Yesterday while working at home the air inside our house started to smell something like mothballs. I walked around trying to figure out where the smell was coming from. Then my wife told me, “It’s the pavers doing the driveway across the cul-de-sac.”
She was right. Once I identified the odor, it fell into place. But that smell reminded me of another moment in time as a much younger man working from home.
A friend and I lived together in the City of Chicago. Our first apartment was a sub-rental from his girlfriend who was gone for the summer traveling in Greece. I moved back from Pennsylvania and spent the summer doing graphic design and writing for some clients in Chicago.
So between gigs I’d work on a novel that I’d started a couple years before. It was a book titled Admissions about a fictional university at the Wisconsin Dells. It was a highly prophetic book, it turns out. In 1982 I wrote about how the conservative movement in America would begin to take over the AM airwaves with a political push called The Mandate. The main character in the book would run afoul of that movement, and the lessons learned by confronting arch conservatism served as an illustration of a principle I wrote about called Life Tectonics.
Originally I’d written the book longhand on legal pads. During my trips to and from Chicago, commuting to a job in the investment industry, I’d work on the plot and fill yet another legal pad with the dialogue and chapters.
But then I purchased a secondhand IBM Selectric typewriter and began the process of transcribing the book to an actual manuscript.
Days were spent sitting at that typewriter with the sounds of Chicago traffic coming through the bay windows of our first-floor apartment. In the morning after a long run, I’d sit down to write and find a fine dust of urban grit on the pages of my book. I’d brush it off the keys and the paper, and set back to writing again.
Then some roofers showed up to work on the building across the street. The smell of that tar was so pungent I had to close the front windows just to breathe. Yet it made me feel like I was really living in the city. It was like inhaling a tarsnake.
The days of summer passed slowly and my running workouts twice a day served as bookends. I competed in 24 races that year with sponsorship from a running store that paid my entry fees and provided shoes for racing and training.
But most of all it taught me to live within my own brain and focus on my work despite everything else going on in the world. Reagan was President, and I despised that. I never cared for his vacuous manner of speaking with all those platitudes. And I really was disgusted by his Secretary of the Interior James Watt, who once coldly stated, “When the last tree falls, Jesus will come.”
My book Admissions was right about where this would all end up, with a nation in the grip of a mandate written by dismissively legalistic forces that for forty years have sought to fracture society in order to take it over. The smell of that asphalt yesterday reminded me that the work of putting thoughts on paper in protest of corrupt thinking is never through.
Recently I transferred that manuscript from old Mac software to a Word document. The book makes more sense than ever. And it is being completed now, because that’s what I do.