Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, genealogy and family history, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats.

© 2006-2020 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), Miracle of the Concrete Jesus & Other Stories, and several Kindle ebooks.

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Downsizing: A Mountain Home Novel

 Lin Stepp's latest Smoky Mountain novel, Downsizing, will be officially released on April 1, 2020, but is available now for pre-order from Amazon. I received my advance reader copy this week and spent a day and part of a night reading it—it's a compelling story, and I couldn't put it down until I finished.

Orville: "I'm glad you put it down. I want to rest on it."

Downsizing has several qualities I enjoy in a novel—a strong sense of place, a connection to the land, an appreciation of nature, family connections, interesting characters who are able to overcome their problems, inspirational passages, and a happy ending.

One of the things I like about Lin Stepp's novels is her inclusion of a map. It's helpful to see who lives where in this region of the Smoky Mountains, how they get from one place to another, and what trails they like to hike.

Another thing I particularly liked about Downsizing is that the main character is middle-aged. Mary Pat Latham, a 54-year-old mother of four grown children and wife of a cardiologist, lives in a big colonial home in a fashionable section of Knoxville and has an active social life. She appears to have it all— until her husband Russell unexpectedly comes home at lunchtime one day and announces he's getting a divorce, and he's already arranged for their home to soon be sold but he'll provide for her. They've grown apart, he tells her, plus she's gotten fat. Stunned, she escapes to her parents' former cottage near Gatlinburg which she and her family have used as a vacation getaway through the years.

In the small house where she grew up, Mary Pat finds herself—but it takes a while. Her childhood sweetheart Owen, retired from a military career, lives not far away, and he is the one who finds her crying her first day there. Former friends and neighbors soon welcome her back. After she's moved out of her Knoxville home, she explores the community and reconnects with her two best friends from high school. Though not yet sure what she'll do or where she'll go, Mary Pat decides to stay for a while until she can make some decisions. 

One decision she makes is to lose weight. After she overhears some teenage girls making fun of her fatness after she'd eaten a burger and piece of pie in a diner, she leaves in tears. On the way home, she sees a weight control center and stops in. She decides to take control of her weight. She also starts taking control of her life.

Orville:"Reading that part about food made me hungry."

I won't give away any more of the plot, but adventures abound in Downsizing: a wild bear in the kitchen, several weddings and one funeral, plus a couple of surprises—particularly where love is concerned.

Orville: "I worked so hard reading this book that I'm ready for a cat-nap."

With themes of coping with change, starting over, finding yourself, and opening yourself for new opportunities, Downsizingis be a good choice for a book club. Stepp handily includes a book club guide with discussion questions. On her website, she also includes a pdf. of the weight-loss book that Mary Pat used. 

More info about Downsizing is available on this page of Lin Stepp's website:

Orville: "Zzzzzzzzzzz."

Orville and I really enjoyed this book.

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Sunday, February 14, 2021

Ice Storm Aftermath

 This weekend the county iced over. Freezing rain fell Friday night and, by Saturday morning, all the trees were coated with ice. Light freezing rain continued off and on throughout the day.

We were lucky—we weren't among the 12,000 who lost power. We didn't have to drive on roads blocked by fallen trees. None of or trees fell, but many lost limbs. Sunday afternoon, after the the ice had melted, I took these pictures in our yard.

Many of our pine trees lost limbs. Below is some damage in the lower part of our front yard. . . .

. . . and near the road.

The crape myrtles lost a few limbs . . .

. . . and some of the redbud trees did too.

But the pines in our side yard were hit the worst.

This limb came down with a bird's nest attached to it. Every spring grackles nest high in the pines, o I assume this nest is one of theirs.

This is the route I travel via golf-cart to feed the outside cats at the old horse trailer. I can't travel it until the limbs are removed, so I have to take a long way through the former pasture to get to the other side of the trailer.

The yard is soft because of so much rain—and snow last weekend—that my golf-cart has plowed up some tracks.

Here's a closer look at where one of the limbs broke.

In some places the golf-cart tracks are covered by some good-size limbs.

Here's the view from the pasture side of the pines. I normally drive on the other side of this tree when I start down the trail. But not today.

Cats were waiting for me when I approached from the pasture.

They knew the drill—go to the trailer and wait for curb service. Normally, I'd park in front of the trailer, but there's a big pile of limbs in my parking space. Luckily the limbs didn't hit the trailer.

After being served, Skippy chows down.

Cedrick stays dry by eating under the trailer tongue. Other cats eat in a separate spot under the trailer.

The ice storm has been a big inconvenience, but the cats came through OK, the damage wasn't as bad as it could be, and we didn't lose power.

I'll be glad, though, when winter is over and spring finally arrives.

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Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Charlotte's Box

 by Charlotte (resident cat & Otis's sister)

I have always liked sitting in boxes.

I think better inside the box—so if it fits, I sits. I have a whole collection of boxes. A lot of them came from a place called Amazon. 

 Having a lot of boxes gives me a choice of where I can sit.

Sometimes I sits loose and sometimes I sits tight.

Sometimes I sits in two or more boxes.

It was getting too hard to keep up with all my boxes, so I decided to downsize. I got a real little box, but all I could do was put my two front paws in. I couldn't sit. I thought and thought about what I could do, and that's when I bit out one end of the box. That solved the problem.

I could tell Otis was envious that I had a little box. But if I looked at him, he turned his head and pretended he didn't care.

Finally he left and I could sit in my box in peace.

There is not a lot to do in a little box. I can only sit one way.

But I'm not going to tell Otis that downsizing has a downside.


Monday, January 18, 2021

Chloe's Big Bed

 by Chloe

(Housecat Queen)

Mommy got me a big bed because I am old and need a good soft place to rest. I am a small cat so I don't take up much room.

I could tell that some of the other cats—like Rufus, who is a really big cat—were jealous and wanted to share my bed.

I decided maybe he could join me if he didn't take up too much room.

Rufus took up a lot of the room though.

Asking him to move over didn't work.

I guess I am stuck with him. At least he doesn't snore.


Thursday, December 31, 2020

Covid 2020, Fever 1793

2020 has been a year like no other. One of the dreadful things—among many in 2020—was the outbreak of Covid-19. Originally dismissed as a hoax by the president, the Corona virus sickened 18.7 million and killed 329,000 Americans by Christmas. And Dr. Fauci, an infectious disease expert, tells us that the worst is yet to come.

In the past, America has endured other epidemics and pandemics—the 1918 flu pandemic was one. Another was the yellow fever epidemic that swept through Philadelphia 227 years ago. An article, "Philadelphia Under Siege: The Yellow Fever of 1793," gives plenty of background about that epidemic.

Wanting to know about how people coped with epidemics in early America, I recently read Fever 1793, by Laurie Halse Anderson

I'd read books by Anderson before and enjoyed them. I mentioned her YA novel Speak in this blogpost from 2011. I thought I might also enjoy Fever 1793. I did.

Classified as "historical fiction for readers 10 to 14," Fever 1793 is a good—and informative—read  for adults, too. Given the events of the last ten months, we can relate to the fourteen-year-old main character's feelings and struggles. The back cover blurb provides a concise summary:

Like the main character Mattie, many of us today "must also learn quickly how to survive" in a society "turned upside down" and ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic. Like Mattie, we've had to change our way of life and our expectations.

Fever 1793 begins on August 16th when Mattie wakes up:

—From p. 1 of the 2002 paperback edition

Notice how much information Anderson packs into this short passage: it's early in the morning, a mosquito bothers Mattie, her room is small, her mother wants her to get to work in the coffee house, and it's sweltering hot. The mosquito is a good clue for the reader. 

[In 1793, no one knew that mosquitos carried the virus that spread yellow fever. While folks knew from past experiences that the fever vanished after a frost or two, the disease was blamed on miasma—polluted air—during the hot weather. Some people tried to escape the fever by avoiding those who weren't family members; others escaped to the country. Philadelphia was the nation's capital then, but the government shut down and President Washington, Secretary of State Jefferson, and other legislators went home until conditions improved.]

Polly never makes it to work, and many other people in the neighborhood succumb to the fever. When Mattie's mother becomes ill, Dr. Benjamin Rush treats her by bleeding and other standard remedies of the day. Mrs. Cook, lingering on the brink of death, insists that Mattie and her elderly grandfather leave the city to visit friends on their farm. She says that Eliza, their African employee, can look after her while keeping the coffeehouse going. Mattie and her grandfather arrange for a farmer to drive them in his wagon, but they do not reach their destination. Problems ensue (but I won't give away any plot twists). But they finally make it back to Philadelphia where the city is now a ghost town, Mattie's mother is nowhere to be found, the coffeehouse has been vandalized, and there's no food to be had. More problems ensue, but a devastated Mattie is resilient and takes on an adult's responsibilites. Eventually, she finds Eliza, who has been working with the Free African Society, a group which assists newly freed Africans.

Mattie and Eliza work together to look after some who are affected by fever. In October, frost comes and in the next month people start returning to their homes, farmers return to market, Mattie and Eliza reopen the coffeehouse, and President Washington returns. Life is not as it was, but the worst is over and there is hope.

Fever 1793 is a powerful book and one that I highly recommend. Anderson has done impeccable research to make the story believable and compelling. 

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Wednesday, December 09, 2020

Winning Virtually

Recently I've seen news stories about how virtual learning isn't going well because so many students are failing: "Virtual learning is a real struggle; failing grades up across America, research suggest" has appeared in several news sources; "Schools confront 'off the rails numbers of failing grades" is one AP story that appeared in my local paper. Even though some would like to get back to in-person schooling, that likely won't happen soon: "Schools want to end online classes, but COVID19 class might send everybody home" appeared in USA today;

But what if some students who didn't attend school succeeded? After all, a lot of home-schooled kids do fine or even excel. And many are turning to home-schooling instead of virtual schooling.

In October, I won the “What If I Graduated from Homeschool” short story contest that my Lake Writers group had online. Word limit for the story was 500 words. 

My entry: 

Easiest way for me to get educated—if I didn’t want to walk two miles down the mountain and then ride a bus for an hourwas being homeschooled.

“Time it takes to git to school, you could have both them cows milked, all the eggs gathered, plus the stock fed,” was Daddy’s answer when I wondered what real school was like. “You can learn at home.”

I guess he was right.

At first I used workbooks and lesson plans some company sent us. Three years ago, when a tower was built one ridge over, we got internet. I went through as many lessons as I could. Finally Mama said, It’s time you graduated.

Our county expects homeschoolers to take a test for a diploma, so one morning Daddy drove me to the school board. We were too early, so he left me there waiting while he went to Tractor Supply and Walmart.

Before long, an old car limped into the lot. I walked over and asked the driver if he needed help with the flat.

“I’m about to call somebody.” He pulled his cellphone out of his pocket.

“No need to do that,” I said. “I can change your tire. Where’s your jack?”

He didn’t look like he believed me, but he got his jack, lug wrench, and spare tire from the trunk. I got to work.

“Isn’t that too heavy for you?”

“No sir. I’ve done this plenty of times.”

In ten minutes I was finished. He offered to pay me, but I refused. “Wasn’t any trouble,” I said.

He thanked me, drove to a parking space, and went to the building’s front door. I wiped my dirty hands on the grass that was still wet with dew. Soon a lady pulled into the parking lot. When she went in, I figured the building must be open, so I went in too.

Halfway down the hall was an open door, so I figured that was where to go. I told the lady why I was there, and she told me to take a seat at a table that had an open laptop on it. She explained how I had ninety minutes to take the test online.

I finished in an hour.

“It’ll take fifteen minutes to get your score,” she said. Then the superintendent will interview you. You can wait in the hall.”

I went to the water fountain and the restroom and then sat on a bench and waited. Before long, I was called in.

Turns out the superintendent was the man whose tire I’d changed. He thanked me again, told me I’d passed the test, and asked about the subjects I’d studied online. I told him and mentioned that Daddy had taught me carpentry and auto repair.

He smiled and said, “You’re officially a homeschool graduate. We’ll mail your diploma in a few days. Congratulations, Emma Lou Smith!” 


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Sunday, December 06, 2020

Space for Senior Living?

 I've entered the geriatric stage of my existence, so it's only natural I notice ads that target my age group. Not long ago, a full-page ad for a "senior living facility" appeared in the local paper. 

Here's a section of the ad that shows what the typical apartment looks like. Even though the resolution on my scan isn't good, you get the idea: it's a bright and efficient apartment.

As an elderly cripple, I knew right away that this wasn't the kind of place where I'd want to live. I don't know if the rather bland furniture shown in the living room is included or not, but it—and the apartment in general—certainly aren't practical for me. Here's why:
  • I need a rollator to walk any distance. My rollator wouldn't fit between the flimsy coffee table and the sofa or between the stools and the easy chair. (Why would there be stools? Do the designers of this place think old crippled folks can actually climb up on stools?)
  • The tables in front of the sofa look flimsy. I can't tell if they have glass tops or not, but they're the sort of tables that would give way if I stumbled and fell into them. 
  • Because the rug doesn't cover the whole floor, I'm likely to catch my toe on the edge of it and trip. The un-rugged floor space looks slick. If—and sometimes when—I fall, I want to land on carpet, and I need sturdy furniture to grab onto so I don't fall all the way down. 
  • It would be next to impossible for me to get up from that sofa and the ottomans if I were able to sit down on them in the first place. (Do old folks really sit on ottomans? How?) I need furniture that will allow me to grab onto it if necessary and that will stay in place if I have to use it to pull myself off the floor. (That's why I currently have This End Up furniture. It's rugged and stays put.)
  • I tend to spill coffee and stuff, so that light upholstery would be covered in coffee stains in no time
  • I prefer a bit more privacy than those big floor-to-ceiling windows give. Without curtains or blinds (I couldn't tell from the picture if they had any), those windows would let in a lot of glare, not to mention the stares of passersby. And what about birds not realizing the windows are there and crashing into them?  Those big windows would be a pain to clean. I can't reach that high and I dare not climb on anything. I also like windowsills to hang onto when I look out the window. 
  • The view from the windows seems to be another building. Two decades of living in a rural area has spoiled me—I want my view to be woods and fields and nature.
  • The cramped kitchen—too small for me to navigate my rollator—is open to a dining area, so diners would have to see all the mess from meal preparation. And all those counter angles and edges are just waiting to cause an accident. 
This whole "living space" doesn't fit my idea of living. It's too sparse and depressing. I like to be surrounded by comfortable clutter. And books. Where is the space for bookcases? I have bookcases in five different rooms of my current "living space."

Where's the computer set-up and the printer in that apartment? Sometimes I use the iMac, the laptop, and maybe one of the iPads simultaneously. They all fit on my big—and sturdy—desk. Where would I put my desk and all my techno-stuff in that "living space"?

How could I manage my gang of cats in an apartment like that? Sure, they'd like their big cat tower in front of the big windows where they could watch passing—or crashing—birds, but where would I put their litter boxes? And how would I close the cats out of the dining area? And where's the floor space to put down a few dishes of food?

I'm lucky to have a house functions well for old folks—a kitchen roomy enough to maneuver in, a laundry area in the kitchen, a minimum of steps to enter the house, a dining room and living room closed off by doors that keep the cats out), a lower level with space for a care-giver (and an outside entrance onto a patio), a study for computers and printers, etc.

Whether you're thinking about growing older where you are (as I am) or moving to a more accessible place, here's an article about 8 simple tips to designing living spaces for seniors that you might find useful. 

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Saturday, October 10, 2020

SOTK Report Summer 2020

A State of the Kitties Report: Summer 2020
by Tanner 

Well, it's been a while since I posted, but I've been busy. I work outside during the day with  Jim-Bob. We patrol around the house and part of what used to be the pasture.  Eleven-tear-old Jim-Bob is the boss. Here he is in his field. 
At seven, I am the second-oldest male cat. Sometimes at night, I work in the garage on rodent watch. Jim-Bob and Arlo often help. Other times, I sleep in with the others. That's me at the right.
Orville, who is in the front center of the picture, had to have ear surgery in July and again in early October. He had a polyp in his ear that was kind of icky. The first time it was removed, he stayed mad at mommy for a while, but after the polyp grew back and he had to have it removed again, he forgave her pretty quickly.

Two very sad things have happened this summer. The first sad thing is that our border collie Maggie crossed the rainbow bridge in May. She used to stay in the garage, and Alfreda liked to sleep cuddled with her. Maggie was fourteen and a half and was having trouble walking. Then she had trouble standing up without help. One morning she gave mommy the look that said she was ready to go. The vet came to our house, and helped Maggie cross the bridge very peacefully. She is buried in the pasture beside Melody.
The vet who helped Maggie was the same one who fixed Chloe's femur after Chloe got hurt real bad in some kind of accident last year. Even though Chloe is all healed up and doesn't even limp, Mommy won't let her go out anymore.

The other sad thing was that Alfreda vanished without a trace one morning in early August. Mommy called and called, but Alfreda didn't come, and Alfreda always used to come when she was called. Mommy  looked and looked for days but never found a trace of her. We have coyotes and a hawk in the neighborhood, so we think the worst might have happened. Alfreda and I used to hunt together, and I miss her. I am still sad.

Chloe and I are pretty good friends now. I like to wash her, and sometimes she washes me.
Even though she is eleven years old, Chloe still plays like a little kitty. She likes to whip up on Grover when she gets a chance, and he is learning how to defend himself. Grover is at the left of this picture. Otis and Charlotte are behind him; Jim-Bob is beside him.
Those four kitties that Daddy brought home last year are grown up now. Rufus really grew. He is way bigger than his sister and brothers. Mommy was worried that he was too fat, but the vet said he was just portly. Rufus likes to sleep belly up. 
One thing the kitties like to do is watch for the raccoons who visit the front porch every night to see if the cats left anything. (Mommy puts out a buffet on a table there so the working cats can have snacks when they get hungry. I usually visit the buffet a few times during the day. But I leave a little something for the critters that come at night.)
 In the afternoon, I come in the house where I have my supper. Then I have to watch the kitties and make sure they don't get into any trouble.

In this picture, I am sitting on Mommy's desk while Charlotte, Otis, Claudine, Arlo, and Grover watch for the raccoon family. When they see the raccoons, some of them want a closer look.
It's hard to get a real good picture of the raccoons, but you get the idea. . . .
Last month, one of the cats (Not me!) jumped onto the mantle and knocked off Mommy's plant. I think Charlotte caused the trouble.
Speaking of trouble, a little shy kitty started hanging around here a few monthis ago. At first he would come to where Mommy feeds the outside cats (Twiggy, Spotz, and Skippy) and wait for them to finish eating so he could have the left-overs. Then he tamed down so Mommy could pet him. His name is Cedrick, and I don't much like him, but Skippy does. Skippy is a big cat who will attack big dogs and chase raccoons. Skippy used to live down the road, but a few years ago he decided he wanted to live here when he wasn't visiting lady cats. Mommy told him that if he wanted to sign on here, he needed to get a rabies shot and get neutered. One day he came back neutered. Since the end of his ear had been cut off, somebody must have thought he was a feral cat and took him to the place that neuters ferals and "tips" their ears, and gives them rabies shots.  He has now met the requirements to sign on here, so I guess we are stuck with him. This is Skippy.

 Skippy's fur is exactly like Otis and Charlotte's fur, so it is possible that he might be their daddy.

This is Cedrick. Have I mentioned that I don't much like him?
He tries to act cute so Mommy will like him. I am not fooled by his behavior, but  Mommy is.

So, Skippy is raising Cedrick as his kitty. If I chase Cedrick, Skippy comes after me and I don't much like that.

I guess that is about all for this report.