Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Best Ones

Here are my choices for the best of 2007 ...

Best song I never would have heard if not for the iPod ads: "1234," by Feist.

Best song I never would have heard if not for the TV show John from Cincinnati: "Johnny Appleseed," by Joe Strummer.

Best continuation of a brilliant career: Magic, by Bruce Springsteen.

Best movie I haven't seen yet: Juno.

Quirky comedy that deserved better: The Darjeeling Limited.

Breakout paperback sensation: Eat, Pray, Love.

Evocative book title: Like You'd Understand, Anyway.

Best essay by a much admired family member: "Testing: One, Two, Three?"

Best blog: Chimichangas at Sunset.

Cutest dog ever: Bodie.

Best new TV series: John from Cincinnati.

Best magazine article: Fast Company's November cover story: "This Mechanic Can Get You 100 MPG (Why Can't Detroit?)."

Best novel I've read in the past year: The Lay of the Land, by Richard Ford.

Best road trip: Along the coast to Santa Barbara.

Woman of the year (this year and every year): Joanne Riske.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

No Particular Order

For the man and woman who brought me into the world.
For the sisters who taught me how to play tennis.
For the surgeon who removed my appendix before it burst.
For the dentist who capped my broken tooth.
For the master who taught me yoga.
For the mechanic who fixes my car.
For the singer who sings that song I like.
For the friends who lift me up when I'm down.
For the woman who still loves me after all these years.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Don't Stop Now

We spread a blanket off to one side of the boat launch, under some trees. Island Lake, in Shelton, Washington, is surrounded by small private homes, and this is the only public access. Since it's still early in the season and the homeowners tend to take the lake for granted, there are no boats or skiers out.

It's 1972, and we're both seventeen.

That's how the story begins. The story "Don't Stop Now" in Hobart.

Hobart is one of my favorite literary journals, and the story appears this month in the online edition.

It's basically a distillation of a novel I started writing in 1972 when I was 17. Two hundred forty-four pages down to five. Reader's Digest, eat your heart out.

Like many first novels, mine was awful (embarrassingly so) and now languishes in the back of a closet, where it belongs. The short story, on the other hand, is pretty darn good. An editor at Esquire called it "a pleasure to read," even if it wasn't really appropriate for the magazine.

More importantly, Hobart loved it.

So, don't stop now; hop on over to Hobart and check it out.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Testing: One, Two, Three?

I'm not the target audience for Literary Momma. It is, after all, "A Literary Magazine for the Maternally Inclined."

Can a man be maternally inclined, or would we call that paternally inclined? Are they different? I couldn't say. I'm not even a parent. So why do I find myself reading Literary Momma today?

Because of a great article called "Testing: One, Two, Three?" by Gretchen Clark.

To me, this piece of creative nonfiction does what great literature is supposed to do: Put you in someone else's shoes and let you experience what it's like to be them. Even if you're not like them. Even if you're someone of a different gender, someone in completely different circumstances.

In just 14 paragraphs, "Testing: One, Two, Three?" gave me a vivid glimpse into the complex and conflicting emotions of motherhood.

What's more, I now feel like I know Gretchen Clark, even though I've already known her for more than 30 years.

She's my sister-in-law.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Writer's Profile

Childhood Ambition: Be the best writer who ever lived. (I was 10 and had never heard of Shakespeare.)

Little-Known Fact: Had first story published (on a mimeograph machine) when in the fourth grade.

Honors: Won first place in a feature-writing contest in high school, despite horrible spelling.

Influences: John Knowles, Earnest Hemingway, Philip Roth, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Elizabeth Tallent, Milan Kundera.

Proudest Moment So Far: Having my first short story published in the Beloit Fiction Journal. (I have another story coming out in Hobart next month that I'm equally proud of.)

Inspiration: Catherine Ryan Hyde, author of Pay It Forward, who told me she collected 120 rejections before her first story was published. (It does pay to be persistent.)

Most Encouraging Note: "I think you're a good writer and I liked what I read ... I cannot flatter where writing is concerned." - L.H., SoHo Press.

Most Discouraging Note:
"I'm afraid this is nowhere near the novel I had hoped for." - L.H., SoHo Press.

Best Advice from a Fellow Writer: "Diversify your emotional investments." - Greg Bardsley.

Goal: Be more playful.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Eat, Pray, Love

For both style and substance, it's hard to imagine a better read that Eat, Pray, Love.

The best-selling memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert is billed as "One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia."

Along the way, there's no shortage of candor and comedy, confusion and crises. But clarity is never far behind.

Check it out. You won't be disappointed.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Joshua Tree

The desert is full of things you can’t hold on to — light and heat and sand that slips through your fingers like friendships you once had. But if you’re looking for a sense of permanence, the desert is the place to go.

California’s two deserts — the Mojave and the Colorado — come together at Joshua Tree National Monument, 140 miles east of L.A. If you go there, you’ll see what I mean.

Some of the Joshua trees have been around for hundreds of years and are now nearly 50 feet tall. (They look like overgrown cacti.) But it’s the immovable boulders and massive rock formations jutting up from the desert floor that really make you feel as if nothing ever changes here.

It’s not true, of course. On some of the rocks you’ll find petroglyphs left by an ancient Indian civilization we know little about — experts aren’t even sure if the etchings were a form of writing or just drawings. Even so. Stand in the shade of a boulder, put your hand on its pebbled surface — still cool in the noonday heat — and you’ll know there’s at least one thing you can hold on to.

Climbers from all over the country come here, to the Wonderland of Rocks, to test themselves on innumerable ascents, but you don’t need ropes or carabiners or gymnast’s chalk to appreciate the Wonderland. Although this maze of granite boulders covers 12 square miles, you can get a good feel for it on an easy-to-follow trail of little more than a mile.

But first you may want to get your bearings by driving through this 850-square-mile preserve. Gently winding roads will lead you from the high-desert beauty of the Mojave to the immense low-desert grandeur of the Pinto Basin in the Colorado. To really get the lay of the land, your first stop should be Keys View — if not the highest point in the monument, as least the highest you can get to on a paved road. From here you can see snow-capped Mount San Gorgonio, Palm Springs, and the Salton Sea. On a clear day you can even spot Signal Mountain, just over the Mexican border, 95 miles away.

You won’t get a real feel for the desert, though, until you leave the roads behind. When you can no longer see pavement or campers or even fellow hikers — that’s when you know you’re in the desert.

It’s hot and you’d better carry plenty of water.

On the trail the only sounds you’ll hear are the crunch of rocks under your boots and, if you’re lucky, the wind riffling through your hair. When you stop, and the air is still, the silence is like a ringing in your ears.

Two more things you can’t hold on to: silence and peace.

We felt it on our way to the Lost Palms Oasis. The trail begins at Cottonwood Spring and leads you out past the Mastodon Mine, over rolling hills and through dry washes. It’s four miles to Lost Palms, and before you get there you realize the desert is also full of things you wouldn’t want to hold on to — prickly pear cactus, whiptail lizards, catclaw shrubs, and rattlesnakes. (Not that we saw any rattlers, but you should carry a snakebite kit just in case.) Still, the variety of cactus and birds and other creatures is astonishing.

The Oasis is a cluster of fan palms at the bottom of a deep ravine. It looks like a long way down, but it doesn’t take long (even coming back up). Among the palms, we pass another hiker who says, “What, no pool to dive into?” There’s clearly water here somewhere, but it’s all below the surface.

We sit in the sand, our backs against a sloping chunk of granite, and enjoy our lunch — bananas, grapes, sandwiches, and cookies — in the shade of the palms. A breeze rustles through the ravine. It’s nice here. We decide to let the desert hold on to us for a while.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Are You Precient?

Here's an outtake from a fascinating conversation I had awhile ago with Steve Rubin, one of our top engineers ...

"I think that scientists in general are not acting like scientists anymore, but are acting more like religious figures, with their belief in some stuff and rejection of anything that doesn't fit within their doctrines -- for example, paranormal effects. I used to reject the paranormal, too. You know, 'That's BS.'

"I had the standard skeptical thing until I did some programming work for Dean Radin. He's considered a paranormal or psychic researcher. He's a Ph.D., scientist, statistical expert, skeptic, and what he does is he goes around and he repeats the experiments that people claim are demonstrating paranormal effects. Someone says, 'The following proves a paranormal effect,' and he says, 'Bullshit. Let's see for ourselves.'

"I was his programmer, building his experiments, and it was quite convincing. Here's one example; I wouldn't have believed it could work.

"Are you prescient? Can you see the future? Some people think they can, but they can't quantify it. They can't prove it. There are a lot of people, by the way, who believe in these effects, but they can't really defend it because someone can always say, 'Oh, you just got a hint from somewhere.'

"What Radin did was he got a collection of pictures. Some of them were 'calm' pictures as he called them. A picture of a spoon. A picture of a flower. Then he had 'difficult' pictures. A picture of a deformed face. A picture of a bloody accident. Pictures of people having sex. Pictures to get your blood boiling. He would then randomly flash these pictures on a screen in front of a subject. Not only that, when the difficult pictures hit the screen, he would play the most annoying, grating, screeching sound. And he had you hooked up to a number of devices, measuring your blood pressure, heart rate, and stuff like that.

"All he told the subjects was, 'We're measuring your response to these pictures.' and he'd show a few dozen pictures. Sure enough, when the difficult pictures hit the screen, the curves jumped. People were not happy. And when the calm pictures hit the screen the biometrics just continued normally. Except for one interesting thing. Before the difficult pictures hit the screen, people's rates would already start to climb. People knew. People are prescient.

"I programmed this thing, and I know I did it right. In fact, I've been programming computers for almost 40 years now. Since high school. I have never in my life had my code scrutinized so heavily as this code. First of all, the random decision to show a calm or annoying picture had to be made immediately before it happened. They didn't want it made ahead of time so someone could argue that it was stored in the computer and somehow detectable. They also wanted to make sure that the amount of code that was executed for the the two paths, calm versus difficult, was the same length of time so no one could detect a little delay.

"They went on and on with this level of scrutiny of the code, checking everything. But there's no doubt about it. Statistical analysis bears it out, as well as just an eyeballing of the data. When a calm picture is coming, people stay calm. When the difficult picture is coming, people know before that thing hits the screen, before that sound comes out of the speaker. They start to get tense ahead of time. Everyone does it (not just the people who claim to be prescient). We can document that all people are prescient, even though they don't know it.

"Prescience? Intuition? These I believe are real phenomena, and we could have endless discussions about why I think they're real. I'm not saying it's real because I've seen the aliens, or taken too many drugs, or something like that. There are some real phenomena out there. And there are many people with theories. My basic take on it is that it's just a phenomenon we haven't learned to measure yet. No one believed in electricity before it was invented. Or radio waves. How magical is that?

"At each point in time we think, 'We know it all. We're done now.' And this is what I complain about with scientists today. They say, 'We have all our answers.' But we don't have all our answers. Did you know that the physical constants are not constant? The speed of light is not constant. Yet scientists blithely treat these things as if they're constants. The history of their values shows that they change, and this is not just due to better measuring equipment. If you go into a lab today and try to measure them ten times in a row, you'll get ten different answers. They're all within a fraction of a percent, or something like that, but they're not constants ... it varies more than the equipment's margin of error. All sorts of things that we think are true are not. But we gloss over that stuff because it's just too hard to believe.

"There is lots out there; we just can't detect it yet."

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Time of My Life

Thirty-one years ago today, in a rain-soaked park in Oregon, Joanne and I were huddled under a small shelter with our friends and families.

I was wearing a black velvet suit I'd picked up at the Squire Shop in the Lancaster Mall. Joanne was wearing a long white Gunny Sack dress and looked fantastic.

College buddies played "Here Comes the Sun" on guitar and a borrowed pump organ.

Eleven months earlier, Joanne and I had been among half a dozen students who gathered in Dr. Frazee's office for his course in the Development of Christian Thought. By coincidence, we showed up in similar ski sweaters on the same day, and Joanne was amazed when it kept happening, week after week, on different days.

She never suspected that I might have seen her on campus earlier and run back to my dorm to change.

What can I say? Sometimes fate can use a helping hand.

In the park, with the rain still coming down, it was Dr. Frazee -- a bald, robust, and joyous man -- who stood before us now with the power to pronounce us husband and wife.

Joanne had earned her art degree a couple of months earlier and was working in the office of Chuck Colvin Ford in McMinnville (home of Linfield College, where we met). I still had a semester to go and had a summer job sorting the empty bottles that came back to the Coca-Cola plant in Salem. Nothing about our future was set except one thing ...

We placed plain gold bands around each other's fingers and promised to love each other for the rest of our lives.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Lyrics Essay

Bob said business men, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth. None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.

Bruce said tell me what I see when I look in your eyes. Is that you baby or just a brilliant disguise?

Mark said I dreamed your dream for you. Now your dream is real. How can you look at me as if I was just another one of your deals?

Van said everybody feels so determined not to feel anybody else's pain.

Bruce said, remember, the soul of the universe willed a world and it appeared.

Rickie said the world is turning faster than it did when I was young.

John said it's time to go home and I ain't even done with the night.

Van said no one's making no commitments to anybody but themselves.

Bob said my love winks, she does not bother. She knows too much to argue or to judge.

Another Bob said ain't it funny how the night moves?

Patti said I've been lost and I've been found, been lifted up to the gates of heaven and put back down.

Sting said I never made promises lightly and there have been some that I've broken, but I swear in the days still left we'll walk in fields of gold.

Nick said what's so funny 'bout peace, love, and understanding?

Bob said I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now.

Jewel said in the end only kindness matters.

And Van said you shall take me strongly in your arms again and I will not remember that I ever felt the pain.

Tina said all fear will be gone when we reach the shores of Avalon.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Flash-Flood Warnings

Another moment in time. July 1992. We're sitting at the end of a dock on the western shore of Lake Tahoe. Night is falling—and a few drops of rain as well. There are about fifty ski boats and a scattering of sailboats anchored here, all pointing straight across the lake, bows to the tide.

Tugging on the lake is a full moon, though we can't see it.

Behind us the sky is blue and purple, but to the north it's black with clouds. Sheets of lightning flash every few minutes, but there's no thunder, not like this afternoon.

We like it here. The beach is private, but we have a key to the gate because we're staying at the Cottage Inn. A circle of six cottages in a pine grove, the inn is run as a bed and breakfast. In the main building, where breakfast is served, there's also a living room with a fireplace, a stereo, and a small TV. Earlier, the All-Star Game (AL 13, NL 6) was interrupted twice by the Emergency Broadcast System issuing flash-flood warnings around the area.

Despite the weather, we have asked to stay an extra day.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Artificial Intelligence

Ever been frustrated to the point of screaming because you couldn't get some gadget to do what it was designed to do? Of course you have. We all have.

Then, at the height of your outrage, some helpful bystander -- your father-in-law, perhaps -- will say, "You have to be smarter than the machine."


I once took a sledge hammer to a wristwatch/stopwatch/lap-counter that somehow thought I wanted it to beep every day at 4 a.m.

It wasn't smart enough to run.

Now I see that the processing power of your average desktop computer is expected to surpass that of the human brain by 2022.


On one hand, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. It's been 10 years since a computer first defeated the world's reigning chess champion. You remember IBM's Deep Blue beating Garry Kasparov in 1997, don't you?

(Yeah, me neither, but I looked it up.)

The funny thing is, with computers having gotten twice as fast every couple of years, you'd think they'd be able to do a lot more by now. Like recognize your voice. I have better luck with our five-month-old puppy than any computer I've tried to talk to on the phone.

Now, I'm no engineer, but I get to rub shoulders with some of the best where I work, and I was pleased to see this quote from James Gosling:

"Chess is remarkably simple from a machine's point of view. But to humans it appears complex. Similarly some things that appear simple are far more complex than we perceive them to be."

He noted, for example, that understanding speech is very different from merely recognizing it. From that perspective, a three-year-old child outshines the best computer.

We'll see where they are in 2022, but I wouldn't bet against the brain.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

How Sweet Life Can Be

On the beach at Hanalei Bay we listened to the whoosh and sizzle of gentle waves as they slapped the shore and washed through the course brown sand.

We were not the first ones on the beach—a lone woman and two other couples had beaten us there—but everyone was quiet, said good-morning in passing, and otherwise kept their distance.

We could see tiny fish in the ankle-deep water that stretched a good distance off shore before it got any deeper, and on the sand little translucent crabs moved like dustballs in the wind.

We walked inland along the bay as far as the big black boulders (they looked like giant briquettes) and watched black crabs as big as your hand show off their skill as rock climbers. We were surprised to see them actually jump from one rock to the next.

It was the first morning of our first real vacation. The first time we flew somewhere together. The first time we didn't stay with family. Hers or mine. It was also the first time I realized just how sweet life could be.

It's been nearly 20 years, but I can still bring back the feeling if I try.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight

I was looking for inspiration and came across the story of Lasse Viren.

Remember him? Viren was the guy who stumbled and fell halfway through the Olympic 10,000-meter final in 1972. Any chance the 23-year-old police officer from Finland had of winning a medal appeared to be gone.

He calmly got up and started running again.

Sportswriters consider it one of the great comebacks of all time because Viren not only caught up with the other runners, he passed them all to win the gold.

And he set a world record in the process.


What does that have to do with you, my friend? I wanted to remind you, in case you might have forgotten, that the same spirit resides in you.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

What's in a Name?

I changed my name when I was fifteen. I wasn’t in any kind of trouble, I just didn’t like the person I had become.

That's not quite right. I simply didn't like the image I had of myself. I saw myself as timid and too easily given to tears. I was wishy-washy and didn't know my own mind. (Few fifteen-year-old really do, but I didn't know that.)

In one sense, my name didn’t really matter. I was living in a new state, and the friends I made knew nothing of my imperfect past. I was free to reinvent myself.

The new name was for my benefit.

Anyway, it was easy to make the change. Up until then, everyone had called me Fred. From then on, I would be Al. Since the name on my birth certificate is Alfred, no paperwork was required.

Did it make a difference? I don't really know. I chose Al because it sounded more sophisticated to me at age 15. But I don't feel any more sophisticated at 52, and it doesn't really matter to me anymore.

Well, not much.

I'm certainly not the small-town boy I once was, and I can't imagine living in a small town again. On the other hand, I still have a sister who calls me Fred and I like how it sounds. Friendly and unpretentious. Qualities I'd like to accentuate.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Seven Sayings

Of all the things I've been taught in 52 years, these seven have shaped my thinking the most.

> "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

> "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's."

> "Be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves."

> "The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath."

> "Love your enemies."

> "Whatever you want others to do for you, do so for them."

> "Seek and you will find."

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Wants and Needs

In my day job, I work for a high-tech company, writing about breakthroughs that I try to describe in terms that even I can understand. Hey, I studied journalism in school, not science, so I try to keep it simple. I have to.

The truth is, I admire engineers, scientists, technologist. They impress me not only with their brains but with their hearts.

What motivates them more than anything is a desire to change the world. They spend their time finding ways to do things like, oh, help cancer researchers run simulations 50 times faster. What's more, they refuse to accept the notion that something can't be done simply because other smart people tried and failed.

In short, they're inspiring. There doesn't seem to be any limit to what they can do if they set their minds to it. Yet the best technologists I know think very seriously about the implications of what they're doing.

Most of us don't even do that much.

Which is why I was glad to see Fast Company's "E-Tool Bill of Rights," designed to reset expectations and redraw boundaries that technology tends to erase.

We should never forget that technology is made for us and not the other way around. But it goes beyond that.

Too often, I think, we let the things we want pull us away from the things we need. What we want may be a raise, a promotion, a new car, or a cure for cancer. Good things. But in their pursuit, we've become too busy to eat right, too wound up to sleep at night, too tired to exercise.

In short, we need to take better care of ourselves.

Life is precious.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Random Images

Barefoot girl in a backless dress.

Traffic lights reflected on wet pavement.

The shadow of a small plane flickering across the contours of a grassy shoreline.

Long-haired boys and short-haired girls.

A blue Adirondack chair by itself on the lawn.

Wind-blown palms through mosquito netting.

A white blouse with black buttons.

The smell of chlorine and Coppertone.

A big-breasted blonde in a black bikini.

Silver jet streaking over black hills in a twilight sky.

Cliche curtains ruffled by a lacy breeze.

"Eyelashes wasted on a boy."

Ice-blue lights on the bare branches of twin trees.

Red tail lights fading into a black-and-white winter night.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Now, Smile!

I lost a tooth yesterday. Not just any tooth. One of the front two. The right one, to be exact.

I broke it Friday night biting into a piece of pizza of all things. The pie was a little crispy from being reheated in the oven, but still. I was shocked.

At first the tooth was just loose, but Sunday it broke off while I was chewing something soft and doing my best to avoid the danger zone in my mouth.

Standing in front of a mirror, squinting at the jagged little stump that used to be my tooth, I was in for another shock: I looked like a derelict. It was quite horrifying actually.

This morning my dentist told me that teeth get brittle as we get older. Plus, I have what he called a deep bite, so he wasn't surprised at all. He simply fitted me with a temporary tooth -- nothing that would withstand a bite of french bread, but at least I look like my old self -- and scheduled a root-canal operation for later in the week.

I'm told that there's a lesson to be learned from every experience, and in this case the lesson is simple: I need to appreciate what I have before it's gone.

Knowing that -- really knowing it -- is worth more than any tooth.

Monday, January 1, 2007

What I've Learned

> If you're going to criticize me, say something nice first, even if you don't mean it. It will help, even if I know you don't mean it. (Note: Others may require actual sincerity.)

> When I'm feeling down, I play Van Morrison's "And the Healing Has Begun" over and over and over. With each repetition, I start to feel stronger.

> If you like to dance, dance -- and don't let anything stop you. Not shyness. Not anything.

> The punishment for lying is always wondering if others are lying to you.

> Buy Reese's peanut butter eggs at Easter time. They're way better than the peanut butter cups. They're fresh.

> Hatred is a waste of time. You only make yourself miserable.

> If you're taking a cruise on, say, the Danube, choose the downstream tour. Less engine noise.

> Think about it: If you were God -- omniscient and all-powerful -- could you ever be jealous of anyone or anything?

> Would you demand that people worship you?

> If you did, what would that say about your emotional maturity?

> Note to President Bush: If positive thinking were enough, our troops would all be home by now. Try something new.

> The movie What the Bleep!? Down the Rabbit Hole will boggle your brain.

> Even when I was attending church and studying the Bible like crazy, I could never understand prayer. You can't say anything to God he doesn't already know.

> Now I think the trick is to make your whole life a prayer, even if you feel compelled to use profanity now and then.

> I really like this quote from Depak Chopra: "At any given moment the universe is working toward the best possible outcome."

Hat humbly doffed to Esquire for its inspiring January issue.