A couple different reasons why

Sometimes my blogs and my writings have been said to be too personal.  I learned a long time ago that no matter how personal something seems to be, as a writer, that still isn’t the core of you.  It’s just another layer you have chosen to show others.  It might actually be a layer or three you have put between yourself and the audience.  They may look at it and see absolutely nothing that is you.

Today, I want to share a story about achievement.  How to measure it.  What it means.

Four years ago, I started a new journey in my life.  It might sound cliched, but I had decided to take the necessary steps to end what could be simplified into an “unhealthy relationship.”  I had tried for fifteen years of marriage to make things work.  I had compromised nearly everything I was, sacrificed my friends and extended family, and endured what I would consider a hell on earth.  I was lucky enough to get out of it with the help of my family and very supportive friends.

After leaving, it took a year for the divorce to be finalized.  We had nothing except exactly what we had during the marriage, which was constant conflict and chaos. Only now it was sublimated into a new battlefield: the courtroom.  When the divorce was done, I decided to set my course to a new horizon.

As an employee of my day job, I can take up to 9 credit hours per year of Graduate level courses; I just have to pay for the books.  So I applied for and was accepted to the English MA program.  I started my first course.  It is hard for me to admit what happened next.  In many ways, it resonates with a lot of my regrets, but in other ways, I have gained from it as well.

As a kid, school came easily for me.  I was always on the Honor Roll, and struggled briefly in High School, but mostly because of hormones, depression, and some teenaged angst and rebellion. I excelled at academics, such as band and knowledge bowl, but quit track.  I didn’t play sports.  My friends and I were outcasts who used to fight with swords in the park in the middle of the night.  We were often considered “at risk.” I graduated 3rd in my class and got almost no scholarship money.

I did about the same in college, never really having a hand on the tiller of my own life.  I picked the college I went to because it was close to a girl I was dating, and just far enough from my parents to not warrant visits from them every weekend.  The tuition was also affordable–unlike the California colleges that offered me the moon and the stars for a liberal arts program.  I picked English as a major because it required the fewest credit hours for graduation.  I didn’t really know what else to do. At the time, all that mattered was getting a BA and the rest of the world was open to you, or so I thought. I went through my classes, did fairly well, A’s and B’s. I discovered beer during my senior year and was out at least three nights a week.  I nearly failed two of my courses because I never bothered to show up.  I was burning out. I no longer cared about college or grades. I had broken up with the girl I had been seeing.  My friends had all shifted to other social circles, and I found myself living alone and depressed.  My goal of being a self-taught artist had shifted to being a self-taught author.  Mostly because the only art class I took during my college experience told me how much I sucked.

But writing…writing was something I was good at.  Or at the very least, something I loved working at being better at.  (Yes, I did just end two sentences with prepositions).

Fast forward to a newly divorced single dad 17 years later.

I decided to take advantage of the Master’s program. (Btw, going back to grad school is another divorce cliche).  At the pace I could afford, I could finish my degree in about 4 years.  The first course taught me a lot about myself.  It was “Literary Theory and Criticism.” Though the other students in the class seemed to think my answers were brilliant and thought-provoking, my professor usually just eyed me with contempt or would flat out tell me I was wrong.

Taking this class had two effects.  First, I was reminded of all the bullshit, Marxist inculcation that I had slogged through during my undergrad years, which usually lost the coin toss to closing down the Smiling Moose on a weeknight.  And second, I realized that maybe the time had passed me by to go through a program like this.  I am a father of three, I had worked in the private sector, and then academia, and I had just finished the most grueling and stressful challenge of my entire life.  I was befuddled by the assignments and even the way to post my work on “Blackboard.”  There was so much reading.  Then the hours of lecture each week.  After half a semester, I decided this wasn’t for me.

You know those dreams you used to have of being late for class in High School, or you don’t have any pants, or maybe it’s a college dream where you forgot to attend for an entire semester and OOPS!  it’s now the final exam and you need to take it?  Those dreams come back when you are a non-traditional student in an Master’s program.

The only thing that kept me hanging on was the words of a dear friend, who said, “An education is something no one can ever take away from you.”  This is true. I felt like I had let them down.  Let myself down.

Years later, that sentiment was slammed home by a psychologist, who said to me, “You have a high IQ, you are a smart man.  Why is it you aren’t doing better than being a guy with a BA who works as an administrative assistant?”

To this day, those words hit me in the chest.  Considering what I have lived through, and how far I have come, those words are an unfair value judgement on my life.  Summed up nice and neat for someone who didn’t really know me.  They weren’t a wake up call.  They weighed down on me like cinder-blocks tied around my ankles just before I was tossed into a lake.  I was in my 40s and compared to where I should be, I wasn’t up to snuff.  I was a failure.  My ex-wife was right all along. I was a loser! Maybe I should have stayed in the Master’s program.  I wasn’t capable of following through with anything, just like my high school track coach warned.  “You’re a quitter, Harris!”

Feeling like that, wondering why I couldn’t continue through a program most twenty-year-olds sleepwalk through, it hurt and it was frustrating.  Something had blocked me to where I would have done almost anything other than sitting through another minute of that class.  But my value as a person who lives in their head and works with words, was assaulted by this.

Worst yet, the dark corner of my mind told me, “You are a fraud.”


Grad school isn’t for everyone.  I am at peace with that notion.  I am at peace with knowing too that my day job doesn’t define me as a man.  It’s something I do to pay the rent.  It doesn’t make me any less of a person, or less of an intellectual to realize my own limits.  It wasn’t for me.  I learned that.  Some people go through an entire PhD. program before they come to that realization.  I figured it out five weeks in.

When I write, whether it is paid blogs, journal entries, chapters in my books, poems, etc. I feel a sense of fulfillment that graduating from college never gave me.  Constructing plots and filling worlds of my own creation with characters beats anything I could have written about the criticism of Altrusser or Barth or Marx.  What I did get from college was the practice of typing.  A few profs helped me with critical thinking as well, but that is either something your brain eats like candy or it doesn’t.  Mostly it was just the typing.

Two out of four years of my degree could have been accomplished by reading “Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.

I don’t know exactly why I didn’t want to continue on with grad school.  Sometimes I wonder how things would have been had I stuck it out.  But to find peace in this, I needed to come to terms with the fact that I had made a decision.  I hadn’t just gone along with what I was supposed to do, as I had nearly my entire life.  I was protagging.  I was calling the shots and making my own decisions.

That also had value.

Maybe if I had stayed, I would have been a bigger fraud.  Just like with my BA, I would have just been going through the motions and feeling disappointment when my degree didn’t open doors for me automatically. Like many of us foolishly believe (myself included).

At the end of the day, you can feel depressed even if your life is “on track” on all accounts.  I recently watched a video that inspired this post.  It showed me that you can be doing what you are supposed to do and on the outside it can look like you have the world on a string.  If it doesn’t bring you joy, for some of us, those demons of depression can gnaw away at us.

I know now that getting an MA wasn’t going to solve my problems.  It wasn’t going to give me joy.  Following my dreams will.



Youth is Well-spent on the Young

Just a couple thoughts I’m going to throw out there for the day.  Hold on.

There are times when our social media feeds overwhelm us.  It’s a skimming of the best (or in some cases, the worst) of people’s lives.  As someone who grew up in the 80s and 90s, unlike the kids of today, not every moment of my life has been documented with photographic evidence.  In thinking of my first car today, I don’t think a picture of it exists anymore.  Certainly not with me in it, since I doubt I ever had a picture of myself with it.  Back in my day, we didn’t have cameras attached to our bodies all day.

This is why Bigfoot was plausible when I was growing up.  There might be days you saw a baby coyote out in the wilderness and wouldn’t you know it, you didn’t have a camera.  Even if you did, it would have scampered off by the time you dug it out of your pack, took off the lens-cap–gone.  Imagine trying to do that when confronted with an 8ft tall cryptid ape-person!

Today, not only would the kids of today have the picture, but they would be doing a  duck lips selfie with Bigfoot and probably have some kind of dog ears or doe-eyed filter going on as well.

I just don’t think our pictures were all that important to us.  We were left with the feeling of having fun.  We didn’t have the luxury of digital shots either, where we could take a bunch of pictures and choose the best from the lot.  Our snapshots were usually a snap and find-out-later proposition.  When the one-hour-photo returned our pictures, we sorted through them and left them in the big envelope to be lost to history.  We didn’t have a semi-public archive of our lives, accessible from anywhere in the world.

I’ve seen all sorts of cute pictures of people on Facebook, Instagram, etc.  Whether its groups of friends, or the perfect couple pictures, there is a documented phenomenon that researchers have found causes depression.  People compare their imperfect lives with the perfect ones they see online.

But let’s look at it anyone way.  Nobody is causing depression.  It is how a person is responding to that information.  They might just see that happiness or success, that sense of belonging in contrast to an already growing and all-consuming depression.

The perfect pic is something a lot of people try to broadcast.  But there is no such thing as the perfect pic.  There are times when I have seen pictures of myself and nobody would have guessed that at that moment my heart was breaking.  We simply don’t know what is going on based on a picture.

But I do know that I have had plenty of goofy, crazy times, moments of sheer happiness, moments when my true smile comes out.  Not the grin I save for the camera.  Not the smirk I wear when I need to be charming.  Those moments aren’t recorded on film, and if they were, they are long gone now.  But I swear to you they happen. All the time!

But sometimes when the chips are down, it would be nice to see back into a time when those moments were preserved for posterity. For me, though, I’m lucky.  I have my words.  I can go deeper than a photograph and evoke the feeling of the moment in ways that a photograph cannot.  My contrast is doubled when I read something I wrote a long time ago and laugh at how naive I was–or wince at how angry.

When I was in high school, I hated journals.  I used to just write enough filler to get by and get the grade.  Today it is a little more useful.  I got hooked on it when I wrote on LiveJournal.  There was a whole community of writers who shared personal experiences.  It was a good exercise in not holding back when you wrote a story.

Photographer Robert Capa used to say, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”  Granted, he died in the early years of the Vietnam war when he stepped on a land mine while on patrol with a group of soldiers.  There are dangers of getting too close.

My process of writing involves a lot of memory.  Converting those snapshots in my brain, the emotions that cling to them, into something viable for a story.  The bad stuff is easy to write about. But the good…that’s a lot harder, because it’s so close to me.  So personal.  So incongruous to any experience all but a few can relate to.

From moments of blindfolded moose, a round shadow on a lake and cows that look like ants, the view from behind a waterfall, kids that can’t keep their shirts on when the sprinklers come on; all the way back to tracking coyotes on a glacier and getting the worst sunburn of my life, jean jackets and dice hats, the Lion King, first cappuccinos, (and the revelation years later that espresso gives me bad breath).

Somewhere in the middle of all that is a powder blue Ford that could go anywhere and do anything.  Like the Road Warrior, it exists now, only in my memories.

For me, all of these memories are like photos found in a shoebox, but when I write about them, I am there again.  Events pulled from my mind which is always young.  Youth isn’t wasted on the young.  It is invested in the young and paid back in dividends later on we cannot put a value on.  Those goofy snapshots, real or recollected, still make us smile when we need it.

So, I leave you with a link that may or may not expire.  This song has followed me for 20 years.  Thanks, Chrissie Hynde.  And to all of you, may you stay Forever Young.