Tree Rings, Chapter Ten, The Grandfather Clock

My father built a grandfather clock from a kit in 1974.  It quit working correctly many years ago, about the same time he did.  Although he passed quietly in his sleep on June 3, 2015, the clock continues to function, but the chimes have long since gone silent and it no longer ‘ticks’ as the pendulum continues its methodical swing, but quietly.  No clocksman had been able to fix it in years past, and today there are no clocksmen to try.  They disappear like tradesmen.  Plumbers and electricians will be the millionaires of the future.  Clocksmen won’t because there are not enough clocks to fix.  Time has been digitally disrupted.

Still, the grandfather clock stands silent sentinel in the entryway and watches me as I sit on the wooden bench to don my winter boots on these cold mornings to walk my dogs.  A part of my father remains in the clock.  He smiles a bittersweet smile knowing that my thumbs, particularly the one on my right hand ache with arthritis as I struggle to tie the bootlaces.

A regulator clock hangs on the wall in the living room.  While I cannot verify its age, it does look like a regulator you might see in the telegraph office, the railroad station or the sheriff’s office in an old Western film.  It ‘ticks’ with confidence and it chimes as long as it’s wound.  There is comfort in its regularity.

My father built me in 1949.  I quit working correctly with my first hip replacement early in the millennium.  I opted for a second artificial hip in 2014 as much to ease the pain as to complement the first.  Now I have two artificial hips.  The second one works better than the first.  Together – like the grandfather clock and the regulator – they work well.

I still get to bed early and I’m early to rise, I am healthy, not wealthy but wise enough to know how little I do know.  I continue to function, to bike, hike, read, write, walk, pray, swim and kayak, but I don’t sing as much as I used to.  I can’t hit the high notes.  No one misses it but me.

 

Working Manuscript

HolocaustLast January, I announced that I had stepped away from social media.  The act was monumental and enabled me to break down the resistance that has plagued me for four years since we published Gaspar, Another Tale of the Christ in 2014.  In January 2018, I began work on a new manuscript, inspired in a small way by my friend Jessica Sayles who passed away in December 2017.

Last week, Frank Chura, my freshman soccer coach in college back in 1967 asked me, “How come you are not writing anymore?”  His question prompts me to offer this ‘teaser,’ sans spoilers…

  • The working title of my new manuscript is Mrs. Houthakker’s Daughter.  I will share the 116 drafted words of the first paragraph…

“Until the railroads come in 1863, Amersfoort claims nothing of particular importance other than, perhaps, the Tower of Our Lady, one of the highest church towers in the Netherlands – 322 feet, 7 inches to be exact – that reaches well above the inner city that surrounds it.  Protestants and Catholics contest ownership until the Protestants gain control after the Reformation.  The locals call it Lange Jan – Long John.  The original church attached to the tower is victim to a mysterious gunpowder explosion in the eighteenth century.  The community embarks on a restorative effort to repair the damage in 1912.  Said restoration is not completed until 1932, the year Jessica is born to Aart and Emma Van Dijk.”

  • Characters of note who have survived the 46,800 words to date include:  Jessica and her father, Aart Van Dijk; Mrs. Houthakker, her husband Tobias and daughter Nava; Sebastiaan Claasen and his father Ernst; Uri Kuttner; and a dog, Clarence.
  • The 46,800 words-to-date equates to 150 – 200 printed book pages, but who’s counting.
  • I hope to complete the first draft by the end of 2018.

It has been my practice since drafting my first novel, The Olympian, A Tale of Ancient Hellas in 2002 to maintain a growing list of research notes and images.  I’ve scattered several images through this short post.

Defeating Resistance

It is noon. Time to break for lunch, which consists of a bag of mackerel and a dill pickle. I have added 1,500 words to my new novel-in-progress, which I started at the beginning of the month. With a single day left in January, I will be over 10,000 words into this manuscript when I shut down tomorrow afternoon. I have eliminated resistance.

Resistance

In his 2002 self-help standard The War of Art, best-selling author Steven Pressfield offers us a close-up and personal look at “Resistance” with a capitol ‘R:’ those things that interfere with our ability to get things done. His book originally targeted writers, but over the years, people from all venues find great value in his book. I have been unable to find the key to my resistance until this month.

I last published in 2014, Gaspar, Another Tale of the Christ, which experienced a mini-run in sales this month with the always present The Olympian, A Tale of Ancient Hellas, my best-seller, though not my personal favorite. Since Gaspar nearly four years ago, I’ve started and shelved no fewer than four manuscripts including a sequel to The Sixth Day. The short of it… for four years, I have been unable to focus. Without the focus, I lacked commitment, without commitment, the stories simply would not come. Resistance was omni-present, but I was unable to identify it. I floundered, even to the point of telling myself I would never complete another manuscript.

A Lot of Help from My Friend

That changed two months ago when I received an email from a young friend in St. Louis who I originally met through my daughter and middle son. Greg was two years younger than my daughter Stef and a year older than my middle son Brad. Their common interest was soccer, and it bloomed into friendship. As a coach, I went along for the ride. Twenty-five years later, I still communicate regularly with Greg. He is one of the wisest young people I know, and I have learned much from him over the course of the past two decades.

In his ‘mass communication,’ he informed the recipients that he would no longer participate in social media on a personal level. “You have my email address,” he wrote, “if you wish to communicate with me, you can contact me with an email.” Intrigued, I asked him for more details. He responded with a lengthy email – which I still have on my desk – which began, “Hey, Geno! Here’s some of my thoughts in no particular order. I won’t be brief because I have a lot of thoughts on this subject… I’ve never written this down, so it’s also for me to keep and reference…”

Greg’s email was compelling. After I digested it, I called, and we chatted about it for an hour. Within the week, I backed away from social media and sent an email like Greg’s initial missive to my contacts. Like Greg, I made the ‘announcement’ on Facebook and Twitter over a month ago and have returned to neither since.

Liberation

The benefits I reap from my disengagement with social media go well beyond my writing, but since this website is about writing, I will limit my comments to ‘the war of art’ as Mr. Pressfield refers to it. My compulsion to get on my computer early every morning to check Facebook and Twitter died the very day I made the decision to abandon them, as has the craving to check social media every 10 to 15 minutes I sit at my desk. Similarly, I removed FB and Twitter from my smartphone and am no longer disturbed and distracted by dings and dongs calling me to see what inane posts and tweets are directed at me by well-intentioned friends, and by less well-intentioned media ‘experts’ who are paid big bucks to see that I cannot overcome my addiction to social media. Guess what? I have.

I am liberated. And with that liberation come two keys essential to my renewed energy and commitment to my new manuscript:

  1. I am focused as I once was when I turned out six novels over a dozen years from 2002 through 2014, from The Olympian through Gaspar.
  2. I have far more undisturbed time that I look forward to each day, time to direct toward this new story.

Resistance be damned.

I thank my young friend Greg for giving me the courage to do what he did, and I strongly recommend that you disengage from the distraction of social media. If you are a writer or would-be writer, it is mandatory. Regardless of who you are and what you do, living life in the real world is far more rewarding than living it in the world of social media.

Winter Olympic Games

The Hamsa
Olympic skier Bronislaw Czech

As we approach the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, Korea, I reminisce on my personal experience in the 1928, 1932 and 1936 Winter Olympic Games. During the two years I worked on The Hamsa, I spent much of the time ‘living’ the Winter Olympic Games in St. Moritz, Lake Placid and Garmisch-Partenkirchen with my protagonist, Bronisław Czech, a Polish Olympic skier and jumper who died of typhoid fever in Auschwitz in 1944.

Times have changed

During those early games – the 2nd, 3rd and 4th edition of winter games – television, marketing and materialism were not synonymous with the Olympic Games. Men and women participated for the sole purpose of the joy they received from competing on an international level in activities they loved. Performance enhancement was not a part of the formula to win at all costs. Personal fame and glory was secondary at best to the honor of representing one’s country on the world’s greatest athletic stage.

2,800 athletes will compete in February’s games, approximately 240 will represThe Hamsaent the United States. The U.S. team is nearly as large as the total number of athletes – 252 – who represented the 17 countries that participated in the 1932 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, NY. The Lake Placid Olympic Stadium had a total capacity of 7,475. That is not large enough to accommodate just the athletes, their support staff, and the media that will converge upon Pyeongchang for two weeks.

If you have a desire to experience sport for the pure joy of the game, I invite you to ‘live’ three Winter Olympic Games with Bronisław Czech in The Hamsa.

My Favorite Poem

I love poetry. My favorite book of poems, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, rests quietly with other volumes between a pair of bookends above the bookcase to my right. The original copy I read years ago in the Redemptorist Library was subtitled “Poems for Men.” I studied the collection from cover to cover and was so enthralled with it that I gifted each of my sons and my son-in-law a copy that Christmas. I wonder if any read it …

Robert Frost and Tom Dooley

The book contains six poems by Vermont’s poet laureate Robert Frost, but omits my favorite poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Mr. Frost penned the poem in 1922. He was 48-years old.

I was in elementary school when I was first exposed to the poem. American physician Tom Dooley included the closing lines of Frost’s poem at the conclusion of his 1958 best-seller Deliver Us from Evil, which described his activity in Southeast Asia at the beginning of U.S. involvement in Vietnam,

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep.
And miles to go before I sleep.”

Father George Gottwald, quoted the poem in Dooley’s eulogy saying that these were the words that Dr. Dooley lived by. “Tom Dooley could have enjoyed a comfortable life,” Father Gottwald told the thousands gathered in the St. Louis cathedral for the funeral, “Instead he chose to devote his career to ministering to the sick in far-off places.” He concluded his sermon with a final statement to his friend, “The promises, Dr. Dooley, are fulfilled.”

Sharing the Poem

I recall, the book entered our home as a Book of the Month Club selection. Admittedly, I remember nothing about Dr. Dooley’s book, but Frost’s lines were etched in my memory since the day I first read them.

I recite the poem to myself frequently, and most often as I wander my own snowy woods – now in Wisconsin, but in New England as a boy – with my canine companions – Winston in this picture from Missouri and now young Clarence in River Falls.

I share my favorite poem every winter, and hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Chapter Seven, Nagasaki

In a recent lecture I attended at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls, Professor Christopher Simer stated, “Crisis? What crisis?” as he opened a discussion on the nuclear stalemate between the United States and North Korea. I tend to agree with the good professor. Regardless of personalities involved, I consider the purposeful use of nuclear weapons remote amid these days of continued brinkmanship that characterized the Cold War years that I grew up in. Of course, as Richard Bach told us in Illusions, everything I write may be wrong.

Nuclear weapons have been purposefully employed just once – twice if you consider two bombs were dropped three days apart on August 6 and 9, 1945. I want to believe that humanity has learned much since the United States ‘cried havoc and let loose the dogs of war!’ I will have faith and pray that it has.

The birds still sing.

Tree Rings, Chapter Seven, Nagasaki