We had a very special trip planned. Three countries separated by the North Atlantic. Then the pandemic came. As it happens, we weren’t in our 20s when we married, so we’re retired. For that reason, COVID-19 didn’t hit us as hard as others—for whom we have much sympathy.
We do have to take wearing a mask and social distancing more seriously. So far, we have remained virus free. Can’t really go anywhere either—not even to a restaurant.But we can get carryout.Sounds humdrum and disappointing.But it isn’t.There’s no distractions. We can sit out on the patio and enjoy the view from our dream house, high atop a hill at 6,700 feet.
Daisaku Ikeda says this in Buddhism Day by Day: Wisdom for Modern Life,
“A shallow person will only have shallow relationships. Real love is not one person clinging to another; it can only be fostered between two strong people secure in their individuality. Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince wrote in a work called Wind, Sand and Stars, ‘Love is not two people gazing at each other, but two people looking ahead together in the same direction.’ “
We were following de Saint-Exupery’s prescription some time ago and we still are. We looked ahead together for our move to the Southwest. And to designing that dream house with a view for many miles. In a dry climate with seasons not to hot and not too cold. We have already been on wonderful journeys here and there. The trip we planned for this year may happen the next—or it may not. But there will be more ahead.Meanwhile, we will enjoy our day reminiscing and discussing what we will do until our 50th anniversary.And where to go in 2030.
Writing advice that gets you started and keeps you going.
Wouldn’t you love to have authors reveal the secrets of their successes to you? You get that in this collection of essays, many by award-winning authors, and all of them fine practitioners of the craft. Their insights provide you with tools, tips, and encouragement for your own writing.
The book covers fiction and nonfiction. It includes samples of writing techniques used across various genres and for all sorts of readers.
Here’s a list of our authors–many award winners in their own right: Catalina Claussen, Alethea Eason, Chris Lemme, Kris Neri, E J Randolph, Kate Rauner, Eve West Bessier, Luanne Brooten, Sharleen Daugherty, John Maberry, Sharon Mijares, and Joni Kay Rose.
Yes, it’s a geometric abstract painting from nearly a 100 years ago. Why is it here? It’s a writing prompt from our Zoom “Tea and Scones Brunch” from a week or so ago. Oddly, but perhaps not surprisingly, no one actually has either the tea or the scones–so far as I know. We will start with my verse response and proceed on to the prose. A mashup of thoughts on the painting, perception with or without the aid of stimulants, etc., word association and excerpts from the memoir, Waiting for Westmoreland.
Verse Inspired by Transverse Lines
Analytical-lyrical or mood-sensational
Right brain struggles with left in Kandinsky land
Cyclops at the edge of time
Peers through a Venn diagram
A warped declination of mind
Where now—when, about?
Out of mind—Dylan, not Fagen
The stars have turned cherry red
Out of the blue, a palette offers more
Swirling shades arc across a porthole
Wormhole worlds gaze back, far away
Claw marks scratch a busy blend
He is unmoved—perhaps Ganja needed
Yet, the work does correlate with the diverticulitis
Perceptual reality–then and now
Once upon a time he focused on a flute, an alto sax—rhythm, lead or bass guitar. An augmented mind slowed to a moment. Perception advanced one note, one instrument at a time–transcendent. No more–he gave up marijuana 40 years ago.
Now it’s caffeine calibration—achieve the fine-tuned blend of alertness without feeling flutters. Alcohol allocation—maintain motor control and not too tipsy—yes, relaxation, words flow fast and freely as in first-year-law classes. Mary Jane—now legal but too strong. No amount tolerable—THC is too high, he is not buzzed, he borders on seizure. Nearly as stoned as the opiated hash he smoked several times in the 70s—without ill effects.
“Be here now,” Richard Alpert, AKA Ram Dass, said. So, that’s today’s target. Not always easily found. He strives through faith and doctor’s advice on what more medications he can stop. Coming back from a New Year’s Eve Buddhist event 30 years, his exhilarated mind felt like nothing more than the high of good weed—without any. Now, without recreational drugs, listening to Return to Forever’s Romantic Warrior, the Pooh character Christopher Robin pops in his mind each time a certain bar repeats. From whence comes the association, he wonders.
Without aid, words and music heard prompts memories—times, people and places. Time travel is possible—he goes there whenever he wants, via those recollections. Current events—America’s racism, old and new.
Recollections From Waiting for Westmoreland–a bridge to current times
At home, in Minneapolis:
I was eight or nine years old when my mother read me a newspaper report about a gruesome murder. The killers had dragged the cook out of the Bandbox, a burger joint in Camden, a tiny business district in north Minneapolis about a mile from our house.
“They banged his head on the curb until he was dead—because he was Chinese,” she cried, tears welling up in her eyes. “It’s just like the Ku Klux Klan, dragging black people from their homes—whipping, beating or killing them because of their skin color.”
I said nothing, unsure how to reply either to her sorrow or to her disgust, but the image of people being dragged out and beaten remained seared in my mind.
Upon our arrival, much to my surprise, I immediately spotted Sam Jackson, my former radio school classmate and fellow Ft. Meade parade participant. I knew that he too was heading to Vietnam when he left Ft. Meade, but I hadn’t expected to see him again here. Jackson’s orders had come two days before mine and he had arrived in the unit two days ahead of me.
“Jackson here says you were one of the best students in radio mechanic school.”
“Well, I did OK,” I said, unprepared to provide a more sensible answer. As it turned out, no answer would likely have sufficed to avoid the fallout from this.
“No Sarge, he was really tops,” Jackson helpfully added, in a respectful tone very different from the one I was accustomed to hearing from him when addressing white NCOs. Whether sincere or calculated as a setup, I soon learned it would be difficult to live up to Jackson’s buildup.
Since I had seen him at Ft. Meade, barely a month before, Jackson had shed the guise of Huey Newton. Now he played the role of Rochester, Jack Benny’s man. Instead of the “Yass, boss,” that Rochester always said to Benny, it was “Yass, sergeant” from Jackson. It was accompanied with a happy hop-to-it attitude, instead of the sneer common to earlier times. What the hell had happened to Jackson? Later on, I would see the wisdom of his change in behavior. This was a cloak of compliance, shielding him from harm in a place where opportunities abounded to deal with “uppity n*****rs.” Clearly, some other brothers had quickly clued him in. Why risk a “friendly fire” accident for the sake of ego or pride while here in Nam? The score against whitey could always be settled later on “back in the world.”
Back to Transverse Lines
Can he find his way from auditory to visual association—visual prompts from previously unseen art. Perhaps. He might try working on that—Dali’s Persistence of Memory, that brings forth much more than Kandinsky. He’d like a print of that surreal work.
Footnote: just days past the writing brunch, he found himself isolating the multiplicity of instruments layered into the pioneering fusion of Miles Davis in Spanish Key, from the 1970 Bitches Brew studio album–the left drum set versus the right, this horn or that. Yes, it can be done–without the drugs, even while mentally fatigued.
There IS good news out there, you just have to look for it. It doesn’t sell newspapers (those that are still in print) or get clicks on the websites that are where readers eyes focus on today. Actually, the good can be found all around us–in our neighborhoods, stores and medical offices. Recently I have had multiple doctor visits. As my wife and I are oft heard saying, “growing old is not for sissies.” Forget the diagnoses, just know that we have good physicians, a decent hospital with up to date equipment and more. All this in a town with a population of less than 10,000 people.
Like many places in America, there is controversy in our town about wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. No violence, however. Over 90% of the shoppers in local stores DO wear the required masks–maybe 95% plus. So, we don’t have a raging epidemic here. What there is of it is likely spread by tourists or returning residents who have traveled elsewhere. We haven’t left the vicinity since the first weekend in March!
New Mexico’s governor is maligned by many on the other side, but the state is doing quite well in terms of reducing transmission below 1 and has a low positivity rate. In a few days, some relaxation on dining and religious service restrictions will ease. That’s good news and all I had to do to find it is look on the New Mexico website. Of course, the US as a whole is the worst in the world in controlling COVID-19. Congratulations to all of you who live in other countries. Eventually, we will come to our political senses and embrace medical science and rejoin the modern world.
There is good news out there–YES, REALLY! I just didn’t have time to find it this month. TOO much going on but I won’t bother you with that.
Instead, something I’ve been meaning to do for some time now–post an occasional excerpt from Waiting for Westmoreland. This is from the 2017 Tenth Anniversary Edition. This post does have its good news perspective–about an unorthodox introduction to the faith that has led me to create value over the years.
It’s condensed; two parts from the same chapter, closely related. Emphasis has been added that’s not in the text of the book.
FROM DEATH COMES LIFE. Two weeks after returning from Doug’s funeral, I attended a party. It was like most parties. People were standing around with a drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other, holding forth inanely on topics of little or no consequence. The more intoxicated they got, the more animated (but no more meaningful) the conversation became. Borrrrrinnng. It was Lorna’s party. She was a legal secretary, at the law firm where I clerked. I wasn’t obliged to go, from the self-interest perspective, as would have been the case if the invitation had come from one of the law firm’s partners. I went anyway. How could I turn down free food and booze? It was fortunate that I did. I met Lisa there, a member of Lorna’s carpool. They all commuted from Virginia to the K Street business district in DC.
Amidst the dull peoplescape of the party, Lisa sparkled like a mirrored ball above a dance floor. Who isthat person? Why is she so alive, so different from the rest?I had to talk to her. I asked what it was about her that accounted for her obviously higher state of being than the rest of the partygoers. She explained that she was a Buddhist and she chanted.
“Oh, what do you chant—Nam-myoho-renge-kyo?” I asked.
“Yes! How did you know that?”
“Somebody told me about it two years ago at Springfield Mall. They invited me to a meeting but I didn’t go. When you said you were a Buddhist and chanted, it just popped into my head.”
“Do you remember who it was?”
“Well, they planted a seed. Once you hear it, you never forget it.”
A seed may have been planted, but in 1975, the ground surrounding and supporting my life was compacted too hard for it to sprout. That was before I had pursued another year and a half of law school without realizing I still didn’t know where I was going. That was before Liz split. Now, with less than a semester to go until the end of law school, Lisa would bring sun and rain to fertile soil. Widening cracks in my self-confidence ran in all directions after Liz left. Until then, I had reassured myself that once I learned enough, my path in life would become obvious. I would know what to do to make the world a better place. But it hadn’t worked out that way. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” He might have added that the over-examined life could be very frustrating in its complications and unresolved questions.
. . . .
Lisa and I hit it off right from the start in my soon-to-be-well-lubricated state. Although I didn’t know it at the time, what I perceived was the life-condition of a Buddha. I had no interest in talking further with any of the other partygoers. Compared to Lisa, they were semi-somnambulant. She wound up in my lap, where we blissfully exchanged kisses, heedless of the party continuing around but apart from us. The experience was nothing like what I supposed an orthodox introduction to Buddhism should be, but it was an effective one nonetheless. At the conclusion of the evening, in my intoxicated state, I couldn’t find a pen and paper to write down her phone number.
“I’ll remember your number,” I said, repeating it several times to ensure success.
“I’ll remember your kisses,” she replied, with a happy smile promising more.
It could only have been through a concerted act of will that I did remember the number. I called her the next day. I had to know why she had such a self-confident zest for life. More importantly, I had to know how I could get one. Recognizing my intellectual bent, Lisa gave me a thick book to read the very next time we were together, The Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue. The book was a compilation of an extensive discussion between the noted historian Arnold Toynbee and Daisaku Ikeda, the leader of an international Buddhist lay organization (the Soka Gakkai). I read it quickly, ravenously. Three things running through the dialogue impressed me: pragmatism, humanism and hope.
The romance with Lisa was short-lived. The continuing one came two years later and has lasted for 40 years. You can read more about the start of that relationship in the link to the brief intro to Waiting for Westmorelandhere on this site. The book’s hook, if you will.
The elegance of chance, a prompt for the “Munching Words Brunch.”
We used to meet on Saturdays at a local coffee shop. Now, with the pandemic, we meet Thursday mornings on Zoom. It’s poetry and prose by Southwestern New Mexico writers.
I seldom speak of my Buddhist faith on this blog, but it seemed workable to combine it with the brunch piece because the discussion of chance happens, not by chance, to feature some discussion of the practice.
On July 17, 1977, I received a scroll, a mandala, to which my attention is focused when I do morning or evening Gongyo. Gongyo is that assiduous practice that Nichiren Buddhists do twice daily. Reciting some parts of the Lotus Sutra and much more daimoku. You can find much more about that and other aspects of Buddhism in this PDF of a three-part series on Eagle Peak Press, my publishing site.
The Elegance of Chance
I took a ride on the Reading a few times—somebody else always owned it.
The chance of winning the jackpot on Power Ball or Mega Millions is slim. We play three or four times a year. Won back the price of a lottery ticket a couple times. Five dollars once. Sad seeing the poor folk buying 20 tickets or more when the jackpot gets huge.
Played cards in the hooch in Nam—never for money. At a $100 a month who the hell could take the chance. Besides, too stoned by then. Inelegant when mistakenly sipping from the reconstituted chocolate milk after somebody dropped a cigarette in it—don’t think I pitched the butt or sipped the mix. That memory eludes me.
Surely not chance smoking dope in a Spec-5’s private room—tiny purple fishes ran laughing through my fingers. His girlfriend sent him the LP with Cream’s Tales of Brave Ulysses.
Some might suppose it chance that the guy pulled in front of us from an on ramp on the interstate from Shively to Louisville at 4:30 am. Had to take my first wife to work before heading to Ft. Knox in 1969. Instinctively, at 60 mph, I did a four-wheel drift—cutting the wheel sharply to the left and stepped on the gas. We moved ahead into the next lane without a skid and kept moving. NASCAR people do it all the time. I never watched them. Just did it.
A chance encounter at the Depot. Platform shoes, elephant bells and the tank top—that was me. Don’t remember what she wore. She mirrored my every move on the dance floor. A one-night event.
The Depot was formerly a bus station, reincarnated as a club. I chanced to see Zappa and the Mothers—with Flo and Eddie. Not so elegant but certainly entertaining. Mitch Ryder and more. The club was short-lived.
By chance, my 2nd father-in-law worked at the depot, before the conversion, back when the gray dog still stopped there. He gave me with some very heavy (7-8 pounds) suede pants from the lost and found. Perhaps some performer left them behind—either a time traveler or heading for another venue. The 30-inch waist fit then. Doubtful it will again.
For a time, chance worked for me. Won tickets from WGTB a few times. A station owned by the very Jesuit Georgetown University. It played progressive/psychedelic music and had news from Pacifica. The school sold the station when they tired of the foolish radio guys making rude comments about the Church. But I did get to take a young fellow Buddhist to see Poco and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Even got a parking space next to GWU auditorium—impossible to park there. Tickets AND a parking space! Elegant indeed.
The Burrito Brothers were among the groups at the one and only rock festival I attended. Heard about it by chance. In an Iowa farm a 150 miles away from Minneapolis. Not that crazy about the Burritos, but the Chambers Brothers were fantastic. Lying on the grass and smoking it—perhaps not elegant. A bong, a chillum or at least a filter would have improved the Panama Red that liked to rip my lungs out.
Chance, elegant or otherwise, not something I really acknowledge anymore. Where others see it, I see karmic opportunities. It’s not fate or predetermination. The choice to take this path or another is still up to me—the available choice and the consequence of the decision is where karma comes in. That’s very elegant to me.
The tapestry of life—events occurring along the timeline of eternity. Painful or pleasant—experiences are what they are, and what we make of them. It’s not easy, mastering the mind rather than letting it master us. Decades ago, I never tried, now I do. Sometimes I even succeed, elegantly.
Herbie Hancock won Album of the Year for River: the Joni Letters in 2008—the first one for jazz in 43 years. A very humble and gracious man. I ferried him and his wife around DC a couple days in 1981 as I volunteered at a control center in L’Enfant Plaza for a major SGI event —the Aloha We Love America Rally. I did morning Gongyo with him, Tina Turner and Patrick Duffy. It wasn’t chance that I could get off from work to do this. It was elegant.
I had given up the weed by then. Children were on the agenda. Then there was the New Year’s Gongyo in Silver Spring, Maryland. A location 45 minutes from our Northern Virginia home. Didn’t see a drunk driver anywhere along the way. I did feel a sense of exhilaration surprisingly like the effects of marijuana. I didn’t really need it anymore.
There’s lots of research in writing a time travel book–or at least there should be.
The novel won’t be out for a longtime.We (the wife and I) recently watched yet another movie of the ilk, The Fountain (2006, starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz; a good one). I d finally getting around to reading Paulo Coelho’s book, the Alchemist. Yes, the book of my dreams will be about Derek. Check out the Alchemist, you’ll understand.
That’s all part of the explanation about why I keep dropping Derek on you here, even though the book is far off–in time.
So here’s a mashup that will likely be substantially expanded, edited and filled in with more characters, dialogue, etc. Hope you find it worthwhile in this abbreviated form. (You may recognize a couple of the short Maine bits from previous blog posts).
Derek, Here and There
With aching muscles burning, Derek paddled slowly through the cold water, watching walleyes leap in his midst. He regretted nothing of this journey, admiring the birch, aspen, spruce and fir. Visions of his voyageur ancestor warming his soul. Two centuries ago and more, the kernel of recall tickled his mind.
He must make camp soon, before the freezing night. Mosquitoes and flies were gone, replaced by a biting breeze. Snow and ice might visit you, warned the outfitter. Derek had no choice. Darjeeling—and then Maine, took longer than expected.
A gust struck, carrying him back in time. He had yet to control that trigger for the time-shift. His fur-laden canoe rode low in the water. Three pipes the map said, from the last to the next portage. He had smoked the third just as the gale blew him onshore. Like a latter day powerlifter, Luc jerked the beached canoe onto his shoulders with a half twist.
Derek, cum Luc, took the weight in stride. He had felt heavy burdens before. Beaver pelts lashed between the padded thwarts along with supplies. How long, he wondered, before he could put it all down. How long will this visit with his forebear be?
Luc stumbled on a root, nearly dropping the cargo, “sacré bleu!” Luc cursed. Je dois arrêter, Luc thought.
Yes, he must stop; he’s as tired as me, Derek realized.
Qu’est-ce que c’est?, muttered Luc, sensing Derek’s commentary.
Damn, I must be more subdued in the subconscious, Derek reminded himself.
Luc unshouldered the canoe in a clearing off the trail. He scratched his beard reflexively, as a deer fly buzzed round his head. Time to reapply the bear grease and skunk urine.
Damn, that stuff is nasty, Derek thought. No DEET back then.
But why here—why now? There must some significance in this trip in the life of Luc. An opportunity to make a change, a minor one, so as not to disturb the timeline too dramatically—or dangerously.
Derek swatted at a bug. No—not Maine, not now! The Mainahs call lobstahs bugs, a memory flash. He needed to remain with Luc. These bounces are getting out of control!
Luc looked right and left, startled again at Derek’s outburst in his head, just as Derek found himself in Maine, in the middle of a mystery story he’d read—The Dipping Bowls. It started like this:
“Never seen nothin’ like this Sheriff. I mean, we’ve had a few drunks; a few punks takin’ drugs but if we find out we get ’em outta heah real fast. We’ah real careful who we rent to.”
“I’m sure you are Fred. Why don’t you go out on the porch and sit down now, you’re still shakin. We can handle this in heah. We got any more questions, we’ll come out and talk with you.”
The bodies were still fresh, with the cold nights of early June in central Maine. Fred, the cabin owner discovered them. The renters were two days late checking out, so he went for a look see.
Derek read the tale while recovering in the hospital in Darjeeling. He went to sample the tea, riding the Himalayan National Railway “Toy Train.” An attempted side trip on the two-cup line caused the delay. “It’s been abandoned for decades, sir. No one speaks of it anymore—a bit of a scandal you see,” the station agent said.
Aunt Jane’s news clippings said nothing about that. Just a brief feature of his great granduncle Joffrey working as a conductor. His own research showed it offered female companions on special trips. Well, at least I can walk the railway path, Derek had thought. A brisk breeze blew along the abandoned railway. He found himself as a track maintenance worker, not as Joffrey. Just as Derek entered his mind, the man fell from a wagon hitting his head. Derek awoke in the hospital, his head bandaged, with his host in a coma. Strangely, Derek could read the mystery—the staff none the wiser.
The story demanded of Derek a physical trip to Maine, before heading to Minnesota. That’s why he didn’t get in the canoe until late October. He spent some time in Windham, where his seventh great grandfather settled in 1735. Genealogy seemed a good idea for a time traveler. From there headed for a camp on Schoodic Lake. That’s where he learned that’s what cottages were called in Maine if open only part of the year.
He met a girl from the neighboring camp. She saw him sitting alone, looking at the lake and walked over to say hello. He had some muffins.
“C’mon ovah’ “ she said, “I’ve got some coffee on.”
He did. He buttered the cornbread muffin with nearly melted butter. She accepted it with grace. She’d have preferred cranberry orange, but that could be her offering in a future encounter should the first bloom into something more.
She poured the strong coffee, thick with the sweet syrup of a local maple. An acquired taste in Maine. She thought he might like it, despite his choice of a corn muffin. She turned away briefly at the call of a loon and looked back at the hint of a smile forming on his face as he put down the mug.
“Well, can’t say I’ve ever had coffee like that,” his grin growing.
“It’s better with a bit of buttered rum,” she said, “it cuts the sweetness some.”
A gust off the lake took him back to Luc. How is this possible? A rerun journey—cut off? Ah well, it’s Luc’s time here and now–I’ll figure out what needs to happen.
Here is the photo prompt that brought this to mind.
Of all the times they’d gone to the Outer Banks, they had never strayed far from shore. They snorkeled. They beachcombed. They took the sail board lessons but never hang gliding or parasailing. She wanted to try surfing.
“Not for me,” he said, “the channels and the sandbars constantly changing—too risky.”
“Don’t be a wuss, Eddy,” she laughed, “I’m doing it.”
“All right, you go. Just stay away from the fishing piers and the inlets.”
Lighthouses. They loved the lighthouses. Especially the one that had to be moved inland as the shore eroded. It’s the image he saw that reminded him. How she got careless. Careless at that rocky, dangerous shore. The sun between clouds and a high barrier dune, blinded her. She looked away—the wrong way, avoiding the sun’s glare only to catch the flash of the automated lighthouse. She veered too late. Out of the channel onto the rocks emerging at low tide.