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In Search of My Own Identity

Looking back on my life from retirement age, I hold the dim memories of childhood most precious. Barely remembered times with my parents, brothers, and sister were when my personal identity began to form. They were years when I played in the backyard and alley with neighborhood friends. We dug tunnels in the ground, played games with twirling knives and metal cans stacked upon each other, threw softballs, wrestled in the grass, waded in pools, rode bicycles, and raced down the street; and, yes, a neighbor girl pulled down her pants to show me what she had. Each day brought some unexpected pleasure.

And then, thinking that I was wasting my time, my parents sent me to a private school. I was slow to get started but adapted to the discipline of study and became a good student. All my boyhood energies came together to complete the homework and prepare for tests. My elementary-school grades were impressive. I had a new identity of being academically better than other students. I had something to protect. This mode of existence continued through my high-school years. I was admitted to a prestigious college, obviously destined for career success.

Second thoughts about success

But it didn’t happen. Somewhere around junior year, I began to have doubts about myself. I began to doubt where I was living an authentic life. I was just another young man on the fast track to success who, really, knew little about life because I had spent most of my years studying what someone else had arranged. My life experience was unauthentic. I was good at taking tests but ignorant of most else.

A rational solution presented itself: Since there was then a requirement that all American young men submit to some type of military program, I had the bright idea to drop out of college, go into the army, experience life at a basic level, complete my military requirement, and then return to college to finish the last year and a half with a more adult perspective. I did arrange a leave of absence from college and appeared at the army recruitment center. Unexpectedly, the army rejected me. One recruiter said it was my eyesight; another, psychological tests. My own hunch is that the army recruiters thought I was crazy to drop out of a prestigious college to join their organization. I must have a few loose screws somewhere.

Anyhow, I was no longer enrolled in college. I went home to live with my parents in suburban Detroit. What was I to do? I had been a student for most of my life but was light on work experience. So I did two things which were a continuation of life in school. I wrote down my ideas - mostly philosophical ideas - on scraps of paper. I tried to put the ideas together in a coherent written sequence, expecting to create a great philosophical work of some kind. I also played with symbolic expression, making a bid for literary fame.

One of my main activities during this time was to memorize poetry. I would listen to self-made tape recordings of outstanding verse that I had encountered in my college courses and, by repetition, would commit them to memory. The idea was that, in thus capturing the words indelibly in my mind, I would always have their wisdom at my disposal. Sadly, most of these words have faded away in the course of forty or fifty years. The wisdom never seeped into my consciousness. The strenuous efforts to memorize verse did not seem to improve my memory.

At the end of the summer, my parents decided to push me out of the nest. We all agreed that I should go live in Germany. I had studied German for two years in college which ought to be enough preparation for moving to a strange land and understanding the natives. The poetry memorization stopped though I continued to write down notes based on my ideas. And so, even though the scenery was more interesting, my life continued in a dreamlike state. I lived in Munich, and then in a Bavarian town, and finally in Berlin, interrupted by shorter visits to Greece and to France.

About nine months after arriving in Germany, I was holed up in a small room in the Bavarian town (Landshut) to work on a writing project for a month. This writing was not about my experiences in Germany, which had been remarkably passive, but about politics in the United States. But I somehow found my writing style. Obscure language in the manner of Yeats or James Joyce gave way to attempts at clarity. I thought I had taught myself how to write, even if the writing was about my own ideas and not life experiences.

In the real world, President Kennedy was negotiating the Cuban missile crisis. He put pressure on the Russians. Many thought Khrushchev would put pressure on Berlin where I then lived. So it was high political drama. However, I was still living in my own world.

I once crossed over into East Berlin to return some belongings of a young man who had tried to flee before the wall was built but then had cold feet. The security people interrogated me at the subway check point, threatening to arrest me and drag my name through the newspapers if their investigation turned up evidence of wrongdoing. They asked me to return for questioning on the following week. I willingly did, and spent an hour one afternoon drinking coffee and arguing political ideologies in an empty restaurant at the Treptow park with a real-life communist. I think he was a Russian who wanted to practice his English.

Well, that’s about as exciting as life in Germany got. I was just floating along on a stream of self-generated ideas until it was time to return to college. None of those adult experiences I had expected in the army had yet happened to me. In fact, my study habits were somewhat weak. I switched majors, from philosophy to English, to take what I hoped would be more interesting courses. There were new roommates and professors. At length, I graduated.

Back on Track and then Off Again

I was back on track for career success. My father was a successful businessman, an executive with an automobile company. I would study accounting because that was the “language” of business. Former accountants like Robert McNamara had risen to high positions. So I enrolled in an MBA program with a focus on accounting. My classmates were bright. There were opportunities to meet with professionals in the field.

But once again, doubts intervened. When a representative of a public accounting firm talked about how someone could join the firm and after so many years become a manager and then, in ten years, a partner, I again panicked at the thought of riding up this escalator of career advancement where success was almost guaranteed. Then my life would be over and I hadn’t really lived.

No, I wanted to experience the “real world”. I decided to drop out of the MBA program mid stream and move to Minneapolis, a city which I had never visited before but which was the headquarters of several large companies with growth potential. I would get an entry-level accounting job at one of them and, of course, eventually be promoted to a managerial position. I would come at my career success the old-fashioned way.

Reality set in when none of the companies on my list offered me a job. One of the interviewers asked me out of the blue who was my psychiatrist. After a month or so, I landed an accounting job with the state. I took it because this job offered an opportunity to work with computers. Actually, it was with computer printouts and calculating machines.

I liked working for the state, especially the coffee breaks that gave me a chance to become acquainted with my fellow employees. Minnesota was a new place for me and there was much to learn. But the work was purely mechanical. The routine seldom varied. After a year, I quit this job to become a full-time writer. It amazes me now that I found the money to support myself.

Day after day, I sat in an apartment room piecing scraps of paper together that contained my precious ideas. I would write something and then cross it out, straining for the best words. But, unlike the work in Germany, the language did not flow. I learned that I could not force excellent expression. Either I was hot or I was not. Usually it was the latter.

For several years, life went on this way. I devoted myself to writing projects. I invented and produced a board game. I read library books. Then one day I attended an event at the University of Minnesota put on by the accounting department. I decided I had better take some more courses and try to get back into the system.

This was a good move. I took and passed enough accounting courses to be eligible to take the CPA exam. My test-taking abilities were still strong enough that I passed this exam on the first try, due to a clutch performance on the second and third days. A CPA firm took me on as an intern in the review section, hoping to take advantage of my writing skills.

That job did not work out. My “people skills” were rusty after the years spent by myself in a room with paper and pen. I had never actually used a ten-key adding machine before. My knowledge of accounting principles and technique must have been committed to short-term memory. So I was terminated after five months. Another job lasted several weeks. Then it was back to writing. But I did meet a nice woman and got married. She eased me back into the job market after a year.

Finally an Accounting Career and Another One

So, at the age of 33, I began in earnest my accounting career in the cost-accounting section of the St. Paul division of a large crane manufacturer. This job had some stability and greater challenge than previous ones. I was working more with computers. I stayed in the cost-accounting section for several years and was then transferred to the general-accounting section to become assistant supervisor. But then, in 1979, I was let go, both for my own sake, the supervisor said, and for the company’s.

I did get into an accounting frame of mind, however, and one of its results was to instill an interest in studying labor statistics. I had long been in the idea that shorter work hours could help solve the unemployment problem. With my new-found interest in numeral tabulations, I pored over tables of work hours, employment, productivity, and output that were found in Monthly Labor Review and other publications. I even typed a set of my own tables based on these. Later, I wrote a book on the economics of shorter work time, produced a clean typewritten copy, and published it myself.

By chance, I met a U.S. Congressman who was sponsoring shorter-workweek legislation and his legislative assistant at a conference in St. Paul. His bill received a hearing before a House committee in October 1979. This was right after my job ended so my wife and I drove to Washington to attend the hearing. My short written pieces on work hours were well-received - the Congressman put several of them in the Congressional Record. With my mathematical orientation, I supplied a certain expertise that was lacking in other reduced-hours proponents. The culminating event was that the New York Times published one of my papers as an Op-Ed piece.

And so, for a time, I had two careers. One was in accounting; the other, which was unpaid, involved writing about and promoting shorter-workweek legislation. My accounting career reached its apex when a head hunter put me into a position as office manager and controller of a small paper-manufacturing firm in northwestern Wisconsin. For the first time, I had a sense of being in charge of something. But the job ended six months later when sales suddenly dried up. I myself had produced the breakeven chart which showed that the firm needed to reduce its administrative overhead.

It did not take long for me to find the next job as cost accountant for the public-transportation commission in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Here I had a moderately professional position but no supervisory responsibilities. But my marriage was meanwhile going sour, precipitated by my bouts of unemployment. A revolution in gender politics was then in full swing, working to my disadvantage. It took four and a half years for me to overcome the adverse rulings of a biased and arrogant judge through a successful appeal to the Minnesota Court of Appeal and the threat of another one. The divorce settlement came by mutual consent at the end of 1985.

This experience had really been like a third career, in addition to accounting and writing on labor subjects. It left me with a dislike of all things politically correct. I began to notice some of those tendencies at the transit agency, developed an attitude and a reputation, and gradually put myself into a downward spiral. When someone invited me to participate in a union drive at the agency, I accepted and became one of its leaders. The drive did eventually succeed to some extent, but I myself was gone by that time.

In hindsight, I could have played my cards better. Despite friction with my immediate supervisors, I was fairly well respected at the agency and had some interesting tasks. One of my colleagues, who now heads the agency, picked me to be part of a cross-disciplinary task force that would recommend long-term transit improvements. But I went off in another direction when, after hearing a lecture on a concept called “smart jitneys”, I began to promote its development on my own. I was starting to get negative performance reviews and warning letters. Finally, the head of my department informed me that I would be one of several persons whose position would be eliminated as a result of the agency’s consolidation with another. My last day on the job was in May 1996.

Congressional interest in enacting shorter-workweek legislation had ended in the mid 1980s. This was the era of Ronald Reagan who, despite having been a former union president, did not favor such ideas. But I did have the good fortune to meet former U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy when he came back to Minnesota to campaign for U.S. Senate in the DFL (Democratic) primary in 1982. I organized a successful campaign event for him. While Senator McCarthy lost the primary, I remained in touch with him for a number of years. Out of this came collaboration on a book, Nonfinancial Economics: the Case for Shorter Hours of Work, which Praeger published in 1989.

Note from Eugene McCarthy: "The world is catching up with us."

Falling in with the anti-NAFTA Crowd

My abortive attempt to organize my coworkers at the transit agency had put me in touch with Tom Laney, the former president of U.A.W. Local 879 at the Ford plant in St. Paul. In late 1990, Laney invited me to a party at his home where he introduced me to a colleague from Mexico who had recently returned from a trip to Mexico City to meet with Mexican labor activists at a Ford plant where violence had taken place. I had unwittingly stumbled upon a significant political issue. It was the beginning of labor opposition to NAFTA; and this St. Paul union local was among the first to get organized.

I attended a conference in January 1991 devoted to the topic of trade between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Labor people from the latter two countries made presentations. I participated in a trip to Chicago to testify before the International Trade Commission; and to Detroit, to attend the Labor Notes conference. In June, I flew down to Mexico City to be one of two U.S. observers of a union election at the violence-ridden For plant. Tom Laney’s close friend, Paul Wellstone, then a U.S. Senator, asked me to write a report.

We were meanwhile having regular meetings in St. Paul from which came an organization called the Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition. I was an early program chair. We put on our own conference at Hamline University in the form of a debate between prominent supporters and opponents of the proposed trade agreement with Mexico and Canada. We crashed a Christmas party at the Governor’s mansion. That single year, 1991, was a time of intense focus upon the prospective NAFTA agreement.

My most important contribution to the cause was to write and publish a book titled A U.S.-Canada-Mexico Trade Agreement: Do We Just Say No? This was my personal best-seller. It was, in fact, one of the first anti-NAFTA books on the market. I slipped a copy into the hands of presidential candidate Bill Clinton at a rally in Minneapolis. The book combined trade criticisms made by the Canadians and others with my own ideas of how the world economy might be improved through shorter work hours.

So my “one big idea” was internationalized. However, the fight to save the world from NAFTA was eventually taken over by others better connected with labor and other organizations. President Clinton, evidently unconvinced by arguments in my book, did the necessary arm-twisting to gain fast-track authority for the North American trade agreement. We had a chance but it slipped away from us.

I Become a Landlord

About this time, my life was moving in another direction. I had moved to an apartment in Minneapolis after a fire ruined the house in St. Paul where I had lived since the judge ordered me out of the house in which I had lived with my first wife. On a fateful day, I noticed that the house across the street was vacant and boarded. HUD owned it. I put in a low-ball bid and was the winner. Unfortunately, vandals had removed all the copper pipes.

For a year beginning in June 1992, I lived in that house with my cat while hiring others to restore the plumbing and do other work. Then, in August 1993, I bought a nine-unit apartment next door, again at a bargain price. Here the problem was not plumbing but tenants. It was the scene of drug dealing.

There was a period of a year or so when my life was filled with much stress. I was working in an accounting job that seemed about to end. I was a white landlord managing an apartment building with predominantly black tenants, some of whom were involved in drug activity. The neighborhood association was blaming me for that, threatening to enlist the powers of city government against me. I had developed a personal relationship with a woman who was using drugs and would “borrow” money for various needs. People were breaking into my home while I was at work, stealing my possessions.

My brother, who had schizophrenia, came to visit me in the summer of 1993, became seriously ill, and then recuperated in a nursing home. There a nurse accused him of sexual harassment when he tried to bum a cigarette. The county initiated proceedings to commit him to a mental institution. At the trial, someone slipped the judge a note saying that under no circumstances should he live with me because I was under criminal investigation by the Minneapolis police department for activities related to my building. The judge ruled in favor of commitment. After one unsuccessful appeal, the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned the commitment order.

This was that “baptism of fire”, that “real-life experience”, that I had been looking for all my life. Despite pressing problems, I was in charge of something. I had a real presence in the community. I married that woman with the drug problem, a black woman who happened to have seven children, five still living with her, after she went into treatment and regained sobriety. She was my helper on the urban frontier. But my parents out east were horrified at what was happening.

My mother begged me to sell my house and apartment and move to a “decent” neighborhood. She arranged for my brother to go on a tour of China with a group of prep-school alumni and asked me to accompany him. When I returned home, my wife and family had moved out of the house. She said that a psychiatrist had threatened to take her children away because of the risk that my brother would molest them if he lived in the same house. Yes, he had once used inappropriate language, but he was no child molester.

In any event, my second wife and I agreed to an amicable divorce. Eventually, my brother moved into a unit in my fourplex adjoining my unit. He married for the first time. A year and a half later, he suddenly died during an extraordinarily hot period in July 1999. My building did not have air conditioning. Because of his medications, he was unable to dissipate the heat. I found him lying face down on the floor on a Saturday morning. In retrospect, it might have been better if he had remained in the mental institution.

As a landlord, the turning point had come in February 1995. I had been married for a month. In one of my last activities as a promoter of shorter work hours, I attended the third “prepcom” for the Social Summit at United Nations headquarters in New York City. Several others, including Senator McCarthy, also attended. We put on two work shops in the basement and tried to influence wording in the conference document, to little avail.

When I returned home, I was summoned to a meeting of the neighborhood association’s landlord group. Some of my fellow landlords and the association staff person were accusing me of being lax with crime. They demanded that I relinquish management of my building and commit on the spot to appointing another manager by a certain date. I refused. Two days later, two sets of city inspectors condemned my apartment building, giving tenants two weeks to move. Police kicked in the interior doors. The owner of a neighboring apartment building called me to offer to buy my building for $50,000 in cash. A month later, the neighborhood association sponsored a mass meeting, attended by our City Council representative, at which I was denounced.

Because my credit was good, I was able to complete the tens of thousands of dollars of work required by the city inspectors to reopen the building. As fate would have it, I wrote up my experiences in an opinion article for the newspaper. A landlord from south Minneapolis called me to tell me about a group of rental-property owners who were suing the city of Minneapolis for inspections abuse. I met some of the members a week later and joined the group. So began the next chapter in my life - yet another “career”.

A Political Phase

I became a landlord activist with a group which incorporated under the name of “Minneapolis Property Owners Action Committee”, later changed to “Property Rights”. Its class-action lawsuit was soon thrown out of court. But the group of landlords continued to meet every other week for a “gripe session”. I showed them how to do a direct-mail campaign. Someone began to videotape the meetings. The videotapes were played on the public-access channel of cable television, and, later, the regional channel. A member published a free-circulation newspaper that was distributed each month in Minneapolis. The group staged protest events at City Hall, or in front of a police station, or in front of a building that the city planned to demolish.

These fighting landlords became like a second family to me. This was my first taste of effective political action at any level. We had failed to stop NAFTA. But the landlords did put the fear of God in the hearts of Minneapolis elected officials. The mayor agreed to come on our show. She made promises that were not kept. The current mayor, then a challenger, came on the show three times. So did others challenging the incumbent City Council member. In the general election, both the mayor and the City Council president (my own representative) were defeated. There were seven new faces on the Council. We had played a significant role in producing this turnover.

The landlord group’s leader briefly ran for mayor. When he dropped out, I became a candidate. I finished twelfth of twenty-two candidates in the primary held on September 11, 2001. The group then continued under the leadership of a female landlord with an alluring presence on television. But we gradually lost our focus. Our guests became big-name politicians rather than ordinary people hurt by city government. Lacking funds to continue the television production, the group effectively disbanded at the end of 2005. I am currently involved in attempts to revive it.

The political events of 2001 had kindled an interest in electoral politics. Rather impulsively, I entered the Independence Party primary for U.S. Senate in 2002, running against the party-endorsed candidate and the state party’s current chair. I received 8,400 votes (or 31% of the total) after a month-long campaign, good for second place. Then, in 2004, I ran for President as a Democrat. The state of Louisiana allowed my name to be placed on the ballot. In that contest, I finished fifth among seven candidates, with 3,100 votes or 2% of the total, after a five-week campaign. I published books about my experiences in both the Senate and Presidential races.

Note from Garrison Keillor: "To William McGaughey who would make a better Senator than the guy who got elected"

So, Who am I? A Husband? A Writer? A Slumlord Warrior?

Including those two, I have published four books since 2000. The others were a book that presented a theory of world history, titled Five Epochs of Civilization, and a book of philosophy, titled Rhythm and Self-Consciousness. Intellectually, they were my most valuable works. Rhythm and Self-Consciousness, completed in 2001, was the book that I had tried to write in the 1960s but was unable to complete satisfactorily. So it was with a real sense of accomplishment that I completed and published that book. But I would stake my claim to fame on Five Epochs of Civilization.

I should also mention that in January 2000 I was married for the third time to a Chinese woman, six months after my brother’s death. Someone has pointed out that I have the perverse distinction of having married persons from each of the world’s three principal racial groups. In the case of my current wife, I married a woman of some accomplishment in her own country. She had been general manager of two hotels and was a high-level corporate manager when I married her. But she preferred family to career and so married me. As a result, I also have a step-daughter who has recently graduated from college.

Late in life, then, I am blessed with two beautiful and intelligent women in my family at a time when the majority of my birth family, including another brother and both parents, have died. But, for various reasons and despite the desire, I have never fathered children of my own. I have never lived in a family with young children for any extended period of time. I have never been a primary caregiver as a parent.

This becomes significant in light of the quest for self-identity. After those early years of childhood bliss, parental concern or ambition sent me into a programmed life through my school years which might have continued had I not dropped out of college but instead gone into a managerial or professional career with some organization. But I rebelled against that scenario thinking that I might become successful in another way.

I had a romantic view of life outside the escalator that runs upward from education to a career. Ignorantly, I thought that I could reach the top “the old-fashioned way”. But the accounting field does not work that way, at least not in my case. Instead of becoming a successful businessman, I followed a career path that included few promotions and many “layoffs”. While employed as an accountant, I mainly followed other people’s directions. I was shielded from the essential decisionmaking process. “Real life” was not happening as I had hoped.

If I had had the experience and responsibility of being a parent for an extended time, I might have been forced to make better career decisions. I might have been forced to make many decisions about the child. My own life experience would, to some extent, have followed the natural wants and needs that children have. And this would have given me a sense of authenticity. I was raised in a comfortable environment and never had to worry much about money. I had the luxury of reflecting upon what I wanted to do. Only in such a self-absorbed environment could someone ponder such questions as those related to personal identity.

It was the time spent in school that set me upon this course. I had to live up to the reputation for intelligence that came with receiving good grades. I had to be an intellectual, or a person interested in ideas. I had to become a writer to put those ideas into a form that others could know and appreciate. Therefore, my most basic accomplishment in life has been to learn how to write. I no longer have the writer’s block that plagued me in the 1960s. With the pressure off, I wrote on weekends. I was naturally able to complete longer works, starting with the shorter-workweek book published in 1981.

So I have self-identity as a writer. I think I know how to write. But this matters little since I am a self-published author rather than someone who has submitted his works to the discipline of the marketplace. Only where I had a coauthor who had had a major impact on U.S. politics as a candidate for President in 1968 was I able to interest a regular commercial publisher in any book-length manuscript. To tell the truth, I seldom tried.

Therefore, all of my self-published books are of dubious merit in most people’s minds. Anyone can find a printer to produce books that are utter trash if he is willing to pay the money. Then he can make up the name of a fictitious publisher to stick on the back cover to make it seem that his works were commercially accepted. That’s what I did. But I did it on the gamble that some people would buy and read these books and would find them interesting. Then there would be a market for my writings and I could recover some of the cost of publishing them.

My early books were commercially more successful than the ones published during the last six years. They were better researched and filled a niche among readers of a certain political view. Also, I was publishing those books when self-published works were still a novelty. I had less competition. But now the field is crowded. Few U.S. newspapers will review self-published works.

I think that cut-throat middlemen may have taken charge of book publicity. The academic market is shaped by the need to teach to the test. My world-history book and Rhythm and Self-Consciousness are intellectually my best works. The two books on my political campaigns tell stories that should interest people. However, they have not done well commercially. Lacking access to publicity and distribution, I have lately shelved self-published books to get my message out on the Internet.

Being a writer, especially a self-published one, does not command much respect. Two conversations stick in my mind. When I was once applying for an accounting job, my prospective employer sent me to a psychologist to do an evaluation of my career interests. I discussed my writing background with this person. He commented that he could tell that I was not a great writer, or was not truly dedicated to writing, because the great writer, like the great artist, will not let anything stop him in pursuing his creative dream. I, on the contrary, was about ready to give up writing to take an accounting job. I did not tell him how much I needed the money.

The second conversation was with an attractive young woman whom I met through a personals ad. Sitting across from one another at a restaurant, she asked me to tell her something about myself. I proceeded to tell her how I had held several accounting positions and had written several books. She looked at me after I had mentioned the writing and after a moment remarked: “In fifteen years, you’ll be a retired accountant.” Actually, she overestimated the length of time that my accounting career would continue.

Yet, regardless of commercial acceptance or lack thereof, I do consider myself to be a writer. I have stuck with this interest throughout my life and still feelthat I am making progress in life if I can complete a certain writing project. This inner satisfaction gives me a sense of authentic identity. I never had a position in a business company, government agency, or professional firm that was high enough up within the organization to allow me to make my own decisions and so prove my abilities in this way.

Paradoxically, it was only after descending into the hellish world of an inner-city landlord who was reviled by his neighbors and city officials that, objectively, I was able to accomplish something. I bought buildings at a low price when no one else wanted to buy and managed to hang on to them. Therefore, my net worth is greater today than it would have been had I remained an employee in good standing with the transit agency and not bought those troublesome buildings. The price of real estate has soared in the past six years. By the same token, however, considering that the real-estate market has lately softened, it remains to be seen whether that path was financially advantageous in the long term.

Beyond a doubt, those years with the landlord organization were personally rewarding. We were despised as whining and selfish business people. We were the low life of the business community, taking on the social coloration of our impoverished tenants. No one ever gave us credit for accomplishing anything for ourselves or for the community. But we also knew that we had kicked the butts of some corrupt people down at city hall.

We have the results of a city election that swept our enemies from Minneapolis city government while leaving our friends unscathed. We had some exciting moments like the time when we brought our picket signs to a meeting of the City Council and shut it down. We have friendships born of those shared experiences. So for someone interested in politics, it was all a revelation. The opportunity thus to connect with reality was a reward in itself. This was a time to exercise courage and ingenuity in the course of doing what we needed to do.

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