Wednesday, December 11, 2013

How to escape crippling fear

Another great post from The Robert D. Smith:

Fear never has a happy face. Therefore smile.
Fear talks in monotone. Therefore speak with emotion and inflection.
Fear looks sloppy. Therefore clean up as if you are going on your first date.
Fear has no manners. Therefore act with grace and politeness.
Fear gives no certainty. Therefore give and seek certainty (from yourself and all others involved) in everything you do.
Fear focuses on all the reasons why you can’t do something. Therefore focus on the reasons why you can.
Fear focuses only on itself. Therefore do all you can to serve others, especially those closest to you.
Fear makes no decisions. You cannot correct a decision that has not been made. This is why fearful people get nothing done.

Refuse to be Afraid! Free yourself. And follow your dreams ...

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Don't take it so seriously

"I have never yet seen or heard anything serious that was not ridiculous."
— Horace Walpole

Friday, November 15, 2013

Refuse to be Afraid

Some time ago I collected a bunch of blog posts and threads into a little book whose name is still the subtitle of this site: Refuse to be Afraid. Free yourself. Dream. A few people have purchased or otherwise seen the book, and I'd like to believe it's done some small good in the world.

I browsed through it again Thursday morning. It's still timely – probably always will be as long as people use fear to try to control other people. It seems today more than ever, the fear mongers are loose on the streets and airwaves and bandwidth everywhere. And so I'd like to quietly remind you of my little book of pep talks, which concludes with a confession:
A funny thing happened to me on my way toward producing a book called Refuse to be Afraid, designed to help people overcome the everyday and extraordinary fears that stand in the way of their freedom and their dreams.

I got scared.

What if everyone already knows this stuff and I’m the last to figure it out? What if I help everyone overcome their fears and it turns out it was good to be afraid — after all, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t really out to get you? What if I’m just writing a collection of clich├ęs that no one can take seriously? What if — What if — ?

 It took two or three extra years for me to finish this book, because I didn’t follow the advice I was laying out in this book. So I bring you these suggestions from personal experience and to say: I know how you feel. I’ve been there. ...

The evidence that my fears were ungrounded is right here: You’re reading the book I was afraid would be ignored and dismissed, the thoughts that I was afraid to share under my own name.

You can get past your fears, too. It gets easier with every step you take — but make no mistake, the fear will never completely go away.

So: you’re scared. So am I — some days more than others. The first step was recognizing that almost all of the time, I was afraid of nothing. I learned that fear is an irrational and useless emotion. It is a seductive and dangerous force that urges us to stay in our comfort zones: Anything more than the quotidian, the familiar, is scary — sometimes a little scary, sometimes downright frightening.

But you were made for more than this. Refuse to be afraid. Free yourself. Dream. And you will succeed.
There are at least three ways to get hold of Refuse to be Afraid, four if you include searching through my blogs for the original entries.

You can find the Kindle version.

You can find the .epub version for other ereaders.

You can have the good old-fashioned paperback.

Yes, this is a pitch for you to separate yourself from a few pennies. I continue to believe you could use this message for those days when you've had enough of the overwhelming message of the age: Be afraid! It's a scary world! You can't protect yourself from the monsters! We can rescue you!

They're lying to you. Refuse to be afraid. Free yourself. Dream.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Fire yourself today, please

This article by The Robert D. Smith is a remarkable slap upside the head and shot across the bow for anyone who thinks their lot in life is out of their control.
This is your life! This is not a dress rehearsal or a practice run. This is the real thing. Time is limited. You are on a deadline. It ends at midnight tonight. ... It is time to start acting like your butt is on the line. Fire yourself today if you don’t show up, and measure up. Then hire the new you tomorrow ...

Stop acting like you’re protected from your own incompetence. That is a lie. You are an individual and this is your life. Period. 
 Read the whole article here.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

I'm thinking, I'm thinking!
Thank you for checking in to see if I have anything new to say. I have been watching the passing parade with some interest. It seems now more than ever we must heed H.L. Mencken's oft-repeated caution, "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." I've seen some folks around the Internet have corrupted the quote to say "most of them imaginary," but I assure you, Mencken said all. And certainly all of the hobgoblins that have been conjured by the practical politicians of late have been imaginary. Yet still folks clamor to be led to safety. If you want to get from here to there, son, use your feet.

I have many opinions regarding what's happening in America these days, and sometimes they sneak out when I see something especially sophomoric from a Facebook Friend. Mostly I see people willing to blame the deterioration of liberty over the past 20 years on the major political party they are not affiliated with. Never mind that Obama is just expanding the policies of Bush, who expanded the policies of Clinton. It's the other side's fault that we're in this mess.

So, actually, no, I have nothing new to say, just the same old, same old: Your freedom is in your hands. No one can take it away without your permission, although they certainly will try – your mind and your actions are under your control. An adherence to the Zero Aggression Principle will always stand you in good stead (as will the Tenets of Common Wealth, come to think of it).

And so I occupy my creative time, of late, with the adventures of Myke Phoenix. Although we need heroes in this era, remember there is no hero who can lead you to safety. Myke and friends are just a pleasant diversion.

Refuse to be Afraid. Free yourself. Dream. Taking those three steps are the core of what I have to say.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Puppy love conquers the universe

All I would do if I wrote a column about “serious” things like the exercise in petulance called the government shutdown would be to quote H.L. Mencken. And I have more pressing matters to deal with anyway, like sleeping through the night.

The 8-week-old golden retriever invariably wakes sometime between 1 and 3 a.m. and insists that the world will come to an end if she is not permitted to do some business outside of her puppy holding area. I have as a result become familiar with the night sky and the quiet of early morning.

This is an improvement over the 7-week-old puppy, however. That little beast woke two and three times in the early morning. In time she will sleep all night. Oh please, let it be soon.

We brought the pup into the house to be a companion for Willow The Best Dog There Is. Noble intentions. Have you seen the videos of the children whose parents excitedly say “You’re going to be a big sister!” only to watch the former center of the universe burst into tears and run from the room? I am no longer convinced that Willow wanted a companion.

The 4-year-old who could not stop bringing me the ball so that I could toss it somewhere for her to retrieve has become a forlorn figure tucked in the narrow space between the love seat and the living room wall, head between paws, sulking. She was perfectly happy being the only child, it seems, and is taking her time becoming used to this big sister stuff.

This must be what it is like to introduce a former only child to her sibling. I have no doubt Willow will one day enjoy having a friend of her own species in the house. That day has not yet come.

This is not for a lack of effort on Dejah’s part. Dejah Thoris, Princess of Mars. Yes, named after the immortal Edgar Rice Burroughs character and to give me an excuse to endorse the most underrated film of the 21st century. As if to validate our choice, the night we brought her home the DVR gave us an episode of Elementary featuring guest star Lynn Collins, who memorably brought Dejah Thoris to life in the brilliant (yes, I said brilliant) adventure movie John Carter.

Dejah is a wonderful but challenging puppy — is there any other kind? Last night she emptied Willow’s toy basket. Emptied it. Imagine purchasing a couple of dozen chew toys and balls and keeping them in a basket for your dog to pick from, and then imagine a puppy pulling every one out for examination. “We do clean our house, really, it’s just the puppy —”

Monday morning, the day Dejah turned 8 weeks, we went for what was once Willow’s solitary morning romp, chasing the orange disk across our field. Willow dutifully carried the disk as always and headed to the meadow. I carried Dejah down the steps and set her on the ground.

I noticed something charming. Not long ago the 4-year-old would sprint away like a greyhound, eager to get started on the toss-and-retrieve routine. Today she trotted toward the chasing ground — trotted — and the 8-week-old ran like the wind to keep up with her big sister. An early nod of acceptance? Perhaps. All I know for sure is that it was the cutest image yet.

Mencken? Oh, you’ve heard the quote: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

The practical politicians have been having a field day of late. So far the hobgoblins they warned about have turned out to be niggling irritations like attempting to close the Grand Canyon or Mount Rushmore to sightseers. Somehow life has gone on, people have survived just fine without their federal government, and puppies continue to annoy their big sisters. One day soon, I even expect to get a full night’s sleep.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Now that's a launch

The new Edition 2.0 of The Adventures of Myke Phoenix debuted quietly on schedule Monday .... and what a debut!

This is a screen shot of the Amazon list for "pulp graphic novels" on Tuesday morning - admittedly a narrow category, but look at this company: The Shadow ... Doc Savage ... hokey smokes!!! (Click on the image for a closer look.) To join the growing crowd, check out the links to the Kindle and print editions in the right column. Thanks folks!!!!

shutdown politics

Found on Facebook ...

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Happy Government Shutdown/Obamacare Marketplace Launch Day

H.L. Mencken would be having a field day with our Practical Politician in Chief's efforts to keep the populace alarmed.

My guess? Your life will go on today. Maybe it'll be a good day, maybe it won't, but the federal government's troubles won't affect you dramatically.

What you were told to fear were imaginary hobgoblins.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The joy of laughing out loud

I laughed out loud at least twice this weekend. It was a good weekend.

One LOL came during the Saturday night news when the news reader breathlessly reported, "Green Bay police are looking for three men after robbing a man at gunpoint last night." From the context I understand that three men held up a man Friday night, and police hope to arrest them, but (tears of laughter streaming down my face), that's not what she said.

The other LOL has to be heard to be appreciated, so without further ado, click here:

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The New Adventures of Myke Phoenix

“The universe shifted, and something dark burst from a yawning crack in the nature of being.” And with those words, the adventures of Myke Phoenix began.

A bit of an homage to all of the tropes and formats that have kept me spellbound for decades – comic books, pulp heroes, TV, movies, science fiction, superhero tales – Myke is a crusading journalist in his day job who occasionally swaps bodies with a super-powered ancient warrior named Mychus in order to battle the more challenging challenges facing Astor City, a growing metropolis. We’re not talking challenges like urban sprawl or budget restraints, of course; we’re talking giant spiders and alien invasions and a talking dinosaur bent on world domination, the kind of challenges not easily addressed by a stern editorial.

Myke Phoenix first came to me around 1990 and urged me to share his stories in a regular (monthly?) magazine, comic-book-length stories but told in text form like the old Shadow and Doc Savage stories. I completed four stories and started several others, but self-publishing was an expensive and complicated process in those days, and the stories and the idea sat on the shelf until 2008, when I finally printed The Adventures of Myke Phoenix.

The start-and-stop process of continuing those adventures finally bore fruit earlier this year with the release of The Song of the Serial Kisser and Firespiders, which pick up our story 18 years later in present-day Astor City. I am now in a position to unveil to the world that those are the first two installments of a 12-story arc full of adventures the likes of which, I hope, will
thrill and delight not only those who have been thrilled and delighted by our story thus far but a new generation of enthused Mykelings.

As these breathless words are written, I have a general map of the journey Myke and his friends will be making over these 12 stories and a plan to commit them to words over a specific time frame. The plan involves resuming the story in January with the terrifying Invasion of the Body Borrowers, followed not long afterward by the suspenseful Night of the Superstorm, and then the surprising Duck Man of Astor City, and after that by the long-awaited and near-legendary story called – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

As the story proceeds, we’ll also be following along with audio editions of each episode, for those of you who’d rather listen to stories than stare at your Kindle all day. I plan to release the first two audiobooks in early November and early December, respectively. Then watch for the simultaneous release of the ebook and audio versions of Invasion of the Body Borrowers and subsequent episodes.

Also coming this fall will be a new print edition of the original Adventures of Myke Phoenix, which is currently available only for Kindle. The new edition will include the first appearance in print anywhere of Song of the Serial Kisser as a preview for the new adventures.

If you want to keep updated on the progress of these projects, just send me a note to with the words “Myke Phoenix” in the subject line. I’ll be starting a conversation and sending out occasional emails chronicling the adventure of preparing these adventures, including early alerts when firm release dates are set. (P.S. I won’t share your email or anything about you with anyone else. The only purpose here is to keep you informed about this endeavor.) I'm also relaunching the Myke Phoenix Facebook page for more frequent updates.

I am excited to be diving back into the amazing world of Mychus the Warrior and his friends. You may not be quite as excited as I am, but you will be. You will be!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Coffee and conversation go a long way

I sat across the table the other day from a friend with whom it turns out I disagree regarding the solutions to national and world problems. We each had a cup of good coffee in our hands, and that was the beginning of an agreement.

I have found that our disagreements are over the solutions to the challenges we face, not in our core values. The tea partier and the socialist agree that it is bad for people to go hungry, that it is bad for people to do harm to others or to themselves, that it is bad to lie and cheat and steal and murder.

One side doesn’t trust big government. One side doesn’t trust big corporations. Me, I think they’re both right: I just don’t trust “big” anything.

Big loses sight of the individual. Big attempts to find solutions that are one-size-fits-all and misses our wonderful differences. Big pushes masses of snow aside and rarely notices that each snowflake is completely different from every other snowflake.

The answers to our troubles are local, specific and individual. But most of all they involve recognizing that we share the same values of common decency.

When you buy into the myths that you believe about tea partiers or socialists or Republicans or Democrats, you blind yourself to the reality that we’re all in this together. When I look past my prejudices, I find people who share the same ideals that I have, even within the ranks of big government and big corporations. The important thing is to get to know the individuals rather than make assumptions about them based on the myths.

It saddens me that a group of local folks find it necessary to establish something called The Civility Project. It ought to be common sense that we find solutions by working together in harmony rather than dismissing each other on the basis of political philosophy or religion or skin color or some other dividing factor. It ought to be common sense that understanding and accepting our differences is a key to finding common ground.

But they’re right: We have become so accustomed to being rude and angry with one another – believing that those who view life differently are not just wrong, but evil – making sport of belittling each other like playground bullies – that a refresher course in getting along can be valuable.

For what it’s worth, the next offering of this basic training in civility is scheduled 6:30-8:30 p.m. Sept. 17 in the Washington Island School Commons. If that time and place don’t work, you can learn more by visiting

 But before then, take time to listen past the talking points and the sound bites, take time to consider what it is that the other person believes, what basic problem the other person wants to solve. You may notice that you share the same objectives even if you disagree about the solution.

I’m fairly confident you’ll find you have more in common than appreciation for a good cup of coffee.

Cross-posted to Door County Advocate

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Every day we choose to create or to destroy

It’s the morning after an audience of more than 150 people came to the great mansion now called Ellison Bay Manor to enjoy a concert of chamber music, savor hors d’oerves and wine, and tour the building and grounds. I played a very small role in that event, handing out programs and pouring wine.

And this morning, I consider all of the human effort that must come together to form a single event such as this.

First a huge contingent of artisans and craftsmen must come together to build a house large enough to hold several hundred people – no, before that they must cut the trees, mine the iron, quarry the stone, carve a space out of the wilderness to set the home, then assemble the home.

Three talented men need to compose patterns of music that are pleasing to the ear. Five musicians must study and practice, each of them for years, to gain the ability to interpret a fragment of those patterns and blend their efforts to recreate the sounds that the composers heard. Food must be grown – plants and animals – shipped from miles away, processed and prepared in a way that is pleasing to the palate.

Transportation must be arranged to bring people to the door, because this was built as a home and the driveway has limited parking space – wait! A team must build each of the machines that transport us all, each machine itself comprised of many parts, each of which had to be crafted.

Thousands of people working in consort, and each contributing the talent and effort of their years of experience, to do their bit to bring a bit of beauty to the world, a bit of happiness to other people’s lives.

You might say it’s a miracle to bring that many people together to accomplish all this, or you might say it’s simply (simply! This great complicated organism cannot be described simply) the nature of humanity to work together on tasks that a single one of us could not achieve on their own, but to which each of us can contribute a unique, essential piece.

I consider the years and years that each and every one of the hundreds of people in that house brought to their contribution – and how that scene is repeated daily in thousands of place, thousands of events, individuals and teams creating beauty and utility and service for thousands of others, building something special with every breath –

And then I emerge from that place and hear the talk of poison gases and measured conversations about how many bombs are appropriate to be dropped in retaliation for the retaliation against the retaliation that began with the retaliation, and I am shocked and confused that this near-miraculous everyday creation of beauty and service is interrupted so often by similar forces marshalled to tear it all back to pieces.

Why? What leads men and women capable of building great works to tear down instead? Minds and hands work together to create unspeakable beauty. Similar minds and hands work together to wreak unspeakable horror.

We choose each day to work to create or to destroy, to encourage or to disparage. We must find a way to promote and protect the creators and to keep the destroyers in check.

Cross posted to Door County Advocate

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Talking life and death with Keta

Keta Steebs and Jay Zahn, July 2012
One of the most interesting conversations I ever had with Keta Steebs was when she told me about how she’d died. It struck me so that when I got back to my car, I jotted down everything I could remember from the talk.

Four months after she actually passed away, the other day I moved one of my endless stacks of paper and found those notes. And I missed her all over again.

Keta, whose reporting and reflections about her beloved Door County graced these pages for more than 40 years, had taken up temporary residence at Golden Living Center-Dorchester while she recovered from some trouble with her lungs. I went up the hill from the Advocate office to visit her a couple of times. Both times she did her best to be her usual robust self; the second time she was also very pensive.

Not long after my first visit, it seemed, she had come as close to dying as she would before the actual time.

“I died,” she said succinctly, as she would. “It was very spiritual; the family was gathered … but then I kind of bumped back.”

From the look in her eyes, I could see that rather than being alarming or frightening, the experience had given her a sort of peace. All that remains of what she told me about that feeling are the scribbled words, “but not afraid.”

She talked that day about how much she enjoyed the letters she’d been receiving since 1973 from men who admired her work and struck up a correspondence or relationship. “But not romantic,” she said — romance had been reserved for Herman Steebs, her husband of 32 years, taken from her too early at the end of 1982.

She mentioned her dear friends Jay Zahn and Tom Groenfeldt, who often accompanied her to plays or art receptions around the peninsula. “Jay and I, Tom and I have such interesting relationships,” she said with a wistful sigh. “We just enjoy each other’s company so much.”

I remember what appeared to be genuine surprise in her eyes when she confessed, “I’ve become nice.” Reflecting on her early life and career, she said, “I used to be a —” and then she lowered her voice, and I don’t remember if she spelled out “B-I-…” or if she actually whispered the word that rhymes with witch. I can’t speak to the truth of her statement, having only known the nice Keta in the 11 years I knew her.

The conversation turned to her funeral and the accompanying meal — “I think everyone likes sloppy joes, don’t you think?” — how she planned to be cremated and how most important she wanted people to laugh that day. She did get her wish on that count; there were enough Keta stories told after the service for a full afternoon of laughter.

“I’d like to die laughing,” she told me. “Wouldn’t that be nice?” In reality, she died in her sleep, but two nights earlier she had laughed and celebrated her 88th birthday with her friends and family — close enough.

Cross posted to Door County Advocate

Monday, August 19, 2013

In which H.L. Mencken embraces The Imaginary Revolution

Thoughts on government, “Its Inner Nature,” in which H.L. Mencken endorses the themes of my book The Imaginary Revolution, available for Kindle here and in print there.

There is seldom, if ever, any evidence that the new government proposed would be any better than the old one. On the contrary, all the historical testimony runs the other way. Political revolutions do not often accomplish anything of genuine value; their one undoubted effect is simply to throw out one gang of thieves and put in another. After a revolution, of course, the successful revolutionists always try to convince doubters that they have achieved great things, and usually they hang anyone who denies it …

The ideal government of all reflective men, from Aristotle onward, is one which lets the individual alone — one which barely escapes being no government at all. This ideal, I believe, will be realized in the world twenty or thirty centuries after I have passed from these scenes and taken up my public duties in hell.

Friday, August 16, 2013

A Mencken Chrestomathy

I brought it home from the library and have only browsed so far, but I'm going to enjoy any book that offers in the first five minutes:
I do not believe in democracy, but I am perfectly willing to admit that it provides the only really amusing form of government ever endured by mankind.

* * * * *

Monarchy was fundamentally not a defender of the faith at all, but a rival and enemy to the faith. Democracy does not promote liberty; it diminishes and destroys liberty. And communism, as the example of Russia already shows, is not a fountain that gushes peace, justice and plenty, but a sewer in which they are drowned.

Thursday, August 15, 2013


Beeker Belle - the bell-shaped cat - was bigger than she should have been. This was a function of her habit of plopping herself down in front of a food bowl and emptying it. All of them. At one time we had seven cats, seven bowls. Beeker batted cleanup. Hence her nickname, The Fat Cat.

We met her when she was what? two years old? and residing in the local shelter in 2001. She was saved from what happens to unwanted cats by her uncanny resemblance to my recently passed feline friend Baxter, who (sorry guys) remains my favorite cat ever. My first glimpse of Beeker led me to gasp, well up, and exclaim, "I'm not ready for this." But I was. And we took her home. She wasn't Baxter, but she had a sweetness all her own.

She clearly had been a mother at some point in her life, because she liked to groom the other cats if they'd let her lick. When Hemi took ill last February and lost the ability to walk, and I came to take him to his final vet appointment, she was curled up on his cold back legs, having kept him warm in the night.

She had lost her prodigious appetite in recent days, and Tuesday night I found her lying in the litter box, not much interested in - or unable to find - a more comfortable place. I placed her gently in the easy chair and planned to check back in the morning. She apparently fell asleep and stayed asleep. Wednesday morning I found her with Boop - another one of our geriatric cats - curled up against her to keep her warm. Boop always means well, but he was unable to warm her up enough this time.

We had seven cats when we decided we had too many and it was time to let attrition take its course. Now we have four. Strangely, each of our losses has been the second-youngest cat. Our survivors are approximately 17, 17, 15 and 6 years old. I should probably introduce you to them now, while their stories are still progressing, instead of when there's nothing left to say.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

You are not a number

One of my life epiphanies came in the last radio studio that I worked in, talking to a gay co-worker about the issue of marriage. I was, and continue to be, of the belief that of course gay people can get married; all you need is someone willing to perform the ceremony.

The issue comes down her strong desire to convince the government to recognize the “legitimacy” of the marriage by issuing a license. And then came the epiphany.

Why do you need a license to get married? Why do you need the state’s permission, in a free society, for something as personal as a lifetime commitment to another human being? Put another way, marriage is essentially a religious or spiritual ceremony; in a country that recognizes religious freedom, what is the government’s business in regulating a religious ceremony?

I am similarly puzzled by the fuss over immigration. Why does the government need to track the whereabouts of peaceful, law-abiding, hard-working people? I understand the need to monitor criminals and terrorists, but most of us are neither. What need is served by “processing” innocent human beings as they enter or leave the country?

I understand it’s more efficient to treat us all like potential criminals and terrorists, but efficiency is not the mission of a society where all are to be considered innocent until proved guilty.

All of this processing tends to group individuals by skin color, or ethnic origin, or sex, or sexual habits, or some other category. What is the point of all this? It is to create a shorthand that obliviates the individual – “those people” tend to act and think in a certain way, and by grouping them into a category, we need not do the hard work of getting to know the individual. She is a black woman; he is a white man of European descent; he is a Republican; she is gay; he is a Democrat; she is a pro-life activist; he is a Jew – from such groupings come a host of assumptions, and you need not probe any deeper to know the person.

Six billion people live on this planet, and it is impossible to know and understand them all, and so the marketer, the government and the bigot seek a shorthand.

It may indeed be true that people who seem to belong in one of these arbitrary categories tend to think and act in a certain way, but you do yourself and the other person an injustice by assuming that he or she actually thinks and acts that way before you’ve gotten to know that person.

Take care before you consign an individual to a group, because where there are no individuals, there are no individual rights – and that may eventually include the individual you meet in the mirror every morning.

In a memorable moment in a memorable bit of speculative fiction, the lead character in “The Prisoner” tires of his captors’ insistence that his name is Number Six and screams, “I am not a number, I am a free man!” That is the whole point.

Cross-posted to Door County Advocate

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

If not now, when?

What is it you've been meaning to do?

The time to do it is now.

"It can wait; I have time to get it done." Perhaps. But time runs out.

The time you have left is already under way.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A quiet, urgent voice is stilled

It happened so suddenly, it still hasn’t sunk in. First, the unexpected news from a friend I haven’t seen in years, telling me that David Brandt is deathly ill. A short phone call to tell him I’d see him soon, and then six days later that was no longer an option.

I’d always look for Dave when I dropped in at a contentious Liberty Grove Town Board meeting, and he’d be there, engaged in conversation with someone. He was concerned about the town, the state, the nation, the world, and not afraid to point the way to a better direction.

Last Jan. 13, the little prompt on Facebook asked, “How are you feeling,” and he wrote, “How am I feeling? Concerned. ‘Sad will be the day when the American people forget their traditions and their history, and no longer remember that the country they love, the institutions they cherish, and the freedom they hope to preserve, were born from the throes of armed resistance to tyranny, and nursed in the rugged arms of fearless men.’ Roger Sherman, signer of the Declaration of Independence.”

That was David Brandt: He was no longer afraid, if he ever had been, to tell it like he saw it. He believed in freedom, he believed in God, and he believed in standing up for those beliefs.

I listened to the recording for the first time in seven years the other night. I’d had this idea of doing the definitive series on drunken driving – or had he suggested it? – and I sat down with David and his wife, Kari, in April 2007 to talk about their daughter Amanda.

The series got lost in the shuffle when I transferred to Green Bay for three years, but the Brandts got their message out anyway about Amanda, who was killed Sept. 25, 2006, with another girl when their car went out of control on Wisconsin 42 after a night of heavy drinking. She was 19 but somehow managed to convince a bartender to help her reach three times the legal limit.

David was heartbroken and angry, but he spoke quietly – his voice wavering – as he questioned people’s reticence about telling young people not to make the mistakes it seems young people have been making forever.

“The notion that because ‘I was there,’ because ‘I did this when I was a kid,’ that somehow I’m a hypocrite for saying to my own kids ‘Don’t do that,’ well, that’s ridiculous … I’m sorry, that’s a lame excuse.”

David and Kari appeared in a video, “With Whom Will It End,” that the Door County Sheriff’s Department uses to show young people the physical and emotional damage done by drinking and driving, and they have been frequent speakers at the Victim Impact Panels that convicted drunken drivers must attend.

Every so often the phone would ring and I’d see David’s name on the screen, recognizing that I was about to get a meaty news tip or an encouragement to follow up on a story. Sometimes I was slow to move on those tips, and I’d apologize, but he never seemed impatient – “You’re busy, I know,” he’d say, in a gentle tone that made me realize I shouldn’t be too busy to get the news out.

I’ll miss those calls.

He had a seizure, and they found tumors in his lungs and brain, and they told him he had three or four months. It was more like 10 days.

I was at a loss for words – this is the third week since he passed July 20, and only now the words are coming, in part because of what he said on the recording six years ago, about a friend who approached him months after Amanda’s death.

“She said, ‘I wanted to call but I didn’t know what to say,’” David said. “I just said, ‘Well, for what it’s worth, I don’t know how to respond.’ You know, sympathy … whenever it’s offered genuinely, it’s always helpful.”

They’ll celebrate David’s life at 5 p.m. Thursday at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Ellison Bay. The Cowboy Church band plans a musical prelude beginning at 4:15 p.m.

This was a man.

Cross-posted to Door County Advocate

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Stop Looking Back

I spend way too much time in the mode I was in Monday, fretting about what I have not done in the past. I wrote the book A Scream of Consciousness to remind us all (including me) that all we have is the present and the only way to avoid fretting about the past is to do something now.

I wrote this song for much the same reason.

Stop Looking Back

When I was an old man, I wanted wealth and fame.
Now that I’m a young man, I only want to sing.
Stop looking back, that’s yesterday.
Stop looking back, this is today.
When I was a wise man, I needed to play the game.
Now that I’m a foolish man, I don’t need anything.
Stop looking back, it doesn’t pay.
Stop looking back, this is today.

Go on, get up and straighten your head.
Great tapestries start with one single thread.

When I was a rich man, the streets were paved with gold.
Now that I’m a poor man, I walk with good, true friends.
Stop looking back, that’s not the way.
When I was a dead man, I was afraid of getting old.
Now that I’m a live man, I know how the story ends.
Stop looking back, that’s yesterday.
Stop looking back, this is today.
This is today — stop looking back!

April 11, 2009 (Concept and some words 2004)

Monday, August 5, 2013

25 victims of the procrastination monster

The procrastination monster is sitting on my shoulders, big time. As I’ve written before, procrastination is one expression of fear.

What am I afraid of? Who knows? At this point, who cares? I just need to kill the beast.

I sat down over the weekend to see what the procrastination monster is blocking. Some projects have been waiting as long as two or three years, or more.

The list of WPB projects that are still awaiting the light of day includes:

√ At least eight adventures of Myke Phoenix, including three in various stages of completion.

√ Packaging and marketing the Refuse to be Afraid audiobook, which I recorded long ago.

√ Recording, packaging and marketing the A Scream of Consciousness audiobook.

√ Recording, packaging and marketing the Imaginary Revolution audiobook.

√ Producing the next 13-week series of the Uncle Warren’s Attic podcast, episodes 81-93.

√ Finishing the second novel in the trilogy that began with The Imaginary Bomb and concludes (?) with The Imaginary Revolution called The Imaginary Lover. I've conceived a different ending than the one I tossed out in a past musing.

There’s more, but you get the picture. The lack of production is not a result of having no ideas and nothing to do.

It’s the monster.

Probably I should do the Curly thing, just pick one and get on it.

Perhaps I should ask: What would YOU like to see (or hear next)?

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Lessons from our pooches in living life to its fullest

Willow The Best Dog There Is™
My friend Wally Conger writes about his furry friend Cheyenne's unceasing enthusiasm for eating the same kibble every day for years.

I think if we pay attention, our canine companions teach us many things about making the most of our finite time on this planet.

Wally had one of those a-ha moments while preparing the meal for Cheyenne the other day:
Don’t you wish you could harness her kind of passionate eagerness for each day?
Because as someone whose name I’m too lazy to look up once pointed out, expectancy is the atmosphere for miracles.
Even the little day-to-day stuff you take for granted can bring inspiration and opportunity.
Read the whole post here.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

I just want to go my way

One of the great characters in contemporary fiction is Capt. Malcolm Reynolds, owner of the cargo ship Serenity in Joss Whedon’s brilliant television show Firefly and the film named after the ship. At a pivotal moment in Serenity, Reynolds meets his main adversary, a nameless assassin we know simply as The Operative, and during their conversation comes an electrifying exchange that sums up Reynolds’ character in 11 words.
Operative: I have to hope you understand you can’t beat us.

Reynolds: I got no need to beat you; I just want to go my way.
Consider how powerful a message those words convey. I don’t need to convince you that my way is right and yours is wrong; I simply desire to live my life on my terms and let you live your life on your terms, as long as we do no harm to each other. There is plenty of room on this vast world for both of us.

The Operative’s response is that Reynolds can go his way if he surrenders a friend to be harmed; for Reynolds, of course, this is an unacceptable condition. There always seems to be someone who wants to place conditions on freedom.

How much grief occurs because someone decides it is not enough to live and let live: Some people must be beaten and not allowed to go their way. Six billion unique human stories on this planet; imagine if we all agreed to let those individual stories play out, restrained only by a prohibition on doing harm to others.

Monday, July 29, 2013

While you can

So much to say, so much to do …

We all have the same number of minutes per day, but we don’t have the same number of days. We know how many minutes per day we have; we don’t know how many days.

Fret not over the reality that your days are finite; what can you say or do that is infinite, that lasts, that will still be making its impact when you are gone?

Say it. Do it.

Say what you can, do what you can, while you can.

And fret not that you could have done more: You did this.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Cup plants in bloom

We only went to the store once, about five years ago or more, and I keep wanting to go back. The place specializes in native wild prairie plants of Wisconsin, like the cup plant.

I was charmed by the story of the cup plant, so named because the cup-shaped leaves hold water after a rainfall, providing a source for insects and other beasts. The late-summer blossoms were a bonus.

The cup plant planting was the most successful among the flora we brought home that day. I planted about six of them along with about six of another, red-flowering plant, but I didn’t notice that the cup plant grows to about 6 feet tall, and the other plant did not, so the smaller flowers got overwhelmed.

The original planting is in the upper left-hand portion of the photo. Over the years seeds have slowly allowed the plants to spread, until now we have a veritable grove of cup plants. Red the gardener is tempted to cut them back, but I am the Wildflower Man and defend their right to migrate.

This is my favorite time, when the cup plant flowers begin to blossom, although it alarms me a bit because it hardly feels like “late summer” at this point. Actually, I have a new favorite time.

That day we also brought home a couple of scrubby little things called compass plants. For three or four years, they dutifully issued forth some interesting but inauspicious green leaves every season, sort of like elongated oak leaves close to the ground. But two summers ago, one of the plants shot up an incredible, 7-foot-high stalk that broke out in yellow flowers, and the next summer the other plant did the same. It was like the ugly duckling of foliage, producing not much to look at until suddenly one day a swan.

The compass plant stalks are up; one is at least 7 feet high and the other about 4 feet. One of these days soon, the flowers will emerge. I can’t wait.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Rest of Me

Sleepiness has overcome the house. 7:23 a.m. And no one stirs. Even the dog lifts her head and struggles to keep her eyes open.

Quiet. Blessed quiet. The tick of the clock is the loudest sound in the room. I can hear the scratch of the pen against paper.

No electronic drone of conversation from miles away. No motors or engines. A smattering of bird calls.

The sigh of the dog, suddenly impatient, awaiting – what? attention? food?

To one who sits and waits all of the time, the joy of sitting and waiting is lost.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Country roads call to the old warriors

Gibraltar Bluff Road now
The first time I ever noticed Door County, I was living far from here and heard about people unhappy with plans to remove grand old trees from the edges of state highways in Northern Door. That discussion has reached the town roads now, 25 years later.

Wally and Rita Brandt loaned me a framed photograph they have of a path through a woods. It’s a dirt road, barely more than a one-lane driveway with a little grass growing between the ruts left by tires.

It’s a beautiful photo, but my breath was really taken away when Rita said, “That’s Isle View Road before they paved it.”
Isle View Road then

I suddenly understood what led Norb Blei to write an ode to Isle View, “The Death of a Country Road,” which begins, “It was the kind of road one came upon unexpectedly, and because there was a quietness to it, a mystery, you followed it wherever it might lead.”

Isle View Road, of course, recently got a repaving all these years later, after literally years of discussion and arguments about whether to make the asphalt ribbon 18 feet or 20 feet wide, and how big the shoulders should be, and the “clear zone” on either side of the roadway.

I drove Isle View again last month after the gravel was down, but not the pavement, and found myself thinking that the 18-or-20 debate seemed like splitting hairs.

That same day I introduced myself to Garrett Bay Road, which the town of Liberty Grove is tackling next. It’s a modest, pleasant road, through open fields, up and down hills, through forested land, and of course along Garrett Bay. Once, I understand, it was the main road between Ellison Bay and Gills Rock. It’s still peaceful and quiet.

The Liberty Grove Town Board seems to have learned from the acrimony of the Isle View Road debate and is listening carefully to residents’ concerns. As a casual observer and lover of old stuff, I frankly didn’t see any real need to repave Garrett Bay Road, let alone widen any of it, but I was there to enjoy the ride, not study the wear of the asphalt.

The threat to country roads seems to have migrated south, where it sounds like a dug-in Gibraltar Town Board on July 3 mostly dismissed the pleas of property owners unhappy with the 42-foot-wide swath that Gibraltar Bluff Road now wanders through, with rustic Cottage Row Road now in the sights of the clear-cutters.

These clear zones along the road allow you to drive faster and see deer and other potential obstacles well in advance. But why would you want to drive faster along these roads, except in an emergency, and do you build a road for every day or for the rare emergency?

Red and I had a discussion after the Fish Creek fireworks after I opted for “the road less traveled” getting home and took Cottage Row Road. We crept through a crowd of people as they walked to their cars parked along the road, which wasn’t built with a parking lane.

There was barely room for a car to get by, and newly started cars pointed north had to wait for the line of southbound cars to clear before they could make much progress. It was very slow going.

If there had been an emergency, it could have been a disaster. But there was no emergency. The road eventually cleared. And Cottage Row Road became Cottage Row Road again.

Red saw the clogged traffic and the mob and thought it might be prudent to find a way to “modernize” the roadway while preserving its character. I saw the old stone walls and the big trees and thought how lovely a country road is, just as it is.

After the July 3 meeting Alan Stover, a Gibraltar property owner from Brookfield whose family has been paying taxes on a bit of Gibraltar Bluff Road since 1935, wrote a letter to the board as a member of the original ownership that established the southern half of that road.

“The area was heavily wooded and we wanted that canopy of trees to remain,” Stover said. “We wanted a scenic path that followed the contour of the land with a certain meandering style adding to the beauty of the ‘subdivision.’”

Stover noted the board’s response that the clear zone “doesn’t look that bad” and observed, “That answer shows even they concede it’s ugly.”

And he recalled the fight back in 1988 when 10,000 signatures asked Gov. Tommy Thompson to scale back the Wisconsin 42 project: “Where are the old warriors that stood against dumb ideas?”

The Stovers can’t vote in the town of Gibraltar, but say “it is not a reason to disrespect our views.” I don’t vote there either – my own stake in Door County is not far from the welcome sign along Wisconsin 57 – but I can and do advocate for a little sanity in protecting the lovely back country roads that bring so many people here in the first place.

Cross-posted to Door County Advocate

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Recommendation from a friend of 6-foot rabbits

Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be” - she always called me Elwood - “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

Elwood P. Dowd
By Mary Chase

Monday, July 15, 2013

TANSTAMT: There Ain't No Such Thing As Multi-Tasking

I heard someone say the other day there’s no such thing as multi-tasking.

What this phenomenon is – “doing several things at once” – is really a constant shifting of attention from one project to another. One moment this item has your full attention, and the next moment that item has your full attention, and the moment after that an entirely different item is on your radar screen. Then you rotate around and this item has your full attention again, then that item and the entirely different item, and so on.

But is it your full attention? It takes a while to get into a rhythm on any task. Do you really get fully into that rhythm before you stop abruptly and work on something else? Would you be better served by focusing entirely on the first item until it is completely addressed, then moving on to the second one, and then the third?

Because you don’t have the time taken in the constant start-and-stop of momentum to deal with, perhaps it would be more efficient to “single task” the to-do list. Allot time to each of the tasks, but work them one at a time rather than “all at once.” The way the brain works, you’re really doing them all one at a time anyway, but with a scattered focus.

I suspect Curly in City Slickers had it right: The ultimate secret is: “One thing. Just one thing.”

Friday, July 12, 2013

‘Creative processes are like stew’

Sara Groves
I have a book-sized, faux-leather-bound journal that I write in while sitting in the easy chair four feet away from the computer screen. I write in it with a quaint little device called a pen.

Our computers and smartphones are the most amazing tools that have emerged in my lifetime, but I think there’s a downside to staying plugged into them constantly.

Around the time that I launched into what became my novel The Imaginary Revolution, I began taking regular time to sit with the book full of blank pages, using it to think and create without electronic assistance. Some of my better ideas, essays and stories have flowed from the pen and into the paper journal before being translated into electronic bits and bytes.

One of my favorite creators, Christian singer-songwriter Sara Groves, addressed the need to unplug in an interview about her album Invisible Empires, and specifically the song “Obsolete,” where she writes in part, “Are you and I an apparition/Flickering up on the screen/Sending out our best transmissions/Waiting in our velveteen?/Tell me you can really see me.”
“I was trying to process my own feelings about technology – which stresses me out. It makes me feel like I’m not doing enough. In a way you're aware of what everyone is doing on their best day. Everyone is putting themselves out there, everyone is advertising, everyone is Madison Avenue for themselves. I have a hard time with that. I have a hard time doing it for myself – Troy [her husband and business partner] does it for me.

“I’m not on Facebook. When it came out I felt a divine message - I very clearly felt the Lord say, ‘You’re not going to get to do that. Right off the bat I’ll set you free.’ Part of me wants to do it, but there’s a bigger part that feels relieved.

“‘Obsolete’ is a reflection on ‘what are we doing?’ Not to say that the Internet is of the devil, but I hear people say things like ‘I couldn't live without my phone or the Internet.’ I don't want to demonize everything, but I do believe that we worship the things that we made with our own hands … Eugene Peterson talks about doing slower things, which are actually the way that your brain is made. I’ve been reading articles about the rapid-fire influx of information – that just the ding on your phone tells your brain that new information is coming and you literally lose your train of thought the moment that bell rings. Your brain is hungry for the new information, but the way your brain works the creative process are interrupted.

“Creative processes are like stew; they have to come to a boil. It’d be like trying to cook something but turning the oven on and off. I’ve been feeling that recently – having difficulty writing and feeling peace. I feel frenetic. A lot of this record started with the idea of ‘Obsolete’ and it's a very precious song to me – my favorite song on the record.”
Give yourself permission to walk away from the screen and turn off your phone. It doesn’t have to be for a long time – just long enough to think things through and reacquaint yourself with yourself.

Free yourself from the electronic web for a while, and dream.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

10 good questions

• What will you do with the time that's left?

• Why are you here?

• What is the best use of your gifts?

• How can you make the world a better place?

• How can you make your life a better life?

• What makes you happy?

• What makes you free?

• What gives you life?

• What are you going to make?

• When are you going to make it?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

One memorable Independence Day

We found the best place to watch the Fish Creek fireworks Saturday night, but it’ll probably never be quite the best place ever again. That’s the funny thing – and the fun thing – about life: Each experience is a mixture of elements that will never quite mix the same way again, because of the infinite variety of ingredients.

In this case, those ingredients involved a car leaving its parking space two blocks from the water just as we drove up, so after a short walk we had blundered into nearly a front-row seat for the big show.

After what has seemed like weeks if not months of weekend work on our new house and yard, Red and I chose to spend a few hours enjoying Door County, which was the ultimate purpose of building here in the first place. We dined in Baileys Harbor, where the temperature along Lake Michigan was a good 15 degrees cooler than our hot bayside yard, and then went over to catch Fish Creek’s famous Venetian Boat Parade and festival-ending fireworks.

From our vantage point we could see a group of young ladies in dark suits, which appeared to have electric lights built into them, clamber into a boat decorated with Christmas lights. With a whoop and a holler, they pulled out of the slip and headed toward the parade staging area.

We could see the lighted boats gathering in the harbor as the fireworks barge was slowly pushed from the shore. When the time came for the parade through the harbor, we could see the dark-suited ladies, or more precisely we saw the lights, which made them appear to be stick figures dancing in the night. Bringing up the rear was a stately yacht decked out in lights, including U.S. flags on the bow and a fully lighted Christmas tree on the stern, with a powerful sound system booming “America the Beautiful” over the water.

Promptly at 10 p.m. the fireworks began. And it was quite a display for the next 20 minutes or so.

What most made it memorable was a bit of serendipity. We happened to have camped our yard chairs near a young couple who just loved fireworks. Loved them. The woman especially was delighted by every red glare of the rockets and every bomb bursting in air.

It was like having a color commentator describing the show: “Oooh. Crinklies. Cracklers. I like those – and those. That one’s like a bow tie. Oh, a perfect circle, or maybe it’s more of an oval. Whooo! Here comes a big, big one. Oh! Waterfalls! I like the bright sparklies. Ooh, nice: Boom! Ooh! A little surprise at the end there.”

She seemed to react to every explosion and appreciate each blast of light. Her companion punctuated her enthusiastic chatter with an occasional “More! More like that!” or “Oh, that one’s coming all the way down to the water.” 

This was, indeed, one terrific fireworks show. The grand finale was as grand as independence itself, a crescendo of sight and sound that kept coming and kept coming until it flamed itself out to a hearty roar that seemed to come from every nook and cranny along the shore. The pyrotechnicians even launched a few extra fireworks at the end, as an encore. Beautiful!

The ingredients mixed perfectly. It was a beautiful, calm evening along the water; the crowd was big but not oppressively so; the fireworks display was spectacular; and we had an entertaining narration from a truly appreciative narrator. I should have turned around and told her how much she had enhanced the show, but as crowds do everyone melted away into the night so quickly.

We hope to return another Independence Day weekend and do it again, but it’s hard to imagine the ingredients mixing so perfectly again. That’s why memories are so precious.

Cross-posted to Door County Advocate

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Assault of the imaginary hobgoblins

Every day comes a new example of H.L. Mencken’s imaginary hobgoblins. You know, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

The whole aim of practical politicians is to tap into fear and offer up a solution that involves putting your freedom into the hands of overlords who know better and can protect you. Of course, they don’t know better, and they can’t protect you.

I look through my book of notes to myself and see an occasional reflection of each day’s imaginary hobgoblins which didn’t come true. Remember on New Year’s Eve, Congress or President Obama (depending on who you believed was being obstinate) was going to drive the country over the fiscal cliff? In April North Korea was going to launch a nuclear missile any moment and there had been a bird flu outbreak in China. The proposed solution in each case was a government action or new regulation of some sort.

For the upteenth time, my journal quoted Tom Petty: “Most things I worry about never happen anyway.” And they don’t. They even drove over the fiscal cliff a few months later, and the average person barely noticed.

But that doesn’t stop the craven from trying to make you worry, so that you will place your freedom in their hands, clamorous to be led to safety.

They can’t and won’t protect your freedom or lead you to safety. Freedom is a state of mind, and when you trade it for some bit of external security, you have already lessened it.

Refuse to be afraid. Free yourself.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Hiding in plain sight

"What folly not to breathe the air, walk with unfaltering step in open country, find water in a flood; not to discover God, not to savour Him, not to perceive his bounty in all things!"

Jean-Peierre De Caussade
Sacrament of the Present Moment

Friday, July 5, 2013

W.B.’s Book Report: Unicorn Western

It began as a laugh among friends. It has evolved into a nine-novella epic with the promise of two more epics to come. The story of how Unicorn Western came to be is almost as much fun as the actual story.

Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant are two-thirds of a podcasting team that meets weekly to talk about writing and self-publishing. One day the other third, David W. Wright, took exception to Platt’s stated desire to write a western someday. Too much trouble, too much research needed to make it authentic – for example, do you know what color was the smoke from those old six-shooters? Hilarity ensued.

The solution to Wright’s objection: Put a unicorn in the story. That way when people question what appears to be an unrealistic detail, you can respond that this isn’t the real Earth: “If we’ve filled the world with unicorns, I’d say we can do anything we want!”

 A few short months later, the joke is a series of novellas available as ebooks separately or in ebook and print as Unicorn Western: Full Saga – a sprawling tale of magic and prairie justice that spans decades and pays homage to at least nine films along the way. (Because I need an occasional break from electronic screens, I opted for the 690-page book.) There are plenty of in-jokes and winks that will bring a knowing smile or a laugh-out-loud to people familiar with the films and The Self-Publishing Podcast – my favorites are the prophetic owls – but the story creates a mythology all its own and stands up as a rousing yarn despite its goofy origins.

This is not Atlas Shrugged or even Lord of the Rings – the main thing it has in common with those works of literature is its length – but the payoff is definitely worth the long ride; the authors entertain and make you care along the way. Unicorn Western is the reader’s equivalent of a summer blockbuster movie, well worth the time invested and leaving you with anticipation of the sequel(s).

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Independence Day

It is customary on July 4 to reflect on the founding of the United States of America and the precious words set down in their Declaration of Independence, but I have no words better than those of Thomas Jefferson:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
 Last July 4 I posted what amounts to the manifesto of The Imaginary Revolution, the book I was writing that tells the story of two revolutions, one that merely replaced one tyrant with another, and one that brought true change. Here is a link to that document.

The bottom line is that freedom is the default setting of a human being. Government does not grant you freedom; you were born with it. A government may be formed with the intention to secure that freedom, but government is also the most powerful tool for crushing freedom by force. In the end, however, no one can take your freedom without your consent, because freedom is a state of mind.

As I wrote around this time before the 2008 presidential election, "Freedom is not about having the right ruler. Oh, wait, yes it is. Freedom is understanding that I am the boss of me."

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The spirit of Norbert Blei remains in this place

They came to remember; they came to praise; they came to celebrate a man; they came to celebrate this place, and they came to remember the man who described what a special place it was as it was becoming what it is — often with alarm, always with love.

Saturday was a beautiful Door County day, the gardens at Peninsula Players Theatre were growing lush in the early summer sun, and the highways were comfortably filled with travelers on their way to a destination and friends coming here to pay tribute to Norbert Blei, who died April 23 at age 77.

As the Rev. Michael Brecke put it, Blei was a newspaperman, teacher, artist, poet, and critic, “calling us to task when we stopped loving the land and the water in this place,” and a writer.

“He wrote about the characters in this place and then became one,” said Brecke, who also noted Blei’s gravestone reads, “Find me in my books.”

And for an hour or so, they did: Each of the speakers who shared personal experiences about how he had moved their lives also read a bit from his books.

When Tim Stone first came to Door County, he was told by the locals that “if we ever had a prayer of being one of them, we had to read his books.”

And in Blei’s books they found wisdom — Robert Zoschke read “It’s good to pause now and then and see where the hell you were at” and advice not just for writers but all of us — “the important thing is to get the work done.”

They spoke of the man who would write in his converted chicken coop and teach about the writer’s passion at the Clearing and sit at the counter at Al Johnson’s with a cup of coffee, listening and talking.

“I know that there is a coffee table in heaven and I know that they may have a seat for Norb, but I’m sure he’ll elbow his way in and take over in a short time,” said Annika Johnson, who brought along one of the family’s goats named Beelzebub.

“I love his words, I love his voice, I love his mustache,” Julian Hagen said simply before launching into his song “Northern Light,” and Jeanne Kuhns sang “A Song for Norb,” and Pete Thelen and Jay Whitney led a rousing rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” adopted to Door County.

Stone noted that when the Clearing was struggling for survival in 1985, Blei wrote an article for the Chicago Tribune, “Door County’s Clearing: A Secret School in the Woods for Adults,” the reservations began to come in and Jens Jensen’s amazing vision was secured for another generation. There was much talk about the iconic teacher who worked hard to prepare his classes and stayed late at the Clearing to give each aspiring writer personal attention.

But then Bridget Buff came up, and her voice struggled against the tears as she talked about the man who would read to her as she sat in his lap, and make enormous breakfasts and walk her to the bus stop, and mail letters to her even when they lived in the same house, and how “he loved winter and I did not.”

And that was when we remembered the legendary icon was also a man who loved his daughter and his son Christo. The poet who captured the soul and the people of Door County was also a daddy; in fact Norb Blei first came here in 1969 to give them a special place to grow up.

“His home, his heart and his spirit are here forever, and he wouldn’t have it any other way,” Bridget said.

Nor would we.

Cross posted to Door County Advocate

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Enough with the grouping already

The world is plagued by injustices and people who seek to gain by inflicting evil on others. To a certain extent we empower them by fearing them and even by becoming angry at them.

Masquerading as leaders, they are sad and sorry people whose goal seems to be to subtract value from the world. They don’t recognize the inherent worth in every human life — they see only masses to be manipulated and grouped and categorized by skin color or language or gender or habits. To these people every member of a group is expendable and interchangeable.

Defy them: Fight the training that says you can draw conclusions about someone based on the group. See the individual.

Look at you, for example: Others try to define you by the company you keep. But your world view does not march in lockstep with every other person in your group, or else you are a zombie.

You resent when someone accuses you of X because “you believe in Y and everyone who believes in Y also believes in X.” “But I don’t believe in X,” you object. Exactly. So why do you, yourself, lump individuals into groups?

You only have total access to one individual — the man or woman in the mirror — and you can easily see how many ways you are unique. Now, try to wrap your mind around the fact that there are 6 billion sovereign and unique human individuals on this vast planet, each of them equipped with his or her own world view to be explored and discovered. Dismiss them because they’re one of “those people” at your peril. You miss the opportunity to know and learn from some amazing individuals.

Try to shed the idea of “those people” altogether. She is this person. He is this other person. You are yet another individual, able to add value to the world. It’s individuals who accomplish great things.

You diminish the individual by making assumptions based on the group you perceive them to be in. “You’re just like all the others” is an insult because no one is just like all the others, nor are all the others just alike. Break the habit of grouping and discover the personhood of each person around you. Add value to your life by giving value to each person you meet.

Monday, July 1, 2013

It’s all in the percentages: Simple math and the ‘death of the middle class’

How do the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? It’s simple.

I still remember Mr. Damms yelling at our sixth-grade class back in rural New Jersey. He was so frustrated because the whole class was struggling with the concept of percentages.

“Only Bluhm and Smith and maybe Jones, they’re the only ones who get it! What’s wrong with you? You need this!” (I actually forget Smith and Jones’ real names; I only remember the mixed emotion of being singled out for praise and embarrassed about being picked out from the crowd. This was sixth grade, after all.)

I think back on that day when I see so many struggling with what amounts to misunderstanding percentages.

How do the rich get richer? In part it’s our insistence that everyone get the “same” pay raise, defined by percentages – 1 percent, 3 percent, whatever. When Joe Lunchbucket at $10 an hour get a 3 percent raise, he has 30 cents an hour more. Call it a 40-hour week and he’s getting a $12 raise. When Mary Manager at $40 gets the “same” 3 percent, she gets $48 more a week.

Mary used to get $1,200 more than Joe every week ($1,600 minus $400); after everyone gets a 3 percent raise, Mary gets $1,236 more than Joe ($1,648 minus $412). The gap between the highest and lowest wage widens – this isn’t an evil plot by the rich, it’s everyone agreeing that giving the same percentage increase across the board is fair. It’s math.

What Joe needed to do was ask for Mary’s raise – not 3 percent, but $48.

People have the opposite disconnect with taxes. Here, we say most people’s “fair share” is, say, 15 percent but rich people’s “fair share” is 39 percent. Why? How is it fair that the government confiscates 15 cents on the dollar from one taxpayer but his neighbor must pay 39 cents?

If you make $50,000 a year, your 15 percent is $7,500. If you make $1 million, your 15 percent is $150,000 and your tax bill is three times the gross income of your neighbor. But the math-challenged say that’s not fair: The tax bill ought to be $390,000. Why? What makes that fair, if by “fair” we mean equitable treatment?

Is it “fair” because the million-dollar earner has more to surrender? She earned it – who are we to decide the government has a better idea or a more worthy cause for spending her earnings? Do you even realize how absurd it is – when you have already taxed this person what amounts to six, seven, eight times the average person’s entire gross income – to say he has not paid his fair share?

When I hear the arguments for progressive taxation – which is not about progress at all in a positive sense, but is about taking progressively more as a person earns more money – I hearken back to that sixth-grade room and wonder if this is why Mr. Damms was so emotional.

If you don’t understand percentages, you think high earners don’t pay their fair share of taxes.

If you don’t understand percentages, you think it’s fair that all workers receive the same percentage increase.

If you don’t understand percentages, you think raising a sales tax from 4 percent to 5 percent is a 1 percent increase. (It’s 25 percent.)

If you don’t understand percentages, you think there’s a chance you could win the lottery, or at least your money back.

If you don’t understand percentages, you think it’s a great deal to receive a 5 percent reward from a credit card that charges you 27 percent interest.

If you don’t understand percentages, you may think the growing gap between the richest and the poorest is the result of the rich deliberately pushing you down. But you did it to yourself when you gratefully accepted the same percentage increase as your boss. Do that for long enough, and the widening gap should surprise no one – if you understand percentages.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Progress report

I have three creative projects currently in process. The first is this blog; I aim to communicate with the outside world from this mysterious location between my ears, with a goal of sending a message daily at least weekdays.

Then there's the continuing adventures of Myke Phoenix, stalwart protector of Astor City. Conceived nearly a quarter-century ago, Myke finally was revealed to the world in 2008. I began churning out new adventures early this year for Kindle, two new stories within three weeks. The next batch will probably come out in a flurry, too.

Finally, there's Uncle Warren's Attic, the podcast. Been 80 of 'em. I don't want to produce an 81st without plans for more beyond that. Working on that. No, really.

On the side there's the day job, and the animals, and the yard work. I can't use them as an excuse for any lack of visible progress because last summer, when we moved twice and built a house, I managed to write a novel (also available for Kindle, by the by).

A friend of mine left a simple motivating comment not too long ago during a dry spell: "Writers write." I call myself a writer. So I'm writing. By the way, if you call yourself a writer, you should be writing, too. Today and every day. It's easy to call yourself a writer. But what have you written?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Out of step

My friend Wally Conger had a blog with the subtitle “Unfinished essays and spontaneous eruptions on radical politics and popular culture.” I guess that’s what this is; the thoughts are still fermenting.

I’m struck by the growing perception of capitalism as a bad thing, and by “capitalism” I mean a system based on free market, open competition, profit motive and private ownership.

It means people doing their best, hard work in order to accomplish some thing, being it food on the table or a roof overhead or a useful tool or information for the community or the next generation.

How do you (and “we”) move forward without being rewarded for good, hard work? What is the incentive to produce when the more you produce, the more you are taxed and regulated? Human nature never stops being human nature: When the cost of a product or service is too high, the product or service will not be exchanged.

Profit is the discretionary funds left when costs are subtracted from revenue. Profit is the trip to the movies, the dessert, the ball game, the electronic toy. Reduce profits and you reduce the money spent on items beyond food, clothing and shelter.

And yet “profit” is a word said with a sneer and a spit, and “the rich” are reviled as if becoming rich can happen without hard work and dedicated service to others. It’s a puzzlement.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Alcohol is not an excuse

Guy walks into a gas station and calls the sheriff. “I’d like to report a murder, and I did it.” Open-and-shut case, right?

Saturday afternoon in Door County Circuit Court, we found out it was not as simple as that. At least one and perhaps two members of a jury brought in from outside to ensure a fair trial bought the defendant’s argument that he did not intend to kill that woman and her unborn child, even though he spent two agonizing minutes with his hands on her throat literally choking two lives away, and the juror refused to budge from that position.

The defense grasped at the straw that Brian M. Cooper was so, so drunk that he was unable to form the intention to kill, and intent is a key component of the legal definition of first-degree intentional homicide. After all, his blood-alcohol content was measured at 0.39 percent hours after he killed Alisha and Ava Bromfield, nearly five times the current legal limit.

Sitting back in the office I was stunned. I had only been in the courtroom for one afternoon of the weeklong trial. I’d ignored the cautions of the three staff members who saw Cooper testify on Thursday.

He was very convincing, truly remorseful, they said. Over the years working in other communities that have intentional homicide trials more often than once every 11 years, I reassured them that defendants are often sincere and remorseful on the stand, but what kind of a defense is “I was so wasted I can’t remember what I was thinking” for slaughtering someone you purport to have loved?

My colleagues weren’t surprised when the jury foreman said they couldn’t reach a decision. I was surprised. I was angry, then frustrated. Finally I realized he only had to convince one person out of 12, and it appears that’s what he did.

And it wasn’t a complete miscarriage of justice. Even the 12th juror, after all, agreed to find him guilty of sexual assault for his unspeakable actions after he killed them. He can spend up to 10 years in prison for that. And he wasn’t found not guilty — by making no decision, the jury gave the state another chance to put him on trial.

Just out of curiosity I put this question on our online poll: What would you have decided if you were on the jury? Ironically, a few minutes later 12 people had voted; 11 said “guilty on all three counts” and one said “not guilty.” Perhaps it wasn’t a fluke.

And that points to the difficulty of trying to hold people accountable for crimes they commit under the influence of alcohol. There’s always going to be that element in the jury’s minds of “Wow, he was probably as drunk as I was that one night in my life — there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Friends and supporters of Alisha Bromfield’s family took to Twitter during the jury deliberations, tweeting a simple message over and over: “Alcohol is not an excuse.” Of course, people locked in a jury room don’t have access to Twitter, but let’s hope the message was heard everywhere else.

Being wasted may be an explanation —we might understand how someone who is horribly intoxicated could do horrible things — but it’s not an excuse for taking lives, and people who do horrible things under the influence still must be held accountable, whether the weapon of choice is a vehicle or bare hands.

Even Brian M. Cooper knows that. He didn’t call 911 and say, “I’d like to report a horrible mistake” or even “I’d like to report a terrible accident.” He said, more than once, “I’d like to report a murder.”

Cross-posted to Door County Advocate