Sex and Drugs from Other Angles

SEX.

I spent several years growing up in Ireland, after living in the suburbs of Chicago in the U.S. Many formative teenage years took place on that European island—along the shores and within the hills of County Wicklow.

In Ireland (at least back then) there was no such word as ‘dating.’

You would, perhaps, go out with a group of friends of both sexes and if two of you ended up liking each other perhaps you would end up ‘snogging’ (kissing) or perhaps someday even ‘shagging’ (having sex). If you were friends and lovers you might end up staying together. It was quite a natural process.

Later, at American schools, I heard students talked about ‘dating.’

I didn’t get it.

In ‘going on a date,’ you (apparently) went out with someone to check out if you might be interested in a future relationship with them, perhaps physically intimate. The process involved a goal. A purpose. A mission. A ‘date’ was an object-oriented event. There were even associated time and place coordinates involved (‘dinner on Saturday at 7.00 pm at Commercios’ Pizzeria’).

Where was the fun in that? I mean, if you spend time with someone and feel comfortable and happy and laugh and have good time, you may end up holding hands and naturally becoming lovers, or even long-term partners. This is a natural event, where two people who want to spend time together let their relationship unfold, then possibly flourish.

In Ireland, romance was more like a story or song that played out over time, rather than some personality evaluation or quiz contest. It was a journey, not a hunt.

‘Dating,’ on the other hand, involves a set of players with a specific (though often discretely concealed) goal in mind. The underlying focus of a’date’ has an agenda, a purpose, an evaluation as well as a hidden scoring of the person you are with. You are not just going out for a beer or movie or dinner, you are doing so as a platform for evaluating the potential of another person for possible future and intimate inclusion in life. The concept, title and semantics imply that such a meeting necessitates not only full-on cerebral analysis, but also preening full-throttle before the ‘event’ to perform a more effective courtship dance.

Perhaps I’m overanalyzing a single word, but with regards to relationships, ‘dating’ seems a bit technical and laden with a focused motive. It’s more like taking an exam, rather than taking a walk in the woods; more about capturing prey, than about sharing enjoyment; more about satisfying the curiosity of others who know you are ‘going on a date’ than comfortably just letting events unwind as you get to know someone else. Once the word ‘date’ is involved, then so too are analysis and judgment. Although reason is a precious mental tool (it invented the internal combustion engine and sent us exploring the moon in a buggy), it’s not always the most appropriate sensibility to heavily superimpose over a social event.

Is it?

I mean, opening a bottle of wine in the shade of an oak tree on a blanket and letting passion prevail and reveling in a gorgeous, perhaps slightly spontaneous moment with another person you care for is not like playing chess or feeling like you’re being interviewed for a position, even if it is in some chic restaurant.

I’ve asked dozens of Americans over the years to explain ’dating.’ It’s still difficult to understand, partially because they all have different definitions.

What about just living and enjoying the company of others and getting to know them along some continuum and letting events occur at their own pace without there being some specific outcome involved?

Let’s say I invite a woman to go bicycling. Or, she invites me on a day trip to some beach for lunch. If a friend then finds about this in advance and asks, ‘Is this a date?’ the question almost vacuums the joy from a still mysterious event that has not yet even occurred. The word creates an implication that the event should be labelled, categorized, and shifted into a yes/no, ‘potential romantic relationship or not,’ event. This sounds sort of like work instead of play. It’s certainly digital instead of analog. Usually, I ignore the question. But if I do bother answering, I’ll say, ‘Actually, we’re just going to the beach.’ Such obviousness often confuses the person who asked the ridiculous question. Which is, honestly, wonderful. (Where I live in France, however, fortunately such questions never arise.)

What’s the rush, anyhow? Today, there is also ‘Speed Dating.’ Think about that. Would you enjoy ‘speed dinner,’ or ‘speed sex,’ or ‘speed apertif?’ None of those sound organic, or in any way relaxed.

Letting affections develop for another person over weeks or months (sometimes years) can lead not only to a solid friendship but a strong romantic relationship.

A ‘date’ implies some specific type of event, while ‘dating’ insinuates a defined category of relationship. I’ve never been able to discern exactly what ‘dating’ means, although this nebulous word is apparently also a great excuse. For example (true story), let’s say a couple is sleeping together and getting to know each other. Then, one of them sleeps with another person, but justifies this action to their original partner as being okay because until that point, the two of them had only been ‘dating’ rather than ‘going out’ when the transgression occurred.

Really?

At that point, it may be time to look for a new partner instead of a dictionary.

Ultimately, this is about semantics. Words shape our mindsets, our outlooks, our perceptions and expectations. They can also be seriously limiting. Friendship, companionship, and love can often be enjoyed differently once we remove certain mental filters, and the words associated with them.

DRUGS.

Author Michael Pollan, who has written an excellent series of books about food, just published a new book about psychedelic drugs. Apparently, after decades of these substances being pushed from the realm of medicine and healing, they are coming back and appear effective as treatments for certain health related issues.

It’s about time.

His book is titled How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of PsychedelicsPollan decided to experiment with these drugs when he turned 60, partially to see if he could change his thinking patterns. An article in the Financial Times of May 19th tells how actor Cary Grant praised the benefits of LSD therapy in 1959. Other therapists used them to treat alcoholism and depression before they were legally banned.

I tried some of these substances decades ago. The first experience changed my life.

Why?

Because at the age of 17, on a sweet, sunny spring afternoon in a countryside within Europe, I realized that all authority figures I respected and looked up to had been professing ‘truths’ that did not appear to be related to factual reality. I realized that such substances, in moderation, could open our minds in beneficial ways. The books and articles I later read said alike. I then read The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley and other texts and learned that these substances had been used for beneficial medicinal uses in the past.

The title of Huxley’s book (which the name of the band The Doors came from) relates to a 19th century poem written by William Blake titled The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It was Blake who also wrote the sweet verses of a poem titled Auguries of Innocence, which includes the following magical first four lines. They basically surmise how the larger world can be reflected in smaller events, and vice versa.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

POLITICS.

Politically, some of my ideas and beliefs can be considered as wildly liberal, while others are thoroughly conservative.

Why should I choose to be from one political party, exclusively? Why choose to stand on one side of a fence and criticize everything on the other side, regardless how sensible any one particular policy from the ‘other side’ may be?

This does not make sense.

Let’s say you choose to watch some movies from Netflix and others from Amazon prime. Or sometimes you drink wine, while at the other times you drink beer. Is there anything wrong with that?

Of course not.

Orin Hatch from Utah writes an excellent Wall Street Journal article about the fallacies of ‘Identity Politics,’ here.

ROCK AND ROLL.

I know little about Rock and Roll except that I enjoy the music, and grew up with it.

What I do believe rocks is the following TED video from Steven Pinker. He suggests (implicitly) that we might want to stop indulging in whining, given the facts about our world’s state of affairs.

No doubt others will disagree, and clamor to tell how dire our global situation is. Which, for me, will bring back the memory of a poem (unattributed, because the author is uncertain):

Two men looked out from prison bars.

One saw mud, the other saw stars.

Thanks for tuning in.

Keep looking skyward!

 

 

 

 

Alpha Go, Paro

Jet lagged and preoccupied, Lars Stockton walked onto the porch of the rest house at 1 a.m. The air was crisp and cool. Starlight illuminated the down valley view of the Bhutanese monastery. It appeared magnificent.

The first email he had received that day was ludicrous. The second—containing computer generated text, and supposedly intended as some clarification—was clear and explanatory, but even whackier.

He stepped inside again. A light came from the open kitchen. Peeking around a corner, he saw a demur and striking Asian woman—seated comfortably before a wooden table.

She smiled, then spoke.

“Trouble sleeping?” She asked.

Lars stepped closer.

“Jet lag,” he replied. “I flew into Paro this morning.”

“From?”

“Bangkok. Before that, I was in Delhi. Originally I’m from Maine, in the United States.”

“Join me for tea,” she insisted. “It’s Cordyceps. Bhutanese. Supposed to delay aging,” she said, smiling. “Although, you don’t look like you need it,” she added.

Lars  considered her offer as coyly innocent. He also wanted to talk.

“Sure, “ he said. He took a mug off a wall hook, then sat near the woman—who was about the age that his daughter would have been.

He poured himself a cup.

“You look worried,” she said.

He laughed.

“Name is Lars,” he said, extending a hand.

“Jin,” she said, shaking his hand. “From Hong Kong.”

“Tell me your thoughts,” she stated.

Bemused, he complied.

“I work as a consultant. Artificial intelligence.”

“I studied computer science,” she said. “First in Malaysia, then at Madison, Wisconsin, in the United States. Never really used it. Ended up working as an economic advisor in Hong Kong for the government. I still know a little about computers, and AI.”

“Amazing,” he said, somewhat comforted. “You, eh, here on vacation?”

“Yes,” she replied, adding nothing. Then, “Tell me your worries.”

Again, she made a demand. Polite. Firm. No bullshit with this Jin woman, thought Lars.

“A real problem with AI is not the hyped up stuff from the news. Everyone thinks Terminator. You know, the movie. That we’re going to command AI to do certain tasks, and then they’re going to go their own way. Rebel. Take over. Dominate civilization.”

He paused.

“But that’s not the problem.”

Jin lowered her tea. She removed her eyes from him long enough to glance out the timber framed window toward starlight.

She nodded. “Go on.”

“The problem is, we give a command to AI, and it solves a problem. But often in ways we did not predict. Or expect. In ways that are,” he fished for the correct term. “Incomprehensible.”

He paused.

“Make sense?”

“Definitely.”

“Deep learning based AI uses programs called neural networks,” Lars continued. “These comb through huge data piles, seeking patterns they recognize, then they adjust behavior. They work like human brains, modifying their layout. They change connections between strings of computer code. Once created, these networks often change into something that even the original designers may have difficulty recognizing. The problem is that when AI uses novel methods that outperform humans, well, no explanations in the English language are even available to describe what they just did. Or why. So, we had to create a program to teach AI how to explain to humans, in relatively clear language, what it just did. Not just reciting logic, but giving us reasoning why these deep neural networks made certain choices. To get them to explain this, we had to formulate a program that matches pattern connections with sentences in the English language. ”

He sighed.

She nodded.

For a moment, both sipped their tea in silence.

“We did the job. Completed the work. It took years and constant iterative tweaks, but the linguistics program we created now works quite well.”

“The problem?” she asked, again.

“I just visited India for some consulting work in Delhi. I decided to tack on this visit to Bhutan for a quick vacation afterwards. Meanwhile my colleagues back at DARPA in the U.S.—that’s the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—used AI to crack a problem we had. The problem regarded stress testing for high performance miniature drones with movable wings. I mean, plane wings are fixed, while birds flap theirs in relatively complex ways. Since the Wright brothers first flew, airplane wings have generally been static with few moving parts. One reason is that the mathematics and physics required to understand moving aerofoils more intricate than helicopter rotors are heinous. Not easy to understand. But, that’s changing. And, by the way, I’m not telling you anything classified; I gave up that work years ago.

“So while I’ve been traveling,” Lars continued, “my colleagues at DARPA used AI, successfully, to help find a solution to that stress problem. Yet it was counterintuitive and almost illogical. Although they didn’t understand it, the solution turned out to work amazingly well. It’s more cost effective and efficient with regards to time, than any solution we ever conceived of in the past.”

“My colleagues used our program to have AI explain what it did. How did AI conceive of a solution? Today, my co-workers sent me two emails. The first included the reply from the computer. There were only two words.”

He paused.

“Perhaps,” she suggested, “we should walk on the porch and take some fresh air.”

He agreed.

Once there, Lars pulled up his collar, then placed both hands on the wood rail before them. He stared up into starlight.

“The words?” she asked.

“Serendipitous intuition.”

He laughed, then continued.

“I considered that nuts. Told them to get a more detailed explanation. And the second time?”

He looked at Jin, then continued. “The AI responded: ‘A series of inexplicable choices helped guide our ability to achieve the target.'”

Now, Jin smiled.

“Intuition, serendipity and inexplicable are vague words I don’t appreciate, especially coming from a lifeless computer,” Lars added.

She held up her hand.

“Before I address your story,” she said, “Let me tell you of how Bhutan’s 8th century spiritual leader, the Guru Rinpoche, decided to build the Tiger’s Nest monastery that now clings almost impossibly to the side of a mountain.”

Lars listened.

“We only know the legend,” she continued. “He converted his consort into a flying tiger, then climbed on her back before she flew up to a mountainside, the future site of the monastery. Once there, the Guru Rinpoche declared that eventually the structure would be built.”

The shoulders of Lars eased, as though stress has been lifted. Even if their conversation went nowhere, he thought, the companionship, the gorgeous and peaceful setting and the mythical storytelling all gave him a sense of unexpected lightness. Of ease.

“From centuries past, we have only this myth of what occurred. Only an image, a story, a vision. But the truth is, that when planning for the future, we always have to begin with nothing more than vision. The details of ‘how’ the monastery was constructed are lost and irrelevant. Engineering details come after vision,” she said, pausing. “Do you agree?”

“Certainly,” Lars responded. “In principle. But I’m a focused and logical man. The fuzziness of what you described is, well, discomforting.”

“That is why you are worried. Why, until minutes ago in this amazing mountain setting, you felt stress. Tell me, why did you come to Bhutan?”

He laughed.

“A teacher suggested visiting here trip 20 years ago. On the flight to Delhi, I read a magazine article about Bhutan. It struck a chord. I decided to change my plans. Needed a break. Needed something different.”

“Has the experience lived up to your expectations?”

“I arrived less than 24 hours ago. But even this conversation with you has led me toward novel ways of thinking, both unexpected and appreciated.”

“In 2016,” she continued, “A game of Go took place between the most masterful human player and an AI agent named AlphaGo. This had been trained by the program DeepMind. Sometimes the computer made moves that humans could not explain. They thought these were errors, until the AI agent won the match. Japanese Go masters call these moves part of kami no itte. The hand of God.”

“I’ve heard the expression,” Lars said. “Also meaning, ‘Divine moves.’”

“When a human player makes such moves, they are intuitive. Inexplicable.”

“Yes,” Lars added. “Neural learning systems rather than formal logic dictate results. Human logic and language cannot describe what occurred.”

“It reminds me of your 1960’s authors and scientists who experimented with psychedelic drugs,” Jin continued “Including the writer Aldous Huxley. They cherished and respected their powerful experiences. But such experiences were impossible to describe using language.”

“You have a firm grasp on the situation,” Lars responded. “Certainly not something I expected to talk about with a stranger past midnight under Bhutanese starlight.”

“You see,” she added, “even AI cannot always explain logic when the number of choices blossoms. The more complex the reasoning, the more uncertain and unpredictable the route.”

“You are saying that AI is intuitive?” he asked.

“No. It was your linguistics program that suggested that, was it not? Buddhists believe that life is a flow of phenomena which depend on causes and conditions but without any controller or owner.  This is ‘anattā,’ or lack of self. Considering that thousands of people created AI agents, these agents no longer belong to one creator. They exhibit more collective, intelligent and unpredictable characteristics because of their many creators.”

“Thank you for these insights, Lars said. “Meeting you tonight, with your computer knowledge and insight, truly came at the right time. This is truly a one in a million chance, as they say.”

He paused, then added: “Your calm intelligence reminds me of my daughter. She probably would have been the same age as you. Unfortunately she died two years ago from an inoperable brain tumor.”

“Sorry for your loss,” said Jin, more shocked and saddened than he knew.

They soon parted ways to sleep.

When he woke, Lars anticipated seeing Jin at breakfast.

Yet Jin had departed.

And he was no longer worried.

He remembered his days of rock climbing decades earlier.

Lars recalled how rock climber Lynn Hill described a difficult move she had to make while soloing a wildly challenging route in Yosemite. Again and again she couldn’t crack it. One evening she had a dream. The next day she followed the moves recalled from the dream. They involved, basically, climbing backwards.

The sequence had worked.

The moves were logicless, inexplicable and yet elegantly effective.

Perhaps, thought Lars, the next spiritual leader of Bhutan, the reincarnation of the original Guru Rinpoche, partially through his three years of solitary meditation before his inauguration, was aware of something that he and his colleagues at DARPA were only beginning to parse. That calmness does not result from solving problems. That effectively solving problems results from calmness. That calmness can help lead to elegant, often inexplicable solutions.

He considered the two shuttle bus drivers between his home town airport terminal and the long distance parking lot. One accelerated and also decelerated wildly, ripping around sharp bends at high speeds. Standing passengers grasping luggage cursed and clutched inner rails as he drove. In contrast, another driver maneuvered more calmly, and slower. He delivered no roadway drama or deceleration stress. Although journeys with the second driver took longer in actual minutes, riding with the first and faster driver felt like an eternity.

Time, Lars had learned, remains pliable depending on circumstances.

Outside, robed monks chattered after morning prayers. Many, Lars noticed, were laughing.

& &

Jin sat in a coffee store in Thimphu. Chao entered and sat on a stool next to her. They did not greet each other, or look at each other.

Yet they spoke.

“Anything?” he asked.

“Unfortunately, no,” she replied. “His work is no longer classified. They are still a long way from getting their linguistics program to work. There are no insights to be found from this man.”

“You are certain?”

“We talked at length. Their linguistics are not yet insightful. Of that I am certain.”

“What is he working on next?”

“He will retire. Now, he only seems mildly intrigued by Buddhism.”

Chao scoffed.

He finished his coffee.

“Your visit has been wasted time,” he stated, then stood.

“Completely.”

He walked out.

Jin exhaled, relieved.

She had lied twice to Lars. First, she had studied not at Madison, but at Boulder in Colorado. Second, she came not from Hong King, but from China.

She also did not reveal to him a critical truth. Days earlier, when researching Lars as a target, she discovered that his daughter had also studied at Boulder. Her name was Amy. Jin was shocked to learn after online searching this was the Amy she had known. As students, Amy had befriended her. Amy had helped Jin understand American culture. Amy had been a true friend.

For that reason, Jin knew that betraying the trust of Amy’s father would betray the trust of his deceased daughter. Had she offered any breakthrough or progress to her handlers, they would have required that she meet Lars again and betray him even further. They might even manipulate recollections about his deceased daughter to gain undeserved trust.

Jin would not allow that to happen. This good and bereaved man deserved peace.

She knew now that Lars was both wrong and right.

It was true. He was wrong. Meeting Jin had not been by chance.

It was also true. He was right. Their encounter, and associations, formed a one in a million chance.

Serendipitous, you might say.

[Thanks to: Economist Magazine Feb 27 – 3, 2028. ‘The Unexamined Mind – AI in Society.’ ]

[Also thanks to: Without and Within—Questions snd Answers on the teachings of Theravāda Buddhism, by Ajahn Jayasaro. Page 94. Panysprateep Foundation, Bangkok. 2013.]

[Also thanks to Lynn Hill, who I listened to speak at Distant Lands Bookstore in Pasadena, California, just after she published her book Climbing Free: My Life In The Vertical World.]

Colorful Days In A Ravaged Land … from Roundwood Press

Someone wrote today and asked if I wanted to work in Angola, Africa.

That brought back memories of having done that before.

That was a colorful, crazy, debonair, sinfully, wretchedly beautiful experience.

Here are a few journal excerpts from long ago.

Typical bridge in war ravaged rural Angola

Luanda

Luanda leaked. The city was incontinent—streetside floods and soggy lawns streamed out of broken pipelines. The city’s water supply was so unreliable that homeowners paid handfuls of pink Kwanza notes to truckers who filled their water tanks once a week. This city on the mend formed a landscape of burglar bars and humming private generators. Those who had money carried hand held radios because the local phone system was often on the fritz. From table to table at expensive cafes and chique restaurants their incessant buzz mingled with foreign accents, relaying flight data and transport requests. Before the Atlantic Ocean stretched a boulevard lined with palms. The sight of the water always gave me hope—symbolizing a big open doorway that headed out.

In 1995 Luanda was not pretty. It was a city of cracked windshields, open manholes and random dispersion of rotting garbage piles. Here and there walked debonair women wearing tight dresses with rich Portuguese men. They had gold fillings in their teeth and ate lobster with hot lemon sauce on the porch of the Barracuda restaurant on the Isla. Cash from diamond sales and oil revenues skewed the economy. A bunch of grapes cost $9, a bottle of water $5 and a two bedroom apartment with inadequate plumbing rent for $5000 a month. That was years ago.

The hills of Uige province

Many foreigners who visited Luanda wanted to stay. They learned about the best restaurants and bars and knew who threw the hottest parties. This social insight gave their lives an edge. Frustrated by a country at war they often forgot about work and gripped onto the niceties of their selected social circuit. They learned the names and faces of other Norwegians and Spaniards and became part of Luanda’s expatriate furniture. By then it was too late. They became comfortable with rich food and close friends and radio chatter from the field. Once they were in that groove and tasted the comfort of expatriate parties and loud music and big drinks and sweaty Friday evening flirtations, they realized that to visit the field would be to forgo such routine pleasures and the bliss of privacy at home. These supervisors started ladling out excuses like gravy why they had to skip traveling to the field. Rather than describe reality in their reports they wrote recycled second hand garbage pulled from radio conversations and included graphs and statistics extracted from old U.N. brochures. These supervisors who wallowed in expatriate delights eventually skipped all travel to rural Angola. After all, who wanted to step into a muddy war zone? And yet, that is the reason they came in the first place.

This rift formed the divergence between field workers and those who yawned and counted hours in offices in Luanda. It often grew huge—like a separation of the island of Madagascar from continental Africa. As differences wedged wider apart, workers in the city and those in the field found their goals, attitudes, methods and relationships differed so as to be practically alienated from one another. Eventually the only thing shared by those in the field and those in the city became a Luanda bank account and a few boxes of letterheads. When this happened to you—if you had your wits about you—you knew it was time to leave Luanda. You had to get into the countryside or out of the country. Otherwise you turned soft, self centered and, eventually, cynical. But if you were switched on and realized how removed from reality you had become, you would get a plane ticket and get out.

There’s room for any hitchhiker who can climb aboard

Good Days

In October of 1995 I traveled to Angola to work with the International Medical Corps. When I arrived in the capital city of Luanda, one U.S. dollar was equivalent to 10 million Angolan Kwanzas in the local currency. Because the government printed 10,000 and 100,000 Kwanza notes, you had to carry a cardboard box filled with bundles of notes wrapped in rubber bands just to buy groceries. Wallets were obsolete. When I caught a small plane that flew from the capital city to our work site—a town named Maquela Do Zombo—our team tried carrying the equivalent of U.S. $100 with us. The cardboard box filled with Kwanza notes was so heavy that the pilot weighed it on the runway by placing it on a bathroom scale. When he considered all our luggage, his verdict was clear.

“Overweight,” he said.

We had to repack the box, leaving bundles of cash behind us for the Luanda staff to take back to the office. We managed to bring the equivalent of $20 along.

After we arrived in the town of Maquela do Zombo in the northern province of Uige, I bought fourteen ‘penny nails’ for 7 million Kwanzas at a local market. It took five minutes to count seventy notes by hand. The vendor then rejected half of the bills, complaining they were torn. We next drove to ‘Ton-Ton” the local bottle store. There we sat outside and drank liters of Skol lager. On Friday afternoon a bottle of beer cost 12 million Kwanzas. By Sunday morning the cost was 14 million Kwanzas. By early afternoon the price jumped to 15 million Kwanzas. Lest the cost hiked up while we drank, we had to agree on the price of a liter before ordering it.

The government then issued a new currency. They lopped three zeros off the Kwanza value, creating the Kwanza Readjustado. One handsome pink notes (showing a hammer, sickle, red star and an offshore oil platform) was 10,000 KR—the equivalent of a dollar.

The green hills of Uige

Ah, life suddenly turned easy again! I could use my wallet. Machines that counted bills stopped fluttering throughout Angolan stores.

Outside Luanda our team (mostly doctors and nurses) worked ‘behind the lines’ in rebel held territory. For weeks after it was printed, the rebel government of Jonas Savimbi did not accept the new money. When they finally did, the old Kwanzas were declared worthless overnight. No matter how many boxes of bills a family might have stashed as their savings, they could not exchange the bills for new notes.

Rampant inflation kept soaring. After a month, the Kwanza Readjustado was worth only fifty cents and a month later it was 25 cents. When I left Angola months later, it took five notes to buy one U.S. dollar. Wallets grew fatter as inflation grew. Banks ran out of new notes and started recycling old Kwanza bills. Their counters lay stacked with towers of old notes.

The economy was bizarre in this war impacted country. Money was generated by UNITA rebels selling diamonds and the FRELIMO government selling oil. Women wore fashionable dresses and ran around dialing cell phones, moving between bustling restaurants that accepted both Kwanzas and dollars. Travel agents refused to accept credit cards, yet when I offered to pay $388 by personal U.S. check to fly round trip from Luanda to Harare, Zimbabwe, they agreed without question. The country’s strange economy was also ridiculous. During the peace process a team of International Monetary Fund specialists visited the nation. Weeks later they threw up their hands, declared themselves baffled by the lack of bookkeeping, and flew off, clueless as to how the government accounted for its cash.

That didn’t matter where we worked in rural Maquela Do Zombo. We carried money to the local market in cardboard boxes, then doled out stacks to buy rice and razors. If we ran out of cash during a drinking binge, Ton-Ton’s wife extended credit without fail. We had food and beer and friends. A group of bored United Nations Peacekeepers once built a volleyball net from mosquito netting in our back yard. What more did we need? Life was simple. Racehorse inflation was simply part of it.

When I look back at those brief months in Angola, it all seems to have been a ludicrous dream, an Alice in Wonderland chapter turned real. Yet for many, this was their daily reality.

If I hear in the U.S. how the price of a sirloin steak tripled in two decades while salaries only doubled, I’m hardly worried. We are living in some very good days.

Dr. Samson with enough cash to buy a few oranges

Spirit

Our porch lanterns threw scant light onto the streets of Maquela Do Zombo. Five of us sat at an outdoor porch table near the kitchen: myself, a tall Swede, a serious Dutchman, a drunk French logistician and a debonair nurse from Spain’s Catalonia province. We finished eating a plate of cheese and sliced apples (flown from the city of Luanda that afternoon) and cleared sticky beer glasses away to the dark kitchen. Our flutter of movement cut the silence like bat wings. A cool wind rubbed our backs and we stepped into a vehicle.

We drove like intruders through the empty main street, searching for cold beer. Little else moved that Saturday night in Maquela Do Zombo.

Our favorite bottle store Ton-Ton was closed, as were three other bars in town. The Swede drove down the twisted trail of a muddy hill and braked outside the nearest bottle store—a dirty brick room named Kola-Kola.

I stepped outside, then knocked a fist on a battered wooden door. “Cerveja! Faz favor, cerveja!”

Silence.

Remote and colorful

Xavier lit a cigarette. He wobbled over and leaned against a porch column. He was a brash, egotistical and drunk Frenchman in his late 20’s.

“Why is everything so quiet?” I asked.

“Christmas is over,” he giggled, then pushed a lighter against his cigarette. “New year is over. People are tired. They have no money.”

The bottle store owner woke. She stepped out of her dark home into the cool, wan light.

“Quanto?” she asks.

“Oito.”

She vanished, then returned lugging a crate of eight liter bottles. Xavier and I paid her in pink 10,000 Kwanza bills. We counted out twenty four between us. We then thanked the woman and drove back to the sanctity of our porch table.

Xavier had arrived at our building earlier that evening, drunk, giggling and reeking of tobacco smoke. He came to tell the Catalonian nurse Magda to return to their Medicenes Sans Frontieres house where she lived up the road. She refused. She had also refused earlier in the evening, when Xavier sent a car and driver to find her at 9:00 pm.

Jacques did not like Xavier. Jacques was a crew-cut Dutch policeman who worked with the United Nations UNAVEM group. His shirt was pressed and his handshake was firm. While Xavier sat with us and flopped around in his chair like a minnow in a teacup, Jacques drank tonic water and watched him.

Waiting for the Hercules cargo plane to fly out….

After Xavier left to the Medicines San Frontieres home and office—their pink castle on the hill—Jacques spoke.

“Who is he? Always drunk,” Jacques said. “Telling Magda to come home, as though she is a child. These French people and their organization, I don’t like them.”

Magda was bright and playful, a Catalonian with curly hair, colorful t-shirts and white tennis shoes. She was 34 years old. Unlike others in her organization, she never hesitated to venture away from their pink castle for a spontaneous social visit. But then, she was different.

Whenever we invited the Medicines Sans Frontier team to our house for dinner, they arrived as a group. When, in turn, we visited them, they presented plates of French chocolates and aperitifs on the porch table before us. Our gatherings were warm and cordial. Yet they considered it taboo for team members to make forays away from their lair. After months of virtual social imprisonment due to these ridiculous security rules imposed on employees, Magda broke the protocol by coming to visit us. And what happened? Within hours Xavier chased her down, then insisted that she return to their base.

The local post office. Some MIG plane bombed it back in the day.

“Don’t like him,” Jacques repeated.

“He’s strange,” agreed Matts, a tall UNAVEM police officer from Denmark.

I just put away glasses and cleared the table.

The night watchman, an Angolan, sauntered over to our table and whispered. He looked frightened. He described in Portuguese how two men had just walked by the front porch and pointed rifles at him—commanding him to urge our group to stay quiet. On hearing this I wondered what to do. Should we follow their admonition and snuff out our glowing little party on a quiet Saturday night? I told the watchman not to worry. I decided that if the men returned, we would invite them to come visit the governor with us the next day. That would certainly frighten them. Above all, these men heeded power; they cringed before authority. That was how Magda differed from most others in town. Unlike those in her organization and unlike the Angolan men in this dark town, Magda did as she desired. She ignored rules and followed her spirit and intuition. That was why life drew this woman to Angola. Such a rich, unusual time in life.

The Thinness Of Reality

I’ve been looking at a few numbers and doing some simple calculations.

Consider this.

Stars and Sand Grains

If there are 10o billion stars in a galaxy (such as ours, the lovely Milky Way) and there are 2 trillion galaxies in the universe, then the number of stars in the universe is:

200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

The number of grains of sand on planet earth is, according to one calculation,  5,600 000,000,000,000,000,000.

Which means that for each grain of sand on earth, there are about 36 stars out there.

If each star has 1.6 planets, as estimated, there are about 58 planets out there for each grain of sand on our planet.

So many beaches, so much sand…

Equator and E Pluribus Unum

Our United States national debt is about $20,000,000,000,000.

The circumference of the earth is 24,901 miles. Or 1,570,000,000 inches.

There are 6.14 inches to the length of a dollar bill.

So, taped end to end, it would require about 257,000,000 dollar bills, linked together, to circle the earth.

So our national debt, in dollar bills taped end to end, could circle the earth 77, 800 times.

If we wrapped each of these ribbons of bills around the earth on top of each other, and each dollar bill is 0.0043 inches thick, then the stack of circled bills would be 334 inches thick, or almost 28 feet high

Imagine an almost three story wall circling the planet, made of single dollar bills piled on each other.

Or—if we used 100 dollar bills—about 3 and a half inches high.

It’s quite chilly just a few miles above

Flying to the Core

If we stand at, or near to, the equator, our bodies and the ground below us are cruising at about 1,000 miles an hour (460 meters a second)—compared to the center of the earth—as the earth rotates.

At the same time, our planet—and ourselves—are whizzing at about 67,000 miles per hour (30 meters per second) around the sun.

And the sun and our planets are hi-tailing it around the center of our Milky Way at 490,000 miles per hour (220 kilometers per second).

Meanwhile, we are oblivious to this truth, and protected within our own little cocoon of atmospheric pressure, sunlight, potable water, fresh strawberries and instrumental guitar music.

No sign of high rises on trillions of other planets

Now think of this.

Below our feet, 3959 miles away (6,371 kilometers) is the center of the earth. That’s about the flight distance between New York and Stockholm.

The temperature of the center of the earth is between 9,000 and 13,000 degrees Fahrenheit (4,000 to 5,000 degrees Celsius). That’s about as hot as the surface of the sun.

Now look up. Some 12 miles above us (20 kilometers), the temperature is a chilly minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 51 Celsius).

Consider that. In a nearby location, roughly equivalent to the distance you pass in a few hours of flying, it’s as hot as the surface of the sun, Or, if you could drive at 60 miles per hour (96 km/hr) straight upward into the sky, in about 12 minutes you’d be as cold as gets in Yakutia in Russia.

 

In Yakutia, the temperature dropped to minus 60 degrees

The next time you get bummed out—consider that for each of the 56 planets in the universe per grain of sand on earth, we know no others that include life. Despite our national debt being incomprehensible, may of us are still eating, drinking and often watching Netflix. And despite being hurtled through inhospitable space at faster speeds than we can comprehend—constantly—we wake each morning to walk across firm ground and maybe see tree leaves ruffled by a breeze.

Before whining about your coffee not being hot enough, or the traffic jam delaying your commute, consider how fortunate we are just to exist, surrounded by the most extreme and inhospitable environments.

We live within a thin layer of the most improbable natural bounty.

Which is reason enough to be grateful.

Give a thought to our most unlikely existence

Recommended Reads.

The books listed below have nothing to do with the numbers above.

They are just good reads. All are non-fiction. They cover history, art and adventure.

A Brilliant Little Operation, by Paddy Ashdown.  This is the true story of 5 U.K. canoes dropped into the Atlantic Ocean by a submarine during the Second World War. Two canoes, each paddled by two men, eventually made it down the long Gironde estuary to the city of Bordeaux, where the paddlers used limpet mines to sink a few enemy ships. Afterwards, they escaped on foot and by train—first across France, and then into Spain and Gibraltar. [For those of you who know about our own Etalon Rouge wine—it turns out their initial escape on foot passed along the dirt road next to this vineyard, in the commune of Fours.]

Leonardo de Vinci, by Walter Isaacson. This is a fascinating review of Leonardo’s life, with a few surprises. Despite all of those designs he made of war machinery, virtually none (except one) of his contraptions was every actually constructed. Da Vinci was also a vegetarian, not a very ‘in vogue’ choice during his day in Italy.

One Summer: American – 1927, by Bill Bryson. Eminently readable, this includes the tale of how the pilot Charles Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris—the first ever to do so. The text includes ample other fascinating diversions—including the great floods of 1927 in the U.S., the accomplishments of Herbert Hoover (and his lack of emotions), and more. I’ve just begun this, and it’s a page turner.

Thanks again for tuning in…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bibliophile of Bordeaux Wine Country

Château Margaux was rebuilt in 1815

Earlier this month I had the fortune to be invited for a private lunch with two individuals in the Médoc region of Bordeaux: the owner and the General Manager of Château Margaux.

Today I posted a piece on Forbes about the mother / daughter team running the château.

Now, about books.

Because of a rainstorm, the owner of Château Margaux, Corinne Mentzelopoulos, was late to arrive. This turned out to be serendipitously advantageous.

Her flight from Paris to Bordeaux was going to be diverted to Biarritz. However, after circling, they were able to land at Merignac Airport on the outskirts of Bordeaux city—their original destination.

Because of her delay, I had more time to meet and interview General Manager (and winemaker) Philippe Bauscales. We also sampled from three bottles of Château Margaux—2004, 2012 and 2015. Beautiful!

When Madame Mentzelopoulos arrived, we met inside her château. The walls of the main room were lined with books. Before we began discussing wine, and before we sat down for lunch, we spoke about books.

[Strangely, and I only realized this while transcribing the conversation, her two dogs began grumbling when she began to speak about an author who writes about dogs. Bizarre.]

Within the cellar at Château Margaux

Here is what she Madame Mentzelopoulos said.

[The books on these shelves are] “…from former owners. We’ve kept them very carefully. I should have them restored in Paris. They’re gradually becoming unkempt. One day I’ll have the courage. Because there are so many things here that are more important in a way—the cellar, the plantings. And we’ve been doing a lot of things in the château also.

“Or maybe my daughter will be put in charge. Because her father loved books, older books, he lived for older books. So maybe she will like the idea. Myself not so much. I like modern books. Because I mark with my pencil, I take notes. I’ve been doing that since university. And I’m supposed to re-read it again to remember and go further into the information. I don’t always do it. But I’m trying. Five years later you look at the book because you’re putting it away and you look at the notes and you don’t remember a thing. ‘What did I even mean?’ You don’t know. Oh, well. It’s a habit.

“And I sometimes do remember things. I love learning, so it’s always the dates. History, authors, literature. And when I get very lazy I read American books. Thrillers. Such as Sue Grafton. Danielle Steele? No I stopped. Mary Higgins Clark? I stopped. That’s too stupid.

“Not being born English speaking, there is the effort I am making, I get the impression I’m getting my head to work because it’s in English. And also it keeps my English going. And I come out with some sentences I didn’t even know. I don’t think I could read the same books in French. I would be more critical. I don’t read any French stupid novels, but in English, there’s the effort of reading in English.

$1,200 a bottle. On the nose—stunning. In the mouth—quite the treat 🙂

“So Baldacci, all the guys you know who are on the bestseller list of the New York Times. Taylor. John Grisham. But I read too many of Grisham so I kind of know what’s going to happen. I have found out with Mary Higgins Clark—you know the plot. There’s a guy called Cameron who writes about dogs. Now that’s very stupid but I just adore it. And that’s wonderful. Just to really let yourself go.

“I have three Kindles. I never use them. I like the books better. The only advantage of the Kindle is that you can read it before you get the book. At Amazon they allow you to read it on your computer. Used to spend my life in bookstores. Now I can browse and you can get the details as well. Honestly.

“I walk over my books at home. They’re all over the place. But I just love it. I love Amazon. I’ve been a client since 2001. And that day I understood it wasn’t the future, it was the present. I remember telling a very important wine dealer and owner and merchant here in 2001, if you don’t put your wines on a website, if you don’t build yourself a website, you’re out. Every time he sees me—he thanks me. Because he trusted me. Because I thought—this is amazing. This is so much fun. You sit there and you have the whole world of literature at your fingertips. I mean, extraordinary.”

Château Margaux has its own cooperage to make barrels. Photo credit: Francois Poincet

 

 

 

On The Road And Nothing To Lose

I wrote the words below over a decade ago, but never published them.

They were written as part of my book titled Rivers of Change—Trailing the Waterways of Lewis and Clark. I had to cut down the volume of the book, so omitted these—not because they were of any less merit than those from other sections, but in order to keep a balanced volume of narrative for each portion of the book.

Instead, I put them into a collection of stories titled Vignettes—which still sits inside a laptop.

This is the first half of an omitted chapter.

The purpose of this piece was to explain why I quit a job, ditched income and hit the trail.

I treasure these original words. They bring the spirit of exploration back to my mind. I lost tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars by quitting jobs in order to explore the world now and then. My bank account may be lean, but my spirit is keen, kicking and filled with faith that, as a friend here in the town of Blaye often says, the universe will provide.

Here is the first part of this chapter.

In Canada, where I drove to the source of the Columbia River

Decision

In the year 2001, before leaving on my trip to explore the Missouri and Columbia rivers, I needed to find a vehicle in Albuquerque. I spent days combing through classified ads and cruising sales lots until pinpointing two prospective buys. One was a 20 foot long recreational vehicle that had 52,000 miles, a generator, toilet, shower and stove. Its maneuverability was poor, but the price was right. Still, it was huge. All of that vehicle for one person? I stepped inside. Its skunk brown interior was a depressing tone for a lone man on a long haul. Both its bulky size and dim color incited me to try something else.

On a honking corner of Candelaria Avenue, I found a 1988 van with a pop up roof, sink, burners and bed. Although its interior was bright and cheerful, the ignition failed three times. When it finally started I lumbered out to the first stoplight where the engine died. Traffic horns wailed from behind.

The ‘Big Muddy’ Missouri River

“We’ll tune it up,” the dealer promised. “And adjust the timing. By noon tomorrow it will be 100 percent better.”

At noon the next day the ignition purred and died again.

“Didn’t have time for a good tune up,” the dealer explained. “We rushed to have it ready by noon. There’s plenty of room for improvement.”

That was plenty of incentive to move on.

That same afternoon my sister (whose home I stayed at while planning the trip) bicycled along Albuquerque’s North Valley. With wind at her temples, a notion struck her of how I should find the right vehicle. That evening she offered advice.

“You’re using logic to decide what you want,” she said. “That’s fine – up to a point. Now wait until you sit inside something that makes you light up and say ‘I want to drive this!’ ”

Scribbling notes along the Missouri Riiver

The next morning I scoured classified advertisements and found two ads that had been unlisted the day before. One was for a used four wheel drive pickup truck; the other was for a compact camper shell. I visited both, loved them, and paid cash for the two. Before leaving Albuquerque and motoring east toward St. Louis – the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers – there was still plenty to do. The full tilt effort ransacked my senses. One evening, frazzled, I paid for a tank of gas at a Circle K and drove off. A station wagon sidled up beside me at the stop light and honked. Inside a pert man with frantic eyes and sudsy hair rolled down his window. He flagged his bulky palm at me.

“Gas hose!” he yelped.

“Gas cap?” I asked.

“The hose man! You got the whole thing!”

I punched my hazard lights and stepped outside. The handle to the gas station pump was still inserted in my tank, trailing its rubber fuel hose down the highway.

It was time to slow down.

Wayne Tyndall of the Omaha, one of the many characters met along the journey

When I finally drove away from Albuquerque the wind died and starlight sang above. I exhaled and reviewed the past week of preparation and departure. Altogether the trip had launched itself with ease, reminding me of when the more ambitious explorer Charles Lindbergh flew solo from New York to Paris. When he banked over the Atlantic in his fuel laden single engine plane, Lindbergh was delighted to see lingering fog vanish before Canada’s Chedabucto Bay.

“It seems today,” he wrote, “that every door is flung wide open when I knock.”[i]

Along the Missouri River in South Dakota

I accelerated west, entering a leather landscape puckered in rude depressions. My union of truck and camper was neither swift nor vain but compact, economical. Because there was no cassette player I stabbed at blunt plastic knobs to tune the radio. Soon the music of Johann Sebastian Bach soaked into the cab’s upholstery and soothed my frazzled nerves. I passed ruminating cows and a stooped mailman and, hours later, pulled into a rest stop off Interstate 40 to spend the night.

The next morning, beyond Tucumcari, I pulled onto Route 66 and passed a battered farmhouse tucked beneath corrugated cedars. Close to this a discarded mandarin sofa angled out of a lone field and pointed somewhere toward Mexico. Miles ahead an old gas station wall collapsed inward, like folding stairs of an escalator. Taken together, this vista formed a curious geography of abandonment. The remnants of Route 66 were easy and empty, a serene and hidden luxury driven by few. Only hundreds of feet away from this route’s slovenly pace the Interstate highway honked and jittered, where speed increased and variety plummeted. I felt certain that this simple truth resonated with a powerful lesson, one that would serve well on the trail ahead.

British Columbia, Canada (off the Lewis and Clark route, but along the Columbia River)

When I fired down the sun kissed sheen of a rural Oklahoma highway a cloud of crackling doubts attacked me. They thickened so deeply that I had to pull over and park beside two strands of sagging barb wire. I rested one palm on the hard steering wheel. Questions loomed: was it worth flushing away my savings for this rickety tour of the Midwest, Northwest and Rocky Mountains? I had left an excellent job with ample international travel, profit sharing incentives, tax free earnings and benefits as cushy as a down comforter. I had abandoned this secure route not from impatience, but hunger. Life was flashing by and I wanted to view part of it from inside a shaking canoe or from the top of a lightning pierced ridge instead of from the trim desk of a bright office cubicle. I needed pine scent, sloppy rivers and aching calf muscles and wanted to poke along life’s own Route 66.

A notebook on the passenger seat beside me lay open, containing a quote copied from Charles Lindbergh’s Pulitzer prize winning book: The Spirit of St. Louis.

“Security is a static thing;” he wrote, “and without adventure, lifeless as a stone.”[ii]

Clouds brewing a storm, perhaps in Nebraska or South Dakota

Days earlier a friend named Robin had written to me from her ‘home,’ a sailboat docked off St. John in the Virgin Islands. She had spent years in the region advising high school students on which college they should choose. During free weeks she and her husband plied Caribbean waves on their sailboat Frodo. In her letter she told how she was exploring the option of returning to live in the States. Yet she had doubts about the move:

“I’m on St. Croix wondering whether small town America exists anymore or have we turned our communities into malls, golden miles, and connecting three lane roads with traffic lights?”

Her question was valid. Days earlier, inside the entrance to an Albuquerque shopping mall, I had inspected a cardboard cutout image of a lean girl. The words printed beside her read: “Mall Doll says: Shopping is Always the Answer!” Another notice outside the mall tickled consumers with the phrase: “Ready, Set, Shop!”

Had our communities transformed into malls? If shopping was the answer, was it time to reconsider the question? I took my fingers off the steering wheel and bit the key into the ignition again.

Perhaps answers lay on the trail ahead.

 

Endnotes

[i] Charles Lindbergh, The Spirit of St. Louis, Scribner (Simon & Schuster), September 1998 edition.

[ii]   Same.

 

You Don’t Know But Life Really Is A River

I’ve written a wine blog for about seven years, as well as this blog (related to publishing) for about four years. I also write about five articles, online, each month for Forbes. Truthfully, the posts are little read. I have no online guru pumping some algorithm to rake in zillions (or even thousands) of hits. No worries. But…

What is popular? What do most people want to read about?

Here is The Secret.

Beautiful spirals from a winery near Barcelona (photograph taken at Albet i Noya winery a few weeks ago) 

Which posts do the best? Which topics receive the most hits? Which headlines score most viewers? Which subjects are most favored?

The answer to this is also a Key of Life.

Simply put:

You Don’t Know.

Gorgeous evidence of the beauty of transformation (photographed recently in Barcelona)

You cannot predict in advance.

Let me emphasize that, more deeply.

You have NO IDEA. All of those publicists, publishers, online gurus, marketing wizards and experienced messiahs who promise to blow your Little Post into a Viral Stratosphere?

Nonsense.

They don’t know!

Seriously.

You never know what to expect when you visit another home

Sure, you can pay to boost online hits, and comb through huge databases to jack up your hits by a minor fraction of that total. You can opt to pay and have a jillion subscribers (although only a few hundred will actually ‘like’ your posts).

The Ancient Truth of Marketing is this:

You DON’T KNOW.

Thank goodness.

I look over my past years of running three blogs, two personal, and one for Forbes.

Everything is unexpected.

The article I thought would rage that mentioned the Prince of Monaco probably got in the hundreds of hits, while the piece about biodynamic wines racked up in the ten thousand range. The article on a bizarre day trip to obscure sections of the lesser known city of Poitiers quickly scored thousands of hits, while the article about the colorful, ancient, renowned, semi-mystical Jurad wine festival of beautiful Saint-Èmilion city turned out to be a virtual flop.

Goregous festival in Saint-Émilion. But how do we interest the world, and do we even want to? (Photograph taken this fall at the Jurad Festival)

As I wrote in my book, Visual Magic:

“The successful outcomes we visualize often arrive on their own schedule. Actor Richard Gere told a Los Angeles Times reporter about the mysterious process of maintaining his high profile in the movie business. ‘The only level of career you have to maintain is to have a hit movie,’ he said. ‘Nothing more, nothing less. You can still play in the game if every once in a while you have a hit movie. But it’s not like you can pick them. That never works. It’s all by accident. There’s an alchemy out there that no one can figure out.’ “[i]

[i] Los Angeles Times, P. E6, January 6, 2003.

So, too, with life.

Life is often a feast when you least expect it (this photo was taken at the Albet i Noya winery outside of Barcelona)

I visualize and believe and pray and often this leads to munificence and benevolence and rich beauties in life. But, often and unpredictably, life shifts in directions our haughty egos can never predict. This is the beauty of life.

The era of my life most charmed, beautiful and rich with jewels of experience and fortune, that made me feel as though I lived in a dream while my thoughts transformed uncannily into sweet reality, were my volunteer years in the Peace Corps in Malawi, Africa. And yet these were followed, at times, by heartache and pain and a wondering—why can’t I go back?

The appearance of bliss changes every day (this photograph was taken this summer near Saint-Émilion in Bordeaux, France)

This is a truth I learned:

Life is fluid. When we cling to situations, beliefs, memories, or ideas as being ‘ideal’ or ‘pivotal’ or ‘bedrock,’ we are likely to be shocked when that state of affairs, that mindset, that paradigm, that reality, that state of governance, that code of ethics, that canon of belief, that trope of manners, that code of morals, shifts.

We cling to the past because it is comforting. Secure. Known.

Yet life changes. Reality alters.

Unless we are prepared, occasionally, to drift with those changes, we will ourselves turn obsolete.

This is not a question of being conservative or liberal, because the shape of those very definitions also morphs.

Lake Columbia, Canada (photograph taken back in 2001)

I wrote about this in my book Rivers of Change – Trailing the Waterways of Lewis and Clark.

In Chapter 34, Birthplace of Montana, I wrote:

“The truck radiator boiled over south of Fort Benton, and I pulled into a rest stop near a cluster of hay bales. There I stood at the edge of a semicircular rimrock wall hundreds of feet above river and plains. Below, the Missouri River curved like a rope, carving a path parallel to this cliff. It seemed as much a presence as a river. I envied the farmer who lived below and woke each dawn to this vista of cliffs ringed by muscular water.

The Yellowstone River (photograph taken during my trip in 2001)

The vista below reminded me of Alan Watts’ words from his book The Wisdom of Insecurity. He told how life is a state of flux and that wanting fixed security—stasis—is to desire that which is not a part of life. When we try to stake ourselves and our egos to a secure shore, we often find that the river of life drifts away, inflicting us with a sense of unease that makes us yearn for even more security.

‘It must be obvious, from the start, that there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in the universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity,’ he wrote. ‘If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separateness in which we feel insecure.’

His words were inspiring. I believed that by maintaining optimism and flexibility, the future would unfold in a way both benign and prosperous.

Street Art in Barcelona, Spain

The day felt suddenly easy. I moved away from the cliff and breathed deep beneath a mackerel sky. Uncertain of what lay ahead I was willing to roam and learn. For a rare moment in life both hands stayed loose of certainty while the hours swelled with the rich bliss of knowing that nothing stays secure. There is no predicting where the river of life will carry us.”

Amen.

***

Thanks again for tuning in. I write this blog and another (vinoexpressions.com) and also write for various publications (shown below). I appreciate your visit to this site and hope you will continue checking out Roundwood Press.

Also, unless otherwise noted, all images shown on this blog are my own photographs.

 

The Bookseller of Budapest

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

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

We talked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regarding working in the forest logging trees, he wrote:

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

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

Which brings me to artificial intelligence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dogsleds and Elephants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, back to McPhee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You get the point.

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

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

So – Read.

Widely.

Not just headline stories in mainstream media.

 

Three Wheels Through The Fog Of Another Universe

 

1.

When I woke up the universe was different.

Let me modify that. It was fundamentally—no, wrong word—operationally, similar.

But not the same.

It was a modified universe.

First was the fog. There’s never fog where I live. Well, not much. But on this Tuesday morning ground fog was everywhere outside. Pervasive. Like the famed London fog of a century ago, before they stopped using chimney fires. There it was. Some of it as thick as soup.

I woke at 5.30 a.m. and, dang, it was still there by 9.30 in the morning. I was working from home and this struck me as slightly weird.

But, hey, no big deal.

I mean—it’s just fog.

Next, bicycles. While I sat on the porch drinking coffee a couple rode past on their mountain bikes.

And, whoaa, if they didn’t both have three wheels!

Not like a tricycle, but three wheels in a row. One behind the other. In sequence.

Never saw that before.

I thought, well that’s some new trend. Like motorized paddle boards. Or goat yoga.

Ten minutes later, some older dude pedaled right past my porch on this ancient Schwinn. It was like a 30-year old ten speed. And—no kidding, three frickin’ wheels. One-after-the-other.

I stood and shook my head and soon noticed Major Paradigm Discrepancy Number 3:

A Honda Civic drove past with lights on because of the fog. The left back light was about half as bright as the right back light. It also blinked.

Big deal?

Well, yeah.

Because ten minutes earlier a UPS truck had driven through my neighborhood.

And, guess what?

Same thing. Dimmer back light on the left, blinking.

Remember that Tom Hanks movie where he was a castaway on a desert isle and then came back home? He worked for Federal Express. But in the movie the Fedex box he had kept and later delivered had gold angel wings painted on it. And we wondered what that was about—because normal FedEx boxes don’t have gold angel wings.

But you just had to accept it.

That was how it was. Mildly tweaked reality: fog, extra wheel, wonky brake lights. Like being in a movie that is slightly different from reality.

But I accepted it.

I left my second cup of coffee on the porch table and went for a walk. On the way I opened a cell phone and began typing a text to my editor.

Then I noticed that the keyboard had no X.

None.

Do you know how unsettling it is to wake up in a world with only 25 letters in the English alphabet?

2.

I understand, from an avid reader and a lay person’s point of view, the basics of quantum entanglement, of worm holes linking black holes, of multiverses and of Schroedinger’s cat never really being quite dead or alive but statistically leaning one way or the other. I get it.

I read the Dancing Wu Li Masters in youth and recently bought a special edition of Scientific American where all these physics wizards from John Hopkins and Oxford and Berkeley and the CERN laboratory near Geneva explain all this mind-boggling stuff in an easy to grasp lay persons’ terms.

Sure.

I still have to reread and learn to difference between the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and the cosmological theory of the multiverse. I mean one was caused by the Big Bang and the other just reflects the nature of reality.

Something like that.

Right?

So on this foggy Tuesday morning about a block and a half from my house an ambulance whizzed past, flashing pink and green lights—think about those colors—and, instead of blaring a siren, it blasted Frank Sinatra’s I Did it My Way. It must have been a bad accident because three minutes later a cop car whizzed past.

You guessed it.

Same again: pink, green, Sinatra.

Here were my choices: I could tell someone in authority about having woken up in an altered universe, but no one else looked rattled by these colors and siren sounds and they might try to put me into a loony bin.

I could wait to wake up, and meanwhile do nothing.

Or, being quite certain I was actually awake, I could learn to surf this dip into an alternate reality.

Maybe my bank account had more funds? Or maybe women asked dudes out on dates?

Heck, maybe eating carbohydrates and drinking red wine would actually make me thinner.

Regardless, I was quite satisfied at having adopted this new mercenary attitude.

Maybe I could pedal a bestseller: How to Get Rich and Improve Your Love Life By Slipping into An Alternate Universe in 6 Easy Steps. The first being somehow to wake up and seek confirmation by looking for three wheeled bicycles.

Only I wasn’t sure how to go about consciously doing that.

3.

Then I met Mary.

I drove to my editor’s office and on the way got a flat tire and was fixing it along the roadside when a car pulled up beside me and this redhead exited and insisted she help. So I let her hand me lug bolts and thanked her before she left, but first she leaned over and rubbed her left cheek against my left cheek, cat style, before she walked away. She told me her name was Mary.

I thought that was just some hippy-dippy college crap like girls saying ‘namaste,’ or maybe something cultural like French folks kissing each others’ cheeks. But after that, I pulled over to a 7-11 store and bought some unleaded gas and a Kit Kat bar, and damn if the girl behind the counter—ponytails and dungarees—leaned over and did the same!

It felt good. Like a more intimate version of ‘Have a nice day.’

Maybe this alternate universe had changed not only in nature and engineering but also social and cultural norms. Alhough I can’t grasp the benefits of that bizarre third bicycle wheel I certainly felt happier after those cheek rubs. It was like sharing a family cooked dinner in rural Italy. There was something intimately, unquantifiable beneficial about those cheek rubs.

It’s hard to share verbally. Sort of like being unable to describe an altered state of consciousness because, well, adequate words have not been invented.

4.

A month later there was still all this damn fog.

Beside that, a few other reality modifications arrived as surprises.

You didn’t have to pay credit card bills by any date for years, and the interest didn’t get higher. Newly constructed churches had no roofs and congregations brought their umbrellas. The Central African Republic and Guyana didn’t exist. And China had not one, but nine time zones. Mick Jagger was a born again Christian and had quit singing. The solar system still included Pluto as a planet, but had two other new planets. And, most tattoos were phosphorescent.

5.

Beside that, life stayed much unchanged.

I kept writing articles with words that didn’t include X’s, and my pay slips were the same (although bonuses were given at Halloween instead of Christmas).

The fog was like that incessant rain in the original Blade Runner movie, so I just got used to it.

I still baked bread during weekends and went running for exercise because I wasn’t getting near one of those three wheeled bikes.

One day I took my car in to get the radio fixed and damn if the mechanic didn’t turn my way, wipe her hands on a dingy towel and smile.

It was Mary.

Two weeks later my father in law (this is weird: he now sported an earring) was walking with me around Home Depot. He was telling me about problems he was having with the transmission in his Ford truck and at that very moment red haired Mary pushed her cart around the aisle and almost hit us.

Cheek rub. Smiles.

I noticed that there was an association with meeting Mary and automotive issues. This was a strange but not unwelcome coincidence.

Okay.

Read the next words carefully. Because they are really important.

I noticed this coincidence thing with Mary because, knowing that I was living in a somewhat benevolent but Kafkayesque Wonderland, my awareness of everything that was even mildly different was heightened. Otherwise, I would probably not have thought much about the Mary/car thing.

6.

One reason that the multiverse theory exists, at least from my simplistic reading and understanding, is because—theoretically—about 68 percent of the universe is made of ‘dark energy.’

That’s a shocker. Only about five percent is made up of atoms and molecules and stuff that we usually think about when we think of the word ‘matter.’ I mean, that’s what we grew up with.

Dark energy is probably the stuff that is making the universe expand. That means stars are moving away from each other faster and faster and in about a trillion years from now, if we even exist, we would not be able to see stars in the next galaxy because they would have high-tailed it way away from us faster than the speed of light (don’t ask; I really don’t know).

The problem with this theory is that, in reality, there’s still too little measurable energy floating around our universe to tally with this hypothesis.

So, one explanation is that there are many universes, perhaps clustered like bubbles, and that ours just happens to have an abnormally low dose of dark energy. That energy forcing the universe to expand has the pretty cool name of ‘Cosomological Constant.’

Apparently Einstein thought of that. Something to do with his general theory of relativity.

But that reason they gave for the existence of a multiverse?

I don’t buy it.

Here’s why.

When I read about this in Scientific American (picked up at the airport), I thought it was a sort of brazen scientific cop-out.

Let me explain.

Imagine that your dad had asked you, when you were a kid, why you had already spent the allowance money he gave you. And then you told him not to worry because, in an alternate universe, you had not only saved it but had invested it and made a bundle.

See? Think your dad would buy that?

No way!

But some guys were getting away with making up these theories. They added a doctorate to their title, published a few photon related studies, quoted Einstein and somehow literally swept uncertainties away by pointing to a lil’ old otherly dimensional universe (or universes, plural) as the carpet under which to hide their loose ends.

Nice try.

But I don’t buy it.

Not yet, anyhow.

7.

The Mary events were the first time I really took notice of coincidences. I don’t know why. Maybe because she was kind of cute. I’d never really paid much attention to them before. After that, I noticed more coincidences. God winking, as someone once said. Were they meaningful? I have no idea. Vehicle problems and poof! Mary appears. But they showed me that the fabric of reality, the viscosity of experience, was different than what I had considered before. The very engine that drove and sustained evolution appeared to have one very slight gear cog ratio alteration that no school teacher had ever clued us into. I mean, this crap was illogical.

In other words, the very underyling physics of this new reality in which I woke up to differed slightly from the two bicycle wheeled paradigm I had once lived in.

It’s like living in Africa and realizing that events occur differently there. When your car breaks down on a remote road in the middle of a desert, another vehicle will almost certainly appear out of nowhere to aid you, simply because the very bedrock of that old continent exudes this almost inherent connectedness, even benevolence, that helps generate the appearance of assistance—although statistically unlikely—right when you needed it.

But that’s another story.

8.

My clever and eloquent Scientific American writers explained that one way to describe the similarities between the two types of singularities—black holes and those that occurred with the Big Bang (singularities are where space and time operate differently than we know)—is to realize that black holes have a boundary (even though it’s a bit wobbly and ill defined and is, oddly, two-dimensional) called an ‘event horizon.’ Slip inside this and you can never come out again. Not only because gravity is too strong, but because the interior is in the future and to get out, well, you would have to go back in time. Which is impossible.

At least improbable.

So that’s a black hole. The analogous boundary to the Big Bang is something we can’t see because we are inside of it. Basically we are a three dimensional universe wrapped, like a cheese and beef filling inside a taco shell, within a four-dimensional spatial universe. The interface between these two universes is akin, in terms of being a boundary, to the event horizon of a black hole. They call our universe a brane, and the larger universe a bulk. These sound to me like words from a Marvel comic strip. (At least they’re easier to remember than the current model for the history of the universe, which is the Lambda Cold Dark Matter Cosmological Paradigm. I think you’ll agree that’s a mouthful. And not easy to remember.)

Here’s another interesting tidbit that the magazine taught me: when black holes collide at the speed of light they create gravity waves (talk about an extreme event) that send out reverberations in the fabric of space and time. People measure this, like to the width of a proton, both in Washington State and Louisiana in the U.S., as well as in Italy.

Seriously.

I’m not making this up.

Don’t buy it?

Click this link.

Told you.

But instead of hearing about this on the mainstream media—we’re just told about Hillary’s book tour and Trump’s tweets.

Talk about dumbing down our population.

Anyway, the point of talking about these articles is that there is some strange stuff going on in the universe (or in multiple universes) that most of us are completely unaware of.

9.

Remember when Samuel Taylor Coleridge (apparently in 1797), after smoking opium, began writing his poem Kubla Khan and then a stranger knocked on his front door and he answered it and when he came back his inspiration had vanished and he couldn’t finish his magnificent, luscious poem that takes us to the magical land where Alph the river ran?

Well, this piece I am writing is no poetical masterpiece, but I think it’s time to wrap it up – quickly. Before eating breakfast.

Otherwise I may forget the point.

Here we go.

10.

As my friend who works in TV tells me, when they stop shooting at the end of the day, they say, “Let’s wrap.”

Here’s the wrap.

Times change. The boundaries of our perceptions change. Our models of the universe change.

When I was in college, multiverses were not the rage and quantum entanglement did not equate with worm holes between black holes. And no one had ever measured a gravity wave.

As for what I wrote above?

Let’s say that my universe did not change overnight, but that these described events occurred over the space of, say, six years.

Maybe climate patterns shifted, or a volcano eruption had impacted worldwide weather patterns which generated more fog; maybe bicycle engineers found that three wheels worked more efficiently than two (and dealers even retrofitted old bikes); maybe traffic engineers decided to modify back lights for safety reasons, and that rubbing cheeks became more fashionable than handshakes. Maybe economists urged more flexibility in credit card payment dates (okay, that may be a bit far fetched) and scientists discovered more planets, and that a relative—after watching the new Blade Runner 2049 movie—learned that in real life the actor Harrison Ford had an earring, and so he decided to get one too. And consider that perhaps linguists convinced us that the letter X was superfluous and more planets were discovered and China decided to use time zones and new tattoo technologies emerged. Perhaps emergency rescue vehicles changed flashing light colors to reduce the impact on epileptic bystanders, and also realized that familiar music drew more attention than sirens.

Maybe religious leaders decided to cut costs and get people closer to the almighty by removing church roofs.

You get the idea.

Over a greater span of time, these changes would appear to be less bizarre.

But a person in that ‘normal’ timeline may never have noticed that coincidences can play a role in our lives, even though we may not yet understand them.

Unless pointed out by others whose opinions we respect, sometimes we only pay attention to common phenomena when our awareness is heightened—by being placed in a new or unusual situation.

When you read the story above and enter a fantasyland you will accept the Mary coincidence as both intriguing and agreeable.

The bizarre reality is that (although this was fiction) such events happen in our own lives.

That quantum mechanics/cosmological stuff?

Our contemporary scientific acceptance of the bizarre nature of physical reality (as highlighted with some of the astrophysics mentioned above) may allow more people (without fear of criticism), to stop being afraid of discussing unusual events, such as bizarre coincidences.

Regardless…if Scientific American proposes multiple universes with infinite possibilities, that’s like reading a religious text.

And, if true, meaningful coincidences certainly occur within that new paradigm.

Postscript.

I wrote the above in two bursts—one time at night and the other during the following morning.

This was along the Abruzzo coast of Italy.

Here is what happened within 48 hours of writing those words.

The following day the Wall Street Journal published an article titled When World’s Collide, Astronomers WatchOn the same day I wrote that piece, scientists apparently measured gravity waves from the collision, not of two black holes (which had already occurred in 2016), but between two very much more compact and denser neutron stars. The fact that this event commanded mainstream media attention is refreshing.

In the same issue the WSJ published an article titled The Science Behind CoincidencesIt’s refreshing to see that the phenomenon of coincidences is gaining more mainstream attention.

The New Yorker Magazine included a review of the new Blade Runner 2049 movie, and mentioned that apparently Frank Sinatra music is played in that movie.

I began writing an article for Forbes about a new Rothschild resort in the French Alps. I then read that apparently it was in this village that Jacques Revaux composed the song ‘Comme d’Habitude’ in 1967, which is the French version of what became the song Frank Sinatra song ‘My Way.’

Within six hours of scribbling down the above piece, a group of us met and spent hours with an intelligent, energetic tour guide.

Her name?

María.

She has light red hair.

I kid you not.

Fortunately, no car problems.

**

Thanks for tuning into this less than usual edition of Roundwood Press. If you want to read my own books about coincidences, try clicking here and here.

 

The Hip, The Trip, and the Laundromat in Boulder, Colorado

Here are three memories about writing from Boulder, Colorado.

One.

During college in Boulder, I walked from a house on the ‘Hill’ region—where I lived in with several roommates on Pennsylvania Avenue—to the laundromat called Doozy Duds, adjacent to the same parking lot as the Boulder Mountaineer and Dot’s Diner. I put a load of clothes in the washing machine, sat on a bright orange plastic chair and picked up a newspaper from the adjacent seat.

Flipping through pages, I stopped at an advertisement. It was one or two pages long and was for either an Apple or a Mac computer. It showed—with illustrations—how you could highlight text, and then cut the text and paste this somewhere else.

Wow!

That was new. And amazing. I was sure it would change the world.

Which it did.

Unlike writers in the age of Emily Bronte or Jules Verne who had to compose thoughts clearly in their heads before putting them to paper, we can now half-formulate thoughts, write them down and rearrange paragraphs later.

Before the electronic cut and paste function, we would—literally—take a scissors and tape to sheets of paper we had written on, then cut out paragraphs and rearrange them on another sheet of paper and then tape these into place before re-typing the text.

Apparently the guy credited with inventing electronic ‘copy and paste’ function is Larry Tesler, who was working for Xerox in Palo Alto in California in the 1970’s.

Two.

After college, while still in Boulder, I took an evening course in magazine writing taught by Sam Maddox. Sam became reputed in Boulder because he was a ‘stringer’ who wrote pieces for various newspapers and magazines before he started his own publishing business. He had written a piece about the town of Boulder for Newsweek Magazine, titled “Where the Hip meet to Trip.”

That small column put Boulder on the national radar for being liberal and tolerant.

For the class he taught (which was excellent) we had to select and then interview a local business owner, then write an article about them. I interviewed the owner of Dot’s Diner. He shared memorable events. One was that the restaurant had previously been named The Magnolia Thunderpussy (I kid you not). One day a woman from the Doozy Duds laundromat next door came into the small front hall, stripped and threw her clothes into a laundry basket, then pulled on another set of clothes. All of this in the lobby before the front desk: getting buck naked and re-dressing before sauntering out again.

Another time the cook was so hungover that he took a nap by laying horizontally on the front counter while the restaurant was still open.

That was my first interview.

I thought, wow–this is intriguing: listening to wild and colorful tales about real events, then writing about them.

Three.

Two weeks ago a former professor in civil engineering from the University of Colorado in Boulder who had taught me, George Goble, died. Strangely, I found that out after I wrote the paragraph below.

George Goble was a pragmatic, no-nonsense guy from Idaho. He taught both a course that was an introduction to engineering, as well as a course on statics (where we examined forces acting in equilibrium on stationary objects).

He once told us that the more we studied and worked in engineering, the more our facility with writing would diminish. He said that was just a fact, whether we liked it or not.

I’m delighted he said that.

As soon as he did, I decided, unequivocally and definitely, that come hell or high water that would never happen with me.

I continued studying engineering, and working in engineering, but also wrote on the side. In journals. For the college newspaper. After graduation I did an internship with the High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. My love of writing was fierce, though my ability to structure thought and pull in readers was then undeveloped.

“Remember,” wrote Betsdy Marston, the editor and co-owner of the High Country News when she edited a draft piece I had written. “You are telling a story, not just reciting facts.”

Story. Not just facts.

Okay.

Got it.

It’s bizarre how the professor’s almost offhand comment made during an introductory class helped shape the destiny of my future.

Incidentally, the city of Boulder and its surrounding countryside?

Beautiful!

Visit if you can.

Please do check out my posts on Instagram, Twitter, my Vino Voices blog, or at my Forbes site.

Next post?

Gruesome and Revealing Daily Security Briefings In Southeast Asia….

Thanks for tuning in!

The Power of Words

Words can change us.

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

I recall three sets of words that are powerfully memorable.

The now peaceful skies over rural U.K.

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

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

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

In the broadcast, Churchill said:

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

The moon – no longer completely mysterious and alien

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

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

Armstrong said:

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

Long pause.

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you ready? Okay. Let’s roll.”

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bhutan’s Reincarnated Rimpoche – Meet Again?

Land of the Thunder Dragon

A few years ago an unexpected and unusual event occurred in life, for which I am grateful.

It may still change the course of future events.

Three years ago, while working in Pakistan, I took a vacation to the country of Bhutan. The flight in from Thailand—corkscrewing through mountains—was wildly beautiful, though unnerving.

Looking outside the windows as the plane descended we saw peaks on both sides of the plane, above us!

Sizable Buddha

To enter the country and take this five day stay I was required to hire a guide and driver, and pay all lodgings in advance. This government requirement is intended to filter out indolent visitors or those unable to contribute to the economy.

The actual daily price for the vehicle, guide, driver and lodging was very reasonable.

Directing traffic

Thoughtful message to visitors on a woodland trail

The country turned out to be fascinating.

During work hours, locals are required to wear traditional formal dress; smoking and tobacco are prohibited in the country; climbing high peaks (where spirits dwell) is forbidden; there are carvings of penises all over the country—protruding over entrances to doorways, hanging on walls (a myth supports this); archery is a national sport played by locals wearing traditional costumes; there are no traffic lights.

We crossed mountain passes with arrays of prayer flags and prayer wheels fluttering in the wind; at one our guide Tshering pointed out Mount Everest in the distance.

One of many beautiful monasteries

Here is an excerpt from my journal:

Four and a half hour drive across mountains today. Never seen such twisted roads, and marvel how they could have been hacked out of mountainsides decades ago. 

My guide is Mr. Tshering. The driver is Sona. He looks like Kato from the Green Hornet. They are both affable, laid back, cool. Sometimes we see others take covert smoke breaks behind trucks, because tobacco is pretty much illegal in Bhutan. Which is progressive. Way progressive.

Young monks

My guide, Tshering, told me how he recently had been introduced to the highest spiritual figure in the country, the Rimpoche. He told me how the 22-year old Rimpoche was one of some dozen or more Rimpoches who had held the position in the past. However, most had been assigned the position, whereas this one had been selected as the seventh reincarnation of the original Rimpoche. He had displayed wisdom and intuition at a very young age, and therefore was chosen to be the next spiritual leader. Tshering had met the Rimpoche a few times, and had also introduced him to a Vietnamese businessman who had donated to the monastery, then found that his own life and business became more prosperous the more he gave away.

Hillside living

Tshering then asked if I would like to meet the Rimpoche in person.

Of course! I said.

What a wonderful opportunity.

Hand made and colorful

From my journal:

My guide, Mr. Tshering, will try to set up a meeting with the Rimpoche. Considering he will soon vanish for three years while he meditates and prays, and will afterwards be appointed the official spiritual leader of Bhutan, this is an opportunity not to miss.

Weighing goods at the market

It turns out that young Rimpoche, though he had poor eyesight, often met visitors at a room in a monastery, a building located below, and separate from, his own living quarters.

Tshering made the arrangements on his cell phone.

Phobjihka nature reserve – one of many national parks

On the day we were to meet, we woke at high altitude at a hotel near a nature reserve. It was brittle cold outside. Our vehicle ignition did not work. The battery was dead. We were in a rural region a long way from any mechanic.

This is from my journal about that day:

Yesterday, we were supposed to leave the Phobjihka nature reserve to drive to Tango Monastery, outside Thimphu city, to meet the Rimpoche. My guide, Mr. Tshering, has made friends with the Rimpoche in the past year.

But our Hyundai SUV did not run, because the battery was dead. So, as I sat before the guest house on a log drinking tea with the most amazing vista of the glacial valley below, both Sona the driver and Tshering worked on the car. They had coasted it downhill and tried to jump start it, without success. The guest house owner would not let us borrow his car because he needed it.

Pathway advice on a hillside trail

After phone calls and requests, Tshering and the driver had arranged for a someone else to come jump start the vehicle by towing it.

Eventually the SUV started.

The delay meant we were too late to visit the Rimpoche at his monastery, as he would have gone home by the time we arrived.

Instead, we had the very rare invitation to come directly to the Rimpoche’s residence.

The short term setback (dead battery) led to a greater benefits (amazing invitation).

We parked and hiked up a hillside and arrived first at the monastery where I had the fortune to informally dine, relatively quickly, with a group of monks. We were then ‘summoned’ to the Rimpoche’s residence. We hiked uphill for more minutes and entered a comfortable dwelling, where we sat in a room with the Rimpoche’s mother and his tutor. This was an unusual situation, because they usually did not have foreign visitors. In fact, according to Tshering and the others, I was the second person ever (after the Vietnamese businessman) and the first Westerner, ever to meet the Rimpoche in his home. There was silence, so I joked about our dinner with the monks, which Tshering translated, and which his mother and tutor found somewhat amusing.

Pathway to Rimpoche’s residence

During days of traveling in Bhutan I had learned a few phrases of the local language from Tshering. While in the vehicle on the way to the monastery, I had asked him to translate a few more simple phrases.

Eventually, I was summoned to the room with the Rimpoche. He was in a chair, wearing glasses, and looking thoughtful. I had brought a pashmina scarf purchased in Pakistan as a gift. This was made from the fine gruff hairs of immature goats. I had brought a few of these along on the trip as possible gifts. I presented this as instructed, draping it across outstretched forearms. I understood the Rimpoche would accept this and then present me with a cloth to take away. Before he did, I uttered my Bhutanese phrases, and the Rimpoche suddenly stopped moving. It was clear, I then realized, that visitors did not speak to the Rimpoche. But I had! In the local language I said—basically—”Hi Rimpoche! All well? I’m a visitor from America.”

He turned his head, slightly. It was obvious he was fascinated and somewhat amused, and yet not at all unhappy by my remarks. I believe he then spoke some words, presented me with a scarf and some twine to tie into wrist loops, and soon I was on my way.

Back in the room with Tshering, mother and tutor, a massive flash of bright white light crossed my mind.

I then realized the power and positive nature of the Rimpoche; unlike anything I ever encountered before.

Tango Monastery at dusk

From my journal:

January 3rd, 2014

After a bizarre set of serendipitous events including a dead car battery and running into the right person at the right time, I had the rare privilege of being, I’m informed, the first non-Bhutanese westerner to personally meet and receive a blessing from the 7th reincarnation of the Rimpoche in his private residence—rather than at the Tango monastery. In March he will begin 3 years of meditation seclusion before becoming spiritual leader of Bhutan. 

Precariously placed Tiger’s Nest Monastery

Archery in the countryside

Monks practicing dance for a forthcoming festival

Soon we descended the hillside in darkness.

Soon after that, the Rimpoche left to another monastery to spend three years alone, meditating. Tshering told me that when these three years of solitude had finished, he will undergo a ceremony which the King and Queen of Bhutan will attend.

And I will be invited.

Of course, Tshering added, I would have to arrive early to secure proper local clothing for the event.

Hotel dining room the final night in Bhutan

We’ve communicated recently. I believe the event shall be held in the spring of next year.

I look forward to the chance of attending the ‘inauguration’ of a reincarnated spiritual leader in the Himalayan mountains.

And yet, searching for information about the Rimpoche on the internet, I have found nothing.

How refreshing.

Royal Bhutan Airlines

Years ago I wrote another article about Searching for Wine in Bhutan, which includes a video with a lively local woman (I also speak a few local phrases).

Again, thank you for tuning in!

Facing the Unknown

 

A bend in the road

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

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

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

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

Quite the flow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monks in Bhutan

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

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

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

Sometimes you should just let events unfold.

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

There is a tide in the affairs of men,

Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…

…On such a full sea are we now afloat,

And we must take the current when it serves

Or lose our ventures.

 

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.

IMG_5435

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.

IMG_9122

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.

Screen Shot 2017-02-13 at 9.03.56 PM

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

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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

 

Synchronicity as Signpost Cover Flat 900 (1)

 

 

Synchronicity as Signpost

 

  

  

 

 

 

 

Lost in Canyonlands

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

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

He asked why.

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

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

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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.