Sunday, June 26, 2011

Writing Stories for jesus

I heard the voice of Jesus last night, talking to me. He sounded a lot like Denzel Washington .....

But it was Jesus himself. You see what happened that day is I wrote a story on my laptop -- about growing strawberries and the farmworkers who pick berries in Ventura County. I worked with a single-minded focus for 2 hours and whipped up a really nice 750 word column for my Farm News newsletter -- Good work, Fred, I thought.

Then I reached for the Save button, but I hit the wrong key and erased the whole story -- gone, vanished into cyberspace .... There was a stunning and very hurt silence. I took four or five deep breathes and slowly backed away from the laptop ..... I decided to take a drive -- went up to Ojai and past Ojai in to the Los Padres Forest, a way up high, by a waterfall.

I walked a little trail, I wasn't mad or anything -- but I wrote such a good story and nobody read it .... That's when I heard the voice.....
"I read it." What, who's there? "I read it. It was a good story."

It sounded like Denzel Washington, but it had to be Jesus. I just knew it. I poured out my heart to him. I said I hate it when I write a story and nobody wants to read it, it gets too frustrating. He said, "I read everything you write." You do? "Sure. Everything. It's pretty good too." That just blew me away. I was writing stories for Jesus all this time, but I didn't know it.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Kalk Bay, South Africa

Cafe Matisse

I flew to Cape Town, South Africa in early February, 1997. It was a fateful year, Princess Diana died. She was beloved all over Africa. You see her photo on the wall in simple homes, next an image of Bob Marley.

This story is very condensed. The Facebook format forces this writer to get right to the point. Why did I go to Africa? So many have people have asked me that -- but no, upon reflection, I have to say that's kind of a dumb question. A lot of times you learn more just by listening -- so listen to my tale..........Going back to Africa wasn't the beginning of time, it was before that, when there was no time..... in the dream time .....

I flew from Chicago to Miami on Delta. Then got on the big 747 --South African Airways -- such a big plane and only a few passengers, we flew all night over the ocean, nothing but stars and glimmering water far below, going south, south, south across the water .... I had never been so far away in my life.

From the Cape Town airport to a B & B in Kalk Bay. I could see the ocean from my room. They were an Indian couple who ran it, Mia and Fatima Laher..... Michael Pam was the old poet of Kalk Bay --- we drank tea together at the Cafe Matisse. The Coloured woman who served us was beautiful, but Michael gave me a warning glance -- I wasn't aware of distinctions he had lived with all his life.

I swam in the surf. I walked the hills. I drank beer. I met members of Parliament at the State House. I saw Nelson Mandela in a parade....I called my daughter long distance. I told her of my reverie, she said, "Dad, when are you going into Africa? You can't just hang around like it was a resort." ...... I wish I had not acted on her advice, but I soon took off for the country.

But you would rather hear about the kittens. As you wish. It's 7:30 a.m. They have just gotten up, eyes wide open. The one who likes me came over and scratched my pant leg to say Good Morning.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

I have no business taking care of kittens. I just stare at them. They're sick. They're not moving. Let me think -- that's what I do when I'm sick. I just stop moving. I lay down until it gets better. Usually it does get better. So for now, I'm not going to do anything...... But resume telling this story, to wit: my mother died, we sold the house, and then I went to Africa.

We're in Chicago that December. Katy and I are living in the house. Mom still seems to be there in spirit. Everyone comes for a last Christmas at home, all the grandkids, and the house is full. It was wonderful.......But in January hard work began -- we were going to sell the house, all that stuff had to go, and it was a big house with a full attic, upstairs, downstairs, and a large basement... That was my job. I'm the guy who is good at getting rid of things and moving on. And the Owens family was moving on after 50 years --packing up was the hardest job I ever had, it seemed..... First thing were the clothes, going into Mom and Dad's bedroom, not thinking, not looking at stuff, not rushing, but not lingering, just carrying armload after armload out to the old Buick in the driveway until the car was full, then down to the Salvation Army, don't think, don't cry, just keep moving, give them all the clothes .... I came home and the house was empty now. She was gone.

I spent a few more weeks emptying the house of everything but some furniture and momentos, carefully marked and cherished, that we would be keeping. We made arrangements with the real estate lady. Then I left. I ordered a cab, and when it came I grabbed my bag and my pack and strode out the front door, and did not look back, could not look back..... That is in the Bible, you know what happened to Lot's wife when she looked back. She turned into a pillar of salt. And two-thirds of every song sung by Bob Dylan says the same thing -- Don't Look Back..... so I got in the cab and said, "Take me to O'Hare Airport." I was going to take the plane to Capetown in South Africa.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


I need to have patience. I wish to write freelance farming stories for the local newspaper, but I think they will not respond to my email. I have the urge to throw a rock through their window -- "What do you mean, you don't like my stuff?" .... Instead I will continue the story.

We laid mother to rest in a cemetery out by Des Plaines, a long drive from the house. My folks had a plot in the parish cemetery right down the street, but when my oldest sister died in an accident in 1974 that space was used, so mother was taken out to Des Plaines .... In our family we never cared about graves and tombstones very much -- not much for visiting the dear departed ones and the old bones. Our old folks did not teach us reverence for the past ... It was more about the future .... When they came to America they left their old lives behind and rarely looked back ...... My mother herself had no sense of nostalgia - she more enjoyed setting us up for the adventures of life.

And that newer life began after the funeral. I did feel a little scared and unprotected -- like being an orphan. It was mother and father who stood between me and death -- but now the cold breath was on my shoulder ..... Carolyn and Tom flew back to Los Angeles. Katy and I stayed in the house that autumn. I got a job as clerk at the Crate and Barrel. I took karate lessons and piano lessons..... It was very pleasant at our old home......In my mind, I could not separate mother from the home in which we were reared. And it was if she was still there.

But I made one significant change to the landscape. My folks bought the house on Forest Avenue in 1946, the year I was born. They planted a double row of yews -- the low spreading yews by the driveway, and the taller, arching yews next to the house ...... It was a wise decision to plant the yews, for they are the strongest protectors of a good house. A dark green in foliage and sometimes with little red berries, the yews were always there, my whole life. But they had gone decades without being trimmed and they were far over grown, starting to block the driveway and crowd the house. They looked very old. ---- a good pruning might have been in order, but this was too significant ..... We were going to sell the house and whatever family moved into deserved a fresh start ..... I used my chain saw and cut all the yews flush to the ground -- I planted a new double of yews, young and vital, for the future, for the new people who are to come....Mom would have liked that.

Taking the Bus from Boston to Seattle and Back

Now, to catch up with the story. It was the autumn of 1996, the year my mother passed away back in Chicago -- but this is the short version of the story and I am leaving a lot of stuff out.

I have been leaving stuff out -- like the bus trip I took that summer. I took the Greyhound Bus from Boston to Seattle and back -- three days and three nights each way. I brought a paperback edition of the Brothers Karamazov, which was the perfect novel to bring on such a grinding journey --- some 800 pages of incredible psychological depth and unrelenting intensity .... If I had not taken the cross country bus ride, I would never have read the book......Otherwise the Greyhound is a depressing accumulation of desperate people -- a homeless shelter on wheels -- it's probably gotten worse in recent years.

Nevertheless --- I have written 7,000 words into this story without using such a fancy word as "nevertheless" -- but nevertheless, I needed to take that bus ride in order to see the land. If you drive, you have to watch the rode, which was not my purpose...................................... This may sound grandiose or sentimental, but America is my home and I claim it -- every single acre. I am the co-owner along with some 300 million other people. Being co-owner, I need to take a look around from time to time -- to see the farms and the trees, and the big cities and small towns................................ So while I was reading Dostoyevsky, I was looking out the window...... I am a wise traveler -- long bus rides across wheated plains blend perfectly with long Russian novels

Monday, June 20, 2011

Smiling Babies

Eugene Owens, my son, photo taken in 1978

Smiling babies make everyone happy. Mom dying of cancer back in Chicago is quite a bit different -- but it's not really sad. The sad parts of "Too Many Mornings" are the defeats and failures -- that's where the pain lies -- but Mother leaving us -- that was just awesome.

We all came home that summer, Tom and Carolyn came in from Los Angeles, Katy came in from Denver. We took turns looking after Mom. She bore it well , but she didn't like being sick -- I don't mean that lightly. Mom was a strong-willed woman who never got sick because she did not like being sick and would not waste her time lying in bed...... And she did not like being looked after by her kids or by anyone else. She was not going to become some sweet old lady who needed help to get into the car ...... She was scared of dying, but not that scared -- she just didn't care to linger and draw it out.

Toward the end, she went back to the hospital and she sent me away. She only wanted my sisters with her at that point -- because of her hair. She could not get her hair fixed and combed right in the hospital, and she did not care for her sons to see her disheveled.... That's not silly, that was important to her.

It was a gift. She was our mother and we were everything to her. She died in September after only three months of illness. I remember this awesome feeling. I told myself, "This only happens once in your life, so do it right and give it all your attention." ...... I never felt so special and so blessed. Mom had arranged everything to make it easy for us. Katy and I went to the funeral home to pick out a cheap casket -- what Mom wanted. Instead we spent money on white flowers -- but not lillies...... It was like the whole world stopped for our benefit .... Neighbors brought food over. Relatives sat in the living room..... It was like floating on a cloud.
Frank Munaretto was over at the house and in close contact with my brother Tom. Frank was Mom’s accountant. Mom always said there’s no such thing as security but she sure watched her money carefully.

And dying was a problem for Mom, because, seriously, what was the point of going to heaven if you can’t take it with you?

I know she would have preferred to keep her money herself, but her second choice was to give it to us kids, and Frank was all ready and prepared to divide everything into four equal piles. Kids will fight over $5 and a bread basket, so the amount doesn’t matter, what matters is the process and the passing on of goods -- done rightly, it is a blessing. That was Mom’s gift, she kept us together as a family after she was gone, because that’s what she wanted.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Contributing with PayPal

Too Many Mornings

Please consider hitting the PayPal button and making a $25 contribution. I want to turn this memoir into a book, and your $ will buy me some time to work on it,

From Walden Pond, back to Chicago

Our home back in Chicago

That summer in Concord in 1996 my daughter threw me a surprise 50th birthday party. I was very happy that such nice people came to wish me well....But otherwise I was living on fumes. After Neil gave up his landscape design business and failed to hire me again for the season, I had to scramble to make contacts with my old customers and get some income -- My heart just wasn't in it anymore .................. Beside, I wanted to be a writer. I WAS a writer, but not published anywhere -- manuscripts were piling up unread, but it was always more important than my "day job." ........................What I learned from Neil, who was truly a master gardener, was that I could never be that. Neil was successful in his work because he gave it his fullest attention. He lived and breathed azaleas and rhodies and maple trees, soil types, rainfall, and especially stone......................... Neil was a stone genius -- he would place them in the garden just so, and we had the most artful discussions about this -- talking about stone as we sweated and wrestled with a granite boulder .... but it was over -- no Neil, no easy wages and good lunches, no joking our way through the day. I couldn't handle another defeat.
My mother was dying. She had scarcely been sick a day in her life, but she had major surgery that summer and she had only a small chance of survival..... My daughter was going to college in the fall and my son was already out of the house, so it was time to break camp. I had a garage sale, because I had actually accumulated possessions in the six years and three apartments of my new England sojourn. What did not sell I marked "free" -- it was all gone within hours .... Just one pickup load to take with back to Chicago ....................................... That was our home in the photo, 1612 Forest Avenue, Wilmette, Illinois. A white stucco house where my mother had lived since 1946 -- 50 years in that house, the only home I've really had, and it's the trees more than anything else -- the most wonderful elegant elm trees towering --- see the dappled shade on the brick street. In the backyard -- large oaks -- such wonderful trees. That's where I grew up, and this was my last summer, home after many years gone on continental wanderings.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Bad Luck

Walden Pond at Sunset

1995 was a good year. I worked in Concord, amid the hallowed stonewalls of history. I was hired by Neil Jorgensen, the best landscape designer in New England. Neil was in such demand as a designer that you had to book him months in advance, if he was even willing to do your garden. We worked on $100,000 projects and did award-winning work -- and Neil was such a great guy to work for...... It was unbelievable -- having fun, making lots of fun, and being real proud of the work too ..... I thought I had it made .. We worked every day, clear into November, when the ground started to freeze and our last day it was snowing -- but what a season we had.
I took a temporary job that winter driving a Buick regal -- driving executives to and from the airport. I was often stuck in Boston's horrible traffic, but I was getting paid by the hour, so what did I care -- the Buick was a nice ride.
When spring came, that's when my bad luck came with the melting snow. Neil's marriage broke up, and he became terribly depressed. He stopped working. Customers kept calling him and begging him to get started on their gardens, but Neil stayed in seclusion. He went up to his cabin in Maine, where there was no telephone .... Like a real Scandinavian he brooded and sulked and drank ..... Worse for me, I was out of work .. I begged him, when I finally got him on the phone..... Neil, don't just think of yourself, you're putting me out of work .... It was awful -- after getting so close to a really good deal, and it was the first time in my working life that ever happened -- working with the very best people and the best plants and the best equipment, making and building the most beautiful garden -- and then nothing.
I call that bad luck, which has been rare in my life. Most of my problems have been self-inflicted, but this one time it was bad luck -- fate, and the gods went against me ..... Later that spring, I got a call from Chicago that my mother was dying.

Other People's Property


By Fred Owens

"Owens confesses to Pruning Atrocity"

I have to get it off my chest. I can't die with this burden on my soul. In the spring of 1991, I rented a three-bedroom apartment at 42 Blakeslee Street in the very best neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Mr. Magestrelli, my landlord, was a kind old man and the rental income from this property was added to his pension as a retired civil service employee.

It was a nice place, with a small driveway providing off-street parking -- no small benefit in that urban setting. Next to the driveway was a huge and fiery pyrocanthus bush -- famed for its bright green foliage and dazzling scarlet berries. But it comes with thorns, and every time I got out of my car my jacket would get hooked on the thorns, and I got annoyed.

And more annoyed and then one day, without so much as a by-your-leave to the man who actually owned the bush, I took out my pruning saw and cut it down, flush to the ground.... Glad to get rid of it, I was .... Mr. Magestrelli came by a few weeks later and found the bush gone and he was really mad, and dumbfounded too -- "How could you possibly think it was your right to cut down that bush?" he asked.

To make the crime worse, I took a smart aleck attitude and replied, "It will grow back, don't worry, I just trimmed it." He went off in disgust and never mentioned it again.

Okay Mr. Magestrelli, I apologize.

Another Pruning Atrocity. I also butchered a glorious pieris in West Seattle in 2007, but at least my intentions were good. I meant to trim it just a little bit, but I just kept going and I couldn't figure out where to stop. I cut too much on one side, and for balance, I cut too much on the other side -- it was a disaster. I meant well, but I am sorry this happened.

Another Point. I could go a long way with this, and in several directions. First, because this newsletter is about farming, we re-state the primacy of private property in agricultural abundance. Bushes belong to people -- that's good and important. And farms belong to people. There is no society on earth that has produced a surplus of food using collective methods -- although the kibbutzes in early Israel may have come close.

State-run agriculture was the ultimate failure of communism in Russia -- the people finally got tired of not having enough to eat. Sorry, but Ronald Reagan doesn't get the credit -- it was empty shelves at the grocery store that ended the Iron Curtain.

Now Russia, as it did in czarist days, produces a surplus of wheat.

In contrast, the government seizure of farm land in Zimbabwe has produced widespread hunger and starvation.

So, I guess my point is that a bush, or a field of wheat, does better when it belongs to someone who takes care of it.

It's funny, because I don't feel that's true when it comes to health care. Food is a basic need, and health care is a basic need. But health care can thrive under collective responsibility -- at least I believe so.

Rant Warning! Rant Warning!

More Apologies. So, the pyrocanthus and pieris both belonged to someone, and my "crimes and misdemeanors" were against property, but I have apologized and the matter should be laid to what brought this up?

What brought this up was sight of yet another Congressman issuing a public apology for his private deeds. I mean, I'm a Democrat and I try to be a good liberal, so I figure I better apologize for something. You gotta be guilty of something or you're nobody on the left wing.

Well, we are a mangy bunch of idiots. Our leaders in Congress are Nancy Pelosi and Debbie Wasserman. Those two couldn't lead us to victory in a foot race across a tennis court. They are profoundly inept.

Weiner was a fighter -- with poor social skills, to be sure, but he was on our side. I know that Barney Frank got away with all kinds of trouble because he's a warm and friendly guy. Everybody likes Barney. Nobody likes Weiner.

But you don't get rid of people like that. I have friends who are highly competitive and driven, often very earnest in their efforts -- but damned clumsy in terms of social skills. I mean, they act like people who crashed their own party..... They are just a type of person in our human galaxy. They are attack dogs -- you point them at the enemy and say "git 'im."

What Weiner did was break the Over 35 Rule -- He forgot that things get a bit stricter when you pass that barrier. A buff 28-year-old can get away with sending photos of himself in his underwear -- naughty, of course, but he can get away with it.

But Weiner was at least ten years too old for that prank.

I mean, what is the standard here? Social conservatives have the benefit of a simple, but not simplified, belief -- that there are two good states, traditional monogamy and abstinence. Everything else is sinful. That's their standard.

But over on the left, it is a murky sea of confusion. Can you even say there are any standards? Roughly speaking, the rule is consenting adults -- not with children, and not by force -- but otherwise, do what you will.

This is so broad and so open that some guys simply do not know how to behave, because they don't know what the rules are. The rules keep changing. For instance, some propose the notion that No means No. If it does, a lot of people need to be informed about this.

Maybe the old definition of a gentleman still applies at the crudest level -- keep your fly zipped and keep your hands to yourself.

I don't know the rules, but I would like to pre-emptively apologize. I am deeply sorry. I profoundly regret ...

Mangy Democrats and True Conservatives. I'm a mangy Democrat. I listen to conservatives because they say interesting things -- but then you hear them talk about who is and who is not a "true conservative." Whew! That's scary..... David Mamet, the wonderfully talented playwright, has made a "conversion to conservatism" and is making the rounds of the right wing talk shows with his new friends. I wish I had five percent of his skills as a dramatist, but in politics Mamet is peanuts. Good grief.

Back at the Farm.... I do my farming chores, but I feel like I could write and write and write some more. And it's not a feeling -- it's a fact -- that I have a lot of things to say and these things are worse saying, and now is the time to say them..... Take writing itself .... I heard this from Ernest Hemingway, and not even from Hemingway, but from the actor who was pretending to be Hemingway in Woody Allen's new movie, "Midnight in Paris." What Hemingway said is that writing takes courage.

Courage. Yes, writing takes courage and I have always known this, because writing is only good if it's true. If it's not true, then it's not any good, and it always takes courage to tell the truth. Forget the minor distinction between fact and fiction. If you want to be a good writer, you have to tell the truth.

"Too Many Mornings" is the title of my memoir now being serialized on the Frog Hospital blog and on Facebook. It is the story of "21 places I have lived since 1976." I have moved around a lot, so it is a tale of "landscape and memory" to steal a march from Simon Schama ..... I have been writing 500 words each day and then posting it. You are invited to lean over my shoulder to watch the work unfold -- you are also invited to post comments as you read it -- kind of fun and kind of interesting.

Farm News...... It was a great rant that I wrote about these tiresome apologies, but my firm intention is to write some straight-up farm news in subsequent issues -- the latest dope on what is growing in these fields in Ventura County and around the world.

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Friday, June 17, 2011

at home with Ralph Waldo Emerson

At home with Ralph Waldo Emerson, the sage of Concord...... Helen and I had our season. I was heart broken when it ended .... We left Cambridge and moved to Newton for two years. Newton is a suburb of Boston and largely Jewish. It is also where the Fig Newton was invented -- true! ..... Then we moved to Concord, close to Walden Pond.

I came to Boston with literary ambitions, which were soon dashed. I did get an interview at the Boston Globe, but my strength as a writer was a kind of quirky humor -- which is simply not done at the Boston Globe ..... In fact, Boston is the least funny town in America. Jokes die in that city, and my pen ran dry, except for a few short stories, all about Helen and our sad romance..... So it was back to the land and the soil .....

I started a landscaping business and found plenty of work. Boston and environs is heavily forested. Many residential streets are fully shaded by glorious elms, oaks, ashes, and maples ..... And all the leaves fall down in October -- and someone gets paid to rake all those leaves ..... That would be me .... Raking Leaves for Liberals -- they were too good and too snotty to rake their own leaves, but they would hire me. I loved the work, but I resented their superiority .... "we'll do the thinking and you can do the chores." ....... I dated Irish women and joined the Yeats Society -- we read poetry aloud and drank wine by the Charles River .... I assumed a rugged pose, being of the earth, with cracked and callused hands ....
I'm skipping the Jewish episode in Newton -- that is a book-length story, seriously .... I spent two years full absorbed in that culture, and studied with great devotion at the shul and earned some respect as a Jewish scholar, of all things -- I don't know how to summarize what I learned. I'll try to say one thing -- the Jews are very strong people, although they may not seem so. They are stronger than anyone I have ever met.
We moved to Concord in 1995. Eugene finished high school and went to an art college in San Francisco. Eva took home-schooling because, as she said, most accurately, "high school is stupid." How could I argue with that? I taught her at home and she thrived .... I tended the gardens at beautiful New England mansions, old homes with slate roofs, copper gutters, and granite walkways. I trimmed ancient wisterias, big around the trunk as a man .... I learned about stones .... New England has more stone than soil and I spent hundreds of hours on my hands and knees uprooting weeds and pulling stones from the earth. I re-built the old walls .... Some days I did volunteer work gardening at the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson.... On hot summer times, I would knock off early and go to Walden Pond, the best swimming hole in New England .... I began working for a highly-respected landscape designer who paid me very well... Then I had some bad luck ....

Thursday, June 16, 2011

What about the Bush?

What about the Bush? So, I could drive up to Newton to see Helen and play the Steinway piano in her living room -- it was such a vivid contrast to farm work and crude dinners back in the Skagit Valley. But first, I must talk about the Pyrocanthus.

I rented the apartment at 42 Blakeslee Street -- three bedrooms furnished, in the best part of Cambridge. I even had off-street parking for me car. Except I had to duck around the fiery prycanthus every time I got out of my car. It was big and beautiful, but it was thorny and it was in my way. So I cut it down ........... Down to the ground ... You know, it wasn't my bush..... Mr. Magestrelli was my landlord -- a perfectly nice man. When he came by a few weeks later and saw that the pyrocanthus was gone, he was very upset ..... And me, a supposedly mature man of 44 years, took a smart aleck attitude toward this kind senior citizen, like I had done him a favor by cutting down the bush ..... "And it will grow back again," I said, as a feeble defense ...... I was not a good tenant. I was careless with his property. I abused the furniture and the curtains .... Well, for an excuse, I had been living too rough.

Living too rough, so I sought refinement and took a course in good manners. To wit, I read four of Jane Austen's novels -- that was my first winter in Cambridge. I think it was "Emma" that was the first one I read ..... Somehow, I recalled my mother's urgings at the dinner table -- to sit straight and take small bites and ask to be excused ..... I wasn't raised to be a farm hand --- but it was like a war inside of me .... because I had rebelled against the sterile suburban lawns of my youth .... I had found the soil as a young man, had slept on the ground and dug gardens and made trails in the woods and the soil was everything.

But that first winter in Cambridge, Helen found two tickets to the Boston Symphony -- orchestra seats, front row and center. We went together and heard Yo-Yo Ma play the Bach Cello Suites. He was magnificent and yet so humble, a great artist. I squirmed in my seat like an unkempt canine, and yet I was so happy and Helen was beaming with pleasure, that she had done this for me ..... I was still lost, but now it didn't feel so bad ....

Lois Wauson

We used to have a pyracantha bush in the 50's at our first home on Trudell Dr. in San Antonio. I loved that bush. I cut branches off with the red berries to make a centerpiece for Christmas every year. I know how your landlord felt. I would have been heartbroken if someone cut it down. And my husband did that many years later up in N. Texas, when he cut down my favorite honeysuckle bushes. saying 'they will grow back'"(they didn't). I was devastated and mad for weeks.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Encrusted with Prestige Like Barnacles on a Piling

A dramatic change of venue is coming at "21 Places I have lived" -- I think you folks may have gotten comfortable hearing about my four-year stint at Cold Comfort Farm -- just settling in that pile of old boards in a blackberry bramble.

Photo: elm trees on Cambridge Commons in Massachusetts

But the title of this story should remind you that we're going to keep moving on -- I left the farm right after Christmas in 1990, heading for Boston. I brought my 13-year-old son with me, and he blames me to this day for yanking him out of school and taking him to New England.....But I reasoned it this way, that he was doing poorly in junior high-school both academically and socially and I thought a spin around the country might doing him well..... Anyway, we loaded up the car and never looked back at that damn farm....Susan and my daughter Eva were left behind -- this was the only time we ever separated as a family, but they came to join us on the East Coast some months later, so it wasn't really a hard ship ............ But I have to address the readers again -- the whole movement in America is westward bound. Every town in Washington and Oregon is full of refugees from the Midwest. California is full of immigrants from New Jersey and Pennsylvania ......... This is what everybody is used to -- like in the Grapes of Wrath -- they head out to the West Coast afte the farm goes bust in Oklahoma -- or Jack Kerouac "On the Road" -- going west on Highway 66.

But there's a smaller trend of young men from the rural West going East to learn in the halls of higher education and join the citadels of power. Think of William O. Douglas, who grew up in Yakima, Washington, and headed east to become a Wall Street Lawyer and then a Supreme Court Justice....... That's what I did. And you may have heard about the Liberal Establishment -- yes it is there -- I found it there in Boston .... We rented an apartment in Cambridge, not six blocks from Harvard University, within touching distance of some Very Important People ..... I never saw so much importance in all my life, the old buildings seemed encrusted with prestige like barnacles on a pier piling.

Helen lived in Newton, a Boston suburb. I've changed her name. She was the romantic interest. Believe me, you should never go back to an old girl friend. Never.....And why didn't someone tell me that? ... We resumed a relationship after a 25-year-absence. It started out well , but it ended in the same train wreck ...... I'm going to blame her for most of this, strictly as a literary device -- you and God and everybody else can form your own judgment ..... We were lovers when we were 18, but I was a cad back then -- I wanted to fool around, and I left her in tears ...... But she kept a piece of my heart, that small piece I had given her -- and she kept that small piece for 25 years -- had a husband, several children, a home and a good suburban life -- but kept that small piece all this time, and I never wholly loved another woman -- couldn't be whole because of that missing piece.... She never let go of it .... and I came back to her.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

from Cold Comfort Farm to Boston

Suzie Wiley Racanello, "happy up fred!!!!!!!!!!!"

photo of Barney Lake, near the farm

How can I make this happy? It was a tough year on the farm -- 1988. That summer I moved out of the house, and that ended a 12 year argument...... a "friendly divorce" .... which is slightly less of a disaster .... After a bit of shifting around, I moved back into the farmhouse and she moved out ..... I became a single father, which, of all the ways devised by mankind, is the worst possible way to raise children ..... It reminded me of a story in the newspaper about the one-legged man who climbed Mt. Rainier... Sure, he made it to the top, but it would have been so much easier with two legs..... I struggled on. I grew a very big garden the next summer and my triumph was a huge and wonderful patch of sweet corn -- more than I could possible eat or give away ... I bought a new car ... Mainly I did not like being un-married at all... What are you supposed to do? .... And people thought it was just fine -- or else they didn't know what to say, or else they didn't want to interfere ..... I guess it was up to me to work it out -- my behavior wasn't especially weird or self-destructive, so people let me work it out ..... However, there was a bit of concern when I decided to move to Boston .....
I'm skipping a lot of things from 1988. -- In January I played a central role in the Fishtown Woods Massacre.... In February, my mother-in-law died and we flew back to Oklahoma for the funeral. It was the first and only time I communed with my wife's deeply conservative Southern cousins....... In July I joined the Quaker Peace March and we walked, 12 miles a day from Portland to Vancouver -- all the way across the state -- for the cause of nuclear disarmement. A year later, 1989, the Iron Curtain fell, thanks in part to our effort....
I came back from the Peace March after six weeks and we started fighting again and I couldn't stand it anymore.... That's when I moved out .... The last straw was when we had an argument at dinner -- nothing new about that, we patched it up, and later we went to bed.... Okay, but for the first and last time, we started another argument in bed .... That was it ... I moved out of the house the next day.
I was lost..... That was a big reason why I wanted to take care of the kids -- because I knew how to do that and it was honest work.... I took good care of those children -- I never asked anyone's advice and no one interfered.
I'm gonna stop for today -- but I need to finish this part. The next year I went to my 20th college reunion. I ran into my old girl friend and she lived in Boston. So I took the kid outs of school, packed up the car, and drove across the country in the middle of winter -- to Boston...... Why didn't someone stop me? ... Boston -- and we lived there for six years, and at least we were out of the Cold Comfort Farm -- might a had to move 3,000 miles just to shake off that demon.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The decade of drudgery and disappointment

"21 places I have lived" or "Too Many Mornings" -- your choice of titles. You can find the whole story on my blog, but we're at ten years now and half way through.
It's 1986. The Red Sox lost the World Series to the New York Mets that year, and I turned 40. Thus began the Decade of Drudgery and Disappointment.

We moved on to the farm outside of Mount Vernon..... There was no electricity and no running water -- no rent to pay either. The owner just wanted occupation. Our first winter we had kerosene lamps. We cut a Christmas in the back yard and illuminated it with tiny candles -- it was a miraculous glow to see that warm light in our living room ..... But otherwise it was hard times. It wasn't rustic living to me anymore, it was just poverty, and I didn't care ......................... The fact is, our marriage was over ... we still had two years to go before a separation .... but I didn't care anymore ... She didn't want to live in LaConner, so I just found this dump of an old farmhouse and there we sat -- hoping without hope ........................... I worked here and there and made a little money .... We put in a waterline -- that involved me digging a ditch 250 from the house to the road, and then digging a much bigger, wider ditch in the back yard to serves as a septic system for the toilet ..... and for a few hundred dollars we got an electrician to scab together some wiring ..... but the place just looked run-down no matter what I did --- or maybe because I've how I felt -- hoping without hope .... We had a nice dog, a black puppy named Sparky, and he was the happiest critter on the farm. He was a wonderful little dog and he just ran around all day -- 250 feet from the road, we never tied him up.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


The trumpeter swans flew over our old farmhouse every evening about twilight. Honk-honk they talked, and they flew so low you could hear the wind going through their wing feathers. They would spend the day out in the Skagit flats, and then come home to their roosts on Barney Lake, just down the hill from our little farm .................. I would often be outside in the dimming light, chopping wood or fixing the fences, and then I would hear the swans calling --- the call of the Nookachamps -- for we lived in the watershed of that tributary. The Nookachamps River flowed out of the Cascade foothills and joined the mighty Skagit ......................................................................That was our home -- 3325 Martin Road on forty acres of brush and second growth timber, with a barn that once held a dozen dairy cows, back when you could run a dairy with a dozen cows, and some ten acres of badly overgrown pasture................................ There was a tender cedar grove out in the field, right where the old well used to be. A tender grove of young trees -- because the old behemoths -- the ancient cedars -- had been cut down by our fathers and grandfathers -- cut down to build the barns and the houses we lived in. So the new tender cedars were growing again...............................................New growth will become old growth, I said, and it only takes a thousand years or so -- just leave it be .............................. I used to walk down to that grove and it smelled so very, very good, all young and green................................. Yeah, there were some good parts about that farm ...................................................

Saturday, June 11, 2011

I've Done Worse and I'm not Resigning.

Home on the Range. Life is good along the banks of the Ventura River. The weather has been cool. We are still picking sweet peas although this might be the last week. I grew some beets and onions, and then put them together for a righteous beet salad. And the cucumbers are good too -- I ate them with some smoked salmon and heirloom tomatoes.

I got the salmon and tomatoes at the farmers market in Camarillo this morning. The booth next to me sells hydroponically grown heirloom tomatoes -- Norman Bauer in Oxnard is the grower. Most of the tomatoes go wholesale to the Los Angeles area ---- and then out to all the best restaurants that are willing to pay $2.50 a pound for a tomato that tastes good. But Norman warned me about unscrupulous growers who are foisting "heirlooms" on the public. He says they are not vine-ripened and they are gassed with ethylene and they have no flavor at all -- but they piggyback on the heirloom reputation for good flavor.

What a corrupt world! Well you just need to know your local farmer. I would trust Norman Bauer. I eat his tomatoes all the time, and they taste wonderful.

I've Done Worse and I'm not Resigning. I didn't look at the photos, did you? Because if you did, that makes you part of the problem -- manifesting some kind of prurient curiosity, a wish to be titillated or horrified. A description of what the photos entailed was enough for me to make a judgment. And I can sum it up this way -- "I've done worse myself and I'm not resigning."

But I'm referring to Congressman Weiner, of course

We're all vulnerable, you and me both. Let's put five determined investigators on your tail. Let's examine your every word and your every action over the last five years. Might we find something?

Well, I can tell you that there are things I have done and said that I don't want the whole world to know about. I believe poverty and obscurity protect me from the harshest kind of public scrutiny -- no one really wants to know.

A society cannot function without a certain amount of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Take LaConner, where I lived for many years, a small town of 800. Do you want to know who is sleeping with who in that little burg? Well, you can find out without much effort, but it doesn't go in the newspaper. People have a right to screw up their own lives without the rest of the world watching.

On the other hand, there is this really weird new tendency for people to drop their pants in public -- Congressman Weiner is part of that trend. Ugh!

But I urge Weiner to tough it out, by next month no one will care, and I really doubt he will indulge in this kind of behavior again. His public humiliation has been a sufficient correction.....Otherwise I know nothing about him or his politics, and it's up to the people of his district to decide his future..

I'm still a Democrat. We're the natural party of sinners like Congressman Weiner -- we are adulterers and give in too easily to lascivious urges.. We are lazy and unkempt.. We accept government handouts. We sleep late and drink too much. We want other people to pay taxes, not ourselves... We're just not as good and as respectable as the Republicans. We take a casual interest in religion, if any......We are quarrelsome and disorganized and about the only reason we win elections is that there are so damn many of us.

But I like Conservatives. My very favorite conservative writer is Laura Wood who writes the Thinking Housewife blog. She calls herself a "traditionalist." Half the women in North America are self-publishing their memoirs this year, and most of it is drivel. Laura Wood, however, is worth reading. She hosts an intelligent discussion. I have often posted on her website -- now agreeing, now dis-agreeing.

I think it is true that conservatives can handle disagreement in a better way. Consider the feminist saying that the "personal is political" -- what that means is that "I don't agree with you and so I don't like you anymore" -- because it's all so personal and subjective and we know that objectivity is a sexist scam.

Not me, I think a degree of objectivity is obtainable, and a good argument is a stirring thing. So, I prefer Ms. Wood. She thinks and writes clearly. I don't agree with her, so what?

It's her premise that really appeals to me -- that women are different than men -- that's the simplest way to state it, but it's a startling idea and it opens up a whole world of intelligent discussion. Here's one, Why We Must Discriminate

Let me make this distinction -- I like her premise, but I do not particularly care for her conclusions. And it's not personal.

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Friday, June 10, 2011

from LaConner to Texas

We lived in the double-wide on Maple Street for five years. The kids -- toddlers by now -- had a sand box and a swing. We had a vegetable garden and several apple trees. I had a shop in the back where I collected and repaired used fishing tackle. Susan used a corner of our bedroom to make puppets and other craft items .... .... I took my kayak out on the river and spent a lot of time fishing .... We often trudged across the field to visit Keith Brown when he lived in Fishtown ..... I worked at several weekly newspapers as a reporter. I also worked part-time for my parents fishing magazine ... When my parents retired in 1984 and sold the magazine, I took my share of the proceeds and started a fishing newspaper that served the Pacific Northwest --- it was, editorially, an excellent publication. It was a complete expression of what I believed was the best possible description of the northwest fishing community..... Even today, so many years later, I can tell you how good it was .... but there was hardly twelve people who bothered to read it or subscribe to it or take out ads .... A disaster, a complete business failure, it really hurt.

I need to pick up the pace and get this story moving again.... We lived in the double wide for five years -- a perfectly nice home if you like living in a tin can. I never liked it very much. That was my ,mistake -- buying a house that my kids liked and my wife liked -- but I didn't like it or love it . You should hold on to your home with all your might, but you have to love it first, and I never loved it...... Then the fishing publication failed, and I had this immature urge to flee. And compound that with my wife's constant complaint about "life in LaConner." She thought it was a snobby, snotty, in-grown, cliqueish little town -- too many stuck up people .....She wanted to go back home to Oklahoma, which I could not abide .... So we made what I think was a very bad decision -- to move to Austin, Texas, where Susan could feel more at home, and where an old hippie like me could feel welcome.

We should have never left LaConner. It was January, 1986. I got a menial job at a software company. We rented a nice apartment. The kids enrolled in a new school. We made friends. I began playing the piano again.....Austin was easy living......I got tired of the software company, so I got a job as a reporter at a weekly newspaper -- a really good paper too, but they decided not to keep me -- it's a long story -- basically they were just using me until their son finished journalism school -- I wish I has known that .... Anyway, I quickly got another job at another newspaper -- but it was in East Texas -- in the swamp! Back to redneck city -- alligators, mosquitoes, Cajuns, rice fields, water moccasins, high heat and even higher humidity, in a little town called Anahuac, just across the bay from Houston. And we moved AGAIN.

We moved again, from Austin to Anahuac. My wife -- it's hard for me to write this story without dragging her into it -- a woman I still respect and cherish even though we have been divorced for many years -- but I thought she would be the anchor in this partnership. I mean, most women, then and now, are good at keeping things -- they like furniture and curtains and other home-stuff. But not my wife, she would be happier living in a tent. If I ever said let's go, she would say, Okay, I can be packed in an hour --- we'll just grab the kids and get in the car..... So there was no one working the brakes....We just kept moving....That's what we were good at.

This story is getting repetitious. I just kept moving and changing jobs. We're only on town Number Nine and we have twelve more towns to get to. Are you all getting bored with this?..... There's a lot of bad parts that I'm leaving out -- a cycle of depression and anger that I kept going through. And all the marital conflict.....Let me summarize. I was not an angry man when I got married on February 14, at the City Hall in Chicago in the year 1976, but by ten years later when I was leaving in this mosquito-ridden swamp called Anahuac in east Texas --- by this time, in 1986, I wasn't just angry, I was almost nothing but angry, except when I was depressed.... There's no one to blame, except myself, and I just kept moving.

It was October of 1986. We were living in Anahuac, and I was driving ten miles every day to my job as a reporter at the Libertyville Vindicator, a weekly newspaper. The editor, Ernie Zieschang, cared about high school football and the Rotary Club. I don't know why he hired me -- we didn't get along, and after a short while, for the only time in my entire worked career -- I was fired! Ernie just gave me two weeks pays and told me to clear out..... living in east Texas and being employed is a condition that can be endured -- but being unemployed in that miserable country? Not acceptable by any means.

We left. We decided to go back to the Skagit Valley. Susan refused to return to LaConner. I said would Mount Vernon be okay, and she said yes (Mount Vernon being a larger town some ten miles from LaConner). I went ahead, driving across country in our old Buick. Susan and the kids took the train to my sister's house in Los Angeles. She took the kids to Disneyland, and then they headed up north to the Skagit on another train -- to the Cold Comfort Farm where we spent the next few miserable years. Talk about a dump .....

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Too Many Mornings

Too many mornings -- I woke up in --

Lindsburg Kansas
Evanston Illinois
Long Beach Mississippi
Venice California
Marblemount Washington
LaConner, Centre St
LaConner, Maple St
Austin Texas
Anahuac Texas
Mount Vernon
Cambridge, Mass
Newton, Mass
Acton, Mass
Bulawayo Zimbabwe
Pull and Be Damned Rd LaConner
Caledonia St LaConner
couch surfing -- 18 months
Floresville Texas
Fir Island
5th st in LaConner
Ventura -- where I am now

But I haven't changed much, I'm just good at moving.
May 28 at 5:43pm • Like

I don't have a lot of stuff. I brought my car full of stuff down here from LaConner. I left 12 boxes -- my archives -- in storage in a barn on Beaver Marsh Road. That's everything I own.
Louis Cayou SO U A GYPSY
Alexa Robbins I think it's only 15 for me!
The trouble with traveling for your life is that you never get to go on a vacation. But I would like to stay here, and then go to France next summer -- not to move there, for God's sake -- but just for a vacation, like a real tourist.
We left Oklahoma in the summer of 1976, heading north. The truck broke down in Lindsburg Kansas, just north of Wichita. So we camped out by the river at the edge of town -- and found jobs at a factory making aluminum windows, and then rented an apartment behind the Swedish bakery....... This was summer in Kansas, got over 100 degrees day after day -- hot in the factory -- but cool enough in the town swimming pool after work. We should have stayed there. It was a decent town and we could have found better work if we had been more patient.

We left Kansas after a few months. My wife was pregnant and she didn't like the local doctors. She wanted to go to this commune in Tennessee and have natural childbirth -- a bad idea, I thought..... I said we could get a midwife, yes, but near enough to a hospital just in case. So, for some reason, that entailed moving to Evanston, Illinois, where I myself was born and grew up.....I found a job as a shipping clerk at a large printing company.....We found an apartment on Clyde Street near the Howard Street boundary with Chicago.... I picked out that apartment because there were a lot of old ladies living in it. Chicago, as you know, gets bitterly cold in the winter, so I figured these old ladies lived in a building with really good steam heat.....That was a smart move....we stayed all warm winter, the baby was born in the spring.

The child was born in April 1977 in Evanston, Illinois. We left in September. We took the river road -- Highway 61 Revisited -- and camped out, heading down the river -- Dubuque, St. Louis, Cape Girardeau, Memphis, and then Vicksburg, in Mississippi. We stopped there and I got a job at a sawmill way out in the woods. Talk about rednecks! Geez, they closed the sawmill on the opening day of squirrel hunting season......I took wood scraps home from the sawmill to the house we rented and built some simple yard furniture, which we sold....Otherwise Vicksburg wasn't such a good place to live.
So we left Vicksburg and drove down to the Gulf Coast, renting a trailer in Pass Christian with a view of the Gulf. This was 60 miles east of New Orleans and a little bit west of Biloxi, but still in Mississippi.....I got a job on a construction project. By now it was December and cold working outside.... plus mosquitoes, alligators, rednecks, preachers, and lots of fat people ... I got into an argument with our landlord and he told us to leave -- that was a good idea -- I don't know why we lived there in the first place, probably just to be stubborn.

Suzie Wiley Racanello so fred.... how do you remember this in such detail??????

Carolyn Rios probably just to be stubborn, what YOU Fred?

If we proved a point by living in Mississippi, it was to make the whole country inhabitable. From Atlantic to Pacific, all the land needs love..........But enough was enough........ They said Pappy Crain was connected to the New Orleans mafia, and then he and I had this argument and he told me to clear out of his trailer court. So we did the sensible thing and left....... We had to sell the old Buick because it wouldn't run anymore and then get on the Greyhound, me and Susan and the baby, bound for West Coast ...... the Promised Land, the Golden State, California..... and not just anyplace, but Venice Beach itself.

In Venice in 1978, the old beatniks were still around. They didn't just listen to Billi Holiday, they knew her -- it was a small world for hipsters in the 1950s and Venice was one of their locales -- still with a trace of it in 1978 -- the old beatniks were people I listened to and talked with. They found me to be amusing, sincere....and clueless.....But we arrived from Mississippi and we lived in a tricked out school bus in my sister's back yard....I took the city bus every day to my job in Culver City as a shipping clerk at a silk screen shop, where they made giant banners that said "Sale!" and "Grand Opening." ...... I liked taking the bus to work, it went past the Hare Krishna Temple and the old MGM studios with giant sound stages. I could sense the ghosts of old dramas -- images of Judy Garland, Clark Gable and Myrna Loy .... it was almost tangible....
We got to Venice in January and left in June. I think we should have stayed. This is what happened -- I had finally saved enough for us to move out of the school bus and get into a decent apartment -- with first and last month's rent and a deposit. I found this nice place, a tiny one-bedroom bungalow. I had the money in hand but the landlord wouldn't rent to families with children, and by this time we were expecting another one -- what a bummer......As I said, we should have stuck it out in Venice and just gone looking for a better landlord ..... but I guess that baby wanted to be born in the Skagit Valley, because we went back up there -- in late June. We made a summer camp at Illabot Creek up by Marblemount -- a way back in the woods..... It was a pretty place, but we had no money and I had no work.

We camped for the summer on the creek, then found a cedar-shake cabin on the road and nearer to town -- town being a grocery store, gas station and post office. The cabin had electricity but no running water -- just a hand pump out the back door, plus an outhouse. We had a wood stove for heat, and wood cook stove in the kitchen......It was decent and the rent was $40 per month .... Lots of fresh air and beautiful scenery in the wild Cascade Mountains up the Skagit River, but not much work. I borrowed money from my folks and we got food stamps. I chopped wood and carried water. Susan was expecting our second child -- she liked it there living out in the woods...... but I found it somewhat isolating and my mood was sometimes sour -- time passed too slowly and it rained all winter.

Suzie Wiley Racanello fred.. you never answered my question.. how do you remember all this?????

I thought everyone remembered all this stuff about where they have I don't know how to remember anything, I just do.

Suzie Wiley Racanello but you recount it in such detail!

I could write this much, much longer, with much greater detail -- but I'm keeping it very short to fit on to Facebook.

Our daughter was born March 4, 1979 at the hospital, we brought her home to the cabin in Marblemount. She was beautiful..... I planted a garden that spring and I built a studio and did art and calligraphy. But I had very little paying work -- a few days at a shake mill, a couple of weeks at a local farm -- just scraping by ..... And by now we had two children in diapers -- but only a hand pump in back of the cabin for keeping clean ...... we stuck it out until November, but another raining winter with little work seemed like a bad idea...... I drove down to LaConner to check it out -- a bigger town -- more than 600 people! -- better housing, more work, and a bookstore and a good coffee shop for hanging out -- a good tavern too...... We moved down there and rented a house on Centre Street (British spelling for some reason) -- good plumbing, gas heat, no wood to split and water to haul -- it was easy street, and I was back to work making a few dollars at Tillinghast Nursery.

Cindy Nelson Fred, you really should write a book about your life! It would be amazing!

Living my life has been the hard part, writing about it is easy.

Lysa Sherman I grazed my pony in empty lots. I went barefoot and worked the garden all summer. In fall, my Mother taught me which seaweed you could eat. We boiled nettles and ate them. I babysat on the river for a woman named Joy, who had no running water and kerosene lamps for light and a wood stove for heat. I learned that rabbits do, indeed, scream when they are killed. But if you boil them long enough, they are delicious. These are the things that shape us as individuals. Let us be not afraid of those things that let us know that we are, in fact, alive. Your daughter carved her name on our porch, and we left it there. A testament to who had come before us in that place. There is no life without acknowledgement of the lives that have been there before us, forging their way in ways that can only be imagined. We are not alone, and if we are aware of that we never live alone....

Lysa, Joy lives in Texas now -- I hear from her on Facebook -- Joy Daley

I need a better title for this piece. It is about the 21 places I have lived since 1976. I am writing it in the comment section of the previous post --- writing one paragraph for each place that I lived.....What prompted me to write this was getting a letter from Paul Schulte, my college classmate, who has lived in the same address in Cinncinati since 1976, whereas I have kept moving.

We rented the house on Centre Street in LaConner. It was big and carpeted -- so nice after living in the cabin with a wood stove, a pump in the backyard and an outhouse... We had good plumbing, gas heat and all you gotta do is twist that dial on the thermostat and get as warm as you want. Twist the dial and pay the gas bill -- that was great. And a washer and dryer for the two babies. Clean and warm...... We lived there for a year and more, until the owner, a commercial fishermen, had some bad luck and sold the house at a loss and in a big hurry. Kirby Johnson, the realtor, came over to tell us the bad news....I was concerned that my spouse would get too upset about this, so we went out and bought the first house we looked at and did not dicker over the price. It was a double-wide trailer on Maple Street in LaConner on a 100 by 100 foot lot..... Then we just moved over there and figured not to have trouble with landlords anymore.