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The Zen of Chance

 

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Spring is arriving on Windy Bay and not without drama. The water is high, and docks are floating every which way, untethered and adrift. I have been thinking about the role of chance in our lives and our stories. When do we feel the gentle hand of fate touching our shoulder? What do we do when that happens? Run and hide, or take a few gingerly steps into the unknown?

This train of thought began on St. Patrick’s Day when I glanced at an Instagram post from my nephew, Tommy Smythe. He captured the title page of a Bible belonging to his great-great-grandfather who braved the seas and sailed for the new world. His first attempt was foiled. In his own hand, Albert Ernest Stafford Smythe, my great-grandfather wrote these words:

“This Bible is the only possession saved from the shipwreck of E.J.Harland on the 19th of November 1861.”

Hit by a two-ton steamer named Lake Champlain, Captain Smylie went down with his ship; the rest were transferred to the offending vessel and ended up back in Liverpool. This voyage took place when my great-grandfather was a young man of eighteen years of age. He lost his cherished mother the year before. In spite of ending up with nothing to his name, save a Bible, he was not deterred.

william q. judgeWilliam Q. Judge

 

On his second voyage, he met a man who was to change his life. On his way back to America from India, William Q. Judge, co-founder of the early Theosophist movement along with H.P. Blavatsky and Henry S. Olcott, had plenty of words of wisdom for his fellow ship-mates. Born in Ireland, April 13, 1851, Judge was now in full understanding of humanity’s great need for a new perspective on both itself and the universe.

Here is Albert E.S. Smythe’s shipboard assessment of the man:

“Judge was the master of ordinary conditions and could get honey out of the merest weed. He walked the decks with those in need of a companion, he played cards, except on Sunday when he drew the line, he played quoits, and he chatted.” The Canadian Theosophist, April 1939.

In our modern viewpoint, the word karma is part of our lives. We often joke about it, misuse the term, or think of it either lightly, or having to do with a sense of just desserts. In the later part of the 1800’s, when the concept was still in need of illuminating, Judge told the story of an Eastern King who had spawned but one son.

“And this son committed a deed, the penalty of which was that he should be killed by a great stone thrown upon him. But it was seen that this would not repair the wrong, nor give the offender the chance to become a better man. The counselors of the king advised that the stone should be broken into smaller pieces and thrown at the son and at his children and grandchildren as they were able to bear it. It was so done, and all were in some sense sufferers, yet none were destroyed.”
The Path 1892. From Sunrise Magazine, December 1996/ January 1997, copyright Theosophical University Press.

Chance. A chance encounter aboard a ship carrying my great grandfather to the new world changed the trajectory of our lives. What if the first ship, the fully rigged E.J. Harland, had not foundered? What if Albert E.S. Smythe had landed in New York, with his Bible and other possessions intact. While I do not recall hearing the tale of the Eastern King, I do know that it was made very clear to all of us that we were to understand one simple teaching: “Yea as you sew, surely do you reap.”

Albert E.S. Smythe

My fate changed for good when I chanced to find a ski lodge in Aspen where I met my future husband. Had I not stopped in to see if there was a vacancy, I certainly would not be where I am today, here on Windy Bay, with docks knocking on the edge of the shore. I’ll always be glad that when chance came knocking, I knew what to do.

Christmas is my Culture

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After spending a few cozy days snowed in here on Windy Bay, I had time to enjoy this winter wonderland. With many hours in which to contemplate the joys of Christmas, I indulged in all the nostalgia and emotion of the season. As is true with just about everyone, my mind returned to childhood memories. I credit my parents and grandparents, and all of their many efforts to make Christmas magical and wonderful. We sat at long tables wearing paper crowns from Christmas crackers in the English tradition and reveled in feasts ending in plum pudding and butter sauce we thought might kill one of us someday, but that did not stop us from consuming it until we groaned for mercy.

Don’t look back, some say. It is not the way you are going. Yes, there is wisdom to this line of thinking, but Christmas is a time of permission. I, for one, eat it up. We seek a deeper connection at this time of year, a strengthening of bonds of love. When I take out my maternal grandmother’s Christmas village and unpack this little hand- made world, I feel as if I am seven and wishing I lived in a pretty village where the houses and churches sit atop a blanket of snow. In all my years in Coeur d’ Alene, I often think of how funny it is that I practically re-created that charming village in choosing such a charming town in which to live. Shopping in the local shops on Sherman Avenue is a tradition I cherish. Our tree now comes from our own woods; the ornaments are old and worn but carry happy memories for us. We have always tried to keep things somewhat simple, but by Christmas Eve, we often shake our heads. It is a time for celebration after all, and yes, we always give books.

In the years I worked at Coldwater Creek, Christmas was a blitz from start to finish. We employees shored each other up, shared goodies, hot tea, and boiler- plate coffee in order to keep going. We tracked packages and agonized over mix-ups. We wrote apology letters and often received replies. I signed company letters with Merry Christmas and thought I would keep doing so until someone asked me not to. They never did. I sent cards with the same message, and yes, to friends of different faiths and traditions. I knew from growing up in a multi-cultural city, chock full of new immigrants from around the globe, that culture is passed from mother to daughter, from father to son, and from grandparents to grandchildren. There is plenty of room at the table. I witnessed so many hold fast to their traditions while embracing a new land.

Christmas is my culture. It is a part of who I am. It is a time of wonder. That is how I aim to keep it.

Devoid of any anger, lacking in perceived threat or guile, I say, Merry Christmas to readers around the world.

“God bless us, everyone.” Charles Dickens.

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Treasure in the Trash

old mills college   Mills College, Oakland, California

 

“Beware lest in attempting the grand, you overshoot the mark and become grandiose.” Voltaire

I came across this snippet the other day on Twitter. The advice, earmarked to writers, could apply to just about anything. It would certainly apply to editing.

This time of year we are in a grand editing process. While the natural world springs to life, we need to make room for things to grow. Keep this and discard that. How do we decide? It was on Easter Sunday that I heard of the concept of holding up hangers in the closet and asking yourself if the object in your hand affords joy. What a great idea. Those of us whose parents were children in the Depression years were schooled, in some cases quite harshly, about discarding things willy-nilly. It can be a source of great strife between couples depending on the ferocity of the message. Every object in the house could have a use at some point and to have to run out and purchase something recently discarded, can cause genuine distress. Others want to pare down, and certainly the modern look we see displayed in stores and magazines is becoming more and more devoid of clutter.

Yesterday, we celebrated motherhood and mothers who gave tirelessly to shape our sensibility. I did think of my mother when I read Voltaire’s comment. I thought about how it would make her laugh. As she worked in her later years as an interior designer she had renowned taste. She found a way to reconcile her childhood teachings with creating beautiful surroundings. Her possessions grace the homes of her children, and grandchildren. She chose objects with care, and they have lasted the test of time. She would tell us that something “looked tired.” It could be a table. Once it acquired this sense of fatigue, it was out the door to anyone who would take it. How do I stand on this issue? I feel as if I have one foot in a boat and the other on the dock. A decision needs to be made quickly before disaster strikes. The age of some pieces that adorn our lives never ceases to amaze me. We make our toast every morning in a toaster that has been in use my entire life. It has never broken. The toast goes down automatically and comes up by itself perfectly. Almost everything I surround myself with is old.

old toaster

I am drawn to the blank page because it is empty. I want to fill it up. Years ago, I thought writing a novel just involved getting enough words together to fill up all the pages. The sad truth came from a gifted teacher, a novelist who taught at Mills College and she gave it to me straight. “You may have filled up your briefcase with pages, but you have not written a novel.” Together we worked with what I had, and I learned that the real trick is filling up pages and then throwing them in the garbage. Hemingway once said that he could tell that his writing was going well when the waste-basket was full of really good stuff.

Yesterday I read a quote in Vanity Fair from Lee Radiwill. “Great style is editing.”

Lee Radziwill

Whether it is in art, a beautiful interior or an excellent book, that is the key. Do you know what great designers have? Storage units. One piece, edited out, may reappear years later in another place and time. The same is true for chapters or paragraphs of any work in progress. Gone are the days when we ripped a sheet of paper from the typewriter and tossed it in a nearby bin. We can watch our words disappear before our very eyes. Or, like me, you might just want to keep them in a separate document. Perhaps they may improve with age. Out of all the rubbish, a new idea may germinate.

Toaster photo: “Copyright © 2016 by Craig Rairdin.”

The Discipline of Desire

 

John Locke

“The discipline of desire is the background of character.” John Locke

How do we maintain a free society? Is it bred in the bone, or is it up for grabs?

Having just finished reading Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, my eyes have been opened. It is not as if I did not know about the undue influence of special interests in government; everyone is aware of this fact. The term “special interests,” is vague, and if you cannot put a face to something, it is hard to imagine. Television advertising paid for by groups with names that sound good, Americans for this, that, or the other thing, makes a person think that these organizations are comprised of a group of individuals who came together to help solve problems. What we are not aware of is from whom the funding comes. Likewise, we don’t always know to what ends. Like most people, I err on the side of a general belief that people are inherently good. This line of thinking is the product of a Swiss- born French philosopher who influenced Thomas Jefferson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. (1712-1778)

Rousseau
“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”

Hobbes, on the other hand, described life as, “solitary, nasty, brutish and short.” Having witnessed the English Civil War, his outlook was both Calvinistic and pessimistic.

John Locke, the other great influence, wrote in Two Treatise of Government, “We are like chameleons. We take our hue and the color of our moral character from those around us.”

I am not blind to the fact self-interest drives most decisions. When Jane Mayer described the heart of the ideology of the far right, she expressed the beliefs of some that there should be no limit as to what people can acquire and keep. Many would say that is what made America. Ronald Regan, running for President in 1980 asked, “What is wrong with letting people keep their own money?” It is a good question. It seems like every democracy has been in this argument forever. Remember the heated exchanges between Archie Bunker and the Meathead we laughed at on All in the Family? We all have friends who are on opposite sides, and the day we can no longer have these lively debates would be a very sad day indeed. It is completely understandable that if you amassed a great fortune, you would naturally feel you had something significant to contribute to the discourse. You would also feel that you lived in a great country that made it all possible, and that you wouldn’t want anything to change. You would want to find politicians who would do your bidding when you came up against roadblocks. You would pick up the phone and demand action. You may even believe that you do not have any responsibility to your fellow man. You may feel as John Locke stated that the only purpose of government is the defense of property. You may choose to devote considerable time and resources to furthering these views. Would that constitute undue influence, or would it be contributing to the discourse? That is that is the question.

There is, however, one flaw in this thinking. Hammered into my head in my teens, by the Headmistress of my school was this universal truth from the Bible: “To whom much has been given, much will be required.” Fans of Downton Abbey will remember that it was played out in nearly every episode. Nobless Oblige. If fortune has smiled on you, it is your duty to make your life about good works. One can see philanthropy everywhere, and one can point to all the generosity displayed by the wealthy. Some feel there should be no taxes at all, and if let alone, people would naturally give aid where it is needed. The only flaw I see in that philosophy is that it is too willy-nilly. It is not organized. When George H. W. Bush referred to “a thousand points of light,” in a speech written for him by Peggy Noonan, it sounded well and good. A little here and a little there does not build roads and bridges. So we aught to question the belief that we would be better off without any government at all. Too much would not be good either because I still believe that I was born free.

Out here on Windy Bay, in the beautiful state of Idaho, watching the great birds return from the south, I see that life is primarily about nest building and fishing. Maybe I can take my “hue and color” from them.

eagle in Canada

Still Thinking

My Name is Lucy Barton

It has been four days since I finished reading My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout. Having enjoyed the Pulitzer Prize winner, Olive Kitteridge, I picked up this book with great anticipation. It did not disappoint – not in any way. The reason I did not write about this book immediately has to do with the fact that I am still thinking.

What is it that keeps a reader mulling over phrases, words, ideas, scenes and aspects about a book for days after the book is shelved? It is most likely a by-product of tremendous skill. What is the technique or turn of phrase that would keep resonating in the reader’s mind? A page-turner will have me gallop through the plot, desperate to find out what happens, and then once all loose ends are resolved, I barely give it a second thought. In fact, those sorts of stories go into a to-be-donated pile. There would be no reason to re-read it, and therefore, I doubt I would even hang on to it any longer than necessary.

My Name is Lucy Barton could be described as a quiet novel. I applaud Random House, New York for publishing this work because there are legions of people who dislike such stories. Any writer who attends workshops or conferences will hear a great deal of advice about staying away from this style. It is true that it requires a unique skill set to do it well. It has to do with being in the mind of a created character that has sprung to life on the page.

Elizabeth Strout

Lucy Barton is confined to a hospital bed due to complications from surgery. Her mother, with whom she has had no contact for many years, comes to be with her. It was at the request of Lucy’s husband that she is there, and we learn that right away. So there is tension. Lucy is trapped, and her mother is reluctant. Ordinarily, you would not be able to create a novel around this premise. What keeps the reader engaged is Lucy’s innocence and child-like longing for a response from her mother.

From page 55:

“But it turned out I wanted something else. I wanted my mother to ask about my life. I wanted to tell her about the life I was living now. Stupidly-it was just stupidity- I blurted out, “Mom, I got two stories published.” She looked at me quickly and quizzically, as if I had said that I had grown extra toes, then looked out the window and said nothing. “Just dumb ones,” I said, “in tiny magazines.” Still she said nothing.”

My stomach goes into knots reading this exchange. If a terrorist had suddenly burst into the hospital room and shot both of them, the tension would be less in this reader’s imagination. Why would her mother continually behave in such an unloving manner? Perhaps she simply couldn’t, or maybe she was jealous, or maybe that is just who she was, but for whatever reason, I, as the reader, only wanted to close the gap. This is where the story is very unquiet in my mind. Lucy is going to be all right. We know that all along. She says she came from nothing, but she managed to go to college, marry well, raise two daughters and become an accomplished author. We know that she did all this with precious little support- financial or otherwise. She did it all without becoming bitter or hard-nosed. She values kindness and speaks of it often. That makes her heroic in my eyes and makes me think of her as a living entity, long after the pages are shut, and the book takes a well-deserved place on the shelf.

 

 

 

 

Diets Don’t Work

Do you know why diets don’t work? Neither do I. Diets don’t fail; dieters do, so therefore if you don’t like failure, for heaven’s sake, don’t go on a diet.

Misty Copeland         Misty-Copeland 1

I credit my mother for my long and tiresome history with dieting, as it was she who would always start with the latest diet book. After she had left this world and I had to close up her apartment, there on the night table, right beside her bed was Dr. Phil’s Life Strategies and The Ultimate Weight Loss. She would rail against the strictures of these programs, and then get in bed and say, “I have to read about what I get to eat tomorrow.” From the eggs, steak and grapefruit of the sixties, to Weight Watchers, to Atkins, to South Beach, to Palm Beach, you name it, she was always game. Not being overweight, ever, and in possession of a healthy body and mind, she was nevertheless always after those elusive ten to fifteen pounds that seem to plague us all. At the same time, she entertained and churned out more meals for guests than I can count. This extended to her family, children, and grandchildren and we do not think of her without remembering all those wonderful dinners. As her mother came from a large Irish clan, the tradition of eating food in season and not being too extravagant in any one direction came into play.

When I worked at Coldwater Creek, the idea of an employee cookbook sprang to the mind of the H.R. director who wanted this to happen but did not want to do it herself. Yours truly here volunteered to head up the project, and a labor of love began. I decided that it would be great to celebrate our mother’s and grandmother’s cherished recipes and put their full names, place of birth and dates alongside those family treasures. Sharing this task with our counterparts in West Virginia, we gathered a compilation of culinary wisdom entitled, Coldwater Creek Cooks. To this end, I managed to get the best pound cake recipe ever, originating from Kentucky and served with a hot butter sauce with a touch of Bourbon. As my son was getting married that year, I thought it would be great to give my future daughter-in-law all the reference material possible from the culture of his maternal line. As my daughter headed off to college and moved from wretched dorm food to her own apartment, she had her copy as well. How I delighted in those first calls for instruction in basic meals. I am so proud to say that both my children love good food, eat well and share this bond with me.

Writers who love fine cuisine share a particular place in my heart.cook_cover When The Pat Conroy Cookbook came out, I raced home with my copy, hot off the press and read it from cover to cover. Tasked with preparing the evening meal for his family when his wife decided to go to law school, he began the challenge in the way most writers do: he went straightaway to his favorite book store. He picked up a copy of The Escoffier Cookbook and learned the basics of French cooking which always begin with homemade stock.

My culinary history has a similar origin. As a young adult, living on my own in a stone house in the country, I came down with a nasty bout of pneumonia and moved back home to recover. My mother, working as an interior designer at the time, decided that if I were home all day, I could take on the responsibility of dinner. In her collection of cookbooks, I found one published by our favorite restaurant in Palm Beach, Florida, called The Petite Marmite. The pictures were so beautiful, and inspiring, that I set out to recreate them. I had to start by making stocks that I have always believed are not only the essence of great dishes but also of good health. In Conroy’s book, he describes his time in Paris and also in Rome, the places where he dined after a hard day of writing The Lords of Discipline and The Prince of Tides. He also peppers his chapters with tales of the region he knows so well: the low country of South Carolina. When Mireille Guiliano created French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure, I knew I had found the ultimate book for me. Years ago, in Paris with my mother, we decided to uncover the secret we could see all around us, that being, French women ate the best food in the world and seemed much thinner than their North Americans counterparts. We thought we could just indulge to our heart’s content, and it would all somehow balance out. Wrong.

You cannot describe the physicality of a character in exact terms. It would read like a medical chart. Your reader will get a better picture by depicting what they eat, how much, how often and how important it is to them. Do they eat to live, or are they more like me, a person who lives to eat. Are meals, described regarding grabbing a bite, or set under an arbor in the garden and encompassing most of the afternoon? Is food a necessary chore, or unbridled passion? Above all, what do they eat for lunch?

 

From The Pat Conroy Cookbook:

“I write of truffles in the Dordogne Valley in France, cilantro in Bangkok, catfish in Alabama, scuppernong in South Carolina, Chinese food from my years in San Francisco, and white asparagus from the first meal my agent, Julian Bach, took me to in New York City.”

 

Thoughts on Christmas

The snow is falling on a slant in big, crowded flakes over Windy Bay. We had fog this morning, and then rain, and finally snow, all pointing to a cozy day inside. Christmas cards and wrapping gifts can wait. I want to think about Christmas.

snowy Idaho

We used to do so much running around. The first year America shopped online, I worked for Coldwater Creek on the web team. Terrified of the Internet, people would call and ask if they were online. We would politely have to reply that they were still on the telephone. At first, everyone forgot their passwords, but we could look them up. “That is my dog’s name,” they would say.

 

As the days progressed, the anxiety and stress would increase, and yes, sometimes the call center agents, myself included, would be on the receiving end of a lot of harsh words and yelling. We had to ask if the customer would care to share their email address.
Most responded with, “Certainly not.”
With each increasing year, online shopping became more of the norm. During those years, we scrambled to keep up with the volume of business, and we did everything in our power to keep the customers happy. We were proud to work for a company founded by good people and housed in the beautiful town of Sandpoint, Idaho.

Codwater Creek Store

Sometimes, between calls, my fellow agents and I would commiserate. We bonded. We talked a lot about the meaning of Christmas. It sure didn’t seem like we were hearing it. If packages had yet to arrive, if something did not live up to their expectations, or God forbid, the wrong item got into the box, we had to hear about it. We would wonder what happened to the idea of an old- fashioned Christmas with good food and even better good cheer?

We look back; we look around, and we look forward. We think about the story. It is one of the greatest ever told. As a child, it used to make me wonder why Joseph did not start our earlier, why did Mary have to be dragged along if she was having a baby, why didn’t some nice person give up their room at the Inn so that she could have a bed? Why weren’t they better prepared? Times were different, my Mom said. She was glad she had all of us in a hospital.

On Christmas Eve, in the city of Toronto, we gathered around the radio, listening for the first reports. They came from the military. As the sky turned dark, regular programming would be interrupted with a news bulletin. A sighting! Clearly visible from NORAD bases in the far north, a sleigh, flying through the pitch black sky pulled by reindeer, he was on his way! Santa’s journey had begun. We had the cookies and the milk ready. Why were there two Christmas stories, I wondered?

santa

On Christmas Day, we looked forward to another tradition. My mother insisted we eat breakfast in the dining room with good china and silver, bacon, eggs, toast and fresh orange juice. It seemed to go on forever, but when we finished eating, we gathered by the radio to hear the Queen. She reminded us, year after year, every year of my life to date, that we should focus on serving others. Wherever we happened to be in the Commonwealth, she wanted to wish us all a happy Christmas with our families and to be mindful of those in need. She was right, is right, and will always be right.

There is meaning. There is hope. There is kindness in this world, and there is love. Stress? Who needs it? What we could use is more of the story and more peace.

An Inspiring Leader Takes the Stage

  Justin Trudeau, now Prime Minister of Canada, found inspiration on an early morning paddle on the Bow River in Calgary before the debate.

Justin paddling

I am filled with hope today. Why? I feel inspired.
What exactly is inspiration? I started to think about this when an old friend signed a note to me by saying, stay inspired. It is a daily quest, to be sure. Without going out and looking for it, I can come up empty. The blank page, now the white screen, gets the better of me, and no work gets done on either my novel in progress, Four Stanley Cups and a Funeral, or on my website. When this happens, I have not let anyone down, save myself. However, without self-respect where are we?

Inspiration seems to be gaining in popularity if you look at my Facebook page. Twitter runs hot and cold, but there are no shortages of inspirational tidbits there too. There are days when no platitudes seem to work, and I have to try harder. Others, like today, see me out in the thick woods marveling at the fall colors and circling ravens of Windy Bay. Why is there a spring in my step? Good news and glad tidings are sweeping down like a clean, north wind from Canada.

Whether you missed the election drama, or followed it day by day, last night, a victory occurred for a political party with a dynamic young leader. However, that is not all that took place. A contentious battle veered down the dark alley of the politics of discrimination. Divide and conquer was the failed strategy of the ruling, Conservative Party. Canadians rejected it soundly. That gives me hope.

justin trudeau

We all know better. We all had grandmothers who taught us good manners. We all had grandfathers who introduced us to right and wrong. We know what is called hate speech when we hear it. So why do we keep sinking into this abyss? It is the advice of political strategists. They feel it works. I am hopeful today that some may feel that it does not. It could backfire. It could come back to bite you

My grandfather told me that his father raised him on one simple statement from the Bible: “Yea as you sew, so shall ye reap.”
It is that simple. The man dispensing this advice was a new-age poet and journalist about one hundred years ahead of his time. He taught yoga classes and was a vegetarian. He believed in peace, and he worked to move his country beyond narrow-minded Victorian divisions to a model “free from discrimination of race, class, color or creed.” John Oliver said that the pervasive feeling in Canada of an election lasting seventy-eight days being way too long, was “absolutely adorable.” In this country, we still have a long, long way to go. What becomes tedious is not the exchange of ideas, it is what my grandmother would have called the unpleasantness. Do we really need this as part of the fabric of democracy, or is it rather a stain on our collective soul? Should we not look to leaders who provide inspiration? I am not all that interested in a person’s fears. Why would I even want to hear about them? Why should I be afraid? Why should I cast a vote because of my fears?

I looked up antonyms for the word inspire: Bore, deaden, depress, discourage, dishearten, and here is the best one of all- lull. Lull into a stupor comes to mind.

According to Webster’s, inspiration drives us to create. That is why it is worth seeking. That is why it is a hallmark of true leadership.

The sky is a bright blue today. The sun is glistening in the bay. The leaves are shimmering on the trees. Inspiration is everywhere. When our time to vote comes at last, I want to feel a sense of hope. I want to feel as if we have turned a corner. I want to feel that we are serving the better angels of our nature.  We still have a long way to go. It will be a tough portage.

Enduring Love

 

Canoe Country

Just in time to take the boats out of the water, Roy MacGregor’s Canoe Country: The Making of Canada, arrived on my doorstep. The glorious fall we have enjoyed on Windy Bay is more lovely than ever. Rain, sweet, heavenly rain, has made our parched woods practically sing with joy. Sitting on our deck with the last rays of summer keeping me warm, I was deliriously happy reading one of my favorite authors. Since there is so much to do this time of year in the garden, I had to ration my reading time, but the book got the better of me, and I took to picking it up at every break. Thanks to Roy MacGregor, my Christmas shopping is going to be a snap. Every canoe lover on my list will unwrap this treasure. Books written about canoes are few and far between, but we tend to see the same ones in homes of our friends.

The book, infused with passion, also carries a wealth of historical information.
From the back cover:

“The canoe made Canada. No canoe, no exploration of this second-largest country on earth. No canoe, no fur trade to open up the colony-then-country to commerce and settlement. No dugout, no birchbark canoe, no kayak, no umiak, then perhaps no survival for the for the various Aboriginal peoples who first inhabited this largely inhospitable and often frozen territory.”

Since I was lucky enough to spend my summers canoeing, and traveling on long canoe trips, I can attest to how utterly bonded the traveler becomes with his craft. When you think of the simplicity of the vessel, the adaptability of the voyageur, the mastery of the skills required to endure the journey, it is a wonder. The canoe is much more than a means to an end; it is a thing of inestimable beauty.

 

MacGregor writes of the transition from birchbark to cedar strip with chilling accuracy. It was gratifying to me to read that his research was thorough, and all credit due was given to David Thompson. As in all inventions, necessity brought us this development. As Thompson traveled west, he found birchbark to be scarce. Hence the cedar strip which while disputed seems to have been created out here in the northwest.

From Page 194:

“Thompson’s assignment from his superiors at the North West Trading Company, fourteen years later, was to cross the Continental Divide and establish trade with native tribes west of the Rockies. He and his party passed the winter of 1807 to 1808 at “Kootenae House,” the trading post they had built by a creek that ran into the Columbia.”

From Thompson’s journals, edited by Sean T. Peake and featured on page 204:

“We had to turn out thoughts to some other material, and Cedar wood being the lightest and most pliable for a canoe, we split out thin boards of Cedar wood of about six inches in breadth and builded a Canoe of twenty-five feet in length by fifty inches in breadth, of the same form of a common Canoe, which proved to be equally light and much stronger than Birch Rind.”

Beyond the practical and natural, there is also something mystical about a journey by canoe. I am not making preposterous claims alone here; I have heard this voiced so many times and have read enough accounts to consider it a common experience. It begins as a child when you set off in high spirits and boundless enthusiasm only to hit a wall in about say, twenty minutes, where you suddenly feel that old, are we there yet, impatience. There is a bit of a breakdown that occurs. You can’t get out, you can’t get comfortable, your knees hurt, you are hungry, and you are thirsty, and we have to do this for the next eight hours? One has to learn patience, and one has to learn to be calm, and one has to pass the time in silly conversations or find a song where everyone knows the words, or surely you think you will run mad. After time, the canoe becomes quiet. Words are not needed now, and only the next bend, the next portage or thoughts of a warm fire and a good meal are all that seem to be on your mind. What happened to all the cares, the concerns, the endless thought patterns? They start to slip away, and the contemplation of whirlpools around the dip of your paddle take center stage.

From Page 93 where the journals of Susanna Moodie are quoted:

“She claims to have felt  a magic spell upon our spirits. Every object was new to us. We felt as if we were the first discoverers of every beautiful flower and stately tree that attracted our attention, and we gave names to fantastic rocks and fairy isles.”

What used to transport me into the stratosphere of my highly excitable teen years was the knowledge that I had everything I needed. By the second week of canoeing, I did not want to return to civilization. I reveled in the simplicity of our world, and I could not get enough of exploration. I have been a happy wanderer, and I hope Canadians and Americans who love the outdoors will cherish this book.

Pictured below is the author on a canoe trip in Ontario, Canada.

me by harry

In This Corner

Vendetta
As the smoke filled Windy Bay on Lake Coeur d’ Alene this week, allergies, the likes of which I have not yet experienced, came along with it. It soon became clear that going outside made the condition about a thousand times worse, and that my best bet was to stay indoors with the doors shut. Along with the continuing work on my novel in progress, I sought escape in the pages of Vendetta: Bobby Kennedy Versus Jimmy Hoffa, by James Neff. While fiction fills most of my days, I switch to non-fiction often. I am drawn to history and the history of the sixties and seventies, has always been of particular fascination. For one thing, the period is dramatic, and for another, I have been intrigued by the players.

Going back to why Vendetta became the recipient of my one-click shopping on Amazon, I liked the idea that it was written by the Pulitzer Prize winning investigations editor of the Seattle Times. Reading the reviews, I was struck by the fact that Neff chose to give a balanced approach to the subject. Never in a million years did I imagine I would have one scintilla of empathy for Jimmy Hoffa. My knowledge of him was somewhat limited, and I thought of him as a thug who harassed the Kennedy home at Hickory Hill by having his teamsters drive by the house at all hours.

Robert F. Kennedy, on the other hand, always had my affection and admiration. Having read his own words, as well as the accounts of others, I never accepted the negative adjectives applied to him. Authors have sometimes launched into the tales of the good Bobby, or the bad Bobby, but Neff resisted that trap. Who among us could not be described in those terms? Robert Kennedy and His Times, by Arthur Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy: His Life by Evan Thomas, and Robert Kennedy in His Own Words: The Unpublished Recollections of the Kennedy Years, and last, but certainly not least, Thirteen Days, by Robert F. Kennedy, are among my personal favorites. Vendetta is written with careful attention to detail, and an absolutely thorough look at the motives that drove both men. So reading of Hoffa’s tough upbringing, his ability to connect with people, and his drive to pull himself and his family up by the bootstraps, humanizes him. Seeing the full weight of the Justice Department, absolutely determined to get him, made me cringe a little. On the other hand, his heavy hand was patently evident, and I, too, thought justice would be in order. Reading this book, reminded me of a boxing match with Kennedy in one corner and Hoffa in another.

Rorbert F. Kennedy

It is almost incomprehensible to me to learn that J. Edgar Hoover had an almost hands off approach to organized crime. He was interested in pursuing communists, and the mafia, in retrospect, looked back those times as golden. Picturing the characters swirling around the courtrooms and halls of F.B.I headquarters, I felt I could almost smell the cigarette smoke, and that the picture in my mind seemed black and white. Yet the reader knows the clock is ticking. Time waits for no man. Suddenly it is November in 1963, and we all know what happens next. We know that Hoover will deliver the news to R.F.K. in a chilling and entirely dispassionate tone. President Kennedy once said that in politics one does not have friends, just allies.

Thirteen Days

We are so inundated by tales of good guys and bad guys that a balanced account is almost foreign. We live in a time where the news of the day is so unbalanced that as a nation, we are living in dueling realities. Therefore, Neff is to be admired for his account of a man of privilege setting out to do some good in this old world against a guy who wanted more out of life than the world he saw around him.

The review that sold me on this book came from Erik Larson:

“From the violence of its gripping opening to the sorrow of its close, this is an astonishing and eye-opening account of the vendetta- obsessive, intigue-filled, hatred-tinged-that pitted Robert F. Kennedy against Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, and nearly consumed them both. Amazing stuff, really-a triumph of investigation and revelation.”