|The LifeStory Institute
The writer's workshop for memoirists, autobiographers and family historians.
LifeStory was founded in 1991 as a how-to newsletter/magazine and also as an over-the-road workshop
travelling North America teaching and coaching new and longtime writers of all ages how to write about
their lives and the lives of their ancestors. The premise is that everyone can, and probably should, write
their life story to pass on to their family,friends,and others interested, including and perhaps especially,
All material on this website unless otherwise indicated is Copyright 2015 by The LifeStory Institute.
THE 15th CONSECUTIVE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG STARTS TODAY...RIGHT NOW! AND YOU'RE JUST IN
TIME TO WRITE ALONG WITH ME! Like all our Journalongs, it will run for 28 days, and you are invited to
journal along with me. I am Charley Kempthorne and this is my website, my means of reaching out to you and all the wide world. I
am a writer and a writing coach. Mainly I try to help people by encouraging and enabling them to write regularly--daily if at all possible.
Please join me in writing 500+ words this morning about whatever is on your mind. You do yours at home and I'll do mine right here. We
support one another by writing together. If you'd like to share some or all of what you've written, send it to me via email,
BAKED FRESH THIS MORNING
AT LETTER ROCK PARK
Monday, March 2, 2015 Letter Rock Park
When I was a boy of 30 or so I got up every morning to music. I’d put on a record, a 33 rpm,
and I’d dance and swing like an orangutan all over the room, singing along, conducting, there I
was, half naked and jumping up on the furniture as lively (I thought) and lithe and all those
good L things like old Fred Astaire singing in the rain, only of course there wasn’t any rain
inside. I was never depressed.
Well, not on wakening. As I went through the day sometimes my mood would change, maybe,
but the first thing was music and dancing and singing and swinging. One time I was listening
to, I think, old Mussourgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, all those brilliant brassy cacophonous
passages and I made a leap for a parallel bars I had on a doorway and the bar came loose and I
went flying. It took the wind out of my sails and I think later on I even went to the nearby
hospital (I was living in Kansas City then) for a check out. I was okay, a couple of young
interns said. They were bored and amused at my plight.
Now sometimes—just sometimes but it’s on the increase—I get up and I feel like dancing and
singing. In my mind I jump around the room, maybe I get down on my knees and sing
Sewanee, how I love ya, how I love ya, my dear old Sewanee…
I smile as I shuffle out to the kitchen to dip a cup of old coffee out of the maker and nuke it in
the microwave. This morning I sang, along with Roberta Flack, The First Time I Saw Your
Face. Then I sat down here and began to write. In just a couple of minutes I’ll go to You Tube
and pull up You Are My Sunshine and play it (I forget the artist’s name, a sweet young thing)
for my wife to waken her for the morning festivities.
But yesterday afternoon I was so depressed I thought again and again, Why, when a month
ago I was on the Golden Gate Bridge (which by the way I just got the toll bill for yesterday),
why, oh why, didn’t I just stop the car and leap? I can fly, I can fly, I can fly!
Are those called mood swings?
“O the mind, the mind has mountains,” warbled old Father Gerard Manley Hopkins. “Cliffs of
fall, sheer, no man fathomed.”
ATTENTION ON DECK!
This is Monday, March 2, 2015, and it’s time to get with the program. And do we have a busy
day for you, Charley. We are going in town to our meeting early, and stopping off at Dillon’s to
dance a bit (we used to dance in the canyons of groceries, cans of pineapple and devilled
ham, where nobody could see us, not even the spy cameras, which of course then weren’t
even thought of, not even by Dick Tracy) to pick up a few things to eat and then we’ll come
zooming home to a busy, sunny workaday day. Oh Frances, Oh Frances, Oh please tell me
why…your mother is calling and you don’t replyyyy….###
Sun., Mar. 1, 2015
Okay, if you wake up depressed—as I just have—why not pretend to be joyous? Let’s pretend
that I was wakened by a phone call from Sweden telling my I’d won the 2015 Nobel Prize for
Literature. The guy who calls and who has, wouldn’t you know, a marked Swedish accent in
spite of having been schooled at Harvard, apologizes profusely for waking me up. “Oy,
Messair Kampthawnuh, Eye ham zo zorry. Eye cud call back latair. Eye ham zo—
“Oh, that’s alright,” I say, I had to get up to go to the bathroom, anyway. You said I may
already be a winner of…just what was it?”
“Ze Nobel Price fur Litrachuh,” he said.
“Really?” I say. “Jack is that you? Have you been drinking again? Do you need me to come
and give you a ride home?”
Okay, I’m not now so depressed as I was.
I did once get a surprise and pleasant call from a big shot reporter on the Kansas City Star: he
wanted to interview me. His name was Jim Fisher. Yes, he said, he wondered if he drove up
here from Kansas City would I have the time to be interviewed. Of course I didn’t believe him, I
have lots of practical joking friends, and so I got ready to whinny the loudest horse laugh in
the world, but something clicked in my febrile brain and I held my tongue and played along. I
said sure, and I gave him directions to drive here. Turned the guy was for real and he came up
and we talked around my kitchen table for a couple of hours and had a great time—two old
men about the same age reminiscing—and he went back to the city and wrote a nice article for
the Star about LifeStory and what we were cooking up here. That would be back in…about
Now I am even more less depressed than I was a few minutes ago.
It has snowed. Three or four inches, if that. We are not exactly snowed in, but we aren’t going
to go out there and skid around over hill and dale. We’re going to stay home from church and
maybe walk over to the neighbors and say hello.
And then we’ll work all day and watch the sun go down on March 1, 2015. I just have to say, in
passing, that I wish we raised hogs again. I really liked hogs. I enjoyed their company and
found their comments on late 20th Century culture of considerable value. They also sold well:
we never lost money on hogs. And by the time they were what we hoggeurs (what hog
producers are known as) call butcher weight, they had gotten out of their pen so many times
and broken so many fences and rooted up so much of the garden that I roundly disliked them
and had no compunction whatever about loading them for the sale barn. ###
Sat., February 28, 2015
I have recently discovered that I am mortal. Yes, after a long lifetime of 77 years of being
immortal, I now understand that it’s theoretically possible that I may not live forever. What, I
ask with the guy who invented the phone, Alexander Bell, has God wrought?
I don’t know. I guess mortality is a pretty good idea if God thought of it. I have to admit it
makes room for others to come, encourages competition and is generally very good in
maintaining a robust economy. One can’t sing its praises enough.
Even so, I kind of like being alive and I note that there’s no rule I have to volunteer to die. In
fact, I’m so pumped up about living I’ve decided to go on a health kick.
I quit smoking in 1982; I quit drinking in 2008. I’ve never paid too much attention to my body
except to admire it in the mirror after my bath, but now I’m willing to do a few exercises every
day or so if it will maintain things. I’ll brush my teeth twice a day and floss once. I’ll wear
warm clothes when I go outside and I’ll go to bed early and say my prayers.
I’ll eat an apple every day and drink three glasses of milk and go easy on the candy bars,
especially the new double sized Heaths and Butterfingers.
Is there anything else I can do?
I always liked candy. When I was a kid, I ate so much candy my dad got to calling me The
Candy Kid. For Christmas one year when I was maybe ten or eleven, he and Mom gave me a
box of 12 Milky Ways. The idea was that I’d have one every day or two for a month. I ate them
all at once. They were very good but I developed as a result a rather more than regular
bathroom habit, so much so that my dad got to calling me The Tube. Somehow my
achievement got around in school and others picked up the nickname for me, The Tube. To
this day, at least one of my school classmates calls me that when he sees me. “Hey, Tube,
good to see you again,” and he extends his hand. It’s very endearing.
My father, for his part, was an abstemious man. If he was given for dessert a very excellent
bowl of my mother’s peach cobbler, he might—emphasis on might—have a second, partial
helping. That was rare. He never overate. Never. He always said the best exercise there was
was to push away from the table. He looked at overweight people eating and said, “That man
is digging his grave with his teeth.”
He had a drink, a highball, every day when he came home from work. Never two. He’d take a
sip and smack his lips and lean back in his chair and smile. He’d smoke half a cigarette and
stub it out, or he’d light one, put it in the ashtray, and forget to smoke it. ###
Fri., February 27, 2015 Letter Rock Park, the LifeStory Institute
Hail, hail, Rock n Roll, I slept through the night! Well, I slept from about 730 or 8 pm to 330
am—that’s good. I can’t help smiling wryly/ruefully, though, and imagining how I would have
replied to myself with such a comment forty years ago. So? I would have said. What’s the big
Yet my mind isn’t exactly on fire this morning. If it’s brimming with anything, it’s brimming
with numb, dumb thoughts.
We were having a party out here and our kids, one or all, had invited their friends who were
more or less well behaved but stayed on and on.
In real life in 1968 at our house in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, we gave a party to a bunch of
friends and they came on Friday and lingered through the weekend. The party spread from the
big living room to the big dining room to the big rec room downstairs to the back porch, to the
upstairs bedrooms, even people sitting on the attic stairs.
Old codger of 30 that I was then, I was worried about getting my writing done, and so about
two am I went down in the basement and switched off the electricity.
That deterred no one. With a laugh, with much laughter, someone broke out a mess of candles
and they set them up throughout the huge old house. I think I finally went to bed and left it to
everyone else. My wife too. Somewhere in there it all ended and we woke up and went
downstairs and everyone was gone, save a couple of folks who had taken to the couches to
sleep it all off.
1968 was a heady and eventful year. We are still sleeping it off. Whatever you want to call it,
just “the 60’s” or the Hippie Revolution or the years of protest, that was the most revolutionary
decade of the 20th Century. The Hippie Revolution, as I chose to call it, was important
because though it began as a political revolution it ended (if it has ended) as a vast lifestyle
Not so much for others as for me…I don’t know. I know that at the beginning of the decade—I
got out of the Navy in ’59—I had a very different set of goals, a different way of dress, a
different way of looking at the world and everything in it—than I had at the end. I reversed
about everything. The only constant was that I was still a writer, still someone who got up in
the morning thinking about it and went to bed thinking about it.
I don’t know that that’s such a virtue. Probably it isn’t. At least by the end of the 60s I was
actually writing. I had started this beloved and blessed Journal on February 24, 1962, and here
I am 53 years later, still writing. But is that a tribute or a confession of failure? Well, perhaps
We bought a different kind of coffee yesterday and it’s awful. Yech! ###
Thu., February 26, 2015
I ought to get some kind of award, shouldn’t I? I mean we all should, shouldn’t we? I mean
just for being here? In the Navy, my baseline organization so many years ago, I got an award
just for being in. I got to put little red stripes on my sleeve for being there. Why shouldn’t
civilian life be like that too?
At the end of Mark Twain’s great novel, Huckleberry Finn, Huck says that he is going to stop
telling his story because he has “nothing more to write.”
Of course stories do end, but new ones come along. There are always stories. If it seems to
me sometimes that I’ve run out of stories—and it does—then I just have to ask what I’m here
for. I’m here to tell stories. I’m here to tell the stories of my life, and as long as I am granted
life, I need to tell them. When I run out of stories, or seem to, and just write cant like the stuff I
just wrote—well, then, my job is to find a story and tell it.
Like yesterday. Just going to town was an adventure because we had been remiss the day
before when coming home from town in re-filling the gas tank. “Oh, we’ll make it,” I said, “Oh,
there’s probably a can of gas in the tool shed somewhere,” I said. But the last mile or two of
traveling the little light gas pump icon came on and I knew that meant we were down to our last
gallon. “What’s the range say?” June asked. “31,” I said, glancing down at it. “Then we’ll be
okay,” she said. We parked and went inside. I didn’t say, but I knew, that sometimes those
range things aren’t quite accurate. In my old car, the Santa Fe, by 40 they meant maybe 10. So
we’d see about tomorrow’s trip to town. I checked the shop and there were no less than six
empty gas cans, cheery little red things that they were, empty as space.
“We could drive the truck to town,” I said to June next morning when we were getting ready to
go in. “The transmission fluid is low but…” I paused. “Shall we chance it?”
“Sure,” June said, and so we hopped in the Tucson and zoomed off. We chatted happily, glad
to be out of the house in the morning sunshine. “We’ve driven this road a lot,” I said. “We
sure have,” June said. Silently we remembered all the breakdowns, the empty gas tanks, the
flat tires. We hummed along and soon we were on the edge of town, where there is one
station, but the price is high. “Shall we plunge on, or get a few gallons here?” I asked. “Oh,
let’s plunge on,” June said. “We’ve come this far, only a couple more miles.” “But I don’t like
to think what it’ll be like if it quits on the bridge.” June didn’t say anything. Just before pulling
onto the up side of the bridge I sped up, figuring if we ran out on the bridge we could maybe
coast, at least, to the other side and pull out of traffic.
But we made it, and we made it to the pumps at Dillon’s. The tank holds 14 gallons. We
pumped 13.977, so we were almost literally coming in on fumes.
And that’s my story within all the other stories of my life yesterday. ###
Wed., Feb. 25, 2015
Oh Frances, oh Frances,
Oh please tell me whyyy
Your mother is calling
And you don’t replyyy
The soup it is boiling ,
The cow’s in the corn.
Your mother is calling for you
To come home.
Your mother is calling for you
To come home.
The mystery of history. The connections, the propinquity of it all. A little red radio that Tony
swiped from Sears and gave to me, a great midnight show by Jay Andreas out of Chicago, the
WBBM Air Theater, Music ‘til Dawn, and now I’m sitting here more than sixty years later, and
that song he played one night, a folk tune, and now I can’t get it out of my mind.
I remember Thomas Wolfe’s pean at the beginning of Look Homeward, Angel about because a
cutpurse went unhung …something or other…ended yesterday in Texas.
We are all in this together, together, together forever and ever.
I asked June where Frances was. She didn’t want to speculate, but after several times trying,
she said, Oh, I don’t know. I suppose she’s in the barn with the hired hand.
I’ve not washed the dishes, but stacked them ready to wash in the morning so as to make my
hands warm. I’m looking forward to it. Warm water on arthritic old hands…my cup runneth
I dreamed…but I’ve already lost them. I wake up and sit up and they’re, poof, gone! They did
not want to see the light of day. My left hand doesn’t want to know what my right one is doing,
or is afraid to tell it? If dreams are the Royal Road to the Unconscious, why can’t I go there, if
it’s my Unconscious?
My back is killing me. O, my aching back! If this is the day the Lord hath made, and I guess it
is, I’d better get out my tools and make it over just a little…or make myself over to accept it.
This is when I’d like to see about ten of my grandchildren hop out of bed in the morning and
congregate in the kitchen and eat their mother’s pancakes. June used to make us all pancakes
so many years ago. I have a picture of her, still up on a wall around here somewhere, and she’
s standing in front of the stove with a spatula in hand making pancakes. She’s grinning at the
camera, has nothing on but her panties and jammy tops, and I can remember that moment like
it was yesterday. Or yesterdays. She loved cooking for us. And we sure loved eating it.
We have now something called The Morning News. Heavy snow in Afghanistan, an avalanche
is reported to have killed dozens…the race for the 2016 White House is on. Maybe I’ll run for
President. The job pays well, and you get this big white house to live in, rent free.
I don’t think I’d like that. Actually, the only condition under which I’ll accept the presidency is
if I can live here and sleep in my own bed. Which did not belong to Lincoln.###
I’m sitting in Urgent Care, waiting in one of those little offices they put you in to keep you on
ice until they’re ready. I’m not bleeding, I’m not doubling up with a heart attack, so I can wait.
And I can. I have nothing to read so I start looking with admiration at the pretty young
Hispanic nurse in a poster on the wall. The poster is a big one with some text about caring for
yourself by visiting your doctor regularly—something like that. The pretty young Hispanic
nurse dominates the poster, however. She has a wonderful smile, sexy and hygienic at the
same time. She is alluring. I am falling in love with her, she steps out of the poster and
soothes my brow and softly asks me…What it’s like, Senor, to be so ancient you look like
something that stepped out of Tales of the Crypt?
I pull my thoughts back. Where is that doctor?
When the doctor comes in June and I look at him. Is he perhaps the son of the doctor? He
looks all of 8 years old. He introduces himself as Lance. Lance? Dr. Lance? I ask. Just
Lance, he says. I’m a physician’s assistant. Anyway, I’m glad he’s here. I remember
something I read not long ago about young doctors are better doctors than old ones because
they’re newly trained in the most up-to-date stuff. So I listen, and he does seem to know his
onions. He speaks confidently of patient outcomes and the problems of antibiotic resistance.
I feel something on my head. I reach up and run my fingers through my hair and come back
with a live box elder bug. I smile and send him on his way.
I met a guy in Mesa at a gas pump first thing in the morning. He booms out a big hello and
reaches out to shake my hand and wish me a great day. He is young, strong, handsome even
in his spiffy gas station yellow plastic bib, and his happiness and outspokenness do not annoy
me at all: quite the contrary. I get into the spirit and soon I’m booming back, laughing and
joking and telling him that one day, no doubt, he will be President of the United States. Or at
least the owner of this gas station. He laughs: he never stops laughing. Or are you already the
owner of this gas station? I ask, and he laughs more, and says, How can you tell? Do you
imagine an employee would ever be this goddamn cheerful at this time of morning? And we
laugh again, together, and I’m filled up and I drive on.
Driving in the Phoenix/Mesa/Tempe complex is different from Tacoma/Seattle/Federal Way
complex even though the two Metro areas are almost exactly the same size. Phoenix has
highways as wide as the desert, 8, 10, even 12 lanes so that heavy traffic isn’t really heavy the
way it it in tightly-packed and squeezed by the Sound, Seattle, the city where the bottle neck
was born, and where, according to a native, It isn’t stop and go. It’s just stop. ###
., February 23, 2015
I woke few minutes ago, wide awake. Where was I? It was so quiet. It was so dark. What
motel? Whose house? Oh. Was I…was this…? My own home? Did I have one, still? The one
imperative was I had to go to the john. I sat up, gave myself a few seconds to get my balance,
stood up, and edged toward a crack of light. Yes, those were the curtains across our
bedroom. I felt for the door beyond the crack, straight north. Our bathroom. I was in my own
home. I was home. I had a home of my own and I was in it.
I had dreamed. I had been having a dream about seeking a job at a community college. I had
gotten hired for one day, a sub. I was meeting some of the other faculty and trying to get to
know them. At a meeting of faculty generally there was a discussion about getting new faculty
prospects. One man told about asking a teacher What hope do you see for the South? And
then he said he waited for an answer. I, the dreamer, also waited. Nothing ever came. Just
silence. And I woke up.
I became a teacher mostly because I felt I was a great writer who needed something while he
apprised the world of that fact…a year, two, surely no more than that. I thought of Thomas
Wolfe’s comment about teaching at Harvard and referring to it as an “odious bondage.” That
was the way I would feel, surely.
But it didn’t happen that way. It isn’t only that I didn’t become the great writer, I came to doubt
that there was such a thing…or such a necessity for such a thing. That happened, thankfully.
But also I came to love teaching, even though the more I learned about the craft, the less, it
seemed, I knew about how to do it.
Yes, I have lived my life backward. But what would have happened had I done it frontward (if
there is such a thing), or in fact any other way? Impossible to know, impossible.
Yesterday June and I were so happy being here together, physically beaten up as we did feel
from the long hours of driving, but now going quietly about restoring out nest—the day went
by as quietly as if we had clicked on Restore, and checked a restore point, and now we were
the little elves inside a computer doing all the restoring. About bedtime (9 o’clock) we sat here
on the couch watching television—whatever it was—and looked at one another and said, Shall
we go to bed? And we did. I read a paragraph or two of something, June read some too, and
very quickly we dropped into the darkness. Oh, I remember saying to her just before,
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just go on and on like this, just the two of us, here in the peace
and quiet of our home, never go to town, never click on restart? And June nodded. ###
Sun., Feb. 22, 2015 Letter Rock Park, Manhattan, Kansas
We are home.
We rolled in about an hour ago. I cried a little, secretly, as we turned off on the Deep Creek
Road and watched the yellow and brown hills glowing in the late afternoon sun. “It’s beautiful,
isn’t it?” I said. “Yes,” June said. On the way down our road here came Cynthia, our neighbor
who had kindly cared for—and really saved the life of our seven cats. We chatted a minute or
two, and she and her daughter went on to town. Then we drove on. I knew there was nothing
in the mailbox—the postoffice was holding that—but I looked anyway. Empty. Nothing in the
newspaper box either, of course. Earlier we had called them and left a message to please
bring them out as soon as they could. In he short order we checked out the electricity, turned
on the water heater and checked out the water, I made coffee, laid a fire for tomorrow (we’ll
have to get used to that) morning as it’s getting colder and we may have some snow. I started
up the S-10, and the lawn tractor. Everything looked exactly as we left it except, of course, no
chickens. The cats had taken over the chicken house.
Outside I looked around. The only thing I heard was the light wind in the trees. Clouds were
forming and it was growing dark.
But the place looks good…a lot better than I’d remembered.
June is happily making soup and bread If it isn’t yet snowing here at Letter Rock, it’s awfully
quiet about it. It’s dark out, and if it were windy I’d hear it and feel it. When we rolled in
yesterday we saw bits and pieces of snow and ice, evidence of a recent storm. More may be to
come. I want winter to stop. We have come home. Winter just has to take the hint and stop.
At McPherson we stopped at a McDonald’s. As we were ordering I asked the young man at
the counter if he knew Mr. McPherson and who he was, who he might have been. He smiled
and shook his head. “And you’re born and bred here?” I asked if the manner of an elder
chiding. He smiled again and shrugged.
Later as we were eating our mccheeseburgers or whatever they were I said to June that I wasn’
t really hungry, that all I wanted really was to stop and watch the kids and talk to them if they
would. She laughed and nodded.
Years ago when I was a boy it sometimes happened that an old man in a public place like a
grocery or a hardware store of the corner gas station, a total stranger, taking a fetching to my
young and, I suppose, innocent looks, would give me a nickel or a dime as my parents,
embarrassed and pleased, would look on. The old man would murmur something, perhaps pat
me on the head, and I’d smile and thank him and he’d walk away.
Now of course if that were even attempted, a whistle would be blown, perhaps literally. It
would be assumed to be a solicitation for something unhealthy and unwholesome. Or if a
piece of candy were offered the parents would intervene and refuse for the child, who wanted
It’s a better world in many, many ways. Humans are better, more caring, nicer…in lots of
ways. But we have come through some hard times, haven’t we? Remember the razor blades
in the oranges given out at Hallowe’en years ago, the poison in the bottles of Excedrin or
aspirin? We’re a much less innocent world.###
Sat., Feb. 21, 2015 Dodge City, Kansas
I will not, I promise, from this day forward discuss politics with anyone who wants to talk in
terms of “the Republicans” vs. “the Democrats” or “conservative vs. liberal,” or in fact, with
any kind of labels at all. The era of labeling, aka stereotyping, just has to come an end. I also
promise, with somewhat more trepidation, not to try to change the views about politics of
another. Moreover, when I share my own ideas, I will try to share them at the root rather than
as an opinion. This can get slippery. I want to share my experience and perhaps my strength
and hope, but certainly above all my own personal experience. I will try hard to explain why I
think the way I think…I think.
I will at all times try to hear and honor the experience of others. If they insist on talking in
labels, I will politely change the subject to personal experience and if they further insist, I will
start telling Little Moron jokes. Remember those? They were an experience of sorts. Q. Why
did the Little Moron put his father in the refrigerator? A. Because he wanted to have cold
pop. Or even the 50s “sick jokes.” Q. Mom, why does Daddy look so pale? A. Shut up and
I will become a champion of discussing the gray areas between black and white. Nothing is
black and white. Nothing about us is simple, though a few simple rules and customs probably
would greatly simplify some of our problems.
“Cimarron,” I said to June as we drove through a little town of that name in northeast New
Mexico, truly a land of enchantment. “It is,” June agreed. We were hurrying to Denver and
passing the time looking at the beauty of the land and also working a crossword puzzle. “A
thin piece of wood, four letters,” June said. I was driving, she was holding the newspaper with
the puzzle in it on her lap and doing the writing. “Lath,” I said. “If we had another child,” I
went on, “I would vote for naming him—or here Cimarron.” The town swished past…a sunny
day, good road. “That’s not going to happen,” June said. “What’s not going to happen?” I
asked, then, remembering, answered. “Oh, I know that,” I said. “A unit of measurement,”
June said. “A yard,” I said. “That’s only four letters. I need five.” I pondered this and glanced
The world was going crazy behind us. It looked like a scene from NCIS.
“Oh, god,” I said, “we’re busted.” I pulled over. The huge black van labeled CIMARRON
POLICE pulled over behind me, and the red and blue lights continued to flash.
$237 later, after the friendly a deeply concerned officer handed me a ticket and said, “Have a
better day,” I turned to June and said, “Maybe we won’t name him—or her—Cimarron, after all.”
Fri., February 20, 2015 Rio Rancho, New Mexico
I sit here unable to write a word after a long day’s driving and being assailed by ideas as I
drove. June kindly writes down little labels for these ideas and stories and bits of this and that
as I drive, and thus we are all saved from the accidents that might have occurred had I driven
less attentively. When we got here to Rio Rancho, a large suburb of Albuquerque probably
built up largely because a good many of the people in Albuquerque simply grew tired of
spelling out the name of that fair city—anyway, when we got here, I tucked all those notes in
the console between the front seats and forgot to bring them in to write up. So here I am
writing about the writing I did yesterday.
It was a long drive but in many ways a productive and pleasant one. We take our turns at the
wheel and a couple of times when June was driving I worked more or less outloud on a
crossword puzzle and she helped me. We nearly got the thing done, just a couple of entries
that will be slept on and finished up tomorrow morning when we drive on to Santa Fe and then
to Denver—unless the snow gets us.
I’m not normally a cross word puzzle addict. My mother was. She worked the ones in the
newspapers and then bought the books of them at the newsstand and worked those far into
the night. Many a morning I would happen by to visit and would find her asleep at 10 am with
her cats asleep around her and with a book of crossword puzzles fallen down beside her
pillow. Or I might find her still up and greeting me abruptly and then saying, “What’s a nine
letter word for ‘completely silly?” And I would respond with something sarcastic like,
But now here I am just a decade or so younger than she was when she died, and perhaps I
have a late-blooming crossword mania coming to the fore. You know, I have read and many of
you have too, that dementia can be fought off by keeping the mind active. And yet truly my
mind as been hyperactive for so many years it’s rather relaxing doing something so
emotionally neutral as working a crossword puzzle.
Or trying to.
Games are important because we don’t have to take them seriously—isn’t that what the
psychologists say? A psychologist once suggested to me that I took life too seriously and I
upbraided her, saying that I didn’t think I could take life seriously enough. She looked blank.
Ten years later, just walking along and remembering that moment , I got it.
I was always slow to get things. The other day a certain lady, my daughter, with my wife
listening told a joke about Bill Clinton and Hillary driving through her hometown and they saw
a man who had been a high school classmate and sometime boyfriend at work pumping gas at
the local Mobil station. “Just think, Hillary, of what your life would be like if you had married
that guy,” Bill remarked. “Yes,” Hillary said, “I’d be married to the President of the United
Both June and Annie roared with laughter. I looked blank. As their laughter died away, I had
to say to my daughter, “I don’t get it.” They laughed again, thinking I was kidding, but I
wasn’t. Then I got it, chuckled a little, and changed the subject. After all, I still take life pretty
seriously, and offensive remarks against the male gender are not easily amusing to me. ###
Thu., Feb. 19, 2015
We are finished in Mesa and we are headed over to Albuquerque to visit my sister and her son
and daughter-in-law and their children. I have not seen them in a good many years and it will
be a pleasure to do so. We’ll leave on Friday morning—a very short visit—and drive north to
Santa Fe to visit too briefly two old friends there, and then,I’m afraid, the pleasures of travelling
Mucho snow is forecast for late Friday and Saturday, and we are going right into the teeth of it
in Denver. There on Saturday afternoon, theoretically, we will do the last workshop of our long
trip, and then we will drive home—very likely through wind and snow. Winter, absent more or
less from Kansas this year, is coming back home with us.
Well, as Twain said, everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it. We’
re not going to, either.
I leave weather talk with this tidbit: last night here in Mesa at the Viewpoint Genealogy Club,
June and I met a lady from Edmonton, Canada and she “we have had snow in every month of
the year.” I knew she wasn’t kidding because we did a workshop there ten or fifteen years ago
and it snowed. July 11, and it snowed. Not a lot, we weren’t snowed in or anything, but we
were abashed. Abashed!
The perfect motel would have almost no lobby. Certainly if there were one, there would be no
plants parked in it.
The so-called “breakfast room” would lots of fruit, milk, cereal, OJ, toast, waffles even, but no
rolls baked in China and mailed here on a freighter to be consumed six months later. No
stryofoam or plastic utensils would be allowed.
All rooms would be perfectly square. The television set would be one foot square and
mounted on the ceiling. The shower would be a single faucet that turned easily from cold to
hot. There need not be a tub to fall in. The toilet would flush first time around.
The bed with its large firm mattress would also be square. There would be blankets in the
drawers as in days of olde. In the center of the room would be a large round steel 20 gallon
There would be a desk that didn’t wobble and may or may not be painted.
Most important, the internet would also be on and running at the highest possible speed.
There would be no password: a mere snap of the fingers of the occupant of the room would
open all the gates.
The absence of perfect internet would be grounds for an immediate cash refund and directions
to a perfect motel. The owner of the old motel would be subject to a $10,000 fine payable to an
organization known as The Motel Guests Grievance Association, the funds from all the fine to
be pro-rated and distributed to all members once a year.
It is so ordered. ###
Wed., February 18, 2015 Mesa, Arizona
Breaking the silence of the morning is sometimes pretty hard for me. Part of me feels it is
audacious and I would be better advised to keep my mouth shut—or in the case of this
Journal, to write nothing. Go back to bed. There are so many proverbs condemning and or
contemning the man who speaks out, and so few praising him—or her. In mock solemnity my
Uncle Pete used to intone, “Into a closed mouth, no flies will enter.” Over the bar in a million
towns is the famous, “Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and
remove all doubt.”
And so on. But nothing about the importance of breaking the silence of the universe.
Well, I am here this morning to break the silence of the universe. Here I am, ready or not.
In school when the teacher would ask a question, I was more often than not, the one to raise
his hand and answer it. For my efforts the teacher often gave me an A but on the playground
my colleagues often gave me the bum’s rush. The favored way was to come up to me and say
something like, “You’re pretty smart, aren’t you, Charles,” they would say, addressing me by
my “proper” name, which of course I hated. And when I tried to respond my friend would give
me a push and I’d go head over heels on the back of another youth who had unknown to me
crouched on his hands and knees behind me. And everyone would laugh.
Later in college I wasn’t always the first one to speak up. Sometimes I cringed in the back, not
knowing. On a day in 1960 I still remember, a professor at the University of Wisconsin well
known for his interrogations had us all terrified into silence to such a degree that no one
would attempt to answer him, and so he doubled the fear by remarking, “Sometimes I think I’m
in a museum, and you people are a mural painted on the wall.” The forty of us sat there,
striken with terror, and could only titter.
Usually I spoke up sooner or later. When I was a professor myself I was more encouraging,
and I always tried to make it easy for a student to speak up. Even so, it was often difficult to
get anyone to break the silence of the universe, to be the first to throw a pebble into the pond
and make some waves. Some of my colleagues were themselves made so nervous by the
silence of their students that they would go on talking forever and ever…or until the merciful
bell rang. Recess! How I loved that sound.
Today is another day. The morning looms, waiting. Not in an especially cheery mood, yet, I
remember the great sourpuss Edna Saint Vincent Millay’s wry comment, “Life must go on…I
forget just why.” ###
Tu., February 17, 2015 Mesa, Arizona
Past the town of Quartzite at the rest stop we saw three large tour buses. We parked and got
out and shuffled to the johns and saw on the way hordes of Japanese teenagers dressed in
shortsleeved white shirts and black pants—the boys—and white blouses and red skirts for the
girls. They were chatting and going to and fro and some were sitting at the benches and
eating with chopsticks. I wanted to walk up to a group standing and engaged them in a
conversation in my perfect Japanese. “Nippon?” I said, smiling, and one boy nodded and
murmured, “Nippon.” “Nani des ka?” I said. Another boy looked at his wristwatch and
responded in Japanese. They stopped talking among themselves and listened to me, this gray-
haired old man who spoke Japanese fluently.
And then I smiled more broadly and admitted that that was the only Japanese I knew. One of
the boys, all of whom were surely not more than 17 if that, knew more English than the others
and so we asked them where they’d been, and he responded, “Los Angeles—seven days.” I
wanted to go on talking to them, telling them Welcome to the United States, that I had once
nearly married a Japanese lady, that life was wonderful when people were friendly…but I
smiled and waved and moved on.
I remembered that my cousin Jerry, then a young man, would walk into a room with a piano,
maybe a party in progress, and he would sit down at the piano and begin to play with a
flourish a few bars of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto (you know, the one called Nani des
ka), and everyone would stop talking to listen. Whereupon Jerry would laugh, toss his hands
in the air, and get up and walk away. That was all he knew. Today many years later he could, I
am sure, play the entire piece quite credibly—he is an accomplished pianist. My Japanese,
however, has not expanded greatly since I knew Ayako so many years ago.
In fact I am not a linguist. I fumble for words now even in my native language. Everything
used to come trippingly off the tongue, or so I thought, but now… this dark morning in a motel
room, it’s easier to think that life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying
Last night in my sound and fury dreaming I fought a violent combat with empty coke bottles
with faceless others, so realistic that June woke me and told me to stop thrashing around. I
woke, sweating like Dana Andrews in a plane crash in The Best Years of Our Lives. “Nani des
ka,” I shouted. “Nani des ka!” “Be quiet and go back to sleep,” June said in her excellent
English. “You’ll wake the other guests and we’ll be in trouble.” I lay back like a dying man for
whom coreopsis was setting in. ###
Mon., February 16, 2015 Mesa, Arizona
Here in the motel room in the desert over our bed is a giant photograph at least five feet by
seven feet of a saguaro cactus. Motel art I’m sure has been many times featured in exhibitions
of the great museums of the world. I’ve never been to the Louvre but surely they have held
several such exhibitions. Nevertheless I am tempted to desecrate such art with, had I a little
yellow paint, a McDonald Arch like the one I saw some years ago in a motel room in (I think)
Needles, California or somewhere close by that fair city.
Once outside Tucson in the desert and smoking a cigarette of a then illegal substance, I stood
next to and talked to a real saguaro cactus. For answer, when I touched one of its needles, it
pricked me—and I did bleed. I think I yelped too, just to make the historical record complete.
That was in 1972 and I was, shall we say, in that never-never land some of us experience when
we are in-between marriages.
Yes, I am a serial marrier: I confess all. However, with the third marriage, I hung up my
dancing shoes and have stayed married to this lady—alseep now ten feet away in the shade of
this giant saguaro photograph—I stayed marriage to her now for forty-some years.
Maybe the worst thing about a road trip is waking up in a different motel/hotel room each
morning. Yesterday morning, just 24 hours ago, I woke up and looked out the window and
down at the LA downtown street some storeys below—strangely deserted on a Sunday
morning…and now, I look out at a real desert with the palest sky I have ever seen.
At home—in Kansas, I guess I should say—in a few days I will get up and look out our south
windows and the deer playing in our orchard where they have seemed inclined now for some
years to gather for their morning kaffeeklatsch.
Meantime in this stately pleasure dome known as the Super 8 or Big 8 or whatever, we shall
soon repair to the dining room downstairs for an elegant breakfast of Styrofoam and various
other kinds of plastic. It is hard to imagine that the word plastic was almost unknown when I
was a lad. As a boy of ten I remember reading Plastic Man comics. This gentleman, a
precursor of modern superheroes, had the enviable capacity to project any or all of himself
around corners in order to waylay the miscreants of his day.
My father always shook his head with mock-sadness when he saw me reading from my three
foot high stack of comics (which, had I had the presence of mind to keep, might be worth a
cool million…or two), telling me, Charlie boy, you’ll ruin your eyes reading those things—his
being an ophthalmologist uppermost in his mind and thus his concern for my sight rather than
the future of literature.###
Sat., Feb. 14, 2015 Pasadena
Here we are in sunny Southern California and we could love it and do but we also have
persisting bad chest colds. A journal is for whining too but since this isn’t exactly my private
journal, I will spare you that. My mother always said, quoting some old verse, Laugh and the
world laughs with you: cry, and you cry alone. Said to me when I was about five, sobbing in
the corner I’d been sent to stand in because I was pinching the edges of the Christmas gifts
under the tree to see if I could figure out what was for me.
It can be helpful though, to write about what you write about when you don’t feel like writing. I
don’t dare skip a day or I’ll skip the next day too, so I write. I write Now is the time for all good
men to come to the aid of their country.
And so I just did. But I won’t persist in that.
Last night we lay in bed and watched the last of Roman Holiday. We tuned in late. I saw old
Gregory Peck there (real name Eldred Gregory Peck from LaJolla, just a few miles from here)
and within a couple of minutes I remembered the movie, the story, the other actors. We were
glued to the final scene where Greg, a newman, came to the Princess’s press conference in
Rome, didn’t think it at all corny or dated and we were right there with every nuanced look and
eyebrow shift of Audrey and Gregory too.
The great power of narrative isn’t that it’s instructive, it’s that first it removes us from the
reality around. For ten minutes, June didn’t have a cold, I didn’t have a cold, we weren’t in a
motel in Pasadena; no, we were in Rome with a celebrated princess and a newsman named
Joe somebody and a whole lot of other folks in a great elaborate Italianate hall in a palace.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be like Gregory Peck—to look like him, to act like him, and to be
everything like him. Here was this young man a few years older than I in 1953 when the movie
was made (I was 15, Mr. Peck was probably 40), and I wanted to be just like him. Perhaps he
had wanted to be someone else, too, and that was why he became an actor instead of a
doctor—he had been a medical student when he joined at acting group after school hours.
Isn’t it amazing, I now think—feeling a little better now I’ve written a few words—that in one
blink I can be in Rome and a newsman in love with a celebrated princess played by Audrey
Hepburn, an English girl born in Belgium whose father was a Nazi sympathizer, unfaithful to
his Dutch baroness wife?
I feel better already. And for all that, why do I now think of nothing so much as a
Braunschweiger sandwich and big glass of raw cow’s milk?
The quick brown fox jumped over five dozen liquor jugs. ###
Fri., Feb. 13, 2015 Pasadena, California
When I took up habitation at the farm in Deep Creek there was no water to the house. There
was a pitcher pump in the kitchen on a stand in the corner; but it wasn’t hooked up anymore to
the cistern. The cistern in the good old days had been filled by a roof rainwater collection
system—troughs and the piped through a filter as the water flowed into the cistern. But all
that was broken down. When a house is empty for eleven years in an isolated rural area, shit
happens. Things fall apart. The rats move in. Squirrels, raccoons, mice, stray cats and dogs,
wander through. The insects move in big time. There were so many mud dauber nests in the
walls one might have said the walls were actually insulated. If all the insects had left at one
time, perhaps the walls would have fallen down.
Cattle and deer grazed the yard, garden and orchard. Kids in cars come down and park in the
yard to neck or drink; maybe in the daytime they partake of the joy of breaking glass windows.
Hunters happen by and plink away the ball on the lightning rods or an electrical insulator on
the lead in to the house. This is wilderness, no man’s land. Anything can happen.
A year or so after we’d moved in I learned that one dark night a year or two before we got there
a depressed young man drove in, parked, and slit his own throat with a roofing knife.
A plumber, Mel Vanderstelt, came with his crew and plumbed the house for hot and cold
running water. It was my job to somehow or other get water into the cistern so that it could
run through the pipes all over the house and we’d be like regular people. But because I didn’t
have the roof collection system fixed, I borrowed a tank truck and hauled a thousand gallons of
water from town and dumped it into the cistern. It looked good down there, but when a few
hours later I tried to get some water at a tap, nothing came. I immediately called Mel. I think it
was night time, but he came out and looked at it. I told him the pump didn’t work, or
something. Anyway, Mel had the presence of mind to do the obvious: look in the cistern.
“I just poured a thousand gallons of water in there this morning,” I told him. Mel got out his
flashlight and we looked. It was wet on the bottom of the cistern where water had been.
So the cistern leaked.
I came to the conclusion that I was one of the dumbest smart people I knew. My life seemed to
have become an emblem for the “educated fool” my grandmother always talked about. “So-
and-so’s just an educated fool,” when some neighbor who’d had too much education
(anything beyond 8th grade, in her opinion) did something particularly silly that came to her
Mel didn’t know much about Seventeenth Century English poetry, but he knew enough to look
in the cistern to see if there really was water in it. He was a plumber, a tradesman, a builder.
And now I lived in his world, a world filled with people who had practical, common sense and
skill with their hands. If being intelligent means anything it surely means being able to cope,
to get along, to thrive in the world. I had gotten along very well in the university where the
value was on a quick wit and skill with words and ideas. But here, in the country, I was the kid
in the back of the class who didn't know what the capital of Missouri was.
I messed with that problem of the leaking cistern for another month. Everything I did to repair
it I had to ask ten people first how to do it. I had to research it, and then the only way to do
that was to ask around. There was no internet, of course; and the books were outdated and
mostly silly. A retired plasterer gave me a formula for making a waterproof plaster. I had to go
to the lumberyard and get, among other things, some slick lime. I thought that was a
wonderful concept: slick lime! I mixed all these ingredients together, ran a ladder down into
the twelve foot deep cistern, and went to work. After it all dried, I put water in again and it all
leaked out again. So I got a coating of some special tarry substance at the paint store that was
supposedly recommended for treating the inside of commercial water towers. I put a coat or
two of that on. Some of it fell off. I put on more. I let it all dry. Maybe I prayed a little. And
then I got more water from town.
It held, and we had running water in the house.###
Thu., February 12, 2015 Thousand Oaks, California
This is, I believe, the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. Now we have President’s Day, celebrating
the birthday of all Prezzes past, present and future. But in the quaint days of my youth we
celebrated Lincoln’s on the 12th and George Washington’s on the 22nd. In fact I believe that
Lincoln were he alive would be 204 today and Washington, were he ditto, would be 283. Happy
Back then we didn’t celebrate birthdays with a Chucky Cheeze Pizza or a confectioner’s dream
of Starbuck’s. I seem to remember we got spanked in accordance with our accumulated
But we did, now and then, have a quiet party among family and friends. I remember one when
we lived at 1819 Poyntz that another kid’s mom and my mom cooked up—literally, as we both
had birthdays on the same day. Quite an event it was, with cake, guests, even presents and
footraces. Footraces were the big thing back then. Footraces and spankings.
It’s hard to imagine Old Honest Abe getting a spanking, though a footrace isn’t out of the
mythology that has grown up about him. Wasn’t he the kid who worked in a general store and
ran a mile after a customer who had forgotten one cent in change?
General Washington, though, I don’t think ever took his hand from inside his coat, Father of
our Country that he was.
Just how Presidents become mythologized is necessarily clouded in mystery. For that matter
any sort of public person, any celebrity (isn’t that a fairly recent word?)…what is the process
by which they go from just being Abe Lincoln or Danny DeVito or (to select two of his fellow
New Jerseyians), or Meryl Streep or Jack Nicholson? Or consider the case of the late Zaza
Gabor, who was famous for being famous.
This question is of how fame and celebrity occur was addressed quite amusingly in a movie,
The Solid Gold Cadillac, with Judy Holliday and Paul Douglas. Judy plays a shopgirl in New
York who had come to the big city to be an actress but was unable to find any work because
she was “unknown.” “What shows have you been in?” Broadway agents and producers
wanted to know. No one was willing to accept her as a novice. As it happened, somewhere in
there, Judy inherited $8,000 from her granny. With that money she rented a huge billboard on
Columbus Circle in New York. On it she put her name, Gladys Glover, nothing else. GLADYS
GLOVER the sign said in letters three feet high. Within a couple of weeks she was known
throughout the city, and was, therefore, “famous.” As you might guess, with that fame she
readily was offered contracts in any number of plays. She had no particular talent, perhaps, or
had some, but above all, she had nerve.
That’s the first lesson of every good marketer: have a dream and have the nerve and the
chutzpah to carry it out. ###
Wed., Feb. 11, 2015 Thousand Oaks, California
The worst motel ever, the grand champion of bad motels in my more than twenty years of road
travel, was one in a town (I have repressed the name) in Utah. It was one dark night as I was
traveling home. It was late and I was tired. I needed a place to crash for a few hours. The
place was a cute little old fashioned motel called The Pillow Talk. I didn’t notice that there was
only one other car there. The room was only slightly larger than the bed. I slept. I got up in
four or five hours and drove blearily on.
When I got home a thousand miles and a couple of days later I was scratching. Mostly on my
back. I had something, I realized. I went to my doctor, an old friend too, who questioned me
sharply about where I’d been and what I’d been doing. By this time there were long red welts
up and down my entire back and legs. “You have scabies,” he said. “It’s transmitted sexually.
Was June with you?” “No,” I said, “I was all alone on this trip.” Kevin looked at me, an arched
eyebrow. “Hmm.” And then I realized he was suggesting I had been playing around. “Kevin,
honestly. I’ve been married to June for thirty years.”
This must have been at least ten years ago, and Kevin even then had been our family doctor for
at least thirty years. But we talked. When I told him the name of the motel he looked at me and
laughed. “The Pillow Talk…?!”
I’m a naïve guy, really. I’m a little slow. I tend not to get things…sometimes. “Oh,” I said.
“The Pillow Talk was a…” And then I laughed with him. Kevin gave me an ointment that I June
spread all over my body. In one day I wasn’t scratching and in three days only traces of the
red welts remained.
The earliest long trip I remember with my parents was in 1949. We traveled in our new 1949
Chrysler north to Canada and then west across the Canadian Rockies and oohed and ahhed
our way down the west coast. There weren’t many motels then. There were hotels and tourist
homes or “cabins.” The hotels were downtown and catered to locals getting married or
having a banquet celebrating Joe’s thirty years at the bank; rooms were travelers were kind of
a sideline. Most of the travelers were salesmen and others who travelled professionally. There
weren’t many folks who travelled for fun—“on vacation,” we now call it. Not many people went
on vacations then, or if they did, they didn’t go very far. Tourist homes weren’t much, just a
room in someone’s home. The great motel industry was waiting to be born out of the words
The cheapest lodging I ever got was $3 for a night in Davenport, Iowa, back when I was hitch-
hiking, which remains my favorite way to travel. But that night in Davenport the pickings were
pretty slim, so I finally decided the world had gone to bed and I should too. I had about ten
dollars on me. I walked into town (I can still hear my lonely footsteps on the sidewalk) and
spent three of them on a hotel room, an ancient place with a creaky bed, a mattress so thin I
slept on both sides of it at once, and refreshed in the morning, I got out my thumb and went on.
Tues., Feb. 10, 2015 Santa Maria, California.
I’ve stayed in a lot of motels. I can forgive a lot of shortcomings in a motel, but not the one of
not being able to get online when on their marquee it says WI-FI. This one we could not, try as
we did for an hour or more, me first and then June, even going to the desk and they advised
her to try another search engine, and so she went to Internet Explorer (which is on her side of
the computer) and she couldn’t get on there, either. “I just don’t feel like fighting them
tonight,” she said, and I agreed. So there’s the little icon saying I’m on…but I’m not on.
Finally, this morning, I’m on, but I missed an evening’s work.
The motel has other shortcomings too. No inroom coffee, no nothing for breakfast, lights won’
t come on, etc., etc. “The pillows are nice,” June said with grim cheer. I had to admit they
were. But the price wasn’t right. Southern California!
“Now I’m not prejudiced,” someone begins, and you know the next thing out of their mouth is
probably going to be something very bigoted. In defense, I have to say that prejudice isn’t the
right word here when I point out that the two motels of the many we’ve stayed in this fall and
winter as we traveled where the internet wasn’t accessible were Patel (Indian) motels. If you
stop at an Indian owned motel you can, I have learned over the years, almost always count on
something being not up to snuff: no phone, tv doesn’t work, light bulbs missing, no this, no
that—no internet. So I avoid them when I can. This isn’t prejudice: it’s the result of the
rational learning process.
I have to admit that my all time worst motel experience was in an “American-owned” motel in
northeast Tulsa, Oklahoma. The guy at the desk was wearing bib-overalls without a shirt, a
ball cap, and the knob of my room door fell off in my hand. I should have gone back to the
desk then, but I was tired and so I put the knob back on and got in, somehow. The faucet in
the bathtub was on pretty steadily. It wasn’t leaking, it was on. The carpet had so many
cigarette burns on it that it looked like an ingenious pattern. There were, I am sure, two bullet
holes in the wooden bedstead—right where I put my head and tried to sleep through the noise
of sirens and gunshots and loud voice in the hall. I had trouble sleeping. Finally about 2 am , I
fell asleep. The phone rang. I answered it. No one was there. I got up, dressed, and drove
My doctor is an Indian-American; I love Indian food, Indian philosophy, and Indian culture
generally. Gandhi is probably my favorite movie, one of the few that I can watch again and
again. But as to the worth of Indian motels, I have yet to find more than one or two that were
worth it. And the good old American business adage that “the customer is always right” is
turned on its head. Of course, that adage was turned on its head more or less a long time ago,
long before we even had Indian motels. In fact it was probably never honored, really. ###
Mon., February 9, 2015 Paso Robles
Maybe one of the more dismal periods of my life was when I was in the Navy and stationed at
the Naval Air Technical Training Center in Norman, Oklahoma. This was a training school for
sailors who were going to be electronic technicians, radiomen, radarmen and so on. I was
assigned to the administrative support part of it all, which meant that I didn’t have anything
technical to do. I was a yeoman, a typist, and my jobs was to type up various kinds of
ridiculous forms and papers. At that time (1956-1957), everything in the world ran on paper,
and that’s what I did: put stuff on paper. I typed.
Nevertheless, I took the job seriously and did my best. I worked hard and long hours to be
better at typing on big old Underwood standard typewriters, I filled out forms that meant
nothing to anybody but I guess then I wasn’t really aware of it. For example, if a man was
transferred from our base to another one in Memphis, or sent to a ship at sea, we had to have
paper to make the thing work. He couldn’t just get on a train or a bus, the preferred means of
travel in those days, air travel still being in its adolescence if not it’s infancy. And so I would
fill out a Standard Transfer Order (STO), known popularly as a DD 214, and it would begin with
a sentence like In accordance with existing instructions issued by cognizant authority, you are
hereby order to report to the Commanding Officer, USS Rustbucket, at Norfolk Naval Base, 123
Blah St., Norfolk, Virginia.
And so on. And so the guy took the orders once they were signed by our cognizant authority,
and went. He drove his car, or whatever, all the way to Norfolk and went right to the ship and
up the gangway and saluted the Ensign and the Officer of the Deck and requested permission
to come aboard, sir, and handed him or the cognizant authority, the papers I had typed up
back in Norman, and he was invited on board.
It was a dismal and routine and even silly job, but, most dismal and silliest of all, I took it with
deadly earnestness and worked hard at it. I should have gone AWOL and lit out for the
territories and taken up residence in a cave with a pack of coyotes or something. But I didn’t.
I stuck it out, I was a true believer, I made Yeoman Third Class and then Yeoman Second Class
and so on. I got married, also in accordance with existing instructions, and the two of us, in
accordance with various accords, took up residence in the town of Norman. After a couple of
years, I typed up my own STO and got the cognizant authority to sign it and sent myself to
MSTS (Military Sea Transportation Service) in Brooklyn, and got thereby just a little closer to
something like being a real sailor sailing the bounding main. ###
Sun., Feb. 8, 2015 Paso Robles, California, USA, posted 615 am PST.
It’s probably a beautiful morning here in southern California but I can’t see it: at 6 am, nearly, it’
s too dark. I would like a world in which daylight begins when I get up and stays on till I go to
bed. Is that too much to ask? I would also like a staff of personal servants—silent, abiding,
and there only when I need them, and even then in the most unobtrusive ways possible—to
dress and wash me every morning, to make my coffee and to keep it at the exact temperature,
to open any packages for me…to do it all while I bask in their attentions.
Meantime, I write on. I sit here in the morning dark working the keys of my computer like a
blind man reading Braille, dragging the sense I need for the day out of the darkness of the
I didn’t dream. I slept like a log—well, like a log with prostate trouble. It is so quiet here! It’s
hard to believe that a hundred or so miles to the south Los Angeles’ teeming millions are
rousing themselves for another day of sirens and gunshots and general metropolitan
mayhem. And tomorrow, we will move on toward that…
I can’t find the coffee—I’m in my brother’s house—and so I’m drinking hot water, which, really,
is just about as good—warming if not so stimulating.
In just two weeks’ time we will be home or very close to it after more than three months on the
road. Much has been accomplished…and much has not been accomplished. There is still a
great deal to do in making our life and work transition.
In San Francisco we stopped for a couple of hours and visited our old friend Peter Farquar and
he took us to lunch at a Japanese restaurant just three blocks away. We walked along and
June looked in the windows of all the fine stores of Japantown, as that area is called. Years
and years ago I almost married a woman from Japan who had been studying here in the USA.
Had we married, the plan was to move to Japan and live there indefinitely. I would have
become part of her family and an American-Japanese.
It’s strange and amazing to think of all the turns we make in life and what they have led to. Or
of all the turns we have not made and what they have not led to. On the way down here we
passed by Longview, Washington, where in 1949 my father was considering moving to. My
brother told me yesterday one of the things Dad wanted to do (aside from practice medicine
there) was to have his own hazelnut tree. But of course we didn’t move there. Yet what if Dad
had longed for a hazelnut tree just a little more, and I had grown up in that town instead of
Manhattan, Kansas among the wheat, the sunflowers and the magnificent pear tree that is still
in our orchard “back home?” ###
Sat., February 7, 2015 Paso Robles, California
Here we are in this neat little town of 30,000 people in—yes, I can say it—rural California. Rural
California is nothing like rural Kansas. Where are the grain elevators, the farmers in bibbies
chewing their cud standing in front of the bank waiting while Mother (their wife) spends the
egg money or some muslin to sew up his britches?
What is muslin, anyway? I never knew. And of course any more Kansas farmers neither dress
nor behave like that. They’re all in California for the winter, anyway, or Las Vegas.
So. Southern California, and it’s chilly. I put on my light jacket in the evening. I am standing
this morning in the kitchen of their house, the very kitchen that last time I was here wasn’t
finished but now, nearly is. Last time, 2 or 3 years ago, my brother, Hal, and I were talking—
that’s what we do best—and we got on the subject, as old men will, of death. I told Hal I
wanted to die with all my family around me in the grand old Hollywood movie manner, the fifty
or so relatives gathered looking down at me in my great death bed and the music comes up
and…I die. Hal said it wouldn’t be like that for him, that he would be lying in bed and his wife
would be leaning over him and she would say, “Does this mean you’ll never finish the kitchen
cabinets?” I told this to Hal yesterday, and evidently he had forgotten it, for he laughed
As only old men can about so grim a subject.
When I was a boy my parents belonged to Book of the Month Club, a new thing then, and I
would look at the books on the shelves in the library, a little room off the living room where
there was a desk, where Dad occasionally saw a patient on a weekend, and where they kept
useless Christmas gifts (like the automatic shoe shiner), a few family photographs, a couch for
Dad to nap on and of course, a few books.
One of these books was a collection by Bennett Cerf 2,500 Jokes for All Occasions, and which
I committed to memory. Most of them I still have up there in my head at hand and ready to tell.
I read other books of jokes—that was what they had then, the internet not having yet been
invented—Charlie Jones’ Laugh Book was another prominent one…and beaucoup others I can’
t remember. The first book I considered writing was a joke book, but with the internet, that
project languished. Now perhaps I’m thinking I ought to make my autobiography—which has
long languished as well—into a joke book.
No joke, for life is, really, a kind of cosmic joke, even if only the gods are laughing. Ultimately,
though, toward the end, in those last few very teachable moments, we get it and can laugh
along with them. ###
Fri., February 6, 2015 Livermore, California
I wouldnt want to live in a town with the word liver in it, even if it is from all I have seen rolling
in and getting a motel for the night, a pretty town. Liverwurst, liver more or liver less, I wouldnt
like it. Things like the name of the town you live in can affect your healthyour liver even. One
thing I liked about living in Manhattan was the name. Nearby was the town, is the town, of
Junction City. I dont like that name. Is that all you have to say for yourself, that you live at the
junction of some stuff? Or how about Ogden? What a musical name! One thing I love about
California is the name as it unfurls with a roll of your voice and your hand: California!
Ezra Pound once wrote from Paris to his friend Ernest Hemingway, working then as a reporter
in Toronto, Canada and addressed it to him in Tomato, Can.
How much of the reason for Los Angeles and San Francisco being great cities is the beauty of
their name? On the other hand, beautiful as the name of Cimarron, Kansas is, one cannot call
it a great city. So the name, while it may be the thing, cannot be the only thing.
I wrote this a few years ago:
In 1970, I was teaching English at the branch of the University of Wisconsin in Stevens Point. I
was doing pretty wellthe students liked me and I liked them and we all felt we were learning. I
had even been nominated a couple of times for an award called Teacher of the Year sponsored
by the big Wisconsin company, Johnsons Wax. I was told I almost won the last year, but that
my political stand against the war in Vietnam prevented my being selected. Could be, I dont
That could, maybe should, have been the high point that year, but in fact I was much more
excited by what was going on at home: I had installed a new water heater in the old farmhouse
where we lived.
I didnt own the place. The landlord lived in California and agreed to let me make repairs as
necessary, contributing my labor but taking the materials off the rent. So I went into town and
bought a new water heater. I pestered the seller about how to install it. I took the old one out.
I bought new fittings that matched the old ones, borrowed or bought a few tools and went to
work. I think I consulted also with my colleague in the English Department, Tom Bloom,
whose dad was a plumber.
I got the brute in, and it worked! I went down to the basement again and again to look at the
thing, hearing it bubble merrily, looking at the steady flame underneatha miracle!
Also that year, I hooked up the fuel oil stove, painted everything inside, and replaced a couple
of broken windows. I even fixed a leaky faucet in the kitchen. I installed an old woodstove that
had been stored in the barn. I cut my own firewood.
I had some setbacks. The pipeflue, I guess it would be properly calledof the oil stove fell off
one evening and soot went everywhere, all over the dishes, the tablecloths, books, us,
everything. And the fuel oil supply line that I had so cleverly brought in underneath the floor in
the basement persistently leaked ever so slightly. I dont remember if I ever got it fixed
completely. Sometimes people who came to visit and really knew how to do things with their
hands laughed with amusement at my mishandiwork.
But I was thrilled! Nothing that happened at the University that year was remotely that
exciting. Nothing! I didn't know it, but I was rapidly becoming a former professor of English.
Thu., Feb. 5, 2015 Glen Ellen, California posted 804 am PST
My son Dan, whom we are now visiting,bought his first chainsaw, and as he was unpacking it
yesterday I remembered writing this five or ten years ago:
I have owned maybe a dozen chain saws. I own three now. I had a Poulan, a Homelite, a Stihl,
a Craftsman…my latest is maybe the biggest saw I ever owned, a 26 inch (I think) Echo. I've
used them hundreds of hours, and I've got a right ear that can't hear to prove it.
I only cut myself once. And that might have been with that little Mac. I was sawing down some
small trees in Indian woods, the last of my redelms. Great firewood. Put a redelm log on the
fire at night and next morning it's still there, but transformed into a huge coal that radiated heat
like it was powering a nuclear sub.
These redelms had been killed by Dutch Elm disease. They were young trees and the sawing
was easy work. I’d saw one down and walk to the next tree, holding the saw, still running, in
my right hand and down at my side. Probably to keep the engine from quitting I revved it a
little, and once I did that when it lightly touched my rear end. It ripped through my jeans, my
long underwear, and took a little bite out of the right cheek of my ass. I probably still have the
Ray DeJulio, a guy I used to cut wood with—he was a neighbor then—said he never went out
in the woods alone to cut. At the time I thought well, that’s a little overcautious. But it’s
probably good advice. I’ve heard some horror stories. Another guy I knew, an old blacksmith
now dead, Martin Roberts, told me how he once went out to cut on a quiet Sunday morning
and cut himself bad. He was six or seven miles out of town. He had to hold his arm to stop the
bleeding while he drove himself to the hospital to get sewed up. Martin was one tough guy.
Be careful of those goddamn things, he told me, they eat meat!
And so they do.
Martin also told me a horror story about a guy who got his knee cap cut off using a tractor
mounted buzz saw.
I had bought a buzz saw blade and the mount—I forget what they’re called, there's a special
name for it—and even a huge long flat belt to run it off the tractor. And then I found something
was broken on the mounting thing--the mandrel, that's it-- so I took it to Martin to fix. He could
fix anything. While fixing it he told me the story about the guy cutting his kneecap off. He was
standing there by the whirling saw and he tried to kick a pile of sawdust out of the way with his
foot. Zing, off went his kneecap.
I took the repaired mandrel home and chucked it behind the machine shed and never looked at
it again. ###
Wed., February 4, 2015 Glen Ellen
I’m up, late. At home in Kansas it’s 930! Here, two hours earlier, and I’m shuffling across the
beautiful wooden floor and saying hello to Huckleberry the dog and Jinx the Cat. It’s so quiet
here. One of the few advantages of being half deaf is you only hear half the noise. But I
accidentally knocked the tv remote onto the floor and it sounds like a gunshot.
But I’m up, even if I’m not at ‘em, as we used to say. It’s a lovely time of day. On such a
morning as this fifty years ago I might have been home to my parents’, visiting, and my father
and I would talk quietly, Mom still being asleep, and have a cup of coffee and perhaps a
cigarette (!) sitting in their big living room with the seven large plate glass windows along the
south, looking out on the river valley. And it was quiet then too.
I am not a view person, I guess, though I don’t mind one. When we stayed at the Finney’s
house in Federal Way, their south view was of Rainier, and when you could see it, it loomed
and dominated the horizon. I liked that view. Maybe I’m a view person after all. If you’ve got
one, look at it. Duh.
In the Navy I always went on deck first thing in the morning to see the sea. The sea, you might
say, is the sea, but of course it’s not. It’s can be calm or choppy (usually you can feel that),
blue or darker, and the sun is always out there somewhere, or the moon—or something. If you
see a bird then you know you’re not far from land. Duh.
I’m thinking while I’m writing, very bad stuff. Think before, perhaps, think afterward, perhaps,
but do not think while writing. Thinking slows me down, interferes. As a result, I’m writing
slowly and badly, not much to say. Quantity before quality, I say, in defiance of the old
proverb, because quantity, I know, leads to quality. D. H. Lawrence said let a student read
what he wants, and he’ll come to love to reading. Make him read what you think he should,
and he won’t. I agree. The same, I think, applies to writing. I spent enough of my life telling
people what they would to write, how they ought to write. That’s why I say I’m a recovering
I left college teaching for a variety of reasons, but one of them was because I felt I was doing
more harm than good. Nor did I like having a rank and wearing a suit—not anymore—and
being treated “deferentially.” Yet honestly when I left that world I missed it. Not just the
paycheck. I missed being treated deferentially. It took a while. For a while I coasted on the
idea that I was a former academic. For a while, a couple of years, I feared that I had made a
dreadful mistake. It took a while. ###
Tu., February 3, 2015 Glen Ellen, California
This where my son Dan lives with his wife and son. They have built a nice home here on the
banks of some little stream in this very rural town, a quaint village where Jack London used to
hang out—the only hotel is the Jack London Inn, the restaurants have ranged along their walls
pictures of old Jack smiling, looking dark, or just walking along. And the longest and maybe
the only street in town is named for General “Hap” Arnold, the five star guy who basically
started the US Air Force.
We drove in yesterday and spent the afternoon, what was left of it, and the evening, eating and
talking. Aside from their son, young Oliver, they have in house a cat named Jinx, a tiny dog
named Crazy-Eyed Killah, who probably couldn’t take down a large flea, and big Huckleberry,
who certainly could but won’t, a big white old Huckleberry Hound kind of dog who ambles
about sniffing and wagging his happy tail.
We are glad to be hear and glad not having to drive for a few days.
Danny was born when we lived in Iowa City, Iowa and I was a student/member of the Iowa
Writer’s Workshop. He was the first child at the University of Iowa’s General Hospital to have
the father in the delivery room with the birthing mother and the medical people in attendance.
The doctor, one Dr. Miller, the head of the Dept. of Obstetrics and a very nice man, was all for
having me in there, though I think he thought it rather quaint. The nurses were opposed and
didn’t want me in there. Dr. Miller said, “Oh, let him in,” and so the nurses showed me how to
scrub and dress up in the OR clothes and they made me stand in the corner, claiming I would
pass out if saw it all up close—which of course was the point.
Now I am not squeamish. I am a doctor’s son and I’d helped Dad, an eye, ear nose and throat
specialist, on one or two occasions with various procedures when no one else was around to
help, and though I’m not the guy to take out your appendix, I can watch, or help as required,
without messing my pants or throwing up.
I stood there in the corner for awhile and then when the action began I got over there with
Patsy (my 2nd wife and Dan’s mother) and helped with a bit of support and Lamaze coaching.
Labor occurred, of course, and by about 5 o’clock that August afternoon—just a few days after
Senator Robert Kennedy was slain and the country was in a turmoil of violence and hate—
gentle,bright and happy Danny was born and changed all our lives. He was a happy kid, and
today is a happy man of 46 years, writing and playing songs and raising his own family.
Naturally June and I look forward to spending a few days with them before we go down the
Coast to do some more work and to visit my brother and his wife in the town of Paso Robles.
BAKED FRESH THIS MORNING! posted 447 am, Mon., Feb. 2, 2015 PST at Red Bluff, California, USA
If you (meaning me) are at a loss as to what to write next, don’t stop and think. Immediately start writing about the space you’re in, the length
and width of the room, the colors, the physical sensations, what’s inside you, what your gut feels like, and you’ll soon be on your way again. The
worst thing is to judge whether what you’re writing is worthwhile. It is worthwhile—it wouldn’t come to mind if it weren’t.
Is the fact that I have come to love this marvelous land due, at least in part, to my travelling it by car so very much? I suppose so. But also in
part it’s just the gratitude God has put into my heart as I age. I am grateful for what I for what I once was bored by or even hateful of. How bored
I was as I lapped the miles driving across (say) Kansas or Virginia at night! Now I see it all very differently.
It’s okay to be wrong. It’s good to be wrong and admit it to yourself and others. It builds your humility and thereby (paradoxically) it builds your
self esteem. That’s pretty amazing. I have been wrong about so many things. I have lived much of my life backwards. Now to admit it, finally to
admit it, feels pretty good. Yet I don’t feel my life has been wasted. I’m here, now, aren’t I, ‘fessing up and trying to straighten things out? A
journey isn’t wasted if it gets you to where you need to go.
June asked if I wanted to go for a walk. It was sunny and warm, a beautiful day. So we went outside here, and June ambled along, examining
every plant in every detail, stooping to smell the blossom, examining the leaves, the stem, giving everything a botanical examination worthy of
Luther Burbank. I walked around in circles, not really interested at all but telling myself maybe I should become interested in plants, at least in
the plants that June is interested in. It would help my humility, etc. In fact it would, no joke. June becomes interested in some of the things I’m
interested in, and I expect that. Why shouldn’t I return the favor?
The Seahawks…my Seahawks now…have lost a close one for the NFL championship. I watched most of the game, sandwiching working here
entering dB with watching; and June did too. We are like normal Americans! But still the Seahawks in the last seconds muffed a chance to gain
18 inches and make a touchdown that would have won the game for them. Why they made the play they made is anybody’s guess. They had it,
then the ball was intercepted and the game was over. New England had won. The Patriots danced up and down while the Hawks grumped
about looking stunned.
Maybe June and I shouldn’t move to Seattle. Maybe we’re bad luck. Maybe the whole city will go into a slump. Maybe we should stick to
reading novels and watching NCIS. ###
Red Bluff, California posted at 507 am, PST, February 1, 2015
The cute little sign on my Day’s Inn Desk here in Red Bluffs, California (or is it Red Bluff? ) says, FORGET SOMETHING? And then, At Day’s Inn
we truly care about your stay… And I remember when I worked for Mid-Central Theaters sixty years ago –sixty years!—and Jim Logbeck, who
was my boss and friend too, a young college man and I was yet a high school boy—Jim would write the ads for the movies we were running,
and if the movie was a clinker he would write TRULY GREAT, if it was okay, it was ONE OF THE OUTSTANDING MOTION PICTURES OF OUR
TIME and if it was actually a fairly decent movie, it became THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER MADE!
The lady at the desk gave June a stick of Laffy Taffy which she brought to me, thrusting it under my nose with a smile and Enjoy! So of course I
read the jokes. Ques. Why don’t ducks tell jokes as they fly? Ans. Because they would quack up! Very good. That put me in a happy mood
and as we lay in bed falling asleep I remembered the great Henny Youngman and some of his one-liners, then Groucho of course with his I
never forget a face, but in your case, I’ll make an exception. Or Woody Allen, who began as Broadway Danny Rose, didn’t he, writing jokes for a
theatre newspaper, writing stuff like I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens. And with that, laughing, I fell into a
I look at myself in the mirror behind the desk…why do they do that? And I see an old face, and I salute it and I say, Good morning, sir!
I love California almost more than any state with the possible exception of Wisconsin, my ancestral and sometime boyhood home. California to
me is like a beautiful woman I have fallen in love with immediately and then after that I notice a few defects in here beauty—the lovely lower lip
slightly crooked, perhaps, or an eyebrow arched higher, the one more than the other and far from detracting from her beauty, this imperfection
adds to it—so the imperfections of California have added to her beauty for me. It is a wonderful state, geographically speaking, but it is even
more wonderful as a state of mind.
So it was wonderful yesterday to roll into Yreka, pop. 7,700, a great little mountain town with Mount Shasta looming over it, and to go to a copy
shop called The Gold Nugget to get some printing done, and to drive up and down the sunny, happy streets searching for an address.
The first workshop I ever did in California was in Long Beach, and as a gift they gave me a sweatshirt that said YOU’RE NOT IN KANSAS
ANYMORE! And thanks be to God for that. We’ll be back there three weeks from today, yes, but this time we’re going to pack up and sell out
and move to Washington for the sole reason that that is where most of our children are. It is well said, Dulce et decorum est pro children mori.