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.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Horsing Around, Part 2

Yesterday, I did indeed ride Cupcake—for about 15 minutes in the pasture. Even though she's only 15.1, I still had a problem getting on. Given age, weight, and health issues, I couldn't raise my foot high enough to mount, even with the step-stool. Cupcake stood like a rock, though, so I can't fault her. With some help from John and my friend Kathy, I sort of climbed up the saddle. Then Cupcake and I tooled around the pasture for about 15 minutes.

At 27, Cupcake still has her power steering, still works off the leg—and is still slow. The slowness I do not mind, although I did back in our show days of the 1980s. Slow is fine now. I've slowed down a lot myself in the last couple decades.

Cupcake's main problem yesterday was excessive whinnying. Cousin Mary had already mounted 16-hand Melody (Mary is younger and more agile than I am) and had taken off down Bar Ridge Road to the farm. At almost 19, Melody still has a lot of go—so she went. Cupcake, who'd been grazing in the front pasture, didn't see her pasture mate leave.

It wasn't until I'd called Cupcake in, tacked her up, and returned to the front field to ride that Cupcake realized she'd been left behind. So she whinnyed. And whinnyed, etc. We're talking loud whinnying here. Every time she whinnyed, she sort of vibrated. Remember those mechanical horses that cost a quarter per ride. That's how she felt. Interesting ride.

Later, after I'd untacked Cupcake, Mary and Melody returned. Both mares were reunited, and no doubt compared notes about their experiences. Then Mary drove down the road to see if her own horse was rideable. If so, she'd ride by later.

Turns out that Doc, her old Quarterhorse gelding was indeed rideable, so Mary returned about the time John was leaving on his tractor to move round bales at the farm. For a moment, it looked like a parade on Listening Hill Road:

Then Mary and Doc went one way and John and tractor the other. The parade was over.

And this as good a stopping place as any.

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Friday, May 30, 2008

Horsing Around

This morning, I’m going out to ride Cupcake. My cousin Mary (who is younger and more agile than I am) will work Melody for me. Consequently, instead of leaving you a witty, profound, insightful blog post (Do I do those? Oh. . . .), I’ll leave you some horse-riding activities to try just in case you don't have a horse of your own to ride:

Warning: The Jumporama: Horse Riding Coach is addictive. All you have to do is jump a course by pressing the spacebar before each jump. The crowd cheers when you jump successfully and groans when you jump too early or too late.

In Lexie’s Ride, a kid and her pony are playing in the snow. This game was designed for kids, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble. If you do, get a kid to show you.

In Peter Pony, another game designed for kids, you gather up horseshoes. I don’t know why anyone would want to do that, but if you do, here it is.

Have a good time horsing around. Our regularly scheduled blog posts will return tomorrow.

Or the day after. Whenever.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Part-time House Dog

by Maggie Mae Mushko
(border collie)

I now live in the house at night. Here’s how it happened: A couple of weeks ago, Mommy trucked up the resident canine population to the vet for what she calls “Regular Maintenance.” Somehow, we had to take a test that I didn’t pass. The other dogs did, which I can’t figure because I’m so much smarter than they are. The test was called “Earl Icky Oh Sis.” I do not know who Earl is, or why he is icky, but I do know that I have to take some doggie-xicillan pills every morning and night even though the vet said I was not showing any symptoms, whatever that means. Those pills are icky, but I sit nicely while Mommie opens my mouth and puts them in the back of my throat. After I swallow my pills, she plays with me.

Mommie and Daddy decided to take the tests, too, as well as some other ones—but not at the vet’s. They passed.

Anyhow, I come in the house every night and go back to the kennel every morning. While I am gone, Harley is the night manager of the kennel. Hubert wasn’t interested in the job and Emma was too busy watching the rat holes, so Harley was it.

Harley and me. Hubert is in the background.

So far, he has done a good job. He is the loudest dog in the kennel. He isn’t as dedicated at watching the horses as I am, though. But during the day, I am the kennel boss and it isn’t negotiable.

As a house-dog, I have had to retrain Mommy to get up when I say “Urm-um-wurf,” which means “I really have to go out RIGHT NOW!” I have had to rearrange my toys and place them where they are convenient when I want them. Mommy brought my favorite toy—Squeaky Squirrel on a Rope—in from the truck so I could play with it whenever I wanted.

After some scientific experimentation, I have discovered that Squeaky Squirrel does not bounce down the steps like my squeaky balls do. This was disappointing, but it is still my favorite toy.

However, I can get a more satisfying squeak from the little pink and green squeaky ball. I carry it around and squeak and squeak and squeak and squeak and squeak and squeak and squeak and squeak and squeak and squeak and squeak and squeak and squeak and squeak and squeak and squeak and squeak and—well, you get the idea. Fortunately, Mommy taught junior high and middle school for nearly thirty years so she can deal with aggravation. Sometimes she plays step-ball with me, although she cannot understand why I like chasing the ball down the steps.

I have also had to rearrange my rug (Mommy keeps straightening it out, which I do not like!) and get Mommy used to moving her feet so I can sleep under her desk. A border collie’s work is never done.

Some nice things: I get to ride in the truck to check the farms, and I also get to go out on the leash late at night and walk around in the dark. Plus that evil cat Dylan has become a part-time outside vole-catching cat, so he usually sleeps in the garage at night in case a rodent needs catching. it’s about time he started pulling his puny little weight around here. The first night I stayed in, he smacked me while I was asleep, which woke me up and forced me to chase him down the hall until he hid under the hall-tree and hissed at me. Lucky for him, Mommy called me off before I dragged that evil cat out and gave him a good snap.

Anyhow, that’s what I’ve been doing.



Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sixty Bales

“Who hath not felt that breath in the air,
A perfume and freshness strange and rare,
A warmth in the light, and a bliss everywhere,
When young hearts yearn together?
All sweets below, and all sunny above,
Oh! there's nothing in life like making love,
Save making hay in fine weather!”

—Thomas Hood (1799-1845)

The hay is baled on Polecat Creek Farm, and we had fine weather for it. Half the sixty bales are enough to feed my mares through the winter.

Is that bale a thing of beauty, or what? If you think of hay as art, you're not alone. Check out Hay In Art: A collection of great works of hay. You'll find hay paintings galore and a plethora of hay poems, such as the one at the top of this post.

The next few days promise storms, so we'll hold off cutting the other two farms for a day or two.

Meanwhile, I'll savor the memory of yesterday's field: the sweet smell of "a perfume and freshness strange and rare."

Bliss everywhere. . . .


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Monday, May 26, 2008

Making Hay, Raking Hay

We've got hay down on Polecat Creek Farm. The picture below shows the raked hay in our top field. The mountain peeking between the trees is Smith Mountain.

"Farming is pretty work."
—Lee Smith, Fair and Tender Ladies

Two days ago,the cut hay looked in our point field (across the road from our top field) looked like this:

John has been raking hay since mid-morning. This is how the raked hay looked in the top field a few hours before I posted this entry:

The hay is thick this year and today is hot, sunny, and windy—a perfect day to make hay. Another part of the top field:

John rakes hay in the side field:

And a closer look. He's nearly done:

Later this afternoon, the raked and dried hay will be baled.

Farming is hot, heavy, tedious work. But it's still pretty.



Saturday, May 24, 2008

What's in My Yard Today?

Earlier today, there was a horse in my yard.

"Bud Lite" is used for competitive driving. He was getting a workout on the road, and stopped to visit. Little Ruby Sherwood, the dog next door, decided to visit, too. She found a shady place under the cart.

However, Bud Lite soon went on down the road. Ruby (bottom left) stayed to investigate the area around my flower bed.

Meanwhile, Melody and Cupcake grazed amid the daisies.

Down the road at the farm, a sign appeared in the corner of our field. (Is that a great piece of yard art, or what?)

Apparently, VDOT will finally fix the low water bridge at the end of Bar Ridge Road. Why will they take two weeks? In the fields on either side of the road, our hay is down.

Cut hay on a sunny day is a pretty sight!

And that's what was in my yard (and fields) today.



Thursday, May 22, 2008

Retirement & Writing Time

Yesterday I received an email, part of which said this:

I came across your blog and then checked out your website as I was doing research on retiree blogs. I'm curious to know what you think about working in retirement and writing in retirement. Do you feel freer to write now than you did before retirement? Do you feel pressure to work part-time?

This started me thinking about those two last questions. The short answer to the first one: yes; to the second one: no.

Now for the long answers that might give a bit more info about me to some of you who know me only from this blog (and those of you who know me only too well can just skip to the end):

Q. Do you feel freer to write now than you did before retirement?

A. Yes. I don’t have quite as many obligations that I must tend to first. I also can pick what time I write. My ideas flow best mid-morning and late night—times that weren’t convenient when I worked.

I also have the freedom to read. I read considerably more in retirement than I did when I worked. When I was teaching, I had limited reading time. Now, if I’m really into a book, I can read half the night. Reading books by good writers helps my writing, too. I’m a much better writer than I was a decade ago.

Retirement has allowed me time to participate in writing-related activities. I’m an active member of two writing groups—Lake Writers (the literary branch of the Smith Mountain Arts Council) and the Valley Writers Chapter of the Virginia Writers Club. Three friends and I recently formed a critique group for the children’s literature that we write—three of us are members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Plus I’m active in the Roanoke Valley Branch of the League of American Pen Women. Before retirement, I rarely attended a writing conference; now I attend three or four a year. I’ve learned a lot about the publishing process since I retired.

Since retiring, I’ve self-published my novel Patches on the Same Quilt, the cost of the first press run of a thousand was partially underwritten by the Smith Mountain Arts Council; I’m now two-thirds through the second thousand) and used a print-on-demand publisher for two collections of previously published short stories (The Girl Who Raced Mules & Other Stories and Where There’s A Will) and for two collections of my column (Peevish Advice and More Peevish Advice). Self-publishing requires considerable time and effort for promotion—hard to do for those who work full-time. I’ve had a few things published commercially— a story in A Cup of Comfort for Writers, for example, and I’m using retirement time to submit other work to commercial publishers.

Q. Do you feel pressure to work part-time?

A. Not at all. Now that I get both state retirement and social security, I can maintain a modest lifestyle without “having” to work. I write “Peevish Advice,” a humor column twice a month for the Smith Mountain Eagle. The column takes less than two hours to write. When I freelance, I can accept assignments that interest me, so they’re more like fun rather than work. I used to say I wrote for gas money, but—since the increase in gas prices—I now write for pocket money.

Much of my writing is for my own enjoyment—I blog several times a week. While I don’t make money blogging, I get satisfaction from writing what I want to write. My blog is a letter I write to my friends. I also write essays and short stories for writing contests, I’m seeking a publisher for my Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story, and I’m working on a middle-grade novel.

When I took early retirement from teaching in 1997, I was still obligated to work 20 days a year for five years as a “consultant” for Roanoke City Public Schools. In 1999, when my husband and moved to rural Franklin County, I took what I thought was a one-semester job as an adjunct at Ferrum College. Because I worked only on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I could still fulfill my Roanoke City obligations. I finally left my “one-semester job” in 2006, and thought I was officially retired. Then I received an offer to be 2006-2007 writer-in-residence For Roanoke County Schools. This job required I work 35 days. I took it. In September 2007, I became eligible for social security and decided I was indeed officially retired—no more part-time teaching jobs. Working part-time was a nice way to ease into full retirement.

I really don’t think of writing as a job—more like a hobby that earns me a bit of pocket money from time to time. However, if I succeed in selling a book to a commercial publisher, then it’ll become a job again.

So, gentle Blogger-buddies (several of whom I know are retired), what are your answers to those two questions?

Since the reporter, Liz Wolgemuth, had provided a link to her own blog, The Inside Job, I decided to check it out. She writes about some interesting stuff. Another blog to add to my growing list of blogs I like to read.

Thank goodness I’m retired and have more time to read!



Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Hay Days

Hay is down all over this part of the county. Our fifty acres, which will be cut in the next couple of days, look great.

Yesterday's rain doused a bunch of fields with cut hay on the ground, but the afternoon winds helped dry it out. If it rains on green hay, not much problem. If it rains on hay that is curing, big problem.

Making hay is a gamble. Last year's drought meant we—and others—lost our investment in fertilizer and lime. Even though we could use more rain now, a week of hot dry weather is perfect for making hay.

Our neighbor cuts hay just beyond our property line.
The large round bales are ours, left from last spring's cutting.

Hay has to be cut, raked and turned again and allowed to dry before it can be baled. It takes a couple of days to do this. If the days are dry, the hay should cure nicely.

As I write this post, I can hear the sound of a tractor nearby. It's a sound that'll be heard all over the county during the next few days.

I hope it stays dry for the next several days.


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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Evening Walk Alone

against their beliefs a blue spot came slowly
out of the green

nobody expected such a thing to occur

The other evening, I took a walk in the woods. John parked his truck just off the road at the beginning of the trail, but I walked alone through the deep green woods of mid-May.

To the right of the tree (above) is where our three black plastic life-sized geese used to be. A couple of weeks ago, someone stole them. Why would anyone steal our old lawn ornaments?

I continued alone down the trail to the clearing. You can see the green of the clearing just beyond the trees.

One spring, in the early 90s, we found a dozen or so holes—six inches across and a foot deep— in this clearing. A local officer told us it looked like that someone was about to plant a marijuana crop. Who, besides us, knew a clearing was here?

After I went through the clearing, I turned left and walked south. The trail widens, then vanishes into the green.

As I walked, I saw evidence that others had been along this trail. I never leave trash in the woods. Who else walks this trail—and why?

Is this tree wonderfully spooky, or what?

After I turned back, I could see a shaft of the setting sun through the trees. for a few moments, the woods seemed to glow.

There were things I didn't see when I walked that I now see in five of these pictures. Do you see them, too?

I wonder—do we ever really walk alone?

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Sunday, May 18, 2008


A front door, if you believe the hype in decorating magazines, is supposed to be warm and welcoming.

The front door on my southern colonial ranch-style house has always looked at bit, well, bland. And boring.

Wanting to spiff it up a bit, I decided to paint it yellow. I thought a yellow door would add a touch of whimsy to the place.

The yellow was a bit brighter than I expected, but what the heck.

Not bland and boring any more, is it?

It's downright whimsical.



Saturday, May 17, 2008

Incredible Amazing E-mail Offer

I got this email yesterday from somebody I must have met at a writers conference. Or maybe we haven't met. I somehow get the feeling that she hasn’t been reading my blog—she's just trying to sell me something.

Her words are in italics; my responses are in plain text.


Ever struggle with what to write on your blog?
No, I have plenty of ideas. (I wonder why there was no comma after the salutation. I wonder why there wasn't more of a greeting from someone who apparently knows me on a first name basis.)

How do you to find the time?
I make time. Plus I’m retired. I don't have to contend with going to a job everyday. Just feeding critters and other farm stuff.

My friends, The Blog Squad (names redacted), say writing consistently good blog posts is the #1 challenge of most business people.
Well, I’m not a business person. I’m retired. My blog posts don’t have to be “consistently good,” though I’d like them to be pretty good.

It's also the #1 way to use a blog to successfully grow your business, build your online reputation and brand, get new leads, new clients and make money: you must write consistently good blog posts.
I’m not "growing a business" (although I'm growing some flowerbeds) and I’m not looking for clients. I’m retired, although I do serve on a bunch of committees.

They've been studying what works for business blogging since 2004. Now, The Blog Squad is offering a comprehensive teleseminar, Better Business Blog Writing next week on May 19 and 21.
Can you say “Better Business Blog Writing” ten times really fast? Go ahead, try it!

On the 19th, I’m taking three dogs—a border collie, a beagle, and a catahoula—to the vet for routine maintenance. That’s about all the excitement I can stand in one day. Since my blog isn’t a business blog, I’m not interested in a teleseminar, comprehensive or otherwise.

Without being Hemingway or Huffington, you can vastly improve the quality of your blog writing for better business results.
Durn! Wouldn’t a blog from Ernest Hemingway be cool? Well, it might be a problem since he’s been dead for decades. Who is Huffington? Is that the teddy bear in the coat. (No, that’s Paddington.) Maybe this?

In this class, you will learn:
=> How to find time for writing, and how to get faster at blog posting so it doesn?t eat up all your time
Why is there a question mark instead of an apostrophe in the word doesn’t? And what's with the equals sign and arrow? Wouldn't a bullet point be, I dunno, more professional? I "find time" just fine, thank you. Blogging doesn?t, er, doesn't "eat up" my time. I think of blogging as writing a letter to my friends. It's a pleasure, not an obligation.

=> How to come up with blog posts that "wow" your readers
I don’t want readers who are easily wowed. I prefer that my readers be critical thinkers. I don't even like to hang around people who are easily wowed.

=> How blog writing differs from other forms of writing, and how to leverage this skill into other products and services
I hate when people use “leverage” as a verb. What "products and services" are we talking about? Will someone come clean my house and the kennel? help get up hay next week? re-roof my house?

=> How to improve the quality of your blog posts so that they have a profound effect on readers
What kind of “profound effect” are we talking about? Will I be able to heal the sick? raise the dead?

=> How your blog content works to actually make money for your business
I don’t have a business. I’m retired. I've said that before.

Better Business Blog Writing is presented in two 70-minute teleclasses by The Blog Squad to help professionals get more bang out of business blogging.
I don’t have a business blog. As for getting a bang, I do have a concealed weapon permit.

Won?t you join them?
There's that question mark again. And the answer is no. Among other things, I have to take the dogs to the vet.

What: Better Business Blog Writing

When: Monday, May 19 and Wednesday, May 21, 2008 at 5 p.m. ET
5 p.m. is suppertime. That's when I feed assorted critters. If we make it back from the vet.

Where: In your office
My “office” (i.e., study) has been taken over by cats. It's not a real office, anyhow.

How: On your phone! (it doesn?t get more convenient than this)
There’s that question mark again. What’s with that? Plus, if I’m on the phone, I can’t use my computer to access the Internet. I’m on dial-up. (Is there a computer-equivalent for Luddite? If so, that’s me.)

Handouts including a blog writing checklist, class notes, lists of resources and blog writing articles that include the psychology of learning styles and influence.
Hmmm. Handing out handouts over the phone is going to be a real trick. I had plenty of workshops on learning styles when I was a teacher. Have they discovered any new learning styles that those interminable workshops didn't cover? (Just thinking about those workshops makes me glad I'm retired.)

Network with other members in a private group on Facebook where you can get feedback on your blog posts, find your next joint venture and share resources.
Facebook might be fine for kids, but I’m a sexagenerian. I don’t do Facebook or MySpace. I just blog. I don't want to "network" with anonymous strangers. Especially those who are trying to sell me something.

Plus to augment your learning, we're including four FREE audio programs with expert bloggers ($40 value):
Couldn’t you just send me the URLs of the expert bloggers’ blogs? I’ll bet I can figure out from their blogs why they’re experts.

To my friends I'm also offering a FREE mp3 recording on "How To Strategically Use Facebook" Are you on Facebook? Social Networking and blogging are necessary, powerful tools for businesses today. After these incredible classes you will see why!
Uh, I didn’t know we were friends. We’re maybe distant acquaintances. We’ve never done lunch, have we? Served on the same committees? Done farmwork together? Walked our dogs together? Critiqued each other’s manuscripts? Gone walking together? Shared a ride somewhere? Lent each other books and then discussed the books? Those are things I do with my friends.

By the way, your last sentence needs a comma after the introductory adverb phrase. And I’m suspicious of the word “incredible.” Most things described as “incredible” turn out to be less than incredible.

The link for the Facebook mp3 will be emailed out next week to all who participate in this amazing class!
I don’t have an mp3 player. (Yes, I’m iPodless!) I'm as suspicious of the word "amazing" as I am of "incredible."

Click here for complete details: [URL redacted]
I didn’t click.

Don't miss this opportunity to improve your business blogging efforts and start getting even more spectacular results from your blog.

Wishing you success!
J******* D*****
shutterqueenink@wherever. . . .

P.S. The program starts on Monday, May 19 so grab your spot now!
You should have put a comma after May 19. Will leaving out commas improve my blogging success?

I think I need to offer a class in punctuation for spammers. Wouldn#t you like to improve your email^s punctuation% If so! send me money and I?ll sell you the secrets of successful spammers* successfully punctuated spams!

It/s incredible, amazing, and spectacular!!!!!!!!!!!

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Take a Rural Peek

If you’re trapped in the city and you crave a mountain to rest your eyes against, I found the webcam for you.

This one, pointed at Cahas Mountain in northern Franklin County, is at Oak Hill Stables in Boones Mill. The webcam gives a glimpse of what a rural part of Franklin County looks like—what’s left of it.

Last night's post last night showed Roanoke in the evening. This one shows Franklin County in the morning. I grabbed this image a little after 8:30 a.m.

Go ahead. Take a peek at rural Virginia.

While it’s still there.



Thursday, May 15, 2008

Taking a Peek

Since escaping the mid-sized city of Roanoke for the rural living experience nine years ago, I don’t go to Roanoke much anymore—especially with gas prices over $3.50 a gallon and rising.

If I want to see what’s happening in Roanoke, I can take a peek through a couple of web cams.

I can check the progress of the Art Museum of Western Virginia on the Art Museum’s AM-Cam. For those not familiar with the, uh, controversial architecture of the museum, you might want to take a look. (Warning in advance for all y’all who ain’t from around here: The museum was not hit by a tornado or hurricane. It’s supposed to look like a big hunk of twisted metal and glass. Why? Well, it’s art.)

Here's a peek I took earlier tonight:

If you prefer a broader outlook and better-looking scenery, you can take a look from just below the star on Mill Mountain. Yep, it’s got a StarCam! I grabbed this shot about the same time as the museum shot. Both cams refresh a couple of times a minute.

Because of the rain and haze, you can't see the city all that well. But it's there. You can see the lights.

If you want to see what other parts of Virginia look like, a list of web cams in Virginia is here.

Go ahead. Take a peek. Take several. They're free.



Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Writerly Day

My day was filled with “writerly” activities.

First, Lake Writers officially announced the winners of our 2008 Student Fiction Contest. This year, instead of a theme, we used a setting: the aspiring writers had to set their stories within 50 miles of Smith Mountain Lake. Each story was read by a minimum of four people (sometimes considerably more); it took us a while to reach a consensus. Part of my job as coordinator was to email the winners, which I did this morning. Here they are:

High School Division: First Place: “The Piano Man” by Logan Wamsley, Jefferson Forest High School, Grade 12; Second Place: “Death, and the Life Thereof” by Natalie Rutrough, Christian Heritage Academy, Grade 12; Third Place: “What a Way to Spend My Saturday Night” by Chelsea Sisson, Jefferson Forest High School, Grade 12; and two Honorable Mentions: “Franklin County Quiet” by Abigail Shepherd, Franklin County High School, Grade 9, and “One Thing That Scares You” by Megan Bettez, Liberty High School, Grade 11.

Middle School Winners: First Place: “Sunrise on the Mountaintop” by Alyson Hancock, Staunton River Middle School, Grade 8; Second Place: “The Job” by Wallace Branin, Homeschooled, Grade 7; Third Place: “The Life You’ve Always Wanted” by Elizabeth Trout, Benjamin Franklin Middle School, Grade 7; and two Honorable Mentions: “Fishville” by Alisha Stevens, Staunton River Middle School, Grade 8, and “The City Below” by Cody Markham, Staunton River Middle School, Grade 8.

As I read this morning’s Roanoke Times (or tried to read through its numerous smudges), I noticed an article by a kid I met last spring when I was writer-in-residence for Roanoke County Schools. At Northside, aspiring novelist Byron Lawson had let me read part of his work in progress—and it showed promise. Well, he’s finished it and self-published through

Next, my review of Rex Bowman’s new book appeared in today’s Smith Mountain Eagle.

Here’s my review (Can you tell I loved the book?):

Blue Ridge Chronicles:
A Decade of Dispatches from Southwest Virginia
by Rex Bowman
160 pages, The History Press, 2008
ISBN-10: 159629454X, ISBN-13: 978-1596294547

Rex Bowman, a Floyd native and a reporter for the Roanoke bureau of the Richmond Times Dispatch, has spent the last eleven years writing about small towns in Southwest Virginia. Stories and photos from his first ten years of traipsing about Virginia’s byways are collected in his new book, Blue Ridge Chronicles: A Decade of Dispatches from Southwest Virginia, published by History Press of Charleston South Carolina.

In his Introduction, Bowman says, “In my years as the lone reporter in the Roanoke bureau, I’ve often introduced myself as the ‘foreign correspondent,’ because Southwest Virginia in many respects is so different from the rest of the state, it might as well be another country.”

Venturing off the beaten path, he’s found country towns that were often left off the map— Wangle Junction, Elamsville, Goose Pimple, Busthead, Stonebruise, and eastern Franklin County’s own Novelty. Among the bigger small towns, Bedford rates two chapters—both about the D-Day Memorial. He also writes about small places in Roanoke—the Texas Tavern, the motel that used to be on Route 220, and the Mill Mountain star (only 88 feet high, not the hundred as some folks believe)—but most of his stories are about unique little towns.

“I like to write about small communities because I'm a native of Southwest Virginia and have a small-town outlook,” he says. “I love the people in the hamlets of Southwest Virginia. They're generally funny and resilient.”

Bowman’s stories are about people as much as they are about place, and therein lies much of the book’s charm. The folks he writes about are characters in their own right. One is Clintwood’s Faye “ Wild Granny” Senter who, in her late 70s, hopes to make it big in Nashville with her songs like “Somebody Stole the Outhouse” and “I’ve Been Married Three Times and Never Been Satisfied.” Of her, Bowman writes:

Her accent makes Loretta Lynn sound like a city slicker; the politics of her music, featuring diatribes against Congress, odes to the working poor and praise for the coal miners’ union, make her close kin to Dust Bowl minstrel Woody Guthrie. her bluegrass ballads are as heavy with sentiment as a hallmark card but full of quirky revelations about her long, hard life, which she has weathered with a hearty laugh.

Which stories are Bowman’s favorites? “I'm really fond of the piece on Wangle Junction, the place where the people didn't even know that was the name, and also the piece on St. Paul, home of the wicked Western Front.”

If you like your history up-close and personal, if you treasure life’s small moments, if you are drawn to places that time forgot—or maybe just left off the map, or if you “ain’t from around here” and need help explaining to the folks up north what life is like in Southwest Virginia, you’ll enjoy Blue Ridge Chronicles. It’s a down-home delight!
—Becky Mushko

Then I went to the Franklin County Library Book Club meeting. We discussed my favorite book, Fair and Tender Ladies, by Lee Smith. Plus we had pound cake with ice cream, chocolate sauce, and strawberries. It was scrumptious (OK—the dessert wasn’t writerly. But it was so good!)

When I returned home, the phone was ringing. Bedford County Schools wanted to hire me to do the same workshop I did last summer. Of course, I accepted.

Finally, I finished Randy Pausch’s book, The Last Lecture, which I’d started yesterday. Wow! Another book I love! Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, is dying of pancreatic cancer. Carnegie Mellon gives him a chance to deliver a last lecture. He does.

In his book, Pausch stresses the importance of being prepared. I especially liked this piece of info: “Luck is indeed where preparation meets opportunity.”

Something every aspiring writer should know. Something everyone should know



Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Merry Month of—Maggie Mae

by Maggie Mae Mushko (border collie)

I really do have a right eye. It's just in shadow.

Twas in the merry month of May
When green the buds were swellin’.
—"Barbara Allen" (English folk song)

About time I was taken for a good run! It’s been a couple of weeks. Oh, Mommie says she’s been too busy what with all the committees she’s on, or it’s been too rainy, or something. Excuses, excuses. But today was the perfect day for a run. Everything was so green.

The humans thought this fern was so neat. I thought, "Big deal!"

Anyhow, Mommie’s friends Karen and Julie came to walk the farms, and Hubert and I got to go along. I’ve known Karen for a long time (she talked to me the time I was lost) but I’d never met Julie, who is from the UK, where some of my ancestors are from. I liked the way she talked. Plus she said Mommie’s courtyard looked like an English garden. So, I could tell she was a good person.

I had thought I would be the only dog to ride in the truck to the farms, but that rascally little beagle Hubert slipped out and loaded into the back of the truck—but it took him a couple of tries to get in. I, of course, loaded on the first try. Border collies are perfect.

On the way to Polecat Creek, Mommie pointed out the Carter graveyard where fireballs are said to come from a grave (though Mommie has never seen it and neither have I) and Hainted Holler, where the ghost of Jesse Chapman roamed during the 1840s and later a ghost horse supposedly roamed. I didn't see anything worth chasing.

The humans wondered if this was phlox. I wondered why they even cared.

On the farm, Hubert and I ran, but we didn’t stray far from the humans. Being a good doggie hostess, I was careful to make sure that everyone had lots of opportunities to throw my ball for me before we started our walk. Mommy wouldn't let me take it into the woods. She said that she didn’t need to hear all that squeaking while we walked.

That's Hubert in the background. we're on the trail here.

We walked (well, the humans did; Hubert and I ran) down to the bottoms where everything is green. Really green. I soaked in the creek a couple of times. It was wonderful! We crossed the creek where Mommie found Hubert when he was a tiny puppy and went into the creepy place. Some of Mommie’s friends say it is haunted, and we did walk through some strange-feeling places. No bad. Just a little odd.

Don't the woods look enchanted?

We went through the place where Melody had once panicked and bucked off both Mommie and Daddy in 1997. We went near the fence where, fifty feet on the other side, the biggest marijuana raid in the area took place in the early 90s. We walked along the horse trail.

I'm on the trail. Hubert and Karen are in the field.

The humans looked at all sorts of plants, but Hubert and I tried to sniff things out. Before we left Polecat Creek, I played frisbee with Karen.

Then we went to Smith Farm, and Hubert and I explored some more. I chased a buzzard that was near the cabin, but it got away. We went up the hill to the old cemetery and looked around. I tried to take my squeaky squirrel, but Mommie took it away from me.

I had a pretty good time. Mommy needs to take me for a run more often.

And she should let me carry my toys.


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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mother’s Day, Roses, & Cupcake

Today is Mother’s Day. Because it’s been so wet (another inch of rain in this afternoon’s thunderstorm), I haven’t been to the graveyard to plant flowers for Mama. But her rose in my backyard bloomed.

This rose grew from a slip taken from one of the bushes in Mama’s yard on Floraland Drive in Roanoke. She’d had these roses in her yard as long as I can remember. Somewhere I have a color picture she took of me in front of a line of them when I was a teenager. I remember they bloomed profusely that year. They always bloomed on Mother's Day.

These irises originally came from Mama's yard, too:

Today is also Cupcake’s birthday. At 27, she’s my oldest critter—my oldest animal child. I remember the night she was born. I missed her birth but saw her take her first step.

Cupcake is growing old. My flower bed is, well, growing:

And storms, like the one we had today, keep things green.

As I post this entry, another storm is rolling in.

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Literary Connections

The past week has been packed with literary activities! And the activities—or at least the folks therein—have been connected. Sort of.

Last Saturday, my Lake Writer buddy Karen and I attended the Sedalia Writers Conference. While attendance was sparse, the event was worthwhile and informative. There I procured a copy of Rex Bowman’s new book, Blue Ridge Chronicles, spent the next two days reading it, and wrote a review for the Smith Mountain Eagle. My review in next Wednesday’s paper will scoop other reviews in the area. (I loved the book, and not just because my picture is in it.)

Wednesday, I went to Salem for the monthly meeting of the Roanoke Valley Branch of the League of American Pen Women. I like to hang out with a bunch of artists and writers anyhow, but this meeting featured the announcement of winners of our poetry contest. The winner Jennifer Hollingsworth-Austin) was from Roanoke—and she was someone I knew because we used to keep our horses at Hunting Hills Stable—and I taught her husband in junior high. Her poem was absolutely wonderful. The judge, Maurice Ferguson, attended and spoke about poetry judging.

Thursday, Amy T. and I put into action our plan to have a kiddie lit critique group. (We’ve been wanting to start a crit group since we went to the SCBWI meeting two weeks ago.) Claudia and Amy H. joined us at the Franklin County Library, and the four of us worked out a plan of action to motivate each other to work on individual projects as well as how to critique each other. We all write such different things that we should be able to give plenty of diverse opinions. (The two Amys were members of another—recently defunct—writers group that I dropped out of several months ago. Claudia is a fellow member of Lake Writers.)

Friday, Lake Writers met earlier than usual to select winners of the Lake Writers Student Fiction Contest. (Claudia—from the kiddie lit critique group—rode with me.) As contest coordinator, I had been circulating packets of stories to other members, so all stories had been read by a minimum of four writers prior to the discussion. (Note: Rocky Mount Kroger is a good place to hand off packets to other members.) The high school winner was easy (Everyone agreed—a rarity!) and the first two places in middle school weren’t too difficult. From there we diverged, but we didn’t argue nearly as much as we have in previous years. Anyhow, we have our winners and two honorable mentions. Now, (via email) we’re working on a date when most can attend.

For the last three days, Franklin County Book Festival business has been conducted by email. We had a slot for a Friday night coffeehouse reader suddenly open up. I made a suggestion and others agreed. The coffeehouse readings are August 8 at the Edible Vibe; the main speakers are the following morning at the FC Library.

Today, I spent a delightful four hours reading from More Peevish Advice and generally hanging out at Cottage Curio in Salem. Owner Peggy Shifflett is president of the Pen Women and one of the readers at the Franklin County Book Festival. Rex Bowman will read from his book at Cottage Curio in July. A couple of the Pen Women—Mary and Ethel—popped in to say hello and to partake of Hilda’s wonderful peach cobbler.

This week has been fun, intellectually satisfying, and really busy. Interesting how the same people keep popping up.

Now, “Duke”(my detective buddy)—if you’re reading this—I really will get back to critiquing your mystery novel. But I have to take time out on Wednesday for a book club meeting at the FC Library. They’re discussing my favorite, Fair and Tender Ladies, by Lee Smith, and my Lake Writer buddy Marion will be there (she's also on the FC bookfest committee). Thursday, there's a meeting of Valley Writers. . . .

Today marks the sixth-month anniversary of the day my tombstone went missing. No, it hasn’t come home yet.


Thursday, May 08, 2008

Weathering the Storm

We've had lots of weather this evening—most of it rain, thunder and lightning. A little hail, but not much. I'm afraid that other folks weren't as lucky as we were.

Mainly we watched TV reports about our area being under a tornado warning. Twice. Both times, the tornado activity came from the south, veered a bit east, and missed us.

For a couple of hours we stayed downstairs. A neighbor couple and their yorkie joined us.

We saw some impressive lightning shows to our south, where a tornado is reported to have touched down near the Martinsville airport. TV news showed maps with tornado icons in various places around us. We heard a lot of thunder and pounding rain. We expected the worst and didn't get it.

We were lucky.


Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Flower Bed Update

How do my flower "beds" grow? Very well.

This one is at the southwest corner of our property. That's Chestnut Mountain in the background.

A closer look reveals that the gladiolas are coming up between the slats and a yellow iris is blooming. I've transplanted prickly pear in the foreground, but I doubt that it will produce any blooms this year. I've added some marigolds and magenta petunias. This sparse-looking bed is still a work in progress. I'll add a few more plants in the next week or two.

At the east-facing bed near the top driveway, I painted the headboard white. It looks much better than the simulated brass. The yellow iris really set it off:

The woman who originally lived in this house (and who died 13 years ago) loved the color yellow. Almost anything yellow I plant does well. She once had a beautiful row of forsythias along the road. They were, alas, removed by the time we moved here in 1999. I'd love to put them back.

This Mexican primrose isn't in a bed. It grows beside my garage. The flowers appeared a couple of days ago.

So, I've made my beds. Now I can watch them grow.


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