Hanging On

Mid Summers Eve 2019, Sitka

 It is a fine sunny day today after a few wet weeks. One morning the fog was so thick I could not see the cruise ship coming towards the dock but I could hear it approaching, closer and closer and at what seemed to be the very last moment before grounding on our beach it emerged from the clouds as large as a floating ten story hotel, (which is essentially what it is) right there before my eyes like a magic trick… or a great brown bear charging from the brush. She docked and began disgorging her passengers who bussed into town to buy their Tee Shirts and books and take their photographs of the Russian Cathedral while standing in the street, and ask their goofy questions about what the elevation is here and if we take American money.  I didn’t want a deep-water dock right down town. But somehow I don’t mind one three houses down.  I can’t see the boats from my house or office and very few tourists wander down here to take pictures of the ship.  Some people hate tourists and I understand that, but having been both tourist here in Alaska and other places I have empathy for their disorientation and discombobulation when they disembark.  I’m a worrier by nature myself, and without my wife I have a hard time orienting a map.



Years ago I was walking through the historical park in Sitka in the fall and I met two young women who had come from their arctic village to go to Mount Edgecumbe High School.  This was their first trip so far south, one girl wore her traditional kuspuk and the other wore a beautiful new blouse and tight blue jeans and I must say a lot of perfume.  I asked them what they thought of Sitka.

            “Too many gusuks,” the perfume girl said, explaining, “white people,” and this I understood, then the other in the traditional gingham covering, said,  “And these trees… so big.. and they stink…” she waved her hand in front of her face. 

            This surprised me. Then I realized there were no trees of any size where she lived.  Certainly nothing like these old spruce and hemlock in the park.

            “And the dead ones,” she cupped her elbows in her hands, “The dead trees look like rotten meat… it’s horrible.”  She shivered. 

            I could clearly see the old rotted stump we were standing near disgusted her.  I considered that she was just teasing me or playing with me, making the most of my being a white man and so stupid.  But she looked honestly sick to her stomach and I gave here every chance to say “I jokes” but nothing came.  We talked more about Sitka and I tried to tell them about places they might enjoy: the gym, the library and the movie theater, the soccer field, and the grocery store where you could buy candy in bulk. I did not ask them about their village because I have found that new students to Edgecumbe get really sick of explaining to people about where they come from possibly too because they are often extremely homesick when they first arrive and talking about home to ignorant people who have never even heard of, and can’t pronounce the name of their home, makes them feel even more lonely and alone.  They seem more excited to talk about their own life’s new adventure.


It was probably thirty years ago that I met those girls but I think of them often.



This summer the buttercups have bloomed in and around the short greenery. Tiny yellow flowers appear almost instantly in the lawn after I cut the grass.  I find them cheerful and particularly happy little things, but a friend of mine grumbles and sees them as weeds that need to be eradicated. 

            “Jesus,” she said, “fucking buttercups.”

            The cherry tree outside my office window for the first time has born fruit.  Jan sat in a red chair with her binoculars and counted seven tiny cherries on the entire tree, amid all the other withered stocks.  A neighbor suggested that we cut the tree down and try again in another location. Forgetting or possibly not that this first effort for the tree has taken thirty-five years, a span of time we won’t be able to replicate. But this neighbor was ardent in their opinion, so hungry I suppose, for cherries.  

            It is a time for strong opinions. Last month at the writer’s symposium in Skagway there were tears and fist banging on the subject of cultural appropriation and who had the right to tell the story of history. There was a great deal of tension between those who felt powerful and those who felt powerless. While in fact, the distinctions seemed blurred to me and it felt that we were all very fortunate, and lucky in our circumstance, but perhaps that point of view was an artifact of my ignorance and lack of experience, just as my assumption that the tall trees around my home smelled “good,” or that we all… including the President of the United States, should know the difference between the truth and a lie, but perhaps all my assumptions about the world are naive. I feel naïve, and lonely often these days. Especially when I read the news.

The work of understanding this world is never done.

            I’m off to Seattle soon for psychiatric treatment. The doctors decided that electro convulsive therapy would be too dangerous for my vision and I finally offered that being blind would be too high a price to pay and way too depressing an outcome.  So I’m going to try and go forward with ketamine infusion therapy. I will try to write about it here if it is not too trippy or exhausting. 

            Until then I will be putting our house back in order after putting in new floors and remodeling the bathroom upstairs.  It was a huge job with great results.  (the forty year old carpet was truly disgusting) and the new bathroom has handrails, high toilet, and a shower that’s the envy of a high end spa. Where our old bathroom had a free bathtub from Raven Radio a toilet and sink we found on the side of the road.

            We will also spend the summer nurturing our buttercups, and our apple tree with three blossoms, and watching our seven cherries ripen: counting our luck, and cultivating what wisdom we can as we stay involved in the world. I will be writing a new book about my faithless detective Cecil Younger while, thinking of my readers, and those long ago girls, wondering where they are, hoping they are home somewhere, and happy.


Sunshine and north wind,

 seven cherries on the tree:

 Hello honey bee!




"I'M GOING TO MAKE IT THROUGH THIS YEAR IF IT KILLS ME" My trip to Washington DC to see the Mountain Goats and John Brown.

I am in Seattle now to see a consulting psychiatrist about new therapies for my depression. We will be talking about zapping my brain with electromagnetic impulses or taking doses of horse tranquilizer, while under his supervision down here. That.. or I will go back home and keep at my new regimen of diet, exercise, prayer and meditation, and see if that keeps me going. But that’s not what I want to write about today… really… though it colors everything I write about. (all my readers know that my melancholy joi du vivre is the mood of all my dance music)

Seattle is beautiful right now, the flowering trees are in full bloom, dogwood, and rhododendron, even lilac. In the early mornings before the planes start hectoring the sky the birds are in full song in my nephew’s neighborhood. Downtown is another story where the homeless gather under the bridges in their tents the sidewalks flow with piss and more and more mentally ill work their strategy to get money from passers by, while they brush their teeth in public water fountains and fight each other for their territories to beg. Every walk downtown presents dilemmas on whether or how much to give. No amount of personal generosity will solve the problem, of course, some systematic large scale communal decision needs to be made, to help us all.

Jan was in Washington D.C. for a meeting about her new grant to help Native Students learn to address paralytic shellfish poisoning in their villages. Her grant will teach them the science of this problem which is the number one threat to their ocean subsistence food. They will learn the testing the causes, how to do the tests, and how the western science dovetails into their traditional knowledge of the resource . She is partnering with the Sitka Tribe and the Sitka Sound Science Center, bringing more than a million bucks into the community, that has a structure already set up to use it effectively. I’m so proud of her and her partners.

I went back east to be with her and I spent a day going to art museums with her. Jan’s Parkinson’s disease has slowed her down some but her enthusiasm has not dimmed a bit. The key is not to try to do too much. We just do fewer things and take our time. Do things we enjoy and enjoy doing them slowly and together. This has been a learning process for both of us. All we did the first day was walk to the American Portrait Gallery… it’s free. We wanted to see the portrait of John Steinbeck, but dammit, it was in storage. Our dear friend Nancy Ricketts has a wonderful portrait of her father Ed Ricketts by the same artists who did Steinbeck portrait and we thought they might be interested in Ed’s portrait as a companion piece.

The portrait gallery was a surprise with how it effected me, I had a personal reaction in seeing many of the “people” hanging there. Here’s an example. In the hall of the presidents every president is represented there, and there is a smattering of people throughout. But when when we got to the striking portrait of Barack Obama there was a long line and many people stood in front of the painting and either took selfies or asked the next person in line to take their picture with the painting… as if they were getting their picture with the actual man. I thought it was an amazing testament not only to the President but to the Artist.

From the National Portrait Gallery

From the National Portrait Gallery

One floor down Michelle Obama’s Portrait was hung and hundreds of people visited there as well and as we stood there nearly every person who came said the same thing that both Jan and I thought. “It’s striking, but it doesn’t look like Michelle,” and each person said, either, “Michelle” or “her” as if they were talking about a member of their own family.

In a way these people were members of our family, our American family. Also I loved that this museum is free. That is the way it should be, there should not be a fee to go see your family. This is our heritage. This is where we come from like it or not. Here are some of the people I felt “kin” to:

Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, Florida Natural History Writer

Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, Florida Natural History Writer

E.O. Wilson, Biologist

E.O. Wilson, Biologist

Toni Morrison, novelist

Toni Morrison, novelist

We all gathered around and took pictures of our various friends and family members. I have many more. I took a photo of Walt Whitman, John Brown, Tecumsa, Rachel Carson, Merle Haggard, Ulysses S. Grant, and Beyonce. When I left I knew the troubles of America, genocide, and slavery, the unjust wars and I felt the challenges ahead, but also I felt the force of greatness and possibility too. That’s what I think Patriotism should be, the mix of responsibility and pride.

That night Jan and I went to see the Mountain Goats. This is our favorite band, and we have seen them all over the world. John Darnielle is the singer songwriter who writes all the songs and is the lead singer. He writes with wit and irony… or is it irony? His followers are devoted to the point of obsession. Jan and I like and admire him. He has written and very nice blurb for one of my books, he is a greatly admired novelist and I think he writes about disaffected youth much, much better than J.D. Salinger ever did, but his hard core fans can recognize his most obscure unreleased songs, only distributed on cassette or handed around by fans, from the first three notes of John’s guitar and sing every word right along with him. Men and women cry out “I love you!” frantically in cracked voices from the audiences of two or three thousand. And this for a relatively portly forty-ish year old man with a bowl haircut and, glasses who wears a sports coat on stage and sings in a reedy high register about Mexican wrestling, obscure science fiction tropes, and terrible, terrible break ups.

Imagine last Saturday in the 9:30 Club in Washington D.C. the Mountain Goats were celebrating the release of their new album release “In League With Dragons” and John tells a brief story of driving through Iowa and he thinks of a story of a couple “saying horrible things to each other” and cheers start building from the crowd of about twelve hundred. He says when confronted with what to call the song he decides “the best thing to hope for these people is that they don’t reproduce… and hence… NO CHILDREN” then the crowd erupts and every one begins singing in a seeming full throated kind of bliss:

“I hope that our few remaining friends

Give up on trying to save us

I hope we come up with a fail-safe plot

To piss off the dumb few that forgave us


I hope the fences we mended

Fall down beneath their own weight

And I hope we hang on past the last exit

I hope it’s already too late.


And I hope the junkyard a few blocks from here

Someday burns down

And I hope the rising black smoke carries me far away

And I never come back to this town….


Again… in my life

I hope I lie and tell everyone you were a good wife

I hope you die

I hope we both die.”

Now… I don’t chant at protests and I don’t really sing at concerts. I’m repressed and that’s not something I like about myself and maybe the horse tranquilizers will help me with this. But on Saturday night I watched the crowd. A young woman in a tank top.. maybe in her thirties. Ball cap on backwards, tattoos down her arms, eyes closed and singing her heart out, was raising her fists in the air when she comes to the “I HOPE YOU DIE, I HOPE WE BOTH DIE!’ part of the chorus, and I have to say… I get it. This is the love song that nobody else writes, this is undoubtedly the more common part of the love experience that John Darnielle gave voice to and there is a joyful aspect to just letting it out… but maybe it’s not really irony. See too his songs like “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” There are reasons to be a crazy fearful misanthropes sometimes… at least part of the time and if you can’t let that part of you out what do you do with it? It festers maybe and blossoms into a real monster? I don’t know…

Much like my visit to the portrait gallery the experience in our nation’s capitol was a mix. I’ll end with a short anecdote. The next day before our flight we went to the Phillips Gallery and we sat in front of a beautiful Renoir and just looked at it. I was talking to Jan about how impossible in must have seemed to try and paint “light” and to see the relationship between color and light. When a beautiful woman in her late seventies came up and looked closely at the painting, Then she turned to us and asked us to look at the young man with the goatee who was looking down at the young girl on the right side of the painting. She said, he looked just like her great nephew. Then she said the sister of that boy was with her the last time she was here at the Phillips: her great niece. The niece was 24 and off to Africa to work for a relief organization and two days after their museum visit she was killed in the Ethiopian plane crash. This older woman started to cry, I rubbed her back and we talked about her tadgedy. The girl had left a museum magnet of the painting on the woman’s refrigerator and today was the first day she had worked up the courage to come back and look at the painting. She said… “I just wanted to talk with you to make a connection… and somehow share my grief.” Her name was Clair and both Jan and I said that we were grateful that she did. We asked if she would care to have a cup of tea with us, and she declined because she was meeting a friend of her niece in a few minutes. But we both agreed that we were glad to have met and that the only answer to loneliness and grief was human connection in whatever dose you can find it. Then she left us with the great beauty and our bitter sweet memory of her grief and our chance meeting. Much like all of my experiences lately, there is a melancholy joi du vivre to be had… and savored with each heart beat.

Windows are open.

One dogwood flower blows in,

like a telegram.



This is not Clair’s boy nor her niece. I decided to protect her privacy in that.

This is not Clair’s boy nor her niece. I decided to protect her privacy in that.


It’s been a good spate of spring weather, cold but clear, and the sea has been remarkably calm, the herring are finally beginning to spawn on the outside coast long after the herring fleet has moved on, which is probably for the best. I cleaned up, fertilized, and watered our rhododendrons, and still only one is showing any blossoms. No hummingbirds are coming to the sugar water, and I’m struggling to find a steady pace writing the rough draft of my new Cecil manuscript..

I’m trying to come out of another low period, you’d think the sunny weather would help and though I like the sun my mood doesn’t always respond to the light alone. I walk and bicycle and watch my diet and that is helping but still the black clouds linger over my head like some old cartoon character who was popular in my parents day.

I gave a reading from Winter and Spring haiku books the other day, Norm Campbell showed his newest drawings and my buddies played some music as I read. I had a wonderful time and the audience seemed to enjoy the ten minute presentation. Then I read from my latest novel at smaller gathering and I chose a well written selection that was grim and it ran too long and when I got back to my seat all Jan said was “Too long… people got fidgety,” and of course that put me in a funk.

Writing is hard, it’s lonely too. I sit alone for most of the day now and I never really know what I’m doing, or rather, I never really know if what I’m writing is meaningful or clear to anyone else. But on the other hand writing the things that I do, in the way that I do is such a self-indulgent pursuit. I should really get out of my head and think of others more.

View from my office at seven thirty pm, this week.

View from my office at seven thirty pm, this week.

Jan’s book about Ed Ricketts is almost sold out everywhere and will not be published by Shorefast Editions anymore. They had published a her beautiful book before they decided to take on my Haiku books. I ran into this article I wrote for 49 Writers today and it made me happy.

John Straley: You Need All The Friends You Can Get

49 WritersDecember 17, 2015

Writers tend to be a whiney lot. At least I have been in my time, particularly when it comes to the subject of publishers: they don’t appreciate me, they are too big, they are too small, they don’t promote my book, it goes on and on and on…

The only time we truly love them is the first week after the acceptance letter arrives and then the complaining begins.

But the truth is without them we would be mostly obscure, untended weeds, growing wild on the internet. A good publisher takes us in, gives us a good trimming and dresses us up; they make us presentable and introduce us to the world. They also discover something inside of us, inside of our words that we might not have even known was there. They help us focus that quality and bring it to our readers. Of course after it’s done, we take all the credit, but the truth is, without them, without the editor or publisher who first championed our work, our words would have lain fallow in journals, or on blogs read by maybe a few dozen of our friends.

William Stafford once said that an editor is, “A friend who makes sure only our best work is shared with the world.” When I heard him say those words, I was a young man with a large collection of rejection letters and firm belief that there was a national conspiracy against my writing spearheaded by the editors in New York. I was stunned by Stafford’s sentiments that these people were my friends.

Now I am sixty-two and I have published many things, including nine books of my own. I’ve had experiences from disastrous to profitable on the financial side, and stultifying to illuminating on the educational side. But recently I had the chance to work with a small press which was, like the accommodations at the three Bears house, “Just Right” all around.

First let me start off by saying that the best publishers are “book people”, and the best publisher for your project is the kind of person who enthusiastically shares your vision. My wife had an idea for a book, and Shorefast Editions of Juneau turned out to be the perfect publisher, because they shared a simular vision and they knew the territory of the book.

Jan Straley is one of Alaska’s pre-eminent marine biologists studying whales in the north Pacific, but as a student she walked the beaches of Washington State and picked through the tidepools. This was how she discovered the book Between Pacific Tides by Ed Ricketts and Jack Calvin. This book became her treasure map, helping her to identify animals, not by scientific groupings, but by where they could be found on the beach.

Katrina Woolford Pearson, who runs Shorefast Editions, was born and raised in Juneau and has more than a 25 year history immersed in the world of books. She is a fourth generation Alaskan who is committed to publishing the literature of this place and she thrives on collaborative projects. She loves Steinbeck and the Ricketts/ Juneau/ Sitka connection. (Jack Calvin’s wife was from Juneau) You see? These are small details for a scientist and a publisher to share, impossible to predict but… it created a collaboration of seemingly unlike minds.

When Jan was just out of college she learned that the “Ricketts” on the credits for Between Pacific Tides was the famous “Doc” in the Steinbeck books: Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday and The Sea of Cortez. Later, in 1977, after she graduated from the University of Washington and was working as a wilderness ranger in the North Cascades of Washington State she was offered a job as a biologist in Sitka and she jumped at the chance. After all, Sitka was the northern-most range of all the intertidal animals in her favorite book. Sitka was the frontier. She was going there even though she had just married a 24-year-old poet who was making his living as a horseshoer.

Little did she know it then, but in 1932, Ricketts, Calvin, Calvin’s wife Sasha, and budding anthropologist and world literature student Joseph Campbell, made a trip in a small boat up the inside passage from Seattle to Sitka collecting and doing research for Between Pacific Tides. The expedition ended in Sitka where the Calvins made their home. The conversations on the boat were wide ranging, including discussions of literature and native culture (Sasha was Aleut, her father was the Russian Orthodox Bishop in Juneau). They discussed how human beings and human intellect were somehow not the key to understanding the complex interconnectedness of all the life that they were observing in their scientific collecting. These conversations had a profound influence on all of them, giving rise to Ricketts’s very early philosophical musings on what would later become ecological thinking.

Campbell, of course, would go on to write the seminal works The Hero With a Thousand Faces, The Masks of God, and The Power of Myth. The themes of his work depended on his ability to break through the previously impenetrable barriers set forth by the Ivory Tower thinking of the time. This conversation began on that trip up the coast in Calvin’s small boat, the Grampus, where they meditated on the tidepools during the day and discussed the poems of Robinson Jeffers at night.

After the trip, Ricketts wrote a scientific paper on the effects of wave impact on intertidal life on the beaches around Sitka, which he described as being similar to the beaches surrounding his home in Monterey. This paper was never published.

So, in 2015, this was all it was: an unpublished scientific paper by a legendary biologist with an interesting backstory and a vague Idea for a book.

Then there was a dinner at the Channel Club in Sitka with Jan and Katrina where they discussed some ideas. Jan had an idea of additional essays and Katrina had ideas for who might be included. Jan suggested Katrina meet Nancy Ricketts, Ed Ricketts’s daughter who still lives in Sitka. At that meeting, Nancy charmed Katrina. She not only had a sharp memory but an archivist’s collection of photographs from her past.

Nancy Ricketts was with her father when he read the galley proofs of Cannery Row. He groaned at the oversized caricature Steinbeck painted of him, but conceded that “it had been done out of love.” Nancy wanted to add to the historical picture of her father who she loved so much; she wanted to show the world that “Doc” Ricketts was also a good father. Jan and Katrina agreed.

So too did they want to correct some misconceptions about Ricketts as a writer; and for that they contacted Katie Rodger, his leading biographer and also some of the leading scientists of intertidal life to add perspective on the research Ricketts had done.

Colleen Mondor was asked to write the story of the Grampus trip and I wrote an essay on the charisma of place to give Jack Calvin his due respect in the story. But the point I’m trying to make is, this all came together because of a good idea that was shepherded along by an editor and then made real by a good publisher willing to take a risk.

The physical book then took shape with the help of an amazing designer chosen by the publisher and an artist likewise chosen, all working as part of a team that shares a common vision. None of this happened from the top down. None of this happened from a strictly dollars-and-cents mentality. This happened because a team of people loved the subject and loved books.

Ed Ricketts was an eccentric man of appetites, a Renaissance man. No one book could contain him. Ed Ricketts from Cannery Row to Sitka, Alaska is an eclectic book and most publishers would not touch it. It’s science, and art, and oral history, but that’s what makes it a labor of love and a book that is anchored to the love of the world in which it is set. It is a beautiful thing, like a tidepool, like the stars, like the mind of the eccentric genius who inspired it.

All of this came together for us on November 28th in Sitka when the publisher, editors, writers, book designer, and Nancy Ricketts launched the book into the world. This was the most wonderful kind of literary event because it was not the celebration of a single person but truly a celebration of a place and an idea. All was gratitude and mutual love, Katrina expressed it, Jan expressed it and all I could do was chime in and then I asked Nancy questions about her Pop, which delighted the more than a hundred people who jammed into Old Harbor Books, to observe the culmination of this project and to celebrate Nancy’s ninety-first birthday. It was a lovely night that belonged to everyone. The gathering truly was like a tidepool or a cluster of twinkling stars, not one brighter than the others. Which again, is the way I am sure, Ed Ricketts and Jack Calvin would have wanted it to have been.

Re-reading this made me happy because it reminded me that no good comes from being whiny, and good people who go through bad periods are usually still good people, no matter if things happen which hurt your feelings. Good books are still good books, and the community built around them still goes on. Jan worked hard on her book and Shorefast: Katrina Woolford and Collen Mondor made it into a beautiful thing. There is nothing to feel bad about in that.

I know Ed Ricketts would approve, of staying alive and continuing to reach out, continuing to make connections for this creative work, for the poetry for the business of Shorefast books, Nothing really ends, but everything changes form.

If you want to find Ed Ricketts: From Cannery Row to Sitka Alaska, you can find the last few copies at Old Harbor Books in Sitka. So too the haiku books of mine. They are beautifully made thanks to Sarah Asper Smith, Ben Huff, and Shorefast Editions. We will always be grateful to them as those books continue their journey out in the world.

No birds singing now

where the rhododendron bloom,

in the rich, cold soil.


Two Desert Poems

Sonny Liston Considers The Ways Of Vanity From Heaven


Anna’s hummingbird

on a barrel cactus thorn:

his chest thrust out as if

he is sucking up all the oxygen

in the Universe.


He takes off buzzing like

a fighter plane stooping

out of the sun, proud

as Cassius Clay pounding me down

February 25, 1964…

Was that his vanity making

him do all that,

taunting me as he gave me that whooping

calling me a “big ugly bear?”

My mother raised 21 children,

and Ali finally died of Parkinson’s disease

didn’t he?

That didn’t end in vanity

did it?


I wonder now if beautiful creatures

inadvertently take the way of vanity

as I did in my life

flirting with pretty girls

in Casinos

acting as if I’ve read some

some book or another when

I’d only glanced at

the back flap



diving off

from a tall cactus plant

to challenge some tough opponent

finding nothing but my own reflection

in that flat, hard glass

right before everything

went silent.

Palm Canyon, after the rains.

Palm Canyon, after the rains.

Write here…

In A World Gone Generous (For my sisters Mary and Pam)


the adults settle in while the children fuss,

or stare straight ahead until they wiggle

into their dream worlds

waiting for the first words.


And the first words have always been:

“Dearly Beloved”

spoken to the children and friends,

spoken  to the spirits

who wander the shade,

lest we forget

that this was once 

an inhospitable country.


A thousand years ago

on this spot

were stones as hot as skillets

and fresh water as rare as an arrowhead

scuffed up from the dirt.

Those first people,

the Chumash and the Cahuillas  (ka wee yas)

are walking past us now

still desolate with thirst

and struck dumb in disbelief

at just how much there is

right here

right now. 


In the shade too, are those who

once loomed large in our lives

and didn’t understand us then.

They stand just out of sight,

their sun dazzled eyes seeking ours

knowing there is no currency

to their apologies.  


Dearly Beloved

when you spread your mud cloth on the sand

those thirty years ago

you would have no way of knowing

this day was waiting for you,

with troubled marriages

troubled children

troubled times

to live through.


But now

in your seventieth years

you are victorious

in the love

as perfectly suited to this earth

as rain

or cactus flowers

or your grandchildren

fidgeting to play

with the ghosts of the Cahuillia

children passing through. 


Those who didn’t understand you then

have no power over you now.

No referendum, no

law can change the reality

they are no longer a part of,

this is why their inconstant forms

shift from foot to foot

silently both wanting

and not wanting to come in.

And though they are not forgiven

we can if we wish, 

welcome them to take their place

in a new world made generous 

by this blessed shade

by this blessed company

and by your well deserved

and honest love.




Two Marys And A Rant

Frost lasts all day on the grass.  The daylight is lengthening into the afternoon and the sunsets have been long scarlet smeasr across the horizon, brightening up the world at the last seconds of the day.  Frost on the side of the road and yet I’ve been riding my bicycle into town.

 Today I got word that Mary Randlett an old family friend and artistic inspiration died at ninety four and so too, the poet Mary Oliver.  Mary Randlett was a northwest photographer who lived next door to my childhood home and I’ve written about her and her kids before.  She has many books and can be found in most northwest libraries.  If you see black and white landscape photographs that capture wet beach sand patterns, or rhythmic patterns of clouds shredding through dark forests, whether knowingly or not the photographer was drawing inspiration from Mary Randlett. 

 Mary Oliver of course was known as a spiritual poet who used nature as her muse.  More than almost any other modern poet her words were treasured by readers, kept on walls, above desks or next to beds as needed medicine when spirits sagged.  I only met her once for a week long symposium here in Sitka.  She struck me as a flinty New Englander, wearing her old sweatshirt and camp shoes with that certain flair, sweatshirt over a pressed cotton shirt.  She still smoked unfiltered cigarettes back then and she didn’t suffer fools.  She loved her, and her female partner’s privacy, and didn’t really want to be any movement’s poster child.  Or at least that’s the way it seemed to me.  I’m not claiming to know her well. 

The view from my desk. Four o’clock pm.

The view from my desk. Four o’clock pm.

 I think these two Marys had something in common.   They grew up at a time when women were expected to be ladylike and they weren’t particularly suited to it.  They were more comfortable out in the brush, with muddy dogs, flopping out ahead and a notebook or a camera in hand.  They didn’t mind getting dirty and were happy eating whatever was in the refrigerator when they got home and getting down to work.  They loved the “warm animal of their bodies” and other people’s opinions about art or religion could rile them or infuriate them, but opinions about their manners or appearance or their “lifestyle” I don’t think they gave a fig about.  I knew Mary Randlett in the very early sixties remember.  I was young, but even then when she would take me sailing and strip down to her underwear and halter top in the tiny boat and scream “come about sailor” as canvas would fly and rattle… even at seven years old, I knew she was a different kind of adult. 

 If you are interested you can find Mary Oliver’s New York Times eulogy



 Which… I think most of her readers will find condescending if not down right snotty.  Okay… that’s not fair… I found it condescending and snotty.  They described Mary Oliver’s work as having “a pedagogical if not homilectic quality… and because of its brevity found its way to having a broad audience… frequently being quoted by clergy.”  Then the writer refers to Bookscan numbers, indicting Oliver for the crime of selling a lot of books (along with Billy Collins)

 By the way, I am not opposed to difficult, or obscure words, in either reviews or poetry but not when the difficult or obscure word is not the appropriate word to use. I don’t think anyone who was approaching Mary Oliver’s work with an open mind would describe her work as “pedagogical or homilectic” unless they were just plainly trying to act superior.  Oliver loved to be direct and yes she came from a Christian background and she was making parallels between her experiences out in the woods with certain sacred or illuminating experiences that are referenced in homilies (the root of the word homilectic as I found when I looked it up.)  But using the twenty dollar word particularly at a time when her readers are grieving and going to her obituary is insulting to the spirit of Oliver’s work. 

 And yes… okay I’m ranting now… Oliver did want to teach us something about the world, (“pedagogical”) and yes… it had a religious theme.  But she did it so gently and generously.  She knew who she was writing for, she wasn’t some flower-child celebrity, she wasn’t Jewel, for Christ sake, she had great skill and she communicated her passion for the world she saw and loved clearly.  She gave her lessons generously, and you could take them or leave them and lots of people took them.  She could have hidden behind her vocabulary and her technique but she didn’t and I think she was brave in that, AND I hate to see the New York Times take one last fucking piss on her (and more importantly on her readers) in her obituary.

 Also… I like Jewel. I just think Mary Oliver was a way better poet, (Jewel a way better singer and guitar player) and I will stand on any Bar in Alaska and make that argument to all comers.

 Okay…  That’s it.  I will probably regret that… but…I’m an Alaskan and I spend too much time alone. 

 I have not seen Mary Randletts obit.  But I expect it will be more celebratory and more kind.  At least I hope so. 

I hope you all are well. 


Cherry tree, winter

with frost covering the ground.

Our hearts are fragile.




After a storm blew through the sky cleared and the temperature warmed up.  The wind shredded what few leaves had remained on the trees. The storm also tipped quite a few garbage cans along the road so the ravens and crows had quite a holiday, as the wind created a carnival theme with the plastic bags and soggy coffee filters in the trees or flattened half filled bread bags out on the pavement.  Most of the bears have snuggled down in their dens up high but if it warms up enough they might stumble down all drowsy to feed on the orange peels and apple cores along the roadside.

 Jan went out in her skiff yesterday when the wind was blowing from the east to put out a recording buoy in the lee of the island to record the songs of the male whales still hanging out in the Sound.  It’s possible the feed has been so thin this summer that more whales might want to stay in Alaskan waters rather than spend the energy to swim to the Hawaiian breeding grounds where there is very little or no feed.   But the urge to go to warm weather is strong and whether wise or not they will often go.  This may be why the calf rate is down and the whales are dangerously thin in the spring. 

 All the while we charge ahead toward the Solstice.  Soon enough the earth will tip the other way and we will gather more of the sun’s light here in the Northern Hemisphere a few minutes each day.  I look out at the cherry tree and I can imagine it aching for warmth, for the sap to begin to flow and the increase of sunlight to begin the regeneration of leaves. 

Cherry tree out my window at four thirty pm.

Cherry tree out my window at four thirty pm.

 But of course I’m projecting. I forget that there are places where people revel in winter’s arrival. Where white snow against the blue sky is a joyful time of year. The time of sledding and skiing, fires in the stove and cooking meat in the pot, bread dough rising.  Hunters returning with their sleds: mechanized or pulled by animals.  For these people the early days of Spring or “Mud Season” is a somber, depressing time of year, when the crusty snow melts down into muddy ruts and the trails bog down and for several weeks it’s not good for travel by any mode of transportation, and then the bugs hatch.

 But summer will come with travel on the river and the fish charging up the current.

 My doctor tells me that I have done pretty well this year with health kick 2018.  The various medications I take are doing their jobs.  My numbers are good, weight and blood pressure are okay, but I may have to travel out of state for mental health treatment.  Something called “trans-cranial electromagnetic stimulation,” which is what they do nowadays instead of electroshock therapy for difficult to treat depression.  Apparently, I am a little like this cherry tree in winter, I appear to be losing my life force…I yearn for it but I have none in reserve. 

 This is different than having nothing to live for.  I have a lot to live for: Jan and Finn, my work, and all the beauty in the world, the books I haven’t read yet, the music I have not heard.  I want to live.  But there is a melancholy that inhabits me as if I have been left out in the cold somehow which robs me, sometimes… during my low periods …to have hope in the return of Spring.  My medication keeps me alive and awake, but nothing more.

 Millions of people suffer from this same thing and millions of people treat it in various ways: diet and exercise, meditation, philosophy, religion, healthy patterns of social interaction, unhealthy patterns of interaction, service to community.  I have tried all of these things and find them all useful but the older I become I find the power of the Cold and Darkness as I’m calling it here, to be coming stronger every day.

 I often think about narcissism and the role that plays in the disease. Like alcoholism, depression may be caused by a neurological programming problem in the sense of self… or the ego.  I have gone to Church and pursued “giving my self to a higher power”.  I have found that living for others, and giving gifts is quite useful in breaking out of the crushing lows.  Meditation and exercise that drives the ego out of the focus of the mind clearly helps.  Gift giving that expects nothing in response, is quite useful as long as it doesn’t resort to the manic. The poet Theodore Roethke used to mail a gross of golf balls to the Pope and to President Kennedy when he was in a manic high. 

 Lucky for me I am not bi-polar.  I just have the lows. “Intractable, treatment resistant, unipolar depression” is what my psychiatrist calls it.  “Just pull up your fucking socks!”  is how my Father described it.

 And before we start in on my poor father.  He was a good man.  He was an alcoholic but he did that to self medicate for his own depression.  He was hospitalized when he woke up in his early forties and he couldn’t stop crying.  When he came home I remember he sat in front of the windows of our house with a drink in his hand for hours at a time and just stared out at the garden. 

 But he was never violent.  He said some terrible things, but he loved us and was very clever and funny almost always. My mom drank too much and was maudlin when she did, but she had a genius level IQ and read two or three books a week.  I think my dad was intimidated by her intelligence and he loved her dearly until the day he died.  Beside some verbal cruelty I never suffered any real abuse. I was lucky and had a mostly productive life with a wonderful education. We were rich in our little world, but my father suffered from genuinely debilitating depression.  I believe my grandfather did too, and my great grandfather committed suicide. I know much less of the stories of the women in my family, who bore their burdens in silence as so many did. So, how much of my depression did I inherit and how much is situational: Jan’s illness, my losing my eyesight, the loss of friends and normal foolishness of life?  I don’t know.  Other people suffer much more than I do. Hundreds of millions of others…  but the fact that I don’t live in Yemen or am not a twelve year old boy soldier during the Civil war at Shilo,  doesn’t really help me when I’m standing on a bridge in Juneau on a cold and windy night thinking how much better it would be to kill myself away from home so Jan wouldn’t have to deal with the body.

 But I won’t kill myself.  It is murder.  Even if it weren’t me, I would never kill Jan’s husband, or Finn’s father.  I wouldn’t kill Nels’s, or Terrence’s friend.  I wouldn’t even kill Katrina’s former friend, the man she won’t speak with anymore.  I wouldn’t do that to them, because it’s selfish beyond words, and even if I am a narcissistic prick, I’m not a murderer.

 But I am a writer, and I find explaining things to be a comfort.  I had a friend who went to hear the Irish writer Ken Bruen read in New York once and someone asked him, “Your books are pretty depressing, why is that?” and Ken Bruen said, “You think I’m depressing, you should read this guy from Alaska, John Straley, Jesus, talk about depressing!” 

 So… everyone has a voice I suppose, I thought I’d come clean about it a little today, besides I don’t think my books are THAT depressing. 


In this grey world 

        the frozen cherry tree

 dares not bend.





Oahu Hawaii, Waikiki Beach

 Seventy-seven degrees in the direct sun with perhaps a five knot north wind blowing from the South here, the direction is uncertain in the canyon lands of the giant hotels. 

 We are staying in an old Japanese hotel where we have stayed before, it is two stories and about sixty rooms surrounding a swimming pool, on Beachwalk drive.  It caters to Japanese tourists, the rooms are simple and clean.  One building has traditional Japanese style rooms with rattan mats only and no shoes,  staff waters the rock garden from wooden buckets and wooden ladles.  The office has no walls and is open twenty-four hours where you leave your metal key with the kind woman whenever you leave.  The motel cat has a long leash and lounges by the pool.  Beyond the hotel, the whoosh of traffic mingles with the sound of the ocean.  Birdsong blends with backup horns and sirens, it is not silent but it is serene in this little oasis.  Each room has tropical flowers in bloom by the door, patrons sun themselves in the day, and in the evening bring their ice buckets with a cooling bottle of wine to enjoy as the night sounds of speeding motorcycles rise with the moon.  Last night we drank a wonderful bottle of sake I had never tried before which was recommended to us in the little café tucked behind the pool.  The wine list suggested that it was recommended, “for drinking over a long period of time,” and we found that to be true.

 Jan is here for a meeting of North Pacific researchers to discuss the declining numbers of Humpback Whales in the Alaska-Hawaii stock.  These are the whales that feed in Alaska and breed in Hawaii.  If you see a whale in Alaskan waters there is a ninety-five percent chance that whale is part of that genetic stock.  Scientists believe that mothers teach their offspring where to go to feed and breed.  In the last five years or so Jan and her colleagues who keep track of these things noticed they were seeing far fewer moms and calves coming back in the spring.  They also noticed lots more really skinny whales.  Then they started noticing whales who seemed both skinny and seemed to be carrying more parasites, then old friends they had seen year after year stopped showing up in Alaska, then lower numbers.  How much lower?  That’s what this meeting is about.  What is going on?  Getting a picture of a population is like a bunch of blind men getting a good description of an elephant… or a whale for that matter.  It’s a big picture.  Our home town seemingly has a lot of whales… but we also have a lot of herring.  Other places that used to have a lot of whales, have no whales.  Whales are gathering where there is food.  Of course.  They have always done that.  Is this another crisis caused by global warming?  The blob of warm water, ocean acidification?  Advocates of their own political cause want to shout out “Of course… Yes, Yes,” but really it’s hard to say and it needs to be studied carefully because to shout out one certain cause and have it proved wrong does a disservice to the whole process of science in this day and age of skepticism.  Particularly in this time when everybody wants to wrap science into our make believe political rhetoric so that science will serve the purpose of the energy extractors exclusively. If there is one thing I’ve noticed as a plus one in the scientific world, it is that good science is deliberate and slow and it only serves itself.

 I am thankful that there are good field biologists out there who monitor changes in the world, who can sound the alarm to convene meetings such as these to make sure that attention can be paid while there is still time to act.

 This trip we packed for Anchorage where I taught a class and gave a reading at a new place called the Writers Block which was a welcoming space in Anchorage.  I taught a class through 49 writers on working on a book length project and getting it positioned for publication.  I tried to stay away from the usual clichés but the hardest part of writing a book is actually sitting down and writing it. There is just no getting away from that, and the only way of making it any good is in the revision.  The only secrete to publishing is in creating something that other people want to read.  It sounds straightforward but nothing in that is easy. The mind lays traps for the writer all the time.  Reading and understanding how books work is a great gift, but not if it cows you into submission.  If you are afraid of sounding like some other writer then you can barely begin using sentences at all.  Writing what you know, of course is great advice but not if you are petrified that someone is going to recognize them selves in your book.  Writing an important history is worthy goal but not if you are paralyzed by the inability to make every single detail exactly accurate.  History like science relies on peer review.  How can I say this?  A lot of getting a first draft done is learning how to let go and explore your research and what you already know.  Revision is about relaxing and making it better and better every day.

 The next stop was northern California where the fires were burning until the rains started the day before Thanksgiving.  We stayed with good friends for two nights then went to our son’s future in- laws for Thanksgiving dinner in the hills above Monterrey.  It is beautiful country and when the rain fell it felt like the whole state breathed a sigh of relief. Where we were the air was amazingly fragrant: rain on dry sage, and lavender.  Songbirds I could not identify.  Finn is going to marry a beautiful and smart woman from a very emotionally available family.  They were so kind and generous to us.  I come from a family of mostly alcoholic smart alecks who thought we were each one funnier than the next, I couldn’t believe how kind and sincere her family was to us.  I didn’t make a single crass joke all weekend.  The food her parents made was spectacular and the love vibe was sincere and not at all too sweet.  Jan and I were so happy that our cheeks hurt when we left. 

 Now Hawaii.  We stopped at the Goodwill surplus store and all four of us bought all new beach wear and swim suits for seventeen bucks total.  Then to the hotel.  Jan has talked about living in Hawaii, but we have become too Alaskan I think.  My vision is too bad for the traffic and I love the local culture there but I’m afraid we are too old to assimilate at this point, also there are just too many cars. The heat does not agree with Jan’s Parkinson’s disease, and the real estate prices can’t compete with what we have in Sitka. But still, in the morning when the birds are coming awake and the swell is smooth, I would love to get to the break as the sun rises and surf some sets before the day goes crazy.  I would be happy to swim in those inland rivers and listen to those raucous birds and feel that warm sun bake into my bones, then to cool off one more time at sunset as life calms down before supper.  I would love to get into the rhythm of this place just one more time before I die. 

 Waikiki morning:

the early cardinal singing

before tourists rise.






Home and the rain has been falling hard off and on for days, with some sucker holes of blue sky sweeping through.  There are a few leaves on the cherry tree and there is only one red plastic chair out on the point but it blew over days ago.  I’m still using the outdoor shower in the morning and it is wonderful standing in the widening cone of warm water surrounded by the sky of rain falling through the grey-green world.

I have been home reading crime novels I picked up on my travels.  I have loved learning about the dark world of crime in southern Italy in Black Souls, and the wonderfully comic and mysterious world of Laos in Don’t Eat Me.  I also bought an unabridged Leaves of Grass which was illustrated by Rockwell Kent which is lovely.  Now I’m reading Commonwealth by Ann Patchett for a book club that I’ve been invited to in California at Thanksgiving, the Patchett is a nice change of place after Black Souls and I have to admit for the first few pages of her novel I was waiting for a vendetta beheading… that never came.  So I just relaxed into a brilliant and civilized story. 


 During the days looking out on the water I’ve been thinking about how much I love Rockwell Kent’s art, particularly his illustrations he supplies to literature.  He always seems to raise up the text and never just makes a cartoon of it.  Kent was an artist who came to Alaska in 1918 and seemed to be infected by wilderness.  Like Melville he had a very light hand on the thread of wonder.  He never tried to truss up the subject of “wilderness” and and throw it in his luggage to take home.  He knew the thread would break.  Kent became famous for among, other things the art work he supplied for several portfolio editions of Moby Dick , also his book put together from his diary of his year living on Fox Island at the mouth of Resurrection Bay with his young son.  The book was entitled Wilderness and he also put together a classic Christmas story of their only Christmas together there on the island. That book is almost as resonant as A Child’s Christmas in Wales for most Alaskans.  It’s a beautiful book that truly evokes life living rough in maritime Alaska.

 Kent is sometimes compared to Whitman and Melville for their experience of a kind of spiritual and sensual ecstasy while confronting the wild forces of nature.  I read an essay once by Robert Bly talking about the two poles of American poetry being represented by Walt Whitman’s vigor and Emily Dickinson’s reticence, something between the ecstatic “Yawp” of Whitman and the “gnomic scholarship” of Dickinson, as Emily Dickinson signed all her personal letters in later years as “Your Gnome,” or “Your Scholar.”

 There is a world of sensuality that lies between these two poles. In his own work, Kent threw himself into the storm.  He lavished himself in the wild and the sensual, like Melville, like Whitman, but when he applied his work to these other artists work, he did not illustrate, he simply alluded to their own passions for to illustrate would have been too much. Think of Whitman’s Song of Myself where he reaches near ecstasy as he celebrates the human body, or Melville where he describes the whalemen flensing then bucketing the spermaceti from melon of the great Sperm Whale. These are sensual declarations.  Then take a look on the end papers of Rockwell Kent’s edition of Wilderness. See the figure of the naked man flying above the sea as the compass rose, and notice his shadow emerging from the shore.  He most likely drew this image a hundred years ago as men died by the thousands in muddy trenches in France. Here was the dawning of the age that gave birth to existentialism and the death of hope… but to Rockwell Kent here it was, the man in ecstasy, to add any more would have run afoul of the law, surely in 1922 when the book was published. The free man, in perfect living ecstasy.

 American art has always had a tug of war going between the head and the heart; between the mind and the body. Which one directs us, and where does the compass swing true?  I suppose this is what keeps the artist busy.

 As winter comes, I have chores ahead.  I will need to do my editor’s revisions on What Is Time To A Pig. I have been waiting for those, and I am beginning to write the next Cecil book.  I have been thinking a lot about how to balance out my head and my heart.

 I remember sitting on a bed in a hotel once talking to a friend during a writers conference,  I remember saying that writing well should be both as easy and as hard as maintaining a close friendship.  There needs to be a rock steady commitment to the principle of the friendship and at the same time there needs to be restraint… a freedom for the friends to grow and change. In writing it is a commitment to the story and a light touch to let the story change and grow.

 In America… some stories break your heart.  Colonialism.  Slavery. Industrial Capitalism,  Numbing materialism,  Some of these plot twists have no good outcomes.  Some stories just break your heart and cause us to go back, and back and back to old ones that overwork old tropes so that old friends start to disappoint.  Some old stories are just too sad.  And some new stories are built on things yet unfounded in these tentative times.

This is why we must keep looking for the new and the hopeful… or stop trying.  This is why courage remains the most important tool in a writer’s kit.  Courage to look unflinchingly.  Melville clearly had it to write his masterpiece that went unappreciated his entire life: a long complex story where the allegory goes unexplained.  No one ever explains what the White Whale really represents.  That’s what makes that book so perfect.  It is something that is emotionally so true, and intellectually so illusive.  Rockwell Kent had courage as well not to give in to the plain or the literal.  Figures floated above the landscape like magic, just as I imagine his heart must have felt.

 As the rain continues to fall, I keep making notes. I miss my old friends, but I can’t ask too much of them.  The rain continues to fall and I look for the new under the old slick leaves and in the new books that pile up on my bedside, and the old books that I can always read more carefully.

 Love, and friendship… must replenish the spirit.  But so too…I must have faith that in the dark night that seems completely empty of stars, or of rescue, there must be that next new idea which must surely come. 


Crows land

and dance on the yellow grass

while I kiss your neck

at the sink.