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 met a friend this morning at one of my favorite newish restaurants. Eating out for breakfast is among my greatest weaknesses, and I really should do it less. I’ll add that to the list of things I need to change.
I’ll make the joke myself- It’s a long list.
This friend and I, we are neighbors but haven’t interacted much, and really are just getting to know each other. Because of that every topic of discussion is new and littered with tiny little land mines. I shouldn’t have been surprised when the conversation went great. We negotiated the dangerous places with the practiced ease of humans who are decent at adulting, and don’t let little things offend or anger them. Neither of us tripped any wires. Nothing exploded. It was really good.
This morning, before I left, I anticipated some of the topics we might discuss, and gave some thought as to how I wanted to present my opinions and stories. I sat in the drivers seat of my car, and an image of my 25 year old self came to mind. That person was convinced his opinions and beliefs were rock solid, and would be slow to change if they ever did. That concreteness gave my life meaning, defined me as an individual and gave me a place as a member of certain groups, political or social.
Ideologies are interesting things.
The person I have become sees things in a more fluid manner. I’m less convinced of or concerned with the rightness of my opinions, more willing to listen and change than when I was younger. I don’t think that is a unique perspective, but it was a strange moment of clarity, one I didn’t expect to have this morning.
I liked how that felt, the freedom (to use a word I really dislike) fluidity offers me, and the opportunities for continued growth that perspective allows.
I’ve come to understand that my personal beliefs have nothing to do with the rightness, the actuality of anything. Sure, it’s nice when facts and what I think align, but the person I was (and most of us were) years ago would easily have equated that accidental alignment with an affirmation of everything and anything I thought about.
I’ll add that understanding to the list of things I don’t have to change about myself. It’s a shorter list…
Breakfast was delicious, by the way.
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.
I didn’t write last week. My wife took the day off (Valentine’s Day), and we spent some time hanging out, watching movies, eating too much chocolate. I planned to write, I really did.
Then, on the way back from some adventure or other, we stopped for a warm beverage at a place near our home. Waiting for our order, a breaking news story on the television caught our attention. Another school shooting had taken place, this time in Florida. I didn’t want to write after that.
I’ve spent most of the last week shifting through all sorts of emotions, and I’ll be the first to admit that many of my responses were irrational. I got into snarky debates with old friends, commiserated with like-minded allies, had flat out angry arguments with acquaintances and friends of friends. I stated opinions, backtracked on them, then restated them later. And while I certainly was not at my best, I watched on social media as people said far worse to each other. What an ugly event, and how unfortunate that tragedy brings out so much extra awfulness in us, in me.
Answers continue to elude me. I’m trying to be patient, to pay attention, to hope (but)…
…the tone hasn’t become any less terrible this week, and the rhetoric being tossed out, the flat out lies being spread about children sickens me. I honestly do not care what political ideology people cling to, and I certainly don’t pretend to have all the solutions or be correct in my assumptions (facts in my favor or not), but the vile behavior of adults towards young people is inexcusable.
Disagree with their political aims, but do so in a constructive manner. The world is certainly a callous place where most of the time what we want or need is irrelevant to it. Not ever situation turns out the way our kids might want, and we want them to learn to be resilient, but deliberate cruelty disguised as political debate destroys any opportunity for understanding or growth.
I still cling to the belief that humans are at their core, decent creations, and that at our best we can accomplish difficult things.
I also believe that the way to a happy and fulfilling life is pretty basic-Take care of yourself. Take care of each other.
That’s pretty much it.
I honestly didn’t realize I’d missed blogging last week until Saturday. I’ll pretend it was because of all the bustle leading up to my family hosting TWO Thanksgiving dinners. Yeah, that’s the reason. I was certainly distracted by the massive list of things I had to do, clean, cook, prepare. When you are about to welcome and feed close to 50 people, the pressure can get to you.
I’ll stick with that. I was too busy.
But really, Thanksgiving was great! We usually host both families, but have one group over on Wednesday night to make things a bit less stressful. That didn’t work out this year, so we decided to have my family over at noon, Sheryl’s at 6. That gave us just enough time to smoke turkeys, make sweet potato casserole, prepare gravy, cook stuffing. We rely on the others for the rest of the food, and they always come through with fantastic pies, sides, rolls.
I’m fortunate to have both parents and all my siblings living near me, and while we get together often, Thanksgiving is still special. I’m also extremely lucky to have fantastic in-laws. I love my wife’s family as if they were my own. They are a huge part of my life and I am thankful for their love and friendship.
I’ve become quite sentimental in my old(er) age. My emotions run closer to the surface, and being in the same room with the people I care most about makes me insanely happy. This year was particularly poignant. Several times I found myself close to tears. I am grateful, thankful, joyful.
And the best part- I get to have all these wonderful people in my house again on the 24th of December for another fantastic evening of food and family. It really is a pretty great life.
I’m struggling this week with the hectic and frightening mood permeating my country. The dieification of the military, the proliferation of forced patriotism frightens me.
I cannot help but shake my head and wonder what terrible thing lurks around the corner.
I do not believe my government really acts in the best interests of its people, and I do not believe that any of the current conflicts are doing anything to preserve my freedom or protect my rights.
Governments do not give rights, but they sure know how to suppress them.
As I looked up, streaks of pale pink and yellow stared back at me me. For a moment, it seemed as if the sky were moving at an incredible rate of speed, stretching the clouds, and the earth lurched to keep pace. I stumbled, confused and dizzy, forgetting why I had come to the city, who I intended to meet. A passing stranger spoke to me, but his words were a jumble of incoherent sounds. I could only stare at the fading light, awestruck.
Three deep breaths, three rapid blinks, and I regained a recollection of my surroundings, who and where I was. She was waiting for me in the bar around the corner, a cold beer already placed on the table in front of the empty chair I would soon occupy. I was excited to see her again, share some conversation, one hundred laughs with someone I did not see enough of during the autumn months.
And in that moment, as I fumbled with my phone, framed a picture, instead of thinking how much she would appreciate the stunning sunset, the mountains dark silhouette like an oil painting, all I could think was how I wished you were right here to see this with me instead.
Last weekend, I drove 8 hours from Salt Lake City to Lake Tahoe to attend my brothers bachelor party. I like driving long distances. It calms me, gives me ample time to think. Also, it allows for excellent conversations with travel companions. On this particular trip, it was me and one other fine gentleman, a close friend of two of my brothers. We talked sports, kids, dogs, politics, music, anything that came to mind. The first four hours passed quickly.
After stopping in Winnemucca for gas, my traveling companion crawled into the back seat for a nap. Out in front of me, the road stretched straight and unbending for what seemed like hundreds of miles. I put on some music, made myself comfortable in the seat, and drove. Hours passed. My mind wandered through so many topics, lingering on some for a while, allowing others to slip by almost without a complete thought.
Rhythms of the road.
When I find myself in that state of mind, I can go for hours without stopping. Small towns and cities passed by, and while driving through Reno (oops, I should have exited earlier as we were heading to Stateline, Nevada) was nerve-wracking, I adored the drive.
As for the party, well let’s just say that I am clearly too old for that sort of shenanigans. I love my brother and enjoy spending time with him, but this weekend I felt nervous and out of place most of the time.
At first, things were great. I drank some delicious beers, went on a spectacular group hike where we found a rock formation to summit. From there, the views were stellar. The lake was to our right, a sprawling valley of farms to our left.
This was my favorite moment of the weekend.
We stayed in an amazing place- three floors and ample bedrooms for all of us (between 12-15 fellows depending on the day).
All the elements were there for an epic gathering. I can only blame myself for not having an amazing time. Apparently, I’ve become a crotchety old man, always worried about everything. People were too loud, too happy, too drunk, too outrageous, too destructive for my comfort.
Maybe I should have drank more, allowed myself to be buzzed for three straight days, get into the spirit of things, but honestly, most of the time I just wanted to be anywhere else.
That worries me some.
For months, I had been looking forward to this weekend, anticipating the stories we’d have to tell afterward, the craziness we’d create. To then have a continual gnawing in my stomach, an anxiety that grew deeper each day; I have a hard time blaming that on age (even if it is super convenient).
I’ll have to ponder this some more.
The drive home was equally as pleasant as the ride out, and the conversations I had with myself (as my travel companion was exhausted from the weekend and slept for much of the ride) kept me stimulated and engaged. I’m super entertaining, really.
Also, the puppy love I received upon my return was epic.
Tomorrow is the Insecure Writer’s Support Group twitter pitch party! I’ve been gearing up for this day for the past three months, trying out various ways of pitching each of my three completed manuscripts, and somehow, I still don’t feel ready. When I look at what I’ve put on paper, each effort seems silly, and somehow not quite catching what I think the novels are really about.
I’ve always struggled with describing the first novel. I have three different query letters for it, each highlighting a different part of the story, and I am equally unimpressed with all three. Now, I’m trying to pitch the same novel in less than 100 characters. Thank goodness I have a clever wife who has a gift for simplification. She was able to send me two really decent ideas, both of which I will be using tomorrow.
As for the other two manuscripts, I feel a bit better about what I’ve put together for them, but I still wouldn’t say I’ve got it all figured out. And that’s okay, really.
I am going into this event with my eyes wide open. It is likely I won’t get any interest from publishers or agents. If I do get a nibble, the manuscript or query letter might not satisfy. But this is all part of the process, part of putting myself out there and taking risks. Sitting back, doing nothing hasn’t been all that successful a strategy, so perhaps it is time to try a new, bolder approach.
Wish me luck.
Any of you planning on participating? How have your pitches come together and are you feeling confident?
And just because, here is a picture of my sleeping Athena.