Sunday, December 29, 2013

Irresponsible Me: The Labor of Not Working

When I was still a boy you didn’t get a Social Security number until you went to work. I was twelve years old when I got mine. It was a summer job, in an office, where I was what was then called an "office boy." I did whatever the office manager or the secretary or the boss needed me to do. I remember little of that job, except one day when the owner of the business said I was a CW: a Conscientious Worker. I don’t fully recall why he said it, but I remember the words. And I have tried to live up to them ever since.

It is now winter, and another year is ending in a few days, and I’m still working. Lately, though, I have been irresponsible. I have put aside things that need doing, such as finishing a manuscript so that it will be ready for publication, and taking time to repair things I need, but that aren’t working at the moment. But then, neither am I. And it is a strange feeling.

Feeling irresponsible and being irresponsible are, I’m certain, two different things, but lately they have been converging, and I’m not sure I’m as disturbed by that as I should be. Or used to be. Am I still a "CW?" Is it important that I be one? I don’t have a "day job" anymore. Haven’t for some years. Fortune and a modicum of planning made that possible. Fortune because years earlier I made a decision to stay with an organization and the people in it, gradually building the wherewithal to retire; able to not work if I didn’t want to. I thought that would be what I would do. I described my plans then as buying a country store in a remote part of the world, where I could sit on the porch and rock and watch the world go by. And when customers stopped, I could get up, go inside - - - and walk on out the back door where I would have another rocking chair.

I never went into the store business, and in fact I have never sat down to rock. Instead I simply continued what I had been doing for all those years since college (and before). I have worked: often for clients, but over the last ten years, mostly for myself. Writing is a solitary way of working, and it suits me well. Until now.

A few weeks ago, looking over unpublished and unfinished stories, I thought that it was time to stop. Time to gather those together and either finish or burn them, and then I could sit back and just rock.

The other day, driving back to the mountain, I suddenly saw/heard/felt a new story. It came nearly fully developed and energized, from beginning to end, the way most of my writing has. I sat down this morning and sketched out the plot, even developed some of the characters, and felt vaguely uncomfortable: I had new work to do, as well as old work to finish. Stories don’t stop just because I want them to.

Maybe all of that sort-of-guilt was just the let down into winter, and I’m not ready to burn it all just yet. Anyway there are too many words yet to be written for me to simply close the book.

So much for irresponsible me!

Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

". . . . And a Healthy New Year"

At this time of year, when we think so much about giving to others, we sometimes seem to forget, I think, that giving is not always to be measured in boxes wrapped or finery worn. It is really, I believe, a time when we should all be thankful for what we have and try to show that by sharing with others. Thanksgiving to the New Year seems to have become more abut me, than about you. That’s sad.

One of the big issues of this year we are completing has been health care. Can there be anyone in America, if not the whole world, who hasn’t at least heard about our national discussion (oh, if it were only discussion) about who pays for what, and how much, just to keep body (if not soul) together when illness strikes or accidents befall or age makes its final call. The discussions, the shouting, the insults, the painful hopefulness that something can be done to help this nation rise from 50th in the world in health care back to the top spot it once enjoyed seem tied to rigid posts of "all about me" thinking. We still can’t figure out how to do what the other 49 nations above us have already learned.

Of course there are those who say what we have is fine, that making healthcare affordable is not something we have any right or reason to expect, that people should be responsible for themselves, and don’t need any intervention from the government. The anti-government sentiment, while a part of our most basic concepts, was not, I don’t think, intended to bring or encourage or extend suffering to others. One wonders how we got to this point in our national psyche that we, or at least some of us, think it is okay to consider some of our fellow citizens as disposable. Because that’s what the resistance to fixing the health care system is all about.

I am reminded of a sentiment expressed by one Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), an early advocate of and researcher in the science of evolution. He worked in the period when it was still but a theory, when the science had not caught up with the facts, but he had some very interesting thoughts about what it all meant. Among other things, he was a staunch advocate of withholding help from those who could not hep themselves. It was, he believed, not natural (in terms of evolution) to do things that would keep in the gene pool, people unable to work or provide for themselves, and that by denying help, they would be eliminated from the human family, leaving an ever better, stronger, more likely to survive population.

Time and scientific study has proven Spencer a man of narrow vision if nothing else. As science probes and discovers more and more about plants and animals and even atoms, it becomes more a fact than a speculation that other life forms, other mammals and other species perform altruistic acts, that even some plants have evolved to protect other plants.

Much of what Spencer, and Darwin and others arrived at by what are now primitive means, has now been demonstrated by true scientific investigation. We learn new things nearly every minute, it seems to me. And that is good, it is evolutionary, it is why we will be able to overcome the new threats of disease and perhaps, even those posed by people who disagree over fundamental things like freedom.

The question that I would like to answer in this season of the year, the season in which we talk about giving being better than receiving, that sharing is a way of loving beyond the people we know, is this: if Spencer had been able to make his point of view the standard of the world, what kind of world would we have this year, this season, this day.

And one more: would you and your family be here to share it?

Greetings of the season.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Remembering Winter

We had snow again this weekend. Last weekend it came down as rain, then snow, then sleet, then ice, then snow. It was just like winter for a day or two. Then it got all nice and sunny and the temperatures went above the teens and above freezing. And then on Saturday it did it again. So it was back to clearing the driveway and the walkway and throwing snowballs at the dogs and that kind of fun. Only a couple of inches, but when you live on a mountainside and the way out is downhill, there is work to do.

The year before last, winter forgot us. Last year it tried to make up for that failure. We thought we were again on the no-snow list until the morning of Christmas Eve. For the first time in more than a year, I had to put chains and the snow blade on the old truck, turn the heater on and spend time grinding away at several inches of snow and ice. The sun was out all day, and that helped, but we still had shady places where the surface was slippery and then muddy for a week. The next week the forecast was for slippy-sliding and more to come, but all we got was rain. I’m not complaining. We seldom find ourselves with too much water. Even now, with water from underground springs standing in the fields, and muddy gravel instead of a firm driveway, we are happy to see the water, and hope that it sinks in before it evaporates.

It wasn’t the worst winter we’ve had, of course. When we first moved here full-time, we had snow starting in September and ending in June. July 4th was an occasion to pull out the down jackets to sit outside and watch the fireworks. One morning that first December, our outdoor thermometer recorded 36 degrees below zero. Talk about crisp winter air! And we loved it.

A couple of decades later, it’s a little different story. Winter has lost it’s thrill, even here. Global warming brings us days in the 50s and 60s, even in the last week, and we welcome it, hope for more of it, spend as much time out in it as we can and hope it will last. At the same time, we worry that the lack of snow, the dry days of Autumn and the prospect of a dryer than usual Spring will begin to affect our deep well. We have rain barrels that provide water for the gardens, and no indication that our underground water source is in jeopardy, but still we think about the future. What happens here if the water table collapses beneath us? What if the Spring rains don’t come, and the Summer rains are sparse, and the Fall rains light? We live in the woods, surrounded by hundreds of tall, strong trees. There is a creek (called a river by those who have lived here a lifetime) that runs through it, and underground springs that feed the small pond in the large field across from the house, but if the dryness turns to fire, what then?

So we think about how we can conserve, how we can make the most of the least in order to protect ourselves and the future of this place. We have it pretty well worked out for now. We can’t ignore the obvious, however. Looking back over years of personal journals, there are notes on the weather at the beginning of each entry, and it isn’t a pretty picture. Little by little our climate has changed. Easier to live with perhaps, but the progression toward a more unpleasant climate is obvious. For the people who choose to live along the coast, the progress is even more obvious, as the shoreline moves back, back toward the houses and busnesses that make a community. It may be inches at a time, but it is happening.

For years I’ve joked that we’ve always wanted to live by the shore. We’re were just waiting for it to get here.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Keep On Rolling

Summer has finally gone! After the 65 degrees and clear skies we had on Thursday, and the 55 degrees and rain we had on Friday, and the partly cloudy 35 degree day yesterday, today we have snow. And in the 20s. And more coming. Yesterday, before the sun went down, I walked to the barn where I keep the heavy-duty stuff, and put the chains on the front wheels of the truck, checked the hook-up of the snow blade, and moved it to the house. Parked in front of the garage door, windshield covered with a plastic sheet, it was ready to do its job should the predicted snow come. (It did, but so far not even half an inch, so the truck remains where it is, ready but waiting.) Beside it is the old SUV (from before the term was coined), and like the truck, a four-wheel drive affair. Not having to plow in front of the garage doors will be a help, should the snow actually accumulate. Still down in the barn is a small garden tractor with its snow blade in place, ready should I need to clear the harder to reach parts of the driveway. While the truck is more than 30 years old, and the SUV is 25 years old, the little garden tractor is only about 18 years old.

I think about replacing all of these toys from time-to-time, but don’t. I did buy a replacement for the little tractor about 4 years ago. It was up-to-date with a larger engine, an “automatic” transmission and a cup holder. After five hours use, when it failed to perform some simple tasks, and in fact exposed me to a couple of near serious situations, I took it back, pulled my old one out of the back of the barn, made a few modifications and repairs, and I’m still using it. Oh, it takes a bit more maintenance than the new one should have, but it is dependable, simple, fixable, and more importantly, I can do it. It doesn’t have some efficient but mysterious drive train, or a delicate electronic system or fancy attachments, that’s true. And I can stick a water bottle in a pocket I’ve hung on the back of the seat (under the sheep skin that covers the tattered upholstery). It has blinking red lights on the back, so when I drive it down the road that separates the fields from the barn, should anyone be driving on the road, I can be seen (another mod I added years ago). And I know enough to be ready for it to stop or drop a belt or otherwise need assistance.

Yes, I have had to replace a few parts and belts over the years, and it doesn't run like it did when it was new, but then I don't treat it very well. I have stuck it in mud, locked up over rocks and stumps, pulled trailers and wood splitters, used it every winter to push snow. I have had to make a few modifications to keep it running, but the original tires are still on it, it starts right away if the battery isn't dead (had to replace it this month after about ten years), and although it occasionally leaves me stranded, and I have to walk back to the barn and get my recovery vehicle (my '49 Farmall Cub with a trailer set up with a ramp and a hand winch), it is the one the new one was supposed to replace. I will probably keep using it as long as I need something to mow and tow with.

Which gets down to the bottom line: I have old, more-or-less reliable equipment because, I guess, I'm old and more-or-less reliable, and we understand each other. I can fix whatever is wrong with any of that stuff, and if it isn't quite up to spec, well neither am I.

We just keep on rolling along.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Stretching Life

Have you ever watched a dog stretch? Have you ever had a dog who watches you stretch?

For many years I have pursued a personal exercise program that begins with long walks or hikes before breakfast, accompanied by whatever dogs we have at the time. Gradually, as I have changed, so has my program. A few years ago I added stretching and toning exercises to improve my flexibility and strength. I even became somewhat obsessive about it, feeling guilty when I didn’t follow the program. The walking was supplemented by a treadmill when the weather prevented my actually being outside, but the rest of the program I carried out faithfully, nearly every day. Eventually time and age and a kind of fatigue began to make it less compulsive, but still part of the day, unless I could find a good excuse to not do it.

The walking part has been curtailed for about a year. Some mornings I can push past the inevitable, sometimes painful transition from horizontal to vertical, from standing to walking, from going from level ground to rising or falling terrain. And the dogs have changed, too.

For years there were three, then two, then one, and that one was growing older. We added Louie, a younger companion, but one too small to tackle long excursions in the woods or fields. Now we again have three, the newest member of the pack being Buddy, a brownish sort of guy with a German Shepard’s face on a medium sized body. Teddy is the “big dog” here in every way: long-haired, the head of a St. Bernard, the body of a tank and until recently, the energy of the old boy he is. Somewhat reduced now from his fighting weight of about 98 pounds, he has gotten slimmer, tougher, more wide awake. That should be a lesson to me, I’m sure. And while he and Buddy are eager every morning to burst forth and challenge each other, they love as much as I to head out to the fields in the valley below the house, or up the ridge behind it. Now Buddy has added a new dimension to the program.

My routine has been to walk, then come home and have the first meal of the day, while the dogs do likewise. The rest of the program follows the breakfast hour. From the beginning of my interest in fitness, the stretching/strengthening program has been a solo effort. Dogs, for the most part, don’t participate in repetitive calisthenics. Most dogs. Not Buddy.

From almost his first days with us, Buddy has bonded with me totally. Where I am, he has to be. As he learned my routine, he began to follow me into the room where I workout, or outside if the weather permits. Usually he comes in and lies close to me, especially if I am doing exercises that require my being flat on my back. And he will lick my face. Or lie close beside me. Or stand over me. Even lie between my legs. He loves to watch the patterns of shadows. When I get up from the table he goes straight to the room where I workout, and lies there looking at me. He stares at me. He makes me feel guilty if I don’t follow him in and begin the first set of exercises. If I don’t go near where he is, he will come and find me. It’s okay, he seems to say, if you want to skip today, but I don’t think you should. And of course, he’s right. So off we go, to lie on the floor or stand outside in the sun, and exercise. For me it probably means more years of doing what I do, so that I may continue doing what I like. For him that means chasing the changing patterns of light as I lift or stretch or bend.

We added Buddy to the pack to be a watchdog. He certainly is good at what he does.

Sunday, November 24, 2013


When I grow up I want to be someone who has dreams. “Has,” not “Had.” I don’t want to be one of those people who looks sadly to the rear and says, “Once I thought I’d like to - - - ,” and never did.

I often say that I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. It isn’t because I don’t think I am grown up. I’m plenty old enough to know I am about as old as I have any right to expect. What I do mean is that I’m still learning, still trying new things, still believing that tomorrow can be better than yesterday, and that the best is yet to come.

When you have lived long enough to leave a legacy, some might think that’s enough. I don’t. There are things to do out there, things I’ve not tried yet, or had the opportunity to experience yet, or even know about, yet. At the same time, I don’t feel that I have to be in a hurry, need to rush into something because time is running out. Oh, there are days when I do think about that, because I’m a reasonable and responsible adult, and I know there has to be some plan for the future, some means of assuring that as long as I am, I will also be. Is that too Zen-like? Life is reality-based. Dreams are a part of that reality because they are what keep us getting up in the morning, what make us push to explore and learn.

I want to be ready when the opportunity to live a dream comes along.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Re-Mixing Life

Something writers are frequently asked is “Where do you get your ideas?” The simple answer is, “anywhere and everywhere.” It’s more complex than that, but really, story ideas find the writer, not the other way around.

Life presents stories that are ready-made for telling. You simply must be aware of the world around you. How you re-tell a story is what makes the difference. I have written before about my own way of finding and telling a story. It begins with an observation or experience in which I am a participant or on-looker. I might read or hear a story about someone I may know or not, but what they do, or are thought to have done, or are planning to do will unlock something in my imagination or maybe even a similar story filed in wherever those things go in the mind. A new event or more information about an old one, for instance, can generate a whole new story about a person or event or place. Filling in the missing pieces (because I’m not privy to the full story, or because there are missing pieces no one knows), is where retelling becomes creative.

At the beginning of works of fiction is something called the “disclaimer.” It appears before the title page, and is designed to separate fact from fiction. It’s that line that reads “Any similarity to events or to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.” There are other ways it can be said, such as "Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent." Some are more creative or artful than others, but in all cases the meaning is clear: the writer either doesn’t know or isn’t telling everything. What makes that phrase work, it seems to me, is that there is no story, no life, no event that is so unique that it has no previous or possible mirror. Whatever is written has been written before, taken place before, will happen again in real life. There are parallels in all lives.

Of course you may have heard the bones of a story or even read something in a newspaper or non-fiction book that triggers your creative side. It happens to me all the time, which has led me to conclude that the we all have a part of the brain that is always observing, storing, expanding information that it receives from normal channels. Even when the writer is participating in the event, there is a part that is thinking about how to convert it into a story. Being aware of that is part of what makes me a writer. We are all storytellers, you know. Sharing (and embellishing) events by retelling is part of what makes us human.

It is simply life re-mixed.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Writing it Well

The hardest part of writing a personal essay, it seems to me, is keeping it from becoming too personal; not letting what you write be simply “me” spelled 300 different ways. That is a risk one runs, of course, whenever one writes. Fiction or non-fiction, it doesn’t matter. The question is, how do you guard against that? A writer must always keep in mind that someone else is going to read what is written.

The personal essay is probably the most easily tainted by too much “me.” It is, after all, not that far from a diary or journal entry, composed for the writer, considered confidential by most, and often shared only by those who come after the writer is no longer around to either object or explain. An essay, a “personal” essay, is a deliberate attempt by the writer to share a idea or two in a constructive, coherent manner, and do it with as many readers as possible.

There are two key parts to a personal essay: the writer and the reader. Capturing the reader, holding the reader to the end, demands certain things of the writer.

The subject must be one of interest to readers, and the writing must be more than chit-chat or mumbling on the part of the writer. Striving for elegance is always important. In an essay it is often what keeps the reader going from first word to last. A novel may have a plot that exceeds the quality of the telling, and that can keep some readers working on it to the end. An essay is short, but brevity alone will not always hold. “Short and sweet” is a combination, not an either-or option.

Once the writer has found a style of writing that works, then the selection of subject becomes the next important task. A beautifully constructed line or paragraph or page has no intrinsic value if it is not something readers care about. Finding that is what brings readers to the page, to the story, to the thought behind the title.

Making writing work, regardless of the form or subject, requires work on the part of the writer. One test that can be applied is simply to ask at the end of every line, “Is this about me, or the subject?” If it is about the writer, then the next test is one that every line in any writing must pass: Does it advance the storyline or plot or subject I have identified? If the answer is “no,” then the words must be cut.

The process can be agonizing, I know. Sometimes a line gets written that is beautiful, meaningful, perceptive and in every way just what the writer wants it to be – and it is wrong. Wrong for the subject, wrong for the voice, wrong for the form. Out it must go.

I can’t tell you how many time I have heard (and said) in response to the question, “Is the script finished?” the incomprehensible (to the client or the producer) answer: “Oh, yes. I just have to put in on paper.” Editing begins in the writer’s mind. The words that finally get written and are  eventually allowed to remain, or are excised, should be the right words. And they must be about the subject, not the writer. I remind you again of  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum: You don’t write because you want to say something. You write because you have something to say.

Writing well is all there is.

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Word Too Far

This morning I was reading a book review of a new novel. The story parallels, but doesn’t follow completely, a prominently reported murder case from a few years ago. The reviewer talked with the author about writing from life; that is, using real people and events as the model for a story or character. I wasn’t surprised, and I doubt the interviewer was, and probably you aren’t either. First of all, real life offers so many models that just couldn’t be invented. I think almost every writer uses real people and real events at least as the skeleton for a story.

In stories I have written, most of my characters are taken from life. Some are composites, others are the real people with different names. It would be impossible, I think, to create a character or an event that isn’t at least influenced by people I know, or know about. Events often suggest a story to me, and at least some aspects of every story come from the real world.

I suppose it would be possible to write something that has no parallel, no mirror image of real life or real people, but it would require that the author create not just a story and characters, but landscapes, language, even images. Even then there would be some relationship to reality. There has to be, if the reader is going to understand and believe the story.

The same is true with words. Words can be simple or complex, common or unusual. If they are common, at least to most people, then the reader can focus on the story, not on the language. It is only after one has read a story, I believe, that the use of words should be apparent. A reader who must stop and think about or search out the meaning of a word or phrase is at the same disadvantage as one who has an elementary knowledge of Russian, for instance, trying to read War and Peace in the original. It can be done, but it detracts from the enjoyment of the story.

The same thing happens when a non-academic reads something by a specialist, or one educated beyond the basics who has absorbed the jargon of a specialty, using what is called a “term of art.” That in itself is a bit of jargon, but one that is almost self-explanatory.

The interview was interesting, the author articulate, the interviewer knowledgeable. The author, who has held fellowships and earned a graduate degree, had a successful first novel and now teaches creative writing. Most of what was said to the interviewer was easily understood, and even sensible. Near the end, however, the author lapsed into jargon. It was only a short paragraph in which it was stated that both of the author’s novels are similar because both “have intellectual and philosophical questions at their center.” Then the academic/author let this one get away: “I hope those questions are instantiated in characters that feel alive and real and the questions feel not just abstract or silly or cerebral but urgent.”

“Instantiated.” One supposes that is a “term of art” reserved for masters and doctoral programs that seem so popular these days.

“Instantiated.” Even my OED doesn’t contain it. Perhaps all of the author’s next novel will be completely in a language the reader doesn’t understand.

“Instantiated” is a good start.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Healing Porch

I awoke this morning to a temperature of about 50 degrees (F), a sky with tinges of rose gold, and a nearly calm off-shore breeze. Walking out to the steps leading down from the dunes, and crossing the sandy beach to the edge of the incoming tide, I could see only a few others out ahead of the sun. It is a ritual I follow every year when we come down from our mountain for a week on this island in South Carolina: getting out before sunrise and walking north or south along the shore until the sky is fully committed to the day.
As always, there are a few others ahead of me walking, watching, waiting for the sun to disrobe, to tell us what the day will bring. It was 19 degrees when I stood out on the mountain yesterday to watch the opening of day, the sky gradually getting lighter, the air a little warmer. In the mountains or at the shore, offering my greeting to the new day holds a special place in my life. Part of it is that most primitive of reasons, I suspect: the knowledge that when the world renews itself, I am still a part of it, still alive to the cold or the heat, the calm or moving air, the scents of life, the light of sun. It is a renewal we all share every day that we awaken.
Another part of my ritual here at the shore is to photograph the joining of the sky with the horizon, taking pictures as the redness makes the first blush of color along the line, then again as it brightens, again when the red ball is still partially submerged in the sea, and finally when it stands clear of the horizon. Then it is back to the dunes, back to the stairway leading up and over, back to the big screened deck on the second floor of the house, the place our friend calls the "healing porch." Here she and I and the other early risers share the first cup of coffee, the first conversations of the day, the first warmth of the sun, and the healing begins anew.
I find the mountains healing, as I think I have since I was first introduced to them at about the age of five or six. It has taken many decades to discover the restorative power of sand and sea and sun. It is one of the things I truly look forward to, as well as the simple distance from our daily life of responsibilities, of family and home and commitments to other people and things. But it is that first step out of the house, that going to the edge of the land where the sea washes my feet, where the breeze combs my hair, where the sun renews my vision, that I truly feel the renewal each day brings.
This is what the whole world needs: a healing porch.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Aging is a Process of Deceit

It seems another year of living has slipped by, the only remarkable thing about that being that I don’t seem to mind it. I still look on birthdays as marking growth both personal and public. I’m at an age where I can look back a long way and still, with some clarity, see the path I have taken and yet have sufficient vision to look to the future. I’m fond of saying that I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

That isn’t wholly true, of course. I do know that I am probably as grown up as I’ll ever be, and that there is far less ahead than there is behind. Still, I have stories to tell, to write, and perhaps to share with a wider audience. There is a conceit most writers share, I suspect, that there are readers out there who want to know what we have to say; who care enough to take the time to read what we write. That isn’t the only reason for writing, of course. It does explain, perhaps, why one would sit down for hours every day to draw from within a sequence of words that tell a story to share with others. I keep thinking that maybe one day, in a year or two, I will close the door on the writing room, give myself up to reading, to playing, to just "being." But I know that won’t happen.

Writing is such an organic part of who and what a writer is. I could no more stop writing or thinking "story" than I could stop dreaming, or eating, or breathing. There is a part of me that looks at every act and action as a potential story. Sometimes it is simply how to relate an event to one other person, what words to use, how to structure the telling so that it is more than just a linear recounting. It is a writer’s burden, if you will, to care about structure, about entertaining, about capturing the reader or listener regardless of the information or size of the audience. I prefer to put words on paper, to read and edit before the words go out into the world, for an audience of one or of many. I often find that what I originally thought I had to say isn’t what I end up saying at all. It happens with a simple dialogue with one person, and it happens when I sit down to write a story. I always start out with a direction, an end point in mind, but like many things we all do, the direction, the conclusion, ends up being quite different.

There is an old proverb that says if we don’t change direction soon, we’ll end up where we’re headed. I think I’m at the point where I know where I’m headed, and it’s too late to change direction.

Still, I’m not ready to just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Getting Away With It

When I was very young, being married to the right partner seemed a good idea. At some point, between 18 and 28, I came to the conclusion that being single was really better. Having your own life, dependent on no one and answerable to no one (beyond those to whom you owed allegiance because they paid you) made a lot of sense.

Fifty-one years ago that changed for me. I discovered that there was one person in the world meant for me, and for whom I was meant. It was one of those rare moments in life when you just know something is true, and in fact, can have no other interpretation. Fortunately, I was wise enough to recognize the truth of that moment, and so was she. It hardly seems possible that more than half-a-century later, it is still true. For both of us. We are now at that awkward stage when the end is closer than the beginning, but (at least to me) it seems infinitely more distant. Perhaps it is because I can’t imagine life any other way. It may be, too, my personal perspective that says I am still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

In my time I have been an actor, a disc jockey (when that applied only to radio), a news reader (not a journalist), a draftsman in an architectural firm, a carpenter, and all of the skilled crafts associated with making films. All of those jobs were part of my journey to the writer’s life, and living. I enjoyed all of them, and other jobs that formed my skill-sets and outlook and work ethic. If there is a problem, it is in not knowing which I liked the most, what I would like to do next, what I want to be when I grow up.

Years ago we helped an elderly (meaning a little older than I am now) friend through the last years of her life. Mary was a survivor, meeting and beating back the kinds of life problems that many others could not withstand. She maintained an enthusiasm for life, for fun, for getting the most out of her days and nights, and until the very end remained in control of her life with a tenacity that was remarkable.

Which brings me to October. It is the month in which I was born, the month we were married, the month our youngest granddaughter was born, and our friend Mary’s birth month. I share these dates with you because they inform a lot of my personal philosophy. When the world in which we live is preparing for winter, looking at browns and reds and falling leaves, I am thinking about the spring to come; about green and growth and tomorrow.

And I think about Mary. Near the end, perhaps the last birthday party we shared, I still remember a quiet moment when Mary looked at me, winked, and said conspiratorially, "We got away with it." Well, not yet for me, at least.

I still wonder, what will I be when I grow up?

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Word Worker

 I began writing these essays almost two years ago. My original idea was to use the format as a way of encouraging my own love for the form by setting a schedule that would require me to exercise it. Having worked in a world of deadlines for so many decades, it is a habit that is hard to break. It is also good discipline for one who works alone. There are now more than 110 of these short takes on life. I’m never, it would seem, at a loss for words.

Another reason for starting such a time-related project was to introduce myself, and my particular (some say skewed) view of the world, to more readers. The hope, of course, is that such a step would increase interest in my previously published work: Accidents of Time and Place: A Novel, and Mixed Freight - Checking Life’s Baggage, a collection of earlier essays. That, in turn, should lead to a larger audience for new books that will follow. How well that has worked is hard to gauge, but there has been a change in traffic to my website, and to sales, so perhaps this is working. What’s really important to me, is that I can resolve the compulsion to commit writing, without having to distract myself from whatever long-form project I may have in the computer at the time.

Not everything that I write has the merit of being worthy of a lot of words or work. As an observer of my own world, and the interactions with others and their worlds, it is often enough to sum up what I see or feel or believe in a quick, easy to digest form. And it is fun.

Writing, for me, has always been enjoyable. I don’t agonize over what I write. I do work and worry words until I am satisfied with what I have said, and the way I have said it. Working over a given piece of writing too long is not always the best way to make it better. The danger is that you become so immersed in the words that you forget or slight the intent.

Why I write is more important than what I write. I love the play of words with one-another, but one can play forever and end up with only that: play. The reason we have words, the usefulness of speech, whether spoken or written or even illustrated, is to say something so that others may hear it. We hear with our eyes as well as our ears, and sometimes with our skin I think. We "feel" the meaning of words; a visceral understanding when the clear expression of what we say is not always communicated in the mode in which it was created. The goal, either in writing or telling, is to be understood, so that with understanding, one may find answers to the questions life proposes.

Making words do their job is what writing is all about.

Writers write, but words work!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Notes and Quotes

Over the years I have squirreled away notes and quotes in a small book I keep on a shelf above my desk. I haven’t looked into it for sometime, but this morning, while looking for something else, I rediscovered it and spent an hour or so reading through what I have saved.

Many are quotations I wanted to remember, by authors I sometimes can’t recall. Fortunately, I’m a good researcher, and note the essential details whenever I write down something another has said or written. These scribbles range from absurd statements to true philosophy. I’m not sure where each one falls, but I thought I’d share at least some of them with you today. It is bits and pieces like these that spark ideas for what may turn into essays or short stories or novels or film scripts.

I begin with one of my favorite authors, Virginia-born and Nebraska-raised, Willa Cather. It is from On the Divide:

Milton made a sad mistake when he put mountains in Hell. All mountain peoples are religious. It was the cities of the plains that, because of their utter lack of spirituality and the mad caprice of their vice, were cursed by God.
With that as a starting place, I went on to another note written on the bottom of a shopping list (that had nothing to do with what I wrote) and no guide as to why I wrote it:

English is the universal language. If you don’t think so, go anywhere in the world and say "dollar."
I then turned up a description of behavior that doesn’t appear in the psychology books:

Assertive/Defensive: Assuming the necessity to adamantly defend an act or position before the need arises.
An all-to-frequent stance taken not only by our political leaders, but by strangers you might talk to in a meeting or a store.

A much longer note is for a story. The premise is that a nuclear holocaust has taken place, and the only survivors are those who have access to an anti-radiation drug (which does exist in some form already). These people are secure in only three countries. One is a democracy, one is a totalitarian state, and the third is one that has succeeded in avoiding war for a thousand years. All three share the same geologic features: deep underground caverns and caves in sturdy and immoveable mountains. In the story the generations renew themselves through their children, and their children’s children and so on until it is safe to re-emerge into the sunlight. It is a story I don’t think I’ll ever write.

Another quote, this time from Cicero:

My precept to all who build, is that the owner should be an ornament to the house, and not the house to the owner.
I believe that should stand for all who build, whether houses or songs or poetry of stories or, most importantly, lives.

And a return to Cather, from her story, Eric Hermannson’s Soul. It is a piece I was going to carve into the railing of the deck that overlooks our fields and mountain side:

I think if one lived here long enough one would quite forget how to be trivial, and would read only the great books that we never get time to read in the world, and would remember only the great music, and the things that are really worthwhile would stand out clearly against that horizon over there.
This last was written in 1771 by an author whose name is unreadable in my own handwriting. I offer it as a coda for any creative person regardless of your art-form:

We never reflect whether the story we read be truth or fiction. If the painting be lively, and a tolerable picture of nature, we are thrown into a reverie, from which if we awaken, it is the fault of the writer.



Sunday, September 22, 2013

Learning to Read

I was reading a magazine recently that is devoted to old cars. While I do own two antiques, that is cars more than 25 years old, they are rough, unrestored, working vehicles. I do want to keep them running, but making them into "better than new" holds no appeal for me.

But I digress.

I was reading about a car that the owner had restored, and in the description of the interior, was the factory term "Carpathian burled elm patterned vinyl inlays." A mouthful of words to describe some pieces of plastic film used to decorate parts of the interior. As I read the description, my mind went back to the first time I heard such language used. I don’t mean the words, but the formula being applied.

One of my best friends in high school was the son of a furrier. The man was adept at finding and sewing furs into beautiful and expensive clothing. It was a thriving business back in those years. Women, especially, seemed to covet coats of fur for what the garment symbolized as much as for their warmth. It was as natural as the skins themselves that a language would develop around what went into the garment.

But enough of this digression.

What was really interesting to me was a description of a coat the father had recently made: "mink dyed rabbit." It took a minute, in my innocence, to parse that phrase and realize what it signified: a common bunny skin dyed to look like mink. I don’t know if that process would also make the fur feel like mink, but I suppose it was enough to know that people would think it was mink. In any case, that was in some ways, the beginning of a loss of innocence on my part.

The lesson, of course, is that one cannot simply rely on words used to describe something. One must factor in the order in which the words fall, ever so trippingly from the tongue, as Shakespeare would have it. And one must pay attention to the source, and not be swayed by appearances. An automobile brochure is designed to make you want whatever model is being presented, regardless of its inherent qualities (or lack there of).

But again I digress.

What you read or hear is not necessarily what you get. The same applies to furniture, appliances, jewelry, even food.

Oh! And politicians.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Sell Yourself

Like everything else related to creative work, the steady money is in the jobs that support the creative people. What the new order in publishing offers is the opportunity (for those willing to do the work) and the tools to do the whole job. As a writer/producer of commercial films for many years, I know that the profit came from the difference between what films cost to produce, and what they sold for. The real money, if there ever was any, went to the client who bankrolled the production.Today, publishing is getting much like any other enterprise.

There was a time when publishers and their editors really worked for their writers, tried to help them make the best book possible, introduced them to the book buyers and reviewers, and so on. Not today, according to even the bigger names among authors. Now, if you are getting published, you have to do the work of selling, promoting yourself and your work. You do readings, you write a blog, you go to book fairs and offer your work. You might as well be the "producer," as well as the writer. Using the new tools, and working with the new companies that populate the internet, you can do as much or as little as you feel comfortable doing. Here is what the publishing world of today looks like: the writer writes, then finds a company that will, for a price, take the manuscript the rest of the way. There are programs that allow the writer to plug the text into a predetermined format. Type face, type size, and other elements of printing have been reduced to programs that can be applied to any written word that has been created in a computer. The real change is that a writer today can buy the services as needed. Some writers have a full set of computer skills, but if you don’t, you can hire someone who can do the job. Then there are people who will design and produce the cover, and companies that will see the completed product through to e-book formats and on-demand printing, turning out soft- and hard-cover books at a competitive price, allowing the writer to own the product and control the margin between cost and sale price.

Once the book is in print or on disc, the real work begins. Promoting the work of others is a profession, but some writers are good at generating interest in their own work, and enjoy the contact with their readers. It cuts into the time you need to write, of course, but if you do it right and well, you just may sell enough books to allow you to subsequently hire that service too. Still, it is going to take time and effort to put your work before the public, and a lot of it you are going to have to do yourself. Might as well own that, too, it seems to me.

I have published both ways. Accidents of Time and Place left me as a computer file and came back between covers. The completed manuscript was sent electronically to the publisher who then saw the book through to delivery, and distribution. Promotion was, even then, more or less up to me. The next book, Mixed Freight: Checking Life’s Baggage followed the same route, except that I retained the electronic rights and published it as an e-book myself. The manuscript for my next book, Suspect: Five Stories of Suspicion, Suspense and Murder, will be entirely my own production, using an on-line printer. I will see the manuscript translated into hard copy and electronic format, create the cover, determine the price and own the whole project. That means I will also be in charge of promotion and sales, but that isn’t too different from what I have been doing.

Watch this space for the publication date and a special offer for you.

Sunday, September 8, 2013


Years ago someone said that if a room full of monkeys were seated at typewriters, they’d eventually write The Great American Novel. The speaker didn’t know about computers, but he (or she) could look at the shift from hand labor to machines and see the future. I suppose that the future holds great promise, especially for those who have either a skill that can’t be robotized, or the skills to make robots that do anything people can do, only better, faster, safer or cheaper – or all of those. The fact is, more and more jobs are being taken over by machines and given up by human hands. Not a new trend, of course. It has been happening right along with human development. Think club instead of hand, as in killing an animal or another human being.

The real change came with the Industrial Revolution, and is still going on. Like any form of evolution, the move from manual to automatic is ever-changing. Sometimes we see it coming, and other times it just comes from behind and passes most of us in the dust.

Many years ago, in researching a film about the American automobile industry, I ran across two quotations that seemed to sum up two very important elements of the ongoing conflict between profits and production.

Henry Ford said, "A large corporation is too big to be human."

The other quote was from Walter Reuther, then head of the United Auto Workers. The man who led the effort to unionize the auto industry was talking about the future: "I have no objection to automation. But who will buy the Fords?"

Henry hadn’t the opportunity to meet the present day Supreme Court, wherein corporations were given the constitutional right of free speech. He was talking about the responsibility of corporations to give honest work its honest reward.

Reuther, on the other hand, was talking about robots working the assembly lines at Ford, GM and Chrysler. There were other manufacturers then, but only those three have remained to see the day when automated assembly lines have largely replaced the hands-on builders of busses and trucks and cars.

A recent story in a weekly news magazine focused on the next phase of the industrial revolution and frankly, it offered a rather scary look at the future. There are already cars that drive themselves, and even a fleet of long-haul trucks that drive with only one driver for three rigs; the other two are fully automated, and take their instructions from the lead vehicle. Of course industry spokesfolks will say "It won’t happen," and "At least not soon," and other supposedly comforting phrases, but we all know that these things will come to pass, should the world still be here when the technology is perfected. It is only a little comforting to think about the 1939 Worlds Fair, and the General Motors "World of Tomorrow" exhibit. It featured cars that drove themselves (along a defined roadway), and the prediction that the individual driver would soon be replaced. Well, it’s happening.

That leaves us with the question: "What about me? Will the work I do be turned over to a machine?" And don’t think that just because you are a writer, it doesn’t apply to you. An automated journalist has been at work for several years now, researching and writing daily news. It may not be Pulitzer winning journalism, but it will be someday – maybe when the judges for that prize are robots, too.

Still, the question remains: who will buy the Fords?

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Labor Day

Not for the first time, I find myself on this Labor Day weekend hard at work. I’m in the final stages of building a new manuscript that will, I hope, be submitted to a publisher in the next few weeks. It isn’t ready yet, because there are still some passages that need re-writing, some that need editing, a few places where new words are needed, and so I labor even as the calendar tells me it is a holiday from such efforts.

Of course, I’ve almost always (as an adult) labored on Labor Day. Just as I have on most days of most weeks of most years. It is what I know how to do. Sometimes it is for someone else, but almost always, when I look at it closely, it is for me. I enjoy work. I like results. It feels good to accomplish something, especially if it is done with my own hands or my own inner resources. The tools of my trade are mixed: thinking, analyzing, ordering of thoughts, observing, but also physical skills such as writing or typing and reading.

When I’m not engaged in the writing part of my life, I am often working on something three-dimensional: repairing something broken, modifying something to extend its utility, preparing for needs I know will arise. Cutting firewood is one of those, and at this time of year the urgency of that work begins to accelerate. I have four large trees recently brought down that need to be made into logs that will then be split and stacked and eventually, burned.

The other day I spent several hours restoring the surface of our main driveway that was disturbed by a couple of inches of rain. And I have equipment that needs to be readied for winter or just maintained for occasional use.

All of these jobs are things I know how to do, and enjoy doing. The enjoyment may diminish when I have to do them just to keep going, rather than dong them when it is convenient, but in the long run I enjoy the successful conclusion of any and all tasks that fall under the rubric of "work." It is the way I’m made. It is the way America was made.

Celebrate Labor every day.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Life Test

I’ve always been impatient. Impatient to learn things, impatient to grow up, impatient to be older.

I’ve learned things, that’s true. I’ve been able to pursue knowledge about all kinds of things, and all manner of subjects. And I’ve gotten older.

Now I’m not so sure that was a great way to go through life. I always seemed to look for the easy ways to accomplish things, and often found them, but there are some things that take a long time to learn. How to be a grownup is one of them. I’m fond of telling people that I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. That’s probably because I don’t feel that I have finished much of anything in my life. I have, but the feeling that I could have done more, could have done it better, could have been more useful – those things are always there.

When is it appropriate to take the shortcuts of life? My guess is “never,” but that’s probably a short answer and a shortcut in itself. Really, there are no safe shortcuts in life.

What has brought me to these thoughts? I’m old enough to sit back and do nothing, secure enough to be able to, but still I feel so much has not been done, that there is more to do, much to finish in my life or in the world around me. Can I do that? Is there still time?  Why can’t I just turn it all over to those who are following me? Wouldn’t it make sense to sit back and enjoy the fruits of my labors and simply let things happen? Okay if you can do it, but that isn’t the way I’m made. There are still things I haven’t finished, or that need to be done again because of age or time or changes in the way things can be done today. Still, I’m not too sure what there is that I haven’t done, that I could still do, and would want to do.

I really wouldn’t want to be young again. Aside from a bad bargain with whatever power might be able to make that happen, I know that although I remember the good parts of growing up and growing older, there were bad parts, too. Doing them over offers no guarantee that I will get them right, or even better.

Life is a test. In the end it doesn’t matter how well you do, but that you do the best you can.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Car As Metaphor

I was driving along at a pretty good clip, maybe a mile over the 55 limit, through a rural landscape, on a beautiful summer morning, under clear skies. Around a gentle sweeping turn I had to slow down for traffic: two cars meandering along the highway. At best, on the straight stretches, we were speeding along at 45, slowing when the road curved or started up an incline. I was in no greater hurry than usual to get to an appointment, and had been content to amble along at the speed limit, and now I seemed to barely be moving forward. Still not late, and knowing that there were passing zones ahead, I let my thoughts linger over the question of why some people, including the drivers ahead of me, would buy vehicles of two- or three-hundred horsepower in order to drive (alone) at forty or forty-five miles an hour.

I have driven small cars for most of the 60+ years I’ve been licensed, with occasional forays into high-performance or otherwise over powered vehicles but never stayed with them very long. I’ve owned big 8 cylinder and more modern six cylinder cars and trucks, with enough power to move quickly the overweight carriages attached to them. I had one V-8 powered sports car (used as much for sport as for transportation), and of all of the vehicles I’ve owned, only that one was truly capable of more than 100 miles-per-hour. I know because on at least two occasions, I saw the needle sweep past that magic mark. Thrilling, exciting and (because this was in the early 1960s) dangerous. It is strange to feel the front end of a car lift off the road. I didn’t sustain the run past 112 miles per hour. Of course the accuracy of the instrument providing that number was perhaps off by five per cent, but still, I had crossed the line.

In those years you had to buy a purpose-built vehicle, a sports car, to be able to drive as fast in the mountains as I do today with almost any passenger vehicle. There has been that much technical advancement in the suspension and tire department world-wide.

My primary vehicle today is a small, 4-door that would be called a station wagon in earlier times, powered by a 4-cylinder engine of about 130 horsepower, coupled to an automatic transmission that is probably at lot smarter than I am, and I can easily run up and down the mountains with little use of the brakes and appropriate use of the accelerator. On the open road, if the law allows, I can easily cruise at 80 or even 90 miles an hour. The speedometer is electronic, and stop-watch/odometer tests indicate that it has no more error than tire-slippage can induce, so I am confidant of my numbers. But 90 wouldn’t leave me any room to go, I know that, too.

So as I rolled along, I returned to my original question: why buy a car of great horsepower if you aren’t going to need or use it? Then I looked down to check my speed and realized that here, in this economy car, my speedometer face assures me that regardless of what I do, should I be able to coax this vehicle to go faster than 90 miles per hour, I’ll still be able to know exactly how fast I am traveling because the dial has numbers up to 150 miles per hour! Now that’s optimism. And then my thoughts leave the road, as it were, for less traveled places. I wonder why we want instruments that measure things we can never achieve.

It’s sort of like politicians: we know they won’t deliver what they promise, but we keep on buying them anyway.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Hot Air, Hot Words

Words, those spidery combinations of horizontal and vertical lines, circles and semi-circles, are perhaps the most powerful tools the human brain has ever invented. With them we can make love and war, build and destroy. Yet we treat them in such a cavalier manner that often what we meant to say and what we end up saying are so far apart that we change the world, or stop change from happening.

Words are what I have depended on for my living for as long as I have been working. Other things too, of course. Drawings, pictures, sounds all played a part in what I have done in my life, but words were the first tools I learned to use. In that I don’t think I am so very different from others. Learning to speak, to communicate, is the essence of being human. Even those deprived of speech, or sight, or sound strive to make use of words one way or another. But if it is such a natural, normal toolkit to use why do we have so much trouble making ourselves understood?

It all goes back to words and how we use them. Demagogues, promoters, politicians, or people who truly believe what they say, pick and chose words to try to convince others that there is only one way, one code, one answer to the great questions of the day. The truth is, even the most provable of theories is subject to change. Not interpretation, but change. As new discoveries are made, new knowledge gained, new truths must be recognized, must displace old theories, becoming the new "conventional wisdom."

Some people are stuck with their own limited vocabulary, just as some must rely on failed or out-of-focus vision. Often the two go together, but most often it seems it is words that fail them. Fail all of us. Precision cannot be attained without work, without thought. Thinking, and then giving voice to the results, is sometimes a slow process, but much more satisfying. And while it is often great fun to parry a verbal thrust with an immediate riposte, it should be the precise, knowledgeable reply that wins the day.

Before you say something, be certain you have something to say.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Hanging Out, Hanging Together

Last week I had a visit from a colleague who worked with me about 30 years ago, and whom I had not seen since that time. We’ve kept in touch via the internet, (one of the few blessings it bestows), so neither of us was really surprised at how much the other has changed, at least to look at. Steve and I would recognize each other anywhere, I suppose. These kinds of visits are always welcome, if for no other reason than that they give all those memories we have stored away something useful to do. You realize however, that time has moved on, that you are part of a diminishing cohort. Visits like this remind us of the shortness of our future.

Usually when you sit down with someone you haven’t seen in a long time, someone you knew well once, you find yourself repeating stories, recalling events, thinking about times and people past. That part of the visit was reasonably short. About the only positive things that comes from these conversations is a realization that regardless of time, you are still here, still working, still (hopefully) growing. It is what prompts me to say, from time-to-time, that I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. For some reason I fail to internalize the fact that I probably won’t ever have time to figure that out. Still, it seems a good thing, to be looking forward more than I look back.

During the day that we spent together we visited a museum across the mountains, dedicated to photography ( Since that is work we both had done, and my friend still does, it was of great interest to us both. I have donated equipment to the collection, including an enlarger I had bought from Steve, for my wife’s darkroom way back when that was part of the photographer’s tool kit.

In this short visit from my friend, we visited the past, the present, and then a bit of the future. Some of it is good, some tells us that we need to keep learning if we are to keep moving forward. In some ways the visit focused my thoughts how writing films has influenced my words-only work.

The essence of film writing is constructing a visual line that tells a story, and uses words to emphasize or underline or enlarge the story being told. That applies to non-theatrical as well as theatrical productions. Using film as a one-reel slide show, much like a computer-based presentation, is convenient but it isn’t "moving pictures."

One test of a film is to look at it without sound. Dialog or narration should be used to enlarge what can only be shown in bold outline. Part of my self-education as a screen writer was to look at productions with the sound off. I had to understand the basic message. If I couldn’t, then the production wasn’t ready for release. I used that technique to improve my own understanding of my craft. Looking at other people’s work silently (MOS in the jargon of the trade), I could more easily discover the bare bones of the production, see the skeleton before the meat was added. Sometimes I would find the bones so obscure that I would have to look at the production more than once, or at least with the sound on. No three stars for that one!

Now, focusing only on the written word, telling stories that may evolve from something I’ve read or seen, from a newspaper story or some obscure source, from things buried in my own subconscious, I try to write the scenes as if a director were going to set up the shot and tell the story in pictures. Description sets the scene, guides the players around the set, establishes the point of view of the scene and the story. Dialog advances the plot, gives insight into the characters, brings the many threads of a story together in a single, solid rope. And like a rope, it gains strength from the weaving together of the many separate strands.

When it’s right, we say "it all hangs together."





Sunday, July 28, 2013

Suppose Everyone Is Listening

There are a lot of words out there right now about who is listening to your conversations, who might be reading your electronic mail, what part of our freedoms are being violated. There are few answers.

I would speculate that since humans first began communication with a coherent and repeatable set of sounds, somewhat more understandable than grunts, there have been eavesdroppers and tale bearers among us. It isn’t hard to understand why that would happen in the most primitive societies: people like to know what is going on where, when, why, and sometimes how. "How" is included in the journalistic code, but the essential four are what drives gossip, innuendo, and reporting.

We have, in recent months, been made more aware than ever of the unknown listeners in our lives. I remember years ago routinely answering my office phone with the admonition that "this is not a secure line." It seemed necessary, dealing with the media and the public as I did. Today I only use that phrase when I’m discussing something that could be mis-interpreted or that might give a third party the wrong idea about something. The same as saying: "Off the record and not for attribution." For the same reason, I’m careful about what I put in emails, text messages (I may use that route three times a year), and even written information. As a writer I am aware of what words mean and what they can do, how they can be mis-interpreted, and what damage they can do either by intent or accident.

While it may be true that "sticks and stones can hurt my bones, but words will never harm me," you have only to look at the face of a bullied child, or an employee following a supervisor’s expression of discontent. It is a wide world in which words live, and we need to be careful about how we channel them.

One of the many signs I had posted in my offices over the years was: "Be Sure Brain is Engaged Before Putting Mouth in Gear." It is far too easy for your thoughts to get ahead of your voice and confuse or anger or hurt the listener. It is still good advice. But back to who is listening.

I once sat as a jury member in the trial of a man who was accused of breaking and entering a residence for the purpose of theft. He was arrested because he had used his driver’s license to open a locked door, and being a bright fellow, left it for the police to find when the homeowner reported the break-in. Well, if you are going to leave your calling card, you must not really understand how information can be used. Today, in addition to driver’s licenses, most of us have electronic signatures for our computers and tablets and pads and phones that are used to recognize us. There are ways of not only finding us, but replacing us with someone who is up to no good, and doing things in our name. Still, it comes down to this: you can find a place to hide only if you cut yourself off completely from the rest of the world. Otherwise you are fair game for others to find and convert to their own use. It is a part of modern life, and I don’t see any really sensible way of avoiding it unless you avoid life altogether.

During WW II there were posters everywhere reminding us that "Walls Have Ears." It isn’t a new thing in our lives, it isn’t going away, and in fact it is probably only going to accelerate. Another saying from childhood is this couplet: "fools names and fool’s faces/often appear in public places." Just consider the stories about people passed over for jobs because of comments they had loaded onto their personal public media pages

If you are going to write your name on a wall, remember that the wall is a public place.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Some Thoughts (and a few non-thoughts) About Writing

Here I am again, ready to tell the world what I think about whatever I’m thinking about, and I’m not really thinking about anything! The problem with setting a regularly scheduled writing objective is that one must satisfy that commitment even when there is nothing to commit to paper in the first place.

So I begin anew each week, thinking about what I have to say that is worth your time to read. That is a real conceit on my part, isn’t it? But of course, we who write for any kind of publishing, have to be somewhat conceited to think that what we have to say is important enough for others to read. This line of thinking is dangerous because when one puts such words in front of readers, you have the opportunity to say, "You’re right!" and simply click the little "x" in the top right corner and go on to something else. So I try to find something that I believe is worth writing about for those of you who are kind enough to read to the end each week, and even to comment on what you read.

This past week I’ve been wrestling with a number of interesting problems in a new story I’m working on. It is another story featuring Lissa King, that dangerous agent who, with her inamorata Stan Morris, confronts evil in seemingly quiet and peaceful parts of northwestern Virginia. This story involves more research than some others, mainly because I want it to feel authentic and the characters are taking me to places I’ve never been. I suppose the most interesting part of writing fiction, for me at least, is when the characters take over the story and begin leading me to places I haven’t been or even thought about. The writing process is like that for me: an idea for a story arrives while I’m doing something else, begins to interrupt what I’m already doing, calls out, claims my attention and we’re off and running. I keep notebooks handy wherever I might be in the house, and one in my pocket when I’m out, because I never know when the next sequence or conversation or a whole story will arrive and make itself known. I don’t know what to compare it to. It has been this way for me for as long as I can remember, and it doesn’t seem to be going away. I think there will come a time when new stories don’t suggest themselves, or let themselves be told even when I can see them. So, even if this seems to be a little precious to you, it is vital to me, that I continue to do what I do.

There are two quotations that guide me in my writing. The first is from F. Scott Fitzgerald: "You don’t write because you want to say something; you write because you have something to say." That in itself should be enough to stop a lot of the words that get printed or digitized every day. It’s easy to put down words. It isn’t so easy to pick them up again if they don’t mean anything. Once a writer puts a word in place it can be almost impossible to lift it up and throw it way, or put it somewhere else. I suppose that is why we have editors.

Mark Twain advises: "The difference between the right word and the ‘almost’ right word, is the difference between lightning and lightning bug." It reflects the difference in weight of words, as in comparing a rock and a pebble. Think "It was a dark and stormy night," as opposed to "It was raining."

I leave you with a final thought attributed to Hans Selye, who identified stress as a medical condition: "Facts from which no conclusions can be drawn are hardly worth knowing."

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Snake Oil

Are dress codes a symbol of social health? Did we move from respect for others to loving only ourselves? Those are questions that I consider whenever I think about how we dress and what that means.

I’m not thinking about teens and their age-old need to be identified with peers and not stand out in their own crowd, while at the same time separating themselves both from their juniors ("Look, I’m not a baby anymore!") and their seniors ("Look, I’m ME!"). That’s a natural process that certainly isn’t new. No, what I’m thinking about has to do with things like hats and gloves and the difference between work clothes and "Sunday best."

When I was growing up, and where I did that, no boy wore a hat in the house more than once. In the presence of ladies (never "girls" or "women") a hat had an almost mechanical feature that lifted it off the head of the wearer if one chanced to meet a lady outside, and flew either to a hat rack or to the owner’s side when inside. Gentlemen wore hats outside, but never inside for any reason beyond some relationship to work, such as house-painting. There are even those of us who remember mechanics wearing dress shirts and ties under their coveralls when diagnosing a poor-running car. Were those the good old days?

And what about today? The ubiquitous "gimmie" baseball cap so beloved of advertisers already had a place in my list of things I could do without, and if you have read the essays in my book, Mixed Freight, you will already know how I feel about those [Hats Off!, Page 29]. But since I wrote that essay ten or so years ago, there has been another shift in how we dress.

Before I get into that, let me add a "full disclosure" caveat: I live in a very rural part of America, and seldom visit major cities. Where once I didn’t even own a pair of jeans, I now find them to be my first choice when getting dressed (second, really, because I start my day in hiking shorts most every morning year-round.) But I digress. I seldom wear a suit and tie, and I guess I’m old enough to get away with wearing "play clothes" if I want to. But again, I digress.

What I’m really having a hard time with is politicians and corporate CEOs, the supreme white-collar workers, wearing $5,000 suits, with probably $100 white dress shirts, and no tie. I find that insulting. Just who do these hot shots think they are kidding? A guy in a suit and dress shirt and no tie on the factory floor? You know he’s management from the soles of his handmade loafers to the top of his $100 haircut (or ten-times more expensive hair piece). And how about state visits? Wandering around some politician’s ranch, or sitting in a gilded audience room in a stately office, surrounded by reporters and translators, fashionable dark suits and tie-less white wing collars open at the neck: what does that say about those guys? Are they trying to make us think they are really working? Have you ever seen a farm hand mucking out a barn in a coat and tie?

If you believe they’re just one of the boys, I’ve got a nice bottle of snake oil with your name on it.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

History - Better Read than Dead

I read a lot of history because I’m as interested in the past as I am in the future, and history tells me as much about one as about the other. I especially like first–person accounts of events, of history written by someone who was actually a part of it, even if the story is told as a novel.

Recently I picked up a couple of books written by a well-known (at the time) journalist, later an officer on General Pershing’s staff in France. The first book describes his visit to France during the second year of the war. The other is from his perspective as the public information officer for the American Expeditionary Forces, as our WW I effort was known. In reading about the preparation for battle, the battles themselves, and the effect of war on not just the soldiers but on the civilians in a country at war, I began to think about how and why men, especially, volunteer to become warriors.

When I read something authentic, real and true, I often stop, step back and try to put myself into the story. How would I respond to the circumstances and situations described by the author? Where would I be if I were part of not just the story, but the time and place, as well? I’m no longer a young man, not even a middle-aged man so that, I realize, changes my perspective about war and warfighters.

When I was very young, and living through what we called World War II, my heros were the young men stationed at the Army Air Corps replacement depot that had been built in our town. Some were men who had flown in combat, others were still waiting to be sent overseas. More than a few were permanently stationed at the base because their skills, though highly important to the war, were not combat skills, and they could not be spared. Playing with the other pre-teen kids in the neighborhood, some of whom had fathers overseas (my own had been a year too young for WW I, and several years and two kids too old for WW II), we more often played at soldiering than old games like Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers. We imagined ourselves dedicated fighters, and hoped that if our time came, we would be in the thick of it, on the ground or in the air or afloat, shooting our way to our country’s safety, throwing grenades, firing canon, shooting other planes out of the sky. We would be in the thick of it, and always survive.

We were finished in Korea by the time I was draft age, but I did manage to get to the next one, in Viet Nam. By then I was a professional filmmaker, and that is what I did there. Though I was issued a sidearm I was seldom at risk, given the places I was filming or sending my crews to film. I was in my 30s by then, and saw war through a different lens, as it were.

Now, when reading about our soldiers and sailors, airmen and marines, I find myself wondering, if I had been in whatever war the book is about, what kind of assignment I would want; what has the least risk, the highest survival rate? That is where I would want to be, to have the greatest chance of coming back to the life I would have left to go to war.

How different from childhood, from youth, when I would have wanted to be in the army, in the infantry, maybe airborne, but not a pilot or a sailor. But then I didn’t understand death. In fact, I didn’t understand life. I’m still learning about both, but I’m at least advanced enough to know which I value most.

I think the world would be different if the people responsible for declaring war then had to do the fighting.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Good Fences Are Not Necessarily Good

Where we live fences are for keeping animals in, rather than people out. It’s a different way of thinking. Chain-link is definitely not a country style. Barbed wire is. But again, that is to keep animals in, not people out. Some animals do stay out, and that is good, but not the primary objective of sinking posts and running wire.

Of course, there are places where fences are for keeping people in, and where that is a social necessity, one can applaud the construction and maintenance of such barriers. Where that falls apart, in my mind, is trying to restrain people or animals that have not, in any way, done something for which restraint is obligatory or a social or economic necessity.

There is one other aspect to the fence idea. Fences only work where those seeking either entry or exit agree to abide by the rules. For a person or an animal determined to contravene a fence, there is no barrier strong enough, high enough or painful enough to stop them short of a bullet or its equivalent. They will find a way, usually illegal, to get around a fence. But that is true of any artificial barrier, isn’t it?

Where we live, we use a more economical and easier to maintain method: "Posted" signs. I dislike putting them up, but unless you want to host hunters you don’t know, or share your fields with unknown 4-wheeler drivers, you really have to do something to establish your rules of use and behavior. So we put up signs and mark posts and trees in lieu of fences. We still have trespassers, but at least they don’t cut or tear down fencing when they misuse our land.

Is there a solution other than fences or signs? I think there must be. The only one that comes to mind (that is legal) is to be vigilant, but willing to prosecute those who perform illegal acts, and those who encourage or condone such acts in others. It does nothing to solve the problem if you simply say, "Don’t do that again."

Aside from predatory animals (human and otherwise), little harm is done beyond interruption and annoyance when invisible fences are crossed. Sometimes, too, great good can come from those willing to take a chance and come onto property fenced or unfenced. I don’t hold much with people trying to sell me something (a product, a politician, a proselytizer), or animals looking for food (bears, raccoons, coyotes), but unless they are abusive they are no more than an interruption to my day. It is even possible that there is something to learn from a visit.

I might even take away an idea for an essay.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Tools of the Trade

As far back as I can remember I have had three masters: tools, words, and knowledge. That is, I love to tinker with tools and machinery, I am compelled to learn words and to use them, and I seek out the why and how of the world. Perhaps I should simplify that line to read “words, why, and work.” It is the work part that is on my mind today.

When I use the term in this context, I mean tools and machines that do things, that we use to get jobs done or to amuse ourselves or to enrich our lives. In the years that I wrote films I was fortunate to find my place among those who make teaching and training films, informational and educational videos, and public relations publications. I have learned, from the people who do the work, how automobiles are made, how glass is created and shaped, how to bake loaves of bread by the dozen, and even what it takes to create and stage a ballet. In researching and writing about so many subjects, I’ve learned words, and how to use them, and tools to share that knowledge with wide audiences. And down at the core of all of these, whether about agriculture or art or history or politics, there have been tools; things that work.

Words, for me, are tools. I find fascination in learning new words and new meanings for old words, and using old and new words to tell my stories. So it is that I find myself rejecting patterns of speech that speak to me of lack of imagination, of lack of consideration for what is said, as well as how it is said. Every era, perhaps every generation, has a cliché-speak, so to speak, that identifies the speaker or writer with a time, if not  place. It seems to me that today we have far more, propagated no doubt by that swift courier of thought, the internet: phrases such as “Just saying,” and “Who’da thought?” and of course those well-worn verbal spaces, “like,” and “you know.” Actually, I usually don’t know, and often don’t like, but there seems little I can do about it beyond correcting the speaker. I would be annoyed by that from someone else, so I refrain from trying to change those habits in others. There have been times when I have actually taught the art of public speaking, and in those situations I have tried to correct my students, too often without long lasting success.

Words are not the only tools I enjoy using, however. I love “real” tools: hammers, saws, drills, wrenches and even more exotic examples. And I love the things that need tools to be able to do the jobs they supposed to do. Old tools, often made by hand rather than by a machine, always catch my eye in an antique store, or at a yard sale. I have a hand saw, for example, that belonged to my father. The wooden handle shows that a craftsman made it, decorated it with lines and curls let into the wood. I can’t use the saw because whoever made it was a person with smaller hands than mine, and I cannot securely grip the tool to make a cut. Still I keep it because it tells me of an earlier time, when the maker and (hopefully) the user found pleasure in work. I admire new tools, too: sleek, strong, fashioned to fit my hand, designed to make work easier or to extend my strength and reach. I have a tractor that dates from 1949. Not old, not new, but still strong and useful. I love to drive it and feel the connection to that simpler time. My neighbors have bigger, stronger, easier to use tractors, and they need them, but this one fits me fine. Keeping old tools in working condition and finding use for them, I find deeply satisfying.

For years my days have been divided into the three categories, beginning with words, followed by work and ending with why. That is, I write in the mornings, find things to do that require the use of tools in the afternoon, and indulge in learning (reading) in the evening. There are interstices that allow for time with family and friends, of course, but the three main categories define most of my days.

I hope you have enjoyed today’s work.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Telling Tales, Revealing Secrets

This business of telling secrets, of exposing what might best be left unsaid, isn’t new of course. Not just spying, but tale-telling, gossip, even "pillow talk" are old and sometimes dangerous. Of course, sometimes telling what you know is important, revealing something that impacts others’ lives. The problem is, often the teller doesn’t have any idea of the consequences that act will have. It is, I think, because something is missing, hasn’t been learned, or the teller is unable to comprehend the larger picture.

I’m thinking about these things because the writer within wants to explore what makes the spiller-of-secrets act. I could try to create a story based on known facts about the two most recent exposures, one by an army intelligence analyst and one by a person claiming to be a security contractor. There are enough facts already out there to write a credible story I think, but that isn’t what calls to me. There is something that is much bigger, more critical, than a current whistleblower’s news-making act. The kinds of things these people do, like the release of what are known as the Pentagon Papers, will always happen, and over a generation or two will prove to be either harmless or important or at least part of a larger story. No, that’s not what strikes me about the performance by these people.

Of course I am concerned that high school drop-outs can be part of the intelligence community, with access to information that may or may not be critical to our security, because I don’t believe you should encourage people to ferret out information without their first having developed a moral and ethical sense that extends beyond a personal point of view. Security and intelligence work is done for many reasons, but in a democracy it must be done for the greater good. The greater good means supporting and strengthening the values of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" for all.

I’m much more interested in what part of a person’s character or moral code is missing or skewed. Somewhere, somehow, an otherwise rational and normal person decides that he (or she) has seen a revealing light that exposes some evil, or some unexpected future, and that the exposure will be healthy and necessary. I believe that is where things go wrong.

You see, in my view of the world, nothing is simple or clear or without nuance. I believe most people do not think things through. They fail to see consequences, not just to themselves, but to even the most distant stranger. What I want to explore, as a writer, is what is missing, what might have happened in someone’s life that either failed to implant the ability to understand consequences, or to measure the effect of bad things happening for what one person might consider good reason. And I want to attempt to understand why other people listen to them.

Mapping the brain, exploring it genetically, reveals not just the part of that organ that plays the tune a person dances to, but how that song is heard by others. It now appears that altruism, for instance, has a location in the brain that makes humans give to others. Development (or lack of it) in that part of the brain may determine how much an individual is motivated to contribute to the welfare of others, as opposed to working only for oneself. I want to look at why we share, what we share, and how that sharing affects the larger world around us. It means developing a character from the bones out.

I haven’t been able to come up with a skeleton yet, but when I do, you’ll be the first to know.

Sunday, June 9, 2013


We’ve let the fire go out for the last time, we hope. There will be no more need until the Fall (which around here can be anytime from mid-August to mid-October). The hay has been cut, dried, baled and taken to the barn. A second cutting, if there is one this year, won’t be until late August or even late September. Daisies, Queen Anne’s Lace and Morning Glories are lining the roadsides and trails. Just the other night the fireflies announced their presence, even though we can still expect overnight temperatures to drop into the 40s on occasion. A down-jacket-cold July 4th is always a possibility.

This is the time of year when we catch up, remove Winter’s traces, substitute weeding for wood cutting. Tadpoles in the ponds are already leaving the water, lizards and snakes are helping control insects and rodents. Birds and bees and toads and turtles are everywhere, and frogs let us know they are here, too. All create a symphony, an ode to the season that we hear most clearly at night.

In the garden the promise of fresh food is already above ground, along with blossoms and dark green leaves. It is a time to work slowly, feeling the sun on your back, but enjoying (at least this early in the summer) the warmth. In winter it is felt only when close to the fire or when the sun streams in through the south-facing windows. Now we again appreciate the deep overhang of the roof that keeps the sun out as it rises higher, and we adjust the blinds of the skylights to hold off the heat a bit.

Before summer really settles in we enjoy the breezy, warm days and cool nights. Too soon we will seek ways to avoid the heat, move out of the sun, put off chores until evening, but for now the introduction to summer is very welcome. There are jobs we do later because we know we will have longer days in the weeks ahead; days when time seems to move slowly because we do. And then it will be over. Another season behind us, we will pick up saws and axes, check out the log splitter, clean up the woodshed and prepare for the cold to come. Life is a series of cycles that take us from year to year. We like to say we have four seasons here: mud, snow, fly and dust, and that sometimes we have them all on the same day. The truth is, of course, that we have a full year of changes from winter to spring to summer to fall. If we have any real treasure here, is the natural cycle of change.

We could not live without it.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The End - A Lesson In Writing

It’s a toss-up. Is it harder to write "The End" when you know you have finished a story, or is it the best part? I don’t know. Last week, after some aggressive re-writing, I typed those words at the end of a short story that had to meet a submission deadline. I had put those words at the end of the story before, when I first finished it, but that was some time ago. I tend to avoid finishing a story anyway, perhaps because I’m not ready to say goodbye to it, or to the lives I have created, or simply because I’m not always certain that the words I have used to tell the story I have invented are the perfect ones, the only ones that will do the job. Good writing, I believe, is like great music: the second note is the only one that could possibly follow the first, the third the only one to come after the second, and so on. Until the composer has found that note, or the writer that word, the work is unfinished, not ready to be shared.

Once the words are there, assembled in their proper order, the story told from beginning to end, the real work begins. I know from experience that (T)here is no story that cannot benefit from cutting, from slicing out words that don’t work as hard as they could, are not as strong as the line demands. If there is a part of writing I find difficult (and here I’m talking about the intellectual process of writing, not the actual mechanical part), it is reading a line or paragraph or chapter over and over until I have distilled it fully, taken out words that weaken what I have to say because they hobble the reader’s understanding or confuse or obscure what I really want to say.

There is another consideration, of course: does a cut disrupt the flow, the rhythm of the writing? Sometimes words that seem unnecessary are there as much to support the words that come before and after, as they are there to tell the story. I once worked for a producer who always asked, before reading a new script, "Does it sing?" If it didn’t, it wasn’t ready for him to read, and certainly not ready to go into production. Cutting, editing, becomes is an act of creation, not just reduction too.

The End

Sunday, May 26, 2013

We Are All Soldiers Now

There was a time when warfare was a spectator sport. No, not in the Roman Coliseum, though that certainly was a one-on-one kind of warfare. I’m talking about when citizens took their picnic lunches and went to watch a battle. "Coming Soon To a Field Near You!" It happened right here in our own country, if you recall your history. It was during that most civil of Civil Wars. Civil because the people who fought it could, when the shooting stopped, shout to one another across the line, even trade between enemies at a very low level, perhaps catch up on family events as brothers fought brothers, fathers fought sons. And later, of course, when it was all over, we came together again as a people.

There was an historic tree on the campus where I spent many years, its location later marked by a bronze plaque. The plaque told of a Confederate sharpshooter who, using the tree as a perch, fired on nearby Fort Stevens. One shot found its mark in a military surgeon standing next to President Lincoln, who was watching his soldiers at their work. The tree stood for many years, a witness to war and history. But those days are long gone. Today when civilians are present, they are more likely to be intended targets.

War has now become a world-wide affair, involving solders and sailors and airmen . . . and the rest of us. Targets are not just people in different uniforms, or places where something important to a war is manufactured or prepared or distributed. Those kinds of targets are so yesteryear. And it doesn’t matter who is the enemy and who is the friend. Nor does it matter where the war is being fought. In truth, "the war," all wars, are being fought on land, sea and in the air, and in a neighborhood near you. Unless you are unlucky enough to be in the neighborhood that is today’s target of choice.

So as we think about why we have a memorial day, and recognize those men and women in uniform who have secured for us what we hold most dear, we really ought to expand its scope. The next battle could be in your street, or on my road, in an office block or a residential complex. We need to recognize that war is everywhere around us, that we are all in the middle of it, not spectators any longer. And if you are called upon to fight, to defend, to aid and comfort your fellow warfighters, you must be prepared to make that sacrifice, that "last full measure of devotion," to protect what is most at risk, and most valued: our freedom and our right to live.

We are all soldiers now.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Writing Life

I want to give you some insight into what being a writer means. Especially, I want to give you some feeling for what it is like to support yourself and your family using a common skill. I also want to tell you how I feel about it, and what it is like to be a writer.

To begin with, I think it is important for the non-writer to understand that putting words on paper (or on a computer screen), is really the end of a process that begins somewhere deep in the brain; that begins with a thought or a picture and ends with the words, "The End." Between those two posts lies a fence of sometimes fragile fabric drawn from research, imagination, and knowledge. Pulling those strands together must begin before the first word is put down. That is the hard work of writing.

Imagination? A very important part of writing comes from the writer’s skill in recognizing the three-dimensional vision of a thought or idea or image. That is perhaps the first spark that ignites the fire of creativity. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, or between two words you are reading in a book, or putting one foot before the other as you walk along a path in the garden, that quickly, an idea or picture or full-blown sentence arrives in the part of your mind where it is recognized, and you are off and running with an idea. Now the work begins.

If what you are writing is to be part of a report or perhaps a plan for a product, then hours of research must follow. If you are writing for someone else, a client or a teacher or a lover, you must have the patience to refine your idea to the point that you can express it clearly and in words that are both economical and appealing. But what about "real" writing: creative, fictional, imaginative? That’s what I really want to tell you about.

Just as with any other writing, putting the words down is the end of the process, not the beginning. One doesn’t simply sit down and start putting letters together in a single, breathless burst. Pay no attention to those filmic events in which the previously despondent and frustrated writer suddenly wakes up, grabs a pencil or turns on the computer, and madly, compulsively, brutally attacks the blank page and fills it with word after word until the sun rises over the dirty city where the garret is located, and the hero types: "The End." And then is rich and famous. Doesn’t happen.

And about being lonely, alone, depressed and despondent: another myth, probably first generated by a writer who discovered the truth and didn’t want to share it. Put it this way: how could you be alone, much less lonely, when you are in the middle of a world you create yourself, populated by people who owe their very existence to your imagination, in places only you have seen before? This is your world, your space, and it is what you want it to be. Lonely? Well that’s when you have to leave your own world and rejoin the rest.

It’s the writer’s life for me!