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Montaigne's Tower

Thoughts on Creativity and Play

I play to rearrange the furniture of my mind. My latest efforts to stir the pot: juxtapose art and words in "Daily Quote." 


While wandering through Umberto Eco's book on Ugliness I came across his reference to the "Hisperic Aesthetic."  How did I never hear about this before?  It explains so much—from James Joyce to British linguistic snobbery.  And how ironic:  "Hisperic" (medieval Latin variety of Hespericus, western/Latin or urbane, also possible wordplay on Hibernia and Hesperides from which we get Hebrides) implies opposites of central and outlier, center and margin.  The Book of Kells:  word play and visual play.  To be Celtic, nonclassical and irregularly knotted.  Leave the Romans to their sunlit symmetry.  English was born in a swamp.  Metaphors be with you.



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Another step in the journey

Hebridean croft

After being told "You can't get there from here," I made my way by bread van and human kindness from the island of Lewis and Harris in the Scottish Outer Hebrides to the island of Berneray, a tale just declared the Grand Prize winner and gold award in Travelers' Tales Eighteenth Annual Solas Awards. Thanks to my friends and family, here and in Scotland, and to Travelers' Tales for their celebration of travel, which to me is the best form of education available in this complex world.


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A new member of the family

Sir Ravenmore

Sir Ravenmore hopped into my consciousness a few days ago and has been colonizing my thoughts. I'm waiting to see what he does next.

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The Chaos of Art

Winter dreams and dead birds
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Reading a ghost story on a dark and stormy night

An art retreat always includes a story.

Twice a year I meet with a group of artists at a retreat. We feed each other food, art, music, and stories. This retreat featured a ghost story, "Dreygurs," which in 2023 was accepted for publication by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine under the title "Gannets and Ghouls."

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For Beregond, who asked

On September 30, 2021, I received an email from "Beregond," who had seen a message posted by a member of the Tolkien Society on Facebook regarding my memoir piece, "A Song for J.R.R. Tolkien," published in The Antioch Review in 2015 (Winter 2015, Volume 73, Number 1). He inquired whether I still had the letter from Tolkien that I refer to in the essay, and if I would be willing to share it with the group. I am very happy to do this; but being constrained by my inability to navigate Facebook, I'm posting it here, with my greetings and regards to all those who have been enchanted by the world of Middle Earth that Tolkien created.

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My Favorite River

On a writing/rafting workshop on the Snake River organized by Fishtrap in September 2019. Photograph by Kendrick Molholt. I'm the one with my mouth open, screaming into the waves. Craig Childs (bearded, looking calm) assigned us writing suggestions: Tell your own story of a river. Is there such a thing as magic? Out of his journey came many stories, including a magic river story, a story of a talking dog, and a story of my first pet. The magic river story, "My Favorite Rivers," was published in "Unpacking a River: Writings and Photographs from the Snake River," 2019 Fishtrap Outpost in Hells Canyon.
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Favorite books

I sat down recently to think about what books still remain my favorites over a lifetime, and why. 


Jane Eyre: plucky, independent heroine who refuses to compromise her values in the face of overwhelming odds. Religion plays a stronger role than I would like, but at least Bronte makes a case for genuine vs. fake belief.


Pride and Prejudice: plucky, independent heroine etc. minus the religion.


Precious Bane: This heroine is less plucky, bends herself to her brother's will, has been sidelined by a hare lip; nevertheless finds love, more because of the insightful weaver who sees her true character rather than something she does. Prue is faithful, self-sacrificing, empathetic. Bonus points for the language.


To Kill a Mockingbird: Hard to separate Atticus Finch from Gregory Peck. (No wonder "Lawrence of Arabia" lost at the Oscars that year.)


Cold Comfort Farm: another plucky, independent heroine hemmed in by financial circumstances who takes charge of a dysfunctional family and sorts them all out. I like the over-the-top riff on Thomas Hardy. Bonus points for the delightful characters (Great Aunt Ada Doom, the depressed Judith, her sexy son Seth, the elvish Elfine, the devilish sukebind) that humanize the parody. I like the fact that at all times Flora Poste knows exactly what she's doing. There's a rational, clever mind at work with not an iota of religious underpinnings.


Dorothy Dunnett's Lymon Series: a clever adventurer whose character as a quixotic anti-hero who turns out to be deeply self-sacrificing and heroic is the anchor to this historic saga. Bonus points for the absence of historical anachronisms. I love the surprises; and the roof-walking.


The Lord of the Rings: Of all the alternative-world-building extravaganzas of the imagination (that include Dune, The Dunwich Horror, Justin Cronin's vampire trilogy, and Cloud Atlas) the Tolkien world of Middle Earth populated by hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs, and wizards excels at building a world from the ground up and embedding the strange in the familiar and vice versa. The passage of time and the inevitable decay is the background that makes love and sacrifice bright by contrast. The passage that still makes me cry: when Strider/Aragorn leaves Lothlorien and returns never again as a living man.


John McPhee: anything. Also in the nonfiction vein, Stephen Jay Gould, Oliver Sacks, Lewis Thomas, Hans Zinsser's Rats, Lice and History, A Sand County Almanac, James Prosek's Eels, J. Henri Fabre's The Insect World, Marilyn Johnson, The Dead Beat, and the incredibly befuddling/delightful Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders. Who needs fantasy when the real world is so mysterious? Beautiful language, imaginative leaps that subvert expectations of what is "normal."


Craig Childs, The Secret Knowledge of Water: captures my memories and imaginings of the southwest.


The poets: Dylan Thomas, Kay Ryan, Terrance Hayes, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes (Earth-Owl), W.H. Auden, Wallace Stevens, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Edward Gorey, Grooks. Sound and sense, the beauty of meaning in the beat, the surprise.


The word crafters: the incomparable Strunk and White's Elements of Style (the illustrated version); Mary Norris's Comma Queen; Lynne Truss's Eats Shoots & Leaves (if just for the title); Anu Garg's Word a Day; the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus; Ammon Shea, Reading the OED; the OED.


Visuals/children's books for their beauty and surprise: Shaun Tan, The Arrival; Sowa's Ark; Pish Posh Hieronymous Bosch; Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH


What is not on my list? Middlemarch (tedious; trapped female); Edith Wharton (more trapped females); a lot of Virginia Woolf (although I loved A Room of One's Own); anything by Roth (narcissistic) and almost everything by Hemingway (misogynist). I hate weak women who are victimized by rape. I dislike unreliable narrators (I'm spending time in this world, and I want it to be reliable).


Almost on my list (I liked them but wouldn't race to the bookshelf to read them again): Dr. Zhivago (everyone trapped); Moby Dick (loved the details like whale  dissection and floating coffins but couldn't identify with the Quest); a lot of books that make me sad (all of Carson McCullers and Penelope Fitzgerald, Brian Doyle's Mink River, and Richard Adams's Girl in a Swing, I'm looking at you).


The secret list of books I reread for fun but won't admit to being "Great": The Daughter of Time; numerous science fiction writers including Anne McCaffrey (Dragons of Pern and Ship Who Sang series), A.E. Van Vogt's Slan and others, George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones, Max Brooks's World War Z, Ursula LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness; anything by Raymond Chandler, Graham Greene, Rex Stout, Lee Child, and Carl Hiaasen; The Scarlet Pimpernel, Prisoner of Zenda, and Day of the Triffids.


What are the whys that explain my attraction? Plucky, independent females are numerous here, but so are plucky, independent men. Themes of the outsider, honesty, determination (oh, I forgot True Grit), empathy, compassion, the large view, close attention to facts, beautiful language, and the element of surprise.

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Beware of Homonyms

An ornithologist who wasn't all there
was my guest at an NRA fair.
When a machine gun jammed,
I yelled "Duck!" and I ran,
but he jumped to his feet shouting "Where?"
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The Mystery of Strangers

Most portraits are of people we know. I prefer to paint strangers: people I saw on the street or met briefly at an art opening or workshop. When you know a person, your perceptions are filtered through the stories you know about them, but a stranger is like an unopened book, asking to be read for the first time; for a story to be made up about them. I met the woman “Juliette” (her real name unknown) in Italy; she is a handsome woman that I imagined in her youth (“Juliette at 25”), middle age (“Juliette at 50”), and old age (“Juliette at 100”). “Hair” is of a woman who seems to be hiding behind her hair; I’ve painted her as if I just discovered her in the jungle of her hair. “The Dwarf King’s Daughter” was inspired by a photograph taken in the 19th century in a book called Princely India: in the midst of a royal gathering, a small man, richly dressed, holds an unhappy child. Or perhaps she’s ill, and this is the last photo taken of her. The man portrayed in “Beauquet,” the trio “Id,” “Ego,” and “Superego,” “Death with Dignity,” and “The Man Who Doesn’t Matter” is a man I met at an art opening several years ago in Forest Grove. I asked if I could take his photograph and paint him, which he kindly permitted, but I never asked his name. Who is he? Would he recognize himself in the stories I’ve created? Does it matter? I think of art as a pilgrimage through unfamiliar landscapes; my job is to stir the pot and see what boils. ("The Mystery of Strangers," art exhibit at New Seasons Market, Orenco Station, Hillsboro, Oregon, August 2017) Read More 
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