Respectfully looking to the Amish

One of the themes running through my new novel, What’s Left, is an acknowledgement of what I’ve sometimes called “guerrilla economics.”

In one passage in an earlier draft of the story, I argued:

On the other hand, he just might learn along the way that the Amish keep to their ways not because they’re entirely sold on horsepower and kerosene lamps but because of the hedge their style puts around them, enabling them to keep their families and communities intact against the onslaught that’s devouring everything else.

Well, the Amish do provide the Swiss cheese essential to the family’s signature Streetcar sandwich, but there’s more. They’re a model of community, something Cassia’s family is also trying to do beside the college campus.


You can’t have it all – it’s an essential lesson when it comes to money issues if you want any freedom. Besides, where would you store it all? Who would even dust or polish it?

Again, this subject runs beyond the scope of my new novel, but there is a question of just how much is enough. For Cassia and her parents, they’re comfortable living modestly while successfully working in their world. And, no, they don’t live out by the country club or buy a new car every year, even when Cassia might see that as the way “normal” people might live.

What sacrifice would you be willing to make to pursue your dreams? (Give up your cell phone? Your laptop?) And what would you find’s essential to keep?


Greek Orthodox icon of the Virgin Mary of Mount Athos (and details) created by Father Vasileios Pavlatos in Kefalonia, Greece using the technique of Pyrography. (Via Wikimedia Commons.)

Cassia’s roots included inspiration like this.


Up on the rooftop

Roofers work to repair damage in all kinds of weather. It takes more than shingles, too. Handling a big piece of plywood, with or without wind, can be a challenge. They have my sympathy. Last time I was on a roof, I found myself sliding toward the ladder. As I said, the last time …


Writers work in many different ways.

Some sit down and write two hours a day. When I read that in interviews, I used to think, “What slackers!” Only later, when I realized how much other work needs to be done to sustain that, did I revise my opinion. Research, reading, and correspondence are also crucial parts of the job. For many professional writers, you can add teaching to the list – it can be what really pays the bills.

Others charge up and then lock themselves away for an orgy of keyboarding. Say, two weeks to two months of doing nothing else. There are tales of some writers in the old days who would rent a hotel room for a week or so to do that – they must have had a very nice advance and known exactly what they were setting out to do, it seems too short a time for me these days.

When I was working full-time, my method was rather piecemeal. I’d plunge into writing heavily one day a week – it helped when my four-day workweek allowed me three days off in a row, though I paid for it with that double-shift each Saturday. The rest of the week I put in a couple of hours each day for keyboarding and the supporting labor.

That schedule, in fact, led me to concentrate on poetry much more than fiction, though the budding novels typically got their attention on my vacations and holidays. Looking back, it was a rather schizoid existence.

Since retiring, a major shift has happened, and I’m just now seeing its impact. I’ve been able to immerse myself in drafting and deeply revising a work, to live with it more thoroughly.

I’m going to blame Cassia, the voice of What’s Left. Working with her was unlike anything I’d attempted before. The focus shifted from her curiosity about her father’s past to a close examination of his photos and the family he discovered to, finally, Cassia herself and her siblings and close cousins – the Squad. The spotlight went from being on what happened to the individuals themselves. It was no longer action-driven but character-driven.

That, in turn, led to a similar reworking of my other novels, often with Cassia in effect sitting beside me. Again, unlike anything else I’d done before.

Doing this, though, has involved a lot of semi-seclusion. I’m definitely ready for a change.


Back in my college days I came across a column by a magazine writer who was retiring. He mentioned something he had recognized early in his career, that if you want to be a writer or a serious reader, you need to get comfortable with having the longest grass on your street. (An editor is something of both.)

It’s been a powerful – and to me, helpful – image.

Studious reading and writing require large chunks of time and concentration. Sacrifices have to be made. Quite simply, you can’t hope to do all the things everyone else does … or seems to do.

With my wife back in the workplace (and me now retired from paid employment), she’s looking at the list of things she’d like to see done to keep this old house and our big garden in shape. As that editor was saying about the grass?

A few weeks ago, I revisited some notes I had made in looking forward to retirement. It was embarrassing. I had always anticipated this as a time I could finally devote fully to my literary and spiritual callings rather than as a time to kick back and indulge in a life of leisure. (No golf clubs or even tennis racquet on my horizon.) Still, even then, I felt challenged in trying to find a balance for all that I wanted to accomplish. Frankly, these plans looked like boot camp for a senior citizen. Rise at 5, sit down to meditate, exercise, and hit the keyboard for three hours. That sort of thing.

What my theoretical charts didn’t include was housekeeping and the like. And then when I did retire, I hadn’t anticipated taking up daily swimming in the city’s indoor pool or online Spanish lessons or weekly choir rehearsals in Boston.

As for the big household projects like painting or ongoing repairs or time in the mountains to the north or at the beach to our east? Fuhgetaboutit, as a New Yorker would say.


My plan for this year has gone far off course. How about yours?

No, I’m not talking about New Year’s resolutions. I gave up on those decades ago. I’m talking about real business.

My goal had been to spend much of my time pushing the visibility of my new novel, What’s Left, first as an Advanced Reading Copy (available for free) and then as the First Edition.

Days after posting the ARC, though, I was sidelined by a cardiac event. That led to down time during recovery and rounds of testing and seeing doctors, plus getting adjusted to the new meds and undergoing nearly three months of cardio-rehab exercises three days a week at the local hospital.

Oh, yes, let’s not overlook the Healthy Heart diet, a kind of perpetual Lent. My favorite fallback foods – cheese, eggs, and butter – are now essentially off-limits, except as stealth ingredients. (I’ll admit looking at that egg yolk in the book cover photo with a degree of longing. The whites just don’t carry any rich flavor. I really miss my cheese omelets.) Let’s say still trying to find a way to eat sufficiently is proving elusive.

I was already intending to do a light reworking of the four novels that formed the back story for What’s Left, but a Christmas-present biography of Richard Avedon fed into a sense that I needed to have a clearer sense of Cassia’s father as a photographer in those volumes. Even though I’d worked with some of the best photojournalists in the business, newspaper work is only one corner of the larger photography field.

As I set about what I thought would be a simple retouching of those works, Cassia, the central figure in What’s Left, took over. Quite simply, she had me examining the earlier works through her critical eyes and sarcastic perspectives. She can be bossy, and she insisted on major revisions that required far more hours than I’d expected. She really wanted them updated, and I’ve tried to comply.

As I began recasting him in line with her dictates, I had that sensation of pulling a loose thread or opening Pandora’s box or that notorious can of worms. The changes at hand required major surgery to form a better fit with the newest book.

I promise to relate just what happened in future posts, but the labor did plunge me into something resembling seclusion.

On top of that, though, some early reactions to the ARC led to another reworking of the new novel to make it easier to read. Sentences got shortened, contrary to my own love of long lines, and as much as I liked not having any quotation marks in the story, I yielded and inserted some for greater clarity. Again, time-consuming but hopefully worthwhile in the end.

Then it was back to drastically slashing and reworking the remaining earlier tales. In the end, the pruning led to substantial new growth. Can I confess to being very proud of the results? They’re much different and more substantial now.

And then, at this point, I briefly thought I was finally back on my intended track. I was wrong.

Temptation led me to pick up the draft of one secretive unpublished novel, and it nagged at me. Based on one of Cassia’s future father’s troubled girlfriends who appears in one of those older novels, it dealt with issues I need to understand more fully. That, in turn, prompted two months of obsessive work that still demands extensive tweaking, even if I never show the manuscript to anyone else. Let’s just say it’s personal, even embarrassing. For now, I’m hoping to put it aside so I can get down to where I wanted to be in February. Maybe now I can get back on mission?

Anyone else feeling way behind schedule?

I’d still like to hear how others manage their time. Any tips?


Across New England, the spire on city hall typically had prominent clock. Its purpose, I’m told, wasn’t just civic pride.

No, it was to keep the mill owners in check, just in case they were tinkering with their own clocks to squeeze unpaid time out of their workers.

It’s comforting to know the town fathers could stand up to corporate powers. Most of the owners, by the way, lived far from these sources of their wealth. Many of them were Boston Brahmins clustered around Harvard.

In honor of the workers and those who stand up for them, Happy Labor Day.


At the rise of Quaker worship one week, I asked if anyone present didn’t keep a to-do list. I mean, these are all busy people, nearly three dozen of them … and that was on a slow day.

I was shocked when a half-dozen hands were raised. I still want to know how they do what they need to do, daily and on a larger horizon.

How about you? Do you keep those lists – and, if so, how do you arrange yours?

Or if you don’t, how do you keep yourself on task? Especially the big picture items, rather than what some call “putting out fires as they pop up.”

I’m all ears. My lists never seem to dovetail, and it’s still driving me nuts.