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.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Forking Manure

Life is much easier with a good manure fork. Glad I bought one yesterday.

I posted that staement on Facebook this morning and received all sorts of comments from an assortment of friends. Some of my horsey friends noted the value of a good manure fork. Here's the fork I actually bought:

This fork even has a 10-year-guarantee. See?

Some non-horsey Facebook folks commented, too. One suggested that "Life is much easier with a good manure fork" sounds like a book title. Another said, "I think your statement applies to several areas of life so I reposted it as a quote for today!!"  Another said, "Those are words to live by."

Some of my writer friends weighed in. Meg Medina said, "You know....that applies to so many scenarios...." and Sharyn McCrumb said, "Excellent advice for editors, Becky."

So, I suppose my statement can be either literal or figurative. Best to recognize manure when you see it—in whatever form—and deal with it. And here's the literal form I deal with: 

It helps to look at both literal and figurative manure with a critical eye—possibly right at its source. Then start forking it out before it piles up too much:

And it can pile up. Here's a two-month accumulation:

If this were a manuscript, it would definitely need some editing. But it's our garden spot. In the spring, this manure will be plowed into it to enrich the soil. Take a look at the bigger picture and try to imagine this as a spring garden:

Years ago, I wrote a kinda crappy poem about manure:

Lesson Learned from Keeping a Horse

by Becky Mushko

One of the things you have to endure
About owning a horse is shoveling manure.
This is a fact (I know it astounds):
A horse produces about fifty pounds!
I don’t mean in a week; I mean in a day,
And when you’re shoveling, it sure ain’t hay.
Well, actually it is—along with grass and grain
That nature decides to recycle again.

The best way to deal with manure, I’ve found,
Is not let it pile up but spread it around,
For manure can be used (I’m so much the wiser)
As an excellent source of cheap fertilizer.

Life is funny this way: In all probability,
An asset at first might seem a liability.
The difference lies in how you think.
Do you use stuff productively,
Or let it lie there and stink?

Into each life some manure must fall. But it helps to have a good fork.

And boots. I bought some new barn boots yesterday, too.



Sunday, December 26, 2010

White Christmas 2010

We only received about three inches of snow, but it seemed like more. The vehicles were covered. . .

. . . as well as all the trees. 

Listening Hill Road was a sheet of ice. I was surprised the newspaper came, but it did.

It's hard to see our driveway but it's under there somewhere.

Our little summer house doesn't look so summery now.

Melody had icicles in her mane. . .

. . . and in her tail.

Barn cats took refuge wherever they could—like under lawn furniture.

They walked in my tracks when they could.

We decided that another bale in the pasture wouldn't be a bad idea.

Look how cold Chestnut Mountain looks in the distance.

Here it comes. . .

.  . . and there it goes—into the pasture but close to the run-in shed so the mares won't have far to go.

Before the mares can eat, the string has to come off.

As soon as the string is off and the hay's on the ground, Melody is there.

All those folks who think a white Christmas is so wonderful, probably don't live on farms.

I hope next Christmas is warm and sunny.


Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Memories

Merry Christmas! 
This picture was taken either in 1949 or 1950—when I was four or five. I don't remember which. It sort of defines a picture perfect Christmas memory. But it's not exactly my memory of Christmas.

What I remember is that Mama wanted a Christmas picture of me, so she gathered up things I had gotten for a couple of Christmases and put them around the tree. That accounts for the two dolls—no kid I knew got more than one doll a year. I had almost outgrown my little green car by then, and I certainly wasn't allowed to pedal it on the floor.

The car was bought used (Mama once told me she paid a dollar for it), as was the wicker doll buggy that I'd had for some time. I still have the wicker buggy, as well as the two dolls and the doll high chair. I still have the sled and I think the little suitcase is somewhere in the attic. A cousin eventually inherited the metal doll house. I remember one wall in the doll house was put it upside down.

When the photographer (a relative of a neighbor) arrived in mid-afternoon, I had to put on my nightgown and pretend it was Christmas morning all over again. That's my memory.

But I do have a few real Christmas memories—mostly smells. Like the smell of the cedar Christmas trees we had when I was a kid. Our trees weren't fancy, but they made the house smell great. And all our greenery was real—like the running cedar that cascades down the mantle.

When I was older—10? teens?—we had bayberry candles that made the house smell good, too.

Also at Christmas Mama always baked a coconut cake and a raisin-nut cake—both labor intensive but heavenly smelling. I remember she always bought a coconut and grated it herself. I think she used the coconut milk in the cake, too. I remember she cracked the nuts for the raisin-nut cake. Sometimes she made a fruitcake, too.

Speaking of fruitcakes, my favorite short story is Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory," in which the young narrator and his elderly relative Miss Sook bake fruitcakes for people they know and for people they don't know—like the Roosevelts. "A Christmas Memory" was in one of the literature books I used when I taught junior high. I always read it to my classes in December. A teacher friend at Stonewall Jackson Junior High, Linda Sampson, gave me a slip-cased copy as a Christmas present.

If you haven't read it, I recommend you get a copy. You can also read it online (if you don't mind intrusive ads) here. Or you can watch a portion of it on this video and hear Capote himself as the narrator (other parts of the story are also on YouTube):

My best Christmas present memories involve dogs. Twice I've received 6-week-old puppies for Christmas. I bought Maggie as a present for myself in 2005, and drove to Bedford to get her.  My husband bought me a Basset Hound in the early 80s. We drove from Roanoke to Fancy Gap one night to pick her out and back again to pick her up a few days before Christmas. She was orange and white—the same color as the terrier Queenie in "A Christmas Memory." 

Naturally, I named her Queenie.


Friday, December 24, 2010

You Ain't Buck-Nekkid

I started writing this story in the library of Ruffner Middle School in Roanoke while my English 7 class browsed for books, and I told the kids—when one asked what I was doing—that I was writing a story that would win a contest. 

Sure enough it did. I entered "You Ain't Buck-Nekkid and You Got Enough to Eat" into the 1996 Lonesome Pine Short Story Contest and won first place. It's my favorite Christmas story of the few that I've written. And it's pure fiction—no events or characters are real.

You Ain’t Buck-Nekkid  and You Got Enough to Eat 
By Becky Mushko 

In 1959 Bridger’s Fork Elementary School was caught between two ways of life. On one side were the kids whose daddies farmed these hollers like their daddies before them. On the other were the new kids who lived in the new housing development where the Bridger farm used to be. Their daddies had moved here to work in the new factory. 

I was a farm kid, but my daddy worked part-time on the assembly line because farming didn’t pay enough to support our family. I kept quiet and sat in the back row, so those new kids didn’t much notice me, but  I envied them. They wore store-bought finery instead of faded hand-me-downs, they danced to rock and roll music they heard on the radio, and they rode to school in fancy cars with big chrome bumpers.

Each morning as I walked over the rise that separated Daddy’s farm from the school grounds, I’d see those cars first thing. When I complained to Mama about our lack of the finer things of life, she had no sympathy for me.

“Count your blessings, Sophie,” she’d say. “You ain’t buck-nekkid and you got enough to eat.” 

I’m ashamed to admit, I envied the new kids their mamas, too, with their nice clothes and red-painted fingernails and fancy hairdos with not a hair out of place. They were so different from Mama with her work-worn hands so badly chapped that strands of my hair caught in the cracks when she smoothed down my cowlick. Her fingernails were never polished, and her hair usually escaped her hair-pins and blew about her wind-reddened cheeks. Mama didn’t much care what she wore—usually an old shirt of Daddy’s and sometimes even his old shoes when she hoed her garden or plowed furrows with Jackson, our mule. I hated to admit that, much as I loved her, she shamed me. Why couldn’t she fix herself up?

I was further shamed that year—my last year at the elementary school before I’d join my older sisters in walking to the highway where we’d catch a bus before daylight in winter to take us to the high school in town—because Mama had volunteered to be a room mother. 

In late November, Miss Lawler sent home a paper explaining what a room mother did. Mama sat at the kitchen table, studied it under the only electric light we had in the house, carefully tore a sheet from a tablet, slowly penciled an answer, and sealed it in a yellowed envelope. I hoped she’d written an apology for why she couldn’t do it. 

Next day, I dutifully carried the envelope to school and, when no one was looking, slipped it onto Miss Lawler’s desk. That afternoon Miss Lawler handed me a sealed envelope to take home. “Thank your mother for graciously volunteering her time,” she said. 

When I handed the letter to Mama, she didn’t open it in front of me, but took it into the back room where she went most evenings to work in secret. My sisters and I knew that she spent winter evenings making Christmas presents for us, so we were careful never to intrude upon Mama lest our stockings be empty.

During the next two weeks, a few more sealed notes passed back and forth between Mama and Miss Lawler. While I was curious, I had other things to think about. Mama and Daddy gave each of us, in turn, a calf to raise when Old Rhoady came fresh. After years of waiting, my turn finally came. Two days before school dismissed for Christmas, Old Rhoady presented me with a spotted calf. I longed to tell someone about my gift, but I knew none of the new kids would be impressed. What was a calf compared to the store-bought treasures they’d get?

The last day before Christmas vacation, Mama baked a big batch of cookies but said nothing about going to school. Instead, two city women came bearing cellophane-wrapped store-bought treats to give us a party. They looked so glamorous—just like I pictured movie stars would look—with their sparkly jewelry. I worried that Mama in her shapeless faded dress would suddenly appear, bearing home-made cookies and embarrassing me. But she never came. 

After we listened to Christmas music on the record player, Miss Lawler told us to bundle up in our coats and go with her for a special treat. We cut across the schoolyard and started up the path to the rise. Oh, no—we’d pass right by my house! Shame as hot as Mama’s cookstove burned within me. What if those kids saw where I lived and realized how poor I was? When Miss Lawler turned onto our path and started down, I thought I’d surely die. 

Mama came out of the house to meet us, but at least she had on her Sunday coat and her hair was combed. She winked at me, told us all “Howdy!” and led us to the barn. What was she thinking of? 

She motioned for everyone to sit on bales of hay. Then she picked up her grandma’s dulcimer that was lying atop a bale.

“Sophie, honey,” she said to me, “you run up to the house and bring down that plate of oatmeal cookies from the warmin’ oven.”

I did as I was told. I could hear her starting to play and sing “Away in a Manger” as I hurried to the house. When I returned, she was asking, “Do y’all know what a manger is?” Most of the kids shook their heads. “Well,” she said, “after we eat us a cookie and drink some cider, we’ll see one.”

Miss Lawler produced some paper cups and Mama fetched a jug of cider from the shed. Everyone ate their cookies and drank their cider. Some took seconds. One of the city mothers even asked Mama for her oatmeal cookie recipe.

“Sophie,” said Mama when we’d finished, “take your friends over to Rhoady’s stall and show them what a manger is for.”
I wanted to tell Mama I wasn’t near good enough to be their friend—but I didn’t. Red-faced, I led them to the stall and forked some hay into the manger for Rhoady. “This is a manager,” I said. Cows eat from it.

 “Oooh!” said the kids.“Lookit the baby calf!” said one girl. 

“She’s mine,” I admitted.
They all wanted to pet it, so I put a strap around Rhoady’s neck and held her while each one came in and stroked the calf. Several told me how fortunate I was to have my very own calf.

“My folks won’t even let me have a dog,” said one boy. I suddenly felt sorry for him.

Mama, who’d been standing behind the group, spoke up. “Come Christmas, we think about the miracle of the Christ child’s birth in a manger like this one,” she said, “but they’s miracles happen ever’ day. How many of you seen ’em?” Everyone stopped petting my calf, but no one answered. 

“Look yonder at that bare field.” Mama pointed through the barn door. “It don’t look like much in winter, but that field produced the oats that made the oatmeal that made the cookies y’all et. Ain’t that a miracle? And look at all them bare trees up there.” Mama pointed at our orchard half-way up the rise. “They’s just as bare and dead-lookin’ as can be now, but come spring, they’ll have the prettiest pink blossoms, and then they’ll bear fruit that’ll ripen in summer’s heat, and we’ll pick ’em in the fall and press out cider. Ain’t that a miracle how the Lord provides?”

Nobody answered out loud, but they all nodded. “Class, we’ve got to be going back now,” Miss Lawler said. “You thank Mrs. Draper for all she’s done.”

“It ain’t nothing,” Mama said. “Y’all wait a minute.” She went into the shed again and came back with a basket. “I got another miracle for you to take with you. Did you know they’s music in them bare trees?” She handed each child a whistle she’d carved from branches pruned from the apple trees. Now I realized what she’d been doing every evening in the back room.

Everyone thanked her without being told this time. Some of the kids said this was the best school party they’d ever had. A few told me how lucky I was. They left, tooting their whistles, while they walked along the path.

As I stood beside Mama in the yard and watched them disappear over the rise, I realized I was indeed blessed. I had things—miracles!—that the other kids envied. And I wasn’t buck-nekkid and I had enough to eat. 

In a slightly different version, “You Ain’t Buck-Nekkid and You Got Enough to Eat” won the 1996 Lonesome Pine Short Story Contest and the Juvenile Fiction Division of the 1998 Women in the Arts Contest. It has been previously published in Blue Ridge Traditions; Spring Fantasy 1998; Fit to Print: The 1998 Sampler of The Valley Writers Club; The Girl Who Raced Mules & Other Stories (Infinity Publishing, 2003); and Where There’s A Will (Infinity Publishing, 2005)

Merry Christmas!


Thursday, December 23, 2010

Memento Nora

What if you could remove an unpleasant memory just by talking about it and then taking a pill. Would you do it?

That's the premise of Memento Nora, a dystopian YA novel by Angie Smibert. Angie and I are in the same SCBWI crit group, so that's how I first learned about her book—which will be out from Marshall Cavendish in early April, but is available now for pre-order on Amazon. Order it now; it's that good.

Memento Nora—set a bit in the future when people with troubling memories can visit a Therapeutic Forgetting Clinic to rid themselves of unpleasant memories—is told by three teens who all attend Homeland High School: Nora, the main character; Micah, a skater who mouths the word "remember" to Nora at the TFC; and Winter, a Japanese girl who lives with her grandfather because her parents were taken to Detention years earlier, creates elaborate mechanical sculptures. The characters are well-crafted and believable. So is the plot.

I was fortunate to receive an advance reader copy. Once I started reading Memento Nora, I couldn't put it down. I finished it in two days.

Memento Nora began as a short story, originally published in the May/June 2008 issue of Odyssey magazine. You can read the short story here. The novel, of course, goes way beyond the short story and introduces more characters and some disturbing themes—what is real? who can you trust? That these are concerns of the intended YA readership makes Memento Nora a great book for classroom study.

But the book transcends the target readership. Older readers will also enjoy it. If you enjoyed 1984 and Brave New World back in the day, you'll like Memento Nora.

Check out the book trailer:

On an otherwise glossy day, a blast goes off and a body thuds to the ground at Nora's feet. There are terrorist attacks in the city all the time, but Nora can't forget. So Nora goes with her mother to TFC—a Therapeutic Forgetting Clinic. There, she can describe her horrible memory and take the pill that will erase it. But at TFC, a chance encounter with a mysterious guy changes Nora's life. She doesn't take the pill. And when Nora learns the memory her mother has chosen to forget, she realizes that someone need to remember.

With newfound friends Micha and Winter, Nora makes a comic book of their memories called Memento. Memento is an instant hit, but it sets off a dangerous chain of events. Will Nora, Micah, and winter be forced to take the Big Pill that will erase their memories forever?

Will they? You'll have to read the book to find out. Don't forget to buy it when it comes out in April 2011—or pre-order it now from Amazon.

I can't tell the whole plot without giving away some twists and surprises that you'll enjoy more if you discover them for yourself. But the back of the book gives you a hint:  

On an otherwise glossy day, a blast goes off and a body thuds to the ground at Nora's feet. There are terrorist attacks in the city all the time, but Nora can't forget. So Nora goes with her mother to TFC—a Therapeutic Forgetting Clinic. There, she can describe her horrible memory and take the pill that will erase it. But at TFC, a chance encounter with a mysterious guy changes Nora's life. She doesn't take the pill. And when Nora learns the memory her mother has chosen to forget, she realizes that someone need to remember.

With newfound friends Micha and Winter, Nora makes a comic book of their memories called Memento. Memento is an instant hit, but it sets off a dangerous chain of events. Will Nora, Micah, and winter be forced to take the Big Pill that will erase their memories forever?

Will they? You'll have to read the book to find out. Don't forget to buy it when it comes out in April 2011—or pre-order it now from Amazon.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Spear It

We've had a couple of folks wanting round bales in the last two days. Yesterday, when one of his friends came to get a bale for his cow, I decided to snap a few pictures.

First he backs the tractor toward the bales:

Then he spears one. . .

. . . and backs it toward the wagon.

It's in!

Then I notice that Melody could use another bale since she unrolled the last one and turned it into a nest for little Ruby Sherwood, the daycare dog.

Off John goes again with the tractor. He lines up the spear. . . 

. . . and lifts the bale. . .

. . . and carries it directly to the pasture.

After he puts the bale in, Melody inspects it.

 Hmmm. Smells like a good vintage.

 Maybe a little taste from the top. 

And from the bottom, too.

Yep, it'll do.

Today, he speared a bale and delivered it to a neighbor's horse down the road. I decided it was too cold to go out and take pictures. You see one horse start munching a bale, you've seen them all. . . . 


Saturday, December 18, 2010

Looking Like Christmas

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas—especially on the Internet. For instance, "The Digital Story of Nativity (or Christmas 2.0)" is making the rounds on You-Tube and Facebook.

Another popular greeting—a politically correct one—is appearing on numerous blogs and humor sites:

Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, my best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress, non-addictive, gender neutral celebration of the winter solstice holiday, practiced within the most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion or secular practices of your choice, with respect for the religious/secular persuasions and/or traditions of others, or their choice not to practice religious or secular traditions at all; a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling, and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the generally accepted calendar year, but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures whose contributions to society have helped make America great, (not to imply that America is necessarily greater than any other country or is the only “AMERICA” in the western hemisphere), and without regard to the race, creed, color, age, physical ability, religious faith, choice of computer platform, or sexual orientation of the wisher. (Disclaimer: By accepting this greeting, you are accepting these terms. This greeting is subject to clarification or withdrawal. It is freely transferable with no alteration to the original greeting. It implies no promise by the wisher to actually implement any of the wishes for her/himself or others, and is void where prohibited by law, and is revocable at the sole discretion of the wisher. This wish is warranted to perform as expected within the usual application of good tidings for a period of one year, or until the issuance of a subsequent holiday greeting, whichever comes first, and warranty is limited to replacement of this wish or issuance of a new wish at the sole discretion of the wisher who assumes no responsibility for any unintended emotional stress these greetings may bring to those not caught up in the holiday spirit.)

Around my house, we have a cartridge in a pear tree:

And the usual sign of Christmas in the household, the singing horse:

Outside, in the pasture, Melody wishes you a Marey Christmas:

But Melody doesn't sing.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Snowy Day and Night

Yesterday's snowfall began around 5 a.m. By the time I went out to walk Emma, the snow was coming down hard.

It wasn't falling hard enough to discourage Chloe from stalking about the yard.

But it covered the ground, the bench , the trees, and the rock.

Inside her stall, Cupcake ate her breakfast. She has to stay in to keep her bandaged hoof dry so the abscess won't recur. She isn't happy to stay in.

Just outside her stall, snow covered the pasture and the round bales. In the afternoon, the snow turned to sleet.

 When I fed critters yesterday evening, Maggie met me at the kennel gat with one of her toys. She couldn't find her frisbee. The weather is never bad enough to discourage Maggie from playing.

She had to search a bit to find her toy after I'd thrown it, though.

Melody ate her evening meal outside. . .

. . . while Cupcake dined indoors.

By nightfall our driveway was iced over . . .

. . . and our house looked eerie as snow still fell.

In the redbud tree's bare limbs, Spotz the barn cat kept watch.