Last Waltz (10.05.11)

Actually, it’s the last MFA in a Box weekly blog.  Waltz sounds better than blog.  In fact blog joins frack and spam as slightly obscene words that I might have enjoyed using as verbs in junior high school, but at this late stage of my life find irritating.  If what I’ve been doing every Monday or so for a year now had been called something other than blogging, I still might be doing it.  I should have been delivering a weekly waltz to all of you out there in cyberland. You’d be happier and I’d be Johann Strauss.

I’d like to thank my publisher, Mike O’Mary, and the Dream of Things Team for setting up this space and getting the initial word out through the Dream of Things website.  For those of you who don’t know him, Mike is a genuine good guy, whose picture is in the dictionary right next to Generosity and again right next to Kindness. He’s been a good friend to me since long before he became a publisher. My first memory of him is from my first MFA workshop at the University of Montana, back in 1986, when I realized that our professor, Earl Ganz, was making subtle but really dark existential jokes and that someone else in the class besides me was laughing at them.  Of such moments are friendships born—dark existential friendships, which are the best and most durable kind.

I’d like to thank all of you who took the time to comment.  I read what you wrote carefully and tried to respond to it in the next blog, however obliquely. You gave me a vision of the people I was writing for, an essential external for any writer.

Of all the people who responded, I would like to especially thank Joan L. Cannon, who gives me hope that I’ll make it into my eighties still embracing the world, still trying out new skills, and not falling victim to thinking I already know all that I need to know. Joan L. Cannon, you’re an inspiration to me and to many others, and I hope you keep writing forever. You’re a better writer than you think you are, and you’re going to be better yet. May your path get ever smoother as you go.

To all of the craven Gollum-like sub-humans who spammed my site, I’d like to point out that the Universe will see to it that jackals will gnaw on the spavined bones of your syphilitic grandchildren.  That’s not me being vindictive. That’s just the way the Universe deals with spammers, and you should have thought of that before you became one.  It probably doesn’t make you feel any better that your grandchildren will die cursing your name, but it can’t be helped now.  If any of you lie awake at 3 a.m., regretting your twisted little lives, think of how much better things would have been if you’d all become waltzers instead.

To those of you who wrote unkind comments about my grammar and were denied approval of your comments, I apologize. I should have let you have your say, even if you were being grammar fascists. Most of you were quibbling about typos, claiming I shouldn’t be writing a blog on writing if I was going to make grammar mistakes.  I did, as a result of your efforts, start proofreading before I sent a blog off, and I even learned how to edit my own blog once it had been published, which is why some of the most egregious mistakes disappeared over time.  So in spite of what looked like malicious intentions, you made the world a better place. Tombstones have recorded worse contributions.

Speaking of tombstones, you may have intuited that I’ve become worried about the survival of our civilization.  For many years I was a kindly professor who helped students to learn how to write and sent them off into what I thought was a benign world.  These days, of course, the world doesn’t appear to be so benign, especially to twenty-somethings with a degree, college loans to pay off, and no job.  So I’ve had a crisis of faith about the reasons I had a teaching career—fortunately I’m not in the middle of that career—and have come up hard against the questions I should have answered differently years ago: Why be a serious writer? Why not just mess around with words and tell funny little stories to make people happy? Why not make money with your God-given talent?

Readers of last week’s blog will know that you can only answer such questions one essay or poem or story at a time, but here’s what is beginning to look like one answer:  You write to wake people to the condition of their world, which doesn’t look too good.  Climate change and the crisis of capitalism [the 4Cs] make me glad that I’m old enough to have seen The Doors in concert and paid off college loans and had a brief stint where I was a tenured full professor before I moved on to better things.

I really did move on to better things.  When I left academe, it was a voluntary plunge into poverty, physical exercise, and blue-collar work that didn’t require me to be particularly articulate. It was also a sudden lack of institutional identity, committee meetings, and faculty politics. It caused a sudden awareness of how limited and limiting the academic world was.  The existential questions that an academic job insulated me from suddenly got a lot more urgent, which was okay, as I had a decade or two to consider them rather than having them all gang up on me on my deathbed.

I can’t say I’ve made a lot of progress with those questions, but I’ve started writing a book called A Hundred Little Pieces on the End of the World, which are small meditations on our current cultural situation.  As I said, things don’t look good, but I have decided it’s better to be an honest observer of a dark world than to make up cheery lies for people who want to spend their lives in various degrees of illusion. If I wanted to make up cheery lies I would have gone into advertising and made a lot more money and had a secretary who looked like Christina Hendricks.

So, piece by piece, meditation by meditation, I’m exploring the end of this dark world as I know it.  I don’t know who will read my writing in a hundred years, or if anyone will be able to read in a hundred years. I don’t even know if anyone will be alive in a hundred years, unless it’s bacteria hanging out in hydrothermal reservoirs a mile beneath the surface of the earth.  But if bacteria can read, I’d like them to understand that in the last few decades of human existence, one of those humans looked around himself, observed carefully and thought about what he observed, and wrote down the results of that thinking—existential jokes, mostly, which I’m pretty sure bacteria prefer above all other forms of humor.  Other than the jokes, there’s a certain last will and testament quality to what I’m writing these days, not because I’m planning on dying anytime soon, but because there’s a lot to elegize these days.

Yesterday I wrote these words:  “It’s hard to believe that the species that created Opus 35 in D Major also created Koch Industries, but it’s happened.”

It’s happened, and we’re looking at a world that is being destroyed by greed and corruption.  Formerly honest men become dishonest creeps when they get elected to public office. Newspapers tap the phones of bereaved families.  Financial services companies manipulate governments when they’re not running those governments. Even if you don’t believe in global warming, you can believe that we’re destroying what’s left of a wild and beautiful world in our haste to turn it all into habitat for humanity. Seven billion of us are crowding the planet, and anyone with a pocket calculator can figure out that we haven’t got the room to do what we’ve been doing for yet another generation.

I’ll stop, but I hope it’s clear that there’s plenty to write about in this world, flawed as it is, especially if you can keep existentially funny and honestly grief-stricken about it.

I’ll leave you with a couple of book recommendations.  They are books that place contemporary life in perspective.  The first is Jim Kunstler’s The Long Emergency, a discussion—more like a rant, but a steely-eyed rant—about the devastating economic and social consequences that will accompany the end of cheap petroleum. It’s a prescient book, in that it was written some years ago and describes the present rather well.  I’d rather not have the future it describes, but it looks as if we could, given our present trajectory.

The other is Guy R. McPherson’s Walking Away From Empire, a new book about to be available on Amazon.  McPherson is a tenured professor who resigned and moved to a self-sustaining mud hut in a rural area not far from the pampered halls of academe, and he did it out of the realization that contemporary civilization is morally and economically rotten. I admire his writing, which is plainspoken and full of the truth, and his thinking, which grasps bad news and comes up with pragmatic ways of dealing with it, and his moral courage, which I wish I could transfer directly to Congress and our president.

Both these books will change your life if you let them.  They won’t let you live comfortably in suburban comfort, and they won’t let you assume you’ll ever see your 401(k) or take Social Security for granted, but they will peel the distorting veneer off the world we live in.  For a writer, that’s a good thing.

One last note: watch this space. Mike and I will keep it open for awhile in case you want to download some of the entries and I’ll occasionally drop a piece of the 100 Little Pieces book into it.  But it won’t be a blog on writing any more—you who have read it every week know more than enough about writing to go on from here.  As I always say, writing isn’t rocket surgery.

What I will be doing is throwing new stuff out to an audience I’ve come to value. Any feedback will be welcome.

Thank you all.


{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Guy McPherson October 5, 2011 at 9:34 pm

Thanks for the plug, John, and for your excellent, insightful writing. Although I’ve not previously commented in this space, I visit often and I appreciate your essays here and at Nature Bats Last.

Good luck with your next book, and with all your future endeavors. May we meet down the road.

Joie October 6, 2011 at 5:44 am

It is a gift to know how to and when to voice one’s wisdom and to give one’s self permission to move on. Your exit is graceful but I appreciate immensely that you’re leaving the bread crumbs in place to view and re-view as our world needs some wisdom and sanity. There is too little of it being expressed, so I appreciate the sanity and the dreams that you have written. Do enjoy your time upcoming, and something tells me we will soon get to read more of your thoughts. En”Joie” your world and share little snippets of it with us from time to time, if you so choose.

Rita Vail October 6, 2011 at 7:24 am

I love your writing, seldom notice anyone’s grammar, believe in the forgiveness of typos, and look forward to reading whatever you have to say.

Jane Shortall October 6, 2011 at 7:40 am

Thank you John, for all the words – you have been an inspiration. I echo your thoughts on Mike – a great generous guy (and not only because an essay of mine made it into Dream of Things “Saying Goodbye”)
As to Joan L Cannon, what’s left to say? I was privileged to read her short story collection and yes, you are spot on, she IS a wonderful writer and a sparkling example of long living!
Best wishes for the future

Joan L. Cannon October 6, 2011 at 9:10 am

Dear John–
What an inauspicious salutation!
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read this last essay. It’s a challenge to respond to something that has (literally) shaken me without sounding just a tad idiotic. “Thank you”will have to do it: for even noticing, and especially for commenting with encouragement.
As I’m extricating myself from banal do-gooder activities that keep interfering with my greatest ambition, you couldn’t have said something in public that would have given me a bigger boost. Naturally, the source is all important. A few, very few people I know now are making me learn a necessary selfishness that gives me a tiny hope of success–even if posthumous.
You’re that rarity: a true teacher! I’m grateful to meet you in this impersonal medium through which I have met half a dozen new real friends, and think of you now as among them.
Sincerely (literally),

Joan L. Cannon

suzanne October 6, 2011 at 10:13 am

” once in a while you get shone the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right “

Gerry Morrison October 6, 2011 at 11:09 am

We’ll miss your comments; we have looked forward to them with great anticipation; and have never been disappointed. We will wait impatiently for “100 Little Pieces”.

Jann Adams October 6, 2011 at 11:17 am

John, I’m going to miss these waltzes but definitely understand the need to move on. You and Mike are a good balance for each other. Look forward to seeing you soon.

Bret Weber October 6, 2011 at 11:20 am

Thanks a lot for the food for thought, John. It’s been a pleasure following some of your thoughts for nearly the past year. I’d love to get together some time and chat about old and future times! Be well.

Bob Robeson October 6, 2011 at 11:54 am

I’m sorry to see your weekly inspirational treatis on life, writing and the world in general come to a halt. I used a few of our diminished dollars to purchase MFA in a Box a year ago and find myself going back, time after time, to glean more information I missed in the first reading and to improve my writing from your many teaching points.

I was particularly touched by your trip to Vietnam and how you described that world today. I spent a year there (1969-1970) as a U.S. Army, medical evacuation helicopter pilot. I flew 987 missions, evacuated over 2,500 patients–from both sides of the action–had seven aircraft shot up by enemy fire and was shot down twice. I wish I could have seen it as you did, but humanity always finds the worst ways to resolve its disagreements. I’ve found that the bottom line is that each of us has to do the best we can with the bodies we’ve been given and the minds we’ve attempted to educate. Some have done a better job than others. Your thoughts have helped me, as a writer, to delve deeper and communicate more coherently. I retired from the army as a lieutenant colonel, after 27 years, and have published nearly 800 articles, short stories and essays and been featured in 10 book anthologies in 130 countries. And that’s while holding down full-time jobs, so no aspiring writer can ever say “I don’t have time.”

I don’t spend a lot of time reading blogs, but I haven’t missed one of yours. One of my failings is that I often make use of information and don’t always take the time to provide feedback to potentially inspire the inspirer. You have a gift and a wonderful way with words, my friend, so don’t let the lowlifes get you down. I think you are being too kind when you would endow syphilis on their grandchildren. Having evacuated nearly every possible wound and disease, from bubonic plague, cancer, typhoid to leprosy in ‘Nam, the worst thing you could have wished on them would be gas gangrene. (My research subject for this was a Viet Cong soldier, my crew was unfortunate enough to evacuate, with a leg wound who was captured a month later after sitting out in the jungle by himself.) It’s not congenital, but you haven’t smelled anything that is so overwhelmingly disgusting and puke-inducing if you live to be 100. Trust me.

So when you finish a new book, keep my e-mail address in your files and let me know. I’ll add it to my collection, if our monetary system hasn’t diminished our dollar further.

Oh, your background in the book about Sun Valley, Idaho brought back many old, old memories. My dad was a Protestant minister in Gooding for four years when I was in grade school (1952-1956), but I vividly remember our many trips there to this day. It was and still is a gorgeous spot on Earth.

Take care, my friend, and don’t become discouraged. We need you to tell-it-like-it-is, as you see it, and to journalistically curse the darkness that surrounds our world. If I didn’t believe in God, all that I’ve seen, endured and know that is to come would be detrimental to my alleged mind. So, no matter how you see it, just continue to tell the truth. We’re not in charge so we can only influence and touch those we can. That will have to do.

Thanks, again, for what you’ve brought to my table this past year. I will continue to feast on it as I attempt to touch others with my own scribbling endeavors. I leave you with an old helicopter jockey proverb. “Helicopter pilots don’t fly, they just beat the air into submission.” That’s what you’re doing. Keep at it and we’ll all be better for it.

Bob (Dust Off 605″) Robeson

Mary October 6, 2011 at 11:57 am

It’s been a pleasure to read your blog. I look forward to further insights. You are a citizen of the world.

Julie October 6, 2011 at 12:03 pm

Your weekly waltzes have been a highlight for me and I have always looked forward to them. Now, I can look forward to 100 little pieces. Please do give us some tantalizing bits on here. Thank you for your thoughtfulness and insight. Both qualities are rare these days. Thanks also for the book recommendations–deep reading for deep snow days.

Robin Datta October 6, 2011 at 11:51 pm

A Chinese saying (or so it is claimed):

For a return on investment in one year, plant rice.
For a return on investment in ten years, plant fruit trees.
For a return on investment in a hundred years, educate men.

So there may some investments for which one might not realistically expect to see a return.

Renee E. D'Aoust October 7, 2011 at 4:47 am


Via email, I have read your musings every week and felt encouraged, challenged, flummoxed, and enlightened.

I shall miss the weekly time with you.

Thank you.

With warm regards,
Renee E. D’Aoust

Joshua Flatt October 7, 2011 at 10:42 am

Thank you. I do not really want to repeat anything everybody else had said but I really appreciated this. I did not comment on any of your blogs because I did not really know what to say. I am only nineteen but I believe that I am mature enough to take in your messages and put it to heart. You have really taught me some great things. I have just now started a blog. It is going to be a book on a blog. I don’t think I will publish this book but just to see if I can actually finish one first. You are really the only person(that I have read besides S.K.) who has actually written down the truth and doesn’t try and candy coat it. I would really like to read your new book whenever it is finished. It sounds interesting and insightful. From one writer to another.

sandra ramos o'briant October 8, 2011 at 5:57 pm

I’ve enjoyed waltzing w/you, John, but this last dance kind of bummed me out. The words “survival of civilization” do that to me, even though my earthquake preparedness and belief in the subsequent zombie apocalypse are well-known. I hope my book is published and a few strangers buy it before the end comes. I don’t want to be a wizened old lady muttering “just my luck” amongst the decay and rubble.

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