Stick a carrot in me: a personal 20 year Ulysses anniversary

In the spring of 1991, I made a pretty serious decision: I joined the Ad Club at the University of Wisconsin — Madison.  I put on some deodorant.  Did some laundry and then attended a few meetings where they served crackers and Cokes.  In the second meeting, I broke out with a bunch of chuckling, sweet-smelling, copywriter wannabes.  We started working a campaign for American Airlines that would be used for some kind of kick-ass ad competition the following fall.  “Nothing But Blue Skies…”  We worked hard.  And drank Cokes.

Advertising.  Copy writing.  Stringing some words together.  Adding up to what?  Money, hopefully.

Before that spring, I’d been a lackadaisical English Major more interested in growing a Trotsky goatee, wearing combat boots, and smoking cigarettes while posed in a thoughtful posture (to look serious) than I was about reading 19th Century British Lit.  I liked English Major Girls very much, though.  They also smoked cigarettes and they were crazy and funny and unpredictable, which tripped my daring danger switches in a most excellent way.  They liked my combat boots.   And, I had taken a creative writing class, which I liked a bit (I actually thought I’d be a poet, because I could turn something superficially decent out in a few minutes, which made the English Girls like me even more — I did not have the attention span for even short short fiction).  “I am creative, sort of,” is what I thought.  I like smoking and sitting outside. After a few years, there was malaise, because, between girlfriends, I realized I wasn’t sure what I was doing with myself.  “Do I even like reading?” I wondered.

Over winter break Dad asked: “Are you really passionate about anything besides English Major Girls?”   I thought: watching televised baseball and football in my underpants, but didn’t say that.  I said, “Hmm… I don’t think I have a soul.”  He suggested I go into advertising.  “You do write some cute poetry,” he told me.  “That could be a useful skill.”

And, so, I tried.  And, the Advertising Girls smelled very different than the English Girls.  They were lotion-y and they wore shoulder pads and slippery stockings.  They were not unpredictable.  They bossed me around, which I sort of liked.  They pretty much hated all of my ideas.  But, they liked that I looked artsy-fartsy.  “I interned in Chicago last summer! All the creatives looked frumpy like you!  Well not quite as frumpy, but pretty frumpy!”  That was enough to make me feel I’d found my place (for a few minutes).  I considered asking several of the Advertising Girls out.  They all looked the same and smelled great and bossed me around.  Any one of them would’ve been fantastic on a binge drinking date.  I attended a few more meetings and laughed and laughed.  And felt good about myself and my prospects and about the girls and their shoulder pads.  And then I felt dizzy.  And then stopped washing my hair and my clothes and started drinking beer at noon.   Then I stopped leaving my apartment, because I couldn’t get out of bed.

Over spring break, Dad asked me if I wanted to interview for an advertising internship.  I said, “Mmmyeahhhmmm.”   He wondered if I needed a new wardrobe.  I said, “Ohhhhhhshhhitttballsss…”  He stared at me.  I stared back. Then he asked if I’d ever read Ulysses by James Joyce.  “What?” I asked.  “Your mother has a copy.  Go to the library and get a guide, though.  It’s too hard on its own. You should read it.” Dad seemed serious.

Back at home, I found this:

The family copy was beaten to crap. Both my parents had studied lit in college and both, it seemed, had read this book.  I turned open the first page, read the first section, got a chill, even though I barely understood what I was reading, then decided to drop most of my classes and smoke some more cigarettes.  I also played some Frisbee.

When summer came, though, I did go after Ulysses. I actually couldn’t stop thinking about it.  Between shifts carrying crappy furniture out of dirty houses for St. Vincent DePaul’s, I read a guide book and drew lines on a Dublin map to track where characters were, and spent hours on single pages of the book.  Some days I made headway.  Others I got gummed up and completely stuck and frustrated (and passed out under trees where I read).  Then I’d hit sections that flew and made me cry laughing and I’d read all night.  What I knew in the morning: I somehow deeply loved Leo Bloom.  I loved his wife, Molly, even though she made me ache.  I loved Stephen Dedalus like he was my family.

By the end of the summer, after I finally finished, after I totally fell apart reading Molly’s Yes Soliloquy, I still had no idea what I wanted to do with myself life-wise, but I knew something: the whole world is broader and deeper than I could imagine.

I went back and finished my English degree (and did far better).  I added a Sociology degree, because I felt like the world was even bigger.  Then twenty years passed.

On my good days, I’m still challenged by this book, challenged to see deeper into enormous tragedy and beauty in tiny lives and gestures.  On my good days, when I’m not murdering myself with Facebook and email and ESPN, I think: I can do a hell of a lot better.  I want to know a hell of a lot more.

This summer, a group of grad students and I are going to read Ulysses together.  We’re going to talk about the thing as we go.  We’re going to share annotated reference materials and maps.  My hope is that this twentieth anniversary read will deepen what it did for me when I was just another smelly dude in combat boots back in the day.  I am very ready to give in to it again.


5 Responses to “Stick a carrot in me: a personal 20 year Ulysses anniversary”

  1. 1 Adam R May 3, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    So does that mean you have a soul or not?

  2. 2 Geoff Herbach May 3, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    I think that question remains to be answered, Adam.

  3. 3 mrmcclurg May 3, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    I’d love to read along with you! I’ve been rereading Joyce over the past year and am up to Ulysses, but haven’t started yet. I take it these will be face-to-face meetings, huh?

  4. 4 denis herbach May 9, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    Dear Geoff

    While hearing Chopin ´s Piano Concerto, I was reading your post on Ulysses.

    And the experience made me cry > because you write so well and you remind me of your Dad, my dear brother.

    Since I am not attending your class I won´t be able to read Ulysses with you, but I will try to do it alone, it is never too late, I guess.

    Love ya. Den

  5. 5 denis herbach May 9, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    By the way, Geoff, can you please send me a copy of what you read at Max ´s funeral ??

    Thanks, my dear nephew.

    Uncle Den

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I am…

Geoff Herbach. I am the author of Stupid Fast and Nothing Special, among a bunch of other stuff. When I'm not writing, I teach writing at Minnesota State, Mankato.

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