Peevish Pen

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

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

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

Friday, February 29, 2008

Spirit of the Mountains

I recently finished reading Emma Belle MilesSpirit of the Mountains, a book I’d bought from Ibby when she closed the Blue Lady Bookshop more than a year ago. I’m glad I waited to read it until after I attended the Franklin County Historical Society’s presentation on log cabins. Knowing a bit about cabins helped me better understand parts of the book.

For instance, in the first sentence of Chapter 1, Miles describes the meeting house: “On King’s Creek there is a log house of one large pen that is schoolhouse, church, and town hall, all in one, and thus easily the most important building in the district.”

Since I now know what a “pen” is, her sentence makes sense. Large trees were used to make the one-room multipurpose building. The length of the logs that ran continuously from one end to the other determined the length and width of that room.

Miles wrote the book in 1905 when she was 26. The version I read is a facsimile edition printed by the University of Tennessee Press (4th printing,1999). An artist as well as poet and writer, Miles straddled two cultures—Chattanooga (and other cities where her art was popular) and Walden’s Ridge, where she was the wife of mountaineer Frank Miles. Spirit of the Mountains is both a fine sociological treatise on a mountain culture and an entertaining account of daily life was life in the mountains a century ago.

On page 19, she describes where cabins are usually built:

The site of a cabin is usually chosen as near as possible to a fine spring. No other advantages will ever make up for the lack of good water. There is a strong prejudice against pumps; if a well must be dug, it is usually left open to the air, and the water is reached by means of a hooked pole which requires some skillful manipulation to prevent losing the bucket. Cisterns are considered filthy; water that has stood overnight is “dead water,” hardly fit to was one’s face in. The mountaineer takes the same pride in his water supply as the rich man his wine cellar, and is in this respect a connoisseur. None but the purest and coldest of freestone will satisfy him. . . .

The cabins I’ve seen around here—at least what remains of them—are all near a spring,

Miles writes of the hardships of mountain life, such as the lack of opportunity to bathe (pp. 21-22):

When a man has not only the living to provide, but many of his farm implements and much of his furniture—tables, chairs, axe-helves, bread-bowls, cupboards, cradles, even looms and wagons to make with the help of a few neighbors—perhaps his own shoemaking and blacksmithing to do, and certainly fuel to haul and a crop to raise—where is his time for bathing? Where, indeed, is his opportunity, when all winter the only room with a fire in it is crowded night and day?

Some of Miles’ prose reads like poetry, such as this description of morning at a farm where she often stayed overnight (pp. 25-26). Notice her attention to detail:

I hear the day begin with a twitter of birds—wrens that are building in the porch eaves, martins in their high swinging gourds, and the bluebirds whose four sky-colored eggs are hid in a hollow apple tree behind the kitchen. The moon, just peeled down to a thin shaving, has hung just over the sunset, and the night has been dark, but at last a dim light filters through the one small window, showing one by one the homely pieces of furniture and the hanks of “spun-truck” and carpet rags bunched like huge bananas on a peg on the wall. The housemother, seeing the daylight, rises, and presently the shine of a pitch-pine blaze is dancing over the rafters until it shall be “put out by the sun.” The stir of the household wakes the mother-hen that sleeps in the woodshed, and she leads forth her brood with clucking and cheeping; the housecat and her kittens set up a cry; the dogs run in and out as soon as the latch is lifted; a flood of wakening sounds pour in from front yard and tree-top; Bess and Piedy proclaim the smarting fullness of their udders as the boys open the barn door. The farm is awake.

I, who live in a modern Southern Colonial ranch— with electric lights. phone, and heat pump—will never know that kind of life, and I’m the poorer for it. The closest I came to knowing anything about real country life was a half-century ago when I visited my grandparents at their cabin.

Too many of us get false impressions of country life from TV. How did Pa Ingalls stay so clean (and clean-cut) when he did farm work? Didn’t the Walton kids ever get dirty? How did Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, have so many fancy dresses, and why didn’t they ever get blood-stained? TV has altered our perception of what real country was—and is.

If you want to know the real country—as it existed at the turn of the century in the Appalachian Mountains, Spirit of the Mountains is a must read.


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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Nothing Ever Happens, etc.

Because the forecast called for rain, we’d fed and watered the critters earlier than usual Tuesday morning. Before nine we were on the road en route to the library and then to Krogers for “Senior Citizen’s Day.” Before we reached Glade Hill, a police car—lights flashing—sped past us. I’d never seen one go that fast on Route 40.

“Must be an accident up ahead,” John said. I figured, as fast as the cop car was going, it must be a bad one.

We looked for the signs of an accident so we could slow down. Never saw any.

As we approached Rocky Mount Marketplace, another car—this one unmarked—sped past with wailing siren and flashing lights. Two speeding cop cars in one day? What’s with that?

“Maybe something happened at Ferrum,” I said. “Or at the courthouse.” But nothing ever happens at Ferrum.

John dropped me at the library while he ran another errand. I told a friend who works in the library about the two cars. Turns out I was right—something had happened at Ferrum. Some news reports had recently come in about a possible shooting.

I sat at the table by the window, turned on my laptop, and emailed Marion to tell her that her afternoon class probably wouldn’t meet. Then I went to the WDBJ website. About that time, more cars (do they still call them squad cars?) with flashing lights and wailing sirens went past. Then more—a whole convoy from Botetourt County—including a canine unit, then one from Henry County, and finally trucks from Channel 7 and another TV station

From what I could learn online, the Ferrum College Campus was locked down because one of the housekeepers saw a guy carrying a handgun in Bassett Hall. My mind flashed back to Virginia Tech—less than a year ago. Could it happen here?

I taught part-time at Ferrum for seven years. The Ferrum Campus is easy to access. Route 40 runs right past. No one questions you if you drive onto campus. A lot of non-students use campus facilities for meetings or research. Some students even have out-of-town guests who, uh, sleep over (I’ve heard girls discussing how they didn’t get much sleep because their roommate’s boyfriend spent the night in the room). Right after 9-11, my English 101 students worried about attacks. “You’re safe here,” I’d tell them. “Nothing happens at Ferrum.

They agreed: nothing happens at Ferrum. I’d heard students complain about nothing to do on a rural campus, so they party. Some party a lot. I’ve heard stories about wild goings-on in the dorms. And midnight trips to Wal-Mart. When I started teaching at Ferrum, the Ranch was the party spot. When I stopped teaching, it was Trollville.

So, all the action at Ferrum on Tuesday was unusual. Through the day, l watched TV and visited news websites. The lockdown continued. The guy with the gun wasn’t found.
While only Rt. 40 and Ferrum Mountain Roads go past campus, part of the campus is surrounded by woods. A lot of people know the trails. The track team used to run on some of them.

“Lady Waid,” a woman I’d met through the historical society years ago even owned five acres in the woods where she’d had an underground house built. She often visited campus to use the library. One day, she stopped by my office so I could go with her to see her home. I drove as close as I could get (beside the maintenance building) and then followed her along a well-worn trail. I couldn’t see her house until we were standing on top of it.

Inside, the furnishings were sparse—two recliners near where a stream of water ran through a concrete culvert. She had lots of plants hung up to dry and all she needed for basic living. On my way back to campus, the track team ran past me.

A few years ago, I heard she was living in Idaho (or maybe Iowa—I can’t remember which). A guy at a historical society function told me she’d hired him to drive her camper there. Anyhow, I haven’t seen her since then. But her place probably remains—a hideaway in the woods.

Anyhow, it wouldn’t be difficult for someone to vanish into the woods.

For more about the Ferrum lockdown, check Marion’s blog: this entry and this one.

Meanwhile, I guess we can't say that nothing ever happens at Ferrum.


Sunday, February 24, 2008

Aunt Lucy

A bit of Nace family history—the oldest Nace daughter:

Mary Lucy Nace Mays

My grandmother’s oldest sister, Mary Lucy Nace (b.1885) was no doubt named for her grandmother, Lucy Goff (who married Andrew F. Spence of Bedford on December 19, 1849. The Mary part might have come from her great-grandmother, Polly (Mary?) Harrison.

I knew her as Aunt Lucy (pronounced “Aint Lucy”), but I never saw her very often. When I was little, she’d sometimes come to visit my grandmother—her sister Blanche. I remember that, unlike my shy grandmother, Lucy was outgoing. She and her husband Charles Franklin Mays lived in Richmond where they raised their family. The last time I saw Aunt Lucy was at my college graduation in June 1967. She wasn’t able to stay and socialize afterwards; she had a grandson’s graduation to attend that evening.

Like her grandmother and namesake, Lucy Nace married in December. Here’s the clipping that Lisa, my second cousin (once removed) and Lucy's great-granddaughter, sent:

Thanks to Lisa Kuper for jpeg.

This is what it says:


On the night of Christmas Eve, the home of Mr. Wm. Nace, at Lithia, presented a gala appearance indeed, lights burned brightly, ivy and evergreens cheered from every nook. A huge bunch of mistletoe, hanging from the center of the ceiling in the parlor, together with the large crowd of friends and relatives present, indicated that something unusual was about to take place. Promptly at 8 o’clock, Miss Lucy, the eldest daughter, was led to the [hymeneal] altar by Mr. Chas. F. Mays, of Rockbridge County, where they were met by Parson Dogan, who performed the impressive ceremony which forged the chain that made them no more twain, but one flesh.

The attendants on this occasion were Mr. Tucker Campbell with Miss Julia Reid, Mr. A.M. Waskey with Miss Nora Campbell, Mr. Wm. Good with Miss Rosa Goff, Mr. O.G. Lipes with Miss Mamie Spence, Mr. Houston Spence with Miss Ollie Mays, Mr. W.A. Mays with Miss Blanch Nace.

The bride was tastefully gowned in steel gray with trimmings to match. After the ceremony the bridal party was led by the preacher into the dining room where a great table was groaning under the weight of good things, to which all did ample justice, Dr. B----- and the depot agent being conspicuous actors in the latter performance.

The bride is one of Lithia’s most charming young ladies and a member of the Lithia Baptist church in which she will be greatly missed.

May heaven’s richest blessings attend the happy young couple.

Apparently it did. They had several children and lived a long life.
Here, to preserve a bit of the Nace family history, are some pictures of Lucy Nace Mays, her husband, and her children.

I'm not sure how old Charlie and Lucy were in this picture, but they look fairly young:

I think this must an earlier pictures. Lucy is three months pregnant with Hazel. I'm guessing the picture was taken in the spring at her parents' house in Lithia:

Thanks to Lisa Kuper for the photo.
(Hazel was Lisa's grandmother)

Three of their children, Rex, Thelma, and Hazel are pictured below (Elwood and Sulmana Frances weren't yet born). Thelma married Charlie Davis; Hazel married Linwood Park:

I have several pictures identified only as "Lucy's baby." This one, however, is identified as baby Elwood:

This picture of one of the daughters (Hazel? Thema?) is charming; she looks ready to garden:

In this picture, Thelma looks so sad, but she is lovely. The baby is identified on the back of the picture as "Jean."

This picture of Charlie and Lucy was taken when they were older. From the car in the background, maybe the 1930s or early 1940s?

This is how I remember Uncle Charlie and Aunt Lucy. I think this picture was taken in the late 1950s or early 1960s, but she still looked exactly like this in 1967:

All the daughters of William and Frances Nace of Lithia are now gone. Only memory remains.

To keep the memories alive and to add a bit to Botetourt County history, I'll post other family pictures on this blog from time to time.

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Searching for Tim Moffitt

When I was seven, Mary and Jim Moffitt and their son Tim moved onto Floraland Drive in Roanoke’s Williamson Road area. I lived in the house next door.

The Moffitts weren’t from around here. They were from “up north”—Pennsylvania. Mr. Moffitt worked for Kenrose Manufacturing, so I’m guessing he was transferred in. They took weeks-long vacations to Harvey’s Lake, Pennsylvania, every summer. Nobody else in the neighborhood took an actual vacation, unless you count an occasional day-trip to visit relatives in a neighboring county.

Mrs. Moffitt, unlike any of the other women in the neighborhood drove a car—something that was unheard of in our neighborhood. Even more unheard of, few years after they moved in, her husband bought her a car of her own! And, unlike the rest of the neighborhood composed entirely of Baptists and Methodists, they were Catholic.

Apparently, they never argued—unlike the previous residents of their house who had loud arguments ending when the wife threw the husband’s clothes into the front yard. Apparently, the Moffitts didn’t have telephone problems either. The previous residents must have had a lot of problems with their phone, too, because the same telephone repairman came once or twice a week and stayed for a long time while the wife was home and her husband was at work. (Our house was pretty close to theirs, so it was hard to miss the arguments in summer when the windows were open.) When the Moffitts moved in, things were a lot quieter.

Most other residents of the neighborhood were only a generation or two out of the country, so the Moffitts added the first exotic touch to a neighborhood that, in the years after the Korean War, was changing. They were the first in the neighborhood to have a rec room in their basement. Everyone knew basements were for storing stuff—and where the furnace and washing machine resided. Mr. and Mrs. Moffitt joined a country club and played golf—another unheard-of activity. In our neighborhood, husbands and wives just didn’t do anything recreational together (unless it was behind closed doors or unless you counted going to church or having arguments as recreation).

Heck, in the early 50s, husbands and wives didn’t do much of anything together. Men went to work. Wives stayed home and cooked, cleaned, washed, ironed, gardened, canned, sewed, etc. Rarely the twain met. Few of us kids saw our daddies during the daytime. Most of us rarely saw much our mamas from the front; they usually had their backs to us as they cooked at the stove, washed dishes at the sink, or treadled their sewing machines. We kids knew to stay out of adults’ way and not to slam the screen door when we went outside.

But I’m digressing. What I want to do is find Tim Moffitt and return to him a packet of pictures that his mother left with my mother nearly two decades ago. There must be a hundred photos in the packet—Tim as a little kid, pictures of Pennsylvania relatives, his parents when they were young, etc.

I know that when his mother was older and in her second widowhood, she moved to St. Louis to live with him (in the 1980s, I think). She left some things—clothes and these photos—with Mama, who still lived in Roanoke. She died a few years after she moved. When Mama came to live with me in 2001, I gave the clothes away (Robyn, who reads this blog—that’s where the vintage velvet blazer came from!) but the picture packet was in one of Mama’s innumerable boxes that we just hauled away to Penhook without opening.

Until recently.

I’d like to get these pictures to Tim. I lost touch with him in the 60s. I’ve tried a few email addresses that I found on the Internet but without results. I know that he graduated from VA Tech (1969?), married Jane Clausen from St. Louis (sometime in the 70s or early 80s?—there wasn’t a year on the clipping my mother saved), and worked as an engineer for University City until a year or so ago. I think my mother once said he and his wife had twins.

Somebody reading this blog must know where this Timothy Robert Moffitt is. (There are, I’ve learned, a bunch of Tim Moffitts scattered all over the country.) I’m posting some pictures to help you find him.

This 1950 shot of Tim and his mother shows the unfortunate look in little boys’ fashions at the time:

(If you find this blog, Tim, I apologize for including this picture, but you were kinda cute.)

This shot, inscribed “Timmy and Eddy Webb. Some cowboys! March 1952,” is typical of the 50s. Every kid back then must have donned cowboy attire and mounted up a bike or tricycle for a photo op:

Tim's on the left.

The brick wall to the right behind Tim in this 1955 photo is my family’s garage:

And there are many other pictures, some with possible historical significance. Like this shot of the Air Corps Technical School, Class No. 2—1935—Aircraft Armorers, Chanute Field, Rantoul, Illinois. It’s inscribed on the back: “Here’s the graduating class! Compliments of your son and brother, Raymond J. Blaum (Aircraft Armorer)”:

Raymond must have been Mary Moffitt’s brother; her maiden name was Blaum.

Tim’s mother gave me my first home perm when I was about 10, taught me to put on make-up when I was 13, and drove me to college when I was 17. She was a good friend to my mother and often drove her to the grocery store.

I’d like to return the favor. Or at least return the pictures.

Edited to add: He's been found. At least, he found me. See this blog entry:

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Rated E

Country Dew over at Blue Country Magic recently awarded this blog an E for Excellence. Her blog had received the award from a fellow-blogger and she passed the honor along. I'm grateful to be one of the recipients.

Now, I’m going to pass the honor along. I read a lot of blogs, and many are excellent or at least darn good. So—I had to narrow down the criteria a bit. I considered longevity, theme, writing, etc., and came up with these criteria for what I think makes for a great blog:

  • Blog must have existed for over a year.
  • Blog shouldn’t carry ads or try to sell something.
  • Blog should have a purpose, a premise, or a reason for being—and should usually stick to it.
  • Blog should demonstrate writing that’s clear, concise, coherent, unified, and emphatic.
  • Blog should have a consistent style that reflects the personality of the blogger.
  • Blog should generally use good grammar, spelling, syntax, diction, punctuation—unless there’s a good reason not to do so (typos happen).
  • Blog should tell readers what they don’t already know—or at least tell them what they do know in a new way.
  • Blog should have good photos—not clip art or photos plagiarized from other sites.
  • Blog should use links effectively and appropriately.
  • Blog should be G-rated—the blogger should keep in mind that kids cruise the net.
  • Blog should be well-designed—graphics shouldn’t overwhelm the viewer, font should be readable (a dark font on light background rather than vice-versa), etc.

So—here are my two winners of excellence (and it was tough to narrow down all the blogs I read to just these two):

On the Blackwater. Marion’s blog captures the concerns of women of (ahem) a certain age and does so with insight and often humor. Plus she makes good book recommendations, reports on local literary doings, and shares bits of her life and the class she’s taking at Ferrum. Her blog is the first one I read every morning.

Smith Mountain Lake Mystery Writer. Sally doesn’t post as often as she ought to, but her blog carries out her “contemplations” theme, all of her photography is excellent (some is breath-taking), and the craftsmanship in her writing is evident. Her love of home and family shines through.

OK, I’ll award a newbie E for Excellence award, too: The Virginia Scribe has only existed for ten months, but Amy gives us a glimpse of being a mother, a wife, and a returning college student. She blends the diverse bits of her life together in a manner that’s interesting, entertaining, insightful, sometimes funny, and sometimes educational.

A few years ago, I could never have imagined how much enjoyment I now get from reading the really good blogs of both friends and strangers.

So many blogs, so little time. . . .

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Fifth Sally

I just finished Daniel Keye’s novel, The Fifth Sally, originally published in 1980. I’ve been a Keyes fan since I taught his novella Flowers for Algernon to junior high students many years ago. Flowers for Algernon (made into a novel of the same name and then into a mediocre 1968 movie, Charly, which didn’t do it justice) made an impression on the kids. Most loved it.

The premise of Flowers for Algernon intrigued the kids: A mentally retarded man, bullied by co-workers who he thinks are his friends, becomes a genius thanks to an experimental surgical procedure. Then he loses his mental capacities again.

  • The underdog becomes greater than the bullies who tormented him. He doesn’t seek revenge on them. When he reverts to his retarded state, they no longer torment him but protect him. A good lesson for all of us.
  • Scientists can create super beings—beings that nature did not intend to create. Should they do this? (Flowers for Algernon was written before cloning and test tube babies.) Should humans play God?

But I’m digressing. The Fifth Sally is about Sally Porter, who suffers from multiple personality disorder. Only she doesn’t know it—she only knows that she “loses time” after she periodically blacks out, plus she can’t account for the books, art supplies, clothes, etc. in her apartment. Often confused, she doesn’t know about her other personalities: Derry, the “trace” who tries to keep things on an even keel and can communicate with the others, sensual and lascivious Bella who loves to dance; Nola, the suicidal artist and intellect; and Jinx, the vengeful and violent one.

Confused, Sally seeks help from a psychiatrist who finally diagnoses her problem and attempts to fuse the other personalities into Sally—one personality at a time. Nola is fused first to create the second Sally. Bella’s fusion results in the third Sally, etc. Problems, of course, arise with Jinx before she’s successfully fused.

Therein lies a plot problem. With all the havoc Jinx creates, all the blood she causes to flow, all the cars she dents, the cops never come after her. (Well, they chase her for a bit, but she gets away.) The book was written before DNA testing became routine, but still—Jinx left plenty of clues. Also the psychiatrist’s hypnotic regression of Jinx—back to the beginning of time!—didn’t ring true.

Despite the flaws, The Fifth Sally is still a good read. Not a great read, but a good read.

What a shame that The Fifth Sally never made it into paperback and is now out of print. I found this book last November in an antique store in downtown Chatham, and paid $1.50 for it. Money well spent!



Monday, February 18, 2008

Dog-trot Cabin

The corner of a log tobacco barn on our farm.

Thanks to the Franklin County Historical Society’s program yesterday, I now I have a name for my cabin (or at least what’s left of it): a dog-trot. Actually, it’s two single-pen cabins joined by an enclosed breezeway.

Program presenter Michael Pulice, who works for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, showed slides of Virginia cabins—several of which are in Franklin County—and explained the type, construction, etc. I learned, for instance, that most cabins in the are were not made from chestnut logs as many folks believe, but from white oak.

Now I know the names for the types of cabins. The single-pen, log cabin, for instance, is a rectangular structure—usually one room. The double-pen is two single pens joined together. The saddle-bag has a chimney in the middle with rooms on either side. The dog-trot is two single pens with a breezeway between them.

My dog-trot cabin is actually two single-pen one-story cabins joined by an enclosed breezeway. The left side was built by William Bernard in the 1850s. I don’t know when the right side was built. The old kitchen, which “fell in” when my aunts were children, must have been a single-pen cabin. Only a few chimney stones remain around the lilac bush that marks the spot.

Several more outbuildings used to be around the cabin. Only one remains.
This picture was taken before the roof sagged over the dog-trot and before the chimney toppled.

This is where the spring is. Years ago, a huge oak towered over it.
Imagine carrying water up this hill several times a day.

Several decades ago Aunt Belva, who was born in the cabin, said the right side was a “manufactured house.” That is, it was brought in from somewhere else and reassembled. Apparently someone (my grandparents? Mr. Bernard?) acquired a cabin from elsewhere and recycled it. I know that my father slept in the loft above it and his sisters slept in the loft above the original structure that was my grandparents’ kitchen, bedroom, and living room. Like many Virginia cabins, mine is covered with wooden siding. (And it’s also covered with poison-oak!)

A henhouse and smokehouse used to be here.
The top of this chimney blew down a few months ago.
My father slept in the loft on this side.

Anyhow, I now look at what’s left of my cabin with different eyes. I can put names to what I see.

If you’re interested in learning more about log cabins—or if you’re a writer who wants to get the details right in a story set long ago, take a look at “Historical Survey of Log Structures in Southern Appalachia” on the Digital Library of Appalachia site. “Historical Survey of Log Structures in Southern Appalachia” site has many pictures and numerous links to other pictures.

More info on log cabins:

From the National Park Service, Preservation Brief #26 tells about the preservation and repair of historic log buildings.

Homestead History” from The PBS series, Frontier Life, gives some insight into cabin construction.

And just for fun, Adam Bolivar’s story, “Jack and the Magic Ham,” mentions a single-pen cabin.


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Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Tenth Circle

Wednesday night, I started Jodi Picoult’s The Tenth Circle. Friday night, I finished all 385 pages. I’ve been a Picoult fan since last last spring. I’ve read three other Picoult books: Plain Truth, My Sister’s Keeper, and Keeping Faith.

I like Picoult’s work because it’s intellectually challenging—she crafts a complex multi-layered plot, fleshes out her characters so we believe they’re real, and pays special attention to details. Plus, she teaches us stuff—in The Tenth Circle, it’s Dante, graphic novels, and life among the Alaskan natives. And she employs metaphor and symbolism. I’m a sucker for metaphor and symbolism.

I won’t go into what the book is about or post a review (that’s already been done by the biggies of the publishing world; you can find reviews, etc. on her website).

The problem I find with reading really good books like this one (and others I’ve recently read—Sarah’s Key, Lucky, The Time Traveler’s Wife) is that the really good books ruin me for enjoying a mediocre book. Or even a book that’s, well, adequate.

I can open The Tenth Circle to almost any page and find examples of good writing or good insight—or both. For instance, this on page 30:
All teenagers knew this [lying] was true. The process of growing up was nothing more than figuring out what doors hadn’t been slammed in your face. For years, Trixie’s own parents had told her than she could be anything, have anything, do anything. That was why she’d been so eager to grow up—until she got to adolescence and hit a big fat wall of reality. As it turned out, she couldn’t have anything she wanted. You didn’t get to be pretty or smart or popular just because you wanted it. You didn’t control your own destiny; you were too busy trying to fit in. Even now, as she stood here, there were a million parents setting their kids up for heartbreak.

The main character’s realization equals a universal truth. The writing flows—it sounds just how a teenager would think: no big words, no complicated sentences.

From page 269, the opening line of a chapter:
It was late enough in December that all the radio stations played only Christmas carols.
We know the “when”—we’ve all heard the monotony of radio offerings by mid-December. The rhythm of the sentence echoes the monotony. (Read it aloud and see.)

From page 88:
Laura stared at the screen, at the cursor blinking on one of the multiple percent signs. Trixie was one of those numbers now, one of those percents. She wondered how it was that she’d never truly studied this statistical symbol before: a figure split in two, a pair of empty circles on either side.

Here’s a test for what you’re reading now. Open the book to a random page. Without looking, put your finger on the page. Read the part you touched. Try again. And once more. Did every passage you selected at random hold your attention, make you want to read more? If not, why bother to read that particular book?

Books like The Tenth Circle have raised my expectations. When I read, I want to be bowled over (Ew! A cliché. A good writer wouldn’t use that!). I want each book to be better than the last.

In short, I want perfection. With metaphor and symbolism, too.


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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Who? Whom?

Warning: educational content follows.

“Who? Who-Who-Who? Who?” I sometimes hear the owl say at dusk when I walk the bottomland at Polecat Creek.

The English teacher (OK, “retired” English teacher) in me wants to commend the owl for using the subjective (i.e., nominative) case of the interrogative pronoun who correctly. But the owl is limited in vocabulary. I’ve never heard an owl ask, “Whom?” He couldn’t use the objective case if he wanted to.

Who and whom are interrogative pronouns (used to ask questions) but they're also relative pronouns (they act as subjects or objects in their own clauses, and they change form when necessary). They have three cases:
  • Subjective case (used for subjects and subject complements: who
  • Objective case (used for any kind of object—direct object, object of proposition, indirect object): whom
  • Possessive case (shows ownership): whose (not who’s—that’s a contraction for who is)

When I taught English, I noticed one of the hardest things for students to learn was when to use who and when to use whom. Here are some correct uses:
  • Who is calling? (subject)
  • Who shall I say is calling? (the subordinate clause “shall I say” interrupts the main clause, “Who is calling?”)
  • To whom do you wish to speak. (object of preposition to)
  • You saw whom? (direct object)
  • I don’t know whom you called. (direct object of the subordinate clause: You called whom. The whole subordinate clause is a direct object of the verb know.)
  • I don’t know who called you. (subject of the subordinate clause used as a direct object: Who called you.)

If you’re confused about whether to use who or whom, you can usually substitute he for who and him for whom. An explanation is here and here. Next, take a quiz.

Once you’ve mastered the correct use of who/whom, you’re ready for the whomever/whoever choices? Those two words are tricky.

We know that whoever is the subjective case (or, back in the old days, nominative) and is used for a subject or a subject complement (back in the old days, predicate nominative).

Whomever is the objective case and is thus used for any kind of object: direct object, indirect, object, or object of a preposition.

So, how can this be correct? Give the prize to whoever deserves it.

To whoever? No, you think, the correct choice should be whomever! To whomever. Object of a preposition. Right?

Nope, the correct choice is whoever. How can that be?

The whole clause—not just the pronoun—is the object of the proposition to. The clause is “Whoever deserves it.Whoever=subject of clause, so it has to be in the subjective case. Deserves=verb. It=direct object.

How about this? Give the prize to whomever you choose.
Now, whomever is the direct object of choose: You choose whomever. The whole clause is the object of the preposition to.

Accept the prize from whoever chooses you.
The whole clause “Whoever chooses you” is the object of the preposition from. Whoever is the subject of the clause; you is the direct object.

Today’s grammar lesson—and life lesson—is don’t jump to conclusions based on what, at first glance, “looks” correct. Take time to consider the evidence. Look at the whole before you consider each part.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Fire and Ice

“Do not seek for warm fire under cold ice.” –Samuel Rutherford

However, You can find the nandina's firey leaves under cold ice today.

We woke up to ice as I knew we would. But it’s not as bad as the last ice storm. This morning, I postponed feeding as long as I could—in hopes it would melt—but finally had to slip through ice, mist, and puddles to feed the critters.

When I fed at 9:15 a.m., I took the camera and got a few shots of nature’s ephemeral art:

The wheel on my overturned garden cart isn't going to be turning anytime soon.

Branches on a sapling become an abstract sculpture.

Cupcake's tail is loaded with horse-sicles.

An icicle hangs from the beak of the dog pen flamingo.

This morning, I received an email from my Lake Writer buddy Sally, who lives near where the Witcher Creek/Toler’s Ferry Road fire had been burning in Bedford County. I'd been worried about her, but it turns out she'd lost email for a while:

We're fine. The fire on Smith Mountain started in Pittsylvania County, evidently jumped the Roanoke River, and meandered on the back side of the mountain on down across from us. Sunday evening we heard it had jumped our part of the lake and had spread to Witcher Creek Rd. . . . and for us to evacuate. It hadn't spread, so we stayed put.
Here is a picture she took on “Sunday night just as the flames came over the ridge.” Fortunately the firemen put out the blaze “after the fire had raced up some trees and exploded the tops.”

I hope today’s rain takes care of the fires. The Witcher Creek fire burned a couple of hundred acres. Bedford County’s Blackhorse Gap fire has now burned over 1,500 acres. Two decades ago, Cupcake and I used to camp at the Jaycee Camp in Montvale and ride all day on the National Forest’s beautiful trails in that area. A sixteen-year-old riding an ATV illegally on a restricted part of the trail supposedly started that fire. Because of the kid's stupidity, a lot of the beauty will be a long time returning. The Green Ridge fire in Roanoke County has burned 2,400 hundred acres, and the Craig County fire has burned more than 2,700 acres. I can't wrap my mind around the extent of all the destruction.

Anyhow, this morning’s ice and the last few days’ fires reminded me of a Robert Frost poem that was originally published in the December 1920 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

Fire and Ice
by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

That poem speaks to me on several levels.


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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ice Redux

About 4:30 p.m. when I went out to feed, a light rain was falling. Ice already coated the deck, the bare limbs of the big maple and crepe myrtle, and the metal gate to the pasture. Horse-sicles hung from the mares' manes.

Here we go again, I thought. Another ice storm.

Now— four hours later—the temperature has officially dropped to below freezing and still the gentle rain falls. And ice forms. We still have power—and thankfully no wind.

The Virginia creeper on the deck rail is bejeweled in ice.

A few minutes ago, John heard on the scanner that there are ice-related accidents on Rt. 220. I’d planned to go to Salem tomorrow for a Pen Women’s project, but I’ve decided not to risk the hour’s drive. Heavy rains are predicted for tomorrow. I don’t like to drive 220 in bad weather.

Meanwhile, I’ve run a load of laundry, run the dishwasher, and watered the plants. This morning, we cleaned and refilled the horse tubs and dog buckets. The horses have plenty of hay. The laptop battery is fully charged. Tonight, I’ll fill a bathtub—just in case. We’re good to go.

Better safe than sorry. I’d rather prepare for the worst and have it not happen than hope for the best and be unprepared for disaster.

Maybe the ice and rain will help put out all the fires. And maybe the power won't go out.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Where There's Smoke

After almost 29 hours, the power came back on. I’m glad we don’t have to go through another night powerless.

I should have known to fill the bathtubs when the wind was blowing so hard. Everybody in rural America knows to do that. Not only will you have a supply of water to take to the livestock if needed, but you can have water to FLUSH! One of the downsides of rural life is that when the power goes off, so does the pump. Luckily we’d watered dogs and horses, so they were OK. We, however, had to ration a bit.

Since we have a propane fireplace and a propane stove downstairs, we could keep warm and cook.

Upstairs was just too cold. We had a battery for the little TV so we could keep in touch with the world—and learn that many were worse off than we were. We still had a phone line and we had the laptop. We had bottled water to drink. We made do and we got through.

I'd fed the dogs and horses a little after four so I could get back in time to cook supper while it was still light. By five-thirty, the house was engulfed in smoke, and it wasn’t from my cooking. The smoke was outside. Everywhere outside. The Smith Mountain fire, which had been burning all day, must have crossed over to our side of the mountain.

The smoke had a strong smell and the haze had spread all around. The haze covered the pasture:

Melody and Cupcake, munching from their round bale, didn't seem to mind the smoke, though.

There are so many fires in the region. Rain is predicted for Wednesday. We need it.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Fire on the Mountain

Shortly after posting about the windy day, we lost power during what the media calls "hurricane force winds." I'm posting this from my laptop which is plugged into a 12-volt battery, via a power inverter. Thank goodness the phone line still works!

The worst things about the day is not the widespread power outage (over 5,000 in Franklin County and more than twice that in Roanoke lost power) or even that some won't get power restored until Wednesday.

The worst things are the fires. There's a big one in Bedford County, a couple in Roanoke, and some in Franklin County—one at Penn Hall is close to one of our farms. But the only one I could see was the one on the backside of Smith Mountain.

I stood in my front yard when I took these pictures. Talk about close to home. . . .

Meanwhile, the wind still howls.


A Windy Day (with Clouds)

Or maybe it's a Cloudy Day (with Wind).

The wind has been blowing today! REALLY BLOWING! It's played havoc with the power lines, and my computer has already shut down twice. Fortunately the outages have only been a minute or so each, but that was enough to take me off line.

These trees, for instance, normally stand upright. Notice how they're leaning to the east.

For the last couple of hours, I've watched the way the wind blows the clouds across the sky—kind of a never-ending, quickly-changing work of art. In the photo above and in the one below of the Peaks of Otter, the clouds seem frozen in place, but they're really flying across the sky.

Reminds me of a poem:

The Wind
by Robert Louis Stevenson

I saw you toss the kites on high
And blow the birds about the sky;
And all around I heard you pass,
Like ladies' skirts across the grass

Oh wind, a blowing all day long,
Oh wind, that sings so loud a song!

I saw the different things you did,
But always you yourself you hid.
I felt you push, I heard you call,
I could not see yourself at all

Oh wind, a blowing all day long!
Oh wind, that sings so loud a song!

O you that are so strong and cold,
O blower, are you young or old?
Are you a beast of field and tree,
Or just a stronger child than me?

O wind, a blowing all day long,
O wind, that sings so loud a song!

Speaking of "singing so loud a song," one of the resident mockingbirds—determined he wouldn't be one of the birds blown "about the sky"—clung to a branch:

I don't have much patience anymore to watch TV or even movies, but I could watch the wind blow the clouds all day long.


Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Family Mystery

Annie Pearl Nace, daughter of William Robert Nace and Sulmena (spelled Sulmenia in one entry in the family Bible, Sulmana on her tombstone) Frances Spence Nace, was born on February 9, 1890, in Lithia, Virginia. Lithia is not far from Buchanan, in Botetourt County.

At the time of her birth, Annie Pearl Nace had three living older sisters—Mary Lucy (born January 31, 1885), Mattie Blanche (born October 16, 1886), and Cora William (born December 12, 1888. And older unnamed sister was born and died on February 18, 1884. Her other living sisters Ossie and Zora would be born in years to come, as would at least one more unnamed girl who died as an infant in late 1891.

Back row: Cora, Blanche, Lucy, Pearl
Front Row: Wm. R. Nace, S. Frances Nace, Ossie

Like her sisters, Blanche and Lucy, she was known by her middle name, Pearl. Her older sisters married—Blanche to Howard Ruble, Lucy to Charlie Mays, Cora to Thomas Owen (T.O.) Hunt. The older sisters left Lithia—the Rubles to Roanoke, the Mayses to Richmond, and the Hunts to Boones Mill.

Pearl never married, but she had a beau, Otha Young. Pearl and Otha must have been serious about each other to travel all the way by train to Roanoke to have their picture made together at the Davis Photography Studio on Salem Avenue.

Pearl never left Lithia. She took sick and died suddenly on July 30, 1911. She’s buried in the Lithia Baptist Church cemetery. Her death is a mystery.

No long ago, in one of the boxes I’ve been going through, I found a yellowed fragment of her newspaper obituary, in which some of her church friends extolled her virtues. Her death was a surprise. No one expected it. Apparently she was sick for two or three days before she died.

My grandmother (Blanche) would sometimes talk about Pearl living but never about her death. My mother would never talk about it much, either. Grandma was a great believer in ghosts, having once seen one—but she never elaborated on the details. Someone—a cousin, I think—once told me Grandma had once seen the ghost of her sister. I don't know if that's true or not.

When I was a kid and asked Mama why Aunt Pearl didn’t live a long life like her sisters, she replied that Pearl’s boyfriend once said that if he couldn’t have her no one else would either. I think Mama said that he’d given her a box of candy a few days before she died. (How would Mama have known this? Mama was born two years after Pearl died. Unless her mother or her aunts. . . .) Could Otha have been responsible for Pearl's death? How?

A decade before my mother died, I asked her again about Pearl. She denied ever telling me that Pearl’s boyfriend had anything to do with her death. About that time, Mama’s cousin (Zora’s son) also wanted to know about Pearl; she wouldn’t tell him anything either. “I wish Billy would just leave it alone,” she said to me. That was the last she said of it.

Leave what alone? I wonder. Why the big secret?

Several months ago, I showed Pearl’s picture to a friend with psychic abilities. “Oh, she was poisoned,” the friend said. She didn’t elaborate.

If Otha really gave her candy, wouldn’t she have shared it with her little sisters? If the candy were poisoned, wouldn't the sisters have gotten sick, too?

On one of the two identical pictures I have of Pearl and Otha, someone has taken a sharp object (a pin? a needle?) and scratched it across Otha’s neck. Why?

I’ve Googled the name “Otha Young” and haven’t found much. Someone by that name was married in West Virginia a few years after Pearl died. Was it the same Otha Young?

Maybe Pearl did become ill and was treated with a home remedy. (Another friend, upon studying the picture, had gotten the impression of a rash—or hives.) Morphine was legal then, and I know my great-grandmother used it for some recurring pain that she had. Laudanum was readily available—and was sometimes used to bring on menses should a female be several weeks—or even several months—late. Take a big dose and jump from the pasture fence or the high side of the porch—soon you’ll be regular again. Paregoric was a still popular home remedy when I was a kid. Among other uses, it relieved babies’ teething pain. My grandmother took it for stomach cramps. Most households had it. Could an overdose of some narcotic have poisoned Pearl when it should have cured what ailed her?

I guess we’ll never know for sure. Some things remain a mystery.

Happy 118th birthday, Pearl.



In the last week, I’ve been to three different medical appointments, mostly for routine maintenance–something I need more of as I age. I have concluded the following:

  • Watching a sonogram of the interior of a personal private part is boring. (Note: Boring is apparently a good thing.) I noticed a lot more action on my electrocardiogram last September. My conclusion: some body parts are more entertaining than others.
  • Having toenail surgery is almost as bad the second time around (the second time in seven months!) and I limp just as badly as after the first one. Luckily I got a lot of yard work done Sunday when the weather was nice and I could walk better. I wish someone had warned me about ingrown toenails being a part of aging.
  • Mammograms at Franklin Memorial Hospital are much more comfortable than those done at Lewis-Gale (thanks to a foam pad the radiologist places between the patient and the cold X-ray machine), I don’t have to walk as far to get to radiology, and the radiologist evens gives you a souvenir—the pad which can be used for all sorts of craft projects (it's like the stick-on foam craft stuff you get at Wal-Mart). Plus the wait is much faster than at Lewis-Gale. You're in and out in minutes.

I try to get the routine maintenance stuff done during the winter when I usually can’t get out much anyway and won’t miss anything. However, I missed two days of nice weather this week because of appointments.

Next thing: pet maintenance. The horses and most of the cats and dogs get their shots during late winter and early spring. Emma—the mixed sheltie with bad hair—will get her first shearing that will last her until late summer. After the animals: house and yard maintenance. I want to plant a lot of flowers and trees this year—especially forsythias. The woman who designed this house used to have a whole row of them along the road, and they were gorgeous every March. I also want to plant a lot of trees.

There’s always something.

Despite the groundhog’s prediction, the weather lately has been so spring-like. Yesterday’s temperature, for instance, hit 70. Today we had a heavy “spring” rain.


Monday, February 04, 2008

I've Got A "Secret"?

A friend of mine recently lent me a DVD and told me I should watch it. It’s based on a book that Oprah touted last year. No, it isn’t James Fries’ faked memoir, A Million Little Pieces. This one’s called “The Secret.” I’d seen a whole pile of these books at Books-A-Million a couple of months ago, and wondered why they had a whole pile. Like a whole table full! Maybe if I watched Oprah, I’d know, but I don’t watch Oprah on any regular basis. Somehow I missed the book and movie when they first appeared. (Edited to add: Somehow I even missed Blue Country Magic's review of the book last summer—and I'm a faithful reader of her blog.)

But back to the video. After I’d watched a few chapters, I realized that this was the old “Power of Positive Thinking” repackaged. Only with a lot of mystical sounds and intriguing artwork in the titles. Because I taught middle school drama in a former career and because I’d taken some film courses, some manipulative film-making techniques used in The Secret set off a lot of my radar detectors.

But I kept watching. After what seemed like forever, amidst the mystery of how people in power for eons didn’t want underlings to know the secret, the secret was revealed: It’s the Law of Attraction, which was compared a lot to the Law of Gravity: Visualize what you really want and the Universe will provide it. It really isn’t at all like the Law of Gravity because with the law of Gravity we don't have to visualize not falling off the earth; it just works in the background and we stay put. With the Law of Attraction, we have to be pro-active.

I’m a skeptic. While some of the info no doubt works (There’s a 50-50 chance of anything; either it will or it won’t.), I find it hard to imagine that people get what they want by just concentrating on it and letting the universe provide. For instance, two people concentrate equally hard on winning a tennis game. Obviously only one can win. See?

A bunch of bloggers hopped on The Secret bandwagon last spring, and many of them were skeptical, too. Deric Bownd’s Mindblog explains it better than I can. It’s a good first stop on your search for The Secret.

Sceptico (“critical thinking for an irrational world”) evaluates the first twenty minutes of the DVD and provides some good insights into why this idea (the law of attraction) isn’t always valid. Again, he says it better than I can. His site also has a link to Mike’s Weekly Skeptic Rant (“Here’s the Secret: Blame the Victim”)—another good article.

Anita Quigley’s article, “Focus on the Things You Want. . .” is pretty good, too. For only $5, she’ll tell you the secret. That’s a real bargain compared to how much The Secret folks want.

. . . and other blogs also notice that the emperor—er, The Secret—has no clothes. This one, this one, and this one are worth a look.

Anyhow, I watched the DVD (I couldn’t do it all in one sitting, though) and some (that’s some, as in a little bit) of the information did inspire me. For instance, I visualized the house being cleaner. After I vacuumed, made the bed, carried some books to the basement, and put away some laundry, doggone if the house wasn’t neater! But I acted on my visualization—I made it happen. So, does it count? (I could be wrong, but I don't think the universe really cares about my housekeeping.)

I thought about my grandfather who’d had a stroke back in the 60s. He was a great fan of Oral Roberts. He’d watch the show religiously (pun intended). He really, really believed that Roberts would heal him. He believed so strongly that he didn’t bother to do any physical therapy-type exercises. He had faith! I think he might even have sent money to Oral Robert’s ministry. But, alas, no results. He never recovered from the effects of the stroke and died in a nursing home.

Granted, some of the info on the DVD is workable—I buy into the part about gratitude, for example. (I’ll blog about that at another time.) But when you mix what might work with what’s unlikely to work. . . .

I visualized finishing the stories I’m judging for a high school in Alexandria. After visualizing, I wrote up my comments on them. Again, I did it. A genii didn’t appear and do it for me. (If the genii had appeared, I’d have concentrated on him straightening up my study and cleaning the closet and organizing all my file folders.)

I’m visualizing about my white carpet being cleaner. (Yes, white carpet in a part of rural Virginia noted for its red mud. It came with the house.) Now I know a genii won’t appear, but this carpet cleaner guy who comes every month or so, will be here in about a week. I’ll have to pay him, though. Plus I’m visualizing replacing this carpet with something in taupe. When There’s a good carpet sale in a year or so, I’ll act on my visualization.

Camilla visualizes. Or maybe she just looks out the window. Whatever.

So, as I write this, I’m sitting at my elderly eMac visualizing wealth and a new iMac (and occasionally watching Camilla-the-little-brown-cat who’s looking out the window and visualizing sinking her teeth into the birds that fly past) when doncha know I find this email from somebody I don’t even know:






Is this a coincidence or what?!

Meanwhile, I’m reminded of a couple of old sayings that possibly reveal the secret a bit better:

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”—Seneca

“Chance favors the prepared mind.”—Louis Pasteur

“God helps them that help themselves” -Ben Franklin (Poor Richard's Almanack)

In other words, “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.” (But maybe not this way.)

Did you know that self-help is a major industry? See Michael Shermer’s Scientific American article, “The Self-Help and Actualization Movement has become an $8.5-billion-a-year business. Does it work?”

Saturday, February 02, 2008

An Unroll in the Hay

On Thursday, John had put a fresh round bale in the pasture. This would get the horses through the ice storm and for several days thereafter. A round bale usually lasts Melody and Cupcake at least a week.

When I went to feed this morning, I noticed something odd. The bale wasn't there.

Well, the hay was there, but it had been unrolled. At the end of the roll, Cupcake nibbled the choicest bits. Between Cupcake and where the bale used to be was a path of destruction.

Let's take a closer look:

Yep, that's the unrolled bale. That's Cupcake, doing what she does best: eating. Now, I know that Cupcake probably didn't unroll the hay. That's what Melody likes to do. I've caught Melody doing it in the past. But where is Melody?

Aha! she's hiding in the run-in shed! "Melody, why did you unroll the bale?"

Melody: "What makes you think I did it? You can't prove it was me. Just because I've unrolled bales in the past doesn't mean I did it. Maybe the dogs got out and did it. Maybe Cupcake did it. Maybe you did it and are trying to blame me!"

Me: "Melody, methinks thou doth protest too much. Plus I recognize your work when I see it."

Eventually, we'll get to the bottom of this.



Friday, February 01, 2008

Icy Morning

An ice storm was predicted for much of southwest Virginia. Yesterday, we filled water tubs for the critters and put another round bale in the pasture for the horses. Luckily we didn't get too bad an icing. We only lost power for a few seconds this morning, but it came back on.

All the bushes and trees are bejeweled, though.

The Rose of Sharon by the garage.

These orbs are moisture, not spirits. (I think.)

A good day to stay in and do housework.

Or maybe write. Or read.


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