October 18, 2016

'Death Comes For The Archbishop' compelling with amazing style

POINT RICHMOND, California - The novel Death Comes For The Archbishop came my way via a New York amiga, Nebraska-raised.

It was one of two books she pushed across the table to me while sat in a Burdett, NY bistro, talking about my planned cross-country, Travels with Charley (minus Charley) trip.

I cracked the book just once, sitting on the shore of the Platte River in eastern Nebraska, where a butterfly landed on my shoulder and sat as if it were reading the book with me. Anyone who has ever read much Carlos Castaneda knows exactly how much that freaked me out.

But as the Butterfly and I read for just a few minutes, I realized that Death Comes For The Archbishop was a book I wanted to read carefully, thoughtfully, not trying to sandwich the rich language in during short stops as I was spinning Michelin tires across the United States, taking the nation's pulse.

It proved to be a good call.

Death Comes For The Archbishop is one of Willa Cather's classics originally published in 1927. If Willa Cather's name is familiar, it's likely because you might have read one of her other novels, My Antonia. I confess that it was a required book in some high school class of mine. But I doubt I read much of it.

This novel is pretty much the antithesis of the kind of books I snatch off the bookshelves at the public library. It's slow-paced, full of history, full of rich detail that includes sight, smell, taste, sound and cultural critique.

It's no Jack Reacher novel.
Willa Cather

And it's fabulous.

That slow-paced history and detail is weaved into a compelling tale of friendship, the growth of the West in the U.S., and the influence of the Catholic Church in a growing nation. And it's done in a writing style that I can only describe as dreamy. It's the kind of writing that wraps itself around you so firmly the rest of the world slips into the background.

It is one of those books you never want to end - particularly given where it's headed as stated in the novel's title.

Death Comes For The Archbishop is recommended reading. And if I get up the courage to tackle My Antonia - many decades past when I first spied it - I think it will be good reading, too.

Thanks for passing it to me, Wrexie.

September 30, 2016

Back in Pt. Richmond singing 'Sweet Home California'

POINT RICHMOND, Calif. - My Travels With Charley, minus a dog named Charley, ended Tuesday about 4 p.m. when I pulled into the swimming pool parking lot at Brickyard Landing where I hang my West Coast hat.

And there Adm. Fox was sitting on curb, waiting to film my return, strategically placed near the gate to the pool where she knew I would want to plunge immediately.

I have a notebook full of observations about people, places, things and bad food - lots of bad food. But one overarching word can be applied to the weather conditions of the entire trip from Valois, NY to Long Island to all points west:


A cooling trend in Ashland, Nebraska
And while heat was always a likely factor - given that my Little Red Pickup is sans air-conditioning - it was exacerbated by a problem with the driver's side window. About 200 miles short of Edwards, Colorado, a gust of high plains wind blasted the half-rolled down window, knocking it completely out of its track. An emergency roadside repair got it rolled back up tight. But because the truck is (to say it politely) somewhat aged, repair is not simple and couldn't be made without a completely unknown delay in my travels.

The last time the window needed repair, just getting parts took more than a week.

Thus, the balance of the trip, the driver's side window was rolled up tight - no matter how freakin' hot it was.

Coming down the hill from Lake Tahoe into California, it hit 100 degrees just east of Sacramento.

Since arriving at the West Coast Fitz-Fox compound, I have been organizing my notes, thoughts, and sleeping a lot. (Not necessarily in that order, either.) I still have no idea, exactly, what (if anything) I'll be writing about my land voyage across I-80.

But my WRITE ON column in the Finger Lakes Times (set to be published later today) gives a preview of a small slice of life of America I found in my 3,800+ miles of driving.

Some of it was pretty and uplifting. Some of it was not.

The famous 'Dan Ryan Expressway' in Chicago, temp 98 degrees - and a traffic jam

September 23, 2016

A narrative forms at the edge of the Rocky Mountains

STERLING, Colorado - What I had planned for this cross-country trip - and how it has turned out - not surprisingly have been so different, that if I compared the two side-by-side on a sheet of paper, I doubt I would find a resemblance.

Still, just like John Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley, 'we do not take a trip; a trip takes us."

And so it has been since leaving Valois and then launching from Hewlett, NY where in August 1970 my first sojourn west began in a blue 1964 VW bus.

It's dangerous to attempt analysis based on part on just bits of data. And that's what I have, bits of data: conversations with people at restaurants, highway rest stops, gas pumps, motel lobbies and even a car repair shop. People do like to talk.

Just say hello and ask how their day is going. Then stand back.

When the Little Red Nissan had to get its fan belt tightened a notch or two after driving through broiling temperatures, I chatted for the better part of an hour with a fellow who delivers private cars back and forth across the country. I say chatted. Actually, I was his audience. I don't know what he takes to keep him awake for driving 16 hours per day. But it was coursing through his veins when he offered up a monologue that even had the Nissan dealership clerks and car sales people stopping to listen.

As my days on the road were rolling around in my sleeping brain last night, the thread of a narrative about this trip emerged in the middle of the night. My hotel neighbors to the south decided to have a family brawl (likely over which Fox News channel to watch). I saw them in the lobby earlier but couldn't place their Southern U.S accents. But it was twangy strong at 2 a.m.

Then the family with young children staying in the room above decided to practice the Bristol Stomp - or something similar about the same time.

Awake and wondering if the plaster on the ceiling might start snowing on my head, I began to see the outline of a story.

If only I had written it down concisely when it was so clear.

Perhaps it will come back to me as I roll into the Rockies in a few hours, heading for Vail and Edwards, Colorado to visit son Jason. The air and altitude might jar my memory while I try to forget the voices of Lurleen and Lester arguing in the room next door last night.

I do remember some of the actual dialogue - but I'll save those colorful colloquial phrases for another time.

By the way, do you think "Id-jit" might mean idiot? Hmm...

September 21, 2016

From NYC to Nebraska to Infinity and Beyond!

ASHLAND, Nebraska - OK, the Infiinity and Beyond might be a bit of a stretch. But being well west of the Mississippi in the Heartland it feels different - and the same, too.

I am holed up for one more day at Eugene T. Mahoney State Park in a lodge overlooking the Platte River. Quite a view, quite a park, too. And the little town of Ashland, three miles away, is so Mayberry, that the people even talk like the characters from that TV show. The cops, however, stop people for running stop signs. No Barney Fifes running the gendarme shop in this town of 2,700.

After leaving NYC and my stop in Bloomsburg, Penn. I barreled the rest of the way dodging rainstorms with stops in Fremont, Ohio and Rochelle Illinois before getting here.

Thursday and Friday I expect to be in Western Nebraska at a place called Lake Ogallala, a place we stopped at in 1970. It's the place where I swore I would never use a gasoline lantern again. That story is for another day.

And then to the mountains, Vail and Edwards, Colorado to be exact, to visit with son Jason

Below are four photos: The view from the lodge deck where I am writing this, the temperature yesterday in downtown Ashland, a photo special for Scott Adams and Brett Beardslee, and one last shot from a Mexican restaurant in Rochelle, Illinois as evidence life on the road can be filling. 

Very filling.

And there I had probably the best margarita I have imbibed in a loooooooong time.

September 16, 2016

First a trip to Roscoe, then New York City

WOODMERE, New York - The trip leaving Hector for Long Island to visit my sister Anne and her husband Joe (with a stop in Roscoe, NY to talk with author Karen Schneller-MacDonald about a new column project) started late. No surprise there. The cottage had to be cleaned and closed up, the truck packed, and, and, and.

And then, unwisely I followed the directions of my GPS to drive through Ithaca. 

Anyone who lives in Hector knows that driving through Ithaca (on Rt. 79) early in the morning is flirting with madness.

It was.

Plus a dump truck belching blue and black smoke managed to block my path for most of the hills.

Santa Crappo.

But except for another GPS induced diversion, I landed safely in Roscoe, only an hour late.

The details of our lunch meeting are for another time. But I was not paying attention to detail when I left the Roscoe Bistro (not the iconic Roscoe Diner, just up the street). That lack of attention became sickningly apparent when I went to a service station to gas up and discovered I had left my backpack at the Bistro.

The backpack - the one with the iPad on which I am drafting this, my checkbook, calendars and assorted electronic devices and cables.

Santa Crappo, redux.

That part of this saga had a happy ending. I raced back (it was only five minutes away) and my backpack was sitting on the floor, right where I left it, patiently waiting.

Now at my sister's on Long Island, I'm waiting for the NYC traffic to clear so I can head west across the city, through New Jersey and probably land somewhere in Pennsylvania for the night. 

And for today's trip, the backpack will ride on the seat right next me.

September 8, 2016

To go West, sometimes you must go East first

35, 000 FEET, OVER NEVADA - By some miracle, the normal sardine-can crush on the American Airlines flight from San Francisco to Philadelphia was less so today with probably 1/3 of the seats vacant - including the center seat next to me.

And that means my seat mate (a quiet sort with a decidedly Spanish accent) and I are sharing the table and seat space, spreading out our papers, books, glasses, sweaters, hats and all the other crap that you normally keep sitting in your lap (or on the floor) on a full flight.

The crap pile will be joined by several bottles of breakfast wine in moments.

The SF Airport was its usual chaotic, frenzied place. And for the first time, there were a number of service dogs going through, too. (It's odd to hear a dog howl, bark or growl on a plane, but the low pooch-generated moan from six rows behind me seems almost soothing compared to the incessant metal creaking of this over-the-hill aircraft.)

Very early in the morning, with my pre-printed TSA pre-check boarding pass in my hand, I expected to bypass the lunacy and breeze to my gate.

Expectations are a REALLY a bad thing to cling to when going through airport security. 

With the TSA pre-check, as you transit the x-Ray/metal detector, you keep your shoes on, and simply have to take all metal things out of your pockets and put them on the conveyor with your bags ... ALL metal. And so I did - wallet (with chain) glasses, sunglasses, change, car keys... But I set off the alarm as if I was carrying something from Clive Bundy's collection of automatic weapons

So I searched and searched, eventually finding more change, a tiny flashlight - and I took off my belt. 

Problem solved! 


By now, the young TSA guy working the metal detector started getting a little nervous - like maybe I was related to Clive Bundy. And I got more and more agitated. Kee-rist, I had sipped only a single cup of tea and my caffeine level was dropping like Crestwood's stock. I needed to get to the gleaming Starbuck's I could see just on the other side of security.

Then I found the fancy case I keep my glasses in. My NEW glasses - the glasses that came in a new - apparently metal - case.

As my amiga Laura McCartney says in such situations, "Santo Crappo."

No worries now - I just got handed a cup of lukewarm tea by a hacking, wheezing flight attendant who says he's allergic to dogs.

But the wine cart will be by shortly, he promised.

June 12, 2016

A musical afternoon with the band Laila Belle in Hector

TWO GOATS BREWERY, Hector, NY - With the wind howling a steady 25 knots and a slight bite of cold air with it, taking refuge at Two Goats seemed like a great idea Sunday afternoon.

Plus, the up-and-coming Trumansburg, NY band Laila Belle was on stage at Two Goats for a three-hour gig.

Laila Belle band
I've followed this group since they cut their premier CD and today got to meet lead singer Amy Puryear. And even though they have been very active in the area I haven't made it to a single performance.

Until today.

The music was toe-tapping great. And Amy's voice rang true even over the sound of the chatter in the crowded saloon, filled with people enjoying the soft sounds of Laila Belle's country music.

I may have to start following Amy and her band around, the same way I like to keep tabs on Scott Adams and Brett Beardslee as they make their musical rounds. Always a good time wherever those guys are playing.

And now it seems like Laila Belle, too.

Here's a short video same of what the appreciative crowd at Two Goats heard today.

March 25, 2016

Popping up on the energy industry's political radar

POINT RICHMOND, Calif. - Since publishing The Fracking War in 2014, followed by Fracking Justice last year, I wondered how long it would take the energy industry to discover that there were a couple of novels out there that take a very dim view of their activities.

Then this morning's email (and Twitter feed) came with a notice that an outfit called Energy In Depth is now following me on Twitter.

They found me!!!

If Energy In Depth sounds familiar, it should. This national natural gas industry-funded website has been putting out propaganda for years, most of it not only purposefully misleading, but downright nasty in a personal way. It's associated with Marcellus Drilling News, another industry-based web publication. MDN goes off the deep end - rhetorically speaking - on a daily basis. (Here's a sentence from today's MND: "The EPA is a lawless organization, out of control and drunk on its own power."

At first, I was puzzled by by EID's sudden interest in following me on Twitter. Then I remembered I had a lengthy email back-and-forth with the editor of the Marcellus Drilling News (Jim Willis) over a piece he published.

In that piece he said this:

"Everything in fracking fluid is stuff you find under your kitchen sink 
or in your bathroom medicine cabinet."


I emailed him back, pointing out that I didn't have benzene or toulene under my sink (or in any medicine chests) and that led to an exchange that ended with these two emails:

Marcellus Drilling News:
"Look, I know you're a radical anti-driller. 
Why do you subscribe when you disagree with what I write? 
Feel free to unsubscribe at any time. 
 I'm not interested in promoting your fictional book. - JIM"

Michael Fitzgerald:
"I disagree with the label radical anti-driller, Jim. I just want drilling done safely. 
And statements like you made about frack fluid ingredients all being found 
underneath a kitchen sink - or in a medicine chest? 
Come on. If that was really true, there would not be so much secrecy. 
 And the Halliburton loophole, would not be necessary. 
Keep pumping those stories out there pardner."

Why did I encourage him to keep pumping out his sometimes off-the-wall stories? Well, it's great fodder for future novels... Great stuff!

And for the record, I don't subscribe. I get a free daily feed of his "stories."

March 9, 2016

'Ninteen Minutes', a novel by Jodi Picoult that's full of surprises

POINT RICHMOND, Calif. - Somehow Jodi Picoult's 2007 novel, Nineteen Minutes slipped past my reading radar.

I honestly don't know how that happened. Ms. Picoult's books are usually in my hands shortly after they are released.

But this book fairly jumped off the shelf into my hands at the Point Richmond Public Library a few rainy days ago.

Yes, it's been raining here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Really!

In Nineteen Minutes, there's not much weather to speak of. But there is a hail of bullets at a high school (nearly 200 rounds), dead and injured students, enough bullying to give almost anyone nightmares, and a thriller/mystery plot told in flashbacks and flash forwards.

When you read Nineteen Minutes, "flashbacks and flash forwards" will make a lot more sense.

Jodi Picoult
Like all of Jodi Picoult's novels the research that went into it shows on nearly every page. She captures the essence of teenage life in American high schools, the angst of teens and parents alike, the flaws in the judicial system and the way-too cavalier manner in which we deal with bullies.

If you were seriously bullied as a child, this book may be disturbing. On the other hand, it will also be compelling.

Nineteen Minutes is absolutely recommended reading. And if your library doesn't have it, you can get it through Amazon quite quickly.

January 21, 2016

'M Train' by Patti Smith takes you on a ride

POINT RICHMOND, Calif. - National Book Award winner Patti Smith takes readers on a journey around the globe in her 2015 book, M Train.

Written in a series of vignettes and remembrances, M Train walks the reader through Smith's life in New York, trips to Spain, Japan and elsewhere.

And through it all, Smith is either gulping coffee - or looking for a cup, somewhere. Anywhere.

Patti Smith's talents as a writer, performer and visual artist span decades. And in M Train, she moves around in time, using her life to paint a portrait of the world through her very unusual lens. She carries an old Polaroid camera through much of the book, shooting photos, then meticulously peeling off the back to reveal the created image. If that image seems odd, you never owed a Polaroid.

Patti Smith
Besides the coffee habit, Smith manages to lose things here and there - a notebook on a plane, a favorite coat, even once her camera. She is quite sanguine about these losses often faintly linking them to the death of her husband Fred. Fred is a specter in the book, but friendly one.

Perhaps the most rewarding parts of M Train come in the form of snippets of languid language  peppered with occasional aphorisms, all waiting to be discovered.

My favorite? "Not all dreams need to be realized..."

M Train is a dreamy book that triggers emotions and memories. Highly recommended, especially for writers.