Peevish Pen

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

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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.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Bits & Crits



I returned yesterday from Richmond, where I attended the James River Writers Conference (one of my favorite conferences) at the library of Virginia.

Looking up from the lobby of the Library of Virginia

There’s so much to tell about it that I can’t get it all told in one blog entry. So here’s a bit of what happened.

At the First Pages Critique on Friday morning, agents Liv Blumer and Jenny Rappaport and editor Lucina Bartly gave their opinion of opening pages submitted by some of the attendees. In the past, critiques have been, well, critical. Sometimes brutal. (A previous First Pages Critique was where I learned the terms “National Geographic Fiction” for stories that open with a description of setting and “Weather Channel Fiction” for stories that open with weather (“It was a dark and stormy night.”).

Knowing what to expect, I submitted the opening of my middle grade novel. Since the agent with whom I had an appointment was on the panel, I figured she might get a preview of what I do if my opening was selected and be impressed.

It was. She wasn’t.

She “wasn’t emotionally invested.” However, she was quick to find a flaw—one that escaped all the folks who’d read it before and even the New York editor who critiqued it at the CNU conference. She “couldn’t place the age or grade” of the main character and was confused about who she is. Therefore, she couldn’t tell if it was close to the “target audience.”

It didn’t take me long to figure how I could work “fifth grade” into the story. Why hadn’t I thought of it before? Duh.

The other agent “didn’t do kids’ book, and “wasn’t interested in the kids, situation, or the school.”

The editor on the panel thought I had good details and even mentioned some specifically. That gave me a little hope.

Other entries fared about like I did or even worse. Some of the comments for the other nine: “want to see action,” “too much telling,” “trust readers to be intelligent and figure out what they need as they go,” “get the story going,” “dialogue seems stilted,” “dialogue needs to be snappier,” “repetition, no book, dragging,” “needs to be tighter,” “too long description,” “so many adjectives; description is thrown in your face,” don’t give away whole character in first paragraph,” “lack of verities,” “felt slow—trying to drag you in but not hooking,” “really, really generic,” “didn’t sound erotic; clichéd,” “nothing setting it apart,” “redundant,” etc. See, the comments I got weren’t too bad.

An hour later, I had my 5-minute agent interview. There wasn’t any point in pitching my novel, so I asked her about my Blue Ridge version of a fairy tale, a genre she doesn’t do. However, she knew another agent who liked that genre, and gave me her contact info, and said I could use her name for the referral.
I Googled the agent during lunch. A big agent at a big agency! Do I stand a chance? We’ll see.

My query will go out before the week is over.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Little House at the Reunion


Sunday I went to the Holland family reunion at Bethel Church off Rt. 834. I am one of the multitude of Franklin County residents who can trace my routes back to a Michael Holland, who was born in Middlewich (or Middlewith) in Lancaster County in England, in the 1660s.

The first Holland in America, at least in our line, was Peter Holland (1683-86?-1749-52?), an indentured servant of Wm. Neilson of Edinburg. He was indentured to work in Maryland or VA and came to Essex County, Virginia, in 1699; he was in Caroline County in 1714. He married Susannah, a widow. There our line begins.

I’m a Holland on the Smith side. My great-great grandmother, Malinda Laetitia Holland (1818? to 14 Feb 1886)—the daughter of Peter Diggins Holland and Frances Hancock—married Samuel Wood Smith (5 Aug. 1813 to Dec. 1877). They were the parents of Henry Silas Smith, who married Mariah Lousia Martin, the daughter of Elder John Reid Martin.

It was nice to meet people I’d never met before but was kin to several different ways. (Hollands often married Smiths and Browns, I learned.) I was invited to this reunion because I wrote a book, Patches on the Same Quilt, that was set in the area. In fact, a couple of scenes take place at Bethel Church where my great-great grandfather, Elder John Reid Martin, used to preach. I’d even used him as a minor character. The church was used in parts of a couple of chapters.

This is the inside of the church, modernized a bit from when John Martin preached.


His portrait hangs on the wall above the pulpit. He’s second from the left. My grandparents would have sat in this church. They would have come from their Union Hall farm in their buggy on the road they called the racetrack, or old race path, so named because boys used to race their horses and buggies there. Part of the racetrack is now under the lake. I remember when it was a red clay road. I used the racetrack in part of my book, too.

Several years ago, I’d talked about Patches to a creative writing class at CATCE (now the Gereau Center). Alise Fralin—who worked there and who read my book at the recommendation of the creative writing teacher—called me and asked me to come to this year’s reunion. Alise is a Holland.

One of those attending Sunday's reunion, Larry Wayne Jones, built a replica of one of the Holland homes, the house he was born in and which burned in the 1978. The original house was just down from Dudley School, on Rt. 665, not far from where we were gathered, and was built to replace a log cabin.

Wayne Jones with his model. The smokehouse is to the left.
Bethel Church is in the background behind the vehicles.
The church cemetery is under the trees.


The original frame house was built in 1913. Of Wayne’s family of nine kids, four—including Wayne—were born in the house. He built the model in the winter of 2000 when there was a lot of snow. He included models of the outbuildings, like this woodshed. An outhouse (its roof is barely visible on the right) is behind the woodshed.


Franklin County is rich in history. Most of the locals hand the history down from generation to generation, and every family who’s been in the area for a while has good stories to tell.

Thanks to computers, many of us are writing down family stories and sharing them. The Internet has helped tremendously in sharing genealogy and historical information. For example, when I wrote about doing a reading at Avenel in Bedford last year, I heard from Farrar Richardson in Bordeaux, France, and learned quite a bit about his ancestor and a Civil War incident in Bedford County. I’m still working on a story about that. From time to time, I’ll post bits of local or family history on this blog.

If you’re not familiar with Franklin County history (and want to be), let me recommend a few resources. For an overview of county history, Salmon and Church’s Franklin County Virginia, 1786-1986 is a good beginning, although the book is our of print and hard to find. Keister Greer’s The Great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of 1935 and his Genesis of a Virginia Frontier are still available though. The Franklin County Historical Society in downtown Rocky Mount has a lot of resources and some interesting exhibits. The Blue Ridge Institute and the Booker T. Washington National Monument have exhibits that show what farm life was like in the 1800s.

The Holland reunion is held at Bethel Church every fourth Sunday of September. Odds are good I'll be there next year.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Pistol Packin’ Heroes

“My heroes have always been cowboys,” the Waylon Jennings’ song goes. Same for me. Every since I can remember, I’ve liked cowboys—and their horses. Especially the horses.

The book review page in the “Horizon” section of Sunday’s Roanoke Times caught my eye because it featured two books about Gene Autry, my favorite cowboy. Here's one:


Seeing those books brought back memories. I’ve been a Gene Autry fan since I was a little kid. His theme song, “Back in the Saddle Again,” was—and probably still is—my favorite song.

When I was a kid in Roanoke, Virginia, my fondest childhood memories are of going to the pony rides on Williamson Road and going downtown to watch Gene Autry movies. I must have been four or five. I know it was before I started school—and long before we got a TV set in 1952. Because of those early movies, I dreamed of owning a horse just like Champion.



The pony rides are long gone. Three times around the track cost a quarter—big money in 1950. Usually a boy led the pony while I clutched the saddle horn. The few times they let me ride by myself, I wanted to gallop—to fly like the wind—but the pony only plodded along. He knew the route and wasn’t going to work any harder than necessary. In the movies, Roy Rogers was always galloping Trigger and Gene Autry was always galloping Champion.

So, Mama and I would ride the bus downtown to see Gene Autry and Roy Rogers movies at the Roanoke or Rialto Theaters. Each movie had lots of singing and shooting. And horses! I only had eyes for the horses. Roy could sing and play his guitar while riding Trigger, and Gene could do the same on Champion. I liked Trigger, but I adored Champion—he had a wide white blaze, white stockings, and flowing mane. I remember Champion’s saddle pad had a striped edge, his saddle had lots of silver, and the sides of his bit were shaped like pistols. The first thing I ever remember coveting was that horse.

When I was seven, Gene Autry and his show came to Roanoke’s American Legion Hall for a night’s performance. A newspaper article in the Roanoke World-News told how Champion rode in a special tractor-trailer with air-conditioning in the back. At that time, no human I knew had air-conditioning. I called up my daddy at his gas station and begged him to take me. He closed up early and did. I think he just wanted to hear the music, but I wanted to see Champion. We sat on hard backless benches and waited. After a lot of singing by Gene and some jokes by Gene’s sidekick Pat Butram, Champion walked onto the stage. He was everything I thought he’d be. Of course, he didn’t have room to gallop, but he was there. Really there! And I saw him.

After that, I started drawing horses in earnest—on every scrap of paper I could find and down the margins of my schoolwork. I’d look out the window of Huff Lane School and imagine galloping my horse across Pete Huff’s wheat field. The horses in my mind and in my margins usually looked like Champion—a bright chestnut with a flowing mane, white stockings, and a wide white blaze.


Sometimes, for the sake of variety, I saw myself on a black horse. I still remember part of a poem I wrote about a horse “black as night, galloping, galloping over the plain—nothing stops him, not even rain.” The poem wasn’t very good.

There was no way I could have a horse when I was a kid. By the 1950s, the Williamson Road area of Roanoke was pretty citified, even though a few farms still clung to its edges. I rarely even saw a horse except in the movies. Every spring, of course, Mr. Taskey came with his horse and plowed our garden. The few times a year we went to see my grandparents at their Franklin County farm, I’d go see their work horse first thing. Kate was old and not much to look at, but still—she was a horse. I’d pull handfuls of grass to feed her. I never saw her gallop.

When we finally got a TV, my favorite shows all had horses—the Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, The Cisco Kid, Fury, My Friend Flicka. Sometimes Sky King had horses, and Gunsmoke was sometimes good for a scene or two of horses. Later, Wagon Train and Cimmaron City had horses. But I didn't have a horse.

I pretended my bike was a horse.

In the 60s, I went to college in Richmond and discovered Up & Away Dude Ranch, way out Staples Mill Road, where they’d actually let you ride a horse on trails. Soon my spare money went for horse rentals. Then I graduated, got a job, moved, got married, moved, went to grad school, moved a couple more times—well, you’d think I would out-grow my dream of having a horse. But I never did.

In 1976, I finally took riding lessons. When I fell off a runaway lesson horse in March 1977 and compressed a couple of vertebrae, the orthopedist told me to stay off horses for six months. At the end of the six months, I bought a horse.

Reasoning that I already owned a rather pricey back brace and was thus prepared in case of another riding accident, I bought Blackie, a 9-year-old quarter horse gelding whose owner was getting divorced and needed the money to buy tires. I boarded Blackie at a stable near the Blue Ridge Parkway trails. He and I went on those trails everyday. Once, after we galloped up Chestnut Mountain, snow started to fall. Blackie and I stopped to watch the woods fill up with snow, and I remembered Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”—a much better poem than the black horse poem I wrote when I was a kid.

As Blackie and I traveled the Parkway trails, I noticed other horses that moved so smoothly a person could probably play a guitar and sing while riding. I found out these were racking horses. Unlike Blackie’s bouncy 2-beat trot that kept me posting, these horses did a 4-beat lateral gait that a rider could sit to. These horses had a strangely familiar look—like I’d seen their kind in movies. And I had! When I watched old movies of Trigger and Champion, my suspicions were confirmed: Trigger and Champion racked! That’s why they were so smooth.

I trotted along on Blackie for nine years before I gave him to a little girl who loved him as much as I did. By then, my second horse Cupcake—a registered racking horse—was old enough to ride. I’d seen Cupcake take her first steps, and I’d bought her when she was six months old. She was a red chestnut with a full white blaze and a couple of white stockings. Her daddy was a registered Tennessee Walker.

One of Gene Autry’s Champions (I finally learned he had more than one) had been a Tennessee Walker, too. His real name was Stonewall Allen. Way, way back, he and Cupcake were kin.

G's Liberated Lady (Cupcake)

Cupcake was not a dream to ride. She was headstrong and stubborn—too much like me. Finally, we came to terms with each other and started winning at horse shows. We trail rode a lot, too—all through the mountains of Bedford, Botetourt, and Craig Counties and down the back roads of Franklin County. Once we camped for a week at Mount Rogers, and—for a couple of minutes—I galloped her on top of the highest mountain in Virginia.

One night about twenty years ago, I dreamed I lived on my Franklin County farm and I looked out a big window to see Cupcake and another horse grazing in the pasture. When I woke up, I was still in Roanoke. Cupcake, my only horse, was still in a boarding stable. So much for dreams.

Cupcake and I both developed health problems in the early 90s. She foundered; I had chronic Epstein-Barre for nearly two years. She got better but tore up her hoof in a fence. I was diagnosed with fibromylagia. Our riding came to a halt. I recovered before she did. In 1995, I bought Melody—a big, full-blooded, bright chestnut Tennessee Walker.

I now had my two dream horses, but the dream wasn't complete. I wanted to build a house on our Franklin County farm so I could look out and see my two horses grazing. My husband, however, didn’t want to ruin a perfectly good hayfield by putting a house in the middle of it. Thus, except for weekend camping trips at the farm, we stayed in the city and my horses stayed at a boarding stable.

In June 1999, a house I’d coveted for ten years came up for sale—a house only a mile from the farm where we camped. My husband and I went to look—in less than an hour, we made an offer. A month later we moved in. Soon we fenced the pasture and built a horse shed. My horses were in my back yard.

Now, I can stand at the sliding glass door and look a little sideways across the deck, through the pines, and into the pasture where Cupcake and Melody graze—both chestnuts with flowing manes.

Melody Sundance (Melody) and Cupcake

One has white stockings and a wide white blaze—just like Champion’s.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Interconnectedness


The Cottage Curio gig this morning was fun. Three of us—Dick Raymond, Marion Higgins, and I—are all members of the Virginia Writers Club. We sat in the “red room” for some meeting and greeting with folks from all over the country, while Cottage Curio owner Peggy Shifflett did some meeting and greeting on the back lawn.

Dick, Peggy and I are all members of Valley Writers. Marion used to be a member of Valley (and still pops in sometimes), but she and I have also been members of Lake Writers since its formation in 2000. Peggy and I are in the Roanoke Valley Pen Women; Marion was guest speaker at our last meeting. Marion and I had met Peggy last year at the last event that Ibby Greer held at the Grove in Rocky Mount before giving up the Blue Lady Bookshop (on the grounds of the Grove). The Blue Lady was a great place for local writers; so is Cottage Curio. Dick also attended a bunch of events at the Blue Lady/Grove. Are you following this? See how our paths overlap?

Most of the folks that Dick, Marion, and I greeted were wives of pediatric surgeons who were seeing the sites while their husbands attended meetings. A few were people we already knew, such as Ibby Greer. Dick and I used to write for Blue Ridge Traditions when Ibby was editor. Our paths overlap again.

Marion, Ibby, and I all drive PT Cruisers. Marion, Dick, and I have all written freelance articles for Prime Living. The last article I wrote for Prime Living was about Peggy and her new shop, Cottage Curio. See how connected we are?

As people came in, Marion, Dick and I took turns reading from our works. Marion read from her book of humorous essays, When Men Move to the Basement. I read from my humor collection, More Peevish Advice. Dick read some humorous poems and a bit from Blue and Gray Ballads. Marion and Dick have both contributed letters to my “Peevish Advice” column; some of their letters are in the book, More Peevish Advice. “Peevish Advice” started in Blue Ridge Traditions before moving to the Smith Mountain Eagle in 2004. Wow! More connections!

Dick also played his ukelele.

Hmmm. Here’s where the connections start to unravel and the paths veer off. . . .

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Waxing Poetic

Today seems like fall—even though the autumnal equinox is Sunday at 9:51. A misty rain has been falling since late morning. In early afternoon, the day is silvery-dark.

Robert Frost’s “My November Guest” fits even though it’s September:

My Sorrow, when she's here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She's glad the birds are gone away,
She's glad her simple worsted grey
Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.

Some of my other favorite lines about fall are from John Brown’s Body, by Stephen Vincent Benét:

Fall of the possum, fall of the 'coon,
And the lop-eared hound-dog baying the moon.
Fall that is neither bitter nor swift
But a brown girl bearing an idle gift,
A brown seed-kernel that splits apart
And shows the Summer yet in its heart,
A smokiness so vague in the air
You feel it rather than see it there,
A brief, white rime on the red clay road
And slow mules creaking a lazy load
Through endless acres of afternoon,
A pine-cone fire and a banjo-tune,
And a julep mixed with a silver spoon.

Your noons are hot, your nights deep-starred,
There is honeysuckle still in the yard,
Fall of the quail and the firefly-glows
And the pot-pourri of the rambler-rose,
Fall that brings no promise of snows . . .

This almost-fall day on the eastern edge of Virginia’s Blue Ridge is “neither bitter nor swift.” The leaves are browning, especially on the pin oak in the side yard. I doubt this fall will have bright colors. August’s dry heat parched everything.

My rosebush, grown from a cutting Mama gave me and planted here in 1999, still has a few blooms. We’ve had no frost yet—and won’t until sometime in October, so no rime whitens our red clay. The days are cooler, though.

And rain is falling.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Where I'm Coming From

or
Peevish Advice”: Where It’s Coming From

Most readers of this blog know I've written a redneck humor column since 1998. Since 2004, the column has appeared every other week on the editorial page of the Smith Mountain Eagle. The column fits there because it's actually social commentary. It just looks like redneck humor.

The last time I received a letter of complaint was in 1999 when someone thought I'd disparaged doublewides. That wasn't true. At the time, I was coveting a simulated log cabin doublewide that a friend had just bought.

Recently, another person found fault with what I write. This letter appears in today's issue of the SML:

Yo Editor,
I am requesting that you immediately remove from the "Smith Mountain Eagle" the insulting column "Peevish Advice" by Becky Mushko. I suppose your intent is to provide a comic relief from every day life in this area, but to the residents of Franklin County you are mocking the way we think and express ourselves. Your portrayal of a county of backwoods bumpkins is neither accurate nor funny. Even though we may abuse the English language to some degree, we do NOT appreciate your constant insult to our usage.

Furthermore, I find it puzzling that you place such an insulting, childish column on your editorial page. Most papers treat this page as a serious place for debate (no pun intended) and comment.

Perhaps Ms. Mushko should be directed to a venue where her talents would be better appreciated. Comic books and fishing magazines come to mind.

Thanks for your attention.
Ciao J** W****

Although real people (mostly my buddies in Lake Writers) send Ida B. Peevish letters which she answers in her column, “Peevish Advice” is fiction. Rock Bottom isn’t—and never was—a real town. None of the characters that populate it are real, including my alter ego, Ida B. Peevish. I created her in 1998 when Jeff Foxworthy had hit it big with redneck humor. I thought there should be a female redneck humorist.

Rock Bottom is purely imaginary—a Mayberry that's a just turn off center with an out-spoken Steel Magnolia-type running a beauty shop that also sells live bait. The name of my fictional beauty shop comes from an old Jeff Foxworthy joke: “How do you know you’re in a redneck town?” Answer: “You can buy live bait and rent videos at the same place.” That started me thinking: What is stranger than live bait and videos? Ah, live bait and a beauty shop. A friend once gave me a picture of “Nancy’s Beauty Shop and Concrete Lawn Ornaments” down Route 29 someplace, so “Ida’s Salon of Beauty & Live Bait Shop” isn’t so unique after all.

Rural humor, whether from Artemus Ward or Jeff Foxworthy or anybody in between has been popular for generations. A rival newspaper of the Eagle runs "Snuffy Smith," a cartoon I liked when I was a kid. When I was a kid, I also listened to the Grand Ol’ Opry on radio, and watched Tennessee Ernie and Minnie Pearl when we got a TV. I loved their down-home humor. Later I watched and enjoyed The Real McCoys and The Beverly Hillbillies. My daddy, in the years before he died, enjoyed Hee-Haw and was a big fan of Grampa Jones.

When I went to college, I grew too sophisticated for rural humor, but thank goodness I got over it. As an adult, I enjoyed the Andy Griffith Show, Hee-Haw, the Dukes of Hazzard, and Dolly Parton in Steel Magnolias. Once I even took a Radford University class in Appalachian humor; rural humorist Loyal Jones was one of the lecturers; he and Billy Edd Wheeler, authors of Laughter in Appalachia, had just published More Laughter in Appalachia, two books I highly recommend.

My roots run over 200 years deep into Franklin County. I own the cabin that my grandparents lived in and where my father grew up. It never had electricity or indoor plumbing. I remember visiting as a kid and having to use outside facilities.


My daddy had less than a sixth grade education, but—like his daddy before him—he could play the fiddle. Not violin, fiddle: there’s a difference. I guess he didn’t use indoor facilities until he went to work in the West Virginia mines. When I was born, he ran a gas station on Williamson Road in Roanoke.

My maiden name is Smith—like the mountain. I’m probably kin to a good percentage of Franklin County—the Browns, Hollands, Englishes, Forbes, Dillons, Smiths, Pasleys, and a bunch of others. My most well-known ancestor is Brigadeer General Joseph Martin. I descend from his second wife if you don’t count the Cherokees; through his fifth wife if you do. Some of my ancestors were indeed backwoods bumpkins, but they did OK for themselves. I don’t know how many were involved in manufacturing Franklin County’s most famous product, but there probably were some.

The grammar and usage I select is what I heard my daddy use. I remember the wonderful thick accents my grandparents and older relatives used to have. A few local people still talk that way, but not many. They’re dying out, or else TV converted them. Even though I have a master’s degree in English, I sometimes lapse in bad grammar and still use some of the local expressions. My favorite is “won’t,” which can mean “weren’t,” “wasn’t,” or “won’t.” As I age, I’m starting to drop the g off any -ing ending. Recently a woman who serves on a committee with me told me I had a local accent. I was so proud.

So—if I'm making fun of somebody's heritage, it's mine. I think we should be able to laugh at ourselves. I have a heckuva good time laughing at me.

When I first started writing “Peevish Advice” back in 1998 for another fine publication, Rock Bottom, a fictional small town unidentified by either county or state and populated by “agrarian professionals,” was purposely hard to find. But if you ever hit Rock Bottom, you knew it.

After a while, some of my retiree buddies at the lake felt left out and wanted me to add a lake, so Slick Water Lake formed from farm run-off filling a sinkhole and thus provided a retirement haven for yankees. My husband of 40 years is originally from New Jersey, a state that a lot of my friends left, so I know a thing or two about the north and why folks leave it.

I can also identify with the lake residents. While my roots are in Franklin County, I wasn’t born here (but got back here as soon as I could). I’m educated (BFA, MAT) and affluent. My education provided me a means of making some money; my bred-in frugality from my Franklin County ancestors meant I didn’t waste money and made wise investments. While I don’t live on the lake, I do serve on some committees just like Slick Water Lake folks do. So I can identify.

Several of my lake buddies contribute ideas for the column. Some send me emails that begin, “Did you see in the news that —?” Sometimes strangers with northern accents stop me in Kroger and say, “Why don’t you write about—?” Often, I do. I rarely turn down an idea.

While “Peevish Advice” started as rural humor and nothing more, over the years it has provided social commentary about education, child-rearing, marriage, committees, church Bingo, school dress codes, tourists, visiting relatives, in-law problems, the Internet, and whatever else strikes my fancy. Hence, it belongs on the editorial page.

Sometimes the column just pokes fun at universal human foibles and frailties, many of them mine, but it still fits the editorial page.

Do I promote “backwoods bumpkin” stereotypes? I'm not sure what a "backwoods bumpkin" is. Hillbilly? Appalachian resident? Redneck?

I’ll have to pull my ballcap down to shade my eyes and ponder that question that while I drive my 94 Dodge pickup truck (with peeling paint and a couple of dents) down the road a ways to one of my farms. And my four dawgs will be riding in the back. Likely my pistol will be in my purse, but don’t worry—I passed my concealed carry class with flying colors.

While I don’t have a tractor-tire flowerbed in my yard (my husband won’t let me take a tire off his tractor), there’s a yard with several not far from me. I was real impressed when the owner painted them red, white, and blue after 9-11. I do have a couple of interesting lawn ornaments, though. Plus a couple of old horses that provide me with plenty of manure-shoveling experience.

So, if I’m mocking anybody, it’s me. Humor begins at home.

Warning: Semi-educational information follows:

If you want to know how a large part of the rural, mountainous South talks, consult the Southern Appalachian Dictionary. Another site, Dialectizer, can change a website into redneck or a few other, uh, dialects. For instance, if you were to change the letter to the SML editor to a redneck dialect, you'd get this:

Yo Edito',

Ah's requestin' thet yo' eemeejutly remove fum th' "Smif Mountain Eagle" th' insultin' column "Peevish Advice" by Becky Mushko. ah suppose yer intent is t'provide a comic relief fum ev'ry day life in this hyar area, but t'th' residents of Franklin County yer mockin' th' way we reckon an' express ourselves. Yer po'trayal of a county of backwoods bumpkins is neifer accurate no' funny. Even though we may abuse th' English language t'some degree, we does NOT appreesheeate yer constant insult t'our usage.

Furthermo'e, ah find it puzzlin' thet yo' place sech an insultin', chileish column on yer edito'ial page. Most papers treat this hyar page as a serious place fo' debate (no pun aimed) an' comment.

Perhaps Ms. Mushko sh'd be direcked t'a venue whar her talents'd be better appreesheeated, cuss it all t' tarnation. Comic books an' fishin' magazines come t'mind, cuss it all t' tarnation.

Thanks fo' yer attenshun.
Ciao J** W****

If you change a website (or parts thereof) into redneck dialect and don’t know what some of the words mean, try the Southern Sass website or the Country Humor website. They'll bring you up to snuff when it comes to rural Southern dialect.

If you're too sophisticated for down-home talking, and you want to talk real high-faluting, go here. If you want to impress folks with the current hot buzzwords, then the Global Language Monitor is for you.


Meanwhile, does anybody know how I can get a job writing comic books? I hear they pay real good money!

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Another Literary Week

This week is devoted to literary and historical stuff.

I'm busy for the next few days writing a freelance story about Smith Mountain Lake arts and culture. I've finally accumulated enough notes to fill out my outline, and I've tossed ideas back and forth inside my head for a few days.

Wednesday, a letter by a disgruntled reader will appear in the Smith Mountain Eagle. Seems the gent is offended that my humble column, "Peevish Advice," makes certain county residents appear to be "country bumpkins." I won't scoop the Eagle by posting the letter here yet. However, Wednesday afternoon, I'll post it and give my side.

Thursday, I'll go to Roanoke to swill coffee and indulge in literary chit-chat with 'Nita before I go to the Valley Writers meeting.

Friday, I'll go back to Roanoke to hear Sharyn McCrumb speak at the Roanoke County Library. I'm working on a freelance story about being a Sharyn MCrumb groupie. This will be the third time I've heard her speak since late April; I'll hear her again at the James River Writers Conference at the end of the month.

Saturday, I will go through Roanoke on my way to Salem to Peggy Shifflett's Cottage Curio. Dick Raymond, a fellow Valley Writer, will read from his book, Blue and Gray Ballads, a collection of Civil War poems, and Peggy's sister-in-law will demonstrate some of her down-home cooking. Marion Higgins, a fellow Lake Writer, will ride in with me.


Sunday, I'll remain in the county, but attend the Holland reunion. One of my distant cousins (whom I've never met) called me a few weeks ago and invited me. I descend from Peter Diggins Holland (1785-1833), whose father Peter Holland (1750-1836)—a lieutenant in the Revolutionary War—once captured three Tories at a party in Bedford and delivered them to Americans. I hope to learn a lot more family history.

This should be a most interesting week.

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Got It?

Warning: Heavy educational content in today's entry. While I have copied info from some websites, I'm not in copyright violation because I'm using way less than 10% of the material I referenced, I'm doing it for an educational purpose, I link back to the original source, and I'm making no profit; thus, I should be OK.

I've got a secret.

No, I haven’t—at least not any I’m willing to divulge to the blogosphere. I just wanted to use the word got in a way that will make Dave the Brit happy, although using got in such a way will annoy my writer-buddy Marion, who would insist, “It’s ‘I have a secret!’ doggone it!” and probably sic her accessory dog, Sadie Mae, on me if I persist with the error.

While I was doing lunch and sipping tea with another writer-buddy in Dave the Brit’s fine establishment in downtown Rocky Mount last week, Dave the Brit had a bone to pick with me (figuratively speaking, if I may be permitted the use of an especially overworked cliché) about my use of the word gotten on this humble blog. Miffed that we "colonials" have messed up the mother tongue, he insisted that the correct past participle form is got, not gotten.

Apparently, I am murdering—or at least badly bruising—the king’s English, or perhaps it’s the queen’s. One of those.

He also objected to the American misspellings of labour, colour, and a bunch of other words with excess letters that no one pronounces. My writer-buddy Anita pointed out that the extra letters were ballast discarded during the trip across the pond and that, since Americans had won the war, we were right in our spelling. He would have none of it.

The Brits surrender at Yorktown.

Now, gentle blog readers, you should know that my 11th grade English teacher (Charles Arrington, deceased these many years) at William Fleming High School in Roanoke, insisted that we learn get, got, gotten. To use a helping verb with got was a mortal sin. I saw no reason to disagree, especially since his upper hand held the gradebook. Thus I learned “has/have/had gotten.”

Indeed, even the last text I used when teaching English 101, The Little, Brown Handbook (9th ed.), on page 288 lists both got and gotten as past participle forms for the irregular verb get.

While I didn't have a access to a grammar book during the discussion, I did have my laptop. Firing up my trusty iMac (Dave the Brit’s fine establishment has Wi-Fi), I googled dictionaries and found on the Merriam-Webster site, this:

Main Entry: get
Pronunciation: 'get, ÷'git
Function: verb
Inflected Form(s): got /'gät/; got or got·ten /'gä-t&n/; get·ting
Etymology: Middle English, from Old Norse geta to get, beget; akin to Old English bigietan to beget, Latin prehendere to seize, grasp, Greek chandanein to hold, contain
transitive verb
1 a : to gain possession of b : to receive as a return : EARN (got a bad reputation for carelessness)
2 a : to obtain by concession or entreaty b : to become affected by (a disease or bodily condition) : CATCH (got measles from his sister)
3 a : to seek out and obtain (get dinner at the inn) b : to obtain and bring where wanted or needed (get a pencil from the desk)
4 : BEGET
5 a : to cause to come or go (got his luggage through customs) b : to cause to move (get it out of the house) c : to cause to be in a certain position or condition d : to make ready : PREPARE (get breakfast)
6 a : to be subjected to (got a bad fall) b : to receive by way of punishment c : to suffer a specified injury to (got my nose broken)
7 a : to achieve as a result of military activity b : to obtain or receive by way of benefit or advantage got little for his trouble] (get the better of an enemy)
8 a : SEIZE b : OVERCOME c : to have an emotional effect on (gets me) d : IRRITATE (get her) e : PUZZLE f : to take vengeance on; specifically : KILL g : HIT
9 : to prevail on : CAUSE (got them to tidy up their room)
10 a : HAVE —used in the present perfect tense form with present meaning (I've got no money) b : to have as an obligation or necessity — used in the present perfect tense form with present meaning (got to come)
11 a : to find out by calculation (get the answer to a problem) b : MEMORIZE (got the verse by heart) c : HEAR d : UNDERSTAND (got the joke)
12 : to establish communication with
13 : to put out in baseball
14 : DELIVER (gets 20 miles to the gallon)

intransitive verb
1 a : to succeed in coming or going : to bring or move oneself (get away to the country) (get into the car) b : to reach or enter into a certain condition (got to sleep after midnight) c : to make progress (gotten far with the essay)
2 : to acquire wealth
3 a : to be able (got to go to college) b : to come to be —often used with following present participle (got talking about old times)
4 a : to succeed in becoming : BECOME (get clear of all the debts I owe -- Shakespeare) b : to become involved (get into trouble with the law)
5 : to leave immediately (told them to get)

verbal auxiliary -- used with the past participle of transitive verbs as a passive voice auxiliary (got caught in the act)


- get after : to pursue with exhortation, reprimand, or attack
- get ahead : to achieve success [determined to get ahead in life]
- get a life : to stop wasting time on trivial or hopeless matters
- get a move on : HURRY
- get at
1 : to reach effectively
2 : to influence corruptly : BRIBE
3 : to turn one's attention to
4 : to try to prove or make clear [what is he getting at]
- get away with : to avoid criticism or punishment for or the consequences of (as a reprehensible act)
- get cracking : to make a start : get going [ought to get cracking on that assignment]
- get even : to get revenge
- get even with : to repay in kind
- get going : to make a start
- get into : to become strongly involved with or deeply interested in
- get it : to receive a scolding or punishment
- get it on
1 : to become enthusiastic, energetic, or excited
2 : to engage in sexual intercourse
- get on
1 : to produce an unfortunate effect on : UPSET [the noise got on my nerves]
2 : to criticize insistently [the fans got on him for losing the game]
- get one's act together
1 : to put one's life, thoughts, or emotions in order : cease to be confused or misdirected
2 : to begin to function in a skillful or efficient manner [the company finally got its act together]
- get one's goat : to make one angry or annoyed
- get over
1 a : OVERCOME, SURMOUNT b : to recover from c : to reconcile oneself to : become accustomed to
2 : to move or travel across
- get real : to stop deceiving oneself or fooling around : face reality
- get religion
1 : to undergo religious conversion
2 : to turn to or adopt an enlightened course of action or point of view
- get somewhere : to be successful
- get there : to be successful
- get through : to reach the end of : COMPLETE
- get to
1 a : BEGIN [gets to worrying over nothing at all] b : to be ready to begin or deal with [I'll get to the accounts as soon as I can]
2 : to have an effect on: as a : INFLUENCE b : BOTHER
- get together
1 : to bring together : ACCUMULATE
2 : to come together : ASSEMBLE, MEET
3 : to reach agreement
- get wind of : to become aware of
- get with it : to become alert or aware : show sophisticated consciousness


The pronunciation \'git\ has been noted as a feature of some British and American dialects since the 16th century. In the phonetic spelling of his own speech Benjamin Franklin records git. However, since at least 1687 some grammarians and teachers have disapproved this pronunciation. It nonetheless remains in widespread and unpredictable use in many dialects, often, but not exclusively, when get is a passive auxiliary (as in get married) or an imperative (as in get up!).

Dave the Brit, however, thinks American dictionaries don’t count.

Well, another try: Dictionary.net (OK, not the best source on the web, but it beats Wikipedia) says gotten is “obsolescent.” So, it’s going out of date, but isn’t officially out-dated yet. Plus it’s another American dictionary. . . .

Encarta (yet another American dictionary) lists gotten as the past participle of get. Score another point for the colonials. Plus, it adds this:

Get is an overworked verb. It is better to use a more specific term in formal writing whenever you can.

Hmmm. This is what Marion has been getting at—er, saying. But this is interesting:

The past participles got and gotten convey slightly different ideas. They have gotten an apartment in Boston means they have recently taken the apartment, whereas They have got an apartment in Boston simply indicates that they have it. (There are those who would argue, with reason, that in a sentence like this one got is redundant, and that have alone would do the job.) In informal usage, have got can also be followed by an infinitive to denote obligation (I've got to go to the party means "I must"), whereas have gotten with an infinitive denotes opportunity (I've gotten to go to the party means "I've been given the chance to attend").

Aha! Score another point (Sorry, Marion)! Using gotten, one (ooh, sorry about that POV shift) can color (not colour) one’s utterance with subtle shades of meaning. Gotten is indeed a most useful form.

Dave the Brit will only accept the Oxford English Dictionary as the proper authority. However, online use requires a payment of a fee. However, the OED does offer a free version, sort of an OED lite. Here’s what the Compact Oxford English Dictionary says about get:

• verb (getting; past got; past part. got, N. Amer. or archaic gotten) 1 come to have or hold; receive. 2 succeed in attaining, achieving, or experiencing; obtain. 3 experience, suffer, or be afflicted with. 4 move in order to pick up, deal with, or bring. 5 bring or come into a specified state or condition. 6 catch, apprehend, or thwart. 7 come or go eventually or with some difficulty. 8 move or come into a specified position or state. 9 tend to meet with or find. travel by or catch (a form of transport). begin to be or do something, especially gradually or by chance. strike or wound. informal punish, injure, or kill. used with past participle to form the passive mood.

Aha! The OED does recognize gotten, archaic or North American that its usage might be. Why do the Brits consider gotten archaic? Have they become too lazy to pronounce that extra syllable? Well, we colonials shall rise to the challenge! Some of us, anyway.

I will concede that there are times when got with a helping verb does make sense: The phone rings. Someone yells, “I’ve got it!” Another says, “I’ve gotten it the last ten times. About time you answered it.” See? Both forms make sense. It’s a matter of context.

By Jove, I think I’ve got it! Now I better be gittin' on down the road.

Final note: If you’re having trouble understanding folks of the British persuasion, you might try this site for help.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

It's Raining!


It's finally raining!
It's raining really, really hard!

Yessss!


Regular blog postings will resume in a few days. Up-coming blogs will deal with American English vs. British English, Peevish Complaints, etc. Stay tuned.

We're celebrating the heavy rain.
More than an inch!


Faithful readers might notice that I have disabled comments. Easier than deleting a bunch of disjointed Aussie ramblings.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Twilight Years Start Now



I turn 62 today. This is a milestone birthday: I’m now eligible for Social Security. I’ll get the first check in another two months. (I don’t know why SS makes people wait. Do they put us off in hopes we’re gonna croak soon so they won’t have to pay?)

I’ve gotten used to being a senior citizen: I get a discount at Kroger every Tuesday, a discount at Peebles the first Tuesday of every month, and another discount at Roses. Plus, discount coffee at McDonald’s and free coffee at Wendy’s. Now I’m eligible for a discount at the vet’s. I’ll have to find which days are senior citizen days and schedule my numerous pets (some of whom are also senior citizens) accordingly.

Turning 62, however, means I’m officially old. Not that I haven’t noticed. The crooks in my fingers that have made my handwriting illegible (Thank goodness for computers!), the aches and pains I never used to have, and the sags and bags and wrinkles have been pretty good tip-offs. Plus, that recent night at the hospital was a wake-up call.

One of my goals is to become more eccentric as I age. I think I’m achieving that nicely, thank you very much.

Another is to become more outspoken. Some who know me probably think I’m pretty well outspoken so as it is. Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet! The older I get, the lower my tolerance for stupidity and/or injustice. I can't rid the world of those two evils, but I can at least call attention to problems whenever I find them.

What were some of the best things I’ve achieved that made my life substantially better?

  • Going away to a large urban college (VCU back when it was still RPI) and getting a degree. Everyone should go away to college and live in a dorm. That in itself is a learning experience. Plus there’s all that good stuff in the classroom. . . .
  • Getting a master’s degree. Not only does having that degree in English give me more credibility in my writing, it earned me a pile more money when I was teaching. That degree paid for itself about twenty times over. A good investment!
  • Buying a horse. That changed my life in more positive ways than I can count. I’ve spent a pile of money on horses through the years, but I don’t regret a penny of it. (One of my childhood dreams was to have a horse. Took me 32 years to get the first one. My other childhood dream was to have a houseful of cats. Achieved that one, too.)
  • Buying land. They’re not making any more of it. Walking over my land is pure joy. Riding a horse over it, with a border collie running out front, is even better.
  • Being adopted by a border collie. Once you’ve owned a border collie, you can’t go back to regular dogs. I’m on my second one now.
  • Becoming computer literate. Wow! What a world computers opened!
  • And some other stuff.

Turning 62 means I know I won’t live forever. I already have my tombstone in the family cemetery. (Rhonda down at Add-A-Touch was running a special a couple of years ago, and getting a bargain was hard to resist. I knew I’d need one eventually. . . . The stone was set on December 14, 2005—the same day I bought Maggie.)

Turning 62 makes me realize that I won’t accomplish some things. I’m know I’m not going to be a best-selling author. I might not even have a book of my own commercially published. Odds are excellent that I’m not going to even make enough money at writing to challenge my social security payment. But I want to be a good writer. To that end, I’m still learning, still going to conferences, still taking an occasional workshop, still reading. . . .

And, I want to give back. I’ve been very lucky that people have helped me along the way, and I want to pay it forward. Using my English-teacher skills, I’ll continue to help up-and-coming writers. I usually mentor a few younger writers and will continue to do so. If I can also save a few writers from the numerous writing scams that exist, I’ll have done something worthwhile. I’ll still probably do a few “off-road adoptions”—the main way I’ve acquired my pets (other than Maggie and Dylan). I can’t save them all, but I’ve saved a dozen or so pets during the last few decades.

We’ll see what the future holds. Meanwhile, I’ll stick with Davy Crockett’s motto I learned (via Disney) when I was a kid: “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.”

So far, I'm still going.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Scream and Scream Again

I can remember exactly what I was doing on the morning of September 11, 2001. At 9:25 a.m., en route to my 9:30 English 101 class in Beckham Hall, I was headed out the door of Britt Hall when a colleague returning from her 8:00 class asked if I’d heard anything about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. I hadn’t. I had a class to teach.

After I checked roll, I asked my students if they’d heard anything. One remembered hearing something on the radio before he left his dorm but didn’t really know anything. We speculated that either a small plane’s pilot got lost or a nut-case tried to make a statement. Class went on as scheduled.

In 2001, you couldn’t get cell-phone reception at Ferrum College. The tower on Ferrum Mountain wouldn’t be built for another year. On this bright almost-fall day, we were cut off from the rest of the world. We were safe in a bucolic setting. Life went on as usual.

After class, a few minutes after I’d returned to my office, my phone rang. A student told me to get to a TV—something horrible had happened.

Many classes were cancelled; many students left campus to go home. Life wouldn’t be “usual’ for a long time.

Somehow this print is appropriate for today.


Edvuard Munch’s 1893 print “The Scream,” which was stolen and recovered in 1994, is considered an icon by some. Now for the English lesson (class will go on as usual):

The print always reminds me of an exclamation point, a punctuation mark that screams in dialogue usually require:
“ARRRGGGGHHHHHH!’ she screamed.

See? It’s really hard to show a scream without an exclamation point (which can also be called an exclamation mark).

The 1993 Columbia Guide to Standard American English by Kenneth G. Wilson (1923–), tells you more than you probably want to know about exclamation points:

The exclamation point (!) is the punctuation mark used to give the sort of emphasis to a word, phrase, or sentence that suggests loud, vigorous, forthright delivery. Never! Free at last! Never darken my door again! In English it always goes at the end of the locution to be emphasized. But stridency is seldom approved in speech, and so in writing too, be sparing of the exclamation point. Rely on your words, not your punctuation, to make your passion ring forth.

The above explanation sounds a bit hoity-toity. This one is better:

Sometimes called the exclamation mark, the exclamation point is used at the end of a sentence or after an interjection to show strong emotion or emphasis.

Exclamatory sentence: The rain did not stop for four days!

Strong command: Be back at ten o'clock or else!

Interjection: Wow!

When an emphatic interjection or direct address begins a sentence, you may use an exclamation point or a comma, depending on how much you want to show the strong emotion.

Correct: No, I don't want to go there.

Correct, more emotion: No, I don't want to go there!

Correct, even more emphasis: No! I don't want to go there!

If one exclamation point is good, a whole bunch of them isn’t. Six exclamation points, for instance, don’t make a sentence six times more emphatic. In fact, too many of the little suckers (and they do look like upside-down suckers, don’t they?) make a sentence less meaningful.

Even though I know that, I sometimes use a bunch. Not often. Once in a while. Really!!!

I’ve heard speakers at writers’ workshops say to use an exclamation point maybe once every hundred thousand words. Those speakers must not write very exciting stuff.

Sometimes you can put an exclamation point inside parentheses to show irony. It’s better, though, to convey your tone through your word choice and your writing style. Offhand, I can’t even think of a good example. Not even on a day as filled with ironies as this one is.

Anyhow, today—September 11—will always be one of history's exclamation points.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Sunday, September 09, 2007

Saturday Afternoon in Forest

I always like to hear how a professional writer or editor has achieved success. Saturday, author and editor Kurt Rheinheimer, of Roanoke’s Leisure Publishing, spoke at a Virginia Writers Club program sponsored by the Valley Writers Chapter. He gave the audience gathered in the meeting room at the Forest Library some helpful advice about writing short fiction and submitting to magazines. Here’s a bit of what he said about writing fiction:

  • 1. Don’t Quit. “Touch” your work everyday (revise, get a manuscript ready to mail out, etc.)
  • 2. Read, listen, and watch the things you love. (music, movies, plays, etc.)
  • 3. Save every snippet and fragment that you find.
  • 4. Think really hard about these submission guidelines from John Gardner of the Southern Review:
The work must
(1) create a vivid and continuous dream;
(2) demonstrate authorial generosity;
(3) reveal intellectual and emotional significance;
(4) be rendered with elegance and efficiency; and
(5) exhibit an element of strangeness.
(On the last point, Rheinheimer mentioned, “When you think you’re finished, go back and put another twist.”)
  • 5. If you love it, send it out again as soon as it gets rejected.

He told us his material comes from two main sources: memories from when he was twelve (“I must have twenty stories from then.”) and geography (“Something I saw that imparted a shimmery emotion. . . .” ) Place is important to him; “a character walks into a place, the character and place fit, and a story results.”

He gave us a “quiz” by reading some paragraphs that described a fictional setting and having us guess the real place. (Valley Writers member Dick Raymond got the most right answers.)

Switching to non-fiction, he fielded many questions from the audience and provided insight into what an editor wants. At least half the audience were freelance writers, so his suggestions were helpful. He emphasized that writers need to study a magazine to see how their material could fit.

Submission guidelines for Leisure Publishing’s imprints are online: Blue Ridge Country, The Roanoker, Mountain Homes, and Costal Homes.

Last night, I started reading Rheinheimer’s collection of short stories, Little Criminals—and kept reading. While I’m not a great fan of literary fiction, I really liked his stories: good writing, a strong sense of place (place was more than setting; it was almost a separate character), interesting and well-developed quirky characters.

I can see why Little Criminals won the 2003 Spokane Prize for fiction.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Stressed for Success

This morning I had a stress test. Since I’ve had two before, I more or less knew the drill. Last night, I packed a separate outfit (including towel and deodorant) for after the test. I knew I’d sweat profusely. I knew I’d be in lousy shape afterwards. I didn’t even bother to do my hair, just tied a bandana around it so sweat wouldn’t run into my eyes. I knew things would be bad.

My first stress test was in 1992. I thought I would die. Later, I learned I had mono during the test. That could have explained the excessive sweat, the weakness, the shakiness.

The second test in the late 90s was better, but I still poured sweat and was exhausted afterwards.

So this morning, I expected—and was prepared for—the worst. The only good thing was that I could have the test at Franklin Memorial instead of having to go to Roanoke. (One of these days, I’ll blog about Roanoke hospital experiences, such as Lewis-Gale’s staff not even bothering to wash the red mud off John before he got the pins in his hip the time he flipped off Melody and fractured several bones, or my having to tell a Lewis-Gale nurse to get the air-bubbles out of the IV tube before she inserted it in my vein. Stuff like that.) But I’m digressing.

Anyhow, I didn’t have to walk far going in, John paid my co-payment (my birthday is next Wednesday, so this was my present), and I didn’t have to wait long. My heel spur wasn’t hurting too much, but every time I awoke last night, I’d stretched my leg muscles, so that helped.

First thing they checked was my blood pressure—128 over 78, which is pretty good for me, and a heckuva lot better than what I had this time last Friday. When I was hooked up to the computer for the echocardiogram, I got to see my heart actually beating. It was the coolest thing! The grainy black-and-white picture on the screen sort of looked like a monkey banging on a drum. The technician pointed out all the parts and said they looked good.

Then she punched a few keys and color pulsed along with my heartbeat. Too cool! Then it was time for the treadmill part. I hit the desired heart rate after only a few minutes, but I was walking fine. I didn’t hurt. I didn’t sweat. Then I had to quickly lie down for another echocardiogram, which I did without screwing the procedure up. This time the monkey beat the drum much faster on the computer screen.

Wow! Thanks to modern technology, I got to see something that none of my ancestors had ever seen, had never dreamed of seeing—my own heart beating.

And I felt good, energized. Turns out, I didn’t need that change of clothes after all. But I always try to prepare for the worst.

Thank goodness I’m a pessimist! Had I been an optimist, I would have missed the chance to be as surprised and delighted as I was today.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Bale by Bale


My husband and I have been moving hay this week. We’re moving it from the front field of Smith Farm to our house. Since each round bale weighs approximately 500 hundred pounds, this isn’t easy.

We’re moving the bales two at a time. We don’t have an available big flatbed truck to move more at a time. And we’re senior citizens. Moving hay is tiring on a hot day. But we have to do it if I want to feed my mares.


Together we roll the bale onto the little trailer. Doing so, I think of Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to an eternity of futile labor. Every morning, Sisyphus had to roll a large stone up a steep hill, but—when he reached the top in the evening—the stone rolled back down. The next day, he started again.

Fortunately, once we get the bale onto the trailer, it usually stays, and we do know the bales won’t last. Once in the pasture, each bale will feed my two mares for a week or more. Then we’ll put in another. And another the following week. Etc.

Moving the hay bale by bale reminds me of my favorite writing book, Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. The full title is Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

Lamott advises writers to start small. The title comes from advice her father once gave her 10-year-old brother, who'd put off writing a report on birds and wondered how he could do the seemingly impossible job: "Just take it bird by bird." So, we're taking our difficult job bale by bale.

Everyday, when we see the number of bales accumulating at home, we can see the results of our small progress. Daily small progress leads to big progress, whether it's writing a book or moving hay.


Bird by bird or bale by bale, do what works for you.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Hyphens: Connect & Separate

Warning: Educational content to follow.

I love a bargain. Last month, I bought this door decoration for 50% off, plus the extra discount that Peebles gives on its monthly discount day for senior citizens. Because I like Apple computers, and because I already had an apple doormat, the apple core seemed appropriate.


The big wooden apple core is made of three sections hinged together. The hinges connect the parts while keeping them separate.

The hinges reminded me of hyphens, which also both connect and separate. We all know that hyphens are used to separate syllables in a multi-syllabic (See! There’s a hyphen!) word when the word is divided at the end of a line. But a hyphen has other uses.

Let’s take a look at hyphens in action:

Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who wrote the line, “It was a dark and stormy night,” has a contest named in his honor. The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest celebrates the worst opening line for a novel that hasn’t yet been written.

(We need the hyphen to connect and separate the two names; otherwise Bulwer would seem to be Ed’s middle name, or Bulwerlytton would be hard to pronounce.)

I won the 1996 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest’s “Worst Western” division.

("Worst Western” doesn’t need a hyphen because the division is called “Worst Western.”

Consequently, I am an award-winning bad writer.

Award-winning needs a hyphen because it’s a phrasal adjective. When two words act together to modify one thing (and thus act as one word), they form a phrasal adjective.

Which is correct?
Don’t touch the red hot stove.
Don’t touch the red-hot stove.
The second sentence is correct. The phrasal adjective red-hot acts as one word. Without a hyphen, the sentence would mean a red stove that is hot.

What a difference a hyphen makes:
The whale chasing Captain Ahab was obsessed.
The whale-chasing Captain Ahab was obsessed.
Depending upon what you mean, either sentence could be correct. In the first sentence, the subject is whale. Chasing Captain Ahab is a participial phrase modifying whale. In the second sentence, the subject is Captain Ahab. Whale-chasing is a phrasal adjective modifying Captain Ahab. I love phrasal adjectives. They add color and save words.

OK, back to sentences about me:
Because I’m a Bulwer-Lytton winner, I am a nationally ranked bad writer.
Whoa! Why doesn’t nationally ranked have a hyphen? It’s not a phrasal adjective, that’s why. Nationally is an adverb modifying the adjective (actually, it’s a past participle that functions as a adjective) ranked. You don’t put a hyphen between an adverb ending in –ly and the adjective it modifies.

Here’s what the Chicago Manual of Style says about phrasal adjectives:

A phrasal adjective (also called a compound modifier) is a phrase that functions as a unit to modify a noun. A phrasal adjective follows these basic rules:
  1. 1. Generally, if it is placed before a noun, you should hyphenate the phrase to avoid misdirecting the reader {dog-eat-dog competition}. There may be a considerable difference between the hyphenated and the unhyphenated forms. For example, compare small animal hospital with small-animal hospital.
  2. 2. If a compound noun is an element of a phrasal adjective, the entire compound noun must be hyphenated to clarify the relationship among the words {video-game-magazine dispute} {college-football-halftime controversy}.
  3. 3. If more than one phrasal adjective modifies a single noun, hyphenation becomes especially important {nineteenth-century song-and-dance numbers} {state-inspected assisted-living facility}.
  4. 4. If two phrasal adjectives end in a common element, the ending element should appear only with the second phrase, and a suspension hyphen should follow the unattached words to show that they are related to the ending element {the choral- and instrumental-music programs}. But if two phrasal adjectives begin with a common element, a hyphen is usually inappropriate, and the element should be repeated {left-handed and left-brained executives}.
  5. 5. If the phrasal adjective denotes an amount or a duration, plurals should be dropped. For instance, pregnancy lasts nine months but is a nine-month pregnancy, and a shop open twenty-four hours a day requires a twenty-four-hour-a-day schedule. The plural is retained only for fractions {a two-thirds majority}.
  6. 6. If a phrasal adjective becomes awkward, the sentence should probably be recast. For example, The news about the lower-than-expected third-quarter earnings disappointed investors could become The news about the third-quarter earnings, which were lower than expected, disappointed investors. Or perhaps this: Investors were disappointed by the third-quarter earnings, which were lower than expected.
If you’re not sure when to hyphenate, check here or here.

Phrasal adjectives can be handy to add color to your writing. If you use attention-grabbing, butt-kicking, lip-smacking, prize-winning, finger-pointing, eye-popping, crowd-pleasing, earth-shaking phrasal adjectives, don’t forget the hyphens.

Little things mean a lot.

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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Sign of the season

The last tomato . . .


. . . means summer's almost over.


Saturday, September 01, 2007

How Not to Start Labor Day Weekend

When you’re having chest pains and have trouble taking deep breaths, don’t call your family doctor.

If you have disregarded the previous suggestion: When you call the doctor during regular business hours and get an answering machine, don’t try calling back later.

If you have disregarded the previous suggestion: When you finally connect and the nurse says she will page the doctor, don’t say, “Thank you.” Say, “Don’t bother.”

If you have disregarded the previous suggestion: When the doctor finally calls and says you ought to call the rescue squad, and you explain that it will take the rescue a half hour to reach you so you’ll get there faster if someone drives you, and the doctor tells you to go on to the emergency room anyway, consider just staying home.

If you have disregarded the previous suggestion: When you have arrived at the emergency room and have been given oxygen which makes you feel so much better and your blood pressure has dropped fifty points and your pulse has come way down, and the emergency room doctor says the hospitals want to keep you overnight for observation, just say, “No.”

If you have disregarded the previous suggestion, here’s what you can expect:
  • (1) No sleep. You will be visited at two-hour intervals by someone who either wants to take blood or check your blood pressure. These two activities will never occur at the same time.
  • (2) Discomfort. The hospital bed will sag in the middle. The electronic doo-hickey that is plugged into all the little gummy things stuck over your torso will be incredibly awkward and the little plastic pocked clipped to your hospital gown will flop around.
  • (3) Pain. Minor pain (see #1) or major pain, which involves a shot of blood thinner into your abdominal area. The shot will not hurt. The intense fiery pain that happens about two minutes after the shot will cause you to scream. Several times. The tube sticking into the arm that they don’t use for drawing blood or checking blood pressure will become increasingly uncomfortable. The fact that the tube will not be used after you’ve been admitted is beside the point. It’s “hospital policy” (as is the shot for blood thinner).
  • (4) General discomfort. The towel-wrapped bag of ice cubes you were given to help the abdominal pain after the shot (It didn’t help!) will come unwrapped and you’ll have a cold, wet cover. Fortunately, a nurse will come in to check you (not to get blood or readings; probably just to see if you’re still alive) within an hour and will get you a dry cover.
  • (5) Entertainment. The TV has over a hundred channels. Unfortunately, you have to go through all of them to get the one you want. You can also try to decipher what the woman down the hall is screaming (“She’s psychotic,” the nurse told me.) If you have a room with a window over-looking the funeral home across the street, you can look out periodically to see if anyone is being wheeled over from the hospital (I didn’t see anyone; I did notice how convenient the hospital is to two funeral homes.) or you can watch the spectacular lightning displays during the two-hour storm in the wee hours of the morning (I was awake anyway).
  • (6) Food. It will be bland. Even though you tell them, you’re diabetic and potatoes have a high glycemic index, the majority of the food on your plate will be potatoes. The beverage will be iced tea. (I don’t drink iced tea. I only drink hot tea.)
  • (7) Companionship. You will meet lots of nice hospital employees at frequent intervals. They will be very polite and comforting when they explain that whatever stupid and/or painful thing they have to do is “hospital policy.” That about covers it.

Things you need to know before you’re admitted to a hospital.
  • (1) Personal hygiene. You’d be amazed how many strangers will see your unshaven legs.
  • (2) Your complete medical history. Commit it to memory because you will have to recite all if it at least three times to different medical personnel who will jot it down on different charts. (Don’t they ever compare notes?)
  • (3) Husband’s short-comings. (A) You tell him that when he gets home, he is to put the wash in the drier and remake your bed. When you return home early the following morning, the mattress cover will still be in the drier and your bed will have the bedspread directly on top of the bottom sheet. The top sheet will be wadded in a corner of the bed. (B) You emphasize how important it is to get the outside cats in the garage so they will be safe from predators and can be fed. You arrive home, to discover the garage door open about a foot at the bottom so the cats could come in when they wanted to (he couldn’t catch them), but he points out that he indeed fed them and they “ate all their food.” He points to the licked-clean dishes. (The cats never eat all their food. I always give their leftovers to the dogs. One of the neighborhood possums has probably gained several pounds, though.) You are, however, thankful that you can call him at 5:45 a.m. and say, “Come get me right NOW!” and he will do so.

The nice thing about starting off Labor Day Weekend so badly is that other irritations seem better by comparison. For example, my heel spur doesn’t hurt nearly as much in comparison to the other pains. And the “Official Redneck Dove Season Opener” wasn’t as bad as previous years. For the last few years, we were under heavy artillery shelling as rednecks tried to prove their manhood by continuously shooting into the sky on the off chance that they’d kill some harmless little birds. This year, we just had sporadic bursts of sniper-type fire for several hours. The fact that the nice policeman I called last week said he make regular patrols probably helped. (We saw him go past at dusk, but the crowd had dispersed by then.)

This isn’t our first Labor Day Weekend trip to the emergency room. In fact, it marks the tenth anniversary of my husband’s getting bucked off Melody and breaking both collarbone and hip (opposite sides). That’s why I know how long it takes for a rescue squad to arrive (and how, when they do arrive, they won’t have a four-wheel drive vehicle to cross a couple of creeks, etc.). All the stuff I had to do for John after that labor Day was a lot more complicated than rounding up cats and making a bed.

We’ve really got to find better ways to start Labor Day Weekend.