We traveled to subject’s remote retreat and sat in the open evening air, looking east across a wide natural meadow toward a wooded mountainside.
For breakfast we would have what we called bread cereal, where we’d tear up bread and put on a little cinnamon. I loved it. It’s comfort food, even today. But my mother remarried when I was eight, and we became middle class, even upper middle class. I went to catholic schools all my life. Right out of high school I entered a monastery. I was there for a couple of years. I was in pursuit of spirituality and salvation. I lived at a monastery in Santa Fe with other young men who had become brothers or who would become brothers. I spent a lot of time reading, contemplating, questioning and basically I got to a point where I thought, hey, all this is bullshit. What the fuck am I doing here? There was a book I read, Narcissus and Goldmun (Herman Hesse) that really affected me. I had an older brother who was my mentor who was the intellectual type. We had a Narcissus and Goldmund type of relationship. We stayed connected throughout his life. So, I really related to the book. The book played a big role in me leaving the monastery. I left to experience the pleasures of the world, and since I wasn’t sure if I believed in God anymore -- I was an agnostic -- I thought, well, I should at least experience the pleasures of the world. I remember during that time thinking that entering the brothers was like my real conception into being and that leaving the brothers was like my birth into personage. I entered on my 18th birthday, and I was exposed to a lot of radical ideas in the brothers. A lot of the brothers were radical, on the war, and on religion -- When I think about the values of the ‘60s, it was truly questioning authority. And the brothers -- you took a vow of obedience, but there were a lot young brothers questioning everything. Then I went to St. Louis where other brothers, some who were still in and some who had left and started a school for delinquent boys.
I had gone to visit one of the brothers who had left, in Wash DC, and I arrived there when they were protesting the Vietnam War, closing down streets -- I had never really thought about this before, about the war and what was going on. I was up there with all these people who were protesting, getting up and making speeches -- I wound up being tear-gassed -- my whole world view fell apart then. I thought, what’s going on? Before that, I hadn’t thought about it. I had given a speech in high school about why we were in Vietnam, why it was necessary. I got my info out of a Reader’s Digest -- all of a sudden I’m going oh my gosh, and that’s when I really started questioning -- I couldn’t defend it any more -- I remember going home to New Orleans -- all my friends and neighbors had thought of me as this nice young man who had gone off to the monastery -- I had been well thought of, made good grades -- came back with long hair, beard, wrote letters to the editor about why we needed to get out of Vietnam.
Religion played a big role in my life -- I went to Catholic schools for 14 years, had been an altar boy, and gone to a monastery -- and some of those beliefs, when you think about it, put reason to it, didn’t make sense. I read a book called These Questions Mock Me, which made me question the whole basis of religion. ( Well, sometimes I think I threw the baby out with the bath water, because when I discarded religion, I threw out spirituality with religion.) Later on, I realized that a lot of things like intuition, and insights that are instantaneous without a lot of reasoning behind it, are real but not always reasonable. I think one of the things that came out of the ‘60s was questioning authority. You just don’t accept everything the government tells you, your religion tells you -- you have to figure it out for yourself. Just don’t be a blind follower. Take personal responsibility.
I remember working in St Louis with the brothers -- we were the only white people in the neighborhood. That was an eye opener. Everyday was like a month of experiences, just seeing how the other side of America lives. I mean, I was aware of black people in ghettos, but now I lived in the middle of a ghetto trying to survive. Six months or so. Not that long but it was like living in a foreign country compared to white middle class suburbia.
Trying not to capitalize on other people’s labor – not exploiting the masses -- that was another ‘60s value I adopted. I quickly got another perspective once I started my own business. I had started a painting business, by myself. Then somebody else wanted to work with me, and then I had several people working with me, and we had the attitude that we would all split the money evenly. But I was the one buying the materials, the one with the ladder and brushes. I was the one who went out after work and made the bids to get the jobs. -- I was doing more work than anybody else, but everybody expected to share equally. So there was this argument about what’s really work -- like if I’m going out getting the jobs, is that really work? They had this attitude that it’s only work when you’re painting. They thought they should be paid more than me. So finally, I decided I was being exploited. I told everybody you get so much an hour, and if you don’t want to do it, don’t do it and I’ll find somebody else. I learned that what’s fair is not always real clear.
I went to the University of North Dakota, in Grand Forks, because I read an article in Atlantic Monthly. It was an experimental school with no grades and no tests. It was quite an experience to go to a school where you literally created your own education. You could have slept for two years and probably get a degree, because everybody had an advisor, and you might find one who would say, yeah, that’s cool. In fact for my first semester -- the advisor said, what do you want to do? I said, well, I’d really like to see what it would be like to live by my wits alone -- just take off on the road with my backpack and thumb my way around the country and see where I end up, where I go, what I do, how I survive. See what happens, go for it. I did that for six months. That was really interesting -- I left with about $40, and came back with around $30 six months later. I wound up speaking at two universities as a guest lecturer. I remember being really excited about being able to tell my advisor that. I talked to an education class at the University of Kentucky -- and talked to a graduate class at the University of Maryland. UND had a reputation around the country for being experimental with how they were approaching education -- I was getting a degree in elementary education, and I was traveling around the country and getting credit. But the way I got to be a guest lecturer was that I was picked up by professors while I was hitching, and they would ask, well, what are you doing, and I would say, you’re not going to believe this, but I’m earning 22 semester hours. They were education Profs, and they wanted me to talk to their classes. Sometimes a carpenter picked me up, and I’d help him work. I had some destinations in mind, but sometimes I’d go where the ride would take me. Those were different times. What I remember was that people took care of me. This old lady in Mississippi picked me up, saying “honey what are you having for supper,” and I said, “I don’t know,” and she took me to her house and fed me and gave me $10 to make sure I had breakfast the next morning. Those sorts of things happened a lot. Amazing things. Early ‘70s, and more people were doing that.
I stayed at North Dakota and got a degree in elementary education and taught for a year, but my girlfriend left me for a poet and it broke my heart. All I could do was cry for a couple of years. I went back to New Orleans in a real funk about my life. Then a bunch of us city folks decided we wanted to get some land out in the country. We sat down and figured all the things we wanted -- an area with four seasons, we didn’t want to be too far away from New Orleans, we wanted to be near a university town, maybe bordering on national forest, maybe 300 acres of land. Then with all of our requirements one couple went off to scout for us. But after the first five days they decided it wasn’t much fun, too confusing trying to see so much, and then one day, J called and said “We found this place in Arkansas that has all our requirements but one. It’s pretty nice.” I wanted to know what requirement was missing. J said the land was 150 acres not 300. For some unknown reason I couldn’t accept 150 acres. “ No, that’s not enough. It has to be 300 acres.” J paused for a while and then asked, “ Do you know how big an acre is.” “No, I actually have no idea, but we need 300 of um.” Well, 150 acres is a lot. We bought it. I was such a city kid. Maybe I grew a tomato plant for a classroom project but that was it.
It was part of the Mother Earth News concept to be self sufficient, go to the country, live off the fat of the land -- society is crumbling, things are going to fall apart -- you had to have your five acres and independence. Lots of people were buying Ozark land -- it was cheap. We bought the 150 acres, with a house, barn, three creeks, a couple of ponds, an apple orchard -- for $38,000. There was a well, with electricity to it. Plus, it’s at the end of the road. No cars will pass in front of this field.
The first time I ever got drunk I was with the brothers at the monastery. The first time I ever got stoned I was in St. Louis, with brothers and ex-brothers, sitting around in this room all of us smoking, and I remember saying I don’t feel anything [and his arm is rising] and then oh my god, what’s this, and we all started laughing, rolling over. I think because of my experience of being stoned with the brothers, they tend to approach it as a spiritual experience. When I got out into society, a lot of people just wanted to get fucked up, and I always thought that was wrong, abusive. I really believed it was a spiritual thing. I still use it as a spiritual tool. It’s what brings me back to reality sometimes. And coming out here [to the land] is definitely a spiritual tool. When I’m absolutely stressed out or crazed -- I come out here and it slows me down. Coming out here, sitting out in the field for a couple of hours is great, At first I’m going, ok when I get back I need to take care of this and this, and I gotta do that, and tell this person that, and da ta da ta da ta, and about two hours later, I’m sitting there, and then it’s like oh look at those clouds, and then I forget all that stuff and leave it behind me. I can reach the point where I can say; I’m not going to worry about that for a while. Nature is pretty powerful. It’s a meditative place you can get that recharges your batteries and restores your soul. It is so important to me, that awareness. It gets you in touch with your soul, what your path is supposed to be. And that’s where the logic falls off. You just are, just being, you just know certain things, as opposed to trying to figure it out. I’m great at always trying to figure things out, plan things. A lot of people approach religion that way. Very legalistic, follow the law. There’s no room for spirituality. That’s the thing I rebelled against. You don’t even have to think. Someone’s already done that. Just follow the rules.
We were going to raise tomatoes when we came here. We planted three acres of tomatoes down there in that field. Somewhere along the line, we decided there must be something wrong with the tomatoes. We went to one of the old farmers out here. I’m sure he wondered what these young kids were down here doing, and he came and looked at our tomatoes and said, well, commercially, this is worth zero. He said, you young kids would do a lot better growing yourself some pot. This was one of the old back hill guys that we thought if he knew we smoked pot, he’d probably kill us. What was amazing to me during that time was how well accepted we were by our neighbors. One of the neighbors gave us a cow. Actually, we were talking about getting a cow and he said we could borrow his for a while to see if we really wanted one. We returned it a few months latter. The first winter, we were snowed in, and he came to the top of the hill and left us food. One of our guys had snow skis, and would go up to get the food. We couldn’t have made it without them. They would say how their kids were leaving, going to the city, and they were left alone. And here are these kids coming back to the country, and they were more than willing to share what they knew. Old Peewee would come down here and tell us about the trees, which trees we wanted to have around the house, which ones to cut. It was live and let live. They might have thought we looked weird, but shit they were real easy. Not what I expected. I thought of myself as a tolerant person but the truth was they taught me about tolerance.
We developed a network with other people who had moved here. We would have workdays when everybody would go to one farm and work for a day. It was great – the mid to late ‘70s --we helped clear land, work on their house, garden, -- my house had a roof-raising party. I can remember when I made a change from the ‘back to the land, live a simple life’ and believing everything was going to fall apart in society. People would always talk about what we were doing, and when things were going to fall apart -- things were supposed to fall apart soon, but whenever we heard any good news about the economy, we would get disappointed. That wasn’t supposed to happen. I didn’t want to live my life like this. Bitching that I don’t have enough money and upset when I would hear that the rest of the economy was recovering. There’s something wrong with this life view-- I can remember when I was having a conversations with some friends and we were discussing all the things we wanted to do with our land to prepare for the collapse. We all needed more money to do some of these things yet didn’t want the economy to improve. I can remember deciding I wanted the economy to improve and I wanted to make some more money.
In New Orleans I had been buying old houses, remodeling them, and then renting them or selling them. I had a reputation, doing it a few times, the bankers knew me -- I had some history there. I decided I’d go Fayetteville and see if I can find some houses, etc. -- I walked into the bank, to talk to a loan officer, and I felt so stupid -- I knew there was no way in the world this guy was going to lend me anything. He doesn’t care what I did in New Orleans -- I remember thinking I had cut off all my roots, no family, no one who knew me, -- I was up here and I was a nobody -- I’m never going to get money to go do this. What the hell am I going to do? I felt very insignificant and lost.
So I decided to use my teaching degree, but it was impossible to get an elementary teachers job in town because there were too many of them. I liked math and science, and I knew there was shortage of math and science teachers, so I went back to school and took some classes to get my certification in secondary math and science. I got a job. I had to make a living. I loved teaching, once I learned how to discipline. I was a popular teacher, known for being hard and strict and fair and funny, and they loved being in my class. I loved to teach, I loved the kids. One of the highlights was at the end of the year, one of the kids, a tough kid, walked out, and then came back and said, “I just wanted to tell you that when I first took your class, I knew I was no good at math, but now, I know I’m good in math. Thanks.’ I almost started crying. I got out of it when we had our second child, and we decided that one of us would stay home with the kids. My wife could make more money as a nurse than I could as a teacher, so I stayed home as Mr. Mom for over a year. I was going nuts. I remember thinking that being a homemaker was not as easy as it looks. I had a hard time. I once made banana pudding that would bounce off the wall. It was like rubber. But I also really enjoyed taking care of the children. D was much better at being a homemaker than I ever was, but still it was quite an experience.
After that I got a job selling insurance with one of those mass marketing companies. I had an experience when I discovered that I could excite a crowd, move a crowd, and that was strange. It scared me actually. I went to this meeting, and they picked me to give a speech. I prepared what I thought would be an inspiring speech. I was so nervous. But as I was giving the speech people were standing up and cheering. I imagine it’s like it would be for a preacher, who gets up there and the people are going crazy. I mean, I was scared to get up in front, but I also realized I can do this. This is an interesting skill, talent -- something -- but I’ve never done anything with that. Scary, exciting, fearful -- I was on a crusade. I was not selling life insurance to make money. Of course, I wanted to make money, but that’s not why I did it -- if you had asked me before that time, like when I was living out here, one of the worst things to do with your life was to sell life insurance. It was a joke. It was like that line in the comedy The Two-Thousand Year Old Man, “You mock the things you are to be.” I really got into the difference between whole life and term -- what the insurance companies had fostered upon the poor -- I was a hell of a salesman, but I wasn’t making much money. I went to this regional meeting and got this award for selling more policies than anyone else. And I’m thinking I can’t even pay my rent. And this is big sales? But in the process I met this guy in Bentonville who said, I like you, did you ever think about selling real estate? So I went to Bella Vista and sold lots. I sold lots of lots and I learned a lot. That was interesting because when I went there, I thought, oh I’ll make about $20 or 30,000 a year -- and after the first month, I freaked out, because I realized I could make $60, 80, 100 thousand a year -- but I didn’t have an image of myself making that much money. I realized that I would never do that -- if you don’t have an image of yourself doing that, or think you’re worthy, then you’ll never do it. I felt I was inadequate, that I didn’t deserve to make $60,000 -- for stupid reasons. D asked me why, and I said, I don’t look like somebody who makes that much. My fingers are too thin. And I realized that it was because my father was successful but he was a thick kind of guy, and I didn’t think I fit the image. How stupid. I realized how stupid it was, but you have to deal with that stuff.
I got over it -- I made money. I did that for about 7 or 8 years -- but actually, I look on that time as one of the worst times of my life. I would get real depressed. Looking back on it now, I would say it was because I wasn’t on my path. Maybe it would have been all right for a year or two, but I should have stopped. But I kept doing something just for the money that did not speak to the higher aspirations of my life, or to the needs of my soul. I remember talking to a counselor, and he told me that my depression was blessing. I wanted to kill the sonofabitch -- this is not a blessing! But I understand now, it was a blessing. It was a sign that I wasn’t doing [what I was supposed to be doing]. I mean you can mask depression with alcohol, drugs, or a lot of activity without being aware of it.
I would get up, go thru the motions, do what I had to do, but I was miserable. The doctor gave me an anti-depressant, but I didn’t want to take drugs. I had the prescription with me, and he said, if I was ever at a point where I thought I couldn’t handle it, go get the prescription filled. I kept it with me in my wallet. At one point, I was so depressed, and thinking about getting the prescription just to see if it would relieve the symptoms. I thought I’d fill it in the morning. That night I went to read a story to my middle daughter, she was about six -- I hope I don’t cry when I tell this story -- but I was reading to her, and she was as cute as a 6 year old can be -- just talking a mile a minute, and then I realized she was the age I was when my father left me, and I didn’t know what had happened to him, hadn’t seen him in twenty years -- I wasn’t allowed to bring up his name -- and my marriage to D was not good - I was thinking about leaving-- and leaving her meant leaving the kids -- and I thought about not having my father and what that meant to me, and thought about my daughter not having me. Tears started running down my face, and I got up and walked into the hallway, and all I can describe it as is a primal scream. Grief overcame me so much I fell to the ground and wept. All I could think about was losing my father, all that stuff just cascaded in on me. I remember pulling myself up and going don’t do this, pull yourself together, and then I fell down again, crying. It was intense. The next day I woke up and I was taking a shower, and it was, oh, I’m not depressed. I must have been holding all these fears and feelings inside all that time, and just realized it. I was so glad I hadn’t taken the drug, because I don’t think I would have been able to feel all that. From that, I think I learned the importance of going through the pain, because you come out on the other side a lot stronger.
D and I were at a point in our relationship where D didn’t even want me to touch her. I thought, why am I in this relationship? I’m not a mean sob, I provide for the family, I work hard, we have our house. What am I doing wrong here? I’m not even doing what I want to do, but I am doing what I’m supposed to do. We had just had an argument. I went into my room and banged my hand on the cabinet; hurt the hell out of my hand. I’m sitting there and she came in to me and says, A--, I just don’t respect you any more. My reaction was to start laughing hysterically. It struck me as absurd that she doesn’t respect me. I’m doing things I don’t even want to do because I think they’re the right things to do, and she doesn’t respect me! How absurd!! I should be doing something I want to do. I started laughing. She told me later that it was the hardest thing she ever had to tell me. She thought I was going to be real upset and was kind of dumbfounded when I started laughing. It became so obvious to me that ‘I’m not on the right path here! She was just letting me know.
The next day, I went to Winfest, and I was about as low as one could get. I went alone. I didn’t want any of my family to go. I’m thinking my life is worthless. What the hell am I going to do? So, I’m at Winfest, and I give my ticket to this guy at the gate, and he says, are you Mr. R? I said, yeah, and he said, oh, man, it’s good to see you -- you were such a shining light for me. I hated school but you did me a good deed. It really affected me. I mean, here is this young man who remembers me in a positive way. That was kind of nice, a little bit of an uplift. And so then I go set my chair up, and I’m really early. People start coming, and then this guy sits his chair next to me. He looks familiar but I can’t quite place him. So I asked him if we’ve met before. He says no he has never been here before. He’s just arrived from New Orleans and just wanted to get away. He heard this was a pretty nice music festival. I tell him I’m from N.O. and it turned out we are from the same high school. He asked me my name and I tell him. He says you’ve got to be kidding I just came back from my high school reunion and we were talking about some of the funny things we remembered. Someone brought up the time you took your sweats off to go into the basketball game and all you had on was your jock strap. We all had a good laugh because you were out there for a while before you realized it. No one knew what you were doing. Someone said the last they heard was that you were in the monastery. I remember thinking that my life seemed pretty worthless but at least I had made some people laugh and they were still talking about it.
Then Washboard Leo gets up, -- he plays the electric washboard -- he’s the self-proclaimed king of the Nutrafrog Kingdom -- he has this whole aura about what he does with his music -- and anyway, he decided that part of Winfest is to do the Nutrafrog Stomp. I’m sitting in front of the stage and he throws me some Mardi Gras beads and little plastic eggs that are supposed to be Nutrafrog eggs, whatever that is. He tells me I’m supposed to lead the Nutra Frog Stomp. I do NOT want to do this but I start doing this little stomp and then I start to ribbit like a frog. I feel pretty stupid. I start motioning to other people to get up and stomp with me. Pretty soon I’m stomping and ribbiting with a little more enthusiasm. I’m up there and I begin to let go. I had my Nutrafrog egg, and I’m yelling RIBBIT, dancing, stomping around, and started really yelling, RIBITRIBITRIBIT and stomping like a Wildman -- getting more people to join me, and we’re stomping around the place, and everybody is laughing. It seemed like we danced for a while. We stirred up a lot of dust because there must have been a hundred people following me around the ballpark. I don’t know what place I went to, but when the whole thing ended I was exhausted, sweaty and covered with dust. It was then that I had an epiphany. I know what I want to do with my life. I want to open a (;lkjhasdfg).
I went home and told D and the kids. I said, I’m going to open a (;lkjhasdfg )-- it’s what I want to do. For me, what (;lkjhasdfg) meant was real communication -- a place for people to talk. I wanted to create a place where I wasn’t always trying to sell people something, I could just talk to people, just be with people, create a sense of community -- I was an obsessed person. I quit my job and -- I did it.
This was not figured out by looking through business magazines or figuring out what business to start. It was totally -- well, it was the process of dancing. I think it lets you get in touch with your soul in some ways. Dancing, music -- there was a shedding of all that I thought I was supposed to be, really getting in touch with my essence. There is a banner at Winfest that says ,”Music washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.” I felt that is what happened to me. I didn’t care that I was making a fool of myself. I remember some friends looking at me when I was dancing and wondering about me. I mean, I was out there. I didn’t question it. It felt right. I’ve thought about ;lkjhasdfg every day since then.
I believe the desire to do this type of business had to do with my experience being with the brothers and a sense of community. I feel a sense of community at the ;lkjhasdfg -- a sense of connection with the people. It’s not just trying to sell you something or what’s your marketing purpose for meeting me? I find myself in a role in the community where I can connect other people -- I talk to the young kids, some down and out, homeless people, then I talk to the business men with the coats and ties, and they see me talking to each of them, and there’s a connection made, maybe they’ll start talking to one another. I’m very conscious of that role that I play. I really try to do that, now that I’ve realized I do it. I see that as my purpose in life, getting people together, not concentrating on our differences, but concentrating on our humanness, what brings us together. That’s why I love my business. It gives me an opportunity to be with people in a very basic way.
When I think about my path, my purpose, it has to do with community, connecting people. I want them to feel a sense of community, and I try to convey that to the people who work there -- this is not just about (;lkjhasdfg). It’s about connections people make when they come in. And it’s about space, too. A lot about art in space, because -- you go into McDonalds, it’s not warm, you know, it’s designed that way, get you in, get you out -- my whole thing is ‘Come and stay awhile. The colors are warm, the space has a quality of art to it that makes you want to hang around, maybe talk to somebody. And when you’re in the( ;lkjhasdfg), you can start talking to somebody and meet a new friend.
That’s why I think depression was a blessing, and that’s why I’m glad I didn’t take the drugs to make me not feel depressed. I think our whole country is fucked up because we have so many people on Prozac and what not. They can’t feel the pain. And if you can’t feel the pain, you’re not going to get to the other side. I’m not going to say that people don’t have chemical depression and that drugs are always bad -- all I can really talk about is my experience. If I would have taken those anti-depressants I don’t think I would have had that experience. We need to be careful. We could drug ourselves to oblivion.