Utah writer Teresa Jordan’s new book finds virtue even in vices

First Published      Last Updated Jan 29 2015 05:09 pm

Books » Teresa Jordan reconsiders virtues and vices and finds its way to mindfulness in a digitally focused age.

When Utah writer Teresa Jordan started a yearlong consideration of virtues and vices on her blog, she intended it as a writerly form of discipline. The idea played humorously off Benjamin Franklin's life-improvement project, and Jordan even noted the whimsy of the intellectual journey in her title, "The Year of Living Virtuously (Weekends Off)."

Jordan's weekly writing installments, which didn't really afford many weekends off, instead changed her life. The project caused her to re-examine what she believed and whether she was living accordingly. "In doing that, it brought me much truer," says Jordan, whose influential earlier books, the oral history "Cowgirls" and her ranch memoir "Riding the White Horse Home," sparked a greater appreciation of women's voices in Western storytelling. " 'What do I believe?' is such a profound question."

Now Jordan, a former Salt Lake City resident who lives in Virgin, has reworked those weekly web posts into a gorgeous, thoughtful book of essays, which seems a perfect reading assignment for a month of resolution. "Living Virtuously" will be the topic of The Tribune's January online book club discussion at 12:15 p.m. Jan. 30 at sltrib.com. (See box about how to post your comments about the book.)


From Resolution to Moderation • Ask readers about "Living Virtuously," and as with a box of chocolates, everybody might have a different flavor.

You can open the book "to any chapter — to Lust or Greed or Gluttony, or Balance, Manners or Moderation ­— and find wit and quiet wisdom," writer Judith Freeman observes in a blurb on the book's cover.

"This is the kind of book you can easily pick up and read one section or three, and then happily come back to it later," says Betsy Burton, a friend of Jordan's and the owner of The King's English Bookshop, where the book was launched with a reading last month. "Living Virtuously" was one of the store's top 20 sellers in December, selling more than 150 copies over the holiday season.

Speaking of rich food, one of Burton's favorite essays is Temperance, in which Jordan recounts what she learned eating a small cup of foie gras cappuccino, a mousse of paté topped with truffle-infused mashed potatoes and rock salt, at a James Beard dinner at Abravanel Hall during the Winter Olympics in 2002.

"I don't know how long I took to eat that perfect little portion, no more than an ounce, one tiny, deep spoonful at a time," Jordan writes. "I woke as if from a trance to find the waiter standing in front of me with a bemused look on his face and a newly filled tray, asking if I wanted another. I'll never know what wisdom graced me to decline. A second serving would have ruined everything."

One essay that reverberates for the book's editor, Jack Shoemaker, director of the California-based Counterpoint Press, is Silence, which includes Jordan's self-deprecating confession of her tendency to babble when she's excited or insecure. When he read the essay, he wanted to put the book down and reconsider, then go back to read it again.

The entire book works to follow Jordan's path as she renews herself ethically, morally and spiritually. "She's a writer who speaks with consideration, and this is a very carefully considered work," Shoemaker says.

And who wouldn't love Jordan's gloss on Procrastination, in which her self-deprecating narrator confesses that years ago, after missing several important deadlines for her first book, she was advised to write out an affirmation. It was a desperate gamble, but she turned making her own affirmation tangible into a project that would stretch to fill at least two weeks. "I wouldn't simply scribble 'Do it now' on a piece of paper like a lazy piker," Jordan writes. "I would needlepoint it onto a plaque." In an interview, she charmingly adds a punchline to the story, as the same needlepoint plaque still hangs near her writing desk.


'Let the mystery be' • Jordan's warm and conversational essays combine personal anecdotes, excerpts of her reading over a wide variety of topics, as well as focused profiles of local and national heroes. In addition, she draws deeply upon her love of animals, inspired by her upbringing on a rural southeastern Wyoming ranch, a place where she learned to respectfully enter the cathedral of a barn, any barn, with a sacred "whoa."

For Utah readers, the book offers rich resonance with its stories about local people, including the Tranquility essay that retells the story of Peggy Battin, a medical ethicist, and her husband, Brooke Hopkins, a former University of Utah English professor, after he was paralyzed from the neck down in a bike accident. Gratitude is an essay about Phillip Bimstein's song cycle "A Secret Gift," based on the true stories of an anonymous Depression-era philanthropist. There also are a few notes from Jordan's husband, Hal Cannon, the folklorist and radio producer, who plays guitar and banjo in Bimstein's Red Rock Rondo group.

Mr. Big, Jordan's 18-pound cat, earns a cameo in the Sloth chapter, while Virgin resident Laberta Altermat charms in the Love essay. Jordan captures Laberta's zest for life as she describes a woman who buys herself black lingerie to celebrate her 90th birthday. She's "a guy magnet," Jordan writes. "I've see the 'Laberta Effect' at a dozen parties. In no time at all, half the men in the place are hanging around. Young men, old men, middle-aged men: their attention isn't patronizing, and they aren't looking for a grandmother. Laberta's attraction is erotic, charged with life."

"Living Virtuously" also reflects the influences of Jordan's study of visual art at the U., with one of her chicken paintings gracing the cover and her black-and-white block prints sprinkled through the pages.

Other pleasures of the book are the witty mix of epigrams at the start of each chapter, drawn from a wide variety of sources, such as singer Iris DeMent's lyric, "Let the mystery be," for a whimsical story about green beans at her father's funeral. Jordan credits an artist friend, Larry Kirkland, for his idea of using text as "conversation benches" in his public artworks for what she considers the conversation that launches each topic.

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January Utah Lit: ‘The Year of Living Virtuously (Weekends Off)

Utah writer Teresa Jordan’s book, with its rich subtitle “A Meditation on the Search for Meaning in an Ordinary Life,” will be the subject of The Tribune’s January online book club discussion at 12:15 p.m. Friday, Jan. 30. Send your comments in an email to ellenf@sltrib.com or jnpearce@sltrib.com. Alternatively, text 801-609-8059 or use the Twitter hashtag #TribTalk.

Songs in a virtuous key

In a musical reading, Teresa Jordan and Hal Cannon, writers, radio producers and musicians, will share particularly Western takes on virtue and vice to celebrate the publication of Jordan’s new book.

When » Friday, Feb. 13, 7 p.m.

Where » Ken Sanders Rare Books, 268 S. 200 East, Salt Lake City

Info » Free; 801-521-3819 or kensandersbooks.com