Heavy Meta #11: Interview with Allison Hepler

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Kelly and Bryce launch a new season of Heavy Meta, starting off with an interview with Allison Hepler. She’s written a book about McCarthyism and libraries which sounds fascinating. We find out all about it.

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Book Review: Trespassing Across America

Trespassing Across America: One Man's Epic, Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the HeartlandTrespassing Across America: One Man’s Epic, Never-Done-Before (and Sort of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland by Ken Ilgunas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a tough book to figure out how many stars to give. On the one hand, the subject was very interesting. Ken Ilgunas decides to walk the whole length of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, from Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico. Much of it is across private land, so he has to essentially trespass the entire way.

The closest analogue would be Bill Bryson’s Walk in the Woods, a book about hiking the Appalachian Trail that I adored. This one wasn’t at the same level, though it dealt in similarly interesting subject matter.

I learned a lot about the Keystone XL pipeline and what sort of an impact these pipelines are having on the country and the world. It’s one thing to read about it, but Iglunas’s trek across the length of it was fascinating. He meets a variety of people who give many different opinions on the subject as he goes.

At the same time, however, he clearly has an agenda and does little to hide that fact. I would say I definitely fall on the “environmentalist” side of the spectrum, but I do like to have a balanced presentation on both sides of an argument, and I felt like this novel unjustly slights the pro-pipeline side. At the same time, it’s not like I’ve done extensive research into the matter, so perhaps my feeling on this is wrong. But the overarching impression you get from the book is that there are almost no solid arguments in favor of the pipeline other than money. When the author admits he’s making the trek to try to convince people against the pipeline, it becomes hard to entirely trust everything he’s saying.

There’s also the simple fact that he’s not as accomplished of a writer as Bryson. (Though you can’t completely hold that against him. Bryson’s got a slew of novels under his belt and tons of experience.) But there were times in the book where I felt the descriptions simply became too focused on sounding good or “literary” as opposed to simply describing things well. It’s the difference between a great story and one that feels like it’s trying to hard to be great. The language got in the way of the ideas from time to time, and that’s a problem.

But as far as a launching point to discuss the issues at hand in oil use and the environment, I see this working very well. More than that, it made me think a lot about how the firsthand impressions we can get of a thing or a place or a group of people can be wildly inaccurate. For me, I thought about my time as a missionary for the LDS church. I lived in several cities in Germany for about 6 months each, and when I left each of those cities, I felt like I knew them well. However, now that I see missionaries come and go through my town in 6 months, I feel like there’s no way they could possibly understand all the nuances of the place. Even after you’ve lived in an area for years, you still just see a slice of that area, a fact I’m reminded of when I speak with other people in my town about what life is like for them.

And Ilgunas tries to make conclusions about people and towns and entire states based on a single walk through that state. I don’t think it can be done. It’s impossible to draw conclusions about a region based on a few encounters. It’s unfair to the region to judge it based on some dogs or some unfriendly people. And that’s what I kept thinking of as I read the book.

In any case, it was a thought provoking book, and it’s one of the books my library has chosen for its “On Our Minds” programming this year. I think it provides plenty of fodder for topics of discussion, and so in the end I bumped the rating up from three stars to four for that alone. It’s a fast read, and interesting. Well-written and it flows well. There were just significant parts I wish had been improved.

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Division of Labor

Denisa and her brother are off on a trip to New York City today through Sunday, and I realized as she was preparing for the trip that I need to do a better job of involving her in the process of trip planning. Typically it’s something I bear the brunt of, figuring out the schedules and the logistics. How will we get there? What will we do when we arrive? How do we get where we’re staying? How much does it cost? How do you pay? What’s the public transportation like?

These are all things I’m fairly familiar with at this point, and even then I stress about them a fair deal when it’s time for us to actually go. (It took a while this past time when we were in Chicago, for example, to figure out how to buy the transit passes I wanted from the airport machines.) For Denisa, however, it’s mostly new.

This isn’t to say Denisa isn’t an active participant in our travel plans. But there’s a big difference between going over the plans as a proposal once they’ve all been created, and actually creating the plans in the first place.

That said, Denisa and I definitely have divided some tasks between us naturally over the course of our marriage. I’m over trip planning, ticket purchasing and the like. She takes care of groceries and laundry. I’m tech support and random handyman. She’s in charge of runs to the dump. It’s not like we sat down and took turns picking tasks. It’s just sort of grown that way organically. I wonder if it would be different if we took time to do it the other way. How have other people done their division of labor in their marriage?

In any case, she and Miloš are staying at an Airbnb. They’ll be heading over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art tomorrow to check out their medieval collection, then walking around Central Park and Times Square. Taking the bus there and back from Portland. She’s skeptical that she’ll have fun, but I’m pretty confident she’ll have a blast. Being in a big city can feel quite liberating when you’re there on your own without kids. So many things to do and places to see. Yes, it’s a real pain to get there sometimes, but I’m almost always happy to be wherever I am, once I end up there.

Though I don’t blame Denisa for being skeptical about the Airbnb. You never know what you’re going to get until you get there . . .

What will I be doing at home with the kids? Movies, video games, board games, and more*!

*”more” in this case means I have to do writing and a bunch of chores, and I’m going to enlist the kids to help with that. If we get the chores done, we might be able to do all the rest. But there are a lot of chores . . . Wish us luck!

In Which a School Budget Meeting Goes Right

Denisa and I went off to yet another school budget meeting to vote on the latest proposed budget. (For those of you playing along at home this is for the 2017-2018 budget. The one that started in July. Yes, we’re still trying to get it set. This has been a doozy of a year.)

After the last such meeting went so horribly wrong, I was left discouraged and pessimistic that any chance of turning things around would be within reach. I honestly felt like throwing in the towel, and my post after that meeting reflects that. I concluded with this:

Democracy is decided by those who show up. It doesn’t matter in the end if they show up because a little yellow sign told them to or because they did extensive research into a subject. Their votes count the same, either way. And either way, we will have a school budget that the majority of voters in our community support. The question really becomes “Who cares more?”

But then the community poured out for the vote, and they overwhelmingly came to the budget’s defense. So we got essentially a do over. A Groundhog Day-esque chance to redo that horrendous meeting, and that happened last night.

And it was wonderful. 300 people showed up to the earlier meeting. 550 showed up last night. 200+ of the people voted to slash the budget at the earlier meeting. 500+ voted to support the budget last night. It was completely overwhelming. A massive tide of school supporters that simply flooded the gymnasium. They had to keep putting out more chairs and bleacher seats to keep up with the people who kept coming.

The meeting still took 2.5 hours, but the tone of it was very positive. For the most part. There were two significant blips in that. The first is the traditional voice of confusion embodied by one lone voter who inevitably rambles her way through the same tired questions time after time. She doesn’t believe she’s getting honest answers. She doesn’t really seem to understand any of the answers she does get. So she keeps asking the questions each time. It’s frustrating for everyone. She’s clearly upset, and so is everyone else who’s forced to wait through her muddled queries. I’m typically patient, but I’ve sat through enough of these meetings to see this for what it is.

The second blip was new. A voter (sorry: DOCTOR) from a local town who was very aggravated about the fact that the school budget had been attacked, and who had shown up to defend it willfully. You could tell he was frustrated with the glacial pace of the meeting, and while I can certainly relate(!), I also believe we can look for more polite ways to handle it. (For those of you who are new to the area and didn’t get the repeated references he was making to where he works, might I point you to his web site, which I present without further comment? He does have a doctorate in biochemistry, after all.)

In any case, it’s done. The budget is set again and ready for a vote. It appears the opposition has thrown in the towel, but we simply cannot lull ourselves back into complacency. We need that many people showing up time and time again. Because you never known when the opposition will come back, and our schools’ budgets have been slashed enough. Perhaps with that amount of support, we can begin to start bringing in new initiatives to not simply keep our students’ heads above water, but to start branching out into new directions.

A guy can always hope.

The vote is October 24th, and this time, please vote YES.

Pushing Through on a Project

I’m 500 words shy of the 60,000 word mark on MURDER CASTLE, and I’ve been tearing through it. Most days when I sit down to write, I’m pretty sure what I need to do in the next 1,000 words, and it doesn’t take me a terribly long time to get it done. (About 45 minutes of actual writing time, which turns into a bit over an hour once you count the mandatory durdling time.)

But I’m at a bit of a tricky spot, as well. I’m far enough into the book to realize there are some significant problems with it. I’m not sure how significant those problems are. Basically, I recognize that the main character (Etta) is doing too much on her own, without really interacting with other people as much as I feel she needs to. This has a tendency to make the book a bit too cerebral. Not that she’s not doing things, but she’s on her own for long swathes of the novel.

Some of this is just due to the type of book this is. She’s undercover, lying to most people around her, trying to find information on her lost sister. So in many ways, she’s trying to avoid getting to know too many people. But at the same time, I worry that much of the oomph to the book will be found as she interacts with the people who might be out to kill her. I think I might need to watch Silence of the Lambs again to get a feel for the kind of book I’m trying to write. Not that this is a novel where the main character is studying a serial killer to try to catch a different one, but . . .

Actually, the more I think about it, the more the connection seems clear. I’m writing Silence of the Lambs meets True Grit. Go figure.

In any case, my feel for the novel leaves me in a bit of a precarious position. Part of me wants to stop the writing, go back and read what I’ve done, fix it if it needs fixing, and then finish things off. On the other hand, my gut isn’t just telling me part of the book isn’t working. It’s telling me that it’s going to put me right back where I am now after I fix it. In other words, imagine that you’re trying to get from Maine to Pennsylvania. You know the route you ultimately want to go should be over the George Washington Bridge, but you realize you ended up going through Albany somehow. You know that was a waste of time, but you also know that now that you’re already in New Jersey, it doesn’t really matter. You’d be at this spot of road one way or the other. You can go back to fix that Albany trip, but perhaps it’s better to just get to Pennsylvania first.

That analogy makes a whole lot more sense to me than it probably did to you, but oh well.

The bottom line is that I’ve decided to push forward. I’m becoming more comfortable knowing that my first drafts are going to need some big overhauls. I’d love to get to a point where I can just write them the right way the first time, but I don’t think I’m there yet. On the plus side, at least I’m to the point where I can feel what the big things that need changing will be. Right?

Another 20,000 words, give or take, should take me to the end of this draft. At that point, I plan to immediately go back and read the whole thing, looking to see if the tension levels are right, if there’s enough interaction with other characters, if the voice is consistent, and if there’s anything big I still want to tweak.

But maybe I need to watch Silence of the Lambs again before all of that . . .

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