By Veteran, Mother, Writer
TreeHouseLetterMar 20, 2023
"It is precisely because life is so precious to me that I am prepared to die."
A soldier's own obituary, John "Alex" Hottell, III -- published in the NY Times 3 March 1971. A Memorial Day remembrance.
The Cure for Resentment and Cynicsim
Thoughts from a British headmistress, marine veteran, and college graduate. Two book recs, one podcast rec.
What are they and why should we avoid them? Improve writing immediately. Bonus: two book recommendations on usage, grammar, and style
What makes a single person's death feel large?*
Four friends died recently and three were my age. Learn what makes the eulogy powerful and lasting from a personal vignette and from Vivian Gornick. An elegy on What is Dying? from Margaret Drabble to share with the bereaved. May they rest in peace.
Wild Horses Dragged Me Away
My road trip last weekend had a detour to Assateague Island. Learn about wild horses on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a wild herd in Patagonia, and the chlidren's classic, inspired by the true story of Chincoteague Ponies.
Go Slow to Go Fast
Baking Sally's shortbread cookies with my nephew and a German proverb. Miles Davis's advice to a young jazz guitarist. How these ideas provide insight on creating, baking, performing.
Sleep on It: Darkness Helps Us See the Light
On dreams and patterns, a "Digit Dork" special with insight into Fibonacci and the Golden Ratio
A Day With the Night Stalkers
On a lonesome stretch of road north of Nashville..... Learn about the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), the Soldier and the Citizen, on the Ides of March
Hey, why aren't dogs alcoholics?
True Tale from Toxin Tails and the Pet Poison Hotline about Red, the retriever St. Bernard mix.
The Edgeless Sound and the Night Owl
Poetry for Emergencies and the Leonard Cohen translation of Roshi's Poem. A footnote depicts the lesser-known, closed to the public "Poe Arch" or Edgar Allan Poe Memorial at the archives at West Point
Belief is a Powerful Elixir
It's a powerful thing, belief. If a person believes in you, you can move mountains. Music as a gift, and a passage from Maya Angelou from her essay collection, Letter to My Daughter.
Presciption for Life and Rumi's Cow
Poetry for Emergencies. A discussion of Melody Moezzi's memoir, The Rumi Prescription, and how the mystic poet helps her deal with modern life challenges.
Two Things Everybody's Got to Do
This winter I received five books I own, four as gifts. What do you do when you receive a book you already own? One was Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. I pulled my copy off the shelf to read my notes, the marginalia, the pages underlined, tabbed, highlighted. What is Love? What are the two things?
Good Luck and Smooth Sailing in the Year of the Cat
Happy Lunar New Year! The Vietnamese celebrate the Cat versus the Rabbit. Learn about the difference and pick up a writing tip from the songwriter and musician Al Stewart from his hit song, The Year of the Cat.
"Good Luck and Smooth Sailing" in the Year of the Cat
Happy Lunar New Year! The Vietnamese celebrate the Cat versus the Rabbit. Learn about the difference and pick up a writing tip from the songwriter and musician Al Stewart from his hit song, The Year of the Cat.
How to Capture a Life in 400 Words
Writing the obituary is a sobering task. The structure and getting it right. WHO was the person and HOW did she live? Writing as a gift.
Punch In, Punch Out: the Profession and the Side Hustle
Many authors publish one or two novels; few write full-time. Fewer write for a life-time. Excerpts and ideas from Haruki Murakami's memoir and essay collection, Novelist as a Vocation. On creativity, originality, and his writing process.
Pithy and Practical - Time in Memoir
A reader loves the TreeHouseLetter because it is "pithy and practical." The pithy in this letter is about the winter solstice and Christmas; the practical is about perceptions of time. How do we manage the human construct of time, as a child and as an adult and in writing? Learn about the divided self in memoir, how time creates meaning and tension. Understanding the character of "I" and the narrator of "I" helps writers and readers understand time in their own lives. Happy and Healthy 2023!
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Giving Thanks for Dissent and Cookies
Gratitude is vogue, hip, lit. It's handy and eternal, an ever-ready virtue . . . but it's the sense of duty and expectation that gives it a gloss and cheek that's a bit off-putting. In walks a fresh voice on basketball coaches and how to make the best ever soft-in-the-center, crispy-at-the-edges chocoloate chip cookie.
On Perfect Love and Longing
What I learn from my mother on a Tuesday morning about love and longing. How Susan Cain's new book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Makes us Whole, helps me understand her.
"Kinda This, Kinda That" in the Mid-pack
Mid-life has its miseries. And, mid-life for me has fitness challenges. It was most noticeably on display in the Army’s ten-miler around Washington, D.C. this October. Here’s a story of inspiration for the mid-packers and the mid-lifers.
What to Say When People Thank You for Your Military Service
True story from the SMA--Sergeant Major of the Army Michael A. Grinston--who spoke at the Army Ten-Miler. A man with 35 years of service in the Army and a half dozen deployments shares his wisdom on service with grit and grace.
Everyone Should Write
In her new book, Write For Your Life, Anna Quindlen argues for the importance of the diarist, such as the secret yet eternal life of Anne Frank. She ruminates on the doctor, the student, the gangster, the child, the parent. Love letters. Queen Elizabeth “spoke through her handwriting.” Writing is a human endeavor, for all of us, from criminal to royal. Learn why writing is one of the most precious and uncommon gifts we can give.
What can music teach us about writing?
Just like song, for writing to work it must have rhythm. This has taken me a long time to learn. I came across the idea in Haruki Murakami’s memoir, Absolutely on Music. This book is about a series of conversations with the former conductor of the Boston Symphony, Seiji Ozawa. The novelist meets the maestro. They talk. Learn what the novelist has to say about writing and rhythm and decide if prose rhythm matters with less than average examples. Hear the music in the prose of Beryl Markham and David Foster Wallace.
Reading for Foodies: Zauner's memoir, Crying in H-Mart
My Vietnamese side of the family are foodies, planning visits and life around meals. Writers focus on the visual and often forget the other senses, taste and smell and sound and touch. Learn about Michelle Zauner's megahit-memoir and how it resonates with this reader, at times pitch perfect.
Bringing Writers and Readers Together
Maybe the better way to think of this is, why you listen to or read TreeHouseLetter. For me, it’s about why I write. Which, are two sides of the same coin. Why do you Write? Who do you write for?
"Old Age is Not for the Young"*
Society obsesses with youth as if beauty were the monopoly of the young. Yet, wisdom and truth which come with age are beautiful in their own right and something we are quick to dismiss. The old and the very young have always held sway for me because of bald and unerring candor, and the lack of affectation. The title quote is from Ursula Le Guin's No Time to Spare. Learn what Le Guin and former Poet Laureate Donald Hall share about old age.
What Book Would You Take to a Desert Island?
What book do you believe is that good that you could hunker down and spend the remainder of your days with it? The absolute pinnacle of lexicography in one volume. Word work and how it improves writing. The Professor, the Madman, and Noah Webster. What is the singular trait common to each man and does each of us have the ability to tap into it?
Charlie Munger and the Art of Swearing
True story of the iconic investor. When is offensive language appropriate and effective? Ursula Le Guin on the last two swear words, George Patton on eloquent profanity, and Munger with the shock value of a well timed one-liner.
The Sentence Fragment
What is a good fragment and why use it in your writing? Passages from Mary Oliver's essay, Upstream, and guidance from Priscilla Long. Two book recommendations.
No Ordinary Hike: Marchback for the USMA Class of 2026
The march back is a 14 mile ruck with full gear and M4 rifle for 1200 new cadets in the West Point Class of 2026. It is the culminating event of Cadet Basic Training at West Point. Learn about the march, the Long Gray Line, and listen to life-changing stories.
On Fighting and Writing: Blackwing and Bruce Lee
A visit to Augusta's Indie Book Store and local bakery. Learn about the cult pencil's limited volumes Blackwing 651 named for Bruce Lee, a prize purchase at The Book Tavern with insight on a fighting triad and writing.
Spandrel: Byproduct of Evolution and Thing of Beauty
Word of the week. Dig into the word's roots--in architecture, psychology, philosophy, even philately--for a surprising and stirring take-away on function and beauty.
Thoughts on Music and the Brain
Pitch is purely a psychological construct. If so, why do we love the music we love? A philosopher, a neuroscientist, a dog, and Roy Orbison help us understand why.
Essays that changed me: Alison Lurie and 'When most boys... joined the armed services.'
In her 2019 collection, Alison Lurie wrote an essay, Their Harvard, which describes her life at Radcliffe in the 1940s. It has fascinating and humorous insight on her experience as a second-class citizen, a poorer relation to the men of Harvard. She also includes a passage, shocking by today's standards, about the men and war.
Simba the Designer Dog? A Perfect Combination of 5 Breeds
My latest canine addition, Simba, had his Dog DNA analyzed. What's in the analysis and what does that tell me about Simba? Word play on his breed types as a new designer breed: Bel-Ger-Sam-Box-Sky, BelGerBoxSky. Does it make a difference now that we "know" what he is? Embark public profile, Breed Reveal, Simba's Family Tree. We did learn why he has a curly tail and one floppy ear, his expected weight, and his percent wolfiness!
Notes on a Year of Love
Reading a year of love stories, with examples of simile and metaphor. Why an apt metaphor makes the writing sing. Two book recommendations: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie and Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote. The music in the prose.
Why I write
For fame, for money? The creative process of writing and the incredible joy it can unlock.
"The Q-tips Are for Your M4" and the Art of the Paragraph
The soldier's pack list today includes items for women. Learn about the four types of paragraphs and the rites of passage for a family with generational service in the armed forces. What is the climactic paragraph or the turnabout paragraph? See how to create interest through suspense, concrete details, and idea development.
"Keep the Faith For Which They Died" this Memorial Day
Listen to "new" or lesser-known poems by Poet Warrior John McCrae, best known for his poem In Flanders Fields.
The Last Recital
An old carriage house as a music school and 17 years of piano recitals leave lasting impressions. Learn about the wisdom and lessons gleaned from someone who loves words and notes, how the music lasts and how sentence construction lends meaning to the experience. Writer's Toolbox on the series sentence and the infinitive phrase.
"Django with One Finger," a Living Music Icon
Willie Nelson is 89 and still touring. What can we learn from his writing, his short memoir, and a life on the road?
On Puppies and Babies: a "Communion with Terror"
What do puppies and children have in common? Learn about what Ross Gay describes as terror and delight in children, why the two coexist side by side. This truth in raising children applies to puppies or a full lunar eclipse.
Books for Mothers and Daughters
A list of books for Mother's Day, for ages 9 to 99.
What Makes a Speech Great? an Admiral Tells 3 Stories
A great speech is one we remember. Notes on the 3 stories McRaven shares at the observatory of the One World Trade Center, or Freedom Tower, and what makes it lasting. An event which commemorates the 11th anniversary of Operation Neptune's Spear, the mission to capture Osama Bin Laden.
Exercises in Style: a Writing Tribute
These tales pay homage to Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau published 1947 in French, English Translation 1958. Queneau was later elected to highly prestigious Academie Goncourt. In it, Queneau retells an unexceptional tale ninety-nine times: in Cockney, Haiku, sonnet, among scores of others. The examples in this TreeHouseLetter tell a different story but emulate his style: the narrative, two subjective points of view, and Unexpected, the final chapter.
1000 Push-ups? Getting Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable
A memoir about Jesse Itzler's 30 day regimen with a Navy SEAL makes me laugh out loud. It also has me doing more push-ups this week than I've done in the last year.
Bedside Counselor on Parenting in Anger, in Two Translations
An Ancient Counselor offers counsel and solace at midlife, with children on the cusp of adulthood. The language in two translations may vary, but the wisdom is eternal. Marcus Aurelius is dubbed the Philosopher King and his stoic writing has survived nearly two millennia.
What I Learned Walking With a Friend
My friend Kenny Mintz walks across America; I join him in Maryland and we walk into Pennsylvania together.
A Poet Warrior Learns Kindness
It made me feel flawed as a human to read this passage in Lucia St. Clair Robson's Tokaido Road. What does a woman warrior learn from a poet and from poetry on the classic hero's journey?
A Fool is Full and a Pool Not a Pull
For puzzlers and word nerds: Nonsense and numbers, Schrodinger's Cat and Edward Gorey have something in common. As do the numbers 91, 32, and 4122. Happy Spring!
Three Sunsets in One Day
Hiking the South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon at sunset. The wildlife on the way and the ups and downs of spontaneity.
Each sentence reflects 3 choices
Spicy Rooster and a Coffee Outpost
Who were these people at an industrial facility where sugar packs, creamer, and stir sticks were arranged at the bar in green ammo cans? Welcome to the new coffee craze with outposts across the country and an outlandish and irreverent brand. Vietnamese cousins find comfort in hot sauce and hot coffee.
Firecracker and a Humble Queen
Essays that changed me: Rachel Cusk and “Making Home”
Cusk chronicles the complete remodeling of her London flat and near compete personal breakdown. How much space does a body need? What makes a house a home?
Writing on the Road and the Creative Process
How do you write when you're traveling? How do you know you're a writer? Thoughts on the creative process with highlights from 4 writing books. Writing tight and making every word count while keeping true to your voice. Toolbox, ages 9 to 99. Learn more about the books on treehouseletter.com.
Poetry for Emergencies: Ukraine, Howard Nemerov, and the War Dead
2 poems for a crazy world as we think of our friends of freedom in Ukraine, who have everything at stake. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov wrote: Poetry is a way of getting something right in language. Learn about the Soldier Scholar and Warrior Poet, why rhetoric and courage are essential in dire times.
Sex Over 70 Years and the Synecdoche
2 Books, 2 Rhetorical Devices, and the Music in the Prose of Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. How the language of sex has changed over 70 years and why we still read these classics.
Adult Child and a Zen Koan
Adult child is an oxymoron but you never stop worrying about your children, whether they're 18 or 48. A ski story, 2.5 Zen koans, and the em dash. Bonus Footnotes: the Easter egg of the TreeHouseLetter.
Love in a Sad Cafe
The only love you can be sure about is the love you give. This episode considers the Music in the Prose of Carson McCullers' story, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. Just what is it about her writing that makes the tale timeless? What does she teach us about love?
A Valentine Canine and the Circle of Life
These holidays can seem a chore, another small way to feel defeated if I don't get it right. When I skip it like I did this year, opting to adopt this shepherd mutt from Texas, I figure I'm rebelling against the commercial mandate. Isn't it better to show love and affection on my own schedule? or in my own way?
If You Want to Write, Your Writing Has to Have Rhythm
The Meaning in Music
Your job will change, where you live will change, the people in your life will change, but you will always have your music. What is the meaning in music? And, what makes it lasting? The best music is like the best writing. Without analysis, we know this: we like what we like and we love what we love. Here's why.
Coaching Habit by Stanier: Short Take on How to Avoid Crappy Advice for the Wrong Problem
If you're like me and have to work with people, at home or in the work place, then you're looking for ways to improve interactions and relationships. Here's insight from Global Coaching Guru, Michael Bungay Stanier, with a link to his TEDx video.
Books as Trophies, the Bibliophile vs the Bibliophagist
I have a book problem. It's a good kind of problem, if a heavy one. Learn the difference between these terms and hear a bonus passage about the Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, a scene from Jay Parini's memoir, Borges and Me: an Encounter.
Thay's Miracle: Short Take on a Long Life (Thich Nhat Hanh)
A tribute to the Vietnamese Zen monk: I read his book No Death, No Fear after my father passed away. Thay (name for teacher) was from my mother's town of Hue and I imagine he approached his death in the manner in which he wrote.
The Sexy Semicolon, Really?
Loved and loathed, the semicolon has survived 500+ years. What you need to know, Orwell's Sixth Rule, and why the winking mark is sexy.
Poetry for Emergencies: Lain S. Thomas at Daybreak
Sometimes I wake in the middle of the night and I'm scared. Tragedy befell friends and a go-to for me has been poetry. Thomas at daybreak is a restorative for the soul.
New Year: Goals Versus Habits
What are your resolutions and goals? Consider focusing on habits instead.
Learn about Chi Running and the benefits of good habits.
Graveside Gratitude, Giving Thanks in November
I learned more from two friends in death than I had learned from them in life.
Giving thanks to those departed souls.
The last First Day of School, the end of summer, just what summer means, and life's next stage
Alaska Mountains May Spoil You For All the Rest
Southeast Alaska, the Inside Passage, Klondike Gold Rush
Father and His Letters
A dying art, a gift from yesterday, there's nothing so full bodied and rich as words on paper. Photos may capture the appearance in any given moment, but words, his words, they capture his mind and spirit
Memorial Day, Reflection and Celebration
On generational service and the reasons we serve. Remembering sacrifice and celebrating a new Army lieutenant in the family.
A Story and Two Short Poems: by a Zen Monk & Mary Oliver
Two Truths and a Lie, a Fools Game
April Fools Day and Humor in Uniform. Three stories from cadet life.
The greatest lesson in life is to know that even fools are right sometimes. Churchill
I Met a Man at the Top of Chimney Rock
“Would you mind if I take off my shirt?” he said. A story from a retreat in North Carolina.
The Odyssey, the Devil, and a Home
Family Travel in a Pandemic - By Air and By Land
Fun things-to-do and great eats in Key West. New Year's on Wheels - Road trip (Ct to VA) and family skating.
Giving Thanks in 2020 & Simon's List
Tough times define us.
Whitman's Ghost or Simon, played by Joe Pesci in the 1994 film With Honors, shares a message.
Spirits of the Fall: Episode (4) Toddler Vision
Brady Shattan joins us to talk about spirit friends, his guardian angel and extrasensory perception.
Spirits of the Fall: Episode (3) Visits From Beyond
What happens when someone dies, when the worldly connection is broken? Where are the healers and the mediums and the shamans today?
This is the third episode in Spirits of the Fall: True Stories of the Season, eerie occurrences, real-life horrors, ghosts, and second sight.
Spirits of the Fall: Episode (2) Where the Driveway Ends
Second in the series of the season: real-life horrors and ghosts.
Spirits of the Fall: Episode (1) In the House
This is the first in a series of True Stories for the season, of eerie occurrences, real-life horrors, visits from the beyond, haunted rooms, and childhood visions.
Learning to Run
Fall is the season for running. This story is about failure and mastery, how that became a commander's story.
Would You Kneel? A College Coach & a Veteran on the National Anthem
Thoughts on the anthem and the flag, what they mean.
Birthday and Death Day, Catholics and Customs
A graveyard visit on a father's death day and a daughter's birthday.
Maya Angelou's advice on the legacy of departed loves.
The Vulgar Parrot
I've gotten to know my son better now that he's left.
On Becoming Sheepdogs, A Modern Fable
Today’s letter is about something that matters, an important debate happening in society right now.
In the wake of recent events regarding the tragic death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests, this letter is more relevant than ever. It has been updated to relate my own experience and the role of the brave men and women who are called to the profession of arms, with a special thank you to those in the West Point Class of 2020 who graduated this weekend. These young officers have taken an oath to support and defend the constitution against all enemies, giving their life if necessary, so that all Americans might enjoy the blessings of a free nation.
Memorial Day Reflection - Two Poems and a Tribute
Death of a Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell and Twilight by Lucretia Maria Davidson
A tribute to my Uncle, a South Vietnamese officer who never came home
Why Nursing Homes Suck
My story about a Nursing Home. Some Gorey stuff, some sad stuff, some crass stuff.
What gives life meaning? what would great writers say?
Are We Killing the Fat Man? The Corona Trolley Dilemma
Consider the pandemic crisis and the moral claims of shutting down the economy.
What are consequences, good and bad? How do COVID deaths compare to other mortality data?
For The Class of 2020 During the Pandemic
A pulse on High School and College Seniors, where they are and how they're doing.
Taking comfort in poetry and a mother's wish.
The Three Gifts - What have you learned in 50 years?
A child's note, three gifts, and Leo Tolstoy's famous story
On Presidents, Politics and War, and Poetry
You ever have that moment when something you’ve believed for some time begins to shift and slip, leaving you a bit off-balance?
Raise Your Glass! A Toast by W.B. Yeats
Three simple toasts, suitable for most occasions, and easy to remember.
And, a little about the semicolon.
The Light in Your Day - a New Take on Winter
How much light do you gain each day in January, over the month? and the next months?
Solzhenitsyn and the Gulag - A Russian Novel About Your Life
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
What can we learn from the Gulag? About the military, about the body and soul?
A Book for Everyone, Even Nonreaders and Grinches
With special guest Hayley Swinson, writer and editor, on how books help her get into the season.
On receiving books and giving books.
Giving Thanks in 2019 - Looking Back on Life's Big Questions
A friend in hospice talks about time, love, friendship, and the search for meaning.
TikTok Connect the Dots - the United States and China
A college freshman and a Vietnamese centenarian on China. Hong Kong Protests, Confucian Centers, TikTok security.
A View From Above: Army Colonel Ken Mintz on Afghanistan
A true, gritty account of the American Soldier and a child's role, in the longest war in U.S. history.
Visit treehouseletter.com to see photos.
You've tidied up your closet and your house. Why not tidy up your writing?
Thoughts on writing from Dreyer's English and Brandon Royal's Little Red Writing Book.
Get rid of useless words. How many drafts until finished?
Grammar Versus Style and the Big Three Nonrules
Murphy's Law and the Army Ten-Miler
Did you know that Murphy was in the Army?
On Poetry and Mondegreens and Teenagers
Why memorize poetry and what's a mondegreen?
The Making of a Myth or Legend - Stephen Siller
Do myths and legends shape the stories we tell? Hear Stephen's story and retrace the steps he took. A 9-11 memorial.
For the Love of Milk
Sometimes a search for one thing leads to another. Like this Burl Ives folk tune: On a summer's day in the month of May, what was the burly bum singing of?
A Case for the Personal Letter
In the Digital Age, do letters still matter? What about a dusty box of letters in the basement?
Suicide and Suffering - Army Veteran and Secular Buddhist on the Four Noble Truths
September is Suicide Prevention Month. Hear a story and learn about the Four Noble Truths.
Whales, Migration, and Back-to-School
What can whales teach us about learning and mastery?
In These Walls
Unexpected summer visitors
Kili at 50 - Episode 3 -Summit Assault and Days 5 & 6
Hiking Kilimanjaro on the Machame Route in Six Days - learn about the final days and Kibo, the volcanic summit
Kili at 50 - Episode 2 - Jambo! Dreadlocks & Day 4
Episode 2 - Hiking Kilimanjaro in the Machame Route, Day 4
Kili at 50 - Episode 1 - Hiking Kilimanjaro on the Machame Route in Six Days
A middle aged account of Kili and more. First episode on Days 1 to 3 and the guides.