Writing Sideways for Carl

Last week, I thought about Carl Dauber. Writing gurus often suggest to budding writers to think about one person as their reader. This helps the writer to focus and think about writing as a means of communicating. It’s good advice I tend to give more than follow. Whenever I try to write something humorous, I should think about Carl as my audience, even though he is no longer with us.

Carl often asked me to be his reader. He looked at the world differently than most people–sideways–I call it. Carl took ordinary things, looked at them from a different angle, and surprised everyone with something new. He loved sharing his discoveries. When he revealed a creation (a drawing, an essay, a game, a photograph) I generally did not understand what he was talking about. It took a moment for me to figure out how he had framed the world. Once I did, I got the joke, and we’d both laugh. It was like two children sharing a secret that provided some new insight into how the world really worked. He also loved the work of Hieronymus Bosch. It’s art work that most would simply dismiss quickly as the work of someone deranged, but Carl studied it, and shared his insights into its dark view of religion. He brought out his oversized art book quite a few times, exhibiting sheer pleasure at the weird way Bosch looked at pain.

We taught at the same college when I began teaching. In many ways, Carl and I were opposites. I was a philosophy major; he was a business major. He was a fan of Nixon. Yes, Richard Nixon. I’m sure there were other Nixon fans in the 1980s, but I didn’t know any. He was also deeply religious. We lived in the North where Baptists aren’t as common as they are in the South. He was married and I was single. We “argued” all the time, since he tended to take conservative positions, while I was the liberal. Our disagreements were never personal. He’d laugh if things got too serious and find something funny to say about both our views. He was always open to differences of opinion, and he admitted that he could be wrong.

Carl was constantly trying out the newest technology. He searched for things that amused him: books, games, software, art, TV shows, etc. He took pleasure in seeing how things worked and inventing something unique from what others took for granted. He also liked reinventing old things. When I was the evening supervisor at the college, I once entered his classroom when he was cleaning up after class. I noticed he had a paper taped to each of the writing surfaces on the desks. I asked him what he was doing. He laughed, of course. Carl had given students a test. Rather than giving each student a copy of the same twenty questions, he had taped a paper with one question on it per desk. The students had to move around the room, from chair to chair, writing down their answers, one question at a time. Why? Just playing with convention. Trying to make something boring, interesting. Looking at things differently (sideways). Questioning everything, in a way. The students loved him. He never took himself or other things too seriously.

There were times when Carl was sad. Carl cried when his dog died. He wore sunglasses to work to try to cover up the fact that he had been crying. Or, maybe it was a fear he may start crying again. I don’t think crying fit well into the views he was raised with that dictated how a man should act. His life often involved reconciling his past beliefs with the present. For example, he attended Bob Jones University and met his future wife there. She was of a different race. This mingling of the races was not permitted by Bob, so they quit. Carl wasn’t good at hiding things. We talked when things bothered him. His problems never seemed to be difficult to me because I did not have many preconceptions about families, politics, religion, or race. Carl was trying to figure it all out. My problem was that I often thought I had the answers, when I didn’t. I guess we complimented each other in many ways.

I haven’t met anyone over the past thirty years who was as creative. Carl was a nice guy. A simple man, who found joy in examining ideas and finding humor in the ordinary. He died from cancer a few years ago, but I’ll never forget him. He’s still a friend, and if I come up with a funny idea, I’ll write something for him. Hopefully, I’ll be able to see things sideways.

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