Let The Freak Flag Fly

Tie-dyed t-shirts had to be home-made in 1970, when only freaks wore them.
Tie-dyed t-shirts had to be home-made in 1970, when only freaks wore them.

The crisp feeling in the air, the rustle of dry leaves skittering along the sidewalk, the scent of fresh apples — these things signal the most poetic time of the year, for me.

Others may wax nostalgic about spring or soft summer nights, and those things have their appeal. But nothing quite compares to the bittersweet bliss of October, when the world tilts toward the darkness again, at least in this hemisphere. There is a rush of energy to this autumnal shift, a sense of urgency. Time’s a wastin’, get the harvest in. The season hums with a “back-to-school,” anything-can-happen mood of fresh opportunity.

This mood changed my life back in October of 1969, when there were a lot of fresh ideas, and some recycled ones, adrift on the shared consciousness of our nation. At that time I had already dropped out of high school, dropped out of college, and tuned in to the mesmerizing pull of a group of scruffy musicians in the D.C. area who were gaining momentum on the local scene.

They started out as a trio, guitar, bass and drums. Within a few months that core had expanded to a collective whose appearances included anywhere from six to 12 performers on stage. The repertoire was eclectic and the group dynamic was volatile, but when they were going good, they were as good as anybody, and better than many.

For the last century, to play in a band has become almost a rite of passage for a large percentage of America’s youth. The type of music doesn’t matter. It’s the playing that defines us.

The United States is a nation of bands. But what makes a band different from individual musicians who may be more skilled and talented than the average band, is that bands can only exist through consensus. And consensus is never easy. Ask anyone in Washington, D.C.

In the beginning of the band that dominated my life for three years, we all lived together in one house. When the band grew too big to fit into the house we shared in D.C., we found an old farmhouse in the Virginia countryside and moved there. The house was big and rambling, but it wasn’t designed to accommodate a horde. There were enough rooms that could be used as bedrooms, but they weren’t equal in size or charm. The question of who should get the best, or biggest, room was discussed. In the end, it was decided that the order of choice would be decided by a cut of the cards. The day before the move happened to be the drummer’s birthday. He was late to the card cutting and as it turned out the card he drew was the lowest.

Yet, as the guys went through the house for the first time the next day (none of them had seen it before; in order to rent the house we had sent our most respectable looking pair to negotiate the deal, keeping the musicians out of sight) each found a room that suited his needs. And most were happy, with the possible exception of the organ player who chose one of the smallest rooms because it had the only private bath, which later proved to be nonfunctioning. Also one of the lead singers chose an attic room that had great potential after he lobbied to have the group pay for his building supplies to fix it up. Those supplies are probably still sitting up there in the dust.

But the drummer, choosing last, selected an overlooked room above the kitchen. It had its own private staircase to the kitchen, thus ensuring a good spot in the line for dinner, and was the warmest room in the house, a key plus in the drafty old structure.

We were happy for a while in that old house. Everything the band earned was used to pay our expenses. The musicians got one dollar per gig.

If that sounds like communism, I suppose it was to an extent. But it was more than that. It was a democratic commune. We debated every expenditure. The milk vs beer argument was never won by either side. And there were other, ahem, expenses.

By the time the band broke up a couple of years later, we were no longer living together. We got together for gigs, but the day-in-day-out sharing of good times and bad had lessened, and without that daily closeness, understanding and sympathy lose the race with self-interest and ambition.

Yet the funny thing is, the band enjoyed its peak when everyone was more concerned about the group as a whole than about themselves as individuals. The willingness to work for the good of the whole benefits all the parts.

This is the key not simply to rock and roll survival, but to national strength. We in this country like to think of ourselves as champions of individual freedoms. But what made this country great in the first place was the readiness of all the individuals who sacrificed for the good of the whole.

It might sound corny, but sometimes nothing swings like the basics. The country that plays together stays together. We may never agree on the milk vs beer question, but as long as we keep the discussion civil, we still have a chance for greatness.

New Wave: Who’ll Stop The Rain?



Untold secrets fester in the dark like starlets longing for the spotlight. Sooner or later, they burst onstage.

In the newly released volume of my eco-fantasy trilogy “The Greening, Book Two: In The Wave,” Shiloh Carter’s life falls apart when a secret she thought she had carefully stowed away erupts like a rudely awakened volcano.

For the last twelve years, since the birth of her daughter Eva, Shiloh has carefully maintained a facade of normality, pretending to be an ordinary single mom forced to travel a lot for her job. Eva has no idea what her mother does for a living. She only knows she’s not around much. But one thing Eva has believed all her short life is that her father died before she was born. Her mother told her so.

Twelve is such a dangerous age, the pivotal point when a child turns toward being an adult. They begin to question authority and experiment with all manner of things; with luck, they get through it and emerge into adulthood some years later. Not all kids are lucky.

Eva Carter has never seen a traffic jam. Born right after The Greening destroyed Earth’s oil supply, Eva hasn’t seen much of the world outside Washington, D.C.. However when Eva learns that her mother has been lying to her for years, she runs away and is soon swept up in a world where magic and mystery blur the lines between what is real and what is right.

Eva doesn’t know that her mother has spent the last twelve years fighting a lonely losing battle to stem the spread of Deep Magic on Earth. But the job gets a lot more complicated after Shiloh realizes her own daughter has magic genes in her blood.

While Shiloh struggles to find her daughter and regain her trust, Eva learns things about her own past that completely alter her ideas about the future. But when she risks everything using power she doesn’t fully understand, Eva draws the attention of Higher Powers who intervene to wash out the contagion, forcing all humanity to flee to higher ground.

“The Greening, Book Two: In The Wave” is available in paperback now from Amazon. It will be available on Kindle soon. In addition, there is a Goodreads giveaway going on now through October 28th. Enter to win a free copy of the paperback.

Nothing To Fear

I don’t know about you, but I’m scared.

I blame the media. I know how they operate. I used to be one of them. They feed on Bad News. The Badder the Better.

But there’s a limit to how much of this stuff an ordinary person can take before they start to feel, you know, paranoid. And I know from paranoid. So when I say I’m quaking in my boots, I kid you not.

Not to bum you out or anything, but if you have come up for air any time in the last couple of months you may have gotten wind of the Ebola epidemic, the beheadings by extremist groups, the widespread leakage and spillage of data relating to security, privacy and general peace of mind. It’s enough to make a person want to curl up in a ball and wait for the all-clear siren to sound.

But when the going gets apocalyptic, the diehards get going. That’s what I’m counting on — those hardy, “not-on-my-watch” types who refuse to give up no matter how bleak the outlook. I aspire to be like those guys. Aspiration will only get you so far, however. To cover those last critical inches in time to hurl yourself through the closing gates of safety requires perspiration.

Thus, after a lifetime of resisting the idea of regular exercise classes, I now lift weights, do crunches and attempt push-ups. I put up with the relentless cheery chatter of the instructor, who is, of course, twenty years younger than I am. That’s the new normal for me. Everybody is at least twenty years younger. I don’t mind. I’m stronger now than I was when I was nineteen, when I took good health for granted and thought joggers were obsessed weirdos. Now I realize all those people running everywhere had the right idea way ahead of the rest of us.

I’ll never be a long distance runner, but I give my all in sprints. And what keeps me going, aside from the daily news and the rising tide of dread in my heart, is the thought that, if the zombies ever make their move, I’ll be ready. I may not be able to outrun them myself, but if I can at least help the kids to reach the safe zone, I’ll feel it has all been worthwhile.

It’s not Zumba that keeps me going. It’s zombies.

Swing Boat

I don’t usually look to the best seller list for reading material. But recently a Seattle friend sent us a copy of “The Boys In The Boat,” and it ran away with my heart.

This remarkable account of the true story of the University of Washington crew team who rowed their way into history as they pursued the gold medal in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin brims with drama and beauty. It’s got real life heroes and villains, thrilling adventure, heartbreak and romance, even a touch of humor. But what makes Daniel James Brown’s brilliant book so deeply compelling is his keen appreciation for the almost spiritual aspect of the sport itself, and the reverence it inspires in its followers.

Among the fine portraits in the book is that of George Pocock, the British boatman whose careful crafting of racing shells, combined with his astute observations on the fine points of rowing, gave the Washington team a priceless advantage.

Describing the mysterious alchemy of character and strength that produced the eight-man crew team that defied all the odds, Brown’s prose at times borders on poetry. He grounds his narrative in the particular experience of Joe Rantz, one of the eight boys, and Joe comes across as pure of heart and brave of spirit. But in order to become one with his crew mates, he has to learn to let go of his self and trust the team.

Perhaps the most evocative passages in the book deal with a thing called “swing.” When the eight boys are rowing as one, when their hearts and minds are “in the boat” and the pain slips out of sight, the crew is said to have found its swing. And when that happens, well, you just have to be there.

Set in the darkest years of the Depression, the story pits the under-financed Western team against the privileged teams of the East. But when the team had to compete against Hitler’s specially picked and specially favored team in the cold Berlin waters, they demonstrated all that is best about Americans on the world’s largest stage, at one of the pivotal moments in history.

In the current self-obsessed state of our nation, where self promotion and self fulfillment, not to mention the plague of “selfies,” are viewed as perfectly natural, Joe’s willingness to sacrifice and struggle for the good of his team is inspiring on every level.

For anyone feeling discouraged by the rude and random waves of our current world, I suggest dipping into “The Boys In The Boat”.

They didn’t walk on water. They rowed their way into the stars.

No Ordinary Book

The Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., includes telling quotes from the New Deal era, as well as World War II.
The Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., includes telling quotes from his momentous twelve years in office.

I don’t know who I am anymore.

I used to be this fiction person. Never willingly read anything else. But something’s come over me in the last year or so. Call it reality, at long last rearing its hydra heads, or maybe it’s just the anesthetic of youth finally wearing off, but whatever it is, I find myself increasingly drawn to long, detail rich, laboriously researched and exhaustively annotated books about history.


I’m not sure where this is coming from, though I suspect it may be rooted in the sense of vertigo that came upon me after losing both my parents. Suddenly there’s no one holding down the floor anymore. It’s up to me to know what came before. And before that. And boy there’s a lot.

While I’ve more or less abandoned hope of ever fully grasping the ups and downs of the Byzantine Empire or the Balkans, and European history is so full of incident and horror that I doubt I have the intellectual stamina to get far in that field,  I feel the least I can do is try to get a grip on the story here in North America.

You might have thought that, as product of Virginia public schools, I would have picked up a bit on my way through. But back then I was unable to really care about what happened before I was born. I mean, you know, life begins when you’re born, right?

However, I just finished reading “No Ordinary Time,” Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 1995 Pulitzer Prize winning account of how the extraordinary partnership between Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt changed the United States during World War Two, and I’m beginning to realize that I owe a lot to Eleanor. Also probably FDR. But honestly, as I worked my way through more than 600 pages filled with incident and amazing detail, it was Eleanor’s courage, determination, and vision that inspired me most. Her influence on civil rights, labor, and social justice for all helped change the nation. She took a lot of heat for being an uppity woman back before people had learned to appreciate the wonders an uppity woman can perform. She paved the way for generations of crusaders.

The 1940s were indeed “No Ordinary Time.” Yet perhaps no time is ordinary. We live in an age of such breathtaking miracles and heartbreaking terror, sometimes it makes me want to curl up on the couch and take a nap.

But then I think, what would Eleanor do? She was no napper.

I’m trying to measure up.

No ordinary dog, FDR's beloved Fala has a place of honor at the memorial.
No ordinary dog, FDR’s beloved Fala has a place of honor at the memorial.


Open Minded

Rising stars shine brightest in the tennis world.

Because the game is, for the most part, an individual sport, the cult of personality can sometimes play havoc with discipline, attitude and sanity. Often when a talented new player bursts into public view on a stage far bigger than the local tennis court, the ensuing media storm proves a more dangerous threat to competent performance than the wiliest opponent.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more merciless than at the U.S. Open. Now underway in New York City, the final major tennis event of the year takes place on the biggest, and often most raucous, venue in the professional tennis circuit.

A few days ago, fifteen-year-old American CiCi Bellis thrilled the crowd with an exciting upset victory over the No. 12 seed, 2014 Australian Open runner-up Dominika Cibulkova, a fiery player from Slovakia recently ranked No. 10 in the world. The veteran Cibulkova, who is twenty-five years old, was expected to win.

The media went nuts. Bellis appeared to take it in stride. This is the beauty of being fifteen years old. You don’t know how lucky you are, until you aren’t.

Two days after her stunning victory, the young star had to play a night match against twenty-year-old Zarina Dyas of Kazakhstan. The crowd was solidly in Bellis’s corner from the first point. They cheered when she got over her nerves and began playing well, after the first three games. They cheered every time her opponent made an error, not exactly classic tennis etiquette, but not unusual with a New York crowd. And they went crazy when, after losing the first set 3-6, Bellis went on a tear and won seven games in a row, taking the second set 6-0.

But then one of those almost imperceptible shifts in momentum occurred. Dyas maintained her composure throughout, in spite of the crowd applauding her every mistake. She quietly dug in and battled back hard, fighting her way to win the third set handily before finally sending Bellis back to San Francisco with some things to think about.

However, in case there was any doubt about who was the winner as far as the media was concerned, consider this: usually, at the conclusion of every match, the media representatives swarm the winner to grab footage and quotes. At the conclusion of the Dyas-Bellis match, the microphone was thrust not in Dyas’s face, but in Bellis’s.

I was sorry to see this. Dyas, playing in front of an almost hostile crowd, carried herself with the kind of grace and stoic grit that has been the hallmark of many great tennis players. Bellis, in contrast, was cute as a puppy, frisky and playful. You couldn’t not like her. But I don’t think she would have been damaged if the media had had the good sense to first congratulate the winner before fawning over the newest darling of the tennis world.

No doubt I’m just bitter. I remember how it felt to have to play singles against a much younger opponent. When I was in my mid-forties, new to tennis and pie-eyed with enthusiasm, I entered a charity tournament at the local rec club. I don’t know how they came up with the draw but I’ll never forget my opponent. She was fourteen. She was blonde, leggy, with a killer topspin forehand that took the wind out of my sails in a hurry.

And to make matters worse, she was kind and polite. It was obvious from the first point that she was going to beat me. The only question was, would I be able to win a game. When it was over she shook my hand and I wished her well in the rest of the tournament.

I kept playing tennis. Over the years I won some matches, and lost more. But my appreciation for the game, for the skill it demands, for the energy it requires, for the passion it inspires, still keeps me playing.

In any sport, winning is more fun than losing. But losing teaches you that no matter how good you may think you are, there’s always someone who can beat you. Yet in tennis you’re expected to be gracious whether in victory or defeat, because, at least in tennis, good manners are supposed to be part of the game.

Just another thing to practice.

Dock of The Bay

I paused for reflection at the end of the dock.
I paused for reflection at the end of the dock.

Something there is about a pier that leads us to walk to the end of it and stare aimlessly into the distance. There’s a metaphor floating around in there, no doubt, something to do with the brevity of life, the vanity of all aspiration, the transcendent beauty of the quiet sea.

The geometry of movement and stillness, reflection and shadow, produces a captivating grid.
The geometry of movement and stillness, reflection and shadow, produces a captivating grid.

It’s quiet on the dock in the early morning, before the sailors and fishermen begin the rock and roll of boats in motion.

Another postcard moment unfolds.
Another postcard moment unfolds.

Take a deep breath. Take another. Time drifts on the silent tide.

Birds on the bay share the view every day.
Birds on the bay share the view every day.

Birds may have tiny brains but they know how to drink in the moment. I’m still working on it.


Shell Game

The gopher tortoise is faster than it looks.
The gopher tortoise is faster than it looks.

The air was hot and still, the ground dry and sandy. High above in the clear blue sky the shrill cry of an occasional osprey broke the silence.

We were hiking along a secluded trail through the slash pines and palmettos when we noticed something moving rapidly through the sparse undergrowth.

My first thought was rattlesnake. The park signs caution visitors to stay on the paths to avoid this danger. But our son was with us, and he’s been throwing caution to the winds since he was very young, so off he went.

We caught a glimpse of the creature, a tortoise, motoring with surprising speed over the sand. We tried to keep it in sight, but within seconds it vanished.

Then I happened to see a tunnel entry, perhaps a foot wide and tall, only slightly obscured by the rough grass growing beside it.

I was elated to have finally seen the Florida state tortoise in the wild. Sightings are more rare than they once were, as the gopher tortoise, like so many other Florida native species, is endangered. Threats include loss of habitat, predation from other creatures, and humans, who continue to catch the tortoises to keep as pets or to eat, even though both these activities are illegal.

No wonder gopher tortoises spend most of their lives in the tunnels they dig. Often ten feet below the surface and as much as forty-eight feet long, the tunnels are used by hundreds of other small animals. Because of this the gopher tortoise is considered a keystone species. Its presence in the neighborhood has a ripple effect that supports the entire local ecology.

I guess the humans who trap and eat gopher tortoises don’t care much about such issues. I wish they did. I wish that mere legislation were enough to stop the damage we humans continue to wreak on our splendid planet.

I realize that in the big picture a small tortoise doesn’t grab the public imagination the way, say, a horde of zombies, or a deadly contagion does. We humans tend to be self-centered and hot-tempered, a lethal combination. We treat each other with such savage disregard, I shouldn’t be surprised at our cavalier attitude to the environment which sustains every living thing.

A gopher tortoise looks for all the world like a little tank. You’d think that would be enough to keep it safe.

If things keep on the way they’re going, we may all wish we had our own personal tanks.

A baby gopher tortoise is as cute as any panda.
A baby gopher tortoise is as cute as any panda. Photo by Steve Beger.

The Shadow of Our Style

Wonk this way. Just steps from the Capitol, a garden offers secluded serenity.
Wonk this way. Just steps from the Capitol, a garden offers secluded serenity.

In our nation’s capital, a place normally immune to the dictates of fashion, detail-oriented paranoia never goes out of style. For people who want to be taken seriously — that is to say, almost everyone except the tourists who come to do the museum half-marathon, take in a few memorials and buy some cupcakes in Georgetown — the gold standard for the District Look remains The Suit, and nothing but The Suit.

Obama may get away with shorts while he’s on vacation, but bare knees never look presidential.

However, D.C. in the summertime often feels like a clambake from the clam’s point of view. To get by without wilting it behooves the locals to head for shade. In most of the city this is easy. Washington is a city of trees. Their storied canopy is even protected by local law (the Urban Forest Preservation Act of 2002). You have to pay a hefty fee if you want to take down a big tree on your own property ($35 per inch of the trunk’s diameter). And that’s not counting the cost of paying some tree service to do the job.

So, D.C. is a good place to be a tree. However, the one part of town where trees and the canopy they provide is less apparent is where the federal government occupies most of the real estate. Lots of massive marble and granite buildings, not so many oases, unless you count the National Mall, which is most often awash with tourists or protesters or celebrators of one thing or another. Still, wily wonks find quiet nooks where even the most weary policy analyst can enjoy some peace and quiet in the midst of the capital’s hubbub.

There’s a tendency in other parts of our great nation to look on Washington, D.C. as a kind of foreign country, perhaps even a hostile one. Yet if you prick us, do we not bleed? If you don’t vote for us, do we not air our views in the media anyway? The point is, everybody’s got a dork side. You just have to know where to look.

Don't tread on me.
Don’t tread on me.

Go Wes!

The Bristol-Palace Hotel in the spa town of Karlovy-Vary, Czech Republic, served as an inspiration for the setting of Anderson's latest film.
The Bristol-Palace Hotel in the spa town of Karlovy-Vary, Czech Republic, served as an inspiration for the setting of Anderson’s latest film.

I confess. I am a fan of the films of Wes Anderson.

Although my infatuation with all things Anderson began with the very first film he co-wrote with his friend Owen Wilson, the offbeat but endearing Bottle Rocket, it wasn’t until 2001 when The Royal Tenenbaums  came out that I realized I had found a director whose oddly surreal view of life resonated with my own.

And while a few Anderson films since then have failed to engage my passion (notably The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a sodden misstep in my view)  more often a new Anderson project is cause for celebration. Moonrise Kingdom, for instance, in 2012, featured all the elements that make Anderson’s vision unique: a flawed but likable hero trying to negotiate a trajectory through the jungle of reality, gentle humor, great music, and meticulous set design.

Anderson excels at creating on film worlds as finely detailed as a Faberge egg yet emotionally complex and surprisingly buoyant. His most recent work, The Grand Budapest Hotel, released this past spring, is a remarkable fairytale for adults. Set in a fictional European alpine state in 1932 during a respite between two wars, the film evokes the elegance and civility of a lost era. The hero, Monsieur Gustave, is the concierge at the Grand Budapest Hotel. The plot involves murder, stolen art, and exquisite pastry.

Ralph Fiennes, as M.Gustave, is marvelous. The pace is brisk, the dialogue snappy, and all of the characters bring something to the party. But perhaps top billing really should go to the hotel itself, which Anderson devised after researching and studying archival photos of grand European hotels at the Library of Congress. One of the inspirations for the Grand Budapest Hotel was the Palace Bristol Hotel in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic.

For the film Anderson had several small scale models of the hotel produced, including one fourteen feet long and seven feet deep.

I never wanted a doll house as a child, but I find myself yearning for that pink hotel.

Of course, few these days can afford the sort of extravagance that flavors the Old World vision suggested in parts of the film. But it isn’t simply the trappings of wealth that give the world portrayed in The Grand Budapest Hotel its timeless charm. It’s the passion for civility, the idea that good manners and kindness clothe any human with dignity. And that without those things our haloes dim, our lives lose something intangibly precious.

And so it is with fairytales. There’s more to win than the crown. There’s more to lose than the throne. Happily ever after is the flimsiest of predictions. But to strive for perfection in the face of inevitable decline is perhaps the last best hope for humanity in a graceless age.