Saturday, May 28, 2016

How May I Direct Your Call(ing)?

My career could have used a switchboard operator long before now. Heck, maybe it had one and I am such a stubborn cuss that I refused to listen, insisting that she was giving me the wrong number and I already had the right one. Here I am now, well over fifty years old, and just beginning to achieve some clarity.


I grew up as an only child, believing I was destined to become an entomologist, or at least a naturalist. I went to college with that ambition, but by the end of my third year I was beginning to have my doubts. My fourth year I switched majors to "resource recreation management" (I swear that is what they called it), but then I ran out of both ambition and money. I do remember being disillusioned. I had taken up jogging, and one evening at the literal end of the road I gazed over at Mt. Hood in the setting sun and said out loud "How can you reduce that to a soil profile?" The abstraction called for by science was blasphemous to me.

Still, I pursued entomology, and even got some good jobs and great experiences out of it. They did not last, though, in part because I felt that others considered me a walking encyclopedia of insect knowledge and nothing more. Issues stemming from my parents' divorce when I was around eleven had been left largely unresolved, and I did not function well socially nor work (play) well with others. My identity was entomology and I did not know how to assert the fact that I have other facets to my person. I still have that trouble in many ways, making me prone to withdrawal in an effort to punish others for not seeing me as a whole person.

A few years ago I lost an online job that I know I would have been perfect for. The employer even said as much, but chose someone else because I had been volunteering as an entomology expert for the company that they saw as their chief competition. They did not bother asking if I would quit the volunteer gig....nothing. They didn't even call me to say they had selected someone else. I had to find out by e-mailing them. I was so incensed that I slammed my fist on my glass-topped desk and cut myself on its edge.

That was the big sign I should have heeded. I should have stopped pursuing all jobs "bugs" right then. Instead, I continued dialing wrong career numbers.

I thought this spring, with its ridiculously cold, wet weather was finally going to send me over the edge into insanity because I couldn't even find insects as a recreational pursuit, let alone to write about in my other blog. What I found was that I started writing more about other topics on this blog. Amazingly, I am enjoying it. I always have, but I never thought I had enough talent or experience or, mostly, knowledge of other subjects, to pull it off. I am beginning to think otherwise.

Just the other day I put up the following as a Facebook status:

"I am a writer, artist, social critic, husband, and sometimes activist. So, another gentle reminder that if you want the "bug guy," he is over at "Bug Eric" [another Facebook page]. If you want an entire human being, then please stay right here. Thank you. We now return you to your own identity crisis (or clarity)."

One respondent commented that he sensed I was trying to separate my identities on Facebook, and that he had tried that once without much success. "Good luck with that," he said. Well, he is right in one sense, but my motivations go far beyond social media. That post was mostly a self-affirmation, reminding myself that I am more than a career, deeper in character than most people realize, and that I should be proud of all that I am beyond entomology.

Would I trade all my previous successes and failures, hang-ups and busy signals? Of course not. What do I say about this blog? "Timing, on the other hand, is everything." I have to accept that the timing in this case may be this way for a reason I am not yet aware of. Some friends and colleagues and acquaintances will not want to progress with me on my journey from this point forward. That is nothing I have control over. I will never be able to turn my back completely on the wild kingdom of six- and eight-legged animals, nor will I ever turn down requests from people who want my help and are genuinely grateful for it. What is different is that I now know I must take a different fork in my occupation. Most roads we choose are already "well-traveled by," as Robert Frost put it in his classic poem; but, they have not been travelled by you. That, my friends, is what makes all the difference.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

My Disdain for "Sense of Place" Explained

A couple weeks ago or so, one of my friends from the internet expressed concern over my disdain for the concept of "sense of place." He is doing dutiful, important work documenting the organisms of his home city on the east coast, and I sincerely admire him for that. He made a good point that I have not adequately explained the title of my entire blog, and so I offer you that in this post, along with a humble apology for not doing so a lot sooner.

The Missouri River at Leavenworth, Kansas

What I object to has nothing to do with any individual person who chooses to live in one particular place and develop a deep relationship with the land, its wildlife and plants, and human neighbors. We need more of that if you ask me, or at least more of the ideals that come from that sense of rootedness, and reverence for a place.

What galls me is the "sense of place" in the context of nature writing. There is an intolerable overemphasis in the literary community on the idea that you cannot write intelligently and responsibly about a place unless you have lived there a very l-o-o-o-ng time, preferably your entire life. This romanticism is baloney. It probably goes back all the way to Thoreau, or even farther. It was a reciprocal concept, too. The land gave inspiration to the writer, and the writer in turn fostered a greater appreciation of the landscape and its ecology. Some of our best contemporary writers still work off that very principal. Aldo Leopold and Wendell Berry in particular come to mind.

Me? I am a semi-nomad. I tolerated the rain of Oregon for my first twenty-seven years, in part because I had little choice. I moved to Cincinnati, Ohio for a job, and while that didn't last, I remained in the Queen City for a total of eleven years before moving to the rural town of Forsyth, Missouri for another job. The job lasted eight months, my stay about a year or so. From there it was off to Tucson, Arizona on pure whim. By the time I was finally making friends and getting to know the area, I met my now spouse and moved here to Colorado Springs to be with her.

Now, because I have lived so many places, does that mean I cannot write about any of them with any sense of familiarity or understanding? Hell, no. In fact, I would argue that you cannot readily write about any place without having another place to compare it to. Travel leads to better understanding of the last place you were. Immersion in a community is certainly recommended, but maybe that is difficult because of the very nature of the place. Tucson is not a welcoming city, for example. People are friendly enough, but mostly superficially. They already have their circle of friends and are not generally prone to expanding it. This is due in part to sheer demographics. There is the geriatric set, and then there is the collegiate set at the University of Arizona. There are also the "snow bird" retirees who migrate to avoid the cold winters of their native states. So, only a few people are "desert rats" who stay year-round, and those folks exist in small, close-knit circles.

I lived in the land of "Taneycomo" (Taney County, Missouri) for a very short time, and had there been sufficient job opportunities I might still be there. However, anyone with the slightest degree of observational skills could have reached the same conclusions about the region that I penned in Orion magazine. It is not that Forsyth and other towns there are "simple" or somehow less worthy of attention and appreciation. It is just the opposite, in fact. Easily overlooked, residents are rightly insulted by stereotypes, and tired of being dismissed.

So, nomadic I may be. I suspect I am less like Thoreau and more like John Steinbeck writing Travels With Charley, but on a much slower pace. It is not the place of anyone in the arts to tell another artist, especially a young one, how to approach their craft, or dictate to them what they can or cannot do. Limitations have no place here. The whole enterprise of art flourishes by the uniqueness of its participants. Write on your own terms, and don't be afraid to call out those who would bind you with expectations and rules (aside from grammar, anyway).

I will leave you with one last personal experience that illustrates how expectations of a new place can be colored by a familiar one. When I arrived in Cincinnati, I was encouraged to visit Mount Airy Forest, second only to my hometown of Portland's Forest Park as the nation's largest and mostly undeveloped city park. Well, in my experience of coniferous forests, I found very few insects and other animals in a forest. When I finally broke down and took a hike through Mount Airy Forest, I obviously found the deciduous woodlands to be far richer in diversity than dark, evergreen forests. Now I long to get back to those woods, or at least travel to them regularly.

How do you define "sense of place?" How do you reconcile your personal lifestyle with the public perception of your locale? Let me know, I am nothing if not open-minded on concepts like this. I would once again like to thank my friend for taking the initiative (and risk) in asking me for a proper story about this topic. Carry on, "Thomas of Baltimore."

Thursday, May 19, 2016


My mind is an emotional train wreck right now. Depression has many faces, at least that is what I believe is true for me, and I can speak only for me. It is a condition that can be fleeting, or stubbornly entrenched for weeks or months; and it can be triggered by many stimuli. Lately, the monotonous and unseasonably cold, wet weather, is largely to blame.


Feeling powerless to change circumstances is without a doubt one of the leading emotions that causes me to fall into despair. I truly can't change the weather. It is going to be bad until it is good again. I cannot change the marketplace. My chosen profession and its attendant skills and knowledge will continue to be devalued for as far into the future as I can see; but I also can't change who I am, which, at its core, is a writer. It is also difficult to accrue new skills and new circumstances when one does not have the financial capacity to attend classes, travel to better weather, or otherwise self-improve....because you can't earn enough at your profession.....a vicious cycle.


Frustration for me results in one of two things: sadness or anger. Usually it is the latter. Lately I have been more silent than usual because I fear nothing but a string of expletives would leave my mouth (or my fingers as they dart across the keyboard). I wish that it was more widely considered by the scientific community that violence and depression in men are strongly linked. Men have a much harder time expressing themselves verbally. Why do they smash the plate against the wall during an argument with their spouse or significant other? "There! Do you see that? That is my heart, shattered." Men want desperately to have a tangible expression of how they feel, and this often comes out violently.

Snowball Effect

One expression of depression for me is what I call the "snowball effect," whereby one negative thought leads to another and they keep accumulating until there is no stopping them and they almost bury you. During one of these episodes your life seems to stink more than it really does because the snowball is also a dredge that hauls up memories that are not necessarily still applicable to your current condition. The good thing is that I am getting better at recognizing this before the snowball builds enough momentum to be all-consuming. The bad lunch does not carry as much weight as I thought initially, and can be allowed to fall off the conglomerate of other matters.

Coping Poorly

I will assert that few people are able to cope with depression, tragedy, and other life challenges in a healthy manner. Such things usually trigger extremely bad coping "skills" such as addictions, flight (from relationships, reality, etc), suicide, and homicide. These days, another coping mechanism is "oversharing" on social media. This is understandable. Misery doesn't necessarily love company, as the old saying goes; but misery does crave understanding and empathy; and reassurance that most situations we face are only temporary. Facebook has become in many ways a 24-7 version of Oprah or The Phil Donahue Show, or Sally Jesse Raphael for those who can remember that far back (I even appeared on Phil Donahue's show in February of 1989 to talk about adult children of divorce).

Anyway, few of the ways we want to exorcise our demons are productive. I cannot go on a shooting spree when what I really want is to kill the marketplace, not its inhabitants; and the social fabric of our world already has enough holes in it anyway. We need more patches and some really good seamstresses. I can't kill myself because then I send someone else down the road I just exited. Drugs and alcohol only serve to make one more destitute financially, and more unhealthy physically.


Suggesting someone suffering from depression get "counseling" can seem helpful, but here timing is everything. So is type. Personally, I am so self-analytical as it is that seeing a psychoanalyst is redundant. Back in the day I eventually tried a twelve-step group for adult children of alcoholics. I was receptive enough to the idea in that particular window of my life to actually get a few things out of it. This is when I first realized my problem with "God" was actually rebellion against religion, a human social institution. I also finally started understanding how my "buttons" were getting pushed, and began rewiring the mental circuitry so that I could better articulate my own position instead of reacting inappropriately to the other person.

Both one-on-one therapy and peer therapy groups can be helpful if only because you are expressing yourself out loud and you tend to hear yourself better when you do that. Listening to the experiences (traumas, really) of others helps build empathy and creates a more holistic view of one's place in the spectrum of personal atrocities and joys. Ideally, it does this by creating a reverence for those who suffer, including one's self.


There is a reason that you never see the theatrical "tragedy" mask without the "comedy" smile right there next to it. I find that the one sure-fire antidote to depression is humor. I think I may start building a library of stand-up comedy DVDs to have at the ready for my next low spell. A good dose of humor might not cure me permanently at any given time, but it will get my head out of itself and probably get me started writing my own material or drawing a cartoon. Comedy is also an awesome substitute for those times when the weather, lack of transportation, or other obstacle prevents you from doing equally healthy things like getting outdoors in nature, or exercising. Maybe music has the same effect on you as comedy has on me. Personally, music can be profoundly sad to me, so I have to be careful in my choices of artists and albums.


I have no way of knowing who is reading this, and what their own struggles may be. I do hope that they gain a measure of hopefulness and a sense of brotherhood out of this essay. Meanwhile, I need to scatter my eggs among less weather-dependent, market-driven baskets and reclaim my identity as something more than what I do for an occupation. We're all much deeper than we know, and far more substantial than what society tells us we are. Don't fall for it. Laugh at it instead, and be the individual example of what you want humanity to be. You'll fail early and often, but don't we all.