A Return to the Center

If your eyes are open to beauty and meaning, you’ll find them.

susan ishmael

In the hot, waning days of summer 2016, I visited the Abbey of Gethsemani  in Trappist, Kentucky to walk the grounds with a friend. The world felt at peace, and my friend and I–both writers, both recently divorced, both mothers, both spiritual seekers–had some important catching up to do: after both of our decades-long marriages ended abruptly and painfully, we’d each found and been startled by new love.

It was a sweltering August day, not unlike my first visit to the abbey almost a decade prior. I wore a cotton tee shirt dress and she wore an old shirt and hiking pants. I had a stainless steel canteen of water and she carried a Diet Coke. We walked together and talked about our lives and our novels (hers, published, mine, not) and our failures and our joys.

We soon found ourselves at a place that historically has been forbidden to women at Gethsemani:…

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While applying for a marriage certificate in Lexington, Susan and I were asked to identify our race. We agreed we’re tired of that question on every government form everywhere, so we entered the word “Human.” The clerk was not having it and insisted that we properly categorize ourselves by skin color. We complied, yet it felt right to push back, just a bit, and peacefully, against an anachronistic regulation. If and when the government asks me to declare my religion, I’ll enter the word “Liberty.”Screenshot 2017-03-11 08.48.54.png

Two Writers Walk into a Bar

Writer 1:

I’ve been writing freelance ads while Rome is burning.

Writer 2:

Keep on playing’ the fiddle…

Writer 1:

Yes, sir.

Writer 2:

We’re looking more like ancient Rome than ever.

Writer 1:

Yes, we are.

Writer 2:

“History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” Attributed to Mark Twain, but who knows.

Writer 1:

We may extinct ourselves before we’re able to destroy our governments. So that would be something we haven’t done before. I’m so cynical.

Writer 2:

I’m trying to resist becoming cynical, but that just makes me angry at myself. I want to write words that burn peoples’ eyes.

Writer 1:

Yes. I need to get myself together to write about it all. I feel helpless. As though my voice doesn’t matter. But that’s not right, right?  We have to resist. We have to fight. However we can. If that’s then pen, then that’s what we have.

Writer 2:

The pen is the first choice.

Writer 1:

Wonder where the best place to live would be while our Republic falls.

Writer 2:

It might not be all bad. Rome eventually became the capitol of one of the great western European states. Of course…they had to endure the Dark Ages first.

Writer 1:

I mean, where can we get clean water, access to food, and be physically safe? Christ, I sound like a right-wing doomsday prepper from when Obama was elected.

Writer 2:

That’s a shift. Now it’s us progressive-thinkers considering digging backyard bunkers.

Writer 1:

All the wackos got from worrying about Obama was free health care and a stable economy and low gas prices and low unemployment. Haha! We are so screwed.

Writer 2:

We’ll go down writing. Some of us may go down fighting.

Writer 1:

Maybe love will prevail? Maybe we’ll get through it without the destruction of the whole country?

Writer 2:

Let’s hope, but also work for it. What I’m most afraid of is that good people lose hope and completely withdraw from participation in the process.

Writer 1:

It’s easier to step out of the fray.

Writer 2:

I wonder if Democrats will bother to vote at all in the next election…if there is a next election.

Writer 1:

Most people over 55 will be silent.

Writer 2:

That’s the trouble with the left — in general, they’re soft and sensitive. In other words, “snowflakes.” The right is tough, mean, and organized. And they don’t care if they have to crack heads to make their version of progress. The law of the jungle doesn’t work in favor of compassionate thinking.

Writer 1:

What do we do? Run for school board? I mean, seriously. I’m not a politician. Do we really have to become political writers? That feels out of my league. Then again, if an ignorant reality TV celebrity can be president of the United States, nothing’s out of anyone’s league.

Writer 2:

People have to want civilization.

Writer 1:

I want a peaceful society. Not a warring, angry one.

Writer 2:

I want the same, but wars don’t care what people want. Societies have a will of their own that’s completely separate from the desires of individuals.

Writer 1:

Keep your head and arms inside the vehicle, and enjoy the ride.

Writer 2:

But if we lean to the left or right just a bit, without falling out of the car, maybe we can influence it just enough to keep it from flying off the rails.


Six Weeks with the Astrohaus Freewrite

I’ve now had my Freewrite for about six weeks. I’ve avoided writing a review until I had time to absorb all that this gadget is and does. Since it arrived, I’ve written about 5,000 words on it, so I’ve now had time to form some opinions.

Yes, it’s expensive. That’s why I dithered around for several months despite lusting after the device from the days of the Hemingwrite Kickstarter campaign.

At this point, it’s a simple matter to list pros and cons. The cons are few, so I’ll offer them first. There are three.

Con #1: I’m a bit embarrassed to mention the expense of the Freewrite because I’m not a wealthy man, and people I know may judge me for having bought one. But that’s neither here nor there. So, onward.
Ok, Astrohaus. I get it that a Cherry MX brown keyboard is worth at least $100, and I’ll give you another hundred for the bitchin’ aluminum case, and another hundred for the guts of the thing, which seem to me about the equivalent of an Amazon Kindle. So, $300-350 seems reasonable to me. $500 isn’t, and aside from weirdos like me who are willing to spend a lot on something because it’s beautiful (And the Freewrite is.), I don’t see you folks selling a lot of these things for half a grand apiece, plus another $30 for shipping within the United States.

Con #2*: You may think I’m going to mention the lack of arrow keys, but I’m not. Con #2, for me, is that Freewrite doesn’t dump my shitty first drafts directly into the word processor of my choice. Instead, text must be copied from Postbox , the Astrohaus cloud service, and pasted into a separate application such as Word or Scrivener. Mind you, this isn’t a big deal. But…why? Take the extra step, Astrohaus, of integrating the software into popular word processing applications. Why force the cut-and-paste drill? Give us a better option.


Con #3: Battery life and charging level indicator. The battery life isn’t great. My Kindle Paperwhite’s battery can last for weeks with the Wi-Fi on. Why shouldn’t the Freewrite’s battery last as long? There’s a lot of space inside this gadget for a bigger battery, so I suppose weight was a consideration, but couldn’t a software update eke a few more hours out of my battery?

I’d also like the ability to monitor the charge level. As it is, the device issues the warning, “Low battery. Please plug in charger.” I have no clue at this point how much operating time may remain. A minute? Another hour? It would be helpful to see a standard battery graph or charge percentage displayed, perhaps as one of the “special” key options to keep it out of sight until needed.

The pros are many. By far, the best thing about the Freewrite is the Cherry MX keyboard. It’s the best thing I’ve ever typed on, and I’m addicted to the sound and feel of it. I love it so much that I recently replaced my Apple keyboard, which I’ve always enjoyed using, with a Rosewill Cherry MX brown mechanical keyboard, because I want to have the same tactile experience while editing that I get while hammering out a draft on the Freewrite. The Freewrite’s keyboard has ruined me, and I expect to use mechanical keyboards for the rest of my life. This discovery alone, and the improvement in the experience of typing, makes the purchase worthwhile.

This thing is, as I’ve mentioned, a beautiful device. The retro look, combined with the sturdy (4 pounds) aluminum case, make it an instant conversation piece, which may be a good thing, or not. In my case, maybe ironically, an old Alphasmart Neo case when I’m carrying the Freewrite in public to avoid such attention. I don’t sit around in coffee shops with this thing, though if that’s where one writes, so be it. (It’s a bit flashy for me, and the keyboard might be noisy enough to irritate certain people.) Anyway, I like how it looks on my desk when I’m not using it.

Overall, the acquisition of a Freewrite has been a boon to my writing life, and if I accidentally dropped the thing into the bay today, I’d order another immediately.

*The inability to stop and edit is integral to the concept of the Freewrite, and it works. I’ve just about doubled my daily word count using this clunky, gorgeous monstrosity, and I’m thrilled. If I were constantly going back to edit myself, as I’ve had the bad habit of doing for so very long, I’d still be trundling along at the glacial pace at which I’ve always worked. This device enforces a damn-the-torpedoes approach that has increased my word count and the inability to delete ideas as I type them. It’s all there to edit later, and some of the  ideas I would otherwise delete have turned out to be keepers.

20 January 2017 Update:


Adam from Astrohaus responded to this post on January 18th with the following thoughtful message. It addresses everything except the battery life, and he’s right. I may just love the Freewrite more now. I do hope Astrohaus can do something about the power management. Meanwhile, I’ll keep the power cable handy. Thanks, Adam.

Hey Steven!

From the review you just published, it sounds like you are loving the Freewrite! That’s awesome. But I may be able to get you to like it even more :)

Con 2 mentions that you have to copy and paste. May I suggest that you use Dropbox? It’s free and works extremely well. You will also find that once you connect it and have it running on your computer, there will be native word documents saved directly into the dropbox folder, i.e. no more copy and pasting. You can go from writing on the Freewrite to opening a docx file on your computer! You should also look into markdown formatting because it is an ultra simple way to get basic formatting into your document. http://support.getfreewrite.com/article/42-using-markdown-syntax-on-your-freewrite.

Regarding con 3, hold the spacebar to show the battery indicator (and alternate keyboard layout if you are using one). We don’t put this on the console screen because we don’t want people fixated on the battery life. Admittedly, we have still have work to do to optimize the power management.

Hope this helps!!


My Take on Veterans Day

“In the midst of war and crisis nothing is as clear or as certain as it appears in hindsight”
― Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August

America, where only one percent of the population has served in the armed forces, is sufficiently detached from the daily experience of war service members endure that I suspect most people can live weeks or months without considering the hardships and sacrifice of service members and their families.

Veterans Day has its roots in the deep grief that followed World War I — the “War to End All Wars,” as it was called in a more innocent time. In the bright light of over a century of hindsight, it’s easy to criticize the naïveté of leaders who hadn’t yet learned that technology always evolves more quickly than the tactics and policy used to manage it.

We, and the technology we wield today, are no different. The future will judge us harshly unless we learn to count the cost of war in lives, not dollars or barrels of oil. Veterans Day serves as an annual reminder of the human price of war, and that we’re never as prepared as we think we are to start a new one.


Crazy Talk

The acrid smell of ammunition propellant wafts through my mind every now and then. Not the memory, but the actual smell. Now, for example, sitting at my desk in a corporate office for no apparent reason, I smell it clearly. Slightly sweet and alarming.
Another smell that sometimes insinuates itself is weathered cotton duck canvas. Also diesel exhaust. And aviation hydraulic fluid. These are some of the more pleasant smells. There are others–burning or decaying things–that don’t bear mentioning.
The better smells that haunt me remind me of early, frigid mornings on rifle ranges, of distant desert afternoons under a blazing Asian sun, parachute drops, and dusty convoys. The smell comes first, then the memories fill in around it.
I can only explain it as synesthesia caused by some nearby stimulus. All I know to do with decades of memories no one around me can possibly understand is to write about them, one sight, one smell at a time, as they occur to me. For a long time, I’ve pushed these things to the back of my mind, thinking it’s not normal to have these memories invade my present, that people will think I’m crazy if I talk about them. The more time that passes, the less I care about that sort of thing.
Is it like that when we die? Do all the sights, sounds, and smells we’ve ever experienced return to us at once? I hope so.

If You Posers Want to “Support the Police,” Apply to the Police Academy!

366C37BB00000578-0-image-a-43_1468986466679Tevor Leis (center) exercises his Ohio open carry rights in Public Square, Cleveland, on Tuesday (photo credit: Associated Press)

Here’s a lovely snapshot from the UK of what the world is seeing in the Good Old USA.
This is going to be a bit of a rant, but the situation is well beyond ridiculous, and we are becoming accepting of it. I say it’s unacceptable. I would ask these posers how it feels to be ridiculed by the civilized world, but that’s the problem–they don’t care about anything outside their myopic, infantile world view.
I imagine some of these misguided men may have seen war up-close, though I’m certain none of them are currently serving in the armed forces or law enforcement. I know this because this kind of behavior is forbidden to those who serve officially in uniform. So what are they there to do, confront protesters? With assault rifles?
By the way, some of the protesters are packing iron as well. Does anyone else see the danger here?

366D38FA00000578-3698664-Micah_Naziri_L_and_Jaimes_Campbell_advocates_for_open_carry_patr-m-60_1468990143539Micah Naziri (left) and Jaimes Campbell, advocates for open carry, patrol the streets of Cleveland (photo credit: Reuters)

I’ve been to distant places where every male carries an assault rifle everywhere he goes, indoors and out. These aren’t nice places to live. People are shot every day, often by friends and family members over trivial matters. No one is safe. Ubiquitous open carry of assault weapons doesn’t increase anyone’s security. The effect is precisely the opposite. If you’ve also spent a significant amount of time in such a broken society, you’re qualified to argue with me on this, and I’m listening.
Ignorance, if left unchecked, becomes dangerous. These men are what that looks like. You want to make America great again? Then urge your representatives to chase these Neanderthals off the street. That is, if you can find a congressman not bought and paid for by the National Rifle Association.

The “Proust Questionnaire”

In 1890, French writer Marcel Proust answered these 30 questions in his friend Antoinette’s English-language confession album entitled “An Album to Record Thoughts, Feelings, etc.” Vanity Fair has used similar lists of questions as interview material. Some of these require a bit of thought to answer honestly. Fiction writers might find it helpful to interrogate characters with them. How would you answer for yourself?

At the risk of revealing too much, and because the longer I live the less I give a damn, here are my own answers:

1.    What is your greatest fear?
To be forgotten. I’ve had bouts with loneliness over the years, and what always got me through them was knowing someone was thinking of me, waiting for me. To be alone without that hope would be hell.

2.    What is your current state of mind?
Optimistic discontent. Things aren’t exactly as I would like, but I have reason to believe my happiest years are yet to come.

3.    What is your favorite occupation?(way of spending time)
Exploring a new place with someone I love. I like to hike, go to museums, climb things, ride bicycles, and I like these things best when I can share them. Shared experiences accumulate into the solid foundations of relationships.

4.    What historical figure do you most identify with?
Alcibiades. He was a brilliant young general who gave everything he had to the glory of the Athenian Empire, but he was young and full of himself. He was selfish and partied too hard, and it cost him. But he was a resourceful bastard and lived by his wits for a long time. Eventually, the Spartans — people knew how to hold a grudge — convinced the Persians to murder Alcibiades. He went down fighting, in a hail of arrows. History isn’t kind to Alcibiades, and for good reason, but he never gave up.

5.    Which living person do you most admire?
Malala Yousafzai

6.    Who is your favorite fictional hero?

7.    Who are your real-life heroes?
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Louis Leakey
Neil Armstrong
Ernest Hemingway
Diana Nyad
Jacques Cousteau
Amelia Earhart
Jane Goodall

8.    What is your most treasured possession?
A healthy mind and body. Second to that is my 2008 Martin HD-35 guitar.

9.    When and where were you happiest?
Today, right here–knowing what I know and hoping for better things in the future.

10.    What is your most obvious characteristic?

11.    What is the trait you most deplore (hate) in yourself?

12.    What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Hate induced by ignorance and fear.

13.    What is your greatest extravagance?
Eating and drinking well.

14.    What is your favorite journey?
One on which I see and learn something new, and that ends with the beginning of another journey.

15.    What do you most dislike about your appearance?
My teeth and aging skin.

16.    What do you consider the most over-rated virtue?
Physical beauty.

17.    On what occasion do you lie?
To avoid hurting someone, though I know this only makes it worse in the end.

18.    Which words or phrases do you most over-use?
“I’m sorry.”

19.    If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I’d eliminate my need for sleep.

20.    What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Raising 2 sons. (in progress)

21.    Where would you like to live?
Between the mountains and the sea, or anywhere with the person who is my true home.

22.    What is the quality you most admire in a man?
Compassion for others, especially those not like himself.

23.    What is the quality you most admire in a woman?
Courage to be herself in spite of what our culture expects.

24.    What is it you most dislike?
Bigotry. Fascism.Willful ignorance.

25.    What do you value most in your friends?
An active presence in my life, loyalty, and dependability.

26.    How would you like to die?
If not saving another’s life, then in bed holding on to the hand of someone who loves me.

27.    If you were to die and come back as a person or an animal, what do you think it would be?
A tree growing over my grave, a squirrel living in that tree, or a goat grazing on the cemetery grass.

28.    If you could choose an object to come back as, what would you choose?
An interstellar comet!

29.    What is your motto (words you live by or that mean a lot to you)?
Love more. Seek beauty. Find meaning. Work hard.

30.    Who has been the greatest influence on you?
The image of the person I wish to become.

“The Grove”

When you’re trying to build momentum as a writer, every publication feels like a major victory. I woke to excellent news this morning. Bridge Eight plans to publish my short story, “The Grove,” in its third issue, to be released in November 2015.

Here are a few paragraphs to whet your whistle.

The boy whips a green hickory nut across the shaded yard, and Dog—a hundred and ten pounds of furred muscle— launches after it. His little sister laughs at the rooster tail of sand thrown by the dog’s hind feet. The boy shushes. The little girl claps both hands over her mouth.

The boy is thin and tall for his age, his skin smooth and sun browned. He is barefoot and shirtless in cutoff Sears Toughskins. He trots toward the dog in one rut of the long sandy driveway that runs beside the house, a cluster of tiny black gnats pursuing him. Dog drops the slobbery hickory nut at his feet.

“Good boy,” he says. The little girl, like the gnats, always pursuing the boy, catches up with them and throws her arms around Dog’s neck. The boy throws the nut again.

Dog patrols their nine acres of pasture, their few cattle and horses, and the old tin-roofed house set back in the hardwoods beside the big orange grove. He chases away the coyotes and stray dogs that sometimes emerge from the grove to harass the livestock. Dog killed a stray once when it tried to attack a new colt barely on its legs. The boy had buried the dog in the pasture where it fell with its throat torn out. Sometimes Dog disappears into the grove for a long time. The boy waits for him until he returns with sand spurs in his coat and rabbit’s blood on his muzzle.

I Live.

That’s right. I’m still alive.

On June 26th, I graduated from the University of Tampa’s Low-Residency Master of Fine Arts program. Now, several days later, after some time to process it, I think it’s time to shake off the disorientation of no longer being a grad student and get on with life. A lot has happened in the past several months. Aside from finishing school, my personal life has fundamentally changed. I’ve started a new 9-to-5 job and learned again what living alone is like. (I may write more about that soon.)

For those of you who notice these tiny electronic symbols I’m tossing into the vast gulf of the internet, thank you for reading. I plan to show up here a lot more often now that I’m not putting all my energy into writing a masters thesis. I won’t promise anything more profound than what you’re reading now, (Thanks for reading!) but you never know.

There are stories to tell, and I’ve been working pretty hard at telling a few of them. At the moment, I have a semi-autobiographical short story titled “The Grove” I’m submitting to journals that seem a good fit. There are a couple others in line for revisions, and I hope to announce a couple of publications in the coming weeks and months.

I realized about three weeks ago that there are people I haven’t spoken to for awhile who have no idea what the shape of my life is these days. If you’re one of those folks, forgive me. I’ve been through some painful changes, and I’m only now beginning to peek over the edge of the rather dark hole I inhabited throughout the spring.

I still haven’t discovered the true purpose of I Write, but for now, perhaps it’s a sort of series of messages in bottles to toss into the digital surf. If one washes up on your beach, leave a comment.

I’ll be back soon.

No, really–I mean it this time.