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Zen and the art of dumpster driving

Though his memoir is about so much more, there's one particular detail of Dirk Jamison's childhood that most holds the attention. After all, Jamison is not the first kid to endure an erratic and unreliable father, a depressed mother with an unhealthy relationship with eating or his parents' troubled marriage. He's not the first to suffer an abusive older sister, though the extremes of her cruelty were exceptional. He's not even the first kid to live off food rescued from a dumpster.

The things is -- and here we take a serious dive into the exceptional -- Jamison's father chose to feed his family from dumpsters. And I don't mean that in a holistic, pop-psycho, "take responsibility for your actions" way. No, one day Jamison's father saw an old man eating cold spaghetti in a dumpster. "Chest deep in garbage, the old man seemed more relaxed and content than Dad can remember ever feeling." So, becoming something of a '70s fregan progenitor -- cobbling together a little Ayn Rand here, a little Buddhism there and his own peculiar take on the Christian pantheon -- he decides to live off the discarded excesses of American society, resolving not to waste another single day doing work he doesn't want to do.

Jamison's strayed Mormon mother does not approve. After her husband has twice allowed Dirk to choose not to start attending kindergarten, she gives the boy a pep talk. "You remember what brave is, honey? It's when you don't want to do something, but you do it anyway." Disgusted, his father responds, "God, don't tell him that."

This could easily have become a sob story; no reader would deny young Dirk a little sympathy if he asked for it. But what's remarkable is how tenderly, lovingly, sometimes even admiringly Jamison writes about his father. Though blunt about the damage his father's eccentricities visited upon the family, Jamison still finds something inspirational in his father's quixotic skirmishes with shame and the dominant social order. Buried in all the garbage, there are treasures worth the dive.

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