My Process And What Is Time To A Pig?

It's a beautiful summer day in Sitka, Alaska. The fireweed is better than six feet tall in our wild garden and the berries are ripe and soft on their stems.  Warm wind is carrying the smell of dry grass through our windows and I all most expect to see horses grazing on our lawn but alas there are no ponies to be seen. 


I finished the first draft of my next novel this week and I have sent it out to two readers for a first look.  My plan is to publish a Cecil book one year and a Cold Storage book the next and keep going that way for a bit. See how my readers like that.  The new Book is called What Is Time To A Pig? which is the punch line to a very fine joke. I wrote this draft longer than it will end up, as I usually do in a first draft, so I can trim the fat as I rework it.  The Cold Storage books are different than the Cecil books in several important ways.  First, they have different points of view.  Cecil books are first person from Cecil’s point of view and are pretty realistic. “I went to the store and walked up to the pig and I wondered what the heck the pig was thinking about just then…” CS books are third person and sometimes magical “He, she, it goes to the store and walks up to the pig, and the pig was thinking about what to have for dinner. ” Cold Storage books I tend to think are more like fairy tales, or screwball comedies.  Cecil books are more like a wise cracking detective story gone a little nutty. I don’t really know. I just write them.  I don’t like to characterize them. 


Anyway.  I research the book, but I usually start with a title.  This is bass akwards from what most writers do.  Most writers start with a plot they can pitch to an editor or a movie producer.  Not me…. and maybe that’s why I’m sitting in my yard here in Alaska and not in Los Angeles.  I start with a joke, or sometimes a scrap of poetry or something I read in someone’s notebook.  “The Curious eat themselves” was something that the poet Theodore Roethke had written in his notebook and had always stuck in my head as something interesting to think about and when Juris Jurjevic from Soho Press asked me if I had my second mystery done yet, and I told him “Ah… no… it needs some work…” meaning I hadn’t started it because I was told to tell Soho that the Woman Who Married A Bear was the first book in a series but I never thought anyone was going to buy the first one, so when Juris asked me “what is the title of the second book?”  I totally pulled out of my butt: “The Curious Eat Themselves”.


So, yes, I start with titles.  Then I make a list of places I want my characters to go.  Then I make a list of characters who could inhabit these places.  Then I come up with the plot that takes them to these places, which fits the poetry that was set ringing when I was struck by the title.  Like I said, other people don’t work this way.


Once I had to change a title, because the art department apparently got the giggles with the title I had chosen from one of my favorite haiku by Issa:



  on a naked horse

through the summer rain.


The novel was called “Naked On A Naked Horse.  The cover Artists apparently got giddy just thinking about it and my editor at Bantam made me change it.  I drove around one weekend with friends who had read the manuscript and we came up with Cold Water Burning.  Which I thought worked out a lot better than my first thought which was Fuck Off And Die, which my friends thought was immature and not helpful for the original problem with the Art Department.


Once I have title, place, characters, plot, lots of time spent staring out the window and making lists and reading and researching all of the above.  I start writing.  Rough draft discipline is number of words a day.  Usually a thousand words a day five days a week.  No cheating.  No storing up in a bank.  Five grand minimum.  No max. Then I get to about eighty thousand I wrap it up unless I have a much grander vision.  The Big Both Ways was meant to be longer.  There, I wanted to write a journey book.  Once the draft is done I let it sit and let people read it and then go back to it and then the discipline is number of hours a day. Usually three hours minimum. No cheating.  Once I start fixing things I’ve already fixed twice OR instead of fixing things I start changing things so I begin to essentially write a whole new book on top of the book I began.  I stop and let my real editor read it.  Then I work with them and follow their advice to the letter.  Unless one of us goes crazy or has a break down that is irreconcilable.  Which has never happened.  Once I get my editors revisions, I work on it until they tell me I’m done. Then there are usually two rounds of line edits after that; catching typos, and spacing issues, formatting, and proper names.  I am dyslexic and most often I hire private editors here at home or close buy to help me to find mistakes, which I am quite literally blind to. Then there are book design and jacket copy, blurbs, which I am allowed to have a voice in, and I'm honored to do that here at Soho.


I have to say that I love the people I work with at Soho Press.  That's it. I'm going to say it now, in case I never get any awards, they are the best. 


I was lucky to correspond with the great poet William Stafford before he died, he told me “An editor is a friend who makes sure only your best writing makes it out into the world.” When he first told me that I felt that editors were the people who sent rejection letters, but now I have come to believe these words of friendship. 


With each novel, I set myself a new goal, some new thing I want to try. This is what makes writing interesting.  I can’t bear writing the same thing over and over.  When I was a kid I loathed doing workbook homework where the teacher could just look up the answers in the book she kept locked in her desk.  I felt, what’s the point of this?  Why not just hand out that answer book to everyone and let us read that one and case closed.  No more suffering at home at night! Writing to a formula seems like doing that kind of homework to me.  It feels like the worst kind of homework, and I just won’t do it.


When I give a new manuscript to a reader for the first time, all I want to know is,  “Am I crazy?”  That’s it.  I will get more editing down the way,  I just want to know if the new twist or new technique is coming across without too much distraction. Is my hallucination real at all to you? So, it's not really, am I crazy... it's more, does this craziness come across vividly, and in an interesting way?  

My insanity is a given. We should all know that by now.  

In a little more than a year, if all goes well you should be able to read the well worked over version of this manuscript which, today at least, is called What Is Time To A Pig?

Here is hoping anyway. 


Warm evening: our yard.

   Wind brings in the smell of grass

and I hear horse bells.





Back With News And FAQs

After almost a week of beautiful summer weather here in Sitka the clouds are back with a westerly breeze blowing in off the Pacific.  My great nephew Jed Bynum is mowing the lawn and my new Cecil book is out in the stores.  I’ve decided to write another blog entry. 

Why?  I’m not sure, I suppose I owe it to a couple of my old friends who actually remember that I used to write this blog and might come back to it.

Here is an update on my life since my last entry: I’m still retired from my life of crime with the Public Defender. I lost the vision in my right eye  I wrote another Cecil book, called "Baby’s First Felony" and Soho reprinted all the other Cecil books. I published two books of Haiku poetry with Shorefast Editions of Juneau and expect to publish two more soon. Our old dog Gypsy got sick this winter and had to be put down. A man named Barry Burger in Sitka was dying of a brain tumor and asked me to write a book about a local veterinarian named Burgess Bauder, so I did that.  There are a thousand copies of that book and they are only available at Old Harbor Books in Sitka. They would be happy to ship one to you. I’m working on another Cold Storage book called "What is Time To A Pig?"  Our garden is half wild and half planted and quite beautiful this summer. We thought about moving to the lower 48 for health reasons but decided against it, so we will stay in Sitka on into our decrepitude. Last week a pod of four killer whales came right up to our boat and looked us in the eyes, which, I think, we all enjoyed. I turn sixty-five on July 23, and am thinking of getting my first tattoo, then when someone says, “You know, you’re going to have that the rest of your life!”  I will respond, “Why, yes, I do.”

So, that’s done. Now here are some frequently asked questions about the Cecil Younger Series and some top of the head answers. : 

Do I need to start with the beginning and read them in order? Not really but  from left to right here are the books in order, with their new covers: 





If you want to follow a kind of arc in Cecil’s development you can start with "The Woman Who Married a Bear" and read them in order.  In the first six books Cecil Younger starts off as a drunken low life and kind of pulls himself up to be what passes for a respectable citizen in Alaska.. He is more mature and more responsible by the end of "Cold Water Burning" In the seventh, spoiler alert, he has some set backs.  In "The Woman Who Married a Bear," Cecil is not adverse to brutality.  In the rest of the series violence finds him.  He does not carry a gun, but guns find him.  This reflects reality as I experienced it working as a criminal defense investigator. I would have been jailed instantly if I had flourished a gun in the course of my work, and the skill was in not having to. Cops clearly did not want me carrying a gun around and if I had they would have arrested me for anything from tampering with witnesses to assault.  It just wouldn’t have worked.  Also I think I would have been very unlucky if I had carried a gun.  It’s true what Cecil says, “If someone wants to shoot me they are going to have to bring their own fucking gun.”  Guns in my line of work give you false courage and cause you to commit crimes. So Cecil did not carry a gun, for a good reason. 

What’s up with the cursing and the crass jokes?  Criminal investigators live in the melieu of murder and suffering.  It’s been my experience that they blow of steam with crass humor.  Also, actual murder is more obscene than any word they can say. 

Why the gory body parts showing up in the series: the hand in the ice bucket or the severed foot showing up in the mail?   See the above. We are just human animals, flesh and bone.  When we are murdered, we are nothing but butchered meat.  Now I know, and people have told me,  “but I don’t read mysteries to have my nose rubbed in reality,” and I try to appreciate that.  I don’t think these books are moralistic in anyway, I’m not trying to preach in the books, but I do try to make them unique.  I try to make the violence have some human meaning and not just stagecraft. Like all writers I suppose, I’m trying to recreate a fictional dream, and this dream involves murder and murder by its nature is horrible, and the characters react to it.  There are funny things that happen in their lives, and lovely things,  but as long as there is a murder too, there will be some horror, I cannot unsee the things I know and have felt about actual murder and death. 

Is Cecil based on you?  Sure he is, based on me.  But I’m neither as interesting nor as stupid in my decisions as he is.  I’ve never drank as hard as he has.  I was never as irritating, I hope.  But I’m as flawed and as human, probably.  I’m shorter and weaker and we raised a son, not a daughter.

Why Todd as a sidekick?  I have a cousin like Todd, a high functioning autistic adult.  In the first book, I wasn’t sure if I was going to make Todd a series character and he was not quite in focus.  In fact, I killed him off in the second or third chapter and Jan, my wife refused to finish the first draft if I left him dead.  So I had to bring him back.  I like Todd because he redeems Cecil, and his serial obsessions come in handy for the themes and the plots.  

Why the long break from Cecil?  I didn’t think anyone liked him.  I tried lots of other things.  I gave up for a while. Jan has Parkinson’s disease and she had brain surgery, so we have to deal with that, I started the Cold Storage, series.  I write non-fiction and poetry.  I’m lazy and not all that keen on writing books that people already don’t seen interested in.  But a while ago, I actually thought it would be fun to resurrect him if for nothing else but to spend some time with him and Todd and I had all these jokes and had been thinking about jokes and language and their similarity to poetry and how autistic people use them to replicate emotional relationships and I thought it would be fun way to spend my time. So I wrote it. The jokes in "Baby's First Felony" are not just thrown in there willy nilly, by the way.  There is one joke told after a killing that is a terrible joke, that is meant to punch you in the gut and upset you for how wrong it is.  I know it's disgusting and awful, so you don't have to write to me and tell me that.  I put it there because it is awful, it is put there as a kind of commentary on what it feels like when things go wrong.  As Cecil tells the Judges,  "Context is everything."  When things starts spinning out of control it feels like an obscene almost hysterical battering.  That's why the awful joke is in there. So please don't yell at me.  I was trying something different.  If you don't like it.  I understand. You were not supposed to. 

I hope, if you are new to my work, you look around and read some of the old blog posts.  Write to me and I will try and write back to you.  I sometimes forget to check the comments on the blog.  I’m bad about that and the formatting is weird so it’s not obvious to me when they come in.  Write to me in the contact section and I should get those directly.  I won’t respond to crazy flaming political criticism, so if you are looking for a fight you will be disappointed. Life is too short to make enemies.  If you really want to discuss differences of point of view I am happy to do that. I'm not Cecil and I'm really not a bad guy.  If I'm not up to my eyeballs with other things I will write you back. 

It is cool day here and my nephew has finished the lawn and now I promised him that I would teach him how to tie a bowline, so I better get to it. 


Cool summer evening,

and the floxgloves are blooming.

I miss our old dog.




“How it is I know not; but there is not place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends.  Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other, and some couples often lie and chat over old times till early morning.  Thus, then, in our heart’s honeymoon, lay I and Queegueg— a cozy, loving couple.”     Ishmael, recollecting his first night spent with his future shipmate in the Spouter Inn, from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

In San Francisco, my wife and I share a bed in the Royal Pacific Motor Inn.  I love this Hotel, the decor is decidedly turned down, fabulous Asian fifties.  The staff is wonderful and the rooms are clean, and the beds are firm.  The location is on Broadway and Columbus, a half a block from City Lights Books.  The street-side rooms are noisy but that is a small price to pay for free parking and a reasonable room rate.  My dreams are filled with sirens and drama, and wonderful aromas of coffee and cooked vegetables. 

Jan and I snuggle in the king bed on our balcony street-side room and she shares her anxieties with me.  The last few nights she talks about Sperm whales, specifically the big males, and whether they are “affiliating” or not.

Here is the deal.  Remember yesterday when I described the big snout and the sound the sperm whales could generate?  Well, turns out it is very loud.  So, this makes a difference in behavior as well.  Here is how, in a very small nutshell.  Sperm whales have a very, very big yard to play in, essentially the whole ocean they find themselves in.  In the Pacific, the females and the calves hang out, mostly, around the equator and the big males range around way up north… maybe as far up as the arctic.  Why?  Not really sure, but probably because it is safer for the calves, the warmer water for birthing is good, and fewer predators (Orca whales mostly) is good.  Also maybe something about the warm water is good for the lactating females.  Did I just make that up?  Maybe… I just did.  Anyway… calves and females like warm waters.  They feed down there on fish and squid but not as many as the BIG males in the more productive northern waters.  (Remember the whole thing about oxygen yesterday?  Northern waters have less salt and more oxygen, generally so, more stuff to eat)  In the whaling literature these big males are often cited as being “lone bachelors” ,  they are thought not to affiliate with one another because they are not seen together.

But here is where the big noise and the water comes in.  These whales can dive down to three thousand feet, or more and remember they make LOUD noises.  (the loudest of any animal on earth) and in the water there are three things that effect how far sound can travel: temperature, pressure and salinity.    Think of it this way pressure kind of squishes a sound wave flat and it can travel a long long way in the deep ocean if it doesn’t bump into salt molecules, and the cold water the molecules are sloooow so the sound waves cut through easily.   How does this effect behavior?  Easy, these big males are “affiliating” or communicating with each other up to forty miles apart (at least) even if they seem alone, they are together.

So again, in the real world, how would you know, or why would it matter.  Remember yesterday again, I said they have the biggest brain?  Well, it turns out they are clever, they have learned to take black cod off fisherman’s commercial fishing lines.  They have learned the sound of the engines as the fishermen “back hall” the gear to bring the fish up on to the boat and strip it off the line.  Not only that, they can recognize the boat and wait by the gear for the next set.  As I said, clever, plus, they teach this to their cohorts as more and more whales come north.  By using satellite tags Jan and her pals have recorded several big males working together and traveling together, putting a lie… as it were .. to the whole myth of the lone male ranging by himself through the northern oceans.  This is a change in the literature.  In the world of science its a big deal.  Hence the anxiety in the bed of the Royal Pacific Motor Inn about the talk to be given in San Francisco on Wednesday. 

Male stereotypes are pervasive in all cultures.  It was supposed, in his lifetime, because he had six children and a devoted wife (though not so devoted towards the end) that Herman Melville was a staunch heterosexual withan exotic if, not classically inspired admiration of the male form.  It is in his novel Redburn that Melville gives the scholars of queer literature the most evidence that he must have surely been a repressed homosexual.  I have not read this book so I can not judge, but apparently the characters go on a wild binge of debauchery which includes undeniable homosexual characteristics. Of course Melville’s Billy Budd was Beautiful and a symbol of innocence like the love object in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice,  but in all his writings the only love scene where two men actually touch was the (above)  scene where Ishmael and Queegue wake up in the Spouter Inn. 

What Herman Melville did or didn’t do with his penis doesn’t particularly interest me, the fact that he yearned interests me, the fact when he shipped out on the whaling ship for that year and a half and his two years in the south Pacific he came back changed. This is interesting.  He was transformed by nature, and all the rest of his life he tried to make contact with another like soul.  His books were never really read as deeply as he wanted in his lifetime.  He wanted Nathaniel Hawthorn to be his soulmate, he dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne’s genius and when the well established American author wrote to a note of appreciation to the relative newcomer,  Melville wrote back: “I feel the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces.  Hence this inline fraternity of feeling.”  

 No pressure though.   

This intensity made Melville seem like a loner, the “Custom’s agent” of literature, but it is said he came to terms with who he was by the end of his life.  If he wasn’t understood, it was their loss, but in the end he wasn’t alone, we were just a long way off.  His voice was loud enough, it was strong enough.  His yearning voice found an ear.   


Squeeze and Squeeze

“But in the great Sperm whale, this high and mighty god-like dignity inherent in the brow is so immensely amplified that the gazing upon it, in that full front view , you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcibly than in beholding any other object in living nature…”    Moby Dick…  Herman Melville

On Saturday I attended the Sperm Whale workshop which brought together experts from all over the world to present quick papers and have discussions on their research.  It was meant to be informal and a way for people to meet and make connections.  They also invited squid and fish experts so that they could have a better understanding of what the things that the sperm whales liked to eat were doing.  Which I thought was pretty clever.

I’ve been married to a scientist for almost forty years now so I’m good at faking like I understand what scientists are saying, but much of the time I’m like the dog in that Far Side cartoon where the owner is saying “Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Missy, Blah, Blah,  Missy.”  

But the truth is, I like hanging around with scientists, mostly.  A lot of them like to drink.  A lot, and some of them are quite funny, like lawyers and cops, I think that has something to do with spending a lot of time cutting that fine distinction.  That’s where the humor is after all.  Lots of people don’t like people who use hard words,  that doesn’t bother me.  What bothers me is arrogance, of any kind…and obfuscation, which is what you find when not-so-smart people use words they don’t know, to cover up the fact that they don't really know what they are talking about.  I mention this because, I can, and have been guilty of this, particularly when writing about science.  So, when and if... I sound particularly stupid describing the topics or the science in these coming blogs,  please, please, please, do not take it as a reflection on the intelligence or the eloquence of the people I spoke with, but all blame falls squarely on me.  The tone is not meant to be smarmy.  The tone is meant to be awestruck unless otherwise noted.  

Back to the workshop.  Part of the workshop had to do with the anatomy of the sperm whale’s snout.  Now some people refer to the big part past it’s eye as it’s head, but the two scientists referred to it as it’s “nose.”  It’s filled.  Melville called it its “brow.”  It is the most distinctive aspect of the animal.  Big and blunt as it goes through the water,  The blowhole also pokes off to the left side of the animals head which also makes it distinctive when you see it at sea.  This I’ve experienced for myself.  I’ve been around them in the Gulf of Alaska where we mostly see the big males., Males are bigger, I’m not being sexist here, that’s called being “sexually dimorphic” I’m told.  Moby Dick was a whopper and he was a male, and he was based in fact on a whale that sank the ship the Essex, as we all know know thanks to the big screen.    Anyway this Big Nose is filled with spermaceti which was the prized oil for the whalers, for machine oil and smokeless lamp oil.   The Whales have these incredibly strong lips in the front of the head where they pass air and generate clicks and clangs, This sound passes through the spermaceti and circles through another set of membranes “that are somewhat like lenses that somehow focus the sound… we don’t really know how”  but tests have been done determining that the whales can narrow the sounds to very narrow, (five inch in radius?) beams.  So, not only do Sperm Whales have the biggest brain of any animal on earth, they are the loudest.  Not only that, they can move and shape that big old schnozzola around to shape and focus that sound around.  

Now… why do they do that?  They disorient their prey to slow it down… it’s suspected… again it’s hard to say for sure because no one has ever ridden on the back of one at three thousand feet underwater.  But pretty sure, they locate their prey with echo location, essentially they “see” underwater with sonar, otherwise why have such a well developed sonar system and such shitty little eyes on both sides of their great big noggin.  (again those are my words)   A well known scientist showed her notes from the time, long ago when she took Ken Norris’s class, and she diagramed the anatomy of the whale’s head.  It didn’t look like my notes.  But here are mine.  Ken Norris, by the way was a GOD.

The other part of the workshop I attended, was Bill Gilly’s lecture on squid.  I have met Mr. Gilly before. His wife is a noted authority on John Steinbeck, she wrote the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition to Cannery Row and she is the Director of the Steinbeck Center.  She kind of scares me, not that she means to, she is very nice, she just does.  When we were going to meet Bill at his office in Pacific Grove, I asked Jan about him, and she almost swooned, “Are you kidding me,” she said, “he’s the squid man.”  Jan sometimes forgets who she is married to.  I asked her what that meant and she snapped back to reality and said,  “Oh… Bill Gilly knows more about squid than anybody I’ve ever, met.  Probably anybody, anywhere.”  Now, you should know something about my wife, this is saying something because she knows quite a few squid people.  

So, I could tell there was something happening because people were sneaking into to hear Professor Gilly’s lectures.  There was standing room only by the time he spoke.  He is a big man with a round face.  There is not a trace of arrogance about him, and a sweetness and a love of his subject that comes through.  He seemed genuinely concerned about squid.  Now there was a lot I didn’t understand about certain aspects of his talk, but it was because he was talking to people who he assumed had a working knowledge of ocean chemistry and oceanography. So I asked him a question afterwards,  he had mentioned that tagged squid had been recorded diving to the depth of the “Oxogen Minimum Layer” (which is the depth where oxogen is minimally sufficient to support the prey layer. my understanding again)    and then could dive further, if they were possibly being chased by a whale???   He was cautious, but said that it was certainly possible.  

I asked him what effected the depth of the Oxogen Minimum Layer,  (Mostly I wanted to know how deep it was in Alaska because I wanted to know how deep to fish)  Essentially he said, lots of things effect the useable oxygen in the ocean, and here his voice was even more concerned and he seemed a little more sad, and I didn’t understand and of course I thought I had offended him somehow, but he explained, the depth of the OML(of course there is an acronym) is effected by many dynamic influences, such as sunlight, so that in Alaska it varies with the seasons, but also by currents and river systems.  What drives it is bacteria, refreshing the O2 from the bottom and the side.  “A great deal of the oxogen in the ocean comes from bacteria that is trapped under the polar ice cap and is flushed into the system from the currents.  Now of course with the warming and the disappearance of the ice cap there is a real chance of mass extinction events caused by the possibility of the ocean becoming anaerobic."  


This is the kind of language that doesn’t sound dramatic until it sinks in for a while.  “Mass extinction events caused by the possibility of the ocean becoming anaerobic.”   Then he added,  “Which of course, is very bad.” 

What made it worse for me was the tone of his voice and his eyes.  He knew what he was saying.  We are all connected, of course.  The whales, the squid.  Herman Melville and you and I dear ones.  

Consider this: The days of commercial whaling and out of control harvesting of the great whales are largely over.  We are closer than ever to signing a world wide global warming accord. So, there are good things happening, all the more reason for doubling down in our efforts, I suppose.  All the more reason to remember the poets and mystics of the past.  

Here’s Herman Melville blissful in the gore, processing the spermaceti on the Peaquod: 

Squeeze! Squeeze! Squeeze! all the morning long, I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it: I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me: and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers hands in it… Come; let us squeeze ourselves into each other: let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.”  

Tomorrow:  Herman Melville, Homosexuality, and the “Lone Bachelor”

Falling in Love . . . Again

“We see ourselves in all rivers and oceans.”    Herman Melville

Some rain this morning and heavy, perfumed fog wrapping the trees in the morning, clearing off by ten.  A morning for laundry and writing. 

Tonight we sign books in the Pacific Grove Museum, in Celebration of Ed Ricketts’ and Jack Calvin’s scientific contribution to ecology.  Then we drink boilermakers with scientists and writers and listen to music along the foggy, eucalyptus-scented streets of Pacific Grove. Tomorrow we drive to San Francisco for the Marine Mammal Conference where Jan is to give a paper called “Where the Boys Are” about male sperm whales stripping black cod from fishing lines in the North Pacific and if they truly are “lone bachelors”, as reported in the literature, or “affiliate with each other for ‘reasons of their own.’”  These are my words, not hers, so I don’t know why I put them in quotes. But that really is the gist.  What is not just gist but actual is that she wants to play the Connie Francis song at the beginning of her talk, for the gathering of international experts, which is another reason she is such a badass in the scientific community.  

I applied for and got a press pass for the Marine Mammal Conference.  This is a big deal for me.  I told them it was because I am a writer and I have based characters in my novels on a marine biologist who studies whales.  The nice woman who gives out the passes wrote back and said,  “Yes Mr. Straley, I am quite familiar with your wife and her work,”  essentially saying, “you have no imagination, or scientific brain, you should come to the conference.”  So,  I’m going, I’m telling her, as eye candy, and she groans.

But bad luck for her - I recently read Elizabeth Hardwick’s excellent short biography of Herman Melville.  People have asked me who my favorite author is and the truth is I am serially monogamous with authors and today I have fallen back in love with Melville.  I have read Moby Dick three times:  once in school, which was terrible (as are most school assignments), once when I had first moved to Sitka, was depressed and saw my first whale from shore (much better - I had also just read the Bible cover to cover, word for word so there were some allusions that I was hip to), and the third time when Finn was about nine years old and we read the whole frigging thing aloud, which was fantastic.  Snuggled in bed, Jan loved the whaling data, Finn loved the adventure, and I loved the poetry.  It really was a great family read aloud believe it or not.  The chapters are short and we had a great edition with illustrations by Rockwell Kent. I won’t say that there weren’t some nights that I was the only one left awake. I was.  But some nights it was Finn and me and some nights it was Jan and me.  It was easy to read aloud.

So what do Rickets/ Calvin and Melville have to do with one another, you might ask?  Probably nothing.  But here is my argument,  here is what I want to write about in the next week while at the conference:  

What I love, love, love about the best of Melville (there is a lot of not so good, but the best is sublime) is that somewhere in his travels at sea, and his meditations upon them, he had a transformative experience.  Something blew his mind out there - he touched the third rail of the Universe, but unlike any of the other writers of his time,  (except maybe Whitman, who gets pretty Eastern). Melville refuses to name it.  He refuses to call it God, or even call it “Good”. He leaves it to dark, mysterious metaphor.  

I know.  I can hear the grad students and the English professors getting ready to send me their theses. I know. The labels we give the Mysterious Matter.  So, stick with me while I travel with my bad-ass wife to San Francisco to meditate on the great whales and brother Herman Melville. Let’s see what we know, and what we think we know, about the most mysterious metaphor carriers of the deep.

To start us off consider this passage as Ishmael finds himself down by the harbor contemplating seeing his first whale as he looks out over the mild harbor: 

"The great flood gates of the wonder-world swing open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated in my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and midmost of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.”    — Moby Dick

Hard Goodbyes

Clear day after weeks of rain and then snow.  The sun hasn't come too soon for me. 

A few days after my fathers funeral in 1999 my sister and I cleared out his room, on his dresser was a photograph in a silver frame. The photograph was black and white of an old friend of his who had passed away some forty years before.  The man was riding an elephant, it must have been taken at a circus or a fair. and the man was wearing a checked sport coat and a hat that was customary in the fifties or early sixties.  The inscription read:  Dear Walt, Us Elephants Never Forget, Love Bill Bruns"  It had sat on his dresser for more than thirty years.  Bill Bruns had worked with my dad, and had been his good friend.  His death had been hard on my Dad.

Some deaths are harder than others.  Some deaths ring like bells across the valley and echo into your heart reminding you of mortality in a way that you have never known before, for me it was when Bill Smith's fishing boat went down off the west coast of Baranoff Island.  Other deaths have hurt and will hurt again dreadfully, I'm sure but Bill's death woke me up to the reality of being mortal. 

Ryan Kauffman died last night after a year long fight.  He was taken too soon.  His friends fought hard right along side of him.  I'm sure this will be a hard death for many of them. He was so vivacious, so active and his disease seemed so unfair.

This is not a testimonial.  I'll leave that to those who loved him and knew him well.  He left a big mark.  I just wanted to acknowledge all those who loved him and are suffering tonight.  Your goodness, I have to believe, should be of some comfort now. An act to answer the need of the suffering helps the suffering of all of us.  I honestly believe that.  You acted unselfishly, and lovingly for a good man, and this was a healing act for everyone.  

Of course, you don't need me to remind you of this. I'm only mentioning this because we are going into Thanksgiving and it is my favorite holiday.  Gratitude: I am always grateful for the people in this town.  We are grateful for the love that we have around us, every second of every day.  It is this love that makes the hard goodbyes endurable.  I just feel an impulse now to thank all the good, loving people who help the sick and the suffering in our town.  I want to thank Ryan's family and friends for sharing him with us.  Your goodness heals all of us and us elephants never forget.  

Pine siskins skitter

across our icy-white lawn,

under cold blue skies. 




terrible loss

A change in the weather here in Sitka.  extraordinary rains for days, but today there is a pause.  Rescue workers swarm the scene of a major mud slide and at the same time they try and dry their clothes a bit as they eat their donated lunches outside in the Baptist Church parking lot. 

So much time has passed since I have written here I had a lot of choices for subject matter.  I have given up my life of crime for one. I cleaned out my desk at the Public Defender Agency, trained my replacement and said goodbye to my desk.  Just to be sure I didn't mope around, Jan and I went to Monterey, California and taught at a writer's conference the very next week.  I taught "Literary Crime Writing" and Jan gave two talks about our upcoming book concerning Ed Ricketts, the famous "Doc" from Cannery Row.  It was a lovely week and I will write about it sometime soon,  but on the way home, I left Jan in Juneau and when my plane landed in Sitka the rain was pouring down in torrents. This was not unusual but the second I drove over the bridge onto Baranoff Island I knew something had changed. 

There was a whirlpool of deep water in the parking lot in front of the laundromat.  Kids on bikes with their forearms resting on the handlebars were starring into the gyre as if it were a burning fire. Its water was sucking chunks of pavement down into a hole in the street and the kids did not move or say a word.  Sirens blared and police cars were tearing down the street.  People walked aimlessly down the street without their raincoats and stopped to talk with one another oblivious of whether they had rain gear on or not.  As I drove north toward my house, I noticed rivulets of chocolate brown mud spilling out onto the street and I saw the police Lieutenant  hugging a woman who appeared to be crying.  The jailer, a friendly man I know well, was directing traffic, standing in the rain without a hat on, wearing  only a windbreaker, getting soaked to the skin.  He had a stricken look on his face and did not wave back when I passed.  Something was terribly wrong.  

The road to my house was closed.  I went to the grocery store.  Muddy men in their work rain gear seem dazed.  They talked to clumps of people about a mudslide that may have taken out houses.  They had been told to leave the work sites.  They left quickly.  People were dead.  They didn't know how many.  Some City Officials were dead.  Some kids inside a house.  The police wouldn't let anybody back up there.  Too dangerous now.  It was early. Stunned. Worried. Unbelieving.  The mountain we live under had liquified then swallowed some houses, some people up.  Really?  Really?  No one could be sure, but this seemed to be happening. 

Rumors.  Phone calls.  Speculations. Then official news reports on the radio.  Now two days later and they have found two bodies.   Only one house had been overwhelmed then crushed by a snapping river of mud and trees. Two young men who had been dry walling inside the house, were killed.  Apparently it was their bodies that have been found, but their names have not been made official, yet we know it was them.  Our son played football with the eldest and knew his brother who was a year younger.  The Diaz brothers.  The family lost two sons the same day. 

The building inspector, was a friend of ours and a friend to many in the community; a proud father of an accomplished daughter who is to be married next month.  The husband of a well known counselor in our town.  His death hits particularly hard in our circle.  A good guy,  a helpful man, a sportsman and a man who liked to laugh.  I saw him ten days ago, (or was it two weeks?  I can't remember and now and there is no one to ask)  I was driving by the cafe on a sunny day and he turned and smiled and as William Stortz stood upright he waved at me high over his head, as if to say that it had been too long since we had talked, and we needed to change that.

Tragedy wants to make philosophers out of most of us,  but I will resist that.  Today I wrote notes to my friends who were working at the site: friends of William's and the Diaz brothers.  They are tired and sad.  I wanted to tell them how much I appreciated how hard they were working and how much I loved them .  

And too, I told them when things settled down we should, without fail, meet at the cafe for a cup of tea and spend some time together.  


The rain stops.

Policemen do their hard jobs, 

and tired workers dig. 

The Cellar

Another warm day: songbirds in the tall salmonberry bushes.  The fireweed are showing white seeds and dogwood flowers are in perfect flower along the creek beds.  Dogs rub their back in cut grass whenever they can and kids toter down sidewalks on their small bikes sucking on popsicles sometimes with their helmets unclipped. 

Tragedy of another shooting in the news and the talkers talk of the Confederate flag and gun laws and we parse our words trying to understand the difference between "madness" and "terrorism", between a politically motivated killing, and a culturally mandated one.  

I don't know.  But in amongst all the talk I heard the families of the victims speak of forgiveness, and I found that incredibly moving, black southern voices,  deeply Christian voices.  These people were struggling mightily against their own knee jerk attitudes to find their better selves in their public speech when addressing the man accused of killing their loved ones.  They didn't resort to lazy, or cowardly slander, they spoke out of their truth, and their love of Jesus.  

I so admired them.

If racism is part of what is on the table now, then we must confront it in ourselves.  My own racism comes out ignorance.  I grew up in mostly private schools, and rural communities in the north,  I worked many blue collar jobs and sat quiet for many racist jokes, and laughed and more than a few.  I told myself I was a "progressive" and even radical for my leftist political beliefs,  but too often I stayed quiet when real hatred was given voice and I didn't say a word against it.  Why should I?  There were no Black people around to hear.  I was always adverse to physical confrontation.  I was shy.  Bookish.  I would teach them in an essay.. or a novel.  

Sometimes I did.  But sometimes not clearly enough, and mostly those books never made it into the right hands.  The books were read by the few who were already inclined toward me anyway.  

Don't get me wrong,  I'm not interested in some kind of liberal tear fest here, or worse an AA style feel good confessional. My cheap white guilt heals no Black wounds.  I just think if we are really going to talk about racism we have to start with our own racism... our own limitations and prejudices.  We are all limited by our human experience.  Class and circumstance imprints on us all a certain set of expectations and prejudices. The people who said the sweet and forgiving words to the alleged shooter may well be saints.  But the rest of us live within the parameters of our own experience and we may not be able to love everyone.  We will love the ones we know and have judged to be worthy of love.  Now, of course, this is an argument for broader education and greater faith in our democratic principals and we should trust our institutions to help us resolve conflict with our perceived enemies, not to open fire on them.  But also... we should always be sure just to check ourselves.   Check our prejudices. 

When I was a kid living in New York city, (where my dad briefly had a job) I had snuck out to see B. B. King at the Fillmore East.  It was the late show and I hung out with my buddies after, through some mishap I got on the wrong subway going home and ended up at 125 street in Harlem.  This was 1969,  before it was Bill Clinton's neighborhood and before anyone ever heard of a Starbucks.  It was three in the morning and I crossed he tracks and as I popped down into the tunnel four black men blocked my path.  I took one look and said, "Ooops... I forgot something," and ran up the stairs and to another staircase.

When I got down to the platform I could hear laughter from the other end of the platform. and a young black man came down towards me.  Clearly, now I recognized him as one of the four from the tunnel: a student probably from nearby Columbia University, perhaps a professor,  thick glasses, maybe even a corduroy jacket with leather elbow patches (but thats probably an imaginative flourish)  he sidled up to me and said only,  


Prejudice.  Pre- Judgement.  I had pre judged him.  Roll those dice twelve times in that same situation and I would probably fail that test twelve times.  I would have needed to live in that neighborhood to know the signs.  I would have needed more information not to pre- judge those men.  

We live in a remarkable age of information.  Perhaps we can put it to use.  Perhaps with more love in are hearts and with less of an instinct to shoot and more of an instinct to point at ourselves we could finally really face the seemingly intractable issue of race, and class, in America.  


Warm evening, sitting

out in the red chairs with you

listening to the birds. 



Urge and Urge and Urge


I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the
 beginning and the end
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and
 increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of
To elaborate is no avail, learn’d and unlearn’d feel that it is
 so.----------------- Walt Whitman 1819- 1892


Spring has come to Sitka, the sun shines more often and when the rain falls it is warmer and more sporadic.  Fruit trees show their blossoms, those that didn't get caught by the freezing rain.   Dandelions have begun their seething rush through the lawns and road cuts. 

I know I should hate them but I don't.  They are the lovely anarchists, the interlopers.  I like how they tent up at night and unfold to smile at the sun in daylight.

The herring have spawned more than a month ago and the great flocks of gulls have dispersed.  Now the King Salmon are starting to shoal off shore and the with them the salmon fishermen, the charter lodges, the trollers, the line crews in the cold storages begin to arrive.  There are two cruise ships are in town disgorging their sleepy, overfed visitors onto the streets to buy their T shirts and trinkets. Pretty girls are arriving in town with every plane, strong young men with every boat. 

Someone has convinced the tourists that no trip on a ship is complete without buying a piece of expensive jewelry as a love token for the woman you are traveling with.  Romance and travel, overindulge, you may never pass this way again.  "Urge and urge and urge the procreant urge of the world"  you would have to be numb to the world not to feel it in the air this time of year on the streets of Sitka.  

I am preparing for the Northwords Writers Conference in Skagway at the end of the month.  I love Skagway, for that town has no shame when it comes to the tourist trade and it comes by it honestly.  One of the fun things I get to do at this year besides hang out with Dana Stabenow, and Don Reardon and the magnificent Buckwheat is to have a public conversation with Mary Roach, the science writer who is the author of among other books Bonk, Stiff, Gulp, Spook, and Packing for Mars.  I've been cramming for this interview for weeks now.  She may be the smartest person I will have ever spoken with in my life.  Certainly she is the only person I have ever met who has had intercourse while being photographed in a sonograph machine,  which I positive people are going to want to hear about.  

"Urge and urge and urge...."  I am sixty one years old and because of my persistent unipolar depression and the cocktail of medications I take to keep that in bounds, the old "fire down below" as Bob Seger sang does not burn as hot as it did as when I was eighteen, or when I was thirty, for which I am frankly thankful.  I can think a lot more clearly now and I enjoy womens company much more without the fire alarm blaring in my ears constantly.  Distracting that.  

I do enjoy lovely smart women.  This week a colleague of Jan's from Norway by way of Denmark and England named Chris Lockyer stayed with us.  She is a renowned expert on the physiology of large Marine Mammals,  particularly whales, for nearly forty years she has crawled around in the guts and heads of whales all over the world plucking out eyes and ear bones to examine. Just as Jan is, Chris is extremely lovely, and more importantly quite gracious and good company.  She has picked up quite a lot of interesting conversational tidbits in her long life.  It is a blessing to sit on a fine, clear evening to drink a soda and listen to beautiful and smart women talk about a subject they are passionate about.  This is a different kind of passion that I'm experiencing now that I hadn't expected.  

The Urge of the world takes all kinds of forms doesn't it?  The herring spawn coming in and the smell of milt in the air.  The conversation of a long married couple.  Dandelions taking over a lawn.  Old friends talking on the phone not wanting to hang up, enjoying each others voice.  

And sex, I'm not giving up on sex.  I can't wait to talk with Mary Roach about sex and death and digestion.   If you have a notion you should come to Northwords and ask her your own questions.  My questions might tend to be writerly, or frankly dorky. (Did your publisher pay for the cost of the sonogram or was that covered by your insurance?) 

I will continue to write about sex, but I'm awkward at it, at least according to my father.  On his death bed, and I swear this is true, he asked me to lean in,  he said,  "John,"  I said,  "What, Pop?"  he said, "You need more sex in your stories."  "Don't make it so fancy, get right to the sex." 

He died a couple of weeks later when I was back in Sitka, just before the herring spawned on our beach.  I think of him now, often... but particularly in the spring, wondering how to put more sex in my stories without making it seem weird... or like I was just doing as a dying mans request.

 Eagles on the beach

playing on their broken flutes,

fighting over fish.

jhs Sitka 

Prison Reading

The gulls are crying over the herring eggs exposed on the rocks at low tide, yet snow, sleet and hail continues to fall at tide line.  Cherry blossoms hold ice crystals, and our old dog barely wants to go out to pee before she runs right back in to lay back down by the heater. 

My friend from prison continues to call.  I sent him two books, The Hobbit,  and the complete Lord Of The Rings Trilogy .  He calls me every day to tell me of his progress, and about all the interest from other inmates he gets in the books.  When I suggests that he could sell them.  He scolds me saying that he would never profit from a book.  He donated the Hobbit to the Library starting off a serious sign up war for it..  Lots of interest in the book because the last installment of the film just showed a couple of weekends ago. From talking with him I have found that reading in prison is a different activity than it is on the outside. 

A lot depends on where you are in your term, and your attitude about your term.  Very early on young men are often energized towards self improvement.  My friend read three books about his culture that I sent him.  He was hungry and he enjoyed them.  He had questions.  He became the secretary of the Naive Culture Association.  Now there are budget cuts, he doesn't complain,  my friend never complains (to me at least) and he never speaks ill of anyone.  He just mentions that there will be no Potlatch this summer as there was last summer.  Cut from two Potlatches a year to one.  There will be an "Indoor picnic, with no visitors" for the Native Culture Club his summer.  He laughed when he told me this and said,  "An indoor picnic with no visitors sounds like dinner to me."  

He is still the secretary but there are not many cultural activities.  Now he reads mostly fantasy.  He was reading pretty childish stuff that he could get from the library and I suggested Tolkien,  he had never heard of him and his books had been stolen from the collection.  So I asked that my local bookstore send him the books. (friends and family cannot send inmates books, they have to come directly from a business for security reasons)  That's when I learned this:  early in a long stretch, books are like sleep, the longer the better.  They lift you out of your circumstance.  Up and out. The Trilogy is like a narcotic in jail, lots of people want it.  My friend keeps his Tolkien locked in his cell.  

I asked if I could buy him a subscription to a news magazine and he was quite clear, "no."  The news of the day made him unhappy.  He says he looks at the Anchorage papers every once and a while and he says the news all seems the same and it all makes him sad.  That's all he would say.  I couldn't engage him.  He was firm.  News made him sad.  When I thought of this it made sense,  He will be eligible for release in seven years.  He does not want to know what he is missing right now.  I told him I will be there in the year before he is released,  I will get him a news magazine then to help him ease back in to the world, as well as some contemporary  fiction, and non fiction.

My friend was arrested during his last semester of high school.  He wanted to be a computer designer or an engineer.  He was a decent student but he had to work extremely hard,  he had obstacles, no more than others, and no more than he was able to overcome.  He was going to graduate and his teachers were proud. Four teachers, a principal and a Superintendent came to be with him at his sentencing.  Because he is a convicted felon he cannot receive student loans.  The only training he can get in prison is small engine repair, and the like.  All college coursework he has to pay for himself,  which he has no hope of affording.  

He asks for no pity. He asks for nothing.  He dutifully is paying back the Public Defender Agency fees he accrued during his case.  Each phone call he tells me how much money he has sent to the court. from his prison job which pays him barely enough for toiletries and the ocassional piece of candy. When I ever mention a problem in my life, my friend prays for me.   

Soon enough I will send him books based in reality,  soon enough I will send him books about the world he will be coming back to.  What will I send him? 

Sleet on Cherry blossoms

the teapot rumbles 

and begins to scream. 


jhs  Sitka, AK