A few sketches from recent days, quick exercises really. A roadside stop on the way home from the supermarket on a raw and very windy morning, looking across dormant fields. The stubby base of the butterfly bush in my side yard, because I felt guilty about just lounging on the patio yesterday afternoon. A pensive reflection in the mirror this morning before starting my work day.

It often matters less to do something extraordinary than simply to engage, and to keep at it. Moments of inspiration are rare, but you have to be ready when they come. You have to be present.


Not ready for retirement

I have this Saab 99GL, a 1978 wagonback model. It was weird looking when it was new, with its unsexy but distinctive and distinctly odd profile, and this one a strange brown color, like toasted turmeric. I didn't get it brand new - I bought it cheap from a Saab mechanic in Vermont in the fall of 2009, at the beginning of a brief but quite insane period of vintage Saab acquisition. At the apogee of my madness, I'd collected seven, ranging from a 1968 93 and 95 through a second 1978, a 99GLE that I turned into a turbocharged terror before I sold it. Ultimately I sold them all, except for the first one. This one.

I don't really need it. I still have a 2007 Volvo V70 wagon that I got brand new, which I've maintained well enough that I expect to drive it for a few more years. It's handsome, comfortable, quiet, safe, and has all the conveniences and comforts that the '78 Saab lacks, like blemish free paint, air conditioning, power windows and locks, a great stereo, leather seats, cup holders ... and I have a 1974 MGB ragtop that I likewise don't need. And yet.

The 99GL is a snaggletoothed beast with a couple of dents and a finish that's fading and discolored where it isn't rusting. The windows are hard to crank, the steering is manual, as is the 4 speed transmission, and the engine is merely a normally aspirated 2.0 liter. There's no A/C, the cloth upholstery is tired and worn, the wiper motor will intermittently squall like a cat getting its tail slammed in a door. The speedometer and gas gauge don't work, nor does the radio. But I've bonded with it in a way that I've never loved any other car, and I've had some pretty cool cars. For one thing, the view in all directions, what I like to call "driver prospect", is minimally impeded, and from a high eyepoint. The cabin feels snug but not at all constricting. The suspension was slightly modified for better performance and handling by my predecessor in Vermont, and it is extremely engaging to drive. Sport steering rack, stiff springs, Bilstein shocks. It's no rocket, but when I'm behind the wheel, it's like an extension of my own body, more so than any sports cars I've ever driven. My favorite mechanic at Swedish Motors, who used to race a '78 99 Turbo, adores it. When I drive it (often), I feel giddy like a kid on a fast bike.

Yeah, it would have been nice had I been able to give it a concours quality body and paint job and could have kept it garaged instead of sitting out on the curb these seven and a half years that I've owned it. But part of its appeal to me is that it's showing its age. I identify with it. And it's far more interesting and unique than the young hotshots out on the road. I'm not inclined to retire it any time soon.



Foggy interlude

The day was neither pleasant nor the landscape remarkable where I was in western Kentucky this Monday. Dreary, damp, and unsettlingly warm for early February. Even the locals found it worrisome. We were at loose ends with less than an hour before a brief but obligatory meeting that had brought us to this out of the way place. A sign just down the road from the Huddle House chain restaurant where we'd breakfasted indicated "Scenic Overlook", an arrow pointing down a side road leading through a break in the trees lining the highway. We followed it a mile to a mostly empty parking lot and a nondescript park next to the serrated edge of a wandering lake, and decided that a short walk was better than sitting gloomily in the car with nothing to do. An asphalt paved path disappeared over a slight rise into a barren woods. We followed it.

Winding along the edge of a small promontory, the path took us across the lakeside brow of a rocky cliff, trees and bushes clinging above the grey waters, a fall of thirty feet. Our destination turned out to be a cracked concrete pad with a wooden bench and a low stone wall in front of the drop, with a "No Diving" sign and a view of an old prison compound across the lake, partially occluded in mist. The scenic overlook was less than breathtaking. Still, I've found that there's always something to see if I simply leave any expectations behind. I sat down, opened my sketchbook, and focused closer.

There was not much time, but when is there ever? We work with what's in front of us, and make the best of it. Not everything worthwhile is revealed in a glance. And always, even on a bleak day, there's opportunity for progress.


Side trip

A twelve hour Sunday drive is relieved by a walk in a quiet woods. A slight detour from the required route, but the best path isn't always the shortest.



Light on the river

Lately, I've only managed to get out for short walks in the strip of woods between the Conrail tracks and the big bend in the Susquehanna, usually to get Ellie, our dog, out for some exercise. The days, although longer as we advance towards next month's equinox and the summer beyond, have mostly been cheerless and gray. Still, the river beckons me.

Mid morning today, a break in the clouds let the sun shine through. Ellie sat in front of the old Stickley library table I was writing at, looking at me expectantly. She needed a little more fresh air and stretching than her early morning few minutes in the side yard.  I sighed, got up and walked out to the coat hall, snapped her leash and harness on, pulled on hiking boots and donned a coat and hat. Slung my sketch bag over a shoulder before shuffling out the door.

A few aggravating minutes of admonishing the always overenthused Ellie not to pull on the leash and we were topping the railroad berm. The wooded bluff across the river was dark and brooding, backlit by diffuse sunlight, weakening as the holes in the cloud cover closed. A long, dark reflection dominated the stretch of water I could see through the trees, but shifting dapples of brilliance sparkled here and there.

The Susquehanna is ranked third among the ten rivers most endangered by pollution in the United States. Inadequately regulated fracking and poorly managed agricultural and sewage runoff have prompted the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to warn against swimming and fishing the river, whose poisoned flow empties into the Chesapeake. With the Trump administration's attack on the EPA, which appears to have majority support from the Republican controlled Congress, calls to activism are gathering momentum from those of us who see and feel the seriousness of such threats.

These disturbing thoughts were on my mind as I paused in the quiet, dark woods to dash off a quick sketch. After a few minutes, I realized that I'd lost track of the dog. I called her and packed up while I waited for her to emerge from the tangle. Clipped her leash back on and followed the trail back out and across the tracks.

Back inside the house, I doffed my coat. I had to get to work, but I decided that a few more minutes to write a letter to a congressman would be time well spent. Some of my friends are putting pen to paper and sending their concerns out daily. I should join them. Every voice counts.