Bloodied Boulder

My neighborhood, Table Mesa, before

A few days before the massacre of 22 March, I walked around my neighborhood, the now infamous Table Mesa. 

I turned a corner and saw a goose was standing with an arrow through its head. It acted perfectly normally, as if the arrow wasn’t through it. 

All around were weeping children and appalled adults. It was a nasty sight, and made even more pathetic because a second goose stood next to the one with the arrow. Its mate, probably.  Animal Control officers were coming up. They’d catch the goose, operate on it, and make sure it went on to fly back to Canada. (I know all this because it was reported later on Nextdoor, a social media platform.)

A goose with an arrow through its head was the worst thing that’s happened around here for a long time. 

It seemed absurd yet touching that a wounded goose would create so much emotional turmoil. And, after all, shooting a goose and then not having the grace or decency to either kill it or take it in for care was cowardly and disgusting.

Back on the scene, before the goose was rushed to a vet, a slim blonde woman in late middle age told me that she’d moved to Boulder to avoid “all that.”

All that. Shorthand for robbery, rapine, random shot gun blasts, and all the scarlet drenched madness and violence of American life. 

Life’s uncertain, but it seemed like a good bet against “all that” to buy a multi-million dollar home in a small university town.

Privilege is a slippery concept, But the privilege of living here is undeniable. I’m annoyed that my neighborhood is shifting over from a place where well-paid yet crunchy professionals live — doctors, lawyers, scientists, tenured professors — into some weird super-moneyed, semi-urban Aspen. Still, it’s a beautiful setting. People around me, especially since the pandemic, are considerate and kind, if a bit uptight.

But all that drove up in a black Mercedes Benz on a gloomy Monday afternoon anyway.

My King Soopers

I’ve shopped there a thousand times or more. It’s my local place, the supermarket where I buy last minute birthday cards, do my weekly grocery shopping, or pick up my prescriptions. 

Completely ordinary, kind of ramshackle for glossy Boulder. Girl Scouts sell cookies outside the doors, various high school clubs peddle popcorn and whatnot for fundraisers. Compared with the other shiny hipster shops in town, it is refreshingly normal and aggressively un-designed. You shop for your groceries, look for the shortest line, and boom, you’re done. The management updated it recently so now it has polished concrete floors and an exposed ceiling instead of the old acoustic tiling. Soft rock plays over the speakers.

During the day, small bunches of teenagers from the nearby high school bought Doritos or kombucha. Often, one of the seniors from the active living complex across the street would ask you to hand her a box of macaroni on a shelf too high for her to reach.  Later at night, college students will roll in high as kites and pack their carts with ice cream or chips. And, of course, you have the whole neighborhood buying dinner, breakfast, whatever to stock the cupboards.  They sold flowers for potting in the spring, and Christmas wreathes in December.

The Asian pharmacist was incredibly helpful to me once, double checking and tracking down some drugs for an eye infection. François, a burly Frenchman, worked the butcher counter and had a fan club of the local ladies.

One of the regular cashiers wore a pentangle and confessed — or bragged — that he was a white witch. Another clerk is a tiny young woman who’s so short it seems she has to reach up to hit the keys on the cash machine. She has acne, a Russian first name, and blushes when you say hi. Kim, who grew up in Vietnam, has her own fan club; her line is generally filled with middle-aged guys, hoping for a chance to catch the sunlight of her smile.

During the live stream video of the event, I was afraid for every one of them. (And, yes, I knew Teri, who’d worked at King Soopers forever, always cheery, ready to return a greeting, a careful and conscientious bagger. She loved her job, they said in the interviews, and it showed. )

I hope Teri didn’t see it coming.

Death Streaming

“It seemed like all of us had imagined we’d be in a situation like this at some point in our lives,” 57-year-old James Bentz said.

via the Denver Post

By chance, a videographer named Dean Schiller arrived almost immediately after the shooting started at King Soopers. Alerted by a friend, my son called me into his room to watch Schiller’s live stream on YouTube, around 2:40 pm.

The computer monitor showed SWAT teams, armored vehicles, a hook-and-ladder truck, ambulances, and what looked like a hundred police SUVs with their lights flashing. One squad of police in full tactical gear lined up by the east entrance. The front windows of the store had been broken out. 

A helicopter flew above my house. Then, it appeared on the computer screen.

It wasn’t surreal. Surreal is giraffes on fire or Jean Cocteau or melting clocks. 

More like: uncanny.

If you’ve ever driven a car down a one-way street and had a car aim at you, coming from the exact wrong direction, you’ll know what I mean. Wait. What’s that? A car? It doesn’t belong there! Is it there? It is! Then you blast your horn, figure your escape. 

But there’s that lag.

Or, in this case, layer on top of each other two scenes you know well. Your supermarket. And a massive, video-game like police response.

After I did take it all in, I went into overdrive. My son’s here, good, okay. Wife’s out of danger.  My daughter—visiting for the first time in months—is driving around. Goddamngoddamngoddamn. I called. She’s fine. Shocked to hear the news. 

It’s strange to hear these words come out of your mouth: “There’s an active shooter situation at King Soopers.” It’s like borrowing a policeman’s uniform, theatrical and wrong. But, that’s what’s happening. And you want the full weight of it to hit hard so that she’s careful.

Your friends? One lives five doors away from King Soopers. A quick text. A quick response, thank God. You work down a list. 

Then, people text you. 

And you watch the live stream. 

Despite their overwhelming superiority in numbers, equipment, and weapons, the police operation had a tentative feel to it. They’d probe, gingerly. The live stream included the police scanner chatter. It seemed as if one problem was logistics — how to handle all the force that arrived.

As we watched, we wondered: How many shooters? How many dead? Are there bombs, ready to go off? Did the shooter have hostages? Would it be turn out like Dog Day Afternoon?

A cherry picker delivered a team of SWAT officers to the roof of the store. Why the roof?

Schiller, who was still live streaming, kept imploring the police to fly a drone in through the broken windows and survey the interior of the store. It seemed like a good idea. Instead, what looked like a chain saw arrived on top of the roof. 

I’m no expert in managing sieges against active shooters. From what I saw — a know-nothing guy watching the internet — the police seemed slow, musclebound and not well trained. In one way, you can’t blame them. It was a first-time crisis for most of them, probably.

But I would also note that after the shooting started, the shoppers helped each other. One witness said that young people helped old people descend the loading docks. Instead of fleeing, they risked their lives for the sake of a stranger. 

A fast-acting barista, Logan Smith, hid his 69-year-old co-worker, leaving himself exposed.

What’s even more remarkable is that, once out of the killing zone, some of the King Soopers shoppers went back into the store to help more people out. Those shoppers did not have shields, body armor, or tactical weapons.

After what seemed like forever, the police led a man out in black boxer shorts with blood streaming down his leg. Was he a victim? No, he was cuffed. The shooter?

The police leading him out were businesslike and absolutely calm. Solemn as priests performing a ritual. 

The man was in black boxer shorts was docile. Something about him reminded me of steers being led through corrals. He had a long streak of red down his leg, but didn’t seem to be limping or seriously hurt.

His naked torso looked terribly exposed and tender, like skinless, boiled chicken.

At one point we heard the voice on the police scanner say, “Six deceased.”

It was, partly, cinematic — a scene played out very often in fiction and in reality. The weapons, the tension, the sheer spectacle of all that hardware. Except that this massacre wasn’t: it was random. No build up. No motive. No climax — the police simply led the man away. And thus, no meaning. Just a growing sense of horror and grief.

What was inside?

Officers in tactical gear and with automatic weapons escorted groups of people, hands linked behind their heads out of the store. They seem to be holding their breath until they got far enough away. 

I saw “my” Asian pharmacist in one of the first groups. Her jacket was still an immaculate white. What had she seen? What nightmares will she have to endure? Later, reports would show that one of the victims was standing in line to get her prescription. Had the pharmacist seen her blown away by the bullets that travel 2,500 feet per second?

That night

I walked to the store. It takes 10 minutes or so. The police taped off a wide perimeter, and it was impossible to see very much.

In the laundromat behind the police lines, a load of clothes spun in a dryer, seemingly on an endless cycle.

A clanking sound came from inside the store, metal on metal, right out of a David Lynch soundtrack. I realized that the bodies must still be inside in their newly butchered condition.

I was the only one walking around. Silence has different qualities. Sometimes it’s merely quiet, other times it seems pregnant. It seemed full that night.

As I walked home, I triggered one of those motion sensitive lights. It was above a garage and flooded the front yard with a bright glare. I had to laugh. 

There you are, with your burglar alarms, your motion detectors, your insurance, your seat belts, your police departments, your martial arts training, your weapons course and you know what? 

Just go shopping for beef stroganoff on Monday afternoon and see what happens.

The victims

Rikki Olds, 25, on the right. via the Colorado Sun

Tralonna Bartkowiak

Suzanne Fountain

Teri Leiker

Kevin Mahoney

Lynn Murray

Rikki Olds

Neven Stanisic

Denny Stong

Eric Talley

Jody Waters

Teri, as I wrote, I knew from her packing my groceries. Jody ran a store aimed at women; she also sold the first Beanie Babies in town. My wife knew her and said she was vibrant and funny, the sort of a person you’d stop in to say hi too. I saw Rikki a few times, joking around as everyone recalls.

Three less people to say hi to. Ten gaping holes in the lives of the families and friends of the people who knew them well. 

The memorial

By Tuesday, the authorities fenced off the King Soopers parking lot. People had already begun leaving bouquets and weaving the stems of red roses into the chain links. Prayer candles lined the sidewalk. Messages and poems were also tied to the fence. Snow fell. 

A tall man covered his eyes and wept. A woman lit a sage stick. Groups of young women in twos and threes walked arm in arm, tears streaming down their faces. Mostly couples of all ages would walk to the fence, leave some flowers, step back, and pause. Perhaps they prayed.

photo of king soopers table mesa boulder colorado

Mixed in with the crowd of mourners, photographers festooned with several cameras, many with long telephoto lenses prowled around with hungry eyes. 

On the other side of the fence, a man in a windbreaker with FBI on it was taking measurements with some device on a tripod. Three black, boxy tents about the size of a car marked the spots of three of the murder victims in the parking lot.

Today, the numbers of mourners—of people paying their respects and leaving offerings of flowers and poems—keeps growing. 

What can you say?

I like to think I’m an imaginative person and not without a certain sensibility. Other mass shootings affected me, some more deeply than others. To my shame, I’ve forgotten about several. That in itself carries a weight of horror: so many mass shootings that you can’t keep track of them.

But when the slaughter takes place less than a mile away from your home, in a place you know as well as your kitchen, it marks you.  By now, I’ve learned that I work through grief with nihilism, carbs, and cognac. It’s not a method I’d recommend, but they kind of work. I’ve been sad, enraged, and raw, all my feelings closer to the surface than I’d like. (This is just so you know what it might be like to be around a massacre, but not part of it.)

I don’t know about lessons or insights. Maybe there are none. If you live long enough, people you love die. I’ve been thinking hard the last few weeks about the pandemic, and for the last few days, about this carnage. They’ll be familiar to most people.

We can die at any moment. Or someone we love could die, or endure a crisis that in a moment will forever change.

There’s a quote from Ivan Bunin that I can’t find, so I’ll paraphrase it clumsily. It goes something like this: Each goodbye could be the last. But how can anyone live at that emotional pitch? Wouldn’t it be strange if each time I said goodbye to you it was as if for the last time?

And yet, it’s true. Each goodbye might be the last one. Had my daughter decided to pick up a snack after she left the house at 2:00 pm, she could easily have ended up in a pool of her own blood. I’d visited King Soopers the day before. My son, the day before that.

I often remember the last act of Our Town, by Thornton Wilder. This scene happens in the cemetery and imagines that the souls of the recently dead review and look in on their lives before they move on — kind of a New England bardo.

EMILY: Let’s really look at one another!…It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed… Wait! One more look. Good-bye , Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners….Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking….and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths….and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?

STAGE MANAGER: No. (pause) The saints and poets, maybe they do some.

I’ll shop at King Sooper’s again, and I hope they put up a decent memorial to the people who were killed there. But it has utterly changed for me. It will be now a place to buy bread and the location of a massacre. The banal and the horrific all under one roof, as it often is in places where humans have lived for any time at all. 

Coming Through Slaughter

image by tim roessler timothy roessler

This is a masterpiece. It’s a story, if you want to reduce it, of a musician who pushed the boundaries of his art into madness

Some novels take you to place where dreams and memories lie, some almost pre-verbal unconscious condition, hypnotic, intimate as the smell of your own breath. This is one.

Michael Ondaatje, with the density and specificity of a poet, tells a version of the life of Buddy Bolden, one of the creators of jazz. Bolden’s a historic and nearly legendary figure who lived and blew his cornet in New Orleans. Ondaatje brings him to life with grace and ferocity.

Along the way, we meet another artist chasing an original vision: E.J Bellocq, the photographer of prostitutes in Storyville. We know Bolden’s women, his friends, his children. And his steadily bending mind.

Bolden eventually broke blood vessels in his throat, and shattered his sanity. He ended up in the state asylum, a pace as grim as you’d imagine, by passing through the Louisiana town of Slaughter.

It took me a long time to read. Partly, because the prose is as dense as poetry. Partly, too, because of the sheer intensity. 

Read it, even if you’ll end up scorched and blistered. Because it’s beautiful on every damn page, and beautiful in a way that’ll be new to you and change you.

Tonnerre, France

photo2 2

This is a view of Tonnerre, a small town in Burgundy. You can buy escargots in the local butcher shops. You can also find Marc de Bourgogne at a wine merchant’s shop off the autoroute. It’s a shabby cousin to the very groomed and much more famous town of Chablis a few kilometers away.

Many of the houses are empty. You can peer into them and see old beams, fallen stones and the usual trash that accumulates on empty floors — empty bottles of booze and McDonald’s wrappers even here. Some stray cats, their teeth black, will check you out, looking for a handout.

But the Église St. Pierre broods over the town, the rust-red tiles of the roofs, the canals reflecting the old rose and sand colored stucco of the houses, and the inevitable geraniums in the window give the place a lot of charm. Cracks in the bricks, the skewed lace curtains at the windows. crumbling stones, rusty shutters, the still surface of the canals reflecting tangled branches — you feel age and, yeah, decay in the old town. It wears time on its sleeve. It’s imperfect, used, and worn around the edges.

Although it is beautiful, it is not quaint.

And thank God for that.

Brothels, Bordellos, and Bad Girls

(Madame Mattie Silks, from the Colorado Historical Society)


Prostitutes don’t get much respect. This is especially true in the sex-mad and puritanical United States. That makes nearly any book that tells the story of “sporting ladies” worthwhile in itself. For Brothels, Bordellos and Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado 1860 – 1930, author Jan MacKell put in more than 12 years of research. And it shows in the both the broad scope and in the details she’s discovered. 

As you’d expect, many of the stories are tragic. Girls escaping horrific families only to plunge into disease or drug addiction. Suicides, overdoses, and murders run throughout the pages. If the life didn’t kill you, gonorrhea lurked, ready to take your job and melt your brain. Denver even had its own Jack the Ripper in the 1890s, serially murdering working girls. 

But there’s another side, one that you don’t hear about much. Several resourceful and tough women made the best of their time in the demimonde. Some married well, to newly rich miners and traders. Others made durable fortunes as madams and owners of saloons. 

Not only that, but a few showed that some whores do have a heart of gold. A surprising number donated to charity, helped the poor, fed strays, and sent money back home to poverty-stricken families. Many worked as nurses in the 1918 pandemic, something that seems remarkably brave.

In Trinidad, a group of sex workers got together and created a union of sorts, that looked after each other, set up a mutual aid society and even provided a retirement home.

So it’s a rich story, and more complicated than you’d guess.

Among the many large and colorful characters, the epic madame Mattie Silks stands out. You wish a writer with the combined talents of a Balzac and a Twain would would record her story one day. Out of nowhere, she makes it big as a beautiful madame. The chamber of commerce even hired her to persuade a railroad honcho to build a line into Denver. She pocketed $5,000 for the month or so she spent with the executive. 

Mattie once fought a duel, topless, with another madame over her cheating fancy man. Luckily for both of the ladies, the bullets missed them and, in a stroke of poetic justice, one hit the guilty guy right in the throat. He survived. Mattie took him back. She retired a few decades later at the top of her game.

MacKell focuses largely on the period up to 1912, reasonably enough because that’s when the West was wild. A flaw is that there’s not much broader context for the prostitution. It’s specific and granular, which is good, because you don’t get a lot of ideological slant thrown in. Yet, it’s not so good because you miss the larger societal trends.

You’ll  learn a great deal about these remarkable and often admirable women who changed the West as much as those more respectable whores in politics and business. 

Burr, by Gore Vidal

This was an entertaining read and delightful in every way. Gore Vidal tells the life of Aaron Burr, our great national Satan, with skill and panache.

Using the framing device of having Burr dictate his memoirs to a naive young lawyer/wannabe writer gives Vidal the ability to create a suave, patrician voice for Burr. He also gives a broader context through the point of view of Charlie Schuyler, the man to whom Burr is passing along his memories. Burr gives us an inverted view of the time of the Founding Fathers, who are suddenly more human, fallible and realistic than the marble version we usually get.

Vidal reminds us of the chaos and uncertainty of the early days of the United States. The Revolution was hardly won by us, rather it was lost by the British. Washington was a lousy general. Jefferson, the agrarian, was actually a gifted empire builder, the most successful one of the 19th century. Hamilton comes off better than you’d expect. (Still, it’s a mystery how such a banker-loving monarchist became the hip hop musical star he is today.)

I have no idea how accurate the book is, but I trust in Vidal’s brilliance and work ethic. More importantly, the historical characters make dramatic sense and the story is completely plausible. And it’s a lot of fun from start to finish.

What I Learned by Playing the Violin Badly

I started “playing” violin in third grade. My school had free instruments, and an orchestra class that met three times a week. 

And I was lousy. I didn’t practice much. Practicing  involved several simultaneous levels of pain. The sounds I made — the squeaks, squawks, caterwauling, and scratchings tortured me. The noise resembled nothing I heard on records. And, yes, every now and then our pet German Shepard would howl. In pain. Right on cue as I ground out a scale or two.

Apart from the ear torture, practicing bored me. And when it didn’t bore me, making repeated mistakes frustrated me.

The violin may be one of the hardest, if not the hardest instrument to learn. You have to learn correct fingering. Plonk down that finger a whisker away from the right spot and, ouch, it hurts the ears, it does. By comparison, with the piano, you land your finger on the right key, and at least it’s in tune. So, the fingering’s tough. Then you have to coordinate that with bowing, and that isn’t easy either.

By comparison, you can learn three chords on a guitar and strum out a lot of excellent songs. You can cut a cool figure playing, I dunno, Hey Jude around a campfire, work up a repertoire of folk songs or Coldplay hits. It’ll take you two years — at least! — of diligent practice on the violin before you sound good enough for any one to let you within a hundred miles of a campfire.

In elementary school, the orchestra teacher was a mustached teddy bear of a man. He beamed and wrapped us in the sunshine of his happiness. He encouraged us. God alone knows what we sounded like as we scraped through “Flow Gently Sweet Afton”, but he made us feel like virtuosos.

(All of this — the free instruments, the musical instruction, a string orchestra in elementary school has mostly vanished now, thanks to tax cuts, greed, and the general philistinism that seems to rule our society. And whenever I read about some hedge fudge manager with, say, a $650 shower curtain, I think, gee, that could’ve paid for a clarinet at a public school. But I digress.)

Crushed and a Crush

That changed with junior high. Mr. Shadwell directed the orchestra. He was a slim, elegant man, handsome, with the piercing blue eyes of a movie star. Mr. Shadwell had standards. He had ambitions. And he dedicated himself to making the best music possible. 

Mr. Shadwell

Whenever I made a mistake, Mr. Shadwell would train those burning-tungsten bright blue eyes on me and scorch me to my marrow.  I could never understand how, in that huge wail of sound, he knew instantly that it was I who had hit the note flat when it should have been sharp. Uncanny.

Then he’d ask me to play the offending passage, just to be sure it was me.

It always was.

Mr, Shadwell told me to get private lessons. My parents agreed, and I ended up in a closet-sized space in the back of a piano dealership in the Bear Valley Shopping Mall with Mr. Sam Chernyk.

All I knew about Mr. Chernyk was that he played in the Denver Symphony, so he had to be good, and that he had an unusual accent. Long nose, snapping green eyes, bald, and about the same height I was in seventh grade — 5’ 4’’. He smelled, somehow comfortingly, of sweat and had a funny habit of hitching up his belly before making a point — a move I’ve never encountered anywhere else. 

To my dismay and wonderment, he would take up his violin and make ungodly lovely, melting sounds right in front of my eyes. Out of the very piece I was massacring.

Now I realize he must have been one of the lucky ones to make it out of Eastern Europe in time. Commies, Nazis, — who knows who he escaped from to land in the middle of the US.

Only to be tortured by the likes of me.

Paralyzed with fear, I shut down and squeaked out notes, mechanical as the metronome on the shelf. That itself is a sin against the nature of the violin. He was patient. Mostly. 

Poor Mr Chernyk must have wondered if emigrating was worth it after all if he had to sit with this mulish pupil every week. But he seemed to have had an easy sardonic outlook on life. I guess he managed.

In the brief periods when I worked on the pieces, I’d improve. What a surprise. When that happened, it shocked everyone — me, Mr. Chernyk, and especially Mr. Shadwell. My progress seemed to annoy them as much as my laziness. 

At the time, this offended me. C’mon guys, I’m kinda decent with this, can’t you be a little happier? Now, I can see it as a case of my displaying most irritating quality of all: when someone can do better, but doesn’t. 

Why? Oh, why?

So, why? Why did I drain my poor parent’s savings account for lessons? Why did I hang on to the damned violin? 

Without being too melodramatic about it, Beethoven saved my life. Wagner, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky, too. Classical music (and the books I read) offered an escape, a place far away from the grind of classrooms and clocks, of teachers and the thousands of petty insults that rain down on you as a kid. I wanted to be part of that.

So if you’d asked me, and if I’d reflected on it, I would’ve said: I love the music, and have faith that if I just keep at it, sooner or later the noise I make will sound more like the music I listen to on the stereo.

And to play inside an orchestra — to feel that music all around you and to know you are, even in your own lame and pathetic way, a part of that rush of sound — is completely intoxicating. We played some good music in junior high and high school: Vivaldi, Copland, Beethoven, Haydn, Sibelius. To be in the middle of that, bringing old Ludwig van to glorious life with your own damned fingers sends you to a special place, a heaven built with the work of everyone around you. 

Bliss.

Also, and this is important, too: I adored Kay, our concert mistress. Not only did she have a heart-shaped face, ash blonde hair and Brittany bay sea-blue eyes, but she played violin like an angel. It was hard to believe we played the same instrument. Mr Shadwell, our orchestra teacher would have her play out tricky passages as examples. She always delivered with poise and singing sounds.

Right in front of my eyes, Kay drew heavenly, luscious tones from her violin. So, I knew it was possible — and not just for a virtuosos like Jascha Heifetz.

Kay was, in fact, one of the best student violinists in Colorado. She won prizes, solo’d often. She deserved it, too.

Or course, I had a massive crush on her. I looked forward to seeing her every day. Just the chance to gaze on her got me through geometry and gym class. Because I was in a serious religious phase and out of respect to her, I tried not to notice that Kay, under the prim blouses she always wore, was, as my mother would say, maturing early. I failed.

photo of timothy roessler
Me in junior high. Poised, as usual.

Pathetically, I didn’t act on my infatuation. Rarely, I managed to smile and choke out a desperate hello to her. Back then, I was cursed with a complexion that flushed easily, and I remember how my cheeks and ears would flush every time around her.

I wanted to hold her hand, propose marriage, carry her away, but your options as a 12 year old are limited, even if you act on your desires. I didn’t. The the gap between us seemed too great. I was mere stinky clay with thick, clumsy fingers. I had nothing to offer her then but my puppy love, and I instinctively knew that would not be enough.

The End of the Affair

I moved on to tenth grade. Because of a desegregation plan, Kay and I ended up in different high schools. We lost touch.

In high school, I changed my approach. Instead of ignoring work I didn’t want to do, I made a token effort. I turned in assignments and even did algebra homework for the first time. I practiced the violin a bit more. By simply running through my pieces with Mr. Chernyk and doing a few Czerny études, I got better at the violin.

None of this was out of new-found diligence. Slothful me finally realized that life was much easier if you did enough work to keep everyone off your back. Now, I’d always worked hard at subjects I liked. But it didn’t feel like work to read literature or study history or even learn a language.

It’s painful but necessary to face up to one’s own limitations. I believe in innate talent. Some people simply have a knack for calculus, or Mozart sonatas, or drawing still lifes. Sure, you can make up for deficiency of talent with hard work, but unless you have some sort of bare minimum to begin with, face it: You’re doomed. That 10,000 hours of work idea only applies if you’ve got that intangible something to begin with.

Often, when people talk about high school, they’ll talk about how the realized they’d never be a major league baseball star. That insight would lead them to something else, usually their true calling.

Classical music is more rigorous than sports, by far. No one bats 1000, or sinks every basket. But even a mediocre musician must play perfectly, every time. I realized I’d never be even a middling player, let alone good at the instrument.

Luckily, by the time I hit ninth grade, I’d found other things I was much better at than playing the violin. I was cast as the lead in school plays. I carried a notebook around and wrote poetry (for which there is no real modern standard). I was an aesthete and smart ass, and I read Camus, goddammit. So my bruised ego found satisfaction in softer places.

And I stopped torturing my poor instrument.

But I’m glad I studied the violin. I wish I’d worked harder at it. Sometimes I even think of picking it up again. Mostly, I’m grateful for the lessons it taught me.

That discipline is freedom.

That beauty requires sacrifice and suffering.

And the violin gave me beauty and desire.

And with those gifts, it made me human.

Review: Voice of Empire

This collects the series of columns celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of the Denver Post newspaper. It offers a brief overview of the paper’s history, and, by extension, Denver and Colorado. 

It’s a colorful story. Frederick Bonfils and Harry Tammen bought the failing daily. Then they applied their skills as grifters, circus owners and hucksters to transform it into a gloriously yellow slab of entertainment. No headline was too wild, no story too sensational, and certainly, no promotion too crazy not to try. 

(Consider hiding a sexy showgirl “Eve” in the “Eden” of Rocky Mountain National Park and having a contest to see who could find her first. Or this headline from a slow news day; “Does It Hurt to Be Born?”)

William Hearst studied their formula and applied it to his chain with equal success. Some straight journalism did appear on the pages of the Post. Accidents do happen, after all.

Much like the city, the Post became more respectable and orderly in the post World War II era. Palmer Hoyt took over the job as editor and publisher in 1946. He made the paper over into an objective, nationally recognized example of fine journalism. Hoyt was a power player, promoting sensible water policy (a big deal in the dry West) good governance, and a centrist approach to politics. 

Author William Hornsby wrote this book in 1992 when the biggest threat to the newspaper was the local TV stations. No one could predict the impact of the internet and digital media. Still, the Post managed to negotiate the new landscape pretty well until an even greater threat arrived.

A venal hedge fund with zero commitment to journalism, much less the city or the region, saw a juicy little prize. They gutted Post, slashing costs, selling off its assets and leaving it a hollow shell of its former self.

The Post survives, barely.

This is a short book, but probably more for an enthusiast or a specialist. More thorough histories for general readers cover the same territory, and Bill Hosokawa’s Thunder in the Rockies offers greater depth for people wanting all the details of the history of the Post.

1917 by John Dos Passos

The only good that came out of the first world war was the literature. The generation that survived that particular slaughterhouse — and some that didn’t — wrote brilliant poems, memoirs, and novels. Keith Douglas, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Robert Graves, Erich Maria Remarque, Ernst Jung, Ernest Hemingway… and that’s just the beginning of a very long list.

One Man’s Initiation: 1917 by John Dos Passos belongs up on the shelf with the best of them.

It’s an episodic tale about an American volunteer with a French ambulance unit (yeah, pretty much like Hemingway in Italy). We follow Martin Howe from his voyage to France, through a series of actions, a brief leave in Paris and back once more to the trenches and the non-stop abattoir. 

This sequence of vivid scenes bring the horrors of war home. The settings are significant — that is, it’s not simple journalism or memoir but the search for the poetic truth underlying the events. This structure — disjointed, fragmented, poetic — must have reflected the experience of the soldiers at the front. The prose is beautifully rhythmic, powerfully descriptive and effective in every way. You feel the bombardments, the horror of a gas attack, the bitter disappointment of an anti-climatic leave, the pleasures of comradeship, as well as the brutal and overwhelming absurdity of the war itself.

This powerful and lyrical novella offers you an incredibly intense and compressed picture of men at war. It’s absolutely worth your time.