Zen, Archery, Fly-fishing, Motorcycles and Writing

One of my sons was talking about archery the other day and described shooting his new longbow in terms suggestive of a Zen experience. He is an instinctive shooter, as am I, which means that the aim and release is a subconscious process rather than mechanical alignment and control of machinery. Struggling for adequate descriptive terminology starts to sound a bit flaky, but the archer experiences the event instead of deliberately committing the act. It’s far different from lining up the sights and target using a compound bow constructed with wheels, pulleys, and cams. The reward is that it provides the archer a Zen-like aesthetic experience.

While I’m only a beginner, I think fly fishing offers similar relief from the cacophony of everyday life in modern society. There is something meditatively rewarding and peaceful in presenting a fly at a desired spot on a burbling trout stream. You can escape the high powered motors of a fishing boat throttled-up to cover the next twenty five or fifty miles to an intended fishing area as quickly as possible. You can simply enter a stream in a pair of waders then carefully move toward a likely spot without alerting or disturbing any trout lurking ahead,. When you do you feel more in touch with fishing as it has occurred over millennia and less deluded with a sense of having power over nature. The fishing becomes a Zen-like experience.

Things I’ve read about Zen often seem paradoxical. You have to abandon yourself and give up trying to be in control of your bit of the world in order to find yourself and the truth of what is. But then, much of what I’ve encountered in life has been paradoxical—good/bad—win/lose—right/wrong. In literature, I think interesting fictional characters are complex, and such complexity reflects the paradoxical and dual nature of our universe. They are not all one thing. Heroes are good, but not entirely good. Villains are bad, but not completely bad.

But, you can’t simply toss a contradictory set of behaviors into a story and end up with a more interesting character. The complexity must emerge from some underlying truth about the character. I suspect that emergent truth is often discovered by the writer as well as the reader rather than planned at the outset. In a sense, the writer must discover and experience the story as well as write it. More paradox.

Of course, a writer must dutifully sit at the keyboard and write, but you cannot wring a good story from a mind crammed with rules and literary prescriptions by sheer force. You have to lose yourself in the story to write a good one. The Zen of writing? Perhaps so. When it happens, it feels real and truthful, and that is a very precious experience to have these days.

I remember leaving the fast-multi-lane freeways and putting the tires of my motorcycle on the narrow, undulating pavement of old Route 66 on a book promotion tour for my first novel, Murder on Route 66. I felt an instant sense of being in touch with the fields and ranches alongside the roadway, more in tune with the skies overhead, the smells of the fields I passed, and the cool shade thrown onto the road by trees growing close alongside. I had let go of my schedule and purpose and became more in touch with both it and myself. I remember taking a deep breath of air, smiling at how good I suddenly felt, and how fortunate I was to be on that ride. I knew my series protagonist Bobby Navarro had that side to him as well. I knew it was something I wanted to be able to communicate in the stories I would write about his adventures on the road. Riding Route 66 wasn’t about overcoming the traffic ahead or powering past a row of eighteen wheelers blocking my lane. There was no traffic. There was no hurry either. By slowing down, I captured some of the magic and allure of that old, iconic highway I had pushed hard to reach.

Writing a story is a tremendous amount of work, but it is also rewarding when the words set down on the pages reveal the story you have been struggling to bring to life. Paradoxically, it is sometimes when you let go of your attempted control and let the story emerge that the tale you’re trying to write appears. The Zen of writing? What are your thoughts?

 

Upstate Trout Stream

The Waiting Game

This week included a day when my wife and I had several appointments that involved a lot of waiting. It made me think about how much time we spend waiting and the many situations requiring that we wait. Those of us who have commuted to work in a large city are all too familiar with waiting in traffic or waiting for a bus, train or airplane. Anyone who shops in a supermarket knows about waiting in a checkout line. Most of us probably try to shorten the wait time by seeking the shortest line. If you’re like me, the shortest line gets held up by some glitch just after we join it.

And, how about waiting in a telephone queue? I’ve spent hours in this situation. Sometimes it seems like anytime I call a customer service number I’d better be ready to wait an interminable amount of time while the automated system runs through all the announcements and options available before I’m given a chance to seek whatever service I’m after. Then I must wait forever in a queue while some recorded messages assure me my call is important. Our ancestors had to wait for rain, or for the crops to ripen. That took months, but at least it made a lot more sense than the waiting we are put through today.

Of course, there are things I can do to make the waiting time more enjoyable or productive, such as taking a book along when I visit the doctor’s office. Of course, nowadays we have books available on our cellphones. That’s handy. But, waiting for highway delays to clear, or at traffic signs? That’s another story. Although, come to think of it, I’ve seen people reading while sitting behind the steering wheel of their car. I don’t recommend the practice. Unfortunately, people are all too likely to be texting on their cellphones while driving, walking, or even sitting at a table in a restaurant while presumably enjoying a meal with someone.

I hate it when the car in front of me fails to take advantage of a green light because the driver is on a cellphone. I hate it when someone sitting behind a desk or counter is texting on their cellphone instead of doing whatever their job calls for while I stand there waiting. I suppose I could just take out my own cellphone and busy myself while I wait. Maybe I could call the person on the other side of the desk or counter and let them know I’m waiting.

I used to look forward to reading magazines while waiting in a doctor’s office. They used to provide magazines. They might have been old issues, but they were still entertaining, and I might not have seen them. Now, I notice a lot of waiting rooms only have magazines offering information about available services. Sometimes there are no magazines, only a television with infomercials playing while you wait. I’d be happy to settle for an old issue of a magazine at this point.

With all my thoughts about having to wait, I suppose I should feel guilty about subjecting my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro, to waiting. I do though, but not too often. I think he should have to wait in line at the supermarket occasionally just like we do. Years ago, I had nearly completed an all-day ride on my motorcycle when traffic came to a halt. Naturally, it started to rain. I got soaked. Needless to say, I’ve let Bobby get wet a time or two as well. It’s only fair.

What pet peeves do you have about waiting? Any favorite stories? And what do you do to handle the waiting game?

 

Where Have All Those Resolutions Gone?

It’s the middle of January, and my understanding is that half the New Years resolutions have been abandoned. I’m proud to say this is not the case with mine. I decided to be careful what I resolved to do and pick something I might have a real chance of accomplishing. To that end, I came up with a short list of things I wanted to resolve, but put off the final selection and commitment until now. That way I wouldn’t overshoot reality in the frenzied days of New Year celebration and set out to do something I had little chance to achieve. So, while others have given up already, I’ve just begun. Pretty clever, don’t you agree?

I really like making New Years resolutions. I guess I’m an eternal optimist, believing people can improve. Not that many seem to. This New Year season seemed to generate a larger than usual number of articles on how to make and keep resolutions. I have to say, no one I read came up with the approach I took, however. In general, advice seemed to center on laying out specific, attainable goals. I think that may be part of the reason people have already given up on their resolutions. With such specific goals to live up to, it’s easy to see right away that one has failed. If I had resolved to lose two pounds a week, I’d certainly be able to tell by now that I’d been a miserable failure. I gained a bunch over the holidays. No, I’m much better off resolving to recover the body I used to have, back when I could eat anything and not gain an ounce.  Instead of facing failure at not having lost a couple of pounds, I still have my goal to look forward to achieving—someday. In fact, think I should celebrate. Ice cream anyone?

That brings up another point, rewards. Those articles I read mentioned a reward system for good performance. In my case, being able to eat anything I want without gaining weight is reward enough. I love to eat. I don’t need other reinforcement. I admit I don’t have that ideal body back yet, but I haven’t given up. You see, I don’t have to say I’ve failed. Without specific, measurable goals I’m better able to maintain the vision and stay the course. Not that I don’t expect difficulties ahead. I am willing to be realistic, after all. I’m aware that I ought not to go clothes shopping just now, for example. A lot of the clothes I might like to buy are either too snug, or pooch out over my belly. Actually, I have lots of those clothes I’d like to wear already—in my closet. They’ve been there for years. I keep waiting. . .

I wonder what my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro, would have resolved if he gave in to the New Year pressures to do so. Certainly, he wouldn’t need to resolve to take another great cross-country ride on his Harley. That is something that is just going to happen. And, resolving not to get involved in another murder investigation would be useless, too. You and I know that’s going to happen as well. And, he doesn’t need to worry about his weight. He manages to stay in great shape all the time.

 So, fellow New Years resolutionists, how are you doing? If you’ve had trouble keeping your resolutions, it’s not to late to take up the approach I used, and enjoy the success I expect to have someday. Share your thoughts?

A Poem for the New Year

It’s a naval practice to write the New Year’s log in verse.
That can be good.
Although, sometimes it’s worse.
So, I’m keeping the tradition,
Although I cannot say
Whether this particular rendition
Will carry the day.

It was not my intent
To leave out so many
Troublesome events
From the world and at home.
But that would amount to a book.
A very big tome.
I couldn’t stand to write it
Too long for a poem

And, it wouldn’t have read well
So, I did what I could
And, as for the rest, well…
You can read it. And comment
And I hope that you do.
And thanks for your visit
And sharing, if you do.

So, the new year’s upon us
The holidays about over.
But, despite the promise, we’re not
Knee deep in clover.
We can’t tell our children
Things soon will be better.
That floods will let up,
And dry places get wetter.
We’re just left with alternative facts to arrange,
And truth to deny
Like, the climate won’t change.

But, politics aside…
I know for many, this year’s been quite a ride.
I feel pretty lucky not to have died.
So, good people, I wish you all well.
And, those others I allude to, they can just go to hell.

‘Round the world it’s been Murder, rape and plunder.
Terror attacks from Europe to Down Under.
Victories exclaimed over cities devastated,
Children starving. Hordes evacuated.
People fleeing. Many turned away
From one wall or another
Father. Brother. Child. Mother.

It’s not peace and good will
We’re bringing to each other
When we even do battle
Over the definition of one’s lover.
So, lock your doors. Board up your chimney.
‘Tis no time to get jolly.
Not this season, by Jiminy
And stay away from Santa,
At the office soiree
He thinks he has privileges
And can do what he may.

Think about it. . .
When for strangers or brothers.
We show no respect,
When the keepers of our country
To the dark side defect,
It’s time to talk and to listen
Time to rekindle some light.
So good luck to us all.
And, for now, a good night.

Our cat asleep or at prayer

And Peace on Earth

The weather warmed up again here in sunny Florida where we are embarked on our winter stay. That means morning exercise walks are pleasant. Chilly sometimes, but usually not very. Other winter visitors are coming in daily to choruses of welcome back greetings, hugs and enquiries as to health and wellbeing. Holiday decorations are going up as well. That part always seems strange, even though we’ve spent so many years either in the desert or here in south Florida during the holiday season. When you’ve just put away your heavier clothes and donned shorts and short sleeved shirts to accommodate the weather, winter holidays seem unreal.

Even Thanksgiving seemed strange without a showing of fall foliage or bare limbs, dried cornstalks, and frosted pumpkins. But Hanukkah and Christmas? With the only snow on television or in news from friends and relatives up north, the only familiarity in the setting is the sudden explosion of ads trying to get us to buy gifts.

Then, people start putting up decorations, and we are induced to follow suite. Pretty soon, one remembers the annual boat parade, or golf cart parade, or other tradition. Here, people put up Candelaria, using plastic milk bottles with a little sand in the bottom and a votive candle. The streets will surely glow the night they are lit. It reminds me of the Candelaria in New Mexico, when we lived in Las Cruces. We have a friend who has made an annual tree ornament for over twenty years. Just got word that this year’s surprise creation is on its way. Bit by bit, it starts to feel more like the holidays, although I can’t help but think winter snow is needed to really set the atmosphere.

In this era of conflict and tension between so many people, groups and societies, I think it would be good if we had a tradition of winter celebration that did not have any particular religious base, just a celebration of life and a time of caring for each other. A time to bring peace on earth.

Enjoying Rural Florida

Up north, I’m sure Bobby Navarro has put away his Harley for the winter. I find that hard to picture as well. Someday I’m going to have to do the holidays with him in the story. Of course, that would have to mean murder somewhere as well, or would it? I wonder if I could write a good mystery that didn’t include a murder. In any case, hope you enjoy the season wherever you are, and whatever you celebrate. And, if you’re looking for a gift suggestion, don’t forget to put a good book on your list.

Values in Today’s Life

The other day I was talking with one of my sons, and he mentioned bingeing on 007 movies. His comments about them surprised me. He said it was incredible to see how women were depicted and regarded as mere objects. He had watched the same movies as a kid, but then saw the films as all about action, excitement and adventure. We agreed, the old James Bond movies had a lot of Playboy character to them. He commented they were so bad and blatant they were comical in a way. I hadn’t joined him in the binge, and haven’t seen a 007 movie in a long time, but could agree even from memory. He attributed his change in perspective to all the recent news revealing sexual harassment on the part of male celebrities and men in positions of power. I think that’s a good outcome of the attention these accusations have gained in recent news. We need to re-see the behaviors and values we grew up with, have lived with, and have taken for granted. Those old movies not only dramatized a sexist view of the world, they normalized sexist behavior. Seeing those old scenes as violating the rights and dignity of women is a great wake-up. I hope we men carry today’s condemnation of female harassment on the part of popular and powerful men into everyday life and relationships ourselves. I doubt any of us are completely guilt free. We have a lot of work to do in our society, and men and women must be onboard together to truly make progress. We are not going to get there by means of example from our public leaders; we must get there from a shift in our social values.

It should be no surprise that I enjoy reading mysteries; after all, I write them. Similar to cozies, I prefer mysteries that stay away from gratuitous sex and violence. I don’t care for drama that relies on piquing a reader’s interest through brutality, gore and raw abuse of others. Those things exist in life, but they don’t have to be accepted and we don’t have to normalize them in our literature. A good mystery has conflict. Murder is always violence against another person, but we don’t have to make that aspect the object of the story.  We have values opposing the abuse of others. That’s why people want to solve the mystery and bring the culprit to justice and restore the community to safety.

When I write my Bobby Navarro mysteries, I like to think my fascination with community comes through in my writing along with my love of the open road and wild, natural places. Those things should predominate. Bobby Navarro solves murders. That means people have suffered horrible abuse and their community has suffered the trauma of trampled values because the murders took place. In the end, however, decent values win. The victory of human decency doesn’t make the stories fiction. After all, good fiction reflects facts. Human decency is not a fiction, but it must be fought for and insisted on to make it dominate in our lives. But, that seems a reasonable societal goal and a good reason for writing.

 

 

Thinking About Thanksgiving

Like many of us, I have many memories of Thanksgiving celebrations, some pleasant, others not. I recall feasting until I could hold no more. And, I can almost taste the turkey and pumpkin pie. I remember our house filled with relatives and vibrant with a festive air. Somewhere along the way, I was made personally aware of the mountain of dirty dishes and pots and pans that accompanied holiday get-together. It gave me some perspective. I came to better realize how much work my mother put into those events.

Of course, there were the usual conflicts and competitions between this and that relative, whose kids were doing best in school, or were getting married, or was prettier. Who had a good year financially, who was drinking too heavily. But, I was young, and it was just fun to see the cousins and enjoy the get-together.

Not all my holidays came with a houseful of people. Not all celebrations reflected a sense of affluence. Some were poignant in their absence of a bountiful year to celebrate. I learned a different basis for thanksgiving in those years. It wasn’t just a huge feast that made the day. A chance for camaraderie and sharing of what was available became important.

When I was in the Navy, the cooks on our ship did a great job of putting out a wonderful meal for the holiday, in port but away from home. One time, I heard the cook express his hurt and frustration when much of the crew chose to eat ashore at a favorite bar instead of eating on board with their “Navy family”. I felt badly for him. He had turned out a great, traditional holiday feast. I learned a holiday like Thanksgiving depends on what participants bring to the table, as well as what food is there to eat.

One of my most memorable Thanksgiving celebrations was with a houseful of people I had not met before. We were in the Los Angeles area, and we were all apart from family that year, so someone sent out invitations to bring people together for a celebration anyway. I loved it. People were interesting and their company enjoyable. Everyone appreciated the opportunity to get together, and did what they could to make the occasion fun and successful. It worked extremely well. These days, many of us find ourselves in some sort of isolation—personally, politically, socially, financially. Maybe that’s why we talk about Turkey Day, rather than Thanksgiving, and Black Friday savings opportunities are more exciting than a gathering for appreciation and togetherness.

I can’t help but think about Bobby Navarro at holiday time, and think I’d like to write a Bobby Navarro novel that includes a holiday setting. I’d like to follow his thoughts and feelings. Would he miss being on the road? Would he feel an increased longing for home? Or, would he just enjoy the day?

What are your most memorable Thanksgiving experiences? Love to hear your thoughts and share your memories.

 

A High and Distant Ridge

 

When I sit on our front porch and look out, I love seeing the ridge on the other side of the highway leading out of town. We’re heading south for the winter. I’ll miss it. The evergreens at the summit have thinned out, and I can see patches of sky through them. The hardwood trees lower down have shed their leaves and bare limbs reveal things hidden away behind a green canopy all summer. At times, cloud masses have blanketed the ridge entirely. In other moments, cloud and fog have floated up the hillside like smoke escaping into the sky. Sometimes, dark thunderclouds have carried a threat of rain.

When I was growing up in California, looking out across the ridges of hills toward the west provoked a sense of longing. Often, that longing was for the adventures I felt awaited, perhaps in far corners of the world. Sometimes as a teenager, the longing had to do with more immediate associations. It was in the valley, where I got together with my high school associates, went to football games and after-game dances. New delights at the time, like an A&W Root Beer drive-in and a Foster’s Freeze soft ice cream stand offered oases of pleasure to any kid with a car. Delights waiting in the valley.

I’ve seen many distant ridges, and crossed them to their other sides. The Blue Ridge Mountains, the steep hills coming out of Virginia into North Carolina and highway 40 west. The land settles into rolling hills once past Tennessee and into Arkansas and Oklahoma. Then it flattens into a great open expanse punctuated by distant mesas as you go through New Mexico and Arizona.

I’ve never tired of the beauty of a distant ridge, never failed to feel its lure. A distant ridge makes me want to put my fate into a new cross-country run, even down an old highway.

Driving through New YorkI don’t know that everyone feels this way when they see a high ridge in the distance. I suspect many don’t. For me, it’s a feeling that something almost magical lies just over the hills. It’s a sense of new discovery being within my grasp. An editor I was talking with some years ago heard me remark that looking for home was what kept my protagonist on the road. She insisted I stop and write that down immediately. I did. It captures an essential aspect of Bobby Navarro, along with his insistence that there be some morality and justice in the world. I’d love to hear what sights tug at the emotions of other people, and in the case of other writers, what compels their characters to step into another adventure or solve another murder.

Driving through New York

Editing on the Right Side of the Brain

As I edit my latest manuscript of the Bobby Navarro series, I’ve been struck with how different the editing process is from first creating the draft. I once read a very interesting book on drawing. It talked about our brain functions differing from one side the brain to the other. If the left side dominates, we tend to be very practical and businesslike. When the right side dominates, we become more expressive, creative. When it comes to writing, both aspects are important, but I think the right side often dominates when the major writing takes place. That’s how we achieve flowing prose, memorable descriptions of landscapes, objects and people, and scenes that bring out the emotions. Then there’s the editing process. . .

Those wonderful paragraphs we putdown as the best prose we ever wrote probably need severe editing. I’ve listened to prose so filled with expression and feeling that I had to question whether the writing should only have been read in private, and not aloud. It seemed so metaphorically enriched that it had nothing to do with the story and everything to do with the writer’s personal needs and wants. At best, it reflected the writer’s love affair with words and not the tempo and purpose of the story. At the worst, it expressed the writer’s sexual frustration. Time for the left side of the brain to stand up and insist on those decisions to shorten, change or cut unneeded or irrelevant verbiage.

I’ve also read prose that had been carefully crafted to adhere to every rule taught in an undergraduate English class, as well as reflect all the ‘advice’ from myriad sources talking about what you can and cannot do when writing. This sort of writing chokes off any creativity the writer might have remaining, hidden in shame in the background of his or her mind. For those writers, there needs to be some inner permission to express feelings, emotions, thoughts, fears, and so forth. The right side of the brain needs to stand up to the tyranny of the left for a while.

Editing calls for both sides of the brain to get an intensive workout, almost simultaneously, and pretty much consciously. When first writing a manuscript, you can let your creative side run free of excess thought or control. Right brain dominance. But when editing, you need to pick up the grammatical errors, instances of poor wording, and fix problems of plot holes or errors. You also need to come up with creative writing solutions and wording improvement as you go. Perhaps this is why it is so easy to miss something in the first place. If we are thinking about the scene we are working on or trying to achieve better wording, it is easy to overlook a misspelling or erroneous detail.

Writers talk about tricks they use in the editing process. For example, it’s good to read your work aloud. Hearing the prose read aloud makes it easier to know something doesn’t work well. If you stumble over your own words while reading aloud, your reader will probably have difficulty too. Then, there is something I call the sleep factor. If you find yourself skipping over sentences or sections of your manuscript, or mentally drifting off to sleep, it needs reworking. I think you need both sides of your brain fired up to hear a story falter. No wonder editing is difficult work. Any thoughts?

 

 

Heroes We Can Live With

This week, we watched the Ken Burns’ special series on Vietnam. As a Vietnam vet, I was particularly interested in what he would have to say. He said a lot. The series was informative and compelling. It certainly took me back to the sixties, especially the early sixties when I served in the military after I graduated from Berkley. It took me back to a war that was said to have triggered a national loss of innocence. It was a war that had to be questioned, along with how and why it was fought in the first place.

As a student, and pretty much all my life, I have felt both a need and a right to question things. Ultimately, a lot of troops asked themselves questions about that war, our involvement in it, and what they personally were doing there. The ability to question and reason: part of what makes us human. Therefore, an inherent responsibility.

As writers, we seek to entertain, to share our thoughts and ideas, and perhaps to inform. I think we should do this responsibly. Being a writer does not give us tacit license to dump our opinions and values on others, but we do have a voice through our writing and should be conscious of what messages our stories impart. Especially those of us who write about murder.

I have long felt dislike for gratuitous violence. I have been uncomfortable with fictional characters who used torture and committed other unlawful things to get information they wanted, or to achieve a sense of payback against someone considered a villain. I grew up on westerns. In some westerns, the good guy only shot the gun out of the hand of the bad guy. Always found that hard to believe. In others, the lone hero rode into town and ended up killing the bad guys. He was a romantic hero, basically a good person attempting to overcome daunting odds and achieve justice. That was pretty cathartic. It was never a matter of two killers fighting each other with any resultant good only a coincidental benefit. It was a hero fighting a bad guy for the sake of what was right.

As an adult, I enjoyed things like the 007 series. James Bond seemed tough but principled.  He was understood to be fighting for queen and country and the good of all. Kind of like a modern-day cowboy hero. I didn’t mind that he exercised his license to kill against bad people out to hurt the world. But, I have gotten tired of the myriad near-nuclear explosions in scene after scene. Gratuitous violence. And, as in the sixties, I think we need to question whether political power and authority means something is right, or good or just.

As writers, we create our heroes and villains and their social settings. We own the narrative. We create the story that entertains, possibly informs, and may exemplify moral character. Or it may not. Does it matter? I think it does. What’s your opinion?

When I was developing my mystery series, and its protagonist Bobby Navarro, I liked the idea of him being a biker because it seemed romantic, reminiscent of a western hero, or the old television series, Route Sixty-six. I didn’t make him an outlaw, even though he lived on the fringes of society. I didn’t want him to be a tattooed hate-monger who would ride as part of a gang to enjoy a sense of power through intimidation. I wanted him to be a decent person others might relate to, think of him as someone they might like to know, or even be like.

I think contemporary fiction is producing interesting and complex characters, all the more believable because they are not overly simplistic. But I think the good guys should have and reflect moral value. I can’t say we always find that moral value in our real-life leaders. But, we’re writers. Now more than ever, we need to reinforce that which is good and decent and honorable. We need to create heroes our readers can love, but ones we can respect as well.