Getting Better With Age

a beloved teacher’s poems mark a midlife milestone

Eric Rasmussen, photos by Andrea Paulseth

TUNNEL VISION. Local poet and teacher Andrew Patrie is unleashing a new book of poetry – Half-Life – on March 19 at The Plus in Eau Claire. In part, the book draws from his thoughts on turning 40.
TUNNEL VISION. Local poet and teacher Andrew Patrie is unleashing a new book of poetry – Half-Life – on March 19 at The Plus in Eau Claire. In part, the book draws from his thoughts on turning 40.

Let’s start with a quick exercise. Read the following description of a local writer and educator, and then try to guess how old he is.

Mr. P (let’s call him Mr. P) is one of the Valley’s most beloved English teachers. Everywhere he goes, former students approach him to share cherished memories and excited updates on what they’ve been up to since high school. Mr. P grew up in Eau Claire, and teaches at the school he attended. Over his lifetime he has watched the core of the city transform from the blighted area he used to haunt as a kid into a place of renaissance that he helped foster. His voice has always contributed to the creative make-up of this community, from the music he made in his younger days, to the poetry books he’s authored and co-authored over the decades, to many years’ worth of contributions to this publication, to the countless students’ writing he has influenced.

“Poetry is one of the art forms that has a lot to do with the artist’s interior life. I’m not talking about tackling the world’s problems, I’m just talking about turning 40.” – Andrew Patrie, on the themes in his new poetry collection, Half-Life

What’s your guess? Sixty? Sixty-five? Maybe mid-50s if Mr. P is one of those motivated go-getters?

Andrew Patrie is … 40 years old – old enough to be called old by the young people, and young enough to be called young by the old people. He is, by most measures, at a halfway point in his life, and that is the subject of his most recent collection of poetry, Half-Life.

“I was doing dishes when the name Half-Life came to me,” Patrie said. “It alludes to the middle of life, but also the half-life of anything is when it starts to break down.”

In addition to a title that connotes decay, Patrie opens the book with an epigraph from poet Donald Justice: “Men at forty / Learn to close softly / The doors to rooms they will not be / Coming back to.” Both of these elements seem to indicate that Half-Life constitutes Patrie’s midlife crisis, that instead of buying a sports car or having an extramarital affair, he decided to produce a collection of poetry.

Fortunately, Patrie worked hard to avoid that particular cliché. “I was hoping not to turn it into a midlife crisis. I just wanted to contemplate what it meant to reach the halfway point,” he said.

That means Half-Life does not focus on the frustrations that can accompany aging, nor is it a pathetic attempt to recapture fading youth. Instead, these poems are simply a record of the events that have defined Patrie’s life at 40.

“The age thing came later,” explains Patrie. “It was the answer to the question, ‘How do I tie these strands together?’ ”

The strands Patrie refers to are what make this book more entertaining than a reader might assume of a poetic, mid-point assessment of the life of a high school English teacher. Half-Life features sweet and profound works about the common experiences of aging, including gentle moments shared with his wife, annoyance with loud neighbors, and the time his son tried to help him feel better about his bald spot.

But most of the collection concerns events that are much more unique, events that have made Patrie’s experience of turning 40 something worth reading about. In 2011, he nearly died from a freak infection acquired after swimming in a lake. Later, his mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A chance encounter at a bar turned into a strong temptation away from his otherwise happy marriage. He learned, after three-and-a-half decades, some surprising information about his birth parents. “I found out that not only are my biological parents still together, they were teenagers when they had me, and that I have five siblings out there.”

“Poetry is one of the art forms that has a lot to do with the artist’s interior life,” Patrie said. “I’m not talking about tackling the world’s problems, I’m just talking about turning 40.” But through his revelations in this book – both the commonplace ones and the unique ones – he does manage to connect with a universal aspect of aging. No matter what we face, the perspective necessary to understand the nuances and complexities of our memories can only be earned from living a handful of decades on this planet. In that light, “closing doors” at 40, then, is not tragic or regrettable. The poems in Half-Life represent Patrie “closing the doors” on his angst over his years spent in Catholic school, close calls with tragic illness, his long nights of hard partying, and many other notable parts of his life.

“Those are some intentional doors to be closed, for the better,” he said. “This is a relief.”

If this book is Andy Patrie’s midlife crisis, we should all hope to be (or to have been) so lucky, and so wise, at 40. By looking back, he’s looking ahead. “There’s more to come,” Patrie explains. “There’s more to look forward to.”

Andrew Patrie’s Half-Life release party and reading will be held at The Plus in Eau Claire at 5pm on Saturday, March 19, with local comedian Mackenzie Bublitz. After the release, you can pick up a copy of Half-Life at The Local Store.