Wednesday, March 8, 2017


Long before money came into being as cash, specie, or currency, people had a word for it. The word, every bit as filled with intent as money, is obligation.

You were obligated for some specific, say six fresh fish or perhaps one large buffalo skin or beaver pelt. If you happen to have borrowed X's canoe for a fishing venture you were to lead, you were obligated to pay the owner of the boat X, which has accordingly become the total catch.

This commercial structure suggests stories of endless mirth, but your purpose here intends another kind of exploration than fiction; rather it is the purpose of essay.

Whether by anthropologists who came upon the scene, notebooks and recording devices at the ready, or from the cultures under examination, obligation as a unit of indebtedness became shortened to ob. The ob is the forbear of money. "I owe him one ob." He's already six obs into me, my son-in-law."

An individual identity was defined by family and clan ties, by one's position in the social hierarchy, by one's possessions, and by one's equivalent of credit card debt, the obs one owed or those owed to one.

You became aware of an ob of your own earlier this morning, when you could not locate a treasured pocket knife.

When occasion calls for you to identify yourself to a stranger as as introduction to a particular society, instead of citing your parentage or born-to religious background as bench marks, your first impulse is to give your name, then wait a few moments to see which questions may then arise. Perhaps it will be place of birth as in, "Where are you from?". If the question is "What do you do?" you have three answers, writer, editor, teacher; you also have the amusing (to you, at least) construction of how one led to the other.

On some rare occasions, you may have occasion to identify yourself according to polite and philosophy. As a matter of principal, you avoid being described by your possessions. "That silver/gray BMW out there? That's mine." Such tropes not only seem vainglorious, they cause you to think how quickly they'd play into a retort, "So, you're the one who's blocking my Bentley!"

Here's where a problem begins. Even though you neither think of yourself as a person with possessions nor represent yourself as one with possessions, being unable to find your prized pocket knife lifts the curtain a few inches on the stage of your identity. You're still smarting over the loss of a Buck pocket knife with wood side panels, gone at least twenty five years, not to mention a lost Stipula Castoni fountain pen and a Mont Blanc Meisterstuck 149.

You of course have substitute pocket knives, including a duplicate of the very Buck lost so long ago, and an Ancora fountain pen you value more than a Mont Blanc. The true definition of yourself is less who you are and why you have so many fountain pens and pocket knives. As such things go, the pocket knife to which you attach so much importance was all the while in a pair of jeans you'd tossed into the To Be Washed basket. In that sense of recovery, balance is restored.

The true ob is to pursue with some rigor the paths and techniques of your choice, to the point where you are able to experience some sense of satisfaction that cannot be found in a pair of jeans in the laundry basket, You are not obligated to be good, merely to strive for some sense of engaged responsibility toward an occupation you care about. The winds of chance brought you the potential for being competent in three things and the obligation to practice in hopes of achieving some ability.

To call the mystery writer William Campbell Gault a friend is a bit of a stretch. You met on occasion, had coffee, talked shop. You even effected his affiliation with the editor, Sarah Freed, who acquired his last three books and reprint rights of a few others. But one thing Gault told you, then allowed you to quote it all the way into print haunts you.  "I'd rather," he said, "be the world's worst writer than a good anything else."

You've had the good fortune these long years to be able to practice at three things you care about in hopes of doing them well enough to be at peace with them.

"What did you say it was you did?"

"Write. Edit books. Teach."

"So then, can't make up your mind yet?  Listen, it isn't that you're a kid any more, know what I mean? Isn't like you've got all the time in the world."

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