I was walking down the festive boulevards of Downtown Santa Cruz recently when I noticed local writer/long-time raconteur Bruce Bratton sitting outside a local coffeeshop. I decided to stop and say hello. Bruce worked at Good Times back in the day, when the day spanned the 1970s, all of the 1980s and some of the 1990s. He now boasts a popular local online portal at brattononline.com.
Bruce and I chatted for a bit.
Bruce: “Say, I hear that intern of yours worked out really well.”
Me: “Yes. Ambitious. Eager.”
Bruce: “A good thing.”
Me: “I suppose so, yes.”
Truthfully, I was actually bit envious. The young lad still had a full head of hair (oh wait, so do I) but he had dashed off to teach English in Argentina. Meanwhile, here I still remained, among the Santa Cruz masses—creative and arty; shoed and shoeless; washed and unwashed; preneurial and entrepreneurial—pondering my mood swings, my fate and the state of the empty Rittenhouse Building. (Which, really, is wonderfully selfless of me.)
Bruce: “How is your family?”
Me: “Good. My mother is coming to visit.”
Bruce: “Your Polish mother?”
Me: “That’s the one.”
Bruce: “You write about being Polish and your Polish family a lot.”
Me: “I do?”
Bruce (smiling): “Yes. Some people joke—take bets if you’ll mention being Polish in your column each week.”
Me (eyes widening): “They do?”
Bruce: “Well, sure.”
Is there any way I can cash in on these bets? Let’s discuss.
My Polish family.
I suppose I have referenced them quite a bit over my 13-year tenure as GT editor (without taking a single prescription med, although by the time we reach the end of this article together … who knows?).
Now, for those of you who have just hit 13 years of age, welcome. We’ve been waiting for you to spring into early adulthood and begin changing the world for the better. So much lies in your hands now. To use Princess Leia vernacular: “You’re our only hope.”
Let’s not get off track.
I walked away from Bruce pondering something: Why is it that I write about my Polish family to the extent that I do? Not that I think it’s a bad thing. I am, after all, in the thick of penning a memoir about their World War II survival story and how the emotional ripple effects of Stalin linger on, but prior to embarking into that emotionally delicious yet thoroughly uncomfortable roller coaster ride, I’ve often referenced my clan—my people, my posse, my tribe.
There is something about writing about one’s own tribe that is a bit therapeutic, after all. (To which I’d now like to publicly say: Thanks for saving me tons of money in therapist fees.)
The following week, an interview with Sherman Alexie literally landed in my lap. (Fine. I did work at achieving it, but it sounds so much better the way I just wrote it.)
Alexie, as many people already know, is the award-winning, prolific writer who draws on his memorable experiences as a Native American coming into his own on the Spokane Indian Reservation. His bestselling books, and books of essays, include “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, “Smoke Signals,” “Reservation Blues,” “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” and “War Dances,” among others—the latter nabbed the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Last year, Alexie released “Blasphemy,” a national book award winner that houses a stellar amount of new and selected works.
The book’s paperback release gets some play this month when Alexie hits town for a Bookshop Santa Cruz event on Sept. 30 at Santa Cruz High School.
Ever curious about an “artist’s” evolution, I, like that damn intern that dashed off to Argentina to help that lovely tribe, was eager to gain more knowledge. In this case, I wanted to know more about Alexie’s “process”—the point from which observation or experience morphs into inspiration, and may later spill onto the page. So, I asked him.
Me: “What makes you write?”
Sherman: “Oh … books. I am sitting here in my office at home [Seatle] and I am looking at, my God, 3,000 books. So, really, I want to be part of this. This is my world. Honestly, this is the tribe I truly belong to. You are member of my tribe if you have at least 100 books in your house. In your house—not on your Kindle.”
Me: “Thank you for saying that.” [13-year-olds, please take note: words exist off- screen, too.]
I was curious about when the man knew he needed to express himself through writing.
Me: “So, when did you know? Like—really know?”
Sherman: “I didn’t even know Indians were writers. I was a book nerd all of my life. But I didn’t even see a piece of writing by an Indian until I was junior in college. And so, it was pretty immediate. I read a couple of poems by Indians and it was, ‘Oh, I want this. I want to be this.’”
Me: “Is it the thing that makes you most happy?”
Sherman: “No. And it shouldn’t be. It’s a great job and it’s a great thing to be. I’m happiest when I am getting ready to play basketball or when I am playing basketball.”
Basketball. My brother loved playing basketball. Chubby Polish kid, I … not so much. I felt awkward in the group; uncomfortable in my own skin. I wanted to run off the court and hide. But for Mr. Alexie, it’s nirvana.
Me: “What is it about playing basketball that you love so much?”
Sherman: “Well it’s my meditation. You don’t think of anything else except being on the court, and you don’t think of being there if you are playing well. Fun for me is getting away from my own damn brain.”
Me: (heart leaping, ever hopeful at the thought): “Tell me—how is that for you?”
Sherman: “The only way I have ever done it is through sports. When it comes to meditating, I just fall asleep. Maybe (for you) it’s something outside of all of that … outside of writing and outside of fitness. There’s got to be something that kills your brain for a minute at a time.”
In these times, few things actually do.
Me: “I have to say, I appreciate what you have said previously … that the end game of ‘tribalism’ was on 9/11.”
Sherman: “Another way of thinking about it is that when you start seeing the world by one idea, one lens; bringing yourself down to one idea of the world, and then being hostile to any other ideas … I mean, fundamentalism is the lack of ideas. Fundamentalism is the singular idea. And tribalism is great. But as soon as I get an inkling that somebody thinks I should behave some way because of some particular aspect of my identity, I run screaming. And that’s from the left and the right. I mean, I am supposed to be a certain kind of liberal, a certain kind of Indian, a certain kind of man. And of course, in many ways, I am typical. But I’m suspicious of those parts of me most. And the thing is, generally, when you are behaving in ways that challenge people’s ideas, then that’s when you get called an asshole or arrogant. Not always—some people are just called assholes.”
I have never been called an asshole. Scratch that. My older brother—somebody from my own tribe—called me that once. It was a long, long time ago. I was a teenager expressing myself, sharing my dreams. He didn’t enjoy it much. That wasn’t the reason why I left my Polish tribe in Chicago for a time. Far from it. (And really, the hole of the ass ought to be revered lest we all acquire colon cancer or cancer of the anus and be forced to send some good energy that way.)
The point is this: So many things take us away from our “tribe” … and so many things pull us back toward it. The threads of the past linger on within us, whether or not we are aware of them. Like unsettled ghosts, they can haunt us and hunt us down; demand our attention; ask us to take a look at something. Perhaps let something go.
In the end, it’s all a game of balance.
A tightrope walk away from there, toward “over there” while remaining “right here.”
It takes a village. A tribe.
Yet. Often we either do it alone—or feel alone doing it.
Me: “What or who has been your brightest influence?”
Sherman: “People? I don’t know. People always disappoint you. I go with ideas.”
Me: “What ideas?”
Sherman: “That the quality of your life is determined by the number of books you read.”
Me: “Tell me—what do you love most about writing?”
Sherman: “Oh man … it’s the only world in which I am in control. When I am writing a book. I am the absolute dictator of my literary world. I hate those writers who do that thing: ‘Oh, my characters took over.’ That’s bullshit.”
Me: “So, you feel most in control when you are in that space?”
Sherman: “Yes. I can do what I want. I can do what my mind ponders.”
Me: “You talk about hoping to reach a blissful place …”
Sherman: “I do?”
Me: “The Bill Moyers interview. The cello. The poem. Wanting to be the cello.”
Sherman: “It’s like a meditation—being played like a cello. But I can’t do it [meditation]. I can’t let the world go.”
Me: “But sports gets you there.”
Sherman: “A lot of spiritual people—and I put that in big 18-inch- wide quotation marks—would call that ludicrous. They would say, ‘no.’ But as an Indian, playing basketball is a lot more sacred and religious than going into a sweat lodge.”
I have never been in a sweat lodge. But I have taken Bikram Yoga for 11 years. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I don’t take prescription meds for my mood swings. (I fear I have outed myself as a mood swinger. Rest assured: I will not parade in panties on a float.)
Does yoga make me more spiritual, I wonder? Well, in the case of Bikram, it certainly makes me more hot. (For the 13-year-olds still reading: I was referring to the heated yoga room and not what remains of my stellar Polish genetic code.)
Is the man I am conversing with “spiritual?” I inquire.
Me: “Do you consider yourself spiritual?”
Sherman: “No. Somewhere between agnostic and atheist.”
Me: “So, what makes your life work best?”
Sherman: “My bipolar medication.”
Me: “When did you come to know you were bipolar?”
Sherman: “I was officially diagnosed three years ago, but I suspected for years. And looking back, I probably always was.”
Me: “What was that like for you—realizing that?”
Sherman: “I started taking meds and 10 days or so later, suddenly, the world was only 73 percent awful.”
Me: “It is something you continually manage?”
Sherman: “Yes. My swings were from not being able to get out of bed to not being able to go to sleep—ever. It went from hiding under the covers for days till I was hallucinating.”
Me: “And yet you have been extremely prolific.”
Sherman: “Yes. I remember all the stories …
Me: “What brings you the most love and joy in life?”
Sherman: “My family—my wife and kids.”
Me: “What has been the most interesting thing you have been learning about yourself lately?”
Sherman: “My therapist said: ‘Self-loathing is just another form of narcissism.”
I’ll have to ponder that during my next trek through Downtown Santa Cruz.
Experience Sherman Alexie at a Bookshop Santa Cruz event at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 30 at Santa Cruz High School, 415 Walnut Ave, Santa Cruz. Cost: $18.50—includes one ticket to the event and one copy of the paperback edition of “Blasphemy.” For more information, visit bookshopsantacruz.com or fallsapart.com.
Six to Watch The fall lit scene is full. Take note of six authors and books to consider.
Kirby Scudder“The Cruz”
Artist Jack of All Trades? You bet, although some may call Kirby Scudder the Pied Piper of Artistic Santa Cruz. Over the last decade, Scudder’s passion for the local art scene has not gone unnoticed. His valiant efforts to raise the level of awareness on what’s unfolding may, one day, become the stuff of legend. But for now, the man wins points for having been able to juggle so many artistic balls over the years—from KUSP radio host to Director of the Santa Cruz Institute of Contemporary Art. “The Cruz” is an exploration of artists in Santa Cruz, and draws upon Scudder’s experience of having worked with and/or interviewed a bevy of creative beasts to observe parallels between the dynamics in larger cultural hubs such as New York and Los Angeles, and those cultural dynamics at work in Santa Cruz. And let’s not forget: Last year, Atlantic Magazine ranked Santa Cruz in the top 10 of the country’s most artistic cities. Scudder is part of making that honor a reality.
7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 25, Bookshop Santa Cruz; bookshopsantacruz.com.
Laurie R. King “The Bones of Paris”
Paris. The Jazz Age. It’s the festive, colorful and lively world that local author, award-winning author Laurie R. King lures readers into in her latest work, “The Bones of Paris.” And for those who know anything about King and her writing style that typically translates into spending quality time with another pageturner. The ever-prolific King, a third generation Californian, has managed to pen more than 23 books since she entered the literary scene back in 1993. (Oh, let’s hear more talk about turning some of her gems into a major motion picture, shall we? And who couldn’t get enough of “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice?”) Whether it’s her May Russell novels or Det. Kate Martinelli reads, this unique mystery writer manages to not only weave together a stellar tale but also leave an indelible imprint on the hearts and minds of her readers. “The Bones of Paris” is the second in her Bennett Grey/Harris Stuyvesant series. In it, P.I. Stuyvesant is assigned to scour Paris in a quest to find missing person Philippa Crosby, a 21-year-old from Boston who has entered the modeling and acting world abroad. Stuyvesant’s investigation leads him toward an eclectic creative posse of writers and artists, some of which use human bones to create their work. King’s recent Bookshop Santa Cruz appearance was a hit. Catch her at Capitola Book Café later this month.
Zach Friend “On Message”
Local authors are coming out by the droves lately but look for Zach Friend, Santa Cruz County Supervisor, to generate interest with “On Message.” The book uses our current era—information overload and all that—as a springboard to address how to craft a compelling narrative for business, marketing, and political campaigns—ones that leave lasting results. Friend culls from his experience being a policy, public affairs and communications expert. It doesn’t hurt that he worked for Barack Obama and John Kerry’s presidential campaigns—or the White House Council of Economic Advisers, the U.S. Senate, Congressman Sam Farr and the Democratic National Committee for that matter.
Jonathan Franzen “The Kraus Project”
This one is bound to be memorable. Viennese satirist Karl Kraus was among “the most penetrating and farsighted writers in Europe” a century ago. Here, Franzen does more than offer his own translations of Kraus but manages to annotate them in the most compelling light. He does so, naturally, by serving up his strong opinions, but also by adding supplementary notes from Paul Reitter, the Kraus scholar. Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann is tossed into the mix as well. Franzen is always a big draw around here. Mark your calendars.
7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 9., Bookshop Santa Cruz; bookshopsantacruz.com.
Hanna Kent “Burial Rites”
Literary debuts are a big thing. But one that is inspired by a true story? Well, that’s more than enough to attract some attention. Hannah Kent’s debut read is already generating buzz for the way it unfolds in such riveting splendor. But take note of the book’s premise: Set in 1929, it chronicles the very last days of Agnes, a young woman accused of murder in Iceland. In a tale set against Iceland’s harsh landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. Better still, it’s a recent Library Journal highlight, which wrote: “”In the company of works by Hilary Mantel, Susan Vreeland, and Rose Tremain, this compulsively readable novel entertains while illuminating a significant but little-known true story. Highly recommended.”
7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5, Bookshop Santa Cruz; bookshopsantacruz.com.
Eric Schlosser “Command and Control”
How do you bridge the nearly-forgotten disaster of epic proportions at a missile silo in a sleepy Arkansas town with the mammoth history and dangers of nuclear weapons? Carefully. But leave it to Eric Schlosser, the bestselling author/investigative journalist behind “Fast Food Nation, “Reefer Madness” and “Chew on This,” to lead the way. “Command and Contro” takes readers through a mindbending “account of accidents, near-misses, extraordinary heroism, and technological breakthroughs.” Destined to be another bestseller.
7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 4, Bookshop Santa Cruz; bookshopsantacruz.com.