An Exploration of Sloth

Jacques Callot, The Seven Deadly Sins - Sloth

Sloth -- image by Wikipedia

As I was reluctantly dragging myself out of bed this morning (ahem, actually, this afternoon), I realized that while I don’t spend much time thinking about the seven deadly sins (which, if I remember, include envy, avarice, gluttony, lust, sloth, pride and one other, obviously I need to LOOK THIS UP) and, to a lesser extent, the seven cardinal virtues (of which I remember not even one), I would have to admit that of them all, sloth seems to be my most besetting sin at this point.

Of course, it’s an interesting concept anyway, the idea of sin or virtue.  There are a lot of differences (and a lot of similarities) among the living beings on this planet, but I don’t think any other species than us, human beings, require an operator’s manual (in other words, a religious text, a set of laws, a constitution, an etiquette book).  Other living beings seem to come with a set of instructions that keep them acting according to their best natures at all times.  (No, Virginia, a tiger’s best nature is to stalk and kill prey, it is not being “evil”.)  But we, whether because of our relatively big brains or because we are social animals that operate less by instinct than others, seem to be unable to live in this world without a rule book.  And whatever the rule book we choose, there are certain basics that we seem to have to be continually told not to do — thus, in my cultural and religious background, comes a concept of sin that keeps us from naturally behaving according to our better natures and without requiring that the rules be continually drummed into our heads.  In the Western Christian tradition, there are other greater sins, but the seven deadlies are the everyday sins that, as human beings, we are inclined to commit.

So, today, I’m thinking about sloth.  I don’t normally think of myself in terms of sin and redemption, although there are those people who probably think I should.  But sloth is easy.  I am slothful.  I am not one of those fidgeters who cannot sit still.  I can sit still for a very long period of time without even noticing it.  I am one with the person that originally said “do not stand if you can sit, do not sit if you can lie down.”  I think it’s great advice.  I find it restful and I find fidgeters highly irritating.  I keep wanting to tell them sit down and shut up.  Although I don’t.  (Being irritated irrationally and showing it may not be a sin but perhaps it should be.)  So, it’s a pejorative word, sloth, sounding as sinful as almost all churches, schools, businesses and governments think it is, and thus I need to refresh myself on the rules and get up and at ’em, and DO something.

But, being human, I’m thinking about these seven deadly sins, or at least sloth, in a slightly different fashion today.  What the heck is so sinful, anyway, about sloth?  It is quiet, after all, and apart from irritating busy people, doesn’t really hurt anyone.  And to my way of thinking, there’s a great deal too much busy-ness in the world anyway.  If we all dialed it back a bit and stopped running around like crazy people, perhaps the world would slow down and we could actually catch our breath and figure out what’s going on.  Or so it seems from the perspective of my sofa.

In reality, I do know why sloth is a sin, or considered so.  For the vast majority of our history, a slothful person would either, because of it, die of starvation or in the jaws of a much less slothful beast or, more important to the society, cause the tribe to be less prosperous, less happy, and put the tribe, especially the more helpless members, in greater jeopardy.  Later on, as civilization (and all its discontents) got started, sloth interfered with the creation of wealth.  And that’s from both perspectives.  If you were a landowner, say, your industry and work ethic, your constant busy-ness, would help you increase your holdings, increase your crop yields, give you more clout in your village, town or city.  From the point of view of one of your laborers, you would need to work constantly and diligently, or you would starve, be beaten, be driven off or even killed because you were a liability and not an asset.  As cultural institutions got started, all their wealth and thus continued existence was based on that diligent labor growing ever larger yields since (either through tax or through tithe) all had to contribute to them.  So of course, as a government, church, or business, you would institutionalize the work ethic and the fundamental idea that sloth is a sin.  And, for the development and continued growth of civilization and of wealth, it is.

And I have to (reluctantly) agree.  Nothing comes to any of us without some kind of mental, emotional, spiritual or physical effort.  Sitting on my sofa is pleasant, but the fact that I have a sofa in the first place is due to effort I expended in the past to earn the money for the sofa and to find, choose, buy and have it delivered.  Of course, we all know or know of people whose wealth is hereditary, but let’s face it, somebody had to expend the effort to gain that wealth sometime and, for that matter, a life of such ease in which one does literally nothing is not really a life at all.  And I think quite impossible.  If done right, a rich person’s life of leisure can be spent studying, learning new things (quite a few scientists and explorers in other centuries had private means and did not have to labor to earn the money for expeditions or the time to think), supporting art and artists (or engaging in art and artistry), creating gardens or museums or donating to and working for hospitals and universities.  In my small town, many retired people, if not most of them, or people who have wealth who come here to live, end up working for nonprofits, taking part in the artistic and cultural life of the community, doing volunteer work in many different fields.  At least one retired person of my acquaintance hikes every day and picks up litter to recycle or dispose of as they do so.  That is NOT nothing, by any means, it is part of the rent we pay for our space on the planet.

But I have to admit that fairly recent anthropological studies have reported, after research including today’s hunter-gatherer tribes (and most anthropological thought seems to agree that human beings began our still short run as hunter-gatherers), that even in today’s more constricted world, hunter-gatherers need to work only about 20 hours per week to “make a living.”  That is, in order to hunt, kill, dress, cook and eat the meat from the animals they hunt, and to search out and find the grubs, insects, roots, leaves, fruits and whatnot actually forming the majority of their diet, plus all preparation, takes only about 20 hours per tribe member per week.  And these people are apparently not bored with all that leisure, either, inventing songs and dances and enjoying each other’s company, raising children, listening to tribal history from the elders.  (Current thought says that to maintain this rather idyllic society, there are some drastic measures that are taken by the tribe, including shaming of exceptional performance, discouragement of any private property and maintaining a very small population.)  Some of this sounds good to me (although other parts don’t), and I do wonder for such reasons (and for others such as the inevitable, it seems, rise of treating other people as property) why in the world we ever did something so silly as to invent agriculture.  From the pre-historic traces and the historical record, we were as individuals and as a species healthier, had better teeth, lived longer, and had a much more pleasant life before we started all this growing of food and herding of animals. Agriculture, it seems, provides calories to larger numbers of people in a small area without, apparently, providing the trace minerals, vitamins, and whatnot we need for full health.

NOTE:  Re-reading the above, I would like to firmly state that I am not making any kind of comment on current political views.  If I can manage to do so (although in an election year it may be difficult), I would like to keep this blog clear of my (or other people’s) politics, primarily in my own case because I seem to arrive at my hopefully middle of the road views by a series of rather illogical jumps from side to side.  The above paragraph comes from reading recent research into the pre-history of our species.  I have always loved history and the study of the origins of our world’s civilizations fascinates me.

I’d love to continue to explore how humanity got started on this road, what its benefits (and civilization does have them; for example, probably a hunter-gatherer society would not have invented the computer) and liabilities (working for others for low pay and bad food seems to top that list) are, but right now I’m too slothful.  That sofa is looking very good.

Oh, by the way, a wise person, possibly Mark Twain or more likely my friend Sharon Goldstein, once said that if you are doing what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.  And here, to finish this post, is a picture of a being who is exceedingly good at sloth, because he IS a sloth.

Bradypus variegatus Deutsch: Drei-Finger-Fault...

Central American Sloth - fromWikipedia

The Sunday Paper

So many sources, both on the web and off, tell me that newspapers are moribund if not already dead.  Except maybe for the New York Times (which I, in a fit of irony, get on my iPhone).  My response is somewhat like Chuck Heston’s about the NRA, they’ll have to pry the daily paper from my cold, dead hands.  Practically the first thing I did after I moved here, even before I got all the dishes unpacked, was to call the Denver Post and get a subscription.  My day doesn’t really start until I retrieve the paper (which is usually, alas, at the bottom of my very steep driveway, or in the bushes to the side), separate it into sections I will read and sections I won’t, and sit down with some breakfast (or lunch–after all, I’m retired and don’t have to get up at a specific time) and read.  I’m quite conscientious and read the national section and the state section first before I go to the funnies and the puzzles and the agony columns.  But on Sunday, it’s really fun — there are two magazine sections (neither, unfortunately, published as they used to be by the paper itself), a big Arts and Entertainment section which includes book reviews and a travel section, an op-ed section, and so forth.  Lots of reading, plus a New York Times crossword which, I have to admit, normally defeats me.  The Post is quite generous about putting the answers on the same page, so if I just have to . . . .

Because this is, after all, Colorado, the Post also has, during the fall, a separate insert about the Denver Broncos every week, sometimes more than once a week, but always on the day after the game, whatever game it is.   If it’s a “big” game, there’ll also be an insert on game day.  Some of the best columnists working for the Denver Post handle sports, and it has been such a ride this fall with “Tebowmania”, I’ve really enjoyed reading their take on the phenomenon.  Living in Colorado requires being a Bronco fan.  Nobody seems really sure of this, but I think there’s something in the State constitution.  Either that, or in the water, that simply makes it happen.  There is a huge sculpture, brilliant blue with orange eyes, of a rearing horse outside DIA.  I wonder how many visitors to the state ever realize what that sculpture signifies?  More than anything else, it signifies how rabidly fond of their Broncos Coloradans are (although we have a tendency to like them better when they’re winning, no matter how sloppily).  Ooops, getting a little distracted here.  Back to newspapers.

English: Denver Post building in Denver, Colorado.

The Denver Post Building, image by Wikipedia

I dread the time that newspapers disappear.  When I lived in Los Angeles, I perforce got the Los Angeles Times, which is (horrors!) still my standard for a good newspaper.  They still have a weekly magazine, called “Calendar,” I believe.  And a lot of comics.  And I miss that.  In New York, I had a subscription to the New York Daily News, because the New York Times doesn’t have agony columns or comics.  I still have no idea what their editorial board is thinking.  Don’t they want anybody to read their paper?  In any event, I found I enjoyed tabloid journalism, done New York style, and, after all, I never sank so low as to subscribe to, or even read, the New York Post.

Historically, the first newspaper published, or at least the first one that lasted, in Denver was the Rocky Mountain News, which was the morning paper.  Like the New York Daily News, it was tabloid sized and had lots of comics for little kids like me and lots of columns for grown-ups like my folks.  The Denver Post, which started later, was the evening paper.  I believe, without really knowing, that the Post attempted to be a “record” for the state in the way that the Washington Post tried (and tries) to be for the country.  But my memory of the Post during my years in Colorado was mostly that it was amazingly biased, although I actually can’t remember in  what political direction.  When I moved to California and was told that the Los Angeles Times was editorially biased, I had to laugh, because the LA Times was so much more careful in its punditry than the Post ever was.  A few years ago, when the first wave of newspapers dying off was rampant through the country, the Rocky Mountain News more or less disappeared into the Denver Post, which became the morning paper.  A lot of folks were unhappy about that, including me, although I wasn’t living in Colorado at the time.

Of course, the news on the front page is a little dated by the time it’s published — most of us, including me, get our actual news from the TV or the Internet, which by their nature can get breaking stories to us much faster, but I still find that the newspaper articles seem more reasoned and nuanced than what I hear on the tube (which is a nickname for TV that has recently become completely out of date; pretty soon, people won’t understand where that name for it came from (ditto “the box”, for that matter)).

But it is such a lovely and quiet way of reading about what’s happening, much nicer than having it drummed in one’s ear.  And, after all, if newspapers last long enough, someday I may actually be able to complete the New York Times crossword without having to look at the answers.

Swimming at the “Y”

English: Administration Building at YMCA of th...

YMCA of the Rockies Administration Building, image from Wikipedia

The Estes Park Center of the YMCA of the Rockies has 860 acres of mountains nestled beneath Longs Peak.  Most of the land is pristine, with only hiking trails to show human presence.  The vast majority of the buildings, which include lodges and eating facilities, cabins, a theater, administration facilities, a “longhouse” (a roofed enclosure that provides walking and running space during winter months), various craft buildings and an indoor swimming pool, are clustered around a high mountain meadow — the altitude is 8,010 feet.  It is one of the crown jewels of the YMCA system, which has been visited by quite a few of the 20th Century Presidents of the United States, European diplomats, and (most important) ordinary families looking for realistically priced accommodations, lots of outdoor activities and good inexpensive food.  It must sound a bit as if I’m shilling for them, but I’m truly not.  I’m simply a member, entitled for a fairly reasonable membership cost to swim year round in their very large indoor swimming pool.

Swimming is my favorite exercise.  I’m not exactly clumsy but I’m not exactly not clumsy either and walking or hiking on uneven ground scares me.  After several serious falls in the last few years, my fear of falling has grown.  But if you’re in a swimming pool, how can you fall?  I can push harder, either walking laps or swimming them, and not worry so much about such accidents.  Much more than that, I have always hated sweating.  I know that sounds stupidly girly-girl of me, but there it is.  Sweating itches, attracts dust, makes you filthy and messes up your hair.  Contrary to propaganda, women do not glow (except possibly Rita Hayworth, of whom this was said by her then husband Orson Welles).  Women perspire and some women, like me, sweat.  In a swimming pool, my hair is already messed up and wet, there is no dust, and if I’m sweating, how can anybody, even me, ever tell?  And finally, instead of finishing a hike and then having to come in, shower and change in order to go out for errands or simply being with others in the world, after finishing a swim, I’m right there with a locker/shower room and my clothes packed up and ready for me.  A shower, towel-dry my (very short) hair, get dressed and I’m ready for anything, oxygenated, invigorated and clean.  Because the Y’s pool is heated and indoors, I can exercise and enjoy myself any day of the year without reference to Estes Park’s high winds or snowstorms or cold.  Water temperature is kept at about 85 degrees and the temperatures in the locker rooms are just about that, so it’s a pleasure on a cold, blustery day to come in to the pool building and strip down to my bathing suit, not a penance.  The pool is big.  It has one area over ten feet deep, but most of it is no deeper than five feet, with the shallow end at about three feet, making it ideal for families to play in the water with their children.  It is also easily divided into lanes for lap swimmers.

Estes Park has a municipal indoor swimming pool, but it costs more than the one at the Y and its hours are much more limited, because the municipal pool is used by the school district for swimming lessons and meets with other schools.  (Our high school swim teams compete at a fairly high level, on the whole, for such a small school.)  So, if you want to swim at the municipal pool, be prepared to get there at 11:30 and swim fast, because open swim is over at 12:30.  At the Y, open swim takes place each day from 12:30 to 5:00 and from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m.  There are also classes and there’s lap swim times as well.  I really do sound now like I’m advertising for them, don’t I?

But, although we have a fitness center in town and it wouldn’t hurt me at all to join and do some weight training, the reality is that if the swimming pool out at the Y didn’t exist, I would turn into a slug in the winter.  It is too cold and windy for an indoor girl like me to enjoy walking or hiking outside (I’ve always had the strong feeling that the outdoors is a wonderful place to look at), and (as said above) I don’t like to sweat.  Walking or swimming through the water exercises the muscles of my arms as well as my legs and torso, gives me an aerobic workout, and, if I use some of the water toys the Y has available, I can even get in some resistance exercises.  It’s also wonderful for a person like me who has excess weight still to lose and who isn’t as limber as she used to be, because in the water it is easy and safe to stretch and extend legs and arms, bend backwards or sideways and in all ways loosen and limber one’s body.

And that’s not all.  Walking or hiking can be quite solitary, which is, of course, one of their charms in such a beautiful place.  And so it can be at the swimming pool.  There are times in winter when I’m the only person in the pool, which can be really enjoyable:  quiet, peaceful and it’s all my space for the time I’m there, to swim, cavort, tread water, float, do what I like.  But mostly there’s always someone there (besides the lifeguards, of course, who are always there and have always been pleasant to talk to, although I’m sure they find my walking (or swimming) up and down a little boring).  Sometimes it’s an elderly couple, walking back and forth, enjoying the water and the use of their limbs just as I am, and we’ll chat and exchange stories.  Other times, and more often, are whole families, with mama holding the baby (festooned with a life jacket, one of the rules) and introducing it to the water, and the older kids splashing and shrieking around daddy, who’s got one of the water toys and is throwing it back and forth to his kids.  Get a larger family group and there’ll inevitably be a game of keep away or of Marco Polo.  I can’t quite see the point of this  game, since from an outsider’s perspective it seems to consist only of one person yelling “Marco” and somebody else yelling “Polo”.  I’m sure that’s not all there is to it, but close observation seems to indicate very little more.  The swimming pool staff have stretched strings of banners over the pool at two points, in both shallower and deeper water, so when a group of high school age kids come swimming, there is suddenly (and always) a game of volleyball, which is usually a lot of fun to watch.

As I plow my way through the people enjoying the pool, I have been head butted by a toddler, backed into by a three giggly girls at a time, and nearly flattened by somebody diving into the pool (that time, the lifeguards were there in a heartbeat, because diving is strictly forbidden–some boy will either not know or figure the rule doesn’t apply to him, but that happens only once, the lifeguards are quite strict).  Sometimes the lifeguards will play some (very loud ) music, and if there are people in the pool having fun, of course their voices echo in the big building.  I duck under the water for some momentary peace and quiet.  But mostly it’s a lot of fun watching people enjoy themselves.  Sometimes I’m asked to take part for a little while in a game of pass the ball in a circle, which is about my speed.  Nobody has asked me yet to take part in a volleyball game or in a game of keepaway and I’m just as well pleased.  So it’s not just necessary exercise, it’s a fun thing to to do.  And it always lifts my spirits.

If I’m fairly alone in the pool, it’s a great time to simply be.  There are windows along each wall looking out at the mountains, with Longs Peak a sentinel over all.  There are trees outside and often animals, elk, marmots, whatnot, ever changing.  I get my zen on, and can stay in the moment (always hard for me to do) better while swimming than in any other place or situation.  Or alternatively, it’s a good time to ponder an issue, plan a future, dream a dream.

Maybe if I’d been able to get out there to swim the last couple of days, I would have been better able to write a post for this blog this past Thursday and Friday.  I could not seem to get started these last two days, and I thought my beginner’s luck at writing this blog had run out and I was hosed.  So, yet another plus for swimming!

Part of my view as I drive out to the Y is given here in a picture I took last summer.

RMNP from Moraine Avenue

Estes Park Talk

We got to the Stanley Hotel around noon on Sat...

The Stanley Hotel (from Wikipedia)

It occurs to me that some definitions may be in order.  As in a great many places, those who live in Estes Park have their own way of saying things.  Since everyone here, including the elk, came here from somewhere else, we are possibly even more fiercely partisan about our town than people are who have been born in theirs.  So here are a few names and definitions:

Estes — What we call our town when we’re not being formal.  As in, to a summer resident:  “When did you get back to Estes?”

ParkRocky Mountain National Park, for which Estes is one of two primary gateways.  Sample statement:  “Let’s take a drive around the Park.”  Also called “Rocky” or, less often, “RMNP.”  I also call it “my big back yard.”  To see a map, please Google maps and specify “RMNP.”

Around the Park — Does not mean literally “around the Park,” which would be a very long hike.  Instead, it means a paved road of about eight or so miles from the Moraine Park entrance up to Deer Ridge Junction, then back down to the Fall River entrance.  Sometimes, this includes a side journey to Bear Lake.  Takes about a half hour, unless you stop and watch the elk cavort or happen to spy a bighorn sheep.

Locals — People who live for either part of the year or all year in the Estes valley.  Sometimes includes residents of Glen Haven (a small mountain community down a picturesque canyon), but does not include residents of Allenspark (a small mountain community up a very picturesque drive called the Peak to Peak Highway, otherwise known as Highway 7).  (Allenspark residents have a beautiful town and are very proud of it.  Also, by definition they do not live in the Estes valley (see below).)  Also a local restaurant.

Elkjam — Local term for the traffic jam that happens instantaneously whenever a car (all right, its occupants) spies an elk or an elk herd close to the road or crossing the road.  That car stops to take pictures and immediately, as if by magic, at least 25 other cars also stop, often in the road rather than on the verge, to take pictures of the elk doing what they do, which is mostly eat and stop traffic.  Those interested in seeing this (locals get very tired of it, actually, not the elk but the cars) should search for “elkjam” on YouTube.  There is at least one news feature about the phenomenon nearly every year.

Estes valley — What residents call the entire valley enclosed by mountains which encompasses Estes Park, with the continental divide to the West, Lumpy Ridge to the north, and lower mountains leading down to the valley.  As a local, I stake my claim that this is the most beautiful mountain valley on earth.

Valley — Term used by all locals (see above) and other mountain people to refer to the area of the United States between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachian Mountains.  As in, “I’m going to the valley to shop today.”  (In this case, the speaker actually means Ft. Collins, Loveland, Longmont, Boulder or, less likely, Denver.)

The Stanley — The Stanley  Hotel, built by F.O. Stanley (of Stanley Steamer fame) in the early 20th Century as a resort hotel in NeoColonial style.  In order to build it, Mr. Stanley also had to create a hydroelectric plant, a sewage plant and a sawmill.  He also had to greatly improve the roads up to Estes Park from the valley (see above) so they could be used by his own Stanley Steamers to bring tourists to his hotel.  In doing so, he practically created the modern town of Estes Park and its primary industry, tourism.  The Stanley Hotel was a primary inspiration for Stephen King’s novel “The Shining” and his own television production “The Shining” was shot on location there.  It is most definitely haunted.  A picture of the Stanley is at the top of this post.

Fairgrounds — Actually and precisely, Stanley Park, which contains the arena, quite a few horse barns, and space for tents, booths, and so forth.  This is the venue for many summer activities, including the Rooftop Rodeo, the Hunter-Jumper show, the Scottish-Irish Heritage Festival and others.  Called the “fairgrounds” only by locals (see above), thus confusing all visitors because all the signs say “Stanley Park.”

The Bypass — Another confusing term.  Locals call this road the bypass because it does that, i.e., it bypasses downtown Estes Park.  All the signs, however, say Wonderview Avenue.  Which it also is; i.e., a wondrous view.

Longs — Local term for our tallest and most prominent mountain peak, Long’s Peak, discovered by an Army gentleman named, oddly enough, Long.  Of course, “discovered” is a relative term, since the Arapaho and Shoshoni tribes always knew it was there.  “Longs” is not to be confused with “Pikes”, which is another famous Colorado mountain peak west of Colorado Springs.  Longs, by the way, is several hundred feet higher than Pikes.  Sample statement:  “Are you planning on climbing Longs this year?”  (My answer is an immediate “no, I plan on looking at Longs this year,” as it always is.)  One of my own photos of Longs is published at the bottom of this post.

Elkhorn — Our main street, named (probably) for the Elkhorn Lodge, one of our oldest still-standing structures, a resort, tourist lodge and dude ranch that is now considered one of the six most endangered historical structures in the state of Colorado.  It should be noted that elk actually do not have horns, they have antlers.  Antlers are shed each year, while horns (see bighorn sheep, above) are permanent and grow incrementally each year.

Dunraven — Now primarily an exceedingly good and long-lived Italian (and seafood) restaurant out on Moraine.  However, in the 19th Century, the Earl of Dunraven (yes, a real British (okay, Welsh, I think) belted earl and no, I don’t know why earls would be more belted than, say, barons or even bankers), falling in love (as so many have since) with the Estes valley, decided ownership was the only possible course.  He spent years more or less bribing more or less unsavory types to “homestead,” after which he would buy the homesteaded land.  Theoretically at that time, one was only allowed to homestead 160 (I’m not looking this stuff up, so anybody out there reading this who begs to differ is probably right and I would love to hear the, well, facts) acres of government land, which the Estes valley was considered to be.  He planned on making the place his own private hunting reserve and to this end built a hotel, the first in town, I believe, for his friends.  (He also, with his friends and with the help of other tourists and hunters, killed off all the local elk population.  The big elk herds that have taken over the town now were originally imported in the 20th Century from Wyoming.)  The State of Colorado and the United States Government took issue with his version of “homesteading” and worked in the courts to break up his holdings, finally managing to annoy him enough that he left, never to return.  F.O. Stanley (above) bought quite a bit of his land for the Stanley Hotel.  However, statements that the Earl of Dunraven haunts the third floor are a bit strange, since the Earl left Estes years before the hotel was built.

Long's Peak

Snow Day

Snuggle time, making soup time, looking out at the world and being glad you’re inside time.  Obviously, I’m an indoor girl.  Didn’t used to be — of course, once dressed in snowpants, boots, mittens, sweaters, parka, hood, about the only thing I could do outside during or after a snow was to make snow angels, and then I could hardly get back up.  But I loved to look up and try to catch snowflakes in my mouth, let them melt on my tongue.  Such a clear, cold taste.

Snow crystals 2b

Image via Wikipedia

And after the snow, when it would get cold and crisp, walking on the snow made a scrunching sound unlike any other sound I’ve ever heard.  I was a child in Greeley, Colorado, and often after a snow would come a hard freeze which would leave a crust on the snow that, at the time, I was small enough to walk on if I was careful.  I would try for the longest series of steps possible before breaking through the snow crust.  Of course, I eventually would, and that usually would mean I would fall down, but falling down on a foot of snow when you’re eight years old and washing your face with snow is fun, not any kind of problem.

But as I grew up, snow got to be a problem at times.  Sometimes more than a problem.  How was it that it always snowed on Sunday night, thus making sleep impossible because I would worry so over the commute to work?  Especially the first snow.  It is a tradition in Denver, it seems, to have a first snow in October.  Coloradans and Denverites are never ready for it and seem to have forgotten how to drive in the stuff over the summer.  The first commute during the first snow was an adventure in terror, pretty much every year.  Sliding sideways down a hill toward a red traffic light on the bottom, realizing dully that the light would still be red when your car slide not to it but through it, now that’s an experience I wish I had missed.

I lived in Wyoming once and tried to transport props for a play I was directing from Rock Springs to Green River on the interstate on a late fall Sunday.  A truly Wyoming blizzard blew up and suddenly my car was spinning just like a top in the middle of the road.  The car behind me could not avoid my inadvertent ballerina move and both cars embraced with a clang.  A couple more joined our intricate (and frightening) dance before all of us fetched up against the rocks to the side of the road, where we stayed for over three hours before the Highway Patrol could sort us out.  Freezing, terrifying, snow.  Driving in the stuff has, since then, been an issue.  It is always a problem when your mortality rises up and slaps you.  When I moved back to Estes Park, I deliberately chose to buy an AWD vehicle, a  Nissan Murano (wonderful car), that ameliorates the problem and my concern at least a little.  But there are times even Tina (originally named “Tiny” ironically for her rather substantial size, but she didn’t seem to like it, so “Tina” it is) can’t get her tires under her and slips rather than glides through the white stuff.

When I lived in New York, I was rather surprised at the relative paucity of snow, at least while I lived there (they seem to have made up for it by now).  The difference seemed to be that any snow they got just stuck around until spring.  In the West, the wind whips the snow around so much that locals say that snow doesn’t melt, it just gets wore out.  So it was always fun to try to get from (plowed) sidewalk to (plowed) roadway with the piled up snow having turned to ice in between.  Twisted ankle heaven.  I didn’t have a car then, but I did have to get into the city to work, so while the subway didn’t slip and slide (at least not for that reason), the bus I used to get to the subway certainly did.

So, when I moved back to Estes, it was with the implicit realization and blessing that now if the snow was just too slippery out there, I could stay in here, free from the necessity to brave the elements, twist my ankles, fall down or slide through traffic lights.   Instead, now I could smugly look out at the beauty of the snow with an unambiguous heart.   (Sort of.  Today is also chore day, trash must be put out to be picked up tomorrow, and my driveway is so steep it often feels, especially when it is wet or icy, as if it had been constructed at a 45 degree angle.  Sigh.)

But that’s done now, and the soup is on, making the house fragrant.  Here’s hoping that your next snow day, if such you have, allows you to stay inside and make soup and enjoy the warmth and contrast with the out-of-doors or, if you’d rather, go out and make snow angels and taste snowflakes.  Just stay off the highways.  Those red traffic lights are traps on a snow day.

A Study in Sherlock

Chinatown, London. Benedict Cumberbatch during...

Image via WikipediaImage via Wikipedia

Not precisely as writing avoidance, but certainly as a part of my, ahem, research into writing, I have been re-reading the entire Sherlock Holmes canon.  The one by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, that is.  To round out the experience, my local (Denver) PBS station is very kindly re-broadcasting last season’s “Sherlock,” an update of Holmes’ adventures set in 21st Century London and starring, wait for it, Benedict Cumberbatch (a name I keep wanting to recite, somehow, as “Bumbershoot,” which I think is an English appellation for “umbrella”), who does make a particularly nifty Sherlock.  I am also reading (us compulsive readers never read merely one book at a time) Laurie R. King‘s latest in her series on Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes, entitled “Pirate King”.  I also plan to see the new Robert Downey movie in which he plays Sherlock and I always record and later watch the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series, also on PBS.  Here are images of Mr. Cumberbatch and Jeremy Brett.  I found a picture of Sir Arthur, but could not, apparently, upload it.

Sherlock Holmes

Image by twm1340 via FlickrImage via Wikipedia

I am relishing all of these excursions into Sherlockia, as I believe it is called, and I’m exploring, today, just why.  Reading the original stories would seem to be an exercise in nostalgia, with stories that were original when they were written, but that seem quite familiar now.   Even so, they are good stories, set well within the characters of Lestrade, Holmes and Watson, and with twists that seem organic and yet rather astonishing (if you, like me, have a tendency to forget plots over time, you have the pleasure of reading a “new” story each time you open a book, no matter if you’ve read it before).

Certainly the setting appeals — London in the smoke, the sound of horse-drawn cabs, men in frock coats and top hats, women in sweeping skirts, rain, fog and gaslight.  Somehow in the new Cumberbatch series (if I use his name long enough, I’ll remember it and NOT Bumbershoot), they have managed to get across the “now” of London, truly a world-class, brilliant city, and yet evoke the original setting of the stories, for which I salute them.  So that’s another reason.

But I think it’s the character of Sherlock Holmes that is so compelling.  No matter how it is interpreted, from the original stories to Basil Rathbone, to Brett, Downey, and Cumberbatch, the character is sui generis — the world’s first and only consulting detective.  And of course it is not only his excellences that appeal, but also his more problematic traits.  The interpretation of those traits make the character of Holmes endlessly interesting, as if he were a real person.  Is he a misogynist?  Well, perhaps Irene Adler would not agree, and Laurie R. King has married him off to her creation, Mary Russell, so something else seems to be going on here.  Is he an addict?  Even Dr. Watson was not sure of that, but was sure — and this seems likely — that the thrill of the chase was Sherlock’s addiction, much more than cocaine.  But just imagine these days, as a writer, creating a series character, one’s hero, with a substance abuse problem.  It is done, of course, but then the book ends up being about the substance abuse.  For Doyle, it was a concern, yes, but a sidebar.  Sherlock’s skills overcome all such problems.  I have read that Doyle, as a medical student, had a teacher who used — actually created — all the techniques Doyle later ascribed to Sherlock and who was the inspiration for the character.  Perhaps somebody reading this knows the name of that man and can let me know it.

What does this have to do with writing, or any other possible focus for this journal?  Just this:  for me as a writer, the importance of Sherlockia, apart from the sheer enjoyment of watching and reading, is that the creation of an original, fascinating, intriguing character is paramount.  I don’t know whether there are only seven basic plots, as some have stated, or 36, which others tell me, but the characters a writer creates can be limitless even while they are bound by the realities of human nature, as limitless (and as bound) as each human being on the planet.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created a character in Sherlock Holmes that will live as long as people read or watch filmed entertainment.  Something to aspire to.

Oh, and on another topic entirely, here in Estes Park, we are all quite giddy — the wind has dropped.  After what feels like weeks, even months, the wind has died down.  Calloo callay!

Random Thoughts on Writing

Faced with a blank screen, I’m reminded of all the frustrated thoughts writers have about the process of writing; or as so often happens, the process of not writing.  Entire books have been written about this. I often think that, no matter what a writer may be blocked from writing, he or she can always think of things to say about not writing.

I have loved words in a row since I can remember and I can’t actually remember ever learning to read them.  By the time my memory formed well enough to give me some continuity, I simply read, anything and everything my parents provided and anything I could manage without their knowledge or (sometimes) permission.  I have always spent as much time reading as the world would allow me, even at times holding a book with one hand while I cooked or made the bed or did other chores with the other.  As a character says in a Robert Heinlein novel, “The Number of the Beast“, I would “read when I’m sleeping if I could keep my eyes open.”  Only one exception exists — while I can read in airplanes and trains, I cannot read in an automobile.  I get carsick.  Very carsick.  I think it has something to do with the horizon line, but in any event it used to be so bad I couldn’t actually read a billboard (remember them?) while the car was moving.  Better now, or perhaps there are just fewer billboards.  I will read almost anything, although I am embarrassed to admit that my pleasure in what is considered “good” literature is pretty minimal.  Still haven’t gotten past the third page of “Ulysses” or the second page of “War and Peace“, but I’ve read every novel John D. MacDonald ever wrote.  Twice.

What this has to do with writing is obvious — a lot of compulsive readers turn to writing sooner or later.  Sometimes it’s as simple as “gee, I can do that,” sometimes it’s more along the lines of “well, I could do better than that with one hand tied behind me,” and sometimes it’s just that one thinks one is going to run out of reading material unless one creates one’s own.  In my case, I suppose it was a combination of all three, mostly the first and the third.  Although another impetus was all the non-fiction writing I’ve done in schools over the years.  (It used to be my boast that I could do a 30-page research paper, with quotes, footnotes, and a coherent narrative, from a standing start in a little over 24 hours, using only materials I could find in a two-hour search in the library.  And that was before Wikipedia, of course!)  And after working for lawyers, legalese simply pours from my fingers onto the screen without in any way engaging my brain (or anybody else’s, undoubtedly).  So words on a page is easy.

What isn’t easy is words on a page that make sense, lead somewhere, create interesting characters doing interesting things for interesting reasons, that have a point and that keep people reading not because it’s just Gail maundering on again, but because the narrative is so compelling.  That’s hard.  And unlike some blessed writers (whom I’m sure have their own difficulties), in order to approximate this I must rewrite and not just once or twice and not just to catch typos.  I must plan and outline, I must know where my hero is going before she does (or he), or she’ll never get there.  So sometimes looking at a blank screen makes me think about all the reasons for not writing.

Some of them are outside the writing process itself.  There is absolutely nothing like being faced with writing work to do to make cleaning the oven or sorting the pantry or doing the laundry intensely attractive — and this for a person whose primary claim to domesticity is that I was born here (that’s a quote, by the way, from my writing partner and friend Sharon Goldstein).  I have even gone so far in times past to avoid writing that I would more or less come to and discover that the silver was newly polished and that everything in the Welsh dresser had been washed.  Now this is world-class writing avoidance.

But there are more insidious methods to avoid writing, methods that take place while you are supposedly actually writing, but you’re actually not.  The best and most defensible way to do this is to “edit.”  This means going over past work to “edit” or “copyedit” or “improve” it.  It means placing commas, putting brackets around things to deal with later, rewording sentences that aren’t quite just exactly right, going back and removing the editing you’ve just done.  Every writer, even the occasional writer of a presentation or a school paper, will recognize these ploys and many others.  You can spend several hours “not writing” in this fashion and still feel like you’ve accomplished something.

Another favorite ploy, which works especially well when you haven’t yet written down a word of your great American novel, is “research.”  If you do it right, you can make “research” substitute for actual writing for weeks at a time.  After all, if you’re going to write a book about, say, the Arapahoe tribe’s use of Estes Park as a summer hunting ground, why, then, you’ll have to make a pilgrimage to the Estes Park Historical Museum, to the Estes Park Public Library, and then, just to be thorough, you should undoubtedly hike in the areas where the Arapahoe roamed, as it were.  Of course, for those of us like, uh, me, who live in Estes Park, “research” would be better writing avoidance if it were undertaken in some other spot, such as, say, Rome or Paris, or London.  Which is probably why I, for one, have a tendency to write about Rome or Paris or London (especially London).

Another means of not writing is to plan and outline and then tinker with the plan and the outline.  I find that I can do this for, too, for weeks at a time.  And if, later, as usually happens, my outline falls apart under the weight of the words in a row I finally, all excuses exhausted, get down to writing, then obviously I have to redo the outline.  This dance can take care of actual months of writing time.

But the final writing avoidance takes place during the period I laughingly call “rewrite” during which I realize nothing I’ve written except odd bits of dialogue would interest anybody, even somebody in solitary confinement given only my book to read for the rest of his or her incarceration; when I realize that every bit of it has to be redone from scratch.  This is depressing, of course.  (It also is not objectively true — any writer contemplating their own work bounces inexorably from “this is the best thing I’ve ever written” to “this is the worst piece of something or other (words to be supplied by reader) that has ever been written by anybody.”  There is no middle ground, by the way.)  But the depressing part of it is true, and usually leads to putting away the novel for a while, which is the ultimate writing avoidance.

I’m not doing that at this moment, I’m merely trying to get a running start on this blog, so my not reading through and making notes on the latest draft of “World Enough and Time”, written by Sharon and me, with an absolutely vital plot assist from Joe Bays, Sharon’s husband, is defensible for about the next, perhaps fifteen minutes before I’d better get down to it.

Two more random thoughts on writing for today:  One, that the Brightweavings website kept for Guy Gavriel Kay often has posts by the author that are quite illuminating about the process of writing and what the writer’s life is like (he also writes really good alternative universe fiction).  I recommend the site for all readers and writers.

And, finally, one of the great accessories a writer should have are pets, in my case and I recommend them, cats.  Not only are they accustomed to strange behavior on the part of their humans, they are wonderful means of writing avoidance in themselves.  Here are pictures of my two:

It’s Raining in Estes Park Today

Hmmmnh.  It’s January.  But it’s raining.  All roads will, after dusk, become skating rinks.  Glad I’m home, toasty warm in my house looking out at the, amazingly, rain.  I’d take a picture to prove it, but I can’t find my camera.  Oh well.  Estes Park weather has some constants.  January and February are windy (every paradise has its snakes).  March, too, sometimes.  March, April and May are winter, the time we get most of our snow.  One day in June is spring, the day the aspens bud.  After that is summer, which lasts until Labor Day, after which we have, sometimes two glorious months of fall, with weeks of gold, the aspen gilding every mountain and meadow.  And of course the Elk coming down and herding in the Estes Valley itself.  But rain in January comes as quite a surprise.  Here’s a picture of the entrance to the Estes Park valley I found on the web.

Entrance sign for Estes ParkLast night, some friends — Greig and Ann Steiner and Bert and Marti Bergland — got together at the Bergland house for movie night.  We ended up watching “Birdcage,” a very funny movie from 1996.  All of us found it funny, charming and touching and I thought that comedies made today don’t seem to have the same level of funny, let alone touching.  But then again, I haven’t seen “Bridesmaids” yet, which I’m told is a very funny movie.  One of the subplots of “Birdcage” is a political scandal and I reflected, too, that what we charmingly call the political process doesn’t seem to have changed very much from 1996 to the present day.

My weekend will be taken up with work on “World Enough and Time”, for which I owe my writing partner, Sharon Goldstein, quite a few notes.  But I will manage the time so that I can watch my newest addiction, “Downton Abbey”, and continue to read “Nazi Germany: A New History”, which is a fascinating and horrifying study of how such a terrible situation happened.

My paternal great-grandfather emigrated from Munich in Bavaria in the 19th century and married a woman from Germany.  One of their sons was my grandfather, who married a woman of German extraction from Pennsylvania.  So my father, while as American as a person can get, was ethnically German.  He served in the Quartermaster Corps of the United States Army in World War II in what was then called Persia.  He married a woman of Swedish, English, French, and Scotch-Irish background, so I am fully an American mutt.  Worse than that, since I was born in Colorado, I identify most with the western United States.  However, German history in the 20th century has an appalling fascination for me.  How could it have happened?

Time I moved on to another topic, I think.  Although genealogy is becoming quite a hobby of mine.  As it happens, I have been able to follow the line of my mother’s Swedish ancestors more than any other link to the past.  Unfortunately, I cannot read or understand Swedish, so I’ve come to a stop because once the records are in Sweden, they’re, amazingly enough, in Swedish.

And it’s time this blog came to a stop, too.  More soon!  That’s either a promise or a threat, depending on how you’re enjoying (or not) this blog.  Thanks for reading.

Hello world!

Estes Park Colorado

Image by siliconchaos via Flickr

Welcome to my blog.  Here I am, assimilated at last. is now my journal and my online communication with anyone who cares to read it, and I hope you will.  My focus, while mostly on my life here in Estes Park, will also include my work as a writer and my interests as they wax and wane.  I hope to add pictures as they are appropriate, and here’s the first two, one a rather nice shot of the high country in Rocky Mountain National Park I took last summer and the other one I found in the media gallery attached to my blog.  I think even some of the folks I knew in New York City would understand why I’m here.  I’m still learning how to operate this site, which has a great many options to add text, images, links and whatnot.  So expect changes.  Again, welcome.  I look forward to blogging and to your reactions.A picture of the high country from Moraine Avenue, Estes Park