapers to be placed down, just in case. Jon was so damned happy to talk about 45North. Anyway, I talked with the guys who were living at Liberty House at the time, and one guy came up for a week or so and fell in love with the place. Mike, as I’ll call him, came back and proceeded to get himself kicked out of Liberty House, although he continued his association with 45North for quite a while.

The following year, I came up here for a few days away from work, then we rented the main cabin for a Liberty House staff and board retreat. One thing followed another, and when I knew it was time for me to withdraw from Liberty House, I called Jon and there you go, no horses, no flaming swords, no mysterious riders. The wooden box surrounded by metal, though, became the mystical Tiny White Box, a major character in the last year or so of my life

Yes, the Tiny White Box. Where did that notion come from?

It would be a good story to say I had a vision in which a man with a flashing sword on a fiery steed . . . Wait a second. I’ve already used that intro, haven’t I?

As you may or may not know, I spent a year in Raymond, on the property of Alaya and John Chadwick, living in a converted cargo trailer—8’ by 22’—to demonstrate the possibility of such structures as a partial answer to the problem of homelessness. As it happens, I didn’t lead a movement to living in 200-square-foot boxes—nobody but nobody was interested in doing so. I, on the other hand, liked it a lot, but felt I could go much smaller. Hence, the Tiny White Box, sketched out by me but built and, honestly, designed by my friend Gavin Beland, a genius of woodworking and a great man to work with. So . . . I now live in a six foot by 11 foot box that doesn’t seem all that tiny at all.

You’re going to continue in the box, even with your new job?

Yes, I don’t think entertaining at home is necessarily part of my job description. If it is, I’ll clearly need to rent someone’s house for those occasions.

More seriously, I am a man of few needs, and those needs are easily met in the Tiny White Box. While I’m not saying I’ll live in it forever, for now it means I can live simply and cheaply and, if necessary, head out for the hills.

Why did you decide to retreat at all?

As I’ve made clear for a long, long time, I’m not a very good hermit, nor am I cut out to be a retreatant. I prefer to think of myself as having taken a life sabbatical. Having grown up in a college town, it seems perfectly natural to me that every seven years a person would throw off what they’ve been doing and try something else. As I understand it, the notion of sabbatical comes from the agricultural advice in Leviticus that every field be allowed to lie fallow every seven years, with an implicit promise this will increase the future yield of the field. We’ll have to check with my future cowrokers and employer to see whether this notion bears fruit.

My daughters, some dear friends and any number of strangers, when they heard what I was doing, asked me if I was inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Although I was an English major as an undergraduate, and read voraciously for the four years I was in the Army, I never read that book. Honestly, I started it at one of my daughter’s urging, and had to hurl it to the ground after 10 or so pages. Thoreau just seemed so goddamned self-satisfied and judgmental of his neighbors. Give me Mark Twain any time.

Throughout your columns, I notice a lot of Biblical allusions. Is this conscious or merely accidental?

I grew up reading everything I could get my hands on, so you’ll also see a number of  references to Encyclopedia Brown, the Bobbsey Twins and the writings of Beverly Cleary. As a brief aside, the other night I was having dinner with a friend, and she mentioned her father used to work for Bendix, a company I imagine I should know something about. All I could think of, though, was Beezus’ little sister, Ramona, whose doll was named Bendix. Needless to say, the conversation was rerouted to a discussion of Beverly Cleary.

Reading everything includes reading the Bible. Later, in seminary, I read the Old and New Testaments in a more scholarly way, but I think the stories and lessons in the Bible have stuck around because they’re interesting and useful. Even when I left the church more than 30 years ago, I continued to occasionally re-read favorite parts.

Do you have a favorite passage in the Bible?

Yes. Yes, I do. Probably the last part of the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. I enjoy, and enjoy being enjoined to visit prisoners, feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

And do you have a least favorite passage in the Bible?

Yes. Yes, I do.

Are you willing to share it with me?

No. No, I’m not.

Oh. Well . . . um . . . I’m sorry.

No reason to be. I just don’t want to step on the unprotected toes of someone’s belief. I mean, if a reader’s faith is based on, for instance, the line, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat,” I might question their ethics or morality, but I don’t want to be a stumbling block to them.

Earlier, you quoted Lau Tzu. Does this mean you’re a Taoist?

I am very bad at faith, so bad I keep on switching beliefs like a boy hopping from rock to rock over a snow-fed stream. When I fall in, whatever rock is nearest becomes my favorite. I believe in kindness, particularly to those who don’t deserve it. I believe in gentleness, particularly to those who are most harsh. I believe in laughter.

That last, laughter, has been a great comfort to me over the nine months I’ve been up here in Pittsburg. Since I’ve no one else to laugh at, I’ve gotten great amusement out of myself. I find myself very entertaining.

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about you?

A quote from H.L. Mencken, I think, sums things up well.

“We are here. It is now. The rest is all moonshine.”

I think in this sentence the word “moonshine” is a euphemism for bullshit.

 

In Response to The Lovin’ Spoonful: NO

I don’t believe in tarot, at leastthat a group of 78 cards has any ability to read the future or determine the outcome of choices. That would be absurd. Still, I do use tarot spread to catch a quick glimpse of my unconscious, sort of like using two mirrors to take a look at that boil on your left ear. Briefly, I do a reading—typically a Celtic Cross, if you care—and gauge my unconscious by examining my immediate emotional reaction to each revealed card. It’s really just a parlor trick I play on myself, a trick that I’m too dumb to ever figure out.

I don’t believe in magick (or magic) (or majick) (or madjich) (or any other damn way to misspell the word), at least the idea one person can control nature through spells, incantations, rites or plain mumbo-jumbo. Still, I think expressing gratitude multiple times daily cleans out my mental and emotional causeways, and that sounds magical when you come right down to it.

I don’t believe in psychics, at least that some people are gifted with qualitatively different intuition than the rest of us andare able to read people at will and offer wisdom about or insight into their lives. I do think we all have some inner voice that’s worth listening to, but not that it can tell the future or recount past lives. Still, I enjoy talking with people who believe they have psychic abilities—and even those who are simple charlatans using standard cold reading techniques.

Which brings me to hamburgers in Sedona.

Last night I wanted a burger. Sedona is a great place for Mexican, Southwestern and vegan fare, but it’s not a place known for its cheeseburgers. While it may have a tastefully-colored turquoise McDonald’s, no fast-food place offers a satisfactory burger. Yesterday, after scouring the internet and asking lots of locals, I found Dellepiane Sedona, a hole-in-the-wall in a shopping center. Dellepiane is owned by some Argentinians, and their menu reflects that, but they also have the best burgers I’ve had in a long time. Here, though, I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I walked in, I saw a woman about my age sitting by herself. Using the overbearing charm my daughters have grown to hate, I asked if I could join her for dinner. When I sat down, I quickly found out she was Francine, from Sedona (by way of Tampa, Long Island and Queens), that she played keyboards and sang with a five-piece band that plays the restaurant weekends, that she’s been here a few years, and that she was a psychic. After I went through my standard interrogation of Long Islanders who’d grown up there (“Were you a Lou Reed girl or a Billy Joel girl?”), we chatted amiably. Because she’d ordered first, her meal came followed by mine. She told me she needed to leave to meet her son and her ex-husband, and needed to pay her bill. I said I’d take care of it, and a big smile came over her face.

“Stopp by my studio tomorrow and I’ll give you a free reading! I’m located at Crystal Magic.”

This morning, I met with Francine and surprised her by not wanting a reading. Instead, I showed her pictures of my three daughters, Becca, Meri (left) and Becca and Libby (right), gave her their birthdates, and asked her to be my personal shopper inside Crystal Magic, the New Age emporium we were i

n. She studied the pictures, meditated on the horoscope information, and took me inside. We shopped for maybe five minutes, and I walked out with thoughtful gifts for each girl.

I don’t believe in psychics, but I do believe the girls will like their presents.

Thoughts from a Partially Sunburned Man

Once upon a time, I was a genius. More accurately, for one brief season of my life, I belonged to Mensa, the so-called genius organization. I say “so called,” for a couple reasons. First, because the membership is based on scores on one of about 27 possible standardized tests, each of which defines intelligence uniquely and measures it in its own way. Since intelligence is a huge ocean of potential, and tests wade along the shore, I believe IQ tests are bunk. As I recall, my membership resulted from an ability to answer trivia questions about 1920’s and 30’s major league players (e.g., “The Arkansas Hummingbird,” Lon Warneke) or maybe it was my Army entrance test scores, designed to sort soldiers into various possible MOS’s (jobs). Since the military tests and measures soldiers all the time, I’m sure my IQ was plumbed at some point. Either way, no test I know of is particularly gifted at picking out the particularly gifted.

The second reason for “so-called genius organization” is that during the single year I belonged, I was in the Army stationed in Germany, and the monthly newsletters I got were written by (almost exclusively) men who thought intelligence could be defined as “an ability to construct puzzles unable to be completed by other human beings, and a willingness to mock the attempts of others to do so.” If Oliver Wendell Holmes described FDR as having “a second-rate mind but a first-rate temperament,” the Mensans I met through their newsletters had “unrate-able minds and rat-like temperaments.”  Still, I did belong, so if I’m ever called before a congressional committee, I’ll have to answer in the affirmative to the question, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of a cabal of high-IQ puzzlemasters?”

So, I was a genius for a year. So called.

Saturday, I demonstrated yet again why I am not a genius. Genius is as stupid does.

After meeting with a group of folks in recovery here in Sedona, I came back to my hotel, changed into my bathing suit and went to the swimming pool. Lying in the sun on my back, I felt so relaxed (and jet-lagged) I fell into a deep sleep. Waking up three hours later, I noticed my chest and legs were bright red. Moving, I noticed they were painful. Getting into a lukewarm shower, I noticed what an idiot I can be as the needle-prick water made me scream.

Today, two days later, I’m still in pain, although I can now move about without a Tin-Man gait. Still, not what a genius would do.

+         +         +

I don’t really like photographs, but today I went for a nice four-mile hike. Without any visual sense at all, these pictures came out of my phone. It’s Sedona, not me.

Evening Thoughts at a Pakistani Dhaba in Sedona

The sun is still above the red rocks, but the sliver grows smaller between the tops of the butte and the bottom of the yellow ball each time I look over. I’m drinking a chai—heavier on star anise than I’m used to, and absolutely delicious—on this second-floor cushion-strewn terrace, a warm but stiff breeze blowing away the dust of the afternoon.  Not a big believer in heaven, but this may be a foretaste.

After months of looking at brown, blacks, whites and greens in Pittsburg, the red rocks—orange in the setting sun—are almost obscene. What kind of universe is this where all the bright colors in the acrylic tube are squeezed out willy-nilly here while I’ve been living with the leftovers. Of course, I talked with a French woman a little while ago. She’s lived here a few years and the only other part of the country she’s seen is Minnesota in summer, finding the infinite green there so comforting after the excitement of Sedona.

Two tables away, a five-year-old girl and her mother play mancala, an Egyptian stone game, I think, likely going back three or five thousand years. I’m reminded of a day when my parents were alive, and my oldest two daughters were maybe four and two—Libby, the youngest, was still brewing, as I recall. Any Gramper and Grammy Bev and Daddy and Becca and Mary Berry picked apples at a Hopkinton orchard, and I bought honey for mead brewing as a celebration of Libby’s impending birth. I couldn’t shake the thought that day that Roman families of three generations and Polish families and Ukranian, Chinese, Kenyan, Peruvian families had likely gathered fruit in the fall just as we were doing. There were apples all the way down and all the way back.

The dhaba closed 15 minutes ago. The teashop keeper told me I could stay on his terrace as long as I like. The mother won the game of mancala, and they’ve just left. So will I, but not before saying:

What a delightful universe, where I can whine about Windows in Manchester in the morning and drink cardamom, anise and black tea on a terrace in Arizona at night.

Thank you, God—even if you don’t exist you’re holding up your end of things.

Early Morning Airport Thoughts

It’s 5:45 am at the Manchester, NH, Airport. There may be a good time to be at an airport, but 5:45 in the morning is not one of them.  If I were in a mood, I might focus on this. Instead, because I’ve got a double espresso and a croissant and an hour to kill until my flight to, eventually, Sedona for the next nine days, I choose to focus on the comforting wisdom of Ajahn Chah: “Everything Arises, Everything Passes Away.”

In eight or so hours I’ll be driving into one of my favorite places in the explored universe. In 10 hours I will have taken a shower and will be walking in the desert, or at least a desert-like space. In three weeks, I’ll be working at a new job, one which will remain unnamed for now—one of my first tasks will be to write the press release announcing my hiring, so I’d be acting as a scab to myself to announce things right now.

Am I excited about this new job? Absolutely. It offers opportunities to work with folks who are where I was 11 years ago—an active alcoholic on the verge of death, although the word “active” doesn’t really fit, because it’s not like I was playing tennis, hiking or even thinking much. Still, “benumbed, unhoused, unemployed, mouthwash-stealing and drinking” alcoholic is a little too on the nose. Relatively active alcoholic, then. I’ve met a handful of my future co-workers and they are all kind, decent folks who seem dedicated to the mission. Hell, my new employer even has a ping-pong table!

(Please excuse a brief digression:  I am an absolute fiend about ping pong. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved the combination sport/game/pastime of, in finer circles, “table tennis.” While I’m not a great player by any stretch, I’ve always been good enough to hold a table for 30 or 40 minutes—at least until the big kids get out of school.)

This new job, then, offers a ton of advantages and I couldn’t be happier. Really. Still.

If I weren’t an alcoholic, if I weren’t filled with ego-driven selfishness, if I weren’t a human, for Chrissakes, I might be completely satisfied. Instead, this new job does have one fly in the ointment.

It’s a Windows shop.

While I know a ceasefire has been reached in the silly Mac vs. Windows wars of the aughts decade, I’ve continued to fight, like one of those Japanese soldiers discovered on an island in 1962. I may have been a late convert to Macs, having used Windows machines from 1993 until 2004, but once I bought my first one I haven’t looked back. Now I must.

I must return to the world of virus fear. I must return to the world of security. I must return to the world of kludge. And I will.

I will also sit in the comforting wisdom of Ajahn Chah: “Everything Arises, Everything Passes Away.”

Even Windows PCs.

 

“In Hopes that He May Peak Again!” (and find Beth Austin)

Yesterday, a lifelong dream came true. Really. Lifelong may be a stretch, but it’s not a break with reality. Let me explain.

I’ve mentioned my childhood best friend, John Warnke, in this space before. We’ve reconnected over the past couple months, which has been nice for both of us. John’s father, an Army officer paralyzed in a Jeep accident in Jordan as I remember, was a true American hero. Mr. Warnke, despite being wheelchair bound and having limited upper-body dexterity, reminds me of John McCain, a man whose life was no silver stair but who combined a sense of duty with a sense of honor with a sense of humor. This is not about Mr. Warnke, but I know he is the kind of man I’ve always wanted to be.

To my knowledge, John, my friend, had never been in a Jeep in Jordan, although the Warnkes didn’t move to Durham until we were in third grade so it could be that six- or seven-year-old John was tooling around desert dunes, although that’s not the kind of thing an eight-year-old boy would be likely to leave out of his biography. (That lengthy sentence is not even a digression, because I haven’t begun the journey. Call it a gression, and let me get back to my dream come true.)

John and I were both writers, or as writerly as third, fourth or fifth graders can be. While none of our childhood work survives, one of our favorite literary activities was to dramatize literature we’d liked. More honestly, we liked to write plays starring us with plots lifted whole from books, more horse theft than homage. Our tour-de-force came in fifth grade in Mrs. Quackenbush’s class, when we wrote our masterpiece.

Dangerous Island by Helen Mather-Smith Mindlin, involves gold bars, a cave on an island that only appears every two-hundred years, two boys and a girl who become stranded on the island and a helicopter. A challenge for staging in a classroom, the story intrigued John and me, and we wrote the play over a few weeks. As I recall, more time was spent on the final helicopter rescue than on characterization or dialogue. When we finished, we knew we’d written a perfect piece of art. After all, it had implied romance, treasure, potential death and survival. It also had a helicopter.

Since John and I had co-written the play, and neither of us was a girl, we split the two male leads between us and set out to choose our femme fatale. As I recall, most girls didn’t pay John much attention at that point; I, on the other hand, was positively rank with girl repellent. No fifth-grade girl wanted to be seen with me, much less be recruited into a play, even if I’d tried to convince her this was a great honor and a potential stepping-stone to television, movies or, at least, further opportunities in the theatrical future of Warnke-Howard Productions. It would be up to John to recruit the girl we both knew would be perfect for the part, and not just because she was too kind to say no.

Also, we both had crushes on her.

Beth Austin may not have been the prettiest girl in the world, but she was to me and John. Beth Austin may not have had the most dynamic stage presence in our grade, but she did to John and me. Beth Austin may not have been the most adept line-learner in our class, but she was to John and me.

Also, we both had crushes on her.

Much as I’d like to regale you with the details of that show, I won’t. My memory and the truth have likely long since parted ways. Still, I know writing and acting in that play was an unlikely capstone to an elementary-school career primarily constructed on a foundation of wasted potential and extreme jackassery.

Beth Austin moved away after that year, so was unable to appear in any future productions.

As an aside, John and I were together in school for three more years, through eighth grade. After that, John went to a parochial high school, then on to West Point, then on to a successful career in the United States Army. I spent years trying to balance a life on intelligence without hard work, wit without wisdom and various herbal, powder and liquid chemicals. Today, though, we are both happy men pushing 60.

In eighth grade, though, I’d revealed to John that Dangerous Island from three years before felt like the pinnacle of my life, and I doubted I’d ever reach such heights again. In my yearbook, John wrote: “To Keith—In hopes that he may peak again!”

I began this by talking about a dream becoming reality. It’s also a hope and a prophecy fulfilled. Yesterday, John Warnke called me to tell me he’d read my novel, On Account of Because, and proceeded to ask me thoughtful and insightful questions, about character, motivation, authorial choices. He was exactly the reader I’ve always wanted. I had peaked again.

Because has two primary male characters, Clayton and Shiny, but really only a secondary female character—Clayton’s mother, Lucinda, a horrific and evil drunk. When our fifth-grade class has its next, and first, reunion, John can play Clayton, I’ll play Shiny, who, at novel’s end, is sitting drunk with Lucinda.

I may not have a crush on her, but I do finally get the girl.

Beth Austin, where are you?