Thursday, October 04, 2018

A Moment of Sunlight

When I was taking a walk near the Missouri River the other day, I managed to witness a moment when the sunlight revealed itself but for a few minutes in an otherwise cloudy day. Fortunately, I had my camera and managed to get a few shots.

During my walk, I overheard one homeowner say to another that the number of acorns has been unusually heavy this year and that the squirrels have been busy gathering both acorns and walnuts. She didn’t attach significance to these things, but a large crop of acorns and the squirrels collecting unusually large amounts of nuts point toward a long and severe winter, I’ve discovered. One of our local weather prognosticators says that the pattern of winter weather has started to set up and will continue to set up through November. The severity of the winter, he says, won’t be fully visible until the pattern repeats itself, starting in December. We’ll have to see.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Poems in Dragon Poet Review

Three of my poems have recently appeared in the Summer/Fall 2018 edition of Dragon Poet Review, an online journal. My poems, "Gust Front," "Soul Traveling," and "October in Oklahoma," start on page 58.  

Summer-Fall 2018 Dragon Poet Review

Thursday, September 06, 2018

The Desk of a Minimalist

My students are currently working on a personal essay, the first essay of the semester. They have the option to describe a positive event, a significant object, or an important person. Using that prompt, I decided to write an essay of my own. At 1756 words, my essay exceeds the 1000 words requirement. I couldn’t describe my desk without describing the computers that I have used as well because the two things are related.

The Desk of a Minimalist

One object that has meant a lot to me over the past thirty-one years is my desk. It’s something that I have transported from one place to another as my wife and I made our moves within the state and outside of the state. It’s also something that I use every day, having set it up in my home office. As an online teacher who works from home, a large portion of each day is spent in front of this desk.

Not particularly fancy, my desk is composed of two red two-drawer filing cabinets, one at each end. On top of these cabinets I have placed a wooden butcher block that is three-quarter inches thick and roughly 60 inches long and 30 inches wide. Not placed squarely on the file cabinets, the wooden top extends past the front of the file cabinets by three inches and extends past the rear of these filing cabinets by seven inches. A thirty-inch space exists between the two cabinets for my legs. The wooden top is attached to the file cabinets with double-sided adhesive tape. Taking apart the desk is extremely easy because it only requires taking off the top and moving each piece individually. Once the top is taken off, old pieces of tape remain on the file cabinets and reflect the many moves that this desk has seen.

When my fiancée and I first started living together in Manhattan as graduate students in 1987, we rented an unfurnished two-bedroom apartment on Thurston Street, about six blocks from campus.  Because I was a smoker at the time, we decided that I should get the spare bedroom as my office and that I wouldn’t smoke anywhere else in the apartment.

Not having any furniture of my own, I needed to find furniture but had limited resources and few ways in which to transport furniture. Thumbing through the Sears catalog, I found a butcher block top for about $100. Once it was delivered, we decided to make a trip to K-Mart one Saturday to find filing cabinets. Two of my fiancée’s friends thought making a trip to K-Mart sounded like fun and decided to join us and rode along in my fiancée’s Chevy Chevette, a four-door hatchback. On our return trip, we had to leave one of my fiancée’s friends behind because only three of us could fit in my fiancée’s tiny car, along with the two filing cabinets, one of which sat in the back seat while the other one was strapped into the hatchback, which we had to leave open during the return trip. We picked up my fiancée’s friend afterwards, after having left him behind for about thirty minutes. I don’t remember how much those filing cabinets cost, probably something like $30 each.

We rented a truck for our move to Humboldt Street the following summer, having acquired not only my desk but also two bookcases, a dresser, a used couch and chair (both of which emitted foam dust whenever we sat on them), a kitchen table and chairs, and a bed.  All of the furniture fit in the truck that we rented for a couple of hours. Everything else we owned, such as dishes, pots and pans, books, and clothing, was transported in my fiancée’s car.

With each subsequent move, first to Lawrence in 1989 and then to Kansas City in 1990, I was fortunate in that my desk was easily transported and fairly light, no matter how many stairs I had to climb. By the time we started living in Lawrence, we both had our own offices—mine was upstairs and my wife’s was downstairs; this pattern was reversed in Kansas City, with my office located in the basement of our duplex apartment. 

By 1992, we were living in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and working on our PhD’s. We rented a three-bedroom house, where we again had our own offices. After using my wife’s computer for about a year, I bought my first computer, a 486 with Windows 3.1 and with both a 3½ floppy drive and a 5¼ drive and on which I installed WordStar, an older word processing program that is no longer sold.  Only my wife had the Internet in her office. Somewhere in Stillwater, I found a cheap desk that was composed of particle board and easily assembled and mobile because the five pieces would come apart easily. This second desk served as a computer desk. My older desk was used for grading my students’ essays, reading and annotating books for my graduate classes, and writing the initial drafts of essays for my graduate classes and those poems that came to make up my dissertation. I only had to slide my chair over a few feet to use the computer, where I eventually learned to compose my written work, without having to write it out in pen or pencil first. Our male tuxedo cat, who was named Holstein, usually slept in one of the chairs in my office. After I quit smoking, our son, once he started walking, used to come into my office and sing along to the jazz music playing on the stereo, transport his toy tractors onto my older desk, or play Rodent’s Revenge on the computer.

We remained in Stillwater for six years. Each of our subsequent moves required an even larger rental truck, with our move from Stillwater to Leavenworth requiring not only a 24 foot truck but also a trailer attached to the back. Once we moved into the house we bought, after having rented two other houses in Leavenworth, I, once again, arranged my two desks close to each other, with the computer desk facing the west wall and the older desk facing the north wall and located in the center of the 10 by 12 foot room that makes up my office.

That initial computer bought in Stillwater in 1993 lasted until 1999. The next computer, a Compaq Presario desktop, lasted a few more years before it was replaced by a Dell desktop. By the time, I moved back to my old desk, finding that location in the room more to my liking, I was using an HP laptop for my online classes and the Dell desktop for ripping music from my CDs. As the number of books I accumulated continue to grow, I eventually needed the space where the computer desk was located. Although the desk, like I said, came apart easily, some of the particle board had broken off, making the desk less stable. After I placed the pieces of this computer desk on the curb, I don’t think anyone took advantage of this free desk before the trash that week was collected. Usually, any furniture that we place on the curb is grabbed quickly by someone passing by. We have taken to adding a sign reading “Free to a Good Home” on the furniture that we place on the curb now.

At one point, that HP laptop of mine refused to load Microsoft Word after one of the monthly updates. It took a hundred dollars to have the problem diagnosed and fixed by a technician at Microsoft. Fortunately, I had a premonition to back up my files on an external hard drive because this laptop eventually refused to boot up a few months later. Afterwards, my wife lent me her Dell laptop, which I used for a couple of years until I had the money to buy the Asus computer that I am using now.

Currently, the wood butcher block that makes up my desk is completed covered. My primary 24 inch screen rests on two pads of drawing paper that measure 21 inches long and 24 inches wide. My keyboard rests on these pads of drawing paper as well and sits directly in front of the screen. Whenever I want to use the space to read or to write, I simply move the keyboard aside. To the left, at an angle, I have a second screen that was purchased secondhand at Surplus Exchange. Because the screen doesn’t adjust in height, I have it resting on an unabridged Random House Dictionary, which weighs ten pounds and which I bought for $10 at a used bookstore when I was in Wichita and earning my undergraduate degree. The price tag for this second screen is still attached, even after three years, and reads, “$65. 90 Day Warranty.” To the right is a lamp that my wife gave me while we were in Manhattan. The desktop sits behind the lamp with a number of cords attached to a USB extension plugged into the front of the computer. A subwoofer and a speaker sit behind the second screen. The other speaker sits behind the primary screen along with a UPS battery. All the drawers of my desk are filled with old files, stacks of notepads, old letters that I have kept from my professors or from my mother and father, both now deceased, and notebooks—some used and some waiting to be used.

My wife started using two desks when we were living in Lawrence. She replaced one of her desks during our first year in Leavenworth when she bought a secondhand oak desk at a former antique store on K-7. The moving company we hired to move us from our first rental house to our second rental house in Leavenworth struggled getting this desk to the second floor of the house. It was much easier moving this oak desk into the house that we have now because it stayed on the ground floor. Like me, my wife eventually moved away from having a separate computer desk. She also found her oak desk too confining and decided to replace it with something bigger. One weekend in November, we went to Surplus Exchange and using the discount provided to veterans, like myself, we got the desk that she is using now. My teenage son at the time and I had a tough time moving this desk from the rental truck to my wife’s office. It seemed much heavier than her old oak desk, which we had taken away by the Salvation Army.  It would have been impossible getting this desk up to my office if it were mine.

As someone who thinks of himself as a minimalist, despite the number of books that I have accumulated, I like knowing that I have been using the same simple desk for more than thirty years now. This desk provides a link to my past, carries a lot of memories, and continues to serve my needs.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Not Buying New Clothes for a Year

My pledge to not buy any new clothes or new shoes for a year ended in early July. My wife and I had taken this pledge together.

It wasn’t difficult to go without buying clothes or shoes. My life doesn’t require many interactions with people since I work from home. Other people who see me may think that I am retired because I wear loose denim pants and a t-shirt in the summer whenever I shop for groceries or take a walk outside. Once a month or so, my wife and I venture a bit farther from home when we visit our son or see a movie; those are the few occasions when I wear what I used to think of as my teaching clothes—i.e., chino pants and a collared shirt. (My wife tends to think of men’s clothes as boring because there are so options and so few acceptable colors—navy blue, black, white, burgundy, dark green, red, etc.)

I had bought new shoes before our pledge took affect and because I anticipated not buying any other shoes for a year, I bought a second pair of the same style to have them in reserve. I am wearing that second pair now, but I am not ready to buy any more.

Because gifts didn’t count against the pledge that we took, my wife bought me a few pairs of boxer shorts for Father’s Day. Since our pledge ended, my wife bought a few things and insisted that I buy the equivalent amount. I have since returned the chino pants I ordered because their rise was too short. My sister teasingly says that I am at the age where it is acceptable to wear my pants up to my waist, which is what I have been doing since I gave up wearing Levi 501 jeans about ten years ago.

When I went through my closet and my drawers, I thought I might have found more clothes to give away. Piles of clothes, mostly old sweatshirts and old t-shirts, were taken to the local Goodwill. Sometimes, however, my wife would snag for herself the shirts that I wanted to donate. I ended up regretting giving away an old hoodie, one that I had gotten in Oklahoma about twenty-five years ago; it would have been great for working in the yard in the autumn or early spring. I recently revisited the Goodwill, thinking that I could buy back that old hoodie, even though a year had passed, but it apparently had been grabbed by someone else.

Sorting through my clothes led me to re-discover what I had forgotten about or what I had stored away because I gained weight. I never have been a believer in giving away what I hadn’t worn in over a year’s time. Having lost about ten or fifteen pounds on my vegetarian diet, it is now possible to wear some of the shirts that I had put aside.

It would have been a bigger challenge for me if I had pledged not to buy any books, used or new, or any music downloads for an entire year. That kind of pledge would make me turn to the books that I have bought over the years but have not yet read. That kind of pledge would make me visit the local library again or to request books through interlibrary loan at the college where I teach. With the seventy gigabytes of music that have downloaded onto my computer, either by ripping my CD’s or by purchasing mp3's, I probably could find something to discover in the music that I already own. Streaming music on Spotify, for example, isn’t a temptation for me. During the past few months, it has been relatively easy leaving Barnes & Noble without purchasing anything. Occasionally, I may take a picture of a book that looks interesting but that remains too expensive. During the past few months, I have been limiting the music that I buy, too. There are some new releases that I am looking forward to, such as Trygve Seim’s upcoming album on the ECM label, which will be released at the end of August. For the time being, I am satisfying myself with what I already own.

Minimalism remains an attractive idea. There is a limit to how much stuff I can fit into my life.