Making a Home for a Connecticut Yankee

If you know my handwriting, you know I didn’t work on this

I spend a lot of time reading, on a desktop screen. Some of it is my own writing, some the works of others, fiction and non, the subjects often about writing and the arts. Too much is the dreary news of the day, which mostly equals the dreary news of yesterday and a good bet to equal the misery of days to come. And I read the occasional novel on an iPad too.

But I always read a physical book during the day (or night) as well. Even when I read a great piece of writing online, something that moves me or provokes me, even when I nod in concert with the thoughts, note a sharp sentence, promise to look at something else the author’s written, something yet is missing.

What’s missing is what I can hold in my hands: a “real” book. So I had a special thrill when my girlfriend Alice’s sister moved out of San Francisco and into the Napa area recently, and engaged us to box up her book collection. She has a couple of different collector’s editions of literary works, back and forward from the 18th century to the 20th, all bound in lovely leather, various sizes and colors. It was tremendous fun simply to move them from shelf to box and gape at their glory.

So when she gave me as a reward A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, one of Mark Twain’s farcical fancies, I was stoked. It’s a hefty book, though only 300 pages. But broad enough so you could put a big sandwich on it, a glass of beer, an apple and some pie and still sneak in some peanuts.

The book is from the Collector’s Edition of Famous Editions, published by Easton Press in Connecticut, fitting for something about a Connecticut Yankee. The work is richly illustrated by Honoré Guilbeau, with the kind of chapter-heading red-ink rubrics you might see in a medieval monk’s manuscript, beholding to the 6th-century setting of the novel. It came with a bookplate, a book ribbon, a nicely done small brochure on its composition, and an intro written by Carl Van Doren in 1946 that includes some musings on medieval times, plus some pungent biographical notes on Twain.

I’d already read (and laughed through) Connecticut Yankee a couple times—it’s vintage Twain, railing against imperial estates and trappings, while throwing in many an inventive absurdity of the “fish out of water” type, though this big fish in this instance is shrewdly capable.

But it’s this book’s bookishness I want to remark on: such a pleasure to touch and smell its leather, flip through its flamboyant pages, feel its heft, admire its careful typography and design. However, it doesn’t take a collector’s edition of anything for me to take to a book like a fish in water. The paperback novel I’m reading right now (Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger) and the nonfiction hardcover (Surviving Paradise, by Peter Rudiak-Gould) I’m stepping through—both appealing books, those solid, unflappable transports to other worlds.

And good for putting on the bedside table and putting your glasses on top of at retiring time.

I published a piece on Medium a bit ago about how my mom’s obvious love of reading when I was a kid influenced my path in life; I expressed in more detail my feelings about books there.

Many are the benefits of electronic reading, but a book will always feel more like a friend to me.

How about you? Electrons or paper?

Linkability

Here are a couple 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.

Purple Prose and the Word Surgeon’s Scalpel

Unconsciously using too many “justs,” “verys,” “actuallys,” and other fluff evildoers in your prose? Cast them out! And those big words too. (Well, not all of them. Some are fetching.) Published by the fine folks at WriterUnboxed in August 2021.

What One Distillery Did To Gain A New Whiskey Still With A Grand History

My piece on Stumpy’s Spirits, a small Illinois distillery that recently bought a large amount of 100-year-old still components—from Belgium, off the internet—and has reconstructed them for their own use. These guys did a whole lotta work. Published in August 2021 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

Other Writers Posts

Five Small, Achievable Steps To Improving Your Wellbeing
“Being kind to another provides us with a sense of fulfilment, even if that is on a small level,” says Dr Charlotte Armitage, a Harley Street psychologist and psychotherapist. “Where we project kindness, this is usually reciprocated. This results in a feeling of connectedness, which encourages the release of oxytocin and dopamine in the brain. Both of these chemicals help us to feel good.”

How to Sleep Better: 5 Hacks for More Rest and Less Stress
“Sleep is probably the single most important health behavior we do every day,” Prichard says. “Pretty much all systems are enhanced when you get enough sleep and are impaired when you don’t get enough.”

10 things you can do now to save our planet
Resist excessive consumption: We do not need all those possessions. Buy less, and buy better. Reject the idea that consumption makes us happier and that we must always have new things to enhance our lives.

Our Brains Aren’t Built to Handle This Much Bad News
“There’s a ton of lifestyle stuff that will obviously help, too (exercise, healthy food, sleep). But more important than all that is monitoring your relationship to the news. Quit the doomscrolling. It’s not helping. It’s like a drive-by on your brain; no wonder you can’t wrap your head around 650,000 deaths, or a house that’s had its roof ripped off, if you’re staring for six seconds or so before moving on to the next thing.”

Improve A Low Mood With These 6 Ideas
“Walk. Often, our negative, repetitive thought-loops can be interrupted simply by a change in scenery combined with gentle exercise. A walk outside accomplishes both.”

WTF and Other Global Bewilderments

I had to expose my bedraggled face here to give a pictorial forum for the initial letters of the three sweatshirt words: WTF. Those letters, in all their Anglo-Saxony brute eloquence, are shorthand approximations of my repeated reaction to the calamities befalling our world.

A tiny virus is killing people in big numbers, the globe is either burning or flooding, one of our esteemed political parties is spilling toxins willy-nilly in their headlong rush to eliminate democracy, there is Afghanistan, Haiti and counting. When on the surface, many of these matters seemed to be trending positively just a few months ago, I cut back on all the doomscrolling through which I’d avoided so much meaningful work over the past year.

But the past month has me doomscrolling the leaden news all the more, ratcheting up anxiety and fear, supplying a fine excuse for not applying myself to deadlines and the doings of the days.

Ugh.

For the two cents of what it’s worth: reading about the world’s horrors and injustices, over and over, isn’t healthy. I do overlook this eventuality now and then, but as I understand it, we are all going to die—who’s responsible for this atrocity? Dying slowly by turning into a jiggle of puddled anxiety has little appeal.

There’s a great scene in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much where Doris Day sings “Que Sera, Sera” as a means of alerting her kidnapped son, eventually saving his life. Doris always frightened me as the presentation of the Perpetual Virgin, but she nails it here. I love the duality of the song: she is directly using it to make a significant difference in her son’s life, yet as the song’s refrain tells us:

Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours to see
Que sera, sera
What will be, will be

That bit of tautology is likely true. I’m not advocating withdrawal from the world’s troubles, far from it. But rather, to not plunge willy-nilly into that dark pool time and again, without checking its temperature or yours. So, I’m not going to enter consciousness every morning by immersing myself in the news of the day. As the Dylan lyrics go “… every time you turn around
There’s another hard-luck story that you’re gonna hear.”

I’m not going to ignore the world’s ills, but I am going to reinforce some of my habits that promote some resilience: daily meditation, exercise, reading, finding moments to savor, and writing down small gratitudes. And writing in general. (And of course, good cocktails on the weekend.) I very much recommend James Clear’s great Atomic Habits on establishing small habits that can make big changes. Some of the links below address many benefits of those patterns.

So, WTF? In the meantime, wave to the neighbors, pet your cat, make faces at babies, and if you’re lucky, like I often am, take a deep inhale of the smell of fresh-baked bread. And goodness, help your community, your family, and yourself—get vaccinated. Godspeed.

Linkability

Here are a few of my recent (except for an older one I forgot) articles, followed by some from other writers, mostly on the mental health front, and which have been helpful in these unhelpful times.

Hawaii: 7 spectacular waterfalls turn the Big Island misty

No travel out of California for me for a year and a half, so Hawaii seemed like heaven. Which it pretty much is. Eight days in the Hilo surrounds on the Big Island, including a lot of tramping about beguiling waterfalls. Published in August 2021 in the San Jose Mercury News.

Scotch and Bourbon: The Essential and the Essence

Scotch and Bourbon—brothers, right? Perhaps, but definitely not twins. This looks at the differences in grains, distilling, proof and aging. Bottoms up. Published in August 2021 on the fine spirits blog known as Flaviar.

Five Ways to Get Splashy in Santa Cruz

It’s no secret: Santa Cruz CA sits preening on the big, blue Pacific. There is lots to do on top of, in and under those waters. Published in June 2021 in the San Jose Mercury News.

The Fictions of Our Minds

Hope this doesn’t read simply as a “woe is me” essay, when the woes of the world now have been legion. Thoughts on whether it’s been worth it pursuing writing for a living (and only catching its tail—or tale—now and then). Published by the fine folks at WriterUnboxed in May 2021.

Living Life (and Finding Life) Through Time’s Long Lens

A guy who is an expert on duck calls, rare palm trees, vintage eyeglasses and vintage birding books happens to be the son of Airstream’s most famous photographer. And he ain’t no slouch in the lens department himself. Published in the Winter 2020 edition of Airstream Life magazine. (c) 2020 Airstream Life, published with permission.

Other Writer’s Posts

Feeling Stuck? Five Tips for Managing Life Transitions
“And that may be the greatest lesson of all: We control the stories we tell about our transitions. Instead of viewing them as periods we have to grind our way through, we should see them for what they are: healing periods that take the frightened parts of our lives and begin to repair them.”

Don’t Approach Life Like a Picky Eater
“This is an instance of a larger truth: Openness to a wide variety of life experiences, from visiting interesting places to considering unusual political views, brings happiness. ‘Only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible,’ Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet, “will himself sound the depths of his own being.’”

How to Build Resilience in Midlife
“Remember Your Comebacks. When times are tough, we often remind ourselves that other people — like war refugees or a friend with cancer — have it worse. While that may be true, you will get a bigger resilience boost by reminding yourself of the challenges you personally have overcome.”

Micro Habit Stacking: 25 Small Changes To Improve Your Life
“A small action daily is infinitely better and more impactful than a massive change you can’t sustain. It’s also a realistic and attainable way to teach your brain healthy habits.”

Why self-belief is a superpower that can be harnessed
“Research backs up the lesson of this story, that the words you say to yourself shape your confidence and, hence, your performance, no matter how fake or cliched those words might feel.”

10 Simple Practices That Will Help You Get 1% Better Every Single Day
“Reading may be the most accessible tool available to us to help us grow. We can learn from anyone in the world, living or not. We can learn from those who have already achieved what we want to achieve. We can learn from others’ successes and mistakes.”

Help—AI Algorithms Stole My Keyboard!

I have seen the future of writing. And it might not include me, but I can always clean up stray punctuation.

We all know automation is threaded through today’s workforce, from Amazon robots picking your favorite paper towels off shelves in a galaxy far, far away, to artificial intelligence (AI) reading your x-rays with a precision that many radiologists can’t approach.

But we writers thought that soulless machines, bland blocks of code, couldn’t invade the field of creatives. Our work takes a unique combination of insight and awareness, experiment and structure, flash and incubation not afforded to the canned collection of inputs that machine learning extracted from countless texts. Doesn’t it?

Not so fast, me hearties. You may have heard of GPT-3, a language-prediction AI that has devoured mountains of text, fiction and non, so that when fed some kind of text anew, it can draw upon its wide database of how particulars of expression are built, and spit out some new material relevant to the initial input.

This is substantively more clever—and repeatable—than those legendary monkeys finally typing a Shakespeare play after eons of gibberish. But surely the unseen hand here is just dry bones wielding a dull brush, not a vibrant painter of imagery and language? Not exactly. Not Margaret Atwood yet, but if Margaret were a four-year-old today, she might get into weaving as a backup profession.

I had a chance to try a beta of Sudowrite, a creative writing tool based on GPT-3. And the results were intriguing, if not unsettling.

I wrote a couple of goofy paragraphs for Sudo AI to get cooking:

The ogre was moody today. Every one of his horns felt itchy. His mother hadn’t called him in two weeks. His oldest child lit a village on fire yesterday, trying to cook some marshmallows.
But the worst was his painting! All his ideas, bright in the mind, came out derivative and dull. He needed a change.

 
I asked the Wormhole function (which then gives you five paragraphs of distinctly different elaborations on your prompt, trying to harmonize tone, characters and voice) of the software to provide me with some more story strides; I chose one of the five:

Ogre turned to his advisor and asked, “What do you see in my painting?”
The advisor paused in the middle of feeding himself from the tub of acid.
“I see…darkness,” he said, eyes flashing deep within his skull. “I see a tribe of cowards making a garden in a forest. A tribe of cowards—no, it’s actually a tribe of cows. But belligerent cows, with nasty attitudes. I think they are protesting the price of Netflix subscriptions for bovines.

 
I accepted the AI’s first three Wormhole sentences, but then meddled: Sudo gave me a tribe of cowards, but I decided that wasn’t as fanciful as a tribe of belligerent cows, which I edited in. Then I put forth:

The ogre pondered. “Yes, but what does that have to do with me?”

 
My advisor, abandoning caution through the Wormhole, let loose:

The advisor stood on a stool, letting the acid eat from his ripped robe and slippers down to the bone. “You are the darkness in their garden, the anger behind the bovine protest. You are the beast at the doorstep, the teacher that will teach us all lessons. But above all—you are the ooze that will devour this section of the canvas, because no one has made anything creative in ages, and the old ideas stink.”

 
Always good to ponder the words of someone on acid, or someone with acid on them. I agreed and offered my advisor a 10% raise in the story.

The program then suggested that the ogre should fight his oldest child. Here’s part of that:

“Is that wise?” the advisor gagged. “He’s got horns like a gazelle. A merciless killer.”
“If you want me to paint anything worthwhile, I’ll have to win this battle,” the ogre stated.
“Don’t forget my raise.”

 
I should have advised that ogre to never make personnel promises you can’t keep, but too late on the raise.

What if you get bogged down at some plot point? Sudo AI dodges bogs by giving you the Twist function, which supplies you with a number of varying paths. Here are some small excerpts of some twists (the full excerpts are too long for the post):

• The ogre discovers that he’s not an ogre at all; he’s a Tcho-Tcho, a race of dwarves who’ve been living underground the whole time.
• The advisor is the brother, who thinks he is the ogre.
• The king’s brother is really the king’s long-lost son; the advisor is really a demon sent by his father to con the king out of his fortune [Sudo seems to have decided the ogre is a king]

Or left wanting for some piquant spicing, you could choose a word and use the Describe function to elaborate on the selected term. I chose “advisor” here:

• Advisor is a tall man with a tousled beard and approachable smile. His eyes look like a dragon’s—he’s pasty white and jaundiced.
• His breath even carries the smell of old parchment, the stale odor of a library that’s been locked up for decades.

or, with gusto (and a pileus):

• He was a little old man covered in ash and soot, with a wrinkled, crinkled face and skin as taut as a drum. He had a beard of celery, callused hands, and a pileus made of vegetable leaves. He wore plaid clothing from the chest up and straw sandals from the waist down.

If you read the Joanna Penn Sudowrite article linked above, you can see the AI software offers other intriguing story-building functions. That article also looks at some of the broader ramifications and applications of such software. Since the company’s founder is the interviewee, he is judicious with disclaimers about such software “replacing” writers or it being used to flood markets—or at least Amazon—with haphazardly written self-published novels and stories.

I’m agnostic about those matters for now, but in seeing how the program rapidly produced variant story developments and characters in my frothy tale, I sensed both danger and delight. I see how a stuck writer could become unglued by seeing provocative hints on pushing a story forward, or become beguiled by a character trait or behavior they wouldn’t have considered otherwise. And use the suggestions, with modifications. Or none?

Many of the suggestions from software functions were clumsily worded or simply “off,” but many did give me pause to think, “Now that’s a [phrase, character, development, etc.] I wouldn’t have come up with,” or wouldn’t have taken to that degree or style. I should have taken the time to try to write something other than this fanciful tale to see where “serious” writing would go, but my beta ran out before I tried.

Check the software out, if you’re interested. Let me know if this is a great new notion or the downfall of existence. I can fall back on being a bartender if this writing thing doesn’t work out (though I hear that robot bartenders are on the ascendance).

[Author’s Note: All of the manipulated electrons in this post are the handiwork of the writer, other than the specified AI entries. But how can you be sure? Check your pileus.]

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.”

How to Effectively XXXX in Your Writing

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

If you use Google Analytics to check out what queens and prime ministers (and bandit-eyed raccoons sniffing the trash) have visited your site, you can discover all manner of stats telling you who found your posts crunchy or crappy, how much time they spent musing over your genius, and if they come back often because you give out free drinks at happy hour.

When you have Google’s tracking code on your site, they also bless you with an emailed monthly report that lets you know that the blog where you posted pictures of the Kardashians mud-wrestling got 1000x more views than the one where you did a mash-up—with you playing all instruments and doing all the voices—of “We Are The World” and “Never Gonna Give You Up.”  There is no accounting for taste.

There’s also no accounting for why a post of mine from 10 years ago regularly gets the most hits on my site. Now my site isn’t like Target when there’s a 3-for-1 sale on toilet paper: I don’t get all that many stampedes here. One issue is that I haven’t been blogging regularly, forgetting to remind people that I’m an avid typist who enjoys almost all the keys (though the circumflex is a bit much). I am going to write more often.

But I’m going to write less often about moaning in your writing. Or my writing. That 10-year-old graybeard of a post I mentioned was titled “How to Effectively Moan in Your Writing.” I didn’t put that as the headline of this post, because I didn’t want yet more queries like “how to write moaning,” and “how to type moans” and “how to describe moaning in writing” to appear as the top searches in my monthly Google tracking, as did last month’s (and the month before, and my goodness on and on). Many other intriguing moan-quest variants grace those reports as well.

Now that infamous post, which is here, probably left these searchers unsatisfied, because it was about my trying to write in a post-surgical murk. For all the thrill-seekers who for 10 years now have been desperately seeking a way to moan in their writing, here:

Uhhhh!
Ooohhhh!
Ahhhhh!
Uh-uh-ohhh!
Eeeehh!

For those alliterative songwriting types, why not try “Eee-eye-eee-eye-ohh”?

I suppose I could start some traffic building by writing posts with headlines like “How to Effectively Shriek When Your Dog Eats Your Wedding Ring in Your Writing,” but that would be pandering. For all those pornographers—er, creative writers—who have sought out my old moan post for clarity on these issues, forgive me. May your moans be answered elsewhere.

Though perhaps I could just put lines like “how to write moans” in every post, and I’d have them lining up at my electronic door. Though it would be more accurate in my case to have “how to moan while you’re writing,” because I do plenty of that.

And yeah, I could just change the subject line on that original post and be done with it, but then I’d be cutting out a colorful selection of my readership, who probably just look at the post and moan, because it’s not what they are looking for. But I do appreciate them stopping by.

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.

Scuba Volunteers Still There for Monterey Bay Aquarium Animals Amid COVID

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a long history of dedicated volunteerism. The COVID crisis has closed it to the public since last March, but the multitude of animals still need care. See how the dive staff and volunteers keep the lights on. Published in February 2021 by Scuba Diving magazine.

Spirits Of French Lick: Tasting History In The Whiskey

Fascinating interview with an Indiana distiller who is a warehouse’s worth of information on distilling history and practices. For instance, he hunts out old yeasts from long-defunct distilleries to add punch to his whiskies. Published in February 2021 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

Trail Mix: San Juan Bautista hike and lunch — distanced but delightful

Goldurnit, traveling is tough these days—lucky there are some places nearby that still hold intrigue. My piece on a hike on a historic trail and lunch and street-hopping in the equally historic Mission town of San Juan Bautista. Published in January 2021 in the San Jose Mercury News.

Acid Rain Isn’t Always What You Think It Is

Woodstock it wasn’t. But they did drop LSD from the sky (with predictable results). My addle-brained account of an infamous 1970 Southern California “Christmas Happening” concert. Published by An Idea on Medium, January 2021.

Other People’s Posts

This 12-Second Trick Trains Your Brain to Be More Positive

“To do this, spend at least 12 seconds recalling a positive memory, image or relationship. Sit with it. Think about all the reasons your brain classifies this memory, image or relationship as something good. Continue to do this any time you feel stressed out or find yourself veering into negative territory. Over time, your brain will train itself to look on the bright side, rather than giving into the negativity of the moment.”

How to be lucky

“You might think of serendipity as passive luck that just happens to you, when actually it’s an active process of spotting and connecting the dots. It is about seeing bridges where others see gaps, and then taking initiative and action(s) to create smart luck.”

How to Create More Clarity in Your Life

“Clarity is a powerful sorting mechanism. It allows us to quickly dismiss that which is irrelevant or harmful.

It’s difficult to become addicted to your social feed when you’re clear about your intentions. It’s difficult to become overwhelmed by media and options when you’re clear about what you’re looking for.”

Stateless

“But there’s another way to approach this: you just do what’s in front of you right now, in the moment. If you’re creating art, you work with what’s in front of you on the canvas, in your heart and mind, and create the art right then. This doesn’t have to be about all art that came before it, and everything else you need to do. It’s just you and this canvas and paint, right now.”

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

Confessions of a Between-The-Margins Scribbler


Books have always seemed like magical things to me, from when I could barely hold one, through the long years to now. Because of that, and maybe more so because I never saw anyone in my house doing it, I never wrote in books. Even when I bought my books in college, and saw how many people would highlight material or write margin notes, such behavior seems almost sacrilegious to me.

But when I encountered things people wrote in the margins of books—“Not intuitive,” “Good point!” “Will be on test,” I always read them with fascination, particularly notes that were longer, and often that took issue with the author. (It’s always easier to argue with an author in his pages than in his face.)

That’s why when I saw the extensive marginalia (really, end-of-book blank-page marginalia) in Wade Davis’s One River, which my sweetie Alice is reading, I poured over it. That took some doing, and at some points a magnifying glass, because the writing was in a tiny scrawl. I am a person whose handwriting can give you liver failure, so I speak with authority.

The Davis book is nonfiction, its topic exploring the Amazonian rainforest. Why some reader took it upon him or herself to inscribe topics like “My Drug History” in the back of this book was puzzling, but gratifying. And why the writer would mingle “beer” and “coffee” amidst “DMT” and “Magic Mushrooms” was intriguing, but how much volume of drinking “Irish Cream” would cause one to note it as an entry in one’s drug history? And “Speed H20” was beyond any personal abuse of mine.

The most fascinating and extensive list on the pages is the “People I’d like to meet,” Perhaps this dates the writer, or the desired names were aspirational from the scribbler’s other reading, but among the luminaries:

Neal Cassady
Alan Watts
Albert Hoffmann (first synthesized LSD)
William Burroughs
Gary Snyder
Bukowski

He goes from these literary counterculture figures into bands and singers, i.e., The Moody Blues, Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones. But in another column there’s Mort Saul, Debbie Reynolds and Bob Hope, so he’s digging deeper than those tie-dyed 60s years. And there are interesting compositional distances between Margaret Mead and Ann Landers, but they are near each other in this writer’s pantheon.

There’s a “My Reading Record” area near a “Minds I’ve Entered Into…” but the material below that doesn’t seem to list books or minds, but titles of songs and events, like “Hands Across America.”

So, why did this person write these things, and why in this book? Alice is only a short way in, but what she’s said doesn’t indicate that the work is some kind of pantheon of the greats that might prompt such an exercise. Did the marginalist not want to buy a diary? The scribblings remind me a bit of what F. Scott Fitzgerald has the Gatsby character write to himself in his formative years: Rise from bed; dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling; study electricity; work; baseball and sports; practice elocution, poise, and how to attain it; study needed inventions.

Did this writer want to construct lists that told him he was on the right path, had tasted of stimulating minds, was a member in good standing of this coterie? I don’t know, but it made me wonder if I should write such a list.

Oh, there’s also a list titled “Mexico”:
Vitamins
2 Kerchiefs
3 Shirts
Red Jacket
Green Levis
Swim Trunks
Sandals

I didn’t see Frida Kahlo on the want-to-meet list, but if the writer included a good deal of food in that packing, they might be able to search for her ghost for a while. I’m not yet tempted to write my own confessions in the back of a book, but I do know Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups would be in my drug history.

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.