Thursday, May 31, 2012

Advice to Writers: Revision and Deconstruction

I'm currently involved in a project that has nothing to do with writing, and yet it does. Our pastor called me yesterday saying that he had a project for me that involved using my unique skills. No, not whatever writing and editing skills I might have, but the skills I have to take things apart. How he knew I could do this and do it well, I have no idea. Word gets around.

As far back as I remember, I loved to take things apart to see how they worked. I took apart (mechanical) clocks, radios, bicycles, whatever came my way that was no good or didn't work or that I just wanted to see how it worked. And so I took all manner of things apart. I didn't necessarily put them back together, and if I didn't, I had a lot of cool parts I could do something with some day. and some of those parts actually came in handy to fix something. You never know. Of course, sometimes I did succeed in putting something back together, occasionally with some bits left over, and even less occasionally, the thing worked! Miracles never cease!

What our pastor wanted me to take apart were three study carrels that were put in when our church housed the Mayfield Middle School fifth grade when their roof threatened to collapse under a snow burden the winter before this past one. I think the school was there for about a quarter and the arrangement worked well.

The carrels are located in what was the main office of the school. The church is moving all the children's ministries, including our preschool, to our second building, "The Rock," which started out life as the Marsteller Intermediate School. We've been in the Rock for ten years now: it houses the church's administrative offices and several ministries, including a senior adult day care center, our ESOL classes, various meetings and church activities, as well as a Christian school (not ours) and a Montessori school. It's a happenin' place.

So, I went over one morning this week with all the tools I thought I'd need (and found out I needed more--my dad says that when you've pulled out every tool you own, you have what you need. That's about right) and set to work. The challenge in taking apart something is trying to divine how it was put together. Once you've done that you can "reverse engineer" the thing and put it back together after you've taken it apart. This construction, though, was diabolically assembled, using glue, philips head screws and my nemesis, square drive screws. And some of the screws were hidden, that it is, behind other parts. I had to take the first carrel I worked on completely apart to take it off the wall.  I also had to take the wiring for the light out and since I didn't know where the breaker was for the circuit, ended up shocking myself as I usually do when I mess with electricity. It wasn't the worse shock I've ever gotten and my hair lay back down on my head after a while.

And so, using my cordless drill, a variety of bits, Vise-Grip pliers, a pry bar, a hammer, a slot-head screw driver, a phillips head screwdriver, a flashlight, good old American know-how and a couple of choice words when I whanged myself in the head with the pry bar, I got the first carrel disassembled in about three hours. I learned how it was put together, though, and the disassembly of the next two should go much faster. Then I get to reassemble them in a room down the hall. I've found that destruction is much faster than construction, but I'm taking notes and pictures to be sure I get it right.

Now, there are metaphors for writing and revision in here somewhere, as there are in most activities unrelated to writing. Here are some thoughts that occurred to me while I was testing my brain to see it it still worked after giving myself the aforementioned whack in the head with a pry bar.

1. Experience counts. If you want to learn to take things apart, take things apart. If you want to write, write. Simple, huh?

2. Sometimes what you write just ain't what you want. Could be anything wrong with it, like the carrels. Wrong time, wrong place, outdated, out moded, out of style, out of fashion, doesn't work, too short, too long, just don't like it. And so...

3. Take it apart. Deconstruct what you've done. What can be used? What needs trashing?  What can you learn from what you've done about how to do it right the next time?

4. Use what tools you have. I wrote during the bad old days of paper and leaky pens. I also wrote on a typewriter using that horrid erasable paper. The word processor has made writing (and revision) so much easier. It hasn't necessarily made the writing any better. That's still up to us. But it's easier to do what we need to do.

5. Have a plan for reassembly. I don't have a memory to speak of, so I have, as I noted, pictures and diagrams of how the "revised" carrels will take shape. And I'm having to make some changes, some revisions if you will. With your revision, think about what you can use and what needs to depart, what needs to be moved around and what needs to be polished. Be your own best critic. Your readers will praise you for it.

6. Enjoy the process. I don't know of any writer, other than possibly Shelby Foote, who wrote five to six words at a time with a scratch pen (he said, "It sure makes me think about what I'm going to put down"), who gets it right the first time. Join the club. I even revise certain emails twenty times. Posts on Biscuit City are revised about the same amount. My column for the Observer is gone over about fifty times. I want it as right as I can get it before I send it out the door. There's no telling where it will go and who will read it.

And so: Write! Revise! Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Let's Go Fly a Kite

I just found out when I was researching this post (I actually do research, contrary to what you might believe) that the Smithsonian Institute, which sponsored a kite festival on the Mall for forty-four years, has transferred sponsorship to the Cherry Blossom Festival. That’s fine with me and quite appropriate, but I kind of had a soft spot for the Smithsonian festival because it used to be the only time you could fly kites on the Mall. I never heard about this festival, which put dozens of beautiful and unusual kites into the air, without thinking of how much I loved to fly kites growing up and also about my friend John from college.  He was actually arrested for flying a kite on the Mall.  No kidding.  There used to be a law against that in Washington. And so John broke the law and was arrested. But that’s another story. He was also arrested for jaywalking in D.C. . That’s yet another story. Actually, John was arrested a lot for minor things because he considered himself a latter-day Thoreau. We got tired of bailing him out and so did his parents after a while. I’ll have to tell his story another time.

When I was much younger, I was fascinated by anything that flew—birds, baseballs, airplanes, bricks, myself…Superman was my favorite superhero since he could, of course, fly.  Somewhere along the line I got the idea that his ability to fly came from his cape.  If I had one like it I could fly, too. I think this stage of development among children is called magical thinking.  Except I was about ten years old.

Anyhow, I saw one day on the back of a bag of carrots of all places an ad for a Superman magic flying cape.  And only 25 cents!  Well, that was for me.  I ignored the fine print at the bottom of the bag: “Cape does not enable user to fly.”  I collected a quarter and sent it off.  In about three weeks my cape came in the mail.  It was, in truth, a disappointment.  Instead of the rich red of Superman’s cape, this one was a washed out pinkish color.  And it was about the thickness of the bag the carrots came in.  Nonetheless, I was game.  I spent the next couple of week with the cape around my neck leaping into the air shouting “Up, up and away!” which were of course Superman’s signature words on taking flight.  It was patently obvious to anyone watching that he was going up and away, but it was a cool call nonetheless.  

Even with my carrot bag cape I didn’t fly an inch. I concluded I needed a small assist so I jumped off our front porch which was about three feet above the ground and landed in the bushes. Ouch. I thought I needed more height so I climbed to the top of the flat shed roof that adjoined the garage which was about ten feet off the ground.  I jumped off several times but got nothing but sore feet from landing on the ground for my pains. Clearly, the magic cape wasn’t going to work.

It was about this time that I became interested in kites.  I read all about them, about their invention by the Chinese and their use in signaling and carrying bombs and even people.  That was a concept, but first I would have to master the ancient art of kite flying.  I hied myself to the local drug store where I purchased for one thin dime a High Flier classic diamond-shaped kite which came rolled up and ready to assemble.  Looking back on it now, I didn’t notice that the wood and paper were on the hefty side, which made the kite difficult to fly and even more difficult to control.  Winds where we lived were intermittent and so I spent hours trying to get the kite up.  It probably would have taken gale force winds to make it fly, so I decided to build my own.  Of course the wood I used and the covering were even heavier than the store-bought variety (I wasn’t much for details then) so the home-made kite was even worse as a flyer.  I made a brief foray into the area of exotic kites, even building a small box kite out of soda straws.  It didn’t fly any better than any of the others.

Eventually, using some lighter wood and a thinner covering, I did build several kites which flew well, even in light breezes.  Naturally inclined to laziness, I tired of winding the string by hand and hit upon using one of my father’s rods reels for the string, which also made the kite easier to control.  I had seen in magazine that truly serious kite flyers used motorized string reels which worked with the starter motor from a car and a 12-volt battery.  I was certain my family would miss both if I borrowed them from the car so I was out of luck. 

It was about at this time my interest in kite flying tapered off, when I became interested in cars and women, but I still think of kites when I hear see television coverage of a kite festival or pass by a field and see one in the air.It's like I'm up there with it, and I can fly.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Come See and Hear Me (and a Hundred of my Closest Friends) Sing This Friday Evening!

Normally I run a Biscuit City Chronicle or other work of non-fiction on Tuesdays, but I wanted to get the word out about our concert earlier in the week, so look for the Chronicle tomorrow!

I'm part of the Manassas Chorale (full disclosure: my wife is the director) and we are doing Mozart's Requiem  this Friday evening. A children's honor chorus composed of some of the best elementary school singers in the area will sing during the second half of the program. I hope you'll be able to come hear what should be a rewarding concert. Here's some more information about the evening:

 The Manassas Chorale presents “Mozart and More,” for their spring concert, showcasing 100 auditioned chorale singers, orchestra, guest soloists, and a children’s honor chorus of area youth.  Join us for an unforgettable evening of musical entertainment featuring Mozart’s Requiem. at the Hylton Performing Arts Center, 10960 George Mason Circle on the Prince William Campus of George Mason University in Manassas.

Notes on the Requiem by Manassas Chorale Artistic Director, Becky Verner: Mozart's Requiem, K 626 (Mass in D Minor) was the last composition of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and one of his most popular works.  Mozart was commissioned to write the Requiem in 1791 (the same year that the U. S. Bill of Rights was ratified) by Count Franz von Walsegg through a messenger.   It was to be performed on the first anniversary of the Count’s wife’s death.  Half of the commission was paid in advance with the other half to be paid upon completion.  That fall, Mozart worked feverishly on the Requiem, even when he was ill and confined to bed.  He died on December 5, 1791,at the age of thirty-five, leaving an unfinished manuscript of 92 pages.  His widow, Constanze, not wanting to return the deposit and desperate for funds, asked Mozart’s pupil, Franz Süssmayr, to complete the work using Mozart’s musical notes and verbal instructions.  It is also possible that there were now-lost “scraps of paper” which conveyed details about how the rest of the Requiem was to be composed.  Süssmayr worked diligently on the remaining movements (there are 14 total) and finished the work in early 1792.  In late 1793, a copy of the completed composition, with a counterfeit signature of Mozart, was given to the Count.  It was performed twice in memory of his wife shortly thereafter: on December 14, 1793 and on February 14, 1794.  Published in 1799 and loved the world-over ever since, few musical compositions have aroused as much awe and sense of mystery as Mozart’s Requiem.  The Manassas Chorale is honored to perform this great masterwork  joined by an outstanding orchestra and guest soloists.

DV: I should note that the action and conflict of the play and movie Amadeus is a dramatic fiction. Salieri and Mozart probably knew each other, but they were not mortal enemies, nor did Salieri take down Mozart's dictation of the last parts of the Requiem. The movie is, however, an interesting if unhistorical look at the genius of the great composer.

As part of the Chorale's continuing Concert with a Cause series, please help support Caton Merchant House by donating office supplies (pens, pencils, notepads), packages of candy, crackers, and cookies (regular and sugar-free), small bags of chips, trial or small sized lotions, body washes, shampoos, toothpastes, and toothbrushes.

Partial funding for the Manassas Chorale is provided by the Prince William County Park Authority, Virginia Commission for the Arts, and the City of Manassas.

Visit our website,, for details on how to purchase tickets.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Keeping On Keeping On

Before I get into the matter at hand, I'd like to note that Biscuit City has been delivered fresh-baked posts (271 of 'em) every weekday for a year now. Thanks to the BC followers, to the readers and to everyone who commented on the posts or encouraged me in the past twelve months. You are all the best! Writing this has been (in the immortal words of Mick Jagger) a gas gas gas. I plan to keep on, with maybe a week or two summer vacation in July. My dad and I are planning a coast-to-coast train trip in August, and I'll certainly blog about that. (I think Amtrak has wi fi.)

All rightie, then...

In late March, I wrote about the abrupt departure of Andrew Byrd as administrator of Caton Merchant House, where my dad has lived since October. At the time, there was great and warranted concern among the residents, their families, and the staff whether CMH would continue to be the same comfortable, warm, caring place that it was under Andrew's leadership. Mandy Dickinson, assistant administrator, took over as interim, and I am happy to report that CMH remains the same family-oriented place with an incredible staff who care deeply for their charges.

To the best of my knowledge, a new administrator has not been named yet, but I understand Mandy is in the running. I hope she gets it.

As I have talked to the staff during the past couple of months, they agreed on one thing: they would continue to provide the same quality of care that they did under Andrew. When I talked with Andrew shortly after his departure, his primary concern was for the residents and that they continue to receive the same level of care as before. This was Andrew's legacy to CMH, and the staff and volunteers have carried it forward.

And so, although there was a palpable sadness for a week or so after Andrew left, I still get a good sunny feeling when I go over to see my dad and walk the bright halls of CMH, greeted by residents, staff, and friends who have all become like family to us and to each other. Keep on keeping on, CMH! We're right here behind you!

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Continuing No Shame Poem of the Week Series Presents "Why I Hate My Socks"

Before the poem, I have a special shout out to my friend Nancy Kyme, whose book, Memory Lake: The Forever Friendships of Summer, won first place in the Inspirational category of the Indie Book Awards. Check it out at A big Biscuit City congratulations to Nancy!

And now for our regularly scheduled poem:

                           Why I Hate My Socks

They are conspiring against me.
Lying quietly in dark drawers, plotting their escape,
Sometimes in pairs, sometimes singly
But I find them out:
They are either gone entirely or there is only one left.
Lying quietly in dark drawers, plotting their escape,
Sometimes in pairs, sometimes singly
But I find them out:
They are either gone entirely or there is only one left.

Sometimes they escape through the washing machine
By one of the cycles
Or through the dryer
Through a mysterious process
Involving a black hole.

Darn them! Darn them! Darn them!
Except no one gives a darn any more
At least not for a sock.

It's hard to tell them apart and
They end up mismatched.
They are out to embarrass me,
To make me look odd
To make me look foolish
To make me look like I can't do laundry
To make me look like I can't match colors

But sometimes they end up down at the heels
With a hole in one on the golf course
And then they are hosed.
O how I want to sock it to
My socks.

--Dan Verner

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Instead of Writing Advice, Will Rogers' Advice for Life

1. Never slap a man who’s chewing tobacco.

2. Never kick a cow chip on a hot day.

3. Never miss a good chance to shut up.

4. Always drink upstream from the herd.

5. If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

6. The quickest way to double your money is to fold it and put it back in your pocket.

7. There are three kinds of men:
            Those who learn by reading.
            Those who learn by observation.
            And those who have to urinate on the electric fence and learn by experience.

8. Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.

9. If you’re riding ahead of the herd, take a look back every now and then to make sure it’s still there.

10. Letting the cat out of the bag is a whole lot easier than putting it back in.

11. After eating an entire bull, the mountain lion felt so good he started roaring. He kept it up until a hunter came along and shot him. The moral of this story: when you’re full of bull, keep your mouth shut.


12. (From my wife): When the horse is dead, dismount. (For people who keep advocating ideas long after everyone has lost all interest.)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Technology and Society--The Artificial Leaf

I was struck by an article in a recent New Yorker about a scientist who has invented what might be a solution to the energy needs of the second and third world (he calls them “the non-legacy world; the “first world” is the “legacy world). While his “artificial leaf” won’t recharge your Tesla roadster, it has the potential to make a huge difference to billions of people all over the world.  The following is an abstract from The New Yorker website, with a link to the full article.

The New Yorker: Dept. of Invention

The Artificial Leaf

Daniel Nocera’s vision for sustainable energy.

by David Owen May 14, 2012 

Daniel Nocera was a science-minded high-school junior in New Jersey at the beginning of the Arab oil embargo, in 1973. At the end of the decade, the Iranian revolution, followed closely by the outbreak of war between Iran and Iraq, precipitated a second oil crisis. By then, Nocera was a graduate student in chemistry at the California Institute of Technology. Within a short time, he had decided to devote his science career to energy.

Most of the energy we use comes from photosynthesis. Green plants store energy from the sun in certain chemical bonds, and we exploit that energy when we eat plants, or when we eat animals that have eaten plants, or when we burn either plants or substances ultimately derived from plants: firewood, peat, coal, oil, natural gas, ethanol.

Nocera decided in the early eighties that the chemistry of green plants was the likeliest place to seek an answer to civilization’s long-term energy difficulties. When the price of oil dropped in the mid-eighties, alternative-fuel research declined in popularity as an academic pursuit. But he persisted in his research, seeking a way to inexpensively replicate solar-energy conversion as performed by vegetation.

 At the 2011 national meeting of the American Chemical Society, Nocera announced a tangible breakthrough: a cheap, playing-card-size coated-silicon sheet that, when placed in a glass of tap water and exposed to sunlight, split the water into hydrogen and oxygen. The process that Nocera calls “artificial photosynthesis” could be described more precisely as solar-powered electrolysis of water: using energy from the sun to electrochemically split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

 Nocera isn’t the only scientist working on artificial photosynthesis. The field is at least four decades old, and interest in it has grown in recent years.  The article mentions the work of John Turner, a scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which is funded by the Department of Energy. 

Owen visited Nocera’s lab at M.I.T. and discussed the challenges of adapting the artificial leaf for household use. Since the early eighties, Nocera has focused on providing energy for the world’s poorest people. “If there’s one thing that’s unique to the technology development I’ve done, it’s been doing science with the super-poor in mind.” His emphasis is largely humanitarian; it also arises from his belief, as a scientist, that the only way to meet the world’s projected energy needs without causing intolerable environmental harm will be to work, in effect, from the bottom up—an approach that’s very different from the ones that dominate energy research.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Biscuit City Chronicles:The Box Car Boys

Continued from last week:

After our parents had rejected our claim that we were no better than indentured servants, forced to perform odious chores like making our beds and picking up our clothes, my brother and I resolved to run away, this time for certain.  I threatened to run away regularly, generally whenever something displeased me at home, which was about once a week.

“I’m running away,” I would announce.

“Good,” my mother said. “Just don’t be late for supper.” It was hard to be taken seriously around my house.

We had gathered the goods and supplies that I thought we would need, and one sunny Saturday in May, we made our move. We waited until after lunch, and hanging the clothespin bag with our stuff in it on the handlebars of my bicycle, we were ready. I had almost blown our cover by insisting that we take our jackets. Mom looked at us with the look she used when she knew we were up to something.

“Why are you wearing your jackets?” she asked.  “It’s 75 degrees out.”

I knew we would need protection during colder months, which is why I wanted to take the jackets. “Uh, we’re cold,” I answered, and we jumped on out bicycles and pedaled off.

We soon got through our subdivision, and then the one behind ours, which was generally the extent of our travels.  Some older kids had told us about a road that led to a railroad, where we planned to find a boxcar and live the rest of our lives. The road was paved at first, and then went to gravel as the pine trees around it grew thicker and crowded the edges. Finally it turned to two tracks of a dirt road, and then a single narrow path overhung by branches.  We pedaled on.

After what seemed like a long time, we came into a clearing. It was a space about the size of our yard at home, hemmed in by a thick pine forest.  And at the far end there was a set of railroad tracks which stopped at the edge of the forest. This was the place for our boxcar! Now if we could only find one.
We emptied our bag and dragged a couple of fallen logs over for seats. I told Ron we needed to gather firewood.

“Why?” he said. “I’m burning up in this stupid coat you made me wear.”

“We need a fire because that’s what you do when you’re on your own in the wilderness.” I had read perhaps too many Sergeant Preston of the Mounties stories, neglecting the detail that he operated in the Yukon. So, we picked up a few twigs and larger branches, cleared a space in the grass, and lit the fire.  It wasn’t much of a fire, but it made me feel like we had arrived.  The next step was to find a box car to live in.

“We need to find a box car to live in,” I announced, and Ron just looked at me like I had dropped in from another planet.

“How are we going to do that?” he questioned.

“Follow the tracks.  There has to be a boxcar on the tracks somewhere.”

“How are we going to move it when we find it?”

“We’ll work that out when we come to it.”

In truth, both of us were tired from our exertions on our bicycles, so we sat there and watched the fire burn. After a while, I decided it was time to eat and pulled out the can of pork and beans and my Scout knife.  One of the blades was a can opener, but it occurred to me that I didn’t know how to use it.  I pried at the can for a while with no success. Then I banged it on a rock and succeeded only in denting it.

“We’re going to starve,” Ron offered.

“No,” I said.  “We’ll eat pine cones and mushrooms. They’re all around us.” He made a face, and as the sun slipped behind the pines, it occurred to me that I wasn’t as ready to live on my own as I thought I had been. And if we left right then, we’d be home in time to eat. We climbed aboard our bikes and pedaled slowly back home.

My mom was in the kitchen. “We’ll eat in five minutes,” she said. “Wash up good. And please put my clothespin bag back on the line.” Well, I thought, only nine more years of indenture to go. At least we would eat well.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Hope for the Future

This past Friday evening, Becky and I drove up to the Harrisburg, PA area to stay overnight so she could accompany the Parkside Middle School Concert Choir at the Hershey Park Showcase Music Festival at Central Dauphin High School in Harrisburg. We have known the director of the Choir, Debbie Schlechte, for years, and if you ever despaired about the youth of America, you should watch these young people perform. They will gladden your heart.

Debbie co-directs the choirs at Parkside with Larry Stanley, and Becky accompanies them when they go to festival. We got to the high school about half an hour early, in time to see the Show Choir perform "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got that Swing." Our Chorale Ensemble has done this piece, and it's hard enough just to sing it. The young people did it with choreography and had a bright, energetic sound and featured four couples dancing in front of the group.

They then did a song called "Fireflies" (by Owl City) I wasn't familiar with (here's a link: It included some engaging choreography. Debbie said she "mashed up" that song with Michael Jackson's "Thriller," which featured the "Jackson Five,"  five hip young dudes in "bad" hats moonwalking across the front of the chorus. (Have you ever tried moonwalking? I have, and it's impossible for an old guy like me. These cats had it down, I want to tell you!)

The young people looked and sounded great, and Ms. Schlechte and Mr. Stanley directed with precision and great energy.

A while later, the Concert Choir did the difficult Handel piece, "Hallejulah, Amen," with Mr. Stanley directing. The parts were precisely sung, with a pure vocal quality and a nice balanced sound. I've done this piece as well, and it's not easy for adults, much less for middle school students. Their performances were enthusiastically and deservedly cheered by a gym full of other students and parents.

The next piece, which Debbie directed, was Mark Hayes' "Shut de Do'," an a cappella number that we have also done. It seems like a simple song, but is in fact harder than it sounds. The Choir handled the dynamics well and had a beautiful blended sound.

The students were not only impressive musically: Becky and I have talked about how well-behaved they were. They comported themselves in a way that would make any parent or community member proud: they were polite, well-disciplined, respectful of adults and each other and appreciative of anything done for them.

This past week, the Census Bureau released information that we are a majority minority nation. We are moving from a country of white Boomers to a multicultural global population. The choirs at Parkside Middle School show this dramatically. The group is ethnically diverse and the kids treat each other with affection and respect.
After the Festival, the whole group was off to the rest of the day at Hershey Park. The Parkside choirs earned two "Superiors" and missed being Best in Show by one point. I hope they had a great time at the park.They won big, as they have before.

We hear so much about young people and how they fall short in so many areas. I'm here to say that if these young folk are any indication (and I think they are), the future for all of us is very bright indeed.

Congratulations to the students at Parkside for doing so well and for being examples for us all, and to their musicians and teachers Debbie Schlechte and Larry Stanley, and their accompanist for this occasion, Becky Verner. Way to rock out, guys!

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Continuing No Shame Poem of the Week Series Presents "Sliding Away"

Sliding Away

(with apologies to Paul Simon)

When I took the old carpet out
Of our computer room
The wooden floors
Needed protecting
And so I got one of those
Vinyl chair pads
And put it under my office chair.
Now I know that in a house like ours
There are few level floors
Plumb walls or perpendicular surfaces.
It's just in the nature of
Older houses to settle and
Be skewed a bit
Or a lot.
I was surprised when
I sat in the chair and
Rolled backwards.

Paul Simon, you were right:
"The nearer your destination,
The more you're slip slidin' away!"

--Dan Verner

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Advice to Writers--Helen Dunmore

1. Finish the day's writing when you still want to continue.

2. Listen to what you have written. A dud rhythm in a passage of dialogue may show that you don't yet understand the characters well enough to write in their voices.

3. Read Keats's letters.

4. Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn't work, throw it away. It's a nice feeling, and you don't want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.

5. Learn poems by heart.

6. Join professional organisations which advance the collective rights of authors.

7. A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.

8. If you fear that taking care of your children and household will damage your writing, think of JG Ballard.

9. Don't worry about posterity – as Larkin (no sentimentalist) observed "What will survive of us is love."

Good advice, all of it.--DV

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

An Historical Artifact of a Local Merchant

I was over at J.E. Rice's Hardware store a while back, talking with Steve, one of the Rice brothers (Chase and Jamie are the other two), whose father established the business 75 years ago. I can always count on the Rices to have exactly what I need and to tell me how to  install it if necessary. And they're always good for an interesting conversation. There's no such thing as a "quick trip to the hardware store" when I go to Rice's.

This time, Steve told me about a ledger book he found in his shed for the accounts of C. C. Leachman, his grandfather, who ran a store at Wellington Crossing of the Southern Railway around the turn of the twentieth century. Wellington today is the name of a road and subdivision in Manassas, but the rails still run where they did over 100 years ago. Leachman traded in all kinds of merchandise, took crops and chickens as barter for goods and was a transfer point for milk from the numerous dairy farms in the area at the time.

I contacted the Manassas Museum to see if they would be interested in looking at this unique artifact, but they are tied up with the sesquicentennial observance of the Second Battle of Manassas in July. After that's all over, I hope they will take time to look at Leachman's  record and perhaps even display it at the museum.

I appreciate Steve making copies of a couple of pages of the ledger so I can share them with BC readers.

The note below the pictures is hard to make out in this image, but it says, "1906--C.C. Leachman holding Sarah Leachman--later married J.E. Rice--1923     C. C. Leachman ran this store and train mail drop. 

This is a ledger page, with the careful Spenserian script of a bygone era, showing expenses paid to the "Southern Railway Co." for late 1899 and early 1900.

The Biscuit City Chronicles: Kingdoms and Servants

When I was in fourth grade, I learned something that I thought would change my life.  As things  turned out, it didn’t but I thought that it might for a while.  There was a lot to learn in fourth grade back then, and from what my older daughter Amy, a fourth grade teacher, tells me, that hasn’t changed much.  

Virginia is closely studied in the fourth grade, both as it is now and as it used to be.  If you’re like me, you probably remember Virginia as having three regions: Tidewater, Piedmont (that’s us) and Mountain. Now there are five: Coastal Plain (formerly and also known as Tidewater), Piedmont, Blue Ridge, Valley and Ridge, and Appalachian Plateau. This makes a great deal of sense to me, much more sense than having five kingdoms of living things.  

Back in the day we had two: plant and animal. A couple of weird organisms didn’t fit either category or fit both, so you could call them what you wanted.  When my girls were in high school, they scoffed at my outdated world view. They said there were five kingdoms: plant, animal, monera, protista and fungi. I think monera and protista are microscopic, but we could make them animals since they move around and eat. They also are capable of photosynthesis, but that’s just an added bonus for them.  And fungi are clearly plants.  They look like plants and grow like plants.  You don’t see them running around the back yard barking like a real animal.  So two kingdoms are enough.  My extensive research into this matter has revealed that biologists now speak of three “domains”: Eukarya, Archaea and Eubacteria. Eukarya includes plants and animals.  Don’t ask me how. Two kingdoms are enough for me.

Anyhow, the fact that I thought would change my life came from Virginia history. Since Virginia had the first permanent English-speaking settlement in the New World in Jamestown, the study of early Virginia history involved early colonial history. I learned enough about it to know that I would not have wanted to have been a colonial since I am not fond of starvation, disease and assorted massacres. I did learn about indentured servants, where someone would bind themselves to a master for a period of years.  At the end of the time, they would be set free from their indenture.  I had been looking for an idea to describe how I felt treated by my parents.  They had the nerve to expect me to keep my room clean and pick up after myself. That was the extent of my responsibilities, but for some reason I felt put upon. So I began to consider myself an indentured servant.

I tried out my new idea at the dinner table one night. “I’m nothing but an indentured servant,” I announced.

“Me, too,” my brother said in a rare display of fraternal solidarity.

“Why are you an indentured servant?” my mother asked.

“Because all I do is work around here. I can hardly wait until the day I’m free.”

My parents did work very hard, and this proclamation from my mouth struck them as funny.  They started laughing and couldn’t stop. I slunk off to my room where I did not clean it up.

Ron and I determined that we would have to run away to gain our freedom. I was taken by The Boxcar Children, a book about some children who lived in a box car in the woods completely free from any adult interference.  I don’t recall the book mentioning how they fed or clothed themselves.  They just existed in an idyllic daydream, doing what they wanted.  The idea among kids we knew was that you ran away to join the circus. Since there didn’t seem to be any circuses around, we would have to settle for a boxcar, if we could find one. We had heard from some older kids that there were some train tracks ‘way back deep in the woods.  If there were train tracks, there might also be a box car.

We equipped ourselves with what we considered necessary supplies. I “borrowed” the clothes pin bag to carry our stash, and managed to pilfer some matches and candles from the kitchen drawer. I also liberated a can of pork and beans, which was pretty much the limit of my culinary skill then. I took my multiblade Scout knife which my parents had bought me when I joined the Scouts.  They made me promise to not cut my fingers off.  I wasn’t sure what most of the blades were for, but the knife seemed like a good idea. We were ready.

Next week: The story continues with "The Box Car Boys."

Monday, May 14, 2012


Early one morning last week (about 7:15, to be exact), our daughter Amy called with the news that her car wouldn't start. Since she lives about two miles away and since she is a teacher and expected to show up at school before her students do, an expectation shared by students, parents, the administrators at her school, the community, the School Board, the Commonwealth of Virginia and who knows who else, I said I would come over post haste and see if we could give her little car a jump start. We had to link our jumper cables together to reach from battery to battery, and after some grumbling and sputtering, the car started.

The battery looked like it was original to the car and Amy said it had not been replaced, so I allowed that she probably needed a new battery. I know that the guys on Car Talk believe that fathers don't know what they're talking about when it comes to saying what needs to be done to cars, but they weren't there and I was.

We worked it out that Amy would drive over to our house, leave her car with me and take one of our cars to work. I would have the battery tested and replaced, if necessary.

And so she was off for a day of fun and learning at her school (that's how they like to think of the day's goings on at the school and I don't doubt that it is true), and I drove her car over to Advance Auto where a nice young man tested the battery and said she needed a new one. He installed one and I was back home after 20 minutes.

Trying the radio on the way back I noticed that all the stations were set at 88.5 FM, an unlikely situation since Amy likes a variety of music, most of which I have never heard of. Then it occurred to me that disconnecting the battery had wiped out all her presets and I had no idea of how to reset them. I tried figuring out which stations and music she would like but I had no idea. My knowledge of poplar music dates to about 1985 and goes not further. No wonder I had no idea of what she would like to listen to.

I texted Amy about her lost presets and she wrote back that she didn't mind. I think she did find the selection of ten or so CD's I had in my car amusing, quaint, and "old school"--hits of the '60's, Simon and Garfunkel, Gordon Lightfoot, the Eagles, some choral music--and I think she also thought it old school that I was still using CD's.

I saw that Amy had an iPhone cradle on the dashboard of her car and while I do have an iPhone, I have not put any music on it. I have about 400 songs on my computer, but haven't figured out how to put them on my phone. I know having them on the phone would make it easier to carry my tunes, but there's also a degradation of sound with mp3 files as opposed to CD's. I happen to have a Bose sound system in the station wagon (installed by its former owner, my other daughter Alyssa) and it needs a good sound source to take advantage of its capabilities.

So this whole exercise reminded me of the differences in generations and changes in technology, how we adapt to them and how they affect us.

Some things remain the same: daughters still call fathers for help with their cars; fathers still respond gladly and take care of business; and we both enjoy music. And some day--who knows?--I'll be completely up to date with my personal technology.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Poem of the Week: Retired

If I'm retired
(and I seem to be)
Then why are the blocks
On my calendar
So full?

     --Dan Verner

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Advice on Writing: Repost of A Writing Teacher Who Writes: A Reflection on National Poetry Month

Laura Tornello does an occasional blog post that is published on the Northern Virginia Writing Project website, generally reflecting on the teaching of writing. Her posts are informative and intriguing. Here she writes about the Poem-a-Day Challenge which a number of Write by the Rails members undertook. I'm here to tell you, cranking out a poem a day is a challenge.

Here's what Laura had to say about the project:

I don’t write poetry. My thoughts come more naturally in prose, and to write poetry is to cut. I’ve never felt comfortable with the process of constructing a poem, and more often than not, I feel like an imposter; I add some vague imagery that may or may not be symbolic, I splice my sentences at odd syntactic places to appear trendy, and ultimately I feel like what I’ve created is just severed prose. Needless to say, National Poetry Month has never been a source of festivity for me. This year, though, towards the end of March, an inexplicable force took hold of me: I would do the April Poem-A-Day Challenge. I would write thirty poems. Just the thought made me flinch, but at that point, my stubbornness wouldn’t let me back down. 

On April 1st, my pen hovered hesitantly over an expectant blank page and I wrote my first poem. On April 30th, with an odd twinge of sadness, I wrote my last poem—and over the course of that month, I rediscovered the importance of being a writing teacher who writes.

 I rediscovered the messiness of the writing process. Some of the poems I wrote are pretty terrible. Most of them, I won’t ever visit again. Overall, there are only twelve that I really like, that I would consider revising. I think this is such an important message to convey to my students—that even as someone who writes constantly, I only really like 40% of what I wrote during the month of April.  You have to work your way through a lot of tangled ideas and clumsy phrases to get to some really profound stuff. That’s just the nature of writing.

I rediscovered what it feels like to be completely outside my comfort zone. I had a lot of insecurity about form and style, and at times I felt like a fraud, as if I were wearing a sandwich board that proclaimed “NOT A POET” in large bold letters. About halfway through the month, as I struggled with a particularly uncooperative poem, I had an important realization: This is how some of my students feel when they’re working on papers for my class. I think I forget this sometimes—that just because I’ve read The Great Gatsby 800 times and can write a literary analysis paper in my sleep doesn’t mean that my students feel that same level of comfort. They’re navigating unfamiliar waters too, and I think this realization made me a stronger teacher, and most importantly, a more empathetic one.

Finally, I rediscovered the powerful (and often unexpected) connection between writing and thinking. Giving up control was difficult for me, but I tried to start writing and just let the poem take me where it wanted to. You know, in a non-hippie way—because that previous sentence made it sound like I was lighting incense and eating Kashi during this whole process. But truly, there were moments over the course of the month where I finished a poem, sat back, and thought, “Wow. Where did that come from?” Far too often, students have this perception that writing is the process of taking a fully-formed thought and translating it onto paper. It’s important for them to recognize that writing itself is a means for thinking things through and figuring out what they really want to say.

As I write this, it’s May 1st, and (I never thought I would utter this phrase), I’m in poetry withdrawal. I still don’t consider myself “a poet,” but I do know two things for certain: everything I wrote in the last month has contributed to my identity as a writer. And everything I wrote in the last month has contributed to my identity as a writing teacher.