The drill: Each week, I’ve asked my Facebook friends to suggest a word. I then put the suggestions into list form, run a random-number generator and choose the corresponding word from the list. That word serves as the inspiration for a story that includes at least one usage of the word in question. This week’s contribution is courtesy of Lisa Roberts, and it’s the 21st and final installment of this series. For previous installments of The Word, click here.
I don’t much care for people who don’t come out and say what they mean. You want to come at me, come in a straight line. Roll your thoughts out there, in simple terms with precise meanings, and I’ll meet you in the middle and hash it out some way—even if I hate you for what you’ve said, even if I disagree with you to the ends of the earth. I’ll respect you. At least I’ll do that.
Uncle Forrest, I don’t much care for him. Here we are, at my grandma’s house—his mother’s house—for her ninetieth birthday, and here he is, thinking it’s the time and place to try to figure me out. He’s lived no more than a mile away my whole damned life, all eighteen years of it, and has never shown much interest. Why here? Why now?
“You’re a mercurial fellow, aren’t you, Everett?” He shoves a slice of German chocolate cake into his hole as he says this. How I detest him.
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t know what ‘mercurial’ means, Everett?”
The son of a bitch (no offense, Grandma).
“I want you to define your terms. Is your context elemental? Are you saying I’m a poor conductor of heat? That I’m a heavy metal? That I don’t react with most acids? That I’m good at forming amalgams? I just want to understand you.”
Forrest licks chocolate from his fingers.
“Or maybe you’re speaking in mythological terms. I’m a messenger with wings on my feet. I stole Vulcan’s net to catch a nymph. Is that it, Forrest? It’s your dance. I’m just trying to understand the rules.”
The party has stopped now, and everyone is looking at us. Grandma has full eyes that look like, God help me, mercury. Mom is standing on the other side of the table, fists on her hips, crimson-faced. Aunts and cousins and neighbors are staring at us, agape. And I keep going.
“Or perhaps, Forrest, you’re just relying on the common, Webster’s definition. You think I’m subject to sudden or unpredictable changes.”
He’s edging away from me, smiling stupidly, unwilling to say what he means.
“What is it, Uncle Forrest?”
“Let’s just drop it.”
Mom comes into it now. “Yes. Drop it or leave, young man.”
So I do the thing that requires integrity. I kiss grandma on the cheek—she’s full-on crying now—and I leave.
I stand on the porch, and I tremble. I am not Mercury. I don’t have the speed. I don’t have the cunning. I am a boy who doesn’t fit in. But I am strong. Stronger than Forrest, for sure. Stronger than all of them. I am Mars.
I am going back inside.
I’ve had hours to consider what I’ll say here, and it’s still not clear in my head. I don’t know how to begin to describe the emotions of hearing that my favorite band ever, one I’ve been with — and one that’s been with me — for the majority of my life, has sent itself off into retirement.
I never saw it coming, and while I will concede that a good chunk of Wednesday was spent walking around in a stupor, I’ll also say that the way R.E.M. exited the stage is entirely in keeping with what I’ve come to expect from them in three decades as a fan: dignified, understated, no odious farewell tour or media blitz. Just a simple statement on the band’s website, and they’re gone.
Whatever conflicts I’m having about what to say don’t extend to the question of what to post. Of all the songs from 15 studio albums, eight compilations and two live albums, my favorite stands consistent. This one:
There’s a story behind my love of “Find the River,” and you’re going to get that, too.
In 1993-94, I worked for a small newspaper in Kentucky, the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer. It was a good place to work (then), situated in a vibrant college town on the banks of the Ohio River. One day, I spent a late afternoon driving up the Kentucky side of the river to Hawesville, then crossing to Cannelton, Indiana, and coming back on the other side. It was one of those pitch-perfect fall days — a little chill in the air, sunny if slightly overcast, the road windswept with coppery leaves. My companion that day was R.E.M.’s “Automatic for the People,” the album that probably represents the nexus of the band’s widest appeal and highest art. When I got to “Find the River,” I kept backing it up, hearing meaning in the words that I hadn’t contemplated before.
I was 23 years old, and I had this sense, for the first time, that I was the man I would be, for better or worse. That I’d made some decisions and had defined myself in some irretrievable way, and somehow, in my mind that day, those notions hardwired themselves to Michael Stipe’s words:
The river to the ocean goes
A fortune for the undertow
None of this is going my way …
In Rockport, Indiana, not far from home, I pulled over at a secluded spot and I wept. For what? I don’t know, not even today. Something powerful. Something beautiful. Something inside me that was drawn out by this band that I loved so much.
(Now, of course, I look back and see an emotionally dramatic 23-year-old. Enough has happened in the intervening years to teach me that nothing is irretrievable, that there are not only second acts in life but third and fourth acts. That’s what I know now. What I knew then was all I could deal with then.)
A lot of the coverage of the band’s retirement has focused on just how out of favor they are now with the musical mainstream, and while that’s an unavoidable part of the story, it means nothing to me. From “Murmur” in 1983 to “Collapse Into Now” in 2011, a new R.E.M. album was an event-with-a-capital-E for me. Just as I’m willing to follow a favorite author wherever he wants to take me, I’ve always been eager to see what new horizon R.E.M. leads me to. Some (“Lifes Rich Pageant”) appealed to me more than others (“Around the Sun”), but I was always packed for the journey. As I’ve considered my sadness at this news, that’s certainly been one of the biggest factors: No more new R.E.M. to look forward to, ever. The other biggie: Perhaps the best part of being a fan of the band was the sense that together, the four of them (and, after Bill Berry left in 1997, the three of them) were so much more as a unit than they ever were apart from that. Perhaps that’s unfair. Perhaps they’ll go on to great heights in their own directions. I’d love to be wrong about this. And, really, as long as they’re happy, that’s the most important thing. R.E.M. never lost their dignity, and I trust they knew when it was time.
But, see, I think the guys also understood the greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts thing. I think that’s why they had the foresight, when they were starting out, to say that all songs would be credited to Berry Buck Mills Stipe, regardless of individual contributions on any given tune. They knew they’d have to stand together. And they did, for 31 years.
I will miss them.
Last week, I traveled to Fort Benton to talk to the Friends of the Library group there. I love every chance I get to explore Montana, but Fort Benton holds a special place in my heart — for its history, for the folks I’ve met there, for its beauty. It’s the kind of place — nay, it is THE place — where I’d love to live.
And you know what? Getting there is pretty damned dazzling, too.
Won’t you join me?
I left Billings just before noon Tuesday, climbing 27th Street to the top of the Rims and heading out into the rolling plains and buttes of central Montana.
At the little town of Lavina, about 45 miles from Billings, I encounter my first junction. Turn right, and I’m headed to Roundup. I’ll turn left.
For the next 65-70 miles, there are just a few towns — Ryegate and Harlowton are the largest of these — and lots of buttes and grazing land. It’s a pleasant stretch of highway. At Harlowton, I head dead north and run into the Judith Gap wind farm and its impressive sea of triple-bladed turbines.
Next comes another junction, where Highway 191 terminates perpendicular to Highway 12. Here lies Eddie’s Corner, the crossroads of central Montana. To my right is Lewistown. Also to my right is Eddie’s Corner. To my left is Great Falls. I’ll be going left, but after I slip into the store at Eddie’s Corner.
At Eddie’s Corner, it’s expected that you’ll take a picture of yourself in the restroom. Actually, I just made that up. Probably, I’m now the focus of a sting operation. Forget you ever saw this.
A driving man works up a powerful thirst.
OK, back on the road. Thirty miles beyond Eddie’s Corner brings Stanford, where I make a couple of turns and see a welcome sign.
I love the last stretch of this trip. It’s equal parts grandeur and stark beauty, with rolling plains, buttes, badlands and, on a clear day, mountains in the distance.
Finally, I descended into Missouri River Breaks, crossed the bridge and turned right into the heart of Fort Benton. One of the first things I see: my hotel, the Grand Union.
In a town chock full of history, the Grand Union fits perfectly. Opened in 1882. Continued for more than a century. Closed. Was resuscitated and refurbished and is now a showplace in this wonderful town.
But Fort Benton and all its wonderful history could wait. I came a day early for one reason, and one reason only: golf.
My golf game at Signal Point was unremarkable: lots of bogeys, double bogeys, triple bogeys and — for shame — quadruple bogeys. Two pars. Great scenery, though.
The next morning, I woke up early and absorbed the news of the (previous) day. Heartburn set in quickly.
Luckily, breakfast was much more appealing.
After breakfast, I went for a stroll. Just outside the Grand Union is a sculpture dedicated to one of Fort Benton’s most famous figures, Shep. (Seriously, I love this story so much!)
Later that day, during my talk to the Chouteau County Friends of the Library, I asked if anyone had known Shep. One gentleman raised his hand and said, “I fed him.” That was a story I had to hear (quick summation: Shep did not like kidneys). I felt like I was in the presence of reflected greatness.
Just down from Shep is a footbridge across the Mighty Missouri. A must-walk, even on a blustery morning.
Now, Fort Benton is a friendly town, one of the friendliest I’ve ever seen. But back in the day, you could find trouble there, if trouble was your cup of tea.
Meet Thomas Meagher (“Marr”). Fortunately for Fort Benton and its historical ways, the good governor was not the sort to fade away quietly. No, he was presumed drowned after tumbling off a steamboat on July 1, 1867, along this stretch of the Missouri. But given Meagher’s colorful life, I don’t think any of us can be certain he’s not in an Irish tavern at this very moment, lifting a pint.
After reacquainting myself with the governor’s story, I left the riverside and dived deeper into town.
Then, it was back to the Grand Union to clean up and prepare for my library gig.
After my library gig, I just had to see more Shep stuff. So I drove up to his resting spot.
One last nugget from Fort Benton, a house that pays tribute to its paddleboat past.
So began the long drive back home, 200-plus-miles of stunning views.
At Eddie’s Corner, I stopped again. This time for some dinner.
Sometime later, the traveler returned home.
Let’s do it again sometime.
My new book, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, comes out December 6th.
But now — today, and on through the end of the month — I’m giving you the opportunity to download an e-book version for free.
Completely and totally free.
Here’s the book trailer. Check it out:
So, you want a copy, right? Here’s what you do:
- Go to this link: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/81312
- Select the format you want.
- Go to checkout.
- Enter this coupon code: EY63S
- Commence downloading and reading.
If you don’t have a Smashwords account, you’ll have to sign up for one. But don’t let that dissuade you. It, too, is free, and there are a lot of good e-book bargains on that site. It’s a panoply of reading pleasure for the story enthusiast.
Please pass this along to your friends with e-readers. The offer is good until Sept. 30, and I’d love to see as many free copies as possible sent out into the world. After you read the book, if you’re so inclined, please offer up a review at Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble or Goodreads or LibraryThing, if you frequent those places. Or tell a friend.
Thanks for reading!
Please allow me to commend to your attention this story at Self-Publishing Review, in which A Life Transparent author Todd Keisling says some very nice things about my new book and is kind enough to toss me some questions about writing and publishing.
While I was more than happy to chat about Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, the best part of the interview, for me, was the opportunity to chat about Missouri Breaks Press, the little publishing house I run out of my living room. I started this little business because my professional background is rooted in the production side of publishing. I’ve spent most of the past twenty years as a copy editor and designer (a layout man, to use a waning term), and it’s because of that background that I’ve been as interested in the physical construction of my books as I have been in the writing of them. When I branched out into the book business a few years ago as a novelist, starting my own house and looking for work to put out there was a natural extension of things.
I’ve had extraordinary good fortune with the projects I’ve chosen. My good friend Carol Buchanan, whose first novel, God’s Thunderbolt, was an indie sensation and a Spur Award winner, was kind enough to cast her lot with me for her follow-up, Gold Under Ice. And that book has been every bit the wonder that her first book was, becoming a Spur Award finalist.
In both cases, I’ve had the privilege of working with terrific writers and better people. As I said in the interview, those successes have given me the confidence to release my own work through Missouri Breaks Press, as I will with Quantum Physics. My first two novels, published by other houses, have allowed me to build the relationships with booksellers and readers that make going it alone a little less fearsome. And, of course, I’m not alone. I had a lot of help and input in these stories, and I turned them over to the steady hand of a terrific editor. I’d no sooner do my own editing than my own heart surgery.
And that’s what I have to say about that.
Speaking of Quantum Physics …
Thursday is the final day to get an advance, signed print copy of the book for the low price of $10.50. That day, right here, a new promotion will be announced, this one of interest to folks who brandish e-readers. You don’t want to miss this.
Vacation’s over. Also, how ’bout them Cowboys? Wait … don’t answer that.
Pass it on to your friends. Also worth noting: This is the final week to get an advance print copy of the book (which releases Dec. 6) at the low, low price of $10.50. Details here.
If you’re in Montana, please check out the latest issue of Montana Magazine, which includes a feature story about my books (written by Chèrie Newman of Montana Public Radio) and a wonderful review of Ed Kemmick’s “The Big Sky, By and By,” which I published. The magazine is on newsstands now.
Finally, a travel advisory: Tuesday, I’m headed to Fort Benton, where the next morning I’ll meet with the Friends of the Library to talk about The Summer Son. Just a little more than a year ago, I was there with my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, and it was a great group of people and a great town (my first trip there).
Glorious, glorious vacation.
Posts will resume on Sept. 12.
Be good to yourself — and each other — in my absence.
Earlier this week, my buddy and author/blogger David Abrams was kind enough to feature an essay by me on his blog, The Quivering Pen. It was a part of his ongoing series My First Time, in which authors share breakthrough moments in their writing lives.
It’s a testament to the popularity of this series that several months passed between my submission of the essay and its publication. Reading it again this week, I was struck by just how much has changed — and how much hasn’t — between my first front-page newspaper story at age 18 and my current career as a newspaper copy editor now, twenty-three years later.
Let’s start with the physical newspaper itself. Here’s a look at the front page of the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram from December 18th, 1988, the day my story appeared (the reason I have a copy: I’m fortunate enough to have a mother who thinks everything I’ve ever written is golden, and who catalogs it accordingly):
The design looks a bit rudimentary, doesn’t it? At that point, while desktop publishing certainly existed, papers the size of the Star-Telegram generally had not made the capital investment to put design terminals and full-page outputters into their buildings. In those days, a layout editor would draw his/her design on a piece of paper called a dummy sheet, and the type would come out in long strips called galleys that would then be cut up by compositors and arranged somewhat like a puzzle. To get those color boxes in place, sheets of amberlith or rubylith would be cut and shot in the four-color process. Color photographs would be put in place through a similar process. Everything would be shot into negatives, and then the negatives would be used to create the aluminum plates that went onto the press.
The thing that really hits me now, looking at the page, is how wide it is. I measured it at 14 inches. By contrast, the paper I work for now, The Billings Gazette, has a page 11 inches wide (and less than 10 for the “image area,” the space for the news and photos).
At right is an image of the Gazette Page A1 that I designed for Monday’s edition. In addition to having a more modern look, it was leagues easier to put together. Everything happened at a single desk, on a single computer. Desktop publishing software is sophisticated enough to allow for applying stylized effects to photos (as I did with the promotional strip at the top, blending the photo with a background screen), to change the widths and numbers of columns of type with a single keystroke, to send the page, once finished, directly from my desk to the four plates — cyan, magenta, yellow, black — that impressed this image onto thousands and thousands of pages. None of this, of course, comes as any great surprise to anyone these days, but I think it’s an interesting contrast with how I learned the trade two-plus decades ago. Back then, if a layout editor wanted to change, say, the width of the type from the the cover to the jump page, he/she would have to apply laborious typesetting code to the story on the editing end, then go to the typesetter and hope that the break came where he/she needed it to. If it didn’t? Back to the editing terminal to adjust the coding. Now, type flows from one box shape to another with the greatest of ease.
On December 17th, 1988, however, I wasn’t in the office building a page. I was in a football stadium in Waco, Texas, trying to conjure a color story about the fans of the Southlake Carroll High School team. To write my story, I had a Radio Shack TRS-80 (affectionately called a Trash-80), which you can see at left. See that screen? When you were writing a story, you could see only a few lines at a time, and if you had to backtrack to check something you already wrote, well, let’s just say that it wasn’t so easy as CTRL-F. It was, instead, a lot of backtracking and squinting at dot-matrix characters on a gray screen in search of a certain passage or fact.
What the Trash-80 lacked in utility, however, it made up for in durability — I can’t tell you how many times I dropped it on hard surfaces like sidewalks and colleagues’ craniums, and it survived all of them — and tactile pleasantness. The keyboard, while a bit small, was incredibly easy to use for a touch typist like me. I came to love the Trash-80 and wish now that I had salvaged a few of them when they left newsrooms 15 years ago or so.
When it was time to transmit, I needed a direct connection to a landline, which wasn’t always easy to find in high school gymnasiums. I whiled away many hours in school offices — a fax machine line was perfect for transmission — and teachers’ lounges, listening to that pleasing whirr and ping of the TRS-80 as it sent my stories to where they needed to go. Now, of course, reporters in the field file in all kinds of ways — modem to modem, wireless, tweets, mobile phones and, in a pinch, by dictating a story to a fast-typing colleague back in the office.
In my essay, I wrote about a despondent few hours when the paper came out on December 18th, when I figured the story I’d written wasn’t good enough because I couldn’t find it anywhere.
As I said in the piece:
It was below the fold of the paper, a little three-inch sliver of type in the bottom left-hand corner of the page, but there it was. I’d missed it on the first pass because it was a companion piece to [Gil] LeBreton’s, with a tiny elliptical headline. In my frantic search through the paper, I’d simply mistaken it for part of LeBreton’s story.
LeBreton — or, as we know him, “Leb” — was (and is) one of the paper’s star columnists, and accordingly, his story had been given top billing. You can see it here:
The headline, if you can’t see it, reads “State champs | By third quarter, Carroll knew …”
And several inches below, you can see my moment of glory:
The continuation of the headline: “… what Dragon fans had known all along.” (There’s also, sadly, the precious byline of “Craig E. Lancaster.” What can I say? I was 18 and thought that a middle initial would make me more writerly.)
It was a huge thrill to see this story in my hometown newspaper, and it remains one of the biggest moments of my career. At that young age, I thought I was on my way, that if I could make the front page as a teenager, I’d no doubt be winning Pulitzers by the handful in the years to come. Things didn’t quite work out that way; within a few years, I’d made the hard left turn from aspiring reporter to full-time editor, someone toiling behind the scenes and someone whose name rarely shows up in the newspaper. It was the right choice for me, a job that better suits my sensibilities. And now, of course, my writing ambitions play out in a different way.
It’s not what I would have imagined for myself twenty-three years ago, but I wouldn’t change a thing.