Knocking at the Door In the Middle of the Night

I was sixteen and out of gas on the side of Van Lanen Road and it was 1:3o in the morning. This was long ago in the 1980s when the world was new, before cell phones, when if you ran out of gas there was no easy way to contact anyone and you had to save yourself with just your wits, of which I had few. I had miscalculated how far the 1972 Chevy Impala station wagon I shared with my brother could travel with the needle on E. I thought I could make it all the way home, park the car in the driveway, go to bed, let my brother discover its need for fuel tomorrow on his day with the car. I was fifteen miles short. And now I was on the gravel, sitting in the dark, beside a fence, a farm, fields running off in every direction leaving me alone under a very big, black sky.

It didn’t occur to me to be worried. I got out and started walking. I knew where I was: when I was very little, my father would put me in a tiny seat on the back of his bicycle and ride up this Van Lanen hill I was walking down at 1:30 in the morning. He huffed and puffed and called it heartbreak hill.

I got past the farms and their endless corn fields and I saw a few houses. But they were all dark, shut down for the night. Back then I was very careful not to believe in God, but I suppose I was making some requests of the night and whoever or whatever might be listening: thanks for the houses, but could you show me one with a light on? And then there was one: a little place, rambler, one of the first of what would become many new suburban houses built on a tiny piece of what used to be cornfield. One window was lit.

Middle of the night, on silent feet, out of the darkness I stepped to their door and knocked. At the time I thought nothing of it, other than to hope I was knocking loud enough, hoping they could hear me. Now, thinking back on it, I wonder what I would do if I was the one inside the door at 1:30 in the morning and suddenly comes a stranger knocking out of the darkness. They opened the door.

They were a young couple. He stood at the door. She remained on the couch under a blanket. The light I had seen was somewhere in the back of the house, the living room was lit only by the television set, her face was blue in the glow of a paused VCR tape.

I explained the situation. He offered their phone, led me to the kitchen where it hung on the wall above the counter. If he suspected me of anything other than the truth, he didn’t let on. He watched me dial, listened to me tell my brother he had to come get me, then left me sitting at the counter alone in his kitchen while he went back and got under the blanket with the woman and started the VCR tape again. Sometime later my brother arrived. I said “Thank you,” they said “OK”. I walked out the front door into the future.

A lot of that future has become the past. I think of that couple. They might have been 30. They let me in and we paused together briefly in that house of theirs like strangers waiting at a bus stop for our different busses to come and take us wherever we were going.They lived their own lifetimes while I lived mine. If they made it this far, that young couple of my memory is in their sixties now. They were just starting out, now they’re starting the wind down. An old couple. Maybe sitting together on a different couch. Maybe not together anymore but thinking of one another sometimes. Maybe gone altogether.




Introducing Iron Twine Press

LB_website_versionI’ve always been a jump first, learn later risk taker. I know the situations I want to see myself in and when the opportunity presents itself, I’m willing to go in ignorant and learn my way out. As long as I have me with me, I know I can do it. All the best things I have done, gained, experienced, learned in my life have come to me this way.

Now, in the immortal words of Shania Twain, I have again “doggone gone and done it”. And that’s the point of this post today:  In October of last year, I started a small, independent publishing company, Iron Twine Press (if you’re a follower of this blog, I invite you to click over and follow the Iron Twine Press blog too and follow @irontwinepress on twitter). At the end of March, we published our first book The First Honeymoon: New and Selected Stories, by Lyn Coffin.

I’m very proud of the book. A lot of effort went into it—obviously, and most importantly, Lyn’s writing, but also custom design by a great photographer, Mariana Jasso. And for me it was a fascinating experience to receive more than two dozen short stories from Lyn in Word document format, then to read through all of them, curate the best of them into a collection, then reformat, edit, arrange according to themes and tone (much like putting together a musical album I’ve decided), then to send the collection out to readers to get feedback, reviews, back cover blurbs, then to publish and now to pursue the daily task of marketing the book, building awareness, arranging readings, placing the book with bookstores…all while also starting work on three new books that I hope to bring out in the next year (one of which will be a collection of my own writing). Even as a lover of books—both as collections of art, and as objects of art themselves—I’m more appreciative than ever of the painstaking work that goes into making a book of quality. I invite you all to go check out the book (it’s available online at Amazon and Barnes&Noble; or if you’re in the Kirkland, WA area you can buy the book at Kirkland Parkplace Books, and if you watch the Iron Twine Web site or sign up for the Iron Twine newsletter, I’ll keep you posted as it becomes available in other locations).

Here I deliver copies of The First Honeymoon to Kirkland Parkplace Books with two Iron Twine Press staffers.

Here I deliver copies of The First Honeymoon to Kirkland Parkplace Books with two Iron Twine Press staffers.

Now some words about Lyn Coffin, because knowing her and working with her has been an inspiration to me. I started out by telling you that I am willing to jump into situations guided only by intuition. That’s true. But doing that requires courage and, being human, as I am, my courage sometimes falters. Then I look at Lyn Coffin:  award-winning writer, 16 volumes of poetry, drama, fiction and translation, her writing selected for publication in The Best American Short Stories by Joyce Carol Oates, honored by the country of Georgia for her work translating their beloved native poems and children’s stories, her work appearing in journals and anthologies, Time Magazine, an honorary PhD from the World Academy of Arts and Culture for “poetic excellence and her efforts on behalf of world peace”, teaching literary fiction at the University of Washington. She’s one of the most accomplished people I have ever met. And she’s done it, as far as I can tell, by only pursuing what is interesting to her. Sometimes that leads her onto the well-lit red carpet of recognition and opportunity, but more frequently she has moved through pathless frontiers of obscurity. But she has just kept working, just kept accomplishing and just kept true to an idea I’ve heard her repeat many times: In life, don’t wait to be invited down the path, don’t wait to be shown the way. “Make the way by going”.

It’s a philosophy I admire and one I feel deeply akin to. There is nothing that can kill you except death, and, it’s going to get you when it’s going to get you. Until then, keep yourself interested, keep yourself inspired, enjoy the way you burn off your finite resource of time. That’s why I started Iron Twine Press.

I don’t know what comes next. But I do know this is the first step down the next way I want to be going.

And so I go.

The Games Are the Same, I Have Changed

This is the very gym in which I soared to basketball mediocrity in the 1980s

This is the very gym in which I soared to basketball mediocrity in the 1980s

It’s March Madness time again. For those of you not in the United States, or those of you who are my brother, let me explain: March Madness is the nickname given to the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s annual basketball tournament that occurs in March, involves 64 teams and results–at the end of a madcap two week flurry of high-intensity games–in the crowning of the NCAA National Champion.

If you like college basketball, you go mad for the excitement of this time of year. If you don’t like college basketball, you look at those of us who go mad this time of year like we are mad.

When I was in high school–which was certainly the height of my interest in the tournament–I watched the games as a dreamer. I was on the basketball team at my school (just barely) and I was only a few years younger than the young men playing in the college tournament. They inspired me; I thought there was an outside chance I could, if I worked hard, be one of them. Their bravado, their swagger, their alpha-male charisma–it all made them pretty popular and that was appealing to me. It looked like a good thing to aspire to. Even if I couldn’t be one of them, I could be like them.

I didn’t make it past my junior year of high school basketball. I destroyed my knee. But I wasn’t going anywhere anyway–the knee injury was just the universe saying “since it’s a foregone conclusion that basketball is not your future lets end this here. Can I interest you in a clarinet? How about writing?”

Now I am a generation older than the young men playing the tournament games. I still watch. I like the excitement of the underdog team upsetting the favorite; I like the human drama of the close games; I like to see the perseverance and mental strength required to perform at a high level under the highest pressure; I watch to see evidence of commitment and dedication; I feel for the losing teams when they are gracious losers, if they congratulate the winners despite their own sadness. As I watch now, I find the bravado, the swagger, the alpha-male posturing and chest pounding an annoying distraction. Now I watch looking for good sports, for good citizens. My kids are watching: I want them to see good role models.

Maybe I’m on my way to being a cranky old man, though I will point out I have not yet used the phrase “In my day…”. But I will admit to a significant change in the desires these tournament games stir in me. When I was a kid I watched and wished I could be more like the players. Now I watch and hope the players will be more like me.


Books and Blasphemy

For a few years I kept all my books in the garage. They were on a bookshelf, not stuffed into boxes. But, yes, they were in the garage.

My mother gave me grief about it. I was raised in a household that respected books. We weren’t allowed ever to throw books no matter how angry we were. Once my cat killed my goldfish and I threw the cat across the room. Nobody said anything about it. But throw a book and I’d end up getting a real earful and I’d have to apologize for my error in judgement.

Our home was dominated by an eight foot wide, floor-to-ceiling bookshelf that held hundreds of volumes. A walk through our house was a slalom course around piles of books, all of them in various stages of being read by someone.

Books, literacy, these were our religion. We did not blaspheme against books.

Once at Waldenbooks in the mall the cashier was one of my father’s students. When the cashier saw his professor standing in front of him, he wanted to win favor. He told my father that if the book he was buying was damaged the store would have to give it to him at a discount. It wasn’t damaged, my father pointed out. The cashier, his student, took the book from him and ripped the front cover off. “Fifty percent discount,” he said.

My father walked out. Blasphemy.

Which is why I’ve never forgotten this and can’t figure it out, even 38 years after it happened: My brother, my mother and I went to Seattle that summer. My father stayed at home. I don’t know if he wanted to go but couldn’t. I don’t know what conversations may have occurred between my father and my mother before we left. I don’t know what other adult sources of stress or disappointment might have been happening in their lives at that time. All I know is that we three left for Seattle, and he stayed. And when we got back three weeks later, one night I looked at the giant bookshelf and some of the books looked different. When I pulled them down I saw that they had BB’s stuck in their spines. We had gone, he had stayed. At some moment, for some reason, he had sat on the couch and shot his own books full of BB holes with my BB gun, or my brother’s. We didn’t keep any BB guns next to the couch. He’d have to have gone to get a gun from our bedroom, then take it downstairs, sit down on the couch and take aim at the books. What did those books do to warrant being shot full of BB’s?

I don’t know.