Monday, December 28, 2020

Extra Notes: Transcribing Montaigne

I have edited and updated this essay to reflect
that I have legally changed my name
to that of my literary and philosophic father.


There has always been a part of me that has had a pretty good grasp of what was coming.

I'm not a clairvoyant, and I don't read tarot cards or gaze into crystal balls. Still, where my life has been concerned, I have, generally speaking, been able to forecast with a fair amount of accuracy what was coming.

There was a point in the late 90s when I realized that my life was about to enter a period of utter hell. Less a vision than simple gut instinct, it ultimately led me to quit the teaching job I had and strike out on my own as a professional tutor. And it led me to buy MA Screech's Michel de Montaigne: The Complete Essays, which over the next two years I read cover to cover--twice. At just under thirteen hundred pages, that effort is not a trivial footnote.

If you don't know who Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was, you should learn. He was a man of many talents: a statesman, philosopher, master writer, and an unflinching critic of education, or what he felt passed for education of the time. He was a voice of reason and sanity during a truly insane period in French history--the Wars of Religion. Three million people died in the thirty-six years they raged.

The bleak years I foresaw came. The worst of it was in 2001 when I was sexually assaulted by one of my graduate professors, who then through some amazingly devious machinations managed to get me kicked out of school. Without the stipend I'd earned by working a summer program put on by his colleague, but which the assaulter kept from me, I had no ability to pay rent. I lost my apartment and spent the first night on the streets December 29, 2001. I was in Greeley, Colorado, where winters can be, and often are, unforgiving and brutal.

I found at that point that I had no friends. No one would help me. It was like I had leprosy. I couldn't understand any of it.

With the little money I had left, I put my remaining possessions in an eight-by-ten-foot storage locker. I spent many days and nights in it. There was plenty of room. I had almost nothing left to my life--a box spring and mattress, a computer, some clothes, and a box of books. One of them was the Essays.

A few months before I went homeless, I decided to do more than read them. I decided to transcribe them.

Why? A little voice kept telling me to. I somehow knew that doing so would help me and give me comfort, and would pay off later. Assuming, of course, that I survived.

I finally talked my natural mother into sending me enough money to get my stuff out of storage and to rent a U-Haul so that I could move to San Diego. That's where she was. She agreed—very grudgingly—to let me stay with her so that I could get back on my feet. That little U-Haul was literally running on fumes when I got to her place. The date—January 31, 2002.

Someday I'll tell you more about my natural mother. I'd like to call her an ignorant monster, but that would be an insult to the ignorant monster community. She saved me from the streets, that much is true; and for that I will be forever grateful. But that act of grace by no means makes up for many other very ungraceful acts that taken together vastly outweighed it. Her final act, before I decided to cut off from her permanently, was an attempt to extort four thousand dollars from me. By that point I was back in the classroom, this time heading up an entire mathematics department. The job paid well, and despite moving out of her place and paying rent in San Diego—not cheap—I was saving over half of my paycheck every month.

But I knew it wouldn't last. Despite having some talent in the classroom (I took the second-worst-performing math program in the nation [Job Corps] to the second-best inside of eight months), I hated teaching. I hated the stress of it. I despised the administrators and their constant, ridiculous, self-serving politics. I hated being unable to help kids whose only crime was being unwilling participants in a system that viewed them less as people than pieces of meat. Montaigne's words on education were never clearer or truer.

I was still transcribing him. Just a few pages every month. Nothing big. When I finished a page I'd crumple it up with thanks and throw it away.

I had a decision to make about what I wanted in life and how I was going to get it. I wanted to write. I didn't want to teach. I could handle tutoring kids one-on-one, but not teaching. So I quit and went back to tutoring. It was then (not coincidentally, I feel) that the prologue to Book One of Melody and the Pier to Forever came to me.

None of it since has been easy. In fact, it has been a no-holds-barred mortal battle. The world doesn't give a rat's ass about me. If you do what you love, the money won't follow. The Secret is very harmful, toxic horseshit. All those Go For It! platitudes you hear at graduations and corporate sales meetings and inspirational conferences are criminal and should be banned. The world wants only these things from you: Conformity. Slavery. Silence. Acquiescence. Resignation. Acceptance. In short, to give up.

At one point the 30-day notices to pay rent or be evicted were thicker than Melody's manuscript. I was eating ramen most days, and then eating only once a day, if that. No one wanted to call me friend, or hang out. Almost a decade of that. The isolation and loneliness that greeted me each day ... well, few can even imagine it, let alone survive it. I was in every pertinent way in solitary confinement, and all because I insisted on living my very finite life on my terms and no one else's.

My health began to suffer. I began having massive panic attacks, two so bad I ended up in the emergency room. I was diagnosed clinically depressed in the late 90s; managing that while living isolated, broke, and starving is a challenge I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.

But I had Melody; and I had the Essays.

I'm alive today only because my partner supports me. My works exist only because she's there. There is no other reason. George W. Bush's recession that crippled the world economy killed my tutoring business, which was never off life support at any point anyway.

As a man in his late fifties, finding work is, to put it mildly, problematic. Ageism is everywhere. Jobs I apply for never pan out. Another lesson has been learned: the world thinks you're worth something only until about age thirty-five (less, I think, if you're a woman). After that, you might as well dig a hole and jump in.

So I write. And write. And write. Four to eight or more hours a day, just like it's my job. Because it is. It's also my career. It's also, most importantly, my calling.

To this day I continue to transcribe Montaigne's Essays. I usually get around to them once a week. I transcribe one to three paragraphs. I study how he structures sentences, how he moves from one idea to the next, how he makes a point. Most of all, I struggle to learn from his deep and abiding wisdom. I'm very glad I chose him to be my namesake. My adopted and natural fathers were both very small, nasty, vile men. I consider Montaigne my true father. It is why, in September of 2019, I legally changed my name to Montaigne.

I'm on page 895 of the Essays now. When I finally get to page 1287, I will probably purchase a new copy and do the same thing—for as long as my very finite life allows.

The Essays became a lifeline, and are still today. Truer than everyone who abandoned me during the darkest period of my life, wiser than the lot of them combined and raised to the tenth power, and infinitely more comforting, I can only give thanks that I listened to that inner voice more than twenty years ago. Because of the Essays I haven't conformed. I haven't become a slave. I haven't stayed silent. I haven't acquiesced. I haven't accepted.

In short, I haven't given up.

What a ride it's been.