¿Quién es más macho?
Fans of the original Saturday Night Live may remember a skit in which contestants were asked by Bill Murray, speaking Semester II Spanish, to select the most macho of actors: David Janssen, Lloyd Bridges or Jack (‘Yack’) Lord.
Although this month’s guest is a writer, he is definitely a contender. Not because he wore cool suits and uttered such iconic phrases as ‘Book ‘em, Dano.’ But because he has honed a writing style that is both analytical and provocative, regardless of your politics.
And also because he used to water-ski on agricultural canals.
Tom Garrison, welcome to Behind the Page.
Q: Water-skiing on agricultural canals? Hemingway would surely be envious.
While not quite the 10,000 degree temperature of the sun’s photosphere, summer in California’s southern Central Valley was hot. You and your teenage buddies needed a break.
The Central Valley is crisscrossed by several major irrigation canals. The canals run 20 to 25 feet across, up to ten feet deep, and, best of all, have dirt roads on each bank. Upon someone getting their driver’s license, we would all pile into the wreck of a car they finagled from their parents and go canal water-skiing.
Here is how it goes: position the skier on the far side of the canal, tie a tow line to the car bumper, throw the line to the skier, yell at the idiot, excuse me-skier-to get ready, then take off and drive as fast as possible on a narrow dirt road that has a four feet embankment on one side and a canal full of water on the other. Note that every mile or so a large standpipe juts a few feet above the water line.
Add alcohol and now you have true water-skiing, not some sissy sport on a peaceful lake.
To begin with, it’s not legal.
Possible outcomes: the car veers off the dirt road, or the skier falls, or the skier weaves back and forth, kicking up huge rooster tails before smashing into a standpipe.
OR the skier completes the run, releases the tow line, cruises to the dirt bank, and steps out of the skis onto dry land without anything other than their lower legs getting wet.
That is a “ten” run.
Canal water-skiing was a rite of passage.
Q: “Show me a young Conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I’ll show you someone with no brains.” Thoughts?
I use a similar quote in my book Why We Left the Left: Personal Stories by Leftists/Liberals Who Evolved to Embrace Libertarianism.
Youth is a time of rebellion, when actions are often dictated by emotions. Action and slogans take precedent over reasoned analysis. Young people generally have little at stake in “the system” and a lot of free time. I saw this repeatedly when I was an active socialist in Santa Barbara. Younger “fellow travelers” would drop into our Socialist Party group, hang around for a few months then drop out when the emotional high receded.
As people age, many begin to question their former views, especially when they see concomitant big government solutions (e.g. Obamacare or crony capitalism) become complex and fraught with unanticipated consequences. This realization tends to make one more cautious in advocating radical solutions. (And who, besides Warren Buffet, advocates “taxing the hell out of the rich” when they have a job that may put them in the “rich” category?)
I believe this saying applies primarily to “normal” people. Political ideologues, Right or Left, seldom change their stripes. For an intense political person to change politically later in life takes self-confidence, introspection, and guts. And most of your former “comrades” will disown you. I know.
Q: Beatles or Stones? Or …?
I turned 18 in 1970. My teens were dominated by the Beatles and Rolling Stones. The early work for both groups was simple rock and roll. However, the Beatles evolved a slicker, “prettier” sound while the Stones wallowed in the energy of unadulterated rock.
Listening to the Beatles after the mid-60s was like taking a hike in a coastal wooded area—lots of green, eroded smooth mountains, cool temperatures, little danger. Listening to the Stones belt out “Sympathy for the Devil” was like a desert hike—jagged mountains, the earth sans the makeup of vegetation, potential danger from flash floods in slot canyons (which I love to explore), poisonous critters, and raw vistas.
Since I prefer desert hiking my obvious choice is the Stones. As I write this and silently sing the lyrics to “Street Fighting Man,” the hairs on my arms stand to attention. That song was important in my prepping for speeches in the mid-1980s.
But since the end of the New Wave era (Devo, Talking Heads, B-52s, Clash, Eurythmics, and others) I haven’t paid much attention to music. I mean, who the hell is Miley Cyrus?
Q: What made you realize you were a writer? When?
From 1982 to 2000 I was editor, managing editor, and finally, editorial director of a political science journal based in Santa Barbara. Professors of the social sciences, in particular political science, tend to be fairly inept writers. (Try reading the American Political Science Review.) I ended up not just editing, but often rewriting many scholarly articles. I also had essays and letters published in leftist/progressive newsletters, local newspapers, and journals.
Was I writer? Not yet.
In December 2010 I had two political essays published: one in the Salt Lake Tribune, another in The Spectrum (the St. George Utah daily newspaper). A beginning.
My wife Deb and I love to hike. My first paid hiking story was published in The Spectrum in May 2011. Since then my stories have appeared every month. That made me consider myself a writer.
Since then I have had political and humorous essays published, have entered and won several writing contests, and published two books.
But being an author/writer is only one facet of my identity. Being retired I am fortunate that I do not have to depend upon writing for income. If I did, I would be living in a cardboard box under a bridge with Dave the Wonder Cat.
Q: Author(s) who inspire you?
I read just about anything: books, cereal boxes, the more interesting stuff on paper place mats at diners. The author I try to emulate the most is Hunter S. Thompson. I’d like to think at least some of my writing is similar to gonzo journalism. Gonzo journalism, according to Wikipedia “…has been defined in academic literature as an energetic first-person participatory writing style in which the author is a protagonist, and which draws its power from a combination of both social critique and self-satire.”
I write in the first person, love social critique, and have plenty of foibles of which to make fun.
And so far I have been successful in avoiding the drunken, lunatic nature of Thompson’s last couple of decades. And I have no plans to go out by shooting myself in the head.
Q: What makes it worth eleven and a half US dollars to sit in a theater behind someone who shouts at the screen?
Hey, don’t be too hard on the screen shouters. I was one of the original audience participants for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. “There’s a light…” (film dialogue) was followed by the entire audience flicking their Bics. The Rocky Horror Picture Show has be the best science fiction/horror/musical film ever produced.
But that was decades ago. I don’t mind someone making a quiet, clever comment about a film in a theater but unfortunately, that is seldom the case anymore.
We very much enjoy a few series on TV. Who doesn’t love Dexter, the likeable and troubled serial killer? Or The Walking Dead? What is better than smashing a few zombies all the while dealing with some moral dilemma in your survivor group? Or watching Billy Bob Thorton do his weird thing in Fargo?
Q:. The hardest part of writing a book is …
Getting started. Once I’ve opened the correct file, the keyboard beg for a pounding. (My typing style is more touch pounding than touch typing.) I quickly enter a sort of Zen state and the words flow.
Unfortunately none of this happens until all other potential work is completed—dishes washed, Amazon Author Central checked for the eight time, every weed pulled from our garden, research completed on the most minor point in the story/chapter, and so on.
Q: ‘Writing is a mental disorder’. What say you?
Not at all. Reading what I write may be a sign of an unbalanced individual. But nonfiction writing is simply communicating something the writer believes is important to an audience.
I put a lot of myself into each story and book. I know sometimes it will be slammed for political reasons. Perhaps that’s a sign of some mental disorder.
On the other hand, this helps develop a thick skin and I’m pleased to say the majority of comments about my work have been positive.
Q: How do you prevent from becoming old and decrepit like the rest of us?
I can’t do much about the old part, but I refuse to be decrepit.
Think of all the interesting looking places you pass on the road while traveling. The world’s best checker-playing chicken (there’s more than one, apparently). A national park you don’t have the time to explore. Deb and I used to say, “someday we will check out the chicken.” Well, with retirement, “someday” has arrived. No more passing up checker-playing chickens.
Deb and I love to play in the dirt and have become gardeners extraordinaire. Desert gardening is a challenge. Another outdoor activity is occasional target shooting. Gotta keep those self-defense skills sharp.
I love cats and dogs (we currently have two animal companions, Dave the Wonder Cat and Molly the cat) and regularly volunteer at PAWS (Providing Animals With Support)—a non-governmental rescue/shelter organization.
I devour books, especially mystery/thrillers and science fiction. I currently serve as the vice president of my local writers group.
I also still consider myself politically active.
And most days I find time to write.
Q: ‘Why We Left the Left’? Why did you leave the Left?
I was a card-carrying member of the Socialist Party (SP) for more than a dozen years. Deb and I helped found the Santa Barbara SP Chapter in 1983. From the early 1980s to the mid-1990s I was intensely active in leftist causes. I was arrested for civil disobedience, a board member of the local tenants union, twice ran openly as a socialist for Santa Barbara City Council, revitalized a moribund Santa Barbara County Peace and Freedom Party, worked closely with the local Gay and Lesbian Resource Center, gave dozens of speeches promoting socialism, and organized public events, all while holding down a full-time job editing a political science journal.
Basically there are four characteristics of the Left that made it impossible to continue my affiliation: (1) a lack of respect for and understanding of the concept of personal responsibility for one’s own actions, (2) habitual dishonesty, which undermines the democratic process, (3) a slavish adherence to “affirmative action” preferences, identity politics, and multicultural “diversity”, (4) and a strong intolerance for real diversity of ideas.
Lying about one’s principal political affiliation has a long tradition on the Left. There may have been justification for underground political work in Czarist Russia or 1980s El Salvador. But in 1980s America?
In the late 80s I twice ran for Santa Barbara City Council as a socialist. Keep in mind that this was the apogee of the Reagan-Bush years and I was running in Ronald Reagan’s adopted home town. As a member of the California Peace and Freedom Party and the Socialist Party, USA, I never had a hassle from the public for promoting socialism. I think my campaigns and other political work in our local socialist group greatly benefited from our directness about what we represented. I was treated with respect by moderates and conservatives and the local media. And I had many intense (yet civil) discussions with capitalists and other “running dogs”. The only real problem came from liberals who wanted me to say I was simply another “progressive” Democrat. I was not a Democrat and was not about to lie concerning my basic political affiliations, even though I surely would have received more votes if I did. It would have been a betrayal of the public trust and my own values.
How can voters make an informed choice without all relevant knowledge?
Bottom line: any decent Marxist should also be some sort of libertarian. Marx’s vision included a withering away of the state and voluntary cooperation among free acting individuals and groups. What is more libertarian than that?
Q: What can you tell us about your recent memoir?
I am part of a vast group known as the Baby Boomers (estimated at 75 million) who became politically active in the 1960s and 1970s. The sheer size of this human tsunami rolled through American society, fueling the Civil Rights, Gay Rights, and Women’s movements. We fought against war. The Baby Boomers also coincided with (caused?) loosening social mores, the sexual revolution, widespread recreational drug use, political correctness, identity politics, diminished personal responsibility, and excesses in many areas.
The 1960s mantra of “Challenge Authority” was the basis of my political activism and the title of my memoir. What exactly does “challenge authority” mean? More than disobeying your parents as a kid. Or calling the police “pigs.” Those are juvenile acts of rebellion. A key component is resisting the temptation to act impulsively. It’s okay to break certain rules. But know why the rule exists, and have a good reason for breaking them.
I firmly believe challenging authority should involve nonviolent direct action.
Actively challenging the status quo has always been the first step in important societal change.
My life has been punctuated by episodes of challenging authority. In the early 1970s I battled The Draft. I was a conscientious objector willing to do non-military service. The Selective Service System disagreed.
Challenging the authority of my first wife’s parents by marrying their daughter was not such a good idea. They, and others, said it would not work. Damn, they were right!
There are many other aspects of this topic that I cover in my book. I hope that readers will check it out and am excited to hear their comments.
Q: Latest work in progress?
The local daily newspaper, The Spectrum, has published a hiking story of mine every month since May 2011. I’m compiling these stories together into a hiking book tentatively titled Hiking Southwest Utah and Adjacent Areas.
Q: On one of your hikes, you find a crumpled paper bag with a million dollars in it. You try to return it but no one will take it. Now what?
Since I don’t do drugs anymore (nothing is worse that the downside of a Bolivian marching powder binge), one can only play so much casino video poker, and Deb and I don’t need any expensive material goodies.
First, use a chunk of the money for a new facility for PAWS (Providing Animal With Support) where I volunteer.
Secondly, give some healthy donations to non-governmental organizations I support such as The Nature Conservancy and The Wildlife Federation.
Finally, provide the maximum legal contribution to two or three libertarian candidates who have a chance of winning.
Q: Sorry, there was only a five dollar bill and some crumpled ones. Now what happens?
To hell with philanthropy. I’m off to Vegas!
Q: “Why We Left the Right?” Any plans for a follow-up to your collection of personal essays?
Nope. I came from the New Left and understand leftists pretty well. Few leftists become libertarians, so a book on why they did so has value. Conservative/rightists becoming libertarians is pretty common. Once they understand that the state has no business in who marries whom, what you put in your body, and give up crony capitalism, they often make the shift.
Q: If you could only do one thing, what would it be?
Sounds like a question for a beauty pageant: “Max, if I could only do one thing I would bring about world pizza. Tee, hee, I mean world peace.”
But if I could do one thing I would magically (I am a very amateur magician) make everyone pay heed to Oliver Cromwell’s 1650 warning to the Church of Scotland:
“I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”
Cromwell’s advice might go a long way in creating world pizza/peace.
Tom, I want to thank you for taking this time to let us get to know you. And for being so dang macho.
Want to get into contact with Tom Garrison?
You can email him at: ‘tomgarrison98 at yahoo dot com’ (replace ‘at’ with ‘@’ and ‘dot’ with ‘.’ and strip spaces e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org – this is to prevent spam engines)
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