Last month Craig and I camped and hiked at Humbug Mountain State Park, which, though close to the highway, has a secluded feeling. A fine trail winds through big trees to the top of the mountain and while its elevation gain is 1,700 feet over three miles, the switchbacks make it seem less arduous than I’d expected. We hiked at the right time for flowers: wild iris, rose, rhododendrons, bleeding hearts, and many others I have no names for.

Being in the moment on that hike proved easy. The periodic views of the Pacific Ocean through the fir trees, the spring flowers, the sound of birds. So much visual and audio stimulation to keep the mind in the present.

Day to day, I find myself stuck in thoughts of what has happened and what may be about to happen. I’m not dissing the past and the future, but I have this feeling that savoring now shouldn’t be reserved for special times.

I wonder if my daily activities can include the kind of nowness of the hike. Maybe there’s value to paying attention to the folding of the laundry, the doing of the dishes, the weeding of the garden.

Change is hard, strategies are required


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I like the strategies in “How to Change” by Katy Milkman, particularly because the University of Pennsylvania professor shares the research behind them. My previous blog noted one of those strategies, pairing something enjoyable with the less enjoyable habit currently under construction — Milkman calls this “temptation bundling”.

I used other techniques when I set a goal to take a monthlong break from drinking alcohol, like picking a start date connected to the beginning of the week and the beginning of a camping trip. Milkman calls this the “fresh start” effect. I also had a plan for meeting the moment in the day when I typically have a glass of wine in my hand.

But I decided not to use one of the book’s strategies, a punishment for failing to complete a goal. With this strategy people commit to a financial penalty for failing to follow through. I considered, then discarded the idea. I need encouragement, not fear of a negative outcome, to help me with goals.

This book doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that making changes is challenging. In much of the research that psychologists considered successful just 20 or 25 percent of subjects sustained change. That is humbling.

I don’t recall now if Milkman said much about this but for me taking a moment to let myself be gratified by the small steps I’ve taken — written my 1,000-word daily quota, spent my half hour weeding the garden, practiced my guitar, etc. — often fuels me for the next day and the next small steps.

Between the author and the reader


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I haven’t been a fan of audio books, but listening to compelling stories reduces the tedious aspects of hand stitching a large quilt. (Yes, endless spirals. What was I thinking?) While half a dozen audio books have helped me make good progress. I’ve been surprised to learn that the voice reading the book has a significant effect on my appreciation of the story.

I don’t care for the person reading Gregg Hurwitz’s “Orphan X” series (a guilty pleasure I confess to). If I hadn’t read the first few books in the series I doubt I could have listened to the entire “Prodigal Son” while quilting. And I recently tried (and failed) to listen to Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club. The reader’s voice interfered so much with my ability to connect with the story that I gave it up after the third chapter.

Because Fowler is such a respected author, I began to wonder whether the insertion of someone else’s voice between me and the written page was having an impact on my sense of not just the quality of the narrative but also the nature of the characters.

Casting about for something else to listen to, I stumbled on Elizabeth Bear, thanks to author John Scalzi’s inimitable and wondrous blog Whatever. This time, rather than just jumping into the audio book, I read the first few chapters, using Amazon’s “Look inside” feature. Reassured that I liked the both the writing and the story, I turned to the audio version and found the voices fit the story for me.

I appreciate my local library making audio books available through the Hoopla digital streaming service. I absolutely do buy books, but can’t buy all the books all the time.

I’m listening to Bear’s “The Stone in the Skull” now and suspect that the actual purchasing of Bear books won’t be long in coming.

Listening to books has reinforced for me the notion that reading is an oddly private and intimate act between author and reader, two people who rarely meet, but find themselves drawn together in an inner invisible dance. While audio books draw me back to my otherwise tedious needlework, I prefer no intermediary between me and the page.

May my eyesight last until someone pulls the last book from my cold fingers.

Gratifying but not easy


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My nephew Logan at the Eugene Marathon. Logan ran a personal best of 3 hours, 23 minutes, 21 seconds. His mom, Elaine, and Craig and I had the pleasure of cheering him on. A week later, during a Mother’s Day Zoom call, Logan’s Grandma Irene, plus aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. were congratulating him as well as recognizing what a physical challenge running 26.2 miles is. Logan noted that having run the race is sufficiently gratifying to overcome the physical pain during the race. And this prompted Irene (my 96-year-old genius mother) to ask the rest of us to share similar experiences in our own lives, things that are gratifying but not necessarily easy.

Some of the things that got brought up: herding cattle, being an air force pilot, writing, taking on the challenge of a new job. It was a fine family discussion as it helped us all know each other a little better. And that’s why I call her my genius mother. She’s good at drawing us out this way.

Place matters


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I’m embedded in “The Essential Willa Cather Collection” and revisiting my profound appreciation for her work. Cather wrote in the early part of the 20th century, and among many accolades her novel “One of Ours” received a Pulitzer Prize in 1923. I had previously read her classic “My Antonia” but I wasn’t familiar with her other books, short stories and essays.

This collection includes many short stories, essays and critiques and her first novel, “Alexander’s Bridge,” as well as “My Antonia.” Cather is known for bringing alive the Nebraska prairie and the immigrants who lived there at the turn of the century. I am in awe of her ability to shape mood through descriptions of place.

Here’s just a bit from “Alexander’s Bridge” where Cather is describing Chestnut Street in Boston: “Wilson was standing quite still, contemplating with a whimsical smile the slanting street with its worn paving, its irregular, gravely colored houses and the row of naked trees on which the thin sunlight was still shining.”

I hadn’t read any of her short stories until now and just finished “On the Divide,” published in a shortlived magazine The Mahogany Tree in 1892. It’s an odd, rich story that does that thing at the end that some authors manage. With one last sentence, the entire story is perfectly knit.

A gifted sister


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Seven Cities of Gold: Wings, Artist Betsy James

My good friend Chris James and I have known each other 40 years, and while I knew he had a gifted sister — Betsy James, both an author and an artist — I hadn’t ever seen her work until we visited the Nedra Matteucci Gallery in Santa Fe this month. Goodness me.

I just felt drawn into her work, which captures a magical nexus of sky/land/humans. Oh and birds.

Then I checked her web site and now I’m pulled into her books. Currently reading “Roadsouls.” It’s still early days, but there is something a little Ursula-Le-Guin Earthsea-ish about this book.

Her webpage has some fine observations about creativity. I particularly liked this bit about tithing.

The farm boy who discovered Pluto


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Clyde Tombaugh was a Kansas farm boy in the 1920s who couldn’t afford college so he just did what he could on the farm in his spare time: Built his own telescopes and took meticulous notes about his night-sky observations. He sent his notes to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff AZ when he heard they were hiring and his notes got him a job. The Lowell Observatory is a private institution founded in 1894 by Percival Lowell, son of wealthy Massachusetts industrialists and educators. Lowell was convinced another planet beyond Neptune influenced its orbit and Tombaugh, using the 24-inch Clark refracting telescope (pictured above) found Pluto in 1930. It turned out that Lowell was wrong about Pluto’s influence on Neptune. Eventually Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet in Kuiper belt. But the Clark telescope is still a remarkable instrument, still functional and available for viewing the night sky by the likes of you and me. Lowell invites folks up to the observatory on clear nights to get a closeup view of stars, nebula, galaxies. At our visit there this month, Craig and I saw the Orion Nebula using the 126-year-old Clark telescope. We also got introduced to the stunning Cigar Galaxy. Exciting research continues at Lowell. This is why we travel.

Page design matters


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A salute to those who make writers’ words come alive on paper. I’ve had the great privilege of working with award-winning page designers at various newspapers over the years, and they can make or break a reader’s first impression. My most recent project, a tribute to local women, has two completely different looks. The photo at left shows the printed page. The one below shows the electronic edition. Two completely different fonts and layouts. This is talented Todd Cooper’s work. I am delighted with both efforts. I bring this up because I know many writers these days self publish and I would advise not skimping on layout. Good page designers are worth the investment.

Poking around in the past


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Sometimes our local weekly newspaper lets me knock out a piece for them. My latest, brief profiles of the local women who made a difference in Eugene, Oregon, was a delight to research.

While all of the women I wrote about are inspiring, I’m deeply intrigued by Alice Hall Chapman. She was a physician and wife of the second president of the University of Oregon. I was unable to unearth much about her, but I will continue plugging away. I lost her trail in the 1930s. She would have been in her 60s by then. She was living in a Pasadena, CA, boarding house at that point, according to census records. I feel confident it’s her because how many Alice Hall Chapmans were physicians back then? (And how cool is it that census records noted professions.) Can’t find her in the census records after that, but I’ll be scoping out some of the online family history sites that our public library permits free access to.

I would love any advice from family history sleuths. I’d like to know when and where she died and was buried. I’d like to know if any universities besides the UO preserved her papers. I’d like to find articles published about her in local papers. Etc.

Invest in local news



Think about this: Back in 2004, there were about 34 reporters working at The Register-Guard. Today there are nine. There is no question that Eugene’s hometown newspaper is not the publication it once was. People here shake their heads and talk about the last straw that made them cancel their subscriptions.

But that’s shortsighted.

Canceling a subscription to the local newspaper is kind of like refusing to repair the roof because it’s already leaking.

It’s like refusing to fix the bridge because it’s already got cracks in it.

It’s like refusing to help kids with homework because they are crappy students.

We need our local newspaper. Somebody has to go to the city council meeting, sit through it, cull the most important info and tell you what you missed. Somebody has to show up at the local schools, see what’s happening in classrooms and inspire you with the learning that’s going on. Somebody needs to read those 350-page environmental impact statements, and tell you what the government has planned for the public lands around you.

The nation’s flagship newspapers — New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal — they aren’t going to do it. Your local TV and public radio also lack the bandwidth to sufficiently deploy reporters.

Consider your local newspaper to be part of the community infrastructure. It might not be the paper it once was. But it can’t get better if the community doesn’t buy in.

Today there are news deserts, places that no longer have even a few reporters doing the grunt work of keeping communities informed. Let’s not be that place.