Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

© 2006-2017 All rights reserved

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), and several Kindle ebooks.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

What do you see?

Do you see the Japanese beetle on the purple coneflower? Do you see the butterfly clinging to a leaf?

Look again. The leaf looks a bit strange, doesn't it?

What looks like a leaf is a praying mantis who is eating the butterfly. The mantis's jaws are on the butterfly's thorax. Adjust your vision slightly—then you'll see.

Things are not always what they seem at first glance.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Mantis Rescue


Buford the deaf cat is a mighty hunter. He’s the best mouser we have. Unfortunately, he brings his work home with him. Today, for instance, he left a decapitated rat on the doormat. Odds are good he decapitated the rat on the doormat, bit off a few hunks, and decided that the food inside was better. He then went to the sliding glass door where I was sure to see him and asked to get in. After he’d had his snack, he went to the back door and asked to go out. That’s when I saw his, uh, handiwork. It was still fresh. (My husband removed the corpse.)

An hour later, Buford was at the sliding glass door again. He stared intently at something and looked ready to pounce. Thinking I could save a critter, I went out and found the object of Buford’s interest—a praying mantis. It didn’t want to be picked up, but I managed to herd it onto a twig. Then I hoisted the twig into the ficus and pried the mantis off. Disgusted at the wastefulness of humans, Buford stalked away.

Mantises must like the ficus. Last year, a mantis left an egg case in its branches. Months after the ficus came indoors for the winter, dozens of little mantis babies hatched out and scurried around the den—to the delight of the resident housecats.

Anyhow, I suppose this mantis was happy to have a safe haven in the ficus. Buford wasn’t happy, though.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Reading at Avenel

Last Thursday, some of us Lake Writers did a reading for one of “Miss Lettie’s Luncheons” at historic Avenel in downtown Bedford. Avenel, built in 1838 by Wm. Burwell, is known not only for its history (Hunter’s Raid spared it; Robert E. Lee visited there) but also for its ghosts. For years, albeit not recently, a mysterious lady in white (Lettie Burwell, perhaps?) was sometimes seen. Naturally, I’d wanted to visit Avenel for some time. Thursday was my chance—and I had a wonderful time. I’d wanted to see inside Avenel since I read June Goode’s book, Our War, an annotated diary of Lettie Burwell.

Jean, a Lake Writer and a Bedford poet, arranged the reading and opened the readings with a few poems from her chapbook, Musings. Marion (When Men Move to the Basement: a collection of humorous essays), Jim (Bedford Goes to War), Sally (Secrets at Spawning Run), and I were the other readers. Because the Bedford Library—located one block from Avenel—was hosting its annual quilt show. I’d planned to read part of the quilt-maker’s chapter from my novel, Patches on the Same Quilt, but Jean convinced me to read from Peevish Advice. I’m glad she did. The women in the audience—including several members of the Red Hat Society—appreciated the humor, so I sold and signed several copies of Peevish Advice afterward.

The best thing about a reading is that it isn’t planned in detail, and readers can modify their selections at the last minute. Jean, for example, usually “reads” her audience before she decides what poem she’ll read. Consequently, her choices are always appropriate.

After the reading, Sally and I roamed around the upstairs rooms. Places in some rooms were cooler than others. In some locations we got goosebumps. We were told that some ghost investigators from Ghostec had recently visited Avenel for the second time, and that the Lynchburg News-Advance would have a story in Sunday’s paper. A few folks shared their ghostly encounters—one lady’s ancestor had boarded there and woke up one night to see a male ghost in his room. One of the volunteer guides told us that lights would come back on after being turned off.

I really wanted to see a ghost, but none appeared. I’ve never actually seen a ghost, but a few years ago, I did smell the perfume of one who haunts The Grove in Rocky Mount. But that’s another story.

At Avenel, my ego and my appetite were both well-fed, but my curiosity remains unsatisfied.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Hot but Green


Where I live is too far east to be considered Southwest Virginia; too far west to be Central Virginia, too far north to be Southside. While I can see the Blue Ridge Mountains in any direction, I’m not actually in them.

I must live in the middle of nowhere. And in the midst of monsoon season.

We’ve had thundershowers every afternoon or evening for the past couple of days. At 7:59 last night I saw a flash in the bedroom and heard a simultaneous loud bang. As soon as the rain stopped, I went to check the horses; I figured they’d been struck.

But my mares were fine.

The hayfields that were so parched a couple of months ago are now lush and green. The cornfield across the road that was a bare brown patch in May is crowded with corn several feet high. The lawn is no longer crispy. The pasture is growing faster than the mares can gnaw it down.

The parts of the kennel that aren’t filled with tall weeds—lambsquarters, etc.—are muddy. The dogs are the color of red clay.

And it’s hot.

The outside cats abandon their mouse-watching and seek air-conditioning. I don’t blame them. My desk is crowded with cats. They jockey for position under the overhead fan. My keyboard is covered in cat hair.

The temperature is supposed to be close to 100 tomorrow-and high 90s next week. It’s too hot and humid for me to run the weed-eater, which I badly need to do. The flower beds vanished behind the weeds a few days ago. The Johnson grass towers over the lirope and mondo grass. The Virginia creeper—which I let take over the deck so the Japanese beetles won’t eat my good plants—is growing faster than the beetles can eat.

But our well is no longer in danger of going dry, and odds are good that this fall’s hay cutting will be much better than this spring’s cutting.

But it's hot.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Clueless critiques

I am a believer in writers’ groups whose members give in-depth criticism that provide feedback for works in progress, so a writer knows if his or her work is worth developing.

One of my favorite bloggers, the agent Miss Snark, offers this advice:
“. . . dig around for a critique group. Good ones can give you perspective and help. Bad ones suck worse than rejection letters, but you'll be able to tell which side of the line the group is on without too much investment."
Critiques done at writers’ groups can help catch content errors (for example, you can’t have a soldier tame a bucking bronco to ride into battle in the War or 1812; the term bronco didn’t enter the English language until 1858.), grammatical errors (“just between you and I”), lousy syntax (“Knowing that singing was bringing such inspiring moments to Uncle Alphonse, Aunt Sophronia, which was my aunt on my mother’s side, decided to hire a choir to sing and inspire the crowd at Uncle Alphonse’s retirement party on the third of June, but she vowed they shouldn’t sing too loud.”), etc.

The best critiques have lively discussion—even arguments—about why something does or doesn’t work. The best critiques suggest how to fix problems, and why the problem is a problem in the first place. Good critique groups don’t consist of everyone in turn saying something nice about the piece (lest the reader’s feelings get hurt) followed by a round of polite applause to thank the reader for sharing. Helpful groups suggest possible markets for the work. If a writer doesn’t have a market in mind—or a purpose for writing, other than “I just wanted to share a little something I jotted down”—the writer shouldn’t be wasting a critique group’s time. Critiques are for fixing, not sharing.

A writer should have thick skin—anyone who puts writing “out there” for a readership is going to get feedback. And some of it won’t be pleasant. Best find out early if the work doesn’t work.

A few months ago, I heard about a "critique sheet" that one writers' group devised. Apparently the critique sheet—actually a checklist—would make the critique move faster (no room for discussion), spare feelings, validate efforts, and give everyone a chance to participate—just not in depth. Curmudgeon that I am, I wondered why those given the checklist to fill out weren’t also issued smiley face stickers to affix to the sheet.

But maybe I’m taking the wrong approach. Maybe there really is a market for a warm-fuzzy critique checklist that validates bad writing efforts while making the author feel good. Inspired by a quote from Somerset Maugham (“People ask for criticism, but they only want praise.”), I developed one.

The Peevish Pen Positive Checklist for Clueless Critiques
© 2006 by Becky Mushko

_____Your poor grammar, lousy syntax, and content problems aren’t really important. What counts is that you tried really hard and we appreciate it. Thank you for sharing.

_____All those adverbs you used are really impressive. Who knew there were so many! Thank you for sharing.

_____Wow! I’ve never heard so many passive verbs in one page. Obviously you have a passion for writing. Thank you for sharing.

_____You do amazing things with clichés. Thank you for sharing.

_____The way you use redundancy to make your point is truly impressive. Thank you for sharing.

_____Your ability to switch verb tenses and point of view at will is so innovative. Thank you for sharing.

_____All the synonyms you used for “said” were amazing. You really know how to avoid the boredom of using the same dialogue tag more than once. Thank you for sharing.

_____Your ability to keep us all awake when you read for over twenty minutes in a monotone is truly amazing. And you haven’t even gotten to the first incident of plot yet. Thank you for sharing.

_____Your ability to describe the interior of the (circle one: phone booth/space ship/closet/parallel universe/ hamster cage/other) in such detail for thirty pages is impressive. And you haven’t marred the description by introducing a character yet! Thank you for sharing.

_____I didn’t understand a word you read, but I’m sure what you wrote was wonderful. Thank you for sharing.

_____Your work touched my heart. Thank you for sharing.

_____Your work didn’t touch my heart, but it did touch several other organs. Thank you for sharing.

_____Your work only touched one organ considerably below my heart. Thank you for sharing. Are you busy after the meeting? Want to share something else?


(Note: Members of writing groups: please feel free to copy and distribute the above checklist to your own group if it’s in need of such—but you have to provide your own smiley face stickers.)

Monday, July 10, 2006

Lit stuff

I spent last weekend at the Appalachian Writers Association Conference in Bristol, TN, where I had a great time, met some interesting people, reunited with some folks I’d met at the 2005 conference, and generally learned a lot.

My kids’ book, Where There’s A Will, was in the running for the Appalachian Book of the Year, but, since there were only three nominees in the juvenile lit category—and five are required for winner to be named, no prize was awarded. As a sort of consolation prize, I was given a complimentary table to display my books.

In the open mike session, I read “Buck-Nekkid.” (My favorite short story is “You Ain’t Buck-Nekkid and You Got Enough to Eat,” first place winner in the 1996 Lonesome Pine contest. It’s in both Where There’s A Will and The Girl Who Raced Mules & Other Stories.) A lot of poets, essayists, and fiction writers participated in the open mike session. Everybody who read was good!

A pleasant surprise was placing third in the Harriet Arnow Award for Short Story with “The Query Letter from Helen.” I won enough to pay my gas money home! A bigger surprise was getting an honorable mention in the James Still Award for Poetry. There were some GOOD poets competing, poetry isn’t my strong point, and I’d dashed out the poem—“Promise Kept" (about my old mare)—a couple of days before the deadline.

Today I spent a pleasant afternoon picnicking with some lake folks at the Smith Mountain Lake State Park where I read from my books and talked about how I used local stuff in my work. Then I did a bit of Ida B. Peevish. Good food, good company, good time—and good pay!

Plus the rain held off until I was almost home.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Manure Happens


I found these mushrooms growing in the pasture last Saturday morning. They’re almost works of art—so unexpected and arising from manure deposited by one of my mares.

Many folks consider manure a smelly, undesirable substance best not mentioned in polite company, but manure has its place and its purpose. Manure makes makes good fertilizer. My husband, for instance, grows impressive tomatoes in rotted manure.

When manure—either literally or figuratively—is dumped on us, the thing to do is rise above it. A little manure can have spectacular results.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Bad vs. Evil

I’m a sucker for bad writing. Ten years ago, I won the “Worst Western” division of the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest, and a few years later I got a “Miscellaneous Dishonorable Mention.”

The B-L contest for the two or three individuals who haven’t yet heard about it, requires entrants to write the worst opening line for the worst novel they haven’t yet written. The name of the contest honors Edward Bulwer-Lytton, whose novel Paul Clifford began with the ignoble line, “It was a dark and stormy night.” This line was later made famous (or infamous?) by Charles Shultz, who had the cartoon beagle Snoopy use it for the beginning of his novel.

I didn’t enter the 2006 contest (too lazy), but I’m eagerly awaiting the announcement of this year’s winner. Usually the announcement comes in mid-July.

In the meantime, I’ve become a fan of the Evil Editor, who lists book titles of authors who are querying him about their books, critiques the query, and rewrites the query letter. Before the query are half a dozen or so possible plots. Readers are to “guess the plot” before reading the query. The one or two sentence plot synopses submitted are usually far-fetched and funny.

The temptation was too much. I started contributing my own dreadful synopses to “Guess the Plot.” So far, Evil Editor has used four of my contributions:
#80 Blood and Skin
A clumsy dermatologist comes to terms with his ineptitude and finds love with a plastic surgeon who looks terrific in a bikini thanks to her do-it-herself surgeries.

#88 Whirlwind Harvest
Researching a method to harness energy from tornados, hurricanes, and cyclones, a reckless young scientist is blown away by what he finds.

#96 Sandstorm
Curtis the Camel, bullied by the other camels because of his glowing neon ears, becomes a hero when he leads the caravan to safety.


#97 A Guardian’s Tale
An English lord, suddenly finding himself guardian of the children of the deceased sister he didn't know he had, hires a governess to whom he's strangely attracted--before realizing she's the ghost of the deceased sister he did know he had.

None of my plots came close to what the the authors intended, but doing each synopsis proved a good writing exercise for me. I recommend you try it.

Or better yet, submit your query so I can write the synopsis. I promise it'll be really bad.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Reflections of a Young Border Collie, part 3

Dogs Rule! Er, Dog Rules.
By Maggie Mae

Based on observations made during my eight months in my current canine incarnation, I have formulated a list of rules that every border collie puppy should know.

Yes, I am aware that these rules could apply to all breeds, but I doubt that any other breeds are as computer literate as border collies.

1. Never trust any human who doesn’t drive a pick-up truck.
2. Never trust any human who does drive a pick-up truck but won’t let a dog ride in it.
3. Never trust a cat.
4. Never poke a cat with your nose unless you enjoy having a cat pop you in the face.
5. Most humans can be trained.
6. Most cats can’t.
7. There is no good reason why a human who is sitting on a commode can’t throw a ball for a dog to catch at the same time.
8. The Frisbee is one of the world’s greatest inventions.
9. Never pass up an opportunity to jump into a creek.
10. If it runs, chase it. If it pops you in the face, back off.
11. Occasionally obey a command that a human gives you if it makes the human happy and won’t inconvenience you.
12. If it smells funny, roll in it.
13. A dog cannot have too many toys.
14. Dog toys should be scattered through the whole house. You never know when you might want to play with something.
15. Cat food tastes better than dog food. It tastes even better if you can steal it from the cat.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Chaucer Blogs

Not only does Samuel Pepys keep a blog, but I recently learned that Geoffrey Chaucer has also been blogging (in middle English, no less!) since March.

Particularly noteworthy is the April 9 blog entry, in which he reveals his plan for "a worke of grete literarye merit, and of much sentence and solaas. And school-childer alle across thys grete erth shal reden of thes tales and thanke me for the delite they haue, much more delite than the distiches of catoun shal euere brynge, or even the grapes of wrathe."

What can I say? I'm an ex-English teacher. I like stuff like this.

The Spider under the Dog Dish

Yesterday evening, before I dished out the dog food to the five canine critters in the kennel, I decided to clean their bowls. When I picked up the big red plastic double bowl, I noticed spider webs underneath. I started to scoop the webs out with my hand, but I noticed the spider was still there. I didn’t want to hurt the spider.

I’m a great appreciator of spiders. I consider the webs they leave works of art. I love seeing them wet with dew in the early morning. Once I kept a tiny spider as a pet in my kitchen window for months. Her fly catching ability was wonderfully efficient. There’s no telling how long I would have had her if she hadn’t ridden to the basement on an appliance my husband was going to repair.

In my yard, I’m careful to not disturb webs of the garden spiders who live here, and one summer I let a tunnel spider inhabit a sneaker that I’d left on the patio.

The spider under the dog dish was much larger than my long-ago kitchen spider. She was so beautiful that I couldn’t help but admire her incredibly shiny black body and her red beauty mark—two triangles connected at the point.

But something told me to kill her. I squashed her with a twig.

After I fed the dogs, I got online and started Googling. Yep, the one I killed was indeed a black widow. After reading about black widows (On the plus side—while the bites can have nasty side effects—no one has died in the USA of a black widow bite in the last decade.), I realized that what I thought were two tightly wrapped insects were actually egg cases. I went back to the kennel, found them beside the spider’s body which ants were busy dismantling, and squashed them.

Finding the black widow spider has made me more cautious, more suspicious. Evil can lurk in safe places. Evil can be beautiful.

But evil is still evil.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Country View

The view from my dog kennel. Chestnut Mountain is in the background. The power lines will come just beyond the graveyard (on the far right) and through where the trees (center and left) are now.

My husband and I moved to the country seven years ago. For us, country living—despite the occasional poisonous snake or redneck who can’t comprehend the meaning of “No Trespassing”—allows us to live better and cheaper than city living did.

In the Southwest Roanoke County suburb where we lived for 27 years in a 7-room house on a half-acre sloping lot on a heavily traveled street, we paid for water and sewer, electricity, phone, natural gas (heat and hot water), and garbage pick-up.

We were only two miles from a post office but almost always had to stand in long lines whenever we sent a package. We were two miles from two grocery stores, so we frequently drove out to get just an item or two. Usually we had to stand in line with lots of others who also drove out for an item or two. Traffic at times was heavy; backing out of our driveway was sometimes a challenge.

Ah, but we were “close to everything.” For example, seven drug stores and at least five fast food places were within a three-mile radius of us. Mainly, though, we were close to noise and pollution. Many people in our neighborhood were heavily into lawn care. Power mowers roared daily. Lawn care companies periodically “treated” the neighbors’ lawns with toxic chemicals. If I wanted to walk, my options were the busy road or the “greenway” (i.e., narrow strip of asphalt) at a nearby park.

Here, we live in an 11-room house on over 4 acres. Our property taxes are cheaper than what we paid in Roanoke. Our utility expenses are substantially cheaper—water comes from our well and the only monthly utility bills we pay are for phone, Internet (dial-up) and electricity. For back-up heating/cooking, we have a propane tank that we filled a couple of years ago but rarely use. We’ve had the septic tank pumped once since we’ve been here. We don’t watch much TV, but the antenna on our house brings in at least ten channels clearly. Having my horses at home costs less than a fifth of I used to pay for boarding them. Heavy traffic here means that maybe 25 cars go by within an hour. We’re still two miles from a post office, but everybody there knows our name and we never have to stand in line. Our closest neighbors are cows.

Roanoke County law limited us to two dogs (for years, though, we kept an illegal beagle). Here, I have five dogs in my kennel—the mixed retriever, Catahoula, mixed sheltie, and beagle were all off-road adoptions. The border collie is the only one I actually bought. Plus I have six cats on the property (three of them working cats). And the two mares.

When we lived in Roanoke, a drive to one of our farms took an hour or more. Now, one is just a mile down the road; another is three miles away. On a clear day, we can see our Turkeycock Mountain acreage—10 or so miles away—from our deck. From my study in Roanoke, I saw the houses across the street. From my study here, I look over the field and trees across the road to see the Peaks of Otter (about 30 miles in the distance).

The view is glorious: mountains in all directions. From the deck, where I sometimes sit and read the morning paper, I can look into the cow pasture across the road. When I go to their kennel to feed my dogs, I have a spectacular view of Chestnut Mountain. From the horses’ field on a clear day, I can see Buffalo Mountain in Floyd.

But all that will soon change.

By next year, a 138 KB power line with steel poles from 75 to 100 feet high will cut a swath of destruction through the cow pasture. Then it will cross the road where it will come between me and the mountain views I love. It’ll be about 500 feet from our property line.

Right now I can’t look at everything hard enough. I want to store up memories of how beautiful and pastoral the area is before the beauty vanishes beneath the towers and lines.

Nothing good lasts forever.