More Trying Montana —The Code of the West

When we lived in Montana I started writing a book that was to be called “Trying Montana,” about our experiences there. I never finished it, although several chapters are complete, and some of those have been recast as essays and published elsewhere over the years since we left that great state and its wonderful people. This essay, which was to have been Chapter Six, existed as a story in my head that has grown in the telling until the last few days, when it began banging on the back of my eyeballs to be let out.

The Code of the West

The Canadian border is a left out the driveway and a lonely 45 miles north. My next-door neighbor on Highway 93, here where neighbors truly matter, has the best last name. He is a good man, and of generous nature. The joy he takes in just about everything is reflected in his dark eyes, which shine almost all the time.

His name is Larry Shining and he is what is known hereabouts as a “rail.” He works for the Burlington Northern Railroad out of Whitefish. It runs freight out of the depot there, about 20 south of our side-by-side properties, where you can also catch Amtrak on its transcontinental High Line runs. Shining mostly pulls long freight trains east, over the Great Divide, with those powerful, big green locomotives.

Shining says he hasn’t read more than two or three-dozen books since high school, but I know he is wise in the ways of horses and of fish, because he had mastered “The Board.”

As anyone who has spent time in the woods knows, being good at catching fish and killing animals for food, and especially being good with horses, takes enormous amounts of time. It is like piano or violin — you can’t expect to play a concerto the first time you go elk hunting.

Being successful at a union railroad job takes more than knowing how to run locomotives on some of the most treacherous track in the High Country, although he did know all about that. The real expert “rails” — and Shining was one — were maestros of The Board, the arcane, and possibly mystical methodology of seniority positioning that determines when you would be working and what you would be doing when you worked.

If you could hold your place on The Board, or bid spots on the “Extra Board,” which tracked vacations and days off — and who filled in for those who were gone — you could manage to work very few days each month and still get paid your full-time railroad wages anyway.

So Shining had two of the basic necessary ingredients of happiness: Time and a regular paycheck. All I had was time, so we spent lots of it together as a deep friendship grew. I miss him.

The first time I saw Shining was late one day at the acreage we had purchased, which then only contained a roof and some framing which suggested what might become a house. I think we were still bunking in our camper alongside the north wall, while  struggling with making one end of the house warm enough to sleep in. We were all doing something out front, when he came across the field our properties shared.

Shining was in full regalia. He wore a fur vest and a single-action Ruger .44-caliber revolver in a well-used breakaway holster, and his hat had no nonsense about it. He trotted Flash, his magnificent and perfectly trained paint gelding, up our driveway like something out of Bill Cody’s circus. He was of medium height, with big hands, a full black beard streaked with grey, and black hair worn just over his collar.

Only two things kept him from seeming menacing. One was the sparkle of mirth shining in his eyes, which peered actively out from under the brim of his Stetson. The other was the large round red tin marked “Cookies,” in white lettering, which leaned against the saddle horn to rest across his thighs.

“Howdy, new neighbors,” out of anyone else’s mouth would have sounded affected. “Take these cookies Jackie sent over for you,” he said, and gesturing at our eldest son Robbie added, “and I’ll give the boy a ride.”

I learned later that Shining’s wife Jackie had survived a brain tumor and two operations involving going inside her skull. She smoked two or three packs of cigarettes a day, would put great food in front of you at any hour — as long as it was high-calorie and high-cholesterol and piled high on your plate — and knew what she claimed was the “woman” secret of how much sugar, and just how many chocolate chips a cookie needed to contain in order to be truly welcome in your mouth.

Our families grew close. Their older boy was away in the army, but their high-schooler, Cody, baby-sat for us. We’d watch television on their big screen TV (we didn’t have a satellite dish) and Shining and I caught lots of fish and killed the occasional bird or rabbit together to be shared at table.

Our camaraderie was only limited by the fact that I didn’t know how to ride, so Shining decided to educate me in the ways of horses. Flash, the paint, shared the pasture behind Shining’s house with Missy, a buckskin mare that had been Jackie’s mount until she gave up riding when the cancer came.

I felt nothing but fear standing alongside Missy while learning about saddle, girth and bridle. She had no meanness in her, but was a large animal and surely knew that I didn’t have a clue.

I was a willing, if inept pupil. Shining was a good teacher. He believed in learning full-tilt. Sort of the “throw them in to teach swimming school.” Soon after I managed to stay astride Missy to ride around the pasture a few lessons in a row, an all-day expedition involving trailering the horses, fly rods and a high mountain trail was scheduled.

I was almost killed on the trip. Well almost. But it was also on that day that I learned about The Code of the West.

A few hours before dawn we hitched Shining’s horse trailer up to “Big Red,” his 3/4-ton Ford 4X4 pickup truck, loaded Flash and Missy and our gear, and drove out past Red Meadow Lake into National Forest land along the west bank of the North Fork of the Flathead River. The river there is the boundary of the northwest corner of Glacier National Park.

Shining knew these roads from the time his mastering of The Board had granted him. We came to the end of a logging road that disappeared into some huge boulders, unloaded the horses, saddled up and headed down a well-worn trail into heavy timber. As we rode, in high spirits and anticipation of a great day of fishing, the terrain began to climb, and by full daylight we were winding our way up a steep, switch-backing trail that hugged a hill-side on rein-hands, and dropped hundreds of feet into a boulder-strewn ravine on our right.

I began to think that the trail was beyond my almost non-existent skills as a horseman and voiced those feeling to Shining, who was riding ahead as we made our single-file way up, and up. He reassured me. First by saying that in about a half mile the trail would flatten and soon thereafter would turn away from the ravine — which was terrifying every time I glanced down into it — into a birch and aspen-wooded bowl where we’d find the mountain lake that was our destination. Secondly, he laughed, “Missy doesn’t want to fall down that ravine anymore than you do. Just keep the reins slack and give her head. She knows how to walk up a hill without falling down.”

A few minutes later, as he predicted, the slope began to flatten, although the trail still dropped away steeply on my right. Shining had ridden a bit ahead, and just then I heard him call, “Get down, get down,” and I saw him lay his body across Flash’s neck to pass under a giant larch tree that had fallen across the trail.

I followed, and lay as flat as I could across Missy’s warm neck, gripping her mane. As we passed under, I felt the tree scrape across my back, as I was jammed between horse and tree. Missy did what any smart horse would do. She stopped, breathed some, and started backing up.

The rest I know because Shining explained it to me later, as it all happened in an instant.

As Missy backed out from under, the tree began to scrape me forward and dragged me out of the saddle over her neck and head, and I began to fall. As I fell, Missy’s hind legs went off the trail and she began to fall off the edge. All I could think about was what Shining had drilled into me during those riding lessons in the front pasture. “If you fall, whatever you do, try not to let go of the reins!”

I held the reins with a strength born of fear, and as Missy went over the edge she dragged me right down with her. At one point, flat on my stomach, arms outstretched, as I was tumbling downhill I remember looking right into her face and thinking that her eyes were beautiful.

About then, Missy managed to regain her footing, and charged back up the hill. As she came past, I threw an arm up to protect myself, got it snagged in a stirrup and was dragged back up onto the path, where Shining calmly grabbed her bridle, looked down at me and said, “Come on. Let’s walk the rest of the way, it’s not far.”

A few minutes later, we were standing in a clearing in the woods. Shining handed me a canteen and as I drank, was examining Missy, who aside from some scratches on her hindquarters, was unscathed.

I was wrecked. My jacket was torn where it had protected me from the tree. I had bleeding cuts and what later grew to respectable bruises, and I was filthy — covered hat to boots in dirt from having been dragged off the trail, through rocks and bushes and back up again. I still had my hat, although it was bent and dirty. I came to understand later that not losing my hat was among the few creditable things I did that day.

After we all caught breath, Shining looked me up and down and asked: “So, why didn’t you get down like I told you?” I gaped at him and replied that I had done my best leaning onto Missy’s neck and went on to complain about friends who — despite their brilliant horsemanship — didn’t know enough not to take a beginner like me on such a trail. He took my hat then, straightened it, and brushed at it some with his big hands. He gave it back to me. “You didn’t bad. You’re OK, Missy’s OK and you never let go of her reins. Let’s mount up and get down to the fish.”

Just then we heard bells.

Up the trail from the lake came two hikers, a boy and a girl, maybe college-aged, but young. They were dressed out of the L.L. Bean catalog, and had bear bells tied to their expandable graphite walking sticks with pieces of bright red ribbon. You just knew they had granola in their matching green backpacks, which were topped with tightly rolled sleeping bags in scarlet stuff sacks. They stopped a few feet away, giving off the sweet aroma of marijuana, took in the scratched up horse, my bedraggled and bloodied appearance, and asked if we needed help, and whether everything was “copasetic.”

I answered that I was OK and explained, in great detail, about the tree across the trail, getting jammed underneath it; Missy’s escape dragging me down the cliff, and my miraculous escape by accidentally grabbing her stirrup.  And as I told the tale, I watched Shining scrape the toe of one cowboy boot through the dirt and across the toe of the other boot. The he’d stop, switch feet, and scrape the toe of that boot through the dirt to heap it on the toe that was still. And back and worth in an almost hypnotic pattern than oozed unhappiness in a taciturn cowboy way.

The hikers left. “Peace,” they said, walking away, as Shining kept scraping his boot toes through the dirt.

“What are you doing with your feet?” I asked. He didn’t look up, just kept pushing dirt with his boots. A minute went by, and he stopped, looked at me, squared his hat on his head, and said: “You Broke The Code of The West.”

“What the Hell are you talking about,” I said. “You told those granola-heads what happened,” Shining answered.  And then he explained. I wish I could remember his exact words, but it was something like this:

When you get unsaddled, or fall from your horse, like you just did, or any small tragedy occurs, The Code of The West requires that it was caused by the attack of a grizzly bear, or a mountain lion, or because lightning struck the side of the mountain out of a clear blue sky which naturally spooked your horses, or there was a really big rattlesnake. And if you can’t think of anything good like that to say you can always point up at the sky and mumble something about a flying saucer! But never, ever, tell anyone that you messed up and just fell off your horse. What will people think?

Then he laughed and we went fishing. We caught a bunch of grayling, brought them home without further incident,  got his family and mine together and cooked up a bunch dipped in egg, rolled in corn meal and fried in butter. And at some point during dinner, one of the kids asked what happened up on the mountain, and why was my jacket all torn, and how did I get that big bruise on my face?

I looked across at table at Shining, and said, “Well, you’re not going to believe this, but Larry Shining was there and he’d tell you if you had asked him. You see, we were riding along, and all of a sudden there was this big grizzly bear, and the next thing you know we …

Copyright 2011, David Hipschman

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Posted in Bears, Cowboys, Family History, Fishing, Hiking, Horses, Memories, Montana, Stories, tall tales, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Learn to Drive, Or I Wish I Still Had A Squad Car

Tonight’s blog is written tired (and maybe just a little cranky) from having driven home just now straight from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Almost nine hours to go some 575 miles.

When I lived in Wyoming we used to refer to “windshield time,” as the mental space entered while driving long distances, especially alone  — as I was today. Windshield time is a fine place. Good music from Pandora, excellent coffee and snacks, including a stellar tangerine that might have been the model for all perfection in citrus, made for a fine ride.

Much thinking occurred on the road today, I assure you. And it may be that some of what crossed my mind will eventually find its way to this space. I’ll be sure to let you know. But what is on my mind now are basic driving skills, as in the lack thereof.

I enjoy driving and pride myself on a certain level of skill because my father, then a traveling salesman who spent miles on the road, took a lot of time teaching me. What Dad didn’t know was implanted in me by the hard work of expert instructors at the law enforcement academy where I endured basic training and on the skid pad there in a course called “emergency vehicle operations” when I became a police officer.

On the ride home today I witnessed — and several times needed to evade (as in take evasive action),  folks on the road who seem to have forgotten even the most basic things they had to demonstrate in order to get their licenses.

A sampling:

—The Turn Signal, also knows as the Blinkers. A phenomenon now only rarely witnessed, which may actually be nearing extinction. Once used to let fellow drivers know that you were about to change lanes, or turn. Not an incessant blinking light at the rear-end of your vehicle for mile after mile because you forget to turn it off.

— Yield, or Yielding. A fiction in which the right-of-way (a legally defined concept clear to every teenager) is granted to another driver.  In most areas except in the most respectful regions of the deep South, however, a glare and raised finger have replaced both the legal and polite manifestations of this concept.

— Passing, as in Letting Someone. On a multi-lane highway, the left-most lane is not for dawdling along while talking to your girlfriend on the cell phone, or channeling Elvis while eating a candy bar and a cheeseburger at the same time as you are shaving or putting on makeup. This distaff lane is so you can pass slower traffic, after which you are required go back over to the right to let faster traffic behind you pass you by. You may ascertain that the vehicle behind you wants to pass because you might notice it momentarily flashing its head lamps at you in your rear-view mirror if you stopped texting or macking on whoever that was sitting next to you long enough to think about it.

— Volume Control. Technically, this is not a driving skill, but is included here under the heading of: The Lowest Depths of Hell Are Reserved For You If You Don’t Figure This Out. I grant that you have a stereo with huge bass capability. So much so that if you were afloat, even with the windows of your car rolled up, you could make the U.S.S. Enterprise (the aircraft carrier, not the Starship) batten down all of its hatches to keep from capsizing due to the tsunami created by that loud, stupid noise you are subjecting everyone within five city blocks to … including people who have been deaf for 35 years. Turn It Down.

— Parking. You only get one space. Really. Think about it.

Copyright 2011, David Hipschman

Posted in Driving, On the Road | Tagged | 1 Comment

The Catalog of the Lost — The Boy and the Beach

Over the years I have lost things that meant a lot to me, and after hope faded despaired of their recovery. Eventually I think of them less frequently, like old lovers, or the summers of my childhood.

The catalog of the lost includes a silver pillbox that belonged to my friend Robert J. Stierhem, who has been dead 30 years; the original page-proofs of the poetry book I wrote that was published in 1976, and until tonight a story I wrote while visiting my dear sister-in-law Emily Dale one Thanksgiving in Mexico a few years back.

The hard drive containing the story crashed and was replaced long ago. I was cleaning out old e-mail in my computer tonight, and was amazed to find the story attached to an e-mail to a former colleague who had asked to read it. I was sure it was gone forever.

In celebration of the magic of finding what once was lost, and in dedication to the memory of what is lost, here is a newly edited version.

The Boy and the Beach

The sea grumbled as it met the land, rolling rocks of endless variety in the last feet before the blue water smacked at the white sand. The sun beat against his skin. He worried about burning. Waves of heat rose from the beach.

The sea had tried to swallow him. The last wave pulled, bellowing his T-shirt into a sea anchor, his pockets full of wet gravity that tugged at his waist and hips.

He had been terrified. The fear made it hard to think, hard to move. When he dragged himself out, across the band of wet sand studded with small wave-rounded rocks and bits of coral, shelter was his first concern.

The boy held to the thought like flotation. Shelter. All the stories he had ever read said so. Shelter and water, then food.

He must have slept then, exhausted by the terror in the wave more than the effort to escape it. The sun was past noon when he woke. His lips tasted of salt. He was thirsty.

As he rubbed the sleep from his eyes he saw that the beach held treasure. Driftwood beams that might have come from ocean-spanning ships lay tangled among fine traceries of twigs that could be woven into something to protect him from the sun and the wind.  Eventually an actual hut might arise. He smiled.

He set himself to work. He walked along the beach, gathering driftwood from among the wrack along the tide line. The fear receded as he immersed himself in the choices scattered amid the pieces of wood. His mind recorded shapes in the sand. A piece of broken glass still sharp, a blue rubber strap from swim goggles or a mask, an empty plastic bottle. All might later prove useful. Gulls and pelicans called in the wind.

He slowly began to believe the beach could provide everything he would need to survive.

There were palm trees in the distance. There might be coconuts. Maybe some had fallen. He could not imagine climbing a palm, although a book he had once read contained a watercolor illustration of a boy about his age ascending one.

There had been a lagoon with a sailboat at anchor in the drawing. A dinghy was beached against the shore. A blonde woman, maybe the climbing boy’s mother, stood at the sailboat’s stern watching him. The woman and the sailboat were both very beautiful. She wore a blue scarf in her hair and a worried look on her face.

If palm stalks and leaves had fallen with the nuts, the trees would roof his shelter, feed him and give him drink. Among the flotsam he had crawled through to escape the horror of the wave there were the bones of fish and the broken bodies of crustaceans. There would be a way, later, to catch them alive. He could eat them raw until he found a way to make fire.

He had a memory that would not surface. He had been sitting, reading in a library so air-conditioned he had been chilled and had buttoned his sweater. He liked it there and often thought the authors would be his friends if he could meet them. That is why he always tried to remember their names and the titles. The book held a cave and a shipwreck, even a way to make gunpowder, and a long, long time all alone before happy rescue. He shivered at the memory. But there had been something about digging deep down into the sand and a way to create a filter, his shirt might do, to get water to drink. Maybe if he tried not to remember, he would. That is what his father always said when he could not bring a thought back.

There was a way to make fire in the book too. A string and a thing like a bow spun round a pointed stick against a log, and blowing on the tinder the sharp stick spun in. He could build that too! Had it been Mr. Verne? Was it in Mysterious Island? No, that had a big river. It wasn’t in Robinson Crusoe. Mr. Defoe’s island had been blessed with a stream. These thoughts rode in his mind with the sound of the waves as he gathered the sticks.

He carried them to a spot alongside a lone and gigantic rock, almost twice his height and black like night. It was speckled too; star-like with what he thought might be bits of marble or quartz. He sorted each armload as he toiled. Here piles of sticks that could be woven into bits of wall, there larger pieces that later could be pounded upright to support his wall. He had seen strands of old line and bits of netting along the shore, detritus from fishing fleets that he could use to tie it all together.

Afternoon was fast slipping by. What time did dark come? He wanted to sleep inside the shelter he was making. There might be wild things. Why else did all the books demand shelter?

There had to be wild things. The fear rose, cold in his throat. He hurried with the next armload of wood.

He wondered how far off the fishing boats might be, and how he might signal. After shelter, water and food, they always talked about a way to signal for rescue from passing ships or airplanes. For as long as he could remember everything he had ever read spoke of bonfires by night, from how far away they could be seen, especially if you built them on a hill, and ways to make them smoke as signal by day. All the pages he knew cried H E L P to him in letters spelled out in sticks against the white sand.

There would be a way. The fear, which had almost swallowed him in the wave, receded farther. The piles of sticks grew, as the shelter took shape in his imagination.

The birds called more often as evening seemed to creep closer. The wind began to die away. He started to build, pushing sticks into the ground. He worked faster.

He ran to the water’s edge and found a rock to use as a sledge. He hammered at the sticks until he was satisfied they would hold. Weaving the bits of net and torn rope and slender twigs took longer.

Would there be time? The birds called louder, sounding as if they were calling a name.

“Sam? Sammy! Come son, it is almost dark. You can work on your fort again tomorrow. We’ll be on holiday all the week,” the boy’s mother said.

“Here, I brought you some juice, you must be parched, and you’ve been playing all afternoon.” They walked, holding hands, toward the dinghy. Her fingers were cool against his skin.

Copyright 2011, David Hipschman

Posted in Authors, Beaches, Books, Found, Libraries, Lost, Memories, Sailboats, Stories | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

They Might Not Let You Near Your Children

I began writing in this space to reconnect with the daily discipline of words, and over the last few days have strayed from my intent to write each day. With a nod to realism I had established for myself the rubric of accepting without too much guilt the missing of one day, but not two days in a row. However, sometimes life gets in the way of the best intentions.  But today, at least, I’m here again.

I am sitting in my son William’s dormitory room at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He is recuperating from illness (He is OK now, and I won’t further invade his privacy in this public space). But that is what created the opportunity to drive the 551 miles from Gainesville to get him back to school after his visit home for winter break.

His illness created a reason for us to spend more time together over the last few weeks than either of us had planned. That time, as any parent with a sick child will attest, has included anger and fear that arose from within the deepest parts of me. I have also experienced great joy in getting to know him better. It’s been fun talking with him about his earliest memories, and I have felt happiness and even pride in a deeper understanding of the man my son has become.

But one set of experiences arising from his illness carried me in an unforeseen direction, and got me thinking about circumstances I had never imagined. On Christmas Eve we ended up at the hospital emergency room, and after a brief triage interview my 20-year-old son was put in a wheelchair and whisked away. As I tried to follow I was told that hospital policy forbade my accompanying him. My protest was ignored. We’ll set aside any discussion of my emotion at that moment, or of what William later explained to me about his feelings of being set adrift in a fearful place with no previous experience of illness, and no one to turn to for advice.

Later, I was able after much tribulation to return to his side, and can say in fairness that he received good medical care. However, humanity was absent from the medical staff that “processed,” him. And that’s what it was, processing.

An IV was started and some of the tests ordered were scary, especially if like William you had not been inside a hospital except to be born and once after swallowing a screw when still in diapers.

The ER doctor, when William and I eventually were allowed to ask him about the tests he had ordered and his thinking regarding them, told us, “Look, you don’t have to stay here, you can leave, but who knows what’s going on … and you might die.” Literally.

I know something about emergency rooms, I’ve worked as a cop and as an ambulance medic. The afternoon was not busy and this was not a case of imminent medical disaster. Where was the compassionate healer in that doctor? Where was the human being who could recognize the fear in a 20-year-old and allay it with what used to be called “good bedside manner?”

Even later, when I asked about the “hospital policy” that led to separating us, I was told that it was because there wasn’t enough space to work if family was allowed. OK, I can understand that if it was cardiac arrest, arterial bleeding, a gunshot wound or the like. But that is what triage is for, and our visit was a referral from a local affiliated urgent care facility physician to the ER for blood tests related to flu-like stomach symptoms, with no fever … because that’s the only place to get such tests on Christmas Eve.

But no one at the ER heard that, because they have a “process.”  And no one at the ER heard that because they could not listen to me because I was only a concerned father, not the patient. And I guess no one listens to patients, even when – or especially when – they are frightened.

A long time ago, about 1970 or 1971 when I was a college student, my baby sister was hospitalized while our parents were out the country. I drove home and I sat by the bed. In the middle of the night a nurse came in to give her an injection. When I questioned that, because I didn’t think any injection had been ordered, a fracas ensued, which eventually led to a resident being called who determined that the syringe was for the child in the next room.

Anyone can make a mistake, certainly. But the fracas ensued when I questioned what the nurse was doing and pointed out that she wasn’t listening when I told her no injection had been ordered.

An acquaintance teaches a sort of humanities course at a renowned medical school. She recently explained to me that the course is designed to teach medical students what it is like to be on the receiving end of their ministrations when they eventually become doctors. She also said that the school is cutting back on how many hours are dedicated to that portion of the curriculum.

I’ve been blessed with knowing a few healers, two of them – a nurse practitioner and a cardiologist – back where I used to live in Wisconsin. They took good care of me for 10 years so I was able to observe and come to admire their methodology. Identifying what gives them the title “Healer” in my mind is easy: They look you in the eyes and listen. They listen with their hands and their ears and all of their education and training, but most of all they listen because they have not forgotten about caring.

When I worked as an ambulance medic I watched people die and saw the resultant emotional pain blossom and explode in their families. At the side of frozen highways in the strobe of emergency lights and in the cold rotor wash of medivac helicopters, I learned that death is lonely and undignified – unless it is relieved by human caring. I watched the dedicated EMTs, paramedics and trauma nurses and learned that the peace they brought to the suffering with a kind word, or a hand held, or a touch on the shoulder is as important as the medical knowledge and training they brought to the scene of each emergency.

As I age, and as I experience my parents aging, I have thought about what the future will inevitably bring. There will be doctors and hospitals. Living wills and medical directives are important to discuss, so see to it.

But don’t neglect your college-age children. Unless they have signed releases and filed them with their university, or its health center, or their doctors if they have them, those entities will not release any information to you, no matter if you are far away and worried. They might not even let you near your children.

Copyright 2011, David Hipschman

Posted in college, Doctors, Emergency Room, Family History, Hospitals, Medicine, Uncategorized, university | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Writers By Name, and Cats

I’m thinking about writers tonight, while outside a huge thunderstorm makes me glad I’m now home snug and dry. The thinking about writers thing is because of an architect friend who I saw earlier this evening. I feel smarter in his company, because he is a well-read guy. We talked, as we often do, about books.

Driving home in the rain it crossed my mind that one measure of whether you have become a well-known writer is that your first name disappears, except in term papers.

Try it: Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, Yeats, Patchen, Sturgeon, Heinlein, Zelazny, O’Brian, Furst, LeGuin, Gann, Hemingway.

See what I mean? No reference to William, Percy, John, William, Kenneth, Theodore, Robert, Roger, Patrick, Alan, Ursula, Ernest or Ernest was necessary.

Reading Shakespeare, although watching performance is better, is a good thing. I could make a list of why, but it’s late … it’s true, however, even if only to see how much language his work has given us. Shelley’s work, especially that Ode to the West Wind, reveals that incantation is the bedrock of great poetry, and who can read Ozymandias without understanding the nature and uselessness of pride – a necessary lesson for all of us, especially writers.

Hemingway is in my pantheon of favorites. My sentences are long. His aren’t. I learn from that.

I picked my bride up from the airport tonight. She said it was a bumpy ride on the commuter flight as they dodged the thunderstorm cells. She was at a conference in Key West. On a break she stopped by Hemingway’s house, which is now a museum and is someplace I’ve always wanted to visit. Apparently Hemingway’s study, where he wrote many of his novels, is intact as if he had just gone out fishing or for a drink. Otherwise the house is empty except for the descendants of his cat. Lots of them, 30 or 40. The cats have even ended up in a federal court case. It’s over whether the museum needs a U.S. Department of Agriculture permit if the cats are adjudged part of the museum exhibit.

I’ve read that Papa loved those cats. But that’s a lot of cats.

Copyright 2011, David Hipschman

Posted in Authors, Cats, Museums, Pilots, Poetry, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Dread of Writing, Joy of Seeking

I realized only today that part of why I launched this blog is as an experiment to revitalize my relationship with writing. Having spent much of my adult life earning a living with words, sometimes a good living and sometimes not so much, I had unhappily over the years come to a place where writing was mainly work and only rarely joy.

I hope this experiment, and the rubric of writing every day, or at least never missing two days in a row, as well as the public nature of these posts with exposure to comments from any who read them, will help lessen the dread with which for years I have approached the keyboard. I hope it will bring back some of the joy I felt more than 40 years ago when I first put pen to paper in any disciplined way.  I occasionally still feel that joy, but it has become increasingly difficult over time to force myself through the wall of dread in search of the words that might be waiting on the other side.

Some other day I hope to here explore the nature of that dread (hey, there’s an idea for another blog!), but this day what concerns me is about process.  Back when words first became a way of earning money what quickly disappeared was any control of the environment in which I wrote. It became clear that what the old newspaper union T-shirt said, “Real Journalists Do It On Deadline,” was true. That’s what I was getting paid for and, after all, that is why I signed up. That’s what we did on demand, driven by the artificial nature of the newspaper’s deadlines.

I compare two memory sets: In one I remember my first job at a weekly newspaper. (R.E., thanks again for hiring me and even more for that career-launching cupcake). I remember the quantity of copy we were required to produce. There and at later jobs I did just that — in courtrooms, police stations, bureau offices, bars, buses, and airplanes, in noisy newsrooms amid the clatter of keyboards and ringing of phones, while shutting out the shouts of colleagues who yelled across rooms measured in desks by the dozens, desks that faded away into rows obscured by cigarette smoke. And we took pride in being the professional sort of folks who could do it. And my dread of the work of writing grew, as promotions came to editor of various stripes in various places.

Remember, what we’re talking about is process and environment’s affect on a writer. Here’s the second memory set: I think back to when I first started writing, when what I wanted in my bones was to be poet. I remember good poems that came easy and the readings I gave in New York City and the passion growing in me for words, their shapes, their sounds and how they felt in my mouth. I recall my fascination with the tactile delights of paper, the heft and sparkling metal nibs of an entire armada of fountain pens, and the happiness captured in the array of ink bottles (yes, ink!) arranged on the windowsill over my desk so that the light of the rising sun would spear through them and send a rainbow’s wash of colors cascading across the wall above my bed.

What differentiates the memory sets? Writing for money, for one, and using a computer, for the other.

As to the former, I have often and flippantly referred to employment attached to writing or editing by explaining that it can be just like whoring. You offer your services for a fee and the client accepts or negotiates the price. Kinky is extra, naturally. I used that example to simply say that if you paid me I would write it.

But something good has already begun to emerge as a result of this blog experiment. For as I trotted that prostitution model out into my head today as I examined my motivation for this blog, I am happy to say that it turned to ash in my mind. I now repent of ever explaining writing that way.

Why? Well here I am writing on deadline, for free, for me.

As to the process issue of pen and ink and paper versus staring at the light while typing at the keyboard, I made a discovery today that is profoundly changing how I feel about the difference between old writing tools and new.  It is one of what young geeky friends of mine call “distraction-free writing tools.” The one I am using is called OmmWriter Dāna, the free version of OmmWriter. Here is the link: http://www.ommwriter.com

OmmWriter overlays an opaque template on your computer screen, soothingly eliminating the feeling of looking at light. The writing and editing tools are sparse, but all you need, and the tool also blanks out all distractions by turning off your other computer functions. It frees you from tweets, Facebook notifications, e-mail and all the other modern distractions that have made computers much more procrastination-enabling devices  than pen and ink ever were. Ommwriter plays music of the sort you might hear during a shiatsu massage through your headphones to further insulate you from distractions that might keep you from the fragile task at hand, the task of concentrating wholly on writing.

As soon as I tried Ommwriter I found myself more closely connected to what was happening in my “writer-mind” than I have felt in a very long time. Try it. It was almost as good as the last time I played with crayons.

Copyright 2011, David Hipschman

Posted in Journalism, Poems, Poetry, Writing | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Musing About Orville and Wilbur

Back on the 107th anniversary of heavier-than-air powered flight last month on December 17, I fell to musing about the significance of what the bicycle makers from Ohio engendered that day on the beach in North Carolina.

We all know that on that now-famous day, Orville Wright piloted the first powered airplane 20 feet above a wind-swept beach at Kitty Hawk. The flight lasted 12 seconds and covered 120 feet. Three more flights were made that day with Orville’s brother Wilbur piloting a record flight lasting 59 seconds over a distance of 852 feet.

I’m a pilot, and we aviators like to think we understand what happened when Orville and Wilbur proved, after several years of their successful glider trials, that their airplane with an engine would fly.

Today, in our age of instantaneous information retrieval and ubiquitous world-girdling jet flights, to truly understand that moment at Kitty Hawk and how far we have really come in those 107 years we have to look back at the world in which the Wrights lived.

Teddy Roosevelt was president of the United States. When he visited San Francisco that year to help inaugurate the public use of the telegraph cable between the City on the Bay and Hawaii, he rode through the streets in a horse-drawn carriage

Ford Motor Co.  was founded the same year and the Model A  began production. Ernst Pfenning of Chicago became the first owner of a Model A just six months before the Wrights flew. The first motorized (non-railroad) crossing of the United States took George Wyman 50 days on his California brand motorcycle from San Francisco to New York. Later that year, the first transcontinental trip by car took place, in a Winton open-touring car; it took 52 days. It was probably pretty bumpy, given that no roads as we today understand them then existed. But Bayer aspirin was already three years old in case of headache.

That day at Kitty Hawk also marked the first time pilots realized that tie-down ropes were necessary. After the final flight of the day, the Wrights carried their Flyer into the lee of a building and a gust of wind flipped it over.

“Will who was near one end ran to the front, but too late to do any good. Mr. Daniels and myself seized spars at the rear, but to no purpose. The machine gradually turned over on us. Mr. Daniels, having had no experience in handling a machine of this kind, hung on to it from the inside, and as a result was knocked down and turned over and over with it as it went. His escape was miraculous, as he was in with the engine and chains. The engine legs were all broken off, the chain guides badly bent, a number of uprights, and nearly all the rear ends of the ribs were broken. One spar only was broken,” wrote Orville in his diary chronicling the events of the day.

What is simply amazing is that the path the Wright brothers set us upon led only 32 years later to the first flight of the DC-3 on December 17, 1935, and only 66 years later to The Apollo 11 space flight that landed the first humans on the moon on July 20, 1969.

And to think that just four days before the Wrights flew, a New Yorker named Italo Marchiony was granted U.S. patent No. 746971 … for inventing the ice cream.

Thanks Orville and Wilbur, but thanks also to you Italo!

Copyright 2011, David Hipschman

Posted in Flying, Ice Cream, Pilots, Transportation, Wright Brothers | Tagged , , | 2 Comments