An Act of Generosity: Eight Years in the Desert

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I was sitting at lunch yesterday, on a cheap ottoman covered in cracked, beige faux-leather that swivels forward and back, an afterthought that someone brought into the break room at school for just that purpose. I had forgotten to pack anything substantive for lunch and, deprived of my primal desire to tear flesh apart with my teeth, I sat on my sad makeshift seat, leaning up against a file cabinet, eating a cup of Greek yogurt and a cold leftover oatmeal pancake.  My lack of contentedness with the cuisine, however, was offset almost entirely by the company I kept; I was surrounded by coworkers I respect and admire, each of us noshing on whatever we’d tossed in our bags that morning and sharing some pretzels leftover from proctoring the ACT. We talked about the lock-down at Bennington High School, our distaste for proctoring lengthy exams, and of course our hatred of coverage — the increasingly common practice of forcing teachers to serve as substitutes on our plan periods, thus ensuring that our grading doesn’t get done and that our lessons aren’t well thought-out. It’s idiotic and short-sighted to say the least, but it isn’t exactly surprising; we’re government employees.

When a lull finally appeared in the conversation, I introduced a new topic, asking if anyone had read anything good lately. The engineering teacher reading George R. R. Martin emphatically and, I felt accurately, assessed his writing as poor. The Math teacher who lent me Born To Run last year was reading something I’d never heard of and promised to put it in my mailbox when he was finished. Several more professed a lack of time to read anything unrelated to work, a sad yet relatable reality. Then came my turn:

“I read an entire book last night,” I began, knowing how pompous I sounded and sort of enjoying it. “It was called Eight Years in the Desert.”

“Hey,” replied the Spanish teacher whose side-hustle is waiting tables at one of the better local eateries, “Isn’t that the name of that new Zinfandel?”

“Yeah,” I told him. “It’s the same guy, Dave Phinney, he wrote a book.”  The Spanish teacher’s son ran cross country for me this year and as an unnecessary but much appreciated thank you he and his wife had given me a bottle of Machete.  He looked a little incredulous. Then the government teacher sitting across from me asked: “How was it?”  I was eager to respond.

Eight Years in the Desert is an act of generosity.  Frequently and understandably, human beings figure out what we are good at and then we pigeon-hole ourselves, our laser-focus on a singular subject all but ensuring that we will never be required to leave our comfort zones again. Nobody is more guilty of this than academics. And yet in writing his first book, Dave Phinney professed to me a degree of nervousness. “It was a departure from what I usually do,” he told me on the phone a few weeks ago.  “I’m not a writer; I had to learn to write. I kind of put myself out there.”

In that moment, of course, I was thankful that I avoided my usual, patronizing, English-teacher lines about everyone having to learn to write, or about my own ongoing struggles to hone the craft. He was right — here was a world-renowned winemaker, a man who effectively is known in wine-guzzling circles by only his first name (“Hey, have you tried Dave’s new wine yet?”) as if everyone is his casual drinking buddy, and here he had endeavored to change outlets entirely and write a book. I imagine it being somewhat akin to DaVinci (my drinking buddy with whom I’m on a last-name basis), who began painting in the late 1460’s, glancing around as the turn of the century neared and thinking to himself I think I’m gonna invent some shit. Let’s start with an airplane.

And yet, if we look inside ourselves, I am convinced, as I teach my students, that we do not find good or bad. As this year my seniors and I have wrestled with Amir in The Kite Runner, Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart, as well as Malcolm X, Hamlet, and a raft of other complex characters, we’ve studied the human capacity for good and evil, and the significance and potential impact of the choices we make. And just as we humans are neither good nor bad, nor are we two-dimensional in our abilities, despite the fact that we often limit ourselves for fear of failure or mockery.

Eight Years in the Desert is an act of generosity because it required and act of bravery in order to be born, the fruit of that bravery being a piece of literature that is undeniably worth reading. Dave Phinney could easily have spent the rest of his life writing only for personal satisfaction or not at all, comfortably doing the thing that has made him both famous and wealthy: making wine. Instead, he took the time to write, polish, and organize his ideas, a collection of fiction — short stories and poetry — and to share them with people who have the capacity to be both kind and cruel. He put himself out there, as he said, and in so doing he shared a new and yet unrealized talent with the world.

The slim volume sandwiches a series of poems in between two short stories, and begins with the eponymous title story that seemingly has nothing — or maybe everything — to do with the wine with which it shares a name. The characters in that first story, if not real people then at least very believable inventions, walked with me throughout the rest of the book, which I managed to read for the first time in well under an hour. The poems take us around the world, and Phinney expertly employs repetition as a literary device  while disregarding the norms of punctuation in a way that would make e.e. cummings blush. The poetry reminds me of long flights, missed opportunities, the things I look forward to and dread, and most of all, how much I love being at home with my family.  They are the emotions and ideas of a winemaker finding themselves ultimately on paper instead of in a glass, and like Dave Phinney’s wines, they are at times hyperbolic, at times satisfying, occasionally worrisome, and never unimaginative.  The book ends with a short story in which I found both characters a little more relatable than I would have liked, given the plot, and reminded me that with the local ponds now melted off, it’s about time to break out the new fly rod my aging father gave to me for Christmas last year.

“I had a hard time sleeping after I finished,” I replied at last, so many thoughts circling through my head like turkey vultures casually enjoying the updrafts with no urgent need of descent.  “The lady in the car in the first story… her husband had asked if she was happy, but then after she… so there was this deer stuck in the mud, and then another… man, you’ve just got to read it yourself.”

He smiled at me. “That good, huh?”

“Yeah man,” I said, scraping the last clumpy remains of tropical fruit yogurt from the awkward crevices of the plastic cup it came in. “That good.”

Dave Phinney stepped outside of his comfort zone to provide art outside of that which he normally produces, and I enjoyed it as much as I enjoy his wines.  It is only outside of our comfort zones that we can grow. I can’t wait to taste Dave Phinney’s next wine, and to read his next book.

Cheers to being generous with ourselves and with our talents, and cheers to being willing to be a little bit uncomfortable,

Mark

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