Wilderness, the Preservation of Sanity

22 08 2015


After the wild, highly energized, intensely social experience of a convention, a hike in the White Mountains is therapeutically antithetical. My hiking buddy Mary is still recovering from double knee surgery — yes, she had both knees done at once. There is very little Mary loves more than hiking, and she couldn’t bear to be kept off the trail for more time than absolutely necessary. So she endured the crippling agony of a double knee replacement, all the icing and massaging and grueling physical therapy, in hopes of being back in shape within a year. While in recovery she lost a lot of muscle tone. So although she is enjoying freedom of movement again, she hasn’t got the strength to do the long, strenuous hikes yet.

So we took to the woods for a lovely but comparatively gentle hike and overnight camping trip: the East Pond loop off of Tripoli Road. There are no formal campgrounds along this trail, and there is a quarter-mile buffer zone around East Pond itself to protect its delicate ecology. People obviously have ignored this, as there are a couple of rogue campsites with the remains of camp fires at the pond’s edge. It is possible to camp with minimum impact, respecting and preserving the natural landscape. Stomping the surface to bare dirt, dragging logs and stones around, and burning every stick of dry wood you can find, is not the way to do it.

Dense conifersBecause of the rugged terrain and dense forest undergrowth, there are few spots along the trail outside of the protected zone that are conducive to setting up a tent. But we found one off the trail between East Pond and the smaller, swampier, Little East Pond. We also found a small rogue campsite right next to Little East Pond. Although that area isn’t protected, the rules state that campsites must be at least 200 feet away from trails and water sources. The one down the faint path further up the trail fit the rules. It is also an easy walk down gentle grades to East Pond.

Hardwood ForestThe East Pond Trail climbs gradually but steadily up from the parking area through lovely hardwood forests for about a mile and a half to the pond. It was perfect for Mary, who is still adjusting to carrying a full overnight pack. I’d been out there the year before with my younger son, and knew the treat that was in store. Tripoli Road has designated roadside camping sites, and thus is lined with cars and people on the weekends. I can understand why this set-up would be grand for urban folks seeking to enjoy an overnight in the forest with minimum effort. I confess, I am a camping snob. I don’t even much care for remote designated campsites, for all their relative convenience (platforms, bear boxes and outhouses) because I don’t like being so close to other people. For me, solitude is the whole point.

I do like hiking with Mary (and her husband Nick from time to time) because she is the ideal companion. Very trail savvy, in fact, she taught me just about everything I know about camping in the wilderness. An avid amateur naturalist, she knows a great deal about the flowers and small residents of this environment, so I get an education as we stop to admire toads, mushrooms, and tiny, delicate blossoms along the way. She takes the photos. As much as I like solo hiking and camping, I don’t have a camera. It’s only my hikes with Mary that I have visual records for, and I treasure them.

Dark clouds over the pondI needed East Pond desperately. Although we ran into day hikers on our way up, they cleared out as the afternoon advanced. By evening, we had the place to ourselves. The pond is a classic mountain tarn, excavated thousands of years ago by the passing glacier and filled upon its melting. Runoff from the surrounding and sheltering mountains keep it replenished. The water is oxygen poor, so often tarns don’t support much in the way of fish. They can also be somewhat shallow, not cold enough to suit most fish. East Pond, however, supports abundant fish life, as evidenced by frequent leaps and splashes. We saw a large shoal of brook trout at a spot where a brook was bringing in fresh, cold, oxygen-rich water. Trout don’t tend to swim together, but these were cheek by jowl, all holding position facing the flow of water coming in from the brook, enjoying the freshness of the current. Not large specimens, most between five to ten inches, averaging around six or seven.

SundewSharing the crystal clear water with the trout were frogs, salamanders, and long, shuddersomely healthy leeches. Along the shore we found clusters of sundews and aquatic lobelia. There was evidence that beaver had been active there at one time, but there was no sign of them now.

Sparkling sundew and delicate white lobelia

Sparkling sundew and delicate white lobelia

Peace settled in with the evening. We got our tents set up and ate some dinner, then went down to the pond to watch the sun set. Dragonflies zipped past in abundance, rattling their wings and scarfing up insects. This kept the mosquito population to a minimum. There were tiny gnats of some kind, but they weren’t too annoying. The only thing that at all interfered with our pleasure were dark grey clouds that hovered just at the edge of the cirque containing the pond. Occasionally we got sprinkled on. But to the west it was mostly clear, so the sunlight angled through until it dipped below the silhouette of the mountain ridge. No doubt there was a rainbow somewhere behind us that we couldn’t see for the forest.


The clouds lit up in gorgeous shades of gold, crimson and deep raspberry, fading into slate blue and grey. The occasional frog twanged like a plucked rubber band. A breeze rippled the still water; raindrops occasionally pattered on the surface. And the fish leaped and splashed.

It was quiet, peaceful, a balm to the soul.

I sat for quite a while, just taking in the stillness, breathing in the subtly fragrant air. As much as I enjoy the three-ring circus of conventions, this is where I am at home. This is the place I think of when the unanswerable questions and impossible choices of life grind me down. This, and the other places I have walked and sat in stillness and solitude, these are the refuges my mind seeks when I am overwhelmed with the pressures of ordinary life and extraordinary crises. Here I am at peace, content.


At first, the hemlock boughs overhead protected me from the gentle rain. I did not want to leave this place. But when it became a steady drizzle I had no choice but to fish my headlamp out of my pocket and retreat to the shelter of my tent. Later that night I heard the drum of heavy rain on my tent, but I was spared a soaking while I was on my way. Snug in my little one-man Lightyear tent, it could rain all it cared to. Short of high winds, my tent does an effective job of keeping me dry. When I camped out near Galehead my tent protected me from a horrific drenching downpour. This was not nearly so bad.

The next morning, cool and sparkling, we got up and made our breakfast. When I hike solo, I do without the luxury of a stove. I don’t mind cold mocha and cereal for breakfast. But I’ve got to say, having a hot meal, especially on a chilly morning, is splendid. Another reason I enjoy camping with Mary.


Little East PondWe continued on our way to Little East Pond, a shallow moose wallow compared to East Pond. We saw a duck at the other end, and there were salamanders, water striders, and undulating leeches (ugh!). No fish. It’s still a pretty place, also sheltered by surrounding mountains and nourished by runoff from Scar Ridge. We poked around a bit. Found a place someone had used as an outhouse. Please! We all must answer Nature’s call, but damn it all, bury the evidence! Nobody wants to know where you’ve been and what you did there. Disgusting as leeches.


There was no putting it off. We had to complete the loop and head back to the car. We took our time. Discreet logging had been going on in the area, and the clearings were filled with saplings and raspberry bushes. We picked raspberries as we passed the clearings. Whoever had done the logging had done a good job of trying to leave tree buffers whenever possible, minimizing the visible damage from the trail. I dislike the sight of logging, although I grudgingly acknowledge its necessity. Done in wise moderation, clearing areas of woods can be beneficial to many creatures who browse the shoots and hide in the thickets.

Indian pipes

Indian Pipes; not a mushroom or fungus, but a plant without chlorophyll

We got back to the parking lot where my son would be meeting us to give me a ride home. He always grumbles when he sees those signs at the boundary of the National Forest that say, “Land of Many Uses.” Like they somehow have to justify preserving wilderness, reassuring the general populace that the land isn’t being “wasted” and is “useful.” Like the worth of something is only measured in its utility to humans. Insufferably arrogant and self-centered. Henry David Thoreau wrote in his essay “Walking”, “Wildness is the preservation of the world.” It is also the preservation of sanity. And the key to our survival as we chew and ravage our way through this thriving ecosystem we’ve inherited and now systematically exploit. If we don’t preserve the wild world, the world as it evolved in exquisite balance before the very recent advent of egotistical humanity, we will likely screw it up beyond its capacity to support us. Our short-sighted greed may cause our extinction, and we may take out a sizable percentage of species with us, but Life will re-emerge, dust itself off grumbling, and busily go about evolving new species to fill the vacated niches. Wilderness will reassert its dominance. We survive here by its grace alone.

There’s your justification, Humans.
Preservation of sanity

Last Slice of Pi

8 08 2015

Last Slice

It was the last slice of Pi, the final incarnation of the Friendliest Little Convention in New England. Folks came from far and wide to help celebrate this sweet little gem. Why it was the last is a long and complex story, having to do with how conventions are made, and much like sausages and laws, you probably don’t want to know. But to quote from the Con Chair’s message in the con book, “Even as Pi-Con has grown and gotten better, other changes have occurred to make the event more difficult to run. A lack of viable venues caused Pi-Con to move from the Pioneer Valley into Connecticut which altered the local focus of the event. The staff has become more and more geographically diverse, which makes meetings more difficult. This year’s staff lives among 5 different states….Sometimes it is important to know when you have reached your limit.” Sad, but wise.

Kate Kaynak and Walter Hunt discuss Gods of Other Worlds

Kate Kaynak and Walter Hunt discuss Gods of Other Worlds

I rode down with Kate Kaynak, writer and publisher, founder of Spencer Hill Press and Tulip Publishing, and one tough cookie. She has an advanced degree in Psychology, and has travelled all over the world. I benefitted from her wisdom during the ride. Kate had the advantage of the example of her mom, who found herself left single with two young children, no job, minimal education, and she pulled herself up by the bootstraps. Kate’s brother films documentaries in exotic places under edgy circumstances, so the fearless and full-speed-ahead runs in the family. I absorbed her self-confidence like a pale leaf greening towards the sun. Thanks, Kate!

Tanya Huff and Trisha Wooldridge discussing How Magic Works

Tanya Huff and Trisha Wooldridge discussing How Magic Works

We got there a day early because Broad Universe was doing a Writers Workshop as a kind of intro to the con. We did Friday programming up until the con proper started at 6pm. Guest of Honor Tanya Huff made opening remarks at 9am, and then Susan Hanniford Crowley and I did a writer’s improv game in which participants drew several cards with images for cues, and tried to construct a story from them. After writing for several minutes, we shared and talked about the process of inspiration and whether having restrictions helps, hurts, and how. The discussion was lively, and the shared work interesting. One of the participants was author Bill Freedman, who came up with a story about Baa the Sheep being turned into the stuffing for a teddy bear. Never has cuddly been rendered so grim.

Justine Reading aloud workshop cropThe workshops included topics like “Promotion for Authors”, “World Building”, “Building Strong Characters”, as well as “Writing Sick and Twisted Characters”. One cool idea was a workshop given by Trisha Wooldridge (former Broad Universe president and past Pi-Con Guest of Awesome) on using the Tarot to inspire creative ideas. I did my “Reading Your Work Aloud” gig, which went very well. One of the attendees went forth to give a knock-out reading at the Broad Universe RFR later in the con. It was her first, and she nailed it. I take some humble credit for helping.

Friday night was the release party for my latest, Awake Chimera, hosted by Broad Universe. The Barfleet crew, known for their inspired and devastating mixology, was staying in rooms right across the hall from us. They came over for the food. Ours was an open party with only modest beverages, but made up for it gloriously with such treats as prosciutto-wrapped melon, garlic olives, and an assortment of dips, spreads, and savory toasts. The traffic was steady — people came for the food and stayed for the conversation, which was lively and loud. Oh yes, and I sold lots of copies of my book. The party was an unqualified success.

Awake Chimera release party with yours truly, Justine Graykin, Fantastic Books publisher and dealer Ian Strock, and cover artist Angi Shearstone.

Awake Chimera release party with yours truly, Justine Graykin, Fantastic Books publisher and dealer Ian Strock, and cover artist Angi Shearstone.

After the party we wandered down the hall to a closed party whose central attractants were bloody marys, homemade coffee liqueurs, and at midnight, the assembling of Rocket Fuel, a concoction of water, frozen lemonade concentrate, grain alcohol and dry ice. Very entertaining. As the Rocket Fuel boiled away into slush, the party dwindled into mostly SMOFs, the grizzled veteran con organizers of area SF cons over the years, such as iCon. I sipped my alcoholic slushy and listened to them reminisce and swap horror stories.

The awesome Vikki Ciaffone

The awesome Vikki Ciaffone

Saturday was a marathon. I had no fewer than 6 panels, plus attending the Broad Universe Rapid-Fire reading and a Barfleet meeting. It was a blur. Unfortunately, I don’t remember many of the scintillating details, although I recall that I and my fellow panelists were pretty damn brilliant, the audiences were good, and there weren’t any failures. We started out with a panel called “Happy Books Suck”, which I had proposed based on a comment by a fellow librarian. We were supposed to be discussing whether a book necessarily needs to be grim and serious to be good, and whether humor and optimism have a place in great literature. I recall Gordon Linzner (founder of Space and Time magazine) was on the panel, as well as Aussie author D.L. Carter. But for the life of me, what I remember was moderator and Guest of Aweome Vikki Ciaffone warning ubergeek Mario Di Giacomo (known for the generosity with which he shares his erudite opinions) not to take over the panel, and then promptly taking over the panel herself.

Running the Galactic Empire with, appropriately enough, Bill Freedman, George Claxton, Ari Alpert and Grant Carrington.

Running the Galactic Empire with, appropriately enough, Bill Freedman, George Claxton, Ari Alpert and Grant Carrington.

The high point for me was the Religion, Skepticism, and Atheism in SF Fandom panel, which I moderated with Walter Hunt and Jeff Warner. We strayed from fandom and waded far into the deepest tar pits of religious philosophy and skepticism. Walter has a strong theistic streak (being a Mason) and argued his points brilliantly. Jeff, who is a hard-core materialist atheist, balanced him out, with me, a spiritual atheist (and in fact, that was the title of a later panel I was on) toggling in between. We had some great participation from the audience, one of whom, towards the end, pointed out that as interesting as this all was, we weren’t talking much about SF or fandom, and got I steered back on topic for at least the last few minutes. I enjoyed the discussion so much it almost made up for the fact that I (once again!!) missed Jennifer Pelland doing her belly dancing demonstration. And if you think a belly dancing demonstration is a minor loss, you’ve never seen Jen dance.

Nature of Gender panel, with Suzanne Reynolds-Alpert, Justine Graykin, David Larochelle, and Micah Schneider

Nature of Gender panel, with Suzanne Reynolds-Alpert, Justine Graykin, David Larochelle, and Micah Schneider

In the course of that day I also dealt with the Nature of Gender with David Larochelle (who I always look forward to seeing at cons), Suzanne Reynolds-Alpert (a fellow Broad) and Micah Schneider (who worked on the first Pi-Con and has held just about every position possible on Arisia programming). Also, as I mentioned, The Spiritual Atheist, which didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. I’d looked forward eagerly to the panel, it being a topic near and dear to me, and I was delighted to be on it with Ari Alpert, with whom I have sparred in the past, Kate Kaynak, whose praises I have already sung, and Jen Pelland, whose sharp wit and tongue are as smooth as her dance moves. D.L. Carter was moderating, and she kind of took things in a direction I didn’t really expect.

It might have been just that it was my second to last panel of the day, I hadn’t yet had supper and was rapidly burning out, but when I was cut off for the third time without being able to finish my thought, I got a little grumpy. Well, maybe a lot grumpy. Sorry, Dee.

Shuvom Ghose Interpreting the Critique

Shuvom Ghose: Interpreting the Critique

One of my big regrets Saturday was that the panel on Limiting Narrative Viewpoint, moderated by Shuvom Ghose, came when I was too exhausted to do it justice. I’d been on a panel with Shuvom earlier (“I Don’t Mean to Offend”, about offensive language, how to avoid it, react to it, deal with it, and be a good ally). I knew he was a Libertarian who writes military SF, which scared me a little, but my experience with him on the “Offend” panel was pretty positive. Then, dear god. He comes in to the Narrative panel with handouts, posters, chocolate and a game plan. He was organized, focused, and had way more energy than any of the rest of us. His plan would have succeeded far better if it hadn’t been 8 o’clock at night after a long day. We didn’t do him justice. Even so, it was a good discussion of the role of Point of View and how it affects storytelling. I hope I have a chance to panel with Shuvom again some day when I’m more fresh.

Mario Di Giacomo, Hugh Casey, and Frank Ney want bra-a-a-i-i-ns,

Mario Di Giacomo, Hugh Casey, and Frank Ney want bra-a-a-i-i-ns!

Saturday night was, of course, Barfleet. I’ve raved enough about Barfleet in the past, so leave us just say they did not disappoint. I have been promoted, and am now an ensign with dog tags to prove it. I spent a good deal of the party minding the door and the cash box, but did get let out for the Safety Dance. My two sons were down for the con with their friend Tate, who was eager to check out Barfleet. My younger is not yet of drinking age, and so sought out the Cards Against Humanity marathon. #1 son old enough, but he does not drink (changeling?). He came along with Tate to check it out and be a designated driver of sorts. As it turned out, this was a good thing. I lectured Tate that he needed to drink a cup of water in between each alcoholic drink, but did he listen? Medical (the bartenders) were featuring The Sonic Screwdriver and the Hurricane Irene (in honor of 6Pi-Con, a.k.a. Hurricon), both of which were delicious and went down dangerously easily. Tate also made certain to sample the other liquid delicacies, including (of course) the Horta, a special Summer Horta which was remarkably awful, and the Horpedo, which was not too bad, especially as a chaser for a truly deadly concoction the Captain coerced me into sampling, which was essentially grain alcohol infused with ghost peppers. A thimbleful is enough to make you want to go down on a fire hose at full bore. It is Satan’s own spit.

Meanwhile, in another part of the hotel, the Cards Against Humanity marathon.

Meanwhile, in another part of the hotel, the Cards Against Humanity marathon.

Anyway, #1 son watched the show (always entertaining) and Tate. At one point when the Captain was offering up something wonderfully hazardous, #1 son suggested it might not be a good idea for Tate to partake. The Captain, wisely, nodded and agreed. Tate did not appreciate this at the time. He did later. I saw them leaving the party, Tate in roaring good spirits, #1 son patiently steering him away from walls and other people. A rite of passage safely negotiated, achievement unlocked, thanks to Barfleet.


Michael Whitehouse auctions off a plush version of Crikey

Sunday was largely taken up with End Of Con stuff. There was the usual last day frantic rush to get checked out of the room and close out the BU dealer’s table while still attending panels and events. I was staying an extra day, which took some of the pressure off. I was on the Guest of Awesome reunion panel with Vikki Ciaffone (9Pi-Con), Trisha Wooldridge (7Pi-Con), and to my delight, Hugh Casey (5Pi-Con). Hugh is recovering from a battle with cancer and looked damn good in spite of it. He made it to 9Pi-Con to enjoy the last slice of Pi, much to everyone’s joy. He was the Guest of Awesome at my first Pi-Con, and I fondly remember paneling with him.


A Shmoo (but not THE Shmoo).

At the closing ceremonies the stock of T shirts from cons past were given out and mascots were auctioned off. Except for Croaker and the Shmoo. Croaker is a flat, desiccated frog found while moving furniture for an event at the first Pi-Con. The Shmoo is an abstract polished chunk of wood sculpture found on the side of the road on the way to Pi-Con one year. Both became a part of Pi-Con legend, as these things do.

And so, with much sniffling and hugs, folks departed from the Last Pi-Con. We’ll all meet again at other cons, of course, but this day marked the passing of something unique. Each con has its own character, and Pi-Con truly was friendly, accessible, and a particularly pleasing shade of geek.

Guest of Awesome Reunion panel with Trisha Wooldridge, Justine Graykin, Vikki Ciaffone, and Hugh Casey, who left his DNA all over Pi-Con.  Let him explain it.

Guest of Awesome Reunion panel with Trisha Wooldridge, Justine Graykin, Vikki Ciaffone, and Hugh Casey, who left his DNA all over Pi-Con. Let him explain it.

A few final shout-outs to folks. Kudos to Michael Whitehouse whose dogged determination kept Pi-Con going for one last time; to Lisa Hagar for keeping it all on course when the wheels began wobbling wildly; to Terry Franklin for once again feeding us and providing con fuel (and the customary delicious pie) in the Consuite; to Inanna Arthen for her Herculean efforts, designing the con book, and the final T-shirt, plus managing the nightmare juggling act of programming; Tom Traina for Heading Main Tent Events and generally using his superpowers for good and not evil; and David Silber for Tech Rescue. Hats off to all the folks who made this possible.

Also, my own grateful thanks to Trisha Wooldridge, Scott Wooldridge (husband of awesome), Suzanne Reynolds-Alpert, Angi Shearstone, and Kristi Petersen Schoonover for making my release party an amazing success, as well as to Broad Universe (Broads rock!). Thanks to Lori Claxton for photojournalism (a lot of these are hers) and for the bookmark (I drew “Justice”). Apologies to all the folks I should have recognized, but didn’t. My memory is about as sharp as butter. I’m embarrassed to confess how often I smile and greet faces that are naggingly familiar, but just won’t pair up with names and circumstances. Apologies also to Mario Di Giacomo, who I meant to find some time to visit with, and it just didn’t happen. May I say I absolutely adored your bio in the con book. In fact, I didn’t get as much time as I would have wanted with a whole host of folks that I only see at cons, like the irreverent but never irrelevant Bill Freedman, Debi Chowdhury (of Steampunk Tea and Masquerade fame), David Larochelle, Jen Pelland, Roberta Rogow (the Filk Queen), and Pete Sloan of Space Cadets a.k.a. Tsiolkovsky’s Stepchildren (they throw the awesome SF-themed parties at Arisia), gadget-maker and prop-designer extraordinaire. And my fellow crewmates of the UBS Shameless. Someday I hope to spend some time hanging with you, and to be more useful at an event than I was here. Someday.

Baby jousting with Michael Whitehouse and Matthew Winn.  Geek dads are awesome.

Baby jousting with Michael Whitehouse and Matthew Winn. Geek dads are awesome.

And special thanks to Jeff Warner, Ops Head, triple threat and Ninja SMOF, for giving me the chance to ease the transition into Mundania and going out of his way to get me home while suffering the creeping onslaught of con crud. Get well soon.  You got cons to go to, science to celebrate, and fandom to be secretly the master of.

Due to personal reasons, I won’t be attending another convention any time soon. But this was one glorious note to go out on. So long, and thanks for all the Pi.

Debi Chowdhury en masque

Debi Chowdhury en masque

Reach out in the darkness

26 07 2015

hands in the darkness

There was no sun this morning. Just grey sky and a dampness that drains the color our of everything. I haven’t slept well. The chorus was singing all night in my head.

I feel like I’m up against the world.
I’m no good.
Why can’t I ever succeed?
No one understands me.
I’m so weak.
I’m a terrible person.
I’m so disappointed in myself.
My life is not going the way I wanted it to.
Nothing feels good anymore.
I can’t stand this anymore.
What’s wrong with me?
I’m worthless.
I wish i could just disappear.
I’ll never make it.
My future is bleak
It’s just not worth it.

This is the chorus of Depression singing its classic litany. Every person who has every suffered depression recognizes it. They’ve heard variations on the same theme in their head. Just thoughts, just the symptoms of the disease, like chills when you have the flu. But when you’re in the middle of it, they don’t seem like just thoughts. They seem to be telling the truth. The grim, grey, hopeless truth about yourself and your life.

I’ll never make it. I’m too weak. I always do the wrong thing. I always screw things up. I’m going to lose everything. It’s all my fault. What right have I got to be happy? I’ve done stupid things and made bad choices my whole life. I’m useless, and I deserve to suffer.

Sound familiar?

Once you’ve been depressed, once you’ve had that prolonged, intractable stretch of clinical depression, those neural pathways are set. The road has been built and paved smooth. Even if you manage to beat it with some combination of drugs and therapy, those solidly wired neural pathways are still there. One wrong turn and you’re back on that road again. People who’ve had an episode of depression are likely to have another. It can become the pattern of their lives.

Like an alcoholic, for whom just one drink is enough to collapse them, the vulnerable person needs just one blow to send them sliding down into the pit. Unlike the alcoholic, who can choose not to drink, we can’t always choose to avoid the blows life sends our way. Life is filled with disappointments, tragedies, sorrow. None of us are exempt. Loved ones die. Jobs are lost. Marriages fail.

Frightened, frantic, too overwhelmed with grief and confusion to conjure up the weapons to fight it, despair and hopelessness like fat leeches hanging off your back, draining the fight out of you, you fall.

Fetal position on the bathroom floor. Unable to get out of bed. Wanting to hide, give up, desperate to do anything to make the pain stop, sick to death with the unbearable wretchedness of yourself and your wasted life.

It is at times like these that you need to have others around you who know the disease, who have been there, who understand how it works. You need someone trustworthy who will hold you tenderly, speak to you gently, and remind you firmly that this is the disease. No fault of your own. The judgement upon you, the curse and condemnation are just thoughts, just the brain generating ideas. Not facts, not the truth. Just phantoms, however real they seem. Yes, your troubles are real, but they are not personal, not an indictment of you as an individual. You are still loved, valued, as much a vital part of the world as your fellow creatures. Your troubles will pass. The sun will sparkle on clear waters again.

The ruminations of depression are just thoughts. Very, very, unhelpful thoughts. The brain is a marvelous thing, but it was not perfectly designed. It evolved imperfectly. For all its wonders, it makes mistakes. Fools itself. But it also has a way of catching itself when the limbic system or some other mindlessly reflexive component begins to send it bad advice and harmful messages. We can train ourselves to be aware of it. To recognize it. To see thoughts as mere constructs of the mind. Some are helpful. Some are decidedly not. We can learn to distinguish, with the help of others, the perceptions that save us from the ruminations that tear us down.

With the help of others. That is why, when there is no sun and the morning is grey, when the chorus has been at it all night, when all I want to do is hide from everything and quietly cry–

Hiding is precisely what I must not do.

So this is me, writing, posting, not hiding. Reaching out to the fellowship around me, to the sunlight in the souls of others. Together, we will not go down that black road again. Alone, the shadows will eat us. Together, we hold brave candles against the dark.

On Demon Pond

10 07 2015

water lily

I took a daypack and headed out. Can’t get up to the Whites, so I did the next best thing and took to the woods of Deerfield. I went up Ben White Road, which is nothing more than an overgrown track. It used to be the road up to (surprise) the house where Ben White lived, somewhere back in the nineteenth century. A family called the Batchelders lived up there, too. There are two old cemeteries along the road, both of them empty. Well, almost. The graves were moved to a nicer cemetery in the center of town, but I have it on good authority (the town historian, who happens to be my cousin) that a distant relative of mine is still buried up there in one of the two cemeteries. Ephraim Flint was just a baby, and had only a fieldstone marker with nothing on it. I’m not sure if it was because they just couldn’t find him or what, but his grave was never moved.

So I walked past the tumbled stone walls which imprecisely mark this hallowed ground, and nodded g’day to Ephraim, wherever he may be. There’s a stone bridge going over the brook just before Ben White Road climbs the hill towards Steve Hicks’ property. The bridge has fallen down, reduced to a treacherously narrow strip of dirt that you cross at your peril. But you can still see the huge granite slabs that they used to build the bridge. Never ceases to amaze me how they built such a thing with just the sweat of humans and animals, and a knack for engineering.

I don’t cross that bridge. Instead, I cut off to the right and bushwhack my way along the brook up to Saddleback Mountain Road. This is how I make my way to our local CSA, Saddleback Mountain Farm, run by Wilmer Frey. Boy, does that man know how to grow a garden! So far this year we’ve had big heads of lettuce, fat cukes, broccoli and cabbage, rainbow bunches of chard and fragrant bouquets of basil. Food, glorious food, just as delicious and wholesome as it comes.

But I wasn’t going to the CSA that day. I continued up the road towards where NHPTV has their station on the top of Saddleback. There’s a ledge up there with my grandparents’ initials carved in it, and that’s another whole story. I didn’t go up that far. There’s a trail that forks off to the left, the Parsonage Woods trail. It’s a boy scout project, and takes you across Saddleback and down to Northwood Meadows State Park. That’s where I went. There’s an outlook at the height of land. I stood for a moment gazing at those distant, hazy peaks. Later, I thought. Someday soon.

My destination was Demon Pond, tucked into the woods to the east of Northwood Meadows Lake. There’s a trail that goes partway around it. It was a beautiful day, and I had all day to get there, so I took some time to explore some of the side trails, mostly just snowmobile paths and logging roads. I got myself good and lost. In fact, I ended up stumbling into the swamp behind the Northwood Transfer Station, startling a deer in the process. She tore off right in front of me, and I thought she might have had a wee companion, but the grass was too high to be sure.

Well, I backtracked and followed the sound of traffic and finally managed to get myself out onto Rte 4, my legs scratched up and deer flies orbiting my head in clouds. But I was in a good mood, chuckling at my own folly, because heck, it was a beautiful day and I was out walking with a pack on my back. I hiked in through the main entrance to Northwood Meadows State Park, past the inevitable folks with dogs. Everybody goes there with their dogs. I used to, back in the day. Only have one dog left now, and he complains after about a mile of trekking. So I leave him behind to lay on the steps and dream of younger days.

It was about two in the afternoon when I finally found my way to the trail by Demon Pond. I reached the end of it and kept going. No destination in particular in mind, but I knew I’d recognize the spot when I found it. I stepped over brush and fallen trees, ducked under low-hanging hemlock branches, the pond always to my right. Then I came out to a gentle slope down to the edge of the water. This was it.

Demon Pond is pretty shallow. You could barely sink a body in it. There’s some stretches of open water, but most of it is covered with lilly pads. They were in full bloom. Lovely white blossoms floated on the surface near bright yellow ones like bowls on green sticks. And the air was thick with dragon flies. They darted and zipped and hovered, coupling and rattling their wings and dipping their abdomens in the water in the glorious act of making more dragonflies. As a result of all those dragonflies, there was nary a skeeter to be found. Nor any deer flies, hallelujah. I hate deer flies with a blue passion. With apologies to my Buddha nature, I feel immense satisfaction when I manage to smack one of those bastards and end its buzzing, maddening life.

So I found a perfect spot, right at the edge where the checkerberries and pine needles segue into eelgrass and muck. A big pine shielded me from the rays of the sun, which was pretty hot at that point. The breeze was heavenly. I cleared off sticks and pine cones and dropped my pack, digging out my old poncho. It’s heavy, army green plastic, the hood long gone and repairs made with duck tape. But I pack it because it’s great to sit on, and still provides a goodly amount of protection should the weather turn foul. I wore it huddled on White Ledge near Chocorua during a thunderstorm during my crazier days of irresponsible youth. Damn fool, watching lightning strike yards away, whooping like an idiot.

That afternoon by Demon Pond I sat in peaceful contentment, eating the sandwich I’d planned on eating a couple of hours ago, before my detour through the swamps of Northwood. It tasted all the better for the delay. When I finished eating I drowsed a bit, then sat up and stretched. Time for a bit of contemplation.

I got myself situated, legs crossed as best I could, towel folded under my backside, and I took in the pond. Sunlight glinting off the water, a brook splashing into it somewhere roughly across from me. Enormous tadpoles sunning themselves on submerged sticks, salamanders hanging in the the water, crows conferring somewhere in the woods, other birds piping up from time to time: winter wren, some sort of warbler, oven bird, woodpeckers, the omnipresent chickadee. Jays being rude and arrogant. Something breaks the surface. Can there really be fish in this oversized puddle?

I am here. My mind keeps throwing thoughts at me. There’s a worry. Stuff I need to do. Now my stomach tightens as something painful surfaces. Busy little brain, refusing to be still, running like a pack of spaniels all over the place. Patiently I guide my focus back to the present moment, my breath slipping in and out, the present scene spread out before me. Aware of my thoughts as I am aware of the sounds. Can’t keep from hearing them, just let it happen. Watch and listen. Be. Just be. Aware. Alive. Present.

Busy little mind reminds me I’ve got troubles. That’s true. There’s an awful lot of suffering in the world, and I’ve got my piece of it to be sure. We cause an awful lot of our own suffering by clinging to things that can’t last and don’t really satisfy, by railing against things we can’t change, by worrying and agonizing over the way things are, or aren’t. We let the bad poison the good. Fear of what might happen prevents us from appreciating what is happening.

I focus on this moment, where there is peace. I can take this peace with me, take the strength it gives me, and walk back home. Yes, all those fears and problems will still be waiting for me. I’ve got a difficult path ahead of me. But if I focus on each step, and just that step, if I keep striving to be open to others, to practice kindness and compassion, to avoid acting out of fear or anger, I can handle whatever catastrophe life throws at me.

And when I need to, I can come back to sit in quiet contemplation by Demon Pond.

Murders, Mayhem and Mischief in Manatas

3 07 2015

Murder_in_ManatasWEBtnI’m an extremely picky reader. I’m slow to take a risk on a book and I don’t hesitate to pitch it if I find I’m not enjoying it. Too much darkness, violence, or explicit erotica, weak writing, unlikeable characters, inconsistent plot, bad science or lazy research, or putting too much strain on my suspenders of disbelief: all will cause me to toss a book in the discard bin. I don’t want to be “improved” by a book if it needs to make me feel miserable in the process. I don’t mind being challenged, but it needs to be like climbing a mountain: exhilarating, full of delightful surprises, moments of doubt and indecision that are surmounted, with logical progression and triumph in the end. I also like to be entertained, but I don’t want my intellect insulted in the process.

So it took me a few times of hearing Roberta Rogow reading aloud from her Manatas series before I finally decided to give it a try. The excerpts I’d heard were intriguing, with an appealing humor. It’s alternative history, taking place in what we know today as Manhattan, but in the late fifteenth century. The island colony of Manatas is a diverse community of natives, Europeans, and Africans, all overseen by the Sultan Petrus. Locals (Native Americans), Yehudit (Jews), Kristos (Christians, including denominations of “Erse Rite” and “Roumi Rite”) and followers of Islim (Islam) all coexist more or less peacefully. Halvar Danske, around whom this saga revolves, places his faith equally in Mother Mara and the Redeemer, and Thor. The primary business of Manatas is the Feria, a raucous gathering of traders from all over. Halvar, the hireling of Al-Andalusian Calif Don Filipe, has come to make sure the proper taxes are being collected for his master.


His mission also includes tracking down one Leon di Vicenza, a brilliant painter, engineer, and notorious maker of mischief. But his job is complicated when he discovers Leon’s body, the apparent victim of a brutal murder. Now the mystery begins, as Halvar gets sucked into one adventure after another, ruining one set of clothes after another, in the course of doggedly ferreting out the truth.

The author sets a brisk pace, keeping the action going, spicing it with humor and surprises. She tweaks the names of people, places and things in a very interesting and believable way; part of the fun for me was guessing what she was referring to. Some are easy, such as Kibbick for Quebec, or fratery for monastery, but some are cleverly obscure, like nguba for peanut. It is an actual word derived from Bantu, and from which the word “goober” evolved. There is a glossary at the end of books two and three which help with translation, but I needed to refer to them very rarely. It is pretty easy to deduce the meanings from context and skilled extrapolation.

It is not so easy to deduce the solution to the complicated series of interwoven mysteries that multiply with each addition to the saga. Halvar, using good wits, keen observation and the simple technology of the time, manages to solve one problem only to find yet another corpse and get drawn into another, all the while trying to avoid becoming a corpse himself. This very likable hero must negotiate tricky politics, romantic entanglements, and local wildlife (the latter not terribly successfully) in his quest to fulfill his mission for the Calif.

MischiefManatasWEBtnBook One, Murders in Manatas, has Halvar arriving in Manatas on his mission and introduces the reader to this alternative world. Book Two, Mayhem in Manatas, continues the saga, with new intrigues and complications. The latest, Book Three, is Mischief in Manatas, which more or less ties up the loose ends, but still leaves room for possible sequels. One can hope. All are available through Zumaya Publications, as well as through Amazon, Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Online, NOOK, Kobo, and all the other usual suspects.

Roberta Rogow has written several mystery novels based on an imaginary collaboration between Arthur Conan Doyle and Lewis Carroll. She also combines her clever humor with musical talent as a filksinger, and appears at science fiction conventions, mostly in the Northeast United States. (She will be at 9Pi-Con, July 31 to August 2.)  Roberta was inducted into the Filk Hall of Fame on April 20, 2013.

Her Manatas series is a fun read, well-researched, with a mystery and characters that hold the interest and keep the reader turning pages. Here’s to Halvar, may he someday live down his famed encounter with the sekonk.

The Great Experiment

26 06 2015

Bard Owl

Back to contemplating Meaning and Being while my book goes to the printer.

How does a person decide was is right? Right conduct, right priorities, right choices in who to be and whom to be with. Nearly all of us grapple with this question at one time or another, some of us more than others. We tend to buy our life philosophies off the rack. The easiest path is the one we were brought up with. Catholic, Baptist, Jewish; Democrat, Socialist, Conservative; we have ingrained guidelines, and if we are in doubt, there are authorities we can turn to.

Or, we can poke around and find out what else there is to believe, and pick something congenial. New Age Pagan perhaps, or Buddhist, or just choose a guru whose preachings resonate with you. Deepak Chopra or Dr. Wayne Dyer, or even Earl Holt III.

But why choose one over another? If we just take on a life philosophy like a suit, why ever question it? Why would a child grow to question the wisdom of a parent, or a priest question the teachings of a church? What causes that gut reaction of, “Yes, that makes sense to me,” or “No, they’ve got that wrong.”?

Because at the heart of it, we all have an innate sense of what is right and wrong. Even monkeys and dogs have a sense of justice. Much as we might want to shrug off responsibility for making moral choices, deferring to authority rather than making our own judgements and risking being wrong, the moral buck stops with us. There is some unconscious part of us that reacts to ideas and behaviors, judging them valid or invalid. And like so much else about us humans, it varies wildly.

So we can throw up our hands and embrace nihilism, relativism, or some other brand of Nothing Matters So Why Bother, or we can accept the rules of the game as given and work with them. We have to make choices. We might at well do our best to make enlightened ones.

It is quite likely that we can thank evolution for what we are, including our subconscious impulses. Empathy and cooperation solidified bonds among individuals in a group and enhanced their survival. But under some circumstances, selfish, anti-social behavior worked better, and so that was perpetuated, too. Sometimes embracing novelty is good. Sometimes sticking to what’s tried and true is good. Life is complicated and different strategies work depending on the situation. Humans excel at adapting. Our behavior can be extremely variable, thus we have an arrow in the quiver for whatever game we find.

So here we are, billions of individuals, all running a massive experiment in which life philosophy works best. Is it better to identify the enemy and destroy them? Or is it better to overcome differences and create alliances? Should we be socialistic, or ruggedly independent? Worship and obey without question, or refuse to cooperate when we think authority is wrong?

Each of us has a role to play in this vast experiment. We see how, over time, even within institutions like an organized religion, rules and beliefs change considering what works and what doesn’t. We don’t stone adulterers to death anymore. At one time, that made sense to pretty much everyone. But it proved to be a bad policy which most of us have rejected. There are still individuals out there who would advocate for it (in Saudi Arabia for example); that gut reaction hasn’t completely died out yet. But our social evolution would appear to favor mercy over retribution.

As communication improves (thank you, Internet) we have much more to consider. We have many alternatives to what we were brought up with. If we are the sort who feels that breaking the bonds of tradition is a good thing, we can strike out on our own and build a life philosophy that suits us precisely, then share it with others to see if it resonates with them. We can continue to tweak and fine-tune our philosophy as we try to live it and encounter problems. We run the experiment for ourselves. What tends to work better? Reaching out to others, or minding my own business? Trust or suspicion? Self-indulgence or self-discipline?

By my way of thinking, a practice works if it tends towards happiness and away from suffering. And by happiness I don’t necessarily mean pleasure. I mean the sort of inner peace and satisfaction that makes a person feel their life is good. And because people who feel that way are much better to be around, I want happiness for as many others as possible. So this is my contribution to the great experiment. I find Buddhism congenial, have a great respect for science, tend towards liberalism and socialism. I value compassion and empathy, and believe that being concerned with the happiness of others contributes to my own happiness. This is the life philosophy I am building (it is a work in progress) based on the person I am.

Each of us does this, more or less, consciously or unconsciously. With our nearly infinite variability, we contribute to the experiment.

And over time, the best philosophy shall succeed.

The cover of Awake Chimera

19 06 2015

Cover Design Flat sample

As I said to Angi, it never ceases to amaze me how an artist can take a dream and make it manifest. I’ve worked most of my life to master the art of doing this with words. Crafting language to be the vehicle to transport a story from one mind to many. Choosing the words best suited to capture emotion, sensory experience, inner struggle and external striving, drama and humor. The commercial aspect of a writer’s work too often cynically drains the sublime magic from this process. But that’s another rant.

In the course of having cover art for my novel done, I have had the privilege of seeing a vague vision in my head turned into a reality that other eyes can see. This is neither simple nor exact. Readers of even the very best writing often come away with ideas of what characters or settings look like that are different from what the writer had in mind, or what others readers envision. How often has the movie version of a beloved book been a disappointment because you didn’t picture it that way at all?

Angi and I went back and forth via email (she’s in Connecticut and I’m in New Hampshire) trying to triangulate in on an image that would do the trick. We started with sketches, then moved on to a painting which had to be tweaked and modified repeatedly. Sometimes I asked her to change something that just wasn’t right. Other times she came up with something that was actually better than what I had in mind. That’s the beauty of working with a professional. I got my money’s worth.

Or should I say, my backers got their money’s worth. I couldn’t afford to pay Angi what she asked for. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to offer her less. Artists, like writers, deserve to be paid for what they do. You can’t pay the bills with “exposure”. My publisher would supply artwork, but its a small press, if a respectable one. They don’t have a stable of professional artists on hand. I’d get a cover that was striking, professional-looking, but somewhat generic.

Angi suggested crowd-sourcing, something I’d never done before. We went with Kickstarter. I did the thing I hate most, putting myself out there and begging, and by jiminy, people came forward and helped out. I got 30 backers, plus a couple who just handed me cash. Thanks to them, I was able to hire Angi. Their support helped both the artist and the writer advance their dreams.
Cover Painting cropped small

So instead of a generic cover, I got Shaka Mahdi, on her ship, watching Prilock emerge from the marsh having discovered how to become a bird and fly. It is a moment of exaltation; he is discovering his power, his freedom, the legacy he has but to rise up and seize. She is happy for him, but wonders if this also means she will lose him. What use has a god for a mere mortal creature, however fond he may be of her?

The book will be going into final production as soon as the other particulars are settled: author bio and head shot, dedication, layout of the back cover, and so forth. The publisher will take care of getting the ebook formatted and into all major outlets, and setting up the dead tree version. Double Dragon is primarily an ebook publisher, but they do make print copies available on demand. I’ll be getting a box of 50 to take to the release party at Pi-Con And no, they do not come to me free. I pay for them, and then must recoup the investment. So every freebie comes directly out of my pocket. The Kickstarter funds cover Angi’s work, and the backer rewards, plus the processing fees that Kickstarter charges. Anything left over will go towards other expenses. There are always other expenses. This is why most writers of fiction can’t afford to quit the day job. This, and readers hooked on draconian Amazon discounts. Who do you think takes the hit for those? Not Amazon. But that’s another rant.

Never mind. Today I am happier than any human has a right to be. It is a beautiful day in June, I have a fantastic cover for my book, which will be out in another month, I have Pi-Con coming up, my favorite convention, and I have friends who will make sure I get there and get home again. And, thanks again to friends and family, I am heading to the North Country this weekend. I’ll be getting out and, rain or shine, taking to the trails. Staying two nights in my friend Mary’s cabin. Restoring my soul.

Life is good.


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