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?
December 11, 2018
Our good friend and frequent visitor, Murdock Morse, sends his holiday greetings to all.
Go romp in the snow, he says. It feels good!
--Joyce & Richard
December 11, 2018
Gracie Duke--another good friend of ours--wants to second her pal Murdock's message: celebrate!
It's the darkest days of the year, she says. So get out there and bark! Bark for the return of the light!. Bark loud! It'll come!
Joyce & Richard
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.
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.
August 4, 2017
This Caribbean island looks serene, but don't kid yourself
Lately I worry a lot about who to kill off.
Don’t call the police—I’m talking about characters in the thriller I’m currently writing.
I don’t mind offing bad guys, because they fully deserve it. Every one of them, believe me. It’s the good characters who trouble me, imaginary people I’ve come to like and respect.
I’m writing this novel, so I suppose I’m Zeus, and I get to decide who dies and who lives. However, the truth is that the story itself is king of the gods, with its own wishes and demands and requirements. Authors are soothsayers. All we can do, really, is divine what the story wants and do its bidding.
For instance, this novel started as a pure thriller, set on a Caribbean island, but I’m about midway through now and—all on its own—it’s taken on a faint sci-fi tinge, although nothing that couldn’t actually happen in the world today. Let’s just hope it doesn’t.
is the novel’s title. So far, at least. Even in titles, the story will have its way, so we’ll see.
Anyway, back to the question of good characters dying. For some reason, in our real world, we’ve lately had a rash of people we know dying. People not yet in their fullness of years. Brain cancers, heart attacks, prostate cancer, rare disorders with unpronounceable names….
I suppose that what determines who dies too young is not goodness, not badness. It’s just how our story wants to be told.
February 25, 2017
Western Movies Didn't Get It Quite Right
Conestoga wagon—the iconic wagon of the pioneer west!
We photographed this Conestoga wagon at the Shelburne (Vt.) Museum, one of the nearly 200 sleighs, coaches, and wagons in its “Horse-Drawn Vehicle Collection,” housed in a vast barn shaped, appropriately, like a horseshoe.
If your ancestors made the westward migration, they probably rode in a “prairie schooner,” a smaller, lighter wagon. Conestogas were too big and heavy to lumber across the roadless Great Plains. They were called “ships of commerce.” They were the Mack Trucks of the 18th and 19th centuries. Few, if any, crossed the Mississippi River.
Each Conestoga wagon, drawn by teams of horses, mules, or oxen, hauled up to six tons of cargo. Each had a rear-mounted feed box, for the animals, sort of a pre-industrial gas tank. Conestogas transported goods extensively in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, often forming long wagon trains. Conestogas’ floors curved upward, so the cargo wouldn’t fall out.
Incidentally, people didn’t ride in Conestogas, only cargo did. People walked alongside, although the wagons did have a wooden plank mounted on one side. It was to accommodate sore feet, and it was called “the lazy seat.”
We frequently visit the Shelburne Museum—39 historic buildings on 45 acres, exhibiting everything from duck decoys to impressionistic paintings. Among other things, it takes you time-travelling back into the past, when much transportation depended on hooves.
It wasn’t just those American pioneers, heading for California, either. Richard’s great-grandmother rode a covered wagon, not so different from the Conestoga, but that was across the Russian steppes.
--Joyce & Richard
January 31, 2017
A LIVING SCULPTURE
She is roughly 30 feet high. She is a living sculpture, made of plants.
Based on Chinese myth, she was one of 50 such giant foliage-and-flower sculptures we saw at the Mosaicultures Internationales Exhibit at the Montreal Botanical Gardens--galloping horses, parading lemurs with their tails up, a shepherd with dog and flock, pandas frolicking, waterfowl taking flight….
This summer, 2017, the Mosaicultures will be back, this time at Gatineau, Quebec (across the river from Ottawa), as MosaiCanada 150, celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday. See it if you can. These stunning sculptures are all made from living plants, but they aren’t topiary, which is shaped shrubs.
It is a highly complex form of art. The artists--from all over the world--must design and build frameworks for the sculptures, blend the colors, and plan for the maintenance of each plant they use.
It lifts your spirits.
October 31, 2016
Edmund Wilson, Literary Critic
Edmund Wilson, the eminent literary critic, said detective stories are junk.
Ouch—I've just published a mystery novel, "Spider's Web in the Green Mountains." More to the point, I’m a long-time mystery reader.
It was 1945 when Wilson huffed about detective stories. I just looked it up. That was when books still mattered, and literary critics, like Edmund Wilson, actually could be eminent. So attention must be paid.
Wilson cited an Agatha Christie novel, "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd," and posed a zingy question: “Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?” He also said that “…the reading of detective stories is simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, resides somewhere between smoking and crossword puzzles.”
Actually, I also don’t care who killed Roger Ackroyd. Mostly, I’m in it for the adventure. In real life, I get edgy crossing a city street—I like virtual adventure, in which somebody else dodges .45 slugs.
I’m also drawn by the mystery ambience, the sense that, beneath the mundane, run strong currents, deep and dark.
Stories hinging on unlikely tangles are popular, but I’m more simple-minded. I like my stories straight up—Hey, that could really happen!
I wonder, too, if the mystery genre hasn’t evolved since Wilson’s day, when he complained the characters were “all simply names on a page.” Some modern mysteries seem less Roger Ackroyd and more Raskolnikov.
Besides, one of our greatest poets liked mysteries. So, I’m with you, William Butler Yeats.
October 3, 2016
First of Terry Pratchett's 41 "Discworld" novels, where Gaspode eventually appears
I often think about Gaspode, the terrier-like street dog in Terry Pratchett’s brilliantly funny “Discworld” novels.
It’s because Gaspode is so disreputably clever at making his way in his world, which is similar to our world, except that it is flat and rests on four elephants standing on the shell of a vast turtle, swimming in nothingness. Discworld’s dwarfs and trolls despise each other, and its humans disdain all minorities, especially vampires and werewolves. Slums are super-slummy. And a filthy little dog gets no lunch unless he wangles it.
Gaspode has a wangling edge: one night he slept beside Unseen University’s High Energy Magic building, and magical seepage upped his IQ and enabled him to speak. Nobody suspects a dog can talk, so people believe they’re hearing their own thoughts—“Oh, look at that poor little orphan doggie! I should give him half my sandwich!”
Gaspode appears in seven of Sir Terry’s 41 Discworld novels. He’s a lot like Homer’s hero, Odysseus, the only Greek among Troy’s besiegers who demonstrably has a brain.
Besides, Gaspode looks just like our friend Murdock, the west highland terrier who occasionally stays with us, when his buddy Eric is traveling. Also, whether your world’s round or flat, amusement is good.
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.