Who Is CB?

    You might find this site on the web and wonder who is this person?
    In early 2000 as I write this, I'm a 48-year-old graduate student, living in a small town in southwest Oklahoma.  But I haven't always been 48, or a grad student, or living in Oklahoma. At various times I have: grown up in suburban New Jersey, not far from NYC; been aimless; gone to Woodstock; lived in rural, upstate New York near the Thousand Islands and Canada for about 10 yrs.  I moved to Oklahoma with my wife and 2-yr-old daughter in 1979 to operate a full-time farm and cattle operation, just over a thousand acres, which I did for 16 years.  Over the years I have worked as cab-driver, in grocery stores, as moving-man, farm-hand, logger, on an oil-spill clean-up on the St. Lawrence River, as motel night desk clerk, as stage-hand (I still work backstage; I enjoy it, especially as a counterweight to school).
    The girl I married was smarter than me about many things, and she talked me into trying a college course, finally.  So in 1989 I started school at thirty-eight; I took a photography course.  Then I took photography II and later, elementary writing, one course a semester to begin with, but in time the whole thing snowballed.  In 1995 I quit my business—sold out cattle, land, and machinery—and bought a house in town.  I finished school full-time at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma (USAO), a very good little school (although at first I expected it to be Podunk U.).  In 1997 I got my B.A. in English at USAO and started grad school at the University of Oklahoma (OU).  In May 2000, I'll have my M.A. in English (creative writing emphasis) from OU.
    As far as writing goes, even before I went back to school I started reading The Elements of Style (about once a year) and other how-to books on writing. At first I tried short stories, because fiction and poetry seemed to be what you do if you're a writer. (And I had thrown away the last of the awful poetry I wrote when I was eighteen or twenty.)  But then I found myself reading more and more nonfiction, and I realized it offers everything fiction does, and more.
    When I read Russell Baker's Growing Up, I didn't wonder about the motivations of characters or the likelihood of their actions--whether a person would really do this or that—because they had done what the story said they had done.  And often it was funny, sometimes bittersweet, but always I could identify with the story—real people doing what they do. Melissa Fay Greene's Praying for Sheetrock held me spellbound: the end of the high sheriff's reign in Georgia's Macintosh County, the struggle for civil rights there, and the characters on both sides of the fight.  She tells of heroes who were real and yet flawed, and people who appeared to be villains but were also ordinary and flawed and had their good sides as well.  It's real life with all its complications.  She writes with a voice that's often poetic but never saccharin.  I still read fiction, but not a lot. (For more about specific works, go to recommended reading.)  Besides my college coursework, I've attended several nonfiction writing workshops, working with MaryAnne Maier, Jerry Bledsoe, and William Kittredge.
    After I get my Masters, I intend to find work writing.  Also, some people have said that my editing and critiquing of their manuscripts is the best they've had.
    I could go on, but that's what the stories are for.

     Lately, I ran across the following, which was written in 1997 for an assignment (who are you in your students' eyes?) in a course on teaching college English. It goes into more detail, and the woman who graded it said it was "powerful, a pleasure to read."
 Who Is That CB?

     I am an ex-dope-smoking-hippie-communard who stared down the draft board and got away with it, a confirmed skeptic, raised in a middle-class New Jersey suburb of NYC during the fifties and sixties, who took Bob Dylan and the Beatles and Stones to heart, went to Woodstock, and then followed Kerouac onto the road and Thoreau into the wilderness looking to remedy eighteen years in a family dominated by a woman alternately on and off the edge of psychosis and neglected by a good man gone alcoholic.  I greatly appreciate humor.
     From the time my skinny, little arms could toss a newspaper, work became my refuge and identity.  As a cab-driver, a logger, a moving-man and truckdriver, a farmhand, in supermarkets, on oil-spill cleanup, and as an eleven-year-old shoe-shine boy, I acquired blue-collar sympathies even as an adolescent, maybe because I didn't feel a part of the Buick and Jaguar set I saw around me.  My gangly limbs and molasses-tongued social un-grace couldn't find purchase in any group I wanted part of.  So I went to work—to prove myself, I guess.
     But around the beginning of my fifth decade, the last of my romantic notions about working the land wore off completely— loading twenty tons of eighty-pound hay bales onto a truck didn't seem heroic anymore.  And the overgrown boys I often worked with, with their puny myth-tales of pickups, beer-nights, and girl-conquest became as god-awful-tiresome as the dirty sweat dribbling into my eyes.  One day I wandered into my first college class, which led to a second, and soon I was driving the sixteen miles to school as if they could take me north across the Mason-Dixon to freedom.

  Something we were withholding made us weak
  until we found out that it was ourselves
  we were withholding from our land of living,
  and forthwith found salvation in surrender.
     In 1990, when I read Robert Frost's passage, quoted by John Irving in A Prayer for Owen Meany, it echoed my discovery that I had spent years undervaluing my intellect and denying my sensitive nature.  Somewhere in boyhood, I had shut away in a cerebral closet whatever part of me wasn't tough.  I had resolved to be callous.  My father, who had had no father, spoke little of his past and nothing of his pain, but he told me about stoicism.  And I think I learned it too well.
     Now, cattle and farming are history.  Marcia and the kids and I live in an older brick home in town, on a street with a grassed meridian.
     More than twenty-five years of first rustic and then agrarian living either formed or sharpened in me a pragmatic bent.  And having lived among hardened rural conservatism—and bought into it for a while myself—I have tolerance for (most) conservatives even if I can't abide conservatism.
     I seem to be informed by being an ex-hippie and ex-conservative; an ex-suburbanite and ex-outdoorsman survival artist; a skeptic and ex-intensive-Christian.  I love both the raunchiest of blues and classical music.  I've been in jail and on welfare, and I've visited comfortably with several Episcopal bishops.  I've slaughtered everything from mallard ducks to hogs and porcupines and one pony, and eaten everything from coq au vin to beaver and goat (except pony).  And I've taken time out from work to look at a spider web in the morning dew.  I've been called "boy," "Sir," "Mr. Bassity," and "hairbag son of a bitch."  Sometimes I need order, if only in one clean-swept room, and sometimes maelstrom.  I see irony everywhere.
     So which part of my experience informs who I am at a given time?  That can't be nailed down in a list of qualifiers.
     I do know, however, what I most want to bring to teaching: I want to be the evangelist and prophet of you can! and to challenge every voice that stands between any person (student or otherwise) and the dream that motivates him or her.  Knowing that broad experience and a lively curiosity have best served me, I urge an adventurous spirit on students.
     They see me as relaxed and considerate, accepting of them, if a little disorganized.  I've told them how, as a student, I detested useless make-work assignments, so they won't get them from me.  And I don't complicate their lives with the nuisance of buying blue books (although I did explain the business) for my exams, because I care about what they write, and not what it's written on.  They see me as tall and male.  Although, having lived twenty-four years with a strong, intelligent former-feminist, I don't think in terms of gender (sexual terms—God yes—but gender, no) except when forced to.
     I wonder, sometimes, if my perspective isn't so far from the average students’ as to leave them wondering just what that CB is blathering about.  I differ most from my students in that it's been almost 30 years since I was nineteen.  I have to remind myself how little I knew or understood about the world when I was their age.  Maybe they need to know that at nineteen I perceived myself as a misfit.
     What I share with students is a desire to take my strengths and abilities and build on them.  And more than that, is the sense that I'm unformed, malleable still.
     From their journal assignments, I know they see me as "laid back" yet committed to helping them learn to write well.  They see me as having genuine enthusiasm—even passion—for the written word, and they know I aim to infect them with the same.

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