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:

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Drinking Liberally: Can This Be Good for Liberal Livers?

Tonight's the night we kick it off: Fighting for democracy one pint at a time.

 Such tavern politics have a blue-blood history in this country. The Spirit of '76, our very own Revolution, was distilled in the road houses of the Colonies with Patriots raising a glass to the call for King George's head.

So, it's a nice feeling that this barroom venue of old still rings true with many of us; though I suspect more so with left-leaning sorts. Most Right wingers I know lack the requisite sense of the ridiculous and the playful nature necessary to mix politics with light-heartedness, never mind mixing politics with alcohol. Why, I don't know. It's anger that fuels extremism, I suppose, and the Right Wing is angry. I wouldn't want to be in a bar with a bunch of drunken Republican/Libertarians.

When I came to this town, I vowed to keep my politics to myself; to stay out of the small-town intrigue, to avoid committing to one cause against another. But I don't see how this gathering of like-minded, easy-going Liberals can be harmful. Or can it? Will the citizens who take a strong, uncompromising Right-wing position seek to disrupt our bingeing? Perhaps a drive-by tomato attack? (There are a whole lot of half-rotten tomatoes around here this time of year, too.)

Being interested in semiotics--the signs of the times--I'm intrigued by this idea that, while not exactly sweeping the country, seems to be at least causing a small movement. There are over 200 chapters around the nation; imagine that.

To tell you the truth, I visited the Occupy D.C. encampment in McPherson Park in October and witnessed first hand the cold and relative squalor of that noble cause. The idea of meeting in a warm, wood-paneled Irish-style pub and knocking back a few whilst decrying greed and corruption is much more palatable to this senior citizen.

And therein, I think, I have found the raison d'etre for this Drinking Liberally thing: This is the middle-agers/senior citizens answer to the Occupy movement. We have good jobs or are comfortably retired and can afford to pay a bar tab; we have nice cars and nice homes to drive them to afterwards; and, because of age and wisdom and various medications, we can't drink very much anyway. As for me, the tavern in question is just around the corner from my house and I can walk home.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Today's Thoughts: There Are No Excuses for Not Writing

An man from the atoll of Polowat setting off on a voyage: The stuff of adventure novels.

The world is so full of such wonderful things, I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings.

So, apparently, said Robert Louis Stevenson while losing his long-term, painful, debilitating battle with TB while sailing the Pacific while writing great literature. Do any of us have any excuses for not enjoying life and writing well while we do it?

Today, just a couple of days after my sixty-fifth birthday, I find myself enjoying life while being pleasantly overwhelmed with its rich confusion. To wit:

 I just finished writing an adventure novel about traditional navigation in the remote atolls of the western Pacific and it's off courting a publisher.

I was just asked to present a lecture to a science/philosophy group at a local college about that incredible skill of navigating across hundreds of miles of open ocean using only stars, wave patterns, and marine life. Those skills were developed by the seafaring peoples of the Pacific thousands of years ago and is still in use.

 I've started writing another novel, this one to be the better-than-anything-I've-written-so-far novel I'm convinced I have lurking in me somewhere. It's set in New England, in the Berkshire hills where I grew up, and my head is abuzz with plot schemes and profound/multi-faceted characters.

I just got my sailboat back in the water after some pre-winter maintenance--bottom paint, new zinc, lazy jacks installed--and my wife, Terry, and I brought her home last week on a perfect, breezy day on the Chesapeake. Now I'll get going winterizing her.

For my birthday I asked for and received the Rosetta Stone Spanish program and I'm looking forward to making learning Spanish a long-term, regular part of my life. When Terry retires, we'll spend winters exploring Latin America. Good for my aging brain, too, adding what will no doubt be bad Spanish to my lousy German and my worse French.

Speaking of things that are good for aging brains, I've downloaded the WORDS WITH FRIENDS app--it's a form of SCRABBLE--on my Droid, and I've got four games going at once. I lose, mostly, but I'm getting better. A good addiction.

I'm working on a new finger picking riffs on my guitar. I keep it next to me all day and when I need to take a break from writing/reading/studying, I pick it up and play for a while. It feels way too good, like having a pleasant companion to engage in conversation whenever needed.

So, if Robert Louis Stevenson can do it while dying of a terrible disease, I can too. As December approaches, I'm ready to settle in here for the winter. Looking forward to it, actually--the long, cold, dark nights, the frosty days hunkered down here in my study in my fat recliner reading, writing, studying, playing music and taking naps, PRN. It's the way I've always wanted to live. Self-actualizing, you know?

Terry at the helm bringing Seawind home for the winter.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Art and Intellect: Is There an Ability Threshold for Good Writing?

Stephen King: Enough Intellect in His Art?

No art form puts more demands on that critical bonding of intellect and talent than writing. Real writing, I mean--great writing, ideas put on paper by writers who took the time to dip far back into their deep well of learning, sort it out, process it, shake it up, jerk it around, look at it this way and that way, and turn it upside down, and only then weave what's left into great literature.

There are millions of "writers" out there, lots and lots of us, but out of those millions, there may arise three, maybe four--who knows--great ones. This digital age of self-publishing has allowed the literary world to be flooded with junk, or as was said in the documentary film, "Press, Pause, Play,"  the world is being covered by the gray goo of mediocrity and consumers have lost their sense of what is good or not good.

What separates the mediocre--or even downright crap--from greatness? Here's my list:

     1. Ability--Like it or not, producing art is an elitist endeavor. The great democratization of writing allowed by the digital age, by everyone having access to self-publishing--is a great lie. There are only a few who have the talent to write well.

     2. Intellect--Great writing is, initially, an exercise of the intellect. There is a threshold of cognitive ability below which great writing cannot occur. When I was studying psychology in college, they told us that threshold was an I.Q. of 115. Below that, forget being creative, above that, it doesn't matter; a person with an I.Q. of 130 is not necessarily more creative than a person with an I.Q. of 120. But then, I.Q. is such a multi-faceted phenomenon, who can tell? The only proof will be in the product. For example, J.D. Salinger's I.Q. (according to Army records) was 110. John Kennedy's was 124. I suspect the range of those I.Q.s was large; that is, I.Q. is not a single number. Your ability in math might be 115, while your verbal abilities could be significantly higher.

     3. Intent--Great writers intend to write great literature. It is their purpose, their one desire. Imagine Hemingway intentionally sitting down at his Smith-Corona with his day's goal to write a cheap romance novel or get-rich-quick sci-fi? To the great writers, writing is an all-or-nothing deal; I write my best or I don't write. If I realized that what I have written is garbage, it goes in the fire.

     4. Learning the craft: Great writers spend years learning the craft of writing. You don't learn to play the piano in a week. I suspect many of today's self-publishing writers have spent little time at the hard task of learning how to write and have little patience for having their work reviewed and critiqued by legitimate editors. Rejection is painful and by self-publishing, we by-pass this inconvenient truth.

Of course, there is nothing to be done about the brave new world of digital-age self-publishing. It will continue unabated. In the end, I suspect it will all sort itself out and the great ones that are now drowning in that sea of gray goo will somehow be recognized. I think may well be the discriminating consumer of literature who devises a way to winnow out the wheat from the chaff, maybe by taking the time to look at who is publishing a writer before buying.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sons and Other Strangers: A Photo Essay of a Cross-Country Journey

The author on the Kansas prairie at sunset: Sweet Breezes from a Far Horizon

Where does a son go when he grows up? It's a different place, beyond that sweet, far horizon. He packs up his junk, the stuff that's been lying around on the floor of his bedroom, and moves out and you will never seen him again. Sweet sadness, the end of a process.

Son, all grown up and visiting Dad from his far, far place. First night on the road: "Dad, you're snoring": Tone of voice in the dark motel room was threatening, despairing. All the way across with this?

On Loneliest Highway in the U.S. I leave my DNA in a dry lake bed. When I  was young, I left it elsewhere.

Feeling small in America

U.S. 70 in Nevada: Loneliest Highway in the U.S., it is said.

Over the Rockies by going through them.

I loved the old western, gold-rush-era towns, hoped to see Hoss and Little Joe.

We started the trip amongst the red woods near Sonoma: Moist and Ancient, like son and father.

We found, in an expansive and rocky graveyard in Sonoma, the place that holds the crumbling bones of the only known American Revolutionary War veteran buried in California. And he was a Virginian who sailed the Chesapeake. Must have been a good, thin-water sailor in the days of big, wooden, square-rigged boat without engines.

 In Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi, we encountered King Cotton

The purely ornamental bike on the roof gave us street cred in my son's world. We obvioiusly knew the way it is.

In Salt Lake City: The Mormon Temple, fountain of moderate Republicans

We put our fates in the hands of the GPS Lady

Final approach to St. Louis: Was this St. Louis? One nation connected by really, really bad fast road food.

Yes, we made it to Florida after driving over 4,000 miles. From here, via William Faulkner's house in Oxford, Mississippi, the Suwanee River, Tallahassee, and Ft. Lauderdale. When it was all over, finished, we were both glad to get back to our own places in the world, me with my wife on the Chesapeake, him with his own lady on the yacht he captains. We had visited, seen, and experienced each others perspectives, each demonstrating an admirable tolerance for our differences. But had we connected? That will take another trip, I think. More time on the road.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: While the Oakland, CA protests Errupts, I Visit the (thus far) Peaceful Occupy D.C. Camp to Find Out the Truth

Welcome to McPherson Park, home of the Occupy D.C. Movement

Readers of this blog know by now that I love our nation's capitol and go there a few times a year. I hang out, wander the galleries and museums, argue with the political nuts in front of the White House, join in demonstrations, eat at good restaurants, and take in a show or two at the National or Warner Theaters.

I like it that the streets are filled with smart, 30-something professionals dressed in suits, that there are lots of college students doing college students things, that profound thoughts are chiseled in the ubiquitous marble facades, and especially the feeling one gets that you are where the action is. For a political junkie like me, that's important. Look, see that pretty woman leaving the White House? I see her on CNN every night. Golly!

So, after driving across the country with my son (I'll start that travel log in the next blog entry), I flew from Ft. Lauderdale to D.C. to meet my wife who was there for the week on business. That's how I got to see and meet the Occupy D.C. movement.

First impressions are ever so important, so here's mine: I don't know what caused the fracas in Oakland, but the nation's capitol need not yet call up the National Guard to deal with  their protesters. No worries. This is a rag-tag band, for certain, and while they decry the greed of the Wall Street robber barons and long for the District of Columbia to have representation in Congress, peaceful demonstration is their bottom line.

Indeed, having lived through the 1960's as a college student and having been at the student draft card burnings in Boston, and having been on the snarling end of attacking police dogs on the Boston Public Garden (the dogs were leashed, but effective), I can testify to the peaceful intentions of these neo-hippies.

The food tent area.

One thing about the 60's that was not present and that I missed, was the folk music. No budding Peter, Paul, and Marys here, just young people sitting around talking. Every night they hold a general membership meeting at which anyone can say their piece and receive either accolades or dissing from the crowd. If their ideas are deemed good and acceptable, hands are raised and fingers waggled in the air. If the ideas are not so good, hands go down and fingers are waggled toward the ground. No one gets shouted down. I'd love to see Congress adopt this method. Imagine.

Civil War General James Birdseye McPherson watches over the Occupy D.C. camp.

So, exactly what is the gripe? It was hard to pin it down. According to a young man named Joe who I interviewed in the headquarters tent, the Occupy movements in different cities have no central leader and have different motivations layered on top of the basic anti-greed, anti-Wall Street-Congress collusion problem. D.C. as I mentioned, is taxed but has no representation in Congress. Other places have other issues.

Joe and I discuss the meaning of the Occupy D.C. movement. He was sitting at tent labeled, "Information."

But now it seems the patience of city officials is wearing thin. At least in Oakland, CA where it was rumored that some protesters chucked stones at police and police responded with tear gas. A few people were injured. See below.

What's the meaning of it all? I guess it's all part of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. Our spirits have been brought low by the misery of the economy and the economy is a global phenomena of nearly infinite complexity so no one has any real solutions. What results is like a brain surgeon using an axe while politicians and corporations stand around yelling instructions and making accusations. Now we, the common man-as-patient are trying to come out of our anesthesia and do something--anything.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Other Aspects of a Writer's Life: Clinging to the Irrational Belief that My Sailboat Has a Soul

Seawind, our Alberg 30, on the hard

I'm a sailor; been one for a long time. Can't imagine a life without boats and my sweet 30-footer makes me sigh every time I look at her. We bought her up in Long Island two summers ago and my brother and I sailed her down here to the lower Chesapeake. She lives at a nice little marina just a short drive from our house and just at the edge of the Bay.

This brings me to the tao of sailing which is the boat itself. A beautiful sailboat is an essence, a distillation of complex things. It's a phenomena, a cause of contemplation. It causes a certain madness brought down to a fine point. In short, I have this irrational feeling that my boat is alive. It seems so obvious; she breathes, feels, desires, responds to love as well as to neglect.

Yes, I believe it because I'm projecting my living self onto the boat and so, of course, reductio ad absurdum, she lives, too. She absorbs my projections like a house--and we all know houses live and breath. It's a hangup we can enjoy like so few of our other hangups.

In any event, it's nearly winter, a bad time for northern sailors. It's a time of guilt and regret at not having paid more attention to the boat's needs, not having sailed more or finished the woodwork project started in the spring.  So, I decided to haul her out and give her a little bottom paint and change the zinc before putting her back in for the winter.

Glad I did. The modified ablative paint the marina in Long Island put on her had some strange things happening to it. Little blisters had formed, with water getting in under the paint but the gel coat/barrier coat look okay. The zinc still had a lot of life left in it.

My friend and fellow sailor, Denny, helped me bring her up to the boat yard, a three-hour trip--no wind, motoring the whole way.

When we got there, the lift was ready. I drove her into the slings and out she came.

A good, long, hard, high-pressure shower took off most of the barnacles and slime.

I'm going to let her dry out for two or three weeks before sanding and painting. In the meantime, I'm off to San Francisco tomorrow and will drive back across the country with my son, the yacht captain, whose 112' Westport is being loaded on a container ship and moved to the East Coast where they will cruise the Bahamas and the Caribbean for a while.

Looking forward to some father-son time and the adventure of a long road trip. I'll be reporting here.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Writing Down the Angst: A Chicken's Great Escape

Yes, this is a dead chicken.

I love my little Nikon Coolpix camera. It slips into my pocket and I can carry it everywhere with barely a bother. This allows me to take quick snapshots of life as it is lived and later I find the images instructive when I'm ruminating about how things are going, generally.

Take this dead chicken. Where I live on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, they raise a lot of chickens. Tyson and Perdue have big chicken processing plants here and there are lots of chicken farmers to supply them with fresh,  young chicken, as the advertisement goes.

You often pass one of their trucks, loaded with cages of chickens, going to the slaughter. Or worse, you get stuck behind one and get to watch the poor creatures stuffed into their small spaces, eyes glaring, their dirty feathers fluttering in the wind. It always reminds me of the day forty-five years ago, when I was shipped off to Army basic training at the height of the Viet Nam War. Oh, the sorrow, the remorse, the feeling of helplessness, the sense of doom. Every time I see one of those trucks, I consider the merits of both pacifisim and vegetarianism.

And then, every so often, you see this. One of them, somehow, escapes. But how? The cages are stacked up, chockablock, the space between the bars must be too small for them to slip through or they'd all be out. Imagine that.

No, how this one gained it's freedom will remain a mystery. Did it see an opportunity and seize it in the best tradition of escapees? Did it bribe a guard? Did it peck off the lock and then try to convince its cell mates to make a break with him and finally have go it alone? Was this one of those extremely rare chickens gifted with brains and daring?

In any event, chickens can't fly and the heady, desperate feeling of freedom did not last long for this fryer leaving me to spend the next few miles wallowing in existential angst and contemplating the true meaning of freedom, life, and death, etc.

But let's leave this on a positive note. Here, to counteract that sense of doom, are a couple a pure white Morning Glory moon blossoms that were growing in my garden the same morning that I encountered the chicken. Come to think of it, these lovely blooms only last for a short time, too. Oh, the angst, the angst.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Dylexia: The Common Wisdom is Wrong

Dyslexia is used by some people as a convenient excuse for failure: Why is the common wisdom of the disorder so wrong?

A family member of middle age recently announced at a gathering that she now knew what her problem has been all these years: She has dyslexia. No wonder she wasn't a good student. No wonder.

I bit my tongue and kept quiet so as not to burst the sparkling, hopeful bubble of her excuse for what was apparently a mediocre academic performance back in her student years. As a speech-language pathologist, I spent thirty-two years of my life diagnosing and treating language and learning disabilities and the "symptoms" she used to describe her dyslexia fit nicely with the received common wisdom about the disorder: seeing things "backwards," her eyes jumping around on the page.

And this morning on NPR online, there it was again. In an interview with a business school professor about why an inordinate number of successful business people have the disorder, Steve Inskeep, the host, defined dyslexia as "seeing things backwards." Not so, Mr. Inskeep, not so.

Here's the definition of dyslexia I used when describing the disorder to parents:

Dyslexia is difficulty learning to read given normal intelligence and adequate instruction.

So, say a child reaches third grade, has had good, consistent teaching, and testing indicates at least average intellectual abilities, and that child still has great difficulty reading, he or she, by definition has dyslexia. But is that child just seeing words "backwards?" Unfortunately no; that might be an easy fix.

No, true dyslexia almost always is not problem with vision or your eyes not able to "track" words on a page. Dyslexia is a problem processing and associating sounds with symbols. It is primarily an auditory processing disorder. Here's a good description of the symptoms. I found it on line at PubMed:

A person with [dyslexia] may have trouble rhyming and separating sounds that make up spoken words. These abilities appear to be critical in the process of learning to read. A child's initial reading skills are based on word recognition, which involves being able to separate out the sounds in words and match them with letters and groups of letters.

Because people with [dyslexia] have difficulty connecting the sounds of language to the letters of words, they may have difficulty understanding sentences.

True dyslexia is much broader than simply confusing or transposing letters, for example mistaking ”b” and “d.".

In general, symptoms of [dyslexia] may include:

•Difficulty determining the meaning (idea content) of a simple sentence

•Difficulty learning to recognize written words

•Difficulty rhyming

[Dyslexia] may occur in combination with writing or math learning problems.

You notice that rhyming is mentioned twice here and that can be a first indicator of looming dyslexia. When a kindergartner seems to be having trouble learning those critical sound-symbol associations and also seems to have trouble rhyming, alarms should go off (gently but insistently).

It is critical with dyslexic children to get a diagnosis early and to get help sooner rather than later. When a young student falls behind in the acquisition of reading skills that delay will quickly widen as his or her peers move forward. The critical skill to learn in school is how to read and when a child's reading skills lag, the results can be disastrous.

But as for adults using "dyslexia" as an excuse for failure in life, remember this: a diagnosis of dyslexia should only be based on tests administered by professionals in the field. If you had a terrible time leaning to read as a young student, yeah, maybe your disorder was missed and you are a dyslexic. However, if you were an unremarkable student who nonetheless progressed normally through school and learned to read for meaning by the end of third grade, you may just have, heaven forbid, "average" intelligence. And that might be the only thing worse than dyslexia as we try to compete in this high tech world that worships those with gifted minds.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Hurricanes and Quakes: What Doesn't Hurt There, Kills Here

Irene bears down on us here on the Eastern Shore of Virginia

Comparisons can be useful. I got an email from a friend on the island of Guam, where I lived on a sailboat for eleven years and went through three super typoons (Cat. 5's) and some earthquakes that were up there around 6 to 7 or even a 9 on the Richter Scale. On that far-off speck in the western Pacific, our piddling little earthquake last week and our relatively meek and mild hurricane of this week would have been non-events. Scant notice would have been taken of the earth moving and Irene would have fallen in the "banana" storm catagory; that is, just strong enough to take the bananas off the trees.

But of course, comparisons like this are misleading. Guam has evolved to take this kind of punishment. The houses are mostly made of reinforced concrete and there are no big trees to mention (and that's because they can't grow big due to the frequency of the typhoons that blow them over). Huge storms and major quakes are a fact of life on Guam and the people have adapted. In 1997, when Typhoon Paka hit the island with 200+ mph winds, there was not a single storm-related death.

Here on the eastern seaboard of the U.S., though, things are very different.
While hurricanes occur every year, they mostly affect Florida and the Caribean islands. A direct hit along the length of the east coast is rare. And so, we  have big trees, forests of them, and houses made of wood and lots of trailer parks with cockleshell mobile homes sitting on cinder blocks with those big trees hanging over them. And there are lots of mountains with rivers and streams pouring out of them and lots of people with little experience dealing with big storms.

The end result: When Irene's 40 to 80 mph winds and 12 inches of rain had finished passing through, 40 people had died due to the terrible flooding (Vermont and Massachusetts are in real trouble and the death toll keeps rising) and houses and cars being crushed by falling timber, and I'm certain that the final bill will be in the billions of dollars.

We got lucky. Big trees surround our house on the Eastern Shore of Virginia but only one came down and by raw luck, missed the house and the TV satellite dish. Better than that, before the storm I made a last-minute decision to move my powerboat; it was parked right there. And my wife had always wanted that tree removed, so that project was taken care of for me.

An ode to inovation: We went up to my mother-in-law's house to ride out the storm with her. This is the generator that my father-in-law (who died last December) had cobbled together from wood and spare parts. It ran perfectly.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The World in Financial Toil, Boil, and Trouble: Are We Literary Looters?

The Fire This Time: Looting for the Loot in London

It's all about the money, honey. Making it, spending it, and worrying about it, mostly. As the world markets continue to plunge down deep into black-hole depths led by the imploding confidence of America's financial Masters of the Universe, we here on the literary blogosphere continue to fiddle while London burns.

And what are we fiddling around about? Tell me it's not about just money and fame, fame and money. It's about writing good--maybe great--prose, isn't it? Still, just look at the re-tweet I was tempted to send this morning. It essentially gave advice on How to stalk your potential client without them thinking they're being stalked.

It's not possible that we writers, we high priests of the moral intellect, we wise seers of the human condition, are really looking only at the bottom line, but just in case it is, here are some slang terms for money from Len so when we writers hit it big, viz a viz J.K. Rowling, we can diversify our lingo a bit:

1. chips
2. bread
3. dough
4. roll
5. cabbage
6. lettuce
7. kale
8. bacon
9. clams
10. coconuts
11. beans
12. fish
13. potatoes
14. bananas
15. buckaroos
16. bucks
17. fins ($5-bills)
18. sawbucks ($10-bills)
19. C-notes ($100-bills)
20. hundies
21. Benjamins
22. Jacksons
23. grand
24. Gs
25. K
26. smack
27. smackers
28. wampum
29. bills
30. moolah
31. means
32. checks
33. drafts
34. shrapnel
35. wad
36. plaster
37. bankroll
38. capital
39. finances
40. currency
41. funds
42. gold
43. stash
44. cash
45. bundle
46. fortune
47. lucre
48. chump change
49. pin money
50. shekels
51. resources
52. boffo
53. spending money
54. doubloons
55. wherewithal
56. treasure
57. dibs
58. bits
59. dollars
60. dinero
61. pesos
62. bullets
63. coin
64. simoleons
65. silver
66. pelf
67. tender
68. scrip
69. pittance
70. guineas
71. gelt
72. bones
73. stake
74. pap
75. spondulicks
76. quid
77. pocket money
78. specie
79. jack
80. change
81. scratch
82. mite
83. king’s ransom
84. mint
85. paper
86. loonies
87. mazuma
88. pieces of eight
89. frogskins
90. long green
91. folding green
92. green
93. greenbacks
94. riches
95. rivets
96. big ones
97. banknotes
98. dead presidents
99. chits
100. scrilla
101. loot

Monday, August 8, 2011

I Finish the TAO OF TRAVEL: In Search of the Life-Altering Epiphany

Me in Vladivostok in 1995: Theroux hated this "clammy-cold harbor city": We found it clean and the people friendly.

I would have loved to have been a roach climbing along the wall of Paul Theroux's cabin as he traveled by train across the world's third-world. I would have been privy to a balding, past-middle-age American man as he ate his rice and beans from a tin cup and scribbled in his notebooks occasionally looking out the window at the passing corruption and endless poverty. He probably had not changed his clothes or shaved or showered in a couple of days and the tropical heat must have rendered him full ripe by then. It is, of course, the only authentic way to travel or to be a travel writer: fully ripened.

I've spent the past twenty-five years traveling around the United States, around Asia, around Europe, and then in one memorable summer, around the world via the Trans-Siberian railroad, that most storied of rail lines. So when Theroux took the time to put together what amounts to a primer on the travel writing experience, it was the first book I read on my new Nook.

I say "primer" because during my pleasant and nostalgic passage through The Tao of Travel it became obvious that that is what one may consider this book to be. It's a how-to book, it's inspirational, and, maybe most helpful, it provides a list of great/famous/infamous travel writers along with not only a sample of their writing, but the low down on their often strange and/or wonderful personality quirks.

Theroux likes those travel writers who do it the hard way. Like Sir Richard Burton, the 18th century skeptic and hard-core traveler/explorer who was obsessed enough with experiencing Mecca first hand that he had himself circumcised, learned Arabic, and boned up on the Koran so he could pass himself off as a real Muslim. Finally, when faced with the great stone monolith that is the heart of Islam and the milling throngs of pilgrims,  Burton had a life-changing, mystical experience that he lived to tell about--the only non-Muslim to do so. For Theroux, this is the ultimate tao of travel--travel as hard-won, heartbreaking epiphany.

Sometimes, when Theroux and I have been to the same place, we disagree on its merits or drawbacks. Take Vladivostok, that forbidding, far-eastern outpost of Mother Russia. Theroux warns against going there, describing it as a "clammy-cold harbor city of vandalized buildings, scrawled-upon walls, underpaid sailors, and confrontational drunks and skinheads."

It may well be as he describes it, if you look for it. But when my wife and spent three days there prior to boarding the Trans-Siberian, it was June and the weather bright, sunny, and cool. The sailors were there, certainly, but they were mostly interested in ogling the bikini-clad young women who were sunning themselves near the harbor than in causing trouble.

We walked, unmolested, throughout the town, along the attractive shopping area, ate well at local restaurants, and observed the rusting Russian Pacific fleet tied up in the harbor. We happened to arrive on the weekend they were celebrating the Russian fishing fleet and there was music and dancing and feasting with families strolling about enjoying the sunshine.

We did encounter young men who could be described as skinheads, but even they were in fine, non-aggressive moods. Better than that and just as indicative of the sense of the place, we saw lots of young women strutting their stuff in super high heels, short skirts, and stockings, apparently the fashion statement of the year.

On the down side, and to give Theroux his due, we flew in from Korea in a decrepit Russian airliner with graffiti scrawled on the back of the seats, arriving on a cloudy day and the Stalin-era buildings on the outskirts of the city were grim and oppressive. In fact, we learned later that there had been no hot water in the city all winter. We stayed in a gray and forbidding looking hotel but, in true Russian form, our room was on a floor that was reserved for foreign tourists, military officers, and high ranking government officials and so was sexed up with new plumbing and carpeting and had a good bar/restaurant. The other floors of the hotel were off limits and we were not allowed to explore.

My wife with our lunch of blinis with caviar in Vladivostok: No roaches on the walls.

In any event, it's not just foreign places that Theroux advises avoiding. He points out that certain cities in the United States hardly qualify as safe and delightful travel destinations. He describes East St. Louis, Illinois as one of the most "menacing-looking" cities in the U.S. and adds Newark and Camden, N.J. to that list of awful places to be avoided because they are among the most dangerous places in the world.

So, back to our train ride with Mr. Theroux: In the form of a roach, Kafka like, I crawl up to Mr. Theroux's tin cup and nosh on a piece of leftover rice while he nods off, his head down on his open notebook. I'd love to read a bit of what he has written but I'm a roach and so, of course, I can't. Instead I eat and listen to his steady, light snoring and watch out the window as the third world passes and our writer dreams perhaps of hot showers, cold beer, a good clean shirt, and that elusive goal of all great travelers: the epiphany around which one can write a book.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Naked Arrogance of Traveling: A Short Review of Paul Theroux's New Book or It's True--Solvitur Ambulando

Salvitur Ambulando--It is solved by walking.
Walking to ease the mind is also an objective of the pilgrim. There is a spiritual dimension too: the walk is a part of a process of purification. Walking is the age-old form of travel, the most fundamental, perhaps the most revealing.

                                          The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux

I'm reading The Tao of Travel and so these are the things I thought about today on my four-mile walk on this, the hottest day of the year:

I thought about these objects that sit on my book shelves and when I got back home, I took this picture of them: The snake, the feather, the famous monkeys (They have names: from left to right they are Kikazaru, Fuazaru, and Mizaru.), and of course, the Buddha in one of his many representations. They are spiritual objects of course, all of them, sitting up there collecting dust from the cool, shadowy air--spiritual even to this nonthiest.

But I considered the Buddha the most today as I wandered, heat baked and dripping, because Buddhism runs through Theroux's books, The Tao of Travel being no exception. Maybe that's because the Buddha was a great walker, maybe it's because Theroux philosophical inclinations tend toward Buddhism. The Buddha walked, probably barefoot, in the dirt and disease and sacred cow dung and sweltering heat of the Indian subcontinent, and this appeals to Theroux's basic values.
In The Tao of Travel Theroux has collected quotes and anecdotes from other travel writers as well as from his own works, and comments on them with a mind toward establishing a single message, and the message is clear: traveling at its best, by train or by foot, is a way of getting down deep into the tao or essence of things--of our lives, the lives of others, the collective life of the world's peoples.

To that end, hard traveling, preferably alone, is de rigueur as opposed to comfortable, all-inclusive traveling as a tourist which is shameful, shallow, and pointless. Theroux prefers difficult, solitary travel punctuated by sleeplessness, illness, dangerous encounters, and semi-starvation. Critical to the traveler's tao is the realization that the journey itself becomes the destination, that being the eternal outsider is essential, and paradoxically, coming home after such a journey is really what it's all about. Home is bliss.

Theroux is a favorite of mine. We are fellow writers and fellow travelers. I like his complexity, his self-assured crankiness, his arrogance, his courage, his willingness to tolerate the intolerable muck and mess of being out there. And, above all I admire his ability to keep a journal while doing it. Remember, he's rich and famous and need not submit himself to such misery.

And so, I understood his reaction when an interviewer suggested that this book is "blog-like." He bristled at the suggestion and I understand why. Most blogs are like tourist travel: shallow and pointless. The Tao of Travel though, is well thought out and has as its great central theme the idea that all humanity is one, but that to witness that one-ness, to truly understand it, one must have the arrogance and courage to strip down to one's own naked being and go out there and put yourself at humanity's mercy.

That, I think now, is what traveling is all about--an arrogant, naked love for the world.

Post Script

While on my sweating, dripping walk today, I stopped at the post office and mailed out the manuscript of my next novel. This is naked arrogance, this assumption that a publisher would appreciate receiving such a thing---something I wrote, boxed up with studied professionalism, carefully addressed, lovingly handled. And it is an exercise in Buddhism, being mindful as the postal clerk stamps and seals and chats and takes my money and drops the box into one of those big canvas mail bags.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Summer Writing Blues: Losing the Battle with Glorious Distractions

Ignore an empty beach at your peril: Go forth, writer, and reflect on the sand twixt your toes.

Yeah, I know, all you serious writers are still at it, even though a hot and glorious summer beckons from beyond the nearest window. Maybe you sigh, grimace, close your eyes for a moment, you try to close your ears to the sounds filtering in through the invisible cracks in your airtight bastion of creativity: the siren call of birds chirping, the summery drone of a lawn mower, the shrieks of the kids next door splashing in their pool. Oh yes, and that most famous of summer sounds, the slamming of a screen door.

I say, give it up. I decided to make the summer, with all the irresistible distractions of summer guests, boating, beaching, traveling, a time of renewal. If you are in a rust belt climate, the dregs of winter will come oozing back all too soon carrying the lovely dark and dreary motivations toward self expression. I'm going to rationalize these hot months into an excuse to do no more writing than scribbling an occasional blog or jotting down any stray profound insights into a small pocket notebook. Then, come November with its gray rain and leafless and heartless trees scratching against the windows of my writing room, I'll retrieve them and weave them into something satisfying.

Besides, I wrote for the past seven months and now my editor is busy scanning my winter manuscript for missteps and passive voices, wooden prose, and cardboard characters. As for me, I'll spend some long days in guilt-free beach walking or some rail-down sailing on the Chesapeake, or hot dog-eating family gatherings. It's time to catch up on myself, to see what I've become, what's left of me now, after so long hovering in the cold. 

Saturday, July 9, 2011

How to Stop Students Horrid, Horrific, Hatred of Writing: An Idea

Encouraging young people to love writing: A enthusiastic "celebrity" can make a difference.

That's me up there, in the hot seat in front of a school media center filled with middle schoolers. I was a visiting "celebrity" author and my intentions were good: get these kids to see writing as a wonderful adventure rather than a hideous, boring, and despicable chore.

An insane expectation? First, I had try to get into the mind of the average 6th grader (OMG). What was going on inside that brain, overstimulated as it was by the infinite digital excitements of gaming and Internet social networks? Why did they love reading Harry Potter and love texting and emailing, but hate classroom writing assignments?

I took stock of my prior knowledge. As a professional who spent thirty-two years working in the public schools as a speech-language pathologist, I knew a few critical facts:

  • While human speech--talking--is a hugely complex but natural process generally mastered by the age of three or so, writing is not.
  • No, writing is a hugely complex language skill that is not acquired without intense, long-term instruction in the correct use of its seemingly endless, persnickety, idiotic, and stupid conventions; it is, in fact, an unnatural or "overlayed" skill.
  • Humans are gregarious, social creatures and anything that feeds into and supports that social gregariousness will tend to develop rapidly and even joyfully, e.g. talking to friends, or exchanging blips of friendly chatter on FaceBook or Twitter. And, better yet, when writing on these social networks, those persnickety, idiotic, and dumb grammatical rules can be officially ignored thus making the experience even more joyful.
  • Classroom room writing assignments that are not related to socializing and which require the exacting use of grammar and spelling rules will be seen as boring, difficult, rotten, dumb, and despicable.
How then, to approach the problem?
  • Break up the bad attitudes, confound the resistance, make them drop their guards by bringing in a "real" published author. It will be helpful if this author has had lots of experience presenting dog-and-pony shows in front of large groups of middle schoolers and is loud and enthusiastic and has had some (bad) acting experience.
  • This author will then read a little from his books and answer questions about being a writer. Surprisingly for kids who hate writing, there will be a lot of very good questions and then he will have the students write a very short beginning of a story and give them the opportunity to come up and read it aloud in front of their classmates and....
  • ....teachers will suddenly realize that students actually love writing, they just hate writing assignments that have nothing to do with the excitement of socializing with their friends or making up wild stories, and so....
  • ....after the visiting author finishes an entire day of talking to class after class of students and has no voice left and leaves the school dazed and very much in need of a beverage, the teacher can capitalize on the short-lived enthusiasm for writing he has left behind.
  • How to do this? Give even the most mundane writing exercise the thrill of the social network by relating it to important things in their lives and then encourage them to come up into the "author's chair" in front of the class, and read part of what they have written.
  • Do this on a regular, weekly basis, and with luck and skillful, underhanded, sneaky, pedagogical manipulations, the enjoyment of this type of writing will generalize to other more academic writing assignments.
  • And that is the key to this process: If students have an enjoyable writing experience once a week, the skills aquired and the improved attitude will impact other writing assignments and they won't even notice it.
I've done this quite a few times and it does seem to work. As you can imagine, the onus then falls on the poor language arts teacher to keep the enthusiasm going. Writing an essay on, say, Benjamin Franklin, is not seen as quite as enticing a project as emailing a friend. But why not? In fact, why not have them email a friend about Benjamin Franklin. He was not exactly a boring guy and having students find the fun and funny or even scary things he did and let them write report it in prose that uses words in a creative, off-beat way can help keep the enthusiasm for writing alive.

In the end, as they mature, students must learn that some writing assigments are just going to be boring. There is no way around it. It's life. Get the job done and get over it. Still, I have found that in most writing assignments, there is room for a little creative fun with words and language and if we can pass this along to our students, it can have a big impact on their education and, eventually, on their careers.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

What I Learned About Writing Whilst in Chicago: The Penny Dreadfuls are Back in Style

Playing the Blues at Buddy Guy's Lounge: What does this great Chicago Blues musician have in common with a great writer?

I'm just back from Chicago where I was a writer/tourist. One doesn't mind being a writer in Chicago--or any place else for that matter--but one hates being a tourist because of the bad reputation tourists have for wearing funny clothes, and being sweaty, cheap, shallow, and ignorant.

Picture your classic thirty-something couple. They are wearing shorts and flowered shirts which, by 1:00 in the afternoon, they have sweated through. He is swinging his big camera around like a bazooka while their three children are dragging along and complaining loudly because their bellys are full of greasy fries and ketchup and they really need naps or to be in front of a television set.

Observed on the promenade along  Lake Shore Drive in Chicago last week:

Mother to her 4-year-old son: "David, stop doing that and come here. David, I'm going to count to three. David, one (long, hopeful pause), two (longer pause), three. "DAVID! STOPPING DOING THAT AND COME HERE!"

There was relief from the Great American Summer Vacationers, however. I found it in Legend, Chicago Blues great Buddy Guy's restaurant, lounge, and blues heaven. It happened to be right across the street from my hotel and you can go there for lunch and hear great blues or go there at night, eat dinner, and hear great blues. This is no dangerous dive, either. It's clean (very clean), well stocked, and well ordered. Cajun-style food is mostly served, and the patrons are respectful and serious about their music.

I don't carry a bazooka camera. I use a Nikon CoolPix that slides in and out of my pocket, no bigger than a fat credit card, and I got this picture of a musician playing great that night and that got me to wondering. How did he get so damned good?

The guitar was, quite literally, an extention of his body and so an extention of his mind, and so an extention of the very soul of his music. He never had to look down to find a chord. His fingers danced along the fret board jitter-bug fast, finding the precise place on the right string without any apparent effort. And he did this in perfect harmony with the guitarist who was playing next to him and in perfect rhythm with the drummer.

And that's what got me worried. Watching him got me thinking about something in the brave new world of fiction writing: Internet self publishing. Could this muscian have possibly decided to become a blues guitarist six months ago and get up and do what he was now doing? This wonderful muscial magic?

Of course not. What this guy was doing took years and years and years and years of persistent, daily, grinding hard work. And then before he was allowed get up on that stage, he had to audition before a very, very choosy, persnikkety, and judgemental expert in blues music that was not his mother.

My take on it is this: writing that is worth reading is just as difficult to produce as music that is worth listening to. But what is happening today in fiction writing is that people can--by the millions--publish whatever they write without having practiced and without having auditioned in front of anyone at all, even their mothers. is filled with such stuff and the selective reader must sort it all out by looking at the publisher before he buys. Published by CreateSpace? Be suspicious. Anyone can do that. 99-cent ebooks on Kindle? Buyer beware. The old Britsh Penny Dreadfuls are back.

So it worries me. If you would be a serious writer, you must be like a serious musician--pay your dues and learn to play. It takes many years to acquire the skills to make wonderful music with words. I suppose the great reading Internet public will sift through it all and in the end, the great writers will float to the top of that infinite slush pile. But until then, how are you to know that what you sent your 99 cents for is worth even a penny--and that's dreadful. 

Now that my rant is over, here are some fun and/or instructive quotes by writers who made wonderul music with words.

If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I’d type a little faster.
                                                         Isaac Asimov

The reason why so few good books are written is that so few people who can write know anything.
                                                         Walter Bagehot

There are so many different kinds of writing and so many ways to work that the only rule is this: do what works. Almost everything has been tried and found to succeed for somebody. The methods, even the ideas of successful writers contradict each other in a most heartening way, and the only element I find common to all successful writers is persistence-an overwhelming determination to succeed.
                                                           Sophy Burnham

But words are things, and a small drop of ink, falling like dew upon a thought, produces that which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.
                                                           Lord Byron

Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.
                                                          Truman Capote

I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.
                                                          Truman Capote

Practice, practice, practice writing. Writing is a craft that requires both talent and acquired skills. You learn by doing, by making mistakes and then seeing where you went wrong.
                                                          Jeffrey A. Carver

Write from the soul, not from some notion what you think the marketplace wants. The market is fickle; the soul is eternal.
                                                          Jeffrey A. Carver

The pen is the tongue of the mind.
                                                          Miguel de Cervantes

Writing is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.
                                                          Winston Churchill

When you wish to instruct, be brief; that men's minds take in quickly what you say, learn its lesson, and retain it faithfully. Every word that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind.
                          Cicero Roman author, orator, & politician (106 BC - 43 BC)

One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper patterns at the right moment.
                                             Hart Crane, American Poet (1899-1932)

If there is a special Hell for writers it would be in the forced contemplation of their own works.
                                             John Dos Passos

Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.          
                                            Annie Dillard

In good writing, words become one with things.
                                            Ralph Waldo Emerson

A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.
                                           William Faulkner

Writers aren't exactly people.... they're a whole bunch of people trying to be one person.
                                           F. Scott Fitzgerald

All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.
                                           F. Scott Fitzgerald

Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we are longing to move the stars to pity. (Translation from French)
                                           Gustave Flaubert

If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing.
                                           Benjamin Franklin

All our words are but crumbs that fall down from the feast of the mind.
                                           Kahlil Gibran

To gain your own voice, forget about having it heard. Become a saint of your own province and your own consciousness.
                                           Allen Ginsberg

If any man wishes to write in a clear style, let him be first clear in his thoughts; and if any would write in a noble style, let him first possess a noble soul.

The unsaid, for me, exerts great power . . .
                                          Louise Gluck

Unless one is a genius, it is best to aim at being intelligible.
                                         Anthony Hope Hawkins

Easy reading is damned hard writing.
                                        Nathaniel Hawthorne(1804-1864)

Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man."
                                        Heidegger (from "Building Dwelling Thinking", 1951)

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in shock-proof shit-detector.
                                        Ernest Hemingway

Real seriousness in regard to writing is one of two absolute necessities. The other, unfortunately, is talent.
                                        Ernest Hemingway

In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dull and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.
                                        Ernest Hemingway

Work every day. No matter what has happened the day or night before, get up and bite on the nail.
                                        Ernest Hemingway

I don't know much about creative writing programs. But they're not telling the truth if they don't teach, one, that writing is hard work, and, two, that you have to give up a great deal of life, your personal life, to be a writer.
                                       Doris Lessing

I see the notion of talent as quite irrelevant. I see instead perseverance, application, industry, assiduity, will, will, will, desire, desire, desire.
                                       Gordon Lish

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

I'm in Oz. No, Really, I'm in Oz.

Chicago skyline from Chicago River: a truly magnificent "smelly onion"

“Eventually, I think Chicago will be the most beautiful great city left in the world.”

                                                                                Frank Lloyd Wright

“I give you Chicago. It is not London and Harvard. It is not Paris and buttermilk. It is American in every chitling and sparerib. It is alive from snout to tail.”
                                                                              Henry Louis Mencken

"...if people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines, that I could write stories just as rotten. As a matter of fact, although I had never written a story, I knew absolutely that I could write stories just as entertaining and probably a whole lot more so than any I chanced to read in those magazines."
    Edgar Rice Burroughs, Chicago native, on deciding to become a writer

I used to worship at the alter of Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose Tarzan books got me swinging on backyard vines and wrestling with imaginary gorillas before I was eight years old. Edgar was born in Chicago and he would probably be considered the least of the famous writers produced by this city, writers that include Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury, and Saul Bellow.
So, her I am, too, a writer wallowing in one of the world's great cities, trying hard not to feel like a golly-whiz bumpkin just off the farm amidst this grand skyline. But, golly whiz, one does get a crick in the neck the first few days here from looking up--up, up, up, up, and all around. It does stagger the faculties, this Oz of glass and steel that seem to emerge directly from the blue water of ocean-lake Michigan.
So, I figured, this fascination with the improbable constructions of man (and a woman architect, too) will pass. Give it time. Take your rubber-neck pictures, wander the streets gawking, take the Chicago River architecture tour (the poor docent was going hoarse trying to tell us everything as the boat steamed along). After a day or two, you'll be like Saul Bellow want to go and die in Vermont.
It's now day three and I'm about to finish this blog entry and head out again. Maybe today as I cross Michigan Ave. to the Art Institute of Chicago for another few hours of enthusiastic shuffling and staring, shuffling and staring, I'll be able to stifle the thus-far irrepressible urge to look up. Tomorrow I'll be able be like travel writer Paul Theroux and be hard and cynical and grumpy and write about the actual writers who came from this town. Or maybe about the food, or the wonderful, conversation-stopping rattle and roar of the elevated railway, or the lovely young women dressed so fetchingly in their summer-in-the-city minimals.