Here's a story about Frog Hospital that appeared on the front page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on November 25, 2000.
Life lessons via e-mail from La Conner The story behind Fred Owens' Frog Hospital? 'It’s just how I think'
Friday, November 24, 2000 SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER STAFF LA CONNER -- Lessons on life flow from here, and they're free for the asking. Once a week, sometimes not that often, Fred Owens fires up his computer, writes nine screens full of history and politics and wit, and sends the musings by e-mail to 300 friends, acquaintances and strangers.
Welcome to Frog Hospital, a reading experience that will take you from a parking lot in La Conner to a children's hospital in New York to the White House to the local library and back. It is journalism, in a sense, but not in the form we usually get it. Owens, 54, claims he doesn't even know how to write a true lead -- the opening paragraph of a news story. He starts with Woody Allen, for example, then rambles about The New York Times and libraries, which leads him to Franklin Roosevelt, which brings him to the subject at hand: courage. "I don't do this on purpose," he said. "It's just how I think."
Frog Hospital is like the Internet. "You can go from chairs to hippopotamus to spark plugs to china and back to chairs again. That's the way I write." "Thanksgiving is approaching in every family. It is the time to express gratitude and act in harmony, but we are faced with this damnable tie vote. If Gore had simply lost, I would stay at home and sulk and paint the bedroom, and let the other side have their parade -- at least I wouldn't have to talk with those people. "The limits of accuracy and technology have already been reached in Florida. Out of 6 million votes cast, I estimate that 500 voters were legally drunk at the time and don't even remember who they voted for. Roughly 1,500 voters, highly informed and motivated, were unable to vote because of traffic jams or last-minute family emergencies.
"Error is a minor deity, at whose shrine we now light incense, because error will not be banished."
Owens, an unassuming, thoughtful man who still appreciates life's little joys, has been writing these missives, in one form or another, for 16 years. He's a fisherman, cook and landscaper, a storyteller and journalist. The words come slowly, carefully. He doesn't want to offend; he wants people to think, to laugh. Mostly, he wants them to talk to each other. He sends his thoughts from firstname.lastname@example.org to childhood friends in Chicago, former neighbors in Boston and Africa, residents of Skagit Valley, anyone who asks to be on his mailing list. He e-mails the newsletter rather than posting it on a Web site. That way, he knows the people he's writing to. He loosely follows a format and includes no more than one local joke. The tone is friendly, sometimes conciliatory, sometimes frustrated, occasionally angry. He doesn't write about class issues, and he's careful about broaching controversies involving race. But most anything else -- foreign policy, country music, universal health care -- is fair game for this observer of politics and history.
Owens met President Kennedy at a rally in 1960. In 1962, he went with his high school class to city hall in Chicago on election night to help count ballots. Four years later, he participated in civil rights marches and, in 1968, he was in Chicago for the Democratic convention. He admits to being a Berkeley hippie, and there are telltale signs. He's still a student, studying at Western Washington University for a master's degree in history. He worked for the U.S. Forest Service, and on a daffodil farm. And he still yearns to create a buzz with his writing, to bring an issue to people and get them talking about it. "It's like a party -- introduce people, and they start talking." That's what he wanted in 1984 when he started a quarterly fishing newspaper, the Northwest Fishing Forecast. He'd been a sport fisherman, and when he wrote a story about it, he knew nobody would publish it "because it didn't fit the type."
"I wrote about sport fishing and tribal fishing and commercial fishing. I was writing about three communities that wouldn't speak to each other. I said, 'You guys ought to talk to each other,' " and he put their stories on the same page. Commercially, he said, the Forecast was a disaster. So he turned to newspapers, hoping they'd be more lucrative.
His monthly newspaper, Puget Sound Mail, lasted four years until he ran out of money. Then he turned it into a newsletter, which morphed as he moved from La Conner to Boston to Zimbabwe and back. In Boston, inspired by Malcolm Forbes' success with Forbes magazine, he called his publication Owens. He wrote about gardening and cooking. "I was cooking a lot of the time, so I wrote a cookbook. But it was more like a story with recipes. I kept a cooking journal and worked it up as a story."
In Africa, it was The Zimbabwe Edition, a marriage of horticulture and journalism. And then he moved back to the Skagit Valley and his missives became Frog Hospital.
Frog Hospital was a nickname for the old grocery store in La Conner, he said. That wasn't its real name, but that's what people called it. "There is a story behind this name, and I don't know it," Owens said. "It's a local name, a hippie name, an Internet name. With a name like Frog Hospital, I can be serious, but I don't have to be." His goal has always been the same: to put things in perspective and provide background. "The name's changed, and the focus, but this linkage is steady. The idea is to communicate. I've always seen relationships where other people don't seem to see them. So I stick with that. I'm happy to point them out, and if I do my work right, other people will see them, too."
"I know about autism. Years ago I worked at Rockland State Hospital (in New York) . . . a huge place back then, with thousands of patients, many warehoused. I worked in the children's autistic ward or 'cottage 4.' "I remember Randy, who was a small, very handsome boy, very graceful and coordinated in his movement, and he looked so intelligent. I just knew he was smart, but he never said a word to anybody, hadn't spoken in years. Randy liked to run away. He would scamper out the door, if he could sneak by, then streak across the lawn, and start taking his clothes off, and then run naked through traffic and down the street. It made me feel like a real killjoy because it was my job to catch him and bring him back, when I wanted to run naked through the street myself. "From autism, I learned two things: You can care about somebody even though they are not able, or not willing, to care for you. And you can ask somebody a question, and there is no promise on heaven or earth that says you are entitled to an answer."
It's important to care, Owens said. It's important to have fun but not to provoke people for no reason. He likes La Conner because he knows nearly everybody, and "because it's home, and I know how to live there." He's bought a house, finally. He's enjoying transplanting the rhododendrons in his own yard. That's what he does to relax. When things get too stressful, or someone sends hate mail, "it's time to play in the dirt."
There's some frustration with Frog Hospital. He has no editor to keep him in check. He has no affiliation, no publisher to back him or provide insurance. His landscaping paychecks don't provide the stability he'd like. Still, he perseveres. "I have never published anything without annoying somebody," he wrote in September. "Besides making a general apology and saying, 'Excuse me for living,' I'm going to proceed."
This feature story was written by Candy Hatcher. Her name didn't appear on the byline because the staff of the P-I was on strike at the time. Candy is still in journalism. She left the P-I and worked at the Chicago Tribune for a few years. Currently she is working for a daily newspaper in the tidewater region of Virginia.Candy has been a Frog Hospital reader all this time. She and I continuously disagree on the merit of mainstream journalism.