Notes from the tent

The Fall 2013 issue of the Oxford American included a feature story I wrote about the few weeks I spent selling fireworks with my buddy Cyrus in a roadside tent in Mississippi. It’s not on the OA website. Click on the images below to (awkwardly) read the story.

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Suburban exploring

I’m not much of an “urban explorer” these days–sure, I like finding things in the city, and even climbing around in abandoned industrial parks, etc., but urban areas feel increasingly familiar to me, so unless I’m in some bizarre foreign city it doesn’t really seem like “exploring” in the fullest sense.

This is not the case for the suburbs. The ‘burbs are an alien land, filled with strange people, structures, and landscapes. I took a walk yesterday in the suburbs outside of Denver, where my family always spends Thanksgiving, and managed to find some subjects of interest.

This creek bed runs adjacent to the park outside the gated community where my aunt and uncle live.

 

It runs under the main road.

The National Ballet of Denver is not in a strip mall. It's in the back of a strip mall.

 

I've always been intrigued by this Indoor Skydiving building.

Children in jumpsuits await the chance to be thrown up into the air by a strong fan beneath a grate in the floor.

 

There's definitely a skill set related to indoor skydiving. Although you don't even get to jump off anything, which I found incredibly bogus, you can manipulate your body in different ways to fly around in extravagant fashion. This employee was "running" around in circles in the air upside-down.

If you don't hold your body right, you can fall onto the grate. This spells "lawsuit" in the burbs, so children are naturally not left to their own devices.

 

Ride your badass motorcycle to this badass bar after a badass indoor skydiving sesh.

The wilderness of future development.

This house was already sold.

 

So was this one.

 

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I walked to the college today

I didn’t feel like seeing anyone today. It used to be all my old friends would hang out together every night in somebody’s crappy apartment or trailer and all I had to do to see everyone was show up at a nightly get-together and all the fish were there in the barrel, ready to be shot. Now, people have their own houses and families, jobs in the morning, and so forth, so it’s mostly individual visits if I feel like seeing old friends, which I usually do, but not today. Today I didn’t feel like seeing anybody. I thought about calling my friend George, whose family essentially adopted me during high school, get his sister’s number and go see her in Reliance, north of town, while he was at work and then drop in on him after he got off, but I just didn’t feel like seeing anyone today.

This morning a guy emailed me from the University of Iowa and said he’s bringing a cadre of accomplished international writers to New Orleans next week, and asked if I could help arrange some activities for them that would engage them with the city’s literary life. So, I spent much of the morning on the phone and sending emails, so that was nice, since I didn’t want to see anyone today.

I don’t know why I didn’t feel like seeing anyone today. I don’t feel bad or anxious. I sort of feel like I have things to do, but I don’t think that was it, because I really didn’t do any work today, and I don’t feel guilty about it. Well, maybe a little.

Instead of working today, I decided to walk to the community college. It’s on the next hill over, a few miles away, and has some pretty sweet dinosaur skeletons and a library I was sure contained a book I’d been looking for, Washington Irving’s The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, a masterful recounting of said captain’s explorations of the Rocky Mountains, especially Wyoming, told occasionally like Cormac McCarthy describing some snowy mountain pass Frodo had to traverse in Lord of the Rings. So I filled a mug of coffee, strapped a backpack on and set out into the beautiful, sunny day.

There’s the college, the brownish compound on yonder mountain.

I’ve always loved alleys. They’re like secret cities inside cities.

This tree house is pretty mediocre, but, hey, probably better than your tree house.

These trees are in front of the junior high I attended, which is sealed shut and ready for demolition later this fall. I had a lot of bad times at that school.

Yelling shit out car windows at pedestrians was never really a pastime of mine and my friends’ growing up, but it was frequently a supplemental activity to whatever else we were doing. While I was taking a picture of this union hall, some kid drove by and yelled, “It’s not that interesting!” Without missing a beat I replied, “Neither are you!” and felt good that I’ve still got it.

Some ladies were sweeping out an abandoned bank to turn it into a haunted house in October and let me wander around.

No one stays at the Park Hotel

Yep.

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Daddy Dan

Dan Copenbarger is one of my oldest friends. We’ve known each other since sixth grade, during which I gave him the name “Booger,” by which he was widely known until his late teenage years. I have expressed my apologies many times to him since.

Dan and I were drinking one night about five years ago at a bar called Buddha Bob’s, while his girlfriend was pregnant with their first child, and I asked him how he felt about being a future dad. He said, as I well knew, that he didn’t even really know who his dad was, and that the series of boyfriends that lived with his mom while he grew up were mostly total shitheads who smacked him around and degraded him. He said, given these facts and the negative ways they’d affected him, that he was going to do whatever he could to be the best goddamned dad he was capable of being.

And that’s exactly what he’s done. Is doing. It’s obvious how easy it is for cycles to repeat through generations, kids with shitty dads become shitty dads themselves, despite good intentions, etc. But Dan has bucked the trend. This owes to the fact that he’s just a solid all-around dude in general, thoughtful and honest, hard-working and responsible, generally good humored, and that he was smart enough to find a baby mama (basically wife at this point), Nissa, who wouldn’t take any shit even if he tried to dole it out. It’s a happy fucking functional family if I’ve ever seen one, and I got to spend a few hours in their living room yesterday bullshitting with Dan and Nissa and horsing around with the kids, who gleefully urged their dad again and again to throw pillows at their faces.

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My legs are going to be sore tomorrow

The tempo of my walk has hardly surpassed that of a leisurely New Orleans stroll in easily over a year, and aside from the occasional set of stairs I have not changed the vertical position of my body by my own efforts in at least that long. Since I’ll be following my dad, who has won gold medals and set state records at the Wyoming Senior Olympics the past two years straight, up into the mountains in a couple days to search for mule deer, I was eager to see how I’d hold up on a practice walk with him out into the high desert. Granted, he’s 67 and I’m 28, and I’m not exactly a couch potato, but I do spend large portions of time sitting at a desk at work and slogging back whiskey in smoky bars at night, and the thin mountain air certainly does less for my lungs than the thick moist fare they’re used to sucking in at sea level.

My dad’s standard practice walk is the distance of a 10k race (about 6.2 miles) up and out of his neighborhood and into the desert on a dirt road, to the top of a ridge and off down its side into the flats, then he turns around and walks back. From my parents’ house to the top of the ridge we pick up 300 feet of elevation, then drop off about 400 feet to the turnaround point. Unless he’s carrying the 16-pound weight vest I gave him for Christmas a few years ago, which slows him down a bit, his goal is to walk the course in an hour and a half. That’s an average of more than four miles an hour on terrain that’s hardly smooth or flat.

I laced up the steel-toed boots I bought ten years ago to work highway construction and immediately noticed their weight. My dad was topping off half-full Gatorade bottles with water, informing me with a chuckle that they now sell Gatorade Light, which, to him, was akin to selling 50/50 antifreeze.

“You can buy a gallon of antifreeze for $4.50 or a gallon of 50/50 for $3.50,” he said. “It’s pretty funny how they can sell you a gallon of water for $2.50.”

My dad is an obsessive quantifier. He makes leaps like that to follow constantly (a gallon of antifreeze is essentially two gallons of 50/50, since 50/50 is half antifreeze and half water, so to obtain the equivalent of antifreeze by purchasing 50/50, you’d have to buy two gallons for $7, which is $2.50 more than the gallon of antifreeze). He says he first noticed his knack looking the back of UPS trucks, freshly loaded with packages in the morning, and being able, at a glance, not only to tell almost exactly how many packages were in the trucks, but how long they would take to deliver. My dad was a swing driver for UPS, which means he covered people’s routes when they went on vacation, so he had the advantage of knowing at what rate packages could generally be delivered on each route, but his accuracy still sort of creeped out his fellow drivers when he started giving out projections on a regular basis. It was then he realized his talent, and lamented that he hadn’t used it in some more lucrative profession.

So, our morning walk was filled with figures. Besides the time and distance, my dad knew the elevation we would gain from my parents’ house to the top of the ridge (about 300 feet), how much we would drop off the side of the ridge into the flats (about 400 feet) and how those calculations compared to various hills he and I regularly climb on hunting outings. He kept time according to landmarks, tracking our pace (we took 43 minutes to reach the turnaround) and compared it to his performance doing that same walk in years past (eight years ago, he could walk the same route in an hour and twenty minutes–we agreed that ten minutes in eight years wasn’t bad). He also watched the unobtrusive electronic contraption strapped to his wrist that monitors his heart rate, and that beeps when it sneaks above 160, the maximum at which a man his age should exercise. My dad is a stalwart believer in the use of heart monitors for exercise, because, he says, you can’t trust yourself to know whether you’re really pushing your limits. If you can tell how fast your heart is pumping and keep it at its maximum level throughout the workout, you’re making the most efficient progress. It beeped consistently during our walk back up the ridge from the turnaround point, forcing us to slow down.

At the top of the ridge is a cell phone tower that must not be Verizon, my dad tells me. He’s a patron of that service provider and gripes frequently about the poor coverage his phone has in remote areas. “Those ‘Can you hear me now’ commercials are bullshit,” he says.

Down to the turnaround

It turns out I can hike uphill just as well as always, able to walk the ass off a tall Indian, as they say. The flats and especially the downhill off the ridge toward the train tracks and interstate gave me problems, my toes scrunching into the steel fronts of my boots and my hamstrings tightening up. I’ve never been able to walk well downhill. It’s the opposite for my dad, who burns across the flats and downward slopes, throwing a hip forward with each stride to make up for his disproportionately short legs. He chugs and struggles uphill, though, and walking behind him this morning, watching him pull himself upward against gravity as we climbed back up from the flats to the top of the ridge, I began to think of the book Gravity and Grace by the mystic Simone Weil. Weil posits grace as a counterpoint to gravity, the only thing that can overcome it. Weil’s ideas are steeped in religious faith–gravity is the essence of creation, in that it’s both a byproduct of it and its essential element, while the process of de-creation, the overcoming of gravity and the discarding of its impediments, occurs only via grace–but I appreciate the secular connotations of the dichotomy as well. I thought of a ballet dancer and her perfect form in mid-jump, suspended far longer in the air that seems natural. I thought of the plastic bag narrated by Werner Herzog using the wind to float around the world in search of its maker. I thought that perhaps my ability to climb the hill had something to do with a certain degree of grace I possess, then I realized that I use essentially the same muscles to pedal my bike as to climb a hill, and since I commute 12 miles daily to work, that was probably it.

Once we reached the top of the ridge on our return my dad hit pace and almost left me in the dust. I managed to keep up with him, but my feet were plodding heavily on the dirt road, then the asphalt when we got back to the neighborhood. I reached my parents’ driveway a good fifteen seconds after my dad, and asked him how we did, time-wise. We had walked the route in an hour and thirty-one minutes, he said, which was pretty good, but it wasn’t an hour and a half.

My legs are going to be sore tomorrow.

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Room 220: New Orleans book and literary news

Dear Everybody,

As you may have noticed, this blog is no longer being updated. Check out my new project, Room 220, an online source for all things book- and lit.-related in New Orleans, supported by the literary arts nonprofit Press Street.

press-street.com/room-220

Yours,
Nate

We’re reading in New Orleans…

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NEW BLOG

I’ve launched a new blog along with photographer Akasha Rabut. It will document the blossoming of our new life in New Orleans. It’s called PEASANTS.

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