“All Our Bags Are Packed”

The tranquil life 6


We’re not leaving on a jet plane, but we are leaving for a while, five nights at a desert resort in Tucson, Arizona, which is rapidly becoming our home away from home. It’s because of the lives we lead these days. She is increasingly busy with her job, and I with the huge volume of work I must do for our remodeling plans. More and more, our lives seem to be hurry, hurry, hurry, with very little in the way of a break from it or a little time for each other. And it is this last that we most yearn for.


Anyone following us around in Tucson would surely wonder what the attraction is. We rarely do anything in the way of sightseeing. This time round we’ve made plans to take in Old Tucson Studios, in part because we want to see it a second time, in larger part because we want to buy some souvenirs for our next door neighbors, two young boys who will surely eat that up. But that one-day trip is for us very much of a rarity. Most of the time we go no further than a few miles from the resort itself: to restaurants, a favorite used book store for me, shops for her. What we mostly do is simply spend time with each other. It is such an incredible luxury to get up in the morning when we feel like it, have coffee for as long as we want to, go to a breakfast so late it’s brunch, walk hither and yon holding hands. And talk and laugh and be. With each other and only with each other.


I have always been very driven to create, which is surely why my woodworking projects have such a tendency to take on a life of their own. They’re much too complex at times, but my modus operandi has never changed. First I make drawings of what I want to do for a project. Then I go about figuring out how in the hell I’m going to pull that off! But with all of that, and with all of the time I spent learning how to write, I never once wanted to work without rest for years at a time. If I had my wish, I would be writing award-winning novels, working just four hours every morning.


The tranquil life 2There are times when I’m working when I’m not working at all, and especially so when I am writing. Back in the years when I wrote in longhand and got up at 3:45 every morning to pursue my dreams before leaving for a full day’s work at 8:00 a.m. I would often go into the study with a hot cup of coffee and go right to work on a passage. I would eventually lean back in the chair to read over what I’d written, take a sip of coffee, and be shocked to discover that it was then ice-cold. It’s because I’m so focused. I go to work, and the rest of the world drops away from me. But for all that I love to work at times, I love life much more, and I especially love being with Christine.


One of the quotes I often trot out in such a discussion is from Mahatma Gandhi, “There is more to life than increasing its speed.” It’s a saying that has been with me so long that I really cannot remember when it was not, but even before I read it, I lived it. I do think Americans have always moved too fast, a syndrome that has only grown worse in recent years. Ironically enough, the very technology I am using to urge a slowdown is the very thing that has done so much to speed us up these days! The problem with iPhones and texting and so forth is that we never really leave the office, because it’s always with us. And being always with us, it rapidly becomes the day that never ends. I don’t have such a thing and have long since left the world of business, but back in those days, I always knew that what I most wanted was a little less. I read Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” in the fall of 1981, and I was never the same after that. The following year we moved to San Diego and began restructuring our lives. One of the passages that stayed with me is this:


“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.


“When we consider what, to use the words of the catechism, is the chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear.”


I have always felt drawn to that man, not to every single thing he says, of course, but the main message, that of living a more measured and meaningful life, has always resonated with me. It’s what I so enjoy about my time with Christine, just to revel in her, her laugh, her spirit, her all. We work so hard these days, but to what purpose? One of the quotes that has been making the Internet Rounds recently is from the current Dalai Lama. When he was asked what most surprised him about humanity, he said,



Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money.

Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health.

And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present;

The result being that he does not live in the present or the future;

He lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”


In any case I am going to Tucson this coming week, and that is where I will be. I’d leave a number where I can be reached, but I don’t want to be reached. I want to commune with nature and the desert and Christine.



“Why, Back in My Day…”

The Good Old Days


I recently came across an item on the Internet which depicted the “horrors” of the world those of us over the age of 40 inhabited before these modern days of cell phones, texting, video games and the lot. It was one of those tongue-in-cheek articles that ended with the inevitable “You kids today have got it too easy. You’re spoiled rotten! You guys wouldn’t have lasted five minutes back in 1970 or any time before!”


I laughed when I read that article, not so much because of the funny lines in it, but simply because I actually think I had it much better than the younger generation. And I’m a whole bunch of years over 40. I grew up without a whole lot in the way of toys because we were too poor for that. Our main toy was cardboard boxes we got from the back of furniture companies, but with imagination, they became almost anything. So I developed an imagination. There were no calculators, so I learned arithmetic, and if I were at the cash register and the power went out, I’d still be able to make change.


Because I had no machines with spell check, I was forced to learn how to spell, a process that developed my memory. There were no excuses permitted for undone homework in those distant days, so I learned how to be responsible for my actions. Since typewriters were all there was, I learned how to type seventy words per minute. Since I had no grammar check, I learned the rules of English grammar. Because developing children’s self-esteem had not yet become a mantra, I learned to give everything I did my very best efforts and to not make excuses for failures.


Because there were no video games of any kind, I learned how to better utilize my time and how to keep myself entertained whenever I was forced to simply sit and wait. To this day I can sit in a waiting room for hours with neither book nor game nor TV and pass the time quite happily by simply thinking about the projects at hand. Because we didn’t get a TV of any kind until I was in the fourth grade, I got to listen to the tail end of radio shows. I have the memory of lying in front of the old Philco radio in a room illuminated by its golden glow. And by the time we finally got that old time-wasting TV I had already developed an undying love of books.


Because we had no Kindles in those days, I have the memory of checking books out of the library and reading half of the first one as I slowly walked back home. Because the world was not so paranoid and bizarre, and because I grew up in Helena, Montana, as kids we simply told our parents we were going camping overnight and went without another word from them. Truth to tell, I don’t even think they knew where the pond was we always hiked to.


I grew up without a cell phone, but I did not grow up without values and skills and a love for learning that is with me yet. Quite frankly, I think it’s the younger generation that is deprived.




Memories 1



Memories, pressed between the pages of my mind

Memories, sweetened through the ages just like wine

Quiet thoughts come floating down

And settle softly to the ground

Like golden autumn leaves around my feet

I touched them and they burst apart with sweet memories,

Sweet memories

—Scott Davis

Memories 2It is 6:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning as I begin this, and my wife lies comfortably asleep. Truth to tell, I’ve only just arisen myself. It’s the dream that drove me in here. And my birthday.

This particular birthday is really just another. I’m at an age now where the only birthdays that merit attention are the milestone birthdays, the decades as they go tumbling by, but even those are beginning to appear with appalling frequency. Still, I’ve two more years before the advent of the Biblical three score and ten, an event that especially stands out in my mind because my father had such a difficult time with it when he became that age. He was the most tenacious man I ever knew, but time defeated him. He was always hale and hearty and incredibly vigorous for one his age, as the saying goes. But when he turned 70 this most active man began to shuffle like the old man he now believed himself to be, and he did that, moving ever more slowly, until he left this vale of tears at age 78.

My mother was 12 years younger, but from the beginning she vowed that she was NOT going to be an old woman, and although the calendar eventually declared that she really was older now, she never once acted that way. She was not one of those fools who continue dressing like a twenty-something. Really, she was like Raquel Welch, who has also reached “a certain age.” Welch came to fame as a bombshell, but no longer dresses the part because aged bombshells are rather pathetic. Instead, she carries herself with a lot of dignity and grace, and dresses well. Mother was like that, not that gorgeous, but wise enough to surrender gracefully to the inevitability of aging. The main thing, though, was that she never once shuffled. Really, all that ever slowed her in those last months was the cancer that eventually killed her at age 78. The difference between the old ages of my parents was stark and a vivid lesson to me. You are only as old as you feel you are

But I began this by saying that it was the dream that drove me in here on a day when I really intended to take full advantage of the Sunday and sleep in. I dreamt I was talking to an older half-sister and telling her that I’d been thinking about Helena, Montana where I grew up and how much I missed my boyhood friends and the place itself. Diane said something to the effect that I could go back whenever I want. And, indeed, some five years ago my younger brother and I (there’s just 17 months between us) went to Helena for a family reunion. It’s a huge extended family, and several hundred turned out for the event. We told them all that we would do some things with the group, but a lot more things on our own because we wanted to poke around in Helena for a few days, sharing our home town with our wives and his son. It’s not there anymore.

Memories 3The house where we spent our formative years is still there, and we were naturally amused to see how truly small that front yard was, site of football games, our own version of kickball and myriad other games and memories. The backyard is now completely filled with a modern two-car garage. They made room for the new by demolishing the old one-car garage that I “helped” my father build when I was five years old. I have a vivid memory of Dad and a male friend demolishing an old building in that backyard. For all I know, given that the house itself was built in the 1880s, it was a carriage house! But when the site was cleared, Dad went to work on the new structure, and this time he worked alone. I still remember when he raised the rafters he’d made, pulling them into place with a rope, his arms trembling from the exertion.

It was the first time I’d ever been around the wonders of construction, and it possessed me from the very beginning. Despite my tender age, I would sit there all day long watching the Old Man so I could occasionally bring him a tool. In those days, of course, it was all hand tools, and the ones I remember most often bringing him were his framing square and his combination square, words too long for a five-year-old, so Dad quickly went to calling them the big square and the little square. His framing square is long gone, but I still have two of his wood planes and the combination square (little square, for those who don’t know which is which) has long been in my own tool tote, along with another of his hand tools, an old screwdriver I use as a utility tool.

The old Marlow Theater (I once wrote about it in “Popcorn Palaces”) is long gone, but really, so is most of the city. Helena is still there and is actually quite a bit bigger than it was when we grew up there, but very little of the city is now as it was then. And even those parts that are alike really aren’t. None of my childhood friends are there. Oh, there might still be one or two who still lives in the city, and I do actually have a number of first cousins who still live in Montana. But none of that is the same. They’re much older, with children and grand children who are considerably older than we were when we were still making forts from cardboard boxes we got from behind the furniture stores.

The National Forest. Elderly couple (model released) walking along an avenue of beech trees {Fagus sylvatica} among fallen leaves. Autumn colour. Beacon Hill Country Park, Leicestershire, UK. November 2010.And that was what we discussed in that dream last night—well early this morning, really. It was my last dream, one so vivid that it woke me up and drove me to this keyboard, which, ironically enough, is also much changed from that long-ago land I wanted to return to in my dream. I still remember going to my father’s desk in Helena and trying to teach myself how to type on his old manual Underwood. It didn’t work, of course, but I eventually took a high school typing class, and at that time we learned on manuals. That is one item for which I have no nostalgia whatsoever. The biggest difficulty was learning how to pace one’s typing so the keys swung up one after another, but not before the previous key had had a chance to drop back out of the way. Whenever one mistimed it, the keys stuck together. I truthfully never typed faster than 40 words per minute on those damned things!

But to return to the dream and the thought that pulled me out of a warm bed and into this study, Diane was assuring me that I could go back whenever I wanted to. I told her, “You can’t go back because that place no longer exists.” And it really doesn’t. I read once that you can never step into the same river twice, not even if you stand on the same rock and step in the same place and do so almost immediately after you just got out. The flowing water makes that an impossibility. The water you stepped into five minutes earlier is now far downstream, and the water that wets you now was new to another upstream who also finds it impossible to step into the same water. Time moves just as inexorably. Moments lost are lost forever. We think we can goof off half a day and then make it up by working faster for what remains of the day, but, in a larger and more profound sense we really cannot. Time wasted is forever gone. And working twice as hard does not retrieve it, a fact I find myself becoming increasingly cognizant of as the leaves of my own calendar begin to fall with such rapidity.