Peevish Pen

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

© 2006-2018 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.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

But . . . Is it Art?

While the dogs and I walked on the farm last week, I came upon this natural sculpture: the twisted stump of a pine tree, probably knocked down last winter and now adorned with a bit of yellow fungus.

What is it? A wingless bird? A long-nosed squirrel? An alien invader?

What something is or isn't, I suppose, is in the mind of the beholder.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Write a Novel Based on Clichés

This "Synopsis Generator for the Great American Clichéd Novel" was inspired by a thread on the Absolute Write Forum, one of my favorite writers' sites.

Want to write a really lousy novel using as many clichés as possible? Then, from this list of cliché plots situations, copy and paste whatever you need to make a synopsis for a novel that isn’t worth writing:

A person who appears to be
a simple farmboy (or girl)
the last of a vanishing race
a vampire
heir to the kingdom
a scholar
at death’s door
a very ordinary person
really is (go back to the previous list and chose a different one). However, no one knows his/her secret but a
kindly wizard
hellish boss
wicked step-parent
next-door neighbor
long lost twin
won’t tell if the price is right
tells the world but nbody listens
uses the information for his/her own gain/nefarious means
doesn’t care
holds the key to the secrets of the universe
is the epitome of evil.
Anyhow, this protagonist is on a quest for
meaning in his/her life
true love
money and all that it can buy
a way to defeat evil
absolute power
a means of overcoming the heartbreak of psoriasis
escaping from a bad relationship/unhappy home/social pressure
trying to reclaim the throne
looking for love in all the wrong places
squandering the family fortune
trying to overcome the heartbreak of psoriasis
writing the great American novel
when he/she finds
an old diary
a letter
a computer file
a magic sword
a piece of jewelry
a kingdom far away
another time and another place
a closet
the eyes of a child
a dream
another dimension
a dumpster
which causes him/her to discover
the secret of happiness
the true meaning of (insert favorite holiday)
a lost recipe for chocolate chip cookies
an embarrassing family secret
his/her true identity
and then is able to
live happily ever after
come to terms with a major problem
become a better person
save the world
make a down-payment on a modest dwelling
fall in love
drive off into the sunset
saving the world from alien invasion
escaping death
discovering a cure for an illness
fighting a nameless, faceless evil
marketing a great cookie recipe
returning a lost article
being struck by lightning
with the help of
a computer geek
a dragon
a talking domestic animal
a fairy godmother
a wise-cracking sidekick
the prom date that stood him/her up many years ago
when (pick any two or more)
from out of nowhere
hell broke loose
the dam burst
the heavens opened
the protagonist woke up.
Then the protagonist finds himself/herself (pick no more than three)
in bed
in a kingdom far away
on a space ship
bound for glory
20,000 leagues under the sea
wearing a scarlet letter
in a battle that would determine the fate of mankind
richer than he/she ever imagined
with a new-found knowledge
with a greater empathy for mankind
winner of a lottery
The above story will
touch your heart
render you speechless
move you to tears
move you to action
move your bowels
waste your time
The End

If you ever do write this novel, you might consider running it through your favorite critique group. Don’t forget to give ’em my critique sheet for the clueless.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Today's view

The view from my study window this morning.
Can you see the Peaks of Otter in the distance?

This morning an idea came to me for a YA novel: working title is Stuck. I've got a plot laid out and 587 words of the first chapter in the computer. My goal is to have a book to pitch to an agent at the James River Writers Conference in October.

Can I go the distance? We'll see.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Holly Jolly Xmas

OK, forget the holly.

Here's my main Xmas decoration: a little singing horse that hangs from my ficus. I like it because it looks just like my old mare Cupcake.

If you push its belly, it neighs "We Three Kings of Orient Are."

Cats love this little horse. A certain border collie doesn't trust it.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Mystery Solved?

We’re not Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, but I think we solved the mystery of Avenel. Well, part of it.

For well over a week, Farrar Richardson and I have been emailing back and forth between Virginia and France. June Goode, author of Our War, and I chatted on the phone last week and compared notes. Our conclusion: Henry Brown Richardson was indeed the Lt. Richardson who was in Bedford to recuperate from wounds suffered at Sharpsburg, who visited Avenel, and who was mentioned as “Lieut. Richardson of Louisiana” by Lucy Breckinridge in her diary.

We've concluded that Mary D. Robertson, editor of Lucy Breckinridge of Grove Hill, just might have made an error in thinking that that Lt. Richardson’s first name was Frederick. (Lucy never mentioned his first name.) No doubt Robertson consulted Records of Louisiana Confederate Soldiers and Louisiana Confederate Commands by Andrew B. Booth, found the name Richardson, and assumed that Frederick Richardson was the correct one. (p. 79: Lucy mentions meeting “Lieut. Richardson of Louisiana.” Robertson's footnote: "Frederick Richardson was at this time on sick leave. He was later promoted to Captain of Company F of the Fifth Louisiana Infantry and killed in action at Gettysburg on 4 July 1863. Booth, Records, III., Bk 2, p. 390.")

According to June Goode, soldiers were often received as guests at Avenel, which was within walking distance of some of the buildings used as hospitals. Naturally, good Confederates such as the Burwells would extend hospitality to those brave young men who fought for the cause. June Goode also told me that William Burwell owned a newspaper in Louisiana and sometimes visited there. It makes sense, then, that he’d open his home to soldiers from that state.

One of those visitors was Captain Frank Clarke from New Orleans, who was in Bedford to recuperate from his wound at Sharpsburg; Henry, an engineering staff officer during the Civil War, was seriously wounded at Sharpsburg, hospitalized at Winchester, and also sent for rest and recovery to Bedford County. Odds are good that Henry and Frank were friends. They were both wounded in the same battle.

But was Henry Brown Ricardson really “from Louisiana”? The plot thickens here: According to Farrar Richardson, Henry was “both son and grandson of New England Congregational Ministers. His grandfather was a founder of the American Anti-slavery Society. A maternal uncle ran a station on the Underground Railway. A paternal uncle said that if he had had seven sons rather than seven daughters, he would have joined John Brown in Kansas. Henry seems to have been the only non-abolitionist in the family.” Consequently, Henry probably didn't speak much, if at all, of his family while he was fighting for the opposition. Better to let everyone think he was from Louisiana—which he sort of was.

So, how did Henry end up in Louisiana? In the spring of 1860, the young engineer arrived in Tensas Parish to help supervise a levee construction and went into the surveying business with Charles B. Tenney. After the war broke out, Tenney became first captain of the Tensas Rifles.

Henry enlisted as a private in the Tensas Rifles (F. Richardson thinks became Co. D of the 6th Louisiana). Richard Taylor, who commanded the Louisiana Brigade under General Ewell, chose Henry to be a mounted orderly during Jackson's Valley campaign. After this campaign, Henry was commissioned as First Lt. and thereafter served as Engineering Staff Officer under General Ewell.

After the war, Henry’s records probably wouldn’t have shown up in Andrew Booth’s book because Henry served out the War as a Virginia soldier.

Another clue: Lucy’s comment on August 10, 1863: “Mr. Burwell says that Lt. Richardson received a very severe lung wound, and is expected at Avenel as soon as he can travel.” Now, this is over a month after Frederick Richardson was killed at Gettysburg on July 4, 1863, so Mr. Burwell couldn't have been referring to Frederick. Farrar Richardson, in his email to me, reports that Henry’s lung was bruised at Gettysburg, he was given first aid at a Confederate field hospital there, and he was left behind when Lee withdrew. So—Henry was alive after Gettysburg and had a severe lung injury.

Why didn’t Henry soon go to Avenel when he was able to travel? Because he had been taken prisoner and sent to Johnson’s Island. It was there he received the July 27, 1864, ad that someone from Liberty (the former name of Bedford city) cryptically wrote and signed “Avenel.” When he was finally paroled in February 1865, he headed first to Richmond where he stayed at General Ewell's and then journeyed to Bedford.

Why did he go to Bedford in April 1865? Who might have written that ad? Who might have been writing him letters for so long before taking placing the ad. Our guess is Lucy Breckinridge. While she didn’t live at Avenel, that’s where she first met Lt. Richardson in Oct. 1862 and was so taken by his good looks. We know from her diary that she climbed the Peaks of Otter with him in November 1862.

Now for another clue: Lettie Burwell was quite smitten with Frank Clarke, and they were engaged for a time. Mention is made in Lucy’s diary (Dec. 12, 1862) of Frank Clarke receiving “a smart, well-written letter from Lt. Richardson today.” According to Farrar Richardson, Henry Brown Richardson was known to write “lengthy and frequent letters to his parents” before the war.

Lucy had a number of beaus. For instance, she broke off her engagement with Captain Houston in Dec. 1862—less than two months after first meeting Lt. Richardson. But by 1864, though—when Henry had not been heard from for more than a year—Lucy was engaged to Thomas Jefferson Basset, whom she married on January 28, 1865, in a quiet ceremony at her home, Grove Hill.

Less than two months after Lucy married Tommy, Henry received his parole and “arrived in Richmond on the 22nd of March and rec’d a leave of absence ‘for thirty days unless sooner exchanged.’ Stopped in Richmond, at Gen’l Ewell’s house for ten days, and on the first of April went to Bedford Co., Va. (west of Lynchburg) where I remained till the first of May. Then over the mountains to Botetourt Co. and spent a week, and on the eighth started on horseback for this side of the Mississippi, or wherever I could get to anything like a Confederacy.”

He no doubt visited Avenel during the month he was in Bedford, and there he must have learned that Lucy Breckinridge had married.

Why did he leave for Botetourt (the next county to the west of Bedford)? Was it because that’s where Lucy’s home Grove Hill was? Did he visit Lucy? Or was it merely because Botetourt was the gateway to the west? But why did he stay there a week?

On June 16, 1865, Lucy died of typhoid fever. She was 22.

Lettie Burwell never married. She remained at Avenel until her death in 1905. Captain Frank Clarke—to whom she was engaged at one time—was permanently disabled in April 1863 from wounds suffered in the Battle of Fredericksburg.

And Henry? He eventually married Anna Howard Farrar, of St Joseph, Louisiana, a descendant of Capt William Farrar of the Virginia Co. and Farrar's Island. Despite the two bullets he carried around from his war injuries, Henry lived to be 72, raised nine children, and served many years as chief engineer for the state of Louisiana.

This part of the mystery still remains: who wrote the numerous letters to Henry and eventually took the ad in the newspaper and signed it “Avenel”? Was it Lucy? Lettie Burwell? Lettie’s sister Rosa? Or someone else entirely?

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

'Tis the season

Today is the first day of winter. Even though, the air is slightly chilly, it's still too warm for winter. My bridal wreath bush is blooming, and down at the farm some forsythias are in bloom, too.

I'm into minimalist decorating this year. The patchwork wreath is on the front door, some holly sprigs are on the mantle, and dangling from the ficus are a couple of horsie ornaments—the main one being a little stuffed horse that neighs "We Three Kings of Orient Are" when you push its belly (a gift from my former college roommate and her daughter who have an interesting sense of humor). That's it for decorations.

Anyhow, the little stuffed singing horse looks like Melody and even sports a Santa hat like the one Melody is wearing in the picture. I finally addressed some Christmas cards today and took them to the post office. Tomorrow, I'll do the rest.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Timing is Everything

This morning, I caught the sunrise at exactly the right instant.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Avenel Mystery?

One thing always leads to another.

Last summer I blogged about doing a reading with fellow Lake Writers at a luncheon at Avenel, the historic Burwell residence in Bedford. I mentioned Avenel again in my post about the Bedford Bookfest. I also mentioned June Goode’s book, Our War, the annotated diary of Lettie Burwell, who may or may not be the “White Lady” who haunted Avenel for a number of years.

Farrar Richardson, a retiree who now lives in Bordeaux, found my blog when he Goggled “Avenel.” He was searching for information about his great grandfather, Henry Brown Richardson, who’d been wounded at Sharpsburg and hospitalized for a time in Bedford, where he’d developed a romantic interest with someone (possibly at Avenel). Henry Richardson later returned to battle and was wounded at Gettysburg.

Farrar Richardson emailed me yesterday and provided this information about his ancestor:

Henry, an engineering staff officer during the Civil War, was seriously wounded at Sharpsburg, hospitalized at Winchester, and sent for rest and recovery to Bedford County, presumably Avenel, where there seem to have been hospital facilities.

Normally Henry wrote lengthy and frequent letters to his parents, and these are usually my main sources. But this correspondence dried up during the war, because Henry was a Yankee who fought for the South. Therefore, I am digging around for bits and pieces in archives, wherever I can find them.

What intrigues me about his stay at Avenel is that he may have developed a romantic interest there. He was wounded again and taken prisoner at Gettysburg, and sent to Johnson's Island. There he received a letter from Baltimore, enclosing the following newspaper ad.

Liberty, Va., July 27, 1864
MAJOR HENRY B. RICHARDSON, Engineer Corps, Ewell’s Staff.— Wounded and left on the field at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863. Supposed to be at Johnson’s Island. Why don’t you write? Have sent you many letters. So anxious to hear from you. Old circle unbroken. All miss you. R., your old physician hopes to take your case in hand again, and would like to know if you have found a new physician. AVENEL.

Henry was finally released on parole in February 1865. I do not know if he was able to reply to the above ad, but as soon as it became obvious that Lee's army was doomed, he headed straight for Bedford County. He later wrote from Louisiana:

I arrived in Richmond on the 22nd of March and rec’d a leave of absence “for thirty days unless sooner exchanged.” Stopped in Richmond, at Gen’l Ewell’s house for ten days, and on the first of April went to Bedford Co., Va. (west of Lynchburg) where I remained till the first of May. Then over the mountains to Botetourt Co. and spent a week, and on the eighth started on horseback for this side of the Mississippi, or wherever I could get to anything like a Confederacy.

Farrar Richardson wondered if Our War might tell him anything about hospital facilities at Avenel. Might Henry be mentioned or the mysterious “R” identified in Goode’s book. Since Our War —published under the auspices of the Avenel Foundation—is essentially self-published, it wasn’t available on Amazon. Living abroad, Richardson didn’t have access to American libraries.

So, he asked me for any information. I emailed my friend Jean who knows how to get in touch with June Goode. Meanwhile, I thumbed through my copy of Our War. Thank goodness, Goode included extensive footnotes and a bibliography. She not only had listed buildings used as Confederate hospitals, she provided a map of their locations. There were several: Campbell's Tobacco Factory, Crenshaw Tobacco Factory, Micajah Davis Tobacco Factory, Toler's Furniture Factory, I.N. Clark Carriage Factory, Piedmont Institute, Reese Warehouse. Could Henry Brown Richardson have been at any of these?

Lettie's sister was named Rosa. She was pretty and had several beaus. Could she have been “R”? The only Richardson that Goode mentions, however, is Lt. Frederick Richardson, and that from a reference in Lucy Breckinridge of Grove Hill: The Journal of a Virginia Girl, 1862-1864 (edited by Mary D. Robertson and published by the University of South Carolina Press, 1994). Lucy was a friend of Lettie Burwell; her diary picks up where Lettie Burwell's ends.

On P. 168 of Our War, Goode, referencing Lucy’s diary, notes that Lucy and her sisters visited Avenel on October 28, 1862:

While at Avenel for a two-week visit, they met Captain Frank Clarke of New Orleans recovering from wounds he received at Sharpsburg. Lettie was later engaged to him but they never married. He became permanently disabled in April of 1863 from wounds he received at Fredericksburg [Chancellorsville?]. He continued to be in and out of the Breckinridge home through October 1863.
Could others wounded at Sharpsburg also have been there? Goode mentions:
During the two-week visit, there were many trips to the Peaks and to Natural Bridge. There were many young men who came to call . . . and Lt. Frederick Richardson, who was on leave at this time. He was later promoted to Captain of Co. F, of the 5th Lousiana Infantry and killed in action at Gettysburg on July 4, 1863.

Goode no doubt got this info about Richardson from a footnote in Lucy’s Diary. Lucy never gave Richardson’s first name; Lettie didn’t mention a Richardson, but her diary ended Friday, August 15, 1862—two months before Lt. Richardson appeared.

From the “Avenel” chapter (p.79), Lucy describes many who visited Avenel on that October evening, including a “Lieut. Richardson of Louisiana”:
Lieut. Richardson appeared that evening to be a bashful man, so they all said, but I was of a different opinion. I thought of The Spectator whenever I looked at him. He is one of the most perfectly handsome men I ever saw. I would describe him, but words fail. I did not get acquainted with him that night, but when I did I found him to be one of the least bashful and most charming persons I ever met.
The identifying footnote appears on this page. The footnote references Booth, Records III, Bk. 2, p. 309.

More Richardson references from Lucy’s diary: On Wed., Nov. 12, 1862, this Lt. Richardson and Rosa went in a carriage to Natural Bridge; he rode back on horseback alongside Lettie. (Rosa became engaged to someone else in 1863, however, so it’s unlikely she was his love interest.) On p. 80, Lucy notes that they climbed the Peaks of Otter: “. . . Capt. Pike, Lieut. Richardson, Eliza, and I went up like men and mountaineers.”

Dec. 11, 1862: “Captain Clarke got such a smart, well-written letter from Lieut. Richardson today.” A few sentences down, Lucy mentions that a week earlier she broke off her engagement with a Captain H. “and I don’t love him anymore.” (p. 88)

On January 6, 1863, Lucy makes it clear she is thinking of Richardson:
But for my companions, the Japonica, Luna and violets, and my beloved friends, Addison, Steele, etc., I think I should die of ennui. The former interesting companions are living in the window, and The Spectator is constantly before my eyes. Lieut. Richardson is very much like Addison. (p. 103)

On Aug. 12, 1863, Lucy reports "Mr. Burwell says that Capt. Richardson received a very severe lung wound and is expected at Avenel as soon as he can travel." (p.140) That was Lucy's last mention of him that I can find.

I emailed some of the above info to Farrar Richardson and received back this reply:

I think you've found him, (and her?). Henry was quiet and reserved in person-to-person contacts, but a great letter writer. I think he may have thought about a literary career. I will try to correlate with my other info and get back to you. The dates fit. If I remember correctly, Henry's Gettysburg wound involved a bruised lung. He was given first aid at a Confederate field hospital in G’burg, but was left there when Lee withdrew—considered too dangerous to be moved. His whereabouts may not have been known to Mr. Burwell in August '63. It seems Henry was promoted to Major in absentia, and he was later known as Major Richardson.
Blog Readers, here’s a mystery: Did the editor of Lucy Breckinridge of Grove Hill: The Journal of a Virginia Girl incorrectly identify Lt. Richardson as Frederick? (Could the source she referenced have been wrong?) Was it really Henry Brown Richardson who was the handsome young lieutenant at Avenel? If so, who might his love interest have been? And why did Lucy Breckinridge never mention the first name of the Lt. Richardson she found so indescribably handsome?
If you know anything about this mystery, contact Farrar Richardson.

And leave a comment here, too. I'm dying to know.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

One Year Ago Today

I remember exactly what I was doing on December 14 last year. That morning, my tombstone was delivered and I watched the deliverymen set it in the corner of my family cemetery. That afternoon, I bought Maggie.

I bought the tombstone because— at 60—I realized the end was in sight and, childless and siblingless, I knew I needed to take care of such matters myself. Better not wait until the last minute. My husband has lousy taste. If he outlived me, goodness knows what he’d get. Plus Rhonda down at Add A Touch Monuments was running a special in late November. I saved 5% by buying while she had her sale.

Watching them set the stone was kind of cool, and I’m not talking about the weather, which indeed was a bit nippy. My final place was now marked; whoever handles my, uh, arrangements will know exactly where I go—no quibbling or guessing about what I’d have wanted. I’ll be in the corner, by the lilac that I like so much. The forsythia is behind the tombstone.

At 60, I was probably crazy to buy a high energy dog, but I can’t imagine life without a border collie. I’d gone border collie-less for a year after Abby died on December 21, 2004, and none of the other four dogs in my kennel came close to filling her pawprints. Border collies ruin you for ordinary dogs.

I’d made an appointment to look at a pup on a farm the other side of Bedford. Because my poet friend Jean lived about three miles from where the border collies were, I stopped at her house and picked her up to go with me.

Out of Bedford, we turned off Route 43 and traveled through farmland. When I turned in the driveway, a dog who looked exactly like Abby ran toward the car to greet me. I opened the door and the dog, happy and wagging, flung herself at me as if she knew me. She was Daisy, the mama dog. After seeing her, I really wanted a puppy of hers.

In the house were several cuddly black and white creatures. The first born and the biggest was the only available female pup. The other female had been sold. It was either this one or one of the male pups, and I really wanted a female. I already had the name: Maggie. I sat on the living room floor and held the puppy. Was this going to be Maggie? Before I’d written the check, the phone rang. The caller wanted a female pup. “Have you made up your mind?” the owner called to me from the kitchen. “I’ll take her,” I said and reached for my checkbook.

We bade goodbye to Daisy, the other puppies, and to Maggie’s older sister Sadie and her older brother Shep. Maggie rode on her godmother Jean’s lap as far as Jean’s house. Then Jean whisked Maggie inside to show her husband, Irv. By the time I got inside, both of them were cuddling my puppy.

After we left Jean’s. Maggie rode in her crate. She only whimpered once. Of course, she had her little towel with her mother’s scent on it. Maybe that helped.

That night, I expected to be kept awake by cries, whines, whimpers, and other assorted unhappy puppy noise. Nope, six-week-old Maggie slept through the night. And every night thereafter, even though Dylan eventually peed on her towel and I had to wash Daisy’s scent off it.

I expected plenty of puppy teeth marks on the furniture, but Maggie never chewed up anything that wasn’t hers. She’s been the easiest puppy we’ve ever raised.

Well, except for her attitude.

Maggie has a mind of her own. We dropped out of dog school. I don’t have good stamina and I couldn’t walk fast enough or long enough to keep up with her in class—plus she was determined to never learn to heel. She obeys about half the commands I give her now if she can see the logic in them, and exhibits pretty good sense when she chooses to disobey. But that’s how border collies are.

So, I remember December 14, 2005: preparing for death; choosing life.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Caught in the Act

by Maggie Mae Mushko
(one-year-old border collie)

I keep telling everyone that cats are evil. This picture is proof!

Dylan stole a roll of paper towels and ripped it up! After he finished kicking and clawing the roll to shreds, he left his mess on the floor. It takes an evil, evil cat to do something like this. A border collie would never do such a thing.

Last night while I played step-ball, the cats kept trying to go downstairs. Camilla and I had another confrontation, but she eventually gave up and ran back upstairs. Eddie-Puss smacked me, though, and then ran to Mommy. Dylan—the most evil of all the evil cats (see picture)—slipped past me and kept running around and hiding behind furniture. Finally I nosed him out and ran him back upstairs.

Don’t cats know that a border collie who is busy playing step-ball shouldn’t be bothered?

Cats are evil.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Circle in the Sky

Thank goodness the state of Virginia doesn’t allow hunting on Sunday! Finally, Jack and Maggie and I were able to walk the farm without fear of being shot. I miss being able to walk when I want to—November and December are the best months for walking—but the danger is too great.

Most of Saturday, the armed and dangerous again encamped across from my driveway, except when they piled into the back of pickup trucks and, their guns pointed skyward, rode in a convoy down the road for a deer drive. For a while a carcass hung from the tree while its admirers sat in a semi-circle around it.

But today—Sunday—was nice. The sky was clear and bright; the air was warmer than it had been for a few days. I only needed a light jacket. Jack the old retriever and Maggie the young border collie were ready to go. Again, Maggie ran circles around Jack and me. Jack has to sit and rest every so often. Truth be told, I don’t mind at all having to stop and rest with him.

I was surprised how bare the trees were. Thursday's high winds have taken all the leaves. I could see far into the woods, so I could watch Maggie as she ran flat out up the hillsides. Then she’d vanish from my view and reappear in the opposite direction a few minutes later. I was further surprised when I looked up and saw a circle in the sky—as if Maggie had left a sky-trail.

In the evening, after I’d fed dogs and horses, I snapped a picture of the sunset. I didn’t see a circle when I took the picture.

But I see a circle now. Does a border collie run around the setting sun?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Glitchy Day?

Oh, dear. My horoscope for today doesn't look promising:
This could be a day of technical glitches and machine malfunctions. It is frustrating, to be sure, but you must admit that it is also a little bit funny, dear Virgo. Everything you touch, whether it be a computer or a washing machine, seems to groan and shudder at you before finally sitting quiet, broken. It seems today you have the opposite of the Midas touch. Don't take it personally. Instead, use it as an excuse to do something completely different with your day.
Aha! so that explains why all the digital clocks were blinking this morning! I thought it was just a brief power outage.

Gee, I was going to vacuum, do laundry, scan a bunch of old pictures, and format a manuscript today. Looks like I'll just have to return to bed with a stack of books and catch up on some reading. No point in doing housework if all my appliances will be glitchy.

This morning was bitterly cold. Thankfully, the low-tech ax I used to chop the two-inch thick ice from the horse tubs didn't malfunction.

If the heat pump should "groan and shudder" (which would NOT be "a little bit funny"!), at least I have a pile of cats—small, portable, cordless, self-contained heating pads—to keep me warm.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Poetic Junk Email

Disclaimer: Today’s entry isn’t worth reading.

One of the clues (among many blatant ones) that certain emails are junk is the random arrangement of words to form nonsense sentences—or parts thereof—before plugging the product/service that I have no intention of buying/using. Do these scammers really think anyone will take their junk ads seriously if they junk them up even more?

Being the recipient of random junk email, I couldn’t help but notice how the junkiness of it was less, er, junky if the said junk emails were set up as free verse.

Hence, I give you the Mushko’s Choice Selections of Odd and Alternative Poetry Found in my Junk Mail Box on December 6:


I have known you not so very long,
but Catriona, when we thought it
a strange moment that I should be
so near both ends of it
at This carried me home again at once,
where I found the mails
drawn out behind,
so that I could watch her unobserved.
The knocking of her very chamber.
—Owen Moyer

Is that poignant or what? Owen and Catriona must really have a thing going! At least he’s home. But why is her chamber knocking?


avoid to shudder
when I thought how little
that jacket would avail him,
consult about your father;
for the way this talk has gone,
an angry man marvelled to see
so much devotion as it used to be
changed into the feet and stood
waiting her in a drunkenness of hope.
—Herbert Blount

Herbert’s stuff is a bit more obscure but still heart-touching (if you’re into having someone finger your internal organs). The image of the angry father’s “drunkenness of hope” really grabs you, doesn’t it? Perhaps the poem needs an image of “sobriety of despair” to balance the emotions. I dunno.

From the middle of a Lengthy Plea:

Life so far has been very difficult
because we have no papers
nor means of livlihood

as immigrants here therefore
now I need you
to represent me and my children,

to reclaim the funds in question
since I cannot do this myself.
For no reason

should the funds be put
in our family name
at any bank for now,

at least to avoid Government
and other unforeseen enemies,
I want this to be conducted

under secrecy
until funds is in your possessions.
—Mrs Sikhumbuzo Nkala

Nothing resonates quite like neediness! I always wonder, though, how folks with no funds, no place to stay, no nothing still manage to have access to the Internet. (Even if they use a library’s computer, they still need a library card. Can people without “papers” get a card?) Anyhow, Sikki’s plea has been outed and isn’t secret anymore. Not that it ever was.

Well, I hope y’all have enjoyed these bits of “found” poetry. Under no circumstances are you to attach cute pet pictures and forward them to everyone in your address books for inspiration (while asking that these folks forward to 10 of their friends, etc.) Especially don’t add any pleas for folks to donate to whatever designer disease is popular at the moment and/or to suggest creative uses of drier sheets and WD-40.

Just go find your own inspiration, OK?

Note: As winner of the 1996 "Worst Western" Division of the infamous Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (and my bad sentence will appear in their next anthology!), I am a nationally-ranked bad writer, and thus qualified to find bad poetry.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Scent of Winter

Monday night when Maggie and I made our first of three walks in the dark, the air was crisp and cold. The scent of winter was in the air. The moon was full and the earth was silver. Won’t be long until we walk in snow.

Two hours later, we walked again. This time the smell of skunk permeated everything. Luckily we never saw the critter, but Maggie wanted to track it. (Reminder to self: Buy a couple of big cans of tomato juice. That stuff really does neutralize the odor of dogs that have been skunked.)

On walk #3—a few minutes after 11:00 PM— the air was once again crisp and clear. No trace of skunk at all. What was once so strong was now non-existent.

Last night, we walked again. Again, crisp, cool air and full moon. On our first walk, no skunk. On our second walk, at 8:30. the skunk smell was even stronger than it was on Monday night. On our 10:45 walk, no skunkiness.

Maggie and I walk a few times every night. We walk in the light of the three dusk-to-dawn lights (and the moon), we walk in the shadows, and sometimes we walk in complete darkness. The darkness and the light are just steps apart.

A border collie is a perfect writer’s dog. The only time Maggie isn’t pestering me to go for a walk, ride in the truck, go somewhere, do something, throw the ball, open the door to downstairs, play tug of war, throw the frisbee, take her for another walk, etc. is when I’m sitting at the computer. Then she crawls under the desk, stretches to her full length, and sleeps.

Were I to wax metaphorical, I could mention how words—this blog, for instance—are an intrusion that, like a skunk’s scent, pervades a reader’s attention for a few moments before vanishing into oblivion, cyberspace, whatever.

Speaking of metaphors, a few years ago, I wrote “How do I Write?” in which I explained to students how I go my ideas for stories. I used the typical metaphors—travel, weather, etc. This essay took a second place in a contest two years ago. I rewrote it, entered in another contest, and received honorable mention. I rewrote again—got it to the point where it didn’t stink—and submitted it to an editor calling for submissions for an anthology of inspirational essays for writers.

Monday’s email brought good news: my many-times-rewritten essay, now titled “Out of the Fog,” will appear in A Cup of Comfort for Writers (Adams Media, 2007).

Sunday, December 03, 2006

X Marks the Spot

Yesterday afternoon’s sky: a series of Xs made by the planes that do maneuvers here. The planes fly in from Virginia Beach, usually go low over Smith Mountain Dam, and then head for Ferrum Mountain on the other side of the county. The Chapel at Ferrum College is a reference point for the pilots—from the air, it looks like a big X. They fly low over the chapel, then pull up to go over the mountain.

When I taught freshman English at Ferrum, I’d have to pause mid-lecture because the noise was so deafening. (Students experiencing the maneuvers for the first time think the rural campus is under attack.) “Don’t worry,” I’d say. “They probably won’t hit us. They’ve only had one mishap in the years they’ve been doing this.” Then I’d tell them about the pilot who had to eject over Callaway a couple of years ago when a buzzard got sucked into a jet’s engine. The pilot was OK; the plane, which crashed in someone’s front yard, was totaled.

This morning’s sky loomed red. I grabbed my camera before grabbing the dog food and Maggie. Morning feeding had to wait while I got the shot.

Red sky at morning; sailors take warning. Only all the sailors on Smith Mountain Lake have winterized their boats for the season.

Speaking of warnings: More rednecks were encamped across the road yesterday than last time. I came home around noon to find a full contingent there and two corpses hanging. Mr. Milk Truck Driver (he of the 1999 death threat) made many passes by in his pickup. Last night, when Maggie and I walked well after dark, the last four pickup trucks—Mr. MTD among them—finally left.

They did a bit more decorating before they left. They added orange streamers to their chairs, the better to mark their spots:

My horoscope for today:
Ingenuity blossoms as you make the effort to do a little writing, dear Virgo, perhaps technical manuals or other professionally oriented projects. This could represent a new stage in your professional life, as you're likely to do well and attract considerable attention from those in high places. Just don't let yourself get too caught up in the need to revise, edit, then revise and edit again. It will only take up more time, and it's possible to over-rewrite!
Yeah, I’ve got to start writing on a number of projects. Yeah, I do tend to edit/revise/repeat ad infinitum. That’s the typical Virgo quest for perfection, I suppose.

My goal for 2007 is to be published by three commercial publishing companies. Yesterday, I sent off a manuscript to a small southern press for consideration, so y’all faithful readers keep y’all’s fingers crossed.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Mares & Clouds

I took this picture of my mares on Friday afternoon after the wind had died down. Melody stands at the fence; Cupcake eats hay in the background.

Having horses in the backyard is one of the joys of rural living.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Ill Winds

This morning's high winds blew the birch tree over. Since it's broken at the root, there'll be no saving it. Luckily it missed the tractor parked nearby.

I'll miss the birch. The other one died a couple of years ago, but part of its trunk still stands. I liked seeing the birches at night, their white bark contrasting sharply with the pines—kind of like ghost trees.

The wind didn't faze the pumpkin, though. It still stands—er, sits—on its rock. Last night, under cover of darkness, two trucks pulled in across the road.

This time, the rednecks didn't hang a deer. Instead, they positioned three metal folding chairs facing the pumpkin and my driveway.

Is this an attempt at harassment by metal furniture, or are they really interested in contemplating that pumpkin closer?

Or are they just going to play a redneck version of musical chairs?

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