Monday, December 28, 2015

The End (Of the Year)

It’s very tempting to compose some paragraphs about the year just ending. Predictions for the year ahead are also in generous supply about now. I might as well toss some words of my own into the pot.

The year began in cold and snow here on the mountainside. That was good, because we needed something to harden the ground left soft and slippery by the extended Fall. We are used to, and comfortable with, temperatures that dip below zero, that occasionally even fall far enough to require really heavy coats and more frequent trips to the woodshed and furnace. It sorta didn’t happen. We did have some weeks of cold and snow, coming late in the season, but overall it was a mild late winter. It’s happening again.

Today we will probably have temperatures in the 50s, fog and maybe light rain. No snow. So far this season we have had flurries once, and that has been it. We have four seasons here: mud, snow, fly and dust. Some days we have all of them at the same time. While any one of them can be sufficient, none of them seem to last very long anymore. You just get one level of clothing out and easily available and you need to go up or down to another level: coats and hats, boots, gloves come out of the closet, but by the time you’ve outfitted yourself you are overdressed for what you will find when you actually go out the door. Or you find yourself shivering and turning up the heat in the car because you’re dressed for the 60s and the temperature has suddenly fallen through the bottom of the glass.

But that’s enough about climate change. What about the rest of the environment? How about safety in public places? No calendar provides a guide to that either. There was a time when we were secure in our homes and offices and schools, but that has changed over the years, too. Today we think about people in other countries, countries where we have felt safe and welcome in the past, but where we would not want to visit today.

It is hard, some days, to feel positive or even hopeful about the world we are going to live in for the foreseeable future. For some of us, of course, that is a short-term issue. For those we have brought into the world, have nurtured (continue to nurture), it’s a different story. Same plot, same characters, just a different clock perhaps. I’m not the first to think that compulsory military service shouldn’t begin until one is past retirement age, and it’s unrealistic to even propose it, but it does, you must admit, have its attraction.

There was a time when I was drawn to science fiction, both as a reader and a writer. I tried my hand at it while I was still in college, but gave it up for the same reason I had stopped reading it in the first place: it was all coming true. My introduction to the genre was in the 1940s, but by the early or mid-fifties so much of what the science fiction community was offering was based on reality that I lost interest. I’m rethinking that genre now.

In the first place, science has taken us so much farther than most of us even considered sixty or seventy years ago. Walking on the moon is so much history today, and the recent book and film about surviving alone on Mars is already a little behind the known science. The mystery, the opportunity for imagination to soar is limited, but growing more intriguing, offering more real possibilities. Maybe we can imagine our way out of the future some people are imagining today.

We will have to turn to our new calendars on Friday of this week, with all the little and large changes that will mean. The date on checks, for instance, and on letters written by hand, will offer opportunities to get it right (and wrong), at least until we’ve written it a few times. But there are more opportunities for us all.

We can try to devote more time and effort to discovering truth, seeing people as people, asking thoughtful questions and giving thoughtful answers to the many questions before us. These are times of struggle and uncertainty, to be sure. There will be new challenges and still-to-be-discovered truths, if we but learn to listen. There may even be answers, if we want them, but we will have to listen with care and answer with thoughtfulness. This is not the time for off-the-cuff responses to deep-from-the-heart questions. It will be a time of work and study, if we are to understand the changes our universe will spawn. We need to be ready for it to happen. Now is a good time to begin.

Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

I Don’t Know

I hope you will not turn away from this essay because it isn’t about writing or dogs or life in the country; the things I usually choose to write about here. Normally I keep to those sorts of subjects because they are what I feel most comfortable writing about, and understand the best. Today I want to focus on tomorrow.

I just don’t know what to make of the current social climate. We are beset by enemies at home and abroad, we are arming citizens as if we were all just graduating from boot camp, we are letting the people who make more in a week than most of us earn in a lifetime dictate fiscal policies and control who serves in congress and perhaps even the White House and you and I have almost nothing to say about it, given the loud voice with which money speaks. I’m scared.

I’m scared because at this time of my life I should be feeling the warmth of a life well lived and enjoyed, and turning my face more to the past than the future, but instead I am filled with concern for our younger generations. I’m worried that they will not have the future they expect; that we, the people who were to have given them a future, will have given them a world trying to destroy itself instead.

I understand that some of what I am feeling is just an old man’s squint at the bright light ahead, but in fact, I do believe that while we will always face war and the threat of war, we are approaching a future that is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced not just as a nation, but as a global neighborhood. I don’t want that bright light to come at the end of a countdown.

Somehow we seem to have become so polarized that there is no more shading of images. Everything is cast in absolute terms. Do you follow the realities rather than the newsviews? Do you really base your understanding of the world on sound bites? And if you do, is that fair to those who come after?

If you read (and I assume that since you are following this blog, you do), and you listen to what others are saying, then you must be hearing the same things I’m hearing. Do you wonder, as I do, who is listening? It doesn’t seem to me that the people we want to hear from are saying what needs to be said, but instead are saying what they think will bring in the most coin. Dollars, pounds, yen, you name it: everywhere the political life of our world seems in the hands of those holding a fist full of currency.

Is there an answer? I don’t have one. I just know that in the long run, we are the people most affected by what the free-spending politician-owning class does. And political party doesn’t seem to matter.

And if that is true, then neither do we. Matter.

Sunday, December 6, 2015


I spent most of last Saturday among a group of fellow writers. We had gathered at a local venue to offer our books for sale directly to readers and (we hope) fans. It’s what writers do, or should do, when they aren’t actually writing. Putting work up on the internet, contacting real bookstores and other sellers, and finding other ways to make contact with readers is all part of the world of writing and publishing. Nothing new in that; selling books is simply part of the writing process. If a book falls onto a tabletop, and nobody reads it, does it make a sound?

Writing books, selling books, go together like whatever pairing words you choose: bees and honey, coffee and cream, sand and surf . . . you choose. And then you must add one more: reading. Reading is where it all begins.

When I was very young, just learning to read I think, I was presented with a most ususal gift – a package of bookplates. Don’t know what they are? Perhaps in this new age of digital books the bookplate is on its way to obsolescence. For me, it is as much a part of acquiring a book as the book itself. It is a simple way of identifying books one owns and (almost as important) one shares by lending to others. The ones we have in our books today simply have the name of our farm and the image of a tree. The tree reminds us of our debt to wood as the prime ingredient of paper and the printed pages we treasure. That is today.

The first bookplates I had (and can still find in some books I’ve owned for a long, long time), have a drawing of a sailing ship, and the words of Emily Dickinson: "There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away." That’s as true today as it was when I was five years old. Books work both ways: they take us "lands away," but they also bring lands and lives to us.

What magic the written word holds, what knowledge and pleasure, what truth and treasure we have before our eyes, simply by opening a book, turning a page. What pleasure and knowledge we are able to ingest and digest simply by turning a piece of paper, a collection of pieces of paper, bound between a beginning and an ending. Danger is there, too, of course: what you read is not guaranteed to be true. How widely read you are determines that: nothing is all true or all false. Words are not simply a collection of letters. Words represent ideas and not all ideas are good. The only safety is in numbers: the more you read, the better you are able to find the truth, to understand the meanings, to make the right choices and decisions in life.

That frigate, that ship of thought you board when you open a book is the way you travel the universe that is life. I’m not trying to write poetry, or create great literature here, just trying to share with you the excitement, the pleasure, the learning that reading has brought to me. That, and the understanding that without words, without books, we remain where we started. To grow is to learn and to learn is to apply and to apply is to make decisions about one’s life that can take you to the best or the worst places. How you survive, what you do when you get there, is a reflection of what you have learned along the way.

Enjoy the journey.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Janus Effect

Somewhere along the way to delivering a finished story, a writer must go through what I call the Janus Effect. Janus, you will remember, was the Greek god generally depicted as a head looking both ways; the god of beginnings, and by extension, of endings, the god of doors.

When a writer begins a new story there are several things that should be accomplished. First, of course, is deciding what the story is about; the plot line. How will your story begin, what will happen to advance it, and how will it end? It is possible to begin backwards and determine the end of the story before deciding how to begin it, or even how to tell it. Regardless of where the writer begins, the story eventually must have a beginning, a middle and an end. Pretty basic, isn’t it?

Hard on the decision to write a story comes the fleshing out: deciding who is in the story, why they are in it, what they will contribute. The writer must also give time and thought to what the characters look like, how they speak, their movements both physically and within their place in the storyline.

Location is another fundamental of any story. The where can be as important as the why and the what and the who and when. But these are all matters every writer understands, I think. The five W’s are among the first rules of writing and are not negotiable. Without answering those questions at least indirectly, no story can really be a story. But that still leaves you with the Janus Effect: looking at your story from two directions, if you will.

The first face is writing the basic story in your head, following the plot line from the opening to the end of the line: getting it down, putting it on paper, making sense out of what you want to say. I think in another essay about writing non-theatrical films, I’ve described reaching the point at which the client asks how the script is coming, and the answer I would give: "Finished. I just have to put it on paper." That wasn’t a dismissive response, but rather, a true one. Writing, the physical part, is really the end of the job for a writer. The work begins in one’s mind, is developed and fleshed out long before it all comes together on paper. When I sit down to write a story or a script, I do it when I can see and hear it in my mind. To do otherwise is a struggle, trying to control and contain rapid fire thoughts that are created like sparks from a piece of metal dragging along under the car: bright and noisy but too scattered to be useful. When the words are ready, they pour out and fill the pages. And that’s the first aspect of Janus.

Looking the other way doesn’t mean ignoring what is in front of you. It is looking at the story from the reader’s or viewer’s place. The thrill of writing sometimes causes us to ignore what the reader knows or doesn’t know, perhaps doesn’t even understand. So when you read from the reader’s perspective or position or knowledge node, you should discover what you left out, what you need to expand or what means nothing in the overall story and can be deleted. You get to the end, but perhaps it isn’t the end you had in mind, or expected or even wanted. And now the work begins.

Writing, you see, is fun, can be challenging, is sometimes hard. It’s part of the package, though: telling a story isn’t just saying what’s in your head. It is forming the parts into a model others can see and understand. First, of course, you must have a story to tell. Second, you need an audience to hear the story. First you write to satisfy your own desires and demands. Then you write for your readers.

That’s the Janus Effect.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Thanks For All That

So we approach the end of the year. In another month, in less than 30 days in fact, we will cross the line from Fall to Winter. The days will stop growing shorter and barely perceptibly, begin to lengthen. Who can be unhappy about that? In a world of uncertainty, such fixed points are more than welcome.

As years go, 2015 hasn’t been so terrible. I can say that because we are still here, still working (though at a somewhat slower pace), still getting up every morning and going to our own bed every night. Well almost every night. We have traveled a bit more this year than in the previous five or so; more than 12,000 miles between May and November. We have seen much, shared a lot, said a few hellos and more than one goodbye. It hasn’t always been what we wished, but we are at least here to wish at all.

Since Thanksgiving is this week’s focal point, it seems a good time to look back and acknowledge the good things that have happened, recall the things we’d rather hadn’t come to pass, and try to see the future. Having family return to the neighborhood, to within an easy walk, is one of those things one thinks about as age asserts itself, but in today’s world that doesn’t often happen (unless we’re talking about twenty-somethings coming home to regroup). No, we’re talking about one moving back to a tenth of a mile along the road, that was part of our original purchase, and another who has married and is about to begin the exciting process of building a new home across the road that bisects our farmland. The prospect of so much family so close is a cheering and warming aspect for this coming winter. And then there are the success stories of other family members whose destiny lies beyond our sometimes inaccessible hideaway. The good things have been balanced by the loss of one member of us, but still it has been a year with new promises, and promises fulfilled. One cannot expect more from life.

We welcome each day, sometimes with trepidation, with anxiety about what new horror has been unleashed in the name of ending horror from our lives (whether we like it or not). But we welcome each day because the alternative hasn’t breached our shores yet. There are too many signs, too many symptoms to ignore the fact that our way of life is threatened. Perhaps it is envy, as we’d like to believe, but more than likely it is a misguided philosophy that preaches one idea, one ideology for all, with some extras like jealousy and envy added. What ever it is, of course, we as a nation, and we as individuals, will deal with it, overcome it, and hopefully grow stronger. But there is a danger.

In seeking to protect ourselves, we run the risk of assigning to every threat the same weight, the same intensity that the most egregious act or proposed act of hatred and violence can create. We can fail to see (or maybe we don’t want to see) that managing such human enterprises as hatred and jealousy cannot be done with irrational, ill-considered responses. Fences will not stop hate. Killing will not stop hate. Jails will not stop hate. Ignorance will not stop hate. Some as yet undetermined mix of strength, knowledge, creativity and desire to heal, will.

So Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, we will come together in groups small and large. We will recognize the strength our way of life gives us, protects us and makes us strong.

And for all of that, let us give thanks.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Can you Just Say "No?"

There comes a time, I guess, when civic duty and personal time cross, and the result is a strong desire to say "no." I’ve been saying "yes" for so long now that it has become a habit. One of the challenges of growing older is learning to say "no."

We have made our annual trip to the beach, and I’d rather be there still, but other things demand my time. Voting, for instance. A few days after our return from the coast we voted for local office holders: County clerk, treasurer, sheriff and others. In our county those are the races that draw the greatest number of voters. It has to do with size, as much as anything. There are fewer than 2,500 full-time residents, and about half were born here, and about half are from somewhere else. Most have roots in the county, some dating back two hundred years. That accounts, perhaps, for the high turn-out for local elections. Almost everyone is related to someone who is running for office.

On voting day I was up by four O’clock. The precinct where we vote is less than a mile from our home, in the volunteer fire department building, and for some years I have volunteered as one of the official officers of election. And since I was an active member of the volunteer fire department for some years, I still have access to the building, and I usually arrive early enough to open the doors and start setting up for the Six O’clock opening.

Getting up early isn’t the hard part. Even staying at the table as long as the polls are open (until Seven O’clock in the evening) isn’t all that taxing. Of the slightly more than 100 registered voters in our precinct, somewhere between 60 and 70 per cent usually show up, especially for local elections like this one. That’s a pretty high turnout, we are told, but not more than three of us can handle. Still, by the time we close, open the ballot boxes, tally the votes (this year performed by a wonderful optical scanner) and fill out all of the official paperwork it means getting home around 9:30 or later (sometimes much later, if we have to count the votes by hand). It’s a long day, yes, but because it is important to us, because it is where we feel the responsibilities of governing ourselves, it isn’t an unpleasant job. Besides, we get to see our neighbors, share news and stories, and generally enjoy the process. It is, after all, what we as a nation wanted way back in 1776: the right to determine who will lead us, who will do the hard job of making freedom work.

Now a week has gone by, and we are nearly at another milestone day: Veterans Day. Recall that on the 11th day of the 11th month at 11:00 AM in the year 1918, World War I ended with the signing of the treaty of Versailles. "Armistice Day," it was called then. It was "the war to end all wars," and it didn’t. What we have today is ours because we as a people don’t let go of our dream.

Keeping that dream alive and well demands that we do what is asked of us in support of our way of life. We can’t leave it to someone else. If we do, chances are that eventually that "someone else" will try to take it away from us. We have no choice but to say "yes," when we’re asked to volunteer our time in support of our way of life. I can’t deny, however, that I’m ready to share that responsibility. So when you get the call, asking for your time, just remember who you are, where you live, and why you wouldn’t live anywhere else.

There are so many places where you would not only never be asked, but you would be harshly treated if you tried to participate, so if you get a call asking you to volunteer, forget the word "no." Just say "I will." And be happy that you can say that.

Election Day to Veterans Day is not a very long time, but for too many people today, it’s a week they may never know.

And don’t you forget it.



Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Design For Living

I love old things. I’ll choose a Rembrandt over a Picasso every time. A thatched cottage over a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece. An Agatha Christy over a contemporary mystery. History over Futurism. A vintage car over the latest super BMW. And I think I know why.

It isn’t just that those are old things. It is because they represent a world in which things were easier. I know, I know: people died younger, manual labor was what most people did, houses were colder and travel was between villages, not continents. I know all that. And I appreciate the opportunities that modern life provides; the better food (if you can afford it), the ease of movement from place to place (if you fan afford it), the warm-in-winter, cool-in-summer houses (if you can afford it). But still . . .

Life was simpler. That is good. There were fewer choices. That is good and not good. But what I really miss in this mass-produced, mass-marketed world is the sense that someone, a craftsman at whatever level, cared about what he or she produced, respected the future user, felt a responsibility for the user’s enjoyment and success when something was used that had a real hand applied to its creation.

I once had a saw, a simple, traditional cross-cut saw, that had belonged to my father. He was not a carpenter or craftsman, just a simple family man, a homeowner, a man who had occasion to cut a piece of wood, and this was the tool he used. I admired it because, aside from its sharp teeth and smooth cutting character, it had a handle that was decorated with artistic carving on the part where the blade attached. I always thought of that saw, certainly made by a machine (or machines) as something designed by and made by people who respected not just the work the tool could do, but the hands and eyes of the people who would use it. It spoke to me of people who could envision the users, who hoped to add their own art to whatever the project was that called for the saw. There is little to none of that today.

Look around. Sewing machines and typewriters once stood proudly on store shelves, bodies painted with rich black paint, enhanced by gold pinstripes and artful scroll work to make the point, I believe, that the tools were important and the makers proud. A far cry from plastic in assorted Picasso colors unable to even remotely suggest strength and durability evident in a Rembrandt painting.

I am a realist, though. I know we will not go back to a time when life was simpler and permitted more time for gracious and artful design or display. I know, too, that with every loss there is a gain, and I’m grateful for some of the gains, accept some of the losses, even celebrate some of both. Still, for me, the old ways, the old things are better.

Perhaps because I’m one of them.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

I’ll think Abut It Tomorrow - - - Or Maybe Another Day

A friend asked me the other day if being 80 (that happens later this week) would change my life in any way. My answer was that I don’t feel a day older. That’s a smart-mouth answer to a big mouth question.

I feel older every day. Just not "old" older. I’m not much smarter, not more decrepit, not less active, no weaker than I was the day before. I’m just one day closer to the inevitable. But who isn’t?

There are a few things that occur to me regarding my age. One is that I’m at that point in living where when one feels a pain not felt before, or one seems more tired than one remembers from yesterday, one also can’t help but have a fleeting "is this it?" moment. Is this the beginning of the end? The precursor to the big pain, the last pain?

Of course every day we live puts us one day closer to the last day. We all know that, even if we don’t admit it. Especially when we’re young (younger). Is there something one might do about it? Well, of course. One might eat better, stop doing things that might shorten one’s life, try to be a healthier person; that sort of thing. But will that really matter? Perhaps. There are uncertainties that come with living, though. And one doesn’t want to live in the shadow of "what if." At least this person doesn’t.

Living is something one may do in whatever manner one is best suited for. Taking chances, opening possibilities, hiding from it all; whatever way works best for you to give you peace and happiness, or reward of any kind, is what one should do (within the confines of civilized behavior).

I, for one, don’t intend to let the calendar change me. There are many things I can do to slow down the inevitable, but nothing I do will permanently prevent it. And that’s good. Good because after a while it’s time for others to pick up the flag and move forward. I’ll still advance with the rest of the troops, but just not at the head of the charge.

Besides, there are still things I haven’t done that I’d like to do, places I haven’t been that I’d like to go, and a bunch of things I’d like to do again (only more slowly, perhaps). So all-in-all, I’d have to say that realizing 80 (as happened with 60 or 70) is only another day in the life. I don’t intend to deny it. I don’t want to stop it. If you really want to know, here’s the answer:

"I’ll think about it tomorrow."

Monday, October 12, 2015

Discovery Day

Today is Columbus Day. It’s a day that isn’t much celebrated anymore. Perhaps that is because it borders on political incorrectness, or offends some group or other that lays claim to an earlier contact with our homeland, but still it is a day to remember. Perhaps we should rename it "Discovery Day." It would certainly be appropriate for me, anyway.

Fifty-three years ago, on a beautiful, sunny, October 12th, in front of a federal judge in his chambers in Washington, D.C., we took the step we had both decided we’d never take. We said those two words that brought us to this day. We said, "I do." And we meant it. With all the ups and downs a shared life brings – hopes and realizations, joys (many, many) sorrows (far too many of those) – we have made a life together that we are both happy we chose.

The world has changed in 53 years; changed as much as our universe has. We (the two of us and all who have come this way with us) have participated in history, perhaps in small ways, but in ways that have meaning, that have created a small legacy. We have participated in making the world a better place, we hope.

Looking back from here, we can also see how the world has changed us. It is satisfying, and looking forward is still exciting. We have things to do, changes to shepherd, much to remember, still things to fear for those who come after. On balance, though, we look at a world of promise and challenge, of a future in which we still have time and opportunity to participate. And the most satisfying part of all of this is that we will continue to do it together for as long as we have.

We have done together what neither of us could have (perhaps never would have) done alone, and for that we have been wonderfully rewarded. We have a family we look on with love and pleasure, a body of work that has been positive and enduring, friends we would not have found alone, a way of life that we treasure, a place that is our true home, great and beautiful friendships, and the knowledge that we have good life still to live. We have love.

Happy Discovery Day.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Work In Progress

Most of September we were away from home. And away from writing, except for a week in Montana. That week was spent with family, but most of each day, as others did what they had to do, I was able to work on a long story that has been building for a long time. I think I have what I wanted now. But that was the extent of my writing. Instead, we saw some new places, discovered new things to photograph, and in general had a long and interesting road trip.

We returned last week, fully ready to resume our routine lives, but with new memories and new pictures and new stories. But it isn’t easy, this being away from routine and what passes for "normal" living. Old habits get short-changed, to say the least, when one travels far away. And this time it was far: over 6-thousand miles. But I’m glad we did. We saw family at an important time, and we saw parts of our country we had not seen before, and the Canadian Rockies, a part of the continent we had never visited. We were away for three weeks, but most of the miles were traveled in the four days going out, and in five days coming back. When the speed limit is 80 miles-an-hour, 700 miles a day is easy.

When we travel, I try as much as I can to stick to some routine activities. I like to begin my day walking around our fields or up on the rocky ridges that mark our east and west lines. With the two big dogs for company, and sometimes accompanied by others (people and dogs) the walk sets me up for the day. When we’re on the road however, that isn’t always an option. Especially when there are "miles to go before I sleep." In Montana, staying with family for a bit more than a week, I was able to get out early every morning and refresh my knowledge of the local neighborhood.

The first morning I walked several blocks east, then south, then west and north and back to the house. It was good to be out, walking and feeling the air on my skin, rather than the "conditioned" air of the car. It wasn’t like walking with the dogs, of course; I was without my companions, and I was walking on concrete, not rocky paths and grass. I was back in the house before I remembered my morning walks the last time we were in Montana five years ago. The house is a block away from a river, and the city has created wonderful hiking and biking trails with bridges to make the crossing. For the next seven days, as the sun rose, I walked along the river or in the park on the other side of it, and my days began on a much better footing (if you’ll pardon the pun).

Usually when we are at home, I write in the morning and work outside, or at least on things related to outside, in the afternoon. For most of the time we were in the city, I spent the whole day writing. Evenings were spent with family and, after everyone else had gone to bed, reading.

After seven days in Montana we were ready to head home. Not directly, of course. As we do on road trips, we allowed time for excursions along the way. We don’t particularly plan for them, but let our interests dictate whatever off-course adventures we may find. On this trip, on the way west we visited a museum and school that serves the Lakota nation. We also drove up Mount Rushmore as we passed through Wyoming, and at least tipped our hats to other attractions we could visit briefly as we made out way.

When we began our return trip, we headed first north, passing Blackfoot Lake and Glacier National Park; both places we knew from previous travel. Our goal this time was to drive in the Canadian Rockies, especially the area in Alberta that encompasses Banff and Lake Louise. We spent a couple of nights in a little town called Dead Man’s Flats, visited both Banff and Lake Louise, and saw more spectacular scenery than we had ever seen in the Swiss Alps, our own Grand Canyon or other parts of the Southwest. And then we headed home. We modified our course after we discovered that Medicine Hat was no longer just a town with an interesting name, but rather a spread-out city of heavy traffic, and decided that Moose Jaw would probably be no better. We headed back home, instead.

In five days we were unloading and unpacking, getting reacquainted with Teddy and Buddy and Louie, and discovering again the pleasure of walking in the woods and around the fields.

Back at my own desk, sorting through notes made while sitting in the passenger seat or in the time between arriving at a motel and leaving early the next morning, I realized how much I had put aside in the three weeks we were away. Notes on possible essays take up several pages in my pocket notebook, and are now a four-page document filed in this computer. I have a lot to write about, many things learned or simply observed as we drove and drove and drove on. And I also discovered how difficult it is to get back in the habit of writing every day.

Once one breaks a routine, it seems, it is not easy to pick it up again. It isn’t that I’m tired, or that my thoughts are disorganized (any more than usual). It is simply that writing, for all that I love it and am driven by it, is work. Hard work some days. It is work I love, this committing writing, but it is work. I’ve struggled for several days with this essay not because I had nothing I wanted to write about, but because I just had gotten out of the habit; stopped writing as part of my daily routine. I hadn’t realized that a habit could be so easily put aside.

I have written this essay more times than anything I’ve written in years. But suddenly, about midnight, it started to make sense (at least to me). What I wanted to say eluded me for days. I wrote about were we were, things we saw, people we met, but what I really wanted to say, to write about, was writing. In the coming weeks, I will try to work out some of the thoughts I added to my notebook related to travel, the country, the people we met and the things we saw.

For today, however, I’m just happy to be writing again.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Tech Yeah

I wrote recently of my confrontation with the future, and especially about a computer program that nearly defeated me. I want to correct any impression I might have given of being opposed to progress and uncomfortable with new ideas. I’m not. I only want to be sure that what I do embrace is useful, workable, and at least moderately necessary. I have, for instance, in the last month, discovered what all this "sent from my phone" tagging is all about. I have finally, after years of saying I was completely at home with my flip-phone, taken the leap to what is known (probably to all of you) as a smart phone. It is.

I can tell the phone to take me somewhere, and provided there is service (not here where we live), a pleasant, easily understood voice, emanating from a speaker in the headliner of my car, will take me mile after mile, turn by turn, error correction by error correction ("At the first available opportunity, make a U-turn") guiding me to where I think I want to be. Charming! And it will display the route on a screen on the dashboard. Unless I’m in reverse, in which case I get a real-time image of what I’m backing into. Getting into a parking space or my garage is as easy as looking at you, kid.

Which brings me (propels me) into the future. What next? Next is, in limited mode, already here. From U-haul to Haul-U is I guess the best way to express it: self-driving cars. Now that’s not a new concept, and in fact it isn’t even a concept any longer. It’s a reality. Some of you are, I’m sure, old enough to recall at least hearing about "The World of Tomorrow." At the 1939 World’s Fair there were self-driving cars you could ride in, on a closed course with no deviation permitted. It was a dream. In the 1950s, when I worked for a national business organization, one of my jobs was to accompany a slide show to national business meetings to present our own version of the future, and it included that World of Tomorrow promise of the self-driving car. And promise it was. Now it’s happening. As a competition driver, as a business traveler, as a tourist, the idea of a self-driving car had little appeal. I like driving, we both do, and traveling thousands of miles in our car is something we enjoy. And we want to keep on doing it.

A little more history: when my mother graduated from high school in the early 1920s, her first job was in the office of the local Chevrolet dealer. Women were just coming to driving at that time, and as an adjunct to her secretarial duties, she was called on to teach other women how to drive. She continued driving, accident and incident free until she was 90. At that time she surrendered her license (but not her car), explaining to me that she felt she was too old to drive safely (though her eyesight, hearing and mental acuity remained competent). Some years later I discovered that when she went to take her license renewal test she evidently scared the inspector by running off the road, bursting a tire, and forcing him to call for assistance to get her back to the office. And that prospect, being considered too old to drive, is there before me as I get older. And I don’t like the prospect. So I embrace the new technology.

We live far from any form of public transportation. We also live beyond cell-phone range. The idea of getting into the car and simply telling it where I want to go is a comforting view of the future.

I don’t want to be one of those automobile safety recalls.

Tech, yeah!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Living Here

I’m glad we live where we do. Many of the things we have done here, acquiring land, building a home, becoming a part of our community, have been accomplished with the least amount of paperwork and the greatest amount of handshaking, so to speak.

More than once, in a town thirty miles away, I’ve been told that identification wasn’t necessary to write a check, since it was on our local bank, and we were residents of the county. That was all the surety necessary.

That’s changing, of course, as it is everywhere. Being from a small, isolated and homogenous community does not have the honor it once had, I think. The universalization of information, communication and trade has made us all one, perhaps, but not better.

There was a time when your name, your town, your country stood for something solid and real. It may not have always been good, or even strong, but it stood. If you came from a place like ours, you were automatically considered upright and worthy. In the same way, of course, if you were of a particular background, you were considered less than desirable in many places. I’m glad that’s not true (as much) anymore. It still happens, is happening with greater frequency in some other countries, but (despite what you see on television) more people reject such labels or "profiles."

The subject of living here came up just the other day when a reporter for the local weekly called. Her editor had assigned her to write about why those of us who have come from beyond have stayed on. This is a destination county, and over the years we have met and then said goodbye to people who moved in, built new or bought old, and then after a few years, moved on. Some of us, however, came and put down new roots and stayed. Why?

Though we have lived in big cities, worked in foreign lands, traveled over much of our own country, this remote and sometimes difficult place we call home is just that: home. More so than any other place we’ve lived, including the places of our growing up. Now, having lived here for nearly a quarter of a century, we can’t imagine any other place we’d be comfortable, be at home.

Part of it is people. We have friends who have grown up here, friends who came as we have, from big cities, even found links to some of the early settlers though neither of us had ever heard of those connections. But that isn’t what has kept us here. The word that comes to mind is "acceptance." We have been involved in the life of the county since we settled here. In a place with just about two-thousand residents, every soul is valued, every pair of hands has work to do. Much of what gets done is by volunteers, just as much of what is done to help our neighbors. The firefighters and emergency medical folks are volunteers, as are some of the people who help out at the school, or help run our community health center. There are 4-H and Future Farmers for young people, and service clubs for the grown-ups. We are part of the life of our community because without us there would be no community. And that is a large part of what keeps us here.

There is more to the story, though: privacy. If you want to be alone, want to do what you do and not have to explain yourself, well we appreciate that, too. Not mean things, not destructive, against-the-law things. There is little tolerance for that here. We appreciate privacy, protect it, and most of us are prepared to defend it if need be, but we aren’t paranoid by any means. We do understand, though, that what’s yours is yours and what’s mine is mine. We let the bears cross the yard, tolerate the deer eating the garden or the succulent plants that grow by the door, but we are also ready to stop two or four legged adventurers who get too close, take too much advantage of our good nature. That’s what it means to be neighborly in a place as small as this.

It comes down to this: we live life on a human scale here. The tallest things are the trees, the lowest are the rivers. It can be an easy place to put down roots, but a hard place to keep them healthy. It is not an easy place to live. We depend on each other, on our neighbors and friends. Yes, the local highway department will plow your road after the snow has stopped, but your neighbor is more likely to get to your driveway first (or you to his) with a tractor or pickup equipped to move snow. We take care of each other, we check up to make sure our neighbors are okay, we offer to drive those who can’t, we take food to homes facing a family loss, we drive across the mountains to area hospitals to visit neighbors, we are part of the lives of our friends, neighbors, distant relatives and we welcome those who want to be a part of these mountains and valleys we call home. It can be difficult, to be sure, but it is also better than any other way of life we can imagine. You just have to want it.

If you’re over 18, you don’t live here by accident.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Tech-No, or When Technology Drives You Mad

Remember the film, "Network"? Peter Finch shouts "I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!" Me too. I’m mad (as in angry) because I’ve spent most of the last week trying to make Windows 10 work on my laptop, and now, after much aggravation and web-searching, I’ve finally returned to Windows 7. But it was a struggle.

I’m happy to be back where I started. I’m not really a Luddite, though there are many things in today’s world I wish we didn’t have to face. Computers, for all the great things they have brought us, and bring us every minute if we’re not careful, are high on that list. I am certain that things take longer with a computer than without.

It’s a bore, dealing with the unseen using poorly understood technology and all the time wishing for a yellow pad and a cheap ballpoint pen or, better yet, my old underwood portable. I could bang on that all day long and it never broke, almost never had a key jam (except when I was whamming the keys too fast and too hard), and any mistakes were found and corrected by a secretary. I have spent more time sorting out "how-to-fix-its" than actually writing over the last several decades.

There was a time when I could sit down to write and have no distractions. It takes great discipline to keep your fingers off the in-box button or the search button or the delete key! There are enough distractions in life today without some eye-catching enticement to leave what you’re doing and catch up on whatever one doesn’t really need to catch up on. I long for the days when my fingers pounded the shiny black-on-white keys that hit the paper with a satisfying "thwack" and left a readable mark on paper. And a person who corrected my typing; I miss that, too. What I don’t miss is the pressure from others to finish what I’m writing to meet someone’s imposed deadline. I guess that if I could choose, and the choice was between using a typewriter and being free to write what I want, when I want to, by being both independent and having a computer, I would probably come down on the side of the computer, but I’d still like to have someone on hand to fix things. Some 16-year-old who does computers after school.

Early in my computer-aided life, when I worked in a large organization, my desktop computer developed a problem. I called another department, where they were the first users of computers and had some experts on staff. I outlined my problem and my colleague said he would send his expert around to see me in the afternoon.

About four O’clock a very young man presented himself at my desk, said my friend had sent him to help me and asked if he might sit down at my computer. I happily vacated my seat, he sat down, asked what the problem was, turned to look at me as he hit a few keys and said, "That does it. Did you see what I just did?" Did? He did something? No. No I didn’t see anything. "Well," he said, relinquishing my chair and heading out the door, "Shouldn’t happen again, but if it does, call me. I come in every afternoon after school."

I’m still mad as hell, but there isn’t anything I can do about it until after school.

Monday, August 3, 2015

One of Those Days

They are few and sometimes seem to be purely imaginary. This is one of them. Magical, with a sky so blue you could not find it on a pallette, probably couldn’t mix it if you were van Gogh himself. And the air: clean, thin, sharp – a real edge to it, yet not enough to demand a coat even at first light. Temperature just a shade over 50 degrees, a breeze so light that the leaves seem to wave in slow motion.

These are the days of summer we have waited for since winter; waited for with the feeling they might never come. It’s August, and instead of hot, sultry days we have cool, dry and delectable hours of daylight. And with it, a noticeable shortening of the day. One day less in our lives.

The early morning cool will give way to warm, even hot afternoon, but only until the sun passes the mountain to the west. It will be a day for working outside. We are already thinking of the month to come, when here on our rocky slopes the leaves will start to turn, the grass will grow less aggressively, when we will start gathering small stuff to start the wood furnace, making the first effort to cut and split and stack the coming winter’s wood. Given the long run-up to hay making this year, we will be watching for signs of a second crop, hoping it will come before the first frost.

Country life for us – mostly retired, no proper schedule to follow, fewer and fewer entries on the calendar for things yet to be done – still has its demands, imposed not by other people so much as by the nature of nature itself. Every season brings work generated by weather, by expectations, by needs. Time passes quickly – more quickly than one would like, even when there are days that one wishes were over and gone. We know, regardless of age, there will be people we will not see again, places we will not visit another time, things we will no longer be able to accomplish or even enjoy. Yet a day like today, with a forecast of at least a whole week of days like this, reminds us that there are still many joyful times ahead, days that quicken the spirit, urge you to breathe deeply, look carefully, listen closely.

Life is calling. Be sure to answer.

Monday, July 27, 2015

When You Love the Land

When you love the land there are sounds and smells that kindle memories and anticipate experiences. Aside from the pure pleasure of looking at a prospect, a view across fields or rivers or canyons, memories are made and refreshed just by standing still and listening, inhaling, caressing. Woodsmoke on a winter’s day, raindrops on broad green leaves, mist on your skin early in the morning on a summer’s day all recall one to the land, to experiences and to expectations.

If you chance to be around when hay is being made, especially in your own fields, the sweet, woody odor of fresh-cut grass calls up earlier times: summer and living with the land, perhaps. Maybe it simply serves as a call-up for the winter ahead when the hay will unroll as feed or bedding, blanket or insulation for wintering-over plants and animals.

Here we tell the seasons by the smells in the air. Frost and snow are kin but slightly different. One is edged with a sharpness, the other a soft, fleecy kind of smell that warns of harder times coming. Green smells welcome the new season of growth, when we begin thinking of getting the garden ready, and a simple rain will bring the sweetness of spring to the air. In early summer especially, boxwood around the house add both color and scent: a metallic, heavy breath of green.

Most years the smell of boxwood slides into the smell of new mown hay, but some years, this year especially, with daily rains week after week, we have had to wait for haying season to begin. Suddenly, a period of dry weather comes. For three days the sounds and smells rising from our fields are of cutting and raking, baling and loading what should have been gone two months ago. The shoulder-high grass falls to the mower, is raked and made into windrows, gathered into big round bales. Finally the hay is loaded and taken off to a barn or, as is more and more the practice, wrapped in white plastic creating giant caterpillars a hundred feet long.

Now, up on the mountain overlooking the fields, evening comes and with it the silence of tractors parked for the night, of breeze heavy with the smell of new mown hay. The scent will linger for a few days, then gradually change as sun and maybe more rain reawaken the growth mechanism buried in the roots.

Another benchmark of the season has come and gone.

Monday, July 20, 2015

About Tomorrow

The world is going to hell, and we are all out there paving the road. This year has proven to be the warmest ever recorded. There are fires and drought, floods and drowned crops, empty pools and underwater beaches. And we stand around complaining about either the wet summer or the dry croplands. There are things we can be doing to help, but talking about it isn’t one of them. So we really do need to pay attention.

We’ve lived in these mountains for nearly a quarter of a century now; much more if you crank in the dozen or so years when we had only weekends and an occasional week here or our previous getaway cabin in the Blue Ridge to the east. We’ve experienced colder summers, dryer springs, deeper snowy winters and faded-color falls, but lately it seems, we are experiencing all the things we hoped to escape by moving here from the city.

More people, it seems, are running away from the environments they have helped make unpleasant, finding country roads preferable to city streets. Our narrow dirt and gravel road dead-ends just two miles from its beginning. For years just two places were occupied full-time. The other half-dozen or so were mostly home-places held onto as hunting camps or family reunion sites. In less than three years we have doubled that number, and now anticipate another increase of 25% within the next year. It’s getting crowded.

I write this half in jest, fully aware that we are among the most fortunate of people, knowing that even ten full-time residents on the road would not really impact our lives beyond having to be more wary of traffic on the road, accepting of increased sounds of other lives being lived. We can live with that. Will we live with the rest of it?

We have made this world what it is: crowded, disturbed, fearsome and frightening at the same time. We have all contributed to the slow, destructive changes that cast doubt on our future as a planet, not just "life as we know it." There is good science that tells us what to expect, and equally good research to indicate solutions (if solutions are indeed possible). We need to respect the science and inspect the solutions and take what steps we can to project a future for those yet to come that will give real meaning to the words "life" and "living" and "tomorrow."

"The future," as Mort Sahl told us a couple of generations ago, "lies ahead."

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Tools and Trades

I’ve been trying to simplify my days, get rid of obligations and demands that complicate my life. It’s hard.

We live in a place that is remote and poorly served by simple things: dependable utilities, roads that grow potholes faster than weeds, trees inching closer to buildings as the land beneath loosens in the constant rain. It takes its toll on creativity. Just keeping up with routine maintenance is taxing.

For the last several months we have had almost constant rainfall. Not overwhelming (though we’ve had a few big ones), but repetitive, daily rain. Hay is simply rotting in the fields. When it is dry it stands shoulder high. But it is never dry enough to cut. When you cut it wet, or cut it dry and it gets wet before it can be baled, it really isn’t good for much. Ours has turned brown, struggles to stand up by mid-day, gets rained on again about nightfall and is serving only as habitat for deer, a bear or two, maybe a fox or coyote family, and birds. Usually by now, we’d be thinking about a second cutting, but this year it looks as though we won’t really get a first one.

We aren’t dependent on our land for our livelihood, but we do like to make use of what we grow. This year we’re back to our basic crops: rocks and trees. Of the two, we prefer the rocks. They come up by themselves and don’t rot perceptibly if left alone. The trees, especially the ones within twenty or thirty feet of the buildings, do take a bit more effort and a lot more surveillance than rocks. The game is to stay one or two limbs ahead so we maintain our sense of living in a natural environment without losing a roof or a wall.

While we leave the rest of the land in a natural state, we keep the areas around the house and outbuildings clean and neat. We’re not particularly compulsive about it: I cut grass only where we want to be able to walk easily, and to make it possible to see (and avoid) the snakes that control our wild rodent population, for instance. Still, it takes time and tools to keep things under some control. And the equipment takes maintenance.

We have a small tractor we use to mow trails and pathways, a tool with multiple heads that can cut trees branches, trim hedges, and cuts grass where the tractor can’t go. A somewhat larger tractor is useful for taking equipment to where it is needed, and bringing trimmings to various piles to compost. There is a truck that seldom leaves the farm, adding about 300 miles a year doing snow removal, road grading, log hauling and the like. All of that requires maintenance and sometimes repair. And there is a chain saw and a log splitter to convert the trees into the eight or ten cords of wood we burn in a year. When I’m not cutting and splitting, I’m getting ready to, it seems. There is no lack of things needing attention. I suspect that if I ever completed my “to do” list, I’d really not know what to do with my time!

Except, of course, that all of that takes away from my writing time. Every morning, after a walk that might take us (one or two dogs and I) around the fields or up on the ridge behind he house, and enough food and coffee to fire up my internal machinery, I come here to the small room where I write, and try to take up where I left off the day before. It is also where and when I take care of business other than writing.

Opening whatever story I’m working on finally begins the part of the day I protect most carefully. Right now I’m working on what I hope will be the final re-write of a novel I have written (according the versions in my file) five times. I think this last re-write will be the version I mark as “final” when I write “The End.” It is a story I feel is important to tell, and I want to get it right. I’m not ready to talk about it yet, because that is a sure way of not finishing it. I learned early on that talking a story is the same as killing it.

It’s a different kind of harvest, and maintenance is just as important here at the desk as it is in the barn or shop or house. The difference is that there is only one tool I can use.

It’s called “imagination.”

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sleeping Dogs

“When rats rest, their brains simulate journeys to a desired future such as a tasty treat,” says a report on new research funded by the Wellcome Trust and Royal Society.

By monitoring brain activity in rats, first as the animals viewed food behind a glass partition, then while resting in a separate chamber, and finally as they had access to the treat, the researchers suggest that during the rest period the rats simulated walking to and from food that they had been unable to reach. The study, published in the open access journal eLife, started me thinking about what dreams a dog may have.

I look at Buddy, totally relaxed, eyes closed, breathing slowly, evenly. He sleeps at my feet when I am churning out words or just thinking about words to churn. He is in his private world. Then he moves.

Dogs sleep quickly and quietly and easily. But sometimes, as I watch ours, I see them moving, running, paws moving horizontally at a speed that, were they upright, would take them from one end of the house or deck or yard to the other in fleeting seconds. But they sleep. They dream. Then they wake up. And I wonder: do they know the difference?

Early humans must have experienced the same phenomenon we observe in our dogs, must have slept, had dreams, awakened to a new day, unable to explain to themselves what was reality and what was not. Do dogs, when waking from a dream, expect that at sometime they will re-enter that other world, find the rabbit or the chipmunk or bird they lost in the dream world? Did early humans find it difficult to know which was the real world, and did they think that each new morning was a new life, as was each dream? I think about those things as I look at Buddy running in his dream. Does what passes for a smile mean he caught the object of his chase, or does he smile because it is the chase that drives him on, and he knows that when that other life returns, he will find that the chase goes on?

Dreams can seem so real. We know, when we awaken, that it was “only a dream,” but what if it was not? What if the “reality” is the dream? What if all of this, the life we have, is but the figment of someone else’s imagination? There’s a story in that, to be sure, but how can it end?

What I’m doing here (if “here” is real) is part of the writing process. I take an idea, separate it from what is real, add back some truth and some maybes, and a story is born. Not all survive to adulthood, as it were, but enough do to keep the process alive and interesting to me; interesting enough to keep doing it over and over. When the partition between awake and asleep, between dream and reality is removed, then the combination of what I know and what I think I know, what is and what is “perhaps,” becomes the reality of fiction.

It is what wakes me up every day.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

In a Word

“Still writing,”  a friend will ask? “Another book coming out soon?” “What’s it about?” In my own list of FAQs, those are among the top. And yes, I am still writing.

I write because it’s what I’ve been doing for more of my life than anything else. Well, that’s not exactly true. Talking came before writing, just like it did for everyone. But in terms of occupation, writing is what I’ve been doing since I was in my late teens, and continue to do every day.

My simple definition of writing is that I put words on paper or on a screen that take a thought (or an incident or an act) from an initial observation straight on through (well, sometimes in a bit more  convoluted line) to a conclusion. It may be an essay or a chapter in a story, or something I’m thinking about writing in one form or another. I keep pen and notepad handy wherever I am, to jot down any of the things that may lead to something larger or more developed than a passing thought.

Occasionally I feel that the effort to write is just that: an effort. I am distracted by other things, by responsibilities I have taken on or had thrust upon me; things involving family or friends or the wider world of my community or even the larger world in which I live. And I wonder if I should stop.

I can’t, though. Somewhere deep in me perhaps, there is a fear: if I stop writing, I will stop being, become one of those who sit passively and let the world come to them, let life pass them by. But not I. Writing allows me to feel my life still beating in me. What would I do if I didn’t write? There are only so many things I can do that challenge me physically, few that challenge me mentally, and of them all, the physical and mental aspects of writing are the most rewarding.

I like to see words I don’t expect find their way onto the screen or paper in front of me. Seeing a thought go from lightbulb to illumination: that’s what writing is for me. Seeing it in front of me is more than a mechanical act. It serves as the carrot does for the horse: to drive me on, forward, waking my senses and offering new life to the idea of being alive.

I write, therefore I am.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Good Morning Sun

Phenomenal! When Buddy and I left the house this morning to hike up the ridge I had put on a light sweater . . . and I was warm! For the first time this season, the air was actually soft and temperate soon after sunrise. Oh, there have been a few warm days, hitting 80 or so by mid-afternoon, but the early mornings have carried a bit of chilled air leftover from the nighttime. I was almost uncomfortable by the time we reached the turn-around to head for home and breakfast.

One of the pleasures of living so far from any urban center is that the light and shade change according to the position of the sun, not the availability of electricity. On a crisp winter night, or after a warm summer’s day, one can step just beyond the circle of light and then look up. Here the sky is never black, but illuminated by the billions of stars and planets we can see. If you have never been excited by the night sky it must be because you have never lived with the heavens so close, and so visible. Here there are nights when you feel you can touch the stars.

I like standing outside in the dark, looking at the beyond. But I like the sunrise even more.

For me, stepping outside, even on the coldest morning, when the sun has yet to show itself, still rising behind the eastern mountain, brings a sense of well-being, a certain knowledge that there is a day ahead to be lived and experienced. I sense in the response of Buddy (and Teddy when he joins us), acknowledgment that we have survived the night, the darkness that perhaps led our most distant ancestors to search for their version of the origin of life, and to begin each new day as an opportunity to start life over.

Dawn brings a sense of renewal with each new day. The rising sun tells me that there is time yet to correct the errors of the day before, to finish what was left undone when sleep overtook me, to experience as yet uncharted aspects of life. We all understand, to some degree, that there are limits to life; not everything we want will come to us, nor will all we need to accomplish be done. There are limits, constraints of time and space, ability and capacity, yet the sun rises, and with it, possibilities.

As I walk up the ridge, or circle the fields below, I savor the scent of grass and leaves and blossoms; feel the dew that reminds me of the transition from dark to light, from night to day, from yesterday’s concerns to today’s solutions. I love that time of day more than any other: the refreshing of life with the promise of another opportunity to make the most of the time and the light. The walk I take, the path I follow, leads me to embrace the new day, the fresh sun, happy that I am here to welcome it, sure that there is a new day to live.

Good morning, sun!

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Berry-Pickin’ Time

Although I know and understand the mechanisms controlling growth and reproduction, and I know that these processes have long been understood and even replicated in the laboratory, still there are things in the natural world that amaze me, that seem somehow mysterious.

I understand how legs move without conscious thought: left, right, left, right and so on. I know it isn’t necessary to tell my hand to open or close around something I want to hold. And I know that each spring there will be blossoms and in the late summer there will be fruit. But it still amazes me.

I understand and I accept the truth of what I know, but I still wonder at how it all works. This morning for instance, walking up a well-worn path that leads to the top of the mountain behind the house, I couldn’t deny a sense of wonder as I observed the tiny white blossoms and slightly bigger white flowers that are now on either side of the trail I was following.

The little buds grow on what were brown sticks a few weeks ago. Thorny purple sticks, taller and bushier, were totally bare three weeks ago. Today they have white blossoms about an inch in diameter. The leaves on both of these are green and healthy. In time, say a couple of months, the tiny buds will be mountain blueberries. The thorny purple stick will be laden with wild black raspberries. Buddy and I will nibble at those especially, come late August, and I will bring home a bag of them every few days. These are the same fruit that my old partner, Max, loved to pluck for himself and that Buddy and Teddy love for me to feed them.

Of the blueberries, there is little to say, beyond noting that while we have probably a hundred easily accessible bushes, it has been years since we’ve tasted them. By the time the fruit is an hour old it seems, the deer and bears, raccoons and birds have stripped the bushes clean. Perhaps it is the thorns that protect the raspberries, or maybe the wild visitors find them too bitter, but for whatever reason, I am happy to have the fruit for our table.

I know that this isn’t a miracle or a mystery, this transformation from dead appearing stick to tasty treat. It is a well-defined sequence of events, evolved and passed down from season to season, generation to generation. Still, like having my feet move when I want to walk, I am always amazed and a bit thrilled to see that the process works, minute by minute, day by day, season and year, again and again.

If the process is no secret, and I know that some if not all can be replicated in the lab or in the greenhouse, it still fills me with wonder that it happens at all, that nature can and does work out without our help, a way to keep things going, repeating and repeating generation after generation.

Nature, in its way, is consistent, even when it mutates into new forms or variants. The same process that began with life itself, perhaps billions of years ago, that can be replicated in varying degrees in the laboratory or the field, continues to carry the burden of life without our direct intervention, or without conscious thought.

It is not so much, in this knowledge-filled world, that we don’t know the answers. We do.

What we don’t always know, are the questions.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Small Change

"The more things change, the more they remain the same." How many times have you heard, read or said that? In English or the original French or any other language, the meaning is the same: we think we are progressing or changing but, in reality progress is simply seeing the same thing through a new viewfinder.

Oh, I don’t mean that we have advanced no further than learning to walk upright, but as for standing on our own two legs, well that’s not much to remark on in terms of progress.

Some days we think we have traveled a road to the end only to discover that it is really a circle and we are right back where we started. It becomes even more obvious with the return of the political season. The only real difference I see is that the pre-presidential yammering is starting earlier, with less hope for change clinking with every nickle that is dropped into some candidate’s pocket. It is not a positive time.

One thing that does seem to have changed is the value of the numbers themselves. When I learned about averages and percentages, and means and so on, a significant difference was in the neighborhood of 25%. Now I read poll results that are supposed to be very sophisticated and accurate when the difference is 2%. How can that be? I understand that there are lots more heads to count today, but the idea that one or two percent of them can predict accurately the outcome of an election, or the popularity of an idea or the justice of a law is, in my mind, simply serendipity at work. Just look at the recent parliamentary elections in England. Even the winners were surprised.

What this tells me is that I have to be very skeptical about promises made versus promises kept. If politicians can rely on results showing an advantage of one or two percent, it is no wonder that the one-percent have the advantage. It would be nice once-in-awhile to see politicians respond to the 99%, not the 1%.

Are we just small change?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Meditation on Age

There are two ways to grow old: physically and mentally. There isn’t much one can do about the physical part. Oh, one may try exercise programs, diets, vitamin supplements and the like, but eventually enough parts will wear out and that will be that. The same is true regarding the mental part. Keeping young in spirit for most of us is possible. But it takes work.

We started thinking about this when we were in Chattanooga, down along the Georgia border, for a family wedding weekend. Guests ranged from teens to those of us who were middle-aged when the bride and groom were infants. Participating in their life-changing event as family and guests demonstrated the continuum of life as clearly as anything could. Those whose lives are not yet independent, and those of us who are closer to dependence of another sort, bookended the guest list and helped make the weekend a memorable event for all.

As I hope  you all know by now,we live on a mountain in a community populated by very few others (actually there are a lot of residents, but most are among the "bear-foot and antler" crowd). Our interactions with upright (as opposed to walking on all fours) neighbors are limited and paced to fill our days and nights with natural rhythms and sounds. City life, as we knew it, isn’t part of our daily life. This meditation is about how we interpreted what we saw as we strolled about the city or sat watching others go by. What we saw and what it means.

It was Saturday afternoon, and the city streets (where we were) had runners and walkers and bicyclers and strollers enough to fill our very small village many times over. Healthy people, fit, able to walk and talk and carry on telephone conversations, email and texting communications, made the atmosphere vibrate with energy and enthusiasm, creativity and cleverness. Observing the level of activity reminded us of when we were starting out, making our way in the world, and it seemed to unlock some mental closets where we had stored some of that youth, some of that energy.

We’re not ready to go back to that kind of life. We’ve been away from it too long, but perhaps we’ve gotten too comfortable, too much at ease with solitude and stretches of silence, enjoying the darkness of night where there is no sky-glow other than from stars and moon, hearing the sound of birds and bees and frogs and insects rather than horns and sirens and squealing tires. There is a danger here, perhaps: becoming too comfortable with a very low level of stimulation. Being among those whose lives are really just beginning brings awakenings we had nearly forgotten.

Coming back to our quiet zone, our dark nights and unpolluted daytime skies offers a sharp contrast to the life a city generates. As much as we think the young should listen to us, we need to keep that energy flowing back, as well.

Energy comes from energy, not from observation.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Friend of the Quick Brown Fox

Buddy follows me wherever I go. Mostly. Not always. Sometimes he thinks he knows where I’m going, and when I’ll return. Especially when I’m writing. Once I settle down for the morning Buddy walks in, goes under the desk and lies on my feet. Great in the winter, not so terrific when the weather turns hot. But Buddy doesn’t mind.

When I put a mat down on the floor for my daily exercise regimen, my pal follows me in, lowering himself to the floor so that his body is pressing up against my head. Unless he decides to lie on my feet. Hard to do lifts and push-ups and things when he participates. I hope my example will lead him to more stringent exercises of his own, but so far I’m just another convenient pillow for him. That’s fine, unless it’s summer and I really don’t need a fur cap.

When we go for our morning hike, usually first thing after I wake up, when the sun is still clearing the mountain to the east, we often cross terrain that demands careful foot placement. We don’t run. Actually, we don’t run anytime. We walk. Sometimes slowly, once-in-a-while a bit more quickly, but that only happens when we’re in the fields, not going up or down the ridge behind the house. Slipping and falling, where rocks and hidden roots and leaf-covered tree stumps abound is not good for contact with bones, so I tend to tread carefully especially on the downslope. When I take too long to make a move, Buddy stops, sits and looks longingly at the road below or the flat field that marks the end of the day’s rough walking. When I move forward, he waits to be sure I’m really going on, and then he picks himself up and walks past me, showing by his easy 4-foot-drive, that he has no trouble negotiating this part of the trail. He wasn’t tired, you see, just lazy. Why move if you aren’t going somewhere?

Having a companion who likes to know you are nearby is a really nice thing about a dog. You’re never alone, but you don’t, beyond giving an occasional pat on the head or scratch around the root of his tail, have to acknowledge his presence. It’s enough to just be there, I guess. It is for me, anyway.

Buddy isn’t an old dog yet. About three or four would be our guess. As with all of the pack (Teddy and Louie book-end Buddy), our pals are survivors rescued from shelters: strays, un-planned pups, the abandoned and forlorn. They are grateful, loving, rewarding members of our clan, able to adjust to changing times and places and situations. Buddy is a disappointment in only one area: he doesn’t like to ride. Not in my car or the old pickup or the not-quite-as-old SUV we use for really bad weather or as a transport to the kennel when we must be away for a period of time. He will ride, if I lift him and get him in before he knows what’s happening, but it isn’t his choice. Much as I’d hate to have to clean up the side of the car after a ride, I envy those drivers whose dogs ride along, head out the window, happy to be in the breeze, or sitting quietly beside the driver.

One of Buddy’s predecessors was Bear, a mix of Sheltie and Chow. An engaging boy who weighed about 45 pounds when he grew up, Bear would leap into my car or truck anytime I opened the door. Once underway he would stand, his hind legs on the back seat, his front paws on the armrest between the front seats, and then somehow engage my right shoulder with the elbow of his left front leg. It could induce discomfort on a long trip, but it was always comforting to know he wanted to be beside me. Louie is too small to get up into even the lowest of our vehicles, and Teddy, though he loves to ride, is at an age when getting up off the floor is an effort, but he will try to get in the car if he has the opportunity. But not Buddy.

Buddy is my pal. He stays nearby all the time, finding a comfortable (to him) place on the floor where there is support for his head (the wall, my foot, a chair leg) whenever I sit down.

Buddy is the ideal companion for the quick, brown fox.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sans Everything

Shakespeare, of course, had it right. The ages of man progress forward, then backward, ending pretty much where we started, sans everything. The question, then, is what do we need and why do we need it.

The question arose this week because I was looking for something in one of the sheds that stand in for an attic and basement in our house. “Stand in,” because long ago, when we were designing and building the house, we decided that attics and basements were places for things that we should dispose of in the first place. In this case I was searching for a part of a piece of equipment that I had disassembled several years ago so it would take up less space among the things we should be rid of.

I distinctly remember the plastic bag I put the small parts in for safe storage. I remember exactly where I put the bag. The problem is, I can’t find it now. That means taking everything out of the building until I come across the bag, plus all the other things I don’t need but have kept.

Our brains are pretty much like those storage sheds: lots of stuff we thought we’d never need again, put somewhere on a neurological shelf, that tend to fall off and interrupt another search for something else we know we have had once, and stored away somewhere against a time when we’ll need it. Like a name. Telephone numbers for phones we no longer call. Street names, favorite books, author’s names, even special food and drink.

When I’m looking for something in one of the real sheds I usually end up uncovering things I’m not looking for, then diverging from my original mission to do something the discovery suggests, and then run out of time and have to put everything away that I’ve spread out on the grass in front of the shed. The same thing happens when I try to remember something I want to use or say.

This isn’t about aging, though age certainly has something to do with it. The longer one lives, the more things one accumulates and stores in folds of the brain. I can often see a picture of what I’m looking for, but the focus is less than sharp. A story, for instance: did I write it? What was the working title? What was the file called? I begin looking at the index under an umbrella title. These essays, for instance, are filed under “Meditations.” Most of my essays originate as a simple one-line thought. Sometimes the whole thought is in the title. For others, there is a period of cultivation followed by a time of illumination during which the rest of the thought writes itself. That doesn’t solve the problem of course. The thing I’m looking for is still unfound, the thing I need to do is still undone. And then, if I’m not right on top of it, it gets lost behind some other thing on a shelf I’ve forgotten I have. And then it’s over.

Shakespeare had it right.


An apology: In an essay-or-so ago, I wrote about being the subject of a video memoir. I offered to put you in touch with the producer, but my email address was not quite right. Here it is:
Sorry for the inconvenience. 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Frogs and the Future

One Sunday last month the frogs in the pond by the front door were doing what frogs do at this time of year. Buddy and Teddy and Louie were fascinated by the activity and the songs the frogs were singing. A week later the pond was quiet, the surface frozen and the eggs probably not doing well. It happens that way from time to time.

The amazing thing, I think, is that as soon as the weather returned to what it should be at the end of March (the lamb period), we again heard the frog songs and saw egg masses and in a short time, were able to watch the tadpoles in motion. Which brings me to the subject of this essay: the ability to carry on despite the odds.

We share with other living things the ability to overcome difficulties that arise and, in ways we don’t always notice, change our lives. For most life forms that ability is instinctual; a built-in mechanism for survival. For humans, there is also invention and innovation to keep us moving forward. We see it on a grand scale when people survive accidents, disasters and wars, and we work to prevent such things happening again. We see it and experience it more personally when we make decisions, take actions that lead to harm and failure for ourselves and those around us. Yet we keep on doing, keep on moving forward. We have not yet succeeded in removing ourselves completely from the world. But we may be coming close.

The obvious signs are in front of us. Sea level rise, temperature rise, extinction of species, shifting patterns of climate are there to read and understand. And there are many who insist that it isn’t something we can moderate or modify. Worse than that, there are those who will not accept responsibility for what is happening. Not even a little bit of sharing of the causes. But that’s okay. Life will, as long as the planet is habitable, continue to support life. Maybe just not human life.

It has long been my personal view that the basic elements of life, the chemical basis, the combination of sun and water and vegetation and animals, microbes and molecules can change or adapt to whatever is surrounding us. Nature, to give it a broad-based identity, will survive and perhaps even adjust to living without a breathable atmosphere (as the human body currently requires), creating instead life forms that can survive with a different breathable gas mixture. I have no idea what forms those might be, what shapes they might take, what capabilities and capacities they might have. I simply feel that unless we do something to preserve ourselves (and the world in which we thrive), not just frog eggs and human eggs will become history. In the long run, over the span of earth’s history, this planet will probably cease to exist, much as some others in our solar system. Humans may or may not escape in sufficient numbers to begin again life as we know it. But I am confidant that life, some form of it anyway, will continue if not here, then elsewhere.

Nature is still the strongest force on earth.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

About Me

It’s all about me. At least for three or so hours one day last week it was. I sat down in front of a camera and talked about my life. The idea wasn’t mine, and at first I wasn’t sure it was something I wanted (or needed) to do, but like a lot of things one does when someone in the family asks, I agreed to the interview.

My interrogator was a well prepared, thoroughly professional interviewer, not long retired from a major news network. She has a company devoted to documenting the lives of ordinary people as a way of preserving family histories. What was recorded, what will be edited, is for my family, our daughter, granddaughters, great-grandsons and those who will come after: stories of work, play, love, sorrow, achievement, disappointment . . . in truth, the story of a life; in this instance, my life, and the life of those closest to me.

The interviewer was well prepared, as a true professional is. Much of my working life has been spent either interviewing others or facilitating media interviews with people I represented in the course of my own work. I know what a professional interviewer does and what good ones do. My interlocutor certainly met the criteria for “excellent.” There was a short pre-interview on our first meeting a week earlier, but there were questions asked during the recording session based on books I have written and answers I had given to previous questions.

During the interview itself there were questions that I could not answer with glib responses; questions I had to consider, to take the time to recall the why or what of something that had appeared in print, or that I might have referred to in an earlier answer. Questions about where I came from, who my influences were, what events in my lifetime (so far) had helped form me and guide me on my life’s journey.

Usually, it seems to me, this is the kind of inner trip one takes as life is slipping away. Not true. It is the kind of exploratory event one needs to make at several pauses along the way. By looking back, by culling your memory, you learn how far the journey has taken you, how distant or close you are to where you started, how far you have traveled. Life is a learning experience. Reviewing what one has learned often can point to the way ahead. Of greater significance, it helps you prepare for the journey yet to come.

When I was much younger, still in my teens, perhaps even before that, I often marked a milestone in my life with a self-assessment: how much I had learned, what insights I had gained, what new directions I could see and embrace. Discovering that I knew something one day that I had not known the day before has always given me a bit of a thrill. Years ago I realized that the ideal life for me was to learn something new (a word, a fact, a skill, an idea) that could be translated, repackaged perhaps, and delivered to others.

An eminent scientist I once read said, “Facts from which no conclusions can be drawn are hardly worth knowing.” A clever quote, but I  disagree with the conclusion. Facts, about something or someone can help build a picture, complete a story, explain a history. One fact leads to another, together they form a story, and the story leads to truth.

In the camera’s eye I tried to tell the truth about me.

If you or your family are interested in creating such a memoir, I highly recommend the company, the interviewer and the experience. Contact me at, and I will provide the information.

Thursday, April 9, 2015


There was a , somewhere between high school and life, when I thought just owning books made me smart. Then I began to read them.

I’ve always been a reader, even before I “learned” to read. Words on pages attracted me probably as much as illustrations because I understood the illustrations. Letters were enigmas, words were a mystery. As soon as I learned to know the first, the second quickly became clear. So my vocation began.

My reading has always been wide and undisciplined. When I discover a writer, I want to read everything published. If it is fiction I will search out an author’s entire output, trying to read in the order in which the books were published. That way I tend to grow with the writer and at the very least, understand references that may appear several books or stories later. Sometimes a work of fiction will lead me to explore the subject in a wider window of historical writing about a period or character. And always, reading takes me closer to knowledge, to being “smart.” To knowing something others may not. Sometimes, too, I can even contribute an original thought to the universal knowledge stream.

We both still indulge in adding books to our own library, but not as often. For one thing, our home library has run out of space. When we built this house a quarter of a century ago, we set aside one room for books. They are shelved floor to ceiling on nearly every wall. There is a piano against one wall, and four windows and two doors, but there are shelves over those and under the windows, too. And there are stacks of books on the floor, waiting for room. Books in baskets in other rooms. Books on shelves in my office, in my wife’s studio/office, in my workshop and garage, and even a few in outbuildings. Part of this year’s work plan is to add more shelves.

About once or twice a year we decide to cull books we no longer want. We even have one shelf that is for books we are going to donate or sell or just dispose of. That shelf is getting crowded because while we add books, we seldom remove any. We also promise each other that “this year we’ll reorganize the shelves.” By that we mean we plan to put all the fiction books, by author, in one place, history in another, technical books, travel books, poetry, art, photography, filmmaking, gardening and so on in discrete areas. We did that when we first unpacked our books here, but somehow that hasn’t been followed. Books lie flat on top of others, shelves under tables hold all of a particular author or genre, and we rely on memory more than organization to find a book we know we have.

Aside from our work spaces, the library is where we spend most of our “together time.” the chairs on either side of the small fireplace, our reading lamps, our current reading stacks enclose us in a zone where the world intrudes only on our terms. It’s one of the few places in the house without a telephone. It is a place where rather than working, we continue our pursuit of knowing. And when one knows, knowledge follows.

Books make us smart, but it is reading, not owning, that makes that happen.

Monday, March 30, 2015


Everything has a story in it. The writer’s work is discovering the story and re-telling it to others. It probably started around a primitive hearth before a cave or a more crude shelter. As is the nature of people, some were better than others, some told stories in ways that were memorable and maybe even a bit more dramatic than the real event. The better the drama, the greater demand for the story to be repeated. So creative writing probably had its beginning in that form.

For most of us who write I suppose the same rules apply: we listen, we watch, we interpret and, if we are creating fiction, we make enough changes to disguise the original events. That lets us tell the story to a wider audience. What we are really doing, of course, is sharing our history and the way we live.

For me, for a long time, observing my own life, and the life of people I know, generated story after story. Sometimes the stories even got written and shared. Over time that process has slowed down, making me wonder if I had lost the ability to find the story in everyday life. Not to worry: it still happens. Just not as frequently. And as always, when a new story begins to tell itself in my mind, it may not turn out to be one I care about repeating.

Just the other night a chance meeting with a friend when we were shopping in another town, brought me to the door of another life to explore. I listened as my friend recounted something he had observed, people whom we both knew doing something we hadn’t known about. And then we parted and went our separate ways. As so often happens, the elements of the story came back to me as we were making the long drive home. Characters asserted themselves, lining up to introduce their own parts in the story. As I met them and the tale developed, aspects of their lives were revealed, and speculation on my part found them doing things that perhaps they did, but most likely were what the writer decided were part of a bigger or better or more exciting story. By the time I was back in the house and we were settling in our chairs to read for a few hours before bed, I had to reach for my chairside notebook and lay out the plot, the characters and the possible arc the story will cover.

I won’t share details of the story until I have written it and decided that it is worth sharing. It will be a story of suspense I think, and I believe I know who the main players are. I even know how the story will end (at least for now). This is the exciting part of writing, for me: seeing a storyline start, grow and become a tale to tell. Much of what happens next is hard work, often grinding hard, but it is what makes writing pull me and push me and keep on working. In a quiet way, a manner that suits me best, I create lives and stories about those lives, much of it remaining known only to me. Much of what I “discover” may not appear in the final story, but it contributes to the creation of a character or event the reader can believe. Discovering motive and action on the part of a created character is exciting. Seeing imagined events and responses, detailing the things that cause a character to act (or not), is the part of the creative process I find most exciting and rewarding. Writing the final story is often an anticlimax because by the time I type “The End,” I’ve known what it will be long enough to not be surprised. Oh, yes – the ending can be a surprise, even to the writer, but that doesn’t happen very often.

Sometimes the “back story” is more interesting than the tale itself.