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?

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.

 

 

Write Up a Storm

I’ve loved storms since I was a kid growing up in the hills of northern California. They were so dramatic, especially at night. Massive clouds driven before the wind would nearly obliterate the sky. Wind-slanted rain lashed against the flesh on my face, and threatened to knock me off balance. In other storms, a brilliant moon would shine high above everything and you could look upward and catch glimpses of it through breaks in the bulky darkness. Lightning flashes outlined trees and hills and cloud shapes, and I could count the interval between flash and the boom of thunder to estimate how far away the lightning had been. I’d fantasize that it was what being on a ship at sea would be like. I wanted to sail across the ocean. Later, I did.

When I came East, thunderstorms provided dramatic interludes to summer heat and humidity. You can sometimes predict a storm when you see maple leaves turn upside down and shimmer in the wind. Clouds hang low and mass heavily in the sky overhead and a distant roll of thunder will announce the storm’s approach. We were at a block party recently, trying to guess whether the storm would pass a little to the north of our location and allow the party to continue unaffected or we needed to seek shelter. A Torrential downpour announced the winners and losers of that speculation. Fortunately for a time, the rain came down straight onto the tent-like roof of the shelter we sat under and the party went on. Had we been caught in the rain, we would have been drenched in seconds.

I’ve seen eastern rainstorms pound heavily for a few minutes then suddenly stop, leaving the streets and sidewalks steaming in the humid aftermath, the rain not having managed to dry the air out. Sometimes, the other side of the street will still be dry and everyday activity unaffected.

It’s always dramatic watching, even enjoying, a storm. Lighting strikes pose a real threat, though. A neighbor of mine was hit by lightning that jumped across the room from her furnace and struck her. She was lucky, and walked away uninjured. A lightning strike split a fireplace chimney a few feet from me in a house I had in Connecticut. It nearly knocked me off the couch I was sitting on. During a storm in Oklahoma, the sky filled with lightning as though a strange meteor shower had erupted overhead. I was on a motorcycle, and thankful it didn’t rain until I reached my destination.

In the West, I’ve watched storms approach from miles across the open desert, hurtling lightning bolts earthward and wetting the parched land with rain from the moving column of moisture. It’s beautiful. It’s awesome, and humbling. I once raced an approaching storm on my motorcycle out west in an attempt to slip through a pass in the hills ahead of it. As I cleared the pass, another front struck violently from the other side of the hills. There was a motel just through the pass, so I bailed out, happy to have the opportunity to do so. Storms are dramatic, and I often love them, but not on a motorcycle. Of course, I have put my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro, at peril in storms on several occasions, and he gets hurt in one.

When you think about it, a storm is a lot like a good mystery. Signs foretell a storm’s approach. The threat builds. Wind picks up, letting you know the storm is getting closer. Then thunder explodes and lightning flashes to announce the storm’s arrival. Wind and rain punish anyone out in the open. Humankind, thrown to the mercy of malevolent violence. It’s how we try to write mysteries. It’s how we should write mysteries. And, if we’re good at it, there will be something dramatic and memorable in the telling. I think that’s a worthwhile goal—to write up a storm.

Approaching Storm

A Taxing Time

They say nothing is certain except death and taxes. Of course, progress is being made on the mortality thing. This year I am using a tax accountant to do my taxes. That means I had to send in my materials, which I did yesterday, which is much earlier than usual. I believe in procrastination, after all. The good thing is, it’s done and in the mail. The bad thing is, I just discovered a number of additional deductions  I could have claimed, but missed. You see, if I had just waited…

Last night I tried to picture various fiction heroes facing tax time. I came up with Mickey Spillane pulling a forty-five and emptying a magazine into his scribbled-up tax forms. And, how about Jessy Stone? Trying to keep control over one’s drinking and tax time are two incompatible forces. From my own experience this past week, I know which force wins for me. And my own hero, Bobby Navarro? What better reason to take off on one’s Harley than a bunch of tax form instructions telling you to add this and subtract that from the who-knows-what-that-means reported figure from the previous year? Fortunately, I’m an ex-sailor, and have the appropriate vocabulary needed to curse my way through tax season.

Now, if I were just wealthy enough, I could have all my assets off-shore and not have to pay any taxes. Not that I would be figuring them myself if I did. I’d have my accountant handle all that.

“It’s tax time, sir.”
“Don’t bother me with that nonsense. Take care of it.”
Would that approach work for death as well taxes? I could designate an off-shore undertaker to handle everything.
“I have some bad news for you, sir, I’m afraid you’re dying.”
“Don’t bother me with stuff like that, take it up with my off-shore undertaker.”
No, I don’t think that would work.
As a sociology professor, I taught a wide range of students, including prison guards, prisoners, some former prisoners, police officers, probation officers, an internal affairs police officer, a private investigator, and an IRS auditor. Guess which one I thought was the most terrifying? I was so relieved when the IRS auditor earned a high grade. I never saw him smile. Not once. But, at least he didn’t leave my course with any threats of future contact to be expected in the mail.
I think I should write a new series. I’m not sure whether to call it a horror series, suspense, or mystery. My protagonist would be a tall, dark tax person, dressed in an impeccable black suit. He could be known as 00-1040.
Or, maybe she could be a female protagonist wearing leathers and carrying a whip. “Hello, I’m-Audrey-the-Auditor. Want to feel some pain?”
Well, fortunately, I’ve survived quite a few years of tax preparation, and hopefully will continue to do so. But, I do have to consider whether I should inflict the tax thing on my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro. After all, I make him confront death and violence in other forms, why not taxes? He does have his own business as a blaster. Hmm, would he use dynamite to get through those troublesome tax forms? I wonder.

A Time to Cheer

I had hoped to finish the rough draft of my current novel by Christmas, but I told myself and others my goal was to finish by New Years, because you never know what might pop up to get in the way. Happily, I have finished the rough draft. It’s a great feeling. Of course, last time I finished the rough draft of a manuscript, I ended up completely rewriting the whole thing. I had lost my voice. I had been reading Robert Parker, one of my favorites, and started sounding like a cross between Parker and me. I don’t think that will be a problem this time, but it’s always nerve-wracking to await someone’s response to what you have written. Of course, until then, I have a lot of work to do editing and tuning the present manuscript. Nevertheless, I’m excited to be on track for getting this Bobby Navarro sequel out this coming spring/summer. And, for a few days, it’s time to celebrate.

Of course, when the draft was finished the other day, I enjoyed glass of scotch. That was the official celebration. One of the things I’m aware of when I come to the end of a manuscript is that I feel eager to finish it, but reluctant to let go of the characters and the story. Afterwards, there is a mixture of feeling relief, accomplishment, and loss. The nice thing about writing a series, is that I will be able to work with the main character again. Last night, I had ideas running through my head about another Bobby Navarro story when I was supposed to be getting to sleep, but that’s not what I meant about looking forward to working with my protagonist again.

I remember a Kathy Bates movie, Misery, when a writer celebrated the end of his manuscript with a single cigarette and a glass of wine. Of course, if you saw the movie, you know what came next. I wouldn’t want to have been in his shoes.

Now, I am taking a little time to let the manuscript cool off before beginning the editing process. In the meantime, I have the chance to ride my own motorcycle, play a round of golf, and maybe do some hiking. That’s the advantage of finishing a draft while in Florida. Yesterday, I took a ride down an unfamiliar road that turned out to have a wildlife management area, Du Puis Management Area along one side of the roadway. The area offers hiking, biking, fishing, hunting, and even camping. It’s not far away from where we are located, so I’m looking forward to visiting there again.

Over the past months, I have enjoyed hearing from some of you who have visited my blog, and I look forward to bringing more news of Bobby’s travels and adventures in the coming year. Thank you for your support.

 I wish you all happy holidays, and a great year ahead.

Glenn Nilson

A Writer’s Lament

A Writer's Lament
I cannot think of a thing to write,
And here it is, Saturday night.
Something for my blog is due
And I’ve not one idea that I can use.
My mind is empty
I’m drawing a blank
I couldn’t turn a phrase
With a platinum crank
All I’ve done
This week and last
Is to work on my novel
To get it done fast.
I’ve still fifteen thousand
Words yet to go
But, I’ve forgotten what happens
At the end, and so
I’m stuck.
 I had some ideas, at first,
And a plan
For a story exciting
In a setting so grand.
With characters you’ll never
Want to forget
And an ending that will blow
Your mind to bits.
That was then.
This is now.
If I can’t get moving
I’ll soon have a cow. 
And, I still have my holiday
Shopping to do.
My credit card is maxed-out
And the bills are due.
I know people say, ‘tis a time to be jolly,
Hang up a wreath,
Some bells and fake holly.
But, Lord, if I weren’t brain dead,
I could finish my blog,
Have a drink,
Go to bed.
So, before I conclude
This writer’s lament
Let me wish you great joy
And a holiday well-spent
From me and my protag
Bobby Navarro


At Home

Feeling at-home can apply in a lot of situations. I used to feel that way in airports a long time ago when I traveled on business. A familiar airport offered a feeling of sanctuary. I could relax until my flight was ready for boarding. I could read, or do some work on my laptop. There were no external demands or likely interruptions. I once enjoyed something of the same feeling when I commuted to and from downtown Los Angeles. Admittedly, that was prior to cellphones.

Where I grew up, people used the expression, “Please make yourself at-home”, meaning they wanted you to feel comfortable with them and in their house. As snowbirds, my wife Lesley and I look forward to seeing people we haven’t seen in months each time we perform our biannual trek north or south. As we were indulging in our morning walk recently here in rural Florida, some friends we encountered said, “Welcome home”. Our southern friends more often say, “Welcome back”, the assumption being that home is somewhere in the North. These friends live here year-around, so this has become home to them, and I took their comment as a warm gesture back into the fold, a recognition of our belonging.

We live on a canal, and treasure viewing the wildlife parading back and forth. Tall egrets stand on the shore, looking to spear a meal in the opaque waters reflecting palm trees standing tall in the background. A green heron wading in the shallows darts its head out to feed on insects along the water’s surface. Two limpkins strut nearby, loudly proclaiming ownership of the canal, and an anhinga flaps its outstretched wings to dry off in a patch of fading sunlight, ignoring the limpkins. In the distance, a flock of white birds explodes into the evening sky, swooping, and wheeling several times before settling into the branches of tall oaks for the coming nightfall. A train sounds its horn as it approaches the crossings it must pass on its northerly run. I inhale deeply, to drink it all in, and suddenly I’m at home again in our southern location. Happens every time. Things are friendly and pleasant, but I get the sense of being at home here when I’m outside, enjoying the wildlife.

My series protagonist, Bobby Navarro, feels at-home when the highway vibrates up through the fast-rolling tires of his Harley and exhaust pipes sound a familiar melody. He’ll also feel at-home when night falls and he locates an inviting motel, or sets-up in a campground, builds a fire and suddenly there’s the fragrant scent of cedar smoke or crackling birch wood in the evening air.

I think Bobby feels more at home when he’s on the road than when an adventure is over, and he’s back in his rental. I suspect he’s not alone in that regard. How about you, or your protagonist? What provides a sense of home, or home-away-from-home, for you or your favorite character?

 

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Limpkin at Dusk