Life Lessons from 2016

This additional End Of Year post highlights simple lessons learned during past months.


Life is too short for nonsense.

  • If hard, dedicated, focused and intelligent work is unappreciated, or if supervisors try to undermine rather than support success – consider moving on. I did. Wonderful choice. Life is brief. New avenues appear when you are ready.
  • Spend time with those who appreciate and support you.
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Mes amis

  • As explained in the book The Black Swan, unusual events are not as infrequent as we might expect in life. Brexit? Trump’s election? Perhaps surprising, but actually not so unusual.
  • Home cooked food truly is better. Switch off the TV. Get dicing, slicing and buy a few liters of olive oil.

Home cooked and ready to be devoured


Beauty beneath corks

  • Lessons learned from history are constantly applicable. Castles had walls and countries established borders for solid reasons.
  • However, were walls built to keep others out or to keep people in? ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…’ wrote Robert Frost in his poem ‘Mending Wall.’ The dismantled Berlin wall is a physical manifestation – a potent reminder – of how insecure brutish characters tried – vainly, and ultimately in vain – to control not only the natural ebb and flow of neighbors, but their power to live freely.

Thinking of invading? Think again.

  • Respect your local cobbler and other artisans. The culture of disposability does not yet prevail.

Massive greenhouses heated by geothermal power boost the economy of Iceland – Very forward thinking people.

  • Establishing sensible laws takes courage in the face of massive, uneducated, emotional resistance. Each year about a thousand people are murdered in Pakistan in ‘honor killings.’ Fathers and brothers murder daughters who may have publicly displayed amorous eyes for another young man. That crime has gone unpunished, until a new law was passed this year. Bye Bye, Middle Age barbarity. Well done, Pakistan.
  • Less can be more. No lawn means – no need to mow the lawn.

Mont Saint-Michel. No lawns here.

  • Consider quality in life.
  • The less you have, the less you have to take care of.

Plenty of  lights to turn on and off every evening.

  • Enjoy nature. Frequently.
  • When in doubt, explore. Unwind. Tap into greater universal wisdom. And when the road bends in unknown ways, consider this a magnificent opportunity.

Another glorious bend in the road.

Prepare for a powerful 2017…!


[Writing and photographs copyright Tom Mullen, 2016]

The Hunger to Read, and Worthwhile Festivals



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.


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.


Colorful reading



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.


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.


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.


One of the inner courtyards in the Citadelle

Not a bad location for a book festival.


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!


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.


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)


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.


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.


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.


Powerful Lessons From Mr. Twain and Mr. Wouk

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


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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).


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.


“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.


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.


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



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



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?”


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.

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.


 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

Time to Read, and Writing for Forbes

With the exception of checking online newspapers, I’ve been woefully delinquent when it comes to reading lately. My ‘Wish List’ on Amazon soars in number, and yet I’m either writing, cooking, checking out some Netflix or Amazon Prime series, or enjoying a bottle of that sinfully good Château Cantinot or one of its well-priced vinuous relatives.

Here is a picture of Provence. Why? Because summer is skipping southwest France this year. Rain, wind, cold. It’s bizarre. Provence should be sunny.

Although now that I’ve included that photo I see it’s also raining in Provence this week. Aha, so the Gateway to the Riviera is not always sun dappled?

And those two ladies on the photo? I met and spent time with them five years ago exploring that lovely part of the world. They convinced me to join them for a minibus tour. I thought – No Way! But it turned out to be splendid and they were wonderful traveling companions. And they showed up during the final days of my month long trip away from work in Pakistan, JUST as I was thinking the insane thought – perhaps I should cut vacation short and go back to work early. 

Wow. Glad they showed up. Angels.

And Provence overall? Slightly crowded, a bit hot, but nice enough to visit and spend time.

IMG_0885If the usually gorgeous Bordeaux weather were not schizophrenically cloudy and spitting rain, the local winemakers would likely be tan by now. Instead they’re wearing raincoats and wool hats and shouting “putain!” as they wade through mud.

Still, no complaints. Life goes on and we have this wonderful Earth as Home.

I’ve been somewhat productive of late, having written my first piece for Forbes today. I hope you’ll check it out and maybe even post a comment. It’s an online magazine, so publication does not guarantee readership. It’s not about derivatives or finance or economic theories that beguile even economists. It’s about the city down the road. And I’ll be writing several more soon.

Okay. That’s all for this week. Yes, it’s a scant post. But I shall keep you posted.

It’s time to go for a walk, then find a decent book to tuck into. Any recommendations?

Best for now – .




Dying to Travel – A Memorial Momento

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


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.


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.


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.


Life Lessons – Revealed by Rivers


Rivers alter course over time – The fabric of reality is pliable


Tributaries join primary currents – Smaller objectives are achieved in the wake of pursuing larger goals


A river’s true power is hidden from view – Personal power can be inconspicuous


A river needs a flow path – To enter a new reality, first imagine it


Rivers meander to balance their flow – Misfortune can swing us toward fortune


Steeper flows have fewer meanders – Challenging goals provide fewer distractions


Da Vinci’s lesson:

A River which has to be diverted from one place to another ought to be coaxed and not coerced with violence – It may be better to work with the flow of times and temperament of personalities rather than defy them


Machiavelli’s lesson:

Fortune is a river – Fortune floods into life


Great rivers grow from many small tributaries – True success comes from helping others succeed

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Faith flows like a river; fear looms like a dam – Faith floats us toward our desires; fear generates obstructions


The river of today is not that of tomorrow – Seize opportunities that may not reappear

9c. Pedestrian Bridge

Rivers find their own confluence – Personalities modify journeys


Images and text* © T. Mullen. Text from the book River of Tuscany.

(*Except for Leonardo’s and Machiavelli’s sage words, of course.)








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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


“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.


“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.”


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.


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.


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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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


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.


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.


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


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).


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.”


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.


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?”


“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.


“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.



A Strange Failure in Success

Six years ago I was studying in northern England.

We took a trip south to London’s Royal Albert Hall. There, we listened to speakers from the Institute of Directors. These included the mayor of London – Boris Johnson, Olympic gold medalist (and organizer of the London 2008 Olympics) – Sebastian Coe, and computer company founder – Michael Dell. Another speaker was Tim Smitt. He had founded the Eden Project in Cornwall. This is a rainforest housed in domes inside an abandoned quarry, now one of the UK’s top ten visitor attractions. Before beginning that project, he had been a young musician.

He told his story.

“In 1981 I had the good fortune to have a Number One hit record in France called Midnight Blue. I was in a chauffeur-driven limo going down the Champs Élysées and the record was playing on the car stereo. It was the biggest selling record in French history at that time, and the record that was going to knock it off the top spot was also written by me, which was tough – and I burst into tears. I had never felt so miserable in my entire life, and I decided I would give up the music industry, because what I want to say to you is that very often people make a terrible mistake in their life, that they have a vision of what success is for them, and it is the weirdest thing that you suddenly have this success and you are wondering…Why does it not feel great? Why do I not feel changed? It felt like ashes, it felt meaningless.”


Sometimes the light just arrives

Sometime after that, Tim began working on creating the Eden Project, which gave value to his life. He also learned to be honest with himself. As he said:

“I believe in Tinkerbell theory. I really do. If you get three or four people to believe in something, it will happen. I believe in last man standing, which is that if you have a certain amount of charm and people know you will not go away, they will eventually pay you large sums of money to do so. I also believe that you should not pretend to know what you do not know, because people are fantastically generous if you admit your ignorance, and they love pricking your bubble if you pretend to know more than you do.”


The Blue Skies of Letting Go

Sage words from a down-to-earth visionary.








The book Visual Magic includes similar stories about unusual ways to take control in life.






The Impact of Lunch on Civilization


Dusk in the Margala Hills

Last Saturday a group of us hiked for two hours through the Margala Hills, then sat for lunch at a mountainside restaurant. The down valley view from the porch looked magnificent. While we ate, we talked. The German who grew up in Greece and spent nine years working in Afghanistan told of riding his three-wheeler through the city of Kabul, rifle slung over one shoulder, while on his way to negotiate business deals; the English consultant now living in Germany told of his upcoming flight to Nepal to start a new investment consulting project; the young Australian woman who recently finished her scholarship at Cambridge University told about her past stint of working on Aboriginal lands, and dealing with a witch doctor who cursed local store customers.

The conversation was varied and colorful.


Margalla Hills behind Islamabad

I told about a book I’m now reading, titled  Cooked – A Natural History of Transformation, by Michael Pollan. He explains how cooking may, in the long-term, have impacted civilization as much as the invention of tools, or the development of language. Cooking reduces the need to chew food, and cuts down on energy required for digestion. In other words – it historically freed up time to think, innovate, and better control our surroundings. Cooked meals are often eaten communally, providing more social interactions and the chance to share information. Pollan writes:

IMG_6766“…a Harvard anthropologist and primatologist named Richard Wrangham published a fascinating book called Catching Fire, in which he argued that it was the discovery of cooking by our early ancestors-and not tool making or meat eating or language-that set us apart from the apes and made us human…Cooking gave us not just the meal but also the occasion: the practice of eating together at an appointed time and place…sitting down to common meals, making eye contact, sharing food, and exercising self-restraint all served to civilize us.” *

During this lunch spent with co-workers and friends, I learned about new TED talks to watch, shared information about straw bale construction techniques, discussed how to improve designs and delivery of rural schools, and learned new management methods. While sitting to eat together – our worlds all opened up.

I recently ran into Scottish friends who shared his interest in a new book I’m collecting recipes for – The Winemaker’s Cooking Companion. Their interest incited me to keep pushing ahead with this project. So, in a celebration of friends, exploration, inspiration, and recently shared meals – I’m sharing a recipe provided by Robyn Drayton (former owner of Robyn Drayton Wines in Australia’s Hunter Valley), who  is now hoofing her way through Asia as she explores multiple countries. (This recipe originates from Diane Holuigue).


Australia’s tranquil Hunter Valley


Chicken Fillets with Grapes

Ingredients – 

Chicken fillets – 6

Butter 3.5 tablespoons (50 grams)

Seedless Grapes – 1 cup (200 grams)

Sugar – 1 tablespoon (12 grams)

Chicken stock – 6 tablespoons (100 ml)

Heavy cream – 3 tablespoons (50 ml)

Preparation – 

1. Remove skin from chicken.

2. Heat oven to 375 Fahrenheit (190 Celsius).


Recipe –

1. Heat butter in a pan to where it foams.

2. Fry chicken fillets in butter – shiny side down first – for 30 seconds per side, until light golden.

3. Remove chicken from pan.

4. Fry the intact grapes in butter in the same pan, sprinkling with sugar to give them a sheen.

5. Remove grapes from pan.

6. Remove the pan from heat, and place the chicken in again.

7. Add chicken stock.

8. Cover pan with greaseproof paper.

9. Put the pan in oven for six minutes (see temperature above).

10. Remove the pan from the oven and put chicken on a serving plate.

11. Add cream to pan, then heat until thickened.

12. Place grapes on chicken in serving dish, then pour cream on top.


Robyn in Hunter Valley, Australia


Enjoy…Here’s to how cooking improves communal lives, and propels civilization.


* Penguin Books. 2014. London. Pages 6-7.

The Strangely Simple Rules of Life

Here are a few lessons I have learned from life.


1.  There are no rules.

2.  The more you cling to security, the less free you are to soar toward newer, higher, horizons.

3.  An open mind and a positive attitude open most doors.


4. There will always be people who dislike you, not because of anything you have done, but because you exist. Disregard them.

5.  If you can’t disregard them, close your eyes, see them vanishing as a presence, exhale, relax, and move on.

6.  Disrespect no person. Everyone has a role.


7.  Clinging incessantly to working is a form of insecurity. Get over it.

8.  There’s inspiration and energy in nature. Take a walk. Watch a sunrise.

9.  Ignore those who spend energy trying to diminish others. Praise and reward others for excellence, and watch how this enriches your own life.


10.  Reality is pliable. But it responds best to suggestion, not force.

11.  Variety is enriching. Take a trip or a hike or a class.

12.  Aim for a single, challenging, focused goal. Strangely, your lesser goals will begin to be accomplished in unforeseen ways.


13.  Courtesy counts.

14.  Give. You truly will receive.

15.  Talk is cheap, though often of value.


16. Relax. The universe appreciates calmness.

17.  Time matters. But not too much.

18.  Time, also, is pliable. Tranquility slows any clock.


19.  Pay attention to whether people talk about themselves, or ask about you. Remember the importance of balance.

20.  The eight hour work week is an artificial construct. The Romans worked six hour days.

21.  Associate with inspiration, not deprecation.


22.  Give yourself extra time to take scenic routes.

23.  After you fail – you will be given another chance to win the same, or an even greater, prize. Yet you won’t succeed until you learn the lesson(s) from your previous failure.

24.  Sometimes marvelous things just happen. Be appreciative and give thanks.


25.  It’s often more advantageous to know the janitor, the driver, or the photocopy clerk than the CEO. Trust me.

26.  A little planning goes a long way.

27.  When the universe opens up and offers abundance, don’t turn it down because you are too busy doing laundry. Really.

IMG_3478 (1)

28.  Begin at the end. Trust the universe to sort out the route.

29.  With time and desire, much is possible.

30.  Pay attention to rhythm. You’ll expend less energy and accomplish more.


31.  Racism and sexism are, ultimately, boring. If you indulge in either, get a life.

32.  There is always history to greatness. Think the Romans were impressive?  Read about the Etruscans.

33.  Respect the power of logic. It put an SUV on Mars.


34.  When all else fails, yield to faith.

35.  Laugh, love, and smell the flowers.

36.  There will always be people eager to tell you a crisis is imminent. Remain skeptical.


37.  Take time to appreciate running water and laughing children.

38.  The chance that events result from a grand, complex, governmental conspiracy is unlikely. Consider the hassle it is just getting a driving license.

39.  We live in a copy and paste world. Respect originality.


40.  North is at the top of the map. That does not mean it is so.

41.  Reconsider motives for wanting to read Ulysses. Who are you trying to impress?

42.  Living yeast makes wine so wonderful.


43.  It’s okay to have it explained as though you were a child. In fact, it’s okay to be childish.

44.  Sometimes you just have to do it.

45.  Other times it pays to plan in advance. But you still have to do it.


46.  You can return to old friendships after decades. The time will appear to have been days.

47.  Pay attention to intuition. It’s plugged into quite a mighty universal battery.

48.  None of us gets out of here alive. So chill out and consider the bigger picture.


49.  Charm, even without action or substance, has a role.

50.  Sometimes it’s better when the plan does not fall in place. You just never know in advance.




More insights are in some of my books, including:




Visual Magic


Synchronicity as Signpost Cover Flat 900 (1)



Synchronicity as Signpost








Lost in Canyonlands

A brother recently wrote. He asked what books were most influential in life.

I admitted that Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire was one.

He asked why.

Because it was the first time that writing actually gave a taste of the wilds, the feel of the wilds, the impact and emotions of being in the desert – or being in raw wilderness.

Decades ago, after reading that book, I visited Canyonlands with my brother’s wife’s younger sister (got that?). What happened next was, well, memorable. More than fifteen years ago or more, based on recollections, I wrote about the event. This is a brief story about where pride knocks against wild lands.



“Let’s stay here,” said Robyn. She dropped her backpack into the shade of a rock overhang. “There’s plenty of shade.”

“Umm,” I mumbled. “What about water?”

“We’ve got water,” she said and pulled a plastic half-gallon bottle from her backpack. She twisted the mouth open and slugged back two cheekfulls.

“Not enough,” I said.

“ ‘S enough. We don’t have any more. We’ll stay here in the shade until it cools down this afternoon. Then we can hike back to the car.”

At 10:35 am, it was 92 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Need more water,” I said.

Robyn shook her head, bewildered.

“From where?”

“Down there. The Colorado river.”


‘Down there’ was a several hundred foot vertical drop to the Confluence, the nexus where the Colorado and Green rivers join, splitting Utah’s Canyonlands National Park into three distinct wedges: Needles, Island in the Sky, and The Maze. This was true desert, loved and lambasted by author Edward Abbey in his books The Monkey Wrench Gang and Desert Solitaire – a collection of reflections on an arid land. Canyonlands provides a full yet somehow transparent vista that is checkered with orange buttes and white spires, slickrock, grabens, cryptobiotic crusts and Utah Juniper trees. The Needles stand like a phalanx of sentinels poised to menace the timid. This is a place of “ten thousand strangely carved forms” and “mountains blending into clouds” marveled at by John Wesley Powell, explorer of the west and one-armed Civil War veteran. In 1869 Powell and his men passed the confluence in four boats during their boat trip – the first ever – through the Grand Canyon.

A point hundreds of meters away stood overlooking the confluence: a Y junction of steep canyon walls that was lined with trees in its crotch. Earlier we had stood there and peered down to see a brisk green flow slam into a muddy brown current, like a jet of cooking oil poured in a pot of beef stew. Fractal patterns chewed at the midstream, the literal confluence of two rivers.

“I’m going,” I said.

“Think about it,” said Robyn.

“I have. Stay here.”

“Me? Where else would I go?”

“I’ll come back.”

The last comment stunned her. There was a chance I would not return?


Off I began, bold and light-footed: a desert action-man scouting for water to aid his young blonde compatriot huddled under thin shade. Clutching a thick plastic bag I aimed alone down a steep scree slope, an arid-land Prometheus out to snatch water instead of fire. I had to go. Primal instinct: man forages for sustenance while woman tends shaded cave.

I checked the map to find a chasm where I could descend past tamarisk and sage toward foaming, distant waters. I sweated hard and breathed deep and stomped over orange rocks, then halted in the shade of a massive boulder. Dehydration was nigh. Walloped by the searing, puckering thermal intensity, I decided to wait in the shade until the temperature dimmed.

On a map I inspected the Needles region and fingered the names of locations: Devils Pocket, Devils Lane, Devils Kitchen Junction, – was this some hint about temperature?

img005 (1)Four hours passed and I started onward again, further from Robyn and sanctuary and fully committed to this folly of seeking water in a desert. Three lenticular clouds sat far and high above. I pulled the plastic bag out of my pocket and stared at it. It would hold one quart. Maybe a quart and a half. What about the return trip? After scooping up river water I had to scale this same desert gully. For that uphill haul I needed at least a quart to slake thirst. What about microbes in the river water: giardia lamblia protozoans ready to infest my gut and plague future weeks with sulfur burps and explosive diarrhea? Maybe I should have thought about this. Perhaps Robyn was right.

What was I doing?

Crumbled rocks slipped underfoot. A lizard darted from the shade and the gully turned ratty. I looked down toward the distant river.

Decision time.

It was time to return to the overhanging boulder and to Robyn and to the security of what was known, time to move away from macho heroics.

I turned and started back.

The desert turned moody. When the light shifted, the land changed texture and left me lost. Uphill, I knew. I scrambled as though drugged up an inclined ramp. The temperature fell and dusk churned out crimson. A single star gawked through a purple sky. Once back on flat earth I plodded past boulders and arid rubble, disoriented. Darkness blew in. I moved forward, trying to intersect a footpath. Was I doomed to wander for days before withering like a desiccated prune?

I found the path and whooped in triumph. Salvation! I crawled under a bush, opened my backpack, shoved both my legs and waist inside and snoozed beneath a sky pregnant with starlight.

I woke early the next morning, hiked miles to the ranger station, filled my stomach and plastic bag with water and returned to the Confluence to seek out Robyn, ready to deliver solace that – never fear – her misguided troubadour was alive and healthy.

There was no sign of Robyn. I started back along the trail. A jeep chugged forward in four wheel drive and crunched to a stop. Two men and a woman clutched sweating beers inside. The driver invited me in.

“Found your friend,” he said.

Robyn sat inside with her arms folded. She did not smile.

“Funny thing,” he continued. “Yesterday afternoon we decided to drive down here to watch the sunset. Fortunately we met your friend. She was worried and hungry so we told her to come and camp with us for the night.”

The driver described how he and the woman next to him were divorced. She had married his best friend – now seated next to me and smiling below a skinny mustache.

“Hell! We’re all buddies now,” he said.

Swept up by their optimism, I smiled at Robyn. “Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” she replied. Her voice was flat. “We have to talk,” she added.

Later, we talked. I couldn’t understand her big concern. I made a quick dash down a canyon to grab a little water and got lost and delayed. We were both safe, right? Was that a problem?


After the trip ended Robyn and I parted in a Denver suburb. It’s not true that we never spoke again; we just didn’t talk for seven years.


The desert refuses to dilute the truth. It gives no fake appointments to hide behind, no imaginary flat tires to blame for delays, no office duties to yield as a shield. The desert distills life down to its basic elements: personality, time, character. Truth blazes under a dry sun and we take on, like chameleons, the most salient trait of the desert: transparency. At that juncture in life – that personal confluence – I was still a boy who wanted to hunt for water rather than to risk intimacy; foraging alone for an inanimate goal provided fewer unknowns than sharing time with someone new. With a map in my hand I plunged deep into a hot canyon of self-interest. When the desert sensed vanity it scoffed and spat me out and told me to grow up.

Robyn still shakes her head when we talk about the trip. But a decade later we get along fabulously.

The desert may be frugal, but she’s also wise.


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.

Dingle, Brandon Beach mountains

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.

thumb_Dingle, Ballydavid Head lil lamb_1024

“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.”

thumb_Dingle, Brandon Beach_1024

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.”

thumb_Dingle, Ballydavid Head gorgeous_1024

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.

thumb_2007, May 24-30, Robin's Ireland Pics 055_1024

“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.

Leaving France

I’m leaving France.

For now. I’ll be back in a few months.


Here are things I’ve learned:

1. There should always be time for lunch. A relatively long lunch. Sometimes with wine. Usually with conversation.

2. Beauty is in details. Often details thoughtfully provided by others. Details mass media rarely exposes you to.


3. It’s okay to stay up late and drink coffee with friends if they call you and want to visit. I mean, it’s really okay.

4. Fresh oysters and wine at 11 am on a Sunday morning? Not a problem.

5. Nude bathing is (apparently) good for community spirit.

6. Drama, in small and energetic doses, can be invigorating. Argument at the cafe? Altercation in the local square? Police raid in the neighboring town? As long as no violence is involved, this can be fun, and will provoke endless dinner conversation.


7. Stores are not always open. Period. Do something else.

8. Without bonjour and au revoir, forget about getting to know the locals.

9. Winemakers wake at 8.30 am. Sometimes 9.00 am. And you thought they were always up with the dawn? Forget it.


10. Watching women adroitly, elegantly, ride their bicycles through the busy traffic of Bordeaux city while they wear short skirts and haut couture apparel is a sight at least as amazing as seeing the Eiffel Tower. Seriously.

11. The Latin American ideal of  being ‘fashionably late’ to dinner or a party by two to three hours does not cut it here in France. Fifteen minutes is okay. Thirty max.

12. If you get invited to a dinner at someone’s house, it will likely last until 1.30 am. Pace yourself. Bring a bottle (but don’t expect ever to see it again).


13. Don’t worry too much about your visa stamp. Immigration officers apparently don’t. (But I never said that, and – yes – I have a visa.)

14. Horse races are rigged. Everyone knows it, though few bother figuring out how it works.

15. There’s always time to greet friends.


How does this relate to publishing?

I recently wrote this article for International Living Magazine about living in offbeat, rural Bordeaux. This is just added information.





Coincidental Trails

Roam well. Roam wisely.

That’s our philosophy at Roundwood Press. We believe that creating a unique path through life can provide personal satisfaction.

Our message here is simple: choose your own path, and then change your thoughts to change reality. We believe that a fresh vision, combined with a positive attitude and open mind, can cause the world to expand, and opportunities to multiply.

Sometimes when we focus on the positive and expect the best, oddly coincidental – or ‘synchronous’ – events can help point us toward desired outcomes.

Here are a few stories about well timed reminders.


Blue skies over Colorado


Ten years ago I was writing stories and books outside of work hours. I suddenly became disheartened. Why put in this effort? Would this writing eventually find an audience? I wrote down the following in a journal about the first of three events that occurred one day:

“At work today, I ‘remembered’ again how to bring good things into life – how we picture what we want in our mind – sometimes fuzzy, sometimes sharp – but we know the key elements we desire – maybe a home, a better vehicle, or a fun partner – a few specific desires. Then we cultivate the expectation – the belief – that we are going there. We don’t know how. We don’t know the details. But we’ve decided we’re going to move into that bubble of imagination. We relax and do things daily to help move us toward that place, because we’ve decided on the destination. We know that with time and desire, all things are possible. One step at a time. We create that bubble of desire and slowly, patiently, move in that direction.”


New day, fresh opportunties.

Later that day I pulled a package from my mail box in Laguna Beach. I then walked around the corner to Hapi Sushi restaurant to drink a beer and eat California rolls. Inside the envelope was a wrapped present. I decided not to open it until Christmas. But the card had one word written on it:


At home that evening I cleaned up – throwing away papers, sorting bills, filing papers, doing laundry. I picked up a card recently sent from friends in Ohio and was about to toss it away, but decided to open and read it again. The words at the bottom read:

…He who believes has everlasting life

This combination of recalling the power of belief and then reading two cards mentioning ‘belief’ (on the same day) provided the needed incentive to help me believe in, and stay focused on, specific writing goals at that time.


Life’s terrain is not always smooth


One April a few years ago I flew from Islamabad to Chicago, then to Kansas City, to attend the wedding of friends. After getting off the flight from Chicago to Kansas City I realized my passport was lost.

Replacing the passport took only a few days. However, obtaining a replacement visa to re-enter Pakistan – where I worked on a contract basis – took two months. At first I became frustrated at not having work or income and not knowing when, or if, a replacement visa would be issued. A friend from England who had also attended the wedding mentioned that this delay in returning to work was likely for the better; that I would be immensely grateful for this unexpected time off. He implied I needed to have faith to realize this unexpected ‘problem’ was actually beneficial.


You can never be certain what’s around the corner

Within days my friend Lisa and I stayed in Glen Ellen, fifteen minutes north of Sonoma, California. On the first evening we attended a wine and appetizer gathering in the front lobby. There, we met a woman and her husband and parents. I spoke to the mother, who looked to be in her early forties but told me she was sixty years old. When I asked the secret to looking so lively, she said, “You live one day at a time.” She then added, “It’s also important to have faith.”

The next day Lisa suggested that we g0 to a movie. We drove into the city of Davis, then walked to the theater. The next movie playing was Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. We had never heard of it, but paid and entered. The story revolves around a Yemeni sheik teaching a doubting fish expert – Ewan McGregor – the importance of faith.

Days later I was at a Holiday Inn in New Mexico where a young lady at the bar was having an animated conversation with a friend. She invited me to join the conversation, and described how she was flying to India the next day to spend months at a spiritual center. She spoke with high energy about the importance of having faith.

During these unpaid months while waiting for the visa, I had time to organize and launch this Roundwood Press website, and to clean and scan hundreds of color slides now included in books sold at this site. My friend from England was right – losing the passport turned out to be a gift. The coincidental reappearance of the word ‘faith’ several times within a few days of this happening also nudged me toward relaxing, accepting the situation, and believing that all would work out for the better. Which it did.


About a year after that last event, my brother phoned me while he was shopping at Costco in California. He said he had picked up a book in the store by Robert Ludlum and flipped through it randomly (I’ve since figured out that the book title was The Lazarus Vendetta, though I’ve not read it). He told me that one chapter included a scene set in Zurich; another chapter was about a scene taking place in Albuquerque International Airport. He encouraged me to write this type of fictional book, based on my own travel experiences.

We hung up.

Ballyness Bay 068

Street cars of Zurich

Five minutes later I called him back, having realized something surprising: a month earlier I had finished writing a fictional book titled Trailing Tara (which he knew nothing about) where one scene takes place in Zurich, and another scene takes place within Albuquerque International Airport.

Seriously. I could not make this up. How many authors write scenes set in Albuquerque airport and Zurich in the same book? This synchronous event encouraged me to keep writing.

Synchronous events often remind us of topics that interest us, or hint at topics or persons about to enter our lives, or provide catharsis to overcome past pain (as psychologist Carl Jung – who created the term ‘synchronicity’ – learned).

The events described above encouraged me to stick with writing and publishing.


Hindsight often provides clarity

These events also reminded me that life is rarely a neat package. Sometimes it’s a series of waves to be rolled with, or a mountain trail to be climbed. When we believe in ourselves and keep faithful toward our genuine interests, unusual events often conspire to remind us of, and point us toward, the direction where we really want to go.


(Books I’ve written about coincidental events and travel include Synchronictiy as Signpost, and The Synchronous Trail).




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.

image1 (1)

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.



2. Dice garlic and parsley individually, then mix together and dice the mixture even more. Set aside.



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.)


Add parsley/garlic mixture

8. After one minute, add the egg/cream mixture.


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.



10. Fry another minute or so before serving.



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.


Worth freezing for the future

Thanks for tuning in.

Tom M.

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.”


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.


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.”


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:


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.


Drone Footage

Okay – recently my sister blog  –VinoExpresssions – has been seeing all the action. So let me clue you into a few of the latest drone footages and blogs associated with Roundwood Press:

Drone Citadelle – Blaye

Drone Bourg, Bordeaux

Drone Chateau Mercier

New Wine Scoring System – Blaye 

New Wine Scoring System – Bourg

Life Scoring


There can be beauty in adjusting our focus in life

Today is the second anniversary of the online version of Roundwood Press. Thanks for your readership, and your business. Truly. The most popular title remains Water and Witchcraft, though The Deep Sand of Damaraland and Synchronicity as Signpost follow closely behind.

Putting this online publishing company together has been fun, though much work remains. I still work my ‘day job’ as a contracted consulting manager and engineer for infrastructure projects located throughout the world. Balancing writing, consulting, and moving to a new home (Bordeaux, France) has been a mind spinning experience.

And…when the mind spins because of change, we need to remember our overall priorities to move in the direction of our dreams. Sometimes it helps to have a tool, a method, or a reminder of how to keep ‘on track.’ Fortunately, I recently discovered one that is simple, but powerful.


Thoughts are like sheep – sometimes they wander, sometimes you herd them in one direction

During a recent drive across huge, open spaces between the cities of Las Vegas and Albuquerque in the USA, I had hours of free time to think.

This occurred during a major transition time in my life – including deciding on ‘the next phase.’  These free hours on the road provided time to mentally ‘clear the clouds.’

But how? Multiple aspects of life swirled through my thoughts like clouds shifting in cross winds.

During those hours, I invented a potent method for clarifying thoughts and identifying priorities.

I’ll share this because it rapidly put me on a clearer path regarding where to focus in life, and what to prioritize.

First, I decided to identify all ‘loose ends’ and ‘major items’ in life that appeared important to address. Identifying these was like herding sheep into a corral. Once they were distinctly in one place, I could better organize them.

I soon identified 13 aspects of life that needed to be looked at. These included what to do with a chunk of property I own, how to assess current finances, why certain relationships were working or not working or bothersome, and what next steps to take after I moved to a new country.


Open space – beautiful for clearing thoughts

[Without a tape recorder and not being able to write while driving, I remembered these 13 concerns by creating mental images, then assembling these into a larger, memorable, scenario. This ‘mnemonic’ or mental trick for remembering lists, is simple and powerful. To learn more, I suggest reading Moonwalking with Einstein to learn the techniques, as well as to learn about the intriguing world of competitive memory championships].

Completing this first step was huge. While cruising at 85 miles per hour through raw, desert beauty, I was mentally able to quickly identify which items in life needed to be considered, addressed, and perhaps resolved.

It was now time for step two. Perhaps it’s because I recently developed a method for scoring wine values that I decided to somehow ‘score’ which of these 13 items were most important to deal with.

To come up with a balanced solution, and to keep both halves of the brain happy, I assigned a priority score for each item – the corralled sheep – in two ways. Here’s what to do. Based on analytical thinking (cold, emotionless, focused intelligent brain power), assign a value score (from, say, 1 to 10) to prioritize which items are most important to deal with. Second, based on emotions, what score would you give each item based on how strongly it impacts your feelings? For example, from an analytical point of view (and a need to pay bills) reviewing personal finances naturally scored high. Yet it also scored reasonably high from an emotional point of view because I’ve learned that decent finances provide potential freedom to increase travel time and writing time, and because I also remembered certain strong emotions (ones I wanted to avoid) attached to past times when income was tight.


Priorities may include making time for your friends

That was easy. There would be two scores. I’d simply take the average of the two.

I then decided to do more. For BOTH the analytical and emotional scores – I would give scores for three different time periods: the coming month, the coming year, and the coming five years.

It was time to pull over to eat lunch. I brought a laptop computer inside a highway restaurant and entered scores in a spreadsheet.

This simple scoring process will likely bring you key realizations:

1. Prioritizing for a month or a year can be straightforward. But for five years? Some items will either get a very high score, or a very low score – depending on whether you are going to dedicate yourself to them for the next five years. So many of the five year scores have two numbers. For example, let’s say one item of concern is building a new website. Will you really put in the constant effort to maintain that website for five years? If the answer is a definite YES, it may score 9.5 for priority. But if you’re unsure and may not dedicate effort for more than a year, then the long term – five year – priority value may fall to 2 out of 10.

You suddenly realize you have decisions to make. What will your highest priorities be for the next five years?

2. This process can also help you realize your values. For me, the aspects of continually learning, of meditating/visualizing on a routine basis, and of maintaining sound relationships with friends and co-workers all scored highly – analytically and emotionally – for all time periods.

3. This process can also dramatically reduce uncertainties in your life.

I began with a list of 13 uncertainties – major aspects of life which I was unsure of how to prioritize to address. By the end of this process I realized only four were immediately critical. These four could be bunched into two groups of two. There were now only two major uncertainties regarding life priorities. Because these two groups were similar – from a professional standpoint – I merged them together to become one larger item.  Those four items were really part of one concern – about dedicating myself to a professional avenue.

By the time I was driving on the highway again, less than forty minutes had passed since this I began this identification and ‘scoring’ process. Already the nebulous cloud of uncertainties in life – the field of wandering sheep – had been reduced in size from 13 to one.



Priorities may include being grateful for what you have

4. The process may make you realize certain priorities you never even knew existed.

For example, one item to address was whether I should keep a certain piece of property or not. From an analytical point of view, this seems to be a good investment because it requires  little money to maintain. From an emotional point of view, I love visiting this location, even if only for a few days a year. Considering both analytical and emotional priority ‘scores,’ it made sense to hold onto this property for the next year. But for five years? The decision of whether or not to sell the property would depend on whether I needed to gain money to buy a house.

A house? Wow. I had not even considered that before.

In other words, this scoring exercise was not only useful, but illuminating. My final decision was to keep the property for at least a year, but be flexible in the long term regarding selling it. That was it. There was no further need to consider that aspect of life for now.

Below is a table based on what I used. I’ve included some representative examples of ‘loose ends.’ Everyone will have different items they need to consider and prioritize. The entire process takes less than an hour – but is powerful.

Item Intellectual/Analytical Scoring Emotional Scoring
1 month 1 year 5 years –a 5 years – b 1 month 1 year 5 years – a 5 years – b
Sell owned property? 7 7 7 2 9 8.5 7.5 5
Take additional courses 9.3 9.3 9.3 9.5 9.8 9.8
Visualize/meditate regularly 10 10 10 10 10 10
Whether to purchase additional property 8.5 7.5 6 8.5 7 9.5
Take a workshop in Europe 8 7.5 9.5 2 8.5 8.5 9 2
Arrange visit with friends 9.5 9.5 9.5 5 9.9 9 9.5 2
Create a new publishing imprint? 8.8 8.8 9.5 7.5 9 9 9
Move to new location? 8.5 8 8.5 5 9.8 9.6 9.4 4
Begin research on new book? 8.7 8.7 9.5 5 9.95 9.95 9 5
Assess financial situation 8 8.8 9.9 9 9.9 9.9
Interactions with friends/co-workers 8.7 9.4 9.8 9.9 9.75 9.9
Seek new contract work 9.5 9.7 8.7 9.4 9.7 8.5
Start a new consulting company 9 8.5 9.5 3 9.9 9.7 9.8 2

Once you have identified priorities, remember that you can ‘begin at the end’ to resolve them. I’ve written about the process in my short book titled Visual Magic.

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

Je Suis, Charlie


When a team of terrorists sprayed bullets through the publication offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris – murdering wantonly, I was studying French in the southern town of Villefranche-sur-Mer, close to the city of Nice along the Riviera. During lunch our instructors led us in standing together for a silent minute to pay tribute to the slain journalists. Within days an inspired singer/songwriter fellow student, Crystal Stafford, composed a spellbinding guitar song related to the event – with English and French lyrics (thanks for the fine video footage and editing, Jacob Beullens).

Meanwhile, we waited for over a week before the new issue of Charlie was available to purchase. The print run – normally 30,000 – suddenly exceeded three million copies in the aftermath of the onslaught.

In the local Villefranche bar – Chez Betty – locals sat glued before the television watching news about the hunt for the assassins. I noticed that below the television hung a photograph of New York’s twin towers. The image was weathered and had obviously been there for years – evidence of solidarity from our French allies concerning the 9/11 attacks on U.S. soil in 2001.


Suddenly, teams of soldiers clutching automatic rifles began patrolling through French cities in teams of three, while police turned more vigilant and attentive and spent more time speaking with residents they knew (and didn’t know) in the towns and cities where they operated.

At first I wondered who Charlie Hebdo was – perhaps he had been killed? We learned from our language instructors that a daily newspaper is referred to as un quotidien, a monthly magazine is referred to as un mensuel, and a periodical published weekly or each two weeks – is un hebdomadaire. Hence – Hebdo. The name of this bi-weekly satirical publication is, simply, Charlie.


The fact that after the attack the periodical printed the cover image they did – a bearded man saying tout est pardonné (all is forgiven) – revealed how firmly ingrained the truth is that France is an unwavering guardian of freedom of speech. Having just returned from four years living in Asia, I still receive security alerts via email. These informed me that rallies against the new post-attack Hebdo publication with this image on the cover were expected, and that ‘violence may occur…militant attacks possible, and violent unrest is possible….protesters may block roads and vandalize surrounding businesses and vehicles…bomb threats and…security scares…may target diplomatic facilities.’ In one Asian city the brothers who committed the murders were instantly considered by many to be martyrs, and dozens participated in a memorial service for them.



IMG_1310Is religion not supposed to be an organized means of assisting individuals find peace and inner contentment through spiritual guidance? Forgive my being mystified as to how attacks, bomb threats, vandalism, security scares, and organized raids featuring bloody assassinations fit into any paradigm of religion ostensibly associated with peace.

I salute Publishers Weekly  Magazine for their special issue titled Je Suis Charlie (including a section titled Nous Sommes Tous Charlie (We are all Charlie) and their call for donations to assist organizations supporting freedom of expression.

I just spent years living in a country plagued by the Taliban. I’ll not make any high level geopolitical statements or draw any universal wisdom from this event in France.  The truth is, it’s difficult to be tolerant of fools who try to wield religion – any religion – as a lame excuse to carry out self-centered acts of hate and violence.  And the hard-won, rare, beautiful right we cherish as freedom of speech? In the wake of this Paris slaughter, many, many more people – especially youth – now truly (perhaps for the first time ever) appreciate its value. It would have been best had the attack never occurred. But it has. And for that global nudge in awareness, that unexpected shift of paradigm for many toward freedom of speech – Merci, Charlie.









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.


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.


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.


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.








Irish Inspiration



“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.


“I had always believed all art to be just that – storytelling.” [Noelle Campbell-Sharp]


“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]


“When I was younger I never thought much about chance. Now I do, constantly.” [Carlo Gébler]


“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]


“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]


“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]


“Four billion years of life on earth, just so we can answer emails? I hope not.” [Arminta Wallace]


“…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]


“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


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


City for Nobel Laureates

Mystery in the Wicklow Hills


Glendalough – which is Gaelic for ‘Glen of the Two Lakes’


I recently received an email from author Thomas Rice, who was born in Carlow in Ireland and moved to the US decades ago. After studying at Columbia University and teaching at Georgetown, he now spends his free time writing.

He wrote:

“…as a fellow Wicklow and Powerscourt Falls lover. During a sabbatical year in Ireland (1978), I lived in a cottage up on Carrigoona Commons and did many a tour of Roundwood on my way down to Glendalough. Still a mystical place, sacred for me in a way I find hard to explain…somehow the spirituality of that whole Sugarloaf region around Enniskerry and the Dargle is unique on this planet. I’ve never been happier than the time I spent there.”

Thomas recently wrote Far From the Land, and one of his short stories is included in the book The Best American Mystery Stories – 2012.

The story is captivating. An Irish boy wonders why his mother has such respect in the community, and the answer is not what he expected.

For those who know the Wicklow Hills and appreciate rapid changes to local weather, the descriptions of landscape and climate will be familiar:

The turf fire was still smoldering in the grate and a moaning wind swept down from the Sugarloaf, rattling the ancient doors and windowpanes.

…a somber, rain-soaked dawn was breaking over Enniskerry as Myles pedaled his Raleigh across the Dargal bridge…

They looked like a couple right out of Failte magazine, out for a stroll in the lush Wicklow countryside.



Forest pathway next to Roundwood Reservoir in the Wicklow Hills


Thomas appreciates how to set up suspense in a story, and portrays well the cloudy magic of the Wicklow Hills. It’s wonderful to hear from another author who respects the rare power and beauty of this eastern Irish landscape.

To learn more about Thomas and his writing, check out:

Whatever Happened to Warren Weinstein?

In October, 2010, I moved to Pakistan to live and work. A few weeks later, my supervisor and I drove to the house of another American working for JE Austin. We sat in his garden around a barbecue pit, chatting with about four other guests who had arrived. The gathering was small, intimate. One American man was quiet and soft spoken and wore the traditional Shawar Kameez dress. He had lived and worked in Pakistan for years, and was an associate of our friend.

His name was Warren Weinstein.


In 2011, Warren was kidnapped from his home in Lahore. Details emerged that during the traditional post-sundown Iftar dinner during the month of daylight fasting known as Ramazan, some men approached the guards at Warren’s house and offered food – a traditional Iftar act. The guards opened the door, and were rapidly overtaken by these intruders who masqueraded as hospitable visitors. Warren was at the time locked in his upstairs room, and the stairwell itself was locked. Someone managed to make it upstairs, then convinced him to open the door – although the details are sketchy whether ‘inside’ involvement occurred.

Warren was kidnapped and taken away.

That was almost three years ago. He is still a captive.

Warren is in his seventies. He has said during video broadcasts that he feels abandoned. So – where is Warren Weinstein? Why are there no updates about this man? No news. No efforts to provide clarity regarding ongoing communication with his captors.

Somewhere, likely in the hills of Waziristan, our acquaintance Warren is being held captive. No news from the Pakistan Government. No news from the US Government. Nothing.

He deserves more.



Tribute to an Irish Artist

Years ago when I needed a logo designed for Roundwood Press, I contacted Helen O’Brien in Ireland – a close friend since we were fourteen years old. Helen produced splendid celtic design artwork for years, and spent time working in California as an animator for Hanna-Barbera.

1. RP Logo

Unfortunately, Helen was too busy to work on a design. She wrote:

“Here all is well.. school, activity runs,  spending time with family, a little bit of teaching work, bit of golf!, bit of tennis, seeing friends and lots of running round the hills still to clear the mind. That’s what occupies me in general, plus looking after our guest – 15 year old Galician student who is doing a transition year in Pres Bray school. It all distracts me from my domestic goddess duties which I’m quite incapable of!

“Anyway I wish I was capable of rustling up a logo for you, but in reality I can hardly get around to answering mail – though if intentions count you have received hundreds! I could put you in touch with my brother-in-law who might be able help you out.”

I soon contacted Helen’s sister Denise, who lives in Spain, and her husband Carlos designed the Roundwood Press logo. The fact that the logo was designed by a relative of Helen’s, who has visited Ireland and the Wicklow Hills, I considered important for this website.


Helen (left) with mutual friend Fiona Donnelly before Sugarloaf Peak in Ireland’s Wicklow Hills


Unfortunately, I received news last week that my dear friend Helen passed away – another casualty of the ravage of cancer. After the service, Denise wrote to inform me:

“Helen didn’t tell many people she was ill. A lot of people were stunned on hearing the news…I had come home and spent all August with her. She had been 2 years fighting cancer. I read a eulogy and the church was packed to capacity. Much love and we know you loved Helen as we all did…”

Helen was a bright spark. She was not only an artist, but in her teens was a national tennis player for Ireland. She was an exploratory soul, and once visited me briefly in Colorado while traveling back after months spent living in Chile – inspiring me to visit that same country decades later. Another time we wandered around Covent Garden in London, where she laughed at how the bustle of the market mesmerized me (I had just returned from years living in rural Malawi).

When I last saw Helen a few years ago for a brief lunch in Ireland, she decided to walk across a mile of fields separating her home from the pub where we met in the village of Delgany, because she always considered walking healthier than driving. On another occasion I visited Greystones in Ireland about a decade ago and met Helen walking up Trafalgar Street pushing a baby-stroller. She told me her son’s name was Lorcan. Because I was doing research for a book about Ireland at the time, I told Helen that Lorcan was the name of the great chieftain Brian Boru’s father – and that her son would no doubt grow up to bring pride to Ireland. Helen simply laughed with joy – as she always did.

The photo above was taken during a hike we took on Djouce Mountain in County Wicklow – part of the Roundwood country she helped me to love and appreciate. She is survived by her husband (and a former classmate and friend of mine) Criostóir McLaughlin, and their son Lorcan, as well as her mother Nuala and siblings Denise and Cormac.

We shall miss you Helen.




Bar Fight, and a Renegade from Battle – First Chapters from River of Dreams

Here are the first two chapters from the book River of Dreams. The book tells about three characters in a young man’s dreams who help identify a murderer. The story is set in the university town of Durham, in northeast England, as well as in Paris.


Durham Cathedral – almost one thousand years old




Graham Keane did not appreciate winning the bar fight.

At eleven minutes past eight o’clock on a cool September evening, Graham pulled his blue Range Rover Evoque off the Newcastle Road. He parked in the lot of the Duke of Wellington restaurant and pub at the edge of the small, ancient city of Durham in northeast England. Autumn enveloped the land, and darkness had fallen.

Graham turned off the ignition, unfastened his seat belt, and let out a deep sigh. He knew other staff members at the University of Durham had noticed his recent dark moods. Seated alone for a moment, he felt the peace of solitude, of having to make no effort to mask his depression. For after twenty-six years of what he considered to be a glorious marriage, Professor Keane arrived home three weeks earlier to hear his wife Margaret confess to deceit, betrayal, and – worst of all – enrapture with a lover.

Graham opened the vehicle door and stepped into crisp evening air. He combed four fingers through mahogany colored hair and adjusted the dark collar of his oxford shirt. He tilted his head forward and looked down to inspect the symmetry of his black leather shoe laces, then raised his shoulders and marched into the Duke. Once inside, he relaxed and smiled. He relished the warm glow of orange lamps in the public house, the bright gas fire, the softness of thick carpet, and the hum of social banter. He paced with measured confidence to the bar and ordered a pint of Black Sheep bitter from a hefty bartender with a Union Jack tattooed across his left wrist. It was Thursday evening. The laughter of postgraduate students and the mumble of professionals and local families numbed Graham’s shaken spirits. He listened to dips and lulls of cackles and stories, comforted by the buzz of conversation that enveloped him in a cocoon of anonymity.

The bartender placed his pint on a green beer mat. Graham moved his right hand forward to take the drink. At that moment, another man slammed an angled shoulder into Graham’s back.

Graham winced at the sharp thud. Within seconds he realized that this muscled thrust was not delivered by accident and was not attached to any apology. Someone had inflicted pain for a purpose.


“S’cuse, guv!” the assailant said in a gruff, mocking voice. Graham wheeled around. He looked into the cold eyes of a bald man who looked prematurely aged. This man pulled back and lunged again, slamming his upper arm into Graham’s right shoulder. Graham recoiled. He squinted at the half toothless smile of a sneering stranger, a gloating bully who appeared to delight in harassing someone he did not know.

The stranger wore a collarless black shirt and a brown leather jacket. A silver chain with links the size of thumbnails hung around his neck. He reeked of whisky, tobacco, and petrol. Graham realized that the man fit into this family restaurant scene about as much as a football hooligan would fit in with a London opera audience.


Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island


Graham retreated. He took his drink and stepped away from the bar. Immediately, the stranger stepped into his path, knocking the pint out of Graham’s hand. It fell with a thud onto the carpet.

The stranger laughed. Graham realized the truth: this sadist had found his prey and would likely continue his taunts.

“Awww, sorry guv! Spilt yer pint did yeh?”

Graham wanted to retreat. Instead, he obeyed the inner voice of a man who had taken enough.

“Fuck you,” said Graham.

He reached into his pocket, then deposited three one pound coins onto the cotton bar mat. He nodded to the barman to pull another beer.

The stranger reached forward. He clasped a calloused, oily hand onto Graham’s right shoulder.

“Speakin’ to me toff? I’ll fuckin’ brain yeh.”

The brute squeezed Graham’s shoulder. Hard. Graham turned his body toward the man, wrenching away from his grip. He realized how determined this imbecile was to cause trouble. Graham’s thoughts also alerted him to a second, more important truth: the thug was no bigger than he was.

The assailant lost his grip on Graham, but smirked and rubbed his hands together. Seconds passed. Neither man moved. Graham glanced at the bar, then clasped his fingers around a fresh pint, this time a Worthington Creamflow. He gripped it, faced his enemy, and inverted the glass, pouring a stream of amber ale onto the jeans and mud caked boots of the oaf intent on ruining his evening.

“So sorry,” said Graham. He rubbed a hand through his hair and smiled at the bully.

“Yeh’ll hurt for that,” said the bald assailant. He coiled a fist and shot it, knuckles clenched, into the side of Graham’s head. He then darted his left hand forward and began choking his victim’s throat. Graham’s eyes bulged. The light atmosphere that reigned throughout the pub only minutes earlier turned dark and silent. The barman reached for a phone to summon the police. Customers fanned back from the dueling pair.


Durham Castle


Jake McGiles, thirty-four years old, felt sudden glory as he began squeezing the life out of the worm who dared dribble ale on his clothing. Jake bared his teeth, absent of dental care, and spoke in a throaty rasp.

“Yeh Durham bastard.”

Jake planned his next moves. He would knee his prey in the crotch and send him to the floor. He would then walk outside and ride his motorcycle northward, arriving at his aunt’s home in the city of Newcastle-on-Tyne in time for a late dinner.

Jake squeezed harder. The barman yelled. Forty-seven year old Graham started to slump. A customer shouted. Jake bared more of his rotten teeth as a gesture of defiance to those before him, a crowd he perceived to be academic wankers and snooty families.

He squeezed harder. His smile turned to a grimace. He was ready for his prey to buckle.

“Fuckin’ wanker!” he called aloud.

A mother screamed. The bartender shouted again. Customers pulled out cell phones to dial the police. Then, from where no one expected, Graham landed a single kidney punch that made Jake wince and loosen his grip. Graham recoiled, gasped, and sent another punch upward to Jake’s head. And another.

And one more.

His final well aimed punch sent the assailant to the carpet.

Jake McGiles never breathed again.



IMG_1621The soldier huddled behind the trunk of a stout oak tree. He heard at least two horses. No more than four. They moved too fast for riders out hunting for deer or renegade Scottish troops. After the sound had passed, the soldier stood. He squared his broad shoulders, then stepped to the edge of the thick wood. Wet leaves clung to his wool socks and bare calves. The riders must have been farmers, he concluded – likely riding to the market in Durham.

The tall, black bearded soldier was about to retreat into the woods again when his right eye caught a glint. He looked ahead. A sudden blast of white light filled the space before him, radiating from a single point within the soggy green field. Brightness filled his eyes, like a tavern lantern swung too close. The soldier lifted his calloused left hand to shield the view. He was surprised that his senses, which snapped even at the sound of mice rustling through leaves during recent days, reacted with neither fear nor alarm. He considered this truth as unusual. After all, he had spent every moment of each recent day alert and poised for danger.


Lindisfarne Priory

In less than a minute the fiery white glow tapered off and vanished. In the silence that followed this hardened young soldier named Angus felt a sense of serenity.

A cold wind hushed. Angus stared ahead to the open meadow beyond trees. A man now stood where the light had shone, staring at him from less than twenty paces away. Angus saw that this stranger’s body was that of a timid youth. His chin was free of stubble, like the head of a bald elder. He wore smooth, untarnished clothing and his face lacked guile. The adult appeared tamer than even a shepherd boy. Angus realized that he could see through the stranger’s clothing into the field beyond, as though the garments were fashioned from mist.

Seconds later, this apparition vanished.

Angus dropped to one knee on the damp soil.

“Spirit,” he said aloud. “You’re not of my time or world. Forgive my sins, God, and keep me unharmed,” he whispered.

The wind picked up and rustled upper boughs of nearby oak trees. Bruised clouds scudded in from the northwest, while goose bumps erupted across the soldier’s bare arms.

Angus exhaled, slowly. He knew the presence was not an enemy. The vision was unearthly – a lad who evaporated before his eyes. Yet he felt no awe or reverence, and doubted he had witnessed the presence of anything Almighty. The youth who materialized for a moment did not appear to be a god, saint, or angel. Angus shook his head at the ludicrous truth about the situation: the stranger had appeared to be lost.


River Wear


Angus knew that the bizarre apparition imparted no lessons, bestowed no wisdom, and wielded no justice in his savage world. He reached down. He clutched a handful of soggy brown leaves and rubbed them on his forehead to be certain he was awake. He then recalled the eyes he had seen. He had glimpsed into a troubled face. Intuitively, Angus suspected this ghoul of bright light was like himself – a traveler, a lost soul seeking a pathway home.

Angus stood. He walked out of the woods, this time unafraid.

“You’ll return,” he said to the empty, verdant countryside.

He laughed, hard and loud, and shook his long black hair. For the first time in weeks, he felt magnificent. Angus gripped his sword, rubbing his right thumb along the straight guard before plunging it back into its black, leather scabbard.


The editor at work

Steaming Along Lake Malawi

This week the book Water and Witchcraft – Three Years in Malawi has been professionally re-edited, re-formatted and re-launched. If you purchased a copy in the past and would like the revised edition, please inform me and I’ll email the updated ebook.

During the coming weeks the same updates will take place with two of the sequel books in the African Raindrop SeriesThe Deep Sand of Damarland – A Journal of Namibia, and Water After War – Seasons in Angola.

In celebration of this first book update – here is an article about a journey I took along Lake Malawi long ago.


In 1858, David Livingstone pointed his steamship Pearl up the Zambezi River and headed into trouble. His plan, to follow the river upstream into the interior of East Africa, was twisted by an unforeseen problem: the Pearl was too large to navigate the river mouth waters. Undaunted, he abandoned this ship, then puffed upriver in a wood burning launch named the Ma Roberts. This tactic proved futile. Steamy rapids and the dangerous gorge at what is now Caborra Bassa in Mozambique blocked his way.


Ilala docked at Nkhata Bay

Refusing to give up the expedition, Livingstone sidetracked up a little known tributary of the Zambezi named the Shire (SHEE-ray). Wary Portuguese sailors had warned him of its dangers: the waters were reputedly clogged with duckweed, and visitors were targeted by poison arrows from riverbank tribes. Ignoring the advice to steer clear, Livingstone persevered and became the first European to view what is now named Lake Malawi – the third largest lake in Africa.

Today, the lake can still be dangerous. Canoes are overturned by hippopotamuses, and crocodiles scan the shores for prey. Earlier this year the Nyasa Times reported a hand-dug canoe capsizing, drowning one fisherman and causing two to disappear. The recently published book This is Paradise is titled after words written in a letter by a 25-year old Irish volunteer to his mother. He was describing the coastal village where he lived along southern Lake Malawi. In the letter, he urged her to visit. Two days after writing the letter he drowned in the lake. His mother eventually visited the site and established a modest health clinic, described in the book.

A few decades ago I boarded a newer version of the steamship Ilala as it was about to chug up and down the western periphery of Lake Malawi.  The journey was both scenic and informative: the steamer plowed up the Great Rift Valley, and provided ripe vistas of coastal Malawian villages.

Lake Malawi - Ilala Steamboat Launch - a - compressed

Ferry between the Ilala and the shoreline at Usisya

I boarded the Ilala at Nkhata Bay, a lively cove tucked between hills mid-way along the western lake shore. The little steamer snorted smoke as it rounded a final hill toward the port, appearing squeezed out of the colonial past. Once I was aboard, a steward named Patrick showed me my cabin. It looked somewhat like a furnished boiler room – though freshly painted, clean, and comfortable. Despite the ship’s age (launched in 1951) the Ilala looked a handsome craft. It was one hundred and seventy-two feet long and could hold 460 passengers – a small fraction of them in the seven first class cabins. For those who traveled first class, the complete upper deck was ours to stroll along, or to relax on in deep, bright deck chairs.

But while it was still docked at Nkhata Bay, this deck was fair game for everyone to visit. Locals crowded onto its open bar and drank and danced until a loud speaker shooed away the wobbling last stragglers at three a.m.

This was the second Ilala. The original ship was launched in 1875, named after the village where Livingstone died in what is now Zambia. It was built in Scotland and sent to East Africa, then piloted up the Shire River to the Murchison Cataracts. Once there it was taken to pieces that were painstakingly carried over land – on the heads of sweating villagers – up to the lake, where they were reassembled. The Ilala was the first steamer to circumnavigate Lake Malawi. Its presence was intended to help spread the missionaries’ faith and send a clear warning to slave trading dhows: that their commerce was no longer welcome.

The Ilala finally puttered north at four a.m. By six, sunlight shattered the morning as rays poured off the distant peaks of Tanzania. A set of knuckles rapped on my door, and Patrick entered to serve tea. The ship anchor had dropped near Usisya – a triangular patch of land scrunched against steep lake shore peaks. Villagers gathered at the beach in an early morning frenzy. Chains clanked as two of the Ilala’s launch boats splashed into water. These ferried passengers with their crates, sacks and bulging suitcases to the shore. Their luggage was a jumble – bed frames, beer crates, a wheelbarrow, and chickens squawking in a basket.

I reclined in a deck chair looking at the mountainous shore as the Ilala pulled away. Before steamboats penetrated up Lake Malawi, Arab dhows had crisscrossed east and west along its waters, packed tight with their lucrative cargo of slaves. Malawi then provided rich pickings for Arab slave traders who tethered their captives in chains, marched them to the shore and then shipped the bodies to the eastern lakeshore in dhows. From there, prisoners were whipped and corralled on foot to ports along the Indian Ocean, where they were sold or traded, then exported. Conditions of this journey were brutal; the majority died before reaching the coast.

Malawi - Usisya Beach

Lake Malawi lakeshore at Usisya

Livingstone tried to squash this slave trade by creating alternate lake-based commerce to compete. Only after he died did his efforts take off with the help of the original Ilala. The steamer ferried troops to chase slave merchants away, thereby opening the lake waters to alternative trade.

I finished drinking coffee on the deck and walked downstairs. The entrance aisles were crowded with open crates. I plucked a plastic bag from one. It was clear and filled with water. Inside, striped fish darted back and forth. Their colors, bright and showy, sparkled like jewels.

“They’re for export,” said Patrick. “My last job was to dive for them.”

For collectors of tropical freshwater fish, Lake Malawi is a cornucopia, boasting a greater variety of species than any other lake in the world. The predominant ‘cichlids’ are as important to the study of evolution as Darwin’s finches, occupying virtually every possible ecological niche in the lake.


Shore house along Lake Malawi that a friend and I designed and built as volunteers

High above this ship, along a steep escarpment, sat the Livingstonia mission, far removed from its original placement along the lake’s southern end. The scourge of malaria had prompted its transfer to this more northern site. Livingstone himself, sadly, never even ventured far enough north to see the site where the mission eventually settled.

At midday I sat for lunch in the small dining room where avocado salad, grilled chambo fish, potatoes, and chunks of fried mango slices were served. For dessert I ate a plate of paw-paw crumble and drank Malawian coffee. As I finished eating, a barefoot young boy tip- toed in and timidly handed out a miniature dugout canoe for sale. I paid for it and stashed the souvenir in a pocket.

By the time we pulled into Chilumba port in the early afternoon, the distant peaks of Tanzania grew sharper.  A thunderstorm cracked open and lightning split the distant sky. I was sweating. The heat came not from sunshine, or exhaust fumes from grunting engines, but from malaria.

Worn rubber rings tethered to the boat’s side groaned as the Ilala knocked against the port. It was as though the past rubbed against the present. Leaving along the gangplank, I ducked under bundles that wobbled on top of women’s heads, then stepped onto the new concrete dock. I watched a crane hoist bulging maize sacks from a barge while nearby men loaded wood crates onto a truck. Legitimate commerce was now firmly rooted where slavery once flourished. Livingstone’s goals of replacing lakeshore slave trade with alternative business had eventually been realized.

If Livingstone could stand on the Ilala today and watch the dockside bustle, he would be pleased at the sight of the progress. His persistence to establish commerce had paid off.

When my motorcycle was finally unloaded from the ship, I revved the engine and drove to Mzuzu – to home – to rest and recover.



Bookstores in the Heart of Italy


The written word appears to be appreciated in Modena


I spent two and a half days wandering around the city of Modena, Italy – visiting wine bars, eating provincial food, checking out the Friday morning market, watching bicyclists careen across Piazza Grande, and visiting a Balsamic vinegar production operation that has been run from a home for decades.










I also had a chance to visit bookstores.




photo (97)

Browse for books at the post office


photo (77)

Outside the city post office

Surprisingly, the first ‘bookstore’ visited was a post office. While waiting to send a letter, I eyed two separate racks filled with new books for sale. One included fictional books (many about some apparently heroic woman named Tiffany), while another rack located mid-lobby sold books on weight loss, as well as Italian ‘Dummies’ guides on internet use and finance.

In an age when much of the book world is moving online, it was refreshing to see a post office running a viable enough book sales business to earn sideline operational cash.

San Francisco in the heart

The bookstore with San Francisco in the heart


The second store was medium-sized and sold magazines and books. The bearded owner told me in English how he spent time living in San Francisco in the 1970s. ‘Crazy times,’ he said. There, I bought an Italian book about Lambrusco wine, as well as a map of Modena city.


photo (89)

‘In this book the charms, dreams, and disillusionment of this generation’


The third bookstore was a larger chain store. Once inside, I asked a sales clerk, “Avete libri in Inglese?”  to which she responded, “Si, di che tipo? Letteratura?” I told her yes and she walked me to the English Book section – with ‘literature’ that included Tom Clancy novels and books by Mitch Albom.


Nevertheless, impressed by a bookstore in Modena catering to English readers as well as Italians, I perused the shelves, then examined other sections, finally finding a cook book section. Here I purchased a book on Emilia cooking (the city of Modena is in the Emilia-Romagna province), which included recipes in Italian and their English translations.

IMG_1613My favorite parts of this book? One included a recipe for Zampone, or Stuffed Pig’s Trotter – requiring one kilogram of a pig’s trotter (preferably purchased in Modena) – pierced with a fork several times, wrapped in a towel, then soaked in cold water overnight.  The next day it is cooked in the same water – simmering for three hours before being served with lentils, sauerkraut, beans, and potato mash – as well as a chilled glass of Lambrusco di Sorbara sparkling red wine.


The Flavors of Emilia (province)

The book I purchased earlier about Lambrusco wine boasted of the rich food culture of Emilia-Romagna in Italian, translated as: “…perhaps the cuisine is the only one, among twenty Italian provinces, capable of undisputed success with supplying a complete banquet, from appetizers to desserts, with different and appropriate wines to accompany each dish. From puff pastry to soup, meat derived from slaughtering pigs, to the delicious eclectic flavors of balsamic vinegar – all softened by the crowning of the greedy concert with Lambrusco wine.”

Not only food and wine, but poetry.

Can you take one minute to answer a few questions to improve Roundwood Press posts? It would be appreciated.

Censorship in China

Evan Osnos recently wrote an article for the New York Times titled China’s Censored World.

His article relates to his recently written book, titled Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China.

After reading the piece, I found Evan’s email and wrote to say that reading his article made my day. Truly.

He promptly replied, thanking me for the note.

How much of your news is censored?


Why is his piece important?

For Evan’s United States published book also to be published in China, editors for the Chinese publishing company required him to modify the text. He would have to remove the statement that China ‘is the only country in the world with a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in prison.’ He would also have to reduce the quantity of his addressing the contribution of the peers of Den Xiaoping to the economic success of China (apparently such praise would dilute what the editors thought Deng should wholly receive). He would also have to make several other minor, though significant, changes.

Evan’s article then elaborates on China’s history of censorship, and the current national and governmental mindset toward censorship. By the end of the article he reveals that he decided not to have his title published in China. He wrote:  “To produce a “special version” that plays down dissent, trims the Great Leap Forward, and recites the official history of Bo Xilai’s corruption would not help Chinese readers. On the contrary, it would endorse a false image of the past and present. As a writer, my side of the bargain is to give the truest story I can.”

Imagine a government that decides what you are allowed to read


Rather than justify or rationalize a decision to publish in China in order to reap more potential profits, Evan chose a path of greater integrity – to stick with the truth.

In my email to Evan I wrote:

Congratulations on your bravery and your conveying the truth – in print – that you do not believe it right to alter or distort reality in order to pander to a potentially greater source of financial profit. We live in an age when it often appears convenient for businesses to look aside, close one eye, or simply ignore the truth that although China verges on a superpower in financial (and potentially soon enough, military) terms, their roguish attitude toward repression of freedoms is diametrically opposed to the founding principles of what made the United States a great power.

You did not make excuses, you spoke the truth: their censorship practices are a hindrance, not a propellant, toward any national growth that will maintain and convey a sense of dignity for the Chinese population.

Well done. Your article made my day. Thanks.

I notice what appears to be a ‘halo effect’ regarding the rise of China’s power in the world. Because they verge on becoming an economic (and in the not too distant future, perhaps a military) superpower, I constantly hear broadcasters speak with almost untarnished praise and awe toward China – despite the fact that censorship is rampant, stealing trademarked and protected military and industrial secrets from foreign governments is a state sponsored activity, and activists such as the Dalai Lama are excoriated by the Chinese government simply for speaking the truth about atrocities the Chinese perpetrate in Tibet.

Decades ago I lived in Malawi in Africa, where I traveled throughout the country for work (described in my book Water and Witchcraft – Three Years in Malawi). There I discovered the Economist Magazine, and was surprised that it was more about world news than economics, and respected the clarity of the writing. I bought a copy at the news agent whenever possible (and when my meager volunteer salary would allow). Any time that an article was critical of Malawi, the deft and scissored hands of some state employed censors snipped out the piece, or the entire page, from each issue sold in the country. I now live in an Asian nation, where we can watch major network news on television – BBC, Sky, CNN, Fox. Whenever a station is overtly critical of this nation’s policies or governance, the channel suddenly becomes unavailable for weeks or months – replaced with a notice informing viewers (as I saw recently for the Fox News channel): This Channel is Unavailable.

Ultimately, censorship, like racism, is boring. It leads (or tries to lead) people toward predictability, inclusion within prescribed limits, control, and constraint. It is based on the assumption that a few people grasping hold of power know what is best for the majority. It is the belief that the earth is Flat, resources are limited, and that the world of today should remain the same tomorrow. Years ago I visited Cuba and realized that Fidel Castro wanted, ultimately, to freeze time. He wanted a country locked in the 1950s, with the same cars, the same pathetic struggling economic model, and keeping him – the same long-winded leader – at its helm. Censorship was rampant. Why? Because of fear. Fear that knowledge and enlightenment and progress and critical thinking and analysis might topple some of the wrongly placed powerful from their ill-gained positions.

Congratulations to Evan, for realizing the importance of a principle we regard essential to civilized living: freedom of speech and press.

Want to know more about writers exiled because of their opinions and word? Check out PEN International.


New Format to Roundwood Press Web Log Coming Soon…

The new format of this web log (published every two weeks) will always include at least one of the following sections:

The Circular View – Video

Worn Sandals, Leather Notebook – Travel, Writing

Invisible Authors – Banned Books, Exiled Writers, Censored Words

The Siege Tower – Controversial Viewpoints

Contours and Chronometers – Geography and History

Illuminating Manuscripts – Book Reviews

The Satchel Peg – Bookstores

Currents of Thought – Quotes from Roundwood Press

Thanks for staying tuned in!

Great writing about….End of the World

A recent Wall Street Journal article about natural resources is both brazen and controversial.

Natural resources, we are told, are not running out.

Titled The Scarcity Fallacy, the piece drew my attention. I read the short overview (“…we have broken though such limits again and again…innovation improves the environment…”) before scanning the byline at page bottom to learn about the author. It read: Mr. Ridley is the author of The Rational Optimist and a member of the British House of Lords.

Published author? Member of the House of Lords? These credentials hooked me. I wanted to read his article.



Will these critters emerge if the human world ends?


The article sucked me in, not only because of the message, but because of the clarity and precision of the writing.

The basic gist of the piece is that doom and gloom prophets have historically and repeatedly predicted shortfalls and imminent scarcity of material resources (and energy), only to have their warnings neutralized by unforseen or unexpected adoption of fresh alternatives that avert catastrophe. For example, in 1972 the think-tank group The Club of Rome published a book titled Limits to Growth, predicting shortages of metals, minerals, and fuels. What happened instead is efficiency improved in the use of materials.

“Why did it not happen? In a word, technology: better mining techniques, more frugal use of materials, and if scarcity causes price increases, substitution by cheaper material. We use 100 times thinner gold plating on computer connectors than we did 40 years ago. The steel content of cars and buildings keeps falling.”

Video: Where I want to be if the world is about to end

Author credentials and a bold headline hooked me into reading the piece (he enhances credentials by explaining his work both as an economist and an ecologist). While reading, I was reassured by Ridley’s use of specifics, and his dedication to precision. He avoids insinuation, rumor, or generalities to bolster his argument, and adds relevant facts. Statements such as:

“Haiti is 98% deforested…”

“…the land required to grow a given quantity of food has fallen by 65% over the past 50 years…”

“…calculated that no country with a GDP per head greater than $4,600 has a falling stock of forest…”

This is basic journalism: provide facts that support your story. However, Ridley’s use of facts is judicious. He doesn’t drown us in statistics or bore us with repetition. Like walnuts in a salad, his facts add substance and improve his story’s flavor.

Ridley’s position and previous publication hooked me into reading his article; his clarity and precision strengthened his message – and made it hit home. This is the type of writing to strive for – powerful and persuading.


Other – 

In the last post I mentioned Vine Videos – six second videos now rampant on the internet. I created my own vine video (the first, perhaps the last) to market the fiction book River of Dreams. It’s intended to provide atmosphere – weather, sound, images – that underscore the book’s tone. It’s six seconds long, but took quite a lot longer to produce. Unfortunately, after uploading it to YouTube, it is labeled as having a length of seven seconds. Well, I’m not returning to shave off that final fraction of a second…..not yet anyhow.



Thousand Years Since Ireland’s Battle of Clontarf

This month marks the one year anniversary of the birth of Roundwood Press online bookstore, and of this website.

Irish Sea shoreline – scene of this ancient battle


This month (Easter, specifically) also marks the thousand year anniversary of Ireland’s Battle of Clontarf, a fierce encounter along the shoreline of the Irish Sea.

The battle remains epic for two reasons. First, Chief Brian Boru united Ireland’s most powerful tribes for the fight. Second, Boru’s forces delivered victory by smashing the power of Viking invaders on the island.

Vikings plundered Irish monasteries and chapels, including Glendalough and Clonmacnoise


Events during this year’s anniversary will celebrate the grim gray day when longboats from as far away as Iceland beached the shoreline north of Dublin city, filled with warriors gripping battle axes and spears. A Hawaiian art collector will return a painting that depicts this fight to Ireland, while a concert tour through the island will celebrate the event.  Yes, the movie is being made, and even the Danes – Vikings of past eras – are keen to participate in these events.

What of the great chief whose reign instilled and sparked this mighty battle – Brian Boru? Ireland’s tourism board is promoting his story. I also include a chapter about Boru’s life, from childhood to Clontarf, in my book River of Ireland. And my book Leadership Lessons from an Irish Warrior is based on the life of Boru – an obscure leader whose bizarre and challenging vision for his era helped shape the fortunes of the Irish people.




Echo-Bravo Spells – Ebola

An unfortunate outbreak of Ebola, a type of hemorrhagic fever, is now attacking medical personnel as fast as it is decimating civilians in Guinea, west Africa.

This dire event plays out in a region already ravaged by economic woe.

How dire?

Over a decade ago, our team of medical and engineering staff were quarantined in a town in northern Angola after a student died from hemorrhagic fever. This episode is recounted in a chapter in my book titled Water After War – Seasons in Angola.

The event began when one of our staff invited medical personnel to the town where we lived so they could be trained as vaccinators.

The local post office – a bombed out and derelict casualty of war


“Using UN vehicles that traveled in the region, Ana Maria sent out letters to health officials throughout Uige province. She requested that they each send one delegate to attend a vaccination course she would hold in Maquela. All fourteen invited health delegates appeared days before the course began. One walked two hundred kilometers in four days. Several others had walked more than one hundred kilometers each.

“One of these students grew ill in Maquela. His headache and fever gave way to vomiting blood and he entered Maquela’s hospital unconscious. There was blood in his urine. He bled from his nose. In the poorly lit and primitive conditions of Maquela’s hospital, where reed mats were used as beds rather than mattresses, Dr. Karen and nurses from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) filled this patient with intravenous solutions, then provided him with a blood transfusion.”

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From left – Dr. Karen, nurse Ana Maria, Dr. Samson

Before the widespread use of cell phones, we used a radio in our vehicle to communicate the symptoms to our headquarters in the city of Luanda, Angola’s capital. Staff then transmitted this information to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the US. Our French friends sent the same information to the renowned Pasteur Institute in France.

“On a dirt road in rural Maquela, four of us sat inside the vehicle with our ears tilted toward the crackling, high frequency static. Dr. Karen spoke to a nurse from our organization with years of emergency room hospital experience. Karen requested that we switch to speak on a lesser used radio frequency, and afterwards spoke again.

“What did you say?” asked the nurse, named Paula. “I didn’t copy. Something bola?”

“That’s Echo Bravo,” Karen said, prompting her with phonetic cues. “Echo Bravo Oscar Lima Alpha.” Paula traced the letters for E-B-O-L-A on a writing pad before her voice turned stern.

“Give me the details.”

And so the waiting began.

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Visiting a rural clinic outside the town of Maquela

“The virus we dreaded was discovered in 1976 in the area of the Ebola River in northern Zaire. There had been few major outbreaks since then, although we knew that one occurred in Zaire earlier that year. Alarmed, we read what we could about the sickness from the sparse medical texts in Maquela (we had no access to the internet then). First, we knew there was a two to twenty-one day incubation period before an infected person grew ill. This was followed by symptoms that included headache, fatigue, muscle pain, and fever. These worsened to a condition of vomiting, diarrhea, and massive bleeding from all body orifices. There was no effective treatment or preventive vaccine for the sickness. Ninety percent of those who contracted Ebola died.”

We were instructed not to leave the dilapidated town where we worked, and United Nations supply planes halted their visits. We were cautioned not to leave our base.

“When we informed MSF of a possible outbreak of Ebola, they cordoned this patient off with a rope. They also posted a special guard before the hospital entryway who wore rubber boots and a white face mask. They next dismissed all non-emergency patients. Six local nurses, alerted by the word Ebola, fled into the hills.”

After the student died, our French friends passed on news from the Pasteur Institute.

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A derelict health post set in the beautiful rolling hills of Uige Province


“The antibodies had been for hemorrhagic fever in general, but not specifically for Ebola. Because there were several types of such fever, the results did not necessarily indicate a highly lethal strain. Once again, our sense of alert diminished. Ebola was no longer a concern.

“That evening Dr. Karen and I sat on our front porch. I asked her about the four other types of hemorrhagic fever.

How many are found in this part of Africa?”

“All,” she replied.

We never encountered another case of hemorrhagic fever. But the memory of how the symptons were described, how the nurses fled, how the town was locked down, and cohorts and colleagues maintained physical distance from one another, still provides a grim reminder of the importance that nations maintain the capability to diagnose, track, and contain viral outbreaks.

Sympathies to all of those impacted by this nasty outbreak in West Africa.

What’s the Value of Writing?



Ah, the inherent and ageless need to scribble


The facts regarding how much money writers earn when they self-publish, as opposed to getting their books brought to print (or placed online) through a traditional publisher, are in.  The report titled What Advantage Do Traditional Publishers Offer Authors: A Comparison of Traditional and Indie Publishing from the Authors’ Perspective includes potentially dismal news that twenty percent of both traditional and self-published authors make no money. None. About 55 percent of self-published, and 35 percent of traditionally published, authors earn up to $1,000 of writing income per year. A lot of work and a lot of writing earns very little. Only five percent of self-published authors earned more than $20,000 per year from their books, whereas 20 percent of traditionally published authors earned alike. Which leads to a basic question:

What’s the point of writing?

If we’re not earning a decent enough slice of the financial pie to keep us financially afloat – why write?

Here are a few reasons – based on my own decades of spending dozens of hours per month (sometimes per week) writing:

1. Writers can’t stop writing. Honestly. They love it. We love it. The desire to transmit information and stories is in our genetic code. We do it because we love words, chapters, and stories. We love paper and pens, or tapping keyboards. It’s expression, art, exposition, catharsis, communication.

2. Writing helps organize our thoughts. It helps provide our own minds with clear, distinct images we can later recall to tell an animated story or describe a clear process – whether we’re in a bar, restaurant, home, or hiking on a mountain trail. Our verbal stories, shaped first by writing, gain focus.


Late night bookstores satisfy Icelanders’ appetite for the printed word (literacy rate is 99 % )


3. Being published provides credibility. I published a book about rivers and was paid as a guest speaker in several different parts of the U.S., interviewed by dozens of radio stations, and hired as an eco-cruise ship onboard ‘historian.’ Self-publishing is now well respected, and a well-finished product demonstrates both an individual’s initiative as well as their ability to achieve the multitude of tasks needed to publish a book.

4. Writing expands our world. I spent vacations exploring Ireland, Italy, France, and over a dozen countries to research new books to write. There’s also plenty to explore in your own town or state or country. The process of gathering and organizing information alters your life. It also puts you in contact with people you would not have met otherwise.

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There is  a story down every pathway


5. Assembling a book instructs us about our world and people. Assembling a book about wine introduced me to dozens of characters in locations I’d never heard of before. Their stories shared a common theme: overcoming unusual forms of adversity to realize a dream. From these episodes I learned about humility and dedication, as well as how every individual is valuable.

6. Writing teaches us the rewards of dedication, and how concentration can result in quality. In college I once spent a summer working the night shift in a furniture factory, belt sanding tables. I learned how focused effort transformed rough slabs of wood into smooth and elegant table tops. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was right when he said that all writing is basically carpentry. When I later began writing books, I recalled those nights with a belt sander, and once spent hours revising one paragraph. It was worth it. To this day, the sound of that paragraph is music. It takes effort and dedication to provide a product that satisfies an audience – whether they are buying furniture, clothing, or stories.

7. Writing changes how we organize thoughts, hence our lives. Even sporadically writing a journal helps clarify thinking. Studies show that when jobless individuals write about their job- hunting frustrations, they end up getting jobs more quickly. Perhaps the process of mentally clarifying obstacles helps these individuals to better decide how to tackle them.

That’s powerful.

And – now and then – when a reader compliments a piece we write, it somehow all becomes worth it.


The Cookbook that Shaped Italy’s Language

During years past, I’ve collected cookbooks from several countries visited. I try cooking at least a recipe from each.

Cookbook Cover - Cambodia



Cookbook Cover - Iceland



Cookbook Cover - Jim Thompson








Most books are well laid out, attractive, thoughtfully organized, and include excellent recipes. Yet years ago I learned about one cookbook powerful enough to help shape Italy’s language.

A chapter from my book River of Tuscany tells a fictional episode based on the true character who wrote this book.

Pelligrino Artusi was a silk merchant who lived from 1820 to 1911. He traveled throughout Italy for business, mostly to Tuscan cities such as Siena.

While traveling and staying as a guest in many homes, he realized that rural women needed a cookbook which consolidated their range of recipes. He began collecting recipes from all over Italy, and women mailed him their personal lists of ingredients and methods for concocting dishes.

Unable to find a publisher, Artusi published the book himself under the title La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangier bene, or – Science in the Kitchen, and the Art of Eating Well.

After several years and near financial failure with the book, Artusi eventually hit success when a publisher took his title on. Within years, Artusi’s book became a hit throughout the land, the veritable Joy of Cooking for Italy. His blend of anecdotes, shards of history, and personal comments made the book approachable to women throughout Italy’s kitchens. It also spread a certain version of Italy’s written language around the country. This did for the Italian language much the same as what the book the Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia) did centuries earlier. Written by the poet Dante Alighieri in the local vernacular – the language of the people – Alighieri helped replace the use of Latin (the language of ancient Rome) with the more common tongue spoken throughout the land.

Pelligrino Book Cover

Artusi appealed to people’s respect that food is as important to life as sex, and his book ingratiated his name into Italy’s culinary consciousness. Pelligrino’s book is practical, humorous, and raw. He writes:

“Life has two principal functions: nourishment and the propagation of the species. Those who turn their minds to these two needs of existence, who study them and suggest practices whereby they might best be satisfied, make life less gloomy and benefit humanity. They may therefore be allowed to hope that, while humanity may not appreciate their efforts, it will at least show them generous and benevolent indulgence.”

For self-publishers, Artusi’s book is a reminder of the rewards of perseverance and patience.

In May of this year my nephew will marry his Italian fiance close to Venice. I also look forward to enjoying good food and wine and company, and will also practice speaking the basics of the vernacular, the language Artusi’s cookbook helped disseminate throughout Italy.

Buon appetito.

Other Snippets –

While reading Publishers Weekly today during a plane flight to Karachi, I was happily surprised to see that it listed a cover image and description of my latest fictional book – River of Dreams.

Kathleen Gamble, an author who attended the same high school as I did in Europe, recently published her cookbook Fifty-two Food Fridays, which includes recipes from throughout the world. Congrats, Kathleen!

Books about the Mountain Kingdom of Bhutan

The country of Bhutan issues stickers showing an orange dragon, with the words – Land of the Peaceful Dragon. Truth is, Bhutan is the Land of the Thunder Dragon. The problem is that a ‘thunder dragon’ is sometimes construed as male reproductive hardware, and that the renowned historical, perhaps apocryphal, hero known as The Divine Mad Man used his own thunder dragon to subdue evil spirits after one of them transformed into a dog. I’m not going to speculate on the imagery of what took place, but I can see why the tourist board might want to avoid detailed questions regarding that story.


Land of multiple monasteries


Before venturing to Bhutan, I read a few books about the country. Even if you don’t plan to visit, these are good armchair travel reads about a small nation that will likely grow in international renown, and soon. First, Bhutan has the fourth fastest growing economy in the world; second, the King’s casual comment at a summit in India in 1979 that he was not interested in gross national product, but in gross national happiness, has been latched onto by philosophers, economists, development experts, and politicians as an alternative way of viewing economic progress as most nations currently regard it.


Happy? Seems that way.


Third, in about four years from now, the 22 year old Rimpoche will be inaugurated as the spiritual leader of Bhutan. Why is this important? Because he is the seventh reincarnation of the 17th century Guru Rimpoche, who transformed to a flying tiger and instigated construction of the country’s most spectacular cliff-hanging monastery. But apparently several reincarnations were never discovered, and in their place the spiritual leaders of Bhutan were appointed. So, this rather unique Rimpoche may, in a few years, begin occupying a niche with a level of international reverence approaching that now shown to the Dalai Lama.

Stay tuned.


Easygoing, though devout and dedicated Bhutanese monks



Ornate clocktower in sleepy, downtown Thimphu


The book Radio Shangri-La: What I Discovered on my Accidental Journey to the Happiest Kingdom on Earth by Lisa Napoli is a tale of surprise; imagine one day that your relatively humdrum Southern California existence is shaken when you are invited to move to Bhutan for more than a month and help establish a radio station in the capital city. Lisa describes both frustrations and joys: the camaraderie and kindness of coworkers as well as the frustrations of befriending a Bhutanese woman who ‘visits’ her in the United States, but really only moved there to stay and find work. Lisa works in Bhutan, leaves, and then returns only to discover, surprising and abruptly, that the city of Thimphu is not really a place she can call home. This is the rawest revelation in the book; that the romance has ended, and she realizes that her own roots and home are elsewhere.


Plenty of mountains and valleys; just need some road improvements.


Married to Bhutan – How One Woman Got Lost, Said ‘I Do,’ and Found Bliss by Linda Leaming

Linda Leaming eases herself into the culture of Bhutan, and then plunges in by marrying a local man. Her insights into the culture are, from this relationship, direct and honest. At times she finds herself mystified by the culture and the people, regardless of how close she wants to become to the Bhutanese. The book is also a paean to the strength and benefit of a good marriage between two people dedicated to working hard to make the union solid and lasting. Her descriptions of spending winter nights in unheated, or poorly heated buildings, brings home the reality that Linda has shucked the habits of visitors, embraced the ways of locals, and moved on from any soft living she may have enjoyed before moving to Bhutan. As with all books about Bhutan, there are plenty of scenes about one of the most common events in the country – sitting down, chatting, and drinking tea.


Anytime is tea time



Saigon – a Good Read

In trying to find a decent book about Vietnam, I found books about war, as well as recent travel guides. But my friend John Rockhold, who fought in the Vietnam war and who now lives in the city of Saigon with his Vietnamese wife and two children, recommended the book Saigon – An Epic Novel of Vietnam, written by Anthony Grey in 1982, and re-released in October, 2013.


A local market scene, from a painting on sale in a Saigon alleyway

Years ago when I worked in Malawi, John worked for a Danish consulting company. One day, myself and two other Peace Corps volunteer engineers were sent to where he managed a project in the southern town of Balaka. He immediately provided us with work to do while the Malawian government waited for funding for rural water supply projects we were assigned to design and build. In my book Water and Witchcraft – Three Years in Malawi John is the man who introduced us to Malawi. [Named Rickenbakker rather than Rockhold.] John now owns and directs his own successful engineering consulting business in the city of Saigon – also now known as Ho Chi Minh City (please, no political correctness comments regarding the city name; locals refer to it as Saigon).


Downtown Saigon today – a colorful blend of parks, traditional architecture, and raucous moped traffic


The fictional book Saigon begins in the 1920s and moves to the 1970s, following the life of a young American who first visited the country with his parents as a boy, and found love, friendship, and intrigue during his subsequent visits.


A map painted on the wall of the old train station, which is now a market


This is a grand tale, which – like a James A. Michener book – is long, sweeping in scope, and entertaining. It is a tale of family and allegiances, woven in with the author’s solid grasp of history and facts from days he spent working as a newspaper foreign correspondent.

The book provides rich history about the French / Vietnamese relationship long before the United States engaged in a war in the region. This includes how much the French valued this coastal S-shaped strip of land.

The Frenchman peered through his binoculars for a moment. “Yes, Monsieur Joseph, you are right. That is the coast of the most beautiful and prosperous French colony in the world.” ’


John shopping in his home city – where he was stationed as a soldier decades ago



Market fresh

The book also weaves in the history of Vietnam before the French arrived.

“…they had named their country Nam Viet — Land of the Southern Viet People. This was changed to An Nam — The Pacified South — by the Chinese who conquered them, occupied their territory for eleven centuries, and called them Annamese.”


Local ‘pho’ noodle soup – inexpensive and delicious


For those interested in Vietnam, including military history, this book provides illuminating insight into conflicts from the past century. For visitors to Vietnam, the story also highlights fundamental geography, topography, and cultural variations within the country.

“…the rocky peaks of the thousand-mile-long mountain spine that linked the rich southern rice lands of the Mekong delta and Saigon with the fertile plain of the Red River around Hanoi in the north.”

This engaging story provides history about Saigon within a tale of deception, rape, torture, bravery, and unexpected victories.

“In old Annamese it means ‘Village of the Boxwoods,’ after the trees that originally grew there. It wasn’t much more than a fishing village until the eighteenth century when French Jesuits and a few merchants demanded the right to build a city. But its name could also be based on the Chinese characters ‘Tsai Con,’ which mean ‘Tribute paid to the West.’ ”


Majestic Hotel – where foreign correspondents stayed during the Vietnam war


During the French colonial era, ample opium dens operated around Saigon

The book’s characters include United States Senator Nathaniel Sherman, who brings his two young sons to visit Saigon on a hunting trip. During this outing in the initial chapters, his bravery and bluster are unhinged through a bizarre act of cowardice. The story, one of many from the book, sets up Sherman’s ego to topple by showcasing his own defiant narratives. For example Sherman tells his sons how Vietnam, or any nation, needs to be ruled by force.

“That’s the way of the world. The rich and the powerful call the tune. If you can muster superior strength, you can impose your way of thinking on others — even if they don’t like what you do or the way you do it.”

This story will take you on a journey into Vietnam far deeper and more extensive than any books confined to military conflicts of the past fifty years.

Thanks for the hospitality, John and Nga. And for recommending a good read.

My happy hosts - John and his wife Nga - in Saigon

Happy couple – John and wife Nga – in Saigon







Images from the Warm Heart of Africa – Malawi

No time to write this week – so am just including images from my book Water and Witchcraft – Three Years in Malawi.

These were all taken with Kodachrome film before the advent of digital photography. What a colorful and photogenic African country Malawi is. I was fortunate to spend three very wonderful years living there and meeting amazingly hospitable and lively people.

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Gule Wankulu dancers

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All sorts of luggage goes ‘pa mutu,’ on the head

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Piped water – saving women hours from having to walk miles to a well each day

Read more about Water and Witchcraft at Roundwood Press. 

Finding Home in Burgundy

Two years ago my friend Robin and I spent five days at a house in the village of Magny-les-Villers in Burgundy – surrounded by vineyards and rolling countryside. On arrival at such a quiet location, Robin wondered aloud whether we would find things to do for five days. On leaving, we both wished we could stay for weeks longer.


Peaceful Magny-les-Villers

I found this new book about Magny-les-Villers online. Turns out it was written by Laura Bradbury who (together with her husband Franck) rented us the house where we stayed. Titled My Grape Escape, this book is all about finding and renovating that property. It is about camaraderie with friends, family, and workers who help inject sanity and levity into the daunting task of completing renovations before the first paying guests arrive.


Colorful entry way from an inner courtyard


View of the local church steeple

The genre is that of foreigner buys property in France, undertakes renovations, and in doing so learns to slow down and appreciate the quality of day to day life. It also documents the transformation of a person as well as a property. Laura was in her twenties when she and Franck purchased this property. Her years of studying law at Oxford convinced her that time spent in non-productive tasks was almost abhorrent, something to feel guilty about. But her husband Franck helped demonstrate otherwise.


One of many cellars within walking distance

When they set off to spend a day buying a second hand car, they instead enjoyed long hours with friends eating breakfast and lunch, and drinking wine and coffee, and buying – unexpectedly – all required kitchenware for their home at a bargain price. Their failure to find a car was alleviated within days when they found one to purchase elsewhere. The book is filled with these scenes – which expand Laura’s comfort in letting go of control. As Franck asks her about events in life: “…why don’t you try to believe that they will turn out just fine – no matter what we do or don’t do?”

One day when Laura and Franck part from their friend René, he leans in the open car window to tell her, “…never confuse what is urgent with what is truly important.”


We found a tiny wine outlet…


…selling some cracking good burgundy


Laura lets go of her plans and realizes that working long hours in a law firm might damage her precious marriage. She also begins to enjoy herself more. Opportunities to learn abound around Magny-les-Villers. “I had never met anyone who was more gifted for capitalizing on a moment of celebration than Burgundians,” she writes.




Whether you want the renowned Montrachet….


….or a famed Clos du Veugeot…








….or just a simple wine for lunch – Burgundy has it all

On visiting a physician to get a prescription for pills to reduce anxiety, Laura hears her husband Franck ask whether his wife can still drink wine while on medication.

“Only good wine,” Doctor Dupont answered. “I would highly recommend around two glasses at lunch and dinner. Something fortifying. A Pommard or a Vosne-Romanée would be perfect, though I would also consider a solid Savigny. I would, however, advise you to stay away from the whites at the moment, Madame Germain. They tend to have an agitating effect.”


Voila! What the doctor ordered – Vosne-Romanee

IMG_0460a - PS2The book is riddled with colors, scents, and images of good food and wine. There are blue-footed chickens from Louhands, yellow wine from the Jura region, cherry red ramekins, lime green pie plates, as well as stewed rabbits and prunes in white wine sauce, smoked morteau sausages and potatoes with crème fraiche and freshly chopped parsley, and bottles of bubbly crémant, Hautes-Côtes de Nuits, and Savigny-les-Beaune Les Guettes.

The home they are renovating comes with historical intrigue. Built in the year of the French Revolution and the storming of the Bastille – 1789 – it was also used to house a billeted German soldier during the Second World War.

It was a pleasure to read this story of how the property we stayed in was first renovated. Though I never met Laura and Franck personally because they were in Canada at the time, the attention to detail they put into each communication, and their rapid responsiveness to our queries were both informative and helpful. The brightly painted home was a joy to stay in. On more than one morning while there, we woke, drank coffee, sliced a baguette for breakfast, then simply opened the door to wander by foot around some of the most sublime and precious wine properties of the Cote D’Or.


Burgundy terrain – producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

This book brings alive the quirky joys of living in the French countryside, and will make you reconsider what you truly consider important in life.

Check out more about Laura and Franck’s properties in France, here, or Laura’s book My Grape Escape, here for the Kindle version, and here for the paperback.

Where to go?

Laura and Franck can recommend some of the best places to visit. Two local wineries recommended by Franck are the following:

Domaine Naudin-Ferrand

In Magny-les-Villers; 03 80 62 91 50;

Domaine Maillard-Lobreau

In nearby Savigny lès Beaune; 03 80 21 53 42;