Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Desktop Wallpaper: Forgotten Rain

My eldest daughter told me, "Dad - I don't know how you see all these things you take pictures of." This photograph was taken two doors down from our home at the edge of our neighbor's front yard retaining wall. There is beauty everywhere - we just have to see it.

You can find Forgotten Rain, sized for widescreen and standard monitors, at

Additional free wallpaper based on my photography can be found at

I'll be offering a new wallpaper each day between now and December 22nd - which is not only Winter Solstice, but will see the rebirth of my non-religious spiritual site, Old Ways, that I founded back in 1997.  With over 800 pages of original articles, lessons, and video, it went offline earlier this year but will return in 8 more days.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Desktop Wallpaper: Solstice Morning

I tend to wander, camera in hand, whenever the opportunity presents itself.  This photograph was taken shortly after dawn in the high plateaus of Eastern Oregon in 2007.  A lone deer, foraging for food, turned to look at me while I was out enjoying the morning.

You can find Solstice Morning, sized for widescreen and standard monitors, at

Additional free wallpaper based on my photography can be found at

I'll be offering a new wallpaper each day between now and December 22nd - which is not only Winter Solstice, but will see the rebirth of my non-religious spiritual site, Old Ways, that I founded back in 1997.  With over 800 pages of original articles, lessons, and video, it went offline earlier this year but will return in 9 more days.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

When the Street Lights Come On

I was discussing the state of our country with a bunch of my friends yesterday when one of them asked, "But was it ever altogether good?"

That really got me thinking. Do we look back on earlier times, viewing them through some filter that says, "Things were never this bad"? We've all heard the stories that begin with the phrase, "Back when I was a kid." But were things really better? Did we have a better life? Was the life we lived ever, you know, good?

You know what? It was.

I primarily grew up in a small farming community here in Oregon that had a population of less than 10,000 people. Rather than staying inside all day, watching television or playing video games, we kids went outside and explored. Either on foot or by bike, I covered every inch of that town - the back alleys; the main streets; the empty lots; every nook and cranny. In grade school I'd run off with friends, climbing trees, picking berries, and swimming in rivers - without an adult to supervise us anywhere in sight. Did we get in trouble? Oh, more than once. One of our group would be taken home and parents would call their phone tree, making sure that each guilty child was snared in the net. My pocket knife was finally confiscated the second time I needed stitches and had to walk home, my hand wrapped in a bloody t-shirt. No one was worried about child abduction or lawsuits or what might happen if we weren't watched. Sometimes I'd come home for lunch; sometimes I wouldn't; but I'd always share my day's plans ahead of time. The rule was always the same - "Come home when the street lights come on."

We didn't pick up a phone, send a text, IM, or email our friends to see what they were doing. I'd hop on my bike and ride to their house. If they weren't home, I'd ride to the next friend's house or go off on my own. Before I was even old enough to go to school, I used to walk over to friends' houses or run simple errands to the corner market - even crossing the street on my own after making sure to look both ways.

My family moved to the big city (a suburb of Seattle for a year) when I was in first grade and the same rules applied. It wasn't just in our little town where things were different. Sure there were more people and more cars, but I'd still ride my bike to the closest pizza parlor to play coin-operated arcade games with my friends or down to the convenience store to buy comics and candy. Every store had bins of penny candy and kids would rifle through them, bringing handfuls of sweets up to the counter with pocket full of loose change; no one was ever worried that they might simply steal it. We played ball in vacant lots and dared each other to explore boarded up houses and stayed out late in the summer, coming home when the street lights came on.

Racism was unheard of even in a completely white farming town. A new family moved to our town when I was in grade school, raising the number of African American kids in our school from zero to three. We called them "black" or "brown" just like we were "white." No one told us we were being racist by noticing that we were all different. And to be honest, we thought the "black" kids were really cool. I couldn't wait to make friends with Kenny (the new boy in my grade) and was so excited when he invited me over to his house! I remember feeling like a celebrity, the only white person there, and I wondered if Kenny felt like that all the time since he was the only African American kid in our class. His parents were so nice. I can still remember standing there as his mom made us a snack, trying hard not to stare at the calendar with a painting of naked "black" women for that month. The painted women were beautiful and I thought it was really cool that their skin was colored differently (as in coloring with crayons different) than mine was. It didn't seem wrong to be different; it was so beautiful in a way that was unique in my world.

A few months later, a boy named Achi joined our school. No one was sure what to call him as his skin wasn't really brown like Kenny's but really wasn't any other definable color either. We knew he wasn't Chinese or Japanese, so he was just Achi. And once again, instant celebrity! Everyone wanted to be Achi's friend because he was different than everyone else in our class. Achi moved to the States from very rural Cambodia, spoke very little English, and didn't understand modern plumbing or that our school's bathrooms were segregated by gender. I can't count the times the first week when one of the girls would get a teacher and say, "Achi's in the girls' bathroom again." Everyone was patient. Everyone understood that he was from a different part of the world and wouldn't instinctively know how our culture worked. The boys showed him how to use the facilities and whoever was closest showed him how to work the drinking fountain until he got the hang of it. No one thought it was weird or complained about him. He was just Achi.

My family were very conservative Christians; my father was an extraordinarily conservative Republican. We went to church three times a week (Wednesday night and twice on Sundays) and we weren't allowed to listen to secular music or watch a long list of popular television shows. Everyone at school knew this. Instead of being teased for being different, I was invited over to friends' houses to spend the night - where we'd play all-night sessions of Dungeons and Dragons (gasp!), watch MTV and HBO (gasp! gasp!) and have horror movie marathons. After all, different - whether you were from a different country or a different culture right down the street - meant that others would step in to lend a helping hand.

I was given an allowance of $20 a month and was told that I had to buy my own school lunches with that. (It was just enough to cover hot lunches for a month.) Prices were low enough back then that, by making a budget, clipping coupons, and shopping ads, I could have delicious cold lunches for a month and still have money left over to buy comic books and go out for milk shakes with my best friend. Adjusting for inflation, can you imagine buying a month's worth of groceries for school lunches for $40? There were no giant-size supermarkets so, after clipping my coupons, I'd ride from one grocery store to another, getting the best deals. Everyone did. My grandmother was the master at the process and her pantry was continually stocked with whatever happened to be on hand.

Without microwave ovens I learned to cook. If there wasn't time to cook, I'd eat a sandwich. If there wasn't time for a sandwich, I'd grab some fresh fruit. Each summer, as I left the house early to bike and play with friends, my diet was primarily what I could pick from a tree, a bush, or snag from the refrigerator to eat on the way out the door. I don't know that I ever ate a granola bar until I was an adult. There wasn't a single kid among us who could be considered obese. In fact, I think we had one significantly over-weight boy in our entire grade school. Fresh fruits and vegetables and plenty of exercise has a tendency to erase childhood obesity.

I knew everyone on my grandmother's street by name - and many of the people in a two block radius around her home. I mowed Lena's lawn, the widow who lived across the street from my grandparents, would hang out in the elderly gentleman's garage while he worked on wood projects a block away, and regularly said hello and stopped to talk to people as I walked down the sidewalk. I remember when the couple across the street had their first baby when I was just a little kid - and I remember staring at their house from my grandmother's window, knowing that their family had changed, that a new person lived there now. Years later I'd babysit for them after their one child had been joined by two other siblings.

Could politicians be trusted back then? Not really. Were wars still fought? All the time. I interviewed my grandfather (who had fought in both WWII and Korea) for a school project. My family had a strong history of military service and most of them had seen combat in one war or another. Did crime still happen? Absolutely. It was only a couple of weeks after my eleventh birthday when John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.

But things were different then. They were better then. We've lost something, something that you can't measure, that you can't assign a price tag to. We've lost trust. Trust in ourselves, in our neighbors, and in our communities. We've replaced that trust with fear. Fear erases community. It sets us against each other. It divides us.

When we look around at our world, at the protests that seem to be springing up everywhere, those aren't individuals that are standing there alone shouting "What the hell?" It's people coming together in a common moment. In the moments that we stand, shoulder to shoulder, we're doing more than simply shouting with a single voice. For however long that moment lasts, we're neighbors again. We're a community. We trust each other. While we've lost so much of that, it's not gone. It's who we are. All we have to do is reach out to each other and find it there. We need to stop listening to the talking heads that say, "Be afraid," and start reaching out to one another and saying, "Let me help." The common theme in almost every memory of my childhood involves us reaching out to each other. We didn't call, we stopped by. We said hello to each other and stopped to talk about families. Old men would teach young neighbor boys wood working. New kids would be embraced by their new classmates and shown around the school. Even when we got in trouble, our parents were informed and they called each other.

While the world around us has changed, if we stand together, we can re-forge a connection where trust was the norm, where we helped each other, and where we can confidently tell our kids, "Come home when the street lights come on."

I want to live in that world again. How about you?

I originally wrote this back on March 2, 2011 for Old Ways, a site that I founded on March 21, 1997.  Old Ways went offline earlier this year, but will return to the Internet on December 22, 2011.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

My Perfect Thanksgiving

The following is excerpted from my third novel, Remembering Tomorrow.  While it illustrates one approach to celebration of Lughnasadh, many of the themes would work just as well for the modern holiday of Thanksgiving.

The long wooden structure was brightly lit with candles and oil lamps, the flickering light filling the feasting hall with a welcoming glow. Rectangular tables were set end-to-end around the perimeter of the room, forming a single u-shaped seating area, the opening facing the double doors that let in the cool night air. Chairs were arranged along the outside of the tables, the seats quickly filling with the laughing, chattering members of the settlement, each dressed in their best clothes for the holiday. The joyful chaos of their voices tumbled out the open doors and into the dark Autumn night, the sounds drifting across the compound until they were nothing more than whispers tiptoeing through the trees of the grove.

In the center of the large gathering hall stood a single ancient tree, its massive trunk extending through an open skylight in the ceiling, the building erected around it. The tree echoed a tradition that predated the changes in the world around them, its significance established by Kyle’s mother when they were new to the mountains and he was no more than a boy. As the years passed and other refugees found their hidden sanctuary, the tree had come to symbolize the life of the settlement. Superstition held that as long as the tree grew and thrived, the tiny community would do the same. But if the tree died, the members of the settlement believed that their hopes and dreams died with it. It had become the heart of the community, the tree’s health intimately tied to the livelihood of the mountain village. Children were christened at its base; lovers married beside its trunk. It was a sympathetic magic, a legend hinting that those blessings laid at its roots would grow tall and strong with the mighty oak.

With the celebration of the first harvest, the members of the community had laid tokens of their labors around the tree’s base. Produce and crafts were carefully arranged like presents around a Christmas tree; ribbons of cloth and newly died yarn were woven around the trunk. As the tree slowly grew, it would carry the symbolism of their tokens with it, bringing the hopes for continued bounty into the next year even as those that gathered around its trunk gave their thanks.

Alex strode into the great hall, waiting patiently behind the line of people that approached the central tree before moving on to take their seats. The clothing that Heather had made for him fit perfectly; the thick cotton trousers the color of the earth were tucked into a pair of worn boots, the deep green shirt its perfect compliment, accentuating the lines of his lean, muscular torso. Heather had the eyes of a seamstress, the gift to look a person over once and know exactly how to cut the cloth to fit their build. Meeting her eyes across the room where she directed the children in setting the tables, he mouthed the words, “Thank you,” looking down and gesturing to his clothes, rewarded with her smile when he looked up again.

At last, Alex approached the tree, the couple in front of him laying their token at its base and saying a quiet prayer before continuing on. Moving to the side, he knelt and laid a small loaf of bread among the other offerings. He stayed on one knee for a moment, his eyes picking out a single token among the gifts. A quartered circle, woven of dried grapevines lay nestled under the other offerings. Each intersection of the talisman was tied with a tiny swatch of cloth, its carefully embroidered pattern unmistakable. He wasn’t sure what it represented, but he recognized it as the fabric of the robe Megan had worn when he’d stayed with her, and hope grew within him that it symbolized a blessing she asked the tree for.

Standing, he searched for her among the gathered revelers. A crowd of laughing, talkative villagers had formed around the head of the table and Alex, sharing their good mood with the host and hostess of the feast. Alex tried to glimpse Megan through the milling throng, but couldn’t see through them, so he took his place beside Peter, amidst the patrol members, Megan’s seat at the head of the guardsmen remaining vacant.


The feast had been a wonderful success and praises were heaped upon Heather for her fine cooking and wonderful gifts. The settlement had gorged themselves on venison, pheasant, and duck, vegetable dishes harvested from their greenhouses, and breads baked from bartered flour. Megan looked radiant in her deep green cloak, edged with golden knotwork that reminded one of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Fastened with an intricate iron clasp, the rich fabric draped over Megan’s shoulders, the hood spilling down her back and adding a deep glow to her fiery red hair. Beneath the cloak, Heather had provided a snow white dress, beautiful in its simplicity, the lines accentuating the grace in Megan’s form.

She stood next to Kyle, the old man smiling as his eyes drifted over the strangers who had slowly become family, who had joined a life that had risen from the ashes of the world before. His eyes drifted to the carved wooden cup he held, gazing into the fresh apple cider it contained. Raising it as a toast to the village, he spoke.

“A good harvest and a good life,” he called out, his booming voice met with a loud cheer of agreement from his kin. “This cup holds the fruit of our harvest, the blessings each of us have found within this community, and the promise of more blessings to come. Come!  Let’s give our thanks and be known as family and kin.”

Forming a single-file line that wound around the great hall, each member of the settlement approached Kyle and Megan, drinking from the cup of kinship in turn. Megan would top off the simple, wooden vessel and Kyle would take it, sipping from it first to show that the drink held no ill will. Each would drink in turn, stating what they were most thankful for and what they hoped from the year to come. The old man welcomed each in turn, calling them by name, reminding them that they belonged to a family, that whether they fled adversity to reach their new home or were born within the arms of the settlement, each had found a place where they truly belonged...

Remembering Tomorrow is available for $12.99 from Amazon (or $2 more - autographed and including 2-day priority - shipping directly from us) and in about every ebook flavor known to the modern world for $2.99.  Links to each version of the book - and to the first three chapters of the novel - are found on my personal site, Virtual Coffee.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Desktop Wallpaper: Remembering Tomorrow

I was driving up the Nestucca River valley on October 22, 2007, when I took this picture. It was mid-morning on a quiet mountain road, so I simply stopped the car without pulling over, hopped out with my camera, and started shooting. This photo was used in creating the cover of my third published novel, Remembering Tomorrow.

I currently have more than a dozen different wallpapers on my site, formatted for both widescreen and standard monitors.  Enjoy! :)

Remembering Tomorrow Wallpaper:
Wallpaper Library:

Friday, November 18, 2011

Follow the Thread

My second novel, The Awakening, was the opening act in a three part tale of the end of the world.  Rather than taking the position of any one religion, the Rebirth trilogy weaves "...Hopi, Mayan and Christian prophesies with current events and the theories of quantum physics. The Awakening is a novel of the ending of a reality, of the reclaiming of a dimension that we call home. Told from a perspective beyond the filter of mythology, the beginning of the end is shown from a non-religious perspective while embracing the spiritual origins of our own existence."

The second part of the story, A Tide of Shadows, is due out early next summer.  In preparation for the sequel, I've been spending a tremendous amount of time with my nose buried in international news sites, defense and scientific journals, and religious texts as I hone the details that herald in the end of reality.

While I won't give away the next portion of the story, this is one trail of bread crumbs that I ultimately discarded.  It can be argued that the following events are one of the threads that lead to the end of the world - threads that the mortals in The Awakening were encouraged to find and unravel.  Had the teenager, Jenny, brought the following to the attention of Nathaniel (one of the Old Ones), he would have acknowledged its validity and stated that it was too large for them to personally address.  If The Awakening seemed a little "too real" for comfort, it's because the storyline that connects all three books is backed up with history, current events, and the latest discoveries from the scientific community.

Follow the thread...

The first piece...
"Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry: "'Woe! Woe, O great city, O Babylon, city of power! In one hour your doom has come!'" ~ Revelation 18:10
The second piece...
"Babylon... was an Akkadian city-state (founded in 1867 BC by an Amorite dynasty) of ancient Mesopotamia, the remains of which are found in present-day Al Hillah, Babil Province, Iraq, about 85 kilometers (55 mi) south of Baghdad." ~ Wikipedia

The third piece...
Distance between Baghdad (Iraq) and Tehran (Iran): 431.11 miles

The fourth piece...
"The IAEA acknowledges that some of the activities set out in its annexe may have civilian as well as military applications, but it says that 'others are specific to nuclear weapons.'  So the agency's grounds for concern are not that Iran conducted "this" activity or had documents on "that" process. The question it is posing is that if Iran's research effort really touched on all these areas, then what else could it have been doing but attempting to develop a bomb?" ~ BBC News (November 8, 2011)

The fifth piece...
"GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney and increasingly popular Newt Gingrich both used a presidential debate on foreign policy to back a pre-emptive military strike against Iran to stop the country obtaining nuclear weapons. Former Massachusetts governor Romney said that if 'crippling sanctions' failed, war would be an option because it is 'unacceptable' for Iran to become a nuclear power, while ex-speaker Gingrich argued the United States should covertly 'take out their scientists,' and 'break up their systems'." ~ The Daily Mail (November 13, 2011)

The sixth piece...
"The US has test-fired a new weapon which can travel at five times the speed of sound, the Pentagon says.  The missile was launched from Hawaii and reached its target on a Pacific atoll 2,300 miles (3,700km) away in less than half an hour.  The Advanced Hypersonic Weapon is part of a programme to build new high-speed long-range missiles. Its aim is to allow the US military to strike targets anywhere in the world within an hour." ~ BBC News (November 18, 2011)

The Awakening is available through Amazon in paperback for $12.99.  It is also available in Kindle, Nook, and various ebook formats for $2.99.  Autographed copies of the trade paperback edition are available through my personal Web site for $15 - which includes two day priority mail shipping anywhere in the United States.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

New Music Wednesday: Small Venue Shows

If you hear the phrase, "I'm going to a concert tonight," and you instantly think, "$250 a ticket," you're doing it all wrong.  There is an absolute wealth of amazing live performances played year round in countless venues not far from you.  Chances are you haven't heard of all the bands that are playing in your local area.  However, if you're thinking, "If I haven't heard of them, they must be local and suck," you'd be sadly mistaken.

First of all, there are amazing entertainers out there who have yet to get their big break.  That's going to be about half of what's playing on any given night.  One quarter are bands that have signed with major labels and simply haven't broken through onto the charts.  The remainder are often bands that are absolutely huge in other countries, but are relatively unknown here in the States.

About a year ago, I took my wife to see Marina and The Diamonds playing live at a lounge up in Portland.  The opening band was one that we had never heard of, but were pleasantly surprised by their sound.  I believe the concert was on a Wednesday or Thursday night and, having arrived early for dinner (it was Bri's birthday celebration) we found ourselves in the general admission show a bit early, standing where the floor met the edge of the very small stage.  A few weeks later, the single, "My Body," by Marina's opening band, Young the Giant, shot up the charts.  When Bri and I heard it on the radio, we turned and silently smiled at each other as we were literally close enough to reach out and touch the band a short time before.

The video for "My Body" currently has 2.7 million views on YouTube.  Marina's has over 3 million.  I believe the tickets were $14 a piece.

A few years back, I forked out $25 a ticket to take my eldest two children to a rock concert featuring four bands.  The show was headlined by a new alternative metal band called Flyleaf who went on to sell more than 1,000,000 copies of their debut album.  We actually went to see one of the supporting bands, Sick Puppies, who had their song "All The Same" associated with the Free Hugs campaign and hail from Sidney, Australia.

The Free Hugs video featuring the song by the Sick Puppies has received over 70 million views.

But small venue shows aren't simply about getting good live music cheap.  Generally speaking, after their set, the artists will come down to meet the fans and sign autographs.  The opening band of the Flyleaf show was an unsigned group by the name of Resident Hero.  My son, Gavin, was shy but thought the lead singer was really cool and wanted to tell him that.  Imagine the impact on a young boy when the lead singer of a rock band smiles and says, "Kid, YOU'RE the one who is REALLY cool."  Our eldest daughter's fascination with the bass (she's learning to play) as well as her personal style were heavily impacted by Emma Anzai, the bass player and back-up vocalist for Sick Puppies.  Not only did the kids get to meet the band, but each member of Sick Puppies talked with them and signed their tour poster.

On the mellower end of the spectrum, cellist Zoe Keating was playing a show one night where the tickets were three figures a piece - and a solo show at a very small venue the next night for $8 a pop.  As we slowly made our way toward our seats (small venue version), Zoe actually stopped by and talked to those in line, thanking them for coming to the show.  The following is one of the pieces that she played.  Using only her cello, a laptop, and recording equipment, she'll lay down tracks and layer new tracks over the top, creating beautiful acoustic soundscapes.

So how do you find great live shows in your area without breaking the bank?

First, you need to do a little research and find a list of venues in your area that host live music.  We generally go to Portland, Oregon for shows - a city about 40 minutes north of us - simply because they tend to draw bigger acts than our local venues do.  In Portland, we keep our eyes primarily on The Doug Fir Lounge (shows there typically range between $5 and $15 per ticket), Mississippi Studios ($5 to $15), and the Hawthorne Theater ($14 to $25 for a show that usually features between four to six bands).  With their site open in one tab of my browser, I'll open up YouTube in a second tab and start searching for artists.  Some will catch my ear, some won't; and some will make me say, "Wow!" From the Wow List, I compare our schedule, finances, and decide who would like to go with me - because I'm the type that prefers to share the concert experience with someone else.

Big venues with household-name bands are a lot of fun.  But if you add up the price of the seven tickets that I purchased for the three concerts listed above, my total cost was $119 - less than the amount of a single ticket to many larger shows.  And we got to meet the bands.  And my son had the lead singer of a rock band boost his confidence.  And my daughter was inspired to play bass.  And an autograph tour poster hands on my daughter's wall.  And my wife had an amazing birthday.  And we have a wealth of amazing memories we shared together.  And we can continually say, "Remember when we saw them and were so close we could touch the band?" when we're listening to the radio.

None of that is something you can put a price tag on.