|The LifeStory Institute
The writer's workshop for memoirists, autobiographers and family historians.
Founded in 1991 as a how-to newsletter/magazine, LifeStory, 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,
The 5th Journalong, which was to have begun April 1, was unable to be launched due
to technical difficulties. This problem persisted until this morning, and so here I am ...
late. We will have our Journalong, it just won't be a full 28 days. It will run through
April. Here's how it works. I am here to encourage you to journal, that is write in a
journal of your own every day and so you make it into a daily habit that almost
guarantees you will get the writing done that you want to get done. So I write here
every morning sometime before 6 am, you log on, read what I've written and then write
yourself in your own journal at home. It is not my intention to write well here. It is
simply to write every day 500 words or more. If I write a good line or two, so be it. But
just now I'm most interested in training people, you perhaps, to develop the habit of
--Charley Kempthorne, editor and publisher.
All material on this website unless otherwise indicated is Copyright 2014 by The LifeStory Institute.
Thu., April 24, 2014 THAT'S TODAY!
I’ve been sitting here for fifteen minutes and I can’t think of a thing to write about. I’m staring at the muted TV. I have
Channel 215 on, Al Jazeera. It’s a news channel owned, so near as I can tell, by an Arab country, Dubai or the United Arab
Emirate or something like that. Years ago I had a chance to go to one of those countries to teach. I forget which one. I read
about the place and decided not to go.
When I was married to Patsy and teaching at Wisconsin I had a chance to teach in Rumania at the University at Iasch,
pronounced Yash, I think. It sounded interesting to me and Patsy was excited to go too because Rumania is werewolf
country, and she was very interested in werewolves. So we were practically packed, the semester at Stevens Point was
drawing to a close, and then the guy who coordinated the whole program took sick, very sick, and the whole deal collapsed.
So I didn’t become a Rumanian and I didn’t become an Arab. Instead I became a farmer in Kansas. How’s that for being
Actually it was. Neither Arabia nor Rumania could compete with all the unusual and weird stuff I encountered when I first
came here. No. 1 was—well, here I was, a guy who couldn’t do anything with his hands but turn the pages of a book and I
was working with my hands all day every day. Gasp! I learned about nails and driving them. I learned you couldn’t drive a
box nail into a native oak board, and you could hardly drive a common nail into one. In fact, I didn’t know there were box and
common nails. I thought native oak was something that had to do with the Indians—but they built wigwams, didn’t they? I
thought sheet rock was made from sheets of rock, a chain saw was something you used to cut chains with (why would I want
to cut that many chains?)…I was a complete dummy with my hands. I knew hundreds of poems by heart by all the great
poets but I did not know Righty tighty, lefty loosey. Who wrote that?
In the following few years I (with tons of advice and some actual help) I gutted our house and rocked all the rooms, wired it
for electricity (it had none) plumbed it—most of this was done by a real plumber—painted, installed doors, re-roofed it.
A funny story about the re-roofing. The old shingles were the original wood ones that had been put on in 1918 and they
were pretty well shot. So I tore off the old roof, and with some help with a neighbor graduate student in physics, Cliff—last
name escapes me now—we figured out how many squares (a new term to me of course) we’d need—Cliff, I said, you’re a
mathematician, you figure that, and so he did, and I called the lumberyard and ordered them. They delivered. So next day
as we were clearing the last of the old stuff, here came a big long truck grinding slowly down the narrow dirt road, a driver, a
helper in front and a couple of guys on the back looking at us.
The driver, who was also the manager of the Yard, got out and looked at my little house and asked how many squares we’d
ordered. Well, long story short, Cliff, near-Ph.D. in physics, had miscalculated and had ordered something like eight times
the amount we needed. In those days, lumberyard managers were good natured—this guy was—and so they unloaded a
few squares, enough for us, and ground back up the hill with just about as many shingles on board as they came out with.
And there was no “re-stocking” fee, as there is today. There was only a chuckle or two and a wan smile. 661 words, I
don’t know how many minutes. About twenty once I got started.
Wed., April 23, 2014
I got some sulfur to put on the north garden, to help relieve some of the alkalinity—or is it acidity? To relieve something. A
couple of years ago I had the soil tested and they recommended the sulfur, and I did it then. But you have to keep adding it.
So I bought another bag of it at the Co-op. I’ll toss a bit of it around later today. It sure won’t do the garden any good sitting
in the back end of my car still in its bag. Phil, I can’t remember his last name, waited on me. He’s been there for a
thousand years. I think he worked there when we were both young men, I at 33, maybe a bit older, maybe more than a bit,
coming in the utter greenhorn ex-professor who thought that because he knew a lot about sonnets that he could farm or do
Just before that I had been at Hort Services looking for sulfur—I’d forgotten that I had done the exact same thing a few years
before—gone to that store to get it, finding they had a five pound bag for $10, and then decided to go to the Co-op and get
50 pounds for $22. The same thing.
But I’m glad I went because at Hort Services there was an old schoolmate at MHS, class of ’55, Bob Haines. We stood
there and talked for twenty minutes about aging and who’s dead and who’s still alive. Bob looks good, tall and straight and
carefully-combed thought now of course with gray hair.
My hair, I decided when I finally got home and looked in the mirror, is totally white. I am a white haired old man. I look in the
mirror and I have no idea who’s looking back at me. It could be me. It could be an alien from another planet. It may not
even be a human being, it could be a rob0-Charley.
If I assert that I was once young, that I had a youth, then I have to grant the same to others. That doesn’t seem so hard yet
somehow it seems unreasonably difficult. Isn’t that stupid?
There’s a good movie on and I’m tempted to drop everything, sit here for the next two hours (everyone else still asleep) and
watch it. It’s The Long Voyage Home, an old (1940) John Ford movie with all the gang about seagoing a few years before I
got there. How I wish when I ran away from home in 1953 and went to New Orleans to stowaway on a ship and sail the
Seven Seas…how I wish I had followed through and done that! How many things I started to do in life and then didn’t follow
But in fact there are a number of things I did follow through on, and the one big one I do not regret is becoming a hippie
professor and then a genuine back to the lander. 505 words, 40 minutes (watching movie, sipped coffee, zoned out
for about twenty of these minutes.)
Tues., April 22, 2014
I was fiddling with the car radio. The Blue Grass station was same old, same old. I tried the Pops, Handel—and
the Symphony—Haydn. I was driving along about 60 and suddenly there was a stopped car in front of me. I
yanked the wheel to go around, just made it, stopping fiddling with the radio and thought for a minute or two,
Charley, you dummy. The car wasn’t stopped, but had slowed to almost a stop in order to turn. And they had
made a turn signal. I was fiddling with my radio.
An older friend has said that he never plays the radio anymore, keeps both hands on the wheel, doesn’t even
talk much, and gives the road his full attention. Maybe that’s good advice, I thought, turning off the main road to
the Deep Creek Road.
I drove along. It was quiet. No traffic. I turned the radio back on and got something. I didn’t take my eyes off
the road. I listened to music the rest of the way home.
It’s too cold to just sit here, but do I really want to make a fire? Yes, I do. Yes, I will. Why not? We have the
wood. I don’t want to turn on the furnace but I’ll make a little fire. Yes, yes, yes, I will.
Somewhere in late 1938 or ’39 we bought at 1939 Buick Special. I am looking at a picture of me standing by the
rear fender of that car parked in our driveway at what is our house…but I don’t know whether it’s in North
Dakota or here in Kansas. I don’t even know just when we moved from North Dakota—where I was born in
1938—to Kansas. I think we lived here a year or so before Dad joined the Army in 1942. I’m frustrated that I don’
t know that stuff. I guess I could get some information from my older brother, who would probably remember. I
feel kind of silly asking. Does it matter? Does anything matter?
No matter what happens, a spiritual maxim goes, everything will be all right.
Okay, let’s flesh that out: a meteor falls on your house and crushes it and kills you and all your family. That’s
fine! Okay! We’re good with that!
All right, you don’t know what hit you, so there. It won’t matter because you won’t have time to think of it? But
what about others? What about the little dog down the street who so loved to come by and be fed a dog biscuit
and petted? What about the whole nation that now will never have you for the greatest president in their history,
saving the living of millions and, incidentally, fending off meteors with his Mary Marvel wrist deflector?
Some things matter. I guess we get to decide that for ourselves.
I did build a fire. I can see it through the glass stove door. It’s warmer, a little. Some things matter. 500 words,
Mon., April 21, 2014
For months now in the morning June has been offering to fix two possible breakfasts: eggs and toast; or
oatmeal. She always asks me what I want. (I always do the dishes.) This morning I chose oatmeal. So June
fixed it and we ate it. We had gotten up late so she had to leave. She leaned over to kiss me goodbye. “I have
oatmeal breath,” I said. “I do too,” she laughed, gave me a peck on the lips and laughed again, and I did too, and
she left for the day.
Ben and I set out tomatoes and green peppers. He did the work of digging and planting, too arduous for me,
and I watered and advised. I did get some of the plastic 3# coffee containers (Folger’s and Maxwell House) and
cut the bottoms out to make collars, and together we put the wire baskets around all that. I watered everything
heavily. Now we hope things grow. I threw in some old fertilizer that may have deliquesced into something not
so good. I hope not. I don’t think I’ll use anymore of it—there must be ten pounds or more left in an old bucket
in the garden shed—I think instead I’ll just throw it on the compost pile. I probably shouldn’t have used it at all.
I’m determined to have a good garden this year even if it doesn’t rain at all. Southern California does it all with
irrigation and so do a lot of other places—why can’t we?
I went to bed a little before ten and woke up just a little bit ago, 2 o’clock or a little after. So I got five hours sleep,
well, four and something. That’s better . I’m up now and ready to go. I saluted God in the mirror (God being a
voice in my head) and said, Good morning, sir! And so the day begins with this journalong. I haven’t even
made coffee yet. Maybe I’ll drink hot water: it’s just as good, really.
Where we have this garden we used to have a sheep barn and pen. The barn was an ancient Santa Fe boxcar.
It was falling into serious disrepair when I got here in 1971. It had been bought and brought here for $50 by the
railroad as it retired them back in the 30s. The electrician from the Farmer’s Coop who brought electricity to it
said some of them were so old they still had arrows sticking out of the sides. I remember that, and him, after all
these years just because of that remark .
Then all the siding rotted and, after using for ten or more years for the sheep, we decided it was an eyesore and
one day, decided to burn it down. It made quite a fire. Two of the boulders that were support for the boxcar are
still there. We had as many as 100 feeder lambs, but far fewer than that most years. Then we ran out of water
and so we sold all the sheep. And then we became vegetarians.
This is how that happened. Our kids grew up and moved away, many of them to Seattle, vegetarian heaven, at
least so far as the USA is concerned. They came home and watched us eating meat and accused us of being
savages. We were getting on in years and the doctors were all mantra-ing LESS RED MEAT, LESS RED MEAT.
And so we quit. Now as a joke I tell people, deadpan, that in Seattle it is now illegal to eat meat within twenty feet
of the city limits; they look at me horrified for a moment, believing. Then I give them a gentle horse laugh and
they smile and laugh with me. 636 words, 20 minutes flat.
Sun., April 20, 2014 (Easter Sunday)
I am the prisoner of my mind so far as thinking of something to write about here goes. Not much is happening
in my daily life…insomnia, oversleep, get up, write, go to town to a meeting and to do errands, come home, nap,
write, supper, garden, write, bed.
“I grow old,” T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock said. “I grow old. I shall wear my trousers rolled.” That was written in 1910,
more than a hundred years ago, to describe a man who couldn’t decide what to do with his life. But even
though I felt a kinship with that poem when I first read it out of the Navy in 1959 at Kansas State University—
even though, I really have been quite the opposite in my actual life (as opposed to my mental life), I have made
decisions and suffered the consequences.
Muted C-Span and there is fat Antonin Scalia, so fat that his great image fills the screen to the point where the fat
rolls out of it and around it like a fleshy wreath. Ms. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, not fat but no beauty either,
looking like a technician downstairs in a mortuary.
I guess I’m no beauty either. If the camera were on me now, people would probably click me off, too. In fact, let’
s click one another off and go back to bed.
We were supposed to get rain today but they have put it off now until tomorrow. And then it will come in drips
and drops and move on and we’ll continue this dry spring. Ah, for the good old days, when in the spring we’d
get some real gulley-washers and the ponds would fill to overflowing and our boys would play in the water
jetting out the overflow tube and filling a much smaller pond just below the dam. The weeds would grow like
crazy in the garden and yard and everywhere else and it took hours and hours of mowing and hoeing to keep
things in check.
Oh, well, at least it isn’t cold. I’m sitting here in the living room with my laptop and I have on shorts and a t-shirt
and barefeet—unthinkable just a month ago. We don’t even have a fire in the stove.
At the meeting someone made rice crispies cake. I guess that’s what they call it. I don’t like it, but I ate one just
because it was there and then there was a much larger one left over and I took it home with me to give to June.
But I ate it halfway home.
Night before last June and I watched a movie I picked up at the library, Parkland, the story of the days following
the Kennedy assassination. “It doesn’t look all that great,” I said, “but it has Billy Bob Thorton in it.” “Oh, I like
him,” she said, so we decided to give it ten minutes and then decide. We watched the whole painful movie. I
never met Jackie and Jack but I went to hear Jack talk one morning in Madison, Wisconsin, a news conference,
and afterwards some of us students gathered round him and asked questions. I was dumbstruck, starstruck,
and didn’t think of ask to shake hands, but I stood just three feet from him and once, he glanced at me. I will
have them put this on my tombstone, if there’s some extra room after all the other stuff: Stood Near JFK,
autumn, 1960. 587 words, 29 minutes.
Sat., April 19, 2014
Twelve days left in April: 12 days then to finish NJ. Is that doable? And at the same time get 142 out? Even so, I’
m having great doubts about the saleability of NJ. I know where to market it and I think I can do that, but is the
book itself a stupid idea? The great problem in working all alone is you can go pretty far with a nutty idea. And
is a book about journaling using my own journal entries to illustrate it…is that sensible, saleable?
How else would I do it? Use the journal entries of others? Use fewer entries?
And then how many people are there out there interested in journaling? Books on journaling do sell. Look at
the books by Ira Progoff, the Intensive Journal guy. And now and then I see books on spiritual journaling. Why
not one on storytelling journaling? Telling your life stories one day at a time to result in a full picture of your life
and your family’s life?
Spring is here and I now see plainly all the work outside that has to be done: fix the sagging eaves troughs on
the Shops building, fix the door to the Mech Shop, do everything in the Art Shop, fix half a dozen gates that
either barely work or don’t work well; rake everything, and of course all the garden. We better start watering
I was dumb enough to come here and live in 1971, and dumb enough to think that I was smart enough to fix
anything and everything. I did everything from overhauling tractor motors to wiring the house myself. I had no
experience working with my hands and I wasn’t “mechanical” at all. As a result, everything I fixed or built is,
I didn’t come here back then to live as a country gentleman in a fine house: I came here to fend for myself, to live
in the country and make do. I got my wish. I became a fair carpenter, a fair plumber, a fair farmer and gardener
and orchardist; I became an excellent painter; a fair electrician, a good general laborer…even for a time a fair
animal husbandryman, even a bit of a veterinarian…I became a man for all seasons, mostly summer.
I did what I did with my odd, assorted life. Now I wonder why I did it. But I did it. Doesn’t everyone in certifiable
old age, as I am, wonder about his life? It’s part of the aging process to go through that.
Walmart yesterday was a madhouse. It was Good Friday. The huge building rang with the noises of children
screaming because they weren’t getting what they wanted for Easter or they were screaming for joy because
they did. The parents looked harried and overwhelmed. It wasn’t unusual to see some young family rolling
along with four or five children all under ten hanging from their arms or riding in the cart. I was only an old man
trying to find a bedside clock and an oximeter. I found both, though my wife said I paid too much for the
oximeter and I realized myself I got the wrong clock and paid too much for it, too.
The truth is I’m not a good shopper. I will never be good at it. Everything goes black, and I come home with the
wrong things. I am better than I used to be, and I’m pretty good in the grocery store. But Walmart… I liked it
better in the old days when you went into a store and asked for a clock. The clerk went and got a clock and put
it in front of you and you paid for it and left.
I will say this for that clock I bought. It has a blue readout light and when I plugged it in it somehow figured out
the time and started working. Now that’s technology. 663 words, 29 minutes.
Fri., April 18, 2014
Driving in town today and I’m at the stoplight by the Mall, and I see three city workmen standing on the corner
leaning on their spades and gabbing. I smile to see this but inwardly I groan: there’s probably $75 per hour of
our tax money going up while these goof-offs stand there. I begin to seethe a little as I wait for the light to
change. One of the guys suddenly leans back against a pole and starts rubbing up and down, making almost
obscene pelvic gestures at all the cars and trucks waiting for the light. He gets a seraphic look on his face and
just before the light turns green I realize: he is scratching his back against the pole! I just have to laugh, driving
off, laughing out loud, crying inside.
Sure sign of spring: an ant races across the keyboard of my laptop.
I didn’t work hard in the Navy. After Boot Camp and Service School, where I was worked pretty hard, I can’t say
I did a real day’s work for the next three years. Well—hold that. When I was on shore duty at Norman,
Oklahoma, I worked hard doing office work. I did it because I liked doing it for a few months, and then I caught
on: don’t work so hard, the war was over. I learned to get a piece of paper and carrying it in my left hand at all
times. Get a hot cup of coffee and sip it as you walked around the building swapping stories about the night
before with all the other sailors. As long as you had some paper, you were all right.
Aboard ship we worked about a quarter of the day and then skylarked the rest of the day. Even the officers,
even the CO. We reasoned that we were paid to be there, to be eternally vigilant (we said with a smile and a
wink), just in case the world ended. I guess if we’d found a post to scratch our back against, we would’ve. As
the Soviets used to say, “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.”
I honestly wish that I had stayed on the farm. Well, I guess I have in a way. I’ve spent now more than two-thirds
of my life living rurally, even though I’ve sometimes worked fulltime in town. I lived on the farm in Indiana, in
Wisconsin, and for forty-four years here in Kansas. I love cities, and I’ve lived in New York, Kansas City, and LA
for brief periods, as well as four big university towns: Madison, Iowa City, Lawrence, and Manhattan. But I like
getting up in the morning and walking out on the deck (now that it’s warmer) in my shorts and breathing in the
But I’m not knocking city life or anybody who loves it. When our kids were little we would take our vacation and
go to Saint Louis or Chicago or somewhere like that, get a motel and do all the city stuff, shopping, museums, all
that. You can’t shop in the country. There is nothing out here for sale. I like that. 536 words, 18 minutes.
Thur., April 17, 2014
I’m going to play twenty years ago today! That would be April 17, 1994…
Okay, I lived right here, that’s a sure thing. Probably at this hour I was either still asleep or writing in this
Journal. I was of course doing LifeStory, maybe by this time on about issue no. 30…? I hadn’t yet written my
book, For All Time, but I was probably compiling material for such a book about writing family history. I had quit
housepainting as a means of support. June still did it and had some helpers.
Rip still lived at home. He was just 15. Ben had gone out into the wide world and was working painting for big
painting contractors in cities like Tulsa or Seattle or Indiana…I forget the name of the town. He travelled,
painting for a guy who did work all over.
Well, that was boring. Maybe I’ve told all my stories. I’d probably have to refresh my memory with some of the
artifacts from 1994—photographs, objects, talk to June. I think later that year I went to the University of Nevada
at Las Vegas where a friend had invited me to come and speak. And my daughter had brain surgery in Seattle. I
flew for the first time in many years. I flew to Seattle to be with her and then down to Las Vegas and then back
home. I didn’t like flying. I always said I wouldn’t mind it if they would let me drive. Of course I’m not a pilot. I
can drive a car and my riding mower. I guess I had a tractor or two when I farmed back in the 70s.
In the 40s I was still a boy. We lived on a farm not far from here, a couple of miles, and my older brother and I
farmed some of the land, and we had a tractor—first a small Farmall Cub, and then a Ferguson 9N. My brother
was very mechanical and kept everything going; I was allowed sometimes—at the age of 9—to drive the
tractors. My parents were if anything too permissive about that. But all the neighbor kids did the same thing.
But they were really farm kids: our dad was an ophthalmologist and an otorhinolaryngologist…what did he
know? He and Mom bought the farm out of nostalgia and…craziness, I think.
So I was allowed to use the brand new four-gang harrow to work up a wheatfield down by the creek, maybe ten
or fifteen acres of open ground but with a big stump in the middle. I sang when I drove the tractor, of course as
fast as it would go. I sang (no doubt) O! Columbia the gem of the ocean! And maybe even something by old Nat
King Cole, maybe The Old Master Painter from the Faraway Hills! Painted the lilocks and the daffodils! And
while singing and turning in the field I hooked the far right harrow onto the stump and that lifted the entire gang
of harrows high into the air and kablooey! Back down onto the field, a twisted mass of steel that missed me by
inches. I swear I saw one of the six inch spikes go past my ear!
I am here today without a spike in my head by the grace of God. 564 words, 18 minutes.
Wed., April 16, 2014
I apologize for being late this morning as I have been for several mornings recently. I am having some
insomnia—trouble getting to sleep, trouble staying asleep and then somehow in the wee hours I fall into a
tumbled sleep and oversleep. I don’t know what a tumbled sleep is, but that feels right.
The good news is that in my dreams I was much younger and I decided to run for the US Senate, and I won.
Senator Charley Kempthorne. When I was even younger than that I actually thought about running for
President. I never did, but a friend of mine did, and he got 159 votes. I might have gotten that many or more if I
had run: but as everyone knows, I didn’t run and I didn’t win. Somewhere in there I decided I didn’t want to be
President, after all.
There was a pretty time in our history when every kid was encouraged to grow up to be President and everyone’
s parents encouraged them to. Now I guess the parents want them to be a hedge fund manager or another Elvis
or play for the Houston Oilers or something. Well, fine.
The truth is I would make a lousy congressman. I hate meetings, and that’s all those people do is have
meetings. I would always be the one saying, “Oh, come on, you guys, lets…” And I would always be defeated,
because I don’t like to win. That’s why I wasn’t any good at sports: I wanted the other guy to win. I didn’t like
losing, but I didn’t like winning, either.
Story of my life.
Still, I wouldn’t mind winning the Nobel Prize, and I could use the money. Actually the biggest literary prize I
ever won was 4th place honorable mention in the Kansas Authors Club poetry contest, and the prize was $4 in
cash. People don’t believe that, but it’s true.
My life is the story of coming in second—or not at all. I almost won a teacher of the year cash prize when I
taught at his little college in Wisconsin. I took 2nd place in a general intelligence contest (I guess you’d call it,
for lack of a better name) when I was in 6th grade. My prize was a plastic comb. I don’t know what they gave
the guy who won third place.
I should get a prize from the IRS for paying my taxes on time. I expect something from them momentarily. I
hope they spend it carefully.
Well, anyway, I’m not sending troops into Ukraine. Or Syria. Or even Texas.
It is still cold and my wife just made a fire in the stove. I am having trouble bending over easily and so she has
kindly taken over that chore. It was 59 in the living room this morning. I am sitting here wrapped in an afghan.
The day looms. The sun is up. It is going to be windy and warmer. Why couldn’t it just be warmer, without the
wind? 563 words, 22 minutes.
Tues., April 15, 2014
I have to remember to mail off our tax check today. I don’t mind paying it so long as it goes straight to President
Obama to take the day off and have some fun with his wife and kids. Or maybe to pay for an elegant dish of
green beans, say, for John McCain’s retirement dinner, especially if I’m invited to attend. Which honestly, I
doubt will happen.
But I will pay. I’m a citizen and it’s an honor.
It is cold. I’m afraid we’re going to lose our pear crop as well as the smaller tree blossoms too—the apples, the
peaches certainly, and the apricots. This is Kansas, land of the spring freezes that come before the scalding
summer. June and I are going to get out there and hose the blossoms down as best we can…three in the
morning in the light of a nearly full moon.
We must be nuts. I hope no one sees us.
I just read a prefatory essay in the Norton Reader about keeping journals. I am long, long out of the Academy
and very happy to be so, and read this essay brought it all back.
For twelve years, from 1959 to 1971, I lived the university life (except for a year out to tend to my psychiatric
problems at the great Menninger Clinic, and that place was pretty collegiate too) and I have to say I love every
minute of it. I even loved leaving it, and the truth is that though I did finish my work there in June of 1971, it was
many many years before I really let go of it. Even today I hang onto some of it. Once you get a college degree,
you can never really get rid of it. And the more you have, the harder it is.
What I’m talking about is one part pedantry, one part, probably the biggest part, the ego of being smart, and
another part…what? Something like bathing in the approval of the world. None of these things are good for
you. Yes, are. Being correct is incorrect. High society is low society, etc. I think of old Robert Mitchum, coming
out of jail after serving 30 days for possessing marijuana, and he was asked how it was. “Oh,” he said, “a lot like
Palm Springs, only without the riff-raff.”
Here’s where I’m still an academic: I remember that one of the major themes of 19th Century American literature
was that you cannot have both self-respect and respectability.
I bought a pineapple the other day at Aldi’s and last night Melissa cut it up. The four of us sat around that bowl
of dead ripe pineapple with our forks and made quick work of it. That was the sweetest pineapple I’ve ever
I just hope a few of those thousands of blossoms on our pear tree make it through the night. That tree, now
nearly 40 years old, has produced delicious fruit for us all along. I like them crisp and juicy. I don’t like them
when they get mushy. Once they’re ready, I eat at least one a day. 531 words, 24 minutes.
Mon., April 14, 2014 TODAY!
I awoke in the dark. I sat up. I stood up carefully. I went to the bathroom. The little clock said 5:24. I got my bathrobe off
the hook and went out to the kitchen and pushed the button on the coffeemaker. It was cold.
The fire was out. The thermostat said 62. I went to the door and poked my head outside. Snow on the deck. Oh God. And it
was snowing still. I took the little flashlight from the window sill and looked at the temperature gauge. 29 degrees. I closed
the door and went back inside and sat down here to write.
Just yesterday morning we were working in the garden in short-sleeved shirts. I raked an area smooth and broadcast a
packet of wildflower seeds meant to attract hummingbirds. Now it was snowing. No respectable hummingbird would
come here. The big pear tree is in full bloom. The peach tree, the apricots probably won’t make it through this. Kansas. Why
do I continue to live here?
One time in the late 90s we drove up to Edmonton, Alberta, and did a workshop at the beautiful Provincial Museum there.
The day we arrived, July 11th, it snowed. It didn’t snow a lot and it didn’t accumulate, but it snowed, and everyone laughed
and lived through it. One million people, the largest northern city in the world…and we were there, and it snowed.
Uga-ugaboo-uga-boo-boo uga. This was actually a song I remember from my youth. Phil Harris made it popular, and the
next line was, Bingle-bangle-bungle, I don’t wanta leave the jungle: I refuse to go!
That was the culture I grew up in, the 40s. Then came the Fatuous Fifties, the silver screen dominated by such luminaries as
Doris Day and Rock Hudson. There I was in Manhattan, Kansas, population then about 12,000 people, the home of Kansas
State College of Agriculture and Applied Science. Oh, how we chafed under that name while the University of Kansas down
at Lawrence sneered at us, calling us Silo Tech!
But we beat them at basketball. Yes, we took those basketballs away from them and beat them over the head with them
until they cried and asked for their mother! We laughed at Clyde Lovellette and called KU Solo U. Hahahaha!
That was how I grew up. Beating people with basketballs, watching and falling in love with Doris von Kloppelhoff (aka
Doris Day), and playing on the campus of the College of Aggercultchur.
One friend left town and moved to Oxford, England, where he got his Ph.D. and became the chaplain of the university.
Another went to Chicago and became a famous actor and teacher of comedians and comic actors like Bill Murray and Alan
Arkin. Yet another went down to Kansas City and danced in the burlesque theater and then went to Hollywood and became
the leading lady of the likes of Bing Crosby and Yul Brynner. Still another went to work for CBS and became a national voice
and then a writer on Western history.
And I, what have I done? I have consorted with pigs and sheep here on the farm, the very place where even as I write this
morning, it is snowing.
Uga ugaboo ugabooboo uga! 547 words, 25 minutes.
Sun., Apr. 13, 2014
My mind is unique, just as everybody’s is. But I’ve kept a record of mine, and most people have not kept a written record. That’s what I used to think,
but I just betcha there are hundreds of people out there who are recording somehow their every thought these days. It’s possible to do so, and so I’m
sure some of us are.
How many are keeping a narrative journal, as this one purports to be, I do not know. Maybe the main reason I go on journaling is simply habit and
exercise for my fingers.
Or to keep my memory alive. I am starting to fumble over words. The other day I couldn’t remember the suffix put on the end of a word to mean
“lover.” It came to me later, -phile, as in bibliophile, book lover. Well, who would want to remember something like that, anyway? Only pedants like
Also the other day I wrote a letter to a cousin and told him I had been diagnosed with “lumbar ridiculopathy ,” and as I started to click on Send for that
letter my eyes fell on that word and I realized I had misspelled it. Stop everything! I went back to the word and corrected it to radiculopathy because I
would not want my cousin, a doctor, to think that I was unable to spell the names of my various conditions.
Could this be said to be ridiculous? Certainly not radiculous.
When I was in 5th grade I was the last kid standing more than once in spelling bees. They did not have a national spelling bee back then or surely I
would have gone.
When I taught Freshman English in college years ago I always had a front row filled with students (usually girls) who not only were perfect spellers but
also great sentence diagrammers. I was a good speller but I could not diagram sentences for sour apples. I’d study up the night before and walk in
and put something on the board that made English sentences look somehow like math exercises and I’d make my point and then step back to show
the class. One of those ladies in the front row would slowly and slyly raise her hand and said, “But Mr. Kempthorne, should in the back (or whatever)
be a prepositional radiculopathy? I’d look at the board, blushing to the roots of my then black hair, and I’d be forced to squeak, “Why, Miss Endotulio, I
do believe you are right.” And all the front row would smile maligno-benignly, six little Patty MacCormick’s auditioning for The Bad Seed.
Meantime in the back rows were students in art and engineering demonstrating various states of repose, their lanky boy bodies spread across two or
three vacant chairs as they waited for the bell to ring so they could make a quick escape to fresh air.
These were the said same youth who went out and invented the computer even as their girlfriends in the front row went out and demented the world
with English teachers. And these lads just so they could talk to one another in some mathematical gibberish stumbled across the invention of email,
which has done more to encourage literacy in our culture than a throng of English teachers with fistsful of diagrammed sentences. 556 words, 28
Sat., April 12, 2014.
II live in cattle country and they need pasture for their cattle, and it has been ascertained by various scientists in the field of agriculture that the
pastures should be burned every several years to increase the growth of the grass.
And they are burning now. Smoke is everywhere. I and others in our rural neighborhood have lung conditions that the smoke affects in a negative
way. It lasts for a few days. Today it was terrible. I stayed inside as much as I could but it was a beautiful spring day so I went out to work some.
Anyway, you can smell it even inside.
So I live with it. I am not a beef eater, I am mostly vegetarian. I guess if I moved to a city I could breathe exhaust instead. When I lived in Wisconsin I
lived near paper mills and that stuff probably wasn’t good for me, either, and the pissy stench was awful—the entire area smelled like a urinal in a
beer bar about 2 am.
Years ago I raised hogs. We only had a few but the saying was of their manure smell that “it smells like money.”
For some years I earned my living and supported my writing habit by painting houses inside and out. Fresh paint has a smell. I never really looked into
the medical significance or insignificance of that odor. It goes away in a while.
I’ve never lived near an oil refinery (Houston, for example) but I imagine they say the same thing there.
To my knowledge I do not give off any odor. I’m sure that like other humans I occasionally emit a tiny bit of no doubt violet flavored methane but
it…doesn’t bother me! (But it doesn’t smell like money, either.)
Why can’t it be light whenever I get up in the morning? It’s still dark! How disappointing, God. You can do better.
When I was a boy I loved Saturdays and it was always light when I got up. In fact it was broad daylight. Later on I learned that it was possible for it to
be eerily light when I got up. Well, that was okay, just so long as breakfast was ready. Now—no breakfast, no one else is up, and it’s dark. Ugh.
My first bicycle cost $13 and was a used bike with no fenders. Of course it didn’t have any fancy gears or narrow tires or any of that. It was just
someone’s old bike, black color, no name on it that I recall, no bell or light or anything. But I rolled up a pants leg and got on with my dad pushing me
down upper Poyntz Avenue and then he let me go and I was on my own, terrified and joyous. On Saturdays Charlie Kerchner and I would bike all the
way downtown to the State Theatre and for 12 cents we’d get it to watch great movies like The Raiders of the Ridge with Roy Rogers. Roy, whose real
name I learned later was Leonard V. Sly and grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio—Roy was my hero. He could do no wrong, though if he spent too much time
smooching with Dale Evans, then I went out to get some popcorn.
Many years later I worked in that theatre taking tickets and making popcorn. 562 words, 23 minutes.###
Fri., April 11, 2014
The worst thing in the world is to sit here and stare at the blinking cursor on a white screen. Better to turn put your computer to sleep and go wash
last night’s dishes. If I could physically do that this morning—the sink is full of dirty dishes—that’s what I’d do. But my back is killing me. I’m going to
PT this morning and have high hopes. Meantime, I’ll write something in praise of washing dishes which, actually, has been and continues to be a big
part of my life.
I probably helped my Mom wash the dishes down in Indiana during World War II. I can see myself standing on a stool in the kitchen in front of the tall
windows. Maybe that memory is made up, but I do remember lying on the floor next to the refrigerator (ice box) and counting by fives to 100. I couldn’t
have been more than 4 or 5 years old. Later in Kansas I remember very well doing the dishes and singing. Leaping forward to being in my 20s,
married, and washing the dishes in Wisconsin I broke a glass and cut my hand rather bloodily and had to go to Dr. John Grinde downtown and get it
sewed up. After that I was always careful to wash the glassware first and very carefully.
I still like to do the dishes. It’s something I can do to improve the world and it’s right there and it’s easy. Now in my old age it warms my arthritic
hands. Standing up is getting more difficult.
I remember a song popular during the War that had a line in it about “Leave the dishes in the sink, Ma! Leave the dishes in the sink! Tonight we’re
going to celebrate…leave the dishes in the sink!” This tune was evidently whistled and hummed and sung without the slightest irony in the sure
knowledge that when everybody in the family got through celebrating and came home and went to bed, there Ma would be dealing with the dishes in
I never saw my father wash a dish. Not once. When I married June forty years ago and she took me home to visit her family we all had Sunday dinner
together. Afterwards I stood up to help with the dishes, as did the women. The men of the family looked at me like I was some kind of traitor to my
class. Of course, I was a long-haired hippie, and what could you expect of such a creature?
Speaking of, it’s been on my mind lately, this hippie thing. And, Reuben Corbin, I’ve been thinking that the Hippie Revolution was the most important
revolution of the 20th Century. The Hippies not only did the dishes, they refused to join the guys down at the bank making money, they refused to do
anything the way their fathers had done things. The insane War in Vietnam had made us all sane, or aware that we needed to struggle to be sane.
And there I was in the thick of it. I didn’t smoke much marijuana, I didn’t do any other drugs, but I sure did let my hair grow and I sure did drop out from
my career track academic teaching job and I came right here to this place on November 18, 1971 and I was among those who went back to the land.
So as soon as I publish this, I’m going back to the kitchen and do the dishes. 592 words, 32 minutes.
Thurs., April 10, 2014
“This is where I came in.” That’s what we used to say when, having entered a movie theater in the middle or at some point other than the beginning of
a movie, we realized we’d already seen what was being shown. It’s hard to believe now, but that’s the way we went to the movies in the 3os, 40s, and
50s. Now of course it would be unthinkable to be so artistically clueless as to watch a movie from middle to middle rather than beginning to end. But
that’s the way we were.
And now, life, I sometimes feel, I have been living it middle to middle and this is where I came in.
I haven’t written anything any good for days. But I continue to practice. The late Truman Capote, a wonderful writer with a tart tongue, said of Jack
Kerouac, who wrote up to 10,000 words a day on a red-hot typewriter fed paper on a roll of the kind used by Western Union teletypes--Mr. Capote said
that Jack was “a typist, not a writer.” Which may well be my case, though I am not so good a typist as Jack was.
Yet I continue. I practice. I do the scales…do, re, me, fa, do, la, te, do. Isn’t that how they went?
In grade school we had Miss Helen Gerard, surely as long-suffering a lady as ever trod the boards. She would take out her pitch-pipe and toot on it and
lead us in song, or what we called song. Yesterday morning sitting here in a funk with June, both of us droopy and a little depressed truth be known—
yesterday morning I tried to get her to sing O Columbia the gem of the ocean with me. She looked at me blankly. But if all the world got up and sang for
fifteen minutes, then wrote in their Journal, then chatted among themselves about how their night went, and then ate fruitloops and milk or whatever—
what a nice world it would be!
In high school Mr. Elbert Fly prevailed, and Mr. Lawrence Novell. Now Mr. Novell, who was a handsome young man just out of the service, we really
liked. He died maybe five years ago. I used to see him in the grocery store and I would chat with him. Once I asked him about his service in World
War II. I don’t recall just what it was he did, but it was pretty dangerous and brave stuff. Those guys did what they had to do.
Our current generation has…what? Traded the stocks they needed to trade? Opened the coffee bars they needed to open? Climbed every bank
Maybe that’s not only not so bad—that these kids today are obsessed with food and their stocks—at least they’re not killing anyone. Are they? Not
And I went all the way through the Navy—three years, five months, and 28 days—without so much as firing a pea-shooter, emerging at the tender age
of 21 a veteran with callused fingertips from all that typing of such famous Navy phrases as, “In accordance with existing instructions, you shall…”
532 words, 23 minutes.
Wed., April 9, 2014 TODAY!
Maybe I’ve told every single story I have.
That’s hard to believe. More likely I’ve told all the apparent and obvious stories, but the really important ones are still buried. Some of them may be
uncomfortable to bring to the surface of my mind. Some of my life is still obscure to me. Maybe it’s all a dream. After all, how about the song: Merrily,
merrily, merrily, gently down the stream…life is but a dream?
I have no memories before about age 4. I lived in Texas for a few months—Merkel, Texas, near Camp Barkeley, where Dad went to learn how to salute
and stuff like that. I remember vaguely the sun, the house we lived in—a room or two in somebody’s house—and going once to the camp, board
sidewalks, tents. My next memories are of Indiana, and there I remember a number of scenes, and I remember my grandparents quite well. This
would be I guess from 1942 or early ’43 to 1946. I remember the Old Holler, I remember the little “tile house” across from the school near Poland. I
remember the Birkbecks, our neighbors, Mrs. Birkbeck (Gramps called her Mrs. Brickbat), Jimmie Birkbeck—a couple of years older than me—and
Babe Birkbeck, a couple of years younger and my first girl friend.
I remember my brother and I exploring the little 25 acre farm. I remember the farm animals, the big garden, the pond down in the valley, going flower
hunting with Mom and my brother… Reading the comics aloud, Mom reading V-mail from Dad, who was serving in the Army Medical Corps in North
I was born in Minot, North Dakota. How as a youth I envied people who were born in New York City or Paris or Los Angeles or even Kansas City. When I
told people I was born in Minot, they inevitably said, Where’s that?
I remember nothing of that very northern city. We moved when I was 2 or 3. I guess it was a cold day when I was born (January 24) because that is a
cold place. A couple of years ago I met someone from Minot wearing a sweatshirt that, on the front said, Why not Minot? But on the back it said,
Freezin’s the reason. I have not been back to Minot except for one dark night driving back from Canada and we were tired and got a motel and slept
six hours and got up and left in the dark of the morning. We were in a hurry to get home.
Someday soon I would like to go back and stand in the town square (or circle, or whatever they have) and just look around and see where I got myself
into this life.
I don’t know why I am such a nut about this stuff. Some people play golf. Some people like waffles. Life is a mystery. We have to do something while
we wait, don’t we? Don’t we? 500 words thirty minutes.
Tues., April 8, 2014
Writing bad I guess requires you put your education on the shelf and risk seeming to be an idiot. Long ago I decided, at least in the context of writing
that I in fact was an idiot and a snobbish stuffed shirt and it was killing any creativity I might have, killing any chance at writing anything interesting, let
alone g-r-e-a-t. So I let go and let God, in a way, and that saved my life. The idea was, no one would know: I would write this way and let it go and click
on delete when I died and no one would ever know the difference.
I hobble around. I have something the doctor called, with a smile, lumbar radiculopathy, and then he said, “I know, that sounds ridiculous.” Pain in the
back and down my left leg. Because of my COPD, I don’t have the stamina/breath to do a lot of work. But I can sit and write comfortably and for that I
am very grateful.
I wouldn’t have said that a few years ago. Old age humbles you. The older you get, the more ailments you have, the more living you do, the more you
realize that this body and this earth and everything in it isn’t yours. I know that’s a simple-minded remark that we nodded yes to when we were in
Sunday School seventy years ago; but the knowing of something doesn’t mean you understand it, that you feel it. Now at 76 I feel it.
I heat up the coffee and sit at the couch. It’s not cold. I turn on the news. The plane that went down in the sea west of Australia has not been found.
UConn has beaten Kentucky. Actually, that I knew, because I had stayed up to watch the game. I watched it on our bedroom TV. June didn’t want to
watch it so and she pulled the pillow over her head and finally asked if I could mute it and just watch. Obliging, I did that. The game was about over by
When I was a lad of 13…it was 1951 that Kansas State played Kentucky for the national title in Minneapolis, Minnesota. My father and mother decided
to drive up there for the game. This was in March, I guess, and it was snow, snow, snow in Minneapolis. And K-State lost 58 to 68 to Kentucky. My
mother was born in Kentucky but I have never very much liked that wonderful state since that time.
If someone were here with me (and awake), I would invite them to sing with me some of our old grade school songs. I was no singer, but now I look
back I loved singing in grade school. Mrs. Mason would get out her pitch-pipe and toot on it and away we go with O Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean or
Down in Mexico or When Johnny Comes Marching Home.
For it’s hi hi hee in the Field Artilllery/And the caissons go rolling along!
To this day I have no idea what a caisson is. I know it is not something to eat…is it? 526 words, 22 minutes.
Mon., April 7, 2014 Day 1 of 5th Journalong THAT'S TODAY!
I am looking at one of our favorite pictures of Rip. He was about a year old, it’s probably summer of 1980. He is in the living room in some kind of a
light jump suit and he has a hammer tucked in it, weighting it down to waist level so that he looks like a miniature tarzan of carpentry. In one hand he
is holding a huge screwdriver. Half the other hand is stuck in his mouth as he sucks on his fingers. He is looking right at the camera. His brother
Danny is behind him, grinning at the camera. Everybody thought Rip was very cute—he was the youngest by far—and of course he was. Now he is 34
years old, is a journeyman longshoreman in the Port of Tacoma, Washington, and is a father of a child, very cute also, a little older than he was when
this photograph was taken.
I suppose everything young is cute, kittens, piglets, little baby armadillos. Stalin as a young man was quite handsome and debonair. I’m sure he
kissed the girls and made them cry—or maybe scream bloody murder.
Such are my bizarre thoughts early this April morning, March having gone out not quite like the lamb we thought it would: cold and getting colder, a
windy black night that seems to have taken our spring away. Yet I am grateful to be here on this “most weary unbright cinder” as Thomas Wolfe once
said of our dear planet, Earth.
Two bits, four bits, six bits a dollar: all for the Earth, Stand up and holler!
But I am grateful. I am grateful that when I got up my son was still up, quietly working in the living room penning some art work and reading a book
about art, and he has made a fire in the stove that changed this room we have lived in now for 43 years.
I am grateful to have the honor this day to start this 5th Journalong, to finish LifeStory no. 141 and begin its printing and mailing, and to work a couple
more hours on my current book project. I will go to town at noon and see friends, and at 2 I will see my Meadowlark friends and we will write together.
Maybe I will have the honor, too, to not eat much and in the evening the others will fix a fine Mediterannean meal of some hearty Moroccan soup and…
and I will go to bed not clutching my abdomen but rather feeling merely full and satisfied.
I did eat today an apple, variety called Crispus Pink, that was nearly a pound and cost me $2.15. Had I known it was going to cost that much, I would
not on principle have bought such a megafruit. I tried to remember as I sat in the Dillons parking lot in my car and carefully ate it that what I was paying
for was not the fruit so much as the transportation cost—possibly from Morocco. 509 words, twenty minutes. THAT'S TODAY!