Keeping an Open Lap: A Pained Memoir.


Writers like to write about writing. They do it a lot. Probably only when they can’t think of anything to write about.

Every time I post one of these things, I am awash  with satisfaction and relief. That lasts a day. Maybe. Then, it hits me, “Holy Shit. That is IT. I am done.”  I know I have to write something else, and soon, because my dozens of fans [unless that is just my Mom clicking in several times a day] are depending on me, but my mind is empty. I haven’t a single idea, and no sense of one on the horizon. I have written my last blog post, obviously. I have nothing more to say. This is not writer’s block. The “writer’s block” notion presumes that, on the other side of the blockage, there resides something this writer needs to write. That’s not me. I have expended my last idea. I am that rare guy who has expressed everything he needed to express. I can shut up now.

Sadly, I have prepaid for this domain name and the blog “host” [whom I will not name until they give me some kind of consideration]. This blog site, with its aging posts, will stay up for another two years – like an old graveyard, a sad testament to a livelier time, long past.

See how this works? I have written 176 words that do nothing but demonstrate that I have nothing to say. “It’s not ‘nothing’, it’s about the artistic process.”  Right. Who doesn’t love to read about process? Of any kind?

Another thing writers do is start with a description of a recent personal experience – and hope that it will grow, somehow, into something. Anything.

The Story

Son Number Two [not his real name][but his real birth order] has been out of work for a few weeks, after a relatively long run with a small construction firm. While he was an energetic and reliable employee, in his unemployment he has demonstrated an awesome, though quite alarming, capacity for doing utterly dick-all. Every afternoon, he gets out of bed and moves to the Lazy Boy in front of the television in the basement. He channel-surfs and plays video games. He emerges at intervals to eat, but does not speak. Not conversationally. He will sometimes yell over his shoulder, “Dad. When’s supper?” I never respond. He stays there till bed time. He ‘becomes’ that Lazy Boy.

Wife Number Two [currently number one in my heart][not her real name] and I took Boy2 out for coffee to discuss our worries about his comfortable sloth. I told him I am having an electroencephalograph installed in the Lazy Boy, so I can call in the surgeons to harvest his organs should brain activity actually cease. “It will save me the trouble of going down there and poking you all the time.”  This was perhaps not a constructive opening to the dialogue. But it amused me.

Boy2 talked a bit [a small miracle]. While he didn’t say it directly, he was obviously uneasy about this job-hunting business – putting himself “out there”. He’s a shy kid, uncomfortable approaching people. He mentioned how he had gotten his previous two jobs without applying for them – “they just sort of fell into my lap.” Well, spending one’s life lounging on the Lazy Boy does leave the lap very accessible, I thought. To myself.

His worry sparked something in my memory. Joblessness, uneasiness about selling one’s self, things falling into one’s lap. [Isn’t the writing process fascinating?]

We’re now traveling back in time. Imagine the screen going all wavy – like happens on t.v. with flashbacks. ….twenty……four…..years……ago…..

I was a grad student. Well, I had actually missed a couple of tuition payments so I wasn’t officially enrolled. I was what I’d call an “academic squatter”.

I had made up my mind that I would pursue an academic career. I was gonna be a law professor. Yessiree. I was pretty proud of that – the “I made up my mind” part. I’d had some difficulty facing the hard facts of the “career” thing to that point. I’d been a successful student for many years. Why mess with success? Well, I was starting to realize that one simply could not remain a student forever. This realization struck me as quite mature. I was close to thirty. Right on time.

The unfortunate thing about my new, mature, career resolve, was that I had set myself on a path to failure. I was never going to be an academic. Academics are smart and committed and hard-working and driven and self motivated and all kinds of other things I am not, not all of them positive. In my two years at grad school, I’d noticed that most of the faculty and staff treated me like I was really just a lazy, drunk perpetual grad student – nice enough, but not a serious scholar. That was not fair. I am not lazy. I’m laid back. The rest? Probably fair.

Aside from my complete lack of suitability, there were a couple of other barriers to my pursuit of the academy. There were very few jobs. All the law schools had hired aggressively in the seventies. Law School faculties were full of tenured guys who were only ten to fifteen years into their careers. Barring some kind of deadly virus spread by learned conferencing, there wouldn’t be any openings for twenty years. While there were a few good possibilities, most opportunities were poorly paid sessional lectureships and short-term contracts.

But, for the slim pickings available, I wasn’t really in the running. What law faculties were looking for – what they desperately needed in the late eighties – was something they were not getting from me: Diversity. Law faculties were full of guys who were a lot like me. Always had been. Meanwhile, the makeup of the student population had changed dramatically. Half the students, for example, were women. Women had been joining the fraternity for years, in big numbers. But a female student could go through her three years at most law schools without ever seeing a woman standing at the front of the classroom. Law school is hard enough without feeling like a pioneer.

Other sorts of people who looked nothing like me were also finding themselves in law school.

It was embarrassing how consistently Ross-like the face of law faculties remained while the world around them changed. Faculty lounges looked very much like the men’s locker room at the country club. I would have felt right at home. Collegiality is so much easier when everyone is the same.

While my membership in virtually all of the dominant societal groups – male, extremely WASP, hetero, non-disabled – would have given me an advantage in most pursuits during most of Canadian history, for this very brief, shining moment and in these limited circumstances, it wasn’t working for me. Bad timing.

Still, I made the effort. In the spring of my second year of the one year program [I called it an “enhanced” program], I began my job hunt. I wrote a very impressive, yet understated, resume. I lovingly crafted cover letters for each resume I sent out. Twenty-three copies to law schools across the country.

Job applications were done by “mail” back then. I know, we think that was so slow, but the speed of my mass rejection was dizzying, considering the limitations of the technology. Within a week or two, twenty-two rejection letters were delivered to my mailbox [an actual box with a lid on it that postal workers put mail into]. I was offered one interview, for a job I really didn’t want. Whew, I didn’t get it. So. Twenty-three rejection letters.

All were very gracious. Each writer wished me success in my future endeavours. That’s a lot of good wishes. I now had a lot of people rooting for me. Unless they didn’t mean it.

Plan B? I had no plan B. I had twenty-three plan As

I was thirty years old. I had no money. No job. No apparent prospect of a job. No “irons in the fire”. I had not really started writing my thesis – lots of research, lots of notes, many outlines, many earnest and hopeful meetings with my advisor, many solemn assurances; not a single word on a first draft. I had a girlfriend who loved me very much but hated every little thing about me. I was more than a “fixer-upper” for her. I needed to be gutted to the studs. I had parked my car because I couldn’t afford insurance. I wrote a letter to my parents asking for a little help so I could make the rent. I wrote the letter on the back of one of my twenty-three rejection letters. I had a collection agent after me for money I owed to Columbia Record Club. If I’d had a dog, it would have died. Perhaps I wasn’t a loser; but I was someone who was, at the very least, not currently winning.

I kept up my spirits by drinking and smoking a lot. If you haven’t tried it; don’t judge.

Shortly after receiving my twenty-third well-wishing rejection letter, I was sitting in the faculty lounge at the law school, drinking coffee with my blind Australian grad school mate Glenn. “You know Glenn,” I said, “Things are looking very bleak for me right now. Worse than ever. Worse than I ever imagined. I should be panicking. But I’m not. You know why?”

“Because,” I said, not waiting for an answer, “Things have a way of just falling in my lap.”

The very next day. My phone rang. I answered. “Hello, this is Bob Whatever from the Department of Justice.” My first thought was that I was in legal trouble. No. Bob was looking for someone with a Master’s degree to work for him at the Saskatchewan Government. He’d been talking to an old classmate of his who, coincidentally, I’d spoken with at a conference a few weeks earlier. She told him about me. I met with him when he was in town the next week. The week after, I came here to Regina for an interview. The next week, I was offered the job. I took the letter of offer to the bank, got a big loan, so I could pay my rent and tuition and spend the next three months working on the thesis. I got it mostly done. I started work in Regina, finished and defended the thesis, met the woman who would be Wife Number Two and married her almost immediately. Boy Number One was born within minutes, with Two and Three following moments later. It happened that fast. My career, my family – my whole life – just sort of fell into my lap.

So. Who am I to criticize the Lazy Boy Method?


The day after our coffee meeting with him, Boy2 got on the computer and applied for a few jobs. Within five minutes, he got a job interview. The next morning. He got the job. He starts Monday.

There’s a lesson here.





2 thoughts on “Keeping an Open Lap: A Pained Memoir.

  1. As one who presumes to coach people in how to have rewarding careers, I read this with great interest. I think your two stories supported the advice I often give: “Do something!” It may seem to you that you “did nothing”, but in fact, you told others you needed work (the classmate at the conference)… and you told Boy 2 that HE needed work. In Boy 2’s case, he just had to get out of the chair. Good thing it was talking that was required of you – you are so good at that. Thanks again, Ross… a few laughs as always!

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