Plow Creek Foss Memorial

I was at Plow Creek Farm last weekend; my old stomping grounds. Sunday morning I went down to the valley. I’m on my way to Thailand in a week, and the conference theme there is “crossing over”. So I’ve been thinking about how the Israelites “Crossed over” the Jordan, stacking stones as they did so, in memorial. I wanted to go down and make a cairn at Plow Creek to memorialize Rich Foss, who also “crossed over” last week. My favorite shot is above. You can’t tell how small the cairn is from that photo. Well, it’s all about perspective! Sometimes the things that were small seemed big. Sometimes the things that were big seem smaller later. Relationships aren’t about whether a person is big or small, just about whether you are close to them or far away. Intimate to them, or not. Your perspective on how big they are really comes from your proximity to their heart, and not at all to any measure of fame they have attained. There are, therefore, no big people. There’s no such thing as a big shot. Only humans who know how to be intimate, gentle, compassionate, and kind, to those they know well and live with, and friendly to everyone else they meet…  and there are humans who don’t. Rich knew.

Rich knew.

Rich Foss knew how to love people and so he will be a sorely missed influence in my life. Rich was a mentor to me, asked me to carry on the work of his nonprofit, Evergreen Leaders, and was a major influence in giving myself permission to call myself a writer, and to do the hard work of writing a novel. Rich wrote one novel in his life, Jonas and Sally. It’s beautiful, poetic prose, sold a fairly high number of copies, and it is out of print. I found a copy of it a few weeks ago in a used bookstore in Pennsylvania for $1 and bought it.  I often sell them alongside my own books, so I’m on the lookout for copies. I’m surprised to find that I’ve already written more books than he did… but I’m not surprised to feel that none of them are quite as good. Which is, of course, a matter of opinion. You might like my books better. Who knows?

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So many Plow Creek kids grew up being really great at hoops. I stunk. I don’t know how I can call myself a Hoosier and hold my head high. Indiana has this big thing about basketball but it’s huge in rural Illinois too. Several of the kids I grew up with ended up playing college basketball and winning state championships in high school. Rich Foss’ son played for Colgate University. I think he made it to the NCAA tournament one year. My guess is that if he wanted to he could still dunk on this rim. I could barely reach it with my camera, that’s how much ups I’ve got.

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Somebody beat me to the creek, post-ice storm. They must have thrown these three rocks on the ice to see if it was safe to cross over. When they did it, it was. By the time I got there Sunday, not so much. I didn’t try to get to the north bank. Even though Dave Stahnke loaned me a warm pair of boots, I didn’t want a soaking. While I was there I got to hear the ice; deep, groaning, creaking sounds of water, in solid state, splitting up. I watched as a huge section calved.

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I made this little cairn on the ice. The stones were smaller than I remembered, as everything at Plow Creek is, and there were few enough of them sticking out of the bank. I had to bang most of them out of the frozen ground with another rock. It was slow, and quickly became apparent that I wasn’t going to get to build a huge cairn, certainly not one that did justice to how big of a big shot Rich was. Everything seemed underwhelming when you stepped back, but taking a good angle I could still get some interesting shots. Something intimate, with stones, ice and brown grass.

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Here’s an interesting accidental shot. Sometimes what we think is the focus is really the background in life. Maybe for you what I’m talking about in this blog is painting the background for what you’re really dealing with. Or maybe there’s something coming into focus that I’m not even thinking about as I write it.

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From this view you can see the barn. We used to play in the loft. Behind the trees just beyond the barn is where the creek runs, so the other shots (above) were taken in the creek bed behind the barn that you can’t see, because it’s lower, obviously. To the left you can see the North Bluff, which has been gradually eroding into the creek for millions of years, since I was, like, five.

I thought it was interesting that this trailer claims Plow Creek Farm has delivered local berries, produce and beef since 1978. I asked some of the folks my parents’ age what they remembered about when Plow Creek began to sell produce. They reminisced about how the first gardens were planted in difficult soil, clay, on the top of the hill, and they located the garden there initially because “it was close to the house, and besides there was plenty of sun” rather than planting in good soil. They were suburban kids who had to teach themselves to farm while living communally. I knew they started the community in 72 or 73. It makes sense now that it took them 4-5 years to get to the point where people would come buy their produce. It’s hard to imagine my mom and dad and all these other folks who used to farm this land not knowing where to put a garden. I guess the beauty of our twenties is that we’re stupid, and we’re beginning to know it, but our kids don’t know it yet. We get a period of life where we can grow and learn without our kids holding it against us. To them, we are simply big shots.

I also heard a great story from my Dad I had never heard before. Once he shot a stray cat (sorry, animal lovers, on farms you sometimes have to keep the population down) and the neighbor came over a few days later, wondering if anyone had seen his cat. Dad said, yeah, I shot a stray, but it doesn’t fit your description so I don’t think it was yours. The neighbor came back a few days later and dug up the cat Dad shot. Well, it was his cat. I joked with dad that of course the cat he shot didn’t fit the same description; the neighbor’s description was of a lively, warm, purring cat, while the one Dad shot was lifeless, cold … Dad said he felt really bad and offered the neighbor his pick of a litter of kittens, but he didn’t want any of them. I guess sometimes you only want the cat you had.

Death is an unacceptable event. Any substitute offered in its aftermath is anathema to us for a time. Our desires for the good things we had are set in stone, cataloged rock by rock in our memory, cemented down as a pillar. We don’t want different good things. We want what we loved. We don’t want to develop new intimacies. It’s hard to break in a new pair of shoes. It’s a pain to learn a new operating system, language, code, code of ethics, culture, route to the grocery store, new flavor of food. We have to learn to communicate again in new ways, which takes energy we don’t have. Death is an unacceptable event.

What happens to us: one day, the ice breaks up, and even our cairns get washed away in the spring flood, all our memories of the old earth are gone, as clouds in new heavens come drifting along. The season will change, the water will be warm and pure, and we’ll all cross over to the north bank, climb the bluff, pick the blueberries and tell each other stories: perhaps with the old rhythms, but under brighter skies. Rich will be there too and I know exactly how he will be laughing.

 

 

 

 

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Stetson Jeff in Paperback!

Together with my co-author, Justin Fike, I’m proudly announcing the arrival of The Stetson Jeff Adventures, Vol. 1.

This paperback volume includes our first three books: Beatdown in Bangkok, Mayhem in Marrakesh, and Pandemonium in Paradise. We added an exclusive bit, a short story titled “A Very Stetson Christmas” which is unavailable in any of the e-book formats. It’s the perfect ending to a year’s worth of work for good old Stetson Jeff, who has been all over the world in search of justice, a place to sell cowboy hats, and a great steak.

Not sure you want to invest $17 in the entire volume? Why not pick up the first book on Amazon for FREE!? We think you’re going to laugh until… well, until you stop laughing.

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How Honest Abe would have Tweeted

“You can tell the greatness of a man by what makes him angry.” — Abe Lincoln

Abe Lincoln had a practice when he was angry with someone. That practice was to write a letter in the heat of the moment; lay it all out there. Speak his mind. Say what he thinks.

Then, he slept on it before sending it.

Then, he didn’t send it. Ever.

I think it’s fair to say that Honest Abe would not have used Twitter much at all. The idea that you can get a message out blah, blah, blah, boom, would not have appealed to him.

If greatness is about what makes you angry (and you do get angry sometimes, if you’re passionate about life, and perhaps even about petty things) then your next best path is to write things down … and leave them out of the public discourse.

Lincoln did become angry. He also dealt with a country that was as divided as it has ever been. For us to reunite our country, we need leaders who don’t Tweet, they shut up. And I’m talking about you, dear reader. Oh, haven’t there been times when you got angry about something and posted about it on social media within the next two minutes? And have you looked back later to see how petty it was? Did you experience the shame you’ve thought others ought to experience? If our President-elect is going to use Twitter the way he has been, then the rest of us who are leaders in this country are going to have to rise above that. How? By not responding in kind. By not Tweeting in anger.

Does this mean we should never speak our minds? To heal the nation, aren’t we going to have to speak, and to take action? Of course we will, we do. That’s what I’m doing now.

I take consolation in the fact that a President is a figurehead – but we don’t have to follow his example. We can take our examples from other Presidents, other leaders. Leaders who didn’t fire off a postcard when they were mad, and send it by the next Pony-Express. Leaders who knew how to say what they thought, on paper, and then keep it to themselves. This will make you a better entrepreneur. A better parent. A better spouse. A better person.

Coaching and Politics

It’s been hard to write much lately because I’ve been troubled about things and want to be careful what I put out in public. See, a coach’s responsibility is to not assert an agenda. My goal is to stay away from putting people off by espousing a particular ideology.

On the other hand, writers and artists have often had things to say to the world on political, social and cultural issues, and I fit into that bucket too.

Sunday night we attended an event to support the protesters at Standing Rock, those opposing an oil pipeline through their water supply. They are concerned about the possibility (or perhaps inevitability) of an oil spill. We heard people from diverse backgrounds do dances, give speeches and read poetry, play music. We listened to Peruvian music and poetry from Ecuador. Heard an African-American from South Bend do spoken word. And I sat there thinking, “what does a dopey middle-aged straight white male have to contribute?” Can I sit around writing about how “WE” are all experiencing this oppression? Of course not. I am one of the privileged.

The grouchy old white guy sits there with his flowing mustache, his wiry white hair sticking up every which way. He wears a white linen suit and bow tie. He sips a cool drink and begins to think less about what he can not say, and more about what he can.

There is precedent: the old white guy (Samuel Clemens and Garrison Keillor) writes satire. To borrow from Geico’s ad: “You write satire. It’s what you do.”

Sometimes satire is pointed and deep, other times it’s just fun. For now I’m closer to the fluffy end on the satire scale of “Cotton Candy to Habanero Pepper Sauce”, more like Mark Twain writing “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” than, say, his treatise on King Leopold II’s abuses in Congo. But if satire is a welcome relief to you, you’ll be happy to know that my book “Beatdown in Bangkok” a Stetson Jeff adventure, is available here  for free on Amazon! Sign up for our email list when you’re done reading it, and you can get the second book in the series free too: “Mayhem in Marrakesh”.

So, what am I doing when it comes to political, social and cultural upheaval? I’m making fun of white guys. It’s what I do. Hope you have a good laugh. It’s good medicine.

Why you should write your book

Do you have negative self-talk? What you’re telling yourself might be even more powerful because it’s true. Nobody really cares about your stupid book. In the US alone there are over 300,000 NEW books published every year. I will account for three of them this year, maybe four or five or six next year, and you know what? For the most part nobody (percentage-wise) really cares.

1812: 204 years ago, the year Charles Dickens was born, 66 novels were published in England. In the whole year. Yes, about five per month. That’s it.

1837-1901: 60,000 novels published during the Victorian era. That’s an average of 937 a year, but of course it was accelerating, so in 1837 it was much lower than that average, and by 1900 it would have been quite a bit more.

2000 and later: 300,000+ per year in the USA alone (China doubles it). Let’s say that 1% of those are decent, and 0.1% are very good. It’s unlikely you’ll read 300 very good books in a year. That’s one a day! If there was a way to curate and determine the best 0.01% of all the books written in a single year, you’d still need to get through three a month to read them all. (And instead you’re reading my blog.)

The odds that anyone will ever care about your stupid book are slim. So now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s move on.

On the other hand, by the end of the decade 6 Billion people will have a device with which they can get online. Quite a few of them are able to read in English, but if you want to write in Mandarin or several other languages you might have a larger potential audience of those 6 Billion. And you only need 10,000 fans of that 6 Billion to make a decent living if you can publish a new book every other month or so. That’s only 0.00001666% of the people who are online. Suddenly it looks more doable. Is 0.0000166% nobody?

Let’s say you sell a book for $3.99 (on average) to each of those nobodies (Amazon will likely take 30% so lets round to keep it simple and say you maybe make $3 per copy to 2500 of your 10,000 person fan base of nobodies. And you do this 4 times per year. You just made $30,000. Now in my town you can almost live on that.

But if you don’t have 10,000 readers, then you’re sort of back to nobody cares.

So why write the book?

Because it gives you a sense of fun, accomplishment, satisfaction. That is all. You have the fans, or you don’t, you build a database or you don’t. Most people who complete a new book will tell you they didn’t expect it to make them a lot of money. They did it for that personal satisfaction of completing something. Making something well. Sharing it with a few friends.

A true friend: someone who cares about the book you wrote.

Forget about the six billion. If you’re ambitious there are plenty of books that will tell you how to get 10,000 fans. If you’re not trying to earn a living with it, that’s ok.

You have to get past worrying about whether anyone will care. They won’t. And even if they don’t, you’ll be glad you did it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It all falls in Place

Sometimes you just have to commit.

About two months ago I bought tickets for a trip to Cairo. I felt like there were people I should meet there, contacts to make. I knew I had one friend who could host me, so I bought the tickets.

I’m just under two weeks from departure, and my schedule is full for an entire ten days in Egypt. Sure, I had to reach out to my network. There was some work involved in connecting with people, but frankly I’m a little shocked it’s all come together so easily.

Sometimes you have to go with your gut.

What’s your gut saying?