Monday, November 30, 2009


I can wait until Christmas. Most of us have experienced the slow movement of time that occurs as our skidding car approaches a guardrail, we trip and a path gradually rises to meet us, or we're stuck in a dead-still line. Give me one of those lines.

A postcard waited in our mailbox last week, carrying a short request: "40th Reunion Bluffton High School Class of 1970, August 28, 2010. Please mark your calendars and plan to attend!" I'm thinking "40th" must have been a typo.

Former neighbors from the Show-Me State visited us this weekend. Yesterday, we telephoned their daughter, Jordan, and suddenly realized she's about the age Karen was when our St. Louis friends gathered to help us load a U-Haul trailer to "North Carolina or Bust."

This coming June we will have nestled here among these mountains longer than the two of us have lived anywhere else (and we aren't real estate shopping). The little boy for whom Jordan wrote the story, "Adam's Great Adventure," will be entering his third decade.

Yes Virginia, there may be a Santa Claus. I wish he'd trek like a turtle before descending one of our chimneys.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

What's Underneath?

From a distance, a group of professional musicians dressed in black and white looks clean, solid and prepared to demonstrate that practice makes perfect. When I was in my twenties, backstage at the Kennedy Center, I spied a member of the National Symphony Orchestra slipping on his bow-tie and pulling a wrinkled jacket from his locker. As he walked by, I sniffed and did that thing most people do when they can't quite believe their noses -- sniffed again. Perhaps he took too literally the usual performance rule of "no perfumes or colognes."

I think musicians enjoyed being directed by Leonard Bernstein's baton. He could be intimidating with his amazing ear, his remarkable intelligence, his photographic memory, and the fact that often he had composed the scores on the musicians' stands. I remember once he turned to the union steward and said something like, "could we go another 10 minutes?" At the sound of a few grumbles, the steward shook his head and Mr. Bernstein stepped off the podium.

I would like to think the members of a community orchestra who gather unpaid have come to have fun. I think it's fair to say most of us do, although sometimes it requires special effort when we stumble in at the end of a long working day. Too often I see frowns and hear mumbling when our instruments are silent. "That was too fast." "I wish he'd give us a better downbeat." "What happened to the bassoons?"

Some musical groups recognize the truth of their efforts. Their first focus for fund-raising is their own membership. Too many others ask, after a concert, "Why didn't more people come? They missed a wonderful performance. The general public doesn't support music any more."

Hmmm. You can't ride an elevator, wait after punching 1, 2 and 3 for customer service, or watch a movie or commercial without musical accompaniment. This wouldn't happen if folks didn't "support music any more."

On the other hand, too many people expect performances to be as perfect as a professionally produced and carefully edited recording. During the early twentieth century, an upright piano played an important function in every properly appointed parlor. The household member who'd best figured out the blacks and whites led the entertainment, while everyone else sang. Now, almost every day, that piano goes unclaimed when it's offered free for pickup on Craigslist or

One of my gripes is the performer who, all excited, tells you about her every next appearance and insists you attend. Gradually you realize you haven't seen her at any concerts but her own. Listen to someone like Virginia. She won't be asking you to show up. You'll be begging her for a schedule of recital dates. In between, she'll be applauding every chance she gets.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Black Friday

My oldest brother sent an email wishing his siblings a relaxing day. Each year we rent a log splitter for one day and split the pile of wood we've collected since the last rental. Today was that day.

After eight hours with the machine, I'm physically spent, but I'm relaxed. The exercise took me away from both my professional writing and piano practicing. I had to stay alert to move the wood and operate the machine, but otherwise my mind wandered freely and unfettered. I didn't worry about the credit troubles of Dubai, whether folks were trampling each other to death for store bargains, or about people spending money on things others don't want.

George F. Will's column yesterday foresaw another "huge, value destroying hurricane" beginning today -- that is, the annual Christmas buying binge that instantly destroys billions of dollars of value. Referring to Joel Waldfogel's book, Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays, he claims that the gifts people buy for other people are usually poorly matched to their preferences. What the gift recipients would be willing to pay for the gifts is less than the givers paid. That difference is lost value -- estimated by Waldfogel at $12 billion in the 2007 Christmas season. Interesting, according to Will, data from 1919 shows that Christmas sales as a share of the economy are about half as large today as they once were. Cheers!

Why is today called "Black Friday?" Wikipedia offers two explanations. Some say it originated in Philadelphia, where the police used the term to describe the traffic resulting from millions going shopping the day after Thanksgiving. Merchants and the media use it to refer to the beginning of the period in which retailers go from being in the red to being in the black.

I didn't worry about Black Friday, even though I was among the shoppers at the Lexington Wal-Mart at 7:45 this morning. (Minutes later, I was the only customer at Green Valley Rentals.) All I spent was about $7 on a 2" ball trailer hitch, so I zipped through a self-service lane while others waited nearby with loaded carts. Knowing all those people were juicing up our economy eased my mind until Virginia whispered, "Did you notice all of them are using credit cards?"

"Oh shush," said I. "Most likely, they're taking advantage of their free-ride period. They'll pay everything off in 30 days."

Cool. I relaxed today.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Exit Strategy

This morning's run took me past several elderly buildings, two for sale. I had an urge to explore, the same feeling I remember from childhood. No matter how many people have visited, old places contain treasures, usually things we can't buy unless we hunt through flea markets and antique stores. At least one thing has changed since I was young -- I remember when we could have bought new the things I find.

After my run, I noticed a dusty folded piece of paper on the mantle in our bedroom, exactly the kind of thing you might come across in an abandoned site. It read: "Obama 289 McCain 321." A little over a year ago, Karen returned from one of her seemingly interminable stints at the polls and handed me that piece of paper. Today I tossed it in the copper bucket we keep handy to feed our fireplace, then caught myself thinking, "Is this something I should keep for posterity?" Fifty years from now someone might find it interesting. No, I left it there. Purgatory knows our houses already contain enough nonsense.

That decision was easy, but it set me thinking about other choices, like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Former President Bush's most lasting legacy may be the important lesson: have an exit strategy.

It might be fun to buy those old buildings I watched this morning. (Driving by in a car, you catch a glimpse; when running, you get to watch.) One was an old motel, with a restaurant, a line of rooms and a couple structures that might have been a laundry and game room. How about converting them into a retirement center? Right, in Glasgow, along the not-so scenic flat main drag? They'd be hard to sell -- no exit.

Guests often ooh and aah at my 9-foot concert grand, then they ask, "How will you get it out of here?" Don't worry. I have a plan.

By now, you know we have goats and chickens. Runner ducks are on the way. They cramp a traveling lifestyle. What if we miss our freedom? First, we'll sell the animals we've named. Second, we'll eat what we can't sell.

Virginia, transplanted from a neighborhood of millions to one with a few hardy souls, knew she could move again if things didn't work out. Karen and I have done that a few times, not because things didn't work out but because it felt right to move on. Do that too many times and no one will come to your funeral. Who cares?

Today's advice: Think things through. Always have an exit strategy unless you truly don't care, which also counts as a plan.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Life is good and getting better. I haven't lost my job (although I've threatened to fire myself), the cabinets in our canning kitchen are full, the freezer is packed, our wells give us good water (so far as we know; maybe we should test it), and our family and friends seem to be well or on the road to recovery. My garden continues to feed our table in late November. What could be finer?

Good stuff is on its way. The Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf. An LED light bulb that burns less than 10 watts while generating the brightness of a 60-watt incandescent. Electrodes our brains can use to tweet on Twitter. More efficient batteries. Levitating mice. Pork grown in petri dishes without methane emissions or slaughtered pig brains. Vertical high-rise hydroponic gardens.

Buy that stock. The recession is almost over. the Dow Jones Industrial Average is rebounding, back on its way to 20,000.
Virginia says, "Don't continue reading. Be happy."

My gut tells me I've just explained why the stock market is up -- the big O, Optimism, or maybe just hope (some folks call it "the wave" effect). We're happy to sweep our doubts under the Chinese carpet.

Something fishy is going on. I've got to carp about it. Every month we find comfort in reports that unemployment is rising more slowly (cheers!). Proposals to reform the banking and financial industry are shriveling on the vine. People we don't know are cashing lottery-sized bonus checks from companies our tax dollars rescued only one year ago. Meanwhile, our "safe" investments earn minuscule interest rates. Office buildings sit empty. The same "for sale" signs have decorated yards for years and new ones keep sprouting.

Aw, forget it. Let's party. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Try to remember: 1979 Beaux Arts Ball, Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C., a fundraiser for the Corcoran School of Art. I was a gawking spouse of a student, having slipped in with a $5 pass on the ruse of offering free help. My used penguin costume came from a formals rental shop on 18th Street (when I bought it for $40, the proprietor tossed in a stained cummerbund and ragged suspenders; the same outfit served me well at music gigs). My left hand held an eye mask on a stick and I felt like a peeping tom as the evening loosened up, particularly when men kissed on the grand staircase and a transvestite in a skimpy nurse's dress invited all comers to touch the bulging breasts his partner, a cosmetic surgeon, had recently installed.

Thirty years later, I searched for a dark suit and tie. Whenever I choose one I hope it still fits. I'm not retired, but my suits are. Only my original tuxedo's replacement regularly sees moonlight.

Karen barely recognized me when I greeted her in a patterned stripe suit, hung by a black and white tie. Pinched black wingtips tipped me toward the car. After a short drive, we parked for a few minutes, watching our neighbors arrive. Most seemed like strangers, having abandoned overalls and camouflage. They looked surprisingly normal. Perhaps we should attend church more often. We joined the crowd descending a hill to the cemetery and exchanged greetings, smiles and a few stories and jokes. A tent and glistening Confederate magnolia wreath led us to the appropriate gravesite.

Our murmuring stopped when a bagpipe sounded its off-key salute. Knowing nothing about bagpipes, except what my Kurzweil keyboard produces, I wondered if a sharp were missing. We watched as the family slowly left a line of parked cars and hunched into the dozen pillowed chairs clustered under the tent. Each member grasped a red rose. The family matriarch, aged 96 with a repairing hip, didn't look familiar in her wheelchair. We remembered a spry Democrat who bounded down basement stairs to iron her and her daughter's laundry. Now the two would not even share a room. Her over-sized sunglasses looked very sad.

Virginia went shopping after she found a dinner invitation in her mailbox. She had nothing nice enough in her backpack wardrobe and no one to dress her.

Monday, November 23, 2009


When I'm not bleeding, I don't think about band-aids unless someone close to me is bleeding or I've written "band-aids" on our grocery list.

Our home sits high on a hill above Elk Creek and the James River, so when it rains long I don't worry about flooding.

Because we've set aside a fair amount of savings, I don't fret much about the recession we hope is almost over. That's not true. I do worry. Some of our investments have taken it on the chin, and I have a sneaking suspicion we're not climbing out of this thing -- that there is much more to come.

It's easy not to worry when we feel safe and sound. Then, all of a sudden, something changes.

The highest point on the 1200-some islands of the Maldives is no more than several feet above sea level. If I lived there, I'm sure I would think a lot more about global warming than I do seven hundred feet higher. Where I live, we have the luxury of debating whether or not global warming is occurring.

An overwhelming crowd of experts says it's happening. Others dispute it. If I lived in the Maldives, I'd be getting pretty upset about the rest of the world's failure to take every step possible to reduce the globe's warming. We who think we're safe now must not be selfish. We must not ignore the Maldives. If the day comes when we watch islanders scramble for dry land, we'd better be prepared for more trouble.

I first heard that global warming is a conspiracy of the Democrats in 2000 when I overheard a conversation in the cafeteria of a children's hospital. Our son was recuperating from a bowel resection. Why, I wondered, would any political party engage in this kind of conspiracy? Since then, we've wasted nearly ten years of opportunity in nonproductive debate.

In Natural Capitalism, Hawkens, Lovins and Lovins not only pointed out that reducing our carbon footprint makes economic sense, they provided hundreds of examples of what businesses and countries around the world have done to take advantage of this cash cow. So, even if global warming were a hoax or not induced by human activity, the measures we take to reduce carbon emissions are likely to make sense.

Virginia says, "read the book even though it's ancient history by now." (It was published in 1999.) Or try to catch Lovins when he speaks near you. Maybe you've read some of the many depressing, doom-saying books. Natural Capitalism is an optimistic description of an approach that works.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

My Favorite Things

World peace. Almost everyone laughs at the beauty contestant who offers this response to the big question. Give her a break. I like that answer, especially if it's spruced up to show some thought went into it. I suppose we laugh because we don't believe world peace is possible. But it is. We must believe it is. It isn't going to happen if we don't give it a chance.

Switch sexes for the moment. Mr. America. Big muscles. Macho. "Sir, if you had one wish, what would it be?" Here is a fellow bred to do battle. If he joined the military, it wouldn't be to do "the surge." I mean, think a moment, these guys are trained to "win," not to help rebuild roads, sewers and schools. "Time's up. What's your answer?"

If you think this scenario is unrealistic, maybe you're too young to remember Cassius Clay. Soon after he became Muhammad Ali, member of Islam, he was threatened with prison when three times he refused to step forward for military induction. As it turned out, the fighter wasn't that kind of fighter. Tried, convicted, his case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. He won (as he usually did). Some jeered. Others of us cheered.

After world peace, what's next? Raindrops on roses? Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes? I sincerely doubt it. More likely, brown paper packages tied up with strings. We like our things. I'm no exception. I have a feeling that what seems to be almost everyone's favorite Broadway tune is aptly titled. We can't pick just one thing, so we make sure it's plural, our favorite hundreds of our thousands of things. This sort of tears the word "favorite" down to size, doesn't it?

Friends of ours have a son who may appear difficult from a parent's perspective, but I'm proud of this guy. He took his backpack and maybe forty dollars and hitchhiked to a city. His dream was to make sails and eventually sail away. A day or two after arriving, he landed a temporary job in a boatyard and a part-time position at a restaurant. He found a five-acre parcel downtown, near a port-a-john, a convenience store and some public housing, where he pitched his tent. When the weather turned cooler, he moved up, into an insulated wigwam. The first jobs disappeared; now he manages a tee shirt shop. Offered a raise, he said, "I don't need one."

Virginia took a similar path when she hoisted her pack and aimed north on the Appalachian Trail. Sometimes it makes sense to set "things" aside and focus on what matters most. We could live with much less material support than we do. Consumption may feed our economy, but I have a feeling we could starve it and find other ways to survive.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Orange Elegy

Gunshots echo through our valley this light-filled Saturday. It's orange vest weather, but I'll let mine dangle until the new year, except on Sundays. Meanwhile, let me grouse about the expanding roadside collection of cans and bottles as these irritating holiday decorations sparkle in the sun.

This is not a diatribe against smart, responsible hunters. Each year we're blessed with gifts of venison for our freezer. I can admire graceful white-tail deer until they decimate my beets and carrots. I've even been known to contemplate shopping at Nuckols Gun Works. Without hunters, we might have no chance of keeping the deer population under control.

Unfortunately, two heedless hunters have spoiled this season in our neck of the woods, stilling the hearts of two young people. May other guns not point at human targets. And why, tell me, do the cans and bottles pile up this time of year?

Virginia wore orange through November and December as she renovated her sylvan church. She welcomed pressure-treated venison and recycled the cans and bottles tossed from pickups.

Friday, November 20, 2009

All [Wo]Men are Created Equal

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...."

This phrase appears in:
(a) the Bible.
(b) the United States Constitution.
(c) the Declaration of Independence of the United States.
(d) the Gettysburg Address.
(e) both (c) and (d).

If you're wondering about the right answer, perhaps a Google search will help you out. I suspect this is one question that would draw a lot of (a) answers in a poll of Americans.

Where did the statement "all men are created equal" originate? Some say Thomas Jefferson wrote it to express dissatisfaction with the privileges of royalty.

Now consider this: The phrase is -- (a) true, or (b) false.

A Google search may help answer this question, too. Think of the babies born around the world and whether their parents can do a Google search. Some can, some can't. Are those babies created equal?

Some would say they aren't. Certain babies clearly have advantages others don't have -- such as higher levels of wealth, intelligence, physical ability, and beauty -- yet we have seen that an abundance of one talent over another doesn't necessarily mean that person will "succeed" more than someone with less talent; Witness, Michael Jackson or John Forbes Nash, Jr. (whose schizophrenia is shown in The Beautiful Mind). Thomas Hobbes (The Leviathan) suggested that when all is taken into account, the difference between one human and another is not so great that one may reasonably pretend to be more valuable than someone else.

I think Hobbes was right, and that one of the mistakes we make is to over-emphasize specialized talent, such as a biologist, a mathematician, a writer, or a lawyer. Wendell Berry, in Citizenship Papers, writes: "Facts in isolation are false. The more isolated a fact or a set of facts is, the more false it is. A fact is true in the absolute sense only in association with all facts. This is why the departmentalization of knowledge in our colleges and universities is fundamentally wrong."

Time, the magazine, has struck out twice on this topic in recent issues. A couple weeks ago, an article bemoaned the fact that budget cuts have "trimmed starting pay at major airlines to $36,000 -- little more than a grade school teacher's." This week's article on five lessons we can learn from China quoted a young Chinese engineer as saying none of his descendants would ever work in the wheat fields again, as an example of the lesson, "Look over the horizon." What are we being asked to buy into -- that grade school teachers aren't worth as much as airline pilots and that farmers are less valuable than engineers?

Nonsense. If I were to choose people I admire for their expertise, I would include a fine farmer among them. A successful farmer is the quintessential "Renaissance" person -- meteorologist, mechanic, chemist, biologist, environmentalist, reader, scientific experimenter, athlete, economist, manager and more. I would also include an excellent grade school teacher, someone who, like the farmer, wends a wide knowledge of living into a class experience.

Karen, Virginia and I have discussed an ideal university. The students arrive in early summer (in our climate) to build a dormitory and grow food so as to be prepared for cooler weather in the Fall. As they pound nails and hoe weeds, they discuss relevant mathematical and engineering principles, as well as books they have read. Their entire learning experience is built around living experience.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

And It Was Very Good

Many folks see evolution as a call to arms. Some of them judge anyone who thinks evolution has merits to be not a "Christian."

I don't get it. I thought "Christian" referred to belief in Christ, whose teachings appear in the New Testament, not the Old, and who, as I recall (my memory could be faulty) did not discuss evolution.

When I turn to Genesis 1, I find the 7-day creation story these folks think is critical to Christian thought. As I read it, Genesis 1 gives the following schematic:

Day 0: A formless, watery void.

Day 1: Light.

Day 2: Sky.

Day 3: Dry land ("earth") and the "seas."

Day 4: Sun, moon and stars.

Day 5: Living creatures (but not humans).

Day 6: Humankind.

Day 7: Rest.

I admit that making this neat list from the sometimes ambiguous language might be risky, but I think I have the basic elements "correct."

Don't stop! There's more. Genesis 2 mixes things up a bit. In Genesis 2, man is created earlier than the "animal of the field" and "every bird of the air," sort of throwing a wrench in the science of the 7-day story of Genesis 1.

Why, I ask, does the Bible begin with such a remarkable inconsistency? Could it be a warning that the words that follow should not be read "literally?"

When one of her neighbors welcomed Virginia to Sin Valley, she carried a gift. "If you're going to live in this church," she said, "then you need one of these." "Thank you," said Virginia, as she placed the new Bible on a dirty, dusty mantle and went back to work.

P.S. (1/10/10).  Barbara Kingsolver, in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle offers a real-world example of evolution:  "More than 500 species of insects and mites now resist our chemical controls [pesticides], along with over 150 viruses and other plant pathogens.  More than 270 of our recently developed herbicides have now become ineffective for controlling some weeds.  Some 300 weed species resist all herbicides."

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Do you know what's really sad (and irresponsible)? That all of us have friends suffering from cancer and instead of choosing to tackle cancer like we responded to Sputnik, we've spent more than $3 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Sputnik shocked the U.S. and inspired us to invest in scientific research and education.) $3 trillion! We could have used it for good things, such as fighting cancer, providing excellent health care, and feeding the hungry.

Let's make this personal, as we must. My father died of cancer 12 years ago. He deserved better then and his memory deserves better now. My mother, my in-laws and my sister-in-law are cancer survivors. If your loved ones are suffering and you think our money has been well-spent, think again.

You might ask yourself this question. In 2001, assuming you're part of a family of four, would you have been willing to write a check for $40,000 to the U.S. government to pay for these wars? That's $3 trillion divided by 300 million U.S. residents, times 4. If you would have been willing then, do you think you would be pleased with your investment now? Make that -- are you happy with your investment now, because since you didn't write a check, the $40,000 amount waits to be repaid by your children and grandchildren, with interest of course, even though it has vaporized?

Virginia says my numbers may be wrong, but the logic is right. One of her neighbors says we may burn in hell for this.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Homeland Security

When local teenagers found a radio-telephone left by a public safety employee in the bathroom of a gasoline station, they tried it out, resulting in vehicles rushing to a phantom emergency. Rather than charging them with felonies, I wanted to reward them for pointing out a serious glitch in "homeland security." Recent reports have disclosed that our country's air traffic control system is outmoded and does not provide real-time data; if I remember correctly, it tracks planes twelve seconds after they've been.

Eight years after 9/11/01, homeland security remains elusive. I feel as if we've checked our brains into high school lockers. When I see the fancy new emergency vehicles purchased with federal funds, I think of the Mustangs teenage boys covet and crash. If the things last, they'll be outmoded in three years.

A particularly important failure sticks out. How can we expect to be "safe" if we depend on distant supplies for the basics of everyday life? It's been reported that the average food item on an American table has traveled 1500 miles. If you think that's normal, let me mention that the same average for Italian tables is less than 50 miles. Our number one priority should have been, and should be, developing local and regional resources, not fighting civil wars overseas (Virginia whispers, "could any war be 'civil?'"). We need plans that focus on satisfying basic needs with products available nearby, including food, water and energy. In the event of an emergency, the "battle" will be lost if many of us are thirsty, hungry and power-less.

Monday, November 16, 2009


A vegetarian, in an op-ed piece in today's Washington Post, wrote that he's tired of apologizing for causing inconvenience at dinner events. He argued that it's time for carnivores to apologize for their adverse environmental effects.

I'm a debitarian and I think it's time for the high users of consumer credit to apologize to the rest of us for their adverse economic impact. If they hadn't been greedy, and susceptible to encouragement from mortgage brokers and other moneymongers, the recent financial collapse might not have happened. I'm not against credit altogether. I support responsible use -- say, a mortgage loan well within the borrower's ability to pay, a credit card balance he or she could pay off within a month (or maybe three), and occasional use for true personal financial emergencies, such as medical treatment.

Did you know that beginning about 2004 banks began allowing customers to exceed their account balances when they used debit cards? Now over 80% of banks allow this. Abracadabra, the debit card suddenly becomes a "credit" card, often without its user even knowing it.

I think practices like this contributed to the financial crisis we're in and may hurt our ability to crawl out of it. I expressed this opinion, including my recommendation that the Federal Reserve Board ban the practice, when I commented on the Board's proposal to sanction the practice so long as the banks disclose what they're doing.

The Fed ignored me. The banks "need" those overdraft fees. The final regulation, adopted last week, simply requires disclosure in advance, which could be as early as when an account is opened.

The mom of Phil, a banker who had the hots for Virginia, was impressed by Virginia's reaction when she learned that she had "earned" the trust of her grandfather. Even before Virginia knew how much money was involved, she made sure her sister would share the bounty. Virginia was a debitarian, too.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Road Kill

Carnage littered my run this morning, mostly squirrels, with a few skunks and opossums. Something about this time of year brings animals to the roadways, maybe the warm asphalt.

One of the squirrels had died in a cozy, prayerful-like curl, as if he had died happy. The mouths of the others were opened into final screams.

Death by Chocolate
(dedicated to the Arrowhead Trio)

He hovers by the door,
reluctant to enter,
savoring every note,
settles into an armchair,
nodding, legs askew.
He need not wait any longer
for heaven; the note
on his lap says “thank you.”

Three wrinkled men
play unfamiliar masterworks
to almost empty halls,
dreaming that on a distant day
they will join him on stage
midst dissonant harmony.
Instead of screaming ambulances,
listeners will gently applaud.

The chance of dying during a concert or tennis match is mighty slim, as is, I suppose, the risk of dying during a scream. We'd rather die happy, unless perhaps it happens during an act of heroism, such as pushing a child to safety from a speeding car.

Something we can do for ourselves, although it may seem selfish and self-centered, is to consider redesigning the way we live. If we want to die happy, we should try to live happy. If we want to die heroically, we should try to live heroically.

This reminds me of a question facilitators of planning workshops sometimes ask, "If you knew you only had 6 months to live, would you be doing what you're doing?" If the answer is no, then "why not?"

I once knew a woman who cleaned her house everyday. She complained about being "too busy." I don't remember if she complained because of all the other things she had to do, or because her house was dirty.

Virginia chose to answer the question "yes." I have a feeling a "yes" answer is easier for folks who feel financially independent than for people who struggle to make ends meet, but none of us wants to be roadkill.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Imagining Things

Sometimes I fret about things I have no business thinking about. Or do I? For example, I read in a newspaper that a request by the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity was denied because "neighbors expressed concern about safety and property value."

I wasn't at the hearing, so I don't know what was said, and the paper didn't elaborate. Let me speculate. The chairman of the zoning committee says, "Mr. Jones, you wanted to say something?" Jones responds, "Yes, thank you. I live in the neighborhood and am opposed to this request. We neighbors are concerned about safety and property values." The chairman asks, "What do you mean?" "If you approve this request, our property values will decrease," says Jones.

Then what? Did Jones present a poster or PowerPoint slides showing the effect of a Habitat home on property values? Did Habitat respond by pointing to the increase in the assessed value of a house it had built two doors down in 2005, or by displaying statistics on the property values in other neighborhoods with Habitat homes?

Or was Jones concerned about something else?

-- That single mothers set bad examples for neighborhood children?

-- That people who can't afford to buy homes on the regular real estate market might default, resulting in the home sitting vacant during foreclosure?

-- That singles who move into Habitat homes tend to allow significant others to stay over or move in, leading to poor family values?

-- That people of different color from that prevalent in the neighborhood are poor neighbors?

I understand. Some life coaches encourage folks not to fuss about scenarios their minds imagine. I am letting go....

...but I know that if Virginia were chairperson of the zoning committee, she would have asked Mr. Jones question after question until he said what he meant or asked to be excused.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Picking Peas in November

I picked peas this morning, enough for one good serving or to flavor the soup Karen's planning to make for dinner. I think Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) is firming Karen's localvore resolve. We produce a large portion of what we eat, but haven't eliminated our grocery bill. I like to think that's coming.

The more I read and hear about the food sold in stores, the more I wonder if that's the biggest reason why each of us is at high risk for cancers. Most of us think either too little about what we put in our mouths or too much about it for the wrong reason -- "I'm too fat."

I'm looking forward to tasting goat meat. At the same time, I'm a bit queasy about eating Chaps or Telly. Maybe the best way to go about this is to find another goatherd and trade butchered animals (without mentioning any names). When my college roommate called this morning, he mentioned that a goat resides in their freezer. He said nothing about its name or breed. He said the one dish they've made so far, a curry dish, was very good, not at all "gamey" and more like beef or chicken than lamb.

Speaking of chicken, I'm working up to wringing my first neck, maybe next Spring. So far, each of our 10 hens has been focused on laying eggs so as not to draw attention to itself. The rooster, Puck, has come the closest to roasting, having not prompted anyone to go broody, but we've promised him leniency through at least one Springtime.

Virginia is a localvore, without being radical about it. Mung, down the road from her place, is the rich radical.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Flood Watch-Listen

This morning, before settling into a piano practice session, I take a moment to listen to live entertainment. Opossum Run provides the pedal point, an oscillating low Russian bass D thundering against granite boulders that do not budge. The Hogs of the Washington Redskins' front line would be envious. A persistent, random staccato pings the alto line, as raindrops chime A off the cabin's metal roof. Gone or drowned out is the usual soprano descant of tweets and chirps midst the drones of man-made planes. Leaf crunches have diminuendoed into soggy slosh, pianissimo.

I find comfort here, as the repetitions change. Did the low D accelerate and ascend to an E-flat? Have the altos diminished with a ritardando?

Has this natural music been the inspiration for minimalist composers like Philip Glass (for example, Kundun), John Adams (Shaker Loops) and Steve Reich (Eight Lines)? Listening to the entertainment this morning, I think I understand them better. If copying is the highest form of applause, then perhaps as they composed, God smiled.

I recently heard a critic commend a piece by Philip Glass. He compared this kind of music to modern art (I forget whose, maybe that of Sol LeWitt or Richard Sera). He likened both to lying on the grass watching clouds in the sky slowly change patterns. I don't think I'll watch, or listen to, a tree grow or a rock erode, but I had never before so clearly sensed a connection between the visual and musical arts.

Virginia caught on to this much faster than I.

[If you're interested in hearing the music mentioned, try:




Or the art:



Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Joy of Learning

The Arrowhead Trio gathered yesterday for a coaching session with the premiere violinist and violin teacher in our area. Our clarinetist had warned us, "that may be more scary than playing a concert." Concertgoers usually don't know the music well, but here was an expert hovering over our scores as we played. We felt as if we were looking at pimples, wrinkles and hair follicles in a magnifying mirror.

Our coach focused us on something I didn't emphasize in my "Day of a Concert" posting -- preparedness in interpretation. His questions reminded us of conversations we'd had, then swept under the rug. Professionals know how the group will approach each decision point in performance. Amateurs may face the music with more randomness, failing even to recognize many of those decision points.

Music gets harder to play -- better, but more difficult -- the more you learn about it. My first violin teacher (I began taking lessons at the ripe young age of 51) used to laugh when I arrived at my lesson muttering, "I feel as if I'm starting over. I thought I was getting better and now I realize I'm still terrible." "You've passed another threshold," he'd say, "it happens to all of us." Let's call them levels of learning. Arriving at a new threshold, self-defined or induced by the way a series of method books is organized, we feel frustrated that so much remains to be learned, "I'm getting nowhere." If we keep plugging away, we settle into the new level and begin to feel comfortable again. Bam! We hit the next threshold -- "what was I thinking? I'm lousy at this." We keep at it or we quit.

A couple anecdotes come to mind, but please don't quote me because they may be pure fiction. Several singers told me stories about John Bullock (father of the actress, Sandra), a well-known teacher of singing. According to the lore, if Mr. Bullock accepted you as a student (far from a sure thing; you had to be good), you might go six months working on vocal production before singing a single song. I heard a similar story about Yo-Yo Ma -- that when he was a regional artist he asked Pablo Casals to teach him. At first, Mr. Casals refused. When the young Ma persisted, the elder master agreed on the condition that Ma not use his fingerboard for six months -- that is, he would exclusively work on bowing technique. The "sabbatical" supposedly helped Yo-Yo Ma break onto the international scene.

All of us draw different lines in our efforts to learn, for various reasons, including intelligence, natural talent, physical ability, discipline, time constraints, wealth, and cultural values. Some will look at Virginia and say, "What a shame! She could have been a star." Others will say, "What a gem! She's one star who has her head on straight."

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


In his first autobiography, My Own Story, Luciano Pavarotti stressed the importance of practicing every day. Miss one day, he said, and "the voice" falters. I wonder, if it's true, would the reason be physiological or psychological, or both? I understand, from my resident former bodybuilder, that building muscles requires rest time. Most bodybuilders don't push the same muscles to the limit every single day. Instead, they alternate, giving muscle tissue time to repair and recover. Maybe this is hogwash. Even if true, it may have no relevance to singing.

Virginia brings this topic to mind. Fifteen years after completing a section hike with her father, she steps out of the New York State Theater in Manhattan and heads to Springer Mountain, Georgia, where she snaps on a backpack and begins the climb to places like Damascus and the James River Face Wilderness. Is she so burned out she stops singing altogether? Does she hum as she scales the heights and open her full voice into the overlooks?

Last Wednesday evening also prompted these thoughts as the Rockbridge Chamber Singers sightread the Liebeslieder Walzer (Lovesong Waltzes) by Johannes Brahms. I'm not a quitter, but I considered signing out as I struggled with the tenor tessitura (the vocal range most prevalent for tenors in the musical selections). My voice finished the practice exhausted, most likely because I haven't sung with any regularity for eight years. Too long. Not too late, I hope.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Car Fanatics, Take Note

Several people, including my oldest brother, have said, "Your driveway looks like a used car lot." My friends, it's not that we're trying to set an example. We view our cherished vehicles as pets and keep them until they die -- and then we cry. But I must confess: I itch every time I see a picture of a Tesla Roadster (traitor!).

Yesterday I added our dear 1988 Ford Ranger pickup to the collection of a neighbor, bringing our supply down from 5 to 4, from 870,000 miles to 645,000 miles. I hated to see 225,000 miles disappear. That truck moved the world for us.

"Say goodbye," I muttered as I drove away. When I returned, I think Karen said, "Were you embarrassed? I heard you the entire way and smelled the smoke." I guess I looked like Pigpen in a car. I was a tad concerned about the expired inspection sticker and the empty license plate holders, but embarrassed? No way. Would you be embarrassed going for a walk with your beloved spouse or grandmother if she threw a rod, sputtering flatulence, stinky cigar (to cover up) and all? I didn't think so. Love lifts one above petty embarrassments.

I'm waiting for an all-electric car I can recharge with a solar panel. If I surrendered these ancient vehicles, someone else would drive them. Buying a new car when we don't need one seems counterproductive and ecologically repulsive, but I'll be open-minded about it. I suppose we could spray-paint each one "clunker" and donate it to the pile of vehicles the U.S. government recently bought. Then they'd be torn apart, recycled and never driven again.

By the way, Virginia chose an old pickup when she realized she was going to do some hauling.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Nose Plugs

I got behind. I could say the behinds got ahead of me. I received word from our friends at the horse farm that the pile that supplies our gardens with manure was overflowing. I rushed off to remedy the situation and deposited two pickup loads in my investment account. I feel rich and getting richer each time I glance at the steaming mound in our field. It's our growth fund. Eventually, I hope to have enough composted crap to feed my gardens the rest of my life. (I want to live a very long time.)

Moving from one stink to another, I planted garlic in a single row around one of my nine 15' x 35' garden beds. By spring it will look like green candles on a birthday cake. If this little odor fence doesn't discourage the varmints, it will deserve at least an "8" for style. Some say you should wait until the longest day of the year to plant garlic. I vote for November, when the ground is soft and dry.

I'm conducting an experiment, inspired by Will Allen, an entrepreneurial genius who operates the last remaining farm within the city limits of Milwaukee and heats his greenhouses with compost. (Check him out at I deposited some of the manure in a long oak box Karen installed in our greenhouse. Will it help keep the greenhouse warm this winter?

I like to think my gardening efforts will leave messages for future grandchildren. Maybe I should bury a letter, too. Virginia's grandfather did.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Let Them Eat Soap

We have a visitor in our cabin. I'm beginning to think he or she has moved in for good.

I normally keep bars of handsoap in the mirrored cabinets above the bathroom sinks. When guests arrive I inevitably forget to tell them where the soap is. Our most recent company set a nice bar of hotel soap on the edge of a sink. After they left, I noticed it and left it alone.

Although I made a point of keeping the doors to that bathroom closed, yesterday morning I noticed the sweet little round bar had disappeared. Gourmet soap. Who ate it? Not Virginia, I'm sure. I'll have to remember this if I ever have a craving for cocoa butter, oils, lard or anything else that might give me some energy. But what about the lye? Or the glycerin?

As I looked around to see if glycerin is edible, I discovered it's in many food products, including some toothpastes. Glycerin can be derived from either vegetable or animal sources, so all you vegeterians and vegans, watch out!

Then I searched to see if lye is edible. It's safe to say eating lye is not generally recommended. Children do it sometimes without parental permission. Curiously, several sources have criticized Swedes for eating Swedish meatballs, a staple made of cat meat soaked for hours in lye. That sounds like trouble to me, but I'm not going to bet my life, or even a nickel, on the truth of it.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Rumors a/k/a Wishful Thinking

A friend recently gave me a draft of a poem about rumors. A rumor is the result of egos working, trying to lift up someone by pulling down someone else.

I've fortuitously found myself reading something else right on point, Kafka's "The Castle." The novel is a story of a village and a nearby castle that exists -- more than that, depends -- on rumors. Everything the reader knows about the castle comes from village gossip. At times, one wonders if the castle exists.

About three-fifths of the way through this book, Olga tells the main character of the novel, known only as K, why the village shuns her family. At first, we're led to believe Olga's sister, Amalia, is the reason. An official of the castle noticed Amalia at a village celebration and, as castle officials tended to do when they desired female attention, summoned Amalia by sending a letter via messenger. Amalia read the letter, not the least bit loving or considerate in nature, and tore it up in the face of the messenger. This was not how village girls were supposed to behave.

The villagers dropped by Amalia's home, in effect, to say goodbye. Each one retrieved any shoes left for repairs with Amalia's father, the cobbler, paid any debt owed to the father, and henceforth made no contact with the family.

Olga's (extended and aggravating) story suggests that her family perpetrated its continuing situation. According to Olga, the village would have "forgotten" the incident if the family had proceeded to act as if its supposed affront to the castle had been resolved. Instead, the father took as his mission a quest for Amalia's forgiveness, losing his health and sanity in the process. His pursuit of the castle's pardon hit a wall because the castle hadn't accused him or Amalia or his family of anything, so there was nothing to pardon. His co-dependent family sold almost everything they owned to support his hopeless, worthless quest.

Here we are, a hundred years later, continuing the tradition of Amalia's family. Think of the time we waste guessing what others are thinking. Marriages often fall apart -- Virginia's may have -- because spouses assume they know what the other one thinks. I'd bet many marriages are founded on a betrothed's fear of what x, y and z would think if the wedding were canceled. Family feuds thrive for years based on an incident interpreted differently by one another. Friends and acquaintances lose contact because someone thought this and that and no one bothered to check the facts.

Why do we do this to ourselves and each other? Because "I" am the most important. We like to think others think about us. We like to imagine what they think about us. In a long-winded way, Eckhart Tolle focuses on this in his book, "A New Earth." We'd be much better off if each of us recognized when the "ego" is talking and laughed it away.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Day of a Concert

I wonder how professional musicians feel on concert days. Michael Jackson told Oprah he never got nervous. I'm quite sure that's unusual. Some argue that a bit of nervousness adds a needed edge. The true mark of a professional (in any field) may be an ideal combination of technique, intelligence, understanding, appreciation, preparedness, concentration, self-esteem, humility, and attitude. We amateurs lack one or more of those talents.

I'd guess the most common shortcomings are technique and preparedness. We want to play repertoire we aren't quite ready to handle. On the other hand, like the old saying, if you want to become better at tennis (or x), you need to play with someone better than you.

I'm often amazed by an artist's performance, as well as a composer's presentation, of the "simple." It's easy to be misled by something "simple." As I try to memorize the Schumann piano concerto, one of my stumbling blocks has been the first four measures of the cadenza near the end of the first movement, learning when each finger moves quietly, slowly, like a slo-mo Bach invention.

I sat down this morning of an Arrowhead Trio concert, Virginia neatly tucked away, and worked through our selections for this evening. In a sense, I did triage, which I don't suppose a professional would do unless lazy or overbooked. Focusing on the most difficult measures, I fought a struggling morale and prayed that tonight the odds would favor me (that is, if I can play a passage to my satisfaction six times out of ten, tonight each time will be one of those six). Perhaps I should have focused on the "easy" notes.

I imagine a professional is more astute at reducing the distractions. "Practice makes perfect" refers to more than technique, extending to things like being accustomed to performance situations (unfamiliar pianos and halls, different temperatures), instrument failures (faulty pedals, sticky keys), extraneous sounds (coughs, cellphones), accidental blunders, and the presence of critics. I find I can construct a bubble of sorts, but I'm not certain I've set the right balances. I don't want to be like the fellow who takes a prescription drug and loses his sympathy and passion.

What was it that derailed Virginia's career? She had everything, except maybe attitude.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Death, and Life

Jack Frost paid us a killing visit last night, our first this season. Yesterday I should have gathered the warm green tomatoes that are now shiny, soon-to-be-slimy.

A couple weeks ago I transplanted a tomato vine into the greenhouse we constructed from a kit earlier this Fall. The vine's been doing fine, with red fruit ripening. Neighboring spinach sprouts thrive and potted artichokes show new color.

I think I'm in love with this year's beets, carrots, parsnips, salsify and greens, which rest outside in their beds of mulch. I wish I'd planted more, although I recall that in August when I started these guys the rest of the gardens were packed with thriving crops. To me, rare is the candy that beats the taste of a freshly dug carrot.

A long list of garden tasks awaits me. I should dig potatoes or mulch them to bed for the winter. It's November, so I must get garlic growing. The entire garden needs to be tidied, composted, manured and mulched so it's ready to be scratched open when the first seeds of next year take their turns. No-till gardening works well so long as I plan ahead.

Brrr. That was not my computer whirring this morning. It reminded me of another chore -- collecting and splitting firewood. I've marked dead standing trees with gold spray paint. If I were a year or two ahead, as I should be, our woodstove would be roasting, our home fire burning.

Virginia in more than one sense got a second chance to burn the home fires.

Making Notes

The god of bad notes guards my piano. A friend gave me a carved African statue, saying it would swallow the missed notes I threw from the keyboard so other listeners wouldn't hear them.

Virginia grew yesterday. I've finally learned to jot down ideas when they come to me. Otherwise they may be lost forever. I keep bound journals everywhere I frequent so when the muse speaks I write. Handy little books, I found several at K-Mart long ago. When they were filled with good and bad notes, I couldn't find the same kind anywhere until I went online and ordered a couple dozen.

Speaking of bad notes, yesterday I filled the air with them. I lay the blame on worn out contacts, which I replaced this morning, an unfamiliar piano, a noisy room, and a lack of concentration. We, the Arrowhead Trio -- consisting of a violinist, clarinetist and me -- did a run-through of a concert scheduled for Thursday evening at DuPont Hall, Washington and Lee University. We played in the Commons of the university, where students and faculty dine and socialize. As we played, they hovered or passed by, quietly studying, noisily yelling greetings to friends, checking email, singing, humming, and mostly ignoring us in the corner. Kind of like playing at a charity fundraiser or wedding reception, it was a good way to expose the music of Hovhaness, Arutiunian, Milhaud and Shostakovich, all twentieth century composers, to a captive crowd. One by one, we goofed up, leaving no one person to criticize.

In the evening, when I arrived at the weekly practice of our community chorus, the men warmed up while the women completed a sectional rehearsal. One of the basses, who has opera experience, led us in five-note scales of "enns." Taking advantage of the opportunity to offer five-cents' worth of advice, he commented on how difficult singing is because it depends on human body parts that can't be controlled like a man-made instrument. Disregarding for the moment the fact that human body parts must behave in specialized ways to play any instrument and machines have a tendency to break down, I think of the many "untrained" singers who perform seemingly effortlessly. As the bass pointed out, while singing can be difficult, it can, at times, also seem remarkably and smoothly simple. Those are the moments singers live for.

I see, floating on the fringes, an image of a teacher who begins discussion of a new topic with the words, "I know this is difficult, but...." I recently read about a study finding that if a doctor tells a patient a procedure is going to hurt, it hurts more than when the doctor doesn't mention it. I think I'll vote for the banning of predictions of difficulty. Let's try to make things look easy.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Subconscious Intrusions

Have I mentioned that the first thing we do each morning is milk our goats? It takes about 30 minutes. I usually play “stable boy” while my partner in this earthly journey, Karen, squeezes teats. Now and then she calls me to hobble a cranky doe. It would be a waste if a goat hoof contaminated the milk pail.

At the first creative writing workshop I attended, our instructor began her introductions by warning us that no one makes a living as an author. I knew what she meant, but when my turn came to say what I did, I said, “I make a living as an author.”

It’s true and has been for 12 years, but I’d give up every book (make that “reference work”) I’ve written and a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court for a $5,000 advance and a National Book Award. Would I really?....Yes. I think. Maybe. (It’s good Faust isn’t listening.)

A law professor’s wife once asked me, “Do you miss the law?” I chewed on my tongue, wondering how to respond. I often spend 8 hours or more in a day thinking, analyzing and attempting to explain “the law” and she wonders if I miss it? I patiently explained that not every person who no longer practices law is a law professor.

She raised a good point. If I didn’t fiddle with “the law,” would I miss it? That’s one of the challenges I face in rewriting my novel. As I turn to the task, my subconscious, if not my conscious, mind continues to toy with the topic of my latest work, the book or update I’m quite certain will bring me a royalty check. Transitioning to music or creative writing can be like swimming the English Channel.

For example, today as I reached for the black-and-whites, my mind wandered to a letter a group of trade associations recently sent to HUD (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development). The letter detailed issues the group has with regulatory changes scheduled to take effect on January 1, and asked for a delay. The letter made some good points and some not-so-good points, and whined too much at a federal agency that, like the Federal Reserve Board, has failed to live up to its potential for some time and now finds itself on the hot seat with Congress. Both agencies share blame, along with many other causes, for the financial crisis we’re in. Having come late to action, they’re struggling like drowning victims.

I wonder if the authors of the letter realize it might serve as a lightning rod for the plaintiffs’ lawyers who are, or should be, salivating over January 1. Even if HUD chooses to be lenient for a few months after January 1, state statutes present attractive opportunities for plaintiffs’ lawsuits.

All of this is good for my business, but frankly, I’d rather not have to think about it.

Virginia, I can assure you, has no interest whatsoever in this aspect of “the law,” although she has on occasion needed the services of a good lawyer.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Ayn Rand and Schumann

Persistent showers this morning cooled my weekly long run. By mile 10 I felt like a dishrag and decided to throw in the towel. Running shoes lose 40 percent of their bounce when soggy and so, it seemed, did the balls of my feet. I wasn't complaining, being grateful for the rain's coaxing of winter wheat sprouts, next year's bread. Then the rain stopped and, feeling much warmer, I kept on to mile 17.

Meanwhile I remembered Atlas Shrugged. Perhaps I owe an apology to Ayn Rand. When I named this blog I had forgotten her refrain, "Who is John Galt?"

I read Ayn Rand's novels 35 years ago while attending a Mennonite college. Her "me-first" capitalism appealed to me not because I believed in it but rather because it contrasted so sharply with the service-to-others philosophy of the Mennonites. Here was another viewpoint, a writer who boldly laid out what many of us realize but may be embarrassed to admit -- that "I" am the most important person. Nice and altruistic you may be, but get sick and try to think of others when your throat hurts and you can't keep dinner down. Consider the announcement that someone else got the promotion you expected. Was that the day you ran to volunteer at the hospital? Even Mother Teresa, in her posthumously published diaries, "Come Be My Light," appears to have been upset at times because Jesus did not reappear to her. Miserable probably begins with "mi" for good reason.

My long run finished, I drove 4 miles to our cabin to practice piano. I've put myself on a daily 3-hour practice schedule. Yes, I could be writing, but a month ago the conductor of our community orchestra invited me to play the first movement of Schumann's Piano Concerto in A Minor on February 20. Fortunately, he didn't ask me to play the other two movements.

I couldn't say no. I don't often get a chance to play with an orchestra. Have you ever wondered about the truth of program bios? If Placido Domingo listed everything he has done, it would have to be on microfiche (I know, it's an ancient term). My music bio could barely complete a sentence (think "Jesus wept").

By the way, Virginia was an opera singer. More about her later.