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Feb 21 18

Nation of Splinters

by Richard

I beg your indulgence on this. The events of the past year have driven me deep into my head, trying to figure out why. It gets complicated. American society. Our culture.

When I was a kid, we lived sometimes in neighborhoods and sometimes out in the sticks. My school friends’ dads, like mine, had all come back from WW2 changed. They had seen things they couldn’t speak about and were now driven to make their lives and their families’ lives as perfect as they could. As far from what they’d witnessed as was possible.

The suburbs were one result of this drive. There was work available for any men with any kind of skills and they worked. Hard. A nice home could be had by almost anybody. It was a reflection of their desire to make it all right. When one neighbor’s driveway held a shiny, new station wagon with the wood trim on the sides, soon everybody had one. Rose bush? Ditto. Picket fence? Yep.

The 1950s, not so surprisingly, gave birth to the refinement of marketing and advertising. Ad men found such a receptive market, it was only a matter of time that the expanding count of specialty magazines, regional newspapers, radio and television created the American consumer culture. If it was new, improved and would make life better, we all wanted to be the first on our block. The suburbs glowed.

My family also sometimes lived in very rural areas. Places where the returning GIs were sometimes not welcomed with open arms in the same way. The recent film, Mud Bound, shows this resentment. When the young man who had seen the world and all kinds of its people came back to the family farm, the remaining family members, mostly the brothers and fathers who had been slaving in the dirt, often weren’t all that welcoming to the returning son who’d had it easier (they thought). They also often resented any new knowledge outside of the closely held family traditions. It created tension which I remember with many of my schoolmates talking about how grandpa just wasn’t “fun” anymore. He’d complain to their fathers about anything at all. Looking back, this seems to me to have been when the resentment against those that have learned more than the rest, began to grow. Men who had been away had new ideas, so they couldn’t really be trusted… or they had lost the ability to work hard, or had “colored” friends that they wouldn’t have had before. The government had done this to them, so it couldn’t be trusted either, since it was filled to the brim with all those “educated Easterners”. I remember hearing things like that with some frequency at friends’ homes.

Eventually, as trade and tech changed, jobs failed and the suburbs became the refuge of disillusioned, miserable working stiffs. Not the utopia they thought they were building at all. Men lost their connection to their wives and children. Wives were relegated to handling everything. Working the impossible hours of indentured servitude. Anger began to simmer. It simmered in the country, too. People began to look for solutions. Not every solution was without a down side. Politics became repressive. Our National identity swung back towards protectionism. Trade suffered. But as the decades ran, we remained a consumer culture and the selection just kept growing. Our former caution and conservatism gave way to debt in service of that utopian dream, and eventually the rift between the urban and the rural deepened.

This morning I watched a local news segment which gathered a cross-sectional group of adults to discuss gun violence. Some had survived mass-shootings while others were members of the gun-culture. Some had no weapons in their homes. Others had many. More than ten firearms. Some were suburban, some lived in the city, some lived in a more rural setting. All Americans, but unable to find any common ground to pursue the discussion.

I remembered when I was a kid living in the country, one year, I wanted to feel like I belonged. When the school offered gun safety courses (I was in sixth grade) I was anxious to learn. I paid a small fee and became a card-carrying member of the NRA. At the time, it was all about gun safety. It hadn’t become a lobby effort of the munitions manufacturers yet. It taught kids how to handle and shoot firearms. There was a lot of respect for it since many of its instructors had served as infantrymen overseas. It was my first exposure besides Cub Scouts, to a “military” style organization. Hunting game of all kinds was the basis of the instruction. I never once heard a word about protecting one’s home. Since I knew I didn’t want to kill any animals, eventually I lost interest. Soon we moved back to the suburbs.

Today, turning away from the morning news and all the depressing information it dispenses, I was struck by how long this Nation has been splintered. Splintered by faith, race and special-interest groups. Little groups thrive where members can forget their anger for a while and feel good about sharing activity/possessions/viewpoints. That these groups were mostly created by marketers to create profit points doesn’t seem to matter to those involved. Whether it’s assault weapons, or muscle cars, or big motorcycles, shredder guitars, Huge-screen Sports TVs or gaming laptop computers, there has got to be a group of adherents behind the acquisitions. The merchandise is more than just that. Their ownership of these items has to mean something. It becomes a badge, a point of pride when there is less and less in real life to be proud of. Whatever ideas are relayed as part and parcel of owning is ascribed to without giving it another thought, and repeated when the occasion presents itself. Again and again, as if the repetition made it unassailable truth.

I try to cut slack on all sides of cultural questions, but when you see a busload of schoolkids careening down a mountain road and you know that the bridge ahead is washed out, you’re gonna do something. It’s time we begin to accept what our divisions actually are and tell the bus driver to slow down if we want a future for those schoolkids. Belonging and pride can be nice, but they don’t make up for failures we could have corrected. It’s better to see the larger picture than just a glimpse of a small portion of it, no matter how nice it might look as it flashes by.

A growing group of teenagers, angered by the loss of their friends, the neglect of their safety and the inability of our government to do what is right, are trying to slow the bus down. We should all do what we can to help them slow it, then stop it. If we need something to feel pride in, we can all share pride that those teenagers could still speak their minds and show their resolve, no matter how splintered we may have become as a Nation.

# # # #

Feb 9 18

Artificial Intelligence: One Way Trip?

by Richard

I recently read an absorbing novel (Turn or Burn by Boo Walker, see below) that established conflict based upon acceptance or rejection of what is referred to as a coming AI Singularity. The theory is that soon, Artificial Intelligence technology will evolve beyond the point where human intelligence can define it. That will force an event horizon moment when Homo Sapiens will either enter the next evolutionary phase, or perish. A one-way trip. Stephen Hawking, once famously spoke of his fear that the advent of Artificial Intelligence will herald the end of humanity.

While research into AI integration within the brain of human subjects is producing intriguing theories, even if it were physically possible, I would reject the larger implications. Especially that this would be an improvement. As we always have, our current society suffers from a belief in our own exceptionalism. We seem to believe that while we are genetically indistinguishable in the important parts of our genome with the earliest human beings; somehow, only the past five to ten thousand years of our learning, are worth noting. We feel that only during that time, which is also the recorded part of our history, we have evolved to the point that our creative technology… or tools… will give us a hand in our own evolutionary development. For the better.

I find it impossible to believe that out of the millions of years (the exact number grows with each now paleo discovery…) our species has been migrating world-wide, learning and adapting; that the past 200 years or so are the first and only time that technology has been discovered and refined. It’s almost as if we believe that at the start of the industrial revolution, our perceptions of the universe and our earth changed utterly, so that we could, for the very first time, control those forces which had eluded our control for all time before. I find that notion completely ridiculous.

I agree that there isn’t much written history of technology prior to 10,000 BCE or so, but all that proves is there is a remote chance that no one wrote anything before that. There is always the possibility that we became so enamored with our intelligence, our own exceptional nature, that we blundered into dangerous territory many times before now. It is as possible in my way of thinking, that since science is built upon observation of repeated cycles, that we have gotten much too big for our britches many times before and possibly destroyed civilization many times. One of the things that points to this, in my mind is that there are always pockets of what we consider uncivilized societies, lying outside the normal realm of commerce and tech. It’s almost as if they know something. That aligning themselves with the cycles of life and finding ways to live in harmony with the natural world works better than the alternative, in the long run. Maybe their ancient ancestors had done some things that these folks wanted to forget and never repeat.

The thousands of large-scale urban ruins now being revealed in Guatemalan jungles as well as in the central plains of Turkey, seem to reinforce my thinking here. Those societies were highly developed, there is no doubt of that. What technologies they utilized is still unclear, but what is clear is that for all their shining glory, those cities were left to be covered up by grasslands or trees and vines long, long before their histories were written and taught. Rather than the exception, we seem to be following our hubris along the same pathways traveled before. We need to learn that maybe we’re just not that special, and turn our energies and our technology towards keeping our planet a safe home for our future generations to enjoy. And, of course, explore the stars and build better tools. But I’d rather not see the tail wagging the dog.

# # # #

What do you think?

An enjoyable, fast-paced mystery read with some unusual conflicts…

Jan 29 18

The Heroes at the Ford…

by Richard Sutton

I was tapped in 2015 to write an extended short story about a legendary hero of Ireland for an independent publisher’s anthology to commemorate the anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916 on its Centennial. As often happens in multiple-writer projects, one of the headliners failed to submit in time and the entire project collapsed. Having not heard from the publisher in some time now with any plans to complete the work, I’m publishing it for Kindle and providing an excerpt here, so my readers and any interested in ancient Irish history can read it. It is based on a series of folk-tales and manuscripts chronicling a specific Irish Legend, regarding the Dun Bull and the hero also known as Cullen’s Hound.

The Heroes at the Ford

A Tale of  Ireland in the Age of Iron

by Richard Sutton

(c)2018 All Rights Reserved by the Author

 

“Nah. It’d be better you not call him that. It’s a kinda sore point with ‘im. He made a mistake when he was a stripling all full o’ piss and vinegar and he killed the Mor’s dog. He felt so bad he played fetch for Cullan Mor for a full year.” The older man waited to make sure it had sunk in. Knowing the young visitor was from Cymru where they spoke a slightly different tongue, he added, “You ken what I’m sayin’?”

“Yes, sure. But who named him hound?” The younger man pressed on.

“Oh, some Druid telling the tale to a bard to make a song, most likely. Setanta don’t much like Druids either. All the Gods seem to have conflicting plans for him.” The old warrior added, with a laugh, “for the rest of us, too, ye know?”

Eoin nodded as the smile came to his face. He’d laid down his harp and come at his father’s behest, to take up arms in the service of Ulster’s Mor. Mainly, so said his father,  to learn from “Cullan’s Hound, the greatest warrior in all of Eriu.” He hadn’t met the man yet, but he’d only just arrived the night before. To say he felt some anxiety regarding the upcoming meeting would put it mildly. What if the red-haired giant had no need for a young student? What if his outlander speech was too hard to understand?

* * * *

“WAKE yerself, Hound!  Cullan needs his dog!”

“Whaa? Who called me?” The burly, red-haired man threw back the heavy sheepskin bed covers, wiping crusty sleep from his eyes. The room remained dark, but for a slight glow of embers from the hearth and a bit of light seeping in from the doorway. He looked left, right and even above him in the rafters before a smile began to reveal itself. He must have heard the call in his sleep. He’d heard it so many times before, but it had been some time since any had been so rash as to use that name to his face, but he’d  learned to think twice before killing a king’s dog .  His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, but he muttered, “m’name’s Setanta, anyway… curse that meddlesome Druid.” He reached over the bed to touch his wife Emer. She was still asleep, breathing deeply. Her rounded hip beneath the blankets all the reassurance he needed to settle again in the warm bed.

He lay himself back down but it was no use, his mind was off running, like a harnessed team of ponies who’ve just smelled a field of oats. He quietly crawled off the bed platform to find yesterday’s breeches and tunic, lying nearby. He stood, pulled on the sweat-stiff breeches then the flax tunic. He stooped in the dark, reached blind, around the floor near the wall until he found his sword and belt leaning against the bed frame with his sandals. He buckled the belt around his hips and gave the rough, leather covered scabbard a firm slap as he walked quietly out to meet the new day.

The Great Hall of Ulster was already filled with the smoky fragrance of a breakfast feast in the works. His stomach growled as he heard the sound of serving platters being laid out by the kitchen crew. Rashers! Setanta could think of nothing more invigorating that a hearty breakfast with lots of rashers sizzling on the hearth. He increased his pace down the hall, but thought of Emer. Should he wait for her to rise as well?

His question was answered by the jarring sound up ahead, of a quarrel and the clatter of a wooden serving platter bouncing off the stone floor. Feeling that he should make sure no one was spilling blood or breaking noses this early, he rushed into the open great room where two glowering, red-faced men standing chest to chest were already throwing curses at each other.

“Twas mine, ye fool! Whose knife do ye see sticking out?” The contested haunch of bacon now lay nearby on the floor. One of the countless dogs was crawling under the table to get at it as safely and quickly as he might.

“Not yers alone, but mine as WELL.” The slightly shorter, dark-eyed man glared up at his foe, pushing against the taller man who staggered back. “Here’s my… own knife, too”

Setanta had heard enough, and stepped forward just as a ragged dog cowering under the table, sank his teeth into the delicious meat and carried it off out through the door in a burst of speed. “Now,” he said, laying a hand upon each of the contestants’ shoulders, “it doesn’t matter who got to it first, does it?”

# # # #

to read the rest of the tale, The Heroes at the Ford is now available for Kindle for 99 cents, or free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers…

Easter, 1916:

Irish Easter Rising Proclamation 1916

The Proclamation as Posted 1916

Jan 8 18

A call for work clothes…

by Richard Sutton
Last night. We watched the GG awards extravaganza, wondering if there would actually be breakout dialog or any spectacular use of the “Bully Pulpit”, but… no. Not really. It was a fun industry and press party with a beautifully delivered sermon towards the end. The use of a single color associated with mourning does not actually, in the case of Hollywood, mean turning away from outrageous glamour towards a deeper kind of problem-solving. Escape is what they sell, and it is what we buy. While the ongoing revelations of the abusive and power-enforcing behavior of many men within their industry have begun to give women a renewed sense of strength and self-expression; it has also, as we saw last night, driven many men to awkward silence.
 
This is an ancient problem that has been culturally sponsored all the way back to clubs and caves. If we want to create a more equitable, universally beneficial culture, then we need to realize that pins and colors and hashtags alone may be a starting point that serves to rally the troops; but they are not going to mean this road will be shortened much if we don’t all speak our hearts as well as our injuries. In my mind, this is about power. In many ways our society has not risen above feudalism. We still seek heroes to do the work we are unable to do, even when we join together. As a result, joined together our will doesn’t get any more effective. Instead, we just want to “believe” it will get done… somehow.
 
It won’t. None of us can stand on the sidelines to make the changes that are necessary. We’re all gonna have to roll up our sleeves and begin to say what’s really on our minds. Carrying the banner may focus an active assault, but it doesn’t win the day. When we rely upon a strong leader to make the hard choices, do the ugly work, produce clear thinking and lead the battle, it rarely goes exactly the way we all want it to. Usually, after long struggles fail to determine a victor, both sides end up suing for peace anyway. To achieve it, they must sit at a mutually binding table of arbitration and reach a consensus. It is going to take a long time to dismantle the culture of power that persists in almost every industry, social organization and faith. It’s going to be very difficult to turn away from raising the uniquely gifted individuals on pedestals for worship and instead, raise us all on the pedestals together. Dignity is something you achieve through active labor. I think, in the interest of effective discourse, that those attending that arbitration table should all wear grey sweats. Elastic waistbands. Oversized shoulders. If we all look ridiculous, but are as comfortable as possible, then maybe we’ll leave our social role playing behind us and just be people trying to find solutions. We’ve got a good history of doing that once all the confetti’s been swept up.
Nov 25 17

Book Covers: A Primary Marketing Tool

by Richard

A long, long time ago, when publishers printed all books  hardbound, the only difference between titles often was the color of the cloth used to bind and finish the book cover. I remember the look of a library stack back in the day, when the only apparent difference was the overall height and the occasional leather-bound cover immersed along an endless wave of muted cloth-covered spines. The only difference in bookstores was that the shelves were usually shorter. As a schoolboy, I found myself really excited by upcoming “book fairs” when the vans from one of a few “scholastic” publishers would come to sell us books. These books were printed poorly on crummy stock, but the covers! They were my first look at picture covers. Once old enough to frequent drugstore corners, I also discovered pulp novels which often had very seamy, sexy cover artwork. Intriguing titles with images to get the wheels in my young brain turning.

I became, at the same time, aware of the old saying about not being able to “tell a book” by its cover. The idea, was that you had to open it up and read it to know what it was about. Well, at the library it made sense, but not so much at the drugstore. As I got older, I realized that it really was about people and not just books. It implied that the way a person presents may or may not be who they really are. The idea of controlled deceit entered my young mind. Imagine: manipulating another person’s impressions and thinking, by changing the way you (or something else…) looks.

It was an intriguing idea, and one that I applied myself to. Since we moved almost every year, to a new community and school, I became adept at re-constructing myself as needed. Eventually it probably led me to a thirty-plus year career in advertising and marketing design. However, since the advent of online book sales I’ve found that the old saying really relates now only to people and situations, because book cover design is doing the best job it has ever done to convey something of the book inside and affect the potential reader’s decision making. Clicking past hundreds of titles when I browse the net for a book to read, it’s the title and cover artwork that grabs my attention, first. There are so many choices now, like most readers, I have to narrow the selection down to manageable levels. Genre alone isn’t enough, although it is an important step. Partly because of my graphics background, I probably make the cover artwork more important to my decision than some might, but a solid, arresting cover that pricks my imagination will almost invariably move me to read a sample and then some of the reader reviews.

The approach has served me well, over the past few years as the ranks of debut authors swell. I find I can actually judge a book pretty completely by its cover. If it displays a slapdash, quickie attempt to put something together with little thought to how effectively the “package” presents, then chances are that the book inside was completed in a similar manner. That’s not to say that many really outstanding books have been wrapped in ho-hum or terrible covers. It happens, but I probably won’t read them based on a book browse and even a known referrer’s word might not be enough for me. Of course, it’s easier to take a risk when the cost for the eBook version is below $3, but hey, those $3 add up, you know? I’m not saying that my buying decisions have been 100% on-target. There is a sizeable e-Shelf jammed with unfinished reads in my virtual library. It doesn’t happen often, but one thing that does affect the results in these cases, is that the cover really didn’t communicate genre-related ideas.

Taking the time and spending according to your budget when it comes to self-published work is critical to a book’s success. Usually, it requires a paid edit or three, an evolving critical approach to the design of the pages themselves and finally a cover which does the job it is intended for. Today, with icons swimming past a browser’s eyes, your book’s cover is consumer packaging of the highest level. It must inform, it must express benefit to a reader and motivate the reader to make the purchase. It is a full marketing package if done correctly. It also says that you want to present something of quality for your readers. That implies confidence, which further helps motivate a fence-sitting reader.

So, it turns out you CAN tell a book by its cover, after all. And what your book’s cover tells a reader can make all the difference in the world. Once your book has been through its course of rewrites and edits, and you have an effective page layout for the chosen typography, take some time to really think about your book’s cover. It’s no longer just protection for the pages inside. It’s a crucial component of your consumer marketing effort, and should be given all the attention you can give it. Consider the messages it sends, and be sure to use it to reinforce action. It should suggest the reader click on it or open it up and at least take a look at the opening paragraphs. Tease them with the potential connections it will offer them, or long-puzzled questions it will answer. Benefits mean sales.

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Oct 14 17

Deserving…

by Richard

Recently left in a dusty vacuum when Game of Thrones Season Six ended, I found I needed a conflict fix. Of course, I could have simply gorged on TV news, but something inside me needs to absorb conflict that can be settled. Ended favorable to someone. Anyone.

So I turned to binge watching the four seasons of a SciFi series on Netflix: The 100. Originally written as a YA series by Brooklyn author Kass Morgan, it’s a complicated, character-driven unfolding of deadly conflicts. One right after the other. I’ve been riveted both by the screen portrayals as by the series’ conceptual material. It asks more questions than it answers, but always comes around to one. Do we deserve to survive?

A long time ago, some dust left over from an explosion in space, congealed and became a place with water, air and life. Life miraculously expanded and evolved many diverse forms. Some moved around, others didn’t, but they found ways to exploit the places they were and thrive. Some of them seemed to like the whole, “moving on” activity. They spread out over the entire world.

They may have been one clan or a handful of clans when they began, but now, there are many diverse groups. A few of the things most of them have in common are cruelty to each other, fear of others and total disregard and lack of respect for the Natural world they live in coupled with an inability to preserve the balance for the future generations.

Another is the complete inability to learn from the past and turn away from ideas that have been bad decisions with terrible, deadly consequences. We survive by our tenacity, not so much our knowledge and understanding. We applaud that tenacity in every activity we engage in, even when the results threaten our survival. Seems counter-intuitive, but there it is. Again, and again.

I’m reminded of a great Clint Eastwood line from his western film, Unforgiven. “Deserving’s got nothing to do with it.”

Of course, it’s perfectly applicable to our larger, human situation. As self-aware living things, we question our existence. We argue that there must be a reason for things to have happened. Things that occur that benefit us or damage us alike, must have been deserved. Some of us are revered for our thinking around these questions. Their answers and words are often compiled and used to create rules for behavior. But we don’t trust those other folks… the ones over there, do we? If they don’t follow our rules, then they don’t deserve to survive. In the words of a great Long Islander, Kurt Vonnegut, “And so it goes.”

Which brings Kass Morgan’s great question to mind. Do we deserve to survive? Given our behavior and our disregard for other living things, even our own kind? I’m hard-pressed to say I can decide. That question assumes that there is a moral order to the universe. Something or someone that sets the balance and judges the results. In the case that is true, I’d tend to see the demise of humans as a boon to the rest of the planet; but if it’s not, then life will have its way. It’s tenacious, and will find ways around every obstacle. Karma is another name for cause and effect, an observed truth of the physical universe. Every action has results. Whether the end justifies the means, matters little. We seem to have lost even our somewhat limited vision. We’ll stumble around in the darkness for a while longer… and Season Five is just around the corner.

Sep 11 17

Sixteen years…

by Richard

Sixteen years. Time enough for reflection. Another crystalline September morning here on Long Island. To our South, a hurricane is roaring up Florida; but here, it’s still and beautiful. Exactly the way I remember that morning, all those years ago.

A few days ago, the local news remarked upon the passing of yet another FDNY firefighter before his time. He’d worked for weeks on the recovery effort in the “hole”, like so many others. Sadly, he contracted cancer from the toxic dust-laden air. The FDNY loss count today stands at 343 plus 159 since, of related diseases and complications. Here, it doesn’t fade into an historic event, but remains personal.

Such an incredibly effective evil. An Egyptian architecture student develops a psychotic obsession. He frames it in religious intolerance and in that way, attracts followers and financing. Time passes, and on a crisp September morning like this one, the world changes forever. Forever less than it had been, somehow. Reduced to fear and hatred. Have we learned from that terrible moment? Not very much. We feel it deeply and bury it when we can, but it will always remain. Sixteen years later, can I compare my feelings this morning to those following the terrifying news? Yes. I feel less hope now.

Jul 28 17

Packrat: A New Mexico Story

by Richard

There… just down the slope a little. A corner of turquoise cloth stuck out of the ground where a packrat had left it. Decoration for his back door. I slid down over the crispy, dry juniper needles and shriveled berries from last season. Looking around carefully for snakes, I grabbed the corner and gave it a sharp tug. The whole damn hat popped out of the burrow and landed at my feet.

It had been maybe two years since that hat disappeared. I didn’t remember losing it; I just noticed one day I couldn’t find it. The packrat found it. Finders, keepers. It wasn’t even chewed up much. The bill was raggedy, but only a little bit of the crown had been removed, probably to decorate something deep underground. I picked it up, turned it around, then tossed it back down. He could keep it. He’d peed on it.

It was a big nest, with a midden pile that spread over a dozen feet in each direction. Cut branches, pieces of Styrofoam cups, tatters of paper, cardboard, dried juniper berries and pieces of ribbon. I knew it was just the tip of the iceberg, though. Most of the horde was safely underground. He’d been a very busy rat.

Smelling the telltale mustiness of rodent droppings and urine, I quickly climbed back up the slope. People got really sick from breathing packrat urine. A couple of Navajos had died the year before. The spokesperson from the Nation said they might have been digging Packrat nests to get the Pinon nuts the rats horded. Made me kind of wonder about buying a sack of PInon from the roadside guys.

I looked over the midden pile, the gaping holes of several entrances, just visible below the lip of the slope. It really wasn’t much of an issue for the house. It lay under a huge, drooping juniper about twenty feet from the front wall. I could probably poison ‘em, but why bother. There were always new ones to replace dead ones anyway. Poisoned rats could also poison crows or ravens, even coyotes if they were too hungry to care if the lunch was moving first. The Packrats could have this slope. We didn’t need it.

####

“Jim? You  seen my car keys?”

“Nope. Take mine… where’d you leave ‘em?”

My wife’s face told me she didn’t appreciate the humor. “Funny. Would you take a look when you’re finished with that? They couldn’t have gotten far.” She bent over and gave me a quick kiss on her way out the door.

“Be careful out there!” I called after her. It was getting to the point where we felt really relaxed and safe at home. Travel, even out to the local grocery store, implied a certain amount of risk. No matter where you happened to be, chances were good that there was a drunk… or a complete idiot bearing down on you. You had to keep your wits on high alert as the evening news attested. The carnage on the road was almost gothic horrorshow in its terrible proportions. Whenever one of us went out alone, the other one worried.

My bookkeeping skills were pretty shaky and today’s attempt at cleaning things up wasn’t getting anywhere. I got up with the idea to look around for my wife’s keys. I checked all the usual hidey-holes and corners where things got shoved by mistake, but they remained gone. Maybe, I thought, she dropped them in the garage.

That took an hour, moving the bags of yard waste and cardboard boxes left over from moving in just eight years earlier, produced no results. I did find a screwdriver I thought I lost inside the truck’s engine well, beneath the distributor, a month earlier.  OK, a small victory over the forces of fate.

I decided to look around outside, where she parked the truck last night. Our driveway was gravel and the garage had a wide apron, so if she’d dropped them, they’d be pretty easy to spot. After I walked back and forth a few times, I did the perimeter, checking under every snakeweed and chamisa. An occasional prickly pear cactus poked up along the edge of the drive, where the edging stones held runoff water. No luck.

Something shiny caught my eye as I headed back to the door. I knelt down and found a piece of a broken Christmas ball partially buried under a flat rock. The screwdriver in my back pocket began digging into my butt, so I stood up. I turned the piece of thin, curved glass over, wondering where that had come from. We’d never decorated a Christmas Tree with glass balls since we moved in.

I guessed it must have been left over from the previous owner. He’d been in a big hurry to sell, and get out. It was probably from his junk. We had swept up a big pile of odd junk left all over the house, under cabinets, in closets. Among the stuff waiting for the dustpan had been two spent nine millimeter handgun shell casings. Strange things to leave on the floor.

But, no keys. I headed back in to wait for Marty to get home so I could interrogate her about the keys. Last place you knew you had them, what you did next… typical stuff. I was sure we’d find them, though. We always did.

####

Two weeks later, they hadn’t turned up, but I had a real issue to deal with. One morning I heard Marty scream from the master bath. I ran into the bedroom, hoping she hadn’t taken a header in the shower.

She opened the door, clutching her robe around her and shaking her head.

“What was that? You OK?”

“I’m fine, but take a look in the shower.  It’s disgusting.”

“Oh God.” Last time the waste system backed up, I was two days digging up to my neck in the clay and rock mix that was the standard in this part of New Mexico. The only thing that got through it was a six-foot iron breaker bar and a huge mattock. My back took weeks to mend, and here we were again.

While reaching for possible alternatives that might save my back, I remembered the issue last time had been roots. Maybe that’s all it was this time. Two days later, after the Roto-Rooter guy had reported an obstruction in the mainline out to the pool, I was again slinging dirt out of a trench designed to cut across the mainline, about four feet down and hopefully uncover the issue. I’d already lost a couple of days of work, and the cost of the inconclusive roto-rooter visit put me in a pretty foul mood without the digging.

The trench ran from a point I guessed would clear the pipe, across the driveway and over near to the big juniper.  Four feet deep, I was almost there, I figured. So my muttering and slinging went on until about four in the afternoon, when I banged up against the white PVC pipe. OK. Time to rest. I climbed out of the hole and stumbled, losing my footing. I’d stepped into another packrat tunnel or something. The ground had given way under my feet. I stood and carefully used the shovel to excavate the tunnel. It ran towards the drain line, so I began to clear it out. I figured it would be easier digging anyway. My break could wait.

The dirt collapsed with soft thumps all along the tunnel as I prodded with the shovel. The intersection point with the pipe was just ahead. I also noticed some wetness, when I cleared a bit of the dirt out of the collapsed burrow. A twisting line of juniper roots also followed the bottom of the trench, protruding from the mud. OK. That was probably it. Three more shovel loads, and I exposed a coupling in the pipe that was cracked. As I cleared it away, I saw the juniper roots had entered the cracks. It might have been cracked when he had a load of heavy flagstone delivered. A pallet had fallen off the back of the truck and it probably did the initial damage. The packrats had obviously helped, providing a clear pathway to the moisture seeping out of the pipe for the roots to follow. It had only been six months or so. I guessed Juniper roots could grow fast when they wanted to.

I sunk the shovel in, beneath the coupling, intending to clear a work hole to re-join the pipe after pulling off the old coupling and removing the roots in the line. I was glad I had heavy rubber gloves. The dirt collapsed around the shovel blade and fell away into an existing space beneath the pipe. Another shovel full, and I had the space clear, but there was something metallic gleaming in the mud. Of course. I knew what it would be as I reached over to pick it up. Caked with mud and filth, but here were my wife’s keys.

# # # #

For more stories in a New Mexico setting, try Back To Santa Fe by WT Durand , available online or at your bookseller

Saille Tales Books new author

Jul 26 17

Vintage Music, Old Fingers…

by Richard

An old guy’s ear worms…

By 1968, the guitar lessons started when I was thirteen had begun to take hold, but the teacher had been left behind. My family moved a lot. I’d been through two or three department store guitars by then and could finally carry an entire tune. The mid-1060s folk revival had gotten me completely hooked. A big part of it was that I could play the chords called for in those songs… and sing ‘em, too. In those days, songs by now relatively forgotten songwriters like Fred Neil and John Stewart got radio airplay. I heard Buffy Sainte-Marie and Richard & Mimi Farina (Joan Baez’ younger sister) fairly regularly along with Dylan, Phil Ochs, and even Eric Andersen. Those songs swirled inside my brain then… and many of them still do. The music that moves us when we are coming of age, seems to persist as background scores to the events of our lives.

The next year found us in Vancouver, Washington where pursuing live music became one of my main pursuits. My Senior Year of High School, a few of us approached a local church about the possibility of holding a weekly folk music concert series in their basement. A fairly liberal-minded congregation, they surprised us by saying “Yes.” Since they also had a couple of commercial-sized urn coffee makers, Equinox Coffee House was born. The tradition of featuring local and regional musicians doing folk covers and a few of their own songs became a passion, even if organizational skills were not my strong suit. Live performances of the great songs I’d learned from the radio or off a vinyl record had so much more “presence” and “style”. To this day, there are some covers of songs, such as Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Code-ine” and Leonard Cohen’s “Stranger Song” that remain still powerful in my memory. Preferable even, to the artists’ own recorded versions, even if the performer I remember is no longer heard of.

Those traveling troubadours that plied the folk circuit on the West Coast, spoke in reverential tones of the “scene” in Greenwich Village and Boston. We’d all gather ‘round after a set to talk about how each song was learned. In some case, they were learned directly from the songwriter. One of my very favorites of these was a folksinger named Jon Adams, from the Fresno, California area who made it up to Washington or Portland Oregon, (across the river) once or twice a year. He covered several songs by Richard & Mimi Farnina, Leonard Cohen and a somewhat obscure songwriter from Boston named Mark Spoelstra, among others. Mr. Adams remains my greatest inspiration towards improving my guitar picking to this day. All these years later, I am still trying to figure out his incredible version of Stag-o-Lee. Almost there.

The following year, I relocated back to Eugene Oregon, for college, leaving The Equinox to get along without me, a crisp, fresh draft card in my hand. I understand The Equinox did continue Friday nights for a few years, but by then my parents had moved again and I had little contact with my old friends in Vancouver. I had gotten more serious about my guitar picking by then and had played an open mic or two after buying a mid-level acoustic guitar with money earned on a variety of jobs. These jobs, including working a cannery, a health food store and planting trees for Weyerhauser Lumber, provided me enough to pay for a basement room near school, a few beers and a really playable Japanese import Aria guitar.  The year after, I left school to engage in music and antiwar protest full-time. I made the mistake of loaning my guitar to a new friend I didn’t know too well, and it hit the road with him, never to return. I still occasionally wonder how things might have turned out had I kept that instrument, but the road called my name.

The best gift I ever got!

I finally made it to Greenwich Village and Boston, eventually, but the “scene” spoken of had dwindled and few of the players of yore still performed, except Dave VanRonk who still held “court” on occasion.  I also got another guitar once I ‘d met my wife and settled down on Long Island. Oddly enough, I became an Ad Man Art Director. Didn’t see that coming at all. There are still songs in my head, circling every day, like Eric Andersen’s “Close the Door Lightly When You Go” that I first heard covered by a local player. Lots of Gordon Lightfoot in the mix, too. These have become what would be the core of my repertoire, IF I played publicly. My wife has to tolerate my ceaseless practice, even if it has no real point beyond my own pleasure. As the years have unfolded, almost everything has changed, but I learned to embrace change when I was a little kid; besides, looking back, it’s all been for the best. I have a family I love, an amazing set of cats, a home in the woods plus, I still have all those songs, too. My vintage fingers still work.

I’ll post videos and music from some of those great songwriters and performers from the mid-60s and early 70s, now mostly forgotten, each Wednesday, on Facebook. You may enjoy rekindling your own memories, or learning some new tunes!

Jul 14 17

A Bumpy Ride: how language changes…

by Richard Sutton

This morning, my wife told me that she’d come across another of the latest, “Johnny-come-lately” online retailers naming today’s sale, “Black Friday”. Well, it is Friday. At least that connects, and maybe they want to associate today’s event with the slavering attention paid the American November event by bargain hungry shoppers. But somehow, I get the impression that the marketing people that came up with today’s event name, don’t have a clue about the real Black Friday, and that made me think for a moment about how language changes over time, and not always for the best reasons.

First, as a long-time owner of a family retail business, I know the story of Black Friday all too well. The name was not originally chosen to name the day after Thanksgiving’s sales events. It was an accounting reference. Back in the day of double column, hand written accounting records, the income side of the equation was written in black ink and the liability/debt side in red. For most department store retailers – those were the only large-scale retail locations – and most specialty retailers, it took until the last week of November before sales had finally made up enough to offset the red column. In the language of the day, you were “In the Black”, when the accounting for the year moved to favor the black side of the records. Black Friday was an inside joke until it was drawn out to name a sales event designed to, hopefully, put the retailer into the black after having spent a stressful year in the red.

Of course, I wouldn’t expect the expert marketeers that grew up during the eighties and nineties with constant encouragement and applause for the tiniest chore completed, to understand the old reference. Or maybe I should cut the Millennials some slack and just say that they decided to appropriate a phrase for their own product marketing, without really considering the full impression across the marketplace. But this is the kind of thing repeated by the thousands every day, that illustrates just how fluid language really is. Since most analytical thinking makes use of language, it too is influenced by many of these revisions in meaning. Today’s concepts often bear little resemblance to yesterday’s ideas to reach the same destination.

Whether it is simply the need to express things faster; or if it really is that the cultural and technological references of the recent past no longer matter, a large portion of each community is side-stepped by the evolving language. If language can be compared to a highway carrying rush-hour traffic, it’s good to remember that many of the folks on the road are finding the ride full of potholes. Now is this an intelligent approach to marketing, or even conversation? Well, chances are if it doesn’t make sense to me, or connect with my own experience, then it doesn’t really matter to me. And equally important, I suppose I don’t really matter to those who are promoting the message. Or telling the story.

Writers, take note. Don’t sabotage your own work by neglecting to speak and understand the language of your target readers. A single poorly chosen cultural reference or anachronistic use of phrasing that does not exist for them and you lose the close connection they might have had with your words. One more thing. Age does matter. Right along with regional culture, time does put us in different slots based upon shared experiences growing up. Neglecting to acknowledge that, you lose one more way to strengthen your story’s impact. While we can’t all be completely fluent in all stages of the life of our mother tongue; we can at least try to be aware of the pressures a language must face over its life, and remain true to which ever version was spoken in the setting we weave our tales around.