Sunday, December 16, 2018

Book Review: Wild--from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail


I came to this book via the back door, a little over fifteen years after Wild--from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail was published. The book's author, Cheryl Strayed, had authored an article for Vogue magazine on glamping, the angle being the Queen of the PCT taking on glamourous camping. I wrote up a response to the article after some research on Strayed, published it on my tiny trailer camping blog ("How Does Vogue Magazine View Glamping?"), and then ordered Wild for a read. I was not disappointed, Strayed displaying a strong ability to vividly describe both her experience of the Pacific Crest Trail and also the mental landscape of her gruelling challenge, not to mention her early-life challenges that brought her to the trailhead.
"At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and she would do it alone. Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her." (web page blurb)
The book reminded me of Miles from Nowhere, Barbara Savage's chronicle of a bicycle tour around the world. Both Savage and Strayed begin without experience, endure hardships, and prevail. Strayed's story, though, is much more wild, at least her life prior to the journey. The lost-to-found subtitle is appropriate for the book, for the first section describes Strayed's descent into her wilderness of despair. Both books won awards, and Strayed's Wild was the first selection for Oprah's Book Club 2.0. The book was also adapted to cinema in the movie Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern. The book strikes a balance between Strayed's struggle and her indomitable desire to persevere. I'm not sure if the visual adaptation can as successfully maintain that balance. Reading Strayed's recollection and reflection on family abuse and heroin addiction is a different experience than watching its cinematographic representation.


Thank goodness the pre-journey set-up is not too long, and thank goodness that there is a years-after objectivity to Strayed's description of  her travail, a knowingness by the reader that she did make it through. This, at least for me, increased my attention on the author's fortitude and just plain stubbornness as she struggles her way to the PCT's trailhead and then plunges into her wild adventure--unprepared, ignorant, out of shape, and with a knowingness that she had nothing to lose. A great deal of the pleasure of reading this narrative was to witness the slow (and painful) progression of the author to both inner and outer strength. As the story progressed and the author grew more trail savvy, the story developed its own momentum, its own increasingly headlong dash to self-actualization.

I bicycle camp, tucking my living not into my backpack but into my bike's panniers. Wild made me want to hit the trail, and not just because of the author's turnaround of her lifestream. Her ability to describe the beauty of the trail, even with its many challenges, was revelatory: sun and sky, earth and stone, the green world and the clouds and rain.

Over fifteen years later, Strayed glamps for Vogue, and even with tent-cabins and massages and gourmet meals at the lodge, she still narrows the experience of the wild to being outside, blue sky above and mountain smells as the feet hit the trail. The unbounded immensity of nature, whether inside us or outside, is there really a difference? There need not be. Beneath the grime of the toil of the trail lies the bare bones of the earth--or the bare bones of the soul, beautiful in their austerity, in their sharp, hard lines. One reviewer praised the narrative because of the power of the author's voice, and I can concur. The author in this book has found her voice, a voice speaking with authenticity from the wilderness. If we step onto the trail, we can hear its haunting song.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Never Too Old (or Young) to Learn a New Word

Today I've just remembered an old vocabulary-building trick that I used years ago--using a 3x5 index card as a bookmark, and writing vocabulary words from the book on the card as I come across them. That's the gist of it.

I have several steps to choosing, recording, researching, and memorizing a word.
  1. Choosing: Words can be either words that I simply do not know, or they can be words that I know but want a clearer definition for. As an example, in my current reading I have chosen the verb "cohere." I know the meaning but usually see the adjective or adverb derivative, not the verb form. Therefore, I have chosen the word in order to deepen my understanding, not to introduce myself to a new word.
  2. Recording: On a 3x5 index card, I draw a line parallel to the left edge, about 1.5 inches to the right of the edge. In this space, I write words I choose and the page number where each word is used. That way, I can return to the author's usage of the word, both to increase my understanding of the text and to increase my familiarity of how the word is used.
  3. Researching: I reference a dictionary, either an online source or my Webster's hard-bound, unabridged dictionary. All the familiar information is available: meaning, examples, variations, to name just a few. I write the definition to the right of the word in the remaining four inches of the index card.
  4. Memorizing: Repetition over time is key to memorizing, so I refer to my list as I return to reading the book, looking over the words and definitions. Another powerful memorization tool is to use the word, so sometimes I'll create sentences that use the word. "The facts suddenly cohered into an understanding of what had taken place."
I'm glad I remembered this technique. When I taught, I used this as a means of vocabulary development for my students. It was more meaningful for them since their words were self-chosen and came from books and stories they had selected themselves. Words the students chose were a part of their lives, and this increased motivation. It was a bear to evaluate, though, because every student required individual evaluation time.

I've also just realized (or remembered) that I included this technique in my book about writing, I Write: Being and Writing. The book is divided into three sections on the writer, the process of writing, and the written word. I placed this little vocabulary building technique in the second section. I believe that the path to being a good writer includes being a good reader.

Right now, I'm reading Cheryl Strayed's Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, and I can't wait to find my next word.


Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Joy of Maintaining a Blog

Somehow, I've ended up with three blogs.

The sentence above was the rough draft beginning of this post. I should have cut it because it was just a beginning, a means of initiating the flow of ideas and words, but then I realized it was a good hook, actually, the old strategy of beginning with an opposite point of view. The word somehow implies that I'm not sure how I've ended up with three (or perhaps four) blogs, but that implication is inaccurate. I like to write about what I'm doing; I like to write about my passions, or as Joe (Campbell) said, about my bliss. There is a very real joy in maintaining a blog.

Three blogs: writing, tiny trailer camping, and bicycling (the fourth a specialized bicycle journaling web community). This blog, Tom Kepler Writing, was my first blog. I started it when I began to independently publish my writing. Over nine years I've posted almost six hundred times.

Then I began this bicycle riding thing, and I decided to write about my experiences and to also see how well I could structure a blog, having had some experience with my writing blog. I've been writing about bicycles at Tom Kepler Bicycling for six years now. That blog was a joy to write and develop, but what I found was that another website, Crazy Guy on a Bike, is a community of thousands of touring bicyclists from all around the world. It's a pool of readers that I can tap into that isn't accessible with Tom Kepler Bicycling. I began posting to both sites, sometimes the same article. Right now, I still keep up TKB but feel that eventually more writing will be posting at CGOAB just because the site is so lively and interactive.

My most recent blog is Green Goddess Glamping, began with the acquisition of a tiny, "tall," teardrop trailer. Bicycle camping, I found, was an activity I pursued alone. I wanted to share the camping experience with my wife; however, with her business, bicycle touring as not an option. What was an option was a mobile office, our tiny trailer, that allowed us to camp and for my wife to still work. As a consultant, almost all her work is carried out by phone or computer. We focus on campgrounds with good phone signal strength so we can utilize the phone's hotspot for internet.

The interesting marketing connection for GGG is that I belong to three Facebook tiny trailer groups, so I have an instant distribution network for blog posts of around 15,000 members. Posting on this network is not passive, though, because by interacting with member FB posts, I increase my presence and also find subjects for stories that interest the groups' members. For instance, my most-read post on GGG is about tiny trailers and toilets! Of the top five posts in terms of readership, the first four are idea pieces; not until the fifth does one of my narratives of a camping trip make the list, the story about a camping trip to Lake Rathbun in SE Iowa, "A Camping Trip as Sweet as Honey."

I could create more blogs--one about gardening. I've been a dedicated organic gardener for almost forty years. I could have created a blog about education--I am a retired, career educator. I could specialize the subjects of this writing blog--separate the subjects of reading and reviews from writing. However, I feel pretty saturated right now. Enough is enough, and enough is a joy. I don't want that joy to become a burden!

The title of this blog, though, specifies maintaining a blog, not just writing blog posts. Writing about my passions is the main joy of these blogs, but there are other joys, such as selecting blog layout, adding gadgets, learning a little html, and polishing photography and photoshopping techniques. The blogs are platforms that allow active participation in these areas. The blogs are really the "labs" for applying self-taught skills. I was a career educator, but I am a lifelong learner.

Cropping, adding text, adjusting color and exposure, and sizing this photo demonstrates fun skills acquired
Here is a quick list of some of the joys of maintaining a blog:

  • Writing articles about my interests. I'm able to delve deeply into subjects, researching and then organizing my new-found knowledge around concepts that provide meaning for me (and, hopefully, my readers).
  • Actively marketing my writing. Over time, I've learned a few of the basic techniques of marketing, although I have to admit my engagement has been desultory. The bicycling and camping blogs, though, provide me with marketing opportunities and practice in marketing online, even though there is no monetary advantage for me. It's just expanding a circle of readers for the pure fun of it. Good practice, though. I'm learning a lot that I can use with my published writing.
  • Interacting with like-minded individuals regarding my favorite activities. These online interactions, especially with my bicycle and trailer camping pursuits, are really the best internet social interactions I've ever had, just good, innocent sharing and enjoyment of an interest.
  • Designing my blog. I enjoy adding new header photos to my trailer blog. I have a lot of photos, and it's fun to compose the photo with a header in mind (keeping a good space for the title). It's fun to add gadgets so that my top-read articles are displayed on a sidebar. I use a Chromebook app for some simple work with photos and find that a real motivator. The "Stats" diagnostic page for my blog provides me with interesting and useful information. These are just a few of the ways that I enjoy managing my blogs.
  • Finally, the relationship between my blogs and social media platforms is a continuing learning experience, a mystery, and an acquired art--something that I don't truly understand much of the time, but something that I'm learning and becoming better at. Again, especially my trailer camping blog has provided me with insights, both as to the potential and also to the limitations of social networks. So far, I'm just involved with Facebook tiny trailer camping groups and the bicycle touring site Crazy Guy on a Bike. I haven't jumped onto Instagram, for instance, and for Twitter I just have automatic posts for this blog. 
All said, I guess you can just call me an amateur, since the root of that word is love and I'm just doing all this writing for the love of it. I don't need the money (although I wouldn't mind more). I don't need the fame (although I want my writing to be appreciated). I'm not particularly interested in the whirlwind lifestyle that sometimes comes with fame. It would be interesting to hit a few late night talk shows, but that's quite a distance from a quiet campground in a tiny trailer, not to mention from humping down a country road on a touring bicycle!

Following my bliss, 1970
"Following my bliss," though, to reference Joseph Campbell again, is a means of continuing my fiction writing. I have three older short stories that it occurs to me I could publish as a free ebook as a lead for my other writing. I've been doing some short story writing. Maintaining my blogs and regularly writing is an oil on the hinges of a door I want to keep open. I like writing, and if you like reading what I've been writing, just follow the links for more!

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Book Review: The Sky-Blue Wolves by S.M. Stirling

It all started with Dies the Fire, when "the lights went out," or when electricity stopped being useable to mankind. S.M. Stirling's alternative fiction series took off, Earth's population of billions plummeting, a few survivors creating enclaves with unique characteristics, and a new definition of normal arose. Readers of the Change series followed three generations through fifteen novels and one anthology until arriving at The Sky-Blue Wolves, "the final novel of the Change," as is clearly pointed out on the cover.

I've followed the series and have read all its books, including the Island in the Sea of Time trilogy, which is loosely (or indirectly) connected, as the tail-side of a coin is indirectly connected to the head-side. Having read the final novel of the series, the biggest question is whether or not the novel provides closure. A secondary question is whether or not the novel stands on its own.

In order to answer the closure question, the structure of the Change series has to be considered. The first three novels of the series follow the first generation of survivors after the change. Action is centered on the different solutions different communities utilized and how those solutions shaped the personality of those communities. The initial trilogy chronicles the building of a new civilization in the Pacific Northwest and on the interactions (and wars) that occur. New centers of humanity arise and come to conflict, high among them the Mackenzie Clan and the Portland Protective Association, a Wiccan, Earth-magic community in conflict with a medieval, steel-gauntlet society.

The next seven novels center on the second generation, a battle between good and evil, and how the Change was not a one-shot event, that the initial Change "opened a door" that continues to widen into an age of myth, replacing the age of history. Forces are active that have been quiescent; gods once again walk the earth. The conflict extends, including western Canada and Iowa, all points between, yet also including action in the form of a quest that takes the characters through "dead zones" clear to the eastern seaboard and Nantucket Island.

The last five novels of the series follow the third generation. A new conflict has arisen and the new generation must meet it as have their parents and grandparents. Does The Sky-Blue Wolves provide closure to this sweep of Change and the evolution of new societies, where "modern" comes to signify medieval, or at least low-tech?

The short answer is that yes, the novel does provide an ending to the series. A great deal of the series revolved around how civilizations form around the personality of a charismatic leader or around a compelling idea. Stirling in all the novels returns again and again to this idea: that tradition provides continuity, and that the stability of continuity provides a platform for growth. A great deal of this final novel weaves the sweep of time and the significance of the foundations of these new societies into the action of the novel. Because of the novel's structure, at its end, the significant understanding is that the events of the novel fit into a larger pattern that will continue. There's a certain wisdom to that: knowledge of how life will continue is tempered by the sweep of experience of the earlier novels.

With all this "sweep" of fifteen novels, does The Sky-Blue Wolves firmly stand on its own as a story within itself? The first novel of the series, Dies the Fire, ends well, with stability achieved and a sense of how these newly-formed societies will continue. Stirling adds an epilogue to the novel to set up its sequel, but the novel ends well on its last chapter, the characters want to get home and continue on with their new lives. In the final novel, right at the end one of the characters says, "It's an ending, I suppose. And a beginning . . ." The series ends, yet the saga continues in our imagination.

The Sky-Blue Wolves has the challenge of ending the events of fifteen novels yet still having its own ending. It accomplishes that, yet the actual action of the novel has to endure the stifling effects of reiterating events from earlier novels (why a character or place is important) and providing or explaining perspectives to the action that justify the foundational concepts of the entire series. The action is necessarily dampened or truncated by the overriding awareness that this is the final novel. Also, this final novel is shorter than many of the other novels--one of the shorter ones. Whereas the earlier novels relied a great deal of swordplay and battles, this novel remained above the fray most of the time, and the ending battle didn't live up to its build-up. It's as if Stirling had to come up with a comic ending in order to enchant the reader away from the characters and action.

So, yes, the novel ends well, but perhaps it would be more apt to say the series ends well. Perhaps this is the great challenge of all novels that form a series, that latter novels have to use too much dead wood from the former. Perhaps that is why the feeling lingers in the background of the novels of the third generation of the Change that the author has grown tired or run out of new ideas, that the children are less vivid knock-offs of their parents. If I wanted to be harsh, I'd say this series began with a bang and ended with a whimper. However, as someone who has read the entire series, I do feel comfortable at its ending--good has triumphed over evil, life has triumphed over death, and the sky-blue wolves of the Mongols are once more howling down the mythic ends of the earth. To shift to another epic story, Beowulf is in his burial mound, and Wiglaf, a lesser man, carries on, sword in hand. We don't know Wiglaf's story and don't really want to. The real heroes remain the stirring stuff of legend, and the rest of us just get on with our work as best we can.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Have Feet Will Travel


This is a beautiful fall. I am reveling in the brilliant colors of the leaves, and even the muted colors of the rain-filled sky and frost-bleached grasses. And the smells of this season, so rich with memories of the vibrant summer that are transmuted to earthy leaf mulch and wind-driven rain! My greatest joy is not just that the season has arrived; rather, it is that for some reason I am more aware this year of autumn's beauty, more linked to the natural rhythms of the season.

Perhaps it is because I have bought a tiny trailer and am outside more this season, hiking and cooking, sitting by the campfire. My wife and I made the choice to change our environment, to buy the trailer so that we could have a "mobile office" where we could work yet be more outside. Now it is fall, and I am outside more, having packed my outdoor clothes--and glad to have done so! Even the cold knife of the wind is--what is the word?--bracing! The world is alive, and to move out into the natural world is to be reminded of those cosmic rhythms of life. It is easy to forget or ignore these natural rhythms when in a highly controlled environment.

While my wife works her business, I write, and lots of my writing has been about our travel--the earth and sky and waters. I have to report that I think I'm getting better at it, but travel writing isn't as easy as it appears to be at first glance. As a fiction writer, I can say that traveloging is first and last driven by setting, by description of the natural world and the human world one experiences.

I recently posted a travel blog entitled "Fall Leaves and Camping, Please," where my wife and I spent five nights camping. "It's late October, just past the harvest moon, fifty-five degrees, and the trees are in full reds and yellows, the sky blues and grays, and the fire is a quiet companion as I sit and write at my camp at Jefferson County Park, a campground just four miles from my house."

In about a week I will be posting another piece at Green Goddess Glamping, entitled "Two Fall Nights on the Des Moines River," where I write about sharing my camp with rain showers and chainsaw instructors. The campground was carpeted with fall leaves. The river flowed just beyond the door to my tiny trailer. I took long walks along a nature trail and gravel roads. "I walked a mile down Hawk Drive along the Des Moines River, beautiful country with trees with brilliant foliage and stark white trunks mixed with evergreens, framed top and bottom by the cloudy sky and flowing river." I met fifteen young adults, all brandishing chainsaws.


It was a journey worth taking, both for the outer and inner joys of the experience. Just as a cold fall rain is cleansing, so too can the experience of being in a cold fall rain be cleansing. And can there be anything more evocative than young adults happily felling invasive trees so that native species can re-establish themselves. Ah, the smell of sawdust in the early morning air!

I'm leaving tomorrow for Indian Lake for some cold weather camping. I want to learn how to be comfortable when the temperatures are in the 30's to the teens range. I believe it will involve warm clothing and a warm camper. I want to get outside, to enjoy the straightforward intelligence of nature, to live simply, and as I write this, I think I need to find my copy of Thoreau's Walden for reading. Simplify, simplify, simplify!

And I'll keep writing, because while beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that is only a partial truth. Beauty is everywhere, but only inside the beholder if our eyes behold it. I'm going to experience the bracing cold of the fall wind. There's a chance of snow flurries. That should wake me up and keep me moving.


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