My own private Idaho

Tell me you don’t do it too. You’ve got this favorite album and you’ve come to know it like the face of a friend. You play it when you want to listen and when you don’t. It holds up. It holds you up when you need it. Pretty soon you’ve got some habits, maybe bad ones, like reaching across the table to pull a broccoli stalk off someone’s plate and eat it like a piece of licorice. But hey—he wasn’t going to touch it. He doesn’t care about broccoli. (Or table manners.) It’s kinda nice to reach that point with people. But you can miss out on stuff when you get comfortable.

So that album: is there a song whose opening bars make you reach for the Forward>> button? Do you instinctively head for the stereo as one track is ending so as to skip that one you never seem to want to hear?

All that love all those mistakes
What else can a poor man make?
I gave up a life of crime
I gave it to a friend of mine
Something else was on my mind
The only ghost I’m haunted by
I hear her howling down below
Idaho, Idaho

Wolves oh wolvesoh can’t you see?
Ain’t no wolf can sing like me
And if it could then I suppose
He belongs in Idaho
Packs of dogs and cigarettes
For those who ain’t done packing yet
My clothes are packed and I want to go
Idaho, Idaho

Out at sea for seven years
I got your letter in Tangier
Thought that I’d been on a boat
‘Til that single word you wrote
That single word it landlocked me
Turned the masts to cedar trees
And the winds to gravel roads
Idaho, Idaho

I used to skip over the song “Idaho” off the (beloved) album The Animal Years. Because I used to listen to it in cafes while I wrote, and the song was too quiet, I reasoned, for the surroundings. But I think truthfully it broke my concentration, even during those times I was listening to not really have to listen. The drawn-out phrases (howls, really) taking flight above barely-there guitar drew my thoughts away from clinking glasses and toward unblinking melancholy, and I was already about as sad as I could stand. The other sad songs were okay, somehow. “Idaho” I didn’t do very often.

My last post chronicled a recent road trip to my native Michigan, and I decided then I’d tackle Idaho. Because it’s a song about home, I figured. (Josh is from Idaho.) But when I looked back at the words I was surprised to find it never mentions home. It’s a unquiet ghost (verse 1), a longed-for destination (verse 2), a place whose very name is escape hatch to transform ocean to land (verse 3). It sure feels like home, and we’re pretty loathe to presume around here (eh hem), but it seems fair in this case.

But what else about this speaker. He reminds me of the poor chap from “Best from the Best,” another wind-blown, wayworn adventurer who winds up on a boat for a spell. But I think “Idaho” puts us on a boat for a spell. How does it do this? By playing with the meter:

I gave UP a LIFE of CRIME
SOMEthing ELSE was ON my MIND

Lapping, rolling waves, a rocking boat; a Michigan kid needs no more. Note the pattern breaks with “I’m,” which I like. There’s a lot of “I” in this song. It plays with meter in the opening lines, and word meaning too. The result is simple and elegant.

All that love, all those mistakes
What else can a poor man make
I gave up a life a crime
I gave it to a friend of mine

Love and mistakes issue from the same source—the same verb—the same impulse?—and who ever thought you might actually give to another the thing you gave up. I always think [insert *grin*] after that fourth line. Despite the desperation, the emptiness, the despondency, there’s a gentle shrug of a shoulders. And it almost all rolls off.

I confess: I don’t know who he is. Well, actually I think he’s made up, like the composite sketch in “Best for the Best.” But perhaps you know of a pirate Idahoan minstrel who once descended into hallucination upon receiving a letter in Tangier? Or a Seven Year War vet. I’ve been looking, but nothing so far.

But . . . there is the Black Avenger of the Spanish Main, a once-amorous, then-wounded soul pressed into piracy after ticking off his sweetheart:

Since nothing would do them but to be rid of him, let it be so; and let them blame him for the consequences—why shouldn’t they? What right had the friendless to complain? Yes, they had forced him to it at last: he would lead a life of crime. (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 108, emphasis mine)

He grabs his soul’s sworn comrades and the adventure is jolly—”It’s nuts!”—at first:

The Black Avenger stood still with folded arms, ‘looking his last’ upon the scene of his former joys and his later sufferings, and wishing ‘she’ could see him, now abroad on the wild sea, facing peril and death with dauntless heart, going to his doom with a grim smile on his lips. (ATS, 113)

Homesickness comes to haunt, however, and the pirates’ lust begins to flag. They try to pawn the life they’ve chose off on one another, and the Black Avenger does defect, for a night, and then goes back with a plan to bring them all home to glory.

Ain’t no wolf can sing like me

In the late nineties Nora Guthrie, daughter of folk icon Woody, asked English protest singer Billy Bragg to come over and look through a heap of silent lyrics and poems left behind by her father. Never recorded, they’d lost any melody for good upon Guthrie’s death in 1967. The words were filed away at the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York—typed or scribbled on scraps of paper. Bragg came to America “searching for the spirit of Woody Guthrie,” as he puts it in the 1999 documentary Man in the Sand. The film opens with footage of him—presumably early on in the project—driving through the streets of Woody’s hometown. Stark black letters adorn the nearby water tower: “HOME OF WOODY GUTHRIE.” Bragg gets out of the car to look. He wants a picture that frames him and water tower, but he’ll have to trespass onto someone’s front lawn to get it. He’s visibly reluctant.

“They might get loads of people doing it,” he says, glancing at the front door and hurrying across the grass.

His concern left me feeling a little sad. A few scenes later one can reasonably conclude that Bragg has realized his mistake.

Playing over those opening scenes are the lyrics to a song Guthrie wrote, “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key,” in 1946. Actually I’ve been wondering if Woody sang it in a minor key. Bragg chose a major one, and he wrote a jaunty, boastful melody reminiscent of summer childhood days to enliven the words. I’ve been playing the hell out of “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key,” a triumphant tale of prepubescent seduction-against-the-odds set in Woody’s home county of Okfuskee, Oklahoma. There’s a dauntless speaker with a plucky refrain: Ain’t nobody who can sing like me, he says.

Bragg’s passion for Guthrie’s music is inspiring and insightful—

Woody was great at falling in love—obsessive love—with people who weren’t really there.

I like him already.

And it’s not that far of a leap—I swear—to Mark Twain, it turns out. I’ve barely read any books yet and twice already Woody’s been compared to Huck Finn: once by daughter Nora and once in the forward of a biography. As you now know I have recently read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. And maybe it’s the weather and the longing for the freedom and friends of a summer vacation circa 1987, but I could not help thinking that Guthrie’s words and Bragg’s tune together go rather beautifully with Twain’s tale from his own boyhood . . .

Oh just give it a go. Push the play button to hear “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” (words by Woody Guthrie, 1946 & music by Billy Bragg, 1997) and see below for a little mash-up.

Woody Guthrie
Mark Twain, printer’s apprentice
Samuel Clemens

I lived in a place called Okfuskee
And I had a little girl in a holler tree
I said, little girl, its plain to see
Aint nobody that can sing like me
Aint nobody that can sing like me

Saturday morning was come, and all the summer world was bright and fresh, and brimming with life. There was a song in every heart; and if the heart was young the music issued at the lips. There was cheer in every face, and a spring in every step. The locust trees were in bloom, and the fragrance of the blossoms filled the air. (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 11)

She said its hard for me to see
How one little boy got so ugly
Yes, my little girly, that might be
But there aint nobody that can sing like me
Aint nobody that can sing like me

When she cautiously faced around again, a peach lay before her. She thrust it away; Tom gently put it back; she thrust it away again, but with less animosity. Tom patiently returned it to its place; then she let it remain. (ATS, 59)

Way over yonder in the minor key
Way over yonder in the minor key
There aint nobody that can sing like me

“Put on your bonnet and let on you’re going home; and when you get to the corner, give the rest of ’em the slip, and turn down through the lane and come back. I’ll go the other way, and come it over ’em the same way.” (ATS, 64)

We walked down by the buckeye creek
To see the frog eat the goggle eye bee
To hear that west wind whistle to the east
There aint nobody that can sing like me
Aint nobody that can sing like me

“Do you love rats?”
“No, I hate them!”
“Well, I do too—live ones. But I mean dead ones, to swing around your head with a string.” (ATS, 65)

Oh my little girly will you let me see
Way over yonder where the wind blows free
Nobody can see in our holler tree
And there aint nobody that can sing like me
Aint nobody that can sing like me

“Now, Becky, it’s all over—all over but the kiss. Don’t you be afraid of that—it ain’t anything at all. Please, Becky.” (ATS, 67)

Way over yonder in the minor key
Way over yonder in the minor key
There aint nobody that can sing like me

Her mama cut a switch from a cherry tree
And laid it on to she and me
It stung lots worse than a hive of bees
But there aint nobody that can sing like me
Aint nobody that can sing like me

“I reckon it’s wrong—but—”
“But—shucks! Your mother won’t know, and so what’s the harm? All she wants is that you’ll be safe; and I bet you she’d a said go there if she’d a thought of it. I know she would!” (ATS, 223)

Now I have walked a long long ways
I still look back to my tanglewood days,
Ive led lots of girls since then to stray
Saying, aint nobody that can sing like me
Aint nobody that can sing like me

Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred; one or two were experiences of my own, the rest of those boys were schoolmates of mine. Huck Finn is drawn from life; Tom Sawyer also, but not from an individual; he is a combination of the characteristics of three boys whom I knew, and therefore belongs to the composite order of architecture. . . . .
Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try pleasantly to remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.
(Mark Twain, Preface to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1876)

Way over yonder in the minor key
Way over yonder in the minor key
There aint nobody that can sing like me

. . . I’m curious what is meant by being master of the minor key. Is it simply a testament to resilience in courtship, in hard times? Or is there a little . . . manipulation going on here? Is he saying he sings the blues to spark concern and then affection? Hmmph. That works, in my experience. Moving on.

Packs of dogs and cigarettes
De Stijl by The White Stripes“Idaho” may also pay homage to the album at left, De Stijl by The White Stripes. The speaker in “A Dog’s Best Friend” is going in the opposite direction of our man in “Idaho:” away from home, away from love and community. Human community, anyway. But check out the final verse of track nine: Mere coincidence?

That single word

My money’s on Idaho.



A week ago I went off to Hertz at the airport to pick up a rental car. It’s been nearly a decade now I’ve lived in cities large enough to get by without owning a car. I’ve chosen to get by, which got considerably easier a few years ago when I joined Zipcar, a pay-by-the-hour car rental service. Man, paying by the hour can really . . . energize an otherwise mundane grocery run. My brother Sam and I would careen through the aisles in a suburban rendition of Supermarket Sweep, shouting sale prices to one another, tapping our feet nervously at the deli counter. We went on Saturday mornings, when the muzak drifted lazily through a sleepy store. We must have looked nuts.

I thought our relationship might be ruined one day when my intricate mind’s eye map of the one-way system malfunctioned, and we came to a sudden stop at an intersection facing the oncoming, one-way traffic that was stopped at a light. We were late—there’s a hefty fee for that—so I was on my cell phone with Zipcar, trying to extend the reservation. The light changed and I made the sort of crazy decision I’m prone to under pressure: I pulled forward and wove through two blocks of one-way honking, outraged traffic. I gripped the steering wheel and held my cell phone to my ear and focused on the parking spot I needed to get to in—shit—ninety seconds. To this day Sam cannot speak calmly about his experience in the passenger seat. Anyway, we made it.

Now Sam’s moved away, my younger sister lives here, and none of us own a car. It might be the single most shocking thing we have to confirm to extended family members each year when we’re home for the holidays. That’s because we hail from Michigan, where the automobile figures rather largely in the (now ailing) economy, and in the state’s and many families’ history: many of our relatives worked at one time or another in the automobile plants. My aunt spent one college summer installing dashboards. My father once operated an air impact wrench at Pontiac Truck and Coach, screwing the motor mounts onto the engines as they came down the line. Once when his wrench was malfunctioning and stripping the bolts, he pushed the panic button.

“The alarms went off and ten white-shirts appeared out of nowhere,” he told me. “They were right in my face. They didn’t care if the bolts cracked right in half. They made it crystal clear you never ever stop the line.”

My father drove a lot of miles in his career, and driving was certainly our transportation mode of choice for vacations. I remember fighting to stay awake while he drove the long dark road home, worrying over his weariness, wanting to keep him company, but drifting off and waking magically in the driveway to be lead to bed.

We have a cabin two and half hours north, and in his retirement my father often goes up for the day, sometimes only to get out of his Suburban and hop on some other piece of machinery in the barn. My family likes motors; we have motors for every season. Driving is a badge of honor, and most my relatives don’t bother with mere cars:


(That’s from a family picnic last summer.)

My father taught me to drive, and I’m not sure there’s anything I wanted to excel at more in his eyes.

“Drive defensively,” he urged, and I nodded. Then he kept repeating it, and by the time I realized this would become his most important tenet, it was too late to confess I didn’t have the faintest idea what it meant.

Driving is an activity somewhat frozen in time for me, one inextricably linked to home.

And so when I got the news that Josh Ritter would be appearing in that old hometown . . .




Hmmmm. . . Actually, that banner contains a small oversight. I’m sure nothing was meant by it, but we are a proud community, slightly sensitive to the snub ever since we got Da Vinci’s famous sculpture American Horse and one journalist said installing it in Grand Rapids was akin to hanging a prized Picasso in—well, in your bathroom. So if you don’t mind I’ll just—




There. Josh Ritter would play Grand Rapids on Monday, March 3rd. And when I saw just where he would play—


—I figured it was a fine occasion to make the first road trip home. It’d be long, sure—I was due back in four days—but I’d happily put the driving atlas that I’m always looking at to use. I’d try not to rush, try to make the highway an end in itself. I’d resist planning. Best of all I’d link up some new familiar roads with the old ones, this new home with Home. A long time ago I realized that, even carless, I have my father’s love of maps, of direction, of knowing where one is with the certainty of one who has physically covered the ground—by foot or wheel—in question. I sort of only trust a place if I’ve walked it. Failing the ability to do that, driving will do.

Oh, and the timing was lucky because my parents were slated to return from the biggest trip of their lives—two months in Australia and New Zealand—on Saturday. They hadn’t been able to crack the phone system, so we’d barely spoken. A few emails, a bungee jumping rumor. A kiwi camper van returned, fitting of any self-respecting Michiganders, with an eye-popping addition to the odometer. We missed them. I’d sent my Dad an email about my trip a week beforehand, asking that he not worry and that he keep it a secret from my mother.

While packing late Friday night I hit the first snag in my young life as a non-planner: I flipped open my passport to find it expired. This was unnerving on a few levels, but the most immediate was that I’d been planning to drive through Canada, and hadn’t they just passed a law requiring a passport? Conflicting information was everywhere, but it seemed I’d need two government-issued IDs and I only had one.


I left anyway in the morning, a duffel bag full of CDs in the passenger seat, telling my friend I might make it and I might just go look around Western New York. It was snowing hard. But I got going and got settled, figured out how to change the langue of the Display in the Prius’ touchscreen from French to English, slid a hotly-anticipated new Scottish album into the CD player. I chose right; it’d be my go-to disc for the entire journey. It’d be my best music discovery in awhile.

The weather across New York was thrillingly variable: sunny skies with racing clouds would suddenly darken and snow flurries would whip round the windshield. Twice I walked into a Travel Plaza in a blizzard wearing my sunglasses. It took a long time before I stopped concentrating on slowing my brisk city-walking, hurry-up gait. Travel Plazas are by nature not somewhere one lingers, but I did, taking in an entire wall of beef jerky. Listening to the high-pitched chatter of a high school sports team in matching sweatshirts. Reading the “History Happened Here” kiosk.

Night fell and I inched along the map, rounding Lake Erie, heading toward the town that had made me smile when I spotted it along my revised, domestic route.

I’ll look for you in old Honolulu, San Francisco, or Ashtabula

“A-S-H-T . . . ” I recited to an American Express travel agent on my cell phone. He spent fifteen minutes trying to find it in his system to book me a hotel there. I wasn’t sure I’d make it, though, so I hung up telling him I’d call back if I wanted to make a reservation.

“Ma’am,” he said with slight exasperation, “Make sure to tell the next agent to use the CLEVELAND CODE for Ashtu—I mean AshTAbula, Ohio.” I don’t think he really believed there was such a town.

I’d hate to cause offense, so I’ll just say I didn’t stay there. But it was late, and of course I had no idea where to go. I got back on the highway toward Cleveland and found a Fairfield Inn.


The next morning I was in striking distance of familiar territory—


—and by mid-day I had crossed into Michigan and was pointed straight at my beloved college town of Ann Arbor. I met my best friend from college—she’s in graduate school—at Cafe Zola downtown. I got to meet her boyfriend, who she forced to leave—despite my protestations—after he drained his first cup of coffee. We talked and talked, as is our way, charged with the novelty and coziness of being together. We traded heartfelt compliments and then deflected them with deft self-deprecation. When we got out on the street I linked my arm in hers and suggested we walk one block in the mild air.





“Did I tell you I have to dye my hair now?” Kate asked disgustedly as we walked along, just as I was admiring—like I always do—her dark chestnut curls. When they get unruly and her fair cheeks flushed I think she looks like the cover of a romance novel. She insists she looks like a milkmaid come in off the farm.

We got back to the crookedly parked Prius over an hour later, having done a familiar circuit around the snowy campus. We laughed about the time my upper-classman boyfriend brought me up to the roof of a prominent building when I was a freshman . . . and suddenly the huge inert telescope we didn’t even realize was there lurched into motion and slowly began to turn. There were people in it—astronomy students—and I thought I’d be kicked out of school. Or die of embarrassment.

When I got on the road from Ann Arbor I turned up the music and performed my own concert for the windshield. This was my road, the one I sped up and down, back and forth, for my four years of college. I was into country back then, and I’d roar down the highway belting at the top of my lungs, banging on the steering wheel. The Dixie Chicks’ song Wide Open Spaces steeled my courage to move to London after graduation. (And I’d thought they were just words, but a Big Mistake I did, in fact, make.) I’d slide in behind a speedy “front door” like my dad taught me. I drove way faster than he would have allowed, but no faster than he drove himself.

I turned off the headlights when I pulled into the drive, rang the doorbell, and stood there with my heart in my throat, like a kid starting to lose the battle with the keeping of a secret. My mother appeared, wine glass in hand.

“WHAT are you DOING here?” she shouted, laughing. It echoed out in the silent street.

We sat at the kitchen counter, drinking wine, the tales of two trips tumbling out of our mouths. I told my mom I wasn’t the only person of interest who was in town.

“I heard Josh Ritter in a cafe in Auckland last week!” she gushed. “Can you believe it? The only other band I can recognize is The Beatles, and here I was, asking the lady, ‘Is that by any chance Josh Ritter?'” Last autumn while at the cabin I was carrying Life on the Mississippi around everywhere, and, curious, my parents borrowed my CDs.


Grand Rapids has its own case of fandom for one Gerald R. Ford, the 38th president of the United States. Our modest airport was renamed The Gerald R. Ford International Airport in May 2000, just a few years before my English ex-boyfriend would fly in from London, survey the two small terminals, and start a long running joke about Grand Rapids’ small-town identity.

President Ford was born Leslie Lynch King in Omaha in 1913. His mother fled an abusive marriage to Grand Rapids when he was just two weeks old, and Ford eventually took the full name of his stepfather. His presidential museum is in Grand Rapids, and my mom and I stopped by there for a couple hours on Monday. Despite our sharing a hometown and an alma mater, I was not too familiar with Ford’s presidency.

The first room of the exhibit contained all kinds of 60s and 70s paraphernalia. My mother paused a long time at a glass case of clothing and accessories.

“We made all our own clothes. We all did this,” she said, pointing to the macramé. She looked up at the television screen to find Bobby Kennedy. “For awhile in college I kept waking up to find out someone else was shot. It was like you didn’t want to go to sleep. And every day there was a protest—We protested everything. There was so much . . . unrest. And The Beatles! Aren’t they cute?”


“I guess,” I said.

“I liked Paul,” she said wistfully. “Everybody liked Paul.”

I was quite intrigued by the glass case of implements used in the Watergate break-in. It is still an extraordinary story, with the resignation of Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro Agnew, like an extra dollop of madness in a maelstrom. Ford was serving as House Minority Leader when Nixon named him Vice President to replace Agnew in October 1973.

By August 1974 Nixon was completely backed into a corner—those crazy tapes!—and on the 8th he announced his resignation. Ford had been advised by Nixon’s Chief of Staff on the 1st that he should prepare to be president, and on the 6th Ford had warned Nixon that he would stop speaking publicly about Watergate. On the steamy Saturday of August 3rd my parents were married.

There is stirring footage of the bicentennial celebrations of July 1976 in the twenty-minute film “A Time to Heal,” which summarizes Ford’s presidency and is on loop in a large auditorium throughout the day. I was born in October of that year, just weeks before Ford held his final campaign rally in Grand Rapids. He conceded the race to Jimmy Carter the next day.

“Were you angry at Ford for pardoning Nixon?” I asked my dad when he met us at the Red Ball Jet Cafe for lunch.

He rolled his eyes and nodded slowly.

“Everybody was.”

“But now, today, do you think it was the right thing to do?” I asked, having formed my own tentative opinion.

“Probably,” he replied.

It was the night Josh Ritter came to town

The Ladies’ Literary Club of Grand Rapids flings open its gates and bids you enter, on this occasion of your [so-called Canadian Tour]. We welcome you, good friends, to our city, our halls, our homes, and to our [frozen] fields of thought.

Bring to us, with these [bracing winter] days, the [blizzard] of your wide experience, kindle, we pray, the torch of truth that shall shine with no uncertain light. Balance for us an even scale of justice that we may judge wisely all the plans and purposes of life. Lift aloft a right and true standard of honor to guide and direct our days.

Adapted from an invitation issued by the Ladies’ Literary Club in 1891. No “Drop by sometime!” from these Ladies, as evidenced here.


joshritterliterary1.jpg joshrittergrandrapids2.jpg

It was a tall order, but they managed it. My mother used my spare ticket, went in ahead to grab seats, and bumped into some former teaching friends of hers. They’d won tickets through the local radio station and were sitting in back to allow for an early getaway.

“You won’t want to leave,” I said. “Trust me.”

It was a generous set list. It seemed like they played most everything, though I suppose that can’t be true. Josh opened with a gorgeous Idaho, the homesick song that’d been on my mind as I covered the miles to Michigan. The word that never fails to . . . lake-lock me, I’d thought, smiling. Josh was rather enamored of the nature of the venue, remarking on its Masterpiece Theatre vibe.

“Are there any . . . ladies here?” he grinned. “Literary ladies?”

My mom squealed when Lillian, Egypt down shifted into a disco beat during the encore. At the end Josh offered his thanks to Jane Austen, Daphne du Maurier, and Charlotte Bronte.

“Thanks for comin’!” He shouted one final time as he left the stage.

“Thank you for coming,” my mom said, hugging me tightly in the driveway. I’d convinced them of the wisdom in my getting a start that evening, so we’d loaded up the Prius. My mom rooted through the pantry looking for the makings of a portable snack. My father spread out the AAA TripTik he’d picked up that afternoon on the kitchen counter. I zipped the certified birth certificate we’d retrieved from the basement into a pocket of my purse.

“Thanks for coming,” I said, picking out the lights of downtown as I took the long circular ramp onto 96.

I crossed the border at 2:30.


The next day I stopped at a frozen Niagara Falls, Canadian-side. It was windy and misty and bitterly cold but I’d been digging the Canadian air since I took a deep breath at a Husky service station near Hamilton. It’s eminently breathable, winter Canadian air, like cold water on a parched throat. It feels like it might purify your spirit, as though it could clean you right out.

The water beneath the falls was frozen in ragged, Abominable-Snowman chunks of ice. Of the handfuls of people braving the cold I seemed to be the only native English speaker.




I lingered too long, setting myself up for a punishing final push. It lashed with rain, very time-pressed SUVs appeared suddenly like hulks in my rear view mirror. I flew past some cops, resisting the urge to slam on my brakes. I got mustard on the steering wheel, and I swear I lost my cell phone, my camera, the CD lyrics, and my toll ticket in regular rotation county after county after county. Do not rent the pale green Prius from Hertz at the airport: Some sort of cosmic Bermuda triangle for Lost Stuff is centered right on the driver’s seat, I’m sure of it.

That new Scottish CD I mentioned before came through. In light of roads untraveled and new adventures I will tell you that Iain Anderson of BBC Scotland has delivered me yet another favorite: he’s Grant Campbell, and he’s just released his second album, Beyond Below. I do think it’s a record especially suited to a road trip, but I’ve given the car back—two toll tickets sacrificed to the gods—and I’m still listening. A lot. He’s got a staggering voice that hits undulating notes so low and big and rich you’re paralyzed by your own ear for a few seconds. This guy feels it, you can tell. I love the ethereal Lila, the bold confession of Annabelle, the searing pain and awareness and resignation of Fuel the Fire. The impossible beauty of the imagery and the notes—those haunting low notes—of Lowlands.

Bob Dylan pledged survival:

I’ll see you in the sky above,
the tall grass, and the ones I love

Grant Campbell wasn’t asking for the moon:

Tomorrow go easy don’t break my heart

I thought back over Josh Ritter’s words

The straight of the highway and the scattered out hearts

And it was only in the final hours when I couldn’t listen anymore. It was just me and the frantic wipers and the stillness inside, some plastic-wrapped processed food in the cup holder. The horizon glowed various shades of black, and I thought all kinds of things over.

You don’t tell everything to a blog—or to anyone—so I’ll just say it’s nice how the road somehow enables one to tell more to herself.

And lastly—

“Thanks for coming,” I’ll say to you.

[Starting Line by Grant Campbell]

Wolves inside my keyboard

Six years ago this summer I sat at my parents’ kitchen table pouring over my resume. I was back in the country after almost four years in England, finally free of the constraints of a work visa that had been a complete sham in the first place. I was no longer tied to one employer or skill or industry or even the “training and work experience” program the UK government miraculously decided would allow me to stay. (And oh, great glorious UK, I was grateful. I was.)

But now I was free, English degree burning a hole in my . . . my . . . where’d we put that thing anyway? No matter. Any job in America was open to me for the taking, and even with the bubble burst, so much with regard to employment seemed to be happening online. This seemed very convenient as my parents’ home was not exactly situated where I wanted to be employed.

Apply online! Attach your resume! DO NOT CALL US. I did and didn’t do exactly as I was told.

I clicked Submit, Submit, Submit, etc etc etc. And I waited.

I got a temp job working four to midnight data inputting Bills of Lading for a trucking company. (I thought “Bill of Lading” was a grand short story title.) I applied for the bigger stuff during the day. I’d decided I wanted to work around books. Anything to work with books. I crafted the wittiest (but not too witty), smartest (but not too smart) cover letter I’d ever seen and I fired it off, cold, to bookish companies and corporations all over America. I sent it snail mail too, just to be safe. I signed my name with the unmistakable flourish of a future exec.

“Are you sure these things are even going anywhere?” My mom asked, peering into my computer screen as I clicked another Submit button on an application. I’d sent out fifty applications and not had any response.

“In my day we didn’t sit around waiting for some email when we needed work. You need to get out and shake some hands,” my father said through his newspaper.

By the end of the summer the trucking company had figured out I graduated from one of the state’s better universities and offered me a day job (I declined), I’d had one interview and offer in Chicago (I declined), and stung by their indifference, I’d forbidden my writerly brother Sam and myself to publish any of our future literary classics with most the major houses in America.

“No promises,” he said.

I was saved—truly I think these six years later I might still be at that kitchen table—by a walk in the woods with my dad’s old college buddy Jack. We were up at the cabin over Labor Day.

“I think my cousin works in books,” he said absently.

She did. Sight unseen she invited me out East, let me sleep on her sofa, and took me to work for a week. By the end I was through the first round of interviews with a rival firm. I did the second round on the phone at my parents’, circling the house as I formulated and articulated my answers, pausing to look at my earnest reflection in the grandfather clock. I got the offer. I got on a plane and moved East.

I was over the moon to work in books.

It’s almost six years later and I work at a different firm, but I still work in books. In fact this week, after hours, when these sorts of things take place, my belongings were moved into a new office, my name plate torn with that recognizable crackle off the old velcro and affixed outside a new door. A promotion. I was rushing past the HR office when I had this vision of the heavy cream resume paper and jet-black ink on the kitchen counter back in Michigan. I’d sent one of my letters here, to this building, so desperate to get in. I never heard anything. I pushed the button on the elevator, wondering for a few moments where that letter had gone.

Of course—you know this is coming—I know now it’s a little less . . . romantic than I envisioned it when I pinned it with so much desire and hope. On the worst days business can even ruin books.

How we hated our coffee mugs! our mouse pads, our desk clocks, our daily calendars, the contents of our desk drawers. Even the photos of our loved ones taped to our computer monitors for uplift and support turned into cloying reminders of time served. But when we got a new office, a bigger office, and we brought everything with us into the new office, how we loved everything all over again, and thought hard about where to place things, and looked with satisfaction at the end of the day at how well our old things looked in this new, improved, important space. . . .

It’s true, I am pained to admit. But it was only a couple days after my office move before things went back to normal this week: I spotted another paw print on the copier.

. . . There was no doubt in our minds just then that we had made all the right decisions, whereas most days we were men and women of two minds. Everywhere you looked, in the hallways and bathrooms, the coffee bar and cafeteria, the lobbies and the print stations, there we were with—


Oh—sorry, I mean, there we were with

our two minds.

(All quotes above from) Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris (p. 7)

When I got thinking about Josh Ritter’s song Wolves, I had to ponder my life at work and how, especially over the last year, the pull of things outside seems to have grown stronger. The wolf in that song (and as I discussed, in much of Jack London’s work) might symbolize a source of nature, of wildness, of a call in each of us to do what is in fact part of us. What makes us feel most alive, or as London has it, what make us forget we’re alive. For me—no revelation even in this cozy blogging community of 2.5M—writing is the thing.

Writing is how I keep the wolves at bay, or how I join them, however you see it. They need constant attention and care, or else I get to feeling not myself. Crabby. The more I work at writing, the bigger my ideas, and the harder to fold them away into the cracks and crevices left over after the rest of my life has claimed its nonnegotiable time.

Why was it so terrifying, almost like death, one morning of a hundred, to walk back to your own office and pass alone through its doorway? Why was the dread so suffocating? Most days, no problem. . . . But one out of a hundred mornings it was impossible to breathe.

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris (p. 56)

It happens, and for me the frequency is not so kind as one in a hundred. But it’s so tempting to pit our creative pursuits against our professional lives. It’s so tempting to quit so you can have the time you need and make that long-suspected discovery that actually, you’re Charles Dickens.

When someone quit, we couldn’t believe it. . . . Where had they found the derring-do? (p. 57)

Anyway, I figured I’d write a bit about work. No ritzy debut novel, mind you—for that I do recommend Ferris’ book. I figured if the wolves are going to show up at work—and they have— they better be ready for me to go in there looking around the way I usually save for everywhere else.

“Welcome aboard!”

The first thing I should tell you is, Look out for the bully. He’s sneaky. The first email is all Welcome Back! But snooze for one day and the next morning find an angry red exclamation point in your Inbox. This is a repeat reminder! he chides. He’s the Out of Office Agent, and it’s nice he alerts people that you’re out while you’re away. But he doesn’t like overtime. Once you’re back he’s done. I picture him running around in there, clipboard in hand, pencil behind ear, angrily shouting out names. Is Johnson BACK or what? Send him the Reminder. So remember: Enable the Out of Office Agent before you go away, Disable him right when you get back, and you won’t have any trouble. There’s something quite dissatisfying about being reprimanded by your computer just as you’re taking your first sip of morning coffee, clinging to the rapidly fading vacation glow.

The other wily electronic personality to look out for is . . . let’s call him Larry. He runs the Dial-by-Name service. You speak the name, he connects you. That’s the theory, anyway, as far as I can tell. Larry and I have never, ever seen eye to eye.

Name please? he asks brightly.

“Judy Johnson.”

Thank you. Ringing . . . Ed Mancini. To cancel, press star.


Cancelled. Name please?

“JEW-DEE Johnson.”

Thank you. Ringing . . . Penelope Sanchez. To cancel, press star.



Cancelled. Name please?

“You’re an idiot.”

Thank you. Ringing . . . Greta Westinghouse. To cancel, press star.



Cancelled. Name please?

&*%$# $%#@*!!

Thank you. Ringing . . . Chuck Boo. To cancel, press star.


Cancelled. [With exasperation creeping into his tone, as though to say “I really don’t have time for this:”] To reach a help message or reach an operator, after the tone say either “Help!” or “Operator.”

I confess, I have exhibited very bad behavior while trying to deal with Larry. I am considering a conflict seminar.

It’s good to have a theme song to pump you up as you’re walking in. Stay away from Maggie’s Farm if it’s a bad day. For awhile there I liked Kanye West, if only because I liked weaving through the cube farm whispering

You should be honored by my lateness!

After a few weeks you’re going to be away from your desk, somewhere, and a phone will ring and you will instinctively feel like picking it up. It’s a—what do they call it—Pavlovian reflex. Don’t worry. It takes a few months, but eventually your ears grow completely accustomed to the exact volume level of the ring of your phone when you’re sitting at your desk. You’ll be having a conversation six months from now, a phone will ring 5.5 feet away and someone will say “Isn’t that your—” and you’ll confidently say “Nope,” just as the person on the other side of the wall picks up.

There will be sneezing. Decide right now whether you’re a “Bless you” person or not. It’s very awkward sitting there debating on the fly. For what it’s worth, I think you should be: it’s polite. But if you’re the only one carrying the torch, and you set a precedent, this can become annoying. Especially if someone nearby gets a persistent cold. Or has allergies. Perhaps there’s an etiquette: a certain person says it every time, or people sort of take unscripted turns. I would think most sneezers prefer not to hear a chorus each time, but I’m not sure. Take the cues of those around you.

Learn the three letter acronyms (“TLAs”—yes, we really call them that). I don’t know about yours, but there are a lot of these in my industry. It’s the generic ones that I find amusing however. I laughed the first time I saw this

“I am WAH this morning.”

WAH should be something better than Working at Home. I am WAH!!! we could all say. There’s EOM for End of Message (in case you were confused) and someone emailed me WTG! after my promotion was announced. All my eye could process was WTF(!?), though, so this was slightly unnerving. WTG is Way to Go.

If you really need someone to do something and you really need them to understand you really need them to do it, but you really don’t want them to think you’re really pushy, you can always go all assertively, clairvoyantly grateful and say Thanks in Advance. Or TIA if you’re in a hurry. Our emails suggest we are all in a desperate rush.

Our chatter suggests we are all tied to a chair at a huge banquet table trying to consume an endless meal.

“He has a lot on his plate.”

“I need to get that off my plate.”

“This should be on their plate, not ours.”

I personally don’t use the plate metaphor. I don’t like it, but it’s up to you.

It’s good to be kind to the people who work in the coffee bar or the cafeteria, the ones that empty the trash or clean the bathrooms or change the light bulbs. The ones who tear off our name plates and roll our stuff across the floor.




The position of cashier in our cafeteria has a very high turnover, I’ve noticed. There was the tiny Asian woman who must have loved math because she’d look at your total and before you’d even unzipped your wallet she’d have the change ready in her hand. If you gave her exact change, she’d simply drop the readied coins right back in the drawer, not caring at all how many superfluous mathematic computations she carried out in her head. I liked her. She was so slight that she went out on maternity before any of us knew she was pregnant.

The next guy—a young kid—was a night owl and every morning my heart broke to see him standing there, eyes at half mast, dead on his feet. The cafeteria shift is six thirty to two. He napped through all his breaks on the only soft surface available to him: the furniture near the elevator banks. We all walked past his slumped figure—sometimes his head tipped back and lips parted in absolute exhaustion—not sure whether to tiptoe or talk to his supervisor. I sorta thought, You go, kid. I told him I stayed up late too and pretty soon we’d be having this contest every morning.

“How late’d you stay up?”

“1:30. You?”

It wasn’t fair because his shift started so much earlier than mine. Anyway, he didn’t last. The next girl, Elizabeth, was chatty so we were friendly before long and one morning while she was finding me some milk she told me about a guy she’d met online. For a couple weeks they emailed and then one day she excitedly announced they were meeting in person after work. I came in the next morning—I was wary, I confess—and she smiled timidly, painfully.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said, shaking her head.

I overheard her talking to her mom on her phone in the bathroom about a hotel desk clerk job. A couple weeks after that she was gone.

Romance & magic

Romance is Not Recommended in the workplace, we all know that. But I’ve had some innocent brushes with something just approximating . . . kindness, really, that did endear me to me the place. For two years I greeted the rotund young security guard downstairs, Tom, and then one day as I flashed my smile and my identification badge, he reached into his pocket.

“I wanted to tell you that today’s my last day and . . . er . . . ” He pulled out one of those miniature pocket spiral notebooks and flipped open the lid. “I just thought if you ever wanted to . . . um, you know, email me . . . Here.” He tore off a piece of paper. I thanked him, wished him well, got in the elevator, and held the paper up to my eyes. Name, email, phone number.

I sat down at my desk. Was every page in the pad a carbon copy of his contact information? Was he ripping them off, like numbers at a deli counter, handing them to all the girls as the day wore on, hoping someone might buy on this his last day, his last chance? I decided to believe a more flattering motive, and I pinned the paper up in my line of sight for awhile. My eyes fell on it when I was feeling down.

There was a very bright but utterly ill-suited-to-the-corporate-world Project Manager who was hell to work with but who I will forever remember. Fondly. He was a brilliant writer and took to slipping subtle compliments and hints at affection in his emails to me. Innocent ones, mind you. Kindness, really. He’d tiptoe up to the precipice of Inappropriate, write some gently lovely thing, and then close with “Excelsior!” He once told me after a meeting that I entered the room to a heavenly choir backing track. Despite the missed deadlines and constant contrariness and kvetching about the headaches to my friends, some days (still) I need that backing track. So I don’t hold a grudge. It was nice to be liked, even at work. He’s now engaged.

But lest I appear the object of affection on all sides, let me assure you I’ve struck out a time or two. Or once, actually, the one and only time I stepped up to bat at work. He was a guy who works in the building, not in my firm. I rode down in the elevator with him one summer night. We got talking and walked across the square. I liked his easy smile, I loathed my then-broken heart. I found myself looking for him whenever it was time to get on the elevator. I shared this crush with an enterprising friend, and she immediately had a Plan.

“Put your business card with your security badge. Give it to him next time you see him.”

Reader, I did. Brave, huh? Do not underestimate the determination, if short-lived, of a broken heart. (I’ve never done it again.) It didn’t end well . . . well, it did. And it didn’t. Voice shaking, I gave him my business card in a (mercifully) empty elevator, invited him for a drink, went to a meeting with an addled brain, and came back to this—


To: Girl in the Gloaming
From: Guy in the Elevator
Sent: 10/13/2005 02:54 PM
Subject: Your card


Thanks again for your card, that was a surprise! This is likely going
to sound odd, but I did want to mention that I’ve been seeing someone
for a couple years now. My guess is I’m assuming way too much but
always better to make that known. There’s really no way to know that,
is there?

In any event, nice delivery, I’m flattered, and someone should write a book about that. And in the event that I AM assuming too much, my apologies in advance!



To: Guy in the Elevator
From: Girl in the Gloaming
Sent: 10/14/2005 12:14 PM
Subject: RE: Your card

Hi Mark,

It’s entirely appropriate for you to have said so — not odd at all! In fact, it might be considered odd to be handing out business cards to near perfect strangers, but I thought you seemed nice (and alas, all evidence says yes!) and well, I figured it was worth a shot. Please know I really don’t make a practice of it.

Thanks for your kindness and sensitivity in allowing me to not regret an attempt at being brave. (I’m afraid “nice delivery” is a stretch, but I appreciate you saying so!)

I do hope we can still say hello in the elevators!

To: Girl in the Gloaming
From: Guy in the Elevator
Sent: 10/14/2005 12:17 PM
Subject: RE: Your card

It’s all about taking that step into the unknown, I think it’s great. And not too bad for my ego either!



—That’s how it went. I swear, I haven’t altered a word.

My friends all praised his kindness, his encouragement. “He’s so nice,” they said softly, reading the printout. “Oh, he’s so nice!” we wailed as the reality of it all sunk in, and we relived and rehashed the tragedy of his non-single state over and over. He still says Hello, wherever he is, whatever he’s doing, nodding over someone’s shoulder while he’s in conversation in the cafeteria, raising his arm in greeting across the stone courtyard. I’ve seen him on the subway with the girl I presume is his girlfriend. They look happy. He still meets my eye and smiles warmly. I smile back weakly and look down, but I appreciate it.

And if not exactly rip-roaring romance, a little magic? Yes, we’ve got that too. I have a magic wallet, for one. It didn’t come from work; it came from the department store across the street. Thing is, I unwittingly stole it. I was looking at a handful of them, I decided to defer the decision, and I walked out of the store. It wasn’t until I got into the bathroom at work that I realized I had a contraband wallet amongst my belongings. I went back and paid for it; I couldn’t bear the guilt otherwise. And good thing too, because it’s charmed.

Case in point: I once left it on the roof of a Zipcar and drove—not exactly gingerly—three miles before I stopped, got out, and found it up there, on the brink of falling to the street. But better: I once left it (yes, yes, it’s a problem) in the bathroom at work. When I went back it wasn’t there, and I was really getting quite anxious when Alfred the mailmen turned the corner and handed me a lumpy interoffice envelope addressed, with a shaky hand, to my name.

Inside was my wallet. The money was gone, but everything else in tact. I just stared at it for twenty minutes and never told anyone. I was too embarrassed.

By the way, do not underestimate the interoffice envelope, that cousin to the old-fashioned Valentine: you can send it completely anonymously, no postmark even. Try sending your friends or enemies or perfect strangers anonymous notes of encouragement, small-amount gift cards to the local cafe or book shop. Try sending some gift of gratitude to the undoubtedly unsung mail person. It makes everyone feel good. It gets management scratching their heads, which is always a good thing.

It may not be magic, but here’s a tip for the sandwich bar downstairs: order a “half” sandwich from the super speedy Mexican man, and he’ll slice a thick piece of multigrain bread the long way, pile it high with tuna, put the second slice on top, and hand it over with a smile. I don’t know if this is how they do it in Mexico, or a mistaken translation of the word “half,” but don’t ask questions: it’s plenty for lunch, and half the price!

The Book Table

We have a Book Table, a graveyard for our own personal books read or never-read and discarded. Don’t be fooled by the dog-eared pages, the dust, the old copyrights. It’s worth a look. Donations coiled in the coffee mug go to The United Way. I found The Ninemile Wolves on the Book Table, and yes, I found Then We Came to the End there too.

Then We Came to the End has an epigraph that comes from an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson. It’s called The American Scholar. I found it and read it in conjunction with the novel. It’s another post—another blog—four times through and I’m still reeling—but there was one passage that I will shamelessly take out of context now.

In light of Josh Ritter and Wolves and that fine album The Animal Years and this blog and—God, everything, really, I think this is beautiful:

The theory of books is noble. The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again. It came into him, life; it went out from him, truth. It came to him, short-lived actions; it went out from him, immortal thoughts. It came to him, business; it went from him, poetry. It was dead fact; now, it is quick thought. It can stand, and it can go. It now endures, it now flies, it now inspires. Precisely in proportion to the depth of mind from which it issued—

Heads up!

Precisely in proportion to the depth of mind from which it issued, so high does it soar, so long does it sing.

From The American Scholar by Ralph Waldo Emerson (emphasis mine)

So long, so high. Indeed.

You know, I found Josh at work too. Just one April afternoon while I was listening to a personal hero, Iain Anderson of BBC Scotland. I was—I am—no music aficionado. Had I just stepped away, had I been out on vacation—I miss a lot of Iain’s shows. Had I been embroiled in some project, not truly listening, just too busy to look up the artist and find his website . . . maybe this would be a Ralph Waldo Emerson blog. Or Neil Diamond. Yipes.

Can it come to her business, and go out poetry? Joshua Ferris wanted to find out, I guess. What a poetic final paragraph, what a chilling last line. The truest thing I can think to say of the drive to write is that is transcends time and place and circumstance. I think about quitting my job—I have some book ideas that would take me away, but I think it’s important to look hard at that choice. To have no illusions. (I’m good at illusions.) I am mindful that only a handful of years ago this is exactly what I wanted. This. Here. I think it’s important to practice, and practice, so that’s what I’ve been doing. Even if life gets pretty hectic.

Still. Some days I dream of telling that Out of Office Agent that I finally found the derring-do. That the next time somebody says “Welcome aboard!” I better have one foot on a sailboat. I’d tell him I’m outta here—never to be welcomed back—and then disable him forever.