The Life of an Idea Man

Bill McGaughey (2009)

I believe that people are happy when they have a routine to get them through the day. This routine includes certain goals and objectives involving a certain amount of work. Paid employment brings a daily routine that gives purpose to life. Life within a family or circles of friends furnishes immediate activities to keep a person occupied. One or another person in that group is continually creating experiences that the others can share. A less satisfying life is to live by oneself and lack interesting projects. While a day of steady television viewing helps to pass the time, it lacks the element of creative challenge. Satisfaction in life depends on the self-esteem that comes from successfully meeting a challenge.

I want to discuss my own situation which might be identified as that of being an intellectual. By intellectual, I do not mean someone who thinks that he is intelligent than others. I mean someone who is interested in ideas and who may do idea-based writing. Whether it is intelligent writing is for someone else to judge. However, the interest in ideas creates a purpose in life. One gets up in the morning with a desire to produce certain expressions; it is satisfying to see how the work proceeds. In the end, if the work is successful, the artist or the writer has something to show for his effort.

I once knew a man with a peculiar mission in life. Formerly a corporate research director, he spent the last decades of his life writing religious poetry. He wrote poems by working in the discipline of Gematria, an ancient technique that equates numbers with letters of the alphabet. The number “666”, which is associated with the beast in the book of Revelation, is its best-known application. In this case, the poetic verses written in English had to add up to a certain numerical count or this man would not use them. The particular number was 869, corresponding to the verse in Revelation which reads: “He that hath understanding.”

When I visited this man’s home, I would find him adding up numbers on pads of yellow paper. He did the additions by hand. It was a pain-staking process to see if the numerical count would fit a verse that he had in mind. Day after day, year after year, he did his additions and produced the mathematically correct verses. I might have supposed this to be an overly restrictive way to write poetry but the result was amazing. The verses had an intense, mystical quality that is hard to describe. After the man died, he left behind a pile of poetic gems.

I picture this mode of living as resembling that of a shellfish which is converting life into a colorful permanent structure. It is an emblem of the intellectual’s life. This particular man lived happily and healthfully into his mid 90s. (Learn more about this man and his verse by visiting worldhistorysite.com/fgokie.html.)

So it is possible to be both happy and intellectually inclined. The main drawback is that it tends to be a solitary life. Except for artists (and writers) who have become famous, few others than the artist himself may be interested in those ideas. It becomes difficult to share one’s important thoughts with anyone else. Also, in concentrating on a highly personal set of concerns, the self-engaged artist or writer forfeits the time to have other experiences. For instance, he knows nothing about the players on professional sports teams and is unfamiliar with current movies. Consequently, he has nothing to talk about with other people. They are not interested in hearing what drives his inner life, and he lacks the knowledge to contribute intelligently to their discussion. He just sits there listening to other people talk. Sooner or later, a psychologist may come along and declare him mentally ill.

This is part of my problem. I have been chasing my own thoughts for so many years that I find myself out in a wilderness far removed from others. (However, my dog and I do understand each other.) Yes, I could make a studied effort to cultivate an interest in contemporary activities, but I am a bit too old for that and too much into my own world. As a compromise, I engage in unpromising activities such as running for high political office. There, at least, the election provides feedback of some sort . Yet, I am essentially happy. Day and night, I am continually mulling over thoughts that fit into my current projects. From these come various writings; and many are posted here on the Internet.

Let me describe how I got into this situation. Back when I was a boy, I was socially much better adjusted. This was the time when I was 7, 8, 9, or 10 years of age. My brothers and I used to play with the neighborhood kids. We would fight each other in wrestling matches or play children’s games in the back yard or in the alley. We walked five blocks to an elementary school that had several play grounds. My passion then was playing softball. When we were not in the school yard, we would play catch in a vacant lot.

I also followed the Detroit Tigers and especially admired pitcher Art Houteman’s high kick preceding his fast-ball delivery. George Kell, “Hoot” Evers, Vic Wertz - I knew which player played what position in the Tigers’ lineup during the 1950 season. I also had books with the pictures of famous players from the past: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, and Bob Feller. My younger brother, Andy, was my best friend then.

My parents thought I was wasting my time in a public school so they sent me to a private school in Grosse Pointe. It was a good school and I worked hard at my tasks. Unlike public school, there was much intellectually challenging homework in the 5th grade. I conscientiously completed all my assignments. At the same time, I lost contact with my previous companions and would not have had much time to spend with them in any event.

My life now revolved around paying attention in class and doing course assignments at home. With some practice, I developed a knack for getting good grades. I finished first in my class academically in 6th grade, 7th grade, and 8th grade, and tied for first in the 9th. My identity was now set as a good student. I was smart and I worked hard. It was a kind of success that my parents and teachers could appreciate, if not my fellow class mates.

The success continued, with somewhat less intensity, into my 10th, 11th, and 12th grades. My academic record was such that I was admitted to Yale. In that environment, I was no longer an outstanding student but merely average. Moreover, I was becoming dissatisfied with being on a treadmill to maintain my academic standing. It seemed pointless to dedicate my life to achieving good grades.

Once, when a teacher by mistake gave me a lower grade on a test than I deserved, I deliberately neglected to point this out and have the grade corrected. If I did not care about grades, the mistake would not matter. Psychologically, I may have turned the corner then. I would not be a grade-grubbing book worm but something more.

What was coming along then was an interest in philosophy. This interest might have started in a high-school English class. The teacher, Carl Wonnberger, was an old-style academic who rambled on in class with his theories of culture and life. I soaked up his mode of thinking. In this English class, I wrote and presented a paper on the nature of humor. What, precisely, made a joke funny? The ancient Greek philosophers might have appreciated the direction that my studies had assumed.

During freshman year in college, I took an introductory course in philosophy taught by Robert Brumbaugh, a specialist in Plato. He was a sympathetic and thoughtful man who gave my interest in philosophy a further push. To read Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, and other great thinkers was to be drawn ever more deeply into an interest in ideas. I decided to major in philosophy. Senior year, I switched to English literature because the prospective courses seemed more interesting. But philosophy was my chief love. Having renounced the life of an academic superachiever, I was preparing myself to be a philosopher.

I must back up my 10th grade in high school. It was then that I began to compile a series of spontaneous writings that I called my “idea notes” or “source notes”. They were the germ of whatever original thinking I was developing at the time. Whenever I had a “good idea”, I would write this down and add it to my series of notes. I numbered the notes that were collected in a series. Sometimes these notes followed in the line of thinking begun by a previous writing. Sometimes they started a new topic. Roughly speaking, the notes were outlines for projects that I might pursue at a later time. One project might be to write a paper developing certain philosophical ideas. Another might be a scheme to make money.

I still have copies of all my idea notes going back to the beginning. The first idea, conceived by my Tenth Grade mind, was that someone might arrange mirrors to collect and concentrate the sun’s rays to burn wood. The second idea was for a perpetual-motion machine. An inner tube or machined circular object might be placed next to a box full of water, running through a hole in the side. The water in the box would lift the tube causing it to rotate and this would go on forever. A physics professor later explained why my proposed machine would not work.

As my studies continued, the idea notes increasingly reflected themes in my study; or they would involve the process of studying or another aspect of the intellectual life. For instance, I was aware that to be a good student required concentration. Somehow one’s mind had to be focused entirely on the task at hand. But how did one learn to concentrate? That question led to the idea of self-consciousness which was a distraction from concentrated thoughts. Good concentration meant killing self-consciousness. But self-consciousness helped to explain the complexity of human societies, so one had to understand this type of thinking to understand how the world worked.

I became interested in the Greek ideas of material and form. These were eternal, static ideas describing aspects of being. Form, which is another word for ideas, was a type of being of which the mind was aware. It was a mental construction whose nature was often discussed in Plato’s dialogues. Material was form’s incorporation in the world. This pair of concepts also described the difference between quality and quantity. While the Greeks had written much about this subject, some work remained to be done. I was gathering ideas about form and material that might go into a paper some day and establish my reputation as a philosopher.

My chief contribution would be to develop ideas related to mind’s concentration while it was engaged in an excellent performance such as winning a sports competition at the Olympics. Here ideals were wedded to a particular mind rather than being detached entities like form. This philosophy was dynamic rather than static because the ideal involved a series of motions extending in time. For instance, the beauty of music, unlike sculpture, is incorporated in an arrangement of sounds that take time to hear. I called this “rhythm”. Self-consciousness was both an enemy of rhythm and a mechanism for responding to an existing idea and creating something new. The philosopher Hegel had pioneered that line of thought.

These were some of the elements in my bag of ideas which some day might be turned into philosophical writings. The essential insights were captured in the notes. All it would take, I imagined, would be to piece the notes together, expressing the insights in the pristine form found in the idea notes. Therefore, in an era preceding the use of word processors, I attempted to arrange the ideas in a sequence that would make it easy to produce a polished piece of writing. I sat at a card table with numbered scraps of paper attempting to organize my materials and begin the writing itself. All this got me was a severe case of writer’s block. I needed to loosen up and somehow get myself into a more productive frame of mind.

Not long after graduating from Yale and moving to Minnesota, I did become a full-time writer of philosophy but, as I said, with less than satisfying results. I did finish some papers on several topics but not the main work on rhythm and self-consciousness. One of those papers, titled “On goals in life”, can be read elsewhere.

The idea notes continued. Not only did I number the separate notes but each series of idea notes had its own lettered designation. Series A notes covered the period from the 10th grade in high school to August 1960, after my first year of college. Series B, C, D, E, and F were a hodgepodge of ideas written down in 1960 and 1961. Series G included notes from 1962 while I was living in West Germany. Series H and I also pertain to this period. Series J included idea notes written during my junior year at Yale after I had returned from Germany. Series S, produced in 1963 and 1964, included ideas had during my senior year in college. Series R, which came later, represented the period of time when I was an accounting student at the Rutgers School of Business and when I worked at the Department of Public Welfare in St. Paul, Minnesota.

As my ideas crystallized around certain themes, I stopped assigning letters to each series of notes and just kept an open log. I would write new ideas on scraps of paper and then type them on sheets behind the previous writing. Each note would receive a number as it appeared in that sequence. At an arbitrary point, I might start a new series of ideas notes. One was titled “The Universal Culture” because I thought I might write a book on that subject. Another set of notes focused upon the theme that money was fiction.

In the 1990s I began compiling notes under the heading, “Rhythm and Self-Consciousness”. This was my most productive lode of ideas. From those notes came not only a book by that name, “Rhythm and Self-Consciousness”, published in 2001, but an earlier work that presented a particular view of world history, “Five Epochs of Civilization”, which has been my chief introduction in the academic world. In any event, with the dawn of a new millennium, I had fulfilled my ambition conceived forty years ago as a college student. Today I keep a file on my personal computer which is titled simply “idea notes”. All new ideas go into that file.

After graduating from Yale and briefly attending business school in New Jersey, I moved to Minnesota to pursue an accounting career. The compilation of idea notes were now a firm part of my life. I quit a job in state government to work full time on writing, failed at that, invented and marketed a board game, and finally returned to school to gain enough additional credits to sit for the CPA exam. Afterwards, I got married and held several accounting jobs.

I continued to write on weekends while employed in accounting positions. This arrangement worked better than when I was writing full time. There was less pressure to produce. I was continually refreshing myself with unrelated concerns in the course of my work. During the late 1970s, I wrote a book on the shorter workweek that I published myself. I coauthored another book on this subject with Senator Eugene McCarthy. There was another book that was a collection of writings and a book on NAFTA and trade-related issues. Those books were easier to write than philosophy. I was not trying to piece materials together that I considered perfect.

In 1996, I was laid off. I bought two rental properties in Minneapolis to support myself while continuing to write. Five Epochs of Civilization was finished in 1999. This and three other books appeared on the market in the subsequent decade. Because these were unprofitable, I have not since published any books but instead created a number of web sites. I make no money from this but am happy to get the message out. I have also been a candidate in five separate political campaigns. Writing, managing the rental properties, and being co-director of a landlord advocacy group are my main occupations today. Since 2000, I have been married to my third wife, Lian. We split our time between Minnesota and China in differing proportions of time.

So you can see, my life has been different than most people’s lives. I never achieved much success in paid employment. I never raised children for more than a short time. I have had modest success as a rental-property owner. Mainly, I have been working on projects of my own design. The idea for those projects goes first into the idea notes. Then I collect the relevant note for review. Finally I work on the projects themselves - a new book that I want to write, or a new political campaign, a new web site, or whatever. An inner flow of thoughts leads me to the next project. I am never bored or at a loss what to do next. I am always thinking of something.

I must admit that this creative activity is undertaken without external discipline. I am a self-published author who usually loses money on published works, a candidate who runs for office without party endorsement or electoral success, and a publisher of inexpensive websites. This lifestyle has its limitations but I am happy nonetheless. The demands of marriage and of running a rental-property business have kept me from floating completely away into my own world.

Still, it is hard to find people who share my interests. After so many years, I find myself in shrunken company. Besides my immediate family, my closest companions today are a man, Alan Morrison, who helps run my business and the Minneapolis landlords who have shared political experiences with me.

I have long thought of myself as a writer - a writer of ideas. I was never a writer for the sake of exhibiting artistic talent. At first, I was going to be a philosopher. Then I wrote books on economic subjects. Then came a book on world history. And then, in 2001, I was finally able to finish that book on “Rhythm and Self-Consciousness” that I tried to write in the 1960s. Now I can produce book-length manuscripts in a matter of weeks. The latest books or manuscripts, which lack commercial appeal, have recounted my experiences in running for public office. (You can read some of them in another section of this web site.)

Those campaigns were meant to advance certain ideas, but they became experiences in themselves. I was slowly becoming less an idea man and more a teller of personal stories. Today, I like stories more than ideas because they include the element of worldly reaction. They tell how people responded to the ideas. Ideas, if worthwhile, are meant to be realized. Form and material go together.

The end of this process will be a continuing set of idea notes and more work on “projects” - unless, of course, my economic world collapses and I am thrown into the poor house. In five weeks, I will be 69 years of age. I begin to look on my life as a collection of stories, and I want to write some of them down. This web site, BillMcGaughey.com, will house those personal stories.

My dreams of worldly success long dashed, I will be content to gather stories from the past. I will become, like that gentleman mentioned earlier, a person who is turning his life into a collection of words. Instead of poetry, it will be personal stories that are left behind. They will embody a memory of my times and of who I was then.

Notes:

When I was a college student, I was concerned about forgetting information learned in the class or in reading assignments which might be required on tests. I did not have a “photographic memory”. My idea notes began to reflect the theme of forgetting or in backsliding with respect to knowledge. I had the idea that I might retain the wisdom expressed in the world’s great poetry by memorizing its lines. So, after dropping out of Yale in January 1961 and returning to my parents’ home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, I spent much of my time memorizing poems with the help of a tape recorder. Shortly before moving to Minnesota, I memorized large portions of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” This “knowledge” did not stay permanently fixed; I have today forgotten most of it.

My move to Minnesota was meant to start life over again away from parental and educational influences. I wanted to “make it” on my own. About this time, my brother Andy, with whom I had been close as a boy, became a mental-health patient following drug use in college and shortly afterwards. He was at Menninger’s clinic in Topeka, Kansas, for about a year and then lived in New York City, Connecticut, Sweden, Denmark, Israel, and other places, on his own, in the 1960s. He later lived in Washington, D.C. after my parents moved there.

I reconnected with Andy when I came to visit me in Minnesota in June 1993. He became ill with an appendix attack and spent time in the hospital, nursing facilities, and half-way houses in Minnesota, over the next several years before getting married and then moving into a room next to mine in my fourplex in Minneapolis. On the morning of July 24, 1999, during a heat wave, I discovered Andy’s body on the floor. His death may have been caused by an inability to tolerate heat due to the drugs prescribed for schizophrenia. A large part of my early family memories went with him. It has been ten years now.   

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