The shortest route between point A and point B is a straight line, so let me be direct. I fucked up. That’s about as direct as I can get.
Here I am zig-zagging my way through rural Arkansas to make it to my father before he dies and I went the wrong way. Maybe it was the 1AM phone call from Mom which started, “Your father didn’t want me to call, but it’s almost time…”
Put a ticking clock over their heads and most guys go straight for the finish line, but I never even stay on the track—hell, in the one and only relay race I’ve run—sixth grade track-and-field event on the last day of school, I got a little distracted by a fallen bird’s nest on the edge of the track and wasn’t there for the hand off.
My girl gives me a do—what-I-say-or-we’re-done—ultimatum and I’m hundreds of miles away from her—probably too far from my parents’ place to make it in time—and six hours into a drive that should’ve taken five.
I took 55 out of St. Louis instead of 255 and headed for Memphis for 100 miles before I realized I’d screwed up. Now, I’m backtracking, thinking, if point A where my high school graduation—which I nearly missed due to a debate with a gas station attendant about the inappropriate use of “Give me your John Henry” as a colloquial substitution for “Give me your John Hancock” considering John Henry was most likely one of about 200 illiterate convicts worked to death on a chain gang construction of a railroad tunnel.(1)
Anyway, if point A was the high school graduation I nearly missed and B was the point at which I became gainfully employed—that coveted destination that my father claims should be my holy grail and turns out to be the brass ring you insist I jump for or we’re done – then let me shoot for a working definition of “Point B.” Should it be defined in terms of a permanent position (as in this is a job I could stand for more than three semesters in a row)? Or perhaps, financial security (I can pay my rent on time for 12 months in a row, rather than 6, okay, 5), or in terms of the contributions I’ve made to society? I’m still working on that last one.
Okay, okay, so I never made it to point B. I rarely ever do.
You know, I’m the king of tangents of all kinds—physical: I should be pulling into the retirement town my parent’s call home about now, but instead I’m on the mind numbingly straight stretch between Poplar Bluff, MO and Corning, AR. Intellectual; stopping at an Army recruiting office to discuss the theory that the Vietnam War (pardon me, armed conflict) could have been averted if JFK had traveled in a protected vehicle in November of 1963 and General Thomas W Brown had lost at PleiMe in Vietnam. (2) Existential; If God exists at all points in time in the space time continuum, does free will exist? Or better yet, does God have a sense of humor when you consider that nearly all humor is based on the sarcastic ridicule of a creation of God’s? Political: For the sake of your ears, I’ll just leave that one alone.
You’ve heard me tell people my middle name is Tangent, but it’s really Tenniel after a great, great, great uncle who was supposed to have been one of the only soldiers to have survived Picket’s Charge, (3) but he’d really deserted on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg and fled to Philadelphia to sell subscriptions to Harper’s Bazaar (4) door to door.
My father always says, “What good is all that information if you don’t put it to some use?”
Shit, do I have to start saying, “said” now?
I need to call my mom. Let her know where I’m at.
Why the hell didn’t I bring my charger. My cell battery died back in Festus, MO. But my tape recorder’s still spinning its wheels, so I’m going to keep talking to you, keep telling you—my Lucille—the girl who said, pointing the knife you were using to dice celery for the chili you took to the charity cook off at church today, “Give me a straight answer or I’m leaving. When are you going to find a job you can keep? Or better yet—one you enjoy!”
And the only thing I can keep straight right now is this car, traveling down this road, but I can already see a blinking traffic light ahead of me and I’ll have to make a choice. Make a turn.
And all I can see in my mind’s eye is Dad, his reading glasses (just a buck from the Dollar Store) perched on his nose, those watery blue-green eyes staring me down over the radio his fixing next to his plate of eggs, bacon and toast all diced up and mixed together, the screwdriver in his hand wagging in my direction.
Why are people always shaking sharp objects at me?
Screw driver flailing, Dad said, “Don’t do a job unless you do it right. And no job is worth doing if it’s not useful.”
Now there’s a line of reasoning Benjamin Franklin would approve of. If you don’t know why, let me give you a hint, Utilitarianism. (5)
But he has a point, my dad, that is, well, actually Franklin had a few of his own—see “The Way to Wealth” where he pretends to be someone else to praise his own ideas. But I was trying to say, I could earn a decent living IF I …
A. Finished my Ph.D. I was asked to leave the university for what I call “intellectually disruption,” but the official expulsion letter said I created an environment that was not conducive to learning for the other students.
Why? Because I refused to idly sit by while professors butchered the learning process by proffering things like a book on the history of childhood from the Romans to the present in 192 pages that left out children in 80% of the known world while claiming to offer an academically sound examination of the “Cultures of Childhood.”
Sitting in that ratty old rusty brown armchair of his that makes me think of Archie Bunker, Dad said, “Who gives a shit. Go to class. Write the papers. Take the tests. Do whatever the hell it is you college kids do and get it done. Treat your classes like a job. Your professor as a boss. He tells you to do it. You do it! So you can actually go out and get a damn job!”
It’s true that a Ph.D. could lead to a tenure track faculty job that I might actually hold down for more than a year before I imploded which is ironically only about 3 letters off from “employed.” Or fewer, if you’re dyslexic like me and frequently unemployed or between two of the 27 adjunct positions I’ve had over the last 17 years.
As you know, I have great difficulty staying on task (shocker, isn’t it?) and covering “relevant” course content within a given semester. I’m not so good at articulating my assignment expectations either. One of my students said that my classes where excellent preparation for champion level competitiveness for Jeopardy, but not much else.
Well, shit. I think I’m on the road to Piggott. Yes, Miss Philadelphia, there’s a town in Arkansas called Piggott and it’s not on the way to my parent’s house, but it was the occasional destination of Ernest Heminway whose in-laws (the parents of his second wife Pauline Pfieffer) lived there and I could go into why the curators of the museum in her childhood home found over 100 layers of paint on one side of their house and over 50 quilts in their attic, but I’ve got to turn around and get on the road to Imboden.
So what have I done with myself since I graduated from high school and Star Wars was still in the torpor of the pre- and post CGI eras that stretched it from triology to a hexology. To tell you the truth, I had a lot more respect for George Lucas before CGI took over unrealistic films (then again, I was only 7 when Star Wars came out). Still, what was he thinking with Jar Jar Binks. Can anyone say, “Step-n-Fetch-It in an alien suit?”
And that has nothing to do with the fact that I spend my time trying to put my brain into lock down mode to finish a semester, a class, conversation with you or even a sentence without wandering off into useless pedantic drivel. And ta-dah. See, I can do it, though I have to admit that I wanted to tell you about Alcunin, the tutor of Charlemagne, (6) who was also the dude who decided it’d be a smart idea to use lower case and upper case letters rather
ALLCAPITALLETTERSSMUSHEDTOGETHERMAKINGITHARDTOREAD. Still Charlemagne never did learn to read, so how good a teacher could that Alcunin have been? Then again, try reading without him sometime.
Speaking of reading. I think I’ll write this all down when I get home and give it to you. and yes, the footnotes I add will be a necessity.
But let me be practical for just a moment (keep your jokes to yourself). There’s only 11 more miles to Imboden. That puts me about 45 miles out from my parents—too bad every road between here and there is more winding then a corkscrew.
Even I’ll admit that I teach adjunct for any school that will hire me, including the College of Global Business that presents their classes online in such a strict outlined format even an untrained ape could autopilot his way through a semester—Okay, so I’ve been labeled “untrainable” on more than one occasion since and I’m so damn good at following the rules—but I’ve kept the job for over year.
And when I’m not wasting valuable instruction time with details that might actually help people to be critical thinking, globally-oriented individuals who might make the world a better place, I’m not doing so bad down at the co-op. I’m doing pretty good with the 5 customers a 30 minute span rule Rudy came up with. And hey, I never got the chance to tell you—I’ve actually beaten my personal best and pushed a whole 10 customers through the line in 37 minutes, so Randy can take his five customers in 30 minutes rule and plant it—organically, of course. The gig you got me volunteering to teach the folks down at Homeward Bound is still a go. Who knew I’d be good at teaching folks how to write resumes, and you’re right, I do love walking the service dogs for the folks in our building who can’t get out much in the snowy weather. It sucks to live in a hilly city when they don’t de-ice sidewalks and you travel via an electric wheel chair and you don’t have the sensory perception to know when you’re suffering from frostbite.
So, what have I done lately? That’s the most common sardonic response I get when I tell people what I do.
I still have the same job I had in January of last year. That’s eighteen months and counting. And I am counting. If I can get my shit together I can still keep the clock ticking on our relationship. Let’s see you moved in—March 15 (no, I will not go on about the Ides of March at this moment) and May 15th is just around the corner. That’s about 30 days longer than my –right—now is not the time to talk about exes, is it?
Well, then I’ll take your advice. I’ll live in the moment.
Right now, I’m driving to say good-bye to my dad. The final stop on my father’s farewell tour.
Man, I just realized, it’s only been 72 hours since I got back from Dave Reynold’s funeral. Three days ago, my dad’s funeral was the number one thing on my mind. Just a Tuesday, a Wednesday, and a Thursday ago, the date of Dad’s funeral was totally in limbo as he struggled with all the things that go along with a terminal cancer diagnosis. When I think on Mom and Dad sitting in that pew, her hand, cradled in both of his, I still can’t believe they’ve been together for 47 years. That trip back to our old hometown was a planned destination on the farewell tour. The funeral wasn’t.
While they were visiting, Dad’s best golfing buddy, the man I will forever remember as the bald guy who said to me on a blistering hot day in my 4th summer of life, “It’s so hot out here you could fry an egg on my head.”
He died 14 hours after Dad visited him in the nursing home where he was recovering from a stint in the hospital coping with the myriad of issues that come with Type 2 diabetes when your donated kidney has failed you and your leg has been amputated. The most morbid thing about it is that when I heard he’d died, my good egg frying friend, I thought, oh good, Dad will get the chance to say good-bye to more people at the funeral.
When he called to tell me about David’s death, Dad said, “Aaron, (no, I won’t go into all of the allusions implied by that name even if I did spend my 13th summer researching them and had to stop at 13,712 because I had to help my dad dig a French Drain in the backyard)
He said, “Aaron, at times like this, a man might assess his path through life and make changes accordingly.”
That’s Dad speak for, “Get your shit together, son.”
And these days the old man has an echo. A beautiful (in every emotional state), school teacher who uses my trivial tirades as extra credit assignments to inspire her students. And what does this Dulcinea to my Quixote want of me? She wants me to find my niche. I love it when you talk French.
Too bad I’m more likely to crawl into a hole and start tunneling than to find my place in the world. I mean, let’s face it, you, Dad, and every advisor and boss I’ve her had are convinced that I can’t or won’t get my shit together.
I have tried. Honestly I have. So far, I can’t even keep my trivial outbursts to a minimum. For a whole six months I attempted to go an entire day (with intentions of working my way up from there) without sharing any useless facts like 24 hour days began to be “timed” with the invention of the astronomical clock by Su Sung in the 11th century in China. My record is 7 hours, 37 minutes and 18 seconds (while awake that is). Then again, I was camping that day and didn’t see a living soul on the hiking trail until I came across a guy and told him without even thinking that the first national park with hiking trails was Yellowstone National Park which was established by Ulysses S. Grant on March 1st, 1872. I didn’t even slow down to see if he was listening until I had to curse myself for failing again.
Still, you and my dad have a point (B or otherwise). What exactly have I done with my life?
Even without the title of “chair,” I’ve coached 37 people through the completion of their dissertations from proposal to defense. 33 of them have jobs in academia. One died in a car accident on his 39th birthday and three left the ivory tower for various jobs (car sales, ad executive, and TV producer). I’ve published 29 articles on every subject from the villainous true identity of Wyatt Earp (he was kicked out of Dodge City for police brutality nearly 100 years before Miranda Rights were put into law for crying out loud) to the restrictive gender roles of men in fairytales (how’d you like to be stuck with no dialogue, the job of fighting the dragon, and a marriage to a girl you don’t even know?). Over 300 of my students have gone on to grad school. A dozen or so of them still stay in touch. One is even a dean of an experimental college in Oregon that’s spitting close to global distribution of a solar powered portable generator that’s easily assembled in any developing nation where they need electricity to power things like the lights in operating rooms, respirators, and incubators. I’ve tutored nearly 100 dyslexic teenagers through high school and attended the graduation ceremony for every single one of them. Thirty-one of them went to or are in college, almost a dozen made it into grad school and one is the president of a non-profit that collects the funds to invest in short term business loans to entrepreneurs in developing nations who want to build things like fresh water wells, schools, and hospitals. I could go on, but my unearned indignation is starting to make me gag.
You’ve heard it a thousand times—I’m allergic to the letters P, H & D, so I try to keep my distance. But you know, some days when the drug store goes into go-go graduate mode, I walk in and shazam—I’m boomeranged back to the third floor of the library, staring down at Milo Garrett being hooded by Professor Camfield. I never felt more invisible than I did in that moment. I’d walked Milo through a record thirteen drafts of his dissertation—we drank enough coffee in my dingy office in the basement in Baylor to keep a plantation afloat, but it was till Camfield who hooded him and handed off the Wallace Stemfield Award for the best dissertation because his name appeared on the paperwork as “chair” even though he did little more than fix typos and ask the hardest question in the oral defense. Ah shit, they can keep the hooding, but I sure wish I could’ve handed that award off to Milo. He deserved. Dude’ s a genius. He’s chairing his own committees these days, hooding and handing off awards left and right, so he claims, but he’s had to cut back on the coffee—kidney stones.
Geeze, I forgot to get gas back in Corning and I’m pretty sure the empty tank light’s been on awhile. I better hit the off button and pull off before I’ll miss yet another point B in my ever growing list of incomplete journeys.
But you know what they say, there are two things (insert point B’s here) you can’t avoid, death and taxes. I did forget to file my taxes for two years in a row once, but the IRS kindly reminded me with penalties and interest attached as incentives to remember. With my father facing the most final of point Bs, I have to say, I may not be able to contemplate his departure without tearing up over memories of tripping over each other to wax cars at the fundraising car wash we did for the Kawanis every year; foiled attempts to teach me how to golf, catch, or any physically adept task that usually ended in an injury to me (broken nose, dislocated thumb, a sense of pride that has near death experiences to tell) or my dad (strained vocal chords).
I was listening, Dad, I promise. I guess you and I just got a different road map on this trip. You went for AAA and I never could get Google maps or a GPS to work, so I’m just winging it.
And if it matters, Luce, you and Dad would both probably like to know I’ve got the MLA job list bookmarked on my computer, there’s an unmailed dossier in my bag—yeah, that Fairly Ridiculous, I mean the search committee of Fairleigh Dickenson in New Jersey actually requested one.
So, Dad, with 41 miles between you and me, as a I pull in to fill the tank with an icy feeling sliding down into my gut, I’m going to have to ask you to give my regards to point B when you get there. I’ll be along as soon as I can, I promise.
Alexandria LaFaye has published twelve books, including The Keening (Milkeweed 2011), a few short stories, and a handful of poems. Her novel-in-verse, Pretty Omens, was just accepted for publication by Anchor and Plume Press.
1. Though the West Bend Tunnel in West Virginia claims to be the point of his famed demise, he more than likely died laying track in Virginia and he may be one of the many skeletons found buried on the grounds of the state penitentiary in Richmond in 1992.
2. This was at The Battle of Ia Drang. The first armed conflict of the Vietnam War (November 1965) and the subject of the film We Were Soldiers. Approximately 1453 dead. That’s nearly fifty percent of the men who served during that battle (I’m counting both sides here).
3. Though Longstreet was in command of the 12,500 Confederate troops who tried to take the Union position on Cemetery Ridge in the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3rd, this battle which ended with over 6,000 Confederates dead will always be remembered as Pickett’s Charge because his men lead the charge. By that logic, the Battle of San Juan Hill should be named after the Buffalo Soldiers who did most of the fighting.
4. Rumor has it that Mary Louise Booth founding editor of the magazine was hired by the US Public Health Service to get people to stop hosting funerals in their home due to their health risks and one of her ad people coined the term “living room.”
5. It’s defined as a philosophy that suggests the moral value of an action is directly related to resulting outcome. Jeremy Bentham, a practioner of the philosophy donated all of his papers to University College London on the condition that could attend all of their annual board meetings post-mortem. He had himself stuffed! I’m not sure how that outcome morally justifies the action.
6. (740-804) English scholar and poet and the teacher of many dominant intellectuals of his time and one bear wrestling Holy Roman Emperor who never learned to read.