Boot Laces

Everything is a project. The tiles fell off the area at the bottom of the bathroom window — three and a half 6 inch tiles — another project. I’m pondering options for repairing that. The BIG problem is it an awkward height for me to work.

Training Teddy is a project. My yard is a project. I picked two Scarlet Emperor Beans (young ones) yesterday and ate one raw. It was incredibly sweet. These are green beans for salad. We’re having good bean weather. Three days of rainy afternoons followed by three days of sunshine and warm temps.

Getting rid of books is an endless project (though I did actually read one — You Can’t Catch Death by Ianthe Brautigan. That was a project, too. As for Richard Brautigan — Ianthe’s father — I never got into his books much though he was one of the luminous voices of “my” generation. His daughter has written rather lyrically about her life with her dad — who was a binge-drinking alcoholic — and how she redeemed herself and him after his suicide. Now I have another book to get rid of.

Reading Ianthe’s book I saw some of the old tropes about writers. Troubled people, seeking solace in alcohol or drugs or both. And male. I thought about my own life as a writer. There are a few huge differences. 1) I’m not successful in any conventional way shape or form. One of the high points of my success as a writer was meeting a buyer of Martin of Gfenn one cold day last January in front of the Del Norte library. She climbed up in Bella, gave me $16, told me she loved my books and got out. It was like a drug deal. 2) I’m not tortured. There might be a connection between those two. Reading Ianthe’s book made me wonder that again.

Once Brautigan published his big hit novel, Trout Fishing in America, he was trapped. It wasn’t his first novel. That was A Confederate General from Big Sur. I found both of those books uninteresting and semi-unreadable, but everyone was reading Brautigan so I kept trying. I bought In Watermelon Sugar at the bookstore at my college, Colorado Woman’s College, in preparation for a trip up to Boulder to visit a high school friend, Malerie, who was attending the University of Colorado. I arrived, went to her dorm, we hung out, ate lunch at the Alferd Packer Grill then, that night, we went up Boulder Canyon to hang out with her then boyfriend, who as “old.” He was 25 or 26, a Vietnam vet, and a drug dealer. He had some opiated hash.

We passed around the pipe — which was a beautiful cedar burl — and I got very, very high. I didn’t do a lot of drugs — never did — so I was a lot more vulnerable to the effects than were the people around me. Everyone thought I was very funny. The boyfriend handed me his marine boot and a shoelace and told me to lace the boot. That was incredibly amusing to all and sundry. It was also very very difficult. Finally, fed up with these sadists, I took my boot (toward which I’d developed a kind of loyalty) and went to a quiet dark corner and went to sleep. When I woke up at 6 am, my arm around the boot, I got my things and took off.

I walked down the canyon to town. I had my bus ticket, my little backpack, and In Watermelon Sugar. I went to the bus station and waited for the first bus, trying to read Brautigan’s book. It just seemed to be more of the same scene I’d left behind me, an inscrutable grim world of unkind people.

I set the book on the bench in the bus station and went back to Denver without it.

Too Intense

“The thing, Kennedy, your problem is you’re too intense.

I did not understand what Miss Palos Verdes Estates aka M’Lou was saying at all. Her friend Janet agreed. “WAAAAAY too intense. You need to take it easy. Here. Take this album to your room and listen to it.”

To this day, it’s one of the best albums I’ve ever heard. ❤

A few days later, Janet and M’Lou showed up at my dorm room door. “We’re gonna’ go hitch and see if we can score some weed.”

“Too bad we’re not in LA. All we’d have to do is go down to ‘the strip’.” M’Lou sighed. They were homesick.

“Scoring weed” wasn’t easy. Pot was VERY illegal. A jail sentence could result from smoking a joint in public, but it was a glorious September early evening in Denver, we three were pretty cute and Stapleton Airport was a short walk away from Temple Buell College, originally Colorado Woman’s College.

We headed down Quebec St. toward the airport and before long a VW camper van passed slowly. Janet stuck out her thumb. The VW stopped. We got in. I ended up sitting on some hippy’s lap. He had shoulder length brown hair, a beard and a flowered shirt. He was OLD! 25. We laughed and talked and scored half an ounce. I went out with that hippy a few times. He was a really nice guy.

Anyhoo, they let us out at an open field by Stapleton Airport. We were high. M’Lou had the weed stashed somewhere on her person because she had the most common sense of all of us (she claimed). We hung around in the field and watched the sunset.

Weed was pretty much just weed then. It wasn’t usually very strong and after a few hours it was gone from my system. It made me silly, but not all that high, not ridiculously high, not immobilizingly high. Most of all, I dampened down the intensity. Janet and M’Lou were right. That WAS my problem. I AM very intense. But then, the fall of 1970, I was probably EXTREMELY intense. I wasn’t in the best place psychologically when I went away to college. I had a recently broken heart. My dad was very sick. My brother was a total mess, living on the street. The world was falling apart and somehow I felt it was my job to “patch things up and hold them together.”

That first semester at college I experimented with being a hippy, but the dark side of hippy-dom showed itself over the passing months. Janet had a very bad acid trip, freaked out and ended up hiding in my dorm room while I talked her down. “I don’t feel safe anywhere else, Martha. You have to let me in.” Over Christmas I went home and when I got back to school, sober, I saw that the profound poetry I’d written while high was very stupid. “Uh, wow, my hand,” stupid.

Bass Speaker

I’ve been away at college for two weeks. I’m waiting for something to happen, for the great adventure to begin. My roommate is a freaky rich Jewish girl from Texas whose father owns a woman’s clothing line. I don’t like her; she doesn’t like me and worse still, she’s taken up smoking. I’d specified a non-smoking roommate, and here’s Ellen, smoking. Not because she likes smoking but because the older girls are cool and flick their ashes into the little hole in the top of the Coke can.

It’s announced in a dorm meeting that the school is holding a “mixer” with Regis College, a men’s college. This is how we were supposed to meet boys and date and fall in love and get engaged and get a ring so we could have a “ringing” ceremony. This is an event in which a girl orders a candle and corsage (or the dorm does it, I don’t know) in her favorite color. There is then a small party with cake and everyone sits in a circle. The ring is slid down the candle and the candle, corsage and ring are passed from girl to girl so everyone can see the ring. Even at 18 the phallic allusions are completely obvious to me. To them?

Anyway, I dress up for the mixer — cute tweed jumper made by my mom. Shades of green to bring out the color of my eyes (they are green), and go with my suite-mates and evil roommate. I’m nervous and irked. Something doesn’t feel right to me; I don’t think anyone will ask me to dance; I’m not looking for a boyfriend. I’m looking for adventure and change and action. I have already suffered my first real broken heart and boys are scary. I also don’t see me going through the process and ending up at a “ringing”. I am simply confused.

The mixer is in the college dining hall — where we also had our formal dances. It is a beautiful room, in fact the college is beautiful. After I leave, I’ll realize what I left behind.

The girls stand around and the boys stand around. Back then boys looked like young men and girls looked like young women. Today, it seems, girls often look like experienced hookers and boys look like eighth graders. Sure, the counterculture is alive and well, but not everywhere and certainly not at a Catholic men’s college where the boys come from nor at my college. The “kids” are well-dressed, clean, attractive and shy. It isn’t quite high school, but it isn’t quite NOT. There is no alcohol served (it is a Baptist college) and few people in that milieu use drugs. The only ones I know are two girls from California, from LA, Palos Verdes Estates. In the heart of Colorado these girls insist California skiing is better. Sacrilege. I’d gotten high with them a couple of times, walking down the street to Stapleton Airport, sitting in an empty field and watching the airborne planes change color as the sun set.

In the corner, on an elevated stage is the band, a local band. Sugarloaf. They have a decent kit — the best I’ve seen, anyway in my no-rock-concert adolescence. As for the band? Not Steppenwolf, Tim Buckley or The Moody Blues, but the best I’ve seen so far. And, you know, their one hit is about a lady with green eyes. That would be me. Is it me?

I  won’t dance. I am short, dark haired. I wear glasses. I do not look like the girl a guy would walk into a room and dance with. At least (at most?) I don’t think I do. My California friends get bored and leave, stopping to ask me if I want to get high. My roommate finds a nice Catholic boy to dance with and I see him, later, lighting her cigarette. My suite mates vanish at some point, but later I will help one of them puke out her first Boones Farm overdose. At a certain point in this, my first college mixer, I realize that the best thing there, for me, is the bass speaker. I sit down as close to it as I can. I try to look as if I am in love with the band (I can hardly stand them) imagining that if I look like a groupie I might become one and my adventures would start.

Michael J. Preston (reprise)


This blog post was originally published some 3 years ago. A person only has so many mentors. I’ve had three actual living people as mentors along with various and sundry dead people. There’s a difference between mentor and hero, but the line is kind of fuzzy, especially with dead mentors.

Michael J. Preston

Daily Prompt Mentor Me Have you ever had a mentor? What was the greatest lesson you learned from him or her?


At the top of the third flight of stairs was an office looking out on the campus. An arched window faced west. The floor was piled high with neatly stacked punch cards and books. In front of a big desk, also piled high but this time with papers, books and a pair of large Wellington clad feet sat a lanky red-haired man with a very British/Nordic face (kind of like the real Lawrence of Arabia), a large nose and very blue eyes. He looked to be in his twenties — but to me at 18, he was a GROWN UP a PROFESSOR, a little scary, even. I’d never sought out or spoken to a professor. Hell, I’d only be at college two days.

“Excuse me. Are you Mr. Preston?”

“Yes. How can I help you?”

“I want to take your class, Middle English Verse Romances, but I don’t have the prerequisites. I’m just a freshman and I haven’t taken Intro to British Literature.” Already at 18 I had a resistance to survey courses…

“Do you have your paper?” He swung his feet off the desk and turned around in his creaky old swivel chair.

“Yeah.” I handed it to him.

“Why do you want to take this class?” he asked as he signed it.

“I’m interested in Middle English Verse Romances.”

No I wasn’t. I wanted to take the class because I didn’t think I needed any freshman courses. I was the shit. I was smart and advanced and perceptive and a great writer and I didn’t need to jump the hoops. I could take a senior level English class my first semester of college and ace it.

“OK,” he said. “There’s a lot of reading. So who are you?”

“I’m Martha Kennedy,” I stuck out my hand to shake. He took it in his giant paw.

“All right, Martha Kennedy. You’re in the class. Go turn this in.”

Thinking back on that moment now, I also think of the innumerable students who walked into my classes over the years. I remember uncountable first days. I remember the shining eyes, the undaunted expressions, the certainty that they’d ace my class and go on to the next thing NO PROBLEM. I don’t know how many times I warned them, “Don’t set your sights on an A. Set your sights on learning something. You have no idea what’s going to happen during the semester. I do. Some of you are going to lose interest — you’re sophomores and there’s a verified phenomenon known as ‘sophomore slump.’  Some of you are going to have skate-boarding accidents and break something. Some of you are going to fall in love and some of you are going to be dumped by your lovers. Some of you will have family problems. Some of you will get mono or something.” I know somewhere inside I was remembering my first and second (and third and fourth) years of college and university.

I didn’t know how I would be my first time away from home. I didn’t know I’d miss my family, that dysfunctional assemblage that I had been so eager to escape. I didn’t know I’d get a very dangerous case of bronchitis and need to be in the health center hospital for almost a month. I didn’t know that my heart was still broken from the summer before. I didn’t know that rebelling against everything was stupid. I didn’t know I’d have horrible roommates (I did).  I didn’t know, I didn’t know, I didn’t know…

Mr. Preston was always there, in that office with the afternoon light, the books on the floor and the computer punch cards. He was in the process of making the first ever computer generated index to a literary work — he was compiling a concordance to Chaucer.

At a certain point in the semester, realizing I was lost, I started following him around and he let me. When I was in health services, he was alerted to the fact that I was missing class because I was desperately ill. It was he who was there when I was discharged and took me for coffee, sitting and talking with me about my life and my family. That afternoon — blustery and Novembery — I went with him to the biology lab where he picked up a dozen pullets that he’d be taking to his farm between Longmont and Boulder. His black jeans were always covered with cat hair and feathers and now I understood why.

We carried the chickens to his car and he said something useful to me that I no longer remember, but it had something to do with ignoring everything that didn’t really matter. What might that have been? I’d just been in a play and gotten the only mention in the local paper for the role I played. I’d declared an art major, but wasn’t doing very well in that area, in fact, my first sculpture project had ended in my being pulled into the president’s office to give an explanation. I’d taken on an immense project for anthropology, one I couldn’t possibly do. I was always trying to find marijuana because I was determined to be a hippy. I wanted a boyfriend, but didn’t want to sleep with anyone. I yearned and yearned and yearned in vague and inchoate yearning, but? I was pushing the envelope as hard as I could without knowing why. If I had seen myself as the teacher I became, I’d have been Mr. Preston, too. In fact, I can think of several students to whom I was “Mr. Preston.”

Mr. Preston was somewhat like my father. He was brilliant, individualistic and iconoclastic. He respected things done well. He was too alive to be called an intellectual, but he definitely had an intellect. He taught class sitting on the back of a chair, his feet on the seat, a cup of coffee sloshing as he gestured. I thought he was wonderful.

I couldn’t really read Sir Gawain and the Grene Knight or anything else assigned in the class, but I managed to write a decent final paper and Mr. Preston let me take his next senior class, Restoration Drama. Second semester was somewhat better. Going home for Christmas helped; not smoking pot helped. I was a more sober and focused girl than I’d been in fall, but I was also sad and scared. My dad (who had MS) wasn’t doing well. My brother was not at home much, even though he was only sixteen. My mom? All I can say is we fought constantly and viciously.

My dorm mother (who’d decided I was anti-social, depressed and insane) had the college send me to see the school psychologist. He was a nice man and he asked me concrete questions about my life and my family. At the end of the session he said, “I don’t think you need to come back. There’s nothing wrong with you. Your family has some real problems. I think you’re scared for the future and sad for your dad. I think you’re worried about your little brother and you’ve been carrying a big load on your shoulders. You need to take advantage of being here and not at home. You have an opportunity here to learn and you should use it. Come back any time you want to talk.”

He was right, of course. I immediately went to see Mr. Preston and told him about it. He nodded in agreement through my whole recitation. He said, “Your dorm mother thinks that because you’re young you can’t have any real problems. But you have some real problems. Next year, find another dorm.” I did find another dorm, but I also remembered that being young doesn’t mean “trouble free.” That right there made me a better teacher when my turn came.


I discovered that at my school (Colorado Women’s College RIP) I could take any class I wanted. All I had to do was find one other student who wanted it and a professor qualified to teach it. I wanted to learn Greek so I could read Homer in the original language. I found another girl who wanted it and I went to Mr. Preston who said he’d teach it.

Back then, photocopies DID exist but they were expensive and the machines were few and far between. He had his text from the Jesuit school he’d gone to as a boy, and had three copies made.

“I can only do this at 8 am.”

“OK,” I said. He knew I slept until noon.

“You’ll have to be there because it’s going to mean I have to get up at 4 to take care of the animals before driving in from Boulder.”

“I can do it,” I said.

“XXX (the other girl) said that works for her. All right. We’ll meet Mondays through Thursday mornings at 8 am.”

Looking back, I know Mr. Preston was — among other things — trying to get me to learn self-discipline, to put learning something above staying up all night and sleeping half the day. I also know, now, that that those habits seem to be a common among post-adolescents. Most of the kids I taught over the years thought a 1 pm class was a morning class…

Fall semester rolled around and I moved into a new dorm, which I loved, had my own room, which I loved. Other things had happened over the summer and I was a more settled girl, more focused on learning something, more focused on the future that was becoming clearer — my dad was now in a nursing home and that meant that however much longer he lived, it would not be long. MS is not a deadly disease, but it does weaken the body and the immune system as organs and muscles stop functioning as well as they should. My mom no longer had a burden heavier than she could carry. I could only hope she’d begin to build a life of her own because she’d need one soon.

Greek was great — though very difficult. We read the Odyssey. We didn’t study grammar or vocabulary, we just read Homer. It was a good way to learn. It was the way Mr. Preston had learned. Every day I went back to my room and translated Homer. I liked my classes that semester, I made friends, and moved quickly along toward that vaunted goal of graduation. By the end of my second year, I was classified as a second semester Junior.

My father died in February of that school year. After the funeral I kept to myself. I studied a lot. I spent time with Mr. Preston and quietly digested these events that most people at age 20 have not experienced. I don’t remember anything Mr. Preston said to me, I only remember having lunch in the cafeteria with him and other teachers and some of my friends, of listening to them debate ideas and laugh, of following him to his office and sitting in a comfy chair and trying to read Greek.

He was my mentor, but he did his mentoring by being himself and never closing the door to me. I am sure he gave me good advice and useful life lessons. I’m sure I used them for my own well-being and later for the well-being of the students who came my way, equally fucked up, confused and scared. The one thing I can say for sure is that his presence in my life during those troubled years was a beacon of light flashing the words, “Be yourself” against the uncertain firmament of my dark sky.