Sunday, May 17, 2015

"The harder they come, the harder they fall" -- the novel

"Violence is as American as cherry pie."

Black Panther and SNCC activist H. Rap Brown said this is a 1960s speech in Maryland. His life, unfortunately, became a testament to those words.

I was thinking of that quote as I read "The Harder They Come," the terrific new novel by T.C. Boyle. It's about the American way of violence. But it's also a family story, a heartbreaker for those of us who have raised challenging children. Boyle is a master stylist, a writer equally adept with the novel and the short story. He's best known for his dark humor and satire. We get that in this novel. But also a big helping of tragedy.

For his epigraph, Boyle reaches further back than the 1960s for a quote from D.H. Lawrence: "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted."

If needed, you can immerse yourself in another dose of violence by watching the 1972 Jamaican crime film "The Harder They Come" and its Jimmy Cliff song of the same name. Despite reggae's "peace-and-love" rep, most of us boomers first encountered the music via a high body count.

I'm two-thirds of the way through Boyle's novel. So good and so horrifying, it's kept me up at night. It may do the same for you.

U/D 5/21/15: Finished the book. Glad I kept with it.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

This shouting and cane shaking is thirsty business

Great to see that Amy Surdam has been named the new executive director of the Cheyenne Downtown Development Authority/Main Street. The organization has been looking for a new director since the departure of Christie DePoorter last year.

Surdam was one of the founders of the Children's Museum of Cheyenne, which will be built sometime soon in "The Hole" downtown. That organization came up with a plan to fill "The Hole," something that the city has been working on for a decade. She and her colleagues get kudos for action in the face of widespread inaction.

Surdam is a nurse practitioner who managed the CRMC Urgent Care Center when it opened near downtown in 2012. She also is a major in the Wyoming Army National Guard. Married to a CRMC ER doctor, she was quoted in this morning's Wyoming Tribune-Eagle as someone who "loves our downtown" and wants to "create a place where my own children will want to return to live and work."

That's the crux of the matter, isn't it? Where will our kids want to live when they're in their 20s and 30s? Good jobs are one thing. Quality of life is another. While young people may find work in Cheyenne, they often choose to live south of the border in Wellington, Fort Collins or Greeley, Colorado. Many would rather live in the college town of Laramie and face the treacherous daily winter commute over the pass than live in Cheyenne. This week, the Laramie City Council passed a measure that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. This is the first municipality in the state to pass such a measure, an effort that's regularly defeated by the Know Nothings in the State Legislature. Laramie, off course, was the site of Matthew Shepard's murder in 1998.

Laramie's downtown is a happening place. I say this as a 64-year-old soon-to-be-retiree. Let's go over to Laramie, ma, and get one of those Geritol-laced lattes at Coal Creek Coffee, sit outside on the patio and watch the trains rumble by. I'd rather be perusing the shelves at Night Heron Books or lunching at Sweet Melissa's. But you get the idea. Downtown Laramie is full of life while Cheyenne is still working on it. Lots of credit goes to Trey Sherwood, director of the Laramie DDA/Main Street org.

I think Cheyenne may have found a similar dynamo in Ms. Surdam.

The City of Cheyenne received some good news this week. The feds have pledged $3 million to the city's West Edge Project. The city now has $15 million to get that project going. It will transform the west end of downtown into a network of parks, business and living spaces. You can find out more about it here. One of the more intriguing ideas in this effort is an idea to take renovated historic railroad cars, park them on spurs and turn them into bistros and shops. The city is working on this with the High Plains Railroad Preservation Association. This is a terrific way to celebrate Cheyenne's heritage, a city founded in 1867 as a "Hell on Wheels" railroad camp.

The Cheyenne DDA/Main Street has some funding challenges, as we've been reading about lately. Local naysayers don't see the value of a vibrant downtown development organization. They often get the most ink and air time because they're the loudest and crankiest. You kids get out of my downtown! This gray-headed, cane-wielding (knee replacement surgery) old guy could be one of the cranky ones. But if you see me down at the Depot Plaza shaking my cane at a group of young people, I'll probably be saying something like: Welcome to our downtown, kids. Spend your time and money down here, and don't forget to volunteer for some of DDA/Main Street's fine projects. And while you're at it, fetch me an IPA from Freedom's Edge or the Cheyenne Brewing Company. This shouting and cane-shaking is thirsty business.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Mark Twain really liked Anne of "Anne of Green Gables" -- and so did I

Most people consider "Anne of Green Gables" a children's book, specifically, a book for girls.

As a child, I didn't read it. I read a lot. Sci-fi classic. Classics for boys, such as "Treasure Island" and "The Three Musketeers." The Hardy Boys mysteries. Tom Swift adventures.

But "Anne of Green Gables" or "Little Women" or "Little House on the Prairie?"

Not this cowboy.

My loss, as it turns out. Artificial barriers delineating what you should or shouldn't read does nobody any good.

I was charmed by the staged reading of "Anne of Green Gables" put on by the Next Step Performance Company this weekend at the LCCC Playhouse in Cheyenne. Small theatre, big cast. Next Step puts on productions that raises money for scholarships for students majoring the fine arts. Cast and crew are all volunteers, which allows ticket sales and auction proceeds to go to scholarships.

"Anne of Green Gables" by Lucy Maud Montgomery is a serious story. An aging duo, brother and sister Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, are getting too old to do all of the chores required by Prince Edward Island farmers in 1908. Matthew is in his 60s and Marilla in her 50s. Had automation come to the farm in 1908? Matthew has heart problems. His solution for cardiac arrhythmia is to get back to work. Marilla does all of the cooking and cleaning. Darns socks. Makes clothes. Bakes pies. On PEI, you have to make hay while the sun shines, which is does about the same length of time as it does in rural Wyoming.

They decide to adopt a 13-year-old male orphan to help out around the place. Orphans must have been a dime a dozen in 1908. Unfortunately, Matthew arrives in his buckboard at the Avonlea train station to find a scrawny 11-year-old girl waiting for him. The taciturn Matthew is kind of taken with the talkative Anne "Anne with an E" Shirley. The practical Marilla, not so much. "What good is a girl on a farm?" she asks. Anne must go. A neighbor says she will take Annie. The neighbor it bitchy Mrs.Blewitt, who has a zillion little kids and goes through hired help like there's no tomorrow. Marilla knows that Mrs. Blewitt probably will work Anne to death, which wouldn't have been much of a crime in an era of widespread child labor. She lets the lively Anne stay at Green Gables. Matthew is pleased. Anne gets into some minor-league scrapes. She stands up for herself with the town gossip, Rachel Lynde (played with aplomb by my one-time arts colleague, Rita Basom). Matthew spoils her with little gifts. Marilla gets on her case but you can see her attitude softening as time goes on.

Women readers know this story. I don't. No less a literary personage than Mark Twain thought that Anne was "the dearest and most moving and delightful child since the immortal Alice." The book has sold 50 million copies in 20 languages during the past 107 years. That's 500,000 copies annually, give or take. The author's home and the green gables farmhouse on PEI is a literary tourist stop, visited by scores of loyal readers from all over the globe. The town of Cavendish, the model for Avonlea, plays up its legacy. Nearby is a national park dedicated to Montgomery's works.

I didn't know any of this until I saw the staged reading and conducted a Google investigation of "Anne of Green Gables." Amazing story, really. We writers secretly yearn for our legacy to outlive us. I don't have much of a legacy. I visit those old homesteads and birthplaces of those who do. The best example I can think of is Nebraska's Willa Cather and her town of Red Cloud. The entire town is dedicated to Cather and her books and stories.A wonderful places to spend a warm spring day.

Living writers are learning how to enhance their local brand. Buffalo's Longmire Days celebrates the mystery novels and the TV series spawned by Craig Johnson's fiction. Carbon County celebrates  the fictional creations of native son C.J. Box. This is a trend that will only get bigger as the "local" craze grows. If you're a locavore, you should be devouring the creations of local writers, artists and performers.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Capital Chorale adds a dash of humorous seasonings to a rainy Cheyenne night

By now, decades into the electronics revolution, you would think that everyone would be safely at home on a rainy Friday night playing e-games or watching a super-hero flick on their mega-widescreen TV.

That's not the case. The more electronic options available, the greater the need to get out among our fellow humans. Yes, we are an untidy and argumentative bunch. We do like to get together to enjoy the arts.

Friday night featured a variety of offerings in Cheyenne. Chris and I attended the Cheyenne Capital Chorale "Tasteful Tapestries" concert. The Cheyenne Little Theatre offered "9 to 5 -- the musical" and the LCCC Theatre featured "Anne of Green Gables." Bands performed at local bars. The Suite Bistro held its usual karaoke night, which could be considered an art form depending on who's on stage at the time. If it's me, forget it.

My daughter Annie, however, has a great voice and was performing with the Capital Chorale last night. "Tasteful Tapestries" was all about food, as am I, so it was a natural choice to attend. Because I've been homebound for a month due to knee replacement, I've had an opportunity to hear Annie rehearse her solo and the other songs on the CCC repertoire. Unlike her violin practice in the fourth grade, which set neighborhood dogs howling, Annie's singing is a joy to hear. Her solo was the classic tune from "The Sound of Music," "My Favorite Things." A tuneful little ditty that I've heard hundreds of times during screenings if Chris's favorite film. The song has plentiful references to Austrian foodstuffs -- schnitzel with noodles and strudel -- so it fit easily into the evening's program. Janet Anderson performed "The Big Rock Candy Mountain," a song by Harry McClintock about the musings of a Depression-era hobo made famous in "O Brother, Where Art Thou." The Cheyenne Capital Quartet (plus one) tackled the classic "Snap, Crackle, Pop" advertising jingle, which brought back memories of endless bowls of Rice Krispies. The trio of Paula Egan-Wright, Sarah Scott and LuWana DePorter celebrated caffeinated beverages with the "Java Jive."

After breaks to bid on silent auction items and to buy yummy pastries (pecan pie!), the chorale launched into "The Seasonings" by P.D.Q. Bach, the pen name for musician and humorist Schickele. It's been decades since I've heard P.D.Q. Bach (1807-1742) performed. I forgot how clever and irreverent he can be. Songs included "Tarragon of Virtue is Full," "Bide Thy Thyme" and "To Curry Favor, Favor Curry." The pianist was accompanied by bicycle horns, triangles and some mysterious homemade instruments. The cast expanded to include a pair of cheerleaders, a chef, football players, and soothsayers.

A whopping good time was had by all. And money was raised for the 2015-2016 season.

And to think that all of this entertainment was brought to us by volunteers, our family members, friends and neighbors who are in it for the love of music.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Summer arts events flourish in Wyoming communities

Looking for something to do this summer?

You don't have to look very far.

The Wyoming Arts Council and the Wyoming Humanities Council have teamed up to chronicle "125 Days of Arts and Humanities." Why 125? Because this summer marks the 125th anniversary celebration of Wyoming statehood. The official big day is July 10. On that day, the Wyoming Territorial Prison State Historic Site holds a Statehood Celebration Day. That same weekend, you  can view Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei's sculptures in Jackson or groove to sounds of Marty Stuart and His Superlatives at the Big Horn Mountain Festival in Buffalo or ogle the art at Jackson Hole's art fair or talk mountains at the international climbers' festival in Lander or travel to the powwow in Ethete. Everyone should attend at least one powwow, Interesting and instructional, especially for us white folks who think we have all of the answers.

And that's just one WYO weekend.

On any weekend, you are almost certain to find a beerfest. A beer festival addresses the basic necessities of a summer weekend: craft beer, BBQ and music. Craft beer continues to make waves in WYO. We have some award-winners at Melvin Brewing/Thai Me Up in Jackson and Alpine. Snake River Brewery in Jackson has been brewing up Pako's IPA and a whole host of specialty brews for decades. They were among the first in the region to can their output. A new brewpub, Cheyenne Brewing Company, opens in early June in Cheyenne. You can get a more comprehensive list of craft brewers in Wyoming at

The Wyoming Brewers Festival is set for Cheyenne June 19-20. One of the interesting things about this festival is that its proceeds go toward rehabbing our city's historic train depot. The brewfesr culminates with a Saturday night concert by the Taylor Scott Band. Scott grew up in Cheyenne. There was a time when you could see the teen-age Scott and his band perform for free downtown. He's gone on to bigger and better things, his voice and musical skills honed from constant touring with his new band. Don't miss it.

Some final words. I've been working in the arts in Wyoming for 24 years. I continue to be amazed by the scope and variety of summer events. Many of the festivals on the list have arisen in the past 10 years. This is especially true of the brewfests, most of which feature music and some have art exhibits. Local food is a major element. At the Wyoming Arts Council, we joke about the fact that our small staff couldn't possibly attend all of the summer arts offerings. We could try, but who would be left to shuffle the state paperwork? But all of you can get out and support these events. That's what keeps these events going -- the sweat equity of local organizers. And your attendance.  

Sunday, May 03, 2015

In "Interstellar," the future is as corny as Kansas in August

Imagine that humankind gives up its dreams of space travel to farm corn in Kansas full-time.

That’s the kind of boring future imagined by Christopher Nolan in the film “Interstellar.”

Humans no longer shoot for the stars. An unnamed blight is killing all the crops except corn – and even its days are numbered. Dust Bowl-style storms blot out the sun and everything (laptops included) is coated with a fine layer of dust. Unemployed astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) farms corn with his two kids, an irascible father and a fleet of robotic combines. His daughter gets into trouble at school when she writes a paper contending that the U.S. did land on the moon as “corrected” textbooks proclaim that we invented our space triumphs to bankrupt the Russkis. The new reality is not to “look to the skies” but look down at the dirt as humans try to save a planet that’s beyond saving.

A fascinating conceit for a movie. We make fun of conspiracy nuts who contend that the moon landings were invented on a Hollywood soundstage. In Nolan’s universe, scientists are the kooks. Waste money on rocket ships when the earth is dying? No sirree bob -- not with my tax money.

NASA’s scientists have been driven underground. They are busily at work launching space probes to find other habitable planets to screw up. They recruit Cooper to join other astronauts to explore those likely places to resettle the populace. As we know from the Kepler telescope observations, earth-like planets exist but they are 100-plus light years away. The solution: fire a rocket through a wormhole that has mysteriously appeared near Saturn. “They” put it there, whoever “they” are (their identity is revealed by film's end).

Will the scientists find a new home for earthlings? That’s the question that involves the viewer for most of the movie. Great special effects, as befitting the CGI era (no streams of flashing lights as in “2001”). The robots are cooler than HAL, equipped with wit and sarcasm. The main robot threatens to shoot one of the crew through the airlock as happened in the pivotal scene in “2001.”

Woven through all this are complicated human relationships. In the end, that’s what motivates humans – their relationships with others of their kind. Cooper would not leave his beloved family behind, especially his daughter Murph, unless he could save them by jaunting off into space. Turns out that Cooper’s colleague in space, Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), has a love interest who was on an earlier space probe. It is love that motivates humans. As the Beatles sang, “love is all you need.” Not bad when you can wrap up a sci-fi epic with a sixties melody.

What else is there? What makes us distinctive among known life forms? Any big-brained chimp can plant corn or build a space ship. But it takes love for a wife or daughter or father to motivate us to reach for the stars. Humans are a mess, for the most part. But we are always offered a path to redemption that is as mysterious and complicated as the physics of a wormhole.

Love is all you need…

Friday, May 01, 2015

For Baby Boomers, the arguments go on forever

Big news from the Brookings Institution: Baby Boomers are in each other’s faces – again. According to a Brookings report:
“The primary political output of the divided boomers has been frustrating gridlock and historically low evaluations of congressional performance.”
As an early cohort Boomer (born 1950), I’ve been engaging in political arguments since my high school days. I grew up Catholic, attended Catholic school and went to mass regularly with my large family – I’m the oldest of nine children. For most of my childhood and teenhood, arguments with my parents revolved around curfews and whether rock was devil music (Parents: Hell Yes; Mike: Hell No.)  Vietnam wasn’t a hot topic – not yet, anyway. Civil rights, drugs, abortion, and all of the rest.

My first two years if college was one long political argument. I was a ROTC guy, but didn’t want to be. But I also didn’t want to go to Vietnam. I solved this by smoking pot, skipping classes and engaging in dorm-room political arguments that raged into early mornings, punctuated with long sessions of devil music. 

Over the decades, family gatherings have been filled with toasts to our continued good health and raging political arguments that may last an entire Thanksgiving weekend.  Most of my friends are boomers. Many are liberals, even here in Wyoming, but others are not. I no Longer have lunch with some conservative friends because it leads to indigestion on all of our parts.

These arguments will rage until we can rage no more. They can be traced back to the divisions caused by the Vietnam War. You might say: “That was a long time ago, guys – can’t you get over it?”
In a word, no. The divisions are deep and will only be solved by cohort replacement – death of all of the Boomers.

Go back to spring of 1970. On April 30 of that year, Pres. Nixon announced that U.S. troops would be sent into Cambodia. We had been told that Vietnam was winding down and now here was news that is was winding up instead. That led to protests in college campuses across the U.S. The most radical one was held at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, a place I had never heard of until then. On May 2, KSU students burst down the ROTC building. That was a bit off a shock to us ROTC guys at University of South Carolina. We spent quite a bit of time there. Attended naval science classes there during the week. Played basketball in its gym at night and on weekends. We assembled there in uniform weekly for our drills. Following Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, demonstrators had trashed our ROTC building. There were no real signs of the damage when I arrived in September 1969.

Ghosts remain.

We make enormous decisions when we’re young. We hope to receive guidance from our elders. We don’t always get it, or the right kind. So we end up making decisions on our own that come back to haunt us later. Then, at 64, we have to forgive our younger selves for our ignorance and our passion. I can remember how lonely and afraid I was at 19. It’s as if it happened yesterday. I was supposed to be a man but I was just a little boy.

I was sensitive and gifted with a great memory. That helped me lead a life of empathy. It also contributed to my passion as a writer. I could have turned out otherwise. Nixon parlayed a natural distrust of pointy-headed intellectuals and anti-American college brats into an election strategy. At a NYC demonstration after Kent State, hard hats rallied for Nixon. Most of these blue collar guys were Democrats then. By the next election (1972), Vietnam and student protestors and civil rights had turned them all into resentful Republicans. Many of their sons and daughters continued this policy of resentment. Some of them remained liberals and activists who continued to march for peace and justice. After the Vietnam War and civil rights struggles came the women’s movement and LGBT rights. The anti-nuke movement and swarms of environmentalists. All of these people looking for special treatment! Reagan and his policies arose from that resentment. That, eventually, gave rise to the Tea Party, that privileged group of Boomers who are wildly indignant about nearly everything.

But for me and my fellow liberals, there were more struggles ahead, more wars to protest, more inequalities to be addressed.

So Baby Boomers continue to argue. Not sure how our descendants will see us. Hippies. The Me Generation. Warmongers. Peaceniks. The generation who brought us the Millennials with all of their faults (everybody gets a trophy!). The generation that despoiled the planet with their excesses and stood by and did nothing.

Argumentative? You bet. And don’t expect the conflict to cease as long as we have breath enough to hurl an invective.