This is where “The River Starts Flowing”

16 December 2015

Just released—the 36th volume in the long-running COMPAS series of Anthologies of Student Writing, The River Starts Flowing. Proud editor—Daniel Gabriel. Once again, we collected the best stories, poems, songs, memoirs, and spoken word pieces from K-12 students around the state of Minnesota and put them together in a bound volume that signals heartfelt and exciting paths to the future.

Being published in a COMPAS anthology holds memories for a lifetime.

Being published in a COMPAS anthology holds memories for a lifetime./Photo by Betsy Mowry Voss

And once again, we gathered on the 2nd Saturday in December to celebrate these students’ achievements in the elegant Cortile of Landmark Center in downtown St. Paul. Several families came hundreds of miles from Roseau, up on the Canadian border, to attend. Rochester STEM Academy, whose work was featured in multiple selections, brought a busload of students, staff, and family members up from the south. Kids large and small set aside their fears of public speaking and amazed the jam-packed crowd with their insights.

We opened with “My Place,” a moving piece from a Nepalese girl, written during last year’s devastating earthquakes in her homeland, and we closed with three Somali girls line sync-performing a tribute to their homeland, “East Africa’s Most Beautiful: Somalia.” No question, these young students are connected to the world at large.

Rochester STEM Academy turns up the volume

Rochester STEM Academy turns up the volume./Photo by Betsy Mowry Voss

Lest it be thought that all good young writers are girls, and all best topics are foreign, two of the strongest pieces in the book were done by boys from the far north. Jordan Moser’s “More Than Hunting” took this city-lubber inside hunting camp in a way that I’d never thought possible, and Michael Thompson’s “Remember the Days” was an eloquent memorial to a lost life, brilliantly expressed in taut imagery.

Some pieces were funny, particularly some of the clever stories written by kids in elementary school. Many were saddening commentaries on youthful exclusion and misunderstanding. All used language effectively to talk back to the world, to stake their claim, to find a platform. You can’t see for sure where all this will pour out into the great sea of human endeavor, but this is definitely where the river starts flowing . . .

Gathered backstage, we plot our approach for the main event.

Gathered backstage, we plot our approach for the main event./Photo by Betsy Mowry Voss.

Book Launch Provides Flying Start

28 October 2015

Just back from the book launch for my latest collection of short stories, Wrestling with Angels. Many thanks to the great folks at New Rivers Press (NRP)—especially Nayt Rundquist and Alan Davis—for being wonderful hosts this past week up in Fargo-Moorhead.

CLICK HERE TO BUY Wrestling with Angels

There were three writers involved. The others were Julie Gard, sharing her collection of prose poems (Home Studies), and Tracy Robert, author of the dual novellas Flash Cards and the Curse of Ambrosia. After a classic walleye dinner at Usher’s Place, overlooking the winding banks of the Red River of the North, we moved on to MSUM (Minnesota State University Moorhead), home of NRP, for a joint reading in the student union.

The following day, action shifted across the border to Fargo. As part of an NRP fundraiser, the three of us read again at The Spirit Room, a meditation center on the heart of Broadway in downtown Fargo. The setting was meditative indeed, with huge abstract canvases lining the walls and a low-rise stage providing a suitable setting for raised voices. Besides reading pieces from our books, we were also asked to share examples of what has inspired us to write. It was fascinating to discover what had influenced my fellow writers.

Myself, I started with a short excerpt from Jack Kerouac’s “The Railroad Earth,” which appeared in Lonesome Traveler. Aside from his themes, I love Kerouac’s exuberance of language and his ability to mythologize his own life. Then I read a slice of the opening to Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train. This was Greene’s first major success in Britain, and I’ve always been impressed with his craft (and ability to be at home, anywhere in the world). Greene is so effective in those first few pages, setting up any number of hints that pay off later in the book. I concluded with a bold approach: the voice of God speaking to Job, from Job 38 in the Old Testament. As I told the assembled throng, The Bible is where I go for wisdom, and for a heightened sense of language. The cadences, the phrasing, the subtleties—I’m more than happy to absorb those influences.

Finally, on Saturday, we participated in a panel discussion at the Fargo Public Library. The main focus was on NaNoWriMo (sp?), national novel writing month, though the flow of talk ranged far and wide. Fargo-Moorhead has a number of serious writers. It was fun to encounter some of them!

This is the first time I’ve done a joint launch, and it was really satisfying. Sharing the events with two other writers meant that there was always someone else going through the same surges of nerves and emotions, and it kept us locked into our roles as writers. For me, at least, my daily round rarely includes emphasizing the fact that I publish fiction. During our time in Fargo-Moorhead, that fact was front and center at all times.

Now if only everybody and their cousin will go out and BUY the book, we can repeat these celebrations in cities and towns across the country. That’s my plan and I’m sticking to it.

Back Door to Russia—Down the Saimaa Canal

23 September 2015

Gliding along the Saimaa Canal

Gliding along the Saimaa Canal with the Finnish-Russian border just ahead.

While Putin blusters and the value of the ruble dips ever lower, we wanted to slide into Russia without the need for an inconvenient—and expensive—set of visas. We found our back door through the Finnish Saimaa Canal, thanks to the fact that the Russians allow 72-hour visa-free travel, so long as one enters and leaves on the same watergoing vessel.

During the summer, the Finns run a daily boat from Lappeenranta on Lake Saimaa (Finland’s largest lake) down the length of the canal to the now-Russian port of Vyborg, on the Baltic Sea. First attempts to construct a waterway to link Lake Saimaa with the Gulf of Finland go as far back as 1499 and 1607, but it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the canal was finally opened. Goods traffic blossomed and between the world wars, Vyborg was Finland’s busiest port.

Then came World War II. While attention was focused elsewhere, the Soviet Union attacked Finland in the Winter War of 1940 (and later, in the Continuation War). When the dust had settled, the Soviets had claimed half of the canal, and large swaths of the Finnish region of Karelia, including Vyborg. Decades later, a lease arrangement was concluded, allowing Finland use of the canal once again.

Entering one of the 7 locks on the Saimaa Canal.

Entering one of the 7 locks on the Saimaa Canal. Notice the old, smaller canal on the right.

In efforts to maximize our time inside Russia, we traversed the length of the canal four times on the M/S Carelia. Down a series of 7 locks, across a scattered chain of lakes (one with floating islands that changed positions every time we passed), past hidden summer homes and fishing holes, and on into the Gulf. There was a hearty meal of salmon and pork, Karelian folk songs, and a cohort of hard-drinkers making the most of the tax-free alcohol. Virtually all other passengers were Finns, crossing the border to savor the dying light from old Karelia and, in particular, the once-vibrant city of Vyborg.

Since 1293, Vyborg Castle has protected its city from Baltic raiders.

Since 1293, Vyborg Castle has protected its city from Baltic raiders.

Our ship docked in the shadow of Vyborg’s 13th century castle, set on its own private island in the estuary. Passport control was surprisingly low-key, as if we were entering a foreman’s trailer on a construction site. On the other side, tangled streets ran through Vyborg’s old city up to Market Square, where a medieval round tower faced off against city hall. This was once Finland’s second largest city. Much of the architecture is still in place, but only the facades are intact. Interior after interior remains empty, still bombed out a full 70 years after WW2 ended. An eerie feeling, wandering back streets in the summer twilight with empty windows reflecting the sky.

Parklands abound—both along the river estuary walk, and running for blocks through the middle length of the old city. Where the parks end, Krasnaya Square begins, decorated in red, white and blue streamers withering under the severe iron gaze of Comrade V.I. Lenin, still proudly perched on his plinth, commanding the city. The Revolution is dead. Long live the Revolution.

Comrade Lenin, architect of the Bolshevik Revolution

Comrade Lenin, architect of the Bolshevik Revolution and still, apparently, in favor with the present government.

Our fellow passengers spend no time here. They are visiting Alvar Aalto’s library, and Hakman’s House, and St. Hyacinthus’ Church; or studying the historical exhibits inside the castle, which recreate the golden era between the wars, replete with photographs and letters and remnants of household goods.

Karelian culture still lives on, in its Finnish half of the territory. On the Russian side, the fractured shell of the culture has proved to have deep, stubborn roots, though all the original populace fled generations ago. There is a sadness underlying all this. Finns we spoke to about the loss of Karelia seemed resigned, but embittered. Russians seemed not to notice. On the boat trips back to Finland, the last light of sunset hung on until we’d crossed the border. As darkness fell, the stars emerged, along with the distant lights of Lappeenranta town. Not all of Karelia has been lost.

[For more, see photo gallery Saimaa Canal & Vyborg, Russia, 2015:]

Iceland: Land of Ice and Fire

2 September 2015

Nearly at the Arctic Circle, the land does benefit from moderating trade winds.

Nearly at the Arctic Circle, Iceland does benefit from moderating trade winds. That exploding volcano (south central) is no joke. When it erupted in 1783, the lava and poisonous gas created a nationwide famine.

Just back from a flying dash through Iceland, Finland & Russia. Will put up some photo galleries in the near future. For now, here are a few tidbits from the northernmost capital in the world, Reykjavik:

Icelanders know exactly when their culture was founded. Norwegian Ingolfur Arnarson sailed in around 870 AD and gradually imported people, livestock, and seeds over subsequent decades. There was no indigenous population. Even today, the vast majority of inhabitants are the descendants of Vikings.

The written Icelandic language has barely changed since the 12th century. It looks remarkably like Old English, and is about as hard to read. The Viking Sagas are still at the heart of the national literature, and great attention is paid to poetry and the literary arts. Icelanders have a shared, private language; almost a holy connection to the past that only they can savor.

The quality of carving—and storytelling therein—is astonishing.

The quality of whalebone carving—and storytelling therein—is exquisite.

The oldest parliament in the world was convened at Thingvellir in 930 AD, as 36 chieftains gathered at the spot where the European and North American continental plates collide, leaving a dramatic valley rift. The Althing met annually for centuries, ending only in 1798. In 1000 AD it was the spot where the nation agreed to adopt Christianity as the sole religion.

There are only 300,000 Icelanders, and nearly half live in the greater Reykjavik area. 97% are connected to the internet. There are 126 swimming pools. More than half of the population believes in elves. Unless you ride the bus, you would never need cash. Virtually all workers pay 40% tax, but public services are high. Value for money, for sure (e.g. education at the public University of Iceland is only $700 per year).

Big Brother watches to make sure none of the celebrants has TOO much fun.

Big Brother watches to make sure none of the celebrants has TOO much fun.

As late as the end of the 19th century, most people either worked on fishing boats, or were indentured servants, grubbing out a bare living for a handful of gentlemen farmers. Between 1875-1914, a quarter of the population emigrated to the New World, leaving entire remote districts of the island empty. Bitter poems were written about the inability to survive on the land, and its harshness.

Reykjavik today is a hotbed of bands and electronic trance music. Back in the early rave days (late ’80s), the few local DJs were so desperate to kick the scene off that they imported an entire night club from London, just to show the local underground what they were missing. Those long, long winter nights pass a lot faster inside the clubs.

Dockside restaurants serve thick “haunches” of salmon, beet-red whale meat (no, it doesn’t taste like chicken), and even tender puffin, gathered from their cliffside aeries. Icelandic water—whether in the vodka or straight from the tap—is as refreshing and delicious as it comes.

Sculpture is an art form that seems to express vital elements of the Icelandic soul. The solidity, the weathered shaping of natural elements, the solitary silence of the wood, or stone . . .

The North Atlantic beckons from the Sigurjon Olafsson Sculpture Museum.

The North Atlantic beckons from the Sigurjon Olafsson Sculpture Museum.


FLASHBACK: “Dance Hall Days”

29 July 2015

Danceland had one of the biggest dance floors in the Midwest.

Danceland had one of the biggest dance floors in the Midwest.

If you were a Twin Cities teenager during the 1960s, you didn’t have to wait for a rare all-ages show to catch your local faves. In those days rock ‘n’ roll was still considered such an adolescent obsession that bars rarely booked it at all. Instead, the bands in town played a revolving circuit of neighborhood dance halls.

Kids from the northern suburbs grooved at Someplace Else in Robbinsdale. Down in the southwest, on the Minnetonka-Hopkins border, was The Barn, which always seemed to attract the cutest girls. Mr. Lucky’s on Nicollet and Lake in Minneapolis, had the most racially mixed crowds and the toughest fighters in town. Over in St. Paul’s Midway, the Prom Ballroom remained a bastion of Continental style in the teen world by continuing to feature jazz bands part-time.

Everybody had a favorite. Mine was Big Reggie’s Danceland, a cavernous wooden hemisphere that sat just across the street from Excelsior Amusement Park, overlooking Lake Minnetonka. The location was ideal. Kids drove out for the day to get sick on the rides and hung around for some foot stompin’ in the evening.

Most of the other dance halls had sprung up in the 1960s along with the Twist, the Mashed Potato and the Frug, but Danceland had been around since the early 1920s. It started life as a Tonka Bay roller rink and had been moved in sections across the ice in 1920 to become the official ballroom for the adjacent amusement park. As one of the largest dance floors in the Upper Midwest, it frequently held 2,000 dancers, especially from 1930 to the late 1950s, when Rudy Shogran was the manager.

Shogran was the master of the promo. He inundated clubs and business organizations with free tickets, sending out 270,000 in 1931 alone. He provided motorcycle escorts for singers who came out from R.K.O. Orpheum shows in Minneapolis to perform at Danceland. When an all-female orchestra called the Rosebuds played the ballroom, each woman at the dance was given a rose. Other giveaways included yo-yos, corncob pipes, paper fans and once even a Ford Roadster.

The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 cut crowds in half. “Everybody’s in the honky-tonks along the route to Hopkins,” complained Shogran at the time. He retaliated by selling draft beer in the ballroom and by featuring new types of promos, including an early Battle of the Bands between polka-meister Whoopie John’s boys and the ballroom house band. He even weathered a sit-down strike by patrons in the 1940s that was triggered by the floor man ordering “no cutting in.”

Always on the cutting edge of the latest groovy sounds.

Always on the cutting edge of the latest groovy sounds.

But it took Shogran’s departure to transform the ballroom into the incubator of teen style that it became. Ray “Big Reggie” Colihan, son of one of the amusement park managers, took over the operation in the late 1950s and renamed it Big Reggie’s Danceland. Colihan had grown up around the dance hall. His first job, at age 14, was sweeping the ballroom floor, which he later acknowledged had allowed him to sneak on-stage to play the drums of noted bandleader Gene Krupa when no one was around.

It was Colihan who began to book rock acts. The Hollywood Argyles, one-hit wonders with “Alley Oop,” played at Big Reggie’s Danceland. So did Johnny and the Hurricanes of “Red River Rock” fame. Even Jerry Lee Lewis made an appearance in the days before marriage to his 13 year-old cousin made him persona non grata on the ballroom circuit.

One of Colihan’s biggest coups was booking the Beach Boys in 1962, just before they hit the big time. “Nobody’d ever heard of them in February when I booked them,” he said once. “But by the time they got here, they had the number-one record on WDGY. Kids came by the thousands.”

This sort of success inspired Colihan to take a chance on another up-and-coming group: an unknown British band named the Rolling Stones. In 1964, on their first U.S. tour, the Stones made a stop in Excelsior. A month later “Not Fade Away” would smash its way into the charts, but at Big Reggie’s Danceland Colihan lost money. “Only 283 people showed up,” he said.

Those that did were hostile. The Stones left the stage spitting over their shoulders at the audience, and a dejected Mick Jagger made his way to nearby Bacon Drug. The legend in Excelsior is that it was there that well-known local resident “Mr. Jimmy” Hutmaker told him, “You can’t always get what you want,” a line Jagger eventually made famous.

The Rolling Stones pose on the shores of Lake Minnetonka (could be, right?) prior to taking the stage at Danceland.

The Rolling Stones pose on the shores of Lake Minnetonka (could be, right?) prior to taking the stage at Danceland.

By the mid-1960s Big Reggie’s Danceland had a reputation that set it apart from most neighborhood dance halls, and it drew clientele from all corners of the metro area. Come the weekend and the cars rolled west like buzzards homing in on the last signs of life. Patrons passed the swaggering drunks in the parking lot and entered through the soundproof metal door, where $1.50 bought the right to edge into the echoing confines of the hall itself. The wooden floor rumbled under the syncopated tread of dancing feet (one night it collapsed), and from the stage at the back of the room a wave of sound washed over the bobbing heads.

A concession stand near the entrance sold popcorn and candy bars. A row of wooden booths ran along a side wall, serving as illicit-drinking cubicles and providing a modicum of privacy for overheated couples. One of the strange unwritten rules of Twin Cities teen life was not to applaud the band at a dance, so even the wildest of rave-ups was typically met with an eerie silence.

Most nights there were fights. Sometimes they’d start with a lone bull whose inability to get a girl made him take out his frustrations on those who did. Other times it was the gangs, though these stuck mainly to their own turf. Excelsior’s local hoodlums, the X-Boys, ran Big Reggie’s Danceland with an admirable efficiency, though one notable exception occurred in 1966 when the south-Minneapolis-based Suprees (widely acknowledged as the baddest gang in town) came out in force to settle the issue of colors. (Both gangs wore bottle-green-and-black Prima jackets.) When two dozen city-bred toughs came crashing through the door, the place emptied and a battle erupted in the quiet midnight streets of Excelsior. The police intervened, and the issue was never decided.

Incidents of rowdyism led to Danceland’s license being suspended periodically and, eventually, to its demise in 1968. Colihan attributed the closing to “increased competition for the rock ‘n’ roll dollar,” but whatever the reason, Danceland’s fancy ballroom became a boat-storage facility. Five years later it burned to the ground, a victim of arson—or perhaps an angry rocker remembering bygone days.

Originally published in Mpls.St. Paul magazine, December 1994.

Road Trip Redux

1 July 2015

My lengthy hitchhiking piece, “The Dust of the Roads Behind Us: a Hitchhiking Couple Looks Back,” appeared in a couple of on-line publications, as well as the book WHEREABOUTS: Stepping Out of Place. (See links on right side of page.) Here’s one of the hitches whose account landed on the cutting room floor prior to publication:

Most Economical: Chicago to Oklahoma & Back, 1968

It started as a challenge from my college classmates, who didn’t believe the road tales I’d been telling them about my summer of ’68 gallivanting. A group of us gathered in my dorm room, threw a dart at a US map I had posted on the wall, and when it hit near the town of Miami, Oklahoma (right next to the little burg of Commerce, hometown of the Commerce Comet—the one and only Mickey Mantle), we got out our road maps and started plotting routes.

We formed into three teams and laid down ground rules for the competition: everybody had to depart after supper Friday evening; rendezvous in front of the local town hall by 6 pm on Saturday; return to our dorm in north Chicago by midnight Sunday. Each person was to bring no money—except a $5 bill to avoid vagrancy charges—but had to return with the $5 intact.

Let the competition begin! Heading west are Dave Carlson, Dave Anderson, Daniel Gabriel, Steve Armstrong, Ken Werner, and Dave Randall.

Let the competition begin! Heading west are Dave Carlson, Dave Anderson, Daniel Gabriel, Steve Armstrong, Ken Werner, and Dave Randall.

One duo made it fifty miles south by Saturday morning and gave up. A second group got as far as St. Louis, where they were arrested for sleeping in an abandoned house.

My buddy Dave Carlson and I hitched all through the night, down through southern Illinois and across the Missouri bottomlands. Spent the next day grinding it out on the roadside, picking up one middling ride after another. Landed on the outskirts of Miami, Oklahoma by 4 p.m. and went to explore the town while we waited for our partners. There wasn’t much to see, but astonishingly, two fine looking local girls took an interest in our plight. We spent a somewhat frustrating evening with them (plenty of false starts and urges going unfulfilled) and when they were unable to provide us warm beds for the night we made use of a Jack Kerouac road tip: we went to the local jail and checked ourselves in for the night.

The mattresses were straw ticks, and as a hay fever sufferer, I spent the entire night sneezing into my sleeve. At 6 a.m. there was a shout: “Everybody out who’s going out,” the barred doors slammed open, we scooted out, and the doors slammed shut behind us, to the catcalls of the more permanent inmates.

Sunday was a rough set of hitches that left us after nightfall on a lonely side street in the heart of Chicago’s southside ghetto. It took a bighearted bus driver to swoop down and snatch us up just before we unwittingly turned the corner into a juke joint with a fight already going on outside.

At 11:45 p.m. we walked back into our dorm, deposited our $5 bills, and sat down to tell our tale.


Some months later, an even bigger crew makes plans for debauchery. Key members include (standing, in the middle) Daniel Gabriel, Dave Carlson & Justin O'Brien.

Some months later, an even bigger crew makes plans for road trip debauchery. Key members include (standing, in the middle) Daniel Gabriel, Dave Carlson & Justin O’Brien.

Young Authors Ignite!

10 June 2015

Once again, the Young Authors Conference kicks it into high gear.

Once again, the Young Authors Conference kicks it into high gear.

Last week was the 25th year of Success Beyond the Classroom’s annual YOUNG AUTHORS CONFERENCE here in the Twin Cities, and I’ve been there for all 25. Once again, eager young writers (grades 4-8) from across the metro area rolled into the classroom and knocked me out. What a joy to see kids toting around their favorite books and engaging in excited conversations with new friends who like the same author, rather than hunched over a screen wishing they were somewhere else.

When we wrote, all the heads bent over the page; all the hands kept moving. In my sessions, we were exploring ways to get stories rolling quickly—“Starting on the Run,” to quote the session title. We wrote, stopped and read, injected new ideas, and wrote again. Rinse and repeat—but each repetition built the spiral of creativity stronger and higher. Work those narrative modes; vary the point of entrance into the story; reverse the point of view . . .

After one session, a boy insisted on staying behind (missing lunch) so that he could read me—expressively, with each character in their own voice—yet another segment of his growing story line. After another, a tiny little girl peered at the copies of my own books laid out on a table, and then launched a discussion about whether she should save some of her ideas for her second book, or put everything she had into the first one.

We had kids in suit coats and in hijabs; in tattered shoes and color-coordinated lace dresses with Doc Martens. There were shy, silent types and loud, obvious rebels. To my knowledge, none were carrying guns (never a sure thing these days, what with the absurd conceal & carry laws)—but they all carried a valuable weapon in their pockets: the mighty pen, ready to take on however many swords you care to throw their way.

Can’t wait to see this bunch in action in the future.

**A tip of the cap to Gina Jacobson, Cathy MacDonald, & all the SBC staff & board—whose flair and attention to detail permeate all their endeavors.**

FLASHBACK: “My Brother Learned It Early”

20 May 2015

Band of brothers ready to hit the field.

Band of brothers ready to hit the field: Cal, Dan, Brian & Rog.

His first year in T-ball I went to every session. The practices were nothing. Nate had that stuff cold. The other kids would be struggling to fit their gloves on and ol’ Nate’d be asking the coach how come they couldn’t steal. The first day, when the coach had asked them to run out to their favorite positions, Nate trotted straight out to second and turned around, pushed his glasses up on his nose, and started to pound his glove. Most of the others were still clustered around home plate, fighting over who was going to get to bat first.

I figured he could be a phenom. Why not? He had me to work with, able to pass on all the accumulated lore of my thirteen years, as well as hand-me-down bats and last year’s baseball cards. He couldn’t use my glove because I was left-handed, but I’d helped him pick out his own and he rubbed it faithfully with neatsfoot oil every Saturday night before his bath. What more could be involved?

Size? No way—this wasn’t basketball or football. Look at Albie Pearson, I told him, or Nellie Fox. Or even “Little John” Johnsrud, who pitched for Neinstadt Drug and could throw a curve ball past any hitter in our league.

He’d never say much. Just focus hard behind those glasses and look somewhere far away, with his forehead bunched and tightened.

T-ball went fine, really. Nate played second every game but one, and if he missed a few he should have had, well, the others missed a whole lot more. He even tried to turn two one time (unassisted at second), but the first baseman was picking his nose and never even saw the ball sail past.

The only real trouble was at the plate. Sitting behind first base, as I usually did, I could see every gap in the field and I expected Nate to hit them. When he didn’t, I got mad. Showed him how it was done, back in our yard. Didn’t use any silly tee either. I told him he’d soon be done with all that nonsense and it was time he learned to hit properly and why in the world couldn’t he see that an acute angle meant pulling the ball and an obtuse one let you hit to the opposite field. I mean, I showed him, for cris’sake. Over and over.

What good is a big brother if he can’t help you lick bad habits before they settle in? I held this notion tight against me, sure of its truth even though I had no big brother of my own. It was my duty to teach—and Nate’s duty to learn. Nobody ever said it would be easy.

By the time he hit Little League it was no use trying to practice hitting in our yard. Half the game was spent chasing balls across the adjacent lots or devising complicated rules to discourage window-level line drives. Besides, I was barely hitting .250 in the Babe Ruth League and beginning to doubt my own wisdom as a hitter. I decided it was time to refocus on fielding.

Coaching up my bros.

Coaching up my bros—Cal, Rog & Brian. Those who can’t do, teach, right?

We gathered in the yard every evening: the two youngest boys, Kev and Monkey, watching from behind the big elm tree like anthropologists observing an arcane tribal ritual. Nate would hustle out to stand against the slat fence of the disused dog pen, push his glasses up on his nose and look at me with a tense, worried expression that showed itself in a tightness along the jaw line. Then he’d pound his glove once or twice and we’d be ready to go.

I’d flip the ball up and lash at it, slicing downwards to send a grounder skipping past the bare spot of our pitcher’s mound and out to second base (a worn, middle slat of the fence), where Nate would bend, scoop, and flip the ball back to me. Or so we hoped. But if I hit a grasscutter, or the ball caught a pebble or a rise in the ground, the hop would come up as uncertain as Monkey when you gave him a choice of three different ice creams.

Nate was quick, but even so many a shot would catch his knee or his hand or sometimes his chin. He’d stand over the ball, glaring down at it like it had bitten him on purpose. Then he’d give a shake wherever it hurt and wing the ball back in to me.

“Head down! Stay with it!” I’d yell, and hit him another. Bang—over the grass to rattle against the fence. “Get in front of it. Stay down.” Another shot. “Keep that head down.” Flip the ball, whip the bat through another arc, ignore Kev wincing behind the elm . . .

It wasn’t meanness that propelled me; at least, not the way I understood meanness. It was love, or maybe a kind of pride. When you’re talking family pride it can get hard to separate the two. Maybe I bore down extra hard because Nate was small. Even Jo-Jo, the bug-eyed redhead from next door, was taller and Smitty, Nate’s lanky best friend who lived across the street, towered over him by a head and a half. So Nate needed to be extra tough, I figured—and would have to work extra hard.

Keeping your head down on a bad hop grounder was not the easy play a big leaguer made it seem. I knew. It was the biggest trouble I’d had playing first base and might well have prompted my third year Little League coach to move me out to center field. I’d been upset at first, railing with youthful myopia at the foolishness of moving a player out of position who’d already put in so many years there, but I’d soon discovered that the outfield had room for my speed and arm that first base had never offered. I still didn’t like bad hop grounders, but by then I’d begun to work on Nate, and I was able to displace the memory of my own deficiencies.

Nate took grounders by the hour, bobbing and pouncing with all the intentness of a cat toying with a rubber mouse. My bat would move faster, rattling the fence on grounders beyond his reach. Bend at the knees, push up the glasses, dive and pounce . . . pound the glove, push up the glasses . . . pound the glove, bend at the knees . . .

He never smiled. The tenseness never left his jaw. Never could see his eyes too clearly either, what with those glasses and the low, tight way he pulled the brim of his hat down over his forehead, darkening his features and leaving a trace of shadow like an ungrown beard across his cheeks.

The only time he looked happy was when it was over and we’d stump on up to the back porch to drop off our gloves and gear. Kev and Monkey would trail us in, wide-eyed and holding each other’s hand.

“Didn’t it hurt, Nate?” Kev would say and Nate would flash that rare grin. “No more’n a kick in the teeth,” he’d say, trying not to rub the bruises on his shins.

“Will I have to do that some day?” Kev would go on, but before anybody could answer, Monkey’d put in—talking real slowly, with his forehead furrowed toward the ground—”But a kick in the teeth hurts a whole bunch.”

This piece was previously published in Elysian Fields Quarterly, Fall 1994.

The Traveler Adrift

22 April 2015

From the shores of Lake Victoria, largest lake in Africa, it's a long, long way to anywhere.

From the shores of Lake Victoria, it’s a long, long way to anywhere—except the Equator (bottom sign).

To travel is to dive headlong into uncertainty. Familiar shores are abandoned. The lifeline is cast loose. Habits, styles, expectations: all must be trimmed and stowed away, if not jettisoned altogether.

The traveler is adrift on the sea of the world. She rises and falls with the waves; at times seeing with far greater distance and clarity than is possible ashore. At other times, in the trough of the waves of experience, only the immediate can be seen—and that, unclearly.

Space and time become fluid, evanescent. At one moment the world seems simple, unchanging, like gentle ripples on the surface of the waves. At the next, it surges and rages in complexity and upheaval: white foam breakers on the edge of a reef.

There are islands of shelter and comfort, of course, and from time to time the traveler washes ashore, soaked to the skin from repeated duckings and immersions in foreign wavelets. At such moments, the life of the island has its own allure, as the inhabitants tread a steady round of activities, safely snug and dry. A rest appears in order.

Lamu Town from deck of dhow, off coast of East Africa.

But after the traveler has been ashore for some time, he begins to notice the smallness of the island; the narrow circumference within which the safe, dry life is led. He finds himself down on the shore at night, reveling in the ocean spray on his face and feeling the pull of the tide on his feet.

To the islanders, the sea beyond is at best shapeless and meaningless. At worst, it is a danger. There are storms and crashing breakers, vague wave patterns that cause uneasiness in the mind.

Yet the traveler finds herself drawn ever more powerfully to the water’s edge. Its very uncertainty is a lure. She senses that there—beyond or between the islands—lie meanings and patterns that shape much that the island does. What causes the storms? Can the wave patterns be predicted? Are all the islands the same? What others are adrift on the sea, and why?

The islanders counsel him to remain. “Life is meant to be dry,” they say. “It is in the nature of things. But wetness . . .” At this they shudder. “Wetness means immersion.”

For awhile the traveler listens, swayed by the sheer number of those who believe in the island, and dryness.

But her nights are spent on the shore. Listening: to the wind as it blows across the surface of the shifting waves. Watching: where the moon sparkles and plays and leads a golden trail of enticement over unknown depths.

Is that a voice, distant on the wind? A glimpse of non-island worlds half-seen beneath the shadow of the waves?

How far could one go if one didn’t just drift, but swam?

How wide is the ocean?

The tide pulls. The darkness calls. And then . . .

The arc of a diver

Shoes on the beach

World murmurs softly

Just out of reach.

In the morning the tide returns and washes even the shoes away. And again, the traveler is adrift on the sea of the world.


West Indies, 1970. The barquentine Flying Cloud (Capt. Marsh Gabriel) bobs at anchor in the background.

West Indies, 1970. The barquentine Flying Cloud (Capt. Marsh Gabriel) lies at anchor in the background.

Why I Write in the Physical Sphere

4 April 2015

I carry no weapon but my wits, but a rapier thrust of well-timed words can cut through a whole lot of nonsense. Finding a way to put that on the page, and enter the 5,000 year flow of human writing—pathway to history, to sciences, to shared spirituality and the wisdom of the ages—feels like partaking of a sacrament. Writers are the scribes of eternity. The visionaries of the within.

Ma'loula, Syria—near the ruins of Ugarit.

Syria—near the ruins of Ugarit.

The outward shape of these insights matters as well. In Syria a few years ago, we encountered proud signs, written mostly in hieroglyphs, which said at the bottom “First alphabet of the world, Syria, 14th century B.C.” In Bali, decades ago, we visited a Bali Aga village (these were the inhabitants of the old culture of the island, before the court and the artisans fled there from Java) where we were shown precious hand-carved books written in the ancient script, and still telling the creation story, and the cosmology of the Bali Aga people. Whether it’s the Chinese writing on the back of tortoise shells, or medieval monks scratching out a visual feast of Biblical passages in elaborate fanciful script, the artifact itself is part of the process.

In Tenganan, the best-preserved Bali Aga village, a scribe writes the ancient lontar script in a traditional book of banana leaves.

In Tenganan, the best-preserved Bali Aga village, a scribe writes the ancient lontar script in a traditional book of banana leaves.

Maybe Carl Sagan said it best (he often did): “A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millenia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of times—proof that humans can work magic.”

” . . . the greatest of human inventions,” he says, and who am I to quibble? My own library is far from Borgesian (Jorge Luis Borges has written about libraries that contain all books from all time, cataloged endlessly by pedantic librarians intent on achieving a perfection of order), but each volume holds memories. Memories not only of the words inside, but of the feel of the pages, the design of the cover, the heft in the hand. It is a unit, in and of itself. No batteries to wear out. No electrical outlet required. No monthly fees to retain service.

One of the very earliest delights of my life was opening a book. The words inside were few and, for a time, needed another human to interpret them. But soon I saw how that trick worked! I knew then that I had found a faithful companion, an interpreter of life and lives, for the rest of my natural days. Each day as I board the bus and flip open my latest tome, ready to disappear into another set of circumstances, I sigh inwardly with satisfaction. The voices within the book are rumbling. The outside world has already begun to disappear.