I just published a story on Outside about a secret mission from the 1950s in which the military outfitted regular citizens with guns, gold and survival gear in hopes that they'd be able to sabotage a Russian invasion if it ever came. One of the near discoveries I made reporting the story is that it appears that famed pilot Bob Reeve was one of the secret agents recruited. Reeve is a story in himself; you can read all about him and the operation here.
Promoters of the Keystone pipeline have done a good job making the project synonymous with jobs. In that way, to oppose it would be to oppose jobs. However, in Montana, the claim was suspect back in 2012 at the nadir of the great recession, and remains so today. The reason is that the pipeline is traveling through a portion of the state that already has very low unemployment, on account of there being very few people who live there. Thus, people would have to move to the area to achieve the employment provided by the project. And if we're talking about jobs in far eastern Montana available to young men willing to move, well...those already exist in droves.
Here's a map I put together in 2012. The numbers remaining basically the same.
I just finished Jim Harrison's "The Road Home," which in many ways is a love letter to Nebraska--specifically the Sand Hills. Some of my forefathers settled in Nebraska from Sweden, and their farm stayed in the family till my grandmother sold it some time in the 1990s. The story always went that my great-grandfather wanted nothing more to get off the farm, but was obliged to stay, and my grandfather wanted nothing more to get off the farm and succeeded. I could always immediately understand that impulse, and nothing nice about Nebraska ever made it into family conversation. But Harrison makes a strong case for the state, just as Willa Cather did a century before. With the Keystone Pipeline now coming through and grazing the edge of the Sandhills, perhaps Harrison's book (and "Dalva," which proceeds it) should be essential reading. Harrison himself doesn't sound
Unrelated, a poem:
The pine, shrouded in fog, alone in a quarter horse pasture
emitted a frantic transmission of binary tones
The kind old modems used to make
When they were connecting to the world over our long-distant phone line
So rapid it was static to the human ear.
Is this what Crow hears
When listening to 100 humans jabber on a street?
Here, in no particular order, are the books I read in 2014, with some notation on whether reading it was a good idea.
Angles of Repose, Wallace Stegner: The story of three generations in the West, in Boise and Northern California. The protagonist reminded me of my grandmother Peggy, which made it sometimes slow reading, but Stegner's vivid writing was always engrossing.
All The Little Living Things, Stegner: The better of the two Stegner books I read, an unblinking meditation on death, and what we hope for in life. The closest thing the book has to an antagonist (other than the looming developers who want to subdivide the valley) is a hippy I was later told was based on Ken Kesey, whom Stegner spared with when Kesey was a writing student at Stanford.
Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes: This was THE book a few years ago. I enjoyed previous work by Barnes, but for the life of me couldn't understand what the rage was about with this work.
Welcome to Hard Times, E.L. Doctorow: A young, sturdy writer doing some "genre slumming" with Western tropes. Enjoyable enough.
Bottom of the 33rd, Dan Barry: I think every summer I'm going to read a baseball book. This one tells the amazing story of the Pawtucket Red Socks and the Rochester Red Birds playing a 33 inning game back in 1982. But really it's about the heartbreak of AAA baseball, and the death of the rust belt.
The Pale King, David Foster Wallace: His unfinished piece. Magnificent, and devastating for anyone hoping to imitate his craft, for the inimitability of it.
Why Are We in Vietnam?, Norman Mailer: Despite the name, most of this book takes place in the Brooks Range of Alaska. It's my understanding that Mailer only spent a few days in the state before writing this book, making his vivid depiction of the wilderness all the more stunning.
Executioner's Song, Mailer: 1,000 pages about Gary Gilmore, the first man executed in the United States for decades. Mailer puts you so fully into Gilmore's world that his language, his hopes, his fears, become yours.
An American Dream, Mailer: The third and last Mailer book I read this year, it was a noir, complete with a blonde bombshell and murder.
Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann: Meh.
Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter: The dean of the strangely ascendent Spokane literary scene, Walter weaves a touching story about men who never gave up on love.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, Maria Semple: Simply the best critique of modern Seattle life in existence.
Flight, Sherman Alexie: Reading Alexie makes me realize that writing in a strong Native American voice is like doing a Canadian accent: it's difficult to do for how similar it is. Only someone who deeply understands where the vital differences exist between White and Native cultures can do what Alexie does, which is create fully realized American Indian worlds. He does cartwheels with his gift in this book, which is nominally Young Adult.
The Hobbit, the rings, Tokien: Goes without saying. Perfection.
Ponteroy's Complaint, Phillip Roth: My attempt to understand what the fuss about Roth is, I'm still a bit in the dark.
Push, Sapphire: Tara and I do a thing in used book stores where we pick out something for the other to read that we're sure they'll hate. Tara picked this one for me, and I actually was floored by how good it was. The insight on illiteracy was especially crafty, from a writer's perspective.
Moving On, Larry McMurty: 800 pages about Patsy Carpenter, a young woman who knows she's pretty and knows she's smart and uses those attributes in the most self-serving ways thinkable. And you're sort of supposed to root for her. The best think I got out of this book was this line in the New York Times review of it:
No such luck, but it's a great thought.
The paradox of Washington’s state parks: State lawmakers have, through severe funding cuts, required the parks system to become almost completely reliant on user fees—mostly through the yellow Discover Passes seen hanging in every Subaru windshield in Seattle, but also camping fees like the ones Squire was trying to pay if he could just find someone to give them to. However, due to those cuts, the services that parks are asking people to pay for are getting progressively worse. In private-sector terms, it’s like taking half the ice-cream flavors out of a shop, cutting hours, then expecting people to pay more for their dessert.
Read more of my look at the dire funding straits of Washington State Parks aqui
I wonder in what generation the attributes of Palm Springs were well-known enough that this was an effective marketing slogan. I'd submit it's not this one.
“Is it on? …. Brad, is it on?”
“Yes, it's on.”
“OK. [louder] OK, so today we have a really exciting find out here--”
“Hold it John. Hold it. You have to introduce yourself.”
“I thought you were adding that stuff later.”
“I'll add some stuff but you can't start cold like that. You have to tell them what they're watching.”
“You didn't pick it yet, did you?”
“Naw I didn't pick it.”
“Ahem. Hello! And welcome---”
“Wait I'm not rolling. OK. Aaaand action.”
The moment the camera began recording, John crouched down onto his haunches, catching Brad by surprise. Brad panned down slowly to not make the shot jerky, just barely keeping John in the shot at all. John's head dropped to the bottom of the viewfinder before floating back up to center screen. Brad thought about calling “cut” again, but decided against any further disruptions. Anyway, he figured, they'd might as well set the amateur tone of this show early.
“Hello! And welcome to YouTube.”
Brad closed his eyes, wondering what it was John didn't get about this.
“This is John's Mushrooms of Mystery and I'm John Boreal. And today I get to show you a really neat find we, um, we found today just outside Snoqualmie, Washington, a really really beautiful area in the [louder for emphasis] beautiful Pacific Northwest. Show them the area a little bit Brad.”
You're the boss. Brad panned away from John to the forest around them, which Brad thought God must have created during some intense green phase of his artistry. Green ferns grew up from ground blanketed with green moss. Green vines crawled up trunks of the sitka spruce until they hit the branches that hung heavy with wet, green needles. The only thing that wasn't green were the mushrooms, one of which John was practically nestled up with by the time Brad panned back to his would-be star of YouTube.
John was breathing heavily, as if reclining on the forest floor was strenuous to him. The camera picked the raspy breath perfectly.
“This right here is called Man on Horseback, or uh, Canary Trisch, and it is, uh, a really tasty mushroom that a lot of folks even...” John paused for a breath “even in the mushroom community overlook sometimes.”
John kept squirming as if he wanted to get closer to the mushroom. Brad thought it looked ridiculous, but tightened the shot accordingly.
“Now, Brad, zoom in real close here and I'll show the YouTube some of the neat features of this little guy.”
OK, that's it. But just before Brad could say cut, John picked the mushroom out of the soft, mossy soil, to hold it up close to the camera, presenting it like a Madonna does with child. Let the scene ride its course.
“But other than the YouTube stuff did it go OK?”
They were bounding, John behind the wheel, down a rutted out forest service road back to town. Brad couldn't really explain why he was giving John the silent treatment. It was John's neck on the line with the video, not his. But something always felt a little arrogant about John's willful ignorance on anything that fell out of his narrow little world, a willful ignorance had been on full display today.
“Are there any other mushrooms coming up now?”
“Now? Well, I reckon sure, but they don't get much better than Man on Horseback. That's not one people know too much about. And thems were beauts.” Another thing that bothered Brad about John, when he was in a mood to be bothered by it, was the southern accent he spoke with, supposedly picked up in an upbringing that ceased to be southern at age 9. “Thems were beeee-outs.”
They'd done more takes in the patch of Horsebacks they'd come across, but each one was fatally marred by some mishap or other: Sneezing fits; disabled mics (that one was on Brad); case of mistaken identity – “whoa, now hold on that ain't Horseback” – that Brad captured on camera and deleted immediately, lest footage exist of eminent mushroom expert John Boreal misidentifying a mushroom. John said it was all the fuss with the shoot that threw him off. He got sloppy.
Back in the Bronco, Brad shrugged his shoulders. “Let me see what I can do with the edit. I guess the question is how bad you want to get to YouTube.”
Brad had gotten used to that exclamation of disinterest and disgust. Ever since John had knocked on his cabin door and asked him if he still had his digital camera.
“Aaaahpfff no real reason,” John had said when Brad provided the natural rejoinder, “Why?” “Just the publisher's getting squirrely about running a new edition is all. … Aaaahphff the gal there said somethin' about building a name for myself again. … ahh, social media or some crap. Phff.” By the time John had left the cabin he'd admitted the publisher wasn't going to run a new edition of John's thrice printed mushroom guide book, that John's name didn't carry the weight to compete on the shelves that it used to. He'd told them to send him on a lecture tour like they've always done, that he could pack in more miles than any of those queer novelists they've got – homophobic epithets still regrettably part of of John's wild-man schtick – but she'd said no. That's not how it's done anymore. How it is done was explained to John, but he related her instructions to Brad about as well as he could have relayed the important parts of an Aristophanes comedy after seeing it once in the Greek. But the important word was YouTube. That's why he needed a camera. “And a guy to press play, if you're up.”
Brad agreed out of friendship and being demonstrably without obligations, which was a distinct disadvantage he'd found to giving up all of life's demands to live in the woods near people like John. Demands are like gas; they will entirely occupy any space they are given, he found.
The Bronco now approaching the first gas station of North Bend, Brad allowed, “The one thing I'll say is you were you in it, John. And if you being you got you this far, maybe that's exactly what you needed to do.”
John sucked his teeth and gripped the steering wheel hard. “Aaaahpfff.”
Ever since John approached Brad about making some “web-iii-sooodes” – John would draw the word out like that to convey either confusion or disgust or contempt or whatever the feeling of the day it was he felt about this development – Brad knew this all tied back to a man named Marz. And if it didn't truly tie back to him, Brad at very least knew John blamed Marz, though John made a point to not say his name.
When Brad first moved to the little enclave of unincorporated King County after a layoff and too many years of coming home with a dull feel of impotency, Marz was living behind John's property in a rudimentary yurt that Brad shuddered to think served as his only protection against the steady onslaught of rain and sleet that rarely let up between November and June in these parts. John was Brad's closest neighbor; they shared a turn off from the county road, their mailboxes nailed to the same pole, but their driveways split different directions so their cabins were a half a mile apart. When Brad arrived at the cabin with first and only carload of possessions, John was the first person to introduce himself—he'd just been foraging, and had moss still stuck in his thinning white hair -- and invited him over for some mushroom tasting that evening.
Brad was embarrassed later to think how nervous he was to accept the invitation, so sure he was that this forest creature had some psychedelic trip-out planned. The frustrated novelist in him even sketched out a story line of a cabin that is always for sale to romantic urban ex-pats who quickly get snatched up and absorbed by the mystical Pacific forest people, never to be heard from again. A Tom Robbins meets Stephen King sort of tale.
But the dinner turned out to be more than benign; it was decadent to the point that Brad left John's cabin with a warm comfort that moving his entire life to a sopping wet crack in the Cascades may by chance have been the right decision. John was a published author of three mushroom books. One book was a guide for unusual uses of mushrooms. “See this sweater? I made the dye myself with Western Jack O' Lanterns. We'll have shroom tea later on.” Another was a thinky book called Dirt Cannibal about mushrooms representing a return to the dirt from whence we came – John allowed it was a rambling mess, but said he boiled it down to an essay that ran in Harper's. But the third was the money maker, John's Mushrooms of Mystery, a mushroom guide book so idiosyncratic with its generous use of exclamation points and sudden flights of poetry and philosophy – “If you find you've picked a false chantrelle, do not consider it a waste! Instead take a moment to reflect on ways you've changed yourself to look more attractive to others and less honest to yourself!” – that it was a cult classic.
Whatever John could not get with the income from the guide book he bartered for in mushrooms with other producers in the area. So he had wine that Brad's amateur tastebuds thought must be expensive and organic lamb chops from two properties over. And, of course, the mushrooms. “I keep the best for myself.” Brad had eaten plenty of mushrooms beyond the generic white buttons that come in cellophane in the grocery store, but that night at John's was something entirely different. The blanched chantrelles and matsutake and candy caps tasted to him like the whole of the forest's product, bark and soil and beautiful decay, a digest of everything that has ever lived in the endless forests that scraped against John's very kitchen window when the wind blew. Brad was later embarrassed about how animated he'd gotten that night, trying to put into words what he was tasting to a John, who just cast a knowing, wry smile. “Welcome to the bounty,” John said.
Marz didn't join them for dinner, but came in later to have some mushroom tea, which Brad thought too much fungus for one sitting and opted to keep to the delicious wine. When he came in, without knocking, John introduced him as “Marz with a Z no last name given.” Marz didn't flinch at the introduction, only put out his hand for a solemn handshake, which gave Brad an impression of humorlessness in Marz that would only be hardened in the years to come.
Marz had driven to John's house from Florida in a 1989 Datsun with the bed of the truck outfitted with a topper that allowed Marz to sleep in the back at night. He was a tiny man, 5'2 at the most, and was growing a meager beard that made Brad guess his age at 23. From his time working at newspapers in Seattle and Everett, Brad knew from countless sources yarning out their story it was common for Floridians to end up in Washington, and vice-versa; when people decide they don't belong in one place, their eyes naturally go to the opposite corner of our American box and press an index finger to the map. Here. Marz's sojourn was a bit more sophisticated, in that he first researched the Pacific Northwest after deciding Jacksonville was “not his jam,” which led him to research mushrooms, which led him to John's guide book in the Jacksonville Public Library. He then ordered away for the Dirt Cannibal, listed in the Also by this author section of the guide book and thereafter decided he must come be a student of John's. John quickly obliged when the tiny little human showed up on his doorstep holding D.C.; he later said he was a sucker for anyone who could get through that damn book.
Brad would often see the two leaving out John's back door, eschewing the tiny truck and John's Bronco to simply launch straight into the forest. The properties allowed that, both abutting National Forest land. Brad's cabin had a small field before the wilderness began in earnest; John's was tucked against the pines. Once you entered, right there from their property lines, you could hike to Canada without leaving the woods. But in John there was a disconnect: he had all those thousands of square miles to roam, and yet he would spend entire weeks studying an acre to know everything about it. This intense, almost neurotic observation he tried to teach Marz as central to understanding mushrooms. Like wine, he say, the mushrooms absorb all facets of its surroundings, from the rock 20 feet below it to the top of the doug firs above. He'd relay the lessons to Brad when they got together. Today he taught Marz the difference between this mushroom when it grew below a ceder vs. a Cottonwood by the Snoqualmie River. Yesterday he'd taught him that mushroom's need to for rotten wood. He laughed hysterically when, in Marz' presence, he told Brad that Marz' had suggested they eat some psychedelic mushrooms to key in their concentration. That he'd heard somewhere that's what Thoreau did at Waldon. Marz just looked sullen as usual while John laughed, obviously thinking it was a good idea.
If Marz was the son John never had acknowledged, which John sometimes suggested, it seemed to Brad to be a tense and joyless sort of relationship. Though he admittedly extrapolated from limited observations of the two, Brad thought he pretty well tell what going on: Marz had arrived with images of a monasterial existence where enlightenment would come through quiet contemplation of mushrooms, and perhaps some psychedelic trips, only to find himself the sober pupil of a hard and exacting teacher.
Either way, by the time Brad was going over footage of John's first foray into internet stardom, Marz was beyond prodigal.
After spending a year in John's back 40, Marz had left to continue “his education.” John predicted to Brad that the kid would never pick up a mushroom again. That he could tell he was boring the dickens out of him with some of the more advanced study. But then the website showed up in an email Marz sent to Brad; John didn't have a computer, let alone internet, so Brad had to call him over to his house to show him. MushroomMarz.com was a disorienting mess of tie-dye and swirling colors that featured an enormous picture of Marz, still unable to grow a proper beard but still wearing an improper one. The website's code bled raw at the edges of the page. There were “fun facts” listed on the left sidebar of the site and invitation to view Marz's photo galleries. But if you could look at it long enough to read main text, MushroomMarz was blatantly a sales site for psychedelic mushroom spores. “Grow Mother's gift in your own home!” was a typical statement, hyperlinked to a checkout page asking for credit card information. Another link: “Concentration through nature, not Aderall,” this one featuring a tiny 1 in superscript to its upper right, as if referring to a scientific study specified in a footnote that you could just go ahead and assume didn't exist, the footnote.
John was amused, and pleased to see a picture of his guide book under a header that read “The only guide book I trust!” Not that anyone would read the site, but it was a nice gesture.
John asked Brad to use his email.
“Marz – This is John. Good webpage! Glad to see you're still learning about the bounty. The pores you are selling are genus Psilocybe, not Panaeolus, which anyway doesn't mean “derived from Pan.” Picky picky teacher I know. Haha. Keep it up! – John.”
This guy's a published writer? Brad thought as he read over John's shoulder.
Marz never responded, the website didn't change, and it was all but forgotten in the wet stretch of wood for over the next year. Through John, Brad was plugged in to the surprisingly extensive artsy, aging-hippy social network of the area, which meant lots of large and generous meals if somewhat trying and clueless conversation for Brad's literal thinking. They would tease Brad that John had made best-friends with the last guy who lived in the cabin, that John didn't much care who lived there; whoever they were, they would always be his best friend as sure as that rusted out Bronco would always be his rig. John didn't fit the aging hippy mold—cheesy mushroom philosophy notwithstanding--clinging as he did to his crass, southern, Scotch Irish demeanor. But Brad could understand why he ran with this crowd: With them, they were the queers and he was the hick, a dynamic that certainly would be reversed were he to hang out with the local rowdies at the biker bars along I-90.
Brad didn't do much beyond work on his photography—he shot an entire year's worth of mushrooms with John for what John hoped would be a touched up fourth ed. of the guide book – and some writing. He didn't have any income, which he knew he wouldn't when he made the rash decision to move out there, and which he knew would eventually catch up to him. But he didn't think about that much. What mattered at that moment was he could track the seasons by how far the wisps of rain clouds had crept down the enormous cedars and firs and granite cliffs outside his windows. As the winter set in, the clouds would extend fingers, long and bony, down the trees, like a blind ghost feeling his way along an ancient wall. He grew to liking the woody flavored mushroom tea at night, and would sip it just at dusk when the evening chill set in and he comforted himself thinking that it was 15 degree cooler here than in the city, the distance that he felt in that.
And then word got to them about Marz's book reading in Seattle. John came over to Brad's house holding an alt-weekly newspaper another neighbor had brought him, asking him to use the internet. This was becoming tiresome to Brad, the constant need to use the internet. How long is he going to act as if he doesn't know what a computer is while at the same time constantly using mine. It's 2009 for Christ's sake! But Brad relented when he saw the paper. The neighbor who brought it was a trust-funder who had a sculpture show in the city, and had grabbed the paper in hopes she'd gotten a write-up. She didn't, but Marz did.
“Marz—he has no last name, which in undeniably part of his appeal—has become an underground hero to the young DIY mystics who populate Seattle's arts scene. He's technically a mycologist (aka mushroom smarty pants), but really he's a YouTube prophet of the bounty that could be ours if we just fucking left Capitol Hill once in a while and looked, but not in a cheesy Michael Pollen way. Really, kids, we're living in a bread basket here and we don't know it. And while we're mostly talking mushrooms you can bring home to the parents, that's just mostly. Legend has it Marz funded his self-published guide book selling psychedelic spores on the web, and regardless he's not shy about his love for what he calls 'the divine mushroom of immortality.' Local psychrockers Orwellian??Kafkaeque??!, who call Marz their spiritual shaman, will kick the reading off with an improv set. Don't miss any of it. Off Beat Gallery. 7 p.m. FREE.”
“Can I use your internet?”
John sat down at the desktop, itself no paragon of the modern technological age. He typed in MushroomMarz.com, which returned a 404 error. John looked up at Brad, as if he was already stumped, or perhaps scared he'd broken something. Brad told John to just Google Marz's name. John looked up dumbly.
With Brad back at the keyboard, they saw Marz had indeed published a book, only sold in select indie bookstores and, strangely, music shops in the Pacific Northwest. The search also turned up YouTube videos, showing Marz on the hunt for mushroom, displaying a jocularity that was entirely foreign to both men. There were also videos of him in the throes of hallucination, wailing like a whirling dervish. Someone under the tripping video wrote “Marz is my inspiration.” The forest in the videos looked familiar to Brad, but who could tell with the claustrophobic crush of green. John thought he could.
“And so even my woods have been caught in the world wide web,” John said.
Brad cringed at the antiquated tech language, and the bad metaphor. And yet.
The footage of John with the Horsebacks was as bad as feared. He said um and ah more than Brad had remembered, and interjected so many asides that it was hard to follow where the noun, verb and other bones of the sentence lay. Brad had told him he should write a script, or at least some notes. John said he was an expert, knew everything off the top of his head. “That's why you need a script,” Brad had said, to no avail.
To John's credit, he'd made Brad record way more b-roll of the monotonous forest around them, which Brad was able to splice into the footage to take an edge off the overwhelming amount of knowledge charging at the poor sop who typed in “Man on Horseback identification?” to Google. The trust-fund sculptor also had a folk album, the music from which she'd given John permission to use in his video. Brad found her voice as attractive as a lone goose crying out for its lost gaggle, but was able to nip enough guitar interludes to keep it to the benign plucking of acoustic guitar. Finally, Brad put together a small text intro for the pre-roll, the title of the show scrawled out in Comic Sans font per John's instruction (“Can you use that cool font where it looks like a kid's written it?”).
And so there it was, the first installment of John's Mushrooms of Mystery was finished. It ran two minutes and did truly, exhaustively explain what anyone needed to know about Man on Horseback mushrooms. Brad had to admit that John had a certain weird redneck charisma on the camera, especially when his thoughts really ran off the rails and he nosedived into a mumble only to explode into a quick fit of laughter from whatever he said to himself and only himself, the laugh not unlike those which the crazy old miners made in Saturday morning cartoons.
Brad called John over to play it for him. After a few seconds John gave Brad a high-five for scoring the right font for the title page, and then fell silent for the rest of the video, save for a few grunts of affirmation, like he was agreeing with the guy on the video. After it was done, he remained quiet for a few moments.
Finally he said, “And, so, then, people just are going to watch that on the YouTube?”
“Well hopefully your publisher can help push it out. This was there idea, right?”
“Push it out.”
“You know on...” but Brad quickly realized what it would take to explain to John the realities of getting traction with a video like this, the million things that need to be done right only to leave it to the random whims of internet epidemiology to truly find an audience. “If you're good with it, I'll put this up online, and you can email a link to your contact at the publisher letting them know this is out there and that it promotes the book.”
“And that's what Marz does?”
Brad was taken aback a bit by the mention of the name, which hadn't come up since John first came over with news of the publisher's newfound reticence.
Feeling a tug of empathy for his friend so clearly lost in this age, Brad just put it nicely.
“Yes, that's what Marz does.”
After seeing the notice of Marz's reading, after making clear to Brad in no uncertain terms he wasn't going to burn an ounce of gas to see that little queer if Marz didn't have the decency to invite him, John called every other mushroom expert he knew. That wasn't an easy task, he told Brad, given the way feelings get hurt in that business. After knowing John for years, Brad was just coming to realize how egotistical a field mycology was.
“None of them had ever heard of him. Not even Jules in Everett. No one,” John reported back. “Boy that Jules is still pissed at me, though. Boy.”
John wrote Marz an email, not mentioning the book but just asking after things. Brad told John he'd keep an eye out on the web for what Marz what up to – follow his videos and Facebook. The word “Facebook” made John growl, but it was the growl of a dog being bothered in his sleep: He didn't know what was bothering him; he just knew he wanted it to stop.
But the email went unreturned and it was John who first heard the bomb-shell and announced it with yet another unannounced entrance into Brad's cabin: Marz had gotten an advance to publish an actual mushroom guide from Peabody, an actual New York Publishing House.
“I just got a call from that Ruskie Bruce Vanticov. He's going to co-write it to help him with the technical stuff. Vonticov!”
The name meant nothing to Brad, and John took his silence as an invitation to continue.
“Vonticov was into his second edition at Peabody – dry as starch I may add. He calls me up mad as hell asking me if I'd called asking about a guy named Marz, like the planet. I said, yup, Marz just like a planet. You know what Vonticov says?”
Of course Brad didn't.
“They were discontinuing his run, but they let him share a byline with this no-name! Or one-name, to be more exact. Marz. He's asking me who the hell this kid is. So I tell him what I know, and all he can say is the 5th Avenue types who sit around thinking what books will sell say this guys gonna open up a whole new market of brush pickers. Brooklyn and Portland hippers”
“Whatever. 20 year olds who need a manual to know which end the shit comes out of thinking they're going to leave NYC and go live in the forest as soon as they figure out which subway to take. They say he's already got the audience, demanded a price to sign on with the pub house. For a mushroom book!”
“Vonticov's mad as hell. Tried to blame me. Asked me why I took the kid in. I told him he was the only one who read my best book. Vonticov laughs. He knows the one. Says I'm the only guy who's written 2,000 words about morel without a paragraph break. I think he'd hit the potato vodka already. Mad as Yeltsin.”
John looked like he'd had a sip himself. Brad retrieved a bottle anyway and poured two tall glasses of brown liquor. Brad raised his glass: “To the new generation.”
It wasn't long after hearing from Vonticov that John got news about his own 4th edition. Brad was happy to hear that when the rep started talking about building his name again, she didn't say the word Marz to John. That z cut deep now. Their parting was more than amicable. Marz telling John it was time for him to move on, while the weather was holding up. The melancholy but efficient way they folded up the old canvas yurt together, which John then told Marz he should be taking with him. Marz accepting. A handshake that turned into a hug that seemed to be headed for tears but didn't, and then the last remnants of the dust kicked up by the old Datsun evaporating into the August sun. And then just nothing, and then the website, and then this, this assault.
Brad pre-ordered the book, and when it arrived he told John he had it but emphasized John didn't need to look at it if he didn't want to. John was over in minutes. It was titled “Mushroom Marz: My personal journey with the bounty of the bark and soil.” John ripped it open and just started reading, yelling “wrong!” or “Et tu Vonticov?” at blurbs he disagreed with and “Plagiarism!” at blurbs he thought correct. He read it through in three hours, sitting the whole time on Brad's horsehair sofa without rising once. When he was finished he looked up at Brad in rage.
“That queer dedicated the fucking thing to Pan. To fucking Pan! From the Greek! And then he thinks to thank me in the back along with someone named Moonbeam and the copy monkeys at Peabody?” The book went flying across the living room, landing face down so Marz author bio looked up. His beard had finally come in, but his eyes still looked to Brad joyless, and now, given everything that happened, conniving. Brad would later see the special thanks entry in the back, under a section that read “mushrooms aren't the only thing that make me strong.” John's name in size 8 font. He also noted the extended section devoted to psychedelics. Brad had to hand it to Marz: He'd figured out where the money was in this mushroom business, and it wasn't Horsebacks.
John's video had been up 10 months by the time Marz and Vontikov's book had come out, and had registered 200 views. Brad hadn't told John about this pitiful showing, and John hadn't asked.
When John returned to Brad's cabin two days after reading Mushroom Marz, he didn't knock, burst in as Brad was hovered over the first passage of his own prose he'd considered worthwhile in months. John seemed just as mad as he was when he left two days before.
“Find out when he'll be in Seattle,” John screamed, pointing at the computer.
Marz was Googled. The book tour schedule was found. The Seattle date and time was noted. Brad drove, the Bronco being what John called “a towner rig,” meaning it couldn't break 40 miles per hour. The reading was being held in an airy bookstore on Capitol Hill, a gay friendly neighborhood of Seattle. Brad lightly broached the subject as they drove the interstate into the city, and John picked up the hint: “Ah I just say that queer stuff for effect. That kind of stuff used to sell books; no one wants a professor telling them what to eat, especially if it comes from dirt, and the hippies who read me have a weird thing about not wanted to be the kind of people who only associate with other hippies, so I became the loose cannon hick that can name the latin and wasn't afraid to get gushy about the woods and knock your teeth out all the same. Not that I didn't believe in everything I wrote. It's just I'd pick on the queers to keep people thinking I was, I dunno, from the backwoods. Anyway it worked.” John paused. “Worked.”
He'd hoped to find Marz before the reading, so he could say his piece and be done with it. Brad couldn't get John to tell him what the piece was, exactly. Brad didn't understand why he wanted anything to do with Marz.
But the new author didn't appear until he was introduced, his name drawing a cheer from the crowd that had filled the place, and John and Brad were trapped for the reading. “Never seen that before,” John whispered to Brad as he looked around at the people clapping. Brad would never admit it to John, but when he read through the guide he saw some genius in it; less quirky than John's guide, less ponderous than Dirt Cannibal, but yet something truly thoughtful: A handbook for a fuller experience in the brush that resonated like a beautiful cello with his own experience molting from city-person to country-person. He understood the cult following that seemed to have formed around Marz, Not that he had any joy seeing the tiny man take the podium.
“Thank you Seattle!” Marz said it like a rock star, and the crowd cheered as such. He was wearing a sweater that Brad could recognize by now as one dyed with mushrooms, with a gray blazer over it. His black hair was pulled back into a neat bun. He took a dramatic drink from his tea mug and then continued, almost sotto voce. “It is so nice to be back. This is weird but I want to start by talking about Facebook.” Some in the crowd gave a joking boo. “No, I know, right? Boo. But I, um, I, like, suck at Facebook, like, I have a Wooly Pine Spike, this amazing mushroom, for my profile picture, which, like, what high school classmate is going to recognize me as the one who looked like a fungus—maybe a lot I don't know...” The young crowd erupted in laughter, the kind of laughter a performer gets when he's already won the crowd over before he takes the stage. Brad looked over at John, who in turn looked around him with a stoney coldness, as one looks upon that which has taken away everything from him.
“But, like, anyway, I went on there to my author page – which also shows me as a mushroom [laughter from crowd and Marz] and what I saw there was that I'd say that after this amazing year working with amazing people in New York and the a-ma-zing Bruce Voncinov my co-author that 50 percent of my fans are still from the Pacific Northwest and so I just want to start off by saying thank you thank you thank you for your love and nourishment and if there's one thing about my Facebook profile picture that's true is that, like a mushroom, I soak up all that nourishment that is given to me. So, um, so yes. Thank you.” Another hearty applause.
The rest of the reading went like that. It was hard for Brad to reconcile his memories of Marz in the yurt behind John's cabin and the man standing at the podium, laughing and enchanting the crowd with his halted jokes that every time added a second punch-line, after the funny one, that was meant to show the profundity truly at play.
And then it was over and a line formed to get the book signed. Brad and John got in it. As the crowd crept forward in silence, Brad thought of what John said in the car about being a guy who could punch your teeth in. The queer stuff aside, he'd never imagined John as a violent person. But he suddenly feared he would sock Marz across the jaw when he reached the author. He'd seemed cornered these past weeks, confined, but not defeated, which is a dangerous thing to be.
“John, you cool?” Brad whispered.
So we'll wait and see.
Marz was looking down, fiddling with his felt marker when John reached him. John announced his presence with the thud of Mushroom Marz being dropped from three feet above the table. Marz startled violently, then looked up.
He began to stand up to hug or shake hands on equal footing but either way quickly saw that wasn't John's desire.
“Hi, uh, John.”
“Why didn't you write? Call? What's with this goddamn silent treatment like I ain't nothing?”
A woman with Marz behind the singing table, wearing an ensemble too hip to place her anywhere but the publishing industry, looked up from her phone and sternly at John. “Marz, do you need this man removed?”
“Like you could missy...”
“No, no, it's fine. John can we catch up afterwords? I mean, there's a lot to catch up on.”
“Damn right there is. But no, now. Why? What the fuck did I do to get stuck between Moonbeam and the good people at Peabody on your thank you list. A whole year! 12 months you stayed with me!”
“Marz, you need to keep this line moving and this man is being aggressive.”
“No. Look, John, what you taught me, God, that year, it was it. It made me.”
“Damn right!” John jammed his index finger into Marz's book.
Watching this, Brad saw John speaking with pure rage. That surprised Brad. He'd assumed there was some personal hurt beneath John's anger that, whether it came out in tears or a shot to the jaw, would somehow reveal itself when father finally addressed son again. But there wasn't, and Brad got the strange sensation John wasn't speaking to Marz, but to an avatar of all the years that had passed since he was last published, like a sad man cursing at grains of sand as they slipped through the pinch of the hour glass.
“Look, John, I've thought a lot about this. I got your email a few months ago. I, um, anyway. But toward the end, when I started asking you about the psychedelic stuff, you were very condescending and treated me like I was just some dumb kid looking to get high. Like I couldn't handle the concentration the way you could, like nobody can match the observations of the great John Boreal. John you asked me and I'm going to tell you and it has to be quick because you say you can't wait, so let me finish. And when I told you you should make a website you laughed. And when I sent you my website you wrote four sentences and three were correcting me. And when I got that email, something broke. I could feel it, but I couldn't place it, so that night I meditated on some medicine and right then decided that you were in my past, and that's where you belonged and where you had value, but that your negative energy had no place in my future if I was going to make this happen.” Marz made a sweep with his hand that took into large bookstore that was crowded on his behalf. “And I must say it worked. I made this happen.”
John's jaw hung open. The young publishing woman looked up with a there, satisfied? look. John drew a ragged breath, but when he exhaled his breath carried now words. He simply turned away before Marz could see his tears. As they left, Brad looked back. Marz already looked recovered, was signing books, selling book, winning fans, landing jokes. Again Brad had to side with Marz on this: Putting John in his past worked. Worked wonders.
Conversation came slowly on the drive home, first with a few random pops in the silent ice and then a tenuous flow through the cracks.
“How's my YouTube doing?” John asked.
Brad was honest with the number, if deceptive in the hopeful tone he took.
“Huh. Not bad.”
A cold wind blew over the speakers for a while, but Brad found not talking about Marz too oppressive.
“That Marz, he sure pours it on with the magic mushroom stuff, eh?”
This drew an indiscernible grunt from John. A laugh? A rebuke?
“Why, uh, why don't you dabble in that much?”
“Yeah, I've never seen you take em or serve em or anything.”
John broke into the sudden kind of laughter only he could break into.
“That first night you came over to my place, you think you came up with all that shit about eating the forest yourself?”
Brad bought the video camera he used to tape John while still a photographer for the Everett Herald living in North Seattle. He purchased it with his own money in a somewhat desperate attempt to make himself “more marketable” to the paper he was already employed by. The collapsing newspaper industry was funny like that. It put everyone in the mindset of a job-seeker, every day trying to update the resume their bosses carried around in their heads. Only the thing you were applying for wasn't a higher wage or more responsibility, but simply to stay off the shortlist for the next round of layoffs.
Brad had thought learning to shoot and edit video for the paper's website would help his chances. And it did for a while, but eventually economics caught up to him, or perhaps economics had always had his neck in the guillotine and it finally decided to let down the blade. Either way, Brad one day was called into the editor-in-chief's office.
He was 40 by then, divorced with no kids, and still moderately flush with the inheritance that had allowed him to buy the camera with cash. His father had been a compulsive saver. They come in worse models, he'd joke. After his last day at work he went home, poured himself a tall glass of whiskey, sat down at his computer, and logged into a photographer message board he knew to be frequented by bitter ex-shooters looking to commiserate. Everett Herald, 1992-2005, Brad wrote, like a line in on a C/V, as was the style in this chat room that knew all too much about jobs going bust. The responses came quickly.
L/O or Q?
Best day of my life looking bk
Yeah who needs money and health benefits and a retirement
Reporters take better photos with their flip-phones anyway
Reporters? Just have the interns do it all
Interns? Aren't there high school kids itching to get some experience?
Brad took a log sip of whiskey and took his hands off the keyboard, happy to sit back soak in the gallows banter. He thought for a moment he should be ashamed of himself, that he'd turned down invitations to spend the evening with actually human beings in order to drink alone and type on the computer, but he knew they were all charity invites. If they all think he's at home thinking about offing himself, so be it. He typed:
Just one thing: Whoever said video was the next wave, fu. U owe me a grand
Looking back, he always remembered his layoff in the muscles of his shoulders. He could still feel it years later when he sat in his cabin, watching clouds creep down or John's wood smoke waft up. When he was brought into the office and given the chat he knew was coming for so many years and fought against in so many ways, his arms were overcome with a feeling of release. It was as if they'd been holding onto a branch over a river, fighting the rapid current for years, and finally were able to let go. They the arms relieved thought it meant the death of the body as a whole.
In this week's Seattle Weekly, Rick Anderson has a brilliant piece about Misty Upham, a Blackfeet actress who died at the age of 32. She was found at the bottom of a steep ravine on the banks of the White River near Auburn. I won't try to sum up the tragic circumstances in a sentence. It all must be read in context, which Rick provides in droves. But a line toward the beginning jumped out at me, as it seemed to underline a point made in my previous post: That through a well meaning attempt to acknowledge and validate Native American grievances, white artists reduce an entire people as demential representations of oppression at the expense of a far more complicated, rich and affirming truth.
Five-foot-six, with a wide oval face, Misty could be a strikingly pretty damsel or a gritty single mom, adapting physically to her role. (For her part as Lila in Frozen River, she purposely gained 40 pounds and cut off her waist-length hair above the shoulders). The work brought in good money at times, but she struggled financially and sometimes lived in her car in Hollywood. She hoped for a breakout role, but was typecast as a Native American surrounded by trouble, pain, and failure. “I would love to do a film like Sense and Sensibility,” she told an interviewer, “but until society changes, the only roles I’d get to play in movies like that would be either as a maid or a prisoner, which totally sucks.”
When I learned that Tacoma was to become the new home to hundreds of Western art pieces, via a new wing constructed at the Tacoma Art Museum, I thought about White Pass. Just south of Mount Rainier, the pass was the main trading route between tribes west of the Cascades like the Nisqually and those east of the mountains like the Yakima. The pass represented the two groups coming together, but also the separation that the mountains demanded. The cultural distinction between the two regions were exemplified by their modes of transportation. The tribes west of the mountains used canoes. The tribes east used horses.
The reason the exhibit at TAM brought this to mind was that the new collection was quite clearly trying to capture the imagery of the Western United States east of the Cascades (and mostly east of the Continental Divide ... the family who bought the art did so while living in Wyoming), while the museum itself is built hard against the bay where the Puyallup River feeds into the Puget Sound. I sensed there would be some regional incongruity with the exhibit, something like a rodeo being held in downtown Seattle. Prior to the TAM expansion, the museum was a wonderful experience on account of the hyper-regionalism curators developed, immersing visitors in a world of rivers made of feathers and totem poles suggestive of Christ--this would seem to exacerbate the feeling that a bunch of cowboy art was out of context there.
I visited the exhibit the first weekend I could, and loved it. It has all the right classic names to bring in crowds--Russell, Remington, O'Keeffe--balanced by a satisfying number of contemporary pieces that gives hint at how the American West continues to be interpreted. There were few depictions of Pacific NW tribes, but not many. This was Wyoming art collected in Wyoming. Which I thought actually was fine, until I read the reviews.
Both the Seattle Weekly and The Stranger were deeply uncomfortable with the exhibit, so sure were the writers that it was forwarding a myth about the American West that covers up the true genocidal thrust of European expansion. The curators themselves rightfully acknowledge that some of the art in the museum was produced by men in New York and Europe who created based on what they saw at Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, and give contemporary Native academics a platform to refute ideas forwarded by the pieces in the form of small placards placed right beside those stating the name of the piece and the artist. Yet, ultimately, the curators felt the art was worth exhibiting; the critics weren't so sure.
The Weekly was especially harsh, leaning heavily on the collectors' German roots to exhibit the Eurocentricity of the work displayed. "The whole collection is promulgated by the same German Romantic cult of the American West," Brian Miller writes. The exhibit demands rebuttal, he says, perhaps a photo exhibit showing the state of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The Stranger is a bit more exploring in its critiques, but bristles that the collection amounts to many "generic images of Plains-style Indians," the implication being that the artists weren't honestly trying to capture Native culture, but simply trying to confirm the (Eastern) public's already held notions about what cowboys and Indians look like. Which, intentionally or not, gets to the problem of taking this art out of regional context. Pacific NW viewers will be, by and large, unfamiliar with the culture of the American plains, and thus feel compelled to see it the context of cheap genre art...oil-on-canvas version of John Wayne movies.
Which it's not. If anything, it's an oil-on-canvas version of Frank Byrd Linderman's interviews with various Plains Indian elders. These artists recognized that something was being destroyed and they tried to capture it before it was lost. They did celebrate cowboys, but contrary to popular belief, cowboys and Indians are not mutually exclusive. They saw poverty overtaking Indian peoples, but chose to focus on what made them proud rather than what was laying them low.
Perhaps they recognized that poverty, epidemic and scourge though it is, is often banal. A few years ago I recall stopping into an office building in Seattle that had a small art gallery in the foyer. At that time, it was showing an exhibition of a Seattle photographer who went to Pine Ridge and shot the desperate poverty that's there. That collection offended me. That someone would come back from a place and show only the most decrepit houses and addled humans, out of some possibly sinister but likely just misguided desire to churn up cheap and shallow emotions of white guilt. Indian poverty is always there for white artists to capture. And they do so, again and again, and nothing changes on the reservations.
Perhaps, at The Stranger suggests, the problem is whites depicting Native Americans, period. That when Indians become the subject they, by definition, become subjugated.That's probably true. But it's also reductive, and would demand an ethic that has us all ignore a rich, proud, tragic, dramatic and important history. That would be tragic.
The final cleanup order for the Duwamish River has finally come down. The river has a fascinating history with a heartbreaking conclusion: poor people eating poison fish that could kill them. The cleanup is going to help, but it won't be complete for 20 years, and even then Duwamish fish are going to be contaminated; just less so. That's just what big cities do to water: poison it.
You can read my writeup of the cleanup plan for High County News aqui.
Sometimes, as a writer, you feel a narrative must be constructed to tell your story. When you need to build a narrative, you need to describe the scene. When you need to describe the scene, you need to grab some snippets of detail that you hope will paint a picture. Only, sometimes you don't actually need to build a narrative to tell your story, and when that's the case, all the detail you include in order build it comes off terribly unnecessary. I've been guilty of this; I once struggled mightily to describe the board room in which an oil and gas auction was occurring. Why did I think the reader gave a wit? I don't think the reader crossed my mind; I just wanted words and reached for them there. I bring it up on account of what seems like a growing use of scene setting in journalism that's often of questionable utility. A paper I won't name recently interviewed the same person for two different stories, for the same edition. In both stories, the reporters made sure to mention which coffee shop this source met them in. It was good advertising for the coffee shops, and showed that this person was willing to get coffee and various places around town to talk to reporters, but did little else to help the reader understand the issues at hand. Then today, in the Ranger out of Tacoma, a court reporter turned the story of a man getting sentenced for threatening another man into a sweeping epic, describing everything about the court room. Only there wasn't much to say about the court room. It was "nondescript," "with only a clock on the wall behind the judge." It was painted a "light yellow." I'll submit that people reading the story don't care about the color of the courtroom. They want to know what happened, and why. Again, I'm just as guilty of this sin as the next guy with a notepad. But it seems to be a growing menace, with red eyes, teeth that look like shards of glass, and a snarl the sound of................
Then when the tide pulled back, tugging the sand with infant fingers, I gained berth between the bluff and the sea.
My map, an ancient piece of wisdom passed along to me by a local salt who was as skeptical of my journey as he was the cause of it, told me the bluff would only be passible when the tide was at -5 feet. My tide-table, a much more modern contrivance that took all the mystery out of the lunar whims, showed I had only a half-hour this day to enjoy passage along the rocks before the gray water began heaving itself against them again. It would not withdraw far enough again for two days, at which time I would be making my return if the trip went as planned. Travel over the bluff and into the headlands was possible, but undesirable, for nature hadn't provided for it, instead laying all along that route a furious tangle of tropical sinew. Only a machete and nine hours of hard thrashing labor would deliver me to the next beach by that means. I would need to seize the brief low tide if I hoped to complete my journey at all.
The night before had been pleasant if hot. Seaweed stranded by the last high tide emitted a fermenting stench as it rotted in the heat and was consumed by black flies the size of fleas. I erected no shelter and slept not in my bedroll but under it, using it as a narrow and heavy blanket. The sand was my mattress. The bedroll was awkward and I recollect, barely, stirring in my rest and twitching my legs against the bulky canvas mass. But eventually I fell into a deep slumber and I awoke that morning with a start, knowing even before I looked at my wristwatch that my time to quit the night's camp and embark through the rare passage was near upon me.
Yet despite my fleeting window of time and the peril that faced me if I missed it, I battled against a queer reluctance to leave. With my bedroll and fishing rod attached with old twine to my rucksack and my navigation equipment secured away, I simply sat in the sand for an indeterminate time that morning looking at the lowlight hum of the morning sun, which was made formless by a flat gray veil of clouds over the water, and listening to the swishing murmurs of low tide. I fear I almost fell back asleep staring into that warm void which felt like love. I was finally aroused by the sweet, humid musk of a flower common in these coastal woods—confederate jasmine—that must have ridden a downdraught from some unseen upland prairie; I stood up, brushed the loose sand from trousers, and made my leave. My clip was the guilty one of a man who knows he's tarried too long in a mistress's chamber.
The bluff stood to my right, a sheer 100 feet above the ocean. Seams in the rock ran vertically and uniformly along the entire, mile-long stretch of cliff. Some vaguely remembered lecture told me the ribbed form dated back to a sudden hardening of lava which locked the rock into a basic and simple crystalline form. As I went along, the seams—made black by soggy moss that gained purchase in the crack--passed me like telephone poles pass a slow moving train. To my left, in the water, sharp pyramids and flat podiums of rock stood sentry as the ocean brooded around them. The water was still but for a thin respiratory lap every seven seconds or so and some small eddies that twisted seafoam around like yellow-white taffy. The churning and turbid water immediately suggested to me its violent energies were being replenished. The wet sand, unaccustomed to my human foot, let out a fizz of bubbles each time I stepped and made me feel a trespasser on the rarely exposed land. The air smelled entirely of salt as remnant pockets of seawater dripped from the cliff, drips I could clearly hear for the air was still and silent. It altogether felt like I had just walked into a room where not an hour before a loud orgy had taken place, and stood still now only to let the revelers refill their drinks.
From the bluff, my destination stood eight hours before me and this would not be my last low-tide passage. But none were as perilous as this and I knew that if I gained the next beach without being swept away by a rouge swell I would arrive intact. My destination was a small cove where, on word from the old fisherman who outfitting me with my map, I would find sea cod of uncommon size. The cove had a narrow mouth to the ocean that was continually bombarded by a raging surf, thus protecting it from commercial fishing vessels. As I was now learning, the sea protected the cove from overland travelers just as well. But the pool was deep, he'd plumbed it at 200 feet and ran out of rope before reaching the bottom, and the bounty was plentiful. I did not want to believe it, it seemed clearly mythical, but his description of the place was so vivid that before I knew it I was obsessed with reaching the place myself. The silver of the huge cod's back he'd told of kept flashing at the back of my eyeball like a dollar coin, stunning my brain so I would lose whatever train of thought I had been on, at times even striking me dumb as I spoke to friends and associates. As he handed me his map of this imprecisely surveyed stretch of coast, I could not tell whether he regretted telling me of the cove or that my going was his intent all along. Regardless, fishing is my calling, and now the cod were my sirens.
And, lo, did the sirens cast me against the reef. The reader will have to take me on my word when I write that I am of a disposition that searches out my own guilt in any calamity that I'm subject or witness to. If a fault of my own does not exist then I invent one. It dates to the very inception of my being, when my mother died just as I came from her and into the world. Once I had the faculties to understand what had happened to her, I was laden with a murderer's conscience that I never completely shook. I relate this macabre detail only to impress upon the reader how furious I was at myself when the tide began to flow again against the bluff, which should not have happened until I was safely on the next beach, and I still had at least a 15 minute walk ahead. I wanted to own the full blame of the impending doom I now faced, blame that stupid delay I made before setting out, and did for a moment when the sizzling white trim of a wave brushed my shoe. But the fact is that the sea was its own master that day, that tide-machines be damned there still lived mystery in these waters and the low tide was not as low as had been forecast. Like the old shopkeep forced to take a vacation by his physician, it hadn't gone as long or as far away as prescribed, and was making haste back to its province as soon as it could. The tide was less cinching me off from safety than collapsing the walls of the corridor, which is to say everything was deteriorating quickly. I wanted to run but the sand had already been licked by the fresh tide and made it difficult to gain strong footing on. Anyway, I felt then as though my speed were being governed in the balance between the earth and water that I stood between, that if salvation from their crushing communion would be had, then it would be at pace with them and not against.
My sense of doom was heightened further when a large wave cracked against one of the rocks in the shoal. It had been the first such sound that morning, and it shook me as if it were teaching me for the first time the nature of violence in this world. Then it cracked again. The water made another advance and reached the middle of my shins, snatching fist-fulls of sand from beneath my feet and forcing me to grab on to the cliff for balance. I was 10 minutes from the beach ahead, which glowed nearly white now that the day had come into itself. My hand smarted from mere contact with the seawall that was covered in sharp barnacles. My feet ached from the frigid water. I knew I would be completely submerged before I was finished, be that finished with the passage or life or both. Despite myself I watched each wave break to see how far up the shore it advanced. Just as the tide would begin to seem impotent against me it would make another fearsome run to the bluff. Soon I was being knocked to my knees by every fifth wave or so, my hands left bloody by my futile attempts to cling to the rock, and then, finally, I was swept away by the rip-tide.
I knew my only chance at survival in the water lay in my ability to keep my head pointed toward the beach ahead, that in that way I would keep as many of my wits about me as possible. So when I knew I would be swept out into the shoal I lay I my belly and kept as sharp an eye as I could on the beach ahead. As I was pulled into the water I narrowly missed a large piece of rock that would have surely been my doom had I hit it and then was deposited 10 feet from the bluff I had just stood along. I made another five steps of advance before the next wave presented itself. I would have to get under it lest it throw me hard against the rock, so I abandoned my rucksack and dove at it's ice roots just as it crested. The maneuver worked as well as it could have, I was not cast against any rocks, but in exchange I was now entirely in the possession of the sea, my only hope to swim through that terrible reef that had become ravishing with the returning tide. It was difficult to breathe, it felt and smelled as if my sinuses and lungs had been injected with brine, but I managed 10 strong overhand stokes before another swell approached. Again I attempted evasion by diving into it, but my timing was wrong and the water was too strong. I rolled twice over before feeling my shoulder drive into the rock wall. The joint was dislocated and the water completely withdrew and left me momentarily on land. The pain stuck me paralyzed. So there I lay, lame and naked, when the next wave came in and claimed me again for the sea. Being back in the water spurred me again into action, making effort with my legs and one good arm to travel as far as I could. For a moment I hoped that the freezing water was having an anesthetizing effect on my shoulder. I advanced with three or four good strokes. I was near the beach now, and if I could swim another 20 the next wave would push me not against the rock but up onto a forgiving shore. I took another stroke and reminded myself to breath, to keep the predestined pace. The ocean seemed to be paused now, filling me with a distant hope. But that hope proved unfounded when the next wave picked up the disabled arm and twisted as if testing the properties of a human appendage tethered to the body only by skin and muscle. Even before my body was delivered unto whatever grim destination the wave would have me I vomited in pain, and then fainted.
When I regained consciousness, I was on the beach, supine in dry sand, burning under a noon sun. I was naked but for some tattered remnant of canvas pants and my leather boots. Beside me was a single piece of tubular seaweed that must have come there attached to me. I blinked and found the edges of my eyes to be crusted by sand. I licked my lips and found them to be parched. I tried to rise but my shoulder barked and I cried out in pain.
“Shush,” I heard a warm voice say.
I strained to see who said it, but I couldn't contort to look around me without seizing in pain.
“Shushhhhh.” The voice spoke again.
And I no longer needed to look to see who spoke, for I'd always known the voice. I was consumed then by the calm that comes with shelter and warmth, and fell back to sleep to the hush of the ocean's thin rattle.
The New York Times Magazine this summer had a great piece on the way in which the effort to overhaul our nation's approach to math education may be faltering on account of a very basic mistake: we aren't training our teachers to teach "the new math."
The article made a lot of sense, but a point it didn't bring up, and which I hadn't considered, was brought up in conversation by a guy behind me at the grocery store. He was complaining to the person he was with that he can't help his son out with math anymore because he doesn't understand how his son arrives at his answers. Once he mentioned it, I recalled that many of the Republican attacks on the Common Core curriculum amount to snarky notes fathers have written on their kids' math homework, saying something along the lines of "I'm a math major and I don't get this." I thought the arguments were pretty lame, but hearing the guy sound truly troubled by the fact that his son was disregarding everything he'd taught him in favor of the new math had me re-thinking my stance.
Then, as if it sensed I was trailing from the straight and true path of liberalism, the Times today published a round-robin debate on whether parents should help their kids with homework in the first place. Most of the experts seem to think not.
So there you go. I should have turned around chided the guy for even trying.
A column that appeared in the Helena IR today (not exclusively, but that's where I saw it) makes some of the best points regarding environmentalists wooing conservatives I've ever read. I recommend the whole thing, but here are some points the author, Brendon Steele, made that everyone concerned with finding a broadly supported solution to climate change should consider:
-- Mild entreaties to conservatives that rely on a Teddy Roosevelt-type conservation message to discuss climate change doesn't work. I can't think of how many times I've read columns that try to equate hunting heritage to a massive overhaul to the carbon economy. They don't add up in the conservatives mind because...
-- It's the solutions, not the problem. As is so often the case, if a problem demands an undesirable solution, then the common course of action is to deny the problem. As long as climate change solutions are state-based (and I think they must be), then conservatives are going to deny it.
-- This isn't totally a big-oil conspiracy. While the oil companies have certainly aided and abetted climate deniers, the reluctance to subject the American energy system to a new government regime is entirely predictable given our national narrative.
Liberals are understandably so fed up with conservatives that they don't really even bother debating them about it, instead turning to friendly news outlets that give them another shot of alarmism that proves to them they were right even if they weren't listened to. But Steele seems to be onto an approach, that if heeded, could help the left bring the right back into the conversation.
P.S. A kind of dumb take on climate change: George Oshenski, who is a great dude and usually a good writer, seems to make some pretty big jumps in logic tying his bad hunting weekend to climate change in this column. Again, liberals would love for enough evidence of a problem to make conservatives accepting of any solution. But that's not going to be the case.
Last night I was having a beer in downtown Olympia when I noticed they were selling cans of something called Montucky Cold Snack. I asked the bartender about it and he said it was "the official unofficial beer of Montana." I thought he was just making that up on the spot, told him to not go too far on his sales pitch, and ordered one out of curiosity, thinking it was likely the product of one of the bigger MT breweries like Big Sky.
It wasn't good, but what really almost made me spit out the beer was when I saw that the bartender wasn't free-styling with his sales pitch; he was just repeating what the can says--"The official unofficial beer of Montana"--and that it is brewed in La Crosse, WI. Granted, I probably overreacted, but when I got home I pored over everything I could learn about the beer and put feelers out on Facebook. Here's what I've figured out:
--The brand was started by a couple of really nice-seeming guys from Montana.
--These guys wanted a "local-branded" light lager for Montana, so people could drink local while avoiding heavy IPAs etc. common to local micro breweries.
--However, to compete with other cheap light beers, the beer is not brewed in Montana but is contract brewed by an outfit called City Brewing in La Crosse, WI, which is one of the biggest such contract brewing facilities. It's the same facility that produces other cheap tall-can brands like Old German and Milwaukee Light.
--To preserve a modicum of local cred, the guys commendably donate 8 percent of profits to Montana charities. They've given money to groups as divergent as the local Audubon Society and the Montana Stockgrowers Association, a group that's rather outspoken when it comes to wolves and bison.
--It boasts an almost too good to be true distribution map, which is why I found it in a bar in Olympia, Washington just two years after they started brewing. That's blink of an eye when it comes to breweries, though this is comparing the beer to microbrews, which this is not and does not claim to be.
Reading about these guys, part of me feels bad about having a negative word to say about a product they've obviously staked a lot on. However, the other part of me can't get over their decision to market what is likely the exact same beer as Old German as "the official unofficial beer of Montana." While the statement is complete nonsense--i.e., it doesn't mean anything, or at least could mean so many things that it's impossible to know what it truly does mean--were Bayern, Kettle House, Big Sky or Blackfeet breweries to try to market any of their beers with that tag line there would have been a huge uproar. Too many people have worked too hard to make good beer a thing in Montana for anyone to even approach the mantle of "official unofficial" beers in the state, especially some upstarts contract brewing in Wisconsin.
However, it's totally natural that Montucky Cold Snacks would pitch an outrageous tag line to win over drinkers, since the beer is 100 percent marketing. As this Billings Gazette profile puts it, a contract brewer is "someone who would brew the beer while they did everything else." Well, when your business is beer, and you're not making beer, everything else amounts to figuring out how to package and sell a product. It's not unlike a local diner getting the same Sysco food products the guy down the street and then hoping its sign, prices and service are enough to distinguish it. Legitimate business, but you can't market yourself as the end-all-be-all of food if you do it.
All in all, I hope these guys the best, and if every dollar to them takes a dollar away from Coors, God bless them. But seriously, change the tag line.
I had the privilege last week of helping my brother in the final days of his successful campaign for House District 96 in Missoula. He won the race by 120 votes, and while the Democratic Party considered the district slightly blue, given the results of most of the elections Tuesday night, it's notable he won. The performance of the Democratic state senate candidate in Andrew's district bears that out. Had her district only covered the part of Missoula county covered by Andrew's district, she would have handedly lost the seat. However, thanks to a good chunk of deep blue neighborhoods in her district that are not in Andrew's (each Senate district encompasses two House districts), she was able to win. Put another way, Andrew convinced a lot of voters who were disposed to voting against Democrats--and indeed did vote against the D senate candidate right above his name -- to vote for him anyway. How? He worked his ass off. While not nearly as sprawling as some Montana legislative districts, it takes about 30 minutes on I-90 to get from one end of it to the other, and Andrew canvassed it constantly from April till election night. Last week, I spent most of my time in the Frenchtown area, which is rural and reeling from a paper pulp mill plant closure five years ago. The culture there is fundamentally different from that in Missoula, which I felt deeply as I snaked my Prius down long dirt drives to homes surrounded by ranchland. While there are plenty of reasons this shouldn't be so, the fact of the matter is the Dems have trouble with this class of voter. I hazard a serious generalization when I say they have less formal education and are more religious. There is a feeling that the Democrats put up barriers to people like them getting good jobs. (I think they have a point to an extent, though it was rich Republicans who shut down the Frenchtown Mill despite it being profitable.) What Andrew proved, though, is that by going out and looking these people in the eye and hearing what they have to say, a politician can cut through all the talking points they are fed on cable TV and AM radio. I don't think Andrew would object to me saying that now that he's elected, he'll be on probation with these rural voters till he starts voting on policy. How he'll do in their view won't be known for a while, but the fact that he put so much work into meeting every voter gives me hope that they'll feel they've been done right by.
A few more thoughts on election night 2014:
--This was Andrew's observations first, but it should be repeated: The Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, Amanda Curtis, received an F from the NRA this year. The D candidate for U.S. House, John Lewis, got an A. Both only got about 40 percent of the vote. Which raises a major question about how much good it does Democrats who bend over to appease groups that almost by definition repel their base. There's plenty of post-mortem talk about whether in hopes of capturing the middle the Democrats abandoned their base this year, and paid dearly for it. I think the Curtis/Lewis races show that at very least the base is as valuable as the center, in terms of votes. And they'll be with you longer if you capture their hearts, meaning Curtis' political future in the state is far brighter than Lewis'.
-- In their ecstasy, the Republicans need to remember that a majority of this nation voted Obama into office, twice, well aware of his stance immigration. For every argument that Obama pursuing his immigration agenda would equate to ignoring Tuesday's voters, I would submit that Obama not pursuing his agenda by whatever means he can in his capacity as the federal executive would be ignoring the voters who put him there in 2012. Really, the Republicans are trying to use a wild misreading of a low-turnout midterm election to essentially dictate the Oval Office agenda. (I made this post originally to On Point's website. It got 4 up-votes so definitely should be repeated here!).
In Germany this summer, I visited a museum documenting the peculiar carnival celebrations the region once held. Like other carnivals across the world, masks were central to the festivities, an example of which is shown above. I was reminded of the German celebration several times while learning about the native peoples of Alaska, who also used masks often in their rituals.
That these two peoples, living on opposite sides of the world, both developed intricate mask making skills is fascinating to me. I realize they by no means are the only two cultures to do so, but encountering them in places as divergent as Southern Germany and Alaska imparted upon me how there must be something very human about wanting to put on a mask. And, apparently, anti-Christian. When the Reformation occurred, protestant clergy banned the carnival celebrations in Europe, leading to a decline in that mask-making tradition where Catholicism lost hold. Likewise, when protestant missionaries came to the American arctic, human masks were banned amongst the indigenous people.
Most places you go around Fairbanks, tourist places that is, have signs written in both English and Japanese. The Japanese come to the area in droves to see the Northern Lights, which has bred a belief around town that in Japan, it is considered good luck to conceive a child under the Aurora Borealis. Not true, a Japanese tour guide told me. He's not sure where the myth came from, but based on the advanced age of most of the Japanese tourists I saw, I was inclined to take him at his word. Conversely, and in the same vein, it is true that the indigenous Athabascan people in Interior Alaska believed bears were bad luck for conception. So, women of child bearing age would not look at or talk about bears, and would hide behind smoke houses if one approached a camp. It all goes to show how humans are obsessed with progeny, if not their own then other people's.
We were told to expect very little from Fairbanks. A friend of mine hated it so much he demanded he be transfered to Anchorage after less than a year. We only spent a month there, so I don't want to speak too soon, but I'll also not speak ill of Alaska's second city. Much of what we did has been documented earlier on the blog: watched girls play football, traveled to the northern-most place in America, contemplated pre-American, Russian-Alaskan trade. Here are some other things we loved:
The Big I: This is a dive bar near the Chena River where most of the padded bar stools have their stuffing hanging out of the pleather. If you can manage to balance yourself on one of the seats, more likely than not you will find yourself in good conversation with good people.
Carr's Men's Clothing Store: It's been open since the 1920s, but won't be much longer. The owner, Dan Blood, will talk your ear off if you have the time, and I was happy I didn't have anywhere to go the two times I visited his store. He admits he's a bit of an artifact, a merchant who tries to convince men to spend a lot of money on one suit or one pair of Filson pants that they can wear for the rest of their lives. Men don't want that kind of clothing. What's more, clothing companies don't want to make that kind of product, finding the profit margins are better with cheaper products sold for cheaper prices. You could forgive a guy whose business depends on selling a product no longer being made to people who no longer want it for being a little grouchy. But Dan took it with a weary smile, and sold me some great pants.
Aurora Borealis Lodge: By our last week in Fairbanks, we'd only seen the northern lights once, and that was a thin curtain of green in the late evening sky. Tara had some nights off, so we made reservations to drive up to the Aurora Borealis Lodge 30 miles outside of town. It's open from 10:30 p.m. to 2 a.m., during which time people sit in a candle-lit room and watch the sky through large picture windows. The owners, Mok and Akiko, create a complete sense of relaxation in the lodge, playing Louis Armstrong jazz softly and brewing up fresh coffee and hot chocolate for guests. Your mind can wonder pretty far staring out onto a dark Alaska night as a Mr. Coffee snores out a fresh pot of Folgers. Then, before you know it, what was just a moment ago black is faintly white. In your half-sleep you might think it's a cloud lit by the last vestiges of the sun. But then you recall the time, and then you notice the sky turning from white to green. There was a meteor shower on when we were up there, so several times a white celestial ember fell into to the celestial smoke.
Not bad for a bad city.