To Write, Get Your Mind Right

Me, realizing there are still some cookies left

Ahh, such a breezy, casual time, of jokes among friends, neighborly relations, and genial harmony within and without the nation.

Not.

If you’ve paid attention and swallowed the acid flush of the news over the past year and a half (and some therapists suggest not swallowing), you know there’s no joy in Mudville. Societies can’t patch up their wounds because the bandages never arrived, and the bullets keep flying.

Even though we’re not actually post-pandemic, the malaise that happens after trauma, the numbness that follows shock, the blur in trying to focus—that’s here. That’s real. As with millions of others, my personal losses have been high, and our collective losses only pile on more bodies.

Doesn’t help much with writing. My work over past months, scattered and sputtering, ain’t nothing to holler about. Whimper about, yes.

So I’m not going to get into any elements of writing craft or craftiness in this post, or enumerate my own efforts at climbing publishing’s walls. Instead, I’ll let some publishing curation speak for itself, things I’ve found helpful in my own recent pursuit of peace of mind.

May you be wearing the best roller skates in your own pursuits, and let’s meet at the finish line and have a martini.

Linkability

Here are a few of my recent articles, followed by some from other writers, mostly on the mental health front, and which have been helpful in these unhelpful times.

Cocktails During the Pandemic: Bitter and Sweet
Hunkering down with my galpal during the pandemic made for some fancy cocktailing, with wistfulness one of the main mixers. (After reading this again, I don’t like how overwritten the first two paragraphs feel, but it’s out there, now. Good lesson in developing crisper intros.) Published in May 2021 on The Bold Italic.

Whiskey History Revived As Leopold Bros. Goes Old School With 3-Chamber Still
A piece on a Colorado distillery that commissioned a modern still from 19th-century designs that—with great care and attention—produces whiskey with flair and flavor. Published in May 2021 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

How Tiny Ocean Microorganisms Could Kill Your Plastic Fork
I wrote this Popular Mechanics piece about Newlight, an interesting company that “harvests” a plastic-like but organic material, PHB, from microorganisms that consume methane and CO2 and produce the polymer. The material can be shaped into all kinds of things, from straws to sunglasses, and it degrades naturally in the ocean without harm. Their production processes (and every single product path) are all recorded in a blockchain, and it’s all carbon-negative. Published in May 2021 on Popular Mechanics magazine.

Brother’s Bond: Bourbon Is Thicker Than Blood
Who knew that vampires prefer bourbon to blood? The former stars of “The Vampire Diaries,” Ian Somerhalder and Paul Wesley, make a bourbon. And they are mighty serious about it. Published in April 2021 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

Other People’s Posts

The Mental Benefits of Being Terrible at Something
“Vanderbilt makes a compelling case that learning something new has myriad advantages, including promoting the brain’s ability to rewire itself, connecting you to new people and new communities, and reengaging our innate curiosity and open-mindedness.”

6 Principles for Navigating Challenges in Life
“A far better approach is what behavioral scientists call tragic optimism: learning how to maintain hope and find meaning in life despite acknowledging inescapable pain, loss, and suffering.

Laws of Emotional Mastery
“If, for example, you’ve developed a thought habit of believing that anything short of perfection is failure, then you are bound to judge yourself a failure often, thus experiencing psychic pain. Your actual problem is not imperfection—which is merely a condition of all humanity, excepting Beyoncé—but the distorted automatic belief that perfection is the only form of success.”

This New Book Has A Tip That Will Change Your Life
“Selective ignorance is not the avoidance of learning,” Hardy says. “It’s simply the intelligence of knowing that with certain things and people, the juice will never be worth the squeeze. It’s knowing what to avoid.”

Anti-Fragility as We Train Ourselves to Improve
“See opportunities in everything. It’s an anti-fragile idea to take advantage of opportunities. When good opportunities arise, be able to take advantage of them. For training, it’s good to learn to see opportunities to practice in everything, and then take advantage of those practice opportunities as much as we can.”

Are You Pitching and Missing? My Shoplifting Memoir Can’t Steal Enough Interest


Image by U.S. Army Korea (Historical Image Archive). Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It’s April Fools’ Day—what better time than to tell you the story of a fool?

I have a colorful high school history: besides the standard bushel of bad judgments and emotional flurries of self-absorption and self-loathing, I had an intriguing job: shoplifter. I was never much for regular jobs, then or now, and my shoplifting work basically fell into my lap. Or, more accurately, into my jacket.

I discovered, through trial and error, that I had a knack for stealing things from stores. So much so that I was a happy reseller of all manner of goods—cassette decks (yep, I’m old), 8-track decks (uh-huh, same), records, books, clothes, liquor, cigars, even gasoline, car parts and briefcases —to high school companions. Easy money.

I spent serious hours determining best practices, escape routes if caught, alterations to my clothing to better conceal goods, casing stores, plotting pilfers, and collecting branded bags from stores for later theft in those bags in those stores. I was so enthused about my work that it carried over for a couple of years after high school, including glories like close encounters with the law and a bit of jail time, and a shameful little resurgence in my first year of college. Old habits die hard.

So many were the misadventures that they screamed to be recorded. Since there was nowhere else to go over this past virus-bespattered year, I went to the memory banks. I’d written a couple of essays on my five-fingering over the years, but never the collected tales. Collect them I did (with the help of many cronies from my past, to argue dates and details) and I ended up with 52,000 criminal words in late summer.

Using resources like the Poets and Writers filterable publisher’s databases of small presses and agents, Agent Query, Writer’s Digest, and Twitter, I found agents and publishers who work with memoir, and sent them a query, or proposal or sample material, as dictated by their guidelines. (Reedsy just opened their own searchable literary agent database, but I haven’t used it yet.)

All in all, I harassed 66 of those buggers, and they managed to say no in various ways. The bulk of them by not replying, politely advising on their sites that “if you haven’t heard from us within [6, 12, 18] weeks, we’re not interested.” Others did send replies, mostly form letters, and a few friendlies sent warm, personal letters of regret that my work wasn’t suitable for their list.

Though I’m still within the time boundaries for a few of these lovelies, Route 66 feels like it’s closed down for me, so it’s probably time to pave the self-publishing road again. I’ll likely work with a developmental editor first (making inquiries now), and of course find the right cover designer. I am looking into laying it out in Vellum, which sounds promising.

I originally wrote it in Scrivener, a great program for organizing (and shifting about) chapters and notes. Scrivener does output for print and ebooks, as does the free Reedsy and Draft2Digital for ebooks, but I have had issues with all before (possibly user error) and I am looking for something easy with more power. I hope the links help with your own publishing pursuits.

I might look for marketing help as well (nosing about in that now, since I’m late already), but my budget might not afford a fast carriage with many horses.

The memoir is a reflective work that takes a tangled emotional journey. But it’s funny too, because dribbling new basketballs out of stores is funny. To me, at least. I will likely put out a call soon for readers and potential reviewers, if you’re interested.

In the meantime, keep your hands in your own pockets.

Linkability

Here are a few of my recent articles, followed by some from other writers, mostly on the mental health front, and which have been helpful in these unhelpful times.

Brother’s Bond: Bourbon Is Thicker Than Blood

Who knew that vampires prefer bourbon to blood? The former stars of “The Vampire Diaries,” Ian Somerhalder and Paul Wesley, make a bourbon. And they are mighty serious about it. Published in April 2021 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

Bay Area hikes: Devil’s Slide Trail, near Pacifica

The landslides lost are our gain: After many closings of Highway 1 over many years, the old highway was turned into a hiking trail with dazzling ocean views. And then you can go to the Louvre of Taco Bells. Published in March 2021 in the San Jose Mercury News.

The Whiskey Of Pennsylvania Is Something To Take Note Of

Like your whiskey mixed with your history? Here’s a piece of mine on Pennsylvania rye (and though only a bit wry, the article has some deeply distilled history). The first Penn rye guys are from way back and the new craft distillers work from there. (By the way, my suggested headline, “Catchers in the Pennsylvania Rye” was way better.) Published in March 2021 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

Other People’s Posts

How to train your brain to be more present
“The value of noticing these thought patterns is that you can intervene. Rather than allowing yourself to follow the track started by the thought that interrupted you, you can refocus yourself on the task you were working on before. In that way, you minimize the influence of these extraneous thoughts.”

The 7 types of rest that every person needs
“Creative rest reawakens the awe and wonder inside each of us. Do you recall the first time you saw the Grand Canyon, the ocean or a waterfall?

The Life Cycle of Thoughts and Why Your Brain Needs a Filter
“Instead of getting bamboozled by whatever pops to mind, reminding ourselves that it is a thought—nothing more, nothing less. When we see a thought for what it is, we are not ensnared by the baggage that typically comes along with it—the drama, glitz, promise, fear, whatever makes it the bright shiny object of the moment.”

This ‘Optimism Training Plan’ Will Improve Your Outlook in Just 5 Days
“The mind can be a junkyard of ideas, as opposed to a center of clarity where you can apply the science of thinking about the future with an optimistic lens.”

Annus Horribilis: The Toll of 2020

For me, 2020 began in the fall of 2019. Our sweet, crazy kitty, Malibu, with whom we shared companionable company for seven years, disappeared. Not a clear sign of things to come, of course, but it seemed to prime the well of sorrow. Just after Christmas 2019, my old boss, an accomplished skier, skied into a tree and died. From that somber preamble, 2020 unfolded its horrors.

By February, the tentacles of the virus were snaking deep within our shores. In late February, my best friend’s wife Lisa died of pancreatic cancer. Besides being a highly accomplished person, she was a big soul, modest and caring. In June, my mother died. She lived a long life, but the loss was and is a hammer: she was the person who most influenced me to be a writer; she had the rare talent of seeing the good in people and spread her warmth through her life.

More prominent deaths sprinkled throughout the year, some fallen to Covid, some to other ills: Justice Ginsburg, Chadwick Boseman, Alex Trebek, John Prine—the list is long, deep and painful. Just as painful, but out of the spotlight, the thousands—hundreds of thousands—of virus-related deaths in our country and so many more around the world, not helped a whit by the amoral policies of a viciously undemocratic narcissist in the White House.

In October, one of my sister’s close friends, and a friend of mine as well, died. The wife of one of my old pals is dying right now. He was afraid she wouldn’t make Christmas, but their boys were able to come and be there with her, and they were together. For most everyone I know, not being able to be together, because of the cutting scythe of this virus, has made this a year of numbness, and feeling as though an hour were a week, and six months a few days. I’m lucky that my sweetheart Alice has been here with me to share the sorrow and whatever joy we can find.

And, my father—a good man, a good father—died 10 years ago today, so every new year begins with that grey resonance.

My writing was broken this past year too, but I did finish a memoir (out to agents/publishers now) and did publish a batch of articles, as well as sloughed off other writing-related efforts. Because I can slant toward gloom, for some phases of this year I lost hope, but it returned.

I have some vows and plans for the coming year, but in front of those, I simply want to be kind to others and to myself, all of which is hard sometimes.

My best to you and yours in 2021.

Linkability

Here are a few of my recent articles, followed by some from other writers, mostly on the mental health front, and which have been helpful in these unhelpful times.

Big Blue Bliss, A Timeless Hawaiian Moment

A moment of clarity and witness at and in the wonder of the natural world. Published by An Idea on Medium, December 2020.

Writing Habits: 9 No-Burnout Practices During a Recession

Ahh, 2020, a vintage year … of anxiety and wretchedness. Writers were not spared. But there are some methods to take some of the pain away, and even brighten your day. Try some! Published in December 2020 on the excellent Make a Living Writing site.

Mark Twain and My Neighbor Swap Books in Heaven

The odd and even tender connections between a dead neighbor, a first-edition Mark Twain short story and a Zen meditation class 40 years ago. Published by An Idea on Medium, November 2020.

Other People’s Posts

33 Things I Stole From People Smarter Than Me

20 Things Most People Learn Too Late In Life

20 Realistic Micro-Habits To Live Better Every Day

How to Stop Constantly Stressing About the Future—And What to Do Instead

Please Add Chocolate Cake to My Apocalypse Order

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels


Samuel Beckett, that existentialist coyote, has a couple of quotes from his stories and plays that are regularly used to shore one’s self up, even if the quotes seem to be wearing black frocks and carrying scythes. There is the pithy “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on,” which reminds me of the Black Knight in Monty Python’s “In Search of the Holy Grail” who is in a sword fight, gets his legs and arms cut off and says, “It’s only a flesh wound,” and battles on.

Then there’s Beckett’s “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” adopted by Silicon Valley bro culture as a kind of entrepreneurial mantra. (No bro ever mentions the following paragraphs, with their “Throw up and go … Throw up and back … Throw up for good” and like phrases, which suggest that failing better could necessitate many hot showers.)

Beckett, who had to be a gas at parties, had a bleak outlook on human nature, but leavened it an inch or so with black humor. He never saw 2020, but he would have had some thoughts about it, even if they would be monosyllabic and soaked in bitter herbs. I haven’t thrown up for good, but I definitely feel like I’ve thrown up and back. I suspect much of our country feels the same way.

So, it’s been a melancholic period for me, with inspiration in short supply: a deadly virus, apocalyptic fires in the West and a megalomaniacal president does that to a fellow. I have mostly been working—including trying to get it in front of agents and publishers—on the memoir from my larcenous high school days; you can see what that’s about in the first link below. (By the way, I found a nice resource on querying information at QueryLetter.)

Otherwise, I can’t seem to get my engine started to write any fiction, since truth is not only stranger than fiction these days, it also makes me want to nap. I am going to do some website revamping, and more targeted querying for some articles I am enthusiastic about writing. Enthusiasm, I invite you back.

I hope you are all doing well with your writing work and in your lives. Cheerio!

Linkability

The list is a bit deceiving because I hadn’t put new publications in my last couple of blog posts—lately all I’ve been hearing is “our budget has been cut” and “sorry” from editors (if I hear anything at all). But here’s some of my most recent work. August, sigh, seems like 10 years ago…

Missing Some Memories? I Might Have Stolen Them

Memoirs can take many turns—mine turns towards crime. Specifically, the years I spent as a high-school shoplifter, taking orders and selling the goods. Scandal! Here I go through the mechanics of writing memoirs, best practices and the galling lack of shame I had as a teenage hooligan. Published by the fine folks at WriterUnboxed in September 2020.

The Magic Of Malting Makes For California Whiskey Wonders

Carefully tended malted grains give whiskey (and beer) some oomph. This piece of mine explains some of the techniques, some quite old, in producing quality malts, and the quaffable results. Published in September 2020 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

Why the 4468 Mallard Is Such a Badass Train

The speed record for the world’s fastest steam train is held by the Mallard. Set in 1938, at 126mph. Still the record today—that’s steaming. Published in September 2020 on Popular Mechanics magazine.

Pet Sitting Disasters: Read This Before You Apply for Your Next Pet-Sitting Gig.

My account of lunatic, scary, and bewildering experiences house-sitting crazed pets in many parts of the world. Published in September 2020 on The Professional Hobo. (Originally published on the now-defunct Bluntly Magazine.)

Kayaking Elkhorn Slough is a wildlife and otter lover’s delight

My piece on a lovely day amidst the wildlife (among them my girlfriend) of diverse and diverting Elkhorn Slough in central California. Published in August 2020 in the San Jose Mercury News.

Hands-on Ecuadorian Artisans Are Hands-Down Amazing

My belatedly published piece on a pre-pandemic trip to Ecuador, where my sweetheart and I saw the appealing handiwork of impressively talented artists across many disciplines. Published in August 2020 on Dave’s Travel Corner.

A Treehouse for Adults

The next best thing to flying in your Airstream: glamping in one that’s 25 feet up off the ground. Published in the Summer 2020 edition of Airstream Life magazine. (c) 2020 Airstream Life, published with permission.

Amazing Grace, the Trailer that Makes Memories (and Holds Them, Too)

The inspiring life and early death of a beloved daughter prompted her parents to start foundations in her honor, and name their Airstream after her too. Published in the Summer 2020 edition of Airstream Life magazine. (c) 2020 Airstream Life, published with permission.

And on the mental health front, a front I need in the back as well, here are some pieces from other writers that have been helpful.

Take Ownership of Your Future Self

Curiosity: The Key To A Long Life

Optimism Makes Your Brain Work Better

To Do Your Best Work, Use the 85% Rule

Seeking Happiness Won’t Help You Make Major Personal Decisions. Here’s What Will

Stop Procrastinating Today With Behavioral Science

The Mother of All Books

 

From my early boyhood, I always wanted to be a pro baseball player. When my limitations as a ballplayer became more evident, I thought that being a writer would be just as good (and you didn’t have to try and hit a curveball). I don’t have to search around for why I wanted to be a writer—the answer is as easy as the one for why I’m around: my mother.

Since I was a toddling thing, I saw my mother reading. I saw her reading magazines and newspapers; I saw her reading books. And she wasn’t reading dime-store westerns (though that would have been fine too), but big novels, books that thumped when she set them down on the living room tables. I saw her reading books, enjoying books, getting more books.

My deep thoughts at the time: “Mom likes books. Books are good.”

Reading, Writing (and No Rithmetic)

So, I started reading too. She was right: books are good. The more I read, the more I wanted to write, so I started writing too. Writing is good. (Except when it gives me, as Mark Twain would say, the fantods.)

My mom continued to love reading until about 10 years ago, when her macular degeneration made words on the page a blurry mess. For a while, because she still hankered for that mess, she read with a giant magnifying glass, slowly but steadily, until that became too hard as well. I’ve written a number of books, and she had them all, even those published after she’d stopped reading. She loved books, after all.

She died at her assisted-living home in mid-June, after a stroke in late April. She was a remarkably kind and good person, funny and chatty, and fond of social gatherings and people in general. Even though she was 97, and lived a long and good life, it’s still a shock to have her gone. Whatever part of her I have is the best part of me.

Here’s the obit my sister and I wrote, which gives you a bit of her character:

Eileen Agnes Bentley

Thanks mom, for opening up the world of words, and all of their enchantments, to me. I hold you in my heart forever.

Nobody Knows Anything (So, Stay Safe, or at Least Well Hydrated)

It seems we’re all riding that horse named Chance (Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels)

There’s an old quote from screenwriter William Goldman discussing the film industry: “Nobody knows anything … Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

The quote has been used in many contexts, from weather forecasting to stock market predictions because, well, nobody knows anything. Not with bulletproof certainty. Fine time to trot that statement out now too, because with this effing virus plaguing the globe and with so many touted cures, predicted courses of spread and the outright lies from our government found out as diaphanous vapors, it’s hard to keep good counsel.

Thank the stars for heroic health care workers and for anyone saying “Let’s continue to be careful,” because—because we don’t know anything.

And instead of writing I’ve found myself looking at things like streaming virtual safaris, and famous old houses and buildings from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and strolling through the Musee d’Orsay, where scrolling through the paintings did soothe.

Even a live streetside cam outside the doors of Wrigley Park, where the viewing might echo the words of a Talking Heads song,

“Heaven
Heaven is a place
A place where nothing
Nothing ever happens…”

Writing, What Writing?

As for writing work, I’ve sent out a bunch of pitches and the only responses have been from publications telling me they are reducing staff and freelance budgets, and I’m ending emails to people I’ve never met telling them to “stay safe.” At least I’m getting some work done on my memoir of my spectacular high-school shoplifting career. More happens in that than in that Wrigley web cam.

People, stay safe. But if you find a way to dance around the Maypole today, do it. (And I just heard that my 97-year-old mom is in the hospital, test results pending. Hard days.)

Links

Here are a few pieces from the net that I thought helpful or provocative.

Build Self-Discipline By Forming These Habits
“It comes down to this: Do the right thing and have zero expectations of others. If some people don’t want to do that themselves, it’s not your problem. Keep on setting the right example.”

3 Strategies To Get Motivated
“The idea is simple. You want to reward yourself consistently for small accomplishments. When you’ve made progress on your career goals, buy yourself something nice. I don’t recommend materialistic rewards … When I talk about rewards, I limit myself to things that give me inner satisfaction. That’s what I mean by spiritual rewards. Often, those things don’t cost that much. For example, after completing a big project, I take a week off work and just read books, do chores around the house, meet friends, and relax.”

The Practice of Meticulous Attention
“Give the task, action, person or moment your undivided attention. Notice what this is like for you. See if you can deepen your attention even more. Let go of thoughts about the future and past, if possible, and turn toward what you’re facing even more.”

6 Strategies for Becoming a Better You from the COVID-19 Crisis
“One of the best “medicines” for dealing with a crisis is to take action, any action. It can be related to school, work, hobbies, home, or helping others. Instead of hanging around feeling sorry for yourself, take action on a plan to make yourself a better person, colleague, spouse, parent, friend, what have you.”

Good Writing Requires a Guiding Light

And you guys can’t see the crossbow on the right aimed at my head to make me hit deadlines

History has it that Balzac drank 50 cups of coffee a day. It’s possible that writing The Human Comedy is worth the price of having a stomach shot with holes. I’m a coffee drinker myself, though I don’t bathe in it. But sometimes I need a bit more lift in my days, and I’m not interested in buying any meth.

The thing that needs lifting is my perspective, and here’s why: Lots of people feel sluggish, or moody or just out of sorts during the winter months. For some people who have an inclination toward mild depression, low-light winters can exacerbate the condition all the more. I’ve had mild depression on and off since adolescence, and have dreaded the seasonal smothering of the light for that reason. So, for the last couple of weeks, I’d been exposing myself to 20- to 40-minute daily doses of a 10,000 Lux light-therapy box.

Mild depression is like a winter coat that’s a bit too tight (and that covers your head too). You’re cloaked, but less in warmth than in something that is vaguely numbing. Not good for a dog, not good for a cat, not good for a writer. Interestingly, the device’s manual says you can have an overdose of sorts with the light, with symptoms like feeling squirmy, or over-caffeinated. Or, in the Mayo Clinic’s words, you can experience “mania, euphoria, hyperactivity or agitation associated with bipolar disorder.”

So far, no mania, even though I’m still drinking coffee as well. I haven’t felt like driving my car through the garage door, buying stock in Trump Towers, or starting a chinchilla farm. (Do let me know if these seem like good bets though.) You can see from the image that you need to position the light close to you, at an angle. It’s distracting at first, but after some minutes, I get used to it.

I was amused to see that the model is called a “Happy Light.” Ahh, if only it were that easy! But I’m going to try it over the winter months, and see if I can get a bit brighter, and perhaps have more motivation to write all the pieces that often only get to “I should write about that” before I let them drift off. And even if positive results are placebo-based or in some way psychosomatic, that’s OK too.

I simply can’t spend the same amount of time in which Balzac visited the bathroom after his 50 cups, so the Happy Light will have to do.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Good Festivus to All!

Links

Here are some links to my most recently published articles and a piece from the net that I thought helpful.

Boxing Up the Best of Homemade Nashville

Another script I wrote for Chris Guillebeau’s Side Hustle podcast, where he discusses people who have started successful and often fascinating side jobs. This one profiles who started a business selling subscriptions to homemade and small-production goods (coffee, bed and bath, popcorn, hand towels) made by 300 local vendors. They went from $100 startup costs to $2 million a year. That’s a lot of popcorn. Published in December 2019 on the Side Hustle School.

Adding Aluminum to a Garden of Glass

Dale Chihuly is a glass sculptor of world fame, with roots in Washington state. He established the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibition near Seattle’s Space Needle a while back, which includes a glass-blowing studio housed in a vintage Airstream. Local students check out their mind- (and glass-) blowing classes for free. Published in the Fall 2019 edition of Airstream Life magazine. (c) 2019 Airstream Life, published with permission.

Texas Banker Teaches Classes on Painting Your Pet

Another script I wrote for Chris Guillebeau’s Side Hustle podcast, where he discusses people who have started successful and often fascinating side jobs. This one profiles a Texas woman who was a banker and MBA graduate who had a mild interest in art, leading to her teaching art in school districts to teaching dynamic painting classes on the side. And the popularity of those classes exploded. Published in November 2019 on the Side Hustle School.

6 Things Your Life Is Infinitely Better With

“An infinitely better life includes these six components: a clear purpose, a core team of business partners and close friends, full confidence and awareness in yourself and meaningful role models. It’s all attainable right now and you might be closer than you think.”

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Sadder

Malibu chilling

 

Animals have an uncanny gift: they can bypass your brain and go directly to your heart. And they do this without guile, and thus are all the more captivating.

My kitty Malibu has been missing for 12 days now, and the weight of her absence is heavy. She was semi-feral when we found her six or seven years ago, and has always been an indoor-outdoor cat, often spending the warmer nights outside. So her not being around in the morning a ways back was concerning, not alarming.

Now we are alarmed.

The Soul of the Beast

When you get close to a creature, and get to know its behaviors, its whims and its eccentricities, you see that some animals have fully developed personalities. You know when a meow means contentment or annoyance, an arch of the back means alertness or calm.

Animals have a sense of humor, moods and aspirations. Look into the eyes of an animal you know well, and you can see their consciousness looking back. I know that this would prompt argument from many corners, but I believe that some animals have a soul, that they have an eternal spirit aside from the blood and bone.

That knowledge does give me some comfort, yet I ache for Malibu’s physical presence.

We have combed the neighborhood again and again, put up posters, gone to the shelter, notified the neighborhood online group, called for her endlessly. I’ve twice seen the shape of her head in the neighbor’s field, but that was just gathered grass. I’ve heard her meow, sometimes plaintively, but the the meows were just trilling birds or the squeaks of farm equipment. Twice I’ve awoken to her meowing in dreams, and rose in bed, only to realize that it was a phantom call.

Not knowing her fate is the hard part.

So, Malibu, my sweetheart, my companion, my friend, if you are out there, come home; if you are gone, rest in peace.

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Gratitude Comes from a Place of Hope

Even at my age, I think I’d do well on the local basketball team

I’m a grumbler. Why does my hip hurt so much today, why didn’t that editor respond to my query, why is our government run by madmen and thieves? I’m so used to my brain’s radio playing Classic Grouch in 24/7 rotation that I can barely hear it, even though my legs dance to it.

But once in a while, when fresh winds blow from a different direction, when my closed lids see that there’s actually a rainbow of colors, when I get out of my own #$%!@&^!! way, I realize that this life stuff might be OK. That there might be good reason to cheer, to celebrate, to acknowledge.

I was reminded of that in a church soup kitchen in the small town of Cotacachi, Ecuador a few days ago. My galpal Alice and I are house-sitting for a month in Cotacachi, at the home of some expats from Atlanta. Cotacachi has many charms, friendly folks, good food, famed leather-goods artisans, and some beautiful surroundings at 8,000 feet in the Andes.

A Little Means a Lot

But all places have their poor. Before our Atlanta homeowners left for a stateside visit, they took us to the Lugar de Esperanza (Place of Hope) soup kitchen where they volunteer to help with food preparation, serving and cleanup of a large breakfast meal to 50–60 indigenous seniors from the town and surrounds.

Most of these people have very little: tiny incomes, tough living conditions, scant belongings. A few even walk a couple of hours to get the meal, which might be their only meal of the day. Some of them are barefoot. The volunteers first hand out vitamins to the gathered souls in the church courtyard, and then they proceed into the soup kitchen building to sit in rows at long tables.

On their way to the building, nearly all of them greeted Alice and I, clasped our hands and smiled and laughed. My Spanish is bad enough, but my Quechua (and all the variants) is non-existent. However, the communication was clear—good cheer and gratitude in all the faces, the body language, the talk among themselves.

They sat at the tables and chatted, and waited patiently waiting for grace to be said by one of the breakfast recipients. At the end of the meal, they filtered out, some with leftover food, again clasping our hands and nodding and thanking us, in Quechua and Spanish. One old guy even kissed my cheek when I bent to shake his hand.

Gratitude Is Better Than Kale

I’m used to my regular meals, my shelter, my health. It’s easy to forget just how good I have it;
gringo privilege is as unconscious as that grumpiness I mentioned. But the thin air up here in Cotacachi let me see clearly that gratitude is an attitude, one that can be encouraged and summoned and cultivated. And my goodness, it can even be good for you.

Alice went back and helped serve one of the meals a few days later; I hope to do it as well. She reported that the group was much the same, in manner and attitude. They appreciated the breakfast, and felt appreciated by the volunteers who appreciated them, a two-way street. That’s a street I need to drive on more often.

Coughing Up a Writer’s Block


Lately, I am a thing coughed. Or a vehicle for spasms, which deny the pleas of my brain—the so-called higher powers—in favor of the visceral dominance of the thundering lungs. At least the coughing doesn’t interfere with my typing—except when it’s a sudden blast in the middle of keying in a word.

“The coughing,” in this new world of mine, is what happens nearly every time I try to navigate a spoken sentence. I had a cold five weeks ago that seemed your standard package of sneezy blear and leaden fatigue, playing itself out in a week or so. But the cough. The cough, Coltrane’s longest saxophone screech, a filibuster of a cough, endless, monopolizing.

That cough, the one that won’t stop.

Writing and Other Blasts of Air

You, as any sensible person who doesn’t want to read about self-gazing medical conditions might ask, “What’s that got to do with writing?” Well, a couple of things: one, it’s odd to be taken out of your day-to-day and made to realize how locked in you are to certain behaviors and “natural” expressions. For the last five weeks, I haven’t been able to speak more than a sentence or two without coughing or wheezing or sputtering. This obscure debility keeps creeping into my thoughts about writing, my motivations toward writing. I seem less a writer with a cough than a cough with a writer attached.

My condition has made for truly odd phone calls where I’ll drop away in mid-word, or in conversation with someone where I’ll try and hurry out a sentence before my convulsion. Trying to avoid this reflex abdominal trampling has changed the tone of my voice as well, where I’ve gone from a brimming baritone to the sound of, perhaps, a pecking piccolo.

Since I regularly assert my masculinity by knowing the right deodorant and shoe color to buy, these squeaky voicings trouble me.

Drug Him!

I’ve gone the inhaler route and prescription cough medication route and groovy-cough-medication-from-the-natural-foods-store route and all those routes have been dead ends so far. So I’ll see a lung doc next week; maybe we can smoke some cigarettes together and mull it. (Weirdly enough, when I last had this condition—and yes, I’ve had it before, once lasting more than six months—one of the things my doctor recommended was to smoke pot with a vaporizer. That was 10 years ago, before vaporizers were available like apples from the market. Vaporizing pot didn’t help the cough, but it rekindled a love affair with Doritos.)

All in all, I feel fine; it’s just the cough that’s the problem. This setback, temporary I’m sure, does make me wonder: how do people deal with the disruption to their lives (and deal with the anxiety and fear) when their condition is serious? You really don’t know how you’ll behave in the face of something grave. I only have the frustration of a minor condition—I don’t have to muster up any courage.

At least I can write without breaking into hacking barks. And my cough gave me something to write about today. I have heard that laughter is the best medicine, but since laughing makes me cough, I’ll stick to bourbon and honey.