Sunday, September 30, 2007

Heading Back to West Virginia.

My wife and I love West Virginia. The place is almost too beautiful to believe. It's almost like a big secret we keep from the rest of the world, for we rarely encounter crowds in the wild places we like to explore there.

A few years ago we were driving on a very lonely gravel road atop a high mountain ridge. We spotted this vacant ruin of a house in an overgrown field so I stopped to take a photograph of it with my (then) new digital camera.

After I climbed back into the truck and was looking at the photo, I noticed a dark spot on the top of the house and used the digital zoom to see what it was. It was this:

This is the kind of strange and wonderful thing I love most about life.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Another Missed Opportunity.

When I was in West Virginia earlier this year, I toyed with the idea of detouring from my route to go to Webster Springs to see “The Big Sycamore”, a 500-year-old giant sycamore tree around which the town of Webster Springs has officially sanctioned a park. I’d always been told that the sight of this tree was moving to tree-lovers such as myself.

But, we were pressed and I couldn’t budget the time it would take to get to Big Sycamore Park and back along our route homeward. I figured if it had lived for 500 years, then certainly I could wait a few more months until I’d get another chance to see this grand, old tree.

However, on the night of September 1, 2007, some locals who had set up camp in the park and were (according to the evidence later found by police) drinking heavily, decided that it would be fun to burn down The Big Sycamore. To do this, they poured gasoline into the hollow at the base of the tree and set it alight. At this time, it’s not known if the sycamore will survive, or will have to be cut down.

I may have missed my chance to see this giant remnant of the forests that once covered West Virginia. I’m heading up that way in a couple of weeks, and I’ll phone the park officials in Webster Springs to learn if the tree is still around, and if it’s still accessible to those of us who wish to gaze upon a living thing that was 300 years old before even our nation came into being.

As for the monsters who burned The Big Sycamore, I can only hope one of their worthless, drunken number will brag about how they did their filthy best to destroy the tree. And I hope that these human examples of moving excrement can be punished in some way. Alas, we do not allow the public burning of humans, so I will assume these walking bags of puke will merely receive some minor slap.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Oblique Strategies

Back in the mid-70s when I was listening to a lot of new music, and when music seemed to me to be much more important than it had ever been or ever would be again, I noticed a liner note on the sleeve of the Brian Eno album, ANOTHER GREEN WORLD. This album at that time meant a lot to me. It wasn't like anything else that I'd heard and I spent hours listening to it. Because of the pleasure I took from this record, I respected Brian Eno without knowing much about him aside from the music and the titles and the lyrics and the sound of his voice.

And, in very small print, almost hidden on the album jacket, was a mention of a set of cards called "Oblique Strategies", created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt available for purchase. I was rather poor at the time and didn't have the nescessary funds to buy a set, curious though I was about them.

Years passed, and I slowly learned what the cards were. A unique "problem solving tool" was how they were often described to me by folk who'd seen them. Still fascinated by Eno's musical work, I still desired a set and began to search for one. Unfortunately, they were out of print and it was rumored that when a set did turn up on the market, the price was quite hefty. Once more, I found myself unable to locate (or afford) The Oblique Strategies.

More years passed. I happened to correspond via the internet one day with Neil Gaiman who, having recently worked with Eno on a BBC project, gave me the fellow's email address which I used to request a set of the Strategies. Eno responded to let me know that they were out of print, but that he might have a few sets lying about, and that he would let me know if he could find them. I gave him my home address, etc., and hoped for the best. Alas, no response ever came.

After a few more years, I heard from an acquaintance that a new version of Oblique Strategies was for sale and available from a retailer in the UK. I quickly located the shop and ordered a set. They arrived in due course and:

I let them lie, unopened, in my bedside table.

For two years.

Why? I can't say. I was busy writing short stories and busy writing novels and busy working 40 hours a week for the USPS.

At last, today, having hit another sticking point in my latest novel, I retrieved the set of cards from my bedside table, opened it up, chose a card at random. Here it is:

Don't be afraid of things because they're easy to do

I'll ponder it. Or not.

If you wish a set of this brilliant work of art, you can nab one here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Animals are Persons.

I saw these photos on one of the backpacking forums I frequent ( I never failed to be amazed at the personality and individuality of animals. I truly wish people would stop thinking of them as mindless, emotionless automatons.

These photos illustrate a young bear tenaciously pursuing some bird-seed.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Disappearing Bird

The Disappearing Bird
A Postal Adventure
By James Robert Smith

Having just completed walking a loop, I was sitting in my postal vehicle, taking a breather and getting ready to take my lunch break. My vehicle was under a small tree, in the shade and I was looking down toward a cul-de-sac. After a little while, I noticed that there was a motion to my left, under a carport--a motion that kept repeating. Directing my attention toward it, I saw a small brown bird that seemed to fall from the door of a large blue sedan parked there.

At first, I thought the bird was flying into the raised window of the car, but actually he was trying to perch on the car and was fluttering to the ground each time. My second thought was that he might be injured, but if that were so, how was he repeatedly flying back up to the car each time he “fell”?

After watching this little bird for a minute longer, I saw what was going on.

He was landing on the door, finding some purchase there, so that he could confront his reflection in the side-view mirror mounted on the door. He would land and look his reflection in the eye. After a bit of this face-off, he would launch himself at the mirror, flutter his wings as he encountered the unexpected obstruction (not a bird!) and then land atop the mirror. There, he would stand a second looking for all the world like a completely confused individual.


I imagined him screaming like madman.

He would land again on the door, sometimes losing his footing and fluttering to the ground (the movement that first attracted me to the sight). Eventually, he would find a solid perch, face his taunting opponent yet again and launch himself at this vanishing bastard.

And there he would be on the top of the mirror.


This went on for the duration of my lunch break in the bright, warm sun (30 minutes). I started my engine and drove away, with the little Madman Bird (I don’t know what he was, but that’s what I’ll call the next one I see) still trying to find his elusive antagonist.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Qualities I Hadn't Seen

For some reason I cannot name, I never cared for the Beats when I was a young man. My pals and acquaintances would suggest the obvious books to me and I’d take a look at them, quickly grow rather bored with the prose, and put them aside. People kept telling me what a great writer Kerouac was, or what an amazing experience one had in reading William Burroughs, or how gifted a poet was William Ginsberg. It was all dead air to me.

And then, one day, at the age of 44, I picked up my copy of ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac. Why? I’m not sure, but I’d have to assume that it was because I’d exhausted all of the unread books in my house (no mean feat, that), and I just really, really needed something to read. So for the sixth or seventh time in my life (but for the first time since I was in my early 30s), I gave Jack Kerouac one more chance.

And it grabbed me. I mean, that book sank its hooks into me way past the barbs and I was landed. I don’t recall looking up from those printed pages for several hours. I couldn’t get enough of that novel and I could not force myself to stop reading the vast road trips of the fictionalized versions of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. I read the book that day and reread it over the course of the next few days.

After that, it was a mad dash to snag as many of Kerouac’s novels as I could find in the bookstores. I’m pretty sure I’ve now read them all, finding some of them brilliant and a few of them tiresome. THE DHARMA BUMS remains my favorite of the lot, and I keep a copy near at hand most of the time and it’s not unusual for me to take the book with me on my backpacking trips into the wilderness areas I like to explore.

In the years since Kerouac’s work “clicked” with me, I went through explorations of the other Beat writers. Burroughs’ QUEER and JUNKY are two very powerful books, although I just don’t dig his cut-out stuff. I can’t dismiss it out of hand as I would have done in my youth, but for now I can’t find anything in it that makes me want to read past the first bits. I may change my mind at some date…find myself bored and with nothing to read. At such a time I may pick up NAKED LUNCH and find that I quite like it. But for now I find that I much prefer Burroughs’ fictionalized novels and essays to those more experimental works for which he’s so well known.

And, by the time I made my way through collections of Ginsberg’s poetry, I realized that I was as fascinated with these fellows as personalities as I was by the talent they exhibited in their fiction and their essays and in their poems. They lived strange lives to my way of thinking. Bizarre and unusual lifestyles that were not hidden at all in a time and place when such behavior could very well have landed any of them in seriously hot water. These guys had guts.

I think that’s what has always impressed me about Kerouac and his pals. It wasn’t necessarily what they did, but the fact that they did these things and lived their lives in the face of such complete resistance. That took a kind of courage I never had, because I’d never been in a position to test myself that way. It’s not easy to stand counter to the society in which one exists. In fact, I can think of nothing more difficult and nothing more frightening.

I adore much of their work, but I think that I admire the courage of the doing as much as the art exhibited in the telling.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

No Blood for Amy

No Blood for Amy
James Robert Smith

A few months after Dan went to work at the McCullough Station, one of the letter carriers there, a woman of rather a butch stature named Amy, “bid out” (that is, she applied for another job at a different post office). She claimed her knees were bothering her so she went to take a much easier route at the Mount Carmel Station, or so Dan was told. He barely knew Amy, had exchanged less than a dozen words with her, and only noted her because she reminded him of a really stocky guy who played nose guard on his high school football team; and that whenever he went to eat at the McDonald’s Restaurant on his route Dan could find Amy sitting in a booth with the only attractive letter carrier in the station, a shapely divorced brunette woman named Faye. Suspicious, yes.

About two months after Amy left the station the carriers were called to the supervisor’s desk for a talk. Instead of the supervisor, though, it was Faye who would be speaking. She appeared to be visibly upset and as she spoke her voice cracked with emotion. Apparently, Amy had cancer. Well, that was certainly awful news, and Dan could appreciate that many of the carriers in that station would be interested to know this since some of them had worked in that single station with Amy for fourteen years. He, however, barely knew her and was eager to get back to his case, his workstation, to get the letters ready to carry.

After the announcement, he figured he’d heard the last of this.

Oh, no.

About a week later, in the midst of getting his letters prepared for the street, the carriers were called to the supervisor’s desk again for a talk. Once more, it was Faye. To keep them abreast of Amy’s progress, or lack of same. Lack, in this case, since it turned out Amy had a really nasty form of cancer and it had not been detected until it was quite advanced. Things did not look good for Amy, Faye informed us, her voice once again cracking with emotion and her pretty, Aryan features puffing up with sadness. Alas.

He was sorry, of course, but eager to get back to work.

A few days after that talk, work was interrupted again for, yes, another speech about Amy. She was unable to work, even in a limited manner, and was at home quickly using up her sick time. Dan rarely used his sick leave and any wise letter carrier accumulates such sick leave just in case he (or she) really needs it. He had hundreds of hours of such, and he knew carriers who had thousands of hours of sick leave. Amy, apparently, had used hers up over the years, rather than saving it, and now needed volunteers to step forward and donate vacation time for her.

He was very covetous of his vacation time, and had plans for each and every hour of it. However, that said, he was willing to donate eight hours to her. And he was ready to get back to work.

A few days after this, they were called to the supervisor’s desk for a talk. Uh-huh, about Amy.

Now, don’t get him wrong; he felt sorry for her. But he barely knew her. He had worked with her for, maybe, six months and had never spoken to her save to say “hello” a few times. And here he was, being forced to endure another talk about her, preventing him from working. And, as anyone who has ever worked for the wonderful USPS will tell you, time is of the essence. One was pressed for it, punished for wasting it, and constantly beaten down over it. He needed to get back to his case to prepare the day’s mail!

This time, they were asking for cash donations for Amy. A box would be set up at the front of the station where they could drop in cash, or checks. Fine. Okay. Just let him get back to work.

A few days later they were called, again (yes, again), to the supervisor’s desk to hear about Amy. Apparently, the take in the box was less than satisfactory for those who had instigated the scheme. So one of the carriers, an old guy named Alan, stood up and said, “You WILL give at least twenty dollars. Each of us WILL give at least that much by payday.” As far as Dan was concerned, Alan should have added “bitch” to the end of each of those two sentences.

They had to realize, of course, that this meant war.

There was no way Dan was now going to donate leave time, nor cash for Amy. He didn’t actually know her, and she was really, really (even in her absence) getting on his nerves.

In addition, over the following days, his work was interrupted too many more times for talks about Amy by this employee or that employee, but usually by Faye, and that each time a request for money or donated vacation time was made. And each time Dan resisted; indeed, he refused. As time passed, he became more and more resentful of this woman who had been for him merely a passing acquaintance, if that. And he was convinced, now, that he never wanted to know her at all. Her cancer-ridden body had become a real pain-in-the-ass for him.

Slowly, as the days dragged on and the bits and bites taken out of his schedule continued to annoy him, he began to ask a few questions about this Amy-person. How long had she worked for the USPS? Almost seventeen years, it turned out; which meant that she earned top pay, more than Dan made, and had had eleven years more than he had to accumulate sick leave. What did her husband do for a living? Well, he was a bank accountant and made more than a postal employee made and he had full benefits. What kind of insurance did Amy have? Indeed, it was better than Dan’s; plus she had fortunately added a cancer-rider to her policy some months before she was stricken.

Dan was starting to get pissed off. Especially considering that his wife had fallen and shattered her arm about the same time Amy had gotten sick and the situation at his house was that his lone salary was now supporting his entire family without the benefit of his wife’s paycheck. In short, his family was financially and medically worse off than Amy’s. When more requests were made at work for dough for Amy, it soon became obvious to those demanding these things from Dan, for Amy, that he was not forthcoming and was not likely to be. And, he realized, his frustration with the whole situation was becoming known in the office, and his reputation as a grouchy asshole was growing exponentially.

He didn’t care.

A day came when Faye appeared for one of her regular whines, to stand before all as she cried and blubbered and announced that the end was near for poor Amy. Dan rolled his eyes and peeled away from the main group of letter carriers to return to his case and the work that waited for him there. In the coming weeks, as soon as he became aware that the stand-up talk was about Amy and not about USPS policy, he would fade from the mass of concerned idiots and continue at his chores.

And then, after a brief vacation, (you better believe he used his vacation time on himself) Dan returned to work to find that Amy, in his absence, had died.


You cannot imagine how happy, by this time, that news made him. He was so happy that it was hard to keep a grin from his face. Dan was so happy that he would no longer have to be torn from his labors to hear yet another sob story about the state of Amy’s health or the grief of her husband and teenaged son. In future, he was to be spared from this, and no one would ever again ask him to donate cash or vacation time to the departed Amy.

But Dan’s fellow employees, of course, at this point, felt it very difficult to let go of the cause. He was cursed with, among other things, announcements for Amy’s memorial services; announcements for Amy’s funeral; announcements for a fucking blood drive in honor of Amy! Each time, he was only too, too happy not to oblige. (He kept his leave time, his money, and not one drop of blood left his veins).

And then, seemingly finally, the talks about Amy at the supervisor’s desk came to a halt. No one mentioned Amy anymore. No one asked for a donation of any kind whatsoever to the cause of Amy or her husband or her daughter or her mother or her favorite charity, or her little dog Toto. Occasionally, Dan would hear a snatch of information that made him even happier that he’d given no money to her cause. One of these tidbits being that her husband had shelled out many thousands of dollars for a top-of-the-line casket emblazoned with the logo of her favorite football team! That she had been buried wearing a cowboy hat in honor of her beloved Dallas Cowboys! (Dan was almost curious what her chemo-ravaged face had looked like in the open casket with that silly hat on her shaved head.) The conclusion, however, was that these were not people to whom he would willingly donate anything whatsoever: The Beans of Egypt Maine with a few bucks in their pockets. Dan sighed, ate food, worked, shit, and never thought at all about Amy.

Weeks went by. No one mentioned Amy. Dan didn’t mention Amy. Sometimes when he spoke to Faye, he noticed that she only replied reluctantly and was usually curt. That was okay. She’d spent maybe too much time with Amy and was resentful of Dan’s refusal to donate to the loving cause. He could live with that. He didn’t care. The days of Amy standup talks were in the past.


Amy’s husband appeared before them at a talk at the supervisor’s desk to thank them for all that they, had done for Amy. Dan supposed the several thousand dollars the crew had raised had helped pay a small percentage of that Dallas Cowboys casket. Faye stood at his side, her face gone all red and puffy with grief for Amy, the linebacker-sized woman gone to that great cancer ward in the sky. When he was done, Dan clapped. Not too loudly, but he wanted to freaking yell and pump his fist and do a goddamned victory dance and high-five the poor bastard who’d been Amy’s husband. This was, he fervently hoped, the period on the running sentence that had been the Ballad of Amy with Cancer.

May it, at last, be ended.

Dan had his fucking doubts.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Whites!

The first time I was aware of Mount Washington was after I had become an avid backpacker at the age of 15. I’d meet up with folk who were thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail as I section-hiked the AT in my native state of Georgia, and they would tell of the glorious peaks to be found in North Carolina, Tennessee and in New Hampshire. At home, I searched through the vast stacks of National Geographic magazines in my dad’s bookstore until I dug out all of the issues with photos and stories of the Great Smoky Mountains and the White Mountains.

While I early on got to hike the Smokies, the Whites of New England remained out of reach for me as I was generally always too poor to afford to head up there. And on the rare occasions I was able to get to that part of the country, it was either on business or to meet up with family, both of which precluded me from hiking the Presidential Range.

Back in 2000, I realized I’d better get busy hiking the peaks I’d always wanted to see before I got too old to do so. In that year I flew up to Maine and headed to Baxter State Park to climb Katahdin. But it wasn’t until this year that I was able to arrange a hike of Mount Washington, which had become something of a grail for me.

I have to say, straight up, that although I love my native South dearly, and adore our high country, we have nothing like the mountains of New England. While the Whites are not quite as high as our Smokies, or Blacks, they are, without doubt, the most spectacular mountain range I have experienced on the east coast of the USA. Nothing here in the South compares with them, on a purely visual basis, because of the 4,000-foot tree line in New Hampshire, and because of the amazing gulfs, ravines, and cirques gouged into the geography of the Appalachians by glacial activity. It was something, indeed, for this Georgia-boy to behold.

Having now experienced the grandeur and the hospitality of the New Hampshire high country, it’s our intention to return there at the earliest opportunity. I waited 34 years to finally bag Mount Washington. I promise the time between now and my return to that fantastic peak will be brief.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Boo, Mars!

Like all readers of science fiction, I grew up dreaming about the colonization of Mars. I read all of the Martian sf out there and hoped to someday see Von Braun’s illustrations of a trip to Mars become reality.


Now that we’ve had a number of landers on Mars and the rovers and orbital observers hovering over the Red Planet for years, I’ve come to the conclusion that the place is just a hellish ball of rock not worthy of much attention at all.

The atmosphere is just the tiniest fraction of the Earth’s. And what “air” exists there is extremely toxic. The place has been oxidizing for billions of years, and who knows how poisonous even the soil may be. It may be that the very dirt will react negatively with whatever moisture we bring with us.

And dry! Great Jove, the place is drier than the driest spot on Earth. The entire planet is so cold and so dry that microscopic bits of the toxic soil is wafted into the air in global storms of dust so fine that it’s practically on a kind of molecular level. There’d be no way to even filter that shit! And so cold that carbon dioxide freezes out as a solid onto the surface of the planet from pole to pole.

In addition, Mars seems to be geologically inactive, and has been for quite some time. There are no plate tectonics going on, no current volcanism, and only a boring cycle of airborne sedimentation taking place for the past couple billion years.

I hate to say it, but fuck Mars. As a stopping-off point, it may be worthwhile as a base. But as far as colonizing that hideously cold and dry turdball—it’s a pipe dream.