January 4, 2019
Joyce awoke in the night and looked out the window. She saw a full moon, shining on fresh snow.
I lay half-asleep. Then Joyce gasped. I bolted out of bed to see what alarmed her.
“Something’s out there,” she said.
I saw only snow. Then, behind the pond, I saw a shape, indistinct in the moon-cast shadows, but something huge.
Massive shoulders hunched, it glided across the snow.
I thought: werewolf.
“Coyote?” I said, clutching at an explanation I didn’t believe.
“Way too big,” Joyce said. “Too big even for a deer.”
We watched the huge shadow creature move across the snow.
Then it passed through a moonlit patch, and I got a glimpse.
Six-feet high. Half a ton.
It had come out of the meadow, north of our house. Now its long legs moved it southward, toward the pinewoods behind the pond.
It strode purposively, as if it knew exactly where it meant to go in the night, and why, and understood it had a long trek ahead.
A shadow again, it melted into the dark pinewoods, and was gone. Just moonlight now, and snow.
Morning brought a gray sky, cold, impending flurries. My mind, though, still held onto what we’d seen last night, under the full moon.
A massive beast glides through the shadows. Where it’s going, who can know?
October 26, 2018
We’ve been doing some autumn cleaning, looking into attic boxes and little-used drawers and closets, and we’ve found that, never realizing it, for decades we’ve been hoarders of our own lives.
We’re human packrats, we’ve discovered, hiding away bits and pieces of the past, and then forgetting where we put them, or even that we ever hid them at all.
Here’s an old photograph of Joyce’s grandmother and friends, when they were young. They wear white neck-to-toe dresses, and they all look like Emily Dickinson clones, or people in a Merchant-Ivory historical drama. In fact, they were real people, busy with horse-drawn carriages and coal stoves and wintertime sledding parties. People from another world.
Here’s a letter my father wrote to us, stashed in a box and forgotten: “We enjoyed everything this past Christmas…we are in good health including the cats. Considering the fact that my hair is thinning out I finally bought myself a hat…”
Here’s a photo of Joyce’s mother, a bride, radiant….
Memories, like raked leaves in an October wind, swirl up.
So I’m asking myself: are we precisely this—a trunkful of memories? Learning to drive standard shift? Skating on the river, over rushing black water? That time you….
Why do we save these things?
Here’s a letter from my childhood friend Neal, now dead in Alaska, because his wife died and, after a few months, he decided not to go on. When I spoke to him last, he asked if I ever thought of the war game we kids played, when I shot him in the eye with a bb gun? Every day, I said. Every day.
Theater tickets, boxing gloves and fencing foils in a box….
If we didn’t save these things, would the memories they embody fade? And then, because those memories are us, would we fade, too? When our memories are gone, aren’t we gone?
Here’s a photo of Joyce as a two-year-old. She’s staring fixedly at her birthday cake, and pointing at it. It seems meaningful, that pointing.
September 2, 2018
I’ve been thinking: what does a story mean?
It’s because I just published a new novel, Caliban Rising—it’s a thriller, and I hope it means: “Keep turning those pages!”
You sneak onto a mysterious Caribbean island. Nice beaches, but nasty murders. Maybe you get hurled out of a Black Hawk helicopter, or fed to the island’s feral Bengal tiger. Also, there are creepy robots….
Will you survive?
Every thriller, I think, underneath, means just that: danger besets us.
We lead thriller lives.
A young physician we knew walked out of a movie theater, with a bag of popcorn, and collapsed on the sidewalk, dead—peanut allergy. Somehow, that popcorn came in contact with peanut dust.
An SUV (inattentive driver) struck a woman we knew, and killed her, as she crossed a small town’s Main Street. We’ve known decent people, living enthusiastically, brought down by cancer, or Parkinson’s, or ventricular fibrillation.
Sometimes it’s your well-being that’s endangered. We know a hard-working man whose corporation (think Enron) abruptly collapsed. No job. No pension. At age fifty-something, start over, from zero.
Here’s another executive thriller tale: a friend of ours discovered a colleague got hold of his resume, then secretly mailed it to other corporations. This corporate Iago wanted our friend hired away.
Etc. Etc. Etc.
What’s lurking along your own path, or in your blood stream? Every thriller whispers that question. Every thriller asks: how will you cope?
In a novel, at least, courage saves the day, and doing right. Usually. Sort of.
So that feels good.
August 6, 2018
We once tried vegetable gardening, but a woodchuck ate most of our carrots and green beans and squash. He got so fat he couldn’t run, only slowly waddle.
We say “he” because of his size. Females are smaller, and possibly more into weight watching.
Woodchucks have western cousins—marmots and prairie dogs—but woodchucks are more eccentric, like old-time New England hill farmers.
For one thing, they’re loners. In early spring, males go roaming the woods, hoping for one-night stands. Otherwise, they’re commitment-phobic. They’re just not that much into each other. No wives, no husbands. They don’t even want friends.
Here’s the karma part.
Two years ago, we had an oddball woodchuck. Big, so probably a male.
Our house sits up on a rise. Behind the house is a large deck, then lawn, sloping down to a pond, with woods beyond. This woodchuck had its burrow behind the pond, in the woods. Perfectly normal. Otherwise, though, this woodchuck broke key woodchuck laws.
One of those laws is: venture out only in early morning and the evening. This one, though, came out any time, to enjoy our salad-bar lawn.
Hawks, foxes, coyotes, fishers? He seemed to scorn them all.
He wandered so far up our lawn he reached our deck. He liked it. So he set up a second burrow, a vacation home, under the deck.
Finally, he began climbing onto the deck and sprawling there, just outside our picture window. He’d sunbathe. He’d take in the mountain view.
We’d check the window before going out. Didn’t want to disturb him.
Around mid-August, woodchucks start getting sleepy. In late September, or October, they go underground to snooze until spring.
One April, our woodchuck never reappeared. Their lifespan is about five years, so maybe he succumbed to old age.
Back to that karma—now we have a new woodchuck.
It appeared this summer, smaller, so maybe a female. More likely, it’s just a young male, because we’ve seen no accompanying little woodchucks.
Here’s the karma part: against all woodchuck etiquette rules, he’s out and about all times of day. Now he’s taken to making his way up the lawn to our deck. Yesterday, he darted under the deck, clearly making it his second burrow.
Just like our former woodchuck neighbor.
We’ve hypothesized: he’s the son (possibly daughter) of our former woodchuck, inheritor of all that oddball behavior.
Maybe, though, if Asian religions have it right, and life is an endless cycle of birth and death and rebirth, this could be….
We’re waiting to see if our new woodchuck starts sprawling on our deck, sunbathing, taking in the view.
It’d be a sign.
--Joyce & Richard
June 5, 2018
We greatly enjoy our animal neighbors, from black bears lumbering across the lawn to Blackburnian warblers up in the sugar maples, but we have our limit.
That limit is…Canada geese.
Yes, the Canada goose is handsome, grayish white with a black neck and head and a white chinstrap. Yes, they mate for life, a devoted couple, and kudos to them for that.
They are large, and a bit thuggish. If the geese land on our pond, the wood ducks and mallards and hooded mergansers don’t come. Mr. and Mrs. Goose sail around our pond like the battleships of an occupying force.
They also leave a noxious mess on the lawn, nothing you want to accidentally step in.
Additionally, geese have a provocative attitude.
For instance, as a teenager, I once faced a flock of domestic geese running at me, long necks extended, hissing and honking, and I ran like a yellow-bellied coward.
I do bear grudges.
Not long ago a pair of Canada geese landed on our pond, sailed around regally, then strutted up onto our lawn, undoubtedly ready to do their worst.
I went Viking berserk.
Instead of a battle axe, I grabbed my jacket and charged down the hill, flapping the jacket at the invading geese, a fearsome sight, I thought.
Apparently, though, not so much.
Both geese regarded me with heads up and a glare that clearly said: “Hey, what’s your problem, Mack?”
They watched me with contempt, running and yelling and flapping, and then—at the ultimate moment—with dignity and cool disdain—they strolled to the pond and swam a ways offshore. They turned to look at me, now stamping along the dam, flapping my jacket at them, and calling them vulgar names.
They glanced at each other, apparently saying, “Man, that guy’s one lunatic goofball.”
Provoked, I ran along the dam, flapping the jacket even harder, until something slippery happened with the concrete under my feet.
A moment later, I found myself neck-deep in cold water, along with my jacket, no longer flapping.
Interested, the geese watched me crawl out of the pond and trudge dripping back up to the house (and a towel).
For another half hour, they swam serenely about, in stately circles. Then, having made their statement, they flew away in a thunder of wings and a downward glare of disdain—they saw me, I believe, in the picture window, wrapped in a bathrobe, watching in shame.
We no longer try to chase away the Canada geese. Their homeland to the north, after all, is our country’s closest ally, and we try to bear that in mind.
January 30, 2018
Tux When We First Met Him
Tux, the Cardigan Welsh corgi, needed a new home, and that would be iffy.
It would be iffy because, despite being a little charmer, Tux was a little dickens. It also would be difficult because Tux lived with Pam, and she wouldn’t let him go just anywhere.
We first got to know Tux when he was still a puppy—we’d been visiting in Florida that winter and heard about a neighborhood couple with a new corgi. Joyce allows no nearby corgi to go unvisited, if she can help it, so we met Pam and Wayne, and it led to a warm friendship.
Pam and Wayne were Conchs, which is what Key Westers call themselves. They told us wonderful stories about Key West, back in the Hemingway days. They’d brought Tux into their home late in life because Wayne really wanted that dog. Tux turned out to be an imp, super smart, the Energizer Corgi, with a PhD in play and mischief.
Tux runs to his toy box, selects a favorite, plus another, plus a third, manages to stuff all three toys into his mouth, then runs to present them to you, a demand to play multiple-throw-the-toy, or wrestle-for-the-toy.
Tux knows he’s forbidden to climb onto the bed in the guest bedroom, so he slyly waits until nobody’s watching, then jumps on the bed and exuberantly tosses the pillows.
Lots of such things.
Wayne got sick. He fought it, lived far longer than the doctors said he would, but it turned out to be one battle a former Army special forces soldier couldn’t win. At Wayne’s final moment in life, Tux let out a wail.
Now it was just Pam and Tux. A question hung in the air: what if Pam, now alone, no longer could care for Tux?
That day came—Pam, too, fell ill. She no longer could live in her home.
Where could this high-energy corgi find a new home?
Pam had stipulations. He needed a fenced-in yard, where he could safely play. There must be kids in the home. There should be another dog, too, although that might be a problem: Tux liked some dogs, disdained others. A home that already had a corgi would be best, especially if that corgi was close to Tux’s age.
From her hospital bed, with Tux unhappily ensconced in a kennel, Pam desperately tried to find such a home. It seemed hopeless.
Then, unexpectedly, Tux’s vet called: she knew a family in North Carolina, and maybe….
This family consisted of a mom and dad, three young daughters, and a female Pembroke Welsh corgi, just Tux’s age. They had a fenced-in yard. For three years the husband had been seeking a male corgi. Outnumbered in his all-female household, he wanted at least one other male on board.
Mom, dad, and their resident female corgi all drove to Florida to meet Tux, at the kennel, to see if this could possibly work.
Maybe our friend Tux understood he needed a new home. Maybe, no matter what, he wanted to get out of the kennel. For whatever reason, when the family arrived, although it must have strained him, Tux was on his very best behavior.
A getting-to-know-you hour ended with love all around. Tux enthusiastically jumped into his new family’s car and off they all drove, north to North Carolina.
Pam called us, knowing we worried about Tux. Here’s her report—
Her niece mailed Tux’s new family a big box full of his pedigree papers and his favorite toys. Also in the box was a jacket Pam had sewn for him, with a Welsh flag on one side, because he’s a Welsh corgi, and a Scottish flag on the other, honoring Pam’s and Wayne’s own heritage.
Tux knew that jacket. When his new family put it on him, they wrote, he “strutted all around the house like a little prince.”
And there is more good news. Pam now lives in Virginia near one of her sons and his wife, and—slowly—she is regaining strength. She has grit. She has a strong spirit.
So does Tux.
Life goes on.
--Joyce and Richard
October 24, 2017
Just as we looked out Joyce’s home-office window, a large black bear hurried up our lawn.
Behind her, struggling to keep up, waddled a dutiful cub, worried Mom would outdistance him (or her—who knows?).
A moment later, at the lawn’s far end, a second cub burst from the bushes. This one stared in alarm at Mom’s receding back, then scrambled up the lawn after her and the dutiful sibling.
Now, her two cubs closely following, the bear stepped over the stone wall and started down the hill by the waterfall. At that moment, out from the bushes, burst yet a third cub. This latecomer eyed the rapidly disappearing family, then bounced up the lawn after them, jauntily—the naughty cub, the rebel, the I’ll-do-it-my-way cub.
Not that Mom seemed to care. She splashed full tilt across the stream below the waterfall, then disappeared into the pine woods, cubs hurrying behind. Mom, apparently, had an important date, probably with somebody’s birdfeeder, and if the cubs wanted to stay parented, they’d better keep up. No hover parent, this ursine tiger mom dished out tough love.
It brought back a memory: once I worked as a zoo’s bear-cub keeper. My twenty-eight charges lived in a broad round pit, with concrete walls they couldn’t scale. At the circular pit’s hub stood their nighttime cub cave, a stone igloo with an iron door. For climbing, they had a two-story dead tree, rising from the igloo’s top. They also had a little swimming pool, for taking a dip.
One of my responsibilities was warning visitors to stop dangling their toddlers down into the pit to pet the bears, an extremely bad idea, because my cubs were all little swatters. It was how they played and expressed themselves. I also cleaned the pit’s sand floor, but my hardest task was herding all twenty-eight cubs into their cave every night and shutting the door.
I’d get three in, go out for more. Meanwhile, the first three would seize the opportunity for a jailbreak.
Heading home in the evening, I’d stop first at my father’s shop—he tarred roofs and installed forced-air furnaces—where the two guys working with him always sniffed, then proclaimed: “Hey, do I smell bear?”
Here’s how tough my cubs were: once two of them got into a fight on top of their climbing tree, and one got swatted off. He plummeted two stories, bounced off the stone igloo, and sat on the pit’s sand floor, glaring up at his rival and literally shaking his fist, or paw.
I’d get home every night with new scratches on my arms. My cubs did love to swat.
They came in black, brown, and cinnamon, although they were just one species, black bears. They also came in assorted ages and sizes, from halfway to my knee (when standing erect on their hind legs) to just above my knee.
My littler cubs loved me. They’d stand up, throw up their arms (front legs) and beg to be lifted and held. Others regarded me with indifference. However, the biggest cub, whom I called “Gargantua,” hated me. I threatened his alpha-cub position, in his mind, and he wanted me to die.
He’d hide behind the igloo and when I passed by, from around the curve, a paw would flash out to swat.
Eventually I gave up trying to make friends and ignored Gargantua, who’d sit off to the side glaring at me. One evening, though, his glare seemed more thoughtful, as if he’d been pondering the situation. Finally, he made up his mind. I’m sure I saw him nod.
He walked to me and held up his front legs, as he’d seen the littlest cubs do, begging to be lifted up and held.
At last, I thought.
I lifted him up. I looked into his brown eyes, he looked into my blue eyes. His expression turned to triumph.
He gave me a powerful swat, on the cheek.
Then he jumped down and I could almost hear him sniggering.
Here’s what: I love bears, and I especially love bear cubs.
And the one I’ve always loved the most was Gargantua, who never loved me.
September 23, 2017
I’m looking out my home office window and on the far bank of our large pond I see 15 ducks sitting in a row. Clearly they hatched this spring, and now they’re the equivalent of human teenagers, so full of energy they race every which way, on a whim.
They flew in four weeks ago, at first just a few, but more kept coming. The attraction? Our apple trees.
Now, as if they discussed it, they are suddenly waddling towards the apple tree at the bottom of the lawn, near the pond. For a few weeks now it has been dropping its apples.
Our ducks seem to be a mix of wood ducks, black ducks, and mallards, all supposed to swim in the shallows, tails tipped up, heads underwater, munching pond grasses off the bottom. We’ve never seen them tipping at all. For them, it’s all about apples.
At first, the apples puzzled the ducks. How do you eat these things? Eventually, they found the secret—spear the apples with your bill.
Yes, the ducks actually do this. We have watched them, apples stuck on their bills, like clown noses, waddling at great speed towards the pond, to escape their fellow ducks, who have not succeeded in spearing the apples and want the apple-catching ducks to share. They tear off bits of the apples to eat, although many apples end up bobbing in our pond when the ducks try to free the apples from their bills or to snatch another duck’s apple.
Deer, too, like to gather at the apple tree to munch, but the ducks resent these apple rustlers, and they do something about it. One duck, who we call Braveheart, marched right up to two does, with some of her more timid followers lurching behind her. She walked closer and closer to the deer, until she stood defiantly under their noses. Then she speared an apple from between one doe’s hooves and marched away. Once a fawn came to the apple tree with its mother, and when the ducks waddled toward it, the startled fawn jumped backward, and then bolted for the forest.
It’s not always apples. Sometimes, at high speed, the ducks zig and zag all over our large lawn. It’s hard to see why, except that they’re teenagers. That’s why they have so much energy.
At some point, they will fly south. We will miss them.
Check out our published books
Stories published in literary journals
A "Pleistocene western," published in Reflections Edge
A nonfiction book of stories about disappearing animals, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
An award-winning chronicle of life and caring in a small hospital, published in Smithsonian Magazine
Just when a terrifying illness strikes, a self-confident corgi appears on our deck, seeking a new home, and he becomes our guide.