Skipping Stones

The President governs by tweet.  The media report by soundbite. The social discourse is carried out on Facebook through memes and headlines.  We are stones skipping across the surface of a lake, without awareness of the depths below or the ripples that spread from each of our points of contact.

In 2017 I wrote a book, 60,000 words long.  It is a Science Fiction novel about a world where all communication is telepathic.  Humans land there and have adventures.  They marvel in the richness of the telepathic sharing of feelings, images, and memories, and struggle with how to communicate with the beings they encounter. They are overwhelmed by the depth of emotion shared by the local creatures and fall in love with them. Other stuff happens too.

Writing the book was a very rewarding experience, and I was very proud of the result, which I submitted to a publisher.  It was rejected without comment.  Friends who read it liked it.  A few made critical comments which were helpful.  A couple pointed out that I did a lot of telling, rather than showing.  My dad said “that was really complicated.”

There are six main human characters in the book, and six secondary ones.  Most of the original version was dialogue.  The story was plot driven, and I used dialogue to advance the plot.  Often my choice of who would say something was arbitrary.  I had no character outline for any of the characters, so it didn’t matter who said what.  Later, after I had concluded the writing of the plot, I went back and added some back story for the main characters, but I did nothing to develop them in the story line.

I put the book aside after the publisher rejected it and went on to another project documenting the stories of Mayan elders in Guatemala.  It was a year after finishing the original version when I picked up the novel again.  First, I wrote out short little biographies and character studies of each person on the crew.  Then I sought out technical advice on some of the science I had used for the story.  I began to rewrite, deliberately adding more description of the environment, more inner dialogue from each character, and more personal, character driven interactions between the characters.  I worked to eliminate as much external narration as possible and replace it with the experience of the characters.

The original 60,000 word novel came to me very easily.  I skipped over the surface of the story, from plot point to plot point until I reached the end.  This time, I am investigating each landing, and how it affects the surface of the story.  I am looking down into the depths below each event and character to give more substance and dimension to the story.  It is harder.  I have to keep track of all the nuances of relationship and the interactions of the characters with each other and their past.  I am on track to turn my original 60,000 words into 100,000. I have a friend who is reading the original ahead of my rewrite who is very good at catching inconsistencies and who helps me work them out in weekly meetings.

Skipping across the surface is easy, and can be fun, but in the end you don’t have much.  How many of the old friends from high school that you connected with via Facebook  do you really know?  How many of the issues you argue about do you really understand in depth? Do you see the ripples caused by your landings?  Are you cognizant of the infinite expanse below and around you? It is hard and complicated to strive for full awareness; so much easier just to throw out a tweet or share a snarky meme.  The thing is, our country won’t have a story worth reading if we don’t get back to awareness and consideration of substance, nuance, and character.  It’s time for a rewrite.


Cut And Paste

This blog isn’t usually about memes or what other people say (except in comments), but this is so well written and comprehensive that I am going to cut and paste it here.

I’m a liberal
“I’ve always been a liberal, but that doesn’t mean what a lot of you apparently think it does.

Let’s break it down, shall we? Because quite frankly, I’m getting a little tired of being told what I believe and what I stand for. Spoiler alert: Not every liberal is the same, though the majority of liberals I know think along roughly these same lines:

1. I believe a country should take care of its weakest members. A country cannot call itself civilized when its children, disabled, sick, and elderly are neglected. Period.

2. I believe healthcare is a right, not a privilege. Somehow that’s interpreted as “I believe Obamacare is the end-all, be-all.” This is not the case. I’m fully aware that the ACA has problems, that a national healthcare system would require everyone to chip in, and that it’s impossible to create one that is devoid of flaws, but I have yet to hear an argument against it that makes “let people die because they can’t afford healthcare” a better alternative. I believe healthcare should be far cheaper than it is, and that everyone should have access to it. And no, I’m not opposed to paying higher taxes in the name of making that happen.

3. I believe education should be affordable and accessible to everyone. It doesn’t necessarily have to be free (though it works in other countries so I’m mystified as to why it can’t work in the US), but at the end of the day, there is no excuse for students graduating college saddled with five- or six-figure debt.

4. I don’t believe your money should be taken from you and given to people who don’t want to work. I have literally never encountered anyone who believes this. Ever. I just have a massive moral problem with a society where a handful of people can possess the majority of the wealth while there are people literally starving to death, freezing to death, or dying because they can’t afford to go to the doctor. Fair wages, lower housing costs, universal healthcare, affordable education, and the wealthy actually paying their share would go a long way toward alleviating this. Somehow believing that makes me a communist.

5. I don’t throw around “I’m willing to pay higher taxes” lightly. If I’m suggesting something that involves paying more, well, it’s because I’m fine with paying my share as long as it’s actually going to something besides lining corporate pockets or bombing other countries while Americans die without healthcare.

6. I believe companies should be required to pay their employees a decent, livable wage. Somehow this is always interpreted as me wanting burger flippers to be able to afford a penthouse apartment and a Mercedes. What it actually means is that no one should have to work three full-time jobs just to keep their head above water. Restaurant servers should not have to rely on tips, multibillion-dollar companies should not have employees on food stamps, workers shouldn’t have to work themselves into the ground just to barely make ends meet, and minimum wage should be enough for someone to work 40 hours and live.

7. I am not anti-Christian. I have no desire to stop Christians from being Christians, to close churches, to ban the Bible, to forbid prayer in school, etc. (BTW, prayer in school is NOT illegal; *compulsory* prayer in school is – and should be – illegal). All I ask is that Christians recognize *my* right to live according to *my* beliefs. When I get pissed off that a politician is trying to legislate Scripture into law, I’m not “offended by Christianity” – I’m offended that you’re trying to force me to live by your religion’s rules. You know how you get really upset at the thought of Muslims imposing Sharia law on you? That’s how I feel about Christians trying to impose biblical law on me. Be a Christian. Do your thing. Just don’t force it on me or mine.

8. I don’t believe LGBT people should have more rights than you. I just believe they should have the *same* rights as you.

9. I don’t believe illegal immigrants should come to America and have the world at their feet, especially since THIS ISN’T WHAT THEY DO (spoiler: undocumented immigrants are ineligible for all those programs they’re supposed to be abusing, and if they’re “stealing” your job it’s because your employer is hiring illegally). I’m not opposed to deporting people who are here illegally, but I believe there are far more humane ways to handle undocumented immigration than our current practices (i.e., detaining children, splitting up families, ending DACA, etc).

10. I don’t believe the government should regulate everything, but since greed is such a driving force in our country, we NEED regulations to prevent cut corners, environmental destruction, tainted food/water, unsafe materials in consumable goods or medical equipment, etc. It’s not that I want the government’s hands in everything – I just don’t trust people trying to make money to ensure that their products/practices/etc. are actually SAFE. Is the government devoid of shadiness? Of course not. But with those regulations in place, consumers have recourse if they’re harmed and companies are liable for medical bills, environmental cleanup, etc. Just kind of seems like common sense when the alternative to government regulation is letting companies bring their bottom line into the equation.

11. I believe our current administration is fascist. Not because I dislike them or because I can’t get over an election, but because I’ve spent too many years reading and learning about the Third Reich to miss the similarities. Not because any administration I dislike must be Nazis, but because things are actually mirroring authoritarian and fascist regimes of the past.

12. I believe the systemic racism and misogyny in our society is much worse than many people think, and desperately needs to be addressed. Which means those with privilege – white, straight, male, economic, etc. – need to start listening, even if you don’t like what you’re hearing, so we can start dismantling everything that’s causing people to be marginalized.

13. I am not interested in coming after your blessed guns, nor is anyone serving in government. What I am interested in is sensible policies, including background checks, that just MIGHT save one person’s, perhaps a toddler’s, life by the hand of someone who should not have a gun. (Got another opinion? Put it on your page, not mine).

14. I believe in so-called political correctness. I prefer to think it’s social politeness. If I call you Chuck and you say you prefer to be called Charles I’ll call you Charles. It’s the polite thing to do. Not because everyone is a delicate snowflake, but because as Maya Angelou put it, when we know better, we do better. When someone tells you that a term or phrase is more accurate/less hurtful than the one you’re using, you now know better. So why not do better? How does it hurt you to NOT hurt another person?

15. I believe in funding sustainable energy, including offering education to people currently working in coal or oil so they can change jobs. There are too many sustainable options available for us to continue with coal and oil. Sorry, billionaires. Maybe try investing in something else.

16. I believe that women should not be treated as a separate class of human. They should be paid the same as men who do the same work, should have the same rights as men and should be free from abuse. Why on earth shouldn’t they be?

I think that about covers it. Bottom line is that I’m a liberal because I think we should take care of each other. That doesn’t mean you should work 80 hours a week so your lazy neighbor can get all your money. It just means I don’t believe there is any scenario in which preventable suffering is an acceptable outcome as long as money is saved.

“So, I’m a liberal.” – Lori Gallagher Witt

Mas Y Mas Muertes

Fronteras son cicatrices en la tierra.  Borders are scars on the land.  That’s what the graffiti used to say on the old border wall.  Now we simply have crosses commemorating some of the many deaths of people crossing.


When I moved here in 1983, there was a chain link fence running through Nogales.  You could stand at the Burger King on the Arizona side and watch people crossing back and forth through three holes cut in the fence all day long.  There was no “border crisis.” There were no thousands of overpaid and armed bouncers along the border.  Americans were not shooting Mexican children through the fence for throwing rocks. People were not dying in droves across remote portions of the desert. Vegetables were harvested.  There was no unemployment crisis in America.  Drugs were no easier to get.  There were no for profit prisons in the United States filled with families seeking sanctuary.

During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan created the war on drugs, helping to build and enrich the cartels in Latin America to the point where they were nearly as powerful as local governments.  He also waged an illegal, undeclared war on Democratically elected governments in El Salvador and Nicaragua, sending tons of heavy weapons to the region and crippling most economies.  The IMF and World Bank took advantage of these conditions and other catastrophes to mandate economic changes on communities which had been self sustaining and creating a dependence for basic subsistence on the United States.

We created the conditions which are driving people northward.  Now we play cynical political games with their lives.



This begins with a photo. I took this in June, while I was in Guatemala working on my Abuelos project.


Two young boys, probably brothers, were standing by the shore of Lago Atitlan on the stones where their mothers do laundry.  The older appeared to be explaining something to his younger sibling. It occurred to me that there was a very good chance that both of them would live out their entire lives in this location.  That made me wonder what their lives would be like in the years to come as their home changed. That in turn got me thinking about home.  Not my home, specifically, but the idea of home.

For these boys, home is simple.  It is the house where they live with their parents, their grandparents, and maybe even great grandparents.  It is full of stories that took place in, and myths that originate from, the town they live in on the shores of the lake they swim in.

It is also complicated, because this is a tourist town, and an ex-pat haven, full of extranjeros bringing strange customs and alien languages, as well as money, lots of money.  It is full of restaurants, mostly owned by foreigners, where other foreigners pay more for a meal than these boys’ father makes for a day’s work.

Chances are, their lives are heavily influenced by religion, either the Catholicism forced on their ancestors by Spaniards at swordpoint, or the Evangelical Christianity brought by missionaries from the United States.  Neither is a part of their ancestral culture, but both dominate their daily lives today. Most schools are religion based and teach English using the Bible.

This is their home; geographically small, but peopled by a transient global population, and dominated by Western religion. Their culture has been diluted, but their roots are deep and robust.  Their families have lived here or nearby for centuries.  The ancient stories of and rituals built around the volcanoes and the lake persist in spite of and in contrast to the myths of a Middle Eastern savior.  Harvest rituals are followed, traditional foods haven’t changed in generations. Inside many of the Catholic churches are Mayan altars for traditional ceremonies, juxtaposed against the saints who can be similarly petitioned for a good harvest or a fertile marriage or a speedy recovery for a sick loved one.

Contrast that with my personal experience of home. I was born in a little town in the cattle country of eastern Montana.  It had a population of just under 1000 at the time.  Now it is home to 350, as it takes more acreage to raise a steer and thus more acres to support a family. This is the house my mother brought me home to, and where I lived the first two years of my life.


I remember nothing about this house.  I’m sure that the roof, siding, and windows are all new since I lived there.  I remember very little about the town, although I did drive through when I was 16 and on a road trip with my family.  I remember that I shook the hand of the doctor who delivered me. This is my birthplace, but not home. It made no mark on me, nor I on it.

Two years later we moved 200 miles north to a slightly larger wheat farming town, where my sister was born three months before my third birthday.  We lived in this house:


My earliest memories are from this place.  I remember my dad mowing the lawn out back, often in concentric rectangles, starting from the middle and spiralling out.  I remember playing in the piles of snow that resulted from shoveling huge amounts of snow off the walk.  They were big enough to tunnel into and make caves (for a small child). I remember walking to school in bitterly cold weather (-40F). I remember hearing my first pop music coming out of a window down the street.  It was “she loves you yeah, yeah, yeah” from the Beatles.  I had friends there, but I don’t remember any of them.  I visited two of them on this trip.  We shared no memories.  Does this qualify as “home” because my earliest memories are there?  It doesn’t feel like home.

When I was five, we moved to Scotland for a year.  My dad, a Congregational minister, exchanged parishes with a minister from a small blue collar town outside of Glasgow. I have a few memories from that year.  Notably, I learned to add, subtract, multiply, and divide in the superior British school system.  I also remember playing in the coal pile at school, and splashing in puddles on my way home.  Kennedy was shot that year.  That was the first time I ever saw my mother cry.  At one point I had to wear a kilt for a formal family portrait.  I was not amused.  Scotland felt like home when I was there, I’m sure.  I had spent 20% of my life to that date there.

We went back to Montana for a year and then, when I was 7, we moved to suburban New Jersey and I got glasses.

New Jersey, I suppose, is where I did most of my growing up. I attended school there from second grade through eighth grade.  Being the new kid in town, from the rural plains, and having glasses, I had a rough time.  Without going into details, suffice to say that I have no lasting friendships from grade school or junior high, and also none from high school. I went away to a small boarding school in Vermont, where I rubbed shoulders with both the children of some famous people, and with the children of local farmers.  I am only one degree of separation from Kevin Bacon because of this school. After three years, I was kicked out for smoking pot and graduated from high school back in New Jersey.  Unlike the two boys in the picture I began this post with, there is nobody outside of family whom I have known my whole life.  My oldest friends do come from New Jersey, though.  After a one year stint at the University of Vermont, I returned “home” , got a job, and made friends with a bunch of people younger than I.  Most of these friendships have endured across the country and across the years.  Some have strained past the breaking point for various reasons, but when I visited several of them on this last trip, the superficial glimpse that is Facebook contact exploded into full sensory immersion.  All the old feelings of camaraderie and love returned in a rush.  It was brief, but powerful.  Maybe “home”.  I have had precious few friendships as deep as these in my life. I treasure them, and the memories they bring.

I went to art school and lived in Brooklyn for three years and then moved from New Jersey to Arizona.  Soon after, my parents also moved, to Massachusetts, and then to Maine, so whenever I flew “home” for the holidays, I wasn’t actually going “home”, I was going to where my parents lived.  I went back to New Jersey once for a wedding, and two friends came to visit me in Arizona (incidentally they are the two I am now estranged from).  One friend was in school out here, so we were in constant contact for a couple years.  Then she left and got married too.  I pretty much lost touch until Facebook came along and extended those ephemeral tendrils of communication into our lives.  She now has two adult children, older than we were when we met.  Facebook got data on all of us and we got photos of our old friends’ kids, pets, and meals.  The illusion of connection.

Connection, after all, is what it is all about.  Connection is what Facebook sells us in return for the right to sell our data to advertisers.  Connection is what cements and prolongs friendship. Connection to a place is what makes it home.

A few miles north of the town where I was born is a place called Medicine Rocks.  It is a unique collection of sandstone formations, sculpted over millennia by the wind alone.


The rocks in this remote area are covered with the names and messages of people inscribed there over generations, laying claim to this place and immortalizing their connection to it.  This is my home, they say.  I lived here, played here, fell in love here.


The need to make one’s mark on the place that has formed you is universal, from cave paintings to modern tagging, people have always peed on the fire hydrant, so to speak, saying “I was here, this place is mine” or “This place may be yours, but I was here.” Often graffiti is a thumb of the nose at tourists.  All across Latin America I see tags on Historic buildings, even churches.  They say “this is my heritage, not your photo op.”


Sometimes it becomes a photo op anyway, but that is another story.

I suppose Tucson is the closest thing I have to a geographic home at this point.  I have spent more of my life here than at any other place.  I have friends here, roots, if you will.  Even that has been transient, however.  I have moved away twice, and was married once, losing touch with friends and community each time.

What the two boys in the photograph will have that I have not is continuity of home built on the stability and familiarity of lifetime relationships. I wouldn’t give up the diverse experiences of my youth or adulthood, but I often long for those deep and enduring connections with people and place that have elude me, or that I have eluded by always being in motion.






Catch And Release Photography

I saw dozens of fishermen in Yellowstone today. (No bears, fishing or otherwise) I assume that human fishermen are bound by a catch and release rule in the park.  I have never understood the allure (see what I did there?) of fishing, and it makes even less sense to me if you don’t end up with a nice filet of trout at the end of the day.  All my fishing friends tell me I have no idea what I’m talking about.  They may be right.

I crossed over Beartooth Pass (10947 ft) from Red Lodge, on my way to the park.  It was cloudy, at times rainy, and absolutely gorgeous.  I took a bunch of incredible photos, before, during, and after the rain.  Then, right after arriving at Yellowstone and scoring my only good bison portrait, I realized there was no card in my camera. Catch and release photography, get it?  Well it sucks even more that I imagine catch and release fishing does for the fish.

I had to let it go, though, and I got some nice photos of Yellowstone scenery, including a bison herd from the distance.  I saw and didn’t photograph two pronghorn, one deer, and an elk.  No bears.  I waited for 45 minutes to see Old Faithful erupt, and it was awesome.  My photo while I was waiting was better than the one of the actual event, though, because some clouds positioned themselves directly behind the plume to cancel it out.  Still much better than catch and release.

I missed out on at least a whole day’s worth of sights.  Yellowstone is massive.  Here’s what I got.


All Montana All Day

Images collected between Plentywood and Red Lodge, Montana.  The first 14 were taken at the family farm of dear friends of my parents who are no longer with us.  I shared coffee and delightful conversation with their two sons.  We surely knew each other as infants, but haven’t seen each other since.  A pleasure to meet you, Jamie and Tim!


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