Top of Piedmont: To Watch, Listen and Ponder — Then Write!

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Woman River is in the tradition of Staggerford and Winesburg Ohio. It interweaves themes of belief, doubt, and commitment to values in traditional and unconventional ways. A young farmer separates from his family as he and his lover come to terms with an out of wedlock pregnancy. The owners of a tavern and grocery store face life without each other. A priest and his housekeeper are challenged by their mutual attraction. A police chief and town drunk face down wartime traumas and a gentle, simple man dies suspiciously.

Never Too Old to Learn


“Every Opportunity is a MARKETING Opportunity!” This is new territory for a senior citizen who has spent most of his life in education and human services. Those engaged in these occupations are focused on the immediacy of the work. Selling oneself is not a priority. Not much marketing gets done.

I wrote a book; Woman River, self-published as many books are these days, since the publishing industry’s take leaves the author with 6% to 8% of the cover price. Seems unfair even with the “overhead” rationalizations of the industry. The whole prospect of getting someone to notice your book even if you go the traditional route is daunting.

Writing a book is a very disciplined process, not taken lightly. A time and place to write have to fit the person, otherwise natural ability and good intention paves the road to aimlessness.

Admittedly, there is a lot of garbage out there. Even if the material is absorbing, many times the editing of the content is not – grammar matters. Having an editor who teaches and kicks your butt insures that you aren’t getting away with sloppy work. It also helps to have the editor or copy reader be a punctuation and grammar Nazi.

Being in business for yourself requires a diverse skill set. You need to know markets, products, public relations, accounting and tax laws if you don’t have an accountant, as well as your community or target audience. None of this remains static. It is a very dynamic process that is a challenge and fun.

Whining as an author about the overabundance of vampires, wizards and weirdos in popular fiction doesn’t get a book sold. As an author friend of mine once said, “What people like to read and purchase is a very democratic process.” Thus one needs to market.

As a writer you market the book and hope there is an audience out there. All of this requires money – yes money. So short of buttonholing people on the street in front of every local bar or grocery store and pleading, “Pleeease, buy my book!” you try different things that might produce results. Social media can be a gift in this way, but it costs too. Wearing a sandwich board down by Paul Bunyan might work, but how desperate is that?

I have googled my name on several occasions and note seven hits to the inquiry. One is a cardiovascular surgeon. It’s a good thing I’m not one too. Think of all the confusion that would bring! Of course there is the money.

Sometimes I write because I have to; not for the cash but because my head is full of stuff that jams up an already crowded landscape. I am old enough now that I don’t have to sell books. . . No, I get to. And that’s fun. Don’t look however for instructions on which scalpel to use.


The icebreaker is doomed. Global warming has arrived. No more are heroic efforts needed to free thousand foot freighters or stranded National Geographic tourist boats in Antarctica imperiled by stalking bergs and crushing ice floes. The days of ice augers and chisels on Lake Bemidji are numbered. Soon we will nurture palm trees on Lake Plantagenet and harvest pineapples on the streets of Cohasset. What a life! – – – But wait! The icebreaker has not died. Rest assured it will be resurrected in the next staff training, workshop or board meeting.

Icebreakers to relax social discourse emerged in the 17th century. Mark Twain also used the term in Life on the Mississippi. Since that time, they have become the stock in trade of many HR efforts at stimulating good feeling and cooperation. Seems like a beer or a little wine and hors d’oeuvres have fallen by the wayside.

We are social by nature. Why else would 99% of us live in communities? Yet it seems efforts to engender a false intimacy in an attempt to establish communication persist. What happened to a handshake, introduction and exchange of pleasantries?

Icebreakers fall on a continuum, from relatively benign to invasive, with dozens of books on Amazon for your enlightenment. The trust fall. Not a bad idea, unless you are to catch a 300 pounder. It might also be appropriate to have a block and tackle available for lifting their carcass off your expired self.

Then the cringe directive. “Turn to the person next to you and share a special moment from today.” Are you kidding? I don’t know if a flat tire, the surly adolescent I transported to school this morning or the fight about money over an early cup of coffee with the spouse count, but I guess I could “share” that. They were moments all right!

It is very hard to relate to another person what your shoes would say about you if you are of a literal mind. I know metaphor enriches our lives, but shoes speaking? I just want the darn things to fit well and provide a degree of comfort for Pete’s sake. Or the two truths and one lie spoken in one exercise. So do I say, “Your tie is cool,” or I like your hair,” or tell them, “I can’t stand close to you because you smell?”

The problem with icebreakers is that they are awkward, put a reticent person on the defensive, and frequently have no purpose related to the reason for the meeting. Did these presenters ever think that the guy in the chair in the back row leaning against the wall half asleep is just there for the CEUs?

The risk in resisting these activities is that one might be branded a curmudgeon. Most people labeled this way have come by it honestly, having been ignored, not listened to or used by systems that really don’t care; the window dressing of soliciting input when decisions are already made.

So when icebreakers are called for in the waning days of an ice age as the earth warms, or discussion falters at the next workshop, wouldn’t it be more honest to leave one small cube in the bottom of a glass of Jameson 12 and munch a little brie on a cracker to oil the wheels of conversation?

More of Doug’s writings and intro to his book Woman River, can be seen at

In Memoriam

To a man who gave us an appreciation for the subtleties of the language.
“If you ask me anything I don’t know, I’m not going to answer.” Yogi Berra.

Fire – Bemidji Pioneer

Evenings have turned cool of late with the occasional blast of hot air making it here from Texas less frequent. Open windows of late summer have given way to half-open portals in anticipation of more breezes from Manitoba. Stoking the wood burner in the morning takes the chill off, a signal of change. Gone the backyard fire pit conversations late into the night. We need the heat!

The Cub Scout wienie roasts, family camping trips or picnics are usually a kid’s first encounter with the power of an open flame. Fire is alive, flickers one instant, and roars the next, goaded by errant wind gusts off a lake; one moment a benevolent servant, another time a fiend who lurks in the brush pile.

Starting a fire is an art. It requires patience. Some can do it, others are better off turning up a thermostat on the wall. Small pieces of paper offer a good start with wood shavings next. Twigs stacked randomly or compulsively banked add more substance. Then it’s time to add small branches moving from finger, to wrist, to forearm proportion. With persistence and time, split logs fill out the flame’s potential.

A fireplace insert works well when you want to warm a room in the predawn light. The stoves have quirks, but by not being terribly worried about efficiency, they will warm a major portion of a house when well stoked. Arranging larger pieces of birch or oak inside the chamber of a stove takes talent. Some grab the ends of logs and maneuver them into more suitable configurations. If a grip is lost, burned hands or wrists come quickly from an accidental brushing of a firebox. Large gloves, the type used in welding can eliminate branding.

Respecting the condition of wood is essential. While an “accelerant” used to stimulate a campfire’s growth has some efficacy if wood is damp, the use of most petroleum by-products is not recommended as they usually create a small mushroom cloud when ignited.

Fire used and contained for warmth is a benign force. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to see how the power of forest fires destroys all before it; the west coast conflagrations a perfect example.

Fire as we experience it holds another fascination. We protect the one year old from the danger of a single flame on a birthday cake, preferring instead to let them sink their hands into mounds of frosting on top. As we get older, we run out of space on the decorated surface and protect ourselves from life’s progress by using candles that represent decades rather than single years. It’s also easier to blow out the candles.

Fire has utility and allure. It keeps us alive and warm when nature turns things cool, and reminds us that like the brief flicker of the birthday candle, we best do our living before the flame burns out.

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