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* — Incomplete in the sense that, at various points, I forgot to take pictures. I did manage, however, to make it to Missoula and back safely, which was my prime objective.
Tuesday, April 19, I left Billings for the 345-mile drive to Missoula, where I had a reading scheduled for Fact & Fiction that night. The next morning, I headed back home. In between: visits with friends, road food, inclement weather and alcohol.
Join me, won’t you?
What did I leave out? Lots of stuff: pictures from the reading in Missoula, hosted by Fact & Fiction’s wonderful owner, Barbara Theroux; my reunion with old friend Robert Meyerowitz, the new editor of the Missoula Independent; my kind hosts, Lisa Simon and Jason Neal and their wonderful home in the woods; cats Maynard and BeBe, who tolerated my intrusion. During the best parts of the trip, I put the camera down — which says little for my photojournalism skills but does commend my ability to fully live in the moment. I’ll take that trade.
Cheryl Anne Gardner, one of the many talented authors I’m fortunate to call a friend, posted a link on Facebook to the movie “Vanilla Sky” and observed that despite her well-considered disdain for Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz, she finds the creepy surrealism of the film to be utterly enchanting.
I have different thoughts about “Vanilla Sky.”
I saw it in San Jose, Calif., where I used to live, with a woman I met online, as that was my predominant mode of dating back then. (You see, friends, I’m a swing-shift worker — 3 p.m. to midnight — and I daresay that the kind of woman you meet after midnight is not, in many cases, the kind with whom you want to share the other hours of the day.)
Anyway, I’ve written before about the follies of online dating, but this woman was a cut above. We had great fun, laughed, talked easily and widely and generally had a fine time, so much so that I wrote to her the next day and said I’d love to see her again.
While not word-perfect, this was the gist of her reply:
“Craig, I had such a good time last night. You’re a great guy, a real gentleman. In fact, I called my ex-boyfriend after I got home and told him I wished he were more like you. He said he would try, and so we’re getting back together. Thanks again!”
I resolved soon after to become an unrepentant bastard, a stance that continues to this day.
Yesterday’s post of a Toastmasters speech reminds me that I have another one in my back pocket, a (purportedly) humorous one called “Noble Misfits of the Work Force.” It is presented here for your edification:
If there’s a singular reason I’ve survived twenty-two years as a professional journalist – aside from being of questionable character and having no other marketable skill, I mean – it’s the people. Journalists, by and large, are the noble misfits of the professional class. Most of them – emphasis on “most” – are smart enough to be tremendously successful in any other line of work: high finance, the arts, street peddling. Instead, they choose journalism. Why? A million reasons, and some of them actually brush up against the idea of digging out the truth and exposing corruption. (Me, I chose it because I wanted a profession that let me sleep in until noon and made me just enough money to remain well-stocked in pizza and compact discs. I’m glad that this crowd is sufficiently unhip that I don’t have to explain an antiquity like “compact disc.”)
Suffice to say that the profession attracts people who skate on the other side of the ice. People who march to the beat of a different drum. People who view life through a different lens. People who overuse metaphors. Some of my older colleagues contend that the heyday for the noble misfit was actually several decades ago, that the most colorful days of journalism ended when newspapers added HR departments and began frowning on those who carried flasks in their desk drawers. Poppycock, I say! The times no doubt have demanded that alterations be made, but I find that the flask fits perfectly fine in my overcoat.
It’s been my pleasure to know some of these irascible characters in my career, and today, I would like to introduce you to a few of them:
THE TWISTED WIRE EDITOR
A wire editor, my friends, is someone who gathers the news from the various cooperatives – the Associated Press, etc. – and condenses that huge pile of offerings into a daily report inside your newspaper. When you’re a wire editor, you quickly become numb to man’s ghastly capacity for unmentionable cruelty. Whether it’s police brutality in Poughkeepsie, shootings in Saratoga, murder-suicide in Milwaukee or beheadings in Birmingham, a wire editor reads it all.
One of my colleagues in San Jose, Calif., who held this job would meticulously harvest the lead paragraphs of stories of mayhem and transplant them onto a take he kept squirreled away in his personal queue. There, he would perform a bit of mad-genius surgery to the snippet of story, removing the name of the perpetrator and inserting a new one:
Thus, someone reading this take would come across items like this:
“SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. – Police say that Mother Teresa was arrested Friday after a traffic stop and search that revealed she was carrying three tons of marijuana in the trailer of her semi-truck.”
“ELKO, Nev. – Mother Teresa was taken into custody Wednesday after a four-hour armed conflict in which two police officers were shot, one critically.”
“JORDAN, Mont. – Mother Teresa is being held on $15,000 bail after being arrested and charged in the poaching of seven elk.”
We don’t know why this wire editor did this. (In truth, we don’t know why he’s still walking around as a free man.) But the point is, he was perfectly at home in a newsroom. Celebrated, even.
THE RECALCITRANT SPORTS EDITOR
I didn’t witness this, but I have it on good authority that it went down this way.
It’s a Friday night in 1968, and the sports desk at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram is humming along at a brisk pace when the elevator pings and two men who don’t belong in a newsroom step off. (When you work in a newsroom, you develop a sixth sense for interlopers. They have personal hygiene. Their socks match. That sort of thing.) They make a beeline for Charles Clines, who was working that night, and say, “Is Charles Clines working tonight?”
Charlie, as he was known, says, “I’m not sure. Let me check the schedule.” He walks to the opposite wall, puts his finger on the schedule, and says, “Nope. He’s off tonight.” The two men thank him and head back to the elevator. Unfortunately for Charlie, his coworkers launch a long, cascading laugh, and the two men pivot and walk back into the newsroom, past the sports desk, on their way to the managing editor’s office. Charlie, figuring he’s done for but showing the can-do spirit of a desperate fugitive, dashes into a side office, shuts the door and turns off the light.
It’s all for naught. The managing editor and the two men show up, unlock the office door, and place Charlie in handcuffs. The men were cops, and the reason they came for Charlie is that he hadn’t paid his parking tickets. Ever. He was paraded through the newsroom and received a standing ovation.
(The reason I know this story? Charlie is my stepfather.)
FINALLY, A LOVE LETTER TO THE PEOPLE WE COVER
The first two examples I cited were people inside the newsroom. But at least half the fun of the profession lies in who you get to know outside the office.
Down in central Texas sits a town that’s spelled M-E-X-I-A. It’s famously mispronounced even by longtime Texans; it’s not MEX-ia, but MA-HEY-UH. Back when Grant Teaff coached the football team at Baylor, he made a recruiting visit to that town and, as the story goes, he stopped off at a local restaurant for a bite to eat.
“Ma’am,” he says to the woman behind the counter, “I always get this wrong. Could you tell me again, real slow, where I am?”
The woman looks at him and says, “DAI-REE QUEEEEEN.”
Finally, here’s one that actually happened to me:
Early in my career, maybe 1990 or 1991, I’m covering the Texas Golden Gloves at the Will Rogers Coliseum in Fort Worth. One of the championship fights comes down to a Dallas fighter against a Fort Worth fighter. Given the pro-Fort Worth bias of the crowd, the Dallas fighter is lustily booed, both as he enters the ring and throughout the fight. Despite facing this hostility, the Dallas fighter ends up winning in a knockout.
I hightail it back to the interview area and catch him as his gloves are being cut off.
“So,” I say, “did the boos motivate you?”
He flashes with anger, balls up his fists and says, “Naw, man, I don’t drink.”
Too bad. I had this flask, right there in my overcoat …
Tuesday afternoon, I pointed the nose of the family SUV north, toward Fort Benton, for a long-planned visit with the Chouteau County Friends of the Library. And, I’m sorry to say, I made a huge logistical blunder.
Twenty miles into the trip — too far to turn back but still 200 miles from my destination — I realized that I had exactly one CD. The one in the player. The one I’d been listening to for weeks. The one with at least two songs marred by skips.
What could I do? I pressed on.
At Eddie’s Corner, the junction known to all who venture into central Montana, I stopped for bodily relief and provisions. And I found this:
Oh, HELL, yes! Schlock rock would be my salvation.
Here’s the track listing, with my mini-review of each song:
1. “You’re No Good,” Linda Ronstadt. Every day, and twice on Saturday.
2. “Jackie Blue,” Ozark Mountain Daredevils. I have no beef.
3. “That’s the Way (I Like It),” K.C. and the Sunshine Band. Skip.
4. “Must of Got Lost,” J Geils Band. Meh.
5. “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” War. Once is enough.
7. “Philadelphia Freedom,” Elton John. A big, fat yes.
8. “Black Water,” Doobie Brothers. A nice slice of the seventies.
9. “Love is a Rose,” Linda Ronstadt. I’m always in favor of Linda, but this isn’t a particularly strong example of her work.
10. “How Long,” Ace. Sure. Yeah. Okay.
11. “Dance With Me,” Orleans. Acceptable in strict moderation.
12. “Free Bird,” Lynyrd Skynyrd. It’s become a parody, but it’s good southern-friend stuff.
13. “You Are So Beautiful,” Joe Cocker. A keeper.
14. “Feel Like Makin Love,” Bad Company. Heard it too many times.
15. “Lady Marmalade,” LaBelle. Funk yeah!
16. “Pick Up the Pieces,” Average White Band. Skip.
17. “Island Girl,” Elton John. This song, which I’ll listen to in full any time it comes on because of John’s hooks, pisses me off in more ways than I can possibly describe. Another blog post, perhaps.
18. “Some Kind of Wonderful,” Grand Funk. Eh.
19. “The Hustle,” Van McCoy. Absolute garbage.
20. “Let’s Do It Again,” The Staple Singers. Yeah, okay.
You may have noticed by now that one song is missing — song No. 6, the best on the album, and yet a song so affected by two flaws that I think of its missed potential rather than the considerable sweet spot that it absolutely occupies.
The song: “Sister Golden Hair,” by America.
You know the song:
This tune, an earworm if there ever was one, is so close to being the perfect soft-pop gem that it kills me to deny it entry into the pantheon of greatness. Listen to that clip, if you haven’t already. The tuneful intro, the earnest vocals, the deft changes in tempo. It does everything a great song is supposed to do; it moves you around the emotional spectrum, and it hooks like a one-armed boxer. Like I said, it’s almost perfect.
But perfect it ain’t. Two big reasons:
First, the title is just horrible, and it’s made worse by adding the word “surprise” in the body of the song. “Sister Golden Hair Surprise” sounds like a misadventure in baking, man. It sounds like a surprise I don’t want. “Would you like another slice of Sister Golden Hair Surprise?” “No, thanks, I’ve had plenty.” And it’s not like those words really mean anything or have some sonic value that couldn’t be replicated by better-chosen words. I don’t care how spot-on the rest of a song is. When you screw up the title and two parts of the lyrics, you’ve devalued the work.
Finally, the extended shoo-bop outro is a poor-fitting add-on, like a wooden outhouse behind a steel-and-glass office building. It sounds, to these ears, that Gerry Beckley and the boys didn’t know how to end their song, so they just do this weird jam thing. End the song! Just end it. You have a near perfect song and you’re spoiling it by not knowing when it should come to an end. You see this a lot, in all kinds of artistic endeavors. It’s like people don’t know how to edit anymore. They just keep going and going, assaulting your ears or your eyes with nonsense, until finally you scream, “Please, for the love of all that is holy, just bring this to an
The scant posting around here in the past few days has a direct cause: I’m mired in a stretch of 12 consecutive workdays and, dammit, I’m not as young as I used to be. I’m reminded of the quote from Gov. LePetomane in Blazing Saddles:
“Holy underwear! Sheriff murdered! Innocent women and children blown to bits! We have to protect our phoney baloney jobs here, gentlemen! We must do something about this immediately! Immediately! Immediately! Harrumph! Harrumph! Harrumph!”
(Actually, that quote has very little to do with anything, but as Boone said to Otter in Animal House: “Forget it. He’s rolling.”)
(I can do this connect-a-quote-from-one-movie-to-the-next thing indefinitely, so it’s probably best that it ends here. “You know, everything is not an anecdote. You have to discriminate. You choose things that are funny or mildly amusing or interesting. You’re a miracle! Your stories have none of that. They’re not even amusing ACCIDENTALLY! “Honey, I’d like you to meet Del Griffith, he’s got some amusing anecodotes for you. Oh, and here’s a gun so you can blow your brains out. You’ll thank me for it.” I could tolerate any insurance seminar. For days I could sit there and listen to them go on and on with a big smile on my face. They’d say, “How can you stand it?” I’d say, “‘Because I’ve been with Del Griffith. I can take anything.” You know what they’d say? They’d say, “I know what you mean. The shower curtain ring guy. Whoa.” It’s like going on a date with a Chatty Cathy doll. I expect you have a little string on your chest, you know, that I pull out and have to snap back. Except I wouldn’t pull it out and snap it back — you would. Agh! Agh! Agh! Agh! And by the way, you know, when you’re telling these little stories? Here’s a good idea: Have a point. It makes it so much more interesting for the listener!”)
(Help me. Please.)
Over the weekend, I finished Jim Harrison’s The English Major. It’s not a long book, but it took me a long time to read, mostly because I never really connected with the larger story or characters in the aging-guy-hits-the-road-in-search-of-self tale. Even so, I kept coming back for Harrison’s muscular, hilarious prose.
Consider this line from Page 235, uttered by the narrator, Cliff:
We said a polite hello and she bought her mother a Jack Daniel’s and coke, an inscrutable drink.
That just slayed me. A wonderful adjective, inscrutable.
For your edification, from Merriam-Webster online:
: not readily investigated, interpreted, or understood : mysterious <an inscrutable smile> <inscrutable motives>
— in·scru·ta·bil·i·ty \-ˌskrü-tə-ˈbi-lə-tē\ noun
— in·scru·ta·ble·ness \-ˈskrü-tə-bəl-nəs\ noun
— in·scru·ta·bly \-blē\ adverb
Nothing mysterious about Jack and Cokes, my good man. They taste good, and they deliver a responsible measure of the desired buzz, provided they’re enjoyed in moderation. I had one Friday night, and I believe I’ll have another soon.
Sunday, I bought a BlackBerry Curve. Or, I should say, my wife allowed me to get a BlackBerry Curve. This has nothing to do with being a beaten-down man, although I surely am; no, it’s that my wife maintains the cell phone account, owing mostly to the fact that she cares about it and I do not.
That may change, though, now that I’m a BlackBerry owner. Angie, who was due for an upgrade, graciously allowed me to use her upgrade slot and deferred her own until December. This may have something to do with the age of my previous phone: two tin cans connected by string. True, there were certain charms to its rustic simplicity, but times have changed, and Angie suggested that I change with them.
Now, I’m not not suggesting that I’m a technophobe. Anyone who deals with me on Facebook knows how enamored I am of that particular social phenomenon. I was a first adopter of the iPod. I blogged before the blog became a common Internet feature, and as you can see, I continue to blog well past the point that everyone else is confining his or her thoughts to 140 characters or fewer. What I am, instead, is an Antisocial Bastard When It Suits Me. I do not really wish to be in touch, at least not in a way that requires me to answer the phone, and I’d just as soon not respond to your text messages, as I do not have any luv 4 ur language LOL!
And yet, my BlackBerry has a Facebook app (I realize that 94.8 percent of you already know this), and so my world is now sufficiently rocked.
The problem now is that Facebook and e-mail will follow me everywhere, and they were nuisance enough when they were confined to my desktop computer at home. Those of you who are my Facebook compadres have probably seen my daily countdown. There have been a lot of funny guesses about what it signifies — and some real frustration, which I don’t understand at all — so if you’ve read this deep, you deserve a payoff: When I reach the number 0 (I’m at 74 now), my friend Jim Thomsen will be throwing a lock on my Facebook account Monday through Friday for about three months as I try to make serious tracks on my new novel.
It says awful things about my self-control that it’s come to this, but I really see no other way. Last November, while my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, was just getting its legs, I put down about 16,000 words of Novel No. 3 (Novel No. 2 — The Summer Son, which is coming out in January — was already drafted). But once promotional work on Edward heated up, my progress on No. 3 ground to a halt. In the scraps of writing time I found while also holding down a full-time job, I was able to complete some essays and short stories, as well as revisions on The Summer Son, but I never could disappear into that deep trance I need to make steady progress on a novel. Since I suspect that the same struggle will befall me once The Summer Son comes out, I have to make serious hay before it does. Hence, the Facebook lockup. On weekends, Jim will restore my password and let me roam free, then he’ll lock it up again late Sunday night.
The irony here is that I’ve turned into exactly the sort of creature I so enjoy mocking: the scatterbrained, attention-deficit-ridden gadget hound who seems to have no time for nuance or deep thought. It’s shameful, when you really stop to …
OH MY GOD! My BlackBerry has an NFL app! YES!
(Help me. Please.)
One last note: If you haven’t already, please do check out Messages to Our Fathers. Some nice essays are piling up, along with some links to books that make for some fine reading.
Love is a weighty topic, and one I’m ill-inclined to explore right now, what with the dogs braying to go out for their morning business.
In any case, I’m pretty sure this isn’t love:
That’s just crude (and damned funny, I think). How about some cynicism?
With the second example, the laughs come, I suspect, because of how closely the video treads the fine line between absurdity and painful real-life situations. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in the singles scene has a story (perhaps many stories) about dates and budding relationships gone horribly, horribly awry, about mixed messages and emotional baggage and wildly fluctuating behavior. When I lived in California, I had a date with someone I met through a personal ad; we went to dinner and a movie, chatted amiably, seemed to enjoy each other’s company (even if it wasn’t, as Chuck Woolery might say, a love connection). The next day, I received an e-mail from her that said she had known people like me and that she didn’t want to hear from me again.
Based on our interaction, I could only assume that “people like me” meant “people who like Italian food and Wes Anderson movies.”
What can you do? You shake your head, and you move on …
Having had a burst of book signings over the past week — and with more on the horizon — I’ve come to one major conclusion (more on this in a minute) and some assorted other thoughts (ditto).
First, the conclusion: Signings are not, in and of themselves, my favorite thing in the world. While people like Sarah Palin enjoy teeming crowds with twitterpating hearts, your average schlub author — and I’m nothing if not a schlub* — mostly sits and smiles for a couple of slow-moving hours. Now, let me be clear: It’s not the adulation I crave. It’s the human contact. In the paragraphs to come, I’ll propose some ways that you and I can do better by each other.
But first, a disclaimer
It would be the height of dishonesty to say that the exercise isn’t about selling you a book. It is. As much as it might entertain both of us to chat happily about this or that or compare favorite movies, in the end, I want you to take the book. That said, I’m a big boy, and I learned a long time ago that I don’t always get what I want. I can take it if you’re just not interested. OK? OK.
What you need to know
1. I’m not going to attack you: I’ve grown so amused by the customers who enter the store, see me sitting front and center, avert their eyes and take the most circuitous route possible to whatever part of the store they want to visit that I finally printed out a sign that graces the signing table: “Author will not bite unless you ask him to.” At the very least, it’s a conversation piece. It’s also a guarantee.
2. If you have the time, I’d love to chat: About anything, really. Whether you take a book or not, I’m going to have to sit there. Hearing what folks are reading or doing helps the time go by and helps me be more aware of the world around me.
A few weeks ago, at a Borders signing, a woman and her teenage son stopped by the table. While she ended up buying a book (thank you!), most of the conversation centered on what the young man held in his hands: The Grapes of Wrath. It was a blast to be able to chat with him about it and to tell him not to dismiss the turtle chapter, that it would all become clear once he was done. I’m thankful they stopped by.
3. Laughter is the opposite of soul-crushing: There’s a caged-animal-on-display aspect of signings that a lot of authors find distasteful. We have a lot of reasons for being there — promoting our work, supporting the stores that stock our titles, maintaining the court-mandated 150 yards from all schools — but I haven’t met an author yet who doesn’t appreciate the folks who come by, crack a joke and let some oxygen back into the room. So to those who do us this valuable service, I say thanks.
What I need to do
1. Have a good answer for this question: “What’s your book about?” All I can say is that I’m honing it.
2. Get up from the damned table: At my first signing, I never left my seat, and I sold about three books in two hours. Subsequent efforts have involved more movement and, not surprisingly, more sales. Just as important, they’ve led to more satisfying interactions with my favorite kind of people: the kind who love books.
3. Bring candy: No lie. It makes the table more inviting. I’ve been heavy on the chocolate of late. If you’d like something different — particularly if you’re going to be at the Billings Hastings this Saturday — let me know in the comments section.
* — Lest you think that I’m being falsely humble here, I point you to this excellent essay in the Indie Reader magazine on the death of the book tour. In it, Charles Stillwagon of the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver says of midlist and debut (that’s me) authors:
“Why would they think that anyone would want to come out to meet them?”
Why, indeed. Let’s take the over-inflated bastards out back and kick the bejeezus out of them.