still trimming the sails;
a work-in-progress...

23crows.com :: b·cole's weblog

stylized screenshot of 23crows.com, barton cole's weblog

Although I shun the term, "blog," it's one we all understand, so here it is: 23crows.com, "barton cole's weblog". I expect to pilfer material, for use on this site, already published there, but you can go there and see what we have. Instructions on just how the whole barley-to-alcohol thing works, as well as a thorough exploration of one great and successful endeavor to manufacture and distill alcohol on the sly but under watch, just like in the Stalag. Check it out. Other neat stuff, too, I think, but those might be grabbers...?

is it a Wordpress thing? or Blogger?

No, actually, it's at my own domain; for one, I collect domain names for use later, so had one suitable, and for another, I wanted something on my own server, so I could modify it to suit.

The challenge, though, is that a "blog" is a complex database management bit of coding, and nothing that I know how to do. I could easily have taken the easy way out, and had some cookie-cutter blog, but anyone will tell you, I generally tend to shy away from cookie-cutter.

dasBlog40x40.png

But, having my own domain and all, I downloaded dasBlog, a nifty and versatile blogging utility, and installed it on my server.

Of course, dasBlog has many of the same features as Wordpress, or Blogger; a variety of themes, and all the standard features of a blog. So what was I gaining, exactly, other than having the blog at my own domain, and not as a sub-domain of one of the common blog sites?

Well, since I had the raw files on my server, I could modify them as much as I wanted. I wouldn't just have to choose a theme; I could write one, if I wanted.

I could have, but didn't. I took the easy way out: picked one of their themes that came closest to my own design notions, and went in and tweaked the code. Not just a few tweaks, but pretty much of a makeover.

I kept the layout format, but completely revised the skin. To do this, I had to make a few tweaks to the (x)html, and wrote a new stylesheet, basically, copying in some of the original positioning information and whatnot. Quite a nice project.


dasblogger, from the page of dasBlog screenshots

after my makeover, it's 23crows.com
screenshot of 23crows
Here's the source image I deployed at the site...
[note the subtle, but clever animation, which makes the golden grid in the background scintillate...]
crow-screen image used at 23crows
It's derived from the venerable "Crow Screens," in the collection of the Seattle Asian Art Museum.
crow-screen image used at 23crows

We won't claim the writing's great -- after all, consider the predicament: you control the venue, the means of publication and distribution -- you control the content -- where's the editorial oversight? Many bloggers aren't into that. Not sure if I am, either.

One must be wary, though, of too much attention paid to editorial scrutiny and buff and polish -- writers tend to be their own harshest critics, which can keep much from ever getting out the door, published, or otherwise posted.

There's good stuff there, we know it -- after all, we control the venue.


several essays gleaned from 23 crows are cross-posted here.

23crows.com :: essays

Although initially reluctant to "cross post" the following content - essays from 23 crows - I concluded I'd rather have you stay than going somewhere else, even if to another of my handsome sites.

the eagle and the herd

from 23crows.com (b·cole's weblog)
posted 8 march 2009
© 2009 by barton cole - all rights reserved

I live across the road from a fifty acre pasture, with a copse of douglas firs in the middle, and houses clustered at the northwest end. The land is contoured like the Palouse, to the degree that it would nearly be better for sheep, and is divided into a few fields with hotwire fences, cedar posts and barbed wire along the road.
I was out working today; a week or so ago, I took out two of three wild plum trees along the north fence. They were shading the neighbor’s garden, and the birds didn’t even eat the fruit!

They’ll be replaced by blue elderberries (we only have the red, poison kind in abundance around here), which, if I don’t manage to make jelly and wine out of them, will certainly be favored by waxwings and jays, and even those horrid, thrush-chasing robins.
Now, there’s a pile of branches and brush in my yard. In a day or so, I’ll get to renting a chipper and turning the brush into mulch, but all the decent-sized wood I saved out – to deliver to, among others, a friend who put the word out a couple of months ago that he needed firewood – he got a supply, but needs it for next year. I was out there today, having cleaned out the back of the truck, cutting the long branches shorter so I could deliver them down the alley.

While I was standing there, having deposited a load of wood down at the mathematician's trailer, and at the editor's woodshed, and having put bar oil in the saw, an eagle came low over the neighbor’s house, and right past the truck and across the road, barely skimming above the barbed wire, and fifty feet later, a gentle lift above the perpendicular fence, with a twitch of the tail like a marsh hawk, across the pasture just a few feet off the ground.

For about four years, eagles have nested in the firs in the middle of the pasture, having certainly been enticed by the abundant rock doves who visit my birdfeeders. As the eagle skimmed across the road, I looked ahead to see what it might be preying upon, but there were no rabbits, just the cows, and he didn’t have his gear down, anyway. His flight was rather laconic and coasting, indeed, as a marsh hawk.

The cows have worried a section of the field at the crest of the slope into a bare basin two meters in diameter; the eagle was headed for this.
One of the cows along the fence over which the eagle had glided, and just up the hill a bit, saw the eagle moving over the grass, and as the eagle neared the basin, the cow had already begun to move, like a fat cop spilling his coffee and gathering headway. The eagle landed, backfilling with its huge wings, and by now, the cow was nearly there, like a linebacker charging the quarterback, and two calves were even in pursuit.

The eagle looked up, and here came a cow, bearing down; I imagine it will always be fresh in the eagle’s mind, the memory of that treacherous sight, and the massive, glistening, foaming nostrils, and the brisket flapping from side to side, and into the air leaped our brave hero, the eagle, barely having avoided being trampled by a cow.

The calves arrived on the scene as the eagle flew south, and by now, the ten or so other cows were in on it and charging after the eagle as if it were several apples I had thrown, and then –

There was a cow, like there always is, the one far from the herd, nibbling grass that had some odd taste that only it favored, or just being a loner, or needing some quiet time, but you’ve seen them there, the cows, the lone ones away from the others, and this girl got in on the act, too.

She was far away from the eagle, and by the time she intersected the cows, the eagle would be in the forest, but our clever girl made a move in a flash, as if she were in the backfield covering a receiver, and made the move to intersect the eagle’s path, and she did, and the poor eagle, our national symbol, came this close to being mobbed and beset by misery and at the mercy of cows.

I never would have thought you could tell a story that had cows and eagles in it, a friend said later, when I told him the story. It brought home to me, too, the importance of being outside. That’s where the miracles and ironies are happening, and you have to be out there to catch them in the act.

I'm glad I banded with the squirrels and the crows and their ilk, and join them when I can.

Later, it snowed.

the zen cats

from 23crows.com (b·cole's weblog)
posted 31 january 2009
© 2009 by barton cole - all rights reserved

I was a cat guy, early on. I grew up with a cat, who came to us when I was a wee toddler, and died when I was nineteen and had left home long before. I never knew a day at home without that cat, Chessie (named after the mascot and logo of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, Chessie_System_logo.pngsince she resembled it so much in demeanor and color - and her name was technically, "Chesapeake and Ohio," which you would deploy if you wanted to scold her - at least I did, since I was the youngest of four and had no authority over anyone but the cat - okay, I have since learned that the cat is at the top of the hierarchy).

Chessie was a great sport, and served, as many cats do around children, as the ambassador for all cats, so I became a cat guy. After leaving home, I didn't live with a cat, but that changed.

Back in 1983, I had a friend who had a cat. He lived on Seattle's First Hill (known as "Pill Hill," since that's where all the hospitals were - I was born in one of them, so was my son…), and one stormy night, a little black-and-white kitten followed him out of the rain and into the lobby, into the elevator, and into the apartment.

The cat stayed.

A few months later, my friend moved into the University District, which was my neighborhood; he and the cat moved into a house just a few blocks south. Several of us young guys hung out there - we worked in a restaurant, so we kept odd, late hours, and drank a lot of beer. And played with the cat.
I was the only one who seemed to have much regard for the cat - all the other guys would tip him out of their laps if he made a move that way, but not me - the little cat and I were buddies.

But not long after the cat arrived in my neighborhood, my friend had to move again - this time, into an apartment with a no-pets lease.
He called to give me this news, and to ask me if I could look after the cat; "Just for six months - I only ask you this since I know how close you and the cat are."

I knew it would be a responsibility, and, being young, knew that I wasn't sure I wanted to hinder my functional irresponsibility. But the cat needed me, I thought, so I relented.

We became rapidly close. During the six months, my friend never visited the cat, and when his lease was up, he called to say he was coming over to pick the cat up.
"What cat?" I asked.
He thought something had happened to it.
"What do you mean? Where is he?"
"Well, if you're talking about a black-and-white cat, yes, I have one. You don't, but I do."
I wasn't going to give the cat up, which was the right thing to do -- think of the welfare of the cat; should he live with someone who was devoted to him, or with an ignorant buffoon? As a result, the friendship was terminated, but I didn't care - I had gotten the better deal of the bargain.

figaro.jpg

He was quite something, that cat, and I soon named him, "Figaro." People thought it was cute, that I had named him after the charming kitten in Disney's Pinocchio, but that wasn't the case. I had named him after Figaro, the Barber of Seville, from Rossini's opera, Il barbiere di Siviglia.

Figaro's great aria: Largo al factotum della citta…

"Make way for the great factotum of the city!"

That was the way my cat Figaro was, a factotum. Brilliant cat. He would climb up the cedar that grew outside my bedroom window to get in at night, and would even leap the twelve feet from the landing of the upstairs duplex next door to my windowsill. I saw him do it once, and was astonished.

Everything about him was astonishing - including how handsome he was.

The U-District is crawling with rats, more than a wharf, and Figaro would catch them. I saw him drop one at one end of a sheet of plywood leaning up against the house - the rat, spotting freedom at the other end, would make a break for it. When he arrived at the edge of safety - Bam, there was the cat! Back the rat would go, and Bam!

Or another time, I saw Figaro batting a rat, spinning around and around, like a hockey player on the icy street.

Figaro was a clever cat; you knew he was the boss, and he loved me. In fact, I maintain that he taught me to love myself (cats having such a capacity to be avatars), which enabled me to love others, which enabled me to fall in love with the woman who became my wife and mother of my son. His existence can be directly traced to a cat who walked in out of the rain.
Everyone knew I was devoted to this cat - beyond Damon and Pythias, even. We were close. So when my future wife fell for me, she knew that she had to get the cat's approval, first (authoritative cats are nothing new; see P.G. Wodehouse's short story, The Story of Webster).

Sure enough, though, Figaro fell for her, too, so all was well.

In 1989, I lived in a house next to a woman I had gone to school with in another town; she played the clarinet in the Symphony (we had played together in the band at school - she kept playing hers, mine sits in the corner to this day), and traveled in the summer. She would let Figaro into her house, although her husband was allergic - he was some cat; he had that kind of appeal.
When they would go on trips, I'd look after their mail, and water their garden, and would always be paid with a bag of cookies on my porch the day they left.

One day, I came home, and there was a bag of cookies, and a note, and an art card, a painting of a cat. She had included the card since the depicted cat reminded her so much of Figaro.

zencat.jpg

We became quite fond of that card - ironically, it was from the Kirsten Gallery, just a couple of blocks away from the house I lived in when Figaro came to live with me in the U-District, but I rarely went there.

Once, though, my wife and I, when she was pregnant with our son, visited the gallery, and while looking around, came upon a framed print of the painting that was the image on the card, by Nicholas Kirsten-Honshin. Zen Cat Meditates on Essence of Moon and Essence of Iris - All is One

My wife and I looked at each other, wondering: Should we buy it? Could we?

We thought about it. Kept walking around.

And then, just around a corner, there it was: The Original. Much more expensive than the print, but just above the painting was a sign on the wall: "All art may be purchased on time with no interest." Wow. We had to live with it.

We went upstairs to the desk to make the arrangements; Nicholas was there, and came out to meet us.
"So many times, that painting has almost left, but then, the people changed their minds - and now I know why: it's supposed to be with you."

They took down all my information, but not even a credit card number, and we began contemplating making the payments until we could hang the painting in our home.

But they asked, "Is your car parked in back? We'll wrap up the painting and take it out there."
What? They were letting us take the painting without even a down payment? Yes, indeed they were. An odd transaction, but clearly, we were supposed to live with the painting.

You can still get prints, and art cards (contact the gallery), but you can't get the original. It lives with me.

It's one of Nicholas's well-known works, and one of a few that feature the handsome Zen Cat. We even got to know the actual cat, Crowley, who once favored me by sitting on my lap.

After having the painting for several years, it had acquired a bit of moisture-spotting on the inside of the glass, so we arranged to bring it to the gallery for re-framing. Nicholas's father, Richard Kirsten-Daiensai (much more on him another time), was having a festive art opening, and as my son carried the painting through the garden to the gallery, you could hear the guests fall silent. Someone whispered, "That's the original!" It really is a stunning asset, and, as Nicholas has pointed out, it's done better than the stock market!

Figaro died in 1996, which was a heartbreak. My son's first word, when pointing at the cat, was "Fo." He was enmeshed in our lives, and had changed everything.

We still invoke his Number One Rule:

"Walk in like you own the place."

I have lived with other cats in my time; Rosina, who was named after the femme fatale in Rossini's opera (she and Figaro were pretty tight), and then Gioacchino, named after Rossini himself, and who was superbly handsome and soft. There was Sophia, who was small, and fey, and had a short life, and then Akira, who was all black, clever, but didn't come home one moonless night. We were without a cat for some months, and after a while, we noticed that we were tending to get on each other's nerves just a bit more often, and needed that tranquil lightning rod of a cat. It's unseemly for us to go out and try to acquire a cat, but we figure that if we just let the cosmos know that we're open to having one (derived from our standard philosophy; good dog cosmos), then a cat will appear.

After a few months, we received a call. A woman had a cat who had come in out of the storm, and had been hiding out in her basement for a week, coming up at night to eat her cat's food. When she finally discovered this stowaway, she invited her to join the household, but her own cat wasn't having any part of it - you know how cats can be.

So she called us.

She didn't know that we were in the market for a cat; she worked at the Kirsten Gallery, had for years, and since the cat reminded her so much of the Zen Cat, and she knew we had the painting, she called.

Let me spell out the irony for you:
The painting came into my life since the featured cat resembled my cat, and now a cat was coming into my life since it resembled the cat in the painting.

We collected the cat, and soon named her Guinevere. How nice it was to have a cat again.
The problem was that she had obviously been abused by a man; any time my son or I would go into the room where she was, she'd dash into hiding. She was close and cuddly with my wife, but wasn't going to tolerate me or my son.

This was frustrating. "The hell with it," we would say, "let's just get a kitten so we can have a cat."

Months of this tragic behavior went by, but I kept trying - I'm the one who feeds the cat, and always endeavor to be close to animals - it's my notorious nature - and eventually, my attentions paid off, and we're now not only close, but closer than she is with anyone else. She's like my girlfriend - she likes me to leave a sweater on the bed sometimes, so she can lay on it, and when she sees me in the garden, she comes running; we always spend some time when we're out there together, her rolling around in a patch of grass under the apple tree, and me rubbing her belly and running my hand from the top of her head all the way down her tail.

guinevere.jpg

She's another clever one, too, and lately, we've said to each other, "Are you getting a 'Figaro' hit from Guinevere like I am?"
They are much alike, with one prominent difference - I heard Figaro meow maybe fifty times in the thirteen years I lived with him, but compared to that, Guinevere is a regular chatterbox, meowing maybe a dozen times a day (not like the famous Gioacchino, though - he meowed all the time, with a marvelous voice; once, I thought I would count how many times he meowed in a day, and after an hour, he was up over seventy, so I gave up and called it five hundred for the day).

The best way to get out of this essay? Wrap it up and go to bed - Guinevere's waiting…

the good dogs

from 23crows.com (b·cole's weblog)
posted 16 january 2009
© 2009 by barton cole - all rights reserved

Once upon a time, I was a "cat person." That's right - I was devoted to my cats, but didn't have time for dogs, and couldn't, in fact, understand why someone would want to live with one and deal with all the work: the walking, the dealing with the crap…
Still, there were some dogs that I admired, but as a rule, I was pretty ambivalent about dogs.

Part of my awakening as an adult over the last twenty years or so has been a constant and deeper embedment with my natural surroundings - I pay more attention to the flora and fauna, and couldn't be happier than I was today, for instance, when I was working in the woods, and chirped at a winter wren, encouraging it to be interested and follow me, which it did (they're my favorite small bird - which may be on the quiz). Not long after, a douglas squirrel (native to woods in our region) got my attention by chirping at me from a few feet higher on a douglas fir. I was on my way to my truck for a tool, so I told him to hang on: I'd have some nuts for him in a few minutes…

[NB: I keep nuts - usually pistachios, since everybody likes them - and birdseed - blend of black oil sunflower and cracked corn - and dog biscuits stashed in my truck, so I can feed whoever might be around - occasionally, chickadees, which are highly gregarious, will eat out of my hand].

But I never had time for dogs, as devoted to animals as I felt I was, and declared myself to be.

Eventually, I realized I was nothing but an elitist - ever the trap, especially when humans think about animals, or in the case of Orwell's Animal Farm, when animals think about themselves: "Four legs good… two legs better!"

I made a rational decision that I needed to embrace dogs, and be curious about them, and get to know them, and include them in my personal zodiac (circle of animals).

It wasn't that I got to know a special dog, who made me feel deeper about dogs, but being a Capricorn, I was rational (I believe I tend to be, although I'm sure I could find dissent), and decided to feel deeper about dogs.

And for this task - to be the ambassador for all dogs everywhere in my life - I chose the nastiest, little dog I knew - an obnoxious Chihuahua that belonged to a nutso woman that I worked with.

He was one of those dogs that didn't understand my boundaries, and would leap in my lap spontaneously - even when I had seen him coming and tried, discreetly, to actively discourage it (had to be discreet - it was politically unwise for the nutjob dog's nutjob owner to realize that this particular nutjob - me - didn't like her dog - in fact, would have moved slowly if an eagle were swooping down after the dog…)

I decided that I would befriend this nasty little dog, and that by having through this intense hazing ordeal, this trial by nasty dog, I would be welcomed in the Dog Clan (as I am in the Wren Clan and Squirrel Clan, as noted above, and if you follow me…).

Quite an undertaking, really, but insert your own mental montage of me befriending the dog, giving it treats of my own when I declared my satisfaction with its behavior, which improved… you may complete your montage with me sitting on a bench next to the dog looking over the East River at Manhattan and the sunset, but that's just a bit too much of a stretch. Suffice it to say that I did become friends with this little dog, who also befriended me.

A few years later, I met my cousin's dog, Mauritz, in Germany. He's a Hofawart (Hoe-fuh-vart) which means "farm guardian" auf Deutsch), and was bred in East Germany, known for breeders and trainers of gentle dogs, while the West Germans bred them for police work.

/mauritzChin.jpg

A big dog, Mauritz was also handsome, with the false eyespots and the black-and-tan gorgeous long coat. I had learned that the best way to approach a dog, when meeting it, was to ask it to do something, and praise it when it complied.

I gave Mauritz my standard suggestion, "Sit."
But he wouldn't. Most dogs, in my experience, know that one - in fact, I am usually stunned when I meet a dog who won't simply sit.

Oops - I remembered where I was, and asked again, quite politely, "Mauritz, setzen Sie, bitte," and he promptly did. I met another dog on that journey, an Irish dog living in Hamburg, who spoke no German at all, but his English was quite good...

I got to know Mauritz well during the two weeks I spent with him, and discovered that he had a fundamental understanding of geometry:

/mauritzSpring.jpg

Like many dogs, Mauritz was into "The Ball." He would prance and leap through tall grass, which was splendid to see, and dash across the yard after it; a favorite game was to walk around the yard with a beer (a Flensburger Pilsener), kicking the ball for Mauritz, who would scamper after it, and return it, tossing it with a flip of his chin to give it a little air, so it would bounce a bit, so you could boot it farther.

But if the ball were on the ground, and you were poised to kick it, Mauritz would line himself up with it about three meters away like a lineup for a soccer penalty kick. If, as you addressed the ball, poised to kick, you stepped to the side, Mauritz would shift himself accordingly, so that all three components were on a line, geometrically.
A small step by the one with the ball, but he would have to step a couple of meters to the side, which he would do with gusto. The game was economical that way, giving Mauritz much sport as one did a slow foxtrot at the ball, beer in hand.

Although a rural resident, I saw Mauritz in action in an "urban" environment, walking in a little town near Denmark - he stopped at all the curbs until instructed to proceed, a skill he learned when young and living in Hamburg.

These dogs taught me that they have an excellent capacity for complying with instructions, but like anybody, they need the instructions to be clear.

Today, I was at the lumber yard getting some quotes on materials; while I leaned on the counter, one of the staff asked me, "Do you have a black dog?"
I raised an eyebrow.
"No," I said, "why?"
"There's one just walked by the door, outside."
"Oh," I told him, "If I had a black dog, it would be right here with me, and you'd be amazed at what a good dog it is."

What's a good dog?

A dog who does just what you tell it to do. You give a dog a clear job description, and they're off and running, eager to get the task done. All you need to be is clear (a subtle Zenmaster thing that dogs can do, similar to the Zenmaster thing that cats can do, showing us ways to live - in this case, by seeking mental clarity - if you can explain it to your dog, you can understand yourself).

I know another dog, my friend Choux, who was described to me, when I met her, as "a really dumb dog."
Well, in my experience, dogs aren't dumb - they're good at doing what they're told to do. If you think a dog is dumb, maybe you're dumb. The Zen mirror again (which, being a Zen mirror, is Empty).

Within five minutes after meeting this "dumb" dog, she was looking at me, waiting for the subtle shift of eyebrow and nod to indicate that she could now eat the cookie that was sitting on the ground between her two front feet, which she was too nervous to even look at, fixating on me instead. She has since learned how to hold a cookie on her long, slender nose - cross-eyed dogs are particularly charming - and wait for the nod.

Smart pooch.

/barton-et-choux.jpg

And I dispense lots of loving to my dog friends, knowing that I will start out, as a default, right up at or near the top of their hierarchy, and that they will want lots of jovial praise.

Dogs, like lots of other animals, tend to like me, and I like them.

I see a couple of guys who walk by my house with their dogs; neither of them uses a leash, but the behavior is totally different.
One of the guys walks in the morning, past my house every day, no matter what the weather, with his old Russian wolfhound walking alongside, the two of them in tandem, connected like Fred and Ginger, even when the dog is checking out who peed on the fence post, then picking up and catching up.

I enjoy this simple evidence of mutual respect, how the two of them pay attention to each other, and walk together. This other dude, though, is a different story. The dog, an old golden retriever, comes in my yard and carries out his annoying dog business, and eating the food left out on the shrine for the crows to eat, and I holler at him to leave and he won't . I holler at his dude, who often walks along reading the local newspaper, "Hey, get your [goddam] dog out of my [goddam] yard!"
Both the dudes in this scenario, human and dog, aren't paying attention.

But if you work with a dog, and make it clear what you like and don't like, you can encourage them to engage in all kinds of fun, proactive behavior, and find fulfillment by completing the task you have set out for them.

And of course, I am obligated to make an ironic leap out of all this, but I will do that next time.

good dog cosmos

from 23crows.com (b·cole's weblog)
posted 17 january 2009
© 2009 by barton cole - all rights reserved

Yesterday, I wrote about dogs, and how capable they are when given a clear job description (see The Good Dogs). I promised to make an ironic leap with the topic, so here's my stab at that:

I have a good friend, a Zen priest in fact, which I suppose makes him more the master and me the disciple, but neither of us looks at it that way - he's a fellow crow devotee, which fostered our relationship - at any rate -

He travels with his sons to Las Vegas when they attend conventions (they're in the art publishing and gallery business), and unbeknownst to the casino managers, who see this frail old man and give him a complimentary room, he rakes it in on the slots.
How does he do this?

He whips out his jizo statue and sets it on the machine, and then, if you were watching, you'd see him lean in and caress the slot machine, the way someone does with a favored horse, and whisper; he's making a connection with the machine.
"What people don't realize is that even though a man made it, the machine has a soul," which he treats with respect, and is rewarded with consistent winnings.

Really, he's just tapping into the cosmos's willingness to accommodate our needs.

I've spent a lot of time around theaters, have appeared in a lot of plays, have learned tons of lines. Fortunately, I'm good at the memorization, but for others, it's tough; I do all I can to help my fellow actors out, running lines with each other, until we're all comfortable that we know them.

I was running some scenes with a friend who was in a challenging play; most of her lines were long, non sequiturs (Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)- tricky to learn, as you can imagine: having a thread in the dialogue gives the actor some handholds, but working with random monologues is tough - you have to memorize it until your body knows it, and then deal with the chaos of the scene.

Needless to say, my friend was having trouble, which was why she called me - so I could help her run the lines, over and over. Still, she was having trouble, which was really frustrating for her.
{note - this is funny - I know what my point is supposed to be, but I look at what I have and wonder if I'm getting close to making it, which shines a light on what would seem to be one of my approaches as a writer - if a topic is difficult to pin down, throw enough words at it to smother it).

"I'll never get this line!" she said.

No.

She won't; she can't, with that attitude.

Everything we say is a prayer.

Any statement can be easily recast to highlight this; in the case of my friend, the frustrated actress, her statement translates, with hyperbole intact, as:
"Please, O provident Cosmos - don't let me learn this line, please…"
I prefer to approach that situation with this prayer:
"Man, this line is a bitch - but I'll nail it down; I'll keep working on it."

Really, it works that way.

Around here, I really try to avoid negative statements, as a corollary of this approach, urging one to remember something rather than admonishing them not to forget.

It works in all kinds of ways, too, such as finding one's car keys - say it out loud - "I really need to find my car keys in the next five minutes, since I don't want to be late…:
And it helps, as in that case, to be specific. I was talking with a friend who runs a non-profit, who said the institution depended on a miracle.

My notion is that they'll get their miracle, but not until she states clearly just exactly what kind of miracle it is.

Of course, it helps to be vague at times, too - since, if there's any order or structure to the cosmos, one might assume that the providence can be obscure but authentic. Still, if one is willing to be clear with the cosmos, it will endeavor to provide.

Just like a dog; it only wants a good, clear job description.

And that's as easy as talking to a dog.

barley

from 23crows.com (b·cole's weblog)
posted 10 january 2009
© 2009 by barton cole - all rights reserved

Let's represent a sugar molecule like this:

  X

Although there are many different kinds of sugar (glucose, sucrose, fructose…), we'll keep it simple.
Take a little leap, though, and think of the molecule as C6H12O6 (six carbon molecules, twelve hydrogens, six oxygens - put together like building blocks).
String a bunch of sugars together, and you have a starch (just a long chain of sugar molecules):

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

A much longer chain of them gets you cellulose, which is wood fiber:

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX...

Starch is an excellent way to store sugars for energy, which is why grains are starchy - they need that sugar to get the sprout up and out of the ground; the plant needs an energy supply until it can get some leaves photosynthesizing and making its own energy.
To break the starch down into sugars, you need enzymes - they take the chain apart.
The enzymes that take sugars apart are called amylases; enzymes that deconstruct proteins are called proteases, and fat-breaking enzymes are lipases…
There are two principle amylase enzymes: the alpha and the beta. The alpha assesses the starch molecule, finds the middle, and cuts it there, like this:

  XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
  becomes
  XXXXXXXXXXXXX    XXXXXXXXXXXXX

It keeps doing it, too - it will take those two halves and halve them again.
The beta enzyme works from the end of the starch molecule, taking off two glucose molecules at a time, like this:

  XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
  becomes
  XXXXXXXXXX   XX  XX   XX   XX   XX   XX   XX

Barley is loaded with these enzymes, much more so than any other grain, an attribute we can exploit, as we'll see. But it doesn't serve barley for the enzymes to convert its own starches to sugars until it needs them, so it has a meager supply, basically, until the seed gets "switched on," and it's time to utilize that efficiently-stored energy (the starch molecule takes up far less room than the sugar molecules it's composed of, since it's kind of like a neat coil inside the grain, a tightly-packed chain).

How do you switch the seed on?

You sprout it.

In the case of barley, you soak it in water until it germinates, and the little, ambitious "acrospire" (the sprout) emerges. When the acrospire is about ¾ as long as the grain, the enzyme count increases dramatically, much longer, and the enzymes will begin digesting the starches in earnest, but you want to hold off a bit… So you switch the seed off. How?

You dry it out, so the acrospire withers, and that's that.

The barley you began with has now been "malted," and you now have "malted barley." That's all there is to it. Beer is made from malted barley. How do you do that?

Beer is a fermented beverage, which means that the sugars have been converted to alcohol by yeast, which are simple organisms. Yeast digests sugar (just like we all do, fundamentally), excreting alcohol (C2H5OH) and carbon dioxide (CO2). If you're into it, do the balance sheet -

  Sugar: 6 C 12 H 6 O
  Alcohol: 2C 6H 1O
  Carbon dioxide: 1C 2O

If you balance it out, you see that one sugar molecule generates two alcohol molecules, and two carbon dioxide molecules, nothing left over.
(For extra credit, ponder how plants use CO2 and water [H2O] to make sugars, including chains of starches, and obviously, cellulose [plant fiber, remember?]).

Looks like making alcohol is going to be pretty easy - start with malted barley, get some yeast…
You've got to make conditions favorable for the enzymes in the barley to convert the starches to sugars; turns out that the ideal conditions are wet heat - around 150°.

First, though, you have to render the grains into a form that makes it as easy as possible for the enzymes to get at the starches, so it gets crushed by passing it between rollers.
If you add water that's hotter than 150°, and plan it out ahead of time so you start with water of the right temperature, once you add it to the crushed, malted barley, the temperature settles into the favorable range. Of course, it's also possible to apply heat to the wet, crushed grains to get the temperature into the zone.

This is called a "mash."
I always wanted to know what one was; see rapid research.

And the enzymes get busy - soon, they have converted all the starches into sugars, which is easy to verify: pull out a spoonful of the grains and drop some iodine into them - from chemistry class years ago, you may recall that iodine, which is red, turns black when it contacts starch - one simply tests for the presence of starch until it isn't present any more, maintaining the temperature of the mash in the favorable range.

Now, you have a mass of wet, crushed, malted barley that is now sweet - all the starches have been converted. Bootleggers go this far and add yeast, fermenting it until the yeast activity ceases, once the yeasts have converted all the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Then they distill it (a topic for another day, but a dear one, to me).
Brewers, though, start the same way, but have to get the sugars out of the grains - who wants porridge in their beer?
Usually, they'll put the mash in a pot that has a screen bottom, and wash the sugars out of the grains with hot water, collecting the water and putting it in a pot.
This is called "wort," and once it's boiled with hops (a perennial vine with bitter flowers growing in clusters like grapes), it can be fermented and will have become beer (sake, generally called "rice wine," having been made from grain is actually "rice beer").

Pretty straightforward stuff, really. Beer has been around for over four thousand years, having been invented in Mesopotamia. How would someone know what to do to the grain to make beer out of it, though?
It was either advice from the alien overlords who seeded the earth with people and ideas, or it happened accidentally, which is easy to imagine:

Let's say you have a sack of grain, and it rains. The grain sprouts.
But you want to eat it, not plant it, so you try to rescue it by drying it out.
Darn it, though! It gets wet again, but this time, you don't catch it until it's been there for a couple of weeks, the grains floating around, and now yeast has gotten at it - which is common, there being so many yeasts drifting around.

It's really ruined now, but not wanting to throw it out, you eat some of the grains, and discover alcohol in the process.

For extreme extra credit, consider this:

Agriculture began in the Fertile Crescent, around the Middle East.
Grains were grown, stored, and marauded by rats.
Cats to the rescue!

This is when cats became our companions - by protecting the grains by hunting the rodents who were eating and spoiling it.
What if cats hadn't come on the scene?
Rats would have had their way with the silos of grain, and people might likely have given up growing grains.
"Forget this agriculture thing," the early, pissed-off people might have said.
"Let's go back to hunting/gathering -- effing rats...!"

Without cats, we might have abandoned agriculture, and that would certainly have meant no beer.
Ponder that for a moment.
We have cats to thank for beer getting off the ground and out of the barrel in the first place.
The next time you have a beer, raise your glass to the cat and shout its name.

distillation 101

from 23crows.com (b·cole's weblog)
posted 14 january 2009
© 2009 by barton cole - all rights reserved

You can make alcohol out of anything that has fermentable solids - sugars, that is. Anything.
POWs making booze from potatoes? Sure, if you have barley (you need the enzymes to convert the starches to sugars - see the essay on barley, above).
Making the alcohol is easy - you just add yeast.
The yeast digests the sugar, converting it to carbon dioxide and alcohol.

Alcohol, as we know, is toxic - if it's too concentrated, it will kill the yeast, which generally can only handle around 8%. Some yeasts, such as those used in winemaking, might be able to manage higher concentrations, say 15%, but that's about it.
What about whisky, which is up above 40% alcohol?

[a note about "proof" - pure alcohol is 200 proof - which is unattainable, really, since alcohol absorbs moisture from its surroundings, so even pure alcohol is adulterated with water - 195 proof is as high as one can purify alcohol.
"Proof" refers to the first method employed to assess the alcohol content of a liquid - if a puddle of it caught fire, it was considered "proof" - as in, proof that the alcohol was sufficiently concentrated. This became known as "100 proof," which is 50% alcohol.]

The only way to make the alcohol more concentrated than where the yeast left off is to remove some of the water from the solution, to concentrate the alcohol.
Or, put another way, one has to pull the alcohol out of the solution.
How is that done?
It's simple - in a solution of liquids of different boiling points, the solution will begin to boil at the lowest boiling point on the list of its contents.

"Boiling point" refers, of course, to the temperature at which the liquid overcomes the pressure pushing down on it and begins to escape the liquid - a few days spent in a high school chemistry class will tell you that the energy of the molecules (from added heat) has now encouraged them to be so active they leave the solution.
Once that first solution has been entirely evaporated, the temperature of the solution will raise to the next boiling point on the list, and so on, until all the solutions have boiled out, and you're left with the ultimate solvent, water.
This is one way water can be purified, with the caveat that solids will still be in the solution - only the distillate, the liquid that has been evaporated, is really pure.
How can we exploit this concept with our freshly-fermented alcohol?

Perhaps you recall that the boiling point of water is 212° Fahrenheit (100° Celsius).
Yet the boiling point of ethanol (ethyl alcohol) is only 173°F (about 78°C).
So if we bring a jug of wine to the boil, it will boil at 173°F until all the alcohol has evaporated, and then, the boiling point goes up to the next one - in this case, to 212°F, since all that's left is water.
All that alcohol evaporated as steam (highly flammable, too, in case you attempt this at home); if only we could have captured it somehow, and condensed it back into liquid…
That's easily done, too - I think we all have the mental picture of a still, with a coil of copper tubing being somehow involved.

Of course, you can guess what the copper tubing is doing - the steamy alcohol is directed up it, and it condenses, by cooling off (the longer the tube, the more cooling you get - since you've increased the surface area of copper that can transfer heat from the distillate to the room). Out the other end drips pure alcohol.
My own still has a copper coil coming out the top, as well as an old outboard-motor heat exchanger, so I get excellent condensation - it is possible to have such a vigorous boil that the alcohol comes out the coil as steam, but it never does with my still.

I made mine from an old pressure-cooker, which, if you've worked with one much, has three holes in the lid - all with a function:
There is the pressure gauge, and the spring-loaded safety valve - basically a ball-bearing held down by a spring, but which, if the pressure climbs unsafely high, will allow pressure to escape by being budged out of the way.
And there is a little stop-cock, a tiny valve that one opens to let the air out, as it fills with steam, at the onset of pressure cooking.

[NB: pressure cooking works by being able to cook at a higher temperature - remembering that a boiling point represents a liquid's ability to overcome the atmospheric pressure keeping it in place - raise the pressure, and the boiling point goes up.]

To convert the pressure cooker to a still, I wouldn't need the pressure gauge, so I replaced that with a threaded piece of copper pipe, which was then connected to the condenser (the copper coil and heat-exchanger).
I kept the safety-valve, having heard stories about exploding stills (which generally happens when the grain in the mash - from which distillers don't remove the fermentable solids, but brewers do) clogs the coil. Pressure goes up - boom.
But the last little port, the little stopcock valve in the top, I replaced with a meat thermometer inserted into a cork, for a tight seal.

Why the thermometer?

As soon as the alcohol is all evaporated, the thermometer would show that the temperature was rising, so I'd want to shut it down, not wanting to dilute my distilled alcohol with distilled water.
Once, I had made some cooking wine from a can of grape concentrate, but the protective covering on the fermentation vessel fell off, and it was in the sunlight for some days - all kinds of things started happening to the flavor, so it was unsuitable as cooking wine.
Didn't want to waste that alcohol, though - think of it: in a five-gallon batch of wine, with, say, a 10% alcohol concentration, that's a gallon of 100-proof booze. Let's get that out of there.
So I ran it through my still, and had some nice brandy - a bit raw, but nice. Did the job. I felt good, too, by rescuing an asset from what would seem to have been all waste.

Of course, the principles of distillation are easy to exploit - and anything sweet can be fermented - so read on, to learn about an adventure I had, once upon a time, during my long-and-checkered career as a mercenary cook:

I was the sous chef in a restaurant in Seattle. We did a huge Mother's Day brunch business (a big day in the restaurant year, as I'm sure you can imagine), but even though we served hundreds of plates, we ended the day with about eight gallons of fresh-squeezed orange juice left over, out of about thirty or so.
I noticed them every day in the walk-in refrigerator, wondering what to make from them that we could sell.

A few days later, the jugs began to swell - clearly, fermentation was already beginning… which gave me an idea:
I instructed one of the cooks to prepare a large pot by sanitizing it (washing it out with bleach - didn't want any microbes in there other than the yeast), and then to dump in the orange juice.
To make sure our efforts were more than worthwhile, I also had him dump in about five pounds of sugar, and stir it up.
Then, some yeast from the baker, cover the pot, and put it away discreetly - it was fun to imagine we could do this without the chef knowing…

Fermentation doesn't take that long, if the conditions are favorable (room temperature is excellent) - in this case, I determined that fermentation was complete after about a week.
Meanwhile, there was a curious, fruity fragrance emanating from the storeroom - which the chef noticed and asked about, but after telling him that none of the rest of us could smell it, he ignored it.
Okay - now we had converted orange juice into orange wine - how to get the alcohol out of it?

Fortunately, I am blessed with attributes that would benefit me on a desert island, or in prison… I know how to make things: alcohol, soap, bread, cheese…
And, being a devotee of alcohol manufacture, I knew the principles behind distilling, and could utilize them to our advantage, using materials one would find in any kitchen.
Let's think it through - there is alcohol in the orange wine that we want to remove: simple to do, merely boil it out. But we want to condense that vaporized alcohol and collect it - also simple to do: merely put a lid on the pot - the steam will condense there and drop back into the pot.

We want to remove the alcohol though, so how can we prevent it from falling back into the wine?

In my reading on distillation, I've learned of an old desert trick for getting water: dig a deep hole in the ground, cover it with a tarp that has a rock in the middle of it. Put your hat in the hole, under the depression caused by the weight of the rock.
The heat from the sun evaporates any moisture in the soil, which condenses on the tarp, and runs down to the low spot, created by the weight of the rock. From there, it drips into the hat. Now, you have water to drink.

In our case, if we set up a bowl, rather than the pot lid, that was larger in diameter than the open top of the pot, we could condense the steam, which would run down to the low spot - the bottom of the bowl - and drop back into the liquid.
If there were another bowl below the drips, to catch them, like the hat in the desert pit…
So we set up an old colander in the pot, down in the wine, which supported a smaller bowl, and kept it up out of the boiling wine.

We filled the large bowl, which was serving as the lid, with ice, to enhance condensation.
Fired it up, and an hour later, had a nice two quarts of orange brandy ("brandy" being the generic term for distillate from fruit wine).

Everything worked as planned.
It was easy, amazing, and empowering for the staff, since they had just done the impossible - turned orange juice -- about to spoil -- into alcohol, distilled it, baked it in pastries, and served it to the dining public, which paid for the privilege.

All with items one would find in any kitchen.

Now that's clever.

rapid research

from 23crows.com (b·cole's weblog)
posted 8 january 2009
© 2009 by barton cole - all rights reserved

The other day, I wrote about technological compression (see kilobyte, mb, gb, tb, pb, at 23crows.com...); I was talking with someone about barley and alcohol, and thought some more about how our tech tools have given us so much of what would seem to be power… Being the youngest of four children (in five years! My mother was pregnant nearly the entire time…), I absorbed all that I could from my siblings - including learning how to read, which I did when I was three (my only claim to precocity).

Once I learned how to read, I never stopped. I read everything I could get my hands on, and lived in a bibliophilic house, so there were lots of books around.

Librarians have always, apparently, recognized my passion for books and reading, and one of them frustrated the hell out of my step-mother: she never charged me overdue fines, since she didn't want to discourage my devotion to reading. My step-mother, on the other hand, wanted me to learn responsibility. Sorry - looks like the dreamers win again!

I read all kinds of stuff, but acquired an early interest in science-fiction; fostered, likely, by watching Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon when I was six years old, so I grew up in the space age.

An early favorite was John Christopher's excellent Tripods Trilogy, in which humans have been enslaved by aliens, The Masters, who traveled in little vehicles with three, long, tall legs - when I was a boy, we used to pass a water tower standing among the firs by the highway, and it would f*r*e*a*k  m*e  o*u*t.
Three boys evade being "capped," a rite-of-passage in which the young submit to The Masters' mind control, becoming like all the adults. They meet up, learn of the Resistance, hook up with them, and volunteer to endeavor to infiltrate the alien city, hoping to discover a weakness.

and they discover one... + + + SPOILER ALERT + + +

The Resistance learns that the Masters are extremely susceptible to alcohol, and manage to communicate this to the lads, who are enduring heavy servitude in the alien city, the gravity being artificially enhanced, and the atmosphere poisoned, to duplicate the home planet of the aliens.

All they need to do is introduce alcohol into the Masters' water supply - but how to smuggle in the alcohol?
Impossible. They'll have to manufacture it.
How?
By making a mash of the starchy biscuits they are given to eat, and then fermenting it.
They do, and the plan succeeds.

So there I was, six years old, and wondered: what's a mash?

I was completely intrigued - a "mash" must really be something, if one is able to make it out of crackers and ferment it. Books in the library were no help - I remember asking an uncle, but he had no idea.
I grew up with this quest, occasionally and profoundly curious.

Finally -- I was seventeen, and my brother gave me a magazine on home-brewing, and down the fermatation rabbit hole I fell -- I learned that a mash was a means of heating crushed grain in water until enzymes had converted all the starch to sugar - which you can ferment.

I suppose it took me about twelve years to answer that question (and once I had the information, I began brewing beer, and never looked back - in fact, perhaps tomorrow I'll write about how one starts with a field of barley and ends up with pale ale, or lager).

Not long ago, I was curious - how long would it take to answer that question with today's tools?

Twenty seconds - I used a stopwatch, even.
That's about 19,000,000 times faster.

It took more time to open the browser (with a fast machine and penultimate broadband) and type in the search, than it did for the search engine to return the links.

Never take access to information for granted.

passing of a calf

from 23crows.com (b·cole's weblog)
posted 12 january 2009
© 2009 by barton cole - all rights reserved

I lived in a little town, across the street from a pasture. I remember telling someone who had asked where I lived that I was on "Cemetery Road [our name for the road that leads to the graveyard], not that far from the corner." "On which side of the street?" she asked.
"Well," I said, "since I'm not a cow, I must be on the left."
She was a bit put-off by my smart-alecky remark, but it was a silly question. It's a huge pasture to the right, as you go up the road.

You get to know the cows. When the apples were ripe, I'd toss windfalls over the fence - "Hey - want to see a stampede?"
There had been a black cow standing in attendance over her black calf, who has had some challenges. He was a small, new guy, but one day, I saw it just laying next to the fence that divides the pasture, and by the end of the day, I was concerned that it was even alive, since I hadn't seen it move all day.
It showed up elsewhere, so it was somewhat mobile, but a couple of days later, its mother was bellowing, and keeping it up for hours, all night.

The next day, I saw activity at the gate; Jans, the farmer, had driven his truck into the pasture, and so had another large truck; I heard Jans holler from across the field, "You don't have to close the gate, Doctor…" so the vet had arrived.

I was working on cleaning out the truck at the time, so was outside when this was happening, and also curious about the activity - three trucks were in the middle of the pasture, parked side-by-side, next to the calf.
Soon, the vet was driving away. I figured that was either a good sign, or a bad one.

I looked out across the pasture and saw that Jans had moved his truck, apparently, so he was parked next to the calf, and facing north - it had been south before. I saw the calf making some motions, as if it were trying to get up, and looked away.
Went back to work on the truck.
A few minutes later, he came driving across the pasture and had parked his truck across the road from his fence. He was over to close the gate.

I went out to see what was going on.
"Hey," I said, "my guess is that you fellows were attending to the calf? I'd noticed its mother bellowing all night…"
"Yeah," he said, "the vet was here…"
"Is everything okay with it?"
"No, it's dead."
By this time, I had approached close enough to see that he was upset by it.
"I'm sorry," I told him.
"That calf was born on December 16th, and it's never been right," he said. I mentioned that I had seen it most days just laying in one spot all day.
"It had septic arthritis in both front legs," he said.

"I had to knock it on the head."

I realized that I had witnessed some of its death throes - and that Jans had likely parked his truck next to it to obscure his deed from view of the houses across the road.
"I'm awfully sorry," I said.
"Well, the only bright side, if there is a bright side at all, is that it was a bull, and not a heifer - they're going to be my replacement cows in a few years…"

I thought about the cows there, some of whom I feel close to, recognizing from afar, and for whom I'd designated thrown apples, as if a college quarterback against a swarming backfield...
"I had five black calves, now I have four."

Meanwhile, I had helped him get the gate back on the two pegs, lined up like hinges. "You ought to try to do one of these yourself," he said, unaware that I may be a bohemian, but I know my way around farm work.
I reached out and shook his hand - the hand that had raised a hammer to strike the calf - I felt compelled to take some of the energy away with me, so it wasn't all his…?

"What's your name again?" he asked.
"I'm barton cole, I live right here," I said, gesturing at my little house.
"Yeah, I know where you live, I'm just real bad with names," he said.
"That's okay - I can keep track for both of us," I said, which has become my stock thing to say when someone says that, which is most of the time - my name is eminently forgettable.
"If you ever need anything, here I am," I said. "Just let me know what I can do to help you out."
A couple of times during our conversation, I had glanced at his truck; the dead calf was in the back, but I couldn't see it.

A bit later, I heard the ravens over at the corner of his land; no doubt something had come their way, too.

the magic primulas

from 23crows.com (b·cole's weblog)
posted 5 may 2009
© 2009 by barton cole - all rights reserved

I'm fond of the Jack-and-the-Beanstalk story; a few casually discarded beans led to a goose that laid golden eggs, and a singing harp…

It's only a slight exaggeration of the magic contained in ordinary things; the moral Jack was to derive from the story was that one mustn't underestimate the potential of small things - actually, I think Jack was so guileless he didn't even need to ponder that, but his mother needed convincing. Perhaps she was convinced; I'm also fond of versions of the story which have her ignorantly making cacciatore from the goose Jack brings home…

Several years ago, a fellow I knew casually was in distress, and asked me for help.

He had come to my island from Philadelphia thirty years prior to be a garlic farmer, but although he raised a successful garlic crop, he declined to grow it commercially after all.

Years went by; he saved out good bulbs to use for seed each year, and grew a nice crop.

Then, he met a woman who lived, frequently, in Hawaii, and began to live there with her, more and more frequently, to the point that he was there nearly year-round.

He continued to grow garlic on this island, having set up an automatic watering system which drew from his well.
One year, though, his well failed, so although the system opened valves to water the garlic, no water was coming out of the ground; dehydrated garlic still grows, but the bulbs get small and rather angry, some of them nearly winking out of existence, if not merely being too small to mess with, let alone plant and expect anything.

So my Italian friend had nearly lost his entire crop, which he'd been faithfully growing for decades. He didn't know what to do, so he called upon me.

At the time, I was, among other things, managing a garden at a retreat center - over twenty large, cedar raised beds, and a dump truck and tractor and concrete soil yard, so excellent compost, so my pal thought I could take what garlic he had and look after it.

He handed me his remainder, one handful of tiny bulbs, not even as big as an avocado pit. Each one had four or five wizened cloves, so about thirty in all.
Rather tragic.

It was late summer; I promptly planted the garlic in the ground, although it's customarily planted in the fall (in fact, subscribing to a notion from a devout neighbor, I have planted by the moon for years, planting my garlic as soon after the moment of moon fullness as soon after All Soul's Day - so it's rather like calculating Easter). These things were in critical condition, and needed moist soil.

I grew them in straight compost that first year, and harvested some respectable bulbs the next summer. They were a softneck and faintly blushed with pink; I allowed myself the luxury of eating one of the bulbs: pungent and assertive. Nice garlic.
But I ate none of the others, and planted everything in the fall. The soil I had grown in was rich, which garlic requires, and had enabled some large bulbs, some with fat cloves. The garlic had great potential.

The second year, I planted them in straight, hardly-aged llama manure. It's a fantastic resource, if one has access to llamas: they cooperate by crapping in one spot in the field, or maybe two, so there's a central pile to load from; the manure is olive-sized pellets, which are easy to work with; you can put it on fresh, like rabbit manure, and it doesn't burn.

Those bulbs that year were outstanding. I harvested about two hundred, as I recall, and saved most of them for planting. I also entered them in the county fair that year - five identical specimens are required for entry, and I had five huge, uniform, gorgeous bulbs. During the fair, I heard from friends, who wanted to know "what kind of elephant garlic was that you entered?" but it wasn't elephant garlic. Just huge bulbs.

I won an "award of merit" rosette that year, which was far larger than the largest bulbs I grew, and a "best in show" rosette as well, and of course, a mere blue ribbon, but what do you know? When I went back at fair's end to collect my five-bulb entry, it had disappeared. Funny… the Superintendent of Vegetables was a commercial garlic grower… Do you think maybe…? and it happened again the next year, which was my last. Don't need rosettes and awards, when you can have five bulbs of amazing garlic.

The next year, I harvested over two thousand bulbs, large and uniform, and gave a bunch of it away to other gardeners to plant, and supplied all my needs and the needs of the retreat. What had been a paltry ember had become a roaring blaze, and was being broadcast far and wide. The garlic was in no danger of passing away.

I had also determined that it didn't have a name, and that the source, all those many years ago, was forgotten, so I got permission from the fellow who gave it to me to name it myself.
I called it Rosina, after one of my cats (who was named after one of Rossini's characters in Il Barbiere di Siviglia). Now, people were growing Rosina garlic everywhere.

Magic beans, magic garlic…

My most recent experience with this amazing phenomenon came through my sister. She knew of my fondness for Wanda primroses (Primula officinalis "Wanda"); they're the old-fashioned, prolific ones that get planted with King Alfred yellow daffodils around trees in the yard, masses of purple blooms in the early Spring.
They get planted as long borders, and I had always tried to cadge some from my step-mother's, but she was always using her surplus to fill in gaps in the border.

They're pretty accommodating when it comes to making offsets: each little plant will generate about four or five little ones, which can be carefully pulled from the parent in the late summer, grown on, and then planted out in the fall.
So I never had any - I'd see them, occasionally, at the nursery, but they were always expensive, like five bucks for a four-inch pot. So I'd pass them by, since it would take so many to get a border going.

My sister gave me three of them as a Christmas present a few years ago, so that was, at least, a start. I kept them in the four-inch pots, and planted them into gallons in the spring.
In the late summer, each one of them had made six or seven offsets, so I divided them into little pots, and planted them up into gallons in the fall.

You can see wehre this is going: each year, I patiently divided them, and grew the divisions on, some few months later dividing them, until I had enough to plant out.
I have a little bed with a large forsythia and an unfortunate old lilac - two years ago, a spastic ran into it when his car went off the road - actually, he was an epileptic, not a spastic (sorry if anyone was offended) - no idea why they let him on the road - so one large trunk remains, and is working really hard.

I dug out all the turf, and planted out about one hundred and fifty Wandas, from four-inch pots (which were available at the nursery at the time for five bucks, so I had a value exceeding six hundred bucks, if you can imagine me getting a quantity discount had I bought them). Not only that, but I had two flats left over, and about twelve gallon pots I hadn't divided, so at least another two hundred plants.

Once I divide everything I have (including the two flats of four-inch pots), I'll have over three hundred plants, estimated conservatively, which, if I execute this during the spring, will generate more offsets by the end of summer, so I could easily coast into next spring with well over five hundred plants. I'm already determined to donate five flats of them to a non-profit garden nearby, and what the heck?
Might as well sell a few…

So talk about the goose that laid the golden eggs, eh?

And this doesn't even include the paltry few seeds of "peasant" arugula (aka "Silvetta") an old friend managed to send my way; now I have a jarful, and have given many away. Same with lettuce seeds, and the list goes on.

Along those lines, I am also preparing to go out on my annual expedition to round up maple seedlings.

I got interested in bonsai some years ago (will write about that profound topic another time), and a mentor I had stumbled upon suggested that landscape Japanese maple seedlings (Acer palmatum) were a good source of material. I had unsuccessfully tried to grow seedlings from seeds I had collected, but he suggested that I simply let nature decide which ones would grow, and go collect them.
I began doing that several years ago, and now, have some well-pruned, respectable small trees (once I put them in containers, they'll be bonsai; until then, they're merely small trees). I also have a weakness for vine maples (Acer circinnatum), which are native in my area, and lovelier deciduous hardwoods are hard to find.

So I collect those as well. They're a bit trickier to keep small, since they're fast-growing trees, but I also have let some of them put on size, and have planted a few out in my landscape, as well as maintaining a slowly-burgeoning nursery bed of them.
A woman I know is replanting a reclaimed area (reclaimed from the bramble, Himalayan blackberry, Rubus discolor, which is about the only thing around her you'd have to reclaim anything from) - she wants to put in natives, and asked if I had any vine maples for sale.

I think I can spare her some (got to get out and get some more to replenish my supply and feed my craving), but I also found out she bought a Western Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta) to plant in this hedgerow sort of area, and that she paid forty dollars for it!
Unbelievable.
I had to rip out some deck boards to liberate a Western Hazelnut that had been planted by a squirrel under there a year or two ago - as of last fall, it's planted out in the landscape, and flowered this last winter…

There are Hazelnut groves here in town, and many specimans here and there planted by the squirrels, both native and Eastern Gray, and also by the Steller's Jays. They come up frequently in my yard, and one sees them - as well as English walnuts - coming up all around.

And yet, when I heard of this high price these common volunteers were fetching, I couldn't think of a grove of young ones I could liberate, but will just have to go out and look. There's a conglomeration of Jays at one end of town, which isn't far from an old hazelnut orchard, so I suspect there must be a lot of young ones over there.

my brother's blood

from 23crows.com (b·cole's weblog)
posted 4 october 2009
© 2009 by barton cole - all rights reserved

Mortality's been the theme this last week.
On my island, one of my tree-work colleagues was just killed by an alder.
Bobby Stewart was one of those guys who do the work that's too big for me - I'm a horticulturist, a pruning specialist, I work in fruit trees of all sizes, among other things; there's nothing like the skill and finesse and vigilance it takes to be a tree man, and I don't have it. These guys are the top guys, the arborists, the loggers.
As I understand it, he was "wrecking it," which is a logging term for taking a tree down by cutting it from the top, little by little, in situations where there's no room to drop the whole tree. Part of the tree broke off, I am told, and landed on him. They all call those falling branches widowmakers - my Finnish grandfather, Leo, was killed by one, logging near Coos Bay; I named my chainsaw after him to keep me mindful.
There's very little that's safe about an alder - the only tree I ever fell from, when the only branch that was supporting me gave way, as I climbed high to impress girls - who were not impressed, not even when I fell twenty feet and was arrested by forked branches -- and yet, those of us who really know alders love them all the same, even though they die young and throw branches along the way (I'll write about them next time) - only the idiots call them trash trees, and Bobby, although one landed on him, would tell you it was ready to go.

The next day, one of our sweet friends was experiencing some headache symptoms. I had heard she'd driven herself to the hospital here on the island (she went in an ambulance, I learned; a friend suggested the detail was critical, as perhaps there was an EMT who was heroic, and about whom we don't know, but who would obviously be an agent in the story).
They promptly airlifted her to Harborview, the regional trauma center down Puget Sound, in Seattle.
Turns out she had an aneurysm, and nearly didn't make it.

Later that day, the prognosis I heard was that they were merely hoping for signs of higher brain function - so it would seem we were about to lose her.

To deal with the pressure of the blood clot, they could either go into her brain via an artery in her leg, or enter her skull the conventional way - which they opted to do. The next day, they operated.
A portion of her skull was removed, and kept in the freezer for later re-attachment; the surgeon said the area "looked angry," and they want it to subside before they sealed her up.
She made it through the surgery like a champ, and was even demonstrating recognition of her situation the next day, a day before they intended to bring her out of her post-operative, induced comatose state.
The report I got that day was that she was going to be without this bit of skull for some time, and would be wearing a helmet. "I think she's going to be just fine," I said.

I remember this from before.

When I was eleven years old, I lived in a little town on the saltwater, much like the town I live in now, but not as bohemian by a long shot.
There weren't that many employment prospects, as we were rather remote - you could either cut grass, or maybe babysit (tried that - the allegedly sleeping infant was actually a profoundly-sociopathic Houdini for two solid hours; I can still see that paltry 37¢ in the mother's fat palm -- "won't be long!") - but if you were lucky, you had one of the few, precious paper routes, delivering the Tacoma News Tribune, published in the city on the other side of the bay.

That was a good income for a kid in the early 70's - hard work, and getting up early on the weekends to deliver Sunday edition, which I would weigh when I finished my route - to determine that, yes indeed, that young guy was walking around with one of those classic, canvas newspaper-delivery bags, carrying upwards of a hundred pounds of newspapers at a time.
You loaded the papers in the bag for a long, looping first leg; the bag was so heavy you had to pull it over the edge of the box the truck dropped the bundles in - and in which you slept if you got there in the morning before the truck had arrived with your bundles. Then you kind of stood up into it and heaved away from the box like a tug from a pier.
You didn't bend over until you were down a dozen or more papers, as the weight of the papers would pull you down, and you wouldn't be able to get up - seriously - it happened more than once. It sounds funny to imagine a kid immobilized by a newspaper bag, legs feebly kicking like a capsized beetle, but it's not. That bag could strangle you, come to think of it.
I had no idea I barely escaped childhood with my life - no, actually, knew it all along, but this isn't that kind of story, so we won't go into it. The history of my scars and scrapes can wait.

I didn't have a paper route at the time, but was hoping to get one - there were only four, one of which was actually prestigious, having the most customers in the shortest distance, and good tippers, to boot (not as compact as a high school friend's route - he delivered papers in an apartment building, and would deposit the requisite amount of papers on every other floor going up in the elevator, then deliver them on the way down, using the stairs - over in half an hour).
My brother, Dan, had the prime route (my other brother had another). He was always an ass-buster, and had rapidly been switched to that one by the manager, and pulled in upwards of a hundred dollars a month, which was a lot for a kid in those days, for an hour's work a day (every day, no days off).

One day in June, I was with a friend, who had one of the subordinate routes. He was going on a trip with his family, so I was learning his route as a substitute, to fill in while he was away.

In the center of my town was a large park, with some great little woods, tennis courts, and a wide-open sports field with a baseball diamond on one side, and goal posts for soccer on the other.

A softball game was going on that day, but nothing organized; not a league, or anything. Just a bunch of grownups playing softball and drinking beer (which was easy to get away with - our town was unincorporated, so only the county sheriff had jurisdiction; we were way off near the county line, and you never saw those guys).
My pal's route went past the field, and then around the corner, looping past the fire station and the doctor's office. As we approached the doctor's, a van squealed into the parking lot. A fellow got out of the van, ran into the office, came dashing back out, and sped off, around the corner.

"Shit," my pal said, "I'm going to see what's going on - you deliver those next few papers…?" as he ran off. I knew the route already, and was just affirming it for him that day.
He took off around the corner, and was back in a minute -

"It's your brother!"

I went around the corner to the next street, and could see a cluster of people gathered half a block down on the other side, standing looking at Dan on the ground.
I took the bag off, set it on the grass, and walked across the street to the group of people. I took my time; I was afraid. I slowly walked up and looked down -
But that's the part I don't remember. I remember looking at him, but I don't remember what I saw.

I was the kid, shuffling that afternoon with his blood-flecked bag and papers, finishing his route.
Didn't know what else to do.

The fellow in the van, one of the drunk softball players, had hit him while he sped down the road - doing fifty in a twenty-five zone. His mirror, we learned later, had clipped my brother in the head, knocking him off his bike and to the ground (ironically, had he been wearing a helmet - they weren't around then - his head would have made it, but his neck would have been broken and he'd be dead).
He lay there, a bloody mess; his newspaper bag was next to him, his bicycle lay there, the front wheel bent. I walked away and sat on the grass.

An ambulance arrived soon after, and he was taken to the hospital in the city, where they hustled him into surgery.

He made it through surgery just fine, but - they took out part of his skull in the process - the part right above the hairline in front. Later, they would insert a plastic plate, but that had to wait until he recovered.
We were able to visit him in the hospital in a couple of days - I was a bit jealous by the attention he was getting, and of all the cool toys with which well-wishers were filling his room.
Dan was fine - I had feared I'd have a vegetable for a brother, but he was fine. Alert, coherent, just the same, but with a big hole in his head.

He came home from the hospital, and life went along just about the same - except that now my brother had this spot on his head with the skin just stretched across it, about as big as a dollar. Right there in front; you couldn't miss it.
He usually wore a stocking cap - a beanie, as the cool set has adopted them now - which made me just a bit less uncomfortable. And he went about his normal business - he delivered his newspapers, and went to school, and continued his passionate basketball playing.

We had a hoop on the back patio, installed on a huge steel column made by one of the welders at the shipyard where my dad was a naval architect, and Dan would hang out back there, shooting baskets for hours.

He had an odd style of shooting, too - we were soccer players (Little League baseball, although present in our community, didn't have the appeal and cachet of soccer, which was the popular sport - many of my friends went on to have pro careers on the field), and Dan would shoot baskets as if throwing a soccer ball in from the sideline, in which the ball starts behind your head, and with both hands, you toss it as far and accurately as you can.
Dan would nail all the shots, too, uncannily - and had, as a result, an advantage over defenders taller than him, as shooting the ball that way gave him about a foot of extra height, compared to the conventional way of shooting a basketball.
He'd be out there for hours - and you wasted your time if you ever undertook a game of HORSE with him; he'd kick your ass every time.

Once, during Dan's convalescence, the ball rolled under the deck.

"I'll get it!" I said, wanting to protect my gentle, damaged brother. But he was closer, and got the ball, and banged his head when he came back out.
I nearly wet my pants, I nearly fainted, I certainly hyperventilated, afraid that he had damaged himself and was now about to die.

He was rather cavalier about it, though, to the point that he thought my concern and fuss were silly - and I think I'm still getting over that incident, as well.
Two months later, they operated on him again, and sewed this thick, plastic plate in his skull, in place of the missing bone.
"Stronger than bone," the surgeon said.

Two operations in two months - a scar beginning above his eye and continuing over the top of his head to the back, from the first surgery, and another going from one ear to the other, the polar route, from the second.
When his hair grew back, rather than being light and rather wispy as mine was (and is still, although much grayer), it was dark and coarse. No one mistook us for twins after that.

And Dan went back to his normal activities, too, playing soccer that autumn, wearing a hockey helmet. I remember parents of the opponents making a stink about it, and my father bitching them out.

Just a few years ago, Dan had a series of small strokes in an afternoon - TIAs, they call them, or "Transitory Ischemic Attacks." He was incoherent, and a girl he was with called an ambulance. He was promptly airlifted across Puget Sound to Harborview, and took up residence for a few days in the same Neuro Intensive Care Unit where my friend is today.
It's a nice place - and a crack trauma center; the finest in the Pacific Northwest (including Alaska and Montana). Our friend will be in nice hands.

But when they told me that she was going to be missing part of her skull for a time, and wearing a helmet, it all came back. "No sweat," I said. She'll be fine - a tough road, but she's a tough dame, and medical technology has advanced in the last thirty years, right?

The medicine of my youth seems ancient and barbaric to me, now - although the administration of it to my numerous lacerations, contusions, sprains, strains and aches (no breaks, I don't think - and I'm knocking wood) is still fresh in my mind. Perhaps you don't remember pain, but you remember everything else.
Almost.
Perhaps that's best.

poetry

I've been working at this poetry gig for some time; to my chagrin, some folks think of me as a poet, which is a bit too limiting, I think.

But below, you'll find a mere sampling of the work - some of my stuff is old enough to not even exist in digital form, yet (we've scanned archives and whatnot), or is in deprecated formats. Fortunately, one of my computers can still read an old 3.5" floppy… had better get those files off and updated… put everything in XML…

Enjoy what there is, rue what you've missed, visit again to see if the birds have added any sticks to the nest.

detail of a block print by japanese master, kawase hasui - irises

the accidental voicemail poetry project

by the way, if you happen to be one who has my telephone number, don't call me after 22:00 Pacific Time. I won't answer.

In the spring of 2010, I found myself needing to update the outgoing voicemail message.
Of course, we all like to be clever, and I like the idea of leaving a little something for folks, so hit on reciting a little haiku, and then prompting callers to leave their message.

If I'd had a script, which I didn't, it would have read like this:

"Not able to take your call, but here's a Spring haiku from Basho:
'Ah, little warbler
thanks — droppings on my porch;
because I love you...?'

Now, it's your turn."

As it was, I had the haiku book open (The Four Seasons :: Japanese Haiku, Second Series - Peter Pauper Press, Mount Vernon, New York, 1958).

The rest was off the cuff, though - about not being able to take the call, and particularly the "now it's your turn."

Oddly, there was the irony. I had intended it, and am surprised it was mistaken, to imply that "it's your turn to leave me a message."
Instead, to a person, it was taken to mean, "now it's your turn to tell me a poem."

So that's what people did. One friend caught on and would call, knowing I was off laboring, and leave sonnets. Another surprising, and brief, correspondent, would call and leave little Sufi poems, and other moist gems.

Even my rather stodgy father got into it, and called to check in as usual (bless you, Dad), but I could tell that he paused, somewhat taken by surprise, and thought a moment, then gave me a lovely image of some shore birds he could see out his window.

It's been really nice; I still get poems, or snatches of them, and of course, have tried to keep up with the seasons. I've left some other haiku, still with the same encouragement, "Now, it's your turn."

I didn't keep track of when I changed the message (it does show up in my notes, but not my notes for this project, and the archive girl quit, thinking I was about to fire her... and she was cute, too! and I was such a gentleman; I don't understand it...), but when the mood struck, and there was a pertinent haiku ready-to-hand, I'd log into the system and re-record it.

Here are the other haiku, which stimulated the frequent, poetic response, having followed the same format: Not able to take your call... here's a haiku... now it's your turn...:

spring

from chora:
Over my shoulder...
my friends who
followed me were lost
in clouds of blossom
from issa:
Here comes Mr. Horse...
quick, quick, out
of the roadway
happy sparrowlet
from kyoroku:
Facing the candle
the peony also
burning...
motionless as death
from kikaku:
The old messsenger
proferring his
plum branch first...
only then the letter.
Considering we'd had twice our customary rainfall for the year to date, this seemed appropriate...
from buson:
Pouring floods of rain...
won't Mount Fuji
wash away
to a muddy lake?
I have a nice personal context for this one...
from buson:
Farmer, raise your head...
direct this stranger
who will smile
and disappear.
from karasu:
with a nod to Whitman [scout among the winter haiku for part of the source...]
:
Discrete otter lurking
in the burgeoning pond —
Citrus by mail
from California.
from basho:
On Buddha's birthday
a spotted fawn is born —
just like that.
from karasu:
[for Daiensai]

Waxing moon, and cherry blossoms—
frogs in the wet grass
holding hands.

summer

from karasu:
Tall hay, too wet at sunset —
frog croaks
under a leaf
from buson:
For deliciousness
try fording
this rivulet...
sandals in one hand
from zuiryu:
The floating heron
pecks at it
till it shatters...
full-moon-on-water
from chora:
With the new clothes, remember:
The crow stays black,
and the heron white.
from issa:
You hear that fat frog
in the seat of
honor, singing
bass?...that's the boss
from hokushi:
Experimenting...
I hung the moon
on various
branches of the pine
from issa:
The night was hot...
stripped to the waist
the snail
enjoyed the moonlight
from basho:
Along the roadside,
blossoming wild roses
in my horse's mouth.
from karasu:
Full moon and two crickets;
my kitten thinks
the eggplant is a rival.
from karasu:
Imminent rain next day —
The neighbor's dog pisses
Among the daylilies and irises.
from karasu:
Haycutters in the field —
the cockerel staggers after
an errant cicada.

autumn

from karasu:
Rustling leaves...
Around the corner,
the abbot --
No -- it's just the cat.
from buson:
Exquisite, the dewy bramble...
To every thorn,
A single droplet.
from karasu:
Gingko leaves on the pond;
new raincoats from
this year's grass.

winter

After the onset of an early cold snap and blizzard, I put this one out there:
from basho:
Just beyond the gate,
A neat, yellow hole.
Someone pissed in the snow.
In honor of the superb (yet somewhat occluded by clouds) Lunar Eclipse on the 2010 Solstice, I sent out this one:
from shiki:
Winter moonlight casts
Cold tree shadows, long and still...
My warm one moving.
from joso:
Bath-tub firewood...
Thanks for this final service,
Faithful old scarecrow...
On the lovely 2011 Winter Solstice, I sent out this one:
from basho:
I'm a wanderer
so let that be my name –
the first winter rain.
Snow and freezing fog impended in mid-January, 2012, so we burnished off this one -- not a haiku, per se, but certainly in the spirit -- and put it out:
Note: you might observe, below, that a favored but infrequent correspondent had left this one as a message last year; I once also had the same experience described in the poem - crow shaking off the snow of a hemlock just above me as he alit. I hadn't rued the day, but it was indeed saved.
from Robert Frost:
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood,
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
from karasu,
adapted from Walt Whitman and Joso
:
The last of the scarecrow
burns in the stove —
Orange buds by mail
from Florida.
from basho:
Winter showers —
even the monkey
searches for a raincoat.
from issa:
The winter fly —
I caught and finally freed
the cat quickly ate.
from basho:
I would like to use
the scarecrow's tattered clothes
in this midnight frost.
from karasu:
Five jays crooning
in the locust — footprints across
the frosty meadow.
from karasu:
Lush grass flattened by rain — warbling wrens
punctuate the silence.

poetic messages

As mentioned above, I found I was getting all kinds of responsive action on this - people go to the trouble to leave their message in some kind of poetic way; my father looks out the window and whips out an impromptu verbal sketch describing the shore birds he's watching, and things like that.

Some of them are real gems; I've realized that I can better serve the world by sharing them.
Maybe raise the bar a little bit.

I was on my way to a little winter soirée here in my little town; I missed this message, as I had already left and was crunching my way around the corner and down the road to the action:

My correspondent reported that he counted the syllables after putting down the phone, and was pleased with seventeen.
from DK:
Woman at the end of the road
Needs tea lights to guide the way...
Can you?

This next one wasn't exactly a haiku, but is typical (not to diminish its charm) of frequent efforts by callers.

from JH:
555-7148
Is the number I can relate
To you.
Give me a call; it's Josey.

Here's another charmer; again, typical in a way - I'm perpetually astonished that my little outgoing message stimulates the response it gets. as noted above, I wasn't inviting callers to be poetic, but "now it's your turn" somehow gives them the idea. Motivational speakers, take note.

from DC:
Here's mine:
"All wisdom is between
The eyes of a horse."
It's your bro; love you —
Call me.

The one that follows came through the wire from an old friend in the midwest; an old favorite little poem from Robert Frost. I once had the actual experience of having a crow shake a dust of snow on me, from a hemlock,even, and felt that some part of my day had been saved. Perhaps even some part of my life.

Note, too, that although it's packed with syllables, compared to a proper haiku, it has all the right elements: clear seasonal reference, and a "chop" - I didn't expect the crow to have that subtle impact. It's more of a haiku than your typical, residential, "5-7-5" effort.

from S. Leakit:
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
from a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood,
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
update: 5 june 2011

I also have a correspondent who finds fault with my haiku offerings, after the Tōhoku earthquake off the coast of Japan, on 11 March 2011.
"I think the Japanese are more concerned with 'newk-ew-ler' [she said that, as GW Bush used to do, brazenly ignorant] fallout than they are with Fuji washing away..."
Sorry, but she's full of crap on that one. If the Japanese abandoned their artistic and cultural heritage every time they dealt with a challenge, haiku would have ceased to exist long ago*.
Perhaps my correspondent might align herself with narrow-minded american politics, and leave me alone?

* holy crap! we'd also miss origami, ukiyo-e, sumi-e, kabuki, noh, bento, sukiyaki, fucking sushi, et cetera... we'd also be missing the Crow Screens: crow screen 350 x 240 px

or this, Hokusai's Red Fuji, from his series, 36 Views of Mount Fuji: Hokusai Red Fuji

and if you're worried about "newks and fuji," go to the source and check out kurosawa's Mt Fuji in Red, excerpted on YouTube: kurosawa Mt Fuji in Red

I'll stick to the borrowed haiku on my voicemail greeting.


A mere sampling of our poetic output follows; not the truffles and cognac, necessarily, but a few that seemed suitable.

Perhaps the chunky crumbs, so to speak.

More to come.

Brautigan Remembers
(this is a work of fiction)

© 1997 barton cole

I scribbled this one in twenty minutes, after having spent ten minutes thinking about it. It was one of our local "poetry slams," in which one gets three words and twenty minutes. As it happened, I was closing a restaurant kitchen when the words were handed out, just down the street from the venue, a tavern - a friend bought the words and ran them over, giving her a bit of Paul Revere participation in the ensuing controversy: although I was handicapped by arriving late, I was accused of cheating, and having written the poem in advance.
I couldn't have been more highly praised...!
My words were green, wild, and hurt.
A fifty-dollar prize, and some of the poem's virtue was explored by a literary friend, warmly, in a locally-published article, which made my fur all nice and glossy.

On the way here tonight, I ran into Richard Brautigan. He's an easy guy to recognize, and good-looking, too. Cheekbones like a grandfather, skin leather taut, and that cool moustache, like two conspiratorial commas riding on his upper lip. He was wearing a wide-brimmed, truncated hat, "Made from wild Australian rabbit fur felt," he said, when I asked. He had a shotgun in his hand. "What's that for?" I asked, as if I didn't know. He looked at it, as if for the first time, and squeezed it so hard it hurt to watch. "I'm old," he said, "and nobody buys my stories." He lifted the gun; I saw veins standing out on the back of his hand, like a road map: blue, purple, and angry red. "Stories. I can write 'em and I can tell 'em, but I can't sell 'em."

"The time in Coos Bay, early in the evening, I was walking along the pier. An old tug was moored out there, past the sailboats and skiffs. The two-cylinder diesel slowly turning over and calling my name: "Brautigan, Brautigan, Brautigan." I stood there, looking up at the light in the wheelhouse. A guy came down the deck, saw me . . . I found myself in the galley drinking coffee from a slender-hipped heavy mug, once white, now brown inside and cracked. I looked up at the drops of grease, frozen in time, motionless on the parallel pipes of the ceiling.

"Or the time, off the coast of Hokkaido, jigging for squid with a rice-paper, fish-oil lamp. I was out with Koi (that means carp in Japanese); we'd made love earlier, twice, then took her father's pea-pod boat. The light danced on the water, the swollen moon hesitated as it slipped a notch toward the horizon. The squid ignored us."

"And my black-and-white childhood -- my Uncle's hop farm in Puyallup, the German immigrants dancing on stilts, collecting vines at the end of the hot, green summer. I lay in the shade and smoked a cigarette, stolen from the drawer in the kitchen. I was nine."

He looked up. "I have the stories. But no one wants 'em. I'm finished. Stick around. Maybe you'll get a souvenir. When Melvin Purvis gunned down Dillinger, eager onlookers dipped their snot-rags in the blood.

"Just read my books -- and tell your friends."

Ernie

© 1988 barton cole
This one's a true story, in a sense; nearly as much as anything is true, when our minds put events together to create an understandable narrative...

Last night, I murdered Ernie's girlfriend. You could call it self-defense -- She was shooting at me, and somehow, I managed to get the gun and began squeezing the trigger.

"I guess I had it coming," she said as she fell. I called Ernie; he came over and took care of the corpse.

I never found out what he did with it until years later: I was hiking with my brother along a deep, obsidian canyon. I looked over the edge, and I knew.

feeding the crows

© 1999 barton cole

Another "slam" poem - and not one of those boozy brawls over in america, but a writing challenge – the words I had to use were independent, slide, and redeem

.

I'm happy to say that I've made some "decent coin" with this poem, having won a $62 prize with it (the entry fees, pooled and divided among the winners); I've performed it at various venues for money, and once, sold the sheet from which I read for $50.

One advantage: I can caw like a crow. No, sounds like a claim, but it's true: when Otherworld Media produced their epic, 4-CD radio presentation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, featuring some hefty voice talents (Norman Corwin, among them), they needed a definitive crow for the opening Kansas prairie... and who did they call?

Really helps the poem out, though, having a crow reading along, so to speak. Poe and I could have had some lovely discourse, maybe.

Anywhere -- but today, In front of the house. Leftover breakfast (Bob's 8-grain hot cereal). Lift the congealed mass From the bottom of the pan, Stir it around, and walk out there. No crows yet, but soon . . . CAW! CAW! CAW!

Tip the pan, let the soft lumps Slide and bounce on the road. Christ! Look at 'em come! My cul-de-sac tranquility Shattered by black, Like ink poured into a jar of Swirling, cold water.

Watch them come, black, noisy; Observe that behavior: That cocky, two-foot hop, Like concupiscent, hip-thrusting Teenage Boys, in tuxedos For the first time. Stuffing their beaks with more than A beakful, Trying to choke it down, Independent of any thought of Wife -- kids -- Home in the nest.

And that guy over there, Pacing like an Unaccustomed Pallbearer, Too nervous to eat; He doesn't want to stain his Borrowed black suit.

There's the Mortician, all in black, Business-like -- he's not curious About the origin of Today's breakfast. He's seen it before.

And the Groom, a nice boutonnière Tucked in his lapel, Pecking nervously, Worried about his impending Boudoir performance, no doubt.

And the devil-may-care, Steeple-scaling Chimney Sweep, Diving down from the power line, A quick beakful, and away!

An Outlaw, black Stetson, Gun slung low, swaggering boldly;

And the hipsters, The Nihilistic Poets, offering Commentary from the Wires: CAW! CAW! CAW!

Watching them eat, furtively, Just inside the window, What hope to redeem myself? I cooked too much breakfast.

Ah, but I did it on purpose: So I could feed the crows, Admire their black attire, And note: When they arrive, they are Black. And when they leave, Black Again.

disappearing crow

© 2004 barton cole

Janet Steadman, an internationally-known South Whidbey quilter, had been given my name, as a poet, by one of her quilting friends. Her organization periodically had a project in which the quilter would collaborate with a poet, so we worked together.

She was gracious enough to let me - a sewer from way back - participate in the design and execution of the quilt (thousands of embroidery seed stitches in the quilt top), but eschewed my invitation to have her join me in writing the attendant poem.

The quilt is entiitled Crow Disappearing, and the poem - telling the same story - is Disappearing Crow.

geometric crow motif by barton cole You may note our use of my geometric crow motif, seen here, and elsewhere around here, and pretty much all over...
He's my "rampant" crow mascot, you might say.

crow disappearing quilt image
they always told me nature doesn't work in straight lines, so where do I file "as the crow flies" - the uncredited crow, moments before disappearing, left behind the invention of geometry - as I left the straight line world, I hoped to leave anonymous advice: "one peony constitutes a bouquet" - you led me here with the gift of a mailed book; the only character I recognized was [karasu] - I remember your kerchief, a print of gingko leaves, one moment before they all plummeted - the waning straight line moments, one last regretful origami fold: bancha's gold foil cat - the voice of the crow followed as I left town, meandering, not sure where to go - I leave an accidental trail of metal artifacts, and glass and paper, like a European folktale - I believed my path was straight, but like bamboo, I am wind-bent and off the perilous path - a carpet of the summer's leaves and knee-high bamboo, and the rush of air from wingbeats - under a threatening sky, my chest heaves as I slowly wend uphill; the first raindrops fall like noise - my feet sink gently into moss; the waning light glows on beech trunks, silence after the cry of the crow - one final garment of native, fertile soil before, following you, I, too, disappear.

exile

© 1999 barton cole
Can't muster a pertinent comment on this one; I guess the poem will have to travel solo.

the needle in your arm quivers. the tear on my cheek betrays my bad news. your plea for termination has been denied again; your exile continues. every inch of the walls inside the husk that was you, covered with your own smudged graffiti. my mouth is dry from licking the dust off your fingers.

commentary from the wires

Back at the end of the previous millennium (sounds dramatic, but back in 1999, at any rate), Gordon Coale, an old-school but forward-thinking web designer here on South Whidbey Island, was running a live show, TestingTesting, streamed from his living room, every or every other Monday, out on the web. This is in the early days of streaming content, folks - very progressive out here on our remote (not remote enough for me) island.
He had a great house band: Steve Showell, Joanne Rouse, Derek Parrott, and occasional hosting accompaniment from the great Jim Freeman; Robbie Cribbs, genius sound engineer of Sound Trap Studios, was generally around for tech support in the early days.

It was kind of a Prairie Home Companion format, if you're familiar with Garrison Keillor and his variety venue on american public radio. Gordy had musical guests, of which there's a deep pool from which to choose here on the island. Perhaps they had run out of those, but however, they cast their net wider, and invited me to be the special guest on the show, as a spoken-word performer and poet.
This stroking made me purr; made my fur all nice and glossy. I was the first poet to appear as a guest; how pleased I was, that they sought me out.

I brought along a bunch of my own work, as well as a number of favorites. Even after the show had ceased, Gordy still had, for some time, a link to the sweet, serendipitous clip of the band backing my reading of Dylan Thomas's Fern Hill - the reading felt special, too; the spontaneous music provided a particular, fey thrill.

Mr. Showell, of the house band, has long been a member of my ad-hoc performance troupe, the Trickster Hero Orchestra, in which we do about the same thing - I develop the "container," and then, live, it's "key of B-flat, here's the tempo, ready - set - go - " - if even that much structure.

But among my many offerings (never know how much time to fill, unless they tell you, and never let yourself run long…), I had brought this little essay, "The News from South Whidbey," which was right along the lines of Garisson Keillor's "News from Lake Wobegon," on his show, and in keeping with the format of TestingTesting.

Just ordinary stuff, sort of - such as how a local lad had been accorded some estimable merit or other, and the mayor had proclaimed a nine-day week in his honor.
Little ironies; poking fun at our little selves in our little town on our (not so) little island.

It went over huge; looking at it now, the text isn't up to my whatever-standards, so I'm not including it - which would be merely of archival, and not literary interest.

But I was asked to be a regular on the show, which I did, faithfully, for a few years, until marriages and health crises and departures dissipated the thing, and the ensemble went separate ways.

Nice to write for a deadline; I'd done a fair bit of that, in which the old subconscious is busy-busy. I'd come home from working outdoors on Mondays and sit down and brain-dump the thing out on the keyboard, print it, have a shower and something to eat, and go read it on the show, like the old-time radio time-frame, but slower.

I hit my stride after a few - in my opinion, anyway - and after a few episodes of it being known as "The News from South Whidbey," I branched away from that. I had begun exploring things other than my little island - things more of my own observations and experiences, wherever I happened to be - and began calling it, "Commentary from the Wires," after a line from the poem above.

It's old stuff - I've written much more since then, and better stuff - but whatever. Enjoy it.

Note, too, that I was writing it for broadcast; a good exercise for writing for the ear.

commentary from the wires

commentary from the wires
broadcast 31 July 2000
© 2000 by barton cole - all rights reserved

I wrote this for audio broadcast.
For you out there slurping up the text, Geoduck = "goo-ee-duhk"

THE GENIUS WEIRDOS OF TACOMA

It's been a quiet couple of weeks on South Whidbey. . .
Now and then I find myself willing to admit that I'm a Tacoma boy of sorts. Around here, Tacoma is considered the Baltimore of the Wet Coast - Rodney Dangerfield would be right at home there. While Seattle gets credit for being hip and avant-garde (and a great place to get beat up and gassed by the cops), Tacoma sits in the back of the room with its hand up, unnoticed and certainly not taken very seriously. The home of one of the longest-operating pulp mills in the Pacific Northwest, Tacoma has the misfortune of rhyming with "aroma," hence, the common nickname (for those of you who don't have a pulp-mill context, they smell notoriously like burnt, rotten, horse-hoof glue).

So, although Tacoma is about as anti-hip as you can get, that very fact has enabled it to be culturally influential in an unspoiled way - imagine a village in Nepal where satellite dishes haven't yet arrived. Hip culture has passed Tacoma by without a backward glance.

And yet, some of Tacoma's children have emerged from that dull petri dish to write their hip visions large in the sky: Dale Chihuly, the well-known glass-blowing pirate, came from Tacoma. By now, many in the rest of the world are familiar with his unique creations: "chandeliers" that look like massive hallucinogenic sea urchins from space - I'm afraid I missed the documentary that featured his Cristo-like installation: blocks of ice in front of the Wailing Wall, lit with colored lights as they took days to melt.

Gary Larson, the reality-bending cartoonist of Far Side fame, is another brother from Tacoma.

Richard Brautigan, the last of the Beat poets; author of the classic Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar - and a Tacoman. [A sweet poem he wrote long before any but his friends had ever heard of him:
I would like to be a little tiger,
Asleep and purring
In the enchanted jungle
Of your brown hair.
]

Bing Crosby comes from Tacoma. When I was in high school there, a counter-culture merit badge was earned by smoking a joint next to the brass plaque that identifies his birthplace. For the purposes of my argument, we'll assume that Bing Crosby was hip. Another Tacoma boy (and, more properly, as I discovered one day when we bumped into each other in the plumbing aisle of the hardware store, a fellow Brown's Pointer) is our good friend Frazer Mann.

Now, consider the image that men of the Pacific Northwest had a hundred years ago: we could assume that the archetype was either busily cutting down the legendary old growth forests, or returning from the bitter Alaskan winter of the Klondike Gold Rush.
Nowadays, the archetype is a hilariously wealthy software developer plotting to take over the world.
But the avocation of Frazer Mann (not surprisingly, he being a denizen of South Whidbey), defies the archetype. Frazer is a geoduck rancher.

"Geoduck," I can hear you thinking, "isn't that some type of clam?" In a way, it is, yes, but to call a geoduck a clam is to say that a giant sequoia is just another tree. Imagine a chunk of fire hose emerging from a praying steelworker's hands and you'll have the gist of a geoduck. Tourists at Seattle's Pike Place market see them obscenely lurking in live tanks at the fishmonger's, and don't know whether to stare in fascination, or look away, blushing. Champions at the National Spelling Bee get back on the Greyhound bus in tears when confronted with the word - you could look it up.

You could consider eating this aquacultural oddity a Puget Sound rite of passage, and, if you're lucky, your geoduck will have been prepared by Frazer Mann.

Put Euell Gibbons in hip waders or a kayak, and that's Frazer. Around here, he's considered a legendary fisherman - when you live on an island, you're surrounded by seafood, and Frazer uses that to his advantage. He's the guy who pioneered trolling from a kayak, and once, a harbor seal climbed onto the aft end of his kayak and fell asleep. Frazer tried to get people on the beach to photograph the event, but if he hollered too loudly, the seal bared his teeth and growled, so we take Frazer's word for it.
Not long ago, I was at a backyard barbecue, and the featured menu item was geoduck, pounded into tender submission by a squad of guests under Frazer's tutelage. It's remarkable when a cornucopia of local delicacies features Dungeness crab as merely an appetizer.

When the tide's way out, Frazer will be down there, digging holes large enough to hide a VW bug - or a geoduck, for that matter.

And, like many fanatics, Frazer has joined forces with the mud-dwelling leviathan, doing everything he can to enable their previously-unknown plot to dominate the world - or at least, dominate the menu at a feast of local seafood delicacies. Working with a specialist at an international aquaculture company, Frazer procured a few hundred baby geoducks. I asked him how one goes about finding baby geoducks, and he explained, as you might expect, that mature and randy adults are encouraged to do what mature and randy adult geoducks do, and the resulting "spawn" is grown to a visible size on racks in circulating seawater.

I'd give you more of the fascinating details, but the kids might be listening in. So use your imagination.

And Frazer's got these quarter-sized kids, and he walks way out to the lapping waves on a secret, sandy beach, and he plants them in plastic-mesh-covered sections of drainpipe.

He's been out to check on them, and most seem to be doing well. It's a real investment in the future, and an act of faith, because these critters won't be big enough to dig for a minimum of six years, and they won't hit average size for about fifteen years, and the really big ones are fifty years or older. Geoducks can live to be well over a hundred - did you know that?

And when I came here tonight, I planned to tell you all about the subtle intricacies of geoduck ranching, but I found, to my surprise, that I'm fascinated by the thesis of genius weirdos from Tacoma. All those folks I mentioned earlier - each one altered the medium they worked in, and showed us a way out of our tired old paradigm.

So take heart, Tacoma. You may be the butt of local jokes, but if you're willing to be patient, your children will make the world a place where we can be surrounded by exhilarating art, notions, poetry, and geoducks.

Send the weirdest geniuses here to the island.

. . . and that's the news from South Whidbey, where at least two of the men are genius weirdos from Tacoma;
Some of the women are probably genius weirdos from Tacoma, too, but they're willing to be a bit more subtle than those two guys;
And a couple hundred of the children are Frazer's geoducks, and he's having a hard time keeping track of their names.

commentary from the wires

commentary from the wires
broadcast 20 may 2002
© 2002 - 2010 by barton cole - all rights reserved

CURIOUS ABOUT THE CATS

Many of the things I know I learned by being curious. Curiosity is great, if you've been exposed to the tools that will help you employ it - where do you go to get the answers to your questions?

And sometimes, you get answers when you weren't even asking questions. Life as teacher.

I've been fortunate - I've had lots of great teachers. And just last week, I had this huge, overwhelming epiphany, kind of like my own personal equivalent to a Unified Theory of Everything.

The provider of this epiphany? A cat.

I have been lucky.

Been around lots of genius cats.

One cat I lived with, for a number of years, constantly demonstrated a right way to live, like a Zen priest. We actually developed a set of precepts around this feline koan, the first of which was, "WALK IN LIKE YOU OWN THE PLACE." This was good advice for a guy like me, who might otherwise suffer from congenital timidity. There are times when I must come across as arrogant, but then, so did my cat. Perhaps I'm just trying to pass along his wisdom, the way any devoted disciple would.

So last week, I took a Douglas squirrel out of the mouth of a cat I hang around with at work. Maybe you know about my particular fondness for these little, cheeky squirrels, so you can imagine that it was particularly traumatizing when the squirrel died in my hands. I swore at that goddam cat, and then promptly remembered that he was just doing what we expect cats to do. We hired this guy to participate in rodent control - how was he to know that he was to confine himself to preying on the ones with naked tails?

And cats are funny that way. This particular cat likes to hang out with the women in the office. Monday through Friday, he spends most of the time absolutely sprawled on a soft, cushy chair. A typical lazy cat. But when he gets outside, he easily falls into ruthless hunter mode. Rabbits, squirrels, birds, and yes, mice and rats, nobody is safe when Sam is on the prowl.

Have you noticed this dichotomy with cats? The ability to be like two distinct animals in one: the docile lap cat, and the relentless predator. Those few paragraphs which preceded this one went through my mind as I held the limp squirrel.

And I realized something about the essential nature of cats: the ability to be absolutely present in their environment. When they're inside, they're focused on finding the warm couch by the fire, or the bed with the shafts of sunlight.

But when they're outside, they leave the creature comfort behind, and melt into their surroundings.

This is a simple demonstration of a correct way to live, isn't it? A Zen approach to being complete and mindful. If you find yourself in a situation, then BE in that situation.

Cats do not suffer from self-doubt. They are opportunists.

The only time you will see a cat engaged in what appears to be indecision, though, is that moment when they stand hesitantly at the open door. They've been meowing, perhaps scratching at the woodwork, so you throw the door wide and the cat, instead of rushing out, just stands there.

Cats are notorious for doing this, but, in accordance with my thesis of cats, they're doing this with full intention. For they are on the threshold which separates two distinct states of being, and they are forced to choose between them. At this moment, cats are truly in two places at once, and they can keep this exalted state up for a long time, much to the frustration of the cat's human companions, who must stand holding the door.

Would a cat door* eliminate the cat's ability to balance between these two states? No, I say, even with the use of a cat door, The cat door was invented by Sir Isaac Newton, for the benefit of his cats, and out of his concern that the door would be too heavy for the little kittens to push open, he immediately proceeded to invent the kitten door. the cat could still maintain his philosophical, tail-twitching indecision at the threshold, but his human companions wouldn't have the benefit of serving him, as monks attend to an inscrutable master, and thus learn a correct way of being -- through osmosis.

I have some friends who are by way of being animal authorities, and one of their informal activities is the rescue of stray cats.

They live way out in the woods on the south end of my island; they don't solicit homeless cats, but now and then, wandering cats emerge from the woods and find a welcome home. Over the last twenty years or so, my friends have opened their home to over four hundred cats (their roster is currently nineteen cats). The cats just find them, as if they follow hobo signs in the woods - is it any wonder, that, written with chalk on fence posts and barns, the hobo sign for "kind-hearted woman" is a cartoony rendition of a cat?

My friends maintain that cats aren't domesticated, but are actually wild animals which are easily tamed.

I do believe that my cat friends, who look so domestic when laying on the bed, are fully capable of looking after themselves out in the big world. The ability of cats to function as wild animals if forced by circumstances from the hearth is well-documented.

In fact, when in the wild, good old Felis domesticus (who is in need of a more accurate name: might I suggest Felis fuckingraddus?) can maintain a territory of up to two hundred acres! If a cat finds himself in these circumstances, they don't bury their feces as tidy city cats do, because they depend on it too heavily for territory establishment. If, then, this same once-domestic-but-now-wild cat returns to a home, they bury their feces in the usual way.

Another rhetorical lesson there from the cats. When living in close proximity with others of their kind, they politely dampen their announcements of themselves to a whisper - otherwise, the din of territorial cats would be too loud for any of them to tolerate. Why can't people do the same? By serving the interests of his community, the cat is still the same old self-centered cat we all know well. They're still looking out for themselves as before, but all the cats benefit. I think it's an expression of self-respect, an attitude which could easily be interpreted as arrogance. As Rudyard Kipling's Just-So cat put it, "I am the cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike, to me."

How, with this ample demonstration of enlightenment happening all around us, did we miss the point?

Take your average guy in a business suit, and throw him into a breakdown of social structure - expose him to anarchy. What good is the suit, and what good are the leather-soled shoes? How is this executive going to make it in the wild? Could he have a territory as large as a cat's?

Doubtful.

The suit is a metaphor for the sad, thin, abstract construct produced by our infra-thin cerebral cortex, an evolutionary late-comer, which gave us other abstractions such as morality, philosophy, and other tools of no use to a territorial cat. Take away those shoes, and where would your executive be able to walk? On a carpet, or warm sand, but that's about it.

People flock to see films about guys who've been yanked out of their comfortable context, so they can experience the vicarious thrill of watching to see how well they can cope. And cats do it every day.

The next time you're rueful about your responsibilities, think of the hard work that cats do, trying to demonstrate important stuff about how to live - and look how easy they make their work seem.

commentary from the wires

commentary from the wires
broadcast 31 march 2003
© 2003 by barton cole - all rights reserved
By now, I had dropped the "News from South Whidbey" format, and taking a leaf from my own book, was firnly in the realm of "commenting from the wires."

PROFESSOR BANCHA AGAIN

I had an unusual experience last night, and one worthy of recounting - I think we could call it an episode in the Continuing Adventures of Professor Bancha. You remember Professor Bancha, don't you? He's my capable and helpful super hero alter ego; yet, it was as demure and gentle "barton cole" that I innocently had two guests for dinner last night, unaware of the impending super-heroic events.

A friend has fallen in love, and she wanted to bring her delightful companion to meet her friends - I'm flattered that we were at the top of her list, as if we could somehow be ambassadors of her wonderfulness and show her in a sophisticated light (if one judges others by the company they keep). So she invited herself for dinner, but made her visit eagerly anticipated by promising to bring her fabulous chocolate dessert (and if you're out there listening, Tina, you could bring a flaming sack of dog poop and I'd still be excited to see you). We had Roasted Chicken a la Greque, Orzo with Artichoke Pesto, steamed asparagus, and the requisite accoutrements, crumbled reggiano and toasted pine nuts.

After dinner, and dessert, it was still light out, which is another of the nice things about spring, so we suited up to take a walk. My son Max flipped a coin to establish our direction, and we set off north into Langley and spring. Just down the street, a cherry tree, absolutely encrusted with blossoms, and around the corner and down a couple of blocks, the dead-end sixth street, down which we were sure to get a good look at the recent crop of lambs.

Everybody loves lambs - or any baby animals, for that manner. Last week, I visited an eighth-grade English class, and we did the impossible: wrote a Haiku by Committee, and here it is:

Fawn in the meadow,
Delicately steaming breath,
Dewdrops on lilacs.

To return to the narrative where we left off: not far inside the fence, a sheep and her lamb, no bigger than a cat. Black legs, short gray wool, and the smallest, cutest bleat you could barely hear. We spy-hopped on the fence to get a better look, and watched the ewe and her lamb walk down the hill and out of sight in the spring twilight.

We got to the end of the road, stood around, then turned and headed back. As we approached the barns on our return, I heard the plaintive bleat of a wee lamb, and down in the middle of the pasture, one of those little charcoal guys was on the wrong side of the fence, frantically trying to get to the rest of the flock. He saw us and scampered toward us, sure that we could provide aid. Baaa! I got to a section of fence that was once merely a gate, and if careful, I could climb over into the muddy yard and see what I could do. I slung my canteen over my shoulder and climbed over, saying, "I'll probably get arrested. . ." I squelched into the mucky yard, and the muck soon got deeper than it looked. I was wearing my nice shoes (not my Wellingtons, which I couldn't have known I'd need), but I didn't slow down as I headed toward the lamb, and it headed toward me. The muck was six inches deep, but I wasn't sinking too far into it (although I expected to, and prophetically intoned, "and he was never seen again...").

The muck looked more navigable closer to the barn, but what a surprise: suddenly it was over a foot deep, and for a moment there, I disappeared into mostly liquid sheep dip. The lamb was bleating, but I had no second thoughts, and kept right on going. We got to the end of the barn at the same time; I caught him, and put him through a gap in the fence. He happily scampered off to find his mother. I took another route back, not getting myself into muddy peril, and squished home. My wife made me undress on the porch as it started to rain, and I thought,

Once upon a time I was that lost lamb, and no one came to my aid.

Thank god for Professor Bancha. If it weren't for heroes like him, the world would be even more screwed up than it is.

Lately, when I encounter friends, I'm reluctant to ask how they are -- because when I ask, I genuinely want to know, I'm not just filling airtime.

Me:
(jovial as ever) How're you doing?
Them:
(pensively) Not so good.

I'm afraid to ask why -- maybe their cat is sick, maybe they took a beating in the stock market, or lost their job . . .

Me:
(sincerely) Hey, bub, what's the matter?
Them:
(practically crying) Oh, man! The world's screwed up!

Well, I've got news for you folks: the world's always been screwed up, and that shows no sign of changing -- it will always be screwed up. Even when there's no war in the Middle East, somebody, somewhere, is taking advantage of somebody else, and often, as in a Shakespeare tragedy, it means that someone will die. While I don't want to belittle the significance of current events, we can't spend all our time taking in the dispatches of the embedded correspondents. I talked with Gordy on the phone the other day, and I told him, "Hey! I'm embedded, too. I'm embedded with nature."

Have you shut off the TV and gone outside? Do you see the beauty that's going on out there?

The swamp lanterns are resurrected in yellow droves, and maybe it was six days later than usual, but the violet-green swallows have returned. The new willow leaves are nearly two inches long, now, and the big-leaf maple flowers have opened, issuing a challenge to the willows: you think you invented green? Huh? Look at these new flowers. Now that's green.

And I've got a reading assignment for you out there. Are you acquainted with Candide, the philosophical novel by the French satirist Voltaire? If you're not, it tells the story of a naïve young man (Candide), and his travels through a world that is seriously screwed up - a world not really indistinguishable from our world, or any world that preceded it. Brutal things happen to Candide's traveling companions, and the people he meets, and he responds naively to each grotesquerie: this is the best of all possible worlds. Dr. Pangloss, Candide's intellectual mentor, tries to shake him out of his naïve stupor, but Candide always responds in the same way: this is the best of all possible worlds. By the end of the book, you're siding with Pangloss, but Candide is vindicated - he marries Cunegonde, a charming, innocent girl, and announces that we must cultivate our gardens.

'Tis well said. Read the book and find the wisdom there.

commentary from the wires

commentary from the wires
broadcast 21 june 2003
© 2003 by barton cole - all rights reserved

THE SUMMER SOLSTICE

with Karin Blaine at Soundtrap Studios

Today is the summer solstice - the longest day of the year. I find the reason for that - the celestial mechanics - fascinating, but maybe you don't, so we won't go into it. But it's the longest day of the year, the first day of summer, and it's a day in the year that always makes me a little bit sad.

The Winter solstice gets me excited; I can hardly contain my giddiness - those of us that have somewhat of a Pagan alignment thrill in the knowledge that we've gotten to the bottom of the seasonal darkness well, and the days will lengthen. It's the beginning of winter on that day, but that just means that Spring is right around the corner. But the summer solstice - things work the other way. The days get shorter, the nights get longer, and it's all downhill until we arrive at that glorious moment of the winter solstice again.

I think I have a congenital fear of death. Everybody does, at first. As soon as you become self-aware, you have an interest in preserving that self, and those self-interests, and only by attaining some sort of wisdom, by an effort of the will of your self, can you ever get to a point at which you feel at peace with the notion that you will someday no longer exist.

Richard Kirsten Daiensai is a good friend - he's in his early eighties - he is, among other things, a visual artist, a faithful and charming correspondent (he sends me letters while he's traveling in Japan every year; the envelopes are works of art in themselves, festooned with his serene and whimsical block prints), and, most importantly, he's a Zen priest. A show of his recent works is hanging at a gallery in Seattle, and I'd made plans to go into town and see him, buy another piece of his art for our collection. For various reasons, we couldn't get into town on the Sunday we had chosen, which pissed me off. Then I said: "Wait a minute - if I'm attached to the notion of seeing him on a particular day, then I'm dishonoring who he is!" So I backed away from my anxiety, then called him and arranged another day.

We made it into town to see him last Sunday. Richard's an old guy, but the icon of a disciple of Zen: laughing and smiling, not letting a whisper of feebleness drown out his joy of the world which surrounds him. He wasn't able to make it to the opening of his own show, because he had a kidney stone, and they couldn't use the customary ultra-sound procedure to dissolve it, because he has a tremulous abdominal aneurysm. And then he passed it, he announced with a grin.

He told me he was headed to Japan in a few days, but only for a month. He also has a shaky heart valve, and the surgeon wants to operate right away. It's a simple procedure, he was told.

But Richard told us of a recent visitor to the gallery. The visitor's father needed a life-extending surgical procedure, but wanted to go to the little town in Montana where he was raised, relive some boyhood experiences. The surgeon dissuaded him; told him he'd have plenty of opportunities after the operation.

I'll bet you can guess: the old fellow did not survive the operation. And there is the Zen lesson in that:

Go to Montana. Don't wait. Go to Japan. Okay, stay for only a month, then come back and have the operation. But go.

Richard said he'd be back in a month, if he lasted that long, and while he was telling us this, he was laughing and smiling. That's what I want to do. I want to know that if I am in the last month of my life maybe, or maybe the last ten years, I'll laugh and smile and be at peace.

I think I'm getting pretty good at savoring beauty wherever I find it, but I'll know I'm a lot closer to the ideal when I can warmly embrace the summer solstice.

There. I think maybe it just happened.

I want to live my laugh as fully as I can, so I choose - I hope - to embrace my own death with laughter.

commentary from the wires

commentary from the wires
broadcast 13 april 2004
© 2004 by barton cole - all rights reserved

THE RESURRECTED GARDENER

Check your calendar, today is Monday the thirteenth.

I read somewhere that statistically, Monday the thirteenth is even unluckier than Friday the thirteenth. Railroad disasters, stock market crashes, whatnot. Fortunately, here on Whidbey Island, just off the coast of America, we're snugly ensconced in our vortex of immunity. Hope your day goes well.

Wow, have I been busy. The work I've been doing has all my muscles sore, even the muscles in my fingers. I was doing some typing last night, and it was hard, so I tried writing longhand, and that was even harder. I was worried that I wouldn't be able to compose today's dispatch for all of you out there who are eager to hear what's been going on, but I'm struggling through. I even spent some of my precious and waning dexterity on typing that last bit about having a hard time typing, and spent more on the sentence that preceded this one. I should just get on with it.

Among other things, my daughter has just moved to New York. She was managing a high-end shoe shop in Seattle, and was responsible for selecting their inventory, and doing a good job of that, too: while other businesses were showing nothing but losses, and the bookkeepers were ordering red pens by the case, Jasmine's ledgers showed nothing but black, and the percentages were increasing, too. Her contacts in the shoe trade urged her to go to New York, which, as is the case with many of the "artistic" industries (maybe you couldn't hear the quotation marks around the word "artistic," as I am using the term loosely, since I'm talking about shoes here - but referring to shoes in the greater context of fashion) - anyway, as is the case with many artistic industries, the nexus is New York city.

So Jasmine moved there, without a job, or a place to live, which triggered the paternal security alarms, but I kept my mouth shut. If we always take the safe route, we'd be like Emily Dickinson, and we'd be so shut in that our friends wouldn't even know what we looked like. Jasmine's been there just over a week and she has an apartment in Williamsburg (in Brooklyn, just across the bridge), with a lovely view of some graffiti. Has a job, I think, too.

She called my wife yesterday to check in, and she had a funny story.
Every time she calls, she has a funny story; she's living in New York!
Anyway, she met a friend of a friend (by way of a farm in Arlington, Washington) at the Starbucks in Times Square -
oh, is there more than one Starbucks in Times Square?
Okay, she met a friend at A Starbucks.

They're having their coffee, and a guy runs in, totally naked.
A woman screams.
The guy runs out.
Another woman observes that the screamer must have been a tourist, "because a New Yorker only screams if the guy's got a gun."
Okay, naked guy in the -- in A - Starbucks in Times Square. But here's the thing that got my attention: the guy ran in AGAIN.

On Easter.

The Resurrection theme seemed obvious to me, and I said so to a good friend.

"Because Jesus was naked, wasn't he? When he rolled the stone out of the way?"
"No," she said, "didn't he have a loincloth?"
"Bah!" I said. "Strictly King James!"
Did I offend any Christians?
I did?
Okay, I'll move on.
Let me tell you why my hands are so sore, since you're dying to know:
And I'll do it in my usual roundabout way, and damn the crampy fingers:

It may be no surprise to you that I was recently in a play, which is why I usually miss being here, when I miss it. The last show I was in was back in February; we were doing a Sunday matinee, and the weather outside was astonishingly gorgeous.
For any time of the year, but particularly for February.
Everyone that walked through the stage door would comment on it: "God! What a beautiful day! Wouldn't you rather be outside?"

We finally had to declare a moratorium on the gorgeous day comments, partly because backstage at theaters are windowless, and it was painful to contemplate the consequences of our choices that put us in this troglodytic environment. I had been cast - a couple of small parts - in a play (which opens this coming weekend). Rehearsals began two days after the show we were doing was scheduled to close. I had been thinking about dropping out of that play, which was a tough decision to make, since of the character types who are associated to theater (and those are, for your edification:

  1. People who have a gift for acting, and must share it;
  2. Shy people who need a safe way to be expressive; and
  3. People who need to be seen.)
I find myself mostly in the second crowd; with the timid ones - I'd like to be among those who have a gift, but mostly I'm shy, and theater is a safe outlet for expression (you know your lines, and where to stand, whatnot).

So I'd been thinking about dropping out, and that February sun outside, while I was putting on my makeup, was enough to make up my mind. The next day I called the director and quit. Because I knew that there would be a day in the Spring when I would rather be working in my yard, and I'd be stuck in the cave of the theater, and I'd start to cry, and no one could console me.

I quit on a Saturday, when the weather was fine, and I was outside putting in the last six of thirteen posts for a fenced garden. Brutally hard work, digging the holes, setting in the posts, filling with gravel, tamping it, digging away the sod... A gorgeous day, and since that play I quit opens this weekend, I knew they were over there having a rehearsal, and I wasn't there. God, that felt good!

As the posts went up, I mentioned to my son that it was looking rather like a monument, and he agreed; a monument to choices.

I was thinking about that, as I strung fence yesterday, on Easter - which matters not that much to one who is deliberately ignorant of the ecumenical ebb and flow.

I thought of my own resurrection, wearing holes in leather gloves to create a fecund monument to choices.

other works

I have a nice bit of other written stuff that's essentially uncollected or otherwise resists categorization. Some rewrites of Aesop's Fables, pointing up the irony, and a piece I wrote for a Poets Against the War gig, and a host of other items. We have vaults full of this stuff - well, boxes - a few... at any rate, some stuff, and we'll now march ahead with unpacking them, formatting them, and posting them.

Kafka's Conjecture

© 2006 by barton cole
spoiler alert: a satirical work

Consider the mathematical series, (1,2,3...).

What are the next two values in the series?

To someone like me, who got as far as trigonometry in high school, wading a bit in the shallows of calculus -- that was over thirty years ago -- it looks simple, yet I feel there is something tricky about it.

To the highly-trained and precise mind of someone like, say, an economist and mathematician, should be a no-brainer.

For me to return any answer, I have to make inferences. I suppose I could use Occam's Razor (a logical tool in which one suggests the simplest explanation, involving the employment of the fewest details), and say it must be the Series of Cardinal Numbers, and the next two values would be 4 and 5: (1,2,3,4,5...)
Did I guess right?

Or - I guess it could be the Series of Prime Numbers, in which each number is divisible only by one and itself, and the next two values would be 5 and 7: (1,2,3,5,7...).

Wait! It might be the Fibonacci Series, in which each number is the sum of the two numbers in the series which precede it - although the Fibonacci Series would begin with "zero," and another "one" - and the next two values would be 5 and 8: (1,2,3,5,8...).

Hm. For me to make any guess at all, I have to make inferences, assuming that I have no access to more information.

If we were playing a game for high stakes, and a lot was riding on my return of the correct answer, then I would employ a variety of means to determine which answer were more likely. What's the cultural background of the person who posed the challenge - does their level of education provide any clues about the correct answer?

Can I rely upon their honesty and integrity? Will they truthfully tell me if I have returned a correct answer?

This mathematical conundrum is attributed to Franz Kafka, the Czech writer who was born in Prague in 1883 (although Prague was then part of Austria, and Kafka lived among the German minority there), and died in a sanatorium outside Vienna in 1924. Known as a writer of tales chronicling bureaucratic dehumanization, Kafka was also an amateur mathematician and logician. Reading his works, one can experience the despair of his protagonists as they attempt to navigate the caprice of their totalitarian milieu, and it's no surprise that Kafka sought solace in the unchangeable nature of numbers and syllogisms. However, when one considers non-Euclidean geometry and Strange Attractors, as well as other arcane theories of chaos, it becomes clear that numbers are anything but unchangeable, and this is the essence of Kafka's Conjecture.

Kafka realized that numbers are patterns derived from a cultural context, and were originally used by architects and human-resource managers to calculate wages and the dimensions of temples. Being such, even divorced from their culture, numbers convey emotional information - although the basis of the Conjecture is that the information is subject to external and capricious circumstance.

In his original conjecture, which is believed to have been destroyed by Max Brod (Kafka's friend, who became, essentially, his literary executor upon Kafka's death by refusing to honor a commitment to burn all the manuscripts), Kafka posited that No Answer is Correct.

Any answer will be found to be faulty by whoever posed the problem, in their interest in asserting control.

Even if the answer is documented prior to the problem being posed, and revealed upon a supposition, the poser will be able to claim that they never wrote it - denial being a rhetorical tactic of those interested only in control.

In his mathematical explorations, as in his writing, Kafka's world is permeated with cynicism; he felt that we were all puppets, subject to the whims, vagaries, and mercy of those pulling the strings - or asking the questions.

War of the Wankers

© 2003 by barton cole

I wrote this for a local "Poets Against the War" reading; the movement was started by local-yet-notoriously-global poet-and-publisher, Sam Hamill, with whom I was also favored to appear once, with a number of other poets and spoken-word performers, reading from his collection, Poets Against the War.

I was born in 1963 - conflict (to use the understated euphemism for organized killing) had been happening for centuries before I got here, and was under way, again, as I was being weaned from beautiful mother's milk. Even in the sheltered northwest corner of "the most powerful country in the world," images of the current conflict found their way into our home, thanks to the benefit of television, and into my brain.

None of us should know war. Children in the Balkans know war, children in Africa know war, children all over Asia know war, and, although I don't want to make a case for isolationism, children in this relatively peaceful and well-protected pocket of the continent know war, but only in an abstract sense. They know war from images on television, in movies, and they know war as a glorious thing - they play the game of war with plastic action figures, but they know war not as a valorous thing, as officers in the Civil War thought of it, they know war as a game in which one must be more muscled, better armed, and more ruthless.

I grew up in a world where war was happening nightly on television, and even though I recall the images of soldiers wearing helmets festooned with foliage slogging waist-deep through a swamp, holding their rifles overhead, and I remember Walter Cronkite and the nightly Body Count, nobody was able to adequately explain to me why we were fighting in Viet Nam. This was a mere twenty years after the Big War, so I knew about that other axis, Hitler, world domination, all that, and that seemed to make sense. But I still don't understand why that thin strip of coastline and jungle was worth throwing young men away. I didn't understand then, and I'm not sure I understand now. And nobody could tell me.

And I'm a boy of five or so, 1969, well aware of the nightly conflict, and I'm in the bathtub, suds floating around - not meringue bergs like a bubble bath commercial, but an archipelago of suds. The bath had progressed to the stage in which the bathing part - the washing and scrubbing - had finished, and we'd moved onto the soaking and musing part. The real reason to take a bath, I think.

There, the wee, innocent kindergarten lad, soaking and musing, with vivid boy's imagination, using the imagery from the world around, and my little circumcised wanker, swaying back and forth, is now a helmeted soldier slogging through the swamp, holding the M-16 overhead as if in supplication. I can picture that little guy, the memory is fresh - and my wanker swamp dance has finally acquired meaning.

Now think about it. Guys, by physiological definition, are penetrators. This isn't just something that's awakened as a primary sex characteristic in the hormonal rush of puberty; you give a three-year-old a stick, and he'll find a hole to put it in.

Can't find a hole? He'll make one.

I've seen it happen, so have you.

Hey, guy! Somebody next door has something you want? What's to stop you from penetrating your way over there and taking it?

Next door - across the ridge, the river, the arbitrary boundary.

You want what they got? Go on! You're a Penetrator. Get over there. Take it.

Guys have been penetrating their way through history, and look at us: we're all here as proof. But it seems to me that some of the penetrating was not only unnecessary, but led to a lot of grief. Penetrating has been done in the name of a god, or because the neighbors looked different . . .

And the situation in the world today: I've been listening to the liberal news media (NPR); The only country willing to get behind the penetration scheme is England, and I'm not quite sure I get that. Don't they see what France, Germany, Belgium, Russia, and now China see?

I hear all about how the Penetrator who is now the Secretary of State calls the UN on the carpet because of their questionable relevance - as if to say, "If you don't get in line with our plan to penetrate Iraq, well, don't forget that we have veto power on the Security Council, too!" And this, from an articulate man, who is, or was, unfortunately, a Professional Penetrator.

But take a look at his boss. Try to wrap your mind around his motives: he's a dubious oil executive (let's see, does Iraq have anything that we could possibly want to penetrate them for?), and the former governor of the state that pretty much equates killing (by the state) with justice. His dad managed the "successful" penetration of Iraq . . . it's like something out of Shakespeare's wastebasket.

We've come up with some brilliant devices to do our penetrating at a distance. Note that the end of chivalry was brought about by the invention of firearms. Bullets rather phallic? What about nuclear missiles? Submarines? Penetration, is, alas, a euphemism we can do without. Christ, the slogans from the sixties: Make love, not war. Who came up with that? Was that Abbie Hoffman? Pretty enlightened thinking.

It's time we did something else with those wankers.

For how much longer should we let children learn that penetration is something worthy of an idle muse in the tub?

Mr. President - the world isn't with you. Give it up.

Mr. President: lay down your wanker.

the dream

© 2007 by barton cole

I did not have the courage to dream of you last night, but if I had, I hope I would at least have had the sophistication to dream of you with your clothes on, and not the adolescent concupiscence to exaggerate the swell of your breasts or give you some seductive leer with glossy lips and a perky tongue.
I would have dreamt of you sitting across from me in a wrought-iron balcony of some café in Amsterdam, your fresh cappuccino higher in elevation than any garden in the entire country. Your glance: electric, and lingering; not even the smooth-skinned Indonesian waitress could peel my eyes from yours.

In this dream, we would not yet have made love, but we would have talked of it, neither of us actually getting down to anatomical or clinical specifics, other than that I would have told you how very much I would like to lick the inside of your thighs (suggesting, of course, that I would sample around in the area, like dipping into the rijstaffel garnishes we’d had for lunch).
Your hotel, somehow, is across the city from mine, even though we arrived together, by car, from Belgium. To get to you, I have to cross five canals, and go several blocks along the Prinzengracht, past the shop that sells authentic Eames chairs, and along the plaza across from the museum.
I have crossed the canals, nearly all of them, and am suddenly accosted by an exhibition of miniatures in a bank building lobby, and there I am, looking at all these splendid paintings, many of them no larger than a business card, while outside, the ubiquitous vendors sell tulips from ubiquitous carts.
One canal to go – I have passed the museum, and the chairs, and there are the whores, kneeling and praying to their saints, all facing in the same direction, and I flatter myself, thinking they are facing me, as if I am somehow the keeper of all that is safe and sensual; their lips move, silently, and I’m nearly mesmerized.


The air fills with the sound of church bells, but they’re quiet and tinkly, like a cavalcade of nuthatches on the edge of a forest.
And your hotel is right across the canal – three stories high, like every other building, but with unique architectural details – gentle buttresses flaring out with slight, grandiose curves, contrasted with the stark rows of brick on the building next door.
Hotel Witsen – I look up at your window, and I can't remember which one it is.

From across the table, you remind me: “Two windows over from the corner, on the second floor – the one with the heron sitting on the window sill next to the geranium-filled planter?” I feel foolish for having forgotten; those are the only geraniums I have seen since I’ve been traveling with you, looking for you. I should have remembered.
I see you looking down at me – yes, there you are! Your hair isn’t brushed, as if tousled from having just been ravished – by me, I hope – and your dress, the one with the pretty pattern of roses (I like it because it reminds me of the wallpaper in a room at my grandmother’s house – when she would have me sit up in bed and punch the feather pillow on both sides at once, “Since it isn’t fluffy enough,” she would say) – the dress falls gently off one shoulder, like a tender caress.
From here, even though I’m still across the canal, I can see your demure smile. But I’m afraid that you’re not smiling because you see me, since I don’t think you can; the branches of the plane tree obscure me, the shadow falling across my face, again and again.

There I am at the door, and inside, now. A blast of warm air welcomed me, and I laugh – not only does it smell of cheese, it smells of Gouda, so I think of the omelet you’d said you’d make for me, after we woke, exhausted, from making love.
You sip your cappuccino, and pick up the long, empty, sugar packet, twisting it, then smoothing it out, drawing it between your fingers the same way you tug on the lock of hair that constantly falls over your eyes.

And I am in the hall outside your room. I hear voices – yours, and someone speaking Dutch (it nearly sounds like someone retching, but that’s just the way they talk – we’ve laughed about it, wondering if they could possibly generate poems of love in a country where it sounds like they’re constantly clearing their throats) – the Dutch voice is deep, and I realize that it’s me talking, telling you how much I like the dress with the rose pattern, and telling you why I like it, but then I have to explain that it’s really the way it fits your waist so perfectly, and flares out around your hips, and does your figure marvelous, and I wish I could tell you how much I would like to slowly pull the zipper down between your shoulder blades, and encircle your waist with one hand, then another, and caress your breasts —
But I don’t say it. I can hear myself telling you about the wallpaper, and I just want to open the door, just rush in there, and kick that fool for wasting the opportunity to say something charming and sentimental and erotic.
I’m convinced that women want to hear it, but the little boy inside, forever chastised by women who he was afraid had too much power over him and always would have, the poor fellow – knows that maybe women want to hear it, but they don’t want to hear it from me.

And the deep, Dutch voice stops, and says in English, “Are you expecting someone?”
“No,” I hear you say.
I knock on the door…

… and step toward it to answer it. My hand is on the knob, and I look back at you, and the corners of your mouth turn down, as if to say, it will never work: I have a husband at home in the states, and you have a wife there, and right now, she’s laying in bed next to you, her cold feet plastered against your calves, and it will never work.
I know you’re right, but I know – I can feel the electricity traveling up my arm from the knob, slowly, as if a goose wending back and forth out there on the canal – I know that if I answer the door, it will be good news, and I won’t care about any of that, and I can go about slipping your dress off your shoulder and pull you against me, and it will be alright.

You set the cup on the saucer, the tiny spoon clatters against the cup.

the beech wood

© 2007 by barton cole

The fifty-seat plane from Denmark landed in Hamburg during a conventional winter storm, but there were times, looking out the window at the city below, swaying and heeling, when I doubted we'd make it. The winds gusted over a hundred miles an hour - a typical North Sea storm headed for the Baltic, with no topography to slow it down or divert it.
An hour north by car, I arrived at my cousin's old farmhouse. It's one big, old building, and traditional (should be - it's three hundred years old): one half is the barn, and the other half is the dwelling. The barn has been converted to my cousin's woodshop, but the house is still mostly authentic, with some nice maple cabinetry and furniture added recently.
The storm raged on - quite routine for this time of year, I was told.
In Northern Germany, pigs are considered to be good luck, and show up in everyday conversation, referring to the weather. "Haben Sie Schwein mit den Wetter." Have pig-with-the-weather - meaning they hope the weather is mild and favorable.
Severe and nasty weather, however, is known as Schweinenwetter, or "pig-weather." After that storm blew out, a couple of days later, I asked my cousin if that was pig-weather. "Oh, no," he said, "you won't see pig-weather while you're here." God, I hope I never do.

I had been out the next day, jet-lag held at bay by a bottle of red wine, and seen the terrain. This is the area where the venerable Holstein cattle come from (although I didn't see any during my two-week visit - all in barns for the winter), and the fields, bordered by legally-protected hedgerows, produce huge crops of canola and hay in the summer. In the midst of the fields are massive, ancient oaks - also protected. One of them caught my attention, and I was glad it did - the storm continued, and the following day, that oak had exploded, been torn apart by the wind. I felt a thrill of awe, knowing that I had arrived on the last day of that five-hundred year old oak - and witnessed it.
Adjacent to some of the fields were beech forests, large and small (as noted on the signs: Grossbuchwald and Kleinbuchwald) - one was across the road from my cousin's house, set back behind a hayfield. My cousin had told me that among the beeches and birches were firs, indicating sandy soil, and that the sand was used, long ago, for making glass. When walking through the woods, one might still encounter old, broken pieces of it.

A few days later, after a visit to Lübeck, to Amsterdam, and to Denmark, I took a day to relax from traveling and went for a walk in that beech wood. Just down the road was a little lane leading into it, and along this I went.
It was a bit after lunch; the day was gloomy. Clouds all day, but no rain. January in Northern Europe. I shouldered my canteen and walked along the edge of the wood until the lane turned into it.

I stooped under the trees and stirred the leaf-litter, finding a few beech seeds. Much later, I realized what a trove that was, and how fortunate: squirrels abound in these woods, dining extensively on the easily-shelled and tasty beech seeds, each about as big as a date seed. How could it be that they missed these few, so easily found by a non-adept? In January, at that (I have two little beech trees growing from those smuggled seeds).
As soon as I entered the wood, I saw a herd of red deer. They don't move around in small, family groups like the white-tailed deer I am accustomed to, but in large herds - this one was fifty or more. And they're hefty, almost as big as elk.

One of them was most pronounced: an albino. I was still fifty yards off when they spotted me and moved down the muddy track into the woods.
I followed them for a while, catching glimpses through the trees when they got too far ahead, until their tracks led off the lane and down toward a lake. By this time, I couldn't see them at all, but their tracks were a trampled swath nearly ten feet wide, so if I were determined to follow them, it would have been easy.
I continued down the lane, which met back up with the road in another mile, covering about five miles in all.

One could see right through the woods - the stout, smooth gray trunks of the beeches towering high, with the ground completely covered by their raw sienna leaves. Here and there stood some white birches, or wrinkled bark of firs. Occasionally a maple, but mostly beeches. Very few shrubs. On the way back from encountering the road, I walked down to the lake.
While standing and writing all this down, I was startled by an interloper - a wild boar went walking by, confident and at ease. My cousin didn't believe this - he's lived there his entire life, and never has seen a wild boar - they're so discreet and introverted.
I suppose I had an advantage - I had been standing there for ten minutes, and was as still as a tree. The boar just didn't notice me.

It began to get dark - it was only three in the afternoon, but completely cloudy, and at this northern latitude in winter…
I realized that I didn't have any food with me, I had no flashlight, and was off the trail in unfamiliar woods, and it was getting dark. I shook my canteen - worse, I was running low on water. Miles to go before I sleep, indeed. I should head back to the farmhouse, and a dinner of soup, bread, and wine, and a story about the boar for my cousin.
I began to make my way up the hill toward the lane. Having become aware of my circumstances, I realized that I was hungry, it was darker than I thought, and I might have to ration my last swigs of water. I only had about four kilometers to go, but darkness would rapidly descend.

And then —

The sun, close to setting, dropped below the cloud cover and streamed into the woods. The beech trunks gleamed in the light, and the forest floor was light with a golden glow as the sun washed over the beech leaves. A rustle of wind.

All was quiet.

At that moment, I understood how stories came to life: Beowulf, King Arthur, and all the other European mythologies, right up to Mole and Water Rat in The Wind in the Willows. The stories were born in a beech glade just such as this, in the dead of winter when some were not to survive, and darkness descended, food was scarce…

And my own story would be born among those beeches, too. I hurried back to the house to begin writing it.

the park bench proposition

© 2009 by barton cole

This is a sample of the sort of odd scenario that can present itself in one of the most benign milieux... a pair of people sitting on a park bench. Take a look at Edward Albee's The Zoo Story, for example.

A guy and a gal are sitting on a park bench.
He has the urge to give her a smooch. Ordinary situation, for sure.
Being a thinking fellow, he ponders his prospects — is she willing and interested? What can the poor fellow do to assure he won't be slapped?
He presents this rational and logical proposition to her:

The Park Bench Proposition:

"Right now," he says, "I'd like to give you a smooch — either I can, impulsively as it would seem, kiss you. The alternative? I don't.
"So let's say the odds are fifty-fifty that I kiss you when I feel compelled to do so."
She's somewhat taken aback by his declaration, but not too much — after all, it is an ordinary enough situation: a guy and a gal sitting on a park bench.

"Now," he goes on, "Let's say that of the times I feel the urge to kiss you, and ask you if I can, you either say yes, or you say no. So let's assign the same probability: fifty percent of the times I ask you, you say yes.
"So that means that of the times I feel the urge to kiss you, half the time I do, and half of the times I ask you, you say yes, so that's seventy-five percent of the times I feel the urge. Are you following me?"

She nods, silently intrigued.

"Now, let's say I'm a bit of a cad — can't deny it, it's certainly likely; after all, look at the topics I choose when sitting on a park bench with a gal of whom I'm fond? — but let's say that of the times I ask you if I can kiss you and you say no; half of those times I kiss you anyway. You follow? So each iteration of the situation, each layer, adds its own probability to the sum."

"Yes," she replies. "I can see where you're going with this: it's at 87.5% right now, and if you keep iterating it, you end up with a virtual certainty — in short order, the odds will be upwards of 96%, so you might as well kiss me."

Being a gentleman, he does.

roger's girl


I rewrote this old short, originally generated on an old-school Smith Corona, for a local arts venue's "100 word story contest."
To my surprise, and perhaps that of others, I didn't win. Still hold the copyright, though, so it now appears on my site.
© 2013 by barton cole

Roger saw her when he was buying cat food, and fell in love.
He asked a married couple for advice on wooing her.
"Just tell her how you feel, Roger," they confidently told him.
He visited the store often, looking for her, and buying much more food than his cat could eat.
Finally, one day, he saw her there. He was nervous, but remembered the advice: "Just tell her how you feel."
He meandered until he finally saw her alone, and then, at last, accosted her.
"Excuse me," he said, "…but can I watch you take off all your clothes?"

other people's works

Now and then, I run across things I wish to god I had written myself. I reluctantly deploy such a superlative as "profound," but if the writing seems profound, and worthy of accompanying my own humble offerings, I'll include it. Here are some of those petite bon mot:

he runs in a race...

Natasha Nichols, a young woman I know, now aged twenty, wrote this when she was in the second grade - about age eight, I'd say? My son, who's quite fond of her, discovered this among some of her old things, and shared it with me. I have shared it with others, listened to them gasp, and then told them the age of the writer. I still can't write with such eloquent economy, at age fifty.
Although initially untitled, I applied one, just to give it a hook. A bit of a liberty, but helpful.

© 2013 Natasha Nichols

He runs in a race.
He kissed a girl.
She loves him.
She lights the flame.
She packed her bag.

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