MISTER DEATH MAKES A PASS
This was not supposed to be a day when he could die.
It was summer on the river, after all. And just a few days before, in the spirit of seasonal optimism, he had launched his Arctic kayak for an ambitious trip: paddling the distance of the Columbia River. If successful, that meant a good twelve hundred miles, no small feat. Staring down the length of this vast and mighty river, dwelling on nasty weather could easily become suspiciously like a bad attitude, naysaying in the face of a task requiring something quite to the contrary: a tremendous show of heart. And so Harvey Golden set off, putting shoulder to paddle.
Traveling by kayak is a distinct intimacy. The paddler rides immediately upon the water's surface, skimming along like a water bug across a pond. That's the thrill of it. But it is also a type of nakedness, a vulnerability to the water's temperament and the concert of elements at play upon the water's face. As Harvey paddled south on the river, the weather was punishing, and it only got worse. Eventually, rain and cold and wind overwhelmed the boat and its passenger. Numbed to the bone and suffering hypothermia, under assault by the wind and wave and rain that stormed through the surrounding canyon walls, Harvey was alone on the violent river. There was not another living soul, nor any chance of outside rescue. He searched for a place—any place—to land his kayak, before the cold overwhelmed him entirely. But the opportunity evaded him again and again.
Spotting an outcropping of basalt shoreline, Harvey struggled and managed to get himself onto the rocks but not the boat, which, as he clung to it, remained in the river, thrashing about in the waves. He desperately needed to get the boat ashore. But with all the provisions and gear the boat weighed over a hundred pounds, and the waves, meanwhile, were breaking onshore, buffeting the boat against the rocks.
"I was standing in the water, shivering like crazy!" Harvey recalls. "I'm trying to hold the boat off of me, trying to reach in and pull stuff out of the boat, and throw them up onto the sage brush." Just then a big wave crashed into the boat. "The wave threw the boat right on me," Harvey moans in recollection. It hit so hard that, for a moment, Harvey thought that all was lost, that the hundred pound boat had broken his legs. "I think it would have been over," he sighed. "Especially with the hypothermia," he says, underscoring the dire necessity to get warm. "I had no way to start a fire."
Harvey's legs were smarting but not broken, and he was eventually able to drag the kayak onto shore. Things were looking up. Except, Harvey was now stranded among the rocks and sagebrush. And, as it turned out, he would continue to be stranded for the next two days. Meanwhile, there was still the matter of his freezing to death. For this, Harvey's solution was simple.
"I got in my sleeping bag. And woke up alive."
ALL ABOUT THE WATER
These days, you can find Harvey safely ensconced in a twelve hundred square foot building, a former grocery store circa 1913, where he is surrounded from floor to ceiling—a twelve-foot ceiling—by kayaks and canoes. With six rows of boats, the accounting totals more than thirty types of boats from all over the world. Even in this small space, it's more boats than one can immediately comprehend. Their shapes are long and slender, with some wider and shorter, yet each displays its own distinct approach to construction. The cockpit openings sometimes swoop gracefully up at the front, guarding against splashing water, while others are trimmed out straight up and down, at right angles, creating a crisp oval aperture.
None of these boats are recreational, per se. Each has its own sensibility and approach to fishing, whaling, and navigating icy water. All of them are designs from a bygone era, for this is a museum, The Lincoln Street Kayak & Canoe Museum. The boats here are historical reproductions of Arctic kayaks and canoes. The museum belongs to Harvey. And every boat in it, save four, he has built with his own hands.
"I like the idea of being around boats and being on the water," says Harvey. His voice is telling and modest. "I'm not like a handmade-wooden-boat snob, or anything like that. Even a two hundred dollar plastic boat is a great way to get out on the water. Kayaking is all about being on the water."
These historical reproductions are based on Harvey's own hard-earned research of the originals. It's data collected from travel research and trips to museums all over the world. A collection process that is more complicated an assignment than one might suspect. Many museums do not have most of their kayaks on display, forcing Harvey to talk his way into museum storage to see and interact with them. When there were no specifications from books or that the museum could supply, Harvey took his own measurements and developed his own specifications and blueprints. And from these specs, he built his boats.
"I've studied two hundred kayaks in museums around the world. And only about fifteen percent of them are on exhibit. So, most of these kayaks in museums are not available for the public to see. There's many types where there's no place in the world that someone could go to a museum and see them, see the form."
Harvey's passion has given birth to something entirely unique. While there is a modest air about this former grocery—the museum is advertised solely by moderately sized, attractive window stencil, and the museum contents, the boats themselves, were created entirely by the drive of a single laborer—what you find after crossing the threshold and passing through the front door is the largest and most diverse collection of traditional Arctic kayak forms in the world.
It's a sight to see.
BOATS, NOVELTIES, PHOTOGRAPHS, AND A PHONOGRAPH
The Lincoln Street Kayak & Canoe Museum is situated on the corner in a residential neighborhood. The lawns and trees, bikes and cars, children playing and joggers puffing, all the sights common to the single-family dwellings on every side, lend to the museum the pleasant quality of a home-cooked meal. The museum itself is an unassuming presence, welcoming. It fits right in.
Guests entering from the street will find themselves standing before kayaks hung one directly above the other on racks. Front and center, as a kind of end-cap to the racks of boats, is a table with a nautical map of the Arctic Regions—with soundings in fathoms and heights in feet. There are two styles of self-guided tour, one quick and the other detailed. Take your pick. Often times, before you can even pick up a tour packet, Harvey has already greeted you from the back of the shop, saying hello and welcoming any questions.
Walking up and down between boats allows you to scan the white placards with black lettering that describe each and every boat. Kayaks are a vehicle of subsistence—an extension of economies not based on money, absence forms of buying and selling. This was true for the Koryak, Chukchi, Unangan (Aleut), Yup'ik, and Iñupiaq/Inuit, and Kalaallit cultures, all of whose kayaks are represented upon the walls. You could say subsistence is in the kayak's DNA. The kayak shells are a wash of brown and tan and black, stretched taunt, looking much like sea mammal hide. But they are in fact either nylon, which has been tinted with powder to appear authentic, or canvas. No dead animals and no cracking and rotting from the Pacific Northwest weather.
Interlarded between the boats are photos and postcards, alongside all manner of curios and novelty. All of it is themed to kayaks, their attending culture, or some seafaring motif. One long running shelf sports a stereoscope, a type of wooden 3-D Viewmaster from the turn of the 19th century. Next to it are a dozen or so slides that can be inserted into the stereoscope, tendering three-dimensional scenes of indigenous people fishing or paddling kayaks and canoes. Here and there on windowsills are models of both mechanical and sailing ships: barks, steamers, and hybrids that fuse wind and steam. In the spaces between boats, the walls sponsors framed and unframed photos and prints of paintings, in color and in black and white, depicting kayaking on the ocean, lake, and river. The overall suggestion is of the epic and the everyday of boating across time.
At the back of the room are wooden calipers, and blueprints for boats, hanging neatly on the wall. There is a drafting table, several glass display cases with model boats, and a gorgeous old wood-cabinet phonograph player—a Strand, circa 1921— that is butt up against a large wooden desk. Stationed before the desk is a single dark wooden chair. That's where you'll find Harvey.
The desk is the cynosure of the room, its soul. This is Harvey's writing desk. For in the midst of all the research, sailing, and hands-on construction, lives a writing project and a writer. For years and years now, Harvey has researched ancient kayak design; built replicas from those designs; christened each replica with a trial by water; evaluated the boats' performance and handling; and recorded the results for his book. The result is not only this exceptional museum of unique crafts, but also to be found here, perched at the desk corner on a small painting easel, is a large and handsome and solitary book: Kayaks Of Greenland: The History and Development of the Greenlandic Hunting Kayak, 1600-2000. By Harvey Golden.
ON THE ROOF, IN THE LIVING ROOM, ON THE FARM
"I didn't know anything about wood," Harvey says of building his first boat. "I bought mahogany, about the worst choice. It doesn't bend at all!"
Later, Harvey worked in a specialty lumberyard, a place with some eighty types of lumber, where four or five fellow enthusiasts all experimented with boat building.
"Which was kinda weird, cause I build boats outta junk wood," explains Harvey. Arctic tundra does not support the growth of trees; wood is scarce. Traditional kayak building is based on what you can find, driftwood and salvage. In the same spirit, Harvey builds his kayaks out of what he can find. Unable to afford wood when starting out, Harvey discovered that shipping pallets, spent two-by-fours, and other free recycled woods were perfect sources for kayak construction.
By the time he had mastered kayak building, and his historic reproduction project was in full swing, Harvey had developed a serious problem. Storage. Too many kayaks and no place to put them. Before the museum, Harvey had fourteen boats in his living room, fifteen in the garage, ten on the roof of his house, ten in a neighbor's garage, and three or four out on the coast at a friend's farm. The outdoor boats got weathered, squirrels would "poop in them." There were many issues. Among them, Harvey was forced to stop building full size boats because of space restrictions, and had taken to constructing small models.
"All these boats have been at my house for many years," says Harvey, gesturing toward the museum's full inventory. "And I've had people coming for many years over to my house to see them. Yeah, people from Germany, from France." All over. And when guests arrived, they would get a tour of the garage, living room, and roof. Then they'd get to meet the neighbors. Something had to be done.
MUSEUMS ARE WEIRD
While storage was reason enough to seek out another space, as far back as the 1990s, Harvey had a dream. And over time, that dream grew with the number of boats. "Having built all these, I want to display them," he thought. "I want people to see them. Even people who could care less about kayaks, they might appreciate the design variations. And the history."
Why not a museum? It was a strange thought, but a museum made a lot of sense. It gave an organizing principle to boat display. It was educational. It offered storage. It could also be a place to write. "I've always wanted to have a gallery—or just to exhibit all these boats—in some interpretative setting. Just to highlight all their variations… How powerful that is."
And so, in November of 2012, Harvey Golden opened the doors to a museum. His museum.
"I don't know," he says of the finished product, gazing about the space. "It's weird having a museum. Don't get me wrong, I love museums. But there's something odd about them."
For a hard-core kayakers like Harvey, just being on the water means something a bit different than for the rest of us. Indeed, what Harvey deems entertainment with a boat might be considered somewhat more off-balanced than, say, owning a museum. While he nearly met his maker that day on the Columbia, Harvey has been in much worse, call it extreme, weather conditions. Conditions he met with enthusiasm, and which he deemed no less than "exhilarating!" For instance, a hurricane.
The high point of Harvey's paddling life came when he entered the Greenland annual kayak championship, on its first year accepting outside nations into this formerly national competition. One day, the championship was cancelled because of hurricane conditions on the ocean fjord. So a group of contestants—mostly Greenlanders and some folks from the contest—thought it was perfectly good weather to go out for a paddle. The forecast was for seventy mile-an-hour winds and ten foot swells. And among the paddlers was Harvey.
"The seas in these fjords really stack up—ten foot rolling seas," says Harvey of that day. "And, um, you're down in the trough—you're out of the wind—for probably sixty percent of the time. But it's topping these troughs in these light boats. You feel the wind hitting the boat as it's coming off the wave. And half your boat is in the air. You feel like it's gonna get blown off and back—and I've heard of that happening. And that's pretty exciting!"
Historically, Greenlanders would hunt seals with harpoons during storms. "Maybe not seventy mile-an-hour winds, but they would still be out stalking seals in it."
From a kayaker's perspective, the most dangerous part of such a day is carrying the boat down to the water. "You have this twenty-five pound boat and you're trying to carry it in seventy mile an hour winds and that—" Harvey pauses. "Is hard! It can be like a kite."
Listening to Harvey and watching him, you see someone quite calm, easy going, and reasonable. It makes you wonder about what drives each of us, that human spirit.
Harvey laughs. "I didn't take any good pictures that day."
KEEPING WATER OUT
There's a stubby boat at the museum, clearly not a kayak. It looks like a wooden washtub. "It's exactly the same function," Harvey declares, amused. "Only, it keeps the water out instead of in."
A few minutes later, a patron comes through the door of the museum. After wandering up and down the aisles for a bit, oohing and ahhing, the man addresses Harvey. First, the guest asks about the skins. Harvey directs him to the only boat that has an actual animal hide covering.
"My biggest nightmare is a boat with real skin," says Harvey in a voice typical of him, sweet and relaxed, yet smartly edged, obliquely humorous. Reflective but not shy. Pointing his finger along the deerskin, he continues: "It's not as good as some I've seen in the museum."
"Well—but you did it!" the visitor remonstrates, affirming Harvey's good work. "What is the germ of this?" the man continues, indicating with a nod of his head the entire kayak collection, which fills the room.
"Must feel good to be surrounded by your work."
"Yah. Yah… Sometimes I can't believe I've built all this."
When not entertaining museum guests, Harvey is at work on his second book, Kayaks Of Alaska. He is hoping it will take less time than his first, which consumed a good eight years. After that will be a third book, Kayaks Of Canada. Looking around the museum, one can hardly imagine where he'll find the room. Every book could be its own museum. This building is only book one. Yet, for all the demonstrable years of labor that has gone into the project, Harvey seems to take it all in stride, almost with a shrug.
A few days later, someone pointedly asked, why start a kayak museum? Harvey paused to snicker. Looking at the floor, he smiled to himself. Then, looking up, beaming, he had only this to say.
"It was either a museum or a bonfire."
Our story begins with the smell of coffee in the morning. Ahhh.
Only, the coffee is cold and no one is sipping it. As a matter of fact, everything about this scene is wrong. There is no warm coffee mug, no croissant on a serving plate, no stained paper napkin. The coffee itself is sloshing about in a brown ceramic jar that might better store dried linguine. Oh, and here's the kicker, yo. The coffee is sloshing because it's being dipped into by a paintbrush, from which the dripping liquid is then slathered, in steady strokes, back and forth, up and down, onto a large sheet of bone white watercolor paper.
"For the most part, there's not really a set plan for laying down the coffee," says Ray, the wielder of the brush. "There"s a lot of push and pull with the coffee."
Ray is a comic strip artist, a good-sized fellow, his chest filling out a black tee that shouts out Chi City in red letters. That's Frank Miller for Chicago City. That's hometown to Ray. The man is fun loving, easy to smile, thoughtful with an elliptical inflection to his reflections, sneaking in the verbal punches. He's a stone illustrator. But an illustrator who also takes a serious shot at painting. And has something to offer. The magic mixture in the jar is paint. Well, acrylic paint and coffee. Drip coffee—to be exact. Though, sometimes, Ray gets his painting going on with nothing but coffee grounds, for texture, like an Old Master sculpting with oils, thick and silty. Ray dips the brush once again into the jar and daubs off the excess onto the lip.
"Some areas are a little more blotchy, some are more faded," Ray continues, lazily watching the paint roll about. He looks amused. And there's that smile again, opening a curtain on those ample incisors. "I just look and see what I wanna do."
Ray insists that a piece of advice be inserted into his story. To wit: "In the wee hours of the morning—between two and four A.M.—make sure that the actual cup of coffee that is keeping you on the work is completely separate from the coffee you mix with acrylic."
The paper is tacked to a reclining cork bulletin board, the kind you'd use to pin up your utility bill. Clearly an improvisation, it works to perfection: the paper stays put. The liquid washes sweetly over the surface, pooling in some places, escaping in long streaks across the paper in others. As the paint runs away in zigzagging rivulets, Ray addresses them with sharp, chimney-sweep strokes of bristles. Increasingly, the entire paper takes on the appearance of an overcast day. A day of brown haze. And leather clouds.
THE KNOCKOUT PUNCH
Ray attacks art like a boxer in the ring, and he's not hanging on the ropes. It's a big swing coming at yah from the right. Or is it the left? Too late! Ray admires the knockout punch. It's an approach to style, and Ray takes pride in an artistic count-to-ten, the moment when his work has dropped you to the canvas. POW! Yet, as a black man, he's uneasy about what images this might bring to other people's minds, whites in particular. Ray shifts from side to side, restlessly contemplating the notion until, at last, he comes up with idea, and begins to imitate the daft thoughts of someone concerned about a black man whose art is deeply inspired by notions of boxing.
"What's really in the mix of his paintings?" Ray exclaims, mimicking a fearful person, paranoid about his motivations. "What am I plotting? —The revenge of the black man! Yeah, we'll come back, and come back strong. Not Folgers Choice!" Everyone laughs, heads titling back, including his white audience. Ray laughs, the black man, a full row of dazzling teeth. Yet, you can tell that he's thought about this—thought seriously about this. And wishes it weren't so. "You know—I probably shouldn't even say," Ray continues. "I don't even know if people know I'm a black man. I don't wanna put any more attention on myself than that."
The thing is, we're off-topic. Hell, a knockout might come from the painting's fragrance alone. Ray isn't using Folgers Choice in these painting, that's for sure; it's something stronger. Every one of them brims with speed and energy and anger and frustration and fire: figures leap, palms arch, fingernails spike out, humans fling themselves into the air. A halo of serious electricity sparks off a man wielding a hammer… or, possibly, it's a T-square. No doubt about it, Ray's a stone illustrator, the real thing. In spite of the strong evidence of the painting's visual punch, Ray gives us a whiff from the ceramic jar, as an example of just what the smell can do. It stinks. Lord how it stinks, like a coffee imbibing skunk. And Ray has a few words about that, about the possibility of that the smell alone could knock out an art gallery patron.
"Like my self-portrait—the one with the huge tongue lashing. Just the sight of that piece," says Ray, figuring rightly that the punch goes way beyond the fragrance. "Yet, having smelled what was used to make that painting in the first place! It is bold!"
A DIARY OF EMOTIONS
Our story continues with emotions.
That ceramic jar is not the only way in which Ray is mixing up coffee. Ray's job is in the mix, too. You see, he's in the coffee business: no surprise there. Day to day, year after year, you could say that, as a barista, the experience of coffee has gotten under his skin. It has become part of him. Far from a gimmick, painting with coffee is a manifestation of Ray's inner conflicts, about life and art and work. And, naturally, about coffee.
"The coffee art is mostly depictions of me," says Ray. "They're symbolic depictions of what I'm doing, or what I'm going through. You know, when I'm working in this field."
Crazed inner conflict reigns in a Ray Johnson picture. Rather than actual moments, the scenes are caricatures—although real people may, at times, actually star in them. Even the security of work, the steady paycheck—things that make the job for most people—can rub Ray the wrong way. It all gets limned in the art. While his day job has kept Ray afloat financially, and he appreciates that—appreciates it a lot—at the same time, it's been an Achilles heel, even a crutch. As Ray puts it, it causes him to just get-by, and not focus on the inevitable, which is the art. And the artist.
In this way, while Ray's paintings are inflected with an illustrator's sensibility, a sensibility of caricature and high style, fedora hats and weaponized feet, these paintings are personal and raw, portraying genuine feeling in surreal settings. The coffee paintings are a diary, really. For Ray, a diary of emotions.
"It's a conflict that I deal with every time I start my shift to the end of my shift. The conflicts with the company, the customers, myself. It's just a constant struggle."
In the diary of emotions, even the small scenes have significance. Serving people who don't know your background, and who may see you mostly as a tool, Ray wonders, what are you suppose to say to them? And more profoundly, what do you represent? When a customer approaches the counter, and Ray greets them with a "Hi, how are you?", somewhere in the back of his mind, he wonders about all this. Does that customer really care? Do I care? The whole thing can feel like a shuck, writ large.
"If people haven't been on both sides of the counter, they can't relate. And they doubly can't relate, based on not being a minority, or someone of ethnic background, or sexual orientation. You're not in the know, you're not in the know. Experience is everything."
With each shift at work, Ray is mixing himself into coffee every bit as much as he mixes acrylic with coffee in his ceramic jar. After a fashion, his life has become one big sheet of watercolor paper, awaiting his special paint, the touch of brush, and the day's new subject.
"I like engaging my customers. I mean, I don't have to make them dinner, but I like to understand personalities and know how they work. As an artist, engagement is an important part of the work, of your character. And that's what makes a storyteller, whether that person is a writer or a illustrator or a fine artist."
There's a light irony in all this. In a manner of speaking, Ray's painting series is coffee that is commenting on—well— Coffee.
DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME
Our story ends with comics, a samurai sword, and something like sanity.
Ray's studio is filled with pencil sketches and comics that are lying about or pinned to the easel. A long horizontal painting, newly minted, stretches across the art table, drooping over the sides.
"I like how crazy I look!" Ray exclaims excitedly about the coffee series. "I like that I can look at myself in a different light. And that it's naturally related to a place that I work. And that I'm using a medium that is foreign to the typical medium that artists use. I'm not saying I'm the first, or that I'll be the last. But having that combination: I think is pretty rad."
When all is said and done, however, what keeps Ray sane is comics. Comics, comics, comics. In part, the sanity comes from being skilled. A fellow illustrator had this to say about Ray from Chi City. "Even though I've seen a lot people do comics—that was like my first love—you can tell when somebody has a unique angle. Even in a very common job—some people do backgrounds, some do ink, some do coloring—you can tell when someone is just trying to do their own thing. That's what caught my attention about Ray." High on the list of keeping Ray on the up and up is also his friends at Chibi Comics PDX. These are the very same folks who coaxed Ray to Portland. For better or worse. At Chibi Comics, Ray co-plots and illustrates a comic called Meanwhile, and an anthology called Ash Can. And he is frank about what it does for him.
"Chibi Comics helps keep my coffee on the canvas, you could say."
BLACK AND WHITE
Ray wanders outside his apartment with us. He has put down the paintbrush, and in its place Ray is wielding a samurai sword, with every intention of giving us—and the camera—a demonstration. He's obviously feeling a bit self-conscious, but we egg him on. After several quick action poses, in which, each time, he lacks heart and falls immediately out of character, Ray finally busts out ---moments with the sword that look seriously legit. Now, now. Take it easy folks, the man is simply horsing around. Though… Ray is not taking any chances. Striking a samurai pose and holding it, sword held high over his head, Ray turns to his two white companions, and, emphatically, has this to say.
"You folks gotta vouch for me. Cause I'm a black man with a sword in this neighborhood!"
She watches the figure that is her father, her second x chromosome, as he picks off his pinky toenail. Sketchbook on his lap, six pillows surrounding his body, one foot propped up for easier access to the pesky nail and its undeserving smallest toe. She watches as the details in the drawings of his plain, black sketchbook grow more and more intricate. The smallest of black lines that dip into one another, an ocean of defining lines, forming the images that he will never explain, no matter how many times she asks the question "but what does it mean?"
The stacks of plain black sketchbooks fill the closet of her parent's suburban home, each house its neighbor's twin. She wonders if the other twin homes have black stacks in their walk-in closets. Her father works at WordPerfect, Edward Jones, Convergys, occupations that hold no creative value. He keeps his creations a secret, an extension of himself too sacred to share, too curious to let others decide whether or not it is "what they are looking for at this time." He teaches her that the world and its doings are determined by the workings of her mind, that the circumstances surrounding her days are her own canvas. She has the privilege of deciding her life, creating her canvas.
He does not think before he draws.
When pen meets paper, the images that appear are the workings of his subconscious, a team of hand and mind, each working with the other in the production of a varied assortment of lines, letters, blocks of black ink, details that make up a drawing. The drawing that he won't explain to the being that is his daughter.
When she was 14 years old, she felt her home shake. The house, her childhood, was built on a flimsy foundation, never meant for such heavy things. The separation of father and mother left a fog in her memory, stole her father's courage, and was the villain responsible for the man-made earthquake, one that left her suburban home wrecked and emptier than before. But this villainous quake was not finished with her or her scribbling father. The greedy floor-shaker's aftershocks soon followed. A fall from religion, a ruin left where a care-free mind-set was once in motion, and a fight against all that had molded her, were left in its wake.
Years pass, as they do, and she finds the evidence of the quake in her father's plain, black sketchbooks. She remembers her questions, her "but what does it mean"s. The answers are there, as present as the black ink on the paper that fills the sketchbook, finally understood. These are the workings of the man that she wants most to have all the happiness he can carry.
His outlet: sacrilege, humor, vulgarity. Her father's ruined walk-in closet has turned into a clinking, metal storage unit in a no-name Utah town and is now housing books that contain a lifetime. The purest, the rawest, the truest depictions of human experience. The most painful of them, every crack ripping the concrete from the earthquake, all those years ago. The things that he makes, solid and timeless, with his ballpoint pen are his stories. A lifetime in a sketchbook, a daughter's definition.
Opposite Day stars Lester, an animated columnist. He might look primitive, but Lester keeps on eye on the human animal. Each month, Lester makes a report — about the funny business, the niceties, the hypocrisy. About the "dilemma."
In this episode, Lester tells it like it is, folks. I mean, this is it. Don't miss out on some seriously important news.
It is a late Sunday morning two weeks after I interviewed Michael Heald. Heald is the founder of Perfect Day Publishing, a Portland small press that has released some of Portland's most recently acclaimed books. Among those releases is Heald's own Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension, a series of 11 personal essays addressing themes such as inadequacy, hero worship, stunted adolescence, fears of intimacy, and male competition. It is a book of honesty, honest right down to the sad, hilarious, awkward bone.
Why? Because I'm nervous. In fact, I am scared shitless.
It has been two weeks because I have been procrastinating on the task of writing this article. Avoidance might actually be a more accurate word. Why? Because I'm nervous. In fact, I am scared shitless.
Michael and I met for drinks and a chat at Beulahland in SE Portland two days before New Year's Eve. Michael is small, 5' 4" to be exact, in a t-shirt and jeans and always with his trademark Hugh Grant flop. I tower over him at my 5' 6" and heels. I am not intimidated, but I should be. Little do I know, he is about to expose me for the fraud I really am.
Would you like to know why I asked you to do this interview?
Yeah, of course, yeah.
Well, a few reasons. Anytime I can prop Perfect Day, I get to prop my friends. Also, you're a really good interviewee because you are a Chatty Kathy. Both laughing.
I talk even more when I'm drinking. I do have a martini here, anything could happen.
Laughing. The last reason I wanted to interview you is because I'm gearing up to start interviewing people that I don't know and I'm not quite ready to do that yet. I thought you'd be a good transition person.
Totally. The first time I interviewed someone was [author] Jon Raymond. When he agreed to let me interview him, I was like "Ooo, I'm going to hang out with Jon Raymond this weekend!" On the one hand, he is so approachable and humble. I did my homework and had like 15 questions about his book. It was so awkward, even though we know each other. For you to interview me, it seems appropriate. You're not even remotely star-struck.
Laughing. It is always a little bit awkward.
Good! I'm sure it will go better for you.
A lot of the reason I was interested in interviewing you has to do with my thoughts about the Portland literary scene. It feels like the bastard child of the Portland art world. You know, if you pick up a copy of the WW or the Mercury, the thing that always gets attention is the bands, always the music. To a lesser extent, sometimes visual arts. What is your perspective on that?
I want to go on the record saying that I am very fortunate to have gotten such positive feedback from the local papers. So I don't want to talk shit on the weeklies. But I do wish there was more coverage of books. It probably seems like I've gotten more attention than I actually have because there's very few write-ups of the literary scene. So when I get a write up, I stand out, whereas if you're in a band, there are so many write ups that you're sifting through like 20 bands a week and many just never make it through the noise.
That said, most of the Portland literary scene is super connected and that is a powerful thing. People know each other. The high brow, the low brow. A guy like Brian Ellis, who comes out of the slam scene, is running a series called Now's Ours where Martha Grover's prose sits alongside an experimental poet like Donald Dunbar. There is a lot of mixing like that. You can go to like 3 readings a week if you want. And at each one, you see a lot of the same faces, but from all these different genres, unlike at music shows. I think that is a strength. Someone like Kevin Sampsell knows everyone from fiction and nonfiction writers to poets to all the folks in small press and publishing. There's just no one person like that in music scene, someone who knows everyone at every level.
Also I think because there isn't any money involved in these events, unlike gigging out in the music scene, people are actually more approachable and eager to perform. People like Vanessa Veselka or Zach Schomburg or Jon Raymond don't see themselves as being "big names." They're not looking for a cut of the door, or an appearance fee. They just want to be part of it because it sounds fun.
As Michael name-drops his writerly friends and associates, I notice my first twinge of anxiety. I start to feel dumb, un-researched. I realize how little I actually know about Portland's writing community since I opted out of it several years ago to pursue becoming a therapist. I have not even read Michael's book. Although, I admitted that when we sat down, I realize it is going to be a problem. I persist.
But how much of that do you think is about how the different scenes are structured. For example, because there is so much attention on the music scene, people are so much more likely to think of themselves as able to "make it" under the limelight of the media.
There are people who go to the readings who are only interested in getting published and I sincerely wonder if they will keep going to readings if they don't get any traction. It's a totally valid reason to go to a reading to meet publishers and other writers and try get a leg up. But if that doesn't happen, you start to feel bitter about the whole thing because it's supposed to be inclusive. I don't feel bitter because I'm involved and I'm benefitting, but I do wonder about the people who are out in the writing scene because they want to get published. I really hope some of them consider starting their own small presses if they can't find anyone to publish them.
My anxiety mounts. I grasp that Michael's Chatty Kathy-ness might be unmanageable. I mean, is he really talking ad nauseam about his relationships with all these writers? He won't respond to my questions directly or he wanders in the course of the answer to non-related subjects. His responses are soliloquies. I think to myself "He would have made a good politician." I think to myself "I have no control over this interview. Fuck."
So how does Perfect Day Publishing fit into the Portland literary scene?
It may have helped that Lisa [Wells, author of Yeah. No. Totally.] and I didn't know anyone and we were so hell-bent on gaining recognition. Together, we were just not going to let it be a failure. So we started organizing. We set up This!Fest, that was at The Woods and wound up getting really connected with other writers.
Lisa's book was about Portland but it was written from the perspective of someone who felt invisible in Portland at the time. I think that's what made it powerful. It wouldn't have been the same if Lisa had known all these people. I think we were both like, "We don't know what it takes to make it as a writer, so just go for it."
It's also just her personality that shaped what Perfect Day is today. She just has a sense of confidence. She was willing to be the first writer on an unknown press. I honestly had no desire to put my work out at the beginning. I wanted to see what would happen with her book.
So what was your process and thinking in starting Perfect Day?
It's just a one book at a time thing. It will keep going but I have no idea what's coming next.
What keeps me from becoming overwhelmed by it is just focusing on each book as it comes out. I get really emotionally involved in it. I want to see it be successful. Like with my book, it's going to take a lot of time and effort for me to promote it. I'm really hoping that Martha's [Grover, author of One More for the People] will gain more traction. That's the one book that hasn't connected for whatever reason with the masses of Portland, although it has gotten nods from media elsewhere like the BBC. To me, it's spectacularly good and important and I would rather fight for that book to give it a chance before putting resources into a new one. I mean bands put out an album every two or three years and put everything they have got behind it. So to me, putting out one book a year seems reasonable to give it every shot it can possibly have.
When I started Perfect Day, I was more interested in starting something with the feeling of a record label, rather than a normal publishing house. I want Perfect Day to be a brand. Like whenever a book comes out, it should feel like an event. You know that you are getting something pretty raw and uncomfortable and young.
Young in the sense of what?
The writer, the voice.
Finally! Michael gives me foothold in what, for me, has started to feel like a free-fall. A serious question, a "journalistic" question. At thirty minutes into the conversation, I start to feel like myself again.
Funny you bring that up. One of the frustrations that I have had with literature in America is that over the last several decades, there is a narrow range of the voice that gets published. More specifically, the voice of the misanthropic, middle class, white, male gets repeated over and over again and I am curious how do you see Perfect Day set against that backdrop?
Well, that's sounds like my book. Both laughing. The piece I really consider the book is "This is Part of Something Bigger Called Small." It is very deliberate in highlighting how ignorant I was of my privilege in college. I grew up with money. My perspective was totally blind. I didn't realize how good I had it. I could never write from another experience. I hear what you're saying and I do get bored of that kind of thing: yet another disgruntled white man. But I do find if the voice is compelling and it feels like there are real risks being taken, it doesn"t matter what the subject matter is or the author's background. The quality of the writing should take precedent. That can happen from any perspective.
My experience of Perfect Day is that women's voices are prominent. I don't always see that in what gains notoriety in American literature.
As far as publishing women, I mean, Lisa and Martha were just my two favorite writers and I had a chance to publish. It occurred to me later that maybe that was unique but it shouldn't be. I have responded for a long time to strong female voices and personalities. People like Martha, Lisa, like Lena Dunham [from Girls], they understand what it means to be an artist right now as well as anybody. They happen to be women and maybe there is some fascinating conclusion to be made about that, but for me, I just respond to their work more than I respond to anyone else's right now.
There is something very honest and very vulnerable about their work. I also think that your book is like that too. The stories reveal a lot of layers of you. I'm curious what inspired you to put yourself out there in that way?
I wrote fiction for a decade and anytime I wrote, I was writing pretty close to my own experience anyway. You make it a little sexier or more stylish or whatever. Everyone would autobiograph-ize it anyway or assume that it was my fantasy. Maybe some it was my fantasy. But I felt really uncomfortable being what felt like psychoanalyzed on my work. It's a relief to write non-fiction. People can interpret it however they want. It's all right there for them to judge.
Also, my fiction was about vulnerable shit too. It's not like it was historical epics. It was about young people having problems with each other.
Laughing. Not like bodice-rippers.
Not at all. I wrote the book really fast and it's likely that in a year or so I will look back and regret a lot but I'm ok with that. The book was also really therapeutic for me. I write about having panic attacks and it became a way to acknowledge the problem and talk about it. You know talking about a problem seems to make it better.
Sarcastically. Obviously I don't know anything about that, being a therapist and all.
I stopped journaling when I started to write this. I used to journal a lot. I used this book to help me process through a lot. I thought, "What if I can use this book to come clean about some really neurotic stuff and be ok with it." It always feels better when I can say something out loud. It was a matter of writing it down without being masturbatory about it. I guess that verdict is up to the reader.
Do the books so far published by Perfect Day seem to speak some truth about our generation? Is that why they are not masturbatory? Like they are trying to say something about what we in our millennial/Gen-Y-ness are struggling with?
Pauses and looks at me like I'm crazy. Um, yeah.
Pretending that I don't notice that I totally fucked up that question. What was the turning point that made you want to switch to writing autobiographical essays instead of fiction?
He graciously follows. I remember the moment exactly. I was in the publishing program at Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC in SE Portland). I went into the program intent to[sic] write a second novel, this vague scary idea. They gave me an assignment to write a braided essay right about the time I was reading a David Foster Wallace essay. I was like "Man! I'm working on a novel. I don't want to write an essay." When I read the DFW essay, it blew my mind and ended up writing the Stephen Malkumus piece one morning ["Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension"]. I haven't looked back.
It was just really exciting to realize I had all this material that I could just deal with directly and didn't have to fictionalize. I mean I make up dialogue, but remain true to what happened. I'm not a revolutionary for saying that. Everyone makes up dialogue. In non-fiction, what matters is that you remain true to what happened.
This can even be true in profile journalism. Wink, wink.
Every writer has their process or approach. For example, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about being a mule sort of dragging along every day. How would you describe your creative process?
I wake up every morning and read in bed. Then I make a pot of coffee and sit down. Ideally, I'm at my desk for 3 or 4 hours on a good day. Doing it everyday makes it much less scary. Typically, I don't put in more than a few hours a day.
Michael says something about his writing process that he asks me to strike from the record. He wants to know about the audience of the magazine, if it might offend them against him. He does this throughout the interview. This on the record, this off the record. Having never even considered this on or off business before, I hope I can keep it straight.
I often reread my work late at night. It's important to see it with fresh eyes. There is just a rhythm that I'm looking for. Poets are more extreme about the perfection of each word. I am looking for the sound and feeling over the specific wording.
The most important thing is to keep moving forward. Sometimes, you can get intimidated by something that you want to be really good. I tend to be really hard on myself in the generative phase in order to, when I sit down to write, write clean and well and beautifully.
Do you feel like you're productive during your 3-4 hours per day? Or do you sometimes just sit down as a matter of course.
95% of my work as a writer has felt like a chore. I think that the book has the intensity it has because I felt stressed out about finishing it. I knew I had to do it. Also I had some deadlines on my head to have some pieces completed for online publishing. My ideal is to be able to enjoy the process rather than feeling like it's a pain.
Yeah, I get that. I don't consider myself a writer like you are a writer, but if there is a piece that is important to me that I am working on, I do sometimes sit down with a sense of dread.
It's important to have a sense of the end. It helps to keep the momentum going.
My inner-voice is shouting, "Parallel process, much?"
I remember once we had a conversation in which I told you that what I love about writing is the ability to pull into the present moment all the affect and context into the present action. I'm curious, what are some of your favorite things about writing?
As a reader, when I'm in the middle of a really good book, it changes my entire day. I am more willing to stay in at night. It's like a sense of security. If you have that right book in your backpack, no matter where you are, you can open it and know that you're going to be in someone else's world. It's one of the great ways of feeling connected. I used to just gobble shit up. I'd be done with a book in 2 days. Sadly, I haven't had the chance to read that way lately.
As a writer, especially about this book, getting feedback about my work is really significant for me. I feel less alone. It's really intense to write about yourself. But the end result is that a lot of people, who have had trouble acknowledging their insecurities and read my book, get in touch with their own demons.
Maybe I'm overstepping with what you're saying, but as a therapist, obviously my job is to hold people's insecurities. In some way, by putting yourself out there, when people approach you to say "This has been my struggle too," you are making yourself vulnerable to the world and also taking on a lot responsibility.
It is really easy to forget the responsibility that we as artists have. I met this 17 year old kid who goes to Lincoln High School who came out to my reading at Powell's. He says to me "Man, I was really looking forward to going to college before I read your book!" Laughing. Obviously, it was a joke but it's really moving to experience someone else's naked reaction to my work. I really connected with him. I remember being that kid and there are others like him.
But I wonder what do you see as your sense of responsibility to your reader.
I certainly don't want to exaggerate how important I am to them. I hope to engage in a dialog in some way. Maybe by the end of the book, the reader will have a sense of knowing me. But at the same time, I purposefully wrote myself as a character that is a little more of a mess than I am in real life. I feel like my book is the only thing I need to give, aside from some kind of heartfelt response to their gratitude. I don't think about myself as the guardian or therapist of anybody.
The interview is winding down. I have not clearly planned out my exit strategy to end the conversation. Yet another example of my unpreparedness. I feel like the worst former girl scout ever. The motto, "Be Prepared," ringing in my ears. I eventually tell him I have enough and stop tape. But I don't have enough. Our interview is so all over the map that I already know I have no idea what my angle is going to be.
Michael and I keep talking, our respective anxieties vibrating off one another. The conversation veers toward a subject he has a lot of energy around. He tells me to pull out the tape again. I have long since lost a sense of control over this interview. I do it. It seems as if Michael wants to confess something.
Oh wait, you should get this. I start recording. I don't even have internet at home so I have to spend a lot of time at the public library doing Perfect Day business. I also don't have a smart phone. I know this is less and less normal.
Ok, how did you even come to the decision that you should not have internet at home? To help you write?
Umm, partially to write but also because I felt like my internet behavior was becoming harmful. Too many hours just free associative googling. I use the IPRC heavily, sometime 15-20 hrs per week in addition to the library. I am at the library next to all sorts of people. I'm doing business but the person next to me …
Are they masturbating? I know that's a problem at the downtown library.
Laughing. No, thankfully. But they usually look homeless. People spend a lot of time at the library watch YouTube videos. My internet usage it highly structured, especially since I only have one hour when I'm at the library.
You know I want to know about what you were doing before on the internet. Laughing.
It wasn't that bad. Makes a YIKES face. I mention it in the first essay, a lot of looking up old girlfriends and friends.
Like emotional cutting.
Yes, yes. I was also doing a lot of time on ESPN.com. I also spent a lot of time on music review sites, like Pitchfork. I don't even know what they like anymore
Yeah, I rely more now on local media. For the better, I think. But I do have to say, sometimes Aaron Miller, Perfect Day's graphic designer, gets annoyed with me because I have to travel to the library or coffee shop to do anything.
Can we go back to the emotional cutting thing? I work a lot with emotional cutting, working with eating disorders. Physiologically, it looks like an addictive process. The arousal level starts high and as you look at picture after picture, it temporarily reduces. But as soon as you're done, the guilt and disgust about doing it just spike the arousal level again.
And then you're right back to doing it.
Yeah, but without technology I have found other ways to emotionally cut. It's not like I don't do it. I'll do things like send texts or be really demanding with other people. It's when having that good book is even more valuable. The idea of sitting alone in my apartment for an entire night, even with a book, is challenging. It's even worse when you have Facebook tell me this person is at some event. Then I'm like "Maybe I'll go to that event after all." Both laughing because we both know that urge too well.
Michael and I start just talking again. I have given up on trying to make anything happen with this interview and settled into my complete inadequacy as an interviewer. I don't know what the hell I am doing but I have at least concluded one thing: I am not ready yet to interview people I don't already know. The grace my subjects, like Michael, offer is greatly appreciated.
Michael starts to question me, first slowly, then like rapid fire. I laugh about him turning the interview on me. He asks me about Eugene, where I live now. He asks me about my experience when I was more involved in Portland's writing community. Finally, we settle on music.
I think metal is the next big thing in Portland.
Well, I think it's the style. The whole bearded lumberjack thing will end up giving way to a more rock n roll look. I work with metal heads and I like how they look.
I'm going to make that the tag line of this article. Laughing.
I think there is an actual authenticity to their lives though that's not really there with the people who want to look like lumberjacks. I think things will give way to a more rock n roll look. This city, at its heart, is a rock and roll town.
You have so much more faith in this town than I do.
When you strip away the people who want to make Portland LA, the pockets of annoying style, this city is very poor. It's very white and metal is a very white, blue collar thing.
But Michael, here is the problem with your theory: If metal was the next big thing, your book would not have gotten any traction. Because the thing about metal is like "You're fucking doing it! You're going for it." The thing about Portland is that Portland is afraid to actually do it. They wanna do it. They sort of do it.
In your book, you really put it out there. You really do it. But what you're talking about is being afraid to do it, and that's why people connect with it.
It's true, Michael. I read your book. That's why I connect with it, and although I live in Eugene now, I'm as Portland as they come.