Thursday, October 30, 2008

Reuniting the lost lovers of time and distance

This past summer, I finally cast off to live aboard my sailboat. I had been thinking about that moment of casting off for four years before slipping the docklines.

My vision was to live mainly aboard for several years. That may, or may not, still come to fruition, but at this point, I was happy to spend two months living aboard. The fine ship Dolphins is now back "on the hard" for the winter. I look forward to spending next summer living aboard again.

This past summer, I navigated Dolphins down Lake Champlain, through the 12-lock canal to the Hudson, down the river around Manhattan and out to Long Island Sound, across to Provincetown. And from there straight north to Maine for ten days of gunkholing before backtracking to Lake Champlain.

Journeys are discoveries. That's why we enjoy them. I discovered parts of Lake Champlain, I had never seen. I got to imagine being an Abenaki indian rowing a canoe along and seeing the massive Fort Ticonderoga declaring its dominance over north-south traffic along the Lake. I discovered islands and coves in Maine that can only be discovered by boat.

The challenge is to experience journeys as discoveries about ourselves. As such, this journey taught me skills which I had hoped and had expected to learn. Refining my docking techniques, engine maintenance and repair, and navigation skills. It also introduced me to some feelings that I knew I might encounter. I discovered the terror of being underway in fog. I am glad I ran into fog, so that I could learn to overcome my terror and deal with the circumstances.

There were a few discoveries on this journey that were unexpected. And those I treasure the most. Those discoveries were beyond the physical or geographical. They were insights into life in general. In order to make such discoveries, I have to put myself in a dual state of consciousness. One in which I am in the experience and the other in which I remove myself from the physical experience and observe myself objectively.

One if those discoveries was the relationship between time and distance. We have lost the true appreciation of that relationship. I can drive from Burlington, VT and to Manhattan in about six hours. I can board a plane and be hugging my siblings in Germany in just a couple hours more than that. Airmail and FedEx has made shipping distances irrelevant. Internet has closed gaps in finding information and made shopping all over the globe instantaneous.

We have come to expect that distance is a variable. Even flying to the moon is a shorter trip than driving from coast to coast.

But once we are forced to travel at the speed of yore, about seven miles per hour, you begin to realize just how large this globe is. It takes five to six days to get from Burlington to the Statue of Liberty. I saw the Tappan Zee Bridge and was excited that after days of motoring down the Hudson we were "finally" arriving in the city. I stood on the bow while my friend took a picture of me in front of the Tappan Zee. Well, it took another hour to get under that bridge. And since the Tappan Zee is about a dozen miles north of Manhattan, it took another couple of hours to reach Harlem. And the same time again to get to our slip near Liberty State Park. My moment of "finally" was close to an entire day's trip.

Is there any value in rediscovering this relationship between time and distance? Have our advances in technology, which allow us to diminish distance and distort time, been beneficial or to our detriment? I can't say categorically.

But for me, it is hugely important to reconnect with slowness. I feel my mind and focus has suffered from the so-called conveniences of modern day. The cell phone, the fax, the internet, the now, the quick, the superficial, the gloss. I have certainly appreciated the backspace on computers. Compared to the typewriters. But it has changed how I think. I used to maintain regular correspondence using the typewriter and the postal service. I would receive a letter from my friend on the West Coast. It would have taken three days to arrive. Sometimes I wouldn't read it right away, but let it sit on the counter because I wanted to make sure I would be in the right mind-set. Then I would take a few days to absorb the letter, and begin composing my response in my mind whenever I had a few quiet moments. I would have general idea of the shape of my letter. And finally, I would sit down to write back. At a typewriter, you must not only have the general outline of the letter in your head, but also the general sense of the paragraph. And certainly the sentence before committing to the first word. Writing by typewriter made me think in wonderful ways. Today, I get an email, and the pressure is on to respond immediately. Type away, anything will do. Don't worry, the delete key is your way of finally saying what you want. Oh hell, an email is too long. Condense it down to a sentence and text message back.

I know, I am a curmudgeon. And I appreciate the irony that I am bemoaning modern technology's ill effects right here on a blog. Great, I am a hypocritical curmudgeon.

I look foward to living aboard my sailboat again next summer. This time I will be expecting time's inexorably self-determined pace and its jealous relationship to distance which can only be observed from such places as the deck of a ship.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Cogito, ergo I am more confused than ever

I was listening to an interview with Charlie Kaufman the other day. He is the scriptwriter of "Adaptation" and "Being John Malcovich" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

I enjoy his mind because it is a house of mirrors. Each one is reflecting himself. Which is him looking at himself ... which is looking at himself.

At one point during the interview, he made the statement, "It's hard being yourself." And that sentence really struck a chord with me.

It is, isn't it. I am constantly working hard to be myself. From small daily routines to larger matters of morality. From making sure I take my vitamins every morning to wondering what kind of person I am that would increase my pace toward a checkout counter and thereby cut off a mother with her full shopping cart.

I try to establish patterns of doing my daily 20-minutes exercise routine and possibly sitting for 15 minutes. And when I fall out of that habit, I berate myself. I say how can I be myself, when I can't even keep up a simple exercise routine?

But I berate myself even worse when I drink more than I write. Or when I don't write at all. "Who are you?" I ask myself. "What kind of person do you want to be? Do you really want to be the kind of person who wastes their one talent?"

Well, perhaps I'm not a writer, I answer back. If I was destined to be a writer, I would have written. Perhaps I am more just a business person. And a sailor. And just overall, a good person making his way through life.

The problem is, I don't dedicate myself to pursuing a business career anymore. Since I left journalism and manufacturing, I have wallowed, looking for direction. And the sailing life which I was embarked upon this past summer, lasted for two months. Now I am back in my house and wondering: Who am I?

As limiting as it often is, we generally define ourselves by our occupations. Right now, I don't have a full-time occupation.

Since I can't look to my occupation in search of myself, I need to define myself by other measures. But it raises existential angst to figure out what those others standards are.

Am I me because I think too much? Or am I asea and have no focused identity because I think in too many different directions and not enough in one single, linear way?

It's hard being yourself.

Saturday, May 17, 2008


Yesterday I got a letter from someone who read my last entry in February and it resonated with events in her life and the emotional challenge of sorting through those parts of her father's life that (as she so succinctly said) "can be documented in print, image and object."

I haven't written since that last entry. Partly since it is a challenge to me to sustain regular habits. But also partly because I questioned the process of navel contemplation in public. And that is to say that I doubted whether my writings could have any relevance to anyone else. It is a nice reminder that writing does matter. It always matters. Maybe not to many, but to someone out there. And then to that person all the more.

I should know this. I was, after all, a journalist for 15 years. But in that case, my writing was about others and not myself. Turning the spot light on one's self is less comfortable, but ultimately no different a news story.

And so, I will attempt more regular posts again. Most importantly, it comes down to this: For me, writing sharpens my focus on life. It is good practice for me. A bit like meditating or sitting: Doing this every day makes me more aware of my everyday. I go through the day wondering: Is this little event what I will write about? Or maybe the interaction with the check-out clerk. Or maybe the unexpected view of blue Lake Champlain through the pink budding apple trees and yellow forsythia.

These days most of my time is consumed with preparing for living aboard my sailboat. This is a lifestyle change that I have been planning for almost four years now. Or, more accurately, it is something I thought I would begin four years ago. But such significant lifestyle changes require more time than you originally think.

Finally, it is time.

I am making last minute repairs and improvements to my boat. For the past couple of days, I have been replacing decrepit hoses to my water tank. And over the past few weeks, every time I go down to the boatyard, I bring another load of things that need to be stowed. Tools, clothes, navigation equipment, kitchen gadgets, organizing bins, books.

Let's stick with the books for a moment. After I got done with the books on weather, navigation, engine repair, cruising guides, I had about 50 lbs of books. There is limited room on a boat, and I hadn't even begun to pick out "books to read." So it became that old game question: If you were stranded on a desert island and could only bring five books, which ones would you bring?

I picked a few sailing narratives. But I think I will also stow a poetry book or two. My favorite poet is Wallace Stevens. But I might have to add Brecht or Pound, or an anthology to broaden my perspective.

This new lifestyle will look something like this: Sail my boat out of Lake Champlain, through the locks to the Hudson. South on Hudson, around Manhattan out to Long Island Sound and up the coast and islands to Maine.

I intend to spend about two weeks aboard, then park the boat somewhere and return to Burlington, Vermont for a week or so to spend time with my daughter and check on my building which I rent out to commercial tenants.

A shuttle lifestyle.

If it works, I may continue for the winter, taking the boat south. But in this new lifestyle, the end of summer is too far off to make any plans.

I have written three quarters of a book on this transition from the safe, steady and traditional life of 9-5, mowing lawn, plugged in entertainment to the life of exploration and simplicity. The books follows my transition, but also examines what has motivated others to throw off the safety of expectations and voyage.

I won't be able to write the last couple of chapters until I make the final step this summer and cast off.

So, this blog is good warm up to capturing my thoughts and feelings as I move through that process.

Projected cast off: Last week of June.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

An Examined Life

Whew! I disappeared down the rabbit hole for a while. A few weeks ago, I decided to organize my study. This is a normal winter activity for me. All summer long, while I live outdoors, sailing, beach, hikes, family visiting, trips to the Cape. In the meantime, I just let stuff pile up in my study. My desk becomes a mountain range that rivals the Appalachian chain with crests of letters, photos, financial forms, articles I clipped, books, things "I'm definitely going to read," notes to myself on poems, story ideas, and just bits and pieces of everyday life. It gets to a point where I cannot see the wood of my desk. I put my coffee cup on stacks of paper. Even my mouse pad begins to end up on a pile of stuff.

Then there are the foothills of piles on the floor: Sailing magazines, books that "are definitely next," more folders, my daughter's doodles and scholastic stuff. And there is some bedrock too: A few stacks of books and folders that never found their own home on a shelf or in a file cabinet when I moved into this house seven years ago.

So, this winter I thought I would do more than the normal winter "clean the desk" mission. This was going to be the final assault. Mission Study Storm. Push all the way through to Baghdad. (Are we allowed to joke about this?)

Well, it is not a mission I recommend without prescription-strength drugs. I had no inkling of how psychologically tough this would be. A contributing factor to the depression which developed into a category 4 hurricane was being single. So, there are my warnings to others who might want to attempt this in their own homes.

The way to tackle a project like this conjures up the old joke. Question: How do you eat an elephant. Answer: One bite at a time. So, I picked up the first piece of paper. I needed to look at it and then decide what to do with it: file it? (I am an archivist who files almost all of the mail I get and send) or is it garbage? Okay, next piece of paper. A photo. Keep or chuck?

In this kind of mission, it is not acceptable to create another pile of "I'll deal with this later." Because that pile then just becomes another ridge of bedrock in my study. It's just bulldozing it from one place to another. This time, I was determined to take as many days as I needed to finally clear this land. So, the photo had to find a place in an album, or get scanned and put into a computer folder that was dated and labeled.

I noticed I was suddenly in a mine field, when I found myself in my open file cabinet. I guess I had ended up there because I was going to file something and came across a file of yellowing college papers. "Chinese literature?" Did I really still need that? That file got chucked. But now it was too late: I couldn't just walk a straight line back out of this file cabinet. I had to finish clearing this particular corner of my study before I could get out of the file cabinet.

Now you can see how labyrinthine this project became.

But so far, we are just talking about grunt work. Trudging through the fields of history. So far, we are just talking about (to borrow from Tim O'Brien's short story) "the things that I carried" for so long and needed to be filed. So far, we not talking about taking fire.

The first slugs, you absorb pretty easily. A file with my divorce papers. Then a file with some legal papers from a previous relationship. Then the mortar rounds begin to surround you: Letters from this past love; a poem written for a relationship that burned both me and her. An envelope with a CD and cassette tape of an affair that didn't have enough air to breath, but couldn't die either.

Remember that this is page by page, item by item, so by this time, I am three days into this war. By this time, I have already shredded a couple reams of past personal records that no longer have any significance to me or the IRS. I have created heaps, (perhaps ten reams) of paper that is lifeless to me and needs to be buried en masse in a dumpster or recycling.

But it gets to a point where I just couldn't bring myself to look at one more piece of my history. Do I slash and burn? I was tempted.

Suddenly all time became distorted. I lost emotional perspective and all relevance lost its focus. If this were a battle scene in a movie, this would be the time, when the sound goes silent. You see the explosions, you see the open, shouting mouths of others, you see the grand destruction, but it is silent and I rise and walk calmly among the cacophony of my study, -- which before this began was just heaps of stuff in piles, but now is a distributed carpet of history spread out beyond my study: onto kitchen counters, dining room table, living room coffee table, couches -- I walk among it and finger the lighter as perhaps a soldier might suddenly think about this gun as a friendly nurse who, in a calm voice, is offering a simple solution to all this.

We all grow up with a simple vision. A career. A home somewhere. A marriage. Perhaps a family. But generally, one picture. One journey. Something that has continuity and cohesiveness.

I began to understand early on in my life, that my life was more varied. My parents' divorce split my world in two. Then moving to Germany when I was ten split it again. Moving back to the states split me from family and friends again. That first early love split my heart in two. But even with all that, I could accept that my life as a whole, was whole. It was still one journey. And even after my first seven-year relationship ended, I had a sense of direction in my life. Then came a marriage, a child, a divorce, the ending of one career, and the dissolution of the next. Another five year struggle to find peace within a relationship conceded to failure.

And here I was: Going through each of these pieces of my life.

Suddenly my life did not feel like a grand picture -- a continuous heroic, Joseph Campbell struggle.

It felt like all I had were these puzzle pieces. Pieces that never really fit together. To throw away any one of them is to deny that all of them have their equal place in my past. How to decide which ones to keep and which ones to let go of?

In the middle of it all, the posse came to my rescue. Joel sensed the desperation in my voice and told me to leave the battle scene and spend a few days with him in Boston. I did and it was needed rest. When I came back, I had strength again. I went back at it with cold-blooded determination.

I am pleased to report that I am 90 percent done now. I have taken a break for the last week. All my past is filed away for who-knows-what; posterity? The things that are left are writings that I have left in half-completed stages. Poems, short stories, novels, freelance articles. Do I put the stack on my desk and work through them methodically? Ha! Just kidding. You know that's not me. But if I file them away, they will never have the hope of completion.

So, the process begins again. There is a pile on my desk of folders with beginnings in them. But now, when I walk into my study, I feel like I can breathe again. It is a joy to come in here and feel "clean."

I don't have any grand insight into any of this. The depression of being amidst blown apart pieces of my past has passed. But I don't have any profound lesson from that process. In fact, if anything, it has made me aware -- more painfully than I had ever realized before -- that I am a bit of a Frankenstein. My life is stitched together.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Um, yeah, so

Just so that you all know: I posted a blog yesterday. I posted it and then I unposted it. It had to do with a friend and his trials and tribulations (literally) and I thought that maybe it wasn't appropriate to be hanging out his dirty laundry.

Not everyone likes having their dirty laundry sniffed.

Hmm, and where is this entry going? Guess I just want to make sure I keep up with a daily posting. Might give me some moral leverage with Joel next time he wins at chess. "Yeah, so what you won. I posted yesterday!" Something like that. Hey Joel, gonna move on this damn blog board or what? Your turn. Du bist dran.

Actually (a word that means nothing and should be prohibited from opening sentences) I have been enjoying the labyrinth of blogs. You click on one, which has links to another, which has links to another. Sort of like silent telephone.

Or something.

Ok, tomorrow, I might unpost this entry too. But for now, cheers, prost, salute!

Monday, December 3, 2007

The Story heads to the lab

The story I was writing was never, well, it was never actually supposed to be a story. It started out as just some exaggerated rendition of my state of mind one day, but then as I added paragraphs, it seemed to want to wander, like an eager dog pulling on a leash.

So, I gave it more line and figured, "Fine, this will be a fun little piece that I will wrap up in tomorrow's blog." Well, as you know, that didn't happen. The more I wrote, the more it just seemed to grow out of control.

I wrestled with how to bring the story to a close in a fourth installment. Unfortunately, all the options were rather trite. I hate suicide because that is simply not an end. That is cheating the reader, just as in real life, it cheats survivors. Plus, in a good tragedy, the intentions of the protagonist to control his circumstances eventually led to his own demise. We struggle against futility. Hopefully something is learned in the process. Or by watching the whole messy affair.

Anyway, once I let go of trying to come up with an ending, and instead started focusing on the character, his story started emerging. Instead of trying to splice on appendages, like a Frankenstein, I started asking questions. What started emerging is a powerful story. I hope I can do it justice with words.

So, this is all just an apology for leaving you with a cliff hanger.

I have been spending the day doing research on his love of yore. And the other characters. Sort of like meeting someone new. You want to know their whole story right away. But you can't absorb it all anyway that quickly. You keep going back and asking, "Wait, let's get back to this thing that happened to you. How did that make you feel? How did that impact your life?" And you are off on a new tangent, and never got to follow the first one.

then there are the characters on the periphery. Of course I have to get to know them, but what a bore. Their impact on the whole story is so minimal, and I am much more excited about these three main people over here. It's sort of like being at the wedding party, and forcing yourself to go over to the parents' table and sit down and actually listen to their stories of how THEY met so many years ago. Meanwhile you just want to go back to that sexy bridesmaid and get her more punch and ply her about the reference she made about her and the bride being "intimately connected."

So, then when I think I got it, I write down this exercise; a scene that the character told me. I write it down and then read it aloud.

"What the hell is that?" says my character. "That sounds like an obit. Scheesh, friggin reporters! That's not my story. Those aren't my words. That's some school report about what happened to me."

I hate this part of story telling. The inspiration phase is so sexy. Now all this works starts.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Intro chess for fiction writers

There are a number of fiction books written around the theme of chess. It is a theme we often become tempted with. Dangerous because it can't be too obvious to be done well. I suppose that holds true for any theme.

A friend of mine (who has the determination I lack and therefore already has five novels published) will be weaving chess into her next book. (Next book? I meant the next one she is writing. Not any one of the few she has already written and are in circulation with editors or publishers.)

Anyway, she doesn't play chess. And I, ever eager to arrogantly bestow my vast amount of puny knowledge upon the innocent, wrote her a bit about chess. She urged me to post it here.

I am reluctant, since I revealed things to her in confidence which, by publishing here, will forever forfeit my advantage in future games with Joel, but ahh, flattery and conceit is getting the best of me in this moment.

I guess in the future, I will have to win by skill instead of foolish tricks.

The difficulty in incorporating chess into fiction is that you have to play a fair amount until you begin to understand the themes of chess.

When Joel and I lived together way back when, chess defined our lives. We played every day. Sometimes two games simultaneously. One board in the living room and another -- a magnet version -- always hung on the kitchen fridge. Many a night, we would play two or three games in a row.

The fun aspect to our games was that we were more interested in the game rather than winning by your opponent's stupid move. So we would allow take-backs. Sometimes, we would openly discuss various options. Several times, we were so intrigued by a particular set-up and how it could play out completely differently depending on the next move, so we wrote down all the positions, played out the game, and then set them up to the earlier position to play it out with the other move.

Fun times.

Here are some elements to the game which might be used as themes or metaphors in a novel.
There are three aspects to a chess game: The players. The pieces. The game.


People who enjoy playing chess, or make correlations to chess in their lives are people who enjoy speculation. Chess is ultimately a game of speculation.

"If I move here, then he only has these three options. Of these three options on his part, this one would be offensive and risky, involving sacrifices of pieces, the second option would be defensive, and the third option would be to ignore it and develop in another area. Hmm, from what I know of my opponent, he won't sacrifice pieces. But he also hates to be seen as defensive, so I think he will develop in another area. Now, what are those options for him? What could he possibly develop? What is his plan?"

That is literally the thought process with every move. But often, it involves speculating two or three moves out.

Some people enjoy this. For others, like my dad, it is an exquisite form of torture. He hates it. It drove a wedge between us while we were running the business together. I would speculate and be angry at him because he was not trying to anticipate the future. And he would deal with the matters at hand and be angry at me for having my head in the clouds.

But back to those who love it. One way to win any battle is to know your opponent. What does General Patton say after defeating his German counterpart Erwin Rommel in Africa? "Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book." Rommel had written a book on his battle experiences and, by reading that book, Patton was able to beat him.

So, one thing I came to know about Joel, was that he was a traditional chess player. Every now and then, when our games were in locked horns, I would do something so completely untraditional that it would throw him off. I would sacrifice an officer. He would become so unbalanced in trying to figure out what my strategy could possibly be, that in a few moves later, I had the upper hand. It was a risky strategy and didn't always work, but often enough it did.

By the way, let the record show that I estimate that Joel won about six out of ten games. He was the better player, no doubt. Which is why I had to resort to stupid tricks.

So you don't always want to be predictable in your playing patterns. Don't let your opponent predict your behavior too easily.

That is why it is particularly important to never, ever, even in casual conversation during non-game times, mention that you have a preference for a particular piece. (And don't ever write blogs about that!) I came to know that Joel has a love affair with the rook. So, I would be particularly eager to sacrifice an exchange for his rook, even if that exchange was supposedly in his favor.

Moreover, the better a player you become, the more you don't rely on any "favorite" piece. They all have their function and determine what kind of game you need to play to win. If you have tanks, you win the battle one way. If you have machine guns, you can still win; you just need a different strategy.

With new opponents that I have played, I have even (yes, I admit) let it slip before a game that I had a penchant for a particular piece. This was totally fictitious, but I wanted to see how it throw off my opponent. This would be the equivalent of allowing a spy to gain false information and take it back across enemy lines.

When playing novice players, I generally stick to traditional moves. Because they work.


A chess game generally has three stages. The opening moves. The developing game. The end game.


The fascination with chess is that you have 16 pieces and 64 squares. And yet, you can play your lifetime without never repeating a game.

Even more astounding, you can play your whole life with the same few simple traditional opening moves. It was an extremely rare game that Joel and I would vary from them. Relevance for a novel: Someone seeming innocuous in their introduction, but the "opponent" knowing that "these are just the opening moves. The traditional handshake, head nod and superficial compliment."

The relevant thing about the opening is this: White always moves first. (That is why color is chosen by a flip of the coin.) White will always have the upper hand in the game, until it either makes a mistake or forfeits the upper hand in exchange for developing strength elsewhere.

This is why in the business world, you always want your law team to draft documents. Or you want your team to put the offer on the table in writing. It forces the other team to respond. You put everything into the document. They spend their time looking petty by taking things out.

Developing game:

During the middle stage of the game, there are only three types of moves: Offensive, defensive or developing. Either your move is threatening; Or you are being threatened and have to react. Or you can choose to develop.

You should always, always try to be offensive. You control the game if you are being offensive. If you do a developing move, you are handing the game over to your opponent.

BUT... novices mistake being offensive as wildly attacking any piece that is close. That is being blind and having no strategy. To be on the offensive does not mean you are about to take a piece. There are moves you can make that don't immediately threaten any other piece but are one step away from, say, check. That is threatening and your opponent has to react.

Every move has to be part of greater plan. (Except of course when you play my trick of doing something intentionally stupid.)

End game:

End game refers to that point of the game when there are just a handful of pieces left on the board. This is the stuff. This is the excitement. This is where skill meets skill.
Generally, you can only win an endgame cleanly with skill. That is to say, in as few moves as possible, instead of endless shuffling about. Since players don't get confused with too much on the board, and you always have plenty of room to move, the end game can easily result in endless shuffling. Hmm, does this resonate at all with our situation in Iraq? We went in and toppled Sadam easily and we just can't deliver the checkmate. How many divorces do you know that linger on with quibbling over custody or the car? Endless endgames surround us all the time.

For many novices, you never get to the end game. If you get to an end game, often you can only win by having studied particular move combinations. The best book for this is Pandolfini's End Game book. It makes end games simple. Wikipedia has an entire entry devoted specifically to end games.


This is the easy stuff, but here you have it annotated with psychological notes:

Pawn. Often overlooked in their power. They control the opening of the game. Their defensive power is quite remarkable just by standing around. Do you know the relative who just sits on the couch and makes snide remarks while the rest of family is flurrying about? And suddenly they end up in a rage, while the guy on the couch now smiles? That's the pawn. And in an endgame, they can become queens, so they can be sleepers in a game. It is extremely rare for them to deliver the checkmate. An obstinate, lower-level bureaucratic official is a classic pawn. You can't get your paperwork stamped without him. He is so low level, but you just can't seem to get around him.

Rook: Can only move laterally or horizontally. In character, such a person would be very straight forward but powerful. Like the six-foot-ten, 240-lb guard. When rooks become aligned in one rank or one file, or when they are next to each other, they can be decimating, and in an endgame, they "roll" the king to an inevitable checkmate; sickening to watch the coming death. (Any one of them can do this by aligning with the Queen as well.)

Bishop: Can only move diagonally. Typical, no? of the obsequious adviser to the high court? The Karl Rove, whose moves you don't see, but suddenly, he can reach across the board. Their power is not as universal as the rook. They can only checkmate a king IN THE CORNER OF THEIR COLOR. So, in an endgame, to force a checkmate with a single bishop, you have to maneuver the opposing king into the right corner.

Knight: Ah, the knight. I have to confess a fondness for the knight. I do this, against my advice above, because I can easily lose him and not have it affect my game. I like the knight because he is unique of all the pieces in how he delivers threat. I think using the knight effectively takes the most amount of skill AND foresight.

The knight is a jumper. In fact, in German, that is the name for this piece. Springer. He jumps over other pieces. This gives him a freedom that no other piece has. In life, I would liken him to the individually operating spy, or special forces agent.

The knight has three characteristics that are unique to any other piece on the board:

1) the knight controls areas that are distant. So, even if there is another piece between the knight and his "target" the knight can still threaten or take. This is sort of like a sniper. Assassinating from a distant roof-top.

2) Related, but with a slight distinction: The knight does not need a clear path to his destination. So on a crowded board, he still can move.

3) Most importantly: When it threatens a piece, it forces a move. Its threat cannot be blocked. In other words, if a rook, queen or bishop threaten a king, another piece can be moved in the path of that threat and block the threat. The "bodyguards" move in. But when the knight holds his knife against the king's throat, threatening mate, the bodyguards are helpless. The only way for the king (or any piece) to escape a threat from a knight is by evasion. In a well planned attack, a rook brute or sneaky bishop has blocked the exit. Or, quite possibly, the queen is standing there in the corridor, smiling. La Grande Dame sans peur.

The Queen: Most defined by the power granted her in being able to move in any way she wants. (Except like the knight, making him unique again.) But her power is limited by its very importance. Lose the queen, and you lose too much power. So, her engagements must be carefully planned. Since she can be so decisive in an endgame, it is not worth risking her involvement earlier. Is this at all like the politician's wife. As First Lady, she is just going to "help out with drafting a health care policy," and suddenly eight years later she is going to deliver the coup de grace to the Bush family.

One of Joel's and mine favorite checkmate moves is what we called the 'bad breath mate." In that scenario, the king is forced into a particular chamber, and it is the queen who comes up right next to him, delivering the dagger herself into his open robe.

The King: He is often seen as the impotent one, the weak one who must run, or hide behind others. The one who for all his burden with velvet cape, scepter, crown, can only move a square at a time. The one who relies on this matriarch of the castle to do all the heavy lifting.

In an endgame, however, (that part of the game in which sometimes the queen is gone) he sheds all of those courtly adornments, gets down to his shirt sleeves and can have just as much offensive power as any other piece. He can threaten the other king, put him on the run, corner him, and hold him there while an officer, even a pawn in a rare case, comes in to bloody their hands with the mate.

And finally, I want to mention two moves that are particularly beautiful. They are the art of chess. It takes a skilled player to deliver these moves, but when done, they are breath-taking.

One is called zugzwang. German word for forced move. This move also has its own entry in wikipedia and it is worthwhile looking it up. But at its best, a person makes a move that is seemingly innocuous, almost like a developing move, but what it has done is forced the perfect set up of the opponent to open itself up with a move. You are forcing the person to weaken his own set up. Beautiful.

Zugzwang is like a peaceful sit-in. The riot police are all geared up and you just sit down. Now they are forced to unravel, use water canons, make the move that will reveal their weakness.
Or maybe it was Zugzwang when the west did nothing more than allow the floods of escaping east-blockers to enter west Germany. Not a perfect allegory, but close.

I think modern day economic blockades are zugzwang. And for that matter, so was Kennedy's blockade of Cuba. It forced the Soviets next move which was to back down and weaken its position.

The other move is called discovery check. Or at its height of perfection: discovery checkmate. In this arrangement, you maneuver a non-threatening piece, say a bishop, between the opposing king and your actually "death agent" (let's say the rook.) Hopefully the opponent does not notice this set up, and on your next move you move the bishop and "dis-cover" the check or checkmate.

Now, the master of all master moves, the Royal Flush as it were, is combining the two above. In this case, (it has to be an endgame in order to eliminate other options) let's say White puts a constant pressure on the Black king with the presence of a rook. Black blocks this pressure by putting a piece in between the White rook and his king. Now white maneuvers one other pieces into place which will block the king's future escape. Then, oh grim reaper how sweet is sometimes thy breath, White makes a zugzwang; a move which forces Black to remove his protection of his king, and thus placing his own king in checkmate. Oh, the bitter and dastardly act of watching the opponent having to kill himself.

If you can include THIS in your novel, you will have truly checkmated the reader.

Oh, finally, there is a move called castling, which doesn't warrant a lot of discussion, since it is a pedestrian, developing move. It is sort of like switching seats with the body guard in the security caravan. As boring as that.