HALF-LIFE: WORKING FROM THE EDGE OF THE AMERICAN DREAM TO THE CENTER
OF THE WORLD
You need to move to New York or San Francisco, they warned, all those concerned friends and advisors, grimacing over my decision to remain in La Grande, the urban center of Northeast Oregon with its population of about 12,000 people. I'd just graduated with a B.A. in English from Eastern Oregon University (then Eastern Oregon State College) where I'd studied with Writer-in-Residence, George Venn, edited the campus literary magazine which garnered some modest acclaim in the CCLM College Literary Magazine Contest, won a fourth place in an Atlantic Monthly student poetry contest, and for two years running had poems recognized as an undergraduate in the AWP's Intro series edited by George Garrett. My star was on the rise and more than a few well-wishers recommended the way up to a career in writing must follow the road out of the Grande Ronde Valley.
The valley is an oasis in a sparsely-populated region of high desert plateau with vistas of native bunchgrass and sage. To the south was the Painted Hills and the Ochoco Mountains, to the north the Wallowa Mountains with inspiring alpine country commonly referred to as the Oregon Alps, to the east lofty Elkhorns and Baker county with its history of boom and bust gold mining, and of course, to the west the Great River itself, the Columbia, rolling with awesome power to the Pacific Ocean. I'm not the first to stumble into the valley feeling they'd made a great discovery but it miraculously remains unknown, isolated in winter by treacherous passes — Cabbage Hill, Ladd Canyon, Minam Grade — and largely unexploited by the fickle forces of economic development bringing strip malls, urban sprawl and the unremarkable sameness of popular culture.
I knew I wanted to be a writer and knew I wanted to stay in the Blue Mountains, in this fertile fault depression with meandering river lined with cottonwoods, deep rich soil for farming formed by thousands of years of sedimentary deposits on the floor of an ancient lakebed, watched over by sentinels of towering Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir and stands of Western Larch so dense that in October and November their needles blanket the earth like dry yellow snow. This place was the perfect fortress of solitude for a conflicted Vietnam-era veteran discharged from the Air Force as a conscientious objector after serving for two years as a ground radio operator for the 2032nd Communications Squadron at Mountain Home AFB in the middle of the Idaho desert.
I'd joined the Air Force as a kind of atonement for not being enough of a true believer to go to war and not being enough of a true believer to resist, but ultimately compelled to serve after my best friend was killed in the Tet offensive near the DMZ, outside Quan Tri, at the age of nineteen. I spent several years trying to find reasons for why God would choose to take him and leave me, but failed. I made him into an icon while I succumbed to being all-too-human. I dropped out of community college, worked in canneries and pulled greenchain in and around Astoria, lost my college deferment and finally joined the Air Force so I wouldn't be drafted, looking for a way to serve my country in a war I didn't believe in.
Finding my way into the Grande Ronde Valley after my discharge may have saved me from total nihilism and ennui of a dropout unable to invest any personal energy into a culture of violence or join the armies of true believers marching for war or peace. Being both a veteran and a conscientious objector made for strange company and mixed sympathies. I wore my G.I. jacket to college, proudly identifying with those wounded by the war; they were my comrades as their woundedness, like my own, was seldom so apparent as a lost arm or leg, so much as the antisocial backlash of a war-wounded psyche. When I wasn't hanging with the Viet vets, I was exploring various means to express this woundedness, learning to use the expressive tools of writers, poets, musicians and artists to both objectify and shape my experience. I felt kinship with them all, felt like they understood what it meant to live on the fringes of society. For me, combat veterans and artists were truly unacknowledged brothers whose differences were not so great as their similarities.
After six years of college and something like 300 credit hours, I finally attained a B.A. in English and refused to believe I had to give up ambitions to be a writer in order to attain a deep and abiding sense of place, or vice versa. At the very least, the well-wishers prodded mercifully, you should check into MFA programs. You're too good a writer to languish in La Grande.
My wife, Sue, had only a few months earlier given birth to our beautiful daughter, Liesle. We were buying a 70-year-old wood-framed home in Union, a town about 12 miles southeast of La Grande, best known for its Victorian homes and the annual Eastern Oregon Livestock Show. Every June the livestock parade with colorful drill teams and rodeo queens rode by one block from our house, the P.A. kept us awake at night announcing bronc riders, steer ropers and bulldoggers, the scent of grilled onions drifted through open windows and carried us with mouths watering to the livestock show grounds, to the stalls and young girls with tears in their eyes as their blue-ribbon hog was sold. Then there was the horse races, the betting windows, the grace of strength and beauty in a photo finish — all a mere block from our home.
Sue worked fulltime as a secretary at the college and I became a house-husband for about six months while looking for work. After some baptism under fire handling messy diapers, my infant daughter and I settled into a comfortable routine. I discovered, for instance, if I played the Stevie Wonder album InnerVisions after lunch feeding every day and danced with her through Higher Ground by the time we swayed easily through All in Love is Fair, she'd be sound asleep. I'd put her into the wicker basket right under my nose and take a couple of hours to work on poems. It was a blissful period of my life. I will forever be thankful for that time with my daughter. But life takes its turns and financial pressures inevitably pressed us into abandoning the house-husband model and ushered me sternly into a limited job market.
The only experience I had from the Air Force that in any way translated into a civilian equivalent was clerical skills. So I got on the State of Oregon list for Office Specialist 2. I figured I could follow Kafka's working model, find a job that didn't demand too much of me, something that wouldn't interfere too much with my mental life, had short hours, allowed me time to think and write and not require too much creative energy, so I could conserve it for my own work, all the while meeting some basic financial demands of family life focused on something other than materialism. I thought of the Chinese poets who often worked in the bureaucracy and, though their stations were often honorific, they were able to do mundane tasks while being State-sponsored and still write poetry. Positions came open on campus, but in spite of clerical and editorial experience, B.A. in English, good verbal and written skills, I couldn't land one. One interviewer confessed to the woman interviewing after me (my wife knew her, so the truth came round) that he just didn't know how to interview a man for the job. An interview for a clerical position with a developmental writing program on campus led to the interviewer commenting that he hadn't anticipated anyone with a professional interest in writing applying for such an entry level position, meaning he thought I was overqualified and wouldn't stay in the position very long.
So after graduating in the spring of 1977, I was finally hired in December into a halftime Office Specialist 2 position with the State of Oregon's Children's Services Division. I have never left this position — I did work fulltime for a period of four years (four of the worst years of my life). But for the past twenty years I have worked halftime.
I just wasn't made to work fulltime, not even as a writer. My father (stepfather actually — but I consider him to be my father as he was the man who raised me) instilled into me a blue-collar work ethic and my lifestyle felt like a betrayal of those values. He was a sheet metal man, working in heating and air conditioning installing and repairing furnaces. It was a tough job he did well. He could go into the shop with scribbled measurements on scrap paper, fabricate almost anything out of metal, bring it back to the job site and drop it neatly into place. My father was good at building and fixing things, but not very patient when it came to teaching his left-handed son. He'd send me after nonexistent tools like right-handed screwdrivers or tools for which he'd use a different name from what I'd ever heard before like bulldogs for channel-lock pliers then get ruffled when I didn't know what tool to bring back. After years of having him finally take over a job in frustration because I wasn't doing it right, including my official soapbox derby car, I simply gave up trying to compete with him. I turned my attention to art and music, picked up trumpet and guitar, learned to write songs with lyrics. And he was simply amazed at the imaginative forms that came out of my left-handed right-brained head. Here I could barely drive a sixteen penny nail into straight-grained wood without bending it, yet I could make up songs.
My father was broken by the American Dream. As a Depression kid his measure of success was to get as far away from having to scratch out a living, as his family had in central Utah when he was growing up, and leave country life behind, learn a trade, buy himself into debt, chasing the ever-receding Dream like a mirage through the desert into the suburbs of Boise. He and my mother purchased a new house in a subdivision ironically named Camelot. But there was only one paycheck between the American Dream and the Air-Conditioned Nightmare, between the appearance of middle-class stability and overnight bankruptcy, the boom and bust of modern life. To build upon their Dream, they took out a second mortgage, converted the garage into a family room, and my mother was even talking about a swimming pool when my father's health failed — after the triple hernias, the aggravated war wounds, the busted fingers, the dust-soot-smoke-asbestos ruined lungs barely pushing air through what sounded like torn bagpipes. I sometimes wonder if he died from failing health or because he lost everything he'd ever worked for, the whole retirement nest-egg gone, lost in bankruptcy. My brother talks about the estate sale being the first time he ever saw my father cry.
I mention this because my father's failed Dream tempered my desire. The idea of working myself to death for a bigger house or a newer car did not sustain me nearly as much as art, music and poetry. I didn't care so much if I left behind an inheritance so much as a legacy; one might say objectifications of inner life held more value than investment funds or real estate. It was more important to me for my grandchildren, my great grandchildren, to be able to glimpse something of my living heart and mind and spirit than to pass onto them a stash of silver and gold.
Still, I had a wife and daughter who deserved financial support from me, help in paying the bills. So my halftime job with the State of Oregon with moderate pay and comparatively decent benefits became my deal with the devil, a working compromise in which I gave up the dream of being a fulltime career writer and instead being a part-time everything: writer, publisher, small press advocate, community arts and land use activist, coach of my daughter's softball team, assistance coach of her soccer team, being at home every Friday for her as Union Schools had a four-day school week. Sue never knew what she might find when she came home from her job on Fridays. My daughter and I did many art projects together. One Friday there might be acrylic paintings hung around the kitchen, the next it might be tie-dyed t-shirts hanging in the plum tree to dry.
My father would say, Anything worth doing is worth doing right. Now to this left-handed, right-brained misfit without a clear place in society, this clearly meant you should go all out, give 110 percent to what you're doing, focus on one thing and make your mark. But I'm probably too close to being adult ADD to work this way. I jump around from one thing to another, but I try to do it with energy and creativity. This is one reason poetry was always the process that most fit as I could focus intent for short periods in creative bursts. Any intervention that might allow me to fully focus might become a detriment to the energy and creativity I conserve through my halftime commitment to the State which is released at home on days committed to art. Striking a balance between family life, working life and artistic/spiritual practice is a formula that allows for a measure of success without totally sacrificing a necessary dimension of life and consciousness that promotes well-being and a sense of wholeness.
I've come to believe that halftime worker rights in America would be nothing short of a revolution. A decent government-subsidized healthcare program for halftime workers, for instance, would allow thousands upon thousands of baby-boomers to gradually retire without the system suddenly losing the benefit of their skills, and younger workers would gain the opportunity to move into higher skilled positions with more enthusiastic mentors without being suddenly thrust into high stress situations with steep learning curves. American companies, to my mind, ought to adopt a strategy for career halftime positions and, instead of punishing workers who do not wish to sacrifice everything for the job, acknowledge that a worker who's able to balance the material and production demands of work with the daily demands of family, personal health, spiritual and artistic practices makes for a happier, healthier, more productive member of society.
My job as an Office Specialist 2 for child welfare suits me well as I can leave the job behind when the workday is done. I take nothing home with me. If I were a caseworker, for example, I'd have great difficulty in laying aside how the State and its inflexible policies by worse-case scenario impacted someone on my caseload, or what damage was done that day to a child either removed from its home or not removed from its home. My creative energy would be like a wave breaking against rock and though the rock might give a little each time it would never be anything dramatic enough to be noticed. A growing sense of futility would make me sluggish and unmotivated. Instead, I survive like Jonah in the belly of the whale, occasionally tickling its tonsils or giving it heartburn, but staying alive.
Every day I am forced to use my language skills whether it is in answering phones, typing and editing home studies or as the initial contact clients make when they come to the office. Over the years, I've learned to be flexible and readily adapt to the ever-changing practices and policies driving what I've come to call bureaucratic entropy, this notion that as the system becomes more systematized, it becomes more and more complex until the complexity can no longer be supported by existing resources. I intend to write about this one day, how it played out in Child Welfare during my 27 years of state service.
So what is the Real Work, as Gary Snyder might say? It didn't take long for me to discover that writers in Eastern Oregon were about as much in demand as bronc riders. They're both stubborn individualistic breeds busting their asses all year around and on those rare occasions when there happened to be an audience one rarely took home any purse. Over the fifteen years we lived in Union, I came to feel the same sense of loss in small town America as good-paying natural resource jobs began to dry up and millworkers, truck drivers, ranchers and farmers, had to seek new ways to make a living. Though we often disagree over who is to blame for this loss, I find myself torn between my environmental convictions and my desire to sustain life in small towns. When we took our daughter to the livestock show and introduced her to sheep, swine, goats, cattle and horses, filling her vocabulary with words like Suffolk, Duroc, Nubian, Charolais and Appaloosa, or out Airport Road, around Ladd Marsh on Foothill Road to watch crazy Coots running on water, Great Heron spearing carp, pinpointing Pintails, spying on Snow Geese, now and then blessed with a glimpse of Golden Eagle or the joyous bedlam of a flock of Bohemian Waxwings in cottonwood trees, I was thankful for the half of my life not involved in earning a living, thankful for being able to remain at the center of the world while all the stars wheeled around me.
DAVID MEMMOTT has published four books of poetry and a story collection. His most recent book is Watermarked (Traprock Books, Eugene, OR, 2004). Soft Music: A Seasonal Round, is forthcoming from Benjamin Brown Books of La Grande. He has published in numerous magazines, won a story award through Wordwide Writers Inc., recently published a story in the British sf magazine, Interzone and has poems forthcoming in Salt: An Oregon Coastal Poetry Anthology and Alchemy of Stars: An Anthology of Rhysling Award Winners. He is a Fishtrap Fellow and twice received publishing fellowships from Oregon Literary Arts, Inc. He is the editor/publisher of Wordcraft of Oregon/Ice River Press and serves on the Board of Directors of RondeHouse Media Arts Konsortium, a non-profit group that sponsors a reading series and is working toward establishing a writers and publishers resource center in La Grande.
[copyright 2005, David Memmott]