Sunday, July 31, 2011

Repaying the Debt #2: Jon Talton

One of the reasons my blog exists is to say thank you to people who have influenced me or had an important effect on me, people I can’t just pick up the phone and say “Hey, thanks!”

I am calling these posts “Repaying the Debt,” because in each case I feel like I owe the person big time for something wonderful they gave me, often without even knowing it.  A few weeks back, the first “Repaying the Debt” focused on the late, great Bill Rocz, local movie maven, channel 5 film critic, and host of a show that catalyzed my transformation into a lover of great, old Hollywood movies, “Hollywood Greats.”

Today’s “Repaying the Debt” recipient is a man by the name of Jon Talton.  Some of you may remember that Jon used to write a local commentary column that appeared in the Arizona Republic’s business section.  The column disappeared in 2007, for reasons which should become obvious as you read on.

As opposed to Bill Rocz, Jon Talton is fortunately still alive, and working as a columnist for the Seattle Times.  I recently found his blog, “The Rogue Columnist,” to which I immediately linked mine.  I would encourage you to take a look at what he has to say.  He often still writes about Phoenix and Arizona, and being a fourth-generation Arizonan himself, I suspect he’ll never stop.  I promise you if you take a little time to read his stuff, you will learn something interesting.  Also, Jon has written a series of books which are based in Phoenix.  The David Mapstone Mysteries are a great read in their own right, but especially for those who want a close-up look at the city (and I mean close!).  You will recognize the streets, the parks, the mountains, the restaurants, and the people.  You will recognize everything he writes about, you will learn a little local history along the way, and will come to see the city in a different way.  The Mapstone Mysteries are how I have sustained myself over the last few years, until stumbling across his current blog. 

This post takes the form of a letter because I’m simply posting the majority of the letter I sent to Mr. Talton earlier today.  It does a better job articulating the many reasons why I feel the need to repay this particular debt.  

Letter to Mr. Jon Talton – Sunday, July 31, 2011

Jon, I am so glad I found your blog. Your “Rules of Engagement” post was like a slow, steady rain upon the desert.  I have sorely missed your insight, clarity, and rational perspective. 

Maybe I should begin by backing up.  I am a huge fan of the work you did as a columnist for the Arizona Republic.  I was an avid follower for years, and felt it was a privilege to read your column every day.  For years, it was one of a very few reasons (and the only consistent one) why I looked forward to opening the newspaper in the morning. 

What hooked me initially about your column was the superior quality of writing - the style and sensibilities you brought to the page.  At that time, I was not in the habit of reading the business section; in fact I usually avoided it, stopping at the sports section, bothering only to pull the business section out from behind it and set it to the side so it wouldn’t get in my way.  Somehow I noticed your column one day, read enough to realize that the writing was of a caliber I just wasn’t used to seeing in our newspaper, and immediately became a fan.  The writing was so confident, clear and compelling, so literate. The subject matter was secondary; your column could have been about plumbing repair, or baking cookies, and I would have been a loyal reader.  However, I soon started paying as much attention to what you were saying as how you were saying it, and that’s when my esteem for your work quickly rose to top-notch.

Until I started reading your column, I didn’t realize how little I knew of Phoenix/Arizona history (or maybe I should say I didn’t know how much there was), and that’s in spite of the fact that I had taken college courses in Arizona/Southwest history, have the natural curiosity of a scientist, and lived with a father-in-law who was born in Glendale in 1924, lived his entire life here, and loved to talk about it.  The sheer magnitude of historical knowledge that spilled with such ease from your writing inspired even as it intimidated.  In addition, your unabashed passion for Phoenix, the state, the desert, and the past vividly animated every column, and brought an intensity, energy and a sense of absolute purpose to the job of interpreting the issues of the day and the signs of the times to your readers.  I respected, appreciated, and was infected by that enthusiasm. 

In addition to the breadth and depth of knowledge embedded in it, the column also rose above the rest in its ability to explain complex or delicately nuanced concepts and ideas in a clear, perfectly understandable way.  Whether you were discussing trade balances, deficit spending, or the machinations of the Real Estate Industrial Complex, it was always done in a way that the uninitiated in these areas could fully grasp.  As someone who was starting pretty much from scratch, the column convinced me that a good citizen has a responsibility to be interested in business and the economy, because they are inseparable from the issues of country and government.  One of the reasons I valued it so highly and came to rely on it so greatly was because I was able to learn some of the fundamentals even as the column engaged current issues and debates.  Your column cleared the way for me to become a more engaged and much better informed citizen. 

But the thing I valued the most, and what made the column so ultimately impressive, was its willingness to speak honestly and fearlessly to its readers.  It was an emboldening thing to witness the motives and agendas of the state’s most powerful interests being exposed and confronted on a regular basis (for which I am sure they are eternally grateful).  And of course it was courageous to challenge national policy in a state which often seemed to mistake George W. for George Washington, only with higher approval ratings.  But your column went even beyond that, and challenged the readers themselves to change the way they thought about the place where they lived, about the kind of city they wanted to have, or should want to have, and asked them to question their wisdom for electing sprawl and uniformity over closeness and distinctiveness.  You were not afraid to voice unpopular ideas, and to criticize the bad decisions that we made as a community.  Some people obviously saw your well-reasoned and well-informed critiques as browbeating and “downerism,” if that’s a word that can mean the opposite of boosterism.  On the contrary, I believe it was an expression of the highest form of love – an intense passion for this place revealing itself in a voice of righteous indignation over what was being done to harm each of the things you loved, all of the things that made this a place worth loving.  It was an authentic perspective, unlike the facades we are forced to endlessly endure on the news (and in the papers). 

But to imply that the column was all doom and gloom would be a serious misrepresentation, and just plain wrong.  There was always just as much carrot interlaced in the column as stick.  It often exuded a great deal of optimism, of hope for positive change, of turning Phoenix and Arizona into better places than they’ve ever been.  Much space was devoted to envisioning our possibilities, to detailing how our community could create an improved quality of living for all its residents, a more connected and caring community, and pointing the way forward for raising our educational standing and economic prospects and capabilities.  The discussion often included introducing and analyzing ideas from other cities who were successfully engaged in efforts to improve themselves, all the while acknowledging that any solutions had to be fitted to our unique environment and circumstances.  Your column was balanced, it was rational, and it was earnest in its effort to persuade us of our best interests.

When your column’s existence at the Republic abruptly ceased in 2007, I felt that I had lost not only a trusted voice, but in a way, a mentor as well.  As I’m sure you’re aware, the crater left behind in the Republic’s business section, where all those remarkable and quixotic verbal skirmishes occurred, has never been adequately filled (I am not naïve enough to think unintentionally).          

It’s unfortunate that this town (state, country) can’t stand to look itself in the mirror, and begin the process of growing up.  We’re still like the bratty kid that does whatever we want, just because we can, never having to own up to our mistakes.  The big lesson we seem to have learned from our experiment with republican government is that accountability is up to us, and it’s purely optional. 

Thanks for hearing me out.  I feel like I’ve owed you this letter since about a year after I started reading your column (and I started reading it pretty much when you started writing it), so it’s a tremendous pleasure just to finally say thanks (not to mention a relief; that’s a long time to carry a sense of obligation around!).  Why has it taken so long?  That has more to do with me ducking my destiny than anything else.  I just finished four years of teaching English at Glendale High School, which was an incredibly rewarding, but also harrowing, experience for me, because it forced me to come to grips with my path forward in life.  It forced me to acknowledge that the only thing I truly do well is write, and that it’s all I truly want to do.  So, bankrolled by my summer salary and my wife’s long-suffering patience, I have embarked on what may be my last grand adventure (or maybe just the first of many more, who knows?), and have begun writing full-time.  As an essential part of the process, I have undertaken to first clear out the things that have been trapped in my mind for years, and even decades.  One of those things has been saying thanks to you. 

Thanks again for being someone not just able but willing to fight the good fight, whether that’s in Phoenix, Seattle, or points beyond.  Continued success with the Mapstone mysteries (coincidentally, I’m reading Dry Heat right now. I picked it up at the library (Cholla branch), where it was prominently featured, you’ll be happy to know).  Your prose is powerfully displayed in fiction, as is your utterly fascinating ambivalence about this place: love balanced by utter abhorrence over the choices we have made, and continue to make, to destroy what is special about it. 

Lastly, now that I have found it, I will be following your blog with the greatest interest!

My most sincere thanks. 

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