No Trespassing

The following is an excerpt from the last book I read in 2015, and one of the best (it is the winner of the 2015 National Outdoor Book Award for Literary Fiction too) , called Jimmy Bluefeather, by Kim Heacox. I had planned to post it on the last day of the year, as it seems appropriate for reflection, but I suppose late on the first day of the year to follow is just as good. Even out of context, I find it beautiful.

jimmybluefeatherFather Mikal used to say that the hardest thing when you’re digging yourself into a hole is to stop digging. It’s one thing to be bold, another to be wise. One thing to be resolute, another to be judicious. Who could James and his friends trust? Who could they model themselves after? The elder who sees blue where they see black? Why is it so easy to disregard the old man? When Keb was young, a man lived alone on the edge of town, past a crude sign that said “NO TRESPASSING.” Ken could still see the lines around his eyes, the sad mouth and slumped shoulders. Live in a small town and you learn the simple act of dropping by, and discover there’s an art to it, that it’s made to look casual while in fact it’s deliberate; it involves great caring and compassion. So it was odd to have a guy who wanted none of it. Nobody dropping by. Nobody in his world but himself. Yes, people in Jinkaat watched each other. They watched out for each other. But not this guy. He lived out the road and came into town once a month for groceries and nothing more. Spoke hardly a word. His name was Mercer, first initial T. Nobody knew his first name, the one his parents gave him. He never did take that “NO TRESPASSING” sign down. He even fixed it up, painted it. When he died, he died alone; dragged himself out onto the front porch, sat in a rocking chair, and gave up. Simple as that. He died after he took his last breath and said nothing about it. Abigail Tyler, out picking blueberries, came by and saw him covered in crows. No family claimed him or his things. A dozen townspeople cleaned out his house. In a drawer they found stacks of unsent letters written to a woman who probably never knew he loved her, and never loved him back. Somebody said those letters were the most tender and lyrical they’d ever read. After that, the kids called him Mercy. Tender Mercy. Ironic, to name a man after the very thing he needed most but never received. Uncle Austin used to say that ravens build their nests out of twigs, grasses, deer hair, even their own breast feathers. Are we any different? We make our homes from parts of ourselves — the laughter of our kids, the friends who drop by. They become our finest decorations, our best memories, the things no fire can burn.


Every Footfall Begets a Separation

From Walking with Abel: Journeys with the Nomads of the African Savannah by Anna Badkhen:

514v0eTphbL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_We walk into one another’s lives, we change them and are changed deeply and forever, we part ways. Each time a part of our hearts seems to shrivel and die, it doesn’t. Simply, our hearts learn to beat a different way. We mourn, we break down, then we stand up, and we keep going. Two thousand footsteps per mile. Twenty to forty thousand footsteps per day. Every footfall brings the walkers closer to a reunion. Every footfall begets a separation. Our forward movement, erratic, fragile, relentless, is a quest: for comfort, for deliverance, for squaring the ideal of endurance with the practice of love.



Scourges Upon the Earth

From This Changes Everything, the fantastic-as-ever latest book from one of my heroes, Naomi Klein:

This-Changes-EverythingOne of the most interesting findings of the many recent studies on climate perceptions is the clear connection between a refusal to accept the science of climate change and social and economic privilege. Overwhelmingly, climate change deniers are not only conservative but also white and male, a group with higher than average incomes. And they are more likely than other adults to be highly confident in their views, no matter how demonstrably false. A much discussed paper on this topic by sociologists Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap (memorably titled “Cool Dudes”) found that as a group, conservative white men who expressed strong confidence in their understanding of global warming were almost six times as likely to believe climate change “will never happen” as the rest of the adults surveyed.

I saw Klein speak in Chicago back in 2008 and it was fantastic. She signed my little Moleskin book “Stay Brave.” That strikes right to the heart of things, doesn’t it? Bravery and kindness, that’s what we need more of.


Report from the Road

I flew over to Portland on Tuesday to participate in the first ever Noir at the Bar event in Portland. This is the second one I’ve been part of, the first being in St. Louis a couple years ago. Basically what it is is kind of an underground thing where a bunch of (primarily) crime writers get together and read stuff — short stories, book excerpts, whatever — at a bar, and people come out and listen. It’s a blast.

At risk of sounding whiny, writing can be a lonely and solitary existence. Hell, the morning I left, I ran into a guy I’ve played kickball with for a couple years who was also at the airport leaving on a trip. What I didn’t know until then is that he is one of the main writers for the Independent, who I freelance for, and I wasn’t even aware. I kind of felt like an asshole for being so damn oblivious. But that’s the thing — unless you live in a town with a vibrant, social writing community, or if you teach or something, it’s rare you come face to face with your peers. At least that’s been my experience. I certainly don’t feel like any part of a writing community in Missoula, that’s for damn sure. This event really underscored that for me. I mean, who in Missoula could I have high-brow literary conversations on subjects like, for example, the opening sequence to the first Blade movie, anecdotes about puking into your own pants (I don’t have one of my own, thank you), and erotic fan fiction, all in the span of about an hour?

Right out of the gate I got to meet a couple guys whose books I’ve read and that I’ve communicated with but never met in person: Johnny Shaw and Barry Graham. Johnny organized the thing, edited and published me in Blood & Tacos, and has written a couple award winning books of his own that I highly recommend. Our conversation went late into the night, got a little beer-slurred at times, and covered a lot of ground. It was awesome. Barry Graham is originally from Scotland, doesn’t shy away from saying what he thinks, and besides writing some gritty-as-hell fiction also happens to be a Zen monk. I’ve read at least half-a-dozen or so of his books, both fiction and non-fiction, and every one is excellent. He recited his material by memory (a particularly gruesome scene from How Do You Like Your Blue-Eyed Boy), and was outstanding. His writing is intense. Hell, even his TWITTER posts are intense. In person I found him warm and loquacious. I look forward to crossing paths with him again.

I also got to be a bit of a fanboy. Greg Rucka is one of the best comics writers out there. He’s written the heaviest of hitters — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman — as well as creator-owned stuff that are considered industry classics, like Whiteout and Queen and Country. I’m particularly partial to his more recent Portland-based P.I. series, Stumptown. He’s also found time to write something like a dozen novels too. I mean, the dude was an answer to a friggin’ question on Jeopardy last week, for crissakes! It was a thrill for me to meet him, and he was a great guy.

I also met two writers I’d never read before, Lisa Alber and Roger Hobbs. Lisa’s debut, Kilmoon, comes out in the spring. I’m pretty stoked to get a chance to read it. We had gin and tonics together, something I’d never had before. It was a nice little break between beers. Roger read from his current WIP, but also found out that day that his previous novel, Ghostman, had won the 2013 Steel Dagger Award for Best Thriller. I’ll definitely be tracking that down ASAP.

I also got to hang out with my friends Aaron Draplin and Leah Mckolay, who I was thrilled and grateful to for coming out to watch and hang for awhile. I killed a couple hours earlier that day talking shit with Draplin on the DDC Factory Floor as well, which is always a good time.

I could go on and on, frankly. It was a great trip, a great day, a great night. I came home tired but inspired. I wouldn’t hesitate a moment to make the trip again, because it is worth every minute, every penny. What a blast. What a fantastic group of friggin’ people.


Some Local Flavor, Bro

From Crazy River: Exploration and Folly in East Africa by Richard Grant

cvr9781439154144_9781439154144_hrAt sundown he led me past the snoozing security guards and out through the metal security gates that separated the backpacker compound from the local village. We walked along a deeply eroded street of dried terra-cotta mud, past huts and shacks, a barbershop with two chairs and a solar panel for the electric clippers, past a woman selling tomatoes stacked in little pyramids on a spread-out kanga, a group of jumping, pointing children yelling out “Muzungu! Muzungu!” and many pairs of watchful adult eyes. We sat down in a restaurant with a palm-thatched roof and no walls. It had two tables, a mud floor, and four planks of wood for chairs. “Ah, this is more like it,” said Milan. “Some local flavor, bro.”

The waiter was young, dreadlocked, and dreamily stoned. We ordered chicken masala and watched him saunter back to the kitchen to tell the cook, who sent out a boy for onions, called him back, gave him some money, and told him to pick up a chicken as well. Twenty minutes later, with no sign of the boy, Milan was twitching and vibrating with impatience. He stalked into the kitchen, pointed his forefinger, and gave the waiter and the cook an angry blast of Swahili. They sent out another boy to find the first.

Swahili is a mixture of Arabic and African Bantu languages. It contains several words for “hurry” and “rush.” They all come from Arabic, not Bantu, and they carry a negative connotation, implying that hurrying will botch the job.

Milan sat down and fumed. Fifteen minutes later the boys returned with two onions and a freshly killed and mostly plucked chicken. The cook started cutting it up, then answered his phone and wandered off for ten minutes. He came back, finished cutting up the chicken, and started on the onions. He was in no hurry, and it turned out that he had no reason to be in a hurry. The restaurant only had six plates, and they had all just gone into service on the other table. By the time the other diners had finished their meal, and the cook had washed up and dried the plates, the masala would be done perfectly.

As a recent arrival, I found it entertaining and fascinating to watch this process unfold with such amazing slowness, but it drove Milan crazy. Here was everything that bedeviled Africa’s progress and exasperated him about the motherland. “Where’s the system? Why is it so hard to plan ahead? I mean, put away a few shillings and buy some fucking onions, you know. If you want to make a living selling chicken masala, make sure you have a fucking chicken, man. And do some prep work, cut the fucker up ahead of time. Look at this. We’ve been sitting here for an hour and forty minutes now.”