The afternoon I met Craig Arnold was a stressful one. It was my first day at the University of Utah (I’d just transferred from SLCC), and I was trying to pull a fast one. I had not taken the prerequisite for English 5520 (advanced poetry writing workshop), but regardless, had put myself on the waiting list. I’d been writing poetry for most of my life, and thought I had some skill. But that didn’t mean the professor was going to agree with me and allow me into the class.
Thirty one years old, Craig was a PhD candidate, the English department’s golden boy, about to have his first book published. He was the Yale Younger Poet of the Year for 1998, and from the very first moments, of our relationship I wanted his approval.
Craig asked me to email a writing sample, and if it wasn’t crap (his word), he’d sign off and let me stay in the class.
The workshop was small, 12 students, and my presence would kept no one else from joining the class, but I stressed over the writing sample for days. I highly doubt he gave it all that much thought, but he told me the poems were passable, that there was some potential.
“It’s not all bad,” he said.
In the workshop setting he was absolutely ruthless and absolutely always on point. Never before (or since) in my writing life have I felt like someone genuinely wanted my writing to be successful as when Craig was ripping apart my poetry.
It was never personal, and looking back it was in that class where I learned criticism had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the writing.
I am grateful for that.
Craig was also in a rock band called Iris. He played guitar and sang terrible songs with really odd lyrics. I saw them perform at a coffee shop in downtown Salt Lake City. Forty people were there, some of whom were likely annoyed that their late night coffee came with the added price of listening to live music.
And he had literary groupies who stood in front of the stage, sang all the songs, hung around after the set just because. Of course Craig soaked every moment of attention.
At the end of the semester, we gathered at the apartment of one of the members of our workshop to celebrate, drink beer, say goodbye. Craig’s book was coming out soon, but all he wanted was to talk about the female body builder roommate of our cohort (her photos from competitions were all over the walls), and how many times he’d had sex that day.
Three times in case you were wondering, and with a wink in my direction, he implied he was ready for a fourth.
But that was his personality- Brash, bold, confident to the extreme. And oh, how he could write. His poetry blew me away. My favorites were his narratives. One in particular was composed in couplets that flowed seamlessly from end rhymes to slants, rich and eye. His stories were precise, and his writing clean, tight.
That night at the class party, five or six beers into a twelve bottle night, after I spent fifteen minutes complaining about my lack of writing success, my envy at his, without the slightest guile he shook his head and said “your day is coming. Be patient.”
The most important thing he taught me about writing poetry- Form is the vehicle, not the destination, which altered the way I approached writing, changed how I used words.
I saw him sporadically after my graduation. He’d show up at the library where I worked, and we talk about what he was doing. He always asked about my writing, and I always lied, telling him it was going great.
A little over ten years after our first meeting, I learned he’d gone missing while hiking on the small volcanic island of Kuchinoerabu, Japan. Searchers found traces of him on a trail near a high cliff and it is presumed he fell to his death.
I had not spoke to him or seen him in at least 8 years, but losing someone I thought of as an important guide on my writing path was hard.
I don’t know what made me think of him today or why I felt like I needed to write down a few of my memories.
Craig could rub people the wrong way, and there are likely more stories about the awful things he did than the positive ones, but he was always good to me. I admired him for his fearlessness, his talent, his friendship.
He only gave us two collections of poetry, but they are powerful and worth your time. Check them out here–
All of us have people who influenced/impacted our lives, changed our direction for the better. I’m curious about yours.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine tagged me in a Facebook post, challenging me to share a list of ten albums that had the most impact on me, and that still got regular play. I’ve made this sort of list many times in the past, and have my *go-to* albums I usually pull out whenever someone asks for my favorites.
I fully intended to do the same with this challenge, convinced that these records still were representative of my current tastes. I stood in front of the stacks of records and CDs, pulling out the albums I wanted to use. I made a mental note of them, made my first post.
I wrote a few paragraphs detailing why this record was important to me, how it has affected my musical appreciation and the sorts of music liking this record opened up for me.
So far so good.
Day two was much the same- an album, a description, an hour spent thinking about what that music has meant to me. Then my father commented that while he loved the album in question, it was not his favorite from the band. I was about to argue in defense of my choice when I realized it wasn’t my favorite either. In fact, it might have been my third favorite. At that moment, I realized this list was going to be very different from others I’d created. I no longer had interest in a list of favorites, but rather a list of records that pushed me forward.
Any mental notes I’d made about the remaining albums were tossed aside. With a different perspective and mission, I went through the records again. At least four of the titles I planned to use didn’t remain on the revised list. Some I never expected to be on the list suddenly needed to be there.
In the end, I think this current list is a much more accurate representation of my musical education. One realization, I talk a big game about my varied musical tastes, and while I do enjoy all sorts of music, my favorites reside in a very narrow style window. Which means I need to give more attention to other genres, styles, and see if one of those albums might push its way onto the list. Some are very close. Some I haven’t owned long enough to see where they take me.
It was a very fun project and as I always love listening to music, a great opportunity to spend ten days listening to the stuff that had the greatest impact.
Here is the list if you’re interested. It isn’t in any particular order.
Big Country- The Crossing
The Cure- Pornography
The Police- Synchronicity
David Bowie- The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars
The Nocturnes- Aokigahara
Russian Circles- Station
Siouxsie and the Banshees- Peepshow
Nine Inch Nails- Pretty Hate Machine
If asked, what sort of list would you make?
I arrive for work at the usual time. Fifteen minutes of chit chat with the dinner chef, George (later, he’ll earn the nickname Jorge Flambe’ after burning his eyebrows off lighting the convection oven), before daring to walk into the dish washing room where I’m certain my friend Darrell has left at least three trays behind for me to finish.
It’s not that he’s lazy (though I know he takes an hour nap each morning between the two breakfast rushes), because I’ve seen him work. And I want to believe it isn’t because he dislikes me and wants me to start my shift with something unpleasant. I should just ask him outright, but I’m only 18 years old, and the thought of confrontation still fills me with dread.
I’ve talked to Joel about it. He works with Darrell each morning. Also, he’s my best friend.
Joel says they often run out of time, and certain things take priority- The pans that must be ready for the next shift. The line that cannot be covered in debris when George comes in to work. The floor that must be swept of all food and filth or the head chef will be angry (though the thought of an angry Stewart almost makes me laugh).
So I swallow my frustrations and clean the leftover dishes, rinsing them with water so hot it scalds my skin (I’ve lost sensitivity to the point I have to test shower water with my elbow, unable to trust my fingers). Then I send them through the *sanitizer* before making my way back to the kitchen where a massive pile of green beans waits to be cut.
I pull a tape from my pocket -Nothing’s Shocking, by Jane’s Addiction- put it in the grease covered tape deck and press play. George hates this music, but allows me the honor of the first selection each shift. He gets to play all the classic rock he likes when the restaurant opens and the bus tours arrive.
On bus tour nights, I’ll be running between the dish room and the grill for the entire five hours the restaurant is open. There are only two of us and when 85-170 people descend on the dining room, George can’t cook all the burgers, fish, and chicken by himself.
I’m the jack of all trades- Dishwasher, food prep (I make the best cheesecakes, Cajun potatoes), short order cook, errand boy. Sometimes it is overwhelming, but most of the time I enjoy the routine. Even the days I get yelled at by the asshole who runs the front end become comical stories, and we all have our tales for sharing.
This night there are no buses at the hotel, only a few guests here for a midweek mountain getaway, and we are not anticipating much of a rush, so we talk more, laugh more, pause between tasks. George tells the same jokes, and I laugh at them like this is the first time I’ve heard them.
The tape ends and George puts on something atrocious by Aerosmith, and since I’d rather chew nails than listen to this, I excuse myself to run silverware to the dining room. The lights are still out and I don’t hear the usual bustle of servers getting ready for opening. Puzzled, I return to the kitchen.
“Hey George, isn’t John supposed to be opening tonight?”
“I think so.”
“Well, it’s quarter to five and there isn’t anyone out there.”
He replies with a string of profanities, then walks to the office to call the asshole who runs the front end. He shuts the door. I pour myself another coke from the soda machine. It is one of the perks, free soda. Also, we get one free meal a day, and 2$ a night lodging at the hotel. It’s a good gig, really. One night after my shift, I made a steak and cheese sandwich with the trimmings from the beef fillet. Best. Sandwich. Ever. I figure retail on it was close to 25 dollars.
I hear some muffled talking, then George’s raised voice. A curt goodbye and he is back in the kitchen.
“Someone will be here by 6. You’ll have to be host and server until they arrive.
I’ll have to what? I’ve never waited a table in my life, and how can I host and serve?
“George, look at me.”
I motion to my working clothes- A dirty pair of jeans, a stained apron, a grimy black Brian Head t-shirt, shoes covered all sorts of yuck, a greasy baseball cap.
“It’ll be fine. And we likely won’t get anyone in that first hour anyway.”
By the time I wash my hands, try and make my hair presentable, it is 5:05 and one couple waits at the still locked door. I swallow my nerves and unlock the restaurant.
“Sorry folks, We’ve had a bit of trouble this afternoon. Two for dinner?”
They don’t appear too upset and reply kindly to my inane questions on the way to the table with the best view.
I hand them menus and offer bland suggestions as to what they might like. The woman looks me over, most likely noticing her server is covered in kitchen filth and smells like deep fryer oil mixed with stale sweat.
“I’ll give you a minute to look over the menu and I’ll get the drinks.”
I smile, turn and walk briskly back to the kitchen. George laughs at me as I overfill the glasses and spill all over the floor.
“You’re making more work for yourself.”
They order the baked chicken. I check on them twice after taking their order, bringing them refills and a basket of poorly cut bread.
I’m still too nervous to stand still and wander back and forth from the front desk to the kitchen, sure it’s taking way too long for the food to be ready and the couple will walk out very soon.
Finally, the chicken is done. I carefully carry both plates to the table and place them in front of the couple.
“Can I get you anything else?”
No, everything looks great.
I retreat to the host desk, hoping there is no one else waiting. From my stool, I can see them cutting into the vegetables, the meat. They seem pleased.
George wanders out from the back, gives me a wink. Just then, John arrives.
“Sorry guys, I totally forgot it was my night to open.”
“It’s cool,” I say, hoping I’m not letting on how glad I am he is here. “Just the one couple and they seem alright with my service.”
“I’ll take over from here, but I’ll bring you the tip.”
Back in the kitchen, I finish making a pan of potatoes, put them in the oven. The Aerosmith tape ends and before I can put in some Oingo Boingo, George slaps in something from Supertramp. It could be worse.
Ten minutes later, John comes up and hands me two bills. Both ones.
They tipped me two dollars on a 30 dollar meal.
John laughs, tells me to keep my day job.
Welcome to the March installment of the monthly blog hop of The Insecure Writer’s Support Group. Check us out here then join in the fun. We really are the best of the best.
The optional question for this month is- How do you celebrate when you achieve a writing goal/ finish a story?
I don’t recall ever celebrating the completion of a story, but I do remember my emotions after finishing my first book.
For years I struggled to complete my first novel (a lovely work of literary fiction still waiting to find a home), getting close to breakthroughs but always coming up short. When after finally figuring out how to actually write a novel, and when I actually wrote the final words, a huge wave of relief washed over me. I may have cried (no may about it), sitting in my office, staring at the wall, then the computer screen, back to the wall, unsure about what I was supposed to do next.
I admit, I thought the hard part was over.
As for the celebration, I think I cracked open a beer, and I recall my wife being very happy for me, and asking me when she could read it. I also recall going out to dinner to celebrate (likely Thai food, or maybe Korean).
Finishing the next two books wasn’t nearly as emotional, but in some ways more rewarding. I really felt accomplished after finishing the second book, and instantly went out and bought myself a record or two. Having two complete works made me finally feel like a writer, which is pretty silly to say.
After the third book was complete, I took the family out for Mexican food. It may be time to think of something besides food for celebrating.
One month before the placement of twin seven year old boys in our home, Sheryl and I took our last vacation together before becoming parents. I’d never been to San Francisco, we both wanted to go, so we went. It sometimes seems like only yesterday.
I don’t think I had the slightest idea how my life was about to change, or how insane being a parent would be/is. Looking back, I wouldn’t change one damn thing. I’ve got great kids who are less than 6 months away from graduation. I love them. But once again things are about to change in a huge way, and as before, I have zero clue about the how.
Anyway, here are three pictures from that trip. It was a really good time. Also, don’t pay any attention to the plastic bag in the last picture. It isn’t really there. You’re mind is playing tricks on you.
The first Wednesday of the month is IWSG blog hop Wednesday.
Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!
You know the drill. Check us out and sign up here!
The optional question for this month is- As you look back on 2017, with all its successes/failures, if you could backtrack, what would you do differently?
One of the things I’ve tried to do over the last few decades is not dwell on my past. I spent most of my 20’s convinced that the best time of my life had already come and gone. Of course living in the past, wishing, longing, wondering ensures you’ll likely miss out on most of the awesomeness of your current life.
I think I’ve mentioned this before, but here it is again. Being 25 was the worst year of my life. I felt stagnant, and very unaccomplished. I was years away from graduating from college, which of course felt years away from being settled in a career. Most of my friends (and my wife) were well ahead of where I was, and I was sure my life were slipping away and there was little I could do to change it. I needed to somehow slow down, gain perspective. So, on my 26th birthday, I told a little lie. If anyone asked how old I was, I said 27. I told that story enough that after a few months, I actually believed I was 27.
It might seem counter productive, pretending to be older, but it had an amazing effect on my mental state. What day or month it was mattered less and less and focusing on the good things in my life became easier. I was 27 for two years, and by the time I turned 28, I was less consumed by regret and anguish over things I could never relive or change.
I’ve tried to hold onto that perspective as I’ve aged. I keep in mind that each choice alters my life, what I do, who I meet, and where I end up. And I usually like where I end up. So as for last year, I am perfectly okay with how everything played out. There isn’t anything I would do differently. Sure, It would be great if I’d written more, been more diligent in searching for an agent, or submitting stories and poetry, but I still have time to do those things. I will try and use this past year as a learning experience, not as a way to punish my lack of action or be too proud of the things I did accomplish. I can always do better, be better.
What a wonderful concept.
The kids are back in school. Seniors. Their last year of compulsory education has begun, and honestly I don’t know how to feel about it. On a abstract level, I understand that they are nine months away from graduation, a year from 18, from having to really decide in what direction they want to go. As for actually knowing what that will look like, or how it will impact me, I’m clueless. I can only hope I’ve given them enough information, skills and direction to make the best decisions they can.
This transition from summer to the school year feels the same as every other. One day the boys are here, all the time, no real responsibilities, sleeping in, hanging out with friends. The next morning the house takes on a strange stillness. This year, the puppy is taking up some of the slack, and all of my free time, but I’ve still noticed an altered energy. Something is clearly missing, again.
I can’t help but think of myself at their age, my last year of high school in front of me. It seems forever ago and almost like it just happened. I can clearly remember many things that I did, wanted to do, experienced. My kids are different. School is different. They will have a completely different experience than mine, which is just as it should be.
But just like mine, the school year will pass, it will be over before they know it.
If I’m being honest (and I try to be), I’m looking forward to the time when it is just Sheryl and me, alone again. I know how amazing it is to have the empty nest, and while I will always welcome my kids home, I’m excited for the places Sheryl and I will go, as well as the quiet nights when it is just the two of us.
The anticipation is killing me. The possibilities are exciting to ponder.
Anyway, here are a few pictures of the lads, the traditional first day of school photos.
The headless dog photobomb is my favorite.