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.




General George and me

I went to California for a meeting in early January and I got sick. And then I stayed sick. All that banging on about finding one’s voice in my last post and I got this virus going around that attacks the voice box. So I lost my voice for awhile there, and while that went on along came a “secondary infection” to perch on the viral one I already had. So January was a bit of a bust.

I did watch a movie about Irish rock music. I learned more about the showbands from my last post on Josh Ritter’s song Monster Ballads. Some revising was in order, some rethinking and quite a bit of rewriting. It’s done and I feel better. See the sections on the showbands, chorus, and last verse if you’re interested.

You’re likely not interested.

Recently I casually mentioned my Katy-the-train Monster Ballads theory to a friend and fellow fan.

“Really?” She paused, and then shrugged. “I guess I thought Katy was just a girl.”

“Maybe she is,” I sighed, and we laughed.

Maybe she is.

What can I say—I enjoyed the journey. I wanted it to feel right—right for me, not capital-R Right. The song kept changing before my eyes, changing with me through time. There’s just enough to entice and elude you, the perfect balance. You hear what you want or need to hear. I realize that. I love that. And I bet you I’ll change my mind all over again someday.

But for now I’m working on something new. No steamboats, no Mississippi River, no Twain. No Katy. I thought I’d put a deadline up in lights, say February 12?

‘Til then.


Girl meets Mark Twain

Mark Twain died today. Right on page 654, third paragraph down, three paragraphs from The End. For she who had blazed through whole decades in the summer sunshine, enjoying his singular company, smirking at the audacity on the morning commute and haunted by the acted-on restlessness through the hushed hallways of her office . . . the last pages felt like sitting at a dying loved one’s hospital bed and knowing the inevitable conclusion, but willing the breaths to still come. The turning of the pages slowed to the delicate, reluctant handling reserved for Bible paper.

He died at age seventy-four—quite lucky to have lived so long given his maniacal smoking habit, amongst other threats—as the sun set on April 21, 1910, and perhaps only hours after learning he would have a grandchild. The last, terse paragraph on page 655 ties up the sad fate of the Clemens clan: Twain’s one surviving daughter dies poor and married to a compulsive gambler, having to sell mementos from her famous father’s life to pay expenses. And that grandbaby present in utero at his death commits suicide just fifty-four years later, in 1964.

There are no heirs. There has been no one like him since. (SMT, 655)

And one sighs the Sigh of the Last Page of a Long, Illuminating Book Enjoyed. There’s that moment of denial, or proud accomplishment, when you might grasp a chunk of pages between thumb and forefinger and riffle them, their breath cool and reassuring, your eyes peeking in at the words flashing by before saying goodbye.

But what do we care about Mark Twain? Well.

Josh Ritter Mark Twain, printer’s apprentice

Now, I know that Josh Ritter’s album The Animal Years is a work of art that stands completely on its own: it’s a mash-up, a labyrinth, a desert oasis, a Mad Lib manifesto (you fill in the blanks) of confusion and limit-pushing exploration. There’s no way to know where he and it and Mark Twain and Voltaire and frivolity and solemnity and whatever else begin or end. But I think Josh found a kindred spirit in Twain. And if you’ve read any of this blog you know that’s recommendation enough for me. So I’ve been reading, slightly bewildered that I consider literature a chief pastime and yet haven’t revisited Twain since college, when I confess Huck Finn didn’t make a deep impression. But no conclusions can be drawn from what I’m about to do. Lawyers might call it leading the witness. I call it personal vindication, for even back when I was singing without knowing the words, I knew this album would send me wondrous places. And I’d go—happily—even if I had no way of knowing I ever got anywhere.


Samuel Clemens was born to a modest family in Florida, Missouri in 1835. He did most his growing up in the port city of Hannibal and lit out without warning to New York City when he was just seventeen, sending word of his whereabouts to his mother in a letter. He drifted about Philadelphia, Washington DC, and New York working in the printing trade, then landed in Keokuk, Iowa to work as a compositor for a bit before falling restless again. Having heard about cocoa farming in South America, he got it in his head to go, but found himself without any means.

He thought about indulging his childhood wish to become a Mississippi riverboat pilot, and visited some relatives in hope of sponsorship in the purchase of an apprenticeship, but no one volunteered. Then one windy day while out walking a $50 bill blew smack into the wall of a house in front of him, but instead of disappearing off to one of those far-flung places or occupations he’d been thinking about, he went to—wait for it—Cincinnati for five months. No one is sure why, but his life is riddled with such curious actions, and to confuse or delight matters even more (depending on your perspective), he was notoriously fast and loose with the truth.

He did finally part with some of the found money (or cobbled together some borrowed or made money, for the $50 windfall may have been invented or embellished, no one knows) and bought a ticket to New Orleans, expecting to go on to the Amazon and great fortune from there. On the way down he talked his way into the pilot house of the steamboat and was offered the wheel for a gentle stretch. When he got to New Orleans he found that no ship was going to the Amazon for a very long time, so he hightailed it back through town and cornered the pilot he’d met on the southbound journey.

Mississippi RiverboatHe persuaded one reluctant Horace Bixby to train him to be a pilot for a handsome fee of $500. The seasoned boatsman believed the only way to learn was to “get this entire river by heart.” Admittedly not a details man (otherwise he might have checked the Amazon departures schedule and never ended up in New Orleans at all), Clemens readily agreed, his romantic view of river life looming large. In Life on the Mississippi—which Josh Ritter has said greatly influenced the album The Animal Years—you can read how he was hilariously disabused of his presumptions about the easy, glamorous life of the pilot. And yet despite all the appalled raging and railing—by the demanding Bixby and the demoralized Twain—you do sense that he indeed got the river by heart, because even when disguised, that book (as far as I’ve read) is a love letter of sorts. If roles were reversed and Twain was musician, one likes to think of him penning a sweet, if ironic, tune for his muse the mighty Mississippi.

Once graduated from cub pilot status he barely got to enjoy his generous wage because the Civil War broke out and rather than choose sides he did something he often did—fled. Orion, his extraordinarily feckless but coolly-named brother, had been appointed secretary of the Nevada Territory (also known as Washoe) and Clemens decided to accompany him on the journey there. Years later he wrote the book Roughing It to capture the experience. He got bored working for Orion in Carson City pretty quick and, forever preoccupied with getting rich, turned to the surrounding mining towns fueling men’s fantasies:

I confess, without shame, that I expected to find masses of silver lying all about the ground. I expected to see it glittering in the sun on the mountain summits . . . I crawled about on the ground, seizing and examining bits of stone.

from Roughing It by Mark Twain

It’s his time on the river, bouncing west by The Animal Yearsstagecoach, walking the miles and miles of desert between mining towns, and scratching for silver that evokes The Animals Years for me. Why? Because it leads up to his transformation from Sam Clemens to Mark Twain, to his seemingly incidental discovery of his calling as writer. Because of the sense of search, journey, solitude, and self-reliance. Because of the myriad contradictions he inhabited, and the mystery of how he coped with it all in his own head. Because of the wild forms that chance took in his rich life, because of the luck and levity and ballsy insouciance.

But mining all those pages produces some more overt and rather fun clues . . .


Think of Evelyn from Here at the Right Time in light of the fact that Twain married Olivia Lewis Langdon, known as Livy, that his train was horribly late and he horribly disheveled the first time he traveled to visit her family, that at age sixteen Livy had suffered an unexplained ailment—perhaps Pott’s disease or the Victorian invention neurasthenia—that kept her virtually bedridden for at least three years and, though she recovered, was “never again to be without an aura of fragility.” (SMT, 233)

To Twain’s fervent proposal during his first visit she gave an “unequivocal no” (SMT, 233). Consider the humbly beseeching speaker in Here at the Right Time, the broken bucket, the cascading water:

Olivia Lewis Langdon

“I am desperately in love with the most beautiful girl. So beautiful. Unfortunately very rich. She is quite an invalid. I have proposed & been refused a dozen times. . . . I know I’m too rough—knocking around the world. . . . I never had wish or time to bother with women, & I can give that girl the purest, best love any man can ever give her. I can make her well and happy.” (MTBus, 101-2)


She urged him, in a customary date-deflection tactic of the day, to think of her as a sister, and he soon addressed a letter to her as such, and began to win her over in carefully wrought correspondence in which they both planted secret signs, I think: He sent sweet, covert messages hinting his true feelings, testing the waters, and after refusing the marriage proposal, she sent a photograph, which seems the nineteenth century equivalent of . . . what do we have left? Anyway, it was significant: it meant Keep writing.

The best part of their love story, to my mind, is that Twain, whose charm and wit gave him prodigious powers of persuasion, had to tame and tweak his great talent in courting the very proper and devout heiress. He couldn’t have found a more ironic match to pursue. Kaplan tells us repeatedly that Livy lacked a sense of humor; she didn’t even get most his jokes. (!) So Twain was very careful, very thoughtful (and tortured) about what to say. Also, there was concern over his hard-living years in the west, his bad habits, and while, to their credit, her very wealthy parents didn’t seem to mind the stark class difference, it was obvious to all, perhaps most of all him. I think of

I’ll try my best to make a go
But I’m not sure what I don’t know

In writing to her, in having to negotiate all those obstacles while desperately, entreatingly making what seems like the case of his life, I wonder if his pen relished the challenge. This rather slays me, and sounds faintly familiar:

[Twain’s] own courtship letters were brilliant performances, encompassing a full range of tones and tactics, from passionate joy to humble supplication, from self-deprecation to overwrought praise, from heartfelt moral and religious seriousness to chatty information and occasional jokes. Hers, to his initial surprise and then total acceptance were boringly serious mini-sermons without the semblance of a joke or a touch of literary talent.” (SMT, 242)

And we’re a little off topic here, but I can’t resist this:

She thinks about me all the time, & informs me of it with Miltonic ponderosity. . . . Ours is a funny correspondence. . . . My letters are an ocean of love in a storm—hers an ocean of love in a majestic repose of great calm. (L1, 1)

Ok—and remember this

Oh chariots, if you’re out there, please swing low

Twain, turns out, sang that a lot:

From childhood on he had adored the simple songs of his midwestern world, the music of religious community, especially its hymns, and would play on the piano and sing repeatedly such songs as ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.’ (SMT, 322-323)

Once Livy accepted his proposal, her father sought character references. Twain scrambled to provide some from his raucous days out west, and the results were mixed. “I would rather bury a daughter of mine than have her marry such a fellow,” wrote one well-wisher. (L3, 57) Twain took a preemptive approach, owning up to his dissipations while emphasizing his best quality: “They all like me, & they can’t help it.” (L2, 295)

I’m a good man for ya
I’m a good man

He managed—as ever—to squeak through the matrimonial sweepstakes, and they were married in 1870 and happily so for thirty-four years until Livy’s death left him despondent in 1904. They were ardent newlyweds and then steadfast and affectionate companions. They endured the death of two children. They traveled the world, lived many years abroad, and fought back from near bankruptcy brought on by Twain’s legendarily poor and overzealous investments. And all the while she read practically every word he wrote for publication as the pages piled up, her “respect and approval” being more important, Twain said, than that of the rest of the human race. (PA, 102-105)


.Twain wrote this in an unpublished notebook late in his life:

Waking, I move slowly; but in my dreams my unhampered spiritualized body flies to the ends of the earth in a millionth of a second. Seems to—& I believe, does. (NBK, 40)

I think of

And over hills and fields I flew
Wrapped up in a royal blue

Kaplan writes:

Dreams and their nature preoccupied [Twain], dreams as prophecy, warning, and self-revelation, the nature of dream time and the relationship between sleep and consciousness. (SMT, 540)

And I hear

I became a thin blue stream
The smoke between asleep and dreams

And perhaps my favorite new thought regarding Thin Blue Flame: an alternative take on that elixir of life and élan vital, and surely inspiration for a future post—the full house. As you may know, Twain occasionally (and usually reluctantly) drummed up needed income by touring on the lecture circuit. When he began, as he ironed out his act and got used to the stage, the prospect of unsold seats panicked him. The phrase “full house” would have been immediately recognizable to him as a very good thing:

Mark Twain on stageMade a splendid hit last night & am the ‘lion’ to-day. Awful rainy, sloppy night, but there were 1,200 people present . . . house full. I captured them, if I do say it myself.” (L2, 280)

About a performance years later in Portland Twain reported “splendid house, full to the roof” in his notebook. (NBK, 35)


Before he took Mark Twain as a pen name, before he’d hardly published anything using his given one, Clemens submitted some letters under a curious pseudonym to the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise in April 1862. Unfailingly optimistic about his prospects, he’d been working full time for eight grueling months as a miner in Aurora:

Working in snow, mud, and sweltering heat, often in the same day, he dynamited, picked, shoveled, and cursed. (SMT, 98)

His money was dwindling, his promise to his family and himself to bring home a fortune nagged, his resolve to “never be [a slave] again” to work or location strong, his body aching from the physical labor. (L1, 132) Something had to give. Somehow he found time to send some writing to the newspaper in nearby Virginia City.

So how’d he sign those letters sent in from out on the desert?


They’re lost now, the letters, never to be read in this world again. But they earned Clemens the offer of a position as full-time local reporter. He began work in September in a workplace where “his temperament and ambition found a nurturing home,” the editorial leadership gave him space to find his voice, and he had instant friends in his like-minded colleagues. (SMT, 104). It’d be years before he carved out the place all his own, but by early 1863 he was Mark Twain. He was on the path—and the rest, as they say, is history.

I recently read a wonderful travelogue called “The Mark Twain Trail” by Michael Lewis. Having traveled from Carson City—in Twain’s footsteps—to Bodie, California in 2003, he finds the once-booming mining town reduced to a desolate collection of old mineshafts, dirt piles, and heaps and heaps of trash. He begins to feel wistful, and writes:

Still, we have learned something from Twain—though it is unclear if Twain ever learned it himself: The gold isn’t the thing. The thing is the search for the gold. The search leads to adventure, and adventure leads to anecdotes, and anecdotes lead to stories. The pursuit of fortune is, like the pursuit of Twain, just an excuse to get around. And that excuse leads us smack into an impossibly lucky find a mile down the highway . . . (MTT, Entry 4)

Anecdotes lead to stories, and stories to songs, though given the time and length constraints sometimes it’s left to the listener to fill in or ferret out the narrative, and wisely, too, for in interpreting and embroidering we invest ourselves.

You know who’s good for songs that do that? I’ll leave you in suspense.

I like what Michael Lewis says about being satiated by journey, about the excuse to get around. We’ll be borrowing it to lead us smack into that cozy thicket of words and sound curiously absent from this post . . . Start your stagecoach, cue the music.

Next stop: Monster Ballads.
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