Sunday, December 30, 2012

A NewYear, a New You?

This is usually the time of year when people look back over the past twelve months, take stock of their lives, and often resolve to do better or at least more of the same. I’ve never been very good about doing that. I look forward rather than backward, and anticipate the future rather than regret the past.

I do remember a certain feeling I would have as I was growing up when I recognized that I had learned something new: anything from a word to a way. It was an exciting emotion to me, knowing that I had grown, that I had learned, that I had achieved. Of course those moments don’t stop coming, at least for me, but they are neither as frequent nor intense as they were. I’m still learning though.

Writing is one way of learning for me. In my early twenties I first learned that I could earn my living by writing. For many years I researched subjects and wrote educational films based on that research. The best part of that was that I could learn something new, tell others what I had learned, get paid for doing it, and then move on to another subject. Turning to fiction after many years of facts opened a whole new area of study.

Fiction writing has thrust me into deeper study of myself, of my family and my friends and even people I know only through observation. While the stories writers tell may be completely made-up, what a writer knows about himself or about other people informs his characters, guides the plot or story arc, even designs and colors settings, locations, decorations and time lines. At the core of all of that lies the writer: who he is, what he knows, how he responds and reacts, how heroic or cowardly he might be. Writers are inveterate people-watchers, noting and annotating what they observe around them.

Now we come to the end of another year, and I’m still looking forward, learning forward. What happened in these last twelve months happened. What is done is done, and cannot be undone. Modified, perhaps – compensated for but not erased. We are who and what we are. Next year we may be the same or better or worse, but we will still be who we are.

I really don’t spend a lot of time looking back: I’m still thinking about what I want to be when I grow up.

Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Propaganda By the People, For the People ... is still Propaganda

Today I’d like to share with you some thoughts that were generated earlier last week. An acquaintance had passed on one of those videos so common on the Internet, this one intercutting headlines about children being killed by rockets and drones, with video of our president (OUR president, the president of all Americans) talking about the lives of children destroyed in one day at one school. I don’t usually look at such things, especially when they portray a political view because I know what propaganda is, have studied it and have, in my life as a filmmaker, created it. I know how to manipulate images and words and, in the end, people. That’s what I did. I don’t do it anymore. Here’s my response to the people who think tinkering with the truth is okay:

You know, a long time ago, even before modern weapons were invented, even before history began, people started killing people. They always had an excuse. You can mourn the loss of all those who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, or you can accept the fact that as long as we divide ourselves into religions and nations, there will be people who want to kill other people, and sometimes that will mean truly innocent lives will be taken. When you have a solution, then you can take issue with your own country and its ways. Until then, we do the best we can. We are in a global war now, fueled by those who call it “God’s Will” and vow to remove all who refuse to accept their version of what God’s Will really is. And there will always be little, innocent children who die because their grown-up relatives decree it. For as long as my people can remember, there have been those who would destroy us. We have lost many millions, even in the modern era, simply because some have seen “God’s Will” as the justification for their own failures.

 America didn’t invent 9-11, or the Taliban or the Nazis or the Romans or any of those. But we have invented the measured response, the surgical strike, and over-all, we do a pretty good job. We don’t send rockets blindly into Jewish towns and settlements, into schools and hospitals, into crowded markets. And we don’t just sit back and say, “It can’t happen here.” My people tried that in the face of the Nazis, and look where it got them. America retaliates when it is struck, and we try as best we can to minimize the effect on innocent people. And no president of the United States flew 747s into the twin towers, or called for the annihilation of a whole people; has never said that we will “push them into the sea.” But if we sit back, and we let those who would destroy the world because they believe their god orders them to, then one day there will be nothing left on earth, period!

 So no more insinuation that our president is an evil genius, that the CIA and the American military are simply killers without conscience. And no more edited lies that someone who knows how manipulate videos thinks it is okay to “share.” Lies are lies, even in video format.

 And don’t let the media manipulate you.


Sunday, December 16, 2012

That’s Life

The writer’s mind is a curious thing. It absorbs events and actions and even the lack thereof from real life, takes them into an interior room, turns lights on and off, sees them and their shadows from different angles and perspectives, then puts them into unmarked files.

Later on the files may be opened and reviewed, refreshing the pictures they paint, and when all works well, pasting them into new frames. "There’s a story in that," the writer says to himself. What happens after that is what we call "writing fiction." It might more properly be called "re-writing life."

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been living with a tale that grew out of a newspaper story. There is no truth in what I’m writing, beyond the universal truths that a good story may present. That is, I’ve taken a reported event and jumped off into a fictional world with fictional people doing fictional things in fictional ways – the real meaning of the caveat you find in all works of fiction: "Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental." That’s not exactly true, of course. All characters, all actions, all outcomes have counterparts in real life, otherwise we’d never be able to understand them or recreate them.

For me that is what writing is about: trying to show you, the reader, a way of looking at people and events, times and places, acts and actions that no matter how they are disguised, are universal. Then you (and I) just might be entertained, and maybe even better understand how people work. Even if what is written is pure fiction it must have some basis in reality, some connection to what we as readers know, in order for us to understand it and appreciate it.

I may have an ending in mind when I start, but somehow the story always takes over, showing me parts I didn’t know were there, introducing me to characters who make themselves a part of the telling, and even rewriting the ending to make it an entirely new story. Being part of how that happens, rather than the sole creator, is not only satisfying, but humbling as well.

It is just like life, only more so.



Sunday, December 9, 2012


This was going to be about history. The month that reaches from November 11 to December 7 has more than those two dates to consider, and that’s what I planned to write about. Here’s the way I began:
How’s this for a month of black days: memorials for veterans, memorial for a slain president, memorial for ". . . a day that will live in infamy," and in between, a day memorializing the first settlers and a tradition of giving thanks for what the other memorials mean to us all.

Does it seem that the time period is consistent with the time of year? Things dying, things pulling in to protect against the coming winter of life, things simply hiding from the difficult days of winter that lie ahead?
But I didn’t end up where I had intended to go. Or did I? This is, after all, about Remembrance.
And now a memorial for Lucky. "Lucky dog" is the expression, isn’t it? But Lucky wasn't very lucky at all. He died in his sleep yesterday about noon, the result of an undiagnosable infection that finally attacked his kidneys and his life. We did everything we could, but in less than two weeks he went from being a most joyous and joyful companion to a lethargic and tragic little guy; one who loved to ride in his mistress’s car, share her chair during our reading time before bed, go with her every step of the way, to being unable to even rise enough to walk out the door. It was another sad day for us. I’d like to tell you about him, while he is still fresh in my mind.

Lucky was a 25 pound ball of joy and love. I almost think he produced so much pleasure in all who knew him because he knew he would not be around forever, and wanted to be sure that we derived as much good feeling as we normally would in a long lifetime association with him. No dog that has graced our lives has been so full of the pleasure he could bring to others, so vast was his capacity to express what he felt. He wasn’t "my" dog, he was hers, but still he shared his joy of living with me, too, as if I were more than the second most important person in his life.

Is he missed? Would you ask that about the sun on a cloudy day? Life here will never be the same, though we will find joy in it as long as we live. We have wonderful memories, there are even pictures to remind us, and stories of his quick intelligence and desire to be what he was: an object of love which he so easily returned. Even strangers could feel his sweetness, but knew immediately that he was loyal only to one, who returned that loyalty and love a thousand-fold. It will be hard, he will be missed, there will never be another like him. We will go on, of course, as we always do, but carrying a small package of great love in our hearts.

Thank our Lucky star.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Get the Picture?

The current issue of a weekly newsmag features an article about self-publishing, implying that it is the current and future way for writers to become known and (maybe) rich. It isn’t a new story for those of us who have chosen words as our raw material for the things we make. It isn’t even a very new story for any in the creativity game.

For instance, this past weekend I had a visit from two former colleagues, both creative types, committed to the visual arts, though one has now moved more into management (as I did), and the other supports his habit (of picture making) working in construction. Both are trying to stay current, I suspect, in a field that is still changing rapidly in terms of technology.

What all three of us have in common is that we come from an era when instant everything was just beginning to make inroads in our field. I started out in radio and TV when networks reached across the nation with kinescopes – actually film made from a TV screen – rather than true connected networks or cable. My younger colleagues were trained in chemical photography when the only "instant" pictures were Polaroid. There was a line of cameras called "Instamatic," but they were not much advanced over the box camera of the late 1890s. Today, of course, those cameras are only collectors’ items. A friend of mine over the mountain in our nearest city, a former White House press photographer, has a whole museum devoted to chemical photography, where once he had a thriving camera store and photo lab.

More than once in the last year, colleagues in the imaging business have shown me their latest tools. Small, complex, capable of doing on a chip the size of a thumbnail, accompanied by a laptop computer, what once required a few dozen people to accomplish.

We started talking (as old folks do) about "the old days," but the more we talked, the more our conversation focused on the "gee whiz" aspects of today’s technology. Even those with little or no training or experience can take good pictures, and by exposure to millions of images from millions of cameras, perhaps even learn what makes pictures good. But just as my generation worried that the cheap 35mm camera or the Super-8mm film camera in the hands of amateurs could put us out of business, we recognize what our predecessors knew: quality of image is more than the sharpness or the angle. There is a world of technique, not just technology, that must be mastered to deliver images and stories and art that go beyond the level of the best amateur or accidental producer.

You can write any story you may have, but if it doesn’t reach into the heart, as well as brain, of the reader, then you are just relating a story. What readers want is something richer than a storyline, something more visceral than a "who, what, when, where and why (and sometimes how)" telling. Regardless of your medium, there must be "art" in the artist. It doesn’t come out of a box, but out of the heart. For the reader, the delivery system isn’t as important as what is delivered.

The message is still the message.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

When Winter Comes

In winter the sun can be so pale, so weak, that it almost seems cold. If there is a good wind with it, the chill goes even deeper. There are bright sunny days – brassy, even – when the sky is clear and blue, the sun is full of that rewarding heat if you can be behind a glass wall or large window. The room where I write today is much warmer now than it was an hour ago; sunnier but still not that hot-house warm the body craves in winter.

Was there ever a time (save a July or August day in the city, or any day in the tropics) when I wished for winter? Hard to recall, but I’m sure there were such days. Of course, then I was in the Spring or Summer of my own days. Now, when Winter and I are synchronized, I begin to understand those whom we here in the Appalachians call "snowbirds." Those are our friends and neighbors who pack-up and head South to more moderate environments than our mountains offer as we approach the winter solstice once again.

We talk about a place that is warm in winter, a place where there isn’t a need to cut wood, split wood, stack wood nearly daily for half the year or more, a place where we won’t need a truck with a snowplow attached, or snow shovels and tire chains and all of that. Then we have one of those weeks like the one just past: sunny days, warm days, and we put aside those thoughts.

We are happy where we are, we like our familiar things around us, our family nearby, our friends just over the mountain. We even like getting the winter coats out, the feel of wool and down and fur-lined gloves. Far more than that, we treasure the serenity, the quiet and the distance between neighbors (a mile in any direction). It’s not so bad, this time of cold and maybe snow and a fire in the fireplace, of thick soups and hearty stews, of the scent of leaves and wood smoke, and we decide that we won’t make that move. Not yet, anyway.

Right now it’s time to put another log on the fire.

Monday, November 19, 2012


My initial response to solving most problems has long been to let intuition provide the answer.

I remember as far back as high school geometry providing intuitive answers, and often being right . . . but not often enough to satisfy the teacher. I also remember asking "why?" Why does "pi" make the theorem work? And why is pi the number that it is? I was usually told (this was junior high) not to ask, but just apply whatever formula was given and do it "right."

Today I still rely on intuition as a first cut at solving a problem. Often it has to do with computers which, though "logical," often seem to use a logic that my intuition fails to  . . . uh . . . intuit, as it were. Then of course, I must fall back on the instructions or the text book. It is hard to do (for me). I think it is probably a matter of laziness.

It is so much easier to disregard the instruction manual or the textbook. It’s sort of putting part A with part B without checking to see which part is really B and not C or maybe just a piece of the packaging. Logic, when applied to physical things, is a combination of experience, sight, perhaps sound, and even touch. I’m essentially a visual person: I see images instead of concepts. That usually works.

I depend on a visual dictionary. In my mind, words have shape, dimension, and sometimes even color. As far back as I can recall, even if I didn’t know what a word meant, hearing it would generate an image. Even now, I "see" words as I use them, especially when I am writing. Now, of course, the words are informed by knowledge, but there isn’t always agreement between the image and the act. There is often disappointment when the real meaning becomes clear.

Take for example, the word "politician."

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Two-For-One Day

You are homeless, have only the clothes you are wearing, are hungry and emotionally drained. What do you do? You find a place where you can cast your vote, and you continue the American Dream.

Who can doubt the strength and greatness of America after this week’s election? It isn’t who you voted for, so much as who voted. When I look at the pictures of destruction here in the East, when I think about the people even in our own neighborhood who were without power for days, I realize that Americans, despite the difficulties the big storm brought, are not without power. And we know how to exercise it.

Yes, there were lines in some places, but that only meant people were willing to put up with the roadblocks, both natural and man-made; were happy to be alive to contribute to our democracy.

We don’t need a disaster to prove our fierce love of country and way of life. That only reaffirms how we feel about our nation and our form of government. We do need to demonstrate it by casting our votes in every election, be it for town council or state representative, for governor or president. This is America, and it will always be the last best hope of mankind.

No, we don’t need a disaster, but it doesn’t hurt as much as we think it will, because we know we can count on ourselves to keep America running.


Today is Veterans Day, once known as Armistice Day, that has been set aside as a day to remember and honor those who have served our nation soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. Not all of us have worn a uniform, but many of us have. Not all in uniform have seen combat, but many of us have. We cannot salute our flag without also saluting the men and women of every generation who have helped preserve that symbol and what it stands for.

Salute a Veteran today, and to those who have been away, offer a genuine "Welcome Home!"

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Poll Axed

Have you ever had your right to vote denied? I mean put in a position where your legal right to choose a president, a congressman, a senator was taken away from you? How would you feel if that happened, and just as important, how would you respond when that right was restored?

The year was 1964. Somewhere in the archives of the Washington Post is a picture of my wife, our daughter, and me, as we exited the polling place where we had just voted in the presidential election. (The advantage of having a beautiful wife and fetching daughter: photographers take your picture.) The reason the Post photographer was there was because this was the first election in which citizens of Washington, DC were able to vote for the president.

I had moved to Washington as a student a decade earlier, and until I became a full-time resident, I could cast absentee ballots in my home state. Once I was a full-time legal resident, however, I gave up that right, as did my wife when she moved to the city and we married. On election day in 1964 we went to the polling place for our precinct, stood in line, had our registration verified, and proudly cast our votes as full citizens. Well, not quite. The District of Columbia still didn’t have a voting representative or senator, but at least we could express our choices for the town’s highest authority. It was a day we have never forgotten.

There is something very special about being a citizen, with all the rights and privileges thereof. Even though you may not be a supporter of the eventual winner, you at least have had a say. (Unless your vote ends up in the hands of nine justices, of course.) Still, you know that regardless of the outcome, in four years you will have the opportunity again. It is precious, it is an unbelievable gift that not everyone has, not everyone can attain, but everyone should be willing to put themselves on the line for. It isn’t just your right, it is your duty. If you don’t exercise it, if you fail to carry out your responsibility as a citizen, then when any political discussion starts, you need to excuse yourself, go sit in the corner, and be ashamed.

This week I will report to the firehouse at 5 AM, take my place along with several other neighbors, and spend a long, often boring but never irrelevant day talking to as many of the 70 or so voters registered in our precinct who show up, help make sure their right to vote is not abridged, help count the votes, certify the results and go home sometime after we close the doors at 7 PM. It will be a long day, but you know what? I don’t mind at all. It’s not just a right. It’s a privilege.

Voting in 1964 was like having my citizenship restored.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sky Above, Sand Beneath

We returned last night from what has become an annual trek to the sands of South Carolina and the lure of waves crashing on shore, sun and great food and more important than those, a few very close friends with whom we share the week.

I look forward to three things during the week we are gathered: walking the beach, starting before the sun is above the horizon, and the sky has only a few golden hints of the day ahead; sitting and talking over coffee on the wide and deep screened porch that faces the ocean; writing in a room the others have agreed is mine for the week. I follow the same schedule that I follow here on the mountain: early morning ramble (but without my pal Teddy), a leisurely breakfast (but with the other early risers), then work until noon or so. Afternoons at the beach are for reading, talking, and occasional forays into the more citified areas around us. Closer than the small city we consider our commercial anchor here at home, and about as many cars per mile as in all of our county.

There is something about being away from one’s "regular" desk, I think, that opens the mind to more creativity. I generally have at least one story I’m working on when we get there, and add a lot of new material. I finished my first novel there some years ago, and at least a couple of short stories, and added to other works-in-progress. It is a working vacation, but for me every day is a working day. I suppose that is because I wouldn’t know how to not work, as long as I can work.

I also had a birthday while we were on the Island, pushing me closer (but not all the way) to the end of another decade. There are few things I value in life, but most of them come together on the shore of the Atlantic ocean. They show up in sharp relief there, where other things can’t intrude: family, friends, solitude and sharing, and work. Especially word-work. For me, those are the things that balance my life, and in that order of importance. Within those boundaries I find the essentials: love, laughter, learning. As my clock runs faster, it is the eternal repetitiveness of those things that slows it down enough for me to read the time.

How do you leave footprints in the sand that don’t get washed away? I walk every morning along the beach. I can usually see where I’ve come from by looking for the distinct impression of my sandals. When I come down onto the sand tomorrow though, I will have to make a new trail on new sand. I may make an impression, but that isn’t the same as leaving a permanent mark. To do that you must do more than take a walk, I think.

I’ve been walking the beach for a long time. If I’ve made an impression that will be there tomorrow, it will be because someone else has seen it and found it useful. The best one can hope for is that the footstep that covers yours will in turn be covered by another and eventually someone will rise above it all and make a lasting impression.

So much for finding poetical reminders of the impermanence of it all.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Shifters and Flippers

We were coming home from a shopping expedition (given where we live, every trip is an expedition) the other day, taking the scenic route through a small village with stop lights. Now, our county has no real stop lights, just one that blinks yellow going east and west and red going north and south, but that’s it. Stopping, while not optional on the red side, isn’t a lengthy process. If you don’t spend a lot of time in that part of the county, when changes occur you don’t necessarily notice them. But the town we drove through has several stop lights, and this time we hit them all.

Sitting waiting for the last one to turn green, I looked around and noticed that a restaurant on the corner had been redecorated and renamed. It looked much more up-scale than it had, and it occurred to me that over the years that we have been passing through there, it had undergone several changes. When we were first coming to this part of the region it was a simple, home-cooking kind of place. Then it became a more tavern-like venue. There were a couple of other re-dos over the years, and now it is Italian-Rocco and very grand looking. I wondered aloud if the food had been upgraded as well, or if it was simply the same old menu with longer names and higher prices.

As we drove on, my thoughts shifted to Washington, D.C., where we had lived for many years. In my university days, and for some years thereafter, there was a trio of restaurants on a corner near Dupont Circle. One was a coffee shop, one specialized in burgers, and the third was an early version of the "family steak house," decorated with western things like ropes and saddles and such. About two years after I came to the city the three restaurants closed. A few weeks later they re-opened, except that where the coffee shop had been was now the steak house, the coffee shop occupied the former burger joint, and burgers were now where the steaks had been. No change in menu, no change in food, not even much change (but some) in prices. Over the years the same switcheroo was pulled off several times. I realized that it was a marketing ploy, making customers think things had changed, when really, it was the same old kitchen, cooking the same old menu, but making it look a little different. Kind of like the guy at the fair who hides the pea under a walnut shell. If you move them fast enough maybe nobody will see what you’re hiding.

It might be called Putin-Medvedev goulash: same stuff, served on a different plate. You try to figure out what it really is, when all the time, you know.

It’s a political stew that you can find today on almost every street corner in the world.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Hostage to ourselves

So many of us seem to think the answer to all of our problems lies in replacing a single politician with almost any other. I’m not so sure. In fact, as far as I can tell, the politicians presenting themselves for election or re-election, have all missed the point. Holding office isn’t the reason for being elected. Somewhere along the way though, that idea seems to have insinuated itself into the political DNA. It has infected political discourse at every level.

In response to a comment I made about where the Congress could look to find solutions to our growing debt (including their own pockets) I met agreement with a correspondent who then went on to say that if we replace the man in the White House with one of a different political persuasion, all of our problems could be solved. Well, while I may not find the current occupant doing everything I would like to see done, in ways I might agree are the best, still (given the possible choices) exchanging leaders is not the answer to all our problems. Considering the choices, I’m not at all keen on electing someone who wants to get the government off our backs and into our bedrooms. Any man (or woman) who thinks that the salvation of democracy and the American Way resides in having a third party privy to what we do in the most intimate of situations, and with whom, and according to only one theology, is (to my mind) misreading and misinterpreting the whole concept of America, and of democracy (with a little "d" because democracy is for all the people, great and small).

There are real issues before us. There are differences of opinion, and optional solutions, but they get lost in the blather about things that we cannot change, or have no business trying to change, or both. Where are the real thinkers today? Have they all gone into hiding because of what they face if they raise their voices?

It isn’t that politics and politicians have changed so much, of course. Rancorous discourse has been a part of the political process from the beginning of our country (and elsewhere before that). It is just that it happens so much faster, over a so much broader field, that there is no time to hear the words or see the problems.

No matter where we go, we can’t get away from who and what we are, can we? We are holding ourselves hostage.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

From Sports Car to Sport Sedan to Pickup Truck in Just 50 Years

Later this week we will acknowledge our vows to be man and wife "until death do us part," by celebrating our golden wedding anniversary. It is a short span, as lives go, especially for two people who had decided that single-hood was better than couple-hood. That is, we met when we both had decided that marriage wasn’t something we wanted or needed. Then mutual friends introduced us at a party, we started talking, and . . . well, we just never stopped. Including saying "I do," on a sunny morning in October.

When we met, I was convinced that the only kind of personal transportation one needed was a two-seater roadster with the top down and the wind in my face. That lasted a couple of years more, before a growing daughter and more realistic needs pushed us into a sedan with sporting pretensions. Now my garage holds a sports coupe, a 5-door squareback that is every bit as good in the mountains as any sports car of the ‘50s, a couple of tractors, a 4-wheel drive sport-utility vehicle and a pick-up truck. And instead of a Georgetown apartment, we live three-hours away from that neighborhood in a setting that can only be described as bucolic. And we are still talking. Not just speaking, but talking. More and more that seems to involve recollections, but there are still new ideas, and new experiences to talk about.

When we were married we agreed to a few rules that have guided us along the way. They are simple, and to our minds, common sense:

Always treat the one closest to you with the greatest care. Too many people, we observed, seem to treat strangers with more courtesy and love than those closest to them.

Never go to bed with a problem unresolved.

Don’t wait until you have constructed the perfect sentence or paragraph before saying what’s on your mind.

At the same time, be careful that the words you use are not hurtful. Ephemeral they may be, but words do not die once spoken. The clever riposte, the "zinger" that kills, does just that: kills love and respect.

Never part without a kiss and the words,  "I love you." You never know when it may be your last opportunity.
Those are the basic rules we try to live by every day. Love, the adhesive in our life together, is the strongest bond there is. It is not always easy, or convenient, or simple, but it is always worth everything.

Fifty is not a magic word. Love is.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Who Pays the Price of Freedom?

I recently learned that a military organization, in which I played a long and rewarding part, is being reduced in size and capability. The reasons have to do with the new economic reality, but the consequences will be felt for a long time, I believe.

We had the best of it, that's for sure. We grew up in an age of challenge, but it was also one of possibilities. The end of the Great Depression, the years of global warfare, but better than that, what I like to think of as the Age of Sacrifice.

Even that ill-conceived event known as the Korean Police Action, and its next iteration, Viet Nam, were heavily dependent on a broad swath of America to carry the burden. It was also because so many were active participants, that both events were eventually seen by many as wrong.

I don't know when it went wrong, but my sense is that when we began to think of our military as a way to exploit tax dollars for private gain (Revolutionary War), and make military service a volunteer situation (same time as the other part), we rode all over the Founding Fathers' idea of a civilian-oriented military. Today we have a philosophy gone wild, I think: "rake in tax dollars and spread them around among your friends, and the economy will benefit," doesn't work, because defense of a nation isn't something you can buy.

 More and more people are stepping back from their responsibilities as citizens, and the result is a loss of capability, of strength, and of future. It isn't this president's actions (or lack of them) that has brought us to this point. It has been going on for a long time. Remember Eisenhower's admonition to beware of the military-industrial complex? This is what he was talking about. And hiring paramilitary organizations to defend the country at home and abroad didn’t begin with our current president. The result is that we are, by and large, becoming distanced from the defense of our liberty, of peace and prosperity.

It is everybody’s job. It isn’t something we can buy.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Measured Moments

The sun was still below the horizon at seven this morning, and as I stood looking toward the east, the ridge was in silhouette, just a dark line with dark trees against the pale grey sky. Movement! A line of deer, six or eight, perfectly outlined, grazing their way up the ridge. Just enough light to see an occasional flicker of white as one of them moved on. I stood where I was, at the apex of the driveway. At about 150 yards I was not disturbing the small herd, and Teddy, grazing grass along the roadside, hadn’t seen them yet. Just as they moved over the edge of the ridge and out of sight he caught their movement and silently, swiftly charged up the ridge, only to find nothing there by the time he arrived on the line. As I watched him come back, happy to have had a bit of a run so soon in our walk, I thought about what I had just witnessed, and about how, after more than two decades of living on this mountainside, I still get a thrill out of being so close to our natural neighbors.

Yes, the occasional bear on the deck or at the front door is perhaps a bit too close, but still, looking out and seeing our cohabitants so close, often closer than this morning, is a wonderful and beautiful part of our life here. How quietly thrilling it is to live in and be a part of this natural world.

We are a fortunate few who live where we do. We have a very little piece of the world to call our own, and it is a joyful experience every day. We have water that needs no chemicals to make it safe to drink (so far). We are able to look and to see a clear sky and hear birds and bears and breezes when we stand silent and still. We have air that we can breathe. There is a cost to all of this, of course, but it is one we have always been willing to pay.

It is a special kind of freedom we could enjoy nowhere else.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Speaking Written Here

The events of the past week, as well as of the last eleven years . . . correct that: the last 236 years . . . are much on my mind these days. Yours, too, I’m sure.

What I’m thinking about is free speech. There may be things this country doesn’t do very well, but free speech isn’t one of them. It is, in fact, the one thing we have done well from the very beginning, and as long as we continue to hold fast to it, we will still be America.

There are those (even in this country) who take offense at hearing what others have to say. Understand that I know as well as you, that not everything we hear said is true, witness the recent political conventions and their political ads. Still, there isn’t anything that stops you from turning off or turning down the volume of what offends you. Nothing, perhaps, except the desire to know what others are saying if only so that you will not be blind-sided at some point either in conversation or in the voting booth. If you know what others are saying you can allow for that in decisions you make.

Americans have not always agreed on everything, nor should we. A nation that has only one voice is a nation of one idea, and that idea will seldom be the one everyone embraces. I don’t mean that it is okay to call people names, or shout down their voices, or kill them because you disagree. That’s not free speech. Especially killing those with whom you disagree. That is simply foolish. It will bring down the wrath of others, and the end of that is death to many, and especially to thinking. If we let our ability to think be controlled by fear, we are undone. We will be no more.

This last week, with the exploitation by our enemies of a film they don’t like, illustrates my point, I think: expressing yourself becomes a risk. But look at it this way: if we decline to express ourselves, even in terrible words, even in horrible images, we open the door to our death just as surely as we expose ourselves to those who will kill us because they don’t like us.You don’t kill a sick philosophy  by killing people; you do it by showing a better way. And yes, people will die. But people will die anyway.

As for me, I would rather die knowing it was because I said something, rather than because I said nothing.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Don’t Write, Don’t Tell: Take Your Choice

Writers are a quiet lot generally speaking. Oh, we may talk a lot, but really what we talk about is not writing. In fact one of the first lessons you learn as a writer is that if you tell it you won’t write it. Most of us are story-tellers by nature, and there is nothing we enjoy more than spinning a great yarn from a few fragments of imagination or even from fact. Conversations with writers, unless perhaps you are one, can be disappointing.

Who wouldn’t like to sit down with Hemingway or Millay or Tolstoy or Christie, and discuss their stories? They’re dead of course, but frankly what you get from talking to a living writer isn’t much more enlightening. Not about stories anyway. Writers, by their very nature, gather facts, accumulate experiences, view the world from a very personal perspective, but if they are writing about it or think they will write about it, they keep it to themselves.

The thing is, an idea for a story or a plotline or even a title or main character is something that a writer works hard to use. Experience, knowledge, training, all add to the effort, but the real ingredient that matters is imagination: taking a name or an event or a word or fragment of an overheard conversation and remaking that element into a story or character. It is what separates us from those who say that someday they will write a novel about whatever it is they think would make a story, but it doesn’t happen.

We writers basically live in our heads. We see, we store, we push events around in our minds, and then we transfer what that makes to a piece of paper or screen. We have notebooks, scraps of paper, index cards, file folders full of facts and fancies. We speak through what we write. It’s a one-way conversation for the most part, which tells you something about a writer’s personality, if not his work: we like to be listened too, no argument, no response, just listening to (and buying) what we say. That’s the difference between "us" and the rest of you.

Don’t write, don’t tell: take your choice.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Enough is Enough

For about 25 years I was part of a medical research institute. The main thrust was developing new techniques and technologies to protect and repair soldiers who exposed themselves to danger in defense of our nation. It was good work, with good people, for a good reason.

Along with my exposure to the richness of scientific research and the wealth of brain power my colleagues represented, I was also able to examine the motivations and ultimate results of human intervention in changing the outcome of life itself. I began to wonder about where it should all end. Were we right to be expanding the limits of human existence? That’s what we were doing, in a way. Historically, war and pestilence had been the factors that determined life-span and population growth. As we (all of us, not just scientists) expanded the boundaries of life through improvements in agriculture, water quality, clothing design, transportation, medicine, and so much more, we introduced an unanticipated problem: over-population. At the same time, we were doing things that now we understand are reducing the capacity of this planet to support life as we know it. Not soon, but unless we make some radical changes now, later will be here sooner.

As I studied what my colleagues were accomplishing on the scientific side, I came to the conclusion that, at least morally, we could do no less than we were doing to compensate those young people who gave their lives (or at least a part of their lives or of their minds and bodies) so that the rest of us might live free. We were honor-bound. But what about the rest? Disease and trauma are part of living, part of the design for living as a world. There is only so much air and water and earth and life. The number of organisms that our small planet can support is finite. We may not know what the number is (yet), and hopefully we will not find out. New discoveries and old threats may extend life and our ability to live it, at least until the sun fades completely.

The question that I have tried to answer (for myself) is where will I place a stop order? I have a living will, have executed (interesting choice of word there) a DNR, and know that I cannot live forever. Of course, I’m not ready to stop living yet, but that time will come, and I have already made the decision that when I cannot live without machines and vast quantities of pills or injections, when life is simply breathing in and breathing out, I want no more of it.

It is not about me. It is about all of us: When is enough, enough?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

DNR - Double Negative Response

This last week I was very involved in health care issues and solutions. Not personal issues, but issues of how we can best provide good and sufficient health care to the people who are in need, regardless, as they say, of ability to pay. I’ve been involved with health care for much of the last 50 years or so, sometimes as an educator, at others as a provider, and still others as a planner. My work has put me in close contact with the health care delivery system as it exists, and a participant in the work of advancing the goals of high quality care for all. I identify that as care that is good and sufficient. I reject, as a matter of both personal preference and practicality, care that exceeds the needs of the patient and the possibility of good, responsible medicine. It isn’t easy.

It isn’t easy today, especially, when our health – yours and mine – is no longer a reflection of civilized society raised to a very sophisticated level. No, health has now become a picture of unmitigated horror, as we try to cope with rocket-propelled costs, overwhelming opposition, but beyond all that, with politicians who see your health care and mine as something they own that they can play with for their own purposes and benefit.

Politicians today need to stop and ask themselves: "Which side am I on?" Every move, every plan put forward, seems calculated only to achieve an office or hold onto one already owned. One group is only interested in displacing the other, or preventing the other from dong so. Everything they do is at great cost to us, but not to our benefit.

I’ve gotten in the habit, when ending a conversation, of adding: "Take care." I think I need to modify that: "Take care of yourself. Nobody else will."

Of course, that’s always been the answer.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Watching paint peel

Watching paint peel

We often use the metaphor of watching paint dry to indicate dull, uninspired or just plain slow behavior or action. Well, there is the other end of the spectrum: watching paint peel. It happens when the paint has been on for a long time.

This is the year, it seems, that gutters, tractors, trucks and wheelbarrows all have reached some predestined limit on utility and service. I admit that most of the equipment we use to maintain our place is old; fifteen to twenty years would be perhaps a mid-life crisis for some of what we use. The oldest, a 63-year-old tractor, while still valiantly carrying on without a stumble, needs work. So does the fifteen-year-old tractor I use for mowing. And the 30-year-old pick-up, while it still can climb any mountain, haul any load, looks a bit down in the suspension, as it were, with a decided tilt at one corner when loaded. As for the buildings, well there is some evidence that time has played here too. Gutters have shifted, seals are worn, downspouts need constant cleaning as the forest surrounding the house has grown up and up and more inclined to drop twigs and seeds and pine cones and an occasional branch.

Some days, when I walk in the woods or fields surrounding the house, I make lists of things I need to do, things that should be replaced or repaired or just cleaned up. I know what needs to be done, I know how to do it, I just don’t always get around to it until it is a near emergency. In spite of our organized attempts at keeping fresh and up-to-date, regardless of how often we make plans to do something about it, life continues to progress at it’s own rate.

Growing older is sort of like that: little by little, the once-smooth surface of life begins to crinkle and crack. The tightness of skin becomes a problem, drawing too tight for the underlying muscle, slowly peeling, like a bad sunburn, except that at some point you begin avoiding the sun and it still doesn’t help.

Life peels just like paint.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Days Grow Shorter

The days grow shorter but the grass doesn’t. It doesn’t seem to balance, somehow. I know that eventually the grass will stop growing, will just stand there (or lie there if I don’t cut it), slowly turning brown, hiding itself until Spring calls on it again. Still, it seems that there should be some concomitant diminishing in size as well as swiftness. After all, we grow shorter as we age, so why not the grass?

We grow shorter, but our challenges and problems don’t. One would like to think that as we age, as we mature and then become "seniors," we’d earn more than to simply be discounted. Does it bother you (if you’re past 50) that society now categorizes you as something to be discounted? Somewhat like day-old bread, perhaps? Okay, the bread is still good the day after you buy it, even when you get it hot from the bakery oven (if you can still find bread that comes from a bakery rather than a tractor-trailer), but it won’t last forever, so maybe that isn’t quite the right simile for this line of thought, but I think you can see where I’m headed: if our days are shorter, so should be our concerns, distractions, problems. But it doesn’t happen that way.

Like the metaphorical grass, our concerns and problems continue to grow, weeds shoot up no matter how well we clear and cultivate, the grass grows tall, the weeds find purchase, and life (as we know it) goes on.

Years ago experimenters discovered how to limit the size of some crops by careful selection and breeding. Even animals can be bred to increase or decrease size. One hopes that somewhere there is a research protocol seeking ways to reduce the size of our problems.

I’ll take that discount, thank you very much.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Breathing in, breathing out

Last night we participated in a celebration of the life of one of our friends who passed away earlier this Spring. Alice left behind not just her husband, who has been my colleague and our friend for more than 40 years, but children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and her own immediate family and friends and more. We gathered to share stories, meet members of the family we had heard about for years, and over dinner and a few drinks, remember our friend. It was a fitting close to a remarkable life and the person who lived it. It was a fine way to begin moving on.

Moving on is after all, for the living. We cannot live if we cannot pass from one place to the next, nor can we take others with us if we aren’t going anywhere. Life is, in my mind at least, about moving forward. Moving to a new plane, moving to a new level, becoming a new version of an old self, always growing. One doesn’t grow if one stays in the same place for a lifetime. Our friend understood that, I know.

But you don’t have to be a world-traveler to understand the world, to be truly a part of it. Rather, you must be open to the world around you, wherever you are. You must be ready to see new faces, listen to new voices, smell and taste the morsels of life.

Living is so much more than just breathing in and breathing out.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

What’s the story?

Everyone who writes hears the advice: write what you know. In fact, I believe that even when the story seems completely manufactured, it is still based on what the writer knows. What makes the difference is how the writer interprets what he or she knows. That is the writer’s voice.

Many people just love a good story, know one when they read it, but never think they can put one on paper. Everyone has a story, and everyone can tell a story.

Many writers begin with what is basically a memoir, a story constructed around some period of time or event that has remained in the writer’s mind and life.

One of the reasons for writing a story is to share what the writer has learned or experienced. Every day brings knowledge and challenges, rewards and penalties, if only we take the time to look. And all of that can be described in words. Writing is a way of preserving the experiences that make a life.

How many times have you thought that you would like to know more about your parents or grandparents: how they grew up, the tests and prizes that life brought, the happiest and the saddest times they experienced? Others will want to know the same things.

Memoirs often turn out to be stories that find resonance with people who have never heard of the writer, but trying to tell your story to a wider audience doesn’t have to be the reason for writing it. You should write your story to preserve it for those who come after, for your children and their children and so on. That is what storytelling is about. It began before language began, when fire was new and human life began to move beyond waking, hunting, eating and sleeping. The first writers used pictures not just to commemorate an event, but to leave a record of it for those who came after. It was a long time before words became writing and writing became history, but always, always, the urge to preserve and pass on what happened, why and how and to whom, has been part of the human story. It should be part of yours.

Begin with a simple notebook, the kind you used in school perhaps. Begin with your earliest memory. This is, after all, your story, so it should be about what you remember. Along the way you may find an event or memory of an event that is so singular that you will recall details that will help tell the story more fully. You don’t even have to try it out on family members. Let them read what you have written if you want, but if that is not something you want to do, then just write for yourself, and to leave something behind that is uniquely you. If nothing else, writing your story will help you understand it.

What’s the story?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Big Fish, Little Fish

You’re a fish in a pond. It doesn’t matter what your size. If all the others get scooped up, are you going to see yourself as the lone survivor, or the biggest fish in the pond?

There is a point at which taking charge becomes leadership. It happens when ideas and actions coalesce into forward, not retrograde, movement. When that moment is achieved, change happens. Progress becomes the signature of the leader. When nothing happens, or when things seem to move backwards, rot sets in.

Watching fish in a pond, seeing them move about in what looks like Brownian motion, is like watching politicians. Most seem unable to understand the difference between leadership and opposition. There is only so much food, so much oxygen in the pond. There are plenty of open mouths, lots of flapping gills, but no progress. Every fish seems focused only on its own stomach, with little care or concern for the others who must live or die in the same water. When one gets hooked, pulled up to be a carnivore’s dinner, the others seem content to swim on, happy only that they were not caught, not pulled from the water. People, on the other hand, are not fish. We should be able to understand that we are related in many ways to the others in our pond, and that we need to think beyond the next mouthful we are asked to swallow.

It seems to me that today we have far too many fish who want to be the biggest in the pond, even if it is because they would be the only one left.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The cost of convenience

I began using a typewriter regularly when I was perhaps thirteen, maybe younger. We always had one in the house, thanks to my mother. She had started her adult life as a secretary and office worker, had learned those skills in high school, and carried them with her throughout her long life. She never matriculated to a computer, but did have an electric typewriter in her last years, so she was keeping up.

Anyway, I was introduced to the typewriter early on. The pure mechanics of it drew me, watching the keys come up from the amphitheater-like setting, making their marks and returning to their seats, much as speakers must have acted in the forum of Rome centuries before.

Machines and mechanical things have always been at the core of my life, I think, and perhaps that is what really set me on course to become a writer. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: "You don’t write because you want to say something. You write because you have something to say." To that I would add: "And you have a means of saying it."

The first typewriter I actually owned was an ancient Underwood portable. Black, with gold scroll work painted on the frame, white keys with black letters. It had a little bell that went "ding" at the end of the line or when you used the carriage return. Along with the clacking of the keys, it all made a kind of symphony that played along as background music to the words themselves. I was fascinated watching letters form words, words become sentences, paragraphs fill pages.

I have written by hand, of course. There are times and places where that is the only option, and writers are compulsive by nature; we will not be denied the opportunity to put words on paper. I use a computer today because, among other things, finding typewriter ribbons isn’t as easy as it used to be.

My last typewriter was electric, and could almost keep up with my fingers. The only other typewriter I ever owned was so small it fit in my briefcase, weighed only a few pounds, and was so "portable" that I had to make some clamps I could use to keep it from jumping around on the table as I pounded it. Yes, pounded. I once had a secretary who said she could tell what my mood was from the way the typewriter sounded when I wrote. If I was writing something that called for emotion, I punished the keys by hitting them very hard. If the mood was light, so was my touch. When the writing itself was going well there was a kind of flowing chatter from the keys. In later years, when I switched to electronic keyboards, I often broke them by pounding too hard. Fortunately they make stronger keyboards today, because I can still hit the keys pretty hard when I’m really steaming along.

I am limited to a very sturdy laptop now, with a keyboard that is smaller than the ones I grew up with, but I have the advantage of spell checking, cut and paste, typeover and insert; all functions that once required scissors, paste, white-out, fresh paper and even carbons and onionskin and special hard erasers. And I can rewrite with greater ease. There was a time when, if I made a change in page one by adding or subtracting a line, then the whole document would have to be retyped. Secretaries don’t like to retype the same thing over and over anymore than writers do, so you can imagine what a new world this electronic typing and printing have opened to people like me: people who don’t get it right the first time.

It has led, on the other hand, to what I’m sure are sloppy writing habits. Simply because editing and retyping caused so much extra and wasteful work, I wrote more carefully, gave more thought to the words I used before I used them, paid more attention to original organization.

This new way of working is certainly more liberating, but it can release the writer from careful thinking. That is a terrible price to pay for a little convenience.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Finding inspiration

"Finding" is often linked with "loss." In writing though, it has more to do with discovery. I begin my writing session every morning about the same time, expecting to achieve something useful before I stop for lunch. If I am working on a story that I have already begun, picking up where I left off isn’t very hard. Reading the last things I wrote, looking at notes about where I was planning to go next, are all I need to get the flow going. But what about starting with a clean screen or sheet of paper? That requires inspiration.

Looking for things that will start the words flowing is a sure way to miss what’s really already out there. My own way is to simply begin by writing whatever is in my mind as my fingers hover over the keys. It may even be "I have no idea what I want to write today," or something even less inspiring. I have decided over the years that the first words are really unimportant. It is sort of like starting a car. You have the battery in place, there is fuel in the tank, and everything turns over as it should. As soon as you get things moving, the engine fires and begins running by itself . . . most of the time.

I find inspiration in words and also in actions. Seeing something on my morning ramble with Teddy the dog, looking at the birds coming and going to the feeders on the deck, watching a squirrel or rabbit or chipmunk, glimpsing a deer or bear on its way to the river, or sometimes just looking up at the sky, following the movement of the clouds are all things that make ideas surface in my mind. The words that inspire me may be as simple as a story in the newspaper or an e-zine in my email, a recollection of a conversation from the night before, or a line in a book I read before bed. The writer’s craft is being able to recognize among any or all of those stimuli the essence or germ of a story. It may become an essay or a chapter in a novel or a story that stands alone in 200 words or less. Part of the thrill of writing (for me) is seeing something real and true come out of the chaos that is life. I sometimes do sit down and plot a story or an essay, but the final draft seldom matches the original outline.  One must begin somewhere.

Years ago I read an interview with a well-known writer. He responded to a question about his writing habits by saying that every morning he sat down, rolled a clean sheet of paper into his typewriter, and began. If he didn’t have the first word already in mind, if he had no idea where he was headed, if he was suffering from that mysterious malady known as "writer’s block," he would, he said, simply begin with the word "To." It seldom failed him, he reported, but when it did (as it sometimes must), he would simply write: "To hell with it," get up and leave.

That’s enough inspiration for today.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Life in the country: Rehearsal

I was going to write about bears and such this week, but a change in the weather has focused my attention on other country matters.

Friday night, about nine o’clock, the heat, which had reached a record 99.7° in our courtyard, was swept away by the same winds that knocked out power across a wide belt of the northeast and mid-west. It was replaced by darkness. We have an automatic generator that comes on-line if the power is off for 30 seconds, and stays on until service is restored. Well, so far that restoration hasn’t happened. And the sub-station the telephone company uses to provide our internet service has no backup, so we also lost our internet connection. I’m not complaining, mind you. We can cook and wash and run fans, and our freezers are running and we have water and lights. No A/C because the generator wasn’t set up to feed that power-grabber. In the past we have not been without power very long, and we generally can count on cool, dry weather here in the mountains. A hot day now and then, but we haven’t really needed air conditioning often, and our power-outs usually last no more than a few hours or a day at most. Not this time. As I write this we, along with millions of others, are looking at the third full day of heat, and no power company service. For us it is tolerable, at least for the rest of today. Our propane tanks, however, are running down to the bottom. We usually get a fill about now, or maybe in September, and it isn’t ever the full 200 gallons, but today, or tomorrow or whenever the truck gets here, we will probably need every drop of that.

So we are very conscious of power use and needs. We turn out lights, we put fans on low, we use water from the rain barrels rinse dishes. As long as our laptops don’t run out of battery, we can use them, but not to get on the internet.

What this is all about, of course, is what science tells us to expect more of: higher temperatures, greater demands placed on the "grid" that supplies power which in turn will generate more heat and less service and so on. We aren’t ready for this most places. Suppose we run out of propane? We’ll get by. But suppose this becomes the way we live for years in the future? Will we be able to accommodate? Are we ready to conserve what we do have, against future needs? Can we push development of alternate ways of living, given that our schools are seeing cuts to budgets, college is becoming more and more expensive and probably less and less relevant and rewarding? How will be grow ourselves out of the decline we are in? I want to believe that America’s ability to find creative and useful solutions to our problems is still part of our national strength. We are about to find out, I think.

What we are doing today, this weekend before our Independence Day celebration, is finding out more about who we Americans really are. We will discover again the strength and creativity to solve our problems and move forward.

This is a test. Do not call your repairman. Fix it yourself.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Bugs with brains

Morning is outdoor-time for me. If the temperature is at least 20° above zero, and it isn’t raining or snowing, Teddy and I will usually hike up the ridge behind the house, or around the fields below. I walk, Teddy, being a dog, chases and digs, but never comes up with anything he wants. After breakfast, when it is not raining and the temperature is at least above freezing, I workout on the small deck off our bedroom. The sun hits it about nine o’clock, and I look forward to the half-hour or so I spend both for the exercises and the exposure to the natural world.

The woods come up close to the house, and now and then, if I’m out at the right time, I will see one of the flocks of wild turkeys making their way down the slope, headed for the fields and the river beyond. Occasionally deer will wander past, maybe a hundred feet away, headed for their morning browse and drink. Always there are hawks to watch, finches to hear, and chipmunks to amuse as they move like wind-up toys across the open space between house and wood. And there are insects. Bugs. Flies and moths and butterflies and bees and hornets, out in their endless search for food. There are always lessons to be learned.

In the late spring we put the cushions on the few pieces of furniture on the bedroom deck: a chair, a glider and a chaise longue. The upholstery is a now-faded pattern of realistically depicted leaves and vines and flowers. The last few days, standing there stretching or bending or lifting (and repeating), I have become aware of a behavior pattern I’ve not noticed before: small bees and even some flies land on the parts of the cushions most in the sun. Not just anywhere, but right on the blossoms depicted on the fabric. I think that even though the colors have faded over the years, the eye-brain pathway of the fly or bee must recognize the shape and perhaps even the color of flowers. I’m not very knowledgeable about flower names, but I recognize the ones depicted because they are very realistically done, and I suspect the same is true for the insect: it looks real enough to warrant exploration. Of course, when there is no nectar, no tactile sensation of a leaf or flower, the wings move and the bodies lift and off the visitors go. But they keep coming back, hoping I guess, that things will change, and happiness will replace disappointment if they just return often enough. They are seeing what they want to see, hoping for the best without doing anything positive to make it happen.
Rather like some people, don’t you think?

Make a better world, don’t just expect it.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Shmoo you

It’s almost mid-summer, and I find myself still working up the wood we had put aside for the winter past. I usually try to keep a month or so ahead, but this past heating season (for us it begins in late August and ends sometimes as late a last week) has been kinder than expected, and I still have a month or two of wood left. I have yet to finish splitting and moving it from the woodpile to the stacks beside the outdoor furnace. Fortunately I enjoy working with wood, but I have to admit that, as I grow older, I like it in shorter episodes. Still, the idea of cool dry summers and heating with our own wood in the winter is part of what drew us here to the mountains.

I’m not much of a gardener. I know the difference between trees and plants and grass, and can even identify some of the trees by their leaves or bark or needles. I’m getting better at knowing which short green things are weeds and which are edible fruit and vegetable producers, so I no longer cut the good stuff and leave the bad when I mow or trim around the house. We do have a vegetable garden, where we grow tomatoes and lettuce and that sort of thing, and because they are well-marked, I know what is what and where it is. All of this has been acquired over many years of cutting or digging things that I should have left to grow, while leaving weeds (they have pretty flowers, sometimes) that should have been cut and removed.

I’m not alone, it turns out, in not knowing what to leave and what to take away. I read just this morning about a new insect (new to our shores) that eats kudzu. Kudzu, you may recall, was imported with the expectation that it would provide food and fiber for Southern farmers to replace crops that were depleting the soil and a way of life. Kudzu has, if you haven’t noticed, taken over any abandoned (and sometimes occupied) land in its way. But now there is a new import that could keep it under control. The problem is, it also eats soy plants, and so depending on where you live, you might encourage or try to eradicate the little import. It is difficult to know, sometimes, what the consequences of an act might be, isn’t it? Kudzu was considered a sort of Shmoo. Don’t know about Shmoos? A figment of a cartoonist’s imagination, it was a bowling pin-shaped character capable of providing everything needed to live well, reproduced without help, and lived to serve, as it were. Al Capp, who drew Li’l Abner, Daisy Mae and the rest of the Dogpatch gang, created the Shmoo. It was, I think, a jab at the post-WW II mind set that technology would answer every human need, every empty promise of every politician, everything, in short, we would want in the new world we were entering. It didn’t happen. We haven’t gotten what we expected, and we haven’t gotten what we feared. On balance, I would say, we have learned that what we wanted might have been what we should have feared.

Perhaps we need to give more thought to promises about satisfying our every need, and realize we  must still depend on ourselves.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Whadda ya know?

I like old things, which is good, since I am one (an old thing) and since I have to be around me all the time, I find it helpful to like me. I also like the me I could have been, or should have been, or hope to be (I’m still trying to decide what I want to be when I grow up). Of course most of us, maybe all of us, have this in common: we aren’t the person we think we are or wish we were or hope to be. I think that is what motivates fiction writers: we want to create the world as we wish it to be.

When we create characters, and then put them in places and situations where they display themselves, we are making them do and be what our dreams and nightmares tell us we might have been or could be (at least in our imaginations). None of this is strikingly original thinking, I know, nor is it satisfying writing. It is simply my own view of why I write, I suppose. "Write what you know," we are told early on, and it is very true: we can create a world, or a scene or a situation, but the characters don’t come alive unless we have some model, some image to follow. So we look into ourselves.

To develop as a writer it’s important to be able to see "in the round;" see beyond the comfortable known responses to different situations. That comes with time (and age) and growth, but requires one essential characteristic: empathy. If you cannot put yourself in another’s place, cannot see another’s point of view, you cannot write a rounded, fully dimensioned character. Stories will be flat, people and events contrived.

It is easy to write the same story over and over, just changing locales or shading events. It is called "formula writing," and if the formula is a good one, the writer achieves a degree of success. Readers often stay with a writer because they know what will happen, they know and like the characters, they even begin to believe the characters are real. They keep coming back like children coming home. They don’t even have to ask where the cookies are or for permission to raid the icebox. For the writer, though, a formula is restrictive and unrewarding. Every new story, for me, is a journey of exploration and discovery. It is what keeps me looking forward.

It is more than writing what I know.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Nature of Things

I often turn to the natural world for inspiration. Today I didn’t have to look far. It came right to me, to the part of the deck where the bird feeders are. It came in the form of a black bear. A young one. One small enough to climb the ten or so feet from the ground to the deck. I finally caught a glimpse of him about ten o’clock last night when the dogs alerted us to his return. It wasn’t his first visit to the deck. Two days earlier we discovered the flag pole bent double, a feeder lying on its side on the deck railing, the bottom ring on the ground below. A large metal can full of sunflower seed lay on its side, open, but still nearly full. Something had scared him off then, just as Teddy’s warning bark had this time.

We had been sitting at dinner earlier when Teddy, the big guy who spends most of his time in the studio under a desk, began to voice his concern about what turned out to be another visit by our evening caller. I went to investigate and, sure enough, one of the bird-feeders was lying on the deck, badly damaged this time, and sun flower seeds were everywhere. I picked up the broken feeder and moved it and its twin, plus the metal container of seed into the studio.

Perhaps half-an-hour later we were sitting reading in the library, when both dogs, Teddy and a little white poodle sort of guy named Lucky, attracted our attention. From inside the studio, through the big glass door, I could see our visitor still on the ground. A juvenile, about 75 to 90 pounds, round and soft looking, the cub looked up when I slid the door open, turned and ambled away into the brush and trees beyond the deck. Just walked away. I tried to wait him out so I could make a really loud noise and, hopefully, scare him away. He must have known that, because he didn’t return. Until about four-thirty in the morning. Then Lucky alerted us, standing at the open door to the small deck off our bedroom. I closed the door and we went back to sleep. Later, when Teddy and I had taken our early morning walk in the fields, I checked the deck and saw that the bear had indeed come back and very nicely, like a good guest, cleaned up all the seeds he had scattered the night before. On the ground, from the flattened grass and weeds, I could easily follow his path away from the house and into the trees.

He will pay a return visit tonight, I’m sure. Only this time he won’t find anything. We will now be rigorous in bringing in the feeders and seed at dusk, until he decides there is nothing here for him. He managed, earlier in the week, to overturn and open our compost barrel, but he hasn’t yet discovered the container where we keep the garbage cans (or maybe he has and the ammonia I pour on a pad turns him away). So we have something to look forward to, I guess.

Life in the country is full of things to write about.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Beyond Home

I find myself thinking about the past – about how I relate to it – about others.

I think about growing up during WW II.

I think about being draft-eligible after the Korean war ended.

I think about being in Nam.

I think about a quarter-century of colleagues who started in the "brown shoe" army and ended in "Army Green."

I think about "jungle fats" and desert cammo, about sky blue and Navy blue and colors known and unknown, to whom we owe our thanks and our freedom.

Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines in this nation at least, don’t start wars, seldom end them. Those who take up braid and brass, especially today, do it for as many reasons as there are men and women who serve, and they all end up doing it for the same reason in the end: to preserve and protect us all from those whose envy is so great that they believe their mission is holy and unstoppable.

To those who stand in their way, who stand today between us and those who would destroy us: we all thank you. Simply that. What more is there to say?

Thank you.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Writing Spoken Here

Writing Spoken Here

Last week I admit I had some fun playing with words. Writers can have fun and if we aren’t we shouldn’t be writing in the first place. If you are not a writer, or haven’t tried to be one, the you might think that those of us who do support ourselves (even modestly), are really just having fun (at the reader’s expense). Well that isn’t exactly true.

Writing, like any other work, is first of all, just that: work. It differs from those occupations people pursue only for money, in that we do it because we love it, and love all the bits and pieces: words, parts of speech, spelling of words, punctuation, grammar, even outlining and indexing and all of those things that make up the writer’s box of tools. And of course, reading. That’s the best tool a writer has. It’s the one that teaches us how to write, mostly by showing us how others have accomplished the single objective we share: telling a story.

Writing can begin with something as simple as a letter or even a thank-you note. When most writers were very young, someone insisted that they write what they were feeling, in a form as common as a letter to a grandparent or aunt or uncle. Perhaps it was a thank-you for a birthday present, and you learned not only to say thank you, but to describe, however simply, how the gift made you feel, or what you did when you first opened the package. Such a start teaches one to think about what has happened, to describe an event or a feeling so that someone else can share it. (Let me emphasize right here that "awesome" is not an adequate or acceptable description under most circumstances.) From that beginning, future writers learn the pleasure that finding the right word, the perfect expression (and perhaps the correct spelling) can bring. It takes time, of course, to progress from a simple note to "real" writing, but once the pleasure of it is experienced, the desire for more begins to grow.

There is nothing as satisfying as writing something that "sings." Do it once, and you will want to do it again and again. And soon you are writing and writing and writing.

The compulsion to put words into readable form is one that doesn’t go away. A writer may be speechless, but never wordless.

Which brings us to the promise made in my previous blog: what the obscure words in that essay mean (in alphabetical order):

          Bumwhush - Ruin, obscurity, "gone to the bumwhush"

          Cabobble - To mystify, puzzle, confuse
          Daw - To be fully awakened; to be dawed: to have shaken off sleep, to come to one’s self out     of a deep sleep

          Quafftide - Time of drinking (As in "It’s five O’clock somewhere)

         Ramfeezled -To exhaust oneself with work

         Ugsumness - Terribleness

These and other old words are to be found in The Word Museum, the Most Remarkable English Words Ever Forgotten, by Jeffery Kacirk, (c) 2000, Barnes & Noble Books, 2004

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Living Language

All languages (except perhaps Latin), are "living languages." They change with the times over (usually) a long time. We were discussing just that issue in the writing group I belong to, with more than a little time spent on the changes the internet and "social media" have wrought in our written language: @ for at, txt for text, and so on. For writers, of course, language is sacred, words are nearly all we have to trade, and (especially among those of a certain age) any deviation from what we speak and write seems the end of civilization as we know it.

But the truth is, language is alive. It grows and changes just as we do. We may not always realize it, but (aside from "catch phrases" we pick up from younger people) our language is modified almost daily. New discoveries, new technologies, new philosophies add words to our language, but so does usage. What something meant a century ago might be totally different today.

I remember a colleague who came to America from Hungary after the revolution is 1956. Aside from having learned English from a Norwegian ship’s captain, he remained connected to his own first language through his family and friends who also escaped to America. The aging of language was pointed out to me when we were working with a client whose parents had come to America at least a generation earlier. The man had learned Hungarian at home (unlike my home, where my Hungarian relatives never used that language), but to my colleague the generational difference was immediately apparent in the other man’s use of words that by the 1960s were considered "archaic." For Frank (Ferenc), the other’s Hungarian was more formal, less "today," than his own. So it is with English, or any other language that is spoken every day.

One only has to look back a generation for examples, the most obvious of which, I suppose, would be "gay." It is a simple word that once only meant happy, cheerful, and the like. But what about "like?" English is confusing, of course. "Like" once had only two meanings: similar to something else, and in the most common use, it meant to appreciate or have good feelings about a person or object: I like coffee, or I like my friend – that sort of thing. Today it signifies that you have looked at someone’s posting on an online page (such as this one, which really isn’t a page at all), or seen someone’s picture or even a product. Or the word "wall." That is a term that has, for centuries, meant a separation, or a physical structure. Today it identifies a "page" on some internet screen; one on which you might "write" a message.

The point of all this is that though we who use words as tools of our trade may think of them as fixed, immutable, meaning exactly what they did at the moment of putting them on paper (or a "virtual" page) truth is, they are alive; they are not static or fixed. Words and their meanings change because language is a living thing. It is not meant to cabobble, but perhaps to daw us from our mental isolation. But the ugsumness of it all makes one feel ramfeezled, doesn’t it? One looks at the clock to see if it is yet quafftide, or if one is indeed on the road to bumwhush after all.

I will provide translations in next week’s edition of OutOfMyMind.

Sunday, May 6, 2012


As a writer I’m often like a traveler without a GPS: I’m dependent on road signs I can understand a I flash by. I know my destination, have an idea of the general direction, but am easily misdirected onto byways leading nowhere. I find backing up an essential driving skill. It’s the same with writing.

Often I begin a story or an essay (like this one) with a general idea of where I’m headed, maybe even have the last scene or line as the target, and then the journey begins. Thoughts, characters, situations appear ahead, and if I’m driving too fast I miss the turning that will lead me . . . where? I don’t always know. So I keep on driving on.

Movement forward is not the only direction. Sometimes taking side-trips (even if you must back up, or turn around, or find a new way out of where you have written yourself) can be just what your journey or your story needs. If you have been driving the same road every day, eventually you fail to see what’s around you. If you write the same story every time, especially if you find a formula that works for you, you run the risk of what in driving terms is known as "highway hypnosis:" failing to see things around you until you are suddenly in the middle of the crash you are about to commit. If awareness comes soon enough you might avoid the crash. Otherwise you will find yourself picking up the pieces (if you survive). The same is true about writing, at least for me.

Every story begins with a destination. My road maps are outlines, my way-points are chapters, my places to visit are the characters and their history. I can’t imagine a story (or even an essay) that would reveal itself to me from beginning to end, all at once. Neither can I look forward to a journey where every turn and stop is pre-determined and met on schedule. Turn the key, throw the map on the backseat, and let the road take you. The end of the journey is the destination, but not the routemap.

Enjoy the ride!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Goodbye Max

We said goodbye to Max this week. He was only about 12 (we rescued him ten years ago), and he spent the last decade in what must be every dog’s dreamland: acres and acres to explore, animals to chase, places to investigate, and investigate and investigate.

Max always accompanied me on my early morning ramble. Sometimes around the edges of the fields we overlook, sometimes up on the ridges behind the house, and for years, as long as the water in the river wasn’t frozen, he would have a swim.

He was a big dog, part Australian Shepard, part something else (we speculate about this, of course). He was quiet, barking only when he needed to sound an alarm. Then he turned into a raging threat: leaping half his length above the floor, flews pulled back, teeth bared, jaws open wide enough to swallow you, forepaws up and threatening . . . until you gained entry to the house. That was a sign you were okay, and he would try one of his most endearing acts: putting his head between your legs, pressing against you as you rubbed his ears and scratched his head. But if you were on the other side of the door, it was a different story.

Max often slept in front of the door to our bedroom, usually far enough away so that it could be opened, but sometimes I would have to push hard to slide him far enough to get out in the morning. He weighed, at his peak, about 98 pounds, and was all muscle and strength. Walking him on a lead was not a comfortable experience if he wanted to move. It was "Now! Let’s go!" and unless I was prepared for it, he would drag me along until I could dig in and hold him.

In has last years Max slowed down, but didn’t stop. Our early morning walks continued right up to his last day. Climbing the hill back to the house was hard, almost more than his weakened hip could manage, but he soldiered on. The end was peaceful, induced, healing for us and for him. No more pain, no more difficulty breathing, only an endless sleep.

We have many pictures of Max to help us remember: sleeping on his back with such abandon, or acting out his dreams with moving legs and noisy breaths. Max invented tobogganing, a trick he showed to the other dogs when it snowed. He would get to the top of a smooth hill, throw himself on his back, wiggle until he started sliding, and then just head on down to the bottom, pick himself up and climb back to the top, and do it again and again. I was happy that this last winter was so mild, because had we had snow, Max would have wanted to go sliding and that would not have been good for him.

If there is a dog heaven, I like to think that here on our farm is where he found it. And if heaven means being remembered for the good and wonderful things one has done, then Max is surely there.

Goodbye, Max

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Freeing the Captive

We are captives of ourselves. Does that seem self-evident when you think about it? The only limitations on us are those we impose, knowingly or not. I once formulated the following philosophy: Given that you have all ten fingers and toes, you get out of life exactly what you want - - - whether you know it or not. That is: barring some missing or broken parts, either physical or intellectual, what happens in your life is of your own making.

It does little to help if you complain or blame. Trying to find the reason for whatever state you are in, physically or intellectually or emotionally, may help you understand it, but doesn’t do much to move you on (or keep you where you are if that’s where you want to be). One of the grand features of being human is that along with those ten fingers and ten toes, comes the ability to move at will. Forward, backward, up or down or sideways doesn’t matter as much as having the ability to do so, and exercising it.

I’m not sure what brought these thoughts to mind today, except that for the moment I seem to have come to a stop creatively. Writing has become a bit harder (it’s always hard), and less enjoyable (that has always made the difficulty worthwhile – joy of writing a collection of words that says what I want to say in a way that makes me smile).

"It doesn’t sing," has always been the worst thing I could hear from a viewer or a reader (fiction, non-fiction, print or audio or film, it doesn’t matter). Words should sing, should do what music does, what art does: lift you up and away from where you are, spur a moment of recognition, make you say "Yes! That’s what I feel." It will not be all joyful, of course; none of us has a life that is only joy. Were that the case, we would never have happiness or generate a laugh from deep within, or release tears that cleanse the mind as they clear and lubricate our vision. So when my words don’t sing, I know it is the music within that is flat.

I am, for the moment, a captive of myself.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Some Business

Writing is a tough business. In fact, it’s hardly a business at all if you are the writer. It’s tempting to add "these days" to that, but from what I have read and heard over the years, it hasn’t changed much, or even gotten worse than it was years ago. Just more of it.

My mother was a writer, even published (but never paid) when she was still a young woman. Poetry was her specialty. A dozen or so years ago, when my sister and I were cleaning out the treasurers she left behind, we discovered clips of her published work, as well as rejection slips for work never accepted anywhere. When we were children she made up stories for us, and in her later years she published a brief memoir about her early years as an immigrant from Russia growing up in a small town in North Carolina. Very interesting for her family, and perhaps inspiring for others who might have been given a copy, but her writing never went beyond that.

There are a lot of people with stories to tell, and some of them are gifted tellers of tales. I am part of a small group of writers who meet more-or-less regularly to read to each other, gauge the success of what we are working on, and eventually, when the stars are properly aligned, get published. We are all "seniors" (meaning we are regular recipients of offers from companies that offer discounts if you’re over 50), some more senior than others. Our writings are often directly based on our own lives, or projections of our lives through fictional characters. After all, how better to "write what you know," than to recreate your own life as fiction?

Well, there is a better way for many people, I think: write the truth. If you only write for your friends or family, it is still writing. It is sharing what you have learned over a lifetime. Your story might even influence a young relative or friend to pursue (or not) a lifestory line of his or her own. When our daughter was very young I often told her: "You may be the one who changes the world. Or you may change the one who changes the world. Or the one who changes the one who changes the one who changes the world."

That isn’t to say that every personal story will have meaning beyond your immediate family or circle. Most likely it will not. Still, one never knows (and often never lives long enough to find out) what influences another person. We all have stories. We all have lives. We can all tell stories. The stories we tell are a part of what makes up the world we all share.

Your story may change the one who changes the world.

Sunday, April 8, 2012


What is it about sunlight that makes us feel better? And what is it about being outside, in the sun, that improves even an already good day?

I’m not a sun worshiper as such. I don’t find just lying in the sun appealing or even relaxing, though there are days when taking a few minutes to stand in a sunny place can fix a lot of little things in both body and mind. I can do that for maybe five minutes before I get uncomfortable and restless and have to get moving again. I’m just not one to sit still very long unless I’m at some task that absorbs my effort and energy in that way. But open the door and let me out, and I immediately feel better, even when I was feeling well and happy inside.

It seems to me that being outside gives one a perspective that is of human scale. A large part of civilization’s problems, I believe, center around a world that has grown too large, too crowded, too unmanageable because everything has grown beyond what the human in each of us can comprehend. It is a matter of scale.

In the beginning, when our brains were first able to encompass the idea of past, present and future, the world we experienced was on a scale we could comprehend. The smallest thing we knew was an insect or a seed; the largest, a tree outside the cave or a distant mountain, a river or lake or even an ocean. In between were other humans of all sizes, and animals and plants, insects and seeds, all manner of natural things that had size and shape our brains could comprehend. Millennia later everything has grown except, perhaps, our ability to feel comfortable with it all.

Yes, the Grand Canyon is bigger than any other ditch, Mt. Everest far taller than any other mountain, but one approaches them slowly, from a distance. You don’t turn a corner and find it in front of you. Not so a man-made structure. You turn a corner and there it is. If you are on foot approaching a mountain in can take a day or more to get to it. You can see it getting bigger as you approach it, can get used to it, even. It is a matter of scale. In a car or a plane what is ahead can be behind you in a matter of minutes or hours, not days or weeks. You don’t approach, you confront.

So when we go outside and stand in the sun, surrounded by trees and hills and even mountains or canyons, we are in a place where the scale of things is familiar, so we relax our anxieties, put aside our discomfort, let the warmth and light of the natural world lead our thoughts and emotions into comfortable, familiar places. The sound of the wind, of birds and frogs and scurrying animals doesn’t startle or cause fear. Instead we are soothed, warmed, protected because we understand our one-ness with the world around us, on a scale we can see and hear and feel.

It restoreth the soul.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Coming Soon to a Page Near You

An article in today’s New York Times about the rise of self-publishing focused on authors mostly under the age of 18. Some of the books described were written by pre-teens, and one or two have even attracted some readership. An interesting phenomenon but, in itself, not particularly important in the world of writing and publishing.

Self-publishing isn’t new, of course. In fact, what is new (in the long history of publishing) is what the industry refers to as "traditional" publishing: a house paying an author and underwriting all the costs associated with bringing a book to market. It is a practice that only goes back a hundred years or so. Gutenberg, you will recall, made printing (and subsequently, publishing) possible over 500 years ago (1455) by applying movable type to make multiple copies of the bible. (The Chinese, of course, invented movable type far earlier, but I won’t go into that here.)

Between the Gutenberg era and the modern era books were published by subscription. If you had a manuscript you thought worthy, you took it to a publisher with enough orders to get it printed. If you had more subscribers than the book cost, you could be encouraged to try it again, perhaps, and even quit your day job. That still doesn’t happen very often - - - quitting your day job, that is.

So today we are going backward. Writers of all ages are finding self-publishing an option worth pursuing. More than one author has moved into the best-seller list after a self-published work has been picked up by a "traditional" publisher. Many more languish on Amazon, of course, or find a limited readership among specialty readers. Getting a self-published book reviewed, for instance, is no more difficult than one that is traditionally published. Getting the review published is still a game, and one the big houses may be able to engineer better, but still cannot guarantee. If you self-publish, however, you are more likely to get reviewed by friends and family than by a paid reviewer (yes, book reviewers are paid for their work).

Traditional publishers don’t have the budgets they once had, or the readership, so they buy fewer manuscripts from unknown writers and publish far fewer new authors and titles than they did in the "old days." Which leaves the door open for the electronic and print-on-demand publishers.

Two of my books (Accidents of Time and Place, and Mixed Freight: Checking Life’s Baggage) were originally published by a "traditional" house. That is, I paid nothing to have the book designed, printed, put up on Amazon and made available to booksellers through the big wholesalers. Promotion has been up to me. Letting people know about the books, setting up readings and interviews and going to book fairs, even placing books in stores has all been left to me. One, Mixed Freight, I arranged for conversion to and sale on Kindle, and a third one, A Beautiful Place for an Ugly Death, I self-published directly to Kindle. Again, promotion has been entirely in my hands, and if I am not on the NYT best-seller list, the fault lies with me (either as the author or as the promoter - take you pick). If I’m ever to be on a best-seller list, it will be by my own hand, as it were.

I’ve earned my living as a writer for almost all of my working life. I actually retired from paid full-time employment 20 years ago yesterday. I’ve been writing for myself since then. I can do that because I worked many years to achieve financial independence. I can now write what I want to write, and in this new world, publish if I think it is worth sharing. At my age the idea of spending seven or ten years sending the same story out to agents and publishers over and over again has very little to recommend it. I was thrilled the first time I received a letter accepting a manuscript, and even though I now realize that the company publishes a lot of really poor writing, I’m happy that I’ve had the experience. If I have more manuscripts that I think are worth a reader’s time, I will probably give the traditional way a shot or two, and then, if things keep coming back with polite refusals, I’ll head back to Kindle or even a "traditional" self-publishing house.

If a word falls on a page and nobody reads it, is that really writing?