Monday, December 30, 2019

A new decade dawns

    The first of January marks the beginning of not only a new year but also of a new decade, the two thousand and twenties. It’s a month named for the Roman God Janus, protector of portals, who had two faces, one looking into the past, the other into the unknowable future.

    It’s a time for renewals and resolutions and the making of fresh bright plans. Like Janus, the pundits are recounting, lamenting, and celebrating happenings of the old year and predicting what’s to come. Some will get a few things right. Many will not. There will be pleasant surprises and satisfactions ahead and severe disappointments and sad tragedies both natural and human-caused.

    Because this ought not to be a time of cynicism, I’m making my own hopeful predictions for what will happen reasonably soon:

    Federal legislators will address the epidemic of distracted driving mayhem, passing effective laws that stop cell phoning while driving, thus saving some 5,000 American lives annually and avoiding thousands more highway injuries. Technically, this will be accomplished by using the built-in GPS chips to disable phone use while moving more than 20 miles per hour. People will realize the wisdom of this and simply pull over to make or receive important calls and will just put off all those unnecessary inane ones, none of which are worth dying for.

    Blind partisan adherence to one entrenched camp or the other regarding issues like abortion and global warming and immigration and health care will fall away in favor of unarguable truths based on hard provable facts, and the American populace will come together in search of real solutions.

    World leaders will at long last realize the folly, horrendous expense, and needless tragic deaths and suffering caused by distrust, religious division, historical differences, and out-of-control militarism, and our planet will begin to know real peace in which human imagination, compassion, and understanding will flourish.

    We will save our young people from lives of ignorance and drug use and crime and despair.

    We will unite to halt the decline and ongoing extinctions of wild creatures for which, like us, Earth is their only home in the vastness of the Universe.

    We will solve all these problems and issues and more because we know there are ways to address or prevent almost any challenge we face, as we’ve proven to ourselves so many times in our long successful evolution.

    Each of us will resolve to do and be better and contribute what we can to our species, thus inevitably reaping a windfall of incidental benefits ourselves.

    I wish you a happy New Year and New Decade.


Monday, December 23, 2019

Seasonal memories

   I grew up in the Berkshires village of Williamsburg, Massachusetts, where spring is fragrant and verdant as the ground thaws, summer is balmy, fall is spectacular with the trees putting on their brief annual display, and winter is harsh but also filled with a cold beauty. I remember snowfalls haloing the streetlights and covering the countryside in softness and stillness. Sometimes a freezing rain would crust the snow thick enough to cautiously walk on and speed our improvised cardboard sliders down hillsides.
   My father was a deacon in the golden-domed Congregational Church that still dominates the village center, and my mother taught Sunday school to the kids there, often using a changeable felt board with homemade multicolored cutouts for illustrations. Mom baked for the Wednesday evening church suppers that were some of the finest meals I’ve ever had, because all the women brought only their best recipes for casseroles and salads and meatloaf and cakes and pies. After each convivial feast there would be entertainment—a world-traveling adventurer presenting a 35mm slide show of exotic places, or a magician, or a black-and-white comedy movie.

   When we knew there was going to be a full moon to bathe the brilliant snow and make the blue night clear as twilight, we’d spend a Saturday afternoon shoveling off a frozen pond deep in the woodswhich bore here and there the tracks of woodland creaturesclearing a place up on a bank amid the laden evergreens, and setting a bonfire with downed wood gathered from the surrounding forest. That night we’d hike through the snow back to the pond, light the fire, and skate as the moon and stars swung overhead, taking breaks to drink hot cocoa from thermoses. We’d drizzle maple syrup onto the snow to turn it into a chewy candy that fueled us with carbs against the chill.

   As Christmas drew near, volunteers would go out to village home yards and sing carols, their breath pluming the night air. Church members would drape the sanctuary balcony with garlands of aromatic balsam. On Christmas eve we’d attend the candlelight service and sing the old carols. On Christmas morning Mom would insist we attend services before returning home to share the tree and then enjoy her special dinner.

   I hope you, too, have good memories of seasonal holidays past, and I wish you memory-making celebrations as 2019 draws to a close.

   Have an exciting and rewarding New Year. Please join me here on occasion for more thoughts on life and writing.


Monday, December 16, 2019

Good Grief America

Naomi and I were watching "Good Morning America" the other day when one of the multi-million-dollar talking heads said in all his studied sincerity, "The teenage pilot was flying this ultralight above a lake when one of its propellers stopped moving." The screen was clearly showing the single-engine ultralight in flight. This is equivalent to reporting that "the accident happened as the driver was travelling on the Interstate and one of his steering wheels stopped moving." I'm glad that in my piloting years none of the propellers on my single-engine Cessna ever once mysteriously stopped moving. 

Our schools for some sad years now have been failing to educate the mass of people on even the simplest levels in an attempt to never leave even the slowest student behind, embracing brilliant ideas such as open book testing and question-by-question pre-coaching so a high majority will pass achievement exams and the schools will thus look competent. Consequences of this trend have recently surfaced in the news as arrogant, affluent parents have been caught bribing officials to wedge their over-privileged, under-educated, and lazy offspring into prestigious colleges. 

So I guess we should not be surprised to be burdened with a couple generations of idiots in even high well-paid places.


Monday, December 9, 2019

Kitty O’Neil

     In 1976, on pure speculation and little cash, I drove a tin-can Fiat from North Carolina to Bonneville, Utah, to cover attempts on the Word Land Speed Record in a hydrogen peroxide powered three-wheeled rocket vehicle on the vast salt flats, one for the men’s record, the other for the women’s. The drivers were Hollywood stunt man Hal Needham and beautiful part-Cherokee stunt woman Kitty O’Neil, who had been deaf since stricken by three childhood diseases at once. Kitty had already been an Olympic diver, had become the first woman member of Stunts Unlimited, providing stunts on demand to film makers, and had raced motorcycles in the grueling Baja 500. At only five feet two inches and 100 pounds she was small but nonetheless impressive with an infectious radiant smile. I interviewed and photographed her and sold my article to The Saturday Evening Post, and Reader’s Digest reprinted it.

     Kitty battered down many barriers, overcoming cancer and meningitis. Consider her deafness alone; imagine never hearing another human voice, or music, or a breeze teasing through pine trees, or a rain shower, or a competitor’s racing motorcycle coming up on her from behind, or even her own voice. To converse she read lips and spoke in a monotone.

     She performed many daunting stunts, including a record 180-foot fall from a helicopter. Dressed as Wonder Woman, she leaped in a swan diver’s pose from the top of the Valley Hilton Hotel in Sherman Oaks, California, onto an air bag 127 feet below, the bag looking like a postage stamp from that height. She did stunts in Airport 77, The Blues Brothers, The Bionic Woman, and Smokey and the Bandit. She set 22 speed records on land and water, including water skiing at 104.85 mph, the water like concrete at that velocity. She drove the rocket car on dry lake Alvord in Oregon at an average two-way speed of 512.71 mph, hitting at one point 621 mph. No woman before or since has gone faster. Mattel put out an action figure of her and actress Stockard Channing played her in a movie called Silent Victory.

     She died at 72 of pneumonia in Eureka, South Dakota, in late 2018. I was privileged to have met her.

     It is no coincidence that the independent, beautiful, part-Cherokee, motorcycle-riding love interest in my suspense novel series is named Kitty.


Monday, December 2, 2019

A Miracle becomes a Nightmare

     When I was growing up our black dial three-party-line telephone was the major thing I remember that was molded of plastic. It was a substance called Bakelite, a thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resin invented by Leo Bakeland. Lots of other uses caught on. Buttons, billiard balls, lamps, chess sets, poker chips. Highly flammable celluloid had also been around for some years, used to make things from jewelry to handles for straight razors to thousands of miles of movie film.

     It was early days in the making of our Plastic Planet.

     In my lifetime I’ve seen these miraculous synthetic materials come to be used in every aspect of our lives—even to enhance and extend our lives with plastic contact lenses and lens implants and safety glasses and hard hats and helmets and pacemakers and medicinal syringes and IV bags and implantable artificial joints and prosthetics and medical equipment. Thousands of beneficial products.

     But there is an ever-looming and much larger dark side to our Plastic Planet. In 2020 people around the Earth will buy a million plastic beverage bottles a minute, buy 24 billion plastic-containing pairs of footwear, discard a billion plastic toothbrushes and three trillion plastic cigarette filters and miles of plastic food wrap and millions of other plastic objects after only brief one-time use. Plastic items are easy to throw away—the roadsides everywhere are evidence of that—but the problem is they don’t go away. Tedious, complicated, and expensive recycling is only making an insignificant dent in the problem.

     It’s fast becoming a nightmare, choking our waterways and oceans and landfills, killing fish, bits of it even lodging in our bodies. Creating an ugly landscape of lingering litter everywhere.

     There are things we all could be doing to at least reduce the problem. Carry reusable beverage bottles and cutlery, buy degradable bamboo toothbrushes, donate rather than discard old shoes, store leftovers in glass containers, request paper grocery bags, carry fabric shopping bags, don’t use plastic straws, buy fresh foods not wrapped in plastic. Don’t litter; recycle instead.

     For the sake of our only planet—our only home—we need to do these things and more and teach our kids as well.


A reminder: My new novel Killing Ground is available in print or e-book on Amazon. There's an easy buy link on  Check it out. Maybe a Christmas gift for a reader you know?