W.B.’s Top Ten of 2021

Well, there goes 2021, gone in a blur, a year that was better than 2020 in some ways because people emerged from house arrest enforced isolation, and a year that was worse than 2020 in some ways because of the frustrating refusal of so many people to recognize they’re being played.

If I were to pick a Top Ten of 2021, my No. 1 pick is a direct consequence of one of the worst, the sudden death of my beloved Willow The Best Dog There Is, and on my birthday of all days. Worst birthday ever, hands down. I’m not over it, truth be told.

But of course the best thing about 2021 is someone who bears a resemblance to my late pal, although she can only be Willow’s successor, not her replacement.

1. Summer is five months old now, and a part of our family since mid-September. She is a stubborn little thing that absolutely refuses to admit that she knows what “come” and “let’s go in the house” mean. Any frustration I may feel about her obstinance melts, of course, in the face of the enthusiastic greeting I get whenever I return from not-home. Willow singlehandedly converted me from a cat person into a dog person, but Summer and her older sister, Dejah, have reinforced that transformation.

The rest of my Top Ten of 2021 is from pop culture, in part because I usually do these lists from the realm of entertainment, and also because how do you assign rankings to such events as the birth of a grandson, the death of a brother with its sad family reunions, establishment of a huge family garden and all the work that entails …? No, let’s draw this list from the best distractions of the year.

2. Andy Carpenter mysteries — Another side effect of losing our beloved golden retriever was picking up on David Rosenfelt’s entertaining series of courtroom thrillers featuring a defense attorney who owns a golden retriever he considers the most magnificent creature on the planet. In the months after Willow passed, visiting with Andy Carpenter and his dog Tara provided some solace. For the first time ever, I read more than 100 books this year (looks like the final tally will be 103), and about 20 of them were Andy Carpenters.

3. Klara and the Sun — I think my favorite of those 103 books was Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel told from the perspective of an artificial friend, a machine designed as a companion for a frail little girl. I was deeply moved by this story and sought out a couple more Ishiguro books during the year, including his most well-known, The Remains of the Day. He is a master of the “unreliable narrator” and leaves it to the reader to decide what actually happened. I loved loved loved this novel.

4. Hawkeye — Fifth time’s a charm. I wanted to love the Marvel miniseries on Disney+ but WandaVision was too weird too long before it got to the point, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was just boring and muddled, Loki was good but a bit full of itself, and What If was just not interesting. Hawkeye, however, behind Jeremy Renner and Hailee Steinfeld and a stellar supporting cast, hit the bull’s eye. When the sixth and final episode premiered, we took the unprecedented step of turning on a TV adventure at 7:30 a.m. to see how the story ended.

5. The Queen’s Gambit — The Netflix adaptation of Walter Tevis’ book about a chess savant was riveting, and Anya Taylor Joy’s performance was a revelation.

6. Rilla of Ingleside — L.M. Montgomery’s sixth novel in the Anne of Green Gables series was a charming-as-always but sobering story of life on Prince Edward Island during the Great War, as it was called before a Second World War gave it a new name. Montgomery’s hatred of war literally hits home.

7. Project Hail Mary — Andy Weir of The Martian fame did it again, not with a solo man fighting to stay alive on a hostile planet but with two souls of different species learning to work together to solve a mystery that endangers both their worlds. A rousing good time.

8. Burn Notice — We finally got around to sampling this spy thriller series that ran for seven seasons on the USA Network. We’re into the fifth season now, and it’s clear to me that the series is not at all about Michael Weston the burned super spy. Gabrielle Anwar’s Fiona steals every episode.

9. Several Short Sentences About Writing — Verlyn Klinkenborg’s eclectic little book made me think about how sentences work, individually and collectively, and that’s always a good thing for a professional writer to be thinking about. 

10. Take Back Your Time — Christy Wright’s book about rebuilding balance in your life is the perfect book to be reading just before New Year’s. The above-referenced 103rd book I read in 2021 has come along just when I needed it — always a serendipitous and wonderful thing.

Tomorrow, a new year and a new outlook. How can it possibly be 2022 already?

It is time

My Christmas present. Thanks, Red!

The turning of the year always seems to bring out introspection in people. Wednesday morning, Dec. 29, I found myself going back over some of the same old thoughts and propping myself up with the same old motivations with a, shall we say, a new resolve? RESOLVE, noun, with the same root as “resolution.” Ah yes, the same old same old, but I really mean it this time, Mom! We shall see.

I am, living as I do near the shores of the bay of Green Bay, a Packers fan. As the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLV began, the Green and Gold led 21-17 but the Pittsburgh Steelers were moving upfield toward a potential go-ahead touchdown. In a moment famously captured by a camera person, defensive coach Kevin Greene grabbed hold of talented Clay Matthews, looked him in the eye and said, “It is time. It is TIME. IT IS TIME.”

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Matthews barreled into the ball carrier and knocked the ball loose. The Packers recovered the fumble, scored another touchdown a few plays later, and eventually won the game 31-26.

So: Am I going to react to the motivation like Clay Matthews, get the ball and win the Super Bowl? That sounds much more fun than running out the clock and hoping for the best. What’s it going to be? “Prevent defense” or a go-after-the-ball blitz?

I think I want the ball. I still get a little thrill when I think about sitting down and manipulating words until I have something grand or lovely or exciting or all of the above. 

What’s making me hesitate is all those years of having that feeling and, instead, sputtering and letting it drop and chitty chitty bang bang oh man it stalled out again …

I’m into the fourth quarter and it’s a tie so far, or perhaps a slight lead. I’ve made a touchdown or two, maybe a field goal, but the end is not far away and the W is not quite nailed down.

IT IS TIME. Oh, yeah, I’ve written some books, even sold a few handfuls, I’ve blogged more than 500 straight days, picked up some followers, got a couple dozen email readers whom I rarely regale.

IT IS TIME. What is it I want to say? Entertain – Enlighten – Encourage. Meh. My mission statement/vision consists of three wandering generalities. Let’s be more specific.

I want to encourage people to use their brains and common sense and take initiatives. Encourage people to act with fearless freedom and not let busybodies and bullies run their lives.

I want to enlighten people about what came before – fun but semi-forgotten books and songs and TV and radio, and thoughts like Wallace D. Wattles’ “you are a creator, not a competitor.” 

(“Not a competitor”? So what’s with the football analogy? Well, it’s an analogy not because it’s an exact fit but because the example is similar. We ARE competitors but not against each other. We’re playing a game, fighting to the death against Father Time, and winning is not defined as beating him but by playing the best game we can in the allotted four quarters, however long they last. And what is the best game? “Love the Lord your God and Love Your Neighbor.” And we are all neighbors. Right, Mr. Rogers?)

I want to entertain and give the world adventures, stories that do all of the above and a few thrills and chills and spills — but after every chill a warming, after every spill an ascent.

Those thoughts are a little more focused, and here I sit a half-hour after starting to write, a little hesitant, a little inspired, and not sure what to do next. “Just get started.” Who said that?

It is time.

Because we are alive

Facebook reminds me every year that this is what I wrote toward the end of 2016. It’s always a nice reminder because it is always true, in this year — when we lost John Madden, Desmond Tutu, Phil Spector, Hank Aaron, Christopher Plummer, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Nesmith, Lloyd Price, Jim Steinman, Charles Grodin, Ned Beatty, Richard Donner, Nanci Griffith, Randy Scruggs, Don Everly, Ed Asner, Charlie Watts, Anne Rice, Dean Stockwell, and many others — as much as any other.

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Quite a few famous people have died in 2016. Quite a few famous people die every year; one of the regular features of the Academy Awards is a review of all the great actors and filmmakers who have passed in the previous year, and it’s always overwhelming how long the list is.

Somehow people seem to be taking it harder this year. The sad and sudden deaths of George Michael and Carrie Fisher in recent days provoked an outpouring of grief not only for those two fine talents but for all of the people who passed this year – David Bowie, Prince, George Martin, Muhammed Ali, Leonard Cohen …

It’s sad. It’s always sad. When people die “before their time,” it seems especially sad, as in the cases of Michael, 53, and Fisher, 60.

In the case of famous, brilliant performers, however, there is some solace: Their work will live, if not forever, then for a very long time.

That’s the one comfort we have thanks to the technologies of recording and publishing. The words, the images, the performances survive.

And so I am sad about George Michael and Carrie Fisher dying before we were ready to say goodbye. But then I pop When Harry Met Sally or The Empire Strikes Back into the DVD player, or call up “Faith” (or the brilliant TV series Eli Stone) on the web, and there they are.

Death reminds us to live life. The death of my hero Ray Bradbury in 2012 made me sad, and then I got up and wrote a novel.

The other day I was browsing a book called The Bradbury Chronicles, which was published in 1991 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the master’s first published short story with a parcel of short stories by great writers who were inspired by Bradbury. He also contributed a story (“The Troll”) and an essay (“Fifty Years, Fifty Friends”) to the collection.

In the essay he wrote that his optimistic outlook about life and the future was gained through others:

So, you see, that my feeling of optimism came from the encouragement I got from those listed, and some not, who caused me to write/work/play joyously every day and thus achieve the optimal behavior I am always yelling about.

To live at the top of your lungs, your genetics, the rambling and incoherent half-awake, half-asleep dreams just before dawn, or in the morning shower, or on your pillow during afternoon naps. To NOT KNOW what you’re doing but find out in the doing. To always be surprised and never damn or turn away from surprise. To love life while surrounded by so much that is annihilation. To answer, as I did one night not long ago at a lecture, when asked, “Why do you write so much about death?” To which I said, “Because I am alive.”

Are you grieving for George and Carrie and all of the others? I understand. I grieve, too. But rather than curse 2016 and rail against the inevitable, I suggest the following.

Compose a song. Do a dance. Write a story or a screenplay or a book. Record a video that tells one of your favorite memories. Create something that will live long after you’re gone, so that people know you passed this way. Encourage someone so that they will live in joy, knowing you believe in them.

Live, so that death can never win.

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And so, on this day before the day before the day before 2022, let us celebrate this year about to end by … creating something.

The sleepers sleep

 © Ncaimages | Dreamstime.com

“So many people sleep through life, hardly aware of what’s happening around them,” said the skeptic.

“Oh yeah?” his friend said. “What is it we’re missing?”

“I didn’t mean you, necessarily,” the skeptic said.

“Granted. I’m still curious. What are all the sleepers missing?”

“The beauty of the sunshine. The worried look in their neighbor’s face that could be partially cured by a smile. The fullness of a deep breath. A lot of simple things that add up to a life.”

“I thought you were a skeptic,” said the friend. “You’re starting to sound like a sentimental poet or a damn fool.”

“I’m skeptical that the sleepers will ever awaken,” the skeptic sighed. “I think all these mesmerized people may move off this mortal coil oblivious to all that not only might have been but actually existed, right before their eyes if they’d only look up for a minute and look around and breathe and touch and hear.”

“A true skeptic would deny any such beauty exists in the first place.”

The skeptic considered this for a moment. The sky was growing less murky as the sun rose behind overcast skies.

“No, I proudly proclaim that huge masses of people will plod through this day completely unaware of what a miracle their life is,” he said. “Maybe ‘realist’ is a better word, but I remain convinced that ‘skeptical’ fits.”

“Whatever,” his friend said, and looked back at his phone. The clouds parted for a brief moment, but only the skeptic saw it.

“There, you see? Even you missed that.”

“If you say so.”

Days of blank pages

© Alexei Poselenov | Dreamstime.com

The musician famously said, “When I miss a day of practice, I notice. When I miss two days, the critics notice. When I miss three days, the audience notices.”

Miss too many more days, and you almost have to start over again. The momentum — gained by weeks, months, or years of daily practice — is lost, or at least misplaced.

The callouses earned by playing guitar every day have softened. The ability to leap right back into the story you were writing is crippled. The now-unfamiliar clay doesn’t respond to your fingers.

Before you’re tempted to walk away forever, you have to plant yourself back in the chair knowing you have to endure the exertion of inertia-busting.

You push against the boulder and push and push with no discernible result until you move it an inch — but don’t quit there because it’s only an inch. You need to keep pushing, and soon it moves another inch, and then two inches and a foot and more, until it’s where you were when you stopped practicing. 

Fret not that you lost time to inertia; that’s a sure way to lose more time. 

Start a new roll and journey from there. Make a new routine, perhaps better than the old one, tempered by what you learned by misplacing the routine in the first place.

Christmas wisdom from nephew Fred

 © Romolo Tavani | Dreamstime.com

“There are many things from which I might have derived good by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew, “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round — apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that — as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

Charles Dickens, 1843

Study war no more

It’s ironic, in a world of constant war and gleeful hatred wherever we turn, that our most sacred holidays celebrate the birth, death and resurrection of a man whose coming was heralded with angels singing, “Peace on Earth, good will toward men.”

Every so often, and especially around Christmas, we pause and consider the new testament Jesus brought, with God’s law condensed to two commandments: Love the Lord your God, and Love One Another. How’s that working out for us?

One of these days we really are going to lay our burdens down and study war no more.

I see members of the ruling class badmouthing each other and rattling sabers, safe in the knowledge that they’re not the ones who will have to wield the sabers if push comes to shove, and I despair that a day of peace on Earth will ever come.

But then I see strangers smile at each other, I hear children laughing together, and I feel the emotion in a song everyone loves, I see all kinds of people working and playing together, and I remember that we have more in common than we have differences. The political class have to work hard to keep us driven apart.

If we could keep the spirit that pervades this season and make it 24/7/365 … what a world that could be.