Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Breaker, Breaker...

On Facebook, you can "like" almost anything (and "unlike" it if you change your mind about how you feel about bacon, say), including businesses and institutions. One of my likes is J.E. Rice's Hardware Store in the Manassas Shopping Center not far from where I live, in Manassas. In fact, I wish FB had a "love" button because I more than "like" Rice's: I love it!

I have been going to Rice's, now in its 75th year, for over 30 years. They not only have everything that a hardware store should have: they have some things most hardware stores don't have. And in 30 years of my asking for often odd and arcane items, they have not had what I needed or wanted a grand total of three times. Each time they have told me where I could find what I was looking for, even though it involved going to another store. Service is a key to the Rice's experience, and that's what I call service!

Not only will they figure out the part you need to fix something when you don't know the real name of the part or what it does (Me: "It's this little plastic thingie that fits on the end of a shaft and turns so that it engages this other white plastic or is it nylon thingie to open this little door..."  Steve or Jamie or Chase or anyone else who works there: “Yeah, I know what you need. We got it…)

Not only will they sell you a replacement part, they'll tell you how to install it without hurting yourself. This summer I was putting in a garbage disposal for daughter Amy who was on a vacation in the Southwest. The drain set up wasn’t standard so I drew it up and went to Rice’s. Jamie met me, studied my crude diagram, led me to the plumbing parts, took several pieces of pipe and pipe joints and showed me how they fit together.

Well, because I am spatially challenged and don’t know what I’m doing, it took me four hours and four more trips to Rice’s to get the disposal to work without leaking or throwing off sparks.  At every revisit, Jamie carefully listened to what I had to say, figured out what I needed and gave it to me with a smile. By the last visit, I think the entire hardware store was cheering for me. It was a great experience.

Much the same thing happened when our furnace stopped dead and would not come back on. It was when we had snow (yes, it was cold enough for snow at one time this winter) and temperatures below freezing. I woke up to a 56 degree house, colder than I like it for sleeping. The thermostat was "calling" for heat ("I am calling yooooooooou!) but the heat wouldn't listen. Or come on. Through clever diagnostic work and deduction (and a check of the internet), I diagnosed the fault as a bad breaker. I toddled off to Rice’s where Jamie listened to my description of the problem agreed that it was probably the breaker, and then sent me to another store because Rice's did not carry that particular brand of breaker (they can be different--who knew?). I got the parts. Jamie had told me how to put them in and warned me about the dangers of electricity with a  story about his trying to install an air conditioning unit that shorted out and shocked him, blowing him back across the yard.  I needed no further cautionary tales so I took myself back to the furnace, threw the main breaker (for safety and continued existence on this earth), snapped the breaker in and fired that big boy up. Warm air never felt  so good.

So, whenever you go to Rice’s you’ll know that you can count on an amazing inventory, a helpful staff and wonderful service. I still don’t know everyone’s names, but you will see Steve, always gracious and ready to talk about a subject of interest; Jamie, whom I mentioned earlier; and Chase, whom I am not as familiar with but a nice fellow, and very knowledgeable, as they all are.  And don’t forget the fabulous hardware ladies, Kristin and Patty, who are not only young and energetic: they are knowledgeable and helpful and know their hardware. And they love books and reading. Imagine that. Rice's truly does have it all.

Monday, January 30, 2012

I Heard the News Today, Oh Boy

I have actually had some loyal BC readers (all of whom are both attractive and intelligent) ask me when I do my writing. Now, usually only other writers are interested in how and where other writers write, so it's nice see that readers and other people have an interest in this question. When people ask me this, my initial thought is "In the kitchen...with a knife..." but I usually mumble something like "Whenever I get to it," or "When I'm slammed up against a deadline." So, there's nothing much to see there but I don't want to disappoint units of loyal readers so I thought I'd make the topic a bit more grandiose and write about (cue the trumpet fanfare):

A Day in the Writing Life

Alert readers (and you are all indeed alert and rested) will notice the steals from the Beatles song of the same name and wonder if this will end with me "blowing my mind out in a car," either literally or figuratively or both.  Well, I'm writing this, after all, so the answer is "No," both literally and figuratively. I wouldn't do that either way because I would impede traffic and that really hacks off other drivers and creates a backup which is reported from the Glass Enclosed Nerve Center of WTOP 103.5 (note to 'TOP: please lose the GENC label! You're on the radio! No one knows or cares if the working space is enclosed by glass, cardboard or leftover pizza, which, since we're told that it is fueled by a certain kind of pizza, it probably is.)

Actually, since every day is a little different and I never know when I'll be writing, let's just say that I do it at various times during the way and for different lengths of time. When I was teaching, I soon  found that if I could use little pockets of time to look at some of the omnipresent papers I carried with me at all times like a bad skin rash (I know, ewwwwww! Gross simile of the week!) It gets the job done, as someone once said.

So, in answer to the question "When do you write?" I would have to say at all times and at no time. And this, as Hamlet said, was sometime a paradox.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Modesty Rail

Well, if you're looking for modesty, you won't find it here. This week's Biscuit City Poem of the Week was penned by none other than your not-so-humble blogster with a lot of help from my friends.  Enjoy!

The Large Place

for our mothers

Psalm 18: 19: The Lord brought me forth also into a large place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me.

the sky
is blue
and clear
looks like it
goes out to
( self-evident
and not true)

true that it fades
into near nothingness.

we fly
through the blue
and come back
in hours

some birds
fly for
if they are

satellites circle
without effort
as if
they are never
coming down
(not true)

they fall
all of them
after a while
through the near nothingness
through the blue
flaming across
the sky

flowers against
the Large Place
of the

--Dan Verner

Thursday, January 26, 2012

10,000 Hours

After Captain Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger  ditched US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in January, 2009, a number of articles appeared about the "10,000 hour principle," most notably Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. Gladwell maintained that 10,000 hours is the amount of time required, more or less, to become an expert in most fields. (For the record, this number of hours equals the time spent in class and in studying to get a bachelor’s and master’s degree and then work for two years.)  Capt’n Sully had 12,000 hours flight time (my brother Ron, a retired pilot, has 17,000. I have one 1), if anyone wants to know.) and so qualified as an expert. The hours he spent sailplaning didn’t hurt, either.  I bet no one asked him where the engine was on his glider after the Miracle on the Hudson.

My point in all of this is: if you want to be a writer, you need to write. A lot. You need to write and write and write and write and then write some more. Write regularly at the same time and in the same place if you can. If you can’t, write wherever you are, whenever you can. Carry a notebook or if you tend to lose things like that (ahem), some paper to write on.  And a pen or pencil. Or a laptop. Whatever.

And you need an audience to read what you’ve written. Fix up a blog for yourself. (It’s easy—even I did it. If you can’t figure out how to do that, get a fifteen year old to help you in exchange for pizza.)  Run your stuff off and give it to your friends and family. Try to get published. Don’t fear rejection. It’s going to happen. Sooner or later you’ll start to succeed. Your family will stop running away when they see you coming toward them with paper in hand.  Your friends will ask you if you’ve written anything lately. Or maybe you won’t succeed. You’ll have had a great time doing so.

But it doesn’t happen overnight. 10,000 hours, remember?

It also helps to be in touch with other writers like yourself. I recommend a local group here in Manassas, Write by the Rails, which you can “like” as a group on Facebook. They have events and readings and you can identify some other writers you can hang out with. But don’t hang out too much. You’ll need the time to write.

It can help some people to take writing courses. Several local writers are involved in C.F.A. or M.F.A. programs, and there are classes taught at the Center for the arts in Manassas.  Some people, like local novelist Nancy Kyme, taught herself to write. That’s unusual and hard to do, but Nancy’s beautiful novel, Memory Lake, is proof it can be done. And Memory Lake,  she said, took her about ten years to write. If she wrote and edited four hours a day, five days a week with a two-week vacation from writing, that's about 10,000 hour.

So, get going! What are you waiting for? Write!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Serious and Smiling Writer

It’s not possible to talk for long with Heidi Willis without realizing she is a serious woman: serious about her life, about her faith and about her art. That seriousness underlies a ready smile and a sparkling wit. Heidi is devoted to her family of husband Todd and their three children and practices a deep and quiet faith that is evident in her writing and in her conversation.  On her Facebook information page, she quoted a sentence from Esther,

Maybe you were put here in this place for such a time as this. (Esther 4:13)

Heidi is passionate about writing. But she keeps it in perspective. Again from Facebook:
A writer. A photographer. A multi-media business owner and creator. And, unbelievably, I've been able to make money at all of them. But mostly, a mom. Which, while I won't earn a cent doing it, is the most important thing I will ever do.

Her Facebook site is a treasure trove of observations, insights, up to the minute reports on the happenings of the day and exchanges with friends. Her blog (http://heidiwillis.blogspot.com/) and website (http://www.heidi-willis.com/index.html) offer the same depth and sense of energy. She writes about not wanting to write, but write she does and the results are worth anyone’s time and effort to read.

Tempering all that seriousness is a wry sense of humor, evident from the opening sentences of her first book, Some Kind of Normal,  a book with the serious theme of a family struggling with the sudden onset of type I diabetes in their daughter. The narrator opens the book by worrying that she is slowly killing her family with breakfast:

I ain’t one to bash being healthy, but it sure takes the fun out of living. My motivation to be the perfect mom starts about six a.m. when I swing my legs over the bed and ends fifteen minutes later when I stumble into the kitchen to make coffee and figure out what I can cook for breakfast that won’t kill no one. 

That’s the voice of Babs Babcock, central character of the novel and mother to the stricken girl. Heidi has the character and her voice and tone pitch perfect. To my mind, Babs is a ready successor to Huckleberry Finn, a distinctive character a who engages our sympathy and trust.  We grow to love her and her family in the course of the novel. I hope sincerely there will be more stories about Babs and her friends and neighbors
My advice is to get the book, read it, read Heidi’s website and blog and wait with anticipation more stories and writing from this serious and smiling woman.

Heidi  Willis (nee VanBrokehoven)  graduated from Penn State with degrees in Education and Communications. She is currently  an MFA candidate at Pacific University in Oregon.

Her poetry has been published in Ignite Your Faith (formerly Campus Life Magazine) and her debut novel,  Some Kind of Normal, was published by NorLights Press in 2009.

She also takes amazingly beautiful photographs. Indeed she has been put here in this place for a time such as this, and we are all better off for all that.