It is a melancholy humor ... that first put into my head this fancy of dabbling in writing. And then, finding myself totally devoid and empty of all other matter, I presented myself for argument and subject.
—Michel de Montaigne 1533-92
Like Montaigne, the father of the essay form, I am a dabbler who has filled this space with musings mostly personal for the past few years. Since 2005, I have “presented myself for argument and subject” upward of a hundred times, writing enough words in the process to fill a book of sufficient size to press violets. On the one hand, it’s not much of an output for one engaged in the writing dodge; on the other, it is a marvel to have hatched 100 ideas that could be fitted to this space as the legs of Procrustes’ victims were fitted to his bed by either stretching or amputation. (For the record, the writing craft favors amputation: better to lop off a sentence or two than to distend a paragraph with the weight of words.)
Before 2005, this was a space reserved exclusively for John Saltas, City Weekly’s founder. For years, he wrote a weekly column called “Private Eye,” an accomplishment that makes skating backward seem easy. Then in 2005, he faltered, worn down by too many Tuesday-morning deadlines. He announced a “Replace John” contest with $400 in prize money to the three people who “just write better than me.” My entry was judged better than the rest, and I have been at it ever since.
That is not to say I’m better than Saltas. I’m not. What he can do on deadline is beyond my modest ability. His prose often exudes passion—righteous indignation, typically—while mine tends to be more in the style of the curmudgeon Andy Rooney of 60 Minutes’ fame. “Private Eye” returns to this page every now and then, and when it does, Saltas attracts more reader comment than I do. I’m jealous.
Re-reading my 100 essays is akin to leafing through a photo album. In some snapshots, I am pleasingly thin and tight-skinned. Others, like those with the polyester bellbottoms, make me cringe. The first essays were written when Bob Bennett had a safe Senate seat, Mayor Rocky Anderson was calling for the impeachment of George Bush, and Ben Fulton was the City Weekly editor. Some of the writing holds up pretty well. That is usually because it traces an arc from curiosity to discovery (of some part of me that resonates with others). I think a successful essay is a mirror in which readers recognize themselves. Isn’t that what a good stand-up comedian does—makes you laugh at your own idiosyncrasies?
My essays have had thematic links over the years. Criticism of self-interested politicians like Mike Lee and Jason Chaffetz is one. Nostalgia is another. I have also written more than once about cell-phone boors, banal television newscasts and the specious logic of a concealed weapon. The annual “word of the year” announcement by dictionary publishers has been the start point of more than one essay, and my experience as a Highland High School student crop up in three or four. Two essays have won journalism awards, and one brought a handwritten compliment from a local businessman so prominent you might be surprised he reads this alt-weekly newspaper. Writers of uncomplimentary letters include a news executive at KSL-TV, Deep Space Nine’s shape-shifting Odo (aka René Auberjonois), and assorted gun-toting Republican nutcakes.
Not a few have been written about food: Spotted Dog, Salt Lake City’s now-gone gourmet ice cream; the deep-fried Twinkies at The Bayou; and Dunkin’ Donuts’ working-man’s coffee. One column was about a blind tasting of glazed donuts; another described a three-course dinner for six using only $20 worth of foodstuffs from the Dollar Store. A favorite was “Bakery Crawl 999,” in which I walked nine miles in nine hours, sampling the wares of nine bakeries along the way. Since the piece was written, Eva’s Bakery has opened on Main Street, and I have concluded that the best chocolate-chip cookie in the valley is baked by the Salt Lake Roasting Company. Any takers for a daylong walking tour of 11 bakeries?
Not only do I envy the Saltas touch, I wish I had the clout of Salt Lake Tribune columnists Paul Rolly and Robert Kirby. If I did, Salt Lake City would have new outdoor Pickle-Ball courts by now. The surging popularity of the tennis-like game has yet to be appreciated in Utah’s capital, even as Ogden has built eight courts and St. George has built 24. Construction is underway on eight courts at the Southwest Regional Park in Bluffdale. I can think of only one instance in which my opinion had a measurable impact. After I lamented the neglect of the Bend-in-the-River Urban Treehouse and Green Space on the Jordan River, it was spruced up.
One hundred essays later, I am ambivalent about the countless hours spent in stitching words together in such a way that the seams don’t pucker. I could have been playing Pickle-Ball instead. Still, there is pleasure in the well-written paragraph, and even greater pleasure when the act of writing brings a hazy idea into sharp focus. Lots of writers will tell you that they don’t know what they are thinking until they write it down. For those like me who write about themselves, Montaigne remains the model, but I have no illusions that these words will survive the centuries as Montaigne’s have. On the other hand, I have outlasted three City Weekly editors.