The One Reason ALL Writers Should Give Thanks

Sunset over ocean - give thanks

169 by Matt E. (CC BY 2.0)

In mid-December, we now stand about halfway between Thanksgiving, a time when we give thanks for the ways in which we feel blessed, and the new year, when we resolve to rid ourselves of those habits and personal qualities for which we feel less than thankful.

Writing can often be called a thankless task. Writers face indifference, rejection, time constraints, writer’s block (if you believe in it) and the isolated nature of the task itself.

And yet writers rarely make a resolution to stop doing it. Not at the new year; not ever.

So….why do writers do it?

Why Do Writers Write?

Is it an unnatural madness in writers’ imagination that, lacking outlet, would otherwise have us running naked down the shoulder of I-95 screaming Burl Ives Christmas carols at the top of our lungs? Is it the coward’s version of “action”? Or is it the ruthless dictator’s obsession with inventing the world? Remember, Adolf Hitler, after all, was a failed painter and I can’t think of too many people who would refer to him as “soft”.

Regardless of what reasons compel writers to write in the face of so many thankless outcomes, the most sought-after tribulation for writers is publication.

Ah, yes, another reason to write: the ego boost and shot of adrenaline that courses through the bloodstreams of writers when their names get emblazoned in lights–or at least on the covers of books–before the eyes of countless strollers, mostly strangers, browsing the shelves of bookstores or, increasingly, clicking through the web pages of Amazon.

Publication is validation. It is the checkered flag, the Vince Lombardi trophy, the round of applause that comes after a writer has brought, tinker-like, his or her wares into the bustling, sweaty, overcrowded market of literary cattle, is jostled by elbows, humbled by accusing stares, tripped by intentional feet but who finally finds someone pushing through the rabble to consider the writer’s story, point a finger and say “YES!”

It is hard enough to sell an idea packaged as a story, to a world resistant to change. Change threatens. The idea that we might immerse ourselves (willingly, for god’s sake) in the perspective of someone other than ourselves, by delving into the pages of a book, can threaten our ego. But then, out of nowhere and seemingly without warning or even expectation in that unforgiving market, comes a resounding YES.

Publication introduces writers to the world of validation, acceptance and, occasionally, tribulation.

2014 has been a year of celebration for my writer friend, Lisa O’Kane, who published her first Young Adult novel, EssenceHere is my interview with Lisa. She has spent countless hours touring, promoting, blogging, reading, hitting the social media airwaves and posting stories about slacklining all by way of immersing readers in the world of Autumn Grace, Ryder Stone and their friends in Yosemite National Park.

Is publication the one reason all writers should give thanks?

Why Should All Writers Give Thanks?

While publication is the sought-after prize that results from writing and finishing a book, ALL writers, including those who have not yet experienced publication, should give thanks for one reason: because they have appreciative readers.

These can be the readers of the writer’s published work, friends, members of a writing group or anyone willing to commit to and give oneself up to the words of another person. Lisa does so in Essence. Her Acknowledgments page is filled with gratitude for those who helped her on her journey to publication. Mutual friends who belonged to our Denver-based writers group are recognized on this page. Writers must first be readers too.

This same writers (and readers) group supported me when I lived in Denver and then through the years beyond. Their participation in my writing life became so rich, they became and remain genuine friends.

Unfortunately, 2014 has been personally challenging. My wife and I separated in March. That event flipped my world upside down, turned me into a single parent, created new demands on my time.

The agency search I had begun for my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, largely got sidelined as well as a long short story, Wichita Snake, which I started writing as a way of getting back to doing what I loved while a large part of the rest of my world went up in smoke.

Nevertheless, the demands on my time and attention continued to make writing that story challenging and then I just put Wichita Snake aside for a while. And so a good part of the last year or more has been spent trying to find the time and mental bandwidth to write.

But this week showed just why I need to remain thankful. Despite my recent struggles with getting done in life  what I want to, I have been writing for many years and have had several articles published in various magazines or online journals. The other day, I found one of my colleagues reading at her desk during lunch hour. Never one to hold back in such moments, I had to ask what she was reading. She showed me the cover: The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois.

Perhaps my colleague had been meaning to read that book for some time. Or perhaps the highly publicized deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, which spotlighted ongoing racial tensions in the country, put it in her mind to read more about the black experience in America.

Back in the mid-2000s, I wrote an article about the time that the poet Langston Hughes spent in Washington, DC before heading up to New York to become one of the central figures in the Harlem Renaissance. DuBois was a mentor and sponsor for many of the younger artists who participated in that movement, which showcased the breakthrough talents of many black artists, writers and musicians.

When I saw my colleague reading the book by DuBois, I recounted what I remembered about Langston Hughes. She wanted to read the article so, after I returned to my desk, I emailed her the link.

The following day she sent an extraordinarily flattering and complimentary email; she said she had learned a lot about Hughes, as well as the experience of the black community in the DC region back then as a result of reading my article, and she had forwarded it to members of her family. It was a stunning email to receive.

As I mentioned, this year has not been good for my writing. Yet, when I was invited to share something I had written in the mid-2000s, I received positive feedback.

What Never Changes About People

Several months ago, I read an article  published by the American Society of Association Executives about how humans continue to like to “sit around the campfire”, converse and share stories. (Unfortunately, I can find no link to the article, sorry!). The article suggests that technology will never replace the fundamental human need for interpersonal interaction, that human beings continue to be innately wired to connect in person despite the existence of social networks and blogs, etc.

Writing and reading are a similar tradition (dare I say ceremony?) of human exchange and sharing. We read and like a book, and we pass it on to a friend. We talk with our friends about the book after we have all read it, and the story becomes part of the meaningful exchange that acquaintances have enjoyed since the dawn of time. When I saw Stephen King speak in Washington, DC last month, one audience member explained that while he and a family member never really got along, that they could always bond over a Stephen King story.

Publication is the prize that writers seek for their books. It is tangible proof that what they do really does, in fact, matter. And yet so many unpublished writers remain who, despite the adversity, the lack of recognition, the rejection and, in my case, the personal challenges that sidetrack us as a result of various forms of adversity, nevertheless continue to write stories and seek engaged readers willing to (and in some cases, eager to) partake of their stories.

Any writer who puts pen to paper, or fingers to keys, has the potential to find those readers. Writing and reading create meaningful human contact and interaction; writers forge links. Writing is a way of improving how we talk to each other.

I was eternally grateful and appreciative that my story from several years ago happened to find an appreciative reader. As a writer, I still may have some personal hills to climb. But evidence of my writing remains, and no matter how or where readers find it, if they come back and tell me they read the story or article, and learned something or were entertained by it, then I am truly thankful.

I want publication as much as the next writer, but the gratitude that comes from a reader in any scenario creates such a deep appreciation, it quickly makes me realize what’s important.

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Hitting the Reset Button on the Write Place Blog

Reset button image

IMG_4625 by John R. Southern (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A few months ago, I dramatically announced I would be ending my contributions to the Write Place Blog. I posted the image of an open road as though to indicate my future lay elsewhere. In hindsight, that picture might best be interpreted as evidence that the road forward remained open, and that nothing was, in fact, finished.

All I really needed to do, it seems, was hit the reset button.

Starting Over Again

That idea hit home a week and a half ago when I saw Stephen King speak at George Washington University in Washington, DC. How ridiculous, I thought to myself after the event, while clutching a copy of his latest novel, Revival, to my side and heading over to the Farragut North Metro in the bitter cold.

How can I possibly leave behind the world of books and writing? Seeing Stephen King was a bucket list kind of thing. His writing represents values I have long held: 1. the importance of imagination in making life choices (and not getting boxed in like a sheep by everyone else’s popular ideas), 2. the humanity that emerges from reading when you realize the world is filled with people as complex and as worthy as you, and 3. the ability to spend a lot of time in your mind and feel fulfilled rather than lonely.

Of course, the world outside one’s mind cannot be denied. And so when I called it quits on my blog in late September, that was largely the result of deciding I needed to pursue commercial endeavors to staunch the financial bleeding that came from the separation process I have gone through this past year. My wife and I parted ways last March, and a decent part of my life since then has been filled with bills related to the separation.

But everyone has a variety of needs–financial stability is just one. Personal fulfillment is another. Abraham Maslow might suggest fulfillment is a higher-level need that one should pursue AFTER more fundamental needs have been met. I would disagree. The peace of mind that comes from investing in personal passions has implications for everything from health to the manner in which one conducts himself in daily affairs, and with colleagues, family, friends and oneself.

In other words, while I cannot deny the external challenges I face, I would be foolhardy to deny certain spiritual needs as well. (I don’t think “spiritual” is too strong a word here.)

Where the Blog Has Been…and Where It’s Going

My blog posts over the past year have demonstrated various (very public) chapters of my journey through the separation process. They began with advice-led posts about writing fiction. They then moved on to very specific weekly posts about the history of Wichita, Kansas, which were intended to support a short story in-progress, Wichita Snake. Then, finally, I stopped contributing to this blog altogether until the late September post when I announced that this was the end.

And yet here I am again, put into gear by Stephen King. Why should I be surprised since he’s only been around for the better part of more than 30 years of my life!

If I keep on keeping on, as the saying goes, perhaps the way forward I always meant when I started this blog will become clear. Perhaps the true direction will reveal itself. But who is to say? This post may just end up being more of the same drama I spouted in September.

Nevertheless, to play tour guide to my readers for a brief moment, I want to point out how I have made a few content changes to the blog. First, I included a menu item on the home page entitled Blogging Services.  Secondly, I revised the About Me section to reflect details about my fiction AND my interest in helping collaborative law attorneys with marketing and blogging services. Finally, the blog descriptor on the top right corner of the home page has been updated.

I am, essentially, going to attempt to balance the commercial with the passionate aspects of my life with this website. A few months ago, I stumbled upon the website of one Alexis Grant who, by coincidence, happens to be local to Washington, DC. She is a young digital strategist and entrepreneur who supports the aspirations of writers while offering more traditional marketing and social media services. I like what she is doing.

5 New Commitments for The Write Place

And so, in the spirit of attempting to find common purpose among the disparate directions of my blog over the past year while learning from those who have already attained some degree of success online, I will commit now to doing the five following things:

1. Professionally design and restructure the Write Place Blog. If I am going to be serious about this website and blog, it needs to look serious. I have twice approached a website design firm that has expertise building and designing websites on a WordPress platform. I work with these guys at my accounting marketing job, and they do a good job. Both times, I backed down at the last minute because I still wasn’t confident my ideas about The Write Place were fully developed. If I am going to avoid frustrating these guys, I had better pull the trigger next time. Three strikes, as the saying goes, and you’re out.

2. Change the name, layout and domain name of the website. I dislike reading QuickSprout by Neil Patel because he always gives great advice that reflects what I am NOT currently doing on my blog. LOL! When I say I may consider changing the name and URL of this site, my guess is that I will do it less for search optimization purposes and more for branding. Blog posts may not even drive the majority of content on the home page when I do relaunch. But even if I do change the domain and layout of the website, I still feel pretty strongly about keeping “Write Place” for the name of the blog.

3. Seek agency representation for Billy Maddox Takes His Shot. I am probably not the only one who ever got pulled into a new idea so much that I left behind something I should have kept doing. After I finished my novel and began searching for literary agents about a year and a half ago, I read an interview with one agent  who explained that writers who already have an online platform are attractive candidates as clients.

So I started this blog.

To my credit, I did not throw the baby out with the bathwater. I didn’t stop querying agents right away. In fact, I stepped things up by networking with agents at the James River Writers Conference in Richmond, VA. I pitched one agent face-to-face–successfully, I might add–and she asked to review pages from my novel.

But after I sent in my pages, I never heard from her again. It is absurd that my feelings should be hurt by this experience. I have been in the game and have bled too long to have my feelings hurt by something a literary agent does or does not do. I attribute my decision to finally turn away from querying other agents as the consequence of getting distracted by the blog and because of all the shit that started going down in my marriage.

Time to hit the reset button on querying agents as well. I once read a blog post by a writer who balanced querying agents with writing new material by always strictly maintaining five open queries. (I wish I could find that blog post for linking purposes). That helped him manage the time he spent querying agents so he could also keep writing.

And really, how much time does it take to invest in five open agency queries at one time? It doesn’t take long to find literary agents who could be a decent match for your writing (I use QueryTracker to conduct research) and send in your query letter.

Regardless of what some agent might have once said about the attractiveness of an online platform, I wrote a damn novel. I need to get back on that horse called Query and ride.

4. Find a few collaborative law attorney clients through guest blogging. Let me be clear, as President Obama is fond of saying. My goal in finding clients is NOT to replace my day job, which I enjoy very much. Having now gone through the collaborative divorce process myself, I am keen on the idea of sharing information with couples in the midst of relationship problems to help them recognize choices exist when it comes to separation and divorce. Marketing is often described as sleazy and disingenuous but I sleep well at night. We all market ourselves and our ideas one way or the other, even if we don’t (or don’t want to) think about it that way.

I have conducted enough research to know a variety of state and regional collaborative divorce associations exists nationwide. I don’t know how responsive they will be if I offer to write marketing-related articles for their websites (with back links to my own). But according to best practices when it comes to driving traffic to one’s own relatively new blog, it is best to start publishing on sites that already have a decent flow of traffic.

So why not?

5. Get back to Wichita SnakeI wrote about 30-40 pages of a long short story called Wichita Snake that tells the story of Billy Maddox’s great-grandfather who ultimately becomes an Arizona Ranger after confronting an organized band of thieves in Kansas. But then, with all the turmoil, responsibilities and time management challenges associated with my life as a single father, with going through separation and with the demands of my professional life, the writing slowed to a trickle and then stopped altogether.

That’s not good. What makes it worse is that, as I was writing, I began to see links in my mind between Billy, his great-grandfather and all the Maddox men in between. These were truly exciting discoveries to make but they have largely slipped away again since I stopped writing.

Once I have my new website designed and launched, once I have some queries out for my novel, and once I’m driving traffic to my site and hopefully scoring a couple writing assignments, it will then be time to turn back to my fiction, starting with Wichita Snake.

I look forward to it!

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I won’t give myself a timeline to accomplish any or all of these commitments. Timelines are supposedly a good idea to keep project managers honest. But I have already achieved sufficient success as professional services marketer at my day job to not owe anything to anyone. Besides, it’s been struggle enough just to find the right direction and appropriate goals for this blog. Plus, the holidays are coming up.

So I’m going to go easy on myself when it comes to a timeline. At the very least, I have committed myself to the above-mentioned goals in a very public way. So there you go.

I’ve hit the reset button on the Write Place Blog. The road is still open. I know the direction. The future awaits.

More again soon.

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The Night Stephen King Spoke in Washington, DC

Revival by Stephen King

Revival by Stephen King

Last Wednesday evening, I attended a 90-minute talk by Stephen King at George Washington University in Washington, DC. It was an amazing opportunity–exactly the kind of opportunity I had been waiting for ever since I picked up my first Stephen King novel, ‘Salem’s Lot, in 1981.

The emcee of the evening was the co-owner of DC’s famous independent bookstore, Politics & Prose. He reminded the audience that Stephen no longer needs to tour behind his work but he occasionally does like to “get out there”. King’s latest novel, Revival, had been released only days before the event to mostly positive reviews, and everyone who attended received a complimentary copy. In support of this new novel, King had chosen to visit six cities including, fortunately enough for me, Washington, DC.

King’s talk covered some expected topics–literature and his writing experience, intertwined with stories from his personal life that informed his development as a writer. He was entertaining, witty and profane, and the audience of fans clearly loved every minute of it.

I had to write this post to share details of the evening with readers who might be interested. In particular, I want to explore four observations about Stephen King for those who have never heard him read or speak.

1. His books have been worth reading over the years for the pure pleasure of finally seeing the man himself.

I mentioned a moment ago how I read ‘Salem’s Lot in 1981. I’ve been reading Stephen King’s books virtually non-stop since then (with a brief hiatus in the early 2000s), which is to say, therefore, more than 30 years. When you read a writer for that long and then face the chance of seeing him in person, you may be setting yourself up for a possible letdown in two different ways.

First, the amount of anticipation that builds up over that amount of time can make it impossible for the real person to live up. Also, you may just find that the person is not as likable as the author who writes the books. In his collection of stories, Nightmares & Dreamscapes, for example, King includes a fictional account–based on a writer he knew in real life–who wrote humane and empathetic novels that would lead one to think he was a cool and all right guy. It turned out however, that this writer was a total shitheel in person.

During his talk in Washington, King also alluded to his friend John Irving, another contemporary novelist of whom I am a fan. I’ve seen Irving read twice, once in New York City when he was touring behind A Widow For One Year in 1998. At that event, he gave a very good reading and talk. But years later, in 2009, I saw him read from Last Night At Twisted River at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver, Colorado. There, he was aloof, superior and dismissive of his critics.

I could understand why he might have been annoyed with his critics, since they appeared to be growing in number at the time. And truth be told, I was somewhat disappointed in some of Irving’s work too. But what disappointed me most of all that night wasn’t the fact that his recent work didn’t live up to the quality of his earlier novels, but his plainspoken arrogance. I left that event dismayed; here was a literary icon who I had revered for many years, and this was the result of my coming out to see him in person!

None of that was true of King, however. After 30 years of reading someone’s work, I had built up those high expectations, but he came through in flying colors. Draped in a loose-fitting orange t-shirt and faded blue jeans, King was the model of relaxed coolness. He was funny, he gestured casually, he wandered around the stage, he leaned against the podium and, most importantly, he exuded none of the pretentiousness that I had found in Irving.

And  when it came to critics, of which he certainly has many, King simply said that the more popular you become, the harder you have to work to do the right thing. Another writer might have said, the more popular you become, the less you have to care what others think. And yes, that’s true. But does that make you a likable person? And how does that reflect upon your personal character?

King was also humble enough to recognize he had aged beyond any role he might claim to be the voice of the zeitgeist especially as it concerned horror fiction. One audience member alluded to one of his earliest works of non-fiction, Danse Macabre, and asked if King might choose to write a follow-up account of how horror fiction had advanced as a form since the publication of that book. King said he had thought about it but didn’t think he would be the one who should write it. He did say he might like to write a long essay on found-footage films such as the Blair Witch Project, but he also made it clear he wasn’t hoping to come across as an authority beyond others who might voice an equal opinion on the topic.

King reminded readers how he’d been clean and sober since 1987 (a confession which earned a thunderous round of applause). And, finally, he expressed, with some humorous astonishment which seemed genuine, that he found it amazing that he could actually sit in a small room for a long time and write stories and then come out in public to find that people had actually read them.

Really, Stephen King was a likable guy and left me with no regret for all the months (if not years) I have invested in getting through his body of work. He is an all-right kind of guy.

2. He does stand-up very well.

I wasn’t sure what Stephen King would actually DO during the event. Did he plan on standing behind the lectern the whole time and engaging in a serious lecture about literature? Would he simply talk about his latest work of fiction and read from it?

Well, he did read from Revival and confessed that the idea for the story didn’t come from one source, though he had always been interested in religious revivals. But he walked around on stage a lot too and told personal stories about his life (some hilarious) and often opened by the phrase: “So, I wrote a book called…”, which always earned applause.

“So, I wrote a book called Cujo“.

Stephen King is a big motorcycle guy and he cracked about how he used to only ride Hondas back in the day because he didn’t know any better. Once in the late 1970s he had to take his bike to a mechanic who lived off in the backwoods of Maine. The motorcycle drove in fits and starts the whole way until, when he finally arrived at the garage, it died altogether. A giant St. Bernard came out of the garage just then and began growling at King. Fortunately, the mechanic came out too and knocked the dog in the head with a wrench, which only quieted the large beast a little. The mechanic then looked at Stephen King and said, “I guess he doesn’t like your face.”

“So I wrote a book called Pet Sematary“.

Perhaps King’s most memorable line of the evening came in describing how he had already been dubbed a horror writer by the time he started writing Pet Sematary but that he didn’t think of himself that way. “I’m not a horror writer, or a Western writer or any kind of writer,” Stephen King said. “When readers keep coming back to you, it’s about the voice.”

To the credit of the audience, many if not most of whom were non-writers, they “got it”. Meaning they understood what King meant by voice. It wasn’t what a horror writer wrote in Pet Sematary or any earlier novel that made them read Stephen King’s books. It was the sum total of what he wrote about, how he wrote it and the sense that there was a real person behind the writing of the story who you genuinely liked.

“So I Wrote a Book Called Gerald’s Game“.

This represented one of many comical moments in the evening. The novel starts with protagonist Jessie Burlingame handcuffed to the posts of her bed. Her husband Gerald has, shortly after handcuffing her for a little S&M fun, died of a heart attack and now Jessie has to figure out how the hell to get out of her awkward predicament. When King was writing the novel, he originally figured that Jessie could just kinda-sorta swing over the back of the bed and then push the thing toward the window to call for help.

Well, King said he had to figure out whether it was possible for someone to actually do that. So he called upon the assistance of his son Joe, who was 14 at the time (this is Joe Hill, the well-known horror writer) and asked if he would mind going up to his room and allow himself to get tied to his bed. “Sure, cool,” Joe nonchalantly said.

Of course shortly after the experiment began, King’s wife Tabitha came upstairs, saw her son struggling to get out of the bed and asked “What in God’s name is going on?”

“Just some more of dad’s shit,” Joe promptly replied.

King did find out that Joe couldn’t (and therefore Jessie couldn’t) get out of bed in his originally intended fashion. So Jessie ended up having to do something else–I won’t spoil it!–to save herself.

“So I wrote a book called The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon“.

King’s rebellious streak, which I will get to in a moment, was clear during the process of writing The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, which his publisher claimed could conceivably end up on a library shelf for older kids if he would remove the word “fuck”, which the young female protagonist Trisha utters only once in the book. The fact that he refused to remove that one word earned King a rousing round of applause.

Interestingly enough, I spoke at the beginning of this post about how I grew up with Stephen King over many years, as so many other readers have. At the event, by an amazing coincidence in such a large theater, the first woman I ever dated in Washington, DC sat just one row behind me and about eight seats down. I don’t know if she saw me and I didn’t approach her–we didn’t date all that long–but if one thinks about “growing up” with King, then it’s interesting to see someone you knew so well 15 years previously and to notice how she’s changed. I wondered too how she might think I had changed if she happened to see me there too.

While she and I were dating, King released The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. This was in 1999. This woman borrowed my copy of the book and I never saw it again. Very interesting how, given this coincidental run-in with her, King should choose to speak about this book.

In addition to his humor and his storytelling, which as mentioned was punctuated by routine announcements about the books he had written over the years, Stephen King also could be direct and irreverent. He spoke of how, when he, John Irving and Harry Potter novelist J.K. Rowling gave two consecutive evenings of talks for fundraising purposes at Radio City Music Hall, someone told him they would never fill the theater, because the event concentrated on books and reading.

“Fuck you,” King shot back. And they did fill the theater…both nights.

Which leads me to my third observation about Stephen King that night.

3. He is a creature of the 1960s, and that’s cool.

One thing about King was that he used a lot of profanity. It wasn’t the profanity of an egotistical, self-centered jerk, however, who has attained fame and no longer had to care what anyone thought. It was clear he did care. His profanity, though, reminded me of the personality of someone raised in the 1960s and who had an irreverent streak that just didn’t fade over the decades.

I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1990s and, when I returned from my service in Sri Lanka in 1998, I fell into a community of former volunteers, many of whom had been first-generation volunteers in the early 1960s. The Peace Corps and those who served as volunteers were deemed controversial back then, opposed to war, anti-authoritarian, opposed to jingoistic love-my-country mantras that can often be used to glaze over the fact that “my country” actually could inflict harm on other countries.

While some Americans served as soldiers in Vietnam, others joined the Peace Corps to serve in a way that wasn’t necessarily respected by those back home. Draft dodgers, some might have called them.

To this day, former Peace Corps volunteers cannot serve in the Central Intelligence Agency and, I believe, are limited if not excluded from participation in other security agencies. Now I’m not a Molotov cocktail-throwing kind of guy by any means. I’m pretty non-threatening in my kind of lifestyle. But it does amuse me that there may be “something about me” (insurrectionist? revolutionary?) as a result of my background in the Peace Corps that causes concern for others.

So…King reminded me of that–someone you couldn’t stop from feeling what they felt, saying what they wanted to say or believing what they chose to believe. His irreverence reminded me of a lot of the older, saltier Peace Corps volunteers I had come to know in New York City and Washington, DC who still had a pretty big fire in their belly about international affairs and how they thought things ought to be. And they weren’t afraid to talk or do something about it.

Finally, King admitted that rock and roll is part of his identity. I can share that sentiment, since it is something I have loved since the early 1980s. Stephen King spoke about the years he played guitar with a band called the Rock Bottom Remainders, which was composed of famous writers (Amy Tan, Dave Barry, etc.) and some genuinely famous musicians from the 1960s such as Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. Kinky Friedman would have fit in perfectly! In fact, the section of Revival that King read from that evening had, as its central image, a guitar. The author’s photo on the book jacket shows King with a guitar slung over his shoulder.

Even readers who have never seen him in person will not be surprised that Stephen King is a die-hard creature of the 1960s. He writes nostalgically about that era in many of his novels and, occasionally (remember his novel 11/22/63?) will dedicate an entire book to it.

4. I’m not the only one Stephen King helped get through the years.

At the end of his presentation, Stephen King took questions from the audience. More than one person there couldn’t help prefacing his question with a word of thanks for all King had contributed with his writing. One person mentioned how he spoke with his dying grandmother about King’s work in her last weeks of life. Another spoke of difficulty with a family member though they had always been able to connect with enthusiasm over Stephen King’s writing.

A good number of writers have been around as long as Stephen King though arguably few have been as prolific. It’s easy, once one gets caught up in his world, to return to it again and again as soon as a new novel comes out, and to believe, as a result, that King and his stories are always there. That is probably part of the magic many readers feel as they relate elements of their lives to his particular brand of storytelling.

When asked by one audience member who his favorite characters are from his own novels, Stephen King mentioned Annie Wilkes (from Misery) and the boys from The Body (a novella made into a popular movie, Stand by Me). Then he alluded to Richie Tozier from It. Richie is part of the Losers’ Club, and It remains one of King’s most popular works, and one–he mentioned–which readers mentioned to him most often, along with The Stand.

Every person in the world can feel disenfranchised at some point in time, and so the appeal of the Losers’ Club in It can reverberate with many readers and their varied experience of isolation. That point got brought home to me when listening to the audience members telling King how much his writing had meant to them over the years.

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At one point during the evening, Stephen King caught himself rambling on a particular topic and then said, “Well, I’d better stop. I don’t want to keep you here all night,” to which several audience members called out in protest that they had no problems being kept there by him all night. My sentiments, indeed.

Stephen King told more comic stories than I can even remember. They just kept coming.

He told of how, when Brian De Palma made a film of his first novel, Carrie, in the mid-1970s, he and his wife Tabitha drove into a double-feature outside Boston that began with a blaxploitation film followed by Carrie. As a result, they were the only two white people in the theater. King was uneasy about how this audience might relate to a film about a suburban white chick with high school problems. But, as the famous menstruation scene opened the film with images of cruel high school girls throwing sanitary napkins at Carrie in the shower, King said, the theater audience kept yelling: “Kill those bitches!”

And King went on to describe how two large, burly linebacker types were sitting behind him and his wife in the theater. But when Sue Snell, at the film’s conclusion, visits Carrie’s grave and Carrie’s hand strikes up out of the ground and grabs her, those two guys just clung to each other and shrieked like a couple of little girls.

Really, Stephen King had his audience in stitches the whole time. I laughed more than once. But every moment like this–a moment when you happen to see one of your idols in person–must come to an end. I left the theater and passed through the basement lobby along with everyone else to receive my copy of Revival.

It was a great evening and I got to see and listen to one of the most iconic individuals of my generation. A lot of what I experienced during those 90 minutes was the natural extension of what I had come to expect from King’s novels and interviews over the years. But the extent of his humor and personality could never have come across so strongly except in person. Consider me lucky.

I got to see Stephen King in person and that’s the experience of a lifetime.

Posted in Horror, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Three Ways That Writing Helps Us Lead Better Lives

Endless road image

Endless Road by The Friendly Fiend (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Before I delve deeply into the intended topic of this post, which is three ways that writing helps us lead better lives, I have a few things to say.

First of all, it has been a while since I posted to this blog, almost a month, in fact. Incredibly, the number of visitors to this blog has not slowed during my absence. In fact, I would say it’s even grown slightly. (I credit that to the automated tweets I scheduled out a month or so ago that continue to publish and send visitors to this site.)

However, it is now time to say, well, “I’ll see you later.”

I Won’t Say Goodbye, My Friend

“I’ll see you later” is not the same thing as goodbye. And you know what? I WON’T say goodbye. As Tom Petty once memorably sang, “You and I will meet again / when we’re least expecting it. Somewhere in some far off place / I will recognize your face. I won’t say goodbye, my friend / for you and I will meet again.”

However, I am now at a place where the road of my life bends in an unexpected direction, and I must head off down a new path.

It has been my intention over the past year or so to continue to improve my blogging skills and develop this blog to generate an audience of readers for my fiction. I am about 40 pages into a long short story called Wichita Snake, which has been exciting to write. Many of my blog posts have provided historical context for that story. I learned a lot about the history of Wichita, Kansas, I’ll tell you that much!

I won’t say goodbye to that story either, however; I will merely put it aside for a while. I also have my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, to continue to think about.

What’s Been Going On

However, a separation from my spouse earlier this year has brought me to a place where I am compelled to pursue a different endeavor, at least for a time. If it were only me in the muck, I doubt very much I would change course. However, I have a young son to think about, as well as obligations I feel are mine regarding his future welfare.

One cold winter in Carbondale, Colorado in 2007, I read How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James Frey. One bit of advice he offers to strengthen your writing is to minimize the impact of friends and family on your time; that didn’t go over well with my sensibilities and it was all I could do not to chuck the book out into the deeply swelling piles of snow.

At the end of the day, and I suppose every writer or artistic individual must make this same kind of reckoning, I choose my family over my art. Or at least, I should say, I choose my young son, since he is in no position to make his own choices and look after his own welfare. He relies on me and I feel obliged to be there, as his father, for him.

With that said, there remains good news regarding what lies down the road for me. My future endeavor will include creating an online presence with a lot of writing. The writing will not be fiction. But I feel fortunate to say it will help support a peaceful separation for spouses who believe the end of their relationship has come.

My wife and I passed through a collaborative process of separation, which means we both met with our respective attorneys on several occasions, outside the court system, to agree upon the terms of our separation. We have not, in other words, pursued aggressive litigation and did not stand before the court to let a strange judge determine the fate of our, or our son’s, future welfare.

Not enough couples perhaps know that such a thing as collaborative divorce exists. The process brings a kind of dignity and respect to the process of separation, that can assist in the healing process that must follow for both spouses and the rest of the family.

This is Where I’m Going With It

My day job involves marketing professional services for an accounting firm in Bethesda, Maryland, and so my online presence will reflect my interest in helping attorneys who practice collaborative law to market their services. The broader the reach of such attorneys, the easier it will be for more adults to know there is an alternative to drawing a line in the sand and looking at their spouse in a faltering marriage as “the enemy”. I believe in treating others well, no matter the circumstances of the relationship.

It has been my experience that most people who disappoint others do so not out of deliberate cruelty but out of choices they have made for their own lives, which just happens not to align with the goals or dreams of those around them. Of course, there are exceptions. There are people who intentionally act to destroy the hopes of others. But I have been fortunate enough (for the most part) to not have to experience such nastiness.

I have no idea if this new business will generate clients or enjoy success. It is exciting, though terrifying too, to pursue a kind of entrepreneurial enterprise. I also feel it is the right step to take at the moment. Emotions attached to my separation and the economic challenges of my current lifestyle often interfere to cloud my judgment and make me re-think the choice I am making. Have I mentioned, this is quite scary?

But I have had friends and family support me during this time. Even if I do not now live the kind of life I ever expected to at age 42, the next day beckons and I must act. I draw upon my optimism and upon the discipline and will power which, years ago, helped me earn a black belt in tae kwon do. As I also mentioned above, one positive aspect to this path before me is the ability to continue writing.

Three Ways That Writing Helps Us Lead Better Lives

And so, to address what I have always believed is true about writing, in fiction, in essays, in poetry and in so many other forms of writing, I list here the three most important ways that I believe writing helps us lead better lives.

1. Writing reflects our ability to hope. The world is flesh and bone. It is meat and hard corners and dust that turns to flesh and then back to dust again. Life follows the laws of nature and sometimes of man, and it is unforgiving in its punishment of even small mistakes. In this tough world, writing provides sustenance to our minds, where thoughts and emotions act unshackled.

Writing offers the freedom of words, the freedom of expression, unbound from cruel walls. That humans can even be capable of this offering, as delivered through intentional language–through writing!–is a testament to the unconquerable hope of the human race.

Despite the hardships, the poverty, the wars, the struggles, the cruelties and all the malevolence that could so easily bury and defeat us beneath the weight of anguish, yet we write. We push against the wasteland laid out before us. We cry, we scream, we shout–what exists here for my five senses is not enough. Our mind’s vision blazes with a chariot of truth roaring confidently into the So Much More beyond our physical experiences. Though we have little tangible evidence of it, we write to demonstrate our hope and our unshakable faith that this greater world we forge via our words, is one in which we expect to live. It is the world, believe, we deserve. Writing reflects our eternal hope!

2. Writing reflects our ability to celebrate the accomplishments of our lives. We have no record of our lives except in writing. Each moment of our lives passes and without that record, those moments become discarded to the past. Do we not wish to treasure them, remember them, celebrate the fact that those moments happened?

Each moment we pass through is a bridge to something new, something we never could have experienced without that bridge. Our lives are composed of a series of bridges that we survive and celebrate. They are all we have and, truly, even in the occasional sorrowful moment, we live and breathe through them. Each moment is an accomplishment. Our lives are lines, leaving memories in their wake that must be recorded. We must celebrate.

3. Writing reflects our capacity to love. Yes, I borrow from the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians, Chapter 13, Verse 13. “And now, these three remain, hope, faith and love. And the greatest of these is love.” Truly, this blog post could have substituted the second reflection of “accomplishment” for one of “faith”. It was actually not until this very moment, as I write these words, that I am struck by the fact that the word “faith” does indeed make an appearance under my argument for hope.

Is writing a kind of religion? Have our religions not been passed down to us in written form? The Bible, the Bhagavad Vita, the Koran, the Vedas, the Torah, the Dhammapada. These have all carried the wisdom of ages, the wisdom of kind, good and sacred behavior. And the basis of so much religion, or philosophy, or of wisdom is love, love, love.

We hope because we care. If we did not care, there would be no reason to hope. If we did not believe in the value of our lives, we would not record the accomplishment of the passage of our moments. We love our lives, we love life, no matter how twisted and disappointing and cruel it is. We unstoppably believe those sorrows are something apart from us, something not meant for us.

We believe we are here to connect, to support each other through robust bonds of shared experience in this wasteland of disappointment. Our love is the flood that flows between us, that nothing can stop, that nothing would dare try. Our words flow with love: one person speaks and the other absorbs. Our eyes, our arms, our bodies, our words.

We get distracted by the sad periods of our lives. I get distracted by my failing marriage and my hard circumstances. You get distracted by some other sorrow.

Yet we write, and we love.

Nothing can ever stop that. Nothing ever will.

Amen.

Posted in Ramblings | 1 Comment

Wichita Commercial Club – Business Beginnings

Before The Wichita Commercial Club: Cattle Trade and Cowtown

“Cow Statues in Wichita” by Joseph Novak is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Old Smokey Jones is on the membership committee of the Wichita Commercial Club. I have no idea if such a committee existed at the club and my guess is that it did not. I made it up for the purposes of my story, Wichita Snake. After all, this is fiction. But Old Smokey was wise to position himself within the organization since he would end up extorting cash and assets from the club’s “members”. You need to know who you’ll be dealing with, in other words. One might wonder why anyone would join the club under such conditions. Well, as Mary at Earp’s Haven points out to Glen Marshall, non-members receive even worse treatment.

The Wichita Commercial Club, founded in 1897, is recognized as one of the first commercial organizations to emerge in Wichita following the city’s heydey as a thriving cowtown and its subsequent bust as the railroads (and the local station) moved west.

Wichita Commercial Club: Pride and Attitude

In preparing this post, I read through a 1910 entry about the Wichita Commercial Club by its president at the time, Charles Smyth. Presumably, neither Smyth nor any of the club’s other officers would have had to deal with a nefarious personality such as Old Smokey.

The personality of Smyth’s entry about the Commercial Club’s achievements in just over 10 years can, instead, be characterized with two words: pride and attitude. That may have had something to do with the fact that the club was, at the time, in the process of getting its own building after leasing space from a bank for several years.

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It also had to do with the fact that, in Smyth’s telling, the local businessmen who still remembered the thriving days of cowboys and cattle drivers, and the first Santa Fe railroad stop in town, had not lost their spirit in the lean years that followed.

Wichita’s Cattle Trade and The Lean Years

It helps to know a little something about how Wichita earned a place on the map. In the mid-19th century, a good part of the nation’s central region was still unsettled and many travelers crossed the virgin prairie on their way to the West Coast. (Nearly 60 years later, Glen Marshall and his bride Abby Maris in Wichita Snake intend to make the same journey, though by train now and not wagon, before they ran into trouble.)

But the history of so many towns and cities is tied up in the presence of a watercourse, and Wichita is no different. Many settlers heading west in the 1850 and 1860s passed by the confluence of two rivers–the Arkansas and the Little Arkansas. Many kept going but others got caught up in trade and hunting with the local Indians, who were also attracted to the presence of water. Oh, and the local Indian tribe was, naturally, the Wichita.

The town of Wichita, Kansas was incorporated in 1870 when growth was already so rampant that the town’s first newspaper, the Wichita Eagle was founded only two years later in 1872. What made the population swell was more than just the reputation among westward-bound wagoners that this was a place to check out.

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The advent of railroads in the United States earlier in the century included the development of stations in locations to facilitate the movement of cattle and agriculture to markets nationwide. Jesse Chisholm had arrived in Wichita when it was still a settlement in 1863 and forged a cattle trail (known subsequently as the Chisholm Trail) up to Wichita from Texas. Cowboys and drovers now had an easy, straightforward route for driving cattle up to the railroad, earning money for their trade and then spending it in the local vicinity, especially in the nearby and infamous vice-ridden locale of Delano. The cattle trade was what most spurred the emergence of Wichita as a well-known cowtown.

By the late 1870s, the railroads moved west and the cattle trade that had meant so much to Wichita went into fast decline. Agriculture sustained Wichita for a while throughout the 1880s and a board of trade emerged. But these were also, comparatively, the beginning of the community’s lean years.

Let’s Get Back to Business! 

The Wichita Commercial Club, when it was founded in 1897, was originally called the Coronado Club and was intended primarily as a social club for successful businessmen. But as Smyth points out in his history some 13 years later, both pride and vision spurred the founders to develop means by which Wichita could emerge again as a town to be reckoned with. Some of the group’s earliest forays were in the grain and milling business.

The club, for example, brought such businesses as the Watson Milling Company and the Kansas Milling Company to Wichita. It also helped reopen a former packing plant that had fallen on hard times and expanded a railroad connection to connect with the Union Pacific.

The Wichita Commercial Club also promoted local events such as the annual Peerless Prophets Jubilee, a civic festival held each fall starting in 1908, and sought to promote Wichita as a destination for out-of-staters seeking a new home.

In explaining the founding and investment in the Commercial Club by some of the area’s most talented business leaders, Smyth explained: “No city ever grew largely without the aid of a strong commercial organization. The modern city that outstrips her neighbors is not always the one of favored location and rich surrounded territory. Wichita prizes its commercial club.”

The Wichita Commercial Club Finds Its Own Home

It’s hard to tell from the existing document online what made Smyth write his history when he did but it could very well be that the Commercial Club was about to get its own home. In the club’s first years and leading up until the expiration of its lease, members of the club met in rooms on the upper two floors of the town’s National Bank of Commerce.

Smyth is obviously quite excited at the prospect of the club not renewing the lease but, instead, getting its own building. The club purchased property on the site of a former Baptist Church on Market and First Street. At this pivotal moment in the club’s emergence, Smyth also chose to look backward to its first roots:

“The early day commercial organizations held their meetings in wood shacks, where the members at on nail kegs and cracker boxes. But the spirit of acquisition was there in the tiny wooden quarters just as it now permeates the atmosphere about the clubrooms of any of the three Wichita commercial organizations today.

It is the same spirit that is now prompting the business men of the city to reach out for new trade by means of a trade extension excursion. Forty years ago Wichita was nothing. Today it is a city of about 60,000 inhabitants, growing at the rate of 5,000 to 10,000 persons each year. New industries of all sorts, brought in through the influence and assistance of the commercial organizations, are largely responsible for this rapid increase in population.”

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Membership, he finally notes, grew from approximately 200 individuals in 1904 to close to 400 by the time in 1910 when the Wichita Commercial Club was to have its own building.

What Was Going to Come for Wichita

Smyth did not know it but would have been even more excited to note how equally prosperous years lay ahead for Wichita, somewhat due to the accomplishments and public relations contributions of he and the club’s founders.

The plains around Wichita became a great spot for the nation’s first generation of aviation entrepreneurs and inventors such as Walter Beech, E.M. Laird and George Weaver. Wichita’s Spirit AeroSystems is the city’s largest employee today. It originated as part of the Boeing Company of Seattle, which was founded by Lloyd Stearman, another Wichita airline visionary in the first years of the 20th century.

In the early 21st century, we read routinely of cities that were made by a single industry and then struggled to re-emerge following that industry’s decline. Detroit and the automobile industry, Pittsburgh and steel, Youngstown, Ohio and coal (and steel again). The list goes on. Wichita was incorporated in a flash in the mid-19th century and, despite the fact that it is not recognized as a major metropolis such as San Francisco, New York, Washington, DC and a number of other cities (it is, in fact, listed by Wikipedia as the nation’s 49th largest metropolitan region), the community was, even at its beginning, a place that never had a problem rebounding from dips or declines in its fortune.

Wichita kept building on its earlier success with even greater achievements.

It is clear, reading President Smyth’s account of the early years of the Wichita Commercial Club, that the local business culture combined a can-do-attitude with an entrepreneurial spirit and an indefatigable optimism. In Wichita Snake, Old Smokey introduces his city to Glen Marshall in the back of a dry goods store. This was three years before the Wichita Commercial Club left the bank for its own building. But Old Smokey had ambitions of his own and, during that encounter, he had already succeeded, at least in my fiction, in bringing a good part of the town’s commercial interests under his ruthless thumb.

The real story of how Wichita prospered is even more commendable, no less because it was driven by the good guys.

Posted in Wichita Snake | Leave a comment

How a Major Life Change Took Me to Sri Lanka II

Sri Lanka - Joe and his students.

Sri Lanka: The author and his students (Spring 1998).

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how Ernest Hemingway introduced me to the world of modernist fiction, which I studied at Fordham University, and the world of experience, which had as its pinnacle the year I spent as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sri Lanka. Read that post by clicking here.

I also wrote about how, following a year teaching English in Kandy, Sri Lanka, a suicide bomber blew himself up close to my home, which led to the evacuation of the volunteers from the country. Well, evacuation may be too strong a word, but a security officer flew over from Washington, DC to evaluate the situation and he determined that the best thing to do was send the volunteers home.

Goodbye, Sri Lanka! My Return Home.

I returned home to New York in April 1998 after a three-day layover in Bangkok just in time to re-enroll in the summer semester at Fordham University, from which I had taken a leave of absence to teach overseas. I only had one course left before having to take my comprehensive exams and graduating with a Master’s degree, so I figured it would be a breeze to finish up.

In the meantime, the Peace Corps explained they would find a new opportunity for me to serve a full two-year overseas assignment. That’s the Peace Corps for you, to their credit (or to their desire to keep their volunteer numbers up). Whenever volunteers get evacuated from a country due to a political or security situation, those volunteers are put in the front of the line, before all current applicants who haven’t served yet, to get them back overseas before they have a change of heart and decide to stay stateside.

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Well, so I ended up back at my parents’ home in upstate New York, and, as part of my cultural readjustment, this is what I went through. It was astonishing to see couples holding hands in the street (can they do that here?), to drive on paved roads, to experience hot showers and 24 hours of electricity, and to not have to step aside for gangs of scruffy-looking mongrel dogs self-importantly trotting by. There were no saffron-robe-wearing Buddhist monks, no sarongs to tie clumsily around my waist, no media stories of army advancements near Jaffna, no being stared at (because being white was no longer a phenomenon) and no British drama to give my opinion about. I mean, I was American. How can I possibly have an informed opinion about the circumstances of Princess Diana’s death or the restoration of Hong Kong to Chinese home rule?

But what I expected to happen didn’t happen. Which is to say, when I returned home, I had a pretty clear commitment to finishing my Master’s degree that summer and then returning to a new overseas assignment sometime in the fall.

This is what happened instead.

An Unexpected Turn of Events

When I got home, I started reaching out to Peace Corps communities in the New York state and metropolitan regions. It was something our close-of-service facilitators had told us to do during our final days in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The purpose of these facilitators, it must be said, was to ease our transition back home. We would feel empty and alone once we returned to the United States, we were cheerfully told, because of the intense experience we had just had. Adjustment can be challenging. So, they suggested, reach out to others in the Peace Corps community who knew what you had gone through.

That meant, of course, staying in touch with my friends who I had just served with in Sri Lanka. But it also meant local folks in New York who I might potentially connect with in person. There was about a month of down time between my arrival back in the States and the beginning of the summer semester at Fordham University, so I had time to email tons of Peace Corps-type people and institutions that I researched and found online.

(I also managed to accidentally stumble into a Sri Lankan Tamil separatist chat room and got belligerently screamed at for working with the Sinhalese, but that’s another story.)

I didn’t really expect anything from those emails other than perhaps some sympathetic replies from former volunteers who knew what I had gone through and who told me best of luck with the adjustment period. That’s what I received. And it was helpful. Really, it was.

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Well, but then I also received, unexpectedly, an email from John Coyne, the director of the New York regional Peace Corps office in the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. The office had a contract position open and would I be interested in learning more about it? Now THAT was a surprise. My parents’ home in the Hudson Valley was about 60 miles north of New York City, so I was able to take the Metro North railroad down without an issue, met John and the Peace Corps public affairs director, and pretty much had an offer to do some marketing and recruitment for the next several months.

During the train ride back upstate, I was stunned to realize this situation, if it worked out, could work out quite well, in fact. At that point, I hadn’t yet decided whether to move down to the Bronx to finish up my final class and study for my comprehensive exams at Fordham, or stay with my parents. The additional income from working for the Peace Corps would make this decision easier so I started reaching out to some friends in the Bronx, many of whom I had studied with at Fordham University before going overseas, and quickly found another graduate student named Elson was looking for a roommate.

So I got the job at the Peace Corps, I enrolled in my final modern poetry course and I moved down to the Bronx where I got a chance to socially reconnect with my friends, which greatly helped ease my transition back to the United States. Based on what I had heard from the close-of-service facilitators back in Colombo, I was expecting hardship, turmoil, anxiety and a sense of loss upon my return to the States. And well, yes, I suppose that did happen. But for the most part, I just started recreating myself in New York and had little time to invest much in those emotions. I got busy!

And I can’t take credit for it either, let’s just set the record straight on that. Sometimes shit just happens and it works out for you very well. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it does happen sometimes. If I don’t want to take the blame when things head south, I suppose I better not take credit when accidents happen that send me northbound either!

One thing to keep in mind, too, is that this was 1998, so my contract position at the World Trade Center wasn’t going to ironically send me from dangerous suicide bombings in Asia to a “safer” environment where I somehow got caught in the middle of 9/11. No, that didn’t happen. I missed the airline attacks by three years though I still have my employee tag from my tenure at the World Trade Center and will treasure it until my dying day.

Back in the Bronx

The next several months were an exciting blur. I was living a life I never imagined I would follow my tenure in Sri Lanka. I attended evening poetry classes and commuted to work via the D train from the Grand Concourse to Columbus Circle, where I transferred to the 1/9 train, which went down to the World Trade Center station. I read a lot on the train and silently mocked out-of-towners heading to the Staten Island Ferry who kept calling Houston Street “HEW-ston” Street, like the city, rather than “HOW-ston” Street, which was its accurately pronounced name. I was moving quickly from grungy, exhausted, footsore volunteer to New York snob. I started wearing black again.

John Coyne was more than my boss at the Peace Corps; he was my first mentor. He had more of an impact on me than I bet he realizes though I expect that is likely the case for a lot of returned volunteers he groomed. He served in the early 1960s and, like many volunteers from that generation, he attached deep meaning not just to the Peace Corps but to the fact that it was started by John F. Kennedy and Sargent Shriver. Peace Corps volunteers are typically known as Kennedy’s kids. Years later, I met Shriver at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC and had my picture taken with him and another volunteer. I’m frustrated I can’t find the picture now, but I’m sure it’s buried in a box somewhere.

John was also a writer and an editor. If you’ve read part one of this blog series, you know my love of the written word drove me to discover Hemingway and pursue a life of experience. So John and I hit it off on the literary level too; he published a regular newsletter about Peace Corps writers and asked me to pen a book review of Paul Theroux’s latest, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, which I was reading at the time. In the months and years to follow, I would write many more reviews for John. You can link to them all from this blog, since John ultimately ended up publishing the newsletter online.

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John extended my original contract until the end of December and then at the end of the year, he….well, I’ll get to that shortly.

So my transition to the United States arguably was to have taken me away from the world of the Peace Corps and return me to the world of the United States. But based on where I ended up in the regional Peace Corps recruitment office, surrounded by other former volunteers, it didn’t quite end up that way. It only got stranger when I began to receive calls from my Peace Corps placement officer in Washington, DC. He had originally assigned me to Sri Lanka and now he began tempting (and then pleading with) me to take a new teaching assignment in either Kenya or the Philippines.

You believe that? I mean, the reason I wasn’t ready to go overseas again (aside from trying desperately to wrap up a Master’s degree in English) was because I was already working for the Peace Corps stateside. I was entrenched in one division of an organization that was trying to send me elsewhere. It was one of the more surreal experiences I have had in my life. I still don’t think my placement officer has forgiven me for staying….

There were indications at the university, too, that I wasn’t quite in re-entry mode.

During a Halloween party at a friend’s apartment, some graduate students showed up as characters from classic literature. I work a batik shirt and a sarong, a common outfit in Sri Lanka.

I had also gotten a part-time job teaching English as a Second Language at a local language school in the Bronx. Typically, when my graduate school friends and I would head down to Manhattan, we walked a quarter mile up Fordham Road from the university to the subway station, not really interacting much with the local population.

Now I had a community presence, though, and I would catch my students, who were primarily from the Dominican Republic, passing me by on the sidewalk, enthusiastically waving and calling out to me. The father of one of my Korean students owned a local convenience store and she–my student, that is–bought me an occasional cup of coffee.

You Can’t Go Home Again

And then, it happened, the incident that made me realize that I could no longer return to the university and pretend I hadn’t been changed by my time overseas.

Now keep in mind my original plan in enrolling at Fordham University several years previously was to study to become an English professor. I had studied English as an undergraduate. Two of my best friends at SUNY Binghamton had been as dedicated as I to the study of literature, and I was sure the three of us would ultimately end up teaching at universities across the land.

Well, I finished the modern poetry course and it was time to study for my comprehensive exams. My concentration, as I mentioned in Part I of this blog series, was modernist literature. My particular area of concentration was fiction but the exam would cover poetry as well, and so I had to delve into the likes of William Carlos Williams, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stevens William Butler Yeats….and W.H. Auden.

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One evening, I got back from work at the Peace Corps office and headed over to study at the library. It wasn’t crowded and I pulled a stack of books off the shelves and plunked myself down in a carrel toward the back. Within about 10 minutes, though, I realized this study session wasn’t going to go anywhere.

I had opened a volume of Auden to a poem entitled September 1, 1939. It starts like this:

I sit in one of the dives 
On Fifty-second Street 
Uncertain and afraid 
As the clever hopes expire 
Of a low dishonest decade; 
Waves of anger and fear 
Circulate over the bright 
And darkened lands of the earth, 
Obsessing our private lives; 
The unmentionable odour of death 
Offends the September night. 

Accurate scholarship can 
Unearth the whole offence 
From Luther until now 
That has driven a culture mad, 
Find what occurred at Linz, 
What huge image made 
A psychopathic god:  
I and the public know  
What all schoolchildren learn, 
Those to whom evil is done  
Do evil in return. 

I have never been the most gifted interpreter of poetry. But I was struck by the fact that Auden was deeply ruminating about a powerful event, in this case the outbreak of World War II, in New York City (“I sit in one of the dives / On Fifty-Second Street”) and sought to understand the experience through the lens of scholarly study (“Accurate scholarship / can unearth the whole offence…”).

I had not had time to process my year in Sri Lanka nor, in particular, my close encounter with a suicide bomber. Events had happened much too fast since my return to New York. Auden’s sense of overwhelming emotion in the face of a carnage was, in other words, exactly the emotion I had not given myself time to experience since my return. I specifically remember how I stopped reading at that point, put my elbows on the desk and buried my eyes in my hands for several, long moments.

My emotions had finally seeped through the lens of academic study I had long put before most things in my life, as emotions surely overcame Auden in the face of incomprehensible slaughter. There is no comparison between the outbreak of a world war and the tragedy of a civil war in a single small country such as Sri Lanka unless you’re given to believe that the unfair, violent death of even a single human being is sufficient cause for sorrow.

Foolish me and the desire of youth! Hemingway had shoved me in the direction of worldly experience. Once I arrived, Auden showed how I must feel about the whole thing. Equally painful was the realism that emerged at the poem’s end. It was a journey for Auden as well.

In the poem’s original incarnation, Auden ends the poem with the line: “We must love one another or die”. The line began to annoy him (rose-tinted glasses perhaps?) so he removed it for a while. Then, when Auden finally restored it, the line read with the hardest realism possible: “We must love one another and die”.

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There is no escaping death but the world’s ultimate wisdom is that we must love each other in the meantime. This was not something I wanted to study. It was something I wanted to know. Living in a nation that had experienced civil war and living in a city that came close to rioting because of a suicide bomb..those things can’t help but remove you from your cerebral world to place you squarely in the world of physical being.

I ended up earning a high pass in my comprehensive exams. The results came out in late November and when I attended the English department holiday party a few weeks later, both Professors Sicker and Stadler came over to say they looked forward to continuing to work with me when I was enrolled in a doctoral program. It wasn’t even a question of “if” in their minds. I, however, felt as though I was floating above my own experience, not quite certain which way I would go, not quite sure what was next.

Back in the Peace Corps office, my contract was about to end later that month. My university crowd and my Peace Corps crowd did not know each other and had nothing in common with each other except me. I had told John about my situation at the university. I hadn’t told him about the extent of my commitment to a doctoral program, but he must have guessed, based on the way I was going out to happy hour with the recruiters, dating a former volunteer who had served in Africa, attending Peace Corps picnics in Sheep Meadow in Central Park, and staying late at the office, that I had some hesitation about remaining in academia.

My placement officer hadn’t called in some time–he had likely given up on me–but I wished he would call because I was in serious need of direction. I was ready to go anywhere if only because I had nowhere else to go. An intense seven months in New York City was ending and, with the unexpected explosion of emotion, the future was a blank page.

What’s Next? Hello, Washington, DC!

John helped out again. The editor of a Peace Corps newsletter dedicated to job postings for volunteers returning to the United States was going on maternity leave at, well, at about the time my contract in New York was ending. The job was down in Washington, DC. It was only a three-month contract and I would have to get there and find a place to live in, um, two weeks, but it was a next step if I wanted it.

Sometimes life reads like a story. Sometimes life IS a story. My parents and sister hadn’t had the chance to spend the previous Christmas and New Year with me because I was in Sri Lanka. They were less than enthralled now when, this year, I spent a good part of the holiday in my parents’ home office checking out WashingtonPost.com for a place to rent for when I arrived in the national capital.

I had never been in Washington, DC before but I was up for anything. It might be three months or, hey, I might stay longer. Who knew? The DC metropolitan region is where, 15 years later, I now write these lines.

My father drove me to the Port Authority in mid-town Manhattan to catch a Trailways bus down the I-95. We were both quiet during the drive. Things for me had been moving very fast for the past few years. Alaska, upstate New York, the Bronx, Sri Lanka, the Bronx again and now Washington, DC, all in a two-and-a-half year period. I never knew if I was coming or going. Sometimes I had to remind myself where I was.

Before I got on the bus, my father asked if I needed anything. I said thanks, I didn’t need anything, I was fine. I was 26 years old. A few minutes later, the bus crawled out of that long Port Authority tunnel into sunlight only to disappear again, moments later, into the Lincoln Tunnel. It was dark and I felt safe enough to think about September 1, 1939 and how it had made me feel. It made me feel all caught up again. I was on the move again.

I certainly wasn’t going to be a professor. I wouldn’t pursue my PhD. But my life had most certainly arrived.

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Early Railroads in the United States

69 Workmen

“69workmen” by Andrew J. Russell (1830-1902), photographer – National Park Service. The First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869.
Celebration of completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad at what is now Golden Spike National Historic Site, Promontory Summit, Utah. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons, PD-US.

After Glen Marshall arrives in Wichita, Kansas in 1907, in Wichita Snake, he descends to the railway platform from the Will Rogers, a passenger train that represented part of the St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad, which ran from St. Louis through Oklahoma City and into Wichita. The “Frisco” line was part of the Missouri and Central Division of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad. Interestingly, despite its title, the Frisco never came closer than 1,000 miles to San Francisco, the city for which the line was named.

Railroads had been a part of the American transportation infrastructure since the early 19th century and served the quickly emerging commercial and personal transportation needs of a relatively new country. The completion of the first transcontinental railroad, which joined the Central Pacific line and the Union Pacific Line in Promontory, Utah in 1869, created an astonishing new way for Americans to travel from coast to coast, as well as expanded access to markets for farmers and ranchers. The famous “cowtowns” in the 19th century, of which Wichita, Kansas was one, owed their livelihood to the availability of gas-mechanical and, after the turn of the century, gas-electric and diesel locomotives.

Early Railroads: Travel in Style!

Early railroads, meaning those that came online before the turn of the 20th century, remain impressive from a historical perspective, even today, for two reasons.

One, they very quickly accommodated themselves to the convenience of travelers with water closets, carpets, gas lamps and Pullman cars that allowed night-time travelers to convert their walkover seats into two-tiered sleeping berths. Although most such cars provided only open-section accommodation, meaning passengers had to share their sleeping quarters with strangers, curtains could be pulled between sleepers and the aisles, allowing some modicum of privacy. Only a few luxury lines provided private Pullman cars.

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This surprises for the fact that one might consider the very development of a gas-powered vehicle capable of moving great distances across steel rails enough of an accomplishment. But the fact that modern conveniences were available in early railroads hints at the likelihood that railway investors believed they had to sell more than simply a functional railroad. They had to sell a positive experience.

The second reason early passenger railways continue to be appreciated was that they could travel at fairly high speeds, even by today’s standards. Some trains could travel more than 100 miles per hour and some personalities, such as Death Valley Scotty, in 1905, pulled off a publicity stunt by riding the rails at record speeds from Los Angeles to Chicago via the Santa Fe railway line. Attention-grabbing acts like that only served to heighten awareness and interest in this emerging mode of transportation.

Scotty, incidentally, was a bit of a loudmouth regarding his prospecting and mining exploits, and it was the combination of his LA-to-Chicago adventure and his mining “experience” that first brought him to the attention of Glen Marshall’s wife, Abby Maris, which in turn led her to consider the railway as a way for her and Glen to get out of their hometown of Monongah, West Virginia, in 1907, to escape economic deprivation and hardship.

Unfortunately, while their westward journey works out well all the way through Springfield, Missouri, the hub for the multiple lines of the Frisco, they run into trouble soon after crossing the border into Kansas. By the time Glen steps down on the platform, he is alone. Abby has been killed by a local crime syndicate.

Early Railroads: Serving Farmers, or So They Say

But while the glitz and glamour of passenger trains fared well nationwide, encouraged by features such as promotional posters with attractive women who coquettishly encouraged Americans to escape to remote places like California, the commercial end of early railroads did not fare well in the public relations sphere. In fact, they were constantly derided, primarily by farmers and ranchers.

Wichita, Kansas was one of many booming American cowtowns that early railroads helped put on the map. For a time, the railways served the interests of cowboys, rustlers and cattle drivers, and of farmers and ranchers in other states.

Unfortunately, while railroad owners back east expanded their lines as quickly as possible throughout the country (sometimes going bankrupt in the process) to accommodate the availability of agricultural goods in multiple locations, they also recognized they were the only game in town to help farmers get their produce to market. Price gouging was not uncommon, nor was the shiftiness of owners in their contracts with local lease holders.

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In one particularly well-known conflict, local settlers squared off against law enforcement officers hired to protect the part of the Central Pacific Railway line that ran through California’s San Joaquin Valley. The episode, commonly referred to as the Mussel Slough Tragedy, was largely instigated by double-meaning advertising by the railroad, which offered what seemed a fixed sales price of $2.50 per acre for land immediately abutting the line. But when the value of the land rose and the Central Pacific raised the per acre purchase rate, locals intent on buying became upset to the point where a fight broke out at a farm in Tulare County, which resulted in the deaths of seven men. (A historic landmark recognizing the land title dispute still stands at a location just north of Hanford, California.)

The incident served as an inspiration for Frank Norris’ immensely successful novel, The Octopus (1901), and the overall disdain for the railways’ unsavory business practices led to more critical works such as The Railroad Question by William Larrabee in 1893. As a freshman at Virginia Tech, I enrolled in a U.S. history course, during which my professor pointed out that the two Wicked Witches in The Wizard of Oz, published in 1900, likely represented eastern industrialists….and western railroads. (The scarecrow and tin man–good characters, both, of course–metaphorically represented the exploited farmer and industrial worker.)

Early Railroads: The Good and the Bad

Glen Marshall has a pretty smooth ride in a Pullman car all the way from West Virginia to Kansas. The era of cross-country travel had begun many decades previously, and countless towns and communities throughout the nation emerged to the public sphere as a result of commercial interests served by the railroads. Glen escapes his mining community as a result of this new “octopus” of railway lines that spread itself across the country, but because he runs into trouble in Kansas, he will have to leave town, and soon.

Thank God there’s a train leaving Wichita the following morning!

Posted in Travel, Wichita Snake | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

President Porfirio Diaz and the Mexican Revolution

Readers familiar with my unpublished novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, know it is the story about a young Border Patrol agent (Billy Maddox) in southern Arizona. Billy’s father Hector was a rancher in Cochise County, Arizona before his son, Billy’s brother Matthew, was shot dead in a shootout with drug mules, and the Maddox family fled to Tucson. Throughout his life, Hector has revered his grandfather (and Billy’s great-grandfather) William Maddox who, in the early 20th century, was an Arizona Ranger.

Porfirio Diaz

Porfirio Diaz en 1867 (Public domain image, PD-US)

Wichita Snake is the story-in-progress of how William ended up in Arizona after starting life as a miner in Monongah, West Virginia. Following a tragic mining accident, which killed hundreds of miners, he leaves Monongah with his wife, Abby, and heads west. Their destination is California and they have little idea about what they will do when they get there. The couple is young and have nothing greater in mind than to get away from the economically and socially oppressive conditions of their mining community.

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Unfortunately, they become mixed up with a crime syndicate as soon as they enter Kansas. Abby is killed just east of Topeka and Glen Marshall (which is William’s real name–you’ll have to read the upcoming story to find out how and why his name changed) ends up in Wichita, trying to escape from but ultimately facing the men who killed his wife.

I won’t tell the story about how Glen Marshall ends up facing those ringleaders of the syndicate, Old Smokey Jones and Jacob Bartlett. But I will say it is a chance conversation about the emerging Mexican Revolution that plants the idea in Glen’s head to go south instead of west when he finally does have a chance to leave Wichita….and in a hurry.

The conversation Glen hears concerns the Mexican President back in 1907, Porfirio Diaz, who was a controversial figure in the late 19th and early 20th century, and remains so to this day. While generally considered a strongman in Mexican during the long years of his rule, (1877-1880, and 1884-1911), he also oversaw an era of prosperity that had been lacking in Mexico for some time following decades of international battle and internal strife.

Porfirio Diaz: Blazing a Trail to the Presidency

Diaz made a name for himself as a war hero fighting the French in the middle of the 19th century, including most famously at the Battle of Puebla, which occurred on May 5, 1862 (and from which the well-known Cinco de Mayo celebrations derived). He impressed General Ignacio Zaragoza and President Benito Juarez sufficiently to generate his own kind of national reputation. Throughout years of battle against the French and, subsequently, during the years of internal strife when Emperor Maximilian of Austria opposed the president, Diaz remained loyal to Juarez and led successful battles on his behalf.

When opposition finally disappeared in the late 1860s and Porfirio Diaz finally could stop fighting, he instead began to criticize the Juarez presidency. He had gained nationwide fame and benefited from enough ambition to demonstrate interest in his own political rise.

His first efforts at revolt  failed even if he managed to secure the position as a delegate to Congress representing the city of Veracruz. Finally, in 1876, Diaz did defeat federal troops, providing his first opportunity to serve as national president. His first tenure, which was to last four years, created a great deal of disillusionment among regular Mexicans who had until now celebrated him as a national war hero. The early years of his presidency were marked by corruption and violence, which were in some ways to become routine in his more than three long three decades as president.

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The presidency of Mexico turned briefly in 1880 to Manuel Gonzalez, who was generally considered a Diaz loyalist and his puppet figure, and who managed to outrage a good part of the Mexican population even more so than Diaz.  Diaz returned to the presidency then in 1884, following Mexicans’ general disgust with Gonzalez. From that time on, Diaz would serve as president until forced out in the face of revolutionary revolt in 1911.

The Porfiriato

The period of Diaz’s presidency is often referred to as the Porfiriato and is marked, on the one hand, by a period of economic stability, security and growing prosperity following years of devastating war. But it was clear even during these times, on the other hand, that it came at a cost to millions of poor and indigenous Mexicans.

Diaz, despite his own indigenous roots, aspired to the kind of progressive outlook he believed typified European culture and society in the 19th century. He and the upper class Mexicans who became his chief supporters benefited financially from the investments made by foreign powers during these years (including the recently despised French) — copper mines, textiles, plantations, factories and railroads.

Such investments had the effect of modernizing the nation but only along strict socioeconomic lines. As the economy began thrumming, labor poured into the country, including from such countries as Spain, competing against local workers and adding to the sense of disenfranchisement among those who lacked economic and political power.

For those who could not benefit from the advancing economy, Diaz cared little. In fact, his response to those on the lower end of the economic spectrum was violence and repression. In the early 1900s, the impact of decades of repression began to come to a boil. Wealthy writer and landowner Francisco Madero authored a book called La Succesion Presidencial en 1910, that criticized Diaz’s reign and called for him to step down in 1910, something the long-serving president had already recently (and somewhat flippantly) told an American journalist he would do.

Economy Turns South: Porfirio Diaz In Trouble

The thriving economy, in some ways, held the worst of resistance against Diaz at bay. But when mine workers began to strike, protests grew more voluble. Diaz’s iron first kept most internal resistance at bay but a movement in the southern United States among those whose lives and interests touched those of Mexico began to criticize in the press.

The writer, Madero, who had already left an impression in his critical book on Diaz, chose to oppose Diaz in the 1910 presidential elections. Diaz had already contradicted himself and announced, including to U.S. President William Howard Taft in an historic meeting between the two presidents in 1909, that he would run again, despite earlier promises. Madero lacked political prowess or the kind of vision one would expect to accompany the resume of any candidate for a national presidency. But his ideas about Diaz were powerfully cogent and well-received, and the fact that he was NOT Diaz earned him significant support. Astonished, and growing concerned that he might lose the election, Diaz had him jailed.

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The election proceeded nevertheless and when Madero received nowhere near the number of votes anticipated, and after he was freed from prison, he alleged electoral fraud and called for open revolt against the president.

Mexican warlords and peasant bandits with followings of their own and who opposed Diaz took up the call to arms including such individuals as Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco. Pay was low in Diaz’s army, which also meant low morale. In the face of growing resistance and encroaching masses of revolutionaries, Diaz formally ceded control and went into exile in 1911.

****

Although the Mexican Revolution, as it is commonly recorded, lasted the greater part of a decade and ultimately descended into a civil war of varying interests, it was largely precipitated by a revolt against the long-standing president and autocrat Porfirio Diaz.

Glen Marshall, who becomes William Maddox by the end of Wichita Snake and makes his way down to Arizona soon after overhearing a conversation in 1907 about the rising challenges to Porfirio Diaz, ultimately becomes an Arizona Ranger and participates in a battle against Pancho Villa in Nogales, Arizona.

That bit of history is recounted by Billy Maddox, William Maddox’s great-grandson, in my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot. For a coal miner from Monongah, West Virginia, William ends up traveling to some interesting places and leading a pretty interesting life.

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How A Major Life Change Took Me to Sri Lanka

My most recent writing on The Write Place has focused on historical posts about Carrie Nation, Wyatt Earp and a West Virginia coal mining disaster in 1907. These personalities and events touch upon my work-in-progress, Wichita Snake. My original idea was to share nothing on this blog but historical tidbits to promote my fiction.

But there is a writer behind all his blogging–me!–and, as my friend Jon Harvey recently pointed out, some of the most engaging blog posts tell personal stories. So I’m going to shift gears and restructure The Write Place Blog. Not much, just a little. To avoid becoming a kind of ghost in the machine, I’ve decided to dedicate each third post to some personal story or idea I have about reading and literature and anything else that I believe informs my love of the written word.

Ghost in the Machine

Writing about A Life Change: The Write Place Blogger Steps Out of the Machine (Ghost in the Machine by Ky, CC BY 2.0)

So I’m going to dedicate these third posts to a new section on this blog called “Ramblings”. I’m also working on launching an e-newsletter called “Scribblings”. So there you have it. Ramblings and Scribblings will be phased in as part of this blog, starting with this post.

Okay, on to business. The topic of today’s rambling is making a major life change.

Life Change: Travel, University and Travel Again 

My love of the written word originally put me on a path to the university. I’m not just talking about going to college. A lot of people attend the university so they can become qualified to have a professional career.

(Part II of this blog series has been published and can be accessed here.)

And yes, that was a part of it for me. I was an English major, first at Virginia Tech and then at SUNY Binghamton, where I ended up getting my Bachelor of Arts degree. I even had already had set my sights on graduate school and a career as an English professor. I had loved reading ever since childhood and I could think of no other profession that would allow me to spend as much time with books.

But something interesting happened after graduation. I grew restless. At a young 22 years old, did I really need to set such a clear, linear path into the future? Hell, no. So, in dramatic fashion the summer after I entered the so-called “real world”, I skipped town and moved to Alaska where I went to work on the slime line of a sockeye salmon processing center out near Bristol Bay. The shifts were 16 hours long, went all through the night and didn’t allow such a thing as weekends. Read: seven days a week. The job didn’t mess around. It was brutal.

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But I almost didn’t come back. It’s not just that the state is absolutely beautiful although my writer friend Lisa O’Kane (who I recently interviewed for this blog), just posted a stunning image of Denali National Park on her own blog. If THAT kind of scene doesn’t make you want to go to Alaska, I don’t know what will!

After gutting sockeye salmon in a perpetual zombie-like state over a period of about three months, I and the crew I had worked with were released from slime line bondage, flew back to civilization and ended up crashing in a seedy hotel room on Spenard Street in Anchorage. Around twelve of us slept two consecutive nights in one hotel room. One bed broke: don’t ask. But there were rumors coming in of another salmon run up in Cordova and Valdez. More work, in other words. So this was pretty exciting for someone at my young, impressionable age. I was actually kinda sorta starting to make it in Alaska after only a summer there. At least, for what passes as “making it” to a 22-year old.

As I said, I almost stayed.

Yet in the midst of decision-making in Anchorage, I discovered that the application I had put in to graduate school at Fordham University was accepted. I had to separate myself from the crew and take some time to myself. I went to the movies. I left the hotel room and spent a night alone in my tent at Centennial Park. I meditated on the snow-capped mountains surrounding the city in a ring. But I made my choice. I wished my salty comrades farewell, including a guy named Peter whom I had hit it off with particularly well and who had been arrested two years previously for stabbing a cop, and headed back east.

It was a blur moving from the culture of salmon processing centers to that of graduate school in the Bronx. I attended my first classes unshaven, with greasy, shoulder-length hair and wearing a black Ocean Beauty Seafoods cap (the patch of which showed a blonde mermaid with her arm around a giant red crab). But it didn’t take long for me to adjust and I quickly decided to focus my course of study on the modernist writers for whom I had always had a passionate interest.

So I began attending Fordham University the spring of 1995. And things went well. I learned to think in a way I never had before. I read great books. I read Ulysses, for god’s sake. My professors encouraged me. But then, fast forward and less than two years later, I took a leave of absence from my studies to join the Peace Corps and teach English as a Foreign Language in Sri Lanka.

Ernest Hemingway Took Me to the Library AND to the Airport

Truth be told, what informed my decision to travel AND to pursue academic studies was the same thing: books. My favorite modernist writer had always been Ernest Hemingway. I read his short stories in high school but it was a literature course I enrolled in as a freshman at Virginia Tech that really made the earth shake beneath my feet. Professor Hoge introduced me to life among the expatriates in Paris in The Sun Also Rises, to the Great War and a failed romance in A Farewell to Arms, and to safari hunting in Africa in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.

(Part II of this blog series has been published and can be accessed here.)

What I took from Hemingway was a love of reading…and a love of life. I craved experience. What has always been a struggle for me (though less so now that I’m a father), is the struggle between the right, practical thing and doing whatever makes me a liver of life.

I didn’t think about it at the time, but that desire to live was working its magic under the surface even as I went through the motions of attending graduate school. That desire had already prompted me to head to Alaska…I should have known what was coming!

During that first year at Fordham, I can’t say I was unhappy. The life of the mind stimulated me then and continues to do so. But I took time from my studies to fill out an application for the Peace Corps and, following a long, tedious, painful federal government-driven process, I received an invitation to teach in Sri Lanka. I had shaved by this point, and had even cut and cleaned my hair. But it was nevertheless time to head off to the airport once again.

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Seven years after the discovery of Ernest Hemingway, my life started slipping away from the academic life and I moved deeper into the world of experience. I wouldn’t truly recognize what was happening until I returned to Fordham University a little over a year later and discovered, in an obscure library carrel, another writer whom I had not yet read before. Only in the discovery of a poem by the poet W.H. Auden, would I recognize what I was going through. But the realization was on its way.

I was going through a life change.

Avoiding Suicide Bombers and Other Experiences

I was a kind of expatriate in Sri Lanka, much as Hemingway, Joyce and Fitzgerald had been in Europe, though I lived in a different continent and for different reasons. In addition to volunteering (which Ernest did NOT go to Paris to do), there was booze, bleary-eyed mornings eating bananas and pineapples on the beaches of the Indian Ocean, friendships forged, cultural misunderstandings, a chronic and overwhelming sense of displacement, and intimacies that otherwise might not have occurred. A lot of those likely DID overlap with what it must have been like for those writers.

And there was war.

I lived in Kandy, the cultural capital of the Sinhalese ethnic majority of Sri Lanka. Most people who think of the Peace Corps envision mud huts and isolated villages, which had some truth to it for my fellow volunteers, though they mostly lived in cement homes smack in the middle of the jungle. But I lived in a beautiful city in Sri Lanka’s hill country, which had an amazing, cool climate. In that regard, most would say I was lucky. I also had email which, in those early days of the Internet, was about the most amazing luxury a Peace Corps volunteer could dream of!

Sri Lanka was also a nation in the middle of a civil war. Many of the Tamils who lived there had felt disenfranchised since England gave the nation independence in 1948. Freed of the yoke of the British Empire, the Sinhalese majority moved quickly into most of the powerful and influential positions in the government, education and the civil service, while the Tamil minority, originally brought over from India by the English in the 19th century to work on the tea plantations, wasn’t left with much at all.

In the early 1980s, the Tamils began fighting–literally–for their own homeland in the northern and eastern parts of the country. The Tamil Tigers were the first group internationally acknowledged to utilize suicide bombings as a political tool. Most of the “activity” between the Sinhalese army and the Tamil resistance fighters (which is how I describe them–I won’t make political overtures by designating them as terrorists or freedom fighters) took place in the north and east, and in the national capital of Colombo. So volunteers were, for the most part, not allowed in those places.

However, in 1998, Sri Lanka was celebrating 50 years of independence as a nation and the Tamil resistance decided to expand its operations. Prince Charles of England was scheduled to participate in Sri Lanka’s golden anniversary celebrations right in Kandy where I lived.

Except for one slight twist.

In early January 2008, not long before the celebrations were to begin, three Tamil Tigers drove an explosives-laden truck right into the Temple of the Tooth on a suicide mission. The Temple of the Tooth (or the Dalada Maligawa, in the Sinhala language) is the iconic heart of the Sinhalese culture in Kandy and is reputed to hold a tooth of the revered Buddha.

The Temple of the Tooth was also less than a half a mile from one of the schools where I taught. I had been in the temple twice and had walked past it more times than I could count. Sixteen people died and more than 20 were injured in the suicide attack.

Life Change: Dalada Maligawa - The Temple of the Tooth

Sixteen people were killed in an attack on the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka in January 1998. (Photo: Joe Kovacs)

When it happened, I was on vacation in the resort of Unawatuna just outside Galle on the southern coast. I rushed back to Kandy that afternoon to make sure my host family was okay. Bad move on my part: I never called the Peace Corps office to check in and let our country director know I was okay. I had to pass through more checkpoints than I could remember on the trip back up to the hill country and, while the local soldiers were usually friendly with me–a visiting foreigner–there was no humor that day and my bags were ruthlessly searched along with those of every other native person coming into Kandy.

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In the days following that traumatic event, the city was on the edge of riot. I didn’t realize how close everything came until later. But right after the temple attack, a group of Sinhalese began marching around Kandy Lake in the middle of the city, gesticulating, screaming and yelling violent curses against Tamils. It took local Buddhist monks to enter and calm the crowd; without that intervention, who knows what might have occurred.

For several days, whenever I walked to my school, I saw armed Sinhalese soldiers standing in green uniforms and carrying very big firearms outside the residences and businesses of Tamil locals. I heard two stories about their presence. First, that the Sinhalese, in collusion with the authorities, were preparing a widespread assault on local Tamils. Second, and this seems more plausible, was the theory that the authorities had stationed these soldiers in front of Tamil establishments to protect innocent citizens from furious Sinhalese seeking revenge against those aligned by ethnic identification with the attackers.

The golden anniversary celebrations in Kandy never occurred and Prince Charles never came. This disruption, likely, was one key goal of the Tigers in staging the attack.

And I was not the only volunteer who experienced the impact of the Tigers’s decision to expand their operations that year. Another volunteer, my friend Sarah, lived in another hill country city, Nuwara Eliya, where the Tigers decided to shut down the power grid. Nuwara Eliya had, previously, been mostly untouched by the civil war. Well, no longer. The Peace Corps ended up getting Sarah to a beach resort and away from potential hostilities.

(Part II of this blog series has been published and can be accessed here.)

In the weeks after my and Sarah’s experiences, the Peace Corps sent a security officer to Sri Lanka to assess the situation. In the end, that officer decided it was best to send the volunteers home. This was both annoying and embarrassing, from my point of view. It was annoying in the sense that I had chosen to be there. No one made me come to Sri Lanka and I could have left at any time. If I chose to stay, despite the dangers and challenges, well that was my choice, wasn’t it? Of course the Peace Corps’ first priority remains the safety of its volunteers…and it was with that in mind that they blew the whistle and called all the volunteers out of the pool. Still: groaning and eye-roll on my part.

And it was embarrassing because none of the other international volunteers were leaving. The British, the Australians, the Japanese–they were all staying. So we Americans looked squeamish to a ridiculous degree. And it wasn’t the Peace Corps security team who had to say goodbye to the families and friends we had made in our communities. It wasn’t them who had to explain that because of the kind of bombing event that Sri Lankans had become accustomed to as part of their lives, that we were leaving. I taught elementary school kids. Here’s a photo of some. What the hell was I supposed to say to them?

Life Change: Sri Lankan elementary school kids

Goodbye, Joe!

Reading and Traveling 

When I wasn’t teaching or trying to avoid suicide bombs, I read. I read a lot, in fact. I had a lot of down time as did the other volunteers. It became common for volunteers to read and exchange books, including such nuggets as Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, which had just been published and was causing a stir, When Memory Dies by A. Sivanandan, which was also blowing the pants off the local publishing world, novels by post-colonial writers Yasmine Gooneratne and Carl Muller, the travel diaries of R.K. Narayan and Peace Corps’ best known travel writer Paul Theroux.

But my decision to come to Sri Lanka meant, at least for a time, that I took my nose out of a book and left the university behind to live in a world of lush jungles, rogue elephants, suicide bombers, beautiful beaches, sacred Buddhism and civil war. It was a far cry from my decision, less than two years previously, to attend Fordham University and pursue a life of intellectualism.

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The worlds of the mind and of the body could not get much different.

So I wanted experience, right? Hemingway inspired me to not only study the great modernist writers but also pursue a life of experience. Well, I had it now!

I was in the middle of a life change.

Please share any thoughts you have about this story in the comments section below. Stay tuned, also, for my next personal post in mid-August (preceded by two historical posts) when I will write about my return to Fordham university, my discombobulated experience in the classroom, the discovery of an important poem by W.H. Auden, the way I said goodbye to graduate school and to a potential career as a professor, and my decision to move to Washington, DC and work for the Peace Corps.

Once again…stay tuned!

Posted in Ramblings, Travel | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Wyatt Earp, Wichita and a Career in Law Enforcement

Old West lawman Wyatt Earp is best-known as the central figure in the gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona in October 1881. That event and the larger-than-life figure of Earp have withstood the test of time as 21st century Americans continue to memorialize with wispy romanticism this nation’s history of cowboys and the lawless Old West.

When Glen Marshall arrives in 1907 Wichita, Kansas in my story Wichita Snake, he takes shelter from a local crime syndicate in a rest home called Earp’s Haven. No such place would have carried Earp’s name without his participation in the shootout at the OK Corral some 26 years previously. He managed to get his name attached to a fictional rest home in my story in particular because, approximately five years before he and his team faced down the Clanton brothers and Billy Claiborne in Tombstone, he spent a year in Wichita as a law officer.

Wyatt Earp, famed Old west Gunman

Wyatt Earp, famed Old West Gunman (This image is available for use in the public domain; {{PD-US}}).

Wyatt Earp Arrives in Wichita, Kansas

Wyatt Earp arrived in Wichita in 1875 from Peoria, Illinois, bearing a colorful and sad past. He had been arrested for stealing a horse but managed to escape jail and punishment. His first wife also died of typhoid, pregnant, less than a year following their wedding.

Earp’s arrival in Wichita also coincided with the city’s growing prominence as a railroad terminus for cattle drives up from Texas. Cowboys who had spent days or weeks driving their herds over the plains could now relax with money in hand and the satisfaction of work well done. That generally meant getting drunk and raising hell.

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Into this world, Wyatt Earp was hired as deputy city marshal and he was, according to the local Wichita Beacon newspaper, both competent and fearless in carrying out his responsibilities. The year or so that Earp spent in this role did not earn him lasting fame (the Beacon would occasionally spell his surname “Erp”), but it did kick off a career which would, ultimately, transform him into the historic personage of the fearless lawman.

Wyatt Earp: One Year As a Lawman

Earp’s year as a deputy city marshal was marked by, in addition to keeping the peace among inebriated, cattle-driving cowboys and drovers, documented instances of honesty and cold courage. Evidence that has helped historians separate fact from legend regarding Wyatt Earp’s role comes from documentation in the Beacon. Such evidence suggests, perhaps unsurprisingly in those days of the Wild West, that lawmen had a kind of public stature.

In one reported incident, Earp hauled a fallen, inebriated stranger to the “cooler” to sober up. During processing, the deputy marshal discovered $500 in the man’s possession. To Earp, who made either $60 or $100 monthly depending on various sources, this would have represented a significant amount of money and, perhaps a sore temptation. But, as the Beacon got a hold of the story, the paper stated: ”[the drunken stranger] may congratulate himself that his lines…were cast in such a pleasant place as Wichita as there are but a few other places where that $500 bankroll would have been heard from”.

An additional incident involved Earp calling for a piano to be repossessed for failure of payment. This piano, which had been purchased for a local brothel, became a sore spot among a group of cattle drovers who relaxed there and had to raise funds or face its removal. Soon after, approximately 50 drovers in nearby Delano, which at the time was a bit on  the rough side and known for hell-raising beyond what Wichita typically saw or liked to see, planned to invade the town, carouse, drink all night and cause a lot of trouble. As they approached the bridge into Wichita, they faced a long line of concerned law officers and citizens at the center of whom stood the stalwart Wyatt Earp.

Of course, no one is perfect, and even the competent, appreciated and respected Wyatt Earp had his embarrassing moments, which the Wichita Beacon was equally happy to report. In one well-publicized incident in January 1876, the single-action revolver in Earp’s possession somehow managed to slip from its holster, hit the ground and discharge. The shot narrowly missed Earp, piercing his coat before blowing through the ceiling. It’s the kind of incident that would make for slapstick in modern times but back in the 19th century, such incidents could happen and did, in fact, for one of the Old West’s most legendary gunslingers.

Politics Interferes with Policing

In the end, politics and not incompetence ended Wyatt Earp’s tenure in Wichita, Kansas. In March and April 1876, Earp’s boss, city marshal Mike Meagher was campaigning to retain his position against Bill Smith. In addition to being a political opponent of Earp, Smith nevertheless added fuel to the fire by badmouthing Earp and accusing him of attempting to use his position to hire his brothers as law officers. That was too much for Earp who resorted to fisticuffs. Meagher was forced to fire Earp and, though he won the subsequent election and attempted to have his former deputy reinstated, the city council could not conclusively agree that doing so was a good idea.

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Wyatt Earp’s first job as a law enforcement officer in Wichita, Kansas had come to an end. He soon moved on to Dodge City where, in addition to ultimately getting back into “keeping the peace”, he spent some time running a brothel with his brother, James.

Wyatt Earp and Wichita Snake

As mentioned above and as known to many Americans, Wyatt Earp’s legend was made some years later in Tombstone, Arizona. But his time in Wichita overlapped with the city’s first exciting economic boom, spurred by the cattle trade. By the time Glen Marshall of Wichita Snake arrives, the city was on the cusp of yet another economic renaissance, this one driven by manufacturing and agriculture. The local Chamber of Commerce, of which the fictional Old Smokey Jones is a member of the welcoming committee, was founded in 1901. The open plains of Kansas also appealed to some historic pioneers from the dawning age of aviation.

Glen’s stay in Wichita is cut short by unexpected trouble involving a crime boss and the revelation of who killed his wife. But, at least for his one night in town, he enjoyed the safety and hospitality of Earp’s Haven, a resting house named after the city’s most historic and well-known lawman.

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