Tag Archives: travel

Monday Musings: Old Dog, New Trick

It has long been said that canines of a certain age are incapable of mastering new tricks. As a proverbial long-in-the-tooth pooch myself, I thought it might be amusing to test the cliché. And, as it happens, I have a great excuse to do so, which I will explain in just a moment. So, this old dog is doing more than just chase his tail.

Not so very long from now, Nancy and I will be heading to Italy for a few weeks. There, we will spend time in Rome, Venice, Florence, and the Tuscan and Umbrian countrysides. This was a trip we had hoped to take to celebrate big birthdays that we both endured survived celebrated back in 2022/2023. Events intervened. But we are finally going this year, and we are very excited.

In preparation for the trip, we are both learning Italian on our phones using DuoLingo.

Okay, a few things. DuoLingo is hardly a rigorous way to approach learning a language. We know this. There are other ways we might have gone about learning Italian had we more time and fewer things on our collective plate. But I have a deadline, she has work to get done, and we wanted to make this fun, as well as useful. And fun it is.

I took years and years of French when I was in junior high and high school, and I was a competent if unspectacular student of the language. I never really mastered French, but I learned a lot, and could probably have stumbled my way through a simplistic and stilted conversation with a patient, generous native speaker of the language. Sadly, as it turns out, these are somewhat hard to find . . . .

More to the point, though, I never enjoyed French class. This was my own fault. I was lazy, and languages take work and patience and more work. My teachers were, all of them, good at their jobs, although there was one, who I had my sophomore year in high school, who merits detailed mention. I won’t give her name, but I will say this: Our class met right after lunch, and she was reputed to be a bit of a tippler who apparently built up quite a thirst during her morning classes. As a result, after imbibing enjoying her lunch, she would return to the classroom in an alcohol-induced temper, and with her accent rendered nearly impenetrable by her “meal.” For some reason, she liked me, which is good, because otherwise I would have gotten the grade I deserved . . . .

DuoLingo works for me because it gamifies the process. Like a hamster batting at a lever and being given little food pellets by way of reward, I do my language exercises, getting my little dopamine rush from the “ding-ding!”s of my phone and the treasure chests of virtual gems the app gives me periodically. Am I learning Italian? Um . . . sure. I’m picking up words that I might need in restaurants and bars and stores and hotels. I can say, “Salve! Piacere!” which means, “Hello! It’s nice to meet you!” I can say “thanks” and “your welcome,” “good morning” and “good evening,” “I’d like the chicken” and “I need the bathroom.”

No, that’s not much, but Nancy and I are still learning (she is ahead of me, having started earlier), and more to the point (and in all seriousness), we think part of the importance of this is making the effort, not being the infamous “ugly Americans,” who just show up in a country expecting everyone else to speak English to make them comfortable. We want to be able to show that we have cared enough to learn something about the country, including how to make ourselves understood there. Yes, we will absolutely need help from English-speakers in Italy, but we won’t be helpless, and we won’t be assuming it’s the job of every person there to accommodate us.

So that’s my new trick. Not bad, right? Not great, but not bad.

I will close with this story that my father used to love to tell. Years and years ago, he and my mom traveled to Italy, starting their trip in Rome, as Nancy and I will do. My father had picked up a few words of Italian somewhere. From a book? From someone he knew in New York City? From a TV show? Who can say? But he had convinced himself that he could fake his way through a conversation in the language. He and Mom were trying to find some tourist site — a museum or something — and he approached an Italian police officer on the street and asked the man how to find the museum, using his best broken Italian. The officer eyed him for a moment, and then said, in flawless English, “Three blocks down and make a right; you can’t miss it.”

My father and mother laughed. And so did the police officer. Which, ultimately, is the point.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: My Mother and My Daughter

Mom and meMy mother would be 102 years old today, which speaks to a) how very old I am, and b) how uncommonly old she was when she and my father had me. I was born at the end of the Baby Boom, when most couples in their early-forties were done having children. Mom always worried that she would be too old to be a good mother to me, whatever that might have meant. She shouldn’t have worried. She was a wonderful mother — caring, involved, just intrusive enough to make me feel loved without being so intrusive that I felt smothered.

I’ve written about her before in this space, touching on her intellect, her curiosity, her love of the arts, her passion for travel, her warmth and humor and beauty and wisdom. We lost her far too early, to a cancer that today’s patients tolerate with relative ease. My father, who worshipped her and shared over fifty years of his life with her, couldn’t survive long without her. Within fifteen months of her death, he was gone, too.

I miss them both every day, and think about them constantly. I have thought for many years that I was too young to lose both parents.

Okay, this is about to get a little strange . . . .

I am not a religious person, and even if I were, my faith does not believe in heaven or an afterlife. Rather, my faith focuses on this life, on doing good deeds and living honorably in our time on this earth.

But since losing our older daughter, I have come to think about such things somewhat differently. I still don’t put stock in notions of heaven and hell. I do choose to believe, though, that even after the body dies, the spirit lives on. Alex was too brilliant a light for a simple illness, no matter how virulent and cruel, to extinguish. For that matter, so were my mother and father; so was my brother.

And so, I choose to believe that Alex is with her grandmother and grandfather now. That my mom and dad, and also my brother Bill, are taking care of her, helping a too-young soul cope with whatever place they are in. Alex never really knew her Gram. She only knew Grampsie as a toddler. She and Uncle Bubba were incredibly close. But they are all family, and they are together now, loving one another, comforting one another.

I choose to imagine my mother reveling in the company of this grandchild she only met as an infant, getting to know the intelligent, confident, funny, powerful, courageous young woman she became. I can hear them laughing together. I can imagine them speaking of books and art, travel and good food. They shared so many interests — they would have so much to discuss! I expect they would poke some fun at me. I know Alex would speak glowingly to her — to all of them — of her amazing younger sister, whom neither of my parents ever met.

This is how I choose to mark Mom’s birthday this year. The thought comforts me, even as it stings my eyes and blurs my vision.

Happy birthday, Mom. Take care of Alex for us. I love you.

Monday Musings: The Tyranny of Clocks and Calendars

Many years ago — more than a decade, which boggles my mind just a little — Nancy, Erin, and I went down to Monteverde, Costa Rica, to visit Alex, who was taking the first semester of her junior year in high school at the Cloud Forest School (offering us an early glimpse of the adventuresome nature and wanderlust that would define her too-brief life; she would later spend half of her university sophomore year in Berlin, and all of her junior year in Madrid.)

Our family in Monteverde, Costa Rica, November 2011.
Our family in Monteverde, Costa Rica, November 2011.

Our visit, which coincided with the (U.S.) Thanksgiving holiday, was fun and fascinating, despite near constant rain. We saw a ton of cool birds, ate amazing local foods, went on gorgeous hikes, and, of course, had great family time. We also spent one memorable morning doing a zip line tour of the rain forest. (Yes, I am slowly but surely closing in on today’s topic . . . .) It was a damp, warm day. Rain showers drifted through the area, but the air was still. The zip line course zig-zagged through an extensive, unbroken tract of rain forest.

The longest leg of the zip course was a full kilometer long, and when my turn came to take on that segment of the journey, I’ll admit to being just a little intimidated. That didn’t last long. I climbed into the harness, remembered the lessons we’d been given for slowing and braking, and allowed our guides to launch me.

Costa Rica RainforestWithin moments, I was gliding over lush rain forest, surrounded by a ghostly mist, utterly alone, and, it seemed, in a cocoon of sensation — birds called from the green below me, the air was redolent with the sweet scents of rain and earth and forest decay, mist cooled my face, the green of the damp foliage was so brilliant as to appear unreal. Time fell away. Yes, I was moving. But to this day, I couldn’t tell you how long it took me to float through that segment of the course. It could have been mere seconds. It could have been hours. It didn’t matter. For the purposes of that experience, time meant nothing to me. I had escaped the tyranny of clocks and calendars.

Yes, the tyranny of clocks and calendars.

Human existence has always been governed by the passage of time — the cycle of days, the changing of the seasons, the aging of our bodies. But clocks are relatively new to the human experience and the demand that we live our lives according to timetables, schedules, and deadlines is newer still. Leisure, I would argue, is our attempt to step away from segmented time, whether we are engaging in a favorite hobby, or traveling to some far off land for a vacation. People speak often of “losing track of time.” This can be offered as an excuse, a way to explain a deadline missed or a late arrival to an important meeting. But it can often also be said in a happier context. “I was so absorbed in what I was doing, I totally lost track of the time.” It’s a glorious feeling, one we seek to replicate whenever we can.

Perhaps I am more conscious now of the preciousness of time, the need to enjoy our hours, our days, our years. They are treasures, not to be frittered away carelessly, not to be spent only on things as trivial as work and Zoom calls and chores. Because they can be taken from us without warning. The Beatles had it wrong, I am sorry to say. Money can, in fact, buy us love. But it can’t buy us time.

The four of us used to go to the beach for a week each summer — the North Carolina coast near Wilmington. We would arrive on Saturday afternoon, do a massive grocery shop, claim our rooms in the house (often a fraught process for the girls . . . .), and then go our separate ways until dinner time. I would always head down to the shore and sit watching the surf and birds and the play of golden late-afternoon light on the water. And I would feel the tension draining from my body, being wicked away by the sand. The sweep hand on my watch would lose its power over me, to be replaced by the advance and retreat of the waves. And I would revel in the anticipation of the glorious week to come, during which our days would be measured solely by the ebb and flow of tides and the arc of the sun.

I get this a bit with my daily morning walks. I walk roughly the same track each day, and I know how long it takes me. Even if I stop to look at the occasional hawk or thrush, the duration of the walk doesn’t change very much. And so, I don’t worry about the time. For those few miles, my only task is to walk, and to let my mind go where it will. Some days I think about my daughters, others find me working through plot lines, and still others I spend obsessing over politics or some issue with a friend or family member. And every so often, my mind wanders in ways I can’t anticipate and can barely track.

My point, I suppose, is that we need to escape those temporal tyrants I mentioned earlier. Even if we can’t afford to go on a vacation — because of time constraints or financial ones — and even if we have to measure the breaks we take in minutes or, if we’re fortunate, hours, we can still set aside a small portion of our day to step away from datebooks and timestamps. It’s worth the effort. Just remember to put your Apple watch and cell phone somewhere you can’t see or hear them.

Have a great week, or enjoy a period of time of your own choosing . . . .

Wednesday Musings: (No, That’s Not a Typo) Let’s Spend a Flight Delay Together

I have little to say professionally this week, but I have been thinking a good deal about a great many things. So, I’m double-dipping on musings . . . .

On Monday of this week, after a busy weekend in Brooklyn visiting Alex, our older daughter, Nancy and I accompanied Alex back to Tennessee for some midweek events here honoring Nancy. Alex is still in pretty rough shape and could not have traveled alone.

We were flying out of Newark and were scheduled to leave at 2:30 for a nonstop flight back to Nashville. But even as we were driving to the airport, I could see thunderheads forming to the west, piling on top of one another, like hulking gray boulders in the sky. I figured we would be fortunate to get out on time. Hah! Little did I know . . . .

We boarded, taxied, stopped, waited, waited some more, waited a whole lot more. Eventually, we taxied back to the gate, and eventually after that, we were allowed to deplane into the terminal so that we could get food, use the restrooms, stretch our legs, etc. By now, it was 5:00. Again, Nancy and I were traveling with our daughter who has cancer, who is weakened by treatments and generally exhausted. This was already going to be a long, trying day for her. Now it was getting worse.

An hour passed. And then another. The storms finally moved through, leaving the sky fiery and gorgeous. We were allowed to board again, told we would finally be leaving. We taxied, stopped, waited. Again.

We took off at 8:30, six hours late, and by the time we arrived, got our luggage, got the car, situated Alex, and drove the 90 miles from Nashville Airport to our house, didn’t get home until close to midnight. Too long a day. Too tiring. Too stressful. And yet . . . .

We are fine. Alex was tired the next day and had some relatively minor, unexpected issues crop up. But we got through the day in good spirits and in good shape. This musings post, though, isn’t about us. Not really, at least.

You see, the storms that stopped our flight from leaving, grounded every flight out of Newark, indeed out of all three New York airports (and also out of Boston’s Logan and others across the Northeast). When we returned to the gate after our initial attempt to leave, we found the terminal packed with people, all of them in the same situation we were in. I went searching for food and wandered far and wide, trying to find the exact thing our poor girl wanted to eat.

Not once did I see anyone complaining. Nor did I see anyone being nasty or berating gate agents or losing their patience with the crowds of fellow passengers. People were smiling, laughing, striking up conversations with strangers, playing with their kids, talking to their travel companions. You never would have known that every one of them had been inconvenienced for hours.

As I said, this was Monday. September 11. And I was reminded of that terrible day twenty-two years ago, and of the days after, when New Yorkers and New Jerseyans and Washingtonians and Pennsylvanians drew together in the wake of tragedy, treating one another with kindness and courtesy, with compassion and humanity. This year’s September 11th was a far easier, gentler day. We were delayed; we weren’t confronted by evil. But the same spirit of cooperation and good humor suffused our experience.

I’ve lived in the Southeast for more than thirty years now. And still, when I tell people that I’m originally from New York, I am often told how unfriendly people are up there, or how fortunate I am to live among the welcoming communities of the South.

And in some ways I am fortunate. Nancy and I have had a wonderful life in our little blue corner of Tennessee.

But let’s be very clear: In my experience, New Yorkers are no less friendly than Tennesseans, they are no more prone to rudeness, they are no less considerate, they are no less community-minded. In many respects, they are MORE considerate of others, more accepting of people on their own terms, more inclined to go out of their way in service to the well-being of those around them. I have lived in New York and New England, California and the South. No region has a monopoly on courtesy. No region has a monopoly on ill-mannered boors.

And for those who believe the New York metro area is populated by unfriendly, unrefined jerks, think again. Need proof? Spend a flight delay among the region’s people.

Enjoy the rest of your week.

Monday Musings: Digital Technology, Ansel Adams, and the Joy of Modern Photography

As I mentioned in a post last week, Nancy and I just spent a week and a half out in Colorado, seeing our girls, hiking, and unwinding. It was a good trip, and, as is my wont, I spent a fair amount of time capturing photo images. I shared some photos last week, but those were just the ones taken on my phone. This week, I share some of the images I captured with my big rig, my Canon 5D Mk IV, with a pair of truly excellent lenses — a 24-105mm f4 L and a 16-35mm f4 L. To most of you, the lens and camera info probably won’t mean much. That’s fine. I thought a few of you might be curious.

The Crags Trail, by David B. CoeI spent this past weekend going through my photos, processing the images, and selecting a few to put in a rotation of favorites that show up on my computer desktop and in my screensaver slide show. And as I work through these images, I have been thinking about photography in general and where the technology that is now available to photography hobbyists has taken us.

When I started getting serious about my photography, we were still in the film age. (Kids, ask your parents.) I would load a roll of film into my camera, take photos — usually thirty-six exposures per roll — and, upon reaching the end of the roll, would then rewind the film back into the little metal cylinder and remove it from the camera. At that point, my control over the image would reach its end. I would take the film to a local store, or perhaps send it directly to one of the Kodak or Fujifilm processing centers scattered around the country, and wait to see how my photos came out. The wait was frustrating, the cost pretty outrageous.

Florissant Fossil Beds NM, by David B. CoeSome stores and processing centers were willing to consider special instructions — “please over- (or under-) expose slightly” or some such. But to be honest, I wasn’t good enough at that point to know with confidence that ALL my images would need the same special treatment, and so I just sent my film in and hoped for the best. More often than not, I was disappointed.

Mueller State Park view, by David B. CoeKnowing what I do about the history of photography, I now understand how strange that consumer film process actually was. The old masters of photography — Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz, and most notably Ansel Adams did not leave it to Kodak or Fujifilm or any other commercial entity to develop their images. They held fast to every step of the creative process, from image capture to production of the final print. Photography as an art form was not limited to a mechanical blink of creative inspiration. Rather, it relied upon a complex and time-consuming manipulation of that initial capture, to turn the photo into exactly what the artist envisioned. Adams in particular used an approach he called “dodge and burn,” relying on a masterful understanding of darkroom tools and chemicals to darken certain parts of an image and brighten others. He and his contemporaries would never have dreamed of placing themselves at the mercy of film development labs.

The great irony of this lies in the freedom now granted to amateur photographers like me by digital dark room applications on our computers. My photography workflow may rely on digital technology, but in every other respect it is more similar to the experience of the old masters than it ever was in the age of film. Like Ansel Adams, I no longer have to hope that my images were perfectly exposed. I can make adjustments to the original images, balancing light and shadow, compensating for exposure issues in some quadrants of a capture while using the original lighting in others. I can, in other words, do a digital “dodge and burn.” (I used to use Adobe’s Lightroom, but I grew disenchanted with their subscription model of “ownership.” I now use DxO’s PhotoLab, which allows me to do everything Lightroom did, but at a lower cost.)

Florissant meadow, by David B. CoeMore, I no longer have to decide before going out in the field what sort of film to use. I can take an image that I know will work in color and follow it up immediately with one that I know I’ll prefer in black and white. Converting an image from color to grayscale is as simple as clicking a box. I love that freedom.

To be clear, I do all I can to avoid over-processing my photos. We have all seen photographs that look so “perfect” as to be unrealistic: hyper-detailed, garishly colored, lit with unconvincing evenness across shadow and sunlit feature. I have no desire to produce such images. Even with a digital darkroom at my disposal, I still wind up with many images that don’t work. The ones I add to my “favorites” constitute a tiny fraction of the images I take.

But I have control over the work I do. From image capture to production of the final image — either in the form of a print, or a computer image I can enjoy every day — I make the photograph exactly what I want it to be. And the truth is, the very best images I produce are pretty high quality. I would put my finest photos up against those of most professionals. That sounds like bragging, but it’s true.

Most important, I engage in a creative process that I enjoy, that I find challenging and deeply satisfying. My photography scratches a “creative itch” that is very, very different from the one I scratch with my writing. It is one of my great passions.

I hope you enjoy these images, and I wish you a great week.

Monday Musings (On Tuesday): Our Family Trip

As I write this, we are winging our way back home after a week and a half in the mountains of Colorado, west of Colorado Springs. Nancy and I rented a house in a little town called Florissant, just a couple of miles from Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Our younger daughter, Erin, who lives in Denver, joined us for the first weekend and then went back home for work. Nancy and I spent several days alone in the house, going on long hikes each morning and chilling on the back patio of the house each afternoon. On Tuesday, our older daughter, Alex, flew from New York to Denver to spend a couple of days with her sister, and then on Thursday the two of them drove back to Florissant to spend a long weekend with us.

We had a marvelous trip. Our visits with the girls were lovely and fun, filled with laughter and good conversations despite the difficulties we face as a family right now. We watched a ton of Women’s World Cup soccer. Nancy and the girls worked on a puzzle that proved nearly impossible, and finished it our last night in the house. (No, I didn’t help. I rarely do puzzles. I’m colorblind, and jigsaw puzzles are a particular brand of hell for those of us with that affliction.) We read. We enjoyed the hot tub that came with the house. We enjoyed a couple of meals out. We enjoyed many a home-cooked meal (learning the hard way that cooking rice at 8,700 feet is VERY different from cooking it at sea level, or 2,000 feet, or even 5,000 feet).

The hikes Nancy and I took during our days alone were gorgeous. We did a couple in the National Monument, walking through mountain meadows and groves of aspen and lodgepole pine. We did one spectacular hike on what’s known as The Crags Trail, in Pike National Forest. The hike started at 9,500 feet altitude and ended at 10,500 feet, atop a rocky dome with a 360 degree view of the Rockies. And we did a couple of beautiful walks in Mueller State Park, part of the terrific Colorado State Parks system. All told, we walked 25-30 miles in four days — nothing extraordinary, but enough to make us feel that we had explored the area thoroughly. Along the way we saw birds and coyotes, a palette of wildflowers and tons of lovely, albeit hard to identify, alpine butterflies.

The weather was great the entire week. Cool clear mornings, warm afternoons that were punctuated each day with dramatic thunderstorms, and cool nights. One evening, we watched a storm roll up the valley straight toward our house, forks of lightning dancing along ridge lines and illuminating the sky. Another day we had a hail-storm that dumped enough pea-sized pieces of ice on the patio to allow me to make a “snowball” or two.

As I say, things continue to be tough in our little world, and we don’t anticipate them getting much better, at least not anytime soon. But we still share a ton of love. We still know how to laugh and enjoy one another. And we can still appreciate the beauty and light of nature, of companionship, of family.

I return home feeling full, renewed, joyful and also bittersweet. Under the circumstances, I could hardly ask for more.

I wish you a wonderful week. Reach out to the people you love. Hold them near. Don’t wait to tell them how you feel about them.Our daughters Nancy atop the Crags View from the Crags Nancy and me Mountain view

Monday Musings: Thunderstorm Memories

As I write this, a storm is moving in. The sky has turned an angry shade of purple-gray, and thunder rumbles frequently, close enough to reach me through windows closed against the oppressive heat, but far enough away that the house doesn’t yet tremble with each clash. The rising wind and first huge raindrops cool the air — welcome relief. Lightning flickers, and I hunger for the sweet, clean scent of ozone and fresh rain. I leave my computer to step outside for a few moments.

As a small child, I was frightened by thunder. I suppose most kids are. My father would come into my room during nighttime storms and sit with me, both of us counting the intervals between lightning flashes and thunder’s response. With his help, I overcame my fear and grew to love thunderstorms as much as he did. A gift. One among so many, more than I could possibly count.

Afternoon storms were a staple of Mid-Atlantic summers, reprieves from the hot and hazies of my native New York. We thought those days brutal, scorching. Little did we know what the future would hold for a climate-altered world. But I remember — as a boy and then a teen — going outside onto our front steps to watch storms roll in, much as I did just now. If my brother Jim was around, he would join me, and we would scan the sky, watching for forks of lightning, savoring the caress of splattered rain.

Years later, he and I would have a different sort of thunderstorm experience, in a cirque above tree line in California’s King’s Canyon National Park. We had planned a hiking trip into the backcountry, biting off far, far more than we could chew. Our first day of hiking was too strenuous for both of us — miles of steady, steep uphill walking, both of us carrying forty-plus pounds of gear on our backs. In the middle of the afternoon, storms rolled in, the Sierra Nevada sky churning. We had no choice but to take shelter, though by that point we were surrounded by low, stunted pines, huge boulders, snowfields, and little else. We got soaked, decided to make camp there so we could dry out. But as night fell, more storms moved in, and one of the cells settled directly over our campsite. Roars of thunder followed right on the heels of brilliant flares of lightning. And we huddled in a tent — one of those old ones, held up by metal poles. Frankly, we were fortunate to survive the night. We woke up to fog, fresh snow, and temperatures way less than half what they’d been when we left our car the previous morning.

Nancy grew up on a dairy just outside of Boise, Idaho, and we still go back to the Boise area to visit her dad, her brothers, and our nieces and nephews. That part of Idaho is essentially sagebrush desert reclaimed through irrigation, and though mountain ranges loom in the distance, much of the landscape between Boise and the Snake River is flat. So when thunderstorms move through the area, there is nothing to mute the sound or block one’s view. Miles from where one stands, daggers of lightning stab the terrain. And thirty or forty seconds might pass before thunder growls in reply, an afterthought, surprisingly clear and loud.

Shortly before Nancy and I left California to move to Tennessee, we paid one last visit to Yosemite National Park, one of our favorite places. It was a gorgeous early summer day, and though we’d made a point of going in the middle of the week, the park was still unbelievably crowded, as it usually is. We spent a little time in Yosemite Valley, but the crowds were worst there, so we passed most of the day in the higher elevations around Tuolumne Meadows, an area of dramatic mountain vistas, deep evergreen forests, and rolling alpine meadows. As is the theme of this post, a series of thunderstorms rampaged through the park that day, bringing high winds, pelting rain, and a fusillade of grape-sized hail that I feared would shatter the windshield of my old Toyota Corolla. I didn’t have much experience with hail at that point in my life, and in the middle of the storm, curious and foolish, I opened the car door (we were parked at a viewpoint) and stuck my hand out. The little buggers hurt, and when I said “Ow!” Nancy looked at me as if I was the dumbest guy on the planet and just said, “Well, yeah.”

There have been lots of other storms of course. When we reached Tennessee, we realized that thunderstorms are different in the Southeast. Some spring and summer nights, the sky flashes continuously for hours at a time, and thunder claps are so frequent they overlap to form an unceasing grumble. I’ve never experienced this anywhere else. It’s one of my favorite things about living here.

The storm that began as I started writing this has continued. Rain still falls, the sky glimmers and thunder echoes across the hollow in which we live. But the hummingbirds are feeding again, so maybe they sense fairer skies heading this way.

I wish you a week of cooling rains, dramatic skies, and fair winds.

Monday Musings: What’s Next?

Today is Juneteenth, of course — a (now) federally recognized holiday commemorating the emancipation of slaves in 1865. And I wish all of you a wonderful day of celebration and reflection. As proud as I am of Joe Biden’s push to make Juneteenth (finally) a national holiday, I am also deeply ashamed to say that my Congressman, Scott DesJarlais (R-TN4) was one of only fourteen members of Congress (all of them Republicans) to vote against the establishment of the holiday. I’m sure he came up with some excuse to justify his vote, but the fact is he catered to the worst instincts of his overwhelmingly white, hyper-conservative constituents. Shameful.

But that is beside the point. Again, I hope you have a wonderful holiday. I plan to, and I plan to take some time as well to think about the progress we have made as a nation, and the great distance we still have to travel on the journey toward racial justice.

***

David and Nancy
(Photo by Cat Sparks)

Here in our little corner of the world, the life I share with Nancy is about to go through a significant transition, one that I believe will be good for both of us. After eighteen months as acting president of the university here, Nancy will be transitioning back to a supporting role and helping to welcome the newly appointed next president of the school. This has been the plan from the start of Nancy’s tenure as acting president, and her role as a special consultant to the next Vice Chancellor (that’s what they call the president here) was even written into her appointment letter eighteen months ago.

My feelings about the coming shift are somewhat mixed. On the one hand, I know she will be happier and more relaxed. She will sleep better, I am sure. She will go back to working 40 to 50 hours a week instead of 55 to 65. She will no longer have to worry about midnight calls from campus security and the Student Life Office. She will no longer have event after event after event, week after week after week. Life will slow down for both of us, and I welcome that.

On the other hand, she has had a remarkable tenure as acting president that saw her steer the school through a period of unexpected upheaval. She presided over a record-setting admissions cycle and the two most successful annual fundraising days in the school’s history. She continued and deepened the university’s commitment to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion. She was a terrific ambassador and fundraiser for the institution. And she instituted practices to make communication from the administration to the other university constituencies more candid and transparent. All this while also serving as a trailblazer and role-model: She is the first woman in the history of the school to serve as president.

As much as I have worried about her lack of sleep, her constant workload, the effects of being the most visible person on the campus and therefore having a political and emotional target on her back, I have also loved watching her shine in this role. She is a superstar. I’ve known it for more than thirty years. It’s been fun to see others figure it out as well. I am so proud of her achievements, her class, her integrity, her compassion, her remarkable strength, and her incredible skills as a leader, I can’t even put it into words.

The new president comes from another institution, but he was an undergraduate here and served in various roles at the university in the first two decades Nancy and I were here. His younger child and our older daughter went to elementary school together, swam together, played soccer together. The new president’s wife taught ballet to both of our girls. They are wonderful people and will serve the institution well. Nancy and I wish them every success.

What is next for us?

Well, as I mentioned, Nancy will be helping with the transition through the summer and the 2023-24 Fall Semester. On January 1, 2024, she will go on sabbatical for the calendar year. Sabbaticals in academia usually come every seven years. Nancy’s last sabbatical ended in August of 2006. So, yeah, she’s due . . . .

I have no plans to change what I am doing. I will continue to write and edit. But I also expect that during Nancy’s sabbatical we might travel more than we usually do, and I look forward to having a few adventures. We’ll see our girls — lots, I hope. And, of course, I will enjoy having time with my sweetie. Quiet evenings, relaxed meals, unscheduled weekends — all of that sounds lovely. Beyond the Sabbatical and whatever Nancy’s next step will be as a returning member of the university faculty, we don’t know. But that’s okay, too. A little mystery and uncertainty never hurt anyone.

Enjoy today’s holiday, and have a wonderful week.

Monday Musings: Places I Want To Visit

As spring begins and summer looms, I find myself thinking more and more about travel. I already have a couple of trips planned for a bit later in the year — a trip to Denver, Colorado and Laramie, Wyoming in May, and a second visit to Colorado, this one to the mountains with Nancy and our girls, in July. We’ll also be heading to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in the fall, to make up for the Covid-related cancellation of my birthday trip, and no doubt at some point I’ll head up the East Coast to see family.

More to the point, though, Nancy and I are on the verge of a period in our lives when we will probably be traveling a good deal more than we’re used to — one of the perks of getting older, I guess.

In any case, I thought it might be fun to share a partial list of some of the destinations we’re considering that have already captured my imagination. Before I get to that list, though, a brief word of explanation. As I contemplate travel, I look forward to certain things. Nancy and I love to hike, so we will always look for places that reward us for our walking efforts. I am a dedicated photographer of landscapes, cityscapes, architecture, nature, and pretty much anything else, so I crave the pretty. I’m an avid birder, and so anyplace we go I will have with me my binoculars and the appropriate field guide. When we can, we like to enjoy good food, good wine, and good whisky. And we are sports enthusiasts, so if we can find baseball games or soccer matches, we will attend.

Domestic Destinations — these are dominated by National Parks and other nature areas. Most of the places listed here, I have never visited.

Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park — Joecho-16/Getty Images

1) Badlands National Park in South Dakota. I have wanted to visit the Badlands for years and I am hopeful that this will be one of our first destinations. Gorgeous formations, spring wildflowers, dramatic summer storms. I can’t wait.

2) White Sands National Park in New Mexico. Another place I have wanted to go for as long as I can remember. A strange, stunning, dramatic landscape, and one that is relatively near Albuquerque and Sante Fe, two of our favorite cities.

3) Katmai National Park in Alaska. This one might be a slightly tougher sell when it comes to getting Nancy to go. I’ll tell her the scenery is supposed to be magnificent, the views of Brown Bears amazing, the birds spectacular. All this might not be enough . . . .

4) Acadia National Park in Maine. I want to go in the fall, when the foliage is changing, but really the coastal views here are supposed to be lovely any time of year.

5) Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. I have been to all the other Utah parks; Nancy has been to most of them. But this one we’ve never seen. It is said to be gorgeous, and we love the Utah desert.

6) A baseball stadium tour — multiple states and cities. We have talked about this for years. We would want to hit Wrigley and New Comiskey Parks in Chicago, Busch Stadium in St. Louis, as well as the stadiums (stadia?) in Denver, Kansas City, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Detroit. I have been to Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park, but seeing the Yankees, Red Sox, and Mets would be fun, too. At some point I would love to do a similar trip on the West Coast.

International Destinations — these are more about cultural exploration and good food, as opposed to nature exploration. With one obvious exception . . . .

1) Paris — I have been, but long, long ago. Nancy never has. Any trip to Paris would be coupled with a broader exploration of France that would include Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, the Loire Valley, and other destinations.

2) Scotland — Neither of us has been, and we are so eager to go. Castles, hiking, Scotch whiskey, haggis . . . . Well, okay, but the first three. Really.

3) South Africa — We would enjoy visiting Cape Town and Johannesburg, but most of all we want to do a photo-safari. And yes, Nancy is every bit as enthusiastic about this as I am, perhaps more so.

4) Greece — The isles more than Athens, though obviously we would spend time in the latter. But we are so eager to explore the various islands, to enjoy the cuisine and the beaches and the walking trails.

5) Portugal — Lisbon, Porto, and anyplace else we can reach. We have heard such great things about Portugal, we’ve even wondered if living there might be in our future.

6) Italy — This is another one I’m more excited about than Nancy is. But I would love to visit Florence and Tuscany for the art, architecture, and countryside. And I have a feeling the food and wine would win Nancy over before long . . . .

So, there are our current top choices. Where would you like to go? Let yourself daydream a little.

And have a great week.

Monday Musings: The Story of the Storyteller On My Desk

In May of 1994, Nancy and I took our first trip to New Mexico. (We have been back several times since, and we’re always looking forward to our next visit; it is one of our favorite places in the world.) By that time, we had been married for three years, and we had been talking about visiting the state since the beginning of our relationship. Early in that year, Nancy told me it was time to plan our visit, because she was ready to start a family, and, she said, “this time next year, I expect to be pregnant.”

Yes, ma’am. She was more than right, by the way. Our older daughter was born in May 1995.

At the time, I was still in the dreaming stage of my career. I had started work on the book that would become my first published novel, Children of Amarid, and an editor from Tor Books had expressed interest in the series. My agent at the time was negotiating terms with Tor, and already I was learning an early, nerve-wracking lesson about the slow pace of New York publishing. We had yet to sign a contract, and I despaired of ever doing so.

One of the many joys of visiting New Mexico is experiencing the artistry of the native peoples there. The various Pueblo communities produce their own styles of jewelry, pottery, wood carving, and other forms of visual art. During that first visit, I was drawn in particular to ceramic representations of the Storyteller, the embodiment of oral tradition, a symbol of shared history and community lore. Storyteller figures are typical rendered as open-mouthed (in the midst of relating some tale) with smaller figures — children, ostensibly — perched around and/or on them. The Storyteller can be of any gender. They can also take the form of an animal or bird, and they can support any number of smaller figures on their lap, their limbs, their shoulders.

I saw the figures as a symbol of my dream of being a professional writer, and I wanted desperately to find one to take home with me. Unfortunately, the figures are intricately crafted, and their price reflected that. I couldn’t find one that both spoke to me and was affordable.

As part of our visit to New Mexico that spring, Nancy and I made our way out to the Acoma Pueblo. Acoma is known as Sky City, because it is perched on a gorgeous, craggy mesa in the desert west of Albuquerque. It is one of the oldest communities in all of North America, and it is known for, among other things, its exquisite pottery. You can’t drive to the top of the mesa, but rather must park below and walk up. And you can’t just wander the community on your own. You can only access it by taking a tour.

The StorytellerDuring our tour, we encountered many people selling pottery in front of their homes. And at one table, a mother displayed her wares beside those of her young daughter. I think the girl must have been around 7 or 8, give or take a year, and she had made a few small bowls, seed pots, and dishes. And she had made a tiny storyteller. As one would expect, it was quite crude compared to those we had seen for sale back in Albuquerque (we hadn’t yet been to Santa Fe or Taos), but something about the figure spoke to me. Maybe is was just that the storyteller was so cute. Or maybe it was that the girl herself was so proud of it. Or maybe I saw in this child’s early effort to follow in her mother’s footsteps something akin to my dream of becoming a professional writer. Whatever the reason, I asked the girl how much it cost.

She looked at her mom, seeming surprised that she might actually sell something. Her mom said, “Five dollars.”

“I’ll take it.”

I handed the girl the money. She wrapped up the storyteller she’d made and gave it to me. And Nancy and I followed our tour to another part of Sky City.

Acoma Kiva, by David B. CoeThat was a magical day in many ways. Acoma was as beautiful as we had been told, the pale red stone of the Pueblo seeming to glow beneath a deep azure sky, wooden kiva ladders rising above their structures and reaching toward the clouds. At one point, I spotted a rainbow in the clouds overhead — there was no rain, just the prismatic color, which appeared for a moment and then vanished. I think I was the only one on the tour who saw it. I believed that, together, the rainbow and my little storyteller were omens, signs that my dream would, in fact, come to pass.

Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)Two months later, I got my first contract from Tor Books. Children of Amarid wasn’t published for another three years — that first book needed a lot of editorial work. But I was on my way.

Nearly twenty-nine years later, the storyteller I bought that day in Acoma still sits on my desk, right beside my computer screen. I look at it every day, and it still represents for me the dream that launched my career.

I wish you a wonderful week.