In Praise of Econolines

Most Americans feel sentimental about their first vehicles — there’s a deep automotive lore baked into our psyches. And I guess I’m no exception. 

My first vehicle was a matter of practicality. See, I started working when I was 14 with my parents’ permission. I worked during summers at a paint shop, cleaning paint brushes and vans, taking inventory and mowing the lawn. Frankly, it was terrible work for terrible pay. My lungs usually hurt from the airborne particles of dried paint and dust kicked up by passing trucks coming from a nearby gravel quarry.

You may have gathered that my young adulthood in rural Washington State was not very glamorous. You’re right. But maybe it taught me the value of hard work. Maybe. With my first job, I was able to buy my own drum kit. And my own van.

The van’s purchase was arranged on my behalf. See, I needed transportation to and from the paint job and my parents couldn’t do it anymore.

My grandpa had recently died, so I inherited his 3/4-ton Ford Econoline work van. My grandpa had used it for his construction company. The van came with his Sons of the Pioneers audiocassettes stashed in the glove compartment. It was painted maroon. It had no power steering. I didn’t know anything about vehicles (still don’t, really), and I ran it without oil or anything. When I turned on the heater the whole van smelled like maple syrup. I think that has something to do with antifreeze. 

I did end up loving the van. It easily fit my drum kit and other instruments. I was in several bands and the ol’ Econoline inevitably became the band van because it could accommodate gear and people. I once ran the van into a tree when I was coming down a narrow wooded driveway. Because I don’t know. I was distracted. The van was just fine, but the spruce tree was not. Durable vehicular craftsmanship!

I bring all of this up because old Ford vans are pretty great. By modern standards, they’re ugly, wildly fuel-inefficient, and a waste of steel. But they’ll last a hundred years with proper maintenance and they’re durable as hell.

And maybe I have the same goals in life.


Do you believe in the power of storytelling? So do I.

My freelance writing service, Porter Wordsmith, is your antidote to bland, canned jargon. I’m your guy to help you say the thing and say it right.

Good water/Stay Golden

1.

One time I went to Golden, Colorado to do the thing that people do when they go to Golden, Colorado. I toured the Coors factory.

At the time, I wasn’t much of a beer drinker. More like a beer-dabbler at best, and for me the tour was a solid education in how they do the brew. I mean, I didn’t know about hops or malt or yeast or anything. At the end of the tour they gave us little glasses and we could fill them up with free samples, fresh from the fermenting vats.

The big selling point for Coors is the water. It’s that Rocky Mountain snow melt, and I saw plenty of it in this giant pool that they have on the premises. The Coors brand loves their water. They swear by it.

2.

I’ve started drinking Coors because I’ve started drinking beer again. I drink about one bottle a day, sometimes two – mostly as a ritual. In the era of Covid, I rely heavily on my routines. They keep me right side up in a tilting world.

I’ve grown skeptical of craft beer. I see a lot of craft beers as big on marketing and packaging, only to discover (a few sips into an expensive new take on a lager or pilsner) that it just tastes gross. Coors is predictable. It’s 5% ABV so it’s refreshing and doesn’t crash your system. And it comes in these charming little stubby brown glass bottles.

What I appreciate often in life is utility. I’m thirty-four years old and I’m tired of flash. Which, I think, makes me a pretty good marketer and journalist. Because my whole angle and approach is usually to not take an angle or approach. I believe that readers or consumers, or whomever you’re trying to tell something to – these people can tell when you’re phony.

For one thing, when I’m straying into territory that I’m unfamiliar with (this can happen when you’re commissioned by other people to write articles), I switch to passive voice sentences. Things start happening to other things mysteriously and the characters and actors become vague. The dots are unconnected. Well, that makes perfect sense, because the action is all muddled in my mind. Writing is a way of clarifying something. Rewriting is further clarification.

As Tolstoy says, “Like fire, truth consumes all the disguises that hide it.” By digging for the essence of what I’m trying to say, I burn off the chaff, leaving the skeleton of my story. Or something. I’m mixing metaphors here, but you get it.

And look, I’m not trying to be an ideological tough guy. Copywriters and marketers often gotta work with what they’re handed; quality project/product or not. They have to make their assignment sing.

I think the goal in any situation where you have to pitch something to a reader or consumer (a product, an experience) is to approach the thing and try to clarify it in your mind. What’s your experience of that thing? Can people relate? How can they relate?

These are the questions that get me headed down the right road in thinking. These are the questions that are at the heart of communication because they are questions that help to generate information that connects people to each other.

3.

If there’s one thing I’m obsessed with, it’s non-phoniness. Or, to put it positively, I heart authenticity. I do. Which is why I identify myself as a wordsmith.

That word – wordsmith – may seem a little precious to some, but to me it makes me think of someone working in isolation on a project — pounding it into shape, and bending it into something practical and useful. Can words do that? Can paragraphs and sentences be used to help people and function in a way that makes life better, practically, for the readers of those words?

This is what I think about. Tonight, I am thinking about this and thinking about all of my favorite writers. Since Covid, I’ve amassed quite the personal library, since the public library has been shut down.

I think about all of the writers who inspire me and whose words have practically moved me and formed me into who I am.

I will think about this and drink a good, practical beer. I will remember to start the process with good water and the rest will follow.



Do you believe in the power of storytelling? So do I.

My freelance writing service, Porter Wordsmith, is your antidote to bland, canned jargon. I’m your guy to help you say the thing and say it right.

So I voted. Now what?

To be honest, if either of the major candidates wins, I’ll feel disappointed. I watch the debates and want to yell “you’re a bad man!” at both of these wealthy rulers, over and over.

Because there’s an America in my mind that I have come to love. It’s fictitious, but it has elements of truth in it. 

I like thinking about it, even if it’s sometimes painful to consider what could be

It’s an America of social mobility. Growing up, I knew this guy (we’ll call him Wayne). He and his family had a lumber mill. He was able to buy a house and raise four daughters with the income from his family mill. His daughters worked at the mill and so did his folks. His wife worked the garden and canned their food. 

Today that mill is completely gone. The empty lot is next to a congested section of the freeway and a homeless shelter that’s been evacuated because of Covid-19.

2.

My vision of the perfect America is filmed with color-saturated Super 8 footage. The footage shows minor league baseball games and neighbors hanging out with no masks, undivided by political partisanship. 

I see great cities filled with fine art deco buildings open to the public… Carnegie libraries filled with the greatest of poets, where anyone can walk in and, free of charge, access the greatest minds of any time. 

I see American manufacturing. Not just steel and cars, but also decent woolen shirts that hold up over the decades and pants that don’t fade or rip or mysteriously lose buttons. There’s craftsmanship and economy and folks don’t race after unnecessary fads in clothing or merchandise. Like, you buy ear buds for one phone and you never have to buy another pair because manufacturers don’t switch up the design to get you to buy more shit in some nefarious trap of planned obsolescence. In my ideal America, people don’t play like that. All abide by a hardy Tolstoyan morality.

It’s an America where hatred is an anthema and you can calmly disagree with people who don’t think like you. It’s a place where the free press is alive and filled with quality local journalism instead of never-ending “content” designed to generate clicks and revenue. 

It’s a place where jazz is born of spontaneity and freedom and the blues ooze out of the pores of working folks and the dinner table is set with practical beers and a slice of chicken and corn on the cob.  

3.

This America… did I dream it? Was it ever? No. It’s the best of the ideas of America, compiled into one idyllic belief that we’re better than this. I recognize that it’s also on some level some half-baked Springsteen shit I’ve ingested from pop culture and stump speeches.

But still. We are better than this.

We’re better than this nightmare of an imposter president and his network of oligarchs (the mind rejects it as abhorrent in our supposed democracy). We’re better than two old rich white men on stage shouting each other down. We’re better than this.

Aren’t we?

So I voted. Not for my utopian vision (which probably can only be accomplished on a local scale).

I straight-up voted against evil. 

4. 

So I voted. Now what?

Now I get up and write words on my typewriter and computer, telling stories about the best of who we are. I work in the local press and do my best.

I clean my house religiously to the cleanest that it can be and give my children hot baths and scour their hair until they shine. I coach them to brush their teeth and memorize vowels. I give them nutritious meals and hugs. 

I play the piano for them and parcel out my money for their winter clothes. 

They are the denizens of the future. But we are also the present. And we stand as representatives of sanity, decency, and love. 

I voted with my hands. Now our hearts must do the true work.


Do you believe in the power of storytelling? So do I.

My freelance writing service, Porter Wordsmith, is your antidote to bland, canned jargon. I’m your guy to help you say the thing and say it right.

Saturday Night Broadcast

1.

My father and I lived in the same house, but different worlds.

His was the world of radio waves. He was born in 1949 and grew up listening to Top 10 music on a transistor radio. He lived through the golden era of conservative talk radio, NPR, and late-night conspiracy shows as tuned in on AM.

My world growing up was the world of dial-up internet. I downloaded music MP3s and made little websites to see how far I could push my digital creative skills. I compulsively microblogged (and come to think of it, I still do). I instant messaged and I read my news on a screen.

One early-internet site I wrote on was called Diary-X. It was an online journaling service started in 2000. It was mostly teens writing super cringey stuff about how sad they were and how girls made them sad and how Radiohead was so great just so great. It was awful. But it got me in the habit of writing every day.

It honed my word chops.

2.

It’s not uncommon for people in the same family to miscommunicate. How could my father and I talk to each other? He was radio, I was dial-up. He understood the world through a Baby Boomer evangelical lens and I… I didn’t know what I was. I still don’t know what I am. I believe in God, but His signal has grown weaker over the years.

I strain to hear the small voice coming in from on high.

3.

I recently read that FM radio signals can pierce the ionosphere and travel through the vacuum of space at the speed of light. They travel and keep traveling, though they become diffused the farther they go until they’re faint… faint… faint.

And what happens to words on the internet? Digital domains expire in time, code vanishes. The ones and zeros, unless they’re printed and made tangible, disappear. Remember Diary-X? It was run by this one guy named Stephen Deken. When his server crashed in 2006 all of the Diary-X entries from around the world disappeared, forever. Stephen Deken had no backup on the server. The documented dreams and sad times of thousands of Millennial teens… simply vanished.

I admire the skill of people who code their own software or make their own passion project on the internet, to share with others. If you’re reading this and you’re that sort of person, I say to you good job. Make your thing. Share that thing.

But back that shit up on a hard drive.

4.

This week I was on a video conference call. I was in the converted shed that I sometimes use for an office. There’s a portrait of my father on the wall that I painted a long time ago. I kept looking up at that portrait while I was on my video call. It was kind of like looking at myself. Same nose structure. Same mustache. Same glasses. I’ve even taken to wearing suspenders and a baseball hat as a fashion statement and see? See?

We all must become what we must become.

5.

So here I am in my attic on a Saturday night. My writing day job has ended for the week. My freelancing client-work has also ended. But find that I still have more to say. I am a maker of words and I cannot help it. Am I talking to the internet or to myself? (Often I feel like social media is people talking to themselves, or the image of themselves reflected back through the images of others. Or something. It’s complicated and weird).

The funny thing about radio is that when you listen to it you don’t feel alone. It’s intimate, like you’re hanging out with the people who are talking to you remotely.

It’s probably no coincidence that I compulsively listen to podcasts these days. It’s just radio through the internet. I feel like my dad and I could have had that in common if he had lived into the 2010s.


We must all communicate with our families, with our children. And there is only one thing to say, really: there is no distance between us.

I say to my daughters: you are not alone in the night.


Do you believe in the power of storytelling? So do I.

My freelance writing service, Porter Wordsmith, is your antidote to bland, canned jargon. I’m your guy to help you say the thing and say it right.