Crazy Numbers, Big Thinking, and God

I recently read a riveting book titled Future Crimes: Everything is Connected. Everyone is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It—by Marc Goodman. It is a well-researched, well-written tale of how hacking is, and will, impact the world in which we live. However, aside from fascinating tales of hacking, here are a few pieces of information which relate to scale and size that are quite astounding.

An internet address for every atom…this open ocean of the Maldives must have a few trillion

  • The number of internet addresses available (related to Internet Protocol Version 4, or IPv4) was established in 1981. It provided about 4.3 billion network addresses – ‘each one representing a different connected device.’ But we are now running out of addresses. So IPv6 was formed. It can handle 2 to the power of 128 connections. How many is that? Imagine that each grain of sand on all the beaches in the world were each given 1 trillion addresses. That’s how many. Or, if every atom on our planet were given a unique address, we would still have enough ‘left to do another 100+ earths.’ So when the ‘internet of things’ becomes a dominant reality, every piece of furniture in your home, every non-perishable item you own (actually, probably perishable also), can have multiple individual addresses. The establishment of IPv6 embodied thinking big and thinking far ahead.
  • A Harvard professor named George Church has concluded that, once we start storing electronic data using DNA rather than silicon chips (within the basic biology of cells) we could store the entire quantity of digital data generated by humankind in one year in—get this—about four grams of DNA. That would weigh about the same as eight paperclips (in contrast, the Utah Data Center—which now stores data and processes data also, includes about 1.5 million square feet of data storage space.)

If this far reaching, big thinking snags your attention, here is more.

The beauty of biology may include data storage capabilities – a scene near Bourg, Bordeaux, France

I recently came across a series of notes I took long ago during the Boston Book Festival in October of 2011. In a panel titled ‘Frontiers of Science,’ Lisa Randall—a physicist working with CERN laboratories in Switzerland (and author of Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, which I am currently reading) said: “Atoms are supposed to be indivisible and unchanging. But we’ve found them because they are changeable and divisible.”

A look at infinity in the Hunter Valley of Australia

Later, at a panel titled ‘Learning Learning’—Nicholas Negroponte spoke. This man was the first investor in Wired Magazine and a proponent of creating $100 laptop computers to be provided to huge quantities of people throughout the world. During this conference he said, “There are roughly 100 million kids who don’t go to first grade, because there is none.”

(Later on, he also said: “Reading is new to the brain. It’s not something we do naturally.”)

Organic beauty

Consider these statements. Do they share a commonality?

To consider creating a vast amount of internet addresses, to consider storing data in biological cells instead of on chips, to consider breaking mental and mathematical models regarding the structure of atoms, to consider delivering $100 laptops to millions of humans all over the planet—these are all thought processes that require shifting our viewpoint of the world.

They require changing our paradigm.

Reality depends on your viewpoint

Years ago I wrote about an article that mentioned a geographical researcher and explorer who changed the dominant model of how we regard the way that continents move on our planet. He essentially defined the basis of the theory of plate tectonics, which explains how continents shift over time.

Yet his original theory was vehemently attacked by by so called ‘professionals’ —later proved to be very wrong.

Only by stepping away from traditional viewpoints can true visionaries envision ways to transform our world—potentially for the better.

The article that I wrote years ago about the folly of clinging to what is established is here—in Columbia Magazine.

The Wild West

Which brings us to a final and most entertaining story regarding large numbers, a mountain excursion to Tibet and, well, God.

When I was ten or 12 years old we were in southern Spain in the town of Nerja, where my parents owned a home. On the rooftop porch of this house during a starlit evening our American friend Scott told a story. He recalled a tale by the science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke.

Published in 1953 and titled The Nine Billion Names of God, this story is only nine pages long. I suggest you Google and read it.

Being uncertain of the copyright status, I have provided only an indirect link.

Amen

A story about a few computer programmers making a starlit mountain pony trek in the Himalayas may be fictitious, but it could be even less bizarre than our own reality. The point being? Keeping an open mind is a useful tool not only to survive, but to thrive.

Ever changing reality

^^^

Although Roundwood Press includes ebooks and print books, we lack the marketing capability for my new cookbook—The Winemakers’ Cooking Companion. We are negotiating with a few publishers.

If you are a publisher interested in this project, please get in touch.

The video below provides a 3 minute overview.

1.5 Minutes To Another Universe

Here are two stories about the beneficial magic of veering away from what is routine.

The first involves a detour of a few minutes on foot, the second an exploration by car to a location an hour away.

ONE: MINUTES.

On Sunday evening, at the end of a long 14th of July Bastille Day set of weekend celebrations here in France, I walked out my front door.

I walked past the usual wine bars and restaurants, then decided to take a right. I passed a pizzeria and a Michelin ‘bib’ quality restaurant. I paced past kids throwing water off of a porch at their friends (it was 95 degrees F [35 C], after all) and checked whether a small bar/restauarant a group of us had  visited a year ago was open.

A gathering

It was!

I entered and ordered a glass of wine. The female proprietor told me I’d also have to order food.

Hot dog, I said after inspecting the menu. Plain. Dog, bread. That’s all.

I then sat on the porch.

She soon returned with the hot dog (which, in France, was three hot dogs squeezed between layers of a sliced baguette) and a glass of local red wine.

A young couple walked past. They said hello to the owner. I said hello to them. They then sat down to join me.

The couple ordered a Kronenburg beer, a glass of water and a sandwich.

Fred had lived in Portugal. Melissa came from the Cognac region to the north.

It was still plenty hot, but we sat in the shade.

We talked. They were curious—an American living in Blaye?! Did I know Yellowstone? Los Angeles?

Bien sur! I said. Of course.

They had met six years earlier. When they first met and talked they found out they each had a daughter named Melinda, and both of their daughters were six years old. Their ensuing relationship, they explained, was ‘destiny.’

The husband of the woman who served us, presumably the co-owner, stepped onto the porch. He wore his chef’s apron. There were no other customers. We all chatted. The summer evening bubbled with curiosity and stories.

A grandmother pulled up a chair to our table. She was together with her lively four year old granddaughter named ‘Ocean’—with one parent from Madagascar.

By visiting this slightly off the path locale, I had entered another universe. Everyone wanted to talk in the summer heat.

The sun went low, a breeze blew in, and we reveled in the cool air and conversation—animated and excited.

It reminded me of being at some bar in a remote Italian village, say, 30 years ago.

Yet the total walking time from my front door had been four minute and 15 seconds.  The deviation from my normal route was one minute and 30 seconds on foot, up an alley not traveled along in almost a year.

Another world.

That is the way of life. We grow used to routines, structure, means and methods which are familiar. We seldom truly head off the beaten trail—ditching guidebooks and advice and simply wandering.

And yet, as I learned 17 years ago when I drove a camper van through the United States to follow the route of the historic explorers Lewis and Clark, it is sometimes only yards away from well traveled highways that we encounter virtual miracles of hospitality, friendship and novelty.

This time a sudden, spontaneous and short lived cluster of camaraderie was only one and a half minutes away from what was routine.

Far away from what was expected.

And when I traveled a little further away (the story below), I learned how the experience could be not only enriching, but powerfully instructive.

 

TWO: HOUR.

I had to get out of town. After scouring multiple nearby locales on booking.com and Airbnb I chose one. Google maps showed it was 111 minute drive away, which sounded appropriately auspicious. It was a bed and breakfast with a swimming pool close to multiple restaurants in walking distance.

I couldn’t check in until 5.30, which meant that I had to depart during the hottest part of this 94 degree F (34 C) day at 4 o’clock in my beloved boat of a classical old Mercedes without, at present, functioning air conditioning, or ventilation (except for rolled down windows).

Perfect!

A challenge.

The canal and bike path in Saujon

Off I went and soon arrived. My upstairs room in this town of Saujon (which I had never heard of before) was quite minuscule, cooled only by a ceiling fan.

But there was the outdoor pool. With an alarm! Bizarre. The owner, a convivial woman, instructed me on how to deactivate the potentially wailing siren before plunging in.

The creperie on the water

I then walked a few minutes into town.

Intriguing.

This was a canal city, 18 miles (30 kilometers) from the Atlantic Ocean. Nice environment. There were large public squares, an admirable short and square bell tower and a tree lined bicycle path next to the breezy grass lined canal.

Most restaurants were closed, it being Monday. But I found a table on a terrace by the church spire (which then rang, timely and sonorous) and ordered a jug of white wine and roast chicken and raised my glass and toasted the couple seated at the adjacent table—Sante! Suddenly life was summertime full and brilliant and filled with quixotic slivers of generous serendipity.

Someone recently taught a French phrase appropriate for this type of relaxed moment we truly appreciate: Je profite de l’instant present—I enjoy the present moment.

Cool breezes on a hot day along canal waters

Thank you, Universe.

And then this realization arrived: When you arrive at a destination and it is completely misaligned with your expectations—yet not in an overall negative way—this allows you space, even forces you, to realign the shape of your own thoughts and expectations. About life. About everything.

This is a gift.

And when your table neighbors insist on pouring you a final and hefty glass from their bottle of Charente rosé, you again say thank you universe for unexpected camaraderie.

Fried veggies and olives

The sun hung low and orange behind the skyline buildings surrounding that public square and swifts and swallows dove around the belfry, past red flowers planted in oval terra-cotta pots at the edge of the terrace.

A minute after delivering a mug of ‘grande cafe’ coffee, a lovely young woman also delivered a silver pot of hot milk to the table and sang (truly sang) the word ‘voila‘ as she placed it with deft aplomb before she scurried away. Dusk flew in and the temperature cooled and a local woman in a black and white dress paraded her bulldog before the church and I wanted time to stretch and swallow and let me stay in that moment forever—or at least in some timeless iteration of that idyllic welcoming scene.

A colorful canal corner in Saujon

But here is an unexpected reason that those moments were so powerful.

The next evening I sat and listed decisions made since arrival in Saujon: specific actions to take to move forward with life. After pacing a canal side for a day and a half and eating fried vegetables and drinking Charente white wine or red Sicilian Nero D’Avola it turned out that I’d made 17 concrete decisions on actions and habits to take after arriving home. Many of them were creative, novel, and had never occurred before within the context of routine situations.

This powerful insight to planning occurred while wandering, relaxed.

Such is a benefit of moving to an unknown space now and then, of deviating from what is routine with an open minded attitude of exploration.

Sometimes it’s worth getting spoilt with globs of insight within unusual locations.

Sometimes it’s not bad to get lost.

 

^ ^ ^

If you are interested in reading more stories about travel and coincidences, check out my books…

Synchronicity as Signpost

The Synchronous Trail – Enlightened Travels

If you sign up below for this newsletter/blog, I’ll send you a copy of any one of them for free.

Thanks again for tuning in.

How Morocco and the Atlas Mountains Changed Life

Terry near the Atlas Mountains. We did not have many cares back then.

Every few weeks I’ll walk up the main street in the town where I live in in France and purchase a pink copy of the Financial Times Weekend newspaper. It’s all art and travel and cooking and even includes a magazine now and then titled How To Spend It advertising Cartier watches and including photos of tawdry lasses who transformed to posh gals by wearing Saint Laurent leather bustiers, silk bandanas and Wilson Swarovski crystal and rhodium plated brooches.

And then there are—after, say, a suave article about having lunch with author Hilary Mantel in a Devon restaurant—articles about travel.

One recent article was about Morocco. The author recalled his previous visit, 15 years ago, to the town of Imlil at the base of Mount Toupkal in the Atlas Mountains. He recalled how television was coming into the region, and the reaction of the local Berber people. He talked about Richard Branson’s new hotel, and mountaineering stores and ample cafes.

Really?

I remember something different.

Because I visited Imlil 27 years ago.

I had taken the ferry from Spain to Tangier and met a college friend who was a Peace Corps volunteer. We took various buses with two Australian gals I had met on the ferry from Spain to Morocco.

Once in the mountains, the four of us rented a massive room on the second floor of a huge stone building at the base of the Atlas Mountains. There was no running water or electricity.

We piled all sorts of blankets over ourselves on a deep rug on the floor in the middle of the second story. The huge stone room was round and surrounded by windows and had no furniture.

There were candles, but no lights. That was not because the place was trying to be romantic.

Earlier, for dinner, we had found the equivalent of a restaurant up a hill, a lantern lit hovel inside a stone building where they served soup with hunks of fat encrusted beef and chunks of bread. I remember leaving hungry, questioning the food.

But it was the only place to eat at in Imlil.

In the morning the girls sat outside on metal framed summer furniture without cushioned pads and they drank Nescafe coffee on porch tables. Terry and I went for a long walk on a winding gentle footpath before the foothills of Mount Toupkal.

We chewed some local substance to enhance the journey.

Beautiful.

The day before, I had tried to take photos of brightly colored dresses of Berber children.

They threw rocks at me.

Wow!

I wanted to move there, to live there, to rent a stone house and to practice my writing.

Backpack, Moroccan mountains, and different frames of mind.

That never happened.

But, days later, after the Australian girls had gone their merry way, Terry and I traveled more, this time on the back of his motorcycle. At the time I was hell bent on becoming a writer, but knew I had to practice. Practice, practice, practice. Write, write, write. I was tormented. I considered renting some stone home for a few months in the Moroccan outback and practicing my writing, trying to evoke the beauty of the desert in the same way that Edward Abbey had breathed life into his descriptions of the southwestern desserts of the U.S. in his book Desert Solitaire. One night, I think it was on New Year’s eve, we went to a disco in the big city of Rabat. They served alcohol and Terry was dancing with cute western women and I was agonizing about the truth that I needed to write! I felt intensely guilty about being in some disco while I should have been dedicating each minute to the craft I wanted to pursue. It was bizarre to be in the throes of fun and to feel so tormented.

Less than a year later I was off on my own adventure as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, where I practiced writing and began a career of overseas work. About ten years later, having worked in Namibia, Angola, Dubai, Thailand, the Philippines, Panama and Guatemala (during which time I wrote books during my free time—self-published because the New York publishing scene never embraced my words) I FINALLY came to a conclusion, on another New Year’s Eve in my brother’s trailer in Paradise Cove in Malibu, California: finally I knew how to write. I had practiced my craft for more than a decade, and the angst felt during that trip to Morocco earlier had vanished.

I had learned to smoothen prose (much as I had learned to belt sand tables while working ten-hour night shifts in a furniture factory in Boulder, Colorado, during college).

We had visited many places during that trip to Morocco. We took trains to Marrakech (no, sorry, Crosby, Stills and Nash—there is no Marrakech Express); we had wandered through markets in Tangier, and hand carried our self made pizzas through dark alleys to a local communal oven for baking in the town of Tiznit, where Terry lived in rural Morocco with his American girlfriend.

No doubt those locations have changed.

I recall watching Terry climb up windmills with a monkey wrench to fix the water systems in different villages. And recall seeing, and appreciating, deep crimson desserts of the countryside while we rode on that motorcycle.

Perhaps I may return.

But—this time?

No more itch to rent a remote dessert building in order to practice writing.

No more guilt at having drinks while at a club in Rabat.

Life moves on. We learn, we change, we learn to appreciate change.

And to appreciate life!

***

If you would like to read any of the three books I’ve written about Africa, click below:

Water and Witchcraft – Three Years in Malawi

The Deep Sand of Damaraland – A Journal of Namibia

Water After War – Seasons in Angola

 

 

The Train Ride That Changed Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That realization? Worth any course from any school.

 

Vineyard Hospitality

Occasionally friends visit the town where I live in France. The first visitors were family members, and we drove out to a wine château where a friend, a wild haired young surfing winemaker named Nicolas, lives with his family in the nearby village of Cars. Nicolas and his father Denis do not give tours of their wine château because they are too busy tending wines and fermenting cuvées in oak and steel. But because they had told me to bring family and friends, I had phoned them in advance about a rendezvous. We agreed on a visit. A day later, a sister and her boyfriend, friends from Blaye and a visiting Dutch couple drove there in two vehicles.

Denis prepares to carve the entrecôte

Months earlier, I had bought a twenty-year old Mercedes from a friend in Blaye. It had bulletproof windows because it once belonged to the Nigerian ambassador in London. Four of us piled into that car and cranked up the air conditioning, while two others piloted another vehicle. We met at the château.

Nicolas gave us a tour of his Merlot and Malbec vines in the scorching heat. He pointed out horses on grassy fields across a valley. He then brought us inside a beautifully decorated stone building where he and Denis had uncorked at least seven vintages to sample. There was a massive plate of charcuterie on the table. While we sipped and nibbled, Denis set fire to old grapevines in the fireplace, then clamped entrecôte steaks in a wire mesh holder and grilled these over crackling flames and jumping embers.

While we ate this abundant food, our garbled and multicultural conversation flowed with the wine. In the late afternoon we stumbled outside to the shade of trees on a patch of grass. The temperature was deliciously cool. Out came a guitar, and tunes flowed while more corks popped.

Finally, we drank cognac, shook hands, kissed cheeks, patted shoulders and decided it was time to depart and sleep soundly.

Eight hours after our arrival, jazzed on French wine and food and countryside living in a vineyard without tours but with unrushed ambiance, we returned to Blaye.

I phoned Nicolas he next afternoon. I asked, as agreed earlier, to tell the total cost of food and wine and the visit. I would pay him within a week.

He refused. “No!” he shouted. “You were our guest!”

When I insisted on paying, he refused. Instead, I thanked him and invited his family to dinner. Denis and his wife, together with Nicolas and his sister, arrived.

We ate at La Galerie in Blaye, an art gallery/restaurant with live guitar music. We sat at a long wood table scarred with ancient dents and dings and ate healthy portions of maigre fish from the estuary, local white asparagus, magret du canard duck breast and roasted veal with baby potatoes while we poured several magnums of beautiful 2009 wine.

When they heard we had paid for their meal, Nicolas and his father were shocked.

“What!” they declared, astounded. “You shouldn’t have!”

After lunch caffeine and digestifs beneath the trees

The next day, Nicolas showed up. Not to be matched or outdone by our dinner contribution, he handed over a precious double magnum of their 2002 red wine.

“A gift,” he said. “Small one.”

I laughed, wondering what we would next do in return.

Events like this make living here precious.

What Is Success? A Few Observations…

What is success?

There are many definitions. For me, the ability to have control over time is critical—to be able to work where I want, when I want, and to do whatever I want is key, as well as to be financially solvent and to have peace of mind.

Often, contentment is simply the absence of strife.

I’ve not yet gotten there.

But, am working on it. More appropriately – cultivating it.

Internally.

For decades I’ve ingested the wisdom of self-help books, and they have been inspiring in various ways.

Here are a few lessons learned from experience during past decades.

  • An open mind and a positive attitude are key—they form about 80% of the magical juice that will allow the fabric of reality to bend to your desires.
  • There come moments in life when situations and circumstances fall into place. Pay attention to those times, and why they harmonize with your own desires.

  • Sometimes your key to success is revealed by where your enemies lie. Whether you like it or not, whether or not you are honest, tolerant and humble, there come times in life when others rabidly dislike you—through no fault of your own. You will have done nothing wrong to bring their animosity into your life. They detest you merely because you exist. Perhaps it is your very equanimity they dislike. Or your situation or status. Regardless, pay attention, and do not be afraid. For they can be like dye-markers indicating the direction you must journey toward to reach your desired situation. They are beams of light indicating the very signal strengths that, until then, you may have been unaware of possessing. They can be the springboards off which you can leap into new, bolder, newer directions. As Napoleon Hill wrote in his book The Law of Success: “Don’t be afraid of a little opposition. Remember that the “Kite” of Success generally rises AGAINST the wine of Adversity—not with it!”

  • At other times, the direction to success may be pointed to by ‘angels’ – those who wish you well. The most ludicrously beneficial advice may arrive, unexpectedly, from that individual you previously considered ludicrous. That strange dude with the twee scarf, and the drooping handlebar mustache? He may whisper advice leading to your personal fortune. On this point, trust me.
  • The more you have, the more you have to take care of. Be prudent in your selection of how many possessions you want in life.

  • No situation remains the same. You take a job, learn who the key supervisors are, and then, one-by-one, they will leave or be replaced and just when you learn the ropes, the rigging changes. This can provide frustration or opportunity. All situations and power structures alter with time. Often our desires arrive in life, apparently unbidden, by a few mere natural changes in circumstance.
  • Discipline—in work, exercise and thinking—is a muscle that thrives on exercise. Still, allow yourself a bit of latitude. After all, we only live once.

  • Don’t be too concerned with what other people think of you. They are usually too busy thinking of what groceries to buy tonight, or where the next gas station is to fill up their fuel tank.
  • When life throws you in a direction several times, pay attention. I once re-visited the town of Atchison in Kansas, and locked my car keys in the car THREE times in the space of two hours (police and locksmiths came to the rescue). I then slowed down to consider this bizarre situation. Perhaps, I realized, before leaving town on that day trip, I should call a friend who lived there, and who I had promised to contact. I did so. We met, had dinner and both appreciated the reunion. The car key scenario, thankfully, made me re-evaluate the selfish desire to rush out of town without fulfilling a promise made months earlier. Another time I spent six hours hitchhiking in one direction in rural Malawi, Africa. No rides. I crossed the road, hitchhiked in the other direction and got a ride within minutes (there were about the same number of cars moving in both directions). I went home, and realized that I truly had not wanted to make that planned trip to Mount Mulanje that day anyhow, and that not getting a ride worked best. This happened repeatedly in that country: whenever I truly did not want to go somewhere, cars and buses broke down or thunderstorms closed in and those journeys ceased prematurely. Whenever I truly did want to get somewhere, and cultivated a calm confidence in eventual arrival, travel opportunities appeared in abundant, often bizarre ways.

  • Move away from people who hassle you or give you a hard time or consider you their punching bag of sorts or their bemused object of perpetual competitive zeal. Breathe deep, walk into the sunshine of relief and be grateful for simply having taken yourself away from a situation you no longer deserve, one you have decided you will simply no longer tolerate.

  • Sometimes a simple single action can make an incredibly powerful difference. When cross-country skiing with a brother in Colorado while in college, my hands became painfully cold from wearing wet mittens. This pain pushed all sorts of unrelated psychological anguish into thoughts. I suddenly felt out of control. I thought my backpack was probably packed in a sloppy way, criticized myself for not having a girlfriend at the time and for getting poor grades in studying engineering and having clothes that never fit….My brother, meanwhile, pulled out an extra pair of dry wool mittens and passed them over. Once I put these on, all other worries in the world vanished. Life once again felt good. Sometimes implementing a single positive action can eliminate a dozen unnecessary worries in ways unpredictable. As an ancient eastern saying goes: When the mind is troubled, the multiplicity of life increases; when the mind has found peace, that multiplicity goes away.

  • Success? Consider what you want. Take moves, or a move, in that direction daily. Focus on the big picture. Have faith. Disregard distractions that clutter clarity.

Thanks for checking in.

I hope you will follow my Forbes posts by clicking here and pressing ‘Follow,’ or my wine blog by clicking here. And THANK YOU to all new recent followers on Twitter

Finally, a few book recommendations:

Future Crimes, by Marc Goodman – amazing stories of how cybercrime has become huge business.

The Basque History of the World, by Mark Kurlansy – recommended by a friend; the Basque people of Spain? Their history is cryptic, their culture singular and their cuisine outstanding…who are these people? Fascinating.

Have a superb May!

 

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

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

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

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

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

Ces éditeurs / auteurs / artistes et magasins etaient …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photographer Anum Mughal

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

London scenes

Dubai

United Arab Emirates coastline

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

Vous pouvez lire mes derniers articles Forbes en cliquant ici.

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

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

The French Version Of The Book Borrow Box

Welcome to Spring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember to leave a book, if you can.

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

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

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

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

Hope you enjoy. They, too, are free.

 

 

 

 

Is That Book In Your Hand Advertising Coca-Cola?

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

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

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

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Some books can bubble with surprises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to conclude?

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

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All this, as well as caffeine and carbonation…

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

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

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

Free advertising at its best.

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

 

 

 

 

Digging for Dinosaurs in Montana

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

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

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This was a mobile home for 6 months.

Peck’s Rex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endnotes:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Life Lessons from 2016

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

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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.
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Home cooked and ready to be devoured

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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.
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Thinking of invading? Think again.

  • Respect your local cobbler and other artisans. The culture of disposability does not yet prevail.
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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.
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Mont Saint-Michel. No lawns here.

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

 

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Evening view from the Citadelle

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

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One salon at the Blaye Festival of Literature

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

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Colorful reading

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

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Sylvie Latrille and ink nib pen

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

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

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One of the inner courtyards in the Citadelle

Not a bad location for a book festival.

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View of the Gironde estuary

 

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

Here is a list of international book festivals for 2017.

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

Never been, but what a splendid city!

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Bookstore in Oslo

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

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

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

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

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Akureyri in winter

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

 

^ ^ ^

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

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

 

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

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Chicago Beach, Dubai

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

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Dubai 1997

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

Imagine. Living in the French countryside and writing. 

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

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

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Cap-Ferret, Bordeaux

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

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

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

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

Enjoy.

Powerful Lessons From Mr. Twain and Mr. Wouk

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for tuning in.

^  ^  ^

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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Passage Pommeraye in the city center

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

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

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

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

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Travel Book Store

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

37 Boxes … What We Value Most

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

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

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

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

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

Why not?

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

He says:

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

His story is inspirational.

&   &   &

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

“Writer’s Block?” Forget it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“Clinging to old behavior is not an option.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Words of Success from the Kitchen

Below are selected quotes from two books recently read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bacon wrapped figs with cheese, cooked by Danielle Davis

 

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain.

“And the cooks? The cooks ruled.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Margarine? That’s not food.”

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

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

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

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

Finally – my most recent Forbes posts are here.

Wish List

Regarding summer reading…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Apparently an age without shopping malls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vino Voices

ForbesLife

 

Pictures From Europe – 85 Years Ago

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

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

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

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

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Hungarian Plain

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Russian Steppes

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Amalfi Coast of Italy

 

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Rural Ireland

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

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The Downs of England (“Les Downs”)

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

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

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

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

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 – .

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Dying to Travel – A Memorial Momento

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

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

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

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

It is what we do. We cannot stop.

As South African author Laurens Van der Post wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Life Lessons – Revealed by Rivers

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

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

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

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

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

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Steeper flows have fewer meanders – Challenging goals provide fewer distractions

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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

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Machiavelli’s lesson:

Fortune is a river – Fortune floods into life

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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

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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There is value to exploring new and unfamiliar routes.

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

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

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Bordeaux Book Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pas Mal. Not Bad.

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

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

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This cyclist is seriously intent on attending the Book Fair

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

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

The printed book is alive and well in France.

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Hallelujah.

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The Controlled Trickle that Saves Lives

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

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

Below is the chapter.

Chapter 22

FLOODGATES, TERNS AND PLOVERS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps, Greg added.

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

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

Two Worthwhile Books – Food and Interviews

It’s Tuesday. Oops.

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

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

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

Forgot.

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

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Food News from California

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

If you like eating, Cooked is the book.

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

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

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

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

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

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Sit here, and read…

So, Yes.

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

We’re Back.

 

 

Roughest Town in the West

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

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

The visit to Williston made for an intriguing episode.

Here is the chapter:

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

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

“Buildings around here look preserved,” I said.

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

I nodded.

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

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

“Hello sir,” he said.

“Hi.”

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

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

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

The conversation turned black. Fast.

“Whatcha doing?”

“Passing through. Researching the river.”

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

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

He eyed my notes.

“Journalist?” he asked.

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

“Where you stay?”

“Camper.”

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

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

“Hey!”

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

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

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

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

He lied. No one could read my scribble.

“Write this down,” he demanded.

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

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

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

Fast.

 

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.”

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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.”

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The Blue Skies of Letting Go

Sage words from a down-to-earth visionary.

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Thrillers, and Wonderfully Messy Edamame

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

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

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My local Asian wine bar – La Maison

 

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

He writes:

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

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

Thanks so much Jay.

And Seasonal Greetings to all.

 

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The Impact of Lunch on Civilization

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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13.  Courtesy counts.

14.  Give. You truly will receive.

15.  Talk is cheap, though often of value.

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16. Relax. The universe appreciates calmness.

17.  Time matters. But not too much.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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More insights are in some of my books, including:

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Visual Magic

 

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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.

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Canyonlands 

“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.”

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‘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?

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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?

Huge.

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.

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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.

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Dusk on the dunes in western Ireland

 

Hearing the Past

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

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

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

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

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

The last word charmed her.

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

I pushed Kansas Monks aside.

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

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

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Her smile broadened.

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

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

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Looking west across the Atlantic

She sighed, then asked about my trip.

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

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

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

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

Miriam smiled.

I knew what was coming.

“County Clare,” she said.

Leaving France

I’m leaving France.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

Recipes, and Clash of Methods

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

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Photos never show the mess

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

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

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

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

School Two: prepare ingredients while you cook.

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

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

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Beautiful meal – with no cooking involved.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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Blue skies over Colorado

Belief

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.”

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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:

Believe.

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.

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Life’s terrain is not always smooth

Faith

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.

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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.

Coincidence

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.

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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.

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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.

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Fresh from the forest

A cèp (singular; cèpes is plural) is a wild mushroom – available fresh for only weeks every year. It grows naturally in forests in the northern hemisphere and was introduced elsewhere – including South Africa and New Zealand in the southern hemisphere. It’s called a ‘penny bun’ in England, ‘porcini’ in Italy, and ‘California king bolete’ in the USA. It’s delicious and healthy – with ample protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. This is a choice mushroom for cooking.

That night, the La Cave Wine Store manager and wine consultant, Julien Pouplet, stopped by to show how to cook cèpes. Julien is a wine wizard – often able to discern the year, location, and sometimes specific hill slope from where a French wine originated. His attention to aromas in the wine and food world (he began being exposed to wine scents when he was four years old) makes him tuned into subtleties of taste.

As expected, this recipe is unforgettable. The key – go low and slow: low heat, slow cooking.

 

Parsley Mushroom Omelette – from Wine Consultant Julien Pouplet

Comments –

Julien adds –

“If you want to store cèpes, slice them, then lay them flat inside a plastic bag. Very flat. Perhaps only one mushroom per bag. Then write the date on the bag, and store in a freezer.”

 

Preparation Time and Quantity –

20 minutes to prepare; 40 minutes to cook. Serves 2 people.

 

Ingredients and Amounts –

Cèp mushrooms (large) – 4 (if using other mushrooms of medium size, use 8)

Eggs – 4

Parsley – four fresh sprigs, or about 2 teaspoonfuls (30 grams) of dried leaves

Garlic cloves – 2

Butter – 5 knobs, each the size of a thumb

Olive oil – 2 tablespoons

Cream (medium or heavy) – 1/2 cup (10 cl)

Salt – 1 teaspoon

Pepper – a sprinkle

Recipe –

1. Prepare the mushrooms. Do not wash the mushrooms in water. If they are dirty, wipe them with a paper towel. Cut off the last 1/2  to 1 inch (1 to 2 cms) of the base and discard. Slice the mushrooms in a direction parallel to the stalk – with each slice being about 1/8 to a 1/4 inch thick (1/4 to 1/2 cm). If these really are cèpes – you’ll notice three distinct bands of colors  on each – brown, white, and green. Set aside.

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Slice

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

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Dice

3. Crack four eggs in a bowl and whisk. Add cream and whisk again. Set aside.

3. Place the sliced mushrooms in a pan over low to medium heat. Do NOT put any liquid in the pan – no butter, oil, or water. Sprinkle salt over them. The purpose is to dry out the mushrooms. This will take 15 to 30 minutes, during which the volume of ‘shrooms will reduce noticeably. The aim is for the mushrooms to be crunchy.

Fry to dry

Fry and dry

4. Add the butter dollops on top of the mushrooms.

Butter time

Let her sizzle, but not burn

5. Drizzle olive oil on top (‘just a touch of oil,’ Julien suggests).

6. Add salt and pepper. Fry over low to medium heat for 5 to 10 minutes.

7. Add the parsley/garlic mixture. (“Ah! Now, you enjoy the amazing smell of garlic, parsley, butter, and mushrooms…” Julien insists.)

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Add parsley/garlic mixture

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

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Add egg/cream mixture

9. Leave undisturbed on low/medium heat until the the mixture becomes firm enough to fold in half with a spatula – creating the omelette.

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Flip

10. Fry another minute or so before serving.

Enjoy

Enjoy

Julien suggests serving this to Miles Davis music (‘Kind of Blue‘), together with a baguette (essential in France) and a bottle of medium-bodied red wine (Gros Moulin Heritage 2013 from Bordeaux is excellent, as is any red wine with Cabernet Franc – including from the Loire Valley).

To store extra mushrooms for using later, first slice as described above, then place them flat inside plastic bags before freezing. Take the bag out of the freezer the night before using, and put it in the fridge  When ready, sauté the mushrooms, or cook them in the oven.

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Worth freezing for the future

Thanks for tuning in.

Tom M.

New Book – And Background

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Roundwood Press will soon publish a new book. It’s only ten pages long. It was written long ago by my mother, and is a powerful piece of writing. It’s titled:

I See – Believe and Achieve.

All proceeds of the book will be donated to the Austin Special School in Chicago.

What is so special about this book, and why will the proceeds be donated to a school in Chicago?

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My parents established and owned a business in Chicago. The eventual freedom this provided them with did not come out of the blue.

When growing up, my mother lived in a small apartment in Chicago. When she looked out the window, she saw a brick wall a few feet away that belonged to the neighboring apartment building. She read books voraciously, and was determined to travel the world at a young age. My father grew up with relatively affluent parents in Buffalo, New York (where both a school and a street are named ‘Mullen’ after my grandfather). However, his parents lost their money when he was young. My father was able to find various jobs – beginning during the Great Depression. At one point when he was struggling as a truck driver, he was determined to improve his life.

My parents met and began their business in Chicago. Basically, they imported European technology and sold the first photocopiers in the United States. Customers were mystified – what was a photocopier, and why would anyone want one? Yet they persevered.

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Eventually, their business thrived. But before it did, a pivotal event occurred that taught my mother the value of giving. She recounted the event to me over ten years ago before she passed away, and I afterwards I wrote it down verbatim. The story is recalled in my book titled Visual Magic – Seeing and Believing: 

“It was 1955 and our daughter was one year old. There was an article in the Chicago Daily News written by a columnist who used to be a professor of mine at Northwestern. The article was about how the Austin Special School, in a poor neighborhood of Chicago, needed $3,400 for the final payment for their building. The school was for mentally and physically challenged people.

“I told your father about it. He said ´go for it.’ We sent in a check for the entire amount – anonymously.

“It was really strange. The very next day we received a check for about $3,400 from Agfa Gevaert for a billing error they had made.”

Soon after this event, their business began booming. From this event my mother learned the power of giving.

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The book ‘I See’ is a brief compilation of notes my mother made about what she considered to be secrets toward improving life and gaining greater financial control. Although my parents were not overtly religious, the work mentions Biblical quotes. For me, the value of the book is that it highlights the occasional need to drop the ego and your sense of control, and surrender to greater powers.

The book cover is being prepared, and the book will be on sale within weeks.

 

 

The Power of Coincidence

“Remember, the universe takes care of the “how” through coincidences, serendipity, and synchronicities. We just have to take care of the “what.” 

Jonathan Manske

From the book: “The Law of Attraction Made Simple – Magnetize Your Heartfelt Desires.”

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Ocean waves may roll, break, and crash, but there is rhythm to their motion. Birds vary their migration paths, but the annual long-distance flights they take follow a general pattern.

So it is with life. There is, as Shakespeare said, a tide in our affairs which, when seized at the right moment, can lead to fortune.

Yet our daily lives are bombarded by thousands of details – picking kids from school, shopping for food, paying bills, cleaning dishes. Who has time to discern WHAT important patterns we would be wise to pay attention to? Even if we did, would we have the courage and faith to focus on those patterns with the unknown hope that they could somehow improve our lives? By ‘improve’ I generally mean by providing us with greater control over our circumstances – allowing us to have more free time and less stress, more opportunities to do what we want, and a greater ability to free ourselves from multiple daily tasks, many of which we resent.

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This is where coincidences can help. Meaningful coincidences, or what Carl Jung called ‘synchronicities,’ are often little signposts indicating in which direction we can adjust the course of our lives to better follow our strongest desires.

As author Manske expresses well:

“The more that you listen to and act on intuition and nudges, the more that synchronicity will show up in your life. The more often that synchronicity shows up in your life, the easier your life will get.”

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You cannot look for coincidences. There is no formula for making them appear. But when they do show up, pay attention. Below is a chapter from my book titled Synchcronicity as Signpost, highlighting a decision I once made, and how synchronicity helped me fully accept the value of that choice.

Signpost: Good Choice 

Synchronicity can not only help us make choices – but confirm when a choice aligns with our profoundest desires.

I was working in a coastal town in southern Angola when a friend relayed a message via radio: another company from the United State had called to offer me a job in Washington DC. My friend encouraged me to take the position.

Two weeks later I moved to DC. The city, job, and work mates turned out to be excellent. A month later this friend sent me a cryptic e-mail from Africa that he later told me was simply a joke. His message instructed me to do the following:

“If you find yourself alone in DC this weekend, go to Georgetown. Ask any woman if she knows a good used bookstore. Keep asking until you get the answer you need, enter the indicated bookstore and start counting bookcases from the door. Go to the seventh bookcase on your right, the seventh shelf down, and select the seventh book from the left. Displays around the cash register do not count as bookcases. If the bookstore has an upstairs, go up and begin counting there. If it has a basement, by no means enter it.  If someone asks if they can help you, do not keep these instructions secret. Loiter as long as you like, buy the book and then peruse it over a mug of coffee.”

I replied immediately. There was big news. That same day the company director had told me that in two weeks I would move to Panama City to work and to live for at least a year. Panama was an ecologist’s playground and a banker’s heaven. A fifty-mile long canal split the nation. I also knew that Panama was home of the Darien Gap, the dense jungle that separates Central from South America. The Darien is so thick and wild that in the 1960s the first vehicles to cross it had to float across its swampier portions by raft. Members of a later expedition recruited the British army to push and winch a fleet of laboring Land Rovers sixty seven miles across the Gap. The effort took ninety nine days, half of the total time the expedition took to descend from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.

I knew that Panama was also home to the Kuna Indians, bawdy and spiritual folk who defend their autonomy with a vengeance. Most Kuna live on the San Blas islands, more than three hundred lush mounds splattered across the Atlantic like drops of tan and green paint. Binding tradition pokes through Kuna customs: women are forbidden to marry non-Kuna men; lobster divers cannot use compressed air to descend through water; men (both elders and youths) are obliged to spend three full days inebriated on chicha homebrew during a woman’s coming-of-age ceremony.

Excited about this upcoming move, I wrote this friend to share the news. Still, I wondered about his bizarre Georgetown instructions.

That Sunday in Washington DC I caught the metro from Bethesda to Dupont Circle. I walked up Q Street into Georgetown and asked a petite woman where I could find a secondhand bookstore. She shrugged her thin shoulders and waved me off in another direction. I then ambled below a curbside maple tree and asked directions from a tall brunette. There’s one in Dupont Circle,” she replied,” wrinkling her nose coated with adobe brown freckles. I thanked her, started off in that direction and then stopped. My friend’s directions were explicit: find a bookstore in Georgetown, not Dupont circle. While considering this I bought an orange juice and a chocolate chip cookie, then moved north on Wisconsin Avenue. A pizzeria employee taking his break leaned against an alley wall. He sucked a cigarette and then coughed out a cloud of gray smoke. When I asked about where to find a second-hand bookstore he wiped his hand on a tomato smudged apron and pointed downhill.

“M Street,” he mumbled.

I then realized – shocked – no way! My friend’s instructions were clear: ask women – not men. I next flagged down a collegiate blonde and again spewed out the by then well-oiled query.

“Reservoir Street,” she said and twirled her wrist, indicating that I should turn around. On Reservoir Street I asked a young Asian woman for this elusive bookstore.

“I’m new around here,” she replied.

Exasperated, I was prepared to forget this chase when she spoke again.

“But I did see one around that corner,” she said.

There it was. I pressed my forehead against its windowpane and looked inside: small, bulging with books, and filled with promise. A cardboard sign taped to the window said it opened at noon. It was eleven twenty five. I crossed the street, sat in a twee café and drank a cup of coffee. At midday I entered the bookstore. A bearded man with a Middle Eastern accent perched next to an ancient black cash register. We swapped nods. I started to count bookshelves from the right. One, two…and then came across a pile of milk crates filled with loose hardbacks. The crates were stacked so I decided they constituted a bookshelf. Three, four, five, six…  There were no other bookshelves along the same wall. I wheeled around and faced the opposite side of the aisle and faced bookshelf number Seven. Next I counted down seven rows.  One, two, three….

The books on the seventh shelf stood in a vertical pile. I counted from the top down and plucked out the seventh book.

The paperback had a blue cover, gold border, and raised white lettering. The publisher had artfully removed a square from the cover to reveal a portion of an inner page drawing – a man silhouetted below a gaslight at the top of a subway staircase. The back cover highlighted the book’s merits: “National Bestseller…a choice of the Book-of-the-Month club…a New York Times Notable Book of the Year…written by Eric Zenecy.”

Stunned, I read the title aloud:

PANAMA

I took the job. For the next three years I lay in hammocks on the Kuna islands during weekends, or boated up the Panama Canal, or consulted with Embera Indians in the Darien region for work. I learned from Panamanians how life can be woven as a tapestry as well as forged like a metal. My days in Panama stayed varied and full.

From time to time, however, I still marveled at the strange prescience of that past e-mail and the book it delivered. I also mused over one quote that came from the text of the book Panama:

“Adams drew the thick, cool air through his nose. Seven years, he thought. Six Decembers. The year was sliding toward it. But this year it might go more easily; perhaps, he thought, there was some magic in the number seven.”

The event had startled me – but jolted me into fully accepting the chance to work in Panama.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Wow.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Blessington Reservoir

In 2009 Janet realized that selling books alone would not keep her business afloat. She then moved to a bigger space across the street and reopened her bookstore to include a cafe. The result? Her book store thrives, and the cafe has doubled business income. The bakery produces homemade goods, while staff choose coffee for quality.

“The cafe is an independent stream of income,” Janet explained. “A little old lady once told me she wouldn’t buy my books because she can get them free from the library. While telling me this, she sat eating a scone and drinking tea in my cafe.”

Soon after moving to the new store location, Janet hired a contractor to punch a hole in the back wall – expanding the building size to include a children’s book section. This increased the overall interior store volume by a third.

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The Blessington Book Store – which has adapted to thrive in the current economy

I wondered how the recent boom in e-books had impacted her store sales.

“Kindle and Amazon mostly impacted fiction,” said Janet. But fiction accounts for only 600 of her titles – a quarter of book sales.

Janet explained her appreciation for books.

“The author of The Master told how people need a three-legged stool for balance – including physical, spiritual, and imaginative aspects,” Janet told me while sharing coffee and fresh scones at a store table She explained how books help provide this balanced stool for many readers. She also told how – in ‘old’ Ireland’ – people wandered into neighbors’ homes and launched into telling stories to solidify friendships.

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Blessington evening in December

Janet told of how two contemporary problems impact publishing: inadequate editing, and popular books written by mediocre writers (often because their plots or themes correspond to current trends).

Janet will not try to impact these problem’s outcomes. Today, she explained – book sellers have to perform multiple tasks – from “putting on a frock and attending literary awards ceremonies, to washing cafe dishes that same day.”

Janet’s energetic and optimistic management of the Blessington Book Store reflects how book sellers are adapting to changing market conditions in a world prolific with e-books. Her cafe also reflects the truth that above all, reading is a leisure activity.

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Irish Inspiration

 

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“Life assumes meaning and purpose when we accompany others in the ordinary events of life.” [Tom Whelan]

I’ve been in Ireland these past days – visiting friends known since we were teenagers. One mentioned how fortunate we were as children – free to wander and do as we liked. One benefit is that we could take a bus or a quick drive to the countryside to take walks. I took these photos below this past Saturday and Sunday during cold, clear, winter afternoons with low light in the Wicklow Hills. This was the outdoor playground where we rambled as kids. This is the wonder we still explore as adults.

At a local retailer in County Wicklow – The Village Bookshop – I found the book titled Saol – Thoughts from Ireland on Life and Living, edited by Catherine Conlon. Saol means ‘life’ in the Gaelic language. This book includes quotes from seventy individuals – Irish, or living in Ireland. Snippets from a few are included below. These may be appropriate as we make the transition from 2014 to 2015, with free hours, to consider the ‘bigger picture’ of life. The book was published in 2014 by The Collins Press in Wilton, Cork. All quotes are partial, taken from fully copyrighted works by the authors mentioned in this post.

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

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“Over the years, I have come to see the importance of ‘living’ a life, rather than ‘postponing’ a life…The fact is that if you want to make changes to your life, or to do something you’re passionate about, you have to seize the moment and do it now.” [Eleanor McEvoy]

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

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“As I’ve gotten older I have learnt to stop, to enjoy silence and to reflect a lot more, enjoy nature, sharing time, to be more spiritual in essence.” [Fidelma Healy-Eames]

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“Coincidence is God’s way of prompting while remaining anonymous…when something does happen three times I take it as a gentle hint that I am to do something about it.” [Mark Patrick Hederman]

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“Whenever such support comes our way, it is invaluable: a bonus to be cherished. For our own part, if we make a habit of granting goodwill, it will spread like rings on water.” [Ann Henning Jocelyn]

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

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“…as I grow older the mystery of life and death deepens rather than becomes clearer…part of the mystery is discovering that what appears to be tragedy can often turn out to contain within it a great blessing, a new growth, a new direction, maybe a new understanding.” [Tony Flannery]

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“Grammar is one of the great evolutionary wonders of the world. People have a profound need to communicate. We should chat with each other. It is a comfort.” [Colm Keena]

 

Stockholm’s Adapting Book Scene

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Serpent Begone

 

Norse myth tells how Thor went fishing for the Midgard Serpent, using an ox-head as bait. He caught the serpcnt, but pulled the fishing rod so hard that his heels punctured the boat deck and dug into the sea bottom. Thor gripped his hammer, poised to smash the serpent, when the boat captain – Hymir the Giant – cut the fishing line to avoid catastrophe.

I read this story after flipping to a random page in a book about Sweden’s capital – Stockholm – in the Papper Bookstore (“Uncommon Guide Books”). Outside, in Mariatorget Square, I found a statue depicting this story.

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Niche marketing

The small bookstore includes an intriguing mix of titles by various authors – Beatrix Potter, Gerald Durrell, and Edgar Allan Poe (in English) to Marcel Proust in Swedish. The shop front includes Parisian maps to help celebrate the story of the 2014 French Nobel Literature laureate Partrick Modiano.

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Books for kids, cappuccinos for parents

Across the square (on the other side of Thor hacking the slimy beast) is a bookstore / cafe combination – for children’s books (and yummy lattes for Mom and Pop).

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Where better to market train books than at a station

 

 

Not too far away at a Christmas Market in the train station is a bookstore dedicated to trains. Really. And customers flock to fork over their cash.

While walking around Stockholm, you see metal signs about the “Literature Trail” telling about authors associated with the city. Not exactly being hip in speaking Swedish, I lost the trail. But it’s key for highlighting local pride in celebrating writers and writing.

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Along the Literature Route

 

The printed word is still huge in Sweden. Small bookstores keep alive by focusing on niche marketing that addresses the needs of target audiences interested in specific subjects – travel, children’s stories, trains. And locals are hungry for it. This year was also the first ever Stockholm Art Book Fair.

Sure – ebooks are catching on and growing in popularity – but printed titles still rage in Sweden. Stieg Larsson, author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (and the Millennium Trilogy) was tech savvy and computer literate, but also a devotee of traditional print journalism. In an age when electronic media flourishes, it’s refreshing to see – in a country that aggressively embraces internet technology – that there’s a healthy regard for the value of the printed word.

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City for Nobel Laureates