By The Iowa Sea
New York Times
Joe Blair – Writer and Author
Nothing but the Blood of Jesus
The World Around Me
February 22, 2015
I drank my way out of college after three semesters. I didn’t want to sit in a classroom. I’d been sitting in classrooms, at that point, for fourteen years. So many years that I imagined all teachers were in league against us students. They seemed united; determined to push upon us their dark agenda, which was to teach us stuff. But I wouldn’t give in to them. I’d never give in. I listened to Pink Floyd. (How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?) I’d show them! I’d show them all!
After I showed them all by dropping out of college, I didn’t know what to do next. I hung around my parents’ house for a while until my father recommended me to a friend of his for job changing air filters for a commercial HVAC contractor in Boston. I drove from job to job in a cube van and pulled out the dirty old filters and slid in the new ones. I figured if I learned a trade, I’d have some worth in the world. Besides, I knew I needed to support myself in some way. I’d eventually want to live in a cool apartment and ride a cool motorcycle. And I’d want to go out to eat. And see movies. And attend concerts. And so, I knew I needed to work. It was an exciting time for me. I was unsure what might happen next. Some people were artists. And some were doctors. And some were on the radio. And some ran nightclubs. I changed air filters during the day and ran movie projectors at night. But I knew it was all temporary. Anything might happen. I was right on the brink of what I thought was the next big thing. The future was right there. Right beyond that stack of dirty air filters.
After I became a journeyman in the pipefitter’s union, I went back to college. I wanted to learn about literature. There was so much I didn’t know. So much I hadn’t read. And now, after seven years in the trade, I had a secure means of supporting myself. So why not learn what I wanted to learn? This time through, it was different. I realized what a privilege it was to be taught. How rare. And what a luxury it was to take the time to study a poem. A novel. A collection of short stories. And what an absolute miracle it was to write a sentence. To type a quotation mark and then some words and then another quotation mark and then the words,
and have it become dialogue. I remember doing that for the first time. It was completely new to me. And somewhere not far from the front of my mind, I suspected I might be the next Ralph Waldo Emerson. I actually entertained the notion. Took it out to dinner. Asked what it was doing for the rest of its life.
I fist set eyes on Deb Murray during a class on Emerson, Whitman and Hawthorne. We got married a year or so later. Then we set out to travel the world. We traveled through Quebec and Ontario. Then down through Sault St. Marie and into Iowa. And that’s as far as we got. I worked as a handyman for a few months before I returned to the HVAC trade. I got a job at Johnson Controls in Cedar Rapids. Deb worked at Oxford Hardware until we had our first child in the fall of 1990.
I applied to grad school at the University of Iowa and was accepted in the nonfiction program. A few years later, I quit my job at Johnson Controls and started my own company. Then more children. Three more. More business. My ambitions split between business and writing. And then the question of money. Which only makes sense. And still the ambition. The great question of the future.
Just before Thanksgiving, in the year 2013, my father died. I thought I was ready for it. I’d spent a lot of time with him in the months before his death. There wasn’t anything I wanted to say that I hadn’t said. I thought I expected nothing more from him.
I had been drifting away from my desire for financial success for quite some time. I’d found it with my business. It was only the natural progression of things. I worked hard. I said the right things to the right people at the right times. I billed promptly enough. There wasn’t any big secret to making money. We owned the nice house in the nice neighborhood. And all that. But I didn’t care. I didn’t want it. I wanted to be a writer. And so, that’s the direction I moved. And I don’t regret it. The problem is, when the words don’t come, or when they do come and they’re no good, I have nothing to justify myself. There is no reward. I can’t say I do it for the renown because there isn’t any. And I can’t say I do it for the money. Neither can I turn to a piece of equipment and say, “I have fixed this piece of equipment. It didn’t work. And now it’s working.” I no longer have anything to recommend me. Anything at all. Certainly not my father. When I first began to give up my desires, starting with my desire for financial success, I saw it as progress. A step in the direction of wisdom. My lack of desire for money caused a chain reaction. I shed my desire for travel because travel required money. I shed my desire to play golf. To buy books. Because Deb and I were responsible for Michael, who required constant care, I shed my desire for autonomy. We did what we were called to do. We would live in Iowa, and Iowa would be fine. We would live in a small house and that would be fine. We would dress humbly. Fine. Eat humbly. Fine. Publish or not. Fine. And it went on. I was injured on a job and lost my ability to run. So of course I’ve given up sports. And that was fine. I was sort of like the guy in the song Moonshadow. He was being followed by it. And if he ever lost his legs, he wouldn’t have to walk no more. I was fine with that. I’m now in the process of letting go of watching sports. I’ll be okay if the Red Sox suck. And I’ll be okay if they’re good. I don’t know if I care very much about anything anymore. I do know that apathy isn’t progress. It’s not a symptom of wisdom. It’s a symptom of depression. I wonder how I came to not care about anything. Maybe it has something to do with the death of my father. Maybe I have been trying to impress him all these years. To set a table he might approve of. And it’s only now I’ve realized it. Or maybe his death reminded me of my own. Or maybe it’s the long winter. Or low T. The worst time is post-sex. My solitary desire lying lifeless in its casket. And nobody else at the funeral. And nothing to look forward to.
This is the place in the essay where I’m supposed to offer some hope. Give it an Emersonian up-thrust. Talk about love. Or sacrifice. Or the Blood of Jesus. Pull a phoenix out of the ashes. But I’m not going to do that. Maybe I’ve given it up for lent. I don’t fucking know.
The Music Game
Return to Me
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