|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 13th CONSECUTIVE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG STARTED JUST A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO, Thu., Jan.
1, 2015. Like all our Journalongs, it will run for 28 days, and you are invited to journal along with me. It's not
too late--just jump in. 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, firstname.lastname@example.org
BAKED FRESH THIS MORNING
Fri., January 30, 2015 Klamath Falls, Oregon
Everyone said when I had booked a workshop in Klamath Falls,
“Oh, it’s a pretty little town.”
But when we got up in Grant’s Pass, it was densely foggy and just
the awfullest driving weather you can think of. My poor cousin was
killed on a mountain road in a dense fog. I didn’t look forward to
driving in fog, pretty little town or no.
But the road was good, excellent even, and the sun came out and
we got to look at beautiful Mount McLaughin (nearly 10,000 feet
and snow-capped) all the way. Oregon is truly a beautiful state.
As for Klamath Falls, the “pretty little town…” And so it is: a gem
of a site on big lake (all Oregon lakes are big lakes), the lady at the
Visitors Center—easily found, just follow the signs, so much easier
than most visitor signs which are in the singular: one sign and you
turn and you are led into an automobile wilderness and dumped
onto a back street, no visitor center of any kind in site. But here in
pretty little Klamath Falls, there were signs right up to the door.
And the lady there was friendly, polite, helpful…what more could
one ask? Great sculpture in the lobby, a clean and spacious
bathroom (You’re not in Kansas anymore, Charley!) , just totally a
clean, well-lighted place.
There were dozens of motels and we found a nice one at a very
good price. And down and out, so we would have to carry
anything very far at all. The room was clean, had a big bed, clean
bathroom, TV, fridge, microwave…
I took a short nap. The workshop from 530 to 730 proved to be
excellent, 25 or so willing and able writers, the library large and
attractive, the room ditto. We had a great time, sold a few books,
got our fee check, and left to go back to the motel.
And the motel wasn’t all that hard to find once we remembered
which end of downtown it was in. We went in and prepared for a
fine night. I’d just check my mail before. June had had the clerk
write down the password and I prepared to log on and hear the
word from home and friends.
I couldn’t get on. I typed in the code, pressed Enter, and the word
came NO WIRELESS CONNECTION. I did it every way to Sunday,
called the desk and got further instructions and…nothing worked. I
took my laptop to the front desk and the clerk and I tried it
together. “I don’t understand why,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
Nor can I get on this morning. It’s 6 am and time to post. And I
can’t get on. There’s a computer in the lobby and presumably it
can get on, but it doesn’t have the program I need to launch. I’ll
have to go somewhere where they have wifi and use my computer.
Maybe something’s wrong with my computer, but it’s worked fine
all this trip at every motel and home we’ve stayed in. Why now?
Thu., January 29, 2015 Grant’s Pass, Oregon Posted 639 am PST
--May I turn on the news? June said, easing past me where I’m
sitting here, a cup of coffee in her hand. –Please do, I said. –I’d
love to have some news.
Last night we watched about half of the very long oldie, Sand
Pebbles, which we’ve seen two or three times. But we were so
eager to see a movie—we haven’t watched one for a month—that
we were glued to it—for an hour or so. Steve McQueen and.....?
–Is that the woman who was in Straw Dogs? June asked. –No, that’
s Julie Christie. This is Edgar Bergen’s daughter. I smiled to think
that how many people would or would not remember Edgar Bergen,
whose greatest contribution to show business was perhaps a
beautiful and talented daughter, Candace, just a girl of 20 or so in
The Sand Pebbles wasn’t exactly the pride of the US Navy, grimy
old rust bucket that she was. I remembered the Eltinge, the ship I
sailed to Korea on in 1958. We had a fire and boat drill after we got
underway from New York and the boat davits were so rusted the
deck crew were beating on them with sledge hammers to loosen
them up so the boats could be lowered. We stood around for more
than an hour before they got even a few of them to move so that—
theoretically—we could get in them and be lowered down to the sea
Yawn. I could go back to sleep for another couple of hours,
honestly. Driving really takes it out of me anymore.
The news is mostly weather. Dense fog. June changes the
channel. On the other channel, murder. I don’t know which is
worse. We have to drive 103 miles to Klamath Falls by 5 o’clock
My name is Jan Jansen, I come from Wisconsin.
I look at myself in the mirror in front of me and I look like a
mandrill. A grizzled and gray old mandrill.
We have to clean out the car. In my next life I would much prefer to
be moved about in a sedan chair. Heated, of course. And then I
would like to have about four personal servants to handle such
things as (1) clipping my toenails, (2) finding the editorial page of
the morning paper for me, (3) wiping my butt and anointing me with
oils and dressing me, and (4) paying all the bills.
And when I die I would like to go to heaven and as I walk through
the Pearly Gates I would like to find in a big pile on my left all the
stuff I lost in my life…all those wallets intact, my favorite Barlow
knife that Gramps gave me…all of it. On my right I would find all
the things I had sold and regretted selling: my house on Shaurette
Street in Wisconsin, my 1934 Chevy…
That would take care of most of it. For my part in life I would sit
and talk. I would smile like Candace Bergen and all the world
More likely, like her step-brother, Mortimer Snerd.###
Wed., January 28, 2015 Posted 6:12 a.m. PST at Port Orford, Oregon, USA
I am a serial marrier, I confess.
I was married for the first time 58 years ago this day—this evening,
actually, for we had an evening wedding in the bride’s home. This
marriage lasted less than six years but we had two children. The
next marriage lasted about the same length of time and that lady
and I had two children. Then I met June, the final solution, and we
had two children.
June and I have been married 41 years and it looks like we’re going
to stay that way. In all those years we have had only one
argument…but it’s the same damned argument over and over.
Seriously, though that little joke has its truth, we have had a
wonderful life together…and intend to continue it for a few more
And we have six children, the great blessing.
We are in beautiful little Port Orford, Oregon, down to the southern
Oregon coast, staying the night before the workshop today at the
home of friends who live on a hilltop overlooking the sea. Kansas,
though once all ocean, does not now have one, and so it’s a
pleasure to stand on the upper west deck of the house and look out
to sea. Last night we saw a fishing boat chugging in to dock with
their day’s catch—probably crab, which are running now—if a crab
can be said to run.
This isn’t something we get to see at home. In Kansas, if
anything’s running, it’s the Republicans, and they run the whole
state year round.
I have lived in Kansas something like 55 years, though not all in
one unbroken experience. I lived 8 or 10 years in Wisconsin—also
a wonderful place, and my ancestral home on my father’s side; and
in Indiana, my mother’s home for most of her youth, though born
across the Ohio River in Kentucky. And even in New York for a year
or two, Oklahoma for two, and so much time in southern California
on lengthy teaching trips that I feel at least a fraction Californian.
So I am an American boy, and mostly a Midwestern one at that. As
a child I wanted to be from Flin Flon, Manitoba—I found it on the
map—and the name sounded so exotic it just had to be my home. I
even tried out telling people that for awhile but they just laughed.
Later, a romantic young poet and future winner of the Nobel Prize I
wanted to be from Paris (where else?) but in view of my difficulties
with French that didn’t seem sustainable, so I settled for being the
first American to be elected to the Academie Francaise.
Yes, the truth is that wherever I have lived I have lived most of all in
fantasy. Driving along the turnpike in Kansas or even on beautiful
101 down the Oregon coast as we were yesterday afternoon, my
fantasy life has always been nearby, if not in control. The great
James Thurber in “The Secret Life of Walter MItty” made fun of this
life, great good fun, and we all laughed at him and at the Walter
Mitty in ourselves. And so we should. But fantasy isn’t all
compensating for a boring life. My life has not been boring, but
rather a great adventure. For me. It has been what it has been, and
it is what got me here, today, in this beautiful blessed Oregon coast
of a morning looking out to sea. ###
Tu., January 27, 2015 Albany, Oregon
In a lifetime of travelling I can list on one hand the number of motel
rooms that had any feature or features that were unique. Once in a
motel in the California desert, I forget just where, I had a room with
the usual art on the wall, impressionistic landscapes and such, and
on one of them, a night view of a city, some wag had carefully
painted in a McDonald’s hamburger sign, gleaming a cheery yellow
something Over one billion burgers served. Very tiny. Very artfully
In another California motel, in the coastal town of Carpinteria, they
had no phone or television but they had houseplants, real ones.
Otherwise—I might think of a few more if I weren’t still half asleep—
otherwise they are indistinguishable one from another. This one, a
Super 8, is like all those. We have our stuff, some of it, scattered
about. In a bit we’re going to work on LifeStory 148, very late, and
edge toward getting it out very soon. We drove here yesterday
from Tacoma, maybe 180 or 200 miles, enough for one day. My son
Rip was telling about how he drove 600 miles in a day, at least, and
I couldn’t seem to make him understand that there is this thing
called olde age that he will one day find out about.
I once drove—and I was 55, not exactly young—from LA to home,
something like 1600 miles, stopping only once outside Wichita to
snooze for half an hour uncomfortably in my little Plymouth Neon.
No mishaps except that just outside LA, 4 in the morning and dark,
very light traffic, and there in front of me as I hurtled along at 80+
was an empty grocery cart gleaming in my headlights. I yanked my
steering wheel and narrowly missed it. Had there been traffic on
my left or right, as there usually is, I would have been in a bad
accident and might well have had a grocery cart in place of a head.
Of course we all have driving stories. We are a nation of drivers. I
started driving on the farm at 8 or 9,driving a small tractor pulling
the haystacker up and down. I loved to drive, and years later loved
driving at night across desolate places at high speeds, the radio
blaring, the window open, coyotes howling as I sped by.
Today we will drive to the pleasant coastal town of Port Orford,
Oregon, have dinner with some new friends there, do a workshop
the next morning at their beautiful library (I’ve been there before),
eat lunch with more friends, and then drive on to the inland town,
Klamath Falls, which everyone says, “Oh, it’s a pretty town.” But a
new town for me, no doubt a river town—mmm, the Klamath,
perhaps?---and the river has a falls which, I betcha, was once the
site of a mill.
Yesterday we drove through the great city of Portland and as we
crossed the Columbia I sang the song we loved to sing in grade
school, O Columbia, the gem of the ocean! ###
Mon., January 26, 2014
I posted this, or tried to, on the Huffington:
I started out life as an academic working for a large state university,
years ago. I left when I came up for tenure (I regret this one day a
month, when I pay my bills, or try to) and eventually I drifted into,
then went eagerly into, the teaching business on my own. I find my
students, get my classroom, and I teach. It works fairly well--I've
had to learn to go without sometimes and to be nimble and flexible
and cheerful. The main problem is finding a place to teach. I teach
people, mostly seniors, how to write a memoir. I would willingly do
it on the streetcorner, my hat upturned on the sidewalk for
donations, with a cardboard sign, Will write for food...and rent
money, and health insurance, and something to leave my children
and grandchilden, but I can't get all that on a sign.
The most lost I ever was one night in Mexico City. My wife at the
time, Patsy, and I had gone up to the city from where we were
staying in the village of Tlaxcala to have a fine dinner, and
afterwards, we went for a walk. It grew dark. Where were the
streetlights? We had wandered from the main concourse, Avenida
de la Revoluccion or something like that, and the streets were a
bit—eccentrically laid out and—there weren’t any streetlights, only
the occasional light from a house. We heard voices but we didn’t
know enough Spanish to ask. There was almost no traffic, and
certainly no cabs with happy and savvy drivers who for a few pesos
would zoom us back to the bus station.
I honestly don’t remember how we got out of that one. Maybe we
never did. Maybe we are still there, wandering the dark streets, the
lost Americans of Mexico City.
Now we’ve been lost a few times in the last two months here in the
Pugetropolis. June isn’t able to drive because of her injury a few
weeks ago so I do all the driving and she is stuck with the
navigating: no easy job. In fact driving in the heaviest traffic is
almost relaxing compared to trying to navigate for the driver. We
have Garmin, which is helpful but not definitive. We have Google
Maps on our iPhone which is definitive but not helpful. And we
have a paper map or two. The problem is that the streets come at
you quicker than you can consult anything.
In the Good Olde you could pull over to the curb and ask
someone. Here there is no curb and, usually, no one to ask.
And so we limped along, yesterday, going up to Seattle to our
daughter’s to a birthday party for little old me. By the time we
arrived, a mere twenty minutes late, we were so furious we felt like
going at it hammer and tongs with anybody and everybody. But
instantly the sight of four of our tumbling jumping jack
grandchildren melted our anger and we were laughing and talking
and—there it was—eating a huge chocolate cake with chocolate
icing with chocolate ice cream with a bunch of lighted candles and
we all glowed. I had chocolate heartburn later in the night but it
was all worth it. ###
Sun., Jan. 25, 2015 POSTED 7 AM PST AT TACOMA WASHINGTON USA
I am late again this morning…too much birthday yesterday. And we
did that workshop in Puyallup we’ve been scheduled to do for
several months, and it went very well, everyone writing and
enjoying writing. Enjoying writing! How can that be. Years ago
when I visited my youngest son’s 7th grade class, the teacher had a
huge banner across the back of the room WRITING IS HARD WORK!
Even were that true, and of course it’s not, what would a teacher
hope to accomplish by putting that up there? I’M A TERRIBLE
TEACHER! Might have been more appropriate. Splitting a cord of
white elm is hard work. Shoveling a truckload of manure is hard
work. Washing a mountain of dishes is hard work. But writing…?
Sitting on your duff and smiling your way through the memories of
your past…that’s hard work?
I guess you can make anything into hard work if you want to. You
could get married and put a banner across your bed SEXUAL
INTERCOURSE IS HARD WORK! And then no children would come
from that relationship, I am quite sure. In fact, though I’m not a foe
of sex education, exactly, but have you noticed the drop in the birth
rate over the last forty years that sex education has become
There you go.
Further elaboration reveals that such hard work as there is in
writing is not writing. NOT WRITING IS HARD WORK: I’m going to
make up such a banner and put it across the back of my room. For
truly sitting there trying to think of what to write is hard work, or
how to write about it is hard work. The doing of it is easy!
Just now, trying to think of something to write, I experience hard
work. Ugh, ugh, and ugh! I hate it. Now if I tell you a story about
my Uncle Tom Dory…that’s not. I’ll tell you a story about my Uncle
Tom Dory, my Uncle Pete told me one morning at 5 am just before
he left for work at Deere John in Dubuque, And now my story’s
begun. I’ll tell you another about his brother. And now my story is
done! And Pete, great lover of life and children that he was,
laughed and went off to work. I think he worked on an assembly
line inspecting engine heads in the John Deere factory. That might
have been hard work.
The first job I ever had lasted only a day or two working for Krogers
downtown unloading a truck filled with canned goods. All the boys
who had gone out for football were summoned to help. So we
steamed down there and struggled to carry the cartons of canned
peas and carrots and green beans…and I went home and quit
football. I never went out for another sport again. Had they had a
writing team, I would have gone out.
Why don’t they have writing teams? Consider the Seattle
Seahawks, much beloved in this town and all around here. No
question, they are excellent gentlemen. But wouldn’t it be nice,
just once, to have a Poetry Team? ###
Sat., January 24, 2015 posted 622 am PST at Tacoma, Washington, USA.
Here it is, my birthday. I know because I first typed the date above: January 24, 1938. It’s been awhile. Yes, I’m
olde. Anyway, Happy Birthday to me and to Neil Diamond, the only celebrity I know who has the same birthday.
Which puts me in mind of our celebrity culture. We live through celebrities. I like Neil Diamond as a singer. I used
to drive the fourteen mile drive to the U when I taught there, and lived as I did in a swamp fourteen miles from town,
and I’d put the pedal to the metal and speed along on the narrow road cut through the tamarack and jack pine
forest, and oh, I’d sing, sing, sing—just like Neil, sing that sooong, oh sing… Now I can’t remember the name of the
song. I’m surprised I remember his name. Probably it’s not his real name anyway.
And then in class I was almost always a happy camper. I was glad to be there, and most of them were too. It’s an
honor to be a teacher and to walk into a room and talk to human beings and make them laugh and make them
learn. Today it is my honor and joy to teach a group of seniors (most likely) at the Puyallup Public Library just
fifteen minutes from here. They’ll be just as happy at 70 and 80 as those kids in Wisconsin were at 18 or 20. Once I
had a student in California at a workshop who was 111, a lady named Marian Higgins, and she may have come to a
couple of workshops and then she died at 115. I found that out by reading the Wall Street Journal: Oldest
woman in America dies was the headline, something like that. I
didn’t know she was the oldest…wow, I thought.
Anyhow, back to celebrities. Why do we live through them? Why
do we know more about Jack Nicholson’s life than we do our Uncle
Jack’s? When I was starting out teaching family history I spoke at a
thing in Topeka, Kansas, once and I prated, We don’t know much
about family history, and a little lady (not Marian) in the front row
piped up and said, Oh, yes we do: royal family history! And
everyone roared. And of course she was right.
But that I think is a sign of sickness, that we’re like that. What’s the
matter with being us? I like Jack Nicholson, I like Neil Diamond,
and I certainly liked Marilyn Monroe, but they are/were just people
made over by PR departments…just humans, like all the rest of us,
part of the great squirming mass of humanity.
So today, 777 years old, I go forth into the naked city, I feel like
Goliath, I feel like I’ve lived forever and now I can live forever and a
day. It’s a great life, we used to say in the bars as we clicked our
ten cent glasses of beer together, It’s a great life if you don’t
Fri., January 23, 2015
To write such a date as 2015 is almost sci-fi stuff, it seems
incredible. Twenty-fifteen…what’s that? But that’s how time
passes. In 1957, working in the office at NATTC, Norman, I
remember some guy, Chuck Nunnally, shipping over for six years
until the year 1962, and I said, Chuck, none of us will even live that
long, that date is in the unimaginably distant future. It’s like
something out of a comic book. I was 19 years old. Tomorrow I will
be 77 years old.
I remember this morning:
I’m really quite bored
By the famous Lost Chord.
The world and its ways
Make me tired.
I’m so little impressed
That I seldom get dressed,
And then only wear
That ditty by a doggerel poet Richard Armour I memorized as a boy
and it has stuck with me, comes back to me anywhere, anytime, no
hesitation whatever. And yet Robert Frost’s great poem, Design, I
tried to recall a few lines of the other day and could not. Last night I
was trying to remember the beginning of Paradise Lost, and
fumbled at that.
This proves the existence of the Devil, or at least of a diabolical
entity that attempts again and again to thwart our best self.
Though we have been in the megalopolis for more almost two
months now, yesterday was the first time we’d been up to Seattle
since we did the workshop at the central library downtown there
two years ago—three years ago. It’s an impressive skyline, all that
modernistic stuff, much more impressive than, say, Manhattan,
Kansas, our natal burg, and its view of the Federal boondoogle
Center (aka the Flint Hills Discovery Center) and, say, the Wareham
Hotel and the Sears store at Town Center Mall.
But as the great Lee Marvin sang in a Western I can’t (the Devil
working again) remember the name of just now, no town looks so
good as it does when he’s leaving it. And so last night we left
Seattle after our workshop there at the Cabrini Center downtown,
with that great city receding, the thousands of lights, the cars, the
cars, the cars speeding along in the (of course) evening rain.
And so now out of the mist, Today hoves into view, the day looms.
Good morning, sir! I salute snappily and click my heels together.
God is my commanding officer. In 1958, in my one day in combat
time in the Navy, I saw a five-star admiral on the ship lying
alongside us as he was boarding a helicopter to fly away, fly away
home; and yea, the gold braid around him saluting and bowing and
scraping was a sight to behold. I wrote home about it. I felt like
kneeling and genuflecting. But instead I hid behind a hawse pipe
and watched it all. I saluted nobody in those days…nobody. Now I
salute everybody. Two fingers above the right eye I touch my
saluting hand, my right arm perfectly parallel to the deck, the angle
created by my forearm and upperarm a perfect 45 degrees. ###
Thu., Jan. 22, 2015 Posted 5:18 am PST at Tacoma, Washington, USA.
It doesn’t get any better than this. This being yesterday going from here at Rip’s all the way down to south
Tacoma for June’s PT.
Up to now, and for the past two months, we have traveled with a Garmin plugged in; an iPhone turned on, and a
physical paper map. I’m driving and June’s running all these things. The Garmin is good for telling us where
we’re headed but won’t tell us quickly enough to make the turns; iPhone gives it all up front in advance but
doesn’t show the progress as its being made (or not made), and the maps are necessary if the other two things are
haywire and just because we’re map people—at least I am. Maps and I go way back.
But yesterday for the first time we got in the car and just plain drove there. Chatting as we turned onto Yakima
and moved along in the light afternoon traffic, making the right merges, turning the right turns, and suddenly
there we were pulling up in front of Olympic Sport and Spine. We sat there happily without a word. But we were
both thinking: we made it. We made it like real city folks, real Tacomans. We just went there. Serenity,
Today we do some more driving, and it might be pretty easy. We’re doing a workshop in downtown Seattle at
Cabrini Senior Housing. All we do is get on I-5 and go north to exit number…I’ve got it written down
somewhere. Go a couple blocks and there we are.
In fact in the thousands and thousands of miles I’ve been driving in the US and Canada since I was 9 years old
and drove our family ’38 Buick into the ditch by Frank Rudolph’s farm—in all those miles
I’ve found it easiest to get lost in a little town or in the country. Because nothing is marked! Nothing is
marked, of course, because everyone knows where everything is! Do you have signs in your back yard telling
your where your mower is? Or in the living room showing the way to the john? Of course not. Just go down the
hall! Just follow your nose.
“Just follow your nose.” A thousand years ago during World War II Mom was driving and my brother and I,
little kids, were along driving in the country in Wisconsin, trying to find the way to Dodgeville. Mom stopped
the car for directions at, as it happened, a POW camp. A lone POW was standing just the other side of the fence
where she stopped, got out and asked which way. The man, obviously a German, looked at her
uncomprehendingly and then pointed down the road and said, laboriously, Chust follow yerrrr
How I wish I could have my mom here this morning, having a cup of
coffee with me, and telling that old family story to one another, and
Mom would laugh so hard to remember that it would hurt. “Oh,
Charley. Oh, Charley,” she’d say. “Stop it. Please.” And we’d
laugh some more. I smile broadly at 512 AM now, sitting here in the
semi-dark writing in Tacoma, Washington, thinking of my mother,
dead and gone (except from my mind) close to twenty years. ###
Wed., Jan. 21, 2015 posted at Tacoma, Washington, USA, 553 am PST.
Let’s just say that every human being was able to write a few
paragraphs of personal history—narrative paragraphs, not just My
name is Jan Jansen stuff—if that happened, how much would that
add to our understanding of history—our understanding of our
I’m a gatherer, not so much an interpreter. But for sure we would
have some better idea of the aspirations and frustrations of
humankind. Maybe the mind of the ordinary hoi polloi is more
interesting and instructive than that of the celebs, who far from
being innovative, have only done what they’re told to the nth
degree. “Success,” old Em said, watering her posies on a hot day
in Massachusetts, “is counted sweetest by those who ne’er
succeed,” which I take to suggest that the minds of the failures—
most of us, if we’re playing that game—are perhaps more interesting
than those who are at the top.
Duh. I don’t know where I’m going with that, but I do have a feeling
that it’s time to hear from the ordinary people. This is the great age
of the Individual. Okay, that sounds like political rhetoric. So be it.
Finally, I only know that my own history is important…to me.
I am sitting here at 533 am in our bedroom/office/living room in
Rip’s house. I am up, wide awake, and I’ve been writing and
checking email and doing this and that (that being make the coffee)
since 4 or, this morning, a little after.
June bestirs herself to get up to go to the bathroom. She eases
around the bed and past me and pats me on the shoulder on her
way. Aren’t I good? I think.
But the truth is I haven’t much to say for myself this morning. I can
catalog some simple things: I unzip the pocket of this vest sweater I’
m wearing and I find a hearing aid battery. Did I put it there because
it was dead? Or new? Or did I just find it on the floor and stow it
there for later consideration?
On the desk before me I have two other computer keyboards and
monitors. I have an iPhone. My glasses. My blue cup of coffee says
on one side, COOK PAINT, and on the other Cook Paint Makes You
Look Good. I have a pen, a gel pen, size 07, my favorite. There is a
lamp, on. A couple of computer mice—or mouses?
Sitting in traffic yesterday I look around me at the others sitting in
their cars in traffic. We are all going somewhere, aren’t we? Or are
we coming from somewhere? Is it fair to say that, collectively, we
don’t know whether we’re coming or going? Perhaps such a
moment is a window on the history of the human race. On your
mark. Get set. ###
., January 20, 2015 posted 534 am PST at Tacoma, Washington
When we moved to town everything changed for me. Everything changed for all of us. We had lived six miles from
downtown. We had ridden a bus to school, though the last year or so Kuhrman may have driven. This was in the
day before the two-car family. But then we moved to town and all that changed. Dad got a car to drive to and from
the office. Mom had a car, the family car, to drive as she might need to—shopping, the country club (she took up
golf, seriously), to visit a friend. Hal had a car of his own to drive to school. And shortly, I had a car to drive to
I worked after school and on Saturdays at Graham Printers. I had my own money. I bought a car for $100, a 1934
Chevy, bright red, that its previous owner had called The Red Beetle. It was
almost an old limousine, a long low-slung car with a spare tire on
the back encased in steel, window shades, and big silver headlights
standing out there on the fenders. And a running board eight
inches or more wide. It certainly had a horn but I don’t remember
the sound of it. I don’t think it was an “oo-ga” horn of the kind on
Model T’s. (Hal had one and installed it on his ’49 Merc that he built
(Such runningboards are today unthinkably unsafe, and for good
reason. I remember on VJ Day cars driving around and around with
half a dozen or more people, usually us kids, standing on the
running boards and hanging on for dear life when the driver
decided to pick up speed.)
That car became my home on wheels: the drive-ins were beginning.
I was one of the few who had a car (one of the few who had a job!)
and so a gang of kids who didn’t have cars would ride with me, and
we’d go to Bide-a-Wee Drive-in or Brownie’s or Charco’s (later
closed because they were using horsemeat—a real non-no—to make
their “charco-burgers” everyone loved so much. ) We went to drive-
in movies too, of course, though—lacking a trunk—we couldn’t hide
other kids in the back. Still, on those nights when you could bring a
whole carload for 50 cents or a dollar, we’d load up with ten or
twelve of us and go to the Sky-Vue or the Edgewood.
So anyway we moved to town and everything changed. The cars,
which of course led to all kinds of freedoms from parental control. I
could hide things in my car, my car was my little house all my own, I
could leave, I could come and go as I pleased, I could be free! At 15,
I was free!
And I wasn’t very good at it. I remember, for instance, riding wildly
one day after school with a bunch of kids and I drove—mid-
afternoon—down the sidewalk by Varney’s Bookstore in Aggieville.
It freaked out even Larry Brumm, mein fuhrer—my boyhood leader,
the guy who led me astray.
We smoked in the car, of course. At noon at high school while the
squares ate at the cafeteria or dutifully went home to slop with their
parents, we sat in the car and smoked cigarets and ate candy bars
for lunch, Butterfingers and Baby Ruths and maybe even Mars or
Snickers, those new ones. ###
Mon., January 19, 2015 posted 530 amPST at Tacoma, Washington USA
It’s King Day.
I did not know Martin Luther King, Jr., but I did hear him speak once in a small auditorium (I think known as the
Armory) on Chicago’s West Side. It was just a few months before he was killed; I think it was the winter before he
was killed. My wife, Patsy, and I went with some friends, I believe, Janey and Jim Missey: close friends we often
went down to Chicago with for the weekend from where we all lived in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Maybe it was a
chilly night in February or even March when we walked in. I heard a voice behind me talking that sounded familiar.
I turned around to look. It was a tall man I recognized immediately as Dr. Benjamin Spock, the great pediatrician and
advisor and anti-war activist.
Later, sitting in the balcony—the auditorium seated perhaps 3,000 people at the most—sitting and waiting for King
to appear—I heard another familiar voice on my left, a man seated on the steps talking to another man also seated
on the steps. I was in a regular seat beside the man whose voice was so familiar. In the semi-darkened auditorium I
recognized Mike Wallace, the newsman. I was a little starstruck but soon enough was annoyed as he talked in a low
voice all through the event, even when King appeared, was introduced, and began to speak. I had liked Mike
Wallace, his politics and his journalistic style, until that night. From then I thought, well, personally he’s a jerk, but
he’s our jerk.
Down in front of the podium was a phalanx—no better word—of
Black Panthers, who stood in a modified semi-circle. There were
maybe twenty of them. Somehow, I don’t exactly remember, King
appeared and there was cheering and shouting, one man yelling
KING FOR PRESIDENT! But the Black Panthers did not cheer;
rather, they made a great jeering huzzah sound of opposition to
King and his insistence on non-violence in the struggle against war
and racism. King waved the audience to silence and spoke quietly
and effectively. I remember nothing of his speech, I’m sorry to say,
but it was riveting. I do remember that when he said something the
Panthers didn’t agree with, they would raise their clenched fists and
The speech wasn’t long, maybe half an hour or a little more. It
wasn’t one of his famous speeches, it wasn’t I have a dream; it was
more like a stump speech, though King made it clear he wasn’t
running for anything. If others spoke too, I don’t remember that at
all. We all left, inspired and renewed. A couple of months later,
King was dead.
Maybe things are better now. In that time, within the space of a
year or so (I could look it up) there were several assassinations here
in the US: King, the great Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy, and George
Wallace. We haven’t assassinated anybody for a while now—knock
on wood—so maybe the national civility has, for all the shouting,
gotten just a little better. ###
Sun., January 18, 2015
In the spring of 1951 in Manhattan and in all eastern Kansas it
began raining hard every day. Soon we had floods, and by April or
May, they were terrible floods. People were losing their homes,
crops of course were ruined, lives upturned and even in some
cases, lost. Dad had to quit going to his office in town at a certain
point because the water prevented anyone, including him, from
getting there. So we hunkered down in Deep Creek and rode out the
storms and the flooding. Dad of course saw patients—I think he
even delivered a baby—and we all made the best of it. It was a
terrible time but it drew people together.
At some point we packed up and drove up to Wisconsin, I guess
feeling that it was as good a time as any to take a vacation. When
we came back—I remember the day driving through downtown, the
mess as the merchants stacked their damaged goods in the middle
of the street and began the chore of cleaning out their stores and
rebuilding. It was by then a hot day in July or August, I don’t
exactly remember. But I remember the welcome sunshine, the mud,
the end of the flood and the beginning, we all felt, of a new era.
Manhattan will rise again! Was the slogan.
And the town did come back, better than ever. Yes, some lost their
homes and moved away, or went to live with relatives or friends.
Some businesses didn’t recover. A huge thrift store was washed
down river, and so was an old railroadmen’s hotel, the Baltimore.
And many other buildings, any many more private homes all along
the river that had jumped out of its banks and inundated the town
for the third time in a hundred years—and the worst, this time.
And then in the fall of 1951 a new era began. For many, many years,
people told time by “before the flood” and “after the flood.” Brass
high water markers were installed on the front of the courthouse
steps and at the bank building where Dad had his office. Flood
mud became something we all knew and could smell and identify. I
got a job after school and on Saturdays in a print shop downtown
that had been all but destroyed by the mud. I worked there all
through high school, for four years, and we always had to deal with
the flood mud—in the corners of the little boxes of the typecases,
on the types themselves, in corners and in the alley where Glenn
cooked his old linotypes down into new lead for his linotype
machine: it was everywhere, everyone knew it, knew its smell.
We sold the farm and moved into town. We had been in the process
of doing this when the flood came, but the flood had delayed the
building of our new house even though it was on a hill in the
western part of town, far from the depradations that many others
experienced. The house was being designed by an architect and
built by the best contractors. It was quite a place, everyone said,
and some resented it. A pharmacist, somewhat bitter I guess about
his medical bill from Dad, asked me how I liked that new bathroom
he paid for. Embarrassed, I really didn’t understand what he meant,
but I felt the hostility of the remark. I told Dad about it,
uncomprehendingly, and Dad had a word or two with the
pharmacist, Ted Cibolski. Mr. Cibolski may have apologized to me
for his remark, I don’t remember. ###
Sat., January 17, 2015 posted 430 am PST at Tacoma, Washington
Waking in the night and lying there and feeling the darkness all around you, the quiet and the noise of silence, everyone asleep but you,
my wife softly softly snoring, and I am awake. My mind and I: we’re wide, wide awake, and it’s 2 something am when I got up and went to
the john. I lie on my right side. Then on my left side. Then on my right side again. My mind is filled now with old songs: You picked
a fine time to leave me, Lucille/Four hungry children and a crop in
the field… Kenny Rogers, about 1973. So long ago. I remember the
year because that was the year my 2nd wife with the help of my best
friend departed my rural residence and moved. The two of them
found a place a few miles away, and then a few more miles away,
and then after their four month marriage they split up and she
moved many, many miles away, taking the children with her. I had
nobody. No kids. Well, I had four kids but they lived with exes, one
of whom, by then, had moved to Texas.
Yes, I am a serial marrier. But June, my present and final wife, the
very one sleeping softly beside me—well she and I have grown old
together. We have raised the two children we had together and
helped to raise the other four I had from previous assignments.
They are all adults now, with children of their own, or at least lives
of their own.
Unaccountably I think of my father when he was the age I am now,
that would be in 1980, lying there in his bed and not able to go
back to sleep, and what did he think of, what songs did he
remember? Or his father before him, who never attained to such
old age, born in 1875 and living through World War One and the
Depression and part of World War Two, what songs did he
remember in the night? Did he dream that one night a hundred
years from then a copy of him would lie sleepless in the night two
thousand miles away, tossing and turning as he was?
Lying there, I hear other songs from other times. One woman I
should have married, probably, but didn’t—I should have married
her instead of the one from the Kenny Rogers era, this Ayako, she
and I danced in the dark in our little apartment at 2 in the morning
or something, danced to I don’t know who singing, we singing
along, oh 500 miles, 500 miles, I’m a long way from home, 500
miles. We never married, but we talked about it, and we lived
together for a year or so as if we were. But then she went her way
and I went mine.
Life is very long. What can we say of it but that, as we lie here in
the darkness, everyone in the whole wide world asleep, softly
snoring, snoring? ###
Fri., January 16, 2015 posted 1:55 AM PST at Tacoma, Washington, USA.
Life ends. Somehow, somewhere it just ends. The bus arrives at
your destination and it stops and with a hiss of air the doors are
opened and you are invited out. You may or may not have finished
your Things to Do list; it doesn’t matter. It’s time to get off the
That’s where I am. The bus has not yet arrived, but I believe I am
on it, and I have come to believe that one day I will be invited off.
I said to someone the other day that I wasn’t afraid of dying, I was
just afraid of not getting everything done. He laughed! Just
laughed! And went on talking. I thought, Well, gee, what’s that? Is
that so humorous? To want to get everything done?
One day a couple of years ago, nearly, I was visiting my brother and
we were talking about dying, as old men will do. (Maybe old
women too, but especially, I think, old men.) I said I’d like to have
everything done and have my wife and all my children and
grandchildren around me in my deathbed, kind of like in the
movies, you know, and then I’d give a nice goodbye speech and
close my eyes, and the music would come up as the curtain fell.
My brother laughed. Just laughed! And he said, Well, Charley, I
don’t think my death will be like that. I think I will just have my wife
there, and she will lean over me and say, Does this mean you’ll
never finish the kitchen cabinets?
And of course I had to laugh too.
The best thing for an old person is to be around young ones.
Today it is our honor to be staying with our youngest son and his
wife and their young daughter, Adah, age 2 ½. A few months ago
here in one of my gloomy moods I quoted the late poet Edna Saint
Vincent Millay’s poem where she says something like, Life must go
on…I forget just why.
I forget just why! Poor old Edna! Why? Just why? Well, Adah is
the reason why. Just look at her zooming through the house
screeching with joy. She has nothing on but her little polo shirt
with the hearts on it. Her little bare feet thump across the
hardwood floor and she yells, Mama! Mama! And her mama picks
her up and Adah melts into her arms. Or when Papa comes home
from work, she runs to him, Papa! Papa! Papa! She hugs his knees
and reaches up, wanting to be picked up. And of course he does,
and she throws her arms around his neck and hugs him to her.
And at that moment they are the two happiest people in the world.
Do we need any other evidence of the meaning and use of life? Do
we need, really, to read and study Spinoza or Voltaire or Plato or
even Clem Kiddiddlehopper? I don’t think so. Life goes on, and
thank God for that. ###
Thu., January 15, 2015 posted 4:52 am PST from Tacoma, Washington, USA
I woke up thinking about 1994 and about whether that was the first
year I came out here to Washington and did a workshop. I think I
did a workshop at the Beacon Senior Center in Tacoma then; that
was the year I came here to be with my daughter, who was having
an operation. Maybe that was the time. I’d look it up in the
Journal. But in this computer, this little laptop, I do not have 1994.
I have 1964 to the present except—I do not have 1994. Isn’t that
strange? I’m sure it’s in Antec, the bigger computer.
Not finding 1994, I went to 1993, December. I didn’t find any
references about coming to Tacoma but I did find this:
Do we need more writers? Guy Smith says we don't. At first I was
inclined to agree with this offhand remark. I only smiled. Later, I
thought he was partly right. We didn't need more writers but we did
need more people who write.
Guy Smith was a friend, interesting man, who unfortunately died in
his 50s a few years ago. A doctor and an athlete and a proponent
of living well, he took sick and became housebound and then died.
We all grieved for him, for them, his family. Now I think about what
he said, and I think he was both wrong and right. I think the
question is, who is “we”? Do we live to fill the world’s needs, any
of us? Or do we live to fill our own? Both, I suppose. Maybe I’m
not so given to speculation about stuff like that at this late date.
The point is that we have more writers.
I don’t know. I dunno. Um-gawa. Me go now. And I swing off on
my vine to a different part of the jungle.
On a more concrete note, I’m cold this morning. I have been cold
ever since I arrived in the Northwest. I long to sit in front of a wood
fire of my own making, the wood heat of a burning hedge or redelm
log seeping into my aging bones. Yesterday I had an email from a
friend who was writing to me as she sat on the beach in Florida,
presumably (she didn’t have to say it) with the warm sand
squeezing between her toesies. I long for that. Next winter on this
date, January 15, 2016, I want to be on a Florida beach writing and
with the warm (nay, hot!) sand squeezing between my toesies. I
Meantime I settle for another cup of hot coffee, and write on.
Maybe I should write like one Dean Koontz. I pick up a book of his
from the shelf, Demon Seed, and take it to the john to have
something to read while I do the nation’s business. And it is a
disappointment. It is empty, empty, empty. Silly. I am not
interested in demons, I guess, or in stories about them. Perhaps
someone out there will apprise me of my errors of literary
judgment. And of course if they like it, and apparently they do,
then that’s for them. For me, it’s not much. In Sam Johnson’s
great phrase about the art of his own day, they give us what is
possible, not what we need. ###
Wed., January 14, 2015 posted 8:25 am PST from Tacoma, Washington, USA
A long dreamy night and I overslept! I could hibernate the rest of
the winter away, I suppose, but I have places to go and people to
meet. In three days we have a workshop in Aberdeen, a place I’ve
never been—unless it was in 1949 with my parents, and probably
not even then.
In 1949 we took a three week trip from Manhattan up through South
Dakota (Black Hills) and Wyoming (Yellowstone) and then into
Montana (Glacier), Alberta (Banff), then across to Vancouver (totem
poles) and back into the US through of Seattle, down to San
Francisco, where my brother and I were just sure we met Richard
Widmark on a stairs coming out of a movie studio office—if I
worked a little bit I could remember that he said, “Heh-heh, get out
of my ways, you kids.”
I could remember a lot of things that never happened if I worked a
little bit at it. But some of the things I remember really happened. I
I do remember that vacation in 1949. I was eleven years old. In
Yellowstone we stopped to see a bear on the roadside—I don’t
know what kind—and my brother, an amateur photographer,
wanted to take a picture of it, so we pulled alongside it and I was
sitting on the bear side so I rolled down my window for Hal to take
his picture. Hal held his exposure meter out to get the reading
before taking the picture and the bear, naturally, thought it was a
bite to eat and he jumped up to take it. He didn’t get it but he just
about got me, and I could smell his breath. Dad took off and we left
the bear standing there wondering What the hey?
I remember that because later that year and back in school writing
the usual My Summer Vacation theme I wrote about that and my
teacher praised me for it: that’s when I first became a famous writer
in my own mind. I won the Pulitzer Prize for that, the first kid of 11
to ever win the Pulitizer Prize for a junior high school theme. I
remember that very well.
The Nobel Prize for Grandiosity came much later.
I once heard the excellent fiction writer Gordon Weaver read a story
(and this I really do remember) about a new boy in school who told
the kids in school he was from California and some other lies, so
much so that they called him Liafornia.
Today is the first day of the rest of my life. On the other hand, it’s
the last day of my old life, too.
I wonder if I can get old episodes of Maude on TV? You can get
everything on TV now, can’t you? I loved that show. I liked Conrad
Bain, who was in it, and of course Maude—I can’t think of her
name. Both great. One time he and Maude were arguing about
something and she cited Einstein as the authority for a point in her
argument, and Conrad said, “Oh—Einstein—what does he know?”
Posted 552 am, Tu., January 13, 2015
There were always the short-timers, the guys who went around
saying how many days they had left, how many haircuts (assuming
you got your hair cut regulation every two weeks), how many
paydays, how many personnel inspections, how many of
everything. I did the days. Starting in with a calendar on the
bulkhead next to my bunk, I’d scratch them off: only 450 more
days. I’d announce that to everyone at chow. “In 450 more days I’ll
be eating breakfast with my wife on the terrace of the Ritz,” or
something like that. Then when I got to work at my desk and
typewriter in the ship’s military department office, I’d tell everyone
around me I only had 450 more days. Sometimes they would come
back with how many days they had. Or we’d get into a laughing
battle about who was the shortest: Kempthorne, another guy
would say, I am so short I don’t have time to calculate how many
days I have left. Or, Kempthorne, I’m so short I don’t think I have
time to do this STO for Jones, and he’d shove it at me to type up.
I’d say, I’m so short I don’t have time to change my typewriter
ribbon, or something like that. Of course it was a game and what
passed for great fun about ten days from port.
The idea of living in the moment did not occur to me until I was out
of the Navy about five years and read Alan Watts or one of
those guys that were then becoming so well known among all of
But even before then as a student at the University of Wisconsin
and I hung around Paul’s Bookstore, ate lunch at the Rat or down
on State Street, the very places where my father had hung out, if he
ever did hang out (I doubt it), when he was a medical student there
in the early 30s. It was fun to think about that. My dad, and my
great-uncle Will, who got an M.Ph. at Madison and went out to
teach and wrote a book on algebra. It was weirdly satisfying to
walk around the campus haunted by thirty of my ancestors and
relatives, to think that they had walked into these same buildings,
maybe slumped into a seat and took out their notebooks and wrote
things that the professor said down, just as I was doing.
I took a class in Art History in the new Commerce Building just
behind Bascom Hall. The class was so large—over a thousand
people—that some of us brought field glasses so that we could see
the slides as the professor talked about this or that painting on the
slide, pointing out the admirable use of light and dark or the
strange look on the face of the man standing in the boat. Then
we’d rush to Memorial Library to find the painting reproduced in a
Now at nearly 77 I don’t know how many days I have to go. I don’t
count them, and I don’t go around announcing to every mother’s
son I run into how many days or haircuts—or trips to the doctor—I
have left. But I know I’m a short-timer, and living in the moment
now as I do—and must—I’m good with that. ###
Posted 556 am., Mon., January 12, 2015
When I go back and look at my Journal, whether back a few days or
few years or many years, I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem—
God’s Grandeur, I think—where he says, sheer plod makes the plow
down sillion shine. That’s a poet’s fancy way of saying that
pulling a rusty plow through the earth makes it shine. Sheer plod
was what I did when I moved to the farm and to a new adventure in
1971, got a tractor and plow and all that equipment and started
farming. I dropped the plow into the ground, rusty and ancient,
and in twenty feet it shone like a mirror. Or they did, rather: I had a
two-bottom plow, a John Deere no. 44. Or was it 45?
That was a happy time: the spring of 1972. I was becoming a
Farmer! I was going Back to the Land! Woooee! I wore nothing
but jeans or bibs and sluffed around town in an old plaid cap and
boots. No more teachers, no more books, no more administrators
dirty looks! I was free, free, free! Using money borrowed from Dad,
I bought an ancient combine, a tractor that ran and then two others
(why? Why?), an 8 year old pickup truck, a mower, a disk that didn’
t work, a drill I paid $45 for that really worked.
And that fall I bought some seed wheat and I planted a crop of
about 50 acres of wheat. It rained lightly right on schedule and a
few days later I had young green wheat. Through the summer it
grew and grew. I worked and worked on the combine we’d bought
from June’s dad—at his auction—for $300, and we brought it down
and cleaned it out and a neighbor, Phil Montgomery, and I, worked
it over and over and over until, by god, it worked. Nearly. I’ve told
the story elsewhere about the mixup with one of the big belts that
made the thing run backwards. But other than that, it ran fine! And
we had a good crop of wheat, too.
Going into farming, living on the farm, eventually buying it with my
blood and sweat, was not a mistake, or if it was, it was the Great
Mistake of my Life. It changed my life completely. And it still is.
We still own it, still live there when we aren’t on the road.
Of course I didn’t prove to be a success at farming, but what a
wonderful life it was. That’s a mistake I would make all over again,
even raising pigs and sheep and chickens—even the ducks.
But not the goats. Our life could have been lived without the goats
who jumped up on my little blue Toyota and ate the antenna, no
they could have never been in my life, and I’d have been that much
I do dream sometimes of having stayed in the little college I was
teaching at in Wisconsin that later became a branch of the great
University of Wisconsin; I could have stayed there all my career,
lived in that big white four storey six bedroom house and raised all
my kids there…and today be living there with a nice pension,
friends and family all around. Well, who wouldn’t be nostalgic for
But it was not to be. I moved on. ###
Sun., January 11, 2015
The cat, Betty, or Bettie, I’m not sure how she spells it, wants out.
She goes to the back door, stands up and puts her black and white
paws against it, stretches, and meows loudly. She is demanding,
not friendly. She does not come to me, standing there heating my
coffee in the microwave, she simply meows loudly and insistently.
She isn’t friendly. She doesn’t come and rub against my legs. She
looks up at me…and meows. If I come to her to pet her, she
withdraws and hisses at me. She wants out, not a friend. She
looks at me balefully and switches her tail.
I am not authorized to let you out, Betty or Bettie, I say. I am not
your owner. I am a guest. So there. And I take my blue cup from
the microwave, the dark blue cup I have had for so many years, an
artifact from my days as a housepainter, a cup that has the Cook
Paint emblem on one side and on the other says in large block
letters, COOK PAINT MAKES YOU LOOK GOOD. I take the cup and
come here to the dining room table and sit down and start in.
I certainly needed everything I could to make me look good when I
was a housepainter. Because I wasn’t really a housepainter. I
wasn’t even much of a writer then, writing only an hour or so a
day. I thought about it a lot. If a painting customer had a few
books, I’d talk with them about Litrachuh, and let them know I knew
about things like sonnet sequences and Ezra Pound’s madness and
hysteron proteron. I wasn’t just a half-baked housepainter.
Cook Paint in and of itself, however, didn’t make me look good.
Friends pointed out the misses—“holidays” painters call them—in
my painting, or that I had put latex over oil, a real no-no, or some
other gaffe that only a greenhorn would make. I worked extra hard
to scrape and sand and I was extra polite and when I went to the
paint store or anywhere there was anyone who knew anything
about painting, I asked questions. I knew how to ask questions
and wasn’t afraid to ask dumb ones if they were the only ones I
knew. If at all possible I hired someone who knew how to paint to
partner with me. At least I was smart enough to know I wasn’t
It’s Sunday and today we’re going to meet a bunch of our
grandchildren up in Seattle. There will be, counting me, six adults
and five children/grandchildren. We are going rollerskating and
pizza eating. I am taking my camera and I will sit on the sidelines,
as will June. We will not skate. We will watch them skate. That is
what the old folks do, and we’re just glad to be here to do it. And
remembering when we went skating so many years ago. ###
Sat., January 10, 2015
I had a dreamy night—at one point I recall June saying, You’re
dreaming. Evidently I was muttering in my sleep…I don’t think I
was shouting. Just yesterday though I was telling some friends
about having dreams of death. I had one a few weeks ago where I
yelled HELP MURDER POLICE! very loudly. Though these dreams
are certainly nightmares, I have come to realize they are not so
scary, but rather they are signs that I’m shedding an old self, I’m
growing—what is dying is an old me. I’ve had these dreams
occasionally for many years. So it’s nice to know I’m still growing.
Maybe I’ll grow up sometime before I die! I do think that I’ll learn a
lot in the last twenty minutes I’m alive.
I don’t remember any of my dreams from last night.
Then when I went in the Navy what a change it was. I remember
thinking, I’m an American boy, an American citizen, and they can’t
do this to me! But of course they did. No one had ever talked to me
like that before! You idiot! I was not an idiot, and I was more used
to be called the brightest one in my class. Idiot! And by men who,
no doubt, knew little of Shakespeare’s sonnetry. How could this be
happening to moi?
When my parents visited me at Great Lakes late into boot camp, my
hair cut off, wearing clothes that were two or three sizes too big for
me…they were shocked and subdued also. Dad understood, a little,
but as an officer and a gentleman who went into the Army with the
rank of Captain, who never went to boot camp and to whom I am
quite sure no discourteous word was ever uttered, it was a far
In the Navy there was this guy, Pepe, from Springfield, Mass, nice
kid, and he ground his teeth in his sleep. I remember lying in my
bunk half a dozen bunks away (this was ashore in at the barracks
on the 4th floor of the Brooklyn Army Terminal, waiting for a ship)
and smoking a cigarette illegally in bed and when Pepe would grind
his teeth it sounded like the squeaky leather shoes of someone
walking and I would quickly douse my cigarette, thinking it was the
bo’sun’s mate and he’d put me on report. Then when Boats didn’t
appear, I knew it was Pepe, grinding away. The condition has a
name, Bruxidontalism, something like that. You don’t die from it,
though you may become toothless. But you can die from smoking,
and one of these days—not to be overly grim this fine morning the
Lord hath made—I’m going to prove that. I haven’t smoked in more
than 30 years but when my pulmonologist confirmed my diagnosis
of COPD five years ago, the first question out of his mouth was, Do
you smoke? I quit thirty years ago, I said. Doesn’t matter, he said
matter of factly. The damage was done. ###
Fri., January 9, 2015
In the summer of that year 1955 I had finally finished the silly high
school and was, at last, a college student on his way in the world. I
went to Kansas State, of course, it somehow not occurring to me
that I could go to another college. Everyone went to Kansas State.
That was the college campus we had played on as kids, hide and
seek, tag, just running, playing on the fire escapes at Nichols
Auditorium, big steel chutes you could jump into and slide down,
just made for kids to play on, or we went to the museum in Fairchild
Hall and teased the rattlesnake in the thick glass cage, thumping on
the side of it and waking him up and making him hiss and rattle at
us, a fierce snake of several feet length that, were it not in a cage,
we would run shrieking from in holy terror; going to the student
union and playing pingpong, playing the pinball machines, ordering
a cherry coke, a malt if we had twenty cents. K-State was our
college, some of our fathers taught there, and when we attained to
18 and became graduates of Manhattan High (2 bits, 4 bits, 6 bits a
dollar…all for Manhattan stand up and holler!) that was the college
we went to.
And so I dutifully enrolled in the usual courses: English
Composition 1, French 1, Psychology 1…everything was something
1. And that was okay with me. Boys were supposed to take gym
and ROTC, but it was summer school and they didn’t have it then.
ROTC (Rotten Old Tin Can) was mandatory, and tolerated, and some
kids who were of a military mind liked it. My father had been a
medical officer a few years before in North Africa and it just seemed
a logical part of adulthood.
I went. In all the classes I was the youngest, the greenest, and the
most callow at barely 17, 120 pounds, be-spectacled and somewhat
bepimpled too, with a goofy look and a goofy grin (I felt) and so I
gangled around the campus. I had a car of course, that was part of
manhood too, and I drove it to campus and in those days, there not
being any parking stickers---we did not even know what they were—
and only a few signs I was able, usually to park right in front of
Anderson Hall in the President’s spot, he being in India on a
Fulbright (whatever that was), and I guess everyone assuming that I
was kin to him, which I wasn’t, of course, and so I never got a ticket,
if in those quaint days, the campus cop had one to give.
I developed the habit of going in the mornings, and then driving
down to Aggieville and eating a hamburger and fries and going to
Kite’s, just opened then, Kite a one-time big league ball-player who
took his stash and came back to where he had gone to college (but
he was not a local boy)—I would go to the darkness of the bar and
glance at my books and maybe do a bit of homework and sip a dime
draught of beer or two, if I had the other dime. I was not asked my
age. 18 was the legal age, and I guess it was assumed that if one
was old enough to walk into a bar, one surely was 18, and therefore
old enough to drink it. ###
Thu., Jan. 8, 2015
How I enjoyed typing the name of the Asst. Personnel Officer I
worked for in Norman NATTC: William Lewis Llewellyn. 7 l’s! It
was a neat rhythm to type in all caps for his signature: W. L.
I guess I love typing. I have spent enough of my life doing it. A few
years ago June took a short video of my typing hands. I played it
over and over with much pleasure and admiration. My hands on the
computer keyboard moved with as much facility as those of
Rubinstein on the piano. I was really tickling the ivories.
Ray Whearty used to refer to his typewriter as his “machine,” a little
habit of pretention that I have long since adopted. But where, oh
where, is Ray? I don’t know. I guess like Ambrose Bierce, he
disappeared in Mexico.
In the Navy, I did not have my own typewriter. Of course I didn’t
keep a journal then, I’m sorry to say, wrote some letters but not a
great many, all of which have been lost or tossed or burned or deep-
sixed, mine to them as they have theirs to me. But what a record of
my consciousness I would have if I had saved all of them. In
recording my consciousness, a single brain’s comings and goings,
am I in some way mapping the universe? Am I cracking the genetic
code, doing the genome thing? Grandiosity permits me to think so.
But surely I am doing something of use. It keeps me out of trouble:
the basic defense of what I do. Unlike Bartleby, I prefer to.
Out of the Navy and in college a typewriter was almost the first
thing I had bought. Of course there was that one I bought years
earlier with my share of the wheat money so long before that. A
mere child of 10 or so, and I bought a little portable Smith-Corona
for about $85 (new), and I painted the keys with glow-in-the-dark
phosphorous paint so that I could write in the dark after my parents
had told me lights out. It didn’t really work: I didn’t know the touch
system then and the paint, daubed on as it was, didn’t differentiate
the letters, and anyway, I had to turn on the light every few minutes
in order to restore the phosphorescence. That poor typewriter had a
disastrous ending. Something was wrong with it and I took it apart
and couldn’t get it back together. To many smiles I took it to the
repair shop in a bushel basket. I think they did put it back into
working condition for me but I don’t know what happened to it.
But in college in 1959 I bought a small old portable SC that was
made in 1938, the year I was born. I wrote my first short stories on
it and my first short novel. I kept that and carried it from university
town to university town and then in 1968 Paul and Nancy Capener,
living in our basement for several months, gave me a new Olivetti
Underwood in payment—a payment, I might say, I didn’t expect or
ask for. But they did, generous kids that they were, and I came to
love that typewriter and I did a lot of writing on it. It was the first
colored typewriter I’d ever seen. Light blue! I thought all
typewriters were,by definition, black. I come from that era—the
black telephone, the white t-shirt without any words on it…the black
tennis shoes. ###
Wed., Jan. 7, 2015
My father, were he alive, would be 112 years old today.
If I’m going to write 2,740 words a day I’m going to have to have
some prompts other than just what happened that day.
What happened yesterday was we drove around Tacoma for three
hours looking for a copy shop. Apparently they are not on every
corner. When we did finally find one, and did finally find a place to
park our car in order to go into it, we found a tiny hole in the wall
shop by the University of Washington—Tacoma that could scan a
couple of items if we could wait half an hour. There was no self
service. So we sat in the car, partly just for a place to sit (there had
been no space in the shop) and partly because, we discovered that
we were parked in a permit only place that, if we were apprehended,
would lead to a speedy beheading, a double header you might say,
for the two of us. Plus our car would be impounded, no doubt,
smashed flat, and made into place mats.
When June went back to get the scans they were done and they
didn’t charge anything. Up to ten, the cheerful lad said, free!
Tacoma is a mystery: how people live here amid all the crowds and
cars and rules and regulations and yet are kind and gentle to one
another, for the most part. Eight people were in line at the customer
service counter at Albertson’s. They waited patiently, and the clerk
was unfailingly cheerful and polite to every single one of us as we
crept our way forward. We were all given our change with a smile
and wished a nice day, before we were sent on our way.
Here in Tacoma zooming at 70 mph on I-5, changing lanes is
regarded as everyone’s birthright. (Though don’t do it without
signaling first, and don’t slow the traffic down…it’s not all about
Back home in Manhattan, Kansas (66502), spiffy little university
football playing town that it is, if you change lanes you are honked
at, yelled at, looked at and sometimes even fingered. Changing
lanes is regarded as a sign of mental instability, at least, and
outright insurrection at the most. Once you get into a given lane,
you regard it as your property and hold on tight. It is considered a
moral failure to change your mind. Moreover, if you are going to
turn left within the next five miles, it’s both prudent and proper to
spend the entire time in that lane (it’s yours!) driving at whatever
speed your religious preference recommends.
On the other hand, I’ll say this for 66502 and other, similar, zip
codes, if you can find a clerk to wait on you, you’ll be welcome to
tell all the news about their folks and that new grandbaby, maybe
even shown some pictures of it from their iPhone, if they have one.
And if there happens to be anyone behind you waiting, they’ll want
to see too, so that’s just fine.
The rush hour is the Rush Limbaugh Hour, and heavy traffic is
defined as a car in front and another behind. That’s when we
hunker down and really feel the crunch of modern life.
Tu., Jan. 6, 2015
June fell today shortly after we got to Rip and Joni’s. We were in
the house, just arrived, and after checking the mail and not finding
anything in the way of a check from the city of Eugene—which we’
ve been waiting weeks for—I was making a phone call to the library
and June was just standing there so I said, Why not bring a few
So she did, but in five minutes she had fallen, slipped on the steps
and fell down, hard, on the concrete. It makes me cringe to think of
it. Joni came in the house and yelled Call 911. I did and then I went
out to help. June was on the sidewalk on her back. It was raining
but not very hard. She was conscious, she was bleeding from her
right temple, and a few other places—one hand, elbow, forearm.
We helped her up very gingerly. Joni got the 911 people who
immediately started asking questions: how old was she, and so on.
“Why don’t they just get their ass over here?” I demanded. We
helped June to a big rocking chair inside. She was talking now. No
less than five firemen/EMTs showed up and very solicitously
attended to her. The name of the main man, who was very friendly,
matter of fact and polite, was Klobutcher, something like that. They
checked June out and recommended we take her to ER or, less
expensive, an Urgent Care place. There’s once close by, Mr.
Klobutcher said. They put a huge bandage around June’s head.
When they left we all thanked them profusely.
I took June to the Urgent Care they recommended but, they said,
they could only take Medicare people if we were members of the
Puget Sound Health Care Coop, which of course we weren’t. So
they recommended another one on Pearl Street. Is it far? I asked the
clerk, a young man with a big smile. “It’s not far,” he said. So we
got back in the car and drove on. I thought it was far, but not,
evidently, by Tacoma standards.
At the Pearl St. facility June was immediately taken in and attended
to. The lobby was crowded but everyone looked at June
sympathetically as she was put in a wheelchair and whisked in.
She did look miserable. In back an LPN, a pretty woman who
resembled slightly Courtney, very competently cleaned June up and
did all the other prep work for the PA, a thin young lady who also
was very competent and did everything else, including getting a
All this took time. I was falling asleep very uncomfortably in the one
chair in the room. June laid back and slept on the examining table.
Finally I went to the car and slept. When I came in to get June she
was coming out to meet me, and so we went home together.
She is home now, we have eaten a good chicken and rice and
broccoli dinner (Joni is an excellent cook), and now everybody’s
sitting around talking and laughing and watching Adah play. ###
Mon.,January 5, 2015
I could write a book about starting my car to get to the U when I
taught at UWisconsin in Stevens Point. I lived way out in the
country 14 miles from the campus in an isolated area called the
Dewey Marsh, my own lane was half a mile long, and the little spur
off the highway from there was three miles and then the rest was
US 51, the main trunk that in those pre-interstate days ran from way
up in Rhinelander, Wisconsin down to the bottom of Mississippi. In
February, 1970, the weatherguy got a little wooden sign with
something like velcrois on the back of it and stuck it up on the
board map of Wisconsin. It had one word printed on it: FRIGID,
which meant below 20 below, and it hung there for days.
Every night when I got home from the campus, sun going down, I'd
open the hood on my little Toyota and take the battery out. I'd plug
in the tank heater, a device that heated the crankcase oil. I'd take
the battery inside and put it by the door in the room with the oil-
fired stove in it. And then my wife and son and I would get into the
bed--all in the same bed to keep warm, and go to sleep hearing the
wolves howl and praying for spring.
With that plan, the car started right up next morning. The roads
were no problem. In Wisconsin, they know it's going to snow a lot
every winter and they plan, they tax, and they pay for the best
equipment and the labor to run it. If it snowed that night, then a few
hours after it started, the great fat flakes whirling in the porch light
I'd turn on to look out, the plows would be going. Often they'd come
right down my lane at something like 2 in the morning, huge dump
trucks with a gleaming snowplow with blades 8 or 9 feet high on
them going 20 or 30 mph, and they plowed snow arcing high into
the air. By late winter the roads would be canyons and we'd drive
along the bottom of them through the walls of snow. Knowing what
it was going to be like, in the early fall, men from the county crew
would come along and tie tall poles with red flags at the top of
them, and they'd attach these to all the road signs so they didn't
plow them down.
Once I got to the campus and into my parking place next to Nelson
Hall where my office was, I could take off my winter gear and hang it
up and not put it on again until I went home, even though my
classes were scattered all over the campus. They had thought
about that too, and so they built tunnels. We tunneled and taught,
tunneled and taught, and laughed--and sometimes drank--our way
through the Wisconsin winter. (They had something they called
FIFTY DEGREE DAY, being the first day of spring that the
thermometer reached 50 degrees F.--never before mid-May--and on
that day, at that moment when the 50 was declared, everyone, from
the President on down to the lowliest freshman, would repair to
Iverson Park on the east side and guzzle a considerable quantity of
the local brew. The local brew, by the way, was called after Stevens
Point, the town, Point Special, and it has done so well in latter
years that you can walk right down to Aggieville in my hometown of
Manhattan, Kansas and buy a bottle or a case of it. Every town in
Wisconsin has a brewery, a cheese factory, and a university...in that
order of importance.)
Here today, the only snow I see is out my window when I look up
and see, so close it would seem I could touch it, beautiful Mount
Rainier, covered with blowing snow, 14 thousand feet high.###
Sun., January 4, 2015
Good morning, sir!
I smiled genuinely and genially at my image in the mirror as I
dropped my perfect salute.
Last night at the airport a man about 60 or so, surrounded by his
grandchildren, two or three very cute little girls, stopped hugging
them long enough to say, when he saw me walk past in my Navy
cap, “Thank you for your service!” I was so surprised I could only
offer my hand and take his and say, “They did more for me than I
ever did for it,” and we chatted a minute. He was not a veteran but
he did, he said, appreciate what veterans like me did.
I sat down next to June, reading in a chair against the wall, and
picked up my book and read too, but not for long. The people
watching was too interesting and too intense. A flight had landed
and people began streaming into the enormous, high-ceilinged
baggage claim room, one of them, and standing around the great
gleaming silver carousel looking for their bag. I watched them, the
Finneys plane from Houston not yet landed. A young woman ran to
meet a tall young man, grabbed him and he lifted her off the floor as
they embraced—and embraced—and embraced. June and I
watched happily and others did too. Finally they unclenched but
then, waiting for his bags, or hers, I couldn’t tell which was arriving
and which one was there to meet, but even then they’d look at one
another every minute or two and kiss and hug all over again.
A toddler ran in circles, so happy to be among others, so happy to
be running in big space while her grandmother kept an eye out for
her safety. She couldn’t have been more than fourteen months, a
tiny human being joyous at merely being alive.
A few feet away a boy stood waiting, a lad of 12 or less, wearing a t-
shirt that said, What happens at Grandma’s stays at Grandma’s.
By then maybe two or three hundred people were in the room,
grabbing their bags, greeting and chatting happily. Then our group
from Houston came into the room even as the others—from Atlanta I
think—got their bags and left, and life went on at Baggage Claim no.
2 for United Airlines.
In 1956, I flew from Kansas City, a white hat flying to his next duty
station, out of the old airport downtown, the entire terminal of
which would have fitted neatly into this one tonight in Seattle. The
planes held thirty to fifty passengers, maybe ten or fifteen arrivals
and departures a day. You could go downtown to the bus terminal
and find many more people than you could here, and go to the huge
Union Station further south and there you’d see hundreds of people,
much like here. Today I think Union Station is a science museum.
For some stupid reason (I have told this story in detail elsewhere,
and probably more than once) I went through my entire time in the
Navy, nearly four years, without once saluting an officer. It was a
thing I had, a feeling about authority, that it took me much of my life
to get over. A few years ago, finding a need to have just such an
authority in my life, I decided God was an officer and the captain of
my soul. Nearly every morning now when I get up in the morning
and take that first look at myself—still alive!—and I greet Him inside
me with a snappy salute and a cheerful good morning, Sir! ###
Sat., January 3, 2015
People stop me on the street here in Seattle and Tacoma and ask
me just how I intend to be able to think of enough things to write
about to write 2,740 words a day so that in one year I will have
written 1,000,000 words. Why, they say, I could never even think of
that much to say, let alone write one million words about them.
How can you do it, Superwriter?
The answer is that I don’t think at all: and that’s why I can! I don’t
think! I just look into my life and the lives and life I remember and
write what I see. Look:
I was on the couch in the parlor of our house in the country in 1947.
I stretched out full length and scrunching my shoulders to move my
body, I put my head on the floor so I was looking
up at the ceiling. Got the picture? The world was upside down!
The square modernistic (for its time) lamp fixture in the center of the
ceiling seemed to be swirling beneath me. Our new RCA console hi-
fidelity record player/FM and AM radio was on the ceiling, floating!
“Butchie!” my mother called from the kitchen. “Come here!” and
so I did come there, running along, being careful to touch every
piece of furniture I passed on my way. “What Mom?”
“You said you’d help me peel the potatoes if I let you help mash
“I remember,” I said. I got the stool from the corner and pushed it
to the sink next to her, and we began peeling the large red potatoes
Dad and my brother had dug just a few days before…
You see, I said to my friend on the street, I’ve barely gotten off the
couch and already I’ve written a couple hundred words.
Well, yeah, Superwriter, but except for the couch thing, which I
remember from my own childhood, well, it’s kinda boring. I mean, a
little bit of peeling potatoes goes a long way.
It does, I admit it. But it’s history, isn’t it. Isn’t it? My friend
And it’s just part of the story. After you peel potatoes, what do
you do next?
You cook them.
How do you cook them?
Boil, usually, I mean-- if you going to mash them later.
I pause, thoughtfully, leaving my friend there on the street, starting
to rain of course in Tacoma, downtown on Pacific Avenue by the
post office, because I remember—amazing the ways the mind runs
back and forth from past to present to future (and yes, the future
exists if you can think of it, don’t let them fool you) and I remember
an old friend of me once said, when I told him I was trying to think
of a wedding present for some friends, “I always give the bride and
groom a good solid potato masher that will last them the rest of
their life.” I had laughed at the simplicity of my friend Bob’s
How many sterling silver pickle forks did a married couple need?
How many, sitting down to their first dinner together—a simple meal
after the elaborate honeymoon in Quebec, dining in fine restaurants
on chateaubriand—how many grooms were confronted by their new
brides with the fact that he’d have to mash his own potatoes with a
table fork because they did not own a simple red-blooded American
That’s 577 words. I rest my case. ###
Fri., January 2, 2015
At 730 AM on New Year’s Day there was actually not much traffic.
We turned down streets in Tacoma where there wasn’t another
moving car to be seen. Where were we? Back in the old home
town? But soon, rocketed onto I-5, we were again among the
millions going somewhere or nowhere, but fast.
The collective gasses, vehicular and human, emitted by this great
city of perhaps five million people (just imagine Chicago, just
imagine New York!) would surely intoxicate a universe, but they
haven’t—so far. At least not to the extent that we are laid flat by it.
That will come, I suppose, but long after the time I am laid flat by
other, more natural, causes. Yet my children, and my children’s
children… I fear for them.
I think the first large city I ever experienced more than just driving
through would have to be Indianapolis, Indiana. That was where my
mom grew up and where we still had a lot of kin. This was the
1940s, during the War. We lived well out of the city, fifty miles or
so, in the most rural area I’ve even lived in, a place that was merely
called the Old Holler. No electricity, no running water, no nuthin
and we heated with wood we cut ourselves—bought a little coal,
too, from somewhere—lighted the tarpaper shack Gramps had built
and we lived in with coal oil lamps. But occasionally we went to
Indianapolis, an endless city of workers and tramps and soldiers
and housewives and men in suits or ragged shirts, even Negroes,
perhaps not that long off the plantation a state or two further south.
Indianapolis was dark and scary, a city of shadows, noises in the
night, people breathing and yelling and talking and sometimes
dying. Mom’s people weren’t well off and when we stayed there we
stayed in some tough parts of town. One night, I heard my elders
talking, a man’s heart was cut right out of his body and left in the
alley just a few blocks away.
My mother had known or known of John Dillinger, the famous
gangster, and had even run around with some of his crowd
including his girlfriend who later became the famous woman in red
who turned old John in to the cops that fatal night at the Bijou
My next big city living was in Brooklyn, probably a much more
dangerous place, but by then I was older—if 19 can ever be called
older—and more experienced and I was under the protection, in a
way, of the good old USN. And I didn’t really live in Brooklyn,
though for weeks and sometimes a month or more at a time I lived
on a ship berthed in Brooklyn or across the way in Staten Island or
even in the yards over in Bayonne, New Jersey. I learned my way
around all those waterfronts, the bars, the pizza parlors—and that’s
all, really. I can’t say I did anything of cultural value in New York.
Why not? I don’t know. I was just plain stupid. I had the run of the
city, culturally, most everything free to servicemen at that time (the
1950s) or of nominal charge: the Staten Island Ferry was a nickel,
believe it or not, and free if you were in uniform. ###
Thu., January 1, 2015 Federal Way, Washington
We have been on the road now since the morning of November 19,
just exactly 43 days. We are of course homesick but we have
become used to this nomadic life. A couple of days ago we went
somewhere and I took my laptop, this laptop, along with me to do
some work in the car while I waited for June to get her physical
therapy. When we got home several hours later I couldn’t find the
laptop, and I was terrified, searching the car. I finally found it—it
had slid under the seat—but in the minutes I thought all was lost I
was half terrified but also half relieved—we’d have to go home. I’ve
got everything to do with LifeStory in this computer, all the records
of workshops coming up, time and place and details of contacts and
without this—I thought—we couldn’t go on. We’d have to drive
Well, we didn’t, of course. But we both knew that the prospect of
driving straight home, setting the Garmin for 3591 Letter Rock Road,
Manhattan, Kansas, 66502, was inviting. Then we thought, oh,
yeah, we could be back in Manhattan in three days, sitting in our ice
cold house shivering and trying to get the chain saw started, bills
due, no money, no nuthin as the folks used to say… and with our
No, we have another 59 days on the road. We will roll into the
driveway at Letter Rock late afternoon on February 28, 2015, and
that night we will sleep in our own bed and then we will get up on
the morning of March 1, 2015 at home. At home! Be it ever so
humble, there is no place like it.
This year I have taken the oath to write 1,000,000 words here in the
Journal. I won’t post them all, of course, just 500 or so each day.
So with today’s 500, I have only 999,500 words to go.
That’s a lot of words. I’ve never written that many words in the
Journal in one year, though about 20 years ago I was doing the 2,740
words per day needed to get to a million up--until nearly May. And
then I stopped: it was taking me several hours a day, joyous as it
was (and it was). I just couldn’t afford that much time, I felt, so I
stopped and reverted to only about half that.
But late last year—a few days ago, in other words, I began to realize
that if I wrote faster I could write the 3K or so everyday in much less
time. And of course all along I’ve known that if I wrote faster, I wrote
better. I’m also writing two or three times a day in here. I write
about 1500 in the morning, and then later in the day, noonish or in
the evening, I write the 1240 more plus to get to the required magical
number of 2,740.
Of course any imbecile can do this. I step up to the plate, bat in
hand, cheerfully accepting the label: any imbecile. But let’s see
what a dedicated imbecile can do in a year’s time… ###