These autobiographical essays include original and previously published writing (with photos added). They are arranged chronologically and cover as many aspects of my life and creative journey as I can muster. They include musings on question-asking and answer-seeking, lessons learned (or not), family tales, travel adventures, personal stories about land and people, and reflections on how the world changed during my lifetime. The writing is ongoing!
The Jaguar’s Teeth
This introductory essay describes my lifelong journey of question-asking and creative answers. It begins with a snapshot I took of a Mayan ruin during a trip to Mexico in 1974 when I was thirteen years old – a trip that lit a fire that has never gone out.
“Tula changed everything. Something woke up inside of me among the stony statues – something that has not slumbered since. Here’s what I wrote in a little journal I kept: “We arrived in Tula via a very bad and rough road. I thought Tula would be just one temple with some statues on top, but I was wrong. You could see another big mound nearby partly excavated. I took six pictures. I walked over to the top of the unexcavated pyramid.” No one else went with me to this pyramid, probably because it was out-of-bounds. I had my heart set on exploration. I prowled the pyramid until one of the chaperones came rushing over to fetch me, exasperation etched on her face. “What was I doing?” she asked irritably. “Who did I think I was?” Questions I’m still trying to answer to this day.”
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This essay explores the idea of manifest destiny and its effect on my hometown, Phoenix, Arizona. An unwavering sense of exceptionalism and lack of restraint infected Phoenix, as I witnessed first-hand, and had a big impact on my life.
“Progress was good for my parents. They came to a strange land as poor pioneers and prospered along with Phoenix. They lived the American Dream. Their lives were better than their parents’ lives. They had more security, more opportunity, more comfort. They didn’t do without, go hungry, or stand in unemployment lines; they were well-educated, well-fed, and well-blessed with the fruits of an expanding economy. For them, the future was always bright. I developed a different perspective. I came of age during the heyday of progress. Impressed at first, I have lived long enough to see that manifest destiny was not a positive force. I will likely live long enough to see that America is not exceptional after all – that it is subject to the same historical forces that have worn down all great nations throughout the ages.”
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More to come…
THE AGE OF CONSEQUENCES 2008-2011
The following essays were originally published in my book The Age of Consequences: a Chronicle of Concern and Hope. They focus on my efforts and struggles as hope and change become more elusive.
This essay describes my struggle to remain optimistic in the face repeated blows from the Status Quo in my work with the Quivira Coalition. Framed by visits to Yellowstone National Park with my family, I explore an unfamiliar landscape of depression and the start of the journey back to recovery.
“I knew that my idealistic desire to change the world ran the risk of a Don Quixote-like charge at the Status Quo, in the shape of a Windmill, but I had managed to avoid its whirling, indifferent blades up to this point. True, there had been a few near misses in the last year or so, but I had turned them into motivation for writing the book – to take the joust to a higher level. As a result, I knew I raised the risk of being struck but I assumed I was up to the challenge. I was wrong.The windmill wasn’t going away. Did I want to find a new steed, climb on, and continue my quest? Yes. I wanted to continue. For Sterling and Olivia, I needed to keep trying. I needed to push on, explore new country – carbon country, as it turned out. To get there I would need a new map. I’d begin right away.”
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These three essays – The Imperative, The Parade, and A New York Interlude – are my reflections on the human need to dominate; the difference between ‘front end’ and ‘back end’ members of the Baby Boom Generation; the illusion of normalcy and how hope and change went begging.
“But extinction is not inevitable. Over the millennia human societies created cultural checks to this Prime Directive, including ethics, morals, laws, and customs. They are cultural sideboards to our impulses, created to keep the Imperative from running amok. However, these side boards have weathered badly during the past sixty years…”
“Visiting New York this time, and thinking of Obama, I was struck by the fierce non-urgency of now. Everywhere I went, everything looked normal. Tides of people pooled and flowed across intersections as usual; taxi cabs honked as noisily as ever. Clouds scudded among the tops of the buildings, the subways rumbled on. I easily believed that All Was Normal. Everything is fine. Despair, hope – what were those? Just words, echoes bouncing around the brick-and-steel walls of New York’s canyons. Words fade, streets endure. For a few days, I believed it.”
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Life Is Great
These essays – Life is Great and Lucky Us – examine two sides of my life and the world at this moment in time. On the one hand, things are good, even miraculous. On the other, we’ve depleted the planet’s warehouse and will face the consequences.
“I punch my laptop on. The computer is another of life’s confounding miracles. When Gen and I were in college, the personal computer had not yet made its debut on campus. We had to rely on typewriters to graduate. This fact makes us archaic to our children and their friends. There were no mobile phones either, I tell them a bit proudly, or iPods, though we had something called a Sony Walkman. Typewriters? Land-lines? The whole idea gives them the shudders.”
“Somewhere along the way in the century from Teddy Roosevelt’s day to the present, we, as a nation, slipped from the future tense to the present tense. We stopped using words such as “shall” and “will” and “must” and “tomorrow,” replacing them with “now” and “today” and “mine.” We saved things here and there but the principle activity of my generation has been to take, take, take. It’s as if we decided to shout at Teddy “Thanks for the forests and the parks!” while waving from a sporty convertible. “Thanks too for the cheap gasoline, the appliances, and the great coffee.”
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A View From Europe
2008 & 2011
These essays – Terra Madre and A View From Europe – originate from two trips I took to Italy and France, one with Gen to a biennial food celebration and one with the family. Both reflect on changes in America and the world from a different perspective.
“There I was standing in the lunch line with Peruvian beekeepers, Russian herb farmers, African gourd-growers, Scottish students, Indian seed-savers, American cooks, Mexican activists, and Chinese academics. Above my head, I could hear the steady beat of global music. On either side of me was a buzz of conversation in the sing-song of many languages. Most amazing of all, everyone was happy.”
“Tuesday morning in Venice was drizzly, so the kids pulled out their homework. I went out for a long walk. It was the last day of my forties and the drizzle fit my mood. What should I do with my fifties? I have been tilting at various windmills for twenty years. At forty, one can afford to be rather indiscriminate with one’s battles, but now one must pick them more carefully. That’s easier said than done, of course, but that’s why you visit places like Venice with your kids – to look backward and forward simultaneously.”
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Following in the wake of Hurricane Irene, which struck the East Coast in September 2011, I visited organic farms, National Historical Parks, and two landscapes from my childhood. I reflect on what brings us alive, including disasters, food, justice, liberty, and writing. What bring me alive?
“The type of rootless, restless questing that came alive in the 1950s and 60s, fueled by cultural disharmonies and cross-currents that Kerouac sensed early, is alive and well today, which means the questing is more necessary than ever. As for me, hurricanes and other emergencies aren’t my thing. I wasn’t destined to be a farmer or rancher either, despite my huge admiration for everyone who grows our food and takes care of our land. Writing is my genes, however. In the 1980s, thanks to an aunt’s sleuthing, I learned that William Faulkner is a not-too-distant cousin on mine on my father’s side. This knowledge has been a secret source of inspiration for me. Sitting there, smelling the salty air of the harbor, I decided to embrace my roots. I raised my coffee cup in a toast. “To Irene, the Muse of restless writers.”
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UNPATHED WATERS 2016 – 2022
After twenty years of grassroots work, I left the Quivira Coalition at the end of 2015 to write full-time. It began a hectic period of my life marked by new endeavors, unexpected discoveries, unprecedented developments, professional endings, and personal loss.
“To unpathed waters, undreamed shores,” – William Shakespeare, The Winters Tale
A Novel Experience
This essay describes my foray into novel writing in my mid-fifties. It started on a sunny, spring day during a trip to northern California when the idea for a time travel novel struck me while having a cup of organic coffee. Not long after, I had the idea for a mystery series set on a historic ranch in New Mexico. I managed to complete both novels and the experience taught me a great deal about writing – including why I’ll never stop.
“So where does the skill and desire to write come from if one’s parents aren’t tutors? School, I suppose but I never took classes in writing or photography, preferring to study history and anthropology. Reading is crucial but it’s not the same as writing and it doesn’t explain the source of the mysterious drive that propels writers to write. I wondered: is there a writing gene? This question came rushing at me unexpectedly one day in 1986 when I learned that novelist William Faulkner was my cousin… Writing may be in the blood, but you also get it from your heroes. At least I did. In deciding to write fiction along with nonfiction and all the challenges it entailed, I had two role models – Wallace Stegner and Wendell Berry – both of whom I met in person and both of whom did me an act of kindness I’ll never forget.”
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This essay describes my unexpected immersion into all things Shakespeare, including my first – and likely last – performance in a professional play. It was a deep dive into his plays that began three-and-a-half years earlier when Sterling and Olivia, then aged sixteen, joined the Upstart Crows, a nonprofit with the brave mission to get teenagers excited about Shakespeare through performance.
“I remain as awestruck by the playwright today as I was forty years ago. That was a surprise. As the saying goes ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ though there’s a more polite warning: if you like a writer never meet them in person. You’re bound to be disappointed. My exposure to all things Will bred not contempt but an even deeper admiration of the artist despite Merchant of Venice and all those Appendices in the back of the books. He holds up to scrutiny. He made a few mistakes and wrote some clunkers, but who hasn’t? If he was a bit of an intellectual show-off or if his allusions were often obscure, he can be forgiven. It’s one of the small prices we pay for genius.”
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The Heat Wave
While traveling from Berlin to Prague on a train on July 25, 2019, Gen and I experienced a record-smashing heat wave that put my concern for the world into worrisome perspective. We went to Europe to see Olivia. I reflect on the changes that have happened between my parents’ time and hers, including the Cold War, politics, tourism, raising kids, and big hugs.
“Something seemed wrong. An hour into our journey, I was sweating – a lot. There was no way to open the window and the meager air flow hadn’t altered, except to die briefly when we pulled into a station. Soon, the compartment became a sauna. I glanced at our fellow travelers. The man wearing next to Gen seemed unperturbed by the conditions. The other passengers were three cheerful young adults from Ireland. They had disappeared into their smart phones as soon as we left Berlin. They also seemed unfazed. The heat continued to build. I wiped my face on a sleeve as I watched pretty farm country roll past under a cloudless sky. I passed my hand over the air vent again. The same. Then I heard two words that changed everything. “Heat wave,” one of the Irish lads announced, looking up from his phone.”
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This short essay consists mostly of photos I took while walking in a neighborhood near Cedars-Sinai hospital in LA as Gen spent ten days in intensive care recovering from open-heart surgery.
“Gen and I took a walk to our old stomping grounds the night before her surgery. From 1985 to 1991, we lived on a street between Sunset and Santa Monica Boulevards in West Hollywood. After our stroll we had supper at a restaurant filled with busy young people. I felt like crying. In 1985, we were at the front end of our adventure together. Now, we were on the other side of the bell-shaped curve that is life. How much more time did we have? The doctor said the surgery could add five years to Gen’s life. It could also set her back…”
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On October 4th, Gen died peacefully at home. I held her hand. This is a compilation of tributes from the memorial service, photographs, and testimonials. The memorial service was packed. Gen touched many lives. She was loved and is deeply missed by her family and friends.
“We come together to remember Gen, to comfort one another, to cherish her memory, to celebrate her life. We cannot hope to capture the fullness of a life in a few moments of sharing here today but together we can begin a sketch of her life that is more nuanced and surprising than any portrait anyone of us might create alone. So let us take a moment to breathe together and be fully here in this moment, aware of the beauty and love that is here. Aware of the poignancy of this time. And as you rest in the silence I invite you to hear in your memory the echo of Gen’s voice, I invite you to see her smile in your mind’s eye, to remember her as you loved her best.” – minister Gail Marriner