Seeing the Elephant

A Review of So Frag & So Bold: Short Poems, Aphorisms & Other Wartime Fun (Middle West Press, 2021) by Randy Brown

Reviewed by Eric Chandler


Randy Brown’s latest chapbook, So Frag & So Bold: Short Poems, Aphorisms & Other Wartime Fun (Middle West Press, 2021), is small and explosive. That’s why the cover image of a combination heart/grenade is so apt. Grenades are also small and explosive. 

The “Wartime Fun” comment in the title might seem odd, but humor is the sugar that makes the medicine go down. It’s hard to look directly at war. But if a poem is funny, you might be able to hang on long enough to hear what the poet is trying to say. The title also says these are short poems. True, but the words gained power for me surrounded by white space. 

I read somewhere that laughter happens when your brain gets surprised. When I read “Morning Prayer” I laughed because, my goodness, my wife and I love a cup of joe:


Coffee?

Thank God.


A short poem, for sure. There’s even a poem that ponders just how short a poem can be. Another questions what poetry is. The chapbook title comes from Brown’s parody of a William Carlos Williams poem called “This Is Just to Say.” Williams’ plums in the ice box become grenades in Brown’s poem. These poems might be a little “inside baseball,” requiring some familiarity with writing and poetry, but they still made me smirk. 

Still, this is mostly a collection that ponders war. Brown is self-aware when it comes to revisiting one’s experiences in the military. Some pieces are almost meta-poetry. Writing about war writing. In one piece called “a poem” he writes:


You don’t have to make everything

a poem, she said. 


Or about

being a Veteran.


And in his “The New Sherpatudes,” his personal list of aphorisms and nuggets of wisdom, he ends with this one-liner: Nostalgia is a disease, suffered by old soldiers. I think it’s too strong to say that reminiscing about wartime experiences is a disease. We tell stories, after all. It’s intensely human to share our stories. 

We tell those stories in different ways, which Brown covers nicely in a piece titled “blind men & veterans.” Seeing combat has been called “seeing the elephant.” He deftly combines that phrase with the old fable about several blind men describing an elephant differently based on which part of the animal they were each touching. Brown got me nodding when I read this piece:

we each describe

                           seeing the elephant


differently

As for me, I feel guilty sometimes about continuing to dwell on wartime events in my life. My disease of nostalgia. Brown dropped a truth grenade on me in a piece called “on war poetry.” Not funny, but explosive. It made me realize it’s okay to revisit some of the most important moments of my past:


we write the war /

the war writes us


even the ones

who got away clean


One time, I was dangling my toes off a dock into a Minnesota lake when a bald eagle swooped down and snagged a fish out of the calm water ten feet in front of me. The surprise of such an improbable occurrence hit my brain and I let out an explosive “HA!” like a grenade. Brown lobs many surprises that powerful, so go get yourself this chapbook. It really is So Frag & So Bold.

Posted in Writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Shmo’s 2021 Writing Review: Pandemic Edition

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

– Annie Dillard from The Writing Life

First time skiing on Lake Superior, 2021. Distancing Duluth-style.

My last normal day of flying was March 13, 2020. I flew my 737 from Palm Springs to Chicago. Then I grabbed a jumpseat home to Duluth. I landed in Duluth just a few days after my son came home from college in Boston, ostensibly for spring break. Then the virus hit the fan. My daughter did school from home. My son attended college from home for the next year. Shelley’s father had recently passed away and now we couldn’t gather to celebrate his life. We all got to learn how to “embrace the suck,” as we used to say in the service.

In a panic, my airline paid people to stay home, since there was no flying anyway. I took advantage, since I’m not a fan of work. That was unsustainable for the company, so they looked for less expensive ways to send people away. They talked about laying off 3900 pilots or about a third of all of us. This made previous crises look like spa treatments. I was laid off twice by my company. One time, for three years after 9/11 and then four years through the global recession. One of the many options they came up with to mitigate furloughs was an unpaid “company offered leave of absence” or COLA. I signed up.

My primary reason for taking the COLA was that I didn’t want to catch a disease and drag it home to my family. Secondly, our slide toward empty nesting went the other direction. The nest filled back up with our kids getting their Zoom-based education. The farm was busy again. I figured if I was around, I could help a little. (Shelley might say that I was a hindrance.) Last, it was explicit in the COLA agreement that my voluntary unpaid leave would keep one other pilot from getting laid off. Losing your job sucks. I did that twice. Of course, two weeks after I pulled the trigger on the COLA, they changed the agreement and nobody got laid off at all. Which is great, but I was sad I couldn’t be a heroic unpaid martyr anymore. 

My time off recently ended. In December 2021, after 22 months away, I went back to flying airplanes. Things are…different. Just today, I got the question I always get from the captain I’m flying with: “What did you do with all that time off?” 

I always draw a blank and think, Yeah, what the hell DID I do?

Normally, I write a review of my year in writing. But after this whole calendar year of 2021 in a pandemic, I’m taking a little bigger view. 

Did I waste almost two years of free time? 

Shelley on Eagle Mountain (Minnesota High Point), September 2021.

Shelley is really good about planning her day. She uses all of our synchronized devices to make tones and notifications and reminders about what to do. It used to bug me. But I’ve come to respect and admire her commitment. There’s a joke in writing that says, “You’re a writer? You must really like sentences.” But it’s not really a joke. You probably really should like sentences. And in a larger sense, if you claim to be living life to the fullest, then you probably ought to know what you’re going to do between 9 and 11 AM this morning. The calendar equivalent of liking sentences.

Before the pandemic began, I tried to give more intention to my days by imitating Shelley. I came at it backwards, though. She likes to plan ahead of time. I love to keep track of things afterward. This comes from my keeping a training log since 1983 that has every single run/bike/ski/hike/paddle I’ve ever done. I’ve written about this obsessive compulsion before. Starting in January of 2020, I leveraged this desire to “keep track.” I started a Writing Time Log. If I was a “serious writer,” I should punch the clock. 

This Writing Log correlates to my work life. Pilots get paid by the hour. I have an hourly pay rate. When the door closes and we push back from the gate, the clock starts and continues until we arrive at the next gate. All the other time (e.g. jumpseating to Chicago from Duluth, walking to and from the jets, going to and from the hotels) is essentially unpaid. If the way I get paid at my “real” job is by the hour, I should try to treat my writing the same way. Hours of time, strictly focused on work. This was a way to see if my writing time came close to my flying time.

So, I kept a Training Log, a Writing Time Log, and my Flight Logbook. Then, in the spring of 2020, the pandemic affected the Board of Directors of the Duluth Cross-Country Ski Club. A couple people in the medical profession went into overdrive and couldn’t volunteer on the board anymore. I got asked to jump in to fill a vacancy and said, “Sure.” We had all our board meetings by Zoom and managed an upcoming winter that got crushed by social distance. But I saw it as another chance to log my time. I started a Volunteer Time Log. If you’re still with me at this point, you’re probably feeling nauseous. But hey, my desire to record my time has turned out to be an interesting experiment. I’m inclined to do things I can log. If I create logs for the things I care about, I might spend more time on them. 

With the kids home all the time, we split to four corners of the house during the day. We rejoined at supper, preceded sometimes by an outdoor activity. We got into a groove. I found that I was Happy Shmo when I did three things: 1) Write in the morning 2) Exercise mid-day before the caffeine wears off, and 3) Do something useful for the family. I walked downstairs with a cup of coffee and tried to treat my writing desk like a real job with an hourly wage. Seems like heaven now that I’m writing this jammed into an airline seat, deadheading back to Chicago from Orange County.

There are 8760 hours in a year. (In an immediate digression, as I looked at all these increments of time, I learned I have roughly 9000 hours of total flight time. I’ve spent roughly one year of my whole life airborne since I started flying in 1989. Happy First Airborne Birthday to Me.)

In an average, non-pandemic year, I get around 500 hours of airline pay.  In the past two years, I averaged about 350 hours per year working as a writer. I logged 300 hours of exercise in 2021. I spent just under 100 hours of time volunteering for the DXC Board in 2021. (As a reminder, I didn’t actually fly during the pandemic. All this math is a way to prove to myself that I can keep the pace up in writing/exercising/volunteering now that I’m back at work.) Within the logged topics, I’m pretty happy with how close my writing time came to my flying time. I’m also happy with my 2021 training log. It’s only the 3rd time since 1983 that I’ve racked up more than 300 hours in a year. 

8760 hours in a year minus 2920 hours of sleep (I know I get 8 hours of sleep a night because…wait for it…I log my sleep time in my training log) leaves 5840 waking hours. Around 2 hours a day spent preparing and eating meals = 730. That leaves 5110 conscious, non-munching hours. Sometimes I shower and, well…you know…crap. So how about an hour a day for hygiene. 5110 – 365 = 4745.

Then you throw in the given of my day job: pilot. 500 hours. A lot of time is spent just “body in motion” and can’t effectively be used for a focused task other than commuting. So let’s say 30 days a year going to work. On the commute day to work, I burn (best case) about 4 hours to get to Chicago and another 4 hours at the far end of the trip to get home. So 30 x 8 hours to/from DLH = 240 hours. I work about 100 days once I get to Chicago and have about an hour on each end of each day getting to/from the airport. So 2 hours x 100 = 200. So work plus commuting = 940 hours. So, 4745 hours – 940 = 3805.

Remember I said a “good day” included me doing chores? Let’s give myself a little credit. Lawn mowing and snow shoveling don’t really hold a candle to the day-in, day-out work that Shelley does. But I carry stuff out to the recycling bin once in a while. Shovel a dogshit or two into the garbage can. So, let’s give myself an hour a day of being a “helpy-helperton” (Ace Ventura? Nothing? Come on.), but only on the 235 days when I’m home. 3805 hours – 235 = 3570.

So, now we’re down to the “discretionary” items. Things I claim to care about using my free time to do. I try to exercise daily. 300 hours plus about 30 minutes before and after the activity, to gear up and breakdown. Sometimes, this’ll include commuting to a trailhead. So, 600 hours from 3570 = 2970. DXC Board of Directors time added up to 100 hours, so 2970 hours drops to 2870. I’m trying to be serious about writing, so that’s the next big item at 350 hours, so my free time just dropped to 2520. 

Even though I appear to have a lot of spare time left, often Shelley and I end the day in a puddle on the couch staring at Netflix. So, let’s give us 2 hours of credit per day for a well-earned vegetative state. 2520 – 730 = 1790 hours.

1790 hours per year means I have FIVE EXTRA HOURS PER DAY. This is actually motivational. 5 hours a day for more writing/exercising/being useful for the family. But every day is not the same. Some days are completely filled and there’s no time for anything but work/food/sleep. Some days are completely free. So, it’s 5 hours a day “on average.” The point is that there is more time out there and I need to use it for the things I care about: My family, outdoor recreation, writing, and volunteering. 

So, that was a nice motivational, self-talk about what to do with time, in general. What about specifics?

Writing:

  • I got my second book of poetry accepted by Finishing Line Press. It’s titled Kekekabic, and you can preorder one here until March 25. Book Ships on May 20, 2022. 
  • I was lucky enough to be in a writing group in the winter of 2020/21 with Gail Trowbridge, Felicia Schneiderhan, and Carol Dunbar. We met every couple weeks and we worked on each of our book-length projects. I made a ton of headway on my memoir and am so grateful that I got to work with them.
  • A “new and improved” version of my collected outdoor recreation magazine articles is in the hands of another publisher. I hope to see that get into print within a year or so.
  • I got an essay published in Consequence Magazine titled “This is Not a Map.” It’s a story about how my life with maps has followed me from childhood hiking into flying and even into combat. I’m pretty proud of this piece and I hope it shows up online sometime. Thank you to Felicia Schneiderhan, David Chrisinger, and Peter Lucier for being early readers of this essay. 
  • I got a photo of Grace skiing at Korkki published in a National Geographic book about skiing. Hard to believe this one.
  • I got to interview Charlie Parr for pieces in Northern Wilds and my first piece for Minnesota Monthly. He’s a helluva musician and thinker, so it was fun for me, because I’m a huge fan.
  • I expressed my opinions about the 20th Anniversary of 9/11 here. Thanks to Kelly Kennedy and The War Horse for giving me the platform. 
  • “Long Distance Leo” published twice by the same magazine: Tischer Creek Living. Once B+W and once in color! I claim that Leo is the first dog to do all 415 miles of the Kekekabic Trail, Border Route Trail, and the Superior Hiking Trail. Change my mind. Good boy, Leo.

I’m glad to see I accomplished something but the truth is, I’ve got this memoir project rattling around in my head. Until I finish it, all these other publications feel like procrastination. I need to spend some of my extra 5 hours a day on that. Then, someday I’ll be able to put that on the list of finished projects. 

Still, I’m incredibly grateful to my growing network of writing friends. You think you write alone, but you don’t. At least not very well. My writing friends are generous, thoughtful, and supportive and I can’t ever thank them enough, even in two lifetimes of trying. 

I found this list of Writing Goals for 2020. (Yeah, I know I missed a year. Sue me.)

2020 Writing Goals:

  1. Finish draft of memoir.
  2. Write map essay.
  3. Write memory essay.
  4. Write curiosity essay.
  5. Support and promote writing by others.

A holdover from 2019 was getting my poetry project published. So that happened. As far as this list, I accomplished #2 and #3 (won Lake Superior Writers CNF competition). I still need to do 1, 4, and 5. So, for 2022:

2022 Writing Goals:

  1. Finish draft of memoir.
  2. Write curiosity essay and “reader” essay.
  3. Support and promote writing by others.
  4. Read at least 2 books a month

Books I read:

The fun thing about this is that I’ve met 7 of these 20 authors. Not quite two books a month, but on par with what I’ve been able to read the past several years. 

Outdoors:

I did some things in 2020 that kind of bled over into 2021. I solo-hiked the Border Route Trail with Leo in Sept 2020. I ran 53k for my 53rd year in Oct of 2020. These ideas got me thinking about other ideas for long days on the trail that happened in 2021.

  • Skied a virtual Birkie at the top of Spirit Mountain. 
  • Ran the Eugene Curnow (formerly the Half-Voyageur) 25 mile trail marathon. 
  • Looked for a 54k run for my 54th year. Decided to try for a FKT here in Minnesota. It took me 10 hours and around 37 miles, but I’m the fastest guy to run from the Minnesota Low Point to the High Point and back. Lake Superior to Eagle Mountain and back. Read it and weep: FKT Report. (Only fastest because I was the first, but still) It’s the farthest I’ve ever gone on one day on my own two feet, so pretty happy about it. *Plays “We are the Champions” by Queen*

Like I said earlier, all this added up to the third highest amount of hours in a year that I’ve logged since 1983. So, pretty happy with that. 

All this foolishness has me scheming for the coming year. Grace signed up for the full Grandma’s, so I’m in that with her. The BQ time for my age group just clicked closer to my PR (within a minute) since I turn 55 this year. Maybe I’ll have to be serious. Either way, Grandma’s might be a good run-up to trying a full Voyageur (50 miles). Hurts to think about in the heat, but if I can run 37, I can probably run 50. As far as other crazy ideas, I don’t know. I’ve got this weird idea I could rollerski around Lake Superior, but I can just see myself getting pancaked by an 18-wheeler. Maybe should come up with something else. Backpacking something in the Rockies is always something I’m sniffing around doing. Mt Whitney maybe? So many ideas, so little time. 

For 7 months of my 22 months off, I was recovering from hand surgeries. I have Dupuytren’s contractures, which I’ve written about before. I had my right hand worked on in June 2020 and it took 4 months to recover. I had my left hand worked on in July 2021 and had 3 months of recovery. So, having surgeries while I was away anyway was pretty convenient. Dr. Sam Hoxie is squared away and I’m grateful. I wasn’t able to hold a cup normally, get keys out of my pocket, or even clap at a concert for many years. Simply being able to put my hands flat on a surface is something I no longer take for granted. I can do a pushup now. I mean, I don’t, but I could if I wanted to because my hands work. 

This pandemic was miserable for so many, but we tried to find purpose. My family was all together, and (maybe it was Stockholm Syndrome) it seemed like we got along. I learned the value of time…again. Our family enjoyed the outdoors even more than we already did. So, in retrospect, I got more time with my kids, before we become empty nesters. 

But…those five more hours. Here’s to putting those hours to use doing things that have meaning. With 900,000 Americans dead, and the previous champ being the Civil War at 750,000 dead, I’m grateful to simply make a self-absorbed blog post. 

Here’s the complete version of the Annie Dillard quote that I started with. You made it this far. You deserve it.  I offer this as a salute to my wife Shelley, who builds a schedule every day and inspires me to be better: 

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.” 


― Annie Dillard from The Writing Life

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

A Brief Remembrance of George Hovland

George pointed out my daughter playing in a snow pile at KidSki in January 2010.

I’ve only been here in town for 20 years, so in relation to George Hovland’s life, I’m just a newcomer. Even so, as a cross-country skier, my tracks crossed his over and over.

George always ran Snowflake like a charity. The cashbox on the counter just sat there on the honor system. Each year, I signed up my kids for the KidSki program. This was during the window of time each fall where he gave a discount for signing up early. I paid full price because I could afford it. I also did it because, unlike a lot of things, I knew exactly where my money was going. I mean, outside of my family, cross-country skiing is my favorite thing. And each year when he got my check, George called me on the phone and said, “You shouldn’t pay full price. You can pay the discounted price.” And I said, “I know George. It’s me, Eric Chandler. I told you the exact same thing last year.”

One time, I was skiing classic style in the snow-blessed microclimate at Snowflake and George came up on me the opposite direction and said, “Great technique!” I was a little too pleased, but a comment like that from George, a 1952 Olympian, was like a benediction.

Another time, my wife Shelley told me that George saw Grace skiing and said, “Exquisite technique.” Exquisite. I guess my daughter outdid me, as I should hope she would. That’s the point isn’t it?

In this past weird pandemic winter, my first time on skis was November 16, 2020 at Snowflake. I pulled into the parking lot and climbed out of my car at the exact same time as George. We both commented that it was so great to be skiing. What a nice day, we said. After two decades, I’ve met George on the trail dozens of times. I know he didn’t know my name. After a while, I realized, it just doesn’t matter. We’re two people out skiing. It’s perfect. Names don’t matter. It’s almost Zen-like in the way that we’re completely absorbed in the present in the outdoors. My ski season started this year at the same exact moment as George entered the trailhead during his last winter. I feel blessed and lucky to have shared the trail—the trail he built—that day. And all the days before. And all the days to come. Because of the fact he built a ski trail back in the 1990’s.

One time, in 2010, I was lounging around at the counter inside the Chalet at Snowflake during KidSki, waiting for my kids to finish up. I was coaching KidSki at the time, but after the masses left, my children still wanted to play around on the sledding hill behind the Chalet.

George saw me standing there and said, “Hey! Come here and look at this.” He didn’t know me from Adam, I was just some guy who was standing there.

I walked behind the counter and through the racks of rental skis and he pointed out the window and said, “Look at that kid playing in the snow.” He had a big smile on his face when he said, “Isn’t that great?”

“Yeah! That’s awesome,” I said. He didn’t know me. He didn’t know that kid playing in the snow. But George accidentally brought me to the window to see my own daughter playing in the snow. He showed me my own daughter, just because he could sense happiness in the snow. He was like a joy detector. It was like a damn miracle.

George was like a damn miracle.

Even I could recognize the purity of that moment in real time, and I took a picture of Grace in the snow through the window by all those piles of ski boots and rental skis.

Just yesterday, I took another picture at Snowflake. Bonnie and Dave and Patti and Mark and Nona all recognized the East ski teams for their efforts last winter. All of us parents, sprawled out on the sledding hill by the Snowflake Chalet, finally able to watch our kids get some closure for this past winter. The torch of skiing, passed on from generation to generation. I squinted into the setting sun, just over the roof of the chalet as we clapped for our kids. My daughter stood just feet from where George saw her years ago. We all said it was weird to be there without snow. The spring sun was warm and it felt like George was smiling down on all of us. To me, anyway.

Bonnie and the team at Snowflake, May 12, 2021. The sun beaming over the Chalet.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 4 Comments