Tag Archives: D.B. Jackson

Monday Musings: Me And My Guitar…

Me and my guitar,
Always in the same mood;
I am mostly flesh and bones,
And he is mostly wood.
Never does grow impatient
For the changes I don’t know, no;
If he can’t go to heaven,
Maybe I don’t want to go, no…
— James Taylor

As many of you know, I am a musician. I am an amateur, to be sure, and not as proficient or dedicated as I was in my younger days, but I’m still enthusiastic about my music and deeply attached to my guitars.

What’s the difference between now and my youth? Why was I “more proficient and dedicated” then? Well, in part, back then music was something I did instead of course work. It was a welcome distraction, a great way to procrastinate, and one of my favorite things to do when high. (Hey, you asked….) These days, I have other distractions and I am far more devoted to my writing than I ever was to school work.

Free Samples flyerMore to the point, though, back in the day, I used to perform regularly. Along with my dear, dear friends Alan Goldberg and Amy Halliday, I was in a band called Free Samples. Three voices, two guitars. Acoustic rock — CSN, Beatles, Paul Simon/Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell, Pousette-Dart, etc. We performed several times a semester, usually at the campus coffee house, but also at special events during which we shared the evening with other acoustic bands.

I loved performing. Even more, I loved rehearsing and preparing for gigs with Alan and Amy. Making music with the two of them defined my years at Brown. I enjoyed my college years (mostly) and made many of my most enduring friendships in those years. I learned a lot, did well academically, grew up (some — I still had plenty of growing up to do post-college). But my fondest memories, my happiest moments, revolved around Free Samples.

After college, we three went in different directions. Alan and Amy were both in the D.C. area for a short while, and while there they continued to perform together on a regular basis. I remained in Providence and performed there a few times before starting graduate school out in California. I performed once or twice in the Bay Area, but my studies consumed most of my time. And then I met Nancy, and life took me in other directions. Amy continues to sing with a church group. And Alan has become a regular performer in the Albany, New York area as the leader of a band called Innocent Bystanders. He has made himself into an incredibly accomplished musician and performer.

Me? I have played regularly over the intervening years, but pretty much only for myself and my family. Aside from a fun and memorable guest appearance with Alan and his band one night some eight or so years ago, I haven’t performed publicly in a long, long time.

Why am I sharing all of this with you now?

Next week, I will be out in Oregon visiting another couple of dear friends from college — mutual friends of Alan and mine. Alan will be there as well, and over the weekend we will be performing music. Alan’s younger son, Dan, a terrific keyboard player and singer, will be joining us. This will be, as I said, my first public performance in years, and only my second since, well, the early 1990s.

Nervous? Why, yes. Yes, I am.

Alan and DavidAs I made clear earlier, I am not the player or singer I used to be, mostly because I don’t work at it as I once did. And so I’m afraid I’ll sound bad. Alan and Dan have played together a lot over the past several years, including live performances and online concerts they gave during the pandemic. They sound great as a twosome and I don’t want to ruin that. They have terrific on-stage rapport, just as Alan and I did back when we were young. I don’t want to get in the way of that, either. And I have overwhelmingly positive memories of my performing days. I don’t want to sully those recollections with a performance now that is subpar. I don’t want to embarrass myself.

Put another way, I can think of a hundred reasons why this might be a bad idea.

At the same time, though, I’m also excited about the possibilities. Audiences, as Alan has reminded me again and again when I express my doubts to him, tend to be kind, generous, and forgiving. They aren’t there to point and laugh and denigrate. They’re there to have fun, to enjoy good music, to sing along. They don’t care about the occasional botched lyric or missed chord. Neither do Alan and Dan. The insecurities are all in my head, rooted in my own self-doubt. So the moment I get beyond them, I will be free to savor the experience, to bask in the musical camaraderie, to rediscover something that once meant the world to me, something I have missed terribly for all these years.

I’m trying my hardest to build my anticipation around that vision, that outcome. Because if all goes well, this could be a magical event.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: Forlorn On The Fourth Of July

We have a fun July 4th celebration in our little town. It’s a university town, and a somewhat affluent one at that, especially when compared with the surrounding communities. And so we attract a lot of visitors. There are games for kids, a fun, somewhat tongue-in-cheek dog show, a parade, lots of food stands, a crafts fair, and, in the evening, a surprisingly good fireworks display over one of the local lakes.

Erin face paintAlex face paintOur girls LOVED Sewanee Fourth of July when they were young. We would give them a bit of cash, help them meet up with friends, and then pretty much say goodbye to them for the day. It’s a small, safe, friendly town, and we never worried about them. They always found us eventually, sunburned and sweaty, their faces covered in face-paint, their pockets stuffed with candy that was thrown to kids by the parade participants. We’d go home, have a nap and some dinner, not that any of us was very hungry, and then, after covering ourselves with bug spray, would make our way to the fireworks venue.

Fond memories.

Nancy and I have been doing July 4th on our own for many years now, since we became empty-nesters. It’s easier in a way, though a bit less fun. The magic of the day has dissipated with the years. We still enjoy seeing people, and we can usually find something good to eat. These days, we tend to stop by a couple of the parties that take place along the parade route, and, once the parade is done, we head home. Some years we go to see the fireworks, some years we don’t.

I will admit that this year my heart isn’t in it. Not the way it used to be. Part of that is personal — those fond memories have thorns these days.

But more than that, I feel less inclined to celebrate America than I used to. I have long found the equating of conservatism with patriotism offensive. I was brought up by liberals, and I raised my kids as a committed progressive. The terminology changed, but the love of country has never wavered. I have a Ph.D. in U.S. history, and while it is impossible to dive into the depths of our nation’s past without seeing its many flaws, it is also impossible to do so without gaining a healthy appreciation for qualities in our national story that are worthy of admiration. Resolve and resilience, boundless ambition and a commitment to human dignity that is often myopic and even hypocritical but also naïvely sincere. Ours is an imperfect but charmingly idealistic vision of government, an experiment in democratic republicanism that has yet to fulfill the dreams of its Founders, but which continues to strive for realization.

All of which makes our current state of political affairs so terrifying. The aforementioned experiment is at risk. If the Presidential election were held today, we would likely elect a man who has shown no compunction at all about placing his personal hunger for power above the national good, a man who has shown utter disregard for the centuries-old norms of our governing system, a man who has been convicted of 34 felonies and accused of dozens more, a man who literally lies about everything, who has made grievance and greed and graft synonymous with his personal brand, and who has declared without shame that he intends to begin his next term in the White House — a sequel to his disastrous, chaotic, hate-filled first term — with a one-day dictatorship. As if this paragon of gluttony will be able to stop after a single day.

Is our incumbent old? Yes. Do his communications skills leave much to be desired? Absolutely. This is why your Democratic friends and neighbors haven’t slept or eaten in days and have the look of caffeine addicts whose coffee machine is on the fritz. But Joseph Biden has been a remarkably effective President when it comes to passing bipartisan legislation. He has overseen an economic recovery that includes the creation of fifteen million new jobs. To be sure, inflation went up on his watch, spurred by supply-chain disruptions that began during the Covid recession of 2020 and worldwide economic dislocations caused by the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. But it has come down steadily since its 2022 peak and is now below 3% annually.

Most of all, though, the President is a decent, honest man, who honors and upholds our nation’s political ideals. He poses no threat to our republic. On the contrary, he is committed to saving our heating planet, improving the lives of those who face discrimination and economic injustice, and restoring a national right to women’s health care access. He has spent his life fighting for social equality. Is he a step slower now? A bit more muddled in his speech? A bit more frail and forgetful? Yes, yes, and yes. But on his worst day, he is better than the lying felon running against him.

I hope desperately that the American people will realize this before it’s too late. I fear they won’t.

I hope your July Fourth is fun and fulfilling.

Monday Musings: Very Special Tattoos

While our older daughter, Alex, was sick with cancer, she continued to live her life with passion and exuberance, in defiance of the disease, the treatments, the fear, the injustice of a cruel and arbitrary illness. She traveled, she spent time with friends, she treated herself to new clothes, she went to concerts and restaurants and parties, she worked out. And she challenged herself to do new things.

Early on, soon after her diagnosis, a dear friend gave her a lovely bouquet of wildflowers that she kept in a vase in her apartment. Eventually, of course, the flowers faded and then dried, but they never lost their delicate beauty, and they continued to mean the world to her. She kept them in the same vase, refusing to get rid of them. I think in some way they became a talisman for her. As long as those fragile blooms remained intact, she would be all right.

Somewhere along the way, as her battle went on, Alex decided she wanted to have the image of those blooms tattooed on her arm. She turned to a friend from NYU who had become an accomplished tattoo artist. This friend, Ally Zhou, specializes in fine line work, and was the ideal person to render the precise details of the dried bouquet. The result was a gorgeous tattoo that Alex bore proudly for the rest of her too-short life.

After Alex’s death, Nancy, Erin, and I decided that we wanted to honor Alex by getting tattoos from Ally as well. Ally had already designed a couple for Alex’s friends: a copy of Alex’s nickname signature — “ABC” — and a small image of lemons, which had a special meaning for Alex during her illness — like Beyoncé, life had dealt her lemons and she was determined to make lemonade.

Last week, the three of us were in New York for the wedding of my nephew and niece-in-law (I know that’s not a thing, but it really, really ought to be . . .). A couple of days after the wedding, we went down to Brooklyn for a day, to the studio collective where Ally works. It’s called Macondo, and it’s a very cool place. We had contacted Ally ahead of time, and they set aside much of the afternoon for the three of us.

I should say here that while Alex and Erin had long talked about getting tattoos, Nancy and I never have. If not for Alex and her ordeal, we never would have even considered doing this. But now it felt like an imperative, something we all needed to do. And so Nancy got a set of blooms based on Alex’s bouquet, and added to it a small butterfly that she (Nancy) drew, and a small version of Alex’s “ABC.” Erin added Nancy’s butterfly to the “ABC” she’d gotten at Alex’s memorial in NYC back in October. And I got the “ABC” and the lemons.

I know there are many of you reading this for whom a small tattoo is no big deal. You have sleeves or extensive back pieces or whatever. I think that’s great. But as I say, this was something Nancy and I had never intended to do. It felt momentous, like a ritual of sorts, a way of alchemizing our grief into something physical and shared and public, something that links us to one another and to Alex. I love my new tattoo, for what it means as well as for how it looks.

Did it hurt? Well, yeah, a little. Tattoo artists use needles, you know. While lying on the table, I gained a healthy respect for those I mentioned earlier who have extensive art all over their bodies. I’m not sure I could do that. But Ally has a light hand and a wonderfully gentle and supportive manner. It was a good experience for all of us.

Our darling girl is gone. Nothing can bring her back. But, strange as it seems, I feel a bit closer to her now. To my mind, our tattoos are yet another affirmation of our family connection, which transcends all.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: Introducing the Toothbrush Principle

We have a Sonicare toothbrush — one of those rechargeable ones that vibrates, like, a trillion times per second and essentially buzzes plaque and tartar into submission. (That might not be exactly the science behind the technology, but that is certainly what it feels like.) The toothbrush has a built-in timer that changes the tone of the buzz every thirty seconds, to let us know it’s time to abuse a different part of our mouths (top front, top back, bottom front, bottom back, or whatever) and so we generally brush for about two minutes every morning and every evening. (Stick with me; there is a point to this.)

If we do the math, two times a day at two minutes per brushing comes to twenty-eight minutes per week, or 1,460 minutes of brushing per year. That’s twenty-four hours and twenty minutes. So, put another way, each year, we spend the equivalent of one entire day brushing our teeth. We can do calculations like this for all sorts of things. I do a workout each weekday morning before I take my morning walk. That workout lasts about forty minutes and I do it five days a week (except for when I’m traveling). So, that’s 200 minutes a week for, let’s say, forty-five weeks out of the year. That means I spend the equivalent of slightly more than six full days a year working out, just so that I can eat a bowl of ice cream at the end of the day and not feel too guilty about it.

But for the purposes of this post, let’s stick with the toothbrushing example. Assuming, of course, that you’re still reading. Certainly by now you’re wondering what the hell this is about.

Allow me to explain.

Speaking with beginning writers at conventions (as I did at ConCarolinas a week or so ago) I often hear that they are ready to start work on a novel, but they worry about carving out time in their already-busy lives for a big project. Such an endeavor feels overwhelming, frightening, impossible.

The Loyalist Witch, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)And in part, this is the fault of professionals like me, who talk about our work habits and, perhaps, create unrealistic expectations that writers with less experience then apply to themselves. I write full time. I demand of myself that I write 2,000 words per day. I am asked often how long it takes me to write a book, and the honest answer is that it takes me about three months, which is pretty quick, I know. Writers who are at the outsets of their careers should not necessarily expect to do the same.

Because I didn’t always write this fast. For the first ten years of my career, I was pleased to complete a book a year. And that pace is much easier to maintain than you might think. Let’s do a bit more math.

The Chalice War: Sword, by David B. CoeWe’ll begin with the assumption that the book we’re writing will come in at around 100,000 words, which is the approximate length of most of the Thieftaker books, the Chalice War books, and the Fearsson books. Epic fantasies tend to be somewhat longer; YAs tend to be shorter. But 100K is a good middle ground.

Let’s assume as well that at most we can afford to devote an hour a day to writing. And in that hour, we can only expect to write one page — about 250 words. That pace may sound way too slow, and you may be saying to yourself that at that rate we’ll be writing forever.

Well, no. At that pace, even allowing for missed days along the way, we can be finished with our 100,000 word novel in a little over 13 months. If we can up our production to five hundred words a day just on weekends, we can be done in closer to eleven months, under a year.

Feeling more ambitious? Say we can write for ninety minutes each weekday, and can manage to average 500 words a day, while taking our weekends off to recharge. Well, now we’re writing 2,500 words per week, and that novel will be done in less than nine months. Willing to write on weekends, too? Now we’re down to seven months.

I can go on, but by now you get the idea. Applying the toothbrush principle — which says simply that small efforts on a daily basis add up quickly — we can transform the very idea of writing a novel from something daunting — a challenge that feels too huge to tackle — into something manageable, doable.

Now, to be clear, I am not suggesting that anyone exchange brushing their teeth for writing. The day is long enough to get both done. And four out of five dentists surveyed tell us that the world will be a better, fresher place if we all continue to brush our teeth . . . .

Have a great week!

Monday Musings: A Wonderful Return To Convention-ing

I spent this past weekend at ConCarolinas in Charlotte, reconnecting with fans, colleagues, and friends. And it was great.

The last con I attended was DragonCon at the end of August/beginning of September 2023, before the fall and all that came with it. Since that time, I have largely avoided crowds of people and interactions with even some close friends. I shied away from personal contact with pretty much everyone. It has just been too hard.

And so resolving to attend this con was a big deal for me. I put it on my professional calendar early in the year, committed to it, both internally and publicly. Honestly, I wasn’t sure it was something I wanted to do, but I knew it was something I should do.

All of which made this past weekend such a wonderful and surprising pleasure. Yes, I sold a good number of books — it was one of my best ConCarolinas ever in that regard. But more than that, it simply was wonderful to see people, to talk about writing and publishing, to laugh with friends who have been absent from my life for far too long.

Throughout the weekend, I was touched by the number of people who wanted to offer condolences, words of comfort, hugs of support. I was grateful again and again for the expressions of sympathy, and then for the efforts made by people around me to treat me as they always have — with affection and kindness, but also with irreverence and snark. A weekend that I feared would be awkward and challenging turned out to be fun and refreshingly natural.

It was, in short, exactly the convention I needed and wanted it to be. I have a great many people to thank for that, and I am not going to try to name them here. It’s not that they don’t deserve to be mentioned and thanked individually. They really, really do. But I am destined to forget someone important, and thus do more damage than good with such a list. Suffice it to say that if we shared a moment (or more) during the weekend — if we had a meal together, or a drink, or a panel, or a conversation; if you stopped by my book table to peruse my offerings or buy something or ask me a question about writing; if you had a role in making the convention such a great success (despite broken escalators and hobbled elevators and malfunctioning thermostats) — I am deeply grateful to you. Thank you.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: Contemplating Marriage At Thirty-Three Years

Thirty-three years ago, on Memorial Day Weekend in 1991, Nancy and I were married. We were living in California at the time, doing our graduate work at Stanford, which is where we met. We had a wonderful weekend, which included not just the wedding itself — in the Rodin Sculpture Garden in front of the Stanford Art Museum (now called the Cantor Arts Center) — and our reception at a restaurant called the Velvet Turtle, but also a Saturday softball game for all our guests, and several really nice lunches and dinners. To this day, I don’t know that I have ever felt more loved than I (we) did that weekend. It was glorious.

Wedding Day Photo 1We had lived together for two years before our wedding, and we were both in our late twenties. We had known almost from the day we started dating that we would spend the rest of our lives together, and by the time that weekend rolled around, we felt ready for the responsibilities and challenges of marriage. And we were. And still, we had no idea.

Life events come in flurries. I remember that year, ours was just one of many weddings we attended. Suddenly, it seemed like everyone we knew was getting married. A few years later, a bunch of our friends started having kids, and pretty soon we ourselves were shopping for a crib and changing table. Skip ahead to today, and we seem to be in a new phase in which many of our friends’ kids and (at least on my side of the family) several relatives are getting married. We have already been to one wedding this year, and we have three more to attend between now and summer’s end. Which is great. The first wedding weekend was loads of fun and I have every reason to expect the others will be as well.

I have no doubt that all four couples feel ready to make their commitment. They understand that marriage brings responsibilities and challenges. And they have no idea.

Wedding Day Photo 2
In front of Rodin’s “Gates of Hell.”

By any measure, Nancy and I have had a successful marriage. We’ve stayed together through tough times. We have remained true to each other. We are best friends and we are also still very much in love. We have raised two brilliant, reasonably happy, independent, beautiful children. We have pursued careers that we love, and each of us has enjoyed a good deal of success. We have supported each other through disappointments and setbacks, losses and tragedies. And we have shared countless marvelous experiences, things that we both will remember for the rest of our lives.

We have no cause for complaint.

And yet, with all of that going for us, I can also state without any doubt that we have both been through times of deep frustration with each other and with the circumstances of our life together. We have fought. We have gotten fed up. We have weathered periods of difficulty that could have torn us apart.

Some time back — more than ten years now — a couple with whom we spent a good deal of our social time told us they were splitting up. We were utterly gobsmacked. These were people we saw socially on a weekly basis. We celebrated holidays and birthdays with them. They were our closest friends here in our little town. Yet, we’d had no idea that they were having troubles. And I think that reveals something fundamental about the work involved in keeping a marriage going. So much of the effort takes place out of sight, unseen by anyone other than our partner. We don’t want our kids to see it. We don’t want to put on awkward displays in front of our colleagues or friends or families. We do the work in private, make our sacrifices without anyone other than our spouse knowing.

Nancy provost installationThe clichés are true. Of course marriage is about love, about passion, and — even more — about friendship. But it is also about compromise, about joining two lives and finding the balance necessary to make certain that each of those lives feels complete and fulfilling, even as together we build a third life that belongs to both of us. It is a complicated undertaking. And while love and passion are great, there are times when they feel elusive. The kids are sick and you both have work deadlines and the shopping needs to get done. Or one job is more demanding than usual and it’s all you both can do just to get one kid to soccer practice and the other to ballet while also taking care of dinner and arranging the babysitter for the Friday event in town. Work, balance, compromise, sacrifice — sometimes, it feels like that’s all there is. Those early days of the romance, when everything was laughter and love and sex and adventure, seem so very, very distant.

And yet those golden elements of marriage do come around again, if we’re patient, and if we keep making the effort.

So, what advice would I offer to those who are marrying now?

1. Remember to laugh and play. Nancy and I laugh and joke all the time, and we have managed to do this through almost every phase of our marriage. Our shared sense of humor is probably the single most important element of our partnership.

Our family in Monteverde, Costa Rica, November 2011.2. Have faith. I’m not talking about religious faith here (though if that’s your thing, great). I mean faith in each other and in what you share. That belief in the fundamental power of our bond has gotten us past some really hard times. The love might not always be palpable, but we KNOW it’s there, and that certainty gets us through.

3. Honor the work. I believe people cheat because when things grow difficult, they convince themselves that being with someone else will bring back all the fun of the early days without any of the problems. That’s folly. Every relationship takes work. Every relationship goes through rough patches. The work we do builds on itself. Nancy and my marriage is stronger now for all that we’ve put into it over thirty-three years. Why on earth would I want to start over when my best friend and the love of my life is right here?

I wish you love and laughter. Have a great week.

David and Nancy
(Photo by Cat Sparks)

Monday Musings: “What’s Next?” Well, How About Some Big News?

“When I ask ‘What’s Next?’ it means I’m ready to move on to other things. So, what’s next?” — Jed Barlet, THE WEST WING

Yeah, I will seek out almost any excuse to quote from The West Wing, it being my favorite television series of all time. But as it happens, this is a question that’s been on my mind for a while now. In the show, “What’s next?” was more than a change of topic or a jump to the next agenda item. It was also used to turn the page after a setback, to refocus the staff after a triumph, even to look for a new beginning after tragedy.

As is the case with so much that happens in the course of the show’s seven seasons, the quote has long had great significance for me, and this is especially true now.

I know better than to think I can “turn the page” or “move on” from the past year. And even if I could, I’m not certain I would. But I am ready to restart my life, to venture back out into the professional and personal world, to find a new routine that makes room for all the emotional complexity of the new reality my family and I face.

In some ways, I have already started this process. I finished a book a few weeks ago, one I started back in January. It was sort of a work-for-hire, tie-in book, but it was fun to write. The plotting and character work proved absorbing, and because I started it later than I intended, the deadline kept me focused, motivated, and, yes, just a little manic. If it seems like I am avoiding telling you anything specific about the book itself, that’s because I am. Sorry. For now, I can’t really talk about it. When I can, you will all be among the first to know.

I have also written a novella for a new shared-world anthology that will be released this summer by Zombies Need Brains. And, as some of you have seen, I am again accepting clients for my freelance editing business. At the end of this month, I will attend ConCarolinas, my first convention since DragonCon last September. Baby steps. But steps forward, which is the point.

Today, I can also share some news about What’s Next that I think will please a good many of you.

First a little background.

Many of you will have seen my blog post about the trip Nancy and I recently took to Italy. If you haven’t, you should check it out. For the photos, if nothing else. While we were in Venice, I fell in love with the city’s narrow lanes, ancient bridges, and gorgeous architecture. It is, visually speaking, the loveliest city I’ve ever seen. And there are no cars — all travel within the city is by boat, by foot, or by bicycle. Walking the streets was like a journey back in time.

Street sign in Venice: "Rio Terra Dei Assassini"
Street sign in Venice: “Rio Terra Dei Assassini,” which means, basically, “Street-That-Used-To-Be-A-Canal Of The Murderers.”

We took tours of the Doge’s Palace and Saint Mark’s Basilica (both were spectacular), and one of our tour guides mentioned that while Venice is a very safe city today, once upon a time it was anything but. And as proof of this, she said, we should pay attention to some of the street names. “Street of the Dead,” “Lane of the Murderers,” “Street of the Head” (that’s not a typo), and more.

And, of course, this set my writer brain in motion. One thing led to another, and I can tell you now that I am beginning work on a new Thieftaker universe series set in 18th century Venice. I don’t know yet if it will be a spin-off or will feature Ethan throughout. I don’t even know how I am going to get Ethan to Venice, though I have some ideas about that. But I have already commenced my research for the books and I am totally jazzed. One publisher has already expressed interest in seeing a series proposal, so that’s good as well.

Thieftaker, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)What about the rest of my life? What’s next in other realms?

Well, we’re about to start doing some work on the house — I won’t say it’s overdue, but it comes at a good time. We have more travel planned for later in the year and several weddings to attend this summer and fall. We’ll see Erin. We’ll see other family and many friends. I’ll be at DragonCon late this summer. And we’ll continue to heal, even as we also look for ways to honor Alex’s memory and celebrate her life.

I look forward to crossing paths with many of you in the months to come. We have some catching up to do.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: For One Night, Magic and Light Beat Out Doom and Gloom

Forty-one years ago, after an emotionally difficult sophomore year in college, I took a job as a camp counselor at a sleep away camp in rural Pennsylvania. I didn’t want to go home, and I didn’t want to stay in Providence, and I thought a summer of working and living and playing with kids would be good for me. It was, mostly. But that’s not what this post is about.

All the counselors at the camp had two essential duties. First, they were bunk counselors, living with and taking care of kids in a given age group. I was assigned to a bunk of twelve-year-old boys, who, I learned, straddle the line between “kid” and “teen,” ping-ponging from angelic to demonic and back again with breathtaking agility. And second, counselors had a specialty that they taught throughout the summer. I was an avid birdwatcher and nature enthusiast even then, so I was the nature counselor. As it happens, my fellow bunk counselor and I were both named David. He had been at the camp for several years, so he was “Old Dave” and I was “New Dave.” And my colleague in the outdoor program was also named David, so he and I were “Camping Dave” and “Nature Dave.” (It didn’t seem to bother anyone — well, except me — that I didn’t like being called “Dave” then any more than I do now.)

Near the end of the summer, Camping Dave and I organized a sleep-out for any kid or counselor who cared to join us, so that we could watch the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower. Our plan was to have the kids sleep out on the huge soccer/baseball field, cook s’mores, watch shooting stars, and stay up past their usual bedtimes. Sounds great, right?

Except things didn’t go according to plan.

They went far, far better than we hoped.

Because that night there was a northern lights display that lit up the night sky up and down the eastern part of the United States. My brother was camping in Vermont that same night, and he saw it too. The kids thought it was very cool, though I don’t think they understood how special it was to see what they were seeing. A few were disappointed that the weird, curtains of light in the sky made it impossible to see shooting stars.

Dave and I, and the other counselors who were with us, were thrilled. Most of us had never seen the northern lights before. The glow in the sky was mostly green that night, at least it appeared so from where we were, and it danced and flickered and shimmered for hours before fading well after midnight. To this day, my memories of that night remain vivid and joyful. Before this past Friday night, it was the only time in my life when I saw the aurora borealis.

Aurora Borealis, May 10, 2024, photo by David B. Coe
Aurora Borealis, May 10, 2024, photo by David B. Coe

Friday night, found me in Tennessee rather than Pennsylvania, and yet, in a testament to the power of this year’s solar event, Friday’s display was every bit as spectacular as that first one so many years ago. And yet . . . .

We got our first hint of the possibility of unusually widespread aurora sightings a couple of weeks ago. Astronomers reported an increase in solar flare activity that they thought would soon peak at historic levels. On Friday itself, when the first of the huge flares occurred, scientists again noted that this could mean unusual aurora occurrences.

But those predictions were buried in news reports of quite a different nature. Most of the news outlets neglected to focus on what turned out to be a wondrously beautiful event that linked people all over the globe. Instead, most articles warned of what the sunspot activity and solar wind might do to communications satellites, electric grids, internet providers, and other parts of the electronic infrastructure on which we depend. And hey, I get it. Media outlets and the governmental and scientific institutions to which they turn for information when stuff like this happens don’t want to be caught off guard. They don’t want to be blamed for the dislocations caused by foreseeable problems. So they emphasize the expected bad news and downplay anything that might detract attention from those dire potential consequences.

As it happens, though, the few disruptions caused by Friday’s solar flares turned out to be minor. The real story turned out to be the phenomenal views of auroras enjoyed by people around the world in areas for which such sightings are usually quite rare.

Look, no one who knows me would ever confuse me for a Pollyanna. I am a lifelong pessimist. I am Mister Doom-and-Gloom. I am Eeyore. But Friday night was amazing, a night I will remember for the rest of my life. And I wonder how many people missed their chance to experience it because news of what was going to occur wound up buried in stories about terrible troubles that never materialized. Probably a lot. Which is too bad. Because the collective joy shared, across continents and oceans, by strangers who were fortunate enough to see the auroras, both borealis and australis, was an inspiring, albeit temporary antidote to the doom and gloom that confronts us on a daily basis.

I hope you were among the fortunate who saw the display.

Have a great week.

Wednesday Fun!: Our Trip to Italy in Words and Photos

The Forum in Rome. Photo by David B. Coe
The Forum in Rome. Photo by David B. Coe

Nancy and I are recently back from three and a half weeks in Italy, a marvelous trip that took us to Rome, Venice, Lucca (in north Tuscany), San Quirico d’Orcia (in south Tuscany), Florence, Orvieto (in Umbria), and finally back to Rome for a couple of nights before our flight back to the States. It sounds like a whirlwind, but really it wasn’t. We had plenty of time in most places (a person could spend six weeks each in Florence and Rome, and still not see everything . . .), and did a good deal of our in-country traveling by train, which reduced the stress of getting around considerably. (The one exception was Tuscany, where we rented a car for six days, enabling us to visit several small, mountaintop medieval cities that aren’t served by the train system.)

Rome, looking toward St. Peter's Basilica. Photo by David B. Coe
Rome, looking toward St. Peter’s Basilica. Photo by David B. Coe
Piazza di San Marco and St. Mark's Basilica, Venice. Photo by David B. Coe
Piazza di San Marco and St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice. Photo by David B. Coe

Faced now with the prospect of summarizing our trip for this post, I am a bit overwhelmed. We saw and did so much. Much of it falls into one of three or four categories — we walked A LOT; we ate A LOT and drank a bit as well; we saw many of the Sights That One Sees In Italy; and we hung out with friends in Florence, where two couples we know and love were on extended work-related stays.

The Grand Canal, Venice. Photo by David B. Coe
The Grand Canal, Venice. Photo by David B. Coe
Venice. Photo by David B. Coe
Venice. Photo by David B. Coe

No matter where Nancy and I go on any trip, we wind up walking long distances. We feel that the best way to get to know a place is to explore it on foot, and as it happens, many of Italy’s cities lend themselves to this sort of exploration. Sometimes we walked with destinations in mind. Our first two days, when we were in Italy and still struggling with a little jet lag, we walked from our accommodations to the Colosseum and to Vatican city. After visiting those sights, we walked some more, looking for places to eat, stopping in at interesting shops or at yet another gorgeous cathedral from the 1400s. When we moved to Venice, we walked even more. What a gorgeous city! Every turn, every new lane or alley leads to another canal, another beautiful foot bridge, another view of a gondola or some other boat. It is a playground for light and shadow, for color and reflection, and for any who fancy themselves photographers.

Apennine Mountains above Lucca. Photo by David B. Coe
Apennine Mountains above Lucca. Photo by David B. Coe
The view from Pienza. Photo by David B. Coe
The view from Pienza. Photo by David B. Coe

While we were in Lucca, we found a hike that took us high into the Central Apennine Mountains. It was, in a word, spectacular. We had a perfect day — clear, breezy, cool — and were afforded incredible mountain vistas and equally beautiful views down toward ancient Tuscan mountain villages. The trail itself was a little rough, but still, it was a memorable morning. Tuscany in general was amazing. We stopped in San Gimignano, Montepulciano, Siena, Pienza, and Montalcino, where we enjoyed a fabulous wine-tasting and lunch at the Poggio Rubino Winery. Each of these cities was breathtaking and steeped in history. If we go back to Italy at some point, I think I could spend another week in Tuscany and never grow tired of the landscape, the food, the wine, the people. We had a similar experience in Orvieto, in the neighboring region of Umbria. Also stunningly beautiful, also rich in history, cuisine, and winemaking.

Orvieto, Umbria. Photo by David B. Coe
Orvieto, Umbria. Photo by David B. Coe

Florence as a city offers a compromise of sorts between Venice and Rome. Venice, as I said, is visually captivating. But there is an emptiness to it beyond the beauty and the tourist culture, which is ubiquitous. It felt at times as if, without the shops and restaurants and tourism industry, the city would simply cease to exist. Rome, on the other hand, is so huge as to be overwhelming. There is a tourist core to the city — in the old sections around the Roman ruins and various museums and duomos. But there is also Vatican City. There is a vast, thriving fashion industry. And there is as well a bustling urban center, with business and industry, contemporary culture, and everything else one might expect a world capitol to have.

Florence skyline and Duomo from Boboli Gardens. Photo by David B. Coe
Florence skyline and Duomo from Boboli Gardens. Photo by David B. Coe

Florence is, in many ways, as beautiful as Venice and as historically and culturally rich as Rome. But it offers more than Venice on a scale that is more welcoming than Rome. And for us it was doubly special, because of the friends we had there. These were two couples from utterly disparate parts of our lives. But they both happened to be there at the same time, and, it turns out, they got along really well. So much fun!! We had companions for so many of our meals, several of our sightseeing ventures, and even a couple of shopping sprees. While in Florence, Nancy and I also took a cooking class, which was great. We learned a ton and made by hand, without any sort of machine, our own pasta, which we then ate with sauces prepared as we watched by a master chef.

Interior of the Duomo di Siena. Photo by David B. Coe
Interior of the Duomo di Siena. Photo by David B. Coe

As I said earlier, it’s so difficult to do justice to a trip of this length in a single post. But I have tried. I would offer a few other quick tidbits. We saw many, many duomos, cathedrals, county churches, etc. We saw Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. But I think our favorite was the Duomo di Siena, the interior of which was mind-blowing. One of the best things we did was attend a glass-blowing demonstration at the Murano Glass Factory in Venice. Extremely cool. We had so many terrific meals and tried so many new foods. My personal favorite was the pappardelle al ragù di cinghiale that I had several times in Tuscany. This is a broad ribbon of fresh pasta with a sauce made with wild boar — a traditional Tuscan recipe. Incredible. We also discovered the joys of Campari, Aperol, and other Amaro liqueurs. Campari, which is sweet at first with a strongly bitter finish, is the chief ingredient in a Negroni (equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth). Aperol is sweeter and less bitter, and is best known as the chief ingredient in an Aperol Spritz (Aperol and Prosecco). We drank a lot of both. And we fell in love with Brunello wines — delicious reds that are deeper and smoother in flavor than any wine I’d ever had before.

Nancy enjoying an Aperol Spritz.
Nancy enjoying an Aperol Spritz.
Me and my Negroni, my Negroni and me....
Me and my Negroni, my Negroni and me….

Hope you enjoy the photos!

Monday Blues: The Hardest Birthday

Yes, another post about our daughter and our loss. A part of me shies from this, wonders if I have written about her too much. “Write something upbeat,” I tell myself. “Something funny, something — anything — that isn’t about grief.” But we are grieving. Still. It’s been six months since we lost Alex. A bit more, actually. It seems like so long. It seems like nothing. And that is what my therapist tells me — that really six months is nothing. We remain at the very outset of a long journey, one that will be part of our daily existence for the rest of our lives.

So, yes, another post about our daughter.

As it happens, we are, generally, doing pretty well. We recently returned from three weeks in Italy (photos to come later this week), where we had an incredible time walking, learning, eating and drinking, seeing friends, and managing to live in the moment. We have more travel coming later this year. We have family and friends to see, weddings to attend, things to anticipate and enjoy. We have work to do, which also remains a balm.

But today, none of that matters.

Today, Alex would have — should have — turned 29 years old.

Today, I am shattered glass. Today, I am leaden skies and unrelenting rain. Today, I am a father bereft.

Tomorrow will be better. I know that. Next year will be a little easier. And the year after that more so. Today is the hardest day.

I understand all of this. But none of it makes this day any easier. As you read this, I will be off doing . . . something. Birdwatching, perhaps. Playing with my camera. Walking. Later, maybe, I will play some music. Mostly, I will be thinking of my darling girl.

I have nothing more to say, I’m afraid. I have no wisdom to offer. No deep words or insights. Today is a day to be endured, to be gotten through. I am simply doing the best I can.

Be kind to one another. Tell the people you love how you feel about them.