Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Christmas Lights

November is always a busy month with Thanksgiving preparations, holiday shopping, deer season and Christmas lights. This year I got lucky. It was 65 degrees with calm winds the weekend I put up the lights but there have been Novembers past when I worked in weather so cold I could not feel my fingers and times when it sleeted on me and once, after the lights were all in place, that a hailstorm arrived to pummel roofs, cars and Christmas lights with golf ball sized ice.

It's during those bad weather Novembers that I question why I put lights up at all. My kids are grown, one has her own home and my granddaughter, though interested in lights, is probably too young to appreciate them. Oh yes, and Januarys, that's when the lights all come back down again and when I can safely predict cold, blustery days for the task.

When I'm putting them up, I can always count on at least two trips to Wal-Mart to replace a strand of lights that did not make it through the harsh summer of my attic or to add another extension cord because one got used for something else during the off season. I long ago learned that it is far less trying on my patience to replace a $2.38 strand of lights than to repair the non-working culprits. I have even begun preparing during the current year for the next by buying lights at 50-75% off in after Christmas sales although I sometimes find that those, too, meet with a tragic demise in my attic prior to the start of the season.

Last November the weather was pretty cold and I had to escape to the house several times for warmth before finishing lacing up branches and wrapping tree trunks, setting out a lighted moose and three Christmas trees of lights that my dad made many years ago.

And January was cold and blustery, just in time for removing the lights and packing them for storage.

I was concentrating on light removal during that inclement weather when I heard a voice say, "Excuse me, sir?" I turned to find Betty, my neighbor from across the street. "I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your Christmas lights," Betty continued. "I keep my shades drawn most of the time but I looked outside every evening and admired those lights."

What a wonderful compliment. I thanked Betty and she headed back across the street to her home. Betty is over 80 and she has Alzheimer's. She doesn't recall my name anymore but she remembers my Christmas lights. And she found joy in them. This year, I remembered why I put those lights up. This year, they are for Betty and every time I see her shades part, I know she has admired those lights.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Shift in Thinking

Not long ago I read that scientists had discovered bacteria, I think it was, that thrived in an environment of benzene. They were trying to determine what new possibilities existed with such a life form, one that could tolerate chemicals so extreme that our conception of how things could live was challenged. And that led to theorizing that our search for life on other planets was misdirected. Perhaps organisms in space did not need oxygen and water to survive and might do quite well with compounds like methane gas or ammonia maybe.

Our paradigms are difficult binds to break. We tend to conceptualize everything based on what we already know or assume we know. That's to be expected I guess. How else would we frame things, at least to begin with, than in terms we understand and with which we feel comfortable? But paradigms build a box we have to escape before we can move forward.

Everyone has paradigms and everyone is boxed in by them, apparently even scientists. Interesting things can happen when we free ourselves and go beyond the limits we set for ourselves and that can happen at all levels. New inventions are almost by definition a paradigm shift. So are new theories, like how life might be supported in other worlds. But it doesn't have to happen at high levels. We can shift paradigms anywhere and come up with something completely new.

When I worked in manufacturing, I was tasked to head a group that would address our attendance policy because our absentee rate was unbearable. The normal thing to do would have been to write people up faster for fewer incidences as part of taking a tougher stance. The group and I wanted to try a different approach. We set aside what we thought we knew about attendance and looked at it from two new viewpoints and only two viewpoints: 1) what do we really want to accomplish and 2) who do we want responsible for accomplishing it?

That was it, our only two goals. With them we realized we wanted to keep the machines running and we didn't want to bully people into running them. So we shifted everyone's paradigms by announcing a plan that anyone could miss any amount of time they wanted whenever they wanted in any increment they wanted. The caveat? If a person missed, it was their responsibility to find a qualified replacement to take their spot.

Gone were the complaints about not being able to take time to watch kids in a school play, likewise gone were supervisors running ragged trying to keep equipment producing and gone were people saying they were not getting enough hours. Gone. Everyone was happy, and productive, and we stopped chasing after attendance offenders like traffic cops and our supervisors went about managing the business. So did everyone else.

All because we were willing to shift our paradigms, throw them out really, and start fresh as if we didn't know what we thought we knew.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Fighting Sleep

Have you watched children just before bedtime on a day when they have played hard and filled with fun? There's a sudden burst of energy in a last minute refusal to give up and go to sleep for the day, perhaps a bit uncertain whether the next day will bring as much delight as the one passing into history. They fight sleep as hard as they can and want so badly to stay awake and stretch the day out as long as possible. They play briefly with a toy and abandon it for another, laugh, jump and refuse the bonds of slumber. But finally, they can fight it no longer and they give in to the inevitable. They sleep.

I think trees are like that. They awaken in spring to buds and blossoms that stretch into leaves and spend the summers waving gently in breezes, finding joy in gentle rains and in the animals that favor their branches. It's as close to an extended play day as trees can get and they make it last as long as possible, fighting sleep the entire time. When fall comes, trees expend a last burst of energy, displaying brilliant colors and they try desperately to hold onto their leaves through autumn rains and winds. But finally, they can fight it no longer and must give in to the inevitability of winter. They sleep.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Cheers to Perusing

When I was old enough to ride my bike outside the confines of my immediate neighborhood, my usual summer destination was Edison Park which was a straight shot down Mulberry Street about five blocks from my home, a journey that took me past rows of closely packed houses on either side. Occasionally, I took a more scenic route down 167th Street past Concodria Cemetery and near a bank of businesses that included a bar, a bowling alley next to that and a few doors further down, DeLock's which was an old fashioned convenience store with nickel candy and where we could buy the Sunday morning newspaper on Saturday evenings which was an unbelievable concept for me when I was younger and thankfully not allowed to wander that far alone on bike or on foot.

Either route I took to Edison Park was interesting to me in its own right but never as interesting as the park itself or the building across the street from the park. In later years, I would deliver groceries to Mrs. Shein who was in her seventies, I think, and lived in a small townhouse across the street from the other end of the park. She always complained about the cost of her purchases but tipped me five dollars every week anyway and always asked for me to make the delivery when she called in her order to the grocer that employed me.

But Edison Park was a playground of enormous capacity to a preteen boy. There was a public pool, swings, slides, one of those small merry-go-rounds that is operated by someone outside the ride pushing it faster and faster and where I learned about centrifugal forces and how far you could fly if you let go. And the park had an open field with a depression that could be flooded and made into a skating rink in the winter months. There was also a cement column about three feet tall with thick walls and an iron pipe in the middle that continuously delivered the coldest water I ever sampled and without the need to operate a crank or a valve. It simply gurgled and flowed, eager to offer respite from the summer heat.

As wonderful a place as Edison Park was, what provided even more of a draw for me was the library across the street. It looked like a fancy home and inside the air was cool and refreshing even on the hottest most humid Chicago area summer afternoons. My house did not have air conditioning and the Edison Library was a stop to enjoy, to savor the breathing of refrigerated air.

I did visit the library for more than its coolness. I had learned about the treasures of books from excellent elementary school teachers and I loved books for their words, what I could learn from them, and even for how they felt in my hands, how they looked in neat, clean rows on library shelves. I was in awe of how the library smelled with its oak floors, pine racks and the mixture of aging paper and hardcover fabric that had absorbed the scent of hundreds who had been there before me along with the dust of the ages.

Most visits, I would spend perusing the volumes, stopping to sample an author, read a chapter, put it back and pick up another. Or simply scan the titles, touching each spine as if to reach out and make contact with a far away place, a distant land, a foreign concept. Each time I went, I would check out books and I learned how to field a baseball, took a trip under the sea, and discovered the stars. Long ago, I had found Hal and Roger Hunt and read about their adventures then I stumbled across many more stories in that series and I read them all.

I Google mapped my old neighborhood and I found Edison Park. It looks a little different today. The merry-go-round is gone but the pool pavilion looks new. Swings are there but different, same with the slides. I saw the berms that contained the skating rink but I have no idea whether the city still floods it in icy weather. And it looks like the library still stands, at least the way I remember the library but I admit I am only guessing because all I have to go by is the top of the roof from a satellite view. But something has never changed. I still peruse books. I still bask in their scent, enjoy touching their spines and admiring them in neatly arranged rows. I choose books to read based on how the first chapter appeals to me or by what amazing knowledge I might be left with from them. The habits I developed on all those trips to Edison Park and its adjacent library have never left me and I still go on magnificent adventures or teach myself new things from the words arranged just so in books.

Thursday, October 08, 2009


Dreams are fascinating to me. Even the strange and twisted ones. Where do they come from? Why do we have them? What do they mean? And why is it that sometimes we remember them so vividly when we first wake up only to lose their detail with each breath we take until they are completely wiped away. Yet there are others we recall almost exactly as we dreamed them, even years later.

Sometimes, I can slip into a dream state quickly, almost immediately after I close my eyes. A short nap on the couch or falling asleep again after waking up on a Saturday morning can often produce dreams the moment my eyes shut.

That happened to me once when deer hunting. After waking up at 4am, getting to the woods before dawn and seeing nothing at all that chilly November morning, the lack of substantial sleep the night before finally seized hold of me. I closed my eyes briefly, seconds really, but sounds got distant, the world went gray and I could feel myself drifting off. Just so you know, I was not up in a tree stand where this would have presented a great danger of falling. I was sitting on the ground on a hillside with my back propped up against a small tree.

As I said, my eyes were closed for just a few seconds, fifteen or twenty at the most. When I popped them open again, I had the very real and distinct impression I was in Germany. It was World War II and I had been assigned a forward position as a sniper sent to distract and confuse the enemy while our own thin troop levels could organize as best they could for a full assault. The 30-30 in my lap looked like a bolt-action M-1 and my insulated Walls coveralls looked like military fatigues. I could clearly make out the sound of several enemy troops working through the brush in front of me and my heart raced as if my job assignment was about to be fulfilled.

Keep in mind, I was fully awake as I saw and heard these things and had only moments before not slept, just felt myself drifting toward sleep. It was a struggle to convince myself I was in Carthage, Missouri and not in some battlefield in Germany. As I traversed time and my mind returned to the hunting day at hand, I could still hear the troops moving in the woods although they seemed further away and my drab green uniform was beginning to tan again.

You might think I'd say that the sound of marching troops was nothing more than an approaching deer which would be a nice, although predictable, twist in this story. But the deer were not moving and Damion, who was with me that morning, made no reaction that would indicate he had seen or heard anything. Squirrels had not yet descended trees in search of food and the raccoons had long before left their nighttime tree perches and wandered off.

I can't say what it was that made me have that experience. I had not watched any war movies anytime immediately or even distantly prior, nor had I been influenced by noises or sights around me at the time. It was more like two different time periods somehow intersected briefly on that hillside, and apparently only on my side of the hill as Damion never said he felt anything similar unless, of course, he isn't saying.

Perhaps this was an experience from a previous life, which would mean I would have to believe in reincarnation and while I admit that could happen, I am not certain I am convinced it does. If it was a throwback to a previous life, I had been sent to conduct a dangerous mission without a high probability of a successful outcome for me, which makes the dream a bit more like a nightmare.

Then again, it may have simply been a firing of synapses in my brain triggered by an overactive writer's imagination and a fully engaged subconscious mixed with some very sleepy eyes.

You choose the ending to this story.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Hitchin' a Ride

I make it a point never to pick up hitchhikers. It's just my policy and it always has been. Most are nice enough and probably mean no harm but there's always a danger that something could go wrong and I could end up badly hurt or worse. A couple of days ago, I violated my own policy and the thing is, I didn't even mean to do it, the hitchhiker crept in so quietly, so subtly I had no idea she was even with me until it was too late.

Of all places, it happened right there in my backyard, by the butterfly bush. The plant gets overgrown during the summer and gives new definition to the term "bushy." I brushed against it while mowing because there was no place else for me to go. The forsythias on the other side pretty well pushed me toward the butterfly bush, which I noticed was very aptly named as scores of the little creatures were taking in the last sips of summer.

I took some time to watch the butterflies who, earlier in the season, made a scene by landing on my ball cap and shoulders anytime I approached them while they savored the blooms. Sort of a butterfly thank you for planting the bush.

When I got to the storage building to put my mower up, my peripheral vision detected something bright green on my shoulder. At the same time I moved my head to see what it was, it moved its head to see what I was. I had picked up a praying mantis that was now staring me directly in the eye. When I moved my head, it moved its head and we danced like that for a minute or two before I remembered the mower that needed to be stowed and the rest of the chores on my list that day.

I released the mantis onto a honeysuckle planted next to the storage building and watched as it climbed those branches on the hunt for a snack. I guess in the future I will need to make a few exceptions to my "no hitchhikers" edict.

Photo courtesy of Sydnee R. Crain.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Construction Projects

I don't know exactly why I thought of it today, but I remember as a child one of my aunts telling me that every mile we walked added a new artery to our circulatory system. That was quite a revelation to my young mind and something that had a profound impact on me at the time. My brain immediately started developing what if scenarios.

My first concern was what would happen if we walked only, say, a half a mile. Would just part of an artery get built? And what would happen to blood flow? Was the new, partially constructed artery open to traffic? When we walked again the next day, would the body's highway team know precisely where to pick up again?

Next, I recall wondering what would happen to us over our life spans as we walked hundreds, maybe thousands of miles. The body is finite. There simply would not be room for all those new arteries to be contained inside us. Would we have some kind of arterial explosion?

Ah, the worries of youth. I guess there is no real point to this story except, be careful what you tell children. It might be wise to explain exactly what is meant or how things work lest they fill in the blanks themselves.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

My Secret

I have been carving out fifteen minutes a day every day for a visualization exercise. I am trying to picture where I see my life, my career, my finances as the future unfolds and becomes the present. It’s a great exercise and calls for living that fifteen minutes as if the future were already here today.

There has been so much written and said about creating our own realities and I have become a believer in that concept. I’ve never been one for destiny because it seems so unfair that everything is already decided and we just play our parts like actors on a stage without even so much as adlibbing. I think in terms of free choice and often wonder if we as humans over-complicate matters as we so often do. I mean, what if God’s plan is very simple: be happy, try new things, learn, grow. The rest is up to us. We have choices and the freedom to make those choices.

That said, my choice is to visualize a future I want to have unfold and one that I can create. My own reality built with my choices and then my actions. But I have learned that we need to be careful about what we wish for and where we place our thoughts and attention because that also creates our realities.

I learned about The Secret from a DVD and I was fascinated. I got on the mailing list and one of the newsletters was a blank check drawn on the Universe for whatever amount we thought was possible. I filled it in with a number I felt was realistic and I put the check on my desk where I could see it every day so that I could focus on it.

This I did at a time when my business was having difficulties just prior to the huge downturn in our economy that affected most all businesses. I guess you could say that my business was a leading indicator. As revenues diminished, I took on more debt to weather the storm and soon debt was where I focused my attention, paying this bill, moving money around, always struggling, always thinking about that debt.

You can probably see where this is going. The check I wrote was to be manifested in one year. At the end of that year, I recall telling someone that the only secret to The Secret was that there was that there was no secret. And that’s when my mouth dropped and I went back to my desk to get the check I had written a year prior. My debt level on the day I proclaimed there was no secret was exactly the amount I had written on the check. I had achieved my goal, only I concentrated on debt not revenues for an entire year. In fact, I seldom ever thought about revenues during that year, but I always thought about debt.

It was a lesson learned, I grew. I am writing a new check and I am concentrating on the revenue that will make that check a reality. A year from now, I hope to post a new story about the reality I am creating today to be manifested over the next 365 days.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Foggy Morn

My knee is still sore today after playing too many consecutive hours of wallyball last week so I decided a nice, long walk would help rehab it. Last night's heavy rains left fog so thick I could barely see the ridge to the east and imagined mountains beyond. There really aren't any mountains nearby where I live and take my walks but I do have a vivid imagination.

Water droplets were poised on branches and leaves like divers composing before taking a plunge. And, since most people had already gone off to work and I work from home with no set hours, the peace and tranquility was welcome. I did see a gray haired woman struggle to control two poodles she was walking on long leashes. We said good morning but she seemed so preoccupied I doubt she recalled the greeting.

A bit further along, a younger woman was smoking a cigarette while pushing her baby in a stroller. She said hello to the mailman but never looked my way even though we passed within eight feet of each other. Maybe she was worried I was out for more than just a walk or she was simply savoring that last puff of Marlboro.

As I reached the furthest point from home in my journey, I realized that not a single dog had barked in almost two miles. Just then, a dog barked. He was inside a home and peered at me through the screen door. I heard what I thought was a loud conversation in the dog's house but it turned out to be somebody listening to a recording of George Carlin debating the existence of angels and using colorful adjectives to illustrate his point. Apparently, the listener had the volume turned up so the rest of the neighborhood could tune in as well although I saw no one doing so.

The rest of my walk was quiet, calm and without much to describe. My knee felt better and I may repeat the process again this afternoon. Then again, the fog has yet to lift completely which is keeping the temperatures steady at about 62 degrees. It's a nice, early fall day. I hear the woods calling my name.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


As I wander the same trail through the same neighborhoods on my daily walks, I find myself less attuned to the mundane path I travel and more aware of the sounds of nature, the scents of the outdoors and the neighbors who painted their garage doors that hideous shade of green this summer.

Last evening, the scents are what captured my attention. I always manage to pick up something wonderful along the way: sweet batter coating onion rings in the fryer at Sonic, fresh laundry being tumbled in a dryer, honeysuckle and magnolia blossoms, newly mowed grass. Yesterday, the smells tricking into my nostrils told me a story.

About a block into my walk, I detected a charcoal grill that had been lit not too very long before my arrival. The oily odor of lighter fluid was gone and only the cooking smell of graying briquettes was wafting through the air. I imagined boneless, skinless chicken breasts or strip steaks, maybe hamburger patties eager to be rested on the grilling rack. Judging solely by the intensity of the bouquet, their time was near. There is nothing quite like food cooked outdoors even if the grill marks include incredible amounts of carcinogens according to experts who will someday change their minds and sing the praises of outdoor cooking as they have with so many other good for you, bad for you, good for you food and drink we consume. For me, I’ll take my chances to get a tasty, smoky cut of grilled meat onto my plate and into my diet.

I no sooner saw myself sitting at the dinner table cutting into a nice, tender and toxic steak than another smoky aroma swayed my attention. It was the musty, crisp perfume of leaves burning and I soon saw a smoldering fire and someone using a rake to tend a small pile of foliage that had already given up the ghost this season. I enjoy the scent of spent leaves burning and it immediately reminds me of cold walks in the woods in icy weather when the friendly smoke from a hickory fire beckons the weary traveler home. Alas, the change in seasons lets me wax poetic.

And that is the story the smells of the night brought me on my walk evening last. The change of seasons is upon us once more. Like floral spring to humid summer, musty fall to icy winter and finally back to earthy spring, each change has its own unique blend of aromas and each harkens the next step in a circular path. In fact, each season has its own smell, its own exclusive signature. But as one season gives way to the next, a sensual treat awaits that both hails the coming and mourns the passing.


I started this blog as an avenue of expression, to talk about whatever I wanted and to continue practicing my writing skills. What I ended up doing was only posting when I felt I had something poignant to say. But then, following that logic, I haven't had anything important to say since July 2nd.

Truth is, I have found other venues in which to write:, Twitter, Facebook and a few paid writing gigs I recently picked up. But writing is what I do, it's what I love and it is my true passion. So today, I give my self permission to write on my blog a few times each week even if I have nothing all that big to discuss. I'll put together the occasional essay but I give myself the freedom to write simply for the sake of writing. I may try out a poem or post a descriptive paragraph and maybe a limerick or even a haiku if I decide to try one. Maybe I'll just say what I've been up to or speak about what might be on my mind.

It's a new direction for Amblin. Actually, it's the original direction rediscovered.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Guide to Social Networking Sites

I have been trying to get immersed in social networking sites as a way of letting people know about freshare or my blogs and maybe even a little bit about me. I have accounts now on most of the major sites – Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn – and I started trying to figure out how each one works and what they attempt to provide to the user. So here is my very brief explanation of what you need to know about each of these social sites.

MySpace, of course, was one of the first big social networking hot spots on the web and its age is starting to show, not unlike the older part of a city where houses’ paint begins to peel and the shrubs need trimming. MySpace has a bit of a seedy feel to it. Page layouts are often gaudy and unkempt and led by flashy ads placed by Tom and the boys at the home office. When I am on MySpace, my adware/spyware software treads pages on high alert like a soldier weaving through a minefield. Ads, videos, even layout tricking sites often seem to have dangerous junk attached. Like I said, it’s a seedy place. From what I can tell, the object of MySpace is to make the foulest, coarsest comments, to be vulgar and to let your avatar project that same sense of style. I think the game is to collect as many “adds” as possible in an effort to spread this party atmosphere across the globe. To that end, MySpace is very successful.

Facebook has a cleaner, fresher look to it although there are still lots of nooks and crannies where you can sport a bit of jocularity and some shock value but not at the same level as on MySpace. There are still the profile questions about why you are there (friendship, dating) and your relationship status (single, married, it’s complicated) but you can choose not to fill out any of that and Facebook doesn’t mind. Facebook is to the suburbs what MySpace is to the red light district. But unlike MySpace, profiles are mostly set to private so it is much more difficult to try and befriend anyone you do not already know. Unlike the free-wheeling MySpace where anybody can see you and ask to cavort, Facebook is meant for people who want to stay in touch with friends they already have. But a word of caution: those suffering from low self-esteem are not likely to gain much on this site. If you do not already have a gaggle of friends in tow all with their own Facebook accounts, you are not likely to feel much better about yourself. With barriers firmly in place, Facebook seems to frown on making new friends. The object of the game is to keep in touch with existing friends online and to do so in front of all your other friends. This as opposed to such archaic communications means as texting, emails or (yuk!) phone calls. If you do not mind operating in a fishbowl, Facebook is for you.

LinkedIn is kind of the Facebook for professionals but without so much interaction, after all these are busy managers, executives and others who don’t have much time to offer meaningful dialogue so the makers of LinkedIn wisely left off that module. LinkedIn is a place to display your resume, a little important information about your skills and abilities and to, by your presence there, announce availability to potential employers. From what I can tell, the object is much like collecting coins on Mario Brothers except the term “coins” is dropped in favor of “Connections.” LikedIn is a great way to up others by showing just how plugged in you are, which is of high value to competitive business people.

Twitter is much different from any of the other major social networking sites. Twitter is like texting, but to a larger audience, or so one hopes. People talk about all kinds of things on Twitter from what they had for breakfast to breaking news stories. To keep things lively, Twitter imposes a limit of just 140 characters in your “tweets” which is the term used to describe your communiqué. That’s kind of an interesting challenge and, if nothing else, teaches us to tear out all the fluff and get directly to the point. The object of the Twitter game is to collect as many followers as possible who are willing to check in on what you have to say. To be perfectly honest, most probably don’t really care what you have to say they are simply adding you to the rest of the people they follow in hopes that you will return the favor and follow them. The more followers they have, the more they look like interesting people to follow. You follow?

There are other networking sites with broad appeal and some that simply serve niches but I am not familiar enough with any of them to offer any advice. What all these social sites do have in common is that hardly any existed until just a few years ago, people flock to them in droves, none of them seem to make any money, large companies are salivating to buy one.

In a world where phones are more useful as web browsers than for talking and we wonder how the postal service even stays in business, the future of how people connect and stay in touch will at minimum be fascinating to observe.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009


Last Saturday I went to the hootenanny in Mountain View, Arkansas with my oldest daughter. For those who have never been to the hootenanny, it's an open air bluegrass concert held on the town square in Mountain View on Saturday nights. But I'll tell you this: the best music is not on center stage, it's along the side streets in gazebos and under shade trees or beneath shop overhangs.

We attended on a warm, early summer evening and stopped at a few different spots, sampling the music at each. These are local musicians and bands which makes the quality of the bluegrass singing and playing all that much more impressive. Fiddle players, guitar strummers, bass players and banjo pickers weave in and out of impromptu ensembles, find the key, pick up the beat and join in seamlessly.

We stopped to listen to one group comprised of about nine members - a lead guitar, bass, banjo, rhythm guitar, a mandolin, three fiddlers and one young boy of about ten or eleven who played a pretty mean guitar, sang several tunes and whooped, hollered and had about a fine a time as anyone there.

That's a pretty tough age to be so bold when peer pressure begins to emphasize conformity to whatever the group's standards are at the time. Picking bluegrass tunes is usually not one of those norms even in Mountain View. But watching that young man stomp his foot, shout, challenge the adult musicians and play his guitar with reckless abandon, I doubt he really cared what his classmates would think. We spent most of the evening watching that boy and his orchestra, and it was like witnessing a metamorphosis. The young man had found his passion in life and I truly hoped he would stay with it no matter what, even if he taught school, managed a business or changed tires for a living, I hoped he would stick with his passion.

And that is what is so attractive to me about a hootenanny. People walking around with their instruments looking for a venue to make music. Young people, old people, men, women, children, all pursuing their passion for music any way they can. I like bluegrass music all right, I have pretty eclectic taste in music and listen to lots of different kinds from classical to rock, country to jazz, but I can't say I choose bluegrass if offered up alongside other styles. It's more the being amazed at someone's fingers picking guitar strings so quickly the hand seems a blur or watching them close their eyes as they pull a bow across the neck of a fiddle.

For me, attending hootenannies is like watching American Hot Rod or Orange County Choppers on TV. I'm not much into custom rods or bikes but I enjoy watching for the sake of finding builders who will give anything to follow their dreams. They have discovered their passion, and they are living that passion in whatever shape it takes.

Any of us lucky enough to find our true passions in life, those things that make us so joyful our souls whoop and we sing no matter who is listening, are the ones truly blessed. Anything could be waiting out there for us to discover about ourselves and what we find as our passion, our way to express our creative energy - bluegrass music, building hot rods, teaching, taking care of a family, writing, photography - the discovery is well worth the pursuit.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Scent of a Memory

I like the way a familiar scent in just the right context can evoke a long forgotten memory and transport me back to another time.

Last weekend, I was in the Wal-Mart parking lot headed toward the store to start the weekly grocery shopping. It was cool but sunny, very mild weather. A two-ton Ford dually motored slowly past, the driver in search of a parking space wide enough to accommodate his rig. As the truck passed by, the oil-laden scent of diesel exhaust was left behind like a boat’s wake.

Immediately, I was reminded of a bus exhaust, which took me back to my youth, to grade-school and a class trip. We went to Chicago that day to see Midway Airport and take a boat ride on the Chicago River.

Midway, I recall, was kind of boring. It was a long drive through heavy traffic on city streets and all of us sitting near the back of the bus, which afforded the least comfortable ride and the one we sought, speculated that our driver was lost and we were only going to Midway because he happened to see it and thought it was ideally suited for a bunch of sixth graders. Midway was the second airport and still is. Low fare airlines serve the field and I remember the terminal at that time being rather run down and few people milled about the ramps, fewer than one would expect for such a large city. It was no O’Hare that was certain.

Why exactly we were at Midway is fuzzy to me. We watched planes come and go and stared at people incessantly and maybe that’s why I don’t remember the reason for our visit. I wasn’t listening. Or maybe our bus banter was correct and we were only there because we were lost. Whatever the reason, we were not there very long before heading deeper into the heart of the city to catch our boat ride.

We were propelled through Chicago on a wide and pristine excursion craft and my first thought was why the city dyed the river green every St. Patrick’s Day. The river’s natural color, it was quite apparent to me, was already green although a sort of dark, thick green that did not match the festive coats and hats worn by St. Patrick’s Day revelers. I wasn’t sure the dye they dumped in during March would cover up the dingy green of that river and make it festive, too.

The cruise wandered its way along waters that flowed between the tall buildings of downtown Chicago like a river cut through a canyon. I remember seeing Marina Towers, fairly new at that time, and was both fascinated and frightened to see cars parked several stories high and right at the edge of the building. I recognized the Tribune Tower and the Mercantile Exchange from photos I had seen but the rest were nameless structures of cold steel and glittering glass, breathtaking yet sterile.

The air temperature dropped quickly as we approached Lake Michigan and the clean scent of cool, fresh water was on the breeze. But before the lake, another first for me as our boat entered a lock that had been put in place years earlier to reverse the flow of the river and keep Chicago’s trash and sewage from contaminating its water supply.

Not a comfortable situation for someone who might be claustrophobic, the boat entered the lock, stopped and we found ourselves several feet below ground level. The gate behind us closed slowly and we were locked in place. The gate in front of us began to open, even more slowly than the one behind us had closed, and our craft started to rise as we watched Lake Michigan pouring into the opening that grew bigger by the second.

At last we were at lake level and our tour boat made way into a wide open expanse of water with Navy Pier to our left and Meigs Field and the museums to our right. Sailboats and pleasure craft scurried about the lake and it was as if we were savoring the sweet taste of freedom after being encased in steel.

But our excursion ended soon enough and we returned to the lock, the canyon of buildings and finally our port. The boat trip lasted about an hour and a half but the memories are still with me all these years. And they were all brought back to mind by the scent of diesel exhaust.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Trout Fishing Camp

Last weekend I got to go trout fishing on the river. Well, that is to say I expected to go trout fishing but the river was up big and the trout refused to bite so I ended up hunting instead - for morel mushrooms. That's the subject of another post in another blog which you can read here if you'd like: The Morel of the Story.

Being out there on the river is one of my favorite places and my weekend trip reminded me of another time when the water was lower and the fish more cooperative.

It was a camping trip that weekend and cool water flowing down the valley provided relief to a warm summer day. We pitched the tent and set out to catch a few rainbow before supper. A lack of rain that year made the river run low and clear, crystal enough to see the bottom with ease and spy the trout we hoped to catch.

I really can't recall how many fish we caught that day, just that it was calm, relaxed and enjoyable. That night was a contrast as we awoke to the sound of something rustling the trash only to discover a couple of hungry skunks poking around just a few feet from the tent. Being at eye level to an animal known to present a pungent liquid defense when provoked was unsettling to say the least.

But we awoke the next morning unscathed and with no more odor than your typical camping trip so we were ready to head out and catch breakfast.

Cold water released from upstream dams was reacting with the warm air and a dense fog had settled across the top of the river completely obscuring it. Only the sound of water flowing by, licking downed limbs and old tree roots somewhere underneath that blanket of fog let us know the river was still out there somewhere.

We were hungry and not about to let a lack of vision keep us from our appointed rounds so we launched the boat and headed out in search of rainbow. While seeing straight ahead, or for that matter left, right, behind or above us, proved nearly impossible, we did find out that the river was as gin clear as it had been the day before.

We motored upstream slowly and carefully as it was hard to get our bearings and just as difficult to determine whether we had joined any other fishermen who may be anchored or, worse, headed downstream toward us. Fog has a way of playing with the senses, not only blinding us but also making sounds project differently. Any noise we made in the boat seemed amplified as it bounced off the thick air while that same heavy fog made it tough to figure out where sounds away from us were located.

It made little sense to progress much further as it was not really possible to tell where we were going anyway, so we stopped, threw out the anchor and tossed in the lines. In a matter of seconds the first fish was on and it was followed closely by the second, third and fourth. In no time at all, we had caught our limit of nice sized rainbow trout which made a perfect compliment to fresh eggs, fried potatoes and campfire biscuits.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sunny Days

Last night’s snow looked like spray-on flock, the kind you can buy at Christmas to add a wintry touch to decorations. But it had little time to celebrate as the morning sun melted it away, giving a long drink to tulips and redbuds.

What a great day for a walk so I laced on my sneakers and headed outside. This time of year, everything looks brighter, more detailed than in winter. In winter, everything looks smudged, devoid of color except for the usual earthy browns, cold grays, stark blacks. Maybe it’s the angle of the sun, maybe it’s just that color is returning to the world again, but everything looked clearer, more vivid than it did just a few weeks ago.

The wind harbored a hint of winter chill but the sun was warm on my face. It reminded me of growing up in Indiana this time of year. Actually, this time of year in Indiana comes a few weeks later than it does here in the Ozarks so it really reminded me of Indiana in mid-April. That’s when it felt as though the long stretch of short days and overcast skies had finally passed, that it was time to oil baseball gloves, shove winter coats to the back of the closet and reacquaint ourselves with t-shirts and shorts. School days would pass soon enough though never soon enough for a student and we would find ourselves at the uphill end of another warm summer full of play, adventure, bike rides, swings and completely void of the stress, the strain of learning.

Early spring was a period of time-lapse photography because the world seemed to have suddenly picked up steam. We saw it happen then as we do now. Trees that were nothing more than sticks arranged to look like branches overnight grew buds that blossomed then produced leaves in no more time than they did in the documentaries we watched in class. Bare earth one morning gave way to jonquils then hyacinths then tulips all in a matter of seconds, or so it seemed in the early part of spring. Lawns greened and people started coming out of their houses again to look at them, and to soak in the color that had been so lacking in their winter solitude.

And finally, a day like today, a day so full of promise that winter had passed and spring was with us at last.

This is the best time of year, and a time of year we are blessed to see in all the seasons of our own lives, a time when we bear witness to the rebirth of nature.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Hidden Brook

Water had furrowed the rocks the way time etches an old man's face. The flow was steady, patient, and the water had clearly expended much of its efforts either carving pathways to follow or sanding smooth the stone beneath it in a time honored journey to the sea.

Ignoring rocks it had befriended eons earlier, the brook disappeared below the surface only to find its path again a few yards later, a trickle then a stream and finally, a shallow pool which refused to impede progress as water softly fell like streams of spring rain over a terrace of stone built with the loving, artistic hands of someone far more patient and with far more time than man.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Beware the Ides

March, cruelest of months
Teases with warmth, buds, blooms
Scorns with sleet, snow, wind.
Jonquils, maples, forsythia smile
When the days reach sixty or seventy
Only to be slapped with an icy fury
When the days struggle even for twenty.
Used to bitter betrayals
The blossoms have learned
Do not trust this month
Do not plan to flourish
Just be there to sentinel
For the ones in April.

March, cruelest of months
Forever making promises
It never intends to keep.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Saving the Economy

Two administrations and I think we still missed it on saving the economy. While everyone is focused on doling out billions, even a trillion or more to banks, financial institutions, car companies and any other organizations that are big, boisterous and failing, I think we are handing checks to the wrong sort of people.

To illustrate my point, think about what makes our economy run. The numbers vary by pundit, but something like 80 percent of new jobs are created by small businesses, well over half of all Americans are employed by small companies and 70 percent of our economy is consumer driven.

As human beings, we tend to be in a rush to put a bandage where we see bleeding without looking at what caused the bleeding in the first place or what consequences could occur from our treatments. We focus on the symptoms and try to stop them. If credit has dried up and credit is necessary for the economy to move, we throw billions of band-aids at those institutions that supply credit. If people stop buying cars, we throw billions more band-aids so that car companies can do … well whatever it is they plan to do to get people to buy cars again. What are the Big 3 auto makers doing with all that money, anyway?

President Obama is proposing a trillion dollars be spent on rescuing the economy and former-President Bush got Congress to appropriate 700 billion dollars to do the same thing. So that’s $1.7 trillion worth of band-aids being thrown in all kinds of different directions from infrastructure to big businesses to schools to green energy companies.

Sounds interesting, except that very little of that money is going to any of the large job creating and spending sectors of our economy – small businesses and individuals.

So here is what I think should have happened:

$700 billion from the Bush administration’s plan should have been made available to small businesses across the country in the form of low and no interest loans and in some cases outright grants. The portion served up as low and no interest loans would have ensured that a big part of that stimulus package got paid back to the Treasury instead of ending up as nothing more than give-aways to banks. The part that would have been available as grants could have been used for companies planning to embark on green energy businesses, school repairs and infrastructure repairs, thereby placing a high emphasis on the new direction we want to take the country.

A caveat to obtaining the funding would have been that new jobs had to be created or layoffs avoided. Instead of money given away to financial firms that have yet to thaw a frozen credit system and instead spent the billions they were given on buying up weaker banks (a la Bank of America’s purchase of Merrill Lynch), or simply hoarding the money for future use of what we are not certain, the money would have immediately hit the economy, spent to drive GDP and to create jobs. Instead of waiting to see whether banks would ever loan again, we would be seeing unemployment dropping and goods and services being purchased.

$1 trillion proposed by the Obama administration should be placed where it would do the most good to drive an economy that is 70 percent consumer driven – with the consumers themselves.

Consider if you will that $1 trillion and around 300 million Americans amounts to about $3,300 per citizen. Imagine handing a tax-free check to each American in the amount of $3,300. A family of four would get $13,200. A family of ten, $33,000. Tax free.

More progressive businesses have learned to give employees the resources they need to get their jobs done, then stay out of their way while they do it. This is the same train of thought. Now, will all 300 million Americans do the right thing with all that cash? Certainly not. But neither are all of the banks and car companies that were trusted with huge checks.

A few people, no doubt, would save some of their new found cash. Some would catch up bills and others would make purchases for themselves and their families. Probably buy a few things they really do not need but always wanted. And a lot of people would go out and just blow the whole wad.

But think what that means. Savers and bill payers are placing money back into the financial sector. Banks, lenders and credit card companies get a cash infusion. If only ten percent of the money goes into savings or paying off credit card bills, $100 billion reaches financial institutions almost as soon as the ink dries on those printed checks.

Whether to buy a few necessities, pick up some items that were once out of reach or simply blow the whole three grand, that’s instant money spent in the economy on goods and services. Companies sell, consumers buy, profits go up.

The study of economics teaches that consumers “vote” with their dollars by purchasing from organizations they favor and avoiding ones they do not. Purchases, then, are the most democratic way to honor trusted companies and let the poorer ones die off.

If we are going to spend this volume of tax payer dollars anyway, should we not spend it where we get the biggest bang? And, at the same time, have an opportunity to recover some of that money and place it back into the U.S. Treasury as loan payments are made by small businesses?

And, here’s another plus: state and local governments stand to benefit as well. The $3,300 checks would have to be given out free from state and federal income taxes. But sales taxes will be collected when purchases are made. If we assume the average state sales tax is five percent, just to make my math easier, and we assume that 90 percent of the $1 trillion stimulus money described here would be spent rather than saved, that’s $45 billion into state coffers in the form of sales tax revenues. Close to a billion dollars average per state.

We are living in economic times that are unprecedented since the Great Depression. It is time to think outside the box of band-aids and inject capital deeper into the economy than where we first see symptoms. To heal the problem, we need to do something bold and dramatic. Something that has never been tried before.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Christmas Eve 1959

In the days before
America lost its innocence,
And before Blackberry, PC, PS2 and Wii,
When the world seemed young and fresh
War a fading memory
Post war prosperity a reality.

We gathered all at grandma's house
Parents, cousins, uncles, aunts,
For fish and peirogis, homemade bread and pies,
Laughter, broken English, singing and presents.
Oh, so many presents -
More than my imagination could ever conjure.

Cheesy aluminum tree,
Gaudy ornaments, rotating color wheel.
Now so commercialized,
Then simply advertising
The stack of packages beneath
Holding inside what only Santa knew.

And the old guy showed up
In spite of his hectic night.
My cousins in fear,
But I wasn't afraid of the red suit and beard
The laughing eyes, the shiny boots.
He had a watch just like my Dad's.

In the eternity between
Dinner clean up and passing of presents,
We busied ourselves guessing
And watching TV,
Everything then in black and white
Three channels and rabbit ears.

But the next year
Grandma bedridden and ill
Could only smile and have each one of us sing
"Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer"
As she closed her eyes
Savoring the song, the moments, the passing.

And the moment did pass
Into another time, another era.
My own children, now their children.
But Christmas Eve, 1959
Will always live in my memory
And be played back like a DVD.

Monday, January 05, 2009

I Resolve

I'm usually not much of one for New Year's resolutions and here is my only one for 2009: I plan to write more. Throughout last year, all my writing appeared only on my Ozarks outdoors website,, and on a few article sites. But I have missed blogging and resolve to do more of that in 2009. Here, on Amblin Cafe and for a soon to be developed outdoors blog on freshare.

If you check this blog and Abbozzare, I'll save you a trip today because the same post you are reading appears on Abbozzare, too.