Peevish Pen

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

© 2006-2019 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.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Expanding Circles

Dylan has decided to change careers in midlife. He now wants to be an outside cat. Unfortunately, as with many who make midlife career changes—or even take up a new hobby, Dylan lacks certain skills.

For over six years, he’s been an inside cat. Before that, he lived in a cage. I don’t know how long he’d been incarcerated at Petland before I bought him in 2001, but his price had been substantially reduced, so I’m guessing he’d been there a while. At Petland, he was able to watch a great many goings-on, but—safely ensconced in a cage—wasn’t able to participate in activities that might prove hazardous. Consequently, he has no natural fear of dogs. He also has a great curiosity about things slightly out of his reach. Both of these traits could get him in big trouble.

Lately, he’s been begging to go out. Did I say begging? I meant wailing. No, wailing doesn’t do justice to what he does— it’s screaming. “O-ou!” he screams. “O-ou! O-ou! O-ou!” He can’t pronounce the g and t sounds, but I know what he means.

Then he pounds on the door with his little kitty fists. Finally I can’t take it anymore and let him out.

I guess it’s my fault that he developed the desire to go out. He was the first cat I ever broke to a leash, an accomplishment that once impressed a vet tech.

“How did you do it?” she asked.

“I put a leash and collar on him; then I followed him around for a few days until he got used to it. That’s when I started asking for half-halts.”

“Half-halts? You’re a horse person!” she exclaimed. (She was, too.)

Yep. I “horse-trained” Dylan. And it worked. “Let’s get tacked up,” I’d say, “and we’ll go out.” He’d jump onto the table so I could put on his collar and leash. Then we’d go out and walk around the house. A narrow circle, but enough to give him a taste of outside.

For a couple of years, Dylan was satisfied with that. Now he wonders what’s out there. He wants to expand his circle. I know how he feels. I’ve been a self-pubbed and POD-pubbed author long enough. I want to expand my publishing circle to more legitimate publishing venues. I want to see experience what’s “out there.” I know several other writer-wannabes who want to expand their circles, too. But I’m digressing.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been taking Dylan out—off-leash—a couple of times a day. The two outside elderly lady cats and I watch him as he expands his circle. He ventures a little farther from us each time, but always runs back to his comfort zone. He’s fascinated with blowing leaves and throws caution to the winds. (Yeah, that’s a cliché, but it works here.) When he’s distracted by the wonders of the outside world, he doesn’t pay attention to anything else. There’s no telling what might be lurking nearby—a coyote, snake, bee, etc. Does Dylan have the skill to run for nearest tree and climb it? to not be tempted by the bee? to not mistake the snake for a wiggly piece of string? I dunno.

The outside cats show him how to jump onto the flatbed wagon and how to hide under it. They try to teach him the value in sitting under a tree and watching the world go by. But he’s impatient. Why learn survival skills when there’s so much to do?

Dylan reminds me of some young writers I’ve worked with. They’re so eager to get their work “out there,” they haven’t learned that “out there” comes with risks. Just as Dylan can’t distinguish what’s harmful in the wide world, they can’t distinguish the scammy submission sources from the valid ones.

Just as Dylan wants to jump into the outside world and run amok in it before he learns survival skills, these writers want to submit their work before it’s ready—before they learn basic grammar and punctuation, before they perfect (or even find) their style. Why learn skills when you’re having fun? Why check submission sources when you want to get your work “out there”? Ignorance is bliss, right?

Granted, earning a reputation as a mediocre writer isn’t the same as losing nine lives. Submitting sloppy work for public view isn’t the same as being kicked by a horse, and being scammed by an unscrupulous publisher is better than being a coyote’s lunch—but they’re still not what a conscientious writer should do.

Meanwhile, the two elderly lady cats and I will try to teach Dylan what he needs to know before we let him leave the safety of his narrow circle. At least Dylan doesn’t think he can write.

Lately, he’s been working on his tree-climbing skills. His circle is not only wider, it's higher. You might say he's moving up in the world.

At least, he’s branching out.

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Rats & Drugs

A couple of resident rats are probably mad at me. Whenever I notice a fresh rat-hole in the horse shed, I stuff manure down it. This morning I found a major new excavation. The hole was huge. Red clay was tossed all over the sawdust. Looks like the rats are going to put up a fight.

Rats made the news yesterday. Not my rats—these were city rats. The news-making rats have infested Fairview Elementary School in Roanoke so badly that students will be bussed to another elementary school for a month until the rats are eradicated.

Before my 1997 retirement, I taught at a Roanoke middle school [Update: closed in 2010] that also had a rat problem—both animal and human. Nobody paid much attention to the rats, which we occasionally saw running around the school’s courtyard. Eventually, the courtyard was closed to students. I guess they didn’t want the kids frightening the rats. Some students were more dangerous than the rats. I remember one seventh-grader boasting to the class that he’d be a drug kingpin by summer. The other kids didn’t dispute him.

I’m not the only teacher at that school who took early retirement. Most of us were glad to get out of that toxic environment as soon as we could. Last year, I ran into a former colleague, also retired. We chatted about our teaching experiences and about how so many—a dozen or more—teachers there had developed cancer or autoimmune disorders while working there. (She and I both had autoimmune disorders.)

The health problems of so many teachers at that school were probably just a coincidence, though.

Speaking of drugs, Franklin County’s latest annual drug raid resulted in the confiscation of over 200 marijuana plants. Yesterday’s Franklin News-Post had a picture of marijuana being confiscated from somewhere on the other side of the county. Every summer, agents fly over in a helicopter and search for plants.

Monday the drug helicopter was flying over our area. From my deck, I could see it making big circles over where my Polecat Creek farm is. Why does it fly over my farm? In the early-90s (before we permanently moved to the area), John and I often camped at the farm on spring and summer weekends. One day, we noticed a path going from the road into our woods on the Dinner Creek side of our property. Knowing the path was wider than the average deer path, we followed it to a clearing where about two dozen holes had been dug. The holes were nearly a foot deep and about six inches across. We called a neighbor who is an investigator for the Sheriff’s Department. He confirmed the holes were where someone was going to plant marijuana. He said he’d keep an eye out. That made us feel better.

Later that summer, the biggest marijuana raid in Franklin County history happened 50 feet from our property line. The agents drove through our farm and cut our fence to get to the site. They hauled out over a thousand plants. Knowing that we had been so close to illegal activity all summer was a little scary. The authorities never did make any arrests.

That fall, someone left a deer head in our farm mailbox. The woman delivering the mail found it and called police. Obviously someone whose million-dollar crop was destroyed thought we were responsible for the raid. We weren’t.

Every since that fall, we’ve been harassed by some of the local rednecks. Harassment is much worse during hunting season, when it’s not unusual for us to find dismembered deer parts on or near our farm.

I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that the biggest marijuana raid in county history happened on the farm owned by the daddy of my biggest harasser.

Anyhow, the resident rats—both four-legged and two-legged—don’t like me.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Today at the Farm

I checked Polecat Creek Farm a few hours earlier than usual today. As I drove through the hayfield about 3:00 PM, gazillions of grasshoppers leaped up from the crispy field and bounced off Ol' Blue's windshield. I continued driving across the field, through the trees, and into another field.

When I returned, a flock of turkeys were gobbling up the grasshoppers.

At least they could find something to eat in the field.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

They're Baaaaack!

The downside of rural living:

Harassment by Rednecks season has officially started. This evening, a couple of them appeared over at the old depot (their "hunt club") across the road from my driveway to start their pre-dove season decorating. Mr. Redneck's big brother (hereafter called BB for short) sat up the chairs directly across from my driveway and added a piece of corrugated pipe. (According to my husband who watched, only two vehicles almost hit BB as he stood in the road and arranged chairs and the pipe to his satisfaction.) Mr. Redneck himself trimmed back some trees and left some of the trimmings in the road on the other side of the old depot.

Click to enlarge.

After they were gone, I decided to drive down the road to the farm and get the mail. At the end of the driveway, I stopped to take a picture. It's a bit blurry—I'm taking it through my truck's dirty windshield. The pipe to the right of the four chairs looks like a tree trunk. I took the picture a little after eight.

Not long after I'd snapped a picture, JP's truck appeared with Mr. RN and kid in the back (yeah, it's against the law in Virginia to drive around with a minor in the back of an open pick-up, but nobody ever accused this group of being law-abiding) and someone in the passenger seat. A full load.

When they saw me sitting in my truck, JP drove very slowly in front of my driveway. He blocked me in momentarily; I couldn't escape unless I backed up. I don't back down; I didn't back up.

"Hey, Baby, let us take a picture of you!" one of them (JP, I think) hollered. As they pulled away, another remarked upon the size of my derriere (which, I grant you, is indeed ample).

The picture I snapped of them is blurry, so I didn't post it. However, it identifies JP's truck pretty well.

I figured I'd better call the cops, so I did and asked if someone could come by on patrol. Then I went down to the farm to get the mail from the farm box and to check on things. I thought I'd get home before dark. Turns out, I didn't.

I got the newspaper, drove the driveway circle, and drove around our hay field across the road. I wanted to go along the property line down to the creek, but I didn't want to get trapped down there. I came back to the cottage and drove the circle again.

Before I'd finished the circle, JP's truck came from the road where I would have been if I'd gone to the bottom of the property line. I stayed put in the driveway—about 50 feet back from the road. The truck stopped. I snapped some pictures. Mr. Redneck got out of the back of the pick-up and stood in the road. I think he took a picture with his phone, but it was getting dark and I was busy taking pictures myself and wondering if I were going to be gunned down or something. Then he got back in the truck.

This is one of the clearer pictures. With the night vision setting, it takes a while to snap a picture. Since the truck was at a standstill here, this shot isn't too bad.

After they pulled away, I called the cops again. Luckily, one was close by and gave me an escort home in the dark. He took the report and promised extra patrols in the area.

Now, this encounter is one in a series of strange happenings. On Friday evening, John and I were turning into the Penhook dumpster area when Mr. RN happened to be coming out. He mouthed a four-syllable word at us as he passed by. Since the letters m and f are easy to lip read, we pretty much knew what he said.

A little after 7 on Saturday evening, we heard a faint knock on the back door—so faint, if it hadn't been for the stampeding alarm cats, we wouldn't have been sure it was a real knock. John went to answer. When I got there, I saw a long white limo in the driveway and a kid (brown crew cut, average height) in a tux. John was describing how to get to Mr. RN's house, where the limo was allegedly going.

The kid looked a little surprised to see me and then asked where a gas station was—he said he had to get gas before he made his pick-up. Then he left. Gee, you'd think that a limo driver would know to tank up before venturing into rural America, wouldn't you?

The odd thing is that the limo, which had dark windows so we couldn't see inside, was backed up close to our garage opening. Now, when most folks visit, they pull straight in and we show them where to back up as they leave. Did the limo driver want to make a fast getaway since he'd already turned around before he knocked?

Another odd thing: to get to our road, no matter which direction he'd come from, he had to pass a gas station two miles back. Why would he ask where one was?

After the limo pulled out and headed for Union Hall, we went to feed and water the critters. We figured we'd see the limo drive by when it returned. We must have been at the barn for a good 45 minutes. Then we did some yard chores. We never saw the limo again.

Anyhow, strange things are happening. If I go a week without posting on this blog, y'all come looking for me. OK?

Otherwise, Happy Harassment by Rednecks Season! Too bad Hallmark doesn't make a card. . . .

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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Two More Signings

On Thursday evening, three of us Valley Writers presented the Valley Writers Sampler at the Roanoke County Library.

Dick Raymond , yours truly, and Rodney Franklin

Rodney Franklin and Dick Raymond read some of their poetry, and I read my essay, "Out of the Fog," from A Cup of Comfort for Writers. Afterwards we chatted with the audience, sold books, signed, and ate cookies.

Me— with my trusty iBook and some Cup of Comfort books.

On Saturday afternoon, five of us Lake Writers—Jim Morrison (Bedford Goes to War), Sally Roseveare (Secrets at Spawning Run), Jean Brobeck (Musings), Marion Higgins (When Men Move to the Basement), and I—participated in the 6th annual Diamond Hill Sunflower Festival at the Diamond Hill General Store in Moneta. Although the temps were in the mid-90s, the store had space reserved for us in the shade so we could sell and sign our books.

Here I am, ready to sign!

Despite the high temperatures, we had a good time chatting, signing books, and watching people. No telling who might be interested in our books!

Anyhow, I had a great time at both book events.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Grass is Always Greener

I’ve been complaining about how dry my property is. Actually, part of the lawn is lush:

The back yard this morning. Note the cloudy sky. Yippee!

Do you know why part of it is greener than the rest? Here’s a hint: Remember when Irma Bombeck said that the grass is always greener over the septic tank? Well, she wasn’t quite right. The grass is really greener over the septic tank’s drainfield.

If you live in rural America, you most likely have a septic tank (unless you have an outhouse). Eventually, it’ll need cleaning. We had ours cleaned about five years ago, but the septic cleaner guy said it could have gone another decade. Better safe than sorry, though. I’ve heard horror stories from people who woke up one morning to discover brown ooze seeping up through their grass. Soon they found that oil hadn’t been discovered on their property.

You’d think cleaning the tank would be one of the more odious—or is that odiferous?—jobs a person could have. In reality, it isn’t bad at all: open the cover, drop in a hose, suck up the crud, collect a check. Granted, I don’t know what happens after the truck leaves, but that’s another story.

Looking into our tank was fascinating. A lot of itsy bitsy insects live down there. A good thing, the guy said. The bugs are supposed to indicate a healthy septic tank. What the bugs do, I have no clue. How they reproduce is even more of a mystery. Do they grope around blindly until they get lucky?

The inside of the septic tank—at least what I could see of it—looked exactly the way I’d always pictured the underworld. Well, I never pictured the underworld with millions of little bugs, but if you ever studied mythology, you know what I mean. The liquid in the bottom looked like the River Styx. Where was Cerberus? Was Orpheus on his way out? Was Eurydice behind him, or had she looked back already? Was Persephone lurking around the corner?

Anyone who ever majored in English should find a septic tank’s interior a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Let It Pour!

This afternoon, like most afternoons this month, was hot and dry. My pasture is down to nothing. (I’m not the only one with this problem. On her blog, Debi also laments her lack of pasture.) I’m lucky to have hay to feed now and through the winter. Odds are good there’ll be no second cutting.

Some of the local dairy farmers are strapped. I’ve heard that one in the neighborhood has been killing his bull-calves as soon as they’re born. He can’t afford to feed them, and the gas it takes to haul them to the livestock market costs more than he’d get for the calves. The beef market will soon be glutted. My neighbors hauled some of their beef cows to Lynchburg on Monday.

I worry what will happen to horses whose owners can’t feed them. Soon, I imagine, there’ll be plenty of giveaways. Or trucks of horses bound for the slaughterhouses in Canada.

A neighboring dairy farmer started cutting the cornfield he leases across the road. He's cutting a couple of weeks earlier than previous years. The corn is so much shorter than it should be, but it won’t grow anymore. Plus it’s too dry, which could cause problems with nitrate poisoning.

I sat under the maple tree in the side yard and watched the cutting. A tractor cuts the corn and pours the silage into a truck that moves parallel to it. When the truck is full, it pulls away and another takes its place. There’s always a truck beside the tractor, a truck leaving, and a truck arriving. I marvel at the choreography involved.

As they cut, clouds rolled in. Later in the afternoon, after I’d gone in, I heard thunder. Then rain. I looked out. It was pouring! Weather reports forecast strong showers for areas north of me.

The corn cutting continued in the rain.

By evening—when it was too dark to take pictures, the field was bare.

The odd thing was I saw no birds swoop down to eat the spilled corn kernels like they’ve done in years past. Where did the birds go? Some place where the corn grew enough to actually have kernels, maybe?

By the time I fed dogs and horses, the rain was gone and the air was sauna-humid. But the lawn looked a little greener.

Just a little.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Scam o' the Day

When I answered the phone and heard a perky prerecorded female voice tell me how I could get my interest rates lowered with Credit Services, I knew it was a scam.* The canned voice even assured me that, while I wasn't having credit problems, they could get me better rates.

I let the canned message run until the end, when I had two options: press 1 to talk to a representative, or press 2 to have my number removed.

What the heck, I figured, I'll press 1. As a humor writer, I'm always on the look-out for more material. I've been known to keep phone scammers on the line for 10 minutes or more until they get disgusted with me and hang up. ("Let's see if I have this correct—you want me to rip out my perfectly good windows and you'll replace them with your replacement windows even though my windows don't need replacing? How will I keep my cats from escaping while you have the windows out? Won't insects fly in?" is one I've used in the past.)

I pressed 1. It took a while for a guy to answer, "How can we help you?" In fact, it took so long, I was getting bored.

I plunged in. "You can tell me what kind of scam you're running," I said.

Then he told me to do something unspeakable with my phone. I hung up.

Yep, a scammer through and through. Wonder how many people gave their credit card information in hopes of getting lower rates?

*How did I know Credit Services was a scam? 1. I don't have any credit cards. 2. I don't have any debts of any kind—and haven't for decades. 3. I'm on the National Do Not Call Registry.


Sunday, August 19, 2007

Rural Living, Wine Sipping, and Loose Horses

Marion Higgins recently blogged about the joys of sipping wine on her sunporch. She made it sound so good, I figured, What the heck, I’ll give it a try.

Talk about timing—while I was reading Marion’s blog, John handed me a small glass of wine and asked if I liked it. I took a sip and decided I did.

“Where’s the rest?” I asked.

“Refrigerator,” he said before he went into his room to get on his multitude of ham radios to talk about nothing in particular to guys he doesn’t know.

Marion had blogged about how she and her husband used their time to sit on their sunporch and talk while they sip wine and watch their dogs play in the woods.

I figured my wine-sipping on the deck might go better without John (unless I wanted to get on a radio to talk to him), and I couldn’t actually watch the dogs unless I walked out to the kennel. I was within hearing distance of them, though, so I was careful not to say anything, lest I start them howling. (I know from listening to Peggy read part of her WIP at Valley Writers the other night that dogs howling after dark is a sign of impending death. With only two of us on the property, I had a 50-50 chance it would be me.)

Anyhow, I topped off my glass of wine and plopped myself on the lawn chair. The two elderly outside cats, Foxy and Camilla, plopped themselves on top of me. The three of us sat there in the dusk, watching the moon over the dusk-to-dawn light in the side yard. Half a dozen bats flitted overhead and chowed down on the mosquitoes. Some little critter—probably a young possum—skittered along half the length of the deck before reversing itself and skittering away. The cats either didn’t consider it worth chasing or else didn’t notice it; I noticed that the wine was pretty good even with the cat hairs in it.

How John got the wine is a story in itself. While I was in Roanoke Thursday, he got a phone call. A person who lives about a mile down the road asked if we had a horse out. Before he panicked, John checked. Nope, both ours were accounted for. With temps in the high 90s, our elderly mares weren’t likely to go gallivanting over the countryside.

However, he decided to go down the road and see if he could help. The folks who caught the horse weren’t livestock people unless you count a herd of labrador retrievers as livestock. John noticed the horse was a good-looking gelding with shoes. He figured it might belong to the Smith Mountain Hounds (the local hunt) about two miles down Ramsey Memorial Road, so he gave them a call. George answered and said they’d been looking all over for that horse—they’d just gotten him three days earlier and Mitzi was frantic. It wasn’t long until George arrived with the trailer. He didn’t know if the gelding would load, but it hopped right in. He offered a reward, which John and the neighbor declined.

Anyhow, it wasn’t long until Mitzi came to the house and brought John a bottle of white wine. Valhalla 2004.

How the gelding got out is a mystery. Their fences were in good shape. Likely he jumped. If so, he ought to do great on fox hunts this fall.

So, I missed all the excitement Thursday afternoon.

Luckily, I didn't miss the wine. It was delicious.


Saturday, August 18, 2007

Two Days of Literary Stuff

The past two days have been filled with literary stuff. On Thursday, I went to three Roanoke bookstores to talk to managers about about my essay in A Cup of Comfort for Writers and to see if they’d be interested in having me do a reading or signing. (I’d talked to two managers a few months ago; they said to come back when the book was out.) Two were out of town; the third wasn’t in. Luckily, I’d prepared press kits, which I left at each establishment. Thank goodness, the F & W publicist had given me cards of the book's cover, so I'd included those in my press kits. What really delighted me was that two of the stores already had copies of A Cup of Comfort for Writers on their shelves.

Later I met my buddy Nita at a Wi-Fi enabled Roanoke coffee shop for an afternoon of discussion about the good, the bad, and the ugly of writing. She’d brought some submissions from the slushpile of a literary mag her husband edits. She warned me they were bad, but—Oh My Gawd!—they were truly dreadful. We Googled the authors. One was living at a motel somewhere in NY state; another’s sleazy website revealed she had vanity-pubbed some, er, unusual stuff. (Note: My sense of decency and good taste—not to mention that this blog is read by a few underage readers—prevents me from quoting from the submissions.) We spent a pleasant afternoon gabbing and surfing the net for literary flotsam.

Thursday night, at Valley Writers, the critique of three poets’ work was stimulating. We nit-picked several details of work that was pretty good to begin with and had a stimulating discussion about what worked and what didn’t. Then Peggy read us a chapter about portents of death from her work-in-progress.

Friday morning’s email brought something delightful: a revised chapter of a novel-in-progress by a fellow Lake Writer—I’ll call him “Duke.” I’ve been "editing" his murder mystery for some time.

I need to digress here:
I’m not a real editor. I’ve met some of the criteria that HarperCollins editor Michael Stearns mentioned last month at Hollins—I’m a reader and lover of language who’s taken lots of writing workshops and studied the craft of writing—but I’ve never taken a publishing course or even worked in a bookstore.

Other reasons why I’m not an editor: My copy of the AP Stylebook is 12 years old; I don’t even own a copy of that editing bible, The Chicago Manual of Style. While I know a bit about MLA style, I’d have to look up specifics of APA and Chicago style. I’ve edited a bunch of junior high and middle school lit magazines—and even Fit to Print, the 1998 Sampler of the Valley Writers Club—but none of those are legit editing credits. I’ve never worked for any publishing house, certainly not one in New York. I’m not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Editorial Freelancer’s Association (and my pitiful resume doesn’t come close to a real freelance editor’s resume.) I have limited experience with major publishers—my own books have been self-pubbed or vanity pubbed, my published articles are mostly in regional magazines, and the majority of the awards I’ve won have been primarily in state. In a literary sense, I don’t get out much.

So—what qualifies me to even look at another author’s work? A masters in English and 35 years of teaching experience on the middle school, high school, and college levels. A strong grasp of grammar, punctuation, syntax, and vocabulary. A good background in American and British literature. Modest publication success since 1993. Paying attention to what the professionals say at the several writers conferences I attend each year.

Because I’m not a real editor, I never charge to help with a writer’s work, and I only critique work that appeals to me. However, I am brutal when I critique. Writer-wannabes can’t take it, but those who want to be better writers keep struggling through several drafts and reading assignments. I’m also persnickety. Anyone who wants my critique of fiction has to read Lukeman’s The First Five Pages
. I won’t do a whole novel at once. I read it one chapter at a time. Each chapter has to be “right” before I move to the next one.

End of digression. After innumerable drafts, Duke finally got his first two chapters “right.” He eliminated most of the telling and started showing. He fleshed out the characters and omitted interminable description. He dropped the clichés, so I stopped cringing when I read his work. He learned how to control pace by the length of sentences. He cleaned up the narrative by eliminating his numerous digressions to “explain” something to the reader. He brought the reader—well, me—into the main character’s head. I started believing his story.

We worked on those first two chapters for months. Maybe a year. Anyhow, Friday morning he sent me his revised chapter twelve. Wow! The draft still has a few rough spots, but he’s got it. His dialogue rings true. His characters act like real people. Description now comes through the eyes of his characters. He doesn’t stop to explain once. Getting this revised chapter in the morning email made my day. I was delighted to see the results of all my nagging.

Just when I thought Friday couldn’t get any better, the afternoon email brought me an offer of a freelance job. After learning the requirements (and how much I’d be paid!) from the special projects editor who’d read some of my work and knew I lived near the lake, I accepted an assignment to write about people and events in the Smith Mountain Lake area. Even though I hate to write to deadlines, I can do this. In fact, I’m looking forward to it.

Two days full of assorted literary stuff! I live for days like that.


Friday, August 17, 2007

The Sound of Music?

Storms were in the forecast for last night. John heard thunder and disconnected the computer—just in case.

Coming back from Valley Writers in Roanoke, I saw wet pavement near Rocky Mount, so I was hopeful that we’d gotten rain. For about 30 seconds, I drove through fog, so I knew rain had been there. Maybe it had rained at the farm—13 miles further east.

We didn’t get any rain. Dry as a bone when I got home.

A week ago yesterday, I saw this cloud in the sky above Pole Cat Creek Farm and thought it foretold rain.

Twenty minutes later, at Smith Farm in Union Hall, the cloud had changed.

And changed some more. Darker clouds blew in. Maybe—?

A false alarm. Rain did not come last week. It didn’t come this week either.

Until this morning. A little after six, I awoke to the sound of thunder. Not booming thunder—a low mumbling, grumbling thunder. But still thunder. Then I heard the sound of rain pounding on the roof.

A sweeter music I have not heard for weeks.


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Dry Month

In "Gerontion," T.S. Eliot writes
Here I am, an old man in a dry month,
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.
I'm an old woman in a dry month (who can still read to herself), and I'm waiting for rain. How many weeks since we've had rain? Two? Three? I've lost count.

At Smith Farm, this field should be lush and green instead of short and brown. This is—was—one of our best hayfields. The grass should be higher than my knees.

It isn't as high as my shoe.

I don't know what farmers will do this year. Luckily, we got enough hay from the first cutting (the only cutting!) to feed my mares. We've lost money on the lime and fertilizer. We won't have hay for sale. Unlike many of my neighbors, though, we don't depend on the farm for our income.

I imagine that beef prices will drop in a few weeks as farmers thin herds they can't afford to feed. Next year, prices will rise because not much beef will be produced.

The dairy farmers are cutting silage that is already drying up—and the corn isn't high at all. How will they make it through the winter? What will happen to milk prices?

What will the horse people do? Will barns close because owners can't feed their boarders? Or will they raise boarding fees sky-high to import hay from elsewhere? Will horse owners on a small acreage have to sell stock that they can't feed? Horse prices will probably drop dramatically this fall.

My horses have almost nothing left to graze in the pasture. Thank goodness we made enough hay this spring.

I remember the drought of 2003. We had problems with our well—the mud tattooed the inside of the dishwasher and stained some of my clothes in the washing machine, but we never ran dry. But even in 2003 the fields weren't this bad.
Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Little Things

After nearly forty years together, my husband knows what will please me.

This pin that he found at the Rocky Mount Goodwill looks like a little sword with a stone missing from its hilt.

No matter the missing rhinestone. I can find a replacement easily enough. But, look closer: the pin isn’t a sword at all.

Do you see what it really is? A horseshoe nail? Because I love horses and all things connected with them, John knew I’d want the pin.

Seeing it reminds me of the old rhyme we learned as kids to remind us that small things have great consequences:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
According to one source, “The earliest known written version of the rhyme is in John Gower's ‘Confesio Amantis’ dated approximately 1390.”

Benjamin Franklin included a version in Poor Richard’s Almanac: "For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for the want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for the want of a horse the rider was lost, being overtaken and slain by the enemy, all for the want of care about a horseshoe nail."

Little things mean a lot. Small problems, unattended, can become big problems. Sometimes we need reminders that we should indeed "sweat the small stuff."

And this pin wants a replacement rhinestone. A very small rhinestone.


Sunday, August 12, 2007

Author Event: August 11, 2007


Both authors who spoke Saturday morning at the Franklin County Public Library were awesome. I’m glad I was there.

Bob Slaughter, the driving force behind the establishment of the national D-Day Memorial in Bedford and author of Omaha Beach and Beyond: The Long March of Sergeant Bob Slaughter, spoke about his experience during the invasion on Omaha Beach. His recollection was incredible; the audience was spellbound.

Second speaker was Alyson Hagy, a Franklin County native, whose family must have occupied most of three rows in the meeting room. Now an English professor at the University of Wyoming, she’s written two novels and some short story collections—among them, Graveyard of the Atlantic and Madonna on her Back.

I’d bought a copy of Keeneland last year and haven’t read it yet. Now I need to move that—and her new book, Snow, Ashes—to the top of my towering stack of must-reads.

From Snow, Ashes, she read a gritty and graphic description of docking and castrating lambs. She also read a selection about two of her characters at the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War.

While Hagy grew up on a Franklin County farm, her family didn’t raise sheep. She’s never been to Korea and hasn’t fought in a war. So how did she get the details right? Research. “You learn things when you’re working on a project.” Among other things, she talked to shepherds and read memoirs of Korean War veterans.

“You don’t have to write about the life you’ve lived,” she said. “Writing is discovery.”

She told us how long it takes to write a book—a couple of years for research and writing, another year to edit. She writes way more than the book requires and cuts considerably during her editing.

“You can’t make it perfect the first time through,” She said. Noting that a book goes through many rewrites, she encouraged the writers in the group to “maintain the courage to finish.”

It was fitting that she spoke at the library, for the old Franklin County Library was important to her when she was a child. Every Saturday her family came to the library, and she always checked out the maximum number of books allowed–seven. She also devised ways to check out novels that were forbidden to young readers.

She remembered when the current library used to be Leggett’s department store. “I bought my first bra right over there,” she said, pointing in the direction of the elevator.

The Franklin County Library Author Event was wonderful. If you weren't there, well—you missed it.

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Coffeehouse: August 10

Last night's Coffeehouse Reading was fun. We had a full house (full room?).

I read my essay, "Out of the Fog," from Cup of Comfort for Writers. I also read two short selections from More Peevish Advice.

Other readers were Marion Higgins, Dick Raymond, Linda Hamlett Childress, Dan Smith, and Fred First. After the readings, we had a book-signing. It's always nice to sell and sign some books.

Fred First makes a point. See Fred's blog for more event coverage.

Odds are good that we'll do more coffeehouse readings in the future.


Friday, August 10, 2007

Border Collie Report

by Maggie Mae (21-month-old border collie)

Because it is so hot and I have a lot of hair (some of which Mommy cut off because it was matted), because I trash the water buckets in the kennel, and because I tend to hog the cool places in the kennel because I am THE BOSS, I spent yesterday in the house.

The best thing about staying in the house is that I get to take a bath as soon as I come in. I LOVE baths! As soon as I go through the door, I head for the bathroom and hop in the tub.

The downside of being in the house is that evil cat Dylan lives there. He annoys me.

Dylan, the Evil Cat

When Mommy isn’t looking, Dylan pokes me with his paw. He also pees under the refrigerator. I think he gets into my toy basket, too. I do not trust Dylan. He acts very sweet to Mommy and Daddy, but I know he is EVIL.

One of the nice thing about the house is that I have two baskets full of toys. My favorites are my squeaky balls and my little pink pig. If I could only convince Mommy to throw them continually so that I can fetch! She throws for a while, then gets bored and mutters something about me being obsessive-compulsive, but that doesn’t make sense because she knows I am a border collie.

Anyhow, she sits for hours at the computer, so I am obligated to lie down under the desk. Talk about boring! Every so often, I nudge her with my squeaky ball. Sometimes when she finally gets up, I follow her and nudge her with my nose. She calls my nudging a “border collie nose wedgie,” but actually it’s just a poke in the butt. Anything to get her attention. I kept trying to tell her that we should get in the truck and GO TO THE FARM but she kept telling me it was too hot.

In the evening we finally got in the truck and went to the dumpster and then to the farm. I ran around a little. It was easy to run through the fields because the hay hasn’t grown at all. I didn't go to the creek because most of it is dry.

Mommy wants it to rain. So do I. I love water and mud.


Thursday, August 09, 2007

100 degrees!

This morning's Roanoke Times headline was "Sweltering." That pretty much sums up yesterday.

Melody grazes in her sun-crisped pasture. She reaches under the fence for a few blades of green.

Yesterday I thought it would surely rain.

As I came home from Rocky Mount, I saw clouds piling up in the sky. The leaves turned back on the trees. I knew a storm was imminent.

I was wrong. It didn’t rain.

Yesterday I thought it was unusually hot. I was right. The thermometer registered 100 degrees Fahrenheit—the hottest day of the year, so far.

The outside cats, Foxy and Camilla, came into the house for the afternoon. The dogs dug sleeping holes in the shade beside the barn. The horses sweated in front of their fan.

The evening news reported that several thousand people in Roanoke were without power on the hottest day of the year. At least we had power—and air-conditioning—here.

The fields are too dry. The corn across the road looks worse than I’ve ever seen it look this late in the season.

In the early morning light, the cornfield looks greener than it actually is.

Big cracks have appeared in the ground in the dog kennel and the horse pasture. The creeks are low. Will the well run dry?

I’d welcome a storm now. A loud, booming thunderstorm with gully-washing rain. Something to cool the air and refill the creeks and turn the fields green again.

A good rain will make things right.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Y'all Come!

The major literary event in Rocky Mount happens this weekend. It has a little something for everyone.

Y'all come to the library event this weekend! This Friday, I'll be one of the readers at the Edible Vibe just down the street from the library. I'll read my essay from A Cup of Comfort.

Saturday, we'll have two major writers.

Something for everyone!


Monday, August 06, 2007

Field of Greens?

Last night, when I went out into the dark, I felt raindrops. Well, not actually raindrops. More like a mist. Still, I had hopes that we’d get a good rainfall. No such luck.

Today, when I walked back from the mailbox, I could hear the grass scrunching under my feet. The lawn is beige. Down the road at the farm, our grass isn't growing.

The rain two weeks ago meant that, our hayfields weren’t beige for a while. Indeed, I could see that they were distinctly green—a good sign. However, the hot dry weather since then has turned them crispy again. I doubt they’ll grow enough in the next six weeks to get a really good second cutting. Luckily, our first cutting provided enough to feed Cupcake and Melody through next spring. Our second cutting would have been the cash crop to pay for the gas, lime, anbd fertilizer required to make hay.

Last year was a bad hay year. We sold all the hay we didn’t need and could have sold lots more. We had to turn away a couple who were desperate for hay for their horses. But you can’t sell what you don’t have.

Now—since mid-summer, cattle farmers are already feeding hay. Not enough grass in the fields. And fewer fields to grow hay now that developers are buying up farms and bulldozing them for housing developments for people who dream of moving to the country.

Will we have enough hay to sell this year to pay for the lime and fertilizer and gas for the tractor? Not likely. But my two mares will have enough to eat.

Those who dreamed of a good crop year will see their fields of dreams turn into fields of despair.

A few weeks ago, the Roanoke Times ran a story about some folks who raised alpacas. It seems, since the alpaca fiber had not caught on as a profitable crop, that the alpaca folks made their money by breeding their alpacas and selling babies to other folks who dreamed of cashing in on the money to be made in alpacas. The reporter used the term “field of dreams,” which comes from a movie of the same name, in which a farmer turned his hayfield into a baseball field and folks came from all over. “Build it and they will come.”

Maybe in the movies, but not in real life.

Several years ago, some of the locals had dreams of resurrecting the old ballfield down the road. They had fund-raising yard sales and the Board of Supervisors even kicked in $4,000 of taxpayers money. The owner of the property offered a lease for ten years. The ballfield was going to be a practice field so kids would have someplace to play. Improvements were made—an asphalt walking track, a concession stand, decorative trees (some of which lived), mulch, a sign, a scoreboard, steps down the steep hill to the field, bleachers. Once in a while, I see a team practicing there, but not often. More often, I see one or two people walking the track. Who wants to have their kids play ball next to a busy highway?

“Build it and they will come?” Not necessarily. Folks do come to the yard sales, though.

In the 1970s, when I was first getting involved with horses, many people jumped onto the Arabian horse bandwagon. They paid big money for Arabians that would sell for bigger money. Investment horses. Large farms sprang up. In the late 70s and early 80s, the Roanoke Valley Horse Show had big classes for Arabians. A coworker of my husband had a big herd of black Arabians.

Breed them and they will come? Nope. Soon the bottom fell out of the Arabian market. The fancy showhorses sold for pet prices. Big farms closed. The RVHS hasn’t had Arabian classes for years.

Two decades ago, somebody in Sontag was going to make money from raising emus. Emu and ostrich meat was the coming thing! He built big barns and high fences. I used to drive past the high fences and see the big birds strutting around. They’re all gone now. I guess nobody came.

Those of us in rural America know that “build it and they will come” isn’t a sound business approach. We’ve seen too many people fail.

We can cultivate our fields, sow the right seeds at the right time, apply fertilizer and lime, and hope for the best. But nothing grows if the rain doesn’t come.

If the rain doesn’t come, how will the farmers feed their cattle and horses—and even their alpacas? A field of dreams won’t feed the hungry.

Give me fields of green any day.


Sunday, August 05, 2007

Hanover Bookfest 2007

Getting up at 4:30 a.m. to meet my ride to Mechanicsville at 5:30 wasn't fun. However, the 2nd Annual Hanover Bookfest was worth it. A huge crowd of authors and visitors were there.

Moi—at my table. I'm holding the brand new A Cup of Comfort for Writers.

I caught a ride with Jim Morrison, author of Bedford Goes to War. Jim is president of Valley Writers and the group leader for Lake Writers. He is a great supporter of writing events.

Jim Morrison thumbs through his book.

Jim and I both sold some books, and I swapped books for other authors' books. Now my stack of books I want to read is even higher.

One of the best things about a bookfest is the chance to exchange information and catch up on what fellow authors are doing. I learned several interesting things yesterday and met several interesting people. One of the best things I learned was that I'm lucky to have been rejected by a publisher I submitted to a few years ago.

But that's another story.

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Friday, August 03, 2007

Just Bear With Me

Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush suppos'd a bear!
—Wm. Shakespeare
Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, scene 1

But what if the bear is real?

The front page of yesterday’s Roanoke Times featured pictures of a bear running through downtown Roanoke on Wednesday. Finally the tranquilizer darts worked. The captured bear—a female who was likely pregnant— was sent to Virginia Tech, where it became number 103 in a VT’s captive bear study. More news here.

In rural Virginia, we have bear in the neighborhood. One recent morning, my cousin-in-law saw one cross Novelty Road less than a half-mile from my house. A logger working on my cousins’ farm—not far from the other bear sighting and still close to my house—also recently saw a bear. While he worked, his little dog started to bark angrily. The logger looked up to see a black bear less than a hundred feet away. He grabbed the dog and got in his truck until the bear left.

The owner of the farm next to our Polecat Creek farm has game cameras on his property. He’s gotten pictures of a bear and a bobcat. He’s even found bear poop on the dock at his pond.

A few years ago, the last beehive on our Union Hall farm was demolished. Parts had been dragged over forty feet. A large pile of bear poop remained.

Also, a few years ago, a woman on her way to buy hay from us, was crossing Owens Branch in her pick-up when she saw a bear stand on its hind legs. This is close to my Polecat Creek farm.

Two years ago, a man down the road told about how a relative hunting on his property saw a bear and three cubs come by. He stayed in his deer stand until the bears were out of sight.

So, I’ve got bear all around me. But I haven’t seen any since I’ve lived here. I’m wary of them now, ever since the news reports of a kid dragged from his tent one night and killed by a black bear. That was a thousand miles from her. But still—

I’ve seen other critters, though—a couple months ago I saw a coyote run through the cow pasture less than a mile down the road. My cousins report coyotes running through their pastures this summer. A couple of deer seasons ago, neighbors spotted—right across the road from my mailbox—a big coyote eating deer parts left behind by the local rednecks. Two years ago in March, elderly Jack and baby Maggie ran a coyote on the Union Hall farm. That run was Jack’s last coyote chase and Maggie’s first. Last year—late one night—by the light of the dusk to dawn light, Maggie and I saw a coyote walk down Novelty Road. She wanted to chase; I held fast to her leash.

On the trail where the dogs and I walk, years ago I crushed a copperhead with a rock. I also once killed a small one that the cat brought into the garage. I haven’t seen a live copperhead or rattler for several years, though.

I also haven’t seen the panthersmountain lions—that were allegedly released on Turkeycock Mountain years ago. I know someone who’s seen tracks, though—big round tracks with no claw marks. (Retractable claws mean no claw marks in the tracks. Cats have retractable claws.) And I know the story about the man killed by a panther in the late 1700s in the Ferrum area. He came out of his cabin one morning, and the big cat jumped from the roof onto him and bit his head. I haven’t even seen the bobcats that are in the neighborhood.

I’ve watched a fox stare at me. I stared back.

I’ve seen lots of deer up close. Except for the doe that jumped over the hood of my truck several years ago, I haven’t had any dangerous encounters. Last month, however, my neighbor’s truck suffered deer damage when a deer ran into the side of it one night. A few weeks ago, a woman down a Dinner Creek had her side window broken by a deer. At least the glass blew past her and the deer didn’t jump all the way into her vehicle. I often see dead deer along the roadsides.

Turkeys, like rabbits, are plentiful this year, but they take off when startled. Many years ago, a mama turkey—no doubt with young nesting nearby—attacked a relative who was trail riding. She beat the turkey off, but her horse would tremble every time she saw a wild turkey. The rabbits in my yard are nearly tame—I have to wave my arms and yell to chase them away from the stalking Camilla-cat—but I’ve never gotten close to a turkey. They leave at the first sight of me.

Because of all the logging for the new houses, shopping areas, and the big power lines, habitat has decreased and animals seek new homes. They're moving closer to humans.

I haven’t yet seen a bear around here. When I drive the roads at night, though, I’m surprised how much the bushes look like bears.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

A Book in the Hand

That's my hand. That's the book my essay "Out of the Fog" is in. I now have books in hand (on hand?) for tomorrow's Franklin County Bookfest appearance on channel 12's Rise & Shine, for Saturday's Hanover Bookfest at the Mechanicsville VFW, and for next Friday's Coffeehouse Reading at the Edible Vibe.

The Franklin County Bookfest Committee plans strategy for the Coffeehouse Reading.

I'll also have copies at tonight's Valley Writers and next Wednesday's Rocky Mount Writers and next Friday's Lake Writers.

Want a copy? I've got books in hand. Or at least in my car.