Our Brother, Mike

We have considered writing this piece every single day since our brother, Michael Donald Ellis, died on January 24, 2019. It wasn’t the dread of a chore which kept us from it; it was the magnitude and complexity of describing the outlines of a man who always shied away from the limelight he so often deserved, while respecting his fervent wish to go unnoticed at all times.

In every family with multiple children, there is always one sibling who handles the family chores and duties without complaint, who holds the structure together as best he or she can while the passage of time and the growth of individual experience threatens to bring it down. In the case of the Ellis family of 802 Boyer Avenue, Walla Walla, Washington, that person was Mike.

Mike was the middle child of Don and Betty Ellis, outranked in age by his sister Barbara and brother Frank and elder brother to Steve. He always played his role well, whichever it was meant to be in the eyes of the individual family member who was the audience of the moment. He played it with a quiet integrity that downplayed his own importance in sustaining and improving the sense of self worth of the rest of us. For Mike was a boon companion to each of us, always in the manner that best suited our individual needs as a member of the family: to Don, the hard-pressed father, Mike was his companion in mischief and pranks; to Betty, the often overworked family chatelaine, he was the dutiful and obedient performer of a myriad of common chores and the mainstay of her ability to remain independent as she grew old; to Barbara, he was the source of laughter, bad but funny jokes, and a constant reminder that life was not to be taken too seriously; to Frank he was the little brother who shared the foibles, fantasies, and fun of growing to manhood together; to Steve he was the older brother who was there to console him, keep him company when he became old enough to become a thorough nuisance to all of his older siblings (Mike included), and protect him from the worst perils of childhood. That each of us saw him, in some manner, as his or her closest family friend speaks volumes about the love of family that he brought to the task of keeping us together.

But to emphasize this trait of maintaining the family’s integrity runs the risk of denying him his due as an individual. Finding Mike the individual is difficult because he wanted it that way. Mike was a chameleon, desiring and able to blend into the background of our family, his own family, his work, and his community. He was always present in each, always performing his role and his duties with caring, humor, faithfulness and without serious complaint, always shining a light on someone else and always doing his best to remain in the shadows and not to be seen, always striving to appear as just an insignificant part of a much larger whole. He was self effacing to a fault. He hated the limelight and would always shrug his way out of it at a speed faster than the very light shining upon him. He always played the quintessential rube – Art Carney’s Norton to Jackie Gleason’s Ralph. In reality, he was much closer to being a P G Wodehouse character – Jeeves the butler who served the flighty and inept Bertie Wooster well by always giving Bertie the credit for his, Jeeves’, own innate common sense and practical solutions to whatever problematic scenario was at hand.

He was this way by disposition as much as due to a sense of inferiority. He was intelligent but never a good student. He was never a good student because he grew up dyslexic in an era that did not understand the term much less know it, an era when the prevailing culture was fond of labels, an era that was prone to use those selfsame labels to imprison individuals and entire populations in tightly sealed coffins for the purpose of the jailers’ convenience and shorthand reference. They did so to Mike and, unfortunately, he took the labeling as gospel. Despite his dyslexia, he became a voracious reader of history and detective novels and always shared his latest enthusiasm with us. We each acquired the acquaintance of many good books from his recommendations.

He was the only one of the family siblings without the benefit of college, and, being intellectually curious himself, was embarrassed by the lack. He needn’t have been. According to the record to date, he is the only one of us to ever be mentioned in an article in The New York Times, and to be on a first name basis, and to breakfast occasionally, with a Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, accomplishments that he never spoke about unless he made a mistake of some sort that hinted of them and one of us yanked the subject matter out of him as if we were trying to pull a bad tooth with a rusty set of pliers.

But these accomplishments meant nothing at all to Mike. While the average person might preen at, and tell stories about, what are, after all, mere peripheral successes, Mike forgot all about them the day after they happened. He reserved his feelings of accomplishment (in the sense of giving to others and to his community) for:

  1. Assisting older men in maintaining their independence for as long as possible by helping them with shopping, repairs, doctor and dental appointments, and whatever else he could do;
  2. Reading to patients at the Veterans Hospital on many an evening;
  3. Assisting older folks with necessary home repairs and on more than one occasion paying for the parts himself if the homeowner couldn’t afford them;
  4. Mentoring and straightening out young men who came to the Y in some sort of difficulty or legal problem, and giving each effective, thoughtful tough love advice which was palatable to the recipients only because they knew Mike cared for them and truly believed that his advice was the only route for them to achieve success. His advice, while always about a specific problem, was, as well, always about how best to move forward in the world in general;
  5. Giving whatever he could, including cash he could ill afford, when someone (perhaps a perfect stranger, but most often a friend, even if only of ten minutes standing) was in need;
  6. Being Exalted Ruler of the Walla Walla Elks Club, but, more importantly to him, an active member of its ritual competition team for many years;
  7. Doing chores around the Y or for a Y project that needed doing even though they weren’t his responsibility; because they were there to be done and he had the necessary skills. And, if we know him at all, never asking for overtime. It simply never would have occurred to him to do so. In his mind, he wasn’t a Y employee; he was a senior contributing member of the Walla Walla Y family who labored exhaustively for its success.

The simple truth is that Mike cared. About everyone and about everything. While he never tilted at windmills, if there was something practical he could do for someone in need, something within his experience and capabilities, he always pitched in to help as best he could. And if he needed help, he’d drag someone along with him, most often one of his long suffering family members.

There was joy in Mike’s life. He never made large sums of money, but that wasn’t important to him. He inherited his mother’s sense of fairness – an ill-defined standard of care and justice determined only by the beholder (either our mother or Mike) that somehow demanded a response of the beholder or of someone else they never hesitated to identify. And in making whatever response that he felt was demanded of him, Mike found happiness and joy. You could hear it in his laugh, an always present sort of high pitched giggle, whenever he was telling the story of the event in question in which someone else always figured more prominently than he did.

If it sounds like we miss him, you are correct. If you’re wondering why none of us are here, it’s because we are all in ill health of one sort or another and not fit to travel, all of us having achieved the same status of Old Fart that Mike did (he told us to say that). We’re here in spirit. We’ll always be near Mike in spirit. Mike was our pilot light and our brother – our brother in every conceivable meaning that word possesses or implies. While we miss his physical presence, he is an essential part of our respective memory’s DNA.

Barbara MacLean
Frank Ellis
Steve Ellis

To be read at the celebration of Mike’s life in Walla Walla on May 1, 2019, his birthday.

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Burl Dreams

Due to a recent stroke, I’ve had to relearn how to sit, stand, and walk.  I have sitting and standing down pat, but staying upright is still a challenge so my walking remains wobbly.  Around the house, I walk without aids of any kind.  But I promised my physical therapist that I would use a cane whenever I walk outdoors to avoid falling when rough ground or awkward moments inevitably appear, so I use a cane whenever I do so. 

I have long had a fascination with canes and walking sticks.  My first staff was a driftwood stick found on a beach on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.  Helen and I were walking along the tide line and I picked up the sea-weathered stick on a whim.  Soon after finding it, we discovered a plastic sole – all that remained of a long disintegrated shoe.  It had a convenient hole near the heel where the driftwood stick fit neatly.  As we walked, the staff walked with us leaving a single row of prints.  And so Helen and I became a five legged beast, and Helen named the staff our Walking Stick.  It came home with us and we still have it nearly 40 years later. 

Following the completion of my physical therapy, I began my outdoor walks using my aluminum quad cane.  But, since I really detest the notion of being disabled and not wanting to appear so to others out of, I suppose, an excess of vanity, I quickly started looking for a substitute. I had previously purchased a couple of canes due to a knee injury, but one of them resides in my car in case of need and the other, having been purchased before I understood the importance of length, was too long for me.  Besides, neither was a thing of beauty, and if I had to use a cane I felt that it ought to have style. 

So I went looking on line for a new cane and kept finding myself drawn to canes made by Shawn Gillis.  They were practical, functional canes; they were also things of beauty made from a wide variety of exotic and domestic hardwoods.  I am no artist, but I am an avid appreciator of art, having gone so far as to marry an artist who loves color even more than I do.  Shawn’s canes come in many natural and unenhanced colors, and he has the gift of knowing which colors are complementary and which handle shapes suit which shafts. 

And so it is that I now own six of Shawn’s canes: two “off the shelf” canes I found in his Etsy shop called Walking With Wood, and four custom-made ones. The first custom-made cane was merely a variant of one his standards.  I liked the wood he used throughout (black and white ebony) but didn’t like his choice of handle, so I asked if I could substitute another of his designs.  This simple change taught me that he was easy to work with and non-judgmental.  The second custom-made cane was the result of a challenge I issued to him: to make the cane he had always wanted to make, but never had.  That challenge produced a beautiful redheart travel cane with an ebony handle and taught me that he could handle my sardonic criticism with good humor.  I hadn’t liked his preferred shape for a travel cane, likening it to a chair leg.  He laughed instead of getting angry. 

It was the third custom-made cane, however, that really amazed me. It, too, was the result of a challenge: to make a complete cane from a wood he’d never used for the purpose, but would like to. His choice was amboyna, a rare, expensive Indonesian red and yellow burl that he’d have to source from Vietnam.  As soon as I saw examples of amboyna, I said yes. When finished, it is brightly colored and has outstanding depth and richness. I left the design of the cane to Shawn with only a few stated preferences that he was free to disregard should he wish. The result was a fantastically beautiful travel cane that is a true work of art. 

It is a truly wonderful thing.  While heavy, it has an intensity of color and detail that enthralls me. The mystique of its burl has captured my and Shawn’s imagination. Where I see figures in twisting in a smoky den, Shawn sees rocks after a rain has washed away the dirt accumulated between them.  It doesn’t really matter what either of us sees as long as we look as deep into the burl as we can and let our imaginations roam free. 

As beautiful as it is, the amboyna cane is a functional working cane should I choose to use it as such – as are all of Shawn’s canes. I now use Shawn’s canes regularly and exclusively on my walks about the Farm and the country lanes surrounding it. After all, I promised my physical therapist to use a cane whenever I go outside, and I’d much rather use a thing of beauty to keep my promise than a bland aluminum quad cane.  

Walking is the most important thing I can do to regain full balance, and the farther and faster I go the better. While I have always enjoyed walking around the Farm and down our lanes, my current, almost-daily walks are really full-on physical workouts. Relearning how to walk is hard, lonely work. I usually return to the house exhausted and sweating heavily, wondering whether I can make the last few yards to our front door.  

I have become a boxer. While I have a large team supporting and urging me on, whenever I exit our front door to take a walk I am really entering a boxing  ring where I stand alone on my own two feet.  Punches begin to rain down immediately, and it is solely up to me to withstand them – no matter how much assistance awaits nearby. Every step I take is an effort of will, concentration, and newly minted memory. Mind you, I couldn’t do much of anything without my supporters – especially Helen who will always be there whenever I need help – but when I walk I am alone even when someone walks with me.  Only I can find my lost balance; only I can train a new part of my brain to keep me upright, my old center of balance having been irrevocably lost to the stroke. 

Using Shawn’s canes minimizes the workout aspect of my walks.  Being functional art, they remind me to smell the liquor of the wind, to listen to the unbridled joy of birdsong, to immerse myself in nature’s bounty. They help transform my walks into things of joy rather than solitary struggles.  They whisper to me that my supporters are walking with me in spirit even when I am by myself, and remind me that there is great joy and comfort in the company of friends – especially when we struggle. 

But I don’t use the amboyna cane very often simply because it is so much more a work of art than a cane.  Instead, I keep it by my side whenever I sit in our living room to avoid damaging it and to stare into its depths whenever I feel the need.  Helen has come to call it my scepter.  I love to immerse myself in the depths of its burl.  There, I can return to the summers of my youth and lie in green grass to study the clouds.  In my burl dreams my body is young, my sense of balance is strong and secure, and I walk again with grace and swagger. And these few moments of freedom from the cares and the work of my old age given to me by the amboyna cane are as valuable as the incremental improvements to my balance made each time I take one of Shawn’s other canes out for a walk. 


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Musings On A Domestic War

Perhaps it is right or even necessary to forget accidents, and wars are surely accidents to which our species seems prone.  If we could learn from our accidents it might be well to keep the memories alive, but we do not learn.  In ancient Greece it was said that there had to be a war at least every twenty years because every generation of men had to know what it was like.  With us, we must forget, or we could never indulge in the murderous nonsense again.”

John Steinbeck, Once There Was A War

“The debate over Vietnam became bitter because it challenged my generation’s most important assumption of World War II: that American power was an unwavering instrument of moral good.  That’s why it split the country as much by generation as by ideology.”

Walter Cronkite, American Chronicles: The Vietnam War, National Public Radio CD

There’s a wall in Washington
and it’s made of cold black granite
They say 60,000 names are etched there in it
in that wall in Washington

Iris Dement, There’s a Wall in Washington

If there was one thing in common across the entire strata of late 1960s American culture, it was that America was mobilizing.  The armed services were mobilizing in Vietnam pursuant to orders; those opposed to the abuse of authority were mobilizing domestically pursuant to an organic outgrowth of distrust resulting from persistent authoritorial abuse.  Both were at war.  The major distinction between the treatment of the ground troops in each war was this: the leadership of our armed services failed, due to a ‘because you must’ parental arrogance fed by the relative ease of recruitment by conscription, to create a coherent, clear explanation for why US troops were in Vietnam, leaving those troops mentally at sea; those protesting anything domestically shared a clearly focused distrust of all those in authority, having come together to face down a common evil wearing many faces.

The number and size of protesting domestic crowds increased as the decade wore on.  These crowds protested a myriad of matters, chief among them civil rights violations, the Vietnam War, the draft, and, eventually, civil rights violations, the War, and the draft all rolled into one big package.  This combination was made possible by an increasing belief among many younger Americans that these issues were related by the common denominator of those in authority abusing the trust granted to them at the ballot box, by their sneering lack of regard – sometimes even to the point of murder – for vast segments of society.  Many in authority had committed the greatest sin possible: they forgot how they came to be in charge and what they were in charge of.  All in authority came under the microscope due to the consequences of their own actions, some of which were violent and far too many of which were self-serving.  Too many of the cultures smeared on the resulting slides prepared for the microscopic analysis demanded by the marchers exhibited a significant inflammation of misanthropy informed by hubris.  As a result, generalized authority – Authority, if you will – became the enemy, a common enemy whose individual constituents were to be railed against by the marchers regardless of their position, place, or aspect of power.

A similar anthropomorphic aggregation happened to the War itself, as it escalated rapidly from the date in 1959 when less than 1,000 American soldiers were stationed in Vietnam and the first four died, to the War’s peak of 543,000 in mid-1969.  This, the original surge, was accompanied by ever-increasing casualties among American military personnel.  Total casualties increased with excruciating regularity, day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, year-by-year.  Casualty figures became a mundane item of regular reportage in bulletins issued by the military’s command: a process which transformed each of the individual dead into nothing more than an unassigned number within an aggregated sum; a process by which Authority denied the dead their inherent dignity as an individual corpse, a denial lasting until their reconfirmation as human remains by family, friends, and neighbors at American funerals, at American gravesides.  Eventually, the War achieved a total of 58,000 undifferentiated dead, not to be given specific name, voice, or position in the national memory until construction of The Vietnam Memorial Wall some decades later.

And while the algae bloom of dead were returning to America, the word ‘crowd’ was becoming a domestic media buzzword.  Crowds surged through American streets in increasing numbers: in riots over living conditions; in marches for peace; in marches for civil rights.  These crowds were representative of the New America, and the New America was on the march: it marched in Washington, DC; it marched in Chicago; it marched at Berkley; it marched in New York City; it marched in Selma; it marched from Selma to Montgomery and then on to other points south, east, west, and north; it marched in backwaters.  And while the 1960s opponents of the marchers (and, in truth, there were many more of them than the marchers themselves) always said that ‘they marched’ or ‘those hippies marched’ or ‘those coloreds marched’, in truth it was American ideals on the march – not to a different drummer, but to the twin, organically American heartbeats of ‘liberty and justice for all’.

If this blog were electronically activated, a scrolling banner at the top of this page would continuously announce marches and protests:

  • Washington, DC on August 28, 1963: 250,000 listen to Dr. King’s dreams;
  • Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965: 50 marchers hospitalized by police brutality;
  • Montgomery, Alabama on March 16, 1965: 600 march;
  • Selma to Montgomery on March 21, 1965: Dr. King leads 25,000 marchers;
  • Ann Arbor, Michigan on March 24, 1965: the first Anti-Vietnam teach-in, 3,000 attend;
  • Washington, DC on April 17, 1965: 25,000 anti-war protestors march in the first such event in the capital;
  • Across the country on October 16, 1965:  100,000 march against the war;
  • New York City, March 25, 1966: 25,000 march against the war down Fifth Avenue;
  • Washington, DC on May 15, 1966: 10,000 march against the war;
  • New York City on April 15, 1967: 400,000, led by Dr. King, march from Central Park to the UN, protesting the denial of civil rights, protesting the War;
  • Washington, DC on October 21-22, 1967: 35,000 anti-war protestors storm the Pentagon as NPR begins its first-ever day of operations, broadcasting events live.

The scrolling would go ever on, featuring the likes of Dr. King, Eugene Carson Blake, Julian Bond, Walter Cronkite, Dr. Benjamin Spock, and other now-familiar names, names that now stand for courage, but which were then frequently denigrated as treasonous – for they dared to question.

And Authority, as Authority tends to do in such times, increased its attempts to stop the questioning of its right to wield power, to stop the marchers – attempts which failed as the ranks of marchers increased beyond its capacity to control.  When physical violence failed in Selma, failed in Montgomery, failed at the Pentagon, failed in Chicago, and failed everywhere else, Authority began criminalizing acts of free speech and free assembly, rights deemed so basic by our Founders that they were enshrined in the first of the ten constitutional amendments which make up America’s Bill of Rights.  As for the associated right also found in the First Amendment – the right to petition the government for the redress of grievances – Authority proved so deaf that the crowds came to the doors of Authority’s many lairs to roar and to scream their defiance.  All that was missing for Authority to listen, for Authority to hear the crowds’ message, was the necessary ear-trumpet.

When force not only failed to stem the crowds but proved an instigator of yet larger crowds instead, Authority turned next to its courts.  This was a failed strategy from inception.  Given their ingrained notions of due process, courts could not possibly manage the ever-increasing civil disobedience with anything remotely resembling efficiency, could not manage at all when overwhelmed by volume.  And many judges – possibly a majority – were not keen to play the requested role and treated Authority’s demands to stop the questioning with frank and open hostility.

When all else failed to achieve Authority’s purpose, Authority finally resorted to the draft as its featured control device.  For this domestic war was mainly of and by the young, and young males were subject to conscription and young women were subject to the terrors of conscription.  Draft deferments were eliminated in October, 1967, for those in violation of draft laws (including burning draft cards or other overt forms of disagreement) or for interfering with military recruitment.  Why not make these agitators soldiers, reasoned Authority, especially when they needed a good dose of discipline to set them straight and cannon fodder was at such a premium?

And so it was that the country gradually became at war with itself; the generations in violent disagreement due to vastly differing perspectives of right and wrong.  The domestic war became as violent, as passionate as the Vietnam War – the principal difference between the two being that death played only a bit part on the domestic scene while enjoying a starring role in Vietnam.  There were no more lazy Sunday afternoons in America.  They were replaced by flower power, LSD, hippies, the Chicago 7, the Birmingham jail, Haight-Ashbury, SNCC, SCLC, The Beatles, The Stones, teach-ins, love-ins, happenings, the Summer of Love.  This New America was crowned in the mud and drugs of Woodstock, 200,000 in attendance; it was further defined and nearly derailed a mere matter of months later by the free concert at Altamont, by the moronic oxymoron of hiring Hell’s Angels to provide security.

The domestic war unfolded to music, to every genre from folk to rock-and-roll played by groups and solo acts.  Bob Dylan single-handedly began things in 1962 by asking: “How many times must the cannon balls fly before they’re forever banned?” and noting that “the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind.” (Blowin’ In The Wind, Bob Dylan).  For music had become the collective Voice of America’s young and young at heart, soldiers and stay at homes alike.  Music had become adult – no more doggies in the window, no more ‘come onna my house’, no more hot ziggity dogs, no more doo wop.  Music had matured and acquired a starring role as Voice, as Narrator as in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, as the principal means of collective youthful reflection on sex, on war, on drugs, on the often violent denigration of the human condition.  Music not only became the Voice, music became an instigator.  Music was no longer simply entertainment for the sake of entertainment; music had acquired a mission.

And just as the enjoyment of its music was fueled by the passion of the young generation to express itself in its own, singular voice, the domestic war was fueled by the Voice’s passion against authoritorial abuse.  The Voice shouted and yelled and screamed that passion throughout its tenure at center stage.  And the Voice acquired an anthem for the age.  In 1965, P. F. Sloan wrote (and destroyed his career in so doing) The Eve of Destruction, consisting of declamations set to music, powerful music, which Barry McGuire, in appropriately gravelish tones, growled aloud on air and in person to anyone who’d listen:

Yeah, my blood’s so mad, feels like coagulatin’,
I’m sittin’ here, just contemplatin’,
I can’t twist the truth, it knows no regulation,
Handful of Senators don’t pass legislation,
And marches alone can’t bring integration,
When human respect is disintegratin’,
This whole crazy world is just too frustratin’,
And you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
Ah, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.

As the domestic war matured, its passions began to spread across the lines that divided generations. They spread to the older generation first in 1967, when the Dreamer, Dr. Martin Luther King, jr., began to speak out against the War in the same measured tones he’d invoked to decry the lack of civil rights for non-whites in America.  Then, in 1968, Walter Cronkite, the speaking voice for the after-dubbed Greatest Generation, visited Vietnam and returned to change his status from one of supporter to one of questioner, speaking his mind after being appalled by injury, by death, by a lack of defined purpose in the face of such sustained suffering.  And with Dr. King’s and Mr. Cronkite’s leadership, other leaders of the older generation began, gradually but in ever-increasing numbers, to add their voices to the cries for the War to be stopped, and to march along with the young.

Whatever this domestic war was about – destruction or necessary change, depending upon your point of view – America was clearly on the eve of something momentous.  For America was mobilized in a manner only hinted at in the Great Depression, in a way only those who experienced the Revolutionary War or the Civil War, had they survived long enough to experience the 1960s, might have appreciated.  This was nothing less than revolution.  This was the beginning of the end of an Army of conscripts, and the catalyst for an all-volunteer Army – a terrifying result in retrospect, in prospect, and in fact.  This was the beginning of a more tolerant society, a society engaging in less violent practices in aid of its continuing discriminatory needs and desires – only subtleties need apply.  This was the beginning of a mixed race society, where all colors often live together in common – except those destined for the darkest ghettos remaining to America.  This was beginning of the end of Authority’s open, public enslavement of women as to cultural and sexual matters – a process beginning with the FDA’s 1960 approval of the sale of birth control pills, a seemingly never-ending process in a society controlled by males (whatever their color or nationality), a process chronically in need of renewal, of revival, of vigilance.


The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of radical, revolutionary change, its people as yet unaware of the consequences their passions would induce.  The country was a tea kettle on full boil, and consequences were merely steam to those impatient to drink their fill of the resulting brew.

When the Vietnam War finally ended in 1975, so did the domestic war.  Our collective passions began to wind down from the fire of their unsustainable intensity.  And when the passions were played out, exhaustion and indifference took charge, the collective strength of the resulting ennui measured by the litany of lessons from the Vietnam War which we refused to learn then and which we refuse to remember now:  Why think about the meaning of the estimated 800,000 to 3,100,000 Vietnamese lives lost in the War, since who ever mentions them?  Why think about the impact of the massacre at Mai Lai upon a generation, upon the country, for who wishes to consider anew the morality of sending heavily armed, immature young men off to fight a purposeless War?  Why reconsider the truth of the ‘facts’ that inspired the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, when new resolutions may be required for new wars and passage of anything by Congress is difficult enough as it is?  Why reflect that carefully considered presidential lies were the basis for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, when new carefully considered presidential lies may be needed to induce future wars?  Why think about the vileness of the treatment many Vietnam War veterans received upon their return home, for we were done with the War then and why shouldn’t they have been?

When the kettle boiled dry, passion was reduced to a blackened coating of sarcasm covering its bottom plate.  The Vietnam Generation did not hang on to its anger long enough to make a difference, despite a damned good start.  To our lasting detriment, we turned out to be sprinters rather than long distance runners.


For readers, especially you who were not yet born in the 1960s and are looking at those times through the lens of preconceptions developed in the rearview mirror, these will likely seem pages in a well-thumbed, well-worn book: a book full of aged theses and conclusions ready for the kind of major revision always demanded by the altered passions and changing imperatives of future history and culture.  Perhaps a manga – for those were times in which cartoon-worthy heroes were created and torn apart with dramatic style appropriate to the medium.  Perhaps a retread gothic thriller – for those times have become akin to compilations of once-youthful rock-and-roll songs in vogue at the birth of the genre, too tired now from their endless repetition to pack the punch of first impact.

Unless you were there; unless you have your own story to tell.


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Missing SMB

First, a confession: I am a book collector and assess bookshops with a jaundiced eye. I’ve been in every variety of bookstore from the well-heeled, inefficiently designed rare book shop that is a book shy designer’s idea of a library, to the tatty, dusty, work-of-love, paperback-only shop that can only subside due to free rent while the landlord waits for a real tenant to amble in. I collect first editions of various literary genres, but especially mysteries. My wife and I are passionate about books, so much so that when we paid off our original mortgage we took out another to build the library we’d always wanted in order to house our substantial book collection. Or at least part of it, since books are everywhere in our home and may be the only things keeping it upright.

As a result of my affliction, I loved the Seattle Mystery Bookshop (SMB). When I say that I loved the shop, I loved everything about it, everything that had taken so long for the owners (Bill Farley, then JB Dickey) to compile: the knowledgeable and affable staff; the efficient attention to customers’ needs and wants; the broad assortment of inventory composed of new and used books displayed for comfortable, lazy browsing; the monthly newszine focused on upcoming publications that allowed me to send a list to the staff so that they could have my published choices ready for me during my next visit; my own space on their back shelves where I could first see some of the new books I was about to buy; their locked shelves of rarer books where I might, and often did, find a treasure.

But I also loved the composite whole, an institution much greater than the sum of its parts that was a retreat from daily concerns where I could get lost in the possibilities and implicit joys of future reading.

So when SMB finally closed, I was bereft. I had a system that I had worked out with SMB’s staff to ensure that I would never miss a favorite author’s newest work. I had staff backup in case I did miss a favored new work since the staff would always question me about my error. And the staff always made certain to tell me about new authors that I’d never heard of that fell within my range of interests, either spontaneously in a statement of enthusiasm beginning “you just have to read this” or in response to my oft asked question at the conclusion of each visit: “What have I missed?”

It finally became apparent to me that I could no longer argue with JB that he ought to keep the store open. I came to understand the stress he endured from so many pressures: competition from low-priced on line retailers; rude so-called “customers” who came to sample books they were about to buy on line for less money; trying to operate a retail shop in a city hostile to smaller businesses; the constant lack of nearby parking spaces; the constant construction and street closures that adversely affected business; the steadily falling income due to the deadly combination of fewer walk in customers, rising hardback prices, and the steadily increasing portion of new books which were lower priced (and, therefore, less profitable) paperbacks; the rise of the e-book; and on and on. JB was stressed by this storm of ill luck and needed a break, so I had to learn to shut my mouth and, as a friend, help him extricate himself from the lifelong dream that had gradually become a nightmare.

But what was I, the now-former customer, to do after SMB closed?  I approached this problem with my customary optimism. I have been a professional problem solver all my life, so I just knew I’d find a way. And I tried. Boy, how I tried! But like any other good thing, even I who loved the SMB institution didn’t know how good I’d had it until the institution was gone; I didn’t understand how bad the alternatives could be. I confess to failing to find a good, or even a marginally acceptable, alternative – at least so far. I am still searching.

Since SMB closed, I have tried many things to feed my passion for mysteries. I have subscribed to on line mystery lists to see what is upcoming, but they are nowhere close to being as comprehensive as SMB’s newszine which was blind to categorized favoritism and a major publication in and of itself. I’ve tried to deal with other storied mystery retail institutions only to find flaw after flaw in their operations. (One well known New York store never updates its listings of rare books, such that out of the six rare books I have attempted to buy from them only one has been delivered as the others were already sold. I no longer even bother to look at their on line inventory of rare books on the presumption that if a book is listed there it must be gone. Why waste my time?) I’ve haunted the mystery sections of local booksellers, but none have the breadth of collection that SMB had, and the only one that comes close has no attentive staff dedicated to making my day’s selections as complete or as interesting as they could be. And there is no one there to ask what I might have missed before I go out their door. And even if there were, they wouldn’t know me well enough to advise me effectively.

No, nothing has worked well for me. I’ve made do since SMB closed its doors, but just making do is never very satisfying to a passionate collector. The pleasure in my monthly purchases of mysteries has been reduced from a sigh of contentment to a sigh of regret. I have to make my own lists of wants without help from a knowledgeable staff – lists I either forget to make or forget to take. There is no one who, when I become too ill to visit, will take my orders by email and lovingly wrap and mail them to me as SMB uncomplainingly did. There is no one to make each visit to their store both bookishly satisfying as well as a pleasant reunion with old and dear friends of both the quick and the tome varieties.

I’m about ready to scream my frustration. Hell, I can’t find anyone I can deal with who is even remotely efficient; I’d settle for adequate if I could ever stumble upon it. My frustration is probably Bill’s and JB’s fault for setting the bar so high. If only Bill, JB, Fran, and Amber hadn’t created something so perfect, I could have, in my ignorance, settled for so much less.



Posted in Books and Stuff Like That | Comments Off on Missing SMB

The Accidental President

In the final analysis, the long term success of all organizations depends upon the quality of its employees and agents and how well they are managed.  This is true whether the organization manufactures the latest and hottest new gadget for which there is seemingly unrelenting demand, or whether the organization is focused upon the delivery, at no cost to the recipient, of necessary humanitarian services.  People are the only asset of any organization that will ensure its long term success in the teeth of constant winds of change.

People not only come in all sizes, shapes, and colors; they also come with all sorts of temperaments.  While many organizations focus on the former attributes when they hire, few focus upon temperament in their questioning.  This is foolish because temperament is the only thing that matters in an employee or agent other than his or her ability.

Even the most able employee or agent at a particular task may have a debilitating temperament, and management must handle  any unfortunate consequences if the employee or agent is to be maintained in place rather than fired.  Firing employees with poor temperaments is the easiest but most expensive way to solve the problem they represent, and does the organization no good whatsoever if they are a key employee and their temperament is otherwise manageable.  The best solution is to fit those employees with poor temperaments in where they do the least damage and provide appropriate oversight of them in order to manage the resulting deficiencies they yield, whatever those deficiencies may prove to be.

In my managerial experience, perennial naysayers have the potential to do the greatest damage to an otherwise tight-knit organization.  Naysayers always find fault with everything, but are usually  incapable of offering a single positive solution to the proposal they are faulting.  In fact, it doesn’t occur to them that they ought to offer an alternative because, for them, a negative put down is the sole purpose of their speaking up.  They see a negative put down as evidence of their intelligence and cleverness, and, in their opinion, they need offer nothing more.  Chronic naysayers tend to be show-offs who delight in putting others down in order to raise themselves up.  Rising by climbing over a pile of bodies slain by their own cleverness is their chosen means of attaining what they see as success.

Anyone with extensive management experience has had to deal with perennial naysayers.  Good managers both understand and fear the type, even if they are adept at handling them.  The trick to managing them successfully is to keep them focused on nonessential topics and away from things that are truly essential to the success of the  organization.  After all, who really cares whether they go on and on about the new office paint color; their constant complaint may be tedious and somewhat maddening, but the truth is that the paint is already on the wall and there’s nothing to be done about it until it’s time to paint again.

The chronic naysayer, by instinct, has little idea about how to accomplish something, only about how to find fault in the manner he or she finds the most delicious.  They are best employed constructively, if at all, when business plan initiatives are being developed since, if the naysayer has any common sense, his or her constant fault-finding will  highlight risks inherent in proposed plans of action, allowing the manager to be certain that the risks being complained of by the naysayer have been taken into account.

What no rational manager would ever do is put a chronic naysayer in charge of a vital segment of the business plan.  If the manager did so, at best nothing would likely ever get done on the matter; at worst the naysayer would make a complete hash of it and cripple the company.  Naysayers don’t know how to cross a finish line; they just know how to tell everyone else involved, including the inevitable champion in charge of the segment, why they will be unable to cross one.  And when the champion does succeed, the naysayer will continue to criticize the style and mannerisms the champion used in doing so long after the champion has achieved success and everyone else has moved on.

What should be patently obvious by now to anyone not wearing a blindfold of hyper partisanship is that Donald Trump is a classic perennial naysayer.  He has no positive ideas of his own about solving any problem no matter how important or trivial it may be as shown by his constant floundering about and his habit of borrowing ideas from the last Trumpian minion through the door before he seizes upon his next opportunity to speak out and gain attention.  He delights in finding fault and seems to take no joy from anything else except assaulting women.  As president, he has a vast array of problems to resolve and plenty of people and subjects to snipe at when answers to the problems go begging.

To make matters worse, he also doesn’t understand that his leadership is central to the solving of these problems, as evidenced by his habit of always blaming someone or something else for the failure to do so.  Frankly, I suspect that the concept of leadership is as foreign to him as the notion of how to catch the Roadrunner was to Wile E. Coyote.

In a corporate world not owned by Mr. Trump, he would have been fired long ago – assuming the organization had made the mistake of hiring him in the first place.  As I noted above, naysayers possess too much risk of upsetting corporate progress if they are loud enough, and are only kept on the payroll if they possess a key skill that no other employee possesses.

Mr. Trump lacks any of the key skills demanded by the presidency.  The only one he even makes a somewhat credible case for is negotiation.  He loudly and repeatedly asserts that he is a good negotiator, but negotiation demands a certain minimum level of trust among those negotiating – trust that is rarely achieved when a negotiator is committed solely to bluster as his or her primary method of negotiation.  Pounding on the table has a very limited role in good negotiation and should be reserved for the rare occasions where the goal of the negotiations has been forgotten by the other side.  Good negotiators possess good humor, the ability to listen carefully, and the ability to resolve not only their own problems or those of their clients, but those of the opposing negotiators and their clients as well.

Mr. Trump rarely offers solutions, and when he does it is from a paper placed in his hands by the trusted subordinate of the moment.  Left to his own devices, he offers only bluster and condemnation.  These are the only things that bring him satisfaction in the context of a deal.  His sole negotiating tactic is the shout, and he treats each shout as a victory in and of itself even though the underlying issue at hand remains unresolved.  From his vantage point – that of a bully whose will must be imposed to avoid losing face – resolution of the actual problem involved is much less important than scoring a good putdown.

To paraphrase the immortal words of Lloyd Bentsen addressed to Dan Quayle in the 1988 Vice Presidential debate: “Mr. President, I’ve negotiated hundreds of contracts.  I know and understand good negotiation tactics.  I’ve negotiated with the best of the best.  Mr. President, you’re not in their league.  In fact, you are a poor negotiator, and the proof of that assertion can be found in your all too frequent assertions to the contrary.  Real negotiators haven’t any need to brag.  They are known by the consistent quality of the results they produce.”

Given his inability to come up with solutions to obvious problems, it beggars belief that Mr. Trump has any ability to plan with respect to an assault on a complicated problem – such as an election strategy to become president of the United States.  You might well argue that he had others to do the planning for him as shown by the fact that he won; but he went through so many different campaign managers with such astounding rapidity that to argue he followed a consistent logical electoral path to the presidency is to overlook all the paths he started down only to abandon when the latest campaign manager left town.

No, Mr. Trump is an accidental president, as evidenced by the total popular vote and by his own surprise and that of his family when he was pronounced the victor on election night.  No reasonable, sane electorate would ever have elected him president given a true choice and absent the bitter divisions fragmenting our society and the very fertile soil in which those divisions have been allowed to grow in cancerous spurts.

So here we are, saddled with an accidental president – a chronic naysayer who has never heeded Thumper’s advice even once in his life.  Admittedly, I am also not heeding Thumper in this piece, but I have a reason: the emperor truly has no clothes on and someone needs to point out that it’s well past time for every thinking person in this country, regardless of their place on the political spectrum or their party loyalties, to recognize that fact and begin to plan as a community for how we will move forward when his term ends.

One thing is certain.  He won’t be helping us do the planning, and he needs to be put in a corner while the rest of us do it; a corner where his ongoing negativity and naysaying will do the least harm to our country.

Oh, and a dunce cap wouldn’t be amiss.

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It’s Late October And All Is Well

It’s late October, 2017.  I have nearly completed my seventy-second October, twenty-six of which have been spent here on the Farm amid our fields.  All Octobers are watercolor landscapes, but no two are alike.  As with any watercolor of a similar view painted from a slightly different perspective by another master artist with a keen eye, this one has its own unique feel and message.  Each October is as different and as good as a piece of any one pumpkin pie taken from among an array of them on a holiday sideboard will be from that of another.

This one is somber, but joyful nonetheless.  It is the first October in which my mortality has played a central role.  Until this one, my mortality has been an inconvenient fact to be worried about some day or other, but not today.  But, following my stroke, I realize that someday has come.  Once death’s hovering presence reached out to affect my balance and ability to walk, I could no longer ignore it.  Death has given me a none too subtle poke in the ribs to suggest it will no longer countenance a blasé attitude toward itself.  It’s no longer an elephant in the room; it’s a full participant in the conversation.

I get it.  Really I do.  I am fully aware that I am much closer to facing death than ever I was, and not just at sometime in the distant future.  It’s hovering around some bend in the road that I can at least sense, if not see.  If the long years I’ve lived weren’t enough of a clue, the stroke surely was.  It’s time to contemplate what it all has meant.

But don’t worry readers.  While my subject may be somber, my reaction to it is not.

I’ve always told my sons that a man must like what he sees when he looks in the mirror on his last day.  In this regard, the stroke was fortuitous.  It has allowed me to spend many hours contemplating the subject when I only thought I’d have seconds.  And generally I am happy with what I see.  I am pleased that I’ve lived with my foot on the gas pedal, giving life all I had, chasing my dreams, and accepting the consequences of my follies with relative equanimity.  I intend to keep on doing the same during my final leg, stroke and death be damned alike.

Yes, I have regrets.  Many in fact.  But apart from complete narcissists, who  doesn’t?  I won’t go into specific regrets about failing specific people other than to say that I’m keenly conscious and embarrassed by the failures I’ve yet to rectify.  I had hoped my intellect and courage were strong enough to correct my embarrassments, whether big or small, as I went along or whenever an opportunity occurred, but I’ve come to understand that it is a condition of humanity to be unable to correct them all despite the best of intentions.  So I will just have to utter prayers for forgiveness into the aether in hopes that some of them will be heard by the affected parties.

As for one great overarching regret, it is the time I’ve failed to spend with my immediate family – sons and Helen.  As with all failed good intentions, there is an explanation.  I was raised in an isolated eastern Washington valley in a time when communication was both difficult and expensive.  To generate the necessary escape velocity from that valley I had to focus and charge ahead as furiously as I could, seeking a path among the obstacles I could see or anticipate and bouncing off of those I couldn’t or didn’t.  This mode of acting became my lifestyle; one that took many years to overcome (assuming I have), and it left insufficient time for family since I had to provide for myself and for them while knowing only one speed.  Starting with nothing other than genetically donated brainpower, I had a long way to run.  I knew I could never quit running.

My family can decide about the sufficiency of that excuse.  Like any excuse, it is both true and untrue.  I know that.  I always have.  But at least I’ve always held true to form.  I’ve been a long distance runner.  I do realize that who I rejoice in being is the obverse side of my overarching regret.  But every choice has a cost.  I can only pray that Helen, Don, and Peter know that I wouldn’t be who I’ve become but for them and for their love, support, and involvement in my life.  They are the essential elements of my storyline.  The run would have been for nothing without them.

Many others, including  my parents and siblings, have helped me at critical times and played important roles in my life.  I’ve tried to repay all of those who helped me by passing what I’ve learned along the way on to friends, colleagues, and acquaintances whenever I could.  I hope I’ve done enough to satisfy my promise to Professor Paul Kauper all those years ago to mentor others when I knew enough and had the experience to do so, but, if I haven’t, there is still time to do more.   If I keep trying, I might make at least a dent in my collective debt to those who helped and watched out for me as I passed through their lives.

Any single October’s summation of life’s bounty is nothing more than a tableau of those unique lives, large and small, available to it whenever its annual turn on the wheel comes around.  I eagerly await yet a few more turnings.  I won’t be running through each tableau quite as fast as before, but I’ll be trying as hard as I can.  Look for me.  I’ll wave.

And I promise to spare Helen from rabbit ears for the rest of my run.

Posted in Humptulips County, Ponderings on the Meaning of Things | Comments Off on It’s Late October And All Is Well

It’s Not My Problem Anymore, It’s Yours

Dear NRA Members and Sympathizers:

If the Las Vegas massacre has a message for you, it’s that the incredible number of dead and injured are your responsibility, not mine.  Be sure to read all of the names of the dead as soon as they are published and consider memorizing them.  Then carve at least 59 notches (as of this morning) in the handle or stock of your favorite gun, reciting their names aloud as you do.  To the extent American society can have an impact on mass killings, their fate is on your conscience, not mine.

Oh, I will mourn each of the Las Vegas dead for at least as long as you will – most likely longer, if my suspicions are correct.  You and your colleagues in Congress and the White House will offer a heart-felt there-but-for-fortune-go-you-and-not-I moment of silence, and then, satisfied you’ve done all you can for the dead, you’ll promptly forget their names. But if you follow my suggestion, you’ll at least have the notches on your weapon to remember them by.

Why are they your victims and not mine?  Because I’ve spoken up repeatedly in favor of responsible gun regulation (NB, not confiscation) and contributed money to the cause.  It’s gotten my side of the discussion nowhere because the entire system is rigged in your favor. No matter what I or my fellow believers might do, nothing whatsoever will happen as a result of the Las Vegas (or any other) massacre, and you take pride in the fact that the system is rigged that way.

So it’s your hands that are bloody this morning whether you were 1 or 10,000 miles away from Las Vegas at the time of the shooting.  Why?  Because you no longer have any excuse for not doing something, whether that excuse is real or imagined. There are no more bogey men, white or black, with sufficient power to take your guns, much less to have any effective say in the debate over responsible gun regulation.  The White House is solidly yours, as is Congress and the Supreme Court. You own all of the devices of American government – the whole shebang.  I no longer have any effective say in the matter – not that I’m likely to shut up about it as I’m certain you wish I would.

You no longer want to hear from me on this subject because you don’t wish to be reminded of the blood on your hands.  You have chosen to play the lottery of life and keep your head down in hopes that you and your guilt won’t be noticed.  For the odds are that you won’t be noticed in any effective way either by the next gunman or by society.  The odds are solidly in your favor that the next set of inevitable victims will not include you, your spouse, children, grandchildren, cousins, aunts, uncles, siblings, mother, father, grandparents, friends, neighbors, or what have you.  So when the next set of victims is announced by gunfire, you’ll most likely rest easy as soon as it is culturally and religiously possible to do so because, hey, it didn’t happen to you and yours and the odds will still be heavily in your favor that it won’t happen to you and yours the next time, either.  Or the time after that.  Or the time… –  oh never mind, since you probably don’t give a damn anyway.

Just know that you now own all of the mass shootings that will take place in the US for as long as you own Congress, the White House, and the Supreme Court.  You’ve rendered the rest of us useless, and thereby freed us from further blame – at least in the short term.  But you do have a choice.  You can choose to celebrate your victory (yes, you own that too), or you can decide that now is the time for your side to enact responsible gun legislation because you own all of the mechanisms necessary to do so and can control the final result.

The rest of us will still help however we can in whatever way you allow, but we cannot initiate anything.   Only you can.  So we’ll wait to hear from you, and so far the silence has proved deafening.

For clarity as to my expectations, be aware that I don’t expect you to act other than irrationally.  Recent history assures me that you won’t.  I’m as certain as I can be that Congress will in fact pass the presently pending bill to ease the restrictions on the use of silencers and that you will happily swallow all of the nonsense uttered in favor of its passage.  I am equally certain that the president will sign the act into law, while uttering even more outrageous nonsense that you will find satisfying.

Be aware that for you and your ilk the time is similar to 1920s Germany, and you are following the will of a perceived majority down the road to your own personal Hell.  Enjoy it while you can.  You will be judged for your inaction.

Even though you haven’t asked, I ought to explain what I mean by “sympathizers.”  It’s important that you understand my usage.  By “sympathizers” I mean all of you gun owners or gun favorers who either don’t belong to the NRA or who do but are in favor of some form of gun regulation (a reputed 72% of NRA membership according to the last poll I can find reference to).  You own the means of acting now while you can write the rules to your complete satisfaction because you’re a far greater number than the NRA’s lunatic fringe led by Wayne LaPierre.  In fact, your hands are the bloodiest because you represent the majority of NRA membership and possibly of the voting public, the system is under your complete control, and you are rational, thoughtful citizens.

So it’s your time to act, not mine. I’ve said and done all I can. And I’ll even help with both my time and my money, if you do act responsibly. But you won’t will you?  I know, I know, the odds are still in your favor.

Good luck with those beliefs.  Lots of it.  You’ll need all you can get from the standpoint of how history and the afterlife judges you.


P.S.: By the way, if you’re going to argue with me, please don’t fall back on the old, tired dodge that no one can control a madman in order to exonerate yourselves from responsibility.  That wheeze may be true to a very limited extent, but certainly the majority of American  society has the right, and the obligation, to limit a madman’s opportunity to use weapons when they go off the rails.  And, since madmen don’t come with labels, we have to act on behalf of all society, regardless of political leanings.  Since most sympathizers argue that gun ownership is as much or more a matter of personal safety as it is of hunting rights, please think about the inanity of not demanding safer gun ownership and use in our society in general before arguing with me.

Posted in Our Place in the Firmament, Politicians and Other Lower Life Forms | Comments Off on It’s Not My Problem Anymore, It’s Yours

Fairy Tales Can Come True (Even If Only For Awhile)

Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you
If you’re young at heart.

Young at Heart, Johnny Richards and Carolyn Leigh

Once upon a time, probably in the early 1990s, I walked into a small bookshop in Seattle tucked underneath the street and around the corner from my reality.  This was the Seattle Mystery Bookshop – an entire shop dedicated to the enjoyment of the art of mystery writing.

There was something illicit about reading mysteries in that era – many people indulged in the habit secretively as if they would be labelled a complete eccentric if they were to be caught reading any form of mystery. My law school employer, a nationally known constitutional law professor, once admitted to me somewhat sheepishly that he “wasted” a good deal of time reading mysteries and wished he could break the habit.   He quickly admonished me to keep his secret, obviously regretting that he had let it slip out.  His admission came on the heels of finding me holding a new mystery I’d just purchased to read after the conclusion of finals that semester, and it was uttered in the tone of “don’t follow me down this dark path or you, too, may become forever ensnared.”  You would have thought he’d admitted to opium addiction.

I was well ensnared by the time I met Bill Farley, the founder of the Seattle Mystery Bookshop, and his henchman, future successor and friend, J B Dickey.  Bill made me and every mystery reader who ever came across him understand that we were reputable and honest readers of literature.  Whenever I left the shop after a visit (and there were many; I’m certain that I paid the shop’s rent for at least a few months), I was filled with the joy of having mixed with fellow enthusiasts and the prospect of several days of good reading.  I began to recognize my fellow customers, many of whom are local legal community luminaries; they acknowledged me as equally addicted as they hustled out the shop’s door with their purchases clutched firmly and furtively under one arm. The only difference between me and most of them is that I usually walked out that same door carrying at least one bag full of books (if not two) and walked proudly down the street with my addiction on full display.

Bill was unapologetic about his life’s mission.  In fact he took great pride in having built his shop from nothing into a local institution with a national and even international reach. I met James Ellroy there one day long ago and offered him a mis-bound copy of one of his books, White Jazz, for signing.  It had been bound upside down.  He took it, told me I had the cover on upside down, took the cover off and “fixed” it, opened it for signing and uttered “what the hell?”  After a good laugh, I bought a properly bound copy from Bill and Mr. Ellroy inscribed both to me, urging me to read one upside down and the other right side up.  The two copies sit together on my bookshelves today.

But, you reply, James Ellroy is an LA writer, so how can you claim an international reputation for the shop? Pshaw, I respond.   Ian Rankin taught me the correct pronunciation of “slainte” in the shop one afternoon when I dropped in purposely to meet him (and I met his wife in the bargain), and I was thoroughly enchanted by Ellis Peters who inscribed a book for me one day when we both happened to drop in the shop simply because we wanted to.  Ms. Peters (Edith Pargeter in real life) was a charming woman – a short, elderly sprite with a wide smile and a lovely English accent.   Within moments of meeting you, she made you feel like an old houseguest of hers whom she remembered with great pleasure.  Since she had dropped in unannounced, neither Bill nor I knew how she found the shop, but find it she did.   She obviously knew the value of such a shop and gave it her unhesitating, unasked for support.

Both her then-current book and Mr. Rankin’s sit on my shelves, never to be sold or given away during my lifetime.

Then came a day when Bill told me he was selling the shop to JB.  With Bill’s permission and encouragement, I immediately went to JB and offered my services to review the contract.  When he responded that he couldn’t afford to pay me, I offered him my special “book shop changing hands rate” – lunch at a restaurant of my choice. When we met at a local Vietnamese restaurant to go over the contract, he was pleased when the bill barely came to $20.  Bill later told me that he wished he’d found me first because his lawyer had charged him full freight – then he put his hand on my shoulder and thanked me for helping JB.

To the extent JB needed a lawyer thereafter, I maintained my special rate.  We only shared two or three sandwiches in his back office over the years as he never needed much legal assistance.  Most of my visits to the shop were as a customer.  My wife and youngest son sometimes came with me, and both Helen and Peter added their own selections to the piles of books I managed to buy there two or three times a month.  The shop became a destination of choice for me; I would either come at noon on a workday when I needed a break from lawyering and a dose of friendship to buck me up before returning to the fray, or on a weekend when Helen and Peter (and eventually just Helen after Peter left for college) and I needed something satisfying to supplement our weekend’s rest from everyday affairs.

In short, I was enchanted by the shop.  It was my Neverland.  My love affair with it was enduring, not a mere dalliance.  The shop returned my love with the staff’s smiles and snappy lines whenever I came in.  They would chat with me for a few moments after my arrival and then leave me alone when the allure of the well-stocked shelves overcame me.  When I thought I was done shopping, they would look at my pile of books, shake their heads at its paucity, and augment it with their own suggestions.  They would then cheerfully ring up the resulting damage and add it to my credit card balance.

Eventually Sandy began, and JB continued, to publish the shop’s quarterly “newszine” which offered pages and pages of upcoming releases.  Upon its receipt, I would eagerly read it, mark it up, and deliver it to JB so that I could be met on the occasion of each visit with an armful of preselected books – an armful which I would personally gather from my designated place on a shelf in the back of the shop and take to the till before perusing the shelves to see if something might have been missed.

I’ve been all over the world with the shop – France, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Turkey, Eastern Europe, Spain, Australia, China, England, Shanghai, Iceland, Finland, Russia, the Baltic states, Germany, Ireland and almost every state in the good old U S  of A come readily to mind as places I have been with and because of it.  And I have visited some of those places in widely differing eras thanks to the time machines created by the shop’s assorted authors.

It has been one hell of a great ride.  But the fairy tale is over now.

It never occurred to me on my visit to the shop in early December 2016 that it would be the last I’d ever make.  Oh, I knew JB was facing difficult times.  I had played a minor role in a fund-raising effort to keep its doors open during what proved to be its final year.  And when a stroke temporarily felled me just before Christmas, I continued to buy books from the shop by mail.  But it wasn’t the same as a real visit; I missed seeing my real live friends even though my imaginary ones kept arriving by post.

As I recuperated and relearned how to walk, I kept imagining a triumphal return to the shop, but it was not to be.  The Seattle Mystery Bookshop closed its doors last weekend – a victim of changing reading habits, the greed, vice, and monopoly power of on-line sellers, the lack of responsibility shown by my fellow mystery readers (use it or lose it is not just a slogan), and the uncaring attitude toward small businesses perennially evidenced by the City of Seattle (I can only hope that for their sins the Mayor and all of the city council members once frequented the shop and, like me, will never to again be able to do so).  I wanted to visit one last time during the shop’s final week of operation, but circumstances forbade it.  I wanted to shake the hand of each staff member and thank them for years of joy and the last several years of constant struggle to keep the shop’s doors open.

Fairy tales are supposed to end in “they lived happily ever after,” but this one hasn’t.  This one has ended for me in a hug of fond memories and lots and lots of books from the shop still remaining in my “to read” pile.  Each time I read one of them, the joy of the fairy tale will come back to me and I will feel good yet again – even as I am learning new ways to feed my habit in the absence of a shop that knew me well and always took exquisite care of my habit’s needs.

I can only hope that JB, Fran, and Amber will come, in time, to feel the same way as I do and realize that the shop’s closing was due to circumstances far beyond their control.  Each of them has been a true soldier for Bill’s cause during the last few difficult years.  I wish them the peace that ought to come to them from having fostered the reading habits of so many readers over the long years – readers who came in all ages, shapes, and forms to be enriched by their offerings, advice, and suggestions.

I am as certain as I can be that somewhere Bill Farley and Ellis Peters are nodding their heads in agreement with me and wishing all of the troops well.

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Lazing About On An August Morning

I am sitting on our front porch enjoying the quiet of a late August Sunday morning.  I just returned from getting our Sunday papers and stopped here to enjoy the hush I interrupted with uneven steps and the staccato thudding of my cane.

A lone single-engine airplane toils somewhere above me, and birds call out at random on a scale ranging from near croak to full song.  Hummingbirds click their beaks and hum with their wings as they chase each other from our feeders.  Doves coo somewhere down the lane to tell their mate about the luck they’re having in the always solitary work of survival; their calls echo across the lonely distances between them like land-inflected whalesong.

These few sounds are embroidery on the morning’s hush.  Without them, summer would stand naked in the spotlight of Act One with only a soliloquy to give it cover.  Prudence demands that summer be at least minimally clothed in the morning hours of a hot day.  It is allowed run around naked only in Act Three – only at day’s end when the heat is unbearable and nudity is to be expected.

A soft breeze just whispered something to me about elsewhere.  Breezes speak only in hints, preferring to utter generalities and leave specifics to the imagination of the listener.  This breeze gave off a faint aroma of travel and foreign intrigue, but I am much too content here on my porch to give its whisperings any credence.


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I Never Walk Alone

I walked to our mailbox and back yesterday twice (two tenths of a mile per trip) – once with my rollator (a walker with wheels) and once with a quad cane (a cane with four prongs).  Other than being tired from exercise and the prior trip with my quad cane, the rollator trip was no big deal as I have been using it for the purpose every nice day for the last two months.  The quad cane attempt was a big deal, however, since it was a first.  While I’d already traveled the terrain I was about to attempt with the cane before and after the stroke which felled me last December, it was the first time I’d tried to do it with minimal support.  Each new implement of support comes equipped with its own challenges such that once familiar terrains become new worlds whenever it is employed, new worlds replete with unknown perils unique to the implement’s design and capabilities.

On the day before I made the trip, I’d promised Alicia, my physical therapist, that I would not make the attempt for a while longer because I am still considered as being at high risk for falling despite my progress since my stroke.  I confess to feeling guilty about violating my promise to her.  But I had damned good reason to ignore it.  I’ve found that there is a state of mental readiness about these things that, once achieved, cannot and should not be ignored.  I had gone outside meaning to do nothing more than practice walking with only the cane on the well-known uneven surfaces of the asphalt near the house, only to find myself perched at the top of the hill Alicia was concerned about and staring down its length while listening to an inner voice saying: “It’s no big deal; go for it.”

So I did and it wasn’t.

But the trip was very hard work.  I had to overcome my own concerns about going down the hill (down is always the hard part; up is easy by comparison), so every hillside step was harder than those taken on flat ground due to the inherent difficulty of the slope and my accompanying mental caution about traversing it. But the moment to attempt it had come and I was helpless to resist; I was perched at the top of the hill like a fledgling in his nest considering his first flight.  It was high time to begin the process of casting aside the comfort of the rollator in favor of increasingly minimal support.  It was now or never – or so it seemed at the time.

The knowledge that my attempt would be difficult played no role in it other than to slow my usual pace and produce some mental molasses. For anyone who, like me, has lost their sense of balance, each movement has to be made by hand (so to speak) until learned as an entire sequence by a new sector of the brain. Make no mistake: this process is hard work.  Any notion that one ought to avoid hard work is foreign to our state of being. If we wish to regain full freedom of movement (and by that I mean going where we want when we want on our own by means of only our own effort), we have no choice but to work extremely hard as that is our sole means of moving forward. Each and every movement requires conscious mental effort and conscious mental sequencing of the involved muscles.   Each unknown bump or flaw in the surface upon which we intend to walk is a logistical challenge that we must solve at the risk of serious injury; a problem requiring our full concentration even though other, more menacing perils may lurk nearby. Until we accumulate enough repetitions of any movement (whether it be sitting, standing, walking, rolling over, etc.) sufficient for it to become controlled without conscious thought by a new part of our brain not previously tasked with the job of balancing us and coordinating our muscles, we must intentionally cause every single involved muscle to fire in its proper sequence at our command.  And as hard as that is to imagine, it is much, much harder to accomplish.

I don’t believe that as an adult I’ve ever worked so hard for so little or for so much.  Each movement I struggle to accomplish is insignificant from a healthy person’s viewpoint.  But I am working for freedom – mine and Helen’s.  I need to know that eventually (1) I will be able to go where I want on my own whenever I choose to make the trip, and (2) Helen will be free from the obligation to take me there.  All freedoms come with a high price, and the freedom from my particular disability only comes from conquering constant, grinding pain through the use of immense quantities of willpower and the taking of daily risks that healthy people cannot possibly appreciate.  And all of this effort is for the achievement of tiny, incremental gains that can never be seen and appreciated for their own individual importance, but only for their collective importance as part of an entire work product seen weeks after their occurrence.

I have a new appreciation for toddlers since relearning to walk is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  Retaking the bar exam would be a cakewalk by comparison.  Every attaboy I’ve earned for making an inch of accomplishment in this process is sincerely appreciated, and I return the favor of each one by moving forward yet another inch.  Every congratulation over an achievement I make is special since it means yet one more milestone on the road to full independence has been surpassed. While toddlers are exhilarated by their first taste of freedom, I have known and lost its sweetness.  I have experienced its fullness as well as the consequences of its loss.

So each hurrah I earn is critical to my success.  While learning to walk is the toddler’s defining trait, those who once knew how to do it but no longer can have a much harder road to travel due to brittle bones and the weariness accumulated over the years.  But we savor our remembrance of freedom’s intoxicating sweetness and travel on.  While toddlers are conscious of possibility, we understand the immensity of loss.  But toddlers and former walkers alike need the encouragement of others to succeed in the present; encouragement is our only visible measure of immediate success.  Otherwise, we must resort to rear view mirrors at future times to see how far we’ve gotten since the last time we checked.

So when I published a short piece on Facebook about yesterday’s success with the quad cane, I was overwhelmed, amazed, and gratified by a surfeit of heartfelt responses.  I’d hit the post button for my piece with some reluctance for fear that I might be seen as boasting about nothing very much in the wide, wide world.  But those that commented and liked the post realized its importance and appreciated my need to do a little shuffle since real dancing is still beyond my capabilities.  I thank them for their understanding and their encouragement, and I hope this post will give them a greater understanding of what their support really means to me.

While, of necessity, I travel my side road alone but for the therapists who guide my overall progress and my soul mate who watches over every single minute of each one of the twenty-four hours of every day, the encouragement I receive from my guardians and other friends and family is the stuff that will surely fuel my return to the main highway.  Please be advised that I fully intend to merge onto that main highway sooner rather than later, and watch out for me when I do.  I’ll be the old guy coming up the on-ramp unaided by any piece of equipment who will do an Irish jig on the highway’s tarmac as soon as he reaches it for the sheer joy of having gotten there.  He will be drunk on the sweet liquor of freedom once lost but now regained, and he won’t give a fig for anyone who objects.

I won’t be able to help myself, so please don’t hit me.*

*A special thanks to La Fonte Nesbitt for the title to this piece

Posted in Our Place in the Firmament, Ponderings on the Meaning of Things | Comments Off on I Never Walk Alone