Showing posts with label Butte. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Butte. Show all posts

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Graffers R Us in Butte, Montana

Today at the blog, I thought I'd share something special about my adopted hometown.  Since we moved to Butte, Montana five years ago, my wife and I have settled into a comfortable lifestyle in what we're calling our “forever home.”  We're happy here--not only in this Craftsman house which was built in 1920, but in the town as a whole.  Though on the surface, Butte might look like the victim of urban blight, if you look past the crumbling walls of its historic buildings, you'll find a resiliency (they call it “Butte tough”) and a spirit of generosity (“Butte nice”) which is bound to carry this mining city far into the future.  My wife and I are certain that Butte has reached the end of its boomerang trajectory and is on its way back.  Butte, we tell ourselves, is the Next Big Thing.

Nance Van Winckel has also discovered Butte's beauty--in the unlikeliest of places.   My thanks to Nance for sharing her essay about graffiti and grace with Quivering Pen readers. Nance calls her hybrid work PHO-TOEMS.  Click here to see more of her work.

Graffers R Us in Butte, Montana
from "Astral Project Town"

I am not a fearless person, but I play one in Butte.  This place calls out of me the kind of chutzpah I can’t seem to manage anywhere else.  Alone, I roam past boarded-up bank buildings, the noodle palace, and the miners’ homes, the majority of which are empty now.  In their faded terracotta hues and poses of slump or demise, the structures’ haunting beauty hauls me out of bed to shoot their graffiti-covered facades in the sweet soft early-morning light.

And since apparently no one leashes dogs in Butte, when I see a snarling snout coming at me, I yell at it.  “I have pepper spray,” I tell the beast, “and I’m not afraid to use it.”  I grip the canister I keep in my pocket.  The beast backs off.  Butte makes me over into....what?  A force?  Someone who can at least put on the face of force?

The poor sad alcoholics half asleep in the doorways offer me curses or kind greetings or obscene remarks.  A morning’s walk in Butte adds up to equal amounts of each.

Roo N Boom Love More Than You says the graffiti on a crumbling tavern.  At 39 degrees on this early mid-August morning, it seems to me that is as lovely a poem as I could want.  Later when the shot is on my computer screen, I may have to add a little something to that wall.  Perhaps some faces from the old family photo album I found in a Butte junk store.  I stood in the store with tears dripping ridiculously down my cheeks as I turned those pages.  Hand-written notes on slips of yellow paper explained who each figure is, or was.  This is your great uncle Rudolph’s 1911 graduation picture.

At $14.95, the deep burgundy leather album was a steal.  (And apparently one receives a ten percent discount if one is weeping while handing over the cash.)  Gradually, over the last dozen years, I’ve been putting these figures back up around Butte.  I like them in the windows where they may gaze over their city’s streets.  Like me, they seem to appreciate some aspects of the future more than others.

roo n boom love more than you
Today I wear a heavy hooded sweatshirt.  My camera, hanging from a strap around my neck, is zipped inside the hoodie.  This cuts down on the camera’s annoying bounce as I walk.  But I realize, as I catch my reflection in a window, that I look about seven months pregnant.

People are amazingly kind to pregnant women.  They get out of my way in the crosswalk; they motion for me to go first through doorways.  Even the sad residents of the alleys where I most like to shoot don’t bother the pregnant lady.  Especially not one who’s clearly past fifty years old.

What Is the Who?
Just off Church Street, a wall speaks to me: Go Fuck Yourself, it says.  To stand and look at the wall is to recognize that there are others who aren’t like me and/or don’t like me.  From a most primal urge of “graffiari,” to scratch, someone has made a clear statement.  I AM HERE, TOO.  I LIVE AMONG YOU.  READ THIS AND REMEMBER ME.

And obviously Go Fuck Yourself is, basically, shorthand for that.

What, Inc.
The wall speaks.  It’s all about the wall.  I’m starting to get that.

The wall is what you walk beside.  It keeps what’s out OUT and what’s in IN: people, sewage, animals, merchants.  It keeps things moving in the “correct” directions, in the “correct” channels.  Pompeii was a city of many walls, an impressively large functioning underground sewage system.  One of many graffiti left after Mt. Vesuvius wiped out the town was Hello, we’re all wineskins.  As with a lot of poetry I admire, the message here may not be totally clear, and an exact paraphrase may be impossible.  The "wineskins" remark was seen frequently on walls—apparently a shared joke in 79 A.D.

In Butte I climb over crumbling chest-high walls.  I want to shoot their backsides.  All the good stuff’s on the backsides.  And as I climb I recall how, as a girl, I went over a wall I wasn’t supposed to and almost died.  It was a hot summer day in Roanoke, Virginia.  I was 5.  There’d been a big rain and the drainage trench behind my family's house was a flowing stream.  I scrambled over a wall, lowered myself into the murky water, and let myself be carried gently downstream.  When I was thoroughly drenched and happily cooled off, I stood up and walked home; I climbed back over the wall.  By early evening I was running a very high fever.  It was all the poison ivy and poison oak—weeds people had culled out of their yards and thrown into the blocks-long trench—that almost killed me.  A concentrated poisonous sewage.  I had blisters internally.

I spent a few nights in the hospital.  Respiratory problems, erratic pulse, etc.  I had defied the walls.  Bad.  I disobeyed the walls’ boundaries.  And I had been duly punished.

Butte Carriage Works
Susan Stewart in her book, Crimes of Writing, discusses the nature of “criminal art,” and graffiti’s position as both crime and art.  Graffiti, she says, “combines the remoteness, abstraction, and simultaneity characteristic of mechanical modes of production with the ethic of presence, signature, and individuality characteristic of handicrafts.”

Art, she reminds us, is usually experienced in a “closed arena of consumption.”  Museums and galleries contain the visual art.  You go to the printed page for your poetry.  So graffers call into question the whole idea of how/if art is to be/should be contained.  Graffers negate the very notion of art as commodity.  Back in 1988 when her essay first appeared, Stewart made a good case about this non-commodity idea as a reason graffiti had stayed (until then) outside mainstream art.  Nobody made money off the graffiti artist.  But in the last 30 years, this has dramatically changed.  As with other outsider arts, eventually a door somewhere is tipped open.  In the 1990’s as the art establishment began to embrace graffiti as a kind of pop art, or the hip-hop version of pop art, graffers moved indoors.  To canvases.  A part of a building graffitied by Banksy can sell for a hundred grand.

Like graffers everywhere, Butte’s graffers blur preconceptions about the ownership of space.  They convert the “privately” owned into “public” sphere.  Or, put another way, just how privately owned is it if some Boston bankers (who’ve never set foot in Butte) are, by default, the deed holders?

Summer's Whistle of Wind
Walls stand betwixt and between anyway.  A here and a there.  But the two aren’t so mutually exclusive.  After that five-year-old girl defied the wall and was poisoned by what lay beyond the protected domicile, in her poison-ivy fever-dream her dead father appeared at the foot of her bed and spoke to her.

He was, in point of fact, killed when she was two.  What happened to this child is a wondrous thing—a thing forever after associated for her with transgression, for now she, by virtue of her transgression, has somehow trespassed through one sort of wall into a realm she'd believed was forbidden to the living.  But WTF?  There she was.  Her deceased father, three years after his death, was wearing a white cummerbund.  The girl can see him and the outfit to this very day.

And to this day, linked in her little mind are the words TRANSGRESSION and TRANSFORMATION.

Some sort of message was conveyed.  From behind an unfathomable wall.

What marks I leave (albeit just “digitally”) on Butte’s walls are brief “passings,” like the cigar sign from 1923, or the faded 1951 school logo, or the 2007 graduates’ hooray for their class.  Leaving a mark, we enter the wall.  We state our biggest joys and curse our crazy foes.  We tag back to all the wall holds—between us and it.

Footnote Palace

Nance Van Winckel, originally from Roanoke, Virginia, has lived in Spokane, Washington since 1990.  Pacific Walkers, Nance's sixth book of poems, was recently released from U. of Washington Press.  A fourth collection of linked short stories, Boneland, came out with U. of Oklahoma Press in October 2013.  Nance’s other books of poetry include: No Starling (University of Washington Press, 2007), Bad Girl, with Hawk (U. of Illinois Press, 1987), The Dirt (Miami U. Press, 1994), Beside Ourselves (Miami University Press, 2003), and After A Spell (Miami U. Press, 1998), which received the Washington State Governor’s Award for Poetry.  Her poems have appeared in Poetry, The American Poetry Review, the Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Gettysburg Review, Field, Volt, The Kenyon Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Ploughshares.  Nance's three books of short stories are Curtain Creek Farm (Persea Books, 2000), Quake (U. of Missouri Press, 1998) which received the 1998 Paterson Fiction Prize, and Limited Lifetime Warranty (U. of Missouri Press, 1994).  Her stories have appeared in The Georgia Review, Colorado Review, and AGNI.  A former editor of Willow Springs and creator of Spokane's Writers in the Community Program, she is an emerita professor in Eastern Washington University's creative writing program and currently teaches in Vermont College of Fine Arts' low-residency MFA in Writing Program.  Click here to visit her website.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Still Reading Still Writing

The view from my writing desk
We are adrift in snow.  For the past three days, flakes have fallen steadily, without cessation, turning my driveway into an obstacle course, the streets into amusement-park rides.  Cars parked curbside are no longer recognizable as anything but half-oval bumps in a blank white landscape.  Today's newspaper headline reads "Pummeling to continue," warning us another eight inches could be on the ground here in Butte, Montana by tomorrow morning.

This is what I'd call "reflective weather."  Time to curl into a ball, have a bowl of soup, turn inward, be still within our souls.

For me, that means facing up to the fact that I've been disappointing myself lately.  It's the "same old song," as The Four Tops once told us.  I've been Not-Writing, which leads to disgust and discouragement, which leads to depression.  I'm descending a staircase slicked with butter, spiraling down into a dark basement.

And now it's time to stop on one of the landings, turn around, and start climbing that staircase back to the top.  Of course, it's all up to me to stop the madness, to find the inner fortitude, to reach down and give a sharp yank on those bootstraps (if I wore boots, that is).  I can do this, I tell myself.  Put one word after another, like hesitant toddler steps across the floor.  Just write one sentence--doesn't have to be perfect, doesn't have to be clean--just write one sentence, and then you can call it quits for the day.

Except I never stop at one sentence.  Words beget words and soon I'm tumbling in somersaults across the page--bouncing up that dark, slippery staircase.

To give my energy a little boost--more fuel in the rocket engines--I return to Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, one of the best books I read last year.  In the whole span of my life, I can count the number of books I've re-read on a single hand--ones by Flannery O'Connor, Charles Dickens, Raymond Carver, Agatha Christie.  I'm the kind of reader who is always leaning forward, never circling back.  There are too many unread books in front of me, from here to the horizon, to "waste time" by retracing my steps through a novel's pages.

I will happily make an exception for Still Writing--not just for the beauty of language, but also for its clarity of instruction to me as a writer.  When Oprah Winfrey recently devoted an entire episode of Super Soul Sunday to a conversation with Shapiro, I was a little disappointed because they never once discussed Still Writing.  I understood why Oprah wanted to focus on the earlier memoir Devotion, but I wish they'd also touched on some of the wisdom to be found in her latest book, which is subtitled "The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life."  As I wrote earlier here at the blog, "Most of the book is written in plain-spoken language, as if Shapiro was sitting across the table with a steaming mug of tea, honestly telling me what I need to hear."  Right now, I need to hear passages like this, from the book's Introduction:
      Sitting down to write isn't easy. A few years ago, a local high school asked me if a student who is interested in becoming a writer might come and observe me. Observe me! I had to decline. I couldn't imagine what the poor student would think, watching me sit, then stand, sit again, decide that I needed more coffee, go downstairs and make the coffee, come back up, sit again, get up, comb my hair, sit again, stare at the screen, check e-mail, stand up, pet the dog, sit again...
      You get the picture.
      The writing life requires courage, patience, persistence, empathy, openness, and the ability to deal with rejection. It requires the willingness to be alone with oneself. To be gentle with oneself. To look at the world without blinders on. To observe and withstand what one sees. To be disciplined, and at the same time, take risks. To be willing to fail—not just once, but again and again, over the course of a lifetime. "Ever tried, ever failed," Samuel Beckett once wrote. "No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." It requires what the great editor Ted Solotaroff once called endurability. It is this quality, most of all, that I think of when I look around a classroom at a group of aspiring writers. Some of them will be more gifted than others. Some of them will be driven, ambitious for success or fame, rather than by the determination to do their best possible work. But of the students I have taught, it is not necessarily the most gifted, or the ones most focused on imminent literary fame (I think of these as short sprinters), but the ones who endure, who are still writing, decades later.
      It is my hope that— whether you're a writer or not—this book will help you to discover or rediscover the qualities necessary for a creative life. We are all unsure of ourselves. Every one of us walking the planet wonders, secretly, if we are getting it wrong. We stumble along. We love and we lose. At times, we find unexpected strength, and at other times, we succumb to our fears. We are impatient. We want to know what's around the corner, and the writing life won't offer us this. It forces us into the here and now. There is only this moment, when we put pen to page....
      The page is your mirror. What happens inside you is reflected back. You come face-to-face with your own resistance, lack of balance, self-loathing, and insatiable ego— and also with your singular vision, guts, and fortitude. No matter what you've achieved the day before, you begin each day at the bottom of the mountain. Isn't this true for most of us? A surgeon about to perform a difficult operation is at the bottom of the mountain. A lawyer delivering a closing argument. An actor waiting in the wings. A teacher on the first day of school. Sometimes we may think that we're in charge, or that we have things figured out. Life is usually right there, though, ready to knock us over when we get too sure of ourselves. Fortunately, if we have learned the lessons that years of practice have taught us, when this happens, we endure. We fail better. We sit up, dust ourselves off, and begin again.
And so I, too, will begin again. The snow outside the window has turned my world into a blank slate. I'm ready to start filling it with words.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Trailer Park Tuesday: Fobbit

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

For nearly two years, I've told you about promotional trailers for other authors' books....and now it's time for me to cue the spotlight, step to the center of the stage, clear my throat for the microphone, and announce: "Ladies and gentlemen.... Fobbit, the trailer!"  Yes, that's right, I finally got my act together and made a book trailer for my novel which debuted over a year ago.  More accurately, I hired the services of the wonderful team of Liz and Rob at The Montana Movie Factory, a great production company right here in Butte, Montana.  I gave Rob just a few sketchy ideas and let him take it from there.  I'm very pleased with the end result (Rob even managed to sneak in a Monty Python homage at the very end).  I hope you'll like what we came up with.  Consider it a Christmas gift to all the Fobbit fans out there.

Monday, December 16, 2013

My Year of Books: By the Numbers

"Well, hello!  Come in, come in.  Stamp the snow off your boots and step inside.  Cold out there today, isn't it?....I suppose you're here to see the library, aren't you?....Here, let me take your coat.  I'll just toss it over here for now.  You don't mind if the cats use it as a temporary bed, do you?....Would you like a drink?  I've got some chilled wine--or maybe you'd rather have three fingers of whiskey in a tumbler?....What's that?  A gin and tonic?  Sure, I can whip one of those up for you....Follow me to the basement--that's where all the books are anyway....Watch your step coming down here--the cats like to play this little game they call Trip the Human--they score extra points if they're able to do a perfect figure eight around your feet....Anyway, here we are: the BOOKS.  Why don't you take a look around while I pour the gin and tonics?....What's that you say?  Have I read all of them?  Of course not!  Are you frickin' insane?  That's the stupidest question I've heard in a long time."

Okay, I don't actually say that last line to guests who visit the library in my basement, but believe me, I'm asked that question--"Have you read all of these?"--nearly every time someone comes down and stops, wide-eyed and slack-jawed, when they see the bookshelves which line all four walls of the main room, spill over into the furnace area and continue around the perimeter of what used to be my office.  They are dazzled by the infinite platoons of book spines and I suppose those are the only half-sensible words they can croak out.  My library is indeed a shining example of American greed, overconsumption and obsessive-compulsive collecting.  It is simultaneously pretty and not-pretty.  According to my Library Thing account, I currently own 8,253 books (which doesn't include several hundred I haven't yet catalogued in LT).  I could cut off my book intake right now, live seven more lifetimes, and still not have enough time to read everything in my collection.

But every year, I try my damnedest to make a sizable dent.

In 2013, I made more than a dent--I made a small crater.  Tallying up the book log statistics, I came up with--drumroll, please--81 books read in the past twelve months.  That pales in comparison to the high school girl who, after a Fobbit presentation I gave at her school in May, came up to me and boasted she read 500 books in the past year.  I'm happy for her, but I could never get up to that level of reading consumption.  Unless, maybe, I was laid up in bed all year with consumption.

Nonetheless, I'm pretty proud of the 81 titles I read this year.  Going deeper into the stats, I see that equals 18,744 pages, for an average of 231 pages per book.  Compared to last year's figures--56 books and 14,524 pages--that's like shifting into high gear and pressing the accelerator to the floor.

The page counts ranged from 32 for a children's book about Billie Holiday (Mister and Lady Day by Amy Novesky) to the 544 spine-tingling pages of Benjamin Percy's epic werewolf saga Red Moon.  Well, if we're going to be precise, I guess The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries takes the prize for Most Pages (650).  Even though I haven't finished Otto Penzler's anthology of Yuletide murder and mayhem, I'm going to add it to this year's count because even if I don't finish it by the time I'm sipping New Year's Eve champagne, the vast bulk of it will have been read in 2013.  So it counts.  My blog, my rules, my math.

There are still a couple of unfinished books on the bedside table: the annotated Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov and The Complete Short Novels of Anton Chekhov, for instance.  Those will just have to go on next year's tally.

There's also a long list of books I wanted to get to this year but didn't--the old Eyes Bigger Than the Stomach Rule.  That roster includes Victoria Wilson's biography of Barbara Stanwyck, Doctor Sleep by Stephen King, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (hell, ALL of Tart's books, for that matter, since she's been a permanent residence of my TBR mountain), The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, Schroder by Amity Gaige, and--well, you get the idea.  There are a lot of books still waiting for my attention.

Lest you think I never took my nose out of a book this year, you should also know that I hold down a regular, 40-hour-per-week Day Job (apart from writing novels and feeding/ watering this blog).  Not only that, but my wife and I opened up a vintage mercantile here in Butte, Montana this year, I continued to jet from city to city on an extended book tour for Fobbit, and we undertook a couple of major home renovation projects.  I was--and still remain--a busy guy who is only able to embroider the edges of his life with a couple hours of reading each day (if I'm very lucky).  Still, there are few things in life more pleasurable than coming home after work and, in the short span of time before I start to cook dinner, settling in with a good book and tumbler of whiskey--all while casting an eye to the other 8,252 books on the shelves in the basement library, reassuring them, "I'll get to you soon."


My Year of Books is the annual backward glance of my literary life.  All this week, I'll be posting lists of the best things I read in 2013.  Be sure to visit the rest of the series (links posted as they're published):

Monday:  By the Numbers
Tuesday:  Best First Lines
Wednesday:  Best Cover Designs
Thursday:  Best of the Backlist
Friday:  Best Fiction of 2013
Saturday:  Publisher of the Year

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Bookstore of the Month: Iconoclast Books

Iconoclast Books
671 Sun Valley Road
Ketchum, ID  83340
(202) 726-1564
Iconoclast Books on Facebook
Iconoclast Books on Twitter

For your health's sake...for complete relaxation and enjoyment...visit Sun Valley this winter.  It's a delightful, easy-to-take tonic...skiing, skating, warm-water, outdoor swimming and joyous evening hours.  Nature's big, white blanket soon will be spread.  Plan now to see this land of sun and fun in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.  A robust, western welcome awaits you!
--from an ad for Sun Valley ski resort in the Milwaukee Sentinel, Dec. 7, 1952

Drive up Idaho Highway 75, past the quaint towns of Bellevue and Hailey, along the Big Wood River (one of Ernest Hemingway's beloved trout streams), and into the shadows of Old Baldy and Dollar Mountain.  There, just when you think the forests, mountains and streams couldn't possibly be equalled in beauty, you'll discover they were just the prelude to Ketchum, Idaho, a jewel of a town set in the Sun Valley crown.

Ketchum is home to about 2,700 residents.  Make that 3,700 because Sarah Hedrick has the dynamic energy of 1,000 souls.  She is at the heart of Iconoclast Books--the Hope Diamond of Ketchum's crown jewels--and she is one of the most dedicated and tireless booksellers I've ever met.  On the June day I drove into Ketchum, it was raining in Sun Valley (Irony Alert!) and clouds had pulled a dark blanket over the town, but all the lights were on in the bookstore and Iconoclast fairly glowed on its corner of Ketchum's main street.  Somewhere inside the shop, I'm sure that electricity was caused by Sarah swirling and humming through the bookshelves, helping a customer find the best biography of Hemingway, recommending the latest staff pick (like Alexander Maksik's A Marker to Measure Drift), or frothing milk for a latte at the store's small cafe.  Though she has a great and equally-dedicated staff of booksellers (some of whom "came for the skiing and stayed for the books"), there's no getting around the fact that Sarah Hedrick is Iconoclast Books.

Sarah Hedrick and her daughter Penelope welcome Papa Hemingway to the store
I first met Sarah at the Humanities Montana Festival of the Book shortly after the publication of my debut novel, Fobbit.  I'd just given a reading and was sitting at the book-signing table when a slender blonde-haired woman came up, kneeled in front of the table, and took my hands.  "You must come to Sun Valley."  Did I mention Sarah is also a one-woman Chamber of Commerce for Ketchum?  Just like those Union-Pacific posters which called the rich and famous to come play at the Sun Valley Ski Resort back in the 1940s, I was being summoned to the mountains of Idaho.  How could I possibly resist?  (It took nearly eight months, but I eventually did make my way to Sun Valley and gave a reading at the Community Library and then splurged an appropriate amount of money on books at Iconoclast the next day.)

In preparing for this Bookstore of the Month post, I asked Sarah to tell me a little bit about what the store has to offer. Here's what she wrote in an email: "We encourage intellectual curiosity.  We pride ourselves on being unique and going beyond the bestseller selection. New, used and rare titles, Hemingway and Idaho history, book clubs, magazines, gifts, stationery, candles, educational games and toys, and more. Our cafe features locally roasted coffee, local organic dairy, homemade chai, organic teas, smoothies, fresh-baked goodies, bagels, homemade soup, paninis and salads. We specialize in unique cards, gifts, candles and host the area's largest children's section--from baby gifts and board books to a phenomenal Young Adult selection, with everything in between. We host author events, Poetry Slams, music events, Open Mic Nights, book club discussions and educational events. We are also very fortunate to be a part of so many great partnerships with arts and non-profit organizations in the community, like the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, The Sun Valley Center for the Arts/Company of Fools, and The Community Library."

Iconoclast Books, now occupying 4,800 square feet, began in the trunk of a car in the University District in Seattle. Here's a bit of the store's history, taken from its website: "Iconoclast Books was founded in 1993, to very little fanfare. After many years of working in restaurants and bike shops in Ketchum, Gary Hunt, a practicing ski bum, set out to find his niche in life. He traveled. He worked in more restaurants and bike shops. He grew weary of that and more importantly, he felt vaguely unfulfilled. He had a friend, Royce Wilson, who managed a used bookstore in the University district of Seattle and they would often talk late into the evening over red wine or scotch while Royce outlined the basics of the used book business to Gary. This led to a period of a few months in which Gary went around to garage sales and thrift stores buying books and selling them, or attempting to sell them, to used bookstores throughout the city. This is what is known as book scouting, and Gary discovered that he had a certain knack for it....It wasn't long before a tidy little stack of boxes of books had been built up and they no longer fit into the trunk of the car. And so Iconoclast Books was born. At first it was just on weekends in the street market on Capitol Hill, with weekdays devoted to scouring the yard sales for choice inventory. By the end of the summer there were enough boxes of books built up to open our first store, in Greenlake, a suburb of Seattle."

Eventually, Gary grew restless and in 1994 he decided to head back to Sun Valley (remember, he was a "practicing ski bum"). He landed in a basement studio of about 800 square feet off 4th Street where he could sell used and out-of-print books.  Somewhere along the line, he met Sarah (then a bookseller at, um, The Book Cellar).  They fell in love, got married and joined forces at the revitalized Iconoclast.  The business grew and moved from one location to another, adding new books, magazines, and gifts. Iconoclast Books spent five years in the historic Griffith building on Main Street in Ketchum before moving into its present location on Sun Valley Road at the end of 2007. Sadly, Gary was killed in a car accident less than a year later.  Even from the dark valley of her grief, Sarah has carried on Gary's drive and vision for the store.

I'm going to turn the rest of this section of the blog post over to Sarah because, frankly, I couldn't have described the store or the current state of bookselling any better than she did in an email to me yesterday....

*     *     *

Our philosophy is along the lines of this: anyone can sell New York Times bestsellers; we want to introduce you to something about which you haven’t already heard. We want to be relentlessly current and honor the classics.  We want to help you find you that rare book you remember from your childhood. We want your experience in a beautiful space--with a curated selection of books, beautiful music playing (often live on our “Dead Man’s Piano”), the smell of house-made chai being steamed, and a wise and well-read staff--to be so wonderful that you wouldn’t even consider an Amazon experience.

I think bookstore customers in general are the best out there.  Think about it: they’re intellectually curious, they’re usually not in a hurry, they are CHOOSING to be in a real store and not at their computer or in a fluorescently-lit box store (we like to say it’s the difference between a fine dining experience and fast food) and they’re buying something that is going to enlighten them, make them laugh, weep or think. This is an entirely different experience than buying most other retail items.

In a small valley we’re so grateful to our customers, not only for choosing us as the place to buy books, but because in a small town, they’ve become our friends and in some cases, our family.  We have some of the most curious and intelligent people coming through our doors and we not only get to help them, we learn from them. We have time to chat, to get to know their tastes, to remember what their spouses loved to read last month, or what we chose for their grandchildren. Because of the café we have people who stay for hours and hours. We have a customer we call “The Moon Man” because in the winter days when my daughter Penelope was a toddler, he’d take her outside and show her the early evening moon and recite “I love the moon and the moon loves me.” She’s now 8 years old and still brings him every book with moon in the pictures or title to read to her. These people are raising my children with me!

There's no way to choose the most rewarding thing about being a bookseller, but maybe one part of it can be found in this email from an employee the night before he left the country for a trip abroad:
Dear Sarah,
      I really want to thank you. Working at Iconoclast has been one of the best things that's happened to me. I don't think many people can say they love going to work, and I feel lucky that I can. I feel so much love from you and the people around me everyday. There's nothing more important than that. Working at Iconoclast I've grown as a person. I've become a reader, and have a deep appreciation for books that I couldn't have gotten elsewhere, and will have for the rest of my life. You've also given me the gift of travel. Letting me leave for 7 months and having a job I love waiting when I come home is invaluable. It's allowed me to live the life I want to live. There's no amount of quotes, novels, or libraries to express how grateful I am. You've changed my life.
      So really, truly, thank you Sarah, you're a great boss, and an even better friend.
Or maybe it's in this moment when, driving up to my store one day this summer, I saw a pre-teen girl having her photograph taken in front of the store’s sign like she was being photographed with Justin Bieber...I asked about it and she nearly screamed/wept: “Because I’ve been able to visit bookstores all over the world, and THIS IS MY FAVORITE. My friends will be so jealous when they see this.”

I now have a toddler customer who comes in once a week with his father, hollers a hello to “Uncle Sarah” and makes a beeline to my (now almost 18 year old) son’s wooden train set in the children’s section while telling his father which books to grab to read to him. His father has been a customer since his teens, buying Bukowski. From Bukowski to Board Books...

Three nights ago, I left work after a 14-hour Black Friday, which included an Open Mic Night of prose, poetry and LOTS of music, including a trio with a stand-up bass. We had a full house and the performances ranged from an 8-year-old telling jokes, to a 16-year-old singing and playing the ukulele, to a gray-haired, conservatively dressed father getting up there with an acoustic guitar and blowing us away (we found out later it was Dave Dederer, formerly of the Seattle rock band The Presidents of the United States of America). I went outside to my car at one point and what I saw from the outside made me nearly weep.  This beautifully-lit store with silver snowflakes hanging in the windows--it was packed with people, books, ideas, music, old and new friends, and three of my own children.  I just felt full, nourished and proud. We do good things inside those brick-and-mortar walls. So on my exhausted, I-can’t-keep-up-this-pace, drive home, I realized I can. I love it too much and we’re good at it.

I also love watching someone’s face light up when you finally nail the book they didn’t know they were looking for until you describe it and place it in their hands. Or the kid who calls my home, late in the evening with a shaking voice, “Sarah, do you have the third book in the Divergent trilogy at home? Or at The Modern Mercantile?  I am three blocks away....” (You can substitute that with Hunger Games, Twilight, Harry Potter, Series of Unfortunate Events, etc.)  It happens more times than you'd think and it's been this way for decades. You gotta love small towns.

Alexander Maksik signing books at Iconoclast
We’ve hosted so many amazing events it’s hard to choose. We’ve danced on table tops with Alex Kuczynski (author of Beauty Junkies), we’ve watched Billy Collins sing “Mustang Sally,” and I can remember making Pete Fromm nearly cry many years ago when he showed up at the store and we had a guitarist walking around strumming while a packed house of eager Fromm fans drank wine and nibbled cheese before his event. We go out of our way for authors because we realize we're off the beaten path. We found a Polish speaking ski instructor for Anne Applebaum’s kids when she came here, we took Jonathan Evison to every single Hemingway watering hole and closed down Ketchum, and we’ve called in favors to the best restaurants that were booked solid just to get a table for Walter Kirn. We’ll score you lift tickets, concert tickets, sometimes a funky condo.

*     *     *

I can testify to Iconoclast's Author TLC.  More than six months after Sarah first grabbed my hands and insisted I come to Sun Valley, my wife Jean and I drove our car off that beaten path and visited Ketchum for an all-too-brief stay.  Sarah did indeed arrange for us to stay at a friend's condo (an elegant place which was far from funky) and made sure everything was set up for me at the Community Library's lecture room (which is a bland name for what turned out to be a gorgeous auditorium--all the more impressive given the small size of the town).  The next day, Sarah even made us some of her Idaho-famous lattes (did I detect a hint of potato in the foam?).

While Jean and Sarah chatted about mutual vintage mercantile interests (Jean had just opened The Backyard Bungalow in here in Butte, Montana, and Sarah is the proud owner of the Modern Mercantile in Hailey), I wandered the store, browsing the books.  I zeroed in on the Hemingway section--an entire wall of shelves dedicated to the author who lived in Sun Valley off and on for part of his life and chose this mountainous Garden of Eden as the place where he'd end it with an early-morning shotgun blast.  While I didn't find exactly what I was looking for (a book specifically about Hem's Ketchum days), my eye was caught by another book on display near Iconoclast's front door: The Sun Valley Story by Van Gordon Sauter.  Perfect.

For those of you with even a passing interest in the ski resort's history, I highly recommend this sumptuously-illustrated account of the valley's history--its rise from a sheepherding crossroads to a multi-million-dollar winter wonderland where stars like Gary Cooper, Marilyn Monroe, Clint Eastwood and Jamie Lee Curtis came to play.  Sauter emphasizes Sun Valley's self-made entrepreneurship and resilience even during economic downturns.  Bottom line, the region's successful legacy begins and ends with the mountains and rivers, the solid foundation of nature which will never change.

Except when it does.

Resiliency and nature collided in Sun Valley this past summer, two months after my visit.  Six years after the devastating Castle Rock Fire roared over the mountains and down into the lowlands, flames once again threatened Ketchum, Hailey and the other small towns dotting the valley floor.  The Beaver Creek Fire forced hundreds of evacuations this past August and brought everything to a standstill--at a time when Sun Valley normally depended on heavy tourism traffic.

Most of us (myself included) hear about these things and while we may pause to read the headline stories and feel a little pinch of sympathy inside, the truth of the matter is, we turn the page of the newspaper, go on eating our toast and eggs and rarely give the ashes of Sun Valley forests a second thought.  Until, that is, someone takes us by the shoulders, gets all up in our face, and tells us that we should care.  Such a thing happened to me when I read the following heartfelt note Sarah included in her bookstore newsletter a few weeks after the fires had been extinguished.  I'll close with Sarah's words in hopes that, like me, you will be moved to help out the store with a donation or--as I did--by ordering a few books from Iconoclast instead of that Other Place which rhymes with Shamazon.

*     *     *

I've been ruminating for weeks on thoughts and the proper way to put them into words about the impact of the Beaver Creek Fire on our community, to my store and to my family. I've been interviewed many times--locally and nationally--and have (this should come as no surprise) worn my heart on my sleeve and often, possibly, said too much. The focus of many of these conversations has been about devastation: The damage to our beautiful landscape and the impact of that on our economy, the repercussions that losing the busiest three weeks of our season has on a budget that absolutely depends on tourism, the trickle-down effect of what occurs when a store loses necessary income and can no longer support the causes it normally does; the struggles with paying employees, vendors, taxes, rent and utilities. Sometimes, I've imagined the loss of the store.

Tonight, I want to tell the good stories and I hope you'll bear with me. I've thought a lot about the last 6 years--the Castle Rock Fire from which we're still not recovered as evidenced by still paying off the disaster relief loan from the Small Business Administration, the death of my husband and true iconoclast behind the store, the loss of our locally-owned bank which carried our credit lines so that we could get through slack seasons, the recession that hit not long after Gary's death, the egregious efforts of Amazon to destroy brick-and-mortar stores of all kinds, and yes, I have a hard time with that little Kindle.

Despite all of these obstacles, I am awake at midnight feeling invigorated about Monday morning--mostly because I adore what I do and also because I have a lot of great ideas AND I have a few beautiful stories to tell.  They may not save the store, but they have nourished my soul on sad days and reminded me why I do what I do, seven days a week.

In no particular order and because no monetary value can be attached to goodwill.

1.  During the evacuation I received a Facebook message from a stranger in Twin Falls: "Sarah, I know we're only fb friends but I love your store and all that you do for your community and book lovers. I was in the mall today and heard that all hotels are booked in Boise and Twin. If you and your children need a place to stay, we have a guest room for you. We'd love to have you."

2.  Numerous, and I mean numerous, offers similar to this from all over Idaho and beyond.

3.  This week, an online order from the Stanley Library for 25 books, all of which could've been purchased at cost through a book distributor. Yesterday an online order came in, for one book, with this message: "I'm a bookseller in California and I just heard about the wildfires in your area. I so hope things start looking better soon. Solidarity!"

4.  And a story that I hope goes viral, not for the benefit of Iconoclast Books, but because I hope people who are able will be inspired to support all local businesses--and for those of us who cannot, will remember it and do something similar in another way, down the road. Most of us know Carol and Len Harlig as they've been figures in and pillars of this community for decades; they're kind, generous and passionate about our valley, giving of themselves in more ways than this email will allow. I've known them for nearly 24 years and they never cease to amaze me. Read on...

This is what they've done and how Len explained it to me: "Carol and I sat down the other night and identified businesses that we're concerned about as well as the people we're grateful to in our valley, especially the fire fighters who saved our community. We would like to support and thank a few." The Harligs proceeded to spend a very generous amount of money at Iconoclast Books, citing us as a business they consider to be one of many that are integral to our community and they couldn't envision being without.

Clearly I wanted to give Carol and Len a public thank you without embarrassing them.  In their graceful way, they stated that they don't want acclimation for this gesture, but in hopes that others would do something similar, I was free to share. In Len's words:
      Our "plan" is to buy $1,000 worth of $100 gift certificates at local businesses for five months, thereby helping local businesses to survive until the snow flies, and by gifting the cards to emergency responders (firefighters first, law enforcement next, hospital workers third, and then another round for firefighters and law enforcement), as a way to thank the women and men who did so much for so many. (Apologies to Winston for the paraphrase).
      Our first thought was to do this below the radar as neither of us seeks publicity for our community efforts, but if getting the word out will encourage other residents to shop locally or to do something similar to our "plan" then we'd give up a little privacy for the higher cause. Maybe we can start a movement and help revitalize our local economy. "OCCUPY MAIN STREET!"
Need I say more about this incredible community and state we live in?  Yes, I want my store to survive this latest tragedy, not just because I want a job I love and appreciate, but because it allows me to live and raise my children in a community full of so many creative, smart and caring people in hopes that they'll continue in that vein for the rest of their lives.

Iconoclast Books is the featured bookstore all this month at The Quivering Pen.  By clicking on the links to books mentioned in this month's blog posts, you'll be taken to the store's website where you can purchase the book (or, better yet, several books).  The Quivering Pen is dedicated to supporting independent bookstores.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Like a Salmon Swimming Downstream: My Life as an Undercover Author

I’ve never been one to go with the flow.  If I was a salmon, I’d be swimming downstream.  I’m a guy who’d run the Iditarod while standing backwards on the sled runners.  I’m that lemming who stands on the edge of the cliff and shouts, “Oh, hell, no!  I don’t think so!”  Aren’t most writers subversives beneath masks of complacency and decency?

Many pen-pushers and keyboard-punchers are also dual-faced fakes.  Writing is our Other Identity, the thing we do when we're not working our "real" job.  Veterinarian by day, novelist by night.  We're not necessarily ashamed of our secret life of Writer, but we're usually quiet about it.  We think to ourselves, "They just wouldn't understand if I told them what I do when I leave the office."

In my case, what I did after-hours was the real life.  The time I spent on the clock at the office was merely biding my time until I could escape home to the keyboard, with a stop along the way at a phone booth where I changed into my cape and tights.

I may have written a book about soldiers in the Iraq War and served for 20 years in uniform, but I always have to bluff my way through answers when people at readings ask me about life in a combat zone.  I can only tell them what I saw from my guarded, half-hidden crouch behind a pile of sandbags—otherwise known as a Forward Operating Base in Baghdad.  The war seemed like a long, boring movie with some decent acting.  At any rate, my war as a Fobbit—a soldier who remains safely ensconced on the FOB—was like that.  I describe one of my characters in Fobbit by saying, “To paraphrase the New Testament, he was in the war, but he was not of the war.”

The same could be said about my career as a soldier.   My two decades in the Army were a Jekyll-and-Hyde experience: warrior by day, writer at night.  I kept my art hidden from my co-workers, never letting on that I spent my off-duty hours hunched over a keyboard in the basement of my housing unit on Alaska’s Fort Wainwright at the edge of Fairbanks when I was stationed there in the early 1990s.  Beneath that olive-drab uniform beat the heart of a Raymond Carver wannabe.  Even when I had a short story published in Esquire and it later made the long-list of “100 Other Distinguished Stories of 1998” in the annual Best American Stories anthology, I kept quiet.  I didn’t call it out like cadence at the 6th Infantry Division’s daily physical training.  Instead, I concentrated on the poetry of pushups like any good, obedient sergeant.

It had been that way from the start.   When I joined the Army, I was 25, ancient compared to the others—19, 18 and, in a couple of cases, 17 years old, some of them still smelling like the cherry lip balm from their high school girlfriends’ mouths.  They called me Grandpa.  There was one other guy in the platoon who was older than me by a couple of years.  They called him Great-Grandpa.

Growing up, I was thin, bookish, soft-muscled—hardly the stuff of Army recruiting posters.  While other boys were moving their GI Joe dolls (excuse me, action figures) through combat drills, I was reading Nancy Drew mysteries.  I was totally in touch with my inner femininity.  That’s why it came as such a surprise to everyone—including, and especially, me—when I stood in the Military Entrance Processing Station in Butte, Montana and raised my right hand, swearing full faith and allegiance to the U.S. military.  Why I joined the military is a long story; I usually just telegraph it to inquisitors by saying: “Student loans, pregnant wife, job security.”

By the time I arrived in Alaska in October 1991, I was well on my way to a comfortably numb career in the Army.  I played the game: I wrote impassioned articles about training exercises for the Fort Wainwright newspaper, I saluted smartly, I went ice fishing at Quartz Lake with my boss, a captain, and courageously took nips from the bottle of peppermint schnapps he offered me because I thought it was entrée into the Hairy-Chest Club.  But when I got home at night, I shed my uniform, unlaced my boots, and descended to the basement to write yet another Raymond Carveresque tale of husbands and wives trying to find redemption in a life full of loss (stories which, in hindsight, were really bad, really pale imitations of the Master’s work).

I prided myself on being different, even if I mostly kept that difference quiet beneath a Clark Kent exterior.  Still, there were moments….

On a training exercise in Thailand, while other soldiers were getting “massages” from blank-faced girls (complete with “happy endings”), you’d find me sitting in the hotel lobby reading War and Peace.  Another time, when I was pulling Charge of Quarters in my company’s dayroom at Fort Wainwright, I brought my cross-stitch with me (I told you I embraced my Inner Woman, didn’t I?).  Sure, I got stares from the other soldiers on guard duty, but I shrugged them off and went back to poking the tiny needle in and out of the linen fabric, thinking about how they’d be sorry once they saw the finished sampler I was working on—an anniversary gift for my wife.  They played solitaire, read their Tom Clancy paperbacks and shot uneasy glances in my direction.

That was the same December night when, as I stepped outside the barracks to do a security check, I saw a moose trot like an English quarterhorse through the parking lot.  It headed toward the treeline, plowing through the deep, fresh-fallen snow as smoothly and easily as a swan across water.  The night was so cold and so still, it seemed I could hear the hiss of each granular snowflake against those knobby, tree-length legs.  I remember thinking to myself, “Nowhere else in the Army can you pull guard duty and watch a moose swim through snow.  I am the luckiest soldier alive.”

I also thought how I might be the only soldier in the Army that night to look at a moose and compare it to the poetry of a swan.

A version of this essay originally appeared at the 49 Writers blog.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Great Write Off

Picture me at 4 a.m. sitting at my desk, alternately staring blankly at my computer screen and then shooting off micro-bursts of words on the keyboard.  That's my rhythm.  Think, type, think, type.  My second-story office overlooks the street below.  My Butte neighborhood is dark at this hour.  Silent, still, holding its breath for the coming day.  But me, I need to stay ahead of that coming day.   Because I work a full-time day job (which I affectionately call the Paycheck Job), this is the best time—the only time—for me to get any meaningful writing done.  So, in the silence of any given pre-dawn morning along Argyle Street—a stillness rudely broken by the clicking keys on my laptop and Das Rheingold pouring from my speakers—this is where you’ll find me at work.

I write every day of every week (or I try to) but between now and Friday, I’ll be ratcheting up the pressure on myself because I’m writing for a good cause—namely, a fundraiser to support six non-profit organizations based in Michigan: Dzanc Books, Fiction Writers Review, 826michigan, The National Writers Series, and the Neutral Zone.  I’m on Team Dzanc, so any money raised will go toward the publisher’s many charitable endeavors, including its Writer in Residence Program, which places professional writers into classrooms to provide creative writing instructions to public school students who could not otherwise afford the opportunity.  I’ve written before about how Dzanc is simply one of the best champions of literacy and literary fiction in America today.  For a small sample of its titles, check out this previous edition of Front Porch Books.  I’m proud to be wearing the jersey for Team Dzanc in this year’s writing marathon.

How you can help
Go to Dzanc's Great Write Off page, scroll to the bottom to find my name and click on the Donate button and then fill out my name in the comment line provided in Paypal.  Of course, you’re free to sponsor any of the other Team Dzanc participants (like Matt Bell, Jac Jemc or Jason Ockert), but I do hope you’ll pledge on my behalf.  Why?  Because the more people who get behind me this week, the harder and faster I’ll write.  Lots of dollars means more wordy micro-bursts coming from the keyboard.

This week, I’m writing a short story (working title: “Bebout”) which is a semi-autobiographical account of my time in Army basic training.  I’m dedicating the words I write between now and Friday to the Great Write Off.  Whether or not I finish “Bebout” by the end of the week, rest assured your monetary pledges will fuel me all the way to the finish line.

What’s in it for you
When you donate, you'll receive a thank-you email with a donation receipt (Dzanc is a 501(c)3 non-profit, so your donations are tax deductible), along with the offer of a free eBook from the Dzanc catalog (all of their eBooks work on Kindle, Nook, PC/Mac, and all other reading devices).  In addition, anyone donating more than $100 will receive a one-year membership in Dzanc’s eBook Club (a $55 value).  AND everyone who donates will be entered in a random drawing after the Great Write Off is over, with one lucky winner receiving a full run of Dzanc titles from All Over by Roy Kesey through the forthcoming Neighbors of Nothing by the aforementioned Mr. Ockert.

But wait! There’s more...
Those are Dzanc’s incentives.  I’m adding a few more enticements of my own for anyone who pledges in my name:
  • Donate $20 and receive an original unpublished poem and whatever I'm able to finish writing on "Bebout" this week (with the understanding it will be in pretty rough shape)
  • Donate $50 and receive the poem, "Bebout," and an exclusive excerpt from Fobbit (cut from the final manuscript just before it went to press)
  • Donate $100 and receive the poem, "Bebout," the excerpt, and a signed copy of Fobbit
  • Donate $150 or more and receive all the prizes PLUS an ultra-cool Fobbit T-shirt, coffee mug and tote bag (as modeled by yours truly below)

Last year, The Great Write Off raised nearly $30,000 for participating organizations, thanks to the generosity of more than 100 participating writers and hundreds of donors.  My deepest appreciation to those who take a moment to join this year’s fundraiser.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Letter to My 1983 Self

In May 2013, my wife and I found ourselves back at the beginning of our marriage, driving the foggy, serpentine roads which hug the central Oregon coast.  We were there thanks to the good people at the Coos County Library who'd selected Fobbit as the Title Wave community-wide read for 2013.  We drove through North Bend, Florence and Seaside, overdosing on nostalgia.  As we passed the Sea Lion Caves, the Devil's Churn, and the original Mo's Chowder House, we were caught in a flash-flood of memory.

Nearly thirty years ago, this was where it all began for us—two young lovers on their honeymoon.  We were broke as a joke and saw nothing but anxious days of penny pinching ahead of us.  I was fresh out of work as a cook and my wife had just quit her job at the chamber of commerce in Jackson Hole (where we were living at the time).  We were on a shoestring budget at the start of our marriage—sleeping in our car when we couldn’t afford a motel and buying cheap loaves of white bread and paper-thin lunch meat which would serve as meals on the beach during our honeymoon.  We were so in love, we didn’t even notice the way our sandwiches crunched from windblown grains of sand.  Instead of going to movies, we fed our uneaten crusts of bread to flocks of seagulls.

We’d known each other for six months.  Ours was the very definition of "whirlwind courtship."  I proposed to Jean Frederick one month after our first date and we immediate set about planning the wedding ceremony.  It was the fast start to a long relationship which, as is evident by the fact that Jean Abrams just came up behind me, locked me in a hug and asked what I was writing, would last a lifetime.  We’re sort of like Canada geese, we’ve mated for life.

But we do our best not to take anything for granted, always keeping one eye flicked back and forth from the rearview mirror to the road ahead.

That week as we zoomed along the coastal Oregon highway in our SUV, Jean turned to me and said, “Wouldn’t it be weird if we saw ourselves—our old selves—coming at us in the opposite direction?”

“Like a rip in the fabric of time?” I said.

“Yeah, something like that.”

I thought about that.  I pictured our first car, a midnight-blue Datsun B210, approaching us, two tight, apprehensive (but unlined by age) faces staring through the windshield as we passed.  What would I say to that 20-year-old David Abrams?  I looked at that ghostly couple as they passed us going in the opposite direction and I chuckled.  Their bellies were full of white bread and their heads were crammed with dreams and fears, but they had no idea what kind of future was barreling down the road toward them.  All those years of joy and frustration, hope and despair….

Somebody should warn those kids.

And so, I started composing a letter to 1983 David in my head…

Dear David,

First of all, it will be okay.  Life looks pretty bleak, financially-speaking right now, and yes, those hard times will continue—for more years than you would prefer—but eventually, it will get better.  It won’t always be Wonder Bread and Land O’ Frost meats.  Hold on.  And try to convince that girl sitting beside you of the same thing.  You will go through a rough patch of years when you will sit slumped in defeat at the kitchen table with the bills, doing the math over and over, literally putting your coins in little stacks in front of you.  Together, you will ration your gas, turn down the heat, hoard grocery coupons, forsake soda for a number of years.  "Going out to eat" will be a holiday occasion.

You will work two jobs while going to school at the University of Oregon.   You think you’re through with standing on your feet over a hot grill for six-hour shifts?  Buddy, you better get used to the idea that you still have another four years of coming home wearing clothes soaked in sweat and reeking of kitchen grease.

And that first cup of coffee you just had the other day during breakfast at the Columbia Gorge Hotel—the one you apprehensively brought to your lips only after your new wife urged you to “try it, you might like it”?  Yeah, coffee will soon become your drug.  You’ll consume gallons of it as you try to stay awake between classes sitting in the campus Fishbowl poring over your textbooks.  You’ll also spike your bloodstream with the sugar from apple fritters—you’ll be able to afford two per day—and thirty years from now, you will remember them as the best apple fritters you’ll ever eat in your life.  You will search for a better fritter, but will never find anything to compare to those found in the University of Oregon Fishbowl, circa 1984.  The coffee will get better, though.

As will the sex.  This is probably something you already know, right?  I mean, anything is better than those anxiety-riddled, zipper-fumbling sessions of your honeymoon—including that one last night when you discovered that, no, the front seat of a Datsun B210 parked on a moonlit beach is not the romantic setting it’s cracked up to be.

You will have two sons—and, I hate to say this, but that first pregnancy will come one month into your marriage, so you better goddamn enjoy this honeymoon while you can.

You will write short stories and poetry in your spare time—what little spare time you have between changing diapers, grilling steaks on a hot stove, and memorizing facts from textbooks.  You will find a cramped space in the upstairs hallway of your house—just outside your son’s nursery—where you will set up a tiny table with folding legs.   On this table, you will place a typewriter (I know this sounds like science fiction, but in the not-too-distant-future you’ll be able to type your words into something called a personal computer—one which, believe it or not, will fit on that table without collapsing it).   You will sit at that makeshift desk, in front of that humming electric typewriter, and you will peck out letters, stringing them into words and sentences.  But not too loudly!  You don’t want to wake the baby.

You will experience an adrenal shot of pride and optimism when, two years into your efforts, a story you wrote about a young couple with a baby boy will be accepted for publication.  Best of all, you will be paid—real money—for this story, the first monetary transaction for your words.  It will feel like an IV needle of whiskey sunk right into your veins.  Your wife will take a picture of you sitting in your sun-soaked living room holding up that check.  Your smile will practically break the camera.  Nearly thirty years later, your wife will say to you, “Remember that moment?  We really thought it was the start of something big.”  You will smile a wry smile and reply: “It was the start of something big.  It just took thirty years for the big to get here.”

Your wife will say this to you on the very day you receive your first royalty check for your first published novel.  Yes, of course you publish a novel.  Did you really think all that hard work wouldn’t pay off someday?   Don’t get too excited yet, though.  You still have a lot of life to live before you get to that day.  And maybe that is the whole point—living a full life must come before the realization of dreams.

At any rate, let me back up a few decades.  You will graduate with that bachelor’s degree in English and you will move to a small town in Montana where you will find a job as a reporter for the local newspaper.  You will report on city council meetings, quilting bees, and church potlucks.  You will take pride in the stories you write about the newest dogs to arrive at the animal shelter.  You will be paid by the newspaper-column inch and so you will learn the craft of writing flowery sentences—but not too flowery so that they don’t get printed.  You will earn less than the average teenager working the counter at McDonalds.

Then your wife will become pregnant for the third time and you will pray to the gynecological gods that it will be a girl because, though you love your sons with all your heart and soul, what you really want is a little girl you can call “Princess.”  I don’t want to spoil things too much for you, but guess what?  That prayer will be answered.

Your daughter will be born while you are in your seventh week of Army basic training.  Oh yeah, I forgot to mention: you join the Army as an active-duty enlisted soldier because--well, you remember those student loans and the careful way you drove your car to conserve gas?  Yes, exactly.  You will do what needs to be done for the sake of your young family.

I know, I know, joining the Army is the very last thing you would have ever expected of yourself.  You can barely do ten pushups before collapsing in a heap, you can’t run a city block without being winded, the only time you’ve fired a gun in your life is the time you went hunting for sage grouse with your dad near Riverton, Wyoming.  And you missed the grouse when it flushed from the sage right in front of you.  But yes, you will join the Army and you will feel like a fish out of water, a shoe on the wrong foot, a snowflake on a tropical island.

But hang on, it gets better.  You go to war.  Not right away.  Don’t worry, you’ll have 17 years to get ready for that moment.  While all your colleagues are being sent to places like Desert Storm, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq, you will sit at a desk stateside, growing fat and pale and firing your weapon twice a year at the firing range where, sorry to say, sometimes you completely miss the target.  You will wonder what war is like and in the 17th year of your military career, you’ll find out.  You’ll get orders to report to Fort Stewart, Georgia, home of the 3rd Infantry Division and on Jan. 2, 2005, you’ll find yourself on a plane flying from Savannah to Kuwait and then on to Baghdad.  Yes, you will be scared.  Scared of being shot or blown up, but especially scared of what you don’t know.  A few months after your arrival in Baghdad, your illustrious secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld will talk about this very thing.  He’ll call it known unknowns.  “There are known knowns.  These are things we know that we know.  There are known unknowns.  That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know.  But there are also unknown unknowns.  There are things we don't know we don't know.”  You will admire the guy for being such a ballsy idiot.

Don’t worry, you will not be killed during your year in the combat zone.  In fact, you will find it to be a rather productive year.  You will work in a task force headquarters as a public affairs non-commissioned officer, you will write press releases, you will talk to reporters from CNN and the New York Times, you will be that official “Army spokesperson” everyone hears about, you will do your job and you will work your ass off, but it will feel good, that purity of labor, that singularity of purpose.

Here’s the important part—the part you really need to pay attention to.  During that year in Iraq, you will keep a daily journal.  You will write down everything you see, hear, taste and touch.  You will pour everything into that combat diary and at the end of the year you will have all this material, so much of it you won’t know what to do with it.  Well, guess what?  You’ll take all those stories from Iraq in 2005 and you will turn them into a novel that, eventually, people will read and a few of them might even laugh in a couple of spots.

That’s right, you’ll write a novel and it will be published.  Oh I know you think it’s going to happen a lot sooner.  I know you already have in it your head that it’s going to happen as soon as you graduate with your English degree from the University of Oregon, but be patient.  It’s going to take a few years.  Thirty of them, to be exact.

But when you hold that book in your hand, that miracle of taking words from your head, printing them on the page, and binding them between two covers, when that book is a reality, when you see it on display in a bookstore, when you watch people check it out of the library, guess what?  It will be one of the greatest moments of your life—right up there with that moment your first son is born (something which looms in your very near future), the first time you laid eyes on your wife, or that first velvety bite of the perfect crème brulee you’ll eventually have in a restaurant in Uptown Butte, Montana.  Yes, it will be THAT good.  Much better than that five-mile road march in basic training, the time you fell off a ladder and broke your arm, and certainly much better than your vasectomy.

Oh yeah, that’s right—you eventually get the snip-and-clip.  But don’t worry, that’s still another ten years down the road.  You have plenty of time to get ready.  For now, like I said, just relax and enjoy your time with that girl in the Datsun B210 as you swerve along this highway.  Believe me when I say, the road does eventually get much smoother and straighter.

Just keep driving.



A version of this essay first appeared at

Saturday, August 17, 2013

"I am not a book!" (Six Crises by Richard M. Nixon)

Look What I Found is an occasional series on books I've hunted-and-gathered at garage sales, used bookstores, estate sales, and the occasional pilfering from a friend's bookshelf when his back is turned.  I have a particular fondness for U.S. novels written between 1896 and 1931.  If I sniff a book and it makes me sneeze, I'm bound to fall in love.

First of all, hat tip to my friend and Spokane freelance writer Kevin Taylor for the title of this blog post after seeing a picture I posted on Facebook.  Kevin's wit was rapier-sharp this morning, whereas mine was butter-knife dull.

Perhaps I was flatlining this A.M. because after setting off on our Garage Sale Expedition, and plugging the address into our (Not-So-)Smartphone's GPS for 1139 W. Steel in Butte, this is where Jean and I ended up:

Crickets.  Sagebrush.  A wrong left turn.

There were certainly no lawyer's bookcases, stamp collections, or books (the magnets which drew my attention to the classified ad) at this location.  Stupid Smartphone.

We turned around and headed back toward Butte--Oh, did I mention we'd driven three miles out of town to the Rocker exit, took Brown's Gulch Road up past the landfill, sailed blithely and ignorantly past the posted NO TRESPASSING signs, and turned down a two-track road with storm-scoured ruts which looked like they wanted to murder our tires?  I didn't?  Well, that's exactly where the non-garage sale was located.

After much stabbing at the Smartphone with screen-cracking fury and internal kicking-of-self for not remembering that Steel Street--like most streets in Butte--followed a logical pattern, I realized it was located near Aluminum, Platinum, and Iron.  Well, duh.

As we walked up to the garage sale (the actual one, with milling early-birders, sad-looking Christmas decorations and a solitary--not plural--lawyer's bookcase with an overinflated pricetag), I passed three large bedsheets spread across the lawn.  And on those bedsheets were....boxes of books.  Radar Ping!

Most of the books were of 1970s vintage and I bypassed them (I mean, how many copies of Roots could I possibly own?).  But then I saw what I'll call the Nixon box.  Or, more precisely the Nixon-Kennedy box.  Packed tight and spine-up I saw several political books authored by dudes with names like Schlesinger, Manchester and Halberstam.  And then I zoomed in on one olive-drab spine of a Cardinal paperback with the words "Six Crises  *  Richard M. Nixon."

Who better to write about crises than Tricky Dick? I thought.  I paid 25 cents to rescue Mr. Nixon from his bedsheet-on-a-lawn embarrassment and brought him home with me.

Six Crises was written in 1962, quite possibly as a kick-in-the-nuts response to JFK's bestselling, Pulitzer-Prize-winning Profiles in Courage.  Six-Second History Lesson: In 1960, while finishing his second term as vice president, Nixon ran against Senator John F. Kennedy as the Republican nominee for President.  Nixon forgot to shave before going on one of his televised debates with Kennedy and he lost by a thin margin.  Better luck next time, Dick.  Oh, and by the way, Gillette would like you to appear in their next ad.

So, what are Nixon's six crises? Here are the thumbnails, courtesy of Wikipedia:

The Alger Hiss case: In which Nixon used the 1948 House Un-American Activities Committee hearings to boost his career by lambasting Alger Hiss, a high-ranking United States Department of State official, as a communist spy for the Soviet Union.

The Fund Crisis: In 1952, as a member of the United States Senate, Nixon was the vice-presidential running mate of Republican presidential nominee Dwight Eisenhower.  After he was accused during the campaign of having an improper political fund, Nixon saved his political career and his spot on Eisenhower's ticket by making a nationally televised speech, commonly known as the "Checkers speech," in which he denied the charges and famously stated he would not be giving back one gift his family had received: a little dog named Checkers.

Eisenhower's heart attack: In 1955, while Nixon was vice president, Eisenhower suffered a serious heart attack.  Nixon then briefly slid into the driver's seat and took the steering wheel of the nation.

Venezuela attack: In 1958, while on a tour of Venezuela, Nixon and his wife Pat were attacked by a rock-throwing mob.

The "Kitchen Debate": In 1959, while still vice president, Nixon traveled to Moscow to engage in a debate with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.  The debate took place in a mock kitchen that was intended to show Soviet citizens how ordinary American families lived.

The 1960 Presidential campaign: The aforementioned defeat.  Could we say Kennedy won by a close shave?

In his introduction to Six Crises, Nixon writes: "The last thing I ever intended or expected to do after the 1960 election was to write a book."  And yet, BOOM!, there it is less than two years later.  Out of habit, Nixon prevaricates from the very first sentence.  He claims to have taken pen to paper only at the urging of three people: Mamie Eisenhower, Adela Rogers St. Johns, and Kennedy, with whom Nixon shares this touching Oval Office scene:
In April, I visited President Kennedy for the first time since he had taken office.  When I told him I was considering the possibility of joining the "literary" ranks, of which he himself is so distinguished a member, he expressed the thought that every public man should write a book at some time in his life, both for the mental discipline and because it tends to elevate him in popular esteem to the respected status of an "intellectual."
I imagine it would be almost impossible to read Six Crises without the filter of Watergate and, in my case, the mental casting of Anthony Hopkins as the jowly liar.  Irony abounds, even in passages like this, which Nixon no doubt thought he was writing with sincerity and for-the-ages fervor:
      We are all tempted to stay on the sidelines, to live like vegetables, to concentrate all our efforts on living at greater leisure, living longer, and leaving behind a bigger estate.  But meeting crises involves creativity.  It engages all a man's talents.  When he looks back on life, he has to answer the question: did he live up to his capabilities as fully as he could?  Or were only part of his abilities ever called into action?
      One man may have opportunities that others do not.  But what counts is whether the individual used what chances he had.  Did he risk all when the stakes were such that he might win or lose all?
See what I mean?  Irony.  The same kind of irony that leaves a man who once held the highest office in the land sitting in a cardboard box protected from a dewy lawn by a bedsheet and whose "literary" words were bought for a quarter by a grouchy man who'd started off the morning by taking so many wrong turns.