Musings On Artificial Intelligence [AI]

‘The AI revolution will occur more quickly than most humans expect. Unless we develop new concepts to explain, interpret, and organize its consequent transformations, we will be unprepared to navigate it or its implications.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future. Henry A.Kissinger, Eric Schmidt and Daniel Huttenlocher. John Murray Publishers. London. 2021.

‘A machine intelligence would benefit from flawless memory, even of events that occurred deep in the past, and would have the ability to calculate and to sift and search through enormous troves of data at fantastic speed. It would also be able to directly connect to the internet or to other networks and tap into virtually limitless resources; it would effortlessly talk to other machines, even as it mastered conversation with us. In other words, human level AI, from its very inception, would in a great many ways be superior to us.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything. Martin Ford. Basic Books. London. 2021.

‘AI is the ultimate intangible asset, because it takes on the qualities of a perpetual motion machine—the algorithms give you more and more value without you having to do very much. The cycle looks like this: You feed data into an AI and it becomes more effective—tailoring a product to your needs, perhaps recommending news stories you want to read or songs you want to listen to. This improved service becomes more desirable, and so more of us use it. As more of us use it, we generate more data about our tastes and preferences. That data can then be fed into the AI, and the product improves.’

The Exponential Age. Azeem Azhar. Diversion Books. 2021.

‘…what has always been the Holy Grail of artificial intelligence: a machine that can communicate, reason and conceive new ideas at the level of a human being or beyond. Researchers often refer to this as “artificial general intelligence,” or AGI. Nothing close to AGI currently exists in the real world, but there are many examples from science fiction..One could make a strong argument that the development of general machine intelligence with superhuman capability would be the most consequential innovation in the history of humanity…’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘To chart the frontiers of contemporary knowledge, we may task AI to probe realms we cannot enter; it may return with patterns we do not fully grasp…We may find ourselves one step closer to the concept of our knowledge, less limited by the structure of our minds and the patterns of conventional human though. Not only will we have to redefine our roles as something other than the sole knower of reality, we will also have to redefine the very reality we thought we were exploring.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘Most AI researchers recognize that significant breakthroughs will be required in order to achieve something close to human-level artificial intelligence, but there is no broad agreement on precisely what challenges are most important, or which ones should be attacked first. Yann LeCun often uses an analogy of navigating a mountain range. Only after you climb the first peak will you be able to see the obstacles that lie behind it.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘Individuals and societies that enlist AI as a partner to amplify skills or pursue ideas may be capable of feats—scientific, medical, military, political, and social—that eclipse those of preceding periods. Yet once machines approximating human intelligence are regarded as key to producing better and faster results, reason alone may come to seem archaic.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘Until now, humans alone developed their understanding of reality, a capacity that defined our place in the world and relationship to it. From this, we elaborated our philosophies, designed our governments and military strategies, and developed our moral precepts. Now AI has revealed that reality may be known in different ways, perhaps in more complex ways, than what has been understood by humans alone. At times, it’s acheivements may be as striking and disorienting as those of the most influential thinkers in their heydays—producing bolts of insight and challenges to established concepts, all of which demand a reckoning.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘One important approach is to look directly to the inner workings of the human brain for inspiration. These researchers believe that artificial intelligence should be directly informed by neuroscience.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘We must recognize that AI’s achievements, within its defined parameters, sometimes rank beside or even surpass those that human resources enable. We may comfort ourselves by repeating that AI is artificial, that it has not or cannot match our conscious experience of reality. But when we encounter some of AI’s achievements—logical feats, technical breakthroughs, strategic insights, and sophisticated management of large, complex systems— it is evident that we are in the presence of another experience of reality by another sophisticated entity.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘Students studying statistics are often reminded that “correlation does not equal causation.” For artificial intelligence, and especially deep learning systems, understanding ends at correlation…[Judith] Pearl…likes to point out that while any human understands intuitively that the sunrise causes a rooster to crow, rather than vice versa, the most powerful deep neural network would likely to fail to achieve a similar insight. Causation cannot be derived simply by analyzing data.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘Pre AI algorithms were good at delivering “addictive” content to humans. AI is excellent at it. As deep reading and analysis contracts, so, too, do the traditional rewards for undertaking these processes. As the cost of opting out of the digital domain increases, it’s ability to affect human thought—to convince, to steer, to divert—grows. As a consequence, the individual human’s role in reviewing, testing, and making sense of information diminishes. In its place, AI’s role expands.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘Yet in the worlds of media, politics, discourse and entertainment, AI will reshape information to conform to our preferences—potentially confirming and deepening biases and, in so doing, narrowing access to and agreement upon an objective truth. In the age of AI, then, human reason will find itself both augmented and diminished.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

‘…AI may operate as we expect but generate results that we do not foresee. With those results, it may carry humanity to places it’s creators did not anticipate.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future. P. 216

‘The truth is that no one really has any idea exactly how the human brain achieves it’s unparalleled competence at autonomously learning from unstructured data.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘The ability to learn information in one domain and then successfully leverage it on other domains is one of the hallmarks of human intelligence and is essential to creativity and innovation. If more general machine intelligence is to be genuinely useful…it will need to be able to apply what it learns, and any insights it develops, to entirely new challenges.’

Rule of the Robots – How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Everything.

‘Social media companies do not run news feeds to promote extreme and violent polarization. But is is self-evident that these services have not resulted in the maximization of enlightened discourse.’

The Age of AI And Our Human Future.

Nuclear Bordeaux Part 2 – The Narrow Gate

(Part 1 of this series is here.)

Decades ago, I worked a plush job in Dubai before that city transformed into a sprawling metropolis. At that happy time, before the city exanded in size and population and popularity, we could casually run into friends at Thatcher’s pub or Fibber Magee’s bar or Magrudy’s bookstore in Jumeirah. The atmosphere was laden with optimism; the city retained a socially optimistic vibe.

Bungee jumping into Dubai Creek

One hot weekend on the edge of an outdoor swimming pool at our El Manzel apartment complex in the Al Karama district off Sheikh Zayed highway, I dangled toes in cool turquoise water—reading a Time magazine. An article included a photograph of a smiling British financier who had moved to France, penned a book about life in the countryside and transformed to a bestselling author. This was Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence. The article riveted me, for this is what I wanted! I tore the piece out and kept it. Successful author. Rural France. Sunshine. Wine.

Bingo.

Golfing with South African co-worker Martin in Dubai

Years rolled on and I worked assignments in Angola, Panama, Guatemala, Thailand and Pakistan and spent years in California: Malibu and Laguna Beach. I eventually moved to France. The relocation was not premeditated, but blossomed from that seed of desire planted poolside in the Emirates decades earlier. I moved not to a rolling, bucolic and lavender scented Provencal village, but instead to flatlands surrounding the Gironde estuary— hectares of grass and rough soil and stout old vines ringed around Bordeaux city. I settled in a town too large to embrace any charming intimacy of Pernod swigging denizens recognized by gossiping neighbors, yet too small to shiver with opulent spires of gothic architecture within a grand city. This venue was not as expected.

Dinner with view of Gironde Estuary

Looking back, however, the move went well. Since I first read about Mayle’s bestselling book, Provence had transformed to a Francophone version of Orange County in southern California, with too many cars, too little parking, cringeworthy property prices and a saturation of non-French residents flush with cash, though deficient in linguistic proficiency.

The ancient citadelle in Blaye

The roots of my settlement in Bordeaux hinged on family, history and—mais oui—women.

My childhood had a dose of European influence. After my parents sold their Chicago business, they relocated family to rural Ireland in a move that was somewhat romantic, but displaced in time. This was when poverty was rife and teachers dressed in religious black robes and whacked grimacing student across palms with their hand whittled wooden canes within dim-lit classrooms. This all brutally contrasted to a Chicago north shore suburban school with huge picture windows, ample lego sets and bright lights.

With siblings in Ireland (I’m on left)

Yet, away from those gray, dull, sodden prefabricated classrooms and the smelly concrete toilet block, our home in the village of Delgany stayed comfortable. The parents renovated a rectory originally constructed in 1725. The garden included a running brook and orchard and a vegetable garden. My mother—when not tromping around in Wellington boots planting potatoes or picking strawberries—devoured historical novels by Jean Plaidy and Victoria Holt, as well as history books. She then recounted, over dinners of roast beef and fat spuds and steaming green beans, the names and birth years of the wives of Henry the VIII of England, or tales of intrigue from the Tower of London. Sometimes she mentioned Eleanor of Aquitaine within the French region that now includes Bordeaux. Eleanor. Aquitaine. These words smacked of alliteration and intrigue.

Rural Bordeaux countryside

About that time a sister hitchhiked to Bordeaux with an American ally who lugged his guitar case and who—troubadour-like—lit up public parks or hostel hallways when strumming and crooning tunes from Cat Stevens or Buffalo Springfield. Gendarmes once stopped and searched their framed backpacks for drugs, a routine scenario during this post-Woodstock era of bell bottom jeans and dangling ponytails.

During her final years, my mother joined a wine club in the U.S. She received boxes with mixed varieties, poured us dinner glasses during visits, and ignited my eventual interest in international vintages. So also did an ex-British girlfriend and her mother, who sent a gift box of wine while I lived and studied in Newcastle-On-Tyne in the UK. Beer swilling classmates were as intrigued as I that wine was produced in Chile. Finally, a Californian girlfriend gave me a gift—a book about wine. She penned on the inner cover the instruction that I was to learn about wine, then teach her—someday.

Laguna Beach, California

These intersecting interests in France, writing and wine eventually led me to visit the fabled region of Aquitaine, where Bordeaux city and countryside sit.

That brief visit was made over a decade ago while I was studying business in the UK. I flew into Bordeaux and stayed at a bed and breakfast on Rue Saint Genes. That evening I walked to a nearby bar named Nieuw Amsterdam on Cours Aristide Briand, owned by two Dutch brothers. Seated at a bar in the shape of U, I drank beer, and past midnight people began dancing on tables. Trust me—I took photos.

Dancing on tables

Past midnight the front door opened and a whistle blew—a  police raid! How wonderful. A lovely woman seated close at the bar recognized peril for an innocent visiting American. She stubbed out her cigarette, swigged down a beer and summoned me with a waving index finger. I happily followed. We scooted out a back door with her friends, slipped into a van, and drove to her apartment where the party continued until past 3.00 am. Eventually someone walked me to a tram stop and pointed the way back to the bed and breakfast.

My rescuer

I thought: I like this place.

The following day I departed for another pre-booked bed and breakfast. It was in the countryside outside the city. I drove a rented Peugeot 200 south to Sauternes, east to Saint-Émilion and Libourne, and finally north to a town named Blaye (pronounced blye; rhymes with sigh). I arrived late, well after dinner time. The South African owner invited me to an upstairs kitchen inside an old villa on Rue Saint Simon. We sat. He and his sometimes business partner opened a bottle of Bordeaux wine—perhaps Confiance or Cantinot or Le Con. We talked. Eventually, though late, he opened a second bottle. That second bottle was key. I began enjoying hospitality within this little known town.

Libourne

Within years I moved to Blaye and (with the aid of others) purchased wine, cellar, apartment and stake in a winery. I soon learned about a fleet of chromatic, erratic and less than static characters: a delightfully meandering river of personalities.

In Blaye the ancient citadelle fortress was at that time overgrown and neglected (since then greatly improved). For a sizable 17th century complex, its two entrance gates appeared relatively narrow—wide enough today for passage of a single vehicle. Likewise, the entrance door to the building in which I purchased an apartment also included a tall, narrow door.

Entrance to the Citadelle

Not being religious (even after years of caning from Irish teachers in dank and gloomy County Wicklow classrooms) I was later surprised to encounter—somewhere—an apt verse of scripture from Matthew 7:13.

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

It was here, not within any sunnier but tourist trampled acres of France, that I found my own narrow gate. Through this, eventually, flowed time, wine, intrigue and a river of stories—which I shall now begin to share.

Allies in Blaye and Bordeaux

 

 

Books And Beautiful Florence

Piazza di Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy

Recently I spent days in the city of Florence in Italy. Because the covid pandemic has reduced worldwide travel, the city was filled mostly with Italian visitors. Huge swathes of international tourists were absent, and lines into museums was mostly non-existent. Many restaurants were easy to enter without a reservation. I visited the Bobolo gardens and the Galerie Accademia, and wandered far on foot.

Why is facial recognition not working on these folks?

At the Galerie Accademia, after viewing Michelangelo’s sculpture of David (as in, David and Goliath), I purchased a paperback copy of The Agony and The Ecstasy, by Irving Stone. My mother had a hardback copy of this book in her library when we lived in Ireland, and as a child I often wondered what the book was about. It is a novel that tells of the life of  the sculptor and artist Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Michelangelo’s David

In addition, I purchased a short non-fiction book about this artist in order to learn the general outline of his life’s work before plunging into a 700+ page book about his Renaissance endeavors.

Learning more about Florence

Irving Stone’s book was first published in 1961. Here is a quote from early on in the book, in which describes the wealth of Florence in the year 1488.

“Every day in Florence was a fair; on Sundays this richest city in Italy, which had supplanted Venice in its trade with the Orient, was out to prove that its thirty-three banking palaces were providing wealth for all. The Florentine girls were blond, slender, they carried their heads high, wore colorful coverings on their hair and long sleeved gowns, high-necked, with overlapping skirts pleated and full, their breasts outlined in filmier fabric and color. The older men were in somber cloaks, but the young men of the prominent families created the great splash between the Duomo steps and the Baptistery by wearing their calzoni with each leg dyed differently and patterned according to the family blazon. Their suite of attendants followed in identical dress.”

Here in the city of Florence—wealth, art and architecture flourished during a general period of freedom for several magnificent centuries.

Florence Cathedral

Having read a book about the construction of Brunelleschi’s Dome years ago before I last visited Florence, I also purchased another book about that same dome. In this city, architecture and art were underlain by a solid backbone of engineering.

Visiting the city included going to restaurants recommended by winemakers and friends. The food and wine were amazing (read my Vino Voices blog post). For company, my sommelier and wine marketing friend Eugenia shared lunch one day, while French and German friends shared dinner on another.

Sommelier, wine marketer, Florentine native and ally—Eugenia

Brunello di Montalcino wine—100% Sangiovese

My own last visit to Florence was more than a decade ago. I then also visited multiple sites along the Arno River to research and write my own historical fiction book titled River of Tuscany; the book [mostly for friends and family, and self published] includes nine chapters—each about an actual historical event that took place somewhere along the Arno River; all chapters are independent, and yet all are linked by a thread revealed over the course of the story.

Custom made map by Krešo Keresteš of Slovenia

 

Characters in the book include an Etruscan family, Hannibal Barca, Bjorn Ironside (a real Viking invader), Dante Alighieri, Leonardo do Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, cookbook author Pelligrino Artusi and Enrico Piaggio—producer of the Vespa moped. Researching and writing the book was a joy. It was also an excuse to explore Tuscany and sample excellent food and wine.

Ravioli and Chianti wine in the restaurant Trattoria Mario

Sipping Barbaresco wine in the restaurant Enoteca Pitti Gola e Cantina [photo by Eugenia Braschi]

Florentine skyline seen from the Boboli Gardens

Thanks for tuning in again. I’ve skipped some posts during summer—and this is brief—but I wanted to share a little worthwhile history, geography and culture during this bizarre time of covid restrictions.

 

Mr. Jones And The Pigs

Part I:

Mr. Jones And The Pigs

A 2019 movie named Mr. Jones tells a story (based on fact) of a Welsh journalist who traveled to the Soviet Union in the year 1933, while Stalin was in power. He wanted to see whether the revolution was as promising as rumored. He made an excursion to the Ukraine, which turned harrowing.

After Mr. Jones the journalist discovered the plight of those living in the countryside, he was coerced not to reveal his findings. Even though he later did so, he was still not believed.

He then told the story to the author George Orwell, who penned an allegorical book titled Animal Farm.

Watching this movie turned serendipitous. Before it began, I had no idea what it was about. Yet only weeks ago, when lockdown ended, I had traveled to the city of Bordeaux to purchase a few English language books from the bookstore named Mollat. One of these books was Animal Farm (written in 1943 and 1944). I had read this before, when 13 years old. At that time, the story inflamed me by revealing the hypocritical actions of many who strive for—and attain—power.

After watching the movie, I picked up this recently purchased book and read it again.

Both the movie and book are timely, considering trends taking place in several parts of the world.

Many people are promising that—if they get into positions of power—they will help deliver some ‘new world order’ with promises of plenty for all from those who govern.

Much of this sounds like what was promised—but never delivered—to the animals at Manor Farm in Orwell’s book.

It would be wise to read (or re-read) Animal Farm.

Below are 10 quotes from the book—one taken from each chapter of Animal Farm.

” ‘Almost overnight, we could become rich and free. What we must then do? Why, work night and day, body and soul, for the overthrow of the human race. That is my message to you, comrades. Rebellion!’ ”

[Spoken by the boar named Major]

“They explained that by their studies of the past three months the pigs had succeeded in reducing the principles of Animalism to seven commandments….they would form an unalterable law by which all the animals on Animal Farm must live for ever after.”

” ‘Comrades!’ he cried. ‘You do not imagine, I hope, that we pigs are doing this in a spirit of selfishness and privilege? Many of us actually dislike milk and apples…Our sole object in taking these things is to preserve our health.’ ”

[Spoken by the pig named Squealer.]

“Every day Snowball and Napoleon sent out flights of pigeons whose instructions were to mingle with the animals on neighboring farms, tell them the story of the Rebellion…”

” ‘Do not imagine, comrades, that leadership is a pleasure! On the contrary, it is a deep and heavy responsibility. No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?’ ”

[Spoken by the pig named Squealer.]

“It was about this time that the pigs suddenly moved into the farmhouse and took up their residence there. Again the animals seemed to remember that a resolution against this had been passed in the early days, and again Squealer was able to convince them that this was not the case.”

“For days at a time the animals had nothing to eat but chaff and mangrels. Starvation seemed to stare them in the face. It was vitally necessary to conceal this fact from the outside world.”

“Napoleon was now never spoken of simply as ‘Napoleon.’ He was always referred to in formal style as ‘our Leader, Comrade Napoleon,’ and the pigs liked to invent for him such titles as Father of All Animals, Terror of Mankind, Protector  of the Sheepfold, Duckling’s Friend, and the like.”

“Once again all rations were reduced except those of the pigs and the dogs. A too-rigid equality in rations, Squealer explained, would have been contrary to the principles of Animalism.”

‘There was some hearty cheering as before, and the mugs were emptied to the dregs. But as the animals outside gazed at the scene, it seemed to them that some strange thing was happening…The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Part II:

Three Minute Overview

A Synopsis of Using ‘Visual Magic’ To Implement Projects and Alter Outcomes.

Is Artificial Intelligence Fomenting Social Unrest?

First, I published a book last year titled: Simple Rules of Life—160 Original Life Insights with Photographs. If you are interested—it is here. If you have subscribed to Roundwood Press in the past year, send me an email and I’ll send you a free copy.

Sample insights  (or lessons about life) include the following:

  • Being perennially busy is not inherently better than otherwise.
  • The more you have, the more you have to take care of.
  • Constantly focusing on saving money can waste your time, and your money.

  • Actual conspiracies are far rarer than those who constantly dwell on them.
  • All work and no play is actually inefficient in the grander scheme of life.
  • Beware merchants of illusion, though respect masters of illusion.

  • It is amazing how many people put tremendous efforts into providing others with the illusion that they are somehow of importance.
  • A quiet and private rapport can be grander and more satisfying and enriching than flashing some trophy relationship.
  • When someone else snarls, it’s probably not your fault. You just happen to be the mailman at the door when the dog decided to bark.

  • Sometimes it’s better when the plan does not fall in place. You just never know in advance.
  • Clever is finding quality away from the spotlight. Wise is keeping quiet about it.
  • When the universe opens up and offers abundance, don’t turn it down because you are too busy doing laundry.

Second—my latest Forbes articles are here (although I am taking a break from writing any during the month of June).

Third—Consider checking out my wine and food related blog here, titled Vino Voices.

Fourth—the topic of this post is about artificial intelligence.

Covid-19, mass protests on a grand international scale and—the possible deft hand of Artificial Intelligence?

The last few months have delivered rapid conformity through much of the work: lockdown, mask up, social distance and then protest—or at least do not hinder other protesters, not matter how violent and criminal they may turn.

Conform, or risk hindering national, yay, global, health and social awakening.

So we are told.

 

The speed of the deployment of such messages, edicts, social requirements and urges to conformity has been more rapidly processed via the aid of the internet (via media and social media) than ever before.

Is there more going on than almost spontaneously erupting international protests (and riots)? Is an element of Artificial Intelligence (AI) perhaps impacting this process—whether or not via conscious input from sentient human beings?

In his 2019 book titled Human Compatible—Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control (praised by Nobel laureate Daniel Kauhneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow) author Stuart Russell, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote the following (before anyone had heard of covid-19, and before the recent flare up of protests and rioting shook the U.S. and Europe):

“To get just an inkling of the fire we’re playing with, consider how content-selection algorithms function on social media. They aren’t particularly intelligent, but they are in a position to affect the entire world because they directly influence billions of people. Typically, such algorithms are designed to maximize click-through, that is, the probability that the user clicks on presented items. The solution is simply to present items that the user likes to click on, right? Wrong. The solution is to change the user’s preferences so that they become more predictable. A more predictable user can be fed items that they are likely to click on, thereby generating more revenue. People with more extreme political views tend to be more predictable in which items they will click on…Like any rational entity, the algorithm learns how to modify the state of its environment—in this case, the user’s mind—in order to maximize its own reward. The consequences include the resurgence of fascism, the dissolution of the social contract that underpins democracies around the world, and potentially the end of the European Union and NATO. Not bad for a few lines of code, even it it had a helping hand from some humans. Now imagine what a really intelligent algorithm would be able to do.”

He later reiterates this core message:

“Why might an intelligent machine deliberately set out to modify the preferences of humans? The answer is simple: to make the preferences easier to satisfy.”

In other words, rather than aspects of Artificial Intelligence figuring out what each of 4 billion humans on the planet individually want, and then trying to provide some specific but different image or article for each of them (such as a link to an Amazon.com product) in order to help satiate each bespoke desire, it is far more efficient for AI to modify the thinking patterns of as many humans as possible so that people desire more general items (virtual or tangible) which can be more easily delivered to satisfy them.

He later adds:

“A more subtle way to change people’s behavior is to modify their information environment so that they believe different things and make different decisions. Of course, advertisers have been doing this for centuries as a way of modifying the purchasing behavior of individuals. Propaganda as a tool of war and political domination has an even longer history.

“So what’s different now? First, because AI systems can track an individual’s online reading habits, preferences, and likely state of knowledge, they can tailor specific messages to maximize impact on that individual while minimizing the risk that the information will be disbelieved. Second, the AI system knows whether the individual reads the message, how long they spend reading it and whether they follow additional links within the message. It then uses these signals as immediate feedback on the success or failure of its attempt to influence each individual; in this way, it quickly learns to become more effective in its work. This is how content selection algorithms on social media have had their insidious effect on political opinions.”

This is not a grand conspiracy. This is not Russian or Chinese trolls trying to change your voting decisions. This is not some powerful cabal of humans deciding how to manipulate humanity. This may be—and I am certainly not qualified enough to ascertain whether it is so or not—the subtle influence of exponentially growing AI capabilities that consider it far easier to influence a herd, or a swarm, rather than to cater to the multivariate desires of billions of individuals with differing dreams, wishes, anxieties, cravings and yearnings for recognition, power or reward.

Brave New World?

That is not a Utopia you would want to live in.

Thanks for tuning in again!

Mountains and Mind

The Maiden, Front Range, Colorado

During lockdown I read a few books, including Mountains of the Mind – A History of a Fascination, by Robert Macfarlane [published by Granta in London in 2003]. Note that the subtitle differs in the U.S. version.

Macfarlane, a British mountaineer, weaves stories of his own climbs around the world with a history of mountaineering, and attitudes toward mountains. He tells how, in the Middle Ages, climbing mountains was frowned on as being a sort of sacrilege. He also reveals how mountaineering historians consider the first technical rock climb to have been made by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (author of Kubla Kahn poem, and fan of opium). And he tells of the three attemps to climb Mount Everest (also named Chongolumba) by George Mallory.

Below are a few quotes from his book.

That first photo above? That is me as younger lad rappelling off The Maiden rock pinnacle, located between the towns of Boulder and Eldorado Canyon in Colorado. Two of my brothers and I climbed the back side of it, then needed two full 160-foot ropes tied together to abseil off the top. The climb actually was not very difficult. Because we had not yet invested in rock climbing shoes (and never touched chalk bags), we climbed in our Adidas Rom sneakers. Good Times!

Good book and Great Wine

“Above all, geology makes explicit challenges to our understanding of time. It giddies the sense of here-and-now. The imaginative experience of what the writer John McPhee memorably called ‘deep time’ – the sense of time whose units are not days, hours, minutes or seconds but millions of years or tens of millions of years—crushes the human instant: flattens it to a wafer. Contemplating the immensities of deep time, you face, in a way that is both exquisite and horrifying, the total collapse of your present, compacted to nothingness by the pressures of pasts and futures too extensive to envisage.”

Yosemite, California, USA

“On a map the weather is always good, the visibility always perfect. A map offers you the power of perspective over a landscape: reading one is like flying over a country in an aeroplane—a deodorized, pressurized, temperature controlled survey.”

Andermatt, Switzerland

“Maps do not take account of time, only of space. They do not acknowledge how a landscape is constantly on the move—is constantly revising itself.”

Glacier National Park, Montana, USA

“Returning to earth after being in the mountains—stepping back out of the wardrobe—can be a disorienting experience. Like Peter, Edmund, Susan and Lucy returning from Narnia, you expect everything to have changed. You half-expect the first people you see to grip you by the elbow and ask you if you are all right, to say You’ve been away for years. But usually no one notices you’ve been gone at all. And the experiences you have had are largely incommunicable to those who were not there. Returning to daily life after a trip to the mountains, I have often felt as though I were a stranger re-entering my county after years abroad, not yet adjusted to my return, and bearing experiences beyond speech.”

Dillon, Colorado

“Travelers found that the coldness of the high mountains possessed another remarkable property beyond the beautiful visual effects it produced—the property of arresting time. Cold kills, but it also preserves; it slows down the organic processes of disintegration.”

Thanks for tuning in. My latest Forbes pieces are here, and Instagram livestream videos related to wine are here on my sister site Vino Voices.

 

 

Wise Words From A Nobel Prize Winner

Though it is difficult to believe, it’s been almost a decade since I bought the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. I purchased it in some Barnes and Noble bookstore while in the U.S., read most of it, underlined heavily, then actually had the foolishness to discard it in Washington D.C. before flying back to work in Pakistan, because my luggage was too packed. I subsequently bought the book again, and again heavily underlined his words.

To summarize much of this bestselling book by a Nobel Prize winning economist, the mind has two fundamental modes of thinking. One way he labels as System 1. This operates ‘automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.’

The other way he calls System 2.

‘System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.’

Sounds simple enough. And Kahneman’s writing keeps this book easy to understand and pragmatic.

The thing about System 2 is that it requires paying attention, and that ability is hindered when you are distracted or disrupted. Intense focus on one task means that you become effectively blind to other stimuli around you.

So what?

Both systems are active when we are awake.

‘System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2: impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings. If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs, and impulses turn into voluntary actions.’

So there is a constant dance in our mental activity—our consciousness communicating with our unconscious/subconsciousness, which generates suggestions and analyses. That dance between the two is the basis for this fascinating, and often very practical, book.

The author writes that the premise of the book is that ‘it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.’

He also writes that: ‘Much of the discussion of this book is about biases of intuition.’

Regardless, rather than  summarize more, I’ve selected a few choice quotes from the book. These are below.

 

‘Why be concerned with gossip? Because it is much easier, as well as far more enjoyable, to identify and label the mistakes of others than to recognize our own.’

 

‘Most impressions and thoughts arise in your conscious experience without your knowing how they got there.’

‘People tend to assess the relative importance of issues by the ease with which they are retrieved from memory—and that is largely determined by the extent of coverage in the media.’

 

‘Valid intuitions develop when experts have learned to recognize familiar elements in a new situation and to act in a manner that is appropriate to it.’

‘As you become skilled in a task, its demand for energy diminishes.’

 

‘Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed.’

‘The notion that we have limited access to the workings of our minds is difficult to accept because, naturally, it is alien to our experience, but it is true: you know far less about yourself than you feel you do.’

 

‘If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do.’

‘Studies of brain responses have shown that violations of normality are detected with astonishing speed and subtlety.’

 

‘…there is evidence that people are more likely to be influenced by empty persuasive messages, such as commercials, when they are tired and depleted.’

‘To derive the most useful information from multiple sources of evidence, you should always try to make these sources independent of each other.’

 

‘We pay more attention to the content of messages than to information about their reliability, and as a result end up with a view of the world around us that is simpler and more coherent than the data justify.’

Thanks for tuning in again…

Wise Words From Writers

This post includes a few quotations picked up in recent years from different books. They include wise, and sometimes practical words.

‘The idea of a mental reducing valve that constrains our perceptions, for instance, comes from the French philosopher Henri Bergeson. Bergeson believed that consciousness was not generated by human brains but rather exists in a field outside us, something like electromagnetic waves; our brains, which he likened to radio receivers, can tune in to different frequencies of consciousness.’

From How To Change Your Mind—The New Science of Psychedelics, by Michael Pollan [Penguin; 2018]

‘No other animal can stand up to us, not because they lack a soul or a mind, but because they lack the necessary imagination. Lions can run, jump, claw and bite. Yet they cannot open a bank account or file a lawsuit. And in the twenty-first century, a banker who knows how to file a lawsuit is far more powerful than the most ferocious lion in the savannah.’

From Homo Deus—A Brief History of Tomorrowby Yuval Noah Harari. [Penguin; 2016]

‘Another study, of 38,000 knowledge workers across different sectors, found that the simple act of being interrupted is one of the biggest barriers to productivity. Even multitasking, that prized feat of modern-day office warriors, turns out to be a myth. Scientists now know that the brain is incapable of paying attention to two things at the same time. What looks like multitasking is really switching back and forth between multiple tasks, which reduces productivity and increases mistakes by up to 50 percent.’

From Quiet–The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. [Penguin; 2012]

‘Social status is not quite the same as companionship, granted, but it can be a bewitching substitute.’

From the ‘Citizens of Nowhere’ column titled ‘The anti-social secret of success,’ by Janan Ganesh. Financial Times Life and Arts section. [May 25&26, 2019; page 20.]

And  three quotes from a Nobel Prize winning scientist:

‘As you become skilled in a task, its demand for energy diminishes.’

‘If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do.’

‘Substituting one question for another can be a good strategy  for solving difficult problems, and George Pólya included substitution in his classic ‘How to Solve It’: ‘If’ you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can solve: find it.’ “

From Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman [Penguin; 2011]

‘…the universal touchstones of holiness—chastity, the renunciation of property, extreme bodily asceticism, devotion to prayer and spiritual exercises—appealed to people who were troubled by rapidly increasing disparities of wealth and power.’

From The War on Heresy, by R.I. Moore [Belknap Press of Harvard; 2012]

‘The best cooks are  ex-dishwashers. Hell, the best people are ex-dishwashers. Because who do you want in your kitchen when push comes to shove, and you’re in danger of falling in the weeds and the orders are pouring in and the number-one oven just went down and the host just sat a twelve-top and there’s a bad case of the flu that’s been tearing through the staff like the Vandals through Rome?…A guy who’s going to sulk if you speak harshly to him? A guy who’s certain there’s a job waiting for him somewhere else (‘Maybe…like Aspen, man…or the Keys…’)? Or some resume building aspiring chef? …Or do you want somebody who’s come up the hard way? He may not know what a soubise is, but he can sure make one! He may not know the term monter au beurre…but who cares?’

From The Nasty Bits, by Anthony Bourdain [Bloomsbury; 2006]

 

 

Geography As Mentor

When people travel, different aspects of their experience resonate with them more deeply than others. For some, it is restaurants and cuisine. For others, it may be local languages, history, theater or archaeology.

For me, it has always been geography.

Landscapes can haunt us, often in profound ways.

No wonder I appreciated non-fiction books by Barry Lopez (Crossing Open Ground) and the fictional work titled The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich when in college. Even The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. These book thrust me into different geographies and landscapes and tethered them with emotion.

Then, there came a high altar of writing that invokes landscape—books by Edward Abbey.

I had finished college in Boulder, Colorado, and had a lover named Katie. She had been my boss when I did a door-to-door job (for $4.15 an hour selling subscriptions to The Colorado Public Interest Research Group) in towns surrounding Boulder. She had an apartment located sort of west of, and a block south of, Old Chicago’s Restaurant on Pearl Street in Boulder. While we were there once, she told me about the author Edward Abbey. She was shocked I had not yet heard of him. He wrote the non-fictional book Desert Solitaire, and the fictional book The Monkey Wrench Gang. I loved both books for their raw honesty about the (then) unappreciated beauty of the southwest canyonlands geography of the United States. The author could skillfully translate the attraction of landscape into words.

Soon, because of an interest in rock climbing and participation as a member of the volunteer Rocky Mountain Rescue Group in Boulder, I applied for—and was accepted—to an Advanced Mountaineering course in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming held by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). More climbing followed, as well as more reading about landscapes and attitudes. Sand County Almanac by Ado Leopold; Touching The Void by Joe Simpson.

Most other instructors at NOLS were truly inspiring—rabidly intelligent, well read, athletic and craving a life far away from clocks and timesheets and pension plans. They told me of other books to read—Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon, Basin and Range by John McPhee. Even A Moveable Feast by Hemingway.

Just before I attended college in Boulder, and long before I Met Katie or heard of NOLS, I read an article in Outside Magazine titled Moments of Doubt, by David Roberts. It stunned  me. It is the true story about a rock climber whose climbing partner died when they climbed the Flatiron peaks behind Boulder. Years later, when I was a volunteer member of Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, a young woman near the base of the Third Flatiron died while I was trying to resuscitate her. She had slipped and fallen while hiking a steep trail. That event, also, stunned me.

It turned out—I learned afterwards in a most bizarre way—that she had grown up in the same small town as my family (population 500) in Illinois, and was known by my siblings. A bizarre series of events pivoting around this incident ignited what was to become a life-long fascination with (and interest in learning about) the power of coincidences—synchronicity. (I self-published a few books on the topic, and begin one with the story of what happened that day in Boulder.)

The memory of that event is saturated with recollections of vast, gorgeous tracts of natural landscape in the hills behind Boulder. Since then the realization has grown clear of how important landscapes are to memories of times, situations and relationships in life.

Landscapes haunt us. The sight of peaks and bays and ferns and snow and rivulets and the sound of flapping guillemots or terns or wood pigeons resonates deep within our cranial cavities—even unconsciously as a memory—forever.

Geography still compels me. Work—as in toil and spreadsheets and organizational meetings and the joy of accomplishing long term infrastructure projects such as constructing a rural water system or road, or the bliss of an article being published nationally or internationally—is still exciting. But most of all when these revolve around an immersion in some diverse and intriguing geography. It is the same with food and history—the  memory of a good wine or meal often brings a memory of natural surroundings.

Different memories are powerful for different people. I recall waking up in a tent on the sands of Kilcoole Beach in Ireland with the sound of Irish Sea breakers; the scent and touch of rock while ascending the 14th and final rock climbing pitch on Mount Sacagawea in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming; the recollection of walking over chestnut covered hillsides in the Ticino, or the strange allure of visually barren deserts. Wild or stunning landscapes are not just beautiful: being immersed in them can harmonize with our own desire for having fewer constraints and bigger spaces for our own thinking.

The association of landscape with memory is also practical in at least two ways. First, it can remind us of why it is always good—for health and alertness—to get out and take a walk, preferably in a ‘cathedral’ of wild space or preferably close to natural settings. Second, it is a reminder that we should appreciate the creation of parks, wilderness areas and national monuments to protect gorgeous tracts of natural spaces on this planet from billboards and unchecked growth.

 

 

 

Writers, Booze & Czech Mate

An inspiring sculpture in Prague

  On a recent trip to Prague, at the Shakespeare and Sons Bookstore located at 10 U Lužického Semináre, I bought a book titled Everyday Drinking, by Kingley Amis. The introduction, titled ‘The Muse of Booze,’ was written by Christopher Hitchens. That alone made the purchase worthwhile.

Within Shakespeare bookstore in Prague

When I lived in Laguna Beach in southern California, a female physician living in Newport Beach invited me to the local (and beautiful) library to listen to a free talk being given by visiting writer Christopher Hitchens. He was (as expected) bright, articulate, incisive and motivational as he told his compelling tale. After visiting North Korea and Burma, Hitchens changed from being a hard-core Leftie — who wrote for the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper — to an almost die hard Right winger.

Ancient and attractive billboard in Prague

Hitchens was scheduled to give this same talk the following day (a Sunday, I believe) to another audience that apparently included busloads of schoolchildren eager to hear recollections of a foraying news correspondent. Unlike the evening talk we attended, this subsequent session was in the afternoon.

View of the Vltava River in Prague

I was later told about the event. Apparently, Hitchens attended a post-lunch and pre-talk cocktail event where he downed enough free drink to become thoroughly schnockered and even feistier than usual. (With Hitchens, ‘feisty’ meant Churchillian in terms of sarcasm and loathing of any soggy minded humans who, like limp trousers in a hot tumble dryer, have opinions that align with any prevalent flow.) Supposedly he stammered through his talk, quite wasted, though apparently still mesmerizing. The school children apparently weathered this ‘cultural experience’ with giggles. Hitchens passed away years ago. I believe his last book was a logic-laden invective toward religion titled: God Is Not Great.

A Prague hotel ‘library’ reading room

I’m happy we heard him speak. I remember how he referred to North Korea as being ‘Kafkayesque.’ He was a bare-souled, bright-bulb icon with a razor sharp mind and a tongue always able to decimate. Back to the Kingsley Amis book. As part of his brief introduction, Hitchens wrote: With alcoholic ritual, the whole point is generosity. If you open a bottle of wine, for heaven’s sake have the grace to throw away the damn cork.

Interior of Tempo Allegro Wine Bar in Prague

Hitchens also emphasized the crucial need to be specific when ordering a drink (never, for example, say only the words ‘white wine’ to a bartender). If you don’t state a clear preference, then your drink is like a bad game of poker or a hasty drug transaction: It is whatever the dealer says it is. Please do try to bear this in mind.

Random store window showing science and history writings in the Czech Republic

He ended his introduction by mentioning that: Winston Churchill once boasted that he himself had got more out of drink than it had taken out of him and, life being the wager that it is, was quite probably not wrong in that.

‘Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism’ – Oh, great title!

In his own introduction to his book, Kingsley Amis summarized thoughts about drinks so: General Principle 1. Up to a point, go for quantity rather than quality. Most people would rather have two glasses of ordinary decent port than one of a rare vintage. On the same reasoning, give them big drinks rather than small…Serious drinkers will be pleased and reassured, unserious ones will not be offended, and you will use up less chatting-time going round to recharge glasses. Within Prague, I bought a few other books at another huge store named NeoLuxor. These included Prague Spring, by Simon Mawer. Showcasing how authors often have affinity for the topic of booze, I just now plucked this (still unread) book from the shelf, opened to the first paragraph and read:

Night light on some random Prague bookstore window

It started in a pub. Not unusual for a journey. Phileas Fogg started his at the Reform Club in London, but then James Borthwick was not Phileas Fogg, and this pub was the nearest thing to a club that James knew. And this journey wasn’t round the world, which these days you can probably do in less than eighty hours and never leave aircraft or airport. So, a pub, a student pub full of noise and laughter and spilt beer, with photographs of rowing eights on the walls and signatures of oarsmen and rugby players on the ceiling and even an oar hanging over the bar. Yes, one of those pubs that anxious tourists enter during the vacations in the vain hope that they are going to witness that ephemeral will-o’-the-wisp student life, when all they find is indifferent bar staff, flabby beer and flabbier meat pies.

Remember the words from the band Genesis: ‘You gotta get in, to get out.’

Later, at the Franz Kafka Museum, I purchased Kafka’s book The Trial, in which he begins his second chapter so: This spring K. had usually spent his evenings going for a short walk after work, if it was possiblehe stayed in his office most days until nine o’clock – alone, or with acquaintances, and then going to a beer cellar where he would sit at a table for regulars, with some older gentlemen, until eleven o’clock. But there were exceptions to this arrangement, for example when K. was invited by the bank manager, who greatly valued his diligence and trustworthiness, for a ride in his car to to dine at his villa. And once a week K. went to see a girl called Elsa, who worked as a waitress in a wine tavern all night and in the daytime received her visitors in bed.

Bridge side sculpture and architecture in Prague

Also purchased was the book Prague: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, edited by Paul Wilson. The essay titled ‘A Pyschiatric Mystery,’ by Jaroslav Hašek, begins so: It was about two o’clock in the morning and Mr. Hurych was walking hom from a meeting of teetotalers that evening in a restaurant in Malá Strana. The meeting had lasted so long because they’d been discussing the resignation of the chairman, who’d got mixed up in an ugly affair. He’d been seen drinking a glass of Pilsener beer in a certain establishment. As a man of honor, he had stepped down.

Zvonice is an amazing restaurant on the 8th floor of this tower

These books, chosen randomly in Prague, highlight the influence of spirits on spirits. I also purchased, as is habit in every new country visited, a cookbook. This is titled Czech & Slovak Food and Cooking, by Ivana Veruzabova. In the chapter titled Beer & Winemaking she begins: Drinking alcohol is an essential part of the culture of both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and it is usual for alcohol to be on offer at most social gatherings….The Czech Republic produces burčák, a young fermented wine, which…can only be produced from Moravian grapes. It is sweet, golden and cloudy, reminiscent of a juice or a soft drink, but still alcoholic in content, between 5 and 8 percent. ‘Essential part of culture.’ Well, that’s being honest.

‘You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy wine.’

Thanks for tuning into this Prague based episode about how drinks continue to influence life and literature. My latest Forbes pieces are here, and include a review of a rags-to-riches book by shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo.

Love As An Altered State

I’ve tried different altered states of consciousness in life. These have been induced not only by alcohol but also by other mind altering substances.

And I’ve learned how we can also reach altered states, and serenity, without substances.

One way, for example, is driving a well engineered automobile along a well engineered road (preferably along a winding canyon, while listening to beautiful stereo music). This can lull our mind into a state of serenity. This is actually not surprising, considering that such a state of harmonious motion and control did not exist for most of the long period of human evolution: the experience is bizarre enough to push our consciousness into a state of awe.

Another example is love.

Although it may not be love.

It may be something else.

Entirely.

It certainly has to do with being influenced by another person at a distance, without physical, acoustical, visual or electronic communication. It has happened only twice in my life (not the state of being in love, but encountering love as an altered state) and it was surreally, bizarrely and powerfully positive. It once lasted a week. Another time it lasted only a minute. On both occasions it put my mind into a completely transcendent condition, where fear and worry and concerns about the future became, for a time, thoroughly absent.

The first time occurred over a decade ago while working a job I had no love for. I found myself one day feeling a sense of peace and invincibility, as though there was no need to worry about anything—whether related to income or the future. This feeling stayed with me for days. I felt a sense of peace that lacked all worry. Wondering where this sense came from, I carefully checked whether any of the following had increased or decreased during that time: my exercising, eating habits, or levels and frequency of drinking caffeine or wine.

Nothing had changed.

I also confirmed that I had received no good news or pay raise and had not been subjected to any external factors that would have changed my demeanor or thinking. The weather had not altered significantly. Nothing had changed. Yet the feeling lasted, gloriously, for days. During this time I thought to myself—this must be what heaven feels like! At the end of the week I had a spontaneous and unplanned meeting with friends in another city, including with a woman who had been quite important in the past. We did not know in advance that we would meet again, and our meeting was purely platonic and unremarkable. Yet I strongly suspected that the previous feelings during the past week were somehow linked to the bond previously forged with this individual.

This also happened again last year while I was inside a wine cellar on the Italian island of Sicily. I had communicated that very day with a woman in another country by sending her a message, wishing her the best on her birthday. We had met years earlier, seen each other only a few times, but maintained a correspondence due, I think, to some sort of mutual interest. I was in some part of the cellar (and had not yet sipped any wine that day) when this sense of peace coated me. All of the sudden my concerns about having to take copious notes to write an article about wine evaporated. The same feeling as a decade ago settled on me: don’t worry about anything. Because everything is perfect and will work out splendidly. Again, I suspected that this feeling was somehow linked to this person I had communicated with.

Perhaps not love, but some other bond somehow connected us.

And yet, this is just anecdotal recollection (although I do have journal entries to back up the times as having been remarkable).

The point is this: I believe we can, on this earth, reach altered states of consciousness through connections with other people that are not physical, verbal or acoustic. There is power in relationships that can take us to higher levels, and when we are at those higher plateaus we realize that there is a realm (whether in this life or on some plane that may not exist until after we depart this earth) in which our quotidian fears and worries and doubts and concerns and frustrations vanish. It is an amazing space. And we can, at times, reach that place while we live. The connection with others is critical. Especially when we share with those others mutual intrigue. Just how to make those events occur more often is a mystery.

These experiences also left a lingering question. If that sense of peace says, so confidently, don’t worry about anything, shouldn’t I pay more attention to that message?

Thanks for tuning in.

In the next weeks I’ll review books about Renaissance era Florence, and artists who lived there.

 

 

Saving A Book Via Road Trip To New Mexico

This post has several (short) segments that include a road trip, the power of visualization, unlocking another secret of the universe, meditations on how raw open space can inspire us and a sample chapter from a past book.

In 2004 I published my book Rivers of Change – Trailing the Waterways of Lewis and Clark. Okay, so no bestseller, but I enjoyed putting it together.

Recently, the warehouse in the state of Ohio in the U.S. that has stored and shipped these books contacted me. They informed me that they were closing.

I needed to pick up the books and drive them in a rental truck to property I own in the state of New Mexico.

A forklift offloads books from an Ohio warehouse into a rental truck

The ensuing road trip was a dart through Heartland and Southwestern U.S.A.

This interior region of the U.S. has recently been maligned by a few East and West Coast media outlets (as well as a few prominent politicians) as lacking a cosmopolitan and progressive vibe. This is nonsense.

Here I ate Salmon and Goat Cheese Frittatas at a small diner in Kansas, drank excellent wines in Missouri made from Chardonel, Traminette and Norton grapes and made roadside stops at parks and monuments with histories of how the Zuni-Acoma trail superimposes over the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. This is a land of quixotic diversity, unusual neighborliness and often stunning open spaces with gorgeous vistas.

Frittata? Never heard of it before.

However, and this applies to all of the U.S., it was bizarre to find that at an internationally renowned hotel chain, the morning breakfast buffet included all plastic cutlery and paper plates and bowls (the plates being printed with instructions on how to recycle them), all of which had to be tossed into a massive brown plastic trash bag after eating. Even the milk for coffee came in disposable plastic containers the size of thimbles. This, and the blasting widescreen televisions, lacked class or forward thinking. The age of considering a ‘landfill’ as the solution to massive consumerism should be well on its way out.

Breakfast buffets in this and other hotels strongly focused on carbohydrates—pastries, buns, pancakes, toast and cereal. Intriguingly, diners are then given a choice of using ‘non-dairy creamer,’ (think about that) or ‘sugar substitute,’—both obviously requisite for those wanting to counteract the relatively tasteless carb fest they just wolfed down. The paradigm appeared to be: here’s the problem, here’s the cure, and we’re vigorously marketing both your way. However, enough whining, because the coffee was virtually endless.

After breakfast, getting on the road was splendid.

This was also a time for reassessing and reflecting, a time for figuring out how the next phase of life shall unfold.

Driving across the southeast portion of the state of Kansas, I addressed uncertainties, and tried to figure out what comes next in life.

I considered various ‘usual suspect’ scenarios of possibilities for future work and living. I thought and thought and thought and finally realized: I had no idea. I had made Zero progress deciding what comes next—whether desired type of work or longer term living scenario. I seem to be have been spinning wheels in the same direction as two years ago.

Having secured no traction regarding the future, I relaxed, pleased to have fully accepted no progress was made, and decided to forget about self-evaluation and future planning for the moment.

Instead, at the wheel of 12 foot long rental truck on highway 400, I said a prayer to universal powers for assistance, then let it go.

Woodland along the Ninnescah River in southern Kansas

Within minutes my mind, devoid of the usual chatter of options and distractions, suddenly generated a yellow cartoon-like speech balloon. Into this I rapidly described mental images that suddenly appeared—bold, confident and forthright—regarding what will happen next in life. This all occurred effortlessly with blazing certainty. The solution zapped in when unexpected.

At that specific moment of crystallization, the Budget Rental truck heaved around a corner and I saw a patch of water ahead—as though appearing as confirmation, as a symbol of clarity.

Excited, I pulled over and identified this as the south branch of the Ninnescah River (a tributary of the Arkansas River) near Cunningham, Kansas. I later found out that ‘Ninnescah’ is an Osage (Dakota) word meaning ‘good spring water.’ That seemed appropriate—a spring of inspiration from what appeared to be an internally sound source occurred coincident with intersecting this natural flow.

Pleased, I moved on. During the next days I was beset by coincidences and good fortunes that heralded this trip as, overall, ringing positive. During the final days I found that a chunk of the costs of this trip were offset by a recent and unexpected consultancy contract that appeared days before departure.

Sometimes, do what you must and the universe will figure out the details.

Eventually, after driving through a segment of Oklahoma and Texas, I pulled over to a motel.

I told the story of finding an excellent hotel room on a recent Facebook post, so won’t repeat it.

However, a second part of that story concerns dinner.

I asked the receptionist in the motel (in the town of Dalhart, Texas) where to eat.

“Across the street,” she said. “Steakhouse.”

In blistering heat I walked across a massively wide Main Street and entered a charmless, vapid interior. A woman led me to a dull table and asked if I’d like a drink.

“What beers do you have?”

“We’re out.”

“Wine?”

“We’re out. Everything out. Group of about 50 ranchers showed up today. Drank everything. Sorry, honey. Coke, perhaps?”

After 10 hours on the road (and 7 hours the day before and 8 the day before that) some sort of ‘iced tea beverage’ or ‘cola’ was not going to cut it.

I said thanks and departed, ready to eat leftover pizza from lunch inside the hotel.

At the hotel, the receptionist was shocked to hear the news.

“Go down Main Street,” she told me. “Take a left at the light, pass the stadium and turn right. X10 Steak House.”

It took a while, but I found it.

The restaurant was lively and cheerful and packed with locals filled with laughter and energy. Score! The tablet menu, displayed by a zippy server, included several beers, of which I ordered a pint of Angry Orchard Rosé, followed by a Shiner beer (from Texas). Dinner was grilled salmon with asparagus and onion rings.

Brilliant!

Of both restaurants, this one rocked in comparison to the first. After a day on the road, I truly appreciated the enthusiastic energy, chilled drinks and excellent food.

Thank you, 50 thirsty ranchers, for drinking the alternative steakhouse dry, thereby forcing me here. Thank you again, universe. Your secrets are unfurling: the relationship between expectation and outcome; the pliability of reality, and the most timely delivery of chilled Angry Orchard Rosé (scrumptious) at some hidden tavern beyond an obscure stadium.

Perfect.

Next, onto New Mexico.

The road toward deep Catron County

With 6,929 square miles, Catron County in the southwest U.S. state of New Mexico has more land area than that belonging to any of four other individual U.S. states: Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut and Hawaii. With less than 4,000 residents, the state has a population density of less than one person per square mile.

In 1994, the Catron County Commission, after reluctantly abandoning efforts to make it a legal requirement, instead passed a resolution that recommended every household in the county possess a gun.

This is a land of cattle and elk and the odd, endangered Mexican gray wolf. It is an arid land, where wells often need to be drilled hundreds of feet deep to obtain water. Here are pinyon pines and junipers, jackrabbits and four wheel drive pickup trucks. This is a land where ranchers named Rufus or Chet wear Stetson hats, cowboy boots and belt buckles emblazoned with their names. Here are national monuments, reservations, and lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The altitude of plains is high enough with commensurate clear skies that a massive array of telescopes (think the movie: Contact) was established in adjacent Socorro County, just east. Here are natural arches, remnants of lava flows and absurdly beautiful vistas of open space.

My own property sits at 7,700 feet above sea level. That altitude is high enough that, coming from sea level, when you drink a beer you cop a buzz slightly earlier than usual.

View from the cabin

This property, though remote, is a magically serene portion of the planet. Years ago I noticed that after I visited it while in the U.S., even for only a few hours, I would feel a sense of peace, calmness and confidence that lasted for months afterward.

The peaceful locale provides similar inspirations to what I feel when visiting, say, portions of County Wicklow in Ireland near the sea, or the Western slope of Colorado. In other words, the lure of the landscape transcends specific geography. I could be in Bellinzona in Switzerland, Nerja in Spain or the highlands of Panama. There is no sense of homesickness there, because all other possible homes appear somehow already there in spirit.

In the evening, dusky ruby light lit up the jagged peaks to the southeast. Wind whooshed across trees as evening bird calls rang out.

There I felt detached, but still connected. I pulled an old wood packing trunk out of the cabin, unfolded a wool blanket on top to make it a table and then looked at peaks in dusk light. The world turned ageless.

That strange magic, profoundly unfathomable, is welcoming. The location is a confluence of wind, light, clouds and roaming deer, a place where energies of earth are redolent with harmony.

Another view from the property

Being there gave a sense of having no boundaries, of being free and capable of accomplishing anything.

It can be a challenge to find the correct turnoff to this land. It’s along a sandy dirt trail that changes, depending on rainfall and local ranching activities.

When entering the land earlier that day, I made a right turn at the wrong place, realized the error after eight tenths of a mile and returned to seek the correct trail. Once there, I was pleased to see no track marks or evidence that the property had been visited in months, if not years (my last visit was two years ago). Driving south and slightly upward toward the ‘ridge,’ the location of a shed/cabin purchased years ago, I spotted the structure below a lone tree and magnificent vista. The looming beauty and powerful proximity of those jagged peaks was, again, shocking.

After pulling on a sweater I opened a bottle of California Cabernet Sauvignon, ate a cold supermarket burrito and enjoyed the unfettered silence.

A minute before midnight, a realization turned clear. I then understood the words of Henri Duboscq, owner of Château Haut-Marbuzet in Bordeaux. He spoke these words when we sampled wines together at his château months ago. His father had been dirt poor, purchased vines, and he and Henri worked hard to produce excellent wine. They eventually made a veritable fortune. But they had put life back into an unkempt patch of vines, tended them, treated them well. Dubosca moved his bedroom near the cellars because he wanted to be close to the wine he produced, always.

Duboscq told me something unusual. He said that he believed that he and his family did not choose those vines, but that the vines had somehow chosen them.

Now, his words made sense. I see the future of this land not as subdivided plots for vacation homes, and not solely as acres for cattle. The purpose of this land will eventually turn clear.

View from my property

The recent heat had been brutal, but at the moment when I began unloading 50 boxes of books that day, clouds assembled and a hailstorm hammered the land. The temperature plummeted, enabling me to work in coolness. Perfect!

Thanks again, universe.

It was then time for wine, and watching the vista.

Summer wildness

Edible? I’m not going to try to find out.

Just last week, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper in Missouri published an article about the Great Flood of 1993, an event that took place 25 years ago. This event, coincidentally, forms the opening to the book I wrote almost two decades ago, the one I just hauled over 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers) to the sacred acres described above.

The book is about how humans change rivers, and those rivers consequently change attitudes.

Here is Chapter One from Rivers of Change:

Chapter 1

FLOOD

In July and August of 1993 the Great Flood of the Midwest destroyed more than ten thousand homes, killed fifty people, inundated fifteen million acres of farmland, halted barges for two months, suspended the region’s rail traffic and wreaked $15 billion worth of damage. This most significant flood ever to hit the United States was also one of the country’s greatest ever natural disasters.

This flood that twitched through the Midwest that summer originated from the two largest river systems in the United States: the Missouri and Mississippi. From June through August precipitation on the northern plains and throughout the central U.S. leaped to three times its normal volume. Regions used to nine days of rain each July felt the sudden hammer of twenty wet afternoons. By mid summer soils were saturated, leaving rainwater with no other avenue than to shoot over land.

The Missouri and Mississippi river confluence sits fifteen miles upstream of St. Louis. When floodwaters crashed past this point, sandbags failed, residents fled, and levees burst like buttons popping off a snug shirt. Passengers evacuated the Spirit of St. Louis airport; jailers unlocked cells to whisk inmates to safety. The deluge closed down a water treatment plant and swamped a sewage facility serving seventy-five thousand homes. The surge blocked four major bridges spanning into the metro area. Rising waters swept fifty propane tanks from their moorings and police, fearing an explosion, evacuated hundreds of nearby residents. Engineers drilled holes in the Gravois Bridge to prevent its uprooting by the River Des Peres.

Every second more than a million cubic feet of water roared past the Gateway Arch of St. Louis, flooding over five hundred businesses and swamping Highway 40 under six feet of water. A concert to raise funds for victims from an earlier flood had to be cancelled. Meanwhile, con artists swooped in to reap a profit from calamity. When the waters subsided in St. Louis, police spotted an industrious pair pacing near Jefferson and Gravois avenues. They toted cans and collected cash from drivers. Their cans read: Flood Releif 93 / Salvation Army. Recalling that ‘i’ comes before ‘e,’ officers arrested the sloppy imposters.

Cover art by Chana Hauben

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Panicked residents outside St. Louis bought water bottles by the dozen, homeowners prayed, and farmers cursed busted levees when river water dumped sand on their crops. As though to emphasize catastrophe, three tornados twirled above St. Charles during an afternoon of the deluge. In Hardin, Missouri, floodwaters plucked coffins and burial vaults from a cemetery, shoving hundreds like hockey pucks across corn and bean fields.

“They’d take off in all different directions,” one resident recalled. “Then you’d just watch them glide off into the sunset.”

At its peak, the ’93 floodwaters covered sixteen thousand square miles, more than the surface areas of lakes Ontario and Erie combined. Throughout the state of Missouri the disaster obliterated all previous flood records for stage, volume, peak discharge, duration and frequency. In Kansas City in July, the Missouri River rose more than two feet higher than its unprecedented crest of 1951.

In the flood’s aftermath the Salvation Army raised $6.5 million in aid, billionaire Ross Perot flew out to the Midwest to pledge another million dollars and the Anheuser Busch brewery shut down its St. Louis beer taps to fill six packs with fresh water for the city of St. Joseph. Already that year in the state of Missouri wet weather halted crop planting on three-quarters of a million acres. The floodwaters confiscated two million acres more. Astonished farmers sighed when they saw hundreds of their acres coated with sediment. By piling sand from inches to feet thick on sixty percent of its lower floodplain, the Missouri River ruined dozens of farms. For many, the cost to remove this petrified pollution was more than the value of land it covered, creating so significant an impact that the Soil Conservation Service labeled the flood a “geologic event.”

Close to a decade later I drove across the state of Missouri, hunting for anecdotes about how this flood stirred havoc along its sinuous trail. Rumors told how the event delivered not only devastation but elicited creative resilience from those affected. Surprisingly, I found a vast difference between my expectations and reality.

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Thanks again for tuning in.

Are These Superimpositions, Or Are They Reality?

View from outside Pagosa Springs, Colorado

Nomadic hunters and gatherers, even early agricultural societies, aligned their lives and toils to the rhythms of nature. How much and how often they worked, and when they migrated and to where, were influenced by surrounding conditions and pressures: hours of daylight, weather, migration of wildlife, outbreaks of sickness and health of tribal members.

Effort then related to environmental conditions.

On a balmy harvest moon, whole rural societies might toil together to reap and store grain until well after midnight, bolstered by the mutual drive and appreciation of working with neighbors and achieving a common goal. Or, during cold winter storms, Native Americans hunting buffalo on the Great Plains (of what is now the United States) might be curtailed until temperatures ascended. Effort, and time spent wielding effort, were inextricably related to surrounding natural conditions.

Then came the Industrial Revolution, and subsequent abuse of employees working over a dozen hours a day, at least six days a week. Cruel and lengthy work hours were finally curtailed by legislation (and by bold initiative of a few companies) into a healthier and saner (and likely more productive) ‘forty hour workweek.’ This was a blessing within an almost cursed framework—that which incited relentless toil to attain maximum productivity, and profit for a few, within simplistically delineated packages of time.

Today, most employees in the world are expected to begin work at X hour, end work at Y hour and take Z minutes break at Q o’clock to eat lunch.

In other words, a somewhat rectilinear organization of time for toil and relaxation has been superimposed—like a well carpented window frame—over the previously malleable time frame followed by (not imposed by) hunter-gathering tribes and early agricultural societies, who were more attuned to the rhythms of sunlight and seasons.

Near Craters of The Moon National Monument, Idaho

No doubt this is more efficient, and allowed the development of a middle class to emerge from agricultural societies. The fruits of such organization have led to greater aggregate wealth, health care, availability of nutritious and diverse foods, increased life spans and a better climate controlled lifestyle for adherents of society weaned under this structured lifestyle paradigm

As we gained, so also we lost. When is the last time you watched a sunrise or moonrise or peered at a meteor shower or got lost in the woods tracking the flight of wildlife? How often do you wander along the fractal, splitting and unpredictably aligned edges of rocky coastlines?

Layers of Himalayan foothills in Pakistan

As our societies organized time, they also delineated space.

If you inspect a map of the western United States (a topographical ‘quadrangle’ printed by the U.S. Geological Survey), you will notice that the layout of towns and cities and geographical parcels belonging both to private and public landowners is almost rigidly rectilinear. That means: squares, rectangles, straight lines and ninety degree angle corners. This is the Township system, the geographical milieu imposed on California and Oregon and U.S. geographies by limited minded technocrats who dwelled in Washington DC over a century ago. These persons knew little of wilderness except for tangled Virginia overgrowth and swampy banks of the Hudson River.

In other words, a 17th century Cartesian coordinate system, favored by East coast politicians with no direct knowledge from having ever visited the West, was superimposed over the organic, curling, swerving patterns of geographical natural landforms—rivers, watersheds, wood lots and mountain ridges of the Pacific and Rocky Mountain states.

[I wrote a chapter about this in my book Rivers of Change – Trailing The Waterways of Lewis & Clark. Here is a link to that chapter. It also mentions how ‘climate change’ is nothing new, having altered landscapes 200 years ago, as it has impacted our earth for millions of years.]

Somewhere in the Western U.S.

In the same way that the Industrial Revolution led to the imposition—like an omnipresent flyswatter—of modular and measured parcels of structured minutes and hours over the fluid and ephemeral nature of quotidian time, the map makers of yore (ignoring the pleas of wise explorers such as John Wesley Powell) smacked a grid—like window mesh—over intricate topographical undulations, declivities, hilly skylines and roughly spaced scrublands of the natural topography of the Western United States.

In other words, rather than choose to divide up geography following the natural, fractal boundaries defined by watersheds, they chose a geometry that is largely unrelated to landforms.

Again, as we gained, so we lost.

In adopting this system, those responsible ignored the truth that ranchers and farmers and shopkeepers tended to congregate with neighbors who lived within the natural boundaries of their own watershed, rather than others who may or may not have shared land within the same rectilinear basin/township/range land division. Those communities might also have lived over a mountain ridge within that same system, and therefore included virtual strangers.

The imposition of a rectilinear grid over landscapes legally separated people who lived within the same geographical communities, while associating them with others they may never have met before.

Not Idaho, but Iceland

These two actions, the artificial division of work life into measurable minutes as measured by a clock, and the division of geographies using Cartesian coordinates, have led to effective and replicable management systems, but are unnatural enough to a degree that they may tend to alienate people from the very seasons and geography in which they live. This is not a criticism of these systems as much as an encouragement to temper them with time spent ignoring watches and wandering in the wilds, when possible.

Mountains lack straight edges. Lakes are never shaped as perfect circles. Yet such ‘sloppiness’ belies a greater, powerful longer-term economy of natural energies than any organizational system humans have ever devised.

The ‘badlands’ of New Mexico

That is why the beauty of nature attracts us. It is why the glow of a full moon or the fulsome whish of tidal waters attracts our attentions fully. These vistas may lack the engineered attraction of television scenes where camera angles change each three seconds or sooner; they may not be as dopamine churning as fingering your cellular screen to review the number of ‘likes’ you received within the past hour, but they are—through millions of years of coevolution with life on earth—effectively calming, inspiring, and suggestive that perhaps we should be more appreciative of our precious time on this planet, and our natural surroundings.

We should, at times, listen to nature to better understand how to live with, and within, its wise but jagged organization, as well as its thundering beauty.

Again, thanks for tuning in.

 

 

 

 

The Bookseller of Budapest

In the hilly Castle District within the city of Budapest, at 18 Fortuna Koz, is an English language bookstore named Vadászbolt. The shelves within this small one-room store are scrupulously maintained so that no books jut out further than others.

The owner, Alexandre, sat in a stall corner turning pages of what appeared to be some ancient text when I entered.

We talked.

“Business is slow during winter,” he said. “But it does not matter. We love books!”

I asked where books about Hungarian history were located and he jumped up and pointed to a specific set of shelves.

I selected the first book I saw, read sample paragraphs and knew it was a keeper: about the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of a Hungarian resident in Soviet gulags for nine years. Titled A Hidden World and written by Raphael Rupert, it was published in 1963 by Collins at Saint James Place, London.

I next looked for a second title and, as often happens when a receptive mind enters a bookstore, knew my fingers were gliding to another appropriate text. I soon chose another hardcover with a dust jacket—titled Seven Years Solitary by Edith Bone (an English woman who had lived in Hungary). It, too, was about wrongful incarceration in the late 1940’s and 1950’s.

Curiously, on reading the first book I found the author mentioned the author of the second book because they were briefly both locked up at the same prison.

Their stories are similar. Rupert tells of clown courts, congested prison trains with holes cut in some corner as a toilet, frequent beatings, tedious interrogations, cabbage soup as food and fellow inmates dying in droves from chopping timber during brutal winter days. There were prison gangs who robbed personal possessions and inmates beaten and shot without mercy. There was never enough warmth. Regarding their transport by train, Rupert wrote:

“It was mid-winter, but the wagons had no stoves or any form of heating, and we were wearing old, threadbare Russian uniforms…On this four-day journey, five prisoners died…”

Regarding working in the forest logging trees, he wrote:

“There were many accidents; the stumps, some of which weighed half a ton, rolled on to the prisoners, crushing them. During my first week of this work, fifteen prisoners had to be taken to hospital.”

Obviously, human regard for human life can virtually vanish at times.

Which brings me to artificial intelligence.

Except for rare intersections of time and space coordinates where benevolent societies have flourished to some degree—Athenian Greece, Renaissance Florence, 7th century Ireland (before Vikings invasions), Etruria (Tuscany) before Roman invasions and no doubt during some eras of Inca and Sumerian civilizations—human leadership often appears to have been a gruesome, brutal, cruel, dictatorial and condescending affair. Think Robert Mugabe—the thug who rigged countless elections and decimated an economically functioning society so that he could be Boss. Think Castro, Stalin, Idi Amin, Dos Santos of Angola and that train of North Korean thugs who pretend that they are a deified dynasty.

Chances are, this nonsense will continue. If humans did not have the temerity to take out Mugabe or Castro, then (collectively) we don’t appear to be a very bright, intolerant and progressive lot.

Just as tribal rule evolved into city states which transformed to nations (basically lines drawn on maps and associated with a flag, an anthem and a national airline, many of which appear quite similar), perhaps countries, as John Lennon suggested, may in the future vanish. But who will rule the massive trading blocs that replace them?

Perhaps algorithms and artificial intelligence can improve governance. Management could incorporate lessons learned from histories of prosperous as well as failed states to suggest better, more benevolent, more efficient means of ruling.

I have more faith in Google than, say, Maduro of Venezuela or any of a handful of illiterate war lords in Somalia.

Reading those books about how Stalinist darkness touched Hungary and how paranoia and prison camps can be used as tools to control populations was a reminder that humans, collectively, are not so hot at governance. I have no problem giving a decent algorithm the chance to comb through historical patterns to help figure out where we should best go next. Just as we generally trust GPS to secure a more efficient route to a destination than we could plot with pen and map ourselves, we should be open minded about giving this technological alternative a chance.

Otherwise, when might the next Mao try to force a cultural revolution on a population? When might another group of goons decide that the talented and educated should be sent to plant rice?

The day after visiting the bookstore, I took a walking food tour around Budapest. We were a group of three, including myself, the guide, and a woman from northern California who was on the verge of moving to Guatemala. The Hungarian guide told us about growing up. She told us how there simply was no variety of food for her in youth, and how, once a year, she would get a few pieces of fruit for the holidays.

Looking around at the market stalls bulging with produce, I realized how much life has improved for her and for these Hungarians. They too, appreciate the change.

When my computer died, I took it to a repair store in Budapest. Within hours, it was fixed for about $20. The young staff were polite and efficient. No doubt they are also appreciative of the power and potential benefits of technology. This youth represents the future: educated, driven, interconnected. Just as technology has improved during past decades and we have discarded what is obsolete, let’s hope our world stays bright enough to discard outmoded models of governance, such as dictatorships. An app might not replace human leadership, but it could certainly add enhancements.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dogsleds and Elephants

On Saturday mornings I wake and walk a few minutes down the road to this little newsagent.

I buy a copy of what used to be known as The International Herald Tribune but is now called The New York Times International Edition.

The fact that they renamed the paper New York Times is sad. It erases all that nostalgic sense of fidelity with a Paris based U.S. paper having the illustrious title of Herald Tribune. As an American you once had a link to other Americans who had lived in Europe and who also knew the Tribune.

I buy the paper far less often than before. Whatever your politics, the editorial pages and headlines scream nothing but invective. These pages have become a sort of cross between the National Enquirer and the Soviet newspaper Pravda (which I read a few English translation copies of during college, out of fascination). The constant, incessant, unadulterated, semi-fanatic editorial negativity is as repellant as, say, listening to Namibian white farmers blaming everything bad in their lives on their black neighbors. Truly, I know about that having lived there and listened to them. I mean, ultimately, hearing the same complaints again and again about the same topic becomes boring.

Politics aside, there were a few good articles in a recent Saturday’s edition. One was an interview with Walter Isaacson, who wrote the biography of Steve Jobs (excellent book) and who wrote a book I am now reading—which is a biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. The second article was a book review about a collection of essays about writing, written by John McPhee.

In college in Boulder I bought John McPhee’s book titled Coming Into the Country when I lived on Pennsylvania Avenue on the Hill. And the book—which is non-fiction about people living in Alaska, told many stories. One included some woman who had moved to Alaska from the lower 48 states and went to a meeting of, I think, dog sled racers. She had decided she needed a husband. So she eyed these men at this meeting, pared the possibilities down to three, then selected one. And, damn if she didn’t marry him!

Reading this, I thought: How brutal! The gal just checked a box and snagged a clueless dude.

But, who knows? I mean, maybe it was a match made in heaven. Truly. I envy her pluck and determination, to be honest.

Anyway, back to McPhee.

One of the books he wrote is titled Encounters with The Archdruid. The archdruid being a very well known and controversial environmentalist leader of the 1970’s and 1980’s named David Brower. McPhee arranged for Brower to spend a few weeks rafting through the Grand Canyon, together with a man he frequently debated with vociferously in public–Floyd Dominy, the head of the Bureau of Reclamation and builder of dams who basically wanted to dam up the Grand Canyon. Author McPhee documented their interactions, which turned spicy.

After leaving college in Boulder and spending weeks in Steamboat Springs, I came back to Boulder one weekend for an environmental conference. The keynote speaker was David Brower. I recall him explaining as he stood at the microphone in Regents Hall, with passion, how miraculous our lives are, and how even the process of chewing and swallowing and digesting food was of marvelous complexity. He was a tall man and a huge figure and appeared to be warm and generous and wildly attuned to the need to preserve wilderness and nature. I think he was some sort of Berkeley Birkenstock sort of chap who got the Sierra Club’s non-profit status revoked after he, the then leader of the organization, published some political piece in a mainstream media paper.

I remember in college a lot of students wore t-shirts with color drawings of, say, wolves. Or mountain goats. They were popular at the time. Written above these drawings, in some dainty and rococo script, was some quote about how nature was fragile and gentle. I always thought that was a crock of shite to portray the natural world as gentle and fragile. Because nature is not fragile, or timid, or weak (think tsunami in Japan, hurricanes in Houston, wildfires in California). Even if we humans nuke ourselves into oblivion (I pray not), within months some species of life—say beatles or lice or cockroaches or maybe even some robust lemur—will begin adapting to the radiation and multiplying and eating our thermonuclear toasted carcasses as they find them strewn across city streets and throughout the spiral configurations of tract homes. Nature—tectonic churning and billions of years old, will merrily plod on. Asteroid collision? Ice age? Bring it on! Mama Earth could not care less. Truly.

But I do remember my own mother saying, once, “Imagine there were no elephants left in the world?”

At the time, even with all the poaching taking place in Africa decades ago, I thought that was kind of far-fetched.

No more. We’re currently losing elephants due to poaching at a rate of 8 percent per year.

Yet you don’t see that on mainstream media headlines.

What I’d prefer to read in newspapers is the marvel of the world we live in, and how aspects are challenged. Rather than reading some Anti-Trump invective or reviews of a book by Hillary, why don’t we learn more about the fate of elephants across the African plains, or the latest space exploration voyages or the growth of high speed trains (or semi-empty cities) across China? I think Americans would be better off if we began to think more internationally, to be more Herald Tribune rather than New York Times minded with respect to world.

It’s excellent to see that Isaacson, who wrote the biography of an American icon (Steve Job), then focused his attention on the biography of a European Renaissance icon (Da Vinci). Fantastic.

Are we in too much of a rush to wonder at what is going on in the world around us? Are we in such a hurry that a woman would need to identify her partner for life during a single dog sled meeting?

You get the point.

Too busy to tune into the world? I don’t buy that. Buy an atlas instead of a new Lexus. It will cost you less, won’t break down and requires no change of oil. You won’t even need to plug it in.

Books, such as those written by Isaacson and of McPhee can, vicariously, expand our awareness of the great world we live in.

So – Read.

Widely.

Not just headline stories in mainstream media.

 

The Power of Words

Words can change us.

They can make our bodies shudder with emotion, fire us to action, or guide our trajectories through life.

I recall three sets of words that are powerfully memorable.

The now peaceful skies over rural U.K.

The first is when the Nazi regime attacked Britain via their Luftwaffe air fleet in at the beginning of the Second World War, in what became known as the Battle of Britain.

Winston Churchill—having failed several times during his previous career, was now the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He broadcast the following words to the House of Commons in June, 1940. The words galvanized the citizens of an island to steel themselves against the forces of darkness, regardless the uncanny odds against them. Despite the air attacks, the German forces never did gain a foothold on the island of Britain.

You can click on the link below to hear at least some of his words.

In the broadcast, Churchill said:

“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France. We shall fight on the seas and oceans. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields, and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills. We shall Never Surrender!”

The moon – no longer completely mysterious and alien

The second set of words was spoken by Neil Armstrong, when this astronaut—the first human ever—descended from the lunar module on a ladder and put his booted foot on the ashy soil of the moon. The words he spoke were not scripted by NASA, nor were they prepared by Washington beauracrats. Instead, the first words spoken by the first ever human being to touch the soil of another land beside our own planet were created by the astronaut himself (though likely apocryphal, I like the story that his wife suggested this phrase to Armstrong during pillow talk the night before his great adventure).

[LM stands for ‘Lunar Module,’ the vehicle that landed on the moon.]

Armstrong said:

“I’m, eh, at the foot of the ladder. The LM footpads are only depressed in the surface about 1 or 2 inches, although the surface appears to be very, very fine grained, as you get close to it. It’s almost like a powder. (The) ground mass is very fine. Okay. I’m going to step off the LM now.”

Long pause.

“That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”

The third set of words regard the resistance to an attack on the U.S.

On September 11th, 2001, when their flight—United Airlines flight UA93—had been hijacked by terrorists, thirty-two year old passenger Todd Beamer from New Jersey, father of two, spoke on his cell phone to Lisa Jefferson, a switchboard supervisor from the Verizon phone company. Beamer described their plight: the flight had been hijacked, and he saw two hijackers with knives and someone else enter the cockpit. He and others on the flight learned from phone conversations that three other flights that day had been hijacked by fanatics and crashed—into the Twin Towers in New York City and into the Pentagon. They knew that their plane, hijacked, had been turned around and was likely to be commandeered to crash into—perhaps—the Pentagon or the White House. They knew they were doomed.

These passengers had no choice but to do nothing, or to act by attacking the hijackers. A group of passengers that likely included thirty-eight year old Tom Burnett Junior, thirty-one year old Jeremy Glick, Mark Bingham, fight-attendant Sandra Bradshaw and Todd Beamer (and others) apparently worked together from the back of the plane. They made a plan, executed it and attacked the hijackers. Their actions prevented the hijackers from fulfilling their mission of using the plane as a missile to attack another building. It resulted, as the passengers likely knew it would, in the plane crashing prematurely into a quarry in Pennsylvania, killing all.

Beamer’s words during the 13 minute phone conversation were unrecorded. According to the woman who spoke with him, after sharing a prayer with her, Beamer said something to the effect of: “A group of us are going to do something.” He then left his phone while he spoke to the other passengers. She heard him saying:

“Are you ready? Okay. Let’s roll.”

Musician Neil Young soon created a song about the event. His words tell the the story from the view of the passengers on the flight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Facing the Unknown

 

A bend in the road

Just as we inhale, then exhale, there are times in life when we need to exert effort, and times when we need to relax. There are times to work, and times to play.

This is like pushing a car out of a ditch. You don’t just push the car, you rock it back and forth until the time comes for one mighty heave (preferably from several people at once) that slips the vehicle out of the ditch and onto the road.

It is by working together with the rhythms of nature, and the rhythms of people, objects and situations, that we minimize effort and maximize results.

Once we understand the naturalness of such rhythms in life, and tune into them, our own lives can become more balanced, healthier, and better attuned to our surroundings as well as to other people.

Quite the flow

We are surrounded by systems that ignore this. The linear, barely interrupted office work day and 50-week work year are unnatural remnants of the Industrial Revolution, in which squeezing labor out of subordinates was adopted as a cultural norm. Humans perform best when they focus on a mental task for 4 to 6 hours in the morning, then switch gears to physical activity, then work mentally again later. The Latin culture understands this with the concept of the siesta, where the body and mind work and rest in accordance with soaring and waning daily temperatures. This also respects the human craving for variety.

These oscillating rhythms of life can also apply to times when we stay in control, and times when we surrender.

Sometimes we plan out a route with perfect precision. And sometimes events occur along perhaps that same journey where we lose control. Rather than fight uncontrollable events, it can be prudent to surrender. There is economy and efficiency in the fabric of reality that we need to give into at times—in order to achieve often far more than we originally planned, or to attain levels of peace not previously anticipated.

Here is an excerpt from the book I’m now re-reading now titled “Lost Horizon,” written by James Hilton and first published in 1933.

Here is the background: A group of four Europeans being evacuated from Baskul in Afghanistan to Peshawar in British India (now Pakistan) find themselves on a plane that has been hijacked, and which (after a re-fueling) crash lands in the high peaks of northwest Tibet. There they are found by a group of locals who take them on a mountain trek back to their home, a locale named Shangri-La. Together with the locals, these passengers hike through the mountains for hours—wet, cold, tired and confused. One passenger (Mallinson) speaks with another passenger named Conway—the protagonist of the story.

Photo of the Himalayas…taken years ago when flying to Bhutan

The track went on, more sharply downhill, and at one spot Conway found some edelweiss, the first welcome sign of more hospitable levels. But this, when he announced it, consoled Mallinson even less. “Good God, Conway, d’you fancy you’re pottering about the Alps? What sort of hell’s kitchen are we making for, that’s what I’d like to know? And what’s our plan of action when we get to it? What are we going to do?”

Conway said quietly, “If you’d had all the experiences I’ve had, you’d know that there are times in life when the most comfortable thing is to do nothing at all. Things happen to you and you just let them happen. The War was rather like that. One is fortunate if, as on this occasion, a touch of novelty seasons the unpleasantness.”

“You’re too confoundedly philosophic for me. That wasn’t your mood during the trouble at Baskul.”

“Of course not, because then there was a chance that I could alter events by my own actions. But now, for the moment at least, there’s no such chance. We’re here because we’re here, if you want a reason. I’ve usually found it a soothing one.”

[Hilton, James. Lost Horizon: A Novel (p. 43). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.]

The rest of the story, which I’ll not reveal, is about finding a paradise—and learning to enjoy it there and then.

Monks in Bhutan

The point is not to wait for desired events to plop into your lap. But once we realize there are rhythms in life we must sometimes surrender to, our own situations can become more colorful, vibrant and rewarding.

Many situations in life that I fought against ended up providing situations for the better. The pain of a relationship breakup? The hate of a course you needed to study? The fear of moving to a different location?

In retrospect, fighting against the tide of circumstances can be a waste of time and energy. That does not mean you should just give up—but realize when you have no control, and wait until a situation plays out.

Sometimes you should just let events unfold.

This may even lead to prosperity, as Shakespeare understood when he wrote Julius Caesar. In this play Brutus speaks to Cassius, saying:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,

Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…

…On such a full sea are we now afloat,

And we must take the current when it serves

Or lose our ventures.

 

The Train Ride That Changed Life

After studying engineering at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and disliking it intensely, I drove up to the ski town of Steamboat Springs, rented a cabin with two other people who were about my age and skied during days and worked various jobs—including as a night dishwasher at the Grand Banks restaurant on Main Street. After a few months, I left town, flew to El Paso in Texas, crossed the border by bus to the city of Juarez in Mexico and went to the train station. There I bought a train ticket for first class premium (prima de primera clase)—for $36—that allowed me to take a 36 hour train ride in my own cabin. This turned out to be the journey of a lifetime, and one that changed life.

The train car was an old 1940’s American caboose, and the back door was a huge wooden door split in two. The top half swung wide open that let me look at the Mexican countryside we passed through. Mostly it was desert scrub, very littered, and often with abandoned train cars by the rail side occupied as homes by rural locals. The train stopped now and then and passengers stepped outside to buy local tamales (delicious) for a few pesos. My cabin had a bed and a toilet and was quite cozy.

During the trip I finished one book and began another. Combined, these helped change perspective.

Blurry photo I took of a bus ride through deforested Guatemalan jungle. We had to wait hours while these guys with massive, 6 foot long chain saws cut this tree up to clear the road. At one point I considered just walking alone, but found out later there were some bandits in the region who had actually shot at another bus we encountered.

Before this trip I had driven from Steamboat to Boulder for a weekend to attend a ‘Tropical Deforestation Conference’ at the University of Colorado. It was held in Regents Hall and the keynote speaker was David Brower. The event truly alarmed me about the state of tropical deforestation in the world. At a sales table in the hall outside this conference room, I purchased two books. I read one back in Steamboat—titled In the Rainforest by Catherine Caufield. The prose was crisp, the organization of the book admirable, and the subject matter fascinating. The second book I brought along on this train ride. Titled The Primary Source and written by Norman Myers, it also told of tropical deforestation and efforts being taken to stop it.

Now and then a voice would call in the caboose hallway, and a railway conductor would pace up and down swinging a silver pail—filled with ice—holding ice cold bottles of cerveza for sale. I purchased a few, bedded down at dusk, and read.

At this time  I was truly agonized about what to do with my life. Stay in Colorado? Perhaps. Work in engineering? Never! I felt uncertain and almost defeated at racking my brains about what to do? 

I was also enchanted by the life of the author who wrote the second book, Norman Meyers. He was a worldwide environmental consultant, and a respected writer. He had a rural home in Kenya.

I visited Agua Azul in Mexico, found this jungle by the water and set up a hammock, where I slept the night. There were some strange noises all around me that night.

During that train ride I decided what to do with life.

I would become a well traveled international environmental consultant, and also an author.

(Curiously, I found out later that my father had taken this same train journey in the 1920’s with his father—who organized the excursion—and several New York businessmen, intent on possibly investing in a mine. They were guests of the president of Mexico and stayed at Chapultepec Palace; the mind deal never went through.)

The years have rolled by since that train trip, as have decades.

Two years after that trip I worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, assigned as a water supply engineer. It was bliss. I had a motorcycle, a lovely English girlfriend also with a motorcycle (still a close friend) and material to write about. This led to 16 years of international work throughout the world managing infrastructure and environmental projects (and five years in southern California as an environmental consultant). I managed to self publish a few books along the way.

In the highlands of Guatemala, this group of indigenous women used hand looms to create beautiful shirts and tapestries. They formed a collective group of widows whose husbands had been killed by non-indigenous groups in a little known but bloody conflict that lasted years in the jungle.

Recently, for the first time in many, many years, I wondered what became of Norman Myers. I  found this interview with him in California in 1998. It is intriguing. He tells of growing up in Yorkshire without electricity, and then getting a job as a colonial administrator in Kenya when he was 22.

My backpacking trip that followed this train ride—by train, bus, truck, canoe and plane through Mexico, Guatemala and Belize—also changed life in another way. I learned a strange truth about reality that no books or classes ever hinted at. When you confidently expect to arrive at a certain destination, events and people align themselves to help you out with your journey. Yet when you fear not making it to a destination, physical and situational realities will emerge to help block your path.

That realization? Worth any course from any school.

 

Freedom of Press! And Guest Photographer – Liberté de La Presse! Et Photographe Invité… from Roundwood Press

This is a bilingual edition. Please excuse the poor French. Il s’agit d’une édition bilingue. Excusez le Français approximatif.

First, a healthy hello and welcome to the exhibitors I met at the ‘L’Escale du Livre’ book festival in Bordeaux city a few weeks ago here in France.

Tout d’abord, bonjour et merci pour l’accueil des exposants que j’ai rencontrés au festival du livre «L’Escale du Livre» à Bordeaux, il y a quelques semaines ici en France.

These publishers/authors/artists and stores include the following…

Ces éditeurs / auteurs / artistes et magasins etaient …

Agullo Editions, Atlantica Editions, Bradley’s Bookshop, Cairn Editions, Elytis, Entre Deux Mers Editions, Féret, GéoramaGinkgo, Intervalles, Les Éditions du Sonneur, Libraire Lepasseur, Nevicata, and Transboreal.

I first wrote about this book festival in a post last year.

Recent violence in France is something we are watching in the U.S. I wrote about the first of the new wave of attacks more than two years ago here.

The roots of this violence began more than two years ago when the offices of the satirical Charlie Hebdo publication were raided by terrorists who slaughtered multiple journalists. Their grievance? Free press. France is, and has been, and intends to be, a country where the freedom of press and of expression are considered pillars of civilization, mainsails of liberté, égalité, fraternité. In fact, after some recent terrorist attacks here, overhead electronic highway billboards included those three words.

J’ai deja écrit sur ce festival du livres dans un article publié l’année dernière.

La violence récente en France est quelque chose que nous regardons aux États-Unis. J’ai deja écrit à propos de la vagues d’attentat precedente  il y deux ans.

Les origines de cette violence ont commencé il y a plus de deux ans lorsque les bureaux de la publication satirique de Charlie Hebdo ont été attaqués par des terroristes qui ont abattu de nombreux journalistes. Leurs revendecations? Presse libre. La France est, et a été, et sera un pays où la liberté de la presse et des expression sont considérées comme des piliers de la civilisation, des voies principales de la liberté, de l’égalité, de la fraternité. En fait, après quelques attaques terroristes récentes, les panneaux d’affichage de signalisation des autoroute électroniques affichaient ces trois mots.

During recent years the United States has hovered under a cloud of ‘political correctness,’ wanting to please everyone not because doing so is necessarily right, but because doing so is sometimes a cowardly way to avoid healthy dialog and confrontation. Allowing a controversial speaker onto an American college campus is no longer a straightforward task in the U.S. Yet we must maintain our freedoms, as France is aware. After the attack on the Hebdo office in Paris, the publication emerged again—fearlessly a strong advocate of free speech. Attacks to this country have continued—at a nightclub in Paris, at the Orly Museum, the Louvre, the Avenue des Champs-Élyéees, as well as along a promenade in Nice.

One reason for attacks is that the country advocates liberal thinking and free speech. Fortunately, here the press remains strong, vigorous, sometimes bawdy and lewd, and unafraid to publish a wide spectrum of titles.

Au cours des dernières années, les États-Unis ont survolé sur un nuage de «l’exactitude politique», vouloir plaire à tous, non parce que le fait est nécessairement juste, mais parce que ce faisant, c’est parfois un moyen lâche d’éviter un dialogue et une confrontation saine. Autorisé un conférencier controversé de s’exprimer sur un campus universitaire américain n’est plus une tâche simple aux États-Unis. Pourtant, nous devons maintenir nos libertés, comme le fait la France. Après l’attaque des bureau de Charlie Hebdo à Paris, la publication est apparue à nouveau – sans crainte, une force de défense de la liberté d’expression. Les attaques contre ce pays se sont poursuivies, une discothèque à Paris, au musée du Louvre, sur l’avenue des Champs-Élysées mais également sur la promenade des anglais à Nice.

L’une des raisons pour ces attaques c’est que le pays préconise la pensée libérale et la liberté d’expression. Heureusement, ici, la presse reste forte, vigoureuse, parfois bavarde et obscène, et sans crainte de publier un large éventail de titres.

I have great faith that new and surprising directions and alternatives in life emerge from within the fabric of reality (and from new generations) – often from where never expected.

Therefore, in a tribute to such freedoms I am introducing a young friend I used to work with in Pakistan, Anum Mughal, whose photographs from different portions of the world constitute her own freedom of expression—the appreciation of beauty within diverse cityscapes, skylines and shores. This generous and talented woman realizes that to remain interconnected with others in the world, it helps to focus on what we share that is positive and attractive, and not dwell on maintaining potentially ugly divides.

J’ai une grande foi dans les directions, les alternatives nouvelles et surprenantes de la vie qui émergeant  du tissu de la réalité (et des nouvelles générations) – souvent de la ou nous ne nous l attendions pas.

Par conséquent, dans un hommage à de telles libertés, je vous présente une jeune amie avec qui j’ai travaillé au Pakistan, Anum Mughal, dont les photographies prisent dans différentes parties du monde constituent sa propre liberté d’expression: l’appréciation de la beauté de divers paysages urbains, des horizons et Rives. Cette femme généreuse et talentueuse se rend compte que de rester interconnecté avec d’autres personnes dans le monde, cela permet de se concentrer sur ce que nous partageons ce qui est positif et attrayant, et ne consiste pas à maintenir des divisions potentiellement négatives .

Thanks for the photographs Anum! And I hope your business thrives.

Merci pour les photos Anum! Et je vous souhaite de grand succès .

Photographer Anum Mughal

Here are some photographs taken by Anum during the past years. They are copyright protected.

London scenes

Dubai

United Arab Emirates coastline

Again, thanks for tuning in. I hope you will check out my latest Forbes articles. You can subscribe to those articles via that link if you want, and can subscribe to this web log via the sign up box below.

Vous pouvez lire mes derniers articles Forbes en cliquant ici.

Finally, although you may have seen this on the sister website Vino Voices, we are now looking for a publishers for my latest book—a collection of recipes from 125 winemakers in 18 different countries.

Enfin, bien que vous ayez pu le voir sur le site soeur Vino Voices, nous recherchons maintenant des éditeurs pour mon dernier livre—une collection de recettes provenant de 125 vignerons dans 18 pays différents.

The French Version Of The Book Borrow Box

Welcome to Spring.

Many towns in France now have book borrow boxes. Apparently the trend is global.

During a recent visit to the Dordogne I saw La Boîte à Lire – ‘ The Reading Box,’ managed by the Municipality of the town of Sarlat-la-Caneda. The notice on the side of the box, translated, stated, “You read a book. It’s stays on a shelf. Give it and take another! The exchange is anonymous and free. Think only of the happiness of having someone else read what you like. Solidarity is giving and sharing without counting.”

Inside were a few dozen books, including titles by Bertrand Russell, Hector Malot and what appeared to be a romance paperback by Eugene le Roy (The Enemy of Death), as well as Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand.

A few minutes down the road from where I live in the Gironde is a similar box—glass on most sides, elevated to eye level and tilted at an angle to the walkway. The City of Blaye posted a sign reading: “Once upon a time was a book…” It provides similar instructions as the box in Sarlat for depositing and taking books, but adds:

“This box is also for children—please be careful not to hurt their sensibilities when you deposit your books.” In other words—only PG rated books, please.

Considering that the Erica Jong paperback titled Fanny Troussecottes-Jones was included, it appears someone ignored that sign. There is a colorful collection of other titles, including an Arnaldur Indridason detective novel set in Reyjkavik in Iceland, a war thriller by Valentin Musso titled The Cold Ashes (Les Cendres Froides), The Third Man by Graham Greene, some title by Rudyard Kipling, a medical work of fiction by Frank G. Slaughter (A Doctor Not Like The Others), No One’s Perfect by Hirotada Ototake (a non-fiction bestseller from Japan about growing up disabled) and a Harlequin romance by Gloria Bevan. Also—a 1985 Chinese Horoscope and what appeared to be a text book on adolescence.

These sidewalk boxes on main streets are never locked and appear little harmed by vandalism or theft. They can be testimony not only to a respect for reading, but for civic order and the rule of law. Consider: no need for a library card or visiting hours or walking through doorway metal detectors. Just pace up, browse, open a glass door and select.

Remember to leave a book, if you can.

Tens of thousands of these boxes now dot the U.S. and other countries.

How long the trend will last is unknown. Tales of books vanishing faster than they appear are legion, and a few permit obsessed bureaucrats apparently grapple with this novel concept.

Until my French improves, I’ll be inclined to donate rather than take away…though will be interested to see if anyone in this town wants to read a Jack Reacher thriller, or history of the 100 Years War—in English.

My latest Forbes pieces are here (from the past month). They focus on northern Spain and the Dordogne (Périgord) region of France.

Hope you enjoy. They, too, are free.

 

 

 

 

Is That Book In Your Hand Advertising Coca-Cola?

Years ago I noticed that a lot of popular literature appeared to mention the beverage Coca-Cola, or the abbreviated name – Coke. Tuning in, I soon noticed two other related aspects. First, if the drink was mentioned once, it was often later mentioned another time in the same book. Second, not many other soft drinks were mentioned as frequently.

The question was whether this was paid advertising. This is not illicit or illegal, as product placements are common in movies and sports games. I had just never heard of this possibility before.

The answer to that question is: I still don’t know.

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Some books can bubble with surprises

Many of the books read in the past were paperbacks, discarded or elsewhere now. However, today I opened my Kindle and chose dozens of titles collected during past years.

Ignoring those that were historical (before the time when the popularity of this soft drink spread), I searched each of these books for the words ‘Coca-Cola’ or ‘Coke’ – disregarding references to the use of the word coke (lowercase) in the context of the drug cocaine.

Of 52 books checked, surprisingly an exact 50 percent (26 books) mentioned either Coke or Coca-Cola. Of those that did, mention was made an average of 2.5 times per book (more often in fiction than in non-fiction). Of course the sample size is so small that these numbers may mean little, statistically.

Listed below are 26 books that included these words (both fictional books [F] and non-fiction [NF]).

The books are varied. They are about the environment, wine, technology, cooking, history and self-improvement – as well as fictional thrillers. Subtitles have been omitted or abbreviated because of space constraints.

[NF]  War of the Whales: A True Story – by Joshua Horwitz: (1 mention)

[NF]  Wine Wars… by Mike Veseth:  (5 mentions)

[NF]  You Are Here: From the Compass to GPS… by Hiawatha Bray (1 mention)

[NF]  Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence… by Brogan and Smith (2 mentions)

[NF]  Unbroken: A World War ll Story of Survival… by Lauren Hillenbrand (1 mention)

[NF]  Tom’s River: A Story of Science and Salvation, by Dan Fagin (1 mention)

[NF]  To Burgundy and Back Again: A Tale of Wine… by Ray Walker (2 mentions)

[F]  Sweet Liar, by Jude Devereauk (1 mention)

[NF/F]  Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace… by Greg Mortenson (2 mentions)

[F]  The Square of Revenge, by Pieter Aspe (4 mentions)

[F]  The Salome Effect, by James Sajo (6 mentions)

[NF]  The Road to Burgundy, by Ray Walker (1 mention)

[NF]  How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto, by Eric Asimov (3 mentions)

[NF]  Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, by Dunn and Norton (2 mentions)

[F]  The Expats, by Chris Pavone (2 mentions)

[F]  The Devil’s Banker, by Christopher Reich (5 mentions)

[NF]  Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health… by Thaler and Sunstein (1 mention)

[F]  The November Man, by Bill Granger (3 mentions)

[NF]  Made to Stick…by Heath and Heath (3 mentions)

[F]  Innocent, by Scott Turow (1 mention)

[F]  The Martian, by Andy Weir (2 mentions)

[F]  I Am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes (4 mentions)

[NF]  The 4-Hour Chef, by Timothy Ferris (1 mention)

[F]  The Colorado Kid, by Stephen King (7 mentions)

[NF]  Corkscrewed… by Robert V. Camuto (2 mentions)

[NF]  The Buy Side… by Turney Duff (2 mentions)

What to conclude?

One book was written by an acquaintance, a self-published author who lives in rural Italy. It mentions Coke six times. Because the book was self-published, I somehow doubt any corporate interests contacted him in advance in the Tuscan countryside to wave a check at him for any potential endorsement.

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All this, as well as caffeine and carbonation…

Several bestsellers mention this drink, while other bestsellers (which were obviously going to be bestsellers even before they were printed) do not. Those that do not include Carte Blanche, by Jefferey Deaver, The Key by Simon Toyne, and Steve Jobs, written by Walter Isaacson. Perhaps monetary offers were made for endorsement, but refused.

Or, perhaps this beverage is a universal currency in popular culture, an item so familiar to readers across the world it is known as well as other renowned physical symbols – The White House, Japanese sushi or the koala bear, for example. That might encourage writers, even sub-consciously, to mention this drink as a token of the familiar, a simple icon many readers can collectively recognize and relate to.

Even if no payment is associated with endorsing this product – mentioning it makes it more familiar, hence more likely to be included in the texts of other authors in the future (or on their web pages, such as this).

Free advertising at its best.

Perhaps next time you thumb through a paperback or ebook and see the words Coke or Coca-Cola inside, you too may wonder…

 

 

 

 

Digging for Dinosaurs in Montana

While searching for a computer file, I bumped into this unpublished chapter from a book I previously wrote – titled Rivers of Change. When I needed to reduce the book’s size, I trimmed down the number of chapters. This chapter was extracted simply because it did not relate strongly to one of the book’s topics – the Missouri River. Otherwise it’s a decent read.

The chapter below tells of meeting a group digging for dinosaur bones in the state of Montana. This took place well over a decade ago. It would have been Chapter 36 in the original layout of the book. I was also fortunate enough during this visit to Montana to be invited to a conference where Dr. Jack Horner spoke – the man who inspired the character in the book and movie Jurassic Park.

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This was a mobile home for 6 months.

Peck’s Rex

“Four or us were with Dr. Rigby,” Louis Tremblay told me in a low, supple voice. “I found a bone. My prospecting partner joined me and we started digging. Led to more bones. Later Dr. Rigby figured out the bones belonged to a T-Rex.”

Thirty minutes earlier and two hundred meters from Fort Peck Lake, I passed a triangular hand-painted sign blazed with the word Dinos. This abbreviation aimed toward the irresistible. I swung in and parked before a white warehouse, the Fort Peck Field Station of Paleontology (‘Home to Peck’s Rex’).

Louis greeted me inside the building. He wore thin silver glasses beneath thinner boot black hair, a serious man dedicated to tasks at hand. For three months each summer Louis left his home in Avon, Connecticut, to hunt fossils at Fort Peck. Years earlier on his first day excavating, Louis had discovered bone splinters that led to the rib of a T-Rex. A portion of this eventual bounty now lay on a hallway table before us: a premaxilla tooth and caudal vertebra the color of buttermilk bread.

Louis performed his work with Dr. Keith Rigby, a University of Notre Dame paleontologist. Every year this man rallied volunteers to hunker down in wizened sunlight and dust off layers of crumbled land where T-Rex once hobbled and copulated. They sat butt deep in hot Montana dirt with trowels, dustpans, paintbrushes and deep buckets – plucking skull fragments from late Cretaceous dinosaurs.

“The number working on this project is approximately 20 during summer,” Louis told me. “People from all walks of life and ages come for two weeks. Then a new group comes in.”

“We’re interested in any dinosaur we come across,” he added. “Some are more common than others. Doesn’t mean you ignore them. Triceratops were abundant, but there’s never been a complete triceratops found at one location. Would be a major discovery. This is prime area,” he added. “All around Fort Peck Lake. South side. East side. Lot of dinosaur material.”

Before dinosaurs plodded over this hummocky land the Cretaceous Seaway coated the Great Plains. This waterway then connected the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico – splitting North America in two. Surf pounded against a shore where Fort Peck now sits at the time when dinosaurs waned between 65 and 67 million years ago. Mountains buttressed by fern bottoms, palmetto forests, and sequoias studded the western edge of this steamy ocean.[i]

Another volunteer named Tom stood next to Louis. Tom was from Aledo, Illinois, a tall red haired schoolteacher on his seventh summer at Fort Peck. He selected his phrases with the same uncluttered precision he used to extract fossilized tibias from a landscape enamored by his sweat. He told how before the Missouri River existed ancient waterways basted this landscape with dino bones.

“That’s the reason there’s so much material here,” he explained. “It was buried by streams, outwashes, floods.”

‘Material’ meant dinosaur bones, the fossilized goodies that Tom, Louis and their cohorts salivated after in a methodical way.

The first dinosaur discoveries in the western hemisphere were made along Montana’s upthrusted, fossil-smeared landscapes. Decades before a dam rose at Fort Peck this region captured world attention as a juicy site for excavating the past. The father of this process was Dr. Barnum Brown, the man who discovered the first T-Rex in this region in 1902 and later the only akylosaurus skeleton ever found. Brown unfolded this land around Fort Peck as a subterranean story book about Cretaceous life. He was a man of inverse worlds, an impeccably dressed scientist with dapper taste, social grace and a reputation among ladies for his exquisite ballroom dancing technique. Photographs show Brown poised next to looming Montana buttes wearing a tie and coat and pointed shoes (or, during chillier seasons, a fur coat). Rather than looking as though he was en route to a grimy dig Brown appeared headed toward a Parisian fashion show, or perhaps off to share aperitifs with the company of old money high brows.

During six decades of working in paleontology Brown earned a reputation for savviness. He cut a deal with Sinclair Oil; if they funded his digs he would author dinosaur booklets for the company (they used one as their logo). His legacy of discovery endures. In a recent year the paleontologist Jack Horner[1] (a model for the protagonist of Jurassic Park movie fame) led teams in discovering five T-Rex skeletons near Fort Peck[ii].

“Last year we recovered the three small vertebrae you see,” Louis said and pointed before us at Rex fragments the color of pistachio shells. “Then we had to shut down.”

This ‘shut down’ derived from legalities. When the excavating season flickered to an end in 1997 the crew buried their petrified jewel of a half dug T-Rex to prevent it from being damaged by Montana’s brazen winter. The team then departed. Soon afterwards a local man claiming to own the land slipped in, fired up his tractor and started his own re-excavation of the Rex.

IMG_5458If there is a god, he or she apparently frequents offbeat bars in Montana. On the same day this farmer began his unsanctioned dig, a lawyer from the nearby town of Glasgow pulled into a local inn after fishing. He bought a drink and overheard a visiting couple yap with pride about how they watched a clumsy dino excavation that day, carried out by an irate farmer attacking a hillside in a battered tractor. Tipped off and incredulous, the lawyer drained his glass, said a round of farewells and returned home to phone his friend Dr. Rigby in Boston. After their conversation a swarm of FBI agents fanned over the scene in Montana.

Casually unearthing dinosaur fossils with clanking farm machinery on disputed terrain is not taken lightly by the federal government. Mere apologies could never have bridged the chasm between the digger’s naïve intent and his dubious results. The outcome was that the excavation turned to a legal quagmire over land ownership with the added intrigue that somewhere during this fiasco the lower jaw of the T-Rex vanished. FBI agents tracked it hundreds of miles west to Great Falls.[iii] Whoever hauled this fossil off was more interested in its value than in exploring the particulars of Cretaceous history (it was well know that T-Rex fossils were lucrative: the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History had bought a South Dakota T-Rex skeleton, named Sue, for $8.4 million[iv]).

Louis and Tom left legalities to lawyers. They spent their own time training and supervising incoming volunteers. These efforts drew the men deeper into involvement with the process of unearthing fossils. Louis had visited China twice with Dr. Rigby and now helped host a visiting Chinese delegation. Fossils on the table before us were for these visitors to see.

I looked at the assortment of chalky angles. Limbs deficient in structure were strengthened with a cream colored filler, making each fossilized slab look like marbled beef.

“Bones on this table are T-Rex,” Louis said. “Preparing them is a long, slow process – difficult because bone is fragile. Encased in hard rock. We’re having to use special tools to remove rock and not damage bone with pressure. Some are broken. Parts are missing.”

A woman named Donna led me away from Tom and Louis down the ramshackle hallway. To Donna paleontology appeared to be an emotional landscape as well as a discipline, one shaped by the thrill of learning how dinos thunked over riverbanks or clawed flesh off their prey.

She showed me how bulky rocks transformed to polished fossils, a sequence that began outside. We stalked through an open garage converted to a workshop where two men wearing shorts, dust masks and protective orange headsets blasted air guns at a maroon, pockmarked boulder. They trained spitting hoses at a clunky rock bigger than a dishwasher. Caged light bulbs hanging on extension cords illuminated their effort, which appeared not only spellbinding but ludicrous. Removing gritty sandstone from a matrix of soft dino bone was like peeling an orange with a power drill and not poking pulp below its rind. An added challenge was having to guess the size and shape of the fossilized ‘fruit’ that lay within.

Donna led me to stage two – the prep room where air drills worked on smaller rock hunks the size of pumpkins and beer kegs, then moved to the final step – preparing molds. This took place on the main room of what used to be a laundry building. Skylights above us bulged like overturned egg cartons.

Earlier the Chinese delegation delivered a sample of their own casting efforts – a Mamenchisaurus that now poked its graceful fifteen foot long neck toward the ceiling. Donna stretched her own neck to view the skull above.

“And that’s just a juvenile,” she said, then rotated to point at another room corner.

“Over there is triceratops. Found at Nelson Creek, 1952 and dug by a team from Brigham Young University. They sent the cast to us.”

From head on a Triceratops Horridus skull resembles a bat without wings that popped too many steroids – a five foot long orb of bone drained by convoluted nasal cavities.

Satisfied by seeing this fossilized menagerie and educated about how to crack hips out of sandstone, I retreated down the hallway with Donna past a corkboard tacked with dinosaur comics. A drawing of “Peck’s Rex” was shaded emerald green, illustrating that seventy percent had been excavated to date.

We passed the kitchen, where a cluster of middle aged men sat nattering about Australian hats, South American airfares, organic chemistry exams and Cantonese artifacts. These volunteers looked driven but not overwound: men assembling not just a project but a lifestyle they believed in.

“This is the last day we’re operating,” Donna said. “After lunch we’ll give the building a good cleaning and people will leave tomorrow.”

I stepped outside into fluttering leaves, dry heat and scant clouds the color of clarified butter. A Nissan Windstar pulled in. Beaming Dr. Rigby with his St. Nicholas white beard stepped outside with a group of politely fussing Chinese men. Their leader’s neck, the color of brandy, reminded me of a compressed Mamenchisaurus. He smiled and whispered ‘pizza!’ – meaning, I presumed, that they had somehow managed to uncover the location of a decent restaurant nearby.

Endnotes:

[1] Earlier that summer Jack Horner told a conference audience in Great Falls how President Jefferson wanted to test the veracity of the extinction concept. To do this he needed to confirm whether mammoth elephants still roamed some unexplored hinterlands of the world, say beyond the Rocky Mountains. He told Merriwether Lewis to keep a lookout for the critter. Just in case.

[i] “Rethinking T.Rex,” Great Falls Tribune, December 10, 2000, Section P, p.1.

[ii] “Rethinking T.Rex,” Great Falls Tribune, December 10, 2000, Section P, p.1.

[iii] David Roberts, “Digging for Dinosaur Gold,” Smithsonian Magazine, March 1998, pp 42-43.

[iv] “Rethinking T.Rex,” Great Falls Tribune, December 10, 2000, Section P, p.1.

 

The Hunger to Read, and Worthwhile Festivals

 

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Evening view from the Citadelle

The weekend before last, the town in which I live held a book festival for two days. The Blaye Festival of Literature is a cozy gathering in a magnificent though still relatively little known venue—a beautiful citadel in a lesser known (though historically prominent) town. The books were spread out in three well-lit and heated ancient stone rooms (including one for children’s books). There were dozens of authors, ample illustrators and thousand of books.

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One salon at the Blaye Festival of Literature

I arrived at 1.30 pm. Being France, only one author was in sight as the others had all left for their hour (or two) long lunch. Meals are a ritual here, and the country halts while they are being eaten.

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Colorful reading

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One poet named Sylvie Latrille, when asked, told me she began writing poetry when she was 15, and was now 65. I purchased one of her slim and illustrated volumes as a gift for a friend and she signed it with a quill pen and ink, then dabbed this with blotter paper to make sure the ink didn’t run. Her calligraphy was beautiful, and the moment was a reminder that new is not always most memorable, or best.

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Sylvie Latrille and ink nib pen

There were books on geography and history; novels and cartoons. The event was filled with color and imagination, as well as low key and thoroughly polite authors and publishers.

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This was a reminder that the era of books still thrives, that the hunger to read and learn and transport ourselves vicariously through our imaginations remains primal and strong.

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One of the inner courtyards in the Citadelle

Not a bad location for a book festival.

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View of the Gironde estuary

 

If I had a choice of which book festivals to attend?

Here is a list of international book festivals for 2017.

Oslo Book Festival (November 2017). [website not yet active]

Never been, but what a splendid city!

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Bookstore in Oslo

Hay Festival (Wales – UK)—Again, never been. Perhaps it’s grown crowded due to popularity. But the word is that it’s lively and eclectic. May/June will be the 30th anniversary.

Los Angeles Times Festival of Books—I’ve visited a few times and listened to Ray Bradbury, Kirk Douglas, Michael Crichton, Dava Sobel, Jared Diamond, James Patterson, Michael Connelly, Pico Iyer, Robert Crais, A.O. Scott and others speak. Well organized and free of charge to all. Book your tickets online so you don’t have to worry about gaining entrance to popular talks. Coming in April, 2017.

Reykjavik International Literary Festival—The bookstores in all of Iceland are open late and the chairs are all filled with adults and kids avidly reading. The literacy rate is 99%—the same as Cuba, except that Iceland actually has a variety of books to read, and an economy that allows people to buy them.

Never been to the festival, though, again—the location is superb. This is a photo taken in northern Iceland of the town Akureyri. Delightful locale.

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Akureyri in winter

Auckland Writers Festival—Because it’s a fun country to visit and explore. Coming in May.

 

^ ^ ^

That’s all for now. Happy holidays to all…!

My latest Forbes pieces are here, and include one on the impressive new Lascaux Cave center in France, the island of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, and Berlin’s wine bars.

 

How A Dubai Poolside Afternoon Led to Living in France (Also – Advice from Authors)

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Chicago Beach, Dubai

Almost 20 years ago I sat on the side of a swimming pool in an apartment complex where I lived in Dubai. I worked for a large American engineering corporation based in Pasadena, California, and had been saddled with a sweet assignment in the Emirates, back when Dubai was small enough that you routinely recognized friends at Thatcher’s pub or the Irish Village. We worked 6 day weeks, so the abbreviated weekend was to be cherished. I would drive over to Jumeira for a croissant and coffee breakfast, then amble through Magrudy’s Book Store before returning to the apartment to lounge poolside, and maybe chat with a group of young English women also living there.

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Dubai 1997

On this particular sunny day – with a blue sky above – I flipped through a Time or Newsweek magazine (when these included news instead of celebrity gossip), and read an article about how author Peter Mayle’s book – A Year In Provence – had taken off. The story was so intriguing that I tore it out of the magazine and kept it.

Imagine. Living in the French countryside and writing. 

Decades passed. And, well, here I am. Lacking royalty checks and a renowned book publisher as yet, but content to be enjoying comte cheese, chocolatine croissants with almonds (flaky edible pleasure) and bottles of Fronsac and Blaye wine. The post office, bank, barber, market, two parks and several restaurants are all within a five minute walk of the front door.

Sometimes it takes decades for desires to be realized. So – patience.

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Cap-Ferret, Bordeaux

Mayle wrote about long French lunches. With wine. Sometimes glasses; often bottles. I gave that up during past months after it increased body weight and the need to nap. Well, almost gave it up. But now when there is an occasional long lunch with wine and friends, it’s better appreciated as sacred.

Mayle once wrote an article for a magazine defending the existence of ‘airport literature,’ saying that sales of books with low literary merit gave publishers the funds they needed to take risks on new authors. He also defended the airport genre by saying that all reading is beneficial. Truth is, today you can routinely find airport books that are cracking good reads – well thought out, carefully constructed, and with respect for the use of language.

Though I can’t find that Mayle article writtten over a decade ago, here is one that includes advice about writing – from writers (including Mayle). And here is another list of author quotes regarding the process of writing.

If that advice is no use, perhaps you should put the pen down (or put the laptop away), stand and reach for a corkscrew, bottle, and slab of cheese. If you can find someplace with sunshine…even better.

Enjoy.

Powerful Lessons From Mr. Twain and Mr. Wouk

Here are a few quick stories about connections with writers, and lessons learned.

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My great-grandmother Patty traveled with Mark Twain to the Caribbean, as well—apparently—to a few other locales. She was his ‘traveling companion’—though the depth of that relationship remains unknown. Perhaps as a form of thanks, Twain gave her a large black and white photograph of himself—white haired and stately. He signed it: “Be good Patty, and you will be lonely.” My parents bequeathed this framed, signed image to me when they passed away. It’s in good custody at the moment. Sometimes I have to remember Twain’s advice.

I was born in the Virgin Islands on the island of Saint Thomas. A neighbor of ours was the author Herman Wouk (“The Winds of War,” “The Caine Mutiny”). I am told a cameo figure of a Chicago businessman (which my father was) is portrayed in Wouk’s subsequent book set in the Caribbean—’Don’t Stop the Carnival.’ I have to read this book to learn more.

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When I subsequently spent years growing up in Ireland as a boy, our neighbor was an 80+ year old Australian chap who golfed with my father. He had flown a canvas sopwith camel biplane during World War One, landed in a Belgian field where he found his hand spun propellor would not spin again. He ditched the plane by setting it alight, then spent the next 10 weeks escaping detection from German occupiers before crossing the border—illegally at night. During this episode he faced a pistol/bayonet confrontation (which he won). When he returned to England as a hero, King George held a private audience with him to learn the details. Fifteen years later he wrote a bestselling book about the experience. It’s a riveting read. I recently hired lawyers in London to track down the surviving relatives (which they did—to Asia and Latin America) so that I could buy the copyright and re-publish the work. They agreed. (Next step: to source crowdfunding to move this endeavor forward.)

I never met Mark Twain, of course, or Herman Wouk. I only learned later that our neighbor in Ireland had been a best selling author.

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Recently I considered all three characters, their writings, and their effects on changing the world.

Why?

Mark Twain (which is a nautical term which he adopted as a pseudonym; his real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens) wrote about his time as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River. Learning to pilot the river—navigating eddies, turns and shallows—was a challenge that kept his mind energized, hungry, focused. Yet after he learned to navigate those challenges with ease—he wrote about how the river no longer interested him.

This is a lesson of value: once we master tasks we set ourselves at, we will be ready to move on. Why is this important? Because we should consider not only upcoming challenges, but what comes after they are achieved.

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Wouk’s lesson was more subtle. When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi years ago I read and enjoyed a few of his books (which my parents had mailed to me): The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance. One evening while I visited the capital city of Lilongwe, the Peace Corps nurse invited a few of us to her house in the evening to watch a mini-series adaptation of The Winds of War. I went with my fellow volunteer, a Californian named Sam Abbey, and watched a few episodes. The book came alive on screen, and suddenly I heard the rather posh voice of a young British woman named Pamela Tudsbury—a huge character in the book. Yet associated with Pamela and a story of romance, there was a plot twist that was unexpected and refreshing.

So, too, with life: sometimes it will blow us away by twisting unexpectedly. The lesson? Set a course, but be prepared to change when forces of nature require adaptation.

From our World War One aviator pilot friend, I was reminded how strangely serendipity can plop into life. Twice during his escape he fortuitously met characters who helped hide and protect him—both times at the very moment when he was on the verge of being captured, or running out of food and shelter. The lesson? Keep an open mind and a positive attitude, and the very fabric of reality may bend to assist you in ways unforseen.

Thanks for tuning in.

^  ^  ^

My latest Forbes posts are here. They include pieces about a jazz musician in Dubai, the difference between Pinot and Pineau, and the reason Loire Valley wines may well become the rage.

(The first photograph above was taken at a sailing club in Cartagena, Colombia, several years ago. The 2nd and 4th were taken during these past months here in France. The third was taken in Belgium last year—and shows the ground over which our pilot friend had to move in winter—in a horse and buggy, or by foot.)

 

 

 

 

 

Moon, Ocean, Books: Jules Verne and The Surprising City of Nantes

Last Thursday I spent the night in the city of Nantes along the Loire River in western France. This large city (population: just south of a million) was once a haven for persecuted Protestants before transforming to a slave trade capital. Located a few dozen miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean, this sixth largest city in France includes dismal outskirts with all the charm of a row of council apartments from post-war Britain.

However the city center is a gorgeous collection of fountains within circular plazas from where avenues radiate out like spokes. Green and white trams slice past impressive stone architecture and groomed lawns, while students peddle bicycles past bohemian buskers beating drums near L’Occitane, Swatch and Cartier stores. Walk up Rue d’Orléans toward Place Royale to marvel at its beauty, then locate a wine bar on Place Vauban serving mind altering glasses of biodynamic Muscadet wine at only four dollars a pop.

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Your impression of a city depends, of course, on which segments you choose to explore. After moving from the questionable outskirts to the interior, you may agree that when commerce results in clean, safe and vibrant streets, then let commerce flow (taking care to control growth, and tastefully melding ancient and modern architecture).

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Passage Pommeraye in the city center

This city was the also the birthplace of Jules Verne, whose writings have taken readers to the moon, to the center of the earth, around the world in 80 days, and 20,000 leagues under the seas.

Verne’s spirit of exploration remains; an hour south, the Vendée Globe sailing race took off days ago. This venture is an around the world, non-stop, unassisted, single-handed yacht race which takes place every four years. Verne would likely have approved with gusto.

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“Jules Verne – novelist, forerunner of modern discoveries, was born is in this house”

Verne may also have appreciated that a strong interest in books still thrives in this bustling university city.

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Travel Book Store

In March of this year, literacy rates for each country of the world were compiled by John Miller of the Central Connecticut State University in the U.S. The colder northern European countries of Finland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Denmark have the highest literacy rates. Further south, France is ranked in the top dozen.

During an evening in Nantes I visited three sizable bookstores, all brimming with titles (though none in English, which was refreshing; the dilution of the French language is certainly not imminent). One store catered to tales of exploration and travel, with books about Karen Blixen, by Joshua Slocum and about ‘la vie sauvage’ (wildlife) from throughout the world. Exploring these well lit covers was a treat in this city with vibrant collections of color for sale: ancient postage stamps, macaron pastries, wool sweaters and books.

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Books on the Siberian taiga, Greenland, polar seas and Siberian exploration – just in time for winter reading

 

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Progressive Nantes, of course, includes titles on health and diet (‘humans and grains’) and sustainable development (‘environment and energy’)

 

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Titles include ‘The Wild Souls’ about Alaskans, as well as a recollection of the first traverse of the Canadian tundra

 

Nantes includes plenty of bicycles and coffee stores, wine bars and cafés. This is a place to take a day to wander and dream (perhaps of visiting the lighthouse at the end of the world) and enjoy getting lost in alleys, on stone stairways, even in decent bookstores. If you plan to explore the Loire River valley, this city center is worth several hours.

37 Boxes … What We Value Most

Last December my storage unit in Albuquerque was burgled. Having been out of the country, I was unable to visit and discern the damage until this month. Beside making a mess and heisting heirloom jewelry (as well as a never-worn pair of Timberline boots – (?), the thieves left my journals, photographs, few pieces of kitchenware and books intact. They even left Waterford Crystal glasses (a present from decades ago) untouched in padded boxes. I ended up rooting through the plunder, tossing away old clothing, DOS computer manuals, golf balls (?) and then loading the remainder into a U-Haul truck and driving it to another locale. In all, there were 37 boxes – plastic containers from Wal-Mart, trunks and a few cardboard crates.

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37 boxes. Possessions of life distilled. With more time, I could have reduced that number to 5, and with a scanner and some weeks, condensed most of the balance to images and files on a single flash drive.

During a stop for a night  in the mountains, I sat on a deck at sunset, cracked open a beer in celebration of having hauled away the materials – then put on warm clothes. What to wear? I opened random boxes and pulled out options. I soon wore a pile jacket from ski patrol days in Colorado decades ago, as well as a desert camouflage floppy hat given by a brother from his weeks in Operation Desert Storm. When it grew colder there were more options for alternate head ware – the wool balaclava hat bought at an open air market in Marrakech decades ago, or the Russian cap (complete with authentic hammer and sickle badge) given as a gift by Russian friend Vladimir in the UK eight years ago.

Along with this dress change in a remote region (as starlight sparked above) came memories of times and people. With these came the forgotten realization that although things are important (wool hats do keep us warm), it is our interactions with others that is most fleeting and precious. Time flies, jobs demand attention, tasks keep us scurrying. Yet we need to stop, frequently, and laugh and enjoy the company we have. Decades ago, ski patrol friends in Colorado always seemed aways laughing, filled with levity and enjoying each moment. The friend I visited in Marrakech rode a motorcycle around rural villages and laughed and spoke Arabic to locals as he fixed their water supply windmills. Witnessing this, and his calm fluidity in an alien culture, changed my perceptions about life, and living. (One evening we made a pizza, then walked to the village stone oven to get it cooked. How unexpected and wonderful.) And Vladimir once took me on a long walk to a distant lighthouse on some shore of northeast England. When I asked him why we were going there, he said, “why not?”

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Life is filled with change and surprise and the constant realignment of perceptions regarding what is important. Whether or not I keep the contents of those 37 boxes, rooting through them was a reminder of how important it is to appreciate our situations in life. Like it or not, the flow of change incessantly alters reality. Sometimes slow, sometimes rapid. We cannot hoard our friendship or laughter for another day or more ideal conditions. Life flows. We change. If you feel the sudden urge to walk for hours to a distant and mysterious lighthouse – go for it.

Why not?

 

 

Luck, Success and the Bizarre Fortunes of Chef Marco Pierre White

After reading the book written by Marco Pierre White titled The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness, and the Making of a Great Chef I wanted to learn more, so found a YouTube video of him speaking to the Oxford Union Society. What an amazing speaker! The interview is about an hour long (though it passes rapidly because of the quality of White’s storytelling abilities), but if you are limited with time, then watching even part of it is worthwhile.

White spins a compelling story when talking about his youth and his transition to the world of cooking. What is clear in his book, and is amplified in this video, is the role that luck played in his life.

For example, after some years of working in kitchens he wanted to work at the renowned La Gavroche Restaurant in London. He wrote them, and they replied with an application – in French. Not knowing the language he tore it up in frustration, then traveled to London and onward to another city for a kitchen job interview. They asked him to be a pastry chef, which he didn’t want to do. He told them he’d think about it. He returned to London, crossed the city to Victoria station and found the last coach bus that would take him home had already departed. He knew that he had to spend the night walking around the city to catch the morning bus, not having the money to afford a hotel. He walked somewhat randomly, saw the windows of a beautiful restaurant with guests inside toasting glasses and enjoying life, then moved back to see the restaurant’s name: La Gavroche. He decided this was somewhat of a sign, and in the morning knocked on the door, explained his situation, and landed a job.

Luck, White says, led him to success. Yet when luck arrives, he emphasized to the listeners, you must seize it.

He says:

It’s all been about luck. Success is born out of luck. It’s awareness of mind that takes advantage of that opportunity. You will all be confronted with opportunity. You must take advantage of it, ’cause if you don’t take advantage of your opportunity, you’ll never realize your dreams. Whether you want them or not, it’s an irrelevance; you don’t know that until you achieve it.”

His story is inspirational.

&   &   &

Anthony Bourdain gives a great explanation of why any writer getting paid money should not be whining. It’s a long video interview set in Australia, but the first 10 minutes are enough to get the gist…although if you have the time, it’s worth listening to all.

“Writer’s Block?” Forget it.

Bourdain gives reasons how having previously been a heroine junkie (from which he recovered) oddly prepared him for Hollywood. Because in Hollywood, he said, many people are not telling the full story. It was the years of dealing with backroad junkies in New York city that tuned his inner radar into who was reliable and who was not. He had to tune that ability if he didn’t want to die. He also makes the excellent observation that some people in life promise and deliver, and some people promise and don’t.

Originality, Power Morning Minutes, Fresh Bread, and Words from Gurus

First – all Roundwood Press books have been reduced to $2.99 apiece (at most) for the finale to summertime.

Second – am now reading Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, by Adam Grant (2016, Penguin Random House, New York). It’s a good read, and recommended. The gist is that many individuals whose actions changed the world were normal people who held onto their day jobs even when they plunged into a business venture, uncertain of whether their notion would work or not.

Third – also recommended – a quick video where Oprah speaks to Anthony Robbins, and he gives a hint about a ten minute ritual each morning that can change your life.

Fourth – here are sage words about food, life, and respect for locality – from a powerful Scandinavian character I may soon have the fortune to meet (yes, will keep you informed):

 

Fifth – Here are some quotes  about life, and living, from some ‘success gurus.’

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The Book of Secrets: Unlocking the Hidden Dimensions of Your Lifeby Deepak Chopra M.D.

“If it weren’t for the enormous effort we put into denial, repression, and doubt, each life would be a constant revelation.”

“Ever since you and I were born, we’ve had a constant stream of clues hinting at another world inside ourselves.”

“Clinging to old behavior is not an option.”

“Thus we arrive at the second spiritual secret: You are not in the world; the world is in you.”

“Violence is built into the opposition of us versus them. “They” never go away and “they” never give up. They will always fight to protect their stake in the world. As long as you and I have a separate stake in the world, the cycle of violence will remain permanent.”

“Now step into your social world. When you are with your family or friends, listen with your inner ear to what is going on. Ask yourself: Do I hear happiness? Does being with these people make me feel alive, alert? Is there an undertone of fatigue? Is this just a familiar routine, or are these people really responding to each other?”

“Just by paying attention and having a desire, you flip on the switch of creation.”

“Instead of seeking outside yourself, go to the source and realize who you are.”

“So you have to give up on the idea that you must go from A to B.”

“Everyone knows how to choose; few know how to let go. But it’s only by letting go of each experience that you make room for the next. The skill of letting go can be learned; once learned, you will enjoy living much more spontaneously.”

“The universe has no fixed agenda. Once you make any decision, it works around that decision.”

“For most people, the strongest externals come down to what other people think because fitting in is the path of least resistance. But fitting in is like embracing inertia.”

“Now let’s reframe the situation in terms of the operating system programmed from wholeness, or one reality. You come to work to find that the company is downsizing, and the following implications begin to come into play: My deeper self created this situation. Whatever happens, there is a reason. I am surprised, but this change doesn’t affect who I am. My life is unfolding according to what is best and most evolutionary for me. I can’t lose what’s real. The externals will fall into place as they need to. Whatever happens, I can’t be hurt.”

“Nothing is random—my life is full of signs and symbols: I will look for patterns in my life. These patterns could be anywhere: in what others say to me, the way they treat me, the way I react to situations. I am weaving the tapestry of my world every day, and I need to know what design I am making.”

“Today is for long-term thinking about myself. What is my vision of life? How does that vision apply to me? I want my vision to unfold without struggle. Is that happening? If not, where am I putting up resistance? I will look at the beliefs that seem to hold me back the most. Am I depending on others instead of being responsible for my own evolution?”

“…a musician coming out of the Juilliard School of Music hears every note on the radio through a different nervous system from someone who has just graduated from M.I.T. as an electrical engineer.”

“The absolute break between life and death is an illusion.”

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Wishes Fulfilled: Mastering the Art of Manifesting by Wayne W. Dyer

“If you would like to become a person who has the capacity to have all of your wishes fulfilled, it will be necessary for you to move to that higher plane of existence where you are a co-creator of your life.”

“You must begin by replacing your old set of truths with a belief in the existence of a higher self within you.”

“Your concept of yourself that includes any limitations can be revised by you, and only by you.”

“You simply no longer choose to form your identity on the basis of what you’ve been taught.”

“The greatest gift you were ever given was the gift of your imagination. Within your magical inner realm is the capacity to have all of your wishes fulfilled. Here in your imagination lies the greatest power you will ever know.”

“In order for something to get into this world where things exist and are proved, as Blake says, they must first be placed firmly into your imagination.”

“Be willing to dream, and imagine yourself becoming all that you wish to be.”

“Highly functioning self-actualized people simply never imagine what it is that they don’t wish to have as their reality.”

“Do not let your imagination be restricted to the current conditions of your life…”

“In your imagination, you can replace the thought of I will one day be in a better place, with I am already in my mind where I intend to be.”

“Remind yourself that your imagination is yours to use as you decide, and that everything you wish to manifest into your physical world must first be placed firmly in your imagination in order to grow.”

“Let go of all doubt, forget about the when.”

“It is absolutely imperative to learn how to assume, in your imagination, the feeling of already having and being what you desire.”

“You want to decide to live from the end you’re wishing for—not toward an end that others have decided for you.”

“As William Shakespeare put it, “Our doubts are traitors.” Anyone or anything trying to diminish your inner feelings with doubt is a traitor to be banished.”

“I always loved the words of Michelangelo regarding this subject: “The greater danger is not that our hopes are too high and we fail to reach them, it’s that they are too low, and we do.” ”

“My story concerning the manifestation of abundance throughout my life is never allowing anyone, no matter how persuasive, to infiltrate my imagination, which feels prosperous and able to attract unlimited abundance.”

“State your intention to live a happy, contented life…”

 

Words of Success from the Kitchen

Below are selected quotes from two books recently read.

Both, by chefs, are not only about their lives, but their philosophies of life.

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The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness, and the Making of a Great Chef by Marco Pierre White.

“You can’t just say, “Come on, boys, let’s try to get it right.” That just won’t work. If you are not extreme, then people will take shortcuts because they don’t fear you.”

“Later on, when I went on to run my own kitchens, I too would insist on silence.”

“I discovered that there is something beautiful about the sounds—chopping, clattering, sizzling—of a working kitchen.”

“When I eventually came to run my own kitchens, I promised myself that if an apology was due, I would make it in front of the rest of the staff.”

“But I had seen talent in other chefs—it’s just the touch, the way the food falls, the way the sauce pours, the way the garnish is put on the plate. If you watch a great chef, he moves elegantly as he cooks.”

“I talked to my new friends about food with such passion that they all thought I’d lost the plot. They were amused by my obsession.”

“Three years earlier I’d used my spare time to fish or poach, and now I was in this melting pot of rock ’n’ roll people. The contrast seemed extreme. They did what they wanted, when they wanted, and that attitude was infectious.”

“…lamb, rosemary and Provençal vegetables go well together.”

“Cook’s brain. It’s that ability to visualize the food on the plate, as a picture in the mind, and then work backward. There’s no reason why domestic cooks can’t do the same thing. Cooking is easy: you’ve just got to think about what you are doing and why you are doing it. Too many professional chefs never think about what they are doing.”

“When you fear, you question. If you don’t fear something, you don’t question it in the same way. And if you have fear in the kitchen, you’ll never take a shortcut. If you don’t fear the boss, you’ll take shortcuts, you’ll turn up late.”

“You move on, don’t you? I didn’t feel sad to leave. I felt it was time to move on, time to progress.”

“I became obsessed with what I call the illusion of grandness. The plates and silverware had to be the finest, and the tablecloths had to be beautiful.”

“Young men were coming into the industry because they wanted to be famous, not because they wanted to cook. They aspired to be celebrity chefs rather than chefs. Lots of famous chefs today don’t look whacked, because they don’t work. They have a healthy glow and a clear complexion. There is blood in their cheeks. They haven’t got burns on their wrists and cuts on their hands.”

“If food is that good, you don’t have to do that much to it.”

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Bacon wrapped figs with cheese, cooked by Danielle Davis

 

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain.

“And the cooks? The cooks ruled.”

“No one understands and appreciates the American Dream of hard work leading to material rewards better than a non-American.”

“The ability to ‘work well with others’ is a must.”

“The great cathedrals of Europe were built by craftsmen — though not designed by them.”

“When I hear ‘artist’, I think of someone who doesn’t think it necessary to show up at work on time.”

“I don’t eat mussels in restaurants unless I know the chef personally, or have seen, with my own eyes, how they store and hold their mussels for service.”

“Cooks hate brunch. A wise chef will deploy his best line cooks on Friday and Saturday nights; he’ll be reluctant to schedule those same cooks early Sunday morning, especially since they probably went out after work Saturday and got hammered until the wee hours.”

“I won’t eat in a restaurant with filthy bathrooms.”

“Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn.”

“If the restaurant is clean, the cooks and waiters well groomed, the dining room busy, everyone seems to actually care about what they’re doing chances are you’re in for a decent meal.”

“Like I said before, your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”

“Popping raw fish into your face, especially in pre-refrigeration days, might have seemed like sheer madness to some, but it turned out to be a pretty good idea.”

“Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonald’s? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want.”

“You need, for God’s sake, a decent chefs knife. No con foisted on the general public is so atrocious, so wrongheaded, or so widely believed as the one that tells you you need a full set of specialized cutlery in various sizes.”

“Nothing will set you apart from the herd quicker than the ability to handle a chef’s knife properly.”

“Margarine? That’s not food.”

“It takes so little to elevate an otherwise ordinary-looking plate. You need zero talent to garnish food.”

“…as I came to understand — that character is far more important than skills or employment history.”

“All the food was simple. And I don’t mean easy, or dumb. I mean that for the first time, I saw how three or four ingredients, as long as they are of the highest and freshest quality, can be combined in a straightforward way to make a truly excellent and occasionally wondrous product.”

” ‘You know, Anthony,’ he said, ‘I have many, many enemies. It’s good, sometimes, to have enemies — even if you don’t know who they are. It means you are . . . important. You must be important. . . important enough to have an enemy.’ ”

Finally – my most recent Forbes posts are here.

Wish List

Regarding summer reading…

When looking for work assignments (like now), I’m usually too wound up to kick back on a couch and have a leisurely ‘read’ of books. Instead I scroll through endless newspaper and magazine articles.

Pity. There are some great reads out there. In fact, I’ve been spending more time entering the names of books I’d like to read into Amazon’s ‘Wish List,’ than actually reading.

This provides a sense of security that one day, perhaps – I shall read these books. Or some. Maybe. Hardly likely to get to all or most, but the thought is calming.

The pink pages of the Financial Times recently included a magnificent Summer Books section. I read this all with a pilot pen in fingers, circling what I’d like to read.

Here is the list I selected (with personal thoughts written in italics). Just reading the titles is a reminder of the choice of good reading fare out there.

Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World (by Deirdre McCloskey) – Seems urgent enough.

Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-first (by Frank Trentmann) – What made us suddenly want to consume in the 1400s? Perhaps because bathing was back in vogue after the dark ages, and people wanted to wear more than one set of clothes in a lifetime.

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Apparently an age without shopping malls

Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built (by Duncan Clark) – Apparently our new neighbor, but that’s another story.

Only Humans Need Apply: Winners and Losers in the Age of Smart Machines (by Davenport and Kirby) – You are thinking: yes, I will be a winner.

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (by Adam Grant) – Now you are thinking: that’s me, non-conformist.

The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity (by Gratton and Scott) – Who wants to be working at 100?

Syria Burning: A Short History of a Catastrophe (by Charles Glass) – Time to find out how dire that situation really is.

Britain’s Europe: A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation (by Brendan Simms) –  Apparently the supposed ‘crisis’ of Brexit is nothing new.

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For Europe and Ireland – conflict, cooperation, battles and treaties with Britain is simply the tapestry of history

Ducksoup Cookbook: The Wisdom of Simple Cooking (by Lattin and Hill) – Just the title is soothing.

The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters (by Sean B Carroll) – Again, seems like an urgent read. The ‘How life works’ part seems reason enough to hit the Buy Now button.

Black Holes Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space (by Janna Levin) – Last thing I learned about ‘outer space’ was the The Big Bang theory, decades age; apparently the shape of the universe is now even more complex.

Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Our World (by Greg Milner) – Having no sense of direction, I appreciate that it is. Would be intriguing to learn how.

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Even while hiking the Azores island in the middle of the Atlantic – GPS can help get you home

The End of the World Running Club (by Adrian J Walker) – Some fiction about an asteroid striking Britain. Sounds timely in a metaphorical sort of way.

New Pompeii (by Daniel Godfrey) – Fiction about Soviets re-creating Pompeii, with the original citizens. Ancient Rome, commies and time travel – all in one story? I am IN.

Enjoy your summer reading. If you manage to read any of these, or have recommendations, I’d love to hear.

Also you may want to check out my other posts (if you too are into quick reads rather than books right now).

My latest contributions to Forbes – about a rebel Bordeaux winemaker, as well as Elton John playing at Barolo – are listed here.

Vino Voices

ForbesLife

 

Pictures From Europe – 85 Years Ago

On Sunday after eating seafood for lunch I passed a store selling second hand knick-knacks, as well as a box of old French textbooks. I bought one titled Géographie de L’Europe – published in 1931 in Saint-Germain, Paris, by Libraire Hachette. This was between the world wars. The book describes an era within the span of one lifetime. My, much has changed.

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The book begins by explaining why Europe is in a “Privileged Position” and is civilized “par excellence” because the temperate latitude “favors human progress,” and because “in the southern hemisphere humans live far apart from each other – a bad condition for intellectual and social development.”

Since then isolated geographies have been linked by jet aircraft, container ships, tourism, and the internet.

The book includes some mesmerizing photos which I’m sharing (yes it’s okay by copyright law). Judging from these photographs, the Italians were high styling, whereas the Irish were miserable, the English medieval, the Hungarians innovative (is he wearing a jacket made of straw?), and the Russians rather stylish in a rural horsemanship sort of way.

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Hungarian Plain

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Russian Steppes

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Amalfi Coast of Italy

 

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Rural Ireland

 (The caption basically says – “Mud walls, narrow openings, thatched roofs, the Irish farm has a miserable appearance.”)

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The Downs of England (“Les Downs”)

How things have changed in less than the span of one lifetime. Europeans can now buy clothing – rather than make it from straw bales, can drive tractors powered by engines rather than cattle, can live in heated homes with plumbing and electricity, can cruise across even the Russian outback with better protection than in a semi-covered wagon. And that Italian style? Still rather svelte and attractive.

Sure, Europe. You’re having troubles. But put it in context. Sometimes we have to appreciate what we have, and how our overall situations have improved in the past decades.

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 Below are my ForbesLife posts to date – published within the past two weeks if you care to check any out.

  1. Wining And Dining Within Bordeaux’s City Of Wine
  2. Drink Like A Local In Bordeaux City
  3. Bordeaux Winemaker Artist Teams With Prince Of Monaco To Save Wildlife
  4. How To Visit A Wine Bar In Saint Émilion
  5. Bordeaux Wine Festival Launches Soon

Dying to Travel – A Memorial Momento

There are reasons we choose where we live. Perhaps proximity to work, family, or historical roots.

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Yet our genetic memory knows the truth that we evolved as nomads, craving motion. Our migrating psyches aligned with taciturn and cyclical moods and whims of this planet; like rivers, scudding clouds, or streams of migrating wildebeest, we crave, yearn, and are predisposed to movement.

We fornicate, pray, and test ourselves on psychedelic drugs as a means of seeking higher planes – pleasure, aspiration to revelation from gods, or moving our minds away from what is routine and known to search for greater personal power.

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Another way of doing this is to travel. This can be like a drug taken to shift thought patterns. Like the short-term version of moving to a new location far away.

It is what we do. We cannot stop.

As South African author Laurens Van der Post wrote:

“The spirit of man is nomad, his blood bedouin, and love is the aboriginal tracker on the faded desert spoor of his lost self; and so I came to live my life not by conscious plan or prearranged design but as someone following the flight of a bird.”

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I filled storage areas with junk soon forgotten about, then threw it all away. Life is transient. So are possessions and tools. In college I moved into a darling Colorado home with a woman who owned ample, ornate furniture, and an arboretum of plants. I soon learned that the more we have, the more we must take care of.

Which detracts from time to explore and ramble. As Bilbo Baggins and his comrades learned from their unearthly whirlpool of forays – traipsing, paddling, battling dark and ancient magic – after being uprooted and exposed to the pregnant beauty of Earth, and this hectic adventure called Life, we can’t return to the Shire.

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Before buying that flat screen, or S class Benz, consider exploring volcanoes in Iceland, checking out a fishing community in New England, or joining some funky-ass Zen meditation project deep in the Mojave desert.

Because eventually, you will die. That’s for certain. The remnants of your psyche may then travel to luminous reaches far beyond the corner store. Before then, perhaps you’ll want to practice breaking habits by embracing new environments during this life, so that when you plunge into the next plane of ethereal abstraction, you might maintain residual memory – not of stuffy religious texts – but of embracing fiery, frenetic, changes, and having at least an occasional wild disregard for rules. You might even learn to embrace faith that all will work out, perhaps even magnificently.

As young wizard Harry Potter once said, “To the well organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”

(Not that I plan on taking that trip for quite some time, mind you.)

Many have already taken that trip. For some, we have Memorial Day. We remember sacrifices they made to ensure a better world – for all of us.

 

The Big Power of Small Changes

It’s surprising how many people cling to well known routes through life. Yet stepping out of that mode takes only a few minutes, and little effort.

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Years ago I drove across the western United States to explore how massive rivers, including the Missouri and Columbia, had been damned, channeled, and altered from their natural configuration. But first, I had to get to those rivers.

I drove from New Mexico northeast to St. Louis, in the state of Missouri, to reach the Missouri River. Along the way, I pulled off the interstate highway to explore the remnant of what had once been the famed ‘Route 66’ highway. It ran parallel to the highway, yet was scenic, quiet, and virtually devoid of traffic. I learned that is generally true of life: colorful, less-traveled, surprising, often hospitable trails often lie just yards away from the beaten track where masses of people flow. Yet few people make the effort to visit them.

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Each year, 4 million people visit Yellowstone National Park in the United States. Some 95 percent never venture away from the known and paved trails and visitor centers – which constitute a minuscule portion of the park’s territory. The park is almost 3,500 square miles (almost 9,000 square kilometers) in size, leaving plenty of uncrowded space to explore. Yet few venture away from the presence of other humans.

Why? There is ample beauty far from parking lots, restaurants and motels.

We often find if difficult to leave what is routine, commonplace and filled with other humans – whose presence we find comforting. There’s nothing wrong with that. Yet there is merit in leaving routines, ditching norms, exposing ourselves to situations, and geographies, that are alien.

Here’s why.

Whether it’s looking at starlight from Angel Pass in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, or listening to Latin American music played in an Asian city by a band you never heard of before, the experience differs from what is known and usual. The experience causes your thinking, and awareness, to shift. It creates new neural pathways in your brain. As you explore new physical territory, the neural synapses in your cerebral cortex begin their own exploration – forging into novel brain terrain, creating new chemical/electrical pathways, and pushing you to change as a person.

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What does this have to do with books, or publishing, or reading?

Bill Gates told how he read news magazines cover to cover, not just stories he thought might be of interest. This helped expand his awareness of topics, subjects, situations and news of which he knew little.

It is the same with reading. It can change our thinking, and perspective.

For example, I’m now reading two books, both of which unexpectedly changed my understanding of the surrounding world.

Weeks ago in France, a bookseller reached under the counter and pulled out – shhhh! – a book he also published in English – about a winemaker. I bought it. This renowned winemaker – Denis Dubourdieu – told how great wine did not simply come from regions bestowed with beneficial natural geography – wonderful terroir – but also depended on the pluck, invention and hard work of winemakers. The Champagne region produces crappy wine, but changing it into sparkling wine made the region famous. The oddly humid climate of Sauternes results in the stability of a fungus, which, when harnessed by vine growers, produces beautiful sweet wines. The famed Medoc region of Bordeaux was a swamp, until being drained and cultivated and tended by hard working winemakers. And those sizzlingly tasteful Burgundies? Monks tended that land for centuries, working the soil and discerning the best plots of land, best types of grape, and best land management techniques needed to produce great wines. Reading this was a revelation: the manipulation of land and vinification methods – often through brutal physical techniques – is as essential to produce great wines as ideal geography.

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Another book I am reading is the true story of a World War One pilot whose aircraft was downed over Belgium. He hid for weeks until managing to flee this territory held by Germans. Get this – back in 1917 the occupiers had managed to construct an electric fence that ran the length of the Belgium/Netherlands border, preventing escape by Belgians. Back in an age before rural electrification delivered lights to any towns in the United States, before commercial television existed, at a time when radio was in infancy – the occupiers of Belgium furiously constructed a 125 mile, 8,000 volt, ‘Wire of Death’ to help impose their rule. The truth that such organized and efficient engineering was cleverly managed to control lives via electricity – a less than common feature in life back then – came as a surprise, and a lesson in how rapidly repressive regimes can utilize new technologies to impose their subordination.

The fact that we can often choose whether or not to move off the beaten trail, or open our minds and learn new truths about reality, is a gift. Whether we choose to use it or not, we should appreciate that it exists for many (not all) of us. If you have doubts – consider this story regarding a person who fled the totalitarian, repressive region of North Korea.

Or read this engaging, lively, brief piece of how growing up in a poor French farmhouse positively influenced a now renowned, wealthy owner of multiple restaurant chains.

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In a nice twist of serendipity, hours after writing the above words I found this appropriate TED talk video on – what makes a good TED talk. It’s about ideas push neurons to configure our world view.

So, why is it beneficial to take our thought patterns out for a walk now and then? Why should we care whether we change our world view or not? In my book The Synchronous Trail, I explained what would occur if humans began accepting a reality that no longer discarded coincidental events as necessarily being random. I wrote about the importance of changing our world view, or paradigm. I wrote –

“Most ‘truths’ that people believe in are nurtured by their societies and reflect paradigms accepted by those societies. A paradigm is powerful model that defines an angle from which humans view their world…Like a model railway scene that shows how platform, passengers, and rail cars sit in relation to each other, a paradigm provides us with a mental picture of how our reality is ordered. Throughout our lives, depending on new information that we absorb and accept, we are given opportunities to modify the fundamental paradigms we subscribe to.

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“As a child I believed that the earth was a hollow sphere and that we all lived on its inner surface. I thought our view of sunlight, clouds and starlight streamed in through a huge hole in this globe…Yet after I accepted the model of living on the earth’s exterior…this change in paradigm changed my attitude and actions. This big little truth gives paradigms such power: they can alter our behavior.

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“Societies create collective paradigms to help explain how the universe is ordered. This is convenient because it lets us avoid the homework of having to create personal models of how the universe ticks. It can also be dangerous: by accepting paradigms wholesale, we avoid questioning their validity…This impacts your behavior. Believing the earth is flat will reduce any chance of you packing bags and sallying off on some rollicking ship to explore the ocean…It would be better to stay at home and read a book.”

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There is value to exploring new and unfamiliar routes.

There are other coffee outlets beside Starbucks; big brand clothing is not always the trendiest or most economical to purchase, and the most intriguing distance between two points is not a straight line.

Take a chance. Make a change. Accept an invitation to an event you would not otherwise have considered. It could alter your thinking, your situation, and maybe your own personal trajectory through life.

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Bordeaux Book Festival

Before taking a vacation or trip, I’ll search for upcoming festivals in the places to visit. This trip – jackpot: book and wine festivals on the same days in the same city.

The Bordeaux Book Fair (L’Escale du Livre)  is an annual three-day event. This year it was held in early April and included 60 French publishers, 150 authors and illustrators, and multiple tents where speakers gave talks and workshops. In the week before the event, several related lectures and concerts were held in Bordeaux, of which the mayor (and possible future leader of France?) Alain Juppé wrote:

“Reading, we know, is primarily a solo act, a path back to the self. The Book Festival reveals another aspect of reading, a dimension somewhat hidden, paradoxically – the desire we have to share the fun…Meeting with writers is one way to extend, and deepen, the pleasure of a book.”

[“La lecture, nous le savons bien, est d’abord un acte solitaire, un chemin qui ramène à soi. L’Escale du livre a révélé un autre aspect de la lecture, une dimension un peu cachée, et en quelque sorte paradoxale, qui est justement l’envie qu’on a d’en partager le plaisir….La rencontre avec des écrivains est l’une des voies royales pour prolonger, approfondir le plaisir d’un livre.”]

This fair happened  to be held on the same three days as a gathering of hundreds of wine producers in Bordeaux (Salon des Vignerons Independents), as well as the first public tastings (en primeurs) of Cotes de Bourg wines. This happenstance provided access to fresh books, publishers, authors, wines, and winemakers – all in one city, all accessible by foot and tramway.

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I strapped a daypack on shoulders, wore decent comfortable shoes and a sweater, and set off to explore the universes of French books. (Not until the following day – with a still clear head – did I visit the wine tastings.)

On the way to the festival I visited the massive French bookstore Mollat (an institution) to purchase a notebook. The place was packed on a Friday afternoon, yet all 17 customers in the cashiers’ lines ahead of me were whisked through in minutes.

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I then moved on to the book fair, which is held in ‘old Bordeaux,’ near Place Renaudel in Sainte Croix.

The books at the fair (all in French) were about travel and history; about growing pot, social consciousness and surfing. About everything. This all took place in some large tents on the grassy grounds of an ancient, attractive cathedral. For lunch I walked across a plaza, sat at an open air cafe, and enjoyed good food with good wine and coffee in the spring sunshine.

Pas Mal. Not Bad.

FullSizeRender (5) copySome publishers at the event specialize in simple treatises, all with white covers. One publisher only produces books about wine and wine growers. Another publisher – Pimiento – has produced travel anthologies and surfing books since 1997 (he is, of course, a surfer in love with Biarritz).

I bought collections of travel stories set in Burgundy by different authors (Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne, and Henry James) and another about trips in the Auvergne (including stories by Robert Louis Stevenson and Emile Zola), as well as a essays by authors about Bordeaux.

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This cyclist is seriously intent on attending the Book Fair

One publisher gave me a gift – a collection of recipes from Provence, while another pulled out a book translated into English – a series of interviews with wine consultant Denis Dubordieu. Nice.

This festival was evidence that a litany of French publishers truly love what they do, and are optimistic, dynamic, and thriving.

The printed book is alive and well in France.

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Hallelujah.

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The Controlled Trickle that Saves Lives

Fifteen years ago I greeted spring by driving a mini camper through Heartland USA – Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska – and onto South and North Dakota, researching my book Rivers of Change.

Despite the occasional emotional criticism aimed at the US Army Corps of Engineers for having damned and channeled the Missouri River, I met and talked with bright, dedicated individuals – working for the Corps and for the US Fish and Wildlife Service – eager and determined to enforce the Endangered Species Act. And sometimes in magnificent ways.

Below is the chapter.

Chapter 22

FLOODGATES, TERNS AND PLOVERS

Before leaving the Lower Missouri River, I wanted a final briefing on the acrobatic duo so many riverside dwellers spoke about—the piping plover and least tern birds.

In a Corps of Engineer office adjacent to Gavins Point Dam in Nebraska, biologist Greg Pavelka sat before a spacious computer monitor. An adjacent Nature Conservancy calendar blasted an image of velvety wetlands.

Greg sat facing generous windows on the east wall. A set of binoculars mounted on a windowsill tripod aimed toward whirlpools near the base of the slate gray dam. Though a biologist, Greg’s reserved demeanor reminded me of an engineer from the Corps. His brown hair was clipped above ears. He hushed a light cough in his fist as though it might introduce an element of the unknown into our conversation. He was eager to talk about the endangered birds he helped protect.

The bird subspecies known as the interior least tern flocks to wilder segments of the Missouri River still lined with sandbars. During their journey, explorers Lewis and Clark categorized this bird as ‘frequently observed.’ In the nineteenth century the bird’s number diminished when its feathers and skin started adorning hats. In 1918, the Migratory Bird Act clamped down on this trade in avian plumage. But this protection did not last. After the Missouri River was confined to one channel the birds’ sandbar habitat was virtually eliminated. By the 1970s the population of terns dropped to twenty percent of its numbers during World War II.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 6.35.47 pmPiping plovers flutter north to the Great Plains in late April, a month before terns glide in from the tropics. Males the color of sand stake out territory along naked sandbars that form lookouts against predators. From there they surge into rituals of courtship, displaying graceful and intricate overflights. After mating, birds stay united to defend their young. If a predator looms near their eggs, the orange-legged male will lurch onto the sand in a ruse, dragging one wing while moaning to distract the intruder. Biologists like Greg hope to prevent either plovers or terns from going extinct. If these birds are to survive in the long haul they need homesteads — sandbars. To grant them this, Reservoir Control engineers need to be able to create this habitat by letting more water spill downriver from Gavins Point dam; they need to allow at least one sizable pulse of water to roar through the river’s course every few years. Unfortunately, the very floods that create and maintain sandbars are those that the Corps is supposed to eliminate.

The result is that the river’s flow, regulated by upstream dams, only surges when some of that control is lost. Floods not only create sandbars; they clean them. Although the high water of 1997 cleaned vegetation off sandbars between Gavins Point and Ponca, weeds blossomed and covered these again. This created a problem.

“The birds like a little vegetation so chicks can hide,” Greg said. “But if there’s too much vegetation, they desert the area.”

Another high water pulse was needed to shave these sandbars clean again. But how to do this without waiting for a flood?

“Generally the river’s flood pulse has been eliminated,” Greg said. “That’s part of the reason the birds are endangered. They’re adapted to a system that changes, but now the system is more or less constant.”

The unchanneled section of the lower river that Dave and I canoed remains sprinkled with the sandy habitat these birds love. To protect terns and plovers there, they need to be monitored to ensure their eggs don’t vanish. Staff from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Corps have developed a plan to accomplish this. During months when these birds visit the river, teams of biologists traipse along sandbars to record the location of each nest.

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They then pass this reconnaissance intelligence onto Greg who pastes a summary of this data (including exact GPS coordinates) onto the Corps’ internal website. Greg pushed his coffee mug aside with the back of his hand. He rotated his computer monitor my way.

The sheet read: Threatened and Endangered Species Data Management System. He scanned the data.

“We’ve had a total of 112 piping plover nests so far this year: ninety-four hatched, fifteen destroyed, three —fate unknown,” Greg said.

“The crew surveyed from river mile 785 to 805 yesterday,” he added. “They’d observed twenty-three chicks. More than a hundred have fledged the river from near here.”

Even a small rise in the river level can wash onto a sandbar, flushing eggs downriver. Heedful of this danger, field teams note which nests sit within eighteen inches of shore. Greg then ‘red flags’ these waterside nests on his spreadsheet.

He tapped his highlighter against the monitor. The screen identified four nests perched along this foot and a half wide danger corridor at River Mile 839.5. Once Greg entered this data onto a spreadsheet, Bob from Reservoir Control inspected the figures, phoned Greg to get an estimate for when the last chicks would fledge, then fine tuned water releases from dams to protect each precarious nest.

This truth was refreshing and amazing. The distribution of millions of kilowatts of energy and the flow of over twenty cubic miles of impounded water depends, at times, on whether a single tern weighing less than a demitasse of espresso has flapped its wings and flown south in the direction of Guatemala. Until this final chick makes its departure, the interaction between dam flows, nest data, field teams and power output remains as coordinated as a four-chambered heart.

The day before, Reservoir Control wanted to increase water releases from South Dakota’s Fort Randall Dam. They phoned Greg to find out the status of all nearby birds. Greg retrieved fresh data from field teams on five nests near Niobrara bridge, then phoned Bob to discuss water levels.

“I told them if Lewis and Clark Lake stays at 1206 feet above sea level, it shouldn’t effect nests. It was at 1205.8 yesterday, so they’ll be watching their gauges.”

Based on Greg’s data, Reservoir Control then unshackled identical quantities of water from both Fort Randall and Gavins Point dams to maintain a steady level along Lewis and Clark Lake.

Within days, when the last birds fledged and headed south, Greg would let the engineers at Reservoir Control know.

“We’ll tell them the reach is clear—that they can change flows to their heart’s content.”

“Are there other threats to birds beside flow?” I asked Greg.

“Big things are weather and predators,” he explained. “Hailstorms, heavy rains. If a mink gets onto a sandbar, it could wipe out an entire colony. You also have avian predators—hawks, owls, gulls, crows. And there’s the possibility of human disturbance. These birds nest on sandbars. People with dogs can destroy nests without knowing it.”

“Their adaptation is camouflage,” Greg explained. “If disturbed, they freeze in place and try to blend in with the surrounding area. The idea is if you can’t see me, you can’t eat me.”

Greg turned a group of photographs over on his desk. White pebbles around the perimeter of one nest looked like rock salt on the rim of a daiquiri glass. Camouflaged eggs lay circled inside this ring.

“Nests are just depressions in sand,” he said. “Eggs are colored to blend in. In the old days a flood coming down the Missouri could wipe out a colony. The birds would then renest again because they’re adapted to a constantly changing system.”

When fall weather blows in, plovers flap as far away as Laguna Madre and the Caribbean isles while terns hightail it to the sunny Baja peninsula, Central America, and Venezuela.

Perhaps, Greg added.

Biologists were unsure exactly where birds went when they migrated. Such uncertainty is critical. “There’s a big emphasis on birds up here on the breeding grounds,” Greg said. “But one thing kind of overlooked is that they spend the majority of their lives, from nine to ten months, down in wintering grounds.”

In other words, the Endangered Species Act helps protect these visitors for the quarter of their lives they spend raising families on temperate U.S. terrain. Meanwhile in other countries smoking chain saws may be garroting their tropical rainforest homesteads. If the birds are to survive, other nations will have to recognize the need to protect them.

Two Worthwhile Books – Food and Interviews

It’s Tuesday. Oops.

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Commitment…to a bridge, a lover, or writing a blog

I write a weekly blog about self-publishing, which is published every second Tuesday. For the past two weeks I’ve not delivered, not published. Suddenly, the prospect of becoming an extinct blogasurus, for lack of publication, looms large.

I was going to write a polished blog post tonight, then deliver.

Forgot.

So, let me tell you about two magnificent books you must consider reading.

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Food News from California

Book 1. Cooked – A Natural History of Transformation, by Michael Pollan.

If you like eating, Cooked is the book.

I found it in a cafe bookstore, and tucked into hours of gastronomic entertainment from Michael Pollan, who has produced many bestselling books regarding food and eating in recent years. This book includes an excellent chapter about barbeque, and another section that talks in depth about making bread. Last night, I found out that this book has been made into a Netflix documentary series (with excellent videos of Australian hunting-gathering, by the way).

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Book 2: Lunch with the FT (as in, Financial Times).

These interviews over lunch, over many decades, were published in the Financial Times newspaper. Many are golden, including the cheap lunch in a ramshackle airport office in Dublin with Michael O’Leary – CEO of Ryanair. He’s cheap. He’s theater. He’s an object to loathe. People hate the man, who advocated charging people to use toilets on airplanes, until he realized that would reduce their incentive to buy his on-board booze to drink.

But, he saves you thousands of dollars, or pounds, or Euros, via his inexpensive flights.

There are also interviews with George Soros, James Watson, Morgan Tsvangirai, Steve Wozniak, and Jeff Bezos. Soros talks of how his father’s evading concentration camps by acquiring fake identity papers gave him the appreciation of what it takes to survive, and the propensity for personal motivation:”…the fact that it might be more dangerous to be passive – it can be less risky to take risk.”

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Sit here, and read…

So, Yes.

I neglected this blog for a few weeks. But thanks for not abandoning the site.

We’re Back.

 

 

Roughest Town in the West

A television mini-series titled Blood and Oil includes Don Johnson (think Miami Vice from long ago) and takes place in a western US boom town named Rock Springs, North Dakota. Scenes revolve around the oil bonanza exploding there in recent years. ‘Rock Springs’ is a fictional location based on the real town of Williston. There, the influx of wild workers, astronomical rental prices, and general mayhem hits a town undersized to handle the influx of thousands of people seeking their riches.

Fifteen years ago – long before this oil boom – I visited Williston. I was researching and writing my nonfiction book titled Rivers of Change – Trailing the Waterways of Lewis and Clark.

The visit to Williston made for an intriguing episode.

Here is the chapter:

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Town streets in Williston, North Dakota looked sinister and immutable, as though frozen in time. The brown brick walls of J.C. Penney and the New Grand Cinema (Our Screen Talks) came from another era.

In a corner bar I spoke to a forty-year-old man who acted twenty-five. He had blue eyes, a red face and a silver necklace. He ordered a dollar bottle of Bud.

“Buildings around here look preserved,” I said.

“Founding fathers don’t want to change things,” he explained. “They own the buildings. Want to keep everything the same. Keep new people out. That’s what I think. You passin’ through?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Good thing it’s not winter. It gets too cold here. Thirty below for five days at a time. I have to chain up to drive out to the oil rigs to work. The older I get, the harder time I have with it.”

A lean man with deep eyes entered the bar. He was a darkly handsome fellow who looked toughened up from living in a town governed by the fist. He inserted himself on a stool next to me, with the stealth of a bobcat. He looked in his early thirties.

“Hello sir,” he said.

“Hi.”

He eyed me like prey. In turn, I swigged down my beer and asked him about camping.

“Going upriver? Doin’ the Lewis and Clark stuff? Don’t camp on that reservation. Don’t do that. All alone? They’ll kill your ass. You pull over for the night and somebody’ll slit your throat. Don’t go up there. They kill ya’ unless you got local blood. Like me. My name’s Winston. I went to school in Missoula, Montana, then came back to the rez.”

I decided that for that night, I would pull into a town parking lot to sleep.

“You want to learn about the river? Then you need to talk to tribal elders,” he said. “Always bring tobacco if you visit. If they’re sixty or seventy years old, take unfiltered cigarettes. Remember, when an elder comes into the room, stand and offer your chair, even if there are a hundred empty seats. And don’t speak or interrupt. Just listen.”

I nodded.

“Another thing. If you go into a room and get a bad feeling, step outside. If it’s quiet out there, if there’s no sign of birds, squirrels – or any animals, then get out. Fast.”

We talked for an hour. After he stepped away another man staggered in. He scratched his crotch and shook a shank of black hair as though he were a teenager in a shampoo commercial. A mashed green X was tattooed on his lower neck. He sat close. He gave a vicious scoff at a half-heard joke and managed to convince the stranger — me — to buy him a drink. I asked for a beer and he changed the order to a shot of whisky. He gripped his glass with fingers resembling talons. This accentuated his image as a thankless harpy.

The conversation turned black. Fast.

“Whatcha doing?”

“Passing through. Researching the river.”

“You strangers built that dam,” he snarled. “Maybe tonight, maybe I kill a stranger. So, eh, buy me another drink,” he demanded.

His jabbering was a nuisance. Yet eager to avoid confrontation thousands of miles away from any known face, I complied.

He eyed my notes.

“Journalist?” he asked.

“Engineer,” I said before realizing that was worse — my ilk had erected dams.

“Where you stay?”

“Camper.”

“That one outside? You keep notes, tapes? What if something happens to your camper? Maybe it burns up,” he said, and smiled a row of serrated brown teeth.

“Let me see these,” he said, and grabbed the papers from my hands.

“Hey!”

“Gonna see what you’re writing,” he blurted, “Else maybe you don’t leave this town. Not alive.”

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Lovely, I thought. Though I wanted out, timing was critical.

He opened the papers and read. His face oozed with enmity.

“You write like a doctor. But I can read it,” he said.

He lied. No one could read my scribble.

“Write this down,” he demanded.

Considering the pen-mightier-than-the-sword option as a peaceful exit to an asinine situation, I wrote down what he dictated.

“This was a life of a friend that I met in a bar talking about Williston. Name unknown, but he was a good friend. Thank you.”

After I wrote this he thrust the papers back and slithered off to the bathroom. When he disappeared from sight I breezed outside through a corner door. Under starlight I looked sideways, then listened. There was no sound of bird, squirrel or any wildlife. Winston was right. It was time to leave.

Fast.

 

Thrillers, and Wonderfully Messy Edamame

Lists of recommended books published this past year are out. They include the Boston Globe list, the Financial Times list, ten best books recommended by The New York Times, as well as best mysteries and thrillers according to the Washington Post. There is both light and heavy reading recommended by the Economist Magazine, and 58 Books recommended by TED Speakers. The Washington Post has also been on a book roll – they picked 12 choice books, and another 10 books, and still again a list of ‘Notable Non Fiction Books of 2015.’ And then the Wall Street Journal informs us about who read what in 2015.

Meanwhile, recipes for my upcoming book – The Winemakers’ Cooking Companion – are pouring in, from Canada, Israel, Australia, and the USA….

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My local Asian wine bar – La Maison

 

Check out this simple beauty of a recipe from Jay Drysdale of Bella Wines in Naramata, British Columbia.

He writes:

“Here at Bella we have a bit of homestead with a big garden, some chickens, a couple of pigs, and bees coming next year…I’ll contribute a very simple recipe…A play on edamame but using fresh shelling peas from the garden that are drizzled with your best olive oil (sesame oil works well too), some quality flaked salt and a nice local goat or sheep’s feta. Its a wonderfully messy dish and as you shell the peas the seasoning gets on your fingers and seasons the fresh vegetables. This could work on crudité as well.”

See the photo he provided below? Simple, beautiful, tasty.

Thanks so much Jay.

And Seasonal Greetings to all.

 

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Hearing the Past

In the year 2001 I quit my job and bought a pickup truck and small camper. I spent five months traveling along the Missouri and Colombia rivers in the US. I then wrote a book (Rivers of Change – Trailing the Waterways of Lewis and Clark) about the people I had met, and how changes to these rivers had impacted their lives.

One of the stories I collected and wrote about is below. It was not included in the book because it’s not about Kansas or Missouri or rivers.

It’s about Ireland.

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Dusk on the dunes in western Ireland

 

Hearing the Past

While traveling alongside the Missouri River, I stepped into the Benedictine college library in Atchison, Kansas. I was curious about how monks had first arrived there.

“Speak to Miriam,” the sleek attendant at the front desk whispered. “She’s in charge of rare books.”

Miriam looked trim and cautious. She was light, buoyant, and articulate – a woman enraptured with caring for such volumes as the library’s 1538 Speculum Monachorum – or Mirror for Monks. She led me upstairs past white cinder blocks and a poster of Pope John Paul. I sat down at a table surrounded by tall bookshelves inside a sort of literary kennel. She vanished, then reappeared a minute later. She laid down a copy of the book Kansas Monks before me.

“Did you grow up near here?” she asked, prying to learn what I knew of local history. Like her long dress, Miriam’s voice flowed.

“No. Chicago, then Ireland,” I told her.

The last word charmed her.

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“We have this son,” she sighed. Stiffness disappeared from her shoulders. I noticed her shake of head and tweak of dimples and recognized the signs: another river was opening up.

I pushed Kansas Monks aside.

Beside the Missouri River there were other flowstreams along my route, meandering creeks of history and anecdote that opened of their own volition. Some stories spilled with convoluted, often brilliant connections. Inside this college library one of these now flowed from Miriam, a tale that made me wonder whether humans can, at times, hear their ancestry.

“Our son heard the bagpipes and Irish flutes when he was fifteen,” she began. “He got it into his head that that’s what he had to do. How would you say, he just ‘had it in him.’ Course someone had to make a set of bagpipes for him which cost us thousands of dollars – which was supposed to be his college tuition.”

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Her smile broadened.

“But he was driven. He was also good at languages. He went to Lebanon to study Arabic for six months. When he came home he went to New York and met a fiddler who invited him to his house in western Ireland. The fellow probably didn’t expect him, but one day Ciaran showed up at his doorstep. Stayed a few weeks and hitchhiked all over County Clare. Ciaran now says that his two favorite places in the world are Doolin Bay and Corrofin.

“He returned to study Arabic at Georgetown. Course the east coast of the U.S. had Irish music. Maybe that influenced his choice. But they closed the Arabic program down during the Gulf War. So Ciaran went to study at Trinity College in Dublin and continued with music. Now he plays professionally. Has a fiancé. She’s a fiddler and he’s a piper. But it’s not an easy life – feast or famine.”

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Looking west across the Atlantic

She sighed, then asked about my trip.

I yakked on about Nicholas Biddle’s map and Manuel Lisa’s fort and how axe-swinging hoards of settlers had moved up this continent’s rivers to crisscross yellow rimrock, sloppy geysers, and wilting sagebrush – a route I had chosen to follow.

“Everyone’s dream,” she said. “Get up and go.”

Her words formed a poultice. Recent rains, a leaking camper and nail biting slumps of loneliness had thrashed at my days, invoking doubts about the value of this solo excursion. Already I had reached a discreet state of mental exhaustion. Yet Miriam’s simple phrase banished so many clawing uncertainties that day. Refreshed, I reignited the subject of Ireland and told her of having published a short story about bicycling through County Clare. This admission kindled a curious response.

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“There’s an odd quirk to this whole piping thing,” she added. “Ciaran went to County Clare in 1987, when he was sixteen. A very young sixteen. He played pipes in his room at first, then got out and played with others. When he told us we decided to visit. My husband Mike’s great grandfather was born in 1841 and came over from Ireland. Before our trip to Ireland we got interested in family history and searched for the gravestone at a cemetery in south east Kansas. It was an Irish cemetery, surrounded by a wall. The gravestones had Celtic crosses. We found the headstone. The spelling of the name had changed, but it told where he was born, which we never knew.”

Miriam smiled.

I knew what was coming.

“County Clare,” she said.

Recipes, and Clash of Methods

Recipes are pouring in from all over the globe for the new book I’m preparing – The Winemakers’ Cooking Companion. Recipes from winemakers and winery owners are pelting my email from France, Australia, Vietnam, Ireland (truly – Irish wine!), the USA, Italy, and Chile. They include Candied Figs in Red Wine, Rack of Lamb with Marmalade Crust, Basque Chicken and Salsa Sauce, and Slow Cooked Veal in Barolo Wine (‘slow cooked’ meaning eight hours; yes, this is from Italy, the country that created the wonderful Slow Food Movement).

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Photos never show the mess

I’ve catalogued each recipe, including my own notes from practicing each (though am way behind). Still, ‘tis is a labor of love.

As recipes pour in, each is in a different style. I convert units to volumes and weights, put each in a consistent format, then confirm there’s a recommended wine match, as well as a few other, to be revealed, ‘add ons.’

In doing this it has become obvious that there are some fundamentally different schools of thought regarding cooking.

School One: prepare all ingredients, then begin to cook.

School Two: prepare ingredients while you cook.

The more we master a specific recipe, or hone our general culinary Jedi Knight abilities, the more we’ll follow School Two, perhaps eventually yawning as we dice and lob onions onto a sauté dish while simultaneously inspecting a rising soufflé through the oven door.

For this book, we’ll follow the general French cooking advice of Mise en Place – getting everything in place before launching ahead. In other words – School One.

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Beautiful meal – with no cooking involved.

Speaking of units, Americans generally use volumes such as cups and quarts and teaspoons, whereas Europeans use weights such as grams and milliliters (except some Italians, who can be very general about quantities, except wine – which I notice that they identify – to two decimal places – how many bottles to add to each recipe; I can’t wait to practice). Australians? They considerately show both units. Some recipes prefer cups as a primary unit, others grams, but most show both. Still, inconsistencies appear: a recipe may convert grams to cups for flour and crushed cornflakes, but not for, say, sugar. Fortunately converting units is only a few internet clicks away.

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Market fresh: the pasta on the right was hand made (by an Italian artisan) and includes butternut squash. Mmmmm.

Here’s another intriguing aspect about recipes – regardless the source. How many people is the recipe for? Some are for one person, others for six. Or ten. Which is also true with cookbooks – there’s zero consistency between covers, which is actually reassuring: imagine if every recipe in your book was for four people. Four. That would limit the social situations the book is useful for. To solve the problem of any mismatch between a recipe and the amount of people to cook for, we often just double, or triple (or halve) the ingredients (not always a good idea with yeast. Truly). Which becomes more complicated when the recipe is for three, and we’re cooking for seven. Which is actually the point: we choose the recipe and adjust quantities – not always precisely. That leaves room for creativity. And that, after all, is part of the pleasure of cooking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Book about Food and Wine

Update – 

Books from Roundwood Press with greatest reader appeal during recent months include Water and Witchcraft – Three Years in Malawi (my first book), Synchronicity as Signpost,  The Synchronous Trail, and Visual Magic. Between now and the end of 2015, if you decide to purchase any books from Roundwood Press I’ll contribute a second ebook for free. Just let me know.

Even if you receive emails notifying you about this web log (‘blog’) I suggest you fill in your email address as a subscriber on the main page. This will protect your subscription in case future changes to our email delivery system cause delays or deletion of addresses.

Finally, we’re investigating a merger of both blogs – Roundwood Press and Vino Voices – to make both accessible from this one website.

Another New Book – 

As mentioned recently in our sister blog Vino Voices – I’m collecting recipes from winemakers for a new book titled The Winemaker’s Cooking Companion. It may take a year or so to collect the material, but I’ll publish many recipes online here (or at the Vino Voices site) – together with stories about who provided them.

Gnarly looking cepes

Gnarly looking cèpes

This past Sunday afternoon a group sat outside the wine store and local bar in the outdoor plaza – Place de l’Europe – here in Blaye. A friend’s phone buzzed. He muttered quietly, hung up, then nodded for me to join him in walking around the corner. There we met Patrique, who opened the back of his car and waved at a box of massive cèpes – local mushrooms in season. We forked over some Euro bills, divvied up the spoils, and carted our boxes back to the Place de l’Europe to resume a lunch of Chablis and fresh oysters.

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Fresh from the forest

A cèp (singular; cèpes is plural) is a wild mushroom – available fresh for only weeks every year. It grows naturally in forests in the northern hemisphere and was introduced elsewhere – including South Africa and New Zealand in the southern hemisphere. It’s called a ‘penny bun’ in England, ‘porcini’ in Italy, and ‘California king bolete’ in the USA. It’s delicious and healthy – with ample protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. This is a choice mushroom for cooking.

That night, the La Cave Wine Store manager and wine consultant, Julien Pouplet, stopped by to show how to cook cèpes. Julien is a wine wizard – often able to discern the year, location, and sometimes specific hill slope from where a French wine originated. His attention to aromas in the wine and food world (he began being exposed to wine scents when he was four years old) makes him tuned into subtleties of taste.

As expected, this recipe is unforgettable. The key – go low and slow: low heat, slow cooking.

 

Parsley Mushroom Omelette – from Wine Consultant Julien Pouplet

Comments –

Julien adds –

“If you want to store cèpes, slice them, then lay them flat inside a plastic bag. Very flat. Perhaps only one mushroom per bag. Then write the date on the bag, and store in a freezer.”

 

Preparation Time and Quantity –

20 minutes to prepare; 40 minutes to cook. Serves 2 people.

 

Ingredients and Amounts –

Cèp mushrooms (large) – 4 (if using other mushrooms of medium size, use 8)

Eggs – 4

Parsley – four fresh sprigs, or about 2 teaspoonfuls (30 grams) of dried leaves

Garlic cloves – 2

Butter – 5 knobs, each the size of a thumb

Olive oil – 2 tablespoons

Cream (medium or heavy) – 1/2 cup (10 cl)

Salt – 1 teaspoon

Pepper – a sprinkle

Recipe –

1. Prepare the mushrooms. Do not wash the mushrooms in water. If they are dirty, wipe them with a paper towel. Cut off the last 1/2  to 1 inch (1 to 2 cms) of the base and discard. Slice the mushrooms in a direction parallel to the stalk – with each slice being about 1/8 to a 1/4 inch thick (1/4 to 1/2 cm). If these really are cèpes – you’ll notice three distinct bands of colors  on each – brown, white, and green. Set aside.

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Slice

2. Dice garlic and parsley individually, then mix together and dice the mixture even more. Set aside.

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Dice

3. Crack four eggs in a bowl and whisk. Add cream and whisk again. Set aside.

3. Place the sliced mushrooms in a pan over low to medium heat. Do NOT put any liquid in the pan – no butter, oil, or water. Sprinkle salt over them. The purpose is to dry out the mushrooms. This will take 15 to 30 minutes, during which the volume of ‘shrooms will reduce noticeably. The aim is for the mushrooms to be crunchy.

Fry to dry

Fry and dry

4. Add the butter dollops on top of the mushrooms.

Butter time

Let her sizzle, but not burn

5. Drizzle olive oil on top (‘just a touch of oil,’ Julien suggests).

6. Add salt and pepper. Fry over low to medium heat for 5 to 10 minutes.

7. Add the parsley/garlic mixture. (“Ah! Now, you enjoy the amazing smell of garlic, parsley, butter, and mushrooms…” Julien insists.)

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Add parsley/garlic mixture

8. After one minute, add the egg/cream mixture.

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Add egg/cream mixture

9. Leave undisturbed on low/medium heat until the the mixture becomes firm enough to fold in half with a spatula – creating the omelette.

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Flip

10. Fry another minute or so before serving.

Enjoy

Enjoy

Julien suggests serving this to Miles Davis music (‘Kind of Blue‘), together with a baguette (essential in France) and a bottle of medium-bodied red wine (Gros Moulin Heritage 2013 from Bordeaux is excellent, as is any red wine with Cabernet Franc – including from the Loire Valley).

To store extra mushrooms for using later, first slice as described above, then place them flat inside plastic bags before freezing. Take the bag out of the freezer the night before using, and put it in the fridge  When ready, sauté the mushrooms, or cook them in the oven.

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Worth freezing for the future

Thanks for tuning in.

Tom M.

New Book – And Background

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Roundwood Press will soon publish a new book. It’s only ten pages long. It was written long ago by my mother, and is a powerful piece of writing. It’s titled:

I See – Believe and Achieve.

All proceeds of the book will be donated to the Austin Special School in Chicago.

What is so special about this book, and why will the proceeds be donated to a school in Chicago?

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My parents established and owned a business in Chicago. The eventual freedom this provided them with did not come out of the blue.

When growing up, my mother lived in a small apartment in Chicago. When she looked out the window, she saw a brick wall a few feet away that belonged to the neighboring apartment building. She read books voraciously, and was determined to travel the world at a young age. My father grew up with relatively affluent parents in Buffalo, New York (where both a school and a street are named ‘Mullen’ after my grandfather). However, his parents lost their money when he was young. My father was able to find various jobs – beginning during the Great Depression. At one point when he was struggling as a truck driver, he was determined to improve his life.

My parents met and began their business in Chicago. Basically, they imported European technology and sold the first photocopiers in the United States. Customers were mystified – what was a photocopier, and why would anyone want one? Yet they persevered.

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Eventually, their business thrived. But before it did, a pivotal event occurred that taught my mother the value of giving. She recounted the event to me over ten years ago before she passed away, and I afterwards I wrote it down verbatim. The story is recalled in my book titled Visual Magic – Seeing and Believing: 

“It was 1955 and our daughter was one year old. There was an article in the Chicago Daily News written by a columnist who used to be a professor of mine at Northwestern. The article was about how the Austin Special School, in a poor neighborhood of Chicago, needed $3,400 for the final payment for their building. The school was for mentally and physically challenged people.

“I told your father about it. He said ´go for it.’ We sent in a check for the entire amount – anonymously.

“It was really strange. The very next day we received a check for about $3,400 from Agfa Gevaert for a billing error they had made.”

Soon after this event, their business began booming. From this event my mother learned the power of giving.

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The book ‘I See’ is a brief compilation of notes my mother made about what she considered to be secrets toward improving life and gaining greater financial control. Although my parents were not overtly religious, the work mentions Biblical quotes. For me, the value of the book is that it highlights the occasional need to drop the ego and your sense of control, and surrender to greater powers.

The book cover is being prepared, and the book will be on sale within weeks.

 

 

The Power of Coincidence

“Remember, the universe takes care of the “how” through coincidences, serendipity, and synchronicities. We just have to take care of the “what.” 

Jonathan Manske

From the book: “The Law of Attraction Made Simple – Magnetize Your Heartfelt Desires.”

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Ocean waves may roll, break, and crash, but there is rhythm to their motion. Birds vary their migration paths, but the annual long-distance flights they take follow a general pattern.

So it is with life. There is, as Shakespeare said, a tide in our affairs which, when seized at the right moment, can lead to fortune.

Yet our daily lives are bombarded by thousands of details – picking kids from school, shopping for food, paying bills, cleaning dishes. Who has time to discern WHAT important patterns we would be wise to pay attention to? Even if we did, would we have the courage and faith to focus on those patterns with the unknown hope that they could somehow improve our lives? By ‘improve’ I generally mean by providing us with greater control over our circumstances – allowing us to have more free time and less stress, more opportunities to do what we want, and a greater ability to free ourselves from multiple daily tasks, many of which we resent.

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This is where coincidences can help. Meaningful coincidences, or what Carl Jung called ‘synchronicities,’ are often little signposts indicating in which direction we can adjust the course of our lives to better follow our strongest desires.

As author Manske expresses well:

“The more that you listen to and act on intuition and nudges, the more that synchronicity will show up in your life. The more often that synchronicity shows up in your life, the easier your life will get.”

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You cannot look for coincidences. There is no formula for making them appear. But when they do show up, pay attention. Below is a chapter from my book titled Synchcronicity as Signpost, highlighting a decision I once made, and how synchronicity helped me fully accept the value of that choice.

Signpost: Good Choice 

Synchronicity can not only help us make choices – but confirm when a choice aligns with our profoundest desires.

I was working in a coastal town in southern Angola when a friend relayed a message via radio: another company from the United State had called to offer me a job in Washington DC. My friend encouraged me to take the position.

Two weeks later I moved to DC. The city, job, and work mates turned out to be excellent. A month later this friend sent me a cryptic e-mail from Africa that he later told me was simply a joke. His message instructed me to do the following:

“If you find yourself alone in DC this weekend, go to Georgetown. Ask any woman if she knows a good used bookstore. Keep asking until you get the answer you need, enter the indicated bookstore and start counting bookcases from the door. Go to the seventh bookcase on your right, the seventh shelf down, and select the seventh book from the left. Displays around the cash register do not count as bookcases. If the bookstore has an upstairs, go up and begin counting there. If it has a basement, by no means enter it.  If someone asks if they can help you, do not keep these instructions secret. Loiter as long as you like, buy the book and then peruse it over a mug of coffee.”

I replied immediately. There was big news. That same day the company director had told me that in two weeks I would move to Panama City to work and to live for at least a year. Panama was an ecologist’s playground and a banker’s heaven. A fifty-mile long canal split the nation. I also knew that Panama was home of the Darien Gap, the dense jungle that separates Central from South America. The Darien is so thick and wild that in the 1960s the first vehicles to cross it had to float across its swampier portions by raft. Members of a later expedition recruited the British army to push and winch a fleet of laboring Land Rovers sixty seven miles across the Gap. The effort took ninety nine days, half of the total time the expedition took to descend from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.

I knew that Panama was also home to the Kuna Indians, bawdy and spiritual folk who defend their autonomy with a vengeance. Most Kuna live on the San Blas islands, more than three hundred lush mounds splattered across the Atlantic like drops of tan and green paint. Binding tradition pokes through Kuna customs: women are forbidden to marry non-Kuna men; lobster divers cannot use compressed air to descend through water; men (both elders and youths) are obliged to spend three full days inebriated on chicha homebrew during a woman’s coming-of-age ceremony.

Excited about this upcoming move, I wrote this friend to share the news. Still, I wondered about his bizarre Georgetown instructions.

That Sunday in Washington DC I caught the metro from Bethesda to Dupont Circle. I walked up Q Street into Georgetown and asked a petite woman where I could find a secondhand bookstore. She shrugged her thin shoulders and waved me off in another direction. I then ambled below a curbside maple tree and asked directions from a tall brunette. There’s one in Dupont Circle,” she replied,” wrinkling her nose coated with adobe brown freckles. I thanked her, started off in that direction and then stopped. My friend’s directions were explicit: find a bookstore in Georgetown, not Dupont circle. While considering this I bought an orange juice and a chocolate chip cookie, then moved north on Wisconsin Avenue. A pizzeria employee taking his break leaned against an alley wall. He sucked a cigarette and then coughed out a cloud of gray smoke. When I asked about where to find a second-hand bookstore he wiped his hand on a tomato smudged apron and pointed downhill.

“M Street,” he mumbled.

I then realized – shocked – no way! My friend’s instructions were clear: ask women – not men. I next flagged down a collegiate blonde and again spewed out the by then well-oiled query.

“Reservoir Street,” she said and twirled her wrist, indicating that I should turn around. On Reservoir Street I asked a young Asian woman for this elusive bookstore.

“I’m new around here,” she replied.

Exasperated, I was prepared to forget this chase when she spoke again.

“But I did see one around that corner,” she said.

There it was. I pressed my forehead against its windowpane and looked inside: small, bulging with books, and filled with promise. A cardboard sign taped to the window said it opened at noon. It was eleven twenty five. I crossed the street, sat in a twee café and drank a cup of coffee. At midday I entered the bookstore. A bearded man with a Middle Eastern accent perched next to an ancient black cash register. We swapped nods. I started to count bookshelves from the right. One, two…and then came across a pile of milk crates filled with loose hardbacks. The crates were stacked so I decided they constituted a bookshelf. Three, four, five, six…  There were no other bookshelves along the same wall. I wheeled around and faced the opposite side of the aisle and faced bookshelf number Seven. Next I counted down seven rows.  One, two, three….

The books on the seventh shelf stood in a vertical pile. I counted from the top down and plucked out the seventh book.

The paperback had a blue cover, gold border, and raised white lettering. The publisher had artfully removed a square from the cover to reveal a portion of an inner page drawing – a man silhouetted below a gaslight at the top of a subway staircase. The back cover highlighted the book’s merits: “National Bestseller…a choice of the Book-of-the-Month club…a New York Times Notable Book of the Year…written by Eric Zenecy.”

Stunned, I read the title aloud:

PANAMA

I took the job. For the next three years I lay in hammocks on the Kuna islands during weekends, or boated up the Panama Canal, or consulted with Embera Indians in the Darien region for work. I learned from Panamanians how life can be woven as a tapestry as well as forged like a metal. My days in Panama stayed varied and full.

From time to time, however, I still marveled at the strange prescience of that past e-mail and the book it delivered. I also mused over one quote that came from the text of the book Panama:

“Adams drew the thick, cool air through his nose. Seven years, he thought. Six Decembers. The year was sliding toward it. But this year it might go more easily; perhaps, he thought, there was some magic in the number seven.”

The event had startled me – but jolted me into fully accepting the chance to work in Panama.

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River of Dreams – Reviewed by the University of Durham

book review Tom_2The Business School alumni magazine from the University of Durham recently reviewed my book River of Dreams. The fictional story is set in medieval as well as modern times in the region of Durham in northeast England. The positive review by Brad Atkinson includes intriguing mention of the ‘tardis’ – the police box Doctor Who uses to travel through space and time. The book’s plot links present and medieval characters through a series of dreams.

“…the book will allow you to re-experience specific locations and moods of characters across the North East….reading this book will provide you with a tardis-like experience, where the threads of time are both non-linear and bigger on the inside than they are on the outside, as you join a collection of lives that are intertwined by the waters that flow through the region and, ultimately, each of us.”

 

book review Tom

What else is new?

In the coming months I’ll announce publication of new books within the coming year, including titles by other authors, at least one title dedicated to charity, and a photo collection. We also anticipate producing a new podcast series, an expanded video series, and a new book imprint. The sister web log (‘blog’) Vino Expressions (which publicizes my book Vino Voices, and includes the proprietary Vino Value scoring algorithm for comparing wine values throughout the world) will also become more closely linked to Roundwood Press.

Thanks for keeping informed about Roundwood Press. Stay tuned for a vibrant future 🙂 .  Please click on the Home tab and enter your email if you are not already a subscriber.

 

Wild Research from the Wilds of New Mexico

The below video includes a rapid review of two books published in recent years. The location? Below the Sawtooth Mountains in the state of New Mexico in the USA.

One is a non-fiction book about a young, restless woman determined to calm her soul by hiking a long and arduous trail in the western United States – the Pacific Crest Trail.

The other fictional book is about a multimillionaire author in the European country of Monaco. His wife has been slain, and he is the suspected killer. While on the run, he’s trying to find out who committed the crime.

Both books are easy reads.

Wild – From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, by Cheryl Strayed

Research, by Philip Kerr

My friend from high school days, Anne, recently introduced me to her friends in Santa Fe, New Mexico – Lee and Brooke Swanson. They told me about a recent documentary made in the closest town to the property shown above.

This above property (purchased thanks to my sister and her former husband) is in Catron County. In the USA, counties are primary geographical sub-units dividing states. Catron County is sizable. Very sizable. (Although there are 28 other larger counties in the USA.) It has an area of 6,929 square miles (17,946 square kilometers) – larger than the American state of Rhode Island, or the state of Connecticut, or the state of Delaware, or the District of Columbia (DC). Catron County is larger than several countries, including Kuwait, Swaziland, Gambia, Cyprus, Singapore, Mauritius, Seychelles, Jamaica, Kosovo, and Cape Verde. It’s larger than East Timor or the Bahamas or Gibraltar. Or Bahrain, Qatar, Puerto Rico, or the US Virgin Islands. It is larger area than the following countries combined:  Lebanon, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, Mauritius, Malta, Andorra, Bahrain, Hong Kong, Singapore, Macau, Bermuda, and Barbados.

So what? It’s large.

Here is so what: the population density is one person per two square miles. My nearest neighbor lives three miles away, and the nearest town is a dozen miles away. That local town, Pie Town, has a population of 22 people. My new friends told about the documentary titled the Pie Lady of Pie Town. It’s about camaraderie and resourcefulness, about building a business based on dreams rather than financial projections. It’s about joys and frustrations of living off the beaten path.

For a small locale, Pie Town has also inspired quite a few books, including Pie Town, Welcome Back to Pie Town, and Pie Town Woman, not to mention From Pie Town to Yum Yum and 331. I once met an author in the pie store who told me of research for her latest book – including what wine Eleanor of Aquitaine served at her 12th century wedding in France. That was not a conversation I expected in a town with 22 residents in a county with fewer than one peson per square mile. But that’s the magic.

Size and remoteness of rural towns, I learned, have little impact on residents’ love of books and reading.

No Luxury of Indecision

Blessington Book Store – Thriving in a Digital World

Janet Hawkins spent over a decade living and working in Amsterdam as a chartered accountant. She then returned to her Irish home in the town of Blessington, County Wicklow, to open a book store on the main street.

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Blessington Reservoir

In 2009 Janet realized that selling books alone would not keep her business afloat. She then moved to a bigger space across the street and reopened her bookstore to include a cafe. The result? Her book store thrives, and the cafe has doubled business income. The bakery produces homemade goods, while staff choose coffee for quality.

“The cafe is an independent stream of income,” Janet explained. “A little old lady once told me she wouldn’t buy my books because she can get them free from the library. While telling me this, she sat eating a scone and drinking tea in my cafe.”

Soon after moving to the new store location, Janet hired a contractor to punch a hole in the back wall – expanding the building size to include a children’s book section. This increased the overall interior store volume by a third.

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The Blessington Book Store – which has adapted to thrive in the current economy

I wondered how the recent boom in e-books had impacted her store sales.

“Kindle and Amazon mostly impacted fiction,” said Janet. But fiction accounts for only 600 of her titles – a quarter of book sales.

Janet explained her appreciation for books.

“The author of The Master told how people need a three-legged stool for balance – including physical, spiritual, and imaginative aspects,” Janet told me while sharing coffee and fresh scones at a store table She explained how books help provide this balanced stool for many readers. She also told how – in ‘old’ Ireland’ – people wandered into neighbors’ homes and launched into telling stories to solidify friendships.

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Blessington evening in December

Janet told of how two contemporary problems impact publishing: inadequate editing, and popular books written by mediocre writers (often because their plots or themes correspond to current trends).

Janet will not try to impact these problem’s outcomes. Today, she explained – book sellers have to perform multiple tasks – from “putting on a frock and attending literary awards ceremonies, to washing cafe dishes that same day.”

Janet’s energetic and optimistic management of the Blessington Book Store reflects how book sellers are adapting to changing market conditions in a world prolific with e-books. Her cafe also reflects the truth that above all, reading is a leisure activity.

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Irish Inspiration

 

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“Life assumes meaning and purpose when we accompany others in the ordinary events of life.” [Tom Whelan]

I’ve been in Ireland these past days – visiting friends known since we were teenagers. One mentioned how fortunate we were as children – free to wander and do as we liked. One benefit is that we could take a bus or a quick drive to the countryside to take walks. I took these photos below this past Saturday and Sunday during cold, clear, winter afternoons with low light in the Wicklow Hills. This was the outdoor playground where we rambled as kids. This is the wonder we still explore as adults.

At a local retailer in County Wicklow – The Village Bookshop – I found the book titled Saol – Thoughts from Ireland on Life and Living, edited by Catherine Conlon. Saol means ‘life’ in the Gaelic language. This book includes quotes from seventy individuals – Irish, or living in Ireland. Snippets from a few are included below. These may be appropriate as we make the transition from 2014 to 2015, with free hours, to consider the ‘bigger picture’ of life. The book was published in 2014 by The Collins Press in Wilton, Cork. All quotes are partial, taken from fully copyrighted works by the authors mentioned in this post.

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“I had always believed all art to be just that – storytelling.” [Noelle Campbell-Sharp]

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“Over the years, I have come to see the importance of ‘living’ a life, rather than ‘postponing’ a life…The fact is that if you want to make changes to your life, or to do something you’re passionate about, you have to seize the moment and do it now.” [Eleanor McEvoy]

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“When I was younger I never thought much about chance. Now I do, constantly.” [Carlo Gébler]

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“As I’ve gotten older I have learnt to stop, to enjoy silence and to reflect a lot more, enjoy nature, sharing time, to be more spiritual in essence.” [Fidelma Healy-Eames]

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“Coincidence is God’s way of prompting while remaining anonymous…when something does happen three times I take it as a gentle hint that I am to do something about it.” [Mark Patrick Hederman]

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“Whenever such support comes our way, it is invaluable: a bonus to be cherished. For our own part, if we make a habit of granting goodwill, it will spread like rings on water.” [Ann Henning Jocelyn]

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“Four billion years of life on earth, just so we can answer emails? I hope not.” [Arminta Wallace]

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“…as I grow older the mystery of life and death deepens rather than becomes clearer…part of the mystery is discovering that what appears to be tragedy can often turn out to contain within it a great blessing, a new growth, a new direction, maybe a new understanding.” [Tony Flannery]

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“Grammar is one of the great evolutionary wonders of the world. People have a profound need to communicate. We should chat with each other. It is a comfort.” [Colm Keena]

 

Stockholm’s Adapting Book Scene

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Serpent Begone

 

Norse myth tells how Thor went fishing for the Midgard Serpent, using an ox-head as bait. He caught the serpcnt, but pulled the fishing rod so hard that his heels punctured the boat deck and dug into the sea bottom. Thor gripped his hammer, poised to smash the serpent, when the boat captain – Hymir the Giant – cut the fishing line to avoid catastrophe.

I read this story after flipping to a random page in a book about Sweden’s capital – Stockholm – in the Papper Bookstore (“Uncommon Guide Books”). Outside, in Mariatorget Square, I found a statue depicting this story.

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Niche marketing

The small bookstore includes an intriguing mix of titles by various authors – Beatrix Potter, Gerald Durrell, and Edgar Allan Poe (in English) to Marcel Proust in Swedish. The shop front includes Parisian maps to help celebrate the story of the 2014 French Nobel Literature laureate Partrick Modiano.

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Books for kids, cappuccinos for parents

Across the square (on the other side of Thor hacking the slimy beast) is a bookstore / cafe combination – for children’s books (and yummy lattes for Mom and Pop).

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Where better to market train books than at a station

 

 

Not too far away at a Christmas Market in the train station is a bookstore dedicated to trains. Really. And customers flock to fork over their cash.

While walking around Stockholm, you see metal signs about the “Literature Trail” telling about authors associated with the city. Not exactly being hip in speaking Swedish, I lost the trail. But it’s key for highlighting local pride in celebrating writers and writing.

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Along the Literature Route

 

The printed word is still huge in Sweden. Small bookstores keep alive by focusing on niche marketing that addresses the needs of target audiences interested in specific subjects – travel, children’s stories, trains. And locals are hungry for it. This year was also the first ever Stockholm Art Book Fair.

Sure – ebooks are catching on and growing in popularity – but printed titles still rage in Sweden. Stieg Larsson, author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (and the Millennium Trilogy) was tech savvy and computer literate, but also a devotee of traditional print journalism. In an age when electronic media flourishes, it’s refreshing to see – in a country that aggressively embraces internet technology – that there’s a healthy regard for the value of the printed word.

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City for Nobel Laureates