It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun…

September 3, 2013

  American Queen

  Ok, sorry, third time’s a charm.  Three posts in a row I’ve addressed my idiosyncratic combination of OCD and attention deficit disorder.  I easily (obviously, duh) get distracted from the principle task at hand and then commend a hugely disproportionate amount of energy and resource to whatever it was that diverted my cerebrations.   Today I was fixing to respond to a message from the Administrative Director of The Fleet Air Arm Officers Association (the FAA is the Naval Air Force in the UK)(for a current project) when I noticed The American Queen making for port.   Oh well, at least both involve boats and water…

  And at least I’m looking out the window.  A recent article in the Economist (8/17/13) was entitled: “Why go outside when you have an iPhone?”  Seems that “America’s national parks struggle to attract young visitors”.   The piece ends with a brief interaction between the reporter and a twelve year old.   Kid was waiting in line for a roller coaster ride at Dollywood.  He’d visited the place four times yet had never heard of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park through and along which he’d had to drive each time.

  I’m greatly interested in consciousness, its individual development and continuing evolution.  I don’t think the quality or pace of either can be maximized without a bit of fresh air and a good slap from mother nature once in a while.  As I’ve frequently mentioned, all this looking at life through screens of various sorts reminds me of research undertaken during the Middle Ages in Europe.  Instead of going outside to investigate, say, certain wildflowers in a forest, the scholars would refer to texts written by Aristotle a thousand years prior.  Others tried to turn lead into gold.  The center of intellectual foment moved to the Arab world.

  And regarding a slap or backhand or more from Mother Nature,  think first how you would feel in the aftermath of a real thunderstorm while cowering in your basement watching the block by block TV coverage.  Then recall or imagine a storm of equal ferocity experienced from inside a tent, at sea, or maybe just caught out in a nearby field.  You feel alive.

  Like alpinist Mark Twight once remarked about finding oneself thrive in extenuating circumstance: “It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun”.




Woe is me

August 12, 2013

Nina 1

  Jeesh.  Sharpened my pencils, sat down, and just as I was going to put point to paper, something caught my eye.  I forced myself not to look, to not let myself get distracted.  Again.  To no avail.  Couldn’t believe what I thought I’d seen.  Something even older than Col Davenport’s house.  I got up and looked out to see the Nina and Pinta (well full scale replicas…) tying up just down river from my window.  Had to investigate.

  Making my way over I encountered a couple of young geniuses.  Their caps were backwards, pants riding low, and they smelled like burning leaves.  Standing well back they evinced a twinge of fear.   “What’s that, man?”  one said.  “Ya” said the other.  “They’re models of the Nina and Pinta” I said.  I loved helping my kids with their homework years ago and was happy to be of service to the two young fellows.

  “Huh?”  “Ya, huh?”   “Well, you know – two of the three caravels upon which: In fourteen hundred and Ninety-Two Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”  Blank stares.  “They’re boats” I said.  “Ooooooh” they said in unison.  Guess I’ve lost my touch.  I let them marvel as I paid the modest admission fee and walked toward the gang plank.

  The boats are small, the Nina only sixty-five feet in length and eighteen feet wide.  Below deck is storage – only.  The crew spent the whole voyage on deck, virtually unprotected from the elements.  That is really mind-blowing to consider even though they did know that there was major landmass a good deal west of their point of departure.  A body of knowledge that began with the Vikings made that fairly plain.  They were though, of course, wrong with their thoughts of what it was.

  Which brought to mind an interview with alpinist Voytek Kurtyka that I’d just read.  “But hell, I’ve had several great things happen in my life against all reason.  What’s even more interesting is that if you manage to do something is spite of reason, the level of satisfaction is even greater – downright divine….  If something is happening inside us, there can be no boredom, and life is beautiful.  I create therefore I am.”*

   A conflation of recollections of my own past escapades with thoughts of the mindsets of Columbus and crew upon their return home was tough to extinguish.  Who gives a shit about gold?  I needed though, badly, to get some work done and headed back toward my office when I noticed something else making fast to the seawall.  It was huge.  Damn.  “Wonder what that is…”  After I’d figured that out, it was time to take my friend Nellie for a walk in the woods. 

  Sure hope I figure out how to turn plan B into even a modest revenue stream before my little pile of precious metal runs out.  Woe is me.

  *Alpinist 43 Summer 2013 Interview by Zbyszek Skierski 

Nina 2

Nina 3

Proud to be from Davenport, Iowa!

July 19, 2013

  Col D 1

  Well, for a variety of excellent reasons, I haven’t been able to accomplish much this week and was looking out my window while trying to think of what to do next.  I noticed something white across the river and took up my binoculars to investigate.  White pelicans.  There were never any such birds around these parts when I was young, but now there is a healthy breeding population.   

  They are beautiful to watch in flight, particularly when in flocks.  (I looked it up, groups of pelicans aren’t flocks, they’re pods…)   The birds’ moves are coordinated, mostly, and are slow and elegant.  Not as exciting to watch hunt as their grey cousins however.   When fishing, the former sort of just bob.  The latter, collapse their wings upon spying quarry, point their beaks at dinner, and crash through the water’s surface in pursuit.

  They don’t live around here though and I soon bored watching the white ones lounge about and began to scan upstream.  Came to the house you see above.  It was built by Colonel George Davenport in about 1833 near the site of his first residence, a double wood cabin.  Davenport, after whom the largest city in our metro area is named, had an interesting method of organizing a family.

  He was about twenty-two in 1805 when he married the widow Margaret Lewis who was seventeen years his senior and had two children, William who died shortly thereafter, and Susan who had been born in 1800.  In 1817 Davenport and Susan had their first child, George Jr and in 1823 their second son, Bailey.   Colonel Davenport was also blessed with a daughter, Elizabeth, born to him in 1835 by, uh, one of the family’s indentured servants.

  Like I said, interesting.  Next time I get distracted and look out the window I’ll have to imagine what might have been the nature of dinnertime conversation over there.  Would have been a confusing eight plus place table, with Dad, four children, and everyone else named Mom.   

Nothing Is Less Real Than Realsim

July 5, 2013

Woods 2 

  One foggy morning (cerebral that is, not atmospheric) a while back I was doing my usual AM ablutions while following (sorta) Despierta America on Univision.  Means “Wake Up America” and man do they have fun.  None of that starched jocularity found on the major gringo networks.  Lathering up while waiting to see what the attractive newsreader would be wearing that day, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a new mole on my chest.

  Had to fetch my glasses for a closer look.  I’ve never worn a shirt outside when I didn’t have to and as time has marched on I’ve wondered about the ramifications of lots of sun and what, if any, protection I can expect to enjoy from the Moor in me.  Not to have worried.  Once bespectacled, I watched the mole move.  It was a tick – soon to be holding its breath on its way to the river courtesy of indoor plumbing.

  My Lab friend Nellie and I frequently explore the woods behind my mother’s house and I’m well aware of the presence of all sorts of creatures that you won’t find inside.  We love poking around out there and continually find interesting stuff like the fence post you see above.  How would you like to have been in charge of that project?  If you’ve ever stretched barbed wire you know how much work that is, but to also have to sink posts like that?  Wow.

  Anyway, many years ago, living out west, I took ill and went to a doc who said that the symptoms pointed to leukemia, but asked if by chance I’d found an embedded tick recently.  I had.  Tick fever.  So I’ve been careful since and have taken the usual precautions in Mom’s woods – long sleeves etc -but obviously to no avail.  I thought about it and figured the thing just rode home on my jeans, hid till the coast was clear, then made for a sanguine dinner.

  A little research informed me that the tiny arachnids (yep) need to be attached for at least twenty-four hours and very probably thirty-six to transmit tick fever, Lyme disease, or whatever so I rethought my approach.  Now, if it is warm enough, I just wear running shorts and shoes when Nellie and I are out there.  Once home, I throw the clothes right in the wash, undertake a visual inspection with the help of roommate or mirror, and then and take a hot shower.  Potential problems are thus averted with the added benefit of nettle stings up and down my legs tingling beneath my desk all afternoon.  No need for a PM caffeine fix.

  Made me think about something Georgia O’Keefe said:  “Nothing is less real than realism”.  She wasn’t, of course, referring to anything like my idiosyncratic idiocies, but I take her point.  Reality TV I don’t get.  “It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we can get at the real meaning of things.”  The berries you see below were a bit bitter, yet unripe.  They’ll get there though and Nellie and I’ll be back when they do…

Woods 1


Stupid Squirrel

June 16, 2013

Father 1

I’ve mentioned this before, but in case you forgot, today is Bloomsday.  You remember, right?  It marks the life and career of James Joyce.  Why the 16th?  Well, Joyce chose the sixteenth of June to be that of the perambulation of the chief protagonist of his groundbreaking novel Ulysses.  Now, mining way down, to the bottom, why  June sixteenth?  If you’ve forgotten, I’m glad you’ve been curious enough to read this far.  That had been the date of his first outing with wife to be Nora Barnacle.

  They had children and Joyce said that children should be raised by love which is convenient because this particular June 16th is also Father’s Day.  Joyce would agree with Swiss child psychologist Alice Miller who looked at child rearing from the opposite perspective.  She wrote that the most pervasive and pernicious crime in modern society is child abuse which is at root of all evil in our world.  Her biographical analysis of Hitler serves her point well.

  I have been fortunate enough to have had both a great dad from whom I solicited advice for the last time the day before he died in 2007 and a great father- in-law (who died just a few months back) to whom I posed a big question nearly thirty six years ago.  The former’s words helped prevent me from electrocuting myself that day and the latter gave his assent to something incredible.  I miss both dearly and think of them every day.   I think they’d agree that men don’t really ‘get’ kids until they have one of their own and know that they would with the Navajo who “think that a baby is fully human when it laughs for the first time*”.

Father to the Man by Tom C Hunley

The OBGYN said babies almost never
arrive right on their due dates, so
the night before my firstborn was due
to make his debut, I went out with the guys
until a guilt-twinge convinced me to convince them
to leave the sports bar and watch game six
on my 20-inch rabbit eared, crap TV.  After we
arrived, my wife whispered, “My water broke”
as the guys cheered and spilled potato chips
for our little dog to eat up.  I can’t remember
who was playing whom, but someone got called
for a technical, as the crowd made a noise
that could have been a quick wind, high-fiving
leaf after leaf after leaf.  I grabbed our suitcase
and told the guys they could stay put, but we
were heading for the hospital and the rest of
our lives.  No, we’re out of here, they said.
Part of me wanted to head out with them,
back to the smell of hot wings and microbrews,
then maybe to a night club full of heavy bass
and perfume, or just into a beater Ford with a full
ash tray, speeding farther and farther into
the night, into nowhere in particular.  Instead I walked
my wife to our minivan, held her hand as she
stepped down from the curb, opened her door,
shut the suitcases into the trunk, and
ran right over that part of me, left it
bleeding and limping like a poor stupid squirrel.

*Thanks to Dr Brother for fixing me up with this bit from the 12/20/09 NYT Mag. You would not believe the size of my clippings file.




June 10, 2013


On the way to Acadia National Park recently, for another wonderful Artist in Residency, roommate tired of my line of BS and honestly actually told me to go to hell.  Taken somewhat aback, my little black angel Nellie and I went for a walk in search of exercise and relief while my mind drifted (for the umpteenth time) to thoughts of redemption.  And if you follow this space at all you will know that when I saw the sign above thoughts arose related to synchronicity and hope.

  Expecting an assortment of other untethered souls, I soon found that all throughout Maine “Redemption” indicates a venue at which empty bottles can be exchanged for dirty coins.  Oh well, we headed back to the artist supply store where our truck was being laden,  working up our best sorrowful eye routine.  Our artist rolled hers.  Best case scenario.

  Making our way north we stopped at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art to see a remarkable show of pictures and sculptures by “Scandinavia’s most famous living artist” Per Kirkeby.  The Dane’s words greatly informed the experience.  “The point at which art is found is the point where what is intriguing is dangerous.”  I totally buy that.  In every regard.  Art, on an easel or in a life, will not be found – or made – very far from the edge.

  “Where is the border between one and the other way to organize matter?  For a brief moment I saw geology as a worldview… A huge stream of energy and materials, which now and then converge in crystalline structures, a mountain, a church, a brief moment, a breath, a morning mist over the ever-flowing river.  The mountain-building energies were no less cultural than the energies of the church-builders”. 

  Brilliant. Consciousness as a force of nature. Tectonic even.  Those scientists in search of a grand unified theory should start with him.   New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote of Kirkeby’s work: it’s like being: “hit by an abrupt , mildly disorienting spell of self-consciousness, a kind of mental stumble: the Kirkeby effect”.  See?   Just like the slap upside the head with which I was graced by my artist as described above.

  Below you see his “Fram”.  It is at once “a poetic rendition of nature with a great force of color” and a demonstration of Kirkeby’s philosophy that: “A picture without intellectual superstructure is nothing”.  He has said that Fram draws from Caspar David Friedrich’s Das Eismeer (The sea of ice) which you see at bottom.  If you’re not familiar with the latter, make sure to notice the shards of a wrecked ship being crushed by the ice.  Fram means forward and was the name of the vessel used by polar explorer  Fridtjof Nansens between 1893 and 1912.

Fram 3


*Quotes, photos, and information from the exhibition catalogue: Per Kirkeby Paintings and Sculpture, Kosinski and Ottmann, Yale, 2012.  The show originated at the Phillips Collection and the only other venue was Bowdoin.  There through Bastille Day

Wait, what?

May 10, 2013

river 1

  John McPhee has recently written two pieces for the New Yorker* that have made me feel much better about myself.  The first word in one is “Block” – as in writer’s.   The other begins (well a sentence or so in…): “I lay down on it (a picnic table) for nearly two weeks, staring up into branches and leaves, fighting fear and panic, because I had no idea where or how to begin a piece of writing…I had assembled enough material to fill a silo, and now I had no idea what to do with it…”

  The project I’ve undertaken is a big one and the research part is fun.  I greatly enjoy learning new stuff and meeting interesting people.  The problem comes when I try to convince myself to to make something out of it all.  As opposed to McPhee though, I don’t fight fear or panic, I just daydream,  something at which my roommate will tell you I am very very good.

  Above you see the view out the window of my office.  Nice, huh? On the far side of the river is a ‘tow’** making its way through the lock and dam.  It is interesting because the river’s high just now and I’ve noticed that there is an extra towboat out there to help ensure smooth passage of the narrow channel.  I looked into it and found that the Corps of Engineers mandates the presence of  auxiliary muscle when the river level is above a certain point.  And that each nudge costs the barge line hundreds of dollars.

  The bridge you see isn’t the original.  The first railroad bridge across the Mississippi was up river just a hundred or so yards  from there.  Its development and construction were problematic and contentious with Jefferson Davis,  Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce,  preferring a span further to the south and the steamboat lines, fearful of competition, claiming that a bridge would impede efficient river travel.   Litigation ensued but the project moved forward nonetheless with a survey by Robert E Lee.

   The last rails were laid on the morning of April 21, 1856 and a steam locomotive pulled the first cars across soon thereafter.  Fifteen days later disaster struck.  On the evening of May 6 the nearly new Effie Afton, was making her way up river and several hundred yards after she passed through the draw, something caused one engine to fail, she heeled to starboard, and crashed into the bridge.  The resulting conflagration destroyed both. 

  Hearing the news the next day, steamboats up and down river blew their whistles in solidarity.  Capt John Hurd filed suit against the Railroad Bridge Company claiming that eddies created by the bridge’s piers had been the cause of the loss of his ship and cargo.  The Rock Island Railroad Company held that the crash had been deliberate and hired Abraham Lincoln to defend their interests. 

  The case ended with a hung jury which was considered a victory for Lincoln, the Rock Island Lines, and Chicago over the steamboats and St Louis.  It was crucial to his career as a lawyer and an important precursor to his first presidential campaign three years later… Lincoln? The Rock Island Lines?  Steamboats and St Louis?  Wait, uh, what were we talking about?

*1/14/13 and 4/29/13

** “Tow” is the term used to describe a floating means of transporting freight comprised of a towboat and as many as forty 200’ barges, though not so many this far north.  Odd that they’re call ‘tow’boats because they don’t  tow, they push.

You Know It Is Going To Be Something Cool…

April 19, 2013

Abby shot 3

  OK, as those few of you who occasionally visit this space can attest, I have a very short attention span and find it impossible to stay on the same subject for very long.  Nonetheless, it is necessary to return to one, a rather arcane one at that, less than twelve months after having first addressed it . * Rabies.

  You know it is going to be something cool when your kids call in the middle of the night.  Like about  3:00AM a few Saturdays ago.  Picked up the phone and youngest daughter – who I knew to be in Costa Rica – was on the line.  “Dad!  I’m freaking out!  I think I’m going to die!”  She had plenty of breath so I figured her demise was probably not exactly imminent so I asked what was up.

  “I’m staying in this open air hostel in the middle of the jungle and I just woke up with some sort of huge possum or rat biting my toe!  There’s blood everywhere.  Think I’m going to die?”  Well, I thought, she probably won’t exsanguinate if only her big toe was involved.  “Everybody’s got to go sometime.” I replied, “but I don’t think this will be yours.  You’re going to have to get rabies vaccination when you get home though”.

  After she hung up I messaged Dr Brother who agreed about the rabies series and said that she should organize some antibiotics.  Fine teeth of small rodents or marsupials insert bacteria more deeply with less likelihood of being easily washed off than, say, in the case of a dog bite.  Just as wife began to rub her eyes and make inquiries phone rang again and daughter asked “figure anything out yet?” 

  “Ya, I’m glad you’re on your own insurance.  When I got the rabies shots it cost me several thousand dollars.  Also, I talked with your uncle and he said that you should get some antibiotics or something in the morning.  Is there a witch doctor in the village?”  “Thanks Dad… I’ll find a pharmacy”, which she did later that morning and at which she discussed her allergies and arranged a course of ‘Ciprofloxacina’ with the help of her IPhone and Google Translate.

Abby shot 1

  She returned to her home in the mountains of Colorado without further drama where we visited her on part of a previously planned trip a few weeks later.  It was fun to accompany her for the first round of shots.    It had been a long while since she’d had an injection and she didn’t believe me when I said that they really didn’t hurt.  Much to her surprise then, the first of six – tetanus – brought a smile to her face.  “You’re right!” she said. 

  However, she wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of loading up her big toe up with gamma globulin which process you can see below.  I said that I wouldn’t be either, but that it was going to be much easier for me to observe than watching the orthopedic doc some years prior stick a big needle in deep behind her kneecap.

In the event, she did drop an F bomb, quietly, and the docs laughed happy to have counterpoint to my commentary.

Abby shot 2

    *June 15, 2012  “Exercise is stupid”

Jury Duty

April 6, 2013


   …Pretty soon all rose, we were sworn in, and one of the two young men in the center of the courtroom told us that the other guy, ‘The State’, got to go first, but that we should withhold judgment until his turn to present.  The twenty something Rebenesque brunette seated before us had been at a bar, admittedly, had had two beers, admittedly, and the on the way home rear ended a parked car.  “State’ll tell you she had been drunk.  Truth is she’d fallen asleep after two twelve hour shifts and then an emotional late meeting with her sister.”

  This should be easy I thought.  She had declined the breath test, but we were going to be able to see the squad car video of her performing the series of field sobriety tests.  Long story short though, no one thought that she appeared obviously inebriated.  Especially given the facts that she’d been up nearly twenty-four hours at the time of filming and that her last nimble moment had likely been more than several years prior.

  In the deliberation room a forewoman was quickly selected by reason of  previous experience and, well, her ebullience.  “it made me proud to be part of this system.”  Her charge was to help us get to a unanimous position “beyond a reasonable doubt” regarding the defendant’s sobriety or lack thereof.  There was considerable back and forth, give and take.  First vote was six to six.

  The basic contention was between those who felt that with the first gulp of the first Blue Moon the defendant was “under the influence” and those with a need to be convinced that to be guilty the young woman’s blood alcohol content had been close to or in excess of the state’s limit of .08%.  Some never spoke, some (such as me) offered pithy words of wisdom (“they have car wrecks in Utah”) and some regaled the groups with extensive tales of familial yore. 

  All conversation, but for one brief exchange, was reasoned, polite, and earnest.  After another vote, we had become eight with reasonable doubt of insobriety and four with none.  By 5:00PM there had been much repetition and no more changes of mind.  Clerk came with judge’s instructions to go home, not discuss (not even with wife or dog – I asked), and return at 9:30 AM the following morning.

   9:30 to noon more of the same.  We were summoned into the courtroom where sat the judge and stood the lawyers and defendant.  Told of no progress, the judge asked us to return to the jury room, reread his instructions, and wait for the pizza he’d ordered for us.  By this time we were all sort of friends and enjoyed good natured probing for weakness in the other side’s line of reasoning. 

  We all wondered why neither side had procured witness from the bar.  It was apparent that had some disinterested sworn soul have told us that defendant either had indeed imbibed only the two beers over the course of the two hours or  in fact had had more, deliberation would have ended with first vote.  Absent that, the group could not be convinced, beyond a reasonable doubt, that defendant was guilty of more than falling asleep at the wheel.  Or that she’d been drunk.  Hung.

  Afterwards, Judge told us that the case would never have come before a jury had not both sides good reason to be hopeful of holding sway.  That from his preview a decisive first vote seemed highly unlikely.  And that fully a third of the proceedings over which he’d presided had ended with a hung jury.  I was amazed.  And impressed that some combination of fatigue, boredom, and callousness hadn’t yielded a more decisive denouement.   

*I am thrilled that there was not more here at risk – for anyone.

 **I cannot but wonder about the numbers of incarcerated innocent and those guilty wandering about carefree.

*** We were each paid $70.00 for the experience.


An Incredible Life

March 21, 2013

Young Anne Tyng

 While back I mentioned a project I’d undertaken.  It’s a biography of the woman you see above pictured as a young girl.  She was born on Bastille Day in 1920 in an aerie nestled in a valley of the mountains of central China.  She led an amazing life and as proof that I’m not the only one with that opinion, behold a small portion of her papers held deep in the vault of an Ivy League archive.  Access is limited and they’re tended by several learned and caring souls.

AT Archive

  The lady has left us, but relatives, friends, colleagues, as well as a few detractors are yet around to recollect.  Interestingly, the level of candor is in direct proportion to emotional proximity.  The process of going through papers, reading books, and talking with these folks feels like having embarked upon a treasure hunt, the spoils of which to transmute into a fabric of essential truth. 

  Only part way in I’m incredibly humbled by both the scope of the undertaking as well as the tremendous responsibility I owe the entire cast of characters.  In each of those with whom I’ve had the good fortune to cross paths a subtle apprehension has manifested one way or another.  They know that a tale of high point short shrift would be easy, quick, and likely command rapt attention.

  Nope.  This is going to take a while.  Besides, I’ve got to figure out how to go about it.  I’ve never done anything like this before.  “I am always doing that which I cannot do in order that I learn how to do it.”


**Toyo Ito won the Pritzker Prize.  Read about him below at 4 13 12 and 2 12 10