Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Those With Claws, Those With Toes

The king of the night callers is the great horned owl. He comes on clear and cool, long and hollow --  Hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo-hoooo. A five beat basso singer. There is a dignity in his call, a certain restraint, as if he knows, no matter what, he's soon to dine.

I love hearing them. But I'm mindful of what they do when, soundlessly, they fall upon prey. Not even a whisper of wings to warn rabbit or
flying squirrel that an arsenal of claws is about to land.

That's a swamp rabbit's tail in the picture. And the claw marks of the great horned owl in the sand. He landed right, this particular owl, but swamp bunnies will fight for their life, and this one surely did.

I found no other evidence of his loss than this brown fluffy tail. But during the day I saw him sitting in the sun, seeking to heal his wounds with kindly sunlight. He was alive and would live but he was damaged. The fur along his spine was ripped clean. He hopped away when he saw me.

Predators don't always win. Crows kill owls during the day. They first harass them with raucous noise, and then they come in number and chop the owl, blinding him first. I've seen it happen and have written of the encounter in the broadside poem on this page.

It's all give and take, in nature.  All creatures giving and taking, different times of night and day. The whole hullabaloo of life and death, chance and change, luck and pluck. Pity the bunny? Praise the owl? If there's a moral in all of this, Great Maker forgot to tell us. But he didn't forget to give us five fingers and five toes, which to my mind is way better than claws. 

Pencil drawing by Sid Hausman
 Poem broadside originally
published by Giligia Press,
Fresno, California in 1968

Friday, November 14, 2014

The sun comes up and the moon follows

The riddle of life yields more answers as you get older. You begin to see the pattern of beautiful repetition. The sun comes up and the moon follows.

My riddle of the morning came to me with a voice I heard in my head.

The book awaits, yet waits not. The corn sleeps to make more corn. The egg is armored but easily shelled. The song sings though the singer is gone. All is well and not undone.

The tendency is to think that everything is coming undone when, in fact, it only goes out to come back in. All of life is a riddle and a cycle that can be solved. For some it comes at the end of life. For others it begins at birth. For a few it occurs when a small pebble knocks against a column of bamboo.

As to my personal riddles, here shared ... I gave many storytellings over the past twenty years where I was paid with corn. The book is coming: the love  letters of my father and mother. It has taken a few years to edit them, but we're nearing completion.

The significance of the egg is not a secret, but if you take a cold egg from the fridge and place it against your eyelid, it soothes the eye more quickly than Visine. My brother learned this from a Taoseno named Tieflo a long time ago. But I should add that Tieflo used round river stones about the same size of his eye sockets. Tieflo said if you did this quiet meditation for a few minutes every day you would never need to wear eye glasses. In my case I take them off after a long day and cool my eyes with cold eggs, in the belief that something may grow without my knowing it.

The singer and the song -- everyone has a secret song of some kind, an exalted and uplifting melody with lyrics that soothe the heart no matter how many times the song is heard.Some songs I only heard once yet I hear them over and over in my head and remember the day the words were sung.

The empty mirror needs polishing, again and again, every day. You will not see yourself in it. The mirror will only reflect emptiness. And in that emptiness the sun comes up and the moon follows.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Another Way of Looking at Jan Wiener by Joseph Koch

Once in a blue moon, if then, something in a story resonates to such a degree that it becomes a life-changing moment. As Jan Wiener changed my life, Joseph Koch was changed by a story about Jan. I wrote the story in 1994 for an anthology edited by my friend Roger Zelazny. I remember when the book came out Jan read the story and smiling said, "Well, you romanticized me but that's all right. Don't worry, I'll never tell." My turn to smile, I said, "It's fiction, no need not to tell." We both laughed.

If You See Your Past On The Road, Kill It
by J. Koch

“You don’t seem to understand,” he said, “that you are alive. Who cares about your handicap? You must turn your injury into something vital, a weapon to cancel the past.” -- Jan Volta

I have been carrying the above quote around in my head since 1995. It has been like a personal koan for me. I found it in the short story "Eye of the Falcon" by Gerald Hausman which was published in an anthology Warriors of Blood and Dream edited by Roger Zelazny  Recently Mr. Hausman told me that Jan Wiener was the real name of the character in his story. I suppose by calling his friend and teacher by the fictitious name of Jan Volta, the author got a little distance and some added poetic license when he wrote his tale about the martial arts. What attracted me to Volta though was his tough, brazen disregard for self-pity of any kind.

I understood the "who cares?" aspect of Volta's comments well enough, but I wondered for a long time how something I've put up with, worked around, accepted, fought, and wept over could possibly be any kind of weapon. How could a thing I've had since birth cancel my past? That was my conundrum. And it is why I have called it my koan. I had to solve the question.

At age 42, I think I finally have it. 

In Mr. Hausman’s story, the protagonist arrives in Jamaica after many years to run in a marathon. He encounters Jan Volta, master of an obscure, but venerated Czechoslovakian athletics and martial arts regimen called Sokol, or “Falcon”. Our main character is very fit, having welded his body back into working order after a "crippling accident". While they train, Master Volta shows absolutely no mercy at all. The protagonist tells Volta about his accident, the pain it caused, and what he suffered. Volta is unimpressed, our protagonist is offended, and tells him so.  My opening quote is Master Volta’s reply. Master Volta lived through World War II, trained men that fought the Nazis, and fought them himself.

I've had spastic cerebral palsy since birth.  I fall often. Forty years later I’m still painfully embarrassed, to the point of growling things like, “I’m fine!” when people are just trying to help me. I don’t walk well.  I have to plan my movements a piece at a time in my head. Sometimes I lurch about, knocking things over when I reach for them, stumbling, almost throwing myself into chairs when I sit. My first trip to the bathroom each day is always an adventure. Nevertheless, I’ve been drawn to martial arts practice all my life. On the days I can stand, I can throw punches and blocking combinations well enough that my teacher thought I was “pretty fast.”

My wife is a big part of why I understand Master Volta better now. A lesser being would have shriveled up in a corner and died.  Instead, my wife used the need to take care of her daughter, and her poor health to move past what came before. 

Doing daily tasks is harder for us and takes more effort that it does for a “normal” person.  Not impossible, just harder. We have a certain amount of mental, emotional, physical effort to devote to anything at any given time. Filling up too much of our mental/physical/emotional hard drives with, “Woe is me!” makes that even harder.

A disability is a weapon because you can use it, in that way, if you know how, and if you have the will to do it.

We can sit and mope about our pasts, or use our troubles walking across a room, doing laundry, and doing dishes, to cancel the past and keep going. We’re both far from perfect; what I’m telling you doesn’t work perfectly every single day.  But my wife told me something early on that always stuck with me: “Effort always counts.”

As in meditation, “You became distracted? OK, stop and start again.”

We have our weapons to cancel our past. We can always pick them up and wield them.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Berkshire Anthology 1972

The Bog Lady photo by William Kadell
The Berkshire Anthology published by The Bookstore Press, 1972

In the days of wine and roses -- or was it bog ladies and bees? -- there was poetry coming out of the trees. People spoke it on the streets and on the phone and you couldn't go anywhere without Poetry happening. Aram Saroyan's whole book of poems, Pages, was read aloud by Edwin Newman on the 6 O'clock News. Think of that -- a book of poems read aloud to millions!

It was 1972 and a lot of that 1960s magic was still going on. In fact, the early seventies was still the 60s, if you know what I mean. As an editor I was amazed the how poets came out of nowhere and just as fast zippered themselves back into oblivion. It was one great hallelujah rebellion. The backdrop was the Vietnam War. Stage front: the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan. And all of these guys wrote Poetry.

The Berkshire Anthology celebrated this mad spirit of reinvention -- the Gilded Age meets Godzilla. The Pre-Raphaelites crash into Middle America. It was anything you want to name that was crazy and pretty and wore bangs and shoulder length hair and loved -- here it comes again -- Poetry.

Here is a poem I will always remember:


Ambrose, you're dead.
                                  Your underbelly
covered with mold, your sides cracked,
spitting black seeds.  
                                  No wonder
I've been waking at 4 a.m., your
fumes were the center
of these tortured weeks.
                                    How could you do it to me?
Remember how we used to ride around together,
looking at the bombed out gas stations?
The kid I didn't have, whom I named you after?
The nights I stroked your bumpty sides,
thinking of another orange-hued lover?
I haven't paid much attention lately but
                                                          Ambrose, Ambrose
                   the pain it gives me
to abandon you to waste basket history,
                                                          your stalk
never to be caressed
by cleaning ladies.

S.P. Wonder                                           

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

the curious incident of the man in the mcdonald's men's room

There are times when peace and quiet are inviolate in a city and you go into McDonald's and there it is -- Peace and Quiet. And fries.

But then you go into the men's room and there is a young man in there doing something funny with his head. He's not washing it exactly, he's wetting it down, getting it good and wet. His explanation makes sense. "Hot out there," he says. "Couldn't cool down. Had to get a headwashing." I stood in the floor puddle he'd made, waiting for him to vacate. But then, while drying his head under the hand-dryer, and looking very much like Taz, he eyed me and asked, "You got .94 cents, brother?"

I said, "Whatever I have in my left pocket is yours." Truth is, I had no idea what was in my left pocket. Well, dug deep and pulled out .13 cents. "This is all I got," I said. Which was true except for the 100 dollar bill in my wallet which was pledged to another brother.

My new headwashing brother studied the brown coins (three) and the sort of silver coin (one) and shook his head, flinging beads of dew in my face. "That won't do it, bro," he said. Then, "Gotta get down to the bus."
I imagined he was taking the bus to Tibet but he said he was just going across the Caloosahatche river to Fort Myers. And that was it, my brother left me standing there with an open palm of very short change.

It was only later I realized that my new brother had turned reality up on its ear. He had put a big tilt on my day. Everything had been so much the same and he had turned it upside down and inside out by being nothing other than himself.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Water Mumma

I don't collect folk art. It collects me. This female figure is called a water mumma in Jamaica, also known as Mama Erzuli in Haiti. In the southern U.S. various native tribes celebrated the power of the mermaid. The Biloxi and Pascagoula people considered her to be a deity. They say you can still hear her singing in the Bay of Biloxi at midnight on Christmas Eve. It is believed that you can gain her assistance if you drop a silver cross into the water. In Jamaica, water mumma watches over natural springs. She is said to have gold hair and her offspring travel around her in a gyre or a silver circle of small fishes. She holds a golden comb in her hand and that is her power. You must be careful not to look her in the eye because people who do that become crazy. This particular water mumma was carved by Uton "Ernie" Hinds from Oracabessa. She stands fifteen inches high. Thanks to Mariah Fox for the "Jamaican barrel painting" behind the mermaid. Some viewers may remember Ernie as "Tall T" in the novel, The Jacob Ladder. Others may actually know him from our Jamaican summer school at Blue Harbour, Port Maria, St. Mary, JA. Ernie sent us this mermaid last week and she now is on a stand in front of the big fish tank in our living room. We know she likes it there. I do not look directly into her eyes out of respect. I am already crazy and don't need any more help in that direction.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Orange Alligator and the Life Hereafter

I have seen a white coyote but I never saw an orange alligator until my friend Ross LewAllen painted one and when I raved it about it he gave it to me. Now it graces a wall in my office. I look at it every day, especially now that Ross is gone into the great dreamtime, a place he often talked about. I have had at least four encounters with him in the spirit world or what some call "the next experience."

I dream, in other words, and he comes into the dream. But there have also been times where he has done something out of my dream. Usually, he "tricks" me, plays some little fun game like kicking me gently behind the knees. Once he made the shovel I was holding -- while I was shoveling doggy poop in the yard -- do a jitterbug in my hands. Whenever he comes around, or comes back from the spirit world, there is some little trick afoot and afun. He always said he was a trickster and now he's proven it.

A couple of nights ago, I woke out of a dream in which he was present. It was 3AM. I looked at the clock and mysteriously felt the need to see Ross' painting of the orange gator. But before I got out of bed, the lights in the kitchen came on and the room burst into an eerie shade of orange. I got up, turned the crazy lights off, and standing in the dark, said, "Ross, I love your orange alligator and you too, you devil."

How many times does the average human need to be "awakened" into the truth that we do not die? That life goes on, and on. This is no consolation for some especially those who wish to go off into that good night and not be bothered with anything they might have done, or not done, in what we insist is the one and only life, the material one we slog through day after day.

My father-in-law was the greatest skeptic when it came to afterlife, as he called it. But one time when we had a heated argument, I told him, "There is only life." And he said, "If you say so." After he passed he came back twice. Once in Prague where he tapped my forehead the way he did when he was alive. And another time in Florida, when he sat at the bottom of our bed and said very clearly, "Gerry, you were right. There is only life."

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Going Home: Are you willing to be killed?

In looking at the anthology (African American Alphabet) we edited with our friend Kelvin Rodriques, we ran across a street poem that was recited by a poet sitting in a convertible on a hot Florida night in the summer of 1995. What the poet rapped under a Miami moon is a series of purely spontaneous lines. He told me later that he was making it up as he went along. But the interesting thing is that in the1990s his fear was mostly that he wouldn't get home, not that he'd be shot dead trying. I have never heard or read anything quite like this -- and oh, how things have changed! For the worse.


They stop you
and search you
you want to

go home

They tell you to stand by
while they get inside
their car

You wait as they watch
because you want to

go home

They hold you in the hope
you will run
so you wait
because you want to

go home

They have you thinking
that to

go home

is a crime
for which
sooner or later
you will do time
so you wait
on those who

go home

whenever they
want to
and who
because you are you
and they are they
make you wait
and wonder
if you will ever

go home again

Monday, August 25, 2014

Hemingway in Cuba

Hemingway at the Finca in Cuba
invited friends to pick up storm-tossed leaves
from the bottom of his pool.
Afterwards they swam, swapped stories, drank rum.
I did the same this morning minus the rum,
it was bright and beautiful
diving for the little scattered leaves
of the scotch bonnet pepper --
hot money on the bottom of a cool pool.

Open book: Hemingway In Cuba by Hilary Hemingway and Carlene Brennan

Monday, August 18, 2014

love letters lost in time

In the 1930s my parents met in Veracruz, Mexico, fell in love and later married.

Some seventy six years later their love letters turned up -- first in an old barn and second in a town dump.  Given the miracle that such letters might resurface after so much time, I was surprised at my reluctance to read them. It has taken more than a year to get to them.

I am now reading them with awe. Here are two people I knew intimately for much of my life. They are gone now but their voices remain, clear and strong in these handwritten love letters, which go up and down with their moods. But my point is this -- I thought I knew them.  At almost 70 myself, I should have long ago figured out who the two beings whom I called my parents were. But here I am stumped because what I have discovered is that I did not know them. Not the way I thought I did.

The letters are proof that we only know what we think we see. The senses are tricksters and my two parents are as much shrouded in mystery as ever, but I know them better now. Their innermost thoughts are revealed in their passionate outpourings. And I feel blessed reading these love letters, though I sometimes feel like an interloper, or perhaps even a stalker, reading them. Yet I am given a window into the personalities of two human beings who made me what I am. The evidence is all here on these rat-chewed, time-worn documents. My mother's calligraphic letters are still fragrant with thirties perfume. My father's are almost hierglyphic -- his handwriting is described by her as a bunch of "pollywogs moving across a piece of paper."

Maybe the thing I'm seeing most clearly is the passion these two illumined beings shared. How deeply they loved life, loved one another. This reminds me that, in truth, their love never diminished over the years but grew. I think, sometimes, my brother and I felt on the outside of it. Truly, I have never met two people who stayed so much in love as my parents. I always knew this to be true, but the evidence here, the hundreds of letters from 1937-1941, is very convincing. They were who they were, always. We, my brother and I, lost in our own reveries, could not always see it that way. But now I do.

Yes, something of a literary event is happening. The letters, once put in order, will come out as a book. And it will sort of be like reality TV in a time of trouble -- the 1930s. I, for one, really look forward to reading this love story when it is organized and put between covers. The story of the barn and dump will be in there ... things like this don't happen very often, and when they do such curious miracles ought to be celebrated. So there is a love story, and there is also the story of the love story: how it came to be found.

More to come ....

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Two Poems

 Reunion in the Meadows of Sapello Canyon

Your red hair is now sun gold
stirred with white.
Mine is brown
when the gray is cut away.
Fire and water,
sun and snow ...
almost 50 years ago.


Navajos say
winter thunder
breaks us down,
bone by bone

We go as we know
we live as we die
we have these songs
when we say goodbye


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Hard Times, Good Times & Great Home Cooking

Some people read cookbooks for the fun of it. They read recipes and think about the ingredients. They may never cook an egg but they like to read about them. How they are cracked and what it means to sizzle bacon or stir lemon sauce. Let's face it, cooking is fascinating. And a book like Alice Kolb's is an invitation to muse on all aspects of process in the kitchen -- and even out of it, on camp-outs, picnics, and road trips. There is something so American about all of this, too, which Alice Long Kolb's easy, family-oriented prose brings out. You can relax into a book like this and read it cover-to-cover for, as I was saying, the fun of it. Or you can really dig into it and make food for your whole family as Alice's mom did back in the 40s, 50s, 60s and then some. This is as much a history of what America in the Southwest (think Texas) was eating as it is a story of Alice's initiation into the family style of cooking that she has become known for. A quilter and lecturer by profession, she also shares her wide knowledge of cooking secrets from paying attention to what Mom did when she didn't have the money to cook lavishly or luxuriantly -- still, as Alice points out, the Longs always had room for two more, or three more, neighbors. That is part of the style and grace of this book. It lets you in on the best secret of the best chefs -- share! For in sharing, there is love. And in love there comes the most delicious food imaginable. Remember Uncle Joe's chile? He made it with love. Love of beans, love of chile,  love of family and friends. As a professional food tester for a natural gas company in Texas, as well as a teacher of "home economics" as we used to call it, Alice cannot be beaten, but her eggs can, and you will enjoy every mouthful of her writing-recipe-goodness. Herein is poetry of phrase about the only range there is -- the one in your kitchen.

Recipes by Alice Long Kolb
Illustrations by Alice Long Kolb
Published by Irie Books
Available from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million and Ingram 

Monday, June 9, 2014

Aram Saroyan's The Street: 40th Commemorative Edition

There aren't that many good books written in the sixties about what it was like to be young in the sixties. Mostly the sixties classics were written by older writers. Aram Saroyan, on the other hand, was a handsome, kind of carefree kid growing up in the golden age of self-invention and self-intention. In other words, our illusory moment of sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Well, actually, it wasn't that simple -- it never is.  Our era was rife with great big "ifs", wonderments about whether we'd see the next day. It was a tangential time. An experimental time, full of twists and turns, sudden appointments with destiny and great disappointments with the older generation that opposed us.

But I do believe, as I was coming of age at the same time Aram was, and getting into some of the same scrapes that this was an exceptional time to be alive. We were both were Poets in the Schools, courtesy in part due to Richard Nixon, believe it or not, supporting national arts programs.

Some of the schools we were sent to were very conservative and I remember some of my poems being censored. I can also remember Maurice Sendak's In The Night Kitchen being censored by librarians who put cotton diapers over Mickey's privates! By some happenstance miracle, I became an editor and got to publish Aram's novel The Street, which took off immediately, and also Maurice Sendak's winsome picture book with Ruth Krauss, Somebody Else's Nut Tree, one of the first quality paperbacks for kids to be sold in independent bookstores in America.

There was a revolution in bookselling going on too, and we were a part of it. Aram edited and published books, wrote essays and published poems in The New York Times. It was a delirious moment to be alive if you were writing, publishing, making music, weaving, throwing pots, fashioning leather clothes, celebrating ethnicity, making low budget films, or just plain being alive!

It was a weird time to be alive as well, for on the one hand there was rampant free speech, casual nudity, loud music, wild parties, inventive poetry and song -- and on the other hand there were assassinations, overdoses, violence in the street (a catchphrase at the time). Everything in the sixties was bubbling in the same great cauldron of unrest. In truth, it was a renaissance, and we haven't seen its like, or even come close to it, in 40 years. And it all happened, quite frankly, on the street!

Which is why the novel The Street is so important. This is the 40th year since it was published, it is still around being read, and that makes it a classic. This new edition is a facsimile of the original published in 1974 by The Bookstore Press. If  you want to know why this novel, more than others, rings so true  read The Street. There is a fresh permanence in the narration that is as singular as Aram's famous one-word poems. He speaks not only to us, but for us, for those of us who weathered the storm. And further, this novel is touching those Xers and Yers who today are asking us this question, "What was it really like?"


Sunday, June 1, 2014


Our parrot George got out of his cage yesterday. Normally we let him out in the morning and put him back in at night. He likes it that way.

However, yesterday two visiting dogs, Nala and Puck, decided George might be good to eat.

George was perched on the metal bar at the base of his cage. The dogs charged. George stood his ground and yelled: OH, NO! HELP! OH, MY GOD!"

The dogs stopped in their tracks. Then they looked around to be sure they'd heard the bird right. No ventriloquists in the audience, which consisted of Lorry, me, and our miniature Dachsy, Mouse, who was horrified and wouldn't stop barking. Neither would Henri, our daughter's not-so-miniature hotdog.

The dogs took a tentative step forward.

George started to cry like a baby. Really loud.

The dogs backed up.

Lorry ran up to him and put him behind bars.

George was never so happy to be in jail. He shook his feathers, puffed them out, shook them again, and said "Hel-lo," in a sultry voice.

The dogs lay down and went to sleep. 

We sat there, Lorry and I, thinking about the power of parrotspeak

.George attacking his favorite hand puppet

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Recapture Pocket

In 1983 running coach, Fred Maas, his son Dan and I ran the canyon country of Southeastern Utah. Sometimes we ran barefoot, camping under starlit skies. Once we outran a flash flood and often we swam across canyons where when there was no other crossing. I found the collar-bone of a ground squirrel beside a turquoise pebble. Cows bawled in the sage when we passed and everywhere there were ancient signs of the Old Ones. The oil and gas pumps seemed so incongruous, humping and pumping night and day. After a while we did not look at them, and it was as if they were not there. I wrote some of Meditations with the Navajo at Recapture Pocket and the canyonlands around it. Even back then there was a haunted sense of old enmities at Recapture Pocket, a feeling that some bad things had happened there long ago -- battles not found in history books. Yes, we were running on sacred ground yet three barefoot runners might be excused. But not vehicles, and certainly not oil rigs. You could sense something more was coming. Thirty years later it is here. But back then ...

You see eye to eye
under water:
          men of the maize
            in their
maze of stone:
men of the wolf
           in their
ruff of fur.


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Earth Day: Down with Phlamco and GMOs

In celebration of Earth Day, please buy a copy of The Adventures of Marcos The Wise by Marvin Niebuhr.
A large portion of royalties goes towards defeating "fake food." This is Marvin's mission.

Marvin's friend, Marcos Caliente, is a chile pepper, and also a shaman. So far the score is Phlamco Industries 0 and Marcos Caliente 3. But we're only in the early innings, there's much more to come.

Marcos doesn't use conventional weaponry against the industry that proliferates fake food and ignores the health of plants, animals and people. Marcos uses his friends -- the Chipotle Clan, a mystical group of peppers; the Wolf Clan and the Coyote Clan (highly mystical and musical); and let's not forget the Spokes-Pepper, Ignacio, the worldly, well-spoken Chipotle storyteller. This is the team that will defeat Phlamco, the dangerous GMO Corp. and PhatKat, a selfish, single-minded politician (do you know any of those?)

We celebrate Earth Day with Marvin Niebuhr's inventive and funny -- but deadly serious -- children's book for all ages.

Don't blush, Marvin, but this is one of the best children's books on the real veggie market today!

So, here's to Marcos The Wise and his team of rough and ready vegetable outlaws!

(Buying more than one book on Amazon.com is greatly encouraged.)

Thank you for your cooperation,

Wolf Clan
Chipotle Clan
Villagers (Tomatoes, Garlics, Corns, Onions, Potatoes and all manner of Peppers!)

P.S. Be the first person to find the spaceship in Marvin's book and you'll get a FREE subscription to the series of Marcos Adventures. More to come...
All art handmade by sculptor Marvin Niebuhr

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Holy Thursday Anniversary


That's Lorry, age 7, on Destin Beach in Florida in 1954. She used to tell me -- as early as our first date in 1966, Holy Thursday, in Montezuma, New Mexico -- that she thought of herself as a "Florida girl" and that growing up near the beach was about as good as it gets.

The second pic shows Lorry, age 25, in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, 1972. We lived there for seven years. Mariah and Hannah were born there. She never thought of herself as a "Berkshire girl" -- the winters were too cold for that and there was no beach.

Number three: this was taken at our home for the past 20 years, Bokeelia, Florida. I finally got the girl back to the beach -- only, this island where we live has no beach, it's mangrove-fringed and heavily palmed, but no beach except the little one around our pond that the leopard frogs use.

So this is my tribute to Lorry because today is the day we met 48 years ago and I penned a poem for her ...


Loved her then 
before I met her.
Loved her when
I barely knew her.
Love's not blind,
time proves truer.
Love's this poem
I've written to her.  

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Carl Sandburg: Discovering Yourself at Age 50

Carl Sandburg, the great American poet of the past century said that at age 50 there was "... some puzzlement as to whether I was a poet, a biographer, a wandering troubador with a guitar, a Midwest Hans Christian Andersen or an historian of current events ..."

At age 61 the confusion was over -- Sandburg published his four volume biography of Abraham Lincoln which became an instant classic and yielded awards and honors including some ten or eleven doctoral degrees. Not bad for a folksinger who rode the rails in the 30s and was considered an "imagist" poet of the 20s, a figure of the American imagination whom America had the utmost trouble pegging and putting into a convenient library category.

I found a mint copy of The American Songbag, Sandburg's tribute to our national folklore in song, in a small library in Indianapolis. The librarian had no idea what it was and what it was worth. I told her, "Its worth is incalculable." She replied, "Maybe I shouldn't have it out on the regular shelves then."

Sandburg said as he got older, "I am more suspicious of adjectives than at any other time in all my born days." His writing became bare bones but the rhythm of it was uniquely Sandburg and I think he got that spoken music from the people he grew up with, the Swedish American storytellers whose pauses were full of meaning and whose phrases came from the ancient bards who recited the sagas and never missed a beat.

As he looked back on his life, Sandburg commented that he'd forgotten the meaning of "... twenty or thirty of my poems written thirty or forty years ago." He claimed that all his life he'd "... been trying to learn to read, to see and hear, and to write."

At sixty-five, he wrote his first novel. It took him five years to finish it.

Growing older still Sandburg became the sort of official poet laureate of the plains and along with Robert Frost, the greatest oral reader of poetry alive. Without Sandburg there wouldn't have been a Ginsberg or, for that matter, a raging pile of nonstop verses called Howl.

Carl Sandburg hoped to live to be 89, the same age of Hokusai. Sandburg's paraphrase of Hokusai's farewell to earth and sky ends like this: "If God had let me live five years longer I should have been a writer." Sandburg made it to 89 just as he wished.

I think some of our younger writers, God bless 'em, could learn something from old Hokusai and Old Sandbuggy, as I heard someone say. It gets better. It just gets better -- if you have the patience for it.

Friday, April 4, 2014

If It Snowed Forever

IF IT SNOWED FOREVER  by Fred Burstein and illustrated by Anna Burstein
Irie Books, 2014

Author Fred Burstein (Anna's Rain; Rebecca's Nap) has written an unusual novella about a young girl with heart trouble, a bus driver and a bunch of teens with social issues of various kinds that erupt in the bus on the way to school. This may sound like the prelude to a dystopian story of hopelessness and angst, but it is anything but that. The novella deals with real problems -- adult and teen -- but the beauty of Mr. Burstein's writing is his casual, conversational style which sort of meanders like the bus itself. In point of fact, the author was the bus driver. If It Snowed Forever is a one-of-a-kind story that proves that people can only achieve peace of mind by bonding and being compassionate. The early reviews from well-known authors say, " ...touching and life-affirming ..." David Kherdian and Nonny Hogrogian (Newbery Honor and Caldecott medalist authors). Paula Fox, a Hans Christian Andersen Award winner, praises the novella's characters. She says, "Jimmy is wonderful. His dreams, his inner life, his bafflement and yet his authority." Nancy Hickey, a Special Education teacher, says: "A story about students on a minibus who transcend usual adolescent behavior and compassionately bond with Marie, a girl with special needs. The reader sees through Marie's eyes and learns how simple gestures and small moments can change lives forever." If, in reading this short novel, you are changed for only a moment the story has done its work effectively, for as we know, books change lives forever in ways we do not always know.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Forbidden Ride: An Icelandic Love Story

The Forbidden Ride is the story of a 15-year-old-girl and her first love. Set in 10th century Iceland, a time of harsh laws and cruel men, Freyja falls in love with Jarn, a handsome young man from the next settlement, only to have him ripped from her by her father Sigurd as he enforces a merciless ancient Icelandic law against Jarn for the crime of riding Sigurd's spirit  horse Freyfaxi without permission. Surrounded by customs and rules that make little sense to her, Freyja must overcome her lack of status as a young woman in a man’s world of brutal justice and blood in order to save her family from banishment and shame, and with the help of the magical shaman-horse, Faxi, to regain her freedom to be with Jarn. 

This is the first book that Lorry and I have done together since A Mind With Wings: The Story of Henry David Thoreau.  It's available on Amazon.com in digital!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


It has taken me months to charm this King of Round Stone. I call him Ozymandias, though certainly not to his face. I am sorry he doesn't trust me -- or so I have felt for the longest time. But today, of all days, blessed by abundant sun and trust, he lets me creep up to his vast castle of rock. And having crept, I stop and stare and he casts a wary eye upon me, but permits me to press the button and capture his image for all, or anyone, to see. And here is a verse to commemorate the day ....

And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1792-1822

Monday, March 10, 2014

Copperhead Necktie

This morning in the golden sunlight along came a serpent. Marked like a copperhead he was instead a lovely young cornsnake just up from a hibernation nap. Knowing cornsnakes are friends, I scooped him up and Lorry took a quick pic of him sliding around my neck and off my back. He was out for lizards and I didn't want to keep him from his early morning hunt. I set him down and he slid gracefully into an asparagus fern and disappeared.

I was five years old when I met my first cornsnake and this is how it goes:

Just up from a nap
out in the yellowy tassles

the hired hand hung something loose
back of my neck

belly scale shiny feel
a burnt umber
copperhead necktie.


It was the hired hand, Ray, who said it was a copperhead. All these years it took me to find out it wasn't, or shouldn't have been, but maybe still could've been but, more likely, it was a cornsnake like the one that just visited us.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Once again Longhouse Publishers in Vermont has produced a book exquisite in design, fat enough to be a feast, pretty enough to just wade around in, and deep enough to dive into and stay with for days and weeks and even months on end. Could be it's the first of its kind, a scrapbook novel that is also a how-to and a mystery -- how did he do it, and how does he make rocks balance like Thor?

Author Bob Arnold is a poet, well-known for well-crafted verses of the back country. But Bob Arnold the builder, the stone mason, the rock wall maker is for those of us lucky enough to have gone walking on his grounds or dining in house with his lovely wife, Susan. 

I've known these guys a very long time, but frankly it takes a long time to know people who have the woods in them. They are like trees you love to look at, and you can give them a good hug, but that doesn't mean you know them. It takes years to do that and even then there's more mystery below the bark.

Well, there are years upon years in this shining, stunning photographic book of buildings, walls, stones, woods, flowers, lakes and of course trees. It's a book of family built with love, and like each rock, hand-held and sort of loved into place, it's a book that couldn't have come in a night or a day. It's taken Bob Arnold a lifetime to write it as his life was written around him in loving circles of tribute to his wife and son.

The beauty of this book is that it is truly a scrapbook novel, as solidly true as stone and bark. And it's not about one house, it's about many, and all made by the same man,woman, and son. If you want a life you have to make one. This is the story of a family who did just that. 


Friday, February 14, 2014

This Day I Saved To Think Of You

On brown grass
charred with cold
I see two, not very old
friends, kissing

Could be they're
husband and wife
curious creatures
who mate for life

Or are they two
infrequent friends
rubbing cheeks
to make amends

Whatever it is
they're only two
this day I saved
to think of you

How straight their necks
so fine and tall --
Canadian geese at
the shopping mall.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Long and Short of Roger Zelazny: imagining dessert before the meal

Roger Zelazny was an undisputed master of the long and the short sentence.

Here's one of his short ones ...


And there it ends, frozen. No way to beat that sentence for sound and sense, implication and verification. It's what it is, just as ice is what it is. A long, linear line of coldness, it catches you in its iciness, and makes you wonder. The line comes from To Spin Is Miracle Cat.

My other favorite a scroll of wondrous imagery that plays out before the eye in a dazzle of prose poetry:

" ... Places of foundation, where dark streams through darkness flow, blind fish borne through caverns measureless, walls fungus-bright, delineating face and form of all the ancestors of all the tribes of the world, delicate fronds splayed amid coalsheet, beaver, deer, father to himself the bear, the cats, the fish people, bird he had dreamed lifetime but moments before, snake, bat, raccoon, wolf, coyote, and all the insect-folk, amber-cased, dreaming the dream of Her body amid jewels and lakes of oil, and hot rumble of melted rock flowing forever, deep, deep, and light of underworld about him now, and even man and woman, hairy hunters, wanderers in the earth forever, and the big flowers, the strange, unknown flowers, him padding by, blood upon his muzzle, in his mouth his throat, and throws back his head and roars that the underworld know that yet he moves, that nothing has stayed his course since the very beginning."

The above unbroken single sentence comes from the novel that Roger wrote with me, Wilderness, the story of mountain man John Colter and hunter Hugh Glass. One man, Colter, runs across the western landscape chased by the best runners of the Blackfeet nation. The other, Glass, crawls after being eviscerated by a grizzly bear and buried alive by his fellow hunters. Colter's naked but for a loincloth, and it is winter. Glass doesn't have the weather against him, but he's got a torn-open belly and he is more "thing" than man.

Curious info on the Master -- Roger used to select his dessert with me in a restaurant before he ordered his meal. Why? Because he always wanted to be sure he had room for that dessert. When he opted to write Wilderness with me, I imagine he saw the illuminated book in his mind before he began writing a single word. Some of that scroll above must've flashed before the screen of his consciousness before he said yes to me. It took him a year or more before he put the menu down and ordered the whole book, and at one time, he actually considered "buying the idea" from me. I would've said no. But before he asked me that question I gave him the first chapter. I remember him saying, "This is good. This is very good." The menu was put away.

We worked together. And each morning he brought my wife Lorry a scone.

To tie this all together -- you must dream first, you must spin like miracle cat, you must have the mind of winter to write about ice. You must walk softly and carry a scone. You must write as if it were your first and last sentence.

Love you, Roger. Always.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger, Ray Brock, Henry David Thoreau: Notes on a Berkshire Map

It was the summer of '63. We were driving my dad's 1957 Ford station-wagon on Rattlesnake Mountain Road outside of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I had just graduated from high school. I wanted to be a folksinger -- and there on this twilit country road was a tall man and a short man, walking. I recognized the tall guy immediately and slowed the car. I was keeping pace with them for a moment. The tall one was Pete Seeger, the shorter one was twelve-string guitar master, Bob Davenport from England.

I pulled the station-wagon over to the side of the road. I got out and walked over to Pete and said, "You mind if I walk with you?" It was brazen, and foolish. Pete looked at Davenport with less than a smile and more of a question mark. Davenport whispered, "I'd like to know what they're thinking, these American kids." Pete turned to me and said, "Come along then." I waved to my cousin Kyle and she got behind the wheel and drove off ... and I was alone with a legend and the legend's friend, who was really the one permitting the walk-along-side.

In my memory that walk lasted forty hours. But whatever time it took walking the length of it and then coming back and walking another length was sweet to me because these two great musicians were talking about everything under the sun. And then -- after the real sun sank behind Monument Mountain, Pete made that statement I'll never forget: "If you squeezed that mountain the sap would run out and turn into culture." I knew what he meant -- the Berkshires of Massachusetts was the heartland of New England poetry, prose and let's not forget maple syrup. The way Pete said it, and explained it, the dripping sap off that mountain contained the souls of Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, Stowe, Sedgwick, Bryant, Longfellow and the rest.

After a while we sat down in a field and counted fireflies. I'll never forget that night. Nor will I forget, some years later meeting another folk legend, Ray Brock who gave me a pancake recipe that he liked to use in the Virgin Islands on a Baltic ketch, "and don't forget the fresh nutmeg" -- and I never do, Ray!

All this may seem like a long time gone, 1963-1968, but to me it's the wink of a firefly on a summer's night.

Monday, January 27, 2014

How Do I Sell My Book?


In recent months writers have asked the same questions at our workshops. How does one get a book up and running? How does one get a newly published book into the bestseller category? What are some of the secrets of learning how to be a writer whose first book succeeds right from the start?

We asked first-time author Dr. Andrew Lam who is one of our Irie Books top-selling writers if he would share the secret of his success with Saving Sight: An eye surgeon's look at life behind the mask and the heroes who changed the way we see. 

His response (below) is candid, clear and correct as far as the procedure one needs to follow in order to make a book into a success. Andrew's background is scientific and medical, yet his approach to book marketing is creative and inspirational. He is a retinal surgeon with a history degree from Yale and an assistant professor at Tufts School of Medicine. Dr. Lam resides in western Massachusetts with his wife and four children. 


Eight months ago, Irie Books published my first book, Saving Sight, which blends my experiences as an eye surgeon with the stories of medical heroes whose inventions saved the sight of millions around the world.

Since its launch, Saving Sight has been an Amazon bestseller in its category (ophthalmology) and sold thousands of copies. It won awards from the New England and London Book Festivals. I was flattered when my friend Gerry invited me to share the things I’d done to promote my book. I drew up this list, which I hope may benefit some fellow writers out there.

1. It’s all up to you.

From the start, my attitude was to take complete ownership of the success or failure of my book. Yes, your publisher will help market your book, but it’s useful to adopt the mindset that it’s all up to you. This keeps you alert, engaged, and constantly trying to think of ways to get your book into readers’ hands. Besides, no one is going to care about the success of your book as much as you will.

So, if you’ve just gotten your first book published, give yourself a brief pat on the back and then start learning the new skills necessary to promote it yourself. Don’t waste time waiting for others to do it for you.

2. Marketable? It better be.

Like a lot of first time authors, I loved writing my book. There were no deadlines, no expectations. I wrote in my spare time and did it because it was fun. I also knew I had a good, marketable idea, and I didn’t think anyone else had the expertise or ability to write a book like mine.

My first idea was to write a nonfiction book profiling a group of heroic medical underdogs—with my degree in history and familiarity with the scientific literature, I was well-poised to do this. Later, I realized my book would appeal to a far larger audience if I blended those stories with exciting episodes from my surgical training—to show what it’s like to learn LASIK and cataract surgery; to reveal how surgeons feel when they aren’t sure what to do; to share the joy of saving someone’s sight; and to be honest about what it’s like to fail, when failure can mean blindness.

No one had ever written a book like this. There was no competition. And, even if it didn’t catch fire with the general public, I knew there’d always be a niche audience of eye doctors and patients who would buy it.

In short: the importance of having a ready audience for your book cannot be overemphasized.

3. Write the absolute best book you can.

Books sales grow from word of mouth. Readers recommending books to their friends is a far more effective form of promotion than advertisements, media interviews, or even book reviews. No one beyond your circle of family and friends is going to buy your book unless it is actually good. So do all you can to make sure your book is the best it can be. I spent countless hours writing and re-writing my book. I showed it to a lot of readers and took their advice. I listened to my agent's and editor’s suggestions and took them to heart. If your book isn’t good, it won’t sell.

4. Make it look good.

Presentation. It’s important. And no one will care as much about the presentation of your book, website, or Amazon landing page as you will. I worked closely with my book designer to make sure the cover and layout were as perfect as possible. I made sure to have a nice-looking, professional website. When the book launched, I quickly learned to navigate Amazon’s Author Central and “Look Inside” functions to make sure everything about my Amazon landing page looked attractive.

5. Have an “all of the above” promotion strategy.

When I sat down and thought about what I could personally do to promote my book, I divided my efforts into three categories.

a. Personal Contacts – the first, and easiest, thing I did was simply reach the people I knew. I tried to enlist as many of them as possible to help me spread the word. Prior to the launch I invited family and friends to read advance copies and asked them to leave an honest Amazon review and share what they thought via social media. I used Facebook to announce the launch and share articles and reviews. I also posted to Facebook groups pertaining to ophthalmology, optometry, and patients with various eye conditions. Think hard about how to reach groups that might be interested in your book.

b. Local and Regional Media – I tried to saturate my local region (western Massachusetts) with news about my book. I gave numerous book talks at libraries in which I donated the proceeds to the libraries. I did the same with Lions and Kiwanis clubs. I priced my book inexpensively to encourage people to buy it—believing that growing my readership was paramount and would lead to greater word of mouth recommendations. I succeeded in getting articles about the book in local newspapers, radio and television. I sought out book clubs to speak to. No group was too small to talk to, no interview too insignificant. I sent a press release to my hometown paper in Illinois. Media exposure has a way of snowballing. The more you put your name and your book out there, the more opportunities will come to you.

c. Professional Resources – Not everyone will have these opportunities, but I was able to get articles and interviews in many ophthalmology trade magazines and newsletters. I reached out to optometry schools and medical associations. I made bulk sales to pharmaceutical companies. I sent free copies to reviewers and influential leaders in the field. In my practice, I am constantly meeting new patients who have an interest in the subject of my book, giving me many opportunities to interact with potential readers.

6. Never give up. And have fun.

Like a lot of authors, I spent years writing my first books, hoping they would one day be published, wondering if they would ever see the light of day. Before writing Saving Sight, I’d actually written a WWII novel called Two Sons of China (recently released by Bondfire Books). It took two years for my agent to land a publisher for my novel. While I was waiting, I wrote Saving Sight, and was chagrined when that agent declined to represent it. “Too niche,” she said. I then secured another agent for Saving Sight, who struck out with the major publishers and gave up. But I didn’t. I got yet another agent. I believed in my book. I didn’t know if it would ever “succeed,” but I never doubted its quality and that it deserved to be published.

This multi-year journey was only tolerable because I was having fun. I enjoyed writing. I was passionate about the history I wanted to share, and the idea that people should know what their surgeons actually think.

And remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. There will always be new opportunities to promote your book, even years after its release. There are also many definitions of success. Doing what you love is certainly one of them, no matter how many books you sell.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Ross LewAllen and the Elephants of Morning

Silver Mastodon by Ross LewAllen

Some legends say that the elephant is our closest relation to the spirit world.
His main and most accentuated virtue, patience. But -- of what use is this in a world such as ours, a world that is always on the move restlessly from one place to another?

The beauty of the elephant is that it cannot see its tail. It must move ever forward into the illimitable and indefinite future. Doing so, the great, gray eminence blends with the low lying clouds of which it is a herd member.

I am reminded of these things as I think of my friend  Ross LewAllen, my cohort in laughter and occasionally tears over these past 40 years wherein we have both taken counsel from the elephant. Let's promise to be patient with each other. We did. We do. We still do. Because I do not feel him gone. I feel he is here, watching, waiting, like the slow moving clouds.

I remember when he returned from Africa and had elephant visions, most of them things he'd seen with his beloved daughter Laura.


I watched a mother elephant
gently lay her tusk
over the back
of her baby
She carefully moved her trunk
from the left side to the right side
of the baby's body
I felt the powerful sense
of touch at work
Dusty gray
moving in the night
Kilimanjaro's healing water
fills their favorite swamp
The elephant's night pace
is tranquil.

--Ross LewAllen

I have seen Ross fly like an egret, white on blue. And I have seen him move like a man on fire. But mostly I see him moving among clouds, in a herd of gray, slow-paced beauties going to where they're going without haste, one step at a time.

Last night, in a dream, the question came up, "Will there be coffee in heaven?"

This morning I have an answer -- sitting in the chair in the sun that Ross liked to sit in while, together, we studied the lilies of the pond. 

There are slow moving elephants pacing the sky and coffee such as they have in heaven.

Ross is the witness in my heart.