By: Joe Clifford

I recently got back from teaching my two-day workshop at the Kauai Writers Conference. Two long twelve-hour days, jammed packed with instruction, learning and socializing, as I wowed the crowd with such titillating titles as “Crime & Mystery: Breaking Apart the Mystery and Planting the Clues”; “Using Past Troubles for Future Gains”; “How to Make Setting a Character in Your Novel”; “15 Ways to Escape a Turkish Prison with Only a Bar of Soap and a Dream” (we never got to that last one). Dorky writer stuff that I just love.

At the end of the first day, I had a bitching headache. I’m talking whole face aching, thundering in the dome, pulsating artery pain. By the time I returned to the hotel room, Justine had finished the day's adventures with the boy, who was already passed out asleep. One look at my face, she asked what was wrong.

“I think I have a headache from smiling too much,” I said. “I’m not used to using those facial muscles.” 

Happiness for that gentleman hurts.
I think my cover was blown this weekend. You all know how much I pride myself on my negativity, my ability, to quote Mike TV of Get Set Go, to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. I work really hard to stay unhappy. It’s what I do. It’s who I am. It is how I identify myself, how I have for a long, long time. But for too long now, everything has been coming my way.

Way back in the Salad Days, my buddy, Matt, and I went tripping on mushrooms in the Marin Headlands. And as the heavy, cold fog descended with the midnight gloam, blanketing heath and hill, the trip started out pretty shitty. But then that Santana song came on the radio, and everything was OK. Because when you are tripping on ’shrooms, a good or bad trip sometimes comes down to the song the DJ plays at that moment.

Older now, I leave less to chance in my life. I remember once saying to a counselor in rehab that I was “at the mercy of my moods.” Seemed there was so little I could do to shake off a funk. If I woke up that day “on the wrong side of the bed,” I lacked the requisite coping skills to change it. Makes sense. Up until that point, I had been regulating my mood with narcotics. One pills makes you small. One pill makes you tall. Sometimes it's just best to call it quits. A little up. A little down. I simply had never learned how to control how I felt through healthier channels. Of course these days life is a pretty sweet fruit, mostly because I have carved out a living that does not involve my wearing pants.

The great thing about the Kauai Writers Conference, besides its being held on one of the most beautiful places on Earth and sponsored by some of the nicest people I've ever met, was how much I felt I was able to help others, namely other writers. You all know I am no fan of the hippy. I’m not into yoga. I don’t worry about radioactive fish, I vaccinate my kid; and even though I know climate change is very real and a very bad thing, I mostly champion resolution because I can’t stand the Right’s ridiculous denial of the issue. In short, I’m a strange bird. A leftie whose veggie diesel bug runs on hate.

How could anyone be unhappy with these two?

My lovely wife, Justine, says my misery is all schtick. She may be right. Don’t forget, I’m the same dude with “Peace, Love, and Understanding” on his (massive) biceps (and, kids, grammar lesson one of the day: even if it is only one arm, it is “biceps,” never “bicep”). There was a time when I believed in the better parts of man, but the years of hard living and abuse stomped all that love, hope and positivity out of me.

I realized this weekend there might still be a shred of optimism left. I’ll admit: I drank a little of the Kool-Aid. The writers I had the privilege of teaching were so hungry, receptive, so talented, from all walks of life, with such open spirits and positive attitudes. And the tie that bound them all together was how earnestly they desired get their work into the world. I only wanted to spare them the rejection I suffered. And I knew how to help. And I wanted to help. Which is weird because I think it springs from an authentic place in my cold, black heart.

I once published a hilarious, tongue-in-cheek piece in Helix magazine by Dan Jewett, which featured 30+ mean-spirited witticisms. Dan and I lived in San Francisco together, where the constant stream of do-gooding conspired to create contrarian tendencies. The umpteenth request for “kind buds" makes you want to scream! Eventually, you just want to watch the world burn. One of lines in Dan’s essay was “When you stop to help other people, you have wasted your time and resources.” (Another: “If you own more than 3 cats you may be insane.”) And I promise, my fellow misanthropes, I still loathe humanity. In general. But to a man? I'm sorry. I love the fuckers. I really, really do. And I especially love those who remind me of me.

Standing at the lectern (grammar lesson two, kids: we stand on a podium, in front of the lectern), seeing how much I was helping, goddamn, it made me feel good. I love teaching, pure and simple. And I am good at it.

It wasn’t long ago, I was sitting in that crowd, listening to another author, probably David Corbett, thinking, “Man, if I can just get what he has, I’ll be happy.” Of course it doesn’t work that way. Just getting published doesn’t make one “happy.” But I do believe being a part of some bigger thing nourishes the soul. Giving back what I’ve been given. Universal reciprocity. Helping others the way I’ve been helped. This isn’t purely selfless. On its own it isn’t even necessarily a “good” thing. I mean, I don’t think of it like that. It is just our responsibility, man, each and every one of us: to leave this world a better place than we found it; to be part of the solution, not the problem; to practice kindness over cruelty; to eschew self-serving malice and greed in favor of empathy and charity.

So either my worse fears are coming true and I am becoming a dirty, stinking hippy—no, until I stop showering and start bathing in patchouli, boning strangers with STDs atop some crappy metal sculpture at Burning Man, howling about my “life changing experience,” I’ll choose to view it another way. In a field of sorrow and pain, where the path of the righteous man is offset by douchebags like Dick Cheney and his ilk, I am just trying real hard to be the shepherd



I'm an ESL teacher in Newark, NJ. This hits the nail right on the head! Newark schools are suffering because of the lack of trust.


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