How Stories Happen

When my sister was a very young child, one of her nicknames was “Begabine,” which, I believe, evolved from “Bug of Mine,” since “Bug” had been an even earlier nickname. It always sounded like some weird, proper Old English surname to me, and at some point, many, many years ago, I formed an image in my head of a character named “Osgood Begabine.” I didn’t know what to do with him, except that I knew his story would have to contain the sentence “Osgood Begabine was flummoxed.” Why? Because this sentence has popped, unbidden, into my head for at least two decades now. I don’t know why, except to duly note that I was supposed to do something with it.

In 2004, during my “Poem a Day” project, I wrote a short, two-verse poem called “Trepang,” which is a type of sea cucumber, and also the name of a Sturgeon-class attack submarine that was undergoing a refueling overhaul during my final years working in the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. The protagonist of the poem was an old Balinese man named Pak Suhud (“Pak” is an honorific title, like “Master”), who knew the secret ways in which trepang (also known as bicho do mar) could be prepared to bolster male virility. The full text of the poem is available here, along with a couple of other published pieces from the same period. I have always loved the character of Pak Suhud, and felt like I needed to do something else with him.

Prester John

A few years ago, I read a book about European exploration into Asia, which for centuries was often driven by the desire of Europe’s kings and merchants to lay hands on the riches of great Asian empires or cities, including those ruled by Genghis Khan (the historically-verified Mongol Emperor) and Prester John (a fantastical, mythical Christian King, originally believed to live in India, then later in Ethiopia). I was struck, at the time, by the way that those two ancient, unrelated names shared common sounds and structures, lending themselves to doggerel: Genghis Khan and Prester John. I jotted down a couple of lines of poetry as a result, imagining a scenario where the myth and man actually met: “Genghis Khan and Prester John / Did put their swords and armor on . . . ” That fragment would occasionally cycle through my mental jukebox, too, though once again I couldn’t figure out exactly what I might do with it.

About a month ago, I posted a list of ten links to cleaned-up old Upstate Ether/Upstate Wasted scripts under the title “Dix Axiomata De Axon Anon.” I had a casual meaning in mind when I framed that somewhat nonsensical title for the past, but once I saw it on the screen, and let it wander around my head for a while, I realized that it really deserved something better than serving as an archival pointer, and I removed that post altogether. But what to do with it?

Why do I relate these seemingly unrelated facts about the eccentricities of my mental process? Because this, for me, is how stories happen. Somehow, these four disparate, disjointed, homeless mental concepts began to coalesce and take shape, together, in my head over the past month, linkages forming between them, plot points resolving, key phrases turning, me sending e-mails to myself to capture them as they flitted across my consciousness, lest they be lost. I’ve often noted on my various blogs that I write obsessively or compulsively, and this is an example of how that comes to pass: I had to get these things out of my head, and put them on paper. It was no longer optional.

Three nights ago, I started typing. Last night, with some helpful edits from Marcia, after maybe 12 hours of research and writing, I finished the story. (Well, as much as I ever finish anything, since I’m continually polishing things as I revisit them and find errors or awkward constructions). I slept soundly after getting this story to paper, no longer haunted by Osgood Begabine, Pak Suhud, Prester John and the mysterious “Dix Axiomata.” They have found their place in the world. Now it’s time for them to go live in other people’s heads . . . let’s see where they land . . .

Where The Air Is Sweet? Valuing American Public Broadcasting

This is a feature-length piece derived from the research I conducted while earning my Masters of Public Affairs and Policy. While I love the concept of public broadcasting, I think its modern incarnations in the United States are not necessarily true to the vision of the idiom’s founders . . . and not for the ideological reasons often cited by those who perceive public broadcasting to have a political slant or agenda. Clink the link below to open the PDF file and learn where I believe public broadcasting’s true shortcomings lie.


“Wife Spectator” Selections, 2011: Highly Recommended

Impressive in so many ways . . .
beautifully balanced, exotic and elegant, rich and racy.
Well-integrated structure brings vivacity and strength.
Bursting with passion, supple, subtle and distinctive,
she really starts to sing as her accents blend and deepen.

Lots of class and character . . .
fine complexity, great definition and grace,
with resonant energy and something in reserve.
Silky and suave, concentrated and graceful,
striking, beautiful aromas announce a long, long finish.

Her profile changes like a chameleon . . .
Terrific intensity, firm and intense,
brims with personality, a beauty now and over time.
Long and powerful, her charms build and build,
and linger on, with a bright beam of vanilla and pear.

A vibrant structure shows off her richness . . .
a brilliant, tangy core, ripe and intense,
complex, full throttle, lovely, silky textures,
fragrant and lean, with hints of smoke and coffee:
a fine aftertaste shows her ultimate potential.

She offers great clarity and balance . . .
elegant, lingering nicely, with crisp intensity,
lithe, muscular and lively, but not overwhelming,
firm in the mouth, with a juicy core, and velvety,
all in all, in an especially appealing class of her own:

World class . . . world class . . .

Note: I was reading Wine Spectator magazine several years ago and was struck by the sensuousness and romance of the language used to describe many of the wines therein. The poem above is a collage based upon that observation: I pulled evocative words and phrases from a single issue of that magazine, chopped and mixed them into a new blend of words, and then gave the result to Marcia as her annual Valentine’s Day Poem in 2007. I reproduce this poem today on the occasion of our 22nd wedding anniversary. Still world class . . . still world class . . .

Hidden in Suburbia 2011 (Part Six): The Mill

I wrote the following poem, which is titled “The Mill,” on May 4, 2004:

The old mill burned down last night.
You could see the flames from far across town.
It was really quite an awesome sight.
The firemen were helpless, just standing ’round,
while that eyesore burned down.

Built in eighteen ninety four,
they made shirt collars and fancy pressed cuffs there.
It had survived countless floods and storms,
but last night it disappeared into the air,
with not a timber spared.

The mill had been closed for years.
Fashions changed, starched collars became obsolete,
one by one all the jobs disappeared.
By the late ’40s, the shutdown was complete,
and they blocked off Mill Street.

But folks wouldn’t stay away.
It became a place where hoboes crashed and drank,
sometimes dying there, old, spent and gray,
in death, as in life, lying there, foul and rank.
The old mill really stank.

Then, later, the railroad closed.
The boxcars no longer rumbled through with freight,
stranding all of the local hoboes,
who were rounded up and bussed out of state,
without public debate.

Teenagers found the mill next,
swarming toward it like waves of horny bugs.
Teachers and parents alike were vexed
as we went down there to make-out or buy drugs
from unsavory thugs.

Yes, I went down there a lot.
I was there yesterday, as it comes to pass.
Terre had scored some really fine pot.
We held hands and giggled as we smoked her grass,
then doused the mill with gas.

This was a completely fictional character study (of both a building and a boy), but it has gained a new resonance for me, based on this week’s Hidden in Suburbia adventures.

A few nights ago, I set out on Trusty Steed, planning to explore and photograph an area around an active cement plant and its quarry. Unfortunately, before I could even get the camera out, I was spotted by some of the plant’s employees, so I quickly pedaled on, looking for a new adventure, away from prying, police-calling eyes. I decided to ride up to a new housing development that sits mostly atop what used to be one of the better backwoods biking plots in my area, trying to see if I could locate any of the old trail heads behind the development.

With a little bit of poking around, I found a solid trail that dropped steeply down the slope, through the woods, toward the industrial areas I’d photographed a couple of weeks ago in Part Four of this series. It was a good riding trail and I was able to work up a decent amount of speed as I rumbled down the hill. As the slope began to level off, there was a sharp turn to the left, which I successfully navigated . . . only to find myself pretty much smack in the middle of what appeared to be a large, active, multi-person camp in the woods.

The one thing I don’t ever, ever, ever like to find in my suburban woods explorations is other people, since odds are that any other humans (especially adult humans) that I encounter in the woods are not likely to be taking photographs, nor are they likely to want to have their photographs taken. So without missing a stroke, I pedaled through the camp, put some distance between me and whoever was in the vast network of tarp tents in the clearing, and powered down the hill to the point where the trail disgorged into a particularly swampy stretch of abandoned dirt road that I’d ridden and photographed last month.

The reeds in the abandoned road had grown taller than me since I was last there, so there was no way I was riding through them. I shouldered the bike and started pushing my way forward through them, knowing I had maybe 200 yards to advance before the muck and reeds gave way to a paved road in front of an old mill building.

I couldn’t really see much in front of me due to the tall reeds, but I did hear noises from up near the mill, and as I got closer to the pavement, I could see some trucks and other vehicles in the road. Now, normally, I would have turned and gone another direction, but given the choice of surprising whoever was living in the tarps in the woods, or surprising whoever was in the trucks in front of the mill, I decided that the latter group was the safer bet.

When I cleared the reeds, I put my bike down and walked it toward the trucks. When I passed the first truck and had a clear view of the area, two things surprised me: (1) most of the vehicles were Town police and fire vehicles, with policemen and firemen in them, and (2) the mill was gone, with a pile of burnt rubble on a slab where it used to stand.

Oh boy . . . here I was walking a bike, coming out of the woods (likely private property), strolling right into a crime scene (had I come at it from the road over the railroad tracks where people were supposed to be, I’d have seen the yellow tape barrier), looking, no doubt, like a perpetrator returning to admire the scene of his crime, especially since I had photos of this very mill, before the fire, saved on the camera in my backpack!

I decided that confident obliviousness would be the best approach to defusing the situation, so I approached the nearest fireman and asked what had happened, made appropriate clucking and “oh, that’s a shame” noises, then slowly, casually, saddled up and went on my way, as though nothing was wrong. I then rode back home via an odd route involving lots of turns, looking over my shoulder at each intersection to see if the police were following me. Twice, when I looked back, I actually saw patrol cars . . .

So I must admit that I experienced a deep sense of personal relief after a quick Google search revealed that three teenagers had already been arrested for burning the mill to the ground. They used a bottle of gasoline with a rag wick in it. Two responding firefighters were injured as a result of their actions.

Once my sense of relief passed, it was replaced with a feeling of sadness, both for the building, and for the boys who burned it. I suspect they acted with the same degree of unthinking nonchalance and lack of concern for consequences that the protagonist of my poem did. There was probably a girl to impress in the story, somehow. That’s a pretty endemic mental state for adolescent boys, and it’s never a good thing when you inject fire into that hormone-addled mindset.

I wish these boys had shared my adult respect for these old buildings as objects to admire from outside, rather than as things to actively enter, violate, and destroy. Nature will do that eventually, so there’s no need for us to hurry that natural process along. This senseless act of destructive acceleration is going to have life-altering consequences for the perpetrators, though hopefully they’ll learn the lessons they need to learn, be given the chance to make some serious acts of restitution, and be able to move on with their lives.

Likewise, here’s hoping that the injured firefighters recover quickly and fully. Bless them for their work.

Last night, I went back to the mill, this time approaching it via public roadways. The firetrucks were gone, and an amazing amount of progress had been made in clearing away the debris. I got close enough to snap a few photos, then turned to head back out via the only paved access point. As I saddled my bike, though, I felt a heavy rumbling in the ground, and looked up to see a fast-moving freight train approaching me from the south.

When the train reached the at-grade crossing, I was essentially trapped on that short strip of pavement in front of the fallen mill, with the tent-dwelling woods people and a quarter-mile of muck blocking the only other escape route. It was kind of a creepy feeling, since it represented the sort of improbable combination of unrelated factors that script-writers use to build suspense in horror movies. I was glad to wave goodbye to the train and head back up the hill to home once it had passed.

You can see the before and after photos of the mill by clicking on the photo below, which will take you to the annotated version of this week’s Hidden in Suburbia installment. (It’s a short one, since I didn’t care to snap the compound in the woods). Or, as always, you can just view the slideshow by clicking here.

Trapped by a train . . . with CHUDS in the woods . . .

To see other Hidden in Suburbia photo essays, click here.


How to Get a Grant

Or a donation, or a sponsorship, or a gift, or whatever. The principles are the same.

First and foremost: to get a grant, you’ve got to ask for a grant, in the most direct terms possible. As they say in the trade: you can’t get the gift if you don’t make the ask. But it’s amazing how many worthy organizations drop the ball with this seemingly straight-forward point, holding endless cultivation meetings, spreading the word about their good cause, hoping that an angel (or Santa Claus) will be moved to donate — without ever actually asking anybody directly for some money.

Ideally when you do get to the point of requesting money, you want to do it face to face, and peer to peer. If you’re soliciting a corporate CEO, you need to find another corporate CEO to ask on your behalf, preferably someone who is so knowledgeable about your cause that they can ask seamlessly, as if they themselves were the cause. And if you can’t find a corporate CEO to believe so deeply in your cause, then you might want to do some serious self-assessment about just how good your cause really is.

It helps to ask for a specific amount, too, and an ambitious “stretch” amount is always a good idea. Open-ended “whatever you can do” appeals will always result in smaller donations, because donors won’t push themselves as hard or as far as you can push them. You’ve also got to do your research before you make the ask, knowing what an individual or organization can give (sometimes with creative financing options of which they might not even be aware), knowing whether they support causes like yours, knowing whether they support organizations like yours, knowing whether they give in your geographic region.

Many foundations and businesses won’t fund individuals, so if you’re serious about your cause, you need to take appropriate legal actions to establish an organization in its behalf, in accordance with applicable state and federal tax guidelines. It’ll seem like a lot of work, sure, but it will provide a degree of legitimacy that will open an amazing number of doors, doors that you need to have opened. You need to understand who holds the keys to those doors, too, and recognize that sometimes it may not exactly be the person who the organization chart would indicate.

I received a corporate sponsorship once for no other reason than because I had a great relationship with a member of the Vice President’s clerical pool from having helped her daughter get an internship. She went to bat for me. We got the gift. And those kinds of relationships are priceless, although people often react with horror at the thought of asking friends or close associates for money, or asking them to ask others for money. But if you can’t bring yourself to ask someone who knows you, and knows how important your cause is to you, then how will you ever get to the comfort point of asking for the kindness of strangers?

And when I say ask, I mean ask. Don’t beg. Don’t go into a solicitation with your bowl in your hands, looking for alms. Your program must have value, or you wouldn’t be so invested in it, would you? To be successful, a grant must be a partnership, benefiting both parties. And people respond to success more than they respond to need. So have a plan. Know your outcomes. Know how your community will become a better place if you get your grant. Communicate that fact to the donor, and make her or him a party to that success. People want their money to make a difference. Have the vision to show donors how it will.

Oh, and then, finally, there’s that thing they call the grant application. Some are easy. Some are complicated. But in either case, you can write the best application in the world (and you should do that, of course, following all of the application’s instructions to the absolute letter), but if your proposal comes from a stranger, to a stranger, for a strange cause, you’re not going to get anything for all your hard work. My favorite grant was a $25,000 foundation gift that I received in response to a half-page letter, which took me 10 minutes to write. But it was the months of personal contact that preceded the application that made all the difference.

And it will for you too — sometimes. But be prepared: a successful grant writer gets a gift about as often as a successful baseball player gets a hit. You need multiple prospects for every ask, and can’t get frustrated by rejections. It’s a tough business, but if you believe in your cause wholly, others will too. And they’ll prove it with their money.

Hidden in Suburbia 2011 (Part Five): Locks

In Part Four of this year’s Hidden in Suburbia report (linked below), I visited some crumbling industrial facilities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For this week’s Part Five installment, I go further back in time to visit some of the many, many crumbling locks and dams of the old Erie and Champlain Canal systems, which run throughout my little patch of suburbia.

When I was working at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), I used to take students across the river to look at some of these locks. The canals serviced by the locks were considered to be among the greatest industrial achievements of their day, playing a key role in the opening of the American West to exploration, settlement, and commerce. Now they are dry, overgrown, and crumbling, with homes, businesses and woods pressing up against them on all sides, leaving them as slowly healing scars that cut incongruously across the suburban landscape.

Sure, it’s great to dream of changing the world, but it’s also important to have a sense of where the next great “killer app” stands in the grand, long-term scheme of things. In the end, nature always wins . . .

As always, click on the photo below to read the annotated report, or click here for the wordless slide show.

Our region’s greatest natural wonder. Keep out.

To see other Hidden in Suburbia photo essays, click here.