Sunday, January 31, 2010

Snow Bride

Last night, our son tried on a wedding dress.  Isn't he lovely?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Writing is Gardening, Gardening is Writing

I write like I garden.  I garden like I write.

Starting a new garden is like beginning a book.  Beginning a book is like starting a garden.  Nothing much gradually becomes something tangible and very personal.

If someone asks how I can turn sod into vegetables, all by hand, my answer is the truism, "bit by bit," as time passes, second by second.

Come to think of it, learning Schumann is like gardening is like writing.  Twenty minutes of blacks and whites seem like forever at first.  Then you gradually chip away at it until it's all there, in your fingertips.

I'm working on another huge update of one of my books.  On January 12, the Federal Reserve Board revised about half of a regulation.  You may have heard about the new credit card rules.  They're part of the package.  The Board's double-spaced release is 1155 pages long.

That's a big plot of sod.  I started planning on January 12, spading on January 13.  Now my seeds have sprouted.  See -- as intimidating as writing a book may seem, it can grow faster than a garden.  In a few days, those seeds will produce an update.

"Why can't you put me into print that fast?" Virginia can't leave me alone for a minute.

"Because you're more complicated," I say, "more imaginative.  You require much more thought."

"Than all those pages of legalese?" she says.  "I'm more fun, too."


Thursday, January 28, 2010

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Our December snow blanket protected my root crops for over a month.  A few days ago I finally managed to dig some up.  Dinner last night included crummy carrots and perky parsnips.

"I fed carrot peels to the chickens," Karen said this morning.

Think apples.  "Carrot peels?" I said, "Where did you get them?"

"From dinner last night," she said.

Think apples.  "We didn't have carrots for dinner last night," I said.

"Yes we did, with parsnips and cabbage," she said.

Light bulb.  "I thought you said apple peels."

It's not an age thing.  It's -- well -- I suppose it's what Tolle says in A New Earth -- not listening to the "now."

A few years ago, when I was an arrogant twenty-something, I assumed everyone saw things the same as I did.  I'm not talking worldview or viewpoint.  I knew people had different opinions.  I'm also not talking about inattention.  I realized that people who witnessed an event remembered it differently and often inaccurately.  Nevertheless, in general, I thought everyone, unless disabled in some way, actually saw, heard, smelled, sensed the same objective experience.  Something cold was cold.  Green was green.  Wet was wet.  A middle "C" was a middle "C."

Then one day I was put on hold.  Music began to play.  While I waited, I switched the telephone receiver to the other ear.  I returned it to the first ear, then to the other, again and again.  Weird.  Each time the music moved up or down a half-step in pitch.  To this day, I don't know if it's my ear or my brain.  But a "C" isn't always a "C."

"Was it an epiphany?" says Virginia.  She's teasing me.

"No, but gradually I've lost confidence in what is real.  I may still be arrogant, but I'm interested in what others think happens."

"Especially when they see ghosts?" It's Virginia again.

Especially when they see ghosts.

[How about a comment?  What have you noticed?  If you have trouble entering a comment, leave the URL blank, choose Anonymous, and add your name or not, as you wish.]

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


I was not about to challenge the floodwaters running through our nearby railroad tunnel this morning.  Cold, wet feet did not appeal to me, so I turned to the old track on the now defunct Natural Bridge High School campus.

This runners' oval hides on the top of a hill at the end of a gravel path.  Like many of the soccer fields in our son's former high school league, it offers panoramic views of the Blue Ridge.  I imagine retired real estate agents and developers have kicked themselves for failing to construct mcmansions on these properties.

I never feel bored running circles there.  Several deer, including a little bambi, had arrived before me, prancing halfway around.  Someone took a bicycle joyride on the wet cinders, leaving ridges to wobble my ankles.  At one of the turns, chalk lines mark the corner of the football field, which apparently isn't quite big enough for the little league boys.  But this is recent history.  Let's go back to when those retired real estate folks were in school.

It's easy because they left clues.  "Rockets" and "Visitor" top the disused, rusted scoreboard overgrown by weeds and untrimmed tree branches.  Note that the psychology of the singular was in vogue even then to subtly intimidate opponents.  At the opposite end of the field sits a sturdy, dilapidated cement block concession stand.  Since I began running around this area, the doors have been opened, boarded shut, and now lean upon again.  I haven't looked inside because, well, I haven't been in a morbid enough mood to explore what reminds me of an open coffin.

I prefer running past, trying to memorize the teams that appear on the final, painted schedule -- Lexington Hurricanes, Covington Cougars, Rockbridge Rebels, James River Striders and, of course, the Natural Bridge Rockets.  Like faded corporate giants (Sprint, Standard Oil, Citicorp), these names have been swallowed by mergers and consolidations, but I hear cheers and smell the obnoxious fumes of the lineman's cigar.

"Those were the days," says Virginia.

Not really, but it's fun to peak at the haunts of the near octagenarian who shares my drives to orchestra practices.  Maybe some of the stories she tells are true.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Bedtime seems to arrive later and later now that sunshine, not a boss or school bus, throws off the covers.  Two daylight dogs have replaced our alarm clocks.  "Hush," I want to say as they whine, briefly and quietly at first.  I stay silent because if I show any sign of wakefulness, they will quickly crescendo into certainty, not that it matters at this point.  Anything short of rising will not return the silence I had been mining for gold.

"How about if I take them for a run first thing?"  This is one of those questions that really doesn't require an answer in our house.  It means I'm taking them out so please don't feed them now as you usually do because if you do I'd better not or we may face some big vet bills and unnecessary sadness.  So why don't I say what I mean?  I guess I do.

Dog fence collars off, Rosie and Lex, Rosie especially, turn a few circles.  I can't get dressed quickly enough.  Off we go.

To the field.  Hurray!  Nothing beats exploring our 25-acre field.  Who knows where a deer, groundhog or skunk might be waiting?  Today the snow I mentioned yesterday ("The Boss") has closed the perimeter and limited our smell-search options.  The James River is close to overflowing as Elk Creek drowns the corner of our field.

Let's examine this corner, which reminds me of a filibuster.  Yesterday the creek was rushing madly, foaming, bubbling, swirling, an expert kayaker's paradise, as if it couldn't wait to become part of the river.  Today it's even higher but the river has tamed it into what looks on the surface like a gentle pond.

Yes, it reminds me of the Senate, where one party or the other can rush to pass a bill like healthcare legislation (maybe not a good example because it has taken so long), and then the threat of a filibuster and the need for 60 votes to approve cloture calms everyone.  One of the theories is that this will force Congress to take a last moment to carefully re-think, reconsider and compromise.

"I don't think that's what the James River and Elk Creek are up to," says Virginia.  "The James definitely is in control."

"Well, at the moment, the Democrats are in control, too," I say.  "If they really wanted to, they could change the rules."

"I suppose politics prevents that, much as some Senators want to pass a healthcare bill," says Virginia.

"Most likely.  What's Rosie digging?"

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Boss

Our white Christmas has finally melted into memories, but the snow looks angry this morning.  Technically, it's no longer snow, nor is it a memory, forcing its way downhill like a petulant CEO.  It doesn't even need to mutter, "Get out of my way."  Everything, everyone knows better.

It only looks angry, I discovered as I ran beside it along the James River Road.  My vision of fast, mad waters disappeared when I  looked over and realized I was passing bubbles (now, get your mind out of the gutter).  I was winning the race.  And, although it looked as if it could steal me away, if I put my feet in, it would be the one taking a detour.

Deep down, you and I know my discovery was a mirage.  Melted snow, like a tsunami, has far more energy than I.  We who build levees and seawalls (except maybe the Corps of Engineers, which remains in denial) know they are temporary and ultimately useless.  Maybe we should have a tea party about this?

"Dream on," says Virginia.  "Did anyone ever point out your tendency to go off on wild tangents?"

"I'm no worse than most people," I say.  "Everyone has a pet peeve or two, usually completely emotional, irrational and in need of analysis."

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Least Reverend James

When it comes to writing, an image haunts me -- water pressure behind a spigot.  As I now try to complete a tedious update to one of my books and three other February 1 deadlines loom, I'm tempted to turn the spigot and wash them away. Virginia would like that, my current publisher would not.

Right now, the spigot holds a story I'd like to write about friends.  Even though they wildly disagree on politics and religion, their commonalities hold them close.  How can this be?

Many people think of the United States as a "Christian" country.  Some point to the founding fathers although, because of persecution in their past, they set this nation on a foundation separating church and state.  Some point to a slogan on our greenbacks, "In God We Trust," even though that could apply to almost anyone who isn't an atheist.

Watch and listen to what goes on.  Do we look and sound like a Christian country?

"It's not works," some Christians insist.  "It's grace that gives you the key to heaven."  Goodness gracious, let's talk about grace.  After all, it's a Sunday.

Let me begin by admitting I grew up in a faith that rarely mentioned "grace."  I didn't hear much, if anything, about it until I joined the Methodists.  Later, I learned that certain Pentecostals believe it doesn't matter if a preacher molests little girls during the week.  When he preaches on Sunday, he deserves your full attention because his words are the words of God.  Virginia says, "I might call that grace to the nth power, 'radical grace.'"

What is "grace?"  In the less radical version, I understand that by believing Jesus is your Savior and the Son of God, His grace admits you into Heaven (for example, Romans 11:6).  Some point to the crucifixion story.  Remember the three crosses:  two bore criminals, the middle one, Christ.  One of the criminals kept deriding Jesus, "Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself and us."  The other rebuked him and turned to Jesus, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."  Jesus responded, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."  (Luke 23:39-43.)

Talk about life being unfair.  Think of the wonderful person who has lived kindness and good works, who has sacrificed luxury so others can live, but doesn't accept Jesus as her savior.  She does not pass Go, she goes directly to everlasting hell, while the criminal who has lived a crooked, lascivious and downright evil life makes a last minute decision and goes straight to Heaven.  (I understand scholars may debate whether "Paradise" is Heaven.)

May I suggest something might be missing here?  Pretend you are Jesus on the cross.  Being Jesus, you have superpowers, so when you look at the grace-full criminal you don't see and hear what the rest of us do -- an empty head on a body saying something nice.  You see the man's past, present and future.  You see his soul, his mind and his spirit.  Maybe you see that he is not guilty -- confessions are notoriously unreliable (the good criminal said, "And indeed we have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds...").  Maybe you see a man who, except for the crime for which he suffers, lived a life doing many good things.

"Wrap it up," says Virginia.  "I'm used to homilies, not sermons."

"The point is," I say, "don't count on grace to get you in.  We need more help here first."

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Reluctant Runner

I don't run like I used to.  Often when I pop into the Trading Post next door to pick up local produce such as ice cream or marshmallows I'll chat up the person ahead of me in line and he or she will say, "Oh, you're the runner" as if runners are scarce around here.  They are.  That's why I keep running.  Someone has to.

After we moved from the cabin to the farm, a distance of 4 miles, my regular running routes changed.  Not long ago, as I ran past Johnson's trailer park, a fellow came rushing across the lawn to greet me.   "We've been worried about you," said he, "haven't seen you in ages.  Are you okay?"

See, I have a responsibility to my run-watchers.  If I stop running, their lives will change traumatically.

I know some of you think I'm talking trash when I say I don't run like I used to.  Believe me, my addiction is over.  For many years my weekly regimen included four important elements -- a track or hill workout ("speedwork"), a tempo run (to train my muscles for the pace I intended to run my next race), a long run (10-20+ miles) and 4 days of relaxed running.  Now and then I -- gulp -- took a day off.

One of my first running buddies insisted that 40 miles per week was the human maximum.  If he ran more, he couldn't sleep.  I believed him for a year or two, then discovered it was hogwash.  A day off and my prone running kept Karen awake.

I'm down to 30 miles per week, sometimes more but not often.  Once or twice a year I enter a race, untrained.  It's been more than 5 years since I ran a marathon.  Scratch.  What's that?  Scratch, Scratch.  April 24 is the inaugural Blue Ridge Parkway Marathon in Roanoke.  Scratch, Scratch, Scratch.  Oh, I get it.  The Itch.  Nice try.  Manley said for the $90 registration fee he'd run 26 miles with me right here in Arnold's Valley.

"Do it," says Virginia.  "You don't have anything scheduled for April."

But I do, I do.  Twenty turkeys are scheduled to join us so they'll be ripe by Thanksgiving...and I may have to start training for a track meet in June.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Dark Months

I entered a land of natural tinsel as I began the climb to Arrowhead Lodge this morning.  Looking out the Lodge windows, I see why a superintendent of schools might cancel classes.  All the tree branches are coated, like ubiquitous glass paperweights.  On days like today I entertain second thoughts about our decision not to install code-compliant railings around our deck.  A slip-and-slide could land me humpty-dumptied in Opossum Run -- and no one would find me for hours.

Down on our little farm, occasional balls of sleet had begun to join the raindrops minutes before I left.  If I were blindfolded and transported roundabout one location to the other, I might think they were in different gardening zones.  One spring day not long ago I ran from the cabin, warm in shorts and a tee shirt until the valley floor, 20 degrees colder, coaxed me to a faster pace.  Typically, we have 3 or 4 frosts on the farm before the first one on the mountain, but in the summertime we can count on the cabin for cooling off.

As I prepare to practice piano, it sounds as if a million toy soldiers are fighting battles on our metal roof.  The creek drones a persistent pedal point.  Otherwise, the woods wait, silent, for Spring.

"You could use better ears," says Virginia.  "All sorts of things are happening out there.  They may look dead, but the woods aren't waiting."

That's what pulls me through January and the "hungry month" of February -- that, and, I'm told, Omega-3 fatty acids.  (Some folks prescribe lots of fish, free-range eggs, and pasture-raised meats, great bearers of healthful nutrients, to battle winter blahs.)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Venus Trumps Mars

My sister, lonely in her sisterhood of one, says she's glad for brothers, but they're "too male."  Stabbed in the heart, I've been staggering ever since.  For years I've striven to be a good sister.  Now I moan in the mirror, to Carly Simon's famous melody, "You're too male."

Deep down, I think I know what she means (arrogant male that I am).  Reread my posting for yesterday ("Nursery Time"), with my admission and supplication to peers -- "why must it be 'us versus them.'?"  (Go ahead and fight about that apostrophe's placement.)  I suppose it's all because of the Y chromosome my sister lacks.  It's why women tend to have wheelbarrows full of friends and men less than a handful.  It's why only one cock rules a henhouse.  Whoops.  Forget that.  I digress.

I've always hated stereotypes, probably because they're often right about me.  I don't want to explain things with a sex chromosome or a heftier supply of testosterone.  I want to believe human beings deserve to live on the top of the heap, not because they clambered up by clobbering everything in sight of their path and more, but because they're kinder and more thoughtful, like the goddess of love, the sign of femaleness.

But here I sit, relegated to Mars, where I'm expected to win wars instead of regularly gathering to share recipes, stroll through stores, or wear home-made party hats when my children "come of age" (see "Sisters" at

I want to lay down my guns, beat swords into plowshares, and sing with the Sweet Adelines.  But I can't.

"You're a drama queen," says Virginia, "like me.  Here, take this."

I think she's going to slug me, but instead she pins on my chest a sheriff's badge.  Across it she has drawn with a magic marker, "Female."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Nursery Time

After a month of unusually cold, white weather, a warm spell speaks Spring.  Of course, it's a tease.  Fortunately, the nights remain cold enough not to coax the flora into premature rebirth.  As my posting yesterday ("Where the Rubber Hits the Road") suggested, animals may be stupid but plants are not.

Have you ever met an unkind plant?  Virginia steps up to the microphone, "Poison ivy?"  My view on that is a repeat of something I posted a few days ago ("Taking Responsibility") -- if you're too lazy or stupid to recognize and avoid, or wash off, poisons, don't blame the plant.

"What about weeds?" Virginia asks.  Yes, sometimes uninvited plants greatly aggravate me, but even they aren't mean or unkind.  They're simply complicatedly inconvenient, which by definition is what a weed is.

"Bananas," my sister might suggest.  I love bananas, but she wants to form an online Society of Banana Haters, people who think even the smell of a banana is hazardous to their health.  My friend, Mike, used to have a similar problem with celery, although he seems to have aged into tolerance.  One of the SBH mottos would be "Bananas are mean."  I won't touch this one.  How can you argue with such an extremely skewed perspective?

The point is, Spring-like weather portends a kinder world.  My first 2010 seed packets arrived yesterday and I'm itching to get this year's garden growing.  The warm sunshine has melted most of our white blanket and uncovered my November planting of garlic.  It's time to start the earlies on windowsills -- things like broccoli, cauliflower and onions -- so in March they can keep the garlic company.  A couple months after that, my gardens will be overflowing with friendly plants, co-existing in a way animals (humans, anyway) apparently cannot.

"I thought you said plants don't need human help," says Virginia.

"I may have gotten carried away," I say.  "Some of them do better with a little help from friends."

"Otherwise, they get crowded out, just like animals," says Virginia.

"Good point," I surrender.  "They both have their good points.  Why must it always be 'us vs. them'?"

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

When the Rubber Hits the Road

Karen's before and after pictures of Puck, our former rooster, God bless his soul (see "A picture paints a thousand words" at, provoked a wide range of responses from "rooster killer" to "I'm proud of you; you're a real farmer now."

I'm reminded of the scene in "Julie and Julia" where Julie's husband wanders around the apartment singing "lobstuh killuh."  What strikes me most was his silence when Julie cooked boeuf bourguignon or duck.  Frankly, it's kind of like the millions of world citizens who ignored (and some still ignore) gas ovens in Germany, except, so far as we know, human roasts weren't shipped to supermarkets.  Okay, that's a rather extreme comparison.  Instead, think of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street, who provided Mrs. Lovett with cheap meat for her pies.  Did you laugh when they sang "try the priest" or "the financier, peak of his career?"

Vegans and vegetarians, you're not off the hook, by far.  Take a fresh green bean, cut it in pieces, and look at it under a microscope.  What are those little things moving around?  They're not vegetables.  Do you think the farmer that grows the vegetables you eat avoids killing creatures as he drags his plow, cultivator or hoe through the soil, which, by the way, has likely been amended by pesticides and fertilizers that animals eat, get sick from, and die?  Moreover, unless you're buying locally grown produce, lots of petroleum has been consumed getting those plants to your kitchen, and as we all know -- but ignore as part of our typical mass denial -- kills not only animals but some on the top of the heap, humans, now and future.

I'm also curious about the distinction we draw between heads of lettuce and beef or pork.  Consider the gentle plant, which produces its own food from (non-living) nutrients it obtains from soil and air.  Unlike a pig or a cow, it doesn't need our daily help.  Instead of rewarding it with respect, we eat it without a first thought regarding its death and sacrifice

"Wait a minute," says Virginia.  "Do you think we resent the independence of vegetables, which is why we eat them without remorse; that our egos object to being at the killing of pigs, cattle, chickens, turkeys and so forth because we made them?"

"Hmmm," I say.  "The next time I lop off a head of lettuce I'm going to be more circumspect.  And hey, you meat, fish and fowl eaters, be there or be square!"

Monday, January 18, 2010


We met a couple yesterday who said their life's word is "flexibility."  They stole it from us -- more accurately, from Karen.

I've been thinking about moving to New Zealand.  People who know us may say, yes, no surprise, they've been in Virginia for 8 years.  They were in North Carolina 8 years, and Missouri 6 years, maybe it's time to move.

Actually, we're finally settling in, getting our little farm underway with productive gardens and livestock.  It feels comfortable here, usually.

Then I read a book like Wild Fire by Nelson DeMille, about a group of rich and "powerful" men who implement a plan to invoke the U.S. government's imbedded response to an Islamic fundamentalist attack on a U.S. city.  The response, with the code name "Wild Fire," has been set up to "automatically" launch nuclear attacks on Muslim world centers.  The President has only a 30-minute window to stop Wild Fire.  What does this group of men do?  They place four suitcase nuclear bombs in two American cities to fake an Islamic nuclear attack and provoke Wild Fire.

Of course, our hero, John Cory, and his wife, Kate Mayfield, save the moment, but John warns that it's going to happen one of these days.

I'm not sure New Zealand would offer a real refuge from the madness, but it might be as good as it gets.  Maybe we could find a farm for sale at a reasonable price isolated somewhere on the South Island.  A couple times a year we could visit Christchurch, Wellington or Auckland for some live music and city "culture."  Friends and family could fly in for month-long visits, stay in a bach somewhere on the 3000 acres we aren't using, and help us harvest beyond-organic crops and milk the goats and donkeys.

Virginia says, "When the bombs fall, we could hoe away until the breezes kill us."

Sunday, January 17, 2010


Tell-tale signs galore --
ceiling fan turned off,
a toilet paper roll,
open doors, empty bottles.
"Leave no trace" has lost.

Around chromosomes
lies cell material that can
turn off or on the genes
of the next generation.
What we do matters.

"Our true character appears when we think no one is watching," says Virginia.

"Do you mean, when I pick my nose?" says Who.

"No, not you, certainly," says Virginia.

[Note.  Research by a Norwegian physician suggested that boys who went from normal eating to gluttony in a single season, following a season of famine, produced sons and grandsons who lived much shorter lives than boys who ate normally.  Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene activity that do not involve alterations to the genetic code but still get passed to at least one successive generation. Time, Jan. 18, 2010.]

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Playing games in the cemetery,
grownups in blue and gray,
here and there a ruffled shirt,
top hat, a few little girls
in dresses, celebrating R.E. Lee,
not so popular where I grew up,
damn Yankee I will forever be,
one you can trust, someone said,
better not, I may disappoint
smelly, mothballed wool.

"Rebel flags give me the creeps," says Virginia.

"I guess you didn't see many in Manhattan," I say.

"No, we had other distractions," says she, "like Nixon in China."

[Note: Nixon in China is an opera by American composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman.]

Friday, January 15, 2010

Palm Reader

Take these hands,
may the long life lines
prove true, as age
spots and wrinkles
betray past and future.

An old friend from India
saw gaps between the fingers,
"money slips through your grasp"
-- or maybe they signify
the joints of a knucklehead.

"Not a knucklehead," says Virginia, "after all, you're creating me."

"I'm not so sure," I say.  "Sometimes I think creation is out of my realm."

"Hey, I created something today," says Virginia.  "Want to hear it?"



Like a bird on a branch
whistling on wind,
sow a melody, seamless,
into everything as if it
has always been.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Taking Responsibility

I knew a fellow who refused to buy life insurance.  He said, "I don't bet against myself."  I looked at him with squinty eyes and shook my head.  As I recall, he bought other types of insurance only if required, by the government for his cars and by his lender for his house.

Even though I have confidence in myself, I've maintained many kinds of insurance, including blanket liability.  I know I can do some pretty stupid things and no matter how healthy I like to think my lifestyle is, something could happen.  Look at Jim Fixx, the sudden death of a runner.  But I'm more worried about losses caused by someone or something else -- a deer through the windshield, a malfunctioning brake, inclement weather.

Why blanket liability?  Partly because of the famous lawsuit against McDonald's involving spilled hot coffee.  Someone might sue me for something I can't imagine.

When we visited New Zealand ten years ago, we signed up to kayak in Doubtful Sound.  The outfitter laughed when I said, "Aren't you going to ask us to sign a release?"  "You're assuming the risk," he said.  "You wouldn't get into court in New Zealand."

"That's how it should be," says Virginia.  "We'd be much better off in this country if we required everyone to accept responsibility."

Not long ago I hit my head on a tree branch.  "Stupid tree," I said.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Instant Deadline

Before I dive into
twelve hundred pages
released yesterday
I need to plan
how to exit
without fangs and claws.

"At this rate, you're never going to get to know the real me," says Virginia.

"Sometimes I think that may be true," I say.

"Come on, let the legalise languish," she says.  "We have things to do, stories to tell."

"I won't neglect you, " I say.  "Haven't you heard, patience is a virtue?"

"Not when my well-being is at stake," she says.  "Take too long and I may change into a villain."

"Maybe," I take note.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Elk Cliff Farm-vore

Karen served Puck for dinner last night.  Puck was our first rooster, a fellow who earned enemies by sneaking up from behind after being forgotten.  Fed up, and ready to take the next step toward self-sufficiency, Karen and her accomplice, Adam, did the deed.  I had expected that to be my responsibility, but they performed it so quickly and efficiently they were coming in when I was heading out.

A pile of feathers in a bucket reminded me of the thin line between life and death.  I've seen lively, active, thoughtful people walking around one day and, like Puck, lifeless the next.  Having a name I know and a face I recognize emphasizes the meaning of their "passing."  Being present when eyes glaze into nothingness, or somethingness we hope, is an amazing moment, in part because some day, preferably long distant, it will happen to me.  As a child, I thought it must hurt and the person must be very brave. I also thought that since it has happened to everyone who died before me, I would somehow find a way to handle it, too.

Many have suggested that if you're raising animals for meat, don't name them.  I disagree.  A name helps keep things personal.  At a time when many, if not most, people spend more of each day pecking at a keyboard than relating directly with family, friends and acquaintances, emphasizing the personal makes sense.

Virginia says, "But we're talking about animals here, future meals, not friends and neighbors."

"Not true," I say.  "Otherwise, why would so many decry livestock factories and feed lots, touting the importance of living a 'good life' in a pasture where the sun shines?  Some even think a little friendly petting can't hurt."

"Thank you, Puck," I would have said if I hadn't been late.  Thank you for gracing our first entirely home-grown non-vegetarian dinner.

Monday, January 11, 2010


I'd like you to meet Malcolm,
we'll visit for a while, his day
begins after breakfast, at the piano,
if we're lucky Chopin or Schumann
pieced like a fine cabinet in progress
so please don't expect a concert,
you might pack a Field and Stream,
he'll pass out needles and we'll sit
around his quilt frame and talk,
stitching bucks and bears on camouflage,
bring your boots for a mountain jaunt,
then we might knead bread and read
Clancy, DeMille, Thoreau or Dickens,
when he'll mention it's not easy being Malcolm
among Johns, Toms, Bills and Dicks.

"Are you reading thrillers again?" Virginia asks, flexing her biceps.

"How'd you guess?" I say.  "Every now and then it's important to remember who I could have been."

"You'd have been a lousy 'secret agent man,'" she says.

"Hmmm."  I bite my tongue.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


A coagulated mass
of yellow-green mucus
spotted with black olives
edged by obligatory lettuce leaves

talk about something
ancestors would not recognize

hold your nose...
and jump in.

"Maybe you've been smoking too much Mother Earth News and Barbara Kingsolver," Virginia says.

"That thought crossed my mind," I say. "I sent my first 2010 seed order yesterday."

"Good, your little greenhouse is itching to get started," says Virginia.

"Me, too," I say.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Carrots Dressed for the Cold

Below freezing,
not afraid of the dark,
yellow-orange tapers
stand at attention
under earth, mulch and snow.

"They might be rotting under there," I say.

"That's okay," says Virginia, "all the world needs to eat."

Friday, January 8, 2010

January Dumpster

christmas ribbons
and wrapping paper
drape dead bambi,
never made.

"Nice rhythm," says Virginia. "I could dance the canoe step."

"Don't tell me you were in Boy Scouts," I say.

"No, but my dad was," she says. "We'd dance around campfires on our section hikes."

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Suits and Stuffed Shirts

Seventeen wonderful years ago I arrived at work on a Friday, rode the elevator to the ninth floor, strode the hallway to my office, and hung my sport coat on a hook. At my other office in St. Louis, this was "casual" Friday. In Stamford I was about to learn there was no such thing.

Two hours later, our director of human resources entered my office and closed the door. "James," said this guardian of political correctness, "[The boss] noticed you were wearing a sport coat this morning. Suits are required on this floor." (Even though we took them off as soon as we arrived.)

That was Citi then. Look at Citi now.

In contrast, consider Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, a company whose benefits include flextime so employees can go surfing or skiing when the weather is right or stay home with a sick child, and the freedom to dress as they like, including bare feet. In 2006, this Moses published Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman." Last year, Patagonia experienced its most success in years.

Here's what Chouinard had to say: "I love recessions for business reasons. No. 1, a recession kills the competition [unless they're 'too big to fail]. No. 2, your customers stop being silly and stop buying fashion stuff. They buy things they need and things that will last a long time. They don't mind paying more as long as it's high-quality. What they do is what we should all be doing, which is consuming less and consuming better."

Meanwhile, our recent Presidents simply urge us to spend, spend, spend. Yes, but the spending should be on things we need -- alternative energy research, local production of food and other goods, and improved health care. According to Chouinard, one in 8 women will develop breast cancer. That's up from one in 40 before the widespread use of pesticides! We must reorder our priorities.

Virginia says, "Did you notice what he said about 'wait and see?' 'There's no difference between an optimist who says 'Don't bother, it'll all be fine,' and the pessimist who says 'Don't bother, it's all hopeless.'"

I'm afraid we'll be fighting over the environment until it's over. Chouinard quotes the "Pentagon" as saying war will be endless now because we're going to be fighting over the last resources. Maybe, just in time, as in a suspense novel, smart young people will create solutions.

I bet they won't be wearing suits.

P.S. (1/10/10).   Barbara Kingsolver, in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, observes:  "In 1965, U.S. farmers used 335 million pounds of pesticides.  In 1989 they used 806 million pounds.  Less than ten years after that, it was 985 million.  That's three and a half pounds of chemicals for every person in the country, at a cost of $8 billion.  Twenty percent of these approved-for-use pesticides are listed by the EPA as carcinogenic in humans.

"So how are the bugs holding out?  Just fine.  In 1948, when pesticides were first introduced, farmers used roughly 50 million pounds of them and suffered about a 7 percent loss of all their field crops.  By comparison, in 2000 they used nearly a billion pounds of pesticides.  Crop losses?  Thirteen percent."

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


I wend my way through the key changes and various sections in Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor, 1st movement, trying to set them in my mind, wishing they were my ideas in the first place. I envy pianists whose memories soak this up in a few playings or hearings, like Leonard Bernstein and his photographic memory. Victor Santiago Asuncion mentioned that he resurrected Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition in a week, after ignoring it for more than a decade.

At the risk of overstating my case, I'm getting ready for one of those trips of a lifetime, the Schumann concert, February 20. Unfortunately, I can't buy travel insurance. I practiced 6-8 hours a day during my senior year of college. Now I'm at the keyboard 2 to 4 hours, as if it doesn't really matter because a few other responsibilities interfere and graduation doesn't depend on it. Please tell me my maturity and focus offer a great advantage and everything will come together.

I'm curious, though, what difference 35 years make. Am I memorizing faster or slower? Do I understand the theory and harmony better or worse? Have my interpretation and expression improved? As for fingers, wrists and arms, I'd probably rather not go there. I'll just say they seem to be holding up.

In the Schumann, after 15 pages of rather aggressive playing, the pianist gets to enjoy two slow pages floating around A-flat major. "Love me tender, in the words of Elvis," says Virginia. "If it were opera, you might be in a garden with your beloved."

May tears (I hope not mine) celebrate the joy of this passage.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Porn Stars

Sex delayed my departure this morning by about 5 minutes. Karen thrust our digital camera my way, coaxing me into the role of film-maker. I recently noticed, by the way, that one of the nearby theaters continues to use film, so the term remains apropos.

"You'd better turn it on," she said. "This may not take long."

Witty rushed to the girls' gate, breathless and snorting. "Don't toy with me," said his eyes as his nose angled toward Polly. Playing coy, Polly held back as Strawberry, the boss with horns, slipped through the gate. "Witty, my boy, stay away," Strawberry seemed to say. "I want the pasture. I'm tired of hay."

"Come on, Polly," ordered the goat mistress. Polly, the cock-tease, inched toward the gate, floating pheromones. When she finally squeezed through, she had no time to fix her hair, comb her beard or light a couple candles. Five seconds later, Witty stepped away, satiated.

"Cut," said Virginia. "You forgot the apple cider vinegar."

ACV is reported to increase the likelihood of does, which is not why I drink it twice a day.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Great Recession: Transitioning

The Great Recession is destined to influence our future in many ways. Some predict it will postpone the creative contributions of a new generation of workers because young people will delay education they can't afford now. Conversely, the oldest cohorts in the workforce will hang on, imprinting the marketplace with staleness, a preference for the ways things are being done.

I like to think the oldest cohorts won't hold on, that they will choose to be different, to test the waters of change and swing the doors open to the young. "Here, take it and run. Maybe you can do a better job. It's time for me to stop driving so fast I can't taste or smell what I'm doing."

We take too much for granted. Most of us flip a light switch as if magic brightens the bulb. When we're hungry, we park, buy "food" our great-grandparents wouldn't recognize and stuff it down our throats. We hop back in our cars and pat our protruding middles.

Maybe we older folks will set an example by making the things we consume, indulging our innate desire to control a manufacturing process from start to finish. We might begin by growing food or preparing meals from scratch. Eventually, we might get in the habit of asking ourselves before we buy anything -- could we create this ourselves? Others may be able to do it cheaper, but too often the operative word in that phrase is "cheap."

"You've said that before," says Virginia. "Most likely you're preaching to the choir."

"I've been in the choir," I say. "The choir doesn't listen any more closely than anyone else. I can't even hear myself chatter."

"Well then," says Virginia, "maybe you should pack up things, put them in storage and move along."

"I've thought about that," I say, "but I kind of like where we're going here."

"Then listen to the preacher," says Virginia.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Mountain Climbing

The day I blogged tubular ("Tubular," December 21, 2009) I neglected the orange, yellow, green and black tubes we retrieve from the barn loft to float down the James River. Last night, Adam and a friend found a different use for those toys. For pictures, click on Karen's blog, Holes in My Jeans, in the right margin of my blog, and go to "Sledding in the new year" (January 2, 2010).

The James River Face rises three thousand feet above the pasture in those pictures. I read recently that many millions of years ago these mountains were taller than Mt. Everest is today. At the south end of our valley, Thunder Ridge guards our cabin, Arrowhead Lodge. Today Thunder Ridge is a mystery I have an urge to explore.

It's too cold for such a long walk and the ice-crusted snow might toss me into a hospital (or morgue). When the snow melts, I'd like to head up there with a friend to feast on overlooks. The only friend willing to join me, unless I import one from somewhere else (Victor, Rick, are you there?), is my cellphone. (I hear fake violins playing.)

If I were to make a new year's resolution, it would have something to do with these mountains and woods. In them, I can run 20 miles without being passed by a car or truck and, as I go, deadlines and commitments fade into nothingness or I laugh at the stress-less-ness of my life compared to what used to be. But I don't have to walk or run 20 miles for this. I could step onto our porch or patio, settle into a hammock or lawnchair and watch the mountains fret and the forest mend.

"Your garden would beckon," says Virginia. "You couldn't simply sit."

Could I prove her wrong?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Learning My Letters

Do you know what lies underneath the keys on your computer's keyboard? Lex exposed the secrets under mine. We were quietly enjoying each other's company on the loveseat in our dining room when, boom, the front door opened. Lex levitated and leaped across my lap, dragging his paws across my keyboard and jerking out the power cord. Six plastic key tops flew -- a, w, u, i, o and j.

Eighteen months have passed. If my online banks have implemented multi-factor authentication as recommended by their regulators, this computer's keyboard definitely would help them identify my unique typing style. Did you know that's one of the technologies they use? Our typing is nearly as unique as our fingerprints.

A couple days ago the little rubber foot glued to the "a" came off. My left pinkie is gradually adjusting. I wonder if the banks will start asking security questions all over again. Gosh, what is my favorite color?

Virginia says, "There's a suggestion if you don't want friends borrowing your computer -- like the old beds you offer overnight guests, remove a few key caps."

What's she talking about? I wouldn't do that.

Friday, January 1, 2010


PopPop, age 95, prepared Thanksgiving dinner for several of his ten children. "Let's say grace," he said. "Thank you for giving me another day to cook dinner for my family." Later, one of his great-grandchildren said, "I wonder what it's like to wake up every morning and be grateful to be alive one more day."

I used to go to bed knowing I would wake up the next morning. I didn't doubt it. Now I'm not as sure, although I'm very hopeful. I have aged into the uncertainty of infinity. Some of us are becoming more and more hopeful that infinity will know us, everlasting. At the same time we are growing to value the finiteness of the present.

If we're going to use religion to guide our behavior and we believe in the sanctity of human life, I don't know how we can ignore most of the people who will ever exist -- our descendants. Our great-grandchildren need our help. It's not a matter of believing or not believing that humans are contributing to the end of the Earth as we know it. All we need to know is simple arithmetic. If we're running out of food, we don't wait until our cupboards are bare. We plan ahead. The earth contains a finite amount of coal and petroleum. If we continue to use them the way we're using them now, they will run out.

Most young people view life as endless, even though they "know" it is not. We know this because yesterday we were young. They deserve our help and our planning, now. They are worth our investment.

"I sang into an overlook this afternoon," says Virginia. "No one but I heard me, except maybe some wildlife. Sometimes I wonder if I hear myself."

Happy New Year!