Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Personal Rat Race

"Naughty, naughty, naughty," a woman signed from the driver's seat of an SUV this morning as I ran along Stoopville Road, near Newtown, Pennsylvania. I was plodding through an inch of freshly fallen snow. I waved and smiled, thinking "naughty, naughty, naughty, why do you think it's necessary to drive on a morning when traffic reports are full of accidents?"

Poor thing. Maybe she had to go to work today, return or exchange a misguided Christmas gift, visit a sick friend or family member in a hospital, or fly somewhere to testify. It's been a long time since I put on a suit and cowarded my way through inclement weather. Cowarded, I say, because I was not a brave maverick. I was a traditional uptight corporate executive who preferred not making waves by failing to show up when I was expected.

Now I can dress warmly and greet snow with enthusiasm or cuddle underneath warm blankets in front of a roaring fire. I can walk instead of run because I don't have to be anywhere soon. I can do my job later, after everyone else is asleep, if I prefer. I can Google my old boss and remember his comment when I resigned, "I wish I could do that." "Certainly you could," said I. "No, my wife likes shopping too much" were the words of a screamer at the office, a wimp in his own home.

"Are you saying you have no regrets?" says Virginia.

"Not about leaving the rat race," says I. "I'm grateful to be running through a maze of my own creation."

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Survival of the Fittest

A young man has looked forward to celebrating July 4th with home-made fireworks. As two friends watch, he lights a fuse and drops his handiwork into a metal pipe. It doesn't explode immediately, he waits, then he peers into the pipe. No more wake-ups.

This story appeared among Spike TV's "1000 Ways to Die." Other brief segments showed ways people have died, including one about young women hired in the early 20th century to paint glow-in-the-dark numerals on the faces of timepieces, even though their employer knew radioactive paint was very hazardous to their health. The women's actions reportedly led to changes in the way we view employer responsibility. Another episode showed an obese man who laughed for 36 continuous hours that ended in a fatal heart attack.

That's entertainment? Watching someone do something incredibly stupid can be frustrating. Watching a glowing woman approach her boyfriend in the dark can be unnerving. Watching a man laugh can be funny, for a while. Watching these episodes, based on real events, can be educational and might prevent others from repeating them, they can satisfy the voyeur, or they might provide suggestions to candidates contemplating suicide.

I hope these and other shows don't dull our senses, acclimating us to life's misfortunes. I'm hopeful they get us thinking in constructive ways.

"He deserved to die," we might say because of someone's stupid behavior. That's taking Darwin's hypothesis of "survival of the fittest" too far. We don't "deserve" to die. Life is too valuable for that. Most nations have banned the death penalty. If they've banned it for murders, they could hardly consider it appropriate for stupidity. Some day each of us will die, but in the meantime life is our most valuable asset.

Virginia says, "Watching some of these shows makes me feel dirty, that I'm wasting precious moments. I hope they save more lives than they endanger."

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Abandoned Kids

Today we drove north until the snow ended. Now in Pennsylvania, it's much colder, twenties instead of thirties.

We abandoned our goats and chickens. Maybe a neighbor will realize we're missing and go over to claim some free milk and eggs. We don't need to worry about Rosie and Lex, our Boxers. When they get hungry enough, they'll knock open a cupboard or pull open the plastic drawer that holds their food. If they can't figure it out, Yogi, our African gray parrot, will either tell them what to do or open his cage door and feed them himself.

We've officially crossed over; at least, Karen has. For Christmas, her mom used to give her gift cards to Lowe's. This year it was Tractor Supply, and the annual calendar has a picture of a different barn for each month. Karen's no longer a carpenter/handyperson. She's a farmer.

Then we blow it by abandoning our kids. What do you expect when a couple of city slickers move to the country?

"'They' used to say that about me," says Virginia. "Still do. Every time I drive past in my pickup, they figure I'm on my way back to Manhattan. Like you, my friends back me up when I leave for a few days."

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Not My Fault

Of course our snow is melting. It won't stay on the ground as long as it did during my childhood when days seemed like months and months like years. We dug tunnels in snowbanks and burrowed our way toward China, where men pedaled rickshaws under pointed hats. We knew these things because Dad had grown up there, he and his pet dragon who responded to an ultrasonic whistle. Off they'd fly to churn mango ice cream in the tropics.

During our search for 3-speed bicycles, we discovered Charlie's Bike Shop. Charlie noticed an orange tinge to Dad's skin, which sent them into a long discussion about China, during which I bought a dark-green Raleigh. My brother, Tom, splurged, then or later, on a 10-speed Carleton, the envy of us all in those days before eight sprockets and endless changes.

My Raleigh with its high-tech hand-twist gear changer was not a paper-route bike. For that, I used a Schwinn with balloon tires and a giant basket in front. Papers lay open so I couldn't resist reading while driving until the time I smacked into the front of a Chevrolet. Body quivering, I happily realized the car wasn't moving. It had been parked on the wrong side of the street. The car wasn't hurt, nor was I, but my front fender made an awful noise until I straightened it.

My favorite customer was Mrs. Hahn, a grandmother to Fred, one of my future brothers-in-law. On a good day I could complete my deliveries in 45 minutes or less. I often stayed longer than that with Mrs. Hahn and her collection of vintage postcards. Where are they now, Fred?

My least favorite customer was the family I rarely found home. Sometimes I had a feeling they hid when I came to collect. Can you imagine refusing to pay 67 cents to an 11-year old paperboy? A month later, they would complain when I finally caught them and said they owed two dollars and 68 cents.

That was a lot of money to a junior high kid and still is to some people around the world. To me it seemed like pure profit since I'd already paid for their papers, kind of like a borrower who begins making payments on a charged-off loan, something I learned about later. Delinquency, default or bankruptcy carried a stigma that seems to have faded over the years. Now we can always find someone else to blame.

"That McDonald's coffee spill," says Virginia, "let's us off the hook. When you can get into court for spilling hot coffee on yourself, responsibility has become a relic of the past."

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Ordinary People


Moldy sunflower heads
host tasty seeds,

like the tumbledown shack
at road’s end, hidden by trees
and a lawn almost never mown.
No ivy-covered lecture hall
dare impart the wisdom she laughs
when I say her words are golden.

The tall grass hides
small sweet honeydews.

(james pannabecker, 2005)

Last week's issue of Time includes quotations from some of the famous people who died during the past year. We love to lean on the words of famous people, don't we?

Merce Cunningham: "You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive. It is not for unsteady souls."

Many words instead of "dancing" would work in this quotation. For example, try "playing piano" or "singing" or "running."

I question the suggestion that "[i]t gives you nothing back...but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive." The list -- no manuscripts, no paintings, no poems -- appears to focus on material things until it reaches "that single fleeting moment when you feel alive." It's comparing apples and oranges, ignoring the fact that dance performances can be recorded and sold and earn Emmys and other recognition, even money.

What concerns me is the focus on a result -- a manuscript, a painting, a poem, or a "fleeting moment." This focus belittles the process that rendered the result. Most of us do not produce a "fleeting moment" (or a manuscript, painting or poem) that the world would recognize as masterful. Certainly someone who loves to dance regularly experiences the feeling of being alive, not simply as "fleeting moments" but as a daily process of being involved with dance -- studying, learning, discussing, watching, remembering. We ordinary people find value and meaning in our processes.

Virginia nods, "The famous are downright spoiled."

Friday, December 25, 2009

Images of Christmas

A blue-green glow, cast from outside by what we now might call vintage C-9 bulbs, circled my bedroom window in the red-brick house on Kibler Street and comforted the three-year old version of me inside.

A year or two later, in the farmhouse on Zurflugh Road, I sneaked downstairs in the middle of the night. Too big to wrap, not yet named Dobbin, a green-plaid hand-stuffed horse had my name pinned to his neck. In the morning I felt like a liar when I pretended to be surprised. Dobbin remained my bed-time buddy for years until Mother finally asked me if I were too old to re-stuff him a third or fourth time.

After moving to 430 West Elm, our family agreed to become a living manger scene. I thought my sister was going to change sex for Jesus. Instead, a plastic doll rested in the manger and she was a child like the rest of us. Back when photographers said, "Stay still; don't move," we posed as still as possible for what seemed like hours. I remember at this time Mother didn't like animalizing humans, "Don't call them kids; they're not baby goats" and "They're 'aunts,' not 'ants.'"

The house on Elm Street brought us a set of plastic dishes, gray for Dad, pink for Phil, blue for John, orange for me, and yellow for Tom. Mary and Mother might have to remind me what their colors were. These dishes were important for Christmas only because each of us left his or her bowl and maybe milk and cookies under the tree for Santa Claus. In return, he left us nuts, oranges and maybe Pfeffernusse. In our house, Pfeffernusse cookies were hard cookies an inch or less in diameter, so small it was almost impossible to stop crunching them.

Our Chinese heritage, adopted by missionary grandparents who raised their children in China, brought us another tradition -- making chiao tzu (or jao tse and various other spellings) around Christmastime or New Year's. These are traditional Chinese dumplings some of you might call "pot stickers" except they're boiled, not fried one bit. Everyone gathered to help construct them from flour/salt/water dough rolled into very thin, almost see-through 4-inch circles and a filling prepared with ground pork, bok choy or spinach, ginger, soy sauce and maybe a few other ingredients. We dipped a fingertip into a water bowl to wet the perimeter of each circle, placed a tablespoon of filling in the center, then folded the circle in half and sealed the edge. Mother or Aunt Alice Ruth dropped them into boiling water, let the water return to a boil, repeated this (I think), then the chiao tzu were ready to be served in bowls with a half-and-half mixture of vinegar and soy sauce and subjected to our eating contest. Who could eat the most? I recall that sixty-some was the record.

In our home we opened presents Christmas morning. Sometimes we had to suffer through breakfast first. Always, we had to endure the familiar and interminable Christmas story, worsened the year some of us stumbled upon the brilliant idea of acting it out, having forgotten how long minutes last when a pile of presents waits unopened. Later, when I joined another family, opening gifts on Christmas Eve seemed like a cop-out. Maybe that's why I didn't hang around.

"That's all water under the bridge," says Virginia, "but I agree, a bit of fun to remember. Look out the window. More water is falling on our white Christmas."

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Blog Theory

In light of New Year's Day approaching, I've been saying to Karen, "I wonder what 2010 will bring" so often she thinks my Chatty Cathy string has broken.

A friend said, "Now you have a blog, you must find something to say." I didn't ask, but I was curious. Perhaps he was suggesting I don't often have something to say, or that I may often have something to say but it's really nothing, or maybe that having a blog means I must find something to say more often even if it's nothing. Eckhart Tolle might say I'm wasting my time trying to guess what my friend meant, but he's wrong because what I'm thinking about is not what my friend meant. Rather, it's why people, and particularly me, write a blog.

For some reason, that question brings me to the perennial one: What is an artist? I like to think one of the differences between a real artist and an aspiring artist is the real artist doesn't care what others think of his work. He is so confident in his ability (or his lack of it, which technically is irrelevant) that he will do his art forever regardless of what others think of it. He is not arrogant; the fact that other people want his work does not influence his regard for his work, either that it must be good because they like it or bad because they like it.

Would an artist, that is a writer who thinks of himself as an artist, blog? Yes, no. I read somewhere once that blogging, by its nature, is stream-of consciousness. I think the author was wrong. Let's consider the idea a moment. Some artists work and re-work a piece. A writer might pile on a hundred drafts, a painting might be layered with oils. A blogger has that opportunity. He clicks on "New Post" and begins typing. Every minute or so, the software saves the work as a "draft." Whenever the blogger wishes, he can "Publish Post" or "Save Now" without publishing. This process clearly allows deliberate work. The poet who insists on sitting on a new poem for six months before exposing it could happily blog. He could gradually release his work in his accustomed manner, as if he were aging cheese or wine.

My choice is a happy (for me) medium. So far, I've tried to publish something each day, whether or not I'm completely satisfied with the product. I'm not a politician or aspiring to become one, so it doesn't matter if something I choose to publish one day "comes back to haunt me," not that I don't engage in censorship from time to time. I think the supply of violence and cussing is sufficient I needn't add to it.

"Yeah, I noticed you wrote 'manure' the other day," says Virginia, "you sanctimonious twit."

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Out-of-Season

I was three and confused when I saw Dad carrying Mother down our driveway, across the street, through the alley to the hospital. At first I was worried, but smiles on other faces belied sickness and danger. She couldn't walk? Something fishy was going on. A few days later we met a baby girl at the hospital and brought her home. Christmas in August.

Twenty-five years later and five hundred miles away, I saw folks celebrating Christmas In August on the National Mall. Apparently they still do, in Washington, in New York City with the Rockettes, and elsewhere. I'm a scrooge in August (no offense intended, Sister Mary) and I still don't care much in August for the music I find comforting or nostalgic in December.

Warm weather isn't the issue. I found Christmas spirit in New Zealand the two Christmases we visited, despite the lack of ludicrous lights. I think the near concurrence of Christmas and New Year's Day with their emphasis on newness makes August seem old and inappropriate. Maybe all the explosions in December and again on July 4 call for quiet in August.

"Wait a minute," says Virginia, "are you saying August could be a great time to remind us to hope for and believe in the possibility of peace, and a Prince of Peace?"

All right, not only August, but please, no "Granny Got Run Over by a Reindeer."

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


I'm admiring our driveway, hard blacktop against a soft snow-white backdrop. I'd guess about 30 person-hours of hard work went into this masterpiece. Two cars remain under cover, but if we wanted we could drive them away, to Mexico for example, and well before we arrived at our destination the rest would melt. Adam, Manley, Karen and I deserve to be proud of our efforts.

I think, like all things homemade, it's prettier than the neighbor's lane cleared by gasoline or diesel. I realize I'm biased and you, dear reader, may think I'm full of manure. I'm reminded of a sermon I heard long ago. Two couples had invited the pastor to dinner. At the home of the first couple, everybody climbed into a car and drove to a fine restaurant. The second couple welcomed the guests into their home and gradually served a meal they had prepared. I'll let you guess which meal the preacher considered extra-special. Of course, he waited until his next assignment, or maybe later, to tell the story.

A pickup parked not far away bears a slogan I'd like to steal: "It's not what you buy, it's what you build." Karen often says she likes the home we're living in now much better than the big, more modern house we enjoyed in North Carolina because it reflects us, our tastes, our work, and our eccentricities, unlike the other house, which was always "the Thomasons'" not just to us but to everyone who met us and tried to picture where we lived. Anyone who knew the inside of our current home before we did would not say it looks the same.

Even the garden beds tickle me now, hidden underneath two feet of melting snow. I can't see them, but I know they're thriving, worms working, playing with manure and mulch, getting ready for spring. Try to order a garden online. You might be able to find a gardener to work for you, but I promise you, the result won't feel like "your" garden. It'll feel like that new dress or suit you bought at Bloomie's.

Virginia says she remembers stories her father told about eating foods her grandmother had "put by." Together they would leaf through black-and-white photographs of Grandma's canning kitchen with row after row of glassed-in veggies and meats. When they went grocery shopping in New York, Virginia would search for see-through containers and beg for pickles, applesauce, dried beef, even pig's feet. Now, when children come to visit, she leads them by hand to her well-stocked pantry and lets them choose something.

A visiting friend recently oohed and aahed about our basement kitchen and its antique glass-windowed cabinets. "So," she said, "when you're hungry you come down here and pick out something to eat. What fun!"

You can't buy that.

Monday, December 21, 2009


"That's totally tubular, dudette." Hey, if you're reading this blog, you're tubular for sure. Seriously, have you ever considered how tubular we are?

We put our food down a tube. Our food leaves through a tube. It goes to the septic tank or public sewer through tubes. We hear through tubes, breathe through tubes, send blood through tubes, smell through tubes. Sex is tubular.

I suppose we could have stopped with bodily functions, but no, we chose to center the rest of our lives on tubes. We spin tubes on our way to drive-in banks, where we make deposits through tubes, which reminds me that when our family shopped at Gregg's Department Store in Lima our mother's charge-slip went to accounting through a pneumatic tube, while I stood there wondering if we'd have to put everything back where we found it.

On July 4, we light tubes and watch them explode. We carry tubes to find our way in the dark or to ignite disgusting smokes. The organ music I enjoyed as a child was created by tubes, as are the sounds of many other instruments -- woodwinds, horns and the Chinese sheng (mouth organ). We use tubes to hold lights, music stands, microphones, speakers, fences, and porch roofs.

We stick blueprints and fine art in tubes. People commute to work in tubes. Girls wear tube tops. We peek, spy and observe through tubes. Radios and televisions used to require tubes, and now those have become artwork (Marc Rust,

As a gardener, I depend on tubes. They're animals wriggling, working hard underground, while plant tubes carry nutrients to flowers and vegetables. When it's too dry, I use tubes to save my plants. Some people are frightened to death of tubes, whether tiny ringnecks or fat rattlers. Karen made her wine rack with tubes.

I understand surfers seek the perfect tube. We measure our dependence on Middle Eastern oil in tubes. To see a movie, a show, a video, almost anything -- and to think we're important -- we get on YouTube.

"Just breathe," says Virginia. "Think tubular. Please pass the celery."

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The World of Nonfiction

We drove fifty miles, twenty-five there and back, along newly cleared roads to play piano while a huge crowd of six singers, later a total of eight after two late arrivals, participated in the first annual Messiah Sing-In. Years from now, someone said, stories will be told of this first attempt, two hundred fifty years after the first Messiah performance on Christmas Day. On another Christmas day, one also noted, the members of a church prayed while a woman went under the knife to have a huge abdominal cyst removed, without anesthesia. She lived 33 more years instead of dying as she and everyone, including her doctor, expected.

Wikipedia could, of course, be wrong. It says the first performance of Handel's Messiah took place on April 13, 1742 in Dublin, Ireland. (It's possible the date of Christmas Day has changed since then.) It also says the work is often incorrectly called The Messiah. I have two editions of the masterwork -- the Schirmer edition is entitled The Messiah and (the) Fischer version simply says Messiah. I'm sure this matters deeply to some people.

I remember speaking with a friend about books. After I mentioned a couple fiction novels, he said, "I don't know them. I read only nonfiction." I think I must have laughed. I said something like, "So when you read nonfiction, do you think every word is true?" He laughed, too. "I guess you're right. I do read fiction."

I sometimes wonder how much of what I write and say is true. In a way, I feel more comfortable with fiction because it contains truth without facts. Well, perhaps I should say "real facts." I realize many people fuss about the facts contained in books like the Harry Potter series, and some publishers have internal consistency fact-checkers. One of my editors is especially good at this. She can be a pest, but I know I need her, especially as my mind moves more and more into fiction.

It happens to most of us. As we age, we build one inaccuracy on another after another. I can wait (see my posting entitled "Speeding," November 30, 2009), but it should be great fun when I'm ninety and my life has become exponentially inaccurate. I hope I'm perfectly sane and well-minded when that time comes even though other people may think I'm living in a world of total fiction. I will ask them, now and then, whether they realize they are, too. Imagine an elderly novelist, fact-checking every day. "Is that for real, James?"

"You're nuts," says Virginia, "but who am I to say? After all, if you weren't, I wouldn't be here."

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Blue Snow

Our expectations have been met, and now it's safe to say exceeded. The actual white stuff has nearly doubled the prediction, so maybe we've come out the other end and have a right to be irritated that our expectations haven't been met after all -- as if we have any right to "better" weather.

What kind of farm is this, without a tractor? I was beginning to wonder this myself as we shoveled our lane for the third time in 24 hours. Last night I pushed the first six inches off the lane. By the time I completed my first pass, I was feeling a little bit like Sisyphus because the snow had kept falling, four more inches of it. I repeated myself. I should have set my alarm for 2 a.m. The third time around the stuff was so deep I had to lift it.

Today, whenever I raised my shovel to take the top half off the snow, just as the metal broke the surface, I glimpsed a glacial blue that reminded me of the gradually moving ice masses we'd seen in New Zealand and Alaska. Only once did I notice the mystic blue continue after I deposited it on the rising snow bank.

The snow is still falling, but it has slowed so I don't think we'll see the banks I remember once or twice as a child growing up in Ohio. A blizzard might do the trick, but high winds aren't likely. We dug what seemed to be mile-long tunnels in those banks and burrowed like ground hogs. By the time we tired, we had to wring our clothes out, leave them in the wash tub on the back porch, and scamper upstairs in our see-through tighty-whities to find dry threads.

As it turns out, Karen encouraged my son and his friend, both college sophomores home for Christmas break, to relieve me. They worked about 15 minutes, then came in for lunch. To my surprise, they went back out. I took a warm bath and a nap and woke up to a snowplow stuck near the end of our driveway. Apparently, the boys had invited a neighbor to help them finish their chore. "I guess shovels are better," our son told Karen on the phone as another truck arrived to pull out the plow.

"He's right," whispers Virginia, "shovels are the way to go. Think if everyone took time off to get the exercise. It might even help reduce our reliance on the Middle East or offshore drilling." Maybe, maybe not. Ambulances might have to fill up more often. Whatever, ours is a great farm without a tractor.

Friday, December 18, 2009


When will it start? Our biggest winter storm in years is nearly upon us, they say. Will our expectations be met? If not, who will be disappointed? seems to have its goats in a row. When I order something, the email acknowledgment, sent instantly, tells me that the item is in stock and should arrive by X date. A day or two later, another email says the item has been shipped and I should expect it on X minus 1 or X minus 2 date. It arrives on X minus 1 minus 1 or X minus 2 minus 1 date.

I learned my most important business lessons soon after I began my new job in a bank's legal department. When I arrived on my first day, my boss was nowhere to be found. The other lawyer in the 3-lawyer office welcomed me and offered me some materials to read, to discover how things were done in the bank.

A few hours later, the boss entered my office and closed the door. "I've been fired," he began, "but I think your position is secure." As my mind raced, I felt anything but cozy by a warm hearth.

After the maintenance crew removed his personal effects, the remaining staff met in his ex-office. The desk looked like each of the tables in the office of my previous boss, piled high with stacks of paper, except clearly no one knew what the piles contained. "We need to take care of these," my new, new boss announced.

After arranging the papers in order of receipt, he handed me a bunch. "When you finish these, come back for more. First, call each sender and ask if the matter's been handled."

No more time for casually reading how things were done, I felt like the target of a firing squad. It was a great, fast way to get to know the business and its people. We gradually turned that destroyer into a kayak (at least a rowboat) and I like to think we earned a reputation for responsiveness.

My first lesson: by the end of each contact, be sure both parties know the next step. "I'll get back to you" was a killer. "I'll get back to you Monday" was all right. "I'll call you in three hours" was better, if the matter were urgent. Assuming I did.

The next lesson: allow yourself more time than you expect to need so you can beat your deadline. "I'm sorry, I said I'd get back to you now, but I need more time. Can you wait 'til tomorrow?" doesn't cut it. "Hi Jerry, I've got something for you. Do you have a minute?" a day early wins the prize.

"Of all the tradespeople I hired to work on my place, electrician Fred was the best," says Virginia, "not because of his work or his price, but because he always told me when he'd be here and he was. I remember only one time he was late, and that time he called me beforehand to let me know."

(By the way, a paragraph ago the winter storm began fulfilling our expectations.)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

More on Specialization

“Don’t talk unless you have to,” singers are sometimes advised before a concert, “talking may wear out the voice.” “Don’t swim,” runners were cautioned back in the sixties, as if swimming might threaten success at the next track meet. Today’s athletes are encouraged to cross-train.

“She will outlast the leaders,” we were told when a 10K specialist ran her first marathon. “There she goes,” an announcer said near the end of the race when she began to put some distance between herself and the others, “it’s her upper body strength. See how she uses her arms.”

“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” “I wish you’d concentrate on your game.” Mentors – coaches, parents, and teachers – have pestered us with these possibly contradictory quotes. In high school, aspiring college students rush everywhere to improve their “resumes” for college applications – sports, scouts, clubs, musical groups, part-time jobs, religious involvement, hobbies, and crafts.

Then, many of us forget “variety is the spice of life” as we settle into full-time employment. In olden times, folks prided themselves on staying with the same company for forty-five years. Now we tend to move around, climbing the ladder, or not, exaggerating our busy-ness, convinced “the man” would miss us if we left. “They’re lazy,” some refer to the folks who only work thirty-two hours per week and choose to go home to golf or fish.

Boom. We’re gone, laid off or signed up for greener grass. The employer moves on.

Do we? “X years and what do I have to show for it? No pension. A shrunken 401(k). No health insurance. My shares are virtually worthless.”

“Nurture each of your many baskets, like a schizophrenic broody hen,” Virginia suggests, a song on her lips as she hammers away and her dough rises. “My dad used to quote his father, ‘don’t forget the nest egg. Save ten percent.’” That’s easy for someone with money to say.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Cuts of Beef

Where is today’s Beethoven? Does he struggle in a condo somewhere, writing furiously, ripping masterpieces to shreds, ignoring Beltone advertisements? Has he discovered conveniences such as triple-headed razors, his pate shaved to simplify life? Are his lips locked in a perpetual frown or does he smile to use fewer muscles?

Plop the real Beethoven into our world. Could he taste trans fats, reverse sugars and the dyes added to products he and our grandparents wouldn’t recognize? Would he notice that the meats we eat could barely walk and never saw real sunshine, that most of us haven’t dissected frogs in science class, much less wrung a chicken’s neck? Like us, would he wash his hands after meeting new people while letting entrees prepared by strangers pass freely through his lips?

We’re so specialized we might die if others stopped working. We dwell on the pronouncements of pretty people who entertain us, politicians who pretend to know what’s best for us (even though we say they don’t), and spoiled brats born with more money in their pockets than we can picture. We have allowed “them” to persuade us to spend our hard-earned cash on things Beethoven didn’t know or need.

“He’d probably enjoy every moment listening to sounds he never knew,” says Virginia, “like crunches of potato chips, the snap, crackle, pop of Rice Krispies, and Muzak on elevators. I bet he’d laugh at the ‘experts’ who try to re-create his music the way it was played when he was alive, as if he could have heard those concerts. I think he’d be more interested in the musician who makes each classic his own.”

Tuesday, December 15, 2009



Welcome to my wigwam.

If you don't mind
we'll sit cross-legged
by our fire and listen

     to the sounds we make
     above background noises

please don't go,
let's stay long enough
to hear music playing.

"You're a bunch of overgrown hippies," says Virginia's neighbor, the one who wanders the woods and keeps getting arrested for hunting without a permit. "Hippies, maybe," says Virginia, "but not overgrown. We're only now beginning to put down roots."

Monday, December 14, 2009

Messiah Sing-a-Long

Split fingernails reward me for knocking pianos out of tune. I need to call David, the trusty string bender with two brand-new hips and more surgeries on the way. The cyborg is a reality today.

My current barrier to more creative writing has been preparing for a Messiah Sing-a-Long at 3 p.m. Sunday, December 20, Oxford Presbyterian Church. When the church-meister asked me to play, my head bobbed no and my lips offered yes. I generally don’t care for piano transcriptions of orchestra scores because they present a mountain of effort for what ultimately becomes a disappointing substitute for several dozen instruments. Would you rather hear a piano accompaniment or lots of strings (violins, violas, cellos, double-basses) and cool sounds like oboes, flutes, trumpets and timpani? The more likely question is, would you rather hear something or nothing? Call a pianist.

If you sing in a chorus that practices with a keyboard player, try to imagine what it’s like to work hard, week after week, and then disappear for the performance – or have to prepare an entirely different continuo part for an organ or harpsichord.

“Kind of like an understudy,” says Virginia, "lots of work and no one notices."

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Perfect Instrument

Icicles are forming on our deck railing.  If we were having a party, a drunk might slide off the deck into Opossum Run.  After we finished the addition to the cabin, we didn't call for a final inspection.  The inspector could have thrown his tennis ball from a hundred feet and, I guarantee, it would have passed through our substandard railing.  Exhibit 1.

Our choral society might have filled a bigger church for its Christmas concert last night.  Still, some of the audience thought many of the songs "sounded the same."

My composition professor insisted that the human voice is the only perfect instrument.  I wouldn't disagree with him any more than I would tell a mother her baby is ugly.  Some "purists" believe adding another instrument, even an organ or a piano, is like tossing Iceberg with a gourmet salad.

I like salads, but not for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Throw in some bread, soup, veal and, of course, chocolate.  We did last night, starting with a carol sing-a-long, interspersing every set of three numbers with another community effort, adding an organ and piano here and there, floating a few solos on top, and ending with a rambunctious three-on-the-piano version of "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," complete with one musical bench-man falling on his face. 

"That's what we nerds do for fun," says Virginia.  Here's my vote for some trumpets, drums and a real harpsichord.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Up on the Housetop

When I mention where I live, Arnold's Valley, some people, even first-time acquaintances, roll their eyes.  A doctor said, "You know, don't you, that rescue squads won't go there?" "You must be the richest resident," someone suggested (if you've met Karen then you probably know I am).  "Found any moonshine lately?" several have asked.  "Seen any snakes?"  People from the valley ask me that, too, when the topic of our cabin comes up.

Welcome to Arnold's Valley.  (Note:  If you click on the photo it will enlarge.)  Within the first clump of trees sits our farmhouse.  The goat barn appears just above our investment bank; the bigger this pile of horse manure gets, the richer I feel.  Thunder Ridge is the blue-gray mountain, under which Arrowhead Lodge nestles.

The people in this valley who share surnames may be proud to announce "we're not kin," but deep down they love each other.  They'd probably like you, as well as the fire-yellers I've mentioned and even folks from the Big Apple (especially Virginia).  If your car breaks down around here, you won't go long unassisted.  If you take a walk, someone will offer you a ride.  Pass anywhere and you'll get a wave.  Even the ambulance drivers wave back.

We say, all of us residents, go ahead and talk trash.  Enough people already call this home.

The top roofer in the county lives a half-mile down the main road.  He's as busy as you may be if you're good at what you do.  On Sundays he likes to show his shiny red Pontiac Solstice the Blue Ridge Parkway, up on Thunder Ridge.  Yesterday he enjoyed the sunshine with a glass of goat's milk and a little soldering.

Friday, December 11, 2009

My Dad and Einstein

The sun rose in the eastern sky this morning.  I keep noticing this, every single day.  I think it might be safe to say "the sun rises in the east."

"Dummy," says Virginia, "don't you remember Copernicus?"

Ah yes, Copernicus, my dear friend, the fellow who suggested the Earth travels around the sun.  If he's right, then -- um -- I guess the sun doesn't really rise in the east, despite my persistent observations.

My father was a biologist, a scientist unlike me, although sometimes I wonder if I might become one.  What would it take?

Was he a scientist in grade school, high school, college?  I'm sure he was by the time the U. of Chicago awarded him his Ph.D.  (I was there, took a long train ride from Ohio, I think, I could be wrong.)  Yes, he must have become a scientist before then.

I took some science classes in college -- Chemistry & Physics I and Genetics.  I majored in math, which is man-made so that doesn't count.  I'd either have to go back to school or study hard on my own.

Why would I want to become a scientist?  I'm curious.  I think it would be fun to exchange e-mails with other scientists, describing what I've observed and what I'm guessing.  It would be even more fun to get together now and then to share notes.  Once or twice I might get lucky and go out on a limb to suggest something new, maybe true.

Yikes.  Now I remember something my father told me.  I think it was important, very important, something like "a scientist might be able to prove something wrong, but can't prove something is true."  Dad was so smart, I knew what he said was true but I also knew I couldn't prove it.  Later, I read that Albert Einstein said something similar: "No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong."

And so I cringed when I read about the climate change "e-mail gate," although it's not all bad.  The global warming debate has traveled in some strange directions, partly because we've forgotten what someone tried to teach us about the scientific method back in elementary school.  Of course, some people will challenge the "consensus" on the global warming theory.  In a sense, science demands it.  For years, many people didn't like the idea that the Earth isn't the center of everything, but today's consensus is that the Earth orbits the sun.

I've been persuaded, scientist that I am not, that the weight of the evidence indicates human activities have had a warming effect on our climate since the Industrial Revolution -- more accurately, that no other theory seems to explain our melting ice, rising sea levels, and declining species as well as the rise in greenhouse gas emissions since that time.  As indicated in my earlier posting, "Selfishness" (November 23), it may not matter much whether you buy into that interpretation of the evidence because people like Lovins have demonstrated it makes economic sense to change our behavior.

Let me close with a question:  If the chance is 50/50 that humans are contributing to global warming, does it make sense to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the safety of potential future generations, in case the hypothesis is correct?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Mistresses Attack

"I'm glad to meet you, Olga," says Virginia.  "How are you?"

"Lousy, but getting better," says Olga.  "He abandoned me in that field, and then didn't talk to me for months.  Pants puddled at my feet didn't make any difference."

"I don't know about that," says Virginia.  "Ours has always been a platonic relationship.  We go out to the cabin and talk, just him and me."

"Not ours," says Olga.  "It was sex from the start.  I even heard Karen say, 'I can picture you, Olga, Countryside and Mother Earth News, having fun in one of those little catwalk bedrooms.'  Of course, he never took me there.  Me and papa propagating veggies, that's what we do."

"Gardening is pretty sexy," says Virginia.  "How'd you meet?"

"He never told you?" says Olga.  "It was all Karen's doing.  In fact, she gave me as a Christmas present last year.  Great fun, hiding in a bay of the barn, hoping he'd find me early.  Fat chance, he hates to force-bloom anything.  And you?"

"Forced serendipity," Virginia laughs.  "He was looking for someone and I pushed my way in.  Now he can't get rid of me."

"I've got him," says Olga.  "I'm negotiating with People magazine.  A photograph tells all."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

4-Mile Ride

How about a scenic drive?   It rained so much last night our yard is full of little ponds.  The main entrance to the goat paddock would be heaven for hogs.  I'm sure Karen's checking craigslist or farmers' pages right now.  Two hundred-fifty pounds later we'll be moving the cabin freezer to our basement.  I can't seem to shake my dream of a tiny home in retirement, except the freezers and put-away food would take up half the space, then the piano and a bed....  Well, you get the picture.

Turning left from our lane takes us south.  Look over at the house, perfectly positioned for southern exposure.  Our big six-over-six windows make the upper stairwell the coziest spot in the place even though we have no registers upstairs and two rarely used fireplaces.  On our right, see a short mountain and Tank Hollow, home to the black bears neighbors often spot returning from din-din at the Compost Heap.

Past the trailer park blight of Arnold's Valley, the Thomas Jefferson National Forest is all around us, with the Blue Ridge Parkway capping the east.  The Appalachian Trail snakes close to the ridges, now abandoned by this year's crop of through-hikers who have cried hello to Maine or Georgia or called it quits for now.

Today Thunder Ridge is on vacation, nowhere to be seen.  We left sunshine at the farmhouse.  Opossum Creek tumbles and rumbles behind our cabin, my studio escape from the noises below.

Like Virginia, you and everyone, I sit down to add my own sounds to the melodies and harmonies of Mother Earth -- in this case, I hope, beneficial global warming. 

Driver Wanted

Our county is nothing like Northwest Ohio, where country roads form perfect square miles laid on a giant table top (except for jogs where surveyors reportedly goofed, such as near the homes of my mother and sister).  Here, it could take a half hour to drive to dine with a neighbor on the other side of a mountain, or an hour and a half on a slippery winter's night for fools who should know better.

So when I headed home from orchestra practice last night, I kept an eye on the car's thermometer and prayed it was accurate.  Thirty-four degrees made me queasy.  I admit it; I'm a wimp, terrified by 32 degrees and rain in the dark, no longer invincible like a teenager.  "Wanted:  Struggling writer to chauffeur a scaredy-cat.  Part-time gardening responsibilities.  Salary negotiable."

Virginia volunteered.  That would be almost like hiring a ghost.  She has better things to do.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


.  I began this posting with a dot, a frequently used symbol that's accustomed to appearing at the end.  It knows better, of course.  A speck.  From dust to dust.  A divider or connector, too, between things like tenths and ones.  It's also good for abbreviating, as in Wis.  Ubiquitous.  Maybe in my next life, I could be a period (when I was a child, the conclusion of Handel's Messiah taught me how long a period can be)

...on second thought, I might choose an ellipsis, closely related but a bit or two more special, open-minded, nonjudgmental, without the bad connotations, such as the once a month doldrums that visit most of us...

everything is wonderful and then, suddenly, a boom lowers.  Two days without broadband was no big deal, but on the third CenturyLink is toast.  Someone asks the conductor how he wants to pronounce "Jesu," he says "Gee-sue," and three months' practice of Christmas music becomes puke.  A sixty-two degree indoor temperature is a great way to kill bacteria and then, bam, it's killing us.  Our views of Thunder Ridge and the James River Face could content us for life; shazam, wouldn't it be fun wandering the streets of Paris?

"Yes," says Virginia, "it's marvelous to have options -- in the mind as well as real life.  Some people don't, you know."

Monday, December 7, 2009

Boxed In

For the second day we're boxed in.  I'd say "snowed in" but that's not true.  The hard-copy roadways are clear.  Virtual highways are the problem.  Saturday's snow has given unintended meaning to the new name of Embarq (formerly Sprint).  CenturyLink has returned us to the twentieth century.  No Internet.  No Email.  Karen called in.  The message said Virginia's off-line, give us 24 hours.  How about 48?

So all I can do is work inside the box, my laptop.  It's too muddy to work outdoors.  If you're reading this on November 7, it's because I've made it to the library.

Gosh, look at all these books, all this paper.  They remind me of 35 years ago when I first started moving and had to carry tens of boxes of books.  Loaded bookshelves were a good way to brag about eccentric interests.  Now if you have interests, you must be and do or no one will ever know.

"Or you will never know," says Virginia.  There's a big difference between a bookshelf and a read book, and between a read book and knowing what you've read.


If you like to camp, you'd like our house.  Summer or winter, it feels much more like the out-of-doors than the homes of most people we know.  Last winter, when some friends were discussing a dip in temperatures, I said, "yeah, we turned our thermostat up to 62 this morning."  I'm sure my mother's friends wonder why she comes to visit, self-induced elder abuse.  But it's no worse than going shopping in the summertime, when goose pimples cover our almost naked bodies because some people can't live without air conditioning.

This morning I wanted to stay in bed, knowing I was as warm as I'd be until I crawled back in tonight.  Then I remembered the weather report had predicted the coldest day so far this Fall.  A great day for a run, I thought, if I could shrug aside the temporary discomfort of getting going.  Dress appropriately and you're master of the weather.

I headed out with my wick-fit artificial fiber, double gloves and polypropylene cap.  The air tasted fresh, rouged my cheeks and offered clear snow-covered vistas.  Sweating soon prompted me to roll my jacket and tie it around my waist.

While daydreaming on Sallings Mountain Road I scratched some frozen water and barely managed to stay upright by using a few back muscles like the child I no longer am.  The rest of the run was uneventful until I stopped dead in Stoner Hollow where a creek had risen over the road.  It was up last week, too, but I ran through because the temperature was 55 degrees.  Today, at 25, I balked.  Detour.

As a child, I loved that unusual and exciting word, time to sit up and pay attention.  We're taking a tour, off the highway.  Look at all the people doing the same thing, like a party.  Hey Dad (the driver), isn't this great?  "I hope it doesn't last long," he would say.  Dad, this is much more fun than the boring interstate.

I felt the same this morning -- inconvenienced like Dad and glad for something different like the miniature me.  I should have expected something when I noticed the third person checking his mailbox on a Sunday.  Yesterday was one of those days that keep folks inside.

Virginia said "detour" reminds her of a group of musicians reaching a colon at a double bar.  Whoa!  Eyes race backwards, searching for a mirrored colon.  Quick, there it is.  Phew!  Just in time.  Like a recipe, next time they'd better read all the way through before beginning.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

First Snowfall

I flunked another milking this morning, which sent me to a remedial class. As I finished stoking our woodstove, I heard "James, when you get a minute...." I found a minute and my teacher waiting at the kitchen sink. She held a water-ballooned rubber glove. "Pretend this finger is a teat," she instructed. I guess I've been using too much thumb instead of closing the milkflow with my top finger and squeezing with the other fingers. We may test this conclusion tonight. Thank you, glove.

Chores finished, I plan to enjoy a day inside, as cozy as the unharvested carrots I covered with hay yesterday. They're receiving a retention award today, as a thickening layer of white falls on top of the hay. Everyone, everything in the area gets to share this bonus, not just the bigwigs.

This may be gardening's slow time, but I have a long list of things to do. Any of them would add pounds to my shoes, so the best thing today is to sit by a window and envy snowflakes enriching the soil my presence would damage and -- gosh, I don't know if I'm up to my usual approach to bad weather -- kill a writing deadline so when it's dry and sunny I can be outdoors. Forget that. Virginia waits.

She doesn't always. Sometimes she simply arrives, talking away, along with her friends, acquaintances and fellow travelers. It's not schizophrenia, I tell you. I know what's real and what's not.

"Then why are you writing a stupid blog?" she asks. Good point.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Moss: "Nothing Tastes as Good as Skinny Feels"

The syntax of Kate Moss's currently controversial quote intrigues me. The fashion model reportedly said, "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels." She deserves a poetry prize.

Disregarding syntax for the moment, I think the eating disorder critics might not be out of line: "Healthy tastes better than skinny hurts." On the other hand, I don't know her, but I suspect Ms. Moss meant to say "thin" instead of "skinny." "Skinny" means "unattractively thin." "Thin" offers alternatives.

That takes care of that. Now for the intrigue, her comparison of taste with feel. I know less about Ms. Moss than I do about Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose novel Crime and Punishment my online book club is reading. Giving Ms. Moss the benefit of the doubt, let's treat her as kindly as we would Mr. Dostoevsky.

1. When she said "feels," she probably wasn't, but might have been, attempting to compare two of the five senses (taste, touch, sight, smell, and hearing). Picture her hugging herself, thinking "thinness feels good. I'd rather feel this than taste my favorite food."

2. More likely, she was associating taste with emotional feeling. Now picture her sitting in her favorite armchair, eyes closed, arms resting lightly on soft upholstery, thinking how wonderful it is to be thin.

3. I doubt it, but she, like Tommy, the pinball wizard, might have been suggesting that someone else compare two of the senses, as in "Lover of mine, wouldn't you rather feel me thin than taste your favorite food?"

4. We could also consider her choice of the word "taste" over "eat," which casts a very different light on her possible intent. Think of a taster -- of wine or food -- who sees the object, smells it, touches it, tastes it, and maybe even hears it (compare, for example, marshmallows and peanuts), and doesn't swallow. Eat your hearts out, eating disorder critics.

Virginia whispers, "Nothing tastes as good as thinness feels with a little fat and muscle."

Thursday, December 3, 2009


I recently watched an episode of the television show, Glee. It reminded me that once or twice I missed track or cross country practice because I was accompanying a Girl Scout troop's production of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, Patience. I think I might have cried when our coach attended a performance along with several of my teammates, except boys didn't cry back then. Someone told me Coach had asked the entire team to show up.

Early in my career, I learned that when I disliked someone at first meeting I had better pay attention to my wiggling antennae and ask, "what is it that drives me nuts about this person?" Introspection would spot the culprit, invariably something that reminded me of myself -- such as my typically quick reaction to a challenge without thinking, or the fact that he and I both wore a blue suit and wingtip shoes as recommended by a stupid book each of us kept on a shelf (Dress for Success, John T. Malloy). Likewise, similarities between sports and music may explain why they're often viewed at loggerheads.

Athletes and musicians have their own Olympic-like events and the road to success depends on daily, repetitive practice. A musician, like a runner, must develop a plan and a schedule, with the goal of peaking on a specified date. Muscles must be primed to remember, hence the term "muscle memory," because when the big day comes, success depends on a trained brain and a fit body working together.

"Remember," says Virginia, "discipline is interdisciplinary." She's right, of course. I didn't mean to limit these thoughts to music and sports. They apply equally to other endeavors and to life in general. Successful people -- those who feel good about their performance along the paths they've chosen -- train their minds and bodies with persistent discipline. Sports and music are training grounds for discipline, but they're not alone:

-- Gardening
-- Reading
-- Writing
-- Driving a forklift
-- Wine- and cheese-making
-- Farming
-- Carpentry
-- Woodworking
-- Teaching
........ [fill in the blank].

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


When I try to remember the past, I tend to recall things like winning a kite at the local shoe store, not the mundane everyday. I probably should remember studying in high school because that was back when teachers hadn't yet discovered homework, but I don't.

I seem to have changed my schedule recently. Instead of doing "important" things first, my day begins like this. I play stable boy, gathering goat goop so I'm available if Karen wants help milking. I drink my twice daily tea concoction, which consists of one cup of microwaved water, one soup spoon of natural unfiltered apple cider vinegar (the kind with the "mother") and a little honey. This cocktail seems to have removed a few pounds of fat and reduced my bad cholesterol by 20 points. I run at least 4 miles, check the greenhouse (today I watered it), and transplant firewood. I enjoy juice and oatmeal and, if I feel sufficiently stinky or have an appointment outside the home, take a shower. Between 9:30 and 10:30 I scoot up to Arrowhead Lodge to practice piano and write. I could get up earlier, but "ah doan wanna." Since our son went off to college, we tend to stay up late, not having to wake up earlier to make sure he's sprung. Although he didn't need us to reinforce his alarm, I think we wanted him to believe we weren't lazy.

The rest of the day I'm pretty efficient, getting ready for concerts, meeting my writing deadlines, attending practice sessions, eating lunch and dinner, and relaxing in the hot tub. If I want time, I steal it from these activities, which reminds me of the acquaintance who insisted, "Indulge the luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves." She and her husband loved to travel, so they did. When he died at an early age, she was grateful for memories. They had tried to make more days unusual.

While many of my abandoned colleagues rush all over the country filling other peoples' schedules, Karen and I mulch gardens, gather free-range eggs, and wait for home-made wine and cheese to age. In February, I no longer expect my boss to hand me a bonus check (I'm the boss). Instead, I get excited when the Asplundh power-line maintenance guys dump wood chips in our field.

I guess I could exclude my morning maintenance and sink into an armchair, sit quietly on the porch, or find some children to play with (of course I mean this in a good, wholesome way; I am not Humbert Humbert). But then, Virginia warns, my teeth might fall out, my arteries could clog, and ex-friends might make a point of sitting at least three rows away from me.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Closet Intervention

Many innovators populate these woods. I've often thought it would be interesting to shadow them, accompanying one at a time for an entire day, no strings attached and no required chit-chat or explanations. I would carry a book and my journal and quietly follow.

The more I listen and learn, the more I realize how myopic I am, mired in my own paradigms. It's fun to discover other people's different responses to the same or similar stimuli and inputs. For example, does a wilted plant prompt dismay, cussing, abandonment, questions, research, an alternative crop, a different variety?

Our weekend guests, V and L, mentioned that L had considered hiring a consultant to review her closets with her -- to decide what to keep, what to give away, and what to replace. V convinced her they could do it better together because no consultant would thoroughly understand or appreciate L's fine, sometimes eccentric, taste.

That's what I mean -- a "closet organizer" for my brain. I suppose I could find a consultant somewhere who could help me explore paradigms of the mind, but it would be more fun to do it myself, processing data received directly from other creative individuals. I might even make new friends in the process.

I'm not simply proposing the time-worn concept of a mentor. I wouldn't expect these people to take an interest in me, although that suggests a second step. If any of them wanted, we could trade places and I could be the subject for a day. As another step, we might meet to discuss our notes and explore the questions we withheld during the days of observation. "Why didn't you do these two things in the same trip to the barn?" "Did you consider painting it blue instead of green, or staining it?" "Did you ever sit in the rocking chair on your porch to enjoy your remarkable view?" "Do you really need to shower every day?" "Did you consider multiplying instead of adding?"

Virginia once said, "I've learned to be suspicious of any person who gripes about being too busy. 'Busy-ness' is a personal paradigm, created by choice. If someone is 'too busy,' he or she suffers from closet clutter."