A Beginner's Diary
By Carl H. Klaus
Boston: Beacon Press, 1999. $25
Reviewed by Sheila Bender
Book Review March/April 2000
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|Facing retirement, Carl Klaus, founder of the University of Iowa nonfiction
writing program, struggles with the thought of becoming a professor emeritus
and hopes for an office where he can continue meeting students and supervising
doctoral theses. Klaus’s journal of his ruminations about adjusting to
his new life begins late in February 1997, barely three months before the
last day of his last official term, and ends October 2, 1998, shortly after
the start of the first fall term in 35 years without his being present
in the English department.
Klaus describes his pre-retirement life as idyllic. He lives a one-and-one-half-mile walk from campus in a house newly remodeled under the supervision of his wife of 27 years. A month’s visit to the Rockies is in the works. In addition, Klaus has a huge vegetable garden in which he glories, a Jeep Grand Cherokee, a Mazda, a long- time canine companion, and a new kitten. The couple dine routinely on fresh vegetable marinades, salads and sautés, pork flavored with sage and thyme, and other equally sumptuous dishes of veal, roasted chicken, and—in the Rockies—elk. His book about gardening has just been published, and he does a reading tour. As if that isn’t enough, he has textbooks to update and a nonfiction list to start for the University of Iowa Press.
But now his life changing drastically. There is choice where once there were schedules and duties. There is a chance to redefine self, once defined by a job. There is also the acceptance that time is finite for Klaus and his wife, a heart attack survivor and cancer survivor respectively.
Not wanting a retirement party at the university, Klaus is honored instead with a white oak tree planted in a neighborhood park and visible from his kitchen window. A friend throws him a nostalgic dinner in the style of her late husband. Interesting gifts arrive, along with acquaintances’ congratulations. All this is fodder for Klaus’s journal. Why does retirement merit anyone’s congratulations? How can he give up teaching? These questions remain even after he admits to himself that he is burnt out from years of reading and commenting on student papers. And when he finds he will be able to retain an office at the university, he wonders how he’ll manage to live with one foot in, one foot out of academic life.
Klaus is using his daily journal writing to get him to the point where
he accepts retirement. And so it’s a relief when, six months into the writing,
the journal finally takes him—and his readers—on his journey to discovery.
We get to leave behind the meetings with the department secretary and the
social security functionaries; the broken computer, the malfunctioning
modem, the wish for more e-mail. We get to leave behind the endless reshuffling
of furniture following the domestic remodeling and hit the back roads of
the Midwest and the mountain West. Amidst vivid descriptions of landscape
and many rainbows, we learn with the author what he really needs to know:
Still, intimations of mortality intrude. When Klaus’s wife asks him,
over lunch, whether he would ever take a bus tour, he realizes she is worried
he might say yes. Then he spots the tour group of elderly people that inspired
the question. They are posing for a group photograph. Recalling their evident
pleasure, he writes that beneath his dislike of group activities lies a
“fear of dependency” he has never confronted. More expansively, he records
this impression from mountain-ringed Waterton Lake:
But Klaus soon returns to his everyday way of looking at things. He writes that he felt his vacation ending somewhere in eastern Wyoming, “several miles outside of Lusk, where I saw a few more gatherings of antelope grazing in the midst of the tableland and then no more.” I was sad that the man who’d learned that everywhere is a destination now felt he could declare his vacation over well before he had gotten home. But I felt better when, upon arriving home, Klaus wants to cook a “simple supper of pasta with fresh tomato sauce” and walks into “the garden in the cool of the sunset and found what [he] needed there—tomatoes, peppers, onions, parsley, basil, and a breath of fresh air.”
Klaus clearly likes to be home. A few days after his return, he goes to his new office on campus, eager to sort mail, answer e-mails, and find what he might find within himself returning as professor emeritus. He enters a changed building. Summer remodeling has brought new paint, brighter lights. Seeing no one he recognizes, he momentarily feels invisible. But the 150 people at a reading he gives soon after his return to campus convince him he is visible, after all. Klaus continues going to his office and receiving calls and e-mail. But when a student comes by to find out if he’ll be teaching a personal essay writing course, Klaus says, “Not a chance. . . . But there’s a new person in the nonfiction program. . . . and I think she’ll be offering exactly the courses you want.” When he escorts the young man to the new professor’s office, Klaus realizes the young man has helped him “see this journey through.” The journal finished, Klaus and his readers have learned that we can come home yet lead a different life.
Sheila Bender is the author of a new collection of poems, Sustenance (Daniel and Daniel Publishing), as well as several books on writing.
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