Douglas Arvidson is a past winner of the WICE/Paris Transcontinental International Short Story competition. His short fiction has been published in Paris, Prague, and in literary magazines in the United States and he was recently invited to be a staff writer for the Prague Revue, a cutting-edge, online literary journal ( The novels in his fantasy series, The Eye of the Eye of Stallion, include The Face in Amber, The Mirrors of Castaway Time, and A Drop of Wizard's Blood. His new novel, Brothers of the Fire Star, was selected as a finalist in the ForeWord Reviews 2012 Book of the Year national awards and as a finalist in three categories in the 2013 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards: Action Adventure Fiction, Historical Fiction, and Young Adult Fiction. It has become part of the pantheon of Pacific literature and is now included in school literature programs. Brothers of the Fire Star is an adventure story set in the Pacific during World War II and concerns two boys of different races and cultures who escape the island of Guam in a small sailboat when the Japanese army invades. They must then struggle to survive as they master the secrets of the ancient Pacific navigators. Appropriate for young adults as well as adult readers, Brothers of the Fire Star is available on Barnes & Noble, ( and Visit the author's website:

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Mad Dog of 2010 Approaches: FIRE IN THE HOLE! (My Last Blog of 2009)

Yowsa Bowsa!

Nice doggie! Welcome! We're sure glad the other doggie is leaving us this week--you know, the Mad Dog of 2009. What a savage mutt that one was! Now, come on in, precious new puppy, we'll find a nice, warm place for you by the fire with plenty of good red meat and high hopes that things will be better. Sit! Beg! Lie down! Roll over! Fetch me my slippers!

Yeah, sure. You betcha, master. First let me kill a few more thousand people and chew through a billion or two of your tax dollars, foreclose on some homes, and help Rush and Glenn and their micro-brained listeners tear up the left-wing, liberal, socialist elite, and get the underwear bomber some new drawers. Gives a new meaning to the old gold miners' warning, "FIRE IN THE HOLE!!!" Grrrrrr.

On a positive note for the New Year: Did you know that marijuana is the No. 1 cash crop in America? Hmmm. (I'm watching the news and multi-tasking as I write this) and that 8,000 Americans are arrested each year on marijuana-related charges and that three of our recent presidents have admitted to using it? Thirteen states now allow marijuana use for medical purposes and that in 2010 there will be a serious initiative to get marijuana use legalized in the U.S. for recreational use. It would be about time. We could become a nation of pot farmers and you gotta' admit that drinking booze does a lot more harm to our society than the gentle effects of a toke or two of Mary Jane. Talk about a FIRE IN THE HOLE! Let's FIRE ONE UP!

That's the only good news I could find this morning, so I'll leave the punditry to the pundits. They get paid to sum up the old year and speculate about the new while I very happily get paid to do nothing at all.

In any event, this is my last blog of 2009. We had a pretty good Christmas, just the two of us here in our little Town-That-Time-Forgot on the Chesapeake Bay, but I did miss my kids and my grandson, who were scattered about from Texas to California. Tomorrow we're driving up to spend New Year's Eve with our old friends way up in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia where there is lots of snow even fewer people than on the Eastern Shore.

(I took this picture of the mad dog in Tasmania, Australia two Christmases ago. As most of us know, Australia began as an English penal colony and in one place in Tasmania they staked vicious dogs in a line across a narrow peninsula to keep the convicts where they belonged. This bronze statue memorializes those fearless mongrels who did so much to keep the Empire and the Queen pure and noble.)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Still Sending Christmas Cards? Some Thoughts on the Existential Merits of Snail Mail Holiday Greetings

Here's the tree, here's Terry working on Christmas cards. This scene which I captured this morning on my little pocket Pentax caused me to question the ancient tradition (started by Hallmark) of receiving and sending cards from and to friends/dentists/credit card companies/and publishers in this age of Facebook/blogs/and chat rooms.

Why bother? We are connected, for better or for worse, via the Internet in a profound, daily, world-wide way with anyone who was formerly only heard from once a year or two or three through a Christmas card. Gone is the fun of hearing from a long-lost pal and learning, in his own handwriting, the letters surrounded by silver bells and snowscapes, that he now lives on a tropical island with the German au pair he ran off with two years ago. Now we get all that dirt immediately and first hand on Facebook or on his blog or by breathless emails from friends of the friend.

Still, the cards come in and we are always glad to get them, to read the extended letter inside that says life is wonderful, and to post them on the mantel or around the doorway and see how far we can make them stretch. Not as many this year? Probably because last year you failed to send a card to everyone who sent a card to you. Miffed, they dropped you from their list after one failed Christmas greeting. Ah, true and abiding friendship. At least that's the guilt trip we lay on ourselves. Actually, I have a friend whose favorite game is ignore someone this Christmas and then send them a card the next Christmas. Keeps them off balance.

I wrote my share of the cards this year. I sat at the kitchen table, picked up a pen, and put on my best penmanship learned in the old days when they used to teach a dignified and proper cursive. Still, the ideas for a dignified and proper greeting to match the writing were hard to come up with. "Happy Holidays?" No, it already says that inside the card. "How are things going? They're going great here!" No, you've been telling them all that all year on Facebook. I was at a loss until I realized that all I had to do was sign my name. No soul-touching message required. We'll save the soul-touching for the privacy of the Internet.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"There ain't no answer. There ain't going to be any answer. There never has been an answer. That's the answer"....Gertrude Stein

Here, in front of my treasured literature are my favorite philosophers. There's the Buddha, of course, and then there are Kikazaru, Fuazaru, and Mizaru of hear-speak-and-see-no-evil fame. It's a little known fact (besides the little-known fact that the monkeys have names) that these fellows come to Japan via India via Buddhism. They were originally considered wise monkeys, but in Western translations, they have come to mean ignoring evil--which is not so wise. Must we Westerners screw everything up?

A, Zen! Let's empty our minds, shall we? Get down to the real nitty gritty by admitting that there is no nitty gritty. Old Gertrude and at least three monkeys understood that and so can we.

I was just sitting here in one of my two fat recliners and I happened to take a break from my struggles with the written word when I looked up an started scanning my book shelves.

Most people give books away/throw them away when they've read them. But my attitude is that we need to cling to wisdom and so I cling to my books. In short, my books are part of me, of who I am. I'm not getting too serious here, because a lot of my books are not serious. For example, I have one big, fat volume of limericks--just limericks and it's a prized possession. Yes, there is wisdom in a good limerick.

Yet I do have more than a few "serious" volumes, like Faulkner, Hemingway, Marquez, The Genre of the Dirty Joke, and the two my eyes fell on tonight whilst sitting and watching "The Colbert Report." To wit: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila: An Inquiry into Morals.

Both of these tomes are definitely serious stuff by a cracked "genius" named Robert Persig. Mr. Persig, armed with an I.Q. of 170 (I thought the Stanford-Binet only went up to 165) and a brain that is wired differently than ours (so he must be right?) tackles the dichotomy between Western values and those of our brethren in the Orient (forget that most of the Orient, these days, is interested in technology and money--mostly American money). Specifically, Zen Buddhism which teaches that enlightenment can be reached through meditation as opposed to Western thought, which teaches that enlightenment can be reached through collecting guns, watching the Colbert Report, and eating doughnuts and pizza.

Not, I'm not kidding. It's all true. The problem for the mysterious Orient, though, is that the Western philosophy of food, power, fame, and money seems to be winning. Take China, which, since the death of Mao and the Cultural Revolution, is focused on that fine old capitalist goal of industrial production and which produces vast amounts of Zen-be-damned pollution.

Nonetheless, I love Persig's writing. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is, of course, a classic, while Lila picks up the philosophical thread and weaves it into somewhat less entertaining, but equally interesting cloth. In Lila, the author, presumably Persig, is sailing his sailboat from western New York State to New York City via the Erie Canal. Along the way, he picks up a woman of questionable values--indeed, she turns out to be a hooker--who, after many ship-board discussions and subsequent cogitating, causes Persig to posit that New York City, because of its anything-goes-if-it-goes creative environment (its hooker virtues, apparently) is the most moral place in the world; that the most moral thing a human can do is be positively creative. Kinda elevates hookers to an unheard of level in the scheme of things befitting the oldest (wisest?) profession.

In the end, though, we'll all have to admit that, Persig notwithstanding, old Gertrude and the monkeys were right: There ain't no answer. And there ain't no reason there has to be an answer. Why does there have to be an answer? Or, in the words of a bumper sticker I saw once: What if the hokey-pokey is really what it's all about?

Of course, Gertrude (who was no hooker and may or may not have been familiar with the practice of Zen) is most famous for declaring, A rose is a rose is a rose, so when it comes to philosophy, you have to consider the source.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Back Home at Last: The Glories of One's Own Bed, the Lonely Howls of a Lovesick Cat, Just Hanging Out

These figures memorialize the coming of the Irish to Boston. In 1847 alone, some 37,000 starving, dirt-poor Irish immigrants escaped the potato famine only to continue their famishment in the squalor of Boston-waterfront slums.

Coming home from Boston last night at 2:00 A.M. exhausted after being jammed up on the East Coast for the second time in three weeks, we were greeted by our joyous kitties who immediately wanted something to eat.

It was a fine homecoming after sitting in the Newark Airport for over eight hours (yes, we sat comfortably in fat, soft chairs in the Continental Airlines President's Club where the booze/wine/coffee/snacks/Internet are free, but still....), a delay caused by fog and complicated by an overweight plane, oversold seats, angry fellow passengers, and a piece of Terry's luggage being taken off the plane as we watched from the last seat in the back and finally being delivered to our doorstep late this afternoon.

Still, it was worth it. Boston is always worth it. We had a crackling fine time in the city before and after four days in the minor but Christmas-lovely former mill town of Southbridge which is right next to the colonial reenactment town of Sturbridge, MA, where Terry had biz meetings and I blogged, read, and hung out. I say crackling because that's how the winter temperatures, enhanced by a 20 mph wind, made my face feel--burning-crackly.

On Saturday, we walked the city again as we had the Saturday before. We scouted out a bar/restaurant for our dinner with Tom, my old, Emerson College-days roommate (it's been 42 years since I was a college student in Boston. Did I know Sam Adams? No, we ran in different circles), bought me yet another pair of gloves (Earlier in the week, I'd lost a nice pair of fur-lined leather gloves two hours after buying them).

Finally, we met up with Tom and poor Terry had to put up with a few hours of us laughing like apes over our fondly-remembered, long-lost youthful adventures boinging around the old city. We were innocent back then, really--terribly innocent and I wish we could go back and start things over--maybe get things right this time---Did I just write that? I take it back. I love what I have.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Weathered In In Newark; Working on THE BOOK

Terry and I are stuck in Newark Airport waiting our delayed flight. So, I'm noodling around with a Cast of Characters and Glossary of Terms to be included in the The Mirrors of Castaway Time. If you read Book I of The Eye of Stallion, The Face in Amber, you will have met most of them. So far it looks like this:
Cast of Characters and Glossary of Terms

Time: Consider time a living thing, a breathing, writhing, willful creature, for such are the powers of its whims and moods, its vagrant energies and whirlpools. When Sonoria and Dag-gar’s eternal love is ripped apart, so too, is the flesh of Time torn asunder.

Metacephalas: A select group of humans who have special powers and so are considered to be “small gods.” Around their necks they wear a symbol of their place in the Time-Universe: their own heads, shriveled and desiccated by Time.

Sonoria: A Metacephala and the young Queen of the Stratus Valley, savior of her people, headstrong and impetuous, daring to challenge Time itself so that she can call herself free.

The Girl-Child: Sonoria’s young and wild spirit, separated from her ancient, crone spirit when her horse smashes into the crystal mirror wall of an ice cave. Leaving behind an old hag, the girl-child emerges from the ice an eternity later, is taken in by the Wind People, and is rescued by Scraps.

Dag-gar: He is a handsome and wild Thrang and his and Sonoria’s love is an eternal part of the fabric of Time, yet he is a dark Metacephala who seeks to break her spirit and control her destiny. The battle that rages between them has released a terrible energy upon the world.

Scraps: His full name is Scrapius and he is an ancient wizard and Metacephala who wears clothes sewn together from multicolored rags and rides a difficult camel. His purpose is to pass the wisdom of the ages down to new Metacephalas, to keep the world on an even keel, and the universe unfolding as it should.

Mother Mar: A wise crone, a sorceress, a healer, she is Scraps once-and-future consort. Mar, too, is a Metacephala who instructs young Metacephalas in the ways of Time and the Universe.

Astral: An Ancient Boy, he is Sonoria’s confidant and constant companion.

Sol: A young man, seemingly inept and innocent, he is instructed by Mother Mar in natural healing and sent out into the world to mend the rift between Sonoria and Dag-gar and so placate wounded and outraged Time. Sol will someday be a Metacephala.

The Bird: Appearing in various forms (seabird, pelican, owl, raven), the Bird is Scraps’ spy and spirit messenger. As an owl, the Bird carries the Girl-Child’s soul to be rejoined with the soul of the old woman and so bring Sonoria back to her fullness.

Spiritus: Sonoria’s great, blue roan stallion.

Sleena: Dag-gar’s wild and dangerous mare. At Dag-gar’s bidding, Sleena causes Sonaria’s soul to be split in two in the mirrors of the ice cave.

The Poong: A monstrous man-like creature, he lives in the forests and mountains in the Stratus Valley. When Sonoria’s soul is torn in two, he takes her old woman incarnation to his cave and holds her captive.

The Oracule: The terrible energy unleashed on the world when the fabric of Time is ripped apart by the Sonoria and Dag-gar’s star-crossed love.

The Horde: The Oracule’s endless army of savage barbarians, it lays waste to all before it.

Thrangs: Young men and women who travel the world astride half-wild horses. They live off the land as they seek the impossible: to understand the Great and Sacred Mystery.

The Thrang Story: The ancient oral history and legends of the Thrangs.

The Stratus Valley: Ringed by towering, ice-covered peaks, the Stratus Valley is where
Sonoria grew up, where, in Book I, The Face in Amber, she fought a bloody battle to free her people, and where she now rules.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

THE MIRRORS OF CASTAWAY TIME: Deep Phantasy Adventure--Here's an Excerpt

Here's an excerpt from the Prologue:

She was a tall, thin old woman, an ancient woman, a powerful crone with strong features on a dark, leathery face, and thick, wavy, gray hair that reached the floor behind her when she walked. On her heavily-veined wrists she wore silver bracelets, and on her long fingers were silver rings that set off the darkness of her skin and the strength of her intentions.

She was talking with a young man, a youth not far into the first longings of his manhood. They were seated at a broad wooden table in her overheated kitchen. There was the odor of many things on the warm air: spices and herbs, wood smoke, the smoke from the crone’s pipe, and the smell of baking bread. From the rafters hung bunches of garlic, onions, cloves, ginger root, cinnamon bark, and mold-covered cheeses. Sunlight coming through the uneven glass of a window moved in slow patterns of light and shadows across the table’s dark wood.

The crone--Mother Mar--puffed at her pipe while the youth sipped at a cup of tea, his eyes focused on the old woman’s face.
“They love each other?” the youth asked. His name was Sol and his voice crackled with a new, uncertain manliness.
“Yes. Eternally.”
“Of course. Throughout time.”
“Yet they have been in discord, then, these lovers, throughout Time.”
“Of course. That is the nature of love—and Time.”
“Forgive me, Mother Mar, but Time . . . I find it confusing.”
Mar laughed. “But not love?”
“Never mind, you are too young for that. You will find out soon enough. But as regards Time, picture the ocean-sea on a windless day. What do you see?”
“To me,” Sol said, “it always looks like a mirror that stretches out forever.”
“Good. And think of that still mirror as this.” She spread her long arms and gazed around the room. “Think of it as everything that is all around us.”
“The cosmos?”
“Yes. This kitchen, the world, the sky—everything.”
“And Time, then, is….?”
“…..when you throw a stone into the mirror-still water.”
Sol’s young face brightened and then immediately darkened again. He thought for a moment longer and said, “I don’t understand.”
Mar smiled. “When you throw in the rock, you disturb the surface of the water—our endless mirror that represents existence unperturbed. It is now troubled. Those small waves, those ripples, change the perfect stillness of the changeless--and that change is Time.”
Sol watched Mar’s lips as she spoke. They were full lips creased by vertical lines, and behind them, her teeth were worn and yellow from clutching her pipe. When she had finished, he looked into her eyes and then away toward the window, and then upwards at a bunch of fat, beeswax candles that also hung from the rafters. Then he said, “But I cause the ripples in the mirror-water by throwing a stone into it. What, Mother Mar, causes the ripples in the Universe that you say is Time?”
“Oh, dear boy, the Universe is full of vagrants.”
“Yes, yes. Homeless energies. They come, they go. They wander around nudging things this way or that way, disturbing exotic gravities, causing hearts to beat unreliably and good intentions to go astray. And so, when things are not going smoothly, it is called Time.”

Mother Mar sighed, blowing a pall of smoke into the ray of sunlight that was making its dust-laden way across the table. “And, alas, it seems things never go smoothly: the vagrant energies are always busy, busy, busy, and so the need for wizards and sorcerers, and magic, and Metacephalas--which, as you know, are small gods such as Sonoria, and Dag-gar, Scraps, and myself. We try to keep things straight by explaining the unexplainable. Only wizards and magicians and Metacephalas can do that.”
“But all Time cannot be the same, then,” Sol said, “for I can throw a small rock into the mirror-water or I can throw a big rock.”
“Ah, but aren’t you a smart one! Big ripples, small ripples, small waves, big waves, for every wave size there is a different Time-Energy. Pity the poor Universe! You grew up here in this pretty town called Eye o’ the Sea. You see the ocean every day and understand that the water-mirror is seldom truly still, and so it is with the Universe.”
Sol was thoughtful for a moment. The metronome inside Mar’s great kitchen timepiece tapped out moments with perfect regularity, resonating in the silence. “But,” he said after a while, “then the vagrant energies can even affect those whose job it is to keep the water-mirror smooth.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean Sonoria and Dag-gar, Time’s great lovers. You say they are Metacephalas, small gods, and so it must be their job to keep things straight. Yet it is their lovers’ spat that has caused the biggest ripple of all.”
“You are wise beyond your youth, Sol!” Mar said. “That is why you were chosen and why you have come to my kitchen every day these many seasons to learn the ancient songs, and the wisdoms, great and small, of healing and of life.” She sniffed the air. “I believe the bread is ready. I must set it out to cool. Before you leave, you will have a slice of it smeared with the butter I churned this morning.”
She set her pipe down on the table and stood up. Sol watched her move with careful steps across the room to one of two broad, cast-iron stoves. She pulled her hair back, stooped her long body, and, holding a thick cloth in either hand, opened the oven doors. The smell of the bread rushed out to fill the kitchen and Sol breathed it in. Mar took the four loaves out, one by one, and set them on the table within arm’s reach of the lad. Then she sat back down.
“Sol,” Mother Mar said, now reaching out and taking both of the youth’s hands in hers, “I’m afraid this is to be your last time coming to see me—at least for a while.”
Sol began to stammer, “But—but….”
Mar smiled. “It is time you were off, my boy,” she said. “Time for you to leave on your quest—The Quest! The one we have been preparing you for all this time.”
“Oh, but Mother Mar,” Sol said, “I’m sure I’m not ready. Not yet. Why, just last night, I remembered I’d forgotten one of the Songs of Healing, the one about the use of ginger root—the easiest one of all!”
Mar took her hands from Sol’s, reached out, and tentatively touched the top of one of the loaves of bread. Sol watched her do this, his face now growing red. She turned back to him.
“Silly boy,” she said, “you know them all and you know them well. You have a most wonderful memory for these things. What, for example, would you use the seeds of the Chaste Tree for?”
Without hesitation, Sol answered, “For women who have difficulty with their monthly cycles.”
“And,” she said, “Yellow Root?”
Again, without having to stop to think, Sol said, “A tea made from the root cures stomach ulcers, cramps, and sore throats.”
She stood up. “You see what I mean, dear Sol? Your knowledge is profound, your memory infallible. Now, wait here, I have something for you.”
She walked toward the open door of a cupboard, reached inside, and pulled out a large sack sewn together from strips of multicolored cloth and drawn together at the top with a leather string. She carried this sack across the kitchen, set it on the table in front of Sol, and sat down again.
She opened the sack and from it took a series of smaller cloth bags. She lifted each to her nose, nodded, and put them in a line across the table. “This is your pharmacy,” she said, her nod indicating he should pick one up.
Sol took a bag and sniffed at it. “Wormwood,” he said, “to stimulate appetite and expel worms.”
“Yes, of course. In each bag is something powerful that you know well—nightshade, powdered mushrooms, foxglove, willow bark, on and on, dried, powdered, crushed, whole leaves, and so forth. And a mortar and pestle, too.”
Sol looked from the bags to Mother Mar and back to the bags. “But…!”
“Now, you may take the Admiral if you wish,” Mar said.
Sol thought about the donkey called Admiral Penance, a dour, difficult, sulky beast with whom he was not on the best of terms. “If it’s all the same to you, Mother Mar, I’ll just walk and carry my kit under my robes.”

Mar smiled. “You never did learn to ride him, did you?”
Sol shook his head. “I can stay on his back only a few hundred paces before he throws me to the ground. In truth, I don’t think he cares much for me.”
“I will have some words with him about this,” Mar said. “I think we can arrange an understanding. And you will be able to bring so much more with you by way of medicines, food, and water. I’m afraid where you are going, you might not find much to sustain you.”
Sol sighed. “As you wish, Mother Mar.” And then, thinking about what she had said, he asked, “Where am I going, Mother Mar?”
“You must go wherever it is you need to go to find them—the lovers, Sonoria and Dag-gar. To the mountains and beyond, to the high Stratus Valley, perhaps,” she said. “As you know, that is where Sonoria, the Queen of the Thrangs, rules from the back of her great stallion, Spiritus. As for Dag-gar—who knows where that one is. He is, I’m afraid, a bit of a wanderer, a dark-souled Time Drifter. For the life of him, he can’t seem to settle down.
“You, dear Sol, have the impossible task of solving the riddle of their lovers’ spat, of finding the answers to the conflict between them, for it is the discord between these two small gods that has upset the applecart of the Universe. It is much more serious than you can imagine. If they cannot find harmony between them, I am afraid that those terrible vagrant energies will be loosed upon this fat, round world of ours. You must try to bring them back together, patch things up between them—that is the purpose of your journey, the quest for which we have prepared you for so long. You are to do nothing less than patch up the fabric of Time.”
Sol was speechless. He was beyond even stammering. He stared at the old woman, at the deep lines in her forehead, at her hair, and then at the antique, yellow-toothed smile that had spread across her face. Finally, he stood and walked to the window. He put his face close to the glass and looked out over Mother Mar’s small farm and out beyond it, past the overgrown garden, past the camel and the donkey grazing in the green pasture, to the town of Eye o’ the Sea and to its small, snug harbor. There he saw sailing ships, their masts and rigging etched against the sky, and the town itself with its rickety, wooden buildings, each painted a different bright color. “I don’t know anything about it,” he said.
“I’m sorry, dear,” Mar said, “but I didn’t hear you.”
Sol turned away from the window and looked across the kitchen at her. “About love. I don’t know anything about it.”
“By the time you are finished with the quest you will, my dear. You will certainly know all about it.”

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Time to Remember in Cold, Snowy Boston; I witness a Savage Mugging on the Common; A Message from my Publisher

It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people's minds....Samuel Adams, Patriot, Brewer
(Did the great man foresee the extreme elements of the 21st Republican
Party or what?)

An old man retraces his footsteps through the Boston Public Garden

Samuel Adams grave: The Great Brewer's last resting place. Wasn't he also a Founding Father?

Is this snowperson being mugged by a troubled child on Boston Common? No, the cold-hearted thief stole her hat.

Forty-two years ago I was a college student in Boston. Except for the infamous Big Dig and lots of newly erected glass sky scrapers that utterly overwhelm the old brick buildings that Samuel Adams would have recognized, not much has changed. I walked around town for two hours while Terry had her hair done and found that, in fact, at least in the Back Bay section of town, things are still quaint and, well, gratifyingly Bostonian.

Take the Public Gardens. Here I am, playing the part of an old man who once was young (No, I did not join the other rascal frat boys who painted certain parts of the statue of George Washington's horse red--but now I wish I had.) and hot blooded. It was here in 1968, on this hallowed ground, that the police sicced their dogs on us during a mass student demonstration against the war in Viet Nam. Seems some of us had just burned our draft cards in the church across the street (Again, not me. I ended up in the Army soon afterwards. What was I thinking?). It was also here that I found love and then lost it, slept off hangovers in the spring sunshine, and strolled slowly, contemplatively, as young men are want to do, and I wrote great romantic poetry in my head.

And, once again I trod the sacred ground of the Old Granary Cemetery and said a few words (no great poetry this time) over the graves of Sam Adams (do modern Americans know that beer making was just a sideline for Sam?), the victims of the Boston Massacre buried next to him, Ben Franklin's parents, and John Hancock, too. They are all here, their bones lying chock-a-block, sometimes four deep, amongst those of hundreds of lesser folk.

And just what was up with that innocent-looking little girl-in-pink attacking the melting snowperson? I worked with many a troubled child in my long career in special education, but this one was surprising. As I was about to take the picture, she came out of nowhere, grabbed a stick, ran up to the unsuspecting iceman, and began stabbing it with great malice aforethought, shrieking in delight with every blow. I looked around for a cop, or a least a mother, saw none, decided not to get involved, and quietly, quickly, left the scene of the crime.

(As I write this, it's late morning and I'm lying in bed in a conference center in Southbridge, MA. Terry, in her role as Federal Education Association Director for DDESS, will be watch-dogging those tasked with reviewing educational programs for military kids. I came along to keep her company and to visit Boston. I'll be sleeping in, writing, reading, watching news pundits, and working with my publisher on the nuts and bolts of getting my next novel out. They are sending me the final manuscript for my one-more-time going over and also the cover art for final approval. Looks like January, at least, before we get the final product out. On Friday, we'll drive back to Boston and spend the weekend before flying back to VA.)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Treacherous Weather Goddess Lets Me Down: Fumbling Through a Raw December Day

Let me introduce the Weather Goddess

It is one of the secrets of Nature in its mood of mockery that fine weather lays heavier weight on the mind and hearts of the depressed and the inwardly tormented than does a really bad day with dark rain sniveling continuously and sympathetically from a dirty sky. ~Muriel Spark, Territorial Rights, 1979

You can count on Goddesses to be flamboyant, irrepressible, chatty, given to idleness and arrogance. Just look at Paris. The weather goddess is no less undependable than our fair heiress. Yesterday's cerulean glory is gone, the blue drained from the sky, flushed away like a prom queen's innocence.

Now, in its stead, we have this, a day of mournful gray, with a dolorous rain spitting into a nagging, ragged wind. And I feel out of sorts. Notwithstanding my wife's claim that I'm a mole who prefers darkened chambers, I am a light junkie, really. The dull, steely sky steals my mojo.

What to do? Curl up in my cave and listen to New Age music on Satelite Radio. Right now the piece is by Liz Story. Title: 17 Seconds to Anywhere from a CD by the same name. It's a simple piano thing, not even as involved as Windham Hill. Is this Liz person a real artist or just another New Age, no-talent dreamer? There are a lot of those types out there.

Still, it's nice, with a glass of wine when you have absolutely nothing else to do.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

December 1st: The Beginning of the End of 2009--A Prelapsarian Day

Simon, our 20-year-old boy cat. You can count
on him find the sun on a cold morning.

I'm starting this posting on the crystal-clear dawning of the new and very last month of 2009. The rain is gone for a day or two, the sky an unashamed cerulean blue, and the air is delicious and crispy cool. I'll need to take a long walk later and suck in as much as I can of it.

And that brings us to my new favorite word: prelapsarian. It refers, originally, to that perfect time just before Eve convinced Adam to take a bite from the apple--before the fall from grace, before original sin, before everything went to hell in a handbasket on the smooth and slippery back of that sweet-talking Garden snake. Nowadays, it means a period in one's life when everything was--or seemed to be--wonderful and pure and perfect. Like today, for me.

What does one do on such an admittedly prelapsarian morning? Sleep in, of course, then a long, hot shower, a good cuppa, a visit with Simon, the old man cat, who was is out lying in the sun on the deck (head scratches with purring), read an article in The New Yorker about the writer Paul Auster (the reviewer likes everything about Auster's writing except his prose), practice guitar, a quick look at the news (that police killer was himself killed in Seattle; the lovely couple who crashed the big White House bash says they were in vited, honest!), pull up all the shades so the sunlight has free entry into the house, get my assignment from Terry who is, of course, as always, working at her desk (the ink cartridge I bought for her printer yesterday is not working--I must get another. I must go to the town hall and pay our taxes, I must make a bank deposit).

After that, who knows. If the new propeller I ordered for the boat arrives, I'll go over to the boatyard and put it on and we'll be ready to get Seawind back in the water (I'll have to print out the December tide tables for Onancock Creek. It could happen this week). Then, a little late lunch, that long walk, a nap, a glass of good white wine with a small amount of smoked salmon on crackers with horseradish mustard, dinner, politics on TV, and, as always, end the day with more guitar.

All in all, a pretty good prelapsarian episode in a long string of them. I'm determined not to listen to any of the many talking snakes that slither around this town.

Monday, November 30, 2009

A Lesson Too Late for the Learning: Don't Venture Forth on Thanksgiving Lest You Tempt the Raging Gods of the Open Road

Approaching the Delaware Memorial Bridge after the horrors were over

It was a hairy ride, as in hair-raising, hackle-lifting, heart-pounding, white-knuckle driving on one of America's most infamous major highways, the New Jersey Turnpike. How foolish we were, looking back on it, to have even considered joining millions of other homesick Americans to travel great distances by automobile to stuff our pie holes with family on Thanksgiving, that most sacred of secular holidays.

It started last Tuesday, two days before Turkey Day '09, when we left our peaceful home on the bucolic Eastern Shore of Virginia for my old peaceful home in the bucolic Berkshire hills of New England, some ten hours away. We thought we had left early enough to beat the hordes; we were wrong. In between those two idyllic points lay the Northeast Corridor and a wasteland of vehicles storming the roadways at ludicrous speeds, bumper to bumper, in rain, wind, and fog. What could be worse? It was worse, much worse, for the driver of a fully-loaded 18-wheeler who lost it, big time, going under an overpass on the Jersey Turnpike. The crash was spectacular, the resulting fire so hot it appeared to have damaged the structure of the overpass, and shut the Turnpike down for over six hours--during the Thanksgiving-go-home weekend. We know because we were there.

A hard lesson learned, sure enough. But between those bookends of vehicular madness, we had a fine time. It was the first time in over a quarter of a century that I had spent Thanksgiving with family. My ancient, nursing-home bound parents were delighted, we re-bonded with cousins/nieces/grand-nephews we had not seen in years, and I finally got Terry away from her desk/fax/email/telephones for a few days so she could de-stress. Still, had we understood the risks-per-mad-mile factor, we would have stayed very happily put right here on the Chesapeake and cooked our own turkey rather than nearly having our gooses cooked for us on the road.

Next Saturday we head to New England again, this time on business, and this time during a normal travel period. Still, we're flying and leaving the roads to the good, the brave, the mad, the bad, and the ugly.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Birthday Blog: Who's 63? Who's Crazy? Who's Happy? Who's Crazy Happy?

Me and my grandson, Konrad, on his 1st birthday, Sept. 09

Me on my first birthday, November 25, 1947

Old wood best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old authors to read.
- Sir Francis Bacon

We look at bit alike, don't you think, he and I? Just 62 years apart and the code continues, at least in a sort of diluted way, the way nature intended. He does have a great smile.

I'll be 63 on Wednesday. Tomorrow we head up country to the wilds of New England, my boyhood tramping place, and have Thanksgiving dinner with my parents in their nursing home, my first Thanksgiving with my them in maybe 25 years. I left New England long ago as a young man and won't go back permanently because of the winters, but I love the visits. You know what they say--a nice place to.....
So, I'm taking a break from the blog and will get back to it with some photos and thoughts next Sunday when we get back here to this small, forgotten paradise on the Eastern Shore.
Some of the things I'm looking forward to? My novel, The Mirrors of Castaway Time, a deep fantasy adventure, will be released in a few weeks; Seawind, our new sailboat, will go back in the water next week and I'll sail her back to her slip at the mouth of the Onancock River.
Until then....

Friday, November 20, 2009

20th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall: Just the Beginning of Our Nightmares

Let's here it for the Berlin Wall. Remember the Berlin Wall? "Ich bin ein jelly doughnut," as J.F.K. so nobly declared (a Berliner is a jelly doughnut in Germany--and yes, it's a tired, old joke). Or, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" as Ronnie requested, and, when Communism had finally rotted away enough from inside, they had no choice but to to comply.

My son Eli and I helped in the tearing down part and here are the pix to prove it. That's what I looked like twenty years ago and he looks a bit different now, too. In any event, we were driving to Copenhagen for the weekend when the wall fell but we got to Berlin six months later and filled up seven shopping bags with the vile, asbestos-impregnated (we were later told) cement. It was hard stuff, truth be known. Reinforced somehow to make it nearly impervious to the hammer and stone chisel, tools we brought along for the purpose. We hacked and smashed at it for hours using a variety of techniques, and while we were at it, East German guards watched us through the widening cracks. It was all very exciting at the time and I still have a small basket of the stuff on a bookshelf in my study.

What does it all mean today? Germany has been successfully reunited, and Communism, except in small, fanatical enclaves here and there around the world, has disappeared as a viable form of controlling large groups of people (I don't count Red China. They saw the light and eagerly embraced Capitalism, became very good at it (better then us?) and are now just plain Fascists).

The downside to winning the Cold War? It would seem that humanity needs it's desperate battles in order to feel fulfilled and it didn't take long, after the collapse of the Evil Empire, for it to come up with something new and just as terrifying as atomic Armageddon. The Soviet Communist bosses, for all their posturing and shoe banging and huge nuclear arsenal, never managed to even blow up a 7-Eleven. But, it only took a few years for a small gang of Muslim fanatics to score a much bigger point and leave us all lying awake at night sweating through our sheets. It's because, unlike the Communists, the Islamists don't want to rule us--they want to kill us--all of us. Apparently we need our nightmares.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Deep Fantasy Delirium--THE MIRRORS OF CASTAWAY TIME To Be Published Next Month

Facing mirrors, curve us downwards,

we, the darkening face of Time.

Can you see your fading image,

endless in the warp of moments?

Where it ends, there shall you find it,

coming back upon yourself,

The very reason for your living

captured in that arc of light.

But desecrate the Sacred Mirrors,

and prepare yourself for what must come,

The dark chaos of Time unfettered

shall feast upon your naked soul.

From the Ancient Song of the Thrangs

That's the opening for my next book, The Mirrors of Castaway Time. I'd been waiting for a couple of years now for Book II in my fantasy trilogy, The Eye of the Stallion to be released by my publisher. Finally, yesterday, word came from Crossquarter Publishing Group, that it will come out in mid-December.

It is, of course, the sequel to Book I, The Face in Amber which got listed on as The Eye of the Stallion, the title of the trilogy itself, causing some confusion. The story, like Book I, is set in a far, post-apocalyptic future and begins with an amazing boy, Sol, being instructed by Mother Mar, an amazing woman. Sol, it seems, is to go out into the world armed only with his knowledge of natural medicine and a heart full of raw innocence to heal the wounded love between Sonoria and Dag-gar, the star-crossed protagonists of The Eye of the Stallion. At stake is, as you might expect, the fate of life on Earth, for Sonoria and Dag-gar's love is eternal, part of the fabric of the Space-Time continuum itself, and when that fabric is ripped apart, a terrible force is unleashed.

In writing fantasy, as long as one is consistent, one can conjure up anything that pleases the sense of the impossible and let it run amok. The possible twists and turns become infinite and so does the joy of creation.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Winter Between Two Waters: A Writer Digs in for the Season

The entrance to Deep Creek boat yard from the Chesapeake:
It's a narrow and winding channel all set about with muddy
shallows. Lunar tides are de rigueur.

The boat yard at Deep Creek, just a 10-min. drive
from the house. $250 for an in-and-out, a pressure
wash, and jack stands. The owner is a pleasant
man, an expert on all boat systems, and lives with
his family on the premises.
We found a small crack in Seawind's stem, so
I'm back to grinding and glassing.

Ah, but she's worth it. Such a pretty lady and
a fine sailing boat, too. Back in the water next
week or should we leave her out for the winter?
Gotta decide.

It's November 1st as I write this, a cool and dreary day and a harbinger of more such days to come. I need to bury the summer that just died behind us, another road kill on the streets of time. Need to dig a big hole and push it in and cover it up lest memories of its hot, blue-sky glories weigh down mood of acceptance of the inevitable.
To that end, a post mortem, a eulogy, of sorts. To wit:
We started you out, oh dead summer past, by sailing the above pictured lovely boat down the east coast from Long Island to my home on the Chesapeake. It took a month, we had our frustrating moments and our frightened moments (longer and more numerous than appreciated). But Seawind, the pretty little 30-foot sloop, is home safely;

we traveled to San Diego and visited our mega-yacht-captain son and Amtracked up the California coast and drove up and down the Big Sur taking pictures like a fool and, like a fool, I lost the expensive camera containing all the pictures, leaving it on a plane on the flight back home. I shall have to remember the Big Sur the old fashioned way--in my mind's eye;
we traveled to New England to visit aging parents and siblings;

I drove to Georgia to celebrate 1st birthday of our grandson;

I followed the breathless pundits who followed the dogged politicians who spent the hot months listening to Americans screaming at each other as some sort of health care reform bill that will please corporate sponsors and/or constituents was hammered into shape;
taught the writing process to four classes of 6th graders in Georgia and 3 classes of 3rd graders on Guam. Great fun.
So now I need to quit whining about the winter and get down to addressing it. Goals? Get back in shape, improve my guitar playing, finish my novel-in-progress, The Spirit of the Voyage--all by March, when we shall welcome the Spring solstice with wide-open eyes and minds and with sails full of warming wind.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Leaving Washington D.C.: Good-bye to the Crazies and Aging Boomers of My Favorite Town

A woman-in-white stands a solitary vigil at the lonely outpost of her personal beliefs. Where to they come from?

Looking up a no-longer-in-use spiral stair case discovered behind a wall at the Supreme Court. The interlocking stairs were designed to be self-supporting and the effect was wonderful, like a nautilis shell; a basic form of nature.

In the middle of the city, I found a lone leaf on the sidewalk: perfect nature in a man-made jungle.

This is our last morning in the Nation's capitol and I have my regrets about leaving. Though I love our home in the rural reaches of the Eastern Shore, I could live here, in this city. It's been a memorable week for this writer.
Last night we went to the National Theater and saw Jersey Boys, the musical that tells the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. It had everything you wanted it to have; all that great music sung by actors that sounded, to these old ears, exactly like the real Frankie Valli and his friends. And the music was wrapped up in the drama of their real-life battles with ego and personal conflicts. Great stuff. When the lights came on and I looked around, I saw a theater filled with delighted aging boomers in various stages of wrinkling, graying baldness that had born witness to the rise and fall of the real Frankie Valli all those years ago; they gave the players an extended standing ovation.
Yesterday, before the theater, I had a last extended walk-about. I went to the National Geographic Society's headquarters and did something I'd wanted to do for a long time: I got a kit that allows you to send in a sample of your DNA (painlessly from your mouth, I assume), and the Society will analyse it for you and tell you where your way-back ancestors came from.

Then I walked--walked and walked and walked, down Pennsylvania Avenue all the way to Georgetown. I'd driven through Georgetown on occasion, but had never actually gotten into the middle of the place where I could sniff things out and put my feet and eyes in places that reveal the not-so-evident truths about neighborhoods. What I found was lots of indicators of lots of Earthy-crunchy, sophisticated, educated money (up-scale restaurants with hard-to-pronounce menues and old men running rare book stores) alongside lots of indicators of not so much money (funky-cool, run-down, 19th Century brick apartment buildings, presumably student digs). But, alas, gone are the good old days of the 60's when Georgetown was a hotbed of student unrest and hippy happiness. Where did we all go? These kids all looked stylish and satisfied. A pity.
I did find one of us, though. I found a really funky guitar shop in the DuPont Circle area. It's up a flight of worn out, unpainted, creaking wooden stairs. Behind the counter was an aging boomer like myself (is the term "aging boomer" redundant?) surrounded by the wonderful, yellowed and dust-covered chaos of his trade: guitars and guitar paraphernalia stacked helter-skelter to the ceiling. There was no sense of order and no indications that he cared even a little bit. He seemed very mellow and very happy and that made me feel mellow and happy. I signed up for a guitar lesson and my instructor, John, was the same as the guy behind the counter. We went into a tiny room made smaller by more guitar-stuff chaos piled high all around us. We ended up talking about life almost as much as we practiced music. It was all quite wonderful.
So, now it's back to my real world. I've got to get out of these jammies, take a shower, and start packing. I told Terry I'd have everything ready when she got back at noon. This means repacking my scattered stuff, getting a luggage cart from the lobby, and toting it all down to the parking lot in the basement, and checking out with the desk clerk. As they say in France, le jeux sont fait--the game is over, the gig is up.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Washington D.C., Jet Lag, Guam, Honolulu: Murder, Good Friends, Marvelous Marble

On Wakiki: Murder on a world-famous beach

In front of the Supreme Court. A tour revealed a lot of awe-inspiring wasted space and beautiful marble--from Alabama?

Before we flew home and then on to D.C., we sailed on Guam: Blue water, white wine, and lots of good friends.

I'm in Washington D.C. I'm sitting on the bed in the hotel room in my jammies loath to shower and get going. Jet lag lingers five days after the fact. How does Hillary do it? Yet this city is fast becoming my favorite and it is beautiful in this suddenly-fair, cool autumn weather. Yesterday was perfect--blue skies, temps in the 60's--for walking and absorbing the city atmosphere.

And so I did. I tried to stay in and tend to the writing biz, but couldn't resist the call of the traffic on the street, the people on the sidewalks, and the promise of the pleasures of a great city on a fall day. More on all that later. First, Guam, sailing, Honolulu, and jet lag.

Above, this is us, on our friends fine Tayana 43 sailing out of Guam harbor. It was a perfect day interjected into a spate of miserable rainy ones just in time for our short visit to the island. We had spent eleven years here, teaching, living a a sailboat, and cruising these waters, and it wasn't difficult to remember how to enjoy wonderful old friends and the tropical climate.

But is was not all sails and swells. Terry had meetings every day and I spent one afternoon happily teaching 3rd graders about the writing process. Another afternoon I spent with my friend, Manny Sikau, a master traditional navigator from the island of Puluwat learning about traditional voyaging for my novel-in-progress, The Spirit of the Voyage. More on that in a future blog.
On the way over and on the way back, I spent a rest day in Honolulu. Good idea. The climate in our 50th state is above reproach, just a tad cooler and a whole lot less humid than Guam. The city is busy, but, right there, in your face, is the storied beach at Wakiki. The sand has to be barged in across the Pacific from the Mainland, but the silhouette of Diamond Head can't be denied. I had a tourist from Japan (there were lots of them) take this picture after I took one of him and his bride (Diamond Head was the other way but the light was not right.). Alas, it turns out that, just about where I was standing had been, just the night before, the scene of a murder most foul: A young tourist from New Mexico had been raped and strangled, apparently right in the surf. The alleged perp was quickly apprehended and is, of course, pleading innocent. It gave me pause.

Enough of paradise and its perils. Back to the Nation's Capitol where murder is more common and so less noticable. I admit to feeling ecstatic yesterday, walking the city's streets. The air was fabulous--almost cold, very dry--and the sidewalks were happy with mostly young people going to and from where ever they go to and from. I, however, had no place to go to and from. Wherever it was I was going, I was already there. The journey was the goal. Yesterday even the poor and homeless looked happy. The guy the pawn shop where I bought a guitar stand and a music stand seemed happy. The little white guy that lights up when it's safe to cross the street looked happy. Am I projecting?
And today, in just a few minutes, I'm going to get out of my jammies and take a shower, and get back out there. I'm going to walk off the remainder of my jet lag and last nights Indian food by strolling all the way to Lafayette Square and the White House and then down to the Mall and see where my feet take me after that. I'll report on my findings tomorrow. Secretly, I'm hoping for an Obama sighting, or at least a Blue Dog Democrat.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Blogging Jet-Setter: Too Busy to Get'er Done

I'm on the road--Honolulu, Guam--and just can't get it together to blog/download photos, etc. Had a great time yesterday working with 3rd graders on Guam on the writing process. Fun. Today we're going sailing, tomorrow more partying with old friends here in this small paradise. Sunday I'm meeting with Manny Sikau, the master traditional navigator from Puluwat, to research the novel-in-progress. We head home on Tuesday morning with an overnight in Honolulu.

A big blog when I get back. With lots of pix of Guam.

Watch this space.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Boat Called Seawind, A Wobbling World

At least we have the universe and its minions behaving as they should. Last week the Earth, in its eternal wisdom, curved its way around the Sun and rose up to meet the Autumnal Equinox (Sept. 22nd). This means the most direct rays of the Sun are now striking the Earth south of the equator, leaving those of us in the Northern Hemisphere to prepare for a long winter of discontent. Or something like that.

I was out in the early Fall air today, at our marina, hanging out on my sailboat and was thus contemplating the on-rushing Autumn. As I hauled up the mainsail and put in a reef in preparation for tomorrow's sail (I'm hauling Seawind out of the water for the winter and need to take her up the Bay to her cold-weather quarters) the white deck reflected the still-warm sun, the breeze, cool off the Chesapeake, filled the sail and lifted it up, fine and white against the blue sky. It was all very fine--very fine, indeed.

Still, I had some regrets. It seems I never learn. It happens every time: my annual ruefulness for this transitional time of year. It is, after all, a time of dying, of nature, worn out from a promiscuous summer, giving it up, caving in, sighing, and lying down to sleep. Winters here, in the northern part of the South, are pretty mild by the standards of my native New England but, still, they are winters and everything out and about needs to shed and slough and close down to get ready for the inevitable bitterness of December, January, and February.

This faux-benign Fall does not fool me. Never has. It only makes me dwell on the bitterness to come. As I stand in the warm sun, my summertime toy, this lovely boat, belies the icy-cold truth of the immediate future. She lies to me, this sweet Seawind. All is not well. In winter I see naught but hopelessness. My mind cobbles together odds and ends of great doomsday literary wisdoms: Surrender all hope, ye who enter here to the winter of our discontent. It worries me, you say it worries you. Quoth the Raven, never more.

But I must buck up. I chastise myself and haul my silly emotions in along with the sail. I speak to my inner being: You've been through sixty-three winters. Has Spring ever failed you? Of course, it never has. It would be nice though, if the bitterness was not quite so long. I truly like the changing seasons. I need them. I need them to make the life force rise up in me like sap, to flood over, and then shed the used up detritus of what was lived. The seasons are as necessary as a blood-pumping heart.

Before I left the boat, before I said goodbye to her as if she were a friend, I looked up at the fading sun and watched a scudding cloud cross its yellow-white face. I imagined I could feel the Earth tilting underneath me, wobbling like a slowing top, a top watched by the curious child who had himself set the top to spinning. Such a wonderful thing, this spinning.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Star Chart Compass: The Beginning Lessons for Future Navigators

This chart of the navigation stars used by Carolinian navigators was developed by Manny Sikau, a master navigator from Puluwat, for the Traditional Seafaring Society at the University of Guam to instruct its members. The names of the stars are in both English and Puluwatese. Of course, on Puluwat and other islands where navigation is taught to boys beginning at a young age, the chart was drawn in the sand and the stars represented by pebbles or shells. If a voyage is to be made to a certain island, the navigator knows under which star that island lies, relative to Puluwat, and sets off in that direction.

Sound simple? On the contrary, in practice, the actual navigation is incredibly complex. The stars move up from the horizon and across the sky, so the navigator needs to know what star to use next as it comes up over the night horizon--and the next one and the next one--and where all the islands are relative to each new star. And what happens when clouds get in the way? And what about the concept of etak that we discussed in a previous blog? And fatique and storms and....In fact, it staggers the imagination.

While this chart is not based on western compasses, it does roughly coincide with them in that North is up, East is to the right, etc. However, ancient voyagers developed star navigation long before contact with European sailors and there are important differences. For example, the star westerners call Altair (Mailap in Puluwatese) appears to be due East on this chart while due East on a magnetic compass is slightly south of Altair, near Orion's Belt.

It is nice to think, though, that peoples on different sides of the world and from vastly different cultures, learned how to use the same natural phenomena--the orderly and unchanging nature of the movement of celestial bodies--to navigate across the trackless seas. The human genius for solving complex problems is universal.

I'm flying to Guam next week to do some research on The Spirit of the Voyage and I'll pick up the subject of traditional navigation again later. After we get back from the Pacific, we'll be heading up to Washington D.C. again and I'm looking forward to rousting about in that city for a while, looking for interesting restaurants and trying not to be too surprised at my observations of human behavior--mine included.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Birds and Traditional Navigation: Expanding the Target

A curious brown boobie flys low over a traditional canoe at sea.
The homeward flights of these birds after a day of feeding are
used by voyagers to help determine the direction of land. (Photo by Ron Castro)

I just got back from a road trip to the Atlanta area where I helped celebrate my grandson's 1st. birthday. At twelve months, he's walking, talking, and a very happy, sweet-natured baby boy. Right on target. On the downside, Atlanta was a tragically sodden part of the world; they got fourteen inches of rain while I was there and seven people lost their lives in the flooding. Such horror.

Back to this blog where I've been thinking about traditional navigation as I slowly write/construct my next novel, The Spirit of the Voyage. In the last blog I did some thinking about etak, a technique that uses a navigator's knowledge of the changing positions of surrounding islands to help navigate from one island to another. Here's a brief description of another technique traditional navigators use: Island block landfall.

Imagine steering across five hundred miles of open ocean with an atoll that may be just four miles across as the unseen target. For thousands of years, navigators have used a system that "expands" the size of those tiny island targets thus decreasing the chances that they won't go sailing by them. Briefly, these methods include the feeding habits of birds, changing wave formations due to the interference of islands in the smooth flow of the ocean, deep-water phosphorescence, cloud formations, and floating debris. All these phenomena "expand" the presence of an island and tell the alert voyager in which direction land can be found.

Birds may be the most reliable of these indicators and indeed, for the Carolinian navigator, boobies are the most important. As I myself have seen many times while at sea in the western Pacific, boobies show a great curiosity in the vessels they encounter. They will circle the boat and at times attempt to land in the rigging. They will flirt with diving down on the fishing lure being dragged behind the boat. Most importantly, after a day of feeding, they will head directly toward their home island, which may be as far as 30 miles away. Again, an alert voyager need only take a bearing on the boobies flight and head in that direction.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Multiple Intelligences and Traditional Navigation: Conceptualizing ETAK

Here I am sitting on the honifot--the helm--of the traditional canoe, Quest.

Howard Gardner, in his his book Frames of Mind, proposes that the way the Western world traditionally measures intelligence fails to account for "a far wider and universal set" of competencies or types of intelligence that one observes outside the traditional Western societies.

He holds up as a prime example, the Puluwatese youth who, after being selected by his elders as having the potential, sets about to learn the vast amount of unwritten information required of him to become a "master navigator." The "intelligence" required to achieve this title does not include reading or writing or math so it is not measurable by "I.Q." tests. Yet, Gardner's theory holds that learning those skills that will allow one to sail across hundreds of miles of ocean without the help of compass or sextant takes great intelligence, indeed.

Of interest to Gardner is the Puluwatese navigators ability to visualize where he is at sea between two islands by using "reference" islands--another island or islands other than the ones he is sailing from or to. These are called the etak islands and, because the master navigator, as part of his training, knows the direction of every known island from every other one and under which star they all sit, he can use these etak islands to better know his position at sea at all times.

The thing that interested Gardner is the different way the Puluwatese youth is taught to think about the canoe as it travels from one island to the next. According to the etak system, the canoe can be visualized as sitting still in the water, while the islands and stars move about him.

This complex process during which the navigator must keep clearly in his mind the positions of both stars and islands while sailing across an empty sea is staggering for the Western mind to contemplate. Indeed, it must be difficult for the navigators to master, too, for, according to Thomas Gladwin in his book East is a Big Bird, skill at sailing upwind toward an objective island using etak reference islands separated the good navigators from the mediocre ones.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Home from the Long Weekend at the Beach: Back to Writing and Thinking About the Ancient Art of Traditional Navigation

A Traditional Canoe Takes a Sea
(Photo by Sandra Okada)

I'm having to do a lot of research to write this novel. Even though it's an adventure novel for young adults it has to be based on solid stuff--facts, for example, and insights, if I'm lucky. How did they really do it? What is it all based on? What makes the impossible possible?

One of the books I'm reading and re-reading and then referring to again and again, is We, the Navigators, by David Lewis. He was a New Zealand physician, who, back in the 60's, gave up his practice to sail the islands of the Pacific investigating tradition navigation. He visited many different islands and sailed with many now long-gone master navigators. He was also an accomplished sailor and modern navigator himself and a true seaman.

His scientific background allows him to be pretty analytical when it comes to studying and attempting to document the skills of the great traditional navigators such a Hipour and Tevake. He tries to cover all the important concepts from stars paths to marine life to deep-water phosphorescence to swell patterns--on an on. The effect of all this information, rather than clarifying things, is to deepen your appreciation of just how skilled and courageous the master navigator has to be. After each reading, I was only more staggered by the mere idea of setting out to find ones way across hundreds of miles of open ocean in an open canoe with no compass or sextant.

I think you can only begin to appreciate the accomplishments of these islanders by going out to sea and staying out there for a while--a few days, and, more importantly, a few nights. Try to go somewhere, try to reach an objective--a distant island is best--against wind and current. I have done just that, more than a few times in various sailboats and if you are like me, you will at first feel humbled and then later, you will feel overwhelmed and then you will feel fear.

In my next few blogs, I'll take a look at some of the techniques the traditional navigators use to find their way across the "empty" ocean. It's fascinating stuff.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Sailing a traditional canoe from Guam to the neighboring island of Rota.
(Photo by Sandra Okada)
Imagine something. Imagine sailing this canoe--this proa--over 500 miles of open ocean and navigating using only the stars and the waves and the sea life and you're exquisit knowledge of the how it all works together.
Get it? No, I don't either.
But there are men capable of doing just that, capable of integrating and synthesizing all the data Mother Nature/the Universe provides and, by some seeming alchemy, figuring out where on the infinite deep blue they are and where they are going.
But never mind the intuitive impossibilities, the beyond-the-pale grasp of things both ephemeral and mystical. There must be some hard science going on here, some bone-deep comprehension of reality that only seems mystical and magical. We know, after all, that there really is no such thing as magic, that mysticism is just simply irrational.
My own take on it goes like this: The type of man who can conjure his position in a limitless sea started developing his skills early--as a young boy. Scientists call this an ontogenetic skill rather than a phylogenetic skill. Ontogenetic skills are skills that don't come naturally--we must learn them. Like playing the piano. Phylogengenetic etic skills are skills every creature in the phylum can do naturally. Like all humans can walk.
Ontogenetic skills must be learned early--in childhood--and that's how great navigators do it. As young children they are exposed to the sea, to the waves, to the stars, to that sense of how it all works together. So what seems impossible to the rest of us, comes "naturally" to them. But it's not magical or mystical. It's all based on real things learned early. Do they understand how they do it? Probably not. Not anymore than the rest of us understand love or beauty or why we crave chocolate ice cream.

Monday, August 31, 2009


A Carolinian Canoe
(from a photo by Sandra Okada)

Here is an excerpt from my novel-in-progress, working title, The Spirit of the Voyage. Joseph and Napu are the boys who have escaped from Guam on a small sailboat when the war begins. The are now on the tiny atoll of Puluwat and, once again, need to escape the horrors of war. They are leaving in a traditional canoe with Puala, an old and blind master navigator, and his son, Lana.

The men and boys of the island gathered and, after Puala had been helped on board, the canoe was pushed down its path of palm fronds into the water. Joseph and Napu and then Lana, climbed on board. Lana sat on the honifot and took the helm while Napu and Joseph set the yard in its socket, tied it in with quick hands, and ran up the sail. The canvas gleamed pale white in the dim light as it filled with the evening breeze and, with Joseph holding the sheet and controlling the set of the sail, the proa moved quickly out of the inner lagoon and across the larger outer lagoon toward the channel that led to the open sea. When they reached the lagoon entrance, the boys who had been chasing them in their small paddling canoes, shouted farewells and turned around.

A moment later they eased out into the ocean and felt the swell beneath the hull. Joseph and Napu looked upwards. There was the now-familiar night sky filled with its billions of stars. The moon was still below the horizon and the dark night illuminated the broad streak of the Milky Way. The great stars of the navigators were there—Altair ,the Big Bird of the East, called Mailap, and Scorpius with its bright heart, Antares, and, far to the north, just a finger’s-width above the horizon, was Wenewenen Fuhemwakut—the North Star, the star-that-does-not-move.

Joseph watched the stars wheel overhead, slowly, slowly. He turned and watched Puala’s son, Lana, at the helm. He too was an ordained navigator—a pwo. He understood the song of the stars and how to follow their hidden paths and now Joseph and Napu found themselves looking up and studying the stars when he looked up and they looked at the sea when he studied the sea. They knew that Lana held the key to unfathomable secrets.

Puala’s words still burned in Joseph’s ears: You are beginning to understand. Now, though, he understood what the old man had meant. Out here on the dark ocean, setting out on a desperate voyage in a small and fragile canoe, Joseph felt overwhelmed not only by the immensity of night sky and the vast water that surrounded them, but by the unimaginable dangers they would face. When he could sit as quietly and calmly and steer a canoe through a treacherous unknown as Lana was now doing, then he, too, would understand.