For the Love of Pencils

No doubt I am one of the many adults who forgot how wonderful it is to write with a pencil. How could I have  forgotten this?  Writing with a pencil connects the writer to the earth. The freshly sharpened wood releases the scent of Cedar which rises chanting to the nose.  The ability to erase and rebuild, then erase and rebuild again, the words and sentences so alive I swear they have a pulse; they breathe!

Like many writers I am quite particular about what I write with, especially when it comes to my journal and my work. My friend Michael has used the same Lamy Safari fountain pen for more than 20 years now. Some years back a Parker fountain pen wedded itself to my writing hand until the nib was damaged, no replacement nib was quite right. Since then I have been on an on-gain off-gain search for a replacement. I’ve skipped from pen to pen hoping to find the magic one that seamlessly connects my body and soul to the words and page.

And then, just recently, I read that John Updike wrote in pencil and this reminded me that John Steinbeck, the writer closest to my soul, wrote in pencil. Eager to learn more about the pencils Steinbeck used I did a bit of research and learned he wrote with  the Mongol 480 Blackwing pencil. There is no doubt the Blackwing was a remarkable pencil and the story of its demise, it was no longer manufactured after 1998, is, at least for this writer, rather heartbreaking. What Blackwings are left in the world are expensive.  I recently saw a set of 11 Blackwing pencils selling on eBay for $195!

Further research revealed some remarkable facts about pencils.  The pencil owes its very existence to an ancient writing instrument used by the Romans called a stylus. The stylus was a thin metal rod that left a legible mark on parchment.  Some styluses were later made with lead and despite the fact common parlance today refers to pencils as lead pencils, pencils use graphite, not lead. In fact, lead has rarely seen the light of day in a pencil since 1564 when a large graphite deposit was discovered in England. In 1662, pencils were mass produced for the first time  in Nuremburg, Germany.

In 1812, a Concord Massachusetts cabinet maker named William Monroe is largely credited with making the first wood pencils in America. Not incidentally, author Henry David Thoreau, another Concord native, was reputed to be a fine pencil maker in his own right.  Early American pencils were made from Eastern Red Cedar, a durable wood found in the Southeastern United States, Tennessee in particular. Later, the American pencil industry was launched in full by The Joseph Dixon Crucible Company,  now known as Dixon Ticonderoga.

With my interest in pencils heightened I subsequently learned that the Japanese make the best pencils today and of those, the Palomino Graphite HB pencil sold by a delightful company called California Republic is the pencil given credit for taking the helm from the prestigious Blackwing. The first draft of this essay and all attending notes were written with a Palomino Graphite HB.

You may recall that for a long time, since the 1890s in fact, pencils were painted yellow. There is an intriguing and rather delightful reason for this. Years ago the best graphite came from China and in China yellow is linked to royalty and respect, thus the yellow pencil.

Anyway, I have to go. Time to sharpen some pencils, my writing tools, I assure you, from here on out.


The Roads Less Travelled

John Steinbeck once wrote, “We are creatures of habit, a very senseless species.” He was right. We all get caught up in patterns and relationships in life that hold us back, that result in our taking part in life with one hand tied behind our back. We don’t do this consciously, so, when we notice these patterns, we are wise to treat ourselves (and each other) with kindness, not harsh judgment. After all, new beginnings, while often rewarding and wonderful, are inherently scary, at times terrifying.

Recently I got to contemplating a passage from the Robert Frost poem, “Road Less Travelled”, 

Two roads diverged in a wood
And I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference

and Henry David Thoreau’s words,

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.

Contemplating both passages brought me out of the darkness of indecision and led me into the sunshine of clarity. As a result, I have been able to make some changes that will free me to walk the roads less traveled. Both passages helped me to make these changes because when I read them, to myself or out loud, and then align them with those I admire most: Mandela, Elie Wiesel, Dr. King, Beethoven, Geronimo, Tolstoy, Teddy Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Steinbeck, Rosa Parks, Dickens, my father and more, it is strikingly clear that all of them lived the lives they imagined. All of them took the roads less travelled.

New beginnings often are the roads less travelled and they are often the roads best taken.


Living With Brain Injury – Part III: The Isolation Challenge

Isolating yourself from the world is an all too common occurrence among those who live with brain injuries, myself included.

For those who know me from a distance, this acknowledgement on my part may surprise them. I give speeches and facilitate workshops and seminars and so forth, but other than that, getting out of the house and into the world around me is no easy task, and, in the world of brain injury, I have a lot of company.

There are reasons I have three dogs and a vegetable garden. They all get me outside and once I am outside, away from home, and engaged in a task of some kind, I’m fine and enjoying myself. I love wonderful conversations and bookstores. I hope, for example, that heaven itself is a book store and there I will find an endless supply of books not published  on earth written by Dickens, Tolstoy and Steinbeck and others. I love the sound of laughter, especially the sound of a baby giggling; I’m not sure there is a sound anymore heartwarming than that.

But it is breaking the isolation barrier and getting out of the house in the first place that can be the “Mount Everest” challenge.

When I work with others – and on myself – the are some basic Life Growth tenets I teach. Life Growth is a life-management philosophy and protocol that gives back to the person their individuality and identifies the challenge – not the person – as the opponent. For example, I am not my brain injury. I have a relationship with it and I am the one who deserves to be guiding my life, not the injury. It is the same with isolation. It is not who I am, none of us who struggle with it have our character and worth defined or diminished by it. But, like in any relationship, we do have some say.

The very first step for those who face the isolation challenge is to accept that the challenge is real. It seems to me that any hope of gaining freedom from this or any challenge slips from our grasp if we don’t accept the reality of the challenge in the first place. I would not be celebrating seven years of sobriety this month if I did not accept that I deal with the disease of alcoholism. I would not be able to write these words to you if I did not accept my eyesight was getting bad and, as a result, got me some glasses that let me see the damned words in the first place. (Are you smiling? I hope so. There is no reason for sadness as we discuss this. Isn’t it kind of nice that we get to connect with each other like this, through words, isolation or no isolation?)

The emotional equation goes like this: You have to accept it in order to manage it and you have to manage it in order to get free of it.

What those of us who know us should not do is judge us. We get trapped in isolation for a reason,  not because we are lazy or weak and need to simply snap out of it.

As to why the challenge of isolation is so prevalent for those of us with brain injuries, I’m not sure there is any one set answer, though there may be. Part of the answer for many of us, I think, is this. When you are traumatized with a brain injury, no matter the cause, your it can’t happen to me syndrome is gone. The task then becomes taking part in life knowing these things can happen, so it is no wonder so many of us hunker down in the perceived safety of our homes and stay there.

But then here’s the question, the key question in my book, if we surrender to the isolation, then the very trauma and presence of our injuries now robs us of taking part in life.

Let me ask you, who do you think deserves to be in charge of your ability to take part in life, you or the injury? I vote for you – and – by the way – for me too.



Dear Blog Readers:

I have been moving my pen across pages unseen by others for some time now and must offer an apology to you. There are several reasons for my blog silence: the recent health scare mentioned in an earlier blog essay, a general sense of sadness mixed with anger at my country’s leadership, presidential and congressional alike, the end of a relationship and, I suppose, a quiet internal desire to regroup.

Believe me; things are not as depressing as they might sound. I have determined to respond to the health scare by climbing all the 3500-plus foot peaks in the Catskill Mountains (I’ve climbed four since we last talked) and have set my sights on becoming what is called a 46er; someone who has climbed all 46 of the highest peaks in the Adirondack Mountains. On top of all this, I’ve recently welcomed a new member to my family. His name is Charley.

He weighed in at a sturdy five pounds. He is solid black. Well, almost. There is a sliver of white under his chin. He is, as I set these words down, not more than seven weeks old. Those who know me will not be surprised to learn he is named after the Charley in John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley.” I adopted him from a rather forlorn family in Dutchess County, New York. When I went to get him the atmosphere was shoddy and unkempt although the family giving him away was perfectly pleasant. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to give up such a beautiful puppy. I couldn’t figure it out, that is, until I noticed a very large Confederate flag hanging on their living room wall. Then their decision to surrender him made perfect sense: as I mentioned earlier, Charley is black.

Over these past weeks I’ve found myself ruminating on the subject of loyalty, or, as I see it, the lack of loyalty between people and between people and nature. I saw a bumper sticker recently that was about as spot on as a bumper sticker can get. It read: “Ignore the environment… will disappear”. Truer words were never spoken.

My desire to climb mountains is not without its fear. Fear is a daily presence for me, especially when a day or task calls upon me to leave my home. I am, the large percentage of the time, successful in overpowering the fear. But my first climb on my 3500-plus Catskill endeavor was not easy.

Give a listen:

July 14, 2007

If every decision I made in life was based on how I felt during my first waking hours I would rarely, if ever, participate in life outside my door. This has been the case for me for more than 20 years now.

It is 9:12 a.m. and I am pulling out of my driveway and I’m heading off to Climb Windham Mountain. This is my first step in my quest to climb all 3500 foot or higher mountains in the Catskill Mountains of New York. Hills by some standards, but a formidable challenge for this 53 year old I can tell.

Absolutely scared out of my mind. Quite convinced, I assure you, that something terrible is going to happen and I am going to die there. I am used to this though, I feel this way every time I leave my home.

The more and more I allow myself to be me, the more I realize I am, in fact, the person I always thought I was since I was a little boy.

It is just past 9:30 a.m. when I get my first glimpse of the Catskills. McKenzie (my German Shepherd) is in the back, her ears perked, ready to go. I am now flushed with excitement and joy, the fear is ebbing. Once you get past the early morning fear wall, all the rest is the glory of life. And I don’t give shit how corny that sounds. Sometimes reality can be corny, always reality can be anything.

It is 7 minutes after 10 and I don’t believe we are far from the trail head. I must confess to having stopped and picked up some nature bars for energy on the trail, but that is not really what my confession is about. When I bought the nature bars at the register, I noticed two cinnamon jelly donuts under a lovely plastic dome. I could not resist, and out of sense of fairness, bought them both, knowing they would provide great company to the black coffee I’d purchased.

I think I am close but it turns out I am wrong because someone rearranged the order of the streets last night and my directions have brought me to wonderful T in the road, with no signs and no signs of Route 23, the road that is supposed to take me to the trail head. I spend the next half hour driving around beautiful country roads, past beautiful homes, past horses grazing in well groomed paddocks, with no damned idea where I am. I’ve gotten lost in my search for the trail head.

Finally I decide I’ll go in the opposite direction of that suggested by my directions. I go four miles and, lo and behold, Route 23! I make a right. When in doubt I make a right and I do this on the childish belief that I’d rather do the right thing than the wrong thing. Needless to say, many times I’ve made the right and been, well, wrong.

Now I see the sign and know I’m getting close. I pass the sign announcing that McKenzie and I have entered more than 700,000 acres of the Catskills. Now I know the journey has really begun.

Half way up Windham (I hope!) I encounter a couple in their forties with a Scotty . The woman is from England and calls Kenzie an Alsatian. She apologizes but again calls her an Alsatian. I learn that is another name for GS. She is probably the friendliest Alsatian I’ve ever seen, said the woman. I beam with pride.

A couple of miles in I walk through a stretch of tall pines and the forest floor is a hysterical maze of roots of all shapes and size that go in every direction with no apparent rhyme or reason. I sneaking suspicion that Jackson Pollack might have done this from above, from the beyond.

Here the magic of solitude happens. There is the quiet open room without walls in the mind that allows one to roam anywhere, think freely and openly, with no boundaries, no musts and no mores.

Near the summit. We’re not too far from the summit; there are these moments during this climb where there are these little windows of clarity. Where all of a sudden I am so close to me I can feel me – again – rewrite – there are these moments of clarity, little awareness windows open and I am with me fully or so close to me I can almost feel it…I’m almost real.

I reach the summit at 1:38 p.m. McKenzie and I split a bottle of water, eat some granola bars, and head down. I am joyous.


And so there you have it. I promise the entries in this blog will be more frequent. My very best to you all.

Warmth and respect,


August 27, 2007


Billy Damrow would be my first real childhood friend. But I didn’t know this when I was a little boy and me and my friends were playing football in my yard and we noticed the new kid next door in his yard. He was playing with his dog, another new member of the neighborhood, who was tied with a long lead to a dog house. Bill and his family were my new next door neighbors

It bothered me he was by himself and I didn’t want to put him on the spot by shouting out an invitation to play with us so when he wasn’t looking, I tossed the football near him in his yard and ran over to get it. When he looked at me I said, “Wanna play?” And he did!

I liked Billy right away. Taller than me, he had a nice face and a smile so kind and warm if you couldn’t tell the source of his kindness and warmth was his heart, you weren’t paying attention. Billy lived with his mother and father. His father was a quiet, solitary man who was in the Navy and was at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed by the Japanese. I figured this was why Mr. Damrow had the ability to calmly eat hot Chinese mustard by the spoonful when he was reading. I mean, if you consider that the man lived through the horror of being bombed, it’s no wonder eating hot Chinese mustard by the spoonful didn’t make him bat an eye. Mrs. Damrow had the most beautiful face I’d ever seen. Her smile too was warm and kind.

Our modest back yards in Pearl River abutted a large tract of untamed woods. Together and separately, Billy and I each had our solitary side; we sought and found delicious refuge there. A wide and fast moving stream was a comfortable walk into the woods. It seemed to go on forever. Billy loved the woods like me. His dog was named Crockett after Davy Crockett from Tennessee who died at the Alamo.

We were joined in another way. We loved to read books and were able to safely confess this to each other. Billy told me about the Doc Savage books and I read them and really liked Doc’s sidekick, Monk. Billy’s second-floor room faced our house and at night we would send signals to each other with our flashlights.

While I have no doubt he is a wonderful pastor, years ago I visited him at his church and behind his desk hung a picture of Albert Schweitzer, who, like Robert F. Kennedy, was a childhood hero of his, Billy could have been a comedian. He could get me and my family laughing so hard tears would flow. My parents loved him. One day Billy was up in the tree house me and my Dad built and I was standing on the ground. I don’t remember what he said but he had me laughing so hard my ability to control my bladder vanished and I flat went ahead and peed my pants which, of course, made us laugh even harder.

We were friends from the beginning but our lives moved on. We moved and Billy and I lost touch. We reconnected in late 1988, four years after I was badly wounded in a hold-up in Brooklyn. I was living in Ellenville, New York. We were both still avid readers and the beautiful Steinbeck biography by Jackson Benson that Billy gave me that year sits on a shelf not far from where I write these words. Steinbeck is my favorite American writer.

One day that year we went back to our stream in Pearl River and wandered the paths we had traveled as boys. I took lots of pictures but the camera with the pictures in it was later stolen.

In 1991, Billy performed the ceremony for my second marriage. But it was in 1992 that I received a gift from Billy that I will treasure for the rest of my life. He gave it to me not long after my mother committed suicide on August 12, 1992. Her suicide shredded my soul and decimated my heart. While the sun still gave my days light, it no longer gave them warmth and comfort. I functioned, but barely. I notified people, including Billy, of her death. I carried the blood stained mattress she died from her house alone. I had never felt more alone. Not even when I was homeless.

Weeks after her death a memorial service was held at her church, the Palisades Presbyterian Church. I sat in the first pew on one side with my wife and daughter and my sister sat in the first pew on the other side with her children. The church was filled with mourners. The words good people said to me that day were like cold stones in the air.

The service ended and protocol called for all to remain seated while my sister and I, joined by those seated with us, rose and left the church first. As I turned to walk down the aisle it happened. It was glowing. It was the kindness and warmth of Billy’s smile. He was there, sitting right there in the church, looking right at me. His beautiful face lit by a gentle smile. I swear the air around him glowed and I think I said Billy! out loud. For the first time since my mother died I felt warm and a little bit alive again.

The gift of that smile and the loving warmth in Billy’s face is the one and only distinct memory I have of that day. It is a gift more valuable than priceless. And so, while it will never be sold, I thought it should be shared. I think Billy would agree. In fact, I think it would make him smile.