Were they or weren’t they friends?

Back in my undergrad days, I was hired by a retired jazz musician or some such insider to gleam through microfilm copies of the Indiana Daily Student and other sources as research for a bio or history book he was writing in New York.

The project opened my eyes to a wide range of 1920s’ history revolving around Bloomington, especially the legendary cornet player Bix Biederbecke and the Hoosier native Hoagy Carmichael. Yes, the place was a jazz hothouse, hard as that might be to believe.

I wish I still had carbon copies of my correspondence on that effort, but I do remember learning of a hitchhiking trip to a Harvard-Indiana University football game that Carmichael shared with Ernie Pyle, editor-in-chief of the Indiana Daily Student.

Seems it took them three weeks or maybe six to get back to campus from Massachusetts.

It’s a great story, no question, kind of pre-hippie, in this case two future celebrities back before they became famous.

The only problem, I’m not finding any corroboration online. Worse yet, I’m not sure how much Pyle and Carmichael’s timelines overlap. Besides, they were members of different fraternities, lessening the likelihood of a joint spree.

The game happened in October 1927, the same time Carmichael was making the premiere recording “Star Dust” in Richmond, Indiana. Pyle, meanwhile, was likely employed by either the New York Post or Evening World and had married. Some of his details get fuzzy.

I don’t remember who the writer was or whether his book ever came out.

By the way, IU lost, in a 26-6 rout.

Mortality and the passage of time

Realizing I really did need to get some regular physical exercise last winter, I finally caved in and ventured into the senior center for fitness class twice a week. It took three friends to nudge me into it, and it’s embarrassing to have to admit what 50 years of neglect have done to my body. I’m a long way from my yoga glory. Well, I’m also the only male in the circle, not that it inhibits the lively, enlightening, and laughter-riddled banter that occurs while we’re plodding through the routine. Their hour-plus dialogue could fill a hit sit-com or bestseller novel, if only I could find a plot. Well, much of the running commentary there is also about ailments afflicting folks in the community, sometimes leading to offering rides to their specialists or food deliveries – what I’ll call “good gossip.” And, oh yes, I much prefer to refer to the place as the Old Firehouse, skirting around the stigma of “senior center.”

That has me recalling an aside years ago when our managing editor told of a phone call he’d received from a reader complaining about being referred to as elderly.

“How old are you,” my boss asked and was told 78. “I see,” was the best he could respond with.

After that, I always struck “elderly” from news copy, along with “little” from child or kid.

Getting older is a multistage passage, most notably with the skin and stiffening joints, but the physical changes are only part of the experience.

One part is an awareness of being on borrowed time. Even when I was editing obituaries, I noted how many of the deceased were younger than me, and that was a little more than ten years ago.

Moving around the country has lessened some of the impact of aging, since I haven’t had to watch us grow older together. My high school classmates, for instance, will always never be more than 18 in my mind. Ditto for others left behind, they’re all frozen in time, even the few who are still in correspondence.

So another part is hearing that more of these colleagues of my generation are passing – a situation akin to personally knowing more people who have had been diagnosed with Covid and the recognition that it’s not just multiplying “out there” somewhere – that is, knowing only the abstract – but close at hand.

I recently posted two memorial minutes of Friends I worked with clerking Dover Meeting and have been reflecting on others in my Quaker circles.

Now I get word of the passing of an esteemed reporter who was six years younger than me, and somehow it hits more than those from the workplace who died earlier. To my surprise, it has nothing to do with how close we were in our daily interactions. (He and I weren’t, apart from a comment or two in passing. I should note that he produced “clean copy,” requiring little editing, and that meant little interpersonal friction.)

In his case, I think the blow comes as a sense of an end of an era. He carried institutional weight in covering the New Hampshire’s political scene and soared nationally during the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. With the decline of newspapers in general, his replacement at the statewide Union Leader will never achieve such prominence or influence.

I might as well get out of bed

Once again, another disturbing dream pushed me out of a restful sleep. It kept returning, with new twists.

It’s been nearly a decade since I last designed and paginated a newspaper page or faced its deadline pressure or even dealt with kinks in the paper’s latest computer system, but the game keeps popping up in my slumber – a game I’m also always on the verge of losing.

Why that and not, say, invading armies or insects or storms when it comes to anything verging on nightmares?

What are your repeated dreams?


This morning’s newspaper had a headline that sent an “Oh, gee, I haven’t seen that before” running through my head. As I mentioned the other day (Why Woodpecker Can’t Keep Up, June 14), so much of the news can be same-old, same-old variations on a theme. But this one really was new:

Motorcyclist Hits Bear.

As I also mentioned (Harley Heaven on Lake Winnipesaukee, June 16), we just had the nine-day Laconia Motorcycle Week, which attracts swarms of bikers to the Granite State, and racing along mountainous roads is one of their joys. Every year the event is accompanied by accidents and usually a few fatalities, but I don’t ever remember seeing one involving a bear. This one happened in the afternoon. Broad daylight on a perfect day.

Unlike moose, which are slow and dumb, convinced they can continue ignoring oncoming traffic, bears can be fast-moving, when necessary, and alert. Moose-car accidents are, in fact, commonplace throughout northern New England, while bear-car encounters are also a standard news item, though less frequent. I suppose I’ve seen a few moose-motorcyclist crash stories over the years, or at least should have.

This time I found myself recalling a report I’d edited and written the headline for back on my first news desk position right after college. We were Upstate New York, which has its own mountainous terrain. That time, a motorcyclist ran into a porcupine on a dark highway, and the results were fatal. As a city-boy, porcupines were still a curiosity, rather than a critter I often acknowledge in my journeys.

In this morning’s dispatch, the driver was airlifted to a hospital and reported to be in critical condition.


Another item making the rounds also seems to slip over from one of the routine categories — in this case, political survey results — into the I’ve-never-seen-that-before status. In the race for the White House, a Democrat, and a woman at that, is polling evenly with Donald Trump in the overwhelming Republican state of Utah.


This reminds me of another reaction I often have as a novelist: “This wouldn’t work in fiction.” Accompanied by “You couldn’t invent this if you tried.” Life really does take some bizarre turns if you look.



Many days in the newsroom I had the feeling of same-old, same-old. I’d seen it all before. Another election, just different names and tallies. Another car crash or house fire. A store opening or a restaurant closing. Graduations or obituaries. It’s a long list. And then something refreshing would come along, something that prompted the exclamation, “I’ve never seen that before!” Contrary to the doom-and-gloom image of the business, many of us at the newspaper loved having something uplifting to present.

These days, though, it’s more likely to be along the lines of this couldn’t be happening, could it?

The American presidential campaign is just the most obvious. The Woodpecker Reports appearing at the Red Barn are supposed to be a reminder of the underlying currents we thought would be shaping this election season – the history and power-brokers moving behind the scenes, especially. Things we’d seen before, round after round, including the same players or their disciples. Woodpecker can hammer away in the infected trees, as he’s been, but when the forest catches fire, he’ll take flight. I know this: things are spinning too fast to keep up. And that’s before we get to the climate instability that’s more glibly called global warming.


I’m still aghast at the reports of Sen. David Perdue’s “joking” when he encouraged participants at a religious conference to pray that President Obama’s “days be few,” a reference to Psalm 109. The audience apparently picked up on the calamities to be inflicted not just on the transgressor but on his spouse and children, too – evil thoughts, without question. In the text, however, King David is pouring out his soul in response to political persecution, a situation the Georgia Republican blithely ignores. King David’s lines certainly fit as a cry for help from Obama: “Wicked and deceiving words are being said about me, false accusations are being cast in my teeth,” as verse 2 reads in the New Jerusalem translation. “In return for my friendship they denounce me. … They repay my kindness with evil, and friendship with evil” (verses 4-5) match the good intentions Obama had for reasoning with a Republican Congress. As for the evil man oppressing the king, “He had no thought of being loyal, but hounded the poor and needy and the broken hearted to their death. He had a taste for cursing; let it recoil on him!” (verses 16-17).

Taken in its fullness, the Psalm – perhaps even the Holy One – could point to Perdue and laugh, “The joke’s on you.”

Except that this is serious, deadly serious. Prayer is never a joke, not for the faithful. And the Fourth Commandment (Exodus 20:7) warns: “You shall not misuse the name of Yahweh your God, for Yahweh will not leave unpunished anyone who misuses his name.” (The New Jerusalem here gives quite a different insight than the more traditional take of “taking the Lord’s name in vain,” usually seen as colloquial cursing or words not uttered in polite company.)

In a broader context, we can remember that King David could be both passionate and brash, qualities that got him in deep doo-doo more than once, and thanks to Abigail, he even had to recant one of the curses he was about to impose on her husband and all the males in her extended household (I Samuel 25).

While we’re at it, we can also leap ahead to Jesus commanding his followers, “Love your enemies,” and to look for the plank in their own eyes when faulting the splinter in another’s.

Nowhere do I accept an argument that it can be OK to pray for evil.


Only hours later came the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, the worst mass slaying by a solitary gunman in the nation’s history.

As I read a few headlines quoting people who were suggesting the sinfulness of the lifestyle was the reason for the tragedy, I once again found myself aghast. (When I reread the reports more carefully, this was not their argument; rather it turned against Islam and its followers. Still, I have no doubt the original line of anti-LGBT argument is circulating through many circles.)

What angered me in my reaction was the notion we see all too often of blaming the victims. If their lifestyle were to blame, how then do we align that with shootings in churches, schools, even movie theaters, as we’re seeing? You’re going to blame Amish children or their parents? Come on, now! Or is something else the cause? At the moment, the United States has more guns per capita than at any previous time in its history; firearms were relatively scarce, even on the frontier, as you’ll discover reading wills from the period.

Let me suggest another calculus:

The more guns, the more murders. Period.


I just wish that mass shootings weren’t becoming same-old, same-old news in America, with only the numbers and frequency rising. Or that the anger weren’t fueling hatred.

Maybe I need to head out to the garden to see what’s new there. Even picking weeds might be uplifting.


As we’ve noted, Donald Trump has a very thin skin. Add to that his obsession with, well, himself as he imagines himself, brooking no dissension. It’s said he dictates the position of television cameras at public events to enhance the likelihood of only flattering images.

And now that the New Hampshire Union Leader has endorsed Chris Christie in the Republican presidential primary, Trump is taking credit for getting the state’s largest newspaper dumped from participating in an upcoming debate in its home city. The ABC network, it appears, simply caved in to the candidate’s demands. (For the record, it’s not the first. Let’s hope, though, it’s the last.)

Perhaps as part of his shallow understanding of the workings of the public sphere, Trump apparently cannot separate the news gathering and reporting side of journalism from the opinions expressed in its editorial columns. Now, it seems, neither can ABC News, which puts its own credibility in question. More to the point, where does the network separate news from entertainment? Is it as soft and spineless as Trump just accused the American public of being?

Where’s the truth in all of Trump’s image-building? Who’s to separate the reality before us from an increasingly weird fiction? Is it going to be left to the legions of National Football League fans he’s just insulted? Or is the court jester really in line for his own coronation?

One way to take down a bully, as we recall, is for everyone to pile on together. So who will take the first move – and who will be second? After that, you can imagine what happens. Right?


Found myself chuckling the other day as I was making photocopies on the computer printer. What came to mind was the memory of my old definition of knowing I’d made the big time as a writer would be when I had my own IBM Selectric typewriter and my own Xerox copier. Gee, it didn’t even have to be Xerox, now that I think of it. (And it wasn’t even something really big like a sailboat or shiny new BMW.)

My, how that dates me! But let me explain.

Not too long ago, writers like me were clunking away on big old manual keyboards, even in newspaper offices. The electric typewriters were more likely to be found in the jewelry store on the corner or at the bank than on the desks of people who had to type constantly as part of their employment. Well, really good secretaries also had them – with a lot of our admiration.

While the news writing could have cross-outs and handwritten insertions, serious literary submissions were expected to be perfect – and each submission to the journals was expected to be clean, meaning a copy seldom lasted long in the face of multiple rejections. (Remember, even top-flight authors can expect to receive an average of 20 rejections for each acceptance – or that was the story back when all this was going on. And simultaneous submissions were absolutely verboten.)

So that’s where the photocopier comes in. The small-press editors eventually began allowing copies rather than originals, which was a big blessing for poets like me. Still, it meant finding a decent place to make copies. When I lived in the desert of Washington state, for example, a trek to Seattle four hours away included several hours making fresh copies.

Once I’d moved up the management ladder a few notches, I did splurge on an electric typewriter, one I loved despite its annoying flying f that nobody could keep repaired. Half of the time it would land several spaces further down the line than where it was needed.

Newsrooms, meanwhile, finally got the Selectrics – not to facilitate reporters’ work but to allow the stories to be scanned directly into type, which raised an entire other nightmare. (Try editing one of those!)

What I really envied with the Selectric was the fact you could choose different fonts and sizes – those magical metal balls that flew around above the page you were typing.


So here we are, a few decades later. How obsolete all that has become! The computer keyboard allows instant corrections, unlike the bulky typewriter. Even the Selectric. And I have quite the array of fonts and sizes to select from, even before shopping around online for more. So much for the four or five choices in the Selectric, if that many. As for that photocopier, I can simply scan copies from the top of that computer printer for all but the most unusual projects.

As for IBM and Xerox? They’re hardly the monolithic powerhouses they were then.

My, how the field’s changed!

As have my measures of “big time.”


Climbing around the barn the other day, I came upon a few items I now realize are ancient history. The T-square, for instance, was used for paste-ups for pages that would be photocopied for publication. But nowadays, that’s all done in the computer. The circular wheels were actually slide rules we used to calculate proportions when cropping photographs, also for publication – and once again, that’s all done in the computer these days. The metal ruler has special calibrations in picas and points, the measurements traditionally used by printers. You run into point measures now in the font section of your word program. And then there’s the mouse pad. You remember those, back before you switched to laptop?


So I came back into the house and turned on my stereo. You may notice I still play vinyl, which probably deserves a posting of its own. When I was a teen, I dreamed of the day I’d have an entire wall of LPs and the system to play them on. Now I look at this and realize it can essentially fit into my laptop or, uh, an iPod, if I ever go there.



As a writer, I love long pieces that allow a thorough investigation of a topic. Tell me the why and how of a situation, not just the final action.

The Wall Street Journal used to have those front-page, full-column “leaders” that jumped inside, often filling most of the inside page. These pieces actually telescoped a series of mini-stories into a comprehensive whole. How I admired those, even as I was being told to cut stories to much shorter length. (It often felt like reducing prime rib to hamburger.)

The longer stories, if well written and thoroughly researched, provided a sense of feasting, and I could point to research that showed some readers stayed around for those meaty offerings. I knew I had a feeling of getting my money’s worth after I’d savored one of those.

Not that I felt all stories should run long – I was also a big believer in running columns of briefs, in part to make room for the longer reports.

These thoughts return to me as I blog. In fact, I’m having a lot of fun “writing short” here at the Barn. You know, a couple of sentences and that’s it – especially with the photos.

For the longer efforts, though, I’ll point you to As Light Is Sown, Chicken Farmer I Still Love You, or the Orphan George Chronicles. Or to my novels. As I was saying …