One of my heroines in the writing business is Susan Wittig Albert, who besides being the author of the popular China Bayles herbal mysteries and founder of Story Circle Network, a nonprofit organization for writing women, has written books for young adults, books for women on life-writing, and all kinds of work-for-hire books when she was learning her craft. Her Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place focuses on how she made the shift from University professor into a new marriage and writing career. Along the way she provides all kinds of writing advice.
“Marketing,” she says, “is a necessary fact of the writing life.” Many of the writers who question me don’t ask about writing details: they want to know how to market. Almost all of them say, as I do, that they understand the difficulties of writing, but they loathe marketing and don’t know how to do it. Susan Albert agrees.
“Jane Austen never went on a book tour, or put together a brochure advertising her work, or handed out bookmarks.” Modern writers must do these things, and because of the Internet, the emphasis on promotion has grown. Writers are encouraged by publishers to set up web sites, blog, and be on Facebook. She adds, “Writers also do bookstore signings, give library talks, go to conferences, and generally make an effort to flaunt themselves, sometimes with the financial backing of their publishing house, usually not.”
“Usually not.” That’s an important omission. Even writers fortunate enough to publish with big companies often get no promotion budget these days; they are expected to do all this time-consuming self-promotion without pay. And all these activities take time away from the writing that got them published in the first place.
I approach self-promotion with the same attitude I have toward drinking alcohol: moderation. Neither drinking nor self-promotion is really necessary to preserve your life and sanity. Both can provide feelings of euphoria. Over-indulgence in either leads to headaches, and makes you wonder just what you said that left you with a feeling of loathing.
My method is to try to make self-promotion enjoyable but I do have a particular advantage. I couldn’t promote as well as I do without the thoughtful help of an assistant who maintains my website, Facebook page and WordPress blog. She also edits my writing, and decides what gets posted where and when. Because she has alerted me to the way these social media work, I sometimes get ideas that help with the promotion, but mostly I am able to do what I believe I do best. I write.
If you are a writer who needs to promote, look for someone to help. This might be a friend, employee or both (if you’re as lucky as I am), whose skills make promotion enjoyable and understandable. Perhaps you can barter with this person: your skills for his or hers. But don’t be chintzy; remember that unless someone is reading what you are writing, you can’t pay for the electricity to run your computer, so be prepared to understand what promotion is worth to you and compensate accordingly.
Linda M. Hasselstrom Windbreak House Writing Retreats Hermosa, South Dakota
Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation Michael Pollan, Penguin Group, 2013. 480 pages
As the title suggests, Michael Pollan has written something more than a cookbook. He notes that cooks are really alchemists, working with the primal elements of fire and water, earth and air. How many of us, he asks, still work with those fundamentals of the material world. Cooking, anthropologists tell us, was a defining human activity, maybe THE single activity that defines us as human. So for us to hand over that power to hawkers of additive-laden fast food is even more dangerous than you may think.
Cooking, says Pollan, gave us not just better food but different bodies. When we ate raw food, we had little brains and big bellies, and spent hours every day just chewing and digesting whatever food we captured. We hunted food alone and ate it alone. Perhaps today, as we grab food from gas stations and eat in our cars rushing to and from work, we are in danger of becoming solitary again.
Cooking made us social; we began to eat together, to share food, to sit around the fire becoming human. Cooking, says Pollan, “implicates us in a whole web of social and ecological relationships: with plants and animals, with the soil, with farmers, with the microbes both inside and outside our bodies, and, of course, with the people our cooking nourishes and delights.”
We live in an age where we’re told to specialize. One restaurant guide, reports Pollan, even suggests that people should stay an extra hour in the office doing what they do well, and let bargain restaurants do what they do best—feed the workers. This is the classic argument for division of labor, which has blessed our civilization as it has changed it. While Pollan admits that this view of progress is what allows him to make a living writing while others “grow my food, sew my clothes, and supply the energy that lights and heats my house,” he insists that such specialization also “breeds helplessness, dependence, and ignorance, and eventually, it undermines any sense of responsibility.”
Maybe this explains what seems to be happening to our culture!
Specialization, says Pollan, obscures the lines of connection, so we don’t understand our responsibilities. We no longer understand the consequences of our actions. “Specialization makes it easy to forget about the filth of the coal-fired power plant that is lighting this pristine computer screen, or the back-breaking labor it took to pick the strawberries for my cereal. . . . neatly hides our implication in all that is done on our behalf by unknown other specialists half a world away.”
Is this why some of us don’t understand that in order to keep the air breathable, the water pure enough to drink and enough food on the table, we need to decide our priorities?
“The Big Problem,” Pollan continues,” is nothing more or less than the sum total of countless little everyday choices, most of them made by us. . . . and the rest of them made by others in the name of our needs and desires.”
A lot of people talk about “changing the world,” and anyone planning to do that has to work hard in the public eye, but Pollan suggests such work is no longer sufficient. “We’ll have to change the way we live, too,” and that means that what we choose to do with our kitchens, gardens, houses and cars will “matter to the fate of the world in a way they never have before.”
In a world where so few of us really have to cook, then, to choose to do so “is to lodge a protest against specialization. . . . Against the infiltration of commercial interests into every last cranny of our lives,” he asserts. “To cook for the pleasure of it, to devote a portion of our leisure to it, is to declare our independence from the corporations seeking to organize our every waking moment into yet another occasion for consumption.”
Yes, Pollan provides recipes—but only four or five in the whole 480 pages of the book because he wants us to understand what’s truly behind each of these eating experiences. I was especially intrigued by the chapter on bread-baking, since, as he notes, baking bread is merely “an ingenious technology for improving the flavor, digestibility, and nutritional value of grass.” Grasses occupy two-thirds of the planet’s landmass and are particularly efficient at collecting solar energy. Before we learned to eat grass, we began eating the ruminants that ate it and sometimes the predators that ate them, consuming our grass second- or third-hand—a wasteful way to use energy.
Cows have four stomachs so they can process all parts of the grass into sustenance. Our single stomach isn’t nearly as efficient, so we needed to figure out a way to use the grass seed more directly. Baking bread enabled us to eat lower on the food chain, and was a lot less work than chasing an antelope and beating it to death with a club.
The book is huge, of course, but full of fascinating information, a blend of history and personal narrative, though occasionally he drops into journalistic reporting. This is not a book to be read quickly, though depending on your interests, you may skim a bit. Still, take time to think about his comments; this is definitely one of the two or three best books I read in 2015. Every day since reading it, I’ve been delighted to trot into the kitchen and fight corporate takeover by cooking something wonderful. I recommend you do the same.
Linda M. Hasselstrom Windbreak House Writing Retreats Hermosa, South Dakota
No matter what time of day or night the phone rings, the voice that summons me sounds tired and desperate.
But that’s not the only reason I go. I’m known there, so I seldom wait long before someone comes for me, leads me into the little room, closes the door, asks to see my ID card.
This time it’s a young black woman who taps a few keys, looks at the computer screen and says, “You’ve done this before.”
“A few times,” I reply. She props my card on the desktop, enters some codes, glances at my bare arms, strikes a key or two.
Then she straightens the papers on the desk and picks up her pen to begin the questioning.
If I am nervous, she may become suspicious and uneasy, so I fold my hands loosely in my lap, place my feet flat.
She clears her throat, begins reading the first question.
My scars prove I’ve done this dozens of times, but my mouth is dry and my voice squeaky.
She glances at the computer monitor, perhaps checking to see if my answer matches the one I gave the last time I was in this claustrophobic little office.
The screen is tilted away from me, so I can’t tell what additional information she may have. My only chance is to tell the truth as I remember it and hope that the answers I gave last time were recorded correctly.
She reads each question quickly, not looking at me. I remind myself that I chose to answer that telephoned summons to come here.
Her questions grow more complicated every time she opens her mouth. I choose to reveal these intimate details of my past. I can leave anytime; the door is not locked. She has no power to hold me here.
She asks another question. Have I ever . . . ?
I tell myself this facility promises confidentiality, and in twenty-five years I have had no reason to doubt it.
No, I tell her. I haven’t.
The truth is important here. In our world, some people are casual about the distinction between truth and falsehood; others get rich from telling lies.
But in this room, the difference between truth and a lie may be, in the old cliche, a matter of life and death. Not mine, but someone who will never know me if I am not truthful.
Do I know anyone, she asks, who has . . .
No, I say. Faces of my friends flash before my eyes. I resist the urge to cross my fingers. I’ve known people who might not have been able to answer that question honestly and remain in this room. But years have passed; I’ve lost track of them.
Have I been, she asks, in any of the following countries since 1977: Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo: the list goes on, countries of which I know nothing. Her voice has no particular inflection; she’s probably never been any of those places either.
She takes a deep breath. Have I traded sex for money or drugs since 1977?
I tuck a hank of gray hair behind my ear and think about 1977. She probably wasn’t born yet.
I was 34 and had just read an authoritative article insisting that I was more likely to be raped and murdered than to marry again. I was poor, but I did have a job, an old car, an apartment. Even then, I wasn’t tempted to trade sex for money or drugs.
In fact, most of my experiences with drugs had occurred a decade earlier, in the 1960s, when I was often in the presence of sex and drugs in some combination. Money usually wasn’t involved, since none of us had any.
I decide that attempting to joke about these memories with this serious young woman would not be prudent.
I answer quietly, honestly. Soon she drops her pen, clicks a few keys on the computer, and leads me to a couch under a glass ceiling.
I show the technician my arms, and she swabs the left one with iodine, chatting about the weather and suggesting I look away. But I watch as she slips the needle deftly into a fat blue vein. The spot feels briefly as though a match had touched it, and then a richly red stream begins to flow through the tube and into the bag rocking beside me.
Lying back, I watch birds fly across the windows and think of healing for whoever receives this transfusion.
I love cows, eat meat, carry a pistol, and have strong and specific political viewpoints. My blood may pour into the veins of someone who opposes everything I believe in.
That’s exactly the reason to do this. Blood donors can’t impose their will on the people whose lives they may save.
When I’m depressed about anything in my world– and these days that feeling sweeps over me fairly often– I find relief with United Blood Services.
Here the only thing that matters is giving freely that another shall receive.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
No matter how far you have gone on a wrong road, turn back.
–– Turkish proverb
ZZI ZZZZZZI ZZI ZZI ZZI ZI Z I ZI ZIZIZIZIZI
It’s Valentine’s Day, often a frigid holiday on the Western plains. Some of us throw ourselves into heart-warming celebrations in an attempt to counteract the chill outside. Or maybe the revelry is intended to combat stress, as solemn newspaper articles usually report. Single people are “stressed” because they aren’t married, and married people are worried because they aren’t single.
This year, the unnaturally warm weather has brought out a few residents who usually stay hidden a little longer: a couple of flies bumble across the ceiling. Sparrows chirp in the trellis on the front porch. Some of the kids from the high school across the street walk resolutely over to this side to smoke their cigarettes, wearing only tee-shirts and holding themselves very rigid so they won’t shiver.
ZZI ZZZZZZIZZIZZI ZZIZIZIZIZIZI ZIZIZI
And, around midnight on this warm Valentine’s night, I hear the Crotch Rocket Boys coming. Until this moment, I have failed to give thanks for the icy weather that has kept them away from our neighborhood. I make up for my inattention with a quiet thanks, and brace myself.
There they go, sixty miles an hour on this residential street where the speed limit is thirty-five.
I live right in the middle of a ten-block stretch of street between stop lights. If they go fast enough, they can probably make it through two green lights, one at either end of the run. Then it’s eight more blocks to a third light, followed by a stretch of pavement beside the airport where the legal speed limit is forty miles an hour. At that point, only two more lights stand between them and Interstate 25, where they can ride– legally– at seventy-five, and even blue-haired ladies drive eighty.
Sometimes, I curse the makers of these buzz-saw Japanese motorcycles, these mosquitoes on steroids. Sometimes I hope Crotch Rockets rip through their neighborhoods twenty-four hours a day– but they probably love the noise. They probably say, “Sounds like money.”
Perhaps the Rocketeers see themselves as road warriors, brave and independent, beholden to no one, part of no community, no group. They use defiant noise to proclaim themselves outlaws, outside the rules most of us follow. They are blowing a giant raspberry for the police who often park on the side streets in this area to catch speeders.
I’ll bet the Crotch Rocket Boys live near one another, or even room together, in one of the new apartment complexes built cheap and fast to appeal to young folks working away from home for the first time. Certainly the four of them form a community; I’m tempted to use the more judgmental terms. Mob. Pack. Gang.
I can see that they are young, probably in their twenties, all Caucasian. They are probably in the same income bracket. That is, they can afford– on credit says my censorious mind– to run more than one vehicle. I never see them riding past at a sedate speed, or riding during the morning rush to work. The Rockets are toys. The Boys can afford Toys. They are probably single. During the week I’ll bet they drive those new yuppy pickups with a two-foot cargo space, four doors, and a row of fancy lights on top. They probably threw away the tailgates because they never haul anything. Except maybe a dog, trying to hold on. My prejudices are showing.
In daylight, they laugh when they spot old fogy homeowners working in our yards on quiet Saturday afternoons. They see themselves as so different from us, free, riding in the sun, with the wind blowing through the hair on their heads and legs– because they sure aren’t wearing protective pants or helmets. Another reason I think they are unmarried.
Of course, I am generalizing wildly; I have no idea what they think, only that they, like their bikes, are identical. Well, the colors are different, yellow, red, black, orange. In their spare time, they may all volunteer to teach reading to disadvantaged children, or help elderly people across the street.
But even if they are all studying for the ministry, does that give them license to disturb the tranquility of our Saturday and Sunday afternoons, or our sleep at midnight? Does a little good behavior justify disruption of community in other ways?
“Threat posture” in animals, I recall, involves making loud noises, trying to look larger to frighten away predators. Many animals adopt a threat posture when they are most terrified: roar, pound their chests, flare their nostrils and neck hair, stand taller and inhale. So I tell myself to feel pity for these crotch rocket menaces. They think they are having fun, but I hear rage in their sound, just as I do all day long when the students of the alternative high school across the street arrive or leave the parking lot. Every time, they wind up the engines of their cheap little cars to make them scream, making the tinny parts clash against one another, glancing covertly up at the windows of the school as they bend over the engines. They roar onto the street, wasting gasoline, wearing out tires, throwing away money as surely as if they were tossing bills on the street. Noise, like fear, has always been part of aggression; the berserkers shrieked as they galloped naked into battle, defending their families and their private parts. Modern armies sometimes broadcast hideous music to beat their enemies into submission or torture prisoners.
They are all afraid, I tell myself: of bosses, perhaps, or impotence or boredom or nuclear war, hair loss, cancer, the heartbreak of psoriasis. I can sympathize with them, at least in theory. With what I believe to be sudden insight, I realize that maybe the folks who drive big SUVs are only afraid of running out of gasoline: “I’ll get mine first!”
I’m not suggesting that the police should chase and arrest them. In any town, the law has more important work than arresting guys on tin gas-guzzling noise-makers. If they hit anything–- a squirrel, even a bottle cap–- the lesson will be serious, possibly permanent. I just hope they don’t hit a child. I hope they have insurance so I don’t pay for their medical bills. But I’m not going to bet on it.
I might be more sympathetic if I didn’t know that they are aware of the community they are disturbing, and enjoy making it less pleasant. They laugh and point when they fly by. They don’t see the future, any more than they see themselves in my slightly overweight partner, sweating as he mows the lawn. Or in my startled neighbor two houses down, shaking his fist at them as he balances on a ladder cutting a dead tree limb. I wish them long memories.
Sometimes I indulge myself in a few moments’ fantasy. I recall the stories my father told about the local sheriff when I was growing up. We didn’t have enough population for a town policeman, so the sheriff patrolled everywhere. He was a calm, stern man with a twinkle in his eye. When I shook his hand, I was perhaps ten years old, but I still remember looking at those eyes, that smile, and understanding that if I broke the law while he was sheriff, he would find me, and I would be sorry.
What if these fun-loving lads had ridden their mobile chain saws three times the speed limit through the streets of our little town? He would never have given them the satisfaction of a chase with sirens. He’d have identified them, and then gone to see their parents, knowing that in some circumstances parental punishment was a lot more effective, and cheaper for our county. If that didn’t work, he’d have found another way, but he would have stopped them, I’m sure.
Have we changed so much as a society that no one can enforce community preferences without also enforcing community laws? Do we have to either pursue and punish these idiots, or wait until they or some innocent bystander is injured by their behavior?
I think The Boys are flaunting their disrespect for community. I suspect they ride more sedately near their homes, where someone might identify them. They behave themselves as they pass through downtown because the police station is only a couple of blocks off our street, and if they started speeding and making that racket just a little sooner, some feisty young police officer who loves speed as much as they do could be in hot pursuit by the time they screamed past here. They may have no consideration for our quiet neighborhood, but they understand self-interest.
Sometimes when I am working in the garden, I hear the boys coming and stand, hose in hand, watching them. When they see several people working in our yards, they sometimes slow down a little, and rev their motors, and laugh. They look back over their shoulders to yell at each other over the roar, and watch us out of the corners of their eyes. Their speed is hazardous enough in these quiet streets with children and old people on foot, bicyclists, and wheel chairs. Squirrels and rabbits dart over from the schoolyard where they live to eat my flowers. Loose cats and dogs chase each other across the lawns.
Sometimes, still speeding, the Crotches do wheelies, pop their clutches, make the bikes lurch and lay hot rubber. Wearing shorts and tank tops, the riders speed up the street with the bikes spinning only on their back wheels, screaming with excitement.
With the hose in my hand, I reflect on what might happen if they hit a patch of wet pavement, or a few drops of oil, or even a very small cat. My partner, who was very careful when he rode his 800-pound Harley Road King, was hit broadside by a driver who didn’t bother to stop as instructed by the red sign. The driver was only going thirty five, as was my partner, who was wearing a helmet, t-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. The wreck damaged every part of Jerry’s body, though his head was injured least. Seventeen broken ribs, a broken collar bone, cracked ankle– well, you get the picture. His shoulders, back, arms, and legs suffered what bravo riders call “road rash,” resulting from being scraped against asphalt. Very colorful; very painful. Four days in intensive care, ten days in the hospital, months of recovery, surgery, more recovery. Some damages will be with him for the rest of his life. I breathe deeply, proving to myself that I can stand this, too.
Lying rigid in the dark, I grit my teeth, listening carefully as the buzz dies away, knowing I’ll hear the sound begin to swell again in fifteen minutes, again in a half hour, an hour. As the wind moves the cottonwood leaves on the old tree hanging over my bedroom, I imagine the rustling to be the quiet rage of the people trying to sleep in hot upstairs rooms on this street. The asphalt is still scorching with the heat of summer and the rage of hurrying drivers. The riders are attacking the soft, quiet night and all who sleep in her peace. They believe themselves to be declaring with mechanical howls their hatred of calm and quiet and cool breezes and sleep, but we hear their terror as well.
If I imitate their fury, I’ll damage mostly myself-– ulcers, high blood pressure. So I pull the night around me, draw it in, breathe out calm and contentment.
In my kinder moments, I visualize a likely and charitable future for the boys. Thirty or forty years in the future, they will be lying in bed, sleeping soundly, their fears wrapped around their shoulders.
Marrying George when I was thirty-five, I knowingly espoused a fantasy life as well. Buckskinners sincerely wish they’d been adults in 1840, when the most elite profession in the West was trapping beaver to be turned into top hats for Englishmen. We participated in the rites of rendezvous every July, when my birthday fell, so all my birthdays were unique.
On my thirty-ninth birthday, we obtained a permit to cut tipi poles in the Uinta Mountains of northern Utah. An eighteen-foot tipi needs eighteen to twenty poles. Since we’d promised a set to a friend, we wanted to cut at least forty trees. While George and his friend Jim searched for perfectly straight lodge pole pine trees to cut, Jim’s wife Mavis and I were in charge of transport. We followed the men as they tramped miles through the deep woods. As soon as they’d cut two slender pine, our job was to haul them back to the van, while Jim and George strolled off in search of more.
The trees weren’t heavy, at first. But we soon discovered an unusual botanical fact: straight trees grow only on top of the highest mountains. A lodge pole pine that reaches thirty-five feet of height in this arid country always stands in a crowd. Mavis and I would each grab a tree butt and lunge in the direction of the van. Approximately thirty feet into the woods, I’d veer around a cluster of trees so closely packed I couldn’t slide between them. Turning while dragging a long, straight object isn’t easy; ask a long-haul trucker, if you happen to have one handy. Each detour hooked my tree’s branches on some protrusion, yanking me to a stop. I’d pull my log hard, and stumble on.
At first, Mavis and I kept track of one another by hollered curses. As our stamina waned, we were too short of breath to swear. Resting, we counted closely-packed rings– a sign of the climate– to determine the tree’s age. At two hundred, we gave up, and realized these slender saplings were mature when the real mountain men camped in these mountains.
Several times I reached the truck with a tree to find the men chatting comfortably, seated on a rock.
“Just drop it,” George would say. “Not enough straight trees here; we’re going to look somewhere else.”
“Don’t you want to load this one?” I’d pant.
“No. We’ll wait till we have enough for a whole set.”
We changed locations twice, abandoning five trees we women had hauled a couple of miles through the underbrush, before I managed to get back to the van before the men. I shoved my tree crosswise through the two front windows, and sat behind a bush to catch my breath.
“Hmmm,” said George. “I think the women are getting testy.”
“I expected it,” Jim declared. “We better make do with the trees here.”
As the van lumbered back to camp that night with forty tree tops sweeping its tracks from the road behind, I mentioned my weariness with this strenuous birthday.
Most women my age, George replied without missing a breath, were not in my superb physical shape because their husbands didn’t love them enough to provide such exercise. The day’s workout, he added, put roses in my cheeks. His deft combination of compliment with rationalization left me speechless until a neighbor singing birthday greetings came to our camp fire carrying a single cupcake lighted by one fat candle.
* * *
The summer of my fortieth birthday, George arranged to go fishing in Canada with friends, as a change from rendezvous and a surprise. I’ve written and revised many times the story of that birthday celebration, but it’s still unpublished. Even in this permissive age, some episodes– involving fly-fishing, northern mosquitoes, and mayonnaise– are apparently too revolting for most markets.
* * *
I turned forty-one the month we set up our lodge at nine thousand feet on a Colorado mountain with several thousand other buckskinners. Each morning, George dropped a handful of fresh grounds into the coffee pot, softly waking me to the scent of brawny campfire coffee. Each afternoon, gentle rain tapping on the canvas lulled me into a nap, cooling the air. Each evening, we wandered among glowing tipis until we found music to suit our moods, whether it was bagpipes, fiddles, or mouth harps.
On my birthday, we went out to lunch– to a leanto where two sweaty women sold Indian tacos. Unfortunately, right after lunch, George reported that the latrine closest to our camp was overflowing, an unnecessary announcement since he was holding at arms-length a four-year-old boy who’d fallen into it head first. The child’s mother shrieked, snatched the child and headed for the creek.
“If he was mine,” said George, “I’d have pushed him on down. Easier to have another kid than clean that one up.”
Both George and I were dog soldiers– camp police– so providing a new latrine was part of our job. “I can’t ask you to help me,” George said, “since it’s your birthday. But digging is healthy outdoor exercise.”
First we removed the canvas privacy shield, along with the toilet seat and the open-ended fifty-gallon drum supporting it. We shoveled dirt over the remaining human wastes, and found a site for the new facility in a grove of aspen, where three trees served as a framework for the canvas wall.
Then we dug a deep hole in the Rocky Mountain soil. That name isn’t just a metaphor. We dug awhile, borrowed a pick to shatter bedrock, and shoveled some more. Operating a spade while wearing moccasins is painfully authentic to the mountain man era.
When the toilet was finished, we reflected on the thousands of people excreting in the vicinity, and considered the dog soldiers who were neglecting latrine duty. We swore an oath to tell no one the location of the new toilet. “Let ’em scout for it,” said one dog soldier, “like real mountain men.” Turning to me, he added, “You did a damn good job of diggin’, fer a girl in a dress!” I thanked him modestly, resisting the urge to curtsy. His was a compliment compared to other remarks I endured as one of the first female dog soldiers. Still, women who wear belt knives every day and beat their husbands at tomahawk throwing get considerable respect.
Then we closed the tipi door, knowing our gear would be safe in camp, and headed for Linda’s Birthday Revenge, a reunion of my mother’s family, a group of sober, law-abiding folks who drive recreational vehicles, shave, never drink liquor, and probably iron their camping clothes. My theory was that George, wearing a beard and shoulder-length locks that almost hid his earrings, might be nearly as uncomfortable for a day as I was for a week on his fishing trip. For maximum effect, and because we couldn’t find our civilian clothes, we wore our rendezvous garb– my long leather dress and his fringed leather suit. I didn’t think to remove the businesslike Green River skinning knife I used in camp.
As soon as we entered civilization and stopped for gas and cold drinks, I encountered a modicum of trouble. Relishing the chance to use a flush toilet and wash my face with hot running water for the first time in nine days, scrubbing at hands blackened by cooking over an open fire, I may have taken a wee bit too long. When the door handle rattled, I called politely, “Just one minute.”
I dried my hands and was grasping the doorknob when the door began to shake with violent pounding, in counterpoint to a woman’s voice yelling abusive curses of a distinctly vulgar nature.
Startled, I pulled the door open, snatching a short, red-faced woman into the small bathroom. Crashing into me, she lurched sideways, swearing. Then she jumped back and tripped over the toilet, perhaps startled by my attire. She grabbed at me, probably an instinct to keep from falling. Convinced she was attacking, I shoved with one hand, and grabbed at my knife with the other. She fell behind the toilet, jammed against the wall with her arms over her head. Her eyes bulged when I commented on her indiscreet language, and she breathed deep and tried to stand. I stepped out the door as she slammed and locked it.
Catching my breath, I heard a murmur in the darkness near my knees. A small boy trembled there, his eyes on my knife. I reached to pat his head, but he shrank away howling something about being scalped. More oaths gushed from the door, but it stayed closed. The kid was on his own. I slipped down one aisle as the manager rushed down another. George was peering over shelves, unruffled. Another man trotted a few steps toward the bathroom, and glanced nervously at us, but retreated from the wailing child. We departed in armed peace.
Once we got to the reunion, we found that the only family members attending were members of a single religious faction notorious for its sobriety. Not only was the camp free of beer, they hadn’t even brought coffee.
Various unidentified relatives of mine gathered around the van as we opened the doors, asking us merrily what we thought about “what the Democrats did this morning,” I explained that radios aren’t allowed in rendezvous camp, so we had no idea what the country was doing.
The benefits of missing two weeks of national news outweigh the flaws, in my opinion. However, once when we checked into a motel after a rendezvous, George headed for the shower while I snapped on the TV. When Richard Nixon’s face filled the screen, I yowled, “My God, it’s the revolution! He’s back!” Roaring, George thundered out of the bathroom, ready to defend me against a mugger.
Now, at the reunion, one of my cousins yelled, “The Democrats nominated a WOMAN for vice president!” The crowd whooped with laughter.
“Right on!” I cheered, waving my knife in case anyone disagreed.
Following a moment of horrified silence, they all laughed at my hilarious joke, and the survivalist in-laws gathered to look at our knives. The men pressed close, testing the balance of each blade and asking George how he polished the bone hilts. They shaved heaps of hair from their bulky forearms, and allowed as how George knew how to get an edge, so maybe he was an acceptable relative.
Whipping out their own concealed and semi-concealed weapons, they muttered about food caches, and the best places to be when The Big One drops. After awhile we opened the van door to show them the weapons and buffalo hide we’d put in the van in case buckskinners weren’t as honest as we thought they were. Long into the night, we all compared fire power and sharpening stones, and debated ballistics.
We were sober and clearheaded the next morning for breakfast, and the pancakes were delicious. But on the way back to camp, we stopped seven times for coffee, and proclaimed it one of my most unusual birthdays.
# # #
Copyright 2008 Linda M. Hasselstrom
Rendezvous Stories: Afterword
This story is a slightly different version than what appears in my book Between Grass and Sky, in the chapter called “The Second Half of Life” (pages 145 through 150).
An explanation of Rendezvous Re-enactment from Land Circle
Rendezvous was the annual trappers’ meeting during the fur trade days [1824 – 1840]; a few days in summer when trappers brought in their pelts, were paid, and bought their year’s supplies. . . . The muzzle-loading weapons of that age, either cap and ball or flintlock, are still intriguing . . . In modern times, people interested in the weapons have extended that interest to the way of life of the mountain man, and instituted dozens of such rendezvous in the United States, Canada, Germany, and other countries. . . . Everyone’s objective is to reproduce, as nearly as possible, the look and feeling of a rendezvous camp of the period. A place is set aside for the primitive camp, with running water and firewood. Those who have authentic clothing but modern camping gear must camp in a spot reserved for modern tents and tin tipis: campers. “Pilgrims,” inexperienced participants or visitors, are sometimes allowed in camp if they make a serious attempt at dressing in period style.
The insistence on authentic attire and accouterments is not mere whim; the camp’s primitive look enhances photographs, paintings, and research, and adds to the enjoyment of people who truly live the period. The mood would be ruined by seeing someone in blue jeans, scorned by modern mountain men because Levi Strauss didn’t start making them until 1851. The rule keeps away folks who aren’t seriously interested; those who are will be treated with friendliness, and almost any buckskinner will take time to help a newcomer learn how to participate. When you put on buckskins or a long dress, you put on a different mood; . . . The whole tempo of the world changes.
— from Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land
(Fulcrum Publishing, Golden CO; 1991; Anniversary Edition 2008)
excerpts taken from the chapter called “Rendezvous!”
pages 35 through 37 (Anniversary Edition)