Ken Opens the First Box

I opened the first box of books last night after a ceremonial dinner at our favorite Middle East restaurant. We’ve been there so many times, and we’re so consistent at what we order, that as soon as the waitress saw us, she said, “Your order’s on.” A good sign. As usual, their food portions were so generous, we both brought home leftovers.

We settled in for the evening. Emily handed me a kitchen knife and said, “The honor is yours.” Then she sat down on the living room chair by the kitchen and let me take over.

I opened the box with excitement and some misgivings. What if the front cover didn’t look good? What if there was an obvious typographical error on the back cover?

I had lots of questions like that but, honestly, those were secondary. MSU Press has a crack team of editors and I myself had looked at the manuscript files and then the page proofs so many times I knew there would be few errors. (But not “no errors”—after forty years of writing and editing, I’m still looking for that holy grail of books, the one with no human error.)

What I really was thinking was that this was the end of an era for me. So many years had passed between the first edition, which went out of print way too early almost seventeen years ago, and this second edition that I had become used to the emptiness, the sense of incompleteness, the frustration of knowing that what deserved to be out there generating excitement and educating young activists was just taking up space on my hard drive. I know they say that the good thing about hitting your head against a wall is that it feels so good when you stop, but if you’re not careful you can start telling yourself that the hitting part itself feels good. I’ve done it, even though intellectually I know it’s crazy. And then you become afraid to stop.

Okay, therapists will tell you you might also simply have a fear of success. Could be.

What I know is that my every day is filled with head trips that push me forward and pull me back, often at the same time. And that’s on a normal day. This time I shut out all of them and with a firm hand and a serrated blade sliced the packing tape. Styrofoam bubbles, compressed to fit inside the flaps of the box, suddenly burst to their full size and a few fell to the floor. I pushed aside the others and carefully took out a shrink-wrapped packet of four books. I paused for a second. Then I sliced open the cellophane and released one book from the others. That would become Emily’s book.

I just held it. No, I didn’t smell it. That seemed a bit too cliché-ish. But I admired its shine. I admired the red-rimmed, orange ball on the top right-hand corner that said “Voices from the Underground.” All four books in the series will have that same ball, to connect them for marketing purposes, although they will be different color combinations to distinguish one book from the other. And, yes, my name was spelled correctly on the bottom of the page.

I put two of the books on the stairs. Those will be for Carrie and David. The fourth I saved for myself, to carry with me everywhere I go.

Emily went to the kitchen for the wine—white pinot grigio was her choice—while I went downstairs to the TV room and took my favorite spot on the couch. When she came down, I was somewhat mesmerized by the book that I held in my hands so she stood there holding two glasses of wine and waited for me to stand up and take mine. Then we toasted. She toasted to my success. I toasted to her incredible patience and love that enabled her to stick with me during my craziest days. She said, “I know.” I let her have the last word because I knew, too.

Then we admired the book. Emily commented right away that she liked the cover. I myself hadn’t been as impressed with it when I was reviewing the page proofs. It shows a typewriter, the idea, of course, being to show the technology in the sixties as compared to now. I got the point but I had wanted something a little wilder, to show the artistry of the sixties. But I agreed that the cover was attractive, even if it wasn’t my idea.

We leafed through the pages and noted the comparison between this edition and the first. Its 7 x 10, 1-column layout is a lot airier than the original 8 ½ x 11, 2-column format. It will be much easier to read. For this one, I found lots of appealing graphics, including cover images of underground papers that are highlighted and photos of personalities from the time. The first edition was copy heavy, with hardly any images at all. Emily said she liked the typeface, which was clean and modern. She read the contributors’ collective dedication and was not surprised to see her name, David’s, and Carrie’s included. I pointed out my references to them that conclude my editor’s preface.

The back cover includes my bio along with testimonial quotes from Bill Ayers, Professor of Media and Culture from Scotland Chris Atton, Susan Brownmiller, and Tom Hayden. To them, and to the many other academics, activists, and media reviewers who embraced the first edition and now have embraced this edition with their kind words, I am humbly grateful.

The rest of the evening was spent in low-key talking, sharing stories from the past and visions of the future. For both of us, life has been good. It’s nice to have landmark moments to help you reflect on the whole picture.

Today while at Panera addressing envelopes to ship pre-orders, I sold my first post-publication book.

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Ken Reflects on Four Sealed Boxes

I waited seventeen years to see the amazing stories in Voices from the Underground back in print. The interim period affected my husbandhood, my fatherhood, my livelihood, and my health. At times the enormity of turning one oversized 8 ½ x 11, 2-column format, 600+-page landmark record of the Vietnam era (1993 edition) into four separate books, all updated, expanded, and revised, overwhelmed me and led me to periods of despondency and hopelessness. At others, it revved me up so much I was unstoppable. But most of all, I never halted my forward movement. I fell often, but I got up every time as I pestered contributors whose stories needed updating, searched out images to bring their stories to life, and, once the demise of the economy made my publishing four volumes myself impossible, challenged publishers to commit to publishing four books on the same commercially esoteric subject. Meanwhile, I watched helplessly as contributors—who like me were young twenty years ago when I first approached them—moved on to their next spiritual adventures, and I felt the urgency of getting the stories out before I lost any others.

And so last night I came home from a long night of writing and found inside the door four boxes that Emily had picked up at MSU Press in East Lansing. Sixty-two copies of volume 1, Insider  Histories of the Vietnam Era Underground Press, Part 1, most of which were pre-ordered from supporters, the others of which I will sell so I can purchase more inventory or give away to loved ones.

I wanted to share the adventure of opening the first box with Emily, whose patience and eternal love while I was working on the books will go down in history as heroic, but she hadn’t yet arrived home from her play rehearsal. At the same time, I had to pack lunch for today, eat a late dinner, and then prepare for a 7:00 meeting this morning with my sales force. By the time Emily got home, I was feeling rushed. The mood was all wrong. Opening the box would be better today, I decided, but Emily will be spending tonight in Lansing, where she works during the day, to spare her one long back-and-forth drive from and to Ann Arbor.

So I decided instead to once again put off opening that first box. I looked at all four boxes every time I walked by them going to and from the kitchen. Once or twice, I paused, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath, thanked the forces around me that kept me going, and vibed a successful future for the new, four-volume Voices from the Underground Series.

Tomorrow night we’ll celebrate with wine or champagne, Emily’s choice. Then we’ll look through the first book together, and when we’re done I’ll inscribe it for her.