Laramie Rendezvous

Louie Kistler is one of my oldest friends from Casper, Wyoming. We met in a creative writing class where he pissed me off with an crisp critique of a piece I'd just FedExed to The New Yorker, I was so sure it was great. He was right. And for the following 20 years he has been right more often than not, and he has continued to piss me off from time to time, and I've returned the favor. Louie's kind of candor is precious, because he's smart and he cares.

We each drove more than two hours to meet for a long lunch at Coal Creek Coffee on Grand Street in Laramie. It was very sweet to dip down again into the kind of conversation we used to have nearly every week at Blimpies in Sunrise Shopping Center. Spiritual quest is our favorite shared passion, and when we wore that one out we turned to judgmental gossip about mutual friends, state and national politics, videgames, and Louie's latest passion, his arsenal of iMac gadgets and programs.

Laramie looked like a western-town movie set on a brilliant fall day. As the lunch hour wore on, the set turned into a ghost town, because anyone who was anyone was watching the University of Wyoming Cowboys play football against somebody. Waiting for Louie, I scanned the Casper Star-Tribune, happily blaring news of the state's projected $1.8 billion surplus. My old friend Dave Freudenthal picked an awfully good time to fulfill his lifelong mission of becoming governor. But I remember how quickly a Wyoming boom can turn to a bust. When I arrived in Casper in June of 1981 to start an energy magazine, we all expected the price of oil to soar toward $100 a barrel, at which prices everything from shale oil to squeezing energy from turnips was going to make economic sense. Sorry pardner. But I hope this boom lasts a long time for my Cowboy State pals.

Wyoming's serene size and spaces took hold of me like an embrace as Darlene and Claire and I drove up from Denver on I-25 and I-80. I was amazed to see a 75-mph speed limit sign in northern Colorado. And soaring through southern Wyoming on cruise control, listening to a new CD by Paulina Rubio titled Border Girl, reminded me of how calming the state's highways had been for me, especially before the widespread use of cellphones. I love Denver city life, and I love the twisty, clogged little highways of New England. But there will never be a place that touches the places in me that Wyoming found and claimed. It was great to be back, and great to see Louie again.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Tweaking the Brand

This view of the main floor of the Harvard Coop is a suitable icon for our stay in Cambridge, which concluded last night with the grueling JetBlue flight to Denver. We flopped into bed at about 2 a.m. Not enough hours later, I am working at a Starbucks in Boulder, reconnecting with Colorado life. I know I'm not in Harvard Square, because there is more than six inches between the little round tables, and the guy closest to me is wearing a plaid flannel shirt. Plus I'm enjoying brilliant morning sunlight, a delight not seen during the last week in New England.

Thus may begin a new era of living in two worlds. My mother is going to clear out a closet in the third-floor apartment of their house where we can keep a dog cage and other supplies, making travel to and fro a little easier. I like the idea of seeing more of my family and maintaining our base in Denver. Which is not to say I didn't feel surprising sadness sitting in my parents' kitchen last night after my mother had brought in my favorite meal, spaghetti bolognaise. I wished we were walking across the street to go home instead of getting ready to haul luggage and dog and books 2,000 miles and two time zones away. So my vision of an eventual Boston move has not entirely surrendered to the unfair advantage of sensible options.

I love the Harvard Coop. In my days at Harvard, it was a general-merchandise store heavy on stuff with Veritas on it. Now it's mainly books. As you walk in the front door, there is a whole section of books written by Harvard faculty and alumni. The sensibility of the store is infused wtih Harvard's presence across the street. Malcolm Gladwell in a recent New Yorker piece deconstructed Harvard's branding strategy with great wit and insight. What I took from it was that Harvard, in an often creepy way, has consciously created and maintained an image of itself as the premier institution of higher education in America. And I guess I'll dare say that for me, it works. I feel smarter browsing the books at the Harvard Coop than I do in a run-of-the-mall Barnes & Noble superstore, even though I know the Coop is now managed by B&N. Everyone in the Coop seems more aware, more nuanced in their thinking, more likely to be advising the White House or the French government on matters of importance. This is a silly fantasy which does not withstand any kind of logical comparison of universities. But as I get older I am enjoying the pleasure of savoring my fantasies, of moving into them and taking off my shoes.

Denver's savvy new mayor, John Hickenlooper, has set out to take full advantage of the "Mile-High Denver" brand's suggestion of healthy living, vibrant arts and culture, ease with diversity, and top-notch urban education. I shamelessly move from one brand to another in my life, from Starbucks to Harvard to Denver to AA to WESTAF. A potent brand is an empowering myth. In the end, we each create our own brand and maintain it with subtle positioning decisions. The latest update of the LE brand is thus a hybrid of Mile-High and Harvard. Brought to you by JetBlue.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Simply Adorable

The Little House hosted a big event last night, "Sibling Poetry: A Brother-Sister Conversation in Poems." My sister and I read 20 poems to an audience of just under 20 people, which nicely filled out the available seating in the jewel of a building created amidst the sometimes heated creative tension between my sister and my mother. In the event, many threads seemed to come together, knitting our family foursome into a more comfortable fabric. My father sat in the front row and asked the first question afterward, about the strong sense of years in the poems. He surprised himself by having difficulty asking his question, being so moved at the end of the reading. Later in the evening, my mother told me, "You two were adorable." I'm not sure why that comment touched me so. Perhaps because I had indeed felt adorable and right, reading my poems and listening to the poems of my sister. We created something together that was wonderful. We received an e-mail from our cousin Sandy who attended, thanking us for the inspiring image of a brother and a sister knit so closely together, supporting each other, enjoying each other.

Steph and I worked hard on this little presentation. We rehearsed the poems over and over, we rearranged the chairs in the room, we practiced our introductions. My daughter Sarah was there and my yet-to-be-born grandson, attending his first poetry reading. My Aunt Edna and Uncle Bert drove in from Sudbury. Bert afterward, referring to a poem of mine about being blown out to sea in a canoe, said, "I was bothered by that for years afterward, too." Sven Birkerts, my friend who is Editor of AGNI, came and commented on how Stephie's poems seemed centered, grounded, close to home and mine seemed far-ranging, eclectic. He said it better than that, but his point was intriguing, echoing a new awareness of our differences that the poems gave us. My nephew Seth recorded the reading, which will be available on CDs. Steph's partner Tim presided over a gourmet table of treats. Claire barked only once, during the question period. Darlene said she was proud of me.

I remember Liam Rector, creator of the Bennington MFA program, telling me that at one point in his life he came to believe that poetry would bring him everything he would ever need. I feel that way on this morning after the night when poetry brought my family into a new era of adorableness.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


My father and mother pause for a photo op on their slow walk through Harvard's Memorial Church on their way to Morning Prayers in Appleton Chapel. They look like mighty distinguished personages in this setting and in most others. My father is perfecting the art of turning full, wavy hair to white. Good posture fits him like a fine leather glove. If a dictionary editor were seeking an illustration for the term "Cambridge Lady," I would offer this woman in tweed, cotton, and wool who always wears a high-collared blouse and Victorian brooch. It is impossible to imagine my mother and father living anywhere but Cambridge. This fit between sensibility and location gives them the grandeur of old trees presiding over a place for years in all kinds of weather. My parents are becoming works of art. Each day brings a new expression of their long era together.

When the son visits, he feels this grandeur and sometimes lets it in. His best hope is to lay down pretense and striving in the shade of these giants, and to write a few lines of appreciation.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

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