What’s in a Title?

A lot can happen in from one week to the next. 

Two weeks ago, I announced that my novel, The Maelstrom, would be published July 26. One week ago, March 1, I announced that no, it would actually be August 23. And with a new title.

As of today, the August 23 release date is still good. 

Now here is the new title: Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

And look! Here’s the cover. 

A book’s cover is key. Sometimes, the cover even drives the choice of title. 

When I first started writing this book, I just called it “the Anders and Maria book.” Eventually, I settled on Freedom’s Purchase. I did not like Freedom’s Purchase much. It seemed hyper-inflated. But it fit, because throughout this story, characters pay high prices to secure their freedom. They must give up precious things to be free and prosperous. 

When I re-wrote the book I changed it to The Maelstrom. I was thinking of a great whirlpool, like the Moskstraumen off the Norwegian coast. It seemed to capture the vortex of looming disaster that was the pre-Civil War United States.

DX Varos Publishing bought the manuscript. Publisher Daniel Willis wanted to add a subtitle: A Tale of Immigration and Liberation. This would give readers more information about the nature of the story. So we were set to publish The Maelstrom—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Several people had previously said things like, “Maelstrom? Huh?” “What’s a maelstrom?” “Is this a book about some ocean current?” In my wisdom, I had ignored such minor quibbles.

We’re Covered

A good story often has a last-minute twist, and here it is: The publisher sent me the cover art. 

It showed a railroad track in foreground, a breaking chain overhead, and a distant sky full of clouds and sunshine. The track could suggest immigration; the broken chain, liberation; the half-sunny sky, a brighter future. 

I was underwhelmed by this cover. I surfed the web frantically and found an image that embodied the dynamic tension of “maelstrom.” It was a blue-green ship in a stormy ocean, a large whirlpool churning in the foreground. I sent it to the publisher. 

He said, “Well, yes, but everybody’s going to think they’re buying a sea story.”

Curses! 

A cover is not just about symbols and metaphors. It should give the reader a clue about the actual contents.

It’s true this book includes an ocean voyage, but it’s a minor part of the story. Everything important occurs on land, in the middle of North America, far from any ocean. 

Bowing at last to common sense,  I accepted the publisher’s cover. But the title, The Maelstrom, did not match the cover image. Rereading Chapter One, I stumbled on the phrase, “price of passage.” It relates to the purchase of a transatlantic ticket to America, but it’s also a good metaphor for the costs incurred in “freedom’s purchase.” 

We ran it up the flagpole, and everybody saluted.

So now, with pride, DX Varos Publishing and Larry F. Sommers give you Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation–available for pre-order in late spring.

I’m glad to be partnered with somebody who knows what they’re doing in this business.

And that’s not all

I hereby announce the inaugural issue of The Haphazard Times, a very occasional newsletter, by email, intended to apprise you of only the most significant developments in this writer’s life.

Why should I  trouble your Inbox on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, just to meet an arbitrary deadline? The Haphazard Times will appear in your email only when important events or milestones occur. Events like the opening of pre-orders for the book and other key milestones for the book or for me as a writer. Other than that, I won’t bother you. 

All you need to do to get on the mailing list for The Haphazard Times is fill in this form:

I hope you will.

Note Well: This “Keep Up!” signup is for the newsletter. The other signup, at right under “Share My Journey Week to Week,” is for email notification whenever this blog is posted. If you already receive such notices, they will continue. If you do not, but would like to, just enter your email there. But that will not get you the newsletter. I recommend taking both.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Your Favorite Fabulist Hits Paydirt

Lion. Photo by Kevin Pluck, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

HERE, AT LAST, IS YOUR REWARD, Faithful Reader, for six years staggering through the bookish wilderness guided by your own Literary Lion. 

[Fanfare of trumpets and French horns here.]

The Maelstrom—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, by Larry F. Sommers, is scheduled for publication July 26, 2022, by DX Varos Publishing—a boutique publisher of exquisite fiction.

DX Varos is a traditional publisher, meaning I do not pay them to publish my book. They pay me.

Now that The Maelstrom is officially exquisite—or will be when Dan Willis completes the edit—you’d best rush out and buy it. You’ll soon have an opportunity to pre-order at a low price. 

This is a REALLY BIG DEAL for Your New Favorite Writer. It is a debut novel—meaning it is my first novel to achieve publication since I became a full-time fiction writer in 2016, after a lifetime spent doing other things.

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

The Maelstrom is a historical novel about two Norwegian immigrants and a freedom-seeking slave, swept together by America’s great controvery of the nineteenth century. 

The original title was Freedom’s Purchase. I queried many agents and publishers and got one offer of publication. After a brief euphoria, I turned that offer down because I had little confidence in the publisher.

Two other publishers, significant ones, who rejected the book were kind enough to send brief notes on how it fell short. There was the option of assuming these seasoned professionals did not know what they were talking about. But the truth is a tricky thing. One cannot evade it forever. 

I laid the manuscript aside and whined on this blog about the pain of gracefully melding its disparate story lines. My dear friend Christine DeSmet heard my anguish and pointed out that it was possible to get everything working together and I was just the guy to do it. It helps that Christine is a five-star professional book coach. And she gave me this advice for free.

So I plunged in again and promoted a minor character—Daniel, the escaping African American slave—into a major character, equal in weight and importance to Anders and Maria, my Norsk immigrants. Suddenly the book came to life. It now had a braided but distinct narrative spine. However, it still remained an incoherent mess.

Savvy literatus that I am, I hired Christine on a professional basis to help me rework the whole book. It was the wisest decision I have made since 1969, when I asked Joelle Nelson to marry me. 

The new book generated a new title, The Maelstrom. I sent out new queries pinning my hopes most on the two publishers whose rejection slips had been helpful in re-directing the book. Would they be interested in reading the new version? 

One of the two said yes. That was Daniel Willis of DX Varos. 

#

This book owes its existence to four key players: 

First, Joelle. Her dogged research of our families led me to the real Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro, whose story I have embellished to make it fiction. She also bears with patience my long routine absences from the rest of life on the shaky claim that I am busy writing. 

Second, Laurie Scheer. In her course on genre at the University of Wisconsin’s Write By the Lake program, she encouraged me to novelize the immigrant experience of my ancestors. That helped give me the nerve to attempt such a thing.

Third, Christine DeSmet. Her constant friendship, gentle nudging, and unvarnished critique have drastically improved the final product.

Fourth, Daniel Willis of DX Varos. His willingness to read my book allowed me to think that someone in the publishing world had a genuine interest in the story I had to tell. His pointed critique of my earlier manuscript led me in the right direction for revision. His willingness to give the story a second chance made me hopeful. And finally, his acceptance of the manuscript for publication puts me on the path to being a published author. 

Your New Favorite Writer’s life will change as a result of all the things necessary in the launch, promotion, and selling of a new book. But somehow, I must keep writing through it all. Other books are in process, one almost ready for the market. My friend Gregory Renz has warned me how easily an endless round of appearances and marketing can distract one from practicing our basic craft. I’m determined to navigate those waters succeessfully. 

So stay tuned, Gentle Reader.

And buy my book. I’m sure you’ll agree it’s an excellent Christmas gift for all your family members and friends as well.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Neighbors to the Rescue

I like to chop wood. Maybe it was my early training as a Boy Scout. Or those tales of Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack in the big woods, got to me. 

Could it be I was moved beyond prudence by the poetry of Robert Frost?

Good blocks of beech it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.

—“Two Tramps in Mud Time”

At any rate, I’ve always enjoyed swinging an axe.

Robert Frost, 1913. Unknown photographer. Public Domain.

This year, however, the task threatened to overwhelm. From wood-gathering efforts chronicled here and here, I had more than enough fresh honey locust in my backyard, needing to be split.

We don’t use those big, round logs mentioned in Christmas carols (“See the blazing Yule before us, falala-lala, lala-lala!”). Logs must be halved, quartered, or even eighthed, to fit our small cast iron stove. Apart from mere size, wood ignites quicker when it has a cleft inner surface to feed the flame. 

An Intervention

I started to split the honey locust, and some river birch from the same source, with my trusty axe. 

My neighbor Dick rented a hydraulic splitter. I helped him use the splitter on his part of the take. I had never used one before, and it’s impressive, the ease with which it shivers great logs into small ones. It’s a good job for two people—one to horse the logs onto the splitting bed and one to push the lever that makes the machine go. 

A small part of my bonanza.

Need I spell it out? Dick did the heavy lifting and I provided the wrist action. A fair distribution of labor, agreed. But I was beginning to think I’m an old man, needing to be spared exertion.

When we had reduced his logs to splinters, he offered the use of the machine for mine.

“I actually enjoy splitting them with my axe,” I said. “Good exercise.”

“Well—”

I grinned. “However, some of my logs are too big and heavy to split easily by axe. So I gratefully accept your offer.”

Fooboo the dog inspects split logs.

We wheeled the machine to the back end of my garage. In a half-hour’s time we split the biggest and baddest of my logs down to halves or quarters. Plenty of logs remained to be split the old way, gratifying the woodsman inside me.

We hitched the splitter to the back of Dick’s car, and he towed it back to Home Depot.

Since then I have used my axe to make three face cords of split wood. That’s probably enough for now, as we head into winter. Tons of prime honey locust still await the axe. It will keep me busy all winter, whenever the snow is low enough.

Why Is This Important?

Ordinarily, the way people keep warm is their own concern. It’s hard to excite others about it. 

There may be curiosity value in historical heating methods. Someday perhaps I’ll tell you what it was like to live in a house heated with a coal furnace, what one had to do—and it was the child’s lot to do it—to keep the flames alight. 

Tom Thompson, Man With Axe, 1915. Public domain.

But this year’s saga of my firewood husbandry is of possible interest only because it shows our dependence on one another. Some of our wood was a gift from my friend Jack. Some was a gift from our neighbors Nick and Shelly, who no longer needed their honey locust tree. 

In processing the huge logs down to burnable firewood, I had help from my neighbor Ben on one side, and my neighbor Dick on the other side. 

They say firewood warms you twice—once when you split it and once when you burn it. But the warmth of working with friends and neighbors is not to be discounted.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

What About Honey Locust?

Having received a generous donation of firewood from our friend Jack, we were well on our way to having enough to heat our isolated sunroom for the winter. But we still needed more.

People on the corner one street over had a huge tree taken down. I approached the tree-felling contractor about the wood. 

He looked askance, rubbed his chin. “Thing is, we sell it. Be happy to sell you some nice, quartered firewood.”

“Mmph. Thanks anyway. Mumble-mumble.” I didn’t go away angry; I just went away. 

*

“Honey, how about that big dead oak down the block and around the corner? They’ve got machinery in the yard. Looks like they’re planning to cut that tree down before it falls on somebody and kills them.”

I ambled down the street and around the corner, drawn by the whine of a chainsaw. A lone arborist attacked the homicidal oak and stacked its branches along the curb. I examined the cut ends. All rotten and insect-riddled inside. I didn’t even mumble, just walked away.

*

One day in late November, I moped at my laptop, Googling “Firewood for Sale,” when heavy machine sounds pierced my reverie. I looked out the front window. There, across the street, in front of Nick and Shelly’s house, swarmed a crew of lumberjacks. 

A Promising Development

Stop the presses!

I moseyed across the street and talked to the boss logger. Yes, Nick and Shelly had decided to cull a big honey locust from their backyard. The arborists were already hauling the results to the front curb, shredding the smaller branches in a big machine and stacking the big limbs to be hauled away. No, Nick and Shelly didn’t want the wood.

The foreman, rather than haul the big limbs away, was happy to dump them on my yard instead. “That’s great firewood, in case you didn’t know,” he said. “High heat density.”

Logs in our front yard

I Googled it up and sure enough: Honey locust—or any kind of locust—is about the best firewood you can get. Mucho calor, low smoke output, easy scutting, easy splitting. Jackpot.

Using a log-grappling loader, they brought me lots of logs, six to eight feet long and hundreds of pounds each. I started cutting them to fireplace length with my little chainsaw, but by the end of the day, the loggers’ enthusiasm had left my efforts far behind. 

I waved a grateful farewell to the lumberjacks and considered the fruits of their labor: A pile of logs so numerous and heavy my yard should have caved in.

Oops

I had my wish: Enough good firewood to last the winter. Way more than enough. 

I invited my next-door neighbors, Ben and Dick, to share the wealth. Ben had to leave for a few days of Naval Reserve service, but Dick responded with alacrity. He came over the next day and helped me by moving and positioning the huge logs for optimum cutting. 

Logs in our backyard

That’s no small contribution. When you work with a chainsaw, half your time, attention, and energy is spent making sure the logs you cut fall the right way. If the log is balanced at the wrong point, it can either sink and pinch the cutting chain or fall out of control and roll in an unfortunate direction. Dick’s brawn, applied to positioning the logs before each cut, helped me cut them in a rapid and safe manner.

I don’t work for more than an hour or two with either an axe or a chainsaw. Why? Because when you’re tired is when you make stupid mistakes.

A stupid mistake when working at my laptop might dim my literary star. A stupid mistake with a chainsaw is something else again.

I called a halt and begged Dick to take some of his share home as soon as he could. We were in a race against time. If the logs stayed on my front lawn through the onset of winter, they could be frozen there until April. Dick brought his wheelbarrow over and took a lot of logs to his backyard. 

More logs in our backyard

The next day I finished cutting the big logs. Ben got back from Naval duty and hauled some of the logs away to his house. I trundled the rest through our long tandem garage and out the back end to where we keep the firewood.

Now, all that remained was to split them.

Next Time: To Hydraulic, or not to Hydraulic?

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

To Make a Fire (Jack London, Eat Your Heart Out)

It’s lumberjack time again. 

We burn wood in our living room fireplace, in our backyard fire pit, and in a small woodstove that warms our sunroom. We fire up the first two venues only occasionally, mostly when the kids are over. But we burn a lot of wood in that little stove in the sunroom.

The sunroom

The sunroom, with its large windows showing our backyard and part of our wooded neighborhood, is a pleasant place to sit and write, chat, dine, or just sit and ponder. It is not served, however, by the gas furnace and ductwork that heats the rest of the house. Even to call it a “three-season room” is a stretch, because here in south central Wisconsin, spring does not get going until May, and winter has been known to start in late October. Burning wood makes the sunroom a year-round site.

Last year we went through about three face cords of wood. A face cord is one third of a cord. A cord of firewood is a stack four feet wide by four feet high and eight feet long. But nobody burns four-foot logs. You cut them into “fireplace length,” about sixteen inches.

You can’t be exact with logs. Some may be cut eighteen or twenty inches long, others less than a foot. But on average, they’re sixteen inches. We split the logs and dry them on eight-foot racks. Each rack holds a face cord.

We may burn more than three face cords this year. How much time we spend in the sunroom depends on how much wood we have.

This spring we had almost a face cord of miscellaneous logs left over. But spring is not too soon to start scrounging for more. You want your wood to dry a few months before burning; a year or two would be better. Dry wood burns hotter than fresh wood. And did I mention, I hate to pay money for firewood? I like to get it for free, but the opportunity has to be right. 

The Hunt Begins

“The guy down the street has that big tree in his backyard that blew over a while back,” said my wife, Jo. “You could take your chainsaw and offer to give him a hand with it.”

“Mmph. Rotten old thing. Mumble-mumble.” I preferred, so early in the spring, to dilly-dally. Even, if need be, to shilly-shally.

“But where are we going to get firewood for next winter?”

Jack to the Rescue

Jack’s wood burning in my stove

Did I mention my friend Jack? A splendid gentleman of the old school, he happens to be a Renaissance man: classically educated, a Vietnam vet, a horseman, an expert witness on matters involving masonry construction. Jack is also a writer with a great book, not yet published—just as I am a writer with a great book, not yet published.

By the way, Jack owns and operates a large farm near Madison. He’s perpetually cutting down old trees, and he invites me to share the wealth. This year my daughter, Katie, and I went out to his farm and scored a couple of van loads of white oak and walnut. Already cut, split, and seasoned. Some of that wood warms me as I write these words—in my sunroom, surrounded by  a snowy landscape.

Jack gives me wood, and I usually bring him a bottle of something nice. Katie brings him honey. This is not payment for the wood. We’re just doing something nice for a friend, who happens to have done something nice for us.

So, thanks to Jack’s generosity and a bit of left-over mulberry from our own yard, we now have more than a face cord of dry, burnable wood. But we neded quite a bit more. Even if Jack invites us out again, it will not completely fill our need. It seems to me churlish, not to mention unwise, to rely solely on one generous friend.

What shall we do?

Next Time: What About Honey Locust?

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends”—- Step 8 of Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood

Lion. Photo by Kevin Pluck, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Sincerest apologies, Dear Reader, for my absence. It has been more than a month since I last posted. But Your New Favorite Writer has been busy. 

Major Revision

Only about three days ago, I finalized the Major, Tooth-to-tail Revision (Version 7.1, if you’re counting) of my historical epic, now titled The Maelstrom. It is still 83,000 words—but at least half of them are different words than the 83,000 in the commercially unsuccessful previous version (6.4) known as Freedom’s Purchase.

This is more than a random switching of words, Gentle Reader. It betokens, dare I say it?, a Whole New Approach. 

Perils of the Market

You will recall, if you caught this post from almost one year ago, that I took Freedom’s Purchase to the literary marketplace, querying literary agents and independent publishers. I got a contract offer, which I deemed inadequate, from a marginal publisher. But I also got two Golden Rejections—one from James Abbate of Kensington Books and the other from Dan Willis of D.X. Varos, Ltd. 

A Golden Rejection, Dear Reader, is a rejection that includes honest feedback on why the manuscript was deemed unsuitable. If an author is astute enough to swallow such rejections whole, they can be wonderful medicine. 

At about that time, I also read Donald Maass’s noteworthy assertion: “At some point, attention must be paid to the writing.”

So I plunged back in, using my two Golden Rejections as my lodestar, and heeding as best I could the advice of Maass to put conflict on every page and the advice of the late Elmore Leonard to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip. I hired premier writing coach Christine DeSmet to help me work out what things I needed to change.

Voilà!

So here is the result, in the best way I can describe it:

Had Freedom’s Purchase, Version 6.4, been published as it was, you would have bought it, because you are my friend. You would have read all the way to the end, because loyalty is one of your great virtues. And you would have said, “Well—heh, heh—that was pretty good, considering it was only my friend Larry who wrote it.”

Now, when you buy The Maelstrom, Version 7.1, you will read it all the way to the end because you love the characters and want to know what happens to them.

(I hope you’ll be able to put it down and get some sleep, because it’s too long to read at one sitting. But I also hope you won’t be able to put it down very often or for very long, because you’ll find the story compelling.)

When you get to the end, you will feel satisfaction. You’ll say, “Wow! That was a real novel, gripping and engaging. And to think my friend Larry wrote it!”

But I need you to remain patient, Fair Reader. I still need to sell it to somebody, and then most traditional publishers take a year or two to actually produce and release the book. And I know you have been on this journey with me for some time already. 

So Meanwhile, Please Read My Blurb

Here, to tide you over until publication, is a teaser—a bit more indication of the plot than I’ve given before: 

The Maelstrom

It’s 1853. ANDERS, the law on his heels, sails from Norway to seek a life of honor and respect in America. MARIA, a boat builder’s daughter, knows she is just what Anders needs in his life. She also needs a new start just as much as he does. 

DANIEL, a young runaway chased by slave catchers, makes his way north to Illinois—free soil, crisscrossed by fugitive slaves and their would-be captors. Newlyweds Anders and Maria find Daniel in their barnyard, posing a truly American problem—one they did not seek, yet cannot ignore.

The Maelstrom is a tale of three pioneers whose lives depend on one another. The Civil War puts one in the Navy, one in the Army, and one at home working the land by herself, under pressure from a merchant who covets her farm, forcing her to a unique solution.

Anders’s, Maria’s, and Daniel’s harrowing journeys—filled with death and despair, love and hope—take them from New Orleans up the Mississippi River into America’s wild heartland.

There you go—straight from Your New Favorite Author to you. 

Wish me luck—and I could use your prayers as well.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Another Poem

In the land of my boyhood

In the land of my boyhood
dwelt a race of giants
tall and stern, male and female,
bound as if by law. I knew that 
someday I would be a giant too.

Seven decades have dissolved 
before my eyes, 
and strange to say,
although the giants got smaller
I never did become one.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

A Poem

Blood Quarrel

O purple splotch,
How dare you? 
 
Arriving by stealth
to the back of my hand,
claiming space, a fait accompli.
 
You are an intruder beneath my skin. 
I say again, How dare you?
 
Your coup unheralded,
even by minor pain,
suddenly you were just there.
 
In days of old this could not have happened. 
In days of old my forces would have marshaled 
thick skin and stout-walled capillaries 
against your onslaught. 
Had you attacked in strength—
the bang of a hammer blow, 
the tread of an opponent’s spikes, 
the slam of a door where my hand rested on the jamb—
I would have known it in that moment.
 
This noiseless, painless incursion is a new strategem,
the exploitation of brittle skin and numbed receptors,
but be forewarned: I am on to you.
 
You and your cunning ways, 
how you will linger 
flaunting your port-wine-ness in my face,
then six days hence decamp 
as silently as the Arabs, 
making me doubt my senses
until the next signalless foray.
 
How dare you?
 
But at last, these marches can avail you nothing; 
for I have received the cure
and simply wait for the finality 
of its deliverance.

#

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Wisconsin Chainsaw Meditations

My daughter wanted to fence her backyard, but a big old bush blocked the way. 

She called. “Dad, can you bring your chainsaw?” 

Me with chainsaw. Katie Sommers photo.

Well, natch. What are dads for? I drove across town and performed an emergency bushectomy. No sweat.

But Your New Favorite Author wasn’t always a shrub shredding ace. Tons of tuition has been paid.

My first chainsaw, purchased more than thirty years ago, was a Poulan with a 20-inch bar. The bigger the better, right? It weighed 992 pounds on days of low humidity. 

A small tornado tore through one year and left our backyard filled with an 80-foot silver maple in prone position. Too big a job for me alone, even with my monster chainsaw. I called my friend Mikey, who lives Up Nort’, and he brought along his friend Rick. 

I noticed their chainsaws were small ones with 14-inch bars. They fired up their little machines, and I fired up my big one, and we went to work. After five minutes, Mikey said—with that tact for which he is justly famed—“Larry? Maybe you could stand over here and take it easy for a bit? Big trees like this can be tricky. Rick and I are concerned you could get hurt.” 

Two hours later, the tree had been sliced, diced, cubed, and quartered. It stood in neat little stacks all over my backyard. My friends, with their 14-inch chainsaws, had reduced a three-foot-thick trunk to silver maple briquettes. And I was all unscathed—except for my macerated self-image as a lumberjack.

Lesson One: It doesn’t take a huge machine, if you know what you’re doing.

I couldn’t get over how easily Mikey and Rick handled their little chainsaws, and what a chore it was for me just to lift mine. So I sold the monster and bought a 14-inch Stihl MS180C Mini-Boss, which is the saw I’ve used for the past fifteen or twenty years. 

I only hauled it out once or twice a year. At that frequency of use, one never quite masters the elements of the machine. I had trouble just getting it started. If it needed cleaning or a new chain, a major pageant ensued. Forget the simple steps breezily outlined in the owner’s manual. There’s no substitute for having enough experience to know how the thing works.

For various reasons, I used the chainsaw more often, several times per year. At last, I accumulated enough operator time to get acquainted with my machine. It’s impossible to overstate how proud I was of myself for finally figuring the beast out. 

Decimating the obstacle. Katie Sommers photo.

But need I tell you, Dear Reader, that pride goeth before a fall? Nay, you know that already. In fact, you could look it up. It’s in the Bible, Proverbs 16:18.

I did something quintessentially stupid. I tightened the chain at the end of a cutting session. As the machine cooled, the tight chain tightened further, pulled the bar out of line, bent the drive shaft, and scrambled the transmission parts inside the engine housing. 

You need to be an actual idiot to do something like that. 

Lesson Two: Don’t be an idiot.

I took the mangled machine to our local power center for an estimate. They called me later that week. “Gee,” the man said, “to re-seat all those parts, replace the bent and damaged ones, and get it all back together in good working order, would come to $138.49, plus tax.”

“Doesn’t really shock me,” I said.

But the voice on the other end of the line said, “The thing is, you could buy a new one for not much more.” 

Of course I could. But the new one wouldn’t be the same model, because they don’t make those any more. Even if the model number was the same, it would have been improved many times since I bought it. 

Half a lifetime of hard-won learning curve is built into the chainsaw I’ve already got. If I bought a new one, it would be ten years before I mastered the effortless starting feature. And I’m already in my seventies.

“It’s got sentimental value to me,” I said. “Go ahead and rebuild it.”

So they did, I paid the $138.49, plus tax, and now I have a good, dependable chainsaw that I know how to use and that I never, ever tighten at the end of its cycle. 

Even so, I would still call for outside help if I had a big tree come down.

Lesson Three: Sometimes it pays to rest on your laurels.

With all this history in mind, I loaded my 14-inch Stihl into the back of my SUV, threw in a can of gas-oil mixture, a jug of bar lubricant, a chainsaw multitool, a spare chain, and work gloves. And headed to my daughter’s house with well-earned confidence. 

I wonder if she has any inkling what a treasury of woodlore and mechanical know-how resides in that dinky little chainsaw.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

COVID Wednesdays

Each Wednesday of COVID, our grandchildren’s school releases them on their own recognizance, with the vague injunction to pursue “independent studies.” 

Pish, tosh. What do grade-school children know from independent studies? 

Ours—Elsie, 11, and Tristan, 8—fortunately have something available that’s better than independent studies. They have grandparents.

Their mom and dad both work Wednesdays, so Elsie and Tristan spend all day with us. 

They choose one of the world’s nation states in advance, and we come up with a lesson. We’ve done Egypt, Spain, Uruguay, Fiji—just to name  few. We start by bombarding our grandkids’ heads with random facts about the chosen nation. Then we cook some food alleged to be typical of the chosen nation. They participate in both the bombardment and the cooking . . .  at varying levels of excitement. 

Sometimes they abandon Mormor—the Swedish name for their grandmother, Jo—when she’s in the midst of an exciting recipe. They just run off and do something else. Turns out, it was exciting to her, but not so much to them. On other occasions, they stick throughout the process. 

Our kids are fickle and changeable. But, thanks to Mormor’s dogged persistence, we always end up with something original and tasty to eat. Often it’s a sweet dessert, and we detect no reluctance to consume it.

Afternoon is literature time. That part of the curriculum varies a great deal, too. I’ve gone radical by introducing poetic meters—the various kinds of rhythmic “feet,” iambic pentameter and such. Or sometimes we discuss what a piece means. Elsie and Tristan both like Robert Frost. And it turns out they’re capable of memorizing whole poems, if only they are challenged to do so.

On other occasions, the curriculum may be less formal. Last week we regaled one another with silly songs. Needless to say, their silly songs are sillier than my silly songs. Then we read a few Paul Bunyan stories, including one about the time Paul Bunyan tried to drive his logs down a Wisconsin river that ran around in a perfect circle. It took a while for Tristan to realize that such a thing is impossible—but he figured it out on his own. 

Much of my teaching is stuff and nonsense, of the basest sort; but I have a nagging fear that if not for Bapa—their non-Swedish name for me—they would miss out on such things entirely.

These days, children’s educational and recreational opportunities are meted out, trimmed, and balanced to a stupefying degree. We all know kids need exposure to the world of their grandparents, but we commonly neglect that need while we pursue other goals that are less vital. 

Should you have the opportunity to spend extra time with your grandchildren, rejoice. And use the time wisely. Don’t fritter it away in certified, approved, and educator-recommended lesson plans. This may be your one chance to give them something different.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author