You Can See the Summit, but…

Daily Prompt Pains and Gains Do you agree with Jane Fonda’s favorite exercise motto, “no pain, no gain?” Is it impossible to attain greatness without considerable hardship?

“It’s impossible to build muscle without exercise. That’s a law of physics or bio-dynamics or something — aside from being patently obvious. Pain is often a symptom of injury and there’s no direct correlation between suffering and greatness. That’s just dumb, melodramatic, self-important, mumbo-jumbo.”

“Yeah, but, Lamont, a lot of great people suffered to achieve their greatness.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Dude. The suffering didn’t LEAD to greatness. There’s no causal relationship. It’s a non-sequitur. Take Jane Fonda, for instance. I could train according to her method for my entire LIFE and I’m NEVER EVER EVER going to look like that, have a body like hers — then or now. My suffering, in this case, would be both physical and psychological. But it is useful as a motivational slogan, apparently.”

“You’ve really thought about it, haven’t you?”

“No, just now. There are a lot of little things like this. ‘You have to pay your dues if you’re gonna’ play the blues,’ is one. Lots of people play the blues well and never ‘paid any dues’ and WORSE lots of people believed they needed to get out there into a life resembling a Jim Jarmusch movie before they could play the blues — how cool is that, right? Swill vodka and live on the street and beat your kids and cheat on your wife and crash your car and lose your job for NO REASON other than you think you have to pay your dues — and that’s what dues are? Maybe YOUR dues are completely different!  In this life everyone pays dues sooner or later of some kind, but they are dues unique to each person.”

“Some people do well without suffering at all.”

“Yep. That’s what I mean. There’s no correlation. I busted my ass as a teacher for decades and never got tenure, though I made several attempts. It just wasn’t to be.”

“You believe in fate?”

“No, that’s another one of those things — fate is a Janus head.  It’s a way of looking backward at how things turned out, and, at the same time, it’s a warning (probably a good one) that in spite of our best efforts we might not get what we think we want and have to live with reality rather than being crushed by disappointment.”

“You really think slogans like that have so much power?”

“Ask anyone who lived through the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution about the power of slogans.

“Wow. All I can say at this point is hope and change.
“GREAT example! What’s the opposite? Despair and stagnation! Who’s going to vote for that? No pain no gain, Dude. :)”
“Ha ha.”
“Hope isn’t enough to make change and no change is completely predictable, no matter how much it hurts. The only real achievement is joy in the moment. Van Gogh might have been a different man if he had understood that the pleasure of painting is in the work itself — but, a guy has to earn a living. That’s a problem…”
“Yeah but to be a great artist, you gotta’ stay hungry.”

“Too much Bruce Springsteen, Dude.”





Too Good to Miss — Get Up!

Daily Prompt New Dawn How often do you get to (or have to) be awake for sunrise? Tell us about what happened the last time you were up so early (or late…).

This morning — as did Arthur P. Dent on many occasions– I woke up screaming. I didn’t look around for the nice pouch I’d made of rabbit fur and I didn’t got to the opening of my cave. I didn’t have to worry that Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged would appear and call me a jerk. I just screamed. It was 5:30 and the gun at my head said, “Get up and get out there to that shed before it’s a million degrees.” Followed by, “When is this going to be over?


Where am I going?

Ah yes, the normal abnormal life of a person who’s sold her house and doesn’t have another one lined up. My life resembles Dent’s in many ways.  The Vogons DID plough through my existence and force me to take jump on a ride out of here. I could really use a towel (bankie, maybe?) and most of what I’m hearing these days doesn’t make sense (Babblefish?)

And yes, I often, meaning almost always, see the sunrise. What can I tell you? It’s one of the best parts of the day of summer in Southern California, in the mountains. The birds really ARE singing (ravens, crows and jays are screeching, but it’s what they’ve got so they do it). The light hits the taller oaks across the street, then creeps higher in the sky and lower down the oaks. The dogs jump around in joy and make their varied sounds when I join them outside my room. The air is beautiful and cool and it is really the best time of day. No one else is around. The craziness hasn’t begun (it will — selling a house and moving and buying a house is an insane reality). I grab the peaceful hour — big cup of good coffee and a smoothie, the daily prompt (hope it’s good, something to write because I don’t have the brain space right now for my own work).

On the days I drove to school to teach a 7:15 am class, I often saw wild turkeys in the fields  — I love them. Little dinosaurs oblivious to the changes wrought by time.

Every morning is the first morning.




Happy Goethe’s Birthday! (August 28)

I studied literature and really loved it, but as time went by, I became less and less interested in any kind of literary analysis. I suppose this happened in grad school but as I had already developed the habit, I kept at it. Now I find it irrelevant. The big discovery I made at my 40th high school reunion (2010) is that the greatest achievement I’ve reached in my life is my life itself.

This isn’t to say that I think an author’s work should be judged by his/her life. It’s to say that for me, now, I evaluate an author’s importance (subjectively, to myself) against his/her usefulness to me in my life. Maybe that’s what most of us do. It would explain the explosion in recent years in the sales of self-help and “inspirational” books.

Here’s what I love about Goethe. For all his brilliance, he (and it is definitely not “romantic” to do this) was interested in the facts of nature, of reality. What is color? How is it all plants come up the same way? He went at his questions directly — not by creating a philosophical structure to look through nor by creating a scientific theory to test. He just looked, sketched, took notes, thought and WROTE. I love this.

I remember a comment made by my high school English teacher my senior year. She was a great woman and a great teacher and I earn my living based on what she taught me; my further education added NOTHING useful in that sense. But she said, “Martha has a poetic soul; she has a melancholy temperament.”

And how is this good or useful? Was it even accurate? I wandered through my life with this thought in front of me. Was it true that I have a melancholy temperament or had I simply believed her? In fact, my home-life back then was desperate and sad. My dad — whom I adored — was in the last few years of life, slowing vanishing through the deterioration imperative of Multiple Sclerosis. Perhaps I was sad and scared, not melancholy at all?

Goethe’s insistence on direct experience vs. theorizing appeals to me very much. My high school teacher theorized; the reality, the experience was quite different. My life has been a journey toward objective reality out of the fallacious miasma of illusion and deception. My quest, “What’s real, anyway?” It’s a question that can make a person crazy. I love Goethe for asking the same question and for living so long and writing so much about it! Here is how Goethe “toured” Venice.

“Towards evening I explored — again without a guide – the remoter quarters of the city [Venice]. All the bridges are provided with stairs, so that gondolas and even larger boats can pass under their arches without difficult. I tried to find my way in and out of the labyrinth by myself, asking nobody the way and taking my directions only from the points of the compass. It is possible to do this and I find my method of personal experience the best. I have been to the furthest edges of the inhabited area and studied the way of life, the morals and manners of the inhabitants. They are different in every district. Good heavens! what a poor good creature man is after all.” (Italian Journey)

Could have been his epitaph. For me it’s advice, instruction, a light, saying (my paraphrase and interpretation of Goethe in Venice). “You are in the labyrinth, you have the tools to navigate your way, which might be unique to you, but the discovery of the way is the meaning of your life; be confident in it. Go to the furthest edges of the inhabited area and find this lovely, compassionate, conclusion.”

So, at my 40th high school reunion (four years ago), I realized that my life’s achievement is (not so simply) my life itself. Maybe I had (have?) some kind of extraordinary potential (I don’t know) but I moved into the mistakes of adulthood instead, lost, like most of us, in the labyrinth of choice with no useful (to me personally) outside influence. I adored romantic heroes and made the same mistakes over and over, until, tired of this, I was prepared for Goethe’s voice. “Hold your powers together for something good, and let everything go that is for you without result and is not suited to you.”

Happy birthday, Goethe!



Daily Prompt Head Turners We often hear strange snippets of conversation as we walk through public spaces. When was the last time you overheard something so interesting, ridiculous, or disturbing you really wanted to know what it was all about?

SAN-Park-Shuttle-BlueAffectionate, tolerant and attentive dad. Calm and content grandfather (about my age). Two nice boys, one demanding a lot of attention, the other wrapped up in something — a book? A comic? A video game? I don’t remember. Mom and grandma sat across from them on the airport shuttle taking us to the cheap long-term parking out in the back of beyond. (It was only ten years ago that long-term parking was just airport parking and you left your car as long as you were gone and paid $8/day but we don’t live in that world any more.)

The dad spoke to his son in English. It was not perfect English, not the phonemes, anyway, but the syntax was fine. When the grandfather spoke to the boy, they both spoke in Mandarin. I loved it. I imagined that the grandfather could have been one of my graduate students in China (easily). The dad had clearly been educated in the US. I was pretty sure they had emigrated from China when the dad was in high school or right after he finished university in the US.

Watching them (I couldn’t help it) took me out of myself and my concerns. I listened, too tired to be self-conscious or wonder if I should or shouldn’t. I like the sound of Mandarin; I like that I can sometimes get the jist of a conversation, still. I thought to myself how in 1984 I had moved here, San Diego, from Colorado, still homesick for China. I’d worked (or as a good communist would say, “I struggled”) to get two of my friends over here, paying ones airfare from Guangzhou to Seattle where she’d been given a scholarship and co-sponsoring my Chinese brother. I’d gotten him into school at the University of Northern Colorado — the culture shock he experienced changing from life in a crowded Chinese city to life in Greeley Colorado, my god. It had been so difficult. China did not want to let them out and the US did not want to let them in…. Now here was a Chinese family. Thirty years ago it was unimaginable.

They did not speak the “pure” Mandarin spoken in Beijing. They spoke Mandarin  as my Chinese teacher had spoken it, a Mandarin from Shanghai, or some more southern city. That added to its beauty for me.

The ride was about 15 minutes. The family talked about what they’d do when they got home. I could imagine their lives. They had an apartment in a nice complex but probably smaller than most American families of this size could live in, not because the family appeared to be poor; they did not, but just because that would have been comfortable, normal. The complex had a pool.

The two boys were both excited about that. “Can we swim when we get home, Dad?”
“Yes, yes.”

The shuttle reached their car, a large SUV. I knew the grandfather had grown up with bicycles and trams and buses and arranging rides with the heads of his unit in emergencies. He’d grown up in a world that would be only dimly familiar to his son and completely alien to his grandsons, but I knew that world. I thought it was strange that I, a random lady sitting on a shuttle, would share memories with this man that his family would not. By then we’d made subtle eye contact a couple of times. I wanted so much to reveal myself, but in a way that would not obligate anyone.

They stood to gather their things and made a happy familial line to leave the shuttle. The grandfather — feeling he needed to acknowledge me — turned and bowed his head slightly in my direction.

Zai jen,” I said, two syllables, uttered with all my heart.
“Oh!” he smiled, clearly surprised and delighted, “Zai jen! Zai jen!”

And so we built our bridge across the decades and I was grateful. The bridge spanned the distance from a China we had both known to our present moment in an airport shuttle.



Bellaire Elementary, Bellevue, NE

“Mom! I”m BORED!”

Daily Prompt August Blues; As a kid, were you happy or anxious about going back to school? Now that you’re older, how has your attitude toward the end of the summer evolved?

This fall — now, as it happens — is the first fall for more than thirty years that I have NOT gotten ready for school. Before that? Well, from birth to age 5, I didn’t get ready for school, and that was followed by 17 years of getting ready for school in fall. Then, there was a short hiatus of confusion and unemployment followed by  2 years of getting ready for school. THAT was followed by another short hiatus followed by 30 years of getting ready for school I want to get the math out here to show that 50 YEARS OF MY LIFE have revolved around getting ready for school at the end of the summer.

Now this post can go several ways. I can write a summer memory of starting a new school in a new town in a new state in third grade (I liked it!) Bellaire Elementary in Bellevue, Nebraska (picture above). There I learned to draw from Japanese prints and duck-and-cover for bomb drills. Offutt Air Force Base is RIGHT ACROSS THE STREET from the school. The drills were a joke. Yay! Cold War!!!


when I was 10 or 11, reading in the backyard shade of the house, bored with summer and its heat and ennui, complaining to my mom and getting a lecture


I could write about my excited nervousness in the fall of 1976 as I got ready to teach my first class as a TA at the University of Denver, of shopping for “teacherly” clothes with my mom and her gift of a briefcase (“So you’re not pulling student papers out of a backpack with your wet swimming suit”)


I could write about my over-the-moon excitement getting ready to go to China to teach in August 1982


the beautiful moment, August 28, 1999, Goethe’s 350th birthday, when I returned to San Diego State University to teach composition (magical day!)


the moment in 2010 when, for the first time rather than feeling excited about a new semester and filled with ideas for my classes, I cried. I didn’t want to go to school any more. I was burned out, frustrated, caught between a rock and a hard place, hard up for money, disgusted with everything, filled with contempt for my students and administration (“How DARE you give me an A-? This is an A paper and YOU know it!” combined with a physical threat, several hours of mediation with school psychologists and administration, walking around campus with pepper spray all to be told ULTIMATELY  I could NOT throw the kid out of my class). Teaching was no longer an inspiring calling; it was just a job. That was the first time I experienced the “August blues.” And that feeling remained. Teaching; another love relationship gone sour.

This year? I’m selling my house, moving back to Colorado and starting a new life as, as, as? I don’t know for sure but I imagine it will be as someone who doesn’t have to worry about going back to school.



Cats I’ve Known



Today while I was packing and cleaning out boxes I happened on a manila envelope containing some poems I wrote for my niece when she was a little girl — that would have been 1987 or so. They are about the cats I owned (or who owned me) and about cats in general. I decided that since I have NOTHING to do, I’d go ahead and make the book I always wanted to (it’s much easier now than it was in 1987). I only have three of the drawings left, but I was able to include them too.

Here’s one poem. This is not great art, it’s maybe not even poetry, probably just “catteral” (feline for doggerel)


You can never be lonely
If you have a cat,
You can hold and pet her
Or you can simply chat.

A cat is nice to talk to,
Agreeable and fair,
She’ll seldom want to argue,
She’s just happy being there.

All you need to do is feed her,
And pet her once or twice,
Then, to show her gratitude
She’ll go catch you some mice!

And here’s the book.




Daily Prompt  Why, Thank You? What’s the best (or rather, worst) backhanded compliment you’ve ever received? If you can’t think of any — when’s the last time someone paid you a compliment you didn’t actually deserve?

“How far did we hike?” Lana was tired. She’d also peed her pants. We — well, I — had seen a little rattlesnake beside the trail and stopped. Lana was about 20 feet behind me and had asked, “What is it?”
“A little rattler,” I’d said, moving him off the trail. At that moment, she had peed her pants. She hadn’t even see the snake and she peed her pants.

So here we were, about half a mile from our cars. My pitbull girl, Persephone, was happily dancing and running her little crooked pitbull dance beside me. “How far did we hike?”
“About eight miles.”
“Wow! And you do that every day?”
“More or less.”
“Why are you still fat?”
I thought a moment and then said, “If you can catch me, you can call me fat.”  Persephone and I took off running, leaving that bitch, Lana, in the dust. I knew the days of our friendship were numbered and the number was zero.


Bezirkshauptorte Kt. ZŸrich aus der Murer-Karte

Cities and Time and Maps

  • It’s a big world out there — and in here, too!
  • I had been here before, a long time ago — Now I remember. 
  • I was uncertain, but kept going — and ultimately, I died.
  • In my dreams, I envision a place — but the world is wider – and wilder! – than my dreams.
  • Loneliness is an interesting feeling — no, it isn’t.

I like the city picture. It is not as chaotic as many of the places I’ve been… So… 

A city with busy, chaotic streets.
© Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos
© Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos

All cities are chaos until you know them, until you allow them to teach you who they are. You see, all real cities are living things. Shanghai, for example. 1983 (It’s a different city now). We had only a map of the city in Chinese, none was available in English. For us it was no problem. We had our Fodor’s and we had a year of experience navigating through the labyrinth of Guangzhou using only a map in Chinese that had bus routes. We’d used our skills to get around Beijing and Hangzhou? Small city, piece of cake. So in Shanghai, with my Chinese brother, Xiao Huang, we were fine. And we had only one day… It was our last day in China. A brand new 747 carrying only 11 passengers would take us to San Francisco the next day.

Xiao Huang had been assigned to accompany us from Guangzhou to see we would not get in any trouble and maybe because the “heads” knew we would miss each other. Our “watcher,” Xiao Huang had become our good friend. The flight from Guangzhou to Shanghai was his first plane flight, a rickety Aeroflot. I don’t think he enjoyed it.


“Where did you get that map, Ma Sa?”
“In the hotel bookstore.”  Hotel amenities were alien to Xiao Huang who had learned English from Voice of America while on “political study” in a factory in Dun Huang during the Cultural Revolution. Free soul that he was (and is!) some bourgeois artifacts nonetheless inspired his disapproval. The hotel was one of the great art deco buildings still found in Shanghai, left over from the glittering 30s.
“How can you read that?” he asked, looking at the map.
“It’s OK, Xiao Huang. I have a book, too.” I showed him my Fodor’s (I still have it.)
“Your plane leaves in the morning. I am afraid we will not have time to sight see.” I realized he was scared.
“We have all day! I may never again come to Shanghai!”
We were notorious in Guangzhou for going everywhere. It was all the PLA and the police and the Foreign Visitor’s Bureau could do to keep track of us and protect us (it had happened…). I think Xiao Huang was afraid there would be no one in Shanghai to keep us out of danger. He also thought we would get lost. Of course, we never did. We saw many things that day, especially in Old Shanghai. Yu Yuan, a pleasure garden with a moon gate.


In that old Chinese part of the city we saw men making abacus(es? ii?) with drills that had to have existed in medieval times. I bought one, wishing I could give it to my dad, the mathematician, but as he had been dead ten years already it would have to be a votive offering such as the Chinese made to their ancestors. I couldn’t burn it, so just yesterday, I packed it once more. We walked past the shopping area of Shanghai’s glamorous 20s and 30s on a street where pedestrians had one full lane, bikes another and the few trucks and cars were relegated to a narrow lane in the middle.

Xiao Huang had a great time.


Now I look at the cities I’ve visited as not only places navigable via two dimensional maps in languages other than English, but in the way I might imagine three dimensional Tic-Tac-Toe. Chinese cities and European cities are layers of time. Under the streets of Zürich (and other cities) are other cities. In one spot in Zürich you can look down on the excavated ruins of a Roman bath. 34776829

Maps from the past are a big help navigating the time warp of old cities. This map of Zürich was a great help (and a time machine!) when I was working on Martin of Gfenn.  Even though it’s a 16th century map, it’s possible to find the older Zürich and its walls.


Chaos is ignorance waiting for light. As Nietzsche said in Zarathustra, “Unless you have chaos within you, how can you give birth to a dancing star?” Navigating the superficial chaos of an unfamiliar city is one of the great things about traveling!