40 Essential Albums: A List

I first published this in 2009, and decided it was time for an update!  The top ten are the same, but I’ve discovered some great new music since, and thought I would share!

I believe Elvis Costello said it best when he said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”  It’s true that it’s impossible to capture the delicacy of music on paper, but I have many times been moved to explore new music based on what I read, and have been many times rewarded for my exploration.  It is only my hope that I might return the favor.  I’ve tried to abide by the general list rules, i.e. no greatest hits albums, etc.  I also accept that the best part about my list, and yours, is that they will be completely different.  So here they are, in loosely-ranked order.

40.  Yeasayer – Odd Blood

Difficult to categorize, Yeasayer occupies a unique place in the sonic landscape of my iPod.  Pulsing, psychedelic electronics drive the beat, with sometimes poppy, sometimes obtuse arrangements driving off-kilter lyrical musings, all showcasing nuanced, binary tenor vocalists.  A few tracks are impenetrable, but most are transcendent.  High points are the soaring “I Remember,” “ONE,” and the impossibly catchy “Ambling Alp.”  Watch the somewhat disturbing video accompanying “Madder Red” if you have a moment; it will stick with you.

39.  The The – Mind Bomb

The criticisms that might be levied at most of Matt Johnson’s offerings are present here: reliance on synths (despite some great guitar work from Johnny Marr) give it a slightly dated sound and it’s a bit uneven.  But few artists capture such naked emotion in both voice and lyric, and Mind Bomb stands atop his impressive body of work.  Whether he’s pointing the gun at religion, politics, failed love, or himself, his aim is unfaltering, and in this album’s finest moments the result is a tour-de-force of the human soul laid bare.

38.  Counting Crows – August and Everything After

Perhaps the last remnants of folk in pop music found life in this album, which in 1993 sounded unlike anything else I’d heard.  Though it is melancholy throughout, it’s never truly dark and even its most equivocal lyrics retain a sweet humanity very little pop music manages.  The best moments of the record never saw the radio, notably “Sullivan Street” and “Anna Begins” (the latter of which I count among the most touching songs I’ve ever heard), and there isn’t an ounce of filler here.  I think that had August remained obscure it would have been critically regarded as a masterpiece.

37.  The Shins – Wincing the Night Away

James Mercer is a genius with his pen; I place him in the same category with Roger Waters, John Lennon, and Paul Simon in his ability to turn a phrase.  In Wincing his pen finds its deepest well, to say nothing of the intricate song construction.  The opening track, “Sleeping Lessons” wafts in on a pillow of lazily trembling organ, building languidly into a punchy rock tune, with the lines: Eviscerate your fragile frame/And spill it out on ragged floor/A thousand different versions of yourself.  “Australia” is possibly their catchiest number to date with the lyrics: Never dreamt of such sterile hands/You keep them folded in your lap /Or raise them up to beg for scraps/You know he’s holding you down with the tips of his fingers just the same.  And perhaps my favorite from the dreamy “A Comet Appears”: Every post you can hitch your faith on, Is a pie in the sky/Chock full of lies/A tool we devise to make sinking stones fly.  With musical arrangements that equal the grace of its poetry, Wincing is an absolutely brilliant achievement.

36.  Tegan and Sara – The Con

You can’t hold it against Tegan and Sara that Taylor Swift likes them; these twins were rocking ten years before.  Rollicking, tense, pretty, harsh, uplifting, crushing…this record has it all, in 14 tracks tightly executed and delivered without a wasted beat.  Seldom does music this glossy have such an emotional core, with each track both dressed to the nines and nakedly honest.  It’s not surprising they crossed from Lilith Fair into the mainstream a few albums later, but this is their swan song, easily one of the best pop records in a decade.  “The Con” and “Are You Ten Years Ago” are among the best, though it’s hard to pick a favorite.

35.  Barenaked Ladies – Rock Spectacle

This is the first of a few live albums on my list, and while it’s a bit of a cheat given that such albums tend to be greatest hits compilations, in this case I feel it’s warranted.  BNL own the stage in live performance, and the emotion and potency captured in every track of Rock leave the studio versions sounding lackluster.  It’s not that their studio albums are weak or inferior; it’s that they are just that good live.  They cut loose and leave it all on stage, and as a result it’s hard to listen to original recordings of “What a Good Boy” or “Break Your Heart” after hearing these versions.  This goes for most of the tracks; it’s the next best thing to being there.

34.  XTC – Nonsuch

Due to a breakdown by lead singer Andy Partridge resulting in permanent stage fright, XTC never toured past 1982, ten years before this album was released, which is a shame as it is their most accessible work.  At times too smart for its own good, Nonsuch explores typically weighty fare (the assassination of JFK, war, evolution, the dark side of human nature, etc.) often with a wink and a smile and ties these to lilting and often catchy pop-infused melodies.  The result is a highly-listenable collection of very intelligent songs full of clever metaphor and musical styling that offer hidden treasure, listen after listen.  Highlights include “My Bird Performs” and “World Wrapped in Grey.”

33.  Deep Sea Diver – History Speaks

This is one slick record.  Laden with pretty piano chops and mixed to perfection, this freshman offering from Jessica Dobson, who’s worked with The Shins, Connor Oberst, and the Yeah Yeah Yeah, is at times wistful, but mostly shot full of adrenaline.   In between the occasional longing piece displaying the full power of Dobson’s sultry crooning, most of this album is anthemic, with danceable rhythms, infectious hooks, and groovy melodies.  This album is cool as hell.  If there’s a complaint, it’s that it always seems over too soon.  Check out “Ships” and “You Go Running.”

32. Def Leppard – Hysteria

While it’s possible that no other genre of music was as bloated and full of itself as hair-metal, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of fun to be had in that Aqua-Netted mess.  Def Leppard wins the place-holder spot for their peers: Bon Jovi, Poison, Warrant, etc. all get a slice of #32, but Hysteria narrowly edges out Slippery When Wet for the crown. This isn’t to say Lep was superior to Bon Jovi, but Hysteria may have been the quintessential album of the era, and that era has a special, if funny-looking, place in my heart.  It’s mega-overproduced, juvenile, damn-near reprehensible arena rock aimed at the basest hormones of its audience…and I love it.

31. The Chameleons – Strange Times

While the U.S. was doing lines of coke off Culture Club records in Regan-era prosperity, the UK was singing a more somber tune in the early to mid ’80s as unemployment shook the economy, and from the blue-collar town of Manchester The Chameleons emerged among the best post-punk acts of the time.  While groups such as Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen choose a more sparse and jagged approach, The Chameleons wove intricate drum work and simple but potent guitar riffs into their more melodic, if still occasionally bleak sound.  Though a feeling of isolation and emotional turmoil permeates much of Strange Times, there is a thinly veiled optimism peeking through the cracks, both lyrically and musically, that give the album a depth that’s worth exploring.  More mature than their previous offerings, and less vitriolic, this remains their best effort.  “Swamp Thing,” “Time” and “Caution” are high points.

30.  Weezer – Weezer

Given their later offerings I often wonder if this album was half an accident, but if so it was a perfect one.  Weezer brought cool to the quasi-intellectual outsider in a record full of no-frills, straightforward rock songs which adroitly explored many of the seldom-avoided social pratfalls of being young.  In the musical landscape of contrived, grungy teen angst, songs such as “The World has Turned and Left Me Here” and “Only in Dreams” were refreshingly honest and authentic.  There really isn’t a weak track on the record: even the ostensibly silly “Buddy Holly” is a rollicking shove-back at being bullied.  Fifteen years after its release, Weezer remains timelessly original and real from beginning to end.

29.  For Against – Coalesced

I can’t remember how I came across this band, but I’ve never met another soul who’s heard of them.  Regardless, this is one of the most elegantly written and crafted albums I’ve ever heard.  Simple, atmospheric guitar arpeggios provide a dream-like backdrop for Jeffrey Running’s earnestly passionate vocals and lyrics in song after song, each reveling in its own beauty, building and deepening into shimmering bliss.  This is the kind of album you can sink into and let take you away.  There just isn’t enough music like this, and I find this album a good friend every time I return.

28.  Death Cab for Cutie – Plans

I’d never heard of this (oddly named) band until “Soul Meets Body” hit the radio a few years ago, to a cacophony of “sellout!” cries from heartbroken hipsters.  Since, I’ve listened to much of their catalog, and I think this is their finest hour, though I cannot see any notable difference between this and their other work.  I still vividly remember driving in Clearwater for work years ago, spinning this over and over; I think sometimes an album hits you at the right time.  I have weird memories, like picturing the opening to “Different Names” as, rather than played near a crackling fire, as played instead upon a slowly burning piano.  “Brothers on a Hotel Bed” is one of the prettiest sad songs ever written.

27.  Kenna – Make Sure They See My Face

It’s hard to fathom how the Ethiopian-born Kenna isn’t a staple of nearly every radio station in the country.  Apparently critics can’t seem to properly categorize him, which may be one of the most tragic results of our compulsive human need to place everything in a box.  A sort of hip-hop/rock hybrid with influences from Stevie Wonder to Depeche Mode, his rhythms are challenging, his lyrics thoughtful, and his voice sublime.  If you can’t enjoy “Baptized in Blacklight,” you’re listening with the wrong ears.

26. Shiny Toy Guns – We Are Pilots

Thinking this was a Shins album (mis-filed and I clearly wasn’t paying much attention), We Are Pilots became my best accidental/random purchase ever.  Falling sonically somewhere between The Thompson Twins and The Knife, Shiny Toy Guns merge catchy techno beats with throwback synths to a borderline transcendent result.  “Le Disko” grabbed some attention as the album’s single and stands as it’s most modern work.  Tracks such as “Rainy Monday” and “You are the One,” however, party like it’s 1989.  While some of the album is semi-vapid lyrically, the title track and “When they Came for Us” round out the record as its most sincere material.  I have yet to tire of any song on this album, after a ridiculous number of listens.

25. Ra Ra Riot – The Rhumb Line

Ra Ra Riot isn’t the only rock band that relies on strings rather than guitars to drive its sound, but they may be the best.  Before cellist Alexandra Lawn departed as they moved to a more synthesized sound, they produced two matchless records, the strength of which will likely keep them selling out small venues for years to come.  The Rhumb Line was the debut, and it overflows with an unrestrained energy and earnestness that most modern music cannot touch.  “Ghost Under Rocks” perhaps showcases everything the band is capable of; “Winter ’05” is the Beatles had George and Paul swapped their axes for strings, and “Suspended in Gaffa” has to be the best ever Kate Bush cover with a male lead singer.

24.  Sarah McLachlan – Fumbling Toward Ecstasy

Though she broke out with her next album Surfacing, which was aimed closer to the pop-sensibilities of the day, Fumbling Toward Ecstasy finds Sarah unrestrained and fearless.  Her angel voice is complimented with the addition of more musically and rhythmically bold arrangements, sometimes sparse, sometimes exultant, with a songwriting depth that all but evaporated in her later work.  From the smoldering longing of “Elsewhere” to the obsessive pulse of “Possession,” she reaches her most intimate and stripped moments here.

23.  Mark Lenover – The Wreckage

Still relatively unknown, I recently discovered Mark’s work in an independent film and became instantly enthralled.  Sonically falling somewhere between Neil Young and Pink Floyd, with modern synths and electronic rhythms, and lyrically comparable to Leonard Cohen, this is compelling and unique art.  On his site, Mark indicates that he wrote this, his eighth album, in coping with a recent diagnosis of schizophrenia, and knowing that, its moments of pain and sadness become that much more poignant.  But unlike other similarly burdened artists like Syd Barrett and Daniel Johnston, whose work clearly reveals the fracturing psyche below, Mark’s grip remains stronger than his demons; we only know of his struggle because he lets us in.  And it’s not an easy place to visit: “Always Take Your Medicine” is a harrowing treatise on the fallout from chemical treatment; “Malice” is frighteningly beautiful and dark, a view of its victim through the eyes of mental illness.  But despite its oppressive source material, Mark lines the atmosphere with silver; the emotional residue of listening to his music is always positive, even when I’m mired mentally in its hopelessly weighty themes.

22.  The Gaslight Anthem – American Slang

If Bruce Springsteen had been born in 1980, I’m pretty certain he’d sound a lot like the Gaslight Anthem.  Hailing from New Jersey, the Boss’ influence on lead singer Brian Fallon is hard to miss, but this material is anything but derivative.  The Gaslight Anthem is one of the last vestiges of pure rock’n’roll left in modern music, and though my wife and I continue our gridlock over their best album (she insists The ’59 Sound is superior), I have to give the nod to Slang.  I agree that ’59 has a grit that Slang’s polish misses, but with a string of highlights in “Diamond Church Street Choir,” “Stay Lucky,” “Queen of Lower Chelsea,” and the title track, Slang stands a hairsbreadth above.  This is old cars, broken hearts, battered guitars, cracked leather jackets, and empty whisky bottles.  This is rock.

21.  Kate Bush – The Hounds of Love

Some of this record is experimental to the point of difficulty, but its peaks: the title track, “Running Up That Hill,” and “Cloudbusting” encapsulate the best the British siren has to offer.  Discovered at the age of 16 by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, Kate, with her achingly beautiful and haunted voice, remains the touchstone for all female vocalists I encounter.  While some of her later work is more straightforward, Hounds plays whimsically in the maelstrom, showcasing her rapturous disregard for convention at the time of her creative apex.

20.  Better than Ezra – Closer

Better than Ezra achieves that most elusive of musical elements, that in my opinion is the hallmark of a master of the craft: mood.  To me, mood is the place the music takes you every time you hear it, its own unique square of real estate in the mind, or the heart, or the soul.  It can be as simple as a sun drenched meadow or as convoluted as the topography of a broken heart, but a great band has the ability to take you exactly where they want you to go, and Better than Ezra has always been one of my favorite magic carpet rides.  Closer is an upbeat album, and while there are heavy moments, fun is never far from most of these tracks.  While it’s true that happy songs tend to fade long before their sad and darker counterparts, BTE genuinely captures that life-is-good moment better than anyone, and there’s always room in my playlist for that feeling when it’s as real as it is here.  My favorite track on this record is “Rolling.”  Like so much of what BTE can do, “Rolling” isn’t about driving nowhere on a Sunday afternoon – it is driving nowhere on a Sunday afternoon.

19.  Imogen Heap – Speak for Yourself

This album ambushed me.  My wife had it on repeat for a few nights while we were gaming, and while this isn’t my usual fare, after it sank in, it never let go.  While Imogen did interesting work before and after (Frou Frou was great), this album is simply her best.  There’s hardly a weak moment on the record, a synth-pop masterpiece from an exceptionally talented songwriter and producer.  “Goodnight and Go” is the best stalker song yet (sorry Sting), and despite its unfortunate treatment by remixers, her original “Hide and Seek, a beautifully layered a cappella elegy to a crumbling relationship, is one of the few pieces of real genius in modern music.  Oily marks appear on walls/where pleasure moments hung before./The takeover, the sweeping insensitivity of this still life.

18.  Toad the Wet Sprocket – Bread and Circus

I think that Toad is among the most misunderstood, or at least overlooked bands in recent history.  Lead singer/songwriter Glen Phillips was 14 when he joined the older members of the group, and was 17 when this first album was completed in 1989.  Done for the cost of $600 and as a result mostly laid down live in the studio, when this underground tape caught the attention of the large labels the band insisted it be cut “as is” with no re-recording, and so it remained in its original format: rough edged and alive with the raw energy that so often gets washed out in heavy production.  The maturity of Glen’s songwriting for such a young balladeer is shocking, often reflecting the insight and self-awareness of a man twice or three times his age.  Nevertheless there’s a youthful angst that drives some of the writing that had all but vanished by the time they reached commercial audiences two albums later.  The combination of these elements make for an album without peer.

17.  White Lies – To Lose My Life…

The consequences of digital music sometimes create problems with differentiating albums; I bought Ritual and To Lose My Life… at the same time, and they sort of run together for me: I can’t tell you what’s on which without looking at the track listings.  But the point is, these British lads, with their throwback 80’s post-punk sound, are one of the best new acts touring.  Led by Harry McVeigh, whose baritone is a velvet-wrapped claymore, their synthy, brooding anthems are stadium-ready, but thoughtful enough to reveal nuance after repeated listens.  Life gets the nod for tracks such as “From the Stars” and “The Price of Love,” which tell vivid stories in sharp detail, as well as the incomparable “Death,” which is one of their most essential tracks.

16.  Mark Lenover – The Girl in the Window

Having heard the title track as the credits ran on an indie film, I purchased this album in full and haven’t stopped spinning it since.  Where The Wreckage is more inward-facing, this album is populated with otherworldly denizens and edifices, wrapped in metaphor and cloaked in twilight, begging to be explored.  We see the world through the hazy vision of Mark’s constructs…a tortured mother, a boy with his music box, a hypochondriac…or are they?  We see only a glimpse of each through a keyhole, and unlocking their mysteries isn’t likely in the first few listens.  Even more veiled are tracks like “The Girl in the Window,” which is equal parts eerie and rapturous; in fact most of the album could be described that way.  It is both the darkness, and the candle that pushes it back.

15.  Florence + the Machine – Ceremonials

How did she get popular in the mire of vapid modern music?  I don’t know and I don’t care; her rise restored my faith in humanity.  This album is so lyrically dense and layered, that I am guessing that its secrets are arcane to all but few; those that truly listen are rewarded with so much more than just incredible vocals and sweeping arrangements.  With twelve tracks and not an ounce of fluff, from the soulful (“Lover to Lover”) to the enchanted (“Only If for a Night”) and the bombastic (“Heartlines”), this is a journey worth taking over and over.  The only sad thing about this record is that it’s so damn good that I can’t imagine them reaching these heights again.

14.  Fleetwood Mac – The Dance

Few bands are as talented as Fleetwood Mac and I’d been a fan for years, but the live The Dance brought them closer to me than ever before.  There’s more new material here than on the usual live album, and “Bleed to Love Her” is a favorite, but it’s the older stand-bys that shine.  “Everywhere” sparkles live in a way the studio could never match, and “Dreams” is so rich and full it dazzles.  Stevie Nicks brings such a sadness with her in “Landslide” it’s hard not to feel her loneliness.  “Silver Springs,” a song which didn’t make Rumors during a time when Stevie and Lindsay Buckingham were splitting up, is delicate and mournful as it begins but ultimately crescendos into a crashing wave; the live performance sees Lindsay and Stevie’s gazes locked as it crests and rolls back, that old ember between them glowing red for a brief moment.

13.  Better than Ezra – Deluxe

There’s a good deal of nostalgia attached to this selection, as I think it was the first time I felt like I had “discovered” something no one else had.  BTE had reached some commercial success with “Good,” a simple but catchy rock tune that was heavy on hook and light on substance.  But I was floored the first time I listened to Deluxe all the way through; expecting standard alt-rock fluff I instead found a spectrum of musical stylings, from the country lilt of “Coyote,” the gentle cadence of the gorgeous “Porcelain,” to the folky twang of “This Time of Year.”  Along with an impressive bag of musical variety, the songwriting is mature and self-aware, clearly personal but very accessible at the same time.  Everyone knew “Good,” but I knew what they were really about.  Better than Ezra is still one of my favorite groups, and this album still sounds incredible.

12.  The Mary Onettes – Islands

Scandinavia seems to be divided sharply between musical poles of the delicately gossamer and the violently assaultive.  Sweden’s The Mary Onettes (like, Marionettes) falls in the first camp; this is an enveloping cloud of ethereal pop, with just enough emotional heft to keep it tethered to the earth.  I am completely smitten with this band and like every single one of their songs; for me, they simply can do no wrong, and I have to force myself not to over-listen.  Islands gets the nod as their best for the inclusion of “Puzzles” and “Disappearance of My Youth,” the latter of which is probably my favorite song of the last decade.  For gauzy, atmospheric guitar/synth pop, it doesn’t get better than this.

11.  Toad the Wet Sprocket – Dulcinea

Toad hit their peak here, their fourth and most dynamic album.  Glen’s songwriting and the band’s chemistry had reached a level that each song became its own entity, a complete act musically and lyrically.  Navigating thematically deep waters, the empathy of the songs is perhaps what stands out the most.  “Crowing” is in intimate glimpse into a woman’s loneliness, and Glen can bring you close enough to feel the silent tears.  “Fly From Heaven” brings you into the struggle of a man challenging faith and its consequences, while “Windmills” breezily floats after the elusive peace that comes from letting go.  There’s a place that only Glen and company can find, and Dulcinea is the best version of that place.

10.  New Order – Substance

This selection is just short of flat out cheating, because this is essentially a collection of singles…BUT…many of the tracks are re-recordings and remixes which represent some of my favorite versions, especially “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “True Faith,” which means I can kind of break the rules here.  New Order remains in a category by themselves in terms of electronica; there’s an organic feel to the music, especially in the simple but powerful guitar leads, that so much techno loses in digital space.  Here New Order offers dance-ready, extended mixes of many of their classics, yet even given this treatment the songs maintain their flesh-and-blood gravitas.  Substance has plenty of it.

9.  Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here

In the pantheon of great bands and albums in the genre of what we call “rock” or “pop” in the last 50 years, Pink Floyd has no superior.  Whatever “druggy” stigma that clung to them based on founder Syd Barrett’s weird, psychedelic whimsy is largely unwarranted, though it kept me away from them for years.  It’s not that this music can’t take you somewhere if you listen to it in a darkened room, because it can; but by the time they evolved to the sound that defined them in their 6th LP Meddle, their command of the craft was inimitable.  Roger Water’s vision and razor-blade pen balanced with David Gilmour’s unmistakable, crystalline guitar work and Rick Wright’s jazz-influenced keys, arranged with the aplomb of a classical composer, culminated in albums that were astounding in scope, both thematically and sonically.  Wish You Were Here, a missive to erstwhile front-man Barrett, is among their finest work, the title track being a favorite acoustic Floyd number, a multifaceted musing on losing touch. The two-part, bookending “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is the soul of the record, this the 26-minute epic dedicated to Syd’s gradual loss of self.  Hauntingly gentle and melancholy in prelude then erupting to the exultant, this is one of the best Floyd experiences, including a roaring sax interlude by Dick Parry, who’s touch adds great dimension to their soundscape.  A truly sublime piece of music.

8.  Depeche Mode – 101

The masters of dark electronica recorded their 101st concert as a double-live album, and as I recall the second disk, marooned from its partner, was the first used CD I ever bought.  This was my first real step into Mode’s shrouded universe.  The collection of songs reads like a greatest hits list of their early work, but the reason this appears here is the energy and lifeforce the live performance infused into the music.  The heartbeat of the masses brings this to a rapturous pitch and adds that living pulse that studio-generated techno often lacks.  Some favorite versions of songs exist here as well, especially the layered building of “People are People,” and “Everything Counts,” which finds it’s lushest arrangement here, the crowd ultimately pushing this concert-closer into Mode-ecstasy.  In fact, the crowd is a tangible force on this album more than any other that comes to mind.

7.  Simon & Garfunkel – The Concert In Central Park

One of the world’s most golden voices performing with one of America’s finest songwriters for their hometown, this is a magical album.  The experience of listening to them is transcendent: no other group has the power of mood that Simon and Garfunkel manifest to take you to exactly where they want you to be.  The beauty of their harmony is unmatched in anything else I’ve heard, and the melodic verse in pieces like “Scarborough Fair” “Sound of Silence” and “The Boxer” are so gorgeous they’d to lift you to the heavens if the words weren’t so earthy and so very human.  There is something ethereal about their music that is beyond words.

6.  Morphine – Cure for Pain

Dirty sax, swervy bass, and Mark Sandman’s syrupy baritone vocals – this ride is swanky and sexy as hell.  One of the few acts to eschew guitar as a lead instrument, Morphine pirates rather uncharted waters.  Sax player Dana Colley has the chops to play both a Tenor and Baritone at the same time, and his scorching growl is the dusky soul of their sound.  Cure finds them at their pain-killing finest; from the opening slide-bass riff of “Buena” Mark beckons you into his cloudy night…take that step and you’re spellbound as his thrall.  In their smoky haze there’s much to explore, from the sleepy sway of “Candy,” to the snarling, jazzy “Head with Wings,” and my favorite, the title track – a laid back groove with a ripping sax solo.  This stuff feels so good, everyone should try it once.

5.  Depeche Mode – Violator

“Enjoy the Silence” was the first Depeche Mode song I ever heard, and I remember it being the first time I acknowledged techno as a legitimate musical format.  Violator is beyond legitimate…it’s mesmerizing.  Previous records were amazing, but a gutsy swagger bloomed in Mode with that red album-cover rose that thrust them to the next strata.  With songs like “Personal Jesus” and “World in My Eyes” the lusty undercurrents that had ever run deep tore through the surface and Mode was reborn.  With this metamorphosis none of their mystique was lost; the understated “Waiting for the Night” is chillingly pretty and dark, while “Halo” revels in it’s own sweet destruction.  Very seldom does an outfit hit its mark so perfectly as Depeche Mode did here.  In its sphere, Violator has no rival.

4.  The National – Boxer

It’s hard to find the words to explain the secrets this album has to offer if you’re willing to surrender to it.  Musically, there’s nothing extraordinary about any single facet of The National, and yet they achieve a sound that is absolutely their own and like nothing else.  Matt Berninger’s deep baritone is the weighty centerpiece of the arrangements, which are simple and mellow and gorgeously pristine.  The creative use of rhythm gives a heartbeat to these preponderant hymns, reaching such an endearingly personal and intimate place that most musicians can only dream of.  “Fake Empire” was the first to captivate me, its modest piano lead softly backdrops the golden vocals, then gradually builds into a explosion of horns as the song peaks.  “Slow Show”‘ is another personal favorite; as close and charming as the first movement is, it’s the quietly passionate closing that melts: You know I dreamed about you/for twenty-nine years/before I saw you/and I missed you for twenty nine years.

3.  Billy Joel – The Stranger

If it’s matter of the heart, no one tells it better than the streetlife serenader.  Billy’s nakedly honest, blue-collar-rugged songwriting set to his virtuoso touch on the ivories is all the magic New York can weave.  Whether the storyteller, with the three-part masterpiece “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” the Romeo in his leave-it-all-behind anthem “Only the Good Die Young,” or the sage, in the sweet, piercing deconstruction of “She’s Always a Woman,” there’s only one Piano Man.  The Stranger is all the yearning, joy, bitterness, and vitality Billy has to give captured in one absolutely incomparable record.

2.  Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon

What Pink Floyd achieved with Dark Side will likely never be matched.  The album breaks only once, as the record had to be turned over; the rest is a seamless, staggeringly intuitive tour of the darker aspects of the human experience.  Roger Water’s vision of a concept work covering the weight of time, the lure of insanity, the sorrow of war, the perils of wealth, and the final journey of death was realized in such grand fashion that it became a cultural icon almost immediately.  Beyond the peerless songwriting, the album was years ahead of its time musically and technically, every sound, every phrase envisioned and executed flawlessly in a time long before automation or digital recording.  And for all the precision and unrivaled musical crafting, it is rather the unclothed humanity flowing through its veins that makes the album so irresistibly potent and vital.  “Time,” with its ticking, inevitable introduction, rapier poetry, and slow-scorching guitar lead remains my favorite individual piece yet, while Claire Torre’s primal, wordless vocals over Rick’s subtle keyboard work in “Great Gig in the Sky” stands as one of the most powerful pieces of music ever recorded.  One of the most consummately perfect albums of all time, Dark Side of the Moon is pure genius.

1.  The Cure – Disintegration

My love affair with this album dates back almost half my life, and the years have done nothing but deepen my devotion.  From the opening, shimmering moments of “Plainsong” its lush, hypnotic whisper carries you into it’s delicate embrace and doesn’t let go until the final, wistful moments of the album slip away.  Though the songs themselves are unconnected, the spirit of Disintegration flows, creeps, dances, and shines throughout each, as they revel in extended prelude, swirl in reams of entrancing sound and lyric, and fade like vanishing fog.  Darkly alluring, these vast sonic landscapes blend the simple elements of echoing guitars, pulsing keyboards, and slithering bass into a kaleidoscope-tapestry interlaced with the precious, restrained tremble of Robert Smith’s voice weaving bittersweet melancholy into each thread.  Timeless and achingly beautiful, Disintegration is like nothing else on this earth.  Its heart beats somewhere beyond the boundaries of any other music.


The Birth of Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand was not born in 1905.

February 2nd of that year would be remembered as her birthday, a day in a year marked by bloody revolution as Russia’s starving masses rose to strike at the Czar and his autocracy.  Change was coming; by 1906 the rebellion was sated, and Czar Nicholas appeased the angry hordes by creating a representative body known as the Duma.  It held little power, but represented a step in the right direction toward empowering the disenfranchised population.  It wasn’t enough.  The seeds that would spawn the Bolshevik revolution and the establishment of the Communist Party and Soviet Union were already sown, their roots already shaping the next uprising.  But on February 2nd, 1905 the citizens of St. Petersburg, Russia’s great, western- inspired city of hope, had more immediate concerns, and held their breath as whispers of massacres and death in the countryside wafted through the streets.  And on this day, one chemist and notable shop owner Fronz Rosenbaum and his wife Anna welcomed their first daughter Alice into the struggling world.

In twenty years, Alice would leave the Soviet Union on a visit to the United States from which she would not return; her itinerary was a visit to a relative in New York City, but her vision was an escape to what she would later call “…the greatest country on earth.  No…the only country.”  She would change her name to protect her family from the backlash her words might engender in her home country, and possibly to distance herself from her Jewish roots.  She would become an infamous name in fiction, her work hallmarked by characters hewn from epistemological granite and delineated into marble slabs of individualism and achievement, defiant of forces that would question their motives or reason, and set within a world drawn in contrasting colors of capitalist and collectivist ideologies clashing like chromatic dragons above disintegrating social landscapes. Her supporters would be legion, and her detractors still greater in number.  Her philosophy would birth a major political party, and her extremist axioms would have her labeled both genius and heretic.  She would die at age 77 of lung cancer.  Even to the end she would be resolute in her defense of the habit that killed her: a cigarette to man was “fire, a dangerous force, tamed at his fingertips.”  In 1910, however, she was still young Alice Rosenbaum, a mentally precocious and physically awkward little girl, staring mesmerized out the window of an affluent apartment building at the streetcars, lights and bustling energy of St. Petersburg.

From an early age, Alice’s advanced intelligence was apparent, and one of the few character traits that endeared daughter to mother.  Anna made it a habit to show Alice’s intellect off at parties, a memory Alice would recall amid less savory details; “I never wanted children at all!  I look after you because it’s my duty to do so,” her mother told the children once.  By then Alice had two younger sisters, Natasha and Elena (who went by Nora).  In hindsight Alice expressed no anger or dissatisfaction with her mother for this emotional rejection; it seems that she began early to emotionally detach from such disapprobation.  She also found little in common with her sisters or children of her age, who to her seemed childish and uninteresting.

Her father, however, appears to have been a beacon in her early years.  Fronz was of a vanishing type in Russia at the time; he was a self-made man, having seized a rare opportunity as a Jew to receive a university education.  Upon completing his studies in chemistry, he opened his own successful chemist shop and reached a level of mild affluence.  He was a man of few words and high integrity, a rugged individualist unconcerned with the petty frivolities of station and social standing that occupied his wife’s mind.  Though he wouldn’t engage his daughter in political discussion until her teenage years, when their relationship at last became one of intellectual collaborators, her father became her model for the heroic.  Anna’s materialism is immortalized in incarnations such as Lillian Rearden, a weak and despised character Alice would create to castigate the trappings of the callow soul.  But Fronz’s quiet, powerful spirit would permeate the essence of each of her protagonists as she began writing fiction.

Though to her materialism was a vice, the privilege that came with wealth was never an evil to Alice.  In her early years, the family vacationed in a Crimean resort which held, among other attractions, tennis courts on which the children could play.  Though she was clumsy and disliked physical activity, Alice vividly recalls watching an English girl of twelve years named Daisy on the courts.  Tall and blonde, lean and graceful, the image of the girl was etched into Alice’s mind.  “It was a creature out of a different world, my idea of what a woman should be,” she would later recall.  This model would serve as the template for her female characters in her books, most notably Dagny Taggart, heroine of her masterwork Atlas Shrugged.  It’s of note the contrast between herself and Daisy: one awkward, brown-haired and averse to activity, the other fair and lithe, an athlete in motion.  Alice named her ostensible opposite as the peak in female form, and held to this ideal throughout her writing career.

When it became time to enroll in school, Alice’s anticipation was palpable; the idea of school was exciting for her, as she sought ever greater challenges for her mind to overcome.  She excelled in all subjects, and took particular joy in mathematics.  Her only struggles came socially; one of her earliest memories of the first few days of school was a young girl approaching her, suggesting that they become friends.  Alice very much wanted a friend, but found that for some reason she couldn’t make the connection.  “I felt I had failed her in something she wanted, I had no idea what,” she would recall.  After a week the girl stopped talking to her.  The distance she felt with others her age became a theme that followed her throughout school: she was too serious, or too intense, or too shy to make friends.  She never even approached Daisy, whom she held is such regard, preferring to watch from afar.  So instead she turned her attention to reading and writing.

It was the summer of 1914 when she encountered a story that would prove a great milestone for the young writer.  A lover of mystery and adventure, Alice pored over stacks of illustrated French magazines and uncovered “The Mysterious Valley,” a story about British officers captured by a malevolent Indian raja. Cyrus is the story’s hero, a long-legged, tousle-haired statue of a man, defiant and fearless in the face of his tormentor.   “Cyrus was a personal inspiration,” she said, “a concrete of what…a man should be like.  He was a man of action who was totally self-confident.  He helped me to concretize what I called ‘my kind of man’ – that expression, which I carried thereafter, began with that story. Intelligence, independence, courage.  The heroic man.”  Paired with the traits of her father, the template for her iconic male characters, such as Howard Roark, Hank Rearden, and John Galt, was taking form.

It was in this same year that another unique experience shaped her future fictional worldview.  She traveled abroad to Vienna and then Switzerland for a large portion of a summer.  While in Switzerland, she met a young boy, daring and intelligent, and spent much of the summer with outdoors, playing and skinning her knees.  She had never before known joy from physical activity, and she spoke fondly of it and the boy, even to expressing a desire to see him again.  Her experience crystallized into an idyllic but significant summer spent by a young Dagny Taggart and Franciso D’anconia years later in Atlas Shrugged.

An often lonesome childhood would come to a close in 1916 as revolution shook the Czar’s grip on control again, in a stroke that this time would prove fatal to the monarchy.  Names of Vladamir Lenin and Leon Trotsky began to circulate in gatherings throughout St. Petersburg, now re-christened the more Slavic Petrograd, as the Duma took temporary control of the country.  The forces championing democracy in Petrograd were led by Alexander Kerensky, an impassioned young idealist whose speeches caught the ear and eventually the heart of the young Alice.  “My infatuation with Kerensky had a very important influence on me in one respect,” she observed.  “I decided I could never be in love with an ordinary man…I have to have a hero.”  Though his words and appeals were not enough to stall the Bolshevik juggernaut looming on the fringes, it began a pattern for Alice that would serve as a thread throughout her life and work: accept nothing but the idealistic and heroic in any man.

If Alice’s father and Kerensky were her living monuments to man’s great potential, it was Victor Hugo that served as paragon for her pen.  At this time Anna Rosenbaum, determined to improve her daughter’s French skills, gave Alice Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, and another great milestone in the history of the writer was reached.  Alice had little love for the popular Russian writers at the time; though at the age of twelve her eloquence may have not yet been developed enough to encapsulate this, ultimately she would denounce writers such as Chekov and Tolstoy as naturalists.  To her, naturalism embodied a philosophy edifying the banal, the average, and the dark sides of the human soul, primarily concerned with painting the world as it was, in lackluster shades of gray.  “I cannot stand Tolstoy,” she once wrote, “and reading him was the most boring literary duty I ever had to perform, his philosophy and his sense of life are not merely mistaken, but evil.”  She considered Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina the most evil book in serious literature, attacking it for its condemnation of human happiness and its sacrifice to conformity.  It was instead to the romantic element in writing, to the sense of how man should be, to which she became a disciple.  To her, the essence of and purpose of art – literature, music, architecture, or art of any kind – was to serve as a concretization of the abstract, a way in which man could visualize his potential before achieving it.  In Hugo, she found her first taste of this element in literature.

It was not merely the philosophical ideals evidence in Hugo’s writing that stirred her; she would observe that even then, Cyrus still held the highest station to her with regard to an epistemological sense of life.  It was instead Hugo’s writing style that she found uniquely arresting.  After The Man Who Laughs, she turned to Les Misérables, and a new world was opened to her.  “Les Misérables was the big experience.  Everything about it became important to me, holy…the personal inspiration to me was that I wanted to match the grandeur, the heroic scale, the plot inventiveness, and those elegant dramatic touches.”  It was not toward the dynamic but flawed characters of Jean Valjean or Marius, whom she saw as average, that she gravitated.  It was rather the implacable and singular minded Enjorlas, whose passion for liberty and little else would make an indelible mark on Alice. This steadfast leader of the insurrection  and his valiant death on the battlefield would cement in Alice the image of the ideal protagonist: fearless and unfettered in devotion to her purpose, and unquestionably ready to die for it — unable and unwilling to accept any less than the end that drives her.  With Hugo’s influence, the framework on which she would craft her works was taking form, hardening from clay to stone.

As her views on character and style began to solidify, so did her own guarded assurance of her own values and who she was.  Though cherubic as a young child with bright, dark eyes and a mischievous smile, she was growing into the woman she would become: an awkward and seemingly clumsy physique pared with features that were owlish and striking, but not traditionally attractive.  She recalled a children’s story she read of Catherine the Great, whom was considered a sort of ugly duckling as a child; intelligent, but homely and without grace.  In the story, a fortune teller was summoned to read the futures of the young German nobility.  The seer passed over the more favored children and instead saw the mark of not one, but two crowns on young Catherine’s head.   “I thought that I was exactly like Catherine,” she remembered.  “I didn’t fit into their schemes, and they didn’t know that there was a mark on my forehead – and how I wished that someone would see it.”  The dichotomy between how Alice saw herself physically and how she described the ideal female figure is telling of her sense of inferiority in that regard.  So often misunderstood and without friends, with a sense that she was not pretty or fetching, she became rigidly protective of that with which she was confident: her mind.  With these myriad rejections she faced: from her mother, from girls she couldn’t connect with, from a world prizing beauty she didn’t possess, and a country prejudiced against Jews, she learned to hold fast to her own ideas, those things no one could touch.  Ultimately, to disagree with her was a greater affront than any insult one could levy, and she tended to value only those people with whom she found intellectual kinship.

By the fall of 1918, the Bolshevik forces, called the Red Army, were at constant war with the White Army, the nationalist and anti-communist sect.  Petrograd was collapsing under the weight of the fighting, beleaguered by poverty and deserting soldiers who brought violence and looting into the once pristine city.  Anna decided it was time to move the family away from the danger, and in a scene detailed in Alice’s first novel We the Living, the family boarded a rickety train crammed full of starving citizens, comrades, and soldiers bound for the Crimea, heads doused in kerosene to kill disease-carrying lice, and frightened of an uncertain future.

On the second day of this journey, the train rumbled to an unscheduled stop; the tracks had been destroyed in battle or by bandits and the passengers were forced to abandon the train and continue toward the Crimea on foot.  Alice’s family was able to hire a horse drawn cart to take them toward Odessa, but on the road shots rang out and the cart was ordered to a halt.  Men wearing the ragged uniforms of ex-soldiers surrounded them, held them at gun point and took their supplies and money.  They arrived at their destination without many of their possessions, though Fronz had been wise enough to hide most of their money in the straw of the cart.  This terror was only the beginning of what they would face in the city.

At the time they arrived, the Crimea was still held by the Russian white army.  Fronz was able to open a small shop and earn a meager living; but soon the fighting found its way to them again.  The city changed hands four time in three years, the seat of constant fighting which led to crippling poverty.  Scurvy and slow deterioration became harrowing realities for the families that lived there.  “Finally, we began to starve,” she recalled.  “Food was unobtainable.  At last we ate only millet.”  The family began selling any and all valuables that remained; they kept jewelry and other items as long as they could, frightened that if a change of currency came they would be the only thing with exchange value.  At last it was the Red army that took the city, and as the Bolsheviks won more and more victories, it became clear which side would triumph.

If there was a highlight for Alice in her time in the Crimea, it was in her high school classes.  Her favorite subjects were mathematics and logic, so much like her ostensibly greatest character John Galt, who was a student of engineering and philosophy.  She valued these highly, but encountered another entity at this point that would have at least as much impact on her: The Declaration of Independence.  She took classes on American History and for the first time was made aware of a place which prized the greatest potential in man.  “I saw America as the country of individualism, of strong men, of freedom and important purposes.  I thought: This is the kind of government I approve of.”  It was the beginning of her love affair with the United States and all things associated with the west: capitalism, freedom, and individualism.

School was no bastion from the horrors of war and destitution, however.  One day a dress taken from the house of a murdered industrialist was offered to her class during what was known as a “week of  poverty:” houses were ransacked to redistribute what little remained among the poorer elements of the city.  Soldiers had burst into the Rosenbaum’s residence and many other houses taking whatever surplus they determined the family didn’t need.   The dress that was presented to her class that day belonged to one of her classmates.  “I can’t tell you the horror I felt,” she remembered, as the girl saw her own dress being auctioned off in the wake of her father’s death.  No one wanted it; but one “socially minded” girl spoke up, saying she had a right to it because she was poor.  It’s not difficult to imagine Alice’s contempt for this situation; as would be reflected in her fiction and philosophy, her opinion of those who believe themselves entitled to the property of another were amongst the lowest form of life.  It was in the Crimea when she first felt the hand of the Communist party tightening its grip on the throat of the country; it was here that her hatred of political and social ideologies championing collectivism was born.

When at last the revolution of the White army was put down, and the hammer and sickle raised over the Crimea, order returned.   A new currency was established, and all existing money, the “White” rubles, were declared invalid.  Penniless and weary, the Rosenbaums returned to Petrograd to attempt to rebuild their former life under a new regime.  The city was in no better position economically than when they had left; people were forced to stand in long lines daily for food, using ration cards to received whatever stores were carrying.  The only wealth in the city was in the hands of speculators who ran private shops smuggling in food from the countryside or from back-alley deals with party members.  These men were envied and hated by the people; such a man saw incarnation as Leo in Alice’s novel, We the Living.  Forced into such shady speculation, this sympathetic character becomes a scapegoat for the Communist party, his will and spirit ultimately broken by the forces that drove people to crime in order to survive.

Alice enrolled at this time at the University of Petrograd.  Though fascinated by mathematics and philosophy, she chose history as her major, despite her father’s protestations.  History, she felt, would give her the social and political background she would need as a writer.  At the time, Petrograd was split as a campus, pro-communist vs. anti-communist, but as the Communist Party gained footing among the people, so did the University begin to sanction those opposed to it.    Alice witnessed purges at the university regularly, as undesirable elements and non-conformists were summarily expelled, all trace of the non-proletariat element being expunged.   One prominent anti-communist member of the student council sent to a Siberian prison, and one by one the dissenting voices were silenced.  Though Alice narrowly missed expulsion, the fear that gripped her and other students with parents of once high social standing was omnipresent.

It is around this period of time in her life that she would center the story of Kira Argounova, her alter-ego and the young protagonist of Alice’s first full-length novel We the Living.  Alice called this book the closest thing she would ever write to an autobiography.  The details of the character’s lives were different from her own and those she knew, but she insisted that the conditions she described and the tragedies that befell the characters were in strict accordance with life in the newly formed Soviet Union.  She named Kira for her hero of youth, Cyrus, Kira being the female variant of that name in Russian.  Kira refuses to associate with the communist faction at Petrograd, and their rallying cries for the proletariat, though she suffers for her idealism.  She, along with the character Leo, is expelled in a purge targeting children of bourgeois parents.  The scourge Alice witnessed was designed to permanently eradicate the social influence of the bourgeois, which was essentially anyone who owned a business before the revolution.  Few if any of these people retained any wealth or influence; by this time poverty was ubiquitous.  But this backlash against the bourgeois was as much philosophical as social, and slowly but surely even their children were being systematically marginalized.

This war existed as much outside the university as within; owning a store or factory of any kind was prohibited by the new regime, and those who did had their businesses seized by the government.   Kira’s father sees his factory nationalized; Alice experiences not once, but twice the Communist state taking her father’s chemistry shops.  The last time, the circumstances surrounding the nationalization drove Fronz to the brink.  The economy of the nation struggled greatly under Communist rule, and the government found itself unable to provide properly for even basic human needs.  Because it was unlawful for one man to own a store, the government made provision for groups of men to band and open necessary shops.  Fronz and four other former chemists collaborated together to open what quickly became a successful chemist shop.  The Rosenbaum’s experienced a temporary relief from hunger for a year as the shop flourished, but another wave of nationalization began, and all successful businesses opened under this concession were again seized by the government.  “I won’t work for them,” Fronz told his family, in response to have his store taken again.  “Not now, and not ever.  Not if we all starve.” It is clear that both Kira and Alice struggle watching their fathers, men they hold in the highest regard both as parents and as self-made individualists, suffer and wilt under the oppression of a government that takes from them what it wants when it wants it.

It is, however, deep in the main characters themselves that Alice reveals the most. As many of her letters and notebooks have been preserved and published, her sketches of Leo, and especially Kira, give remarkable insight into her frame of thought at the time.  She describes Kira:

Rather cold and indifferent to everything that does not interest her deeply.  Absolutely proof against all influences.  Always alone and, to most people, aloof.  Disliked by women.  No girlfriends.  No “beaux.”  Indifferent to men.  Dimly conscious of her tremendous sexual power- if she wanted to use it.  Misunderstood.  A strong determination and disdainful pride- and sometimes, beneath it an indefinable, charming, feminine weakness and helplessness – something of the frightened child, which she is to a great extent.

In describing this character, Alice offers both her vision for a heroine, and a candid glimpse into who she was at the time, or wanted to be.  Though her characters seldom show their cards, appearing stoic and without vice or Achilles heel, Alice reveals here that this facade masks a vulnerability that is not immediately apparent for any of her archons.  She has taken the traits and circumstances that have shaped her own life, even the ostensibly negative ones which caused her pain, and galvanized them into a suit of armor worn with unflinching pride.  Leo himself, in his very name, represents one of these painful wounds-turned-shields.

Leo was modeled after a young man Alice knew in her university days; his parents were dead, and the one detail she recounts about him was that he opened his home at one point to two political refugees looking to flee the country.  Much like We the Living’s Leo Kovalensky, who makes an attempt early in the book to smuggle himself and Kira into Europe, she describes him as charming and intelligent, capable and fearless.  And Alice fell desperately in love with him.  It was an unrequited love; though he spoke with her at times, she feared the intensity of her feelings for him ultimately pushed him away.  The effects of that unfulfilled longing left its mark on her.  “When it was over, when he stopped asking to see me, that was the most prolonged period of pain in my life,” she said.  “You see, perhaps it’s not easy to understand when one has only known the freedom of America – Leo was, to me, life in the present, and the only life I had there.  The only human being that mattered to me in a personal way.”  She would later express gratitude that things never worked for them; if he would have loved her, she admitted, she never would have left the Soviet Union for the United States.

Though Alice and Leo were not to be, Kira and Leo fall in love, finding each other as disenfranchised members of an already struggling society.  After their expulsion, they are forced to search for any menial task to earn money for food, though because they were not Communist party members, they were thwarted at most every turn.  As Alice managed to find some work tutoring illiterate Soviet soldiers, so did Kira finally find a small administrative job for bread vouchers.  Leo wouldn’t have it though; it wasn’t enough to slave for scraps, bringing home for Kira just enough to live on.  His pride wouldn’t allow it.  He chooses the risky path of the speculator, working behind closed doors with corrupt Communist officials as the only method to fund a successful shop and rise above impoverishment.  The deception ultimately destroys Leo; once a man of the highest integrity, the nature of his illegal business erodes his happiness, leads him to drink, and ultimately to abandon Kira.

Kira’s recourse is that with nothing further tethering her to the country, she must escape.  It is worth noting that unlike the heroes and heroines of her later works, Kira herself remains unable to act, to effect to world, or to live with any measure of autonomy.  In Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart, Hank Rearden, and the United States’ captains of industry, the literal movers of the world, fight the powers that would loot them of their physical and intellectual property.  They wage a war of omission, a strike of the great minds, and they win.  But long before that book, We the Living sees its heroes fail, impotent in a cold, barren country, doomed to a fate worse than death in the hands of a government that crushed its country’s great men and women.  Alice sees no victory for her characters, only despair.  Kira sets her mind to a singular purpose: to free herself of this despair.  But for all her intellect and hope, potential and ability, she is murdered at the border by a common soldier.  Though Alice herself would break free of the Soviet Union’s bonds, Kira, like so many others, is forced to pay the highest price for her attempt.  On an epistemological level, to Alice there is no escape from that philosophical cesspool; where collectivism rules, man dies.

Fated to a different destiny, Alice graduated from the University with the highest honors, grandfathered because of her time in service, and allowed to pass on despite her bourgeois background.  She found employment shortly thereafter as a history lecturer and tour guide at the Peter and Paul Fortress in Petrograd.  It was a job she hated, but she took it for survival, not for enjoyment.  It was while she was employed at this position that the most significant event of her life would occur: a letter came to the Rosenbaum residence from the United States.

The letter came from Sarah Lipski, a cousin to Anna, their family having left Russia some forty years before.  They had lost contact during World War I, when the mail was interrupted during the fighting.  Now, the family huddled around the crisp, white envelope with the return address marked from Chicago, Illinois.  Alice was frozen as her mother read the letter, inquiring of their family’s well being and telling of their own circumstances.  Something overwhelming gripped her as the reality of relatives in the U.S. unfolded.   Thoughts and possibilities flooded her mind; she had heard of people being allowed to visit if they were lucky enough to receive a visa.  As the wisps of fancy she’d grasped at congealed into something solid, she reached.  “Write them mother,” she blurted.  “Write and tell them.  I have to go to America. Ask them to help.  Do it today.  Do it now.  I have to go to America.”  Her insistence was unshakable.  Her mother understood, and she agreed.

The correspondence was slow and inconsistent.  They learned that with the proper paperwork and vouchers, travel to the United State from the Soviet Union was possible, though there seemed no way to predict whom would be allowed to go, and whom would be forced to stay.  Randomness seemed the rule.  Undeterred, Alice went about preparing as if it were already a reality: she began taking English lessons from a friend of the family, and enrolled in a small film school to study screen writing.  American films were slowly making their way into the country, and Alice had fallen in love immediately; though in many films the dialogue was gutted and replaced with communist propaganda, she still glimpsed America through the lens: the skyline of New York, the iconic figures and actors, the glamour.  “My real enthusiasm for America, apart from its political principals, was formed then,” she recalled.  “I saw the essence of what Americans could be and ought to be.”  If she wasn’t already obsessed, that was the final catalyst.  She would need a career in America; film would be that career, she decided.

At last, in the fall of 1925, all the documents were in order, and she would have one final, towering hurdle to clear: the American consulate in Latvia.  Because the U.S. did not recognize the Soviet Union as a nation at that time, she would have to visit the consulate in the neighboring country to receive her visa.  She was warned that only one in a hundred visitors was granted a visa, but planned the trip as though she would never return.  And that was her aim; even if her visa expired, she would find a way: live in Canada and reapply until they let her back, or whatever it took.  “I don’t want to stay here illegally,” she would say.  “Someday I will be famous, and it would be discovered.”  And as she attended her farewell party, she knew that it would be the last she would see of her family.  If there was one regret, one last thing that might have kept her, it was Leo.  He was invited to the party, and he made no gesture for her to stay.   He would not be part of her destiny.

Latvia was bitterly cold in January.  Alice reached the consulate carrying a suitcase, an old Remington-Rand typewriter, three hundred dollars the family had managed by selling their last valuables, and her passport.  She was held up at the consulate and nearly denied; her dossier suggested she was engaged to and American, which meant she planned not to return, and the clerk was going to reject her.  “It’s a mistake!  I’m not engaged to an American.  There’s a young man in Russian whom I intend to marry when I return,” she lied.  He looked again; there had been an error, and he apologized.  She would be allowed to leave for the U.S.

Most of her money vanished as she made her way across Europe and through Paris, and finally booked passage in Le Havre to New York.  The eight day voyage left her weakened as seasickness tormented her, leaving her unable to eat until the final day of the journey.  She was able to reach the top deck to witness the ship pulling into the harbor on the Hudson River.  As she entered her new country, the one of her dreams, she did so with a new name: Ayn, a name she found beautiful, taken from a Dutch poet.

Her time in New York was short; within a week she was traveling again to Chicago to meet the family she didn’t know, whom she would be staying with for her six month visa.  They welcomed their cousin from Russia with open arms, and did their best to introduce her to the city.  But Chicago didn’t interest her.  “I disliked Chicago enormously,” she said.  “I felt like I was not yet in an American city.  And after New York, I felt like I had no right to anything – now it’s life or death, I’ve got to sell something.  I’ve got to establish myself.”  And so she did; she kept her new family up nightly until the early hours with the clacking of her typewriter, desperately struggling with English, which she was still months from feeling comfortable with, writing story after story to sell to the film industry.  Film and writing became her life; she was either at the movies or busy writing one.  Her surrogate family found her kind but odd; her germophobia from living in Russia translated into baths that ran for hours, her insistence that the water wasn’t clean until it had run for quite some time.  She was social, but only when someone did what she wanted.  She was singularly focused on what she wanted.

Ayn’s young cousin Fern was quite taken with their new guest; she sat watching Ayn in awe as she crafted screenplays late into the evenings.  Fern herself, inspired by the owlish foreign girl writing at her table, would take up the pen and begin writing stories of her own.  She later would try unsuccessfully to reach out to her famous cousin to share her work, excited for her feedback.  But when Ayn left for California a few months later,  her cousin was gone much as she came.  “One is simply born into a family.  Therefore it was of no significance,” she once observed.  She was appreciative of the Lipskis nonetheless; “They saved my life,” she said.  But her destiny was pulling her to the west coast where she would encounter her favorite director, the famous Cecil B. Demille, and begin work as a writer for his studio.

Ayn wrote them regularly at first; but soon the letters became fewer and father between.

It felt to them that she had forgotten them.  But Fern regarded her cousin fondly, remembering the few short months Ayn was with them wistfully.  “One day, she was sitting at the typewriter and she called me over,” Fern recalled.  “She said, ‘I’m going to be called Ayn.’  ‘That’s pretty,’ I said.  ‘It’s different.  How do you spell it?’  And she wrote it in her slanty foreign handwriting:    A Y N.  ‘But I need a last name,’ she said.  I want it to begin with an R, because that’s my real initial.  She was writing down different possible names, and then she looked at the typewriter — it was a Remington-Rand — and she said, ‘Ayn Remington . . . No that’s wrong.  I know — Ayn Rand!’  And that’s how she got her name.”  Fern, later Fern Brown by marriage, became a well known children’s book author.  And her cousin became Ayn Rand, a name she chose to reinvent herself and shed her troubled past, and to protect her family in the Soviet Union from the books she would publish — books that championed what she saw as the highest values in man: his autonomy, his reason, and his mind.

Works Consulted:

Ayn Rand: In Her Own Words.  Dir. John Little,  Robert Anderson.  Entertainment One, 2010.

Branden, Barbara.  The Passion of Ayn Rand.  New York: Random House, 1987.

Heller, Anne Conover.  Ayn Rand and the World She Made.  New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2009.

Rand, Ayn and Robert Mayhew.  Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q&A.  New York : New American Library, 2005.

Rand, Ayn, David Harriman, and Leonard Peikoff.  Journals of Ayn Rand.  New York: Plume, 1999.

Rand, Ayn.  Letters of Ayn Rand.  New York: Dutton, 1995.

Rand, Ayn.  The Romantic Manifesto.  New York: Penguin Putnam, 1971.

Rand, Ayn.  We the Living (75th Anniversary).  New York : New American Library, 2009.

Leptis Magna, Jewel of Libya

            Why this emptiness after joy?

            Why this ending after glory?

            Why this nothingness where once was a city

            Who will answer? Only the wind

            Which steals the chantings of priests

            And scatters the souls once gathered.

              – Sidi Mahrez, from In the Country of Men, by Hisham Matar


Man is a fickle creature by nature; he spends his days toiling for the future, one eye on the greater and grander, yet always with the other trained on his past.  The future is uncertain, but the ruins of his forebears hint that what he leaves behind may escape the void of oblivion.  Perhaps this is why we cherish and protect the husks of ancient kingdoms and civilizations when we exhume their skeletons from the reluctant earth; in them we hear the whisper of immortality.  Snow covered grounds hold their icy secrets firm and the tropics hide their water-logged treasures deep.  But the desert with her arid heat and shifting sands protects her artifacts with a delicate hand and covers them with just enough sand to preserve.  The Pyramids, Palmyra, and the Ruins of Carthage are well traveled and documented, but few know of or have seen the heirloom she relinquished in just the last century: the pristine ruins of Ancient Rome’s Leptis Magna.

Leptis Magna stands sentinel over the shores of Libya’s Mediterranean coast, east of Tripoli, in the District of Khoms.  Recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as one of the most significant anthropological relics of North Africa, its excavation, begun in 1920, has for years brought archeologists from around the globe to study its wonders, many of which remain unearthed.  The UNESCO World Heritage Convention calls the city “a unique artistic realization in the domain of urban planning. It played a major role, along with Cyrene, in the movement back to antiquity and in the elaboration of the neoclassical aesthetic” and “incorporates major monumental elements of that period. The forum, basilica and Severan arch rank among the foremost examples of a new Roman art, strongly influenced by African and Eastern traditions.” (2011)  Leptis Magna reached the height of its prominence around 200 C.E. as the seat of power for Roman Emperor Septimus Severus, who brought neoclassical Roman influence to the Phoenician port.  Severus was a native of the city, and under his guidance it grew into one of the most important kingdoms in the Roman empire, at the time rivaling Carthage and Alexandria.  It was sacked by the Byzantines in the 4th Century, and after changing hands a few times it was finally swallowed by the desert where it lay forgotten for over a thousand years.

Statue of Septimus Severus in Tripoli Square

Leptis Magna has again become an important city, but now its significance is of a different kind to a different people.  A statue of Leptis’ native son Septimus Severus now stands in Tripoli’s principal square, and regardless of Severus’ ancestry, Libya scholar Frank Golino (1970) notes that “this statue has become a symbol of national identity in post-independence Libya.”  For Libya, the emperor and his ancient city stand as a source of pride, representing a time when her streets and arches were a beacon of cosmopolitanism and free trade.  Today, its identity is in flux.  Though its people and their tribes can trace lineages back hundreds of years, Libya as we know it is a yet a young country, claiming its independence from the British only in 1951.  But since staking its claim, it has spent many years in internal turmoil and cloistered from the international community, especially countries in the West, keeping many of Libya’s treasures a secret.  For foreign citizens wishing to bear witness to the majesty of Leptis Magna’s arches, temples, baths and circus, their only recourse has been to view photographs and hope that one day the draconian visa restrictions would lift.  In the last decade, however, many have finally realized the dream to see the city with their own eyes.

Tourism is in its nascent stages of development in Libya, whose government has in recent years opened the doors for foreign investors and private citizens from around the world to visit and cultivate her shores, cities, and ruins in an attempt to modernize and bolster an oil-dependent economy, though obstacles await the potential traveler.  In researching the materials available online, one will scarcely find a tour or travel log that omits Leptis Magna as an essential place to explore in Libya; in fact many regard it as the premier attraction in the country.  Many sojourners draw attention to how empty the ruins are when visiting: because Libya is so untouched by mass tourism, one is able to have a more intimate experience in the majestic city lost to time.  Many tourists also note how eager Libyans are to share their country and its history with visitors, and eager to make contact with those who might in turn share their memories and experiences of Libya with the rest of the world.


A Diamond in the Rough

            Buried beneath sand for a millennium and largely obscured from the world since its revelation, Leptis Magna remains a largely unexplored relic though this isolation has led to some positives for those still wishing to visit.  World traveler Tom Coote (2010) observes, “If Leptis Magna was in Tunisia or Morocco or Egypt, then it would be crawling with thousands of tourists. As it is, it receives remarkably few foreign visitors.” For those who have experienced the kind of mobs that swarm tourist attractions in Egypt, Greece, or Rome, it’s worth noting how many travelers found particular enjoyment in experiencing a piece of history in a relatively private fashion.  As Colin Hepburn (2010) recalls his experience with Leptis Magna, “This is one sight in Libya not to be missed. Try to get there as early as possible: I went there shortly after the gates opened at 0800 and had the entire place to myself for an hour and a half, with not even a security guard in sight. It was absolutely magical.”  Traveler Annabel Simms (2010) comments, “We all felt that the best moments in Leptis were those when we separated to wander on our own through its orderly grid of streets, some still with stone public benches, without another human being to disturb the silence.”  The opportunity to have a personal experience with a piece of human history is a rare find in modern tourism, and is a common theme throughout for those who have had the chance.  Matteo Carri (2010) shares similar sentiments when commenting on his encounters with the people: “Libyans are proud and friendly people, generally well educated and, unlike other countries in this area, unspoilt by mass tourism. You will not find overly enthusiastic vendors harassing you to make a purchase while you are trying to enjoy the wonders of Sabratha or Leptis Magna.”  Carri alludes to the fact that a culture steeped in rampant tourism may negatively impact the experience of travelers; the disposition of the local vendors and guides they encounter in such environments tend to become mindful of profit rather than the cultural experience of the tourist.

Carri’s comments also touch on the important issue of the welcoming nature of Libyans to those visiting ruins like Leptis Magna.  Referring to his preconceived notions of Libya as a strict Muslim nation bearing the ideals of Gaddafi, Carri (2010) notes that he found instead a “friendly people, fascinating culture and archaeological sites which rival Machu Pichu, the Pyramids or Petra.”  Tour guidebook writer Victor Borg (2011) shares the sentiment and notes that while such archeological tours are expensive due to mandates that guides must be present with all travelers, “The upside is the complete absence of touts (solicitors) and the legendary hospitality of the Libyans, who treat tourists more like guests than clients.”  Professional Photographer Herb Schmitz (Meral, 2009) encountered complications on his voyage to photograph Leptis Magna, but observed that “once you actually pass through the red tape and mix with locals it’s actually a wonderfully warm experience.”  It’s clear that often expectations do not match the reality of visiting Libya and her ruins; most foreigners have preconceived notions of what it will be like to visit the nation notorious for Gaddafi’s iron fisted regime.  Instead of a prejudiced populace untrusting of the outside, visitors meet a warm and inquisitive people who in most cases will not even accept tips; their hospitality is a gift freely given, and they are eager to share their treasures.

The Consequences of Isolation

            Though the people wish to see more visitors experiencing what Libya has to offer, tourism to Leptis Magna among other Libyan sites has suffered the effects of the country’s rocky past.  Libya’s truculent disposition toward its neighbors and often the world at large have often persuaded travelers to choose other destinations.  The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 by Libyan forces over Lockerbie, Scotland over thirty years ago has left a lingering cloud over the region.  At the time, this and other terrorist attacks were devastating to tourism world-wide as hundreds of thousands of flights were cancelled out of fear.  Graham Norton (1987), in his study “Tourism and International Terrorism,” observed:

It is this fear which now must be fought both by counter-measures, and by making plain to the vacationing public, particularly the American public, that to allow oneself to be panicked into becoming terrified is to play into those tainted hands, giving them a gigantically multiplied bonus, which will encourage still further terrorist attacks of the same type. This is a difficult task. For the tourist is, all too often, buying a dream. He will not buy if there is a chance that, instead, the holiday of a lifetime may turn out to be a nightmare.

Since the bombing, the state of Libyan politics has done little to bolster the confidence of the increasingly wary tourist looking to experience such a dream on Libya’s beautiful Mediterranean shores.  Though Libya officially opened her doors to international tourism in 2006 after a hiatus of almost three decades, travel is not easy: visas are difficult to obtain, and impossible if a traveler’s passport has a stamp from Israel.

Visitors must also be accompanied by a sanctioned tour guide and police escorts to travel anywhere in the country.  Though this requirement may arise more from a concern for the safety of the tourists than from suspicion on the part of the Libyan government, the lack of freedom to wander the country has taken its toll on the budding industry.  Eamonn Gearon (2007), writer for Middle East reports:

For many people, especially those used to independent travel, the idea of travelling as part of an organised group, to be shepherded from one ancient sight to another, runs contrary to the entire point of journeying in the first place: to enjoy that freedom of movement that is so often denied to them in their ordinary, workaday lives. Rather than subject themselves to timetables, schedules and the unnecessarily high charges made by tour companies, these people would rather not travel at all.

Complicating what is already a tenuous relationship with the world, Libya’s hands-on approach to the experience of its visitors will continue to deter a percentage of the most intrepid sojourners.

In spite of these hindrances, efforts of political progressives such as Gaddafi’s second son Saif al-Islam saw a slow but steady  increase in tourism through the late 00’s until political strife again threatened to derail the fledgling industry.  Journalist Sudarsan Raghavan (2010) traveled to a nearly deserted Leptis Magna in April of 2010, in what should have been high tourism season, to report on the failing tourist efforts by the Libyan government.  “The Leader (Gaddafi) has called for a jihad against Switzerland,” Leptis Magna tour guide Salah Krima admitted1. “Now, no one wants to come here.  We need to tell the world of our heritage, to bring tourists here.”  Raghavan observes that while Leptis Magna has remarkable tourism potential as a UNESCO site, there are no luxury hotels in the vicinity because investors are discouraged by the instability of the region. Until foreign interests see a Libya free of strife and unrest, they will continue to invest their capital elsewhere.

            1 In November 2009, Switzerland passed a law outlawing the construction of any new minarets, the tall spires built near or attached to mosques designed to perform calls to prayer.  The move has drawn scrutiny and backlash from both Swiss citizen and the international community. (Cumming-Bruce, 2009)

The Price of Revolution

            The past has taken its toll on tourism and international trade; but more recent unrest, specifically the revolution against the Gaddafi regime which began in February 2011, has had an especially devastating effect on the region.  China news source CCTV+ (2011) reported the harm befalling the nearby city of Al Khoms since the fighting began: “The war has brought great looses to the tourist industry of the city. There were averagely [sic] 300 tourists coming to Leptis Magna before, but now, it only hosts less than 30 tourists a day since the end of February. Ticket for each admission is 3 Dinar, so altogether the loss of ticket fee is over 800,000 Dinar in three months.”  The war has closed more than just doors to the outside; many residents rely on a certain amount of traffic for their livelihood, which is now being threatened.  Leptis Magna Guide Khalif Hwuita agreed.  “Now all the area is collapsing because we depend on such work,” he said  (Raghavan, 2010).

When the revolution began, in the middle of February 2011, the rhetoric surrounding Libya and Leptis Magna quickly became cautionary as fighting sprang up across the country.  The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)  was one of the most vocal on the subject of tourism, discouraging all but essential travel to Libya.  Gemma Bowes (2011), writing for the UK Guardian, posted a warning on March 5th:  “No one should travel to Libya at present. Foreigners are still being evacuated, and the country is in a state of crisis.”  As all adventure tour visits must be booked through a tour guide, the article quoted Frances Tuke, public relations manager for the Association of British Travel Agents, who stated that: “Travelers who have booked a package are entitled to rebook alternative destinations or dates or, if they are not available, a refund.”  When an announcement urging travelers to forestall or seek refunds on their vacations reaches a population already wary of visiting the secluded nation, the danger to that nation’s tourism industry rises significantly.

The budding adventure tourism industry in Libya is also being stifled by the inactivity of the government in the area of archeological development.  The Gaddafi regime had done little to support the excavation work in Leptis Magna and other UNESCO site started early in the century.  Hafed Walda, a Libyan advisor on the nation’s board of antiquities observes: “[Archeological excavation] has been neglected by the regime for quite a while.  At one time it was seen as not Libyan heritage as such but imperialist.  I’m hoping attitudes will change — we want the department of antiquity to be seen as part of the Libyan identity and the future of Libya.” (Gumuchian, 2011).  Mirroring what seems to be the sentiment of many modern Libyans, Walda sees Leptis Magna and other significant Roman and Greek ruins as national treasures although he notes that at one time they were associated with imperialism.  This reflection may offer some insight into why tourism to these sites is still limited.

Archeologists face some of the most significant fallout from the revolution, as they attempt to free more buried relics from the sands.  “Libya is my second home and all this is the worst nightmare,” said British archaeologist Paul Bennett, who was at work when the fighting began (Butler, 2011).  Headlines splashed across the web and news stations as archeologists were evacuated from the embattled nation by the score as fighting pressed closer and closer to the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Leptis Magna, Cyrenaica, Aracus, and Sabratha.  What was believed to be the last group of foreign researchers in the country found themselves stranded in early March 2011, far from safe transportation and without means of communication as the ruling regime locked down internet and phone systems.  Savino di Lernia, head of the international team, recounts: “We were hundreds of kilometres from an airport, with the entire country to be crossed to reach it.” (Butler, 2011).  Di Lernia was able to contact Salah Agab, chairman of the Libyan Department of Antiquities by phone before he and ten others left the country in a C-130 Hercules military aircraft, and Agab assured them that all museums and sites were unharmed.  It would fall then to the civilians to defend their treasures.  Bennett, for one, was reassured by rumors circulating:  “I suspect local militia are keeping control in villages and towns,” he said.  “There are roadblocks . . . local people are protecting their property and their neighbors and in doing so are looking after the cultural heritage as well.” (Butler, 2011)

A Treasure at Risk

            While the future of archeological tourism was to some degree uncertain, it was becoming clear that as the fighting became more intense, the safety of Leptis Magna was in question.  As tanks moved closer, the world became suddenly aware that one of its wonders was surrounded by violence with little to protect it.  As the fighting pushed into July of 2011, The Washington Post proclaimed, “Leptis Magna, Libya’s most important archaeological site, has not been engulfed in fighting as the country’s conflict enters its fifth month. But airstrikes have been carried out nearby, and Libyans on both sides of the battle worry that the U.N. World Heritage Site could sustain damage if rebels in the east push toward Tripoli” (Londono, 2011).  It seemed, however, that both sides of the conflict — loyalists as well as revolutionaries — were committed to protecting the cherished Roman ruins.  In early June, a team of Libyan government officials escorted western reporters to Leptis Magna to prove that they had the area under control and that it was not in danger from the conflict.  Two weeks later, however, the rebels reported different findings.  “We received information yesterday that Gaddafi’s forces are hiding inside Leptis Magna,” said Abu Mohammad, the overall commander of rebel forces for the nearby town of Zlitan (Coghlan, 2011).  He continued, “There are more than five Grad rocket-launcher trucks among the ruins. They are inside the old buildings because they know that NATO will never destroy the area.”  Suddenly, a site that few outside Libya and academic circles had heard of before the revolution had become a focal point as the desperate forces of Gaddafi sought to use the ruins as a shield.  Time magazine (2011) weighed in as the circumstances became desperate:  “NATO officials overseeing the aerial bombing campaign against the forces of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya could target positions nestled within [Leptis Magna].   With NATO having escalated its efforts to topple the Gaddafi regime, no archaeological treasure — not even a UNESCO heritage site such as Leptis Magna — may be entirely safe.”  With NATO considering the possibility of striking among the ruins, the survival of the remains of the great city became uncertain.

Whether NATO would truly put Leptis Magna at risk was unknown, but the rebel forces within Libya made it clear that they wouldn’t put the lost city in jeopardy.  “This is not our mission, this is a mission for NATO,” said rebel spokesman Ibrahim al-Betalmal in regard to the airstrikes, distancing himself from the allied offensive.  “For now we are far from Leptis Magna, we have not yet captured Zlitan, but our fighters would not fight inside Leptis Magna because these are historical buildings.”  Al-Betalmal was just one of many of the revolutionary forces who expressed concern for the health of Leptis Magna.  “For us as Libyans, these ancient monuments are part of our proud history,” rebel spokesman Mohamed Ali said, referring to the erstwhile seat of Septimus Severus. “They are more precious to us than oil.” (Coghlan, 2011)

The Future of Leptis Magna

            Leptis Magna’s history with the modern world will always be tied in some ways to this revolution.  It stands as a beacon of pride to the people of Libya, who long to share their culture with the outside world.  Tourism is one of the few ways in which they have been able to draw the eyes of the outside world to their nation in a positive light, and just as visa restrictions were lifting, opening doors to the economic and cultural boost that was hoped would come with tourism, their doors banged shut again, violently.

In the years and months leading up to the revolution, the outlook was positive.  As a UNESCO site, Leptis Magna had become a part of every tour offered in the country, the beauty and history of its ruins first a draw from those in neighboring counties, and finally to the rest of the world, millions of whose citizens are eager for a new link to the past.  The secluded, intimate experience one could enjoy amongst the ruins became a theme among travelers who yearned for respite from the crowds that dilute the traveler’s experience in so many other places.  With travelers having been inundated, at other destinations, with hawking salesmen and tour guides eager to push them quickly past artifacts they had spent fortunes to see, many tourists found the peaceful serenity of Leptis Magna an unexpected boon.  Though both arriving at and moving through Libya was difficult, for many of the foreign travelers I studied, these struggles were quickly forgotten in the face of the  magical experience offered by the ancient ruins.

What is more, travel to Leptis Magna opened the eyes of many travelers to the welcoming arms of the Libyan people.  Tourists were shocked to find their illusions about Libyans shattered as they shared their stories, their food, and their history freely with the hospitality of a neighbor, rather than with the cold-eyed distance and intolerance associated with Gaddafi.  In all the accounts I read, none reflected a negative experience with locals.  Safety and goodwill marked the experiences off those traveling before the outbreak of the revolution.

Individual experiences such as these can have some impact on the world’s perception of Libyans, but many challenges remain for Libyan tourism in a broader sense.  Tourism articles are dotted with warnings from different time periods to avoid Libya due to the political climate, such as the Jihad announced on Switzerland in 2010.  This rhetoric suggests a sense of frustration from the people who have watched investors regularly pass over areas such as Leptis Magna because of the uncertainty surrounding Gaddafi’s regime.  In no case was this more evident than when the revolution began in 2011, and foreign governments began warning their people of the dangers of traveling to Libya for any reason.

Leptis Magna’s primary draw is for those interested in adventure tourism, and web searches on the ruins after February become marked with notes of how tourism is declining to the area and more specifically how the archeologists are being evacuated.  The archeologists themselves painted a fearful picture of the country as the regime began locking down telecommunications and travel; without the ability to communicate they were effectively blind and deaf as they tried to move from the remote archeological sites to safety.  They begin also the rhetoric of concern over the safety of the ruins, further implying that tourists may soon have fewer and fewer reasons to visit Libya.

Rhetoric published online about Leptis Magna during the first six months after the revolution began was the most alarmist, as almost every occurrence of the UNESCO site on the web involved its potential danger.  By indicating that they had not ruled out striking targets in the area, NATO forces created a global concern as the world watched anxiously in fear that a modern conflict could destroy a priceless piece of the past.  But Libyan civilians and revolutionaries seemed the most concerned; they feared for their historical sites and were doing what they could to preserve them, distancing themselves from any initiative that might cause harm to Leptis Magna.  Tourism was no longer an option as tanks and missiles were moved among the ruins, although government officials proclaimed the ruins safe.

Revolution has brought Leptis Magna to the world’s awareness during the site’s most precarious hour; external forces interfering with the affairs of the Libyan people have left the ruins in a more peril than ever before, as NATO airstrikes loom.  The Libyans, especially those leading the rebellion, seem dedicated to the preservation of Leptis Magna, a symbol of their heritage and source of national pride.  Tourism ground to a halt following the revolution’s inception, and the future of tourism to Leptis Magna remains uncertain.  The worldwide outcry over the potential of Leptis Magna’s destruction has brought the ancient city to the forefront of global discourse for the first time in centuries, and as to date it remains unharmed.  Perhaps when peace returns to Libya, the world at large will have more of a reason to visit the shores of the Mediterranean and the ancient Roman ruins that stand as the crown jewel of the Libyan people.

Sources Cited

Bowes, Gemma (2011, March 4). Libya.  The Guardian.  Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2011/mar/05/middle-east-travel-advice-libya.  Accessed     10/23/2011.

Borg, Victor (2011).  Libya — Destination Guide: Overview.  Retrieved from http://www.triporati.com/guides/Africa_Middle+East/Libya/country.  Accessed 10/22/2011.

Butler, Declan (2011, March 2).  Nature. Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110302/full/news.2011.132.html.  Accessed 10/22/2011.

Carri, Mateo (2011).  Libya Uncovered.  Retrieved from http://www.exodus.co.uk/feature/enewsarchive/libya-uncovered.  Accessed 10/22/2011.

CCTV+ (2011).  Libya Tourism.  Retrieved from http://newscontent.cctv.com/news.jsp?fileId=111972.  Accessed 10/22/2011.

Coote, Tom  (2010).  A Short Break in Libya.  Retrieved from http://www.tomcoote.net/libya.html. Accessed 10/22/2011.

Coghlan, Tom. (2011, June 14).   Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi hides Grad missiles from NATO raids   in the ruins of Leptis Magna.  The Australian.  Retrieved from      http://www.theaustralian.com.au/in-depth/libyan-leader-muammar-gaddafi-hides-grad-missiles-from-nato-raids-in-the-ruins-of-leptis-magna/story-fn7ycml4-1226074787510.  Accessed    10/24/2011.

Crifasi, Meral (2009). Libya opens Leptis Magna to the world.  Retrieved from http://heritage-key.com/blogs/meral-crifasi/libya-opens-leptis-magna-world.  Accessed 10/22/2011.

Cumming-Bruce, Nick (2009, November 29).  Swiss Ban Building of Minarets on Mosques.  New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/30/world/europe/30swiss.html.      Accessed 12/3/2011.

Gearon, Eamonn (2007).  Mass tourism or mass confusion?  Middle East, Oct. 07, 40-41. 

Golino, Frank Ralph (1970).  Patterns of Libyan National Identity.  Middle East Journal, Vol. 24, No. 3,      338-352.  Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4324616. Accessed: 11/20/2011.

Gumuchian, Mary Louise (2011).  Libya’s Roman sites unscathed by unrest so far.  Reuters.  Retrieved  from http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/02/27/us-libya-protests-heritage- idUSTRE71Q0M520110227.  Accessed 10/22/2011.

Hepburn, Colin (2010).  Libya’s Star Attraction.  Retrieved from http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g424912-d323961-r83042272-Leptis_Magna-Al_Khums.html.  Accessed 10/22/2011

Londono, Ernesto  (2011, June 14).  Fear for Libya’s Roman ruins.  Washington Post.  Retrieved from             http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle-east/fear-for-libyas-roman-ruins/2011/06/15/AGlDYTWH_story.html.  Accessed 10/23/2011.

Matar, Hisham (2006).  In the Country of Men. United Kingdom: Dial Press.

Norton, Graham (1987). Tourism and International Terrorism. The World Today, Vol. 43, No. 2, .     30-33. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40395889.  Accessed: 11/20/2011.

Raghavan, Sudarsan (2010, April 14). Libya’s efforts to build economy, tourism snagged by its own             capriciousness.  Washington Post.  Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-            dyn/content/article/2010/04/13/AR2010041304526.htm.  Accessed 10/22/2011.

Simms, Annabel (2010). Leptis Magna, Libya: Rome by the sea.  Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/activityandadventure/8167751/Leptis-Magna-Libya-Rome- by-the-sea.html.  Accessed 10/22/2011.

Tharoor, Ishaan (2011, June 14).  With Roman Ruins Under Threat, Libya’s Ancient Past Presses Against    Its Present.  Time.  Retrieved from http://globalspin.blogs.time.com/2011/06/14/with-roman- ruins-under-threat-libyas-ancient-past-presses-against-its-present/#ixzz1PSXvaZia.  Accessed 10/23/2011.

UNESCO (2011). Archaeological Site of Leptis Magna.  Retrieved from http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/183.  Accessed 11/13/2011.

The Stowaway and the Captain

Two books written on the history and people of New England, Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates and Elyssa East’s Dogtown, bear comparison in approach and style.  Both Vowell and East conducted extensive research on their chosen subjects.  Both authors write from their own first-person perspective and include themselves as characters, and both use their own unique voices as writers to add nuance to the narrative.  Where their approaches diverge is most notable in the methods they choose to interject themselves into their stories.

Vowell’s subjects, John Winthrop and his Puritan compatriots, are a bunch I’d read about in textbooks, but with whom I’d felt no connection.  The settlers of colonial America are often projected as stuffy and flat in history books, and Vowell takes it upon herself to try to flesh these wooden characters into something relatable to the modern reader.  To this end, she tends to focus on people instead of events, eschewing a linear timeline for a more meandering one, at times sacrificing the continuity of the narrative as a result.  Her method is to offer commentary and anecdotes to liken the trials and tribulations of these founding leaders of Massachusetts and Rhode Island to something the reader can personally conceptualize.  Her results are mixed.

Where Vowell succeeds is in her portraits of Winthrop and other characters for which she seems to have affection.  While she remains aware of the rigidity of their stentorian way of life, she finds the humanity in characters such as Winthrop; she pays particular homage to his sense of justice and compassion as he banishes Philips Radcliffe, but allows him to linger in the town until the harsh winter has passed (Vowell 78).  She also offers an insightful vindication of the devout and misunderstood Roger Williams:

Williams’s greatness lies in his refusal to keep his head down in a society that prizes nothing  more than harmony and groupthink.  He cares more about truth than popularity or respect or personal safety.  And while his pursuit of truth leads him to some eccentric…applications of the Ten Commandments, his quest also leads him to some equally eccentric beliefs about racial equality, self-determination and religious liberty…I find him hard to like, but easy to love. (127)

In this one passage she characterizes Williams masterfully, demonstrating her skill in deconstructing his character and accurately capturing the pith of his philosophy.  It is this ability to crystallize that makes her commentary strong, and it manifests also in her analysis of the Pequot War.  This section stands also as a high mark; her description of the convoluted events and players in a war involving the settlers, the Pequot and their rivals the Mohegans and Narragansett, plays out with the intrigue of a war drama.

There are instances, however, even in her strongest passages, in which her commentary interrupts the narrative awkwardly.  Comparing the buildup to the violent and reprehensible Pequot War to a skateboarder breaking his board in a tantrum (Vowell 172), or likening the hallowed Algonquin term Manitou to the perfection of Steve Kerr hitting a buzzer shot in a professional basketball game (162), are both weak analogical and narrative devices.  Vowell further missteps by interjecting a personal anecdote about vacation Bible school amidst a passage concerning the Puritan’s theological tendency to question the divine right of kings (118) as well as inserting a childhood experience at a Pequot museum while detailing the Pequot War (197).  These intrusions tend to be far more jarring than illuminating, and though the aim appears to be helping the reader make a personal connection to the material, I believe that it falls short of its goal.

Elyssa East’s role in Dogtown is quite different.  Not merely a historian, East is a pilgrim herself, on her own journey into the heart and soul of Dogtown, Massachusetts, a long deserted piece of nature that has enchanted her and many others – the from locals and visitors to painters and poets. In the opening pages we’re introduced to Marsden Hartley, the artist whose otherworldly paintings of Dogtown have made his name synonymous with the cloistered patch of wilderness, and it’s East’s connection to these that bade her explore.  She observes that “these images of rocks and earth thrive with profoundly felt distillations of energy…so strange as to seem unreal…exist[ing] beyond the ‘borders of the known world'” (3).  Immediately, East’s journey into this unknown and beguiling land becomes crucial, and despite the potency of the other narrative lines – the  brutal 1984 murder of Anne Natti interspersed with pre-1800’s New England history – her story remains the most vibrant.

Marsden Hartley's "Dogtown" 1931

East’s experience with the people and history of Dogtown is intimate.  Her first sojourn into the woods is met with a frustrating warning for her safety by a local, but ultimately leaves her shaken as she is nearly lost in the haunting forest (32).  On her second trip, she must endure the heartbreak of a painful discovery: of one of Hartley’s notable subjects, a rock formation called Whale’s Jaw, had since broken and no longer resembled it’s painted form.  Her sense of betrayal is palpable (44).

Her repeated encounters with the natives coupled with her own experience begin to paint a picture of Dogtown she hadn’t expected.  The murder of Anne Natti, though two decades before, left its mark on the entire region.  East notes, “There is something especially disturbing about a murder in a natural setting.  It shatters our illusion that nature is our protector, a force that inspires goodness” (155).  As this chilling aura permeates, she begins to question what she really came looking for.  Then, a particularly harrowing sight – that of a horde of foreign birds swarming a tree – breaks her of her reverie completely, and she realizes “that I was doing nothing but spending my time being swept away by curious folklore and running around some peculiar woods turned all the more bizarre by a combination of man’s manipulation and neglect” (221).  Her final realization that she cannot recapture that youthful energy in Dogtown which had seemed to inspire Hartley is saddening, and a stark contrast from the optimism that marked the book’s introduction.  But the journey here is the true story, and while it may not have ended quite as the author had desired, it remains a rich and captivating tale, personal and engaging.

East’s presence in her tale stands in such contrast to Vowell’s because she truly belongs there.  Dogtown has its own history, but seeing it through East’s eyes enriches the reader’s experience; Vowell’s presence is not so necessary to our understanding of the Puritans’ world.  Vowell is the passive observer, East the dynamic explorer.  While Vowell is a stowaway with her shipmates, East is at the helm, the centerpiece and captain, the most important character, without whom there is no story.


East, Elyssa.  Dogtown. New York: Free Press, 2009.

Vowell, Sarah.  The Wordy Shipmates. New York: Riverbend, 2008.

Selling in Hell (Part 4 of 4)

My summer selling books in Texas, concluded.

Ben and I were both starting to make some noise.  Now our names were showing up in the Pacesetter, the Southwestern booklet sent out every week showcasing the highest book salesmen of the summer.  Ben was ahead of me, but our competition was becoming a friendship, and we helped each other stay motivated every day, the two of us against the world.  We’d become close as trench-mates, and I learned that all my knee-jerk reactions to Ben had been wrong; he proved to be a better compatriot than I could have asked for.  We even broke the stentorian rules laid down by our managers, strictly forbidding any kind of fun, and had a few drinks together one Sunday night; we figured we’d earned it, and nothing was going to stop us at that point.

Now with three weeks left, I was still under the halfway mark.  To further complicate things, I had to begin in a new town, as I had worked every street and country road in Bridge City and the surrounding area.  The small town of Lumberton, just north of Beaumont, was my target, but I had no coaches, teachers, or principals to help me.  I had to start over as I had in the beginning, but things were easier now.  I’d slowed down my Yankee-clipped speech, which often terrified the locals, to something closer to the Texas drawl and learned that the use of y’all and fixin’ were essential to effective communication.  I’d demoed the books over 1,000 times and had encountered every objection to buying that could be conjured.  I was no Ryan, but I was seasoned and confident.  For the first time, I outsold Ben.  After that week, I didn’t lose again.

The next Monday I met my most memorable and magnanimous family of the summer, the Mills.  They liked the books, but were even more enamored with the details of this insane job, especially with the delivery.

“You have to deliver these books yourself?” Mr. Mills asked.  “Hundreds of books and all that weight in your little car?”

“I guess they don’t want to pay for individual shipping,” I shrugged.  “They’re pretty cheap up there at the corporate offices.”

“Your car will sink,” he insisted.  “Come with me,” he said, and led me to a barn at the back of the expansive property.  He walked toward the massive covered bulk of what could only be a large vehicle, and yanked the canvas tarp free, revealing a dark blue 80’s model Ford F250 pickup.  “Why don’t you use this?”  My jaw dropped.  I had, to that point, ignored the conundrum of delivering all those heavy books, but this would make it so much easier.  I was speechless for a moment, but at last accepted with grateful thanks.  Then he let me shoot his rifle, the first and only time in my life to date I’ve ever fired a gun.  I shot it at the ground, and managed not to miss.  It was getting on late in the day and they asked me to stay for dinner; I declined because there were many books yet to sell before the Bahamas, so they insisted that I join them at summer’s end.  I agreed.

By this point, I was selling a set or two every day, netting around $140 in profit each.  Ryan asked me to help a struggling first year in her territory, so I drove an hour and a half one morning and sold three sets in half a day with her shadowing me.  As the last days were winding down, my goal was in sight.  But the crucial element would be in delivering well, and I would have to perform flawlessly in that task to earn the trip; nothing really counts until it’s delivered.

There was, in the book-field, what we called “strong” and “weak” sales.  “Strong” were those in which we received the entire amount, or at least half up front.  “Weak” were those customers that committed to buy at the end of the summer, but gave no deposit.  Strong sales almost always came through, but weak sales were an altogether different hobgoblin.  I would need to realize a high percentage of the weak, or come November I would be freezing in Indiana while my colleagues sipped boat drinks in the Caribbean.  I picked up the blue truck from the Mills’ barn and began the grueling process of going back to every house I sold, delivering and demoing the books again.  The strong customers were happy to see me, and delighted to receive their handsome and elegant volume sets.  For the weak sales, the following were the typical responses (if anyone actually came to the door):

“Oh, yeah.  I completely forgot.  Can you come back in a month?”

“My wife told me about this.  We’re not interested.”

“Someone got fired/died/left the state/is in prison.”

“I’ve never seen you before in my life.”

As the weak units failed to pan out time and time again, I felt those sandy beaches slipping away.    Soaked with sweat in the un-air-conditioned vehicle on my second day of deliveries, my frustrations were compounded when, on some lonely country road, the big truck overheated and died.  I walked a few sun-scorched miles to a payphone and called Mr. Mills, apologizing profusely for killing his vehicle.  He came and picked me up, 45 minutes away, and we loaded the remainder of my books into his sedan to get me back to my car.  I’d lost a lot of day, and time was running short.

The next day I loaded the gray Oldsmobile with books until it dragged the pavement like a pot-bellied pig.  Drastic measures were required, so I attempted to make sales out of nothing at all.  I went to families who’s ordered just the first volumes early in the summer, and brought out the rest to complete the set.  “I know you only looked at two, but aren’t the rest of these incredible?”  Then to the weak customers, I stopped asking if they still wanted the books, and started demoing them again as if they’d never seen them.  Once they remembered how much they liked them, they began to buy.  I even managed to sell a few more volumes to people I had missed all summer, just knocking on doors with a full set in my arms.

I delivered my last set late Friday afternoon, and I was ready to turn tail-lights to Texas and never look back at that hellishly hot state, but I had one more stop to make.  I rolled up in my exhausted gray car to the Mills’ home outside Lumberton to thank them for their kindness.  They came outside and insisted on taking me to dinner.  We ate at Sartin’s in Beaumont, a seafood restaurant where they feed you fried shrimp, bar-be-cue crab, fish, and Boudain (Cajun sausage) platter-style until you black out.  After living on canned tuna fish, ham sandwiches and cereal for three months, it was the best meal I’d ever eaten.

The next morning I packed up and said my goodbyes to the Clouds.  I boxed up the books I had left, including a set I kept for my brother and sister.  As I did the math on what I had to turn in and what I had collected, I would clear almost $9,000 in nine weeks.  Words could not express my relief at having nothing more to sell, nothing more to deliver.  But neither could they express my sense of accomplishment for getting through that summer and not giving up.  The book-field had tested me and taken me to brink, time and time again.  Few experiences in my life have taught me more about myself, or forced me to dig down so far to find out what I’m made of.

“What kind of nonsense are you bailing on me for?  Some debate camp?” Ben asked with a smile, helping me load my last box.  He’d lost over thirty pounds lugging that book-bag all over Texas and barely looked like the same guy I’d met in Nashville.  “Who’s gonna be my competitive partner now?”

“You don’t need me, you book-selling machine,” I said, laughing.  We caught each other in a bear-hug.  “I don’t know if I could have done it without you,” I said.

“Same here, brother, and you know I mean it,” he said.  I started the car to begin the long trip back to Nashville that would take me through New Orleans, where I’d meet up with my father and brother on the way.  “Hey, J,” he called as I backed from the drive, “I know we don’t talk units during the week, but I have to know.  Did you make it?”

“1,640,” I said.

“I’ll see you in the Bahamas,” he said, grinning from ear to ear.

“I know you will.”


And he did.  We both went to the Bahamas, as did Ryan and a few others from our Org.  There were almost a hundred that made the trip, and it was incredible, though sleeping four to a room (with one key) was a bit cramped.  It didn’t matter; we were on the beach or crowding the local bars, swapping stories from the book-field and enjoying what we’d earned.

Though making the trip and the money seemed the goal all summer, these things are long gone.  What remains, and what cannot be lost or spent, is the experience itself.  I came back stronger after that summer’s work.  And it wasn’t the books I sold that strengthened me, but rather the books I didn’t.  “Yes” is easy.  “No” is hard.  And as the “no’s”  piled on, they became heavier and heavier to bear.  But then slowly, as a stream carves a mountain, my fear and doubt wore away, replaced with a resistance to failure that only repetition can fortify.  At the end of the summer, looking back to the mountain and the path I carved, it was hard to believe I got through it.  It still is.  But I did, and whenever the “no’s” and the failures threaten to overwhelm, I have a place I can go, a place on a sun-burned road near the gulf, where I can find the strength to try the next door.

Selling in Hell (Part 3 of 4)

My summer selling books in Texas, continued…

Breakfast, positive affirmations in the diner parking lot and we were off again.  It hadn’t rained yet, but it rained that day, alternating between a drizzle and a downpour.  By mid-afternoon I was soaked to my boxer shorts, sprinting from porch to porch to and just trying to keep my book samples dry.  Late in the day a sympathetic mother let me in and offered me a towel.  I showed her the Student Handbooks, but her toddler was several years from needing them, so I tried the children’s set.  I don’t know if she liked the book she saw, or just felt sorry for me, but she ordered one.  I didn’t sell anything else that day, but at least I had something to bring back to headquarters.

Friday brought another zero day, but Saturday earned me my first student Handbooks sold; I sold volumes I and II of the set to a family.  My total units sold for the week: 17.  Just 1,583 to go to hit my goal.  As Ben and I loaded up to drive to Houston for the Sunday Org meeting, I felt like a failure.  As everyone revealed their units sold for the week, I was to the rear of the pack.  Rob hadn’t sold much either.  He hated his territory and his spirits were lower than mine.  Ryan took me aside at the meeting and asked if I wanted to have a “follow” day with him, shadowing him for all his calls, and I agreed.  If nothing else it was one less lonely day in the book field, and maybe I’d learn something.  I took Ben back to headquarters that night, and set off in the morning for College Station, home of Texas A&M University, to watch the master at work.

Ryan’s approach and demo were effortless, his five summers of experience having rendered him unshakable.  It was almost as if the close was a foregone conclusion from the first few words; he didn’t take no for an answer, but he seldom had to.  He got in almost every door, and sold five full sets of books that day – one hundred twenty five units.  Seeing it done made it seem more plausible to me.  When I went to the field Tuesday, all the confidence that they’d so diligently cultivated in sales school was back.  With one day of the week already gone, I was determined to go into the next Sunday meeting at the top of the Org.  Head down, I worked late into the evening, selling a two-volume set around 8:30.  On Wednesday I sold another set.  On Thursday, another.  Two on Friday.  Two more on Saturday.  At this pace I’d never make it, but I didn’t care; at least I was selling, and I was getting better.

Ben was doing well, I knew it, but we weren’t sharing our numbers.  “You’ll find out Sunday,” he told me when I asked how many units he’d sold.  At the Sunday meeting I learned he’d passed the hundred mark, but my 70 was one of the better totals.  The competition between us was on, and I felt like I was getting the hang of things.  But Rob wasn’t doing well at all.  He seemed disillusioned with the whole process, but didn’t talk much about it; there was little time for private conversation at the meetings, designed primarily to provide guidance and motivation.

Week three started strong until Wednesday; I’d forgotten to pack my lunch and had to stop to eat at a Dairy Queen.  Shortly after, I was demoing the books for a young mother when I started to feel queasy.  I stopped mid-sentence and grabbed my stomach.  She asked if I was okay, and what I had eaten.  I told her.  “Oh no,” she said, “you didn’t eat a chili cheese dog did you?  I used to work there and they let that chili sit out all night.”  Of course, that’s exactly what I’d eaten.  I barely made it to a local grocery store bathroom before puking my guts out.  I drove back to the Cloud’s retching into a plastic bag all the way back, and couldn’t move until the next morning.  I worked harder Thursday, moving from house to house like a man possessed, trying to make up for lost time.  By Friday night I was still short of my mark.  On Saturday I went to every prospect I’d missed in the last three weeks, and sold three sets.  By far my best week!  At the Sunday meeting I learned that Ben had beat me again.

It was at this point that some of the first-years began quitting.  The heat and lack of success had taken its toll, and we learned that some had given up the first week, but were just too ashamed to go home.  Rob was one of the casualties already, but I didn’t know it.  He didn’t want to tell me, didn’t want to bring me down.  He wouldn’t be at the next meeting, or any others.  We lost a total of six of the fourteen new students that had begun in Sales School.

With six weeks remaining I was still impossibly far from my goal; I would have to average over    40 books a week to reach it, and I realized that was all but impossible.  But it was one day, one door, one demo at a time, and I pressed on.  I caught a bit of luck early in the week when I happened upon the high school football coach’s house and he bought the books for his family.  High school football is a religion in Texas, especially in Bridge City, where their Cardinals are the pride of the town.  When I told folks that Coach had picked up the books for his kids, their ears perked right up, and it netted me my best week yet.  Ben outsold me again, but not by much.

The next week I had some of my best dog encounters of the summer.  A particular house had a yard full of toys, and that meant a house full of kids, but I’d missed them time and time again.  Complicating the approach was that there were six small mutts running loose around the property, and each time I made for the door, they surrounded me in a swirling pack of leaps and barks that kept my head on a swivel and my finger on the mace trigger.  But none were bold enough to bite.  Finally, on my fourth try, someone answered.  I was thrilled!  And I had the door shut in my face faster than I had all summer.  “After four times with these little mongrels?  You got to be kidding me!” I muttered, and steamed off back to my car.  And then it happened…seeing that I was distracted, the biggest of them shot in and grabbed a chunk of my calf.  “Ow, you little…” I growled, and out came the mace can.  He must have seen one before, because I’ve never seen a little a dog run away so fast.

The next was at a small home out in the woods, a few miles from town.  I drove up the gravel driveway, reciting my mind numbing affirmations about smiling and getting to the next door.  I hopped out, and I wasn’t ten feet from my car when the door opened and a huge Rottweiler shot out at me, death in his eyes.  I wheeled around on one foot, the heavy book bag throwing my momentum into a cartoonish teeter, and dove back for my door handle.  I could hear him running, panting…closing.  I pulled the silver lever and jumped in, jerking the door closed with all my strength, but something stopped it.  I roared in pain as the signal reached my brain that it was my foot that had caught in the jam, but the beast had reached the car so I yanked my smashed appendage in and slammed the door to safety.  It was all I could do not to hit him with the car as I skidded back out of the drive.

Then, at a double-wide trailer out in the country, I encountered my friendliest local yet.  I parked, grabbed my green sample bag, and approached the front door.  It opened before I could knock and a grizzled old man in a dirty trucker hat appeared pointing a shotgun directly at my chest.

“What the hell are you doing on my property?” he demanded.

“I, er, uh, I’ll be going now,” I stammered, backing away.

“What are you doing?” he screamed louder.

“I’m selling books!  Just books!” I insisted.  I was scared, of course, but also a bit miffed.  This didn’t seem a reasonable response to a kid in shorts with a book bag.  I hardly appeared threatening.

“We don’t want none of that!  Yer trespassing, and I have the right to protect my property!”

“Yes, sir,” I said.  “I’ll be leaving now.”  And I did.  Quickly.

It wasn’t a red-letter week in Texas hospitality.  But on a positive note, I’d learned a new technique from Ryan called “The Price Buildup,” which involved easing the sticker-shock of the $300 set after the demo by comparing them to the more expensive encyclopedia sets on the market.  I was usually gun-shy about trying to sell the 5-book set, but I sold my first full set using this strategy.  I had already shown the books to a father of two teenagers.

“Okay, so these books are great, I have to have them for my boys, but what’s the cost?” he asked, worriedly.  I’d been using the price build-up all day, so I thought it would help.

“Well, the Britannicas are going for around $2,100 these days,” I said.  He winced.  “The World Books are less, around $1,200.  And you can see how you’d probably use these more than an encyclopedia, right?”  I asked.  He nodded furiously.  “Well, they’re not $2,000, not even $1,200.”  His face brightened.  Just to have a little fun, Ryan taught me to leave them higher than they actually were.  “They’re only $600,” I said.

“That’s it?”  he said, leaping up from the couch.  “I’ll take them!”  I had to laugh; a couple weeks before I couldn’t give these things away.  Of course when I told him they were actually half of that again, he jumped through the ceiling, and after we dislodged him, he wrote me a check for the full amount right there.

It still wasn’t enough to top Ben that week.  But our friendly competition was driving us past the other teams, and we were quickly becoming the best headquarters in terms of first-years.  At the Sunday meeting Ryan told me it was time to start selling the whole five volume set at every door.  Up to this point I’d been primarily selling the first two volumes, or letting the customer choose which ones they wanted.  “It’s a complete set,” he told me. “Sell it that way.”  I knew he was right; with 4 weeks to go I still needed over 1000 units.

I was ready to move into the wealthy part of Bridge City now.  The football coach, a few teachers, and even the Principal of the middle school had purchased the books.  Trying to sell the $300 set of five proved a challenge; I’d gotten used to breaking down the set and making it easy to buy.  Now I was attempting to move it as a single entity at each door.  It didn’t work Monday.  Ryan assured me on the phone that it would; I’d seen him do it.  Tuesday, nothing.  I was getting frustrated.  I hadn’t had a zero day in weeks, and it didn’t do wonders for my confidence.  I was losing days, I was missing units, and I saw the Bahamas slipping away.  I was going back to how I was doing it, I decided; selling just the two was so much easier.  “One more day, for me,” Ryan asked.  I agreed.  On Wednesday I finally sold a five volume set.  On Thursday, two.  By Friday and Saturday it was getting easier.  My last sale on Saturday was one of the most memorable of the summer; I’d sold a family the set in a ritzy neighborhood and the mother, Sandy, sent me over to her neighbor’s home.  “She has kids, she’ll get them,” Sandy insisted.  I caught the neighboring family just as they were leaving.  “Come back tonight around nine,” the mother told me.  I finished the rest of my day, and returned late, as instructed.  The house was dark, but I knocked on the door.  She answered the door in a robe, looking tired.

“Oh I’m sorry,” I said, “Should I come back tomorrow?”

“No, no,” she said.  “What did you say you had, books?”

“Yes,” I said.  “They’re for homework.  Sandy next door said you’d like them.”

“She ordered them for her kids?”

“Yes, the five volume Student Handbook set,” I said, and reached down into my bag to show her my demo books.

“How much are they?” she asked.  Everything I knew about selling told me not to tell her.  First demo the books, do the price build-up, do what I know works; telling the price before the demo was the kiss of death.  But I was learning to read my situation, and I took a chance.

“300 dollars,” I said.  “I’ll deliver them at the end of the summer.”  She nodded, and disappeared for a moment.  She returned holding a checkbook.

“Make it out to me,” I said.  She handed me the check, took the receipt and said goodnight.

She never even looked at the books.

It was around this time in the summer I remember starting to feel comfortable with what I was doing.  It’s true that with all the obnoxious positive-mental-attitude they cram into your skull at Sales School, you could cheerlead for an angry mob stoning you to death.  But it was more than that; I don’t think at any other time in my life before or since did I feel so productive.  In certain moments it was almost like a high.   I recall walking a road at dusk that curved through a patch of sun-browned grass, and thinking, “Why don’t I have this kind of motivation in my classes?  Maybe I should get out and start working in the real world now.”  It was a moment I remember vividly, and though there are a host of them from that summer, this one stands out as the most self-reflective.  When so often my thoughts were full of anxiety or excitement for the next door, such a moment of clarity was a beacon.  I felt like what I’d overcome to get there had, in a way, left a permanent mark.  And it wasn’t a bad one.

Selling in Hell (Part 2 of 4)

My summer selling books in Texas, continued…

I learned I was to be paired with a different first-year, Ben, one of the sharpest natural salesmen in the group.  His brother had sold several summers before, so he was a bit of a legacy.  He had thinning blond hair atop an always-grinning baby-face, and was a little on the round side in stature.  I didn’t know what to make of him at first; he seemed more of the loudmouth camp, and I didn’t relish the thought of living with a loudmouth for a summer.  Though we were taught to fake a positive mental attitude if we couldn’t muster the real thing, this guy was ostensibly the crown-prince of Faux-enthusiasm-city.

Then we were told that we would be the only group of two in the Org – others were three – and we’d be the only group without a Student Manager.  Ryan trusted us to hold each other accountable, so I decided to put aside my preconceptions and try to be a good roommate and ally.  Before we left, Ben and I made a pact to be the best group in the Org.  We loaded up my old gray car and joined the caravan, our final destination: Orange, Texas, a town of about 30,000 a few miles from Louisiana and the gulf.  As we made our way into the Lone Star State, cars began splitting off one by one, each team whooping and waving out their windows as they left the pack to find their territories.

We were lucky to have been given contact info for a family in Orange who’d housed Southwestern students before, as we were instructed to find a “headquarters” which was low-rent or rent-free if possible, as motels were too expensive.  The older couple was happy to let us stay for a few days, but we would have to find a more permanent solution for the rest of the summer.  With just a weekend before we had to start selling, I dropped Ben off in one part of town and drove to another and we cut our teeth knocking on doors trying to procure lodging.  “Do you know anyone who might have a room to rent, or perhaps yourself?” we were trained to ask.  I picked up Ben late in the evening and we compared notes: a few leads, one place that was a little high in rent, but a name I came across, the Clouds, had housed Southwestern students before and had a beautiful home.  They were out of town, but supposedly would return shortly.  That place became our Shangri-La.  We kept looking, but nothing else turned up.  When I drove past on the third day, I saw a car in the drive and knocked.  Dr. and Mrs. Cloud, he a General Practitioner and she an Attorney, were in their 60’s and semi-retired, had a dachshund that sang “Toreador”, and were happy to let Ben and I stay in their upstairs loft for the summer.  It was perfect: two beds and a shower to ourselves and they wouldn’t even accept rent.  The loft overlooked the rest of the rooms, each finished in mahogany and smelling faintly of the rich wood.  It was a beautiful home, a palace for the summer.

With our lodging secured, we were ready to hit the field the next morning.  Ben didn’t have a car, so after breakfast I dropped him off; he would work in Orange, closest to the headquarters, while I drove to Bridge City, a smaller town fifteen minutes away.   I’d picked up a map days earlier and had a spot picked out on the edge of town to start banging on doors.  Never start in the big brick neighborhoods first, Ryan had explained, as they were bombarded with door-to-door salesmen.  You had to have a few sales under your belt, and preferably a few teachers or prominent community members, to sell in the wealthy part of the town.  So I chose a trailer park.  I parked, slung bag over shoulder, and was immediately faced with how lax leash laws are in Texas.  There was a pack of five or six dogs running loose around the park, and they made straight for me.  I turned and ran back to my car as fast as I could without dropping my sample books, reaching safety seconds before being overtaken.  I don’t know if their plans were to lick me to death or tear me to pieces, but I wasn’t going to find out.  I went to a hardware store, bought a can of mace, and found a neighborhood without a roving pack of bloodthirsty canines to begin my quest for 1600 units.

I learned three things my first day.  Texas is hot…really, really hot.  It cracked 100 most days that summer.  By midday I was trying to get a glass of water as much as I was trying to get a demo.   Tea is the only drink to bother buying at a convenience store, because anything else tastes awful after the sun has heated it to near-boiling.  Second, getting 30 demos in a day isn’t easy.  As I was ticking them off on my chart, I found myself falling behind almost immediately, and had to resort to flashing the open book to people quickly before they slammed the door in my face.  “Well, they saw the damn book,” I said.  Check.  Finally, I learned that thirteen and a half hours is a painfully long and stressful workday.  By 9:30 I’d done 30 demos, mapped two full sub-divisions in a notebook, sweat three gallons, and sold nothing.  Not even close.  I picked up Ben, and he hadn’t sold anything either.

Driving back to headquarters that first day, it was difficult to envision doing it again, over and over, six days a week for nine weeks.  Almost depressing.  We did our nightly call to our manager, reporting our units sold: 0.  We ate cereal for dinner down in the kitchen, and Dr. Cloud wandered in to pour glasses of wine for himself and his wife as was his nightly ritual.  Like many nights, he was bare-chested, and at 65 he lifted weights daily and was in better shape than Ben or myself.  He asked us how our day was as he drained one glass, poured another.  Over his second glass he told us that the sales would come and to keep our chins up, and finally pouring himself a third he retreated back to the bedroom with the glasses.  Exhausted, we climbed the stairs to the loft and turned the lights out early, hoping for a better Tuesday.  We kept our chatter positive; if either was having doubts after the first day, we wouldn’t bring the other down.  It’s what we were taught, and we’d made the promise to each other: no negativity.  There just wasn’t room for it.

Tuesday was better for Ben; he made his first sale.  I didn’t.  Thirteen and a half hours passed under a merciless Texas sun, 30 demos done, and not one “yes”.  At the end of the day, Ben called in his units, while I reported another zero day.  His attitude brightened, and I tried to feed on it.  If it worked for Ben, it can work for me, I thought.  So I did it again Wednesday.  Morning to night, 30 demos, mapping neighborhoods, setting callbacks, reciting the words just as I was taught – nothing.  Ben had made another sale, while I was zeroes again.  Ryan called me.  “Keep going” he said, “it will happen.”  It was hard to believe.  I’d logged 40 hours, 90 demos and yes’s weren’t coming.  Doubt set in as I began to fear I just couldn’t sell.  But I couldn’t face failure; I couldn’t give up and prove all the detractors right: that this was a ridiculous idea, that I should get my head examined.  I lie awake long after Ben was snoring that night, sunburned, thinking about the neighborhood I would be working the next day, thinking of how long 13 and one half hours is.  The 6:30 alarm came too soon.

Selling in Hell (Part 1 of 4)

This is the first entry chronicling my experiences as a college student selling books door-to-door in the desert heat of a Texas summer.

It was May of 1997, the spring following my freshman year at Purdue University, and I was traveling south into the unknown, into what would be one of the most storied and intense experiences in my life.  Six weeks earlier I had been in a lecture hall, filling out a form for summer work, coasting toward the end of the semester and an unmarked calendar beyond.  After receiving a phone call, I had attended a meeting conducted by Ryan, a lanky blond character in his early twenties, who led a team of students selling books on location, door-to-door, 6 days a week, during summer break.  Of course, this sounded like the worst idea I’d ever heard until he started talking money, the rarest of commodities for the college student.  Students were making ten, fifteen, twenty thousand dollars in twelve weeks, sometimes more.  Ryan made over thirty thousand one summer.  For someone who’d never made much more than minimum wage and considered Miller Lite “the expensive stuff”, that is an almost comically large sum, especially in just three months.  Suddenly door-to-door sales didn’t sound so preposterous.  With dizzying dollar signs swimming in my head, I went home to ponder.

The phone call with my mother was calm and rational.

“Mom, I’m thinking about selling books door-to-door on location for the summer.”

“What?  What kind of books?  Where?  You’re not coming home?  Who told you about this?  Have you lost your mind?”

“Um, educational books, I don’t know, no, this guy from The Southwestern Company, I don’t think so, but I have done a lot of drinking this year…”

“You don’t even know where you’re doing this?  Well, I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“Rob heard about it too,” I told her.  Rob and I were friends since middle school.  “They canvas Universities across the country…he got an invite at Ball State.  He’s thinking about going as well.”

“His parents aren’t letting him go are they?  You’ll both end up dead or worse.”

“I think they’re more or less saying if I get the okay it’s fine with them…”

“Has everyone lost their collective minds?  Does your father know about this?”

There was weeping and gnashing of teeth, but at last my parents agreed to give their blessing.  So after final exams, Rob and I, along with a host of others, found ourselves descending upon Music City, the corporate headquarters of The Southwestern Publishing Company, full of ambition and excitement, and generally scared to death.  The building itself was impressive; a glass fortress of several stories, it looms at the end of Atrium Way, not a great distance from Nashville’s famed Opryland.  On the warm spring day of our arrival, the sun dazzled brilliantly on its slashing glass panels, and college students of all shapes and sizes buzzed about the grounds, chattering with nervous energy and boasting of how much they’d sell.  Two distinct varieties of student became quickly identifiable: the loudmouths and the wallflowers.  The loudmouths appeared to be the world’s entire next generation of hucksters and used-car salesmen, and they were more than happy to inform you that they would sell circles around you, and that their college had better parties/girls/sports teams than yours.  Then there were the wallflowers, who seemed to wonder what the hell they had gotten themselves into, and whose primary activity was to try to keep away from the loudmouths.  Rob and I found ourselves leaning more toward the second group.

Though we would all eventually wind up in some backward corner of the continental US peddling our wares, we all met first in Nashville for Sales School.  Sales School was the name for the training conference held every year for new and returning book salesmen.  Attended by over 2,000 students from all over the world, it was designed to turn hard-partying college slackers into weaponized book-selling machines in a week.  From day one we paid for everything we received; from our hotel room, to the training, to our demo materials and our copies of Og Mandino’s The Greatest Salesman in the World, nothing was free.  It was made clear to us we were running our own business for the summer, and through seven intense days full of instructional and motivational rhetoric we learned what it took to be successful book salesmen: thirty demos a day, six days a week, eighty hours Monday through Saturday from 8 am to 9:30 pm, always on schedule, minimum expenses.  We never stopped; as we moved from building to building for meetings, the streets of downtown Nashville were flooded with college kids running full tilt with forty-pound book bags over their shoulders, hooting and hollering, shot full of adrenaline for the upcoming battlefield.  We met our small organization, or Org as we called it, twenty in all from Purdue, Indiana University, and Ball State.  Ryan and the returning members of his team, five Student Managers, would be our mentors.  These would be the closest thing to family we’d have for the summer.

Our lead product was the five-volume Student Handbooks, a thick, hard-leather bound set of homework guides which could be sold piecemeal or as a set.  They represented every subject from geometry to Spanish and offered condensed and concise guides to make school work easier; conjugations, historic dates, formulas, and example problems were conveniently collected in easy-to-access tables meant to simplify homework and studying.  Our sample cases would also feature a recently launched set of books for children, but it was the Student Handbooks that we were encouraged to showcase.

We role-played the scripted demonstration with book in hard, alternating between playing the part of seller and the mom or dad.  We did this hundreds of times.  Hundreds.  They went something like this:

Seller: “Hi, I’m that college student from X University.  I’ll be in the neighborhood this summer showing some ideas to help out with homework.  Are you the person in charge of helping with homework?  Do you have a place we can sit down so I can show you?”

Mom/Dad: “Sure, come in.”

More realistically:

Mom/Dad: “Get off my porch.”

If you could get in the door, things got easier.  The books were actually very useful, especially with historic time-lines and difficult math problems.

Seller:  “You know how when you’re helping with math, the examples in the book get you through the beginning, but they don’t show you how to solve the tough ones at the end?”

Mom/Dad: “I’m a math teacher, thank you.”

More realistically:

Mom/Dad: “Yes, that happens all the time!”

Seller: “Let me show you how they work those tough ones out, step by step…”

It all seemed to make sense, and as a student of Secondary Education, the books weren’t hard to get excited about; education is important and more or less sells itself.  But learning the books inside and out helped to assuage the fear of aimlessly wandering around neighborhoods all summer, no sales, penniless, and cloaked in shame.

While our education on the products was important, Sales School was more about selling; they taught us everything that could be taught about the sales process in a week.  We heard countless anecdotes and cautionary tales, tales of great successes and great failures.  We learned that attitude is everything, that even if we’d just heard “no” fifty times in a row that “yes” could be behind the next door.  We learned how to manage a territory, to work a town or school district from the outskirts in.  We learned how to spend little so we had big checks at the end of the summer.  We learned that the demo was time-tested and sacred; they promised us it worked.  They vowed that if we worked 80 hours a week, did thirty demos a day, and recited the demo exactly as they designed it, that we would make our numbers, the coveted 1,600 unit mark (each book having a unit value relative to cost) that earned you a trip to the Bahamas in November.  I wanted that trip; we all did.  And I had to be better than most to get it, as I had previously committed to coaching a high school debate camp at Indiana University at the end of the summer, which gave me only nine weeks to sell instead of twelve.  I needed the money, and I wanted the trip, so I drank the kool-aid and decided to trust the system that had served college students since Southwestern began publishing in 1868.  I’d do the work no matter what, no excuses.

Motivation was everything at Southwestern.  Over half of the first year book sellers don’t make it; they quit after the first few weeks, unable to keep up with the work, or rejection, or the long days alone with the book bag.  They warned us it’d be hard.  They warned us we’d want to quit.  They promised if we did what they said we’d win in the end.  It wasn’t how good you were at giving the demo, it just mattered that you did two thousand of them.  You will sell, they swore.  We believed.

In retrospect, this entire process appears to be the work of a brain-washing cult bent on nothing but massive sales at the expense of the minds and bodies of their student-soldiers.  Later research has shown that many students and parents have been unhappy with the entire system and have demonized it as slavish and soul-crushing.  I think that’s excessive; no one stood over me with a whip or stuffed my spirit into a hydraulic press.  The truth is this: you can’t expect teenage college students who consider 15 hours full time to make a smooth transition into 80 hours a week without some serious psychological rebar.  If they hadn’t done any programming, we all would have left the book-field in the first month.

As Sales School drew to a close, we received our territory assignments, and Ryan gathered to tell us that we’d be heading to southeast Texas.  He pulled Rob and me aside.

“You two won’t be living together in the book-field,” he told us.

“What?” we demanded in chorus.  Having a friend in the field was one of the main reasons we’d committed to this ridiculous scheme.

“We almost never let friends stay together,” he said.  “It’s too easy to get off-schedule.  If one does poorly, he will bring the other down.  It never works the other way around.  It’s too easy to get negative with a friend’s shoulder to cry on.”  He was using the buzz words they taught us…off-schedule, negative…the killers of great summers.

“You never told us that,” I huffed.  I was angry.  I didn’t care how strong the reasoning behind it was, I felt deceived.

“I never told you you would live together, either,” he said quietly.

“You knew that’s what we thought, and you let us believe it.  This is bullshit, Ryan, and you know it,” I said and stormed off.  I didn’t care if he was my manager or not; I was an independent contractor anyway.  It stole more light from the already dim unknown for both of us, but what could we do?  It was far too late to turn around now.

Continued next week…

Musings on the Craft: The Writing Process

A recent assignment was to assess the writing process, which at first was daunting; it’s very hard to express succinctly.  But as I wrote, I found it led down some untrodden mental corridors, and I ultimately found the exercise a valuable one.  I’d be interested to know what your process involves…

My process as a writer has evolved through many stages as I’ve aged, and I imagine it will remain in flux, ever changing to reflect my experience and serve my purposes until I’ve written my last word.  For me, channeling creative energy is a vastly different process from one written medium to the next.  In this essay I will explore three facets to writing I have endeavored, and the various processes involved in each: expository, fiction, and creative non-fiction.

Expository writing represents the format I am most experienced with, and as a result is probably the easiest for me in terms of process.  I spent years competing in and even coaching competitive high school debate, and with the time constraints placed upon me in a debate round, brevity and clarity as well as strong organization became the most dangerous weapons in my arsenal.  My subject, whether it was to explore the efficacy of feminism or to examine the state’s moral authority over the life of its constituents, always belied a fundamental philosophical ideal or concept that had to be unearthed.  Exacting the pith of the conflict was the first step in this process, thus revealing the core value at issue.  From this core value sprang the individual contentions and their subordinate sub-points, the ultimate goal an airtight and compelling argument wrapped tight with the cords of reason and hardened in the kiln of logic.  These contentions were developed over countless brainstorming sessions and hours poring over tomes of philosophy seeking an edge – that evanescent argument that was beyond contestation.  Of course, the unassailable viewpoint is a myth, but it was still a thrill to attempt.

This method has remained with me with any expository writing I attempt now.  My brainstorming is sometimes conducted on a long run or drive, but I still prefer the process of tossing an idea around with a peer or two; it tends to get my creative engine firing.  After letting these nascent ideas dance around my head for awhile, I begin the process of carving off their fat to expose the meat of their truths.  When I’ve discovered their most quintessential elements, I corral them to centerpiece the work, and begin developing the girders to support their platform.

At this point, I’m looking for three kinds of evidence to build these pillars.  The first is logic.  In certain circumstances, a logical syllogism is as tight a bond between concept and pragmatism as is empirical evidence, especially if that evidence doesn’t exist or, worse, if certain evidence threatens the verisimilitude of that concept.  The second is the supporting words of an expert.  Whether it’s the Surgeon General cautioning against smoking, or John Stuart Mill extolling the virtues of Utilitarianism, an educated or eloquent ally is an excellent resource to mine; no need to restate what has already been stated more eloquently by another.  The third is, of course, demonstrable hard evidence.  In my experience this evidence, while ostensibly the most potent, can be of lesser impact persuasively than the other two; people tend to follow their hearts first, someone else’s reasoning second, and often only lean on hard facts as a last resort.  Case in point: surveys show that as much as 20% of the American population believes that President Obama is not a natural born citizen (despite all evidence to the contrary), because the words of pundits like Glen Beck are often given more credence than truth.  This is not to say that my goal is ever to manipulate, but it’s foolish to ignore these maxims when considering audience.

My process in fiction is less structured as it is less practiced.  My first attempt at fiction when I was very young was to take my favorite cartoon heroes and draw them into comic-book style stories complete with abysmal artwork.  They were the clashes or plots that the episodes hadn’t given me yet, or a crossover between GI Joe and Transformers that was only possible on my pages.  My first attempts at longer fiction began in late grade and early middle school, virtual copies of my favorite stories from Narnia or the Star Wars universe told with my own characters.  I was still stealing ideas, and some criticism received for this made me put down the pen for a time.  Though I always thought of myself as a novelist – I have forgotten a thousand daydreamed plots – I never really put pen to paper in an attempt to create my own original work until after college.

In part, I was inspired to begin again by Stephen King’s On Writing. His process seemed accessible, and in truth closely resembled my own: he would just sit down, write, and see what happened.  I was familiar with the sort of “zone” he describes, in which the story grows legs and begins to lead itself.  Inspired by this, as well as his struggles to get published, I started my first novel when I was 24.  I had a general idea where I was going, but I just let the plot drive itself along, the occasional character popping up and fleshing himself out along the way.  This story was a sort of supernatural thriller, complete with an agent specializing in the paranormal.  It was a completely linear narrative, like so many other novels in the genre, and even as I wrote it I questioned if I’d even want my name attached to it if it were published.  It’s fluff, I realized.  Good fluff, friends insisted.  It didn’t matter.  I abandoned it, but not simply because of the subject matter; at around 100 pages the weight of editing and rereading began to mount, and self-doubt moved in like a camel into the tent, inch by inch.  I decided it was no good.  Years later I went back to read it again and it wasn’t terrible, but it certainly wasn’t where I wanted to go with my writing.  Though I don’t regret leaving it behind, finishing it would have been a worthwhile endeavor for the sense of accomplishment it would have given.  Failing to complete books because of self doubt inadvertently became part of my process at this point.

My process changed somewhat after reading Ayn Rand’s The Art of Fiction in my late 20’s.  Stephen King had this to say on plot: “I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.”  Rand, on the other hand, revered plot as sacred.  Contrasting her The Fountainhead, one of the best books I’ve ever read, with almost any Stephen King book is like comparing a Van Gogh to a photo spread in Vogue magazine, so I was inclined to take Ms. Rand’s advice.  Her plot outlines and deep character sketches for Atlas Shrugged were nearly as lengthy as the massive tome itself, and it manifested in a story with very little wasted action which drove spellbindingly toward resolution.  Getting to the end of a Stephen King book is a bit like trying to find your lost car in a mall parking lot: you’ll eventually arrive, but you may be frustrated and tired as hell by the time you do, and all you’ve learned is to not make the same mistake twice.

As a result, drawing up character backgrounds and outlines became part of my process, and it helped shape the form of the action.  While as King notes, our lives rarely have plot, they are just as rarely interesting, and the parts that are almost invariably do have plot.  It’s too easy to meander without an outline, or to create six versions of yourself without developing characters.  The next book I attempted, one with a plot I changed too many times to count, relied more heavily on these principals and though I never finished it, it was a stronger piece.  When you have to react as one of your characters, you must be inside their head; the sketches made this possible.  What motivates them?  What is their philosophy on life?  What past experiences could shape how they react to this new stimulus?  Without these you’re just replaying a thinly veiled version of yourself.

Of these three I have the least experience with creative non-fiction, but I am enjoying the genre.  Unlike fiction, the story is already there.  I am exploring a story with a friend to write of a journey he made on foot from Panama City to New Orleans for charity, and after I got all the plot points down, I then went after the emotional content.  My questions took aim at the textures of what he saw, the people he met, the thoughts and feelings he encountered along the way; though he thought Fats Domino, who wrote the song “Walking to New Orleans”, the inspiration for the walk, was the main character, I reminded him that in fact he is the most interesting element in the story and he must remain the emotional core.  The reader can connect with the non-fiction writer in a unique way, especially in memoir; the story is uniquely intimate and the narrator can pull the reader deep into their reality with an ease unavailable to other writers because they have both truth and story on their side.  It is the best of both worlds.  From what I am learning, close attention to bringing characters, places, and the small details to life is the key.

Each writing style: expository, fiction, and creative non-fiction are different and ever evolving for me.  I hope that my continued work will bring improvement and refinement to my processes, and that in another five years I can again look back upon these and see how far I’ve come.

The Maladroit Manifesto

There are several moments that define a childhood, and much of our childhood defines who we will become as we forge through such classic experiences as teething and soiling ourselves every single  day for two years.  It’s probably a blessing that our conscious mind and memory-machine skip town for all of the fun we have as molars stab bloody trenches through our gums while we wallow in our own filth.  Also, circumcision.  But while this gracious reprieve gives us a pass on all the trials of infancy, we’re oblivious to some very significant milestones: our first word, our first step, the first time we’re bitten directly in the face by our grandmother’s dog, Cory.  Oh wait, I actually remember that last one.  Aww, pet the cute doggie…oh no!  Cute doggie bit my goddamn cheek off! Scared of dogs until adulthood? Check.  But most aren’t so lucky to capture these poignant moments.  As our future personas grasp in vain at youth’s cloudy ether, it is solely our parents who are privy to these banal benchmarks, and it’s on their memory we must rely.  But just as Cory’s goring of my rosy toddler cheek fostered a healthy distrust of canines from then on, so do these other defining events foreshadow what’s to come in our future, whether we remember or not.

I am proud of my first word as much as I’m shamed by my first step – the implications of the later to be the focus of this tale.  First word – “light”.   Not bad!  Proof in the pointing, mom told me.  Aimed a finger up to the fixture and let fly my first utterance, with a little struggle on the “L”.  Only one syllable, sure, and shaky execution, but a fairly unique first pitch, and one that preceded a long and tireless string of mind-numbing rhetoric I’ve seldom ceased to spew since.  My first step, however, was a harbinger of trouble to come; it was not so much embarrassing in the how, but in the when.  Chatty little-person that I was, I could sort major appliances by brand before I could waddle past the open dishwasher without cracking my femur on the door.  I was as coordinated as a marionette tied to a windsock.  I’m sure my parents got a kick out of watching me repeatedly test the integrity of the plaster walls with my skull, but eventually my mother was forced to enroll me in a tumbling class so my future classmates wouldn’t mistake me for a drunk humpty-dumpty.

There is evidence in group photos of the horrors to which I was subjected in this class which my mind has blissfully obliterated – duck costumes, bee outfits, and some pink-fringed getup with cowboy hat and baton that would have made Liberace blush – all in the name of connecting my scarecrow limbs to my garrulous brain.  This seemed to work to at least the extent of eliminating the tripping-over-the-shoelaces walk which I’d somehow mastered in Velcro shoes, but couldn’t erase the overshadowing issue that would soon rear its head in one the next great childhood moments…

My first bicycle.  If the inventor of the bicycle had me for a son, he also would have been the inventor of helmets, antiseptic, and 9-1-1.  I leaned so heavily on my training wheels, I couldn’t go in any direction but “in a circle”.  It was by the grace of God I grew up on a cul-de-sac.  Of course, like a moth to the flame I loved bikes, and so when I got my new shiny red BMX, nothing could have matched my sheer joy other than my parents’ stark terror.  Seeing me attempt to ride that thing without training wheels elicited more sharp intakes of air and face-palms than watching Keanu Reeves do Shakespeare.  Even after I’d developed some inebriated sense of balance on it, I couldn’t be convinced for anything that pedaling backward would make me stop; that’s what the evergreen bushes at the end of the street were for.  I spent more time picking vegetation out of my spokes and chain than riding.

I still hadn’t mastered the art of braking when David, a friend from the neighborhood, came by and asked me to ride with him for the first time.  I was ecstatic!

“Mom, can I go around the big circle?” I begged.  This was serious…cars actually drove around this section of our sub-division.  I was seven, and can’t recall the blood draining from my mother’s face, but I’m sure it did.

“You haven’t figured out how to brake yet,” she reminded me.

“I’ll get it, I swear!” I insisted.  She pondered.

“David, look out for him, please,” she implored my adequately coordinated friend.  And we were off.  My father arrived home from work shortly after.

“Where’s Jason?” he asked my mother.

“He’s out riding his bike with David,” she said.

“He’s what?” my father asked, incredulous.  “You let him go?  He can’t stop the bike except in the bushes!

“How could I embarrass him by telling him no?” she said.

And there we were.  Riding around South Park Drive, the big circle, wind in our hair, the invincibility of youth coursing through our limbs.  I can’t remember who threw the gauntlet, David or me, but the inevitable challenge fell…

“Wanna race?”

The contest was on.  We’d start at his house and go all the way around the circle, his driveway the finish line.  I had my sleek new Team Murray BMX, and I was ready to leave it all on the track.


We were off, pushing pedal like tour competitors.  David had the sizable edge of height and weight, and also the advantage of having ridden more than fifty yards without smashing into shrubbery.  But I had the will.  His longer legs pushed him to an early lead, but I wouldn’t be denied on my first race.  I churned my Pinocchio stems faster and faster as we sped around the neighborhood, and as we reached the final bend, I could see he was tiring and I kicked it into fourth gear.  I passed him just within sight of his house, and as I crossed into his yard, I realized he didn’t have any bushes in which to decelerate.  There was just a huge oak tree in the center of the property, and I had not, up to that point, considered this dilemma.  I cannot fully articulate what thoughts passed through my mind at that moment, but stopping quickly seemed imperative to claiming my victory.  So, as was my habit, I aimed for the closest flora available, and the oak tree and my front tire became intimately acquainted at full tilt.  This was my first physics lesson.

Transference of force is a funny thing; when one small object moving at high speeds meets a colossal one that has withstood the forces of man and nature for 80 years, the small object gets to keep it all.  Then this small, wheeled object transfers as much of that force as possible into the squishy, spleen-filled flesh-bag riding it, through the conduit of said flesh-bag’s groin.  This is extremely unfortunate for the flesh-bag in question, and adds a bittersweet element to its victory.  It is at this juncture that it learns the importance of using the brake, to preserve what internal organs remained.

It would be neither the last nor worst of my riding debacles.  It was on a sunny spring day, a few years later, in front of peers not so forgiving as David, that I attempted a large ramp on a dirt trail.  I had, by that point, mastered stopping.  However, my athletic skill roughly rivaled that of a three-toed sloth with an anvil strapped to its neck.  I’d watched several boys take the jump, and they were egging me on to try.  Initially I refused; I knew my prowess on a bike rated somewhere between “questionable” and “kid, do your parents know you’ve left the driveway?”  They all knew this too.  But peer pressure is what it is, and I lined up for the jump, thinking I’d prove them wrong.  As I went airborne, I faced the reality that I had no idea how to land the bike, and wondered also why the seat had gone out from under me so quickly.  As I touched down awkwardly, somehow I managed to keep hold of the handlebars as my crotch hit the back tire, which had the effect of slamming the seat into my solar-plexus, dropping me in the dirt as my bike wobbled on into a ditch.  The pain of trying to rectally assimilate my bicycle tire was nothing compared to the enema my pride took from the laughing boys, who had witnessed what I’m sure was one of the funniest things they’d seen up to that point in their lives.  It was the end of my Evel Kineval days.

A birthday picture from around the same period in which my lip and right cheek are obscured by a large band-aid reminds of another time in which my dexterity utterly failed me.  My next door neighbor Jimmy and I had crawled into his parents’ minivan and were playing on the back seat.  The back hatch was open, as his father had been cleaning the vehicle and had, unbeknownst to us, unlatched the seat from the floor of the van.  So, as the seat inevitably tipped over backwards, launching us toward the open hatch, Jimmy had the common reflex to put his hands out and stop his momentum.  I, of course, did not.  So while he stopped short of the gate, I continued on out the back toward the driveway, leading with my head.  As my face smacked into the asphalt, I heard my mother gasp and come running.  Her look of horror as she witnessed by blood-splattered visage was enough to terrify me, but in retrospect I wonder if her fright was more at my mangled grill, or at how this sad creature she’d birthed was born without the slightest instinct or capacity for self-preservation.

“Why didn’t you put out your arms to break your fall?” she would ask me after my trip to the emergency room.

“I don’t know,” I shrugged, and tumbled backward out of  my chair.