Sunday, April 20, 2008
Following Diogenes

The other day I was getting dressed, and I experienced something unfamiliar, something I couldn't remember ever experiencing before.

For this to make sense, I need to explain something first. I'm a sensation seeker.

Some people with this personality trait call themselves "thrill seekers," but that's not really appropriate in my case. I don't feel the need to jump off bridges and go snorkeling with sharks. I'm not an adrenaline junkie -- I simply like to experience new things.

And if you have my peculiar type of curiosity, there new things all over the place. This is part of the reason I like meeting people and going places. It's why I like reading books, which is like meeting people and going places except you don't have to take a shower and find your pants first.

Hmmm.... I still feel like I might be giving the wrong impression. I'm not talking about going anywhere exotic. A few years ago I really enjoyed visiting a small town called Amherst - population: not much. They had a great river, and the locks on the public mailboxes were really cool. New York was interesting too, but despite all the museums and landmarks I saw, the thing that I liked the most were the pigeons and the sidewalks. The sidewalks in Soho are really great.

It would probably be fair to say that I'm a thrill seeker with simple tastes. If you've ever been driving around central Wisconsin and seen someone running his hands over the bark of a tree, or staring intently into the water that's running along the gutter and into a storm drain, it was quite possibly me.

The point of all this is that I am tuned to the sensation of a new experience.

So a few days ago, I was getting dressed. I was halfway thought putting on my socks when I realized that I was experiencing something new.... But for the life of me I couldn't put my finger on what it was.

It took me the better part of a minute to figure it out: I was sitting on my bed while I put on my socks.

The socks weren't the new thing. The new thing was sitting on the bed while putting them on. Normally I put my socks on standing up. Part of the reason I do this is because I have ninja-like balance that I use at every opportunity, lest I dull my keen fighting edge. But the main reason I've always done it this way is that for the last 15 years I haven't owned a bed.

Where do I sleep? Well, with the exception of a few years of futon while in grad school, I've usually just slept on a mattress on the floor.

I use sheets, mind you. I'm not an animal. I just never bothered getting all those other parts that go together with the mattress to make it a bed.

While I was sitting on my bed, thinking, "Hmm. This is different," I realized y'all probably have a terribly inaccurate idea of what my life is like. You've come in at the end of the story, so to speak.

It would be reasonable for you to assume that my life has always been this luxurious, full of beds, posh coffee drinks, and Chinese food delivered directly to my house. But the truth is, for most of my life I have practiced simplicity of living. As a philosophy, it is very appealing to me. And, as a bonus, when you aren't worried about making a lot of money, it frees up a lot of your time for writing.

Simplicity has come naturally to me over the years. It's easy when you don't have much money. I live cheaply, move often, and don't focus on frippery. Please don't compare me to Thoreau. While he made some good points, Thoreau was kind of a poser.

No. Ever since I studied the Greek philosophers, I've done my best to follow in footsteps of Diogenes. The man who threw away his bowl after seeing a boy drinking out of his cupped hands. The man Plato called, "Socrates gone mad." Brilliant, bitter, barefoot Diogenes.

This means for most of my adult life I've only owned one pair of shoes, one coat, and one pair of pants. I've eaten a lot of ramen. (Chicken Maruchen ramen, given a choice.) Before selling the book, I never paid more than $250 a month for rent, or more than ten dollars for a piece of furniture.

No, wait, that isn't true. I paid 80 bucks for a desk back in 1998. It was one of those plywood assemble-it-yourself kits. Two years later I moved, and when I realized it couldn't be taken apart, I just ripped the top piece off and laid it across of two filing cabinets. That's what I still use for a desk. That's what I'm typing on it right now.

Do I have a point? No. Probably not. Except to say that life is strange. I have lived most of my adult life happily poor. (Though I have never been truly desperate or destitute by any means.) Now I have a bed. A real bed with a box spring and a frame and everything. I recently bought a dishwasher. I have a house -- or at least a mortgage in the shape of a house.

I've been up all night, writing and thinking. And before I lay down in my new bed in my new house and catch a refreshing day's sleep, I'm going to go out and buy a couple copies of the Sunday edition of the New York Times. This is another thing I've never done before. I wonder how heavy three copies will be? How much does the Times cost?

I'm buying a Sunday paper because there is a full page ad for The Name of the Wind in there today. A full-page color ad. And though I don't know the specific numbers, I expect this ad cost the publisher more money than I made in a year of teaching at the university. It is terribly flattering. It is a glamorous gesture of faith and support. It shows that they really believe in the book.

Today I have a full-color ad in the New York Times, and my life is strange. This is not a bad thing. After I post this up on my blog, I will take a shower, put on my only pair of pants and walk downtown to buy a Sunday paper for the first time. Spring is finally here in Wisconsin, and though the trees are still dark and leafless, the ground has thawed. It is almost fifty degrees out. More luxury. More than I deserve. I will celebrate by leaving my only pair of shoes at home and make my way barefoot, pretending for a while that I am still following Diogenes.


Take care everyone,

pat



*** Edit - 9:45 AM ***


First off, it turns out it isn't a color ad. That makes me feel better, actually.


Secondly, they really don't want to let you into the grocery store if you don't have any shoes on. Even if it's just so you can buy a paper. Even if it's just for a minute so you can buy a paper that has an ad for your book in it.

If it wasn't for the authority of my majestic beard, I don't think they would have let me through....



Thirdly:



(Click to Embiggen)

Whoot!

pat

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posted by Pat at 33 Comments



Monday, March 17, 2008
St. Patrick's day.

I have a warm place in my heart for St. Patrick's day. When I was in grade school, you got to bring a treat to share with the rest of the class on your birthday. Cookies or brownies or rice-crispy treats.

But my birthday is in July, so I could never bring in treats. I can't remember why this was so important to me as a kid, but it was.

So my mom, rather than being relieved at having one less chore in her busy life, came up with the idea that I could take cookies to school on St. Patrick's day, because my name was Patrick. That was the sort of person she was.

So we made sugar cookies shaped like Shamrocks and frosted them with green frosting. I helped. Or at least I remember helping. More likely I tried to help and got in the way instead.

So I got to bring cookies to school once a year, and my standing in kid society was saved.

As I write this, I realize not everyone might have done this at their schools, growing up. Maybe it just happened in my little corner of the sky.

I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, just outside Madison. The Town of Burke, unincorporated. Lots of land, not many people.

For most of grade school, I went to the modern equivalent of a one-room schoolhouse called Pumpkin Hollow. No, I'm not kidding. It was called Pumpkin Hollow School.

It had four classrooms, one each for first through forth grades. The entire faculty consisted of four teachers, the aid, and the lunch lady. We borrowed music and art teachers from a bigger school district and they came out to visit us once a week.

I think this small school was a very special thing, though I didn't realize it back then. We had a really active group of parents that would organize great things for us. We went to see the Nutcracker Ballet every year, and we had little fairs in the springtime with craft booths and little games.

I remember the playground. You'll never see a playground like it these days. The equipment was good, old-fashioned dangerous, or made out of tires, or both. We had a tire swing. A real one that hung from a high branch, and because the rope was long you could really whip people around on it. We could have killed ourselves, but we didn't. It was fun. Good lord I miss recess. When did play get squeezed out of our daily curriculum?

It wasn't a perfect place by any means. I don't mean to imply that. Even small groups of children can be cruel. There was one girl that everyone said had cooties, and we teased her though I didn't care and I was her friend anyway. None of the cool guys liked me very much, which sucked.

Ms. Otto, the aid, had strong old-school views about propriety, and she didn't approve of the boys and girls playing together. We could mingle together on the equipment, or play tag, but we couldn't cluster together in and make up our own games. A boy who played with the girls was given the worst punishment possible: he was forced to sit on the steps.

I spent a lot of time on the steps. Don't misunderstand me. I was not a young Casanova. I just preferred the company of girls. Generally speaking, I still do.

Once I brought an old Indian Spearhead to school to show the other kids. It was real, we'd found it when we were digging in the garden. But when I took it out to recess, I showed it to a girl and told her that it was sharp and it could cut her. I wasn't really threatening her, but I wasn't exactly *not* threatening her either. I was being tough, and slightly wicked, and I knew it.

The girl told Ms. Otto, and I had to sit on the steps and they took the spearhead away. Later that day, my teacher Miss Anderson gave me a serious talking to and gave me the spearhead back.

That was it. I was deeply ashamed, and I knew deep in my heart that what I'd done was Wrong.

I also felt like I'd dodged a bullet because they hadn't told my parents. Everything worked out smoothly, and I learned something. These days, they would have called homeland security, put me in therapy, and installed flint detectors on all the school doorways.

It was, everything said, a good place to grow up. It was too small for any severe social stratification. When your entire class is only 18 kids, the cool kids (Like Chad VanEss) still weren't that much cooler than the uncool kids. And the prettiest girl (Jody Mulcahy) wasn't that much prettier than the least pretty girl.

They closed Pumpkin Hollow not long after I left. Probably for budget reasons. I drive past it every once in a while when I'm at home. A small business has set up shop in the building, and I always want to stop and ask if I can look around. But I never do.

But in my dreams I go there. Sometimes the school is abandoned as I look around. Sometimes the new owners let me in and I see the old school half-hidden under the renovations. Sometimes I'm with someone, showing them around, saying, "This is the room where we had art class." "This was Ms. Stewart's room." "Everything is so small. How did twenty kids ever play dodge ball here?"

They are melancholy dreams, full of a deep, slow sadness. They always end the same way. After moving from room to room, I lay down on the floor and cry. Not for anything, or about anything. Simply because I am full of sadness, and I miss something that is so long gone that I can no longer remember what it was, or put it into words.

I would give each of you a shamrock cookie today, if I could. But that is beyond me. So instead I wish each of you happiness, joy in the changing of the seasons, dreams free of melancholy, and hope of new friendships on the near horizon.

Fondly,

pat

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posted by Pat at 40 Comments



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