Archive - 2013

November 14th

Pushing forward

Pardon my absence, but I have been on a writing binge. This week I am averaging 4,000 words per day, which is an improvement over last week. I am working on two projects. When one hits a wall, I go to the other. That works well. My willingness to write is completely due to encouragement from an editor and a coach. Push on! they say, it will sell. Without such encouragement, subconscious doubts lead me to put off work to avoid the eventual rejection of my manuscript. That rejection will still happen, but then I just must be persistent. Keep presenting it. Publish it yourself. Whatever. Just keep the pen (or the cursor) moving and good things will happen. That is the advice I have been given, and it is good advice.  

One book is stories. I like to write stories. These are longer stories than my column, so this is a new exercise. They are stories that have been in my head for twenty-five years, so they require no original thinking. They only need to be written down. The stories do take on a new shape once on paper, but you have to accept that and...plow forward. That's another reason writer's get blocked: We can't face the stories of our imagination becoming actual stories on paper because the result is never what you imagined it to be. 

Also motivating me, frankly, is the sale of the nursery to brother Joe and his wife Kae, which we finished up before I left for Arizona. I didn't realize the deep effect actually signing the papers would have on my psyche. I have been utterly restless ever since, determined to create a new income, a new identity and a new daily routine. I have a little window of time before the wolf will arrive at the door. I must use it wisely. 

The words come more easily with practice. Today, a new record: 4,950 words in one day. I am not even close to the fifty pages per day U. S. Grant wrote when he pushed to get his memoirs done before cancer killed him. But I am well over the 250 words per day his publisher, the notoriously lazy Mark Twain, considered a successful day of writing. 

November 11th

Morning backyard visitors


Here are two of the three visitors of roughly equal size to pass through the backyard here in Tucson this morning...


November 10th

Triangle Ranch

Last night, I attended a gathering with friends at a ranch fifteen miles north of the northern fringe of Tucson, near the small town of Oracle. The party was to honor those who created this event in September. Of course, I was along, not as a participant, but a mooch––which nobody seemed to mind. There was a band. There was food. Some of the art installations were still up and lit. And the sky at 4,300 feet was vivid. 

The sheer number of arts events in Tucson is staggering. I have taken in three in the past few days, and there were hundreds I missed. The place has energy. The art tends to be whimsical, often humorous. Some of it has lasting merit, some was only intended to temporary enjoyment. You encounter some absurdity, but less than you might imagine. This place collects talent, and not just artists. 

What is most fun is the determination Tucsonites have to enjoy their city. You'd think they'd get used to the weather and not pass comment on it, but no, as we stood outside last night, people said "What a perfect night!" and just stood in awe. Never mind that it is about the fiftieth perfect night in a row. 

Cultural events in Tucson are well-attended, even though there are so many that you'd think the crowds would thin. 

Tucson is a very proud city, and in a very good way. 


November 10th

Tucson morning scene...

balooon 1.jpg 

Almost every morning this week, this has been the scene through the back windows. There must be a balloon staging area behind the mountain. 

Last night, a party at the neighbors celebrating their participation in the Studio Tour. The music? A bagpiper who studied piping for three years in Glasgow, Scotland. His partner on guitar is from Bulgaria, and specializes in the haunting rhythms and minor keys of that region. His website is here

No shortage of conversation. Also present: A jazz pianist originally from Minnesota and his wife, who spent her childhood in Hallock, MN and is now an authority on pottery finishing. The architect of the house I am renting arrived, as did his architectural partner. The two quickly fell into a discussion of various glues used to bind metal. There is a tape made by 3M, I found out, which is so strong that it is used as a substitute for welding. 

Over ambled a chemist, who contributed his knowledge of interlocking crystalline structures to the glue discussion. Then came a sculptor of old metal, the hostess, whose interest in glues took the conversation in another direction. 

Enter a delicate young woman, looking all of 17, who works in the Sudan as an archaeolgist. She is attempting to solve the puzzle of several massive mounds of slag, evidence of the production of iron, in the Sudanese desert. The mounds, which so far have been dated from 400-800 BCE ("which does us no good at all," she declared) are so high you have to take trails to the top. Because the chemistry of the diggings changes immediately upon exposure to sunlight and air, she does her digging at night and stuffs her samples in PVC pipe to be shipped back to the University of Arizona for analysis when she returns. 

The biggest hurdle? Getting the samples through customs. Things stuffed into PVC pipe tend to alert US border agents. No matter how many letters she has written and politicians she has appealed to, there still remains the possibility that her samples will be ruined by opening at the border, in which case, she has to go back to Sudan and find some more. 

The piles of slag were generated by a civilization which was not Egyptian, but clearly was attempting to imitate the more famous civilization to the north. Their pyramids are tiny, and most of them were destroyed by gold-seeking Italians in the 19th century. 

Nobody knows where all the iron produced went. The unbelievable masses of firewood needed for the smelting must have come from somewhere--one theory states that the smelting of that iron might have deforested the area and turned it into the desert it is today.

Enter the chemist. "Well, couldn't you isolate the isotopes..." with a suggestion for dating the material. "Oh, we tried that," the young woman replied. 



November 7th

First week

It takes a while to get settled in a new place and to get the mind settled. Today, it happened: I felt relaxed and at ease for the first time since arriving in Tucson. It blew hard for a while today, but that never lasts, and eventually it was a perfect mid-80s day.

I am working on two writing projects this winter, and so far I have averaged 2,500 words per day. I hope I can keep that up.

Called the Hilton to check in on Aunt Olla today. Her first line: "I can't complain about a thing!"

"Of course, my brain is no good. But others are worse off!"

She keeps asking when I will be home, which is a little hard as I have to be honest, even if I think it might be best to say one month. She asked four times today, and each time I told her, she sighed and said, "Yes, well, sometimes life is a little sad."

"But I had my time in the Southwest, too, so I guess you're entitled to it!"

I hate to introduce negative thoughts into her thought stream as they sometimes stick and she starts thinking about other bad things. But by the end of the call she was satisfied that we could stay in touch by phone.

Yesterday, Cousin Tina from Scottsdale came for a visit, along with John, her conference minister. Tina is ordained in the United Church of Christ, and John is that denomination's equivalent of a bishop for the Southwestern United States. He is a big baseball fan, so while Tina stayed back at the glass cottage, we went for a hike in Saguaro National Park and talked baseball. 

No rest for the wicked: John had to answer several phone calls regarding conference business during the day, which he had taken off. 

Later, we went to Miss Saigon, my favorite restaurant in Tucson, which only recently opened up a place very near here. What luck! Vietnamese food is healthy. And cheap. 

Today, I went for the lunch buffet at Ghandi, my favorite Indian restaurant in Tucson, only to find that they have opened up a branch in northern Tucson as well. Bonanza! The lunch buffet is all-you-can-eat and costs $7.50 with tax. Very good. Healthy food, too. 

Otherwise, I have been cooking for myself on the nice cookware provided in the glass cottage. The stove is propane, so that makes it fun. 

This weekend, the next door neighbors are part of the Pima County Open Studio Tour. There will be traffic in the neighborhood for the first time since I arrived. Pat's excellent work can be seen here. To make the art requires a lot of metal, so they have quite a compound over there. Looks like an old farm yard. 

Inside the house, they have a Steinway piano which they let me play!

So, life is good. 


November 4th

Back yard saguaro


November 3rd

Dia de los Muertes


Although this picture is blurred, it captures the chaotic spirit of the 60,000 people who took part in the Dia de los Muertes procession in downtown Tucson last night. 

kids dia.jpg

These kids, believe it or not, were some of the least dressed up and painted. But since I am shy about asking for photos, the only people I dared ask to pose were kids who were happy to ham it up. 


The number of young people in the photos of the deceased was jarring. 

November 1st

Settling in

Boy, did I ever hit the jackpot renting this winter. I am in a glass cottage on a three acre plot. I will post pictures as I go along. I have a view of the mountains in both directions. I am able to open up the doors during the day and let the breeze come through. At night, I have an overview of the city of Tucson and its twinkling lights. Yet, thanks to the ordinances controlling light pollution, I am able to see the stars just fine. 

I am at the end of a gravel road. No traffic. Yet, 1/2 mile away is the start of a long bike path. I brought Lance's bike down and rode 14 miles this afternoon. It was sunny and hot. Beautiful. 

Okay, here are some pictures. Pay no attention to the listed price...I got a nice deal for staying three months. (I wouldn't want you to think I am a spendthrift.) 

Lance stayed back to do some work. He has no problem with winter, unlike me. But today he came down with fever and the flu, so I don't feel right not being able to make him chicken noodle soup as he did for me when I had my tonsils out! 

I spent the rest of the day settling in and stocking the kitchen. 

Tonight, I introduced myself to the nearest neighbors and ended up staying for supper. Wonderful people. Sculptors now, but I biochemist and a veterinarian during their earlier careers. 

I will have plenty to write about this winter. 


October 30th

Third World Philanthropy

Oh, the wonders of the interwebs. Because I follow the writer Nina Munk on Facebook, (I met her while we were on the same summer program at Cambridge University in 1986 and haven't talked to her since) I knew that she was going to deliver a lecture in Albuquerque today on her latest book, The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty,   I made a point to come through the city in time to attend. 

I think Nina was a little freaked out by seeing a face from her distant past at the lecture, but it was well worth my while to hear her talk about the efforts of American academics and philanthropists, specifically Sachs, in imposing their ideas of economic development on African villages. 

To study the matter, Munk spent seven years researching and following two of Sachs' projects. She actually lived in the remote, primitive villages which were chosen for the project and watched, through several visits over time, the effects of the money on the way of life of nomadic Somalis, in one instance, and more agricultural Ugandans in a second instance. 

Nina has made something of a career out of puncturing the hubris of famous movers and shakers, most prominently Jerry Levin of Time Warner and Steve Case, the founder of AOL. After ripping Levin to shreds in a book, he called her and said, "You know, Nina, I think you hit the nail on the head." 

No such luck with Sachs, who is pretty upset with Munk's portrayal of the mixed record of his huge philanthropic initiatives. 

Nina pointed to a typical event: Sachs' group dug a well in the desert, fitted it with a pump, and then left. One year later, the pump failed. Nobody knew how to fix it. Nobody had parts. And nobody in Sachs' organization seemed too concerned. 

The human cost? Women were leaving their children and walking with a donkey over 30 miles to get water, only to find there was none. They were in tears, as they were in drought and near starvation. 

Where the wells were dug, economic activity did indeed spring up. However, you could argue that it was more disruptive than helpful, especially without follow through. 

In another village, the people grew corn, but yields were pretty pitiful. Western philanthropists came in and gave the farmers fertilizer, a concept unheard of in this region, and provided them with better varieties of corn. The farmers quadrupled their yield. What happened? The price collapsed. In fact, the people didn't even like corn! In the end, the worthless corn was dumped on the ground because there was no way to get it to a market which valued the crop. 

So, I asked, are their any philanthropies Munk to which Munk would donate after all her research? 

Yes! She replied with enthusiasm. She does donate. But only to small philanthropies with specific, small goals--like one which provides schoolkids meals. The meals draw the hungry kids to school and makes the parents more eager to let the kids go to school. One less mouth to feed. 

I haven't read the book yet, so it is not wise to sum it up here, but Munk made several interesting points. 

•A lot of progress has been made in eliminating poverty in the past twenty years. In fact, world poverty has been cut in half. However, one must consider what that means in terms of actual money for those who have been thus uplifted: If you have more than $1.25 per day to live on, you are no longer in poverty! 

•Most of the progress against poverty has been made in India and China. 

•The Chinese are coming in and building infrastructure in Africa, thus winning billions of dollars of African business. Our foreign aid, both from our government and from philanthropies, does nothing of the sort. However, the price of Chinese involvement is they treat their African workers horribly. 

•Ironically, despite Sachs' spotty record on fighting poverty--all indications are that the charismatic professor has moved on to other concerns--his goal of eliminating poverty, as defined above, by 2025 may be achieved. 

Nina Munk is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair. Nina has always had an interest in those in poverty. But don't mistake her for a nun. She has a sharp tongue, both in person and on paper, and because she has run in the circles of the wealthy, famous and ambitious all her life, she doesn't give the oligarchs and celebrities the fawning respect they are used to. 

She has a contempt for the annual reports which go out to donors to large philanthropies. Mostly bullshit, she says. And she is awfully cynical (rightly so) about people, such as Sachs (you remember him running over to Eastern Europe to help the new governments set up their economies after the Revolutions of 1989), who are confident that they know what is best for other cultures. 

The lecture was given in an odd venue. Although the announcement made it look like it was an event for the general public, it was given at a medical school and I actually had difficulty getting in. (Three policement were shot and injured yesterday in ABQ, and their families were using the building for peace and quiet from the press.) When I did find the event, the room was filled with a bunch of doctors, many in scrubs, and about three lay people, including me. 

But it sure was an interesting break in a long day of driving. And it was all due to technology-induced serendipity: I would never have found out about the lecture without Facebook, and I would never have found the building if I wasn't directed to the front door by the lady inside my iPhone. 

Tomorrow, Tucson. 


October 28th

Call home

As I crossed Nebraska today, I decided to give Aunt Olive a call. I was really calling to see if she could hear her phone, as she lost her hearing aid again last week. She could, and she answered, but the conversation was a little tough.  

"I am in Nebraska!" I said. 

"You're in the bathtub?"

"No, I am in NEBRASKA!"

"In a box?" 


"Oh! For heaven's sake. What are you doing in a bathtub in Nebraska?"


The hearing aid showed up in the laundry. In pieces.

In other news, the lesbians in the dining hall are staring at her again. 

"Why can't they just give up?" she said, exasperated. 

Aunt Olla is pro-gay marriage, but very much against staring lesbians.