Monthly Archives: September 2008

The Rules of Life, Laid Down

Spinoza’s Rules For Living (whittled to the essentials):

I. To speak in a manner intelligible to the multitude, and to comply with every general custom that does not hinder the attainment of our purpose.
II. To indulge ourselves with pleasures only in so far as they are necessary for preserving health.
III. To endeavor to obtain only sufficient money or other commodities to enable us to preserve our life and health.

Or:

I. Don’t be a prick. Get along with folks.
II. Take care of yourself so you can take care of your writing.
III. Get money by getting a trade.

#3 is the hard one. Requires both acknowledgment of money and setting about getting it. You’ve got to support your family in reasonable fashion, after all. Forget about the MFA or other forms of noble poverty. Best not to instutionalize yourself in academia or with a teaching license. And no climbing of career ladders. So: you require a trade.

Spinoza was a lens grinder. A high-end trade at the time. Similarly, it has been suggested to me that today’s equivalent is computers. You can make a living there that won’t make you want to shoot yourself.

Seems good. Would appear I’m all set. But there’s that nagging feeling … is that really the best way to go?  The best I can do?

Mother University & DFW

David Foster Wallace might serve as a warning as to why nestling down in the arms of mother university might be a bad idea for a writer. “Might” being the operative word. Who knows how he would have fared outside the university, or how much it had to do with his deeper struggles with depression. What seems clear is he didn’t produce much literary fiction while being a teacher. Have a look at a syllabus from one of his classes. No wonder. Keeps me chary of the university. If they would even have me.

DFW also won a MacArthur Genius Grant and evidently didn’t do much with it in terms of literary output. So what. Jonathon Lethem won one, too, and wrote this pile of crap . Cormac McCarthy wrote Blood Meridian on his. Whole lot of room to manuever in that no strings attached clause, I’m saying.

And here’s what I’d really like to know: if a writer is not going to seek shelter on campus, where is he supposed to go? What is he supposed to do? To put food on the table, I mean, while still having a reasonable space in which to write.

I think my old hero Spinoza has some ideas. A look at that coming soon.

What would SP do?

Why go into how a witchhunter evidently plays on her team? And I’m pretty sure she ain’t the archetypal American frontierswoman. Sure, I think the Republic is at grave risk if she’s a fogey’s faltering heartbeat from the Oval Office. But so what. Let’s consider her as person. As inspiration.

What with the family obligations and the political ambitions, does this woman sleep? Probably not much. Indicative of the level of dedication required required to get somewhere. Now, does she deserve it? Has she earned it? Probably not, but also not the point. She put herself out there, for good or ill. Thomas Jefferson: “I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.”

So if SP can vault her way to the top of the political dogpile, you can finish up that goddamn novel in proper style. When it’s early early morning and you’re thinking of rolling back over instead of getting to work, you can think, What would SP do? And then get the hell up.

A priori-tizing

What is writing if not an a priori exercise? An exercise of the brain, that is. Not directed at truth, itself. Instead a working out of internally imagined consistency. A novel might reflect a sort of truth, maybe, but I don’t think that that is its aim.

Whereas the traditional a priori task of philosophy was to sort out Truth. Or truths. Accomplishing this via armchair reasoning. Thinking your way into Truth.

I doubt this can be done. Science with its empirical, social process is a better avenue into a form of provisional truth. Truth as close as we are going to get to it. Theories generally agreed upon, always subject to revisions.

That’s fine. Suits me. Better than an illusion of revealed or eternal Truth.

But fiction writing nonetheless is a mode of the older a priori method. A person alone in a room thinking. Thinking thoughts that don’t necessarily purport to be truth, but are themselves internally consistent – if the writing is any good. In this, it is more a philosophical than a scientific exercise, although certainly there is a degree of experiment involved. But not one socially agreed upon, unless you are a far too enthusiastic participant in a writing group.

How, then, to get to the “truth” of writing …? I leave that as an exercise for the reader, and myself.

Short Story: A Whole Lot Bigger

This story appeared in Weber Studies (now just Weber) in 2007.

A Whole Lot Bigger

What I could use on this job is some help. This isn’t a one-man job. There’s fourteen checks worth of tubes. Between six and ten rows a check. Meaning I got something like a hundred and ten rows to set. It’s a long big ditch. I can move pretty fast, setting a tube one-handed while picking up the next one. But it’s a lot of ground to cover. Be good if Reg was out here helping. He’s working. If you can call it that. Don’t think there’s much for a line manager at the sugar factory to do in the off-season.

We drew straws on that one. The first few years, until we raise the funds for some more land, this farm’s not going to be enough to support both families. So someone had to get a job in town. Reg got the short straw. Suited me fine. I’ve spent plenty of time in towns. That’s why I’m out here. I know Reg thinks it’s beneath him. What did he go to college for, is his point. So what, is mine. So did I. It was the only job he could get right off. We need the income. We got to eat.

You get a pretty nice view of the Far Eighty from here. The ditch runs right down parallel with the bluffs. You can see the crick and the old equipment graveyard on the other side. The ditch works down the hills in levels, drop-offs following the contour of the slope. I got a checkboard in at each drop-off. The checkboards are supposed to slip right on into the groove, backing up the water so you can set tubes. That must have been back when this ditch was new. Don’t more than half fit now. Even though I just made them this spring. Cut them out of plywood by hand after the circular saw broke. Possibly I managed to screw up the dimensions on half of them. More likely, this ditch is fucked. This ditch makes for a dirty slut of a set. No one’s fault. Just that it’s old as damn dirt. I’m talking back to the homesteaders. Amazing it’s lasted as long as it has.

Digging the corrugations are another fun part of this set. You can only get so close to the ditch with the tractor, leaving a big gap between the crops and the ditch. You have to dig out corrugations from the rows up to the ditch by hand. Took about an hour. The ground here is like hard-pack. You don’t dig so much as hack.

You can’t say I didn’t know. I’m not saying I didn’t. I grew up around here. I thought out how things would be. Making a living out of this hardscrabble soil is a job of work. The first pioneers that came through here, they laughed at this place. Laughed and got the hell out, to where the land practically grows crops for you. Wasn’t until all the good land everywhere else was already claimed that they had to resort to homesteading here. Been a hard fight ever since. Which makes you what you are, not some soft bubble-butt relying on someone else for a living. Point being, I wasn’t expecting any easy ride. I didn’t have no dumb hippie ideas about running my fingers through the soil, communing with Mother Earth. You have to attack this dirt to get anything out of it. That’s the deal. You take it or you leave it. And if you take it, goddamn it, you hang on and ride it out.

You’d think your own brother would know this too. Supposedly we’re in this thing together. Both our names are on the promissory notes. Seemed the naturalest thing in the world to do. Two brothers, working the land together. But it doesn’t seem to be shaping up for the best.

Yeah, the great wide world. I saw it. Tried to find a place in it for a decade. Like being in a strange town looking for a crapper when you got the screaming shits. About the only good thing to come from it was meeting Helena. It’s not just the two of us, Reg and I. Be a lot simpler if it was. Wives and kids-to-be are involved. Reg’s a year and a half older than me and he’s been married for about that much longer too. His wife, Kathy, she’s pregnant. Six months along and getting bigger by the day. I see Helena looking at her, don’t think I don’t. I’m ready for a crumb-gobbler whenever God is, is how I look at it. Pretty tired at nights, although I still … guess I ought to shut up. Somehow I don’t think Helena would approve of me discussing our intimate relations with complete strangers. You have to respect your wife. Long as she respects you. Wish I could get Reg to understand that.

It’s not that I dislike Kathy. She’s a heck of a good woman, when her mind’s put to it. Strong as an ox. Strong-willed, for sure. Way more so than Reg. I thought so standing there being best man at the wedding and nothing’s happened since then to prove otherwise. She’ll let him wear the pants on the little things, but you just watch what happens when there’s big fish to fry. Which wouldn’t be my concern. If she were out here doing the farming.

There goes the tenth check. When the thirteenth check is half full, I’d say it’s time to start setting the tubes. Hell of an invention, these tubes. You start them out with some suction and gravity keeps it going. Water heads down the rows and if the Good Lord’s willing and the crick don’t rise, crops grow. Hell of a lot of work. You can’t have big huge spreads like they do back east. To make up for it, you got to have the big yields. That, I guess, and a brother working in town. He’s on the night shift, Reg. Pays better. Ought’ve clocked in a couple hours ago. I thought he should’ve gone for the graveyard shift. Pay’s even better. Reg didn’t think so. He asked when I supposed he would get any time with his wife then. That shut me up. Not because I see his point. More because it don’t make sense. They’re not honeymooners. There’s business to attend to. Kathy should understand that. Course, she don’t. With Helena and me, it wouldn’t even have come up. Helena’s a good woman. She sees what needs to be done, and she does her part to make it happen. Not Kathy. She’s a whole other bowl of corn flakes.

I’ve seen the looks on her face. Kathy wanders around here like it’s a foreign country. Which to her I suppose it is. She’s a town kid from somewhere. That’s all you need to know. If you’re a town kid, it doesn’t matter where the town is. You won’t know anything about the land, much less have any notion how to work it. She has no idea what we’re doing out here. Worse, she’s got no respect for it. She’s never been down here once to look and she doesn’t care to hear about it. Helena brings me sandwiches and Kool-Aid in the field. Kathy spends her time looking down on you. Don’t know where she’s looking down from. Who’s she? A farmer’s wife, that’s who.

To Kathy, hard work sounds like someone’s last name. Helena knows I’m not going to be scrubbing the floor or hanging out clothes when I get back to the house. Not Kathy. Kathy thinks housework ought to be shared around. Even though she’s the one in the house all day. She paints. Ask her. She’ll tell you how exhausting it is. But alright. I could live with that. I’ve got nothing against the arts. I even helped her set up a studio. Put a skylight in the attic and everything. Not that I got thanked for it. But fine. I’m glad she’s got a hobby. Nice to be well-rounded. But painting ain’t work. Don’t tell me it is. And work’s got to come first. Self-evident, ain’t it? You can’t eat paint.

She’s gotten worse since she’s been pregnant. She’ll spend a whole day staring at a blank canvas, and come away with about three new strokes. Meanwhile the house is falling apart, Helena brings her grundles, and she never changes out of her damn kimono nightgown thingy. You’d think she grew up in a trailer, the way things run over there. Dirty dishes, crap all over the lawn, crumpled-up clothes everywhere. And she complains. About dust. Dust, for Christ’s sake. On a farm. Her brain seems to be the only part of her
doing any work. Overtime, in fact. I don’t know what she’s pondering, but dollars to dimes there’s no cheerleading for the farm team involved.

Okay, water’s halfway up the thirteenth check. Set the tubes, one after another. Seems like I remember being better at this when I was a kid. A couple of the tubes I don’t get on the first try. They sputter out some muddy water and quit. Slows me way down, re-setting them. The water’s going up too fast. I’m not going to make it. There it goes. Over the side, onto the two-tracker. Going to have a mucky goddamn mess on my hands. I wipe out on the bike again, I’m going to be pissed. Nothing I can do about it now. The water’s already in the ditch. It’s not going anywhere. Just keep on setting tubes. That’s all I can do.

I make it down to the end. The two-tracker’s a mud slick. Goddammit. But I about got her equalized. No more water slopping over the side and just a bit running over the checkboard. Sweaty as hell and I’m coated in grimy dust. I’m even breathing hard. And the real pisser of it is, if the water doesn’t stop running over the checkboard, I’ll have to set another check below. Guess I should’ve put one in, just in case. Have to wait and see. Almost dusk and here come the mosquitoes. We got just enough rain this spring to spawn a bumper crop of ’em. Going to be hand-to-hand combat with the little bastards all summer long. Course, I forgot the bug spray. Figures.

I walk up the ditch, checking the corrugations. Lots of them have broken out, water sloshing everywhere down the wrong rows. I have to do plenty of re-digging to send water down the right ones. A swarm of mosquitoes is dive-bombing every open patch of skin I got and the sun’s going lower. If the sunsets didn’t last two hours around here, I’d start to worry I wasn’t going to finish up before dark.

I’ve got the rows just about straightened out. Wonder how things are in at the sugar factory. Reg’s got it pretty easy, but he’s going to be singing an unhappy tune when the sugar harvest starts. We’ll have our own harvest to do then, too. If Kathy thinks he’s working too much now, she’s going to go ape-shit this fall. Reg’s my brother and he knows harvest and he can hold himself together. It’s that wife of his I don’t know about. Who knows how a town kid is going to handle the non-stop harvest? I’m not saying that Kathy’s going to take it any worse than fifty million other city slickers would. Only this city slicker is on my farm. Makes me glad I got Helena. She’s clued in. And what she don’t know, she’ll try to figure out. Rather than wasting precious oxygen belly-aching.

Still a trickle going over the last checkboard. Maybe a couple of tubes worth. May not seem like much, but it’ll add up over a twelve-hour set. You can’t throw water away like that. Got to set in another checkboard. Wait for it to fill up.

To pass the time I start digging corrugations for tomorrow morning’s set. I swear the ground’s getting harder the further down the field I get. Could be my shovel’s getting blunter. I dig out about fifty rows. I’m beat. That’s enough. I’ve been up since quarter to five. Enough mosquitoes have gotten to me that I’d get turned away at a blood drive. Hope that damn last check is done.

Nope. The overflow has slowed down to about one tube’s worth. Taking forever to fill up. I think of just calling it a night. But no. I go start getting sloppy this early in the game, things’ll never be right. Might as well declare bankruptcy and auction the place off. I’ll wait. It’ll fill.

Half an hour of mosquito executions later, it does. My blood must be sweet as hell. The check’s finally there and I set one tube. That’s enough. I go get on my bike. It’s dark dusk now and the headlight doesn’t work. I try to take her easy.

Still, I slip and slide all over. Yeah, you saw it coming. Boom, hit a little patch of dry and go tumbling right over, face down in the mud. I’m all right. I got a fresh set of bruises, cuts, and burns, but nothing appears to be broken. I’ll be okay. I head up to the house. Getting pretty hungry.

Helena and I live off the main farmhouse, in the old laborer’s cottage. Over the years it’s had additions. The real estate agent tried to tell us it’d make a good bed and breakfast. She was half right, because those are pretty much the only times I’m in it. Reg got the main house. Fine with me. I go by there. I notice the front porch light is on. Kathy’s probably out there. Reg put in a big porch swing for her. I figure I’ll stop by. Maybe she’ll want to eat with us. I suppose it does get lonesome, being where she’s from and now being out here. Doubt she bargained for what this life out here takes. Besides, won’t hurt to butter her up if I can.

I pull in front of the house and walk on up. Kathy’s there. Sitting with her husband Reg.

“Good evening, Hannibal,” she says.

“Evening, Han,” says Reg.

“Evening,” I say.

I get the feeling I interrupted some big important talk. Looking at Kathy, I also get the feeling I wouldn’t much have liked it. The bites feel like branding irons. What the hell are those mosquitoes eating for breakfast? Toxic waste?

“What happened to you?” asks Reg.

“Wiped out in the Far Eighty,” I say.

“Again?” asks Reg.

“Again. Ditch overflowed.”

“Again?”

“Again,” I say. “Thought you were at work.”

“Shift got cancelled,” says Reg.

“Oh,” I say. “When’d you find that out?”

“They called this afternoon,” he says.

This afternoon I was out in the East Sixty, trying to punch a hole through about two decades of dried mud in a culvert. All I had was an axe handle. Thinking maybe we can get some grass growing in the lower pasture. Conceivably be able to rent out it for grazing later. We have to do something with the water allotment we can’t use on the East Sixty, on account of the herbicide level being about ten times too high and thirty-five acres of corn getting fried. I’m not saying whose fault it was. We both should’ve checked. But Reg was the one running the sprayer.

Reg and Kathy are holding hands. I’m noticing that while I’m itching everywhere through the mud caked on my skin. Must be nice to be mooning around on a pleasant summer evening. Whole lot of two-man jobs around this place. Whole lot of two-man jobs getting done by one man.

“Hard day then,” I say.

“I’ve been with my wife,” says Reg.

“Oh,” I say. “Like I said.”

Pretty quiet, it gets. I see they wish I hadn’t come. I’m wishing the same thing myself. Well, here I am. Best, really, to have found this out. If this is how it’s going to be.

“Could’ve used you down there tonight. That’s a bitch of a set,” I say.

Lately Reg gets this pained look when I cuss around his precious wife. Scrunched-up eyebrows, pupils all puppy-dog. Normally I don’t. But goddammit, that set was a royal whore of a job.

“I’m with my wife,” says Reg.

“I can see that, Reginald. But goddammit, this isn’t a country club,” I say. “You don’t sit around on the fucking porch when there’s work to do.”

Like I should have to be telling this to my own brother. This is what a woman does to you. I’m looking at them looking at each other. I see where this is going. She’s making him choose and I see he’s chosen.

“I’m going inside,” says Kathy. She gets up and goes.

Me and my brother out on the porch. We could straighten this whole thing out right now. Get it so that we understand each other. What we got’s teeter-tottering on a open upstairs window ledge.

“This isn’t your house,” says Reg.

“The hell it isn’t,” I say. “It’s our farm.”

“Yeah, our farm. Not your house. Not your life.” He gets up and starts to head on in.

“I’ll see you tomorrow mor
ning. To set water.” Which I shouldn’t have to tell him. Since he’ll be getting a full night’s sleep.

Reg’s got nothing to say. The screen door slams behind him. His shape is blurry behind the screen and then gone. I better get on home. Helena’ll have dinner waiting. Going to need those calories. This farm just got a whole lot bigger.

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