Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Bible, The Bard and Beyond

The Bible and the Bard:  probably the most published works in the English language. No other writing has been published as long as these. I’ve been thinking about why they have such durability.

The Bible, certainly the King James version, and the works of the Bard (his plays and his sonnets) speak to us over the centuries, touching that unfathomable part of our consciousness that combines knowledge with beauty, expectation with insight. The meaning of the words, and the very words themselves, might challenge us today, but in their own time they were the language of the people who heard them. And of course, more people heard them than read them because illiteracy was far more common than literacy, sometimes even among kings and queens. That helps explain the original acclaim. But what about today?

We are caught up in a world that emphasizes speed, minimalist communication, cliches rather than thoughtful constructs. ‘Else why would irony be so much of what we trade with others in seeking to share knowledge or ideas or opinions? Why, if one can reduce a response or even a philosophy to a word or two (“duh,” for instance, or “yeah, right”) do we even consider using all of those big words for big ideas? I think that is not a difficult question to answer.

Granted, when King James underwrote the translation of the Bible in 1611, and Shakespeare (1564-1616) penned those still-gripping entertainments, the language used was the language of the people. The whole point of the biblical translation and the plays of Shakespeare was to share with as many people as possible the knowledge, the history, the philosophy of the people who wrote the words. But instead of rewriting Shakespeare for example, the words have been left to be themselves; published today as they were when the author wrote them. And although there have been attempts to modernize the Bard and the Bible, I don’t think they serve.

Serve what, you ask? Serve the purpose of lifting the reader or the hearer to a higher level.

Compare these:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.(Genesis - King James Bible)

First this: God created the Heaven and the Earth - all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. (Genesis - The Message Bible)

We all benefit from rising above the mundane, reaching beyond ourselves.

Beautiful words form the ladder that lifts us.

Monday, December 8, 2014


The longer I live, the more memories I accumulate. If you live long enough these days it seems you run the risk of losing memories. When you lose memories, I think, you lose life, or at least the life you have lived. If you lose your memories, what do you have left? Well, you have tomorrow. Just not for long.

There is a way to protect the life you have already lived. Keep a diary and write a journal. They are two separate records. A diary accounts for your time on a daily basis; records the things you have done. A journal, on the other hand, is a record of what affected you, how you responded, what life has given (or taken away).

I have never been much of a diarist or a journal keeper. It has only been in the last twenty or so years that I have been regular in putting on paper or in a computer file, the events of my days and the revelations that have come to me. I have always had a good working memory, combining images and narrative that complement one another. I can see a few frames from a film and know that I have seen it before. A photograph or art from a book cover will tell me if I have read the book itself. Still, I know that I do not remember everything. Writing it down, making a note, is one way of augmenting (complementing) remembered life.

Sunday I noted in the corner of my computer screen, was the 7th of December. I immediately saw a mental image of another Sunday, another December 7th, and paused to reflect a bit on that day. In those years our family life followed a rather rigid pattern. My father was a traveling salesman, gone on Monday, back on Friday. On Sunday afternoons, as with so many people, the family went for a “Sunday Drive.” The term Sunday Driver even then had come to mean one who meandered, usually slowly, with no preset destination, other than to return home at a reasonable time, and after seeing other neighborhoods or even villages that could be driven to and back in about two hours. Often there would be a stop for ice cream cones or soft drinks while the car was refueled and given a cursory check by the attendant. Then home in time to prepare dinner. At our house most Sundays there would be young men and women, college students from out of town, who gathered for an afternoon of conversation, games, music and home cooking. A few were always there when we left for the drive, more when we returned.

The Sunday that I recalled when I saw the date was a warm (for December), sunny day. I can still see it, see the house that sat up on a high piece of ground, a suburban brick bungalow with close neighbors all around. And young people standing outside in small groups, waiting (I now realize) for the family to return. I don’t remember what was said, because so much was said over the next few hours, but I know that is when I learned about Pearl Harbor. I was old enough to understand bombs and attacks and war, though only as abstract concepts. I didn’t know what the words meant beyond that. Few did, I think. The events of the next four years would teach us all, young and old, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, new words, new geography, and change us and the world forever. I could read and write by then, but it never occurred to me to write about my reactions or understanding or even my fears. I wish I had.

There are some things we should never forget.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Telling Tales

I recently went to a book introduction for a novel written by a neighbor. His work hits the best seller lists from time-to-time, and his remarks the other day were sort of a master class in fiction writing. Actually in writing, period. He described his own process in researching and writing fiction, which, as far as I know, are common to all who ply this craft.

One thing stood out: “I’m a storyteller,” he said.

I instantly was reminded of the day I discovered that in myself. I was driving to meet with a group of other writers, struggling to learn the craft of fiction (as opposed, in my case, to writing fact). As I let the car follow the curves and slopes of the three mountains I had to cross, it came to me (as things do to writers) that in fact, what all of this was about was being a storyteller. I proffered those words to the group when we met, and elaborated on the theme.

Writing is a form used to tell stories, but we all begin by actually telling, speaking the stories we have within us. We begin as children, letting our imaginations roam the universe we inhabit (and perhaps some that do not exist . . .yet). We don’t always know the line between real and imaginary, and some of us never learn it. That is what writing fiction is all about.

We gather our audience, whether in person or through pages, and we tell our stories. We, all of us, love stories. Love to imagine things as we would like them to be, or are afraid they might be. When all the light was from the fires lit to warm us and cook our meat, we sat around the fire and told our dreams, our imaginings, our shaped fears and hopes. And always, some were better than others at shaping a story, at making it come alive. Poets, bards, tellers of tall tales all found their way into the circle around the fire. And some were singled out for fame, for the respect they earned at their craft.

Writing our stories simply expanded our audience size. No longer limited to a single performance, the written story could be shared over and over with one or many, could take on a form that was passed down through the ages even to today. Now a storyteller holds the respected title of “writer,” or “author,” and can be found on best-seller lists and in bookstores, libraries and on electronic media and other forms of sharing. It is still telling a story, beginning at a beginning and ending at “the end.” No matter what it is called, no matter what the author is called, all who write are, first and foremost, tellers of stories.

I am a storyteller, and this is my story, too.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Sound of Democracy

Two weeks ago we held elections in this country. We held them and almost nobody came. There are lots of things we can put off or shift to others, but let me suggest that voting for those who will lead us into the future, even a two-year future, is not one of them. If you didn’t vote when you had the opportunity, why?

Did someone stand in the doorway with a weapon and threaten you? Were there no ballot boxes or voting machines where you were supposed to find them? How about people to watch and assure you a safe and secure place to cast your vote in private? None of those? Then what’s your excuse?

More than that, what do you expect when those who were elected (local, state, federal) propose and pass laws you don’t like? If you are among the millions who complain but don’t vote, I’d say you have nothing to complain about.

In 1776 the people who lived here fought for the right to name leaders, demand action, and take responsibility for the direction of our nation. When it is time to vote and you don’t, you are letting down the memory and spirit of those who came before; those who fought and died for what we are, who we are. The results of elections don’t always go the way I like, or the way you might like, but at least you have a say. If you don’t, then you are committing the crime of silence. I hope the next time the polls open you will be waiting at the door. Otherwise you will have to listen helplessly to the sound of democracy dying.

The sound of democracy dying is an oligarch laughing.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Savoring Life

I really prefer to write short stories or novellas, rather than the longer, more involving novel form. I know what I want to say, I like to keep the reader involved and contributing to the story, and I believe the shorter forms demand more reader participation. That seems to be a characteristic of everything I have done, or do. I want to do what I want or need to do, and then get on to the next thing.

Take eating, for instance. Where did I learn to eat? I hardly know sometimes what it is I’m eating. I was told that as a baby I was always hungry, and that seems not to have changed, except that instead of feeling hungry, I simply attack my food with such intensity that five minutes after I’ve eaten the last bite I have forgotten what I’ve had. I know that I appreciate what tastes good and what doesn’t, and I can genuinely praise the work that resulted in what was prepared, but to recall it later, is often beyond me.

I read the same way. When I sit down with a book or a magazine (we don’t get daily papers here), I want to finish the story and get on. If the lede is too long, if the story has too much information, I want to skip and get to the end, find the writer’s conclusion, agree or disagree and turn the page.

Writing is like that, too. I begin every story with the end in mind. I know what I want to say, what I want to tell, and the reward comes from discovering how to get from first word to last. And it doesn’t take long for me to want to get there. And of course, the story doesn’t always end up where I thought it would. Characters and their lives often takeover a story and make it their own, still ending up where I wanted to go, but not always. Sometimes the story comes alive in ways I hadn’t anticipated, going where I had not thought I was headed, becoming something more than what I had in mind. There is great pleasure in that, too.

There is great pleasure in all of these things: eating, reading, writing. I just don’t think I’m getting the full measure of satisfaction and pleasure out of any of them.

I don’t savor the moment, or the words, the writing or the food. I know when it tastes good or doesn’t, when a writer’s work excites me or stimulates me or frustrates or angers or bores me. I feel the pleasure a well written line or page or book can bring, but it is fleeting.

There is a big difference between liking and savoring. The difficulty is that after all these years, while I can recognize what’s lacking, I haven’t yet learned how to correct it; to enjoy the things I like.

I need to savor life.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Getting Away, or Getting Away With It

I don’t mind telling you that I’m just a bit tired. Last week we spent our days walking on the beach, sitting on the Healing Porch, eating wonderfully creative food that should be known among the gourmand elite. All-in-all, it was a tough week. Sunshine every day, temperatures in the high 70s and low 80s, sun and sand and surf. It was truly grand.

Yesterday we had snow. Not much, and not bad, and today it blew away with warming temperatures and sunny skies, but still. And that means we are being warned, not warmed. The prediction is for a hard, cold winter. Well, yes. We do live on a mountainside, we do experience cold and snow and the charm of woodsmoke and hearty stews and toasty fireplaces. We have an old bed warmer, a long-handled copper pan that we can fill with hot coals from the fireplace and then circulate under the covers for a few minutes before climbing into bed of a cold winter’s night, but in reality, we seldom use the fireplace, we burn our wood outdoors in a special furnace that sits some 70 feet from the house itself, and we maintain a comfortable living space that serves us well.

The impact of returning home was somewhat lessened by the greeting we received from the dogs (who had spent the week at a country inn), and by the opportunity to see (and hold and kiss) the newest member of the family, born while we were away. He’s a grand looking little fellow, full of cuteness and huggableness (being a writer means you can make up words) and, of course, infinite promise. There is more warmth in that than in a year of sun and surf.

So now it’s back to work. I spent part of every day away, working on stories that I have not yet published. I’m thinking a collection (they are mostly short, novella-length or less) might be the next publishing venture, or a novel I have written three times and can’t find the version that truly satisfies me. I’ll tell you about it if I decide to rewrite it one more time, to get it right, and send it out into the world. But it takes time.

I don’t know about you, but I have always found vacations interrupt my working rhythm as much as they help me feel ready to take on whatever comes next. Finding the right balance is always a trick to be mastered (some never do), and for a writer it is perhaps just a bit harder than for others. The thing is, you see, when you write, you are putting yourself into a peculiar and uncomfortable position. You are proposing that complete strangers look at your innermost thoughts and deepest feelings and interpret for themselves who you are. You are asking people you don’t know and will never meet, to comment on your abilities, you skills, your art. Those are the things that make up the person the writer is, and by presenting oneself, even through a fictional story, you are literally (literarily) offering yourself up for a slicing and dicing that makes what the gourmet chef does to a carrot look like first grade finger painting.

Is it any wonder that a week of talking, laughing, listening and holding yourself in a static mode is something a writer approaches with mixed feelings?

As I write this I am also thinking about tomorrow, about election day. I will spend the day, starting about five AM, with two of my neighbors, running our local precinct. Of the 100 or so registered voters we serve, we hope all will turn out, but about 65% usually do. Still higher than many places. I hope you will take the time to go and, with thoughtful consideration, vote your conscience and beliefs. If we all do that, we can take a giant step toward protecting the life to which the founding fathers pledged their lives, their honor and their sacred fortunes.

Staying home should not be an option.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

On the Beach

It’s time again to be on the beach. Every year we leave our beloved mountains and head for open water, where the sun announces itself with a brief reddening of the horizon and then, as if on a spring, pops up and fills the sky with its red gold light.

This morning the shrimp boats are all across the horizon. Last night, around midnight, we could see their navigation lights far from shore.  At first light they were still at work, lights on, moving slowly in the sea. As I stepped onto the sandy beach beneath the reddening sky, the tide was coming in, the air was slightly salty and, even though the dark still lay on the land, the early birds, gulls and sand pipers, were doing their morning dance along the moving edge of the sea. It restoreth the soul.

Sitting on the wide screened porch, overlooking the ocean, friends and coffee cups meeting together to welcome the day, our time of renewal begins. We’ll be here time enough to shed the cold we left behind, and the cares that seem to gather like clouds when you are at home where you might be able to do something about it. Here on the Healing Porch, though, all is light, and breeze and the sound of the surf, and since we know we can’t do anything about the things we left behind, we fall into a series of days of conversation, friendly discussion, quiet speculation. We all know we will be back with our cares, but that is days away. We are aware that the ones we left behind, children, grandchildren, dogs that have extended our families, will be there to welcome us, including the newest member of our immediate family (literally any minute now). We are also aware that we cannot do more than wish them all a pleasant and good time while we are away.

For years, as we have enjoyed this annual trek, this healing by the waters, knowing that it will not last beyond the allotted week, but holding the thought that it will come again next year, I have tried to frame a story that would involve not only this place, but these people. I haven’t found the storyline yet, and I’m not sure I ever will. I have written many times about a writer’s way, or at least this writer’s, of filtering everything through the writing process. Well, not everything.

Even though I have written about this annual change of scene in the past, I have never found a plot that would let me include the place and time we occupy here. Perhaps that is more than just lack of ideas; perhaps a desire to savor and keep real this time and place. It is not something easily given up or turned into something else. It is a special place, a special time, and I want to keep it that way.

In the end, I think there is a need to protect and treasure a place and a time, from becoming a part of a made-up life.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Living Writing

I have never done just one thing. Multitasking seems to be a way of life for me. I’ve never been happy focusing on just one thing at a time. Oh, I can do that for a few hours, but soon my mind begins to examine other things, other plans or other tasks that either need doing or I want to do. Of all the things that capture my attention, however, the one I’m most comfortable with for the longest time any day, is writing.

In a typical day I will spend my morning in front of a keyboard or a yellow pad or a notebook, putting thoughts into coherent sentences and pages. As with most things I do, I seem more focused when I work alone when the objective is building something. It might be a construction using wood and glue and nails, or it could be an essay such as this one, or a tale I want to tell.

When I write I lose myself in the story, get lost in research, find new avenues to explore in my mind as the words appear in front of me. If it is cold and windy (as it is today), writing warms me. The process fills me with a heat generated from within. If the temperature is above comfortable, writing redirects my awareness away from discomfort, away from myself. Writing something about a character or an act or just about the scene itself, causes me to reach deep into my experience, my steamer trunk of observations, my catalogue of expressions, to build a character or establish a sense of place and time.

When I am writing I am in my most comfortable place. Even when I’m doing other things, part of me will be observing, considering, filing for future pages. There are lots of things I love doing, find time for, think about when I’m not doing them. I love solving problems created by the way we live, trying to be self-sufficient where we can, providing for heat in the long winters, maintaining our small fleet of vehicles and other tools of life in the country, or just taking time to enjoy where and how we go through our days.

Still, it all comes back to writing. Everything I do seems to have a place in what I write. Life, at least for me, is made up of two qualities: experience and expression. Experience comes from living. Expression is applying experience to observations and situations, finding the meaning or usefulness in what I learn or observe.

I suppose I am, at heart, a loner. I enjoy being with other people, talking, listening, observing. At the same time, though, I am filing away scenes and scents, appearances and applications that, along with all the other things I see and hear, eventually find expression in words that make up stories. That is where I live, where I spend most of my time. Writing, for me, is the engine that drives me.

Life is what starts the engine.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Tell Me a Story

In writing these more-or-less weekly essays I often use some incident or encounter from the past as a foundation. I can recall details of conversations and events that may date from my childhood or from some other time long ago. It is a skill that has served me well when doing research for technical and educational films. Now, writing fiction, that ability to recall not just words, but time and place and action helps me create characters with dimension, and scenes or settings that give breadth to a character or an event. I think it is a skill a lot of people possess, but don’t always use, especially when recounting a bit of family history. And everyone, it seems, loves history. Especially when it is their own.

There are others who love that kind of recall. More than once I’ve had people tell me stories from their family, ending with “you ought to write that.” Well, no, You ought to write that. Those are your stories, from your family and your life. It isn’t all that hard. You simply write the story as you recall it, then add as much detail as you can to give the people and events dimension.

My mother undertook to write her story when she was in her 80s (she lived to be 96), and which she had printed for the family (by then including many grandchildren and great grandchildren, cousins and nieces and nephews). An immigrant in 1912 at the age of six, dropped into a small Southern town where her father had prepared the way, she and her mother spoke no English, had no exposure to any place bigger than a Russian farm village. Her story of how she became an American in every way, including a genuine Southern accent, was legend in our family. An accomplished (but mostly unpublished) writer in her own lifetime, she left a priceless inheritance for her family. As our family increases with the addition of spouses and progeny, her little booklets about her life will keep her story alive, and give substance to memory.

How difficult is it to do the same with your own stories? Not really hard at all. To begin, take something from the past, a photograph, a special plate or spoon, at tool from great-grandfather’s workbench, virtually anything that has a story of its own. Hold it, touch and turn it, study its dimensions and picture it in use, or sitting in a special place on the mantel or corner cabinet. Describe the object. Be aware of every detail that you can see or feel or recall. Remember when you first saw it, who told you what it was, where it was kept. It’s the little things that give life to an object. Now you have set the scene.

From that starting point, expand your story. Write about the people who handled the object or who are in the photo or painting. Put down details of who, what, where, when and if you know, why. You will find yourself recalling far more than you had expected, far better than you remembered when you began.

And don’t worry about the words. If you think your spelling or grammar is not up to a standard, there are two things you can do about it. Especially if you are using a word processor, there are tools available at the click of a mouse to check both of those things. Or, you can simply write what you want, in your own voice, and not think about what letter goes where, or what ending a word needs to agree with the words around it. I’m not recommending that you pay no attention to those things, of course. Doing it right will make the reading experience better for your audience, but the main thing is to get the story down, get it right. Make it beautiful later if you wish. The main thing is getting it down.

Tell me a story.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Neighborhoods and Neighbors

It seems official, now: Fall is here. The leaves are not only in full color, but full flight, too. I cleaned them from the roof and gutters, decks and walkways on Friday. It sort-of rained on Friday night (the first in nearly two months, and barely a tenth-of-an-inch at that), followed by Saturday’s strong, drying wind that continues today. Until all the trees that shed in the fall are bare, leaf moving will be a regular exercise.

When we lived in the city and suburbs we didn’t have acres of woodland to care for, nor did we need power equipment to do the job. A rake or two, some burlap to drag the leaves to the compost pile or curbside, and a broom to clear the flagstone walkway and we were done. Now we limit leaf-moving to the gutters, decks and walkways. Nature does the rest: by spring they are ready to be incorporated into the soil, or simply provide moisture absorption against the dry days of summer. We aren’t too concerned with nicely kept lawns (we don’t have any) or neat beds and paths. We tend to let nature follow its own path.

There are chores you can’t ignore when you live in the city because neighbors and neighborhoods tend to exert pressure on neighbors. Here in the country, especially in the mountains, where the nearest neighbor is beyond any line of sight, how you care for your land is your business. It’s up to us, for instance, to decide how close the trees can be, or how wild the vista from our windows and decks. For us, trees are close, neighbors are not. We like it wild and unruly and somewhat chaotic around our living space, maybe because chaos reminds us of why we chose to live beyond the borders of what most people think of as civilization. We like our privacy, our peace and quiet, our sometimes limited views (very limited in the summer, more open in the winter). And we like it when we call the local power provider to report an outage and they ask if our neighbors have power. Our reply is that the nearest neighbor is a mile away. At least that is the way it used to be. Lately it has become somewhat crowded here.

We live a mile from the main road. For years the next inhabited house was at the end of the road, a mile beyond us. This year we’ve seen a one-hundred per cent increase in neighbors: one a renter of a farm about half way between us and the end of the road. The other, half way between us and the renter. A young couple bought a small holding and filled the house with their four kids and a dog, added a kitchen garden and some chickens. “Getting crowded, here,” I muttered to my mate. “Might be time to think about moving on.” Fortunately she didn’t jump to start packing up. Turns out having neighbors so close (still beyond sight or sound), isn’t so bad after all.

In fact, it’s kind of nice. We talk, we share chores and tools and equipment. That happened just last week. An old 4-wheel-drive SUV we use to drive around the place, for taking the dogs places, or to go  over the mountains when the roads are snow-covered or icy, was stuck and needed more than one person to move it. A call to my neighbor brought him and his tractor and his willingness to help, and in less time than it took him to drive the quarter-mile between us, the old machine was back where it was supposed to be. No drama, no “how will I solve this alone” monologue, just a call, an answer and a solution.

We like knowing that there is someone to call if we are in need. More than that, we like the presence of little kids who will grow up here in our valley. We like seeing the old houses become homes again. We like having someone close by we can help when they need it. We like finding ourselves, after all these years, once again in a neighborhood.

Hi, neighbor!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Tell Me a Story

Two stories in today’s news were about people who take risks. One was about the eruption of Mt. Ontake in Japan. The sudden (and unexpected) event happened while about 150 people were climbing; an adventure that is very popular in Japan. At the time the news story was written, at least 30 people had succumbed to the violent but natural event, trapped on the mountain in the path of the falling rock and flowing lava following the eruption.

The second story featured a young woman (early 40s) who, in three years, has hiked solo 10-thousand miles. Starting in Siberia, walking, hauling a custom-made trailer and more than 150 pounds of gear, Sarah Marquis survived her journey despite weather, terrain, disease, hunger, thirst and threats to her life by assailants ranging from wild animals to Mongolian horsemen.

Two stories that a writer could have invented, but didn’t need to. I mention that because I’ve often been asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” A perfectly natural question from those who don’t write or tell stories, I think. If I were not doing what I do, I wouldn’t know where to look for ideas, I suppose. The truth is, of course, that life, the world around you, the events of the day, provide all the garden a writer needs to grow a story from seed.

Fiction writing is much like gardening or farming, you see. An idea, a word, a passing thought, a scene witnessed or experienced can be the starting point for any storyteller to create a tale worth telling. Writers (at least this one) are explorers of a kind, you see. We find a beginning, an idea or event or act, and from that we look at what led to the act, what the act was, and the consequences. Sometimes it is as simple as retailing the beginning, the middle and the end with the embellishments a writer may add. Story ideas are often buried in someone else’s history or experience that leads the writer to look for creative explanations, motives, even outcomes.

Years ago I added to my library a small, almost pamphlet-sized book outlining 101 basic plots. The author had written the book from the perspective of a screenwriter (for silent films, I should point out). The idea of basic themes or plots (the ancient Greeks recognized only 7) applies to any fiction writing. What changes is the voice or point of view of the teller, the writer. What makes it work, what makes any story work, is either the true-to-life plot, or the skill of the writer in getting the reader to apply what is called “suspension of disbelief.” It is often written as “willing suspension of disbelief,” but willing or unwilling, the reader must participate in such an act. If the storyline is so true to life that the suspension is unnecessary, so much the better.

All of this might seem off the track (trail) I began with hikers climbing a volcano or trekking alone across a vast continent, an ocean and yet another continent. It isn’t, though. What struck me about both stories were two things: the magnitude of tests we can invent for ourselves, and the depth and breadth of strength we can find within ourselves when we need to, or really want to. It is what life is made of, and what makes life at all interesting and challenging.

If you think you have a story to tell, know that it has been told before, has been around for perhaps as long as campfires and wooly mammoths and saber-tooth tigers. That shouldn’t stop you from telling the story in your own way, your own voice. You might not tell it better than anyone else, or you might find a perspective that is new and unusual.

We all have stories to tell.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Hello, Old Thing

I love old things. Cars, buildings, books. Especially books. There is something about paper that has aged and not disintegrated that stimulates a sense of peace. Anything remaining so stable in an unstable world brings with it a sense if well-being.

Like most writers today, my books are available in digital format, just as is this essay. You can buy paper copies (which I prefer), but if you’d rather read an impermanent image, that’s fine, too. Reading is what is important; communicating ideas is what is important. Sharing knowledge is what is important. I’m not in any way opposed to the digital revolution, as long as the old ways are preserved as well.

Much like an old house, an old book has a personality that has yet to be imprinted on the new version. There are marks and smells and tactile sensations from holding and touching paper. The slick dust jacket, the hard boards that make the cover protective and at the same time substantial, the smoothness and shading of the paper itself, all work together with the words, the story, to make a package one may hold and absorb and enjoy, put away and then, whenever one wants or needs it, the pleasure can be repeated.

There is some speculation today about when, not if, the traditional book will disappear from our lives. I suppose for some, that is a welcome prospect. For others it must be a scary future; a world without books. If that thought disturbs you, then consider this: words written on something physical, be it rocks, clay tablets or animal skin, tree bark or paper (the ultimate extension of that technology), has been happening continuously and regularly for thousands of years. Printing, a method of copying an original multiple times, is also old. Movable type, first used by the Chinese perhaps a thousand years ago, is still with us. Scrolls, hand-written or machine-duplicated, still command attention. When it is important, it is printed. When it is beautiful, it is replicated. It will, I believe, continue to be an important technique for sharing information, ideas, art, imagination and the very tools of all that, the words themselves, for as long as we are able to communicate with one another.

There is a place for digital books, I know. Making words available to more people in more places, where conditions may make holding and moving books from place to place (think flying in today’s world where limits on the number and weight of suitcases can demand a choice of books or clothing), and you can appreciate a device weighing a pound or so that has the world’s library at one’s fingertips. Think about children living in such cultural poverty that they have never seen a book, looking at the words of a favorite story on a small screen for the first time. Consider the number of people who cannot claim a permanent place to sleep or be with family, but who can see your work on the ubiquitous cell phone. For those people, in those places, the digitization of whole libraries and cultural history of a nation can be instantly available when the inexpensive and reliable digital world is in their hands.

I publish in digital, but I also publish on paper. I do not own electronic copies of my own books, but there is a place in our home library for printed copies of them. When I sell books in bookstores, they are paper, bound in covers that attract the buyer. That same buyer may go on-line to find out more about me or the book, might even look at sample pages, but the best thing that happens, in my view, is when a “hard copy” moves from shelf to hand. Then I know that the buyer, the reader, will have a three-dimensional experience: the texture, the scent, the look of words and pages held and read all at one time.

It may be an old idea, but it is one that will remain long after the bits and bytes dead.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Rhythm of Winter

Light weight and light colored clothes to the back. Heavy darks to the front. Blankets out to air, thin covers to the laundry. Gloves from the closet shelf, lined caps and hats on the hall stand. Sweaters unfolded and allowed to hang and unwrinkle. Boots checked for water resistance and treated.

Outside, the deck furniture gets cleaned and stacked. Covers to keep them that way appear from the storage chests against the side of house. Final cuts of the paths around the fields and the large grassy areas near the buildings. Gutters cleaned and checked.

At the outdoor furnace the woodshed gets refilled. Trees stacked last Spring become short logs ready for the splitter. Snow blades get cleaned and checked and ready for mounting. Tire chains for truck and tractor are repaired and ready to roll.

The rhythm of winter strums in the air. The gardens slow and stop producing. Leaves begin to turn and then to drop, coating the land and manmade surfaces with orange and red and brown that crunch when dry, are slippery after a rain. Those fruits and vegetables we have finally harvested after the short, late-blooming summer slow in growth, fail to finish, must be pulled and composted to prepare for the next growing season.

Spring is so far away, but it will come. Still, we feel we’ve missed the summer that, when we were young felt long and short at the same time. This year it has been all too short. Our compatriots in the west would have loved our rain, but we felt cheated by the seasons. The slowness of summer is giving way too quickly to the tedium of winter, and we aren’t so happy about that.

The rhythm of winter beats slowly.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Authority is a Responsibility

There was a time in my professional life when I worked with researchers to help them make better presentations.

I always began my sessions with two things: a demonstration of common faults, and a mantra to give the speakers a mental support post. Classes in public speaking generally focus on voice projection, enunciation, and how to stand and move on a stage or lecture platform. Those are skills many otherwise assertive and vocal people lack when they stand before an audience of their peers. Developing those abilities however, demands more than physical moves and voice control.

The common faults are easy to demonstrate. Using the podium as a rock, for instance: grabbing it and holding on as if one were about to be blown off the stage by a tornado. Another is pacing back and forth from one side of the stage to the other, distracting the audience and getting tangled in the microphone cord. There are others, and techniques to overcome them. Those techniques are demonstrable, and can be learned. The mantra is much more difficult, especially if you are new to being the center of attention among  strangers. Public speaking, whether it is a conversation with a small group or a presentation from the stage of a large auditorium, requires a certain mind set.

“The podium is your authority,” I would say. I would repeat it many times in the days we met as a group: The podium is your authority. Standing at the lectern, or simply being introduced as the speaker, you are granted a position of authority. People will believe what you say or take issue with your assertions and conclusions, but if you are challenged, you have a bigger hammer than someone in the audience. The same is true for writers.

When you have published an article, or a story or a book, the very physical properties of the printed word lend heft to your opinions and conclusions, your assertions and your interpretations. That applies especially to electronic publication, whether an e-zine or social media site.

Being published, and thereby becoming an authority, brings with it certain responsibilities as well as rights. One must at some point take responsibility for one’s assertions and beliefs, especially it they are put forward by the professional and public “you.” That responsibility extends, it seems to me, to whatever mischief one may create, or harm one may cause. It is a heavy responsibility. But the originator is not the only one responsible.

As a reader, just as when you are part of a live audience, you have a responsibility to probe for the truth of what you hear and read. Do you trust your source? Believe everything you hear? Support as true everything you read? And is it possible to do that? Given the amount of information coming our way every day, every hour, from reporters, researchers, even politicians, do you have time to examine every news report, book, television program or even conversation critically and objectively? If you don’t, then you may be contributing to misinformation, misunderstanding and mischief in general.

In this modern world, one cannot believe everything one hears. Or reads. Or sees. So here’s a simple way to pursue truth: when the first news reports of an incident or event come to you in whatever way you receive news, put it aside. Wait a few days or a week before deciding on its validity. If the facts reported first don’t change materially in that time, then you have a solid podium on which to lean. You have authority.

You have a responsibility to seek the truth; it is what makes us free.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor: It's What We Do

Labor Day: A grand idea, this notion that we respect and reward work. Labor: The act as well as  the people who commit it. Over time that motif has degraded somewhat to simply a long weekend or day off. For those who work alone, who are the smallest of small entrepreneurs, it is probably just another day. I know it is for me. How about you?

When I was young (I was once), Labor Day was a time for picnics, speechifying (mostly political) and no work; like Sunday, only a Monday. Stores were closed, families gathered (it was the end of summer, too, and school started the next day), and public speakers tried to make workers feel they were important. And of course they were.

Labor, even 50 years ago, was committed by people. Machines were there of course, but they were operated by hands attached to real arms. We were just beginning to move into autonomous tools, but it wouldn’t be long before we, the hands and heads of work, would start turning over our skills to machines that were smarter (mostly), safer (mostly), cheaper to operate (always) and (sometimes) better at accomplishing intricate, repetitive tasks. Now even that is old.

For some of us the idea of work has long been doing something without assistance, without direction from people or machines, of being both the CEO and the Foreman and the Grunt. That’s what writing represents for me.

Labor day? Every day is labor day. Even when I say I’m taking a day off, part of me remains behind, working even when no new words appear on the screen. I’ve evolved through the whole history of the work of writing, too. From scratches in the dirt with a stick, through crayons and pencils on any surface I could reach, to paper and blackboard. The process still includes hand-written portions, in notebooks and on scraps of anything that will take a pen or marker or pencil, though most of what I write is here, on the screen, in a digital code I cannot really visualize. It’s one of those things I have to accept and then go on.

How do you spend Labor Day? For me it is much like any other day, except that there are some places closed, some people I might need to talk to who tell me with an automated message that they are “out of the office until Tuesday.”

Of course that doesn’t include everyone. I spent nearly 20 years in a rescue squad, and I know very well that days and nights and dates and dinners are all subject to change when the calls go out. Those folks who do that today, who respond in fire trucks and police cars, ambulances or aircraft, tankers or tanks don’t call a halt to their work to honor or be honored.

So when the calendar shows me it is Labor Day (the one with capital letters), I stop and give  thought to those who contribute to our world everyday, and especially to those who make our lives safer, more secure, and more satisfying, even if they can’t take the day off.

May everyone have a reason to celebrate this day.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

APP - Another Phonic Program

Time was, when one wanted to make a phone call, the process involved nothing much more than finding the number in the telephone company-issued phone book, picking up the “receiver” and “dialing” the number. One then heard either a sound that told you the phone you had called was ringing, or that it was already in use (busy) or you actually heard someone say “Hello.” Oh, do I have to define some of those terms?

“Receiver” referred to a black object, shaped like a dumbbell, that had a microphone at one end and an earphone at the other. It fit your hand, and if you were an adult, the earphone was pressed to your ear and the microphone was in front of your mouth. I don’t know if there is significance in using the term “dumbbell,” but unless you were talking or listening, it was “dumb,” and it was more than likely an instrument owned by a “Bell Telephone” affiliate. But that’s another story.

“Dialed” was another term of art. It meant sticking your fingertip, or perhaps a pencil or similar object in a small round holes, itself one of ten in a round, wheel-like plate attached to the base of the telephone, and which, by placing a fingertip in the hole corresponding to the number you were dialing, and turning the wheel as far as it would go before releasing it, actually (through the magic of electrical (not electronic) contacts, activated some switches between you and the person you were calling, and “dialed” the number. Enough tech lesson for today.

What I wanted to comment on is the generally held idea that we are better off with things generically called “apps.” That is, I suppose, modernspeak for “application,” a word with meanings, but in this case referring to little computer programs that do things for you. Mostly expensive things that often get you into trouble, but that too, is for another day.

I’m not complaining. I use “apps” myself, or rely on the one closest to me to use them for our mutual benefit, such as telling us where to go (really, not metaphorically) or when we should be somewhere that we are also being told the above. And they do save time, find things or places we need (at least we think we do), and perhaps things even my imaginative brain can’t dream up. Living as we do in what is known as a service economy (as opposed to a manufacturing economy), we have been led to believe that anything that does something for us, or does part of something for us, regardless of why or what, is generally good. In fact it has created an entire economic and social design for living that puts some or much of what we do or want or get, literally in the palm of the hand. And people say, “Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that convenient?” Well, not really.

Convenience was when you walked into a store, when a floor-walker asked it you needed assistance, when a clerk showed you the options available and described the good and bad points based on what other shoppers had said or even on personal experience or observation. One might even have formed an opinion for one’s self before leaving home.

The “app” I liked best was to simply say to the clerk: “Charge it to my account, and have it sent to my home.”

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Living, Naturally

We try to live with the environment we have. Our mountain homeplace lies on the slopes of two mountains, with a narrow valley between them. The little flat land that we hold is good for hay but not much else. Even that is rock-bearing, like the hills. Aside from hay we grow rocks and trees. Of the three annual crops, the rocks are the easiest to manage. They seem to be self-seeding, and come up by themselves with little help from us.

This year, as we have for some time, we planted tomatoes on the south-facing deck, in boxes that husband the sunshine and allow the excess water to run off without rotting the roots. Unlike suburban lots, we don’t encourage grass unless it is within ten or twenty feet of the perimeter of the house or one of the outbuildings. That’s mostly because we like to maintain a border where snakes and other wildlife are more visible (and avoidable) when we’re outside. We encourage those local denizens because they keep the insect population in check to some degree. This summer, as we have noted in previous summers, the insect population seems to be diminishing each year. Even house flies have not caused us too much annoyance this year; an attribute of changing climate cycles, we suppose. We’re happy about that, but concerned about the future. Insects and wild animals may be a nuisance, but they are as necessary as air to our lives.

When we chose the site for our house we cleared an area that left a twenty to thirty foot swath all the way around. Elevated more than 300 feet above the valley, we had a wonderful view of the western face of the eastern mountain side, and the fields that lay in the narrow flatland. In the evenings we could sit on the deck and watch the herds of deer materialize in the fields, feasting on the wild grasses and the corn crop the previous owner had abandoned there. Over the last twenty-plus years the trees have grown, filled out, been joined by lower-growing or bushier scrub and young trees. It isn’t possible to easily see the fields any longer, but for the last decade or so the deer population had been getting smaller anyway. Lately that has changed.

This summer we have had more deer in the courtyard on the north side of the house, and in the woods all around the building than we have had in years. Nature, adjusting to the new structures and people on this hillside, had redirected the herds of wild animals away from us, but now it seems as though we are more acceptable as neighbors (especially since we have some raised beds for the summer vegetables, and tasty blossoms in the flower garden). Deer ate the cantaloupe this week, and the bears that seem to be everywhere this year leave ample evidence that they are no longer intimidated by either people or dogs. And that is good.

I’ve long held the belief that Nature (yes, with a capital “N”) is really in charge. We can do as we will, make messes and miracles, deplete and rebuild when it is often too late (for us), and perhaps, in the end, find ourselves not only endangered, but done as a natural part of the world. Nature will survive, probably long after we are extinct. Nature will modify its need for oxygen, hydrogen, and all the other “gens” that keep us alive, and those that can’t adapt will disappear, leaving the changed and clever cells that remain, in charge. It isn’t much of a jump to imagine a world in which life forms as we know them (ourselves included) are replaced by some kind of energy enclosed in a new kind of shell or skin still marching forward, perhaps to create yet another life form that, until the last rays of the sun, will be able to populate our earth.

Where there is life, there will be - - - life. Maybe not the life we know, or can sustain, but there will be life.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Prices and Profits

The big controversy over prices and profits, as in the conflict between Amazon and Hachette, means little to most of us who write. My previous publisher (I’m now doing it myself) set prices for my books so high even I can’t afford them. (DISCLOSURE: My books are sold on Amazon, and my new one was published using Amazon’s CreateSpace on-line program.) I have set the prices for both paper and electronic versions and I have kept them low because I would rather sell many at a small profit and reach more readers.

For the most part, this is a fight between opposing rocks. Neither is liable to move without some earth shaking of the base. The reason it probably doesn’t touch the vast majority of published writers these days is because the landscape has changed in a major way. I don’t know the per cent age of books being self-published as opposed to “traditional” publishing, but a review of titles offered on sites such as Amazon indicate more and more of us are heading in that direction. Not that it guarantees good or bad writing. That is still up to the writer. I’ve read far to many books in my lifetime, published by “traditional” publishers, that were poorly written and edited, full of typos and “the almost right word.” It is something one finds increasingly wherever words are published. When I read a book that has full throttle promotion behind it, and I read that the character “put on the breaks,” I do wonder if the copy editor really knows what is being presented. “The almost right word,” again.

But back to the big battle between rocks. The crux of the matter seems to be who sets prices, and how fair those prices are to author, publisher, seller and (oh, yes!) buyer. I understand, from the publisher’s point of view, that there are people who must be paid, profit that must be made if the company is going on to publish more books and distribute those it produces. From the retailer’s side, it is axiomatic that lower prices bring more sales.

There used to be a maxim in retail that said, “We lose money on every item, and make it up in volume.” There is truth in that if you base the money lost on the reduction in price from the “MSRP,” the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. You see it all the time on ads for automobiles, and volume discount stores. You seldom find it in stores that must pay a high wholesale price to be the first outlet for a product. Books especially, become “remaindered” rather quickly and soon show up at discount counters in all kinds of stores today. But nobody does business at a true loss for very long.

The other part of this controversy lies in what one means by “publishing.” To the copyright office, as I read their information, publishing occurs the first time you read or show an original piece of writing to others. It is documenting and proving that date which is important. How it is published is another matter. As more and more people do their reading on their computers and pads and phones (and probably on their eyeglasses) the idea of “publishing” has less and less to do with paper, and everything to do with bits and bytes. Now, and at least for the immediate future, the bits and bytes themselves are free. The programs that convert them into whatever they are meant to represent are the things one pays for, as well as much of the information they convey. Whoever owns that can set whatever prices they feel the traffic will bear. Those decisions are related to how much it costs to buy the product that is being resold. And that, if I remember my classes in economics, is an accumulated number that includes the manufacturing costs, delivery costs and profit. Nobody does business for very long without profit. Profit, you probably know, is what keeps the wheels rolling. If the MSRP is too high, sales fall. If price is too low, producers fail. Somewhere there must be a balance. That, it seems to me, is what the present controversy is all about: who is willing to take the hit to keep the presses (and profits) rolling? If the producer can’t profit sufficiently to keep the doors open, the seller will have noting to sell. That includes writers who publish directly via the internet.

While few of us expect to become rich and famous from our writing, it is something to which we aspire. But we are unique: we are sole proprietors who, for the most part, have no raw materials costs (at least for physical materials), and no shareholders (unless your family depends on what you earn as a writer to put food on the table). We depend on those who sell our wares and deliver them in whatever forms are available to obtain the best price consistent with the greatest number sold. That’s why I, at least, don’t see a “side” I can claim in this contest.

Unlike automobile manufacturers and clothing makers and the rest, writers will keep on writing regardless of the numbers.

It’s what we do.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

On Vacation

I’m taking a vacation. A vacation from writing. For the last year and more I have been working on several stories that are now on their own (see my web page), and frankly, I’m tired. I need to remove myself from my desk, from my office, and (while the weather is good), spend more time outside preparing for the coming winter, cleaning up after the last one, fixing things that got put aside and just, in general, doing things other than writing. Everyone needs a vacation.

I can’t put writing away, though. There is something in me that won’t be sequestered (the Politically Corrupt term-of-the-day); something that cannot be turned off for more than a few minutes at a time, it seems. My mind, and I suspect that of most who write, isn’t capable of stopping the process of examining and playing with ideas. The ideas are mostly triggered by what we see and hear and experience second-by-second, or if fatigue has entered the equation, hour-by-hour.

It is almost as though I have two people in me: one is the person I am “in the moment,” and the other is the observer, considering what I see and participate in as part of a story; a story I will write later perhaps, or discard as not a story worth telling. Most of life is in that category, I think. Life is, well, life. It is what we all experience day-by-day. The exceptional events, the unexpected things that happen, are what make a good story, or at least trigger a line of thinking that results in a story. Sometimes that works to produce a story I want to tell. Sometimes it is just a bit of text I scribble in my mental notepad and later discard. Whatever happens to the idea, it is a process I can’t turn off. That’s why I carry a notebook in my pocket, a notebook and a pen, and fill with “jottings” as well as notes about things needing my attention or supplies that need to be replenished. I have a box full of little pocket notebooks that probably aren’t worth keeping, but I keep anyway. Now and then I go back to them, looking for an idea I know I put down, or details of an event I witnessed or participated in, and want to elaborate on.

A vacation, then, for me at least, is a period in which I will be able to turn off the keyboard, if not the process.

Sometimes it lasts all day.

Monday, July 28, 2014

One Alone

For as much as I live in the world, I live alone.

I’ve always been a loner. It’s a personality trait that fits a writer or perhaps a painter or composer. Being alone, playing alone, working alone can be very threatening for some people, but not for me. I suppose that is because most of my life goes on in my head.

Oh, I participate in the populated world, and enjoy being with other people, but not for long, and not all the time. Even as a child I enjoyed playing alone, discovering the world as I went, learning from experience. I also paid attention to others, and learned from their mistakes and successes, but by observation more than participation.

Being alone for a portion of every day is as much me as the work I have chosen for myself. Of course there were many years in which I had to work with others, wanted to work with others, but still I preferred working on my own.

Being a filmmaker is a collaborative profession. Writing is the most solitary part of the process, when research and imagination blend into a script, a blueprint if you will, for constructing a visual story. For many years I wrote and produced films. In a few wonderful instances I  wrote, produced, directed, shot and edited and even voiced entire productions. They may not have been the most viewed of the many films I worked on, but they were for me the most satisfying.

Devoting myself to writing for print/electronic publication, as I have for the last 20 or so years, has brought me the most pleasure, the greatest reward (intellectual, emotional, not financial), and is what still drives me to create stories and essays. Even when I think I have cleaned out the store, so to speak, I discover that there is still more to write, and to write about. Being a solo act has spilled over into many other parts of my life.

I live, as regular readers know, in a remote part of the world, near but not in a village of a few people, in a very under-populated part of the world. There are mountains that ripple the county, and that must be crossed for food, entertainment, even visiting with friends or family. That, or do it myself, fix it myself, build it myself. I don’t mind it. In fact I find depending on myself for most things gives me a kind of strength and endurance and acceptance of life that is difficult for many more “modern” people to understand. That sometimes includes family. But I am fulfilled by doing for myself. And a long time ago I found the one person with whom I can be alone and not alone.

Over many years we have built a life and a way of living that encourages and demands a high level of do-it-yourself skills. Some would say that we are at risk, living so remotely, so away from the world. We don’t see it that way. What we do see is that we are perhaps better prepared to get through every day, regardless of what the day may have to offer. We depend on ourselves and each other.

We are not alone, and yet we are.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Looking Ahead

We had a wedding in the family last week. Friends and relatives gathered from near and far to join in celebrating with the happy couple. We shared food, drink and affection with the bride and groom and with each other. We also shared music, but for those of us not yet totally deaf, it made the celebration just a bit uncomfortable. Uncomfortable but, given the occasion, bearable.

One of the side benefits of the gathering was a chance to meet members of the groom’s family, see members of the bride’s family, and meet friends of both. The bride, one of our granddaughters, had invited two of her Peace Corps friends, to be in the wedding party, as well as her closest friend from high school. We knew her, but not the others.

At dinner for the wedding party the night before, we sat with the attendants around us. Young, healthy, perfect skin, perfect hair, perfect teeth . . . and perfect goals in their lives. From distant places, all had arrived at a point in life where they were finalizing the course of at least the next few years. What impressed me about all of them (and their accompanying partners) was that all, (bride and groom included), were setting themselves to accomplish things that will make a better world for others. All of them have chosen to continue their education now, and at the same time, undertake jobs that have already made a difference in the lives of others. It was a very reassuring weekend, talking with them, and with other friends of theirs and with other family members who all seemed to be genuinely concerned and focused on trying in some way to fix what is broken, discover what needs to be done, and then instead of complaining about the way the world is, getting right into the deep water of what might be called “draining the swamp.”

I guess that when parents and grandparents look at the up-and-coming generation we sometimes feel despair or even helplessness. Spend a weekend with young people like these. It is reassuring, generating smiles rather than frowns.

We have seen the future, and the good news is: there will be one.

Sunday, July 13, 2014


When I was young and single, and before I decided that I was going to remain that way (single – youth would turn to maturity regardless), I gave some thought and consideration to what I would consider essential in the person with whom I would spend the rest of my life. Foremost among them was that the person should be kindred in interests and skills; a person who had a visceral need to live a life that demanded creativity, with the skills to achieve it.

An artist, I always thought, would be the ideal mate for me; a painter or sculptor or another of the visual arts. Eventually I decided that such a person didn’t really exist, and so I would carry on alone, enjoying what relationships I could, but no longer looking for the one person who would fit that description.

And then we met. And half a century and more has passed, and we are still together, still working on things jointly, still finding new ways to share our life. From painter to photographer was not a giant step, and when I had an opportunity to make a film with a crew of my own, I signed her on as still photographer. Aside from the pictures I needed, one received a major award in an international juried show.

The eye of an artist is quite different from any other, I’m certain. And while I have a pretty keen sense of image and what I want to see (as a film writer I could not have survived without that skill), I don’t “see” the way she does. I don’t, perhaps, have the same inner vision that allows her to create and bring together elements and images into a picture that says much without motion or movement. Today, website design has become a logical progression for visual artists, and is a skill that has now been added to her resume.

And that brings us to our most recent collaboration: developing a new and exciting web page where you can find out more about my books, about writing and about the part of me that is the writer.

With her artist’s eye she has brought together images and words from a general impression of what I want or need.  I have learned to depend on that eye to turn my vision into reality.

The new website is still being finished as I write this, but we hope that in the next few days it will be up and running. You will find it, when it is ready, at

Visit often. Comments are always welcome.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

An Anniversary and a Birthday

John Williams raised his baton, and on the downbeat the music began. It wasn’t some star-studded movie music he was conducting, but music much older, with words we all know. The words are 200 years old, and are as stirring today as they were in 1814.

We were watching the televised July 4th program from the National Mall in Washington DC. At least we recognized the place as the Mall, but really, you couldn’t see the ground, so many citizens had come out to say Happy Birthday to our land.

I imagine that The Star Spangled Banner is one of the first songs we Americans learn as children, probably soon after Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. It is a song we have all sung at ball games and ceremonies and graduations and sometimes, if you’re like me, you even sing it to yourself. Not all of it. Nobody remembers all of it, according to the WW-II movies, anyway. Only spies did that, and that was how you tricked them into revealing themselves. It isn’t because it is so complicated, I suspect, but more because we all want to get on with whatever has brought us together in the first place. Besides, it’s hard to sing. High notes and twisty cadences and things only the music-minded really understand. But we make the effort.

I’ve sung it so many times, in places I can’t even recall, with even worse voices than mine helping make the words ring out. And yes, it has been sung to different music (they call it music, anyway, whoever they are who sing it that way), but to me, regardless of where, regardless of the quality of the music or the voices sharing the moment, this is still “The Song.” It is the song of freedom, the song of longing for peace, the song of aspiration and faith in a future we can’t always see. But we can hear it in the words.

No matter how many times I’ve heard it, how often I’ve stood with my hand over my heart or fingertips touching forehead, it still reaches me, touches me, makes me stand a little straighter, a little taller. That’s real music. Two-hundred years! That’s a long time for song to be in the top ten.

For me, it is always number one!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

I Think I Will, I Think I Won’t

A week or so ago I received the first copies of “Unusual Suspects: Four Stories of Suspicion, Suspense and Murder.” The book is already available as a Kindle, and now has a three-dimensional version as well. But the real work is just beginning: moving books from my office to your house, or from to your Kindle or mailbox.  That will be work.

I’m not complaining. I enjoy going out and meeting book people in book stores and libraries and at book fairs and such. I like answering questions about my work, about writing in general, and of course, about the understory in every book I write. But it takes time.

About the time I have a new manuscript ready for publication, I start thinking, “Well, that’s it. I’m finished. I don’t want to go through this again. I’m too old, there are too many things I haven’t done, too much that needs to be taken care of. I’m written out.” Except, of course, I’m not. I see something that triggers an idea, a storyline develops, characters begin to populate the story and pretty soon I’m outlining, fleshing out characters and background and scene settings and so on. That comes from writing films, I guess, but I don’t do that anymore; haven’t for some years. But seeing the story in my mind isn’t something I can expunge from my thinking process.

Writing, it turns out, is more than a craft for the writer. It is a way of life. Internal, mostly. not something you can do as a team or a group. I write for me, and I hope that the ‘me” for whom I write is essentially like you, the difference being that I have a story to tell, and you want to hear or read it. But regardless of what happens once the story is written, I am compelled to share it, to hear your response, to try to make the next one better so you will keep coming back. If you do, my accountant is happy, but if you don’t, I’m not that unhappy, as long as you remain there. I believe that there is something in the DNA of every writer, especially a fiction writer.

For writers there is no “The End,” as long as there is a “Thee.”

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Holding Back the Hand of Man

Here on the mountain the sun is warming us slowly from the cool and breezy night to what promises to be a warm and sunny day. It is part of what holds us here, what each day makes us happy that we are here and not still in the city or the suburbs. Being here has also given us peace and quiet, solitude and a small but loving group of people we’ve come to know and cherish. This place, as stimulated and focused our creativity. Just being here brings joy.

We met here with a few of our friends the other evening, on our deck that sprawls across the south-facing front of the house.   It is a big deck, generous in both length and width, and except for one small area about ten feet wide, runs from one end of the house to the other. All the rooms but two have windows or doors that open onto the deck. At the outer edge we stand six or more feet above the ground, a consequence of living on a mountain.

On the other side of the house, the true front, we are at ground-level. No stairs to climb, and no barriers to getting in or out. We live on a dead-end dirt and gravel road, up a steep gravel driveway that bends back on itself. To reach the front door we have constructed  a wooden walkway bends through a courtyard of shrubs and flowering plants. The  yard is small, about 30 by 50 feet. Then the land rises again on the north and west sides, creating the heavily-treed backdrop that protects us from the winds and winter. In all, house, gardens, decks occupy less space than the suburban lot we lived on when we were just outside the city where my work was. But that is not all of our place. We have a mountain that rises beyond the courtyard, fields of hay and yet another mountain that provides the view from the deck. From any point of the house, what we see is what we hold.

When we first built here, more than 20 years ago, the trees surrounding the house were perhaps 40 or 50 years old. More gracious now, they surround us so closely that we almost feel we are living in a tree house. The view of our fields in the valley below has become more obscured with each year.

We have tried to change very little of the land we call ours. We have worked to encourage good timber growth, we keep about a dozen acres productive in hay, but in general we have tried to make as little impact on the land as possible. We came here because of the land, we stay here because of the land, we know that what ever happens to us, we will always have the land because it is now a part of our hearts and souls. It is the place were we have grown in understanding if not wisdom. Our time here  prepares us for whatever tomorrow holds.

We try to hold back the hand of man. That is our job. This place is literally and figuratively our rock. We stand on it assured that it will not crumble. In truth, the land owns us.

We are caretakers who will pass on, but the land will remain.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

My Little Girl

My little girl came into my life at a time when, frankly, I had thought I would always be alone. I had given up finding the young woman I was destined to marry, had expressed to friends that being single seemed the right place for me, and then one day, just like that, there she was. And again, just like that, there was the little girl. A woman now, of whom I am perhaps inordinately proud, and three copies of her as well. All, daughter and grand daughters, make Fathers Day a day with meaning.

What these women have chosen to do with their lives, the people they have shared them with, the goals they have set and reached, are what brings joy to parents, to this parent in particular, because along the way they have and are touching the lives of others in ways that might be considered difficult for some, but seem to be natural to them. I know for each the way has sometimes been hard, harder than it should be, and I wish only that I could have exercised a father’s power to make it easier or better or both. That isn’t something that being a parent or grandparent can really accomplish, of course, and they are strong, stronger than many, because they have found the strength to grow and go and become the people they are. If there is a gift I have given them, it is to seek the strength within.

And what I have received in return! Love, yes. Fun, of course. And learning. Everyday that I learn something new, I count as a day well spent. Being a father has brought me experiences and knowledge I would never have gotten had I followed my plan and remained the bachelor I had envisioned. And the world, my world, would not have been as rich and rewarding had I not had the experience and the opportunity to grow that comes from being Daddy.

Fathers Day is really Father-and-Daughter day in our house.

Thank you, Daughter, for making my day.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Art Mirrors Life Mirrors Art

I was going to write about being an artist. Painting, especially, has always seemed to me the truest form of art. Other than the maker of canvas, the sawyer who makes a board, the chemist who formulates pigments and media, the painter is fully responsible for what comes out of the act of painting. There is no middle-man, no agent, no manufacturer to influence or demand changes and designs. The painter sees the world, paints the picture and moves on. What more freedom could one person have, than that? But that isn’t where my thoughts have led me today.

I’ve made my living in what are called creative arts since I was in my teens. Before I was paid for what I did I worked as an un-paid apprentice in a summer stock theater learning by being useful in any of a dozen tasks. By the time I was in high school I was being paid as a radio announcer/disk jockey. Over the years in college and just after, I remained in broadcasting. I had learned basics of filmmaking by building sets and assisting in camera, editing, lighting and other jobs. Professionally I’ve been a still photographer, cinematographer, director, producer and on more than five-hundred films, scriptwriter. That’s where I earned my reputation and my living all my working years. Today, as a "retired" person (my definition: to be tired again), I am still writing, but focused on fiction and essays. Like a painter, I write for myself, but the similarity ends there. Agents. editors, publishers, marketing people can all get in the way. Even publishing formats can get in the game that starts with a fiction writer’s idea.

I’ve been thinking about the arts as a way of life, of making a living, because it seems to me society is failing in that area, and the skills needed are being denied to far too many people. The risk is that there will not be enough people prepared to create works of art and artistry that will describe and memorialize the times in which we live. It isn’t just the rise of simplified and foreshortened writing techniques that worries me. What disturbs me more than that, than technology-driven ways of communicating and recording and sharing ideas, is the reduction of expression (and therefore thinking) to a limited number of characters, to catch-phrases and acronyms, to over-used irony and so much else that represents modern communication. We are at risk of losing more than beauty in our lives just when we most need it. A finely wrought sentence or paragraph not only adds beauty, but also the time for reflection, for exploring and understanding and making better, the world in which we live.

If your state or local school system is allowing the arts to be removed or downgraded, if the funding for exposure to painting and sculpture, to music and drama, is being reduced or deleted by poorly managed, ideologically driven and underfunded school systems that would rather spend money teaching pseudo-science, consider raising your voice locally and beyond, to make sure today’s children are given the opportunities they need to experiment with the creative arts, to learn not just to express themselves, but to see the world around them and then communicate to others what they see and hear and think.

As educational systems narrow their focus, reduce their field of view, blaming it on the lack of funding instead of the silence of those for whom it truly matters, we risk not just education. Civilization is what we threaten most. It doesn’t have to be that way. That is not where the fault and the threat lie.

It is not in our stars, as Shakespeare warned, but in ourselves.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Slow Death

I was reminded of one of my favorite quotations recently when I contacted a seller to complain about a product they had supplied. It simply didn’t provide all the elements it had advertised. The missing one was even advertised by a small brass-colored tag attached to the body of the product.

When I sought out the company that provided the product to the final seller, I found an email address to use to "Contact us." I wrote a nice enough note, considering, saying only that I was disappointed, that I had bought their brand in the past and had been satisfied, and that I thought they ought to know that their Chinese producer had not delivered what the company and, ultimately, I had ordered. I wasn’t petulant or smarty, but instead, rather helpful I thought. I didn’t expect any real redress, and had decided that all things considered, I would live with what I had.

In my inbox in less than an hour was a message thanking me for contacting them, and that they would get back to me quickly. That was a few weeks ago. That reminded me of the quote.

In about 1560 or so, the Spanish viceroy to Mexico, who certainly knew more than a little about bureaucracy, must have been awaiting some sort of decision from the Spanish court. Like me, he hadn’t received an answer. He left a comment though, somewhere: "If death came from Madrid," he wrote, "we should all live to a very old age."

Well, I’m perfectly happy to be in charge of my own aging, thank you very much, and as it seems to be working, I’m happy to be doing it without help from Madrid, or in this case, Seattle. But I still would like an answer.

What I think is, nobody ever used the "contact us" link before, and I can imagine the frantic running around going on in the company’s headquarters as they try to find someone who can actually reply.

There was a time when you bought everything locally: food, clothing, tools, parts - - - everything. If it didn’t fit when you got it home, you took it back to the seller and either exchanged it or had your money refunded. If it didn’t work, the seller would replace it. Yes, most things sold for a bit more perhaps, but at least you didn’t have to package it and wait for mailing labels and instructions from the seller; you simply took it back. That’s a model that doesn’t work well today. It should, even in modern dress, but it doesn’t.

The Seattles of this world are the new Madrid.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

It’s a Mystery!

In case you’ve been wondering where I’ve been lately, I want to assure you that these essays are not at an end. There will be more. It’s just that for the last few weeks I’ve been deep in final corrections and edits for a new book that will be out very soon. The book is called "Unusual Suspects," and is, as the title implies, about dastardly deeds done by unexpected perpetrators. The sub-title is "Four stories of suspicion, suspense and murder."

Suspense or mystery stories are a genre I have wanted to write for a long time. It began, I guess, with the discovery of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. I was 13 or so, and Collier’s magazine ran a series of the Holmes stories that summer. I can still remember eagerly awaiting each issue, and then sitting on the screened porch and practically inhaling the Conan Doyle delights. It was later that I learned who Dr. Doyle really was, and how widely and highly regarded he had been since the 1880's. From those stories I eventually progressed to Agatha Christy, and a whole generation of mysteries by British authors. My personal library holds several feet of shelves containing mysteries, almost all dating from the 1920's to the 1950's, and all by British authors. I’ve collected them in used book stores and at yard sales all over the country. The attraction to me is the exploration of ordinary people doing extraordinary (and often terrible) things that set them apart from everyone else.

A writer examines life and tries to explain it, to himself as much as to others. I’m sure that even before I could read I enjoyed mystery stories written for children. In the beginning all of life is a mystery, and listening to (and eventually reading) mystery stories is one way to safely explore the larger world. That continues throughout life. We say we read for entertainment, for knowledge, for understanding of the world and of ourselves. What we really mean, I believe, is that we read to pierce the mystery that is life.

I will alert you to the release of "Unusual Suspects," and for those of you who have Kindle readers, I will be offering a short window that will allow you to own a free download of the whole book. That will happen in the next several days, I hope. If you take advantage of the offer, let me (and other readers) know what you think. The book will also be available later this month as a real, three-dimensional version, and I’ll put that information out when I have a date.

Until then - - - it’s a mystery!

Sunday, April 27, 2014


A bit of doggerel from my youth: Spring is sprung/The grass is riz./I wonder where/The birdies is?

Signs of spring are multiple and varied.

One of the ways I know spring is here is when the snow melts and reveals the empty beer bottles and tobacco tins discarded by the hunters who crawl up and down our unpaved road looking for turkeys or deer or other wildlife to track and (sometimes) take home in pieces. Some of the pieces. The melting snow also reveals where they butchered their kill to get what they wanted, usually the rack and a few steaks from a deer, and discarded the rest in the ditch or among the brush and trees along the edge of the field.

Teddy and Buddy both have a nose for bleached bones. Often, when we walk along the edge of the lower field this time of year, one of them will disappear into the brush and reappear with a bone held jauntily in his jaws, much like an unlit cigar. Sometimes it is just a simple leg bone, another time it will be a joint, complete with hoof. Neither will try to keep the bones, but will carry them around until we get back to the house. They give them to me easily, almost as tribute, and I put them into the wood-burning furnace that sits about 60 feet from the house. That way the parts are at least recycled safely into the soil when the ashes are spread later in the year.

What really confuses me about the hunters lies in the fact that these are the same "conservationists" who object whenever a demand is put on them beyond the fees they pay for a license to help defray the cost of protecting the wildlife they hunt. More to the point here is that they seem to take no responsibility for trashing the land they purport to respect and conserve. It is left to those who own the land to try to maintain it so that it will be there for them in the future. Were it up to me, I would protect it by prohibiting most of these "conservationists" from coming within a mile of our land. Unfortunately one of the early owners here gave permission to the US Forest Service to layout a public access trail across it for strangers who wanted to get to the national forest that is both the eastern and western boundaries of our farm. The access trail is long and not always clearly marked, which some of those who use it take as license to strike out off the trail and hunt our land without permission. More than once, when I would go out looking for deer myself, I would find strangers hiding in the brush, or even on stands in our trees. These folks, when called out, would insist they were on national forest land, even though a look at the topo map showed very clearly that they were positioned half a mile or more from where the trial actually ran to the forest.

I’m not against hunting, even though I no longer participate. That decision to give it up had more to do with my age, my inability to sit still for very long, and most importantly, a distinct lack of skill. It is something that I believe must be learned at a young age. Many of our neighbors here in the mountains begin taking their offspring with them as soon as they are old enough to spend time in the woods. A first deer or turkey at the age of six or eight is not unusual. The parents have taught them well the skills needed to hunt. Safety, patience, accuracy all come into making a hunter. It is too bad that respect for the land, real respect that includes preserving and protecting it is often missing in that education. The result is that we (and many other landowners) are left with the job of cleaning up trash, getting rid of animal parts that can attract (and can kill) domestic animals like dogs, and patrolling our own land to guard against human predators abusing our hospitality and the rights of property owners.

While those who disrespect our property create a nuisance and even a danger, the rest of us must pay the price for their lack of common sense, respect for others, and respect for the very land they hope will welcome them back next season. There is, in the political climate today, an element that beats the drum for individual rights, for freedom to go and come and do as one pleases. Personal responsibility has come to mean if it’s for me, it is good; if it is for you, it’s bad.

It’s a one-way street where the user chooses the direction, with no provision for two users starting at opposite ends. One of those roads to nowhere.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Friend Me? Me Friend?

 A recent article in the New York Times reports on the progress of the move to re-define friends. The-is re-defining has evolved, as many of you know, from the practice of a well-known computer destination that suggests one should "friend" another person. And there is a metric associated with this. (Metric, itself once a noun naming a system of measuring things, is now used to mean the collecting of numbers of any system or value that the user compiles.)

Becoming a friend, or "friending," as it has become known, now somehow means that one approves of some person or place or act or belief. In the lexicon of modern shorthand, to friend someone or something, or to like almost anything, becomes a metric for deciding how important or popular something or someone is (or is not). Well, here’s where the trainload goes off the track: you can buy a "bot" or robotic program that will Friend or Like whatever you want, in the name of what appears to be a real person. You can be "friended" a million times in minutes, by bots that have faces and names and histories - - - and they aren’t real. They don’t exist.

For me, finding a friend, or becoming friends with someone, isn’t something I’d ever want a robot to do for me. I don’t want to have a book I’ve written "liked" by robots (unless they actually buy the book, perhaps). What is happening to our world?

I have a lot of acquaintances, people with whom I do business or share interests. Among that coterie I count a few as friends, as well. But just because I know someone, even visit with them or work on something with them doesn’t make them a friend. We have, since the advent of what we call "social media," steadily devalued both "friend" and "like." I resent that reinventing of those words. Friendship is one of those things that gives meaning and substance to life. You meet someone in the course of work (or play) who turns out to be one with whom you really connect, and go on to enjoy a rewarding association. It is something that happens on its own. What makes a friend is obscure. It is one of those things that doesn’t require or flourish with analysis or deconstruction. A friend, I believe, just is.

That is one of life's most endearing mysteries, my friends.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Laughing Is Not Always Loving

Recently a friend passed on a video showing a dog obviously confused about himself, trying to play with a toy. As he attacked the object, his left hind leg seemed to move on its own, to pull the object from the dog’s mouth. Time and time again, the dog turned to grab and try to "kill" the aggressive leg. Time and time again, one could hear in the background, humans laughing uproariously at the dog’s action. Giggles and guffaws filled the soundtrack as the dog repeatedly attacked himself. And I asked myself why it seemed funny. And I thought about my "Buddy."

Last Fall I adopted a dog whose name (since he joined our pack) is Buddy. Buddy is about two years old, a cross between a German Shepherd and something not quite as big. A handsome guy, now weighing a bit over 50 pounds, he is "my" dog, follows me where ever I go, lies at my feet under my desk, runs along beside the truck or tractor when I'm working around the place (doesn't like to ride with me, sad to say), and if I'm working in_place, cutting wood for instance, he finds someplace nearby to lie (on the snow, in the shade, please) and waits until I'm finished. When we walk he is ahead and behind and around me even if the rest of the pack is running off up the ridge or playing near the woodpile. There is one thing that distracts him, however. Somewhere, in his previous life, some not very thoughtful person, probably one addicted to YouTube, began teasing Buddy with a flashlight or laser pointer.

Animal experts recognize this "game" as an addiction. Now, if I'm walking at night with my headlight on, say out to the furnace or some other after_dark chore, Buddy will chase the beam wherever I turn my head. Cute. Reflections from an opening or closing door will send him into paroxysms of lunging at the light on the floor or wall. The flicker of light from a rotating wheel will bring him close to (but so far not in contact with) the changing light patterns generated by the wheel. It is probably too late to modify this behavior, and I have a dog I am really attached to (and he to me), who may someday make the wrong guess and hurt or even kill himself, chasing a point of light, an addiction someone thought was "cute" or "funny."

I don't mean to get on a soapbox, but dogs – the only animals that really attach themselves to us as they have since before recorded time – are not toys. They are real live animals. They have vocabularies of several hundred to a thousand words (our words), can be trained to do useful things (they really like to be helpful), and most of all, can give the love and their lives to their people as no other non_human can. So while the video is funny at first glance, consider that the humans who are laughing so hard at this dog's attempt to "kill" part of himself, is not really in the animal's best interest. But then again, people often fail the test of humanity. Maybe this test isn't very important.

But it is to my Buddy, and probably to the dog in the video.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Is Your BFF Named Inc?

Do you have a best friend whose name is Inc? I don’t. But somehow, in their great wisdom, the majority of the black-robed nine seem to think it’s okay if you do. In fact, they admire Mr. (could be Ms., but I doubt it) Inc so much that they have given him the exalted status of being human.

We went over this some time ago, I believe, when the Supreme Court decided that corporations, made up of many (often many, many) entities including humans and other corporations, had the same first amendment rights enjoyed by individual, living, breathing (though not necessarily thinking) "people." That’s as in "We the People." Now they have gone further.

Just recently, the nine justices handed down a decision saying that corporations have no limit imposed on the amount of money they can give to any political candidate. They again connected the decision to the first amendment.

I keep thinking back to a quote I unearthed many years ago when I was writing a television series about America’s workforce (called Americans At Work). One of the installments was about the American automobile industry. Each of the films in the series (more than 100 episodes) included some history of the industry and the workers who made it happen. There was even a story about the people who worked on Wall Street (on the trading floor, not in the executive suites). In exploring the history of the labor aspect of the industry (the series was sponsored by the AFL-CIO), the individual episodes recounted the reasons the relevant union was created or assumed responsibility for a particular workforce.

Now, you may have views about unions contrary to that portrayed in the tv series, but we dealt with history and present day (ca. 1960) work environments, not philosophy or politics. It was always my view that one needed to know both sides of a question before making a decision to support or reject a proposal or position. And that brought me to the quote I still find relevant to the arguments giving human status to corporations. The quote was from that icon of everything American about industry, Henry Ford.

"A corporation," Henry said, "is too big to be human." Like his conception of the Model T, Henry had it right. According to news reports, 8 out of 10 Americans agree with that, and disagree with the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Too bad is wasn’t 8 out of 9.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Reading Writing

Winter this year has been more confining than most. Snow, which we once expected anytime after Labor Day to as late as the first of June, had been almost absent for the last decade or so here on our mountain, but not this winter. Although the first snow didn’t fall until well into the winter months, it more than made up for it in volume. Reminds me of something I used to say to my staff about our operation: we lose money of every item, but we make it up in volume. A joke, of course, but in a way not. The more you do of something, the more efficient you can become, and at times even profitable. But I digress.

What I started to tell you about was a book I recently read. With the shorter days, the longer spells of weather when one goes outside only of necessity, it is a time for reading, and for me, a time to catch up on books I have put aside for just such an opportunity.

Looking over the shelves in our library the other afternoon, I pulled out a book I had added some years ago, but had not gotten around to reading. That happens when you buy or are given books when your reading time is limited, and your reading list is long.

The book is Writers on Writing, and was published in 1946 by Charles Scribner’s Sons. The author, Robert van Gelder, wrote this collection of interviews for the book section of the New York Times between 1940 and 1946. There are 89 interviews plus an introduction, and each is not only interesting but instructive. Writing, for those of us who have made a career of it, is a special sort of work, having both pluses and minuses. It was revealing to me to discover that I share some of the same feelings, techniques and satisfactions with a rather large group of really well-known and accomplished writers of both fiction and non-fiction.

Aside from techniques I use to get past what is called "writer’s block," I find that other writers experience the same sense of accomplishment not just from finishing a story or an essay or even a news story, but often simply from the writing itself. For me, the act of writing is immensely satisfying even when it is frustrating or turns out to be something I later discard. There are times when I don’t write, either because I have other parts of a job to do once I have a completed manuscript, or because it simply becomes necessary to re-charge my creative well, or seek out a new client or discover a story that I think needs to be written. Eventually, regardless of the holiday I am taking, the urge, the need to sit down and write, to see words appear on paper, becomes overwhelming, and so the process begins again. In interview after interview, van Gelder reports his subjects experiencing the same sort of motivation, the kind of internal need to write that overwhelms me, too.

I could repeat the names of some or all of the 89 authors interviewed, but many are names you’ve never heard of perhaps, and probably none are still among us. They represent late 19th century to early 20th century literature and writers, but the message (to me anyway) is still current and true, and the reward, as a reader and a writer, is learning that I am not the only one to discover the tools as well as the techniques, the toil as well as the joy.

In a way reading writing makes me more than myself.