Monday, November 13, 2017

I remember Uncle Bill

When my first book of stories was published in 2006, I drove from Cheyenne to pick up copies from Ghost Road Press in Denver. I stopped by my Uncle Bill Taylor's house and delivered a signed copy. He called me the next week to comment on the stories. He was complimentary, and especially liked the ones set in post-World War II Denver. He did have a critique, though, one I always will treasure. He commented that my stories didn't seem to have endings. True, I said. I explained that contemporary short stories don't have endings, that some writers describe them as "slice-of-life." He took that in, absorbing the words better in his mid-80s than most of my 20-something students did. He said he would take another look. I am not sure if he did. But I appreciated his diligence. He didn't read books as a rule and I was glad that he read mine. Uncle Bill's reading consisted mostly of the Denver Post sports section. This was fortunate when I was a stringer covering high school sports for the the Post in 1978-81. I knew my uncle would read my blow-by-blow account of the latest game under the Friday Night Lights.  

Uncle Bill died Sunday morning. He was our family's last link with what's sometimes called "The Greatest Generation." They were great, in our eyes. My older siblings and I had the pleasure of growing up with grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. Then my father began to be transferred around the country to build sites for Atlas missiles. We never lost touch, though, but the moving around frayed our connections. We are an itinerant bunch, we Americans. It was traveling that helped our Florida-based family reconnect with our Denver roots. In our gallivanting days, my siblings and I wandered out to the Rocky Mountains to visit relatives, drink Coors beer (couldn't get it in the South), and to see what all the Colorado hubbub was about. My brother Dan ventured to Denver in the summer of 1971 and came back with some stories. Dan's future wife and her pals ventured West that same summer and dropped in on some of our Denver family on the way to the Grand Canyon. I hitchhiked through Colorado with a girlfriend in 1972. My brother Pat and I hitched from Houston to Denver in 1975 to traverse the mountains and see our relatives. Aunt Mary and Uncle Bill always welcomed us wayward family members. 

My brother Pat was stationed at Lowry AFB in the 1970s. He found family with the Taylors and my paternal grandparents, who, as luck would have it, lived in a senior housing complex that looked out over the Lowry AFB runway where the Army Air Corps trained its pilots during World War II. My sister Molly moved to Denver for a short time in the late 1970s. She knew she was in trouble when she discovered she had to wear a sweater on July nights. Same goes for my sister Eileen, who kept having complicated encounters with ice and snow on Denver roads. The last straw was a spinout and collision on Florida Avenue in southeast Denver. She saw it as a sign and soon after decamped for the real Florida where the road hazards are real but much less icy. 

When my then-girlfriend Chris and I arrived in Denver during the very pleasant summer of 1978, Mary and Bill took us in. We stayed there until we found an apartment in Aurora at the edge of the air force base. We had family but didn't know anyone else. They took us in and we were grateful. 

The World War II generation passes and we are sad. My life is different because of the experiences of our forebears during that era. Uncle Bill told me stories of how he and my father drove the Ribbon of Death (the two-lane precursor to I-25) from Trinidad to Denver to see their girlfriends in Denver. They were two sisters, Mary and Anna Hett, who grew up in an Irish neighborhood near South High School . My father worked as a salesman for Armour Meat Company in Albuquerque and Uncle Bill sold insurance in Trinidad, a sleepy town on the New Mexico border. My father would get off work on Friday and take a bus to Trinidad. Bill drove them in his jalopy up the dangerous road to Denver, where they arrived early on Saturday morning. After some frenzied courting, the two young college grads and war veterans were back on the road, reversing the trip they had made less than 48 hours before. I can imagine their conversations as they negotiated a snowy Colorado night. Do you remember when you were in your 20s and in love? You would do anything to bridge the gap. Anything. They did, as soon both couples married and began families. I was conceived in Albuquerque after a spicy Mexican dinner and a few beers in Old Town. I have been fond of Mexican food ever since. Beer too.

We would be nothing without stories. They tell us who we are, and were. I transform tales of those who came before me into tales of the present. One of the critiques I get is "You have so many people in your stories." Yes, I do, because I have so many people in my life. I grew up in a big family and have many friends. They find their way into my stories, with names changed to protect the innocent and guilty alike. And, as Uncle Bill said, they don't always have tidy endings. 

I hate to tell you this Uncle Bill, but your story is not over. We will continue telling stories about you as long as we are part of this world. Some of those stories will outlast us, and tell our descendants what sort of people we were. 

We hope we are worth remembering. 

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Cheyenne: When will you get serious about your role as a city?

Tuesday was election day.

In Laramie County, we voted on a bond issue to fund three new projects at the community college. It would generate some $30 million for the construction and revamping of three buildings: fine arts, rec center, and a new dormitory. All necessary. But this is the second bond issue for the college in four years. Still, I voted for the bonds because I would like to see Cheyenne shake off its dusty image and plan for the future.

The measure was defeated 59-41 percent.

Bummer.

Meanwhile, 90 miles south, Denver voters approved a $937 million bond issue for package for roads, parks, libraries and cultural facilities. The measures passed by large margins. They include money for the city's big cultural entities such as the botanic gardens, zoo, DCPA, art museum, etc. The central library and ten branch libraries will get major renovations. The city will build a rapid transit project on infamous Colfax Ave. It also will build 17 miles of protected bike lanes and 33 miles of sidewalks. The city will revamp the 16th Street Mall, which has needed it for awhile. Bridges will be built and repaired.

Damn. That's a community planing for the future.

I know, there is a world of difference between Denver and Cheyenne. Denver grows larger and more expensive and traffic is a nightmare. Cheyenne stays basically the same, just how the old-timers want it.

But the old ways are getting really old. Cheyenne's 60,000-plus population makes it the largest city in the state. County population nears 100,000, which makes it the largest county in the state, home to one in every six Wyomingites. It is the state capitol and home of state government. Cheyenne is seen as  the northern terminus of the Front Range of the Rockies, usually described as the area between Pueblo and Cheyenne. One of the routes proposed for the Hyperloop Project is Cheyenne to Pueblo, with the first link proposed to be built between Greeley and DIA.

Cheyenne is often seen as an aberration in Wyoming. It's a rural state and many of its residents like it that way. In some parts of this windswept place, Cheyenne is described as North Denver. This earns laughs from Denver natives such as me. Still, when you live in Lusk or Thayne, Cheyenne is a metropolis with strange ways. Denver is, well, the L.A. of the prairie.

In the 2016 election, good liberals in the state legislature were defeated. We are close to living in a one-party state. Legislation is crafted by rural white men who won seats guaranteed by Republican gerrymandering. In Laramie County, suburban Democrats are represented by Rep. John Eklund.  During the 2014 session, he sponsored a bill that repealed gun-free zones in public schools. This, apparently, was the only solution to massacres such as the Newtown school shooting.

Those of us who complain are told to leave the state if we don't like it the way it is.

Young people have no problem departing for points south along the Front Range. My daughter Annie has lived in Colorado for the past year. I am with her often as she explores ways to live with her mental illness in a state that takes mental health seriously. I meet Wyomingites at every turn. The receptionist at the dentist is from Sheridan. Annie looked at renting an Aurora apartment from young man who happened to be a Cheyenne native. One of her therapists in Fort Collins had just moved from Casper. Teachers are in high demand in Colorado. One of my daughter's former teachers just left a decades-long high school job for new opportunities in Denver. A good friend who twice ran for the legislature recently moved to Greeley, finding a better political climate in Weld County's biggest city. Airmen and airwomen at Warren AFB live in FoCo, or spend all of their off-hours there. It's become such a challenge to keep its troopers close to home that Air Force brass has looked at plans to build a mini-Fort Collins in Laramie County. How you gonna keep them at the base after they've partied in FoCO? When alerts come and the weather is bad, the base can't get the necessary staff back to the base to man the missiles that might be pointed at North Korea or, as we like to call it, NoKo.

All this is distressing to those of us who have made it our mission to make Cheyenne and Wyoming a better place. Chris and I are among them. We have served on many committees and boards. We have planned hundreds of arts and culture events. We vote and work at the polls. We attend arts events. We drink our beer here. We own a house.

My question on this post-election day is this: When will you get serious, Cheyenne, about your role as a city?

Saturday, November 04, 2017

After the Trump deluge: One year later

Donald Trump was elected president a year ago.

With our fellow Dems on Nov. 8, 2016, Chris and I watched the results come in, first with elation and then with a deep darkness. So this is what it's come to? Our depression that night was only an inkling of what was to come.

Think about all that's happened in the past year. The crack-of-dawn tweets. The hirings and firings. The Russian links. The rise of hate and prejudice. Fascist undertones and overtones.

Trump represents everything venal and hateful about America. Trump represents all of those Americans who hurled venom at Barack Obama when he was in office. All our unhinged uncles and neighbors. Late night AM talk show hosts. Some of the more outrageous right-wing legislators currently sitting in the Wyoming Legislature. Cliven Bundy. Ted Nugent.

What do we do next?

Outrage and criticism will not derail Trump. It feels good. I get a kick out of watching Steven Colbert and SNL. It's good to know there will be a video and audio record of The Resistance. The New York Times and Washington Post do their research, keep punching away. Yet we are no more near getting rid of Trump than we were at The Women's March on Inauguration Day in January. If we get rid of Trump, what is waiting in the wings. Mike Pence? A horror-show right-wing evangelical straight out of The Handmaid's Tale.

The State of the Union is more than distressing. We can't give up. But it's going to be a long slog.

All kinds of helpful people have weighed in during this distressing anniversary. Notable therapists advise us how to cope "in the Age of Trump." Trustworthy columnists tell us not the lose faith in the system.

I already see a therapist that is no fan of Trump. I continue to stay involved in "the system." I will vote for the LCCC initiatives on Tuesday that will make our community college and community a better place. I will volunteer for Dem candidates and my community, which is basically the same thing. I continue to support good causes with money and effort. If I did not, the Trump terrorists would win. I want no part of that capitulation.

Your vote Tuesday will make a difference. The county clerk expects a low turnout, as this is an off-year election on one issue. Trumpenstein is not on the ballot. Or is he? Any vote is a blow for freedom and democracy.

Thousands of Denverites plan to go to Cheesman Park on Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. to "scream helplessly at the sky on the anniversary of the election." This kind of gathering may seem pointless but it gets people together in a common cause and allows us to vent, both good things. Who knows, you might meet somebody, as the park has been a meeting place for decades. And a bonus -- as a former cemetery, Cheesman has experience with helplessly screaming. Some graves are still occupied, as a contractor hired in 1893 by the city neglected to transfer all of the bodies before it began to be transformed into a park in 1894. For event info, go to
https://www.facebook.com/events/1969220523402820/

Vote on Tuesday. On Wednesday in Denver (or wherever), scream your bloody head off.

Monday, October 30, 2017

It's "Heart of Darkness" all over again as U.S. war in Africa heats up

From CNN Online on Oct. 23:
Americans should anticipate more military operations in Africa as the war on terrorism continues to morph, Sen. Lindsey Graham warned Friday.
"This war is getting hot in places that it's been cool, and we've got to go where the enemy takes us," Graham told reporters on Capitol Hill.
We are embarked on another military spree. It's best to bone up on the literature of Africa, lest we make the same ignorant mistakes we made in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Saharan Africa, Southwest Asia, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Dakota Territory, and so on.

My first thought was "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad. While a tad racist, it’s a magnificent cautionary tale for overseas adventurers with a terminal case of hubris. You know, Marlow and Kurtz, Willard and Kurtz. Francis Ford Coppola used the 1899 novel (and Michael Herr’s nonfiction “Dispatches”) as a blueprint for “Apocalypse Now.”

Four American Special Forces troops were killed in an ambush in Niger two weeks ago. Most of us didn’t know that the U.S. had troops in Niger. We had to look up the country on a map and practice our spelling and pronunciation of the country so as not to sound as stupid as Trump. It’s not Nigeria. Nijz-AIR, is as close as I can get. It’s near Chad and is poorer than that country, which is saying something. According to the Africa Guide, two-thirds of the country is desert and the northeastern part of the country is "mostly uninhabitable." Most Nigeriens live in the southern third of the country described as "savannah." That is where the U.S. has a base and where our troops were killed. 

We've got to go where the enemy takes us. 

Any Vietnam War novel should be instructive as Africa’s cold war gets hot. “The Quiet American” by Graham Greene is a good primer as it was written way back in 1955, long before our misadventure in French Indochina heated up in the 1960s. While Ken Burns PBS Vietnam War series has its flaws, special screenings should be held for Sen. Graham, President “My heel hurts and I can’t go to Vietnam” Trump, Mr. Tillerson, Gen, Mattis, and any other member of this passel of fools who hasn’t seen it. The PBS does an excellent job of following our descent into madness or, if you prefer, our own very special heart of darkness. Stanley Karnow’s “Vietnam: A History” is also an excellent historical account of the war.

Novels and poetry may be the best route into understanding how quagmires happen, and what the effects are on countries.

But Vietnam isn’t the only useful example. I have been researching World War I as background for a novel I am writing about the post-war years of 1919-1920 in my home state of Colorado. In the summer of 1914, the entire world lost its mind. Except for the U.S. – we waited until spring of 1917 to do so. A few nights ago, I watched most of the 1971 Brit film “Nicholas and Alexandra.” Nicky thought that dashing off vaguely friendly letters to his wife’s German relatives would keep Russia out of the war. Not only did Russia suffer millions of casualties, but the czar’s repressive policies fed right into the hands of the Bolsheviks. Decades of terror followed. And then the Soviets suffered their own Vietnam in Afghanistan. I have yet a read a novel about this war – I’m sure there are some good ones. We have our own novels coming out of the Afghan misadventures. It doesn’t end.

The best novel I’ve read to come out of the American Wars of the New Millennium is “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” by Ben Fountain. The juxtaposition of Billy Lynn’s shattered soul with the spectacle of the NFL Super Bowl took my breath away. It seems especially relevant now as we watch African-American players take a knee to bring attention to injustices wrought on the streets of the USA. And the critics say “Don’t mix politics with football.” Too late. America is all about these things: war and football and prejudice and spectacle and greed and cheerleaders in skimpy outfits.

I am woefully lacking in reading books by the writers of Africa. This is not a surprise, as English majors are woefully lacking in books outside those written in native English. I have read novels set in Africa by U.S. and British writers. Time to read a novel by an African author. A dedicated Ghanaian/American reader/blogger Darkowaa hosts a blog called African Book Addict! Go to her reading list at https://africanbookaddict.com/to-read-list/ It would help if you also read French, German, or a selection of African dialects. 

We've been in Africa before. "Black Hawk Down" by Mark Bowden shows what happens when a country's military ventures into a place such as Mogadishu that it doesn't understand. The Horn of Africa can be a dangerous place. The U.S., once had military and naval bases in Ethiopia. Until it didn't. The Soviets moved in and Haile Salassie was a dead man. 

Maybe that’s the lesson of all of these works of art about wars past. It never ends. Humankind keeps making the same mistakes. We never learn.

We can keep reading. We will always have that. I hope we will.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Love is love is love is love -- but not at Florida's Father Lopez Catholic High School

Below is an e-mail I sent to Father Lopez Catholic High School President Pat LaMorte in Daytona Beach, Florida. It's in response to Mary Kate Curry's "resignation under duress" at the school when it became public that she was engaged to a woman. To read more about this, go to the New Ways Ministry web site at https://www.newwaysministry.org/2017/10/23/catholic-school-teacher-fired-gender-engagement/. Thanks to fellow Lopez alum John Bartelloni (Class of '70) for alerting me about this.

My letter:

Dear Pres. LaMorte:

My Father Lopez High School education taught me that the Catholic Church should be alleviating pain and suffering in the world, not adding to it.

I just read about Mary Kate Curry's "resignation under duress" as a theology teacher and the school's decision to forbid her from coaching (even volunteering to coach) the FLHS girls' basketball team. 

Curry's letter was heartbreaking. She obviously loved her jobs as teacher and coach. To take those away from her is the worst kind of cruelty. 

And the reason? She publicly outed herself as a member of the LGBT community, someone who loves someone of her own gender. She couldn't live a lie any more and you punished her for it. Shame on you, the school and the diocese. Shame.

I attended Father Lopez from 1965-69. I was president of the National Honor Society and lettered in basketball, part of the team that went to the state tournament in 1969. I am proud of being a Lopez alum. 

Make us all proud. Alleviate the pain you caused in this young woman's life by reinstating her as a teacher and coach. 

Some 50 years from now, a 2018 Lopez grad will look upon his or her time in the classroom or on the court with Ms. Curry and say, as I do today, that I learned how to be a honorable human being at Father Lopez. 

Do the right thing.

Sincerely,

Michael Shay
Cheyenne, Wyoming

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Literary Connection Part II: Craig Johnson, from book to screen to novella

For my first Oct. 8 post about the Literary Connection, go to https://hummingbirdminds.blogspot.com/2017/10/we-ask-old-question-why-do-writers-write.html

At Oct. 7's Literary Connection at LCCC, I bought three books by Craig Johnson: "Western Star," the newest Longmire mystery; "The Cold Dish," the first published Longmire novel; and "Wait for Signs: Twelve Longmire Stories," including "Old Indian Trick," winner of the Tony Hillerman award.

I have others on my jam-packed book shelves and undoubtedly in some of the many boxes of books I have stashed around the house. I've read three of the author's Walt Longmire mysteries. They are well-written and exciting, with memorable characters. They are set in the mythical Wyoming burg of Durant in the county of Absaroka. These are stand-ins for Johnson's neighboring village of Buffalo in Johnson County. Johnson is not related to the Johnson of the county name. He is affiliated with Buffalo's Longmire Days celebration which celebrates the books featuring the mythical sheriff. It's a lot of fun -- I attended it during the summer of 2015. Johnson is the master of ceremonies for events. Presenters include a roster of the actors who bring the characters to life on the Netflix series. The writer and actors sign autographs and pose for photos with fans. There's also a street dance and a pancake breakfast. The Johnsons staff a pop-up store on Main Street where they sell Longmire merch. I have several T-shirts and books galore to prove their merchandising skills.

Johnson and his wife Judy live in the town of Ucross, just off the intersection of two state highways. Johnson has written 20-some books st the old homestead. The characters that he dreamed up come to life on the Netflix series. That must be awesome. He's said as much at the various talks and book signings I've attended.

Johnson presented the afternoon talk at LCCC's Literary Connection on Oct. 7. I couldn't stay for it. I had to get home to meet my daughter and go shopping. Family matters come before the matters of writing and everything else.

Netflix airs the sixth and last season of "Longmire" starting in November. The network cited declining viewership as the main reason it cancelled the series. Chris and I are long-time "Longmire" watchers. The Netflix version is edgier than its A&E counterpart. That's the way of Netflix. I have enjoyed the edgy "Ozark," which also features a rural setting -- Lake of the Ozarks in Arkansas. Netflix just cancelled the edgy "Bloodline" set in the Florida Keys. I watched season one and was impressed with the cast and acting and the non-sequential storytelling. Netflix said it was too expensive to produce. Who knows?

What makes a Netflix success? How edgy can you be until that becomes a stereotype? Stories thrive on conflict. You need real characters, too, people that are believable and are a bundle of contradictions too. Just like a great novel.

"Longmire" had something no other show has -- Native American characters or, at least, minorities playing Native Americans on the show. Lou Diamond Philips who plays Henry Standing Bear in part-Cherokee. The mother of Denver native Zahn McLarnon, who plays tribal police chief Mathias, was Hunkpapa Lakota. We have shows with Hispanic characters and African-Americans. With the death of "Longmire," Native Americans disappear from contemporary stories on the screen. A shame. Craig Johnson has gone out of his way to bring Native characters into his fiction and onto the screen. And he does his research.

The show's success has spawned novellas such as "The Highwayman" subtitled "A Longmire Story." The novella's cover prominently promotes the show. So the novels begat the show and the show begat novellas. Kind of interesting how this business works. I knew Johnson back when he was writing his first novel. The encouraging thing is that he's the same good guy he was back then. He rides for the brand, to borrow a phrase from Wyoming's Cowboy Code. Or to quote a line from one of the my favorite movies -- he's bona fide.

For more about Johnson, go to http://www.craigallenjohnson.com/.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Get your reading groove on at FoCo Book Fest

Great line-up tomorrow, Oct. 21, for the Fort Collins Book Fest: Writers and Riffs. I have known about this for a few weeks but may not be able to attend. But you can.

My mentor and one-time colleague John Calderazzo conducts a nonfiction essay writing workshop at 10:45 a.m. in the Old Town Library. The workshop, unfortunately, is filled up. No surprise, as John is one of the best teachers around for this genre. If you are interested in the "next steps for you in your publishing adventure," author and entrepreneur Teresa Funke conducts some one-on-one sessions from 11 a.m.- 3 p.m. in the Old Town Library. Sign up by calling 970-221-6740. Buy her book, "Remember Wake" about the survivors of the battles on Wake Island (and later imprisonment) in World War II.

Some of us recall warbling late night renditions of Loudon Wainwright III's 1972 ditty "Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road" (you know who you are). If you can't remember, go here for a refresher: https://youtu.be/Uu5hzc2Mei4. Wainwright will speak about his memoir, "Liner Notes," and sing some of his songs on the Linden Street stage from 1:30-3 p.m.

The session that interests me is "For What It's Worth: A New History of the Sixties" by cultural historian Craig Werner. As Werner says, the 1960s is "a decade that has been obscured by nostalgia, controversy and a nearly impenetrable veil of politically-motivated mythologies." Couldn't agree more. See what you missed at 12:15 p.m. at the Downtown Artery on Linden St.

Another session that mixes contemporary sounds and books features Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon talking about her memoir "Girl in the Band." It's from 3:30-4:30 p.m. at Book One Events on Linden Street.

As you can see, music weaves its way through the bookfest. The organizers were anxious to seize on FoCo's newly-minted rep as one of the most exciting music towns on the Front Range. As someone who has been on planning committees for three book festivals and dozens of literary events, I like this group's vision. Face it, people don't read or buy books as they once did. They are crazy about music. Mix the two and you might get a crowd younger than book-loving me at 66. And that's what you want.

I wish you luck, FoCo Book Fest. More info at https://www.focobookfest.org