There’s No Place Like Home … When You Have to Be There

It’s that time of the year again, when spring snow turns to brown slush and melts away, exposing everything that’s wrong with your house. That’s right – it’s home and garden season! For those of us who’ve spent the last 100 days mostly indoors, it hardly seems fair that as the days lengthen, the weather clears, and the temperatures warm, we have to turn our attention homeward. I for one would much rather spend the coming days romping in the mountains. Regardless, home and garden, like taxes, require annual tending and the call is most urgent in the springtime.

For me, it won’t be a pretty sight. It’s been a brutal winter for my house and yard. Here on the northwest side, the winter winds whip along the foothills, blasting the neighborhoods and carrying off shingles, fence slats, and small pets. Tucked against the Rampart Range, our little hillside valley seems to attract an extra serving of the white stuff at each snowfall. It slides off my driveway and puddles in the road, refreezing into a small ice pond bordered by a ragged glacier. As it melts, bits of neighborhood flotsam and jetsam appear, the wind’s castoffs from trash days gone by.

I generally like the wind, especially in the fall when it blows all my leaves across the street and into the neighbor’s yard. Trash days present a special treat on windy days: a sustained gust can push the big plastic bins-on-wheels down the middle of the road for blocks before they collide with a car or a herd of unsuspecting deer. The blue recycle bins are lighter and can get a lot of speed going, but they tend to topple over before the heavier brown ones. If they can stay upright, the blue bins usually make it to the end of the block first. After an especially drafty day, people wander the streets in the evening, searching for their wayward garbage and recycle bins. Since they aren’t named or numbered, it’s pretty much a free-for-all. You just have to find a brown one and a blue one and roll them into your garage before somebody else claims the pair.

Trash can races and leaf-blowing aside, the wind mostly just tears things up around my house, and around this time of year, I have to deal with it. Like get out there and actually fix things. I don’t mind, though. Home improvement is fun. I do a little bit each year, enough to satisfy anyone worried about home values, curb appeal, and – for the Airbnb homeowners – what the neighborhood looks like on Google Earth. This year the list is long: seal the driveway joints, repair and paint the fence, replace some of the sprinkler heads, reseed the lawn, finish the front porch, and put in a backyard deck. I also have to move the seven tons of rock I put down years ago, replace the weed proof barrier, and put all those rocks back. And do something about the shingles, slats, and small pets trapped in that melting glacier.

After those chores, I need to plant a vegetable garden. My indoor herb garden went crazy over the winter and I need to grow potatoes to go with the chives, tomatoes for the sage, soybeans for the dill, and tacos for the cilantro. Mmm … I wish there really were such a thing as taco plants. I would be out there digging in the yard right now!

So that’s my “outside of the house” list. I haven’t even thought about an inside list. We’ll save that one for the fall. Now all I need is a little inspiration, so I may head out to one of the home and garden events going on this month. Pikes Peak Urban Gardens has some cool things planned, like a Wildscaping class. I have no idea what that is, but it sounds like something I need to do immediately. Even more exciting than composting with worms. The Bear Creek Nature Center and Pikes Peak Library District are hosting gardening and composting events, and some of them actually do involve worms. I’ve been thinking of getting a pet and worms might be just the ticket – they feast on table scraps and unlike the typical pet’s yard droppings or litter box, they actually give something useful back.

I’ll need to get started on all this soon so I can enjoy a few weeks of growth before hail season begins. One good storm could wipe out the whole garden, and one wide-eyed doe and her wobbly fawns will likely ravage whatever potato, tomato, and taco plants survive. For now, I think I’ll sit out on the front step for a while. It’s trash day, the wind’s starting to pick up, and I’ve got five bucks on blue for the win!

This blog first appeared as a column in the March 13, 2019 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Finding Your Peace – and Your People – in Music

October was a tough month and I was happy to see it end. Scary packages sent to journalists, politicians, and other public figures. Another horrible, senseless shooting – and then, another one. Midterm elections, with a country and a county so divided, the anger at times seemed to escalate to a deafening roar.

Sometimes you have to escape the steady thrum of tension and anxiety, and for Coloradans, there are plenty of ways to do that. Lots of parks, national forests, and wilderness areas to lose yourself in, and if you’re not the outdoorsy type, plenty of shows and movies streaming on Netflix, Hulu, and all the other entertainment sites. Lots of libraries to visit, too, and books to read. This year, I found a lot of peace in live music.

The Pikes Peak Center hosted some great talent this year. I was lucky enough to see Kris Kristofferson, and Lyle Lovett with Robert Earl Keen. I’m not a country music fan, but I’ve always been curious about the popularity of Lovett, so I figured I’d go and see what all the fuss was about. As for Kristofferson – well, I guess I just heard his songs on the radio so often as a teen, and who knows if or when he’ll tour again. Both shows were well worth the time and the money, and I even got to hear one of my all-time favorites, “Me and Bobby McGee,” sung by the guy who wrote it.

Up in Denver, I saw and heard more old favorites: Steely Dan, the Doobie Brothers, Cyndi Lauper, and Rod Stewart. I guess I never realized how many hits each of these performers had, or how deeply embedded the words to their songs were in my memory. I wasn’t alone, either. It seemed everyone in the crowd that packed the Pepsi Center knew every word, every nuance, and every beat to music I hadn’t heard in decades, especially Stewart’s “Forever Young,” “Maggy May,” “Tonight’s the Night,” “Downtown Train,” and more than a dozen other songs. That’s the part, I think, that helps drown out the discord. When everyone’s singing the same words to the same songs that are in your head, you realize that – no matter how foreign the rest of the world may seem at times – you have something in common with a lot of people. Those words. Those songs. Even if it’s 10,000 people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s bellowing “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”, it sure feels good to share something that makes you smile with a whole lot of other people.

The last show I saw this year was Joan Baez. In her late 70s, she can still sing like a bird and is as feisty as I remembered her from many years ago. She did her own renditions of “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Forever Young,” and a lot of other songs that I hadn’t heard since I was a kid. Like the Pikes Peak Center and the Pepsi Center, the room at the Paramount Theatre was packed with people about my age, maybe a little older, and again, everyone seemed to know all the songs. It was a peaceful night, but a lot of fun, too, and filled with a feeling of camaraderie that’s often missing in other places. At the end of the show, Baez and the band locked arms and took a bow, and then they all took a knee. The crowd was on their feet, and the stage went dark, but we kept on clapping until she came back out to play three more songs, an encore for people who weren’t ready for the night, or the music, to end.

That was the last live show I went to, but then there was Bohemian Rhapsody, the movie. I’ve seen Queen twice – in 1977, with Freddie Mercury on vocals, and again in 2017, with Adam Lambert. I had all their albums when I was a teen, so of course – despite the critics’ reviews – I had to see the film. Anyone who’s been will tell you the best parts were the concert scenes, and they were phenomenal. And just like with “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Maggy May,” and “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall,” the crowds in the movie – and the people in the theater – knew all the words, or at least the choruses. We all joined in on “Radio Ga-Ga,” “Hammer to Fall,” and of course, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” We may have no idea what the words mean, but for some reason, we have them memorized.

It was a good way to say goodbye to October and welcome November. I needed it. We all need to be reminded every now and then that we have something in common with a whole lot of people, even if it’s just the words to a silly song that bring us peace and for a couple of hours, drown out everything else.

This blog first appeared as a column in the November 14, 2018 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

Summertime Waterfall Roundup

June is my favorite month for hiking to Colorado waterfalls. That’s when springtime snow, warmed in the sunshine, releases its bounty of crystal clear, liquid goodness. Shimmering cascades, horsetails, and cataracts tumble down mountainsides, pour over rocky ledges, and fling themselves off high cliffs. Even though snowpack is in short supply this year, you can still catch some lovely falls in the Pikes Peak region.

Your first stop should be North Cheyenne Cañon, where you can drive up North Cheyenne Canyon Road for about 2.5 miles to Helen Hunt Falls, formed by North Cheyenne Creek. From the base of the falls, take a short, steep hike up to Silver Cascade (Spoon) Falls, formed by Buffalo Creek. This is a busy area that can become quite congested, so slow down as you drive through and be on the lookout for pedestrians. Likewise, if you cross the road to the falls, be aware of vehicles from both directions.


Helen Hunt Falls, North Cheyenne Cañon

Next, drive to the top of North Cheyenne Canyon Road and park in the big lot at the junction of High Drive and Gold Camp Road. From there, Undine Falls is a 3.4-mile out-and-back hike on the Seven Bridges Trail. Start at the northwest end of the parking lot and hike the old railroad bed (the section of Gold Camp Road that’s closed to vehicles) and cut off the trail at the sign for Trail #622 on the right. The falls are just past the seventh bridge.


Undine Falls, North Cheyenne Cañon

For a longer hike, bypass the cutoff to Trail #622 and continue on Gold Camp Road past the closed tunnel on the right, and look for the very old sign for Saint Mary’s Falls on Buffalo Creek. It’s a 6-mile out-and-back hike that gains quite a bit of elevation, so allow yourself plenty of time and watch for bikers zooming down the trail. They are supposed to afford hikers the right of way, but not all of them are aware of that fact, or they choose to ignore it. Keep your eyes open and if you see one coming, make your presence known. If there’s room, try to step off the trail to avoid a collision.


St Marys Falls, North Cheyenne Cañon

Josephine Falls, in nearby Bear Canyon, is no longer accessible due to the Bear Creek Watershed Restoration Project that closed the trail. A newer trail high above the canyon is the closest you’ll get, but not worth the hike if you’re just going to visit the falls, as they’re hidden far below the trail and a quarter of a mile away. Instead, drive back down North Cheyenne Canyon Road and park in the small lot at the Mount Cutler Trailhead. Hike about a mile up the trail and look to the south for unobstructed views of Seven Falls. Hang onto your kids and your pets on this trail, as there’s dramatic exposure and a tumble off the edge could be fatal.

Josephine Falls Hike (29)

Josephine Falls is no longer accessible due to the Bear Creek Watershed Restoration Project

Dorothy Falls and Williams Canyon Falls aren’t legally accessible right now, as the trails were closed for safety reasons after the September 2013 floods.


Dorothy Falls at Glen Eyrie has been closed to the public since the 2013 floods

Rainbow Falls is also closed, but the area is undergoing renovations and should be opening next month. This is one of the prettiest waterfalls in the area so put that one on your calendar and check the El Paso County Parks website for updates.

111009 - Rainbow, Crystal-1, Catamount & Williams Canyon 032

Rainbow Falls, Manitou Springs is scheduled to reopen in July after restoration is complete

If you don’t mind a little driving, head west on Highway 24 to Green Mountain Falls, where you can hike the Thomas Trail to Crystal Falls and Catamount Falls. Then, check out Horsethief Falls in Teller County, and Guffey Falls and Tarryall Falls in Park County.

Want more falls? Keep driving – and hiking! According to the Worldwide Waterfall Database, there are 467 known waterfalls in Colorado. Once you get into the mountainous areas in Rocky Mountain National Park to the north; around Pagosa Springs, Telluride, and Ouray in the southwest part of the state; and in the canyons around Grand Junction to the west; they’re bigger, bolder, and even more dramatic.

As with all your outdoor adventures, leave nothing behind on your waterfalls hikes, and take nothing with you but some glorious photos and a smile. Your children and your children’s children will thank you for taking such great care of these lovely gems, Colorado’s waterfalls, so they can enjoy them for years to come.

For information on more than 100 waterfalls in the Pikes Peak region and across the state, check out my Falcon Guide Hiking Waterfalls in Colorado.

This blog first appeared as a column in the June 13, 2018, Woodmen Edition of the Gazette Community News.

Mountain of Authors

How many authors are there in the Pikes Peak region? If you attended the 12th Annual Mountain of Authors this month, you’d know: a lot! Every year, the Pikes Peak Library District hosts the event as an opportunity for local authors to get together to talk, listen, and learn about writing and publishing trends — and to show off their latest literary efforts.

This year, the annual gathering was held on Saturday, May 5 at Library 21c. In past years, I’ve attended as an onlooker, but this time I was a guest participant. With twenty-one manuscripts under my belt, I figured I’d finally earned my writer stripes.

The event ran six hours and I planned accordingly, packing in snacks and drinks for the long day ahead, and books to occupy my time. As it turned out, my plan-for-the-worst mentality was all for naught because the library staff had planned the event to perfection and the day flew by.

Once I had my table set up with books (for visitors to peruse and buy), bookmarks (to market my ghostwriting services), and Twizzlers (bait), I moseyed over to the lunch table and picked up a couple of vegetarian sandwiches, chips, fruit and a drink.


Nibbling away at the goodies, I waved to the author sitting across from me: fellow Woodmen Edition writer Stewart M. Green, whose own table was packed with a sampling of his more than 30 nonfiction guidebooks. Kitty-corner to my table were a couple of authors with several tables and stacks of books — dozens and dozens of them. Who were these people? Soon after, the doors opened, and people filtered in, wandering from one author’s table to the next and eventually settling in on chairs before the stage to hear the first speakers.

The itinerary kicked off with a panel of authors who offered their best advice for writing and publishing children’s books. I’ve never written a book for kids and don’t plan to, but the insight offered by the six panelists crossed over into other genres, and I agreed with most of it and even picked up a few pointers. In particular, one author noted that the more time she spends with children, the more inspired she is to write for them. I think this is true for any type of book: if you want to know what your reader likes to read, you have to spend time with your reader.

After the panel, we had a one-hour break and I used the time to check out the other author’s tables and see what they were writing. While this was time well-spent, in hindsight, I wish I had done my homework and researched the itinerary more closely because vegan cookbook author, chef instructor, and restaurant reviewer J.L. Fields was providing a freelance writing workshop in a nearby conference room.

I was halfway around the room on my author tour when another person took the stage, so I made my way back to my table. After a short All Pikes Peak Writes awards ceremony, librarian Heather Johnson gave a brief overview of self-publishing. By the way, she does a one-hour workshop on the subject every month at Library 21c. I attended her workshop earlier this month and was surprised to learn that the library has a copy of the pricey book design software InDesign available for library patrons to reserve and use. If you don’t know how to use the program — or any other publishing software — you can book a librarian and ask them all about it.

During the next break, I got to know the authors sitting beside me. Diane Sawatzki writes historical fiction based in the Pikes Peak region, and Peg Gould, a former journalist for the Gazette, writes non-fiction. I was in good company. I glanced over again at the many stacks of books on the table diagonal to mine. A large banner advertised a Dune series. I had read Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction series in the 1970s and to this day the first book is one of my favorite reads of all time. How was this guy writing Dune books? Someone stopped by my table to snag a Twizzler and a bookmark and chat about my books and the question was gone.

Another speaker, Michael Covington, delivered an outstanding talk on marketing. Between speaking to people who stopped by my table to talk or purchase books I managed to get a few pointers from his speech, but I would love to see the whole thing again as I’m sure I missed quite a bit. I’ll be checking the PPLD channel to see if there’s a replay.

Throughout the day, the library staff — Bryan Matthews, Joelle Wren, and others — walked the floor making sure everything was running on schedule, while Friends of PPLD handled all the sales transactions.

More readers stopped by including a woman who had attended a presentation I’d done at Mountain Chalet a few years ago, a man who’d bought one of my books at another event and wanted me to sign it for him, and a guy who reads my column here in the Woodmen Edition. Writers and speakers sometimes forget that people read what we write and hear what we present, so it’s always a pleasant surprise to hear that someone did — and appreciated what we created! Another guy stopped by to talk about hiking in Colorado. He told me he has a bunch of Stewart Green’s books and he bought one of mine, a waterfall guidebook. We talked about hiking, writing, and mountaineering. Like me, he had climbed all of Colorado’s fourteeners.

I used the next break to visit several organizations that were set up just outside the room, including Fiction Foundry, Colorado Springs Fiction Writers Group, and another group that provides editing and proofreading services. Unfortunately, I cannot locate their card, or I would share the name here but rest assured, if you’re looking for inspiration or support with your writing endeavors, there’s no shortage in the Pikes Peak region.

Finally, the keynote speaker took the stage. Oh gosh. It was the guy who talked to me about hiking and bought one of my books. It took a few minutes for me to realize he was also one of the authors behind those stacks of books alongside the Dune poster.

Confession time: Like many people, I don’t do my homework before these events. I’m much more concerned with making sure I have enough drinks for myself and Twizzlers for everyone else. If I had read up on this year’s Mountain of Authors, I would have realized the keynote speaker, Kevin J. Anderson, is the author of more than 50 best-selling books including a Dune prequel series and a sequel series co-written with Herbert’s son, Brian; a slew of Star Wars novels; and even a few books inspired by the band Rush and co-written with drummer Neil Peart. Being a Dune/Rush/Star Wars fan, my attention would surely have been piqued if I had been aware of all this. I probably would have gotten out of my chair, walked 20 feet, and asked him and his wife, author Rebecca Moesta, about their books.

That was one of many after-the-fact revelations I had at the Mountain of Authors. I also realized that the library’s website lists bios of all the panelists, speakers, and authors, and I could have read those ahead of time and selected a few that I wanted to speak with, kind of like picking out the works of art you want to see before you go to the Louvre.

If you missed Mountain of Authors this year, put a note on your calendar for next year because this is the kind of event that deserves to continue. If you can’t wait that long, look for Indie Author Day coming to Library 21c in October. The event celebrates independent authors in music, film-making, and self-publishing. I plan on attending and this time, I will do my homework.


This blog first appeared as a column in the May 23, 2018, Woodmen Edition of the Gazette Community News.

Farewell to the Pikes Peak Cog, for Now

I read the news of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway shutdown with mixed feelings. This is the train that transports people from Manitou Springs, Colorado, to the summit of America’s Mountain, 14,115-foot Pikes Peak. The annual temporary winter closure for routine maintenance has become an extended decommissioning of two to three years while the railway’s owner, the Broadmoor, evaluates options for rebuilding or replacing the train, tracks, and depot. The result may be that it never runs again.

My initial reaction was: this is probably a good thing. Like many Coloradans, I enjoy the outdoors, support the Leave No Trace principles, and believe the best 14ers are those that get the least traffic. That part of me would like to see the railway, the summit house – and the Pikes Peak Highway, for that matter – close for good.

But another part of me was struck with sadness and a bit of sentimentality. Why did the news bother me? Why did I care about the closing of a silly red train that hauls tens of thousands of “outsiders” (you know – sniff! – tourists) to the top of our mountain every year? I had to clear a lot of cobwebs – and “jog the cogs” – from my memory to sort out this strange emotional attachment I felt for the train.

Twenty years ago, I took my two boys for a ride on the cog railway. The nearly nine-mile ride from Manitou Springs through subalpine forest and finally, above tree line, seemed to take forever but the conductor kept us amused with the history of the train and Pikes Peak. He even threw in an occasional quip that caused my kids to roll their eyes. As a mom, it’s always a pleasure to see your kids roll their eyes at something other than you.

Wandering the summit was a thrill. It was our first time over 14,000 feet and my kids (who at that age seemed to relish offsetting my enthusiasm for everything by never being impressed by anything) actually seemed to get a kick out of the views. We drank hot chocolate, gobbled up doughnuts, and purchased a couple of gleaming pressed pennies as souvenirs. It was a good day out.

I never rode that fancy red and white train again, but I did revisit the tracks. In November 2006, during the Zebulon Pike Bicentennial Reenactment hike, my group of eight emerged from the forest to pick up the tracks south of Sachett Mountain at 12,000 feet and follow them to the summit. It was 9 degrees and a light snow was beginning to fall. As eager as I was to finish the three-day trek, I slowed down toward the end to savor those last feet of train tracks, knowing I would probably never walk them again.

A couple of years later, after a January hike to the top of Pikes Peak via the “Crags Route” from Divide, I saw the train again. The summit house was closed that day and the entryway was packed with snow, offering little protection from the biting wind. I pressed my back against a drift and sipped hot cocoa from a thermos, trying to warm my chilled bones, but it was no use. It was just too darned cold up there to enjoy the summit, so I told my hiking partner I needed to head down. Suddenly, a whistle shrieked. My buddy and I looked at each other. Maintenance workers? Today? We continued packing up our backpacks for the long hike down, but then the train appeared – pulled up right in front of us! Hundreds of tourists peered out the windows at the two of us. We must have looked like frozen guards, covered in frost and sitting in the snow at the entry to the summit house. Some workers jumped from the train, cleared a path to the doors, and opened the place up. We filled up on coffee and doughnuts and thanked the tourists who offered to help us “find a way down.” They thought we were lost and had ended up on the top of Pikes Peak by accident! Then we headed down – on foot.

Later that year, in December, I found myself crossing the tracks during a descent of another peak in the nearby Manitou Springs quad. It was December, there was a lot of snow, and my hiking buddy and I assumed the train wasn’t running (how soon we forget!) so we weren’t worried about being run over – or being “caught” as we suspected that walking the tracks probably wasn’t legal.

I guess I never realized how quiet the cog train is. It came around the corner like a wall of red. The train engineer looked as shocked to see us and we were to see him! We leapt from the tracks and into the snow. That was the last time I hiked across the cog tracks.

My last encounter with the cog railway wasn’t on the red and white train, but on Carriage 104, one of the original train cars. In 2016, the cog celebrated its 125th anniversary and visitors were treated to a quarter-mile “push” up the tracks by Steam Engine Number 4, an older version of the train that had been retired in 1958. While I appreciated the history lesson, being pushed – rather than pulled – by an engine is a very different experience. I don’t know if I would have enjoyed a 1950s 9-mile trip that way, being jostled up those tracks!

I’m sure many Coloradans have their own Pikes Peak Cog Railway stories. Trains, peaks, and outdoor adventures are all part of our state history and what made this place what it is today.

Reconciling my railway nostalgia with a desire to protect the peaks is difficult. The balance between sustainability and accessibility is delicate and not always convenient. A few years’ rest from all those visitors would surely do old Pikes Peak some good, but I hope someday the owners of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway find a way to get the train moving again.

This blog first appeared as a column in the March 28, 2018, Woodmen Edition of the Gazette Community News.

Who Wants Pi?

Today is Pi Day, and not the fruity, creamy or custardy kind with the sweet filling and tender crust. Nope, it’s the math kind of pi, the 3.14159… I don’t know the rest because I never memorized past the 9!

The Greek symbol π, or Pi, represents that elusive number that goes on forever, the quotient found by dividing the circumference of a circle (the distance around it) by its diameter (the distance across its middle). Pi Day, March 14 (3/14), was founded in 1988 by Larry Shaw, a curator at San Francisco’s Exploratorium Museum of Science, Art, and Human Perception. Mr. Shaw passed away last fall, but his special day will likely live on as long as the numbers after the decimal point in pi.


By Matman from Lublin – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Pi is primarily known for its usefulness for determining a circle’s circumference and the area of a circle, cylinder, cone, or sphere, but pi has much, much more to offer than your average decimal. In my early statistics classes, I vaguely remember using pi to figure out distributions, which in turn were used to figure out probabilities, or the likelihood of an occurrence. Knowing the likelihood of a future event is useful information to have. For example, I would like to know the odds of one of my sons calling me this month, or the chances that I’ll get around to mowing the lawn this year or finishing this column by the deadline. Pi can help with that.

Pi is also featured in the Fourier transform, a formula for converting signals to frequency spectrums. It’s used in cell phone and medical imaging technology, for analyzing DNA sequences, and lots of other places. You should Google or YouTube it for a thorough explanation, or if you have a teenager, ask them. I learned about it in an electronic music class back in the 1970s when I was trying to build a Theremin, a predecessor to modern digital instruments. I never got it to work right, and that was the end of my math (and musical) career.

Pi is also part of the Schrödinger equation, a staple of quantum mechanics. This is the same cat-in-the-box Schrödinger from physics class. Remember that guy? His formula, a differential wave equation, recently enjoyed a galactic comeback across science journals and social media. Apparently, the Schrödinger equation, typically relegated to the lowly study of waves, particles, and “wavicles” at the atomic and subatomic level, explains the warps in all those astronomical spinning space disks we’ve been wondering about for so many years. OK, not all of us have been wondering about the warps. I wasn’t even aware of them until last week. But hey, way to go, pi! We couldn’t have done it without you. By the way, if you want an idea of what a warped disk looks like, get out your “original copy” of Led Zeppelin II, throw it on the turntable, and give it a spin.

Knowing what pi means makes people feel smart, even if it’s the only thing they remember from math class. Most of us finish up geometry and trigonometry, dabble a bit in calculus, and then — unless we start a math-centric major like science, engineering or finance — we move on and forget all about math. But we shouldn’t forget math or take it for granted. And we should never, ever think a mathematical discovery has nothing to do with us.

Math explains a lot whether we care about it or not. When new uses are discovered for numbers — like explaining the lumps and bumps in space disks — we should pay attention and thank our lucky stars there are people who remember and use math all the time. Those kinds of discoveries have a way of trickling down to innovative technologies that affect our daily lives, typically for the better.

I’m not one of those math people, but I salute them, and I never take math for granted. So, on this day, March 14, raise a glass of whatever you’re drinking — to pi! And while you’re staring down at the bottom of your glass, remember: thanks to the power of pi, determining the value of its circumference and the volume of whatever you’re drinking — if you’re inclined to do the math — is possible!

This blog first appeared as a column in the March 14, 2018, Woodmen Edition of the Gazette Community News.

Train Hard and Be Inspired — to Write!

Readers email me from time to time, occasionally about my books and columns, but more often about writing in general. Most people are looking for advice on becoming a writer, specifically: “How can I be a writer?” and “How can I be a paid writer?”

To answer the first question, I defer to this bit of advice, “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” This comes from writer Mary Heaton Vorse and was repeated by her student, Sinclair Lewis. Vorse reportedly hid Lewis’ shoes and pants on at least one occasion to assist him in this task. Writing is a solitary affair between you and your notebook, computer or whatever writing device you prefer. It’s not a team effort, and you have to spend a lot of time sitting in a chair, thinking hard and writing.

The answer to the second question is, just like any paid job, you have to look for writing work and apply for it. You need to create a resume, a LinkedIn profile, and hopefully have proof — education, experience or both — that you can provide to potential employers, showcasing your skills.

The question I never get is: “How can I be a good writer?” Most people believe they’re already good writers, just like they believe they’re good drivers. If you’ve driven around town, you know this claim isn’t always true.

How does anyone get good at anything? If you’ve been watching the Winter Olympics, you probably have a pretty good idea: you train, learn, and practice. You do it again and again and you study how other people do it, too. You read books about how to write and books written by great authors. You take classes and participate in workshops.

Here in Colorado Springs, resources abound for writer training and most of them are free. The Pikes Peak Library District hosts writing groups and activities like the Life Circle Writing Group, Journal Club, and 21st Century Writer’s Group. For Meetup groups, there’s the Colorado Springs Nonfiction Writer’s Group, the Colorado Springs Writers’ Workshop Group, and the Pen Drop Coffee Break Group. Finally, there’s the 2,000-member Pikes Peak Writers, a group that’s free to join and hosts a three-day conference every year.

I attended a couple of writers’ events this year. The first one was a free Non-fiction Writer’s Group critique at the East Library. Most of the people were writing memoirs, and they were all passionate about their work. My memoir projects are all ghostwriting gigs and I have confidentiality agreements with the subjects, so I had nothing to share. Still, it was good to hear what these Springs writers are working on and listen to their thoughtful critiques.

The next event was a free authors’ panel at the Rockrimmon Library. Local novelists Anne Eliot, Jennie Marts, and Mimi Foster shared stories about their work, answered questions and offered great advice. It was refreshing to hear such current and accurate guidance about the writing process and publishing. Afterward, they stayed to chat with anyone who had specific questions about their own writing projects. Listening to these women inspired me to dust off my notes for a fictional series I started seven years ago.

I have more events lined up, including a free March preview of the annual Pikes Peak Writers Conference and the Pikes Peak Library District’s annual Mountain of Authors Program in May, and I’ll probably check out more writing meetups.

I started this column with the goal of impressing the importance of training on would-be writers but uncovered something else: an expansive, city-wide writing community. And I discovered there’s more to becoming an exceptional writer than reading books and taking classes.

Those Olympic athletes train hard, but between performances, they retreat to their coaches and teams for inspiration and support. And just like the Olympic skating, skiing, and snowboarding I’ve been watching all month, great writing not only requires practice, it also requires feedback and guidance from other writers. Colorado Springs is known for its Olympic athletes, but maybe our city should be known for its Olympic writers, too — the people who generously share their experience and knowledge to help others write more and write better. They may not have medals, but their willingness to support aspiring writers is world class.

This blog first appeared as a column in the February 28, 2018, Woodmen Edition of the Gazette Community News.

Forever Friends

“Susan,” my sister said to me on the phone, “I don’t have any girlfriends.”

I wasn’t surprised to hear this from my older sister, Carolyn, in Connecticut. I have four sisters in three different states, and I’d heard it before, from every one of them. None of us has a lot of friends – any kind of friends, and definitely not best friends. I imagine this is partly due to our upbringing: we moved often, so we didn’t forge many friendships, knowing they were temporary.

There was no email or Facebook when we were growing up, so once we moved to another town, the only way to keep in touch with people was by phone, and long distance phone calls were expensive. You could write a letter or a postcard, but then you had to buy a stamp. You needed money for that, and a ride to the post office. People usually didn’t write back, either. After you moved, they moved on, and soon you had nothing in common to write about. So we just didn’t start many meaningful, lasting friendships, or work to maintain the few we had.

Here in the 21st century, with its texting, Skype, unlimited phone minutes, and social media, there’s no excuse for letting friendships die, but my sisters and I seem to hang onto our childhood habits: don’t keep up old friendships or bother making any new ones. I was guilty of the habit, and so was my sister.

“It’s funny you say that you don’t have any girlfriends,” I said to her, “because I have the same problem, but I guess it doesn’t bother me because I really enjoy being alone.” Of course, there’s a fine line between introversion and reclusiveness, and I cross that line regularly. I could go for days without speaking to another person. That’s probably not healthy, so I make a point of walking into the bank to deposit checks, talking to the mail lady at the mailboxes in the afternoon, or going to the grocery store when I don’t need anything, so I can make eye contact with a person and say hello at least once a week. I’m good with that – it satisfies my social needs. But I wanted to help my sister.

“Have you tried a Meetup group?” I asked. She didn’t know what that was, so I stepped her through the site. In case you’re not familiar with Meetup, it’s a site where people who have common interests set up groups and then have in-person meetups and social events. There are Meetup groups for just about everything. I think I belong to at least a dozen of them here in the Springs, and one of these days I’m going to attend an event.

My sister got on the site, plugged in her zip code, and got a list of meetup groups in her area.

“The closest meetup group is called Girls Without Friends,” she laughed.

“Great,” I said, “It’s probably a bunch of miserable, middle-aged women who moved a lot when they were kids. Sounds like a blast!” We both laughed at that.

I had to try again.

“Don’t you have any friends from high school? College? Past jobs? Isn’t there anyone you haven’t seen in a long time, but when you think about that person, you remember really enjoying their company?”

There was someone, but she hadn’t talked to her in years.

“She used to call and stop by all the time,” she said.

“So what happened,” I asked, “Did she move? Why did she stop coming by?”

“I don’t know…well, actually I remember now that she had a gallery opening, so she was really busy. She invited me but I couldn’t make it. Then she had this other thing, and I couldn’t go to that either. I think she left me a voicemail last year…”

“Call her!” I said, “Hang up and call her right now!”

“But we haven’t talked in years. I told you, she stopped calling.”

“No, Carolyn, she didn’t stop calling. You stopped calling her back.”

“Oh,” she said.

A couple of weeks later, my sister called me again. She had called and called that friend, and gotten no response, so she went by her house. They spent two hours catching up. As it turned out, they had both gotten busy. Their friendship hadn’t ended; it had just lapsed, and all it took was for one of them to take that first step to revive it. My sister was happy. She had her friend back.

I hung up the phone and thought about that for a while. Then I contacted a few women I hadn’t seen in years. We reconnected, and one of them went on a hike with me in Lost Creek Wilderness. Two others, who live minutes away in Mountain Shadows and Manitou Springs, invited me out for drinks. We had great conversations. They reminded me that – despite my proclivity for solitude – friendships, in small doses, felt good.

I called my sister to tell her about my refound friendships. She laughed at me for following my own advice after all these years, and I hung up, smiling.

That’s when I realized, I do have a best friend. And so does my sister, Carolyn.

This blog first appeared as a column in the September 26, 2017, Woodmen Edition of the Gazette Community News.


The Work-From-Home Survival Guide

When I got promoted to a work-from-home job a few years ago, I felt like I’d won the lottery. What? I don’t have to come into the office anymore? No commute? No cubicle? Not even a schedule? For me, an extreme introvert, it was a dream come true! Little did I know at the time that working from home came with its own challenges, but over the past three and a half years, I think I’ve finally got this thing figured out.

The first thing I discovered was that “work from home” is not the same thing as “home from work.” You are still at work. The only difference is that you’re physically located in your own home for the duration of the workday, instead of an office, cubicle, or shop.

The second thing I learned is that “working remotely” isn’t the same thing as “remotely working.” You have to have your butt in a chair for eight hours a day or longer, and you have to be doing actual work — providing a service or creating a product — that someone values enough to pay you money for.

Seriously, if you’re considering a work-from-home job and you can just get those two things straight in your head, you’ll be on your way to a successful career (and you won’t even have to put on pants).

I learned a lot of other things, and they’ve helped me keep my career going. I should let you know upfront that I got laid off from that first work-from-home job after a year and half, but I had another one within two weeks. These days, there are a lot of jobs out there that you can do in your own home office. If you don’t believe me, go to a job site like Indeed or Monster and search for “work-from-home” or “remote” jobs.

I should also let you know that I quit that second job after four months to be a full-time freelancer. There’s that much freelance work out there, too, for anyone who’s motivated enough to find it.

So here’s what else I learned, my best advice if you’re thinking of making a go of it working from home:

  • Have a nice workspace. It should be clean, quiet, and comfortable, with good lighting and dependable high-speed internet. If it’s too cold, get a space heater. If it’s too warm, get an evaporative cooler. When you work from home, you don’t have to heat or cool the entire house – just the space you’re occupying to get your work done, and you’ll get more work done if you like the space you’re in.
  • Have a schedule that reflects your normal work schedule. It doesn’t have to be 8 to 5, but your day should start sometime in the morning and end sometime in the early evening, with a midday break for lunch, the gym, errands, and whatever else you want to do in the middle of the day. You can even throw in a load of laundry, if you like! I use my midday break to go for a run, hike, or climb, and then I shower, eat lunch, load the dishwasher, balance my checkbook, and pay the bills. You can knock out a lot of stuff in a two-hour break. What, a two-hour break? Yes, when you work from home, you get a two-hour break instead of just an hour. That extra hour is the time you’d usually be sitting in your car during the before- and after-work commute. Nice bonus, eh?
  • Start every day with a plan. You might have left your Outlook calendar back at the office, but you still need a calendar in your home office. Get in the habit of scheduling blocks of time to get things done. I keep a running online calendar of meetings and appointments in Google (which is free) and a paper calendar on my desk for all the details. I update them at the end of every workday. That way, I don’t spend the next morning – my most productive time for getting work done – trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do. Also, I sometimes have early morning client calls, as early as 6 a.m., and so I need to remind myself of those the night before, so I don’t miss them!
  • Get rid of all the distractions. No Facebook or Twitter, and you had better not think for a minute that it’s okay to have a television in your home office. When you work from home, you don’t have to answer the door or your cell phone, or respond to every text message or email that pops up – unless it’s a client, then you absolutely do. Seriously, behave the same way you would behave at work, because you are at work!
  • Track your time. The first couple of weeks I worked from home, I couldn’t believe how busy I was. It was exhausting. The funny thing was, I didn’t seem to be getting a lot accomplished. One day I started tracking my time. I kept a running list of the time I started working and the time I stopped because of a distraction. In that eight-hour workday, I had worked – and actually created something that I was going to get paid for – for one hour. Yes, one whole hour. Where did the other seven hours go? Phone calls, email, social media, and snacks. Oh, and there was a really good episode on Dr. Phil. Now I track my time from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and I put in a solid eight hours of work every single day. There are apps for this (and if you work for an employer that wants you to use them, then use them!), or you can use a good old-fashioned notepad. At the end of each day, I roll all my time into an Excel workbook with a different worksheet for each project, so I know how much time I spent on each one.
  • If you’re a freelancer, make time for lead generation, marketing, sales, invoicing, collections, and customer communication. This is part of your eight-hour workday, and nobody pays you for this time, but you have to do these things to stay in business.
  • Keep good food in the house so you don’t have to go out to eat every day, which is time-consuming, expensive, and usually not healthy. My kitchen is stocked with vegan lunch meats and cheeses, breads, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains…and Oreos.
  • Go out to lunch sparingly and use that time to catch up with friends. Once a month or once a week is plenty. Hook up with other work-from-home people and have lunch with them every once in a while on your two-hour break. If you don’t have any freelance friends or work-from-homies, find some on a Meetup group, or start your own group.
  • Don’t eat at your desk. I can’t tell you how many times, when I was working in an office, I looked around my desk for a “missing sandwich” only to find a pile of crumbs and realize that I’d already eaten it. Do one thing at a time, and don’t work while you’re eating or eat while you’re working. Food is awesome. Enjoy it (on your two-hour break).
  • Get up every hour. Prolonged sitting is bad for you. When you’re in an office, you do this without thinking about it to go to meetings, the breakroom, or the printer. In your home office, you have to make yourself stand up and move. Get up for five minutes and run up and down the stairs, lift some free weights, or do something else to get the blood flowing. Then grab a big glass of water to take back to your desk with you, and get to work – you’re still on the clock.
  • Get outside. There are lots of other people in your neighborhood who work from home and if you get out in the middle of the day you’ll see them everywhere: stay-at-home moms and dads playing with their kids at the park, freelancers running the trails, and people with online jobs who just need a little fresh air. If you can get in a twenty-minute walk or run, you’ll come back to your desk feeling a lot better. This counts as part of your two-hour break, by the way.
  • If you’ve been doing the math, you’re probably wondering where that other two hours went. When you work twelve hours, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a two-hour midday break, trust me, you will still only work for eight hours. The other two hours will be lost on meals, exercise breaks, snack breaks, and phone calls from family or friends. That’s why you have to track your time. You need to make sure you’re actually working for eight hours.

That’s a lot, right? Working from home might not be for you. In fact, when I taught human resources for an online college (a fantastic work-from-home job, if you get in with the right school), I read about a survey of employees who had been allowed to work from home for six months. Half of them asked to come back to the office. Sound crazy? It’s not. There are people who prefer the social environment, or they like getting dressed up, or they like having a more rigid schedule and someone like a manager telling them what to do. If that’s you, that’s cool, too. But if you want to work from home, learn from my mistakes and do it right the first time.

This blog first appeared as a column in the June 28, 2017, Woodmen Edition.

What a Mom Really Wants

Jewelry, flowers, photos and chocolates. Kitchen gadgets and gardening tools. Soaps, lotions, candles and bubble baths. All terrific Mother’s Day presents!

I’m not big on gifts – getting them or giving them. Maybe it was my upbringing. There was never any extra money for buying things other than food and, occasionally, clothes. My kids must have picked up on my lack of interest in gifts because they seldom send me cards or presents and when they do I’m kind of shocked, and suspect someone else – a dad or a girlfriend – had a hand in it.

I still look forward to Mother’s Day every year, though. The holiday is a nice reminder that your kids appreciate you, even if they forget to mention it the other 364 days a year.

But this year, Mother’s Day has me thinking about gifts and the best gifts I’ve received in my lifetime. There have been a few real standouts.

One year my sister, Alison, showed up at my house with her kids and we all picked up Subway sandwiches, had a picnic, and went on a nice long hike in Ute Valley Park. Her husband, Michael, didn’t want to come along because he had work to do. When we got back, Michael had installed window sills on every window in my house – even in the bathrooms! Somehow, he and my sister had measured all the windows without me knowing about it, and he’d built and painted the sills in his workshop. Installing them meant pounding a few nails – and getting me out of the house for a couple of hours. It was magnificent.

Another one of my favorite gifts came from my friend, David. He gave me an autographed hard copy of the book Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s my favorite book. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from it: “Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.” There are better quotes in that book, but that’s the one that fits best here.

The best gifts I got this year were a couple of phone calls from my kids. My oldest son called to tell me he’d landed a job doing something he’s really good at. It’s a great company and the money’s good. He loves this new job. We moms take care of our kids for so many years, but eventually, we have to turn them out into the world. We worry that they won’t be able to take care of themselves. Or they won’t be happy. A good-paying job that they love is like a small miracle because then we can stop worrying pretty much. We still worry about other things, but at least we don’t go to bed at night wondering if our kids had enough to eat that day or have a warm place to sleep. Or if they’re spending eight hours a day doing something they don’t enjoy. It’s a huge relief when they get a good job. I called everyone I knew when he got that job, not to brag, but to let them know I was relieved.

The other great gift I got was a phone call from my younger son, who called me last week to tell me he was OK. There was a stabbing on his college campus and one student was dead. A few others were injured. I was traveling for work when I read the news and I called my son immediately and left him a voicemail. He never answers the phone and usually doesn’t even call me back for days, but this time he called me right back. He must have known I’d be going out of my mind until I heard from him.

A lot of moms are going to get the other kinds of calls this year. Their kid didn’t get the job or qualify for that home loan, or their girlfriend broke up with them or husband left them. Or maybe something awful happened and those moms won’t get a call at all from their kid. The moms of those kids at the University of Texas got calls like that this week. I can’t think about it too hard or I’ll cry and won’t be able to finish writing this column.

If you’re a mom, I hope you get a call from your kid this weekend. I hope they call to tell you they got that great job that they wanted, or qualified for the house, or fell in love. Or maybe they’ll just call to tell you they’re OK.

If you’re a kid, remember that we moms feel your pain, and we need to know when something’s wrong so we can try to take some of that pain away. We feel your joy, too, and we need to know about that. Your joy is a better gift than a bouquet of flowers or a box of chocolates. So if we’re kind of annoying and we nag you a bit or ask you too many questions or call and leave too many voicemails, just remember that we never forget you’re our kids. And we just need to know that you’re OK.

This blog first appeared as a column in the May 10, 2017, Woodmen Edition of the Gazette Community News.