Scott Sparling

Hallucinations, a blog about writing, trains, and Wire to Wire

Book Friday

Posted on Nov 20th, 2011.

Despite what you may have heard from various small-minded people in my past, I am not the one who ruined Christmas. But I do know how to save it.

First, about these vicious rumors, let me say that I’ve always been a stalwart supporter of Christmas and Hanukkah and any other holiday you might choose to celebrate this time of year. True, we usually order take-out on December 25, but from the good Chinese place, not the much cheaper but bad Chinese place we order from on other days. But if there’s no turkey on our dining room table during the holidays, it’s not because we hate Christmas. It’s because we have no dining room table—a situation related to the fact that we also have no dining room. That’s how we roll in Sucker Lake.

Possibly, you once had us over for dinner, and now several years or perhaps a couple decades later, you’re still wondering why we didn’t reciprocate. The answer’s simple. It’s because no matter how good a friend/cook/host you are, it’s not worth a $25,000+ addition to our house just to have a place to set a table we don’t own with china we don’t have and food we don’t know how to cook. Hey, maybe you’re one of the 3.2 million adults in the US between the ages of 18 and 54 who suffer from agoraphobia (thanks, Wikipedia!) and while you love giving dinner parties, you dread being invited to them. Check us out—we’re the perfect guests! Feed us, and you’ll never hear from us again.

So anyway, Christmas dinner here is out. Not happening. Ditto chestnuts roasting in the fireplace—we fear fire so much, we’re actually having our fireplace torn down, resale value be damned. Ixnay as well on gathering around the hearth, unless hearth has become a synonym for my laptop computer, in which case feel free to gather 'round as I watch The Walking Dead, if that’s what turns you on.

We also don’t do carols, send cards, or put reindeer in the yard, though if I could find a lifelike ceramic coyote chewing the leg off a lifelike reindeer, I’d be tempted, except for the possibility of attracting real coyotes. I’ve got enough tricksters in my life.

We do, however, put up lights. Every year, in festive three-foot-high letters, we spell out the word EAT on the front of our house. It is our cheery holiday message to the world.

Christmas in the '70s

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This tradition dates back to the early 1970s, which coincidentally is also when the accusations about me spoiling Christmas began. (I say coincidentally because the complaints originated from my classmates on the high school paper who had never seen my Christmas lights. Several of these Goody Two-Shoe types—who were studying journalism, for chrissakes—were incensed over the free expression of ideas. Specifically, they were pissed because I had exacto-knifed the word “happy” out of the huge wreath graphic we were running on the front page and replaced it with the word “funky.” Believe it or not, some of my classmates were so whitebread, they had never heard the word before and thus had no idea what a “Funky New Year” might be. But they knew it meant something bad, since anything you don’t understand is pure evil, right? Suffice it to say, the year that followed was not filled with funk for these charming young puritans, though that was hardly my fault, and these many decades later, I still bristle at the charge, gravely presented to our faculty advisor, that I somehow ruined their Christmas.)

(True, I also had a color poster in my peachy that I liked to flash around showing a dead or dying Santa Clause in a muddy Vietnamese rice paddy. My funkless classmates found the image offensive. But that wasn’t me ruining Christmas. That was the Vietnam War was ruining Christmas. I just had a picture of it.)

Ruining Christmas for the newspaper staff.

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But back to the lights. In case you were born too late and missed all the good stuff, in the ‘70s our outdoor lights were composed of these big freakin’ bulbs that, if you saw one today, would remind you of the shape and size of a butt plug. I say “you” and not “me” because I would never think that, especially around the holidays. But if you’re reading this blog—and we both know you are—it’s safe to say you harbor interests that are considerably less wholesome than, say, my former high school classmates. (Feel free to do your own comparative research on old time Christmas lights and anal sex toys at etsy and thisnext.)

Anyway, the bulbs were big, and each one used as much energy as a Prius. Another great thing about Christmases past is that we didn’t worry about energy back then. We had plenty, possibly because you and all your friends weren’t born yet. Not that I want to ruin your Christmas, but you’ve got a lot to account for, young people of the world.

This particular Christmas, I asked my parents if I could be in charge of putting up the lights, a job that was normally handled by my dad. My parents were already aware of signs of social rebelliousness in my teenage persona. Years earlier, as an 11-year-old, I had wanted to put up a yard sign that said: “Barry Goldwater: The fascist gun in the west.” I didn’t know what fascist meant at that young age, but I knew it had to be pure evil. (cf. “funky,” above.) My Ramparts-reading father was no Goldwater fan, but our neighbors probably were, so the answer was no. (Years later, I learned that my mother had argued yes, assuming I wouldn’t have had the follow-through to actually make such a sign. She was probably right.)

Naturally, when the 70s rolled around and the Vietnam War escalated, I began shaving a peace symbol in our front yard with the mower. Backstory: Saturdays in our house began at the insanely early hour of 10 a.m., when my father would enter my room unbidden and ask a) if I was ever getting up and b) if I had any plans for the day. The second query was a trick question. I was a teenager. It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Ipso facto, I had no plans. No one I knew had plans. I didn’t start making plans, in fact, until Reagan’s second term, and then they involved paying off one credit card with another to avoid having to find a job and get up early. The consequence of this self-inflicted Ponzi scheme is that I went deeply in debt and was forced to become the employed person I am today; the consequence of having no plans on a Saturday in the 1970s was being force-pressed into mowing the lawn. I did so grudgingly, and when I was done I adjusted the blade to its lowest setting and mowed a gigantic peace symbol in the yard. We lived on a dead-end street, so my parents let it go. They also agreed with me. We Sparlings were liberals in a nest of conservatives.

So when I positioned my parents at the end of the driveway one night many years ago, after a cold afternoon of hammering and adjusting a string of butt-plug shaped lights, I knew they expected social commentary. Perhaps another peace symbol. Maybe something pithy like END THE WAR. Instead, what they got was EAT.

Christmas in the '90s.

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EAT. It’s what you do over the holidays. More to the point, it’s what I was forced to do at holiday gatherings I didn’t wish to attend. According to the as-yet-unrecognized but nevertheless virulent reverse sexism and ageism of the day, I—a male and a teenager—was expected to eat a lot, whether I wanted to or not. Seconds were required. Thirds were expected. The implicit social contract was this: If you don’t ask for more food, it’s because you don’t love me. My grandmother never actually said this, but it was in the air. And in the squash and sweet potatoes. Also, she wasn’t really my grandmother. My appetite, my clip-on tie, the bloodline—all phony. Didn’t matter. You had to eat.

Shit. I live in a house with no dining room and I just now figured out why. (Thanks for nothing, assorted therapists.)

Anyway, my parents let me keep the lights up and we turned them on every evening. One night during dinner, a neighbor called. She lived two streets over but could see our lights across a couple vacant lots. Like all adults I knew back then, she was too polite to say what she really meant, but too artless to disguise it very well.

Did you know, she asked my mom, who had picked up the phone, that from here, through the trees and all, your Christmas lights almost look like they spell out the word EAT?

My goodness, my mom replied. Isn’t that something! No, she had no idea.

After she got off the phone, we spent the rest of the meal looking at our neighbors’ lights across the vacant lots and having polite, imaginary phone conversations with her. Did you know that, from here, your lights look like a horse’s ass? No? Isn’t that something!

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Skip forward twenty-five years. My father, dead of Parkinson’s and depression. My mother, slowly recovering from a stroke. More than 2,000 miles between the family home in Michigan and Portland, Oregon, where my sister and I have relocated. Just the three of us were left, and my mom couldn’t live alone. We had to move her out here. She didn’t want to come.

And so it happened that, one December at the end of the century, with the Age of Aquarius long since dead and buried, I stood again at the end of a driveway with my mother. This time, here in Sucker Lake. Once again, I had a surprise for her. I gave the signal and my son turned on the lights. EAT, they said, albeit in smaller, more energy-efficient bulbs. I did it for her, a surprise for old time’s sake to help make her feel at home. She got a kick out of it. We all did. The next Christmas she passed away.

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But the EAT sign continues. It’s a Sparling tradition now and I think it will last a long time. I live, once again, on a dead-end street, and to be honest, I haven’t gotten as many comments as I’d hoped. People are used to crazy shit these days. The only really good complaint I got came from an elderly neighbor who said, no lie, that I was ruining her Christmas. It was heartening, knowing someone was out there, paying attention. In the world of guerilla social commentary, it’s stuff like that that keeps ya’ going. Once and a while, for the sheer hell of it, I’ll throw the lights up on the Fourth of July to try to ruin Independence Day. EAT is my primal, elemental message to all who pass by. If I had a bigger house and more bulbs, I’d add, “for tomorrow we may DIE.” That would freak some people out.

The treehouse near Sucker Lake. You can never have too many EAT signs.

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Yet the message is not really about food anymore. Never was. It’s about consumerism. Some of us liberals worried that Christmas was becoming a celebration of consumption way back in the ‘70s. Ha! What amateurs we were then, compared to the gargantuan maw of consumption that is Christmas today. The holidays might mean various things to you, but one thing they are indisputably and ferociously about is consumption. EAT equals CONSUME equals BUY.

Looked at that way, my sign isn’t outside the spirit of Christmas at all; to the contrary, it embodies the spirit of consumerism like no other word can.

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So go on, go for it. On the day after Thanksgiving (and throughout the holiday season) go out and buy anything you want…just as long as it’s a book. That’s how we’re saving Christmas this year. Forget Black Friday. It’s Book Friday now.

And by go out, I mean to a physical bookstore with a real bookseller inside. From what I’ve heard, last Christmas was tough for some independent bookstores. Chances are, your favorite record store is already gone. If your favorite bookstore is still open, use the power of your holiday spending to help keep it that way. Go out on Book Friday and buy books for everyone.

Trust me, there’s no occasion when a book wouldn’t be better than the outrageous holiday crap you were planning to buy (like this thing.) Do you really need another holiday sweater/camera/butt plug? How about a book about said sweater/camera/butt plug? How about a book about books?

Or let’s say I invite you over to the house for a holiday dinner (which I won’t, but hypothetically). Don’t show up with a bottle of wine or flowers as your gift. Bring me a book.

Similarly, don’t give the parking lot guy 40 bucks in an envelope as recompense for only mildly dinging your car this year. Give him 40 bucks and a book.

You get the drill, right? Do not send flowers, candy, or fruit to distant relatives. Starbucks and iTunes cards are the mark of the devil. Find humans who don’t read, and give them novels and poetry. The gods will salute you. Rich people, instead of buying your hubby or wife a $50,000 SUV Hummer, buy him/her $50,000 worth of books. Don’t wrap them.

But which books, you wonder? Well, the one I wrote would be a fine choice. But so would any other. How about one of the National Book Award winners, or all of them? How about the equally fine or finer books unrecognized by awards? Perhaps you could find a website that recommends good books. There must be one somewhere.

They do have to be real books, however. With physical pages and covers. That’s what Book Friday is all about. 

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How many books should you buy on Book Friday? Simple. Just take the prime number closest to your hat size, multiple by the number of letters in your last name, and divide by the speed of a bus traveling from Baltimore to Poughkeepsie. Knowing you, that's probably three or four. 

Also, I know you like sitting at your computer and sending money to far-away places, listening into the ether for the efficient whir of gears as robots robo-pack your purchases. That’s not gonna cut it this year. No sexy UPS guy with a package from Amazon is gonna get us out of the mess we’re in. The bottom line is this: Independent bookstores are good for our communities and good for America...and the world, come to think of it. Basically, if you don’t support your local booksellers, you’ll be ruining more than Christmas. You’ll be ruining the future. And you wouldn't want that rumor to get around.

So head out to your favorite bookstores on Book Friday, and stock up. I’ll be out there with you. Do it for the local economy, for the people you love, for me, for my mom, or for yourself.

And have a funky new year.

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Alright, Detroit!! You feel funky tonight? I feel funky tonight: Bob Seger, "Trying to Live My Life Without You."

Reading the War Dead

Posted on Oct 16th, 2011.

When I was seventeen, I did something that still makes me proud when I think of it today. Nixon was in his first term back then. Protests against the Vietnam War were spreading across the country, but Jackson, the small Michigan town where I lived, remained untouched by the demonstrations. The town had always been a cold-bed of conservatism, as my dad used to say. It was also the birthplace of the Republican Party. The KKK and the John Birch Society, which believed Eisenhower was a communist stooge, were active in Jackson as well.

But of course, it was the 60s, and things were changing. Even in Jackson, there were many of us who did not support the war. That included my high school friend, Phil Anderson. Together, Phil and I decided to do something about how we felt, and so we founded the Jackson Moratorium Coalition.

My family had already traveled to Washington D.C. to take part in the national moratorium in October 1969. Ann Arbor – thirty miles east of Jackson – was home to the SDS and numerous protests. The good town of Jackson, however, did not look favorably on dissent, or any type of nonconformity, for that matter.

A small example: my father was a Realtor and had a reputation for honesty, established over many decades. That reputation allowed him to secure a bank loan with a handshake. But when he grew a beard in the late 60s and chaired the Open Housing committee to prevent redlining, one of the three banks refused to do any further business with him.

The Vietnam Moratorium march in Washington, D.C., October 15, 1969.

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Against that unwelcoming backdrop, Phil and I set about organizing the Jackson Moratorium Coalition, deciding to hold a reading of the war dead. It would be the first major demonstration against the war our town had seen. More than 40,000 US soldiers had died in the war by that point and we intended to read every single name. We got a list from the national moratorium organization. We ordered buttons and printed up bumperstickers. I quit marching band so I’d have time to help organize.

For a couple weeks, we went from church to church, looking for a place to hold our reading. Predictably, they all turned us down. Except one: the First Congregational Church, prominently located downtown with a park-like courtyard by the main entrance, granted us permission. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in retrospect I see that it was the most visible location we could have chosen.

The church’s reverend – Robert M. Rymph – supported the president and the war. But he met with us, and in the end he agreed to let us use entranceway and courtyard because, as he told his congregation the following Sunday, “I was convinced they were very highly idealistic and sincere in their point of view. They recognize war as dirty business and conclude that it would be far better if the killing and war would cease. They want their lives to count for something big, something worthwhile. The fact that you and I might think they are naïve in what brings peace, or is necessary for peace, does not eliminate the conviction that they now hold.” I had no idea how brave a decision Rev. Rymph was making, until much later.  

The reading itself would take 32 hours. Phil and I recruited volunteers (included Laurie Kaufman, whom Phil would later marry, and Marty Kaser, my girlfriend for a while) but as the event neared, it became clear that our "coalition" would be small.  Many parents forbid their kids from taking part.

        

The First Congregational Church of Jackson, site of the reading of the war dead.

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Then, the day before we began, the newspaper in town – the Jackson Citizen-Patriot  – ran an inflammatory front-page story about the event, characterizing it in the worst possible terms. This was before talk radio, but Jackson didn’t need Glenn Beck to tell them what was right and what was wrong. The Cit-Pat, as everyone called it without the slightest trace of irony, served the purpose.

“It didn’t require much imagination,” Reverend Rymph said later, “to believe that the most swinging slumber party ever held in the city of Jackson was going to take place on Friday night right here in the First Congregational Church of Jackson.”

An emergency board of trustees meeting was called on the morning of the reading. After “agonizing consideration” the trustees voted to support Reverend Rymph and allow the reading to go forward. I understood later that it wasn’t just a vote about our protest – it was a decision about whether Reverend Rymph would keep his job. What's clear about Reverend Rymph in my memory is that he was a leader, not afraid of his convictions, and he prevailed.

To be clear, he disagreed with us about the war. But he believed that the spirit which motivated us was precious, something to be respected and in fact, nourished.

That Friday night after school – in the cold Michigan winter – Phil and I and a few others set up a single microphone stand and an amp in the doorway of the church. A handful of us stayed all night, reading all 40,000 names, minus the soldiers from Jackson. Many families in Jackson had asked that their sons’ names not be included, so whenever we came to a deceased soldier from Jackson, we omitted his name.

When it was over, we were exhausted. But the event, from our point, was a tremendous success. We brought the war home to Jackson. We read the names. We stayed awake all night and all the next day. Though it was November in Michigan, we didn’t freeze. Despite the intrusion of a few drunks, the event was peaceful.

Did it stop the war? Did it, together with hundreds of similar readings across the country, contribute in some small way to the momentum that eventually brought our troops home? Maybe, but if so, the effect on national affairs was miniscule, much too small to be measured.

This summer, while reading Wire to Wire in Michigan, I returned to the site of the war reading. To see myself again, as the Seger lyric goes.

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The effect on me was large, though – large enough to still move me decades later. What impresses me most now is the strength and commitment of a man I hardly knew, Reverend Rymph. I wasn’t a member of his church. I never heard him preach, though I knew he continued to support the war that I opposed. But I see now that his belief in a better future was as strong as ours.

He ended his sermon, the Sunday after our reading, with a statement of faith in young people, and by saying he wished he’d gotten to know us better. All these years later, I feel the exactly the same way about him.

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This week, I was proud to be able to join with more than two hundred other writers in supporting the Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy Movement worldwide. The statement of support, at occupywriters.com, has been signed by Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Lethem, Jennifer Egan, Michael Cunningham, Gloria Steinem and many more. The effort was organized by author and journalist Jeff Sharlet and journalist Kiera Feldman and supported by the editors of Tin House, among many others.

In conversations I’ve had this week, I’ve heard as many concerns and disagreements about the Occupy Movement as I did about our reading of the war dead. Are the tactics right? What are the goals? Will it accomplish something or just invite backlash?

But the bigger issue is this: our current economic system rewards greed. Short-term shareholder gain trumps everything. The disparity between the richest and the rest of us has never been greater, and the value created by this system has never been more ephemeral.

Corporate wealth and the general prosperity used to be linked – or at least we used to perceive they were linked. Healthy businesses provided jobs and benefits. Now we perceive an inverse relationship. Lay off workers or cancel retirement benefits and share prices rise. Corporations and CEOs perpetuate the inequities simply by playing by the rules and making logical decisions – because the rules and logic are rigged against most of us.

Is it any wonder we’ve fallen in love, lately, with stories about robots attacking their creators? The metaphor is obvious: we created corporations and now they rule us.

I have some of the same concerns about tactics that others share. Occupation, it seems to me, is frequently a play-until-you-lose scenario, like Space Invaders. Is the agenda anti-corporate or pro-reform? Similar types of concerns were raised about the antiwar movement, of course. Movements, by definition, are big and hard to pin down. 

But the underlying point is this:  the economic discontent we feel is clearly widespread and why wouldn’t it be? The greed that drives too much of Wall Street nearly wrecked the economy and we continue to pay for the repairs – during a jobless recovery to boot.

The Occupy Movement, like the antiwar movement, has a chance to become a prism for that discontent and to focus it where it might do some good. Forget goals, tactics, and disputes about the rules for public spaces for a while; the Occupy Movement is a huge sign that the water temperature has changed, is changing. And that alone is good, and it’s why I was proud to add my name.

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In my blog post on Powells.com, Burning Down the House, I wrote that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with money and sex. Both forces make our lives more comfortable – more delicious – when they’re under control. But like the forces of fire and water, when they jump their channels, they flood us out or burn the place down. To those who have complained that Wire to Wire is too raw, too much about lowlifes, I point to the sex- and money-scandal of the week. What’s going on in Wolverine is nothing compared to the financial and sexual misconduct we see in Washington and Wall Street. Cue Bernie Madoff and Representative Wiener.

But it’s deeper than that. The scandal of the week is just about headlines, and the focus is always on a particular miscreant. – a good man, maybe, who grasped for too much, etc. etc. That misses the point. There might be bad guys on Wall Street, but the problem isn’t the players. It’s that the game is rigged.

In 1968, a year before Phil and I and others read the names of the dead in Jackson, I heard a song that shaped my thinking – not just on the war but on that issue of having your life count for something.  

The song is 2+2=? by Bob Seger. It still means a lot to me. You can listen to it on the music page of this site, and I recommend you do. In it, Seger sings, “It’s the rules, not the soldiers, that are my real enemy.”

From Vietnam to Wall Street, it’s a line that still rings true.

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Harp Maitland is a loner type – I’m not entirely sure he’d join a protest. But if there were protesters in Wolverine, the fictional town of Wire to Wire, he’d definitely be on their side.

Here’s Harp, as he returns to Wolverine from one of his freight trips, walking through the abandoned freight yard that he loves, which is slated to become the site of some new condominiums.

The [caboose] now looked out onto the half-built frame of the Whispering Sands. The work of downstate investors, men who didn’t give a slippery shit about anything, as long as their return on investment was high.

It was pretty clear how things were going, he thought. What used to be the world was becoming the marketplace. Anyone could see it wasn’t square…

In the old days, the land behind the Sawhorse ran to weeds and rusty rails all the way to Wolverine Bay. The emptiness was part of the town and seemed to be fine with everyone. But then money took over, and money didn’t like emptiness. The land behind the Sawhorse wasn’t earning any income, and that attracted bulldozers.

Someday when it’s too late, Harp thought, we’ll all be sorry we didn’t tell money to go to hell.

My take on the Occupy Movement is that it's not too late. In fact, it's time to start.

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Think it's time we got together and declared. The Bob Seger System, “Highway Child.” Play it loud.

Sex and Commas

Posted on Oct 1st, 2011.

The good news: I’ve been asked to speak at Wordstock. The bad news: my panel is opposite Steve Almond, Cheryl Strayed, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Viva Las Vegas. This hardly seems fair – kinda like going up against Hendrix on Max Yasgur's farm.

Wordstock, in case you don't know, is Portland’s legendary book festival. Speaking there, for me, is the attainment of a dream. Tragically, I’ve been assigned to a grim panel discussion on the serial comma (“Red, White, and Blue: Is the Oxford Comma Un-American?”). (Worse, I'll be speaking on the Borders stage, which at this point is a park bench outside the Convention Center. I'll be sharing the stage with a bum and a steampunk girl re-reading Morlock Night.) Meanwhile, Almond et al will be inside delighting the masses with something far sexier. Namely, sex.

Indeed, Almond, Strayed, Yuknavitch, and Las Vegas (ASYL henceforth) will be probing “America’s Sexual/Literary Hang-Up,” stroking the nuances and subtextual pleasure-points of character-revealing sex. Their presentation will feature “dwarfs and giants, fat people and beanpoles, hermaphrodites and transvestites, some grotesquely painted or costumed, some deformed by nature or choice,” unless I’m accidentally reading from Roger Ebert’s review of Fellini’s Satyricon rather than the Wordstock progam.

No matter. The panel assignments are clearly unjust and a misallocation of resources to boot. ASYL are the ones who should be talking about commas. Almond, for one, is publicly conflicted. His memoir, “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life,” (“Exuberant…deft…hilarious” – Publishers Weekly. “Honors Seger by Excluding Him” – Segerfile.com), is an Oxford orgy. His book of essays, “Not That You Asked,” abstains. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Either way, something is eating him about commas, and he needs to talk it out.

As for Lidia Yuknavitch, I heard her at a Portland wine bar just last week. The excerpt she read from “The Chronology of Water” was gut-wrenching, wise, funny, and moving all at the same time. Maybe I lost focus, but I didn’t hear a single comma. At one point I thought I heard a semi-colon, but it may have been coming from next door. And I have no idea where Strayed and Las Vegas come down on the comma vis a vis its usefulness in aiding prosody, which is precisely why such a discussion would be so scintillating.

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This weekend at Wordstock: Almond, Yuknavitch, Strayed, and Las Vegas.

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More to the point, I’m the one who should be talking sex. I’m the one whose book says, right on the cover, “Like being in a stolen car with no brakes in a world of train-hopping, character-revealing sex, violence, and drugs.” (Italics mine.)

Want more proof? My 83-year-old aunt refuses to read Wire to Wire. She didn’t come right out and say it was the character-revealing sex she objected to, but her silence merely underscores the point.

But alas, as Iago says, there’s no remedy, short of hatching some convoluted plot involving handkerchiefs and irrational jealousy in which ASYL all stab each other, and even that would be more interesting than the punctuation discussion at the Little Kids Table, which apparently is my due. (Do? Deux?)

Yet even though I’m not on the Sex Panel, I’m not going down without a fight (a statement which, without even trying, doubles as character-revealing sex). To honor my aunt’s sacrifice, I’m tempted to challenge the ASYL panel to a F**k-Off. A cockfight of sorts. Go ahead, name your categories. Best sex scene referencing a character’s pride in the Motor City? Best use of train signals during sex? The most character-revealing sex scene involving only the thumb? (cf. W2W, p. 29.) Whatever you got, I’ll match it.

Or maybe I’ll just skip my panel and attend theirs.

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Truth in Blogging Disclosure: There is no panel on the serial comma, although it would probably draw a good crowd. At 11:00 am on Sunday, October 9, I’ll be on a panel entitled “When Was Your First Time?” with the marvelous debut authors Ellen Meeropol (House Arrest) and Jason Skipper (Hustle), moderated by the highly successful book publicist and marketing consultant, Mary Bisbee-Beek.

              

Debut novels by Ellen Meeropol, Jason Skipper, and Johnny Shaw.

The name of panel sounds sexy in a Cosmo, non-character-revealing way, but I’m told the discussion is always very well attended. Get there early.

Immediately following the panel, at noon, I’m reading with screenwriter, teacher, and novelist Johnny Shaw, author of Dove Season. Don’t miss it.

Schedule information is here

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Blog music: What happens when writers talk sex and commas? It “Gets Ya Pumpin.’”

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Bonus: Wire to Wire’s sex scenes as a word cloud.

W2W Into the Wild

Posted on Sep 25th, 2011.

When life gets a little too lifelike for Michael Slater in Wire to Wire, he opens a drawer in his video editing suite and takes another Smiling O – an amphetamine that keeps him going through the night.

As far as I know, there is no drug called a Smiling O in the real world; it’s a name I made up. I’m actually a little surprised that no one’s ever asked me what the O stands for, though that’s probably for the best. (No, it’s not orgasm. Or Oreo.)

I almost didn't use the name. At the end of the editing process – with the manuscript due to be released for galleys – an issue concerning punctuation arose. I’d always written the plural as “Smiling O’s,” but that’s incorrect. It should be rendered “Smiling Os” without the apostrophe. Correct or not, that looked wrong to me. The O was clearly a problem. Maybe it needed to be replaced.

With the deadline looming, I spent an evening trying out every gerund/letter combination that seemed remotely plausable. My son, Zane, nixed everything I came up with, and he was right. Somehow, they all sounded like bluegrass groups. The Spinning Gs. Finally, I ended up back where I started, with Smiling O. I just rewrote a bunch of lines so the usage was singular.

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That’s what writing a novel does for you. It lets you be a control freak. While the manuscript’s on your desk, you're in charge. You can obsess over every little thing, and in most cases, you get to call the shots.

But there comes a time to let go. So this week, I’m releasing four free copies of Wire to Wire into the wild. I won't be obsessing over their welfare from now on. They’ll have to fend for themselves.

The free copies are marked on the front and there’s a note inside asking the finder to read the book and pass it on. My email address is there too. The four copies are starting out in Portland, OR, but I hope they make it to Michigan and beyond. There’s a lot of great country out there to see.

I’m dropping the four books this Thursday in places related to the story: a bar, a coffeeshop, a strip club, and a freight yard or train station. I’m open to ideas as to exactly where to release the books, so if you have a suggestion, let me know.

All I ask is this: If you see a copy running around loose, give it a home for a while. Say hi for me. And don’t let it take too many Smiling Os.

_______________

"Rolling fast down I-45, bending time, feeling fine." The Black Angels, "Entrance Song." 

Learn to Forget

Posted on Sep 3rd, 2011.

I was still in school when I first heard “Soul Kitchen,” the sex-infused track off The Doors’ first album. In the decades that have passed, the song has been overshadowed by others on that album – “Light My Fire,” “Break on Through,” and “The End.” But in the second verse of “Soul Kitchen,” The Doors gave us a line that got deep into my brain and has stayed there ever since: “Learn to forget.”

I was young and the whole world was new the first time I played that song. Like all kids that age, I was desperate to take it all in, remember everything. The idea that forgetting might be good – or even liberating – and that you had to learn how to do it, was intriguing all by itself. Delivered in Morrison’s voice, it was absolutely intoxicating.

Yet as time has passed, it’s clear I haven’t taken his advice. In fact, to be a little too clever about it, I’ve always remembered Morrison’s admonition to forget.

________

In the past couple weeks, I’ve had two opportunities to remember the process of writing Wire to Wire. Jeff Baker, book editor for The Oregonian, sat with me here – in my treehouse – one afternoon as part of his “Where I Write” series. And writer Laura Stanfill invited me to be part of her Seven Questions interview series.

Talking about Wire to Wire gave me a chance to notice something I had missed before: Mainly, that being alone up here in the treehouse is different from being alone in a room. It’s further away, up here in the pine. Lonelier. I’ve always said that I built this place for my son, Zane, and that’s true – but seeing it through others’ eyes, it no longer seems like a particularly fun place for a kid. I’m beginning to wonder if what I really built is something more like Michael Slater’s editing suite – a place where the past is always close at hand.

That same idea runs through the music I associate with Wire to Wire. The night plays tricks on Dylan; he tries to be so quiet, but the ghosts of electricity haunt him with Visions of Johanna. Thunder wakes up Seger in the night; he starts humming a song from 1962, and – in another song – wishes he didn’t know now what he didn’t know then. Joni Mitchell remembers a long-ago high school dance when “with just a touch of our fingertips, we could make our circuitry explode.”

All this got me wondering recently if I’ve been answering one of the most-asked questions about Wire to Wire the wrong way. In every interview, people eventually ask, “How much of it is true?” And I always start talking about freights I’ve hopped and places I’ve been in Northern Michigan.

But last week – after Zane went off to college, after I sat up here replaying the things we used to do, things we won’t do again  – a different answer struck me. The truest thing about Wire to Wire? Maybe it’s all about being in the grip of the past. About having trouble letting go.

Maybe the most autobiographical sentence is this one: “At midnight, the past, present, and future circled round like a train on a circular track, and you could end up anywhere.”

_________

Without a doubt, it’s been a great summer. Wire to Wire came out in June, and I’ve had a chance to read from it and talk about it in bookstores and bars across Michigan, Oregon, and Washington. You can’t beat something like that.

But now it’s Labor Day – time to go back to work on book number two. The main character is a guy named Ray, and as you might expect, he’s got some problems with the past.

As summer turns to fall, the two of us are gonna be up in this tree a lot, working things out. Maybe even learning to forget.

_______

 

 

 

Speak in secret alphabets: Good advice from a dead guy. The Doors' “Soul Kitchen.”

 

For more music that inspired Wire to Wire, check this post on the terrific Largehearted Boy site.