West vs. East – part 1

Some differences between living on the West Coast vs living in the East. A West coaster sounds off.

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As I start my long-delayed career as a writer, I’m struck by just how different the West and East (coasts) are. To be fair, I don’t live on the East Coast. I live in New Haven, Conn., home of Yale University (and famous New Haven pizza, and the controversial home of the hamburger). As a West coaster, anything from New York eastward was the East coast to me. My extended family lived in Ohio – in the Eastern time zone, even though Ohio definitely aligns more with Midwest flavors. I was told upon arriving in New Haven that New York is not New England and it’s not the east coast – it’s New York, (or New Yawk, or Neu Yowk depending on who you tawk to). Be that all as it may, after a little over a year in New Haven, I’m here to detail some of the differences between the West and the East.

I consider myself a West coast writer. The obvious bias in publishing still favors the East. New York is the publishing capital of the world and has been for well over a century now. The sheer amount of Ivy Leaguers making it in the publishing field is astounding and does not give credit to the vast creativity of those who live in the West.

Sitting in my small apartment, I was day-dreaming and looking at a loaf of bread on the counter. The emblem looked the same, but on closer inspection I saw the word “Arnold” within the shafts of wheat. What is this foolishness? I’ve been buying Orowheat bread for years in San Diego. Certainly this is a mistake. Turns out it’s the same bread but branded differently. A quick search on the Internet reveals that Orowheat started in California in 1932 and Arnold started in Connecticut in 1940 and Brownberry, a third variety started in the Midwest in 1946. All three are owned by Bimbo bakeries as of 2017. That’s one small difference between West and East (and Midwest).

Southern California is as much car culture as anywhere anybody can live in. Los Angeles traffic is infamous and nothing is improving much even in sleepy L.A. suburb San Diego. But other than in the rare rainy times when Southern Californians lose the capability to drive as if their driver’s training is completely forgotten, southern Californians are really very good drivers compared to all other places I’ve driven (New Mexico, Kansas, Connecticut – representative of Mountain, Central, and Eastern time zones). In Connecticut, people cannot drive, or do not drive well. Forget driving rules and laws. I’ve seen people cut across 4 lanes of busy traffic to exit the freeway. Left turns on surface streets – drivers gun out quickly and turn left BEFORE traffic goes when a light changes. They routinely flip off whoever is in front getting ready to go straight through the intersection. Because the lights are hung on wires across intersections instead of on light poles, one can’t line up in the left turn lane to wait for traffic to stop before turning left because you can’t see the light if you pull out. So you have to wait in the left turn lane for a left arrow or wait for the next light. Or you can do like the locals and gun it for a left turn before the flow of traffic starts.

People walk across intersections whenever they want or can. Pedestrian walk signs don’t align with the flow of traffic. Rather, there is a “walk” period in which traffic is stopped in all directions and the walk signs allow pedestrian crossing. That means, of course, that pedestrians walk diagonally into across the middle of the street too. Because of that, and due to the number of one way streets and No Turn on Red signs, pedestrians walk whenever they want. It’s the wild west out there in the East!

There is an attitude on the part of pedestrians too, the same brash New York/New Jersey attitude seen stereotypically on television. I found a place to park my car a couple blocks from where I live. One day, as I was approaching the small one way half circle street, onto which I must turn right off of a one way road to my parking spot, some guy was walking across the intersection. He was eating a sub sandwich wrapped in paper, and looking back over his shoulder. In other words, he didn’t see me as I stopped before turning right otherwise I’d hit him. So I stopped and waited with my blinker on. He turned and saw me looking at him as he was nearly across the street. His immediate reaction, through a mouthful of food was to say “Fuck you!” and flip me off. All because I didn’t run him down! That’s a nice introduction to the East.

Even the homeless population are much more brash in the very hot and humid summers and bitingly cold winters here in the East. In San Diego, there is a large homeless population, able to live on the streets year round due to the weather. Other than same creative signs – Need Money for Booze or Need Cash for Weed – the homeless people in New Haven are always on the move. One particular gentleman cries out “Sir! Sir! I won’t touch you” before asking for money or declaring “It’s my birthday! Can you help me get something to eat?” His birthday occurs several days during the week, rain or shine. Another doe-eyed young woman who can turn on the waterworks instantly (maybe a drama school drop-out?) approaches with a story – “Hi,” she says timidly, “can you help me, I’m seven months pregnant and …. ” She’s been seven-months pregnant for the 15 months I’ve lived here and the many times she’s approached me for help.

I started this journey as a teacher, my last year teaching freshman composition and development English at a University and Community college. Both jobs proved crazy-making, with lack of institutional support, something I never encountered in San Diego. That’s the subject of part 2 of West vs. East.

Block Identified

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For years, I’ve tried keeping a blog, writing stories and poems, keeping up a journal, and writing large projects. For the most part, I’ve been successful on a scholarly basis, and in writing creatively for occasions – birthdays, anniversaries, and the like. But a sustained creative effort for completing a chapbook of poetry, for instance, or for a selection of essays or stories has eluded me.

The personal struggle for me has been marked by making a choice between devotion to art and commitment to my family. Whenever I’ve chosen to devote myself to my art, I’ve felt undue pressure from family and friends to give them attention that draws me away from that art, rather than some kind of understanding that I’m pursuing something that enlivens me and is wrapped up in self-definition.

It’s much more than just lacking support. I’ve also had opportunities to write, but why have I not, or why have I started and abandoned project after project? Why is what I write not good enough? Who are those critics, those voices in my head, that keep me from writing?

I’m now at a point in my life where I don’t have those obstacles and have a supportive partner. But I still feel that if I dive deeply enough into this work – especially into the memoir about my family – I’ll face undue pressures to choose between being true to my work and choosing to leave that be and keep my family intact.

The forces in question have stopped my expression in many ways, drawing me away from my work. I’ve been fired from a job due to a boss’s sexist agenda, my work taken from me just as I was gaining some accolades. I had another job taken from me once I achieved recognition from a parent organization (I had a job in a science lab and redid their website and was contacted by the National Institutes of Health office that oversaw our grant who were so enthusiastic about my efforts that they wanted to use the materials in their own PR efforts). I’ve had many projects which required some buy in from a spouse, who would be all enthusiastic in the first days and then want nothing to do with the project after the first week – a situation that continued for almost 15 years until the end of that relationship. And I’ve had family members basically reject me and my efforts, which always floored me considering we were raised in an environment to express mutual support and admiration of artistic efforts.

So my road to the writing life has been a long lonely one, filled with obstacles, about which I am actively writing.

I will get beyond these blocks and make a name for myself.

Writing Anniversary

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While most people were donning costumes, carving pumpkins, and trick or treating, I was silently celebrating the start of writing my memoir. On October 31, 2018 at The Owl Shop in New Haven, CT, I began this journey, thinking it would take about 6 months. Now one year later, I estimate 6 more months of drafting and then a wholesale revision.

Like most writing projects, this has been marked by fits and starts. I started a teaching assignment at Southern Connecticut State University that was marred by disruptive students and then a hostile student. Combined with a commute to Norwalk, 30 miles that took 1 1/2 hours three days a week to teach the mutest developmental students I have ever encountered and bombard them with an unfair curriculum and babysitting, my last teaching assignments soured my otherwise successful 30+ year career in teaching composition. I would teach one more semester in the spring, to another mute group at Southern, and that would be it. Between semesters, the extreme stress of my lack of job prospects and subsequent unemployment (under-employment) led to health problems – stress! But all my health tests showed that I am healthy and strong, thank goodness.

I secured work at the Yale library, a temporary position that was turned into a longer term limited appointment, physical work with no nightly grading, a trade I was willing to make. So I lost a good 6 weeks of writing in the winter, followed by a week-long vacation in August to Belgium, my first trip to Europe, in which I did not bring work with me. That was followed by another month of struggling to get back into writing.

But here we are, the beginning of November and I’m still writing. Transitioning from an academic life to a writer’s life is the challenge I now face, a challenge that, after a year of writing, I am winning.

And I begin . . . once again.

A Word, Please.

My first post. I’m blinded by my own tears.

How many blogs have I started and let fall by the wayside, too timid or busy or not seeing the worth in blogging into the void? Now I start again, with renewed hope that I will find the rhythm and inspiration to continue. With my partner Ashley and my dog, an 11-month old Dachshund named Herman, my life is clear of the clutter and demands that have forever interrupted me. No more teaching, no more grading essays – good riddance to the grading. I’ll miss the students but not the grading. My time is my own to read and write.

I still work, of course – have to pay the rent and feed myself, but my needs are few and the distractions are gone.

I’m approaching the anniversary start date of my latest foray into writing – a memoir started October 31, 2018. About 250 draft pages in, I’m encouraged by my progress and ready for complete the task. With some luck, I estimate another 6 months to complete a full draft.

Words and writing ideas sneak up and tap me on the shoulder throughout the day. I’m surrounded by books as I work in Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University, a place of grand design meant to inspire and enlighten. But now is the time to set it all down in writing.

As an academic, I’m used to writing and contemplating language. But I have dealt in finished products, not drafts. Blogging requires a voice I haven’t discovered yet. Time to set aside notions of perfection and completion. Process and perseverance must win out against all other concerns and against all odds.

Stories and titles bubble to the surface. Poems coalesce, spilling out almost daily, spreading like ornate ice crystals glittering in the late afternoon winter sun. I read daily with an eye to write.

So, a word, please…. if you will. I have stories to tell. Enjoy.

This Is Me

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Sometimes I think I’ve lived the life of the main character in Henry James’ story “The Beast in the Jungle.” I’ve been waiting for something significant to happen to me. I know something significant, something special, is waiting for me. And in my head, I have written my entire life, written down story ideas and titles on scraps of paper, enough to have my own ticker tape parade. And here I am, on the downhill slope, a life lived, unwritten.

The start was promising, I’ve always had promise, been promising. But the promise has been elusive. I was a creative writing major at San Diego State, and before I graduated, I had already served on two literary magazines. As a creative writing major and a relatively slow (methodical, deliberate, analytical) reader, I had not read enough by my estimation to be ready for grad school. My score on the Literature in English GRE Subject test was so piss poor that UCLA sent me a half sheet rejection – your GRE scores aren’t good enough. Thus, a plan was born.

At University of New Mexico, I read and read and read some more. I served on two more literary magazines, once as Editor-in-Chief. But it’s teaching where I found my passion. I was mostly shy, until I stood in front of a class where I blossomed into a teacher and a scholar. While my grad school friends did their 2 or 2 1/2 years of study, I spent 4 1/2 years reading, catching up, including a forced 6 months delay in my exams to read the gargantuan 18th century novels I have since come to love. The next time I took the GRE Literature Subject Test, I aced it and could have written the questions.

During grad school, I lived with a girlfriend who I wed less than a month before starting a Ph.D. program at The University of Kansas. We were young and made many mistakes. I made mistakes that compromised my integrity, and she … we ultimately divorced. Before that break, I was on the fast track. I already had teaching experience, and I was tapped by a Dean to serve as his T.A. for a 100 student elective course – the literature of baseball. Dean Carothers and I shared an interest in Faulkner and baseball. The divorce through me off track, and I took a year leave of absence to take care of finances and get in a better place.

During that time, I met a woman online, and within 6 weeks, she moved from Maryland to Kansas, and we moved in together. We started a relationship that would last 15 years, an instant family with a 2nd wife and a step-daughter. But I could not get back on track with my studies and finally closed the book on that chapter. So I thought a second Master’s degree in Linguistics would help, but I didn’t finish that thesis either.

I embarked on a career in educational technology, teaching myself HTML and CSS, teaching teachers how to use technology in their K-12 classrooms, and editing a newspaper feature for kids that appeared in 130 newspaper around the world. But the grant ended (and the male employees were dismissed!!), and I had to retool again. My technology background led to a second act as a web and communications expert at UC San Diego for a science lab.

During this time, my brother was stricken with major depressive disorder. My wife suffered from severe anxiety and later was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, a diagnosis that was hidden from both of us. In a flash, my wife switched affections like flicking a light switch, and divorce came again, unexpectedly. At the same time, the great recession took my job. I was living on a sailboat at the time, but my life became unanchored and rudderless.

Was it all a pattern, or just bad luck? Was I doing something that led to these deadends? And where had that writer’s dream gone? The titles and ideas on scraps of paper kept – keep – piling up.

Back to school – I found work teaching online and as an Adjunct English professor at several community colleges. The daily grind of grading becoming more difficult with every essay read. And of course, another betrayal, a fraudulent online college just cut me from the staff – “you are not suited for the Division of General Studies,” code for you are flunking too many students of whom we are taking their financial aid and offering very little in return. My standards had sunk to please just be able to write a coherent sentence. If not, you cannot pass. There must be some standards. The State of California sued the college for fraud. I’m happy to not be part of that problem anymore. But the financial hit was significant.

It’s difficult to keep books on a boat. There is simply no room (thank goodness for Kindle) but I never stopped reading or learning or studying or writing in my head. Everything I experience is a potential story.

Another unconventional relationship. Another blow out break-up. Broken but still with hope, there was still time to gain my bearings and keep moving forward.

And love entered again, unconventionally, along with many challenges. Teaching (grading) became more difficult. The American Dream collapsed along with any financial security that I had only glimpsed once in my DINKy life. DINKy became SINKy – Single Income No Kids – no way to live on a boat. The winds of change whipped and thrashed through my life.

Finally, with most of the trappings of my conventional life gone, uprooted from my Southern California home, I find myself in the east, in New Haven, a new start, a new hope. All of a sudden, the writing starts overflowing and I start writing.

I’ve been surrounded by mental illness my entire life, and while I haven’t suffered the way others in my life have, I’ve definitely been affected. I’ve been derailed from my own life in trying to be there for others who could not, who would not, be there for me. Categorical rejections, extremes of narcissism, betrayal from family, friends, lovers – and still I stand.

I have stories to tell, of survival in the face of mental illness, in the face of ideals stripped from my life, of goals unachieved, of betrayals unforeseen.

In all, I’ve loved and lost 5 times, seen my family decimated by mental illness and disease, lost 3 family members to suicide, lost family due to petty squabbling over a worthless estate.

The beast in the jungle will not win the day. I’m now free to write. And I still have love to give.

I started as a would-be writer and became a teacher. I started as a husband, and am now single – but with the most sincere and loving partner I’ve ever had.

And now I am again, as I started, a writer.

Why was I spared? How have I survived the onslaught of mental illness that strikes with the jagged force of lightning throughout my family tree?

All of my childhood passions are still intact. Baseball – go Dodgers; movies – with a deep knowledge of the art; sailing – the passion that I thought would take me to the ends of the earth and the end of my life, but now I’m boatless; writing – as teacher and practitioner, and hopeful idealist. It is hope that has kept me whole, hope for understanding, for doing the right thing, for recovering my integrity and keeping it intact in the face of so much adversity. These are the things I write about.

Another suicide – the Professor who inspired me to pursue English as a career killed himself in the parking lot of the Albuquerque Airport. This professor introduced me to The Waste Land literature that would form the metaphorical backdrop of all my studies. I knew of T. S. Eliot years before I studied him, as my sister had named her dog Eliot. I learned of this professor’s death a couple of years after the fact, and a couple of years before my own brother, a reverend to the deaf, committed suicide after a 13-year odyssey of major depression.

And here I am – still standing.

The beast lurks within that jungle, hidden from view, ocassionally rumbling with a low growl. It’s time to tell my stories. If not now, when?