I’M FASCINATED WITH THE INFLUENCE OF SPECIFIC PLACES ON OUR LIVES

A major element in my literary writing has always been an awareness of place, and when it comes to my fiction, I’ve often considered the surrounding landscape to be a character of its own. Called it the local vibe, if you will, but the soil and locale can embody and influence the inhabitants who interact within it. Or so I heard in the ashram when our teacher returned from her first trip to India.

The awareness has stuck with me as I’ve moved across the country, from my native Midwest to both coasts and points in-between.

Another major element, to my surprise, is work and, in a larger sense, economics.

My Hippie Trails novels – Daffodil Sunrise, Hippie Drum, Hippie Love, and Subway Hitchhikers – follow a young photographer who works for newspapers through the turbulent era, and rural Indiana, small-town Northeast, and New York City all have their place in the arc.

As a rundown farm, Ashram is a center of yoga life surrounded by forest and deer.

The Northwest Passion series, meanwhile – Promise, Peel (as in apple), and St. Helens in the Mix – leaps from the Midwest to the interior desert of the Pacific Northwest. In the background we see Jaya’s struggles as a rising executive in nonprofit organizations.  And then Kokopelli’s Hornpipe … plays …

With a Passing Freight Train of 119 Cars and Twin Cabooses, Along the Parallel Tracks of Yin and Yang, and Third Rail … are rife with the mix.

The balance tips, though, with Hometown News, which is set in the newsroom of the daily newspaper serving a small industrial city beset by the emerging conglomerate corporations headquartered elsewhere.

And then we have Big Inca versus a New Pony Express Rider, with its young apprentice managed by a mysterious Boss he never meets face-to-face as they transform a backwater town into a secretive factory involving international intrigue. Yes, there’s major locale, but the focus is on the day-to-day banter of what would otherwise be an office while bigger questions – including the very nature of the company paying the bills – remain nebulous, befitting its international distance.

A third central element has been spirituality and religion, especially the strands that veer away from the mainstream. Often my exploration has been for the awareness and nurture these can provide individuals and small circles of kindred spirits. But sometimes my perspective has been critical, especially when clannish identity, superstition, or custom override faith.

It should be no surprise that my next novel will also combine the three elements – it’s set in a family-run restaurant in a college town in the Midwest. But this time, family will be yet another central issue. Please stay tuned.

RIDING OUT GRIME AND REJECTION

When one editor dismissed an earlier version of Subway Hitchhikers as “a coming of age” novel, I abandoned chronological development and turned instead to the eventual alternation of past and present tenses. When a New York agent’s brief notes placed Daffodil in Iowa, rather than Indiana, I had to wonder how closely he and his staff read a text, period. And a small press editor responded that this work was too outstanding and deserved better production and distribution than his operation could provide, while others urged self-publication.

At one point, I feared that the subject was becoming too dated – that the period, style, and places were fading from public interest. Since then, however, news developments convinced me otherwise. Who, for instance, would have envisioned a year when Yuppie hoboes would ride the rails for their summer vacation? Or that Subway Surfing would take hold! No matter how much I’ve tried to abstract the events that underpin the presentation in Subway Hitchhikers, there were time I felt overrun by developing news events. Reports, for instance, of finding a Tibetan lama reincarnated as a Spanish boy – a decade and a half after my first draft of the novel. Or a plan considered by Paris officials to build thirty-one miles of subterranean double-decked highway 100 to 165 feet underground.

Subway systems are receiving fresh interest. As public policy makers recognize their importance in the functioning of a major metropolis, the older systems are the focus of major upgrading. (New York’s MTA, for instance, was subsequently cited “as the most improved system on the continent and the man in charge received the manager of the year award. And despite the way the subway is pictured on TV, filmmakers are having a hard time finding the once-familiar graffiti sprayed on subway cars.”) Elsewhere, newer systems flourish, modeled on San Francisco’s BART and Washington, D.C.’s clean, quiet, efficient operations. As new systems, such as Los Angeles, open and expand, we can ask each city: “Where are your Subway Hitchhikers?”

~*~

For more from my more recent THIRD RAIL collection, click here.

ALL FROM ONE WHITNEY ANCESTOR

With my interest in subterranean transit systems – remember my novel Subway Hitchhikers? – I found myself fascinated with Doug Most’s The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America’s First Subways.

His 2014 book is an ambitious project, filled with some detailed but rambling asides as well as more than a few slips I wouldn’t expect from a Boston Globe managing editor. (I doubt the family ever settled into a 16-acre farmhouse, and I know that Springfield is more than an hour from Boston today while in the period he referenced the trip would have taken days. Etc.) But his description of the technological developments, urban congestion, corrupt politics, personal financial empires, and similar forces that led to the creation of what we take for granted in our largest and greatest cities can be a gripping tale.

Equally fascinating for me, though, has been a connection that emerges out of Watertown, a Boston suburb just west of Cambridge. Crucial to Most’s story is John Whitney, a 1635 arrival to the town, which was at one time the second largest settlement in Massachusetts. Two of his descendants, brothers born further west in the state, provide the “incredible rivalry” in Most’s history, but it’s the original Whitney I find suggesting yet another ambitious history. He’s the root of a most remarkable American family.

The Methodist church where my choir rehearses weekly in Watertown was founded by Whitneys, and when the current building was erected in 1895, no expense was spared. There are impressive touches. And when one of the boys from this line moved to Detroit, he became that city’s wealthiest resident by age 28.

The deep pockets that shaped the space we sing in came from the inventor of the paper bag, it turns out – and, more important, the inventor of the machine to make it.

He’s far from being the only significant inventor or investor in the family. Eli Whitney, for one, created the cotton gin that allowed slavery-based plantations to flourish in the American South.

I get the sense that the list of inventions and inventors is a long one.

More recently, the investor John Hay Whitney owned the New York Herald-Tribune in a period when it evolved into my favorite newspaper ever, even if it was the paper’s final five years. (He also owned the Sunday newspaper supplement Parade magazine.)

Don’t overlook the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan, another family legacy, or Joan Whitney Payson, an acclaimed collector who left the Portland, Maine, art museum rather than New York’s MOMA a marvelous trove of Impressionist paintings, a move that shocked much of the art world but, well, we live only an hour from Portland – we celebrate her independence.

Come to think of it, there’s one twist of note here. Watertown is still not served by a subway.

OUT IN THE STICKS AND STONES

Reflecting on the locations of my novels reminds me of the out-of-the-way places I’ve lived. Apart from Baltimore (which shows up in my poetry but none of my fiction), I landed in generally obscure locales.

Fiction, of course, lends itself to abstraction and generalization, and sometimes to a blending of several particular models.

Thus, Prairie Depot in Promise as well as Peel (as in apple) and With a Passing Freight Train of 119 Cars and Twin Cabooses reflects any number of farm centers across the Midwest, not all of them county seats, either. They’re once-thriving communities that have been left behind in the shift to the big cities and global economics. Sometimes there’s a factory or two, plus the rail yards and crossings.

The countryside around the campus in Daffodil Sunrise is more rolling and wooded, a landscape that also appears in sections of Promise, St. Helens in the Mix, and my newest novel-in-the-works. Actually, it’s not that different from the rural places in Ashram, Hippie Drum, and Hippie Love, either. While these, too, are economically and politically bypassed, they are more scenic and present more recreational opportunities to explore.

Rehoboth in Hometown News represents the industrial cities hard-hit by globalization and the loss of unionized labor job – places aptly described as the Rust Belt, from Upstate New York and Pennsylvania westward across the Mississippi.

Big Inca versus a New Pony Express Rider takes place in yrUBbury, a derelict but sufficiently remote mill town somewhere in the Northeast.

Naturally, Subway Hitchhikers and Third Rail run through the big city.

And the desert interior of the Pacific Northwest is the culmination of Promise, Peel (as in apple), St. Helens in the Mix, and Kokopelli’s Hornpipe. It’s a landscape I initially found alien but eventually came to love.

Essentially, I’ve regarded these places as characters in my fiction – as much as the people who move through them.

Popular culture takes place largely in Manhattan, Hollywood, London, Paris, Chicago, or Nashville – with dashes of San Francisco, Seattle, or other trendy backdrops thrown in. I believe the communities where we live influences our outlooks and actions. I want to hear much more from the other places, ones as overlooked as the ones I explore.

HOW CURIOUS THE RESULTING PATH, THEN

When we met, meaning my first serious girlfriend, I’d already jettisoned the now-Methodist teachings and practice after finding them to be vacuous and false my senior year of high school – complicated by the fact I was the president of the largest Youth Fellowship in our denomination (before the big merger). So I smiled, finished my term, and quietly moved on. A few years later, in Indiana, my next girlfriend was from a largely nonobservant Lithuanian Jewish family, but much of our upheaval about the time of my graduation, with her taking flight around the globe, left an emotional devastation that led (in part, at her prompting) to consider yoga. One of the things I liked about yoga was that it wasn’t religious, at least initially. No more so than, say, sitting around a hookah.

With her, and my expecting to spend the rest of our lives together, I once mentioned something about converting – and to her puzzled “Why?” I must have said something along the lines of “for the tradition.” About the same time, someone else asked where I’d wind up religiously, and I blurted, “Probably Zen-Quaker,” knowing virtually nothing about neither religion! How curious the resulting path, then.

A few years ago, then, a longtime friend’s remarks about Swami came as a surprise. As I replied, “I had no idea. And you kept quiet about her influence! Remarkable.” Several years before that, I’d come across a Washington Post story referring to someone else who had been part of the circle and was now a Messianic comic. (I’m not joking – rather, he, too, came back to roots, to some degree.) We both admitted a sense of bafflement and frustration, realizing we had grown spiritually through the experience, yet being hard-pressed to say just exactly what happened, fully.

My novel, Ashram, attempted to hold the action in a single day, avoiding the guru-worship I’ve always found discomforting in the Asian traditions, on one side, as well as the scandal-mongering that eventually accompanied every major teacher of the time, as far as I can tell, on the other.

After my then-wife and I had moved to Yakima, Swami attempted first to order me to return to the ashram and then, failing that, to claim a large part of my small income. That obviously led (as later perspective shows) to my being ostracized – and free to move increasingly into the Quaker realm. It’s now safe to say that as an ashram, we were a renegade outfit. I must now admit she essentially had two sides – one that could be deeply connected to the Source; the other, coldly entrepreneurial and calculating. As I said, “They were not compatible, and I suspect that what you experienced arose from the latter – possibly because you were seen as a threat to my residency and service.”

As I revisited my earliest journals, I was struck by the fact I could have moved to the ashram five or six months earlier, but in doing so, I would have missed an important flowering in my life. Still, my delay puzzles – did I sense potential trouble, or was it simply a desire to be prudent and cautious?

As for handwriting, you should have heard their analyses of mine! I’m still scarred – despite my once adequate art student chancery cursive skills.

And then there was what they saw in reading the palms of my hand.

Still, any way I look at what happened, it was a breakthrough experience, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And that’s what infuses this story.

~*~

Ashram

For the novel, click here.

RUNNING IN A NAME

How can you not appreciate the way the word flows on the teeth and tongue and along the lips?

Given its name, Oyster River, in the Lenape tongue for the profusion at its mouth in Chesapeake Bay, the word ripples and sings.

Upstream, where I lived, a different name would have been fitting but, I’ll presume, no more beautiful.

Susquehanna 1~*~

For your own copy, click here.