We were just north of Kansas City.  It was mid afternoon, and we hadn’t eaten yet.  I spotted a Steak and Shake to the left, so we pulled off of the freeway.  Traffic was heavy, and the stoplight turned red at the top of the hill, just before we were to turn left.   As cars backed up behind us, we noticed the man in the green army fatigue jacket holding the cardboard sign that said “U.S. Veteran with Family Needs Help”.   I put him to be in his mid fifties; he was thin and had fading reddish hair.  He was clean shaven, and he kneeled near the stop light.   He did not approach us or any of the other cars.

Knowing I had a fresh five dollar bill in my wallet, my Sister and I had the usual discussion about whether he was legit or just one of the many rip-off artists you hear so much about.  Meanwhile, in my mind, the would-be writer in me immediately tried to construct stories about how this man ended up in this place.   Tragic stories of real loss and anguish were balanced by devious and cynical con jobs.   It struck me that either angle I took would be a good vehicle for exploring the theme that life is, among other things, an on-going assault on individual dignity.

If he was in fact a con, if he was merely too lazy to get a job, then he certainly wasn’t worthy of any of my money, and anything I gave him would just be perpetuating a lie.  Besides, there are shelters and mechanisms provided by our government and private faith based initiatives that are in place for people with exactly these issues.

If he really was the victim of tragic circumstance and fate, if he and his family really were hurting and hungry, if he had exhausted all other means and standing at that corner with his hand out was his only option, then it would be my obligation to help him.  Maybe my five dollars would somehow be enough to prevent his family from going hungry for the night, or enable them to sleep with a roof over their heads.

The light wasn’t going to stay red forever.   There was no time to do a background check, or to interview him to conclude if he was worthy or not.  I’d have to determine quickly what to do, whether this man was worthy of my five dollars or not.

Either way, at least I’d have some fresh material to write about.


A couple of months ago, on a warm August afternoon, I watched a hummingbird from my window.  It was smaller than my thumb, and it hovered and levitated, the motor of its tiny wings a blue blur, as it looked for nectar in the wild flowers just outside of my cabin. 

Around here, you don’t see hummingbirds in the winter.  They migrate south, to Mexico and Panama, as far as 2500 miles. Hormonal changes brought about by decreasing amounts of daylight tell them when it is time to go.  For some, the migration path takes them over the Gulf of Mexico, or about 500 miles of non-stop flying.  Predators are numerous, from the many birds of prey to bats and cats to even spiders and insects.  Hummingbirds typically migrate alone.  

I put this down so I don’t forget about that hummingbird and the blue blur of its wings and the long and perilous and solitary journey that brought it, on that late summer afternoon, to the wild flowers by my cabin at the precise time I happened to look out my window.

My Review of “Life Seemed Good, But …”

“Life Seemed Good, But ….” is an e-book collection (available from of short comic essays and fables written by my fellow Kenosha Writers Guild member, Richard Bell, and is unlike anything else you are likely to read.  Quirky and imaginative, Bell’s fractured fairy tales are funny and defy convention.  Many of the stories lead you to believe that there is some profound moral or lesson to be learned; however, more often than not, they instead lead to an absurdly underwhelming conclusion (“This is how the legend of Timmy the smelly, bald, and fat porcupine began” and the unforgettable moral, “Never interfere with dancing magical trolls who have matches” are two examples).

Bell’s humor is soft and surreal and intelligent, even when revealing the twisted stupidity of his characters.  If you read closely, you’ll find, buried in the nonsense, clever references to T.S. Eliot, Lewis Carroll, and, in one of my favorites, to “On the Waterfront” in a story about a tongue tied shoe named Terry that could have been a contender.

Bell writes with a stand up comic’s sense of timing, yet he refuses to be constrained by the typical setup-punch line structure of the traditional joke.   Rather, his humor is of the Monty Python – Steve Martin variety – he presents situations, images and asides that are just intrinsically funny, and make you laugh out loud without knowing why you are laughing.  For example, one of the stories, “Revenge”, begins this way:

In a long procession marched the villagers up the dark, remote mountainside. Some carried torches, some had pitchforks, and one had a 3/8″ socket torque wrench.

“Life Seemed Good, But …” evokes James Thurber, Robert Benchley, and Ogden Nash, yet at the same time is the voice of a distinct and unique comic mind.   A disturbed mind, maybe, but distinct and unique and funny none the less.

Reindeer Games

On a cold December morning in 1963, I and the rest of Mrs. Thiele’s morning kindergarten class took our places on what passed for a stage in the front of the classroom to perform our Christmas program.  Amongst the handful of parents in the audience, I spotted my Mom and my almost 21 month old little sister, Jenny.  Soon afterwards, Jenny spotted me, and was so surprised and thrilled at seeing her big brother that she broke free from my Mom, ran up to me, and gave me a big hug.   The festivities were just about to begin, and there was no way she was going to leave my side.  My Mom tried to gently cajole her back to her seat, but Mrs. Thiele, ancient and sweet, told her it was okay if Jenny wanted to join in the fun.

And so she did, sharing the stage with my classmates and me and even getting her own pair of paper antlers for the stirring reindeer scene, where we all held the antlers to our head and did our best reindeer impersonations, running and jumping about in our own un-choreographed interpretive dances.   As Jenny enthusiastically joined in, her hands holding her paper antlers to her head and a determined look  on her little face, I remember feeling a combination of embarrassment and pride, embarrassed by her disruption, and proud of not only her convincing portrait of a young reindeer but also of her devotion to her big brother.

The program continued, with Jenny participating in every part of it, until it was time for the moving conclusion, Mrs. Thiele’s reading to us some Christmas story from some big book.   Those of us in Mrs. Thiele’s class, veterans of the kindergarten experience that we were, understood that story time meant sitting silent and still.  Jenny, the 21 month old rookie, didn’t grasp this, and kept making noise and running about with her antlers, not ready for all the excitement of the morning to end.   She was disruptive enough that my Mom finally had to remove her, despite her loud cries of protest, which got louder and continued from the hallway long after they left the classroom.   As Mrs. Thiele tried to read above the slowly fading echoes of my sister’s crying, I could hear the snickering of some of the other kids, and I found myself feeling defensive and sad for my little sister.    I shot a disapproving look at a couple of the laughing kids, and was surprised when they suddenly stopped.

I think that this was the first time I realized that I, the youngest of three boys, was now an older brother.     It didn’t take me long to appreciate the awesome power that comes with the position.   I realized that not only would my little sister believe whatever I told her, but that I would decide which toys we played with, and that I would make up the rules to whatever games I decided we’d play.  

As I wielded this power over the years, a funny thing happened.  Although always reluctant to admit it, I found that I enjoyed my little sister’s company.   I found that she and I laughed at things that nobody else laughed at.   As time went on, it became clear that she is much more talented (born with an incredible artistic gift that completely missed me) and smarter than me, yet she still played the role of little sister, sharing in my interests and obsessions.  

Flash forward to the 21st century:   now in our middle ages, Jenny and I remain close.   We still laugh at things nobody else laughs at.  I still enjoy her company.  I am proud of the person she has turned out to be.  Caring and strong, she looked after my Dad in his last few years, and made sure that he had everything he needed.   I have difficulty imagining what his last years would have been like without her.

Despite the fact that she is a very formidable presence who can stand up for herself, I find that my big brother instincts remain intact, and I still feel the need to defend and look out for her.

Dave Saves the Economy

I make it a point not to discuss current events, especially those that are politically charged, on this site.  There are plenty of other places on the internet for that sort of thing, and I don’t want to offend any of my conservative or liberal friends.  But tonight I was struck with an idea that is so simple it is brilliant, and, for the good of our nation, I feel compelled to share.

One of the big debates going on has been on how to reduce the deficit.  Most of the debate has centered on spending cuts.  Meanwhile, liberals have argued that by increasing taxes on the wealthiest, we can provide a much-needed boost to revenues, while conservatives fear that such an increase will take money out of the economy that otherwise would be reinvested in it.  I have a solution that would increase revenues without raising anybody’s taxes.   The fact that, as far as I am aware, nobody else has come up with this idea, should finally erase any doubt that I truly am a genius. 

This isn’t the first time we have faced the need to raise revenues without raising taxes.  In the past, most states instituted lotteries as a fun and effective method of raising revenues.  There are now so many lotteries that I can’t keep them all straight in my head.   I’d suggest that anybody who questions their popularity go to the State Line CITGO Station and try to buy a gallon of milk.  Odds are you will find yourself in line behind at least half a dozen enthusiastic players, buying tickets or scratching cards or both or asking which of the six dozen games pays out tonight (I, personally, don’t play the games, but judging from the length of time I wait in line and observing the interaction between the players and the dispensers of tickets, it’s clear that nobody really understands how these things work).  The amount of money and the wads of twenty-dollar bills you see exchanging hands will surprise and impress you.

So, since the lottery is a very effective way of raising revenues, here is my solution to our economic crisis:

Stop paying the lottery “winners”, but don’t tell anyone. 

This will add millions to our revenues.   Why, just checking the Wisconsin lottery web site tonight, I see that the Powerball jackpot is $105 million, the MEGA millions is $30 million, and mega bucks is $10.9 million.  That is almost $150 million in Wisconsin alone!   Think of all the teachers we could pay with that!  Multiply that by 50 states and your head begins to spin. 

How this would work is simple – a computer program would make sure to pick winning numbers that don’t match any of the cards sold.  The “winning” numbers would be broadcast, and all the eager players would check their tickets, and, just like today, find no matches.   And, just like today, their disappointment would gradually fade as the desperation of being poor and out of work increases and they’d be back in line at the CITGO in no time, buying more tickets, and spoiling yet another gallon of 2% as both the milk and I age behind them.

The real beauty of this idea is in the odds.  If I am reading the web site correctly, the odds of winning the whole Power Ball jackpot is 1 in  195, 249,056 – that is one in 195 million, 249 thousand, and fifty-six.  No one could be surprised at not winning with those odds!   If they persist and ask who won, the official answer given could be “Some guy from upstate”, or “Somebody at a convenience store in Jackson”, as every state has at least one small town named Jackson, each with at least one convenience store.  To further lend credibility to the contests, the system could be set up so that occasional five and ten-dollar winners are allowed, but only to those players who have made a purchase more than $20 worth of tickets.

The simple beauty of this solution is that conservatives should be happy, since rich people don’t play the lottery, and the poor people who do play it are losing money anyway, and the liberals, well, they’re never happy anyways, so who cares.   And to those who cry that this is bigger government, we could consider privatizing the lottery by allowing corporations to run it.  However, this will get us right back to the current debate:  Who do we trust more, government or private corporations?  Or, to be more specific, which institution is more capable of being sufficiently corrupt and dishonest to pull off such a scheme?  

Even a genius like me is unable to answer that one.

Status Report – UPDATE

A couple of months ago (August 8th) I posted a report on the status of my memoirs project.  To jog your memory, earlier this year, I had a literary agent express interest in the query letter I had sent him and ask to see some sample chapters.  I sent him about five chapters, to which he responded very enthusiastically.  He then asked to see the entire book, and, unfortunately, decided to pass on the project.  I was disappointed but rebounded, and spent most of the summer trying to make the book better, getting rid of some fat, tweaking some parts and adding some new material.  Confident that I had a much better product, I went about searching for an agent anew. 

I created a list of six new agents and submitted my query letter.  The results so far are:  three no responses, two not interested, and one request, from an agent at one of the largest New York agencies, to see the entire book.  On September 13, I cleaned up a copy and nervously attached it to an e-mail.  For almost a month I opened up my in-box with a combination of anticipation and apprehension, looking for the response. 

Finally, last night, while at my cabin up north, I checked my e-mail from my Android and there, waiting in my in-box, was the long-awaited reply to my submission.  I stared at it for a couple of minutes.  The subject line gave no clue; it was merely a response to my submission.  I finally opened it and, as I suspected, it was another rejection notice.

It was very nicely phrased and complimentary, but, she apologized, she didn’t connect with the material as much as she had hoped she would.  She was nice enough to forward on some information about an organization of literary agents, where I might be able to find a better fit.

So you might think that I’m devastated, destroyed, de-incentivized, de-motivated, or some other harsh word that begins with “d”.   Although I am a little disappointed, for some reason I am taking it pretty much in stride.  Maybe it hasn’t hit yet, maybe I’m in denial (another “d” word).    But I am definitely not defeated – if anything, I am more determined (yet two more “d” words!)

One thing I don’t feel is any anger or bitterness to the agent.  I have read diatribes on line from many writers cursing out agents who rejected their work, portraying them as mean spirited and vindictive monsters who relish the opportunity to dash the writer’s dreams.   I have also read comments along the line that there is so much crap published they don’t know good work when they see it.   I don’t subscribe to either of these theories.  First, every time they open a submission, I am sure that the agent is hoping for success.  The agent makes his or her living based upon their ability to sell the work, not on how many would-be writers they can destroy.  As for the crap that populates the best seller lists, it may be crap, but hey, it sells – obviously somebody knew what they were doing.  

After I read the rejection notice last night, I went back to my laptop and for the first time in a few weeks I opened up the book, looking for things that could be fixed.   Instead I found myself getting lost in it.  I think enough time had elapsed that I was able to detach myself to some degree and I just read it, and to my surprise, I liked it! (Hey, Mikey!)  There are still a few imperfections and some parts that aren’t as good as others, but overall, I found myself smiling at the funny parts and getting choked up at some of the emotional parts.  I found the changes I had made worked.  About an hour and a half later, I was still reading, and I realized I hadn’t thought about the agent or the rejection for some time.   I found that I am still proud of my work.  This helped my mood considerably.

It could also be that I’ve been through enough other crap lately, from the death of my Father to my daughter beginning her senior year in High School to my  ongoing wrestling with Parkinson’s, that this is just something else to be dealt with, and not that big of a deal.

It also helps that I’ve got a strong support structure in place, starting with my wife, who, I suspect, for some reason I still can’t fathom, really loves me.  I also have a great family and friends who I can always count on.  Finally, I have my fellow Kenosha Writer’s Guild members and you, the few but loyal readers of this site, to give me encouragement and confidence.

Most importantly, I am not taking the rejection personally.  I still have an enormous respect for the agent who rejected me, but I am chalking it up to my work not being her cup of tea rather than any personal failure on my part.  My self confidence is no shakier than normal.

I’d also be remiss, with the Milwaukee Brewers only three wins away from the world series, if I didn’t throw in a baseball analogy:  I may have two strikes against me, but, like Ryan Braun fighting off an 0 and two count, I can stand in the batter’s box and foul off countless pitches before hitting a home run (ok, if not Ryan Braun and a homerun, would you believe Craig Counsell and a balk?).

So here I stand, more determined and defiant than disappointed and depressed (gotta love those “d”s!).   In the next few days, I will follow up with the three agents I haven’t heard from yet, and then I will start sending out to another batch of agents.  I’m going to give this agent thing another round or two before I consider self publishing.  I’m still eager to get my book out there, because I think it is good and may be of some value to somebody somewhere.   I’m more eager to put it behind me and get going on the next thing, whether it is re-immersing myself in my novel or starting something new.


It’s six A.M. in mid October in my cabin in northwestern Wisconsin. The moon is full and bright and approaching the western horizon. Beyond the reach of its glow, stars shine bright and vivid. In less than a half hour, in the east, the sun will rise. Yesterday, shortly before it rose, it projected its rays onto the descending moon, and turned the moon a bright orange, almost a blood red, that the coyotes outside yipped and howled at.

She is light, lit by the same celestial spark that ignited the stars, and in the infinite darkness of the unending night and the numbing cold of oblivion, I cling to her.

Earnest Ernest

This morning, I reread “Big Two Hearted River”, a short story by Ernest Hemmingway.  It’s probably been thirty years since I last read the story, and it’s always been one of my favorites (note that it is number three on my “list-o-mania” list of favorite short stories).  But reading it now, with the passing of time and circumstances, the story resonates even stronger. 

On the surface, the story is the straight forward retelling of a man’s fishing and camping trip, a story that, as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, in which “nothing happened.”  But dig beneath that surface and you quickly realize there is much more going on.  The story is really about a damaged and traumatized man (Hemingway’s fictional alter ego Nick Adams) searching for something that has been lost.   

The story begins with Nick being dropped off of a train in a deserted and burned out town.  He has a pack containing his tent and provisions, and a leather rod case.   In the town, as described in that distinctive Hemmingway style, he stops by a bridge and looks down to the water below.  Note the cadence of the writing.

“Nick looked down into the pool from the bridge.  It was a hot day.  A kingfisher flew up the stream.  It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout.  They were very satisfactory.  As the shadow of the kingfisher moved up the stream, a big trout shot upstream in a long angle, only his shadow marking the angle, then lost his shadow as he came through the surface of the water, caught the sun, and then, as he went back into the stream under the surface, his shadow seemed to float down the stream with the current, unresisting, to his post under the bridge where he tightened facing up into the current.

Nick’s heart tightened as the trout moved.  He felt all the old feelings.”

Nick is one with the trout, as they both “tightened”, and he “felt all the old feelings”.  Like the trout, Nick has lost his shadow, his soul, the thing that marked his place in the world.   “Big Two Hearted River” is about Nick’s attempts to find his shadow, to reclaim his soul.  It’s interesting that Hemingway’s description of Nick’s sensory reactions to what he sees are described in very short and simple phrases (“It was a hot day”, “They were very satisfactory”, “He felt all the old feelings” )  I think this fulfills two purposes.  One, it gives the writing a lyrical rhythm, and two; it describes the mental and emotional state Nick is in.  Damaged as he is, he is able to process the complex and overwhelming rush of images and memories in only the simplest terms.  He longs to return to the simpler time of his youth, before the landscape was scarred and burned, before the incomprehensible complexity of the things he has seen and experienced in war.    As he goes on to his campsite, there are more simple descriptions of Nick’s moods and thoughts – “He was happy”, “but Nick felt happy”,  “He felt he had left everything behind”,  “It was all back of him” – but they somehow seem forced and untrue, and you are left with the sense that Nick is trying a bit too hard to convince himself he is happy and leaving everything behind.  

He goes on to pitch his tent and cook his meals, ritualistically and methodically and with great discipline.  He is determined to savor every moment and he does so, taking great satisfaction in the work of setting up camp, in the comfort of his tent, the taste of his food, and finally, the following morning, in the trout fishing he has come for.   All the while, though, the presence of the dark swamp that is just down river from him looms.

 “Ahead the river narrowed and went into a swamp.  The river became smooth and deep and the swamp looks solid with cedar trees, their trunks close together, their branches solid.  It would not be possible to walk through a swamp like that.  The branches grew so low.  You would have to keep almost level with the ground to move at all.  You could not crash through the branches.  That must be why the  animals that lived in swamps were built the way they were, Nick thought.

He wished he had brought something to read.  He felt like reading.  He did not feel like going into the swamp.  He looked down the river.  A big cedar slanted all the way across the stream.  Beyond that the river went into the swamp.

Nick did not want to go in there now …   

In the swamp the banks were bare, the big cedars came together overhead, the sun did not come through, except in patches; in the fast deep water, in the half light, the fishing would be tragic.  In the swamp the fishing was a tragic adventure.  Nick did not want it.   He did not want to go down the stream any further today.”

The river, where he camps and fishes, is filled with life and sustenance and purpose.  But then it flows into something dark and mysterious and foreboding.   As his trout fishing takes him gradually downstream, closer to the swamp, the apprehension grows.   It is the fear of death, and also the fear of both the known and the unknown.  He has seen terrible things that remain vivid and unresolved in the darkness of his heart and mind.  He sees the same darkness in the swamp and fears that not only are the terrible things in there, but so too is their ultimate resolution, and whatever unthinkable conclusions about the nature of the universe those resolutions would reveal. 

The story ends with Nick picking up his fishing gear:

“He climbed the bank and cut up into the woods, toward the high ground.  He was going back to camp.  He looked back.   The river just showed through the trees.  There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp.”

He isn’t ready yet to confront the darkness.  He needs more time to heal the scars that time and fate have carved into his soul.

When I reread the story this morning, I found it even more moving and profound than I had when I read it as a much younger man.   I found parallels to my own circumstances, and some of the solitary trips I have made to my northern Wisconsin cabin in the past few years.  Like Nick Adams, I have found myself turning to nature and longing to “feel all the old feelings.” (with only varying degrees of success)   I also have my own personal swamp that I am afraid to face, that being the late stages of Parkinson’s disease that loom just down river from me.  Above all else, the themes of isolation and solitude, and the diminutive stature of the individual against his landscape, resonate with me.

Everybody has an opinion about Hemingway, from literary genius to male chauvinist hack to arrogant self important hypocrite.   Aside from the Nick Adams stories, I really haven’t read enough to subscribe to any of these views.  But I do know that, with “Big Two Hearted River”, he was capable of true artistry, painting a vivid and complex portrait of both a physical and psychological landscape.