Monday, October 05, 2015

Nothing like a literary weekend, or two, or three...

I attended two literary conferences the past two weeks. The Casper College/ARTCORE Literary Conference is a long-running affair that stretches back into the last century. I first attended in October/November 1991. I drove to Casper in the teeth of a raging snowstorm and, if you think that's easy, try it sometime. An excellent slate of presenters, including Utah's Terry Tempest Williams and Colorado's Lorna Dee Cervantes, led workshops, gave presentations and read their work. I was a greenhorn at the job back then, coordinator of the Arts Council's literary program, and knew few people in the state. Bruce Richardson, a UW/CC English prof, introduced me around. I was a writer who worked with other writers and I thought that was a pretty cool job to have. I was still learning about the state's literary community. At the time, I'd only published a few short stories in journals and had several unpublished (and probably unpublishable) novels in my bottom desk drawer. I knew next to nothing about the arts bureaucracy but was getting a crash course in Cheyenne.
Fast forward to the 29th annual CC/ARTCORE Literary Conference. The arts landscape has shifted and so have I. Bruce Richardson is a familiar presence. Recently retired from UW/CC, his arts instincts are as voracious as ever. He served as moderator of the panel discussion, the panel comprised of poets, visual artists, authors and scientists. We are omnivores now, the conference morphing into a forum for the arts and sciences which is as it should be. I'm still a writer, with lots of published stories and one book to my credit, but my job no longer is focused on the literary field. I still supervise literary fellowships but now my charge is communications, both print and online. I coordinate the annual fellowship reading at the conference, a collaboration that goes back at least a decade. But now I'm mainly here to document the proceedings, get those important Facebook and Twitter feeds that help boost the WAC's presence statewide and planetary-wide. To do this, I carry my Samsung Note 4 with its 16 mega-pixel camera and note-taking app. I also carry my black-and-white speckled composition book. I've been jotting notes and journaling and brainstorming stories in these comp books for decades. There is just no substitute for pen on paper.
My journal provides quotes and observations that I draw on later, for my own edification, for blogging, for the ages. Here are some notes from the CasColLitCon:
High Plains Press’s Nancy Curtis – court case definition of a publisher (1988): “An entity in the business of making books and written material available and one that makes a good faith effort to distribute those books to bookstores.” Ancient history now.
Jessica Robinson (aka fiction writer Pembroke Sinclair) – “Life Lessons from Slasher Films.” Slasher films trying to get rid of old conservative ideal of men saving women… Women fight slasher – only successful some of the time.”
Emilene Ostlind, editor of Western Confluence magazine at UW. “Narrative is the crux of good science writing.” For all writing.
Rebecca Foust (at Q&A panel): “Sometimes research involves being alive to the world, noticing it and writing it down.”
Joseph Campbell (pen name: J. Warren). Talks about transgressive fiction. Title: Lost Boi by Sassafras Lowry from Arsenal Pulp Press. Desc.: “BDSM sex-positive, BDSM-positive retelling of Peter Pan.” “These books get us to a place of extreme discomfort, take the safeties off. They undo pattern of traditional fiction.”
Katie Smith, creative writing fellowship winner: “I write poetry in unusual places. One of those is my barn.”
Funny what you pick up by just noticing things. That’s what journals are for. 
This past Friday and Saturday, I attended the 11th year of the Literary Connection sponsored by Laramie County Community College and its foundation. This event started when a local book club attended the Literary Sojourn, the legendary gathering of authors and readers in Steamboat Springs, Colo. That event takes place Oct. 10. Looking at its web site, I see it has some amazing writers such as Jim Shepard, whose 1998 novel "Nosferatu" knocked my socks off. It arose out of a short story from Shepard's great collection, "Batting against Castro." Short story maestro Diane Ackerman will be there, as well as novelist Richard Russo. Ethiopian-American novelist Dinaw Mengestu also is on the program. I ask myself: why am I not going to Steamboat next weekend? Three weekends in a row may be a bit much, even for us literary types. Next year, I plan to skip the other two events and spend the weekend with Chris and five authors in Steamboat.
Literary Connection featured two very different writers. They conduct free workshops on Friday and get into the nitty-gritty over talks and lunch on Saturday.
Allen Kurzweil is a “novelist, journalist, teacher and inventor” from Providence, R.I. His latest book is an investigative memoir into the life of a 12-year-old boy who bullied him when he was a ten-year-old at a Swiss boarding school in 1971-72. The kid grew into a drug dealer and con man. Allen told us his story in the course of two days, but I am looking forward to reading the book. I’ve read some hair-raising memoirs and have brought their authors to Wyoming. Nick Flynn and Connie May Fowler come to mind. Honest to the point of this reader blushing. Allen said that he approached his story – and his subject -- with a minimum of commentary. “When you’re in the presence of sociopathic behavior, it’s better to record what happens rather than trying to psycho-analyze.”  
Poet George Bilgere was the second author. As he spoke, I picked up many of the references, probably because he’s a fellow Baby Boomer. His work has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s poetry show on NPR. One was "Problem" which was based on an incident in George's favorite café. A retired gentleman named Jerry was writing a sci-fi novel and was having trouble with the question of how to tell time on a world with three suns. George said that his characters could wear three watches. George thought was funny but the sci-fi writer did not. George went to his usual table and wrote a poem about the incident. When  he got home, he called up Garrison Keillor at Writer’s Almanac. He’d been on “Prairie Home Companion” a few times and Keillor had featured many of his poems. He told George to send along the poem. The next Monday, it was on Writer’s Almanac. “Things don’t usually happen that way,” George said. Poetry usually takes a lot longer, with some poems making the rounds for years before they are accepted – if they are. As for sci-fi, well, he prefers real life. “Poetry discovers the strangeness and mystery of everyday life,” he said. 
Discovering the strangeness and mystery of everyday life. That also applies to us short fiction writers.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sunday morning round-up: The hissing of summer lawns, and the moans of zombies

Sunday morning round-up...

The sprinkler is on. How do you describe the sprinkler's sound? Hiss, maybe, as in "the hissing of summer lawns" (thanks Joni Mitchell). It sounds like summer, especially in this dry climate. We've had only a trace of rain this month. No snow, either, although there is still plenty of September left for that. I remember driving I-80 to the Salt Lake City Book Festival during a first-day-of-fall blizzard, WYDOT closing the road behind me. It snowed on us one Sept. 15 as we moved into our house. Sept. 11, 2014 -- eight inches of wet snow in Casper, all melted by evening. Moisture -- we'll take what we can get.

Rep. Allen Jaggi wrote an op-ed for today's paper. The headline: "Keep an eye on the money." This is one Republican legislator's response to Republican Gov. Mead's idea that the state, faced with declining energy revenues, should dip into its $2 billion rainy day fund. Jaggi doesn't like that idea, although he never takes a swipe at the Gov. He does take a swipe at the Game and Fish Department which is having a tough time living within its means as license fees decline (20,000 fewer, according to Jaggi). That figure is really amazing when you think about Wyoming's reputation as a hunting destination. Rep. Jaggi mentions that higher-end state employees make from $80,000-$200,000 per year (P.S.: I'm nowhere near that level). He also mentions that "we have the biggest state government per capita of any other state" and bemoans the "rapid growth of our state agencies." But he also points out that a Wyoming family of four gets $27,000 in state services and only pays $3,200. The minerals industry makes up the shortfall in this state with no income tax. He seems to be arguing that as mineral revenues go down, so should state services. And what happens to families with a special-needs child who can't get help from the Department of Family Services? One can only conclude that Wyoming Republicans don't care.

I didn't watch this week's Republican debates. I'm still recovering from the first round.

My daughter Annie and I visited the fifth annual Zombiefest yesterday. Actually, she wanted some lunch (brains!) and I wanted to visit the adjacent farmer's market (pears!). Annie settled for a chicken kabob sandwich from the Kabob Truck while I munched on plums from Jeffrey Farms in Palisade, Colo. Zombies wandered the downtown plaza. Many of them pushed children in strollers. The crowd was more my daughter's age than mine, which is terrific. No casualties were reported, although a pair of old Army Jeeps (Zombie Hunters!) were adorned with skeletons. One of the films being screened at the Atlas Theatre was the original "The Hills Have Eyes." It featured Michael Berryman as Pluto, who attended the Zombiefest. He also was one of R.P. McMurphy's fellow residents of the asylum in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

In Ken Kesey's novel, narrator Chief Bromden remembers the nursery rhyme that his grandmother once sang to him:
Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn,
Wire, briar, limber lock,
Three geese in a flock,
One flew East,
One flew West,
And one flew over the cuckoo's nest.
Perhaps this is will be the voice mail message that Wyomingites seeking mental health services will hear should Republicans have their way with the budget.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

At Cheyenne's Edge Fest, first comes the work and then the party

Cheyenne's West Edge Project will hold a combination planning workshop and music fest on Friday, Sept. 18, at the Asher Building at 500 W. 15th Street downtown. The work has do be done first, and then the party.

Here's a bit about the workshop:
This open workshop on Sept. 18 from 2-5:30 p.m. will give you the opportunity to get your hands dirty in Cheyenne’s West Edge. You get to be the designer and help transform a parking lot into an activated courtyard! Friday.
After the workshop comes the music and the food and the beverages. I like the way that this group is thinking, this mix of brainstorming and TGIF. The goal of the West Edge Project is to transform this part of downtown into an urban live/work/play space. It already has some money in the bank, some of it voter-approved sixth-penny tax funds, In its first phase, the parking lot across from the municipal building will be repurposed into a parking lot, green space and performance area. To see more, go to the cool web site at which looks as if it was designed by the creative folks at Warehouse 21. WH21 occupies a refurbished warehouse in the West Edge.

See you Friday!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Name an issue and the Know Nothings are against it

A letter writer to the local paper this week used the tired old trope "love it or leave it" in regards to Cheyenne newcomers advocating for change.

Downtown redevelopment. Bike lanes. Legal protections for the LGBT community. The arts and education.

Name an issue and they'll be again' it, dammit. Cheyenne's fine just as it is. You darn California and Colorado liberals go back to where you came from.

The issues are many. Young people such as my daughter cannot find competent mental health care. Hundreds of K-12 students would go hungry over weekends so get shipped home on Fridays with sack lunches. UW graduates cannot find good-paying jobs in their hometown. When they do find one with, say, the state, the pay is 13 percent below private sector wages and Republican lawmakers call you bums. Our downtown has a big hole in its midst and dozens of unoccupied buildings. Gays and lesbians go to public meetings to voice their opinions and abuse is heaped upon them by ranks of grouchy Know Nothings.

Everything's just peachy in Chey-town.

My family and I have lived in Cheyenne since 1991. I'm still a newcomer in some eyes. Because I'm a liberal, me and my views are always in the minority. I have a good job and own a house and my kids attended public schools. I have great friends. As I've said before, if I counted on only having liberals for friends in Wyoming, I'd be lonely.

Americans are migrating to silos. I don't mean the missile variety -- we have plenty of those and people even live in decommissioned ones out on the prairie. People are finding other like-minded people to dwell with. If you're a liberal, you live in a city. If you're conservative, you live in the country or small town. Depending on your location, the suburbs are a mix of outlooks but tend to be conservative.

For much of its existence, Cheyenne has been pretty good about avoiding progress. But during its "Hell on Wheels" days, it was the fastest-growing city on the high prairie. We were supposed to be Denver, you see, but the sharpies down south lured the railroad and developers and boosters and before long its largest daily newspapers was promoting itself as "The Voice of the Rocky Mountain Empire." Wow. Didn't take long for this dusty two-bit cowtown at the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek to become the capital of an empire.

And Cheyenne got left in the dust.

One in six Wyomingites live in our county tucked into the southeast corner of this big square state. Who are they? Older than the national average, and overwhelmingly white. Lots of retired government workers live here, including many military. Working cowboys are outnumbered by railroad retirees and those who managed to survive the oil patch. We do have a lot of cowboy fans -- that's University of Wyoming Cowpokes fans not the ones who cheer for Tony Romo on Sundays.

So I'm surrounded by old white guys like me. They tend to be the watchers of FOX News and members of the Tea Party. I can relate to their gripes. But I just don't see how blaming Latinos and gays and our black president helps the future. Their kids and grandkids in Omaha and SLC pick up their smartphones and see a bunch of angry old guys making a scene at a Cheyenne city council meeting. This is not their idea of a good time -- or of a dynamic place to live.

Advice to my Boomer peers -- tone down the hateful rhetoric or this place has the same life expectancy as a roomful of Medicare recipients.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Sunday morning round-up: Labor Day weekend edition

If this is Labor Day weekend (and it is) that means that we honor the hard-working people of the world by shopping at the new Wal-Mart that pays such sub-standard wages that many of its employees avail themselves of social welfare programs such as SNAP (formerly known as food stamps).  It is true that Wal-Mart has raised its wages of late, no doubt disliking bad publicity. Cheyenne now has two Wal-Marts as well as a Wal-Mart distribution center west on I-80. A real Wal-Mart town, we are. Meanwhile, some Cheyennites prefer to take their hard-earned wages south to Fort Collins to the CostCo store at I-25 and Harmony. CostCo offers livable wages and benefits even as it offers low prices. It can be done.

I attended my union delegate assembly last week in Cheyenne. I wrote about it last week. Gov. Matt Mead addressed the assembly. He said that the next legislative session "is going to be ugly." Oil, gas and coal revenues will be way down. Despite that, he recommends funding the standard budget as is but the state will probably have no money to fund exception requests which, in the past, have been funded to upwards of an additional $600 million. That's a lot in this expansive but least-populated state in the union. He advocates dipping into the state's $2 billion rainy day fund. Stingy Republican legislators, on the other hand, may have other ideas, such as cutting state agency budgets and/or cutting state employees. Gov. Mead says that this approach causes the state to "lose talent and skill" and will cause us to "go into a death spiral" Fewer state services and fewer state employees cause losses in the private sector and this is something Wyoming may not recover from. While many Republican legislators continue to shame state employees, they might want to take a page from our governor's game plan and his new "Wyoming Grown" program. Do you really want to keep your sons and daughters in the state? Or are you just whistling Dixie?

One of the heroes of the labor movement in the West was Joe Hill. I had to wait until I was in college and watching "Woodstock" to discover Joe Hill of Utah. Joan Baez sang "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night" in front of a half-million or so people. Joe Hill was a union organizer who was framed for murder and executed by one of The Beehive State's notorious firing squads. Because he was an IWW organizer -- a Wobbly -- and branded as a Red and a troublemaker by the powers-that-be, it was easy to frame him as the bad guy. A group of poets and musicians and union organizers gathered this weekend in SLC to celebrate Hill's legacy. Denver-raised Judy Collins headed up the concert for this "true blue rebel."
I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night; Alive as you or me; Says I, But Joe, you're ten years dead; I never died, says he; I never died, says he.
Grady Kirkpatrick at Wyoming Public Radio in Laramie often devotes his "Morning Music" show to a theme. Friday it was Labor Day and working people songs. He played the Stones' "The Salt of the Earth," which I haven't heard in a long time. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote the song in 1968 and the Stones featured it on the "Beggars Banquet" album. According to a Wikipedia article on "Salt of the Earth," the Stones have only performed it in concert a handful of times. It has all the qualities of an anthem, with a paean to working people and a rousing chorus, but doesn't get the crowds going quite like "Sympathy for the Devil" or "Brown Sugar." Still, it's worth remembering what the Rolling Stones, perhaps the richest rockers in creation, were thinking about in 1968: 
Say a prayer for the common foot soldier; Spare a thought for his back breaking work; Say a prayer for his wife and his children; Who burn the fires and who still till the earth.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Notes from a Wyoming union meeting

Wyoming Retirement System Director Ruth Ryerson speaks at Friday's town hall meeting sponsored by the Coalition for a Healthy Retirement at the WPEA delegate assembly in Cheyenne. On the job for two years after stints in Colorado and Texas, she's upbeat about the healthy state of WRS, adding that "the majority of your legislators gets it; the Governor gets it."
Wyoming is a right-to-work state.

Stop laughing all you Wyomingites currently enjoying the right to work two or three or more jobs.

Here's a Wyoming joke:

Q: "What do you call someone in Wyoming working three jobs?"

A: "Under-employed."

Statistics show that Wyoming state employees make 13 percent less than our colleagues in private industry. Our benefits, however, are worth 21 percent more than those in private industry. Those benefits include a public pension, an old-fashioned defined benefit plan where retirees work 25 or 30 years and retiree with a defined monthly benefit for the rest of their lives. Wyoming also offers a defined contribution plan, known by the feds as a 457 plan. You put some in every month, as does your employer. This nest egg grows and grows and by the time you retire, you have a kabillion dollars in the account, enough to buy a solid gold humidor for your mansion in Dick Cheney's Jackson Hole gated community. Many have these plans as 401(K)s. My wife, for instance. All of those folks are supposed to save enough in those plans to retire to a life of leisure.

National statistics show that the average amount in a retiree's 401(K) is $18,000,

That, coupled with Social Security, may be enough to see you through to your date with the Grim Reaper. It also may allow you the right to work at McDonald's.

I spent the past three days at the delegate assembly of the Wyoming Public Employees Association. It's my union, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union or SEIU. My first time at the assembly, even though I've been a union member for most of my 24 years with the state. Members are snowplow drivers, nursing assistants at the state hospital, clerks, mechanics, supervisors, veterans outreach specialists and even a stray arts administrator -- me. Some of my colleagues in larger, more union-friendly states, call themselves "arts workers." I like the sound of that. I feel that my work at the Wyoming Arts Council has paved the way for the Wyoming arts boom of the past five years. With more good things to come. My fellow union members feel the same way. They make Wyoming a better place to live. When my car spun out last February between Rawlins and Muddy Gap, the first person to stop to help was a WYDOT snowplow driver. Nurses and CNAs at the State Hospital in Evanston took care of my daughter when she was a patient there last year. All these people get paid 13 percent below their Nebraska colleagues. Yet they do their jobs with dignity and aplomb.

Still, we heard that our supervisors are taking much longer to hire replacements for those who retiree or leave for jobs in Colorado. Increasingly, those people are not replaced at all and we do the work of two people instead of one. That increases the danger to patients and staff at places such as the Wyoming Life Resource Center in Lander. How many Republican legislators want fewer snowplow drivers clearing the summit between Cheyenne and Laramie as they drive over to a UW football game? Do they think about that when they're calling state employees "bums?" Or when one of our Republican legislators, Rep. Harlan Edmonds, said this during the last session (as remembered by Rep. Mary Throne, who spoke at the assembly): "Our problem is not keeping the good state employees but getting rid of the bad state employees." Edmonds is a state employee. It's possible that Edmonds may be a good state employee, but he's in the "very bad" category as a legislator.

I often wonder if these Tea Party types know there is such thing as Facebook and blogs, places where their hateful words live forever?

I'll write more about these topics in the coming weeks. The upcoming legislative session looks to be combative as the state faces revenue shortfalls with the dip in oil, natural gas and coal revenues. Stay tuned....

Note: See more photos from the assembly on my Facebook page

Friday, August 21, 2015

Democrats huddle Sept. 13 for tailgate brunch

I belong to the Laramie County Democrats Grasssroots Coalition or LCDGC for short. It once was the coalition of local Democratic Party women back before inclusiveness and equality caught hold. Republicans snidely call this "political correctness." As far as I know, there are no more Dem women's auxiliaries in The Equality State. The same can't be said for Republican women. There's a Republican women's organization in Natrona County, which figures. 

Anyway, our LCDGC committee is charged with fund-raising for Democratic Party candidates in Laramie County. Thus far, we've raised 80 kabillion dollars, which is just a few bucks short of what Trump spends before lunch every day. We've elected Democrats in Laramie County, which is a lot more than they can say in Casper. We plan to continue, which is why we're having a party on Sept. 13. Here are the details:

Come and help kick off the NFL football season with a Tailgate Brunch sponsored by the Laramie County Democrats Grassroots Coalition, Sunday, September 13, from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. at 3626 Dover Road in Cheyenne. There will be brunch goodies, mimosas, other beverages, and games.  Wear your favorite football team colors.  Guess the total score for all NFL teams that play on the 13th and you could win the 50/50 football pool.  So come out, start the season off with us, then sprint to the next football party.  $15 admission. 

Guaranteed to be lots of fun!  

For more information call Kathleen at 307-421-4496 or Ken at 433-4394.