The Year of Unmagical Thinking (with apologies to the great Joan Didion, who died today)

Photo by Jan Kopřiva from Pexels

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … well, at least that’s half right. This year, which promised to be a rebound year, turned out to be stinky cheese, with less cheese, more stinky. No need for a detailed recount: virus hells, climate catastrophes, and democracy in peril are pain’s banquet menu enough.

On the home front, there were the deaths of friends, plus a second hip replacement and some other medical maladies to remind me that though I didn’t send in an application to be an old man, the HR recruiters kept calling.

I did get some articles published that I liked, and I’m in the middle of another edit—before I send it on to another editor—on my lunatic years of shoplifting as a high school miscreant memoir. I also have a proposal out for the equally loony 30+ years of correspondence (including them mailing me many odd objects) between me and the Jack Daniel’s Distillery. That’s two fingers, poured neat.

So, in Beckett’s immortal words from The Unnamable, “… you must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on” and from Worstward Ho, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

So, Merry Christmas, Joyous Kwanzaa, Happy Festivus. And pie, lots of pie.

Goodwill to all (excepting the evil, and you know who you are). Let’s make the next year better.


Pretty scant on the publishing front for me this past month, but here’s one fun piece from the tail end of November:

Characters in Motion (Keep Readers in Motion)
How using the structure of a road trip, with encounters with unexpected characters, cultures and places, can work well for novel development. I provide explanations of brief examples, including my own. (Well, my own isn’t that brief, but hey, it’s my essay.) Published by the fine folks at WriterUnboxed in November 2021.

And I didn’t do a lot of article curating either (what did I do?), but here’s one, to keep your brain’s hips in shape:

Meditation’s Anti-aging Benefits

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.


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

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.

Nine Lives Aren’t Enough

Abe on the way to the next stage

Have you had that experience where you meet someone you take to immediately, where something about their manner, their look, maybe even how they hold their head, has an irresistible charm? And how sometimes that person needn’t have two legs to qualify, but four?

My sweetheart Alice and I were house-sitting for a few days in Sonoma County a bit back, visiting friends and spending time out on the coast for an article about Ft. Ross. We’d arranged to swap houses with a couple in Santa Rosa, them taking care of our cat and us taking care of their cat, Abe, who was 20 years old. Now, 20 years old isn’t merely elderly for a cat—that’s an age where they’ve been receiving feline Social Security for a couple of generations. That’s a venerable cat, a centenarian, one of the ancients.

So we had some trepidation about caring for him—could he get around, could we leave him in the house alone, what if he got sick? When we first saw him, he was sleeping so soundly that it was hard to get a handle on his ways. Not that our noise could wake him, because he was essentially deaf. But when he first rose and came out to us in the living room, that instant appreciation happened: he had a distinctive way of soft-stepping with each paw, a dainty way of gently moving his long, lean frame forward that was delightful to watch. He was immediately curious about us, coming close, looking into our faces, appreciating our petting with a soft squeak.

The squeak was the most his old vocal chords could muster in the way of a meow. But we loved him right off. Abe the cat, Old Abe, Honest Abe. When he wasn’t sleeping his long hours, he was quite alert and notably conscious of human company, looking you in the eye for acknowledgment and conversation, even one held in squeaks, falling on closed ears.

A Cat’s Charm Sticks

He slept on the bed with us that first night, fast friends, and I was afraid I would crush him by turning over on him. But it worked out fine, though his frailness concerned us when we left for hours at the coast. But he was happy when we returned and happy over the days we were there. When Alice and I returned to Santa Cruz, we remarked several times about his charm. We had to return ten days ago to Santa Rosa for a memorial for one of Alice’s oldest friends, a sad thing, but we were happy to see old Abe again and renew the acquaintance.

But we’d been warned that Abe hadn’t been doing that well, having had some respiratory trouble, probably with allergies. So we were more fearful now than when we’d first heard that he was 20. But he was again charming, friendly and responsive, and through the sadness of the memorial, we were happy again to be with Abe. I spent a while sitting with him on the house’s big rug right before we left, petting him and telling him we hoped to see him again.

So when we heard the other day from Abe’s owner that his breathing problems had become overwhelming, and that she had to have him put down, it was a blow. She had cared for Abe as family for all of his 20 years, and indeed he was her family. Her and her husband’s loss is tremendous, but it surprised me how much I felt it. But maybe not so surprising, because as I suggested at the beginning, some people charm you from moment one, and Abe was that guy.

The Soul’s Lasting Light

Despite my long years of Catholic school (or maybe because of them), I don’t believe in a paternalistic God, looking down on the billions of us with loving benignity. But I do believe there is something immortal in us, however it dwells within us, and that it continues on when the body fails. And I also believe that animals have a soul—you can see it when you look, with attention, into their eyes.

And I’ll probably sweat in hell for this too, but I don’t buy the standard concepts of heaven either. But here’s how it should be: heaven is a baseball game in a beautiful old stadium, where the beer is a dime and hot dogs a quarter. The home team is ahead by two runs and you’re feeling good, with family and friends. (And there are no damn Yankees.)

And if we go extra innings, Abe, I’ll get you another beer.

Writers: Warren Zevon Died for Your Sins


Good American that I am, I was waxing my car in the garage last weekend, when a Warren Zevon song came on the radio. The wax job immediately brightened, because Zevon’s stuff is often jolly wordplay, painted with irony and wit, and this song, “Werewolves of London” is Zevon at his absurdist perfection. The whole song is weirdly, rollickingly splendid, but it has a line that kills me every time: “I saw a werewolf drinking a piña colada at Trader Vics,” a pause, and then the insouciantly delivered, “His hair was perfect.”

The writing credits for that number have a couple of other names, but if you know Zevon, you know he had a heavy hand in arranging that werewolf’s hair. So many of his tunes were spiced with the oddly angled, delightfully perverse bite of his mind: “Excitable Boy,” “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” He could also be perfectly world-weary, like in “Carmelita” (and truly world-weary, near his death, with “Keep Me in Your Heart”).

Legacy and Fame: Two Different Things

But I don’t come to praise Zevon, but to dig him up. What I mean by that, for writers, is that Zevon had a pretty good career, cut short by a form of lung cancer that undoubtedly was part of his hard lifestyle. He was highly respected in songwriting circles, but he never blasted to the top-tier of stardom. I don’t have a clue if he even wanted that, but I want to look at his work in light of what he put into his writing: himself.

His work is sardonic, witty, and sometimes outright weird. He wasn’t afraid to go into areas—death, sex, crime—where some other writers might shy from. And his work is highly original—if you listen to many of his songs, you see he didn’t take the easy way out. Probably because he couldn’t—he couldn’t help putting himself fully in his writing. His version of the perfect rock ’n roll love song wouldn’t top the charts because the charts were almost always topped by writing that never ventured into grottos of the imagination, didn’t step in muck and then laugh about it.

What Your Writing Needs Most Is You

The point of my elegy here is that writers should put their flesh in their writing: the stuff that tears at you, the stuff behind a forbidding door, the soft gong of alarm in the night that no one else hears. Zevon left early, and maybe he’s forgotten by many (or never ever heard by many more), but he managed to be true to himself in his work, even if he danced with some demons too. He left early, but he left a lot behind.

Bonus Zevon Sighting

Zevon was a hard drinker, and it didn’t always serve him well. I was at a Grateful Dead concert in Santa Barbara in the late 70s, and Zevon was one of the opening acts. This was an afternoon concert, in a stadium, and the Dead crowd was restless to get twirling, and were calling for the Dead during Zevon’s set. He was about six sheets to the wind, and started screaming back at the crowd, calling them 60s burn-outs (was that an insult?). He wobbled off the stage at the end of his set, after he unleashed a frenzy of punitive guitar feedback.

Devon lost some good years to the bottle, but his songwriting output was still prodigious, and wholly individual. I don’t recommend that you pour Jack Daniels over your corn flakes before your morning pages (it’s better on oatmeal), but I do recommend that you remember to put your real self in your writing, whether it’s in fiction or non—put in the wrinkles, put in the bloodshot eyes, put in Mona Lisa’s sly smile.

Leave the best (and sometimes the worst) of you on the page, and as one of Zevon’s inimitably titled songs suggests, you can sleep when you’re dead. If the words ring, there’s a fair chance someone will remember.

Words Cut Like a Knife (and It’s Often Your Heart That Bleeds)

Sunrise Wave

I went to a memorial service for a young man several days ago. My connection to him is peripheral: he was the son of my girlfriend Alice’s cousin, and neither of us had met him—and I’d only met Alice’s cousin once, long ago. So my going to the service was basically to support Alice, grieving for her cousin and her loss.

The service was held on the college campus where Al had been both a student and an employee, and the campus cafeteria was filled, mostly with people in their twenties, befitting a man who only lived to 25 before bone cancer cut him down. And that cutting was a long way down: Al was a big, strong guy, an athlete, which as the slideshow of photos demonstrated, a guy who filled the room with his body, but filled it even more with his personality.

I thought I could be nothing more than an outsider at his service, feeling the general sympathy for his friends, wife and relatives, sympathy for the inconceivable notion that a life that showed great promise was over. But as a succession of his friends and admirers spoke, I started to lean in, because what was expressed—such hurt, such pain, such shock—was profound.

Speaker after speaker told their stories of how Al coached them, encouraged them, laughed with them. How his great size and strength were intimidating at first, until the giant smile that always came with that giant strength disarmed them. How this guy, who seemed to combine goofy casualness with an intense dedication to achievement and to self-betterment, influenced anyone who spent even a short time with him.

Many of the college’s athletes spoke of how he was a role model, someone who showed them that they could always work a little harder, make a bit more effort, draw on their reserves to get a distance further. So many young people, men and women, choking with emotion spoke of how his personality and drive made them want to be better people. There was lightness too, with many accounts of college pranks and crazy escapades, the laughter mixing with the tears.

The Truth of Tears

My tears too. I work with language every day, and know its power, but sometimes language is just words on the page. These were life words, words appealing to our higher instincts. Men breaking down; more than one saying that Al made them want to be a better man. And such a wonderful, striking diversity in the crowd, the people recounting Al’s life Asian, black, Hispanic, white, his friends, his teachers—and all giving his young wife, there with their daughter, who might have only been two, a long hug after they spoke, everyone breaking down.

I was stunned at the depth of the tributes, to a fellow who had just begun to stretch out, to live the rich life that seemed so promising before the illness, to fulfill the full unfolding of the magnetism of the big smile and the strength and the warmth—to live a normal life in the tight circle of family and friends. But sometimes the book is closed before it’s even written.

I went away from the service shaken, thinking that sometimes words are all we have to try and work through the unimaginable. Of course, they are inadequate, they can’t quite parse the mind-cracking shock, the desolation after life’s earthquakes, the utter emptiness of loss. Inadequate yes, but sometimes all we have.

So on this Mother’s Day, a warm message to mothers everywhere. And to those mothers who have to face the abyss of losing their children, I hope you can find some way to assuage your grief. I doubt that anything can make up that loss. But there is no small comfort in knowing that the child was loved, and deeply.

Mr. Twain Explains Heaven and Earth

Captain Stormfield's Visit

Note: Book Does Not Include a Map

A month ago, I wrote about the death of my neighbor, and how mutton-headed I’d felt about never having even thought about discussing writing with him, a retired professor of American literature. Recently, my gal pal Alice and I were invited by James’ widow, May, to look though his big book collection to see if there was anything we wanted before she donated the books.

There were many works that I would have greedily grabbed in other days, but as it was, I just selected a few Scott Fitzgeralds, an old volume of Proust’s Swann’s Way and the sweet book you see pictured above. I’d read Captain Stormfield long ago, but hadn’t known it was the last story published before Twain’s death in 1910. The long story was serialized in Harper’s Magazine a year or two before its publication by Harper and Brothers in 1909. It’s a nicely bound volume, in great shape, still with the intact tissue paper before the title page. I didn’t realize it was a first edition until Alice pointed out its copyright page.

Cranberry Famers: Heavenly Experts

So, I get my first first edition of Twain from a Chinese professor of literature who taught on Taiwan. Twain himself would have found that amusing. The work is nothing short of amusing, much of it a conversation in heaven between the good captain and a cranberry farmer, who disabuses Stormfield of those quaint notions that heaven was all piety and angelic song. It’s a nice counterpoint to Twain’s Letters From the Earth, which was published posthumously by Twain’s estate, when the world was perhaps more prepared for some its hot-pepper views on religion. Here’s Satan speaking about man from one of the letters, and also on God’s view of man.

Man is a marvelous curiosity. When he is at his very, very best he is a sort of low grade nickel-plated angel; at his worst he is unspeakable, unimaginable; and first and last and all the time he is a sarcasm.
He took a pride in man; man was his finest invention; man was his pet, after the housefly . . . .

It pleases me to think that James left behind that slim volume of Twain’s, and that it’s now moved into my hands, an unexpected neighborly connection where my long-dead favorite author makes the link live. I do hope that whatever version of heaven James moved to doesn’t have a lot of off-key singing.

PS George Jones, RIP

In consideration of people who could probably only get into heaven if they snuck in in the back of a potato truck (and would surely then make vodka out of the potatoes), George Jones died the other day. I’m more inclined to rock and roll for my daily diet of noise (and in country, more toward Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson), but you can hear more angel and devil in George’s songs than pretty much any singer. Jones probably never saw a drink he didn’t like, but he made some music that had a whole lotta soul. Here’s looking at you, George.

A Neighbor’s Death—and a Few Regrets

James Fu

James Fu, Holding the Harvest

“What might have been” can seem like the saddest words. They are kin to “If only” and “I should have” and other regrets that any person might muse over, founded on moments like not asking out the attractive girl in high school, not speaking up in the meeting when your idea is stolen by your rival, not reconciling with your sister over a long-dead argument—and not having a chance to reconcile when she herself dies.

I am reminded of those sad words because my neighbor James, the fellow in the photo above, died suddenly the other day. We’ve lived next door to James and May for 14 years, and from the earliest days, they have fulfilled the blessing of the term “good neighbors.” May is the orchid cloner who has given us many strikingly beautiful plants, James the retired professor, with whom I had random discussions about things in the neighborhood and other forgotten trivialities.

We often saw the couple when they walked through our rural neighborhood, and always exchanged good greetings in brief chats. Though elderly and not in good health, his death was a shock. And only afterwards did I realize that for years, just next door was a retired literature professor, and I’d never once spoken to him of books, of my own love of words. Why had that never occurred to me?

A Trailer Full of Writers

If I look out my kitchen window, I can see an old yellow trailer in their yard. It’s big: it is probably 35 feet long, up on concrete blocks. It’s filled with James’s collection of books. Of course, most of them are probably in Chinese—he taught on Taiwan, where he was raised, and where he met May. His English wasn’t great, but it was good enough to ask him, “What writers did you love? Did you write fiction yourself?” I love many writers, I write fiction—it amazes me now that I never thought to ask.

So, this isn’t a prescription for right living, me pointing my finger and saying “Mark my words: speak up, take action, make the call—before it’s too late.” No, it’s more a soft cloud of regret, mixed with a little surprise—why had I never asked?

Rest in peace James. You were a good man, and I am honored to have been your neighbor, and I hope, your friend.

Candles for the Broken-Hearted

Another angry young man with high-powered weapons, killing indiscriminately, this time little children. Yes, he was undoubtedly disturbed; there may have been signals of mayhem to come, and then the signals ebbed. People close to him may have hoped that whatever storms went on in his head may randomly clear. But they raged yesterday.

Now the arguments will come again: why are these semi-automatic weapons, designed for artful, effective killing—killing of people—so readily available? And those arguments countered by ones saying that the teachers should have been armed, we all should be armed, ready to take out those that threaten us. Our neighbors might snap at any time. Bang, bang.

More guns the answer, in our gun culture, so riddled with guns already? I have no argument with the sportsman, the collectors who appreciate the craftsmanship of weapons, those who truly feel that they need to protect themselves in their homes. But to not closely regulate the availability of these engines of death, not to keep them out of the hands of the damaged and the dangerous—it’s madness.

Five Candles of Caring

A candle for the children whose lives were snuffed in an instant, never again to run, jump and play, never to bring their kid-innocent dreams to life, never again to feel the touch of their parents’ love.

A candle for the parents whose children are forever lost to them, holes in their hearts that will never truly heal.

A candle for the parents whose children survived, knowing the fragility of life, the blindness of luck and loss, and an enduring fear.

A candle for the teachers and school workers, there to give guidance to the young, to shepherd them toward the good lives we all should be given a chance to have, their own lives cut needlessly short.

A candle for all of us, myself included, my own heart ringing with bitterness at the stupid, numbing, foul idiocy of this, the what-ifs, the whys, the will-it-ever-change.

A candle for everyone, even the lunatic killer. Maybe, just maybe, maybe this outrage will spur some common sense.

How the Ghost of New Year’s Future Calls to Her Kin

A visitation from a homeless angel

My migrant seemed to be of the spiritual sort

My New Year’s day was truly hallucinatory, and not from any absinthe I’d bathed in the night before. I don’t know if the first full day of a bad cold is like this for most people, but for me, it’s a sharp-taloned grip of flaring headache, lead-gravity fatigue, eye and ear impairment, and consciousness without focus. So, when I found out—when I’d finally been able to pull myself out of bed to leave San Francisco—that my girlfriend’s Alice’s car had a dead battery, I could only numbly nod.

We waited at the car for a tow truck to give us a jump, me lolling in the front seat with my head in my hands. I glanced up every few minutes, and despite being half-witted, noticed that a man standing across the street was staring directly at the car, or at me. Every time I looked, his gaze was fixed on the car, his stance, held up on one side by a cane, rigid. I got out of the car to get some air, turned away from the man, but when I turned back he—or rather she—was standing almost next to me, staring with a sharp ferocity.

A Migrant of the Spirit
I hadn’t realized it was a woman until she was close, because she was wearing big sunglasses, the bright sun was from her direction, and she was nearly shapeless, a tall, skinny, wraithlike creature. She looked somewhat like the migrant worker in the Dorothea Lange photograph above, but with a thinner, more angular face and nose, and an even sharper-though-faraway gaze. Having walked up Market Street every workday back in my San Francisco days brought me into contact with many a street person, and though not particularly ill-dressed, she had the overall look. Except for the piercing stare.

My wobbly consciousness had me slow on the uptake, staring back at her for a bit before I could ask “Can I help you?” But she didn’t answer, just returning my question with the caverns of those dark eyes. When I asked her again, she finally just mumbled something, a few mixed words, looking into the back of my head. But I was feeling so ill I was in no real condition to create a conversation. When I leaned back against the car, she leaned back against it too, both of us looking into the street. The tow truck didn’t arrive for about 20 minutes, and during that time, I moved to the curb to sit, and she sat down next to me. I was able to make her laugh a little with some remark, but mostly we just sat in silence, she staring fixedly off.

Back to the Future
Just before the tow truck showed up, she stood, and started to move very slowly back across the street. She’d left her cane behind, but I picked it up and showed it to her and she took it. I asked if she wanted some help across the street, and she said yes, so lightly touching her shoulder, I led her across. Then she assumed the position in which I’d first seen her, standing rigidly erect, staring expressionless toward us and the car. After the tow truck drivers arrived, I looked back toward her and she was gone.

Sometimes we connect with people in the weirdest of ways, and for the briefest of times. For me, that stark, inarticulate homeless woman was a brief companion angel, there to be a presence for me when I was barely capable of words myself. I felt an odd connection. Transient, it’s true, but connection nonetheless.

A Wave to Sarge Bentley, a Year (and a Dimension) Away
New Year’s day was the first anniversary of my father’s death. Dad, I miss you. Maybe you sent that strange street person to say hello from the other world. Hello back.