|The LifeStory Institute
The writer's workshop for memoirists, autobiographers and family historians.
LifeStory was founded in 1991 as a how-to newsletter/magazine and also as an over-the-road workshop
travelling North America teaching and coaching new and longtime writers of all ages how to write about
their lives and the lives of their ancestors. The premise is that everyone can, and probably should, write
their life story to pass on to their family,friends,and others interested, including and perhaps especially,
All material on this website unless otherwise indicated is Copyright 2015 by The LifeStory Institute.
THE 15th CONSECUTIVE LIFESTORY JOURNALONG IS OVER. I'll start the 16TH ON APRIL 1 and will run for
28 days (ending on April 28). JOIN ME!
The idea is that if you write every day for 28 days you will be habituated and will joyously do it forever after!
If you have been here all along, by all means go on writing each and every day. You'll come to love it as I
have these past fifty years. 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
Please join me in writing 500+ words this morning about whatever is on your mind. You do yours at home and I'll do mine right here. We
support one another by writing together. If you'd like to share some or all of what you've written, send it to me via email,
BAKED FRESH THIS MORNING
AT LETTER ROCK PARK
Sat., March 28, 2015
Is there anything more inane than wondering what you would be like today if only….? If only
you’d gone out with Suzie Q., if only you’d taken that job in Paris, if only you’d taken that
course in nuclear physics instead of the one called Golf Then and Now? Inane, but, yes,
I was talking to a couple of college lads last night and I said if I had it to do over, I don’t think
I’d have gone to college at all. Instead I spent twelve years there, from 1959 to 1971, that was
pretty much what I did. Student or teacher, that’s where I was. But what if when I was a lad of
15 and ran away to New Orleans and kept on going…what then?
Johnnie Rush, who had a beautiful ’47 Chevy Fleetwood, and I took off one dark December
night in 1953 and drove—first to Saint Louis, where we stayed the night, and then south to
Jackson, Mississippi and then to New Orleans. By the time we got to New Orleans, we were
broke and, truth be told, which it wasn’t, we were homesick. We sat in the car parked in
Audubon Park watching some people dressed in white play golf. We talked. “I’m going home
and join the Air Force,” Johnnie announced. “Where shall I drop you off?”
He had listened to me prate on and on about how I was going to jump a ship in New Orleans
and stowaway and become a cabin boy and sail the seven seas. The moment of truth had
come. It was Johnnie’s car. Together we had maybe six or seven dollars. May God strike me
dead, I had a failure of nerve. I finally squeaked, “I guess I’ll go back with you.”
And so we did. In a few days of marathon driving, picking up a hitch-hiker who helped a few
dollars with the gas, we were once again tooling down Poyntz Avenue in Manhattan to see if
there was anybody we knew and could honk and wave to.
But what if…?! What if I’d said, “Just let me out at the docks?” And down at the docks with all
the people going about, loading and unloading, the great tall ships, and I just slipped aboard
one of them, the Coronado, let’s say, and quickly crawled into a lifeboat made fast to
somewhere forward, and gone to sleep in the warm afternoon sun? And maybe that night,
hearing the deep voice of the engines going, I had walked into the crew’s night pantry and
asked what was for supper? And the big tall Negro night pantryman with the big tall white chef’
s hat had looked at me and said, Who are you, boy? You deck crew? You too young to be on
board. I have to report you to the Mate!
And what if the Mate had looked at me and said, “We’re a hundred miles out. What are we
going to do with you? “ And I’d say, “I can work, sir. I can help. I can earn my keep.” ###
Fri., March 27, 2015
Why do we care, even one whit, about whether “our” team wins or not? “My” team has been
Kansas—the Kansas Jayhawks—and it’s true that a thousand years ago I went to school there,
but I am not in the least sentimental about that. I was glad enough to leave it. As soon as I
graduated and moved on I began to get letters from the KU Alumni Association wanting money
so that they could….I don’t even know what they planned to do with the money except feather
their own nests. I never sent them a dime. Going to Mexico to write the great American novel,
getting remarried, I was too busy to bother with the KU Alumni Association. I never went to
any of their meetings, didn’t wear a sweatshirt or anything that said KU on it, and knew
absolutely no one in the administration. I couldn’t have told you the name of the president of
the university itself, much less the president of the alumni association.
In fact I was so sick of getting letters from them one day with a laugh I scratched out my name
and wrote DECEASED across it and dropped it in the mail box. I did not hear from them again.
So I went to Mexico, didn’t write the Great American, came home on a plane and started
teaching at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, a town I’d never heard of up in the
northern part of the state. I left after a few pleasant and eventful years, and had warmth then,
and do now, for my many friends there all now grown old, but I never supported their “team.” I
never thought of the team as “my team”—in honest fact I never knew they had one until some
guy in one of my freshman English classes came to see me about his grades and mentioned
that he was on the football team. “The Pointers,” he said, and I had no idea who they were. I
had never heard of them, had never been to a game, and was completely unimpressed that he
was on “the team.” I gave him the grade he deserved and moved on.
I left Stevens Point and came back to Kansas, where eventually I started my LifeStory hustle,
which I still do. In connection with that, I had to get publicity about what I was doing, and it
happened that one day I called the KU Alumni Association to see if they wouldn’t want to write
an article about what I was doing trying to get people to write their life stories. I phoned them,
and the lady who answered said she’d never heard of me. “We have no record of your ever
attending KU,” she said. I protested that I had two degrees from there, got them back in the
60s. (This was in the 90s.) “Let me call you back,” she said.
She did, later that day, and said she had done some research down in the basement where the
archives were. (This was before computers did much for us.) She had, indeed, found my
record—among those who had died. “You’ve been dead for thirty years,” she said, laughing. I
laughed too, and told her the story that I suddenly remembered. So I joined the Alumni
Association and was immediately restored to life. They wrote the article, I picked up a few
subscriptions, and for half a dozen years I kept up my membership. I haven’t exactly died all
over again, but I must say my contributions have gone into…a state of arrest, shall we say?
Meantime of course, I wear my little KU cap and watch every game that “my team” plays. ###
Thu., March 26, 2015
Remember when it was weird to write the date 2000-something? For a year or two we all said
“The Year two thousand and…” And then we started saying/writing just “Two thousand,” and
then we started saying/writing “Twenty-ten, twenty-fifteen, and so on,” and then one day it
seemed weird to write or say “Nineteen hundred.”
We get used to things. Just imagine what it must have been like back in one million BC. You’d
go to the bank to write a check and you wouldn’t have enough space to write the date, “March
26, 1,000,000 BC.” That would take a lot of getting used to. What a chore!
So anyway, here we are in twenty-fifteen. Four days into spring. It’s dark out, still, and I’m late
for the third morning in a row. It’s six thirty right on the button. I wish I could stop time, do all
the stuff I have to do, get all caught up and then say, Okay, start time again.
I would also like breakfast served to me on a silver tray. One of my staff of servants would
come into the room (after knocking, of course), and bow and scrape his way over to where I’m
sitting, bid me good morning, sir, and place the large tray on my lap (helping me to sit up and
fluff up my pillows) and then lift the lid over my eggs over easy, my toast, my two strips of
In the Navy at Great Lakes Naval Training Center, it wasn’t like that. Suddenly the lights went
on, and someone would come running down the rows of bunks with a twenty-gallon garbage
can (the classic “shitcan”) in hand as he banged the inside with a billy club. He would say
over and over something rude and crude like, All right you shitbirds! Drop your cocks and
grab your socks! Reveille! Reveille! Of course the word reveille was not pronounced it the
French manner, but Americanized into Revalee, Revallee! HIT THE DECK!
No servant discreetly tapping on the door. No tray upon our laps. We had five minutes, maybe
ten, to dress, fall out and be marched to chow half a mile away. Often as not the march was
double time, meaning RUN!
After chow we were given maybe fifteen minutes to wander back (straggle back was the phrase
then) to the grim gray barracks each distinguished from the other only by a number painted on
the side and sit around the “quarter deck” (picnic table painted gray, as was everything, the
famous “battleship gray:) and, if the “smoking lamp” was lit, we could relax and have a
cigarette before the morning routine began with a roar from the Chief Boatswain’s Mate or his
I was 17 years old, six hundred miles from home. How could this be happening to me?
Here I am, 60 years later, and I still wonder that. As old Randall Jarrell wrote many years ago,
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State
And I hunched its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.###
Tues., March 25, 2015
My mother always voted for the Democrats and my father always voted for the Republicans.
All three of us kids, once we were old enough to be political, leaned Democratic. So at the
dinner table Dad had his hands full fending off our challenges in the context of whatever issue
was in the news that day. We were readers (this was before television) and we took four daily
newspapers, at least a dozen news and pop culture mags like Time, Life, Newsweek, Look,
Collier’s, Saturday Evening Post, as well as National Geographic and on the big kayak-shaped
coffee table in our living room were also at least six or eight medical magazines that we all
occasionally dipped into for whatever reasons. (As a teen, I was very interested in one of Dad’
s books, Sex Endocrinology, which in those days was for me and my cohorts right up there
with the bra ads in the Sears Catalog (which we also had out) for our lusty reading—or should
I say, viewing?
But back to politics. Yet Dad never wavered in his Republican views. We joked that he voted
for Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover over and over and over. He loved Nixon and Reagan
and hated FDR and Truman and LBJ, who ruined the country, in his opinion. Now, as it
happens, my middle name is Roosevelt. My father’s middle name was also Roosevelt. But my
father was born in 1903, when Teddy Roosevelt was in office—not a Republican, really, but not
a Democrat either. So Dad was pleased to be named for him. I was born in 1938, when FDR
was in office. My mother claimed I was named for FDR (as did I, when I was old enough to
start claiming stuff like that), but my father insisted that I was named for him, and he was
named for TR, not FDR and so—there you go.
For all that, the only real argument and concern my father had when he got home from the
office and hospital and a long and hard day’s work in both of those places as well as, in those
days, making a housecall or two nearly every day—as you might appreciate, his only real
concern was when was supper to be served. My mother wasn’t a timely person, a chronic
insomniac who sometimes slept all day—if she wasn’t playing golf that day. When Dad came
home, Mom would be up, but often still wearing her “duster,” a kind of housedress women
wore back then. Supper was something she hadn’t even thought of.
Dad would begin with joking imprecations about dinner, but as the afternoon waned into
evening, the jokes became less funny and more serious. At such times my mother would
reluctantly go to the kitchen but not without a few parting shots at Dad, who sat frothing
behind his newspaper in his chair in the living room. At length dinner would be served.
Though my mother was an indifferent cook, at best, I don’t think he ever complained about her
food. He was glad to eat, and he did, with relish and appreciation. ###
Tues., March 24, 2015
When June and I got married right here on the farm under the four cedars trees in our yard—
May 26, 1974—we had been living together for a little more than a year and we were both trying
to de-academize and become farmers. June’s folks were real farmers and we learned a lot from
them. Two wedding guests, Joe and Shirley Mertz, came walking down the road; Joe had a live
piglet under his arm, and that was their wedding present to us.
Shirley, as we named her, was a twenty pound white piglet and she quickly grew up, as hogs
do, and she turned out to be a very good breeder. She had several litters of 12 or more and
she was a good mother. Soon we had a lot of piglets who were quickly becoming hogs. It
takes about 5 or 6 months for a hog to attain “butcher weight,” about 200 pounds.
I look back at my life this morning, a cloudy, rainy day, and I honestly have no idea why I did
the stuff I did. Soon enough we were raising hogs and making a living at it—sort of. We have
always “sort of” made a living. I have to conclude today that I am slow. I was slow to figure
out how to combine earning the money for a living with living the way we wanted to. It wasn’t
that we were lazy—usually at the end of the day we were exhausted from working
--it was that we were—well, slow. Why, for example, when June had a BFA in art and I had an
MFA in writing—why or why oh did we become pig farmers? I had been an assistant professor
of English at one of the branches of the University of Wisconsin and we could have gone back
there and picked up where I had left off just a couple of years before. But we chose not to do
that. I loved teaching, loved the university…but I left. In the 60s I slipped into hippiedom. So
did June, whom I did not know then. A talented and prize-winning artist, she was slipping into
hippiedom too. If we had not become hippies, we would not have met, we would not have been
attracted to one another.
How exactly does one become a hippie? It’s an attitude thing. Growing your hair long was
simply a sign of a certain attitude. Wearing old clothes was another. One day at the university
I was wearing a suit and tie and then somehow within a few months there I was wearing a blue
workshirt and a railroadman’s striped cap and boots. Hippies had to wear boots. We didn’t
wear our suede hush puppies anymore. No. We wore chukka boots or lace up boots or even
(as June did) cowboy boots.
I wish I could look back on my long life and see that I did everything for good reasons. But I
can’t. I can’t say I did them for bad reasons, either. I just did what I did. ###
Mon., March 23, 2015
What if it never rains again? We spent the winter, a good part of it, in a place where it rains
every day, and now here we are back in Kansas where it hasn’t rained more than a couple of
feeble rains in the month we’ve been back. I always hated that about Kansas: I was always
hoping for rain, watching the weather, wishing it would cloud up. When it didn’t rain I always
took it personally: God wasn’t going to let it rain because of me.
And then yesterday, my team, the great University of Kansas, lost to…Wichita? I didn’t even
know they had a team. They’re Kansas people, aren’t they? Wichita, Kansas…why then are
they not cooperating? Why can’t they can’t together on this?
Same thing with the rain. Why can’t the State of Washington share its excess rain with
Kansas? They build pipelines to carry oil…why not build ones to carry rainwater? I just don’t
get it. What’s technology for?
This is Monday. It’s time to complain.
Everything is bad…nothing is good. Everything is bad…nothing is good.
Plus it’s cold this morning. 37 degrees. What’s the meaning of this? I demand an
explanation. I want my mommy.
Just now I learn it’s going to go down to 20 here in a couple of days. And the trees are just
starting to bloom. Don’t they know that? The apricots are in bloom, and now it’s going to go
down to 20, and what’ll that do to the apricots and all the other beautiful flowers? Oh, boy, do
they ever have things wrong. This week isn’t starting out right. I’m moving to Texas.
Actually we lived in Texas during the War. By “War” of course I mean World War II. It was
always hot and dry and sunny. We learned to sing The stars are bright, it’s never night, Deep
in the Heart of Texas. We sang it over and over until our parents were ready to scream. In fact,
they did scream. We were near Camp Barkley, close to Abilene, definitely deep in the heart of
But I wouldn’t want to live in Texas. All those guns and cattle. I’m a vegetarian—sort of. We
went to Washington as vegetarians and came home as flexitarians. When in Rome, right? We
were in flex, so we ate meat. It wasn’t my idea. In some of the motels we stayed at, we ate
soylent green for breakfast. I am quite sure that’s what it was.
I am struggling this morning to write one intelligent word. But I can’t, I just can’t….
Okay, here it is: I believe, I have come to believe, that as a child (which of course I still am,
among other things) I believed that if I just cried loud enough, yelled loud enough, asserted my
two foot high presence enough—then the world would pay attention. But it didn’t happen.
That infuriated me all the more. My infantile fury should have changed the world. But it didn’t.
And so things have been screwy ever since. ###
Sun., March 22, 2015
When I was 19 I got married and about five months later we moved to New York City. Betsy
and I had been living in Norman, Oklahoma, a small college town then not far from Oklahoma
City; I was in the Navy. When I was ordered to Brooklyn, New York, I was still in the Navy and
was to be based in Brooklyn but on a ship sailing out of there.
But for a few days, we considered ourselves residents of Brooklyn, and we stayed in the
Mohawk Hotel in Flatbush. It was a small retirement hotel—nearly everyone there was
ancient. There was a dining room where we ate, and everyone stared at us like we were from
another planet. Which, really, we were. We were from Kansas. We were just kids. We knew
nothing of the culture we had been dropped into. In a few days I was sent aboard a ship
sailing next day for Bremerhaven, Germany, and we decided that Betsy should go back home
and finish college. We may have driven back together, but I think, really, that she drove back
to Kansas alone. I don’t remember. The new plan was that she would go back to college and
finish up there while I finished my two additional years in the Navy—or year and a half, really,
and with any luck, a little less than that if I could get an “early out” to attend college. I didn’t
get that early out as luck would have it. I did get out one week early, January 16, 1959 instead
of January 23, 1959.
That year and a half at sea was one of the high points of my life. Though by then I can’t say I
liked the Navy and was thoroughly sick of it, I loved ships and I loved the sea. If I had it to do
over I would have served my time in the Navy and next day signed up for the Merchant Marine
and spent another five or ten years living aboard a ship. I loved the sailing, I loved the idea of
being underway, I loved words like “underway,” “topside,” “gangway,” “going aft,” and all
those words that sailors use in their everyday life.
In fact wherever I was an whatever I did, words were the principal force in my life. That’s why I
loved the printing trade, which I learned working for a print shop in Manhattan. Words like
“quoin,” “make ready,” “type high,” “composing stick,” “stone” and all those words became
part of my vocabulary and part of my life.
Maybe I should have become a doctor, like my father. All those Latin words that fell trippingly
from the tongue…great disease names like “retinal detachment,” and “eurhythroblastosis
The writing biz has nothing to compare to that. We have all the words, but we have none,
really, of our own. “Paper,” what kind of a trade word is that? Not much. Now, “Computer.” I
used to know this guy, Ray Whearty (whatever happened to you, Ray?), who was my colleague
when I taught at this little state school in Wisconsin, and with whom I shared an office, and
Ray too was a writer and he talked about his “machine,” meaning his typewriter. I picked that
up. Today sometimes I talk about “my machine” rather than my computer. It sounds so much
more professional. ####
Sat., March 21, 2015
If I could do anything I wanted today, what would I do?
I’d probably sit here and write. But I’d have something to write about.
Yesterday June and I were sitting here on our couch together and talking. There’s a new issue
of AARP out and they always have a celebrity, don’t ask me why I don’t want to know, on the
cover. This month’s is Bob Dylan. He’s wearing sunglasses and staring at the camera
blankly—no smile. “I wonder why he never smiles,” June said.
“He wants to look haughty,” I said. “Those guys never smile for the camera. They’re poseurs.
Total frauds.” I didn’t think of Pat Boone or Doris Day, who always smile. “Smile for the
camera,” they used to say. But for rock stars and such, they say, “Wipe that smile off your
face. Look cool for the camera.” And so they strike a pose. The idea in life is to look cool.
I guess you can look what you want to look like, I went on thinking. Bob Zimmerman from
Duluth, Minnesota wiped the smile off his face and went to New York City and put on
sunglasses and never smiled again. He sang like he had just had a laryngectomy, called
himself Bob Dylan, and never looked back.
I am fond of remembering that Roy Rogers was really Leonard Sly from Cincinnati, Ohio; that
Doris Day was really Doris von Kloppelhoff; that Tony Curtis was Bernard Schwartz, and Cary
Grant was Archibald Leach.
When I was around 10 I was one of Roy’s fans. At a movie of his, Roy Rogers and the Raiders
of Sawtooth Ridge, they gave away free 8x10s of him with his horse, Trigger, and I tacked it on
the wall above my bed. I’d give it a good look before getting into bed at night and I’d fantasize
about being with Roy out on the range or running down some miscreant or other. But
sometimes I’d forget what Roy looked like, exactly, so I’d turn on the light and look again, turn
it off, and go back into my fantasy.
This greatly annoyed my room-mate and brother, who was no fan of Roy, and just wanted to
go to sleep.
Could I ever escape being Charley Kempthorne from Manhattan, Kansas? Grinning goofily for
the camera, making some smart remark or other…? I am what I am, said Popeye the
Sailorman. Popeye was maybe the greatest philosopher of the 20th Century.
Honestly. I can’t say I’m well read in philosophy, but I read a little. I remember Wittgenstein,
what did he know? “All the world’s the case,” or something like that. Or old what’shisname,
the Dane, who said that if God didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent Him. Actually, that’s
kind of smart. Much smarter than Sartre, who said he was extremely embarrassed by the fact
that God did not exist. Sartre, of whom Norman Mailer said, would have given fifty points off
his IQ to have been five inches taller. ###
Fri., March 20, 2015
I am writing this morning without coffee. Let’s just see if I can make it through 500 words
without gasping for breath or going into anaphylactic shock, or both.
I began drinking coffee as a teenager, 14 or 15, because I wanted to be like grown ups. Grown
ups drank coffee and smoked cigarets (yes, I began doing that too) and of course I wanted to
be a grown up and on my own! I bought an old car for $100. I had a job after school and on
Saturdays in a print shop downtown and I made my own money and so I bought my own
coffee, my own cigarets, and my own car. Wasn’t I the proper grownup. See me there, 1953,
standing in front of my 1934 Chevy with a couple of pals. No doubt right after the picture we
went to town and had a cup of coffee or, if we could fake our age, a ten cent glass of beer. A
few years ago I gave up drinking beer. But I kept on with the coffee, and with the attitude: I
gotta have a cup of coffee or I’m gonna die.
I’m not going to quit drinking coffee, I don’t think. I just want to see if I can make it fifteen
minutes into the day without it. So far, so good.
Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country. The quick brown fox
jumped over five dozen liquor jugs. How much wood could a woodchuck chuck, if a
woodchuck could chuck wood? Around the rock the ragged rascals ran. She sells seashells
at the seashore.
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.
When I was about that same age I ran away from home about once a week. Once I made it to
New Orleans—that’s a long story. But another time I made it to Topeka, Kansas, just 50 miles
away. I wanted to get a job and live on my own. I went right downtown to where all the state
offices were, all the big white buildings, and I went with some trepidation up the steps into the
office of the STATE PRINTER. It was a big building. State Printer was actually an elective
office in those days, and Fred somebody was it. He was a big affable heavy man, and his
swanky office was just inside the great hall of the building humming with people doing the
state’s printing. I went into his office and asked to see the State Printer. They showed me into
his office and there he was sitting at his desk and asking me what I wanted.
(This is a true story.)
I piped right up and said I was looking for a job as a printer.
“Are you a high school graduate?”
“No, sir. I just want to be a printer.”
“Son, you have to be a high school graduate.” He peered across the desk at me. He wasn’t
unfriendly. “How old are you.”
“I’m 15 going on 16, sir.”
“Hmm. Well, I’d like to have you working here, but I want you to go back home—where are you
from?” He asked, and I told him I was from Manhattan—“I want you to go back to Manhattan
and finish high school and then come back and apply for a job here.” “Yes, sir,” I said.
“Do you have folks?”
“Good.” He slid a printed card across the desk to me with his name and photo on it, and it
said VOTE FOR --- (I can’t remember his name but I’d know it if I heard it) FOR STATE
I thanked him, went down the long stairs, and got into my car and drove back to Manhattan. I
did graduate from high school, but by then I didn’t want to work for the State Printer, though I
thought about it, and then I went down and signed up for the U. S. Navy.
And now I’m going to make some coffee. ###
Thursday, March 19, 2015
This morning I think of all the people in my life I have met or was in contact with for a few
minutes or a few hours or even a few days, people I’ve forgotten, never knew the names
of…just people streaming past in my life.
On the other hand, JFK once looked at me. He was three feet away, surrounded by a dozen
Hungarian students and…little old moi. As he was talking vigorously to them, he glanced at
me. Doubtless his stream of consciousness didn’t register me. I might have reached out and
taken his hand and shook it but I was overcome with shyness. I could have told him what I
thought about the world situation. The moment passed. He moved on, late for his plane.
Jackie walked along in his wake, surrounded by reporters and others. I went back downstairs
to have another cup of coffee in the University of Wisconsin student union cafeteria and to
study my French. Eh bien, Charley.
Once a guy in a workshop told how he had been a teacher at Princeton University as a young
man and he sat behind Einstein at a lecture. It was a cold winter night and Einstein had hung
his coat over the back of the chair and the guy said he touched Einstein’s coat. Now there’s
A man went to God and asked God if it was true that to Him, a million years was like a minute.
God said yes, that was so. Then the man asked God if to Him a million dollars was like a
penny. Yes, that’s true also, God said.
The man marveled at that and briefly hesitated. Then he said, God, could I have a penny? Yes,
God said, in a minute.
Hahahahaha. That joke is older than Methuselah, you might say.
I went yesterday to a small group of memoir writers at the Riley County Senior Center. We
have been meeting a couple of times a month now for five years. We’re old friends, and we
enjoy reminiscing. We bring something we’ve written and read it to the others. Usually
something in the story touches off a bout of reminiscence. Reminiscence in itself is wonderful
fun, I think, and probably healing of whatever wounds we might have. We tell stories on
ourselves and laugh about it. The meeting was small, only half a dozen of us. That is part of
its charm and fun, but of course we’d like more people to come. It’s one of the town’s best
kept secrets. I guess people stay away, well, partly because they’ve got other fish to fry, but
as much as anything, I suppose, at the horror of having to write something and bring it and—
shudder! Read it aloud.
One time I was riding on a bus out West, maybe one of those times I was with a couple of my
kids, and it was dark and late but I couldn’t sleep as we rumbled through the mountains and
neither could this guy next to me, and we started talking and we talked all the way to Denver at
dawn. We exchanged life stories, as people will do. He was a little older than me, a very
voluble and pleasant man. I came to admire him. At the end of the night he said something
about how life just went on and on, didn’t it? and Wasn’t it a wonderful thing? And that
became part of me, part of what I believed. I never knew his name, never saw him again, but he
became part of me. ###
Wed., March 18, 2015
There should be a little tin guy there beside you every time you think you’re smart, and his job
would be to hit you on the head with a mallet—firmly but not fatally. The thunk of the mallet,
like some Rube Goldberg machine, or like the little gadgets in the inner ear, would send a
shock wave right down your spine to warn you that, really, you are stupid to think you’re
smart. This would in turn trigger a wave of thoughts about how to reconnoiter and get back on
track. All this would result in some readjustment of your opinion of yourself.
I not only felt I was smarter than everyone in the world, I thought if they knew more about
something than I did, well, that something didn’t matter. Only what I knew mattered. And what
did I know?
a. I knew that a sonnet had 14 lines except in the case of a curtle sonnet, which only had 12.
b. I knew that if you started your story in the middle that was known as in medias res.
c. I knew the license plate numbers of my friends’ cars.
d. I knew that the capital of Ethiopia was Addis Abba.
In addition to this vast encyclopedic stuff, I had a wonderful sense of humor and I was able to
laugh at others very easily.
Finally, I knew that whatever trouble I got into, I could write my way out of it.
Now approaching old age if not in the thick of it, the little tin guy with the mallet is thwacking
away like nobody’s business. Every day if not every hour I learn something new I thought I
already knew but didn’t. I also learn that, if gnat’s have a memory, that’s what mine is like.
Someone says, My name is Jack, and I hold out my hand and say, Mine’s Charley. What’s
If I am given a number of more than 4 digits, by the time I get to the 4th one I have forgotten the
first 2. Well, it’s tricky.
It’s pretty distressing to be at the end of my life just the kid in the back row with his head
down, hoping the teacher won’t call on him. What’s the capital of Missouri, Charles? Uh,
Kansas City? No, Charles, it’s not Kansas City.
Yet this morning I feel some inkling of something new that I need to know and, once learned, I
may not forget…soon.
I am learning that I do not know anything. I know that I don’t know.
It’s refreshing. Ahoy, inside the head! There’s nothing here…it’s clean as a whistle!
One thing—that ability to laugh at others that I’ve always had—I have managed to modify
slightly to accommodate myself into the “things to laugh at today” category. That’s a good
In other words, contemplating the rise of the sun this morning, I know that, Though the
situation is grave, it’s not serious. ###
Tues., March 17, 2015
I was knocked around a little in school but not routinely and, really, nothing like I deserved.
Given my errant and insolent and disruptive behavior, I deserved to be rolled into a little ball
and knocked out of the park. From about 8th grade on, I was a case of “Charles disturbs
others.” I thought I was cute, and some of the other students did too, but mostly I was just
being a jerk—a disruptive and badly behaved kid. This was back in the early 50s, and then the
only recourse the teacher had was to thwack me a good one or to send me to the principal’s
office or write a note to my parents. In fact my parents didn’t want to be embarrassed by a
note from school. Nor did the principal want me to be sitting in his office when, maybe, he was
trying to make out with the school secretary. My parents were busy: my mother was a serious
golfer and my father was a doctor with an office full of patients.
For school counselors they had one guy on the faculty who maybe had taken a psych course
or two and was willing to earn a little extra money talking to kids like me—most of whom had
nothing to say or if they did, like me, they simply ran rings around the poor counselor.
I guess this was in the days after errant students were beaten routinely but before the rise of
counseling the Troubled Youth. I was certainly a Troubled Youth. But most teachers were
reluctant to spank or otherwise touch kids then, at least in my public school in not-really-very-
liberal Manhattan, Kansas. But Manhattan was a college town, and some of the kids were
faculty children, and so…maybe that was part of it.
Al Hargrave, the gym teacher, knocked us boys around, though, and did it on such a scale and
with such fierce routine that for his pains he got fired.
Gym class under Mr. H was like being in the Army. We stood at attention on a black line
painted on the gym floor for most of the hour while Hargrave amused himself by taunting us.
One day, Larry Finuf was chewing bubble-gum in formation, a real no-no. Hargrave advanced
to him, his face red, his curly blond locks quaking. Are you chewing gum, Finuf? Of course
Larry lied and said he wasn’t. “Open your mouth,” Hargrave said. Larry did, and of course
there was an enormous wad of Double Bubble gum in all its pinkness. “Reach in your mouth
and take the gum in your hand,” Hargrave said. Larry did as he was told. “Now put your hand
on your head,” Hargrave said. Larry hesitated. “Go ahead, Finuf. Put your hand on your
head.” I suppose if Larry had been cunning and resourceful he would have put his hand on his
head with the palm and the gum upward, but he didn’t. Anyway, he would only have infuriated
Hargrave all the more and delayed the inevitable.
Hargrave put his own hand on top of Larry’s and pressed down and around so that the gum
was mashed into Larry’s long hair.
It happened that Larry was a carrot-top. He had beautiful and fine and long orange hair. Now
he had a wad of Double Bubble ground into it. Everyone was horrified, but everyone was
laughing too. Hargrave went on with the class and his various harangues until class was over
and we were finally sent downstairs to the showers.
I don’t know if Larry went to the showers along with the rest of us. What I do know is that a
few weeks later, Mr. Hargrave was down in Wichita, selling cars for a living. ###
Mon., March 16, 2015
I have always washed dishes, and I’ve always liked it. I stood on a chair to help my mom with
the dishes. She washed, I dried. This was in the 40s. The idea of a machine that washed
dishes then was restricted, I guess, to German Bahnhoff types or something like that. Hitler
probably never washed dishes. I’m not saying that had he washed the dishes every night for
his mom that he wouldn’t have been Hitler. But it’s a thought. Little things change lives.
Maybe, come to think of it, washing the dishes all these years has kept me from being a Hitler.
I don’t look much like him. Even when I had black hair, I didn’t look much like him. The
obvious shock of black hair across my forehead, the clipped moustache, the cold (blue?)
eyes…I had and do not now have any of those. I have never had a moustache though I am not
philosophically opposed to one. My neighbor has grown a moustache and he looks quite
distinguished and like a secretary of state. And he could be one because he’s one very smart
guy chez politics.
My Uncle Arthur, however, who often wore a fine double-breasted suit and looked like the great
French diplomat of the 19th Century—his name is apparently one of those bytes of information
that my grandson Kyle tells me wasn’t important to remember anyway, and so I have forgotten
it—when Uncle Arthur opened his handsome, toothy mouth even with his fine head of white
hair and strong face—well, it was quite apparent he was not a diplomat at all. Chevalier, wasn’t
that his name? That of course is the singer, Maurice Chevalier. Well, it doesn’t matter.
I don’t think I ever looked like anybody big. Well, there was that semester or two at college
when I resembled “Bill, who attended Harvard.” This was back in the early 60s. I was in
graduate school at KU, the university of Kansas. I was happy and teaching part time and all
over the campus all day long. No less than three times that semester different men came up to
me and said “Bill! I haven’t seen you since Harvard!” or something like that. They were
quickly disabused. I told one I hadn’t seen him since Kansas State College of Agriculture and
Applied Sciences, and he quickly excused himself and slunk silently away.
I have never been at, in or near Harvard. Not once. It’s in Massachusetts, I know that, though
back in the day when someone told me they had gone to Harvard I said, Oh, that’s in
Pennsylvania, isn’t it? I’d have gone off to Harvard like anybody else if they had asked me.
But they didn’t. So I became very proud of being a public state university sort of fellow. But
now, looking back, I wish I’d never gone to college at all, much less stayed around twelve
years of my precious life. In those twelve years I could have gone to sea and become a deck
officer on a smelly freighter making ports of call in South America—and writing novels—or I
could have gone to New York and worked on some daily rag of a newspaper—and written
novels—or I could have gone to work in the vegetable fields of Peru—and written novels—but
instead I went to Kansas State University, Washburn University, the University of Oklahoma,
the University of Wisconsin and the University of Iowa (have I left anyone out?)—and did not
write any novels.
I did, however, after more than 30 years of de-universitying as a pig farmer, shepherd,
handyman, housepainter and fixer of toilets, write one novel.
Sun., March 15, 2015
I'm writing and out of the corner of my eye on mute with captions is some History channel
thing about the Empress Theodora. She was, apparently, quite a babe the Emperor Justinian's
courtesan and confidant.
When I was a kid I memorized other peoples phone numbers and license plate numbers. No
Justianian I, but I did what I did best. I remembered numbers. Want to know my family's first
phone number here in town? 3917. Yes! 3-9-1-7. My wife's social security number? I've got it
down. The license plate of the first car I ever owned, my beloved 1934 Chevy with the wide
runningboards and the big silver headlights standing out there on the huge fenders? It was
(can you wait?) RL 14530!!
Later I graduated to other stuff: Doris Day's real name (Doris von Kloppelhoff), the population
of New York City in 1950, the height of the highest fresh water lake in the world, Lake Titicaca
(11141 feet)...oh, what would you like to know?
In this same vein I proceeded through high school, the Navy (serving on board T-AP 126, The
Rose, built in 1946 and scrapped in 2000), and college learning hot and useful stuff like
Alexander the Great's birthday (323 BC), how many lines and the rime scheme of an English
sonnet, and Italian sonnet, the definition of Gerard Manley Hopkins' sprung rhythm, not to
mention the capital cities of most of the countries of the world...oh, I learned so much, I was so
learned, I was just bustin' out all over with erudition. I was the answer man.
And then in my 70s I began to forget things. Names, numbers, what I had for breakfast, where
I parked my car (I was in truth never too good with that...it was too practical, but where I used
to park my car was another matter)I knew everything useless and now I was forgetting it.
My grandson, Kyle, said, Maybe it didn't matter all that much, Grandpa?
And so I let go of a few million non-essentials. Maybe a few million more won't matter, either.
Ah, the things we learn from our grandchildren!
When was the War of 1812? Who wrote Beethoven's 5th Symphony? Who is buried in Grant's
Tomb? Who wrote the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini?
When I was in the 7th grade at Manhattan Junior High, and Miss Ida Jane Summers asked what
the capital of Missouri was, my hand shot up. I waved my hand and snapped my fingers for
her attention. Not you, Charles, Miss Summers said. We all know you know, she went on,
smiling saccharinely at me as my hand was going down and wilting as I sat there in the front
row. Today we'd like to know what the others know. She looked at the back row where a
bunch of boys sat trying to hide. Elmer? she called at the biggest boy. Elmer put his thumbs
in his bib overall straps. Uh, Kansas City? No, Elmer, I'm sorry, Miss Summers said. Delbert?
Delbert looked at the floor. Uh, Saint Louis? He had been there once with his Mom and Dad.
No, Delbert, that's a good guess, but ... Anyone? Her bright eyes canvassed the rows of
students and finally she looked at me, bursting to speak. All right, Charles, tell us what it is.
JEFFERSON CITY! I screamed. And Miss Summers smiled and nodded and went on with her
lecture. The boys in the back row glowered at me. I'd get mine on the playground, I had a
feeling, and I slunk my head down. ###
Sat., March 14, 2015
It’s a little after midnight. We got safely through Friday the 13th. The only bad luck is I’m
having trouble with my backspace key. I carefully jimmied the cover plate off and blew as hard
as I could to get the dust off, and it’s better, but it’s not all better. I will have to do it again
soon. Maybe I should take one of those cans of air and go through the whole thing. It is after
all an 8 year old machine.
I can’t sleep now because I slept when I came home this afternoon. We had some ice cream,
or I did, and we took a looong nap. We were tired. When you are old you are tired a lot. Or I
should say I am. So here I am, a bit after midnight and I’m up sitting here in the living room,
watching Classic Arts on TV, or listening rather, watching only out of the corner of my eye, and
writing. I am always writing. As a little kid I sat in my room and wrote while other kids were
out playing baseball. I had some money coming because I helped with the wheat harvest and
with that money I bought a Smith-Corona portable typewriter. I painted the keys with luminous
paint so that I could write in the dark. (It didn’t really work, as after about ten minutes the
luminosity wore off and I’d have to turn on a lamp and hold the typewriter up to it to re-charge
In high school other kids had favorite bats; I had a favorite fountain pen, an Esterbrook. It was
a beautiful washed green and I had a broad tip so that my handwriting looked, to me, pretty
impressive. In the Navy of course I was a yeoman, a typist really, that’s all, but I loved being
that, and letting anyone and everyone know that in the old Navy the yeoman was called “the
ship’s writer.” Less impressively, a yeoman was called a “titless wave” or merely a
“Remington Raider.” I worked on a heavy Underwood machine where, someone figured out,
that if you typed on it all day long you lifted ten tons. That’s a lot. Maybe that number isn’t
right. But it was a lot.
Out of the Navy and in college I bought a little Smith Corona again, older even that the one I’d
had as a boy, one made in 1938, the year I was born. I wrote my first long work of fiction on it,
a short novel I called Bellissima. It was corny but coherent and even in its way, moving. No
one ever published it but I did use it for my MA thesis.
Then a friend, Paul and his wife, Nancy, who had rooms in our own house in Wisconsin, and
charged them no rent because they were, after all, friends, and we had plenty of space…well,
they gave me a brand new Olivetti Underwood typewriter, a portable, and so cool—it was the
first colored appliance of any kind I ever had. It was a little paler than a robin’s egg blue, with
black trim. I used that machine for years. It was, in fact, my last typewriter. I wish I’d kept it.
Maybe I’d be a better writer.###
Fri., March 13, 2015
The story of my night was long and dreamy—and pee-y. I dreamed about laughing bears.
What I wouldn’t give for a night’s sleep like any of my grandchildren no doubt are just finishing
up in their beds out on the West Coast. The sleep of childhood…long gone. My doctor, whom
I saw yesterday, has a new pill that will over time shrink my prostate down to where I can get a
better night’s sleep. I just wish I could have spent the first year of my life pooping and peeing
and let it go at that: from 2 on, don’t bother. Wouldn’t that be great?
But that laughing bear dream was interesting. I’ve had many dreams of bears bearing coming
after me, and they weren’t laughing. I was terrified. I’d usually wake up sweating and maybe
screaming to: Help! Help! I’d scream, and my wife would pat me on my rear and say, Charley,
it’s just a dream.
But it wasn’t just a dream. It was, but deep down where we live, it was holy terror, running
from my self, running from the reality. But in this dream the bear at first was terrifying and
chasing and then we ended up laughing together—I can see that big bear mouth open with
those enormous teeth curled in laughter—and he offered me some candy from a sack and we
ate it and laughed together.
That’s a change. Maybe the thing that has been chasing me all my life is really my friend who
would share his candy with me. We could sit in the sun and laugh and eat candy.
I pay attention to my dreams. In dreams I am really awake. [I also pay attention to my slips of
the tongue or pen, and just now, above, I wrote the thing that has been changing me rather
than chasing me. Whoa!
I wonder if the sometime compulsion to tell a dream is similar to the compulsion some of us
have to tell a story—or two. And how about the guy in Rime of the Ancient Mariner who sat on
a stone and told the wedding guests the story of the killing of the albatross, ending with He
prayeth best who loveth best/All things both great and small?
I dunno. Life is weird. And maybe it’s not so bad, after all.
When I was a little kid and had a piece of candy some bigger kid would always come along and
say, Gimme a bite, will yuh? And then he’d take it—tootsie roll or whatever—and chomp a
huge bite, handing me back a mere fragment. Maybe that’s when I began to think that life was
unfair. I wonder where those kids are now, the ones who took almost all the candy from little
kids’ candy bars? Are they the CEOs of large corporations? Or are they down and out, lying
under bridges, sipping Gallo from a bottle wrapped in a paper sack? ###
Thu., March 12, 2015
A slice of life is revealing, as revealing if not more so, than many an ordinary narrative from
one’s life. And so I write that I went to Dillon’s to buy an apple and there I am in the thick of
teeming life, looking at the mounds of red and green and yellow apples.
When I was a kid an apple was an apple and it cost a nickel…if they had any. I looked at the
various types with the cute little oval labels pasted on them…Jazz, Honey Crisp, and so on,
and I look at the prices, some of them as much as 2.99 a pound. A buck fifty for a single
apple! Of course these aren’t apples off trees of the local orchard. No. These are Tibetan
apples grown only in the Tibetan sun and with arugula patches (Chinese arugula, of course)
nearby because of the, don’t you know, special aroma of arugala and how it interacts
chemically with Tibetan apples… And then these are harvested in the full moon while the
Tibetan monks are up there in the mountains having their pre-dawn swim and prayer, and
within minutes the apples are flown probably cabin class to markets in the USA and Europe
where they are downloaded and specially refrigerated until they arrive there on that apple
stand right under your nose.
Hmmph, I say to all that, as I pick through them and check my pocket to be sure I’ve got
enough money for a Honey Crisp, which is the reigning queen of appledom. And then I see
my old pal, Ken. We have been living all winter in cities and wherever you go, there are
people. Here in the Little Apple (pardon me, but that’s our nickname), Manhattan, Kansas,
wherever you go there are people you know and went to school with or go to church with or
bought a used car from.
So Ken and I schmooze as we look at the apples and remember the time we dug a basement
together out here at our place, Letter Rock, so many years ago. “It was a pretty dumb thing to
do,” Ken laughed, “but it was fun.” “I guess we’d never heard of a back hoe,” he went on, and
I allowed that in fact I had not, that I did not have the slightest idea what a back hoe
was…maybe a hoe you used backwards? “We did everything backwards,” Ken laughed again,
and picked up a Honey Crisp to take with. “Lunch,” he said, and waved and went off.
I took a Honey too and moved onto the yogurt section. Oh, they were all out of the French
yogurt flavored with African corn blossoms…darn. I’d just have to go with either Dannon’s, or
Yoplait, or…any of the other 144 different kinds of yogurt. When I was a kid we didn’t even
know what yogurt was…some kind of, no doubt, communistic stuff that would give us the
What a life it is, no? ###
Wed., March 11, 2015
In that little black Renault one time I was driving to Topeka from Lawrence for my therapy hour
with Dr. Bob Menninger, and at the west edge of Lawrence on old Highway 40 (which was the
way I always went) stood a couple of guys hitch-hiking. I picked them up. (Or now I think
about it, it might have been at the east edge of Topeka on my way back to Lawrence; I simply
don’t remember and it doesn’t much matter.) They said something about car trouble, I think,
and of course one was in the back and the other in the front. You couldn’t seat three people in
the front of a Renault.
A couple of days earlier I’d been driving down Massachusetts Avenue in Lawrence and I
parked, ran an errand, and when I got back in the car I saw on the pavement an ice pick, a
common enough thing back in those days—a few people still used them, I guess—and I picked
it up and tossed it into the open glove compartment. I thought nothing of it, it was just
something intact that was lost by somebody and maybe I’d need it some day for something.
Well, the guy sitting in the front while we were driving to Topeka saw that, picked it up and
looked at me weirdly. Do you use this on hitch-hikers? He said. I laughed a little
uncomfortably. He played with it, felt the sharp pointed tip, rolled it around in his hand, and
showed it to the guy behind me. Here I was, driving along, not that far from the State Prison
Reception Center on Topeka’s east side, and these guys, one of whom I could not see, were
playing with an icepick. Luckily this was before In Cold Blood. Finally the guy tossed it back
into the compartment—I might have suggested that to him, I don’t remember—and we drove on
and got to their destination and I let them out. Whew! I don’t think I’ve picked up two hitch-
hikers at once since.
Of course, no one hitch-hikes anymore except escaped murderers. Back in the day, though, I
hitch-hiked a lot and I loved it. It was a wonderful, happy and free way to travel. I don’t mean
just free free, I mean it made me feel free and footloose and—maybe I liked this the most, an
observer of the world rather than part of it. Something about that I liked. I was kind of like, to
use the French phrase (!) a flaneur.
One time when I was supporting my writing habit and my family by working at odd jobs in
town a couple of other guys and I built a decorative fence for a rich old lady who was so
pleased that she had us inscribe in the still-wet concrete sidewalk, How hard, How beautiful.
Which, I thought, was dumb enough. But she looked in some book and got it in Greek, which
none of us, including her, knew from—well, Greek. So, eager to please—and to get paid—we
followed the book she gave us and carefully wrote it in Greek on a sidewalk in Manhattan,
I don’t suppose there are contractors in Greece going around with American books and writing
Howdy or something like that on their sidewalks? ###
Tu., March 10, 2015
My father loaned me the money to buy a used Renault, at least to make a down payment on it.
He didn’t approve of foreign cars. It wasn’t old: it was a 1959 Renault and this was about
1963. It was black and white and had two horns: one little toot for city driving, and a lower one
for country. Instead of a glove compartment with a door it had an opening with no door. Of
course all the dashboard names of things were in French. Oh, did I love that. I had taken a
couple of French courses and I wished fervently that I was French. I had zero French blood. I
would have given anything to have at least some, and to have a French name instead of a
Cornish one. Who ever heard of Cornwall? What great intellectual had come from Cornwall?
Nobody that I knew.
I had been at Menningers and still went there three times a week for analysis/therapy and all
the men psychiatrists—except mine—were Europeans or South Americans and they wore their
topcoats over their shoulders without putting their arms in the sleeves. Oh, God, I wanted
that. Oh, I wanted to do that too but mostly I was afraid to: someone would make fun of me. I
wanted so terribly badly, though, to be European. Anything to be anything but the Kansas
Midwestern boy that I was. I had only been in France once, and that was for about eight hours
when I was on board the Rose and we stopped in La Pallice for refueling and I went ashore and
bought a pipe for a dollar that was made in France. I tried to smoke it instead of cigarets but it
just didn’t work out.
I spoke French to myself. I couldn’t wait to start dreaming in French. Once a pretty French
girl, really from France, said I had a good French accent and I fell in love with her on the spot. I
looked at myself in the mirror that night and said bonjour or something and thought I looked
oh so Gallic.
I can’t believe the hours I wasted studying French—in college and out. I would have been
better off to study agriculture or engineering. But there I was, confront with a problem like
replacing one of the huge blades on my disk all I could do was look at it and conjugate etre in
two or three of its many, many tenses.
I wasn’t a linguist. I just wasn’t. The only books I ever read in French without resorting
constantly to a dictionary were so silly that a child would find them silly. My youngest
daughter went to Europe out of high school and traveled around and picked up languages
easy as pie. She even matriculated into the University of Paris. By that time I was here on the
farm raising pigs—cochons, I should say, so all I could do was oink and fantasize that one day
I’d be invited to lecture there, a visiting Americain, un homme tres amusant et…whatever.###
Mon., March 9, 2015
My mother had a pet cat, Trinket, and Trinket had a buddy, Bubba, and both of these huge and
ugly cats slept with her or near her the last years of her life. I did not like them and they did
not like me. When I came by Mom’s Bubba would disappear behind furniture while Trinket
would sit on Mom (almost always in bed except when she was in the kitchen making the cats
their daily pork chop) and stare at me balefully.
But of course Mom loved these cats, and when she died a neighbor and friend put their feeding
dish on the flat stone on Mom’s grave. It was there for fifteen or so years and then it somehow
cracked in half and I took it and put it in our art shop for repair, where it still is.
I am not a cat person, though we have here at the farm—or the Institute, I should say—always
ten or fifteen or twenty of them hanging around the back door. June loves them and feeds
them. A kind neighbor, Cynthia, fed them while we were on the West Coast for three months.
June claims they keep down the mouse population and it’s true I have not seen a mouse in
years. One or two of the cats are friendly enough to me, but the others, though I have never
done them wrong, sense my inherent enmity and run from me.
Dogs are another matter. I like dogs, big dogs like my beloved Molly Moose. Molly was half
Saint Bernard and half Collie. Or so we all said. She was a big happy dog who wagged her
great tail like a flag whenever we came near. On hot days she used to crawl through a hole in
the side of the rock foundation of the house and lie there in the cool darkness. We might be in
the living room and we’d say, or croon, Molly Moose! Molly Molly Moose! And she wag her tail
against one of the joists and make a thump-thump-thump sound that would delight us all.
Molly just got old one day and went out under an apple tree in the orchard and died. I dug her
grave right under that tree. Now, as it happens, the tree itself, planted when we first came here
forty some years ago—the tree itself has died.
We talk about getting another dog but I doubt we will. They are too much trouble—they run
(though Molly never did), they bark (Molly barked only when the coyotes howled or when a
stranger came), or they are otherwise noisome, jumping up on people with wagging joy with
their muddy paws, or slobbering on the toddlers… So I doubt we’ll get one. I’m not really a
pet person, anyway. We don’t even have a pet rock anymore. I can’t relate to fish. Our
youngest son had a pet spider of some kind that disappeared in the catacombs of the
basement. It is probably still alive down there and will, no doubt, leap out at us one fine day
and eat us whole. I think about that now and then. It gives me pause. ###
Sun., March 8, 2015
I think Fall Forward/Spring Back is the dumbest mnemonic device there ever was. It just doesn’
t remind you of anything except you’ve got to go one way or another. It’s Spring Forward, Fall
Back isn’t it? But why would you necessarily Spring Forward and Fall Back? I wouldn’t spring
forward if a snake were on the path, would you? No, I’d spring back, and quickly.
I just hate it when they mess with the clocks, anyway.
We had our yard sale yesterday. It was a little chilly to begin with but it warmed up and we sat
at the table in front of the Art Shop and drank hot coffee. A few cars straggled down the road,
mostly friends, and we made a little money and got rid of a few more cubic feet of our junk,
had a lunch and a nice chat/update on family news with a our nephew, who had decided to
drive over from Topeka, and then we took our Customary Afternoon Nap.
The success of the event inflames me with the desire to do it every Saturday for the rest of my
life. I like sitting and talking and being given money, especially if I don’t have to count it, I can
just drop it in a cigar box.
Evan Davies, boyhood friend, and I collected cigar boxes. This was in the early 1950s, and
Evan and I would after school make the rounds to the stores were cigars were sold and ask to
have their empty boxes of Mississippi Crooks, Roi-tans, and King Edwards. We’d get a few
every time. I had limited space to store them in my room at home but Evan was the Episcopal
priest’s son and they lived in the church house, whatever it was called I can’t remember, and
Evan had the run of a huge attic. He had an entire room stacked high with cigar boxes. I was
I had a use for my boxes, anyway. I collected stamps, also, and on those after school times
when we didn’t do cigar boxes I would go through the trash of various businesses downtown
and tear stamps off envelopes that had been through out. Mostly the stamps were just
standard three cent first class commemoratives, but sometimes, especially at places like the
big insurance company, Farm Bureau, I’d get some fives or some more exotic commems. I
tore them off, took them home and soaked them in bowls of warm water in my bedroom and
then laid the stamps out to dry before I popped them into my cigar boxes.
Today I haven’t a single solitary cigar box. Nor do I have any of my comic books, which, if I did
have them, would allow me to pursue my impecunious efforts for the rest of my life. I can’t
believe that some of the comics that I had and threw away had a monetary value in the
thousands. I had a stack several feet high of Plastic Man, Superman and Superboy, Wonder
Woman, Crime Does Not Pay, and even Archie and His Friends. ###
Sat., March 7, 2015
Befitting a day when we are going to have a yard sale, last night I dreamed of trying
unsuccessfully to herd a couple of errant hippopotamuses and ending by shooting them.
Dreams are the Royal Road to the Unconscious, Freud said, but what did he know?
I did get a night’s sleep, and for that I am grateful. And the day that looms (still dark) and will
bring with it a flight of yardsalers at the first crack of dawn is by all accounts to be warm and
sunny. I could laugh my way through the day, and probably will, but I have some items to
sell—a cement mixer, a big chain saw, and so on that will bring some money, and we need
some money to pay off some of the bills of our 95 day trip west, which financially did not quite
meet our expectations.
I have not had a lot of retail experience. I do not want a lot of experience with that. I think
however I may yet develop some experience.
I would have been very happy running a small town newspaper in the 1930s, say. Or the
captain’s yeoman on board a slovenly old freighter that steamed from New York to Vera Cruz
and back. Or a professor of litrachuh in a backwater college. Or living out my life here in the
shade of a grove of walnut trees.
So Harrison Ford is in the hospital after crashing his vintage small plane on a Santa Monica
golf course. Everybody likes Harrison Ford and wishes him a speedy recovery, a Chicago kid
who went to Ripon College in Wisconsin and became a carpenter to the stars in Hollywood
before he became one of them. Ripon, Wisconsin is the town where the Republican Party
started in 1854…I think.
Maybe today after the sale it will be nice and we will walk up to the top of Letter Rock Hill, a
place I have not been since last spring. I am sure the ponds are dry. Yesterday unearthing
things for the sale I found a completely intact dessicated adult cat lodged in between two
doors. What a way to die. Well, as they say: Curiosity killed the cat. I gave the fossil, as it
might fairly be called, to June, who after expressing dismay and wondering which cat it was—if
it was one of ours—put it in her studio where it will become a work of art. If only the cat had
eaten whole another cat before it got wedged in there, we could have something like the
famous fossil at the Sternberg Museum of the great Neolithic fish inside another fish that had
It disturbs me that though I was born in Minot, North Dakota, I have no memory—none
whatever—of that fair city. A friend from that city has a t-shirt that says, Why not Minot?
Which is the motto of the town. But on the back of the shirt, is an answer to the question:
Freezin’s the Reason.
I must have personal experience of that. I was born January 24. ###
Yesterday—OMG, yesterday. Due to multiple technical failures as well as due to the fact that
we don’t use it much anymore, we sold our—well, my, anyway—beloved 1996 Chevy S-10. We
are trying to de-junk, after all, and despite several interventions by friends, it remained parked
out there and in the way of everything. My dream was to completely restore it and repaint it
and place it on a pedestal. But pedestals are expensive, and someone has suggested to me
that life moves in a forward direction rather than a backward one…so we let the poor thing, the
official truck of the LifeStory Institute for nineteen years, go… Mike’s Wrecker came and got
Only a few years ago I drove that truck by myself all the way to California and back doing
workshops. It was one of the happiest motor trips in my life.
And tomorrow, Saturday: we are having a yard sale. We are seriously dejunking: I am even
letting go of a few books. It’s terrifying.
All my life I have collected books. It all started when I got out of the Navy and was a student at
the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1959, and Dick Olson and I would haunt the
bookshops around town, especially Paul’s Used Books, and I built my collection, which grew
over the years to the several thousand books it is now. I never de-booked except once, and
that was in the late 1960s when I gave all my books to the library of the University of Wisconsin
at Stevens Point, and we went off to Mexico to become émigrés. I don’t regret that. I was back
there a few years ago and it was a great pleasure to see some of my old books in that library.
But I began collected again when we got back and today we have a couple thousand books.
My excuse for collecting books—not rare books but good books was that first, one can never
have too many copies of Moby Dick, and two, when I retired the books would become my
inventory for a bookstore. I would sit in the back of the store and go of writing, and when the
occasional customer would interrupt my endeavors I would grumpily go forward and sell a
book or two to pay for supper.
Yes, that was my 401k. That was my financial planning. It looked like a winner.
It was a wonderful fantasy until some yardbird invented the computer and made printed books
more or less irrelevant. I spent about ten years crying about that and the rate of my collecting
has dropped off sharply. I actually completely ignored the last annual sale just a few weeks
ago at the public library of their withdrawn from circulation books. They sold over 100,000
books to my fellow townspersons and I did not buy a single one.
However, I am now thinking of opening a used bookstore, anyway. I will open up, arrange a
few special books on the table by the door, and lecture on Moby Dick or As I Lay Dying, the
books I have spent my life with. I may offer them for sale to the right buyer. ###
Thu., March 5, 2015
One hundred six years ago today in West Point, Kentucky, a village in Hardin County located
on a former meander bend of the Ohio River, my mother was born: March 5, 1909. She was the
youngest of five, and the apple of her father’s eye. She told me some of her childhood stories,
and many of them I’ve written down here in this Journal but I have not collected them. She told
once about being sent to the neighborhood tavern with a small pail and a nickel to buy her
father, tired after a long day’s work, a pail of beer from the tap.
Her father was Lewis Clinton Isaacs, whom I came to know very well during the War years and
after until he died by his own hand in 1950 at the age of 80. Her mother was Lizzie Lee Knight,
who died in 1943, and whom I remember only a little of, who told me to go easy on the butter
as it was 54 cents a pound. She died at home—we lived then in rural Indiana near a town
called Poland—of nephritis, at age 63.
She told about her growing up years in Indianapolis. She was a happy, playful, fun-loving girl.
I have a photograph of her with some other girls laughing and lounging on somebody’s car
waving pennants for the local basketball team. It was during the State Tournament, she told
me, and “some guy from a newspaper came along and snapped their picture,” as she said,
and they put it on the front page of the Indianapolis Star.
She was a good student but was excluded from the high school honor society because she
was thought to be Jewish: Lillian Isaacs. The family were not practicing Jews and didn’t really
seem to practice anything except work and play and live and laugh as best they could in
Mom escaped the poverty of the 1930s when she married a young doctor who was a resident at
the University of Indiana Hospital. Thus she was able to provide her parents with a final home
in some modest comfort and to raise her three children in a big house with no fear of the wolf
at the door.
Mom died the day before she was 88 on March 4, 1997. I think the cause of death was listed as
respiratory failure but basically she just quit eating. She never liked to eat, anyway, even
though she cooked for all of us. She was a smoker and she loved to talk. We’d look up from
the table when she fed us and she’d be telling some story or other and smoking a cigarette
that she’d stub out in her pile of mashed potatoes. She thought of her children and
grandchildren until the very end, but she did tell me once that when she died she wanted the
whole world to end because “she didn’t want to miss anything.”
Years ago when I thought I might be able to write poems I tried lifting from the newspaper an
obituary or two and arranging them on the page as a stanza or two of poetry. I never did
anything with these half dozen or so “poems” but I was impressed with how easily the bare
facts of a life became haunting statements when arranged in that form. ###
Wed., March 4, 2015
Graduate school, the first time around at the University of Kansas, was one of the happiest
times of my life. I think I not-so-secretly liked being treated well and with respect. They called
us “Mister” and “Miss” and “Mrs.” (This was in the days before Ms. was thought of.) Yes, I
was called Mr. Kempthorne by faculty and students alike. I was a quite the fellow, and was in a
school where if I hung around and kept my nose clean long enough, I’d soon be called Doctor.
I was pleased to tell my father, who was a medical doctor, that the “doctor” in Latin meant
Oh, I was so smart, so sassy…and I was in love with literature and a pretty girl, too.
I had two classes of English Composition. One met in the basement of Robinson Hall in a
room that had been a chemistry class—there was a gas jet and a sink at the front of the class.
The other met—I don’t remember where it met, actually. Somewhere on that wonderful,
beautiful campus…probably in a basement room with no windows, but so what? They called
me Mister Kempthorne, and if they didn’t really hang on my every word, I was willing to be
deluded into thinking so.
There were about twenty or fewer in each class. I think maybe there were more than a hundred
sections of Freshman English. The instructors all had a desk, if not an office with walls and a
door, in a former airplane hangar, Lindley Annex. This was where we held our “conferences,”
as they were called, with individual students. They’d come slinking in carrying their marked up
theme and I’d go over it with them, saying really enlightening things about how there should
be punctuation at the end of each sentence, and—of course—a paragraph should have unity,
coherence, and development.
One time a pretty girl who was in a sorority and was in danger of losing her membership
because of poor grades, looked at me intensely and asked me point blank to raise her D to a
C…and put her hand on my thigh! I almost fainted. I held my stand, though, and wouldn’t
raise her grade. Punctuation before passion! She stalked away, her high-heeled shoes
clicking on the concrete floor. Her action had completely derailed me and it was half an hour
before I was back on track as Mister Kempthorne, Assistant Instructor of English.
Another time I was threatened by a guy who came to class in a tank-top tee shirt back when
they were just called undershirts. He was from New Jersey and a tough kid. He didn’t exactly
say, “Gimme a higher grade, see” but he did make it clear that if I was dumb enough to haunt
the Rock Chalk later that night, he might reconfigure my face a little. I think I might have cut
him a little slack as, really, he had a lot of potential. Really. ###
Tues., March 3, 2015
I drink my coffee whenever possible from a couple of favorite cups. I have (and June has one
too) a nice cylindrical midnight blue cup that says on the side COOK PAINT MAKES YOU
LOOK GOOD, and nothing else. It’s a souvenir from my days as a housepainter, about which I
grow more sentimental in proportion to the number of years I’ve been out of that onerous and
difficult occupation that was lived through in order to support my writing habit.
I love that cup. I carry it with me in my car and when I go to a meeting or church or wherever
they’ll give me a cup of coffee—gas stations of course—I drink from that cup. When I drink
from that cup (pardon me), my cup runneth over.
But my in-house favorite cup is a similarly cylindrical one that is pure white with a light blue
drawing of a freighter sailing into port. Above are the words, TACOMA LONGSHOREMEN
CREDIT UNION. I love this cup too. I never was a longshoreman but my son, Rip, is. I have
had this cup which he gave to me almost from the time he became a longshoreman more than
ten years ago. A couple of times I’ve dropped it and we’ve pieced it back together and glued it
more or less successfully except for a chip in one part of the rim that you don’t want to sip
from because it’ll cut your lip.
I am finicky, obviously, about what I drink from. Of course if I want a cup of coffee bad
enough, I’ll drink from most anything. But I’m not happy then.
To a lesser extent I’m this way with favorite bowls, spoons, glasses—everything. To be sure, I
have favorite pens. I don’t write much in longhand anymore, but when I do to make a note or
some such, I always use a no. 7 gel pen made by Pilot. I h-a-t-e ballpoint pens and I will not
write with them, even if they work.
Yes, it’s an OCD world out there. Or should I say, in here? I guess if someone gave me a
check for a million dollars and I had to endorse it and I had no pen but a b.p. , I’d use it. But I
wouldn’t like it.
We all have our little quirks. What do they mean? The great lexicographer Samuel Johnson
had all manner of things he had to do just to get down the street. He touched every light pole
he ever passed. He kicked at rocks like a child. Of Bishop Berkeley’s famous contention that
the world exists only in our own mind, he said, kicking at a rock, “I refute it thus!” Quite a guy,
old Sam. I did not know him personally and I thought his novel, Rasselas, the worst novel ever
written. We had to read it in college and we took to calling it Rassle-ass. Our professor loved
it and praised it in the most general terms a good 18th Century man could. ###
Monday, March 2, 2015 Letter Rock Park
When I was a boy of 30 or so I got up every morning to music. I’d put on a record, a 33 rpm,
and I’d dance and swing like an orangutan all over the room, singing along, conducting, there I
was, half naked and jumping up on the furniture as lively (I thought) and lithe and all those
good L things like old Fred Astaire singing in the rain, only of course there wasn’t any rain
inside. I was never depressed.
Well, not on wakening. As I went through the day sometimes my mood would change, maybe,
but the first thing was music and dancing and singing and swinging. One time I was listening
to, I think, old Mussourgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, all those brilliant brassy cacophonous
passages and I made a leap for a parallel bars I had on a doorway and the bar came loose and I
went flying. It took the wind out of my sails and I think later on I even went to the nearby
hospital (I was living in Kansas City then) for a check out. I was okay, a couple of young
interns said. They were bored and amused at my plight.
Now sometimes—just sometimes but it’s on the increase—I get up and I feel like dancing and
singing. In my mind I jump around the room, maybe I get down on my knees and sing
Sewanee, how I love ya, how I love ya, my dear old Sewanee…
I smile as I shuffle out to the kitchen to dip a cup of old coffee out of the maker and nuke it in
the microwave. This morning I sang, along with Roberta Flack, The First Time I Saw Your
Face. Then I sat down here and began to write. In just a couple of minutes I’ll go to You Tube
and pull up You Are My Sunshine and play it (I forget the artist’s name, a sweet young thing)
for my wife to waken her for the morning festivities.
But yesterday afternoon I was so depressed I thought again and again, Why, when a month
ago I was on the Golden Gate Bridge (which by the way I just got the toll bill for yesterday),
why, oh why, didn’t I just stop the car and leap? I can fly, I can fly, I can fly!
Are those called mood swings?
“O the mind, the mind has mountains,” warbled old Father Gerard Manley Hopkins. “Cliffs of
fall, sheer, no man fathomed.”
ATTENTION ON DECK!
This is Monday, March 2, 2015, and it’s time to get with the program. And do we have a busy
day for you, Charley. We are going in town to our meeting early, and stopping off at Dillon’s to
dance a bit (we used to dance in the canyons of groceries, cans of pineapple and devilled
ham, where nobody could see us, not even the spy cameras, which of course then weren’t
even thought of, not even by Dick Tracy) to pick up a few things to eat and then we’ll come
zooming home to a busy, sunny workaday day. Oh Frances, Oh Frances, Oh please tell me
why…your mother is calling and you don’t replyyyy….###
Sun., Mar. 1, 2015
Okay, if you wake up depressed—as I just have—why not pretend to be joyous? Let’s pretend
that I was wakened by a phone call from Sweden telling my I’d won the 2015 Nobel Prize for
Literature. The guy who calls and who has, wouldn’t you know, a marked Swedish accent in
spite of having been schooled at Harvard, apologizes profusely for waking me up. “Oy,
Messair Kampthawnuh, Eye ham zo zorry. Eye cud call back latair. Eye ham zo—
“Oh, that’s alright,” I say, I had to get up to go to the bathroom, anyway. You said I may
already be a winner of…just what was it?”
“Ze Nobel Price fur Litrachuh,” he said.
“Really?” I say. “Jack is that you? Have you been drinking again? Do you need me to come
and give you a ride home?”
Okay, I’m not now so depressed as I was.
I did once get a surprise and pleasant call from a big shot reporter on the Kansas City Star: he
wanted to interview me. His name was Jim Fisher. Yes, he said, he wondered if he drove up
here from Kansas City would I have the time to be interviewed. Of course I didn’t believe him, I
have lots of practical joking friends, and so I got ready to whinny the loudest horse laugh in
the world, but something clicked in my febrile brain and I held my tongue and played along. I
said sure, and I gave him directions to drive here. Turned the guy was for real and he came up
and we talked around my kitchen table for a couple of hours and had a great time—two old
men about the same age reminiscing—and he went back to the city and wrote a nice article for
the Star about LifeStory and what we were cooking up here. That would be back in…about
Now I am even more less depressed than I was a few minutes ago.
It has snowed. Three or four inches, if that. We are not exactly snowed in, but we aren’t going
to go out there and skid around over hill and dale. We’re going to stay home from church and
maybe walk over to the neighbors and say hello.
And then we’ll work all day and watch the sun go down on March 1, 2015. I just have to say, in
passing, that I wish we raised hogs again. I really liked hogs. I enjoyed their company and
found their comments on late 20th Century culture of considerable value. They also sold well:
we never lost money on hogs. And by the time they were what we hoggeurs (what hog
producers are known as) call butcher weight, they had gotten out of their pen so many times
and broken so many fences and rooted up so much of the garden that I roundly disliked them
and had no compunction whatever about loading them for the sale barn. ###
In 1996 I wrote For All Time: A Complete Guide to Writing Your Family History. It did well, was
very well reviewed, and is still doing well. There are copies in about 2,000 public libraries--
including the great New York Public Library, where a recent research paper on family history
writing issued by it quoted the book several times. About 12,000 copies have been sold in all.
Of course I like to see people buy it but, honestly the book I think most of you need today is
the one shown at left.
Why? Because while For All Time is a good introduction, Narrative Journaling: 28 Days to
Writing More or Less Happily for the Rest of Your Life, shows you how to get the writing done.
This book leads you through the process of eliminating attitudes about writing that are
keeping you from actually doing it, and then shows you how to cement the process into a daily
habit--and a very healthful and happy habit at that. Send $20 even (16 for the book, 4 for
shipping) to LifeStory, 3591 Letter Rock Rd., Manhattan, KS 66502. Orders are processed the
day received. Pay with check, money order, or credit card number (number, year and date of
expiration) or go online to our website www.thelifestoryinstitute.com to order and pay for it via
credit card. You can also order by phone, 785-564-1118 or 785-564-0247.