Oniontown Pastoral: This Is Life

Oniontown Pastoral: This Is Life

Driving with wife Kathy and grandsons Cole and Killian toward what we call “Grandma Kathy’s house,” I was both amused and horrified by the young man operating a battered economy four-door in the next lane. He was multi-tasking, and the other cars on the road were the least of his worries.

Now, who among us hasn’t seen a fellow driver texting while doing one of the following: lighting a cigarette, applying lipstick and making kissy faces in the rearview mirror, inhaling shoestring French fries, or pretending the steering wheel is a bongo drum?

Put a cup of guac in this guy’s left hand and you get the idea. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

But I’ll bet you’ve never witnessed somebody manipulating a smartphone with one hand, holding a little plastic cup in the other, and going at the guacamole therein like a dog lapping up ice cream. The guy’s texting hand also had driving duty, as the cup in the other hand had to be within range of his tongue. It was not pretty.

Of course, texting and eating Mexican is all fun and games until pedestrians get run over, which is almost what happened. A multi-generational family neglected physical wellbeing and migrated across four lanes of traffic right in front of Pastor Coleman’s and Prince Avocado’s cars. The whole lot wore dull expressions, as if they had just decimated an all-you-can-eat buffet. I can’t exaggerate the oblivion with which these eight bipeds flowed like molasses through traffic and the wonder of their survival.

Later that same evening, after the grandsons got picked up from their playtime with Grandma Kathy and Pop, the former sat on the couch and shook her head. “I can’t stop thinking about that family,” she said. “They could have been killed.” Such an outcome would also have gutted the future of one twenty-something multi-tasker.

Reasonable citizens would agree that everybody should quit messing around while driving. As for myself, I mean to push the point further and adopt one-thing-at-a-time as a standard practice.

My commute from home in Erie to work at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown has recently reminded me that managing several tasks simultaneously threatens life in more ways than one. A few weeks ago on I-79 South a woodchuck waddled across my path and, sad to say, he is burrowing into fields no more. Since that day, on various byways leading to Oniontown, a procession of turkeys, a family of geese with goslings and a graceful fox have played Hyundai roulette with me.

If I had been combing the few hairs I have left or fussing with the radio dial, there might well have been additional casualties. Thank goodness. I’m a guest on the animals’ land. They are not pests on mine. But my motivation for finishing one task before taking on another is about more than an aversion to squashing wildlife. I’m equally concerned about squandering blessings. The older I get, the more I realize that locations from Erie to Oniontown to Everest are waiting for me to accept their generosity.

Dick Proenneke, the Guardian of Twin Lakes (Credit: Wikipedia)

One of my heroes, Dick Proenneke, gained notoriety through his determination to notice what planet Earth seemed eager to give him. In the summer of 1967 he chopped down trees in the Twin Lakes region of Alaska and let the stripped logs age. In 1968 he moved there for good to build a cabin with hand tools. Fifty-one at the time, Proenneke was extraordinarily energetic, strong, and resourceful. In ten days he had the walls of his 11’ x 14’ cabin ready for a roof, which he completed in short order. Come September, he added a fireplace and chimney made out of rocks he had gathered on his many hikes.

He wanted to be “alone in the wilderness,” as a documentary about him is entitled, after nearly losing his vision in an accident while employed as a truck mechanic. Proenneke decided that he would treat his eyes to as much beauty as they could handle, and Alaska was the place to do it. His journals, photographs and 16 mm films of thirty-five plus years spent in a lovely, though unforgiving, environment are instructive and inspiring.

No surprise to anyone who knows me, lighting out for the lonely territory is not on my bucket list. Some afternoons mowing the lawn feels like hiking the Appalachian Trail. Besides, surrounded as I am by loving family and friends, a little solitude goes a long way.

Killian, Grandma Kathy and Cole. Pay attention, Pastor Coleman. This is life.

Fortunately, following Dick Proenneke’s example doesn’t demand residing anywhere other than 402 Parkway Drive or serving a church in a village more remote than Oniontown. What I need to do is pay attention—to the turkeys and geese, to the fox so light on its feet, to Grandma Kathy, to Cole and Killian.

If I don’t behold blessings one at a time, I appreciate none of them. Everyone and everything gets a turn. This is life.

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What I Do Is Redd Up

What I Do Is Redd Up

$%&#! Ouch!

I want to be home by 3:00 this afternoon. A cluttered living room waits for me, as does an unmade bed and a kitchen that needs to be, as my mother used to say, redd up. In other words, the house requires attention before wife Kathy shows up at 6:00 p.m. with grandsons Cole and Killian in tow. For a couple of hours, we’ll act as spotters to boys who are constantly, gleefully careening toward a concussion. By the time daughter Elena picks them up, dirty dishes will have returned, and planes, trains and pterodactyls will be scattered everywhere, waiting for me to step on them and shout bad words. Clean up, mess up, repeat.

The person in charge of squalor control and hygiene restoration used to be called a housewife, an impoverished term to my ears. A job that involves cleaning, cooking and often child rearing deserves a more worthy title. Nobody is married to a house, nor does one’s marital status constitute a vocation.

But homemaker is a good fit. Creation is involved, as is purpose. A house isn’t a home until people related by blood or blessed ties find nurturing shelter there. Such a place can be ramshackle or palatial as long as at least one heart beats affection into the cupboards and windowsills.

Plenty of homes thrive without full-time tending, of course. Whoever can keep a house presentable, prepare healthy meals, do laundry, give children the attention they need and put shoulder to the wheel forty hours every week for a paycheck deserves credit. Props, bows and curtsies to them all, especially to those who have no choice.

That emphatically said, I have a soft spot for careers given to home and family. My mother spent much of her life that way. Dolly Coleman worked part-time at what she called the budget bakery and at the Boston Store, for decades the crown jewel of downtown Erie, but her identity was grounded in motherhood.

On the back of a well-worn cookbook . . . a housewife, perhaps?

My only reservation about Mom’s vocational history is the possibility that, like countless sisters of her generation, she was disheartened by a society that patronized women and kicked their intelligence to the curb. Housewife bore an implied prefix: just a.

Kathy went back and forth with staying at home and taking jobs. Regardless, she gave Elena and our son Micah amazing childhoods. Some parents can’t keep up with their kids, but my beloved had the distinction of outpacing her offspring. Never much for napping, Kathy was mistress of over-the-top fun, constructing cornstalk mazes in the backyard, going to legendary pains with Halloween decorations and building snow forts ad infinitum. She pouted when the kids weren’t game for the expeditions she cooked up.

A fidget blanket made by Elena Thompson, to calm the restless hands of a dementia patient

As it happened, one of our little acorns didn’t fall far from the oak. Elena and husband Matt decided that their issue were to be raised by a mother who would fill their days with joy and adventure. Capable though she is of employment, our talented daughter has been building a cottage industry of weighted and fidget blankets. Her household speaks of shalom, and her handiwork gives sleep to restless children and calm to dementia patients. Call Elena what you will, but don’t dare start off with just a.

A couple of years ago when I accepted a part-time call to serve St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania, it was with the promise of writing time and the expectation that Pastor Coleman would lean into housework.

I know better than to call myself a homemaker. That profession—paid only with emotional currency—is broader in scope and deeper in sacrifice than I can manage. What I do is redd up. Ministry and writing are passions, but home duty now completes my vocational trinity.

Detail from Kathy’s throw on the couch

My job description has gradually written itself on my heart. 402 Parkway Drive should be presentable when Kathy gets home after eight hours of treating cancer patients. Why? Because she deserves a sanctuary: tidy counters, her throw—adorned with representations of sailing knots—draped neatly over the back of the couch, minutiae that threatens to take over the dining room table put away. Stepping across the threshold, she should drink from a cup running over with peace. She shouldn’t worry about dinner. She should leave the dishes to me.

The reason for my efforts, modest though they are, is love. Redding up is a gift. I’m no homemaker, but after thirty-five years with Kathy I’ve decided, against all logic, that being called her househusband would suit me just fine.

We We We Could Hold Hands

We We We Could Hold Hands

I’ve been sad off and on for a month now, but let’s not dwell for long on why. Let’s just say that the land I love is different now. Values, principles and manners that ground life and give it sweetness have been flogged, and I’m confused. What rules will we live by from here on? And will these rules call forth our best, not our worst?

If you can’t imagine what’s got me down these days, reading further will be a waste of time. But if you sense where I’m coming from, please accept one premise: You don’t need to agree with the reasons for my grief to accept it as valid.

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The master teaches the disciple. Lesson: Lick the frosting off first if that’s what you like.

If you can appreciate the distinction I’m making, you might also be interested in a chilly, rainy walk I took with my grandson Cole a couple weeks ago.

My mission was to occupy the three-year-old with sparks flying from under his sneakers so that Grandma Kathy and son-in-law Matt could do home repair and daughter Elena could mind grandson #2, Killian.

Cole and I were supposed to go to the corner and back, but when we got there, he pointed to the next corner and said, “I I I want to go to there.” (Cole’s speech can’t keep pace with his brain, so he repeats the subject until the rest of the sentence reaches his tongue.)

Sure, why not? When we reached the next corner, he pointed across the street and repeated his previous request. I could see his point. West 4th Street beyond Beverly Drive is missing some sidewalk, giving the passage a winding charm.

“But, Cole,” I said, “that’s across the street. We can’t go there.”

He thought for a few seconds, then looked at me: “But we we we could hold hands.”

“Ah ha,” I thought, “school is in session.” That’s how being a grandfather is for me. I’ve learned to recognize instantly when Cole has something to teach his lazy Pop, and his instruction is always edifying.

So off we went, looking both ways, his cold little hand in mine. He had tree climbing on his mind, but the neighborhood maples are matriarchs that haven’t had branches or footholds within reach for decades.

I explained and explained, the mist puffing from my mouth. “They’re too big, Cole. There’s nothing for you to hold on to.”

Finally, good sense caught up to me. “Okay, pal, give this one a try.”

He ran to the rooty base of a smooth-barked giant shiny from the weather. As he hugged the trunk, he was as confident in his ability to succeed as I am when approaching a cashier to pay for a loaf of bread. No sweat.

He rubbed around to check for some advantage and marched as if the wood might reach out to him as a staircase.

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If there were nothing else in the world to behold, this face would teach me more than I need to know.

To Cole’s credit, no fussing he made. A concrete telephone pole fifty of his rapid mini-strides away provided another option. “I I I could climb that.”

“You think so?” I lilted.

“Yeah!” he said. I must say, my grandson makes that word into a one-syllable hoedown. His yee dances in the clouds, and his ahhhh takes its sweet time landing.

Alas, same result, followed by the same okey-dokey shrug.

Our next stop was a pile of pumpkins Cole insisted was a fire hydrant. I didn’t argue. What he proposed was fine with me.

Even validictorians get pooped out, though, so I tempted Cole to head back home with the prospect of spotting turkeys on South Shore drive, where hens and gobblers mill about the yards of Erie’s rich folk.

Not quite there yet, he spotted an old guy bundled within an inch of his life and riding a zero-turn mower. “I I I want to see.”

Well, certainly. We stood on the boulevard, Cole in awe over the machinery, me wondering about the enterprise of getting rained on, running over wet leaves and turning pirouettes. But maybe a man in layers of well-worn gray and earmuffs also had something to teach me.

He parked, hopped to the ground and walked our way, arms swinging akimbo.

Cole froze at the sight. I held his hand again.

“You can cut through my yard,” the man said, “and take my steps down to the lake.”

That was the last thing I expected to hear, as owners on South Shore have the reputation of being grouchy toward trespassers. I guess you just don’t know the truth about people until you know them.

We said thanks anyway and waved goodbye, off to find birds.

I used to understand that no journey from A to B with a little boy could ever be direct, but I had forgotten. Cole reminded me by insisting on bending through the undergrowth and shrubbery rather than sticking to the sidewalk.

He was having fun trespassing, and I didn’t really care if we got hollered at. (It’s taken me five decades to adopt such a criminal attitude.)

Of course, we didn’t get chased off. We didn’t see any turkeys, either, but Cole jumped off of low stonework a few times. His wide eyes told me he knew the miracle of flight.

I’m not going to lie, I was glad for class dismissal when we got back home. My cheap black sneakers with elastic at the instep were soaked.

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Whenever you’re ready to teach me, Killian, I’ll be ready.

I want to be honest about something else, too. Years ago, as a young man, I wouldn’t have figured a walk with a red-headed boy could lead me to a better place. I would have considered the notion mushy.

Still, being a Pop will have everything to do with how I pass through this season’s mournful valley and grow as a man committed to kindness and compassion. Call this truth what you will.

My grandsons have the wisdom I need. I can feel it. Until their next lesson, I’ll use what Cole taught me on our walk in the rain.

I’ll I’ll I’ll remember that we can hold hands, climb even when the effort makes scant sense, and look for teachers who spin like fools.

Most of all, I I I won’t give up on love.

TBT: So . . . Was I Right about Iraq?

I’m often slow on the uptake. Facebook friends keep posting photographs with the comment “TBT.” What the hey? Since my policy is not to put much thought into cryptic messages, ignorance has enjoyed its long day. I finally broke the code, but can’t remember how. If ever a brain needed a laxative, it’s mine. A cheap Cabernet may have cleared enough obstructions for the obvious to snap into focus, the way the Eiffel Tower or Sebastian Cabot appear in 3D glory after you zone out looking at one of those dizzying posters that used to populate restaurant waiting areas. (Mr. French may be available only through special order.)

Throwback Thursday! Of course. UrbanDictionary.com updates my revelation by noting that TBT may also indicate Throwback To . . . . So every day of the week we can gorge ourselves with impunity on grainy images of our unfortunate 1980s hairstyles. I love it.

Since I got my hair cut roughly the same way today as I did thirty years ago, I don’t have much to add to TBT in the way of embarrassing photographs. In the process of junk sorting, however, I found an opinion piece I wrote for the Erie Times-News between 9/11/2001 and the U.S. attack on Iraq on 3/19/2003.

This particular TBT is short on humor, but it is interesting to revisit old convictions.

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Sad when your throwback photograph from a dozen years ago makes people say, “Geez, he’s let himself go.”

What would Jesus say about Iraq? (This title and the paragraphing are not mine.)

For the United States, September 11, 2001, was a series of unimaginable sucker punches. In a few hours, terrorists placed on our country’s hearthrug a new reality: the “gentleman’s agreement” as to the rules of war had been altered.

The “enemy” isn’t necessarily a specific country anymore, and rather than sticking their chins out for a retaliatory punch, attackers blow themselves up.

The question is, how should we respond to this new set of rules—or lack thereof? Or more to the point for me, what is a faithful way of responding to terrorism within our borders?

President Bush isn’t hiding his take on the matter. He thinks that the United States, either alone or in cooperation with other nations, should bomb Iraq with the goal of eliminating Saddam Hussein.

I haven’t heard any of television’s talking heads dispute the Bush administration’s claims that Iraq supports terrorism, so I guess if we’re going to wage war on terrorism, Iraq is as good a place to start as any.

My concern isn’t where the bombing should begin, but when it will (or won’t) end.

I don’t pretend to know what course of action will best protect our national interests or rid the world of the fanatical inclination to fly jets into skyscrapers.

Even as a pastor, I don’t know that I could win a theological argument for peace. Many intelligent, scripturally literate people believe that the time for seeking peace with terrorists has passed.

But I do feel increasingly sure about the voice of my own conscience, and the word I’ve been hearing lately is enough.

As I write this, my kids are close by. One is tying up the phone lines by gabbing on AOL, and the other is wearing a pair of goggles and pretending to swim across my study floor. My wife is at a class on home repair. I love these three.

Here’s the deal. If we start down the wrenching, potentially endless path of incinerating the world’s sucker punchers, people every bit as dear as my beloved three would also burn because they happen to be in the way.

Enough! Enough lives lost. Enough grieving. Enough violence.

Like I said, these are only the words of my own conscience. I’m probably wrong and simplistic, but I try to imagine Jesus standing beside me. What would he say? I can’t hear “bomb ‘em” or “acceptable collateral damage” coming from his lips.

What I hear is more like “figure out something else.”

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Grizzled and pudgy, I imagine my beloved grandson under the bomb. I guess I’m parked in the same spot I was years ago.

Miracle Milk, Miracle Mothers

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Cole before his cold at a Mexican restaurant–looks like he is enjoying a mother’s milk buzz, sampling a tortilla chip, and watching out for the senoritas.

What’s more pathetic than sick toddlers? Living in the here and now, they know only that the present moment is plugged up or achy or poopy or yacky, as the case may be.

Grandson Cole is nearly over a head cold, which he has shared with mommy Elena, daddy Matt, and grandma Kathy. Adults get a pat on the back and a “hang in there,” but Cole had us all verklempt. Kiss him, walk him, monkeyshine him. His head was so packed with snot that it established its own gravitational field. Pantry moths, hummingbirds, and an occasional turkey buzzard got pulled into Cole’s orbit and circled a few times before flapping wildly to regain their freedom.

The worst part was my buddy couldn’t nurse. He got a tug or two in, tried to breathe, and had to veer off. Then came the tears, and not just for him. For a prolific producer like my daughter, the pain was threefold: lefty, righty, and the heart. Pumping took the edge off.

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Miracle Milk Strollers (Credit: Penny Shaut)

Both Elena and son Micah nursed, so I’m comfortable at the nursing rodeo as well as a big fan. The more I learn about breastfeeding, the more I want to speak up as its champion. This past Saturday the whole family joined scores of others at our local Miracle Milk Stroll, an event to raise awareness about the benefits of breast milk as well as a few bucks for the cause.

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The author, hereby applying to be the Official Clown for Miracle Milk

And it is a worthy cause, though it struggles against a headwind of sophomoric nonsense disguised as decorum. I’m amazed afresh each time a humble breast—servant of life, means of comfort—is greeted with harrumph or ew. An infant is hungry, say in a restaurant, and Mom provides. “Eh,” someone at the next table whispers, “I don’t want to have to look at that while I’m eating”—that being one standard-issue, boilerplate breast, either whole or in part.

I say, “It’s time for the squeamish to take a please-grow-up-already pill.” Why? Because breast milk is liquid gold, and nursing—for those women able and inclined to practice it—is a picture of earthly goodness. I won’t go into the many marvels of human milk here. Authoritative sources have done the heavy informational lifting far more effectively than I ever could. Please check out these sources if you’re curious.

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My son shouldering my sick grandson on the stroll

So plenty of good research trumpets the physical benefits of nursing. After the Miracle Milk Stroll, lactation consultant Cass even suggested that Elena put drops of breast milk into Cole’s ears and nose. Overhearing this, I said, “I have a wart on the bottom of my foot. Maybe I ought to put some breast milk on it.” Cass and Elena said together, “Well, it is an antiseptic.”

I would rub some on my sole. Why not? I would also try human milk as a treatment for pink eye, as one mother successfully did for her preschooler. Cheese made from breast milk wouldn’t scare me, either. A New York chef made some out of his wife’s surplus, but the Health Department frowned, as did one food critic. Oh well.

Compared to probably 95% of the population, I’m a weirdo. Sorry, but the science is convincing. Research isn’t conclusive yet, but there’s even evidence that a mother’s milk has analgesic properties. In the future will we mix liquid gold with other ingredients and use it like nasal spray to calm a headache? Go ahead and laugh. As Elena used to say, “I don’t give a care!”

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Two of the most wonderful breastfeeding veterans, Kathy and Elena–with son-in-law Matt providing an innocent photo bomb

Let’s say human milk was no more nourishing than tap water. Would I still stick up for nursing? Amen and Amen. Go to a Miracle Milk Stroll as I have for the past two years and hang around with a bunch of women committed to the cause. Watch your children and grandson nurse. You’ll witness something more compelling than science.

When Elena says, “You want some milk, Baby?” Cole’s answer is joy and light. He gives the usual yeah and nods, but I wish you could see his expression. It’s as if he is thinking, “Oh, that’s the best thing! The world is perfect when I’m nursing.” Imagine a face showing gladness mixed with relief.

We used to joke about Cole being boob drunk once his tank was full. Take away any negative connotation, and you’ve got it right: the relaxing buzz, the drooping eyelids, the silly grin. We should all be so intoxicated.

Am I getting carried away to think that a nursing baby is about as close to the Loving Mystery as a person can get? And Mom—her skin, breast, warmth, and agape—is the vessel in this trinity: Eternity, Life Bearer, and Life.

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“La Compassion de Christ” by the late, self-taught Milton Sontheimer (1982). A Mothering Christ? This hangs in my study at Abiding Hope Lutheran Church.

Granted, breastfeeding is not entirely sacred cuddles. Kids chomp down, women grow weary, ducts get plugged. But for a chronic worrier like myself, a mother feeding her baby is a gift of peace in a nerved-up world. Together they remind me that I believe in a gracious forever and assure me that once this life of wonder and woe has passed, my hope of being so comforted in the arms of a Mothering God isn’t foolish after all.

At the Miracle Milk Stroll, we walked less than a mile, slowly like the name says. Without much thought, mothers nursed their children, talked with friends, and kept walking. Would that we all could travel this way, leaving judgment at the side of the road, quietly celebrating love made visible.

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Human milk saves lives!

 

In Defense of the M.F.A., M.A., or Whatever

Only at the end of Cecilia Capuzzi Simon’s New York Times essay “Why Writers Love to Hate the M.F.A.” did the truth hit me. 2015 marks the thirtieth anniversary of my M.A. from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. The program was one year long at that time, and I spent one semester studying under John Barth and the other under Doris Grumbach. I also finessed my way into Elizabeth Spires’ undergraduate poetry workshop.

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A twenty-three-year-old punk types out a draft at his desk in Baltimore.

I held up the rear of the mid-pack, turning out short stories and poems that were neither embarrassing nor accomplished. Actually, I was probably of most value as a critic, giving every manuscript an energetic round of copy editing and a lengthy summary comment. The greatest compliment I received at Hopkins came from one classmate who has gone on to nonfiction notoriety: “I always pay attention to your comments.”

But I was out of my league, and the nine months wife Kathy and I spent in Baltimore was a mostly unmerited privilege. My fellow fictionists came from Harvard, Yale, Sarah Lawrence, and so on. One already had his Ph.D., and another received a perfect score on the verbal section of Graduate Record Exam. One who has since gone on to glory was married to the actress who played Quincy’s (Jack Klugman) wife on television. One fought in Vietnam. So we’re talking smart, interesting people. And the alumni are distinguished: Frederick Barthelme, Louise Erdrich, Martha Grimes, Molly Peacock, John Barth himself, et. al.

I graduated from Penn State-Erie and scored in the 26th percentile on the GRE literature section. How the hell did I sneak in? I perched on the waiting list for some weeks, so at least a few applicants said “no, thanks” before my acceptance letter landed.

I appreciate the reservations some writers and scholars have about M.F.A.s and M.A.s. Capuzzi Simon points out the objections that tuition is steep and teaching opportunities—for those who want to pay the bills that way—are scarce compared to the number of graduates. And even in the mid 1980s harrumphs circulated about the gush of monochromatic work coming from apprentice writers who nurtured voice and vision in at best a comfortable terrarium and at worst a snarky thunderdome.

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The Coleman residence for a few seasons–on North Charles Street in Baltimore

My experience from September 1984 through May 1985 was in equal measure stressful and magnificent. The former was my fault. My lungs got punished by Vantage 100s, and I lost thirty pounds in my first two months. A little Zoloft would have helped. As I settled in, though, Kathy and I found C. C. Carry Out egg rolls one block away and the Graduate Club in the basement of our apartment building, an old hotel probably grand in its day. On Hump Night, dime Rolling Rock ponies washed down chicken fingers. Some weight returned. Gradually I understood my place and relaxed enough to avoid a nervous breakdown.

Portrait of John Barth

John Barth (Credit: Bettmann/Corbis)

And I learned. Jack Barth—yes, we called him Jack—was more skillful and generous than I can say. He was much concerned with story-telling technique. If you’re going to tell stories, you ought to know what’s under the hood, as it were. When your story was up for the workshop, you met with Jack for thirty minutes in the days beforehand for a private conference. I’ve said many times that my hour and a half with Jack Barth was worth the tuition. How astute he was, reading my young work and discerning what I most needed to hear at that moment to grow and develop—and not a hint of annoyance at my ignorance.

Doris Grumbach established a rule during her first appearance at the helm: criticize what you will, but the subject matter of the story or chapter is off limits. I appreciated this, since my stuff was about the mundane lives of blue-collar sorts from the rust belt. It was all I had. In her teaching, she emphasized the importance of line-by-line attention to our prose. In one session we compared an original Raymond Carver short story with a revision that appeared in a later collection. The late minimalist made but a handful of minor changes, and we dissected each one. The point: if you’re going to be serious about writing, every pen stroke matters, so pay attention. Doris also invited the fiction workshop to her row house on Capital Hill and let us have a look at her carriage house study. For years thereafter I longed for such a sprawling, dignified space for my desk.

When Kathy and I drove back north to Erie, Pennsylvania, with my M.A. in hand, we moved into an attic apartment in a sketchy part of town. I set up shop in a 4’ x 4’ turret and, oddly, turned out poems. I’ve now written dozens of them, as well as scores of essays and a couple of books about spirituality and religion and one memoir—but never another short story. The poetry I generated for Beth Spires’ workshops was eh, and she did me the great favor of treating my work with respect and care without ever giving me reason to dream big.

Still, verse took hold of me. Over the next five years I got my work into a handful of solid literary magazines and bet I would have eventually published a collection. In the late 1980s I squeezed in the nervous breakdown I put off in Baltimore.

Though I haven’t completed a poem or story for going on two decades, Hopkins still shines in my memory. Thirty years ago this month I typed the final copy of my thesis, a collection called Senior League. I drafted longhand and moved to a little Smith Corona electric for revision and submission. In the turret, it was poems put down on an 8.5” by 14” yellow tablet, followed by typing when things got serious. For a while, when I taught English at Penn State-Erie, Kathy and I lived in a freezing farmhouse. Steam rose from our knees when we bathed. My study was tucked under a set of steps. Revisions got pounded out on a rickety old manual; the print quality was about as good as the poetry. Eventually faculty members received IBM computers with a blessed, crappy, postcard-sized screen, and I started composing on the keyboard.

I mention these details to demonstrate that writing changed for me at Hopkins. It became something I sat down and did, scribbling or clacking or clicking, whether I was in the mood or not, whether I had anything to say or not. I showed up in Baltimore in 1984 to study writing. When I left in 1985, for good or ill, I was a writer. Why? I had seen what committing to a craft looked like, received guidance from masters, and spent time with peers on their own pilgrimage. In all this I learned a simple fact: writers sit or stand or recline, get out a pen and paper or prop a keyboard on their laps, and bloody well write. And they spend far more time writing than talking about writing or figuring out what clothes an author should wear. Thomas Merton wrote, “What I wear is pants.” Amen. Oh and if writers aren’t gluttonous readers, something is amiss.

One thing I didn’t learn at Hopkins was what I ought to write about. That was a good thing. As I’ve shown up at my writing desks and waited for words to find me, I’ve also been figuring out what’s worth saying at all. Cecilia Capuzzi Simon summarizes a common objection to the M.F.A.: “Detractors . . . say the degree is responsible for so-called program fiction—homogenized, over-workshopped writing void of literary tradition and overly influenced by the mostly upper- and middle-class values and experiences of its students.” Poetry workshops could be guilty of the same charges.

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Resting with son Micah at the seminary townhouse complex–four of the best years of my life

In fact, you could accuse plenty of graduate programs of over-workshopping students. In addition to an M.A., I have a Master of Divinity and a year of Ph.D. studies (a twenty-page paper on Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial was enough to show me that a literature doctorate wasn’t for me) on the old curriculum vita, and each excellent, soul-shaping experience left its distinctive perfume—or stink, as I’ve occasionally said—on my thinking. I left Hopkins writing stories with nearly invisible endings. Twelve months at Indiana University of Pennsylvania was exhilarating, but nearly turned me into a Marxist. And Trinity Lutheran Seminary cracked me open and called me to believe like a grown up. In each case, over time, lessons that held up got integrated and those that didn’t got left beside the road.

The point: during grad school I immersed myself in the ideas being presented, welcomed them, lived with them, sometimes championed them. Sure, I got homogenized, but only for a while. Eventually my brain and identity returned. And isn’t this the educational experience: binge on learning, figure out what’s crap later, and grow?

When I was at Hopkins, I wrote about white, lower-middle-class folks whose lives were going nowhere. The resolution to my minimal conflicts was the moment when the reader understood that my characters were hopelessly stuck, even if they were oblivious. After covering the same territory in verse for a few years, I took up panic attacks, which led me in a direction I would have sniffed at in Baltimore: spirituality, and now, creative non-fiction that my younger self would have regarded as maudlin or trite.

In short, Hopkins was a critical stop on a thirty-year writing trip, but it was only one stop. Barth, Grumbach, and Spires were mentors, but so earlier on were Diana Hume George, J. Madison Davis, and the late Chet Wolford, who taught me to be merciless with a manuscript. I’m indebted to all of these guides, but none of them could help me with the most important questions to answer: What do I have to say? And what’s worth saying at all?

Here I admit a prejudice: if an M.F.A. graduate’s top answer to these questions ends up being, “Publish me!” then, well, yuck. Without something pressing to say, a writer produces literary hothouse tomatoes. And if M.F.A.s aren’t asking themselves about meaning and purpose each time they invoke the Muse, their degree isn’t to blame. Go ahead and throw a tomato at me, but I say the problem is poverty of artistic soul. Maybe this is an errant position.

Forgive. These are only the impressions of a middle-aged M.A. who, in the words of literary critic Anis Shivani, “[did] a degree” and nevertheless has been “condemned to obscurity.” Would I jamb a Chevette full of essentials and drive with my young wife from Erie to Baltimore all over again?

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C. C.’s egg rolls weren’t this crispy. They were a little soggy, in fact, but Kathy and I ate a hundred or more doused in soy or duck sauce. (Credit: Albert Cahalan on Wikimedia Commons)

You bet. Objections to graduate writing programs don’t factor in the need for those Jack Barth called “advanced apprentices” to get the hell out their own particular Dodges, drink and spar with classmates whose names they can’t forget, gather up the tricks of the trade, find a great egg roll, and rinse down memorable chicken fingers with Rolling Rock.

I learned from Jack about Chekov’s Gun: never hang a pistol (or egg roll, chicken finger, or Rolling Rock) on the wall in the first act without firing it by the third.

 

Ciao to Convention

I can’t hear mention of the good old days without grimacing. Golden days for some folks were hell for others. At the same time, some good-old-days conventions and assumptions come in handy. The unspoken agreement, say, to prevent blacks from moving into white neighborhoods, is/was crappy. The old boy system that has women earning 78% of what men make is intolerable (AAUW statistic). But what I think we’re seeing in 2015 America is the disappearance of useful conventions.

It’s hard to imagine people “somewhere ages and ages hence” telling their grandchildren about these days “with a sigh.” Maybe Americans are as happy as ever in their homes and relationships, but societal life is often a vexing pain in the ass. Why? Our conventions—shared beliefs about how the world works and how people ought to behave—are being put out to pasture one by one.

Schmoes like me watch the news and say, “Hey wait, I thought we had a deal!” Our pacts sometimes find words: “Don’t hit below the belt.” “Don’t stab a man in the back.” “Don’t run up the score.” LeBron James shouldn’t (and wouldn’t, of course) cream a teenager in one-on-one. That’s not how we operate. Have some class. We’re all in this together. Show a little mercy. Give the kid a break.

Sadly, such deals are collapsing, especially in politics. Each time a convention is smacked on the rump and told to start grazing, folks with manners and a sense of fair play slap their foreheads. When forty-six Senate Republicans signed Tom Cotton’s (R-AR) open letter to Iran about Obama’s nuclear talks, another Clydesdale clopped off with head hung low: “We Americans are all on one team, and in some matters we don’t undermine the Commander-in-chief.” Conservative columnist Michael Gerson puts a fine point on it: “Congress simply has no business conducting foreign policy with a foreign government, especially an adversarial one.”

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The United States Capitol: a setting that should inspire honor, or at least passable manners. (Credit: Wikipedia)

It’s no big deal that one greenhorn senator penned a letter meant to interfere with delicate negotiations. The problem is, forty-six of Cotton’s colleagues signed the letter and are now taking turns tussling his hair, if indeed they can reach that high. In other words, about half of the United States Senate thinks it’s not only okay, but laudatory, to reject a long-standing assumption about constructive and honorable political behavior.

The Republican objection, summarized by Rand Paul (R-KY), is that President Obama is undertaking negotiations with Iran without congressional participation. Well now gosh, I wonder why the President would do such a thing—which leads me to another convention standing out in a rainy field: bipartisan cooperation.

When former Tennessee Senator Howard Baker (R-TN) died in June of 2014, both Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Harry Reid (D-NV) practically wet themselves on the Senate floor paying tribute to the “Great Conciliator.” Current Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-OH), also praised Baker: “His service was marked by a courtly, civil, and respectful style that won him friends and admirers on both sides of the aisle. His example — his ability to fight for principle, and disagree without being disagreeable — will continue to inspire us as we honor his life and memory.”

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The Great Conciliator in 1984 (Credit: Wikipedia)

Yeah, right. This from the Speaker who took the uncivil, disrespectful liberty of inviting a foreign head of state to address a joint session of Congress behind the President’s back. Has this ever happened before? No. And so, ciao to another understanding among the branches of government. Add to this Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s eagerness to accept such a shabby invitation, and convention takes another blow: of course Bibi knew that his speech would break with tradition. He just didn’t care. Let’s face it: all that Howard Baker stood for is now scorn fodder. Imagine the “Great Conciliator” and young Turk Tom Cotton brokering a deal in a present day cloakroom. The beloved Tennessean would be scorched earth.

Not because Baker would be outmatched, but because the rules he played by no longer apply. In a Washington Post essayThomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein blame Republicans: “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

Let’s pause for a little contrast. Consider the words about compromise from Senator John McCain (R-AZ): “The way you have bipartisan negotiations, you sit down across the table, as we did with Ted Kennedy, as I’ve done with many other members, and you say, ‘OK, here’s what I want, here’s what you want. We’ll adhere to your principles, but we’ll make concessions.'” Now let’s hear from John Boehner as he summarizes his goals for leading the House of Representatives (it refers to Obama’s agenda for a second term): “We’re going to do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.”

For Boehner, “everything we can do” includes holding multiple votes on the Affordable Care Act, a recent one merely for the benefit of freshman Republicans who haven’t had the chance to record their ire at Obamacare. How many is multiple? TheAtlantic.com reports fifty-six. My head spins at the wasteful stupidity. According to MiamiCBSLocal.comthe estimated cost to taxpayers for each of these votes is $1.45 million.

I wish to God I could track down which politician said something like, “When I lost a vote, I walked across the aisle, shook hands, and said, ‘I hope I can count of your vote on the next bill.'” Was it Howard Baker? Bob Dole? Richard Lugar? (I really looked hard. If you know, please pull me aside!)

Oh for the days of debating, voting, and moving on. But this is yet another demoralized horse. “Go munch bramble, you mangy thing!” Votes, it seems, are meaningless anymore. Which returns me to a question I asked earlier: “Why would the President undertake nuclear negotiations with Iran without congressional participation?” Why bother? Colleagues who would spend $81.2 million on symbolic votes and have repeatedly made their subversive intentions clear aren’t looking to provide input. Their goal is to impede and frustrate. The evidence of this is indisputable. By any measure of productivity, argues Chris Cillizza, the 113th Congress is the worst in history.

This is what happens when a democracy is deprived of its long-standing working agreements. It’s also what happens when, as Mann and Ornstein suggest, facts and scientific evidence don’t matter. Example: according to Climate.NASA.gov, “Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.” I would call this a consensus, but not Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who said in 2012, “Just so you’ll know, global warming is a total fraud and it’s being designed because what you’ve got is you’ve got liberals who get elected at the local level want state government to do the work and let them make the decisions. Then, at the state level, they want the federal government to do it. And at the federal government, they want to create global government to control all of our lives.”

Believe it or not, my intention here isn’t to take Cotton, Boehner, et. al. to the woodshed, but to make observations that help keep me sane. Taking in the world, politics in particular, sometimes steals my peace, so I lay out my case as a way of regaining equilibrium. For the record, I’m a Democrat, but plan to forgo participation in future primaries by becoming an Independent. Why? Republicans are responsible for most of the demise of conventions, but I don’t despair about the possibility of them taking over America because, as I often say, “They eat their own young.” By disposition, theirs is a house divided. On the other hand, Democrats violate shared understandings when it suits them; they just don’t do it as often and with such glee as Republicans. When a politician of one party is indignant over the effrontery of a colleague from the other party, prepare to hear some hypocritical bull crap. They take turns being aghast. Awww, shaddup!

Which is probably what I should do. To the litany of conventional behaviors sent to the glue factory I’ll add two quick others from outside the beltway. Consider these me waving so long on a lighter note.

  • My son Micah watches Mixed Martial Arts matches, where the “don’t hit a man when he’s down” deal is off. When somebody gets knocked out, the victor keeps hammering the guy’s unconscious head until the referee steps in. I’m not a fan.
  • I’m all for earthy, sophomoric humor, but wasn’t sure what to do with a bumper sticker I saw yesterday. Irreverent, yes, but it seems like a minor violation of bumper sticker etiquette.
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Congratulations?

The next time I see a convention trotting into the sunset–an overshare or a politician being ill-mannered–I’ll say, “Nope, you’re not stealing my peace. Not today!”